Monday, March 25, 2013

DVD Review: Molly Hatchet, Live at Rockpalast 1996

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

Molly Hatchet: Live at Rockpalast 1996
Directed by Gerd F. Schultze
71 minutes, 1996 / 2013

Back in 1981, I visited a friend in Greensboro, NC, and had the opportunity to attend a show or two at the legendary Fridays club. One of the bands was copying the style of Talking Heads after they went mainstream. It was then that I learned of a Greensboro tradition: rather than shouting out the name of a band they would rather see, the audience chanted the name of one they considered to be equally bad. In tandem, they screamed in the local accent, “Mol-leh Hay-chet Mol-leh Hay-chet Mol-leh Hay-chet,” until the band on stage left.

Now, I knew diddly about Hatchet, as southern rock is not one of my fortes. I’d rather listen to real blues, personally. As time went on, Hatchet never really crossed my musical bow, so outta sight outta mind, right? Well, as any long-term music reviewer knows, you never know where bands will turn up in your radar. In my case, the powers that be brought a live performance of Hatchet from the Rockpalast show on June 23, 1996, at the open-air Loreley stadium in Germany.

This was recorded soon after the addition of new vocalist Phil McCormack, who replaced long-time voxer Danny Joe Brown who left for health reasons. Since I wouldn’t know Brown’s work if I fell over it, I’ll just talk about the 1996 freshly reminted edition. They are awful. Well, the band itself is typical and not much is really exciting, but it’s McCormack who is, well, bad. Sure, he has a growl, but there is nothing noteworthy about his style. He isn’t even too determined to worry about being on key, and could be just about anyone.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie could fuckin’ wail. Same with Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas in his own way, but Phil doesn’t really have much stage presence at all. This is quite evident when you compare his vocals on the Womacks’ “It’s All Over Now” to Mick and Keef’s. The only thing outstanding about McCormack is his Rolling Stones jacket and his beer gut.

I always wonder about bands from the US, especially those from the Deep South, who gig abroad and then play songs that are strongly pro-American to a nationalistic level. I mean, yeah, they do a few bars of “Dixie,” and there are quite a few people in the audience with Southern Cross flags (it makes me nervous especially in certain European countries). It feels weird to be, even with their then-new song, “Fall of the Peacemakers,” about Vietnam vets. I mean, I can’t really recall seeing too many bands come to North America and go on with a consistent “my country is better than yours” attitude. I keep thinking of Britain’s Eater and “Thinkin’ of the USA.”

The songs here are okay, but nothing that’s going to stick in my mind longer than writing this review, quite frankly. Now, they give good energy to Greg Allman’s “Dreams I’ll Never See,” and it’s obvious the band can play, centered on Bobby Ingram’s lead guitar. There is even an interesting empty-handed drum solo by Mac Crawford. But overall, this was hardly what I would call electrifying. Yep, they hit their marks and play together nice into a neat package (especially the twin guitar-solos of Ingram and Bryan Bassett on the “Flirtin’ With Disaster” finale), but their sound lacks hooks, even with the repetitious parts that are supposed to be them.

As a side-note, considering how hot the day was and being under the lights, nearly no one’s hair seems to get slicked. I’m guessing some of these country boys are wearing wigs. Hey, it’s not unknown in the rock world either, y’know.

If yer a Hay-e-cet fan, nuthin’ I’m sayin’ is going to be true. That’s cool. Get down with some JD and enjoy ‘em at your tailgate pawty, and I’m going to listen to somethin’ else.

Phil McCormack: Vocals / harmonica
Bobby Ingram: Guitar
Bryan Bassett: Guitar
Andy McKinney: Bass
John Galvin: Keyboards
Mac Crawford: Drums
Leslie Hawkins / Therisa McCoy: Background vocals

Set List:
Bounty Hunter
It’s All Over Now
Gator Country
Rolling Thunder
Devil’s Canyon
Down from the Mountain
Whiskey Man
Dreams I’ll Never See

Fall of the Peacemakers
The Journey
Flirtin’ with Disaster

Bonus videos:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A College Memory: Singing with Harry Chapin

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

It was primary season during the election year of 1976 while I was attending Queens College that would see Jimmy Carter win the Presidency. I had seen Carter’s son on campus outside the Union Building (student center) at some point, yet the upcoming vote was not on my mind. I already knew I would vote for whoever was running against the Republican candidate and hadn’t yet made up my mind about the Democratic run-off.

Finding a place for your car around Queens College was a challenge. Fellow student Jerry Seinfeld (graduated the year I started) once commented that he earned a Bachelor’s of Parallel Parking. On campus, it was by permit only. That morning, I had found a spot a block away on the southern Melbourne Avenue, and was sauntering diagonally southeast to northwest across the campus towards my class past the Union (or “Onion” as we often referred to it for no other reason than we could). There on a post was a sign announcing a talk that same day by Democratic hopeful Morris “Mo” Udall (d. 1998). To promote him, in a free concert, would be Harry Chapin. I was in.

I’d seen Harry play a number of times in Central Park and the like, and was a fan. Yeah, I was neck deep in the whole New York punk scene, my fanzine was just a year away, but part of me was still holding out for a tad of the folkie. Most people came to punk through rock, such as KISS, MC5, Iggy, and the like. For me, pre-Ramones in 1975, I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul and Mary, and Phil Ochs. And yet, I could see a correlation between punk and folk: lo-fi, plug & play, and protest music. I felt justified 30 years later when so many punkers started putting out singer-songwriter material, such as Joey “Shithead” Keithley of D.O.A.

Though kicking myself for not having my camera with me that day, even though it was a pre-35mm instamatic that took 128 film, I was excited about it. The event was scheduled for later in the day, after my classes were over.

Waiting to get into small auditorium, I started talking to the attractive student standing next to me. Once we were permitted inside and seated, most of the audience was abuzz with excitement. Not for Udall, but rather for Chapin. In the formal introduction, we were told that Harry would be performing after Udall gave his talk, which included a Q&A with the audience. This made sense, because of a lot of this crowd would not stick around to the Udall part after hearing from The Man. Queens College at the time had a very large Jewish population, and was highly liberal, but c’mon, it’s Harry Chapin.

Udall gave an interesting talk, nothing of which had stuck with me nearly 40 years later (yikes). What I do remember well is one of the questions, asked by a known stoner in the audience: “Hey Mo, where’s Larry and Curly.” I was personally embarrassed to be there that second, but proud of the group as a whole who booed the guy out of the auditorium. Udall was gracious (I’m guessing this was not the first time he’d heard this), and impressively moved on without fluster.

Through it all, I kept the connection going with the woman I met on the line, through occasional quips here and there back and forth between us. Then it came time for Harry. He arrived onstage by himself, sitting on a stool with his guitar. This was his hometown crowd, more or less, having grown up in Brooklyn and lived on Long Island for most of his life. We were about 10 rows back, on the right side, in the center of the row.

He didn’t do many songs, but as most of them were quite long, he probably sang for half an hour or so. I remember him doing “What Made America Famous” and “W.O.L.D.” Most likely his did his top seller (and one of the few I didn’t care for) “Cat’s in the Cradle.” But I will admit it was great seeing him that close in that intimate a setting. There were probably about 200 people there, just about as big as the room could fill.

Between each song he talked up America, and what Udall could do for it as President. Then, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Since ‘Big John’ (Wallace) and the gang aren’t here, I’m going to need some help to sing ‘Taxi’ before I go. Anyone wanna come up and sing it with me?” The attractive coed looked at me with an excited smile on her face, and said, “We should go!” Like I was going to say no to her? I probably wouldn’t have gone up there if she hadn’t asked, honestly, but I was trying to make an impression.

About 10 of us ran up on the stage, and I stood directly behind his right shoulder, looking down as his fuzzy hair, guitar, and strumming hand; the woman I ran up with was to my right. I was a lot more nervous about being on stage those days, but I was in the moment. He started the song, “It was rainin’ hard in Frisco…” to a huge round of applause.

After the guitar break, it was time for the “Big John” Wallace solo, where we standing, we few, we honored, were to fill in. Harry tilted his head back and with sotto voce started feeding us the line, “Baby’s so high that she’s skying…” when the guy on the other side of him – essentially standing where I was, except on his left – leaned over and said, also sotto voce, “Shut up, Harry, we know it.”

This cracked Harry up, and as we sang the falsetto part, he was playing and trying to muffle his laugh, especially considering the seriousness of the song, but from my angle I could see a single tear roll down from his eye. Somehow he composed himself, albeit just onionskin-thin on the verge of not laughing out loud, and finished the song.

As the rest of the audience stood and cheered, Harry got up of the stool, turned to us behind him, and shook everyone’s hand, the first being the guy who spoke to him during the song. They exchanged a few words and smiles. Then it was my turn, and I felt much honored.

When I looked around, I saw that the woman I came up with was gone, and I never saw her again. As Harry had just sung, “It was somewhere in a fairy tale…”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

DVD Review: Blues and the Alligator

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

Blues and the Alligator: The first twenty years of Alligator Records
Directed by Jim Downing
Gazell Films
52 minutes, 1991 / 2010

This documentary is fascinating in its own way, and unsatisfying in others, leaving me more questions than answers. Filmed in 1991 on the 20th Anniversary of the label (hence the title), there are some issues that may have been accepted then that raised some eyebrows on me.

But first, let me whine for just a minute. As the talking heads parts go, this is pretty whatever. After working for a mostly jazz specialty label that sometimes released Blues called Delmark, based out of a Chicago record store, Bruce Iglauer rebelled when the label owner, Bob Koester (also interviewed), refused to sign Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975).

We see shots of Bruce listening to music, the inside day-to-day workings of the Alligator office, brief interviews with him and some of his staff, and more importantly, with some of the musicians. The artists often comment on how the Blues, especially in Chicago, is an urban sound (I agree: Delta Blues is more rural) that African-Americans relate to strongly. We are reminded of this by b-roll footage of Chicago slums and its poorer inhabitants.

However, what really is impressive, and makes this worth a view, is the live performances, nearly all of which are shown in their entirety, rather than clips. There’s an old black and white video clip of Hound Dog Taylor doing the classic “Shake Your Money Maker” at an open-air festival to start off, and then throughout we see music played live in the studio, live in the Alligator offices, and showcased at the B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera club by musicians like Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal and Billy Branch.

One of the only women signed to Alligator, the largest Blues label in the world – and, ironically, she is one of their largest sellers – Koko Taylor (d. 2009). We see her sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of a White Sox game, and join in on the Etcetera stage with Lonnie Brooks. She is also the only female musician in the entire documentary, even though Katie Webster (d. 1999) had been attached to Alligator for two years at the time of the filming.

Someday, I believe, sociologists may (and should) study this film for various reasons. For example, what I said about the role of women in the Blues. Even in the flick, they mention that it’s rare for women to sing the Blues; while more men have been signed over the years, the list of Blues women through the history of the genre, especially in the last 40 years since the label founded, is actually substantial.

However, what I found the most interesting about this documentary is the racial oxymorons that run throughout. We’re shown the slums of Chicago, black musicians, and told how the Blues are the soul of the black people. And yet, all the workers at Alligator are white. All of the audiences at the live shows are not only white, but obviously middle class and above. That does not mean to me that white people have no right to be there, because the Blues can touch anyone (I give you Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt and Ana Popovic, as examples). No, what I mean is it seems like perhaps the filmmakers are trying to make some kind of comment on gentrification of the music. Or perhaps they were just projecting unintentional or cultural racism for the time. I am certain that Iglauer has the truest of intentions, and even left a good job to record an unknown Black Blues musician, but it also seems odd that none of his staff (as of 1990, anyway) were of color.

I would have liked to have seen more of what motivated Iglauer, what hardships he had to go through to get the label started (other than that he left Delmark, there is nothing about the risks he took, for example), how he signed the likes of Hound Dog and Koko, what he does for promotion, the reaction of the Black audiences to the sounds, and, well, I could go on.

Certainly, I could recommend this with a clear conscious for the musical parts alone, but I do so hesitantly due to the rest. Somewhere, I hear James Brown singing…”I don’t want nobody to give me nothing / Just open up the door, I’ll get it myself…”

You can see the entire film for free here: