Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Hives: R&R Blitzkrieg

The Black and White tour is rolling through Europe as the Hives have a new album out. "People, it is as if you have existed only in pathetic colours like beige, or pastel pink. For two years, you have felt listless, wishy-washy and largely kicks-free. Bad! But it has been bad for a reason: so that you fully appreciate the return of the good times. And these only come in two colours: BLACK & WHITE! Yeah!", the Hives boast on their site. They haven't lost a shred of that contagious arrogance that made them such an attraction in the first place.The Hives have been slowly building their audience since 1995. Akin to James Brown and the Famous Flames, they claimed superstar status when they were still playing for some fifty odd people. The Hives claimed to be the greatest R&R act on earth, shouting it loud to everybody willing or unwilling to listen. When the Hives hit the scene, R&R had become unbearably bland. After the whole Grunge movement R&R wasn't allowed to be fun anymore. R&R was drowning itself in a misguided sense of over seriousness. R&R was populated by navel staring acts. Dancing at a R&R show, if done at all, had to be done with your face to the ground, hiding behind a hair do screaming for a cut. R&R fashion was all but dead, the standard uniform became woodcutter shirts and ripped jeans, sporting clunky military boots. under no circumstances were you allowed to be actually enjoying yourself.

Somewhere at the turn of the century the Hives hit with a big bang with their first world wide album Veni Vedi Vicious. Claiming to have conquered the world when they had hardly stepped onto the scene. And Vicious R&R it was indeed. I remember seeing them in one of those depressing small town dance halls. The Hives hit the stage in smart looking matching suits with ties, slicked back hair and flashy instruments. "Hate to Say I Told You So" Howlin' Pelle blared into the microphone, prancing around like a macho bi-sexual, touting his lips like Jagger, scorching like James Brown, kicking like Kung Fu Elvis.Holy Shit!!!! Lightening hit!!!! This was R&R!!!! Within the 45 minutes set the audience was smacked right back into that raving storm of ballsy sexuality and raging celebration what R&R was supposed to be.

The story of the Hives is that of a classic Garage band. They had been slowly building their career since 1995's "Oh Lord, When? How!" EP. Starting out from the Garage they soon managed a pose that would propel them across the globe over the course of those next five years. The Hives soon successfully clouded themselves in constructed R&R myth. They claimed to have a mysterious sixth Hive, R&R mastermind Randy Fitzsimmons, writing all their songs. They claimed to be selling millions of albums before they hardly even broke the charts. The Hives warned us they might be to big to handle for the world, we were going to get burned. Somehow all this bravura caught on, turning myth in near reality. Within the course of a half year they went from that depressing dance hall to the charts, the dance floors of the clubs, the big venues and large festivals. Everywhere the Hives appeared they conquered, they were the hype of the day with the guts to back it up.

And a bit more than just guts to be honest. Where most Garage acts stick to their ramshackle guns, to their swaggering drums and guitars, the Hives next release "Tyrannosaurus Hives" betrayed they had bigger plans. The Hives had looked at the world and planned to take it. They wanted the whole pie, there was no way they'd be settling for a slice. "Tyrannosaurus Hives" kind of failed to make that transition, it didn't quite make it to that next level, failed to be the knock out it should have been. The Hives promise to be your next favorite band sounded a bit shallow there for a while.

But rest assured my friends, the Hives are back in full force with the "Black and White" album. The title cleverly appeals to legendary albums as the Beatles' "White Album" or Prince's "Black Album". The Hives aren't too much in your face claiming superstar status with this one, but they sure are suggesting that. If you would have thought that "Tyrannosaurus Hives" would have humbled the Hives some, you are mistaken. The Hives are still ready to conquer and brought in an army this time round. Under the working title "The World's First Perfect Album" the Hives worked with unorthodox but heavy weight Hip Hop producers the Neptunes, amongst others. This unlikely battle plan proves to be successful as the album hits like a Blitzkrieg from the opening chords to the final R&R packed explosion. The Hives open "Tick, Tick, Boom", dropping that bomb, exploding in your face, they allow no escape, pursuing you with vicious riffs and war drums through out the album. They are R&R soldiers marching on. To be honest, the album damn near lives up to its working tittle. Their new battle techniques remain subtly hidden, blind sighting you. Hardly allowing you to recover from the opening track hitting they strike nuclear with "Try It Again".

The Hives armies march in fast pace from there on. Packing fast punches layered with whiffs of New Wave and Hip Hop. The Hives stay true to their main R&R battle plan but add enough to keep breaking through the armies that might stand in their way. The years on the road have paid of. The Hives have never sounded tighter than on "Well Alright", swaggering between Franz Ferdinand and Stax chops. Try not punching your fist in the air on that one, I dare you, double dare you! They claim their name in capitals with Funk bomb "T.H.E. H.I.V.E.S". David Boewy could only wish he'd sound so sexy and dangerous again, the Hives are marching on, hide your mothers and daughters. They drive those R&R tanks through the enemy lines on "Square One" in a way the Stooges could only dream of these days, leaving those R&R dinosaurs trembling in fear once more. The Hives are here to take over, better get used to it.

Lost Directions To The Village of Love

Guitar riffs rise like Louisiana swamp gasses, like a distant toxic warning. A voice cackles with more than a few cracks, calling from a far forgotten past. The drums dance to a voodoo beat, hypnotizing. Somehow you feel like an alcohol infused delirium has taken over from you, cold sweat sticks the shirt to your back. A bubbling base disorganizes your thoughts, the blues rip through your Soul, your mind feels barely alive. Pretty soon you need a whitch doctor's cure. Nathaniel Mayer has a new album out, ready to come over you like a hang over from a three night booze spree. "Why Don't You Give It To Me" clings to you like a bad fever. Mayer pulls you in like cheap sex on an alcohol hazed night.

In 2004 Nathaniel Mayer was the unlikely choice to follow up Solomon Burke's departure at the Fat Possum label. Solomon had brought Fat Possum their biggest selling album and Burke a full fledged comeback. Of course Solomon's mighty yet silky pipes were an all different bag than Mayer's ramblings. "I Just Want To Be Held" didn't sit quite as easy as Solomon's "Don't Give Up On Me". “I want to get one more hit. Just let me get one more hit,” Mayer said in a 2003 interview for the Detroit Metrotimes, with his hands poised for prayer and his eyes directed toward the heavens. “Go out with a bang, man … Moving, grooving. That’s the way I want to go out.” Maybe that's what prompted Nathaniel to get to work with some of Garage Rock's finest. Nathaniel must realize that his current material will never have the same impact as his '62 hit "Village of Love". Yet there's a fire burning in Nathaniel, threatening to consume him if he doesn't put it down on wax.

Like his former Fortune Records label mate Andre Williams, Nathaniel has an unlikely pull on the current Garage scene. Aside from the Doo Wop hit "Village of Love", recorded at the age of 15, and R&R nugget "I Want Love and Affection (not the house of correction)", Mayer hardly made a dent on the charts. Detroit native should have disappeared in the limbo of one hit wonders, shoved there by Detroit's giant Motown. Nathaniel simply didn't fit in to the factory of hits. It wasn't until Fat Possum's owner Matthew Johnson went looking for new talent to sign on his label, with a lot of his money makers, like R.L Burnside and T Model Ford, dying from old age, that Nathaniel got the chance to record his first ever album, "I Just Want To Be Held". Allegedly Mayer was signed in exchange for a 20 dollar blow job. On his first album Mayer was backed by the Fabulous Shanks, a Garage band to come out of cult act the Detroit Cobra's. The latter had paid Mayer tribute by covering that long forgotten Fortune 45rpm, "Village of Love". "I Just Want To Be Held" gained enough attention for Mayer's old 45s to be collected again. Most notably on a recent anthology on Vampisoul Records.

At Fat Possum Mayer met Black Lips' guitarist Dan Auerbach, who formed a Garage super group around him to record "Why Don't Your Give It To Me". The band Auerbach put together consist of Bass player Troy Gregory (The Dirtbombs), drummer Dave Shettler (SSM/The Sights) and gitarist Matthew Smith (Outrageous Cherry). While none of these artists will ring any bells outside of the scene, within it these gentlemen make up for an impressive roster. Together with Mayer's sand papery toothless voice, layered by the hard knocks of live, they deliver an album scares the living hell out of you. Yet you can't help but being sucked in. On the album the R&B format is left alone for more stretched out Blues jams. "Help me somebody" Mayer sputters on the title track, as he threatens to sink in the swampy sound scape of this album. Mayer sounds more like a deranged Iggy Pop than his former hero Jackie Wilson. Soul claps are on the base of "White Dress" but the sweet Doo Wop harmonies are missing. There's no young love on this album, Nathaniel replaced it with sordid one night stands at his old age, trying to drown out the disappointments of live in sweaty sex. The slow dragging Bo Diddley beats and geriatric Funk on "I'm a Lonely Man" blend into the retirment Reggae on "Dancing Mood". But make no mistakes, Nathaniel still has a lot of fight in him. "Living in the twilight" zone he sings like a man who should have been cut down by the hard life long ago, yet refuses to blow out that last breath. Mayer keeps "Doin' It" struggling to hold on, taking in life's dirty pleasures. Mayer may be from Detoit, but this album is nowhere close to Motown.

Nathaniel Mayer is looking to score that one more elusive hit. Great, in a vile way, as this album may be, it is highly doubtful that Nathaniel finds what he is looking for. I saw Nathaniel perform last night. It was in one of those R&R dens without comfort, surprisingly filled up to it's 100 capacity. Those who came saw a force driven by the Devil clinging to his alcoholic delusions. Maybe in his mind Mayer found himself back on the chitlin' circuit, as young and vital as ever, riding high on his latest hot 45. Maybe in his mind the ramshackle punks backing him were the tightest band he ever played with. Maybe in his mind. Those who came got a raving Garage Rock performance, with Nathaniel howling in the microphone. Nathaniel was shaking it down like a twenty year old man turned seventy over night, his voice rasping, barely recognizable as Soul. This was a whole other force all together. Nathaniel preached with a hoarse throat. But this wasn't no nice gospel dream he was preaching, this wasn't a promise that we will overcome, this was no bright new direction, Mayer was preaching the hard knocks of life. His message was simple You gotta work if you wanna get paid, work if you wanna get laid". Nathaniel was imploring us to roll with the punches, reminding us that cheap thrills is the best most of us will get. After a few beers his promise doesn't sound half bad at all. Getting laid was still the main objective in life. During one of his noisy but funky work outs one of the girls got up on stage, bumping and grinding. "I may be old, but I got some Viagra out back, I'll take to whole bottle if I have to" he hollered staring at the young girl's thighs with a lust a man 40 years younger would have difficulty finding in himself.

Just minutes before the show it didn't look like we could be suspecting such a raving show albeit rambling show. Nathaniel came dragging across the dance floor sporting his cane, looking somewhat abscent minded he was trying to make his way to the bar dangling a bottle of beer in his hand. I figured I'd grab my chance to ask him a few questions and headed over to him with his new album to sign. As soon as I asked him how he felt about being here, a big grin appeared on his face. "I love it man" he said "music is my first love, being back on stage is better than getting pussy", grin widening, watery eyes starting to sparkle. His recent album is very different from the work he used to do at Fortune, but Nathaniel couldn't care less. "Is different, but I'm different see", rasping his voice, words wihstling out of the back of his throat, "I ain't gonna jump and holla like I used to, got this cane see, I'm a cripple". Nathaniel at that point cackled somewhere between a laugh and a cough. He knows his prime days are over, he's just enjoying the ride as best as he can. But "who knows, I might score that hit yet" he claims sporting an optimistic smile, "The damn record is called "Why Don't You Give it To Me", see? They gave it to them other cats, why not give one to me?" Scoring that hit or not, Nathaniel is still loving life on the road, "I'll do this till I drop dead!!!"

"I Want Love and Affection (not the house of correction)"

"White Dress"
"Village of Love (Detroit Cobras)"

Catch Nathaniel Mayer on tour through out Europe!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Phantom Dan: At The Heart and Soul of the E-Street Band

On November 21 an official press release was issued from the E-Street camp that Danny Federici has to take a leave of absence from the now rolling Magic tour. Danny has been diagnosed with Melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Sessions Band accordionist and organ player Charles Giordano will replace Danny Federici for the time being. Even though Charles will undoubtedly be up to the task at this stage in the history of the E-Street Band replacing members is tricky business. Ever since the band Reunited in '99 fans have been able to experience what I like to call the mythical incarnation of the E-Street Band. Even though the boys never played in that particular combination before, each one of the members on stage in '99 was an essential part of the history of the band. Danny's leave of absence now is different from earlier personal changes in many ways. It is true that Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez was replaced by Ernest "Boom" Carter in '73. Vini was fired on account of his erratic behavior. It is true both Boom and David Sancious left in '75, right before Bruce Springsteen would bust wide open. The band at the time wasn't making any money and both gentle men had the opportunity to build a career else where. Little Steven left the fold, in a temporarily lapse of judgment, right before the "Born in the USA" tour started. Steven wanted to pursue his solo career and there were some rumors he wasn't all to happy with his role in th band. Steven was replaced by the over qualified Nils Lofgren.

Both band members and fans were shocked when Springsteen disbanded the E-Street band in the late eighties. Springsteen needed a break from the band, needed to see if he had viability beyond the E-Street band. He was arguably going through a personal as well as creative crisis at the time. Touring with another rock band in '92, during the Luck Touch tour proved however what an essential ingredient the E-Street Band was to his Rock sound. As early as '95 Springsteen began researching a reunion with the sessions for the Greatest Hits album. At the time things didn't sit well. But after gaining critical acclaim with a solo tour promoting the "Ghost of Tom Joad Album", Springsteen was ready to get the boys back together. The band that reunited in '99 consisted of all the members that played an essential part in building Bruce's career and had become a legendary entity of it's own in the intermittent years. This was the Band that played on Springsteen's break through album, this was the band that rocketed Springsteen to unimaginable heights in '84.

The E-Street band became more than a band in '99. They became a symbol. The E-street Band signified the promise of R&R. A genre that has been band based since the British Invasion. R&R holds that romantic notion where you can get your friends together in your garage or basement and make your way up to the top. R&R success has to do with more than simply scoring hits, it has to do with the ties that bind, it is that idea of lasting friendship. The E-Street Band is one of those rare examples that such a bond is possible, one of the few bands that managed to stick together with everybody alive and well. Springsteen may have proved his merit as a solo artist but when touring with the boys he is as much a member of the band as he is the main attraction.

Danny Federici is at the heart and soul of that band. With base player Gary Tallent, Danny always played a background role. So its easy to understate his significance to E-Street. He isn't up front wailing his sax and doing silly dances with Bruce like Clarence Clemons, he isn't up blaring in the microphone with his arm around the Boss like Little Steve, nor is he dueling in solos like Bruce likes to do with Nils. Yet in more than a few songs Danny is an essential part of the foundation the Band needs for its theatrics. Listen to the band rip into "Glory Days" or "Ramrod" and hear Danny's raucous organ laying down the ground works. Listen to "The Fever" with the Band going into wailing blue eyed soul mode, Danny's there providing the essential texture. Listen to "Lost in the Flood" or the quintessential Danny song "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and he's there to provide the the very heart of those songs.

Danny Federici is a rarity in R&R. He is one of the few examples of an accordionist working in a R&R bar band. Starting out on classical accordion from the age of seven, Danny was converted to the Gospel of R&R when he heard the Beatles. Like many boys from his generation Danny was pulled into R&R hearing "Twist & Shout" coming through the radio. For that generation R&R was a revelation. Even though initially he made the transition into Jazz and Blues from there, as admitted in a 2002 interview, he soon found himself playing in a New Jersey Garage band, the Storytellers. Through the Jersey shore scene he met Bruce Springsteen in '67, who was playing in the Castilles at the time. As early as '69 he found himself playing with the Boss in the short lived band Child. That band eventually evolved through Steel Mill and Doctor Zoom and the Sonic Boom into the E-Street band. It was in these early, pre-E-Street days that Danny would earn his nickname Phantom Dan. When a riot broke out during one of the Steel Mill shows sound equipment fell on the local chief of police. Danny fled the scene like a ghost.

Danny's affiliation with the Boss dates back for a rough 40 years. Few friendships survive that long a stretch, certainly not when friends form bands with all the tension the road brings. Listen to those early Springsteen albums today and it is apparent that Danny played an important part in Bruce finding his initial voice. "Wild Billy's Circus Story", "Sandy" and "Kitty's Back" are a few examples that stand out. Danny provided some of the jazzy and romantic touches that made those songs into the early Springsteen classics they are today. Danny would find himself playing an equally essential role throughout the history of the Band. Without him E-Street would have been a very different place in R&R indeed.

The Boston show of November 19th will be the last show Danny plays for a while as he goes into treatment. The set very featured a prominent "Sandy" with Danny shining on the accordion. I'm sure it wont be the last time around for Danny on E-Street. Dates for 2008 have already been announced. As I cannot imagine Springsteen and the boys continuing as the E-Street Band without Phantom Dan, I take it as a sign that Danny's recovery will be swift and to good health. My thoughts are with him and his family and I want to use this place to thank him for all he's contributed to the E-Street Band over the years. Take care and we'll see you on the road Danny.

Contribute to the Melanoma Research Foundation.

E-mail your best wishes to Danny at

Listen to Danny live in action with the band here:

"Wild Billy's Circus Story from '74"
"The Fever from '78"
"Ramrod from '80"
"Glory Days from '03"

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Simply Toussaint

I wish I could say Allen Toussaint doesn't need any introduction. But for some reason he still does. Despite his '98, long overdue, induction into the R&R Hall of Fame, most people were very much in the dark on who Allen was when Elvis Costello decided to record with him last year for "The River In Reverse". Allen Toussaint doesn't need any introduction amongst Soul fans, not even amongst the more casual admirer of the genre. But beyond that people hardly have a clue of who he is, hardly have a notion of the vastness of his legacy. With "The River in Reverse" a critical success, commercially even being relatively successful, there has been some new attention to the man. His albums have finally all been re released hopefully leading to more of a notion again of Allen Toussaint's influence on the development of popular music. On top of that, Costello's and Toussaint's successful tour has been released on DVD. Allowing people to see the man live in action. A rarity since Allen has always been an artist that preferred to be in the shadows of R&B's greatest.

Toussaint, at first glance, is a perfect example of how the influence of Black artists on R&R generally seem to be forgotten. The sense of importance fading over time. Allen Toussaint was essential in developing the sound of New Orleans. A sound that eventually spread out through artists like Dr. John, the Band and the Rolling Stones to a world wide audience. The brilliance of those acts is heralded, the origin of their brilliance a fading memory. In the case of Allen Toussaint this might not be so surprising. He mostly created behind the scenes. Allen wrote, produced, arranged and played for the greats of Soul music. At the age of 18 Allen was already a very accomplished piano player, mimicking the style of the great Professor Longhair. Soon Toussaint found himself filling in for no other than Fats Domino in the studio. Fats being mostly on the road, where the real money was, hardly had the time to record. Toussaint would play the piano on the studio track laid down in New Orleans for Fats, the instrumental would then be sent to a studio in the neighborhood of where Fats was on tour at that moment, and Domino would simply do the vocal. To this day it's uncertain on which tracks Fats played himself and what tracks Toussaint delivered for him . His studio work would eventually lead to an album of instrumentals under the name of Tousan for the RCA label. Although the album failed to chart and Toussaint was dropped from the label, it gave him enough clout to become a producer.

Toussaint's work at Minit records in the early sixties is an essential part of R&B history. Toussaint wrote numerous hits for the likes of Lee Dorsey ("Ya Ya"), Irma Thomas ("Ruler Of My Heart"), Chris Kenner ("Land Of A 1000 Dances"), Benny Spellman ("Lipstick Traces") or Aaron Neville ("Over You"). Meanwhile "Fortune Teller"recorded by Jessie Hill would become a staple for a great variety of British Invasion acts, such as The Who and the Rolling Stones. Minit and Toussaint defined the sound of New Orleans as much Stax did for Memphis or Motown for Detroit. Toussaint did as much to create what we now call Soul as those two labels did. It is therefore highly ironic that his biggest commercial success came when he let bubble gum cocktail Pop artist use his "Whipped Cream" on what would become one of the most successful albums of the sixties. Believe it or not, but at the time Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass Band outsold even the Beatles. The instrumental would go on to be used as the trailer for the immensely popular TV show "The Dating Game". The royalty checks of that one song must have softened the lack of commercial recognition for his own records later on down the road a bit.

After his service in the army Toussaint went on to produce a second string of impressive hits with his own production company Sansu, formed with partner Marshall Sehorn in the early sixties. At Sansu his sound would become decidedly funkier. Classics 45s like Lee Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony" or "Working In The Coal Mine" are floor fillers even today. On Sansu Allen also started his collaboration with the Meters, a funk band whose influence on the genre is trumped by James Brown only. Even though it is very possible that Toussaint's work with Dorsey and the Meters is where Brown found the raw material for his polyrhythmic revolution. Brown may claim otherwise, but nothing is born in a vacuum. Brown ants came crawling in his pants all the way down from New Orleans to Augusta Georgia. In turn the sound of the Meters was highly indebted to the earlier mentioned Professor Longhair, who created that mix of R&B and Rumba that became so typical for the New Orleans sound. The history of Funk originates in New Orleans and beyond. It was born out of a sweaty fusion of styles and Toussaint was one of its main ingredients.

Finally in 1968, after recording so many brilliant sides for others, Toussaint started to explore his own voice at Bell records with a string of three singles, amongst which the upbeat civil rights anthem "We The People" and his own version of the Lee Dorsey hit "Get Out My Life, Woman". Together with the album that followed those 45s, "Toussaint", these singles our now re-released on yet another great Kent records compilation, "What Is Success: The Scepter & Bell Recordings". "Toussaint" was somewhat of a mixed affair. It became a showcase of his talents. Mixing instrumentals with new materials and re-recordings of a few songs he had earlier produced for Lee Dorsey. Especially when you hear the latter you can't help but wonder why he didn't record for himself sooner than he did. Maybe it has something to do with his demeanor. Toussaint has always been a quiet force, lacking the gusto and bravura that is so common in the world of Soul. Allen is a man of a gentle smile sooner than a roaring laugh, more at ease in the back ground it seems. But as "Toussaint" demonstrates he has a voice to be reckoned with. Allen's delivery is gentle yet commanding, somewhat distant but simmering with contained emotion through out. Toussaint continuously sounds warm and gentle, even on his more confrontational songs.

"Toussaint" is filed with gems. There's the painful "From a Whisper To A Scream", after which the album would later be named when released in the UK. "From a Whisper" has emotions simmering to a boil. The song finds us looking into a relationship falling apart because of blindness. Subtle guitar work underscores the desperation of one of the partners as he franticly tries to make amends, yet we feel it all falling apart. "Whisper" would later be brilliantly covered by Esther Phillips. The instrument "Pickles" lightens things up a bit after that, smooth, seductive and sexy. But also a demonstration of Toussaint's forte as a pianist. Allen was never the musician to let it all hang out, always subtly supporting the songs he recorded for others, always in the service of. On "Pickles" we finally hear how great a pianist he really is. The re-cut of Dorsey's "Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky" is every bit as catchy as Lee's version. The album's center piece "What is Success" ask some very confrontational questions. It might be Toussaint's most personal song on the album. But it doesn't stay that way. "What is Success" is one of those songs that forces you to reevaluate your own life. The song is a mirror to your own Soul, questioning you on your own personal happiness. It is one of those songs that, to a willing ear, can kick start change in one's life.

For some reason Kent chose to mix up the playing order of the original album. Mixing the Bell singles with the album. This does take away some of the power the original album held. When "Toussaint" was originally released on Tiffany, "From a Whisper to a Scream" for example was followed by "Chocking Kind", adding to the claustrophobic feel relations can sometimes have. I'd like to advise using the program function on your CD player to restore the album to its original glory. Even though "Toussaint" failed to make a dent on the charts, it did take Allen's career to the next level. Bonnie Rait soon covered "What is Success" on her classic "Streetlights" album. Allen went on to produce for and with the Band, Doctor John, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. Toussaint gained the recognition he deserved amongst his peers at least. "Toussaint" led to him being signed at the Warner subsidiary Reprise, where he recorded two of Soul's finest albums, "Life, Love and Faith" and "Southern Nights". Both albums were re-issued last year as well.

"What is Success"
"We The People"

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Beauties & The Swamp Dogg

Swamp Dogg might be Soul's quintessential ladies man. Being one almost comes with the job subscription when it comes to Soul. The genres seductive quality is one of its major appeals. Many men have tried to impress their girlfriends with a nice bottle of wine, some candle light and Teddy Pendergrass' suave sounds oozing out of the speakers. Quite a few men have had Soul's greats do the seducing for them, have let Marvin Gaye do the talking, reaping the fruits. But the Dogg isn't that kind of man. His own erratic records are hardly the silky records you'd spin hoping to get lucky. Swamp Dogg's commitment to women goes a little deeper than that, throughout his career he gave women a voice few performers could. Producing for the likes as Doris Duke or Irma Thomas, he spoke for them and through them. Swamp Dogg connected to the very Soul of women, leaving many men looking like clueless fools in the process.

Born Jerry Williams in 1942, Swamp started his career as "Little" Jerry in 1954. A forgettable 78rpm titled HTD Blues (Heartsick Troublesome Downout Blues) issued by the Mechanic label. What is striking however is that Williams wrote the song himself at age twelve. Aside from the question how the hell a twelve year old knew anything at all about heartache, an R&B artist writing for himself at any age was far from the rule. Williams showed he had potential from the very beginning. A potential he'd sadly never silver in any commercial sense. His erratic behavior, or strong headed character and bad luck, took him on a bumpy ride across numerous labels. As an artist his albums never fully materialized, as a producer he got stuck with the B roster at most companies. His records, performed or produced, seldom got any promotional push, so his big successes were very few indeed.

What Williams lacked in success he made up in spades with artistic merit. Amongst the hard core Soul devotees, such as Dave Godin, Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams is widely heralded as one of Soul's best writers. Numerous reissue labels have collected the work he's done for the various labels over the years. Endlessly repackaging them. I wouldn't be surprised if Williams records sell better now than they did when first marketed. No label has done Swamp's work with the ladies as much credit as the UK based Kent records. So far they've issued comprehensive collections of Dogg's work with Irma Thomas, Doris Duke and recently Sandra Philips and Bette Williams.

"I'm a Loser: The Swamp Dogg sessions" collecting his work with Doris Duke in 2005 was the logical starting point. Amongst collectors her sides and her first two albums with Williams are still highly sought after. The opening song on the "I'm a Loser" album, "He's Gone", demonstrates perfectly what Swamp Dogg is about. This isn't Soul for the faint hearted. The song, the arrangement and Duke's voice cut to the bone. The sides cut for Doris are harsher and grittier than the already very Soul deep releases on Stax. In his song writing Williams doesn't spare the listener and Doris Duke was his perfect vessel. Even on the lighter and breezier songs like "The Feeling Is Right" there's a pleading quality that is rare even in the world of Soul. In Williams and Duke's hands the optimistic lyrics turn into desperation. Doris turns it into a song on love out of reach, a song on unsatisfied graving. Yet Williams doesn't stop there, with Doris Duke he seemed determined to shed light on the entire female experience. There's the defiant and resilient "Feet Start Walking", a song dealing with female pride in Doris' hands. On the other end of the spectrum there's "I Don't Care Anymore", a prostitutes lament, a story of a woman broken down. Jerry Williams reunited both ends in his work with Duke. On "How Was I to Know You Cared" Williams and Duke add a little of love's alienation to the mix. Williams' songs carry none of Pop's rose color clouds, their appeal is in their messy realism. Williams' brand of Soul is as adult as you can get, not for those of us stuck with the romantic notions of our teens. Since a large majority of the record buying public prefers illusions it is no surprise Jerry's work never hit big.

Next to Doris Duke sides, the work Williams did with Irma Thomas almost fades in comparison. Kent records' release "A Woman's Viewpoint" collects their collaboration together with some other sides Thomas cut with other producers in the seventies. The Swamp Dogg and Irma Thomas collaboration suffer somewhat from the latter's incredible sixties output. Even Williams songwriting could hardly compete with the Allen Toussaint productions on Minit. Not helping the fact was that the singles were released on Williams' own Fungus subsidiary on the already struggling Canyon records. If there ever was a label more horrible and unappealing in name, I haven't heard about it. To top it off, the "In Between Tears Album", the center piece on Kent's compilation, arguably has the worst looking album sleeve in the history of Soul. And that's saying something. With Canyon going belly up, Irma's Swamp Dogg sides never amounted to much. Hearing them now it is a mystery they never did. Irma's clout and the sheer quality of the title track should have resulted in yet another smash for Thomas.

The third, and for now final, installment on Kent, "Swamp Dogg's Southern Girls", covers the work of Sandra Phillips and Bette Williams. Two of Swamp's more obscure artists. Yet listen to the opening notes on Phillip's "Rescue Song" and you'll realize Kent struck gold here. The collaboration with Phillips is an odd one in the world of Soul. Swamp Dogg produced a stand alone album for Sandra, "Too Many People In One Bed" with no singles to promote it. Possibly because the Canyon label simply didn't have the money for it. The album was released shortly before Canyon kicked the bucket. Dee Dee Warwick would later make "She Didn't Know (She Kept On Talking)" into a solid R&B hit, so who knows what the material could have done for Phillips and Canyon. One can only guess what would have happened if a 45 had hit the market. The material Williams did with Sandra Phillips is by far the most accessible of all his Canyon work. That doesn't mean the Phillips material is lacking in depth. It's just that in comparison to the Doris Duke material the Phillips sides sound clearer, better played. No sessions details survived, but the band backing Philips is very accomplished indeed. Phillips' voice is smoother than Duke's making the harsh realities in Williams' songs easier to digest. The hurt and pain in Swamp Dogg's classic adultery songs such as "To The Other Woman" (I'm The Other Woman)" is disguised better, softening the punch without taking away the sting. The second artist on the compilation, Bette Williams, is somewhat more raggedy by comparison but no less impressive. Very little is known about Bette, she never gave any interviews and her sides were never reviewed. But thanks to Kent her timeless sides have now been saved from obscurity.

Doris Duke "I Don't Care Anymore"
Irma Thomas "In Between Tears"
Sandra Phillips "Rescue Song"
Bette Williams "If She's Your Wife (Who Am I)"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Some years ago Memphis opened shop in Brooklyn NY as Daptone records. The label grew out of the Desco label, a short lived collaboration between Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth. When they fell out Roth continued the work Desco started at Daptone. Desco (and later Daptone) was dedicated to bringing you that authentic Funk & Soul sound from the sixties. Their first releases came so close to that sound that collectors were tricked into believing that the mock sound track, "The Revenge Of Mr Mopoji" was actually a long lost Blaxploitation gem from the seventies. The confusion was fueled by the omission of recording dates and studio information on the records when they were originally released. This was done deliberately as Desco successfully tried to get the collectors interested for the label. Ironically with Desco's demise those first records would eventually become just as collectible a the genuine product from that era.

Daptone went on to operate as a genuine Soul studio complete with a house band, the Dap-Kings. As a band they were so successful in recreating the sounds of the late sixties and early seventies that I even hesitate to call them a retro act. The Dap-Kings weren't inspired by music from that era, they were an exact carbon copy. Some of the hooks on the records Daptone issued came awful close to familiar grooves from the JB's or Booker T & the MGs. With that authentic Soul sound Daptone placed itself so far from the mainstream market that it hardly got any sales in their first few years. The artists on the roster, most notably Daptone flagship Sharon Jones, survived by the live reputation they soon gained as a live act. Because of the Punk sensibility Daptone had in their way of doing business, the label gained a strong following in the Punk and Garage scenes. Daptone was very much a do it yourself record label, printing on a small scale, barely scraping by. A way of operating the Punk/Garage scene with their numerous little labels could relate to. Daptone also shared that borderline false nostalgic need to recreate the sounds of the sixties and the seventies with the Garage scene. Daptones obsession with making genuine JB Funk parallels the way obscure acts like the Swinging Medallions are treated as the holy grail in the Garage scene. By releasing the anti-Iraq war statement "What If We all Stopped Paying Taxes", performed by Sharon Jones, Daptone tapped into the political sensibilities of the Punk & Garage scene as well.

2003 marked a transition for Daptone as they opened their very own Daptone Recording Studio. Recording completely in style, analog on a sixteen track, Daptone & the Dap-Kings started to get noticed. Artists looking for the more genuine raw Soul sound that the Nu-Soul movement failed to provide turned to the Brooklyn based studio. Most notably Amy Winehouse (was their ever a R&R drunk more aptly named) who used the band on her 2006 smash "Back to Black". The most redeeming quality of her hit single "Rehab", that Motownesque sound that shot the record straight to the top, is courtesy of the Dap-Kings. Unfortunately wino Winehouse went running with all the credit in most of the press. The Dap-Kings went largely unnoticed in the crowd. But it solidified their reputation as a classic house band and once again proved you need an actual band to get that Soulful sound to your records.

Daptone uses what little push they got from those wino sessions to get some extra spotlight for Sharon Jones' new record, "100 Days, 100 Nights". Sharon Jones' latest outing knocks wino Winehouse's record straight out of the ring. Sharon Jones is the genuine product. Born and raised in James Brown's home Augusta Georgia, whipped into shape for the trade in church, Sharon Jones is the true grits and gravy. Had she been around in the sixties she would've been mean competition to Aretha Franklin and Irma Thomas. Live she preaches up a storm, leaving you sweaty and exhilarated, not sure what you've just witnessed. On wax she's the real deal. Even though her sound redefines retro, Jones steers clear of being a nostalgia act. She simply sounds to raw and gritty to become just that. Behind her the Dap-Kings strut like the Meters, they dog like Rufus Thomas, hip hug like Booker T & the MGs and give you more like the JBs. But, unlike earlier releases on Daptone and Desco, "100 Days and 100 Night" never becomes to familiar. It almost sounds like the Dap-Kings have learned from their wino Whinehouse collaboration how to bring that nitty gritty Soul sound into the new century. We can only hope Sharon Jones hits big enough for Daptone to grow out in a new little label that could......

"100 Day and 100 Nights"
"Let Them Knock"

Friday, November 16, 2007

"As I Am" and Nu-Soul's Flawed Dream

It was the year 1995 that artists like D'Angelo kick started the Nu-Soul movement. A brand of Soul that heralded back to the great Soul album era of the late sixties, early seventies. The Nu-Soul movement found its muse in the classic albums of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Philly Soul. An era in Soul that was as sophisticated as it was adventurous. It was the tail end of Soul's Golden age, where Soul went super nova with albums like "What's Going On", "Super Fly" and "Songs in the Key of Life". D'Angelo underlined that influence by including Smokey Robinson's "Cruising" on his first album. D'Angelo became a superstar almost over night. His success opened up doors for similar artists like Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Jill Scott and Musique Soul Child. The movement came totally out of left field for most of the music critics and record executives.

In the early nineties it seemed that FM radio formats and Disco had succeeded in bleeding Soul to death. Soul legends like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack were without record deals struggling to hold their heads up. What worsened matters was the way the Anti-Disco movement had not been able to discriminate. Ever since Disco Demolition Night at the Comiskey Park in Chicago, July 1979, Rock fans had trouble making the distinction between Disco and the real deal. Soul was burned with Disco and for a while Marvin Gaye was as uncool as Bony M. Disco After Demolition Night had turned into a riot, Disco crumbled under its own success. Disco Sucks T-Shirts were a number one fashion item in the R&R crowd. And pretty soon the movement dragged all that was good about black music down with it. Causing a lot of people to see the back lash as yet another case of clear and simple bigotry. With the White Rock audience being unable to distinguish Disco from Soul, there might be some merit to that argument. Rock audiences have had a aura of musical arrogance over it from the sixties on, sometimes acting like the taste police or rather mafia, especially when it came to Black music in the late seventies.

To worsen matters for the Soul music industry, the eighties were the era where Doctor Kings dreams came to fruition. Despite the obvious difficulty that the African American community has even today, the eighties marked the rise of the Black man settling in the middle class. A sizable segment of the African American population found its way into main stream society. With that upward social movement the appetite for lean and mean nitty gritty Soul stifled. Gone was the need for James Brown aggressive Funk and black power messages, gone was the need for records signifying protest such as "Dancing in the Streets". Cocktail Soul was born with artists like Alexander O'Neal and Whitney Houston dominating the charts. Pop schmaltz hardly worthy of being labeled as Soulful. The Eighties found Soul music covering safe grounds while it was professionalized ruthlessly. Gone were raucous house bands that made Soul great. Booker T & the MGs, the Funk Brothers and the JB's were replaced by sterile professional studio musicians.

Of course underground there was something simmering to a boil. The early eighties saw a momentarily revival of the independent record scene with the dawn of Hip Hop. Labels like Sugar Hill produced Hip Hop classics like Grand Master Flash's "The Message" and "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. Hip Hop soon took the industry by a storm. It filled the need of the Black underclass that was left behind in the ghetto's of the inner cites. Hip Hop proved to be rawer than Soul ever was. Gone was the age where Black musicians signified, gone was the time where Black musicians limited themselves to blatant protest. Hip Hop depicted the bleak realities of the ghetto streets. The genre scared the shit out of both the Black and White establishment and continues to do so today. Acts like Public Enemy or Gang Starr refused to water down their message and hit the establishment in the face. It confronted a Black middle class with the brothers and sisters left behind and took away the false sense of security of the White middle class. Hip Hop reminded everybody that the ghetto was a social powder keg, waiting to explode. The rise of Gansta Rap from the late eighties fueled that sense of uneasy. Hip Hop became a movement with an edge that Soul and Rock had lost.

For Soul, Hip Hop offered a chance to be revived. The Nu-Soul movement fused the conscious political Soul of two decades back with the rough and raucous beats of Hip Hop. Ghetto girl Mary G. Blige was one of the first but D'Angelo's more sophisticated sounds blew it wide open. D'Angelo's intelligent approach drew the Rock crowd back in who started to realize what they were missing out on. At the same time D'Angelo was something the first generation of college kids coming from the eighties Black middle class could relate to. Nu-Soul appealed that upper layer in Black culture. Drawing from Soul's most heralded artists from the early seventies while adding a Jazzy feel gave Nu-Soul a very acceptable intellectual coating. The reception of D'Angelo's debut "Brown Sugar" was very telling. D'Angelo and his peers were rocketed into the sky by music critics world wide, they were heralded as the saviors of Soul. Needless to say this was too much of a weight to carry for Nu-Soul movement. The follow up albums of the movements pioneers all disappointed those same critics. Nu-Soul artists were expected to walk like a man while barely out of kindergarten. The hype got to many artists in the field, imagining themselves the next Stevie Wonder or Curtis. Forgetting that those classic artists had almost a decade in before their talents reach their peak. The classic Soul artist had been allowed to develop slowly, the Nu-Soul artists had to be genius overnight.

Alicia Keys hit the scene at the tail end of the movement at 19 years old with the instant, flawed, classic "Songs in A Minor". "As I Am" is her most recent album. What strikes you after a few spins is how well Alica has maintained to be, despite the enormous pressure that she bound to have suffered. When Keys first hit the charts with "Fallin'" she yet another in line to be heralded as the new Queen of Soul. She had to be Aretha's successor in a heart beat. It didn't matter if "Songs in A Minor" lived up to that hype, at 19 Keys had to deliver where the pioneers of Nu-Soul had failed. In that context it is admirable, to say the least, that Alicia stayed on course, allowing her talent to slowly develop. She didn't live up to the initial hype, but wasn't crushed by it either. Her records never got the pretentious air D'Angelo's "Voodoo" held or Erykah Badu's "Mama's Gun". Alicia stayed true to her talent, doing what she was good at without over stretching her capabilities.

"As I Am" is Keys' third studio album. It has all the charms we've grown accustomed to. But that doesn't mean all is good from the perspective of a Soul fan. The album suffers from most the ailments most recent records suffer from. "As I Am" is plastered with bombastic beats and layers of vocals, suffocating the songs. To make matters worse, some of the beats Keys uses have gone out of style with Michael Jackson, they sound like retro of the worst kind. It seems that the producers of today seem to confuse loud with Funky. Keys' clinical professionalism is helping "As I Am" either. Part of Soul's and R&R charms have always been those musically challenged bands trying to play on the top of their abilities. The raw talent that was so characteristic of the great sixties house band was part of the charm of Soul. When Booker T locked into a groove you could literally see the sweat oozing out of the speaker. Their greasy brand of Funk was in part caused by their strain to keep that train rolling down the track. Alicia Keys and the musicians hired for the studio walk through the songs effortlessly, hardly breaking a sweat. No sweat no Funk. Keys' classical music training chips away at her Soulfulness. Her music sound methodological, almost like an intellectual exercise combining one proved method with the other.

To Keys' defense, her sound is the sound of the day. Today's R&B artists is where the safe and clean sounds of the eighties have merged with Hip Hop's rough edges in an industry that reached the zenith of professionalism long ago. To get signed to a label these days one has to be an all round artist from the get go. In todays scene there's hardly any room for artists bungling their way through delightfully flawed music presented on wax for all to see. Ironically that is exactly what's wrong with Soul today, the raw edge that the R&R scene has been able to maintain by operating from the Garage. But then again, R&R always had a band culture. Soul never did. Soul was always a producers culture, combining artists with house or studio bands. So the promise we ascribe to artists as Alicia Keys is a promise they can never deliver.

Keys' should be judged on her Pop merits. As such Keys is a talent to be reckoned with. Alicia's song writing has been continuously strong. Songs as "Super Woman" carry a theme where may teenage or young college girl can relate to. It's bubble gum girrrrrl power with a Soulful edge. Despite my early criticism "Lesson Learned" comes awful close to Soul's ability to strike straight to the core of heartache. Key's remains a remarkable pianist with a very pleasant husky quality to her youthful voice, preventing her music from getting to slick. Her new single "No One" betrays a growing maturity with some Stevie Wonder like Moog licks buried in the mix. Keys' doesn't disappointed on "As I Am", our own expectations of Nu-Soul do that for us.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Girls In Their Summer Clothes

Outside storms are raging and fall's rain is poring, but I'm somewhere else. I'm strolling down "Blessing Avenue, lovers they walk by, holding hands two by two, a breeze crosses the porch, bicycle spokes spin 'round, my jackets on, I'm out the door, and tonight I'm gonna burn this town down". With the drapes down in my living room, it's summer in my mind as Springsteen sings those exact words.

Bruce's album "Magic" hit the stores in the tail end of the summer. "Radio Nowhere" was the first obvious single as fans were screaming for some hard rocking sounds. Springsteen had just delivered two albums delving deep into the folkie inside of him. Some of his more Rock oriented fans were becoming impatient. They needed the
heart stopping, pants dropping, earth shattering, hard rocking, hips shaking, earth quaking, nerve breaking, Viagra taking, history making, legendary E-Street Band back on the road. After all this could be the final time round all of them are fit enough to tour. His fans needed that Magic in the night as only the E-Street boys can deliver. "Radio Nowhere" was the obvious choice to get Bruce and the boys blasting over the airwaves again.

"Long Walk Home" became the second video shortly after "Radio Nowhere", but "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" became the second radio single. "Magic" as an album is very much a tribute to the day the 45 was king. The record is filled with singles that hark back to the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Drifters and the Beatles. "Magic" is Springsteen's tribute to the music he grew up on. Bruce and producer Brendan O'Brien managed to exploit the E-Street Band's talents to the max, creating Springsteen's first proper Wall of Sound album, in the tradition of Phil Spector, since Born to Run. Some may argue the production sounds muddy, but Magic is intended to be muddy. The album is cut and tailored for transistor radio. Magic needs to be heard on Vinyl over a portable Philips record player. Magic needs to come out of your cheap car stereo speakers at full blast, driving down the open road, to be fully appreciated.

In a sense "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" is the album's center piece. On Magic Bruce further pursued an abstract lyric style he first started to use on "The Rising". The album is filled with cryptic lyrics ("Living in the Future"), double intentions ("Magic") or clever John Kerry quotes ("Last to Die"). Grils is one of the few straight forward narratives on the album. The songs is a throw back to the classic Leiber & Stoller productions they did for the Drifters. Especially the "Winter Mix"of Girls has that subtle orchestrated feel to it that Leiber and Stoller excelled in. Listening to Girls, you can't help but wanting to spin "Under the Board Walk" or "On Broadway" next. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" has that same and breezy feel to it mixed with that uneasy sense of blue. " She went away, she cut me like a knife, Hello beautiful thing, maybe you could save my life" sums up the core of the song. With that line Summer suddenly doesn't feel so light and breezy at all. With that line Springsteen also revisits his most melancholy and arguably best ballad, " 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)". It can hardly be an accident that Ben E King chose to cover that particular song a few years back on a Springsteen tribute album "One Step Up/Two Steps Back". Both songs put you right smack dab in the middle of an early sixties Billboard chart.

"Girls In Their Summer Clothes" may be a radio single, but unfortunately it isn't on the market for his fans as such. Both the album and his current single seem to scream for a classic 45rpm single, with a genuine B-side. It's a shame and a sin Springsteen sends you to iTunes for this gem.

" 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
"Girls In Their Summer Clothes (live)"
"Girls In Their Summer Clothes (Winter Mix)"

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pillaging The Trash For Nuggets

With "Going Way Out With Heavy Trash" Jon Spencer's side project Heavy Trash seems to have become the his number one concern. All though none of the Explosion's members have ever mentioned disbanding, that band seem to have hit the end of their run with 2004's "Damage". Not that's a bad thing. Even though "Damage" was an exceptionally strong album for the Blues Explosion, the band seemed to have run out of steam during the tour supporting it. Blues Explosion shows were never a straight forward affair, but during that last tour the guts and glory seemed to have gone out of it. The band looked like they were fed up with being the most promising independent Blues Trash act out there. The Blues Explosion had been the critics darlings for over ten years at that point and the creativity that was once there was fading. The Blues Explosion, who were once a guaranty for lean and mean R&R shows, for on stage jams that sucked the audience in a sleazy mud pool of greasy riffs, were going through the motions. The last show I saw I walked out on them. Their half hearted fiddling seemed listless, the Blues Explosion had become boring. They were the opposite of the exiting promise they once were.

So Jon Spencer pursuing the path he took with Heavy Trash might not be a bad thing. The first album he and Verta-Ray produced carried ten times more the exitement his Blues Explosion projects had since "Now I Got Worry". Part of that exitement stems from the songs. With the Blues Explosion writing songs have always been the band's Achilles heel. Some of the best songs the Blues Explosion, or Jon Spencer, did, were collaborations with others. On "Now I've Got Worry" there was that greasy Soul stomp "Chicken Dogg" with Rufus Thomas, on "Damage" it was "Hot Gossip" with Chuck D. The songs Jon Spencer did for Andre Williams on "Black Godfather" or the songs he did with R.L. Burnside on "An Ass Pocket Of Whiskey", were stronger, more cohesive affairs than the work he did on the Blues Explosion albums. Jon Spencer is the King of riffs, pillaging Blues history like a roving buccaneer. But somehow his albums always got stuck in soundscapes, without ever developing into solid song writing. Jon Spencer's experiments were enough to make him the critics' darling but remained too inaccessible to gain him some real recognition.

Heavy Trash seems to be a step forward in that respect. Not only is Spencer covering new grounds in his raids for riffs, his teaming with Verta-Ray and the Sadies has resulted in some actual songs. Spencer broadened his horizon by adding riffs stolen from Rockabilly acts such as Link Wray, Ernest Tubb and Eddie Cochran to his repertoire on top of the John Lee Hooker and Steve Cropper riffs he all but exhausted with the Blues Explosion. Add the song writing help from Verta-Ray and you've got a Jon Spencer that actually sounds fresh and inspired again. Heavy Trash is unmistakably a Jon Spencer project, it's got the same gusto and machismo we've grown accustomed to. In that sense his songs have always been a bit one-dimensional, but hell, sometimes its just nice to give in to that. One dimensional as it may be R&R tends to sound better when people like Spencer get their mojo working. And it has been a long time since Spencer sounded this sexy and dangerous.

Double Line

They Were Kings

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Elusive Lasting Appeal of Gary "US" Bonds

Gary "US" Bonds is a strange phenomenon in the world of Soul. One of those artists who's reputation transcends his body of work or the relevance there of. Gary's biggest trump card is a handful of hits scored in the early sixties that got him to headline the Beatles in Europe during his 1963 tour. His hits "New Orleans" and "Quarter to Three" on the Legrand label hit big because of the cunning marketing ploy by record producer Frank Guida. Born Gary Anderson he was marketed as "US" Bonds, hoping the war bonds association would get DJs to play him, mistaking the "New Orleans" 45 for a public service announcement to ensure Bonds' success the color of his skin was also hidden from the public. DJs and audiences thought Bonds was white. According to Bonds himself this contributed to his success in the Pop charts. The ploy worked and "New Orleans" found its way to the charts, crossing over from Pop to R&B, a rarity those days. Catchy as this single and the follow up "Quarter to Three" were it is hard to see today why Gary "US" Bonds has such a lasting appeal. His hits weren't anything ground breaking, they fitted perfectly in the trend of early sixties R&R singles souped up with a Gospel feel. Great as those singles were, they had to compete with literally thousands of other singles for a lasting appeal.

A few things aside from the initial cross over success helped. Amongst songs cut for the Legrand were a few gems that had a big appeal on the collectors and the hipsters, ever searching for hidden gems. "Where Did The Naughty Little Girl Go" and "I Wanta Holler (But The Town's Too Small)". Second was his association to unrecognized genius Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, with whom Bonds wrote some of Soul's golden moments, all hidden and obscure. Yet somehow Swamp Dogg's work has always found its way to collectors and Gary's reputation may have benefited from that.

There also was his live reputation. Bonds undeniably had a stage presence. He was rowdy yet at the same time very charming. Bonds always had the air of a very accessible entertainer which must have gained him some lasting appeal amongst his peers or the people who saw him perform. Though it is not certain if Little Steven van Zandt, guitar player of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, ever saw "US" Bonds perform, but he liked him enough to get the Boss hip to him in '75. Bruce Springsteen, who had just released his break through album Born to Run, still had too little material himself to flesh out his marathon shows. His own body of work was also missing the rave up material he needed to close the show. Quarter to Three was added to the encores on a regular basis to send those crowds home in a frenzy.

A couple of years down the road Springsteen would repay Bonds his depth when he contributed three songs to the Little Steven produced "Dedication" album and eleven more to the follow up "On the Line". Springsteen was at the time in his creative peek in terms of out put. In the same time these two albums were released, Springsteen put the River on the market. That double album was in a sense a tribute to the era of Bonds, a celebration of the 45 era. The River was initially intended to be a single album called "The Ties That Bind" (Still widely available as a bootleg) , but with creative juices flowing it soon expanded into the double we have now, with enough material in the vaults for two more.

Gary "US" Bonds was the logical vessel for that material, after all he had his peek in the era that album paid tribute to. Bonds knew how to handle that material maybe even better than Springsteen himself knew. On both albums the E-Street Band provided the backing with Little Steven at the production wheels. For the latter this must have been a dream come true. Van Zandt had long since been pushing Springsteen to record a true Garage Rock 'n Soul album, preferably in Mono. On the River van Zandt was side tracked by producer John Landau and Springsteen's own ambitions to expand his song writing skills. The River became much more than it initially set out to be on the "Ties That Bind". Especially "On The Line" stayed closer to the original concept Little Steven had in mind for the River. On the Bonds albums he was the Boss. Resulting in what could arguably be the best sounding E-Street Band records that ever hit the market. It seemed that Little Steven had a better idea of how the band should be produced than the Boss himself.

"Dedication" and "On the Line" were also two of the few true Rock 'n Soul albums released in the eighties, a time when heartfelt and authentic R&B seemed to have died. Soul and R&B were basically crushed under the weight of Disco and FM radio formats. The genres that depended so much on local markets and "mom and pop" record labels or local radio stations, simply couldn't compete with the block buster sales of albums like "Saturday Night Fever". A 100.000 copies of an album sold, very respectable figures back in the day, suddenly weren't enough anymore for the big record companies, once again dominating the field. Soul and R&B had always been a singles market, where the profits were slow. Soul veterans like Bobby Womack or Gary "US" Bonds were dropped like a brick or simply couldn't get signed. The Springsteen push behind the albums got Bonds very respectable sales again in a time when the genre went all but belly up. Even though songs like "Out of Work" had that undeniable blue collar Springsteen Rock stamped all over it, most of "On The Line" shortly brought back the music Van Zandt and Springsteen grew up on.

After the early eighties, Bonds slowly slid back in obscurity again. He remained popular on the oldies circuit, especially on the East-Coast, where his Springsteen association continued to draw him crowds. As his 2001 live album attested these live shows were something to behold indeed. Listen to "King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Gary U.S. Bonds" and some of his lasting appeal becomes apparent. Bonds knows how to work a crowd and his joyful Rock 'n Soul singles hark back to a time when things seemed simpler. Gary "US" Bonds represents that time before the massive cultural shift in the half to late sixties, when the USA was simply a country filled with promise and being proud of the USA wasn't such a mixed an uneasy affair as it is today. Bonds represents a time before social unrest, before Vietnam, before massive lay offs. Gay "US" Bonds puts you smack dab back in the middle of a time when General Motors made the world's best cars, back in the day of Juke Boxes and diners, back in the day of Junior High Prom and mom's apple pie. Bonds is class A nostalgia.

Bonds came back unnoticed once more with the ironic album title "Back in 20" issued in 2004, some twenty years after his comeback with the E-Street Band albums. The album went largely unnoticed by the buying public. even though it found Bonds once again collaborating with Springsteen on the opening song "Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks". That raucous opener sums up the album perfectly. "Back in 20" is a great old fashioned R&B album, somewhat grittier than what Bonds did in the past, closer to his current live sound, but essentially what he's been doing since the release of "New Orleans".

"New Orleans"
"I Wanta Holler (But The Town's Too Small)"
"Out of Work"
"Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks"

Official Site.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bettye LaVette; Criminally Honest

Bettye LaVette might be one of those Soul singers forever labeled as the genres best kept secret. LaVette is well known amongst Soul connoisseurs, legendary even. Virtually unknown beyond that crowd. Some in the scene might even claim she's the better over similar voices as Tina Turner. Some might be right.

Bettye got her reputation on the basis of a few scattered Soul singles in the sixties. Most notably "Let Me Down Easy". That 45 was an unsurpassed heartbreaking soul supreme effort. LaVette sang that one as if her heart got ripped out only moments ago. Allegedly not far from the truth . As LaVette recounted years later she recorded the song in front of a boyfriend who had just dumped her. After the recording Bettye was in tears, the boyfriend didn't do so much as bat an eye and left her. This would be the story of her life. Through out it Bettye would feel on the brink of success or love only to see it all fall apart. LaVette stumbled her was through a few record companies throughout the sixties, recording a few minor hits in the process. Nothing that held her over at the time, but enough to cement her reputation as one of Soul's best kept.

It wouldn't be until the turn of the century that LaVette had something that could be called a recording career. In 2000 the European label Munich released a live album that confirmed the suspicions the Soul snobs had all along. Bettye was a force to be reckoned with. Of course by then her voice was whipped into shape by life, her stage theatrics by Broadway. So maybe Bettye talent needed those years to ripe. LaVette proved to be a performer of contradictions. Bettye stage presence was one of a regal Soul dive with an in your face sexuality of a $100 hooker. She bared herself naked on the stage, her years of pain for all to see, yet had an attitude like she would cut you down in a second if you'd even think of messing with her. LaVette displayed a naked and raw emotion that is rare in the world of entertainment today, yet remained vaguely out of reach.

It must have been that live album that prompted Andy Kaulkin, tipped by Ry Cooder, to sign her for his Anti records, a label best known for releasing Punk records and the current home of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Kaulkin matched her with the Rick Rubin of Soul, Joe Henry, who had been responsible for reviving Solomon Burke's career a year prior. Henry used the same approach for Bettye as he had for Burke. He recorded Bettye against sparse instrumentation having her reinterpret songs that might not have been obvious choices, all of them by female writers. "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was the result. It became one of 2005's most acclaimed albums and gave Bettye a career that she could live of comfortably for the first time in her life. Ironically the successful collection of songs penned by Sinead O'Conner, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton caused some raised brows in the Soul community. Henry's approach was a bit more than the purist could stomach, or was it that LaVette suddenly wasn't their little secret anymore. After years of obscurity, LaVette was suddenly a much wanted guest, playing for large festival crowds with a sound that wasn't exactly traditional Soul.

But by then Bettye didn't need the purist crowd any more. "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was a successful enough to have her release a second album on Anti. A growing rarity in the music business these days, and a first for LaVette, who was often dumped faster than she was signed. "Scene of the Crime" finds Bettye teaming up with yet another seemingly unlikely band, ganstabillies the Drive by Truckers. But only on the surface. Drive by Trukcers' front man and producer, Patterson Hood comes from a family that has Soul music in it's blood. His father being the base player in the legendary Fame studios house band from Muscle Shoals. This is exactly where Patterson took LaVette. Initially he intended to bring Soul veteran Spooner Oldham to the fold on Wurlitzer. But soon the word spread and more "old-timers" payed a visit to the studios, most notably Fame veteran Mike Cooley on guitar.

"Scene of the Crime" betrays Soul's kin ship to Country. When Bettye tears up in Willie Nelson's "Pick Up To The Pieces", you undeniably hear Soul music, even with the pedal steel guitar crying in the back. Although "Pick up the Pieces" is a slightly uneven album it reaches rare peaks from time to time. Even though all songs, save one, are covers again, this is a very personal album. LaVette reinterprets the songs as if she were a method actor, sometimes slightly chancing the lines or phrases in order to keep the song close to her personal experience. Bettye makes the songs her own. As a result she leaves you wondering if she hasn't simple killed the guy who betrayed her in John Hiatt's "The Last Time" as she tears into it with a venomous resolve. Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" sounds like a near rewrite. This song is no longer about veterans, this is about LaVette recounting her personal war in a lonely and shady bar, talking to a dozing bar man. LaVette shows herself the masterful story teller on this album, closer to Johnny Cash than Aretha Franklin. Her voice hypnotizes you, draws you in and lets you experience her past. "The Scene of the Crime" is confronting, painful yet exiting and exhilarating at the same time.

LaVette confessed in an interview with a Dutch magazine a few years back she wanted to be either one of two things as a little girl, "A singer or a hooker, I wanted to wear pretty dresses. I simply ran into a producer first". We as an audience can be grateful she did.