Archive for the ‘2009’ Category

‘West’

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Today, finally, we go west, sorting through the digital shelves for four tracks that use the word “west” in their titles.

Sorting in the RealPlayer for the word, we get 613 tracks, but as I suspected, we have some winnowing to do. Numerous tracks have been labeled “West Coast” in the genre slot, and they fall by the wayside, Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, the City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said, and Walter Eagan’s Not Shy among them. Anything titled or tagged as having been recorded at the Fillmore West will be ignored, as will numerous blues joints that came out of West Helena, Arkansas (many of them by Howlin’ Wolf).

Most of Alfred Newman’s soundtrack to the 1962 movie How The West Was Won is lost, as are Ray Charles’ two volumes from 1962 of Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. The same holds for anything by Cashman & West (with and without Pistilli), and for a group called West, which gets double-docked for its 1968 self-titled album.

We also throw out the fight song from Western Illinois University, and numerous singles, starting with those on the Westbound and EastWest labels. Among the lost singles are “Linda’s Gone” by the West Coast Branch, “Fairchild” by Willie West, “Rave On” by Sonny West, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” by Tex Williams & His Western Caravan, “Tennessee Toddy” by Billy Gray & His Western Okies, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” by Kim Weston, “500 Miles” by Hedy West, “Take What You Want” by West Point, and “The Ballad Of Paladin” by Johnny Western.

Still, we have enough to work with.

Trying to tap into the spirit of the music they’d made a decade earlier, the Allman Brothers Band offered “From The Madness Of The West” on its 1980 album Reach For The Sky. In its six-plus minutes, the jam gave the listener the expected: parallel guitar lines playing arching melodies, a percussion solo, modal progressions and a technically precise guitar solo. What it could not offer, of course, were those people and things the Allman Brothers Band lost along the way: the departed Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, the bypassed Jaimoe, and the ability to do things no other band could. “From The Madness Of The West” is decent listening but no more than that. If you let it roll by in the background without thinking about it, it’s pleasant music, but when you stop to think about the arc of the Allman Brothers Band, the track – and in fact all of Reach For The Sky – feels like the part in a novel where you pause and wonder if in fact there can be any revival.

In 1987, when the Grateful Dead released the album In The Dark and pulled from the album the single “Touch Of Grey,” I wonder if Jerry Garcia and the rest of the band were baffled by the result. The album went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200, and the single went to No. 9 on the Hot 100. The group had reached the Top 20 of the album chart a few times before – Blues For Allah had done the best, going to No. 12 in 1975 – but never before had a Dead single hit the Top 40, much less the Top Ten. The group’s highest charting single before “Touch Of Grey” had been 1971’s “Truckin’,” which topped off at No. 64. As it happened, the Dead’s burst of popularity coincided with the rebirth of my interest in buying tunes, and In The Dark became the first Grateful Dead album on my shelves. And one of my favorite tracks from the album – “West L.A. Fadeaway” – qualifies for today’s exercise, bringing along a blues verse that more often than not makes me chuckle: “I met an old mistake walkin’ down the street today/I didn’t wanna be mean about it, but I didn’t have one good word to say.”

With a spare accompaniment – guitars and few strings – Nanci Griffith sings:

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

I remember times
When you’d weathered out my mind
But you always had a peaceful word to say
And you could always bring a smile
With the mischief in your eyes
Still, I’m glad the miles keep me separate from your games

You know you’re still as wild
As those old west Texas plains
Standing by the highway do you still call my name?
Lord, I can’t believe it’s been such a long, long time
Since I’ve seen that Texas boy smile

Well, I’ll be heading out of town
I may stop by next time around
Hell, it’s raining, but at least that’s something real
I came shackled down with fears
About our dreams and wasted years
And now I know exactly how to feel

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

The track is “West Texas Sun” from Griffith’s first album, the 1978 release There’s A Light Beyond These Woods. As one might expect for a first album, it’s a little tentative; the confident story-teller that I discovered in the early 1990s has yet to show up. (I think of “Love at the Five & Dime” from The Last of the True Believers in 1986 and “Trouble In The Fields” from Lone Star State Of Mind a year later, just to highlight two great songs that came along very soon.) But even early Griffith is worth a stop this morning.

And we close this morning with a recent version of a song that’s been around for nearly ninety years: “West End Blues.” Written by Clarence Williams and King Oliver and first recorded in 1928 by King Oliver & His Dixie Syncopators, “West End Blues” was one of the tunes that New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint selected for his 2009 album The Bright Mississippi. In his review of the album at AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that “although straight-out jazz is uncommon in Toussaint’s work, this neither feels unfamiliar or like a stretch,” adding, “Upon the first listen, The Bright Mississippi merely seems like a joyous good time, but subsequent spins focus attention on just how rich and multi-layered this wonderful music is.” As I listened to the most recent cover of “West End Blues,” I noted that the digital shelves also hold a copy of one of the earliest covers of the song: A 1928 release by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five.

‘How Does Your Light Shine?’

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

As we’ve discovered over the past week or two, covers of the song “Shambala” – the Daniel Moore-penned song first recorded in 1973 by B.W. Stevenson and covered almost simultaneously by Three Dog Night – are relatively few. (I should note that the order in which the first versions of the song were recorded is offered here as I find it online. Faithful reader and pal Yah Shure made a comment in an email the other day that calls that order – Stevenson, then Three Dog Night – into question. I’ve meant to ask him about that, but I have not yet done so.)

Beyond the two 1973 versions and the two other covers noted here last week, I’ve found three other covers of “Shambala” and clear evidence that there’s at least one more cover out there: At least two used record outlets online are offering a 45 rpm single of the tune by soul legend Solomon Burke. Neither listing shows an issue date, nor does the generally reliably Soulful Kinda Music list the single at all. All Music Guide has the track listed on a 2004 anthology. If I get hold of it, it will show up here.

Writer Moore released one rootsy self-titled album in 1971 and then focused on writing and production for more than twenty years before establishing his own label – DJM – and releasing a series of albums starting in 1997, with the most recent listed at AMG being 2011’s Fittin’ To Go Off. His rather bland take on “Shambala” showed up on his 1998 album, Riding a Horse & Holding Up the World:

One of the covers of “Shambala” mentioned here earlier was Rockpile’s a capella 1992 offering. A similar version showed up in 2009 via a group that was formed at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. That’s when the Bear Necessities included their version of the tune on their album Teaches Of Peaches, a take on the song that, to my ears, owes an immense debt to the Swingle Singers.

And finally, the last cover I’ve found of “Shambala” is a good live version of the tune recorded by country star Toby Keith and his band. The performance – recorded in June 2010 at New York City’s Irving Plaza during one of Keith’s low-profile Incognito Bandito gigs – was one of four live tracks included in the deluxe version of Keith’s 2011 album Clancy’s Tavern.

‘That Big Eight-Wheeler . . .’

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

So what other covers did I run across this week as I dug into Hank Snow’s 1950 classic song “I’m Movin’ On”? Well, using the list at Second Hand Songs and the list of performers available at BMI, I found a bunch that I thought were interesting and a couple that I really liked.

My favorite? Well, that can wait for a bit, but second place goes to the version that Leon Russell released in 1984 recording as his alter ego, Hank Wilson. Here’s that rollicking cover, from Hank Wilson Vol. II.

As I dug, I was particularly interested in giving a listen to the first cover listed at SHS, a performance by Hoagy Carmichael, but I think that’s an error, maybe a different song with the same (or a similar) title, as Carmichael is not included in the BMI list of performers who’ve recorded the song. Given that, it seems – and I’m not at all certain, as the BMI listings don’t include dates – that the first cover of “I’m Movin’ On” came in 1955 from Les Paul and Mary Ford.

In 1961, a rockabilly musician named Dick Hiorns – whose resume included a couple of daily performances during the early 1950s on WBAY in Green Bay, Wisconsin – recorded a version of Snow’s song for the Cuca Record Company of Sauk City, Wisconsin. A year later, Jerry Reed – at the time a session guitarist in Nashville – teamed up with some background singers who were called the Hully Girlies for a version of Snow’s tune, and a few years after that, in 1965, the Rolling Stones took on the tune and released it on the EP Got Live If You Want It!

Genius organist Jimmy Smith took a whack at the tune in 1967, and two years later, Elvis Presley included it on his From Elvis in Memphis album. In 1978, New Orleans’ Professor Longhair (aka Henry Byrd) took Snow’s song, altered the verses and made it into a Crescent City shuffle. It’s included on Big Chief, a 1993 Rhino album. (And I have no idea if the fourteen tracks on Big Chief were released during the intervening fifteen years).

There were others, of course: Versions that I didn’t track down or that didn’t grab me came from, among other, Del Reeves, Clyde McPhatter, Timi Yuro, Connie Francis, Johnny Nash, Burl Ives, the Box Tops, Sammy Kershaw, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Mickey Gilley, Loggins & Messina and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

But after all of that, I think my favorite cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” that I found this week was actually a rediscovery. Rosanne Cash included the tune on her 2009 CD The List, an album of songs pulled from a list her famous father once gave her of essential American music. I’ve often thought that too many versions of the song – Snow’s included – have sounded almost celebratory. Not Cash’s. She pulls the tempo back, and amid a nest of atmospheric guitars and percussion, she makes the song something closer to a dirge, and that fits.

Jesse Winchester, 1944-2014

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The broad outlines of Jesse Winchester’s life and work are pretty well known:

Born in Louisiana in 1944, raised in Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Grew up playing music. Moved to Montreal after receiving a military draft notice in 1967. Met musicians there, including Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced Winchester’s 1970 self-titled debut album. Became a Canadian citizen. Continued to record regularly into the early 1980s and performed regularly and recorded occasionally since. Moved back to the U.S. in 2002, settling in Virginia. Passed away last Friday, April 11, 2014.

In my brief post about Jesse Winchester Saturday, I wrote: “While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters.”

And where did those senses of regret and loss come from? Well, just as in literature, sense of place and a resulting appreciation of home are among the main themes of song, whether one is at home, going home or displaced from home. And in Jesse Winchester’s music I hear displacement – with those resulting senses of regret and loss – as a constant current. Part of that might simply have been his demeanor. A good portion of it is likely something Southern. And the largest part of that presence came, I would guess, from his status as an exile from his homeland.

Whatever the sources, that current runs true from his self-titled debut in 1970 to his last album, Love Filling Station, which was released in 2009. Here’s maybe the most overt expression of that displacement, “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” from the 1974 album, Learn To Love It.

For me, it was Winchester’s second album, Third Down, 110 To Go, that introduced me to his music. I remember liking the album a great deal when I heard it across the street at Rick and Rob’s house one evening in 1972. I thought I should maybe get my own copy, but I had other music in my sights at the time. Then Rob moved to Colorado, I went away for a while, and I saw the two brothers only sporadically for a few years. And I forgot about Jesse Winchester until the early 1990s when one of my twice-weekly stops at Cheapo’s brought me a vinyl copy of Winchester’s 1970 debut album. When I saw it and as it played it on my turntable, I thought about Third Down, 110 To Go and began to look for it and Winchester’s other work.

By early 1999, I had good copies of everything he’d recorded up through 1981’s Talk Memphis. I’ve since added his three last studio albums (but none of the several live albums). And listening to his work as a whole – as I have for a few hours over the course of the past weekend – I’m struck even more strongly by those qualities of regret and loss that seem to underlie even the lighter and sometimes humorous songs. (As an example, listen to “Snow” from 1970’s Jesse Winchester, which to me asks “How did I come to live in a place so different from my home?”)

Winchester might in the end be better remembered as a songwriter. There’s a long list at Wikipedia of folks who’ve recorded his work. And some of those covers are impressive. That especially holds true for the work on the 2012 album Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, which includes covers from Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill and others. But as good as those versions are – and I do enjoy Quiet About It – it’s hard to surpass Winchester’s versions of his own songs.

And we’ll close today with the gentle and lovely “Eulalie” from Winchester’s last album, the 2009 release Love Filling Station.

‘White’

Friday, January 31st, 2014

And so, after several delays, we land on “White,” the last of nine chapters in Floyd’s Prism, looking at songs whose titles feature the seven colors of the spectrum plus black and white.

As with nearly all of the previous entries, when we sort the tracks in the RealPlayer, we get a total of 766. That’s many more than we need, but many of them, we cannot use. Some show up, as I noted the other day, because they’re tagged with the notation, “Ripped from vinyl by whiteray.” But others, equally unuseable, show up for other reasons.

Some have words in their titles that are close to “white,” including eleven versions of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” And we’ll also pass on “Whitestone Bridge,” a 1973 tune from the Irish band Tír na nÓg; “Whitewash,” a 1976 outing by the Gin Blossoms; and two versions of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 offering, “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey).”

Out goes everything by the Average White Band, Tony Joe White, country singer Joy Lynn White, vintage singers Bukka White, Josh White and Georgia White, harp legend Charlie Musselwhite, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, current performer Jack White and country singer Lari White. We also dismiss the great “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead, a few vintage tracks by Paul Whitehead & His Orchestra and two tracks from Lavelle White, one on Duke from 1958 and the other from her 2003 album, Into the Mystic. And we pass by every track in the collection by Barry White; we could have kept his “Rhapsody in White,” but we decided against it.

What else? Three albums titled Black & White, by the BoDeans, the Pointer Sisters and the previously mentioned Tony Joe White, fall by the wayside, as do Shawn Phillips’ 1973 album Bright White (we posted the title tune here the other week), Michael Omartian’s 1974 effort White Horse, most of David Gray’s 200 album White Ladder and Gene Clark’s 1971 offering White Light. We also pass by the Cowboy Junkies’ 1986 album Whites Off Earth Now!! and numerous singles on the White Whale label.

So we take what’s left, which turns out to be plenty for our purposes this morning.

I mentioned David Gray’s 2000 album White Ladder above. It’s a CD that’s truly not strayed far from our player during the years since it came out, a tuneful and literate album. The best-known track on the record is no doubt “Babylon,” which made seven different Billboard charts, reaching No. 57 on the Hot 100 and No. 8 on the Adult Top 40. While the title track is nowhere near as well-known (and doesn’t have nearly as great a hook as “Babylon,” to be honest), “White Ladder” is still a good track from an artist whose body of work has sometimes been uneven (and sometimes gets a little repetitive, to be honest).

Nearly seven years ago, during the first weeks of this blog’s existence, I told the tale of my grandfather and his buying a birthday present for my sister, a 45 rpm record that turned out to be the tales of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood written by Steve Allen and then told by Al “Jazzbo” Collins in early 1950s jazz and hipster lingo. The 1953 record was an unlikely hit, and it spun off more such performances. Today’s selection is “Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs” as told by Collins later that same year. The story came from the pen of Douglas Jones, whose ear for the hipster argot was, to my own ears, not as sharp as was Allen’s. Still, it’s a fun trip through the woods to the dwarves’ rib shack.

There’s not a lot more for me to say about the late Levon Helm. Today’s sorting brought up Helm’s take on the Carter Stanley tune “White Dove,” from Helm’s 2009 album, Electric Dirt. The album went to No. 36 on the Billboard 200 and was awarded a Grammy as the Best Americana Album in 2010.

From 2009 we drop back sixty-eight years to what is certainly the most sentimental song in this set of six. But then, wartime can do that, and “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” is one of the quintessential songs of World War II. Written in 1941 by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, the tune reflects the unease of Britons facing Nazi Germany alone and expresses hope for a return to normal life after the war. Though other versions might have become better known on this side of the Atlantic, especially the version by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the version by Vera Lynn – the original, I believe – is the one that the Brits loved, despite the sad fact that bluebirds are not indigenous to the British Isles and have never flown over the tall white cliffs. Lyricist Burton, notes Wikipedia, was an American who seemingly didn’t know any better, but no matter: Since 1941, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” anyway.

Chad Mitchell was, as his name reminds us, the founder of the Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk group that placed eight albums in the Billboard 200 between 1962 and 1965 (the last two charting after Mitchell left and the group was renamed just the Mitchell Trio (and included among its members at that time John Denver). Mitchell at that point embarked on a solo career, and one of the artifacts of that rather unsuccessful effort is the 1969 album Chad. The album, writes Richie Unterberger at All Music Guide, was “an odd match of Mitchell’s crooning folk vocals with covers of then-recent folk-rock-ish songs by Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’), Dino Valente (‘Let’s Get Together’), and far more obscure titles like Tim Buckley’s ‘Goodbye & Hello,’ H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The White Ship,’ Jim & Jean’s ‘What’s That Got to Do with Me,’ and the Association’s ‘Bus Song’.” It’s the Lovecraft tune that draws us in this morning. The album-opener, “The White Ship” is, in its weird and unmarketable (but oddly compelling) way, 1969 summed up in three minutes and thirty-eight seconds.

From 1969’s folk-rock self-indulgence, we head to 1957 and a concise country anthem, “A White Sport Coat & A Pink Carnation” by Marty Robbins. The tale of the young fellow all spiffed up for the dance only to have his gal waltz off with someone else was No. 1 on the Billboard country charts for five weeks in mid-1957. It was one of a remarkable eighty-three records Robbins placed in the country Top 40; the record also went to No. 2 on the Hot 100, where Robbins had thirty-six records in or near the chart over the years.

Of Stem Caps & Sensors

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

When I got into our Nissan the other day, the little light on the dashboard that looks like a flat tire was on: The air in one or more of the tires was at an unsatisfactory level.

I sighed and nodded. It was one of the first truly cold days of the autumn, and the resultant contraction of the air had lowered the air pressure in the tires. It happens every fall (and the converse, the expansion of air to the point where the tires are over-filled, happens every spring).

So I interrupted my errand with a stop at a service station and got the problem halfway fixed. Two of the caps on the tire valve stems did not want to come off. Annoyed, I completed my errands with the tire light still glowing on the dashboard, and once home, I got a pair of pliers and began to work on the balky stem caps. The first one, a plastic one, came off immediately. The second, a metal one, did not, despite efforts that left it scratched and scarred.

Pensive, I headed down to the nearby convenience store and topped off the tire from which I’d taken the plastic cap and then took a short drive to see if the tire light stayed on, indicating that the currently inaccessible tire also needed air. After a half-mile or so, the light went out. The air in the tires was fine. But we were going to have to get the car into our local tire place to get that metal cap removed.

The shiny metal cap – the one that was badly stuck and now scarred – was new. Sometime last summer, I got tired of replacing the plastic caps on the tire stems. It seemed that every couple months, one of them broke or had its threads damaged. So I headed down to the auto parts shop on Lincoln Avenue, right next door to the building that houses WJON and its sibling radio stations, and bought a set of metal caps for the Versa’s valve stems. As it happened, I installed only two of them, leaving the two remaining plastic caps in place.

Using the metal caps was not a good idea, but I didn’t know that then. That’s something I learned rapidly Monday morning, when I got to the tire shop just up the service road along Highway 10. I told the fellow behind the counter why I was there. “It’s probably mis-threaded, and I’ll need a new tire stem,” I said.

He nodded and said, “Well, yes, but . . .”

And I knew something was wrong.

“It’s not just a stem,” he went on. “It’s also the sensor for the tire pressure. We’ll try to get the cap off the stem, but what’s often happened is that the metal cap bonds to the metal of the sensor stem, and the cap can’t be removed without ruining the sensor.”

If his mechanic could remove the cap without other damage, he said, we’d be talking a minimal charge for labor. But if I needed a new sensor, I’d be looking at something north of a hundred bucks. I scratched my head, then nodded. “It’s gotta be done,” I said. “Go ahead.”

And about an hour later, I left the tire shop with a lighter bank account and a new pressure sensor in my right rear tire. As I’d settled the bill at the register, I’d had a thought. “I did have a metal cap on one of the other tires,” I said.

The fellow nodded. “We replaced that one, too,” he said.

And I headed home with my mind running in two tracks. First, we were lucky: I could have used all of the metal caps and all of them could have bonded with the stems, costing us more than $400. Second, is there any way I could have known better?

Well, yeah, there is, but only if I were an avid auto buff or had thought to do some research. The post about metal stem caps that I found at a forum for owners of the Chrysler Crossfire is typical:

The metal (either steel, stainless, or aluminum) will cause a chemical bond with the valve stem over time. Anytime you put dissimilar metals together you can expect a long term reaction, be it chemically “welded” or the opposite, corrosion. These negative effects are magnified by the fact that our valve stems are actually part of an electric sensor…….think electroplating, electrogalvanizing, etc.

I thought for a second that maybe the fellow at the car parts store might have warned me, but he likely thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t, of course, and it cost us. The only positive here is that it wasn’t as expensive a mistake as it could have been.

Well, there is one other minor positive. Telling the tale got me digging though my music for something with “wheel” in the title, and I came across a tune by Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers. I’ve liked Grushecky’s work – sometimes credited to his band, the Houserockers (originally the Iron City Houserockers), and sometimes just to him – for years, but I don’t think it’s ever shown up here.

So here’s “Broken Wheel” from their 2009 album, East Carson Street. As sometimes happens, Grushecky and the Houserockers get a little help on guitar from a pal named Bruce Springsteen.

 

‘It’s A Thin, Thin Line . . .’

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

While looking for tunes with “rest” in their titles this morning, I came across several entries for the song “Tougher Than The Rest” by Bruce Springsteen. Now, that’s not the kind of rest I had in mind, but it’ll do for today.

The song comes from Springsteen’s 1987 album, Tunnel of Love, and it’s sparked a few covers. I dug into some of those this morning – not as many as I usually sample when I’m exploring covers – and found some interesting versions. Emmylou Harris included the tune on her 1990 album, Brand New Dance, and I saw some commentary this morning that ranked her version higher than others, so I went and bought the mp3, which I evidently can’t share in a video.

Well, I liked what I heard from Emmylou more than I did most of the covers I found. I was surprised by the tepid version from Everything But The Girl on that group’s Acoustic from 1992, as I generally like the album. And I didn’t hear much in the seemingly standard country styling from Chris LeDoux on his 1994 album Haywire. On the other hand, I did enjoy the version released on a two-song disc in 2009 by the Scottish group Camera Obscura.

As it turned out, the best version of the Springsteen tune I came across today is from a source that surprised me. Travis Tritt pulled the song into his hybrid of southern rock and Nashville twang on No More Looking Over My Shoulder in 1998, and the results were pretty good:

I’ll be back Thursday, either writing about Chef Boy-Ar-Dee or about covers of one of the greatest songs ever recorded by The Band.

‘One Last Chance To Make It Real . . .’

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Down on East St. Germain – the main street here on the East Side – there’s a pawnshop. It’s right around the corner from Tom’s Barbershop, and I pop in from time to time. Granite City Pawn Shop, it’s called. It’s kind of dusty, and it’s well-stocked with tools and outdoor sports equipment.

And in the middle of the shop, sometimes guarded by a gantlet of other merchandise – a telescope tripod the other day – is an alcove filled with CDs, all priced at $1 apiece. Over the past couple years, I’ve made a few interesting finds there – probably the best was Blue & Sentimental by 1950s sax player Ike Quebec – and filled some gaps, most of them in my country collection.

I stopped by there the other day and found three CDs from the 1990s by country singer John Berry, about whom I’d read a few nice things. They’re all pretty good, and it turns out that one of them – Saddle the Wind – was an album Berry recorded and released in 1990, before he was signed to Liberty Records. Liberty released it in 1994, and that’s the version I found. And when the CD got to the fifth track, here’s what I heard:

He sings it well, but to my ears, the track hews far too closely to Bruce Springsteen’s version to make it more than interesting. But for the last ten days or so, I’ve had “Thunder Road” running through my head as Berry’s cover inspired me to make my way through various versions of one of Springsteen’s greatest songs.

Along the way, I’ve been wondering if the harmonica and piano that lead off “Thunder Road” on Born to Run might not be the very first things that lots of folks ever heard from Bruce Springsteen. My reasoning: It was with Born to Run, of course, that Springsteen made the leap from regional favorite to national artist, and I figure a lot of folks picked up the album on the basis of the national noise without having heard anything from Springsteen before, even the single “Born to Run.” The album reached the Billboard chart on September 13, 1975, showing up at No. 84, a week before “Born to Run” jumped into the Hot 100 at No. 68. And “Thunder Road” leads off the album. So that introduction could have been the introduction to Springsteen for a lot of people.

Well, it’s an interesting thought (to me, anyway), but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that “Thunder Road” is one of the sturdiest songs Springsteen’s ever put together. Wikipedia notes that in 2004, the song was ranked No. 86 in Rolling Stone magazine’s assessment of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And, as Wikipedia notes, the song has shown up highly ranked on several similar lists.

Like all sturdy songs, it’s been covered fairly frequently. Among those who’ve tackled the song are Badly Drawn Boy, Frank Turner, Tori Amos, Mary Lou Lord and Bonnie “Prince” Bill with Tortoise. I’ve heard some of those, and I’ve come across a few more. Melissa Etheridge sang the song in concert at least once after Springsteen performed the song with her at an earlier show. (Her solo performance of the song is listed as being in 2009, but I don’t know when the duet took place.) I also found a few studio covers that I thought were interesting: Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners recorded the song for his 1999 album My Beauty, but – according to a comment at YouTube – the track was held back because Springsteen thought Rowland took too many liberties with the lyrics. I thought the Cowboy Junkies did a nice version; it was released on the bonus CD that came with their 2004 album One Soul Now.

And I came across this version by a string quartet calling itself the Section; it came from the 2002 CD Hometown: The String Quartet Tribute to Springsteen:

 There are other covers out there, but my energy waned. Of the covers I found, I think I like the Cowboy Junkies’ version best; Margo Timmins can do little wrong from where I listen. But the best version of the song I found on YouTube isn’t really a cover at all.

In 2005, Springsteen toured as a solo artist after the release of Devils & Dust, and for that tour, he shelved a lot of the songs he normally performed live. But he did “Thunder Road” once, backing himself on the piano. And it’s neat to know that the performance took place in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on October 12, 2005. (No, I wasn’t there, but I sure wish I had been.)

Corrected and edited slightly after posting.

‘You Can Hear The Whistle Blow . . .’

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

A week ago, as I explored tunes buried in the deeper portions of the Billboard chart in mid-January 1972, I shared the version of “500 Miles” by a group billed as Heaven Bound with Tony Scotti. In doing so, I called the tune a “folk song,” vaguely remembering it sung around campfires somewhere, perhaps at the Shores of St. Andrew, where I attended Bible camp during the summer of 1968.

But I also recalled it from one of the first pop-rock albums I ever owned: Look At Us by Sonny & Cher. It was a Christmas gift from my sister in 1965, one of her occasional attempts to encourage me to listen to the same music that my peers did. I liked the album well enough, and “500 Miles” – if not the heart of the album – was a pretty good track:

As I listened to Sonny & Cher this week for the first time in years, I still liked it, but it came to mind that Sonny Bono’s Spectorian folk-rock likely pulls “500 Miles” away from its roots as a folk song, whether those roots are in the literal folk tradition as a song that evolved over time or in purposeful composition during the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And I wondered where the tune had come from.

It came, as it turned out, from the pen of Hedy West, a folk singer and performer from Georgia who recorded a few albums of traditional folk music in the early 1960s and 1970s. She wrote only a few songs, and “500 Miles” was by far her most famous composition. The song, according to Wikipedia, “was put together from fragments of a melody she had heard her uncle sing to her back in Georgia.” In her own performance of the tune from her 1963 self-titled album, she offers more verses than are usually sung.*

West’s version of her song wasn’t the first released, however. The Journeymen – a folk trio made up of John Phillips (future founder of the Mamas & the Papas), Scott McKenzie (of future “San Francisco” fame) and Dick Weissman – recorded “500 Miles” for their 1961 self-titled album.

From there, covers of the song multiplied. The Kingston Trio included the song in a live recording done in late 1961, and folk icons Peter, Paul & Mary included the song as an album track on their 1962 debut album. Other covers in the early and mid-1960s came from the Brothers Four, Johnny Rivers, Peter & Gordon, Jackie DeShannon and more. And in 1963, Bobby Bare released a reworking of the song with an expanded title – “500 Miles Away From Home” – and additional lyrics that went to No. 10 on the pop chart and No. 5 on the country chart.

I have no idea how many performers have covered the tune, then or since. The listing at AMG shows 237 CDs with the tune “500 Miles” on them, and nearly a hundred more with the title “500 Miles Away From Home.” Many of those are duplicates, of course, so there may not be as many cover versions as I once thought, maybe thirty at a guess.

One of the most recent came from a group called the Innocence Mission, which included “500 Miles” on its 2000 release Christ Is My Hope. In its review of the album, AMG notes the “childlike humility and translucence of Karen Peris’ voice” as contributing “to a kind of wide-eyed wisdom that seems to gaze into the everyday and illuminate its elusive spiritual core.” I didn’t necessarily get that, but I thought casual listeners could be forgiven if they thought that the performance came from 1970s folkie Melanie. It’s a nice version with a decent if simple arrangement.

I should also note that Rosanne Cash did an excellent cover of Bare’s version of “500 Miles” on her 2009 release The List, an album whose contents were drawn from a literal list of essential American songs compiled for Cash in the early 1970s by her famous father, Johnny.

But the most interesting cover of the song I found as I dug around the past few days – one that’s far removed in approach from Hedy West’s spare rendition – came from an unexpected source. In 1989, the Hooters, a pop-rock band from Philadelphia best remembered, AMG says, for the No. 21 hit “And We Danced” (or perhaps for being Cyndi Lauper’s backing band on She’s So Unusual),  adapted “500 Miles” – adding lyrics evidently inspired by that year’s events in and near Beijing’s Tienanmen Square – on its album Zig Zag.

The haunting, atmospheric arrangement works very well, and the Hooters’ version, which went to No. 97, has the added attraction of including background vocals from Peter, Paul & Mary along the way.

*Some compilations of West’s work are available on CD and through downloads at Amazon, as is a CD version of Getting Folk Out Of The Country, the 1974 album she recorded with folk musician Bill Clifton. There’s some vinyl out there, too, both at Amazon and through GEMM.

Bootlegs & Buckets

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Unlike a lot of music fans, I’ve never done much with bootleg recordings, either pursuing or listening to them. There are a few rattling around in the external hard drive, stuff that I’ve stumbled into while wandering the wilds of the ’Net or that friends have pointed me toward. But gathering bootlegs has never been a large part of my musical obsessions.

What I mean is that I don’t go on journeys online in search of, say, a specific Allman Brothers Band performance from 1970, or Bob Dylan’s performance at St. Paul’s Riverfest in 1989. (There are plenty of the former out there, I think, most of which would make compelling listening; as to the Dylan show at Riverfest, that’s less likely, and I’ve never actually looked for it. But it would be fun, as I was there.)

On those days when I wander the web with no particular destination in mind, however, I sometimes run into bootlegs that interest me. For the record, I’m defining “bootleg” here as an officially unreleased recording or performance. Most bootlegs, I imagine, would be illicit although that definition would also include all the audience tapes of the Grateful Dead done with the band’s encouragement and even assistance.

Whatever the definition, I do have a few. One bootleg in my collection that’s among the most interesting actually hasn’t made it to the hard drive yet. It’s something the Texas Gal found and bought for me as we dug into boxes at a huge record store in Arlington, Texas, back in December of 2001: The Band Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 7-10-70. Having been thinking about bootlegs for the past day or do, I pulled it from the shelves this morning and I’ll likely rip it to mp3s in the next week or so. (Not only might it be the most interesting bootleg I have in any format, it’s certainly the most expensive; she laid out fifty bucks for the two-LP set.)

Not all boots are buried deep in the niches of the ’Net, of course. One of the better-known sources is roio, with a broad assortment of riches. My pal jb pointed me there after he found a December 1970 performance by Leon Russell that’s turned out to be quite a treat. Some digging there can be rewarding.

But most of the bootlegs I have in my collection are things I found by accident. There are a few favorites: Delaney & Bonnie & Friends at the Fillmore West in 1970. Bob Dylan’s outtakes from Blood on the Tracks. The Rolling Stones in Brussels, Belgium, October 17, 1973 (just thirteen days after I saw them in Denmark).

And I have one excruciating oddity: Four tracks by Tiny Tim with The Band from 1967.

So why have I been thinking about bootlegs for much of the past twenty-four hours? Because of one of those happy accidents. I was working on the Echoes In The Wind Archives yesterday morning, reposting the piece that contained my music bucket list. (An aside: After I added Glen Campbell performing “Wichita Lineman” to my list last month, jb provided some bucket list tales of his own at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ .) As I prepared to repost my bucket list, I decided to add a note, detailing a few updates about the topic, including the fact that I’d added another figurative check mark to the list after seeing Bruce Springsteen perform “Born To Run.”

Just to make certain of the date of the concert, I Googled “Springsteen St. Paul 2009.” I verified from the first link that the show took place on May 11 and then idly looked at the next few links. And did a double-take.

I wrote above that I don’t often look for bootlegs. And I don’t. But now and then, for a little more than two years, there is one Springsteen bootleg I’ve looked for: The May 11, 2009, show at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. And there it was.

The sound’s not as good as bootlegs sometimes are. But still, it’s my show. And here’s how it sounded that night as my bucket got a little bit more full: