Live at the Fillmore East
The Jimi Hendrix catalogue has been revamped and remixed so many times you may be forgiven if you lost interest somewhere along the way. Currently the Hendrix family itself is involved in reissuing Jimi's music and the focus has been on restoring the performances that were up to snuff in the first place -- no need for tampering with the end product. On December 31, 1969, and January 1, 1970, Hendrix dragged bassist Bobby Cox and drummer Buddy Miles along to Bill Graham's Fillmore East in New York City for four shows (two per night) to celebrate the changing of the decade and the altering of Hendrix's patented sound. A live album, Band of Gypsys, was drawn from those nights and released on Capitol in April 1970. This six-song LP was the last official release in Hendrix's lifetime and though it was curtailed by vinyl's physical limitations, the album still gave listeners a good idea of the loose jamming and rhythmic experimentation that Hendrix could deliver live.
Live at the Fillmore East is a companion piece to Band of Gypsys, and includes an uncut version of Buddy Miles's "We Gotta Live Together"; two versions of Gypsys' tense, spiraling centerpiece "Machine Gun"; several Hendrix favorites ("Stone Free," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)"); and a few songs that never saw light on any studio release at the time ("Izabella" and "Burning Desire"). The new band, Hendrix admits at one point, only knew a few tunes, so the ones with which they are suitably proficient are stretched in every direction. Hendrix abandons any pretense of conventional song structure and goes straight for extended workouts that allow him to unleash sonic boomerangs. It's essentially as close as rock has ever come to jazzlike improvisation without stepping over the line into dreaded fusion. Cox and Miles provide a solid framework, with Miles stepping out for "Changes," "We Gotta Live Together," and Howard Tate's R&B hit "Stop."
But it's clearly Hendrix's show. An elaborate perfectionist in the studio, capable of layering a multitude of dissimilar guitar parts into a pillow of sound, live Hendrix relied on electronically processed tones that he transformed with an innate understanding of how they could meld. Hendrix's broad experimentation comes from an idealized world where audiences are like passengers, patient and eager to hear where the captain of the ship is taking them. The freedom here is astonishing, if occasionally overwhelming and even a tad formless. No matter. It's an unadulterated version of where his head was at the beginning of a decade he would influence but never live to see.
-- Rob O'Connor
The Neville Brothers
The Neville Brothers are a national treasure. One of the best performing live acts around, in one incarnation or another they've been producing glorious, good time, New Orleans music for over 40 years. Nevertheless their recorded output must be divided into two discrete categories: their live material (Nevillization and Live on Planet Earth), which is, for the most part, transcendent; and their studio work, which can be wildly uneven.
Valence Street, like their previous studio efforts, features some magnificent tracks sandwiched between a lot of mediocrity. That stems partly from the band's laudable political commitment and community-based values, which have inspired them to write and record some rather awful songs. Sometimes they pull it off ("Sister Rosa" is a fantastic tribute to Rosa Parks), but more often, they sound like funky motivational speakers (as on "The Superpowers Got to Wake Up"). For quality and consistency Valence Street falls somewhere in the middle of the Nevilles' studio output. It doesn't have the staying power of Yellow Moon, Fiyo on the Bayou, or Brother's Keeper, but it beats the hell out of Uptown, Family Groove, and Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations. The album's title pays tribute to the legendary club-filled street in New Orleans, thus raising hopes that the Nevilles have abandoned their overtly political songwriting and returned to what they do best: funk-based, Crescent City rhythm and blues. Those hopes are met, partly.
The disc opens with "Over Africa," a tune that resounds with the funky, Caribbean-derived percussion that characterizes the Nevilles' best work. Wyclef Jean guests on "Mona Lisa," a terrific meld of hip-hop and the Nevilles' signature New Orleans sound. In addition Valence Street, like every Neville album, gives brother Aaron plenty of room to stretch out. His honey-voiced tenor is on full display in "Give Me a Reason" and when the Nevilles put their own stamp on the folk standard "If I Had a Hammer." "Real Funk" is Art Neville's reminder to the world that George Clinton is not the only architect of funk. Art's own band, The Meters (now called the Funky Meters), helped define the genre in the '60s and '70s and continue to do so today. "Give Me a Reason" and "Tears," the last two tracks on this disc, make the mouth water to hear them live. Meanwhile the title track is a typical Charles Neville instrumental: smooth, infectious, and rhythmically complex.
But there are some turkeys here as well. "Utterly Beloved" is a trite love song that, but for the sparkling Neville harmonies, could have been recorded by Celine Dion. "The Dealer" is a remake of a forgettable tune that the Nevilles already released in a live version, and even Aaron's incredible voice can't salvage the saccharin-laden "Little Piece of Heaven." Moreover "Until We Meet Again" appears to be Cyril's attempt to break into adult contemporary playlists.
To really appreciate this album you need a good working relationship with your CD player's skip function. With that in mind, this is an enjoyable album with stretches of greatness. It's a good listen whether or not you are familiar with the band.
-- David N. Cassuto
The Neville Brothers perform at 8:00 p.m., Friday, April 2 at the Coral Springs City Centre, 2855 Coral Springs Dr. Tickets are $23.50. Call 954-344-5999 for details.
Let's Welcome the Circus People
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What makes Guided By Voices such an endearing band is their ability to eke out beautiful tunes within the confines of (usually) low-budget recording capabilities. The quality of songwriting supersedes the production, providing a listening experience similar to what comes from pulling out a scratchy old vinyl Neil Young album. The group's lineup is ever-changing, too (check out the massive family tree at www.gbv.com), which is another aspect of the band that provides some sort of hard-to-put-your-finger-on attraction: the sense of living in the moment, enjoying the current lineup because next time around it might (and probably will) be different.
The same aesthetic stretches to former long-time member Tobin Sprout's solo career. During his run with the band from 1987 through 1996, Sprout was an unassuming member, stepping back to make room for the prolific writing talents of Robert Pollard, but still throwing his own spices into the mix via an occasional song or two. On his newest release, Let's Welcome the Circus People, Sprout continues to please with a seemingly effortless ability to thread beautifully warm and affected vocal melodies across simplistic yet charming instrumental scenes. On songs like the album's opener "Smokey Joe's Perfect Hair" and "Lucifer's Flaming Hour," Sprout weaves a perfect web of music and extremely visual lyrical imagery.
What really adds to the charm of this album are the imperfections that permeate each track: a moment of sloppy drums here and there, a wrong note every once in a while, or the awkward fadeouts that finish off a few tunes. At times his old Casio C7 keyboard sounds slightly outdated, but thrown into the mix of distorted guitars and rolling basslines, it becomes just another delectable sonic element in a scarce mix where the melodies prevail; besides providing vocals Sprout plays all the instruments on the album (guitars, bass, drums, piano, organ, keyboard, and tambourine), with the exception of three tunes on which he is joined on drums by Spoon's Jim Eno. Recorded at his home studio in Leland, Michigan, the album sounds like an impressionistic audio scrapbook: inspirational moments translated to tape early in the morning, maybe right after lunch and probably late at night. And it's an audio scrapbook worth checking out.
-- Mark Watt