Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto





Posted April 7, 2002


This column is subtitled "ruminations on rock'n'roll," and I guess that's what this is.

Counting the days now until I head up to Cleveland to hook up with Geoff Ginsberg and catch Deniz Tek with Scott Morgan's Powertrane, then on to Ann Arbor to catch the same lineup with Ron Asheton at the Blind Pig, Scott's regular stomping grounds.

It's been a rock'n'roll last coupla months for me. Last month I got to see the Yayhoos, whose "Fear Not the Obvious" has become my Album of the Year so far, even though it came out in 2001 (I'm as slow on the pickup today as I was back in '74 when punk was just around the corner but we were still playing stupid Cream and Allman Brothers songs when we weren't sitting in front of the deli having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the Really Neat Girls wouldn't go out with us). Since that show, I've been investigating some of the participants' earlier works, particularly Dan Baird's "Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired" and Terry Anderson's "You Don't Like Me" and "I'll Drink to That" (when I get the second one, "What Else Can Go Right," I'll probably have to devote a whole column to Terry - you just don't find songwriters this good anymore, and the Yayhoos have got THREE of 'em). Call it rootsy or Southern rock, or, uh, "Americana," which is the term that my once-and-maybe-future guitar partner (who I think actually reads No Depression) has been using of late, it's just great rock'n'roll, with the focus on great SONGS (something I've been thinking about a lot lately). I actually brainwashed myself by listening to a tape of "Fear Not the Obvious" in the car for a month to the point where the other night, I was actually able to sit down with the CD and play all the songs from memory (I had a couple of the keys wrong, but what the hell). Hadn't done that in years with ANYONE.

I'll tell you a secret, too - I fuckin' LOVE the Allman Brothers, still. I was talking about 'em the other day with a young woman of my acquaintance who's far more into stuff like the Allmans and Neil Young than most people her age (late twenties) - she also told me she bought the Hoodoo Gurus' "Magnum Cum Louder" when she was in high school, as a result of which I've spent the last couple of days at work listening to "Come Anytime" and "All the Way," and my days were much better for it, thinking what an EPIC sound the Gurus had, and how well it worked on record. But I digress. Anyway, I was telling her about how "At Fillmore East" was one of the touchstones of my misguided youth (as much as "Live at Leeds," "Funhouse," and "Truth," even) - I spent many I lysergic evening studying Brother Duane's extended solo workouts on "You Don't Love Me," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and "Whipping Post" as ARCHITECTURE. I was too young to see 'em live when he was still among 'em, but I listened to them play the closing of the Fillmore East live on the radio, and then in the summer of '73 (post-"Brothers and Sisters" album and "Jessica") I was SUPPOSED to go to the big festival at Watkins Glen speedway upstate, where they played with the Grateful Dead and the Band, but wound up spending the entire weekend out of my skull on PCP, jamming "Savoy Brown Boogie" and "Smoke On the Water" at some kid's house on a borrowed Vox Super Beatle.

I actually DID get to see 'em a couple of summers ago when they played the Starplex Amphiteater in Dallas. I took my oldest (then) guitar-playing daughter and her guitar teacher, and was mightily impressed when young Derek Trucks, then just barely 20, made the hair stand up on my neck in the first 10 seconds of his first solo, playing Indian-sounding microtones with a SLIDE. You had to feel sorry for poor Dickey Betts (even though he appeared to be calling the shots onstage that night, and even had a few new tricks in his bag, playing a Strat and using a wah), having progressed from soloing behind Duane to soloing behind this phenomenal kid. I didn't even get bored during the 15-minute percussion jam. "That's the way to do it," I told my future guitar partner, "don't worry about playing long or counting bars, just let the grooves BREATHE." We gave it a shot, too, as the Occasionals, although the proclivities of different people in the band led us more in the direction of an anal-retentive little jazz band than the free-flowing jam outfit I'd envisioned (although we DID play "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" the way the Allmans had at Starplex, extending the slow opening section before the head so everyone could solo). Maybe next time.

So anyway, I was out hitting used CD stores with my daughter the other night when I ran across a copy of Gov't Mule's new "The Deep End, Volume 1" for four bucks, so of course I had to grab it. I'll admit to having passed on two opportunities to see the Mule at SXSW, and having traded their double "Live With a Little Help from Our Friends" in for some Hoodoo Gurus albums or something. As great (and epic, and Allman-like) as that album was, I just found myself not listening to it that often. Blinding instrumental virtuosity tends to affect me that way - same reason I gave both Derek Trucks CDs to my (then) guitar-playing daughter, and gave Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit to the guy I used to office with on my last Air Force assignment. But I was curious about this new one because of the talent involved.

Their bassplayer Allen Woody having passed away a couple of years back, the surviving Mule guys (guitarist/Paul Rodgers-like vocalist Warran Haynes, who served a tour of duty with Woody in the revived Allman Bros. during the nineties, and alliteratively-named drummer Matt Abts) invited a buncha famous bassplayers to be on their record, including John McPharlin's boy Jack Bruce; funkmeisters Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins (not to mention P-Funk keyboard wiz Bernie Worrell); the Who's "Thunderfingers," John Entwistle; Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea; ex-"classic" Deep Purple member Roger Glover; ex-Minuteman and all-around decent fella Mike Watt, plus other musicians as varied as Gregg Allman, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell (on vocals), Black Crowes' pianist Eddie Harsch, ex-Allmans keyboardist Chuck Leavell, blues singer Little Milton Campbell, jazz guitar great John Scofield, and various members of, uh, Phish, a band whom I'll admit to never having Got, as much as I love the jam band concept. Point being, this isn't just a power trio record. We like our supersessions! But part of the beauty of this record is that it sounds like much more than the product of a list of names - which just goes to show how judiciously the Mule guys picked their guest artistes. All of these guys are musos enough to know that the real function of bass (besides establishing the harmonic underpinnings) is to MAKE THE GROOVE, and they do, and they DO; no bass-solo pyrotechnics here. No matter who else they add to the mix, Gov't Mule sounds pretty much like Gov't Mule. How you respond to that depends a lot on how you feel about blues-based, guitar-focused rock with lots of improvisation (although I think this album succeeds where "Live With a Little Help..." really didn't because it's more about SONGS than JAMS; no 17-minute cuts here). There's as much Free and Neil Young and R&B and jazz and funk in Gov't Mule's sound as there is "Southern rock" (whatever that means; these guys currently make their homes in Noo Yawk City, bless 'em) - a Martha Stewart good thing, I think. It'll do.

Not that 17-minute cuts are inherently BAD, mind you...after reading what looked like a musicological treatise on the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" that came to me courtesy of Mike Watt, I'm gonna have to set aside a Sunday afternoon sometime to listen to that jam, Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," and Coltrane's "Ascension" back-to-back. And maybe follow it up with the Allmans' "At Fillmore East." Nothing exceeds like excess!

But in the end, I think, it's all really about SONGS. I finally got a chance to see ex-Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn, whose solo albums from "Kerosene Man" to "My Midnight" I've been investigating (if I run across a copy of his new "Here Come the Miracles," which has been inviting a lot of critical comparisons to "Exile on Main St.," another touchstone of the misguided youth and seemingly half of the rock'n'roll world, I'm gonna have to cop it). I was particularly looking forward to the event since Ginsberg had assured me that Wynn was "more of a LIVE guy than a RECORD guy" and Wynn's live band (including his squeeze/drummer/girl-next-door Linda Pittmon) is reputedly shit-hot. Little did I suspect that Wynn's Dallas gig, opening for Concrete Blonde, was a solo acoustic performance.

He didn't disappoint, though; the only other performer I've seen take the stage equipped with nothing but an acoustic guitar and so easily win over an audience was Keb Mo' at Caravan of Dreams a few years back. Unfortunately, unlike Keb, who was the headliner and played for two and a half hours until he was physically removed from the stage (his manager had been worrying about his voice when he did an in-store earlier that day); Wynn was the opening act and got exactly an hour. Still, it was songs and singing that I'd been wanting, and that's exactly what he gave us, in spades. You got the impression he could have played for a lot longer, but it was not to be. Concrete Blonde took the stage and as much as I like the IDEA of 'em (Johnette Napolitano's got great pipes and I like the fact that she plays an instrument and doesn't do any typical "chick singer" posturing), some of the Big Rock stage business at Deep Ellum Live just seemed corny and after awhile (EPIC in the same way as the Gurus, filled with grand Big Rock gestures, but somehow not as effective - or maybe I've just been to too many punk shows to appreciate that kind of performance anymore), I decided I'd had enough of being entertained for one night.

Only a week till Cleveland now... - Ken Shimamoto