Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Greatest Blues Rock Albums of All Time, Part II

In this, the second installment of my overview of blues rock (the first found here: The Greatest Blues Rock Albums of All Time, Part I), I will continue on my own merry, subjective way, choosing to include albums here and there that are certainly personal favorites; nonetheless, they were (and maybe even are) influential to the blues or blues rock genres.

But hey, in some of the music lists that litter the Internet, I wonder if those that made the selections even listened to the albums they picked (hearsay is often the main criterion for inclusion, it seems). Perhaps it is because I actually own all the albums I include in my overviews that I have gained a familiarity with and a greater respect for the material, than if I merely heard a few songs, or read a blurb somewhere on the awesomeness of the release. There is something about knowing songs intimately that allows for a sense of reflection hitherto unknown to the people of this area, but destined to take the place of the mudshark in your mythology -- here it goes,the circular motion, now rub it! (apologies to Frank Zappa for the direct lyrical lift -- I was just seeing if you were paying attention).

As in the first fifteen selections, the material here (17 albums in all) is not necessarily all blues, but there is enough of a bluesy feel suffusing the albums to make them germane to the conversation, and at least a few songs can be found on each that are essential to the blues lexicon. And there you have it:

Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix
One of the greatest albums of the 1960s, Electric Ladyland is just as much a blues album as it is psychedelic rock. The improvisational, 15 minute long studio jam Voodoo Chile (featuring Steve Winwood on organ and Jack Cassady on bass) is great, but the scorching five minute Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is one of the best blues tunes ever written, and its violence and innovation in guitar dynamics was an influence to nearly every great guitarist who came after. In addition, there is a grand version of Earl King's Come On (Let the Good Times Roll), the wah-wah explosion of Still Raining, Still Dreaming, the boundary-breaking heavy funk of Gypsy Eyes, the syncopated blues strut of House Burning Down, and the titanic baroque chamber blues of Burning of the Midnight Lamp. No one stretched the blues form in so many surprising directions as Hendrix. Exceptional and without equal.

Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street are the Stones' best albums. Those three consecutive studio albums (with the live Get yer Ya-ya's Out sandwiched in-between) represent the Stones at their peak. I was never enamored of Mick Jagger's voice nor his rooster strut, nor have I considered the Rolling Stones to be "The Greatest Rock Band in the World(TM)", particularly since they were overshadowed by The Beatles in the 60's and Led Zeppelin in the 70's. For me, longevity does not equate to greatness.That doesn't mean, however, that the Stones did not produce great albums. From a blues standpoint, Sticky Fingers offers such standout songs as the countrified Dead Flowers (which answers the question: what do you give your dead girl friend?), the raunchy slide of You Gotta Move, the reflective I Got the Blues, and the feverish Sister Morphine ("Why does the doctor have no face?").

Taj Mahal
Buttressed by the inestimable talents of guitarists Ry Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis, Taj Mahal released a rockin' debut album that owes just as much to R&B as blues. This is blues that gets your head noddin' and your butt boogyin'! Let's start off with a great rendition of Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues, then sashay down the road with Leaving Trunk, where we can do some Checkin' Up on My Baby. EZ Rider is great slice of 60s R&B, and then after all that, take a rest on the front porch with the traditional blues of The Celebrated Walkin' Blues. One damn good album!

In Step - Stevie Ray Vaughan
I could've offered every damn one of Stevie Ray's albums for your consideration, but I think In Step is perhaps a good place to start without getting some greatest hits package that is not necessarily in context like a specific album. Plus, the 1999 reissue offers five blistering live versions of songs in the bargain. Listen to Vaughan simply reinvent the blues on Wall of Denial, or simply having some fun on The House is Rockin', and then go watch some video of this guy jamming live (one of the 10 best concerts I've ever seen!). SRV's reverence for Hendrix shows through on the starstruck live version of Live Without You, there's the crazy country/western licks of Travis Walk, and the jazzy Riviera Paradise, a pleasant change of pace from the high-testosterone Stratocasting. For some straight electric blues, SRV doffs his cowboy hat to one of his biggest influences, Buddy Guy, in the tune Leave My Girl Alone.

Pearl - Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin with actual, accomplished musicians! No more muddy and sloppy psychedelic meandering with Big Brother and the Holding Company or the Kozmic Blues Band, Janis finally gets the correct studio treatment and releases a superb album. From the first song on Pearl, the seductive Move Over, Joplin is given a vehicle to really stretch her talents, while maintaining the funky 60s stylings, like on Buried Alive in Blues. There is the reflective A Woman Left Lonely, the playful Mercedes Benz, and the full-tilt Cry Baby. You've got R&B Half Moon, and...ummmm...oh yeah, the mega-hit Me and Bobby McGee.

Recorded Live - Ten Years After
This one is for bloomin' British rock 'n' blues connoisseurs who would like a great primer on the underappreciated Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, but don't wish to spend archival bucks on the more expensive (and tediously longer) Live at Fillmore. Recorded Live (1973) is a damn good album, and certainly puts to shame Alvin Lee's sloppy performance at Woodstock. Compare the version of the classic "I'm Going Home" from Woodstock and then here -- the Recorded Live version is infinitely tighter, faster and better. The really great blues tracks on this recording are the absolutely ferocious Help Me (play at maximum volume only), the extended I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes (brief clip of the 15 minute jam),and Slow Blues in C. Old chestnuts like Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Choo Choo Mama are genuinely fun, and depending on your version of the album, it may or may not contain the drum solo "The Hobbit", which is passably interesting but really has nothing to do with Tolkien.

Led Zeppelin I
A great rookie outing from Led Zeppelin, and the blueprint for all their monstrous hit albums that followed. Some really good blues on this one, particularly You Shook Me (love the blues harp and organ solos), I Can't Quit You Babe, and the booming How Many More Times. Of course, there is the glowering psychedelic gorilla in the room, Dazed and Confused, which was once all the rage in outrageousness, but which now sounds terribly dated and over-the-top. But hey, hey, what can I do?

Irish Tour '74 - Rory Gallagher
If you have a chance to see the award-winning film of this series of concerts directed by Tony Palmer, it is definitely a worthwhile view of Rory Gallagher and a document of "The Troubles" in Ireland of that period. The late, great Irish bluesman is at the top of his game here, and is truly an underrated guitarist. When a reporter said to Jimi Hendrix, "How does it feel to be the best guitar player in the world?" Jimi smiled and replied, "I don't know, ask Rory Gallagher." Lend an ear to Rory's reverent version of Muddy Waters' I Wonder Who, the masterful acoustic piece As the Crow Flies, the wicked slide of Who's that Coming?, the sleazy Cradle Rock, or Walk on Hot Coals (Part I). I'll leave off here with a bit of improvisation from the start of the film.

Dixie Chicken - Little Feat
A little slice of funky New Orleans heaven. Imagine, if you will, Dr. John and The Band having a love child. Okay, forget that ghastly image, this is a fun album, maybe one of the funnest of all time. Start out with the Dixie Chicken strut, and boogie on from there. Some of the standout tunes are a version of Allen Toussaint's On Your Way Down, the acoustic Roll Um Easy, the funky R&B of Two Trains, the sad Southern rocker Juliette, and the even sadder Kiss It Off. Okay, maybe it isn't as fun as all that, but it is a great album!

Roger the Engineer - The Yardbirds
I would have preferred Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds in this spot, but not all the songs are available on YouTube, and there has been no CD release (except a poor sounding Japanese version). So, the critical choice would be The Yardbird's album entitled The Yardbirds (later known as Roger the Engineer, or the alternate U.S. title Over Under Sideways Down). The Yardbirds went through guitarists like drummers go through sticks (first Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck and lastly Jimmy Page), but Roger the Engineer is interesting because it's The Yardbirds only album of all original material. And Jeff Beck is at his distorted best (well, his best for 1966 -- he got better). There's Jeff's Boogie (poor sound quality, but fun), The Nazz are Blue (that's Beck singing), Lost Woman (love the bass and phased harp), and What Do You Want.

Tres Hombres - ZZ Top
Perhaps Jim Morrison was prophetic when he stated, "Let me tell you about Texas Radio and the Big Beat", because that is the personification of the lil ol' band from Texas, ZZ Top, and which is best defined on their 1973 double-barreled blues release Tres Hombres. Just one listen to Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago, and you'll understand what I mean. The redneck, down-home rock 'n' blues ethic is blazin' south of the Mason-Dixon line on Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, and gospel music is reinterpreted by the irreverent Top in Have You Heard. Top off your big ol' heapin' helpin' of the Texas twist with La Grange. Have mercy!

Idlewild South - The Allman Brothers Band
The great country blues song Midnight Rider, with its mournful harmonies but bright guitars, is reason enough for blues enthusiasts to own this album, but the rollin' and tumblin' licks on Muddy Water's (I'm Your) Hoochie Man let everyone know where The Allman Brothers were coming from on their second album. From the sad and bluesy Please Call Home to the funky Don't Keep Me Wonderin' to the band defining sound of Revival, The Allman Brothers defined Southern Blues, and no one that followed thereafter could Betts them. Ummm...I mean Best them. Of course, some of you might be aware of the creepy bit of trivia regarding the jam "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". On a stroll, Duane Allman saw a tombstone in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia with that epitaph on it, and decided to record an instrumental around it. Rose Hill Cemetery is also where both Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley were later buried.

Smokin' - Humble Pie
Some folks would prefer Humble Pie's Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore in this spot, but for me, Smokin' is far tighter, diverse, and the best album the band ever made (with or without Peter Frampton -- he is not needed here). From the rave-up R&B of Hot 'n' Nasty, to the transcendent You're So Good for Me, to the awesome acoustic blues of Old Time Feelin', Steve Marriot and the boys are in fine form, and offer a wide array of blues-inflected material. Of course, there is the immortal sleaziness of 30 Days in the Hole, the monster version of Eddie Cochrane's C'mon Everybody, and Marriot at his howlin' and heated best in I Wonder. This is rock and blues in its most primal form, with the Pie's funkified version of (I'm a) Road Runner the shriekin', stompin' proof.

Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
I could point to Another Man, the traditional chain gang clap and stomp that tells the tale of a death of an inmate, as a departure point in this album from more commerical uses of the blues in rock. Mose Allison's Parchman Farm, Robert Johnson's Ramblin' on My Mind, and Freddie King's Hideaway show Mayall and Clapton's reverence for the masters who had gone before them, and Ray Charles' What'd I Say is just plain fun. Mayall and Clapton co-wrote Double Crossing Time, featuring some vicious licks from Eric.

Truth - Jeff Beck
Fresh from leaving The Yardbirds, Beck picked up Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood (then a bassist), and conjured up a blues storm on Truth. Beck's innovations in guitar dynamics and heavy distortion led this album to be revered as the progenitor of heavy metal. Speaking of distortion (and more importantly, wah-wah), crank up the phenomenal Aint Superstitious. For more traditional takes on blues tunes (as trad as Beck gets), listen to Nicky Hopkins great turn on the piano in Blues Deluxe or on Willie Dixon's You Shook Me (with Beck taking the guitar where no bluesman has gone). Rod Stewart even does a wonderful turn on Ol' Man River. I'll leave off with Rock My Plimsoul.

This Was - Jethro Tull
Oh no! not another 1960's British blues band! One would think the English invented the blues the way these Muddy Waters-wannabes proliferate. Wait a minute...wait a minute! There's something off here -- this blues rock band is playing jazz! If my ears don't deceive me, that's Serenade to a Cuckoo by Roland Kirk. Yes, that Roland Kirk: the guy who plays a nose flute. Hey! Now that Ian Anderson fella is playing flute AND harmonica in A Song for Jeffrey! You can't play flute and harmonica in a blues song, it just isn't done! Oh yeah, you're right, there's flute and blues harp in John Mayall's "Room to Move". Damn British innovations! But as far as innovations, listen carefully to "A Song for Jeffrey". It does indeed present the embryonic Tull of the future, complete with separate musical passages in varying time signatures, vocal effects and manic instrument changes. I really like Mick Abrahams and Ian on Some Day the Sun Won't Shine For You'. Then there's the requisite version of Cat's Squirrel, the chamber blues of Move On Alone, and the great My Sunday Feeling.

Raw Sienna - Savoy Brown
A superb album of big band blues from the criminally underappreciated Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown, Raw Sienna features great horn and string arrangements, great guitar licks from Simmonds and great vocals by Chris Youlden. In fact, I'll just shut up so you can boogie to the blues: I'm Crying, That Same Feelin', Needle and Spoon, Master Hare.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nothing about Skynyrd? Come on.