Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely ‘in their fingers’ and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he released some fine studio solo albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing on Steely Dan’s albums but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range with such aplomb. He destroys the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers some deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and he’ll be back on the road in July. I will try to get along to his London gig and pay my respects to a master.

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Ry Cooder’s The Slide Area: 35 Years Old Today

Warner Bros, released 28th April 1982

7/10

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book ‘The Slide Area’ was a collection of inter-related stories about a group of Hollywood’s lonely losers. His theme was that California’s natural phenomena made ‘normal’ behaviour virtually impossible.

‘The Slide Area’ obviously rang a bell with Ry. His 1982 album of the same name also featured an array of characters not exactly thriving in the Dream Factory. But it also turned out to be almost the complete opposite of Cooder’s commercial breakthrough, 1979’s slick, sparkling, digitally-recorded Bop Til You Drop.

The Slide Area sounds like what it is – a rough-and-ready band, often audibly cued by Cooder, playing songs of varying quality live in the studio with minimal, if any, overdubs. ‘Which Come First’, ‘Yes It’s Me And I’m Drinking Again’ and ‘Mama Don’t You Treat Your Daughter Mean’ are incredibly loose, with some bum notes and tentative moments left in.

Ry’s vocals are similarly raw but full of passion. On ‘Mama…’ he even sounds a bit like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Drummer Jim Keltner is uncharacteristically hyperactive, speeding up drastically on almost every song (definitely no click tracks involved with this album), but full of creativity on what sounds like a homemade kit with timbale, double kick drums, a trash can and a few different snares.

Cooder composes a lot more than on recent albums and even co-writes an ’80s classic with Keltner, ‘UFO Has Landed In The Ghetto’, which finds time to gently lampoon disco, rap and funk with references to the Bee Gees and George Benson. But perhaps predictably the three cover tunes are the standouts: a Tex-Mex version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Gypsy Woman’, funky take on Dylan’s ‘I Need A Woman’ and a gloriously arse-over-tit ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

But The Slide Area also marked the end of an era. Americana, roots music and blues were out, synths and drum machines were in. It was the end of the sort of albums Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Ry made with Warner Bros and the beginning of the sort of albums Madonna, Pat Benatar and Laura Branigan were making.

Live, it was a different matter – Ry was still a big draw in 1982, playing legendary gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon (my dad took me to one night, maybe my first ever major gig) and big shows all over Europe. But that too proved a false economy. ‘Someone yelled “Think of the money!” from the audience (during a 1977 Hammersmith Odeon gig). I’d like to show him my bank balance. I could never make a dime doing anything. I came back to California in debt. I’d make a record and I’m broke cos they’re not making any money, they don’t sell. I said, to hell with it,’ Ry told Q Magazine in 1987.

It was back to the movie soundtracks. For a while.

Neil Young: This Note’s For You

Neil+Young+This+Notes+For+You+507216Reprise Records, released 11th April 1988

The general critical consensus maintains that Neil had a rotten ’80s. He made folk albums, rockabilly albums, synth-rock albums, undercooked Crazy Horse albums and country albums.

But you can’t say he wasn’t prolific, and hey, he’s Neil Young – there’s always something good going on somewhere. But none of these projects came anywhere near the commercial jackpot, to the extent that his label boss David Geffen sued him for ‘unrepresentative’ product!

But, with the release of 1988’s This Note’s For You, Young was getting back on track. He had returned to the Reprise label of his peak years and was gigging with a hard-hitting ten-piece band The Bluenotes (later changing its name to Ten Men Workin’ after a legal challenge from Harold Melvin) which featured a hot horn section and cracking new drummer Chad Cromwell.

neil

Neil had ten new songs in the can too, veering between two-chord R’n’B stompers and love ballads in the ballpark of his teenage hero Roy Orbison. He was also playing as much if not more lead guitar than he ever had in his solo career, this time in the biting, incisive style of Alberts King and Collins.

Lyrically, the songs were basically about workin’ hard, lookin’ for love, not sellin’ out and havin’ a good time, but with more humour than Bruce or Billy Joel. ‘I’m a married man – respect my happy home!’ he barks on the strident, irresistible ‘Married Man’. Neil gave writer Paul Zollo some cool insights into the writing of the song in the book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’:

‘Oh, I like that song. I think I wrote that in my car. I have a ’54 Caddy limo. I was on my way down from Northern California to play with the Bluenotes. I was on Highway 5. Our driver was listening to tapes and I was playing my guitar…’

Neil’s tremulous voice croons ‘You have changed my life in so many ways’ on ‘Can’t Believe Your Lyin’, and it’s both touching and amusing. ‘Ten Men Workin” and ‘Life In The City’ are driving old-school R’n’B gems while ‘Sunny Inside’ is almost Brian Wilsonesque in its charming naivety.

Then there’s the title track, the standout cut on the album (though it inexplicably fades way too soon). A rum, anti-product-placement protest song which nevertheless manages to mention four big brands (and of course mocks Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ campaign), it defiantly has its cake and eats it. It’s also a total blast.

In a delicious irony, the old hippie who had spent most of the ’80s in purgatory made one of the great vids of the decade (winning Video Of The Year at the 1989 Video Music Awards), with notable help from writer Charlie Coffey and legendary director Julien Temple. Temple talked about his motivations for making the video:

‘Beer companies and the like were beginning to take over music. A lot of beer ads were using rock musicians. The line between videos and commercials was blurring. We managed to get banned from MTV and win the Video Of The Year award. That was the peak of my video-making career…’

The clip mostly mocks the series of Michelob beer ads which featured the likes of Genesis, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. And it didn’t scrimp on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston lookalikes. What’s also notable and totally unprecedented is that Neil decided to use a live take of the song for this video, completely different to the album version. Which major star would have the balls to do that today?

This Note’s For You was not a hit, only reaching number 61 in the US album chart. But Neil was laying down a marker for the classic follow-up Freedom. And he had also tapped into something very prescient by focusing on guitar-led soul, blues and R’n’B forms, echoing the resurgence of Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Jeff Beck, Albert Collins and Gary Moore, and emergence of hotshots like Jeff Healey and Robert Cray.

Breakthrough Blues: The Robert Cray Band’s Bad Influence

Bad-Influence-coverHightone Records, released summer 1983

9/10

I was watching a newly-discovered Jaco Pastorius Q and A session from 1985 this week. Poor Jaco clearly wasn’t in the best of health, neither mentally nor physically. Apparently he turned up at the Musicians Institute in LA without a bass and had to borrow a student’s axe. But when he played it, despite the instrument’s shortcomings, he sounded exactly like himself. In other words, his sound was completely in his fingers, not in any amp or effects pedal.

It got me thinking about other players who always sound only like themselves, no matter what axe they use or what kind of music they’re playing. Near the top of that list would have to be the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Cray.

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

In guitar terms, he sticks pretty rigidly to his tried and tested sound: a Fender Strat plugged straight into the amp, no effects apart from a very occasional tremolo pedal, and very, very hard picking. But, in the process, on Bad Influence he plays three or four of the most electrifying guitar solos of the ’80s, proving himself a worthy heir to Albert King and Albert Collins. But his tough guitar style is a contrast to a fairly sweet, soulful vocals and songwriting which reflect the influence of Al Green and BB King more than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Bad Influence was Robert’s second official release, and it was pretty much the one that alerted the wider world outside of blues aficionados to his potential. The Robert Cray Band had built up a formidable live following in the early ’80s, touring relentlessly on the West Coast and in Europe. With the help of producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were ready to take that consistency into the studio. And it certainly helps that there are no trinkets of ’80s production present on the album, no synths or dated drum sounds – Bad Influence mostly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio, with the occasional addition of horns and Hammond organ.

Bad Influence is mainly known for its superb cover versions: Johnny Guitar Watson‘s ‘Don’t Touch Me‘ and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Got To Make A Comeback’, both slow 6/8 jams, the former angry and biting, the latter sweet and soulful. ‘The Grinder is another slowish 6/8 with a killer Cray solo. The CD version also comes with a great cover of the New Orleans R’n’B classic ‘I Got Loaded’.

The best-known songs from the album are probably the minor-key blues/funk standard ‘Phone Booth’ (featuring not one but two classic guitar solos), later covered by Albert King, and the title track which was subsequently covered by Eric Clapton on his less-than-essential August album (the two have collaborated many times since). Also essential are the super-funky ‘So Many Women So Little Time’ and Bo Diddley-esque ‘No Big Deal‘. Lyrically, my personal favourite is probably ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’, a kind of ‘ironic’ blues about procrastination. Vocally, ‘March On‘ is also fantastic.

To date, Bad Influence has (according to some accounts) sold over a million copies, showing how much the blues was a hot ticket in the ’80s. Cray’s two follow-ups False Accusations and Strong Persuader sold even more, but arguably placed more emphasis on production and songwriting than on uncut guitar playing. Production was also a bit of an issue on the Cray/Collins/Johnny Copeland collaboration Showdown, which could and should have been a classic. But no matter – Robert is the real deal.

The Dude Abides: Johnny Guitar Watson’s Love Jones

johnny guitar watsonDJM Records, released 1980

When it comes to the arts, ‘nobody knows anything’, as screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed. But the music biz sure knows a good formula when it sees one. And in the late-1970s and early ’80s, formulas didn’t come much more successful than Johnny Guitar Watson’s. His fusion of funk, blues, disco, jazz and R’n’B even gave Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money.

1280px-Johnny_Guitar_Watson-1996

He was simply one of the coolest musicians ever to walk the planet. A Texan blues master who influenced many guitarists including Frank Zappa (the two would collaborate regularly in the ’70s and ’80s), Watson relaunched his sound with Ain’t That A Bitch in 1977, a superb marriage of hilarious lyrics, double-tracked vocals, cool Stevie/Sly/Curtis grooves, ambitious horn arrangements and searing guitar solos.

It was a big success and Watson spent the rest of the ’70s repeating the formula with minor variations and, to be honest, diminishing returns. But on 1980’s Love Jones, Johnny expanded his sound to include influences from P-Funk (which he had started flirting with on the previous year’s What The Hell Is This), gospel, bebop, bossa-nova, Afro-beat, hip-hop and even country, and the result is one of the weirdest but most interesting albums of his career. A lot of it sounds very rushed, as if his mind wasn’t really on the job, but that sometimes works in its favour!

Johnny_Guitar_Watson_1977Ain’t That A Bitch hooked me right away. My dad had a knackered old cassette copy which came in a really horrible silver-and-yellow design, but for some reason I was fascinated by it. There was something seriously dodgy about the cover photo, title and…everything, really. But then I listened to it. By the late ’80s, I was getting into Sly, Stevie and The Isleys, so Bitch fitted in like a dream and became an essential soundtrack to summer 1989.

With hindsight, Johnny should be included alongside Sly, Prince, D’Angelo, Stevie and Lewis Taylor as one of soul music’s finest multi-instrumentalists – on his great albums of the 1970s and early ’80s, he plays all the keyboards, bass, guitars and some drums, as well as producing and arranging. His keyboard playing gives guys like Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann a run for their money, and he even once recorded a whole album of piano/vocal ballads, 1963’s I Cried For You.

Love Jones kicks off with the infectious ‘Booty Ooty’, powered by the great, unsung drummer Emry Thomas, which adds a touch of P-Funk to Johnny’s classic horn-driven sound. The title track is a fairly cheesy soul ballad, while ‘Goin’ Up In Smoke’ continues his strand of state-of-the-nation political funk/blues tunes which began with Ain’t That A Bitch‘s title track in ’76. ‘Close Encounters’ is just plain odd, a bossa-nova with some funny lyrics about a mistaken love affair – ‘It was close encounters of the wrong kind’!

His update of ‘Lone Ranger’ is a classic, featuring some outrageous vocal scatting and some nutty electric piano and bass solos. The gospel curio ‘Jet Plane’ has a criminally-out-of-tune bass, badly-recorded keyboards and amateurish drums (presumably played by Johnny), but it still works. Ditto the seriously weird ‘Children Of The Universe’, a country-rock coming-of-age piece which sounds like The New Seekers backing Sly Stone.

But Love Jones‘s centrepiece is of course the mighty ‘Telephone Bill’, oft cited as one of the first rap tracks. In 1994, Watson was asked if he had anticipated the hip-hop movement: “Anticipated? I damn well invented it! And I wasn’t the only one. Talkin’ rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you’d hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talkin’ has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I’m talkin’ in melody. When I play, I’m talkin’ with my guitar. I may be talkin’ trash, baby, but I’m talkin’!”. Yessir, but more importantly the track features his best guitar solo on record, an amazing mash-up of bebop (check out the ‘Salt Peanuts‘ quote), blues and angular fusion.

Compared to the lush, meticulously-arranged Ain’t That A Bitch, Love Jones sounds like a series of demos but it still works, like pretty much all of Johnny’s music. He carried on touring and recording right through to his death in 1996. I wish I’d seen him play live. See ya, Johnny.

Happy Blues? Robben Ford’s Talk To Your Daughter

robben fordWarner Bros, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street 1991?

7/10

Robben is surely guaranteed a place in the pantheon of modern blues guitar greats, and, like his contemporary and good buddy Larry Carlton, he makes guitar playing sound ridiculously easy however complicated the chord changes.

Fagen and Becker had been told about Robben’s prodigious soloing ability over changes, hiring him to play the break on Steely Dan’s altered blues ‘Peg’ in 1977, but he ended up on the cutting room floor (they famously went through six other guitarists before Jay Graydon smashed it at the eleventh hour).

But sometimes Ford’s good looks, cheerful stage persona and sweet sound can obscure his more extreme guitar statements; fusion drum monster Kirk Covington somewhat disparagingly called Robben’s style of music ‘happy blues’ in a recent interview with Drumhead magazine (admittedly after a failed audition for Robben’s band!).

miles robben ford

Robben cut his teeth with the likes of George Harrison, Joni Mitchell and Jimmy Witherspoon, but started off the 1980s playing beautifully at the Montreux Jazz Festival with David Sanborn, Randy Crawford, Al Jarreau et al, contributing three of my favourite ever guitar solos to the Casino Lights live document of that gig.

Then, in 1986, the dream sideman gig materialised: he replaced Mike Stern in Miles Davis‘s band, gaining a new confidence in his abilities and a renewed love for the blues. Apparently Miles believed he’d found his perfect guitar player. But Robben didn’t stay long – he left Miles to make his second solo album Talk To Your Daughter for Warner Bros in 1987.

It’s funny to think of Robben playing guitar with Miles just before this recording because sometimes his music could use a bit of Miles’s obliqueness and use of space. Robben’s voice might not be to everyone’s tastes either, firmly in the Jackson Browne/Michael Franks school, but his guitar solos are always engaging and risk-taking, and a stellar band featuring monster drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Roscoe Beck and Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante makes the music breathe. The album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio too, a big plus especially in the over-produced late-’80s.

The gospel-tinged ‘Revelation’ is worth the price of the album alone, possibly Robben’s finest recorded work to date and the only instrumental here. Robben’s take on ‘Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues’, co-written by Duke Ellington and best-known as a Mose Allison number, is also superb, a feast of jazz chords and tasteful band accompaniment.

Down-and-dirty blues it ain’t, but Talk To Your Daughter definitely brought something fresh to the party. Other modern guitar greats Scott Henderson, Gary Moore, Frank Gambale and Larry Carlton were listening; within a few years, they’d all reacquaint themselves with the blues in a big way too.