Various Artists “Light: On The South Side” The Numero Group
I made a discovery recently that was both terrific and terrifying. Terrific because I have a whole slew of new records that I can look forward to exploring. Terrifying because these records cost money. By the time I complete my collection, I will have spent a mint. So it goes. We have to have something to anticipate, right? The Numbero Group is a label that does the exploring for you by digging up old recordings from defunct regional labels that often haven’t been heard outside of the studios the songs were recorded in. There are exceptions. There always are, but you can generally expect that Numero is going to turn you on to some obscure selections that you’d probably have never encountered without their help. That’s the kind of help I need. So far, the songs have been mostly hits with a couple of misses. Somehow, the misses don’t bother me. In fact, I like having them there. There’s a distinctly human feel to these compilations that’s a breath of fresh air in a musical landscape that’s currently dominated by auto-tuned voices and drum machines. Not that there’s anything wrong with drum machines. . . The first set that I stumbled across is called “Light: On The South Side.” It’s a compendium of blues-funk recordings from 1967 to 1984 that were made in and around Chicago. They make me want to wear a fedora and drink Schlitz Malt Liquor. It’s only 3pm so I’ll delay that activity for at least the amount of time it takes me to write this review.
“Bowlegged Woman, Knock Kneed Man” is the only song that I had prior knowledge of on this set. This version is by Bobby Rush which is one of the only names that I was at all familiar with on “Light.” The song was later made (semi-) popular by Hot Tuna, and was later covered by Widespread Panic. Rush’s version is dirtier and with more grit than the latter versions. I don’t know whose song it actually is, but Rush is credited as the songwriter on the “Light” version, and I’ve certainly not heard an earlier version so I’ll take him at his word for now.”Bowlegged” is fairly representative of the other offerings on the set. These are low-down tunes with plenty of bottom & lots of groove. Again, the talent is not otherworldly as a whole, but entirely competent and with more feeling than most anything being produced today. Many of the featured artists were affiliated with more renowned acts, and these songs represent their turn in the spotlight. The extensive liner notes explain which artists backed up which legends (Muddy and the Howlin’ Wolf are two prominent Chicago names that are well represented in the essay). The notes also explain which artists did hard time and for what cause and for how long. Most of the artists played at a venue called “Pepper’s Hideout,” and the vinyl portion of this set is actually called “Pepper’s Jukebox.” Let me explain. . .
“Light: On The South Side” includes a hardcover black and white photography book by Michael Abramson. The photos were taken between 1975 and 1977. Interestingly, they document the audiences that inhabited the Chicago venues rather than the artists that performed in them. The photos document quite a cast of characters, I can assure you. Some of the subjects appear to be dressed for church. Most look like they’ve never seen a church. There’s dancing and carousing. There are kids in pimp suits and pimps in pimp suits. There are men with knives in their belts and women that look like they could melt that blade with one glance. There are cars the length of a city block, and more beer, liquor, and cigarettes than you could fit in a hearse. There is what appears to be a hearse with a carpeted interior. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a culture that is as foreign to me as Mars. I’m not sure I would have been welcomed at Pepper’s.
So, the Numero Group has tapped into something so obvious that I don’t know how it has escaped similar labels. Here it is: people that love vinyl also love deluxe vinyl packaging. It seems as obvious as tying your shoes, but it’s commonly overlooked. There was no doubt in my mind that I was leaving the store with this set even though no artists are listed on the cover’s exterior. I’d have only known Bobby Rush, Syl Johnson, and Lucille Spann (Otis’s wife) anyway. Even then, I knew only the names – not their work. And the work is good. I’ll get plenty of play out of this set, and I have already. But the song and artist histories are equally compelling while the book makes the entire package pop. I couldn’t have compiled anything like this out of my record collection, and I have no clue as to how long a project like this takes the Numero Group. I’m happy to let them handle the heavy lifting, and I’m happy to have made the discovery. Even if it’s gonna cost me. And it is going to cost me. . .
Various Artists “Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul” The Numero Group
My second foray into the world of the Numbero Group yielded another smashing success at the polar opposite end of the Soul Music Spectrum. Again, I made my decision based mostly on the packaging. The cover of “Home Schooled: The ABCs Of Kid Soul” drew me in with its picture of what appears to be about a nine year old boy playing drums in a white shirt and a navy blue blazer with a matching tie. The kid looks like he’s done this enough times to be bored with it. I couldn’t wait to get this one home and find out what these kids’ groups could do. A second shot in the dark, a second bulls eye.”Home Schooled” is every bit as enthralling as “Light: On The South Side,” and for entirely different reasons.
Oddly enough, it’s “Home Schooled” that has the more overtly political songs. The late ’60’s and early ’70’s were rife with political commentary in most every sector of popular music, but I generally prefer the Black message songs to the rest from the era.”Trust Your Child” is sung with such conviction concerning such basic subject matter that it’s almost comical. It’s a half-rap about the need for parents to. . . umm. . . trust their children. There’s no mention of how the trust was lost in the first place or what the children intend to do to earn the confidence of their adult peers. Just a repetitive plea to “trust yo’ child.” It reminds me of seeing two parents discreetly laughing to each other while their child wails and cries about some trivial event that has traumatized them. Dropping an ice cream cone in the dirt, perhaps.”Don’t Leave Me Mama” sounds like the title of one more romantic ballad from a man to his woman, but is in fact a child’s plea to his presumably shifty mom. Again, the subject matter is intense, and the presentation borders on melodrama.
Then, you get into the more traditional protest music with song titles like “Mighty Whitey.” I’m proud to say that this one is from a kid group out of San Francisco during the late sixties. According to the liner notes the group consists partly of Merle Saunders’ kids. He’d later go on to fame as one of Jerry Garcia’s favorite sidekicks. Beyond all that, there are the standard kids’ group songs about school and love and dancing and dances. These groups didn’t have stylists and songwriting teams or any corporate machine to ready them for the big time. Nor did any of them find the big time. The songs are all regional nuggets from the bottoms of record crates that few folks outside of the Numbero Group offices had probably ever heard prior to this release. The finds are all fascinating, and predictably inconsistent. The “Jersey Slide,” for instance, is plain bad. There’s a reason why we never heard of that one. But “Here’s Some Dances” is pretty catchy as is “I’m Not Ready For Love.” They’ll stick in your head for a while if nothing else. The aforementioned “Trust Your Child” actually has a “Part Two” to end the set and it’s a pretty rocking instrumental with some crazy Hammond organ work. Most of the songs are more reminiscent of Funkadelic than Motown, and the recordings are generally a little less than expert, but overall the set is intriguing and entertaining and that’s about as much as I was expecting from that little nine year old drummer in the blazer and tie.
The packaging on “Home Schooled” is a little less over the top than “Light: On The South Side,” but still very informative and interesting. I mean, not every release is going to come with a hardcover photography book, right? Where would you put them all? I did notice that there is no track listing on the actual record sleeve. It’s only on the sticker in the record’s center. This makes it all but impossible to know who you’re listening to in real time. But there’s an essay that gives some detail regarding every song and the groups that perform them. You can put it all together for yourself from there if you’re so inclined. As you would imagine, many of these young performers had less than scrupulous parents and less than conventional upbringings. I’ve used the word “less” three times in this summary so far, but I don’t want to confuse the reader into thinking that I didn’t get my money’s worth on this one.”Home Schooled” is a ton of fun, and I may end up getting as many or more miles out of this release than I do “Light.” Regardless, “Home Schooled” is another awesome glimpse into a niche music scene that I never would have been privy to without the Numbero Group’s help. I’ve got plenty of their compilations on my radar and a precious few that I will skip. I hope they keep doing what they’re doing. Lord knows, I don’t have the energy to dig all this stuff up myself.
Neil Young “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” Reprise
I like to think of Neil Young’s music as a wheel. It’s one of the simplest inventions in history and it makes our world a much more manageable place to live. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how I didn’t think to write “The Losing End.” I didn’t. He did. Such is life. He plays guitar solos that consist of one solitary note, and they work like magic. The whole effect is magic, really. He’s a legendarily avid vinyl fan so it’s not too surprising that he’s gone back and re-released his first four solo albums on wax. It is, however, one of the more exciting events of recent times, and I was first out of the gate to pick up my personal favorite from his early era, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” That record’s a life-changer, and having a new copy on premium 180-gram vinyl is a fine way to ring in the new decade.
Neil’s fans are an opinionated lot (and we feel like we’re on a first name basis with him, apparently). Some of us will only listen to Acoustic Neil. Some of us prefer his work with Buffalo Springfield. I’m an equal opportunity Neil Freak, but I’d grab my Crazy Horse records first if my house was on fire. In fact, his Crazy Horse records make me feel like my house is on fire. The Horse starts cooking right away on “Everybody Knows” with “Cinnamon Girl,” but things really get deep during the first extended guitar break in “Down By The River.” I had a buddy in high school that could play the whole solo note-for-note. Such are the feats that his music inspires. Personally, I could never get the tone, and the creative side of my brain is too full of useless complexities to grasp his musical understatement. It’s like a mindfulness of breath meditation set to rock music. Total liberation. The seven songs on “EKTIN” seem more like movements than anything else. The record’s feel is consistent throughout, but it’s not long enough to get stale. In fact, I often play it twice because its brevity can’t outlast the mood that caused me to play it the first time. The title track is the shortest movement at two and a half blissful minutes.”Cowgirl In The Sand” finishes us off with ten minutes of epic awesomeness. Everything in between sounds like honey in your mouth. No weaknesses. No rest. Nothing left to do but play it again.
These four releases (which also include his self-titled debut as well as “Harvest” and “After The Gold Rush”) were all pressed at Pallas FG in Germany. It’s supposed to be “the world’s premier record pressing plant” according to Neil’s site. That might just be the marketing department talking, but Wilco and the Flaming Lips used the same press for their recent reissues so that’s the endorsement that gets my attention. I can vouch for the quality of a few of those records as well as “Everybody Knows.” The quality of sound is phenomenal. No pops or ticks and no visible scuffs out of the sleeve. The discs are packed in top shelf rice paper inner sleeves too so you can keep your records in pristine condition if you know what you’re doing. All four of the Neil Young reissues can be purchased together in a fancy box set, but it’s significantly less expensive to purchase them individually. I guess you pay an extra $50 for the actual box? I don’t see the logic, but I do see the value in purchasing the records sans box. Neil Young fans are often a hard-living bunch and it can be difficult to find originals in good shape. I’m welcoming these reissues as the best substitute for the originals that I’m aware of. You might want to do the same.
Mayer Hawthorne “A Strange Arrangement” Stones Throw
I was in Harput’s on Fillmore Street in San Francisco a couple of weeks back looking for some funky vintage tennis shoes to kick around in. The proprietor, Bootsy Harput, was engrossed with something on his laptop which turned out to be a music video by Mayer Hawthorne. I’d never heard of the guy and still would not have were it not for this chance encounter. Bootsy’s quite a salesman and, although I didn’t leave with any shoes, I did leave with a download coupon for a Hawthorne single from that bastion of caffeine and pulse-diminishing music, Starbuck’s. (I’d never made the connection before, but it seems odd that Starbuck’s would make their name peddling a stimulant, then move to pushing music that makes you feel like you’re in a coma. ) Well, they were bound to get it right once even if it was an accident, and Mayer Hawthorne’s “A Strange Arrangement” might be their lone victory.
We can get one thing out of the way directly: Mayer Hawthorne’s music is completely derivative. He’s staked his career, at least with “A Strange Arrangement,” on updating old time soul music. I believe he’s from Detroit so I guess he’s got that working for him. I think it’s the tambourine that brings the Motown comparison into such sharp relief. I mean, you can go song by song and pick out the various Motown “tributes” if you’re so inclined. It’s all in there. There are the funk-era Temptations harmonies in “Maybe So, Maybe No.” The beat from that Supremes song in “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’.” There’s a song called “I Wish It Would Rain,” for Pete’s sake, and it’s not a cover of the Temptations original! But here’s the thing: I’d be happier than a pig in mud if Motown was still making the music that made that label famous. I don’t even know if Motown is still around, but I feel certain I’d know about it if they were still releasing music worth hearing.
Instead, I have to turn to the Daptone label or someone like Mayer Hawthorne if I want to hear new soul music that moves me. Nothing on “Arrangement” is going to cause me to quit my job and go on tour with this guy, but it’s a fine record with good songs sung in a voice that doesn’t require any tweaking or over-the- top effects. People have been trying for decades to reproduce the “Motown Sound,” and somehow this guy found it. He found a lot of it, anyway. No one will ever get it right, but he got the drum sound in a couple of spots and that’s worth the price of admission as is. Hawthorne starts to branch out in a couple of different directions in the latter part of this set, but it’s the Motown rip-offs that stick with you. Hawthorne handles all the vocals on “Arrangement” which means that he’s a major league talent no matter how you slice it. He can sing like Eddie Kendricks or Curtis Mayfield and probably anyone else you care to challenge him with from that genre. All this from a white guy with funny glasses. That’s the really crazy part. (The fact that he’s white. The glasses are incidental.)
I would encourage anyone that enjoys old Motown soul to at least check this guy out. Give the songs a thirty second listen on iTunes and see for yourself before purchasing. Then, go buy the vinyl at an independent record store if you like what you hear. And, if you somehow found Hawthorne before you found Motown, rent a copy of “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown” which is a fantastic documentary of the label’s house band. They were called the Funk Brothers and they deserve more credit for “A Strange Arrangement” than Hawthorne does. The next step would be for him to make a record with the surviving members as his backing band. Seems obvious enough to me, and I’m sure he could make it happen with the attention that this record should bring him. So, I went into Harput’s looking for some old-style soles and came out with a coupon for some old-time soul. That’s the kind of shopping I can live with.
Luther Dickinson and The Sons of Mudboy “Onward and Upward” Memphis International Records
I tried to get a job on Widespread Panic’s road crew when I was about twenty years old. By “tried to get a job” I mean I asked their keyboardist, JoJo, if they would hire me. This is what I understood to be effort at the time. He politely explained that they had a tight road crew that had already been together for years, and that my services (which I didn’t bother to define) would not be necessary. He did refer me to a group from Mississippi led by two brothers, Luther and Cody Dickinson, which he said was going to “do it.” Panic already had the fancy tour buses while the group from Mississippi, which would later become the North Mississippi Allstars, was still tooling around the Southeast in a mini-van. This didn’t jibe well with my sensibilities at the time so I never contacted the Allstars. Of course, they’ve seen the world and won a Grammy by now, and Luther moonlights as the lead guitarist for the Black Crowes. Shows what I know. I should have known better, even at that young age, because the Dickinson brothers are the offspring of one Jim Dickinson, a legendary Memphis producer who mentored countless Southern artists and also played piano on “Wild Horses” with the Rolling Stones. He passed away last year, and Luther gathered some family friends a couple of days later, called them “the Sons of Mudboy,” and recorded “Onward and Upward,” as a tribute to the late giant. The session resulted in some of the most authentic new Hill Country Blues that I’ve heard since most of the original Fat Possum Records roster died away. It’s an intimate recording done in one day at Jim Dickinson’s studio on half-inch two track tape. I suspect the man would have been proud of the results.
Luther was playing with R.L. Burnside when I finally got to see him in person. This was at Buddy Guy’s Chicago blues club in the late ’90’s. He was younger than me and I couldn’t imagine where they’d found this kid, but I later learned that he was the same guy that JoJo had told me about a few years earlier, and that he’d cut his teeth at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi for years prior.”Onward and Upward” is made up of songs that would have fit that venue’s bill quite nicely. Many of the songs are traditionals that are indigenous to the area, and the originals could become traditionals eventually if there were such thing as new traditionals. Luther’s “Let It Roll” fits in seamlessly next to “Back Back Train,” which I know as “Get Right Church” from an old Fred McDowell recording. Luther handles the vocals on the first side before delegating those duties to Sid Selvidge and Jimbo Mathus for a couple of tunes on the second. Luther’s guitar work gets a lot of attention and deservedly so, but he’s a fine vocalist with a convincing baritone possessing all of the feeling that you would expect from a blues man from Mississippi. These guys wear their heritage on their sleeve and I guess I would too. The Black Crowes couldn’t have come closer to the source of the music that they’ve mimicked for decades when they hired Luther following Marc Ford’s defection.
For my money, I’d rather hear him do his own thing. His work with the Allstars can veer dangerously into hippie territory at times, but there’s no hint of that with the Sons of Mudboy. This stuff is close to the bone, man. It must have been an emotional experience to have recorded these songs so close to his father’s passing, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d done it. Music is what these folks do and have done since they were old enough to stand. I suspect they’ve got songs for every occasion by now, even one as sorrowful as a father’s death. Nothing would fit the bill better than some deep blues with Luther’s slide guitar mimicking and accenting his forlorn vocals. He comes by it honestly, and the execution is flawless. It makes you wonder what else is going on over there that hasn’t made it to mainstream ears. Maybe that’s the way those folks like it. We may never know.
I believe there’s a version of this release that documents the making of the record with a DVD. My copy didn’t come with one. Mine is just one slab of flimsy vinyl with some visible scuffs, but no audible defects. This seems to have been a labor of love in the truest sense of the word. It certainly wasn’t concocted with an eye towards the top forty. I would advise anyone that is drawn to this particular record to also explore the music and region that inspired it. You pretty much can’t miss with anything by Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, the elusive Joe Callicott, or Junior Kimbrough. “Onward and Upward” is a fitting tribute to a cultural legend and could serve as an awesome introduction to a genre of music that is as old as the hills, but fresh as the morning dew. I hope the players found some solace in the making of this record. I feel better just for having heard it. That’s about as much as you can hope for from any music, right?