tributes and tributaries (part 2)
It’s become the music industry equivalent of "Reality TV": the Tribute Disc. It doesn’t require a lot of messy new songwriting, and plenty of name artists are always willing to sign on and make a quick buck. Does it matter whether these musicians are familiar with or even have a feel for the music they’re recording? Not really: Just pop into the studio, sing the song that’s handed to you and take home a check. Yes, it’s a cold business, but occasionally something interesting results just the same.
In its brief stay on Earth, House of Blues Records alone brought us blues artists doing Songs of … concept discs devoted to Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Now a blues purist (who, moi?) might look at the idea of pairing Carl Weathersby with "Good Times, Bad Times" or Syl Johnson with "Me and Bobby McGee" and think "why bother?" Yet, from a listener’s point of view, these sets were generally successful.
In the case of the Led Zeppelin tribute, many of the tunes were written by Willie Dixon or Memphis Minnie anyway, and they were simply being returned to the blues idiom — albeit in "contemporary versions" evidently considered more palatable to modern tastes — by interpreters like Robert Lockwood Jr., Magic Slim, James Cotton and Otis Rush, whose Cobra recording of Dixon’s "I Can’t Quit You Baby" was what inspired Plant, Page & Co. in the first place. The repertoires of Dylan, Joplin, Clapton and the Stones were also heavily influenced by the blues, not to mention that they featured some flat-out great songs.
So, all in all, this was pretty innocent, if non-essential, stuff and not without moments of inspired alchemy. But as we get older and, alas, more cynical, we learn that no good deed goes unpunished: There’s always a huckster ready to take a somewhat novel concept and milk it dry. Think I’m exaggerating? Look what’s coming down the pike …
From a recent press release:
Blues Tribute to Alice Cooper Due July 8
With All-Star Line-Up of Blues and Rock Notables
Heavy Hip Mama Records has slated July 8 as the release date for its next release, an Alice Cooper tribute album. Following on the anticipated success of its Aerosmith tribute album, the forthcoming release Welcome to My Blues Nightmare features bluesy versions of Alice Cooper’s songs.
This is the second release in the label’s Blues on Fire series. "While some ‘purists’ don’t consider Alice Cooper’s music to be blues, we think that’s narrow-minded," says Heavy Hip Mama Records label spokesperson Alonzo Smith. "After all, Alice Cooper’s band features plenty of loud electric guitar. I mean, isn’t that what the blues is all about?"
Indeed. And here you thought it had something to do with emotional expression and the essence of soul. You almost missed the bus there, bucko, but luckily Heavy Hip Mama came along to set us straight. And check out some of the artists who get a payday from this one: Otha Turner’s Mississippi Fife and Drum Band with Steve Vai, John Lee Hooker with Robben Ford, Pat Benatar with Pinetop Perkins, Michael Stipe with both Buddy Guy and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra (on "Welcome to My Nightmare") and B.B. King. Talk about twisted roots! So what do you think? — maybe your 14-year-old kid will want to slap on some Otha Turner when he gets home from the latest stop on Alice’s "Bite the Neck of a Live Chicken" tour?
OK, that’s pretty extreme, but we have other examples that have been piling up in the Rooster’s barnyard of musical delights.
Whether you thought Jim Morrison’s lyrics were pure poetic genius or puerile, post-adolescent rantings, you would have to admit that it was the force of his personality and performance art that elevated the Doors above the level of a journeyman rock band. What Opening the Doors: The Blues Tribute to the Doors (CMH CD-8560) brings us instead is Blues as Elevator Music. Self-described as "a musical portal to a stunning collection of richly-textured instrumental soundscapes … an indisputable breakthrough in the realm of tributes," what’s inside is more like "Music Minus One." The various trumpet, saxophone and harmonica leads are fairly laughable attempts that in no way emulate Jim’s in-your-face vocal style. I assume from their sound that keyboardist John Nau, guitarist Rich Meijer, trumpeter Mitch Manker and company are competent Los Angeles studio guys with a high level of musicianship, but the amount of blues feeling they bring to the session couldn’t resuscitate a tsetse fly, much less bring eyesight to the blind. Saxes, harps and slide guitars do not a blues crew make.
The other effort by this questionable assemblage, Takin’ It Easy: The Blues Tribute to the Eagles (CMH CD-8593), is beyond insipid. So-called blues instrumental interpretations of an oh-so-slick country-rock group? It makes me want to grab producer Jim Doyle and say, "What were you thinking?!?" If I were that kind of person, I might also want to take whoever is ultimately responsible for this dreck and cuff them roundly about the head and shoulders: The fact that, like a bad commercial jingle, I haven’t been able to get "Witchy Woman" out of my head is indictment enough. And yet there’s more, Eagles fans: Versions of "Life in the Fast lane," "Take It Easy," "Hotel California" and "Already Gone" are among the hits you can wash down with your Tequila Sunrise. For me, it will take much stronger stuff to get the taste of this one out of my mouth. I can hardly wait until they give that richly-textured, gutbucket treatment to … the Carpenters?
Having bit the necks of these dead-on-arrival turkeys, I figured I would have to pace myself to muster up the bile necessary to stomach Beatles Blues: The Blues Meets the Beatles (Indigo [UK] IGOXCD 539). Imagine my surprise to find this a rather charming effort from top to bottom. But, as the Beatles — like the Stones — revered and emulated American R&B in their emerging years, this wasn’t quite such a stretch. Early Beatles LPs are peppered with songs by Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, Leiber & Stoller and Arthur Alexander.
Apparently producer Fred James’ initial reaction upon being approached to do the project was the same as mine, but he came to see it as an exciting challenge, and the 11 musicians who take on 15 Lennon/McCartney favorites all give a creditable effort. Among the highlights: Stan Webb’s singing and guitar on a slowed-down "She Loves You," Paul Lamb’s harp instrumental take on "Norwegian Wood" and Earl Gaines’ soulful rendition of "Oh Darling." James gives "Why Don’t We Do It in the Road" a Bo Diddley interpretation, and Ruby Turner puts a Motown twist on "You Can’t Do That." The one Beatles tune that cries out above all for a blues treatment is Lennon’s impassioned "Don’t Let Me Down," and Charles Walker’s delivery should disappoint no one. (As an obscure footnote, though, the all-time cover of this one was done in the early ’70s by Canadian folkies Alan Fraser and Daisy DeBolt. It’s virtually impossible to find the record today, but if you can track down a copy your detective work will be well rewarded.)
When Keith Richards first went over to Brian Jones’ apartment and listened to the Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers LP, he was sure that he was hearing two guitars. Keith told biographer Victor Bockris, "You think you’re getting a handle on the blues and then you hear Robert Johnson — some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing at the same time, you think, ‘This guy must have three brains!’" Nobody has ever improved on those classic recordings made over 60 years ago, but plenty have tried to put their own stamp on them.
Two recent collections, both subtitled "Songs of Robert Johnson," bring some of today’s top blues people to the task. Dealin’ With the Devil (Cannonball CBD 29117) places 11 artists in front of the acoustic backing of Corey Harris (guitar), Mudcat Ward (bass) and Per Hanson (drums), plus Harris himself out front on "Walkin’ Blues." Overall this lends a laid-back feel to the performances. Nothing wrong with that, but it creates a plug-and-play sameness from track to track that mostly limits the individual differences to vocal style alone, and this easy-going approach omits the visceral element that was so evident in Johnson’s originals. The only real attempts at toughness come at the very end, from Guy Davis on "Stones in My Passway" and Colin Linden’s "Preachin’ Blues," but they’re preceded by a set of "perfectly amiable" performances from Debbie Davies, Eddie Kirkland, Sue Foley, Pinetop Perkins, Paul Geremia and others. Lovers of those Johnson recordings from the ’30s might consider this one "RJ-Lite."
Hellhound on My Trail (Telarc Blues CD-83521) comes closer to Johnson’s vision simply because of the inclusion of his venerable contemporaries Honeyboy Edwards ("Traveling Riverside Blues") and Robert Lockwood Jr. ("I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man"). But don’t think that means you’ll be getting the same-old same-old here: In contrast to the Cannonball release, the various readings on this disc feature a stripped-down, immediate approach that lends a more personal touch to each tune. Seven of the 16 cuts feature one singer and one instrument, while others have sparse accompaniment from James Cotton, Carey Bell or Chris Thomas King. Bob Margolin and Pinetop Perkins take turns supporting each other on guitar and piano, respectively. Perkins reprises his performance of "Sweet Home Chicago" from Dealin’, but Margolin’s Chicago-style electric guitar provides a lot better fit than the acoustic trio. Some of the other standouts are King’s "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" and "Come On in My Kitchen," Joe Louis Walker on "Dust My Broom," Susan Tedeschi with slide guitar backing by Derek Trucks on "Walking Blues" and Alvin "Youngblood" Hart’s work on the title track, with sympathetic harp from Cotton.
Nothing really beats great songwriting. It’s no accident that Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Leiber & Stoller, Lennon & McCartney, Rogers & Hammerstein are so ubiquitously covered in American popular music. They were all able to create songs with timeless and universal qualities that lent themselves to a nearly infinite range of musical styles. Seemingly lost in the psychedelic circus that surrounded the Grateful Dead was the exceptional quality of songcraft represented by the band’s chief writers, Robert Hunter (words) and Jerry Garcia (music). Hunter’s lyrics were layered with multiple meanings and imagery that evoked some alternate folk Americana, and it wasn’t unusual for members of the audience at a Dead concert to get sudden flashes of new meaning from songs they might have heard dozens of times.
Enter Jerry Lawson, Joe Russell, Jimmy Hayes, Jayotis Washington and Raymond X. Sanders, collectively known as the Persuasions, with Might As Well … The Persuasions Sing The Grateful Dead (Grateful Dead/Arista GDCD 4070). These titans of a cappella have conjured a gospel-rooted, soul-inflected spirit out of the work of a continuum of composers that ranges from Kurt Weill to Sam Cooke to Elvis Presley. "Some songs, to us, just sound like ‘Persuasions’ songs," says lead vocalist Lawson. "We hear ’em and we know they’re for us. These Grateful Dead songs — they’re Persuasions songs."
From a list of 30 songs suggested by Hunter and producers David Gans and Rip Rense, Lawson selected a dozen Hunter-Garcia compositions, another by Hunter alone, one by guitarist Bob Weir ("One More Saturday Night") and the beautiful traditional hymn "And We Bid You Goodnight," which the Dead learned from a 1965 recording by Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence with the Pindar Family.
Lawson’s taste and sensibility prove to be unerring here. The group simply puts the songs on like comfortable clothes and wears them like their own. Among the choice renditions are "Ripple," "Sugaree" (given a bit of a "Soul Serenade" touch), a rocking "One More Saturday Night" and the sad, sweet closing duo of "Bid You Goodnight" and "Black Muddy River."
The flip side of the Tribute Disc is what I call the "tributary" disc. Within the past year, Connoisseur Collection (UK) has released three of these CDs that present the original blues and R&B recordings of songs popularized by the Blues Brothers, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. All three discs come with 19 or 20 tracks packaged with liner notes that deliver what you want to know about the recordings and how they came to be covered.
Here ’Tis (VSOP CD 297) is for Clapton fans who’ve been around long enough to remember the records EC made with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers and Cream. Given the huge success of From the Cradle, Eric’s personal homage to his blues heroes, ’tis surprising that only two songs from that disc are represented here: Eddie Boyd’s "Third Degree" and Muddy’s "Standing Around Crying." The title track is a heartily obscure Bo Diddley tune that’s never made it onto any of Bo’s various Chess/MCA "Best of" sets, but then neither have many of the other songs from the forgettable Bo Diddley’s a Twister LP. The Yardbirds somehow came across it and turned it into a crude rave-up.
You’d also have to own some Yardbirds albums to know that Clapton played on their covers of Billy Boy Arnold’s "I Wish You Would," Chuck Berry’s "Too Much Monkey Business," Howlin’ Wolf’s "Smokestack Lightnin’," Ernie K-Doe’s "A Certain Girl" and Slim Harpo’s "Got Love If You Want It." Other artists represented include Freddie King, Memphis Slim (with Matt "Guitar" Murphy), Otis Rush, Bobby Bland, Johnny Otis and J.J. Cale. No stiffs in that bunch.
The Rolling Stones, perhaps more than any rock’n’roll band, created a worldwide awareness of the kind of sweaty, rough-and-ready R&B they were hearing on records from the States. "When I started out," Muddy Waters told Victor Bockris, "they called my music ‘nigger music.’ People wouldn’t let that kind of music into the house. The Beatles started, but the Rolling Stones really made my kind of music acceptable."
And Keith Richards told Stanley Booth in Keith: Standing in the Shadows, "We weren’t about to let this music go down the tube. What turned us on was Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly — we’re rock’n’roll freaks, basically, except we’ve felt we missed out on some grounding. And so we went back to sort of research and find out where the hell the music came from. I had heard plenty of blues in my time, but not played like that, not raw … You don’t get ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ from nowhere. Nothing comes out of nowhere. These cats been listening to some shit, whether they know it or not, that has produced this."
You Can Make It If You Try (VSOP CD 296) leans heavily on blues, soul and rock’n’roll recordings made during the incredibly fertile period between 1957 (Buddy Holly’s Bo Diddley-styled "Not Fade Away," the title track by Gene Allison and Slim Harpo’s "I’m a King Bee") and 1966, when Irma Thomas recorded "Time Is on My Side." (And after hearing her hair-raising version you’ll understand why she was so upset about the Stones’ cover coming out and killing the sales of her original that for decades she refused to perform the song.)
Lots of what’s on here is familiar, particularly if you have you have a lot of Chess reissues in your collection, but Alvin "Shine" Robinson’s delightful "Down Home Girl" hasn’t made it onto many compilations, and Eric Donaldson’s inceptive "Cherry O Baby," a reggae number from 1971, has also largely gone unheard.
The Blues Brothers were a Saturday Night Live joke that took on a life of its own. Even John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd must have been astounded at the reception their satire of a blues band received. As singers, they were pretty damn good comedians, but they surrounded themselves with top-shelf musicians and showed great taste in the songs they chose to cover. Hit It … (VSOP CD 295) contains a few not-so-rootsy numbers ("Peter Gunn Theme," "Rawhide," "Ghost Riders in the Sky"), but it is also one of the few places you can hear the Chips’ 1956 Josie Records rendition of "Rubber Biscuit," Floyd Dixon doing "Hey Bartender" or the Five Dutones’ "Shake a Tail Feather" from 1963. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Junior Wells, Johnny Taylor and lots more contribute to the fun — which is, after all, what the Blues Brothers were all about.
Maybe not as much fun as a B.B. King and Marilyn Manson, Together Again for the First Time album, or Pat Benatar Does the Bessie Smith Songbook, but we can still dream.