Friday, September 28, 2012

Peter Green and Splinter Group in Soho

You gotta love a store like the SuperSpar in Robertson that not only looks modern, clean and appealing but also sells a multitude of good products in a small town, including freshly made sushi prepared by an Oriental sushi chef, and in addition has a selection of CDs you would not ordinarily find elsewhere.

On the one hand there is a varied selection of Afrikaans acts, most of them unfamiliar to me, and on the other hand there is a choice of cheap CDs too, such as a compilation of Fleetwood Mac tracks from the purist blues incarnation of the band when Peter Green was the undisputed leader with some of the most heart wrenching original, non-Deep South blues on offer. This collection has "Albatross" and "Black Magic Woman" and a slew of fine blues numbers, and all for just R39,99. It can't be beat.

Of course, I already own, and have owned, in different formats, all of the songs on this budget CD. It was the price that tempted me into buying this memento of a wonderful weekend in Robertson.

Anyhow, I've loved the blues of Fleetwood Mac from my first listen to Fleetwood Mac: The Vintage Years, a double album of tracks recorded for the Blue Horizon label. Peter Green had a doleful, tremendously sad kind of voice, with that Jewish weltschmerz thing going on, equally resigned and sometimes defiant blues lyrics and a killer guitar tone. Although I also truly adored the playing of Eric Clapton with John Mayall and Cream, Peter Green somehow seemed to be a deeper, more authentic bluesman than Clapton could hope to be. For one thing, Clapton (at least in his early years as star musician) did not particularly write blues and seemed to prefer bluesy psychedelia, which may have been more innovative than the Green approach, and not bad in and of itself, but was not as satisfactory.

Peter Green and Syd Barrett are perhaps the most famous, or notorious, LSD casualties of the crop of British musicians who broke through to popular success in the mid-Sixties, post Beatles period. In about 1970 and when Fleetwood Mac were riding high as blues act and about to move beyond that box, Green's acid intake fried his brains and he left the group for a life of obscurity, initially completely outside the music industry, subjected (allegedly) to all kinds of interesting psychiatric treatment. In the late Seventies he returned with a trio of albums on PVK Records with weirdly laid back (actually just enervated) music that was neither the rollicking blues of early Fleetwood Mac nor the highly tuned pop rock of the later Fleetwood Mac.

Chris Prior liked these albums enough to play tracks from them on his radio show of the time. For the life of me I could not understand why this stuff had been released at all. The word soporific seems to have been coined for these slow, depressed sounding songs with none of the fiery attack of the younger man. Perhaps the medication had so fried his synapses that he only retained the technical ability to play guitar but not the genius.

Green did not give up, though. After the early-Eighties success of Stevie Ray Vaughan and even the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the Clapton blues approach of the Nineties, blues became popular again and Green could make a decent living at the craft of playing the music he obviously loved. He formed the Splinter Group and played gigs where-ever anyone would have him, and even recorded again.

The Robert Johnson Songbook album became a special project for him, much like Eric Clapton with this Me & Mr Johnson and The Sessions for Robert J albums. I never bought any of the Splinter Group releases because they were quite expensive in Cape Town and I had my suspicions about the quality of the work on those albums. There was no way I was going to waste R300 on a piece of dubious material by a musician whose work I no longer trusted. In the meantime I bought every blues era Fleetwood Mac album, live collection or compilation I could find.

On my most recent holiday in the UK, in April 2012, I not only found the CD of Kiln House, the first post Peter Green album by Fleetwood Mac (and of which I'd once owned the record) but also took a daring step and bought a double CD collection of tracks recorded live at London's Ronnie Scott's club in 1998. It was cheap especially given that it is a double album. The title is Soho Live, at Ronnie Scott's.

In possibly late 2011 I'd bought a different collection of live tracks from a Fleetwood Mac member, this time by a blues band put together by Mick Fleetwood, with guitarist Rick Vito doing duty as replacement for both Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham.

Apart from the Fleetwood Mac member, both albums have in common that the bands perform Fleetwood Mac material and that in both cases the product is not very satisfying as blues albums. The musicians are highly proficient and have been playing these songs for a long time, yet the pervading feel and atmosphere is of high end bar bands going through the motions, as if the musicians have been playing the songs far too often to be able to extract anything new from them anymore.

The first disc of Soho Live comprises of 4 Peter Green compositions associated with Fleetwood Mac, and four blues standards, while the second disc concentrates on Robert Johnson songs but with one Green tune in "The Green Manalishi" and three other blues standards. The musicians have played with Green for many years and everyone is very proficient on his instrument and knows the material well. The major problem with this set is that it is too proficient. The performances are kind of pristinely well executed with no sweat or urgency.

One of the first shocks is Peter Green's almost unrecognisably ragged voice on opening cut, "It takes Time", one of two Otis Rush songs on the disc. It's as if Green's vocal chords were first cut and then sandblasted. Maybe it was first song nerves, as his voice improves as the set moves along. The Green guitar style is present and correct and still thrills even if one detects a loss of the sharpness of yore. The music also comes across as somewhat stodgy and the rhythm section has little swing. I guess Green will probably never be reunited with his old rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood and that is a pity. For a bunch of English guys they could sure play the blues as if they were born in Chicago. The Splinter Group members were clearly born in the UK and cannot be faulted for taste and subtlety. They just do not seem to swing enough and the entire presentation smacks a tad too much of veteran musicians doing what they do for a living very well and without actual passion.

For this reason it is difficult to pick out any highlights or weaknesses on the first disc. The band delivers what it promises on the label.

I first heard Otis Rush's "Homework" in J Geils Band's live take on Live Full House and much later the Fleetwood Mac version on Blues Jam in Chicago. Both versions are rather faster and lighter of touch than the Splinter Group offering. It's as if age has truly slowed the guys down but I guess they chose to slow down the tempo. The loss of urgency sucks the excitement from the song and makes it more of a lament than it was to start with. In fact, this really sounds like some old guy leering at school girls he can no really longer entice because he has neither money nor looks.

Dr Feelgood recorded a version "Hey, Mama, Keep your big Mouth Shut" for the Sneakin' Suspicion album and managed to turn the usually reliably exciting Bo Diddley riff into a dull grind and on this album the Splinter Group repeats this feat. I can hear the attempt at a great groovin' riff that falls flat because the syncopation just ain't there. It is too precise, too fastidious. A relaxed, loose take with more urgency would have made for a killer track. This is not an irredeemably horrible version of the tune, simply not a very exciting one.

The band do better with "The Supernatural", an ethereal, spooky instrumental in the vein of "Albatross" and even "Rattlesnake Shake" though this live take is a good deal different to the Fleetwood Mac original. The reimagined live shot does not have the menace of the original version but bounces along nicely with good humour and solid playing that for once do justice to the tune. This live version of "Albatross" also does the original justice with just a wash of organ in the background for a new instrumental texture, which, served up in a more bombastic vein, almost ruins "Shake Your Hips" by rudely intruding on the lissom, playful signature riff. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time but here it is just a blemish on an otherwise good version.

The first five tunes on the second disc are from the Robert Johnson songbook and opening cut "Travelling Riverside Blues" is not sung by Green but by Nigel Watson. The first two tunes are acoustic, with only guitar and Green's blues harp backing and once again the flaw is that though the songs are played well enough the vocals completely lack the driven passion of the Robert Johnson originals. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that Eric Clapton's versions of these songs outpunch the Splinter Group's interpretations for dexterity, insight and pure unadulterated fun. Even more pertinently, Jeremy Spencer's piano version of "Hellhound On My Trail" on Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac is possibly the absolutely best take on any Robert Johnson song that I have ever heard.

The band kicks in from the third tune and on "Last Fair Deal Going Down" and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" the so-called Street Angels join in to bring a little infusion of gospel fervour to the performances, very reminiscent of the type of thing Delaney and Bonnie did on their Motel Shot album. The earlier po-faced, sober and almost solemn acoustic readings of the Johnson tunes now really seem diminished in stature in contrast to these rollicking, rambunctious workouts. Even blues about death and the Final Judgment can be hugely enjoyable.

"Green Manalishi" brings back some tasty menace and mystery in a powerful rendition that continuously simmers like a witches brew. Green plays his most forceful, inspired solo of the night. For a change the almost heavy rock organ forcing its turbulent way through the rest of the instruments supports the mood of the tune. A triumph.

"Goin Down" maintains the faster tempo and "Help Me" slows it down again with, presumably, that amazing thing Peter Green can also do with a blues harp. He may not be the greatest virtuoso on this instrument but he can sure make it do things that run shivers up and down my spine. I've heard various versions of this old warhorse through the years and Sonny Boy Williamson probably still does it best. Here Green's torn and tattered voice fits perfectly and the slinky groove of the riff is rendered to perfection by the band. This is a blues for listening to in the dark when you are alone and desperate.

The set ends with "Look On Yonder Wall", a tune I know best as a slide guitar driven monster, also performed in many versions by many musicians. My favourite version, the first one I ever heard, is by Homesick James, some relative of Elmore James, which sounds extremely primitive and loose, as if it really was recorded in some tar paper shack in the Mississippi Delta by a bunch of share croppers who only ever play at fish fries or country juke joints. The Splinter Group give it the big gun journeymen treatment that befits a set closer. Green's vocal would have suited the somewhat more muted Homesick James version and the band's grandstanding is at odds with Green's take on the song. A few more grammes of intensity are required.

Maybe White blues is a young man's game. This live collection is not bad. It is simply not terribly exciting. On the same holiday that I bought the Splinter Group album I also bought one of the single discs in 'n three separate disc set of albums recording a gig the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac played at the Boston Tea Party circa 1970, a concert that has been released in so many chopped and changed versions it almost demands a discography of its own. My first version of it was on a record called Fleetwood Mac Live that I later duplicated on CD in my quest to own just about every Fleetwood Mac album ever released provided it was the blues band version of the group. The energy in the music from the Tea Party show is ten times that of the Splinter Group. Forty years of ups and downs must make a difference but in Peter Green's case the years have not been kind in the sense that they've brought more depth or emotion to his interpretation of the blues, at least not on the evidence of Splinter Group album. There are oodles of competency and craft and a paucity of heartfelt commitment. In 1970 the playing the blues may have been a vocation. In 1998 it was just a day job.







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