- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 18 January 2012
R.L. Burnside "Burnside On Burnside" Fat Possum Records
One of the last times I had the good fortune of seeing R.L. Burnside live and in person, I was crashed out on his hotel room floor in Atlanta at 8AM with a raging hangover and little recollection of the previous night's show. His drummer/grandson, Cedric, was in one of the two beds asleep probably not feeling too well himself as a result of our late night rendezvous at the Waffle House. When R.L. asked, "Are y'all ready to get up?," I sat up like Nosferatu in an attempt to generate some momentum and hide my illness. Luckily, R.L. had the cure. It was in the form of a bottle of Canadian Mist I'd given him the prior evening. That was his favorite. We watched a little "Wheel of Fortune," and had a couple of snorts from the bottle, a little "hair of the dog." Then, we got in the van and headed down the road to Athens for further revels. At least, I think that was one of the last couple of times we met. Those days are a little hazy. A lot hazy. One thing is for certain, I'd seen him perform live for the first time in Atlanta during the Olympics and it was one of the defining moments of my concert-going life. I'd hauled it directly from the Al Green show at the Tabernacle directly to Blind Willie's with my girlfriend at the time. We didn't know what the hell we were seeing, but we knew we'd see him again anytime we could. And we did. I still have a signed bottle of Crawford's brand whiskey from those days. It says the same thing that all of his autographs said: "R.L. Burnside: A Friend." Perhaps "A Fiend" would have been more appropriate. Or maybe that was me. It was one of the few times in my life that I recognized my extreme good fortune in real time while it was happening. I miss those days. Who wouldn't?
In case you missed it, R.L. was one of the last relevant blues men to walk the Earth. He was intimidating and gracious and wise and shockingly resourceful. When he felt like his extended family was getting too friendly with the contents of his refrigerator, he just put a chain around the whole unit and locked it shut. I'd be surprised to learn that anyone else in the world had the key to open it. He'd come from meager beginnings as a share cropper and lived long and prospered enough to end up driving a Cadillac around his hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. He'd wave at everyone he passed in it which didn't always sit well with his neighbors. Some of them still rode around in mule-drawn carts. I'm not making this up. Maybe someone else did, but that was the story I got and I believed it. You would too if you ever saw the area around Holly Springs. And all of it was in Burnside's music. One of the gents in Widespread Panic turned me on to the Fat Possum label in around 1992 or '93, and it was one of the best things to happen for my musical taste at the time. Or ever. I dug in with the zeal of a new convert, and soaked up all I could until all the original Fat Possum artists died off. It felt then, and still does, like a last gasp of an expiring species. There are probably still some working blues artists that I'd like, but I'll be damned if I know where to find them. I'm not talking about slick blues with horn sections and nice suits. R.L. was convicted of killing a man and did time for it until his boss man sprung him because he needed his expertise on the tractor come harvest time. But R.L. always maintained that he never killed anybody. He just shot the man in the head. The man's dying "was between him and God." That's the kind of blues I'm talking about. Luckily, Fat Possum just released "Burnside On Burnside" for what I believe is the first time on vinyl. It's a live document mostly from a performance in Portland, but it also contains a few tunes from a show that was recorded in my San Francisco neighborhood at the Great American Music Hall. This was just over ten years ago now. And it's with the classic lineup with R.L. out front on vocals and guitar, Cedric on drums, and Kenny Brown on slide guitar. Brown had grown up as Fred McDowell's neighbor and learned to play under the legend's tutelage. These were the real ones. When the trio locked in, you'd swear sometimes that you were hearing a clavinet. You never missed the bass. The album flows just like the shows did. There's R.L.'s abbreviated solo set where you can really absorb his guitar work without distractions. There's the same story, here titled "He Ain't Your Daddy," that he told at every show. It was actually one of a few yarns that he'd spin every night without variation no matter what town he was in or how many shows he'd played there. Legend has it that come time to record another album, R.L. would suggest that they simply re-record the songs that had been on the previous one. He found what worked for him and stuck with it. It carried him around the world and got him a Caddy. Beats the hell out of a mule and cart...
As far as content goes, it gets no better than the songs on "Burnside On Burnside." It's got all the standards like "Shake 'Em On Down," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and, of course, "Goin' Down South." Everything that you'd expect from a Burnside treatment, basically. Unfortunately, the vinyl is about what you can expect from other Fat Possum releases too. That is to say it looks like a mule's ass and doesn't sound much better in some parts. The recording itself is clear and very representative of Burnside's live sound. This shouldn't require much and the Fat Possum team deserves credit for staying out of the music's way. But, man, I wish they'd spend a little more money and time on their vinyl catalog. Money is probably the primary concern as the label was not profitable for a long time and may not be still, although I doubt it. This was a true labor of love for the folks involved. I doubt any of them ever saw much return on financial investment in the early days. They've since branched out and their roster includes all manner of acts that tour the college circuit and beyond so, hopefully, they're earning a living. The album doesn't come with a digital download coupon or much artwork to speak of either so it's kind of a toss up as to whether or not the vinyl is essential. It is to me, but that goes without saying. Noisy vinyl can still trump digital when listening to the some tunes. If you already have a digital copy, you might not need to rush out for this one though. I never did so I'm stoked to finally have it in a proper format. One way or another, you need the content so do whatever makes you feel best. The vinyl is priced to sell so there's no pretense towards a high-end release or anything. That's a relief. The music is a relief and a release. Go get it. Dig in. You'll love it. Everyone who hears it does.
Dr. Lonnie Smith "Spiral" Palmetto Records
Now, things were a good bit different the last time I saw Dr. Lonnie Smith in person than they were when I last saw R.L. For starters, I was upright and walking on my own volition. Secondly, I was in San Francisco about six blocks from my apartment. I was surprised to see him because I had no idea that he had a show scheduled in town, and I make it my business to know about these things. I was crossing the street in Union Square talking to a girl I was dating who lived in New York City at the time. I was talking to her on the phone because I was flying out to see her that night. I was dating her because I'm an idiot. I jumped off the line long enough to introduce myself to Dr. Lonnie and he very graciously tried to fix my jones by asking how long I'd be in NYC, etc. Turns out I was gonna miss him there too by just a couple of days. I should have taken it as a sign. Anyway, I'd found Smith's music when I saw that he was playing the Great American Music Hall with the great Fred Wesley on trombone. I really went to see Wesley, but I forgot that he was even on stage when Dr. Lonnie took over the show on organ. It was his show to take over from the beginning, I was just confused into thinking it was a Wesley show. It was phenomenal. The two musicians were accompanied by a guitarist and a drummer (who happened to be a 19 year old girl). That's usually how I like my jazz. Things get a little cluttered for my personal taste with large horn sections. Certainly cluttered with large string sections, that's not negotiable. So I was stoked to find "Spiral" recently as it's even more stripped down than the show I saw with Wesley in the band. This one is recorded as a trio which is my favorite lineup for jazz organists. Unless, of course, I could find a solo performance. Jimmy Smith was one of the greatest, but it's hard for me to find records of his without a huge roster of players on them. "Spiral" is just what I was looking for. And it's almost perfect.
This one came out last year and was recorded over the course of two whole days. I say "whole days." For all I know it was recorded in the time it took to perform the songs one time through which would mean that it was recorded in less than 45 minutes. That's certainly how it feels. I so very much love recordings that feel like someone set a mic up secretly in a room and let the music record itself. These records aren't so easy to spot now, but they're out there if you feel like digging for them. "Spiral" starts out, actually, with a cover of Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood." I say this as if I'm familiar with the original work. The truth is, I'm familiar with the name and it's clearly listed on the album cover under the song title. It has a groovy, very memorable theme that segues smoothly into the various players' solos before returning to wrap things up in a cool little jazz package. You can hear Dr. Lonnie scatting along with his playing in the background just like he does onstage. Some folks might consider this a distraction or a poor recording technique. I call it perfection. A living document of a master performer doing what he does best the way he likes to do it. "Authentic" is another word that springs to mind. I'm thinking the "vocals" are being picked up by an ambient mic as they certainly aren't being captured by a vocal mic in the traditional since. You can also hear the inner workings of the doctor's B3 organ. Or something. I'm not entirely sure what gives the recording it's timbre, but you can really feel the percussive style of Smith's playing and maybe the bass pedals in action. By that, I mean the actual movement of the pedals, not the notes they make. It's a glorious sound, and it provokes a really emotional response if you're into jazz/funk or Hammond B3 masters in general. (Please note: Dr. Lonnie Smith should not be confused with Lonnie Liston Smith, another jazz keyboardist of some renown that I don't know anything about. I'm sure he's great. He's not Dr. Lonnie Smith, and his records are much more readily available than the doctor's. I'm clear on that.) Overall, these tunes are smooth and light (not to be confused with the "smooth jazz" genre, God help us all) with the occasional energy spike and volume swell. "Beehive' is the only number that's a little too progressive for my jazz sensibilities. But basically, "Spiral" is a fine document of the art of playing a B3. I'm a sucker for the instrument itself, and consequently smitten with the record. If you like the Hammond B3, I don't see how you wouldn't like this disc. Simple enough...
This is an independent release on the Palmetto Records label. I'm unfamiliar with their previous work if there is any, but they hit a homer with this one. Nothing fancy, just a fine recording on a decent slab of wax. (I had a minor freak out listening to "Sukiyaki" wherein I thought my girlfriend was playing the Dickens out of my acoustic guitar in an adjacent room. Turns out it was just a really clear recording. From my kitchen, it sounded live. Whew!) The pressing is not visually perfect, but the sonics are fantastic. No noise to speak of in the quiet sections of which there are many. No extras to speak of either. Nothing in the way of a download coupon or a digital copy. No liners, just a roster of the three players and some booking info. I hope he keeps putting his newest releases out on vinyl from this point on and I'd be elated if I could get a copy of "Jungle Soul" or "Too Damn Hot!" from recent years. I'd turn back flips if I could get a vinyl copy of Smith's tribute to Beck. I have all of these in my iTunes library, but I'll obviously get infinitely more play out of "Spiral" because I rarely even think to listen to my digital music. It's nice to know it's there, but not as nice as knowing I can take "Spiral" for a spin. I'm doing that now, and I'm really enjoying myself. I'm sure you would too. Check it out.
Moby "Destroyed" Mute Records
I read a story online recently wherein there was an emergency somewhere in the Mid-Western United States, and the residents of the town in question decided to get the word out by going to their local radio stations to have the DJs deliver info on air. I can't remember if it was a fire or a problem with the drinking water or whatever else. Anyway, it doesn't matter because there weren't any DJ's at the stations to help get the info out anyway. All of the buildings were devoid of human life, and the stations were running themselves via computer. I wish I could remember where I saw the story, but I can't and that's just part of getting older, I guess. I think I'd have made a pretty good DJ despite my rapidly deteriorating memory, and despite what I perceive of as the public's general apathy towards quality... anything. Generally, I can gauge a room's vibe at any type of gathering and know just what to play to keep the mood moving in the right direction or to change it entirely. I can also tell what's working and what's not within a few moments of a song's inception, and I can adjust accordingly. That comes with age too, maybe. The young lady who's crazy enough to want to be my girlfriend is quite particular about what she'll listen to and we often don't match up in that respect. She doesn't like "crazy rock music." But she likes Moby, and I didn't have a single record in my collection to represent his genre, whatever that is, so I picked up "Destroyed." Now, she has another record to request when she comes over in addition to Carole King's "Tapestry." "Destroyed" and "Tapestry." Those are the two records she likes best in my whole collection. I like "Tapestry" pretty well too. And "Destroyed" is alright. I'm having a hard time deciding if I'd keep it as a single man though. I guess sometimes I'm not quite as adept at figuring out what I will like as I am at uncovering what others want to hear. So it goes.
I want to like Moby a lot. He seems like a swell guy with all his standing up for the animals, and he can play a million instruments according to what I've read. Plus, I liked parts of his mega-hit "Play" from 1999. Of course, I missed it entirely upon its initial release and only became aware of it years later when I burnt a friend's copy to check out on my iPod... when I finally got one of those. It has some interesting stuff on it, most of which revolves around Moby's use of samples from the Georgia Sea Island Singers which I'd already been studying as part of Alan Lomax's "Southern Journey" field recordings archive. There's none of that on "Destroyed," but Moby clearly still has a knack for utilizing the female voice in interesting and relaxing ways. The first song on side two is a fine example of that. I'm pretty sure it's called "Rockets," but I can't be certain because the songs aren't listed in order by side in the liners, they're all grouped together in a long list. And I use a record clamp so the song titles aren't visible on the actual record while it plays either. "The Day" (I think) has a male vocal that sounds like Bowie which seems like a probable collaboration although I don't think it's actually the Thin White Duke. The thing that usually turns me off first about this type of music, and lots of new music in general, is the repetition. More specifically, vocal repetition or loops. I like repetition in its proper quantities and forms. North Mississippi Hill Country blues, for instance, is one of my favorite types of music and it's built on repetition. But "dance" music or "electronic" music relies a little too heavily on the effect which is about the most objective way I can say it. It's not so bad on "Destroyed." I mean, it's there for sure, but it's not the defining quality of the album. The second tune, "Be The One," is the greatest offender in this regard, but it's pretty manageable, really. Here's the sad truth about me and "Destroyed" by animal loving Moby: I like it as much as the person sitting next to me does. It's a fine listen when I'm with the Little Lady. I got a little uneasy when I was playing it for one of my buddies from home. He's a pretty open minded fellow when it comes to music, but "Destroyed" wasn't doing it for him and I could feel that energy in the air, especially during "Be The One." Both parties have valid opinions on the matter. The record is a good one as far as this type of thing goes, but it ain't for everybody and I wouldn't expect the vast majority of my friends to have much appreciation for it. It would be an "acquired taste," as they say. But it's relaxing enough, and you can play it pretty easily in the background. I don't see any reason to sit with it and study it or meditate on it unless you're interested in making this type of music too. In that case, I'd say you're learning from the master. I certainly don't see myself venturing too far into this genre, and, if I got another record like this one at all, it would probably be another one by Moby. When you want a portable music player, you get an iPod. When you want an e-reader, you get a Kindle. When you want to explore electronica/dance music, you listen to Moby. That's my take on it...
"Destroyed" is a pretty cool vinyl package, and it comes with a CD anyway so the choice is obvious on this one. The two records are heavy and clean with no surface noise at all which is great because there are some quieter musical moments throughout this work which sound really great without any distracting pops or ticks. There is also a huge range of sounds and textures which come through nicely on wax. For the limited amount of use that I'll get out of this one, vinyl is the only way to go for me. The bass never degrades no matter how low you go, and the ethereal electronic accents float nicely on top of that foundation with a ton of clarity and great separation. The whole package is decked out with Moby's photography and it looks like he has a pretty good eye for that too. This just feels like a quality release when you hold it in your hands. You can tell that they took some time with it, the vinyl was no mere afterthought. I'll be keeping this one if for no other reason than to appease my better half. I'm not sure that I'll be listening to it much on my own, but I can imagine there might be times when I'll take it out for a spin. Maybe when I'm holed up in my apartment avoiding some fire or poisonous water that I didn't learn about on the radio because there were no living DJ's to disseminate the information. That might be a time for "Destroyed."
The Black Belles "The Black Belles" Third Man Records
Jack White and Tim Burton share certain similarities as far as I'm concerned. I'm not sure if anyone else has noticed. And I'm not just saying that because White looks a little like Edward Scissorhands or any number of Burton's other creations. I'm thinking more about both artists' knack for creating entire universes to fit their seemingly bent view of our broken world. It's an obvious thing where Burton's concerned, but maybe not so much for Big Jack. But Big Jack is building something pretty huge over there in Nashville, and I wish like hell I lived a little closer to the action sometimes. Which is odd because I'm used to living in towns like Athens or San Francisco where the musical action comes to you. But, man, Big Jack has some serious action brewing up at his Third Man Records outpost. So much so that I'm not really that bothered by the demise of White's Stripes. That one is a lot easier to swallow knowing that Big Jack's gonna produce a million records in the coming New Year, and that they're very likely to rock because he's never had a bad idea. He's turned out some gold by the likes of the Greenhornes (instant classic), Wanda Jackson, and Dex Romweber already. Now, he brings us the Black Belles. I'm too lazy to spend my time digging around on YouTube to see live clips or whatever, but they've created quite an image for themselves by the looks of their album cover. I'd tried for a few months to get a copy of their 7" without having to order one online, but I couldn't ever find a copy at my local independent retailer. It was worth the wait. Their self-titled debut long player sounds about like what you'd expect from White's World. Really, it sounds a lot like what you'd expect from White himself, maybe, if he were a "herself."
I mean that in the nicest way. I'd hate to offend the ladies, mostly because I'd be afraid they'd cast a spell on me or put a monkey's paw in my sandwich, but also because I'm sure they're talented enough to stand on their own without any assistance from Big Jack. Be that as it may, this record plays like a movie that White directed. Or maybe a movie that Tim Burton directed with Jack White in charge of the soundtrack. Weirdos and freaks for as far as the ear can hear, and I mean that in an even nicer way than the last thing I meant in the nicest way. But you can't get away from White's influence especially when it sounds like they took the crazy keyboard from "Icky Thump" and dropped it right in the middle of their own "In A Cage." That may be White's most obvious influence, but it's not his only one. The overall aesthetic seems right in line with the deceased Stripes even beyond the ubiquitous crunchy guitar riffs and the simple pounding drums. Those could have been pulled from anywhere in Rock history, but when you add it all together you get a Jack White Production, no doubt about it. And Olivia Jean's vocals sound a little like Wanda Jackson's in parts too. Not always, but enough so that I noticed it. This is what I mean when I say Big Jack's creating his own universe over there. He's become a taste maker as far as I understand the term. I mean, I'm sure there are tons of shoe gazing teens out there thinking Jack hung the moon and told the stars when to come out, and those kids will be obligated to dig the Belles every bit as much as they're obligated to like Loretta Lynn now that she's in his camp. Or the Greenhornes. They could all stand on their own, for sure, but it can't hurt to have a living legend on your side if you're not one already, right? Well, the Belles are no different. They can play like crazy (especially that Olivia Jean), and they'll make their mark, and this will all be accelerated by having Jack White as their producer, development specialist, make-up artist, whatever the hell he's doing over there. I don't begrudge them that success one bit. For all I know, they've been toiling away in obscurity for years. There's nothing wrong with having friends in high places, and Jack wouldn't attach his name to a talentless band without any substance to back them up. At least I don't think he would. Unless it was part of a larger plan... "what's he building in there?" But that's certainly not the case with the Black Belles. They rock just fine, thanks. Now, can you bring me another sandwich, please? This one has a monkey's paw in it.
This is a pretty standard release for Third Man Records which means that it's recorded "correctly" without any unnecessary intrusion by studio gimmickry, and that it sounds like a riot and looks like less than it is. For whatever reason, the Third Man pressings never look that great. Luckily, I don't sit around staring at records. I sit around listening to them, and this one is a good one for practicing with. It's light on extras with no download coupon and most assuredly no CD included. Of course, I can't even picture this release as a CD. It just doesn't add up. It wouldn't fit the storyline, if you will. But there are some liners with the lyrics reprinted, and some nifty artwork involving brains and the like. Tim Burton would be proud. I'm sure Big Jack is. Now, if we could just get those guys to collaborate my life would be complete. Until I got fixated on something else. But right now, it's Big Jack and the Third Man Collective that has me excited. I can't wait to see what's next...
Flat Duo Jets "Go Go Harlem Baby" Third Man Records
And the Big Jack beat goes on...
We've covered the Dex Romweber Duo before, and we've gone over what an influence Romweber was on a young Big Jack. We've detailed the footage we've seen of Romweber as a young man freaking out like a lunatic onstage in a manner that would later be appropriated almost step for step by Big Jack. Big Jack has gone on record detailing his love for Romweber's old outfit, the Flat Duo Jets, most conspicuously during the "It Might Get Loud" documentary that found Big Jack cavorting with Jimmy Page and the guy from U2. Personally, I sought "The Flat Duo Jets" for what felt like centuries before I finally found a copy in Athens, Georgia at a vinyl convention that coincidentally coincided with my last visit. Can you believe my luck? I got the thing for $40 in the mintiest mint condition I could conceive of. There were only 1,000 pressed as I understand it, and the album is a bona fide classic. No joke. I bought it and ran out of the room like someone was chasing me with a dirty stylus. I can't get enough, but I thought it would have to be enough because I didn't want to put myself through the anguish of searching out others in the band's catalog which is so far out of print that they almost seem like a myth. I wish I'd been into them as a youth, but I was into Michael Jackson like everyone else my age. But some of the older kids were into the Jets. I remember seeing the t-shirts and cassettes around. I wouldn't have "gotten it" anyway. But I get it now. Lord, have mercy, I get it. And, just when I thought I was gonna have to skate by with nothing but their self-titled masterpiece to accompany me on my journey, Big Jack steps up to the plate and re-releases the Jets' "Go Go Harlem Baby." I'm so much less lonely now. And I can relax with this whole Flat Duo Jets thing for a bit. I now have two by them, and two by the Romweber Duo. The work has been done.
I have a weird way of thinking about music which involves some skepticism about whether or not a band can repeat former glories. Part of it is my vanity in thinking that if a record were truly that great, I'd know about it already. Part of it is just me being a glass half empty kind of guy and me thinking that most bands just can't do it twice. That's certainly not the case with the Flat Duo Jets and their "Go Go Harlem Baby." It's a truly great record. Now, I'd built up a pretty healthy mythology around the first one, and could have been blinded to anything after it as a matter of course. The band could have released a "Physical Graffiti" and it might not have moved me the way "Self Titled" did just because I searched so lonely so long for that one. But I'd listen to "Harlem" a million times a day if it were the only Flat Duo Jets record I was aware of. For those in need of tutoring: the Flat Duo Jets were a duo. They consisted of a lunatic front man who sang and beat hell out of his guitar while the drummer played drums - often at the same time. These fabled Jets were a major influence on the latter day White Stripes who would take over the world with a similar format and aesthetic. The Jets had a little more rockabilly and surf in their strides than the Stripes did. They both drank heartily from the garage rock well. The End. Now, Big Jack always seemed to be in control from what I could tell while he was onstage with the Stripes. I've seen some Romweber footage where I wasn't sure if he'd survive the show. Dex doesn't sing like he'd do you any violent harm or anything like that. He just sings like the kind of guy that might keep you up for five days at a time chasing God-knows-what until you found it who-knows-where in what-kind-of-alley. And that guitar, man. I'm not sure what the exact qualifications for a rave-up are, but I'm pretty positive that "Wild Trip" is one. It's one of a few instrumentals that I'm aware of in the band's oeuvre, and I'd probably be alright if that were all that was on the Flat Duo Jets menu. (I think there is a FDJ record of nothing but instrumentals. I bet it burns.) But I'm glad he sang. Sings. He still sings and plays, but it ain't what it used to be. It would be weird and probably a little sad if it were. Totally age inappropriate, and all that. That's why we have "Go Go Harlem Baby." It's a living document of a brilliant genius on top of his game. And of a brilliant genius defining the game for others to play later. But they'll always play in Romweber's shadow whether they know it or not. Jack White knows it. And, luckily, he's more than happy to tell you all about it. There's a Jets doc called "Two-Headed Cow" that I've not seen if anyone wants to do any research. I hear there's not enough concert footage in it to satisfy true fans. I can whole-heartedly recommend the "Athens, GA: Inside Out" documentary for Jets footage and as an insight into one of the world's greatest communities. Check out the Jets performance, then watch some of the White Stripes material from decades later. They're mirror images... Oh yeah, Jim Dickinson produced the "Harlem" record and he plays on it too. That's all I need to say about that, I'm sure.
There wasn't a big to-do about this release on the Third Man Records site when it came out so I'm unsure of what all went into the re-issuing process. I have a hard time picturing Big Jack taking this brilliant piece of analog and muddying it up with any type of digital process at all. I know they certainly left that step out of the Stripes re-issues from a couple of years back. As I mentioned, the Jets' catalog isn't too easy to piece together on eBay or anywhere else so I'd advise you to run out and grab "Harlem" while the grabbing is good. It's a single record in an inner sleeve inside a cover. No extras, no liners, no digital copy. Go get it. Go get it, and take it home, and listen to it. If you like good rock and roll, you'll love it. If you like Justin Bieber (I like to pronounce it "Biber"), you'll not have a clue in the world what you're hearing. And I think that's perfect. I think the Flat Duo Jets were perfect, and I think this reissue was a perfect idea. Thanks, Big Jack. I owe you a few things found after a five day binge in a dark alley for this one.