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Saturday, April 02, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist #1: Blues-Rock
Updated June 26, 2005
Rock 'n' roll, of course, owes its very existence to blues; it is a debt that largely went unacknowledged until the mid-1960's when a number of bands on both sides of the Atlantic began emphasizing the blues inherent in rock, creating the genre of blues-rock.
What the 60's blues-rock bands had largely in common was an adherence to the traditional three chord structure of blues coupled with instrumental improvisation; the epitome of such a band is Cream, although there were many others at the time, some remaining even more faithful to the original blues sound. In England, Alexis Korner and John Mayall led bands that served as a kind of blues finishing schools for young English rockers who would go onto greater fame leading their own bands. In America, many of the West Coast psychedelic bands took their cue from blues; Canned Heat, and Janis Joplin are primary examples; even the Grateful Dead dealt in blues via Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.
The improvasatory jams these bands relied on became as identified with blues-rock as the blues itself; by the late 60's the style began to branch into two different directions. Heavily amplified blues with an emphasis on virtuoso playing evolved into heavy metal, while faster-tempo blues-rock developed into boogie-rock and Southern rock, epitomized by ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Consequently, by the 70's, blues-rock had essentially morphed into hard rock, and the blues influences began to recede again. Almost all hard-rock of pre-punk 70's has some roots in blues-rock to one degree or another. When punk, new wave, and power pop arrived in the late 70's, displaying little or no blues influence, blues-rock was further marginalized and presumed dead.
In the 80's, as the roots-rock movement was beginning to gather steam, musicians began to revisit the blues; Stevie Ray Vaughan deserves special credit for repopularizing blues-rock, and updating it for a new generation. Other rootsy blues-rock bands like Fabulous Thunderbirds also produced a modernized form of blues-rock. Lou Ann Barton was one of the best female practitioners of roadhouse blues in the 80's.
It has been with us ever since, although it has spent a large part of the 90's and 00's as a niche genre. Some recent artists that qualify as blues-rock or at least dabble in it are Doyle Bramhall II, Crosscut, Gov't Mule, Ian Moore, and Chris Whitley.
A sample playlist of 20 important/influential blues-rock artists/bands:
1. Cream: Crossroads
It was this recording that helped make Robert Johnson a well-known name again, after decades of obscurity. Cream's version of his "Crossroads" takes the tune places Johnson surely hadn't dreamed of; Clapton, Bruce, and Baker virtually define the new possibilities of blues-rock in their ungency and intensity. For Clapton especially, this was a career-defining record; it even was a pop hit, reaching #28 on the charts.
2. Jeff Beck: I Ain't Superstitious
In some respects, Jeff Beck's debut album may well be the very first heavy metal album ever, bearing a sound not dissimilar to the not-yet recorded Led Zeppelin I (both albums even featured a version of "You Shook Me"). If this album isn't heavy metal, then it surely is some of the heaviest blues rock ever recorded. "I Ain't Superstitious" is a Willie Dixon number, and it closes the album with a good Rod Stewart vocal and some blazing Jeff Beck guitarwork.
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan: Pride And Joy
This was one of the most important blues-rock albums ever released. When it came out, blues had been gone from the charts for nearly a decade; nearly two decades had passed since blues-rock's heyday. From the very first chords of "Pride And Joy", you knew Vaughan was the real deal; he could deliver in spades all that those very first chords promised. Suddenly, guitar-based blues-rock became viable again, right when all hope seemed lost. Some critics accused Vaughan of not having a style of his own, of leaning too hard on his influences. This misses the point of his music; he was a celebration of his influences and had a shrewd ability to deliver them freshly, without over-reverence, so that in a hostile marketplace, he still turned people on to the blues.
4. The Allman Brothers Band: Whipping Post
The Allman Brothers' importance to rock history was enormous; their closest cousins musically were the Grateful Dead, but the Allmans relied more on blues than anything else for their jams, and in the process, created the unique bluesy-boogie that was the very invention of Southern Rock; every Southern band of the 70's, from Lynyrd Skynyrd on down, owes them a debt. In truth, they tower over everything that followed; beyond the blues, they mixed gospel, country, and soul into their music; "Whipping Post" is one of the very best examples of what they could do. With its ascending chords, its agonized theme of betrayal, its loaded imagry, it packs a powerful wallop.
5. The Animals: House Of The Rising Sun
The British Invasion really had two types of bands; the r&b influenced skiffle bands, and the blues formalists like the Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Pretty Things. "Formalist" might be stretching things, but not too far; these bands learned their chops by studiously mimicking what they heard on imported blues 45's and combining it with what they learned from imported Chuck Berry 45's. By the time these bands hit big, a lot of the blues influence had receded below the surface, but of all the bands of the era, the Animals stayed truest to their blues roots. "House of the Rising Sun" really needs no introduction; Alan Price's organ and Eric Burdon's vocal are among the most instantly recognizable in rock. The Animals have much bluesier cuts than this one, from "Boom Boom" to "I'm Cryin'". But this deserves credit as possibly the first blues-rock to reach #1 in America.
6. Big Brother & The Holding Co.: Ball And Chain
Janis Joplin was a real show-stopper at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967; anyone who has never seen the film ought to rent it one night. This is the song that had the crowd on their feet, that had Mama Cass mouthing "wow", that propelled Joplin into stardom, prompting her to abandon the band while this album was riding atop the charts. The version included on Cheap Thrills is as good as the Monterey one; throughout the album Joplin combines blues and hillbilly country into something desperate and emotional. One of the indispensible albums of the 60's.
7. Fleetwood Mac: Oh Well
For those who know Fleetwood Mac only as a vehicle for Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham, purveyers of lightweight soft-rock, their history is actually much longer, convoluted, and unusual. The long story will have to wait until another day, but the short of it was that in 1969 they were a hardcore blues band, with guitarist Peter Green its major driving force. "Oh Well" was a major hit in England, reaching #2, and it is an aggressive, molten assault on the blues followed by a lengthy second half that's a low-key Spanish guitar piece (in a manner similar to "Layla" which would come out a year later). The album, Then Play On, is largely divided into Green compositions, which are hard blues-rock, and second guitarist Danny Kirwin's, which have a more pop feel. It still stands as arguably the best album to be released by any version of Fleetwood Mac.
8. Canned Heat: On The Road Again
Formed by record collectors and blues historians Alan Wilson and Bob Hite, Canned Heat was among the most faithful to the blues of all the American late 60's bands. "On The Road Again" is their longest-lasting hit, although they had a couple of others. Sung by Wilson in eerie falsetto that resembles Skip James, featuring a tambura, which lends an ominous buzz to the song, and some excellent blues harp, this is one of the best pure blues to hit the top-20. Wilson died in 1970, Hite in 1978.
9. Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Born In Chicago
Butterfield deserves credit for being one of the first Americans to seriously explore blues in the mid-60's. He has never quite gotten his due; part of it may be that his bandmembers (on this cut featuring guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop) often went on to attract a lot of attention themselves. Part of it may be that he was just a couple of years ahead of his time. Butterfield's harmonica style was all his own; the playing resembles postwar Chicago Blues, in the manner of earlier Chicago heroes Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. This is a good cut to get a feel for the Butterfield Blues Band, although their best album is the much more ambitious East-West, a melding of blues, jazz, and raga-rock. Here, the emphasis is strictly on the blues. Butterfield died in 1987.
10. The Yardbirds: I'm A Man
This is from the Eric Clapton edition of the band. While it wasn't released in the U.S., where Clapton remained semi-unknown, it was a huge influence in England, being one of the very first good live rock albums, and being an excellent showcase for Clapton's early blues playing. "I'm A Man" is a fearsome Bo Diddley original that takes audacity to cover; while Diddley has them beat on all fronts, this does a fine job of adapting the blues to rock. Great blues harp, good playing, excellent rave-up in the middle.
11. Fabulous Thunderbirds: Tuff Enuff
"Tuff Enuff" was the 1986 breakthrough for Austin, TX based Fabulous Thunderbirds, one of the only commercially successful blues-rock groups of the synth-pop dominated 80's. The band had been formed in 1974 by Jimmy Vaughan, who led the band until his departure in 1984, Vaughan was Stevie Ray Vaughan's older brother. Their earliest material demonstrates a more pronounced blues sound than this does; its inclusion is to illustrate an attempt to mainstream the blues in the 80's that worked, ironically, only after the younger Vaughan had broken the ice.
12. Derek And The Dominoes: Bell Bottom Blues
Derek and the Dominoes was a short-lived supergroup of enormous renown , featuring Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals, Duane Allman (for awhile) on guitar, plus three members Clapton had stolen from Delaney and Bonnie: Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Carl Radle on bass, and Jim Gordon on drums. Interestingly, on release, this was the first Clapton album not to chart in the U.K. It's not a strictly blues album; it's hard rock, but Clapton, still relatively fresh from Cream, does get bluesy all over, particularly on this blues-rock classic.
13. John Mayall: Room To Move
John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, released in 1966 and featuring Eric Clapton, is his Mayall's most well-known album, but "Room to Move", from 1969, is probably his best known song. Recorded live, it features no drummer; the band plays a strict blues progression with a catchy riff for the first half, before breaking into a jazzy-blues middle. Mayall was one of the principle blues-rock figures in England, his band was a rotating door of up-and-coming guitarists, including Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor.
14. Graham Bond Organisation: Train Time
Graham Bond Organisation is best known as the band that had Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in it before Cream. They played a jazzy-blues accompanied by Bond's organ, that featured Bond's gruff vocals; Bruce rarely got to sing in the group. While this resembles jazz and blues much more than it does Cream, you can hear the influences Bruce ond Baker would bring to their next band. Atmospheric, and evocative of its day, Graham Bond Organisation is a band worth exploring.
15. Electric Flag: Killing Floor
Electric Flag was guitarist Mike Bloomfield's project after leaving Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His aim was to created a fusion of blues, jazz, soul, rock, and psychedelia. A big feature of the band was to be its horn section; the lineup was crack, featuring Bloomfield, who was hot at the time, Buddy Miles on drums, Harvey Brooks, keyboardist Barry Greenburg, and singer Nick Gravinites. Their first project was a soundtrack; the LSD/Peter Fonda vehicle, The Trip. "Killing Floor" is from their next album, A Long Time Comin', in 1968. Electric Flag, was a major influence on Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago.
16. Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated: I Got My Brand On You
Korner, like John Mayall, was another important "finishing school" for up-and-coming blues-rock guitarists. Born in 1928, he was a good deal older than most of the musicians he played with, and had been playing electric blues since 1947. Among the young musicians who were members or sat in frequently were Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bian Jones, Ian Stewart, Steve Marriott, Manfred Mann, Jack Bruce, Long John Baldry, and Jack Bruce. This Willie Dixon track is from their 1962 debut album, recorded live.
17. Doyle Bramhall: Bird's Nest on the Ground
An authentic-sounding blues-rock artist whose work has appeared very sporadically over the years, Bramhall mixes a strong dose of Texas rock influence into his blues recordings. A singer/songwriter/drummer, Bramhall exudes a smoky, warm, Bob Seger-esque voice, and has an easy going charm to his albums. His career dates all the way back to 1970, when he was in the Austin group The Texas Storm with Jimmie Vaughan. "Bird's Nest On The Ground" is the title track to his solo debut; an album he began in 1980 and completed in 1992.
18. Chris Duarte: My Way Down
Duarte, from Austin, TX, is a notable guitarist in the Stevie Ray Vaughan mold. While he never reached Vaughan's level of success, he's produced solid blues-rock since his 1994 debut. "My Way Down" is from his debut; while he's still developing here, it has a rawness that few records of the genre had in the mid-90's; it reached the top-40 on the Heatseekers chart, a rarity for blues rock at the time
19. Jonny Lang: Angel Of Mercy
Lang's debut in 1994 was recorded when he was just 14 years old; while his precocious debut is far from classic blues, it is remarkable to hear his fluid, professional sounding playing. "Angel of Mercy" is a 12-bar from his third album, Wander This World, recorded when he was 17. It also is not a classic for the ages, but it is good; you'd swear Lang was pushing thirty.
20. Hot Tuna: Hesitation Blues
Hot Tuna began life as a side project by Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. They played an acoustic blues, heavily influenced by Rev. Gary Davis, and often opened for the Airplane. In 1973 the Airplane disbanded, and Hot Tuna became their full-time gig. Their debut is an acoustic recording, most of their later releases were electric blues boogie-rock. "Hesitation Blues" leads off that debut, and is a fine Davis cover that highlights Kaukonen's masterful acoustic picking.
trouble is with visiting here - you call albums to mind i had forgotten about - if i have to make one more trip to the attic to rescue them i will scream! ha! Great Stuff
We share a lot in common with music. I think you should review a few more modern albums too. But if you want to talk about classics...you really should review my all time favorite band in the whole world...Pink Floyd.
While we share a lot in common in musical taste and appreciation...I'm not sure if we would agree in the realm of politics. Maybe I shouldn't go there...but we could find out. If you are interested visit my site and leave me a comment with your thoughts.
In closing.... Pink Floyd.
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