Had to start somewhere…
Richie Hayward, the drummer and one of the co-founders of little feat, passed away from complications of pneumonia on August 12, 2010. He was 64. He was influential, underrated and too young to go.
During my early teen years I was exposed to this remarkable band, first on the floor of the family summer house on Great Cranberry Island, Maine; some older cousins had left both “Time Loves a Hero” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” in the pile next to the KLH turntable, “TLAH” with its Neon Park cover, some foreign landscape magical and warm, the music so clear (some might say slick) and yet so funky.
In high school “Waiting For Columbus” spent YEARS on the record player, the songs and energy taken to such a high level through the performance. I spent a week in my parent’s barn with my drum kit, trying to get the feel, the syncopation and the mechanical coordination together just to play Richie’s intro to “Time Love A Hero”. It seems to drop in already in progress, backwards and off beat, the transition to the head natural in its inversion. Hard thing for a young musician to feel, let alone diagnose. The earlier albums were heard in the back of a bosses Honda Accord, loaded on vodka and pot, his high end listening of feat and Steely Dan highlights of an education of quality rather than the median FM fare that polluted my peers 8-tracks.
As much as I wanted to be able to play like Richie it didn’t seem to matter as no one around me could play like the rest of the band in my age group (Steve Ide could but I was just a young pup…) By the time I was at Berklee, I had even a harder time finding those who wanted to play feat-style music, the confusion of fusion and the half hearted wave of “New Wave” conspired to push me in different directions. As I was not the type to wack the hard pads of a Simmons kit, I sided with John Bonham and Stewart Copeland, who also hit hard, turned it around and was accessible to me and those I was playing with.
Strangely, there were always those with a musical vocabulary like mine who would listen to feat for pleasure but never attempt to walk in that direction in a band setting. I ended up accessing the Delta and older Blues through them, not the Stones or the others who dragged young Americans back into the history of their own countries musical history. Paul and Lowell’s slides seemed better connected than the English knock offs or the poppier acts from the USA. They made traveling back not a history lesson but a quest for an essence that might not even connect with a middle class white kid (when there was a middle class). Their explorations into jazz seemed natural; it was still feat music.
Well, Lowell left early and it seemed like there was nothing else to learn. Abandoned and left with great albums, it sadly felt like another snapshot of a time that I’d never have a connection to except through my ears.
I stopped playing music regularly in the mid-80’s when my addictions became more time and spirit consuming. I began helping others with their gear while living in Boston, my connection to live music now supportive rather than direct. I moved to Southern California in 1985 and fell into touring work by mid-1986. Somehow I survived until late 1989 when I began to clean up my act. I spent the next few years spanning the globe with Paul Simon, wrapping up in early 1992. There’s a funny thing about having a good long-term job; you get out of the loop. People forget about you; it’s hard to find work sometimes after one of those. When I got the call in June of 1992 for a job with little feat, I jumped not because of the fear of never working again (a common roadie phobia) but because, in whatever form they were currently in, it was the FEAT!
Working for your heroes can be a dicey thing sometimes, your expectations and the reality can cause serious problems. I was invited to the Power Plant rehearsal studios to meet the guys and figure out their gear. Unfortunately the previous guitar tech refused to show me the ropes; Much of it I had to figure out for myself. There was a bit of pressure on but little of it was from the band. I had the job of caring for 4 people on the tour: Paul, Fred, Kenny and Craig Fuller. Things were casual when I arrived, most of the band settled in and getting ready for another turn through the states.
I did my best to pay attention to the guys I was responsible for but there was Richie, right there, surrounded by cymbals. I think the puns began at once with us, from the intro on. The thing about people who try to be funny (I am one), we can spot others who really are. I don’t think there were many times when a turn of phrase, a pun or a double meaning or arcane reference didn’t enter our interaction. I think it gave us both pleasure when we realized that we were the only two who understood what was being said.
My first gig was not so great as I packed up a needed acoustic guitar before the encore was completed… after a short delay, the crowd got “Willin’” and we were off to the next town, my job still there. The first weeks of hearing the band only feet away were amazing; the level of communication and experience are pretty much untouched by any other band I’ve ever worked for. There are opportunities to see remarkable performers but to see a band that really operates together as a single organism, stronger for it’s many parts not weaker, that is becoming more rare. This is/was not a perfect band; some of their flaws actually became part of their style. I’ve had a theory for years which some have agreed with; I’ve witnessed it so I feel confident that it has some merit.
Richie had a habit of rushing his tempos a bit; early in the band’s history Lowell was rather harsh about tempo and some of the live recordings from the mid-70’s are slow, funky, laid waaaaay back. When Richie rushed, one of the people who would get annoyed was Sam Clayton, the percussionist in the band. He would intestinally drag/”lay back” to pull him back in, which, wasn’t always successful. Kenny Gradney, the bass player would sit right there in the middle, a strange flamming triplet of groove that often felt like a single great big note, fat and funky. To me it was one of the secrets to feat’s sound, a rhythmic chorusing effect that made them nearly impossible to imitate.
There was one show that year in Portland, OR at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheatre when John Hammond Jr. opened for them, acoustic solo. We did the set change and put the band on stage. The opening number that night was “Hate To Lose” which opens with a guitar figure and then the band comes in. When that moment came, Richie did his flourish, struck his snare drum like a cannon shot and all the power in the venue went off. Turns out the electrician had tied all the food tents with their espresso machines and woks into the same circuit as the sound power; once the peak of Richie’s drums pushed the PA’s speakers to regular operating volume, it tripped all the breakers. Sad part is during the wait for the repair to the circuit we couldn’t even go get a coffee as they were dead in the water too!
The music of feat between ’88 and now has been slighted by some, due to ghosts, alleged intrusions into the “boy’s club”, the general malaise and toppling of the recorded music business and the fact that corporations only seem to know how to sell new things or things that never change. A lot of songs and performances through the Fuller and Murphy years are great, they stand alone without Shakespearian trips to the battlement walls. Paul and Billy still write songs that will open your head, your eyes and your heart. Richie propelled so many of them to the next level, just by being there.
We shared laughs, hot nights, cold mornings, strengths, weaknesses… The last 10 years we were not very close but like good friends and friendly family, time can pass and everything is the same, for better or worse. I was never Richie’s drum tech; I started as a guitar tech, took on being production manager for a time, drove the truck… when you are welcomed into a family you take the job that’s open and do your best to help the band in and out of each show. Not being his tech make our friendship safe as sometimes in any working relationship the job and the friendship can clash a bit. I would have loved to do the job, but I never did.
Plenty of other people can and will write better obits but I’m doing this because I was lucky enough to work with him and his band on and off for 10 years. Unlike some of the people who I’ve worked for, there was plenty of personal interaction and time spent off of the stage with feat; in the later years band and crew traveled on the same bus, which meant we were in close quarters.
Richie was a remarkable drummer, his high harmonies were a secret weapon for the band and as a man, he was so nice, too nice in some cases. You wanted to defend him but he took his own path. I have been so blessed to find these things out, I hope he felt the love and appreciation for him in the end; he was a fan of good drummers and they were all fans of him. I extend my love to the band, their families, the family of feat fans and all those who feel this loss. We are so lucky that he left so much amazing music in the world for us to share, then, now and forever.
As there seems that so many people are formed with or without the sensitivity for music or the arts, there are those too who cause the entire playing field to change shape or double in size. They sometimes are the odd birds who approach an instrument in a new way that defies what has gone before; sometimes they are just people who are in the right place at the right time, physically and emotionally, whose honesty captures a moment.
A lot of those people end up on most everyone’s list, revolutionaries who sponsor and promote the next generation of seekers and dreamers, often broken and abandoned by the fact that they exist in the present and the future at the same time. So a list of examples from my angle would include players like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Hendrix and Jeff Beck, bands like the Beatles, XTC, Little Feat and NRBQ, and guys you may have never heard of like Jaco Pastorius , Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jerry Douglas and Michael Landau. This is a fast and extremely limited list for me but the fact that you recognize or don’t recognize these names is not really the point of this post.
When I was growing up in Western Mass in the late 70’s I took a job as a bar back at a local pub that featured live music. Most were local and regional bands who played covers and originals and there were even a few you may have heard of (David Bromberg, Arlo Guthrie’s backup band Shenandoah), but one stuck out for me; The Incredible Casuals from Cape Cod.
In looking at reviews over the years, the descriptions of the band come close but never really nailed it; “the Who meets the Ventures” is a half hearted attempt to sound bite a band that both over and under achieved a heavy pop/ beach groove. “Replacements romping through Beatles VI”? Two dimensional. They were “Live, Loud, Drunk and Out of Tune” some of the time but my memories of the tiny green sparkle Rogers drum kit, the yellow duct tape wrapped Fender Jag and a ska version of ? and the Mysterians “96 Tears” just open the door to the universe they created.
Chandler Travis and Steve Shook had a musical/comedy (comic musical?) act that spawned a single album and a bunch of opening slots in the mid ‘70’s called Travis Shook and the Club Wow. They supported some big acts of the day and began their relationship with George Carlin while opening for him. Enter drummer Richard Bates (AKA Vince Valium), a rail thin, tall monster of a drummer who was more than partially responsible for their amps being turned up so high. By the time I first saw them in the late 70’s, Johnny Spampinato was also playing guitar, his lefty Fender turned away from Steve’s hollow Gibson and Chandler’s J bass in the middle, some kind of reckless precision coming out of it seemingly by mistake. Vince played ferociously, kit low, his body draped over it, arms flailing until the punky Bunken 7A drumsticks would splinter, he releasing the remains towards the bar, bottles crashing and breaking, a small pile of kindling after each show in various corners.
Now, lest you get some vision of a punk band in this time frame, know that they never limited themselves to any genre or treatment. I had the pleasure of seeing them about 2 dozen times in this short period and was subscribed to their “Inedible Casseroles” cassette series, which were like early podcasts that included demos, live takes and life on the road vignettes. They might take one of their beach rave ups and do it Bossa Nova; their humor and depth mashed up seemingly inappropriate things, making them truly their own. I’ve always been drawn to bands like this, even before I knew they were doing it; perhaps the confusion/fusion/mutancy of bands and artists who didn’t/couldn’t play it straight just confirmed what I was learning about music, which was knowing the history and rules so you could throw them out.
I suppose there are better historical articles about the people I’m mentioning here but this is in relation to my musical upbringing and the fact that close contact or years distant can still influence and comfort a listener. They were a few years ahead of me and I can easily admit how they did burn a blistering scar into my brain, that Vince’s grooves were liberally borrowed but never mastered and that digitization and the internet has renewed a love affair I’ve had with their music for over 30 years. Without sounding too much like a rock critic or a reporter for Circus Magazine (gasp!) I’ll fill in some blanks and perhaps get to a point…
Surviving as artists while posing as a bar band has always been a tricky thing. You have to give the drinking crowd what they want and keep them coming back for more. Heck, even Terry McGovern fired Springsteen from his club for capturing the audience’s attention and keeping them from the beer tap! Salting a steady stream of covers with originals or re-arranging popular numbers can be dicey. You either have to be calculated or completely turn your back on who’s there until your crowd finds you; takes a great deal of courage or apathy.
OK, so the Casuals knew an incredible cross section of rock tunes, surf hits, obscure oldies and standards. What they didn’t know, they faked without apologizing; their trainwrecks were ten times more interesting than a pitch perfect recreation. Their originals could be complete nonsense, frat house sing-a-longs, punchy, hooky pop nuggets or simply beautiful love songs. They always have had the luxury of 3 different people to sing leads which also changed the complexion from song to song.
I first got to see the band when Steve Shook was still there, his quiet solid presence counteracting the careening energy of the rhythm section and Johnny’s Fender assault. He had his hand in the cacophony but when things lightened up his delicate playing and vocals gave the band a different dimension. While I was living in Boston a few years later I saw the band with Aaron Spade in his place and, like most people who have a certain snapshot of a classic line-up, it didn’t immediately work for me. A different person brings different influences and energy for better or worse. It took me a while to warm to him as I’m sure it took for him to find his place in this unique crew. In reviewing the songs recorded during his tenure his ear for the Stones, the Beatles (and if I’m not mistaken Oasis) sneaks in, adding more edgy craft into a band rife with it.
Johnny went to work with his brother in NRBQ when Al Anderson moved to Nashville and that’s about the time I kinda went on living with memories and audio cassettes of earlier times, as we all do with those bands that capture a time for us. I no longer lived on the east coast and had no idea what the guys were up to.
OK, here’s the remarkable thing; for 29 straight years the band has held down the summertime Sunday afternoon slot at the Wellfleet Beachcomer from 4 to 8, basically from Memorial Day to Labor Day for 30 years. There has been formal (maybe the wrong word) and informal line up changes along the way; Vince is now Rikki, Johnny is back on the left and Chandler is still there in the middle. They all have other projects they participate in; they are known from Cape Cod to Tokyo but I’m not sure about in between.
I haven’t really focused on Chandler Travis quite yet because I think in the end this post has been prompted by him. He has been the not-so-quiet lynchpin of the group, a remarkable songwriter with a un-duplicatable style and the ringmaster of many an almost forgotten night. Some might look at his humorous and cynical turns in his love songs as just jaded or grouchy; to me they’ve always been an example of how humor gets used to soften the hurt and reality of life. Songs like “Fade Away”(arg,”The Giraffe Suite”, forgot the actual name and missed filling in the name when editing…), “Merry Christmas Anyway” and “This World” all show their heart by the end of the last chorus; vulnerable, imperfect (the character not the song) and so hooky you swear you’ve heard them for a lifetime.
The Casuals are not Chandler but they are not the Casuals without him…well, proving me wrong I see a posting saying that Joey S. was sitting in for him one night this year, which makes it a heck of cool band.
In 1996 Chandler sat in with the house band at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA, who was being led by Dinty Child, a multi-instumentalist and musicial troublemaker. This spawned a 9 piece unit that became known as the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, a riot of horns and possibility. With Rikki Bates at the drum chair, here was a band to do some serious mayhem. Described as“probably the world’s only alternative dixieland / omnipop band,” they are fun explorers of the familiar and unfamiliar that need to be heard to help a listener find their own descriptive metaphor, just like the Casuals. Sun Ra, Gil Evans, The Meters, The Seeger Sessions Band on Mescaline, Michael Buble with 50 years out in the sun… well, you can’t really keep a thumb on them for very long. They are funny, irreverent, deep, over qualified and a wonderful powerful engine to drive his songs around the bend. I keep something on in the background while writing this and here’s a song that is part “Iko-Iko”, quotes Irving Berlin and makes enough sound effects for Esquivel, Ambitious Lovers and Spike Jones all happy. Nope, I can’t do them justice even in this run on paragraph.
OK, so not all of us can make it to the Cape to see for ourselves and YouTube is so very, very small… luckily we have a good deal of recordings to listen to for both bands. The official and unofficial stuff all has nuggets of pure joy all over them. Here are some suggestions for first time listeners or re-discoverers…
Let’s Go- The Incredible Casuals A nugget. I enjoy the vinyl scratches on the digital version. Summer surf fun and still strong 30 years later.
That’s That- The Incredible Casuals Most of what the band has recorded has been repackaged and now digitized, at least the studio stuff. They were amazing for sharing/selling their “field” recordings, imperfect and magical. “That’s That” is a good compilation, with some classic songs, from both the Shook and Spade eras. So is World Championship Songs 1980-2007.
Yearbook ’04 Live at da Coma!- The Incredible Casuals Being that the Casseroles are not digitized (yet), this is a good quality live recording of the current line up with some guests. Interesting covers and a sense of the energy.
If you dive deeper into their sites, You Tube, emusic, Amazon, etc, there is plenty of stuff to find of varying quality.
Let’s Have a Pancake!- The Chandler Travis Philharmonic The first of the official albums of the band, great songs and amazing performances. This is linked to Amazon for a simple stable permalink but most of CTP/TIC world is available through Sonic Trout and their own websites, including their many less official recordings, including 22 Radio Ball CDR’s in “Horrend-o-phonic” sound. I’d start with the main stuff but there are treasures everywhere.
Llama Rhymes- The Chandler Travis Philharmonic Further out but still in the neighborhood…
Tarnation and Alastair Sim- The Chandler Travis Philharmonic 48 tracks of glorious carnage. George Carlin leaves a few phone messages before passing away. Masterful, in pieces.
I am glad that through the internet I have rediscovered this music and know that more is being released and created all the time; a new Casuals and TCP release are on their way here now and I’ll update you when I digest them. I have had the great honor of working for some amazing artists over the years that the world knows; there are so many that we have to depend on each other to find out about. After such a long time in not posting, I had to make it a goodie. Check out Chandler, Rikki, Johnny and Aaron, together and apart. You deserve it.
It doesn’t seem right to have the purchase of a new device be the reason for me to return to a long form blog post here on PIBC. I’d hoped it would be a return to art, music or poetry; still, an opportunity to share my thoughts about this needs to go beyond the restraints of micro blogging and, though long dormant, I still pay for this space.
Right before Christmas, my long suffering Blackberry Pearl 8120 went on a trip around the inside of an HE washer. Saturated and well spun, it took a few days for the moisture and confusion to begin departing the chassis. Like an elderly man, it recognized the media card, then didn’t, then did. It froze like a potted plant in Calgary. When it began to work again it would reboot in the middle of calls, the middle of words.
I spent more than a few years traveling the world with the spartan operating system, yanking out the battery on crashes and freezes, using other peoples workarounds in order to attempt to be real time with those on laptops and other devices. I can’t begin to tell you how amazed I was with the Blackberry push technology, the speed and reliability it had for email. I once found myself within a Roman Coliseum in Pula, Croatia in 2007, sending an email from my laptop and hearing the whoosh of the Apple Mail notification followed in one second by the vibration of my Blackberry. Think about the routing for a second; My laptop to the production office wifi to the local Croatian telco to the internet to Google in the states to Blackberry in Canada to Tmo to the cell provider in Pula to my Pearl in about one second. That’s insane.
The sad part began as the real time revolution began, some of us using Google Talk to follow our Twitter stream through a mysterious and legendary myth called “Track“. This would be May 2008 and I stood in Dublin, Ireland at the RDS Arena, an equestrian center used for concerts for many years. I put a few keywords into Track that day and watched in amazement as realtime tweets came out of the 20,000 people in front of me and into my phone. In experimenting with certain keywords in certain newscycles, I was able to crash my phone in some spectacular ways.
Well, now Track is just a story early adopters tell their grandchildren when they want them to fall asleep but it was a clear sign to me of how underpowered handheld devices were for the oncoming data stream. The Blackberry became clearly web challenged as the first iterations of the iPhone showed that the phone was (clearly) the least of its features. I, like many felt attached to the microscopic keyboard, the ability to have multiple conversations going on, IM, Text, Email, photos going out and coming in. I got to a point when I knew a crash was coming, a flash site locking the hourglass in an endless topple, the battery removal and reinsertion just another keystroke, doing it all without looking, the reboot period just a commercial break of sorts.
As contrarian as I was about the iPhone not being what I needed or wanted and ATT being what it is, I bought an iPod Touch last year for a two fold reason. First, I was going to use it as a Skype phone around the Pacific Rim (I did and it was quite able) and also so that I wouldn’t be totally ignorant of the OS experience. It’s a great media player, logical, small and reliable. The App aspect was slow to become as important but it was rather remarkable to have the mobile experience of getting the software you need when you needed it.
Oddly, I ended up using the Blackberry on my Pacific trip for 2 things and one was remarkable and the other, expensive. The Wifi/UMA section of the Pearl made it possible to turn off the cell broadcast antenna, hit free wifi on the streets in Australia and Japan and make all the free international calls I wanted. Find a McDonalds, stand outside, join the hotspot, wait for the red UMA indicator and dial away. The other was the casual data access I made in Australia over the cell system, which for YEARS in Europe never got metered or billed and created a wallet breaking roaming charge I’d never incurred before. Expensive lesson.
So here I am a week into my Android experience, comparing it to my BB experience (the Jensen Interceptor of the internet, minus the speed) and to my Apple knowledge (not a deity, not a demon, just a really well crafted only show in town). In my industry, we deal with multiple operating systems from many vendors. We have some standards like MIDI and some formats that became prevalent so that the competition would include it just in order to be used. The real parallel is to the digital rack gear of the 80’s and 90’s, when companies like Roland, Yamaha, Korg and Lexicon had very clear ideas of how you were to navigate through the endless pages of parameters with a 2 line LED screen and a scroll wheel and “enter” button.
It wasn’t unusual to work for people who stayed with one kind of gear because trying to figure out the OS was just such a waste of time. The use of the Atari ST computer along with the early Macs began to bring a more uniform GUI experience to musical gear. As music software for sequencing, programming and recording evolved, the Mac desktop became the palette that many techs and musicians became comfortable with (to be fair, some of the best keyboard techs I know were multi-platform and did a great deal of work on Windows, due to the huge market share they held in those days).
I mention this because there were moments back then when you had a moment of “oh, so THAT was what the programmer was thinking when he did it this way” when you went from a Yamaha piece to a Roland piece. I’ve had a few of those with the Nexus One and the Android platform.
There were early moments when the lack of uniformity and shortcuts built into the desktop, the browser and a few of the apps began to sour me from the N1 as I compared it to the soft key dance of the iPhone/iPod.
“Why move the clutch and the brake? I’ve always driven this way…”
In Formula One auto racing, the controlling of gear shifts have gone from the old school 3 pedal manual H pattern experience, to semi-automatic, sequential shifting to hand controller, computer clutching gear selection. The steering wheels on these cars are more like high end game controllers…
(take a look at this explanation…)
than what they were before…
A back button that can get you out of any path a step at a time is not a bad thing. You want to bail out, the home window button is always there. Having a dedicated menu button work on all areas is helpful and educational too. The trackball, though I’ve been using them for 20 years, is a little bit lost on this device but provides a 3D message indicator to see across the room.
I was really bugged by some of Google’s lack of widgets for the services I use. Then I realized that they use the browser as the engine for many things. Bookmark the mobile version of Google Reader for instance, put a shortcut on the desktop and you’re golden. No memory for a widget, nothing to load. It already lives on the cloud.
Google Voice has been mentioned as being the big draw here and I will not be a detractor. Being able to funnel your voicemail, texts and numbers into the Google eco-system for someone who travels as much as I do is a big winner. I’ve gone weeks without checking my voicemail overseas because I was afraid I’d lose my house for roaming charges. It’s a non-issue now as long as I have an internet connection at work or the hotel. Also in the very loud environment I exist in, seeing Google’s best guess at the transcription of the voicemail is very handy; you could put my phone through a Marshall amp an I’d still not get the message. Now I can…and the spamku errors of the lightly grayed guesses are very entertaining.
It’s interesting to see how Google’s apps differ from Loic’s or Amazons, let alone the developers who are giving it their best shot. There are those that are missing entirely at this point, Buddyfeed, Kindle, Tweetie and the like. With an increased user pool, developers will make it happen and Google will tweak more sugar in and out of their pastry named systems.
A few apps have been crashy like Ustream but for a person who carried a Crashberry for many years, it’s unreal to have gone a week without pulling the battery… though I could if I wanted to or needed to. I can also carry a second one for heavy data flow days…sorry.
I am a little disappointed that no accessories were ready when they released it; skins, spare batteries, chargers, cradles, etc.
I am enjoying having a high powered mobile device that does nearly everything I need it to. I’m about to give it a partial test by leaving the country and shifting to primarily wifi for a few weeks. I’ll let you know how that goes.
I have read many accounts of musicians and non-musicians over the years of the moment when their paradigm was shifted, their mind blown, the door opened by hear a particular song or artist. Some of these are typical while others are more obscure. The Beatles, Coltrane, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Hendrix… they all end up being mentioned a lot. I was raised in a drummer’s home and actually went to school to be a drummer; you’d think that the person who did it for me would be one.
Actually, I have to admit the person who did it for me was Jeff Beck.
In 1976 I was listening to either WCCC or WHCN out of Hartford, CT, the two rock stations we could pick up in Western Mass. They played classic rock and as it was in those days, the formats were a lot looser…as were the DJ’s and the program directors. They would on Sunday mornings play 4 blocks of a half hour between 10am and noon of an artist, uninterrupted. Sure, it might be Lynyrd Skynrd or Led Zep but sometimes it was something new, different and really good. I was exposed to NRBQ, Nils Lofgren, Chick Corea (with Steve Gadd no less!) and other acts you will never hear on American commercial terrestrial radio again.
I can’t remember the song that was first but I would have to bet it was “Blue Wind”, the duel between Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer. These guys were fierce, loud and apparently from another planet. It was actually in rotation, a guitar instrumental with trading solos, Jan’s jagged yet perfect drumming, outer space synths and that guitar, that guitar that didn’t sound like any other. I bought “Wired” probably at White Knight Records in Great Barrington and brought it home.
The songs and performances of that album are part of my DNA. The liner notes, the photos, the Epic logo… they all are as fresh now as they were then, my comprehension a little better now of the technical aspect of it but the visceral, emotional, primal connection was there from the get go. This guy had attitude, attack, delicacy and recklessness in spades. The album “Jeff Beck Live with the Jan Hammer Group” came next and might have come off my turntable once or twice in the next 2 years. I actually wore that one out and bought a second. His breaking into “Train Kept a Rollin’” in “Blue Wind” was so fucking gnarly I want to play it for every young guitar player who thinks he’s a bad ass to show him what a Strat can do.
I was lucky enough to see him the first time on the “There and Back” tour in 1980 at the Curry-Hicks Cage/ University of Mass in Amherst. That album and particular quartet was a pretty serious extension of the direction that “Wired” and “Blow by Blow” started, maybe a bit more slick but still a sight to see. The Cage was an old hockey rink which the local fire marshals didn’t allow smoking in probably due to its flammable appearance. They had college ushers running around with little sand buckets grabbing cigarettes and joints away from the crowd. The thoroughly mundane Michael Stanley Band opened and then there was a lengthy delay until Beck hit the stage. I know it was long because they played 3 entire albums before the lights went down and, despite my ingestion of pollutants, I remember all of them: Little Feat “Down on the Farm”, UK’s debut album and their second, “Danger Money” (funny what we remember and forget, isn’t it?)
The lights went down and out they came. I was already a huge fan of the drummer Simon Phillips and have continued to be intrigued by Beck’s relationship to drummers. They seem to fuel his fire and the good ones send him into the upper atmosphere. It was loud. Anyone who has seen Jeff play know that his presence is a combination of limitless swagger and indifference, so many of the licks and moves he created, if not modified for his generation and beyond. The term “Reckless Precision” I first heard as an album title for Tuck Andress but it sums up Jeff’s approach sometimes. He’s not infallible or perfect, he reaches, he pushes his guitar to the limit and coaxes and thrashes the most delicate notes and the most obscene wails and crashes out of it.
What would be considered a show off move ends up being the perfect punctuation for a phrase, like finishing the line on “Freeway Jam” by bouncing the butt of his Strat off the floor for a tone like a 4 car pileup. He also knows as many ways to bend a note as anyone I’ve ever seen, between his mastery of the whammy bar, using his palm to move the floating bridge, his able fingers, the slide or inverting the guitar, sticking the headstock into the floor and leaning into it (don’t try this at home!!!).
In the hour and a half he played that night he did it all. But the funny thing is this memory from 29 years ago was nearly 20 years into his career and kids, he ain’t done yet.
As the music business began to bloat and then whither, Epic would release a record every now and then, a strange anomaly akin to the old roster at Warner Brothers, when Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker kept prestige creative acts on their roster despite their limited sales. Jeff’s album “Flash” was an attempt to commercialize him in an era of MTV, while he made appearances with Tina Turner and Rod Stewart, produced by Arthur Baker. It didn’t really appeal to either side of the fans, the fusion nuts or the music video pariahs. It still had glimmers of his fire, though heavily coated in 80’s dreck.
When “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” came out, all was then well with the world. A trio album with drummer Terry Bozzio and keyboard player Tony Hymas, it left the space that his guitar needed to breathe, twist and burn. The monster riffs of “Big Block” still kick the ass of anyone in its way. The real find was a track called “Where Were You”, his take on a melody he became infatuated with after hearing the Bulgarian Woman’s Choir Le Mystere des voix Bulgares. The most vocal of his performances, the trem bar that is so overused and dive bombed by others becomes the breath and pain of his ethereal voice. For guitar players, it’s a master lesson in the virtually impossible. He was still showing the youngins who was boss if they had the brains or the balls to listen. The tour with the bass-less trio was a double bill with Stevie Ray Vaughan, a classic pairing that I sadly missed in LA as it was the only day in 3 months I had a gig.
They say if you want to get Jeff to walk away from a conversation, start talking about guitars. If you want to get his attention, bring him a part from a 1932 Ford. He loves cars, old hot rods, working on them and getting his hands dirty. He has nearly damaged those amazing hands doing it and to me, it would be a tragedy except he would have been doing what he truly loves when he’s not onstage.
He has taken his interest in electronica and made some records which sound modern and purely Jeff at the same time. He has been touring a bit more often and has had some rather amazing band line ups from a musician standpoint, people like Jennifer Batten, Pino Palladino and Vinnie Colaiuta have had the chance to tour with him. His current band is remarkable, with Vinnie, the young Australian female bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and Jason Rebello. A recording taken from a week of shows in London has been released called “performing this week…live at Ronnie Scott’s” which shows he has just gotten better and better. There is now also a DVD from the same club run which includes some guests like Eric Clapton, Joss Stone and Imogen Heap. The real attraction here is getting to see what Jeff can do with the guitar, stuff that mere mortals can attempt to do but never will flow like the beautiful liquid fire that seems to emit from his fingertips.
I highly recommend either or both of these documents to musician or just plain listener alike. If you don’t like instrumental music or “jazz-rock fusion”, don’t let it stop you. There is something for everyone… unless you don’t like electric guitar. And in that case… there’s nothing I can do for you.
On the weekend of April 4th, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. A ceremony of presentations and performances occurred that night and was broadcast live on Fuse TV. I was fortunate enough to be there for the rehearsals and the event. It was amazing to see my employers inducted and to be a part of the show, but to me, being able to watch and listen to Jeff that close was one of the highlights of my career. If any guitar player besides Hendrix ever deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, it would be Jeff Beck. And now it’s official.
But we already knew that.