Cream

Happy Birthday to Me!

YEA! I made it to another birthday and it was a great one! I communicated with people I haven’t heard from in years and that was really special and maybe the best part! There is so much about the old days me from those days that I miss now, but that’s the nostalgic, wistful and longing nature of life isn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s far from a forgone conclusion that I will live to see another year when a new year begins, so the fact that I did is totally cool. All blessings to the Most Highest and them that helps me here! Also…there was SCHWAG!

The one gift I requested was for an updated version of an iPhone dock that we used to have that was made by JBL. It was pretty cool because it would charge the phone and simultaneously play music with great hi-fidelity sound, plus it just sat in the corner of the kitchen very unobtrusively. I’m very lucky in that my girlfriend is very tech-savvy and while she was home in Japan for a few weeks in October, she found the Sony xb-41! What a total party machine! This wireless speaker works with whatever device, weighs only three pounds and takes up no space at all. It has great bass response, LED light-show stuff and as all of these demonstration videos I’m linking to show: it can also charge your devices, link in a chain with other speakers to create a HUGE WALL OF SOUND, or even operate as a phone! Just think: You could set it up somewhere and yell into it and somebody, somewhere could yell back! Isn’t THAT GREAT? You can also do stupid shit use as a beat-master at the club! Who wouldn’t want to do that just once?

I just wanted something that could blast when I’m in the kitchen making dinner…which I DO ALL THE TIME! (see above). This definitely works just as expected as I’ve already tried it out and I’m happy as a musical clam. It’s a good idea to download the Sony Music Center app because the app has EVERYTHING you need to take the speaker to the next level, including a really boss equalizer, which is completely necessary. I wasn’t loving how the extra bass response was reacting with some of those jazz albums from the 50s, but the equalizer, which is not just a bunch of presets but actual levels that can be adjusted, helped make it all sound better. ROCK sounds GREAT! All of it. Led Zeppelin IV sounds friggin’ huge! It’s also possible to download an app that allows you to become a proverbial DJ, which is about as annoying a thing that anyone could ever do. I was going to record a demonstration video of this, but I got bored playing with it and decided not to. It’s pretty silly though and if you aren’t the proverbial Douche at the KLUB you’ll have no use for this app, but that doesn’t diminish all of the other great features this speaker and its attendant software will bring into your musical life. Also, you can do like we’re doing and recycle all of your old computer and sound system gear! Clear up, clean out and get rid of all of that stuff you don’t use anymore anyhow! You’ll feel better once you do…or not. I know we will and I like this high-quality machine so I definitely recommend!


I also ordered myself a present because I had another hard year, so hard that I even stopped playing guitar for six months! Can you believe that? I am callous-less. Definitely not easy playing guitar with smooth fingers, but little by little they are coming back. So I bought something I have been looking at for a couple of years: A DITTO pedal. It works just as it is supposed to and I was already playing against a loop of the Autumn Leaves changes yesterday! Fun! Fun! FUN! Making the perfect loop isn’t quite as easy as it looks especially if it’s been a few months. My timing stuff was all off too, but I finally got it. The loops can be used for overdubbing, practicing, creating…whatever you wanna do. They can be saved and then outputted if they are keepers and I will probably do that…use them as a basis for maybe some ambient stuff I can then import into Garageband or Adobe Audition for sound enhancement. If you’ve ever heard the saying, “You’re never alone with a Smith and Wesson” the same could be said for a Ditto looper; you can create the proverbial GUITAR ORCHESTRA all by yourself. I got mine online through Sweetwater and it was my first time and a great experience!. Ordering, communicating and receiving was easy as pie and THAT’S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE! Plus, unlike some other companies, they aren’t sending me hourly emails asking for a rating or a review…yet. Hopefully they won’t. But this is my review anyhow! This is a great addition to anyone’s pedal arsenal and it’s not going to break your bank either! All of what you need and nothing you don’t. Not something that’s prevalent in modern culture people…think about that!

Aside from these upgrades, I continue to enjoy the music that I reviewed last month; Moonlight in Vermont, Soft Guitars, “Howlin’ Wolf”, Led Zeppelin IV, and the “Heavy Cream” playlist I made have all been in very frequent rotation. I also made a mid 60s Rolling Stones playlist and COWS playlist that also get regular spins just for a little bit of fun and lunacy. The days continue to get shorter and shorter; by early November it’s usually a short sprint to the end of the year. I love the fall, but it always seems to fly by quickly. Enjoy it as much as possible before it’s gone!

Tidbits III

The above issue of Guitar World featuring Eric Clapton is from late ’89 and was one of the first I appeared as a writer of ROCK, so I’ve always kept it. There’s some decently cool photography with a retrospective-type interview (no, I did not conduct the interview). It’s also interesting that Tales of Brave Ulysses and Let it Rain are the songs transcribed and not one of EC’s hot 80s songs. I would imagine that the 60s-70s stuff remains the most popular guitar stuff even now.

Speaking of Let it Rain, I wrote a review for the album that it appears on; Clapton’s self-titled debut and you can read it here. This is an underrated album in my opinion and if you have never heard it, check it out if you’re a person who finds that early 70s bluesy roots sound even remotely interesting. Also, I have been on a mission to organize and update my reviews and I’ve moved all of my reviews that appeared as posts to the appropriate review sections.

Speaking of the bluesy, blues guitarist Otis Rush passed away last month at the age of 84. Otis had been unable to perform for years due to post-stroke health problems, but prior to that was (along with Buddy Guy) one of the last great bluesmen of the classic 50s era. Known as the architect of the famed Chicago West Side Blues sound, he found some success in the mid-50s and in the late 90s, when he won a Grammy for his Any Place I’m Going disc. He was an influence on many a rock guitarist and Led Zeppelin covered his song, I Can’t Quit You on their first album. His other well-known songs included Double Trouble, which inspired the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band and All Your Love.

I have written about Barney Kessel and Grant Green before and reviewed Barney’s Yesterday album here and his Blues album here. I’m planning some reviews of the Grant Green discs that I have, but in the meantime, the clip above is Grant and Barney playing with the equally amazing Kenny Burrell in France in 1969. I said last year that footage of Grant Green is very rare and then… this appeared! So start referring to me as The Summoner! And watch this clip! Three great guitarists at the top of their respective game who enjoy playing with each other. Doesn’t get any better. I’ve certainly seen a ton of Barney and Kenny tearing it up, but it’s great to see Grant on these tunes, especially the ballad, I Wish You Love! I love this tune anyway, but to hear Grant’s bluesy, post bop take on it is a departure from how it is normally played. Also, on most of his records he laid out when he wasn’t soloing, but he comps a lot on this video just in case anyone thinks he couldn’t. The format for this show has all of the players on the first and last blues tunes and they each get a ballad totally to themselves. That’s interesting and not something that’s seen very often, but I like it! They have their own very signature styles and to hear a tune completely like that without someone else trying to play on it makes for a complete experience…almost like a cut from an album. Plus they can take their time to develop the ideas. Barney’s spin on I’m Glad There Is You is glorious, and Kenny Burell’s Imagination is also killin’. He is such a smooth boss with some great quick pickin’ lines. I’m grateful for this upload and hope there is more in the future! It would be amazing if there is any footage of Grant playing classic Grant tracks.

Finally, former drummer for AC/DC and Dio, Simon Wright says Ronnie James Dio’s reworked hologram looks almost real! LOL! That’s just super-duper because whatever is going on in the video above doesn’t look real at all! Even if I squint! Dio’s wife and manager Wendy recently said a bunch of creepy stuff that echoes my Pet Sematary comparisons from the last post on this subject:

“I think that Ronnie was an innovator of heavy metal music, so why not be an innovator of technology?” she said. “And I think technology is coming a long way with holograms — a lot of people are doing it now. And I think the reason is because we are losing all of our innovators; everybody is getting older. And we need to keep them alive and keep their memory and their music alive. I think it’s a new way. It’s like when people first came out with a CD or a cassette: ‘Ooh, we don’t want that.’ But then it was the way of technology.”

Riiiiight! The world is losing innovators, so hologram! Totally. That sentence had me laughing for like 10 minutes. The Dio hologram will hit the road again in 2019 and a new version of PET SEMATARY is being released next year! Coincidence? The previews look scary! Tractor Trailers! Dark woods! Weird Lord of the Flies Children! An old John Lithgow! That all sounds terrifying to me! The movie tagline: Sometimes Dead is better! Are these people reading my blog? Stay tuned!

Wang Dang Doodle

As I reported in my last post, I was in need of a serious musical upgrade, especially one of the Howlin’ Wolf variety. Seeing that I live in the largest city in the USA, I sallied forth, totally confident that I would have a great day and return with something that would render me no longer ‘Wolf-less’. Not only was I supremely confident, I was foolishly overconfident because I tried to perform this manuever on a day where 2.3 inches of rain fell in the space of like forty minutes. It was super. A Super Soaker. I got super soaked. Not only that, I returned empty-handed. On my way to and fro I passed the Kellogg’s Store (pic not taken on that day) and…I’m glad it’s there because that’s what I’ve always been lacking in my life…a café that serves Corn Flakes. Talk about SWPL. If it ain’t, it ought to be. In addition to breakfast cereals, there are endless places to acquire luxury goods, sub par, yet overpriced tacos, haircuts!, or electronics. And vinyl. Lots of places now carry vinyl, but all of the discs that I know exist and represent a much more diverse selection of music don’t seem to be available anywhere. Even Barnes and Noble sells vinyl. There is a large space devoted to it that was completely empty. Maybe I didn’t go at the right time. While I was in the B & N the only other people looking at sounds were pathetic old guys like me in the compact disc section, stumbling around like dehydrated, wild-eyed morons in the desert, searching, yearning, and dreaming a mirage of purchased music, passing each other with traded looks of “What? You call this a music selection?” (Yea, that sentence is awkward, but it works).

As I said in the original post, I didn’t see anything I wanted in the iTunes music store and the only great thing about that is convenience and the ease of album art and installation on the iPhone. Part of what drove me from the house was the desire I had to relive the days when everyone had to search to acquire…but not with a fake magnifying glass and a bunch of form fields. Search, in the wild…like Bungalow Bill or something. That was part of the pleasure of buying music; combing through the bins, turning up unexpected gems for the right price and interacting with fellow prospectors or dealers who either approved or snickered at what was under your arm. There are a few places like this left in the city, but their selection of anything guitar-related, blues or jazz, was seriously lacking. One dude at a place I visited related that the good stuff “goes pretty quick” and all that little anecdote did was reaffirm my belief that there is obviously still a market out there. It just needs a space that doesn’t rent @ $444,444.29/sq ft.


So I turned to the internet and yea, of course I found something online, and its killer! The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62 aka All of the Wolf’s Great Music. I didn’t get it from The ‘Zon, because I’m not getting anything there anymore. While the actual product is everything I wanted, it came with the jewel case broken in three places…So I imported the music, scanned the covers, and sent that crap back to sender ’cause that’s just how I roll Homeskillet! (Saying the italic bit in a Howlin’ Wolf voice works really well!) I ordered from this place that has its warehouse at a Shepherdsville, KY address, which, I believe, is in the immediate vicinity of the Zappos warehouse. D’ya know Zappos? I know Zappos. On the whole Zappos has been a positive experience as far as getting what I want and returning what did not meet expectations for one reason or another. This is the way we shop (and return) now, I guess. Something gained, something lost. Like that Joni Mitchell song or something. No, not that one. This one. Eh, no, this one. (All those vids are amazing!) Anyhow, I fear for the young. How will they know how to forage and feed themselves when the great crash and zombie apocalypse happens? Will everyone head for places like Shepherdsville, KY to raid the warehouses only to find that they have already been taken over by a gang run by Suge Knight and that dude from Pawn Stars? IT COULD HAPPEN!

But the music. WOW! 80 tunes! All the great ones: Smokestack Lightning, Moanin’ at Midnight, Down In the Bottom, Backdoor Man, Wang Dang Doodle, I Ain’t Superstious, Sittin’ On Top of the World and all of the others. Then there is the great stuff that I’ve heard on other people’s recordings like Tell Me, Shake for Me, and You’ll Be Mine, all covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan, which I hadn’t heard the originals until now. Why? I don’t know. But Howlin’ Wolf and his Orchestra is THE BLUES and it’s the best kind of blues because it can exist on one chord and say everything there is to say about everything and serve as the basis for a whole future of unimagined (at the time) other music. The SOUND is a huge, throbbing tumor of the most dangerous variety; pregnant, full of possibility and menace. How many other art forms can say that? Just letting all of these songs play renders the concept of “song” meaningless because they all merge into a glorious panorama that puts the listener in the death seat of a meth-fueled, flying muscle car, sailing down Highway 49 as the juke joints, clotheslines, rib shacks, old cars, beer signs, bent men, dancing women, razors, blood and whiskey blow by the windows. Needless to say, this gets my highest rating and is heavily recommended.

I also got Cream’s Wheels of Fire, the world’s first platinum double album, for the incredibly low price of $7.99! This is a great disc and one I had on vinyl a long time ago. I wore that sucker out listening to and trying to cop licks from some of the brilliant Clapton-driven guitar numbers. Hard to believe he was only 23 years old when the record was made in 1968. I wrote a post on Cream five years ago and since that time it has generated absolutely no interest. I really think it all goes back to that unplugged version of Layla and Clapton’s iBanker look at the time. Probably a lot of people who were too young to know thought he worked for Credit Suisse or something. Or maybe the 60s-era poetry lyrics on some Cream’s tunes and their turning the blues into very loud, very long, almost free-jazz explorations IS NOT OK. Or it might have something to do with good LSD no longer being a thing, except at trance shows. Is that true? That was always certainly part of the attraction…I mean how else do you get into fuzzy, over-the-top, purple-tinged poetry songs about Ulysses and Atlantis?

Wheels of Fire has the studio versions of incomparable electric workouts: White Room, Sitting on Top of the World, Born Under a Bad Sign, Politician, Those Were the Days and Deserted Cities of the Heart. It also has live versions of Crossroads, Spoonful, Toad and Traintime. Finally, there is some acoustic psychedelia with some great: As You Said; some good: Passing the Time; and some not great: Pressed Rat and Warthog and Anyone for Tennis. From a guitarist’s perspective, not only was all of this stuff completely impressive when it was released, but all of the instrumentalists were very influential on players who heard and went on to their own success later on. Also, it sounded great when you were tripping your face off!

A fringe benefit of me having Wheels of Fire and the other Cream releases is that now I have created a playlist that is the running order of one of the best compilations of any band that ever existed, Heavy Cream. This vinyl (haha) was released in 1972 and as far as I can tell has never been released on CD. I wore that two disc set out because it had all of the stuff and none of the fluff and, yea, there is that nostalgic element to it, but so what? I can get emotional. If music doesn’t have that kind of effect on you, why go out looking for it on a day that a couple of inches of rain gets dumped on your head is all I’m sayin’!

I also had two more choices (one of which is backordered) because why not go all out? I ordered and received Davy Graham’s Large as Life and Twice as Natural. I’ve written about Graham before; he developed the DADGAD tuning, wrote and performed the early 60s coffeehouse jazz/folk/guitar standard Anji, and influenced everyone from Bert Jansch, to Paul Simon to Jimmy Page. Not a bad pedigree. This album comes highly recommended as it usually gets 12 out of 10 stars everywhere! Allmusic says that: “With the exception of 1964’s Folk, Blues and Beyond, this is Graham’s finest non-compilation album… “ Unfortunately, my review isn’t quite as glowing. Davy’s guitar does shine on half the album, especially his forays into Indian/World music: Blue Raga, Jenra, Sunshine Raga, and his cover of Both Sides Now are all really good. Not only does he know and play his sitar-style tunings well, but his understanding of Eastern/Arabic music and the fact that he actually could play the Oud allow these pieces to sound completely original, yet very traditional. It seems to me the pitch is lower than “D”, which creates a natural comb-filter-type timbre. That is a great sound and one I would like to try myself! The supporting players also bring a really authentic ensemble presentation to this music that blends East and West in a more convincing manner than a ton of other stuff that attempted same in the 60s. I also like Bruton Town, which is an Olde English folk/Madrigal type of song. Davey’s voice is well-suited to this kind of material and his fingerpicked guitar work is perfectly executed and evocative of the Renaissance Fair feel of the song. There should have been another 1-2 numbers with this vibe on the disc. The Elizabeth Cotton-penned folk classic Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie is also performed well but this folk style is very familiar to me and not as impressive to be honest.

Unfortunately, I don’t like much about the rest of the album. There are four “blues” songs: Freight Train Blues, Good Morning Blues, Electric Chair, and Bad Boy Blues, but Graham really doesn’t do my kind of blues. He’s got that high, reedy, English-guy voice goin’ on and that just don’t sound like the Delta, believe you me. Then there’s Beautiful City, a swingin’ jazzy number where he sounds like Tony Bennett, which isn’t a terrible thing…if you are Tony Bennett and you’re singing a good song. He isn’t and this isn’t. The guitar on all of these tunes also sounds like an afterthought at times and certainly doesn’t have the strong vibe of the best 6 songs. There are weak and unconvincing runs and he does this annoying displacement thing where he steps out of key but it’s not cool, angular and dissonant; it just sounds like he played in the wrong key for two bars. Finally, there is his composition Tristano, which is a four-minute solo guitar piece that attempts to mash about 5 genres of music together. This should have been good, but it sounds like not enough thought was given to the arrangement. Some of the execution sounds forced and the musical thread wanders. There is nothing on this disc that has the laid back, stately cool of Anji and I am bummed about that because I’ve loved that song for decades. A couple more of the English folk style songs, an instrumental Beautiful City, and 1-2 blues instrumentals would’ve been a great compliment to the World/Eastern stuff.

So, unfortunately, a very mixed bag. I gave it three stars, because I’m in a generous mood today. There is a chance that the CD will grow on me since I haven’t had it for very long, but more than likely I’ll add the best stuff to a comp playlist and forget the rest. That’s how it goes when buying music and the moral of this story: Don’t trust Allmusic Reviews! Overall, though it was a good haul and I still have one more disc on the way and you can be sure you’ll read about it once I have it!

The Wolf at the Door

Ater 25 years in the same apartment, I moved on to new digs this year. It was time and all of the post-move changes seem to have worked out, and I am very thankful for that. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to move too far and it wasn’t a tedious or complicated process, but, somehow, somewhere, I lost a Howlin’ Wolf compilation that I had and I don’t have it digitally. Bummer! I have no Howlin’ Wolf on my person at the moment. I am Wolf-less. I haven’t been Wolf-less in years and the stuff I see on the iTunes store doesn’t look that great. It is incomplete. This is not a good thing.

Way, way back in 2011 (WOW!) I wrote this paragraph in a post on the illustrious Booker ‘Bukka’ White:

“I’ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.”

That’s a pretty happening paragraph. Damn! I’m good. The same feelings I have for Bukka and his acoustic blues music, I have always had for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and his gnarly, snarly, electric blues. Yea, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and all of the rest were great. No doubt. Willie Dixon, of course, was the premiere songwriter of them all. He was also an awesome bass player and over the years played with pretty much everybody. But Wolf’s brand of blues and his awesome presence, live or on record, cannot be beat. He towers over other performers by a mile and this is why he was also a huge influence and a big favorite of people like Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Brian Jones and his little band from Britain, The Rolling Stones.

Wolf was a big dude — 6 foot 3, 300 lbs. and his brand of blues was dangerous and menacing…’cause even when he was sitting down wearing accountant glasses he still looked menacing. Like Bukka White he sang about the very dangerous things he knew about: evil, riding trains, liquor, fights, women, more fighting, life, and more women. His best songs, whether original or not, are my favorite versions of those songs: Smokestack Lightning, Sittin’ On Top of the World, Evil, Moanin’ at Midnight, Wang Dang Doodle, Killing Floor, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, How Many More Years, and I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline). All of these tunes featured Wolf’s booming, bassy, bad-ass testifying shouts, whoops, snarls and, yelps front and center, while his guitar, slide guitar and harmonica punched, jabbed, accented and punctuated his backing band’s steady rolling rhythm. This produced a beautiful and sometimes terrifying musical atmosphere as Wolf’s. It was, as legendary producer Sam Phillips recalled, “This is where the soul of man never dies.” His voice was as big as the country; too big to be contained by music hall, bar or the radio. Often imitated, but never equaled, it was an unparalleled instrument gave all of his material an instantly recognizable brand and edge. This version of Smokestack Lightning is a bit different from the recorded version but it illustrates the Howlin’ Wolf’s blues train: the swingin’ kit hits, guitar screams and stabs, piano tinkles, and bass rumble working together simultaneously while Wolf rides the top of the boxcar shouting, moaning and lowing his orgy dream tale of train-riding and woman-loving. [LateEdit: I love the recorded version of this song. It has all of the elements of this live version but is driven by Hubert’s hypnotically repetitive Chicago-by-way-of-the-Delta guitar riff. Definitely serves up the essence of the Howlin’ Wolf sound!]

While Wolf had the showbiz image of the dangerous, fly-by-night, criminal badass, he was actually a very conservative, hard-working and responsible bandleader. Financially he always did well; so well he was able to pay his band better than anyone else and even provided health insurance, which is why he had the best band in the business and players, like guitarist Hubert Sumlin, stuck around for the duration of Wolf’s life and career. It was all about the music, which Wolf gave forty years of his life to before succumbing to various health ailments in 1976. Prior to that he was able to capitalize on the blues revival in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and he taught all of youngsters what roadhouse blues was really all about.

Hubert Sumlin was also a huge part of the Howlin’ Wolf sound and a lot of his licks show up later in stuff like Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song and various Cream covers that everyone has heard a million times. He was the perfect foil for Wolf’s voice, guitar and harmonica sound. Whether the band was on big stages or in small, intimate situations, they always turned it out in great rockin’ rhythm and blues style!

So what am I gonna do? I have to find the complete sides collection somewhere, but no one buys CDs anymore do they? I don’t do the streaming, so I guess I’ll have to go to a store. Holy Cow! I’ll have to work up to this…I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Jimmy Page and Improvisation

It occurred to me the other night that Led Zeppelin was, at the height of their career, the world’s best JAZZ band! Of course the concept began began with, and revolved around, Jimmy Page. Onstage he was the lead soloist of a combo that would sometimes do 30-minute versions of Zeppelin studio material/cover songs. In the studio, whether as a guitarist or producer, he constructed Zep’s body of work with the precision and care of Mozart or Wagner, layering instruments and tracks into sonic artworks of beauty, power, mystique and awesomeness. Everybody knows all that already, but approaching it from the angle that they weren’t really a rock band means you might hear something different the next time you encounter a Zeppelin tune. I’ve been listening to them since the 1970s and believe it or not, this happened to me recently. So let’s have a go! (as they say in the (UK)

As the Yardbirds were dissolving in 1968, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant came up with a strategy for the group that would become Led Zeppelin based on what they had seen in the USA on the Yardbirds’ final tour – music that was outside the milieu of the radio-friendly singles market. Both Grant and Page thought that the group that would be Zeppelin could take on American heavies like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly and do way better with the same formula. Interestingly enough, as related in Hammer of the Gods, Page had been considering a group in the Pentangle mode, because of his love and respect for artists like Bert Jansch, in particular, and acoustic music in general. Page is quoted as saying, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.” However, once Page heard and saw John Bonham play he quickly scotched the acoustic idea (at least full-time) and heard everything Zeppelin would become. From the beginning, Zeppelin focused on albums in the studio and explored a wide range of improvisations live. Many of these improvs were blues-based but because of Page’s wide range of influences and the outstanding abilities of Jones and Bonham, the music careened into many different directions with dynamics, including acoustic-based music, that would eventually be known as Zeppelin’s Light and Shade. Robert Plant would also help take the band into interesting directions as he became a more confident frontman and writer. As the group was in the process of launching their career, the world’s first supergroup, Cream, was calling it quits. Not only was Cream lauded by fans in the same way that Zeppelin would be soon (for their ability to just play), they were also taken to task by critics for their “excesses”, which would become a major point of attack by critics against Page and Zeppelin as the 60s gave way to the 70s.

Led Zeppelin has never said their approach had more to do with jazz than pop music, which was still the only alternative at the time. CLASSIC ROCK didn’t exist and even though The Beatles had been successful releasing a 7 minute single (Hey Jude), they were The Beatles and had earned the right to do that. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that music be produced in the conventional format and many bands like The Yardbirds and Cream, were constantly pressured by management that valued hit singles over a sound or a good album that would’ve sold in the newly emerging markets. Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about this because their manager, Peter Grant, never pressured the band for music and took anyone who did to task. He was savvy enough to see where the money was in the coming decade and left Jimmy and company alone to do what they wanted. While there are some to this day who view Grant as a gangster and bully because of his tactics, he was the first manager who ensured that the artists he represented got a huge percentage of the credit and compensation for their music and performances. Page insisted on complete creative control as a bargaining chip for Zeppelin’s record deal and Grant made sure he got it. He was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin and was a major factor in their success and has been recognized as a major game-changer in the history of popular music. With his help the band racked up album and concert sales that blew away everyone’s expectations. Not only was the writing and playing good enough to swing multiple generations of fans into Led Zeppelin’s corner, the band took their improvisation ethic to new heights and their live shows became an ever-changing exercise in a variation on a theme. This isn’t what most people think of when JAZZ is discussed, and heavy rockers and serious jazz artists would be equally offended by the term, but the basic drive and aspirations of Miles Davis and Jimmy Page or any of a number of ALT artists, which Zeppelin definitely were at the time, are primarily the same. It matters little what ends up on the disc. So much of that genre classification is all about selling units to consumers. A Led Zeppelin concert from the early days always had “songs”, but the highlights of the show were long improvised workouts on certain studio recordings — How Many More Times, Dazed and Confused, Trampled Underfoot, No Quarter, Whole Lotta Love,Moby Dick and whatever Jimmy picked as his “solo” spot (White Summer/Black Mountainside). As time went on the band was able to create long pieces that didn’t contain the same amount of improvisation but were arranged and conceptualized extended pieces of art: Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same/The Rain Song, Kashmir, Ten Years Gone, In My Time of Dying, Achilles Last Stand. None of this stuff is really ROCK music even if it sounds like ROCK music. It’s played with rock instruments and played at high volumes but the combination of instrumental prowess and artistic vision in the writing and live interplay produced something more than what most bands, even of that era, were capable of. It really does compare favorably to the best jazz and how the best jazz bands functioned without sacrificing any of the heaviness or youth signals (lyrics, stage theater, drama) that fans responded to.

LZ_1Before I started playing jazz music I always thought the version of Dazed and Confused (from The Song Remains the Same movie) was a bit too long and went through one too many “movements”. If it had been up to me, I thought there were two that could have been cut without losing anything from the performance (and this still might be true…improvisers are always in the process of editing and perfection is completely relative). Watching it recently, I thought the band’s performance was and is completely phenomenal. I’ve never liked the “fantasy” sequences in this movie because the band’s ability to take an audience through a half hour of music, power, drama and performance is totally cool and would certainly have been enough even in 1976. Is some of the drama silly? Of course, but the band didn’t take themselves as seriously as everyone else did and the limits of what could be done in a live performance were still expanding. Throughout the song Jimmy Page employs power chord thud, blues and country fills, dramatic wah-wah arpeggios and harmonics, slashing funk chords, avant-garde bowing and noise ripples and plenty of ripping riffs and zipping lines. When he was at his best Jimmy, like all of the great guitar improvisers, was a great synthesizer of all his influences and whatever was floating in his imagination at the time. By 1973 not only was the band firing on all cylinders live, their confidence level was completely off the charts. There is also maturity seen (and heard) in these shows that doesn’t exist in the early days and there is none of the dissipation and exhaustion that creeps into the band by later in the decade.

In 1973 Dazed and Confused was still a major centerpiece of Zeppelin shows. Typically, it occupied the 10th slot of the set, preceding Stairway to Heaven. In 1997 artist and Led Zeppelin bootleg expert extraordinaire Luis Rey analyzed Dazed and Confused in his book Led Zeppelin Live: An Illustrated Exploration of Underground Tapes. He split the song (1975 live version, which ran even longer than 1973) into 12 basic sections as a means of identifying the changing parts and progression of the piece. You can check the Wiki link for the actual sections and I think they’re pretty close in general to this version, at least the overall substance. Obviously some of this was rehearsed prior to the tour and Zeppelin played the set they rehearsed pretty much at all shows on a tour with only the encores varying from show to show. BUT…as was said at the time and what is obvious if you listen to enough copies of shows from their tour, within the general framework, there was plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity, especially as far as Page is concerned and he certainly took advantage of that freedom.

Dazed and Confused was originally “picked up” by The Yardbirds after seeing Jake Holmes perform it in New York City when he opened for the band in summer of 1967. The title, bassline and general vibe of the song were lifted intact, but the lyrics were rewritten and even before Led Zeppelin came into fruition it served as an instrumental vehicle for all of Page’s guitar wizardry. (In 2010 Holmes filed a copyright infringement suit and is credited with inspiration and no doubt got a bunch of cash as the writing credit remains with Page). Zeppelin started playing Dazed at its first rehearsal and did a brisk 6+ minute version on their first album. But the song was in a constant state of evolution and serves as a very good barometer of how the bad grew over five years. As the song begins the confidence level I was talking about is evident in the dramatic intro and sung verses. Nothing is rushed and Bonham’s drum punctuations keep the song from being a dirge. Notice how Page varies the main riff every time he plays it, either with different phrasing, bends or playing the harmony notes of Jones’ bass riff at one point. At about the 4 minute mark the band is off!! and the camera starts to focus on Bonham and then Jones and Bonham as they follow and react to what Jimmy is doing. Along with all of his many other talents, John Bonham was easily one of the most reactive drummers that ever rock and rolled and Jones is also amazing. The fact that all of his brilliant lines are finger-picked also adds a layer of fluidity and depth to the song. Notice how Jimmy breaks his first set of riffing with some funky slash chords, setting up his next high-register solo. That’s improvised composition in action. As the song comes to it’s first breakdown the camera catches Bonham and Jones trying to puzzle out where Jimmy is going (5:38). Even though the band has been playing this song for 5 years at this point, but there is obviously no formula employed here. It’s called spontaneity and there was never a band as heavy as Zeppelin who pulled off this type of spontaneity so well. I love the interaction between Jones and Bonham at the 6 minute mark — it shows the essence of what I’m talking about so well. As guitar players we are usually told to “sing” our lines to make better improvisation. Notice how Bonham seems to sometimes “sing” his hits (6:19-6:25). You can hear snatches of the 3-years in the future riff for Achilles Last Stand in the arpeggios that set up the “San Francisco” bit. Excellent casual flamenco-esque strumming by Page on the “San Francisco” bits before bringing the wah-wah to lead to another heavy crescendo. Up and down the band goes, bringing everyone in Madison Square Garden with them. Isn’t this exciting? Robert Plant’s various vocalizations (scatting) have the same dynamic spontaneity throughout the song. He knows when to sing and then drop out and let the band play again. The “I Knows” that he brings in to accentuate the heavy part that comes in around 7:50 don’t mean anything and he isn’t really singing. His voice is just another instrument in the mix that adds another layer of excitement as the final bit of CRUSH and the segue before the song devolves into complete and total weirdness (and I mean that in a good way). Same with the “Aahs” and “Oohs” as the bass and drums are dropping out. The band leaves as Jimmy takes over on bow at about 9:00. So far the song has been paced beautifully highlighting the band’s talents for improvisation and live drama. Ethereal swoops and echo feedback replace the power of the band and it becomes a completely sonic “event”. The “song” has been left far behind. At 10:20 the Tolkien theater or Mars the Bringer of War (whichever you prefer) is in full effect with bow smacks on an echo-driven guitar with accompany send-outs to the audience. While I’m sure this was the inspiration behind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel” violin solo“, it doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as it was made out to be. Sure, it’s not a 4 minute rock song, but John Cage and others outside the mainstream were doing stuff like this for years and Led Zeppelin’s fans, while maybe not classical music aficionados, ate it up. You don’t hear anyone screaming or heckling or any audience noise at all until Page does the dramatic slaps… and there is much rejoicing!! As Page continues bowing [the fantasy takes over and] Plant joins him with vocal accents as they fill the Garden with horror movie sounds that I’m sure were pretty awesome to an audience looking for a trip to another world (and under the influence of whatever they could get their hands on before the concert). See the internet and smart phones didn’t exist then kids. The rest of the band joins in with ambient noise effects before they return with the crunch and the blast at around the 16 minute mark. Once again the segue, helped by those little touches of Jones’ and Bonhams’ ambiance and impeccable timing, is perfect. There is another shot of John Bonham as the song kicks into the familiar riff that leads into the guitar/vocal interplay between Plant and Page. Bonham looks like such a serious (and sober) drummer on this performance doesn’t he? Very attentive to what Page and Jones are doing. A whole bunch of awesome, rapid-fire Page soloing follows on the same rhythm gallop. Back in the 70s this is what earned Page universal acclaim as the best guitarist of the era and it’s pretty impressive even today. The song breaks down into a funky rhythm that employs a prominent Hendrix-y 9th chord as it’s anchor. Jimmy has been playing guitar for almost twenty continuous minutes and has yet to repeat himself. Another dramatic major, happy sounding break leads into a different interaction with Plant (along with a bit more theater that totally pleases the audience). And once again Page is off with an Over, Under, Sideways Down-style riff and Jones and Bonham follow him until the song breaks again for another interaction with Plant in a higher register. The scene with the longhair is puzzling and says to me “we don’t have the film of that part of the performance.” Why that bit is chosen or what it’s supposed to represent I’ve never been able to puzzle out. At about 23 minutes the song breaks down again and goes into something that sounds vaguely like Black Sabbath before climaxing into chaotic noise and spiraling to earth and the final familiar strains of Dazed and Confused as you know it from the record are heard again. On the familiar outro figure Page once again takes off with screaming obbligatos and fleet-fingered wah chording and Jones and Bonham turn the rhythmic vibe into something that gets them smiling at each other (26:35-26:50) before a final burst of feedback and Plant’s echoes signal the ending chord slam and Bonham drum thrashing that finishes the song. While there was probably some post-production employed to really tighten the song up, other versions from the tour are extremely close and sound almost as good. Silly or dated as this might seem to some there is literally no one else in the history of rock who pulled this off as well, then or now.

LZ_3Given the nature of the above song and performance, Led Zeppelin has a lot in common with other “jamming” bands like The Grateful Dead, Cream and The Allman Brothers, much more than most “headbangers” would give them credit for. It’s interesting that many of the heavy bands that Zeppelin influenced picked up on the heaviness and the occasional acoustic ballad, but were not adept at either live improvisation or long orchestral-like pieces of music. All of that more or less faded out with the 70s. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and everyone who followed into the 80s did not play 30 minute songs and did very little improvisation, except for their feature solos. That whole approach to writing and performance became strictly the domain of “jam bands” most of whom descend from the California sound of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, there is a lot of that to Zeppelin as well — Robert Plant in particular was a huge fan of San Francisco bands and it definitely shows in his Zeppelin lyrics and his solo material. This is probably why Page and the rest of the band take umbrage of the title Heavy Metal to describe their music, because they weren’t, especially when compared with what came along in the 80s and beyond. (Notice that most of the time Page isn’t using that much distortion live compared to heavy guitarists of later years). The heaviness that Zeppelin brought was always balanced with nuance and other elements, which is very clear by analyzing Dazed and Confused, always one of their heaviest songs. Guitarists of the next generation would by and large take the obvious and simplest elements of Zep’s heavy music and make it louder, heavier, faster and, in some cases, more intricate and in the process lose the elements that gave Zeppelin’s music it’s timeless depth, dynamics and (live) spontaneity.

LZ_6Of course, I was and am a big fan of the later heavy music and have seen many of those bands and played more than a few of those longs in my own bands. However, there is something slightly intense and magical about the ability of a group of musicians being able to improvise or approach music with the type of dynamics and movement inherent in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you like, there comes a point when the quality of the music or performance renders all description and classification useless because there ain’t enough adjectives to really convey what goes on!

Keith Richards — Part I

GUITAR HERO

Keith is my numero uno, the man, the KING OF COOL and HOT TRASHY GUITAR. He was the first guitar hero I had and over the years I’ve learned many a lick and trick from listening to his music, reading his interviews and copping the feel from his playing. Long before Django, or Eddie or Jimi or anyone else I was a huge fan of The Rolling Stones and their music. Not only is Keith’s style great, but because he always mentioned great players from the past that were influences, he provided a link to the past that made for even more listening entertainment and inspiration. The Stones, from the very beginning, always picked great cover songs too — Love in Vain, Mona, Let it Rock, Prodigal Song, Shake Your Hips, Down the Road Apiece, Stop Breaking Down, Not Fade Away and many others always done with the energy and panache that is THE STONES.

There have been many great books on Keith and The Rolling Stones over the years and probably anyone reading this has had at least a few in their possession. The pictures you see in this post come from The Rolling Stones: The First 25 Years, by rock writer extraordinaire Dave Dalton. I’ve had this for so long it’s not even a book anymore. It completely fell apart years ago and is basically just a big pile of pages, but it’s a an AWESOME BOOK. Not only is the photography really brilliant, but it spans the real pinnacle of the band’s career and includes many interviews with Keith and Mick from the 1970s. This is is how I knew all about Keith’s guitar style before I even left home. I was surprised to see this book is still available and if you like Keith and the band, you should totally buy it.

BLUES ATTITUDE

From the early days The Stones were different from all of the other people who banded together to play rock and roll music. They grew to be notorious for their attitude and behavior and although they were eclipsed by The Beatles in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, at least as far as popularity and sales, they became the epitome of what a rock and roll band is, or should be. Not only was their music top-notch, but they had the attitude (in spades) to match. The emotions and the attitudes expressed in songs like Satisfaction and Let’s Spend the Night Together (which was too risqué for The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967) seem quaint when compared to some of the jokes in an present-day episode of Family Guy. But that was the uptight culture that was America in the post-WW II years. Many of the overly conservative/fundamentalist leanings rampant today have been a part of this country all along. Whether he was in court on drug charges, staring down the Hells Angels at Altamont or being flogged in the press as a musical hack, Keith was never one to shy away from conflict. He has the BLUES ATTITUDE, a style and way of life I’ve already talked about in the Bukka White post I wrote last year. Along with the outlaw country styles of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash and the rock and roll snarl of Elvis and Chuck Berry was all about IMPULSE and ABANDON, not only in the music, but also the lifestyle associated with it. Keith Richards came to embody all of this and even today is held up as THE symbol of hedonistic living, a shining example of those people who burn the candle at both ends and then snort the wax. In uptight conservative society, which is really what the upper class wants to inflict on the lower classes because the upper class perfected hedonistic behavior a long time ago, people like Keith were a threat to the status quo that had kept everyone in line. As the 60s progressed, more and more of the old ways fell away. Of course, Keith doesn’t get all the credit for these changes, but he was and is a person who declared, through his razor slash chords and his defiance of traditional mores, that he was a man who lives on his own terms, like it or not.

EARLY DAYS

In the beginning Keith and the Stones played the music of their heroes, the music they loved. It was rude, energetic, infused with sex and danger and the freedom to let it rock. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were a great rhythm section, Mick Jagger was well on his way to being a superstar frontman and Brian Jones and Keith Richards had practiced their dueling blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll “weaving guitar” parts until they had them down cold. They had digested Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Scotty Moore, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and were able to play it with a reckless enthusiasm that drove the kids wild. It was all about MOVING people, as the following clip from The Tami Show proves. The Stones are having a really good time and everything the band becomes is right here in this clip. It’s a tad derivative still — Showtime at The Apollo, James Brown or Otis Day and the Knights maybe. They weren’t really writing their own material yet. But Keith fires the whole band with his timing, feel and exuberance. He’s also really good at those short, stingin’ leads. ROCK AND ROLL BABY!

By 1965, with the release of the singles The Last Time and Satisfaction and the Aftermath album, the band really came into their own with original material and almost all of it was built on Keith’s style and sensibilities. He was and is a complete genius at adapting to whatever the situation required. Very early on, in one of their first forays into the recording studio, the question was asked, “who makes the records?” and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham pointed to Keith and said, “he does.” While part of the reason was Keith’s personality, it was also because he knew how to create a good track and capture the atmosphere necessary to make it more than a great track, especially once the concept of albums came into vogue. Only Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page equaled Keith’s ability to make albums that had not only the sound, but also the ambiance and atmosphere of blues and early rock and roll. Many critics have said that about the Exile on Main Street album, but it was true of other records as well, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers especially. He was and is the KING of lo-fi, slop guitar and with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and later, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, he had a lot of help making genre-defining records.

POP STARDOM

In the first phase of their career, the band was constantly being pressured for a single because that was the format du jour at the time. This was true of every band and every project through the late 60s. Many groups, even heavier ones like Cream and The Yardbirds were at the mercy of producers, record companies and managers who didn’t really understand this new rock phenomenon and insisted on doing business the old way. (HERE is a funny interview with Keith Relf, singer for The Yardbirds on the trials and tribulations of dealing with this aspect of pop stardom). Because The Beatles were the undisputed rulers of the pop charts throughout the decade, there was a lot of pressure on bands to follow their lead. Some of this yielded positive results for Keith and The Stones, others were pretty dismal (Their Satanic Majesties Request). Many of the Stones’ early original singles — The Last Time, Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud and 19th Nervous Breakdown were very Rn’B-influenced and contained all of the best riffs and tricks to be mined from listening to all of the influences I’ve already mentioned. However, in 1965 they started to expand on this with other songs like Paint It, Black, Under My Thumb, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday, and Mother’s Little Helper. They were able to do this because Keith and Mick were becoming great song writers and Brian Jones was a complete genius at picking up exotic instruments and mastering them them well enough to play on a track or live in a very short time. Even though Keith would, in time, become the best example of the outlaw rock and roller, he, like the others was always very pop-conscious. His guitar hooks usually brilliant and he knew how to ARRANGE a song for the singles format. It was Keith’s idea to use a fuzzbox on Satisfaction to give the guitar a horn-like sound and there weren’t a whole lot of people using fuzz boxes at the time. (It was supposed to be a “guide” track for real horns, but it was released as is). In addition to his electric guitar finesse, Keith was a very good acoustic picker, featured on songs like Lady Jane or Back Street Girl. While some of this material seems a bit off the wall compared to later, there are some real gems in the mid-60s Stones catalog that capture the whole period of 1960s “Swinging London”.

PHASE II

The mid-60s was a really great period for Brian Jones, but, unfortunately it was also the beginning of his decline. He really came into his own as the COLOR guy for the band because he played everything; sitar, mellotron, recorder, harmonica, marimbas, organ, harpsichord, saxophone, accordion, autoharp, and dulcimer. Songs they did during this period, which are still very popular, would have been impossible without him. He was comparable to The Beatles having George Martin involved on their records. According to Keith, Brian didn’t enjoy playing guitar very much after 1965 and while there were certainly other issues within the band, it’s easy to believe that he would’ve been bored being the rhythm guitar player given his multi-instrumental abilities. Hounded by the drug squads and marginalized within the band because of his physical and mental condition, he would become the 1960s first “death by misadventure” casualty.

1968, the year of Jumping Jack Flash and Beggars Banquet, was often heralded by critics as the band’s return to their roots, but it was actually much more than that. In the past they had played American music, but post ’68 they set out to completely reinvent American music and culture, at least as they saw it. It was art in it’s truest sense and while Mick Jagger’s lyrics had a lot to do with the panorama they created, this whole period was Keith Richards coming into his own as a complete (understated) guitar master. He began exploring the concept of open-tunings, used by the blues masters of the past: Skip James, Robert Johson, Bukka White, Son House and Muddy Waters. Combined with his love of acoustic guitars, brilliant song sense and endless supply of memorable riffs and driving rhythms, he created a body of work from ’68 to ’72 that is the Stones pinnacle. Every one of the albums from this period rates five stars or… it should. Charlie Watts has said (I’m paraphrasing) that “every band in the world follows the drummer except The Rolling Stones. We follow the rhythm guitar player.” A very crucial ingredient to why these records were so great was how well Keith and Charlie play together. Keith’s riffs, combined with Charlie’s unique approach to “rock” drumming creates a very powerful, hip shaking statement. This was the beginning of the band’s ascent to superstardom.

OPEN TUNINGS

I learned all of the open-tunings a long time ago precisely because Keith used them. The original version of Jumping Jack Flash (with it’s flip side Child of the Moon) was done in open E/D. Tune the guitar to a major chord E-B-E-G#-B-E (down 2 steps for open-D, which is less stress on the guitar, especially acoustics). Beggars Banquet was the first album done with Keith using these tunings although Brian had used this tuning for slide guitar in the past. Street Fighting Man, Prodigal Sun, Salt of the Earth, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle and Stray Cat Blues are all definitely in open tunings. Another element that makes this album interesting is that some of the songs were cut with the band gathered around a Phillips cassette recorder which was then put through a speaker and recorded. Sort of like having an overdrive in the chain. Says Keith: “The basic track of that was done on a mono cassette with very distorted overrecording, on a Phillips with no limiters. Brian is playing sitar, it twangs away. He’s holding notes that wouldn’t come through if you had a board, you wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But on a cassette if you just move the people, it does. Cut in the studio and then put on a tape. Started putting percussion and bass on it. That was really an electronic track, up in the realms.” Brilliant lo-fi stuff isn’t it? That track still sounds great and the whole album is just drowning in atmosphere. Here’s the original when the song was still Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?

Here’s my version of Stray Cat Blues…I just did the music for a friend’s project that profiles a woman who takes care of stray and feral cats (at her own expense) in Mexico. I decided to use the Keith approach to the music and I ended up with something not too bad considering I haven’t played slide guitar in 5 years and was never much of a harmonica player. I also used the old Johnny Cash trick of slipping a piece of paper through the strings to create a nice rhythmic “chuck” for the background. The track had to be edited down for the length of the movie, but this is why I love GARAGEBAND.

In THIS post, I do some playing around with open-tunings on an acoustic, including Prodigal Son and You Gotta Move. They are close to what Keith does except “Move” is tuned down to a “C” tuning. I’m playing it in “D”. Keith Part II coming later in the year!