Friday, May 6, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - New Releases

It occurred to me I haven’t reviewed any recent releases for awhile, so here are a bunch of things that have come out in the last few weeks.
Grateful Dead – Road Trips Vol.4 No.3 - Denver ’73
Finally, a Colorado show! In all the many CDs they have produced, there has never been the release of a full Colorado show. Why does this matter? Obviously, we live here so it would be nice to have a souvenir, but there is the larger point that the Dead had a long and wonderful history in Colorado. They started playing here in the very beginning of their career and continued playing landmark shows until the year before Jerry’s death. 20 shows at Red Rocks, The 15th anniversary shows at Folsom Field, Telluride, McNichols Arena in 1990 (the last great Dead shows many of us saw), and of course these two amazing shows from 1973. 1973 was marked by marathon shows with tons of new songs, and tight, spacey jamming, and these shows from the shitty old Coliseum (when was the last time you saw a show there?) are prime examples of this era of Dead. The release is made up of all of the November 21st show and the tastiest jam from the heart of the November 20th show. There are no highlights, because it is all great! Really, the band is just on fire from the opening “Me and My Uncle” to the final sweet notes of “Uncle John’s Band.” The second set is made up of two gargantuan jams which include three separate visitations to “Playin’ In The Band,” an extremely memorable “Wharf Rat,” “Morning Dew,” and the rarely played “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” These are concerts that make you understand why The Grateful Dead had such a fanatical following in this state. These epic shows were life-changing for a lot of local fans. If you were there and grasped what you were seeing, it was a glimpse at the golden age of one of the great American rock bands. If you act quickly you can get this release with a very limited bonus disc which includes most of the second set from a very hard to find show; Cleveland, December 6, 1973. This gem includes great versions of “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,” a 44-minute version of  “Dark Star” that goes to many dark places and “Eyes Of The World.”
Hot Tuna - Steady As She Goes
I didn’t really expect a new Hot Tuna album, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be this enjoyable. Sounding much like they did in the early 80’s they are playing the warm, acoustic style of Tuna music that attracted the large audience they enjoyed in the decades following the Jefferson Airplane. True, they had the reputation for incredibly loud, long, electric concerts, but their albums showed Jorma Kaukonen to be an intelligent, thoughtful songwriter and a fantastic singer. His voice is remarkably unchanged, and the album is filled with the kind of blues/folk material that Jorma started with and still suits his talents better than anything else. Highlights for me are Jorma’s emotional remembrance of his childhood and family relationships called “Things That Might Have Been,” another emotional reflection called “Second Chances,” the funny, rocking “Mourning Interrupted,” a nice remake of the Tuna classic “Easy Now,” and a pair of songs by Jorma’s inspiration The Rev. Gary Davis. While this isn’t the guitar-driven, fire-breathing dragon of those early-70’s live Tuna shows, this is a dignified and well-played set of roots music.
The Feelies - Here Before
From the first note, you have slipped on your favorite t-shirt, licked an ice-cream cone on a summer day, watched a glorious sun set over the Rockies. Really?! Well, I was pretty happy. It’s The Feelies, and they sound just like they always did. With the classic line-up from their second album The Good Earth (1986) intact and playing with the same comforting precision it is really great to have this fantastic band back. It is the same basic formula; two drummers and every other member of the band adding percussion make each track a wonder of rhythmic intensity. Then Glen Mercer and Bill Million start the hypnotic drone of VU-style guitars that can march across the staffs like a military band or erupt into electronic squeals (as on “When You Know”) or roll over you with clouds of stacked up acoustic guitars like on the title track, while never leaving the strict tempo set up by Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman. Glen Mercer’s laconic, hipster vocals are as coolly reserved as always and his lyrics still can waver from desperate to joyous with just the slightest inflection. Impossibly, The Feelies still sound completely modern while being true to the psych/folk/drone ethos that originally drove them. There were times in the 80’s when I thought there would never be any more great bands and The Feelies were one of the real high spots of those years. When I listen to a track like “On and On” that drives crazily through a rainstorm of percussion and electric guitar, controlled yet on the verge of chaos, it is a distinctly comforting feeling to know this band is back and doing what it does best.
Derek And The Dominos - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs - Super Deluxe Version
This highly limited (already deleted) box set contains everything you need to scratch the Layla itch once and for all. One of the most fetish-worthy albums of the “classic-rock” era, I thought I had heard it all with this album. Wrong! This box set truly defines the fan experience. It comes with 4 CDs, 1 DVD, 2 LPs, 1 hardbound book, 2 unused tickets, 1 art print of the cover, 1 guitar face cling with the album artwork and a “Derek Is Eric” button. In addition the box it all comes in is itself a work of art, with the inside of the box top being a three-dimensional die–cut version of the album cover. The really important stuff however is the musical content, and it is awe-inspiring. In addition to a beautifully remastered version of the original album with one bonus track, there is an entire disc of extras; outtakes, early versions, the live TV session with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins - lots of great stuff that adds context to the time surrounding the album. There is also an expanded version of the Derek and The Dominos Live At The Fillmore album. For some reason I always turned my nose up at this album - thinking the versions weren’t as good as the perfected album takes. I don’t know what I was thinking, because when I listen to it now, it seems to crackle with energy. Clapton’s soloing is funky and energetic and the Dominos prove they weren’t just a backup group for Clapton but actually a real, tight-knit band. Clapton was trying to get the feel of Southern American roots music as filtered through the hippie experience. He was enamored of The Band, Delaney and Bonnie, and The Allman Brothers, and in the Dominos he found a soulful unit that he could join rather than lead. Listening to this live album shows how close he actually came to hitting that elusive note.
For me, the real revelation of the set comes on the DVD-which is a 5.1 version of the original album. Played at full volume, it is incredible to walk around the room and really experience the beautiful mix that the band and legendary Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd created. As I said, I thought I knew all there was to know about this album. Not so. The clarity and separation of this surround mix brings out new details I had never heard. Clapton’s exquisite acoustic guitar strumming throughout the album is a huge element to the overall sound. The vocal mix between Clapton and organ player and co-writer of many of the songs Bobby Whitlock is breathtaking. These two guys were meant to sing together. Speaking of meant to be together: there is also Duane Allman. Going from speaker to speaker on the songs they duet on is a near orgasmic experience. It is so easy to give Eric short shrift these days, but this album is a guitar player’s dream. Clapton’s controlled bursts of note clusters and chunky riffing up against Duane’s out-of-control liquid mercury wailing. It’s hard to imagine a more potent combination. From the delicate balladry of “I am Yours” and “Thorn Tree In The Garden” to the raucous blues of  “Key To The Highway” and “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” from the spectacular rock workouts on Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and “Anyday” to the anthemic performances on “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” and of course “Layla” Eric and Duane are a match made in heaven. It is possible to physically move around the mix and hear more Eric or more Duane to fully appreciate how unique each one was, but how smoothly they locked in to each other’s style. There are so many other details to appreciate as well. For instance, the first three songs on the album were recorded before Duane Allman joined the proceedings and they showcase what a powerhouse the Dominoes were even without Allman’s crucial contributions. One of Clapton’s best-ever songs, “Bell Bottom Blues” is a marvelous recording with subtle uses of percussion that add to the exotic feel of this track. “Keep on Growing” is another barn-burner of a track that grew out of a jam and includes an amazing Clapton vocal and a groove that will not leave your head. Throughout the entire album the contributions of Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Radle show a muscular confidence that often borders on brilliance. They were a confident, powerful band able to bring Clapton’s musical desires to life.
I have listened to this surround disc three times already and each time I’ve heard something completely new. It is a statement about not only what an exciting mix this is, but it is a reflection of what an important and lasting statement Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is in the career of Eric Clapton. It is his most enduring work.

No comments: