Thursday, November 27, 2008

Led Zeppelin-Presence

What irks me about the Classic Rock radio format is not so much the bands, but the programming format. The same fifty or so songs by about thirty bands have been in endless rotation for decades now, helping to clog listeners' perceptions about so many aspects of music. I suspect it has a lot to do with royalty rates and point systems, but could be wrong. If anyone ever reads this, and can explain it clearly, by all means explain it to me. That said, at this point the well of sounds from which a careful DJ could draw, in terms of the "Classic Rock" sound, is pretty much endless, what with just about every recording ever produced easily available on the booming reissue market.
Led Zeppelin are by no means an obscure band, even nearly thirty years after their demise. They are often slagged off as classic Rock radio dinosaurs. Punkers like Joe Strummer spit at 'em. Post Punks like Elvis Costello derided 'em with spiteful condescension. Despite their lowly standing with so many of the Official Arbiters Of Taste, Zep's music remains not only a huge monetary source for the music industry (ever notice how often their catalog gets trotted out during dry spells?), but it still sounds really great. I'll grant (no pun intended) that I and II are pretty tuneless and dull, but move past those two in their catalog, and you'll find a wealth of great songs, played with imagination and verve.
Presence, the penultimate document of Zeppelin as an active band, is often seen as their one dud. Why this is, I'll never understand, as for me it's one of their best. Recorded quickly in order to make way for the Rolling Stones, the record has for the most part a raw, simplified sound. By this point in their career, these guys could have sounded tight as a kazoo or washboard ensemble, never mind as a Rock rhythm section.
The album is bookended by two longer tunes, Achilles Last Stand and Tea for One. The former is a great, almost purely Metal tune. My only complaint about it is that it could have been edited down to even greater effect, as Bonham's blasting speed shuffle and Page's cutting riffs are both really heavy. I'd venture to guess that they figured on writing at least one new Big Anthem for their concert repertoire, and Achilles was molded as such. It features as the one constant on said Classic Rock formats from Presence. Tea for One can be seen as pretty much standard Led Zeppelin blues, of course, but it's intro is equal to any riff from the Touch & Go post-Hardcore scene, and it's raunchy guitar playing is great throughout. Dig on Bonham's ride cymbal, too. The rest of the record is made up of shorter tunes that often sound as if the band is trying to fuse Funk and Rockabilly. These songs all feature Bonham as his tightest and most funkified. The paradox of infinite complexity residing within the seeming simplicity of his drumming remains compelling, and the listener will find fine examples of this on all tunes here. His drums were recorded great, too, as usual, beautifully up-front in the mix. Listen to Royal Orleans and try not to be moved by 'em! Page brings the Rockabilly aspect to Presence. His tones are gritty and countrified on tunes like Candy Store Rock and Hots for Nowhere, and most of his solos on the shorter tunes feature at least one instance of whammy bar bliss, as opposed to Guitar Hero pomp. He sounds a lot closer to Carl Perkins and Link Wray than Richie Blackmore or Jimi Hendrix. John Paul Jones adds to the overall feel by subtraction, in this case subtracting the keyboards entirely. He sticks to fundamental bass playing, with his axe pretty much welded to Bonham's big bass drum. His presence is pretty unobtrusive, which I'm sure at least made Page happy. Robert Plant's performance is the biggest surprise on Presence. Eschewing the "golden God" pose, Plant for the most part tones his sometimes histrionic style down, and the vocals' deep placement in the mix helps this process. You can hear the pure Rock-n-Roll approach of some of his 1980's recordings emerge here, along with a new found humour: at one point during For Your Life he makes audible pig grunts! Acts like that, along with a great name check of Barry White during Royal Orleans, seem to show Plant coming to some new way of approaching his method, perhaps willfully shedding the "Percy" persona of earlier years? Maybe the pain of his recent car wrecks and his having to record sitting in a wheelchair had him reevaluating things.
Led Zeppelin always had a raw, immediate feel in their music, especially compared to many of their contemporaries. I've never understood why they were singled out for derision amongst many of the revolutionaries that followed in their wake. Presence is perhaps the best recorded example of this rawness. The fact that they are a big part of the dull Classic Rock Radio cavalcade can't change how great and funky most of the tunes on this record are. If some of the shorter ones got a bit more airplay inside that vacuum, maybe more folks would see Presence for the cool document that it is.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rufus Harley-Re-Creation of the Gods

One of my favorite memories from going to live shows is set at the Wilson Center, WDC, in early 1989. Fugazi was playing, and at one point, their sound took on the characteristics of bagpipes. I swear, Ian and Guys' guitars made the band sound much more like a Scottish tattoo than a Post Punk band. I made a mental note right then and there to check out some bagpipe music, and on occasion have actually done so. It's a great sound, wry and melodic to my ears. I love it.
Rufus Harley loved the bagpipes, too. A long-time resident of Philadelphia, Harley may be the only Jazz bagpipe virtuoso in history. Aside from Albert Ayler's trippy tune Masonic Inborn, I can't recall any other examples of the bagpipes being used in Jazz. He made records for Atlantic during the 1960's, but seems to have been consigned to the fringes of Jazz history. It doesn't seem right that such creativity and invention (I mean, come on, JAZZ BAGPIPES?), could be shunted aside, but thankfully the great Transparency label has recently re-issued Re-Creation of the Gods, Rufus's 1972 offering.
Re-Creation of the Gods is a solid, soulful record. Harley leads a rhythm section made up of organ, electric bass, and drums through six hard boppin' tunes. There's a great "Soul Jazz" feel throughout the entire proceedings, in no small measure due to the funky organ playing of Bill Mason. Mason's playing is at times smooth and supportive, at times overdriven and heavy a la Larry Young's Lifetime wailing, but always right on point and in the pocket. His solos are great, too, full of wild abstraction, as on the amazing tunes The Crack (about the Liberty Bell, according to the liner notes) and Etymology. The rhythm section of Larry Langston on drums and Larry Randolph on bass provides tight support for Harley and Masons' solo flights. Their grooves are funky in a post 1970's Jazz Fusion sort of way. Randolph's bass playing on many of the tunes sticks to fundamentals, but on ones like Hypothesis he flows with crazy walking playing that sounds simultaneously relaxed and frantic. His tone is all butter, too. Langston's drumming is by turns jazzy or funky, according to the needs of the rest of the rhythm section. On The Crack and Malika he struts with a real New Orleans sounding high hat and snare drum fueled backbeat, real syncopated sass, almost Bonham-like on the latter cut. That he can turn around and blast out heavy-assed Jazz Fusion drumming on Etymology and Hypothesis, rolling and tumbling off of his ride cymbal and tom toms, is just beautiful. I wonder if he still plays. Harley augments his bagpipe soloing with the electric soprano sax, and with both instruments he solos wonderfully, hitting Coltrane or Lateef style multi-phonic spaces with the former and gruff Roland Kirk type tones and bellows with the later. Despite his exploring, he always has interesting melodic ideas, and never sounds boring on his axes.
Sound wise, Re-Creation of the Gods has a nice, raw feel to it. It's not too slickly produced, and the occasional lapses in Harley's intonation give it a real live feel. The band sounds loose and authentic, sometimes reminding me more of the blues groups led by Junior Kimborough and R.L. Burnside. It features a nice, even mix of all instruments, which is warm and inviting to the ears. The liner notes for Transparency's re-issue feature mystical/spiritual tones, making me wonder if Harley spent any time at Sun Ra's band house in Philadelphia, which I believe would have been there by 1972.
The bagpipes are by no means a commonly used instrument here in America. One might hear them at Fraternal Order of Police/Firefighter funerals, and there used to be a guy who'd sometimes play on Market St. in San Francisco, but for the most they seem pretty rare. In Rufus Harley we have a great example of American Jazz "eccentricity", a musician making highly personal and creative statements by thinking outside of the realms of established canon. I wish I could have seen him at the Wilson Center that night, too.

AH Kraken, 11/21/08, a warehouse in Oakland, CA

After dining on some great homemade paella at his house, Colin and I hightailed it down to San Pablo Ave. to catch AH Kraken in a warehouse. Scott met us there. The band was starting their set right as we walked in. It was so great to feel their assault up close and personal. All of the elements that make their records great were there: simple guitar riffs, sludgy bass, pounded floor tom pulse. To stand at arm's length from it all felt great. They were somewhat hampered by bad equipment and tons of booze intake (the drummer told me at the merch table that they'd been drinking since 3PM!), but still managed to put on a great, heavy performance. I love the chaotic punky sound that they generate, and they seem like good guys. If you get a chance, go and see 'em live. They seem like a pretty real deal to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A thought re: Chinese Democracy

I logged-on to myspace today, and was kind of bombarded by hype about the impending release of the new record by Guns 'n Roses, Chinese Democracy. I just want to ask, who cares about this stuff? Does anybody? According to the band's myspace page, they've had over one million plays, so maybe the question is just rhetorical. Still, it's been sixteen years since their last record. It seems to me that their kind of music is marketed towards younger demographics. People who were "youth" when their last record came out are no longer young, at least age wise. Is Axl Rose counting on the current crop of teenagers to purchase his new offering? Can he depend on middle aged and thirty somethings for their hard earned cash, even in what seems to be a recession, after the d.i.y. movement? I guess we'll find out. I have a feeling I'll be listening to Celtic Frost or something, at least in order to fulfill any possible Metal jones.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Doug Snyder and Bob Thomspson- The Rules of Play

Over the last few months, I've become a big fan of the magazine Waxpoetics. Thanks to my pal Max Sidman, who suggested I check out the magazine and it's amazing contents, I've been reconnecting to several musical styles and approaches that I'd become unnecessarily jaded about. Along with it's amazingly detailed coverage of of all things Funk, Hip Hop, Jazz, Dub, and Fusion, Waxpoetics sometimes features a column entitled Left Field Americana, in which writers describe strange recordings that they've unearthed during their record digging expeditions. It's a great column, and I'm continually inspired by the descriptions of obscure records and unknown musicians that it features. Of course, being an obsessive compulsive geek myself, I find it necessary to try and find and hear as many of the strange gems LFA describes as possible; this has proven to be quite a challenge, as these records are seriously rare. It kind of makes me want to move to NYC, or Amsterdam!
One featured group that I have been able to find recordings by is the duo of Doug Snyder and Bob Thompson, whose early 1970's LP Daily Dance was given serious props in one LFA column. Said column's description of it as something like Fushitsusha recorded in the 1970's was enough to make me squirm in my office chair, mouse clicking like a fiend in order to find a copy somewhere. Daily Dance is one rare motherfucker, but, happily for my ears, Snyder and Thompson's more recent The Rules of Play is much more easily accessed, and it's great, too.
The Rules of Play is made up of three tracks, starting out with the 45 minute long title song. The duo start out playing a simple call and response phrase between guitar and drums, and within a minute and a half launch into the meat of the piece. There are plenty of exchanges, plenty of changes that take place within Rules of Play. As with other long improv pieces, it seems to work best when close attention is payed to the rhythmic interplay of the players and the melodic invention that arises from it. The pace is at times relaxed and at times more frenetic as the players wind their way down the tune's long path. Snyder uses looping devices to set up drone figures, and then both he and Thompson go balls-out or blissed out over the top of them. The guitar has kind of a "processed" sound, but the soloing is of a gritty enough nature as to keep from floating away from earth entirely. Doug plays really well in response to the calls of his duo partner throughout. The drumming is kind of Rock, kind of Free Jazz, and always highly rhytmic and inventive. Thompson never falls into the "deep listening" trap that plagues a lot of Fusion drummers, instead opting to sound like Rashid Ali or Elvin Jones if they'd been sitting in with King Crimson. Bob mixes things up between the drums and cymbals with great balance, too.
The remainder of the recording is comprised of two pieces, They Would Not Be Turned Away and The Inertia of Youth. Both feature Snyder on organ along with the percussion of Thompson. Both tunes are played in the same contemplative/improvised manner as the title track. Thompson's s drumming sets up center stage, really a lead instrument playing over top the melodic beds set up by Snyder. He taps, crashes and rolls around nicely. These two remind me a lot of the Terry Riley/John Cale collaboration that was released in the 1970's. It has the same drone-ey/psyche feel as that one.
The Rules of Play works really well for me as early morning listening, but I can see how it would be fine as late late night chill/fright soundtrack, too. I find it inspiring and hopeful that there are musicians out there with this kind of approach. My America is peopled with folks like Snyder and Thompson, making joyous or rowdy noise just for the hell of it, documenting it just in case anyone else cares, but not caring too much if they don't. If anyone out there in cyberspace reads this blog, and has a copy of Doug Snyder and Bob Thompson's debut LP, please contact me. I'd love to get a copy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jambang and the Taylor Texas Corrugators, November 14, 2008, Blake's in Berkeley

Continuing their year long road trip, Greg Ginn and his pals rolled into Berkeley on an unseasonably warm evening, setting up shop in the basement of Blake's on Telegraph. Scott and I followed suit, foregoing a chance to see Gang Gang Dance over in S.F.
Although the format of the show was exactly the same as that of their July appearance, there were differences in the sound(s). To start with, bassist Cliff Samuels is no longer with the group(s). Greg has taken over the bass chores within the Corrugators, and their sound has changed pretty substantially. As opposed to their earlier sound, which was very heavily guided by Samuel's Can-like playing, Ginn's bass lines are much bluesy-er. Greg also seems to like leaving tons of space between his notes, giving the Corrugators a somewhat easier overall flow. Steve DeLollis's drumming has benefited profoundly from this year's heavy SST approach to touring. His touch was sweeter in Jazz sense, his swing reminding me at times of the great Kevin Carnes, master drummer for S.F.'s Broun Fellinis. His approach in the Corrugators is now much funkier. Lastly, Bobby Bancalari has had to assume the sole conventional melodic spot within the band. His mandolin playing was just beautiful, at times hitting Garcia-like heights within the improv Rock of the band. His sound gives them their Jam Band stamp, and if you're inclined to enjoy that approach, you'll probably dig hearing his flights of fancy.
After a short break, during which the band essentially acted as their own road crew, setting up the video monitors for Jambang's multimedia aspect, Greg strapped on his guitar and led his new fave project through their set of synced-up-to-samples sounds. Obviously the lack of live bass has somewhat of a detrimental effect on the overall Rock bottom end of Jambang's spectrum; their new approach allows for the listener to be really transported by the extreme high end tones that they generate. Towards the end of their set, during which I believe to be the song The Big Bang, Jambang achieved really psychedelic lift-off, with guitar and mandolin locking in tight with Steve's motorik drumming, all three elements delivering an amazing, minutes long locked groove. It was awesome, and had me pinned to a wall, eyes closed and mentally tripping. That's what Jam bands are good for, right?
I guess Jambang and the Taylor Texas Corrugators will be heading back to the Lone Star State soon, hopefully in order to take stock and do some new recordings. Greg Ginn remains an innovative and creative musician, and I'm happy that I was able to hear him live again. Gang Gang Dance will have to wait. I probably wouldn't have been wearing the correct pants for that show, anyway.
Thanks Scott and Melissa, who both asked, "what happened to your blog?"