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The Pharaohs
Awakening
(Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity)
The Pharaohs
In the Basement
(Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity)

Like James Brown on a psych-jazz bender or Charles Mingus dabbling in avant-garde funk, the Pharaohs cut a singular path up the center of R&B, making room to further explore the sonic innovations introduced in the Sixties by not only Brown and Mingus, but Sly Stone, George Clinton, and Sun Ra as well. Although the Pharaohs never came close to a hit -- they fell apart just three years after the release of their one album -- they were an integral if criminally overlooked group in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies freakout soul scene. Two reissues on the Ubiquity offshoot Luv N' Haight -- the Pharaohs' 1971 debut Awakening and a collection of outtakes and rarities -- should help establish the group's importance and influence.

The Pharaohs were formed by trumpeter Charles Handy and evolved from a junior-college band called the Jazzmen (which included Handy and future Earth, Wind and Fire avatar Maurice White). When the Jazzmen split in the late Sixties -- with half the members, including White, taking places in the house band at Chess Records -- Handy assembled some musicians affiliated with the Chicago Affro-Arts Theater and rechristened the eleven-piece band the Pharaohs, a reflection of his growing interest in Egyptology.

Awakening is a groundbreaking set of funk laced with Afro-Beat percussion and the sparkling musical explorations of the most daring (not to say noisy) jazz men of the period. From the blast of staccato horns that opens "Damballa" to the tribal drums and chants of "Ibo," from the retooled version of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" to the percolating bounce of "Black Enuff," Awakening sounds like the missing link between George Clinton's cosmic slop and the taut rhythmic excursions of Boxing Gandhis.

Ditto for In the Basement, which collects three ferocious live tracks from a 1972 gig, a rollicking outtake from the Awakening session ("The Pharaohs Love Y'all"), and the flip side from the band's one single (a swaggering run through Al Green's "Love and Happiness"). It captures the band on the brink of perfecting the approach captured so masterfully on the Pharaohs' debut, but it wasn't to be. Handy continued his studies of Egyptology, while members of the Pharaohs horn section were swept up by Maurice White for his then-new combo Earth, Wind and Fire, whose early hits and big-band, jazz/funk style owe a great deal to the music collected on these two long overdue collections. (Ubiquity, P.O. Box 192104, San Francisco, CA 94119)

-- John Floyd

Various Artists
Best of Fat Possum
(Fat Possum/Capricorn)

How can the blues evolve when the conditions that gave rise to its birth and subsequent development no longer exist?

The blues grew out of the forced isolation of African-American people on the plantations of the South, where it developed for decades as an acoustic music. When, in the aftermath of World War II, the mechanical cotton picker put an end to sharecropping, the millions of blacks who made their way to the cities of the North and South took the blues with them. There, as Muddy Waters pointed out, it had to become electric to be heard in an urban environment. But the continuing flow of migration from the rural Deep South to the cities kept an organic link to the roots of the blues, feeding a frenzy of creativity by bluesmen as different in style and location as Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King.

As that migration died out and urban blues gave way to soul, funk, and rock and roll, the blues became static, even though many artists still managed to find thrilling ways to run in place.

But there's an exception to every rule. In Mississippi, the state that remains closest to the conditions that spawned the blues, a new form of the music has evolved. Rural blues musicians, some of them still farmers, took the old acoustic country blues and added not just electricity but a jolt of primal rock and roll. Six are featured on Best of Fat Possum. It's country blues in subject matter (Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City" is a Saturday-go-to-town song if ever there was one), approach (the rough-hewn rhythms and fevered vocals that once were necessary for acoustic performers at noisy plantation get-togethers), and attitude. But this is loud, electric music, drawing from urban blues and rock. It can have the sweet edge of Little Dave and Big Love or the raw brute force of R.L. Burnside.

Collectively, the artists here give the blues a shot in the arm that can take the music past the millennium with some momentum.

-- Lee Ballinger

Louisiana Purchase
1996 New York Revival Cast
(DRG)

Something strange was happening on Broadway in 1940. Musicals, which used to be little more than songs and stars grafted onto flimsy boy-meets-girl plots, were turning sophisticated. Lady in the Dark dealt with psychoanalysis; in Pal Joey the traditional, Brylcreemed juvenile male lead was usurped by a calculating gigolo. Audiences accustomed to escapist entertainment didn't know what to make of this new intelligence and seriousness. It wasn't until 1943 and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! that audiences grew to appreciate the new maturity of Broadway's best writers and musicians. (Today, Stephen Sondheim's musicals cause similar problems.)

During this transition period, some fine shows got lost in the shuffle. For example, take Louisiana Purchase. It boasted a remarkable cast, a rich and varied score by Irving Berlin (including "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow" and "Fools Fall in Love"), and choreography by George Balanchine. The funny and biting book by Morris Ryskind was about a naive U.S. senator and the attempts of crooked businessmen to corrupt him with women and liquor. (Imagine that!) It ran for 444 performances, was made into a Paramount film starring Bob Hope, and then disappeared, except for two brief revivals. The absence of a cast recording certainly contributed to Louisiana Purchase's obscurity.

DRG's great new revival cast recording puts the show back on the map. Music director Rob Fisher has lovingly pieced the score back together -- there was no published theater score -- and has even restored three numbers cut during tryouts. The cast has no big names (except to serious musical theater buffs), but no one will be disappointed with its singing, teamwork, and enthusiasm. Recorded following performances in June of last year, everyone captures the letter and the spirit of what the 1940 original cast recording might have been. Don't miss this.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Michelle Shocked
Kind-Hearted Woman
(Mood Swing)

Someone hit Michelle Shocked in the head with a Joan Baez stick, and boy does it smart! Shocked is one of my all-time faves, has been since her major-label debut, 1988's Short Sharp Shocked. But on Kind-Hearted Woman, her fifth longplayer (previously available only at Shocked's live shows), she has toned down her act considerably, and the results are distressingly Baez-ish, which is to say limp.

Gone are the eclectic arrangements that have defined Shocked's work over the years, from the brassy big-band sound of Captain Swing to the raucous fiddling of Arkansas Traveler. They've been replaced by quiet, brooding songs that spotlight the singer and her electric guitar. No horns. No fiddles. Very little percussion. That would be fine, welcome even, if the songs were consistently strong. "Stillborn" is a particularly annoying opener, a weepy chick-folk number that revels in bathos, and Shocked's usually sly alto quavers so much it sounds as if someone is pounding her on the back.

Elsewhere, Shocked fares a bit better. "Winter Wheat" unfolds with all the stark, depressive beauty of the old "Hollis Brown," and "Cold Comfort" has a sultry twang that wags the hips despite its understated delivery. "Homestead" shows all the markings of a bluesy stomp -- except the stomp. Like a lot of the songs here, it just never gets going.

Hard-core fans of Shocked will find enough rich melodies and evocative lyrics on Kind-Hearted Woman to make it worth the coin. But they may also be left with the creepy sense that Shocked's mellower come-on is a conscious nod to the mandates of the adult contemporary market. To put it more succinctly: The woman can still rock. And should.

-- Steven Almond

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