When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube

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Joe Jackson At State Theatre NJ: Looking Sharp And Still The Man

I almost would have missed Joe Jackson, just like my recent Who concert. Here’s to hoping that my apparent lack of music attention doesn’t become a trend, though it would probably not hurt my wallet! 🙂 Wait, what did I want to say? Right, the British artist who they called an “angry young man” when he broke through with his studio debut Look Sharp! in January 1979. While I don’t know whether Jackson was pissed then, he certainly doesn’t look angry to me these days! Instead, the man who once sang, “Everybody wants a happy ending,” comes across as feeling very comfortable in his skin and happy to still be making music people want to hear. I suppose that’s really all you can ask for as an artist!

By the time Jackson’s ongoing Four Decade Tour registered on my radar screen, all tickets I could afford seemed to be gone, and I just wasn’t willing to throw hundreds of bucks at some greedy reseller!  Then I received an email from State Theatre New Jersey, a nice midsize venue in New Brunswick, cheerfully announcing Jackson’s gig there. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ so checked out the situation one more time. And, voila, while there weren’t many seats left, I managed to get one without losing my blue shirt. Last night was showtime – and, yes, you probably already guessed it, after 40 years as a professional recording artist, Jackson continued to look sharp and proofed he’s definitely still the man!

“So, here comes a big tour,” Jackson said in an announcement last October. “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years – anything else, would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982) Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers. I can’t wait. Let’s party.”

Joe Jackson and Band 2019
Joe Jackson and band (from left): Jackson, Graham Maby, Doug Yowell and Teddy Kumpel

And, boy, what a party it was! In addition to singing splendid lead vocals, Jackson played keyboards – something I read he typically didn’t do during past tours. If that’s true, it was certainly great he changed his mind this time. After all, he’s a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who spent three years in his late teens and early twenties at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition, piano and percussion. During that period, Jackson also learned jazz at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Apart from writing pop-oriented songs in genres like punk, new wave, rock, jazz and Latin, Jackson has also composed classical music. The question really becomes what the man has NOT done musically!

Once again the notion that great musicians tend to play with other great musicians turned out to be true. Jackson’s backing band was simply top-notch! The first guy I need to call out here is Graham Maby – and yes, I’m probably bassed, I mean biased. One of my favorite bassists, Maby still has a superb tone and a great sense for rhythmic and melodic basslines. Paul McCartney is who I wanna be when I grow up, but I’d also happily settle with Maby! 🙂 Jackson’s long-time friend and musical collaborator effectively drove the groove together with excellent drummer Doug Yowell, who by the way hails from New Jersey. They really breed musicians in the Garden State – just sayin’! Last but not least, Teddy Kumpel did an outstanding job on guitar. Man, what a fucking great band! Okay, I think it’s time to get to some music, shall we?

The set kicked off with Alchemy, the closer from Jackson’s great new album Fool,  released this January, and then launched right into the furious One More Time, the opener from his debut Look Sharp! – a cool 40-year jump back in time, not to mention style, and a nice illustration of the band’s versatility. I thought Kumpel’s guitar-playing shined in particular during the more rock-oriented tunes. Unfortunately, my smartphone outsmarted me at the wrong time, so I’m relying on another clip I found that cut off the beginning of Alchemy, but it still gives a good impression of the tune.

Jackson’s new album featured prominently in the show with three tracks, one of which (Alchemy) was repeated at the very end, providing nice bookends to the set. I have to say the new songs absolutely held up to his older, better known material. Here’s Fabulously Absolute, a rocker that was also released as a single. Stylistically, the tune isn’t that much different from Jackson’s first two albums. Whatever genre the man plays, he always has a great ear for catchy melodies, though he never aspired to become a pop star and never did – at least not in the traditional sense.

Next is a track from an album I don’t know well: Goin’ Downtown from Laughter And Lust,  released in April 1991. The tune is co-credited to Jackson and a British singer-songwriter named Drew Barfield.

My personal highlight of the evening was a medley of three songs: A cover of Rain by The Beatles, Invisible Man and It’s Different For Girls. Jackson announced it by saying they are now playing the title track from an album called Rain (January 2008). He dryly added no such track exists, so they borrowed it, deciding to change some of the chords. Invisible Man is the opener of Rain, a fantastic song I frankly had forgotten about, which reminds me a little bit of Steely Dan. Apparently, Jackson digs the Dan; in fact, later in the show, he covered King Of The World from Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore album from July 1973. And then there’s It’s Different For Girls, featuring Jackson’s lyrics reversing the stereotypical roles of men and women when it comes to sex and love – one of two tunes he played from I’m The Man.

His sophomore release from October 1979 remains my favorite Joe Jackson album. In fact, it was my introduction to him when I received it as a birthday present in July 1980. I own the vinyl record to this day, and it’s still in perfect shape! Instead of relying on his band, Jackson treated the audience to a solo performance of It’s Different For Girls. Okay, nuff said! This is a long clip, and the video is sometimes out of focus, but, hey, it least it’s authentic! Plus, the sound is pretty decent and, most of all, the musicianship is just outstanding. What I’m trying to say in so many words is if you dig Jackson, you should watch the friggin’ clip!

Another Jackson tune I’ve always liked is You Can’t Get What You Want. It appeared on his March 1984 gem Body And Soul blending pop, jazz and Latin. Even though the horns from the studio version are “missing” and Jackson plays their fill-ins on keyboards instead, I think the band does a beautiful job capturing the tune. Check out Kumpel’s funky guitar, which is really cool!

The last track of the regular set was I’m The Man. The title track from Jackson’s sophomore album was another highlight of the evening, which once again showed this band can rock. Not surprisingly, it brought the audience up to their feet!

The regular set was followed by a three-track encore, starting with Jackson’s biggest hit: Steppin’ Out, from the Night And Day album released in June 1982. I’m not a fan of drum machines, and that aspect has always bothered me about an otherwise great tune; but I just couldn’t resist filming it, especially after Jackson noted they’re about to do something truly shocking – playing a song almost exactly the way it appears on an album! Jackson is known for altering studio tracks for live performances, which has frustrated some of his fans in the past – a fact he acknowledged during the announcement of the tune, teasingly adding he doesn’t quite get it, since it’s so much fun changing up songs.

Next a roadie walked out on stage, carrying a small box. It was the original drum machine Jackson had used for the recording. He proudly explained he got that drum machine in 1979, adding it’s pretty much impossible to get this gear nowadays. On Night And Day, Jackson played all of the instruments by himself, except for the drum snare, which doubled the drum machine’s snare, a natural task for Yowell. Jackson also explained the other instruments on the studio recording, including a Glockenspiel that last night was played by Maby. Of course, they also had the programmed synthesizer bassline – again, something else I’m less than fond of! Kumpel took over the organ part on the keyboards, while Jackson handled the electric piano. The following clip captures some of Jackson’s introductory explanations. If you’re bit of a music nerd like I am, this footage may be for you.

Joe Jackson is definitely worthwhile seeing, and I’m glad I finally did so! The ongoing second U.S. leg of the Four Decade Tour lasts until June 1. Some of the upcoming gigs include Miami (May 24), New Orleans (May 28), Houston (May 29) and Dallas (June 1). Afterwards, Jackson is returning to Europe, with shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The last date on the current schedule is Tel Aviv, Israel on July 28.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Setlist.fm, YouTube