Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Van Morrison: A Night In San Francisco

Isn't it a-bout time, as Steve Stills once sang when with his band, Manassas, surely a-bout time to feature a live album? They're a hit-and-miss affair, live albums, and probably worthy of a separate category. Playing and being recorded live is, musically speaking, the final frontier. When a live album's not up to scratch, you question whether the band is worth your admiration or allegiance. But when a live album fires on all cylinders, it's quite another matter.

There are some legendary live albums that stand out of the pack, some of which are happily in my collection and may feature in subsequent slots: B.B. King's Live at the Regal, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, King Curtis's Live at the Fillmore West, Donny Hathaway Live, the Fania All-Stars live either at the Yankee Stadium or the Cheetah Club, Pharoah Sanders' incendiary quartet of 1981, und so weiter. There are, too, some surprisingly lacklustre affairs by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Bobby 'Blue' Bland's and Marvin Gaye's live offerings, for example, might leave you wondering what all the fuss was about.

As a teenager, I learnt to play on my tennis racquet the guitar parts of both John Cippolina and Gary Duncan, as featured extensively on Quicksilver Messenger Service's mainly live Happy Trails album. These days, as I approach codger-dom, there's one live album that consistently lifts me out of my chair and gets me contorting my face and barking unnecessarily. That said, I'm possibly the only person who would lobby for A Night in San Francisco as the most exciting live album of all time.

It came out in 1994 as a double CD, ironically not long after I saw the little man at Sheffield City Hall. It was one of those notorious occasions when the Irishman couldn't really be bothered. He was off at around the hour mark, using the old clichéd encore trick to generate a bit of enthusiasm and value-for-money, and though it was good to say that you'd seen him live, it left a slightly sour taste and a feeling that you'd been short-changed.

Of course, Sir Van has always blown hot and cold, presumably depending on his mood (which is customarily curmudgeonly). At least his reputation is such that he can assemble a great band, which always helps. I bought the double album, It's Too Late To Stop Now, back in 1975, the year after it came out. Now there's one that does garner many a critical vote for one of the best albums of all time. It was recorded with Van's trusty Caledonian Soul Orchestra: a most consistent and dependable of outfits.

I can't remember much about the band that night in Sheffield. Teena Lyle was there on keyboards and vibes, but there was certainly no Georgie Fame (or Fay-emm, as the man from Belfast calls him) on organ, and it's Georgie to my mind who seems to be the real powerhouse behind some of Van's greatest performances. I submit as evidence a film recording of a blistering concert by Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames in New York supported by the Belfast man at his committed best.

For the night at The Masonic Auditorium in 'Frisco, special guest stars pop up of the calibre of the Dutch saxophonist, Candy Dulfer, and of R&B legends John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and the mighty Jimmy Witherspoon. It probably only lacked Mose Allison and Ray Charles for Van's dream team. And you can hear how he just revels in their company. 'The blues, the whole blues and nothing but the blues,' he exuberates at one point. Apart from 'Spoon and John Lee and Georgie himself, there are supplementary vocals from Van's seeming protégé, Brian Kennedy (whose voice is admittedly too wet for such raw rhythm & blues), a friend's chum, James Hunter, and the proud dad's daughter, Shana (on 'Beautiful Vision'). I suspect that they were recruited to give the Man's pipes a bit of a rest, but it doesn't matter: the ensemble work in largely perfect harmony.

The great thing about a live album is that it allows an artist to stretch out and improvise outside the more regimented confines of a studio recording. Most of the numbers, particularly on the second disc, are amalgams either of his own numbers or of R&B standards or of both, as in for example the two epics on the first disc, the first when Van's 'See Me Through' segues into his 'Soldier of Fortune' and then into a snippet of Sly Stone's 'Thank You Faletttinme Be Mice Elf Again'; and the second a glorious segue from the ever-dependable 'Moondance' into Rogers and Hart's immortal 'My Funny Valentine'.

'It's too late to stop now!' Van hollers towards the end of the longest work-out of the night on the second disc, and there just so happen to be a couple of throwbacks to the earlier album on Disc 1: his own 'I've Been Working', in itself as authentic a piece of R&B as you'd wish from the composer of 'Gloria', and Sonny Boy Williamson's funkiest of all funky blues numbers, 'Help Me'. (To avoid disappointment, seek out an extraordinary ballistic version by Sugar Blue, the harmonica player used by the Rolling Stones on 'Miss You'.)

Everything simmers beautifully on the first disc before coming to the boil on the second. 'It Fills You Up' indeed. All 70-plus minutes of it, from Georgie Fame's opening bit of vocalese on 'Jumpin' With Symphony Sid' to the almost predictable 'Gloria' that brings everything to a standing, stomping conclusion. But it's not just 'Gloria'. In conjunction, less predictably, with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' 'Shakin' All Over', it's probably the finest version of Van's youthful smash in the world. 'Some decorum, please!' the Man reiterates during the proceedings and it's clear just how much he's enjoying himself on one hand, and how funny the old curmudgeon can be in moods like this.

Sandwiched between beginning and end, in among a bevy of transcendent performances, are 31 minutes that beat almost anything I've ever heard on a live album. 'I first heard this song by Bobby Bland in '64' (probably while he was still cleaning windows), Sir Van announces in a typically matter-of-fact manner before launching into a monumental 16-minute version of 'I'll Take Care Of You', intertwined with James Brown's 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World', that knocks the socks off the timeless original. 'It's hustle time!' for sure. There's a deliciously unexpected vibes solo from Tina Lyle, a honking sax solo by Candy Dulfer and some terrific secondary vocals from James Hunter.

It couldn't possibly get any better than this. But it does, by jingo it does! Doc Pomus' 'Lonely Avenue' has always been one of my favourite Ray Charles numbers. But no one out there does it better than Mr. Morrison. Over almost 15 minutes – and incorporating wonderful trumpet, sax and organ solos – the cast roils a simmering stew, just keeping you in a delicious state of tension as you anticipate boiling point. It's a rollercoaster ride from 'Lonely Avenue' through 'Be Bop a Lula', then Van's lazy '4 O'Clock In The Morning' and a brief snippet of Sly's 'Family Affair' before Van's 'You Give Me Nothing But The Blues' is followed by Jimmy Witherspoon's' entrance for 'When Will I Become A Man?' and 'Sooner Or Later'. Then it's back to 'Nothing But The Blues' followed by a dash of Roy Orbison's 'Down The Line' before we're led hollering and screaming back to 'Lonely Avenue' for a suitable rousing finale.

'Did you feel the spirit in the house tonight!?' the MC demands at a suitable point in the proceedings. Van and his band did over those two nights, and the audience certainly did. I defy anyone who loves soul and R&B not to feel that same spirit as they listen to this livest of live albums. No wonder Van was knighted for services rendered. No wonder he's consistently named among the finest soul singers of the age – and stage.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Isley Brothers: Forever Gold

If ever the sum warranted more attention than the individual albums from which these 10 golden tracks were picked, it's surely this 1977 collection of greatest hits. Actually, it's not really a greatest hits, because we're talking only of the Isleys' hits on the Epic label. A true greatest hits would include their Motown classic, 'This Old Heart Of Mine' and the material they recorded for various minor labels in the late '50s and early '60s, somewhat overlooked for a time in the UK because of Lulu's valiant version of 'Shout' and The Beatles' undeniably brilliant rendition of 'Twist And Shout'. 

One would also hope that it would include the glorious 'Who's That Lady', an acoustic version recorded for the Stateside label of the track that jump-starts this record. 'Who's that lady; real fine lady?' Was there ever a more searing megawatt guitar sound this side of Carlos Santana than young Ernie Isley's here? Well, perhaps yes – and we hear it on the final track of the album – but on 'That Lady (Part 1 &2)' it sounds as if his guitar has been wired up to a wind farm during a cyclone. All that pent-up energy just pours out of him from the first note to the last, apart from one glorious hiatus when he pauses long enough to let us focus on the chugging organ of brother-in-law, Chris Jasper, and brother Marvin's funky bass line, busy propelling him into the stratosphere.

Clive Anderson of Black Echoes, who presumably is not to be confused with the Clive Anderson of chat-show fame, writes in the sleeve notes that 'Ernie Isley's solos burn like some lost voodoo child'. It's a reference, I imagine, to the fact that a certain left-handed incendiary guitarist played lead guitar for the group at a time when it was a vocal trio. Legend had it when Ernie was doing his bit to blur the boundaries of rock and soul that Hendrix taught the young Isley brother to play guitar before he quit the band.

Whatever, it's magnificent and it's in two parts, just like the next track, the title track from the Live It Up album, and just like the final track on the first side, 'Fight The Power', which is good enough and funky enough until you listen to it side by side with Public Enemy's extraordinary song – if that's what you can call it – of the same name. And I suppose that's what I had in mind when I suggested that this compilation knocks the individual albums into a cocked hat. The first of the Epic records, 3+3, probably comes closest to an entirely satisfying album, but what I've heard of the others confirms my feeling that a little too much filler pads out the really memorable stuff.

One reason why this compilation just shades a later and more comprehensive best of is the inclusion of the brothers' version of Todd Rundgren's 'Hello It's Me'. It's either soppy or sublime, depending on how receptive you are to slush. Me, oy loyke a noice bit of sloosh (from time to time) and if anything this version, with its beautiful harmony vocals by the original three older Isleys, improves upon Todd's original. The Average White Band would return the favour, in a manner of speaking, by re-interpreting and arguably improving on the Isleys' earlier 'Work To Do' on their classic white album, AWB.

Apart from the high-octane 'Hope You Feel Better Love' with its second-part turmoil of bruising electric guitar from the kid with the axe, the second side focuses more on the brothers' smoother Marvin-esque brand of soul – and it's all the better for that. When my wife heard the opening chords of the opening track, 'For The Love Of You', the other day, she sighed the sigh of someone who has been touched by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Al Green for most of her adult life. Taken from the double-platinum Live It Up, it's a beautiful song in the vein of perhaps the one truly convincing song, 'Caravan Of Love', recorded by the later Isley-Jasper-Isley spin-off when the kids left the older brothers to go their own way.

After 'Hope You Feel Better Love', the brothers leave us with a triad of truly memorable songs that build to one of the most recognisable climaxes in the wonderful world of black music. The filigree synth-drenched slush of 'The Highways Of My Life' gives way to the more robust, acoustic 'Harvest For The World', which would be just about as good as it could possibly get were it not twinned with 'Summer Breeze'. If ever you need something to blow through the jasmine in your mind, then this is it.

When you listen to the original, a very pleasant piece of West Coast hippy soft rock, it's hard to conceive of the power and drama with which the Isleys would infuse it. Certainly, it's unlikely that the song would have lasted as long as it has without their refurbishment. Although my days of emulating guitar heroes on an electric tennis racquet are long gone, Ernie Isley still manages to rekindle the flames of longing. Initially, he merely punctuates the beautiful vocals with that insidious insistent refrain, so full of latent power and drama that you just know that he's building up for something special. When he lets rip, three minutes or so before the end, my word does he give us the treatment. There's everything an air-guitarist could possibly wish for in that solo: sustain, reverb, tremolo, fuzz, stereo effects, weeping, wailing, the works.

It's mightier than the sword. If it's true that Ernie Isley did learn from Hendrix, then the apprentice laid down on 'Summer Breeze' something that the master would surely have envied. I was late for an appointment the other day when I was playing the track for the first time in probably a couple of years. There was no way on earth that I was going to fade it out. I had to let it run to its own natural conclusion. Every time I hear that guitar, I want to be a mad axe-man again. Play it to a heavy metal fan and they'd likely not credit that they were listening to a black soul band. What a way to end such a real fine album. It's proof in my mind that the Isley Brothers are not always given the credit they're due for what they achieved in the 1970s.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Burning Spear: 'Man In The Hills'

One of the key criteria I use for this series is that an album must have stood the test of time. That's principally my time – and by that I mean something that I'm still keen to play again and again and without any of the social unease I might attach to something like Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick – but also Time with a capital T.

That's not so easy to assess, particularly if it's an album that's not generally considered to be an artist's best or most representative work. But something like Man In The Hills for me beats the more critically acclaimed Marcus Garvey probably by dint of being my first introduction to the man known as Burning Spear. A sort of first girlfriend syndrome. It was my insatiable thirst for more music that took me one Sale time into W.H. Smith, a chain not generally renowned for the quality or range of its musical offerings, and there I found 'this bargain' for £1.63 (of all strange prices).

My, how it has repaid that modest outlay. An Island record, it came out around the time of Chris Blackwell's mid '70s master plan to turn reggae music into a global phenomenon. The sleeve notes talk about Burning Spear as a 'collective endeavour' in the third person plural, perhaps in an attempt to come up with another Wailers, but Rupert Willington and Delroy Hines were somewhat incidental to Winston Rodney whose gruff vocals dominate this and every other Spear record. It's Rodney who was and still is Burning Spear himself, right from the early days at Studio One where he took a name associated with Kenya's presidential guerrilla warrior, Jomo Kenyatta.

While Marcus Garvey and its dub mirror, Garvey's Ghost, were deep and heavy roots reggae, unlikely to appeal to audiences in the same numbers as, say, Bob Marley's Exodus, Man In The Hills is lighter and punchier, and more pastoral than political in theme. With both Robbie Shakespeare and 'Family Man' Barrett among a whole phalanx of legendary Jamaican session musicians, it's no surprise that the 10 tracks are still propelled by resonant bass lines, but they are also marked out by a crisp and spritely horn section. There's even a flute on the catchy 'People Get Ready' (which has nothing to do with Curtis Mayfield's song, even though Rodney always acknowledged his influence). More danceable in short, rather like Culture's marvellous Two Sevens Clash, which is maybe why I love it so.

Above all, it's consistently good. There's not a weak spot in the neat five tracks per side. Subsequently, Spear broke with the producer, Lawrence Lindo (who took the moniker, for some reason best known to himself, of Jack Ruby) and, in my mind anyway, never quite achieved the same degree of overall excellence. Every later album that I've either bought or heard has been graced by jewels, often title tracks like 'Social Living', 'Mistress Music, 'Far Over' or the glorious 'Reggae Physician' from Appointment With His Majesty, while leaving an overall impression of slight disappointment.

No such disappointment here. While many reggae songsters, you feel, paid lip service to the Marcus Garvey legend, Spear has always taken the original Back-to-Africa activist very seriously, and Man In The Hills is full of Garvey's teachings about self-determination (which might at a stretch even include chanting 'down a-Babylon, as the rootsier 'Door Peep', a re-working of an earlier Studio One single, advocates). 'It Is Good' suggests that 'it is good when a man can live for himself' and 'if we should live up in the hills', suggests the title track, the 'social' living of rural communities knocks 'a government yard in Trenchtown' firmly into a cocked rasta-hat.

Until he moved to New York, Spear avoided the call of wild and wicked Kingston by basing himself in the small northern community of St. Anne's Bay, which provides the childhood landscape explored in songs like 'Lion', 'Children' and 'Mother', with its refrain of 'no you can't catch me' and a wickedly insistent bass line that, for some peculiar reason, always makes me imagine driving at speed through a long tunnel.

There's lots to love in this album. It may not have the gravitas of the seminal 'Marcus Garvey' or his ghost, but there are catchy melodies, memorable refrains, irresistible riddims and a truly memorable climax. I'm not sure what the final track, 'Groovy', is all about – 'Shooska!', Spear appears to sing at one point, followed by what sounds like 'John White aware', which makes no sense, even to fans of Tottenham Hotspur's legendary inside left of the early sixties – but it ends with cries of such triumphant anguish that I can only think of someone finally moving their bowels after a fortnight's solid compacted constipation. So don't for heaven's sake 'get me groovy'.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Wes Montgomery: The Small Group Recordings

There's an unwritten law in this household that our protracted Sunday morning breakfasts are accompanied by jazz. Nothing too challenging, but jay-azz nonetheless. And the other Sunday, the Good Wife announced that these small group recordings by the great guitarist, Wes Montgomery, are the perfect accompaniment for pancakes and coffee.

It's one of those Verve 'select double' collections that came out in the mid '70s and in this case it's basically the renowned Smokin' At The Half Note album with a few extras: three restored slower numbers that were originally rejected from the Half Note album, then dressed up with superfluous orchestration for subsequent release; and two long mellow grooves recorded with a more restrained Jimmy Smith, the dynamic Hammond organist, and one of my Latin heroes, 'Mr. Hard Hands', the conguero Ray Barretto.

The Half Note tracks do indeed smoke without kicking up the kind of conflagration that would distract you from your pancakes. This was what made the man with the 'golden thumb' unique. I've always loved the notion that brother Wes – who recorded in the pre-Verve days on the Riverside label, sometimes with older brother, Buddy, on piano and vibes, and younger brother, Monk, on bass – developed an ability to kick up a quiet storm by using his thumb rather than a plectrum for practice sessions so as not to annoy the neighbours.

Apparently, some pretentious English critic expounded a theory that his use of the thumb 'reflects a repressed racial minority's eternal quest for that which will make him stand apart from his former masters'. It sounds like the stuff of some particularly specious doctorate of philosophy. Wes himself was more lucid. 'I went into the back room of the house and started using the flat part of my thumb to pluck the strings,' he explained. 'Then, to make it even quieter, I began the octave thing, playing the melody line in two different registers at the same time'.

Not, alas, being a musician, I can never hope to understand 'the octave thing', but I do know that it produced an instantly recognisable unique sound. George Benson came close, but you can tell – as indeed George never denied – that it was a case of the master's apprentice. Comparing the single-note technique of my other favourite jazz guitarist, Grant Green, as sharp as a well-honed plectrum, highlights what makes Wes Montgomery's octave technique, based on muted mellow chords, quite so different.

Another guitar great, Pat Metheny, apparently learnt how to play by listening to the Half Note album. The Half Note no longer exists, but it was reputedly small and intimate and the feeling of the audience's proximity as you listen to the music helps to give the session such an engaging feel. It's one of the last great moments of Old Wes before the onset of New Wes: in other words an uncluttered small group recording like his Riverside classics, this time in the company of Miles Davis's former rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, the great Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, before the last commercial temptation of the boss guitarist got the better of him.

Wes started and finished early. He began learning the guitar when he was a  12-year old growing up in Indianopolis, switching from four to six strings at 20 after hearing Charlie Christian, the pioneer of the jazz guitar. He died of a heart attack at the tender age of 43, again in Indianopolis. For the last two years or so of his life, he experienced the kind of commercial success that was unprecedented for an era when jazz was the poor relation to rock music.

Jazz purists, of course, were none too happy and it's a shame that Wes Montgomery's greatness has always been a little mitigated by the slur of selling out. On the last side of this double record, the two long tracks with Jimmy Smith, 'James and Wes' and 'Mellow Mood', recorded less than two years before his premature demise, suggest that he could have kept on creating on beautiful simple swinging music right up until the end. But Wes was a family man, who held down a day job manufacturing radio parts while gigging in the evenings for six years before first achieving critical success, so who could possibly blame him for succumbing to the filth of lucre?

At its worst, New Wes was overblown and saccharine, but the lack of taste was more that of the producers. At its best, there are still some isolated gems, like the wonderful 'Sun Down' – a basic blues with the addition of some extraneous brass only right at the end – from the album California Dreaming, which has been described as 'basic pop fluff'.

Personally, I've never bothered with the late, late Montgomery. I'm with Pat Metheny, happy to stick with this splendid double and glad to enjoy unembellished versions of Errol Garner's 'Misty' and the beautiful 'Willow Weep for Me'. Given that he lived such a short life, it's nice to think that this truly great guitarist enjoyed both critical and commercial success. What's more, the functionaries of Indianapolis named a park after their famous son. That's something which Lesley Knope and her colleagues from our family-favourite American sitcom, Parks & Recreation, would applaud.