Paul Robeson – The Peace Arch Concerts Folk Era FE1442CD (1998)
Paul Robeson had his passport revoked by the U.S. State Dept. in the 1950s. This was illegal, as courts later found. On top of that, President Truman signed an executive order that prevented him from traveling to Canada. Normally American citizens could travel to Canada without a passport (* this long-standing practice was ended during the so-called “war on terror” in the 2000s). The grounds for all this was that Robeson was supposed to be some kind of a threat during wartime. “Wartime” you ask? Supposedly, the Korean War. But there was no declaration of war with respect to Korea, so it wasn’t a “war” as far as the U.S. Government is concerned, so the actions against Robeson were illegal — not to mention completely spurious.
When prevented from traveling to a scheduled concert in Canada, Robeson set up on in a park on U.S. soil, standing feet from the border, and sang for a broadcast across the border. That was 1952. He came back again three more times for similar cross-border concerts. Recordings were made and released by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This comp — released in honor of the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s birth — collects the 1952 and 1953 performances. The one from ’52 is by far the best of the two. Though what’s interesting is that not all of the ’52 concert seems to be present here, as I Came to Sing (recorded at that concert) included “Water Boy” which is omitted here.
Art Ensemble of Chicago – Les stances à Sophie Pathé 2C O62-11365 (1970)
The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s greatest strengths were their versatility and eclecticism. Les Stances a Sophie is a great example of their best qualities, as they swing between mellow soul jazz, free jazz skronking, Euro-classical adaptations, delicate world fusion, retro bluesing, and points in between. I don’t know if you could point to the group as being ultimate masters of any one style, but that didn’t ever seem to be their intention. They came up at a time when lots of the last barriers in music had been torn down, and these guys made a case for the beauty found in stitching all the various strands together in intriguing ways. The individual pieces are familiar, but the tapestry feels genuine and fresh. It would be hard to hear this and not immediately find something to like, even if the entirety takes some time to absorb.
Sly & The Family Stone – A Whole New Thing Epic BN 26324 (1967)
A reviewer once described A Whole New Thing as “the most exciting mediocre record I’ve ever heard.” That about sums this up. Sly was still working out the details of his whole new thing. He would, of course, perfect it in just a matter of months. What helps this album, though, is that whatever parts of Sly’s vision were still under construction aren’t terribly apparent behind the gale force of the music’s raw energy. Any album that opens with something like “Underdog” has achieved something. It quotes the familiar melody of “Frère Jacques” for the effect of lulling you to sleep, only to jolt you awake with a big beat and punchy horns:
I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake/
but they won’t let you forget that you’re the underdog/
and you gotta be twice as good
The album’s weakest moments tend to be those with the most overt similarities to conventional soul of the day. Sly evolved into an effective vocalist with perfect rhythm, but when he tries to be the typical kind of emotive soul singer (like you would find on Stax or Motown or Atlantic) his voice comes across as overly affected. The vocals in general aren’t as well integrated into the group’s sound as they would be later. Yet the best stuff — the up-tempo numbers, especially those dominating side one — are infectious even when the songwriting isn’t Sly’s best. The group gets a lot of mileage out of even the thinner material. A Whole New Thing is not an essential item, but even this somewhat lesser outing from one of pop music’s greatest geniuses will entertain you.
David Crosby – Croz Blue Castle BCR1142-1 (2014)
I’m not sure what to make of an album like this. The comment about David Crosby that sticks most in my mind is someone wondering out loud, “why is David Crosby so highly regarded?” Croz goes far beyond the concept of middle-aged rock. This is geriatric rock. Crosby released this when he was 72. He’s writing about trying to be mature. These ponderous topics land with a thud. The pervasive, noodling light rock saxophone and snazzy little guitar licks don’t make any connections to the sorts of music that anyone under 50 listens to. This album seems to speak to those curmudgeons still trying to live a good life on terms set decades ago, but struggling to understand what it means to live a good life today. Put up against the strangely affecting faux-retro album A Letter Home by former CSN&Y bandmate Neil Young, released just a few months later, Croz seems unable to look outside itself.
Real Estate – Days Domino DNO 305 (2011)
Literate, jangly rock with a melancholy disposition. The album is a bit monochromatic though, and seems almost like one slowly metamorphosing song.
Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers Sony/Legacy 8884 301921 26 (2014)
It’s a rather sad state of affairs when an album as bad as Band of Brothers becomes Willie Nelson’s most commercially popular new release in 28 years (since 1986’s The Promiseland). This one has a special twist: Willie is writing new songs. Nine of these songs are new, and it has been about two decades (!) since he released an album of mostly new material. Now, while much has been made of Willie’s new songwriting, it bears mentioning that it’s not strictly true. Willie co-wrote the nine new songs with Buddy Cannon, who also produces. Not that it matters that much, but it is a strong hint that the buzz around this album is marketing-driven rather than musically-driven. The new songs seem decent enough. They recall the writing of the Willie of 40-50 years ago. But the recordings bear almost no resemblance to that creature. This is music that could have come from nearly any country performer today. Willie just happens to be singing. He has outlived most of his long-time touring band, so he’s performing with a lot of relatively new faces. So even though Willie is no longer being lazy when it comes to songwriting, he’s merely become lazier than every about performing these songs. If you want an album that sounds like any other country album, congratulations, you’ve found one. If you want one with its own character, keep looking.
Willie Nelson – The Willie Way RCA Victor LSP-4760 (1972)
Willie Nelson’s albums for RCA tend to be maligned, as he was catering to the Nashville system and so often those recordings were leaden with sappy string treatments, overbearing backing vocalists, and gaudy steel guitar. Some fans note that 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine broke the mold. But the changes go deeper than that one effort. In late December of 1970 Nelson’s home Ridgetop in Tennessee caught fire, forcing him (and members of his band and entourage) to relocate to the abandoned Lost Valley Ranch in Bandera, Texas for a while. The move gave him a respite from the pressured atmosphere of the Nashville area, and renewed his ties to his home state of Texas. Life on the ranch was something of a subsistence, communal one. Together with Nelson’s interest in certain rock phenomena, like the Woodstock and Atlanta Pop festivals, this introduced elements of a liberal rock aesthetic. Or perhaps they just stirred up things that had circulated in Nelson’s band from tours to places like San Fransisco in the 1960s, when they took to wearing flamboyant costumes.
After returning to his refurbished Ridgetop home in fall 1971, Nelson recorded his final RCA sessions. Among those were preliminary takes of material that would be rerecorded later for Phases and Stages on Atlantic Records. Although superficially Nelson was back in the Nashville fold, it’s clear that his music was different. The recordings on The Willie Way demonstrate the changes. A harpsichord on “Home Is Where You’re Happy” lends, just slightly, the flavor of psychedelic rock or mod British Invasion pop. There is a bit of that influence on the reading of the Appalachian folk classic “Mountain Dew” here too.
A lot of listeners skip right past much of the RCA years, at least after Yesterday’s Wine, to Willie’s efforts on the fledgling country department of New York-based Atlantic. That is a mistake — forgivable though given the lack of promotion and limited pressings of the albums of this era. The two albums RCA released from from Nelson’s last six sessions in 1971 or 1972 The Words Don’t Fit the Picture and The Willie Way are perhaps his very best from his entire decade-long tenure on RCA. They balance the conventions of Nashville with inklings of forward-looking rock influences. By this time Willie knew the Nashville approach and was actually getting pretty adept at playing that game, even in an offhand way. Willie also was actually writing some good songs, like the opener “You Left a Long, Long Time Ago.” His other songs selections, like Kris Kristofferson‘s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” are excellent too. The Willie Way may not quite match The Words Don’t Fit the Picture (it trails off a bit at the end), but it’s still among Willie’s best albums from before his commercial breakthrough a few years on in the mid-1970s.
Sun Ra – The Antique Blacks El Saturn 81774 (1978)
The Antique Blacks fits on the continuum of albums Sun Ra made in the 1970s with electric instrumentation and fusion-influenced stylings, like “The Night of the Purple Moon” and The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals / Crystal Spears from earlier in the decade and Lanquidity and Sleeping Beauty later on. An unknown electric guitarist (possibly a young Dale Williams or someone named “Sly”) armed with a wah pedal lays down some fervid licks much like what Pete Cosey was doing with Miles Davis around the same time period, though without the same nuance as Cosey. John Gilmore is of course great on sax. Many songs, like “There is Change in the Air,” feature free-form improvisations from the whole group and solos interspersed with spoken word passages where Sun Ra recites cryptic and confrontational poetry thick with references to afro-consciousness and socio-political issues and deeply imbued with biblical and cosmic overtones. Other tracks feature some nice group chants. This is a good disc, even though there are more impressive ones from the era. The highlights are a choice reading of “Space Is the Place” and some noisy keyboard soloing — comparable to that of Concert for the Comet Kohoutek — on “Would I for All That Were.” Ra’s spoken word readings are noteworthy too. While people who lived in close proximity to Ra probably knew full well that he could rant with the best of them, as he regularly distributed leaflets and preached on street corners about various topics of intergalactic significance (some books like The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets have posthumously documented those activities), this album is one of the few times that aspect of Sun Ra’s life directly manifested itself in his recordings.
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971 Reprise 9362-43328-2 (2007)
Neil Young’s career reached its peak around the early part of the 1970s. He has kept on recording and performing long past that time of course. In his later years it would seem that it became more of a challenge for him to maintain a necessary level of interest in his music. That’s nothing new really. Most rock stars of the 1960s that kept on going faced the same challenges–Bob Dylan comes to mind immediately. Young faced the challenge in his later years by jumping between styles. In the 1980s, this meant a lot of albums that flirted with various genre experiments, from krautrock (Trans) to vintage 50s rock-n-roll (Everybody’s Rockin’) to contemporary country (Old Ways) to modern hard rock (Landing on Water) to blues/R&B rock (This Note’s for You). Still later, into the 2000s, he kept jumping between different styles, sometimes at album length but more often within the space of a single album. While that kind of approach may have helped Young maintain an interest in his music (just like how Bob Dylan amuses himself by radically reworking his old songs in his late-career concerts), it doesn’t always translate into great music. Now, it does help. It just doesn’t always produce something that reaches the heights of Young’s best work. It may elevate Young’s own interest enough to keep him plugging along, but it isn’t always conducive to a burst of inspiration that produces profoundly memorable music. So listeners of Young’s late career material should expect music that is sturdy and enjoyable, but rarely amazing. But that’s life. Artists can’t always give that much of themselves to their music over an entire lifetime. With music, listeners need to find smaller and more narrowly-defined pleasures in a particular artist’s music to follow along over the long term.
One other thing that Young has done in his later years is an ongoing Neil Young Archives project (Vol. 1 (1963–1972) being the first part), where Young goes back and digs out and presents archival recordings. While this may seem like something only for his most dedicated fans–and that’s true in the most direct sense–it also offers a chance for live recordings from his most vital period of his career to finally see release. If and when the performances and songs are good, there is the chance that the music can appeal to more than completist fans.
Live rock records have an awkward history. For some rock groups, live recordings simply reproduce studio efforts, with sometimes sloppier performances, reduced recording fidelity, and added crowd noise. Those kinds of records don’t offer a whole lot. But other groups do things in concert that can’t be captured in a studio recording. Groups that improvise can offer vast variations on the same material over the course of different live performances in a way that is unique from any single studio version. Also, sometimes live recordings can offer a chance to hear new (if pre-planned) arrangements of familiar material, like a solo acoustic version of a song that was recorded with a full electric band on the issued studio version.
Live at Massey Hall 1971 was released as part of work on the Neil Young Archives project. It’s an excellent record. It captures Young just after he released his amazing After the Gold Rush album (probably his very best) and just before the release his most commercially popular album, Harvest. He is featured in a solo acoustic setting. This allows him to present new arrangements and new contexts for what are really some of his best songs. Young is at the peak of his powers. Many of the songs he previews from Harvest sound almost superior here free from studio embellishments. While no, this isn’t the place to start with Neil Young, it is a very important release for admirers of his music and a worthy collection of fresh live renditions of some amazing songs that capture the confused sensations of hope, fear, wonder and longing brought on by what seemed like new found freedoms and the paralyzing responsibility of figuring out what to do with it.