By Bruce Sylvester
The time's right for another roundup of cool new releases – mostly Americana with a range of reissues.
The pandemic lies beneath the surface on Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band's Dance Songs for Hard Times (Family Owned Records/Thirty Tigers). With frenzied vocals and backwoods juke joint guitar, “No Tellin' When,” a Covid-era song of separation, comes across like a “Poor Boy a Long Way from Home” blues lament. The Rev.'s intensity and urgency convey a trace of comedy when “I'll Pick You Up” hopes a broken-down car holds up all through a hot date. Slide guitar notes practically scream. For a secularized gospel touch, his woo-woos stretch back from Paul McCartney to Little Richard to Marion Williams. The press notes say the disc “was written by candlelight and then recorded using the best technology available … in the 1950s.” Well, yes. He wrote amid a power outage at his and wife/washboard player Breezy's 150-year-old log cabin in Indiana, and then the recording studio used a max of eight tracks on analog tape. His Big Damn trio gets along well without modernity.
Back around 1970 when long-haired hippies were fusing bluegrass with rock and more, the genre's late founder Bill Monroe's staunchly acoustic style (once dubbed “folk music in overdrive”) was called hard bluegrass. On Cuttin' Grass Vol. 2 (High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers), Sturgill Simpson again revamps some of his earlier tracks into hard bluegrass, bringing in ace instrumentalists like Sierra Hull on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Tim O'Brien on guitar. There's also his previously unrecorded “Hobo Cartoon,” a backward-looking cowrite with the late Merle Haggard, who wanted his fans to appreciate his musical forebears. Sturgill's vocals are so suited for hard bluegrass that its stern patriarch Monroe would approve. For a visual pun, the blue-tinted cover photo shows Simpson riding a lawn mower.
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps due to our Internet Age's marriage of technology and art, my recent roundups all include an indie disc recorded intercontinentally. This time it's sibling duo Benjamin Jayne's hypnotic Theater (WhatAboutMusic), whose spare instrumentation soothes even when lyrics walk on the dark side. Benjamin Jayne are Benjamin Wright (a psychiatric nurse in Vermont) and Amanda Wright (an expatriate in Barcelona who's made music as Amanda Jayne). Benjamin penned most of the songs along with adapting traditional “Moonshiner.” His vocals and producer Drew Skinner's final mix have such a calming effect on me that I've played Theater repeatedly for days.
Now let's turn to reissues by Steve Goodman, Fred Neil, The Beat Farmers, and Allen Ginsberg.
Early 1970s Chicago was a goldmine of singer/songwriters (Steve Goodman, John Prine, and less-famous Fred Holstein and Michael Smith) as well as chanteuse Bonnie Koloc. Goodman (1948-84) lived his entire career in the shadow of leukemia. No surprise, 20-track It Sure Looked Good on Paper: The Steve Goodman Demos (Omnivore) opens with his signature song “City of New Orleans” – here with an upbeat delivery that would be replaced by wistful nostalgia on the later version on his debut LP. Its demo's line “The steel rail hasn't heard the news” later morphed into alliterative “The steel rail still ain't heard the news.” The booklet's illustrations include a handwritten draft of the song with crossed-out lines. Along with his well-known compositions (“Turnpike Tom,” “Yellow Coat”), he does Holstein's “Jazzman” and Smith's “The Dutchmen” (both gens) and Leroy Van Dyke's 1957 tongue-twister novelty country hit “The Auctioneer.” Speaking of country, Steve's “You Never Even Call Me by My Name” (a cowrite with Prine) recycles a joke on Faron Young's “Hello Walls.” We find songs written for soundtracks that didn't make the films' final prints. Goldmine writer Lee Zimmerman's liner notes quote Goodman's daughter Rosanna's story of “Would You Like to Learn to Dance”'s origins. It was Steve's pickup line when he set out to meet her mother, his future wife Nancy Pruter (sister of Goldmine's long-ago R&B editor Bob Pruter). The family provided the photos too. In the tray card's shot, a very young Steve appears born to be an entertainer.
Devotees of songsmith turned dolphin activist Fred Neil (1936-2001) may want eight-track 38 MacDougal (Delmore Recording Society) from an informal 1965 session at the Greenwich Village apartment his guitarist Peter Childs shared with John Sebastian. Five of his compositions here appeared on his gritty solo debut Bleeker & MacDougal, which was then in the taping stage. His “Candy Man” had been a 1961 smash for Roy Orbison. Among the three trad songs, “Once I Had a Sweetheart” comes from English balladry, while the finale, “Blind Man Standin' by the Road and Cryin',” is an African American spiritual. So what led to this unplanned session? Neil – who could be temperamental – was unhappy with producer Paul Rothchild at his formal sessions so Childs invited him over to ease the tension by playing just for fun. His Ampex two-track tape recorder was running. Now we can hear the 27-minute session. (Here's a bit of Neil trivia for you: His Jefferson Airplane friend Grace Slick thought he resembled Winnie the Pooh so she nicknamed him Pooneil, as in the Plane's “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.”)
The Beat Farmers: roots rock, cowpunk, comic psychobilly. Their local San Diego Reader termed them “like Bo Diddley, CCR, Joe South, and the Yardbirds, ham fisted into a food processor, stuffed into a shotgun shell, and blasted into a beer keg at three in the morning.” Their 1985 debut Tales of the New West (originally on Rhino) stomps back in print, now on Blixa Sounds as a two-CD package with 21-song Live at the Spring Valley Inn, 1983 (which was once available on Clarence). As the reissue's notes describe their cover of Bruce Springsteen's “Reason to Believe,” “With its slow build leading up to a sonic explosion of slide guitar, pounding bass, and crashing drums, this song alone could describe The Beat Farmers' sound.” Bottom-of-the-well baritone Country Dick Montana (whose heart-attack death on stage in 1995 ended the band for awhile) playfully reveled in the disgusting on the debut's finale, “Happy Boy,” a natural for Dr. Demento broadcasts. As for roots revival gone amok, the live disc's “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” morphs into the sort of narration that could have resulted if a young John Waters had penned “A Boy Named Sue.” OK, you've been warned. Some people will dig it; others would recoil.
It was long said that beat poet Allen Ginsberg's first recorded reading of his groundbreaking “Howl” was in Berkeley, CA, in March 1956. Not so. In 2007 a tape of a Valentine's day '56 reading at Portland, Oregon-based Reed College turned up in its library. An arresting melange of surrealism, madness, alienation, controlled substances, no-holds-barred carnality, and allusions to earlier poets, “Howl” was then a work in progress. Reciting it was so intense an experience for Ginsberg that here he had to stop at the start of Part II. The 35-minute CD's audio is so clear that we hear him turning pages and, as Reed prof Dr. Pancho Savery's notes put it, “taking breaths after each long line, clearly reinforcing the notion of the line as a breath unit.” As for a jazz influence (especially Lester Young's), Ginsberg later referred to the poem's “long saxophone-like chorus lines.” Seven of his short poems precede 16-minute “Howl,” a watershed work in American literature.