Facelifts and Nosejobs
[AN AMERICAN MAVERICK]
This guy's travelled around the block a few times, been a car repair man, painter and played Carnegie Hall. I've heard him called a musical maverick though I don't know anyone who has one of his albums and he's made a shedload of them. I have to admit It's the first one I've heard and at first I wasn't sure about it. It sounded a bit too home-made and shambolic with guitars, fiddle and banjo lazily accompanying his somewhat worn voice through a range of material.
For instance, an 18th century ballad 'Barbera Allen' gets the unadorned banjo treatment as the lived-in vocal unfolds a tale of cruelty while his own song 'The Question' features the vocals of Jill Gross and Dana Kletter alongside Hurley's forays into the falsetto range. It is sometimes an uncertain sound. Will the harmonies actually work ? It's touch and go but they do get there.
His guitar alternates between assurance and some slightly faltering picking on the bluesy 'Blockade Stillers' as his singing shifts from a gritty rasp to a wobbly yodel. I can't make up my mind if he's got a grip on the tune of the old standard, 'Mona Lisa' but its lazy swinging delivery works in a strangely compelling way. Some of this may not sound too promising but overall it is a warm and endearing album that sneaks up on you and reels you in.
The songs which finally won me over are both examples of how his melodic, laidback delivery grows on you. On 'Got Over It' a gentle violin drifts in and out behind the lyric's story of life's little problems, like having your mobile home wrecked by a van and a poplar tree ! Or having to leave your pants behind after an episode with 'a game playin' woman'. In the end resilience, humour and optimism triumph :
'I had a hard time but I got over it'
A similar effect is achieved on 'O My Stars' with the addition of those female vocal harmonies. Again, it's all about beating the blues and not letting them get the better of you, having a cold beer and enjoying the sky's 'different hues'. It really is uplifting as they sing the chorus, which looks fairly ordinary on paper :
'O my stars how you undo me'
When the three voices meet and soar they just shimmer and take the breath away. There's a lovely unobtrusive clarinet in there briefly too. Such moments of pure magic tell me I'm in good company despite my initial reservations about a couple of the tracks. So as he rambles off picking and sliding on the final track 'The End Of The Road' I find I'm replaying it once more. Yes, I'm a fan.
When they weren't being accused of murder, swigging back crude alcohol or getting blinded in fights these people were doing deals with the Devil. Somehow they also found time to make individual contributions to the blues. It's a treat to hear such diverse approaches.
Robert Johnson's impassioned vocals and lightning guitar style may or may not have resulted from one of the above deals. They are featured here to good effect on 'Preaching Blues'. Equally driven, though less harsh, is Mississippi Fred McDowell's slide guitar on 'Done Left Here'. It sets up a solid rhythm then lets the slide cut across it. In contrast, fiddler, Lonnie Chatmon adds a slightly old time/country feel to the Mississippi Sheiks version of 'Sitting On Top Of The World' which lopes lazily along.
Few female blues artists were recognised in the 1930s but Geechie Wiley had a powerful voice and guitar style as 'Last Kind Words Blues' demonstrates. Louise Johnson doesn't sound as though she'd let the boys have it all their own way either. Sadly she only recorded one session. 'On The Wall' is a lusty celebration of stand-up sex and contains Johnson's fine barrelhouse piano and vocals.
Mississippi John Hurt's approach to the blues was more restrained, using a fluent finger picking guitar technique and gentle vocal to relate the well known tale of 'that bad man' Stack O'Lee. I'm not sure how you'd categorise Alfred Lewis' 'Mississippi Swamp Moan' but it's definitely unusual. He combines falsetto whooping with virtuoso harp playing. At times he's singing through the instrument though I couldn't tell you what the words are. The nearest comparison I can think of is Al Wilson's vocalising with Canned Heat .
Unusual for different reasons - he stayed away from alcohol - Robert Wilkins has a gentle voice and understated guitar technique perhaps a little like Hurt's but he never received the same amount of attention. I'll bet Bo Carter wasn't neglected since his material was often full of sexual innuendo. His titles included 'My Pencil Won't Write No More' and here he gives us 'Don't Mash My Digger So Deep'. An interesting approach to the topic.
This collection gives some indication of the range of blues that came out of the Delta in the 1920s, 30s and later and should please the connoisseur and anyone wanting to sample the genre.
[FACELIFTS & NOSE JOBS]
Although the band, such as it was by then, officially disbanded in the late 1970s there has been a steady output of archive material featuring some of the best work they ever did. This latest slab of their idiosyncratic jazz rock is taken from three sources; a concert by the 'classic' quartet in My 1970, two tracks by the 'big band' in November 1969 and Robert Wyatt's original demo of 'Moon In June' with a section by the trio spliced onto the end. It captures a band in the throes of changes, full of fire and energy.
There are no 'new' tracks but some their concert 'standards' are given fresh workouts. There are two versions of Hopper's, aptly named, 'Facelift', one by each of the two line-ups. The first gives everyone space to explore and it's good to hear Wyatt's drums pitched against Elton Dean's comparatively restrained but exploratory alto. Limpid electric piano washes in behind them and, for a moment, you have to remind yourself that this was 1970. The sound quality is excellent. A superb restoration job has been done with these old tapes.
The 'big band' version starts off with the brass laying down the labyrinthine theme in a pleasingly ragged fashion. Ratledge's legendary fuzz organ sounds a little weedy at times. The horns inject more life into the proceedings through their unison riffing. The emergence of the quartet line-up is evident on this track. Dean gets a solo spot but it would've been interesting to hear Nick Evans or Mark Charig too. I suppose that this was one of the problematic aspects of the band at this time; whether to play the charts and maintain a certain discipline or blow. The other 'big band' selection is the truncated 'Hibou Anemone And Bear' which gives Lyn Dobson a chance to air his tenor alongside Dean. On this piece the sound quality is a bit uneven in places but it adds to the raw live feel. I'm not complaining, though others might.
The quartet turn in a blistering performance of 'Esther's Nose Job' on which Ratledge can be heard whipping out one of his trademark spiky solos. Hopper's bass is characteristically fuzzy. Wyatt's contributes a brief interlude of echoing scat before Dean visits and extemporises on what would later become 'Pigling Bland' on Soft Machine 5. Wyatt has the last word, explaining his treated vocals. He states that he's said all he had to say in lyric form and is now exploring all the other things you can do with the mouth. Those elements of humour and irony would soon be lost from the Softs for good.
But in other ways his legacy is very much alive on this cd including part of the instrumental section of 'Moon In June' where he powers along underpinning Ratledge's solo. He also sings some of 'Pig' from 'Volume Two' And, of course, there is the resurrected demo of the whole piece from 1968/9. The liner notes suggest that only a piece of technological necromancy could have made its existence possible. Well, it has survived the years pretty well, despite some missing grooves! Wyatt plays everything on the first section then invites Hopper and Ratledge to join him on the second. The section about him living in New York State and missing the English rain still sounds as poignant as it did back on 'Third'. Maybe even more so. This version, for me, stands up there with the one they did for the Peel Sessions and adds another piece to the history of a truly exciting live band. May there be more to come.
© Paul Donnelly 2002