Patti LaBelle is a consummate performer who has delighted fans for over five decades with her incredible audible stylings, multi-octave vocal range and dynamic performitivity. This new release, Patti LaBelle Live in Washington, D.C., recorded during a 1982 promotional tour for her albumThe Spirit’s In It, captures her incredible, legendary performance while showcasing her ability to relate emotionally to her audience. The tapes of this concert languished in Gamble & Huff’s vault for nearly three decades, and are now being released for the first time.
LaBelle was first introduced as a member of the Bluebells in 1962. That same year they scored their first Top 40 pop hit with the doo-wop single, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.” It wasn’t until 1974 that Patti LaBelle revamped the group by re-naming them Labelle. They began to dress as space, rock, funk goddesses and sang about sex and politics; a feat no other female group had attempted. In 1975 the song “Lady Marmalade“ hit #1 on the Hot 100, becoming Labelle’s best selling single and putting them on the map. When Patti LaBelle went solo, she followed the same groundbreaking approach.
I have seen Patti LaBelle perform live many times, and she effortlessly connects with her audience through sheer, raw talent that is never presented as pretentious or pompous “grand diva” theatrics. She certainly engages her audience in this concert, performing fresh arrangements of her most well-known classics such as “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Lady Marmalade,” and “You Are My Friend” with storytelling that makes each performance unique and new. Production and musical qualities are exceptional. Unlike other live concert recordings, there are no edits or breaks that negatively affect the performance, which is allowed to flow seamlessly from beginning to end.
Though categorized as a soul/R&B singer, Patti has sung various genres of music, including rock, funk, gospel, and country. She always brings soul and emotion to her songs, and possesses the qualities of performance and showmanship necessary for longevity. Listening to Patti LaBelle Live in Washington D.C. is a wonderful experience. The album provides diehard fans of Patti LaBelle with new arrangements of classics and serves as a great introduction for the novice fan.
Tyscot Records serves up a progressive, in your face with “the real” urbanized, contemporary and traditional musical testimony with Brent Jones and The T.P. Mobb’s latest release, The Ultimate Weekend. As the image on the front cover suggests, this album (their third) will transmit the Gospel from the walls of the church to the street corners and broader outside world. Featuring 17-tracks (15 if you subtract tracks 9 and 17, which are comical theatrical transitions), the compact disc will attract the new school listener from the beginning.
The opening track, “The Ocean,” creates a reflective worship environment that pulls on one’s heartstrings, as Brent Jones contemplates the greatness of God as the creator and provider of the universe. The song takes the listener into a reverent place through a musical vehicle steeped in a secularized, musical styling reminiscent of the group Tony! Toni! Toné! “Spectacular Jesus” is a tribute to Jesus Christ that incorporates earthy, urban lyrics such as “You’re off the chain” and “You are the Man.” This track illustrates how one can serve God in a meaningful way, in his or her own style. “Stone Love” presents a lyrical illustration of God’s love for His creation-true and unconditional-while incorporating a mixture of musical elements derived from soul ballads and Sunday morning worship service.
For those who like their praise couched in old school grooves, Jones and the T.P Mobb have a store of goodies for you. For instance, “Give Him What He Wants” will definitely get your hands raised for the purpose of a call out to God. The groove of this track consists of a ’70s funk foundation that conjures up a “dance and praise” in the basement feel. “I Don’t Wanna Go To The Club” presents a yearning to dance, though not in a secular club. This track borrows from the 1984 dance groove “Egypt Egypt” by Egyptian Lover, and will definitely put you on the dance floor in order to shout with a clean conscious and broadened notion of praise.
While Brent Jones and the T.P. Mobb present an urban contemporary gospel sound, they do not neglect traditional worshippers. For instance, “Cry Holy” is a live recording, which again creates the feel of Sunday morning, reflecting the style of earlier contemporary gospel ensembles such as The Tommy’s. “Blessing With Your Name On It” is a churchy ballad that goes even deeper, stylistically, into the Sunday morning atmosphere. “Praise Break” further demonstrates Jones’ awareness of the traditional Sunday morning worship service and quintessential gospel music message-one’s trying social conditions can be resolved through perseverance and praise.
Put succinctly, The Ultimate Weekend is a must have for the eclectic music lover who seeks to experience various artistic expressions of worship.
Editor’s Note: The Ultimate Weekend is also available on a DVD (TYS-984163-9) which features additional songs not included on the CD.
Posted by Tyron Cooper
YouTube video of “Cry Holy,” courtesy Tyscot Records:
Of the various ingredients that go into making a music recording masterpiece, the following items are likely to be placed at the top of the list: the selection of highly skilled yet creative musicians who excel in the selected musical genre; musicians who complement one another within the musical recording unit; and a recording environment conducive to optimal performance. All of these features are realized in Cassandra Wilson’s self-produced recording, Loverly. The performance represents a return to Wilson’s jazz and blues roots, following her more pop influenced recent releases, such as Glamoured (2003) and Thunderbird (2006). In Loverly, as in Wilson’s earlier jazz recordings, the singer is both the centerpiece and a collaborative ensemble player. Her presence is palpable but not overbearing, leaving room for, and even welcoming, creative interplay between the various members of the ensemble.
Wilson’s voice and musicianship are in superb shape. Singing in tune and at ease, she transforms the repertoire into her own artistic statements, occasionally laughing, moaning, snapping her fingers, or cueing the band with verbal comments from the background. At a few points during the recording, she comfortably wanders to a corner of the room where she briefly sings, accessing the acoustics of space and environment available to her. The recording environment itself is key, taking place in a rented house in Wilson’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, away from the more stressful surroundings of New York where most (if not all) of the musicians reside.
The ensemble is comprised of mutually familiar musicians who have played with one another in various groups and situations, in some cases, reaching back over a decade. Mostly grounded in the jazz idiom, they each bring unique strengths. In particular, pianist Jason Moran, a brilliant virtuosic improviser, inspires rather than overpowers on jazz standards such as “Lover Come Back to Me” and “Caravan,” as well as the jazz reinterpretation of the popular film tune, “Gone with the Wind.” Guitarist Martin Sewell dominates on the two blues tunes with a funky rendition of “St. James Infirmary” and a slide guitar basis for “Dust My Broom.” A driving rhythmic undercurrent between drummer Herlin Riley and Nigerian percussionist Lekan Babalola is laid out on the recording. The ensemble is completed with Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and there are guest appearances from bassist Reggie Veil and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
In all, Loverly is one of Wilson’s best recordings to date and a welcome return to her roots. Loverly indeed!
Title: Raw Footage
Artist: Ice Cube
Label: Lench Mob Records
Catalog No.: 509992 34635 23
Release date: 19 August, 2008
Ice Cube is influential. He knows it. He is fully aware of his music’s effect. Remember 1988, when N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” incited panic attacks among non-listeners everywhere? As one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap, Ice Cube embraces the power of his rhymes and isn’t afraid to use them to spread his gospel. After all, according to “It Takes a Nation,” he’s been rapping for 22 summers and knows the influence his music has. So, cover your kids’ ears, because he objectifies women and advocates violence, right? Actually, no. Scratch the surface of Raw Footage and a clear message emerges: don’t be what people expect you to be.
Exemplifying this attitude is the first single, “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” which is a scathing, ironic rejoinder to all those who blame the genre for school violence, the Iraq war, drug problems, global warming, and whatever else seems to be the hot-button topic these days. The track is catchy and the lyrics are thought-provoking, often citing recent political or social controversies: “If I call you a nappy-headed ho, ain’t nothing to it – gangsta rap made me do it.” The music video (available uncensored on Ice Cube’s official website) would make Michael Moore proud: Ice Cube’s rapping is interspersed with footage of O.J. Simpson, the Bushes Jr. and Sr., victims of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and dozens of other incendiary clips that seem to pop up at the most appropriate moment in the lyrics.
Other tracks, such as “It Takes a Nation,” “Hood Mentality,” and “Stand Tall” are more straightforward but no less provocative. Ice Cube warns his listeners not to fall victims to the system, not to rely on No Child Left Behind for an education, and to break away from low expectations set by outsiders. The lurching beats and Ice Cube’s fiery delivery in “It Takes a Nation” beg to be played at top volume, while the ’70s-style synth brass and Hammond organ underscoring “Stand Tall” are eloquently juxtaposed against a very 21st century message. While not as politically charged as some other tracks, “Here He Come” (featuring Doughboy) and “I Got My Locs On” (featuring Young Jeezy) are crisply engineered. “Thank God” and “Get Use To It” (featuring W.C. and The Game) will still blow the roof off clubs with their catchy choruses and pumping beats.
In case listeners aren’t prepared to listen to Raw Footage actively, Ice Cube enlists Keith David to deliver spoken soliloquies throughout the album. David, of Ken Burns’ documentary fame, has a voice as distinctive as it is attention-grabbing, and his frequent interludes will snap wandering ears back to attention. Of course, Ice Cube could certainly keep listeners enthralled all by himself, but in delivering a message as sharp and contemporary as he does in this album, it can’t hurt to call in some backup.
The album is as richly textured as it is contemporary in its message. After gangsta rap and its followers have incited and been blamed for inciting so many reactions and so much negativity in the last twenty years, it is refreshing to hear one of its high-ranking members respond. In Raw Footage, Ice Cube bites back. And it feels so good.
Title: All Rebel Rockers
Artist: Michael Franti and Spearhead
Label: ANTI/Boo Boo Wax
Catalog No.: ANTI 86906/89-2
Release Date: September 2008
In his sixth studio release, All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti digs deep into the dub/reggae pocket and pulls out legendary “Riddim Twins” drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. From the moment the needle drops you can tell that Sly and Robbie produced this project. Franti has collaborated with the Riddim Twins in the past, but this time he “wanted that groove and a toughness to the rhythm” that just simply drips from a full-on Sly and Robbie production. Recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Franti’s home base, San Francisco, this album takes the listener by the seat of the pants and gets your body rocking.
Franti is known for his social political lyrics and, with guitar and microphone in hand, he juggles the identity of singer, songwriter, musician, author, activist, documentarian, and new millennium bard. Born and raised around the Bay area, Franti’s love for music escalated during college at University of San Francisco, when he lived above the college radio station. In 1989, he formed the Beatnigs, an industrial punk band with DJ Rono Tse, and achieved minimal local success. In 1991, Franti continued his collaboration with Tse, forming The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Adding the guitar of Charlie Hunter, The Disposable Heroes broke through with in-your-face lyrics that dealt with social injustice fused to an industrial/hip hop sound. The success of their first album eventually led to an opening spot on the U2 Zoo TV tour and a project with novelist William S. Burroughs entitled Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.
In 1994 Franti formed Spearhead along with bassist Carl Young. Spearhead moved away from the industrial/hip hop sound to a more soulful funk-oriented style, while retaining the socially conscience ideology. Franti released Homeand Chocolate Supa Highway on the Capitol label before deciding to start his own label, citing differences with Capitol over artistic direction. In 2000, Franti released Stay Human on his label Boo Boo Wax under the name of Michael Franti and Spearhead (necessary because Capitol still owned the rights to the name Spearhead). Stay Human dealt with issues of prison reform, corrupt politicians, corporate globalization, and more poignant issues related to maintaining self respect and dignity. In 2003, Franti released Everyone Deserves Music, which featured songs that he had written in the aftermath of 9/11. This album was both reactionary and therapeutic, with songs that dealt with the shock of 9/11 as well as songs that were written in order to cope with the fear of the changing world.
In 2004 Franti embarked on a documentary project in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel in order to put his “money where his mouth is.” Franti felt if he was going to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq that he needed to have firsthand experience. The result of this was the film, I Know I’m Not Alone, in which Franti talked to the culture bearers, the poets, artists, musicians and everyday people, including the soldiers, in order to show the human cost of war. Franti continued to write songs during his trip to the Middle East, which resulted in the 2006 release Yell Fire!. This album had such a distinct reggae feel to it that they were re-classified as a Reggae group. Franti collaborated with Sly and Robbie on this album and it seems only natural that he would continue this relationship on his new album.
All Rebel Rockers features the Spearhead core group: Carl Youngand Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums, and Raliegh J. Neal, II on keyboards. Michael is backed by several very special guests including Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne and Jamaican soul/dancehall star Cherine Anderson. The album gets right to the point with the first track “The Rude Boys Back in Town,” a song that requires a decent audio system due to the deep bass and Dub effects that will shake your body to the core. The first half of the album is extremely danceable with themes ranging from social ailment, political injustice, economic woes and lovers’ laments. My personal favorite is the track “Say Hey (I Love You),” a song that is so catchy it will stick with you for days. Following is the promotional video from Anti Records:
The album also features several songs that fuse a heavy rock style with reggae/dub rhythm, which seems reminiscent of Franti’s early work with the Beatnigs. He has been quoted saying that he wants to give the revolution a dance party soundtrack, and he clearly states this on the track “Soundsystem.” Franti has taken the protest song to the next level by giving it a “beat you can rock your soul to.” He then shows a very personal side with “I Got Love for You,”a song that he wrote as his eldest son was preparing to go out on his own for the first time. As with most of Franti’s albums, the last track is one of hope. “Have a Little Faith”does not disappoint, and seeks to reassure the listener of the commitment Franti has to his audience.
Franti’s music is always in a state of evolution, from punk to funk to reggae/dub, it seems to really represent the complex fusion of identities in the growth of the musician and the man. His commitment to humanity led him to organize the annual Power to the Peaceful festivals in San Francisco and Brazil. He has also been named an Ambassador of Peace by the World Health Organization. “At six-foot-six, he’ll grab the mic, and take you to another level.”
Maestro, Taj Mahal’s newest album, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of his self-titled debut with an exciting assortment of guests, including Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, Ben Harper, and Toumani Diabate. Their collaborations account for the more eclectic tracks on this album, including the reggae-infused “Black Man, Brown Man” (penned by Taj Mahal and previously recorded for his 1976 album, Satisfied ‘N’ Tickled Too), and “Zanzibar,” which features the kora, a West-African harplike instrument. “Never Let You Go,” on which Taj Mahal plays the ukelele and is backed by Los Lobos, recalls certain soulful rock and R&B tunes from the 1960s, such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge), “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum), and “Maybe” (Janis Joplin).
Roughly half of Maestro, however, comprises uptempo songs based on the standard twelve-bar blues format. These blues-based numbers are often laced with humor, and may deviate from expected harmonic patterns. The opening track, “Scratch My Back,” features a rhythmically jaunty musical arrangement and playfully suggestive lyrics; these qualities remind me of another famous “humorous” blues song, Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.” In “Dust Me Down,” written by Ben Harper, the twelve-bar blues format illustrates its capacity for endless reinvention; quirky chord substitutions contradict, but do not undermine, the expected harmonies, yielding an edgier musical construction to complement the heavily distorted guitar that drives the song.
In my opinion, “Strong Man Holler” is the strongest selection on Maestro. It is the only slow twelve-bar blues (more or less) on the album, and is remarkable for the poignant vocal timbres Taj Mahal achieves as he moans in the lowest part of his register. The verses of this song, moreover, are remarkable for treading the boundary between singing and heavily rhythmicized speech.
The biggest pitfall of Maestro is in its production. Although several individuals shared production duties, the sound they achieved is too homogenous. Distorted guitars and the Hammond B3 organ dominate the sound, leaving the other instruments to coalesce quietly in the background. Thus, Toumani Diabate’s virtuosic kora playing on “Zanzibar” sometimes gets lost in the texture, as does some of Taj Mahal’s banjo playing throughout the album. In all, I recommend listening to Maestro, but I fear that its overly homogenous sound, as well as its occasionally generic songwriting, may cause its allure quickly to become used up.
Posted by John Reef
Promo video featuring an interview with Taj Mahal provided by Heads Up International:
Afrissippi’s Alliance represents a skilled fusion of Mississippi blues and Senegalese musical traditions. Guelel Kumba, guitarist and lead vocalist, is a member of the Fulani from the Futa Tooro region of West Africa. Not content with restricting his musical efforts to learning the molo (a one-stringed guitar) and several centuries worth of griot songs and oral traditions, Guelel also picked up the six-stringed guitar, fell in love with delta blues, and—following an invitation from Eric Deaton—moved to North Mississippi to study the work of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.
Upon his arrival in the States, Guelel and Deaton quickly drew together a number of other musicians, including Kinney Kimbrough, Papa Assane M’Baye, and Justin Showah, and formed Afrissippi. Although the group released its first album, Fulani Journey, in 2006 and has a large fan following, its efforts have received scant attention from www.allmusic.com and Amazon, both of which have stuffed Afrissippi’s albums into the rather non-descript “world music” genre. Even Wikipedia seems to have passed them over. At least the Fund for Folk Culture has proven more attentive and in 2007 it awarded Guelel with a grant to support the recording and release of Alliance.
For the most part, the album leans more heavily to the Senegalese side of the musical spectrum. The blues’ influences are the heaviest on “Singha,” “Ngoppe Kam,” and “Debbo Ndoogu,” where the guitars take on a grittier American sound. In the case of Debbo, the rhythms, harmonic patterns, and Guelel’s vocal timbre are solidly in the blues’ tradition and the drum kit nearly overpowers the ever-present sound of the saubaru. For the most part, however, the singing, ostinato guitar parts, and laidback rhythms are more reminiscent of Senegal than Mississippi. “Raas” even drops the guitars in favor of a more traditional combination of solo voice and polyphonic percussion. The final track of the CD consists of a heavily reverbed version of “Gede Nooro,” sung solo and a capella by Guelel.
The one fault of the promo copy is an utter lack of liner notes. Hopefully this isn’t the case with the officially released version. Not understanding Fulani—or even being certain that Guelel is actually singing in Fulani—it’s difficult to comment on the lyrical content of the CD. Although translated lyrics aren’t necessary for enjoying the album, it does leave room for speculation on the part of listeners and a few online sources have already commented on its “ancient” feel and “future primitive” vibe. With the exception of “Raas” and “Gede Nooro,” the album really falls more towards popular as opposed to traditional Senegalese music. Although Afrissippi’s promotional material does encourage some degree of exoticization as a marketing ploy, it would be nice to balance this out with a bit of cultural information within the album itself.
All and all, Afrissippi is a good band that definitely deserves more attention than it’s currently receiving. Hopefully this recent release and the band’s 2008 United States tour will push it more into the limelight.
From the opening wah-wah chords on Buddy Guy’s new release, Skin Deep, the legendary guitarist demonstrates why he’s been an influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and numerous other blues players on the south side of Chicago. While he often professes reverence for his role models, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, the torch was passed long ago when it came to guitar heroes.
What’s hard to understand is how, at age 72, Guy hasn’t exercised more creative control before now. In press materials accompanying this album of all original material (he wrote or co-wrote seven of its 12 tracks), he claims this is the first time he’s had such freedom and control.
Better late than never. This is a fun, down deep and dirty album from start to finish.
Skin Deep takes listeners back to the traditional blues Guy has been identified with for nearly a half century, after a recent series of otherwise fine albums whose only flaw was their occasional leanings toward catering to guest performers—such as Carlos Santana and John Meyer—and their fan bases. While Guy is again joined by esteemed guest performers on Skin Deep—including Susan Tedeschi , Derek Trucks, Eric Clapton and Robert Randolph—their collaborations pay genuine homage to the blues genre.
A good example of this is Randolph’s searing steel pedal guitar performance on the sixth cut, “Out in the Woods,” which Guy penned and says hearkens back to one of his signature songs, “The First Time I Met the Blues.” Guy literally was born in the woods of a plantation near the small town of Lettsworth, Louisiana.
As Guy sang on the seminal recording, recorded at Chess studios in the 1960s, “Blues, you know you ran me, ran me from tree to tree. Yes, you shoulda heard me beg ya, blues. Ah, blues, don’t murder me.”
Today, as a survivor, “with wolf blood in my veins,” he takes Randolph and the listener back in place and time to the swamp where “the crocodiles and the foxes and the grizzlies, they all know me by my name.” The interplay between the two guitarists vividly conjures the imagery of rattlesnakes and alligators of his sharecropping youth that he sings about.
“I ain’t afraid of nothing,” Guy intones. “The boogieman start running when he hears me coming.”
As you hear Guy and his guitar growl, believe it.
Age can bring wisdom and Guy’s reflection on the wounds of racism, the title cut “Skin Deep,” may have simple message, “underneath we’re all the same,” but Guy’s soulful delivery makes one take pause to ask why more people can’t apply this simple truism. Interestingly, Guy says the inspiration for the song was his being reunited recently with a white childhood friend whose parents had cut off their relationship as teens.
Much can be written about the interplay between Guy and his protégé, Clapton, but on perhaps one of the most interesting cuts, Guy raises a question about the ones who make the blues: “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes?” After presenting a review of those who came before him in the blues pantheon, Guy turns things over to up-and-coming pre-teen guitar phenom Quinn Sullivan. One of the last of his generation, Guy learned at the feet of Otis Rush and Muddy Waters. He doesn’t answer the song’s question but allows the youngster to give us something to think about.
By the time you get the closing track, “I Found Happiness,” you believe Guy when he says that he has.
Title: Live at the Haunted House
Artist: Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Label: Rhino Handmade (limited edition)
Catalog No.: Rhino 7771
Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were a popular L.A. group in the 1960s. Heavily influenced by James Brown, Otis Redding, and groups such as Sly & the Family Stone, they were known for performing R&B covers as well as original songs that helped to define the emerging funk genre and forge a distinctive L.A. sound. They first achieved national recognition as the back-up band on the Bill Cosby albums Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings (1967) and Hooray for the Salvation Army Band (1968), and were signed to Warner Bros. Records shortly thereafter.
From 1965 to 1968, Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were regulars at the Haunted House, a popular Hollywood nightclub. Though known as a venue for upscale bands, the interior of the Haunted House was high kitsch, with monster props and a stage configured as the giant head of a beast that spouted steam from its nostrils (perhaps not coincidentally, this was the same period when the Munsters and Addams Family were TV hits). Wright wanted some live tracks for the bands’ next album, and convinced Warner Bros. to record an entire set at the Haunted House on May 18, 1968. Three songs would appear later that year on the bands’ sophomore album, Together, including “Something You Got,” “Knock on Wood,” and a cover of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” However, none of the other material from this live concert was ever released, and the three tracks from Together were heavily edited.
The Rhino Handmade two-CD set, Live at the Haunted House: May 18, 1968, features 37 tracks with complete, uncut performances that were remastered from the original 4-track tapes. In addition to Wright on guitar and lead vocals, band members include Bill Cannon and John Rayford on tenor sax, Melvin Dunlap on bass, Al McKay (who later joined Earth, Wind & Fire) on guitar, James Gadson on drums, Gabriel Flemings (a former member of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) on trumpet, and Ray Jackson on trombone and congas.
Disc One opens with “The Joker,” the only original song by Charles Wright. The remaining tracks are all covers, ranging from T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” to Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (this concert was just a few months after Otis’s tragic death). As one might expect, some of these covers pale in comparison to the originals. Many others, however, are much more creative, like the funky instrumental version of the Supreme’s “Come See About Me,” the rock guitar laced version of Willie Bobo’s “Fried Neck Bones,” a far-out improvisation on the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” and a medley on “Stand By Me” that morphs between the vocal stylings of Ben E. King, Jackie Wilson, David Ruffin, Chuck Jackson, and Howlin’ Wolf, with a little Roy Rogers thrown in for good measure.
Live at the Haunted House offers listeners a chance to experience the late 1960s L.A. club scene and revel in the sound of a proto-funk jam band performing before a live audience. Though there is some unevenness between tracks, overall the album is a great blast from the past.
Detroit group Was (Not Was), featuring David Weiss (a.k.a. David Was) and Don Fagenson (a.k.a. Don Was), has been popular in alternative circles since the release of their self-titled 1981 debut album. Known for satirical songs rendered in soulful glory by front man Sweet Pea Atkinson, the group defies categorization, running the gamut between R&B, funk, soul, and rock, and occasionally throwing in some jazz licks for good measure. Their 1983 sophomore album, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (which should be a Midwestern classic), featured guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Mitch Ryder, and, believe it or not, Mel Tormé. In 1988 they released What Up, Dog?, achieving heavy airplay with the singles “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur.” Several music videos from the album, including the title track, were also featured regularly on MTV. The last Was (Not Was) album, Are You Okay?, appeared in 1990 and included such irreverent tracks as “I Blew Up the United States” and “In K-Mart Wardrobe.”
Now, after a nearly twenty year hiatus, Was (Not Was) is back together in all its quirky glory with Boo! Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell join Sweet Pea Atkinson on lead vocals, David McMurray contributes both sax and horn arrangements, and the back-up band includes Wayne Kramer on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass, the great Booker T. Jones on the Hammond B3, James Gadson on drums, and a host of other session musicians.
The album gets off to a funky start with “Semi-interesting Week,” which includes a chorus that would make a great mantra: “So far, so good / Now I’m on some kind of streak / Yes, It’s been a semi-interesting week.” From here the group segues into “It’s a Miracle,” the kind of the retro soul number for which Sweet Pea is ideally suited, and then veers off into heavy funk on “Your Luck Won’t Last.” An acoustic piano intro leads into the haunting ballad “From the Head to the Heart,” chronicling the accidental death of a young thief. On the bluesy “Big Black Hole,” McMurray is offered a chance to shine, his wailing sax punctuating the reflective verse: “In the big black hole / I count the crimes I have committed / Just to Have a good time.” The monologue on “Needletooth” glories in its techno-inspired distortion.
The album finally returns to its funky R&B roots, unleashing the vocals of Atkinson, Bowens and Mitchell on “Forget Everything,” “Crazy Water,” and a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” It seems that every Was (Not Was) project features a surprise guest, and Boo! is no exception. The final track, “Green Pills in the Dresser” was tailor made for Kris Kristofferson, who intones in a throaty growl, “Green pills in the dresser / Grey clouds in the sky / Prisoners on the rampage / It’s Christmas in July / Flypaper headlines / The Prince is in a fix / The midgets are unruly / And the river’s turned to bricks.”
Here is the first video release from the album, a performance of “Crazy Water” ((c) 2008 Rykodisc, Inc. All rights reserved.)
The “Was Brothers” have certainly not lost their touch, offering up lyrics that are just as witty and cynical as ever. And if you’re a fan of great ‘70s R&B, Sweet Pea’s vocals will hit you like a blast from the past. My only complaint is that the fun ends all too soon, with the CD clocking in a bit under 50 minutes.
Up Jumped the Devil is an interesting idea; American “Devil” Songs traces, in a loose fashion, various appearances of the devil in American music from Jelly Roll Morton ‘s “Boogaboo” in 1928 to Gene Vincent’s “Race with the Devil” in 1956. But what is most interesting and fun about the disc are the particular songs that populate the 20-track compilation. Focusing on the 1920s through the 1950s, the CD traces the movement of American music from the more distinct genres of blues, gospel, jazz, and folk to later confluences of these styles. The mixing currents are heard in the guitar of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the jazz rhythms of Washboard Sam, and the country, blues, and gospel influences of Gene Vincent’s rockabilly.
The UK has a long history of deep explorations into American music, and the Viper label does justice to that legacy with this release. Not satisfied with repackaging the most commonly heard cuts that may have referenced the devil, Up Jumped the Devil finds more obscure cuts that make the disc worth owning.
The content ranges from county blues of lesser known guitarist “Bo Carter” Chatmon (slightly more famous for performing with his brothers as the Mississippi Sheiks), to the more famous Skip James, and, of course, the most famous connection of bluesmen to the devil, Robert Johnson. Included here is Johnson’s “Me and The Devil Blues,” rather than his more commonly anthologized “Hellhound on My Trail.” Also featured are foot stomping piano and electric guitar tracks from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Otis Spann. These rhythm and blues tracks demonstrate the driving force, the wild solos, and the groove which would fuel the debates of those who both praised and derided rock ‘n’ roll in subsequent years.
The inclusion of jazz tunes (some sounding hilariously innocuous, such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Boogaboo”) from the early part of the century also provides a broader context, illustrating how the motif of the devil played out in different genres. With the Kansas City Six, “Pagin’ the Devil” seems an obviously tongue in cheek reference to the new sounds of Charlie Christian’s electric guitar, leading the listen to believe some took the idea of the devil’s influence on music more seriously than others.
Not only is the disc a mix of genres with their attendant versions of what the devil’s influence did or did not mean, but it also culls from both black and white musical traditions. While stylistically segregated, the motif runs through both histories, which is a helpful bit of thinking since when the 1950s came along, the notions of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll blurred racial lines in music.
Up Jumped the Devil provides no clear thesis on what the devil motif means in American music. In fact, the diversity of meanings implies that a unified vision never existed. For many of the bluesmen, the devil was an explanation of their women’s wild ways, and an excuse for violence towards them, whereas with some of the jazz tunes, it could be inferred as a reckless freedom of rhythm and sound. The tracks go back and forth between musical styles and musical meanings, allowing the listening to find connections whereever they like. Similarly, the sequence of the songs is not chronological, but jumps through time and genre to provide a patchwork of Americana within this forty year span.
Comprehensive liner notes were written by Steve Hardstaff, who also did the graphic design work which is clearly influenced by R. Crumb’s illustrations of early jazz, blues, and country music.
Gene Vincent – Race With the Devil (1956)
Fats Waller – There’s Going To Be the Devil To Pay (1935)
Bo Carter – Old Devil (circa 1938)
Charlie Christian – Pagin’ the Devil (1939)
Woodie Brothers – Chased Old Satan Through the Door (1931)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – Little Demon (1956)
Byron Parker and his Mountaineers – Up Jumped the Devil (1940)
Skip James – Devil Got My Women (1931)
Fess Parker and his Royal Flush Orchestra – Feelin’ Devilish (1930)
Bessie Smith – Blue Spirit Blues (1929)
Oliver Brown – Oh You Devil You (1935)
The Clovers – Devil or Angel (1955)
Almanac Singers – Get Behind Me Satan (1941)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe – The Devil Has Thrown Him Down (1943)
Powder River Jack and Kitty Lee – Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail (circa 1930)
Washboard Sam – She Belongs to the Devil (1941)
Jack Teagarden – Putting Salt on the Devil’s Tail (circa 1941)
Otis Spann – I’d Rather Be the Devil (1954)
Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers – Boogaboo (1928)
Robert Johnson – Me and the Devil Blues, version 1 (1937)
Welcome to the October 2008 issue of Black Grooves. This month we’re featuring three Halloween specials: the Viper compilation Up Jumped the Devil: American Devil Songs 1920s-1950s; the new release by Detroit band Was (Not Was) entitled Boo!; and a previously unreleased concert by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band packaged as Live at the Haunted House: May 18, 1968. New blues albums include Buddy Guy’s Skin Deep, Taj Mahal’s Maestro, and Alliance by Afrissippi, which fuses Mississippi blues with Senegalese musical traditions. Other new releases include All Rebel Rockers by Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ice Cube’s highly anticipated Raw Footage, Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly, and Brent Jones & The T.P. Mobb’s contemporary urban gospel Ultimate Weekend. Wrapping up this issue is the previously unreleased Patti LaBelle Live in Washington, D.C., recorded by Philadelphia International during a 1982 promotional tour.