Friday, January 20, 2006

Rough Draft of an Album Review:

*****

A Jam Session Well Worth Listening To...

Albert King was always overshadowed by BB King and thus never received the credit he deserved for the way he shaped how the electric guitar is played. This is true not only in the blues but indeed in all styles of music. Modern guitar players who look back with a sense of fondness for players such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Paul Kossof, etc. would do well to consider the man who so strongly influenced their playing. Bill Belmont tells in his album notes of a young British guitar player who wanted to borrow a copy of his friend’s album of Albert King’s Bobbin singles (c. 1958-1961) in 1965. The player was Eric Clapton. The latter’s tenure in Cream earned him the moniker “Clapton is God” but in reality, the British guitar virtuoso was copping riffs and even (on occasion) whole solos note for note from Albert King. The bluesier side of Jimi Hendrix’s playing was similar affected and countless other guitarists could be mentioned if not for word limits on this review. (Including bluesmen Otis Rush and Albert Collins: already distinctive stylists in their own right prior to King’s signing with Stax in 1966.) When Stax released “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1967, the blues world would never be the same indeed the approach to the electric guitar in music generally speaking would be altered forever. The reviewer Robert Palmer (in reviewing a late ‘70s live album of Albert King’s) said of the “Bad Sign” album “its impact was as inescapable amongst blues players as John Coltraine’s influence was in jazz.” And perhaps no other guitar player was as influenced by Albert King as the young Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan.

To say that Stevie Ray Vaughan idolized Albert King would not be inaccurate nor would saying that Stevie’s style was about 80% influenced by the mammoth Mississippi bluesman. King was not the nimblest on the fretboard but he was among the most expressive with a torrid tone, a stirring vibrato, and an authoritative string-bending style that created a perfect wailing sound for the blues. Couple these things with an effective use of dynamics, an impeccable sense of timing, a deep grainy voice, and an inherent competitive nature and you have the makings for a player that could (and did) intimidate fellow musicians. Certainly when Stevie was little, he was awed by his mentor’s presence and whether he was at this session or not we will never know. But even if he was, Albert King would have expected Stevie to bring his A game and indeed Vaughan did for this recording. The songs are mainly from King’s repertoire but in many cases Stevie had been weaned on them and practiced them in his formative years so there was not much in the way of adjustment for him here generally speaking. In Albert’s case, only one song was unfamiliar to him but we will get to that in time…onto the album though.

It starts off with “Stormy Monday” which King begins with some of his signature mournful phrasing while Vaughan utilizes a tasteful countermelody in return. Albert’s comments as the song was starting off indicate that they have played the song together before and the way they played off one another that would seem to be the case as it comes off so smooth. Albert sings the song (as he does all but one of the songs on this album). Stevie’s playing is retrained and tasteful on the tune...a few flashes of wildness but not many. Albert counters with a throaty vibrato-drenched solo and Stevie answers with a King-influenced solo and Albert counters again by going lighter for the close and nine minutes of stirring blues comes to a close. From there a bit of dialogue takes place where they reminisce about old times including the first time Stevie met Albert, the first time they played together, and Albert’s assessment of how Stevie stands out from so many other guitar players not because of his speed but his ability to play with soul. From there Albert asks about “that thing you do, that rap thing with a heck of a groove” and Stevie kicks off “Pride and Joy” with Albert playing small fills and Stevie singing.

On "Pride and Joy", Stevie is clearly in control as well he should be (he wrote it after all) but Albert pulls a few bits from his bag and at one point in the nimble turnarounds I thought it was Vaughan playing…if not for the tone and a few signature bits from King I would have been fooled. But King can play riffs that way even if he usually does not. Vaughan finishes the song and they moved into the BB King song “Ask Me No Questions.” Unlike the previous song where it was King who had to adapt to a new song, this time it was Vaughan and he does so quite well with tasteful vibrato fills and taking the first solo at King’s request. With the latter’s prompting, he ratchets the intensity up and then mixes in some tasteful vibrato bits. King follows with a short solo and the piano player solos at length before the verses resume and then King and Vaughan have another alternating of solos. They then dialogue a bit more with Albert asking Stevie to never settle but instead to always strive to work and play better.

From there Albert kicks off “Blues at Sunrise” with a trademark scorching opener…probably the oldest song of the ones he plays here chronology-wise. Albert talks a bit about how they calmed the people down in the old days by “back[ing] up, reach, and grab one from the bottom” and he goes down the register for a trademark low range riff pattern before going back up top to preface his singing of the song. About a third of the way in, after two verses Albert recollects playing the song with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore West and later on mixes his story a bit by mentioning Stevie in the sequence prior to meeting him. (There is definite misaccounting going on with the latter –Hendrix and Joplin dying two years before Stevie first met Albert- but since Albert was 60 when this was recorded, I think he can be pardoned the memory lapse.) Stevie’s playing is more rapid here as a counter mainly because Albert told him he “had to play the Jimi Hendrix thing” which he does to Albert’s laughing and encouragement. (Few could mimic Hendrix as well as Vaughan could as anyone familiar with the latter’s work is well aware.)

As far as the song goes, Stevie would be familiar with this if not from Albert’s Bobbin period (when he wrote it) than at least from his 1968 “Live Wire/Blues Power” Fillmore recording which a young Stevie certainly had in his collection and probably spent hours listening to and copping riffs from. Albert’s playing from after the scorching intro to about the seven-minute mark was pretty light in counter to Vaughan’s more aggressive approach but the former then kicks off a two chorus solo spanning over a minute which is torrid to say the least. Vaughan responds with an intense lead on his part and then after the chorus, he plays the low riff range pattern Albert played earlier in the song (a bit of homage to which he laughs when King says “that sounds familiar”). Then King ratchets up the intensity with his counter and Vaughan follow suit with a very King-like solo replete with repeated intense bends and his use of vibrato with a bit of Stevie’s flash thrown into the mix. Anyone who doubts that a fifteen minute blues song with a shuffle beat can be kept interesting for fifteen minutes needs to hear these two play off of each other.

After the song concludes, Vaughan breaks a string, King laughs, and then they have a discussion about restringing their “git-fiddles” (cf. King). From there, it moves into the instrumental “Overall Junction” which was on King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” album (and originally released a year earlier as the B side to “Laundromat Blues”). This song has a strident pacing to it and King and his band often used it as a warm-up for that reason. Vaughan starts it off and gets his bits in certainly –based on much of what he plays his familiarity with the original tune is evident to this listener. And King shows on the song for those who would question it that he can move around the fretboard nimbly…a feature he usually saved for instrumentals but not always. They then move pretty quickly into “Matchbox Blues” a longtime King concert staple, which he finally recorded in 1983 just prior to this session. There is a bit of talk between them before it starts and the playing alternates in its dynamics by both players. Stevie’s playing in the song is a homage to Albert and he certainly could authentically approach the latter’s style better than arguably anyone else. There is then another dialogual interlude prior to the last song where both players express appreciation for the other.

The last song on the album is “Don’t Lie to Me”, a song Stevie would recognize as “I Get Evil” the title Albert originally recorded it under and usually referred to it by in concert performances (though the title used here is closer to the actual title than the one Albert used ironically enough). Again the dueling is entertaining when Vaughan goes into the lower registers and Albert encourages him further in the process. That concludes the album but not this review.

The essence of blues playing requires soul and you cannot manufacture it by wanking speed riffs on a fretboard. (I note that here for those who think "better blues playing" means faster playing: that is not necessarily so.) If you take King’s influence from Vaughan, you would have a very mediocre player at best whereas if you took any of Stevie’s other influences from him, you would still have a good guitarist. That is all that needs to be said about such ignorance of the blues and the many facets that go into playing the blues like a master. Albert King was a master of the blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan was his most loyal disciple. Indeed, I believe he is the only one who could so flagrantly use King’s own signature riffs in his playing without the master himself taking offense. And when you consider that Albert did not take such things lightly --because he developed a unique style and by his reckoning owned it—that is no mean achievement.

But clearly on this album King had in mind to some extent a passing of the torch to Vaughan at one point in the recording because he plainly says so after they finished playing “Blues at Sunrise.” Stevie laughs and says he does not believe it but the sentiments sounds convincing enough even if King was to continue playing live after Vaughan’s passing in 1990 at the tender age of 35. (The former retired and made comebacks in the same fashion as Frank Sinatra and presumably for the same reasons: the difficulty of performers to let it go but at least in King’s case, he retained his form all the way to the end with minimal if any diminishment.) As far as Vaughan’s passing goes, King would recount in a 1991 interview published before his passing that Stevie’s loss hurt him and if you listen to the way they interact musically and otherwise on this album, it makes sense. What started out as a young boy and his idol grew into a situation where they were contemporaries and there was a genuine affection between them. And Albert seemed to view Stevie as his son in the blues and no father wants to see his son go before him. May they both rest in peace and may this recording stand as a testament to two masters. If only more jam albums were this entertaining but alas, that is as rare as diamonds. But those who obtain this album have just that and it is worth obtaining, owning, and cherishing: particularly for lovers of the blues but music lovers in general.

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Since I play a Les Paul Epiphone (a Gibson copy) when I play electric guitar, this result is not surprising to me...

Take the quiz:
Which guitar are you

Gibson Les Paul
You are a Gibson Les Paul. You are a favorite of some of the best metal AND rock and roll bands. You are flaxible and can be used in almost any genre. you are a classic.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Points to Ponder:
(On the Left and Historical Revisionism "Airbrushing")

The left aims to be born again...by erasing the embarrassment of its disreputable past, by hiding the shame of having supported Stalin and Mao and Fidel and Ho and all the purges, mass murders, and other "necessary" means that finally served no beneficial end. But the real embarrassment for the left is to have been so stubbornly and persistently on the wrong side of history, to have embraced "solutions" that were morally, practically, and economically bankrupt. It is the important struggles of our time. As Josef Stalin was the first socialist to truly understand, the airbrushing of history is the onyl sure means to preserve the honour of the left. [David Horowitz (circa 1999)]

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Santa Cruz Special Reports:

Though not technically a part of the Santa Cruz Reports series I spoke of earlier, this is a posting done while on vacation so technically it qualifies even though I am not calling it that. Nonetheless, I wanted to let you know that I have added forty-nine artists to my Launchcast radio station, rated everyone there, and also some songs that popped up while I was doing that. So go there and you will get a better feel for the eclectic nature of my musical tastes than you would have gotten previously. Meanwhile, I have drinking and other things to tend to now...later y'all...

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