Friday, February 17, 2017

"Franklin's Tower"

I never really got into the Grateful Dead. I've heard some really nice performances from them, but I've also heard a lot of noise, as if 6 people were playing 7 different songs. But just as my appreciation for Bob Dylan grew from covers of his music, so did my appreciation for the Grateful Dead.

When Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, as a tribute to his friend and fellow guitarist, Dickey Betts added a tease of "Franklin's Tower" to his beloved, and similarly structured, "Blue Sky". That tease stayed there until he stopped touring in 2014, which is a pretty big compliment. I didn't know what it was when I first heard it, which likely would have been my first Allman Brothers show in 1996 (Wisconsin State Fair!). Eventually I got hip to "Franklin's Tower", which the Allman Brothers covered in full starting in 2000. With Oteil singing, it was likely included as something to give Gregg a singing break after Dickey's departure from the band earlier that year left them with just one vocalist. It turned into a pretty epic set piece, typically going full circle with "Blue Sky" teases by Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes.

After years of a lot of jam band music festivals, I have a softer spot for the Grateful Dead and their music. They may not have the greatest singing voices (nor do I), and have given some totally uneven performances over the years, but they wrote and made a lot of great music. Millions of stoners can't be wrong, and the remaining members continue to sell out stadiums and inspire the next generation of musicians.

Since February is Grateful Dead Covers Project month, I put together an acoustic version of "Franklin's Tower". Naturally, it's deceptively simple - it was a "go to" song for jams I used to take part in at Brooklyn's Rocky Sullivan's, and like he Dead, some were epic and some were not. I was able to arrange some peaks and valleys along the way, and even a quick animation to accompany. Roll away...

Butch Trucks: 1947-2017

"It took Jaimoe and I about forty-five seconds to get our groove back. We started playing ’In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’ and once we hit the jam, tears just started rolling down my cheeks. I said to myself, ’So this is what’s been missing from my life.’"

 - Butch Trucks, 1990, Modern Drummer
The Allman Brothers, 1971
They say that guitar players watch the guitar players, the bassists watch the bassists, and the drummers watch the drummers. Not me. Even though I mostly play guitar (some bass, piano, mandolin, sax...) when I go to a concert, I find myself watching, often fixated on, the drummers mostly because I don't play drums. I can keep a beat well enough - the cow bell is totally doable - but simultaneously combining a snare, hi-hat, and a bass drum, seems like an Olympic feet to me. It's freaking fascinating. Guitarists stand in the spotlight and get the glory, bassists have a certain inglorious mystique as the glue between rhythm and melody, but drummers are the backbone of every great band and they are in constant motion. Jams I've been a part of get absolutely lost in the woods without a time keeper, meanwhile, we all nod and smile at This is Spinal Tap's running joke about the how interchangeable drummers are. 

Jaimoe, Butch Trucks, Duane Allman
Drummers substitutions may go unnoticed in bands that suck, but The Allman Brothers Band was literally built around its rhythm section. The first person Duane Allman rounded up was jazz & soul drummer Jaimoe, followed by bassist Berry Oakley, and second drummer Butch Trucks - Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman were added last. For all of the Guitar God talk about Duane & Dickey, Duane was experienced enough to know he needed a solid core before he started exploring the guitar jam nebula. Many assume that Duane wanted 2 drummers because he patterned his band after fellow jammers the Grateful Dead, but it was a while before the Allmans had much in common with the Dead (they were less of an influence and more contemporaries). According to Duane, he wanted 2 drummers because James Brown had 2 drummers (though legend has it that The Godfather of Soul employed 2 drummers in case he fired one in the middle of a show).

Duane Allman, Jaimoe, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks
Butch and Jaimoe played together like few percussion sections have in pop music. They never stepped on each others' toes, Butch drove the train leaving Jaimoe free to roam. Often 2 drummers can be a train wreck, either they sound like they are playing 2 different songs, or doubling the exact same parts. Not Jaimoe and Butch. They blended effortlessly just as the jazz percussion sections of the 1950s and 60s did. And once they added percussionist Marc QuiƱones in 1991, the rhythm section became an absolute powerhouse. Only the best musicians could keep up. There are a lot of jokes out there about Allman Brothers' drum solos (even The Simpsons made reference), and for every percussion showcase that didn't go anywhere and turned into an intermission for fans, you'd have 3 or 4 others that were transcendent. This was no bathroom break, this was a moment of glorious rhythm and melody.

That's right, melody. It may surprise some people, but drums are tuned, and even a novice ear can tell when a tom is out of tune. Listen to the "Mountain Jam" drum section on Ludlow Garage and you hear something almost hummable on top of Butch & Jaimoe's beats. Those who tuned out when the guitars take a break on "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" will recognize when the melody is coming back because Butch and Jaimoe are telling you it is. 

And now it is no more. Butch Trucks left us, very suddenly, at the age of 69.

The Allman Brothers in the Park
The Allman Brothers has always prided itself as a band of the people, and Butch has been the closest conduit fans have had in recent years. While Gregg shies from the media for the most part (save for perfunctory local interviews when in a given town), Butch was more than happy to not only take the mic, let alone jump on a message board or engage in a facebook conversations. As far as I can tell, Butch was among the first people to email a positive response to the first Allman Brothers animation I created. At Wanee Fest, he and Jaimoe, and Marc, and Oteil, would stroll through the camps of known, long time fans to say hello and chat. Butch enjoyed the spotlight and his bullhorn, but he understood that playing music that oneself enjoys can be self-indulgent without a group of people who want to hear it.

quickly thanking Butch
After the Allman Brothers played their final show in 2014, band members moved on to their own varied solo projects, but Butch seemed to feel the need to keep the torch burning, the very one that Duane Allman lit for Gregg, Dickey, Berry, and Jaimoe, and so many others, in 1969. He started not one but two Allman Brothers-related bands: The Freight Train Band, largely made up of young Florida musicians or honors students from Butch's rock & roll camp, Roots Rock, which toured extensively up and down the east coast; and Les Brers, made up mostly of Allman Brothers alums and played fewer dates at larger venues. I was fortunate to see The Freight Train perform in late December, one of his last shows, and this was no tribute act. This was Butch as leader and teacher, pushing young musicians to their potential just as Duane had done for him so many years ago. And of course, having a blast the whole time, even chatting with any knucklehead with a couple of beers in them in the parking lot after the show, even though I'm sure he was exhausted.

As a band of the people, fans of the Allman Brothers often feel like a collective family, and not just because the band was literally made up of family. Every show, the stage was a family affair, not just on, but backstage as well. Butch was well-known family man who brought children and grandchildren on tour with him often. Even his son and daughter have played in his recent bands when they could. That familial bond extended to the vast community of people it has brought together and from that, the band members become like family to fans. There is a deep caring for the people that maybe fans of the Rolling Stones or Eagles never gained. Glenn Frey is famous and an icon, but was he as beloved as much as the music he made?

Duane Allman's messianic shadow looms large over the band, but especially, it seemed, for Butch. He often eagerly repeated stories of Duane's impact upon him, saving him from a life as a high school math teacher. Butch seemed to feel the need to spread the Gospel that Duane preached, often referring to he and his fellow Allman Brothers as "Apostles". It kept the band going for 45 years, at times beyond reason considering the specter of tragedy. For a band filled with as much tragedy as the Allman Brothers have had, it would seem unfathomable that a band member would choose to leave us. But suicide is only rational to a single person in a single moment, and as much as the band feels like family, this is a stark reminder that for all of Butch's candor, we fans only see 3 of the best hours of a musicians' day: on stage, under the lights, doing what they love most, preaching to their adoring choir. Searching for reason is fruitless, and nowhere to be found in Butch's final interview, given just hours before he left us, in which he spoke of mostly the future: upcoming tours, Roots Rock Camp, his garden in the south of France.

Butch Trucks
Even though the Allman Brothers' music has had an immeasurable impact on me, I still found myself surprised at how much Butch's death affected me. Butch was an intense personality, which I always appreciated, but I tend to separate my love of the music from the personalities that made it. But when I read the rumors of Butch's passing that night, I couldn't sleep until I convinced myself that the cryptic chatter was only rumor. When it was all confirmed the next day it really hit me, I was absolutely crushed, perhaps irrationally considering this was a person who I had only spoken a few superficial words to a month prior. But the Allman Brothers are the sound track to my life, they inspired animations I've made and the music I love to play. This man's art affected my life greatly, as he did so many countless others, as not only an artist, but as a teacher.

After surviving the tragic deaths of Duane and Berry, many fans felt the remaining members escaped tragedy themselves, thereby earning the right to carry on indefinitely until old age, exacerbated by a long life on the road, caught up. But searching for meaning is irrelevant for those of us who are reminded that we are on the outside looking in, fortunate just to have this wonderful music. Our lives aren't defined by how we leave, especially a life as colorful as Butch's, who inspired so many young musicians, and likely will for years to come. So while I still don't fully understand drums, and likely never will, it is irrelevant because I will keep listening and watching all the same. And I will never witness drums played played better than by Butch and Jaimoe.

*** Author's Note: if any of these photos used are yours or you know the artist, please let me know so I can credit ***

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Done Somebody Wrong"

Robert Johnson
It is commonly said that you trace the history of the slide guitar back through three artists: Duane Allman>Elmore James>Robert Johnson. Each was a monster on their instrument and learned from and built upon their predecessor. Robert Johnson's status as "King of the Delta Blues" is legendary, if not mythical. The Mississippi musician's influence is likely unmatched in popular music - later blues giants such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were directly influenced by him, which would go on to influence the next generation of rock musicians such as Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. Many people have never heard Robert Johnson's records, but they know his songs - "Crossroads Blues", "Dust My Broom", "Come On In My Kitchen", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Love In Vain". Robert Johnson famously and mysteriously died young at the age of 27, never knowing his full influence.

Elmore James
A few years later, a World War II vet and Robert Johnson fan (and fellow Mississippian) named Elmore James incorporated Johnson's slide technique and sound into his own music. James would often play through a well-amplified hollow body acoustic, giving him a rich, dirty sound, especially when gliding or trilling his slide up and down the guitar neck. James' music was dirty barrel house blues - a heavy beat, a stinging guitar, and often a saxophone. He took Robert Johnson's lonesome acoustic blues and made it shake and dance with hits like "Shake Your Money Maker", "The Sky is Crying", "One Way Out" and even scoring a huge hit out of Johnson's own "Dust My Broom". Like Robert Johnson, he never lived to see his influence, struck down by a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 45.

Duane Allman
After his death, Elmore James' legend only grew. "Dust My Broom" and "The Sky is Crying" would become blues standards, achieving immortality through covers by Taj Mahal, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Haynes, John Hammond, Canned Heat, Ike & Tina Turner, Albert King, ZZ Top, Etta James, and countless other. Meanwhile, slide guitar master and Elmore James fan, Duane Allman, would pick a more obscure cut, "Done Somebody Wrong", as a showcase for his own slide playing. Where Elmore James plugged in Robert Johnson's music and made it dance, Duane Allman made it sing as he effortlessly created dynamic melodies using a glass pill bottle on a Gibson SG. Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong" was a foot stomper, but the Allman Brothers, as they did with so many of their covers, made the song swing. The Allmans first released the road-tested "Done Somebody Wrong" on At Fillmore East in 1971 and it stayed in the band's rotation up until their final shows in 2014 (their final show featured James' "The Sky is Crying"). Duane Allman, of course, never lived to see his own influence. He died months after At Fillmore East was released at the age of 24.

Derek Trucks
These days former Allman Brothers guitarist, Derek Trucks, keeps the song alive with an acoustic version with his own band, The Tedeschi Trucks Band, which returns the song to its barrel house, foot stomping Elmore James roots. I took that as a starting point, but I wanted to stretch the song out a little, rather than just a simple blues cover. I patterned my arrangement on one the Allman Brothers used towards the end of their run, complete with an opening jam that played on other Allman material from "You Don't Love Me" and the abandoned "One More Ride".

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Never Been to Spain"

There really isn't much to say about the song "Never Been to Spain". It was written by song-writer Hoyt Axton and first recorded by 1970s mega-pop group Three Dog Night. It was another in a string of hits for the group, and another hit song for Axton, whose songs had recently been featured in the film Easy Rider.

I first heard the song version performed by Elvis Presley on his 1972 Madison Square Garden concert album. It's catchy, if somewhat nonsensical - there's something universally simple in its lyrics on the surface, which is probably why it has been covered by Tina Turner, Cher, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Chirs Robinson, among others. But I doubt any of those artists ever thought too hard about its meaning, and I wouldn't be surprised if Axton had either. It's a great song for a strong voice to stretch out since the song builds from a whisper to a church chorus, which is probably also why it has endured. I mostly dug the guitar parts, which is what drew me to covering it.

I had this on the shelf since last summer, but I finally got around to finishing it this week. I don't have a big voice, so I went with layering some harmonies. But then again, the lyrics don't really matter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Train Leaves Here This Morning"

Jeffrey Lebowski made it pretty cool to hate The Eagles in 1998's Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski, but that didn't stop the California country rock band from selling out massive concerts up until they disbanded earlier this year (their disbandment caused only by founder Glenn Frey's sudden death, which means this time it's likely for good). Love them or hate them, today The Eagles are considered one of, if not the, biggest U.S. bands of the 1970s (maybe ever). By many, however, they are dismissed as inauthentic sellouts to stadium rock.

After a successful stint backing up Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and Don Henley decided to venture out and start their own country rock band, The Eagles. They were immediately successful, building on what The Byrds, Buffallo Springfield, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others had started before: smooth country-based ballads with pleasant harmonies. The genre didn't have the grit and sweat (or authenticity) of outlaw country of Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, nor the goofy polish of Nashville establishment acts like George Jones. These weren't cowboy campfire songs and the musicians weren't from The South, rather, the music was light and breezy like waves gently crashing on the desert. That style would go on to influence the sound of light 1970s AM rock (a sound expertly mocked in Documentary Now's Light & Breezy: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, which took direct aim at The Eagles' inauthenticity).

The Eagles, 1972 (Henley, Leadon, Frey, Meisner)
The knock against The Eagles is that they were too polished. Even for California country music. A few years after their 1972 debut, they added rock guitarist Joe Walsh in a move to further themselves from an acoustic country sound. People forget that in 1974, although they were successful, The Eagles were often still opening for bigger acts like The Allman Brothers (to be fair, bills were typically stacked with several big acts in those days). They were big, but they weren't the biggest yet. Adding Joe Walsh, who rose to success with The James Gang and handful of successful solo albums, was a pretty big get. It propelled The Eagles to the top with 1976's massive hit Hotel California, one of the biggest rock albums ever.

Joe Walsh replaced Eagles' founding guitarist Bernie Leadon who had grown tired of the grind of studios and touring, and some say, was against Frey and Henley's move away from light country rock. Of all of The Eagles hit songs, my favorite Eagles song was always Bernie Leadon's "Train Leaves Here This Morning" from their debut album. For a long time I thought it was an obscure, forgotten nugget buried on an album with big hits, but when I went to arrange my version, I discovered the song has quite a bit of life among country bands. It's something of a standard. The song originally appeared on a Dillard & Clark album, one of Leadon's previous bands he played in. He brought the song with him to The Eagles and since then it's become something of a signature tune for him, eventually playing it when he rejoined The Eagles for some of their recent tours.

I got a little ambitious with the tune. I wanted to slow it down, and give it some space to breath. That left it really empty in places, my voice alone couldn't carry it, so I added some totally improvised harmonies which I discovered is a huge part of the song. Since I've moved recently, the new room I've been recording in is pretty open and echoey at the moment, so the bass is a little muddy (probably a good time to record some Phil Spectre material) but it seems to have covered some of my harmony deficiencies.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Midnight Blues"

Shortly after the Allman Brothers reunited in 1990 they were invited to MTV's all acoustic Unplugged program. An acoustic show might seem unremarkable today, but after a decade dominated by electronic synthesizers and hair bands' guitar amplifier's gain turned to 11, the idea of an all-acoustic show was refreshing, if not revolutionary. The show felt impromptu (in the case of the Joe Walsh and Dr. John pairing, it actually was) but the Allman Brothers took it as seriously as their reunion. This was a chance to show a nationally televised audience that they weren't a dinosaur band. It was also an opportunity to show casual fans that they weren't just a guitar band that jammed for hours.

They performed lovely versions of acoustic-based classics Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider" and "Melissa", and introduced their latest album's title track, Dickey Betts' "Seven Turns". But they also dusted off some old blues songs, Robert Johnson's "Come On Into My Kitchen" and the traditional "Going Down That Road Feeling Bad". The performance was so successful that they added an acoustic set to the middle of their live shows for the next few years.

Blind Willie McTell
One of the songs Dickey Betts brought to the band for their expanded touring acoustic set was an old Blind Willie McTell song, "Blues 'Round Midnight". The story goes that he had remembered it wrong, to the point it was almost a completely different tune. Enter "Midnight Blues" which appeared on the Allman Brothers' next live album, An Evening With.

I recorded most of this song last Summer. I wanted to put a sax solo on it, but my sax chops have a ways to go to catch up to my 13 year-old self. The cigar box guitar fits in enough, I didn't want to over stuff the song.

Monday, July 25, 2016

"Keep On Growing"

Derek & the Dominos lone studio album, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, was not a commercial or critical success upon its release in 1970. Producer Tom Dowd found himself at a loss regarding the lukewarm reception the album received, he was certain he had just poured sweat and tears into an amazing collection of songs. The album's initial thud at the sales counter is pretty hard to believe today considering it is now so universally beloved and considered a high point of Eric Clapton's career, featuring his most famous song, "Layla". But, like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, many of history's great artistic achievements take a while to sink in with the public and receive the acclaim they deserve.

It took me a while to come around Layla as well. I have never been a huge Eric Clapton fan - his stinging Fender Stratocaster tone tires my ears. But you would think that the addition of Duane Allman, and what was essentially Delaney & Bonnie & Friends' touring band, would put this one in the win column immediately for me. But it didn't.

The story of Layla has been recounted many times. Eric Clapton was in a bad place in the early 1970s. After years being hailed as a "Guitar God" (or the Guitar GOD) while playing with John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Cream, and (briefly) Blind Faith, Clapton decided to retreat to the side of the stage. Meanwhile, the criminally underrated Delaney & Bonnie & Friends were playing rootsy folk, blues, and country music with a stellar band that included Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, and Carl Radle. At the suggestion of Eric Clapton's good friend, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie opened for Blind Faith during its brief tour before quickly disbanding. Enamored with the down to earth music Delaney & Bonnie were making, Clapton decided retreat from the spotlight and take the lead guitar chair with them on their next tour as a sideman (one that had been briefly sat in by Harrison, Dave Mason, and eventually, occasionally Duane Allman).

Clapton, Bonnie & Delaney Bramlett, Harrison
Delaney & Bonnie were always a critics and musicians' darling, but never a big seller. After the tour and a season of playing with them, Clapton used their bandmates for his first solo album (Joe Cocker also went on tour with essentially the same band - they were really good). Meanwhile, Clapton became famously enamored with best bud George Harrison's wife. The helplessness he felt for the love of his best friend's wife found itself into the song writing for his next album, which would not bear the guitarist's name, rather the band's new stage name in an attempt to give Clapton some anonymity. After a legendary meeting at an Allman Brothers concert, Duane Allman was invited to participate on the album as production was already underway.

Layla LP gatefold collage
The original and covered music on Layla is full of screams, cries, and pleas for a love that can't, or shouldn't, be. The energy is almost always hitting the ceiling - "Anyday", "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad?", "Bell Bottom Blues", "Have You Ever Loved A Woman", "It's Too Late", and of course, "Layla", is almost too exhausting to listen to from start to finish. There are plenty of concept albums that sport a singular theme, but Layla almost feels over-indulgent (anyone who has seen the album's interior photo collage can infer "over-indulgence" was the theme in the studio as well). I think that's why it never spoke to me too strongly, and much of it still doesn't (I still find "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad" simple and childish, which it is kind of intended to be I suppose), but I've come to appreciate it much more in recent years. A degree of credit for my turn goes to the Tedeschi Trucks Band who have covered "Anyday" and "Keep On Growing" expertly (as well as a good amount of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen material). I was surprised to find myself covering this song, but sometimes a project finds you. The lyrics are almost nonsense, but the music is so bouncy and hopeful, it is easily the most upbeat song on the album. This is also the final track to my second "album", The Front Porch.

Derek & the Dominos didn't tour extensively. They performed only twice with Duane Allman whose time in the fold ended up being only a brief dalliance: though tempted to continue playing with one of his heroes, he quickly returned to his own band that was just beginning to catch fire. Eric Clapton's life would unravel in a downward spiral over the next few years before a late-1970s resurrection. The rest of the group, whose names are known primarily due to Layla, essentially drifted after a brief reunion with Joe Cocker. Only Whitlock, who has recently returned to performing music, seemed to survive the industry intact - Gordon went mad and killed his mother, Radle drank himself to an early grave. Duane Allman died a year later in a motorcycle accident.  

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is heralded as a masterpiece.