The most gifted and accomplished jazz singer of her generation, Cassandra Wilson strikes out in new directions—with spectacular results—on her latest Blue Note album, thunderbird.
Set for release on April 4, 2006, thunderbird is Cassandra Wilson’s sixth Blue Note release, the fifteenth album of her stellar career, and her first collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett.
At first glance, the contents of thunderbird may seem familiar to those listeners who have embraced such albums as Cassandra’s Grammy Award-winning New Moon Daughter (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1996). There’s a classic blues, a folk ballad, a couple of entries from contemporary songwriters, and three originals co-written by the artist.
But no other Cassandra Wilson album has had a sound quite like this one: dense, humid, almost tactile, characterized by live-on-the-floor performances accented by studio technology but still retaining their essential organic qualities. An acoustic bass line may play subtly throughout the tack, then move into the foreground with sudden and dramatic impact. A lone slide guitar, intertwined with Cassandra’s voice, can conjure the weight and density of a full band.
Credit Cassandra Wilson with once again breaking free of familiar formulae and easy routes. Credit producer T Bone Burnett with thunderbird’s atmospheric magic, and for assembling an exceptional supporting cast in sessions that took place between November 2004 through January 2005 at various studios in L.A. (Capitol, The Village Recorder, The Green Room, and T Bone’s own Electro Magnetic) and New York (Dangerous Music).
“You know, most modern recording studios are pretty much the same,” Cassandra notes. “That is, unless you doctor them. I think great producers know how to do that, and T Bone Burnett is certainly in that group of great producers.
“He makes certain modifications that I can’t really go into detail about, because I think they’re secret. There are personal techniques that he uses in order to cater the studio, to get the sounds he wants to get.”
(Not for nothing was Burnett named Non-Classical Producer of the Year in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. That 2002 ceremony celebrated his work on the multi-platinum soundtrack album O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its sequel Down From the Mountain as well as on the album Fan Dance by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips. T Bone has worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, and produced and/or composed music for such films as The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and the forthcoming All the King’s Men starring Sean Penn and Jude Law.)
About that supporting cast: Keefus Ciancia (piano, keyboards, programming) has worked with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Fishbone, Macy Gray, Allison Krauss, and Elvis Costello, and with vocalist Jade Vincent in the duo Vincent & Mr. Green. Electric bassist Mike Elizondo has become a marquee name on the on the charts through his songwriting and production for 50 Cent (“In Da Club”), Eminem (“Just Lose It,”), and Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” featuring Gwen Stefani).
Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden first worked with T Bone Burnett in 2000, when he contributed a version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” to O Brother Where Art Thou? Cassandra Wilson’s thunderbird crew also includes two members of her most recent touring band, Reginald Veal (acoustic bass) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica); guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and Marc Ribot; and the drummers Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner, and Bill Maxwell.
Cassandra Wilson Talks About Songs From thunderbird
“Go To Mexico” – Cassandra, Keefus Ciancia, and Mike Elizondo created “Go To Mexico” from a studio jam. The vocal sample—the only such sound source heard on thunderbird—came from a vintage recording by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a legendary tribe of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Cassandra later added lyrics to the instrumental track.
“‘Go To Mexico’ was something we did at the tail end of the sessions. Mike started playing that sample, and we just started playing along with it. The sound and the tempo of those [sampled] voices is not a mechanical thing—it has a very life-like quality, and it became almost like another musician in the room.”
“Collaborating with more than one writer to this extent was a whole new experience for me, and I really enjoyed it.”
“I Want to Be Loved” – Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones recorded this Willie Dixon composition in up-tempo arrangements. But Cassandra’s version is slowed-down and playfully sensual, her voice framed by the guitars of Keb’ Mo’ and Colin Linden and the loose, funky duel drumming of Jim Keltner and Bill Maxwell.
“Colin Linden is someone I’d just met through T Bone, and he is wicked on that slide guitar! Colin turned me on to the song. I like to do these vintage blues songs, to make them part of my projects whenever I can.”
“Closer to You” – Composer Jakob Dylan introduced “Closer to You” on the Wallflowers’ 2002 album Red Letter Days. Cassandra plays acoustic guitar on this beautiful interpretation, with its remarkable Reginald Veal bass solo and Keefus keyboard accents. Even before the release of thunderbird, Cassandra had begun including “Closer to You” in her live shows.
“T Bone introduced me to that song and I fell in love with it. I really fell in love with the lyrics—I learned a lot about intimacy from singing the song and studying the lyrics. I think Jakob Dylan is like his father, an incredible songwriter. There’s so much depth of emotion in his simple words and plain language.”
“Easy Rider” – Cassandra transforms a Blind Lemon Jefferson classic of the Twenties into a dramatic, intoxicating seven-minute blues epic for the 21st century. It’s as close as we’ve ever heard her come—at least on disc—to the sound and spirit of Jimi Hendrix.
“There are two different blues songs known as ‘Easy Rider’—the one that’s often titled ‘C.C. Rider,’ and this one. I gravitated towards Blind Lemon’s song because of the lyrics, which are very strong, very powerful, and not typical: ‘There’s gonna be a time when a woman don’t need no man/So hush your mouth, stop raisin’ sand…’
“I’m a big fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and that whole Texas crowd. I like to study all those different country blues styles—from the Delta, from southern Mississippi, from Louisiana and East Texas.”
“Lost” – This romantic ballad, with its echoes of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, is one of two tracks (along with “Strike a Match”) composed by T Bone Burnett for the Wim Wenders film Don’t Come Knocking (2005, with Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange). Co-produced by J.D. Foster, the song is perfectly rendered with nothing more than Cassandra’s tender vocal and Marc Ribot’s electric guitar.
“’Lost’ is definitely from that ‘standards’ school of songwriting, and this track was a whole performance with Ribot—a master, one of my favorite guitar guys.
“I always work from an entire performance. If you have problems with the sound—say, if there’s leakage—then you might have to go in and fix something. But I try not to go back and change that performance, because you can feel the difference even if you alter one line.”
Cassandra describes the thunderbird recordings as “a blueprint for the way these songs will be performed live. I still consider myself a jazz musician and a jazz vocalist, so improvisation naturally becomes a part of whatever we do on stage.
“You want the songs to grow in public, to develop a life apart from the recording—and I’m sure they will.”
On his classic 1967 album A Man And The Blues, Buddy Guy sang:
I think I’ll move back down South, where the weather suits my clothes
I done laid ’round this big city so long, man…oooh, until I almost done froze
On his new album Sweet Tea (Silvertone/Jive), Buddy Guy moves his music “back down South”–turning loose his incendiary guitar and powerfully expressive voice on a set of dirt-road rural blues originating from the hill country of North Mississippi.
This style of hill-country blues is separate and distinct from the Mississippi Delta blues pioneered by pre-war performers like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton, and later amplified (literally and figuratively) by such Delta migrants to Chicago as Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk. In contrast to the familiar 12-bar blues pattern, the North Mississippi style is characterized by elongated bar lines and one- or two-chord modal forms. There is a kind of trance-inducing drone quality to these blues that seems to draw upon the music’s deepest West African wellsprings.
This album could be subtitled “Buddy Guy Sings Fat Possum,” for seven of its nine songs are taken from the repertoires of hill-country stalwarts like Robert Cage, T-Model Ford, and the late Junior Kimbrough. The musical careers of these men—along with those of R.L. Burnside, Paul “Wine” Jones, and Robert Belfour, among others—were either initiated or revived by the iconoclastic Fat Possum Records of Oxford, Mississippi. Today, Fat Possum’s catalog encompasses both raw field recordings (Junior Kimbrough’s Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, Johnny Farmer’s Wrong Doers Respect Me) and startling collaborations by country blues elders with contemporary remixers and rappers (R.L. Burnside’s Mr. Wizard, the various-artists collection New Beats From The Delta).
Jim “Jimbo” Malthus is a founding member of Squirrel Nut Zippers and the sure-handed rhythm guitarist on Sweet Tea. A native of Oxford, Mississippi, he notes that until the first Fat Possum albums arrived in 1991, “people that lived 20 miles from R.L. Burnside in Mississippi didn’t know about his music. I used to deer hunt in Holly Springs [Burnside’s home town] every year of my life, and I never knew about any juke joints around there.”
From the solo acoustic moan of “Done Got Old” to the last searing strains of his own composition “It’s A Jungle Out There,” the droning force of the hill-country style and the alternately ecstatic and agonized delivery of Buddy Guy make for one intense combination. Bassist Davey Faragher locks in with Jimbo Malthus on the hypnotic rhythms and heaving chord changes, pushed relentlessly by one of three drummers on the album—either the indigenous blues veterans Spam (of T-Model Ford’s band) and Sam Carr, or Los Angeles import Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & the Attractions, John Hiatt).
Together, they can make the 12-minute workout “I Got To Try You Girl” seem to go by in half the time, and take Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” to a place beyond not only his original 1967 version but those of Otis Redding and Salt-N-Pepa as well. The razor-sharp mix by album producer Dennis Herring and Clay Jones creates an almost palpably humid atmosphere, with Buddy’s voice and guitar cutting through it like summer lightning in the Mississippi night.
Born in the hamlet of Lettsworth, Louisiana on July 30, 1936, Buddy Guy has lived in Chicago since 1957. But the sound of Sweet Tea “takes me way back,” he says. Back to Lightnin’ Slim, who sat on the porch of the Lettsworth general store and played the first electric guitar Buddy ever heardback to his own early years on the rough Baton Rouge club circuit, as a fledgling guitarist in the bands of “Big Poppa” John Tilley and blues harp master Raful Neal.
“It reminds me of some of the things in the beginning—the Smokey Hoggs, the Sonny Boy Williamsons, the Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Buddy recalls. “All those people just playin’ for a drop of the dime in the hat. The Saturday night fish fries—you had fun, you woke up the next morning with a headache, you just drank the wine or the beer, grab the guitar and go doin’ it again.”
Yet Sweet Tea is not necessarily the album this artist would have made on his own. Beginning with Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues in 1991, the four-time Grammy Award winner (including Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1991, 1993 and 1995) has recorded contemporary songs by John Hiatt and Denise LaSalle alongside blues classics by Jimmy Reed and Charles Brown. His five Silvertone albums have featured guest appearances by friends ranging from Travis Tritt and Paul Rodgers to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. (Guy’s fourth Grammy Award—Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1996—was for “SRV Shuffle,” an all-star jam track from A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan).
But Sweet Tea would be a brand-new bag for Buddy Guy, conceived and organized by his long-time fan Dennis Herring. In 1997, this well-respected producer of best-selling albums by Counting Crows and Jars of Clay had relocated his Los Angeles studio back to his home state of Mississippi.
“I just found myself getting steeped in that sound,” explains Dennis, who grew up in a small town near Tupelo. “I saw a T-Model Ford show, just him and Spam, that blew me away. You’d hear that music everywhere, almost in a subliminal way, like part of the water—yet it was a kind of music that even the general blues audience hadn’t really been exposed to.”
Herring continues: “I’ve always been a huge Buddy Guy fan, though I felt that in recent years his records had gotten very ‘studio-like.’ But about three years ago, I heard him on a live radio broadcast and he sounded so incredible”
“So in the back of my mind was the wish for Buddy to make a record in a setting that was older, more real, that would capture the energy and intensity he still has. And I wanted to see an outside artist come in and expose this hill-country style to a whole new audience. Finally, it all just clicked.”
“Buddy was a little out of his element at first,” Jimbo Malthus recalls. “He would say [referring to his classic Chess Records sessions of the early Sixties], ‘Well, the Chess brothers would make you have at least four verses before you cut a song.’ Whereas a lot of this stuff is more repetitive, more of a feeling than a particular lyric or verses, and sometimes very idiosyncratic. It would have been daunting for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the style, but Buddy just jumped right in.”
“Every time he came in the studio, it was like a gift he was pouring out. We played five or six hours straight, every night, all in one big room.”
The Sweet Tea sessions took place over ten days in July 2000, with band and producer rehearsing the songs—but not too much—for a few days before Buddy’s arrival.
“I was feelin’ just like I felt when Muddy Waters and them would call me to come in and make a session with them,” says Buddy about the deceptively casual but relentless playing of the Sweet Tea band. “I never did go in and rehearse with the Wolf, Muddy or Little Walter. They would have these other guys ready to make this session, and they would say, ‘Well, I know who’ll play it right. Call Buddy.’ And sometimes they would get me out of bed and I would go in.”
“So when these guys was brought in, I’m listenin’ at this and sayin’ “Wow, I can play this—I feel good behind this!” And whatever the song was, the guys played great.”
Buddy employed his trusty Fender Stratocaster on “80 or 90 per cent” of Sweet Tea. He loved the selection of vintage amplifiers assembled by Dennis Herring.
“He went back and pulled out some of these old amps,” Buddy enthuses. “I said, ‘Man, leave that right there!’ That’s the way amplifiers used to be—all you had to do was just go in the studio and plug it in. Those things got a tone, a tone like you can’t find in amplifiers anymore now. When Dennis brought those amps out down there, the hair stood on my head.”
In 2001, Buddy Guy is still the king of Chicago blues. But Sweet Tea shows how much more of the blues—how much more music—lives within in him, more than 40 years into his amazing career.
“You never lose things like that,” says Buddy Guy of this vivid, vital, down-home sound. “That’s the way music was before it got too much tech and too many people. People just learnt it, man, and you’d just go on and on.”
“If you came up in that time like I did, you don’t lose that, ever.”
For the Allman Brothers Band, the road goes on forever. But when spring comes around, the veteran touring group pulls into the venerable Beacon Theatre in New York City for its annual “March Madness” run of SRO performances.
On March 24, 2002, the Brothers played the ninth and final show of their 2002 Beacon Theatre series. With this performance, the band extended its record to a total of 112 sold-out Beacon shows since the inception of “March Madness” with four shows in 1989.
The month of March is a significant one in the Brothers’ history. On March 26, 1969 in Jacksonville, Florida, guitarist Duane Allman convened a jam session with bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts, and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks. It was the first musical meeting of the group, which—with the addition of Duane’s younger brother Gregory Allman on vocals and Hammond organ—would become The Allman Brothers Band—one of the most acclaimed and influential groups in the history of rock and roll. In addition, “March Madness” coincides with the anniversary of the March 12-13, 1971 re¬cording of the band’s landmark double live album, At Fillmore East.
Thus, the annual Beacon Theatre run serves as both a commemoration of the Brothers’ incredible history and a testament to their creative vitality. Now, the sounds of “March Madness” are captured on Peakin’ At The Beacon, the new live album from the Allman Brothers Band (Epic Records/Sony Music) , recorded over 13 nights (March 9-25, 2000) at the Beacon Theatre. These performances were dedicated to the memory of the late Joe Dan Petty, the Brothers’ long-serving guitar tech, who died in January 2000 in the crash of his private plane near Macon, Georgia.
In compiling this 74-minute collection, the band members made a conscious effort to select songs not previously performed on the live albums At Fillmore East (1971), An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band (1992), and Second Set (1995). Indeed, the ten songs on Peakin’ At The Beacon bring the Brothers “back where it all began” with no less than four tunes from their self-titled 1969 debut album. These include the opening medley of instrumental rave-up “Don’t Want You No More” and Gregg Allman’s slow blues “It’s Not My Cross To Bear,” and the blues-rock classic “Every Hungry Woman” and “Black Hearted Woman.”
Other highlights include Gregg’s moving and mournful soul ballad “Please Call Home,” from the 1970 album Idlewild South; and Dickey Betts’ vocal feature “Seven Turns,” the title track from the Brothers’ 1990 comeback album and Epic label debut. Peakin’ At The Beacon closes with the incredible instrumental journey known as “High Falls.” The song first appeared on Win, Lose Or Draw (1975), but this version—nearly 30 minutes in length—explores the full range of its melodic and rhythmic potential, including an extended break featuring ABB drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks and percussionist Marc Quiñones. “High Falls” garnered a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental in the 43rd annual Grammy Awards.
The Brothers’ 2000 shows marked the Beacon Theatre debut of Derek Trucks, who replaced Jack Pearson in the lineup in the summer of ‘99. The 21 year-old slide guitar prodigy is the nephew of drummer and founding band member Butch Trucks. When not on the road with the ABB, Derek tours tirelessly with his own Derek Trucks Band, which has released two albums (The Derek Trucks Band and Out Of The Madness). Derek has toured as a member of Phil Lesh & Friends, and has recorded with Gregg Allman, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Copeland, and Junior Wells. On stage, he’s sat in with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and Susan Tedeschi, to name a few.
In May 2000, the Brothers announced that guitarist Dickey Betts had been replaced by Jimmy Herring for the remainder of their 2000 touring season. The following spring, Warren Haynes had rejoined the group as its lead guitarist. The Brothers toured relentlessly in 2001 as Warren juggled his own band Gov’t Mule and a prior commitment to gigs with Phil Lesh & Friends. March 2002 finds the Brothers’ lineup solidified, with Haynes entrenched in the guitar slot along with slide guitar sensation Derek Trucks. The band debuted new songs at the Beacon this spring from an album that is already partially recorded for release in the near future. The “Peach Corps” of ABB fans have made this year’s nine shows an instant sell¬out, running the band’s career total to 112 sold-out nights at the Beacon Theater
The Story So Far
The Allman Brothers Band defined Southern Rock. The originators of a sound that continues to be hugely influential on contemporary rock, they spawned a host of bands that drew on their model—proving only that the genius of the ABB could be imitated, but never duplicated.
In 1969, Florida-born guitarist Duane Allman left Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he’d established himself as an in-demand session player on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, and Boz Scaggs, among others. Seeking to form his own dream band, Allman recruited bassist Berry Oakley and guitarist Dickey Betts from a Jacksonville, Florida band called The Second Coming.
He also tapped not one but two drummers: the r&b veteran Jaimoe (then known as Jai Johanny Johanson), who had worked with Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Percy Sledge; and Butch Trucks, late of a Jacksonville folk-rock group, The 31st Of February. Hammond B-3 organist and lead vocalist Gregg Allman had recorded two albums with brother Duane as part of the LA-based band Hourglass, and was developing into one of the finest white blues singers of all time.
The Allman Brothers Band’s sonic trademarks were all in place by the time their self-titled debut album was released in 1969 (see discography below). Driven by the relentless propulsion of Jaimoe and Butch, Gregg’s colorful keyboard comping and Berry’s deep, melodic bass lines, Dickey Betts and Duane Allman crafted a unique twin lead guitar approach which took its cues from both jazz horn players (particularly Miles Davis and John Coltrane) and the twin-fiddle lines of western swing and bluegrass. Together, they rewrote the rulebook on how rock guitarists could play together, and paved the way for every two- and even three-guitar band that followed in the ABB’s wake.
“Most fans had never heard anything quite like the mercurial solos and meticulous counterpoint effortlessly unreeled by Duane Allman and Betts,” wrote author Joe Nick Patoski in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992, Random House). “In many respects, indeed, the Allman Brothers Band had become one of the most impressive bands in the country.”
On their first four classic recordings—The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, At The Fillmore East, and Eat A Peach—the ABB perfected a sound that effortlessly combined rock, blues, country and jazz on such unforgettable original tunes as “Dreams,” “Revival,” “Midnight Rider,” “Melissa,” and “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.” By 1971, they were poised for superstardom. Even the tragic deaths of both Duane Allman (on October 29, 1971) and bassist Berry Oakley (on November 11, 1972) in eerily similar motorcycle accidents couldn’t stop the band’s upward trajectory.
The success of the No. 2 Pop single “Ramblin’ Man” was the start of a mid-Seventies run (with the four surviving original members joined by bassist Lamar Williams and keyboardist Chuck Leavell) that ended only when internal conflicts sundered the group in 1975. A third incarnation of the ABB was formed in 1978 for the album Enlightened Rogues but after two further albums, the group disbanded once again.
Yet the pull of their roots proved too strong for the Brothers to remain apart forever. In the summer of 1989, the Allman Brothers Band launched a 20th Anniversary Tour with Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe complemented by slide guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody (percussionist Marc Quiñones joined in 1991). Signed to Epic Records, the new lineup returned to the recording studio with Tom Dowd for three studio albums and two live sets. (Dowd is the legendary producer and engineer who manned the controls for Idlewild South, Eat A Peach, and Enlightened Rogues.) Of the ABB’s Epic label debut Seven Turns, The New Yorker wrote: “The Brothers play with the energy of teenagers and the ornery wildness of veteran blues men.”
In an increasingly predictable world of prefabricated pop, the ABB’s peerless musicianship and extravagant flights of improvisation earned the group a new audience—one that transcended generational and regional boundaries. Their lengthy annual tours grew to include multi-night stands: six shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, five nights at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. In October 1989, the Allman Brothers Band headlined the Beacon Theatre in New York City for four nights, inaugurating a live performance tradition.
Nineteen ninety-four was a banner year, though not an untypical one, in the recent history of the Allman Brothers Band. The group made five live network television appearances; played 90 live dates including the H.O.R.D.E. tour, which the Brothers headlined; turned in one of the best, most exciting sets of Woodstock ‘94; and was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility. “In terms of sheer creativity, they’re experiencing the strongest second wind of any act,” noted The New York Daily News. “For sheer soloing ability, not only do the Allman Brothers run circles around any¬one of the present generation, they outperform anyone of their own…Their road deserves to go on forever.”
In the 38th Annual Grammy Awards held in February 1996, the Allman Brothers Band won the first Grammy in its 27-year history: Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Jessica,” a track from the acclaimed live album 2nd Set. This 16-minute improvisation may be the longest single non-classical performance ever to win a Grammy. (Another track from 2nd Set, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” was also nominated in the Pop Instrumental category.)
In the spring of 1997, Warren Haynes and Allen Woody left the Allman Brothers Band. Their successors were Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jack Pearson on guitar. Acclaimed by critics and fans alike as the rising star of electric bass, Oteil also performs with his own band, the Peacemakers, and on occasional reunion shows by his former group, Aquarium Rescue Unit.
[Warren and Allen, along with drummer Matt Abts, found an eager audience for their new band Gov’t. Mule. Sadly, Allen Woody died at the age of 44 on August 26, 2000. In September, the Brothers organized and performed at “One For Woody,” an all-star benefit concert at Roseland Ballroom in New York. The evening featured over five hours of music by the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh & Friends, The Black Crowes, and special guests Little Milton, Leslie West, and Edwin McCain.]
In June 1998, Epic Records released Mycology: An Anthology. This collection features eight tracks culled from the Brothers’ Epic catalog: “Good Clean Fun” and “Seven Turns” from Seven Turns; “End of The Line” and “Get On With Your Life” from Shades Of Two Worlds (1991); “Nobody Knows” from An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band (1992); “Sailin’ Cross The Devil’s Sea” from 2nd Set (1995); and “No One To Run With” and “Back Where It All Begins,” from Where It All Begins (released 1994, certified gold in November 1997). In addition, Mycology includes two bonus tracks: a live acoustic version of “Midnight Rider” from the limited-edition benefit CD for the Rhett’s Syndrome Foundation; and a previously unreleased version of “Every Hungry Woman,” recorded live at the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival by the original lineup of the Allman Brothers Band.
The Brothers have toured nationally every year since 1989, averaging over 60 live shows per year. The tradition continues in 2002 when the Allman Brothers Band returns to the Beacon Theatre for the next installment of “March Madness.”
Perhaps no one has said it better than Willie Nelson in his induction of the Brothers into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
“The Allman Brothers Band took what moved them and merged it into something unique that audiences love: a sound that redefined the direction of rock and roll, and opened the doors to a spirit of experinentation that continues in today’s music.
“The Allman Brothers Band were and still are one of the most exciting live bands ever to hit the stage. They became road warriors with a vengeance and left devoted fans wherever they went…[The ABB is] a band that reflects so many of my sentiments about music: originality, a determination not be confined musically or stylistically but instead to forge your own way and make music that moves you, a devotion to the road, and understanding that beyond pleasing yourself as an artist, the only other consideration should be the people, the fans who come to hear you.
“And so with pleasure, I give you rock and roll’s greatest jammin’ blues band, the Allman Brothers Band!”
Months after the completion of her new Decca/Universal album Easy Come, Easy Go, Marianne Faithfull still sounds amazed by the process and delighted with the results.
“We cut eighteen songs in nine days with just a few takes of each number. I know Miles Davis made Kind of Blue in two days but I think everyone was impressed by the pace we maintained and by our rate of success.
“We really worked on getting it done in one piece, and that was hard work, but the fact that we were all in the room together, the musicians and myself – that’s what gives this recording its urgency. What I liked and what I still enjoy hearing is the air blowing through the tracks: the space between the instruments, the space around my voice.”
The twenty-second album of her fabled career and her first for Universal Decca, Easy Come, Easy Go reunites Marianne Faithfull with producer Hal Willner in their first album-length collaboration since Strange Weather in 1987. (Hal also produced Marianne’s 1990 live set Blazing Away and three tracks on her 2005 release Before The Poison.) On the aural evidence, the passage of time has only strengthened Marianne’s abilities as a vocal interpreter and enhanced Hal’s formidable talents as a song selector and recording director.
“This album really was different to everything we’ve done before – in the method of recording, in the range of songs we chose,” says Marianne. “We have that history between us, and over that time Hal has become even more skilled at what he does. We were both in a very good place in our lives to do this album.”
Hal and Marianne ranged over nearly a century of pop music in choosing the songs for Easy Come, Easy Go. Billie Holiday’s brooding classic “Solitude” (composed in 1934 by Duke Ellington) and Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (a Number One country hit in 1968) blend seamlessly with contemporary songs by Espers (“Children of Stone”), Morrissey (“Dear God Please Help Me”), and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (“Salvation”). In the assured treatments of Easy Come, Easy Go, this very diverse material sounds all of a piece, each composition adding new colors and images to the complete work.
The expansive two-CD set contains a total of eighteen tracks, and on ten songs Marianne is joined by a special guest or two. The striking arrangement of Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby” features Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) and Jarvis Cocker appears on the Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Sean Lennon performs on three songs including “The Phoenix” and (with Chan Marshall a/k/a Cat Power) the Neko Case composition “Hold On, Hold On.” The Wainwright/McGarrigle clan is well represented with Rufus Wainwright singing on “Children of Stone” and Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Rufus’ aunt and mother respectively) adding their unmistakable harmonies to “The Flandycke Shore.” Easy Come, Easy Go closes with the latest chapter of a treasured friendship, now in its fifth decade, as the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards joins Marianne for “Sing Me Back Home.”
Easy Come, Easy Go was recorded in December 2007 at Sear Sound – the oldest continuously operating studio in New York, founded in 1963. The core band assembled by Hal Willner included guitarists Marc Ribot and Barry Reynolds (the latter a crucial contributor to Marianne’s 1979 comeback Broken English), bassist Greg Cohen, keyboard players Rob Burger and Steve Weisberg, and drummer Jim White. Steven Bernstein, Greg Cohen, and Steve Weisberg are credited with arrangements on various tracks including the beautiful clarinet choir heard on “In Germany Before the War” (arr. Greg Cohen) and the New Orleans-style horn lines that illuminate the Bessie Smith title song “Easy Come, Easy Go” (arr. Steven Bernstein).
Following the celebration of her 64th birthday with a trip to India, Marianne Faithfull looks forward with great anticipation to her 2009 stage schedule beginning with an orchestral concert at St. Luke’s Church in London for filming by the BBC. “In the spring I’ll be doing a run of New York shows with the band that made the album. In June I’ll be singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins at the Salle Pleyel in Paris with Dennis Russell Davies conducting, and doing two more shows at the Cite de la Musique with the new songs and the musicians from Easy Come, Easy Go.”
“I’m so very proud of this recording and I can’t wait to sing these songs for an audience. I know there’s much to be fearful about in this world – there always is – but there are also as many reasons to be hopeful I think it’s going to be a fantastic year.”
MARIANNE FAITHFULL TALKS ABOUT SELECTED TRACKS FROM EASY COME, EASY GO
“Down From Dover” (Dolly Parton)
This starkly beautiful song of love and betrayal has been covered several times since Dolly Parton introduced it on her 1970 album The Fairest Of Them All. But no other version wields quite the devastating effect of this one, arranged for small band, horns, and strings by Steve Weisberg.
“Greil Marcus is a critic–well, ‘critic’ is not really the right word for Greil, he’s a writer and a musicologist and he loves a lot of different things. He sent me the book and CD he put together [with Sean Wilentz] called The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. There were a lot of wonderful songs on it and one of them was this Dolly Parton song ‘Down from Dover.’
“One of my gifts is to tell a dramatic story, and this is a really interesting and really dramatic story…I think it’s one of the strongest songs on this record.”
“Ooh Baby Baby” (William “Smokey” Robinson & Pete Moore)
The call-and-response interplay of two singular voices – Marianne Faithfull and Antony Hegarty – transforms Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ heart-rending 1965 ballad. Steven Bernstein did the lush Seventies soul-inspired arrangement, conducted the band (including a saxophone quartet), and played mellophone and glockenspiel.
“It’s a strange idea, you know, for Marianne Faithful to sing a Smokey Robinson R&B song. I was very unsure until I found out that Antony could do it with me, because I couldn’t do all that wild sort of incredible virtuoso singing – he’s got such a beautiful voice. To do the song with Anthony really made it possible…we also listened to a later version by the Honey Cone that was funkier and more extravagant. But this isn’t like Smokey Robinson or the Honey Cone – it’s something completely different.”
“Dear God Please Help Me” (Morrissey/Ennio Morricone/Alain Whyte)
Lou Reed recommended this song to Hal Willner for Marianne’s consideration. Originally issued on Morrissey’s 2006 album Ringleader of the Tormentors, “Dear God Please Help Me” was co-written with famed Italian film music composer Ennio Morricone. Steve Weisberg arranged and conducted the band, which is augmented by a string quartet.
“I love it! The lyrics rang true because I do believe I have to help seek spiritual help all the time—and it helps. But I really loved the whole song, the anguish and drama – quite amazing. It’s an anarchic song, not conformist in any way, and very sexual. I think Morrissey writes very good songs, I’ve always been a great fan of his work.”
“Solitude” (Duke Ellington, with lyrics by Eddie DeLange & Irving Mills)
Circa 1995, Hal Willner recorded a version of this all-time American standard for the Robert Altman film Kansas City. Steven Bernstein’s arrangement is adapted from the earlier ones he created for the Altman soundtrack but it sounds custom-made for Marianne, whose idea it was to include the song on Easy Come, Easy Go.
“It’s always a big challenge to record a famous number like this, because it’s been done so well—what can you bring to it? But in a way, it’s very personal for me and I knew I could put it across…I remember I was a bit late getting to the studio that day but I had a coffee, walked into the vocal booth, and we did it in one take. Sometimes that really works with me, before I know the song too well…I think it’s beautiful. It makes me want to cry.”
“In Germany Before The War” (Randy Newman)
Randy Newman first recorded “In Germany Before the War” on his 1977 album Little Criminals. Bassist Greg Cohen, whose résumé includes several years with Ornette Coleman, arranged and conducted the track for Easy Come, Easy Go.
“Hal told me that Randy really likes this version—which I was delighted to hear, since Randy can be quite critical of other people’s interpretations of his songs…It’s not Weimar, it’s not [Bertolt] Brecht and [Kurt] Weill, but it’s in that mood and I’m really good at bringing that feel to it. The song actually was inspired by the true story of a child-killer in Dusseldorf—Randy’s ex-wife was from Dusseldorf and it was she who first who told him about it.”
“Sing Me Back Home” (Merle Haggard)
Marianne heard this number on a legendary Keith Richards bootleg album of casually-sung country songs on which the Stone’s version of “Sing Me Back Home” very nearly channels the spirit of the late Gram Parsons (1946-1973). The Merle Haggard composition thus was added to the “to do” list of songs she presented to Hal Willner when they began planning Easy Come, Easy Go – and of course Marianne had to call in her old friend for another go-round on this timeless piece of Americana.
“It was one of the songs Keith and Gram Parsons used to sing, when Gram was still alive…that’s probably how Keith got the arrangement. It just is a beautiful song to sing with somebody, and I’m very lucky to have this somebody. Keith was stuck in Toronto after a drug bust [in 1977] and he just went into the studio on his own and made a record, which only ever came out as that bootleg…
“When I first asked Keith if he would help me with this, he sent me a note that said: ‘I will do it for you if you do it for me’ – which is to ‘sing me back home.’ And I wrote back: ‘Of course I will. You can depend on that.’”
MARIANNE FAITHFULL: THE STORY THUS FAR
Born December 29, 1946 in Hampstead, London, Marianne Faithfull became an international pop star at seventeen when her 1964 recording of the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards song “As Tears Go By,” produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, became a Top Ten hit in the UK and reached No. 22 in the US. In the course of two heady years, Marianne placed three more singles in the UK Top Ten and released five albums (Marianne Faithfull reached No. 12 in the US and No. 15 in Britain). Her beauty and charisma led to roles in the 1968 film Girl On A Motorcycle (a/k/a Naked Under Leather) and in British stage productions of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1967) and Hamlet (1969). But by the end of the Sixties, personal problems had brought Marianne’s career to a halt. Her years in the wilderness of drug addiction have been well documented, not least in her entertaining and insightful 1994 autobiography Faithfull.
The singer made a tentative return in 1976 with a country album, Dreamin’ My Dreams, but did not truly re-enter the public consciousness until the release of Broken English in 1979. Its modern-rock sheen and danceable tempos created a catchy framework for her care-worn voice and for the biting sentiments of “Why’d Ya Do It” and the title track (both co-written by Marianne) and her brooding cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Broken English breached the Billboard chart and paved the way for two further well-received releases, Dangerous Acquaintances (1981) and A Child’s Adventure (1983).
In 1985, the Hal Willner-produced tribute album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill featured Marianne Faithfull’s performance of “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife,” on which her voice proved exceptionally suited to Weill’s dramatic compositions. It led, in 1987, to Strange Weather – the singer’s first full-length collaboration with Hal Willner and the first Marianne Faithfull album to be recorded after she’d truly recovered from her addiction. This “dark, challenging masterpiece” (AllMusic.com) included Marianne’s peerless interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan (“I’ll Keep It With Mine”) and Tom Waits (“Strange Weather”) alongside pre-rock and roll standards (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Yesterdays”) and a stunning reprise of her first hit, “As Tears Go By.” (“Forty is the age to sing it, not seventeen,” she later remarked in an interview for Vogue.)
In 1989, Marianne sang the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill oratorio The Seven Deadly Sins at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; writing in The New York Times, John Rockwell praised her “fine blend of dramatic world-weariness, quivering timbral allure, conviction of phrasing and bitterness of declamation.” Another Brooklyn venue, the venerable St. Ann’s Church, was the scene of her live recording Blazing Away (1990), on which Marianne revisited her catalog with an all-star band including Dr. John and Garth Hudson on keyboards; and guitarist Mark Ribot, now heard – a mere eighteen years later – on Easy Come, Easy Go.
Marianne joined forces with noted film composer Angelo Badalementi for the 1995 album A Secret Life; sang The Threepenny Opera at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and released of one of her most admired albums, the Daniel Lanois-produced Vagabond Ways, in 1999. At the turn of the century, she successfully revived her acting career with appearances in Intimacy (2001), Marie Antoinette (2006), and her acclaimed starring role in Irina Palm (2006). She enlisted some of her many friends and admirers in the contemporary pop community for the albums Kissin’ Time (2002, with Billy Corgan, Beck, Pulp, and Blur) and Before The Poison (2004, with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Damon Albarn and Jon Brion). Also in 2004, Marianne Faithfull returned to the stage in The Black Rider, a Faustian musical created by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and the late William Burroughs. Marianne sang the role of “Pegleg” in London, San Francisco, and Sydney until health problems forced her withdrawal from the show. She returned to private life until the fall of 2007, when Fourth Estate Press published her second volume of memoirs, Memories, Dreams And Reflections.
While the defining statements of many artists are made during their early years, Marianne Faithfull continues to develop her own voice: She sets herself aside from her contemporaries in her continuing quest to explore new creative areas in a career that has always been a positive process of self-assertion.
For Clarence Fountain — the 70-something years–young leader of The Blind Boys of Alabama — his earliest memories of Christmas are among the most vivid.
“I must’ve been about three or four years old, living with my family in Tyler, Alabama, in Dallas County. We were out in the country and didn’t get to town but once in a while.
“Christmas was the one day that us kids all got some candy and some apples and oranges. Didn’t have anything else–we were too poor to buy anything else. But I knew it was Christmas, because that was the only time I got those things all at the same time–-the candy and the apples and the oranges.”
Later, when Fountain entered the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind at Talladega, “they had a big male chorus and we always learned Christmas songs like ‘Silent Night.’ You know, the Blind Boys have always wanted to cut a Christmas album. We just never got it together before.”
For Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama, the wait is over. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the first holiday theme album in the group’s 60-year history, as well as their third release for Real World Records. This 12-song collection is a work of both comforting familiarity and startling innovation, with genre-crossing guest vocal appearances by Solomon Burke, George Clinton, Michael Franti, Chrissie Hynde, Shelby Lynne, Les McCann, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, and Tom Waits. There are special instrumental guest performances by Richard Thompson (electric guitar) and Robert Randolph (pedal steel guitar) in addition to a superb studio band, led by organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame) with jump-blues guitar ace Duke Robillard and the peerless rhythm section of Danny Thompson (double bass) and Michael Jerome (drums).
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is produced by John Chelew, producer of the Blind Boys’ two previous Grammy Award-winning albums: Spirit of the Century (2001) and Higher Ground (2002). A percentage of the royalties from the new disc (to be released September 16, 2003) will be donated to the American Diabetes Association. During the ADA’s national convention in June 2003, the Blind Boys of Alabama (three of whose members are diabetic) initiated a major fund-raising campaign with a donation of $5,000 to the organization.
ABOUT THE ALBUM
Here are some selected tracks from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, including comments by the guest performers:
“I Pray On Christmas” with Solomon Burke
Soul music legend Solomon Burke reaches into his potent upper range on this Harry Connick, Jr. composition, and his performance is a vivid reminder of his own deep roots in urban gospel.
“I remember him from when he was a boy preacher in the Fifties,” recalls Clarence Fountain. “He had a church in Philadelphia–and all the time he was singing rock and roll, he was pastoring the church!”
Solomon Burke, for his part, has “always idolized the Blind Boys. They have been around for more than 60 years and still, here they are: the hottest, workin’, movin’, groovin’, jumpin’, singin’, shoutin’ gospel quartet in America–I’d say in the world!”
“Go Tell It On The Mountain” with Tom Waits
The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter meets the gospel tradition on a timeless spiritual. The bluesy, minor-key arrangement recalls the Blind Boys’ earlier transformation of “Amazing Grace.”
John Chelew (producer): “I got a bunch of versions of ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’, but they were all in a major key and all a little soft. So I sat at the nine-foot Steinway at Capitol and just put the song to minor chords. So we got this tougher, more mournful chord structure that inspired the harmonies you hear–and they’re really weird harmonies, almost like doo-wop.”
“In The Bleak Midwinter” with Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson
Although largely unfamiliar to US audiences, this song is a hallowed British Christmas standard. The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde worked for two days to capture the perfect vocal take. The result ranks with her finest ballad performances, complemented by Richard Thompson’s ringing electric guitar solo.
“Joy To the World” with Aaron Neville
On a superb a cappella version of this Yuletide hymn, recorded live in a New Orleans studio, Aaron Neville sings delicate filigrees of countermelody in and around the Blind Boys’ chorale.
“I was listening to the Blind Boys back in the Fifties,” says Aaron. “My brothers and I used to walk down the street harmonizing, trying to sound like the Blind Boys. Their singing still sends chills down my spine. They’ve got that old soul!”
“Born In Bethlehem” with Mavis Staples
This (literally) breathtaking circular chant-song finds Mavis Staples in typically exuberant form, and no wonder: “That song was based on the version that the Staples Singers recorded in 1959 for our Christmas album The 25th Day of December” she explains. “Pops [father Roebuck “Pops” Staples] came up with all these old songs, and ‘Born in Bethlehem’ was my favorite of them all.”
“I’ve known the Blind Boys since I was a shorty. They would often perform at the DuSable High School auditorium in Chicago. It would be a big package show that might include the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May, the Swanee Quintet or the Dixie Hummingbirds. Clarence Fountain would bend his knees and do a little strut we called the Camel Walk, and the audience would just go wild!”
“Away In A Manger” with George Clinton and Robert Randolph
A tender seasonal hymn is recast as a mischievously subversive 12-bar blues, with George Scott’s lead vocal intertwined with the muttering, chuckling, yowling voice of Parliament/Funkadelic founder George Clinton. Meanwhile, Robert Randolph applies some wicked wah-wah to his pedal steel guitar solo.
Randolph says he sometimes wonders: “Was there something in the food that made people able to sing like George Scott, back in the day? Because that is what’s so cool about being affiliated with the Blind Boys: Their music gives you a feeling you just can’t get from anyone else.”
“White Christmas” with Les McCann
Les McCann’s arrangement completely transforms this familiar chestnut, from his scat-sung intro to his myriad chord substitutions on piano.
John Chelew: “Les’ manager told us that the stroke he suffered in 1995 had effected some of his playing but not all of it. But when he sat at the piano and started playing, I said: ‘Man, nothing’s missing here!’
“Les created an arrangement that virtually rewrote the song. It’s so unusual, such a departure from any previous version, that it took the Blind Boys two days to learn how to sing it.”
ABOUT THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
The Blind Boys of Alabama have spread the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music for over 60 years, ever since the first version of the group formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939. Today, founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott are joined by more recent arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie, Bobby Butler, and Tracy Pierce on a mission to expand the audience for traditional soul-gospel singing while incorporating contemporary songs and innovative arrangements into their hallowed style.
The group toiled for more than 40 years on the traditional gospel circuit. But in 1983, their career reached a turning point with their crucial role in The Gospel At Colonnus, the smash hit musical drama created by Bob Telson and Lee Breuer. This Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway success, coupled with their appearance on two original soundtrack albums (in 1984 and 1988), brought the Blind Boys’ timeless sound to an enthusiastic new audience.
The 1992 album Deep River — produced by Booker T. Jones and featuring a transcendent version of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You” — earned the Blind Boys their first Grammy Award nomination. It was, as their executive producer and long-time booking agent Chris Goldsmith notes, “the first time the Blind Boys ventured into ‘gospelizing’ relevant contemporary songs that weren’t traditional soul-gospel songs.” In 1995, the Blind Boys released the roof-raising live album I Brought Him With Me, followed (in 1997) by Holding On, an experiment in funked-up contemporary gospel.
The group did not record again until 2001, when Chris Goldsmith (who “just couldn’t take it anymore”) decided to self-finance the Blind Boys album he’d been hearing in his head for years. “I saw a show with [blues singer/guitarist] John Hammond and the Blind Boys performing together that was an epiphany for me. Around the same time, John Chelew came by to talk about his ideas for a Blind Boys album.”
The result was the Blind Boys’ Real World label debut, Spirit of the Century — a set of hot-wired traditional gospel and carefully chosen contemporary songs that became the group’s best-selling album to date and won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. One track, a version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” became the theme song for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series “The Wire.” (Throughout their 2003 touring season, the Allman Brothers Band played this cut over their PA system each night just before hitting the stage.)
Higher Ground — a spiritual excavation into the soul music tradition — earned the group its second consecutive Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Backed by Robert Randolph and his Family Band (as well as Ben Harper, on several tracks), the Blind Boys offered masterful interpretations of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” the Stevie Wonder-penned title tune, and even a touch of Funkadelic (“Me and My Folks”). During the 34th annual Dove Awards sponsored by the Gospel Music Association, the Blind Boys of Alabama were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and presented with the Dove Award for Higher Ground as the Best Traditional Gospel Album.
During the 2003 holiday season, the Blind Boys will undertake a special series of Christmas concerts featuring songs from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN with guest appearances by Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, John Medeski, and others to be announced.
For Clarence Fountain, there’s one thing that could surpass the pleasure of those oranges and apples and candy of his childhood. “It took us a long time to get around to making a Christmas CD, but GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is the best Christmas album you’ll hear this year. If this CD sells, it will be the best Christmas present I ever had. So everyone should buy a copy before December 25th!”