Monday, May 3, 2010

A real treasure trove of live music

The Collector’s Choice label has long been up there with Rhino and Shout Factory as one of the premier venues for well-made reissues of classic albums. They have tackled the catalogs of many bands as important as The Everly Brothers, the Association and the Kingston Trio, and as obscure as The Electric Prunes, The Beau Brummels and Fred Neil. They do an equally fantastic job with both and have quietly built up a huge catalog of desirable music. With their new series called “Collector’s Choice Music Live" they are moving into new and exciting territory. Their first four releases are all taken from deep within the Sony vaults and are each amazing in their own right. These are not radio broadcasts or spurious live recordings that are being dredged up to cash in, no these are beautifully recorded sets in front of small audiences that were often slated for release then somehow lost to time. Here is the breakdown of the first four:

Poco - Live At Columbia Studios 9-30-71 (available Tuesday, May 11th!)
Sounding almost like a studio recording, this stunning concert captures Richie Furay, Timothy B. Schmidt and company at their very best - sounding like a cross between Buffalo Springfield and The Eagles. Tthe performance has the energy and perfection of their great live album Deliverin’ but offers up a different setlist and some even tastier playing. Poco has never been given their due as an important link between country and rock, or for being one of the bands that defined the early 70’s FM sound. Highlighted by a medley of “Hard Luck,” Springfield’s “Child’s Claim To Fame” and “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” this is high energy country rock at it’s best.

Johnny Winter - Live At The Fillmore East 10-3-70 (available Tuesday, May 11th!)
This is the legendary and short-lived Johnny Winter Group that featured second guitarist Rick Derringer and which blew the mind of every guitar obsessed kid in the late 60’s. Winter’s M.O. is loud fast and over the top! It will be obvious to any listener why Winter is considered such a “heavy” guitarist after listening to the 22 minute version of “It’s My Own Fault” or an 18 minute “Mean Town Blues” whereby Winter and Derringer wring every possible note out of their axes to the point of it almost being unbelievable. It is very different from what guitarists do today, there is no restraint whatsoever as they just wail away on the blues for seemingly impossible lengths. As we played it in the store I overheard some employees remarking on the “old school” delivery and I was thinking “damn right!”

John Denver - Live At Cedar Rapids 12-10-87
Honestly, I have very little experience with John Denver. I know him, as everyone does, as the writer of huge hits, the family-oriented actor and the all-around wholesome nice folk singer from the 70s. As I listened to this double CD I was struck by the sincerity and warmth of his songs and delivery, and by the excellence of his songwriting. It is really easy to look down your nose and take for granted a song like “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” “Fly Away” or even “Rocky Mountain High” however I would caution anyone who scoffs to try and write a song like that. As someone who has tried his hand at writing songs I can say that often the simplest of emotions are the hardest to convey, and to convey them with the heartfelt clarity of “Take Me Home Country Roads” or the lovely “Annie’s Song” is a rare talent indeed. I enjoyed all four of these releases, but this one was the biggest surprise.

Hot Tuna - Live At New Orleans House Berkely, Ca. 09/69 (available Tuesday, May 11th!)
Taken from the series of shows that comprised their first, self-titled album, this release was my favorite of the four, and it provides the biggest thrill for established fans of this Jefferson Airplane offshoot. Guitarist/Vocalist Jorma Kaukonen and Bassist Jack Cassady are joined by Harmonica ace Will Scarlett as they tear though an exquisite set of acoustic blues and folk that clearly illustrates what masters these guys are. Whether it is Jorma’s intricate fingerpicked versions of Lightning Hopkins, Blind Blake or Rev. Gary Davis, or his swaggering take on folk numbers like “Keep On Truckin’ or Jellyroll Morton’s “Don’t You Leave Me here” the Tuna boys are dead-on in their capturing the spirit of early 20th century idiomatic song. There are also a handful of Jorma’s originals included that adds another dimension to this complex and talented musician. The highlight is the rarely heard “Sea Child” stretched to 10 hypnotic minutes, it showcases both Jorma’s original playing and his image-rich lyrical abilities. This release has all the magic of that first Tuna record, but it is filled with unheard songs that only expand on it’s greatness. Long time Tuna fiends are going to flip over this.

--Paul Epstein

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