Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Progressive Blues: The Greatest Twists of an Old Musical Form, Part I

Progressive blues. Yes, I know the term seems almost contrary to the progressive music movement most prominent in the late 60s and early 70s, wherein bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, King Crimson and Jethro Tull (following preliminary attempts by Procol Harum, The Moody Blues and The Nice) first wedded elements of classical music into rock and roll; or such stellar performers as Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and groups like Return to Forever and Soft Machine (and literally anyone ever associated with Miles Davis) integrated rock and jazz forms into what became known as "fusion"; or in the rise of funk, incorporating elements of soul, R & B and jazz as propagated by James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton (and, again, Miles Davis). And then there is Frank Zappa, who pretty much broke down every musical style into component pieces, plopped them into a mixing bowl, and offered up a stew of snarky abstraction. But I digress.

How can one denote the blues notes in progressive music? There was an extended debate over on that veered off into semantics about bands that were deemed of the "progressive" genre playing blues progressions in their songs, but there were quite a few responses from folks who got the idea and came up with some excellent examples of the concept. Granted, progressive blues would not necessarily be an entirely separate musical form or genre; however, on a song by song basis I think it has been done, and to magnificent effect.

So what would a "progressive blues" song sound like? Obviously, the terms innovative, genre-bending and inspired come to mind, as when the old acoustic blues players of the Mississippi Delta and other regions of the South moved to the Midwest, leaving sharecropping and Jim Crow laws behind to find decent-paying manufacturing jobs in the first half of the 20th century, and in places like Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit they strapped on electric guitars for the first time. Electrifying the blues was the first great innovation, but the basic 12-bar composition of the blues remained. Even rock and roll in its infancy (and its countrified offshoot rock-a-billy) contained a basic blues element from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, all the way up to the  early 60s with Brit Invasion bands such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Yardbirds and The Animals carrying on in amplified imitation of their blues forefathers.

It was not really until the mid-1960s that noticeable deviations in blues playing begins (aside from regional variations like Delta blues, New Orleans/Dixieland blues, Chicago blues, etc.), due in part to a massive amount of drug ingestion. Okay, I am kidding, partially, but with the advent of psychedelia and innovations in guitar technique and effects (wah-wahs, flanges, distortion, etc.) and stereo sound, one notices a definite ramping up of musical experimentation that led to prog, funk and fusion. The same can be said of the blues.

I am not speaking of hard rock bands merely amping up the volume and distortion yet essentially playing the same song with the same chord progressions as their blues predecessors from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, I am instead referring to a completely different take on those older songs, or of new songs which stretch the boundaries of blues music while remaining within the genre; therefore, a progressive blues tune should maintain a consistent blues feeling, and not merely be a few blues progressions that a band or performer grafted to a different compositional form.

Here are the first sixty-six progressive blues tunes in the series. I shall come up with more (and more modern variations) as the mood strikes me:

Lyrical Asides and Twisted Visions

Bob Dylan -
Dylan did not merely electrify folk music, he brought an entirely different sensibility to the blues as well, welding the social conscious of folk and the avant-garde metaphors of modern poetry into a synthesized blues-hybrid found on such essential albums as Bringing It All back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
It's All Right Mama, I'm Only Bleeding
Highway 61 Revisited

Frank Zappa/The Mothers of Invention -
The adage "necessity is the mother of invention" has been used at least back to 1658, but Frank Zappa co-opted the phrase in the 60s and gave it an entirely new meaning, just as he reworked the blues. From the album Freak Out with the scathing social commentary of "Trouble Everyday", to Weasels Ripped My Flesh with the absolutely wicked violin of Don "Sugarcane" Harris on "Directly from My Heart to You", to the outrageous "Cosmik Debris" from his solo album Apostrophe, Zappa had an ongoing (albeit twisted) love affair with the blues. For an added treat, I offer you Zappa's version of the Allman Brother's "Whipping Post" (and if you know anything about the mudshark in your mythology, you'll know why Zappa is playing this song).
Trouble Everyday
Directly from My Heart to You
Cosmik Debris
Whippin' Post

Captain Beefheart -
What can one say about the good Captain? Other than he followed the beat of his own drummer and then set the snare on fire, not much. But the blues form was a mainstay in his music, and went wherever he did. Wherever that was.
Dachau Blues
Pachuco Cadaver

The Beatles -
The Beatles had their hands in just about everything in the 1960s, including the blues ("Yer Blues" is quite basic, so I didn't include it), commenting on social ills and politics in "Revolution #1" from The White Album, and then turning the blues into a titanic overture on Abbey Road with "I Want You (She's so Heavy)".
Revolution #1
I Want You (She's So Heavy)

The Doors -
The Doors played a bit of the blues on nearly every one of their albums. Some blues tunes followed the original formulas like on Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man", the rousing "Roadhouse Blues" and "Been Down So Long", but when Jim Morrison got on a lyrical roll, the blues went to unexpected places, like on the fierce call to revolution "Five to One", the eerie "Shaman's Blues", and the downright sinister "The Spy".
Five to One
Shaman's Blues
The Spy

Guitar Innovations and Virtuosity

Jimi Hendrix -
At one time, there was Hendrix, and then there was everybody else. Perhaps that is still the case. But one listen to "Little Wing" reveals what can happen when a guitar master reworks the blues. Check out the baroque blues stylings and lights-out wah-wah of "Burning of the Midnight Lamp", and the utterly violent mayhem of "Voodoo Chile", which takes the tall-tale storytelling of traditional blues to another level completely. The last selection, "Message to Love" is from the live Band of Gypsies concerts in New York. If you find the same version of this song from Woodstock, you can see the evolution of this song from a straighter blues tune to what here is more of blues/funk variation.
Little Wing
Burning of the Midnight Lamp
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Message to Love

Jeff Beck -
Some rock gods started expanding their repertoires from aping the great bluesmasters on their early albums to actually creating a sound of their own as they matured. This can be discerned in Jeff Beck's music (he broke the rigid adherence to straight blues at a much earlier point than Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page). Beck's 1968 wah-wah extravaganza "Aint Superstitious" offers an entirely different take on the Howlin' Wolf original. This was followed by other notable excursions into the blues form like the frantic "Going Down".
I Aint Superstitious
Going Down

Fleetwood Mac -
Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were huge Elmore James fans; in fact, they spent much of the first few Mac albums emulating him. Not a bad thing, really, because they were damned good (perhaps my favorite British blues band). But Jeremy Spencer eventually spaced out and joined a commune, and Danny Kirwan joined Peter Green on guitar. The 1969 release Then Play On, the last Mac studio album Peter Green played on (before he too drifted into the ozone of heavy drug usage and paranoia), is their most adventurous and progressive. The acoustic blues/hard rock/spaghetti western epic "Oh Well" comes from that set, as does "Searching for Madge", the Beatlesque montage of rip-roaring blues, fade-outs, fade-ins and classical music drop-ins. And then there is "Green Manalishi" recorded just before Green left Mac for good in mid-1970. As a blues-rock tune there is no rival for the evil incarnate in the song. Like Robert Johnson's hellhound on his trail, Peter Green had a green dog-demon haunting his dreams. Another casualty of drug use. God knows what music we'd hear if he kept it together while he was still young.
Oh Well
Searching for Madge
Green Manalishi

Led Zeppelin -
After three albums of playing traditional blues tunes mostly very loud (save for some exquisite but still traditional acoustic blues on Vol. III), Zeppelin made a radical departure on Volume IV. Using Memphis Minnie's "when the Levee Breaks" as the bare bones structure of their version, Jimmy Page and Zeppelin created a phase-shifting, backward looping, bass drum booming blues montage that is, by any definition, progressive blues. Of the albums that followed, Physical Graffiti and Presence are the most blues-based, the extended "In My Time of Dying" and the brutal funk-blues "Trampled Underfoot" are on Grafitti and "Nobody's Fault" is from the woefully underappreciated Presence.
When the Levee Breaks
In My Time of Dying
Trampled Underfoot
Nobody's Fault But Mine

Johnny Winter -
The Dylan song "Highway 61", already a lyrically progressive blues anthem, becomes an advanced slide guitar class in Johnny Winter's hands. Winter also turns a simple blues tune, "Rock Me Baby", into a behemoth jam, with more blues riffs per meter than can be found in whole albums elsewhere.
Highway 61 
Rock Me Baby

Robin Trower -
Trower has entire albums of progressive blues. Here are two of the most notable. Oh, what that man can do with a Strat!
Bridge of Sighs
Too Rolling Stoned

Santana -
Santana's greatest hit "Black Magic Woman" is a stellar blues tune originally recorded by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, and given a Cuban Hendrix outro by Carlos Santana. Suffused with a seductive Latin rhythm, the song is a classic. The slinky "Evil Ways" and the even more evil "No One to Depend On" also represent Latin blues at its best.
Evil Ways
Black Magic Woman
No One to Depend On

Ten Years After -
Alvin Lee rips into jazz arpeggios and octaves in one of the greatest extended blues experimentations of all time, Al Kooper's "I Can't Keep from Crying". Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" is a more traditional blues tune, but since my favorite Ten Years After version has finally appeared on YouTube (from the 1973 Recorded Live - one of the great blues-rock albums of all time), I can't help but sharing it. Talk about blowing the roof off! And at 10+ minutes, it certainly qualifies as a progressive blues jam.
I Can't Keep From Crying
Help Me

Rory Gallagher -
Hey, it's Rory Fucking Gallagher. That's all you need to know.
Country Mile

Eclectic and Avant-Garde

John Mayall -
Of all John Mayall's decades of performances with Clapton, the Bluesbreakers and solo, the most progressive and free form blues tune Mayall ever composed was "Room to Move". One of my all time favorites.
Room to Move

Edgar Winter's White Trash -
You've never heard the song "Tobacco Road" unless you've heard Edgar Winter's big band version. The vocals are astounding. I've never heard anyone scream like that this side of Ian Gillan. Top it off with the fact the song is in excess of 17 minutes long. Progressive blues to the core.
Tobacco Road, Part I
Tobacco Road, Part II

The Grateful Dead -
I've never been enamored of Grateful Dead and their hours of mindless noodling. You want great extended jams? Listen to the Allman Brothers. But when The Dead laid off the LSD and endless trills and arpeggios, they could be a damn good country blues band, blending traditional themes with progressive improvisation.
Casey Jones
Cumberland Blues

Pink Floyd - 
David Gilmour is a frustrated blues guitarist forced to play in a psychedelic/prog band. I'm only half joking, but it's clear that many of Gilmour's greatest leads are blues riffs. On "Fat Old Sun" a simple folk tune morphs into a 15 minute long blues tune with definite overtones of Hendrix. The first section of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is, for all intents and purposes, a blues tune. And just for the hell of it, I've included a bootleg from a concert in Germany in 1971, called simply "Pink Blues". Hey, Pink Floyd aint named after Pink Anderson and Floyd Council for nothin'!
Fat Old Sun
Shine on You Crazy Diamond
Pink Blues

Jethro Tull -
Before Ian Anderson started writing album-long songs, Elizabethan ballads and odes to field and stream, Tull was a jazz/blues/rock variant as eclectic as they were talented. "Song for Jeffrey" is from their first album This Was (and like John Mayall offered flute and blues harp - an odd combination - in one song), their second album Stand Up featured the Eastern Indian-infused blues of "Fat Man" and the jazzy blues-rock extravaganza "Nothing Is Easy", and "Too Cry You a Song" from Benefit is a completely anglicized version of the blues, both lyrically and in the classical chording (like pirates playing blues). Each song in its own way sheds light on Tull as eminent blues innovators.
Song for Jeffrey
Fat Man
Nothing Is Easy
To Cry You a Song

The Groundhogs -
The Groundhogs were an underground "Heavy-Psyche-Progressive-Blues" band (thanks to Dean at ProgArchives for that nifty definor, and for reminding me of The Mighty Groundhogs, a band I haven't heard since the mid-70s) that had some success in Britain, but never really made it over in the States. Their earlier stuff is reminiscent of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, but they steadily edged further afield with a more abstracted blues style. Definitely worth a listen if you've never heard of them.
Groundhog Blues
Split, Part 2

Peter Gabriel -
Normally, one wouldn't think of eccentric Peter Gabriel as bluesy, but with Robert Fripp on guitar, one never knows what musical form will be taken apart and reassembled.
Waiting for the Big One

Mad Dogs & Englishmen/Joe Cocker/Leon Russell -
The extraordinary thing about Joe Cocker was that he could steal a song, even from The Beatles, and you completely forget about the original version. Likewise, he could take a pop song and turn it into a blues tune. In addition, Leon Russell is one creepy looking dude, but he's a great arranger (both for Mad Dog & Englishmen and The Concert for Bangladesh) . Leon also puts The Rolling Stones to shame while lifitng one of their signature songs.
With A Little Help From My Friends
The Letter
Jumpin' Jack Flash/Youngblood

Dr. John -
Here's a couple songs from the ever innovative Dr. John. The first comes from the great psychedelic voodoo New Orleans blues album Gris-Gris, and the second the funkified blues of Dr. John in 70s, "Right Place Wrong Time".
I Walk on Guilded Splinters
Right Place Wrong Time

Dixie Dregs -
Not necessarily known for the blues, Steve Morse and Dixie Dregs experimented with the form on occasion. What one gets is glimpses of blues in their jazzy fusion. Except of course on the appropriately titles "12 Bar Blues" when Dregs met up with bassist extraordinaire Jaco Pastorius for an impromptu blues tune. Amazing results.
12 Bar Blues

Southern Epic Blues

A curious Southern institution is the Country Blues-Rock Epic. Such songs in this particular blues epic mode MUST include two or more lead guitars, a lot of long hair, requisite cowboy hats, two drummers (if space allows), and at least ten minutes of jamming time during a concert. The Allman Brothers were the progenitors of the Mason-Dixon Music Monolith, followed most ably by the boys from Jacksonville, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a host of others.

Allman Brothers -
Whippin' Post
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

Blackfoot -
Highway Song

The Outlaws -
Green Grass and High Tides

Lynyrd Skynyrd -

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