Saturday, June 8, 2013

Music Reviews-Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace, Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won, Alligator Stomp

Aretha Franklin- Amazing Grace
Many classic soul, R&B and funk singers came out of the black (generally Baptist and Pentecostal) church. Once they hit it big some left the gospel genre and never looked back as they predominantly performed secular music for ever more. Others eventually grew disillusioned with secular music and returned to the church. Some kept a foot in both worlds, releasing a back to roots gospel album every few years to prove to themselves and their audiences across the musical spectrum that they loved gospel and hadn't forgotten their roots. Perhaps some of this was just cynical marketing practice but given the very real venom with which some gospel partisans and critics viewed the practice of gospel stars crossing over, it's really no surprise that some gospel singers who made it big in the secular world would occasionally feel the artistic, personal (and religious?) need to produce a "purist" gospel album.

There are many such gospel/soul stars who have done this. Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke all come to mind but today I just want to quickly pull your coat to Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace album. This 1972 masterpiece was recorded live with Aretha Franklin's touring band (which included heavyweight musicians like bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Cornell Dupree and drummer Bernard Purdie) and with gospel superstar James Cleveland (an influence on both Aretha Franklin and her father Rev. C.L Franklin), Cleveland's crack choir and Aretha's father himself. Mrs. Franklin herself obviously is the featured vocal soloist but also holds her own on piano. I'm not sure if she was featured on organ. In any event it was a glorious and seamless combination of traditional gospel music mixed with some more popular forms. 
As I've written before I love Franklin's voice and she was in rare form here. I think she's been so good for so long that we almost take her talent for granted. I really enjoyed the mashup of Thomas Dorsey's Precious Lord with Carole King's You've got a friend.
If you haven't heard this you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. I don't quite understand how anyone doesn't like gospel music but that's just because I grew up with so much of it. Then again I always gave a side eye to grown men with processed hair shaking and screaming "Can't nobody do me like Jesus!" but there's not much of that here. You don't have to be religious to love this music. Tastes differ of course but if you like gospel or soul this is a must have album. If you don't like gospel music well then this definitely isn't the release for you. More's the pity. My parents had this performance in various different formats over the years. I'm very familiar with all of the different classic gospel tunes featured within. Amazing Grace is today still Franklin's best selling release. Mary Don't You Weep is a wonderful update of the Inez Andrews classic. Chuck Rainey's bassline wouldn't be out of place on a Band of Gypsys release. The band and choir swing hard on How I got Over. Of course the title song Amazing Grace makes an appearance.  Precious Memories is slowed down to a crawl. Franklin and Cleveland duet. I also like James Cleveland's voice as it had a roughness similar to Howling Wolf's. Voices like that always remind me of my maternal grandfather. I wish I had a voice like that but I think you need to grow up drinking TNT, smoking dynamite and working from can't see until can't see. The album closes out with Never Grow Old.

The sound recordings are just about perfect. The bass is where it's supposed to be, deep and full in the mix, almost like a reggae recording while the guitar and drums do not dominate but instead support the vocals, pianos and organs, which generally are where the melody is to be found. Throw in some tambourines, handclaps and syncopation and you too will be transported back to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Good stuff. This is the real deal. The audience and choir give a lot of feedback. I think the human voice is the most versatile and beautiful instrument. Franklin was and is one of the world's greatest singers.

Led Zeppelin-How the West Was Won
Led Zeppelin was one of my favorite bands despite their lack of attention to little things like properly crediting songwriters they covered. They were hardly alone in that sin of course. When this album was released years after the group had disbanded just about all of those issues had either been settled out of court or thrown out of court. The song credits had all been updated. Anyway that doesn't have much to do with the quality of their music. Either you like it or you don't. Their previous live album/concert movie The Song Remains The Same evidently caught them on a relatively bad series of nights, as the band sounded tired and apparently had tuning problems.
That was just not an issue in the 1972 Los Angeles concerts that make up How The West Was Won. The group is incredibly energetic, inventive and is collectively playing its a$$ off. I think Led Zeppelin was generally better in the studio than heard live but here they are a very very good live group. You may miss some of Jimmy Page's overdubs and studio wizardry but I suppose that's the case any time you listen to a live group where there's only one guitarist. 

Page does his best to make up for it and I think he does. But even as Page is challenged by the live format, Bonham is liberated by it. Drum solos and an even fuller heavier sound than you normally associate with Bonham are both on display. I've written before of how much I enjoy hearing the bass and tom-tom drums as separate audio events and that is true throughout this release. Bomham has a very thick but also quite clear sound that was probably unique among hard rock drummers. You may occasionally feel bludgeoned by his relentless attack here but I personally think that's a good thing. Plant is in full tenor glory. He warbles, sings and cries in ways that aren't necessarily soulful as I might use the word but definitely gets his point across. And bassist John Paul Jones not only holds the bottom end down in a manner which might make Bootsy smile but stretches out to play mandolin, electric piano and organ to add in all the little parts that made Led Zeppelin special.

For a live album the production quality is really good. Songs are extended and mashed up in medleys in which everyone gets a chance to shine. Most of the time this works very well. Sometimes it doesn't but the band just plays through it. If you are a hardcore Zeppelin fan you already have this. If you're just curious about Zeppelin this could be a good place to start as the three CD set, though it leans towards the heavier end of their discography, still has quite a few acoustic numbers. If you hate Zeppelin then obviously this is not the album for you.

Whole Lotta Love (extended w/medley)  Bron-Y-Aur Stomp   Going to California

LA Drone/Immigrant Song  Bring it On Home   Moby Dick  That's The Way  Heartbreaker
Stairway to Heaven  Since I've Been Loving You Dazed and Confused (part 1)

Alligator Stomp
Louisiana, or at least the New Orleans area of it, can be arguably said to be the birthplace of both jazz and rock-n-roll. Most people are familiar with Dixieland jazz and the traditional African-American second line drum and brass bands found in New Orleans and echoed in regions of West Africa and Brazil. But Louisiana is also home to different forms of music, stuff which is both related to and separate from the more familiar New Orleans music. I'm talking of course about Cajun music and Zydeco. Originally Cajun music tended to be more closely associated with European-Americans and featured violin or dobro soloists who played in a distinctly French or Celtic style while Zydeco was more closely associated with African Americans or mixed Creoles who often used used a more percussive style. But as early as the fifties, even despite the musical and social segregation the distinctions had become  increasingly meaningless. It's all just good music as far as I am concerned. Many of the singers, regardless of race, sang in French as much as they sang in English. Both Cajun music and zydeco are, like many of the other musics native to that part of the world, made for dancing.  Some are slow waltzes while others are outright get down and boogies. But usually this is not something that you sit and listen to quietly. 

Alligator Stomp is a sampler of various music by Cajun and Zydeco recording artists from across the color line. Some are black, some are white, some are other. They all have something to say. If you aren't familiar with these styles of music or worse, think they all sound the same, you might want to pick up this album. You may be surprised at some of the things you hear. There's the early rock-n-roll of Cleveland Crochet's Sugar Bee and Johnnie Allan's cover of Chuck Berry's Promised Land. You get the pleading white soul waltz of Jo-El Sonnier's Jolie Blonde. That's a favorite. There's Rocking Sidney with old school rock-n-roll You Ain't Nothing But Fine. That song combines a clean appreciation of the feminine form with just a hint of the wolf on the prowl. I love it. Queen Ida mixes straight ahead zydeco with humor in The Back Door. And zydeco king Clifton Chenier shows that rock-n-roll and zydeco are the same thing in Eh Petite Fille.
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