Monday Morning Video: Johnny Winter (1944-2014)

We lost Johnny Winter last week.  Johnny, known for his blistering fast guitar playing, burst onto the national scene as a solo act in the late 1960s.  A guitar prodigy, Johnny and younger brother Edgar – both albino – had formed a band as they were growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and had a single released when Johnny was just 15 and Edgar 12 or 13.  Over the years, Johnny often shared the stage or studio with his brother, but their careers were distinct.  Johnny stayed faithful to blues throughout his career, with occasional forays into rock, while Edgar has been more of a rocker.  Johnny’s guitar playing ability was astounding, but he also built his legacy by producing several of Muddy Waters’ late-career masterpieces, including Hard Again and King Bee.

The years and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on Johnny.  When I saw him three years ago, he needed to be helped onto the stage and performed his entire show seated, but the music was still there as he played effortlessly.  Below are some memories.

Johnny in his prime:

In 1987, starting to show the years, but still in great playing shape:

This past year on Letterman, very decrepit with apparent vision issues, but the music was still there:



John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.

Monday Morning Video: James Booker

A friend introduced me to the music and legend of the late New Orleans pianist James Booker. The “Bayou Maharajah,” as he was called, lived a flamboyant life. While he never found true commercial success, he built gained popularity in Europe and even played a couple of shows with the Jerry Garcia Band (before being replaced by Dead pianist Keith Godchaux).

Here’s a full solo concert performance captured at famed New Orleans venue the Maple Leaf back in 1983. As if the music wasn’t enough, the early 1980′s cable tv introduction is good for a chuckle.

Monday Morning Video: Patrick Sweany Rocks the House

We in Boston have been spoiled with the plethora of great shows that have come to town this month. Among the latest to hit town was Patrick Sweany. The Nashville-based singer-guitarist is a force of nature, serving up an incredible blend of rock, soul and blues.

This video, although not from the Boston show, provides ample evidence of the explosive power that he and his band bring to their live shows.

(It also serves as a warning as to why you should never hold up your beer in front of a performing musician. Watch at around the 2:55 mark to see what I mean.)

Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways

It’s often said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.  The implication is this is a bad thing.  It may be in many settings, but in music it’s more the case that those who know history love to repeat it.  Shortly after World War II there was a concerted effort to record much of the traditional music that was being passed along and stylistically adapted to new tastes.  In 1948 Moses Asch formed Folkways Records to document traditional music and spoken word performances along with “the sounds of the world”.  Folkways went on to be a central player in the rise of folk music in the 60′s with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.  In the early 70′s the Smithsonian acquired Folkways and integrated their historical recordings along with the Folkways catalog of over 2000 records.  More recently Smithsonian Folkways has released compilations highlighting various stylistic contributions to modern music.  Their latest is Classic African American Songsters.

Unlike many of the historical collections on the market today, Songsters doesn’t focus on a particular genre or artist, but instead delves in to the singers who were adapting traditional songs for the audiences of the day; songsters in the vernacular.  A few of the artists on this disc are well known.  Mississippi John Hurt sings about Monday Morning Blues.  Lead Belly, nee Huddie Ledbetter, does My Hula Love, certainly not one of his more well known tunes.  The Reverend Gary Davis belts out a pretty good Candy Man, a song I had associated with Lead Belly, but apparently of very vague origins.  Davis claims he first heard it at a carnival about 1902.  Given the recent popularity of the Alvin Brothers tribute, Big Bill Broonzy’s name will probably catch people’s attention.  Unlike the blues-oriented songs penned by Broonzy that the Alvins cover, here he does his own cover of the ragtime classic Bill Bailey.

There are also a number of songs you’ve heard countless times, but sung here by artists you probably haven’t heard.  And some of the interpretations are really a notch above the crowd, particularly given the recordings are sometimes 50-60 years old.  Brownie McGhee does an awesome job on Pallet On the Floor, a blues classic traced back to the late 1800′s.  From that same era of cotton field music, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins do a dynamite Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, a number Dead fans are sure to be familiar with.  The one that caught me most by surprise was Peg Leg Sam covering Froggy Went A-Courtin’, a kids song that supposedly dates back to the 16th century and done here with a nice bluesy harmonica.

Songsters cover Classic African American Songsters is not an album your hipster friends are going to tell you about because they’ve discovered the newest super-cool band you need to hear.  But if you want to hear what some current hits sounded like back in the day, or are a fan of acoustic music with bona fide authenticity, it’s worth a detour to get this record.