Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bob Brozman (1954-2013)

I didn't really think about this when I conceived this blog, but I guess this is a place for obituaries as well. It's generally not a good sign when a bunch of recordings of a relatively esoteric musician suddenly start showing up on concert download sites, and it was just such an occurrence that today led me to the discovery that one of my generation's most innovative and audacious instrumentalists, Santa Cruz County's Bob Brozman, had passed away last Thursday, April 26. I can claim Brozman as my generation with aplomb, as he was a few months my junior, having been born in March of 1954.

I first became aware of Brozman's considerable talents when he was honing his crafts as a street musician on Santa Cruz's Pacific Garden Mall in the mid-1970s. He would always attract a crowd with his snappy patter and, more to the point, his dazzling musicianship, generally on various versions of slide guitar. Those days were truly the golden age of Santa Cruz street performers, as one could regularly catch Brozman, the amazing saw player Tom Scribner, or then-fledgling juggling ensemble the Flying Karamozov Brothers doing their acts along Pacific Avenue. However, Brozman's vision extended far beyond the streets of Santa Cruz, and he began his career as a recording artist with the 1981 release Blue Hula Stomp. Brozman's early repertoire focused on acoustic blues and ragtime, with frequent forays into Hawaiian music.

After releasing a series of basically solo projects in the 1980s, he began a lifelong career of collaborating with musicians from diverse cultures, starting with Hawaiian musicians like Led Kaapana, Cyril Pahuini, and legendary guitarist Tau Moe, whom Brozman coaxed out of retirement for a couple of late 1980s releases. Later he worked with musicians from Australia, La Reunion Island, Papua New Guinea, Okinawa, and toured and recorded with Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya. He also collaborated with American musical giants such as Woody Mann, Mike Auldridge, and David Grisman.

A prodigious collector of vintage records, Brozman also published extensively on musical subjects, most notably in his definitive history of National guitars, with whom he also designed a tritone baritone guitar.  Brozman recorded a number of instructional videos for Homespun Music, and also scored a number of films.

I had the opportunity to interview Brozman by phone in 1999 for Dirty Linen and again in 2008 for Sing Out! on the occasion of the release of Lumeire, his bold experiment in creating a guitar orchestra through multiple overdubs. Brozman was a great interview subject - witty, intelligent, curious, and with a deep knowledge of musical traditions and cultures of the globe. Only a few artists have made significant artistic contributions to as many parts of the globe as Brozman, whose global vision and fearless spirit of collaboration did much to bridge multiple cultures.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sycamore Slough String Band. First Rehearsals. Perfectible Recordings 11 (2012).

Bands generally develop an artistic and personal chemistry over time, but there can be magic made the first time a sympatico group of musicians come together with the intention of creating something new.  First Rehearsals captures just that – the first time acoustic quartet Sycamore Slough String Band came together to explore their artistic conceit of playing Grateful Dead music with a bluegrass flair.  The Sycamore Slough String Band, comprising singer-songwriter David Gans on guitar and vocals, Bay Area bluegrass veteran David Thom on mandolin, guitar and vocals, former Fall Risk violinist Fiddle Dave Muhlethaler on fiddle and vocals, and bassist Roger Sideman – bring a wealth of influences to the music, and their musicianship, as well as their enthusiasm, shines in this initial recording.

The disc opens with the SSSB’s unique arrangement of “New Speedway Boogie,” which grafts a descending riff from Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” onto the song’s D minor chord to create a musical tension that augment’s the grim mood of the lyrics.

Thom’s twangy vocal brings “Scarlet Begonias” well into country territory, aided by some energetic fiddle work from Muhlethaler.  Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight,” already a bluegrass standard, is rendered deftly with some intricate guitar-mandolin-fiddle interplay and a smooth, confident vocal from Muhlenthaler.  “Jackaroe,” sung ably by Gans and nicely ornamented by Thom’s mandolin, chugs along in a Dead-like shuffle. The disc’s one extended jam builds out of “Cassidy,”  winds its way through a nod to the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and concludes with Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

As befits a first rehearsal, the SSSD inevitably has some rough edges, and leans a bit too heavily on ballads for my taste. Nonetheless, it does a fine job of capturing the first blush of inspiration of what has proven to be an agile, compatible, and enjoyable aggregation of musicians. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Albert King. Born Under a Bad Sign. Stax Remasters CD /stx 34334-02 (2013, originally released 1967).

The late sixties to early seventies were arguably the golden age for electric blues guitar, and the three Kings – B.B., Freddie, and Albert – were certainly at the head of the class. Although all made memorable albums during that era, the one that seemed to be in everyone’s collections was Albert King’s masterpiece, Born Under a Bad Sign. Recorded in 1967 at Stax Studios in Memphis with Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis Horns, a combination of great material, flawless backing, and King’s crisp, concise lead guitar picking made the album, and King, favorites of the underground radio set during the late sixties. The album featured only one tune written and one co-written by the guitarist, but several of the most memorable songs on the album are inextricably identified with King, starting with the Booker T. Jones penned title tune. Built around a classic five-note riff played by bassist Duck Dunn and the Memphis Horns, the song encapsulated the blues in a way equaled by only a few other songs of that era. “Crosscut Saw,” “The Hunter” and “Laundromat Blues” are the other songs that became inextricably linked with King through the album, as was his slightly sinister version of “Oh Pretty Woman.” The album also offered another side of King, as he shone as a balladeer on “I Almost Lost My Mind” and  “The Very Thought of You.”  Newly issued as part of the Stax Remasters series, the current version of this classic blues effort includes alternate takes of the title tune, “Crosscut Saw,” “The Hunter,” and “Personal Manager” that deviate little from the released tracks, along with a brief, untitled, instrumental cut. 

Spring Ramble. Friday, April 12, 2013. Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael California.

Since opening Terrapin Crossroads just over a year ago, Phil Lesh has played with an impressive roster of musicians, most of whom had at most one degree of separation from the Dead community and many of whom had played in previous Phil and Friends lineups. Thus it seemed a somewhat audacious move to bring in top-drawer blues-rock guitarists Luther Dickinson and Anders Osborne for the three-night Spring Ramble run. Although Osborne and Dickinson have played together on numerous occasions, they had, to my knowledge, not previously shared a stage with Lesh, nor were dead tunes a significant part of their own performance repertoires. Rounded out by drummer Tony Leone, multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby at the keyboard chair, and Grahame Lesh on acoustic and electric guitars, this combo whipped out what is easily some of the most exciting and energetic music played yet in Lesh’s Grate Room.

For the Friday show, the group opened with “Deal,” a regular part of the repertoire of Txr lineups, but it has never sounded like this before.  After Leone sang the first verse, Dickinson, bouncing and gyrating, took two stunning choruses of clean, jazzy licks before yielding to Crosby, who pulled out some equally inspired barrelhouse piano on his Kurzweil synthesizer, after which Dickinson took another solo, with Leone finally getting to the second verse at about the six minute mark. Then it was Osborne’s turn to deliver a loud, blistering solo, after which Dickinson, Lesh and Osborne closed ranks to form a huddle while crafting furiously intertwining melodies After about thirteen minutes, the group gradually moved out of Deal, developing a frenetic minor key passage with Dickinson shredding on his hollow body Gibson , which he eventually surrendered to a curious handmade two-string guitar that has a coffee can as a resonator to move into a jittery instrumental figure that eventually evolved into his singing a raunchy version of “Rolling and Tumbling.”, at one point using the coffee can as a microphone.  Grahame Lesh, who had by this point surrendered his Martin to a Gibson SG, took his own solo, with Osborne effortlessly laying on some harmonies, leading into another instrumental huddle between Dickinson (back on his Gibson), Phil, and Osborne.  As the pace slowed and the music morphed into “Friend of the Devil” I glanced at my watch and noted that the first two songs had lasted half an hour.

The Dead and most Phil and Friends ensembles don’t move around a lot on stage, but this group was a kinetic force to be reckoned with, particularly Dickinson, who used his playful facial experssions and gyrations to pair up with each of the band members at times during the show, egging them on to put out even more energy. Osborne was no slouch either, another intrinsically physical player who uses his whole body to pull the last ounce of emotion out of his two Stratocasters.  His Swedish by way of Louisiana drawl brought a unique, gritty flavor to “Friend of the Devil.” After another long instrumental passage, Dickinson sang a version of the North Mississippi Allstars shuffle “How I Wish My Train Would Come” that contrasted with most of the rest of the evening’s music by featuring no guitar solos. Grahame Lesh has grown remarkably as a singer and instrumentalist during the year Terrapin has been open, and his take on “Brown Eyed Women” was crisp and confident, bolstered by some more fine guitar playing by Dickinson and particularly Osborne, who concluded the instrumental break with a spectacular slide crescendo that went on and on. Osborne’s gritty bottleneck version of “Big Boss Man” owed more to Jimmy Reed’s original than the versions done, and featured some soulful Jimmy Reed style B-3 organ from Crosby, The first set concluded with an energized “Bertha” with Grahame Lesh taking the lead vocal again, and featuring another sizzling slide solo from Osborne.

The second set began with a long relatively free form, jazzy jam, with Crosby on organ, Leone providing a percussive bedrock, Grahame using his effects pedals to pull out weird sounding chords, and Phil and the guitarists alternating solos. This jamming carried for a good 20 minutes, through various moods and tempos, with brief references to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” before abruptly dropping into a slow, ponderous rendition of “Down By The River, sung with gusto by Osborne. Dickinson picked up the pace with a bouncy NOLA shuffle, “Mean Old Wind Die Down,” that featured some more great rippling piano from Crosby.  Taking things up yet another notch, Phil took his first lead vocal of the evening, driving the band into “Franklin’s Tower” with the two guitarists continuing to move further afield with highly melodic playing that deviated defiantly but appropriately from the song’s simple melody.  Without skipping a beat, the ensemble drove into “Scarlet Begonias” sung by Grahame and embellished by a gorgeous slide solo from Osborne.  As the song concluded, the music devolved into more weirdness,  emerging in a slow, arpeggiated descending progression that eventually wound its way into the spare, mysterious chords of Osborne’s second Neil Young cover of the night, “Cortez the Killer.” To wind up the set, the band plowed straight on into “New Speedway Boogie,” which built into a couple of dramatic instrumental crescendos, then returning to the song’s concluding line “This darkness has got to give.”  After nearly two hours of uninterrupted playing, the band exited the stage, exchanging multiple hugs and fist bumps that evidenced the ensemble’s mutual satisfaction with what they had created. The encore, a long version of “Fire On the Mountain” was a showcase for Osborne’s growling vocals and dirty lead guitar.

Two things made this ensemble special. First, there were truly no weak links. Leone has grasped the tension between looseness and precision that makes the Dead’s music work, and Crosby is a fine, versatile keyboardist willing to lead as well as provide elegant instrumental support. Grahame Lesh’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, and his contributions on guitar and vocals were substantial. Secondly, in Dickinson and Osborne, the elder Lesh has found two guitarists who are aggressive lead and slide players, but with the taste and creativity to go toe to toe with him while taking the music in new directions without subverting its spirit. Phil, always up for a musical challenge, seemed to relish the challenge these players brought, and the chemistry between him and the two guitarists, and especially Osborne, was palpable, and elevated the musical conversation to a very  high level.  Let’s hope they do this again soon.