Friday, September 23, 2011

"Bobby Charles" has arrived

The "Bobby Charles" CD arrived yesterday and I was aching to bust it out the second it showed, but I knew it wouldn't function as background whilst I was working. So waited till dinner time and...initial impression that this is as prime as folks like Andy from Vetiver have been saying all along. On the surface -- it could be a buncha outtakes from "The Band." Charles sounds a lot like Rick Danko vocally if you're not listening to closely. The phrasing, the timbre. And the backing is provided by...The Band and their Woodstock running buddies who would go on to form Hungry Chuck. And then the writing...but on reflection -- there's the basis of The Band and their manager Albert Grossman (whose Bearsville label released this album) attraction to this cat which otherwise might seem odd and arbitrary.
This record was recorded in the earlier 70's and Charles' career started in the 50's and pretty much peaked by 1960, having scored hits with Fats Domino and Bill Haley both covering his songs, "Walking To New Orleans" and "See You Later, Alligator" respectively. 10+ years is always an eternity in the world of pop music. But right from the start, Charles was notable for mixing elements of downhome R&B, country, New Orleans funk and traditional Cajun music -- pretty much the same blend that The Band would utilize and strike paydirt with.
So there's an element of tribute to an inspiration or longtime hero here (and with Levon being a native of Arkansas and the rest of the band being buffs of rockabilly and other vintage music it's understandable that they'd have known his music both the hit covers and his own recordings). Often that leads to unsatisfactory results -- putting a vintage artist in a contemporary setting; it can sound a little desperate and a little pathetic. But in this case, these songs and these instrumental settings seem like a perfectly natural evolution of Bobby's fundamental artistic impulses and predilections. It'd be interesting to research whether he'd arrived at this on his own over the years, or whether on encountering The Band's ouevre he understood its relation to his previous work and comfortably made the leap then and there. It hardly matters.
"Bobby Charles" is an utterly effortless, wholly graceful and thankfully unpretentious and unselfconscious fusion of peculiarly American music styles that is as comfy and elusive as the perfectly worn pair of jeans.
PS I popped for an import copy for $5 + $3 postage rather than the Rhino boxed set. That third disc of interview material...+ single edits, etc. seemed more appropriate for a lifelong fan that had ALL his other work.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


One of the more intriguing figures on the New Orleans music scene is one Glen David Andrews. Trumpet player, vocalist, member of a number of different brass bands over the years.

Andrews had been a popular figure on the thug scene having written one of its anthems "Knock With Me" (with the Lil Rascals Brass Band). Like many he was shocked by the shooting of Hot 8 Brass Band drummer Dinerral Shavers, at the time of his death also a teacher working to get kids into marching bands and off the streets: Shavers was shot by an acquaintance of his stepson's, most likely targeting the latter and not Dinerral. Galvanized by Shaver's senseless slaying, Andrews was a key voice in the march on City Hall to protest escalating street violence that made New Orleans the murder capital of the U.S. for a while with "a per capita rate in 2006 of anywhere from 63.5 to 72.6 per 100,000 residents" (Times Picayune).

Having scored a scored a used copy of Lil Rascals "Buck It Like A Horse" I found myself oddly dissatisfied - there's certainly a lot of raucous, high spirited brass band instrumentals here -- definitely prime stuff -- but it's all overshadowed by the lead off track, the notorious "Knock With Me, Rock With Me" which is mainly group call-and-response over driving hand-percussion. Andrews has a great, gruff voice and the raw energy and excitement of the performance is thoroughly exhilerating. The lyrics meanwhile are a captivating patchwork of street slang catch-phrases like "Gimme a dime; I only got 8" that are baffling to an outsider but nonethless cause instant ear worms.

So I've been left hungry for more for a while now. Finally took a look around Amazon and the site of Louisiana Music Factory for work under his own name and grabbed the download of "Walking Through Heavens Gate" - used copies are $15, then you added $3 shipping. The other release posted at Amazon is "Dumaine Street Blues" - physical copies are $50.

"Walking Through Heavens Gate" is a total joy. With a little academic study, or just listening and paying attention you gotta know that gospel, blues, early jazz and brass band music have been inextricably interwoven all along. They each borrowed melodies, lyrics, rhythms and such from each other right from the start and throughout their history. On "Walking Through Heavens Gate" Andrews pointedly puts it ALL together in one beautifully potent, percolating package - putting his gritty, blues-drenched leads in front of a gospel choir who are in turn supported with a high stepping brass band featuring a full complement of inspired and passionate soloists, then flavoring that with hot blues guitar.

And OF COURSE it works, as any brass band worth its salt knows the hymns that are played in the funeral procession headed towards the cemetery, while the jazz tradition emerges from the lamination of ragtime playing strategies and use of layered rhythms with plangent blues tunes, which in many cases were simplifications of sacred songs. So all the relationships between these styles are spelled out, fully developed creating for an entirely explosive fusion that will kick your spirits into high gear no matter how blue or blase you might feel. If what Kanye West said about George W. Bush is true - the music on offer here would be his worst nightmare given musical form.

PS if you go to Andrews' own site - "Dumaine Street Blues" is available as a $10 download.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lee Dorsey most surely can!

Earlier this year I'd went and purchased an Australian twofer of Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can" and "Night People" album. Having devoured an Arista greatest hits that'd been languishing in my collection till the "Treme" fever was on me, I was hungry for more, and some quick online reading led me to believe "Yes We Can" would be a good choice, teaming Lee with Allen Toussaint and The Meters. The least expensive way to snag with was in this pairing with "Night People." Now, written accounts heap high praise on "Yes We Can" as an epitome of prime New Orleans funk and denigrate "Night People" as an overproduced disco sellout. And honestly I find both judgements highly misleading.

"Night People" is indeed light on patented NOLA rhythmic strategms and distinctive brand of funkiness. But rather than slick, disco what's on offer is still distinctly Southern-fried and soulful stylings, but Memphis' variants ala vintage Al Green. Lee of course acquits himself admirably as ever in the vocal department. And backing musicians include the Queen of New Orleans soul Irma Thomas on backing vocals and idiosyncratic keyboard wizard James Booker. You can hear an awareness of disco convention on "Night People" but Toussaint's strategy is more to focus on the immediate precursors to disco rather than employ the robotic beats, glossy orchestral arrangements etc. So you sense he was making overtures to the market without submitting to disco orthodoxy per se.

"Yes We Can" is a still more perplexing project. Coz, rather than the streamlined yet straightahead funk work-outs of Dorsey's hit singles Toussaint had written and produced he and the Meters created an album of unabashed art music - based in funk and other New Orleans tradition but taking it into very ambitious and, I daresay, visionary directions. The title song kicks things off merely with lethal funkitude -- establishing the mastery of the genre by those involved. And then with "Riverboat" they take it off into the great beyond. Syncopations here don't just limn out a hip shaking beat, they expand, convolute, turn in on themselves and then out again, directing the overall architecture of most songs' composition out into demanding and exotic shapes. It's not for nothing that Van Dyke Parks covered this song as well as "Occapella" on his uber-arty homage to indigenous American eccentricity - "Discover America."

Finally, "Yes We Can" emerges as one of the great American art music records right up there a "Pet Sounds" "Oar" or "Sister Lovers" only funk based.

And here's a quick list of funky art music
Shuggie Otis "Freedom Suite"
D'Angeleo "Voodoo"
Terrence Trent Darby "Neither Fish Nor Flesh" (and big hunks of everything he released afterwards)
and y'all know 'bout Prince...tho I will state that any of his albums - listened to 10 years after their initial release (and thus all media brouhaha and personal expectations have burned off) sound mighty fine.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Howchie's Muso-Nerd Record Club: #1

Bobby Charles - eponymous
As obscurities go, this one's pretty well known. It's a 1970 effort cut in Woodstock around 1970 with The Band and other habitues of the area. I may have owned it once but sold it in a great 80's vinyl sell off prompted by wife #2 aka The Junkie. I dumped lots I regret in those heady post punk days.
"Bobby Charles" has a fiercesome rep for (white) funky, swamptastic lassitude. Rhino Handmade is selling some fancy expensive version but you can get straight versions NEW for $5 and change. At some point I think Andy Cabic from Vetiver -- a BIG fan -- was going to pen liner notes for an indie re-issue a couple years back and was super stoked. But clearly WEA thought better of licensing it.
While knowing about this record, vaguely, since release, I've never had a super yen for it. But when I got the "Cosimo Matassa Story" box (a GREAT deal - TONS of superb, dirty-ass music for super CHEAP -- see earlier blog entry), Bobby got some major shout outs in the liner notes. And the man DID have some impressive credits i.e. writing "Walking To New Orleans" for Fats Domino and some other early R&B hits. So my curiousity was picqued and as I like to start at the beginning grabbed "After A While, Crocodile -- The 50's Anthology."
So this comprises Bobby's own recordings for Chess and Imperial (two major boosters of New Orleans music back in the 50's) and it's pretty prime stuff. Bobby's an incisive writer, effortlessly knocking out instantly catchy riffs and catch-phrases. His vocals tuneful but with a nice raw edge (you can understand why Leonard Chess was shocked, upon meeting him, to find out he wasn't African American). And most of these sides were cut at Cosimo Matassa's with the top players from Paul Gayten and Dave Bartholemew's bands backing him up. So you shouldn't be shocked that this sounds like archetypal R&B and early rock 'n' roll coz these musicians in fact MINTED the archetypes as they worked out the arrangements and delivered the solos and riffs for Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair as well as for local heroes and heroines who may not have got heard far outside of their home turf but the artists who did hear em grabbed onto that vocabulary and spread it far and wide.

I know that "Bobby Charles" WON'T sound like THAT but I'm betting his talent was equally applicable to other stylistic conventions and supporting casts. We'll see in a week or two!