Rock & Roll Pioneer Delivers Strong Final Bow

One more time Chuck Berry is playing guitar like he’s ringing a bell

While it’s no Berry Is On Top and Chuck Berry didn’t need this final album to establish his incredible legacy, it’s simply a great joy to listen to this record. Released today, Chuck is Berry’s first new record in 38 years and the first new album that appears following his death on March 18 this year.

When Berry announced Chuck on October 18, 2016, his 90th birthday, he obviously knew it was going to be his final record. He had stopped performing in 2014 due to his declining health. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry in the above announcement, referring to Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

chuck_berry

The songs on Chuck are mostly taken from tracks Berry recorded between 1991 and 2014. Released by Dualtone Records, the album was recorded in various studios around Berry’s hometown of St. Louis. All recording work was finished prior to his death.

The record features the Blueberry Hill Band, Berry’s longtime backing group, including Robert Lohr (piano), Jimmy Marsala (bass) and Keith Robinson (drums). Additional musicians include his son Charles Berry Jr. (guitar), his daughter Ingrid Berry (harmonica) and even his grandson Charles III (guitar on Wonderful Woman), as well as Tom Morello (guitar on Big Boys), Nathaniel Rateliff (guitar on Big Boys) and Gary Clark, Jr. (guitar on Wonderful Woman).

Chuck kicks off with Wonderful Woman, a song with a classic Berry groove, featuring his signature guitar sound. Clark Jr., together with Berry’s son and grandson chime in on their guitars as well, making it a tune that features three generations of Berrys, as NPR pointed out.

Big Boys kicks the beat up a notch. Initially released in March as the album’s lead single, the tune is a bit reminiscent of Roll Over Beethoven. Here’s the official video.

3/4 Time (Enchiladas) is a waltz that sounds like it could have been recorded live at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis where Berry used to perform regularly from 1996 to 2014. The song illustrates his sense of humor about getting old: I like enchiladas/old Eldorados they’re shiny/old red guitars, rock & roll, nice girls and wine/that ain’t good for me but people I’m still feeling fine/I just hold on to my guitar and rock it out four, five times/sometimes it gets sideways/I stay up all night writing songs/I know it ain’t healthy/But somehow I keep going on.

Darlin’ is a sweet country ballad a father sings to his daughter, telling her he is getting older each year and that time is passing and getting shorter. Berry’s daughter Ingrid joins him on vocals, adding to the song’s emotional feel.

Another tune I’d like to call out is Lady B. Goode, a follow-up to Johnny B. Goode. The song pretty much has the same iconic guitar opening and a very similar groove driven by guitars and honky tonk-style piano. Like on Wonderful Woman, Berry’s son and grandson support him with their guitars. Lady B. Goode was also released as the album’s third single two weeks ago.

Initial reactions to Chuck are favorable. Rolling Stone calls the album “a classic as he always made them.” To Ultimate Classic Rock, “It’s a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll music — something Berry did better than almost anyone else.” Perhaps NPR sums it up best: “Your mind says “heard that before!” and your body cannot possibly care – because for that moment all that matters is Chuck Berry playing guitar like he’s ringing a bell, affirming the spirit of this music in ways that no performer, of any age, has done before.”

For more on Berry’s legacy read here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ultimate Classic Rock, NPR, Chuck Berry web site, YouTube

 

The Hardware: The Hammond B-3

The introduction of the Hammond B-3 in 1954 revolutionized music

I’ve decided to introduce a new category on the blog I’m calling The Hardware, where I’m going to take a look at instruments and technology that have had an important impact on rock music. Admittedly, my general understanding of technology is limited, so these posts will definitely be a bit of a lift for me. While I anticipate things may become a bit technical at times, I’m certainly not planning to go overboard.

With that being said, I’d like to get started by taking a look at an instrument I’ve admired from the very first time I heard it, which is probably longer than I want to remember: The legendary Hammond B-3 organ.

The Hammond organ was designed and built by American engineers and inventors Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert and first manufactured in 1935 by the Hammond Organ Company in Chicago. Following the original, the Hammond A, numerous other models were introduced, including the legendary B-3 in 1954.

Tonewheel Generator

The Hammond B-3 is a tone wheel organ. These types of organs generate sound by mechanical toothed wheels, that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups. The B-3 has 91 tone wheels located inside the console. Together with the so-called drawbars, they give the instrument its incredible sound versatility. According to Glen E. Nelson, a “Hammond B-3 can all at once sound like a carnival, a big band, a horn section, a small jazz combo, a funk group, a percussion section, a flute, and/or countless other things.”

Hammond Drawbars

The organ has nine drawbars that represent the nine most important harmonics. “Each drawbar has eight degrees to which it can be literally “drawn” or pulled, out of the console of the organ, the eighth being the loudest, and all the way in being silence,” explains Nelson. The drawbars and the way each can be adjusted individually allow to create an enormous amount of different sounds, such as flute, trumpet or violin-like sounds.

Leslie Speaker

In spite of its impressive size, the B-3 does not have a built in speaker. As such, it needs to be run through a separate speaker, which typically is a Leslie, named after its inventor Donald Leslie. The speaker combines an amplifier and a two-way loudspeaker that does not only project the signal from an electronic instrument but also modifies the sound by rotating the loudspeakers. While the Leslie is most closely associated with the Hammond, it was later also used for electric guitars and other instruments.

Due to its versatility and sound, the B-3 became very popular and has been used in all types of music, whether it’s gospel, jazz, blues, funk or rock. One of the artists who helped popularize the instrument was jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Some of the famous rock and blues musicians who have played this amazing organ include Booker T. Jones, Billy Preston, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and Gregg Rolie.

Jimmy Smith with Hammond B3

The last original Hammond B-3 organs were manufactured in 1973. The Hammond Organ Company started to struggle financially in the 1970s and went out of business in 1975. The Hammond brand and rights were acquired by Hammond Organ Australia. Eventually, Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation signed a distribution agreement with the Australian company before purchasing the name outright in 1991 and rebranding it as Hammond-Suzuki.

In 2002, Hammond-Suzuki introduced the New B-3, a re-creation of the original instrument using contemporary electronics and a digital tone wheel simulator. The New B-3 is constructed to appear like the original B-3, and the designers attempted to retain the subtle nuances of the familiar B-3 sound. A review by Hugh Robjohns in the July 2003 issue of Sound on Sound concludes, “the New B3 really does emulate every aspect of the original in sounds, looks and feel.”

Following are a few examples of rock songs that prominently feature a Hammond B-3.

Gimme Some Lovin’/Spencer Davis Group (Steve Winwood)

Jingo/Santana (Gregg Rolie)

Just Another Rider/Gregg Allman

There is perhaps no better way to finish the post than with this amazing presentation of the Hammond B-3 from Booker T. Jones. Watching his joy while playing the instrument and listening to the anecdotes in-between the songs is priceless.

Sources: Wikipedia; History of the Hammond B-3 Organ (Glen E. Nelson); Hammond USA website; Sound on Sound; YouTube; NPR

What I’ve Been Listening to: Santana/ Santana

Santana’s debut still rocks and grooves to this day and remains one of his greatest albums

I can still remember when I listened to Santana for the first time. It must have been in the late ’70s after my sister had gotten Santana’s Greatest Hits (on vinyl, of course!), the fantastic 1974 compilation album featuring highlights from the first three Santana albums.

To this day, it is the early phase of Santana I like the most. The band’s classic line-up with Gregg Rolie (lead vocals, keyboards), Carlos Santana (guitar, backing vocals), David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums), Michael Carabello (congas, percussion) and José “Chepito” Areas (timbales, congas, percussion) remains one of the best jam bands to this day.

Santana was the band’s 1969 debut. Its initial relatively modest reception was a bit surprising, given the album was released right after the band’s acclaimed performance at Woodstock. I think part of their challenge was that much of their music was instrumental, in fact, more than half on this album – something most listeners weren’t used to.

The record kicks off with the instrumental Waiting. Right from the get-go, the congas and the bass create a seductive groove that draws you in. And once Rolie starts coming in with his Hammond B3, it’s sheer magic! Here’s an audio clip of the piece from the band’s Woodstock performance.

Next up is Evil Ways. Written by Clarence “Sonny” Henry and originally recorded by jazz percussionist Willie Bobo in 1967, the tune was also released as the album’s second single in December 1969. It became Santana’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. The fact that unlike Waiting this tune includes vocals undoubtedly made it more radio-friendly. Rolie does an outstanding job on lead vocals and plays a killer solo on the Hammond. Here’s a cool live clip of the tune, played a little faster than on the album.

Another highlight on the album is Jingo, a song written by Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian percussionist, and first released in 1959. The blend of African-derived rhythms and chants with Rolie’s Hammond and Santana’s guitar is simply amazing. Jingo also appeared as the album’s lead single in October 1969. While it is just as outstanding if not better than Evil Ways, Jingo didn’t have as much impact.

And then there is of course Soul Sacrifice, the instrumental composed by bassist Brown, Rolie, Santana and percussionist Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, the band’s initial percussionist, when it was still known as the Carlos Santana Blues Band. And magnificent it is! Here’s a clip of the epic performance of the piece at Woodstock.

Initially, the music critics were less than impressed with Santana. Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner at the time called it “a masterpiece of hollow techniques” and “fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content,” comparing the music’s effect to methedrine. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau happily agreed with Winner’s sentiment, saying, “Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise.” Wow, you wonder whether these guys were on the very drug they referenced when they made their clever assessments!

In fairness, Rolling Stone later revised its opinion of the album, characterizing it as “thrilling … with ambition, soul and absolute conviction – every moment played straight from the heart”. In 2012, the magazine also ranked Santana number 149 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not sure whether Christgau ever revised his opinion or whether he is still on methedrine – but who cares anyway!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, Rolling Stone

What I’ve Been Listening to: Bob Marley & the Wailers/Babylon By Bus

This 1978 gem is one big reggae party, from the first to the last track

Babylon By Bus was my first deeper introduction to Bob Marley in ca. 1979/1980. I borrowed the album from my best friend shortly after he had gotten it on vinyl. This was still pre-CD days. I was immediately drawn in by the music’s amazing groove and the record’s party mood that invites you to get off your chair and move!

Released on November 10, 1978, Babylon By Bus was the second live album from Bob Marley & the Wailers and their 12th release overall. By that time, Marley already had been making music for some 13 years. But broad international success had not started until 1977, when Marley and the band released their ninth studio album Exodus. This came on the heels of Marley seeking exile in London after he had survived an assassination attempt on his life in Jamaica.

Babylon By Bus is believed to capture performances from three shows recorded at the Pavillon de Paris in France from June 25-27, 1978 during Marley’s Kaya Tour, which included the U.S. and Europe. The album kicks off with Positive Vibration from the 1976 studio album Rastaman Vibration, which became Marley’s first release to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, peaking at no. 8.

I could literally call out every other song on Babylon By Bus as well, since each tune is incredibly powerful. Obviously, that would not be practical, so the following selection is somewhat arbitrary. First up is Exodus, the title track from the above mentioned studio album.

The next tune I’d like to highlight is Stir It Up, one of Marley’s early songs he composed in 1967. It was first released as a single that year and later also included on Catch a Fire, the fifth studio album from Marley & the Wailers released in 1973.

Is This Love is another song I’d like to call out. It has always been one of my favorite Marley tunes, especially the live version on Babylon By Bus. It is faster than the studio recording, which I’ve always felt is how the song was meant to be played. The studio version appeared on Kaya, the 10th studio album from Marley & the Wailers, which was released in March 1978. The speed of the version on the following clip is somewhere in-between the studio recording and Babylon By Bus.

The final tune I’d like to note is Jamming, the album’s closer. The track originally appeared on the above mentioned studio album Exodus. It was also released as a single. Stevie Wonder used it as inspiration for Master Blaster (Jammin’), his tribute to Marley with whom he had performed live in the fall of 1980. It must have been one of Marley’s last live appearances prior to his premature death from metastasized cancer in May 1981.

Not only is Babylon By Bus my favorite Bob Marley album, but I would also consider it as one of the best live albums I’ve heard. It remains just as vibrant today, almost 40 years after its release, a great testament to an exceptional artist.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 3

1964: Ahead of their upcoming world tour, The Beatles met for a recording session at Abbey Road’s Studio Two, according to the Beatles Bible. The session, which lasted from 5:30 to 9:00 PM, started with George Harrison recording a demo of You Know What to Do, a tune that would remain unreleased until 1995’s Anthology 1. Moreover, The Beatles recorded a demo of John Lennon’s No Reply, which was included on Beatles For Sale, the band’s fourth studio album. The Fab Four also made the last recordings for A Hard Day’s Night, the film soundtrack and their third studio album, taping some overdubs for Lennon’s Any Time At All and Paul McCartney’s Things We Said Today.

1967: Aretha Franklin hit no. 1 on the U.S. singles chart with Respect, which would become one of her signature songs. The tune was written and originally released by Otis Redding in 1965. Franklin’s version became an anthem of the feminist movement and earned her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female.” The track was also included in the soundtrack for Blues Brothers 2000, the sequel to the iconic 1980 motion picture featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues, respectively. That movie featured another great Aretha Franklin song, Think.

1970: Deep Purple released their fourth studio album, Deep Purple in Rock. It was the first record to feature the band’s classic Mark II line-up of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Ian Paice (drums, percussion), Ian Gillan (lead vocals) and Roger Glover (bass). The album includes classics, such as Speed King and Child in Time. Black Night, another Deep Purple gem, was recorded at the same time but not included on the album. Instead, it was released separately as a single. While Deep Purple in Rock was the band’s breakthrough album in Europe, climbing to no. 1 on the German album chart and reaching no. 4 in the U.K., success in the U.S. was more moderate with a no. 143 placement on the Billboard 200.

1977: Bob Marley & Wailers released Exodus, their ninth studio album. In addition to the title song, the record includes some of Marley’s greatest reggae classics like Jamming and One Love/People Get Ready. Recorded in London after Marley’s departure from Jamaica in the wake of an assassination attempt, Exodus finally brought this exceptional artist the wide international recognition he so much deserved. The record peaked at no. 8 on the U.K. Albums Chart and at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200. The album earned gold certifications in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, This Day in Music.com, Wikipedia, YouTube

It’s That Time of the Year Again: Summer Concert Season

From rock to roots music to blues to hard rock and shock rock, it’s all in the mix for the next few months

To readers of the blog and folks who know me it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I love going to concerts. I can barely wait until the end of June when my summer concert season kicks off. Following is a preview of shows I’m currently planning to see.

U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, June 29

Even though I’ve listened to U2 since the early ’80s, I’ve never seen them live. They have been on my bucket list for a long time. And what better occasion to catch them than during their 2017 tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, their fifth studio album and probably my favorite U2 record. The tour, which includes North America and Europe, kicked off on May 12 in Vancouver, Canada and will conclude in Brussels, Belgium on August 1. “My show” will be the second night at MetLife and the 20th date.

Rolling Stone, which covered the U.S. tour opener in Seattle on May 14, called the show “epic.” The set kicked off with Sunday Bloody Sunday and featured 16 tracks, including all songs from The Joshua Tree, played in the same order than on the album. U2 also played two encores with seven additional songs. For the final Joshua Tree tune, Mothers of the Disappeared, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder joined U2, together with Mumford & Sons who had opened the show. Here’s a clip of Where the Streets Have No Name.

John Mellencamp: Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour, The Mann, Philadelphia, PA, July 6

This will be my second time to see John Mellencamp, one of my favorite music artists. Similar to U2, I’ve listened to him since the early ’80s. I like both the early, more rock-oriented Mellencamp with songs like Hurts So Good, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A., as well as his roots-oriented, more stripped down approach he has increasingly adopted over the past 20 years. I think his current album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies with Carlene Carter is an absolute gem. I previously reviewed it here.

The summer tour, which features Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, includes 22 shows. It is set to kick off on Monday, June 5 in Denver, Colo. and will finish in Forest Hills, N.Y. on July 11. The concert at the Mann in Philly will be the 18th date. As reported by Variety, the upcoming tour will include outdoor gigs, the first time in 15 years Mellencamp has played such venues.  Here’s a clip of Indigo Sunset, one of the best songs from the new album. I think Carter’s beautiful country voice and Mellencamp’s raspy singing make for a great mix.

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’: F.M. Kirby Center, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 10

I’m particularly excited about this show, which will be the first time I see any of these legendary blues artists. Taj Mahal’s and Keb’ Mo’s recently released collaboration album TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, has become one of my most frequently played records. The joy these two guys had when recording the album is obvious and something I find very engaging.

Things got underway in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30. The concert in Wilkes-Barre will be the 11th of 39 shows of the tour, which will conclude in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on October 28. Here’s a clip of All Around the World.

Deep Purple and Alice Cooper: PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J., August 28

While there are several hard rock bands I like, if I would have to choose only one, it would be Deep Purple. And if I would need to select only one of their albums, undoubtedly, it would be Machine Head, which to me is the definitive ’70s hard rock album. It was also one of my first vinyl records I bought in the late ’70s – I still own it!

While I’ve enjoyed listening to Deep Purple for more than 30 years, this will be the first time I’m going to see them live, as will be the case with Alice Cooper. But unlike Deep Purple, I don’t know Mr. Shock Rock’s music, except for the epic School’s Out and No More Mr. Nice Guy. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the co-lining tour includes 19 gigs in North America, starting in Las Vegas on August 12 and concluding on September 10 in Cincinnati. PNC Bank Arts Center will be 11th show. The tour is part of Deep Purple’s Long Goodbye Tour – sounds like it’s about time to see them!

Of course, I realize Machine Head was released 45 years ago. It’s still hard for me to picture Deep Purple without Ritchie Blackmore and especially Jon Lord, and Ian Gillan’s voice has probably seen better days. But Steve Morse and Don Airey are top-notch musicians, and the band’s new album inFinite, which I reviewed here, shows Deep Purple still has some gas in the tank. Here’s a clip of Highway Star from a recent concert in Munich, Germany.

I’ll probably need hearing aids after the show!

Sources: Wikipedia, U2 web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube, John Mellencamp web site, Ultimate Classic Rock