For whatever else is going on in my life and around the world lately that isn’t good, the music, at least, has been very satisfying. I was channel surfing the other afternoon after a miserable morning at work and happened to catch on the Palladia music channel a documentary about The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, the tribute album by Eric Clapton and friends for the late J.J. Cale who passed away in 2013. When the album was released at the end of July, the reviews I saw were of the lukewarm variety – as are most reviews of anything these days by Eric Clapton. So, I passed thinking the Cale recordings already in my collection would suffice. But the documentary was excellent, and after hearing some of the songs from the album by the likes of Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, and even John Mayer of whom I’m not a fan, I decided the reviewers were wrong, and I bought the album the next day. Not only is the entire thing worthy of its subject, I think it’s probably the best Eric Clapton record since the record he cut with J.J. Cale in 2006, The Road To Escondido. But it’s not about Clapton. It’s about the songwriting and the stylings of the late J.J. Cale. There’s much to enjoy and appreciate in his work, and this tribute is a fine reminder of the legacy Cale left behind. There’s also a wonderful booklet with countless photographs of Cale, and detailed recording information. If you love Cale’s work, or Clapton’s, or the work of any of the artists here, you should add this to your collection. It’s a perfect record for when the late summer days turn quietly to autumn. Put it on and go to a window or out on your porch and watch the leaves fall. It must be the breeze.
I saw an article from some online source I can’t recall at the moment with a list of 10 records you must own on vinyl before you die. I had five of them on vinyl, and four others on CD (to hell with formats – if it’s a great record, it’s a great record). But there was one title with which I was unfamiliar, and when it comes to music, my curiosity is boundless. Off I went in search of a reggae album by The Congos titled Heart of the Congos from 1977. It turned out the record’s reputation in reggae circles was the stuff of legend. And as luck would have it, there was a reissue on the VP label that was within my price range. I love reggae, and I’m still scratching my head wondering how I missed this one all these years. Better late than never. It’s a fantastic album from start to finish. The Congos are Roy Johnson and Cedric Myton. Their voices blend beautifully together and with a mix from Lee “Scratch” Perry, and help from the likes of Ernest Ranglin on guitar, Sly Dunbar on drums among others, and backing vocals from luminaries like The Heptones, and Gregory Isaacs, it’s no wonder the Rough Guide To Reggae listed it as one of the genre’s 100 Essential Recordings. It’s got all the elements great reggae recordings always have, but what it has in extra doses is a sense of the spiritual that runs through it, and makes it one of those records you bond with the first time you hear it.
A review in a recent issue of Record Collector tipped me off to a new box set from Virgin Front Line, Sounds of Reality, a 5 CD set collecting the cream of the best reggae on Virgin’s Front Line imprint. The first three discs in the box reproduce a trio of budget line compilations the label issued at rock bottom prices in the late 70’s and early 80’s along with bonus tracks on each. There’s another CD of “disco” mixes, (but not “disco” like you’d have heard at Studio 54 back in the day, but reggae remixes), and a fifth disc of rarities. The artists were nearly all names I recognized, and I even owned some singles and albums by these artists. But the contents of this box were all new to me, and as I’d been looking for another quality reggae box to expand my collection of reggae music, this one was the perfect fit. The packaging is outstanding as well. The CD’s come in slip covers resembling the original LP’s, and the booklet provides a detailed history of the period, and the artists you’re hearing. I’ve been boycotting Amazon in the U.S. since March of this year because of their shipping policies. But the UK division is far more efficient – and cheaper, too. U.S. Amazon was selling the box as an import for 92 dollars. The UK import ordered from Amazon in the UK, and shipped to the U.S. direct was 46 dollars – 50% off the U.S. import price. It pays to shop around. It also pays to boycott vendors who don’t treat you well. Since my Amazon U.S. boycott began, I’ve found countless other places to shop for music and DVD’s that have provided better service, and better prices in nearly every instance.
I went to Collector’s Choice for the Live At The Rainbow ’74 double CD by Queen when not a single retailer I could find in my city had the album in store to buy. I was very excited when I heard this was coming out. Queen is a band I’ve always liked, but I’m not a hardcore fan of the group. I loved the albums through Day At The Races, and the odd single after that. But, except for a nice collection of early BBC recordings issued in ’89, I believe, I never felt the group’s live albums had done them justice – until now. Even though these concerts happened just before Queen had their greatest success, they are a clear signpost of a band whose success was inevitable. Queen live, from the evidence presented here, was a juggernaut. Brian May, in particular, is just amazing here, but the entire band is the very definition of what great live rock music should always be. I love archive projects like this one when somebody (in this case the band members themselves) uncovers something in the vaults that truly should’ve been issued back in the day. They don’t make live rock records like this anymore. It’s an essential addition to the Queen discography, and one of the year’s nicest surprises.
I continue to look for ways to challenge myself when it comes to listening to older, familiar music in new ways that make it fresh and exciting again. So I’ve spent a good deal of time with my iTunes program creating new files of music to listen to during my work shifts. Over the past few months I’ve developed several that I think are quite interesting and rewarding. I’d accumulated so much soul music recently with the addition of several titles in the Backbeats UK series that I hit upon the idea of separating the music into three separate files by geography. I built Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago soul files using the material from those CD’s along with existing material I already had. I added a couple of Rolling Stones files focusing on specific two-year periods in the band’s career. Rolling Stones ’65-’66 collects the work the band did in those two very important years with all the odd singles and ‘b’ sides collected with both the UK and US editions of albums like Out of Our Heads, December’s Children, Aftermath, Flowers, and Between The Buttons – all recorded during that stretch. That was the period during which the band grew from an R&B cover group to an accomplished rock & roll band with an ear for pop as well. Brian Jones certainly made some extraordinary contributions on these records, and heard together, it’s an impressive progression.
I also did a Stones ’71-’72 file which begins with Sticky Fingers, followed by Jamming With Edward, a jam album Mick, Charlie and Bill cut with Ry Cooder, and Nicky Hopkins. That dovetails into the extra tracks from the Exile On Main St. expanded edition issued a couple of years ago, finishing with the ‘Exile’ album itself. Jamming With Edward, while not strictly a Rolling Stones album, is the bridge between Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St., and listened to in this context makes sense of how the band developed during that time.
In addition to these, I now have a Power Pop file that includes everything from Shoes to The Raspberries to Cheap Trick to The Searchers, The Records, The Posies, R.E.M., The Beatles, The Byrds and anyone else you can think of whose music fits that description and features great harmonies and some prominent jangle in the "string section". The Paisley Underground file that I mentioned in a previous post is nearly complete, and, if I say so myself, nicely compiled. Letter From Britain (named for Simon Frith’s column in the late, lamented Creem magazine) collects the best British music from the pub rock/punk era of late seventies Britain – think Dr. Feelgood, Graham Parker, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Dire Straits, The Jam, etc. And Blue Collar is an umbrella file for the likes of Springsteen, Southside Johnny, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Little Steven, The Romantics, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Del Shannon, Billy Joel, Tom Waits and others. I was looking to meld the Midwest working class with the NY bohemian crowd because there are a lot of connections between the two. That might sound strange, but it’s there, believe me, and it’s a heady mix of great stuff that really sounds great together. As I said, I’m always looking for new ways to experience music with which I’m already familiar, and finding new surroundings for it makes all the difference. It’s like changing your living room furniture around, and applying a fresh coat of paint to the walls. It makes everything new again. In this case, it restores context to this music for me. These were connections I made when I was discovering this music, but those connections were lost in time as artists changed and grew, and my listening habits evolved.
In closing, I wanted to mention a couple of things I read in a couple of the essays in Ralph Gleason’s book Celebrating The Duke…and Other Heroes. In a piece on Miles Davis, Gleason recalls a conversation he had with the trumpeter in the early 70’s about the electric music he was then playing. Gleason said to Miles that the music was so complex that he needed five tenor players to be able to play it properly. Miles shot Gleason a look, and snapped, “I had five tenor players once.” Of course he was talking about the late John Coltrane. It was as if Miles was acknowledging just a few years after Trane passed away that the music goes forward, and some players simply are irreplaceable. Miles was roundly criticized in jazz circles for the rest of his career for continuing to move his music forward instead of back. If you played with the musicians Miles played with who then moved on to their own bands and careers, what else could he have done?
In a piece titled The Death of Albert Ayler, Gleason makes the point that when Ayler passed in 1971 neither the NY Times nor Gleason’s hometown newspaper The San Francisco Chronicle mentioned it. Ayler’s body was found a few days after he was reported missing floating in the Hudson River. The papers reported on his funeral which came two weeks later, but Gleason’s point was that Ayler was largely ignored in his lifetime because his music was challenging, and progressive, and not understood or patronized by a large audience. He goes on to say that free jazz pioneered by the likes of Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane among others changed music forever because it challenged the very notion that there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to play music. Where art is concerned, he wrote, “absolutes of right and wrong do not hold…and not as much as we thought they did in other areas either. It [free jazz] did not then and it does not now make older styles and forms of jazz any less important or less creative than the existence of Jimi Hendrix was a denial of Bessie Smith.”
Gleason goes on to write eloquently about what art truly is about and how important, but underappreciated Ayler’s work was in his lifetime. “…the music of the Aylers, the Shepps, and the Taylors is music of beauty. That we may not at some point in our lives be open enough to see and to hear that it is, indeed, beautiful, is our loss.”
The entire piece speaks what I have always felt about music, and its place in our world. The purpose of music, I believe, is to open our minds to truth, beauty, and possibility. If you are searching for meaning and purpose in this world, maybe it’s not a bad idea to put down your newspaper, power down your computer, and put a record on the turntable. If nothing else, it might restore a sense of balance to a world that seems about to spin off its axis.