Saturday, January 12, 2013

Music Reviews-Fishbone, Buddy Guy, Wanda Robinson, Keely Smith

Fishbone is a band originally from Los Angeles. They originally all met in junior high and high school. Fishbone is extremely difficult to define. Frantic, exuberant, brash, raucous, happy, eclectic and funky might be a good way to start but that wouldn't be half of it. Fishbone's fundamental building block is probably ska, that Jamaican and Caribbean forerunner to reggae. But although ska themes run through a lot of their work they also make use of punk, metal, alternative hardcore, funk, soul, jazz, reggae, and occasionally a little bit of blues, blues-rock and rock-n-roll just for fun. Lyrically they have a great deal of absurdist and political humor in their music. They're anything but dull. The musical humor reminds me a little bit of Frank Zappa. Outside of Funkadelic I can't think of too many other bands who could do so many different things well. Because Fishbone is so eclectic their early albums have a bit of a roller coaster feel. There aren't necessarily unifying themes. There were numerous songwriters in the band, something else which gave Fishbone a lot of different musical paths and sounds to investigate, sometimes in the same song. There's a little Funkadelic in their sound but they also owe something to musicians like The B-52's, The Untouchables, The Bus Boys, Bad Brains, Fela, The Skatalites , Dead Kennedys, and Led Zeppelin.

I first ran across them in the John Cusack movie Tapeheads, where they were playing a blues/country song "Slow Bus Moving" about busing, interracial sex and the KKK. It was so warped and so unusual for blues material that I decided to look up the rest of the music that they did. Fishbone existed before the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, Extreme, or No Doubt. They influenced all of those bands. Fishbone was quite outspoken about their experiences of music industry racism, something that probably contributed to bad relations with industry insiders.

It is surreal that rock-n-roll was itself primarily started by black people while the most widely acclaimed rock guitarist was a black man but after 1970 or so "rock-n-roll" and "rock" has generally been understood by both blacks and whites to be music that was played and sold to whites. For black musicians working in popular music who didn't necessarily fit an R&B or rap straitjacket, this really limited venues for cultural expression and just as importantly financial remuneration. I've read that the Fishbone members were quite critical of white racists they dealt with as well they should have been. But there is also the other side of the coin: an overly conservative black radio industry that simply won't expose listeners to different sounds. I never heard their music on local radio. So, Fishbone fell between the cracks in terms of trying to build a mass audience. Their often outre styles and sounds also limited their appeal. Fishbone made it okay for black fans to be into punk music, stage diving and the like. In a music industry which tried to pigeonhole black musicians as rappers, neo-classical jazz musicians, or R&B crooners, Fishbone gave all of that the proverbial middle finger. They didn't get a lot of access to either white or black media outlets. Well so it goes. No one owes you anything in this life. Fishbone tried to make up for this with constant touring and incredible musicianship.
There's only so much creativity that we have to share with the world and unfortunately I think Fishbone may have maxed out way back in the mid nineties. Their planned commercial breakthrough albums The Reality of My Surroundings and Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's The Center of The Universe were excellent recordings, made more so by the addition of Miles Davis veteran, guitarist John Bigham, to the group. Reality.. is really dense funk while Give a Monkey.. throws the kitchen sink at the listener, opening with the song "Swim", the hardest hardcore this side of Bad Brains or Metallica and closing with gutbucket funk. Both albums were different and heavier than their earlier more ska influenced work but each still had a lot of danceable tunes included. Unfortunately just after Give a Monkey.. was released the band's first guitarist had something of a breakdown and joined a cult. When the bassist tried to "rescue" him on behalf of the band and his family, the guitarist claimed he didn't need rescuing. Kidnapping charges were filed. The bassist was acquitted but that seemingly opened the floodgates for the chaos which plagued the band ever since. 
Various band members left, came back, feuded and left again. The band was repeatedly dropped from record labels. In one case the band was actively trying to get fired. Membership was in constant flux. There were legal situations and other personal issues damaging the band. But they remain a favorite. I wish they would have hit it bigger. I think there are currently just two original members in the band, Angelo Moore (saxophone, lead vocals) and John Norwood Fisher (bass). There is a documentary titled "Everyday Sunshine" which details the ups and downs of the band, as well as some of their legendary live concerts. If you are interested in the band, the documentary is definitely worth it. John Norwood Fisher is among the best modern bassists I've heard. I don't say this about many bands but when Fishbone is on, you could compare them to the JB's...and maybe even the Famous Flames. 

Unyielding Conditioning  Cholly  Movement in the Light  In The Air  Fight the Youth
Freddie's Dead (Curtis Mayfield Cover)   I wish I had a date  Housework   Mighty Long Way  Slow Bus Moving (Howard Beach Party)  Naztee Mayeen  Ma and Pa
Change   Everyday Sunshine  Boning In The Boneyard
Sunless Saturday   Pray to the Junkiemaker  The Warmth of your Breath   Nutt Megalomaniac  Swim  Pouring Rain

Buddy Guy
I discussed Buddy Guy before when reviewing his autobiography. As I mentioned there Buddy Guy is one of the last living name blues guitarists who came up in hard times in the pre-war South. So when he wants to he can summon forth some music that is very difficult for people untrained or unfamiliar in that genre to play correctly or convincingly. If you catch him on a good night he is still, even at his advanced age, one of the best blues guitarists and singers on the planet. However those older more relaxed styles of music which are more jazz and R&B influenced were not and are not super popular or financially rewarding. Since at least the mid seventies or so Guy has spent a lot of time playing in the style of people who were originally imitating him-Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn. I'm not crazy about this but everyone has to eat I guess. Guy has been blunt, not bitter but blunt, about the realities of racism and marketing in the music business. He has been warmly grateful to individual white blues/rock stars who have recorded his music or publicly referenced his work even as he decries the fact that it was and is more difficult for a black musician to reach certain levels of success.

Along with people like Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Luther Allison, Buddy Guy was one of the earliest Chicago based blues guitarists to bring what we would recognize as a lead guitar sound to the forefront and rework the collective improvisation which had previously defined Chicago blues. He can play slowly of course but compared to people like Albert King Buddy Guy is hyperactive. Buddy Guy counts BB King as an influence.
There are about four, maybe five key periods which define Guy's work. All of them have something ever so slightly different to offer. Throughout his vocals can rarely be described as anything but impassioned. Guy never had the authoritative bass voice of Muddy Waters or the harsh crushed glass sinister baritone sound of Howlin Wolf but Guy puts such a keening sound in his singing voice that it's almost like he's being possessed by something not from this planet. 
In the song "The First Time I Met the Blues" you can hear what I'm talking about. Serendipitously  in that song, he talks about being ridden from tree to tree, which may well be a reference to African and African Diasporic Voodoo religious beliefs, in which the Gods or other spirits may possess or "ride" the initiated. Guy has a very fluid glassy sound on guitar, one that owes a lot to people that came before him but is still instantly identifiable as his own.

Chess and Cobra Records
Buddy Guy was originally a session guitarist for big names like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howling Wolf, and just about anyone who had his own deal at Chess Records. So if you listen to Chess recordings circa 1955-1960, Buddy Guy was probably playing guitar on about half of them. Once he got a chance to record as a leader he did a lot of wild R&B sounding blues tunes. It is VERY difficult to pinpoint something as blues or soul or R&B on his recordings. Guy mixed all of this up. Not everything here is of the highest sonic quality but "The First Time I Met the Blues" or "My Time After A While" give me shivers.

Vanguard Records
Buddy left Chess Records, displeased with financial improprieties and what he saw as the inability to record the heavier thicker sounds he wanted to produce. He went to Vanguard. Vanguard may or may not have paid Guy better, but the label owner also strongly preferred a cleaner sound. This is my favorite Guy period but it's definitely not Buddy Guy's favorite period. On the other hand he was also touring heavily with his friend Junior Wells, so it's not all bad. Vanguard had pristine recording and production standards. Vanguard was better than Chess in that aspect so the clarity of Guy's work here really stands out. Check out "Mary Had A Little Lamb", "One Room Country Shack", "Money" or "Just Playing My Axe".
JSP Records
After bouncing around a few other companies in the seventies, near the end of that decade Guy recorded a few albums for JSP Records, a company that was almost defiantly interested in roots rock, original blues and country music. Reading the liner notes for JSP albums is sometimes sort of funny as they tend to have a lot of venom, most deserved, some not, towards more popular rock or blues-rock artists. Anyway here I think Buddy Guy finally got to turn up just like he wanted to. Some of the tones on a few albums are indistinguishable from heavy metal. Generally speaking though these albums were mostly aimed at a black blues audience. The song "The Dollar Done Fell' was recorded at Guy's club in front of a very appreciative audience. I am amazed and a little upset by how well those lyrics still fit today's events.

Jive Records
Looking for something different than another album of Chicago Blues, Guy decided to investigate the sounds of North Mississippi blues and of people like Junior Kimbrough and R.L Burnside. This is hill country and quite different from the Mississippi Delta/Louisiana music Guy had previously recorded. It's closer to the styles of blues legend John Lee Hooker, a Guy friend. There are a lot of drones and not many chord changes. It's similar to the modal music done by Miles Davis. Anyway the album that came out, Sweet Tea, was Buddy Guy's biggest hit in a while and sonically redefined what people expected to hear from blues guitarists. The song "Baby Please Don't Leave Me" is 100% sonic testosterone. Women can get pregnant just by listening to it while older men may suddenly discover they have no need for any sort of ED pills. And you should probably run from the woman in "She's got the Devil in Her".

So to summarize there is a reason that Buddy Guy was recently honored at the Kennedy Center. He really is that good. If you enjoy electric blues or rock guitar you should know his work because there's a good chance you've heard someone playing his licks.

Fever I Smell a Rat  Hoodoo Man Blues(With Junior Wells)
The First Time I Met The Blues Red House (Jimi Hendrix cover)  Every girl I see
The Dollar Done Fell  Baby Please Don't Leave Me   
Ten Years Ago (Live with Junior Wells) One Room Country Shack  You Were Wrong   Money(That's What I Want) Mary Had a Little Lamb  
Watermelon Man (Herbie Hancock cover)  Hold That Plane Dedication to T-Bone Walker My Time After A While  Just playing my axe  Thank Me Someday 
She's Got the Devil In Her

Wanda Robinson
I'm not sure if Wanda Robinson plays the guitar but she's just as much of a blues musician as anyone who does. There are some people who believe that black people lost interest in blues and that the blues would have died without white interest. Well maybe. Maybe not. There is a parallel argument which says that blues music, like other musics before it just changed. The stories which would have been told in one way by Bessie Smith or Victoria Spivey in the twenties were being told by Wanda Robinson in a different way in the seventies. The only difference was that Wanda Robinson wasn't trying to dress up and sing like people of years long gone by. In this view Wanda Robinson is just a modern blueswoman. She's a poet who set her work to music. It works equally well as poetry or as lyric. Her backing band, Black Ivory, was equally versed in blues, jazz, soul, funk, etc. Like The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, Wanda Robinson was the link between the earlier blues and soul of the sixties and the assertive funk and rap of the seventies. I guess you could compare some of her work to later people like Erykah Badu or Jill Scott.

If you're ever depressed, listening to Wanda Robinson's music will probably have one of two effects on you. Either you're gonna listen and realize that no matter how bad you have it you don't have it THAT bad and start to cheer up. Or you're going to listen, get even more depressed and start looking for the sleeping pills. 

Of course it's not all hard luck and bad times. There are some fierce survivalist tunes, some songs of anger and defiance and even a few love songs in her discography. She first came on the scene in the early seventies. Whether she's describing adulterous lovers and closeted gays in "The Meeting Place" or suicide in "The Final Hour" or the end of a love affair in "Parting is Such" everything she wrote was incredibly true to life. She changed her name to Laini Mataka and left the music business. But she has continued to write and educate.

The Meeting Place  The Trouble With Dreams  The Final Hour Tragedy No 456
A Possibility (Back Home) Celebration Compromise Parting is Such..  
John Harvey's Blues  Because They Envy Us

Keely Smith
Keely Smith is one of the more popular jazz and pop singers from the fifties and sixties era. She had been singing since childhood and was a big band fan. She was hired at sixteen as singer for Louis Prima's band and five years later had married him, becoming his fourth wife. They had some hard times professionally. For a while gigs were hard to come by. But they got past that and by 1954 had become a smash hit on the Las Vegas Strip. This led to record deals for Prima and his band but also (at Prima's insistence) a solo record deal for his wife Keely.

This proved to be a wise move by Prima as Keely was an extremely talented singer well versed in jazz and pop. One of her primary influences was Ella Fitzgerald. Like Ella, Keely had a very strong clear voice and a good eye for song material and arrangers. She embarked on a dual track career. With her husband's band she was the straight (wo)man for his jokes, zaniness and lechery. On her own she was a very very good pop and to a lesser extent jazz singer. I REALLY love her version of the jazz/pop standard, "All The Things You Are" which is evidently quite challenging and intriguing to sing or play because of the chord progressions/modulations. And her version of "All the Way" is nothing to turn your nose up at either. She's still alive and musically active.

All The Things You Are That Old Black Magic(duet with Louis Prima)
Autumn Leaves All The Way The Man I Love On The Sunny Side of The Street 
What is this thing called love

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