What I’ve Been Listening to: Fistful of Mercy/As I Call You Down

Fistful of Mercy are a supergroup founded by three singer-songwriters in February 2010: Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison. According to Wikipedia, it sounds like the band’s formation happened pretty spontaneously. Arthur had asked his friend Harper to accompany him in the studio. In turn, Harper who had met Harrison at a skate park in Santa Monica, suggested that he join the two. Apparently, that’s exactly what happened, and when the three met at Carriage House studio in L.A., they immediately clicked.

Within a short period of time, Harper (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar), Arthur (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards) and Harrison (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards) co-wrote and recorded nine acoustic tracks. Subsequently, Harrison reached out to longtime session drummer Jim Keltner to overdub percussion. In addition, Jessy Greene was brought in to contribute violin.

Fistful of Mercy (from left): Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison

The result was As I Call You Down, a beautiful album released in October 2010 under the name of Fistful of Mercy. I had never heard of it or the band until last Friday when I featured Harper in my latest Best of What’s New installment and read up on him a little. Harper’s, Arthur’s and Harrison’s three-part harmony vocals sound great and sometimes remind me of Crosby, Stills & Nash, other times of The Beatles.

While Fistful of Mercy played a series of concerts leading up to and following the release of the album, it doesn’t look like As I Call You Down charted or received much recognition otherwise. With the possible exception of fans of Harper, Arthur and Harrison, I suspect this is a largely obscure record. Well, it may not be widely known, but it sure as heck sounds beautiful to me. Let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the opener In Vain or True. Like all of the album’s other eight tracks, the tune is credited to Arthur, Harper and Harrison.

Father’s Son couldn’t be more appropriately titled. When Dhani Harrison starts singing, he really reminds me of this dad. I also dig the bluesy vibe of this track. Check it out.

Here’s the band’s namesake, another great sounding tune.

Let’s mix things up a little with 30 Bones, a beautiful instrumental.

The last tune I’d like to call out is With Whom You Belong, the final track on the “regular” version of the album. There’s an iTunes edition that has live versions of Fistful of Mercy and In Vain or True as bonus tracks. Here’s the official video. Just like the album, it has a charming low key feel to it.

Fistful of Mercy never officially dissolved. In fact, Harper told the Los Angeles Times in August 2016 he, Arthur and Harrison have discussed making additional music. “I think about those songs all the time,” he noted. “My main frustration with Fistful of Mercy is not knowing when the three of us are gonna have the same opening at the same time to get back to the music that’s waiting in the ether for us. We have an email chain that’s going back and forth; we know it’s something we’ve got to do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Los Angeles Times; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 6

After having done more than 50 installments of this recurring feature, I still find it intriguing what turns up when you look at a specific date throughout music history. I’ve said it before and I say it again: It’s a rather arbitrary way to do this. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all about great music. Without further ado, let’s see what happened on June 6.

1960: Roy Orbison, the rock & roller with an operatic voice, released Only the Lonely, his first big hit peaking at no. 2 in the U.S. and Canada, and topping the charts in Ireland and the U.K. According to Songfacts, it was one of the first tunes Orbison wrote together with Joe Melson. Among others, the two also co-wrote Crying and Blue Bayou. Songfacts also includes the following Orbison told NME in 1980 about writing “sad songs” like Only the Lonely: “I’ve always been very content when I wrote all those songs. By this I’m saying that a lot of people think you have to live through something before you can write it, and that’s true in some cases, but I remember the times that I was unhappy or discontent, and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate, and I certainly couldn’t write a song, no way. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind.”

1962: The Beatles came together for their first artist test recording session at EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London. According to The Beatles Bible, the action went down in studio no. 2, where between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm they recorded four tracks: Besame Mucho, Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why. The session was produced by George Martin with assistant Ron Richards and was the only one to feature Pete Best on drums. Initially, Richards was in charge, and Martin was only brought in after engineer Norman Smith was intrigued with Love Me Do. At the end of the session, which was hampered by quality issues due to the poor equipment The Beatles had brought along, Martin called them to the control room to tell them what they would need to do to become professional recording artists. When none of them reacted, Martin said: “Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?” After an awkward pause, George Harrison responded: “Yeah, I don’t like your tie!” That cracked the ice, and the rest is history. While none of the material recorded at the session was used, four months later, The Beatles featuring Ringo Starr on drums re-recorded Love Me Do with George Martin. Backed by P.S. I Love You, it became their first single (not counting My Bonnie they had recorded with Tony Sheridan in June 1961).

1971: After 23 years on the air, CBS aired the last episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a repeat. The last original telecast, episode no. 1,068, had aired on March 28 of the same year. Originally co-created and produced by Marlo Lewis, the show’s initial title was Toast of the Town. On September 25, 1955, it officially became The Ed Sullivan Show. Countless famous artists performed on the program, such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. CBS and Sullivan were quite conservative, and there were some “controversial” performances on the show. One of the most notorious appearances were The Doors on September 17, 1967. For the song Light My Fire, Jim Morrison had been told to alter the line Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. He complied during the rehearsal, but when it came to the live performance, he sang the original line – committing the ultimate sin! The Doors were never invited back on the program. Here’s a short clip documenting the horrible transgression!

1982: The Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream concert took place at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which attracted a crowd of 85,000 people. The six-hour event to promote nuclear disarmament featured artists like Tom Petty, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. It was partly broadcast on ABC Television’s Entertainment Tonight program on the same day. Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing the Dylan tune With God On Our Side. Dylan first recorded the song for his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ from January 1964.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts: Music History Calendar; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 2

February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the U.S. and Canada. BTW, I heard that this morning, the groundhog emerged from its burrow and did not see the shadow, which means an early spring! February 2nd also saw the birth of a great songwriter and vocalist, the day before the music died, a recording of a masterpiece and the release of a new album by a Southern Rock staple. Let’s get to it!

1942: Graham William Nash was born in Blackpool, England. Nash, who according to Wikipedia has been active since 1958, is best known for his vocal and songwriting contributions to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both bands. Between May 1971 and April 2016, Nash has also released six solo albums. Here’s Myself At Last, a pretty tune from Nash’s most recent solo record This Path Tonight, which appeared in April 2016 and was his first new studio album in 14 years. Like all songs on that record, it was written by Nash and producer Shayne Fontayne. Nash who turned 78 today is planning to embark on a tour of the U.S. and Europe in early March. The current schedule is here. Long may you run!

1959: This was the day before the music died. Rock & rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, artistically known as The Big Bopper, played their last gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the 11th show of the 24-date Winter Party Tour through the midwestern U.S. The next scheduled stop was 365 miles away in Moorhead, Minn. Rather than doing the entire trip by bus in freezing temperatures as the musicians had done up to this point, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, N.D., close to Moorhead. Initially, his touring bassist Waylon Jennings was supposed to be one of the three passengers (in addition to the pilot). But he gave his seat to Richardson who had fallen ill with the flu to spare him a gruesome bus trip. The V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza embarked on its fateful flight from Mason City Municipal Airport in the early morning hours of Feb 3 and the rest is history.

The_Day_the_Music_Died

1967: The Beatles were working on their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studios in London, according to The Beatles Bible. While it may not be quite as popular as Jesus, this source captures the ultimate truth about The Fab Four in all of its gory details. During the recording session that evening, Paul McCartney added his lead vocals to the album’s title track, joined by Lennon John and George Harrison in the chorus. For the nerds, and yes, I like that shit, The Beatles Bible further points out their voices were captured on track four of the tape. Track three was used to overdub additional harmonies. Afterwards, a reduction mix was created to free up space on the tape. All instruments were now on track one, and all vocals were on track four. I sharply conclude this left tracks two and three to add additional overdubs. And, yes, separately I read Sgt. Pepper was still recorded in four-track since music studios in London did not start using eight-track tape recorders until late 1967.

1976: Southern rockers Lynryd Skynyrd released Gimme Back My Bullets, their fourth studio album and the second-to-last recorded with original members Ronnie Van Zandt and Allen Collins prior to the October 1977 plane crash. Peaking at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200, it was less successful than Skynyrd’s two previous records. Van Zant and Collins attributed the performance to the loss of the band’s three-guitar attack that had been one of their early hallmarks. While the album didn’t match the Platinum status of the band’s other pre-crash records, it still earned a respective Gold certification in January 1981. Here’s lead single Double Trouble co-written by Van Zandt and Collins.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/4 Way Street

As oftentimes seems to happen lately, this post was inspired by a coincidence – earlier this week, I spotted 4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in my Apple Music album suggestions. While I had been aware of the record (and somewhere still must have a taped recording on music cassette!), unlike Déjà Vu, it had pretty much exited my radar screen. But it didn’t even take the 34 seconds of the opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes to remind me what a killer album it is. As such, it felt appropriate to dedicate the 50th installment of the What I’ve Been Listening To feature to this gem.

Originally released in April 1971 as a double LP, 4 Way Street captured music from a turbulent 1970 U.S. tour CSNY conducted after the release of Déjà Vu in March that year. It includes material from gigs at Fillmore East (New York, June 2-7), The Forum (Los Angeles, June 26-28) and Auditorium Theatre (Chicago, July 5). CSNY were at a peak both artistically and in terms of tensions between them. Unfortunately, the latter proved to be unsustainable, and they broke up right after the recording of the album.

CSNY 1970
From left to right: Graham Nash, David Crosby, Neil Young and Stephen Stills at Fillmore East, New York, 1970

Of course, CSNY never were a traditional band to begin with, but four exceptional singer-songwriters who ended up playing together, mostly as CSN, with Young becoming an occasional fourth member. Each already had established himself as a member of other prominent bands: Crosby with The Byrds, Stills and Young with Buffalo Springfield, and Nash with The Hollies. Additionally, Crosby had released his first solo album, while the prolific Young already had two solo records out – his eponymous debut and the first album with Crazy Horse.

Given their history and egos, it’s not a surprise that CSNY wasn’t meant to last. But while it was going on, it was sheer magic. Apart from Déjà Vu, I think this live album perfectly illustrates why, so let’s get to some music!

First up: Teach Your Children, undoubtedly one of the best known CSNY songs, first appeared on the Déjà Vu album. The tune was written by Nash when he was still with The Hollies.

Triad is a song Crosby wrote while working with The Byrds on their fifth studio album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Although they recorded the song and performed it during a live gig in September 1967, it didn’t make the record. Crosby ended up giving it to Jefferson Airplane, and they included it on their fourth studio album Crown Of Creation from September 1968. Perhaps even more intriguing than the tune is listening to Crosby’s announcement.

Chicago is a song by Nash, which he dedicated to Richard Daley, who was then the city’s powerful mayor. It’s about anti-Vietnam war and counter-cultural protests around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the ensuing federal charges against eight protesters who became known as the Chicago Eight for conspiracy to incite a riot. Nash also included the tune on his debut solo album Songs For Beginners, which was released in May 1971.

Cowgirl In The Sand is one of Young’s great early songs, which initially appeared on his second studio album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the first of many he recorded with his backing band Crazy Horse. Songfacts points out the liner notes to Young’s 1977 compilation album Decade explain that he wrote Cowgirl In The Sand, together with Down By The River and Cinnamon Girl in a single afternoon while being sick with a 103 degree temperature – it’s quite amazing what a fever can do!

The last tune on the first LP of 4 Way Street is Still’s Love The One You’re With, which also concludes CSNY’s acoustic set. The song became the lead single to Stills’ eponymous debut album from November 1970. It climbed all the way to no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his biggest hit single.

The second LP of 4 Way Street captures songs from CSNY’s electric rock-oriented set. Long Time Gone is a tune by Crosby, which was included on CSN’s eponymous studio debut from March 1969. Not that Déjà Vu would have needed any additional strong tunes, but it would have been a perfect fit for that album as well!

Southern Man is another classic by Young, which he included on his third studio album After The Gold Rush released in September 1970. Together with Alabama from his follow-on record Harvest, it triggered a response by Lynyrd Skynyrd with southern rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama. While that tune explicitly tells him to take a hike, the band and Young were actually mutual fans, and there never was a serious feud between them. Young in his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream said his words in Southern Man were “accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

While with so much great material on the album I could easily go on and on calling out tunes, the last track I’d like to highlight is Carry On. Written by Stills, it’s another gem from Déjà Vu. Like Southern Man, the take of Carry On on 4 Way Street is an extended version.

4 Way Street’s musicians include Crosby (vocals, guitar), Stills (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Nash (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Young (vocals, guitar), Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass) and Johnny Barbata (drums). The album was produced by CSNY. In June 1992, an expanded CD version appeared, which was produced by Nash and included four solo acoustic performances, one by each artist.

Like Déjà Vu, the record topped the Billboard 200. It was certified Gold by RIAA just a few days after its release. On December 18, 1992, U.S. sales hit 4 million certified units, giving it 4X Multi-Platinum status. Unlike Déjà Vu, interestingly, the album didn’t make Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: March 11

1968: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Co-written by Redding and Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, the song had only been released as a single on January 8 that year, following Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967 at the age of 26. The tune, which topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to no. 3 on the UK Singles Chart, became his biggest hit. As of December 13, 2017, it has reached 3x Multi-Platinum certification.

1970: The Beatles released Let It Be in the U.S., five days after the song had appeared in the UK, their last single prior to the announcement of their official breakup. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the ballad was actually written by McCartney who also sang lead. Undoubtedly one of the best known Beatles songs to this day, Let It Be gave the band another no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 2 in the UK. Here’s a clip of an early take, which appeared on the third of the Anthology albums. In addition to the instrumentation, McCartney’s lyrics are slightly different than in the final version.

1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released Déjà Vu, the first studio album by the quartet and second studio record by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The record, which became the band’s most successful album, includes numerous gems like Carry On, Teach Your Children, Our House and the brilliant cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. The aforementioned songs also appeared as singles, and each charted in the Billboard Hot 100, with Woodstock reaching the highest position at no. 11. The album topped the Billboard 200 in May 1970 and stayed in the charts for 97 weeks. RIAA certified the record Gold on March 25, 1970, only two weeks after its release. As of November 4, 1992, Harvest has reached 7x Multi-Platinum certification, numbers that are unheard of these days. Here’s a clip of the mighty Woodstock.

1972: Neil Young’s fourth studio album Harvest hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200, staying in that position for two weeks. The record featured various notable guest vocalists, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Hills and James Taylor. The album includes some of Young’s best known songs, such as Old Man, The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold, his first and only no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. That tune also topped the charts in Young’s native Canada, as did the record. Harvest was certified Gold by RIAA less than three weeks after its release and became the best selling album of 1972 in the U.S. As of June 27, 1994, the album has reached 4x Multi-Platinum status. Here’s a clip of The Needle And The Damage Done.

1975: English Art rockers 10cc came out with their third studio album The Original Soundtrack. The record is best known for I’m Not In Love, which was also released separately as a single on May 23, 1975. Co-written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the ballad is one of the band’s most popular songs and enjoyed massive radio play. It became 10cc’s second of three chart-topping singles in the UK, and their best performing U.S. single, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s lead single Life Is A Minestrone climbed to no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart but did not chart in the U.S.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, RIAA.com, Billboard Chart History, YouTube