Bluegrass In The City

Somewhere along the winding gravel road of Bob Dylan’s MusicCares Person Of The Year acceptance speech, he mentioned something that I think is profound.

The term “Hillbilly Music” was coined by Al Hopkins in the 1920’s and continued in use until the late 1950’s.  Dylan credits the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, and the Skilletlickers in his speech as examples but they aren’t the only ones.  The music itself, grown in the hills of Appalachia is a melting pot of music bringing together the music from everyone who settled America.  Although originally spanning gospel to Celtic and everything in between, the music became more synonymous with old time and bluegrass musics.  Films like “O Brother” have brought attention back to the music.

Grown in the hills and country, the music came to the city where it attracted new attention and sophistication.  Bands like the Country Gentlemen from Northern Virginia, The New Lost City Ramblers in New York City played traditional American music to a whole new audience.

Here is a cut from another New York City group, the Greenbriar Boys.  John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Bob Yellin started playing in the Greenwich Village area.  They opened for and provided backup for Joan Baez.  Given the folk circuit of the day, they certainly played along side Bob Dylan as he first showed up in New York.  This cut, “Russian Around” is one of my favorites.  A simple instrumental featuring banjo and guitar, I think it’s significant because it has one of the earliest guitar breaks I can think of that effortlessly mixes cross picking and single string styles.  Although you hear similar breaks today, this is really a ground breaking instrumental.

Enjoy

In the series “bands you missed”: Captain Beyond

Deep Purple has had eight different “marks” (i.e. different line-ups), and everybody will have their own favourite. The very first line-up is likely the most overlooked one, but many still have a big soft spot for Deep Purple “mark 1”, and I’m definitely one of them. Even though I firmly prefer the albums with Ian Gillan and David Coverdale behind the microphone, the three albums the band made with Rod Evans (vocals) and Nick Simper (bass) have a naïve and innocent charm, as well as a wonderful mesh of 60s hard rock sensibilities with symphonic overtones, that often draw me back to them.

In late 1969, Evans and Simper were both fired from Purple to make room for Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, to support a new, harder-edged musical direction. If you wondered what Rod Evans did next, read on.

After leaving Purple, Evans recorded a solo single, but even before it was released he had joined forces with Lee Dorman (bass) and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt (guitar) whose band Iron Butterfly had just imploded. They quickly recruited Bobby Caldwell (drums) from Johnny Winter’s band. The classic version of Captain Beyond was complete.

Captain Beyond played a mix of hard, blues-based rock which at times bordered on 70s-style heavy metal, other times leaning more towards progressive rock with time signature changes and virtouso instrumentation. What set them apart was their tendency to incorporate certain moods, with several calmer, athmospheric melodic sections. Those who liked what the Evans-led version of Deep Purple did may like Captain Beyond well, because the bands were not exactly miles apart.  They were based in Los Angeles, and had several high-profile fans – including Duane Allman, and it was on his recommendation that the band were signed to Capricorn Records.

The first album was simply called Captain Beyond, and was released in July 1972.

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Side 1 contains a collection of independent songs, while side 2 is one long piece with songs loosely connected (not too dissimilar to the Beatles’ famous “Abbey Road suite”) and should ideally be listened to as a complete, singular piece.

The album opener, Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air) showcases the band’s typic blend of atmosphere and hard rock:

The track Raging River of Fear is a great showcase for the mighty hard rock groove that the band could whip up:

Armworth is one of the shorter songs on the album, and I must admit to having a big weakness for the wonderful harmonizing guitar leads you hear in the opening section:

The second album, Sufficiently Breathless, was released in the fall of 1973.

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This turned out to be a very difficult album for the band, and even though they still kept going for a while after its release, the recording sessions were in reality the beginning of the end for the classic line-up of Captain Beyond. The record label started putting a somewhat bizarre pressure on the band to move towards a “southern rock”-type sound. The label had just had a gigantic hit with the Allman Brothers‘ “Eat A Peach” the year prior, and wanted Captain Beyond to capitalize. The band, to their credit, largely resisted, but it created unneeded pressure on the guys. The band had also switched drummers prior to the recordings, but were pressured by the producer to switch again midway through the album. The studio also turned out to be sub-standard, which gave them all kinds of technical problems. All in all this wasn’t a happy time, and the band members started taking their frustrations out on each other. Eventually it got to be enough for Rod Evans, who went back to England in the middle of the sessions. He was eventually coaxed into returning to add the remaining vocal tracks. Amazingly, given the challenges, the resulting album was still pretty good, but definitely a step down from the debut.

The song Evil Men is amongst the better ones from the second album, and one of classic rock’s great lost tunes in my opinion:

Despite the difficult recording sessions, the band stuck together throughout 1973, when they toured the US extensively. This resulted in a lot of good shows and the tour generally went well, despite limited promotion of the album and an ice cool relationship with the label at this point. At the end of the year, with all commitments fulfilled, Rod Evans left the band again – this time for good.

Several years later, a new version of the band appeared with their third and final album – 1977’s Dawn Explosion.

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This album was definitely made to be played on US radio, with strong AOR/melodic rock sensibilities. Willy Daffern was the new vocalist, and the song Breath of Fire is a good example of how the band sounded with him:

In any case, the early albums are the key ones for Captain Beyond, and they were a great live act. Given that, what better way to round off this epistel than with a great clip of Captain Beyond live in Montereux (Switzerland) in September 1971 – just a few months before Rod Evans old bandmates came to town and created rock history with Smoke On the Water. But never mind that – as we’ll see, Rod Evans has the biggest cow bell of them all.

In the series “bands you missed”: Quatermass

The band Quatermass was formed in London, England in 1969. You never heard of them? No surprise, as they were not around for very long. But for a few years, they mixed progressive rock and psychedelia with the traditional brand of hard rock that rose to popularity in the early 70s.

The band consisted of John Gustafson (bass/vocals – primarily known for his tenure in Roxy Music and Ian Gillan Band), Pete Robinson (keyboards/piano – later known for working with Phil Collins, Mike RutherfordBryan Ferry and Eric Clapton), and Mick Underwood (drums). Underwood started out playing in The Outlaws with guitar player Ritchie Blackmore (later Deep Purple), moved on to Episode Six containing Ian Gillan and Roger Glover (both later Deep Purple), and later foolishly turned down an early offer from manager Peter Grant to join “a new band based around Jimmy Page from the New Yardbirds” (as we know, that job eventually went to John Bonham). At least he’s always been busy working, and is probably mostly known for playing on Ian Gillan‘s string of best solo albums between 1979-83.

As you’ll note from this overview, one interesting aspect of this band was their decision to not have a guitar player in their line-up. This certainly gave them a unique sound. It no doubt hurt them, though, as the late 60s/early 70s was the start of the era of the guitar hero.

They released their self titled album in 1970.

Quatermass

Apart from a few singles with non-album tracks, that album was their entire recorded work. At least until a follow-up (Quatermass II) appeared out of the blue in 1997. Note that this follow-up is heavily disputed and usually not regarded as a full-fledged Quatermass album, with drummer Underwood being the only member from the early days and – the shock! the horror! – with a guitar player added to the line-up!

The 1970 album has recently been reissued on CD in a great digipack with bonus tracks, which also includes a DVD with documentary material and video clips.

The band never ‘made it’, and struggled to get attention. Competition was certainly stiff, as their album was released at a time when several legendary bands launched classic albums. Perhaps the Quatermass album wasn’t equipped to compete with the Deep Purples, Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the world. Their mix of keyboards/bass-based progressive psychedelia was certainly at odds with what was going on at the time, and they never had a bona fida rock star frontman/personality on the same level that other bands had. As a result, the band never became more than a footnote in rock history, and they were only active between 1969-71. But the one album released by the classic line-up has long been an underground favourite amongst fans of music from this period.

Their most known song is without question Black Sheep of the Family – thanks to Ritchie Blackmore! The song was actually the catalyst for Blackmore leaving Deep Purple in 1974. Blackmore had become such a big fan of the song that he insisted Deep Purple should record it. When the rest of the band declined, he borrowed musicians from the band Elf (including an as of yet unknown Ronnie James Dio on vocals) to form a solo project to record it as a single. As we now know, this went so well that it grew into a new band called Rainbow, and the rest is history. The song can be found on their debut album Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow from 1975.

Quatermass’ original version of Black Sheep of the Family:

While this is a great version of the song, I must confess I think Rainbow’s cover is the best one:

Other Quatermass tunes worth a listen includes Make Up Your Mind, which is melodic and catchy enough that (at least in my mind) it could have been a minor hit for them. Except… it is over eight minutes long!

One Blind Mice is a single-only track, which you can see at least partially performed in this rare live clip:

I leave you with Up On the Ground, which shows that Quatermass managed to whirl up a mighty rock groove when they wanted to – even without the aid of a guitar:

The Quatermass album will likely never become the centerpiece of your record collection, but if you’re a fan of rock music from the formative late 60s/early 70s, it may be an interesting and worthwhile addition.

In the series “bands you missed”: Zebra

Some of you may be aware of a band called Zebra. Yes? No? You can hear a faint bell ring? They were a household name in rock circuits in the US for about five minutes in 1983, but have since faced into obscurity. They were never really well known in Europe or elsewhere, but released a few albums that are well worth investigating.

Hailing from New Orleans and founded in the mid-70s, they quickly rose to local fame with a sound typical for its time – 70s melodic hard rock, musically in the same neighbourhood as Cheap Trick, early REO Speedwagon (forget the blockbuster ballads that came later!), Rush, Blackfoot etc.

It took years before they were signed, and their debut album Zebra was not released until 1983. It was produced by Jack Douglas, known for the albums he made with Cheap Trick and Aerosmith. He later also produced the follow-up.

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The debut album is without question Zebra’s magnum opus, and some of the gems on this album includes And I’ve Said Before:

The song most people would remember from back in the day (if any) would certainly be Tell Me What You Want, which was a moderate hit on MTV:

A melodic gem from the first album, in the form of the ballad Take Your Fingers From My Hair:

Perhaps my favourite is the final cut on the album, which ends in grand style with The La La Song. Sporting elaborate vocal arrangements and perhaps a more progressive sound, you can definitely hear shades of the band Yes here:

Just one year later, in 1984, they launched the follow-up No Tellin’ Lies, which is almost (but not quite) as good as the debut.

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Some of the highlights from this album include Wait Until the Summer’s Gone:

Another one – Drive Me Crazy:

A third album, 3.V, followed in 1986. This marked a new, more radio-friendly direction in a desperate attempt to ‘make it’. Suffice to say, it failed. It still contains traces of the band’s classic sound, but it’s clearly watered down. With the uncomfortable change in musical style this is the album you should check out last.

Can’t Live Without is probably the track from 3.V closest resembling the earlier sound:

The band went on hiatus until 2004, when they came together to record a final album – Zebra IV. This is a much better end to their recording career, with the classic Zebra sound more or less reinstated.

Arabian Nights from Zebra IV:

If Zebra is a new aquaintance, it’s relatively easy to catch up as they only ever released those four albums (a compilation and live album aside). The band has come back together for sporadic live appearances over the last few years, and their albums were also recently re-released in remastered, extended editions, available on CD, digitally or through streaming services such as Spotify. The two first albums are definitely worth checking out.

Saluting the greatness of Wanda Jackson, the primeval Riot Grrrl

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It’s amazing how much musical history from the 20th century has been lost to time. Nearly as amazing is how much has been restored via the ‘Net and YouTube in particular.

If you know me, you know how much of a soft spot I have for women who play guitar. They are my weakness. I partially blame Wanda Jackson. Wanda Jackson is one of the most underrated rock-n-roll musicians of all time.

Dismissively called the female Elvis, Wanda Jackson was the original Riot Grrrl. When Wanda Jackson rolled through your town, the town’s temperature changed. When Wanda Jackson came to town, the oil wells blew, mens’ hats flew off their heads, and mothers covered the eyes of their sons. Wanda Jackson set fire to your town and left only smoldering embers before she left to destroy the next town with her brand of rockabilly/country. Ms. Jackson knows more about life than you have learned in your time on this mortal coil.

I met her when I was a kid. She smelled nice.