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Posts from the ‘Blues’ Category

‘Blue & Lonesome’

rolling-stonesPut a guitar in my hands and you’ll get the “Smokestack Lightnin'” riff until you rip the instrument away from me and smash it over my head. That’s part of having been a teenager in the early ’60s, and equipped with a certain set of instincts. It doesn’t leave you.

That’s what the Rolling Stones demonstrate, rather more expertly, on Blue & Lonesome, their 23rd studio album, recorded in three days at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio at the end of an alley in Hammersmith. It’s the best thing they could have done — in fact probably the only thing they could have done to rekindle my interest.

I’ve been reading an old Record Mirror piece by Norman Jopling, dated May 11, 1963. The intrepid reporter had been to see the Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond-upon-Thames, and had talked to them afterwards about their repertoire, which was based largely on the recorded works of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. They told him they had no interest in using original material. “After all,” an unidentified Stone told him, “can you imagine a British-composed R&B number? It just wouldn’t make it.” The sounds like Brian Jones to me. And within a year, of course, he would be eating his words as Andrew Oldham coaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richard into producing “Tell Me”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Satisfaction” and the rest.

Of course they wrote some great songs. But that well dried up many years ago, and it was an intelligent decision to go back to where they came from and make an album of blues covers. I admire the fact that they chose comparatively obscure songs; how simple would it have been to make an album out of the likes of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Boom Boom” and “Big Boss Man”? Instead they’ve gone for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues”, songs known only to the cognoscenti.

And, like the bluesmen they worshipped, they’ve got better with age. Play these tracks next to recordings from their early years like “Honest I Do”, “I’m a King Bee” and “Little Red Rooster”, and you can’t miss the improvement the years have brought. Production quality has something to do with it, of course. Don Was and the engineer Krish Sharma are a cut above whoever recorded the first Stones tracks at Regent Sound on Denmark Street. In partnership with the musicians, they know exactly how to distress the sound, dirtying up the guitars and providing a great sonic perspective that evokes the 1950s Chess recordings of the Muddy Waters Blues Band. This is rough music, and that’s how it comes across here.

I’m sorry that they don’t credit the individual guitar solos (Hubert Sumlin would have given a pat on the back to whoever gets the starring role on Little Johnny Taylor’s “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing”). But Jagger gets an extra star for some excellent harmonica-playing — which he needed to do, given that three of songs are plucked from the repertoire of Little Walter Jacobs, a gob-iron immortal.

My only complaint about an otherwise thoroughly worthwhile album concerns the sleeve. How difficult could it be to design a fantastic cover for a blues album by the Stones? If you don’t have any ideas of your own, Mr Art Director, just go back to their first LP, with its moody chiaroscuro group photograph by Nicholas Wright, or its very similar successor, for which David Bailey did the honours. Instead we get a piece of artwork based on the tired old “tongue” logo — so crass as to be actively repulsive. And I’d have liked an Andrew Loog Oldham sleeve note, too.

* The photograph of Mick Jagger and Ron Wood is from the inside of the album sleeve, and is uncredited.

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Finding Bob Campbell, photographer

Robert Campbell Son House John HammondIt’s 14 years since Jessica Ferber, who had just graduated in sociology and photography from the University of Vermont, was handed a few boxes of photographic prints and negatives and other bits and pieces left by a recently deceased resident of a homeless shelter. She was asked if she wanted to do something with them. They would occupy much of her time for the next decade as she sorted through the material, began the painstaking process of restoration, and then raised funds via Kickstarter to complete the work and to secure publication in book form.

The battered prints, negs, postcards, receipts, letters, cassette tapes and a journal were all that remained of the life of Robert James Campbell, who had died at the age of 65 of accumulated symptoms, including heart and kidney disease, more than 30 years after his career as a photographer had petered out. But what Ferber saw convinced her that here was something worth preserving.

Bob Campbell was born in New York into a wealthy family, and grew up in homes in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont. He was interested in cameras from an early age, and he also played the double bass. He dropped out of college after a year and his first photographs of jazz musicians seem to have been taken when he served in the US Army in the 1950s. When he moved to New York on his 25th birthday in 1961, taking a studio in the West Village, he gravitated towards clubs like the Village Vanguard.

Rebirth of the Cool is the product of Ferber’s 10-year obsession, a handsome large-format book that chronicles not just Campbell’s work but his life, mainly through family photographs from his childhood. It includes impressive black and white studies of many important musicians, among them Bud Powell (at the recording session for The Return of Bud Powell in 1964), Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, the MJQ (shot during a trip to Germany in 1958), Tommy Turrentine, Philly Joe Jones, the Adderley brothers, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Warne Marsh with Lee Konitz.

Campbell was also taken with Bob Dylan; although there are no shots to document that specific interest, his involvement in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk and blues scene is reflected in photographs of Son House with the great A&R man John Hammond (see above), Mississippi John Hurt, Miriam Makeba (with Sivuca, the Brazilian accordionist), Richie Havens, Bill Monroe, the Staple Singers and the duo Jim & Jean — Jim Glover and Jean Ray (below), the models for the characters played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Robert Campbell Jim and Jean

The influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson is pretty clear in these photographs, particularly when Campbell moves outside to shoot scenes in Washington Square and the streets of the Village. He didn’t make stylised images of smoke-wreathed musicians, as Herman Leonard had done. He was after the informality of an emerging counterculture, more in the manner of Carole Reiff or Ed van der Elsken. One shot from a party in a Village apartment is so cool that it makes me wish it were 1964 all over again. He seems to have tried fashion work, but he needed to take other jobs, such as building sets for theatre companies, to keep going.

I’d come across him once before, in the pages of Blue Melody, the excellent memoir of Tim Buckley by Lee Underwood, Buckley’s friend and guitarist. Campbell met Buckley and Underwood at the Tin Angel, a Village club, and moved with them to California in 1967 before drifting out of sight. “Bob was in his early thirties, bearded, very bright, well-read, a musically literate fellow who did not graduate from college,” Underwood writes. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I like books and I read a lot, but I don’t study. When reading becomes work, a task, then that’s it. My seventh- and eighth-grade guidance counsellor accused me of learning by osmosis. My mother got burned up at my motto in the yearbook: I’m not lazy, I’m just tired.'”

Underwood records Campbell as having turned up at Buckley’s funeral in Santa Monica in 1975. “One true and trusted friend,” he calls him. By that time the photography was over and the set-building was how he earned his money. Ferber reconstructs the story of his last years from minimal evidence, telling us that in the early 1980s he returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he inherited the family home on his mother’s death in 1987. But it all disappeared, and so did he until 1995, when he was taken in by a homeless charity in Burlington until his death seven years later.

He wasn’t a genius, but the photographs show that there was certainly a measure of poetry in his soul, and Ferber’s devotion to the surviving fragments of his life adds an extra layer of it to this fine book.

* Rebirth of the Cool by Jessica Ferber, with a foreword by Marc Myers, is published by powerHouse Books of Brooklyn, NY. Blue Melody by Lee Underwood was published by Backbeat Books of San Francisco in 2002.

Jack Bruce 1943-2014

Jack BruceIt was around two o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes earlier the band called VSOP — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams — had just finished playing to an audience of record industry folk in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. The occasion was the 1977 Columbia Records international sales convention, and the salesmen’s minds had been elsewhere, following their bodies out into the night as the performance went on. Few were left by the time the set ended.

The restroom door swung open. A short figure lurched out and stumbled straight into me. His eyes took a couple of seconds to focus before he recognised someone he had met a handful of times. “You used to be Richard Williams,” he said. “I used to be Jack Bruce.”

And now, following the announcement of his death today, at the age of 71, he really did used to be Jack Bruce. Here was a musician whose achievements now seems mind-boggling in their stylistic breadth. Who else spanned such a range of music — from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — in those years when a generation of young players, bursting with creative energy, were spending their lives venturing into uncharted territory?

The further out Jack got, the more compelling I found him. When I saw Cream on their first go-round of clubs, I couldn’t hear anything interesting. For me, that didn’t change. But the John Burch Octet of 1963: now that was a band, especially if you were fond of Blues & Roots-era Charles Mingus. They never released a record, but just before he died eight years ago Burch gave me a precious cassette of a couple of BBC broadcasts they made.

With Jack on double bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, Burch himself on piano, Mike Falana on trumpet, John Mumford on trombone, Graham Bond on alto saxophone, Stan Robinson on tenor (depping for Dick Heckstall-Smith) and “Miff” Moule on baritone, they played Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, Oliver Nelson’s “Going Up North” (from Afro-American Sketches), Jimmy Heath’s “All Members”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Sam Jones’s “Del Sasser”, Burch’s own “Nightwalk” and, best of all, Ginger’s wild arrangement of the prison work song “Early in the Mornin'”, first heard with the edition of Blues Incorporated in which most of the octet also appeared.

A couple of years later there was the amazing album by the pianist Mike Taylor, Trio, on which Bruce and Ron Rubin shared the bass duties: sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Taylor’s conception was that of an English Dick Twardzik, abstract and cerebral even on standards like “All the Things You Are” and “The End of a Love Affair”, and Jack was the perfect fit.

When I interviewed him a few years later, he’d made his fortune and there was a very nice Ferrari Daytona parked outside his manager’s office. But nothing could stop him joining Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a band who were never going to fill stadiums, even though they played two of the loudest (in terms of decibels per cubic foot) and most powerful gigs I’ve ever heard. The first, before Bruce joined, was in the early weeks of 1970 at a club called Ungano’s in New York. As Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young shook the walls, Miles Davis slouched elegantly at the bar, checking out his protégés.

In October of that year, with Bruce on board, Lifetime played a British tour. I went to see them at the Marquee with Robert Fripp, and we spent the evening glancing at each other in wonderment as the storm raged through the club, threatening to strip the black paint from the walls. I don’t believe the sheer ferocity of it, the unstoppable outpouring, the brutal intensity and sometimes ecstatic interplay, could ever be recreated. Sadly, their records didn’t even begin to tell the story.

Blues America

Muddy Waters at NewportBy the time I’d watched advance copies of both episodes of Blues America, the two-part series to be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm this Friday, November 29, and in the same slot a week later, I’d started to think that the title was just a little bit misleading. The pair of programmes — subtitled “Woke Up This Morning” and “Bright Lights, Big City” — do indeed tell the story of the blues from the beginning to now, and in many ways they tell it very well, with lots of wonderful archive footage and many enlightening interviews. The viewer could be forgiven, however, for concluding that the real focus of the series’ producer, Mick Gold, is on how young white people in Europe came to love this music and to adopt its language as their own.

That’s a great story in its own right, a substantial appendix to the one that begins in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and makes its way north to the great industrial centres of Chicago and Detroit. The things I particularly liked about the first programme (directed by Gold) included the images of Will Dockery’s plantation, the film of the King Biscuit Hour bus, the stuff about Blind Lemon Jefferson and the songsters, and the interviews with Amiri Baraka, Marybeth Hamilton, Blind Boy Paxton, Gayle Dean Wardlow, John F. Szwed, Robert Gordon and Tony Russell (a consultant to the series). Of course the music is magnificent, particularly the recordings made by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm prison in 1947, the ones that made up the album called Murderers Home, which so deeply affected many members of my generation (and, I hope, continues to affect our successors). The exploits of Lomax and his father, John, are prominently featured in this episode.

The second programme, directed by Sam Bridger, starts with the transmigration that produced the urban blues of the northern cities: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry in Chicago, John Lee Hooker in Detroit (the footage of the Wolf, in particular, is wonderful). We hear from such survivors as Bobby Rush, Billy Boy Arnold and Buddy Guy, and from Marshall Chess, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite. Before long, however, we are starting to see the blues as “the portal for a whole white world to enter into the black experience”. That way leads to the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, who speaks very touchingly about the experience of performing with Hooker.

Is it unreasonable of me to resent the amount of time the programme-makers devote to the white involvement in this music? Probably. The arrival of a European audience certainly reshaped the careers of Muddy, John Lee and many others. But given that perspective, I can’t understand the absence of any mention of two figures, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley, whose work provided the basic lessons in blues-playing for my generation, which is to say the generation of the Stones, the Yardbirds, and so on.

There’s much that’s good in the series, however, and the last word should go to Buddy Guy, born in a small town in Louisiana in 1936, reminiscing about the day in February 2012  when he performed at a blues gala convened by President Obama in Washington DC. “That’s a long way,” Guy says, “from picking cotton in the field to picking guitar in the White House.” And if the last hundred years contained a bigger story than that, outside of war and killing, then it has escaped my attention.

* The photograph is one from the Chess archives included in the 2001 reissue of Muddy Waters At Newport 1960, a key album in the story of how white people came to love the blues. “Muddy had that voice and that very sparse way of playing,” Keith Richards says in the second part of Blues America. “Even talking about it, I still get the chills up the back.” Me too.