Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the RILLY rill thang

Repeated contemplation of the "Cosimo Matassa Story" box set (incidentally, Matassa is STILL alive and well and apparently holds court at Matassa's Market,1001 Dauphine St., NOLA) led me to go on a Little Richard jag (as his biggest hits were recorded at Matassa's J&M Studios) and buy (and read) Charles White's biography as well as the ultra cheap 5 CD "5 Classic Albums" set...the latter being indispensible for the faithful as it collects all his pre-hit recordings, all the work from his most successful period, and then the gospel he devoted himself to immediately after his retirement from pop; admittedly casual fans will probably find all but except the Specialty recordings pretty dispensable.

For months, I toyed with dipping into Richard's early 70's oeuvre especially "The Rill Thing" cut at Muscle Shoals with the house band -- then some of the savviest, funkiest players on the planet. There were lots of ecstatic reviews posted at Amazon and the circumstances surrounding this project certainly SHOULD have yielded a smokin' album.

On the evidence of his live performances (witness the festival film "Let The Good Times Roll" or the DVD of his set from the Toronto Peace Festival) he clearly was in fine voice. Moreover this inarguably was an apt backing crew who could channel the home-cooked blues and gospel that had originally formed Richard's musical persona (check out the Muscle Shoal production on the Staple Singers' "Be Altitude") and frame that as FM radio-friendly post-rock 'n' roll.

I finally broke down and ordered the $7 Collector's Choice reissue of "The Rill Thing" (rather than the MUCH pricier the Rhino Handmade box set of ALL his Reprise recordings, the others being usually described as non-essential), it arrived and I gave it a batch of eager listens, eventually concluding that it was creditable but ultimately disappointing.

As I'd speculated, Richard's vocal performances are exemplary - raw, powerful, emotionally galvanizing. It's the repertoire that underwhelms, being largely bland and pro forma...even the Muscle Shoal Swampers could only inject so much sass and character. And not quite enough to redeem most of the material.

There are some exceptions. "Dew Drop Inn" is a paean to the legendary Rampart Street venue that nurtured many of NOLA's great R&B and rock 'n' roll performers It was co-written with Esquerita, one of Richard's early influences, and reprises the structure of his seminal NOLA-recorded sides while updating the basic sonic vocabulary, but strategically, selecting contemporary elements of style most solidly connected to seminal rock 'n' roll. Interestingly enough, the one hit this album yielded "Freedom Blues" is another co-write with Esquerita, and while this one is framed more substantially as current "rock" it's still smartly flavored with vintage touches. Another highlight is his take on "Greenwood, Mississippi" written by Travis Wammack who also contributes blazing guitar here. Once more, the song is an obvious descendant of music Richard loved as a youngster; it's a bit more Country than the rest of the album, but classic Country & Western music was essentially blues performed by white artists who added the influence of the English ballads that'd been passed down in their families for generations. So Richard's performance plugs C&W back into its blues roots with explosive results that presage the sound of the nascent Southern Rock movement.

The rest of the material is afflicted that going-thru-the-motions feel endemic to much of the music from this time period. Rock had become big business, a profession, and musicians who'd started out with something vital to say about the wonder, the mystery, the challenge of living, had said it all -- but had to keep saying SOMETHING to keep earning a livelihood. They had the knowledge and skills to to keep producing conventionally accomplished material but very little of it was exciting, revelatory or the even vaguely necessary. Sadly, "The Rill Thing" by and large was no exception.