Saturday, June 16, 2012

Music Reviews-Thin Lizzy, Chris Thomas, Step Rideau, Jimi Hendrix

Thin Lizzy: Vagabonds of the Western World
Phil Lynott was the bassist, singer, frontman and primary songwriter for the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy. He was literally Black Irish, as his mother was Irish and his father was Afro-Guyanese.

As Lynott was influenced by Hendrix in style and to a certain extent in songwriting I always thought it was a shame they never hooked up. Now that would have been quite the band!

Vagabonds of the Western World was the band's third album and their last with original guitarist Eric Bell. The band would go to much greater commercial success with a more generic hard rock, dual lead guitar attack but actually I always preferred Bell's tone and the trio sound, although obviously there are some overdubs here and there. I don't think Lynott ever sounded better on bass. He here has a very punchy (I think he used a plectrum to play bass), well defined and yet thick sound that is upfront and in your face. The album is very well produced. I never like rock music where you can hardly hear the bass or it's playing just the bare minimum. That's not a problem here as Lynott's bass has more bottom than a house full of hippos. He's busy but never overplays. Lynott has a deft melodic sense. It's close to Motown bass god James Jamerson and Paul McCartney. His singing voice can best be described as big and earnest.

This is a much more diverse album than anything the band would later record. It's not just hard rock. There's the nasty street funk of I'm Gonna Creep up on you which for some reason has always struck me as the perfect soundtrack accompaniment to an extended gangster film scene when the long overdue hits are made simultaneously across the city. The lurching drunken bada$$ rhythms of The Rocker (live version) and the hard funk meets blues tones of Slow Blues are also fun listening for me.

Mama Nature Said is a slide guitar driven eco-lament about what mankind has done to the world while Little Girl In Bloom is a dare I say sensitive insight into single motherhood which uses tasteful delay and round singing. The title track is a melding of Celtic themes of exploration and magic with modern funk-rock. This album produced a hit with the band's version of the traditional Irish ballad Whiskey in the Jar, which saw Lynott on acoustic guitar. Black Boys on the Corner is a semi-autobiographical protest against racism which showed if nothing else Lynott had been listening to Issac Hayes "Theme from Shaft". Randolph's Tango is another number that shows off a tasteful acoustic guitar solo.

As mentioned Eric Bell left the group shortly after this album, evidently exhausted from the touring and the relative lack of success. That was a shame because soon afterwards the band had some huge hits and started to move into headliner status. But before Jailbreak and The Boys are Back in Town became two of their defining hits there was a different bluesier Thin Lizzy that you might want to check out.

Chris Thomas: Simple
Chris Thomas is the son of bluesman Tabby Thomas.
Chris Thomas has visited a huge variety of music styles. This is unusual for so-called blues artists but is something that rock artists do all the time. Perhaps because of musical stereotyping and expectations that tend to limit opportunities for black rockers, his earlier music wasn't hugely commercially successful. In fact he had to go overseas for a while to get a chance at some wider attention. Much of Thomas' music is based in blues but he's not bound by blues. He has been insistent over the years that he has to make music that is meaningful to him and relevant to today's listeners, instead of just replaying things that were discovered by people of older generations.

His 1993 release Simple was his most straight ahead rock album. However he hasn't really revisited that sound since, preferring to focus on blues-rap melange or more straight ahead acoustic blues. This second style was given renewed focus and great commercial success by his acting role in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou as bluesman Tommy Johnson. So whether you like straight ahead electric blues, funk, gentle soul a la D'Angelo, rap, acoustic blues, country, old timey gospel, electronica, blues-rock or hard rock chances are that Thomas has done something over the years since this album that you might enjoy. He has an authoritative voice but is not a screamer. His voice is somewhere between Terence Trent D'Arby (whose sartorial style Thomas used on his first album) and Lenny Kravitz's calmer moments. He's probably the only musician that I've heard who has successfully mixed rap and blues.

As mentioned Simple is the most rock oriented of all of his releases but like most albums of that kind then and now it was too "white" for black radio and of course too "black" for white radio. This is ironic as Simple has extremely obvious shouts out to Hendrix, Bob Marley, Chuck Berry, and other black rock, reggae or blues icons. Usually I don't like ranking guitarists because I think it's silly. I'll just say I liked this album and guitar tone here a lot. I don't think Thomas was revolutionary or super skilled here but I do think if you are open to some familiar high energy sounding rock-and-roll and an interesting take on Marley's War you might want to give this a listen. It may not have been Thomas' best or deepest work but it is fun and if you pardon the pun, simple listening.
Fool for love  War    Whatever happened to the revolution 
Itch   Blood on the dagger 

Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws
I am a big fan of various types of Louisiana based music, especially zydeco so it was a special treat when a friend of mine pulled my coat about Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws. Like a lot of modern zydeco it sounds like this music takes as much from blues and rock-n-roll as it does from zydeco but as the differences between those musics are rather arbitrary, especially in Louisiana and Texas, it's all good.

Like much of the music I like this music has relentless well defined bass lines. I hadn't heard of this group before but am quite happy to make their acquaintance. This music is really fun to listen to. If you don't feel like dancing while listening to this you immediately need to check your body to see if your soul and moneymaker are still attached and in working order!!
Step Rideau also has modern rap/crunk/electronica influences as heard most prominently on Zydeco Swing Out. I'm actually a little embarrassed that I wasn't previously familiar with him. Starting to slip in old age or something I guess. Hopefully my friend will read this post and realize she has good taste.

Anyway if you are already fond of zydeco or its half-brother cajun music, or any of the similar genres from Louisiana and Texas, you will probably enjoy Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws. This is an excellent example of how traditional music can naturally grow and change with the times without sounding either like a museum piece or looking like your great grandmother stage diving. Good stuff. I love the waltz meets blues rhythms of Let's talk about old times.
Please take me  Zydeco Swing Out   I see what u like   Let's Talk about old times
Pull it till it pops  Come on Over  Creole Way   Rockin Chair

Hendrix: Band of Gypsys
Hendrix had to produce this album to satisfy a previous contractual claim by somewhat shady music producer Ed Chalpin (who later produced Public Enemy). To make a long story short Chalpin was able to parlay an old $1.00 contract into an album owed him by Hendrix. Hendrix certainly didn't want to allow Chalpin access to anything he did in the studio so he and his (also somewhat shady) management decided to record a live album instead. Live albums then and now were often huge risks but as most of the monies from this release would be going into Chalpin's pockets and not Hendrix's it wasn't as if Hendrix was going to care too much about that.

Hendrix was also undergoing stress and friction with his original band, The Experience, particularly bassist Noel Redding. Redding was increasingly frustrated with Hendrix's studio perfectionism and penchant for redoing all of Redding's bass lines himself. Hendrix didn't appreciate Redding's mistakes, resistance to playing Hendrix-dictated bass lines or Redding's habit of trying to play in the treble register. Redding was a guitarist who had switched to bass. Finally fed up, Redding left the group.
Hendrix relocated to the US where he hooked up with his old bass playing Army buddy, Billy Cox. Hendrix had originally wanted to take Cox with him when he left for England but finances and timing hadn't worked out. The reunion seemed to kickstart some creativity within the exhausted Hendrix. The duo linked with drummer Buddy Miles, who was already something of a star, though not on Hendrix's level obviously. The trio jammed together, though still not as much as the notoriously perfectionist Hendrix would have liked and produced the concert album Band of Gypsys.

The Band of Gypsys was both sonically and literally a blacker band than The Experience.
Billy Cox was imo a far better bassist than Redding. He understood how to hold down the bottom. Although I don't think Mitchell was a bad drummer Miles brings a much funkier, fatter and deeper sound. It's John Bonham meets Clyde Stubblefield with a hint of Bernard Purdie thrown in. Cox and Miles understood both instinctively and through years of experience how to play behind the beat. Redding and Mitchell tended to zoom ahead of it. Hendrix showed, that not only had he been listening to people like Sly Stone and James Brown but also that all along he had been coming from the same roots. The music here would later be referenced and used by people as diverse as Miles Davis, EWF, The Isley Brothers, Nugent, John Lee Hooker, Funkadelic, The Jackson Five, Thin Lizzy, Norman Whitefield, Issac Hayes, Robin Trower (check out Daydream or Bridge of Sighs), Frank Marino and many many others. All in all this band was tighter than The Experience and exponentially funkier. There's impressive use of space.

The album opens with Who Knows, which is a catchy little funk-rock tune that features a co-verbal lead between Hendrix and Miles as well as a scat solo by Buddy Miles. I like it but even Hendrix thought that a little of Buddy Miles' singing goes a mighty long way so YMMV. The song also anticipates drum-n-bass music and dubstep. Then there is Machine Gun. In my opinion Machine Gun was not only Hendrix's masterpiece among masterpieces it was and still is the definitive statement of what an electric guitar can do. Howls of pain, screams, fire, helicopters, napalm, and of course machine guns are all heard in this song. It's a stream of consciousness onomatopoeic improv about war and evil. I don't think anyone anywhere has matched or will match what Hendrix did here. Hendrix did not change chords in this song. It was both an anti-war song and an updated modern blues piece in the key of E, reminiscent of some of Howling Wolf's one chord songs.

The remaining songs are somewhat underdeveloped but are evidence that Hendrix was intimately familiar with funk, soul and jazz. They make very explicit usage of call and response, melisma and other African-American musical stylings. Some songs would, were the lyrics changed, have fit perfectly at church. Listen to the clap-alongs Power of Soul and  We Gotta Live Together.  Them Changes became a signature tune for Buddy Miles who later recut it with Carlos Santana. Message to Love showed up in radically different forms on later Hendrix studio versions.

Hendrix's management was delighted to complete the Chalpin obligation but was not too thrilled with an all black band, black people, Black Panthers and other social activists showing up at Hendrix concerts or the new direction of Hendrix's music. To be fair there is some evidence that Hendrix himself did not see Buddy Miles at least, as a necessarily permanent band member going forward. We'll never know for sure as with a few notable exceptions Hendrix was famously not confrontational. The band broke up when after a poorly performed concert Cox had a bad reaction to something (some people say it was acid) and Hendrix's manager personally and gleefully fired Miles. The Experience was temporarily reformed but that didn't last long. Hendrix started a new band with Cox on bass and Mitchell on drums. Anyway, all that nonsense aside you should have this album if you are into the guitar, into Hendrix, into funk, rock or blues. Although I can't say everything here is a keeper, Machine Gun and Who Knows are more than worth whatever you would pay for this album. This was part of a group of concerts around New Year's Eve 1969. The expanded but apparently still not complete concert can be found on Hendrix: Live at Fillmore East, but as mentioned the best version of Machine Gun is here.
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