Friday, May 27, 2016

"I Walked on Gilded Splinters"

I can play a lot of things: guitar, mandolin, piano, bass, a little saxophone. One thing I am not is a drummer (many would say "singer" as well). So choosing to tackle Dr. John's rhythm-heavy "I Walked on Gilded Splinters" with stomp buckets and a cajon was a bit of a challenge.

Dr. John
Dr. John first recorded the voodoo song for his 1968 album, Gris-Gris. It's full of spooky atmosphere, with hissing and background singers seeming to appear from the ether, or at the very least, from the far corners of the recording studio. Dr. John recorded the song in the same studio Cher was recording an album in LA. Oddly enough, she covered the tune which is full of voodoo studio production and a tone-deaf Cher vocal. But she may have planted the idea to speed up the song, which a blues man from Georgia cutting his first album would also do - Johnny Jenkins.

Johnny Jenkins had played the chitlin' circuit for years as Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. For a time he employed a backup singer named Otis Redding. Jenkins manager, Phil Walden, would concentrate on Otis once his career exploded until Otis tragically died in a plane crash in Lake Monona (a block from my where I grew up and learned to skip stones). Walden quickly found a new project: Duane Allman.

As Allman put together his new band, Walden built Capricorn Records around them, as a place for his collection of southern musicians to record without having to leave for New York or LA (or Memphis or Alabama). One of the first albums Capricorn released was Johnny Jenkins' Ton-Ton Macoute. It is something of a concept album, full of voodoo inspired intensity, which Jenkins was reportedly not happy with. The songs themselves are a bit of a grab bag of unused material, including a couple of cuts from Duane Allman's first pass at a solo album. But somehow it all comes together and works beautifully, it is one of my favorite albums.

 The album kicks off with Butch Trucks' heavy, funky beat. It's a train that slowly gains steam until background singers and Duane Allman's dobro kick in. Johnny Jenkins' cover of "I Walked on Gilded Splinters" is heavy and funky. Others have since covered the song - Humble Pie, Widespread Panic, Paul Weller, even the Allman Brothers - but Jenkins' is the definitive version for me (The Allman Brothers would probably agree since their version is clearly based on Jenkins'). Not only have others covered it, but Butch Trucks' funky drum opening has been heavily sampled, most famously by Beck on "Loser" (whose dobro lick sounds an awful lot like Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider"). Trucks has been quoted as wishing he received writing credit for his drum parts on songs, so hearing your drums on others' popular songs can't make him too happy and is probably why "Gilded Splinters" is part of his Freight Train Band's regular sets. Gregg Allman himself would rework his own epic "Whipping Post" into an acoustic version that sounds an awful lot like Jenkins' "Gilded Splinters".

My biggest challenge was translated his rhythms using simple tools. Our home just happened to recently add a cowbell, which helped, and I was able for the first time create some complementary rhythms that played off of each other. It was a challenge, but it all kind of came together, including dueling resonators in dueling tunings (G for the tricone, E for the spider with a capo at G).

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Medicated Goo"

Considering the Allman Brothers are my favorite band and can be credited with me picking up a guitar in the first place, it is only natural that their material (and related material) have dominated this project thus far. Of the 17 songs I have finished, 5 can be considered Allman Brothers songs: "Ain't Wasting Time No More", "Dreams", "Blue Sky", "Little Martha", "Statesboro Blues" (though an old blues cover, it is largely identified with the Brothers). 4 have been regularly covered by the Allman Brothers or related bands: "Into the Mystic", "In A Silent Way", "Preachin' Blues", "Feel So Bad". Another 4 have been performed by The Allman Brothers (or related bands) on special occasions or included a band member on the original recording: "Games People Play", "Memphis Soul Stew", "Soul Serenade", "Fat Mama". That leaves only 4 songs that have nothing to do with the Allman Brothers: "You Got the Silver", "Flying", "Albatross", and now, "Medicated Goo".

Traffic, Mr. Fantasy
I fist heard Traffic in early middle school when "Dear, Mr. Fantasy" came on the radio. I dug it, I looked them up, and picked up Traffic's first album pretty soon afterwards. I always marvel at all of the great music made in the late 1960's and how cool it must have been to have new amazing songs and albums released nearly every week, songs that would become classics but without knowing it at the time. No wonder so many people who grew up with that music in that period were so disappointed by the late 1970's - you just think that kind of quality is going to go on forever. Discovering all of this as a middle schooler was nearly as exciting - I'm still discovering great music 25 years later.

But Traffic is a unique group that doesn't get nearly enough credit. Growing up in the 1980s, I knew who Steve Winwood was from his bland, yet fun, hits like "Roll With It, Baby" and that he was the voice of Spencer Davis Group's hit, "Gimme Some Loving" (a band the Allman Brothers would cover with their first track of their first album). I read that he was in the super group Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, and had heard about Traffic, but didn't really know much about them - they were already something of a footnote in most rock & roll histories. Which is a shame, because they are one of the most interesting and dynamic bands to come out of that period, easily one of my favorites.

I picked up their second album, and dug it even more - the combination of Steve Winwood's bright, odd, psychedelic rock and Dave Mason's bouncy folk was perfect. But perfect musical marriages don't always last, and Dave Mason was in and out of the band, as Traffic unformed and reformed during the early 1970s. Eventually, as the 1970s rolled on, Traffic embraced more fusion based rock as Jim Capaldi's influence increased. Since then, Traffic reformed sparingly, once in the 1990s with Gregg Allman's old sax player stepping in for the deceased Chris Wood. But with the death of drummer/singer Jim Capaldi, only Dave Mason and Steve Winwood remain. Dave Mason has taken the stage with superfans Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks' bands, naturally great music finds each other. I got to see Dave Mason sit in with Gov't Mule in Milwaukee in 2005, and he joined TTB for their Joe Cocker tribute last summer at LOCK'N Fest since Cocker made his Traffic song, "Feelin' Alright", a huge hit for himself.

My middle school computer teacher recognized my interest in music and actually made me a mix tape that included a few cuts from Traffic's Welcome to the Canteen. It's now one of my favorite live albums, highlighted for me by the silly "Medicated Goo" that opens the album, so I decided to take a stab at it myself. I first recorded the song in the same key Traffic performed it in, key of D, but it was too high for my limited vocals to stay in pitch. After finishing it in D, I redid it in C. My pitch is more accurate, but it is a little more mellow, which suits my style better.