Gibbons lives in a Perfectamundo!

William Frederick Gibbons, or Billy Gibbons, as he prefers to be called, waited until his sixty sixth year to release his first solo record – Perfectamundo. With about forty years worth of ZZ Top under his belt, and iconic status in the world of blues/rock guitar already copper-fastened, there was a fair amount of excitement mixed with trepidation as to what kind of sermon the Reverend would deliver. Would this album consist of nothing more than a collection of ZZ Top out-takes, or maybe it would just serve as a vehicle for some self-indulgent fret board noodling? …. Or maybe something else?

Photo: Antti Salonen, Finland 2010
Photo: Antti Salonen, Finland 2010
‘Got Love if You Want it’ kicks off the record with a bombastic, staccato intro and before you get a chance to wonder where this is all going, it settles into a sultry, Latin groove with Billy’s guitar cutting through like a hot knife through butter. No creamy, suave ‘Santanaesque’ style licks to be heard here though, just Gibbons’ trademark gritty, edgy, tone sprinkled with enough dust from a Texas desert to remind you of just who’s in charge. The song pretty much sets the tone for what’s to follow; a mix of blues, rock and Latin jazz set to a backdrop of Cuban rhythm with Billy Gibbons’ gravelly voice box and cutting guitar taking centre stage.

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There’s a real natural flow to the music and it doesn’t sound contrived or forced in any way  – BG really pulls it off, but then again why wouldn’t he? As a kid, Billy began his musical career as a percussionist and was sent by his father to study with the great Tito Puente in New York. There’s always been a shot of Havana in the ZZ Top cocktail – album titles such as Deguello or Tres Hombres for example. Their minimalistic style of blues rock always relied heavily on a solid beat, and odd percussive breaks are littered throughout. To Billy the beat has always been king and I think making this record really gave him a chance to bring that part of his musical persona to the fore.

Photo: Craig O'Neal from Wikipedia Commons
Photo: Craig O’Neal from Wikipedia Commons
Gibbons has always shown himself to be wide open to influences from outside of his comfort zone and this record is no exception. There are even echoes of the type of sonic experimentation which characterised classic ZZ Top albums such as Afterburner or Eliminator, especially evident on the title track ‘Perfectamundo.’

The guitar work on the album is superb. Gibbons isn’t trying to break new ground here. He’s just doing what he does best, and he’s the best at what he does. His understated, relaxed, almost lazy style of pentatonic based blues guitar has sustained him through an era where neo-classical, super-sonic shredding was standard fare and it sustains him still. He’s got that rare gift among guitarists in that he can cut you in half with three notes. Also, when you hear him play, you know it’s him.

This album is the product of a musician who in recent years has really been on top of his game. The 2012 Rick Rubin produced ZZ Top album, ‘La Futura’ is arguably one of the finest in the band’s catalogue and with his first solo album Billy Gibbons is showing no signs of slowing down.

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Astral Weak?

Van Morrison’s 2015 rerelease of the classic Astral Weeks — hit or miss?  Liam Ronayne explores:

Astral Weeks was acknowledged as one of the best reissues of 2015 in many end-of-year lists.  This reissue is, nevertheless, a peculiar thing.  The sound is definitely better – warmer, richer – than the first time it was issued on CD, and one can appreciate  Richard Davis’s bass-playing even more.  Plus, there are four additional tracks.

But it could have been so much more, with little effort and just a bit of imagination from the record company.

Unlike the Moondance ‘expanded edition’ of 2013, which gave us a second CD of earlier takes and alternative versions and thus adding to our enjoyment of the record, there is nothing like that here.  In fact the strongest reaction is that of an opportunity missed.

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Order of songs

When Morrison played the entire set of Astral Weeks live in November 2008 (40 years after its original release) he made it clear that he had wanted the order of the songs to be different to how they were on the original.  He had wanted the album to reflect the thematic and emotional development of the songs, culminating in ‘Madame Joy’.

Lewis Merenstein was the man chosen by Warner Brothers to produce the album.  Merenstein brought his own vision to it, and saw that the songs needed jazz musicians rather than R’n’B sessionmen.  There is no reason to believe that Merenstein wanted to sabotage Morrison’s vision; it was just that the time limits imposed by vinyl meant that he had to change Morrison’s order.  Morrison’s preference would have meant the first side was 19 mins 40 sec but the second 26 mins 25 sec.

Astral_Weeks_Track_Order

Full length versions and ‘bonus’ tracks

There has been some (not much, to be honest) controversy about whether there was extra music in the Warner Brothers vaults from the Astral Weeks sessions of Sept–Oct 1968.  Morrison alluded to there being two songs but, in his usual elliptical way, Merenstein was always clear that there was nothing.

The two previously unheard takes included on the reissue – ‘Beside You’ and ‘Madame George’ – do not add much.  The rough versions of these two, recorded when Morrison was under contract to Bert Berns, are more interesting, as we can hear how much the songs developed over 12 months.  These versions were included in a ragbag compilation called This is where I came in, released in 1977 by Bang, which collected the eight tracks issued on Blowin’ your mind with the less awful tracks Morrison had to cut to satisfy his contract obligations with Berns.

The long version of ‘Ballerina’ is welcome, but the ‘full’ version of ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is a bit of a mystery.  Apparently those who played on the session remembered that the song developed into a long jazz improvisation, but we only get a hint of that here.

Madame Joy’ or ‘Madame George’?

When this classic song was first recorded it was known as ‘Madame Joy’, and it was under this title that Morrison played it at the Hollywood Bowl in November 2008.  Maybe you’d need to be an expert on the East Belfast accent to be absolutely sure, but to these ears it sounds like he’s singing ‘Joy’ more often than ‘George’.

So how might it have been better?

Simple:  A two-disc reissue, with the ‘original’ Merenstein album as Disc 1, and with Disc 2 using Morrison’s preferred order, the original title ‘Madame Joy’, and the (slightly) longer takes of ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Slim Slow Slider’.

Then let the public decide which is better.

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian

Credit: Photo used in header image of Van Morrison at Notodden Blues Festival 2013 by Jarvin. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Joy of Ewan

The Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl – Various Artists

Fifty years ago, at the height of Ireland’s so-called ‘ballad boom’, The Johnstons had a number one hit with Ewan McColl’s ‘The Travelling People’.  The following year Paul Brady joined the group, which had started out as three Johnston siblings.  So it’s a pleasure to hear Brady’s hearty version of the song – here called ‘Freeborn Man’ – on the double CD album issued in autumn 2015 to mark the centenary of Ewan MacColl’s birth.

Brady’s is one of four songs from MacColl’s 1964 BBC Radio Ballads ‘The Travelling People’ set.  Of these Karine Polwart’s ‘The Terror Time’ is the strongest, and indeed it is the standout track from an excellent album.

She is one of the younger artists featured.  As well as Paul Brady, the album features long-established singers like Christy Moore, English folk veterans Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson (and their daughter Eliza Carty), plus Scottish legend Dick Gaughan (a typically fiery and passionate ‘Jamie Foyers’, one of MacColl’s earliest compositions, about a Scot who died in the Spanish Civil War).

Joy-Of-Living_A-Tribute-to-Ewan-MacColl_2
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It is the younger artists who, surprisingly perhaps, bring most to the set.  Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche do a fabulous version of ‘Sweet Thames, Flow Softly’, for example.  It would surely have pleased MacColl to see the tradition being carried on.

MacColl was a master of the simple direct lyric.  He did not believe in art for art’s sake, rather that songs, theatre and other artforms must aid the cause.  In ‘The Moving On Song’ he contrasts the lot of a traveller baby with the Christ child

“Born at the back of a blackthorn hedge
When the white hoarfrost lay all around
No wise men came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift . . .”

and

“The wise men came so stern and strict
And brought the order to evict”

Other highlights here are two of MacColl’s lesser-known songs:
‘The Father’s Song’, in a great version by Martin Simpson, is both
a lullaby for a son, and a no-punches-pulled indictment of the social order that son will soon encounter.

“Stop crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons of bitches”

Kathryn Williams’ ‘Alone’, written after MacColl met a teenage girl on the streets of Salford in the 1960s, is hauntingly beautiful.

Liam Ronayne
Liam Ronayne, Cork City Librarian

Bob Dylan’s Cutting Edge!

Random thoughts on Bootleg Series 12

I didn’t recognize most of the songs, why doesn’t he do them like the records?” is a common complaint of people who attend occasional Bob Dylan gigs.  Listening to the three versions of ‘Just Like a Woman’ on the recently released The Cutting Edge: Bootleg Series vol. 12 might make such people think again.  We hear Dylan and his band of Nashville studio musicians try three very different versions of the song: different tempos, different lyrics, until they get close to the version that was released on Blonde on Blonde.  But was that the ‘definitive’ version?  Some years after, when he went back on the road with The Band, he sang the song solo (available on the live album Before the Flood), a version more passionate and pointed in its delivery than the studio version.

It’s a similar story with ‘Visions of Johanna’, one of Dylan’s great songs of that or any era.  For Dylan fans it is an article of faith that Levon & The Hawks, the group of four Canadians and one Arkansan (Levon Helm) that became The Band, were his best collaborators.  Despite his rapport with them, so evident on The Basement Tapes: Bootleg Series vol. 11, he just can’t get them to give him what he wants here.  It is ironic then that it was “the flawless musicality of Nashville’s session players”, to quote the liner notes (with the vital addition of Al Kooper on organ), that delivered the sound and dynamic he wanted for that quintessential New York song ‘Visions of Johanna’.  He made at least 14 takes with the Hawks in New York, but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t nail it.  Two months later in Nashville he had what he wanted, after a couple of false starts and just one full take.

Bob Dylan Studio Portraits Side Light: 1965-330-007-082 Manhattan, New York, USA 1965

But less than six months later, on the 1966 European tour, Dylan was singing ‘Visions of Johanna’, solo — just his voice, guitar, and harmonica.  The version recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (the same gig that has the infamous ‘Judas’ shout) is equally as strong as the Blonde on Blonde version, and allows us to digest and understand things we don’t get from the studio version with backing musicians.

Maybe it’s best to just listen to, and accept, whatever version Dylan is in the mood to give us?

With this release, as with many box sets, it could be said that it’s for people with more money than sense.  And indeed in a throwaway culture why should anyone be buying music laid down almost five decades ago?  Except that it is so wonderful to listen to, so wonderful to immerse yourself in.  That a good enough reason?

Liam Ronayne

 

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian

 

Rory Gallagher Music Library Logo

A Treasure Trove of Taste!

Liam Ronayne, Cork City Librarian — as those who know him are aware — is a huge music fan and is always happy to spend a coffee break chatting about the latest goings-on in the music world or about revered legends of the past. It isn’t often, however, that Liam would have the time to put pen to paper on the subject, but considering that this is Rory Gallagher & Taste and that Liam himself is a fan, he’s gone that extra mile: 

The Taste Box Set, I’ll Remember — recently released by UMG / Polydor — is a four-disk treasure trove.

On disk 3, the five numbers culled from a 1970 BBC Radio 1 live set are introduced by John Peel, so laid-back he’s virtually horizontal. Peel remarks that, “Taste are one of those bands . . . who need to be seen and heard live to be fully appreciated”. That’s a view that most would agree with, borne out here by pillars of Taste’s live set, like ‘Catfish’, ‘Gamblin Blues’ and ‘Sugar Mama’, and by the version of ‘What’s Going On’ captured live in Stockholm not long before the band split up, which breathes so much more into the song than the studio version. Gallagher’s legendary energy, fantastic technique, and joy in the music are all to be found in the many live cuts over the four disks, and especially on the Stockholm set.

But it would be very wrong to overlook the beautifully crafted songs that make up ‘On the Boards’, Taste’s second studio album. This is a very special artefact in itself, and much more than a keepsake of the live sets. In the title track, the band, all three of them, stretch out to great effect: the dynamic, the groove, the bluesy sound all remind us what was lost when they did split up.

Another rare Taste postcard

Another unmissable aspect of the Box Set for Rory fans from this part of the world is having a full 56 minutes of the original line-up from 1968, with Eric Kitteringham on bass and Norman ‘Sticks’ D’Amery on drums. Seven numbers were recorded in the Maritime Hotel, Belfast (Van Morrison & Them’s old stomping ground) as a demo to interest record labels; there are versions of ‘Blister on the Moon’ and ‘Born on the Wrong Side of Time’, recorded as singles for the Major Minor label (run by Belfast promoter Phil Solomon), songs that were re-recorded with Wilson and McCracken for Taste’s debut album on Polydor the following year. The four tracks recorded at the Woburn Abbey Festival in England in the summer of 1968 showcase a lively, powerful band, with a great sense of fun.

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian