The 1967 Vox Guitar Organ incorporated a miniature transistorized organ.

The 1967 Vox Guitar Organ incorporated a miniature transistorized organ.

During my 1989-2000 tenure at Epic Records/Sony Music, one of the nicer people I worked with was Epic VP of Marketing Al Masocco.

Our offices were on opposite coasts (me in NY, Al in LA) so I didn’t get to know him as well as I might have. But Al always seemed to be throwing himself into one marketing campaign or another, and usually had some complicated, hair-raising tale to tell, whether it was about gaining the co-operation of the Tragnew Park Compton Crips for an MC Eiht video shoot in South Central or negotiating with wary officials of the Cuban government to stage and film an Audioslave concert in Havana.

Al Masocco was (and still is) a completely unpretentious person who never seemed to care if anybody else — Spin, Rolling Stone, some joker at KCRW or MTV — thought his acts were “cool” or “hip.” With his boundless enthusiasm and non-stop chatter, Al struck me as a throwback to the even-older-school record biz guys of the Fifties and early Sixties. He understood implicitly that his job was not to sign, style, or song-doctor his acts but to sell the shit out of them, which is exactly what he did, day in and day out.

After a long stint at Epic/Sony and a shorter one with mega-management company The Firm, Al founded his own marketing venture Pulsebeat. He also established himself as a campus motivational/professional speaker, and I can attest that anyone who pays Al Masocco to talk will get more — much more — than their money’s worth.

1984 Kawai "Moon Sault," a Japanese rarity.

The Kawai "Moon Sault," a Japanese rarity from 1984.

I know that Al is a major rock memorabilia collector, especially of Beatles material, although as yet I haven’t had the pleasure of touring his closely guarded holdings. But until we spoke last month, I didn’t know he’d also amassed a collection of 140+ electric guitars, basses, and miscellaneous stringed instruments. It includes some very odd- and/or cool-looking instruments by manufacturers like Wurlitzer, Hayman, Kawai, Supro, Teisco, and Dwight — see sample photos posted on this page.

Al is now renting out these axes for film, TV, video, and still photo shoots. Guitar freaks and even some, er, regular people will enjoy the slide show — complete with a “Super Riff Medley” soundtrack — that he’s created for Pulsebeat Guitars.

WJF-2010On the same week as my visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I spent most of bitter-cold Friday and Saturday nights shuffling around the Bleecker & MacDougal intersection of the Village, taking in eight or ten different sets of this year’s Winter Jazzfest. For $30, roughly the music charge for one set at Jazz Standard or Iridium, I purchased a ticket that enabled me to catch as many sets as I could among the various venues. On Friday, the clubs were (Le) Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways, and Zinc Bar; on Saturday, WJF added Sullivan Hall and the Bitter End.

This bargain price drew large crowds, including many attendees in town for the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Seats were almost impossible to come by for most sets, unless you chose to camp out at one club as early as 6:00 p.m. The rooms were often packed tight and some acquaintances told me they were unable even to get into certain shows, a problem I myself did not encounter.

On the up side, most sets started on time or close to it; change-overs were accomplished without undue delays, and the sound systems were good to excellent. Audiences were genuinely attentive and sometimes wildly enthusiastic, and it was a trip to hear actual creative music performed at a Bleecker Street tourist trap/frat bar like Kenny’s Castaways. (Not sure I’d even set foot in that place since the Eighties, when 1967 founder Pat Kenny was still alive and the Smithereens held forth regularly on its small stage.)

Here, in chronological order, are my impressions of the performances I witnesssed:

FRIDAY (1.8.2010)

(1) Jamie Leonhart @ Le Poisson Rouge – A very good young singer, although not one much in (my idea of) the real jazz tradition  — more like “alternative” pop/folk with jazz inflections. Jamie sang her own songs, no standards, and fronted a band whose odd instrumentation included two clarinet players. Deidre Rodman of the Lascivious Biddies was a subtle but strong foil, playing melodica and singing harmonies. The emotional peak of the set was the closing “Let The Flower Grow” — a

Deidre Rodman and Jamie Leonhart

Deidre Rodman and Jamie Leonhart

pro-humanity/anti-military song, poignant but not sappy, composed by Jamie’s father-in-law, the bassist Jay Leonhart.

(2) Briggan Krauss Trio Coordinate @ Kenny’s Castaways – Krauss has been living and gigging in NYC since ’94 but somehow I’d never heard of him until tonight. He’s made both jazz and electronic music recordings but here stuck to alto saxophone with bass and drums. Krauss had a floating sound with a lot of air around the notes, while drummer Kenny Wolleson’s playing reminded me a bit of Tony Oxley when I saw the latter duet with Cecil Taylor at the Village Vanguard in 2008. Trio Coordinate played what sounded like genuinely free improvisations of varying length — they definitely were communicating, although exactly what was being communicated is tough to put into words. My wife Leslie Rondin thought they sounded great.

Jeremy Udden + Plainville

Jeremy Udden + Plainville

(3) Jeremy Udden’s Plainville @ Kenny’s Castaways – Alto/soprano sax man Udden led an instrumental group of five or maybe six guys with a distinct Americana flavor: guitarist Brandon Seabrook doubled on banjo, Pete Rende switched off from electric piano to pump organ. The result sometimes sounded like Lee Konitz jamming with The Band — okay, not on that level, but good stuff nonetheless even if none of the individual tunes stuck in my head.

Like all tonight’s sets at Kenny’s, this one was part of a showcase put together by the youthful eager beavers of SearchAndRestore.com. At their info table, I picked up an entertaining pamphlet, The Jazz Pirate Press, with jottings by Roswell Rudd, Curtis Hasselbring, and Josh Roseman. SearchAndRestore’s mission statement reads, in part: “To build a sustainable jazz community, we need to make great jazz more open to the public…We only book double bills so the shows have a more communal feel. No drink minimum, no emptying out after a set. Standing room and seats. This more casual jazz environment lets people feel like they’re part of something.” Sounds good to me, although so far their Web site looks more like an aggregate of info on the regular NYC club calendar — I didn’t see many S&R-originated or sponsored shows there.

(4) Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet @ Le Poisson Rouge The trumpeter and his group drew a full house for the last set of the night at this venue. The SeXXXtet included female vocalist Johnaye Kendrix and the wizardly Taylor Eigisti on electric piano; the overall groove reminded of some of Freddie Hubbard’s better Seventies tracks for CTI and Columbia. Payton played with his usual impeccable technique (and also sang a bit) but it was difficult to hear, through the band’s wall of sound, what if anything he was really saying on the horn. After about 20 minutes, I got tired of standing in one spot, there was no room to dance, and we headed home.

SATURDAY (1.9.2010)

(1) Carmen Consoli @ Le Poisson Rouge – Not her first time in NYC but my first exposure to this female singer/songwriter/guitarist (born 1974) who grew up in a village near Catania, Sicily.  A successful mainstream pop artist in Italy (seven studio albums, hit singles, slick videos, etc.) who in recent years has turned toward acoustic music, Carmen Consoli was the single most impressive performer I saw at Winter Jazzfest. Ironically, her music had less to do with “jazz” than any just about other act I heard all weekend. She employed the very effective stage strategy of introducing her songs in English, giving details of their story lines and inspirations, then singing them in Italian. She is a powerfully expressive vocalist, a superior melodicist, and a skillful if not virtuoso acoustic guitarist who used altered tunings and finger-picking patterns to give variety to her set.

This clip from a live MTV-Europe show gives some of the flavor of Carmen’s performance at WJF:

Here’s Carmen with orchestral backing, live in Taormina, Sicily:

(2) Ben Allison @ Le Poisson Rouge – The bassist led a quintet with Jenny Scheinman (violin), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Shane Endsey (trumpet), and Rudy Royston (drums). The music came across as stiff and overly composed, and the dutiful solos did not move me. This is the third band with which I’ve seen Jenny Scheinman play and I just don’t get what all the critical hoo-hah is about. A list headed “Jazz Violinists I Dig More Than Jenny Scheinman” would include Billy Bang, Charles Burnham,  Joe Kennedy, Ray Nance, Sid Page (ex-Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks), Stuff Smith, Eddie South, even Svend Asmussen (age 94, he still gigs occasionally in Copenhagen).

(3) Gretchen Parlato @ Sullivan Hall – A technically accomplished singer with a sensual, breathy tone, rhythmic acuity, and flawless diction whose limitations began to weigh on me over the length of a full set. She benefited greatly from the instrumental support of bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Kendrick Scott, and Taylor Eigisti running enjoyably rampant on electric piano.

(4) JD Allen Trio @ Kenny’s Castaways – Tenor saxophonist Allen played with both muscle and melodic invention in the first half of this set, i.e the part I heard. Rudy Royston’s drumming was livelier and more propulsive in this setting than with Ben Allison the night before.

(5) Dr. Lonnie Smith @ Sullivan Hall – My third live exposure to this veteran organist was the best and hottest set I’ve heard him play to date. Guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg and drummer Jamire Williams, who are maybe half the leader’s age, seemed to propel the 68-year-old Smith to higher heights and funkier funk. The closing “Pilgrimage,” with its step-by-step modulations

The Turban-ator: Dr. Lonnie Smith

The Turban-ator: Dr. Lonnie Smith

rising to an ecstatic climax, conveyed an almost Hendrix-like majesty and drove the crowd wild. (Note: Dr. Lonnie Smith is not the keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith of Cosmic Echoes fame.)

(6) William Parker Quartet @ Sullivan Hall – Great and I mean great. About Parker’s bass playing, I can’t say it any better than Chris Kelsy at AllMusic.com: “Although he does, to an extent, serve as a harmonic anchor in his groups, his more important role is as a source of energy. Parker drives a band like few other bassists; in combination with a powerful drummer, a Parker-led rhythm section is an inexorable force.”

The Engine Room: Hamid Drake & William Parker

The Engine Room: Drake and Parker

Here, with Hamid Drake absolutely killing on drums, the effect was like “inexorable” times five and a launching pad for the extended searching solos of altoist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes. Two tunes comprised the entire set: “Criminals in the White House” and “Malachi’s Mood.” Since I lack the technical vocabulary to describe this music, may these classic radical jazz album titles invoke its sound and spirit:

The Way Ahead…    Far Cry… Tomorrow Is The Question Ascension Universal Consciousness…    Destination Out!

January 27, 2010

More Music Writing

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The Cramps on NY Rocker [Photo: Curtis Knapp]On the official blog of the Society of Publication Designers, graphic designer Robert Newman has created a gallery of front cover images from various issues of New York Rocker. These covers, most designed and art directed by the gifted Elizabeth Van Itallie, feature outstanding photographs by Teri Bloom, Deborah Feingold, Laura Levine, Ebet Roberts, and Ann Summa, among others. For the uninitiated among you, a seriously abbreviated version of the New York Rocker story goes something like this:

After publishing the fanzines Jamz and The Rock Marketplace, the late Alan Betrock published the first issue of New York Rocker in the spring of 1976. Through Fall 1977, Alan published ten more issues and ran the magazine pretty much as a one-man show with some business/advertising help from his friend Ken Kristol. After living in Minneapolis for five years, I moved back to NYC in Fall ’77 and later bought NYR from Alan Betrock, a dear friend of mine until his untimely death in 2000. 

I served as publisher and editor of NYR until the end of 1982: putting the magazine on a monthly schedule, obtaining national distribution, recruiting and directing a small but intensely dedicated NYC staff and a much larger group of freelance contributors in the US and the UK. We worked in a half-floor loft at 166 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan where the floor was never mopped and you never knew who’d be asleep on the sad salvaged office sofa when you came to work in the morning. We saw a million gigs, listened to a million records, and published at least a million words about all of it without the use of a single computer.

A.S. Atop Unsold NY Rocker Issues, 1982 | Photo by Laura Levine

A.S. Atop Unsold NY Rocker Issues, 1982 | Photo by Laura Levine

Among those who made crucial contributions to this chronically under-financed but heroically creative effort were Byron Coley, Michael Hill, Ira Kaplan, Annene Kaye, David Keeps, Laura Levine, Glenn Morrow, Chris Nelson, Suzette Rodriguez, Roy Trakin, Elizabeth Van Itallie, Janet Waegel, and Drew Wheeler. It is one of the blessings of my life to have remained friends with nearly all of these individuals.

A total of 55 issues were produced until New York Rocker expired in late 1982. About a year later, the magazine was sold to a new publisher and briefly revived for a few more poorly distributed issues before going out of business for the second and last time. Through a series of contractual twists and turns, all rights to NYR then reverted back to me. I own the domain names nyrocker.com and newyorkrocker.com — I hope this SPD cover gallery will spur me to add more actual content to the site, which has for too long remained simply “under construction.”

January 22, 2010

Gigs, More Music Writing

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"Pops" blows with neighborhood kids on the steps of his home in Queens.

Pops and neighborhood kids jam on the steps of his home, now the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens has been open to the public since 1994. But I’d never been there until Saturday (1.9.2010), when Leslie and I drove over in early afternoon for a free event featuring Terry Teachout, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published December 2009). The book is excellent: carefully researched, well paced, written with open ears in a clear and candid style. I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest in Louis Armstrong, jazz, and/or American pop culture.

In taking on this Promethean subject, Teachout had an edge over his several precedecessors in at least two respects. Although presently the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, he was once a professional bass player and thus the first trained musician to essay an Armstrong biography. Perhaps more importantly, Teachout was the first biographer to have had access to over 650 hours of reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Pops himself. These tapes capture Armstrong in uncensored casual conversations with friends and fellow musicians, playing trumpet along with records (both his own and those of other artists), even trying to coax his wife Lucille into the marital bed for a little pre-dawn action.

We may presume that the Armstrong archives were better organized and more easily accessible to Teachout than to previous researchers, and Louis’ own writings are excerpted often and effectively in Pops. “In between playing three hundred shows a year,” Teachout notes, “he turned out two memoirs, several autobiographical manuscripts, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of personal letters to friends and fans, as well as a number of strikingly frank autobiographical manuscripts that did not see print until long after his death.” The author sheds new light on some long-clouded episodes in the trumpeter’s life including his 1930 marijuana arrest — Armstrong was a lifelong pot smoker — and his entanglements with Chicago mobsters.

All that said, I’m not sure Teachout’s book is so vastly superior to its immediate predecessor, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books, 1997). This was the first Armstrong bio I ever read, not counting the great man’s own Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and it greatly enhanced my knowledge and perception of its subject. Until the arrival of Pops, Bergreen’s was the most comprehensive book on its subject but it seems to have gotten rather short shrift from both jazz and book critics, perhaps because Bergreen had never written about jazz or jazz musicians before. In his New York Times review of Teachout’s book, David Margolick referenced earlier biographies by Gary Giddins and James Lincoln Collier but not Extravagant Life; nor is it among the half-dozen books sold in the gift shop of the Armstrong House Museum. Witty, elegant, and warmly appreciative of its subject, An Extravagant Life moved me to pick up two more of Bergreen’s non-fiction works, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (also excellent) and Capone: The Man and the Era (bought but not read yet).

Armstrong on the cover of TIME in 1949, the year he was crowned king of the Zulu Krewe at Mardi Gras in his home town of New Orleans.

Armstrong on the cover of TIME in 1949, the year he was crowned king of the Zulu Krewe at Mardi Gras in his home town of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, back at the shack… After perusing the gift shop and helping ourselves to a bowl of complimentary gumbo, we joined the crowd seated on folding chairs in the low-ceilinged basement of the house. Following some opening remarks, Terry Teachout read excerpts from the first and last portions of his book, then screened a high-quality B&W clip taken from a 1958 TV appearance by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Pops sounded both vigorous and completely at ease singing “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” but the sweat dripping from his brow reminded me of the physical effort he put into his live performances. His trumpet solo, although described by Teachout as a “set piece” that varied only slightly from show to show, was  a soaring work of sonic architecture — the musical equivalent of watching a ten-story building erected in elapsed-time motion before your eyes. Teachout then took questions and comments from the audience. Among the speakers were trumpeter Jon Faddis, who recalled being transfixed by Armstrong’s mid-Sixties appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and vocalist Melba Joyce, who recounted her guest appearance with Louis and the All Stars on a show in Dallas in 1961.

We then joined a small group for an abbreviated version of the standard house tour. Louis and his wife Lucille purchased the modest two-story dwelling at 34-56 107th Street in 1943. It was the first and only home Armstrong ever owned, and to him a treasured symbol of his rise from the dire poverty of his New Orleans boyhood. After her husband’s death in 1971, Lucille Armstrong lived on in the house until her own passing twelve years later. By that time, the property had been deeded first to the City of New York, then entrusted to Queens College which today administers the Museum and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.

Among the many intact period features of the house are Lucille’s custom-built kitchen cabinets, with their nifty jet-age design and turquoise enamel finish; Pops’ upstairs den, with LPs from his personal collection and his reel-to-reel tape decks; original Sixties oil paintings of both Armstrongs, and the bed in which Louis died on 7/6/1971. As we stood in the den, our guide clicked on a wall switch and the room filled with the sound of Armstrong’s inimitable voice on segments from his private tape stash. Pops was right there with us, in the home he loved.

Louis Armstrong – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (1943, with the Luis Russell Orchestra).  “Even on the simplest of the big-band sides, his playing is charged with an expressive depth that seizes the ear…There is an underlying seriousness in his light-hearted art that recalls a remark made by the film director Howard Hawks, who claimed that ‘the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view.'” (Teachout, page 146)

One bright morning in July 2008, on a stroll through my East Village neighborhood, I stopped at the corner of Second Avenue and East Sixth Street. Lying on on the sidewalk next to a municipal trash can, I found a collection of hand-painted metal signs advertising various jazz soloists and groups. The signs were (are) of uniform size (30″ x 6″) with a small hole punch in each end so they can be hung for display. There are eighteen different signs, including ones for groups led by alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, bassist Mickey Bass, and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater.  I took the signs home, added them to our ever-growing collection of musical detritus, and have tried sporadically to determine their age (probably late Seventies) and provenance. Here are my photos of some of the signs along with explanatory notes:

Grey+Forrest (1) Al Grey & Jimmy Forrest Quintet – AllMusic.com states that trombonist Al Grey (b. 6/6/1925) spent his first professional decade in big bands including those of Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter and Lionel Hampton. Grey and another big band veteran, saxophonist Billy Mitchell, formed a co-op band in 1962. I have a copy of their Argo LP Night Song (recorded November ’62 and issued under Grey’s name), on which the group is joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Al Grey served three separate stints in the Count Basie band; when the last one ended in 1977, the trombonist formed a group with saxophonist Jimmy Forrest (b. 1/24/1920). This was 25 years after Forrest had a Number One R&B hit with his immortal “Night Train,” but I’ll bet he still played it a lot. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Al Grey and Jimmy Forrest were still playing together when the latter died 8/26/1980; Grey lived another 20 years and died of diabetes-related illness on 5/24/2000.

Auer(2) Vera Auer – The Austrian-born vocalist (b. 4/20/1919), who also played vibes and accordion, was the grand-niece of the noted Hungarian classical musician Leopold Auer. In Vienna circa 1949, she formed the Vera Auer Combo, a trio with guitarist Attila Zoller that for a short time included pianist Joe Zawinul, later a founding member of Weather Report. In 1954, Vera moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where she worked with trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Art Taylor. In 1959, Auer married an obscure American musician named Brian Boucher, and the couple moved to the US the following year. In her Stateside career, she “was associated not only with boppers such as trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, but with a modern breed of blower including trumpeters Cal Massey and Ted Curson,” wrote Eugene Chadbourne for AllMusic.com. “In the late Seventies she co-led a group with yet another trumpet player, Richard Williams, resulting in in an album release with the cheerful title of Positive Vibes.” Vera Auer died 8/2/1996.

ChuckWayne-JoePuma(3) Chuck Wayne/Joe Puma – I would’ve enjoyed hearing these two fine though little-remembered guitarists as a duo. Chuck Wayne (born Charles Jagelka, 2/27/1923) started out as a teenage mandolin player and switched to guitar in the Forties when he began to make the 52nd Street scene. An early exponent of bop, he recorded seminal sides with Dizzy Gillespie and Little Benny Harris; worked with the Woody Herman band in 1946-47, and joined pianist George Shearing’s quintet for three years, 1949-1952. Wayne toured with Tony Bennett from 1954-57, then came off the road to concentrate on Broadway, studio, and TV gigs. He released a half-dozen albums as a leader, and later taught at Westchester Conservatory in White Plains, NY. Chuck Wayne died 7/29/1997; his recording of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was including on the 2005 Sony Legacy box set Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar.

Born into a family of guitarists, Joe Puma (born 8/13/1927) was a professional musician by 1949. He played with more “name” musicians than I can list here, ranging from Artie Shaw to Gary Burton, and also recorded as a leader for the Bethlehem, Dawn, Jubilee, and Columbia labels. The New Grove Dictionary states: “Puma formed a duo with Chuck Wayne in 1972, which appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1973; when the duo broke up after five years, Puma led his own trio.” Joe Puma died 5/31/2000; sadly, he was left off that Sony Legacy box set.

YouTube: “Bernie’s Tune” – Mike Morreale Quartet featuring Chuck Wayne (date/location n/a)

KennyBarron+2

(4) Bob Cunningham/Kenny Barron/Scoby Stroman – Considering the hazards and rigors of the jazz life, I’m pleased to report that two out of three members of this group are alive and still gigging regularly.

Born 12/23/1934 in Cleveland, bassist/composer Bob Cunningham moved to NYC in 1960. On his Web site, Bob says he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln, and Sun Ra; with Yusef Lateef, he traveled the world and appeared on Seventies Lateef LPs like Gentle Giant. Among other Bob Cunningham credits, AllMusic.com lists Ken McIntyre‘s Way Way Out (’63), Walt Dickerson‘s Impressions of ‘A Patch of Blue’ (’64, with Sun Ra on piano), Freddie Hubbard‘s Backlash (’66), and Sam RiversCrystals (’74). The bassist may still be leading Monday night jam sessions at the headquarters of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) on West 48th Street in Manhattan.

Bob Cunningham, still swinging

Bob Cunningham, still swinging

Pianist Kenny Barron played Jazz Standard just last week (January 7-10, 2010) but unfortunately I missed the gig. Born 6/9/1943 in Philadelphia and a professional musician since his teens, the nine–time Grammy Award nominee — it seems he’s never actually won the damn thing — has a six-page list of album credits posted at AllMusic.com. The discography includes sessions with Dizzy Gillespie (1962-1966), Freddie Hubbard (1966-1970), Yusef Lateef (1970-1975), and Stan Getz (late Eighties) as well as five discs under the leadership of his much older brother, saxophonist Bill Barron (1927-1989). Kenny Barron served on the music faculty of Rutgers University from 1973 to 2000; was an original member of the Thelonious Monk tribute group Sphere, founded in 1982; and more recently co-founded (with Joanne Klein) an independent label called Joken Records.

YouTube: “People Time” by Kenny Barron and Stan Getz (live in Munich, 1990 – Getz’s final concert performance)

Drummer C. Scoby Stroman‘s NY Times obit noted that he was tap dancing at age five: “As an adult he became known as a master sand dancer and an innovative leading performer of scat dancing, a softshoe rhythm-dance that involves the upper body as well as the feet and legs and draws on American popular dancing and African and Brazilian ethnic styles.”

So far, pretty mainstream…but if AllMusic.com has it right, Scoby also played drums on at least two Sun Ra LPs (Secrets of the Sun and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy) and also on College Tour, the second ESP-Disk album by the pre-Diamanda Galas gonzo vocalist Patty Waters. (“Contorted shrieks and wails that could be downright blood-curdling…Waters has to be acknowledged as a vocalist who has tested the limits of what the human voice is capable of…” Thus sayeth Richie Unterberger of AllMusic.com) Scoby Stroman must have been quite a showman and character, one of the many artists I caught up with too late. He died 3/28/1996 from complications of a stroke.

YouTube: “Scoby” by the Rick Stone Trio (live at Bar Next Door, NYC, 1/15/2009)

Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Paul Sanders Jr. and Henry (Hank) Neuberger are two old and dear friends of mine who, like me, grew up in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County. I attended Mamaroneck High School and didn’t meet Paul or Hank until our college years, but the two were close friends in the Class of 1969 at White Plains High School (WPHS) in White Plains NY. This is the story of how, in early 1969, Paul and Hank came to promote a memorable and groundbreaking show by Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy at WPHS — or “Buddy Guy High,” as the two teenage impresarios hyped it to anyone and everyone in the weeks leading up to the gig.

George “Buddy” Guy was born 7/30/1936 in Lettsworth, LA and moved to Chicago in 1957; the following year, he released his first two singles on the Cobra label (Otis Rush and Magic Sam also recorded memorably for Cobra). Beginning in 1960, Buddy recorded a string of fine singles for Chess Records, with “Stone Crazy” becoming his only Billboard R&B chart hit (#12 in ’62). Buddy’s breakthrough to the white audience began in 1968 with his Vanguard debut LP, A Man and The Blues, produced by Sam Charters and abetted by Otis Spann‘s peerless piano playing. Unless Chess, Vanguard was well-entrenched in the progressive folk/rock market (with Joan Baez, Country Joe & the Fish, et al),  and the success of A Man and The Blues led to Buddy appearing in East Coast clubs and on rock ballroom bills such as the Jefferson Airplane show I saw at Fillmore East in November 1968.

In 1969, WPHS was a three-year school with an enrollment of over 2000 students. By tradition, its annual Senior Prom was free to all students, with all costs covered by various fund-raising events created by members of the class throughout their graduation year.

Paul Sanders: “In 1966, the WPHS senior class raised so much money that they were able to book Smokey Robinson & the Miracles for the prom. In ’67, the class said ‘okay, we’re getting the Temptations‘ — which they did — and the class of ’68 followed with the Four Tops…The Buddy Guy show was part of the fund-raising effort for our prom.”

Hank Neuberger: “This was Paul and Hank educating our peers about the blues.”

Paul: “We had A Man and The Blues but that was it. We hadn’t gotten hold of any of the Chess singles yet…We became aware of the blues and of artists like Buddy Guy–”

Hank: “–the same way Mick and Keith did!”

Paul: “I’d already seen B.B. King with Big Brother & the Holding Company in ’68, and Albert King at the Village Gate on a bill with King Curtis & the Kingpins.”AManAndTheBlues

Hank: “We were hipper than the room, so to speak. We were ‘the music guys,’ we were setting the tone. The fact that we were gonna promote a Buddy Guy show meant that it was a happening thing and that the kids should come — and to our amazement, they actually did! For the whole month leading up to the show, WPHS was ‘Buddy Guy High.'”

Hank and Paul booked the show through Buddy’s manager Dick Waterman, whose Avalon Productions also represented Skip James, Son House,  and Junior Wells (and shortly Bonnie Raitt). Buddy’s fee was probably about $2500; his band likely included bassist Jack Myers, saxophonist A.C. Reed, and his brother Philip Guy on rhythm guitar. The show also included an opening act, the Cream-inspired Fluid (more like a Cream cover band, really), most of whom were classmates of mine at Mamaroneck HS. (Two members of this band, bassist/guitarist Steve Love and drummer Bryan Madey, later found some measure of fame if not fortune in the group Stories, whose “Brother Louie” became an out-of-nowhere Number One hit in 1973.)

Hank: “The WPHS auditorium was jammed to capacity, which was about 1200. Fluid played their Cream numbers for 30-40 minutes through their Marshall stacks. No one in the audience other than Paul and I had any idea who Buddy Guy was or what his music would sound like.”

Paul: “These were 15-16-17 year-old white suburban kids and this was their first encounter with the blues. To call his appearance ‘a shock to the system’ would be an understatement.

“The curtain goes up, Buddy comes out, he plugs in, opens up — maybe it was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ [from A Man and The Blues] — and immediately goes into his second song. And after about two minutes, this big puff of white smoke started to rise from his amp. I think it was a Fender Super Reverb–in any case, it started making all kinds of noises and then just quit cold.”

Hank: “Buddy’s hittin’ it hard, kids are standing on their chairs — and when that amp blew, all the excitement just drained right out of the room. It went from screaming excitement to nothing.”

Of course, neither the promoters nor Buddy had a spare amp on hand. (“Maybe he had some extra guitar strings,” Hank recalls. “He definitely didn’t have another amp.”) But Fluid guitarist Jon Lehr stepped into the breach and graciously offered the loan of his Marshall amp for the remainder of the set.

Paul: “It may have been the first time Buddy Guy had ever plugged into a Marshall — and he made good use of it, I can assure you! Combined with his use of a 300-foot guitar cord, he had those kids in the palm of his hand.”

Hank: “The auditorium had three sections of seats. He ran up one aisle, out the right rear door, back in the left rear door, down the other aisle, and back up onto the stage — and he never stopped playing.”

Buddy Guy Today

Buddy Guy Today

Paul and Hank’s Buddy Guy show was a resounding success. It raised enough money for the WPHS senior prom committee to book not one but two national acts: The Tymes, a smooth-voiced Black vocal group who had three Top 20 Pop hits in ’63-’64 including the #1 “So Much In Love”; and the Elektra Records quasi-supergroup Rhinoceros, of “Apricot Brandy” fame. [Paul Sanders: “These acts were chosen by a vote of the whole class from a list of available acts, including Jethro Tull.”]

Two decades later, Hank Neuberger was chief engineer and studio manager at Chicago Recording Company when Buddy Guy arrived at CRC to cut some tracks. “He came in, I introduced myself, and I said: ‘Buddy, I just wanted to tell you that I promoted a show with you way back when — and I’ll never forget it, because your amp blew up five minutes into the show.’

“He looked at me and said: ‘White Plains High School?’

“And I said, ‘Well, yeah — but why would you remember that gig, more than 20 years later?’

“And Buddy said: ‘Because when your amp blows up on the second song, you’ll remember the show.”

BUDDY GUY – “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB” [Live, 1969]

With Jack Bruce (bass), Buddy Miles (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone)

Jack Rose

Fare Forward, Voyager: RIP Jack Rose

Whatever it is we call “our culture” has suffered a notable loss with the sad and sudden departure  of Jack Rose, the “American primitive” guitarist and composer who died 12/5/2009 at at the much too early age of 38 in Philadelphia.

I was privileged to have seen Jack perform on two occasions, both times in the company of my good friend Josh Rosenthal: on 3/11/2004 at a concert at Washington Square Church in NYC (Matt Valentine also played) and at an artists’ loft show in Philly perhaps a year or two later (with Harris Newman on the bill].

I spoke briefly with Jack after these gigs, but Josh got to know him much better over time and offers his personal tribute to Jack on the Tompkins Square site. Friends and fans at ARTHUR Magazine have posted two MP3s and multiple video clips here.

Jack Rose will be interred at Merion Memorial Park in Philadelphia — also the final resting place of country-blues legend Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902-1969), who just had to be one of Jack’s musical heroes and inspirations.

From the New York Times (12.9.2009):

JACK ROSE, VERSATILE MASTER OF THE GUITAR, IS DEAD AT 38

By Peter Keepnews

Jack Rose, whose complex improvisations on 6-string, 12-string and lap steel guitar earned him a devoted cult following, died Saturday in Philadelphia. He was 38.

His death, apparently of a heart attack, was announced by Three Lobed Recordings, which released Mr. Rose’s album The Black Dirt Sessions this year.

Mr. Rose began his career in the early 1990s with Pelt, a rock band whose sound was loud and cacophonous and whose repertory consisted largely of long, dronelike improvisations. But he was best known for his solo acoustic work, which was quieter, more delicate and informed by the aesthetic of an earlier era.

In a 2007 interview that appeared on the Web site Foxy Digitalis (digitalisindustries.com/foxyd), Mr. Rose said much of his inspiration came from music of the pre-World War II era — “anything that’s pre-1942: Cajun, country, blues, jazz, all that stuff.” But, he added, he was also influenced by Minimalist composers like Terry Riley and La Monte Young.

In using the finger-picking techniques of an earlier time to create ethereal improvisations that belonged to no particular style or era, Mr. Rose also acknowledged his debt to John Fahey and other experimental guitarists who came to prominence in the 1960s.

Mr. Rose released close to a dozen albums on various labels, many of them in limited pressings. He had recently signed with the prominent independent rock label Thrill Jockey.

Survivors include his wife, Laurie.

September 24, 2009

Gigs, More Music Writing

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Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James [Burnt to Last, Waycross GA]

Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James for Burnt to Last

Gram Parsons is the third most famous person to grow up in Waycross, Georgia, after the actors Burt Reynolds (no introduction needed) and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright on TV’s “Bonanza,” 1959-1965). Parsons’ sad and untimely death at age 26 (heroin overdose, 9/19/1973) cut short a life of both inspirational achievement and unfulfilled promise: Like James Dean and Sam Cooke, Gram left us wondering “what if…”

Gram Parsons never had anything close to a hit single and not one of the albums on which he was featured made the Billboard Top 75. But in the decades since his passing, he’s exerted an incalculable influence on American music through his work on the ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo; on the first two albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, the group Gram co-founded with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman; and on his two solo albums, especially 1973’s Grievous Angel.

Parsons is widely recognized as the progenitor of country rock  — a term he detested, according to his close friend and former harmony singer Emmylou Harris — and has been the subject of five full-length biographies (with a sixth book forthcoming!). I won’t claim that the music of (for example) the great R&B singer and songwriter Hank Ballard has proven as influential over the long term as that of Gram Parsons. But I note without malice that Ballard — who placed fourteen singles in the R&B Top 20, who performed vigorously until a few years before his death at age 75 in 2003, and whose life must have been at least as interesting — has yet to be memorialized in either hard or soft cover.

The first Gram Parsons Guitar Pull (GP/GP) was held Thanksgiving 1998 at the home of Waycross resident and GP fan Dave Griffin. Eventually, the event outgrew Griffin’s backyard and moved to the town fairgrounds. This year’s two-day GP/GP featured headliners Leon Russell and Charlie Louvin, along with a great many local acts, and my friend Josh Rosenthal planned to record Charlie’s set for future release on his Tompkins Square label.

On Friday morning (9/18), we flew from LaGuardia to Savannah GA, rented a car, and drove into town for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. This sumptuous all-you-could-eat array of Southern cooking proved well worth the 45-minute wait to be seated at a large table of strangers and served family style. For the all-in price of $16.00, I sampled eight or nine different dishes including fried chicken, baked ham in gravy, Brunswick stew, succotash, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn “dressing” (stuffing to us Yankees), chased with copious amounts of sweet iced tea and topped by a small but delicious portion of fresh blueberry cobbler for dessert.

A Taste of Heaven: Lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room [Savannah GA]

Taste of Heaven: Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, Savannah GA

We drove south and west to Waycross and checked into our room at the Jameson Inn — a chain motel situated at one of those just-off-the-interstate commercial intersections, the unrelieved ugliness of which is enough to make you weep for the forests and fields, even the earlier 20th century buildings, that were sacrificed for its construction. Next stop was the Waycross City Auditorium where GP’s latest biographer, the Emmy Award-winning Florida journalist Bob Kealing, was interviewing Charlie Louvin, just arrived from his home near Nashville. (Also on the scene: Bob Buchanan, credited as GP’s co-writer on the classic “Hickory Wind.”)

On the night of February 22, 1956, this building was the site of a concert featuring the Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley, attended by nine-year-old Gram Parsons and his friends, the 14-year-old twins Daphne and Diane Delano. (Gram got Elvis’ autograph that night and often spoke of this life-changing event in later years.)

Constructed in 1937 under the auspices of the WPA, City Auditorium hosted countless country, R&B, and gospel performances for at least three decades before being converted into a youth basketball facilty. The original stage remains in place but backstage is littered with debris and the entire building is rather decrepit, with broken window panes and ceiling tiles torn loose. The surrounding neighborhood is largely African-American and looked poor even for Waycross, an immense, centuries-old live oak among its few hopeful signs of life. Led by the vivacious Mary Beth Kennedy, a small but dedicated preservationist group is campaigning to restore this building to its former glory, with $1 million raised thus far — let’s hope they succeed. On to the fairgrounds and the music…

A.S. under the live oak opposite City Auditorium [Waycross GA]

A.S. under the live oak tree opposite Waycross City Auditorium.

Eleven years after its inception, GP/GP is still very much a laid-back, down-home affair. The locals brought their own folding chairs and beer coolers, and people wandered freely from out front to back stage; I didn’t see a single uniformed cop. We missed nearly all the supporting bands.

In 1970, Leon Russell played piano on the Gram Parsons-sung version of “Wild Horses,” the Jagger/Richards ballad recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers about a year before the Stones cut it for Sticky Fingers. Russell’s personal reminiscence of GP in his spoken introduction to the song was the most personable moment of his set. The rest was devoted to a briskly energetic but superficial run-through of everything from his own best-known songs (“Dixie Lullaby,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”) to “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (for two verses), “Paint It Black” (an instrumental interpolation), and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” Even “Wild Horses” was performed at a jaunty mid-tempo, with none of the pathos of the Burritos’ version.

I liked Leon’s young Alabaman guitarist Chris Simmons, a gutsy and versatile blues-rocker in the Duane Allman/Ry Cooder lineage. Russell’s piano playing sounded fine but he was impassive and unreadable behind his flowing white beard, white mane of hair, and ever-present shades. To the best of my recollection, Leon Russell has never even been nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even though he played keyboards on and/or arranged “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring,” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey” (among countless other Sixties recordings) and placed nine solo albums in the Billboard Top 40 of which six are certified gold according to the RIAA database.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when 82-year-old Charlie Louvin was as good, maybe better than I’d heard him sound on previous occasions in Austin and NYC. The venerable singer performed for two hours (!) and sang all but two songs. The set list ranged from Louvin Brothers classics (“Knoxville Girl,” “Why Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”) to folk standards (“It Takes a Worried Man”) to white-boy blues (Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”) to a poignant “Hickory Wind” offered in tribute to Gram Parsons.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

Charlie’s voice isn’t what it was in 1964 but he remains an engaged and engaging performer and a committed interpreter of classic material. He cares about the songs, he talks about the songs, and he delivers the songs with real feeling. The current Charlie Louvin band features the brilliant finger-picking guitarist Ben Hall (age 21), who calmly blew me away with his featured number — Johnny Bond’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” — and who will be recording his own album for Tompkins Square in the next few months.

GP/GP also featured a number of south Georgia crafts people selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, CDs, and specialty food items. The one that caught my eye was Michael James of Waycross, who combines the use of computer program with his handiwork to burn photographic images into pieces of wood — at least I think that’s what he tried to explain to this computer-age cave dweller. I bought three pieces including the GP image displayed above; an intricate reproduction in wood of this Fillmore Auditorium poster, and a smaller piece that uses a mid-Sixties photograph of Bob Dylan taken by my good friend, the late David Gahr. Michael’s company Burnt To Last doesn’t have a dedicated Web site but you can email him: BurntToLast@hotmail.com

Dickinson, Down Home On The Zebra Ranch (2008)

Down Home On The Zebra Ranch - Hernando, Mississippi (2008)

Many people who knew James Luther Dickinson far better than I did have created their own tributes to him in the weeks since Jim’s untimely death from heart failure, at age 67, on August 15, 2009 — one year to the day after the passing of his dear friend and patron Jerry Wexler. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let the occasion pass without adding a few thoughts and recollections of my own.

Jim Dickinson was important both for who he was and what he did. I only met him on a few occasions but these were memorable enough to make me wish I’d spent a lot more time in his company. He had a generous spirit, a supreme sense of life’s absurdities both tragic and hilarious (often simultaneously), and a thousand great stories — “some of which were true,” in the words of my old friend (and former Replacements manager) Peter Jesperson.

Dickinson also possessed a strong streak of home-grown radical politics: anti-racist, anti-war, pro-working class, pro-humanity. These convictions were made manifest when Jim helped to resurrect the careers of forgotten bluesmen like Gus Cannon and Furry Lewis; when he cut Bob Dylan’s “John Brown” for his first solo album Dixie Fried, and when he sang songs like “Red Neck, Blue Collar” and “One Big Family” (the latter a paean to organized labor).

Jim was a living link between successive eras in Memphis music history: His life spanned an incredibly rich and diverse period in one of America’s most culturally significant cities, from the last fading echoes of the Swing Era, through Sun rockabilly and Stax soul, to punk rock, jam band, and whatever was coming next. At least as important as any music he ever made is that his loving marriage to Mary Lindsay endured for over 40 years, and that he was a kind father and a matchless musical mentor to his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson.

The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Big Star’s Third a/k/a Sister Lovers are among Jim’s best-known recording credits; my own personal favorites include Boomer’s Story by Ry Cooder (Reprise, 1972); and Carmen McRae’s Just A Little Lovin’ and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark (both Atlantic, 1970), with JLD as a member of the Dixie Flyers rhythm section assembled by Jerry Wexler. Jim Marshall a/k/a The Hound has posted the most comprehensive tribute to JLD that I’ve found thus far, with links to streams of many rare recordings. Pete Hoppula, president of the Finnish Blues Society, has created a seriously detailed  JLD discography on his Web site Wang Dang Dula. [Click on “’50s/’60s R&R,” scroll down through the alphabet to Dickinson, Jim, click on…and I’ll see you when you get back, five or six weeks from now.]

I met both Jim and his dear friend, the writer Stanley Booth, for the first time on the same night in the same place: backstage at the venerable Orpheum Theater in Memphis in the spring of 1979. I’d flown in to report on the Cramps‘ progress in recording their first LP for I.R.S. Records with producer Alex Chilton and to witness their headlining show at the Orpheum, with support from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Klitz. (This all-female punk band’s version of the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It” — with front woman Lesa Aldridge screaming “I’ve had it — I’ve had it with you butt-fuckers!” — remains a thing of sacred memory.) I remember nothing about my brief interaction with Dickinson and Booth, although decades later Stanley recalled that when I saw him wearing a sport coat and tie, inquired: “Are you an attorney?”

JLD at leisure in '65 [The Hound asks: "Is this a Wm. Eggleston photo?']

JLD at leisure in '65.

I was fortunate to see Jim Dickinson perform on several occasions. The first time would have been with Mudboy & the Neutrons at the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but JLD was MIA. ( Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, the late Lee Baker, et al rocked on regardless, showing the small but stunned crowd why Memphis author Robert Gordon once called their band “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis.”) During a mid-Nineties South X Southwest, I saw Jim play a fine folk-blues set backed by Luther, Cody, and bassist Paul Taylor — this was in the days of DDT, the Stooges/Black Flag-influenced power trio that preceded the North Mississippi All Stars. Later came memorable appearances at the Lakeside Lounge and Joe’s Pub (both NYC).

On April 6, 2007,  Jim gave his last New York performance: a solo acoustic set during a benefit for Housing Works at the organization’s bookstore and cafe in Soho (with NMAS closing the show). Dickinson was terribly overweight, sometimes short of breath, in obvious physical discomfort, and he sang the hell out of “John Brown.”

Luther Dickinson: An Acoustic Tribute to Jim Dickinson [from www.NMAllStars.com]

Quotations from ‘East Memphis Slim’

In remarks to the audience at a 2009 gig in Austin, the Texas musician Jon Dee Graham remembered Dickinson once telling him: “Giving synthesizers to the British was like giving whiskey to the Indians – ruined their whole culture!”

Record producer and author Joe Boyd once found himself seated with Dickinson on a producers panel discussion at South X Southwest: ”I will always love him for saying that the only conditions under which he would produce a new band was if I didn’t have to go see them play’ and ‘if the first time I met them was in the studio for the session.’”

Andy Schwartz saw JLD backed by DDT (Dickinson/Dickinson/Taylor) at SXSW. When Luther Dickinson began tuning his guitar between numbers, his father admonished him: “Now son, I’ve told you many times before that tuning is decadent, European, and homosexual.” (Naturally, this was on stage at Chances — at that time, the premier lesbian bar in Austin.)

Jean Caffeine was with A.S. at that SXSW gig and remembers that JLD introduced his beautiful ballad “Across the Borderline” (written with Ry Cooder and John Hiatt) as “the song that paved my driveway.”

From JLD’s “Production Manifesto,” posted at ZebraRanch.com: “From the first hand-print cave painting to the most modern computer art, it is the human condition to seek immortality. Life is fleeting. Art is long. A record is a ‘totem,’ a document of a unique, unrepeatable event worthy of preservation and able to sustain historic life. The essence of the event is its soul.”

Last Words

"Gonna need headphones, folks get LOUD up there!"

Never To Be Forgotten!

“I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night.

“I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you.” — World boogie is coming, James Luther Dickinson

When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.

Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)

Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad.  I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.

ELLEN McILWAINE [Photo: Peter Sutherland]Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.

But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.

McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.

Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again”live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu”live, 9.26.2008

Hubert Sumlin On Stage (2003)

Hubert Sumlin, with hat and Strat (2003)

Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.

(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)

Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.

There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).

-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me”live in Germany, 1964