Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Blues Projects

The Blues Project (1864) was initially a compilation album issued by Elektra Records, of Greenwich Village based folk blues artists, one of whom was Danny Kalb who formed an electric band he called the Blues Project in 1985. Al Kooper, who famously played organ on "Like A Rolling Stone", joined the band for a time and Tommy Flanders was a member for the first, live, album only.


The debut album Live at the Cafe Au Go Go (1966), was basically your standard blues set of the along with the psychedelic infusions that were becoming the rage in San Francisco and were soon to be de rigeur for all kinds of band with progressive intentions. "Catch the Wind" and "Violets of Dawn" represented the poppier psychedelic side of the band.


In November 1966 the band released Projections, in its way a template for what counted as progressive in the mid-Sixties. The songs were a mixture of blues and gospel tunes, re-imagined in a psychedelic mind-set, and more proper psychedelic pop songs with plenty of flute, which was the alternative rock instrument of choice on so many records of the era. A flute part seems to have been code for progressive. A blues band would abandon blurs harp and replace it with a flute and play raga melodies and be counted among the adventurous, forward thinking musicians pushing the envelope to develop rock into an art form.


Projections also had a bit of Chuck Berry and an 11-minute long version of "Two Trains Running," a Muddy Waters live tour de force, just to bring home that this was still a band that was serious about the blues.


Between 1977 and 1979 I found a copy of Projections in a discount bin in some Cape Town record shop. I do not recall whether I even knew who the Blues Project were but I was collecting cheap blues records and this record interested me because it was cheap and the track listing featured a number of blues and gospel songs I recognised by title alone. The major USP, though, was that very long version of "Two Trains Running," of which I'd read but not yet heard.


The band members had worn their best 1966 New York hip, proto-hippie outfits, all flower shirts and floppy hair, as if they had been styled to look excruciatingly contemporary. The guys look almost self-consciously cool and stylish and it just looks forced and weird today. The Blues Project guys looked like the kind of dudes who normally wore T-shirts and jeans but were told by their publicist and record company to go out and buy some new shirts for the photo shoot.


The record cover was of thicker cardboard than was customary for locally pressed records of the day and this suggested to me that I had bought a copy of the original, probably American, pressing from 1966 and therefore some 12 or 13 years old by the time I laid my hands on it. This possibility was reinforced by a terrible flaw in the vinyl that made an annoying buzzy sound when one played the record which seemed to be in good condition, unscratched and flat.


I had bought, and would still buy, many discounted and low budget records and I was very fortunate in that almost none of them were ever in a bad condition when I got them. It was trite that local pressings deteriorated in quality after a number of plays, which is why I eventually taped all my records and then listened only to the audio tapes and no longer played the actual records. That was expected but not that a record would be bad from the off. Projections was one of the few exceptions to the general rule; off-hand I cannot recollect any other records that showed flaws as soon as I played them for the first time.


I had experience with deteriorating South African vinyl surfaces and was used to applying anti-static spray and wiping the surface with a cloth to eradicate the snap, crackle and pop of locally manufactured records but in the case of Projections none of those methods helped. The irritating hiss was ingrained in the vinyl and remained for as long as I owned the record. Listening pleasure was therefore very much diluted, especially as the hiss became worse during "Two Trains Running" to the point where the track was unplayable in its entirety unless you wanted to go crazy.


This annoying flaw in audio quality was a great pity indeed, as the blues songs on the album were arranged in interesting ways and played with an enthusiasm I had not often heard. At the time I was not fully au fait with the American White blues boom of the mid-Sixties and this record was a revelation to me who was more used to the original bluesmen and to the Brit-Blues guys. Blues Project sounded very much like early Jefferson Airplane, and other bands of that era, in the sound of the rhythm section and with a particular style and tone of lead guitar that I associate with the psychedelic rock and blues of the period. The American guitarists had a more trebly, piercing, pinched, staccato style than their British counterparts who loved loud sustain and feedback in their solos. The British blues guitarists seemed to prize fluency in soloing; the Americans seemed that prefer short piercing runs of notes.


There was no point in taping Projections. I put the record away and never listened to it anymore.


More than 20 years later I found the CD Reunion in Central Park (1973), yet another live album by the older and wiser members of the band who perform their best known material with what sounds like some enthusiasm and love for the history. It was not quite the Sixties sound though and some of it did almost sound like a band running through it back catalogue because there is money in it rahter than as a living, breathing and continuing organism. Pleasant afternoon in the park and no more.


Jump forward about 13 years and I discover, duh, the usefulness of iTunes in recovering the music of records I once used to own or to buy the digital versions of records I once wanted to own. Projections was one of the first and followed shortly by the Anthology album, with tracks from the three major Blues Project albums. It was once exhilarating to be able to listen to music off albums I would never have owned otherwise and also disappointing because it just seemed to me that too much Blues Project music, given that the template did not vary that much, with the same mixture of blues standards and psychedelic pop, was a bit of a drag. The earliest blues tracks are not more roots than anything of Projections and, if anything, sound more rinky dink. On the cuts taken from Live At The Café Au Go Go. Tommy Flanders does not have much of a blues voice and sounds like a pop singer indulging in the flavour of the moment.


All of the blues tunes from Live At The Café Au Go Go are light years away from the contemporary British blues band of the time, such as John Mayall, The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, and others, who took the blues seriously and whose guitarists were vastly superior in technique and feel to the White Americans, except perhaps for Mike Bloomfield or Johnny Winter, both of whom were steeped in respectively the Chicago and Texas traditions. Danny Kalb, from the Blues Project, could be just one more psychedelic guitar player. He can play the blues runs in piercing solos yet does not sound convincing as bluesman, in the same way that Tommy Flanders does not sound anything like a guy from Mississippi.


The Blues Project must have been serious and earnest and dedicated to the genre, even if the pop smarts and nous of someone like AL Kooper who was not a blues guy at all, would have been a major influence in the writing and recording of the poppier songs designed to give the band hit singles with a sound that was not typical of their stage shows. On the other hand, even Cream had lightweight pop jangles to entice the masses, as did the Yardbirds.


Projections numbers among the first 100 records I ever owned, perhaps even the first 50, and is one those albums that rakes me back to a time and place, not necessarily a happy place, in my life which has nothing to do with the contemporaneity of the albums because so many were bought well after the initial release date, in some cases decades later. I am glad I have the album back in my life.




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