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A Basket Full of Blues (Influences)

by November 02, 2004

Friday Night In San Francisco

Artist: Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin & Paco de Lucia
Columbia Legacy CK 65168

From the first staccato notes of the opening song, Mediterranean Sundance , on this 20-bit re-mastered 1980 fusion classic, the listener is relieved of any doubts about the ability of this disc to thrill or the talent these three gentlemen exhibit when they play. And play they do. According to none other than Al Di Meola himself, "Man, this really was a magic night."

In case you missed it the first time around, this disc was something of a fusion fave when it first was recorded nearly nineteen years ago. Irecall hearing it in the audio salons of Boston more than once during my formative audiophile years. Consisting of three towering talents, three acoustic guitars, three microphones and an electrified audience, this disc brings new meaning to the phrase "virtuoso playing." Unplugged indeed.

De Lucia and Di Meola tackle the aforementioned Mediterranean Sundance , originally issued on Di Meola's 'Elegant Gypsy' album, as an acoustic duet. Di Meola sets up the tune with his signature rapid-fire cascades of impossible notes, only to find de Lucia returning them with fiery flamenco embellishments. The second tune, Short Tales of the Black Forest , pits Di Meola with jazz veteran John McLaughlin for a rousing romp that includes everything from a 12 bar blues improvisation to quotes from Henry Mancini's Theme from the Pink Panther . Audience and players both seemed delighted and surprised with the results. The remaining three cuts on this disc Fevero Rasgado , Fantasia Suite , and Guardian Angel showcase all three guitarists in a trio format.

Sonically this compact disc is a winner. The music is presented in a large natural acoustic with detail to spare. The musicians are presented in a left to right spread of precise placement. Each note floats within the volume of the Warfield Theater. Want to examine the ability of your system to resolve detail? Microdynamics? How about speed and rhythmic ability? If your systems holds on to the notes too long there is simply no escaping the damage done. Air, bloom, detail and performance - the audiophile litany can go on an on. If you have the original vinyl release then you have the definitive version of this recording, but don't take this to mean that the compact disc is compromised in any way. The truth of the matter is that this compact disc is so good that I could live with either version. I would be poorer, however, if I had neither - and that is my highest "must have" rating.

Made In Japan

Artist: Deep Purple
DCC Compact Classics GZS-1120

In 1974 my friend Pete Bumpus came over to my house with a new album he said I just had to hear. The first song he wanted me to play, of course, was Smoke On The Water (we were 15 at the time - what do you expect?) We were looking at the pictures on the record sleeve and I had left the second of the two records sitting on the edge of the stereo. While the tune was jamming on the family's walnut console, the heavy lid of the record changer came crashing down and neatly cut the unplayed disc in half (sorry Pete!). Although I own a dozen or more Deep Purple albums, I did not get to hear the songs on that destroyed album until I received this disc for review.

Smoke On The Water is undoubtedly the song that launched a thousand would-be guitarists on their journey. As fine as the studio version on Purple's seminal work ' Machine Head' (Warner Bros. BS 2607) is, this is the version to have if your going to have just one. This is heavy metal at its roots finest. Once billed as the loudest rock band on the planet, Deep Purple cut a path that continues to influence the way heavy blues is played. Along with pioneers Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, to me this music defines seventies rock (not a bad thing) and seventies guitar-hero bands.

An amazing thing happened when I played this disc for the first time. Instead of being blinded by Richie Blackmore's crunchy power chords, as I expected, I was blown away by Jon Lord's organ riffing. Listen to Child in Time or especially Lazy for some of the dirtiest Hammond playing this side of a Keith Emerson revival. Lord's talents really put the blues in this heavy blues band and, coincidentally, I think I lost interest in Deep Purple about the same time Lord did. That explains why I never was much of a Rainbow fan, anyway.

So how does this gold CD stack up? Compared to the single surviving original LP I have (Warner Bros. 2WS 2701), this compact disc is an improvement in several areas. The dynamics are much improved over the severely compressed original issue. The top end seems more extended without the bite typical of many digital reissues. And the bottom end, without really plumbing any new bass depths, is firm, ripe and full. It is a better version of an original classic. Make no mistake about it; this is not your typical audiophile-type music. Instead we have a loud, electronic live concert version of music created in a studio and meant to be heard under the influence of black lights and bong hits. It is exciting, vital and energetic but it is not subtle or sublime.

If you are predisposed to classic rock in the truest sense, or just want to annoy your kids and pets with some real head-banging music, you have to get this. Its just like you remember, only better.

The Best of the Doobies

Artist: Doobie Brothers
DCC Compact Classics GZS-1121

You know every one of these songs. If you have ever listened to pop radio, even by accident, you know every one of these songs. And there is really no legitimate way to say that you don't like them. From the opening chords of China Grove to the precious harmonies of Black Water , from the funky polyrhythm of Long Train Runnin' to the blue-eyed soul styling of It Keeps You Runnin' every one of these tunes is a bona fide American classic.

I do not know of an audiophile who does not own at least one Doobie Brothers recording. I continue to use the classic ' Livin' On The Fault Line' (Warner Bros. RSK 3045) as a reference disc when auditioning new gear. In case you have been living in a cave for the last twenty-five years, the Doobie Brothers are the direct descendants of a lineage that rightfully starts even before the country-southern rock-jazz fusion of Crosby , Stills, Nash and Young and follows the Eagles, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and a slew of others great and small. While the band has changed, most notably with the addition of guitarist extrordinaire Jeff Baxter in 1974 and vocalist Michael McDonald in 1975, the music has always remained uniquely Doobie Brothers.

This release captures what is arguably the band's finest work through 1976. A less essential collection, 'The Best Of The Doobies, Volume II' (Warner Bros. BSK 3612) chronicles hits from 1977 through 1980. The problem with any greatest hits package is that, by its very definition, it recycles music in a form other than its original release. This usually implies a lessening of the sonic qualities of those original artistic efforts. "Best of" packages are about money, not art. Still, it's a pretty nice way to get all the high points of a band's career without suffering through the inevitable filler.

DCC has done a fine job with this package. Compared to the original vinyl releases of the albums these songs came from, the DCC gold disc gives up little or nothing. Compared to the original vinyl release of this album (Warner Bros. BSK 3112), it actually improves on the sonic quality in a few areas. Listen to Black Water , for instance. On my early pressing of ' What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits' (Warner Bros. W 2750) the wind chimes that open the song has an immediacy that is missing in action on the vinyl greatest hits package. The DCC digital re-issue brings the chimes back to the front of the recorded presentation with an extended top end that is as free from grain and glare as any digital recording in my collection.

Another example, on the cut Jesus Is Just Alright from ' Toulouse Street ' (Warner Bros. BS2634), the rhythm section of John Hartman and Michael Hossack propel the song forward with complex interactions and sweet time changes that are perfectly structured. On the original vinyl release you can listen far back into the mix and follow the rhythmic line of each percussionist. The vinyl original issue of ' Best Of' , in contrast, muddies the rhythmic lines and obscures this vital musical detail making it sound like there is only one percussionist. The DCC gold disc gets it right again, and even adds a bit of bounce that I do not hear on the original ' Toulouse Street ' release. According to the liner notes, the DCC release uses "only the original two-track master… and is played back on a specially reconstructed tube reproducer." I believe it.

DCC, I think I am going to start a fan club. Recommended.

King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Canned Heat in Concert

Artist: Canned Heat
King Biscuit 70710-88005-2

My original reel-to-reel off-air recordings of the King Biscuit Flower Hour show are some of my most treasured audiophile remembrances. Just putting one on the Teac deck and threading the tape can take twenty years off me in a single moment. I remember all those hours spent listening to WBCN ( Boston ) way back when, and I pine for the days when radio was vital and central to rock and roll culture. With the exception of a few college stations I very rarely hear anything original on FM anymore.

There must be a lot of people who feel as I do. The King Biscuit recordings, mostly on vinyl and a few on original 10" RTR, are high priced collectibles in the collector market. A quick perusal of the Goldmine classified ads will turn up average prices of $50 to $100 for most shows - with some fetching well over $500. These are the recordings that were originally sent to the radio stations for delayed broadcast, of course, and as such they are far more rare than a typical musical release. Still, the numbers add up. King Biscuit was obviously paying attention. Several years ago they started to release the original concerts on compact disc. As a bonus, most of these releases feature the full, uncut concert as compared to the edited one-hour versions released for broadcast.

I won't go into the details of King Biscuit here, suffice it to say that it is interesting enough that any music lover should hop on over to http://www.kingbiscuit.com/ during their next internet outing for a lesson in radio history. You should know that these are not your typical bootlegged live recordings. The King Biscuit series featured multi-million dollar budgets and state-of-the-art location recording trucks to capture some of the most important acts in rock music at the peak of their creative abilities. Sound quality is uniformly very good.

The performance offered here was recorded on September 7, 1979 at Parr Meadows, Long Island . Ten years after they scorched the crowd at Woodstock with Shake 'N Boogie and Goin' Up The Country (both included here), and twelve years after they released their eponymous debut album for Liberty , the Canned Heat was still going strong. This set opens with a rousing On The Road Again the first and biggest hit the band had. Bob Hite's voice is in fine shape, as are his harmonica licks. Fito de la Parra and Larry Taylor form a formidable rhythm section and really keep things moving nicely. Jay Spell's stride piano playing defines boogie-woogie blues. Mike Mann may have been the most under-rated guitar player in the business. All together these guys made great music - I dare anyone to sit still while this disc is playing.

It is obvious the crowd that attended this concert was having a great time. The band cooked, the crowd was excited and King Biscuit captured it as well as could be asked. There is a lot of atmosphere on the recording, but unlike many live recordings the crowd noise does not distract. Instead it adds to the feeling of excitement. I think that with Canned Heat, as with the Grateful Dead, Phish and Rusted Root, the crowd is as much a part of the performance as the music.

The bass is rock solid, the pace of the music moves forward like a locomotive that will not be denied. The recording is multi-tracked to the max but this is done in a way that makes the performance easier to digest instead of more difficult. Voices are well placed at the center of the mix. Instruments do not wander but occupy their own space, as in life. Detail is present and it is easy to follow the progression of any single instrument. On Human Condition , for instance (my favorite track), you can listen to Mike Mann's rhythm guitar chords mixed deep during the chorus, and then, as he steps forward to solo, the sound just comes forward with him. This is exactly what I hear in a good blues club from a band that knows how to play. There is a natural homogeneity of sound, until it is time for something to stand out!

If you like Blues Traveler you will love this disc. In fact, if you love Blues Traveler you probably already love Canned Heat - and if not maybe this is a good place to start. This is not your typical audiophile fare. It is, however, a great sounding disc full of awesome music with the power to move the listener. That, after all, is what this hobby is about.

Legacy

Artist: Jimmy D. Lane
Analog Productions Originals APO 2005

Chad Kassem and Acoustic Sounds are likely not new names to readers of this column. The fact is that Acoustic Sounds is synonymous with audiophile recordings. Many may not have heard of Jimmy D. Lane and that is a shame. Lane is the son of blues legend Jimmy Rogers and is fast becoming a legend in his own right. There is very little doubt left- after listening to this disc- that Lane carries the gene for Chicago Blues in his cells. Wow!

Think of Jimmy D. Lane as a bridge uniting the soulful playing of old school blues players such as Albert Collins, Albert King and Muddy Waters (having quite literally grown up with them) with the electrifying pyrotechnics of more modern legends like Jimi Hendrix and S.R. Vaughn. When he is "on" (which seems to be every time he touches a guitar, if this disc is any indication) he virtually channels the spirits of these players through his own fingertips. Sparks fly, tubes glow red and adrenaline flows.

Hey Little Girl starts the disc off with a rousing blues romp featuring a gritty harmonica solo by Carey Bell. Freddie Crawford's bass line is tight, solid and deep. This disc will test the ability of your system to establish a sense of pace. Stage depth is a bit foreshortened and Per Hanson's drum kit sounds smaller and sharper than what I usually hear at a live performance, but this does not diminish the overall quality of the disc or performance.

Four O'clock In The Morning offers Lane a chance to stretch out both his growling vocal abilities and his guitar prowess on a Memphis Slim classic. Vocals are at once larger than life and pushed forward in the mix. The sound of the electric guitar is suitably powerful without grain or glare. David Krull's piano fills are crystal clear but lacking a bit of left-hand power.

Chad Kassem should be proud of his accomplishments. This disc is a great blues recording with all the audiophile attributes one could ask for. The sound is transparent enough for the critical listener to follow individual musical lines and/or listen through to the recording chain. While not quite a perfect recording, it is eminently musical and musically relevant. It is an audiophile recording even non-audiophiles would like. That is something to brag about!

I Know You

Artist: Hubert Sumlin
Analog Productions Originals APO 2004

Analog Productions is certainly starting a musical family of blues recordings. From what I can hear, they are all related in their quality and presentation - that's not a bad thing at all!

Hubert Sumlin is a blues giant in his own right. He has played with the legends on their legendary recordings. Most noted for his instrumental contribution to the Chess recordings sound of Howlin' Wolf, Sumlin also has recorded with the likes of Joe Louis Walker, Calvin Jones, and Maria Muldaur to name but a few. I think it fair to say that this is the real thing, folks. There's real blues in those pits and landings.

Sonically this disc is a twin to the Jimmy Lane recording previously mentioned. In fact, Jimmy Lane , Freddie Crawford, David Krull, and Carey Bell all join Sumlin for this outing. Both discs were recorded at the same studio by the same engineer (Chicago Recording Company - Michael Ross) using the same analog 30ips signal path. The only technical differences are that Bernie Grundman mastered the Jimmy Lane disc and Kevin Gray mastered this Sumlin disc.

This list of hits or near hits reads exactly the same - crystal clear grain free sound that is extended on the top, powerful in the base and as large as your room and gear will allow. Sound staging is (expectedly) manipulated with voices and lead instruments occupying a larger than life chunk of sonic real estate. Drums are appropriately proportioned and mixed behind the lead instruments, but are somewhat lighter and brighter than in life. Piano is slightly thin through its lower registers.

Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover is, perhaps, the best track on the disc. A solo piece for voice and electric guitar, it is played softly and naturally by Sumlin, whose command of dynamic as a musical ingredient is unquestionable. I Got It Where I Want It is a full up blues boogie jam that will have you bouncing around your listening room in no time. You My Best is will suck you in like a whirlpool as Sumlin sets up the tune with a contemporaneous stream-of-thought monologue. The final cut, Good Bye , is an appropriately titled barn-burner of a close. All told this is a great disc of outstanding blues music, well recorded and professionally presented. It's hard to ask for more.

Many thanks to Joe Cornwall of Impact Acoustics for sharing his music reviews with us.

 

About the author:
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A sales and marketing professional, Joe holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and in Applied Business. He has been honored several times within the consumer electronics industry, being selected to serve as a judge for the prestigious Consumer Electronics Association "Mark of Excellence Awards" and having served on the Board of Directors of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association.

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