Tag Archives: blues

Lowell Fulson, “Tollin’ Bells”

Before Otis Redding, there was a brief period in the mid-1950s where blues guitarist Lowell Fulson experimented with a soulful singing style. The Tulsa, Okla.-born musician in the 1950s worked with Chess Records’ musician/songwriter Willie Dixon, who is to rock ‘n’ roll what Alfred Hitchcock is to suspense.

Dixon wrote or performed on nearly every classic by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf — songs that would later be refurbished by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. Case in point is the lesser-known Dixon-penned tune, “Tollin’ Bells,” from 1956. It’s a dirgy, reckless tune, the protagonist having just learned that his baby is not coming back — just a slow piano rag, weeping horns and a big pile of woozy despair belching forth from Fulson’s lungs. The song would later be covered by Paul Butterfield and Robert Cray.

(A note about the video below. It says Willie Dixon, but it is in fact Lowell Fulson singing.)

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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, “Tupelo”

Nick Cave does a “Blue Steel” pose from “Zoolander”

I’ve never completely bought all the stuff people say about Bob Dylan, but I believe it about Nick Cave. The man is a lyrical maelstrom.

Sure, there’s that generation gap, as I’m much closer in age to Cave than Dylan, but there’s also the fact that the broody-browed Australian, himself no stranger to allusions, speaks to the common man, not just about the common man. But maybe it’s just that Cave barks out his lines like a ship’s master, leaving no room for argument, while Dylan kind of struggles to exhale his words, like there’s gristle mixed in with the meat.

I’m not really here to topple Zimmerman off his little pedestal. I bring up Dylan to elevate the talent of king Bad Seed, who still has a good 10 years to go before we find out whether he sells (re-sells?) his soul in a car commercial. Which I seriously doubt.

“Tupelo,” the opening track to The Bad Seeds’ second album, 1985’s “The Firstborn is Dead,” is a gritty, apocalyptic sermon served up tongue in cheek, but thoroughly deadpan. It’s an homage to the blues and to its holy host — Tupelo, Miss.-born Elvis Presley. It’s based on a real event, a tornado that Elvis survived as a tot in 1936, but took 216 other lives in Tupelo.

“Tupelo” is a tale of two Kings. The comparison of Elvis to Jesus (as well as “the Beast”) parodies the act of idolatry, be it via religion or celebrity worship. Cave skewers fame itself in the closing line: “You will reap just what you sow.” All of this nightmarish imagery — “they listen to the beating of their blood / The sandman’s mud!” — hurled by Cave at the microphone, as Mick Harvey sounds like he’s using flippers for drumsticks and Barry Adamson lays down a slick, darkwave bass groove.

The rest of the album’s killer, by the way, particularly the closing track, “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” in honor of the artist considered to be the father of Texas blues. “Firstborn” revels in the corpses of early bluesmen, just as it sneers at the cyborg dreamers with horse-show-hat-like hairstyles who were just then whoring it up on MTV.

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robert-lockwood-jrjpg-cfc70d78ceee1ffc
“I never really listened to guitar players after Robert Johnson. I listened to horns. I’d tune in Count Basie or somebody like that and sit and try to copy the licks the horns were playing. … That’s where all the good electric guitar players get their ideas. From other types of instruments.”

Robert Lockwood Jr., who was mentored by guitar legend Robert Johnson in the 1930s when Johnson was dating Lockwood’s mom, from Robert Palmer’s 1981 book, “Deep Blues”

Robert Lockwood Jr. – electric guitar

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The Entrance Band, “Silence on a Crowded Train”

The guitar in “Grim Reaper Blues” grabs you right away, Son House bottleneck cranked out through a Butthole Surfers filter, and over it, Guy Blakeslee wailing like he’s bound to a rack in the pit of hell and either just got there or kind of digs the whole experience — maybe Grimmy just signed his slambook.

But it’s the second song off 2006’s “Prayer of Death,” “Silence on a Crowded Train,” the constant sawing of the violin channeling a sense of urgency, which drives the stake home that this IS a celebration of the void, a giddy shake of death’s rattle. “Requiem for Sandy Bull” wades into Alice Coltrane “Satchidananda” turf, with its restless congregation of bells and bongos laced with mouth-puckering sitar. And “Pretty Baby” is obviously in reference to a girl who’s now nothing more than a deflated ghost, gown tendrils like whips, a soundless scream stark as a hole in the ground, blurry with worms. Lazarus humping Antigone when the stone rolls away.

For your consideration, I present my favorite track by The Entrance Band (aka Entrance), the cheerfully despairing “Silence on a Crowded Train. Once again, however, Youtube has failed me and so I offer an inconvenient Myspace link (arrow in the circle) and a Spotify link, for those so inclined:

Silence On A Crowded Train

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Cows, “Uptown Suckers”

Mineapolis’ sludge rockers Cows never quite fit into grunge’s peg hole.

By grunge, I’m referring to “grunge” as slapped on products deemed suitable by our corporate overlords. Frontman Shannon Selberg was perhaps a bit too unhinged on stage, prone to kicking people in the crowd who were within kicking distance — and drug rumors, true or not, were also circulating by the time the PR types came groveling.

Frankly, the whole band’s schtick was too crass for Cows to cross over to a major label when the grunge gravy train rolled into the station. One of its album covers depicted a bird about to do something dastardly to somebody’s rear end with its beak, and that album in question was titled “Sexy Pee Story,” which was going to be hard to explain to the tots at home if the album showed up in the top 10.

And then there’s the fact that nobody in the band was anywhere close to being as attractive as chiseled Adonises Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. At least two band members arguably looked like genetic experiments. Luckily for us, Selberg and the rest were able to eke out an existence on Amphetamine Reptile records for about a decade (1989-1998), and never felt the need to compromise their freedom. And when it was over, it was just over.

It’s sad — and inexplicable — that 1993’s “Pee Story” has been out of circulation for so long. Amazon doesn’t even offer the mp3 format anymore. Is it really that vile for human consumption? How much energy can it possibly take up to offer one more digital file for download, in a sea of digital downloads?

I would argue that it’s the Cows at its finest — and one of Am-Rep’s most important releases — showcasing the band at its most accessible, able at last to channel all that fierce noise into songs that actually flirt with melody, yet still properly bruise your eardrums with their fists. The best example of that delectable blues-soaked brutality is the downright knuckle-dragger, “Uptown Suckers.”

P.S.: I can’t complete this post without mentioning its last studio album, 1998’s “Sorry in Pig Minor” (produced by Melvins’ Buzz Osborne), a generally overlooked last gasp that was actually a highly effective experiment. Cows was at its most adventurous here, at the end of its career — channeling “Trout Mask Replica,” “Independent Worm Saloon” and (listenable) Royal Trux, spewing forth something psychedelic and unsafe, as evidenced on “No, I’m Not Coming Out.”

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Crushed Butler, “It’s My Life”

The first song Crushed Butler ever recorded begins with a complaint. Talk about foreshadowing.

In October 1969, the London band broke its cherry in the studio with “It’s My Life,” a meaty bit of hard blues rock that packed about as much pre-punk wallop as The Stooges and MC5 were bringing to the table on their side of the pond.

But neither that nor any of the band’s other five demos would ever be released during Crushed Butler’s two-year existence — closer to three if you count a spell in 1971 during which the band went by the name of Tiger, apparently as a desperate bid to fool the labels into a record deal. Reported to have been popular among the common people, CB failed miserably with bald-headed men in skyscrapers. As stated in the band’s biography on Allmusic.com, “The band arrived for its demo session in a Rolls Royce, but came home on the subway.” That’s CB’s career in a nutshell.

At a time when many British bands (in the wake of The Beatles’ game-changing 1967 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) were thinking in terms of albums instead of singles, Butler just wanted to grind out some rock and get it over with. Even peer Black Sabbath would be guilty of superfluity on its 1970 self-titled debut.

CB had just three recording sessions before it disbanded in 1971 (its six songs were finally released as “Uncrushed” in 1998). In 1970, during the aforementioned Rolls Royce/subway session, the band recorded “Factory Grime” in just one take — one blistering take, and just the one. CB was likely escorted out of the building immediately afterward, as the bigwigs were apparently miffed over the song’s unshaven appearance and ring around the collar. The sad thing is that, according to drummer Darryl Read, none of the songs were ever mixed properly. “Factory Grime” could have been a monster if it had been properly dressed.

The good news is that two of the members, guitarist Jesse Hector and bass player Alan Butler, went on to better success in The (Hammersmith) Gorillas, buoyed by a burgeoning punk rock movement: They toured as opening act for The Damned in 1976.

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Tinariwen, “Ya Messinagh”

In early 2012, a Tuareg resistance called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized parts of the north in Mali after the nation’s government collapsed when its army led a revolt against the president.

With the help of an al-Qaida-linked Tuareg by the name of Iyad Ag Ghaly, who had earlier been denied a leadership role in MNLA, the coup proved a success. But then the rebuffed Islamist leader shoved aside the rebel fighters and claimed the throne as his own, ushering in public beheadings and the destruction of monuments, and bringing culture to a standstill.

Musicians and other artists have since gone into hiding or fled the country.

In the case of Tuareg blues band Tinariwen, guitarist Eyadou Ag Leche recently said the band plans to work on its next album “in the American desert.” And this comes from a Malian band that was born out of unrest — in North African refugee camps in the early 1980s.

This is good news for America, who’s already exerted its influence on the band. Its fifth album, 2011’s “Tassilli,” features American musicians Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone (TV on the Radio), Nels Cline (Wilco) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, all of who are at the top of their creative game.

The brass utterances from New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen on “Ya Messinagh” will come as a shock to those familiar with Tinariwen’s body of work, but the dirge-y jazz perfectly compliments the stark, thirsty strains coming from the band’s many guitars, the clip-clop of a tired camel from a percussionist, and the haunting vocals of bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib that need no subtitles to convey their message.

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Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

Tom Waits has gone through various incarnations — from blues to vaudeville to experimental to opera — one of the few artists blessed enough to remain relevant each time he reinvents himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a fine actor as well, looks the part of the Troubadour, and genuinely seems to be as interesting a person as he an artist. Mr. Natural, indeed.

Coming at a time when Waits was still heavily steeped in jazz and booze, “Step Right Up” sits amid a handful of classics on the hazy and bittersweet “Small Change” (1976). The album was the first to find the besotted crooner in a foul mood, but the clever “Step Right Up” offers a brief respite from the gloom — at least in its jaunty rag tempo and Waits rapping like a barker at the mic.

Mr. Big Time manages to strip commercialism of its gloss by tossing all those empty promises back at the Machine (“The large print giveth/and the small print taketh away”). Really, Tommy boy was probably just upset at himself, having discovered how weak he was under the spell of The Road, a perverted form of consumerism all its own.

As Waits told Rolling Stone in 1976, “There’s a lifestyle that’s there before you arrive and you’re introduced to it. It’s unavoidable.” That’s why “Step Right Up” shares space with the likes of “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” with its lines: “I don’t have a drinking problem/except when I can’t get a drink.”

Ironically, “Small Change” was Waits’ biggest commercial success to that point and landed him for the first time in Billboard’s top 100 albums, taking him from his faithful cult following to a much wider audience. And these days? Well, you know you’ve made it when Pitchfork stalks you and you don’t even tour the country in which you were born and in which Pitchfork is based.

Thankfully, the Troubadour has never strayed from his own ideals, not one to compromise his creativity. Which is why he’s still relevant and somebody like, say, Madonna — as Elton John put it so eloquently — is a “fairground stripper.”

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Junior Kimbrough, “Meet Me in the City”

First of all, this is the version you want to be listening to, off the album, “All Night Long,” not the terrible version (currently in the No. 1 spot on Junior Kimbrough’s Spotify page) from the otherwise fine collection, “You Better Run.”

For those not familiar with Junior, it often sounds like there are two guitars being played, but it’s just Junior strumming away in his self-taught hillbilly style. You can see Junior perform this very song on the great music documentary, “Deep Blues,” for the full effect.

He taught early rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers how to play the guitar — and Feathers to his dying breath claimed to have taught Elvis Presley how to properly play “Blue Moon of Kentucky” while he was slumming at Sun Records — so basically Junior created rock ‘n’ roll. No big. Oh, and he’s also the spark that lit the Fat Possum Records into being. His first recorded work, “All Night Long,” was the label’s first release, in 1992, six years before Junior’s death. Oh, and Iggy Pop and him used to pal around.

“Meet Me in the City” is dirty blues — down-and-gouging-your-eyes-out dirty blues. Hell, most of Junior’s material is gritty. But there is a giddy sort of feel to Junior’s desperation as he pleads with his baby here, all the while bending a careening rhythm around it — the music at times getting away from him, a vortex of near-psychedelic blues.

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