Monday, July 30, 2012

ZML^2 - Reinterpreting The Blues

Requisite Intro: Since this is the first time I'm using this blog for my ZML^2 posts, I believe an introduction is in order. As I explained previously on my other blog, Zharth's Music Log was an exciting project I worked on several years ago. For one full year between 2007 and 2008, I picked a theme every week and posted one song per day relating to that theme, with some information about the song and how it relates to the week's theme. It was a lot of fun, and a great, low-stress way to relive some of the excitement of programming a radio show, which I haven't done since I graduated college.

No doubt, choosing a song every day for a whole year is a lot of work (it's not much fun if I don't put any thought into it), so when the year was done, I was happy to take a rest. But there are still some themes I've got up in my head that I'd like to do some day, and every once in a while, I get the urge to bring back Zharth's Music Log, just for a single theme. And today, the theme is Reinterpreting The Blues. Enjoy!

Reinterpreting The Blues

Rock 'n Roll gained a foothold in American culture in the 1950s, with artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. By the 70s, album-oriented rock was firmly entrenched in the culture. But the 60s was known for the British invasion, where many a talented British artist picked up on American roots and rock music, reinterpreted it their own way, and then presented it fresh to new audiences. It's no secret that a large portion of rock n' roll was inspired by the American blues tradition; many of the elder statesman of classic rock have openly and proudly admitted their debt to the legends of the blues. Muddy Waters himself, who penned the song that gave The Rolling Stones their band name, once said, "the blues had a baby, and they called it rock n' roll." Let's explore some of the most well-known classic rock tracks that are based on a strong foundation in the blues, yet that demonstrate the talent and creativity that rock artists brought to the table, reinterpreting the blues and giving it a new life all its own.

Cream - Crossroads [Wheels of Fire, 1968]
Comments: With the release of Eric Clapton's album-long tribute to Robert Johnson, Me And Mr. Johnson, in 2004, Clapton's dedication to the legendary bluesman (who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil) became recorded history. But all the way back in 1968, with the power trio supergroup Cream, Clapton recorded one of his most enduring hits: Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues. You couldn't be faulted for not recognizing it as one of Johnson's songs; it was loud and it was heavy, and it was brimming with a rock n' roll energy that betrayed the haunting, acoustic quality of Johnson's recording. But it was an astoundingly successful - and unique - interpretation of a song from one who has become, quite possibly, the most inspiring and influential blues artist in history. Cream was also known for their rousing cover of Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign, and Howlin' Wolf's Spoonful, which they developed into a long and impressive live jam centerpiece.

The Doors - Back Door Man [The Doors, 1967]
Comments: Hailing from the L.A. scene, Jim Morrison's talent as a lyrical poet didn't prevent him from covering a few blues songs with The Doors, and among other influences, the blues was definitely one of the ingredients that went into the melting pot that produced the band's unique sound. On their debut album, they recorded an immensely popular cover of Howlin' Wolf's Back Door Man, where Wolf's characteristic howlin' vocals (he didn't get that name for nothin') are substituted by Jim Morrison's impassioned ravings. The Doors also covered a song popularized by John Lee Hooker - Crawling King Snake - on their most blues-influenced album, L.A. Woman.

George Thorogood - One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer
[George Thorogood and The Destroyers, 1977]
Comments: Speaking of John Lee Hooker, George Thorogood was an excellent match to cover Hooker's boogie style, while introducing a rather harder rockin' edge. Thorogood's popular hit One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer is actually a seamless amalgam of two blues songs, Hooker's House Rent Boogie, and the track's namesake, which was an even older song popularized by John Lee Hooker. One of George Thorogood's other really popular songs is Who Do You Love?, written and originally recorded by Bo Diddley, who was immensely influential among many burgeoning rock artists.

Foghat - I Just Want To Make Love To You [Foghat, 1972]
Comments: This is another track you couldn't be faulted for not recognizing as the blues. Hearing Foghat's popular hits on the radio, you wouldn't think they were heavily influenced by the blues, but they were. But they had such a unique and driving sound, it's a perfect example of how a rock band can take the blues and turn it into something fierce. Case in point, one of their biggest hits, released on their debut album, was I Just Want To Make Love To You, which is one of many songs penned by Willie Dixon, and originally recorded by Muddy Waters. But Foghat totally makes it their own, far surpassing the original.

Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love [Led Zeppelin II, 1969]
Comments: Led Zeppelin is one of those bands whose blues influences were pretty darn obvious. Or were they? The band has been criticized as frequently 'burying the lead' in terms of being less than straightforward about their sources of inspiration, but many of their songs, history has revealed, are heavily based in the blues. Among the more obvious ones (to the discerning listener) are The Lemon Song (Howlin' Wolf's Killing Floor, sneakily renamed, with some other influences peppered in), Bring It On Home (which combines an effective Sonny Boy Williamson imitation with a wholly original rock composition), Muddy Waters' You Shook Me and Otis Rush' I Can't Quit You Baby (both penned by Willie Dixon and recorded for Zeppelin's bluesy debut album), and a more or less straightforward (for Led Zeppelin) rock update of Robert Johnson's Traveling Riverside Blues.

But here I present you with one of the band's most popular songs from their entire catalog, which is cleverly based on another Willie Dixon-penned/Muddy Waters-recorded song, this one titled You Need Love. And though the arrangement borrows from another rock band's previous interpretation of the song (The Small Faces), Zeppelin adds enough of their own unique flair to make the song a rock n' roll tour de force. (For more information about Led Zeppelin's musical influences, see The Roots of Led Zeppelin Project)

Ten Years After - Good Morning Little Schoolgirl [Ssssh, 1969]
Comments: Ten Years After were, lamentably, not as popular as they deserved. Perhaps because their songs often overreached, not infrequently on account of frontman Alvin Lee's frenetic and drawn out guitar solos (though one of the reasons I so love the band). But they had lots of excellent rock hits to their name, many of them blues-inspired (but most of them admirably original in content). Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is one perfect example of a fairly simple traditional blues song (by Sonny Boy Williamson), covered to less fanfare by many other bands, that in the hands of Ten Years After was transformed into a rock n' roll force of nature. The band did the same thing with another simple blues, Help Me, by the second bluesman to adopt the name Sonny Boy Williamson.

Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return) [Electric Ladyland, 1968]
Comments: This is another track that, without the right listening experience, you might never have guessed was based on a blues tune. But on the album that it was released, there was another song with a similar title ("Voodoo Chile") that reveals the connection. That track is an extended jam that very obviously plays off of the Muddy Waters song Rollin' Stone. And where Voodoo Chile is an extended improvisation on that song, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is a further distillation of the theme, transforming it into an almost entirely brand new song, which has the honor of being one of the fiercest guitar songs in rock history, by one of rock's most talented and influential guitarists of all time. But what remains underneath all of that innovation is the very simple riff from Muddy Waters' song, flipped on its head and turned up to eleven. This is what they mean when they say that rock n' roll was born from the blues.

Afterthought: Honorable mention goes to two songs that seem at best only vaguely related to the blues, but whose titles very conspicuously suggest two popular blues tracks, by two veteran bands of the classic rock era: AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long [Back In Black, 1980]; and Steppenwolf's Rock Me [At Your Birthday Party, 1969] (which recalls the song Rock Me Baby that B.B. King made popular).

Back To The Garden

Back To The Garden is a compilation serving two complementary themes. I started putting it together because I was in need of something thematically appropriate to listen to on long car rides driving out to naturist resorts. Thus I began picking out songs honoring the natural life, depicting the need to escape the modern urban sprawl, and the inevitable damage mankind is doing to Mother Earth. The theme is summed up perfectly by the line from Joni Mitchell's song about Woodstock, where she sings, "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden" - the garden being, presumably, the Garden of Eden, where Mankind originated, and from whence was exiled after committing the Original Sin leading to the Fall.

The idea being, that it is time for Mankind to reclaim his innocence and divinity, and return to the Garden where he can live in peace and love and in cooperation with Mother Earth. Idealistic, for sure, but a beautiful vision nonetheless, and at least partly the feeling I get when I'm on my way to spend some time in a community that still values the natural, sensual experience of life, in spite of what the modern urban mindset prescribes, and does, at times, honestly feel like a little piece of Eden. Quite naturally, this theme bumps up against the free spirit ethos of the counterculture movement in America during the 1960s, and as such, consists mostly of songs from that era, and doubles quite well as a peace & love hippie compilation.

Back To The Garden

1. Crosby Stills Nash & Young - Woodstock
2. Canned Heat - Going Up The Country
3. Moby Grape - Naked, If I Want To
4. The Cowsills - Hair
5. Mother Earth - Mother Earth
6. Quicksilver Messenger Service - Fresh Air
7. Neil Young - Homegrown
8. Bob Dylan - All Along The Watchtower
9. Sky High - Blues For The Green
10. Quicksilver Messenger Service - What About Me
11. Five Man Electrical Band - Signs
12. Ten Years After - The Sounds
13. The Animals - We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
14. John Lennon - Imagine
15. The Guess Who - Share The Land
16. The Youngbloods - Get Together
17. The Grass Roots - Let's Live For Today
18. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)
19. Joni Mitchell - Woodstock [Isle of Wight]

As you can see, the foundation of the compilation is the song Woodstock - it opens with CSNY's energetic rock n roll cover, and later closes with a more mellow (and haunting) live version by the original artist, Joni Mitchell. Canned Heat's Going Up The Country is included both because it is iconic to anyone who's seen the Woodstock film, and because its lyrics perfectly encapsulate the theme of heading into the country. Moby Grape's Naked, If I Want To and The Cowsills' Hair, both great hippie tracks, recall Adam and Eve, who, in the Garden of Eden, stood naked before the eyes of God, and (Eve, at least) are often depicted with long, beautiful hair.

Mother Earth is an excellent track, featuring Michael Bloomfield on guitar, which introduces the recurring theme of the primacy of nature, and the dire importance of honoring and not ignoring her. No matter how much material wealth you acquire in life, when it all comes down, you've got to go back to Mother Earth. QMS sings (presumably with tongue in cheek) about the restorative properties of fresh air, and Neil Young celebrates the value in homegrown crops. Bob Dylan's All Along The Watchtower warns of the danger of men raping the land, and Sky High (the only modern band on this compilation)'s Blues For The Green laments the damage that man is foolishly and ignorantly inflicting upon the Earth.

QMS returns with a paranoid track that really emphasizes the counterculture theme, taking The Establishment's treatment of nature and expanding it to cast doubt upon the entire system, while issuing a challenge and a notice that there are some out there who are not willing to fall in line. The Five Man Electrical Band continues the theme of becoming tired of the urban landscape with its scathing commentary on the authoritarian dictates of the scenery-blocking sign culture, and Ten Years After produces a poignant musical piece that echoes the madness of the constant and inescapable buzzing, mechanical, droning sounds that swarm the cities. Lucky for us, The Animals step in with their ballad of desperate escape.

Turning back onto our idealism, and forgetting again the neuroses of the city, John Lennon imagines a different kind of world, where the corruption of the modern system doesn't stand in the way of happiness. The Guess Who sings Share The Land, which taps further into the socialist implications of the previous song, and sets the stage for The Youngbloods' plead for us all to Get Together and love one another. Then The Grass Roots make their case for the value in living for today, and that leads into Neil Young and Crazy Horse's reprise of the theme of respecting Mother Earth, with a sorrowful warning of what will happen if we fail to do so ("respect Mother Earth, and her giving ways, or trade away our children's days"). Then Joni Mitchell sings her version of Woodstock, bringing us back full circle, but where we opened the disc with energy and optimism, Joni's haunting arrangement echoes the fear of all we have to lose if we don't get ourselves back to the garden soon...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Feelin' The Blues

My two musical loves are the blues and rock n roll. Rock n roll is all about attitude and energy and rebellion. The blues is about sadness and soul. Both feature a rich history of prominent guitarists, but it's always been the fusion of rock and blues that has been the primary target of my auditory affections. Rock songs that are steeped in the blues tradition, and blues that rock.

So in the music I listen to, I'm never far from either. I tend to gravitate toward the sort of rock that is more heavily blues influenced, and if you know me, you'll probably notice that I describe a lot of the music I like best as "bluesy". So when I described Joe Bonamassa's latest album as being heavily blues-inspired (even within the context of the very bluesy career of a very blues-inspired musician), my friend made a comment that emphasized, for me, the difference between traditional blues and 'progressive' blues, the latter of which is where I'd place Joe Bonamassa's music.

Now, when I think of the blues, I think of the 12-bar format, I think of shuffle beats, slow tempos, and I think of biting electric leads punctuating simplistic but stingingly depressing lyrics. Then again, I'm a fan of slow, electric blues. I imagine a lot of people think of something closer to folk blues, or more specifically, delta blues, where the modern blues tradition arose from. A lot of this is acoustic music, and so, although I've listened to it and have a lot of respect for it as a blues fan, I don't actually like it as much as electric blues (I'm particularly fond of the Chicago and Texas blues traditions).

In any case, thinking on this, I confronted the fact that a lot of the 'blues' music I listen to is derived, contributing to the fact that my CD collection contains at least ten times more blues-inspired rock (mostly classic rock bands who were heavily influenced by the blues) than actual blues musicians. Not that there's any problem with that - I listen to what I like - but it gave me the great idea to create a compilation of some of my favorite songs by genuine blues musicians, as a sort of document to myself and anyone else who might listen to it in my presence (or not) about what the blues is, as opposed to what the blues has inspired.

I call it - simply but effectively, as blues lyrics often are - Feelin' The Blues:

Feelin' The Blues

1. B.B. King - The Thrill Is Gone
2. Albert Collins - Cold, Cold Feeling
3. Big Mama Thornton - Ball N' Chain
4. Freddie King - Going Down
5. Buddy Guy - Damn Right, I've Got The Blues
6. Otis Rush - Homework
7. Albert King - Got To Be Some Changes Made
8. Jimmy Dawkins - Welfare Line
9. John Lee Hooker - Moanin' Blues
10. Lightnin' Hopkins - Bring Me My Shotgun
11. Muddy Waters - Still A Fool
12. Howlin' Wolf - Smokestack Lightnin'
13. Elmore James - The Sky Is Crying
14. T-Bone Walker - Stormy Monday
15. Robert Johnson - Me And The Devil Blues
16. Son House - Grinnin' In Your Face

My approach was to try to get as many different artists as I could (limited by my actual CD library), with an emphasis on covering 'all the bases' (or at least most of them) of your classic, traditional, blues artists. I decided to allow only one track per artist, to allow for more variety. Where possible, I have selected hard rockin' or slow and solemn electric blues (because that's just what I like), but I made a specific effort to include the old delta blues format as well, for a historical perspective.

Thus the tracklist reads as a veritable who's who of the blues. You've got the three kings - B.B., Albert, and Freddie. You've got Albert Collins, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy - who I've always considered to be the Jimi Hendrix of the blues. You've got Big Mama Thornton who sung Hounddog before Elvis picked it up. You've got Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. You've got John Lee Hooker who brought boogie to the blues. And I threw in Jimmy Dawkins as a personal favorite.

As you head towards the end of the disc, you start to move back towards the folkier roots of the blues. Lightnin' Hopkins sings Bring Me My Shotgun, a mellow but sinister blues that caught my attention the first time I heard it. Elmore James, the king of the slide, contributes The Sky Is Crying - a song that, like T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday that follows it, has been covered ad nauseam yet is one of my all-time favorite blues standards.

By the end of the disc you've reached the legendary Robert Johnson, said to have sold his soul to the devil, and who has inspired generations of musicians across genres. But going back even further, you reach Son House, the Father of the Delta Blues. I had a hard time picking the song I liked best for this compilation, but I think that I ultimately chose the right one.

Grinnin' In Your Face represents the blues in its purest form, and echoes the first time I learned about Son House - in a video documentary of the Newport Folk Festival, where he talks about the soul of the blues. All of the trappings have been stripped away, and in this song Son House doesn't even play the guitar. It's just depression with a beat. But not without a faint glimmer of hope. After all, the blues, in all its sorrow, is a healing music.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Experiencing Jimi Hendrix

I love it when a friend of mine expresses an interest in some of the music I like, because I understand how individual musical tastes can vary, and if we're both going to be sitting in a car for an extended period of time listening to music, it's much more pleasurable if we can listen to something we both agree is good.

Of course, when that's not the case, I hold fast to the rule of driver's choice. Although I like driving, it requires effort and concentration, and the driver is the one in control of the vehicle (as well as the passengers' lives), and creating a pleasant atmosphere (which often includes putting on music the driver likes), is conducive to a smooth and unstressful journey (plus I've noticed that having good music on makes a long trip go much faster).

So, if necessary, I wouldn't hesitant putting on music I like that the rest of the car's passengers don't really like - if I were driving - but I'm always happy to put on something that the passengers can enjoy, too. Partly because sometimes I'm going to be the passenger, and it's always nice if the driver reciprocates that diplomacy and tries to find something they like that I don't object to, too. :p

So when my friend told me she likes Jimi Hendrix, and asked me to make a compilation for the car, I was ecstatic. I spent a week listening to my entire Hendrix catalog (which isn't that huge), and this is what I came up with:

Experiencing Jimi Hendrix

(I know, real original name)

1. Foxey Lady
2. Hey Joe
3. Purple Haze
4. Spanish Castle Magic
5. Bold As Love
6. Crosstown Traffic
7. House Burning Down
8. All Along The Watchtower
9. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
10. Hear My Train A Comin' [BBC #2]
11. Red House [Live at Winterland]
12. Machine Gun [Band of Gypsys]
13. Star-Spangled Banner [Woodstock]
14. Wild Thing [Monterey]

The compilation is split into halves. The first half is studio stuff. The second half is live. I wanted to pick out some of the best tracks from The Jimi Hendrix Experience's three studio albums, creating a balance between the pop hits that everybody knows and loves, and the deeper album cuts that are just as good or better but don't get played as often.

So I picked my favorite hits from Are You Experienced, opening the disc with Foxey Lady, which is an excellent opener on account of how the song begins. I included Hey Joe, which I've always loved, and Purple Haze, partly because how can you have a Hendrix compilation without that song? and partly because I've been learning to play that song and that tends to give you a greater appreciation for it. I skipped tracks like Fire, which is catchy, but I've never been super fond of, and Red House, which is one of my all time favorite songs, but I saved for later so I can stick on a live version instead.

The two tracks from Axis: Bold As Love fall into the 'overlooked album cuts' category, but are both really awesome. I didn't include Little Wing because, even though it's a great song, I actually like cover versions of it better (Derek and the Dominos and Stevie Ray Vaughan, for different reasons), and it's a bit too mellow for this disc which is all about Jimi Hendrix: Guitar God (seeing as I'm an electric guitarist).

Electric Ladyland, being a double album, contributes a whopping four cuts (lotsa great songs on that album). The first two are of the deep variety, Crosstown Traffic being a great, short rocker like Spanish Castle Magic, and House Burning Down featuring lotsa guitar tricks and effects and without a doubt the most contagious chorus on the compilation ("somebody's house is burnin', down down, down down..."). With the latter two we return to radio hit territory, with possibly Hendrix's greatest cover song (All Along The Watchtower), and the most incendiary track in his career (Voodoo Child).

Following Voodoo Child is the fantastic Hear My Train A Comin', the second version from the BBC Sessions, which follows in the spirit of Voodoo Child, and interfaces with the live tracks, having something of a 'live in the studio' atmosphere, having been recorded for the BBC.

The version of Red House I picked comes from an unofficial (I think) Live At The Winterland disc I have which is really a fantastic concert, featuring some of Jimi's best live playing that I've heard. Machine Gun (from Band of Gypsys) is the one song my friend required be on the compilation, and one song that I would have put on anyway. After that I have included Jimi's iconic performance of the Star-Spangled Banner from Woodstock, followed by Wild Thing from the Monterey Pop Festival, which was the Experience's American debut, during which Jimi Hendrix infamously set fire to his guitar as a sacrifice. The MC's wild cry of "Jimi Hendrix!" closes out the disc.

3 Compilations

I suppose it's destined that one of these days I'll eventually get an iPod, or some other portable digital music player, but for now I'm still in the habit of burning CD compilations for long car rides and such. Although, I really like the idea of putting together playlists, so I figure that even if I do get a digital mp3 player someday, I'll keep putting together 'compilations' of songs, they'll just be easier to play because I can just load them up on my player (like I load up my winamp playlists on the computer), without having to burn any CDs and worry about "what if it doesn't play", which has been happening entirely too frequently lately (car CD players are patchy at best).

Although, I do like putting a limit on the length of a compilation - a traditional CD can only play about an hour and fifteen minutes of music at most. That forces you to cull your songs and pick out the best, and actually put more care into which songs go on the comp and where, as opposed to just loading up a billion songs as soon as they come to mind onto a limitless playlist. It's like putting together an album instead of just releasing a new single every time you write and record a new song. And it was one of the funnest (and most frustrating) parts of being a DJ on the radio - choosing which songs to play and making sure they fit into the air time you were allotted.

Anyway, I've created three new compilations lately, and I'd like to share them with you:

Experiencing Jimi Hendrix
Feelin' The Blues
Back To The Garden