Song of the Week – Sail On, Zephyr; Alexis, The James Gang; Post Toastee, Tommy Bolin

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Tommy Bolin was a great guitarist.  He would be much better known and recognized if he hadn’t died 45 years ago at the age of 25.  Yes, that’s right – he was only 25.  He didn’t even make it to the 27 club with Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and Cobain!

When you read reviews of the groups he played with (Zephyr, The James Gang, Deep Purple) they often comment on the lack of top notch material but always acknowledge Bolin’s guitar playing as a highlight.  It didn’t help that his stints with The James Gang and Deep Purple followed the departure of other well-known guitarists (Joe Walsh, Ritchie Blackmore) at times when the bands were in decline and receiving much less attention from the press and fans alike.

But even at his young age, he had the chops to play and record with fusion giants such as Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon.

Bolin also released two high quality solo albums — Teaser (1975) and Private Eyes (1976) – before he died in December 1976.

Here’s a sampler of his recordings through the years:

Zephyr was a pretty tight band that could move in and out of straight rock and jazz influenced music, as “Sail On” demonstrates.  But the band suffered from Candy Given’s overwrought, screechy vocals.

“Alexis” begins as a ballad but just before the 3 minute mark it turns heavy and becomes a vehicle for Bolin to solo and squeeze gallons of emotion from his fretboard.

“Post Toastee” has a cool riff and acts as a vehicle for some extended soloing by Bolin that show off both his fusion and rock influences.  It was a favorite show closer on his last tour.

So, my ultimate goal here was to bring some notice to an overlooked and often forgotten guitar talent.  I hope I succeeded.

Enjoy… until next week.

Charlie Watts, a tribute

Ben Sisario has a lovely piece about Charlie’s music and place in the music world in the NY Times today. Read it here. (It’s one of my 10 monthly “gift” links, so maybe it will work for nonsubscribers.)

The Watts story is one of thwarted desire, but the fulfillment of professional duty. He’d have preferred to play with Charlie Parker, but if he had to play with the Stones? Obviously yes.

My favorite factoid. He collected cars but never learned to drive. Evidence against his supposed lack of decadence.

My favorite personal anecdote. Sometime back in the 80s I took my friend Mo to JFK. He was flying off to Germany. In the International Departures section we ended up sitting next to Charlie and his wife, Shirley, on some banquettes on a long corridor. It was hard not to look, but also embarrassing to be seen looking. Mo was a master of such moments, gave a wave of acknowledgment, and said Hi. Charlie and Shirley politely said Hi back, and then we went back to our waiting. More comfortably.

For me the magic of the Stones was the way the pieces fit together in surprising and completely agreeable ways. Charlie fit that aesthetic to the t.

Song of the Week – Through a Window, Euphoria

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

One of my favorite “hidden classics” is Lee Michaels’ Carnival of Life.  I featured a SotW from that album way back in late 2012.

Although Michaels is known for his work behind the keyboards (organ, piano, harpsichord), one of the best parts of Carnival of Life is the guitar playing by Hamilton W. Watt.  But who is Hamilton W. Watt?

Trying to answer that question sent me down an internet wormhole.  First I landed on this interesting obituary:

Hamilton W. Watt Obituary

And by the time I came out, I had discovered a terrific album that I hadn’t heard before – A Gift from Euphoria, by Euphoria.

Euphoria was a duo made up of Watt and William Lincoln.  They were signed to Capitol Records and made one album that was released in 1969.  That album has become a cult classic among record collectors.  (No, I don’t own a copy!)  It is well regarded for the eclectic mix of styles that are executed so well.  The album has symphonic ballads (think Moody Blues), hippy country rock (like The Byrds), psych, and songs that integrate sound collages (like The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”).

Today’s SotW – “Through a Window” – is the cut that makes the best use of Watt’s guitar prowess.

After listening through the whole album a couple of times I happened to pick up my copy of The MOJO Collection – The Greatest Albums of All Time, and guess what?  A Gift from Euphoria is represented in the section for 1969!

To fully appreciate this album, you should listen to it all the way through.  It isn’t available on Spotify, but the full album can be found on YouTube.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – It’s Different for Girls, Joe Jackson

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Joe Jackson entered the music scene with the release of Look Sharp!, in 1979. He and fellow Brits Elvis Costello and Graham Parker were lumped together as punk rockers (or maybe new wavers) by the music press.  But all three were more aligned with the pub rock scene (as was Nick Lowe and Rockpile).

Look Sharp! contained the evergreen “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” along with several other songs that were popular on college radio.  Seven months later, still in 1979, Jackson released his second album – I’m the Man.  That disc has one of my favorite Jackson cuts – the beautiful “It’s Different for Girls.”

“It’s Different for Girls” was much more popular in the UK than the US.  It reached #5 in the UK but couldn’t break into the Top 100 here in the US.  I don’t get it.

The verse has a beautiful melody that floats over a simple two-note guitar pattern.  The lyrics are a gender bending take on which of the sexes is more permissive.  Stereotypically the girl (not woman in this song) is “holding out” and the guy is ready to jump into bed at the go.  But not in this one.

What the hell is wrong with you tonight
I can’t seem to say or do the right thing
Wanted to be sure you’re feeling right
Wanted to be sure we want the same thing

She said,
I can’t believe it
You can’t
Possibly mean it
Don’t we,
All want the same thing
Don’t we,
Well who said anything about love

So then, what is “different for girls?”  I think Jackson is twisting the typical male attitude that boys are different because they aren’t emotionally tied to sex.  But it’s the girl in this lyric who says “Who said anything about love?”

Jackson went on to record and release a few, more sophisticated, jazz influenced pop albums that yielded hits such as “Steppin’ Out”, Breaking Us in Two”, and “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want).”

But by the late ‘90s Jackson had turned away from pop and began to focus more on classical music.  He still performs and released an album, Fool, as recently as 2019.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Mother Freedom, Bread

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

The ‘70s hit band Bread was known for their soft rock, love ballads, sung by David Gates.  Besides Gates, the core of the band included Jimmy Griffin (vocals, guitar, keyboard) and Robb Royer (bass, guitar, keys and other instruments).  For many, including me, Bread is a guilty pleasure.

But that’s not the whole story of this band.  They had chops and could really rock out.  Take, for instance, the lead track from their fourth (and best) album, Baby I’m-a Want You (1972) – “Mother Freedom.”

By this point, the great LA session musician, Larry Knechtel, was the full-time bass player, replacing Royer.  (Knechtel played the piano part on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” and was on the sessions for many classic albums, including Pet Sounds, The Doors, Mr. Tambourine Man, and Alone Together.)

“Mother Freedom” clocks in at under 3 minutes but rocks with a funky riff, some nifty solo guitar work, and exciting vocal harmonies.  Freedom from guilt!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Waitin’ for the Bus and Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers, ZZ Top

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor Steve Studebaker.  Steve leads Blind to Reason as their guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter.  Their music streams on Spotify.  Besides BTR, Steve is a musicologist and huge ZZ Top fan.  So when I learned ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill died this week, I knew just the guy to call on to pay tribute to him for the SotW.

Anyone who knows me knows I love the blues, and blues rock — Zeppelin, the Stones. Robin Trower, Allmans, et al.  But the band who got me going at a young age was ZZ Top. That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.

I saw them for the first time as a teenager in 1975 on the ‘Fandango’ tour.  I was about 20 feet from the stage at the Portland Memorial Coliseum.  Always with great style, their stage was empty except for the drums, flanked on either side with a huge row of Marshall stacks re-branded as “Rio Grande” amps.  Billy and Dusty powder blue sequined cowboy suits and ten-gallon hats.  They tore the roof off the joint.  My ears rang for days and my mind was blown.  I’ve seen them several more times, most recently a couple of years ago with my younger son.  They never disappointed.

Formed in the late sixties and just recently celebrating 50 years together, they managed to play original music that sounded like classic blues.  Texas blues in the style of Albert and Freddie King.  They played loud but with finesse; hard edged but always a little bit funky.

Both Billy Gibbons and Dusty were known for a minimalist style.  Exactly the right note at exactly the right time.  Perfectly in sync and in the pocket, with no unnecessary fluff.

Here’s an example.  If you want to hear the baddest, funkiest, opening 30 seconds in classic rock, put on their third album Tres Hombres. The first cut is “Waitin’ for the Bus”.  Billy starts off with a blistering lick on his Les Paul (named Pearly Gates), and then Dusty walks in with the drums 3 bars later.  Magic.  Turn the volume way up!

Of course guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons gets the lion’s share of accolades.  Rightly so.  Jimi Hendrix called him one of the world’s greatest guitar players.  But a bass player in a power trio has to carry the load.  He’s the glue that holds the drums, guitar, and vocals together.  Dusty Hill did all of that and more.  Throughout their discography you’ll hear syncopated, polytonic bass parts that other arena rock bands want no part of.  Dusty sometimes sang backup vocals, but ironically he sang the lead on their biggest radio hit, “Tush”.

In my book, their greatest albums are the aforementioned Tres Hombres and their sixth album Deguello.  But every one of their records has a radio hit, with tasty licks, funky rhythms, and more than a few psychedelic desert sojourns.

Legend has it that the first time Billy and Frank met Dusty, he passed out and fell off the barstool.  They looked at each other and said, “He’s gonna fit in just fine.”

In that spirit, check out cut 3 on Tres Hombres.  It’s another great bass performance, as he and Billy do “call and response” vocals.  As you listen, raise a glass to Joseph Michael “Dusty” Hill.

If you want the whole story check out the documentary That Little Ol’ Band from Texas on Netflix.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Busload of Faith, Lou Reed

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor Michael Paquette.  It’s his third post this year!

This song seems even more relevant now than it did when it was released in 1989.  Lou Reed’s 15th studio release New York was highly critically acclaimed.  It even spawned a reunion of the Velvet Underground due to its popularity.  The Village Voice rated it the third best album of 1989 in its annual Pazz and Jop critics poll.

Lou Reed had a bit of a rocky period before being signed by Seymour Stein to his Sire label in 1989.  Sire records had earned a reputation for its progressive taste and having the ability to translate those tastes into mainstream media.  The label propelled the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Smiths, the Pretenders, the Cure, and Depeche Mode.  Notably, the label signed an underground dance artist from New York named Madonna and turned her into a superstar.  Lou Reed definitely fit the model.

New York is a stripped down, raw, and hard hitting album.  The band consisted of Lou Reed, guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Rob Wasserman, and drummer Fred Maher.  Lou reached out to Maher who had been playing in England with the band Scritti Politti, a new wave act.  Maher was behind the drums on Reed’s New Sensations release.  Lou asked Maher who might be a good producer and Maher, noting that Reed had had several tempestuous relationships with former producers responded with “how about me.”  Thus, Maher produced this release.  The album was done in six weeks and Maher said he found Lou easy to work with.

The raw, stripped down sound was not to everyone’s taste.  The singer songwriter James McMurty asked John Mellencamp what he thought of the work and Mellencamp replied that it sounded like it was produced by an eighth grader but I like it.  The AIDS epidemic was raging at the time of the release and these were people Lou Reed had long standing ties to, gays, IV drug users, and artists.  The song “Halloween Parade” pays homage to this era.

The song I chose from this breakthrough work is “Busload of Faith,” a song that is conceptually bold and simple. A stark reminder of where we are in this politically divided nation.  

The song opens side two and begins without apology.

You can’t depend on your family

You can’t depend on a beginning

You can’t depend on an end

You can’t depend on intelligence

You can’t depend on God

You can only depend on one thing

you need a busload of faith to get by

When the album was recorded Lou had given up drugs and alcohol.  With his life turned around he felt he had the stamina and concentration to produce a concept album.  The album was a great artistic success for him even though it was not a huge hit.  It remains my favorite album of this legendary artist.  It was voted the 19th best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine.  Lou performed all the songs on the album at the Theatre Saint-Denis in Montreal which was released as a DVD entitled The New York Album.

It was released as a box set in September of last year with a second CD of previously unreleased live performances of his 1989 tour and some alternate mixes.  Bob Seger covered “Busload of Faith” on his 2017 release dedicated to Eagles’ Glenn Frey called I Knew You When. This song continues to work as a political anthem.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the highway accident that took the life of Harry Chapin.  He was only 38 years old.  He was one of the good guys.

Chapin used his celebrity to do good.  He worked tirelessly to end world hunger through his work with Bill Ayers and as a member of the Carter Administration’s Presidential Commission on World Hunger.  His work in this regard was inspirational to the organizers of Live Aid, USA for Africa, and Hands Across America.

By the mid-’70s Chapin, half of all of Chapin’s performances were benefit concerts.  It has been said that he never rejected a request to perform at a fundraiser for just about any cause.  In 1977, he did a fundraiser for filmmaker Michael Moore to help Moore launch The Flint Voice, a Detroit area underground weekly newspaper that covered issues important to the progressive left.

Today’s SotW is Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

The “story song” that’s about a dad who regrets he never prioritized spending time with his son when the shoe is on the other foot and his grown son doesn’t have time for him.

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I can find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

“Cat’s in the Cradle” has more cultural references than just about any song ever written.  It has been namechecked in The Simpsons, The Office, and Modern Family.  Check out this link for a more comprehensive list of references.

On July 16, 1981, Chapin’s car was in a collision with a semi-trailer.  His car burst into flames.  Passersby were able to drag him out of the car but his body was without proper ID.  However, a pocket watch in his possession helped to identify him.  The watch was a gift from Michael Moore to Chapin for the help he provided back in ’77 with an inscription that was the key.  It read “From the Flint Voice. To a great American, Harry Chapin.”  Yes, indeed!

Enjoy… until next week.

The Veronicas, “Untouched”

Here’s the tune..

I’m not sure I’ll ever play it again. I’m pretty sure I never heard it before tonight.

It’s from 2008. It hit No. 17 on the US Billboard charts, but even though I had a nine year old in the house it didn’t make an impression on me. But what’s striking is the speed (fast), the strings (aggressive), and the guitars (really aggressive).

Couple it with some plain talking lyrics and an oddly effective chorus and I’m not sure why it didn’t make it to No. 3. Maybe because it’s from Australia.

In any case, this post isn’t a recommendation exactly, but a nod to the idea that the pieces of great songs and great ideas can also end up in pieces of commercial product that might actually have some personality to it.

I think I will listen again.

Song of the Week – Maggot Brain, Funkadelic

Ignored            Obscured             Restored

Today’s SotW is different.  It is the title cut from Funkadelic’s album, Maggot Brain, first released 50 years ago this week!

What’s so different about it?  Well, it is essentially an extended, psychedelic guitar solo by the late, great Eddie Hazel.

The album was recorded while Funkadelic leader George Clinton was on acid, and it shows, especially on the title track.  As MOJO tells the story:

Rumour has it that Clinton had discovered his brother’s decomposed body lying in a Chicago apartment with a cracked skull – hence the Maggot Brain – and he locked guitarist Eddie Hazel alone in the studio with the brief to play “like your mother just died”.  Hazel did just that producing an anguished, fragile, nine-minute guitar solo that rivalled (sic) Hendrix…”

Though Clinton later disavowed the “maggot brain” part of the story, he did coax an amazing guitar performance from Hazel.  He told MOJO:

“When he started playing, I knew immediately that he understood what I meant.  I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web.  When we played the solo back, I knew that it was beyond good, not only a virtuosos display of musicianship but also an unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music.”

“Maggot Brain” came in at #60 on Rolling Stone’s 2008 list of 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

Hazel died at the too-young age of 42 in 1992.  “Maggot Brain” was played at his funeral.

Enjoy… until next week.