Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Hot Water plays De Waal Park November 2013

I'd never heard of Hot Water until some point last year when I was gifted with a couple of Gigs of music amongst which were the first two Hot Water albums. I liked this amalgam of mbaqanga, jive, maskande, blues and folk so much that I sought out and bought the third album too. Donovan Copley's very White South African voice sounded a tad odd in the context of the music the band made, but on the whole the records were fun, entertaining and joyous.

For all I knew Hot Water was defunct by the time I got to know of them, despite the many albums, but as it happens it seems that they are quite busy touring the world with the South African music and, judging from the recent show I attended, Copley might be a kind of Johnny Clegg for the current millennium, an ambassador for musical styles that are unique to our country.

Hot Water opened the new season (2013/14) of the "Concerts in the Park" series of live gigs in De Waal Park, an event that is now in its third year. I never got to any of the events of the first year, mostly because I was never around when the acts I would see, played. Last season I got around to Steve Louw, Robin Auld, and Arno Carstens.

On Sunday 17 November 2013 the streets around De Waal Park were crowded with parked cars, obviously attendees at the gig. It was a bit of a miracle that the show took place, as it had literally rained the entire day on Saturday 16 November. By Sunday morning, though, the clouds were dispersing and by the afternoon there was enough blue sky and sunshine to make it a pleasant day after all and just right for a concert in the park.

I arrived on site at about 16h00, the scheduled starting time, and the park was as crowded with people as the cars parked along the surrounding streets would have suggested. This told me that Hot Water must be a much bigger name and therefore much more popular drawing card than I had thought. Both Robin Auld and Steve Louw had drawn crowds but the only comparable number of people had been the attendees at the Arno Carstens show that closed the previous season in early 2013. Once again there was a significant amount of people (I can't estimate crowds but would have said they numbered about a thousand), of all ages, dispersed on the lawns around the band stand, with their picnic baskets, beer coolers, dogs, kids and so on. That the event is free must have been a motivation too, though the size of the crowd could only have been due to the act on offer and not merely the lack of an entry fee.

The younger and more active members of the crowd were on their feet and rushed to the front of the stage as soon as Copley strummed the introductory chord of the first of two up-tempo jive style numbers. The dancers jived all through the show. It was going to be an afternoon of partying to music that defied one not to go crazy dancing in the dust, or at least to tap a foot.

The band is made up of a rainbow nation of musicians: Copley, a Black dude on bass, a White second guitarist, a Black woman on background vocals and the wall-known Tim Rankin on drums. Copley plays a Castrol oil can guitar (he calls it his "South Afri-Can guitar"), once endorsed by David Kramer and which is meant to be one of the iconic images of South African roots music although the original oil can guitars were acoustic resonators and not amplified.

For this season of the Concerts in the Park, there is a Nando's sponsorship and new local MOR radio station Smile FM is also on board. In fact, Eloise, possibly a broadcaster, is the on-stage announcer who keeps telling us that this series of series of shows are "fired by Nando's" (probably the PR slogan) and announces prizes and the like. I guess the concerts will receive more publicity if a radio station makes a point of mentioning the shows, even if it's a new station. The shows are free and large audience numbers will therefore not affect the box office but would be good for the ego of the artists who perform.

The chairperson of Friends of De Waal Park is called upon to give the same speech I heard at every show last season, despite his protestation that he had thought he would not have to do it again this year. It is an interesting story but not so exciting that one would want to repeat it show after show. This time around he gives us the blessedly short version of it.

The opening groove consisted of the bassist enunciating and chanting the phrase "hot water" in as many syllables and with as much gruff authority as he can muster, while he plucks his bass and the drums do a funk thing behind him. It does go on for a bit, a tad longer than necessary but is presumably deemed necessary to vibe up the crowd. Then the previously mentioned two fast jives set the park on fire and from then on it was party time. I recognised many of the tunes. Copley is a showman. He was engaging, lively, funny and appeared to be a guy who obviously believes in interaction with the audience. Apart from the fact that the music was not strictly based on traditional Zulu guitar music, Copley could be a Johnny Clegg for today. There was Zulu guitar music in there, with the typical lyrical lines played on a somewhat distorted electric guitar which gave the tunes a bluesy feel and a more modern attack, almost reminiscent of the desert blues that has become so popular. Copley also did "In my Time of Dying" with plenty of hot slide guitar from the second guitarist, a heavy version of "Tribal Man" and a long, jammy take on a Busi Mhlongo song. During this part of the show Copley invited all manner of audience members onto the stage and exhorted them dance in full public view. The music was markedly more jam band than the carefully rehearsed and played rock styles of Arno Carstens or Steve Louw / Big Sky. It was also a fun experience, it would seem, for both band and audience.

There was no encore. Copley thanked us and left the stage. The crowd dispersed slowly, some just back to their blankets, some to the exits. By now there was more clouds over the City Bowl, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped. The Hot Water jive had kept the unpleasant weather at bay and, as if the elements had patiently waited for the show toe end, they now moved in to put their stamp on the rest of the day. A Cape Town summer without wind is no summer.





Notes on some South African bands found on the Score website

(this piece was probably written in late 2013 or early 2014)

Browsing around on the Internet, googling local bands and coming across a site called The Score that features brief biographical notes and music videos or SoundCloud clips of the featured bands. Most of these groups were totally unknown to me and this find emphasised again how easy it must be to form a band, to write en rehearse some tunes and then either make a video or just record some tracks for internet dissemination. Who needs to release CDs? Do any of these bands gig regularly, or just fool around in the lead singer's basement, or even exist for longer than the university degree courses of the band members?

I did not have the time or inclination to investigate each and every band but spent some time on a couple.

The first band was the interestingly named The Deaf Commission. They have a good number of videos and I watched the live in concert clips of "Ramblin'" and "Your Time Has Come," and the official video of "You're Gonna Lose." The gig could have been filmed with an iPhone but jerky visuals and an almost out of focus image but the true beauty of the videos lies in the shitty sound. These performances sound so much like the product of the bad sound one usually encounters at gigs of young bands in small spaces. The music is distorted and loud yet listenable while the vocals are just about unintelligible. The singer may as well be singing gibberish. Often it was the saving grace for a lot of bands. If you can't understand what the singer is singing, you won't realise how terrible some of the lyrics are.

The official video has much better sound and is therefore a neater, cleaner product that lacks some of the visceral excitement of the live clips, especially the studio sound makes the band sound like a straightforward heavy band whereas the live clips give a blues rock and punky edge to the guitars. Cleaning up is not necessarily the answer either.

The Heavy Souls, with "Run with the Hunted," is a proficient hard rock band with little to differentiate them from the rest of the local pack. They do what they do, well and yet have no apparent spark of genius or just a glimmer of that little something that will distinguish them from the many other rack bands in this country.

For my money The Cheap Bad Habits from Kwazulu Natal are the pick of this small bunch. They look like a classic Nuggets era garage band or perhaps one of the punk bands from New York in the late Seventies. The sound is more New York punk than Pacific Northwest punk, yet somewhat more deliberate and slower, so perhaps Detroit is the reference point. There is a video clip and a number of SoundCloud clips. Their big song is "Chasing Down the Devil." and it is suitably snotty and punchy and just dumb enough to be a smart take on an old trope. The video for "French Kiss" was shot on a beach full of gyrating bodies and beach babes. Car and girls and sun, sea and sand. Not exactly blissed out summer rock though. This is the band whose CD I would buy if there were such a release. Big dumb rock and roll fun is never a bad thing.

Junkyard Lipstick is an all-female thrash punk type of band from Cape Town. The photograph with the bio shows four emo/Goth/punk women in a playground and, dare one say it, there is a definite odd sexiness about them, and one would be tempted to say, I do not care what the music sounds like; I'd be prepared to pay just to see them on stage. The one clip I listened to, "Bio Terror." sounds pretty much like old school thrash to me with riffing guitars, punchy fast drumming and shouted vocals that may have deep meaning but are not quite intelligible.

Who knows whether any of these bands are currently active? I don't go to gigs and am obviously not part of the word of mouth of the young set in any of the towns in which these bands operate or used to operate. If it had not been for this fortuitous trawl through the internet I would probably never have heard of the groups. This type of find simply re-emphasises how relatively easy it is these days to record your music and even to make a video to accompany it, whether the production values are high or simply basic. There must be more money available and more facilities as well. Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, when I was young and followed local bands, hardly any of the ever released a record, or tape, much less made videos of their shows. Of course the internet was not a thing back then and neither were cheap video cameras or the smartphones with their video capabilities, most of which puts media and the outreach to an audience within the easy grasp of just about every band. Back in the day you could obviously record your rehearsals or gigs onto a reel to reel tape or maybe, once things got sophisticated, a DAT tape, and if a mate had a video camera he or she could make a movie of your rehearsal or stage show. However, there was no outlet like YouTube for your video and it must have been prohibitively expensive for most bands without proper recording contracts to book studio time, produce and master their songs and to have records and sleeves printed. Nowadays every one with a PC or laptop can run a home recording studio and the costs of fine tuning a song are much less and the costs of manufacturing CDs and the jewel cases and inserts must be reasonable and in reach of most budgets. How else do so many independent albums get released? You can sell your product at your gigs and by mail order and get onto iTunes or offer downloads through sites like Band camp. You can put your music out there on Myspace, YouTube or SoundCloud. There is no reason, except for failure to do something quite basic, why any and all bands cannot disseminate their music to everyone who may be interested. One might not make money from all of this endeavour but at least your music will have a presence and recognition that was not possible 20 or 30 years ago unless one had a recording contract or very deep pockets.

In the period 1984 to about 1994 I followed many local bands in and around the Cape Town area, and also a good number of Johannesburg bands who used to come down to Cape Town for the summer season. Some of these bands, like All Night Radio, Sweatband, The Believers, Cherryfaced Lurchers, Petit Cheval, The Genuines, The Blues Broers, Valiant Swart, Koos Kombuis, and so on, managed to release one or more records. Many more, like The Flaming Firestones, The Mavericks, Duck 4 Cover, The Tarantulas, Raissa's Farm, Shrinking Railroad, and many others whose names I don't even recall any more, did not release anything that I knew of. If there are home tapes of rehearsals or gigs, I am not aware of them and it seems nobody has made any attempt to transfer such recording to digital format to release them in any shape or form. An entire generation of local bands lived and died and left no permanent record except for the memories of those who were there, musicians and audience, and the faded newspapers in which the gigs were advertised.




The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Jimmie Vaughan, guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, is the elder brother of the perhaps more celebrated late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Both came out of the Texas blues scene of the Seventies. Jimmie rose to prominence with the Thunderbirds, a quite rootsy four piece that combined jazzy swing with deep blues feeling. Jimmie was kind of the anti-Stevie Ray in guitar playing terms. His forte was understated, yet never dull, accompaniment and quirky piercing solos as part of an ensemble and not as flashy frontman. Kim Wilson was the flamboyant guy up front who wore a turban, sang and played harp. In contrast Stevie Ray was the main man and he sang and played fiery almost interminable guitar that initially served the songs but over time started taking on a life of its own. The Fabulous Thunderbirds was a band, a combo of like-minded individuals. Stevie Ray & Double Trouble was a leader and two sidemen.

My introduction to the Thunderbirds was through a review of their second album, What's The Word? (1980), in the NME. At the time blues was not exactly fashionable. It was at the tail end of the post punk / New Wave period and the blues acts were not front cove subjects. The only other contemporary blues act that received some attention was George Thorogood and the Destroyers, a similarly rootsy three piece mainly inspired by Elmore James. Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash and not so much the Texas roots of the Thunderbirds.

Anyhow, What's The Word? received a really positively review and recommendation. Because I was a collector of blues albums I made a mental note to look for the record, though I found it in some Cape Town record bar only a couple of years later. It truly was fine.

From the opening cut, "Running Shoes" I was hooked on What's the Word? The tough, exciting houserocking blues never let up to the end of the record. The most interesting and interesting part was the concise, to the point rhythm guitar parts and the relatively brief guitar solos. This was no guitar hero doing his best to sound like a maestro of the fretboard but rather a man who was clearly maser of his instrument and his chosen idiom and was not going to overplay his hand or overshadow his band by his histrionics. The music was also just so damn loud and could have given any of the punk bands or New Wave guitar bands a go. I would have given my left testicle to be present at any bar where this band was playing.

I could recognise that the playing was tough and traditional enough and that the production gave the music a hard, punky edge without losing the essence of the blues. Some of the songs, like "You Ain't Nothing Nut Fine" and "Sugar Coated Love", for example, were even sing-a-long blues-pop type tunes. This record quickly became one of my favourites and took pride of place in my blues collection.

In all the years since I never saw any other Fabulous Thunderbirds albums in the various record stores I haunted on a regular basis. Why on earth What's The Word? would have arrived in Cape Town on its own and not be followed by other releases by the band was a mystery then and remains a mystery. The only exception was Tuff Enuff (1986.)

The Thunderbirds had a bit of a purple patch with this album and eponymous single and also "Wrap It Up." Possibly the commercial success of Stevie Ray Vaughan helped and perhaps also the Eighties production techniques for music where the straight blues element was pushed into the background to give way to a pop-rock attitude, with subdued blues flavour, that would guarantee radio airplay. The two singles were played on South African radio and impressed me enough to buy the audio cassette version of the album when I found it in a discount bin. Having said that, the singles had not been impressive enough to persuade me to pay full price for the record and certainly did not motivate d me to buy any later product. My deepest wish was to own the debut album, Girls Go Wild.

My attitude towards the commercially successful Thunderbirds was similar to my attitude towards the very commercially successful Z Z Top of the Eighties who also modernised ad updated their sound and left behind the dirty blues of the Seventies albums, which were the records I preferred and still prefer.

Somewhere at the beginning of the 21st century I bought a Thunderbirds anthology album on CD that concentrates on the early, blues years and avoids the commercial years and that is why I bought this particular set, as there are a number of "best of" and "greatest hits" compilations of Fabulous Thunderbirds music.

I had not listened to What's The Word? for probably 20 years until May 2013 when I bought and downloaded the Fabulous Thunderbirds' first three albums, Go Girl Crazy (1979), What's The Word? and Butt Rockin' (1981)
from iTunes. Not for the first time I blessed the advent of the digital media revolution that has made it possible for me in Cape Town, South Africa, to acquire and listen to music that I craved to hear when I was a teenager or in my early twenties and never had the opportunity due to the relative backwardness of South Africa at the time. My musical tastes were never exactly mainstream and most of the artists I wanted to hear were not stocked in my local record store. Since the Nineties we have not only had the benefit of multiple re-issues of almost forgotten records but now there is even more stuff available on the Internet. Today I can build a collection or records I would have wanted to own when I was a kid or simply rebuild my record collection in digital format.

This is why I decided belatedly to catch up on the Thunderbirds buying that trio of ground breaking albums. For all I know there were lots of white blues combos in the USA who sounded exactly like the Fabulous Thunderbirds yet this was the band I got to know and to love. To play blues in 1980 was hardly a serious commercial move and to play it with such authenticity and intensity probably did not enhance the commercial appeal either.

During the Eighties Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought blues back into the mainstream though neither of them had quite the nous or intense blues power of the early Thunderbirds. Stevie Ray just played too much damned guitar and Cray was too much too smooth for me. I own a bunch of Stevie Ray Vaughan albums and only one by Robert Cray, an early effort issued with the part work publication Story of the Blues. As far as I was concerned The Fabulous Thunderbirds were more of the real deal than their contemporaries.

Each of the iTunes versions of the first two albums comes with extra tracks. In the case of Girls Go Wild they are a couple of studio tracks and with What's The Word? they are live cuts. From the latter it is evident that the band was smoking hot as a live proposition.

The mix of songs varies from tough shuffles to melodic Fifties-styled pop and the latter is a tendency in the evolution of the band as if there had been a policy decision to ensure some radio play by positioning the band in a poppier place than the juke joint blues shuffles would have put them in. No doubt the songs were staples of the set anyway in a bar where the band is usually expected to be a human jukebox of sorts and to play for dancing, whether it would be the frenetic jiving to stompers like "Running Shoes" or the romantic slow dancing to a slightly cheesy "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."

It may be the long-time familiarity that even now makes What's The Word? resonate with me more than the other two albums, especially Butt Rockin' which seems to be heading towards the more commercial, less appealing sound of Tuff Enuff.
What's The Word? is simply more satisfying because it seems to be the best basic blues album of the trio, with the best songs too. I can well imagine, if I had bought Butt Rockin' on first release, that I would have given up on The Fabulous Thunderbirds for having taken a commercial direction in the blues that did not appeal to me at all. Perhaps it is significant that this relative decline in the Thunderbirds' music happened just at the time that Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues star was rising with a much tougher take on the music.

What's The Word? is one of a number of albums, that I first owned as records, that represent the period in my life between high school and National Service, when I had the money to start collecting records and scoured the records stores of Stellenbosch and Cape Town for bargains, informed by records reviews in the NME and found many gems, this album included, at bargain prices. It was astonishing that a record store had to discount a record like What's The Word? in order to sell it. This album belongs to a group of albums that I truly loved and admired and treasured because they were just so astonishingly good. I have never grown tired of those records and each time I listen to one of them I have the same enjoyment, perhaps out of nostalgia too, but in general simply because they are great records.

If one is allowed to have only one Fabulous Thunderbirds album in one's collection, What's The Word? should be it. Not even a best of collection can replace it for pure, unadulterated quality and good fun.




Tom Verlaine

Thomas Miller came to New York from the American Midwest to find fortune and fame in the Bohemian art world of the city, changed his name and formed a band that lasted about 4 years in its first incarnation and was quite influential yet not as commercially viable as Verlaine might have hoped for. His solo career, with a couple of Television reunions, has now lasted for far longer than the band ever did. It is amazing to think that Verlaine is already 64. But then, his rise in the New York scene happened 40 years ago now.

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell led Television, one of the major bands of the post New York Dolls and pre Ramones/Blondie/Talking Heads New York punk scene that predated and influenced the UK punk bands. Hell left and formed first The Heartbreakers and then led The Voidoids. Verlaine soldiered on and, with Richard Lloyd as second guitarist, created some of the most adventurous, exciting guitar music of the Seventies, way outside of the heavy blues and hard rock tradition that dominated the decade.

Verlaine reinvented himself in New York, as so many did, with a new surname, that of the French poet Paul Verlaine, and became part of an avant garde arts scene that, in the aftermath of the Warhol experiment, combined the high arts of painting and sculpture and poetry with the lesser, more populist art of rock and roll. Verlaine wanted the excitement of rock without the cock rock bullshit of most other successful American bands of the time. Television was in at the start of the New York scene that produced some of the most influential groups of the time and although it was one of the most exciting and most critically esteemed bands, it did not enjoy the long lasting careers or commercial success of The Ramones, Blondie or Talking Heads, releasing only 2 official albums in its heyday with further live albums and one reunification album to follow.

NME raved about Marquee Moon, the debut, and was less enthusiastic about Adventure, and drooled over the live shows in England. Marquee Moon has one of the classic album covers, an "ugly" colourized photograph of the band, possibly taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, I never found the album in any Stellenbosch record shop at the time of release and my first exposure to it came many years later when I bought the CD album and was immediately smitten. Even in the late Nineties this music sounded like nothing else. One can see where a number of the contemporary "math rock" acts, and similar, would have been fans of Television. Good solid rhythm section with soaring, roaring guitars, playing off against each other and also being individualistic.

Not long after the demise of Television, Tom Verlaine released Tom Verlaine (1979) and Richard Lloyd released Alchemy (1979), on each album showcasing their respective strengths. Verlaine's album sounds pretty much like Television progressing in a slightly new direction, obviously because he is the vocalist and his guitar style dominated Television, where Lloyd's songs fall in to the classic guitar pop category where melody and sweetness of lyric are paramount and not so much the intricate guitar playing of Verlaine or the latter's skewed visions.

I bought Ton Verlaine long before I ever heard the songs on Marquee Moon and I had no idea whether Verlaine's solo sound was basically the same or radically different. Now, having compared the two records, I would say that the solo album is somewhat lighter in mood and tone and funnier where Marquee Moon is pretty much a serious art rock statement. The angular guitar playing and jerky rhythms are present and correct on both albums and there is a continuity for this reason but it seems that Verlaine was having more fun with his solo debut than he'd had with his band, although it might have something to do with the brittle nerves of making your first record versus making your third and without the tensions a band may have that are no longer present when you are the one and only guy, not merely the leader of a band but the solo artist.

Tom Verlaine, the musician and the album, surprised me. From the NME writing on the banc I had a very different, harsher and more uncompromising sound in mind than the actual very approachable and entertaining music on Tom Verlaine. The style might have been at odds with current fashions for punk and New Wave and even contemporary hard rock and metal but it was not so oblique or obscurest that one could not enjoy it on a visceral level as a superior pop record.

Tracks like "Souvenir From A Dream," "Flash Lightning," "Red Leaves" and Breakin' In My Heart" are melodic pop songs with emotional centres. The songs had tunes and choruses and smart lyrics. The only odd thing was Verlaine's voice. He is not the greatest of singers, perhaps in the same way that Jimi Hendrix was more of a guitarist than a vocalist, and yet he does impart the depth the songs need to bring them across. The slightly weird intonations of his singing voice serve songs like "Yonki Time" and "Mr Bingo" which sound like joke songs with a sinister edge. Verlaine's cracked, slightly off pitch voice make them more than they may be. In the hands of a proper vocalist these tunes could have been obvious jokes. On this album they sound as serious, in a quirky, sarcastic way, as anything else on the record.

The band plays tough and Verlaine plays his patented angular, nog-blues based guitar parts with fluent dexterity, illustrating that this new model for a guitar hero may not sound like Eddie van Halen or Joe Perry, to name but two contemporaries, and yet has about the same intensity and power as thy could muster. Perhaps Tom Verlaine never was and never would be a technically masterful guitarist and that is probably not the point. In metal complicated guitar parts are often an end in themselves, to show of the astounding technical skills of the guitar player; in Tom Verlaine's style of music the guitar parts complement the song and are not specifically meant to be separated from the song as a component to be heard or enjoyed separately

Tom Verlaine is one of my favourite Seventies albums, and dovetails nicely with Marquee Moon, and deserves classic status. If I remember correctly I bought at least one more Verlaine album though I am not even sure which one it was and it certainly did not make as much of an impact as the debut album. It is perhaps for this reason or perhaps simply because the records were not readily available that I never made an effort to build up a Verlaine collection and even now I cannot imagine myself going to great lengths to find whatever else there is out there.

Let me just bask in the happy memories of the one album by Tom Verlaine that I truly enjoy and appreciate and not run the risk of being relatively disappointed by his other releases. Provided it is a good one, there is nothing wrong with sticking with just the one hit of a one hit wonder. For the same reason there is nothing wrong with sticking with one excellent release from an artist who has had a long career, as long as that one release is above average and represents a time and a place that can never be replicated anyway. Tom Verlaine is that kind of record.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Neil Young revisited

I've never been interested in collecting Bob Dylan albums beyond John Wesley Harding (1967), although I did buy the last five of the last six, from Time Out Of Mind (1997) to Tempest (2012), where I used to make an effort, not so much lately though, to keep up with the contemporary releases of Neil Young through all of the decades of his career. In fact I own more Neil Young albums than Bob Dylan albums.

Young has not necessarily released high quality music all the way through his career. Silver & Gold (2000), for example, is pretty crap and I am dubious about Prairie Wind (2005), but on the whole his music from, say, 1980 to the mid-Nineties, is more interesting and captivating than most of Dylan's releases over the same period.

Anyhow, I have not kept up with Neil Young's releases after Mirror Ball (1995), the collaboration with elements of Pearl Jam. Unplugged (1992)
had its moments but Harvest Moon (1992) left me cold, especially the banal lyrics. How it could have even considered as anything like a substantive follow-up to Harvest (1972) is still beyond my ken.

Even the big guitar workouts on Sleeps With Angels (1994) dragged somewhat. After Mirror Ball I lost interest and skipped all of the new records released in the new millennium. I bought the Live at Fillmore East set with Crazy Horse and the Live At Massey Hall set, both of which are part of the Neil Young Archives series, mostly because I was keen on the early poetic Young and the early rocking Young.

During a UK holiday in 2012 I bought Zuma (1975) and Le Noise (2010), the older album being a mostly a typical mid-Seventies Neil Young album, and the first recorded with newly reconstituted Crazy Horse after the death of Danny Whitten. Le Noise features an experimental Young playing solo electric and acoustic guitars, which, as oddball, experimental concept, would perhaps have fitted right in with the "unrepresentative" music of the Geffen years. Le Noise does not blow me away and I am thankful that the album is short.

Zuma is much more to my taste. Stupid as it may be as a viewpoint, the Neil Young of the Seventies quite simply wrote far better songs because he was younger and full of some kind of poetic vision which became duller and more prosaic as he got older, more mature and less visceral.

I've recently become a bit of a belated convert to iTunes. I'd browsed in it before, particularly the US iTunes Store, to search how many classic albums were available and then, when the South African iTunes Store came online, started browsing that one too. It was here that I found so many cheap albums, again mostly of acts I'd either once owned records of or had always wanted to own records of, that I started going slightly crazy. The variety was huge and the prices compared to buying CDs in Musica were stupidly affordable to the extent where one could bankrupt oneself.

The other factor is storage. I own more than a thousand CDs and most of them are in boxes in the outside room and the newer ones, bought over the last few years, overflow storage space in the lounge. Digital downloads take up no more space than the size of a laptop regardless of how many tunes you've added. Only the hard disk storage limits one.

In the iTunes Store Neil Young has a large section all to himself, mostly the albums in the canon, plus some other items. This means, for the first time in my life, that I am in the position to fill in the gaps in my Neil Young collection from the debut album Neil Young (1969) to the latest, Psychedelic Pill (2012). If I wanted to, I could own them all. Ironically Young is very caustic in his criticism of the MP3 format for providing less than 5% of the actual audio output of the recording process. He is on record as believing that music recorded with analogue technology and printed on vinyl is still the best medium for music, that digital not only sanitises but also emasculates music and that MP3 is nothing short of a Satanic plot against the very fabric of Western civilization and the quality of music. This may be so, but the unparalleled opportunity of owning music I never had the opportunity to acquire as vinyl releases, is a benefit of modern technology that I am grateful for and relish.

There is also the first massive release in the Archive series. The major good thing is that most of these albums cost around R70 and there are some, the first ones I bought that are on offer for as low as R19,99 (Re-Ac-Tor) and R24,99 (American Stars 'n Bars, Hawks & Doves, Road Rock Vol I) and If this does not represent temptation I do not know what will.

I have no idea why Re-Ac-Tor (1981) has such a bad rep with the critics. It was the last Reprise album, before the wayward weirdness of the Geffen years, and followed on Hawks & Doves (1980), which followed Rust Never Sleeps with which Young ended the first decade of his solo career on a highlight of note.

The complaint was that Re-Ac-Tor was just a collection of jams, like "T-Bone" with repetitive, nonsensical lyrics and pretty much everything on the second side of the record just Crazy Horse country rock by rote. Why these tunes should be considered any worse than the songs on Freedom or Ragged Glory beats me. In my opinion the critics overreacted to the content of these two half decent albums because they were a considerable improvement on the basic Geffen-era Neil Young album. The very long rifferama rockers on Ragged Glory are overbearing and every bit as tedious as "T-Bone." The rockers on Re-Ac-Tor, except maybe for "T-Bone," are at least relatively concise and to the point.

It may be because Re-Ac-Tor was only the second Neil Young album I ever bought that I have such a soft spot for it but I do like it, and much more than such highly rated albums as Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon, and would defend this stance with all the passion I can muster. There tends to be a critical consensus on certain records that seems to come into existence not so much because the music is necessarily that wonderful but because the critical consensus feeds on itself and is then perpetuated by newer and younger writers who do not care to challenge the conventional truths of the genre. Regardless of how crap some Dylan albums have been over the years, you will have those who defend him as an unadulterated genius and find diamonds even in the dross. The same applies to the way Neil Young's output has been received and rated. Once some opinion has been repeated often enough, with no consideration for the actual merit, it becomes the Holy Writ and shall never be reversed or re-evaluated.

Time Fades Away (1973) and On The Beach (1974) were respectively the third and fourth Neil Young albums I owned, specifically because they were part of a Warner Brothers "twofer" reissue, perhaps because neither of them had been major commercial successes when first released. It is perhaps for this reason that both albums are particular favourites of mine and I am quite distraught that Neil Young has seen fit not to let his record company release Journey Through The Past on CD or even as part of the iTunes library. I do not understand what dire defects he sees in it. In my book ii is a fine record and easily as good as anything he's put out and a damns sight better than some.

Tonight's The Night (1975) was recorded before On The Beach yet released later, because it was too stark a contrast to the country warmth of Harvest and would scare the newly won fans away. I know about three songs off this album, the ones that were anthologised on Decade, the double CD version of which served as a neat introduction to the width and breadth of Neil Young's body of work during his first decade of solo stardom.

Well, the opening cut of the title track is certainly stripped down, stark and bare bones, and reminiscent of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band in its simplistic strength but it is not that far removed from anything that came before, either on After The Goldrush or Harvest and if it were five minutes longer and contained a lengthy guitar solo it would fit right with "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand." this is particularly true of "Tonight's The Night, Pt 2" that closes the album with a loose, loping two guitar duet that sounds, as the saying goes, Stonesy.

Tonight's The Night is the first of three Young albums I know of that are framed by two versions of the same song. The other albums are Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom.

Likewise, "Speaking Out" with its pedal steel guitar and country rhythm is of a piece with Harvest's finest. In the middle of the song Young calls out to Nils Lofgren by his first name and because it sounds exactly like my name, Neels, I was startled the first time I heard Neil Young apparently calling out to me. "Borrowed Tune" could be from After the Goldrush. And it so it goes. Musically there is nothing here that we've not kind of heard before or that is completely out of kilter with preceding group of studio albums, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to On the Beach. Oddly, Tonight's the Night seems like light relief compared to On The Beach, which was recorded second and released first.

I guess contemporary critics may have been blinded by the back story to the album and by the comparatively dark subject matter of the songs and therefore reached the consensus to pronounce this actually quite typical Neil Young record to be his long dark night of the soul. This is not so bad. Not so depressing as I've been led to believe. If not a jolly romp, then simply standard ranch stash mid-Seventies rocking Neil Young. Having listened to the album a few times now, I am of the opinion that it is one of the masterpieces in the Young canon and a fitting part of that great run of records from Everyone Knows This is Nowhere to Hawks & Doves.

In context Zuma also makes more sense now and is less of a let-down than it was when I first trawled through it. Rock critics took themselves very seriously in the late Sixties and Seventies, especially when dealing with the iconic acts of the era who supposedly had something more to say than just rocking out.

Neil Young was not only a rocker but a "rock poet" rocker and his records were deemed to merit closer scrutiny than that of, say Kiss or Aerosmith, yet if one examines the lyrics they are not always poetical or even very deep. I often think that Young relies to mine significance from the banal minutiae through vocal inflection and tune rather than from the intrinsic value of what he is saying on the surface. The younger version of the artist, the folk poet version, obviously did make an effort to write lyrics that were as oblique as any rock poetry of the time, without the wit and love of language that one associates with Bob Dylan, and made his reputation as one who does not write stupid pop lyrics. However, as Young got older and perhaps found it harder to write eloquent words, he increasingly turned to banality and the mundane, perhaps to prove a point, perhaps simply because he was now old enough to have learnt that one can say what one wants to say without hiding behind metaphors or allusions and elipticism.

So, to get back to my earlier point about Tonight's The Night, it seems to me that this record does not stick out like sore thumb in the Neil Young Seventies canon, as the conventional wisdom seems to have it. The music is as exhilarating a mix of tough rock 'n roll, country and folky sentimentality as can be found on any of the Seventies albums. The lyrical concerns and themes might be more gloomy and doomy but I still do not see how these songs are in any way more depressing or doom-laden and obsessed with death and decay than anything that has come before. I am writing with the benefits of having heard not only the preceding albums but also the ones that followed, which would not have been the case with the writers who critiqued Tonight's The Night when it was released. They could compare it only with what had come before, yet even in that limited context the album simply seems like a variation on a theme that had been well established since the start of the solo career.

Revisionism is a curse word and anathema, I suppose, to the very serious, articulate guys who wrote about Neil Young in the Seventies, or even later, but I would suggest that it is apposite in any artist's long career to take a long, hard, good look at that artist's oeuvre some thirty or forty years down the line to make a proper assessment of particular records and artistic moves with the benefit of the overview as opposed to the blinkered contemporary view. Of course, given that Rolling Stone, for example, is something of a publication of record, I will not expect it to discard the views of its writers from the past. Many of those views have been cast in stone (pun not intended) in the Rolling Stone Record (Album) Guide that has seen a number of editions over the years without material re-evaluation of opinions from earlier editions.

Writers who come later tend simply to rely on the standard view and repeat and reinforce it seemingly without critically listening to the subject matter.

Anyhow, on to American Stars 'n Bars (1977). The first batch of tunes follow the Neil Young country rock template with jaunty rhythms and sweet tunes, and lyrics of little consequence, underpinned and somehow elevated by Ben Keith's pedal steel guitar, and the backing vocals of Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt. Young's youthful whine is the saving grace on the tunes. Thirty years later the same thing would grate. "Bite the Bullet" is the first proper rocker, a bit of a false alarm as it is followed by "The Star of Bethlehem" which sounds like a practice run for Harvest Moon. "Will to Love" is legendarily about Neil masturbating in front of a fire while ruminating on salmon swimming upstream. Nice folk ditty. This dream is followed by the equally legendary "Like A Hurricane" in a version, according to Robert Christgau, that is a pale imitation of the live version that could be heard on the Stills-Young tour that preceded the release of the album. Well, the album version is pretty damn fine and transparently the big killer number on the record. "Homegrown" is a bit of a doggerel sea shanty, elevated by its rock and roll punch and ends the album on an elevated mood.

My take on American Stars 'n Bars is, with this release, that Neil Young is entering the realm of albums that are mostly anodyne and slight, with two or three standout tracks, all the more significant in the context of the undistinguished company they keep. Most of the tunes on the record are okay and quite pleasant but one has the sneaking feeling that they would not have been so esteemed if it had not been for their good fortune of being Neil Young compositions. Neil Young has said he writes songs only when he has to and it is a pity that albums like this seem to epitomise this approach. A songwriter of his quality and pedigree cannot help but come up with really great tunes on a regular basis but the strike rete seems to be 5 middle-of-the-road songs for each gem.

This album could also represent a holding pattern for Neil Young to prepare for the next two records, Comes A Time (1978) and Rust Never Sleeps (1979), to enable him to clear the decks, get a breather and reinvigorate himself. There is definitely a sense of re-invention and rejuvenation about Rust Never Sleeps. As of writing this I've not heard Comes A Time as a complete album. Some of the tracks were played on South African rock radio at the time and the country / folk style was not exactly to my taste. Perhaps I should buy it now, seeing as how I'm finally catching up on the other Seventies albums.

Although I loved Rust Never Sleeps I was never keen on buying Live Rust at the time of its release mostly because of the acoustic, folk-type songs on the first side. Tunes like "I Am A Child" and "Sugar Mountain" just sounded awfully twee to me, like kid's songs, and when I was in my early twenties this style of music was furthest from my interest. The live show also seemed to be heavy on country-ish songs that did not appeal. In contrast, the acoustic songs on Rust Never Sleeps at least sounded sonically robust and the electric tunes on the second side of the record rocked out brutally.

I bought Live Rust eventually in 2012 during one of the typical trawls through HMV that I did when visiting England. On this holiday I also bought, if I am not mistaken, Le Noise (2010) and Zuma. I'd heard parts of Live Rust somewhere during the Eighties and so was not totally unfamiliar with the material on the record and it was in effect almost like encountering an old, long lost affection. I was older and more relaxed about Neil Young's folky fancies and the rock songs still rocked like hurricanes.

The concert ends with a series of fiery renditions of the classic Young rockers from "Cortez the Killer" to "Powderfinger" to "Like A Hurricane" to "My. My, Hey, Hey (Into the Black)" with a positively crackling version of "Tonight's The Night." The two studio versions of this song, specifically the second take, on the eponymous album are pretty much a master class in the tension and release of great rock and roll and as I have remarked above, the second version would have made a great live workout for two lead guitars. The live cut on Live Rust lacks the sparring partner of a second guitarist foil that Young had in Nils Lofgren on the live-in-studio performances of the song, Here Neil Young is left to his own devices to dig deep and extract the pain and misery of the song while Frank Sampedro just chugs along on rhythm. Wonderfully, it transpires that this live version of "Tonight's the Night" is built on a riff very similar to the "Peter Gunn Theme."

Young repeated this electric set, or a variation thereof, on the Weld double live album of the early Nineties and it would be instructive to listen to the two concert recordings back to back. At the time of Weld Young was past 45 and had experienced a resurgence in creativity and critical acclaim with Ragged Glory. I have not listened to Weld in a while but my recollection is that the songs tend to go on a bit too long, wonderful for fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's on stage rapport but a tad wearying for the home listener. The versions of the same songs on Live Rust are more or feel more concise and therefore more powerful, and obviously the interpretations are rather fresher than they would be ten or more years, and many shows, later.

Year of the Horse and Road Rock Vol 1 (2000) are later live sets, the first a double, and the second a single CD, covering some of the same old ground that one would expect any old rocker to do late in their career, namely the best known and best loved songs. At least one can say that there is little duplication from live album to live album though "Cowgirl in the Sand" remains a perennial jam, a true classic from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), and the template for the big guitar rock Neil Young and Crazy Horse have made famous. Of course I like both albums and this is the type of Neil Young music I prefer listening to rather than most of the country of folk styles. The softer, milder songs tend to have twee trite lyrics that grate all the more for the quietness of the music. When the band rocks out I do not listen to what the singer is telling me in verse but concentrate on the guitar, bass and drums.

I have recently bought Americana (with Crazy Horse) (2012) as a CD album. The somewhat odd high concept is that Young and band do their versions of well-known tunes from the American songbook, essentially by rocking them the Crazy Horse way. As an experiment it works, as a good rock album it works too. Whether there is any point or deep significance to these remakes is doubtful. This smacks of Young not necessarily having any new material yet feeling a need to make music with Crazy Horse that is not simply a retread of the Young canon. On the other hand, maybe Neil Young wants to reclaim some of the old, weird America to prove its relevance for today or maybe it's the same thing as recording non-copyright material to save on costs yet have new product. The terrible thing, for me, is that Neil Young has released so many albums that the impact they make is diluted. It may be because I've lived with them for longer that the older, mostly Seventies albums but also some from the Eighties, have songs I know and treasure unlike the newer albums, where none of the songs have made any lasting impact. I simply believe that he no longer writes important songs with legs and long shelf life. Neil Young no longer speaks to a peer group that is young; he is in his late sixties and has the concerns of a person of that age and cannot hope really to relate to or represent young people in the way he did forty years ago.

So, although I do have had a deeper interest in the music of Neil Young, than Bob Dylan, in the sense of a comprehensive collection of the music, I doubt that I will ever own, or want to own, every album Young has ever recorded. I would not mind listening to them all at least once without having to pay for the privilege. On the other hand, if they are cheap enough I might well buy them all on iTunes.

Elmore James

When I started fooling around on the guitar I had a really cheap, fucked up instrument with a plywood body and a neck that was loose and skew so that the strings were really high off the frets, making it difficult and painful to attempt to play chords. Because I was heavily into blues the solution was to play slide guitar, or at least my untutored take on it, using a piece of metal tubing I found in our garage.

At that point I had read about slide guitar but had no clue of the technique required or the chord structure or progressions of any music, much less the blues. I was just making a noise in my room, approximating what I heard on record without knowing what I was doing or was supposed to be doing.

My main influence, or source, was the Elmore James style slide tunes played by the early Fleetwood Mac, who played "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "Dr Brown" and the like, which were either James tunes or slide blues in the style of James. The basic Elmore James slide riff, as epitomised by "Dust My Broom", is a powerful, almost primitive thing, completely unlike the much more subtle work of, say, Ry Cooder or Duane Allman, and could be unbelievably exciting backed by a stomping shuffle, with our without horn riffs. My version of it was simplistic and obviously way off the mark. I just had no idea of how to imitate that signature slide lick.

The closest I got to it was when I recorded some of my attempts on a very cheap cassette recorder with low battery strength. The result was a distorted, over amped sound that made my cheap acoustic sound electric and vibrant. It was the best thing I ever recorded back then. Much later I read how the Rolling Stones employed much the same technique in recording songs like "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" where the guitars are acoustic and it is the method of recording through a small tape recorder that gives the music the big sound. Apparently, in the case of Elmore James, his signature sound was at least partly due to the fat that he was playing an amplified hollow body guitar and not a straightforward electric guitar.

A couple of years into my record collection I took stock and realised that I could probably fill both sides of a C90 cassette tape with various versions of "Dust My Broom" taken from a number of records in that collection. It was perhaps a project I should have attempted but somehow never did. This song did seem to be ubiquitous in blues recordings. I could have started with the Robert Johnson version from King of the Delta Blues Singers and ended, at that time, with the ZZ Top take on the venerable classic on Deguello. It's a pity that Elmore, who claimed to have written the song, did not live long enough to be able to live off the royalties.

Jeremy Spencer of the blues version of Fleetwood Mac made an entire career out of imitation the slide and vocal styles of Elmore James and I must confess that these rambunctious slide workouts, particularly on the Blue Horizon double album Fleetwood Mac: The Vintage Years, were the tasty little numbers, more than the introspective Peter Green compositions, that made Fleetwood Mac my top favourite White blues band. The signature raucous Elmore James style reminded me of what someone said about Albert King: the riffs are basic and limited and basically you know from tune to tune exactly what you're going to get but, damn, each time the ferocity of the attack is just stunning and awesome. George Thorogood is another example of a young White blues musician who was obviously in thrall to the Elmore James style (although not exclusively) when he started out.

Nor everything that James recorded was an imitation of "Dust My Broom" although there plenty variations on this theme, and if one listens to a collection of tracks from James one is pleasantly surprised by the variety in rhythm and texture.

One of the reasons why Elmore James ranks amongst the all-time top ten, if not top five, of bluesmen is that so many of his compositions are standards recorded by so many other bluesmen and women down the years. "Dust My Broom" is only one of many. Just off the top of my head there are also "It Hurts Me Too," "The Sky Is Crying," "Stranger Blues," "Got To Move," "Bleeding Heart" and "Shake Your Moneymaker." Elmore's big, tough, raw voice was one of the most impassioned in blues. It was nothing like the watchful, deceptive calm of the Muddy Waters approach and in its very tortured extreme Elmore made Howlin Wolf sound like a lounge singer. Perhaps not really, but Elmore's passion seemed born of deep hurt whereas Wolf's passion seemed born of tough defiance.

It would be odious to rank blues people into a top ten or into a hierarchy but if one were to do that Elmore would comfortably fit into that top ten, perhaps even the top five. He was that good and that important. No blues collection of any worth could fail to have at least one good, broad ranging compilation of Elmore James tunes.


J Geils Band revisited

Live: Full House (1972) was my full scale introduction to the J Geils Band as a smart, snappy, rumbustious R & B and blues based rock and roll band. That was around 1978 or 1979. I first took note of them, though, when "I Must Of Got Lost" from the 1974 album Nightmares … And Other Tales From The Vinyl Jungle received a fair amount of airplay on Radio 5 (as it then was) in 1975 when it took over from LM Radio as South Africa's rock radio station. This tune was considerable different to the crowd pleasing R & B styles of the live album. It was still R & B bur not the gut bucket variety that caught my attention in the first place and rather a smoother more soulful mid-Seventies version with less brio and more soulfulness, the kind of pathos that is eminently suited to a heartbreak ballad.

The lines "you never see love coming but you always see it go" was quite inspirational to me, who had not even see love go yet and had definitely not seen it coming either.

Anyway, this song was the only J Geils tune that was played on local rock radio, as far as I knew, until "Centerfold" became a massive hit in 1981. I did not even know from album "I Must of Got Lost" came and in fact, until I saw the spelling on the album cover, I thought the song was called "I Must've Got Lost." At the time my knowledge of American slang was sketchy.

I guess it must have relatively soon after I acquired Live: Full House that Nightmares popped up in a bargain bin at a Stellenbosch record store and I bought partly because it was the J Geils Band and partly because it had "I Must of Got Lost" and "Stoop Down #39" on it. I had fond memories of the former and I knew that "Stoop Down" was a harp blues classic and guessed that this was a version of it.

On first listen I was somewhat disappointed because the high energy and brio of Live: Full House was just not there and at the time, when I was in my late teens of very early Twenties, I did not care all that much for soulful White R & B. "I Must of Got Lost" was the killer, and "Stoop Down #39" was as great as I had hoped and "Detroit Breakdown" was a strong opener but the title track was a brief skit and "Funky Judge" was a joke that did not make me laugh all that much.

I think it was Robert Christgau who remarked of the J Geils Band, and possibly particularly when reviewing Nightmares, that it is always a danger sign when the keyboard player in a rock and starts contributing the lion's share of songs. Keyboard player tend to have musical pretences guitar player do not have and want to make more ambitious music, often also more precious and pretentious music. On Nightmares is certainly seemed as if J Geils' fiery guitar playing had been downplayed in favour of the keyboard driven soul grooves.

Over time, after repeated listening and probably as my musical tastes broadened, Nightmares began sounding a lot better and even quite enjoyable if not as viscerally pleasing as Live: Full House, still one of my top ten favourite albums of all time. I spent good money on importing this album and the J Geils Band Anthology double CD from the USA back in 2005 and waited until 2013 and a very good price on iTunes before I bought Nightmares again.

This time around, perhaps because of the nostalgic rush of revisiting of an album I'd not listened to in a very long time, the record does sound damn fine. The rhythm section is tough, J Geils does spank that plank with a satisfactory degree of thoroughness, Magic Dick is still the master of the lickin' stick, Peter Wolf sings the hell out of the songs that are in truth strictly top drawer. In short, I'm loving this record again.

Many years after buying Live: Full House and Nightmares, I went on a bit of a J Geils spree when a couple of their records in Vibes Music second hand record store and I bought The Morning After, Love Stinks and Showtime! The first LP of the three was in a bad state and I could not really play it. And, also, by the time I bought The Morning After my turntable was not working too well anymore. The condition of the other albums was good enough for me to be able to tape them onto C90 cassette tapes and listen to them that way.

The later period J Geils band was a good time late Seventies R & B infuse rock band with a good deal of energy and some decent tunes. The music was not nearly as visceral as the Live: Full House set but every album represented a decent effort at making a pop music with some more smarts than the usual dumb stuff on AM radio. I must admit though, that I would not have paid much attention to that style of music when the albums were contemporary releases because they did not rock enough in the way I liked to be rocked back then.

This also applied to Nightmares, which I bought purely because it was the J Geils Band and because it was cheap. And probably because "I Must Of Got Lost" was on it. I would never have paid the full price for that kind of record. It just was not loud and fast enough for me. Fortunately Nightmares kind of grew on me over time, like the slow songs on It's Only Rock 'n Roll, which I also disliked at first and eventually liked most of all, apart from the title track and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." In the same way the generally slower tunes on Nightmares also became good friends by and by. It was also due to a degree of musical maturity that had kicked in by then, that I could buy and appreciate the later albums in die J Geils oeuvre, like Love Stinks, which more or less carry on in the sophisticated R & B vein of Nightmares, before the somewhat slicker Eighties pop reinvention of Freeze Frame.

I recently watched a YouTube clip of a section of a 1972 show of the J Geils Band, around the time Live: Full House was recorded, of a medley of "Floyd s Hotel", a Peter Wolf jive novelty number, and "Hard Driving Man," another version of which is on Live: Full House although some of Wolf's vocal antics are a tad over the top and too much like old fashioned huckstering and showbiz, perhaps knowingly so, the performance is high energy and a good visual complement to the live album. The quality of the black and white clip is often poor and every now and then truly odd psychedelicisms pop up, as if 1967 was still alive and well for a fairly non-psychedelic band, but somehow the weirdness fits in well with the music and the performance. It is a blast from the past and it looks so dark and primitive it could be from the archives of the Fifties or earlier. Peter Wolf's neatly coiffed beard gives away that the band is very much early-Seventies, New York hip; not quite the scruffy hippie bears of the late Sixties.

The oddest thing, though, is that Peter Wolf straps on a foam rubber guitar that he plays with while he performs the two tunes on the clip. He doesn't go air guitar crazy with it and that is really the weird part. Why does he have this faux guitar if he is not going to make a feature of it? Having said that, the performance is full of pure, nervous high energy similar to what one hears on Live: Full House. Whereas the prog rock bands of the era simply stood on stage, possibly not even engaging with their audiences and simply getting on with the job of replicating the most recent album, the J Geils Band sweated, jived, hustled and delivered a high octane show that truly entertained the fans who were there to jive too and not simply to stand watching the noodling musicians on the stage.


J Geils Band (1970) and The Morning After (1971) provide the material for Live: Full House and are probably the first and last sightings of the band as the tough, gritty and unvarnished White R & B band that first live album celebrates. Three years later the band was a known entity with ambitions to hit singles and career longevity. Progression is the watchword for serious ambitious bands, and was particularly big in the Seventies but in many cases progression means that technical ability improves at the expense of raw energy and passion. Some of this is true for J Geils Band too though they made pretty decent albums all the way through the Seventies and into the early Eighties. Freeze Frame proves my point, I think, in that the album is smooth, sophisticated and has the hits yet almost feels like joke record; music made with the tongue firmly in the cheek and with a knowing smirk, more so than even the younger jive talking Peter Wolf would have let on. There is no longer any sense that the Boston bad boys are keeping it real in any way whatsoever. Now the swagger has become a mannerism where once it was an expression of youthful vigour and insouciance.

This is why one should not be an unhappy that any band made just one damn good record and why, in the main, there is no real need to own every album made by any artist, however legendary they may be. No-one is infallible and no-one can make one compelling record after another for 40 or fifty years.

J Geils Band will always be one of my top bands of all time, and Live; Full House will always be my number one Geils album and will always be in my list of all-time favourites.



Friday, August 01, 2014

Free, at long last.

It was possibly in my Standard 9 year in High School that a couple of the guys in my class had a discussion about their favourite rock bands. At the time my knowledge of the past and present of rock music was still pretty sketchy, based mostly around the book The Story of Rock and the first two volumes of The Encyclopaedia of Rock, which respectively dealt with the big names of the day (mid-Seventies) and the rockers of the Fifties and early Sixties. I was not cool or hip and had a very small record collection of probably about five albums. Eager to impress, I could only think of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin as names to bandy about though I knew only a few Purple songs and hardly nothing of Led Zeppelin. Fortunately nobody quizzed to on my knowledge.

In any event, a couple of other names were mentioned, that I knew, and then Dion Kriel mentioned that his all-time favourite band was a group called Free. He did not expand or elaborate. I had never heard of Free and thought that he was making it up. What kind of and name is Free anyway?

Bad Company had recently become big with their first two albums but it was a while before I found out that lead singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke had originally been members of Free, along with guitarist Paul Kossoff and bassist Andy Fraser. I'd read about Fraser in Hit Parader as bassist for English band Sharks, and knew that Kossoff had been in a band called Back Street Crawler, had all kinds of drug troubles and died young.

"Wishing Well" (from the 1973 album Heartbreaker) was the first Free song I ever heard. It seemed to be given a bit or airplay on Radio 5. It sounded pretty much like standard mid-Seventies hard rock to me. It was a good few years before I finally heard "All Right Now" (1970) the stone cold killer classic Free cut that has been a hit on more than one occasion, mostly because it was licensed to some television commercials in the Nineties, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

Although a couple of best of compilations were available I never actually wanted to spend money on the band. I had listened to a enough Bad Company songs to realise that it was not that great of a band and that it's hard rock was close to cliché and my attitude was, if Paul Rodgers was the singer for Bad Company, then Free would not really be that much better, apart from the few well known songs.

Over time I read more about Free and learnt that the band started out in the late Sixties as a typical blues band, although the band members were very young, and that Kossoff had been rated as one of the best, most tasteful blues and hard rock guitarists of his time. Their trademark was the slow burning track, of which "All Right Now" is a perfect example. The band broke up and reconvened and the two different phases, of which "All Right Now" and "Wishing Well" are good examples, gave us in effect two different bands with the same name.

For a long time I had a cassette with "Songs of Yesterday" on it, apparently some demo version of the tune off the Free album (1968), that was a another slow burning, piano led song that was quite impressive except for the somewhat stupidly pretentious lyrics.

In June 2014 I found the compilation CD Classic Free (part of a series such as Classic Lynyrd Skynyrd, Classic Status Quo and Classic Mötley Crüe) with a 15 track overview of the Free oeuvre. This was the first time I'd heard their versions of Albert King's "The Hunter" and "My Brother Jake," "Fire and Water" and "Mr Big." It seems that the best free tracks over their career are present and correct here.

In general Free makes the kind of music I am quite fond of and this collection is a fine sampler. It's a pity "Songs of Yesterday" is absent and I do not think that I am now going to be tempted into the original albums. If these songs are the best of the bunch than I'll be satisfied with them, as there is a sense of enough is enough when the final track, "Mr Big," fades out. It's been enjoyable but not particularly compelling. Not like the Lynyrd Skynyrd or Status Quo sets.

Having said that more time spent with the music revealed some subtleties I had missed the first time around and the undulating groove of the rhythm section and the fierce lead guitar made more of an impression even if some of the lyrics still sound a tad trite and glibly "poetic." Free was a band to be reckoned with and the hits on the Classic Free compilation represent an excellent introduction to one of the slightly forgotten hard rock, as opposed to metal, pioneers? Free did not just boogie and they did not play Southern juke joint rock and roll either? There seems to be more, for better or worse, a more thoughtful approach to how one could integrate blues into rock to avoid some of the terrible clichés so many of their contemporaries were trapped in.

Presumably It is far from hip to like Free nowadays but I am glad I took the plunge for fork out R39,99 for this compilation to remind me a little of my ignorant youth and to bring me the enjoyment of the best Free had to offer.