DRILLING DOWN…BLUES AND ELVIS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #58)

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Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but  Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.

That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.

I didn’t find it so.

I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.

Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.

And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of  “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.

There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!

So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…

..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.

And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….

,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.

That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Stones Prep for Altamont)

 The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus–1968

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According to Pete Townshend’s interview (included on the DVD extras), this television show came about because he and Mick Jagger were tinkering with the notion of having a rock and roll tour that traveled around like a circus…ah, the ideas the lads came up with then! That particular idea didn’t really get off the ground and, for that, we can probably all be thankful. But Jagger was intrigued enough to pursue it down another avenue with this “live” television show being the result.

The show is passing strange for most of its length. Music Hall humor, touches (generally heavy-handed) of sixties-style cine-art, celebrity-spotting crowd scenes–all the qualities that generally make for a train wreck.

As usual, any redemption comes from the music. There’s plenty of that–music, anyway, if not quite redemption–and most of it is fine. Jethro Tull is surprisingly (to me anyway) good. Taj Mahal is solid as always. There’s good stuff from an all-star band led by John Lennon (and then Yoko Ono, in a number that’s mostly interesting for demonstrating just how infatuated Lennon was–backing her, he looks like every goofy-eyed schoolboy you ever knew and it’s genuinely endearing). The Who smokes the room, though, being as how they had just entered their arty phase, maybe not quite as thoroughly as usual. And Marianne Faithfull, doubtless on the bill only by virtue of being Jagger’s current squeeze, is good enough to have me looking up the cost of her greatest hits on Amazon.

But, of course, it’s the Stones show to steal and they were at an especially interesting place. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, was on the verge of being shown the door (this was his last appearance with them), and would find the grave not long after. And, coincidentally or not, the Stones were on the verge of eclipsing the Beatles. One way to view this entire special, which is dated from December 11, 1968, is as a passing of the torch–a passing that wasn’t at all obvious in the moment, but which comes into clear relief when Lennon’s loopy presence is contrasted with Jagger’s growing assurance.

And, of course, there was the whole question of whether Mick had met the devil down at the crossroads somewhere south of Carnaby Street and forked over his soul.

Let me just say that I’m ambivalent about this. On the one hand, having gone a round or two with Old Scratch (turned down his deal myself–nasty bugger), I’m not readily impressed by the fakers. And Mick could be a fake. Sure he could. Easy enough to fool the world, after all, if you’re just a clever lad. No need to call on the Prince of Darkness for that task. and, if anyone has ever been more down with the notion of one being born every minute than Mick Jagger, they’ve passed beyond my notice.

And yet…

They begin a touch stiffly. “Jumping Jack Flash” without  the jump. But it’s still “Jumping Jack Flash,” in the end, and by the time they lock onto the groove, they start to get….comfortable.

Then they get good. “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” album cuts from Beggar’s Banquet in lieu of familiar hits and gaining power every second.

After that, a teaser–“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” minus the choir and orchestra which, as it turns out, it needs.

And then, just when it looks like things might wind down, that classic, “is the deal real yet?” intro to “Sympathy For the Devil” and they’re off. Mick in full flight. Contrasting him on stage with Lennon in the crowd, you can just about believe that Jagger–fake satyr tattoos and all–really did have that meeting at the crossroads and the deal went something like, “Well, I’m not sure about my soul…but I might be able to hand you a Beatle.”

You can laugh, but when I watched this the first time that’s what it felt like. An advertisement for the disappearance of John Lennon, to be replaced by his friend Michael Jagger. Primal Scream Therapy and imagining no possessions (except one’s own) straight ahead for the one (all disguised as an escape from “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and really who could blame him?). Let It Bleed and “Honky Tonk Women” and Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street for the other.

Oh, and Altamont–where Jagger would be haunted less by deaths resulting from his lack of judgment than by unfailing recognition that his business acumen (the thing he clearly valued most) had its limits.

That plus the “end of the sixties.”

And forty subsequent years of not mattering, even to yourself, except as a human cash register.

That’s what happens when you take the deal–even if it’s for somebody else’s soul and you get to play Satan on TV for the back end. No matter how slick you think you played it, Old Scratch always gets his in the end.

Like I said. Nasty bugger.