By Bruce Sylvester
OK, let's look at a few cool new releases: reissues, a new recording and a video.
Festivals – along with euphoria and turmoil -- were a hallmark of the year 1969. I got to Woodstock and Newport Folk. Recently, Summer of Soul awakened many of us to the Harlem Cultural Festival. And now Memphis '69: The Memphis Country Blues Festival (Fat Possum) brings together still-revered older-generation local legends (Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes with Yank Rachell) and a few younger national cult heroes. Blues devotees John Fahey and Johnny Winter were probably happy to join the lineup. Remember England's strong-voiced slide guitarist Jo Ann Kelly? Rufus Thomas – in conservative suit, white shirt, and tie – appears first with the Bar-Kays doing his biggest hit, “Walking the Dog.” White, strong at 62, plays his metal-body Resonator guitar behind his head. Rev. Robert Wilkins, source of The Rolling Stones' “Prodigal Son,” rocks the gospel with his much younger family As for the debate over whether it was a sacrilege to play the blues, slide guitar hero Mississippi Fred McDowell tells the crowd, “I'm a Christian, but I play the blues, you understand,” before his raw-boned “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Lest anyone think that bluesmen listened only to the blues, we get Furry's “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” The 60s generation's Jefferson Street Jug Band both resurrects good-time sounds of long-ago Memphis and brings the music into its 1969 present with Country Joe & the Fish's “Fixin' to Die Rag.” The 112-minute video has reasonably good audio and usually decent camera work. Combined snippets of shots of the audience show some sensitive film editing. The performances are the real McCoy.
It's a good year for Nina Simone reissues: a few months ago two-CD The Monteux Years inaugurating BMG's Montreux Jazz Festival series and now, with only bass and drums accompaniment, Little Girl Blue (this time on BMG), her debut LP recorded in 1957 when she was just 24 years old. Hers was the good judgment and/or good fortune to sign with Bethlehem Records, whose founder, Gus Wildi, let his artists decide their own direction in the studio. Daphne A. Brooks's new notes describe her as “a former child prodigy, an astoundingly daring, dazzlingly confident, endlessly adventurous artist with a deep well of formidable instrumentality up her sleeve as well as a wide and robust, rich and varied knowledge of jazz, blues. American songbook, folk and spiritual standards.” Drawing on her classical piano training, even at the dawn of her career she observed no artistic boundaries, already using “Good King Wenceslas” riffs for counterpoint in the title track from Rogers and Hart. The 11-track, 45-minute album includes her sole single to crack the pop top 40: quiet “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess.
Omnivore Records continues, on Aug. 27, its series of Buck Owens and His Buckaroos' 1968-74 Capitol LPs with The Kansas City Song, I Wouldn't Live in New York City (above) and Your Mother's Prayer – all from 1970. Like Simone's reissue, these have the brief original notes, worthy expanded notes, a reproduction of side 1's original label in the tray card, and no bonus tracks. More than Buck's one previous religious album (Dust on Mother's Bible), Your Mother's Prayer was recorded a bit piecemeal during sessions for other LPs. “That Old Time Religion” gives the Buckaroos delightful brief solos. Kansas City's tracks refer to a number of places, “Scandinavian Polka” being a fun-filled western swing/hoedown instrumental. New York City ups the ante with each track about a different locale. Both the original notes and the new ones get into Buck and guitarist pal Don Rich's bad Big Apple experiences. “Houston-Town” simply remolds “Amsterdam” on Kansas City, whose title track and others are remixed and recycled on New York City. It was his first LP to use sound effects. The notes quote his autobio Buck 'Em: “I put in sound effects to go with every song. … For 'Reno Lament' I included sound effects from a casino. … For 'Houston-Town' I used sounds from one of the Apollo missions. I'd decided the time had come to have some fun, so I did.” Steel guitarist Earl Poole Ball recalled a 1969 session yielding two sacred tracks for Your Mother's Prayer and an early take of “Big in Vegas”: “That was some session. One minute we were in Vegas and the next minute we were in heaven.”
In their early days, Catskill Mountains-based The Felice Brothers were often likened to The Band due to their upstate New York base and rustic Americana style. Over time, comparisons with King Missile arose for their happy-go-lucky arrangements that can be intentionally incongruous with lyrics that juxtapose absurdity and apocalypse. The goofiness can be only skin deep. Songs mentioning extinction bookend From Dreams to Dust (above, due out Sept. 17 on Yep Roc), a strong followup to 2019's Undress. References to history, show biz, and mythology may reflect Allen Ginsberg and his fellow beats' influence in their off-kilter dystopias where “no shareholders will be orbiting the Earth” and we inhabit “principalities of unreality.” They rhyme “from Francis of Assisi to the fans of AC/DC.” A funereal organ opens spoken “Be at Rest” elegizing a Mr. Felice, who “once spent two months stuck in a painting by Bruegel the Elder.” In terms of production and arrangements, they gave their imaginations and senses of humor free rein, working in a 30x40' one-room 1893 church that Ian Felice converted into a studio. He also constructed and painted the stop-motion video for the CD's opener, “Jazz on the Autobahn.”
PS: Coming next in the Montreux Jazz Festival series are Marianne Faithfull and Muddy Waters packages. Omnivore's Buck Owens and His Buckaroos series will conclude with (It's a) Monster's Holiday, In the Palm of Your Hand, and Ain't It Amazing, Gracie.