I remember telling my Right Hand Man that I was considering a purchase of the Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker shortly after its release. He told me that he would, and I quote, “blame me.” In those exact words. “I’ll blame you if you buy that album.” And he wasn’t saying this because I was opting for the CD. He and I abandoned the radio at an early age and dove instead into his oldest brother’s record collection. But the Crowes were a beacon of hope for me. For a minute. And my Right Hand came around too.
Along with my other Chief Conspirator, he and I were at one of the band’s homecoming shows in December of 1990. The one that is at least partially documented on the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Money Maker. Which is what we’re here to discuss. It’s been a long time coming…
Gosh, this band was great when they were good. Money Maker was a gateway record for me. Not so much a gateway to a discovery of the band’s influences. I was already on board for that. Had seen the Stones live already and the whole nine yards. But I’d never seen anything like the Black Crowes in concert. Not in a setting like Atlanta’s Center Stage, where you were a part of the production by virtue of your presence. I left that show with a new direction. And with a crappy bootleg of what I’d just heard. I listened to it relentlessly for years, which is how I know that some of the tunes on the live disc were taken from that specific show. I recognize the variations in the performances as well as the between-song banter.
The band’s performance on its debut is unimpeachably phenomenal. The work holds up after all these years, but my 46-year-old ears hear it more as a Pop gem than the Rawk ’n Roll juggernaut I encountered at 15. I don’t have an original for comparison (because I got the damn CD instead), but the album has never sounded especially great from a production standpoint in any format. It’s a bit flat with a crowded soundstage and a noticeable void near the bottom end. And that’s true of this remastered edition as well, but I can’t help but think it’s likely an improvement over the original. Record manufacturing processes were legendarily shoddy during this era, which is why I’m waiting for Uncle Neil to release Ragged Glory as part of his Archives series rather than plunking down for a mint original. Been burned too many times by early ’90’s wax.
And I got a bit burnt on this purchase too, but I guess it hurts so good. The Crowes have always seemed like the Bad News Bears of Rock to me. They just couldn’t seem to get out of their own way at the worst possible times. And this set is a sort of sonic representation of that unfortunate tendency. Sounds like someone didn’t pay close enough attention while reviewing their test pressing. The discs are sporadically noisy throughout the entire set: the original album, the live set, and the b-sides. There are no repeating imperfections, just a generally dirty noise floor. And that’s after an ultrasonic bath. I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. This is a party record anyway—best enjoyed in the company of friends. No one’s going to notice a little non-fill when they’re doing a keg stand. But the fact that the band went to all this trouble to compile this material along with extended liner notes by David Fricke and photos and playbills and… an iron-on patch only to have all four discs with pressing imperfections seems absolutely on-brand for the Robinson Brothers. If they’re still brothers at this point.
Despite all the above, I’m happy to have this set. The live show sounds way better than that cassette I made… I mean “had.” (Is there a statute of limitations on being tried for making bootlegs with a handheld walkman?) The b-sides/demos/outtakes disc is actually fun. And hearing “Words You Throw Away” before it was (almost certainly) split up into “Remedy” and “Thorn In My Pride” is a hoot. There are even versions of “Hard To Handle” (with horns) and “Jealous Again” (acoustic) that I had on a (different) cassette that I was sent as a member of their fan club. I lost my membership card by the side of a crooked, cracked highway many moons ago, but this set at least reminds me of why I had one in the first place.
Speaking of Uncle Neil and Ragged Glory, he toured behind that album like he was in a band that was still trying to make it. And he released Weld as a document. I thought that I caught that tour at a big outdoor shed near Atlanta, but I think it was later. Almost seems like it was in support of Weld, but that doesn’t make sense. Regardless, I loved Weld when I was a kid, and I’m also looking forward to the day when that one sees a proper vinyl release as part of Neil’s Archive series. Presumably, at around the same time, he re-gifts us Ragged Glory. The Archives installments are coming at a dizzying pace at this point, so I’m hoping this shortens the wait. In the meantime, he’s released a warm-up show for the Ragged tour that he played with Crazy Horse at a club in Santa Cruz in November 1990. He calls it Way Down In the Rust Bucket. He could have stuck the masters in his cap and called it macaroni, and I’d have bought three copies. This is the stuff…
Neil Young has made some relentlessly challenging music. And it would be tough to have to live up to your strongest work over the course of a decades-long career. I don’t think he even tries. Just does whatever it is he wants to do. For himself, it seems. I can’t think of a better way to create. The Rust Bucket set finds him deep in his bag. Or his… bucket. Whereas Weld was stocked with the crowd-pleasers from his arena tour, Rust Bucket finds him tearing through songs like “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleeze” and “T-Bone,” both originally released on Reactor, which I believe was so “challenging” for his record label that they sued him for submitting it. They sued him for releasing something that wasn’t commercially viable, and the lyrics for “T-Bone” look like this on the printed page. But they sound like a Rock ’n Roll Theme Park on Rust Bucket. The more traditional numbers like “Cinnamon Girl” rock with the fury of a thousand band breakups, and the newer stuff (at the time) like the band’s cover of “Farmer John” sounds like the Horse is working out in a garage somewhere amusing the hell out of themselves. “Danger Bird” was performed live for the first time at this show. I likely wouldn’t have survived, but I wish I could’ve tried. These club show scrimmages are the stuff that legends are made of, and I’m afraid that those days may have passed. If so, it’s nice to have Way Down In the Rust Bucket as a consolation prize.
And Neil Young isn’t going to get lazy when it comes time to review test pressings. He’s an audiophile like the rest of us, and he’ll wage war to get it right. Rust Bucket was mastered from the original analog tapes and pressed on four discs at Record Industry in the Netherlands. Those folks know how to press records. They get it right every time, and the quality across these eight sides is remarkable. Great instrumental separation even after the overdrive pedals had been cranked to eleven. There’s a bigger version with CDs and a concert video included. I’d have jumped if the video had been on Blu-Ray. As it stands, I’m stoked to have the vinyl set. Makes me miss going to concerts. Makes me feel like I am at a concert. Gather all your friends for a living room rock-out as soon as it’s safe and not irresponsible to do so. Maybe kick it off with “Like a Hurricane.” Seems appropriate for the times…
Luckily for humans, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings started releasing their back catalog on vinyl a few years ago. They’re not in a hurry about it. Quality takes time. And if you see the Acony Records branding on a vinyl release, you’ll know immediately that the quality is there. If you’re a fan of the duo and a vinyl enthusiast, you probably know already that they bought their own lathe because they were dissatisfied with the quality of modern vinyl releases, in general. It’s worked out just fine for them. Last year, their Grammy-winning All the Good Times retailed for around $25 new. Flippers have gotten as much as $350 for it on the aftermarket. That’s not to suggest that Welch and Rawlings benefitted from the price gouging in any way, but to illustrate how strongly listeners feel about the caliber of their work. (And how impatient and/or uninformed they might be. A repress has been announced for 2021. No need to dip into the kid’s college fund for a copy…)
Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, a three-record box set, was finally delivered a couple of weeks ago. It was scheduled for release in December 2020, but as has often been the case in recent months, there were manufacturing delays. And as has always been the case with regards to Acony titles, the wait was worth it. These songs were recorded somewhere around 2002 or so, between the making of Time (The Revelator) and Soul Journey. They fit the timeline perfectly: sparse instrumentation with near-telepathic vocal harmonies. The set is similar to All the Good Times in that it’s a “warts and all” presentation. You’ll hear the occasional knuckle against guitar wood. But mostly, you’ll hear world-class musicians creating a sonic pallet that spans genres (Gospel, the more obvious and slippery “Folk” designation, the increasingly hazy “Country” handle) and moods and emotions (sassy, sexy, downtrodden, jubilant, playful, and mournful).
But that’s not all. The book that’s included with this set pushes the work into another sphere. It moves us away from something like “essential listening” and gets us closer to “culturally significant.” Like it should be in the Library of Congress. The lyrics are reprinted, often next to black and white photos that might make Robert Frank proud. But the kicker is the chord progressions, including where to put the capo and when to drop the low E string down to D. The urge to pick up an acoustic and play along is nearly impossible to withstand. Studying the work will make you a better songwriter and performer if you’re into that sort of thing. Like a Making Folk Music course in a box. The auditory version of a Criterion Collection deep dive.
Welch and Rawlings have used QRP to press their releases in the past, but I’ve not found any info on which facility was used for Boots. The three discs are practically flawless. There’s a (very) nominal amount of surface noise during brief intervals at times, but nothing that repeats or pops. The discs appear cloudy and sound clear. On first listen, my mind was briefly convinced that I was experiencing a live performance. A little increase in the old heart rate. A general case of elevated nerves and sensitivity in the best way there is. This one works best as a focused, solo listen. You’ll want to savor it. As of this writing, the set is still available for purchase from Welch’s site, but I’d act fast. People will ask a lot for this set when it’s gone.
I guess it was only a matter of time. Vinyl Me, Please has entered the Arena of Country Music. They’ve added that track to their three others: Essentials, Classics, and Hip-Hop. Makes perfect sense. Last I checked, Country (as loose as that definition has lamentably become) accounted for a huge swath of music sales on this planet. But more importantly, reputable Country reissues are in remarkably short supply. I mean, I can’t really think of any. Unless you count the Flying Burrito Brothers titles that Intervention put out a couple of years back. Those are great. Really great. So this should be exciting.
Except that VMP seems to have underestimated the amount of subscribers they’d get as a result of this endeavor. Enrollment has been confusing. The inaugural title sold out before it went to press, and it’s questionable as to whether or not anyone’s going to be able to get in for the second month either. I don’t know why they didn’t think to scale their business to accommodate the demand, but the titles they chose certainly had a lot to do with the track’s popularity. April will see a reissue of Shotgun Willie, but we’re here to explore March’s Maiden Country Voyage: the historically esteemed At Folsom Prison by… well, we all know who it’s by.
But I didn’t know the extent to which Johnny Cash’s career had been in decline before Folsom’s release. I do now because all of VMP’s titles are being shipped with “Listening Notes” from this point on. (That was formerly the sole province of the Classics track, and the formatting is different. The Country version looks like an electrical appliance’s instruction manual, whereas the Classics track’s looks… cool.) So, this was a bit of a comeback for Cash. And he had to advocate relentlessly to bring one of his prison performances to market. Columbia Records had their fighting gloves squarely in the middle of Bob Dylan’s ring in 1968, but they were almost certainly left wondering why they waited so long to acquiesce to Cash’s vision after Folsom took off. He wound up getting a televised variety show out of the deal, a successful touring career, a gazillion record sales, and all of the loot that comes with that. And for a good reason.
At Folsom Prison is an engaging listen from start to finish, whether you like the individual songs or not. Oddly enough, that’s almost beside the point. Even if a tune called “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” isn’t your thing, picturing Cash entertaining a cafeteria full of hardened convicts with it is a joyful exercise. I’ve never been a big fan of interrupting a song’s performance to acknowledge the audience’s applause (“thank ya, thank ya very much,” bandmates smiling knowingly at each other, maybe even a wink), and there’s a ton of that on Folsom. There’s also incendiary performances of the title track, “Cocaine Blues,” and “Jackson” (with June). Shel damn Silverstein has a song on here, as does one of Folsom’s own residents, a gentleman who had no idea that Cash would be serenading him with his own work on this historic day. Every record tells a story, doesn’t it?
And the day was historic. The liner notes veer a bit into hyperbole at times, I think, but it’s an Undisputed Truth that At Folsom Prison changed the game for Country music. For better or worse, mostly better. (I still blame the Eagles for the worst of what Country music has become.) It took me two tries to get a clean one, but VMP replaced my defective first copy without any grief, and my second one is pristine. (Minus one point for the defective copy.) Pressed at GZ on colored vinyl, which seems completely out of place to me, but people frigging love it. (You’d be amazed at the complaints you’ll find online when a record isn’t the exact shade of fuchsia that was pictured in the marketing.) These titles are so hot right now that a repress seems inevitable. You’d need to join the club to get one, though. Or risk paying aftermarket gougers. Judging by what they have coming down the pike, I’d say VMP’s Country Club is a safe bet. If you can get in…
I discovered Lionel Loueke while I was sitting in the bowl of the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, freezing my ass off watching Herbie Hancock play. Loueke was Hancock’s guitarist that evening, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Historically, I’ve not been the biggest fan of Jazz guitar, in general. That’s changed a bit over the last couple of years, mostly because of the Grant Green and Kenny Burrell reissues I got from Music Matters. That’ll cure most anyone. And discovering a truly original talent like Loueke helps too. Seems that Hancock was a judge on a panel that awarded Loueke a scholarship once and that Hancock ultimately hired the West African guitarist to be in his band. So Loueke’s got his bona fides, certainly. Recently, Loueke released HH, a tribute album to his mentor and benefactor. I was so excited.
And why not? The idea of a solo guitarist playing an album’s worth of Herbie Hancock compositions is objectively fascinating. I’d envisioned one-take performances where Loueke played, and the producer just rolled tape, but there are overdubs, which is fine. In addition to Loueke’s fingerpicking, there is tapping on the guitar’s body and vocalizations (clicks and scatting) layered into the mix. It’s a heady brew of sounds that Bobby McFerrin might envy.
“Actual Proof” was one of the centerpieces of Hancock’s Berkeley show, and Loueke shined. The HH version finds Loueke playing in a percussive style with very little sustain on the notes. It sounds like the action is set low on the guitar strings so that they buzz and vibrate against the neck. It’s a much more meditative take than the original, frenetic, funkified recording on Hancock’s Thrust record. Almost unrecognizable.
“Cantaloupe Island,” however, is instantly discernible. Loueke plays it pretty straight here in a slap guitar style, with the rhythm and melody played almost simultaneously. I can’t detect overdubs on this track, just a solid, by-the-books performance of a Jazz Classic with some wah-wah thrown in for kicks.
“Watermelon Man” is more camouflaged and lays in wait until the hook, at which point it reveals itself in all its technicolor splendor. Of all the songs on the program, “Rockit” is the easiest to spot. This song was my introduction to Hancock’s work as a young child around the same time I discovered Dylan during his turn on… “We Are the World.” (Clearly not the strongest example of either artist’s work, but we can always blame the ‘80s for whatever we can’t blame on COVID…)
Throughout the program, it feels like watching a child play with their favorite action figures – lost in their imagination, making their fantasies physical. It also feels like we’re a bit removed from the action like we’re not being allowed all the way in. Like we’re surrounded by the Death Star’s forcefield, and the notes are being repelled before they reach us. HH is begging for an audiophile treatment. Even if it was recorded digitally, which it absolutely should not have been, it would benefit from a remaster, a new plating, and a repress at Record Industry. Some sort of treatment that would allow the electric guitar textures during “Voyage Maiden” (one of two originals on HH) to float out of and waft across the soundstage like they were almost certainly designed to do. It’s hard to parse where this was pressed, but “Made in the E.U.” is clearly visible on the back cover. As excited as I was about this release, I probably won’t keep it. There’s not enough room on my shelf, or in the world, for noisy vinyl. The work is exemplary; the presentation lacks luster. For interested parties, I might recommend seeking out a high-def digital version. Those might be the dirtiest words I’ve ever typed—shower time.