Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions (2006)

complete repriseAs I’ve studied the “genre” of Americana, read books on the subject and listened to the music, more than anyone else the name of Gram Parsons is mentioned. I’ve come to the conclusion that Parsons is to Americana – country rock, alt-country – what Hank Williams is to “traditional” country music. He was a brilliant songwriter and stellar performer, writing scores of beloved songs and spawning an entirely new genre. He also managed to kill himself with drugs and drink before his 30th birthday.


The three-disc collection begins with Gram Parsons’ first solo album, GP. In the year between first discussing the idea with Keith Richards and actually beginning recording, Parsons made the discovery of the girl singer he’d been looking for, a young woman named Emmylou Harris. At long last, with producer Rik Grech and backed by Elvis Presley’s touring band (including James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, and Ronnie Tutt), recording finally began.

The album that resulted from those sessions remains a magnificent slice of what they called “country rock” in those days; in listening, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t always as pure country as country can get. Parsons himself says he doesn’t understand why people have to sub-catagorize music; if it’s good, it’s good. And this album is good. With songs as diverse as “Streets of Baltimore” and “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes in the Morning,” as well as Parsons’ own songs, sung in Parsons’ sweet tenor with Emmylou’s distinctive soprano, it can’t help but be a constant joy.

The re-issue here comes with seven bonus tracks, including rare interviews and live performances of “Sin City” and “Love Hurts.” An amazing album, doubly astounding when considering that Parsons was only 25 years old at the time.

Grievous Angel

Parsons followed up his beautiful debut solo album with the equally stunning Grievous Angel, an album which deserves a place alongside other great country albums. Parsons wrote nearly every song on Grievous Angel, throwing in the lament “Love Hurts,” as well as Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead.” Of course, a great deal of amazing country music was being recorded at this time under the heading of “country rock,” and in that arena Parsons was in grand company, as well.

Again with duet-mate Emmylou Harris, each song is finely crafted, a superlative study in the exact way duets should be performed. Harris and Parsons were an exquisite pair, unmatched in any genre of music before or since, their voices perfectly suited as they wove together on such songs as “Hearts on Fire” and the heart-wrenching “In My Hour of Darkness,” one of the most amazing songs I think I’ve ever heard.

I admit despite having known the Burritos and the Byrds, as well as the name of Gram Parsons, for years, I’d never listened to these two albums before, and I’ve been blown away. There are three bonus tracks on this disc, including one instrumental and two interviews.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons GP (1973)


Hanging out with Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones had taken its toll on Gram. He was down, and nearly out, his nerves shot by alcohol and his career drifting. Chris Hillman, former band-mate in both The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers conspired to introduce Gram to Emmylou Harris. There was an instant spark when they sang together, and it gave Gram a renewed sense of conviction – leading ultimately to the recording of ‘GP’ and its follow-up, ‘Grievous Angel’. Gram Parsons had been born into money. So, when Warners turned down his request of hiring three members of the Elvis Presley touring band, he simply paid for their session fees himself. It’s pertinent to remember, Gram had no real public profile and had sold a negligible quantity of records. Being born into money gave him license to almost do as he pleased.

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds once remarked that when Gram joined as David Crosby’s replacement ‘it was almost like Mick Jagger had joined The Byrds!’. But, Gram was bitter. He’d played a pivotal role through his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in starting ‘Country-Rock’ only to see the likes of The Eagles reap the commercial fortunes he felt should have been his. ‘GP’ sounds very accomplished musically thanks to the team of top session players Gram had recruited. The real sparks come from the vocals of both Gram and Emmylou, and of course, the songs themselves. Whether the quiver and frailty in some of Grams vocals here really was down to his alcohol abuse, or for other reason – it gives these songs, especially the ballad performances, a huge emotionally resonating quality.

‘Still Feeling Blue’ makes good use of Byron Berline’s fiddle playing as well as featuring attractive Pedal Steel work. It’s a fast-paced song, very celebratory in musical feeling and with Emmylou joining Gram in the chorus parts. ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning’ features slightly wayward Parsons vocals – and it becomes very easy to believe listening to this that his alcohol abuse was part of the reason. Emmylou joins him here throughout the song, pretty much singing co-lead. In fact, she sings far better on this song than Gram himself, but when they do sing together, it sounds pretty nice. A far better song than ‘We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes’ arrives with Grams own ‘A Song For You’.

This is where his quivering, frail voice works to best effect, very tender and emotional. Emmylou sings harmony, and the whole song is utterly gorgeous. ‘Streets Of Baltimore’ is one of several covers here, and perfectly well done but lacks the extra sparkle of Grams own compositions. ‘She’ is another spine-chilling ballad, this time with a stupendous Parsons vocal full of emotion. The lyrics are evocative with mentions of ‘delta sun’ and ‘she sure could sing’ over the top of beautifully understated, perfectly appropriate musical parts. ‘That’s All It Took’ is the kind of hokey country tune Elvis Presley might have performed.

It’s not very entertaining, although perfectly well performed. ‘The New Soft Shoe’ is another Parsons original, and sounds like many of his songs, totally otherworldy and beautiful – more affecting vocals here in particular. ‘Kiss The Children’ opens with some entertaining fiddle playing, great little pure country guitar parts and is a fun, less serious song. ‘Cry One More Time’ is a little blues, rather strained and breaking the mood of the album a little. ‘How Much I’ve Lied’ contains more accomplished playing, the closing ‘Big Mouth Blues’ a little funky country blues, although like ‘Cry One More Time’ doesn’t sound at all matched to some of the other material here, the Gram Parsons originals in particular.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons GP | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons: The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)

3513016914_c8b0b4d15b_oThere is often seen a trend to praise the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and this album as the glorious beginnings of country-rock. There is also a somewhat weaker, but also persistent trend to dismiss the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo as a pile of generic shit and praise this album as the glorious beginnings of country-rock. I join the second school, even if I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Byrds album “shit”; generic, yes, but listenable.

This record, though, is definitely more than just “listenable”. It’s not very memorable, well, given the genre’s limitations and all. But it’s really a landmark with its own unique (well, unique at the time) flavour. And the most important thing – without it, there would be no Eagles, and their Greatest Hits 1971-75 wouldn’t serve as an important source of revenue for tax collectors throughout the world!

Nah, I’m kinda pulling your leg here, although it certainly deserves to sell more copies than that Eagles collection. But if there is a definite “country rock” record, this is it. Country – because, well, all the songs are country at heart, with country melodies, country lyrical motives, country instrumentation (mostly courtesy of the great Sneeky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel and suchlike), and country arrangements. Rock – because it’s done by a bunch of guys who come from a “rockier” background than your standard Nashville session players. Hell, Merle Haggard never got along with Gram Parsons after all, just because the guy was a hippie at heart. Dope? Got it. Flashy costumes? Got it. ‘Cosmic American music’? Not exactly the most “country” approach. And then there’s stuff like the occasional electric guitar part on here, and definite traces of hippie mentality in the lyrics – particularly in the Hillman-spoken ‘Hippie Boy’ at the end of the album, a track which is straightforwardly aimed at trying to bring together the flower power ideology and the hillbilly one; a fruitless occupation, but a generous one anyway.

Most of the tracks are penned by the Burritos themselves, with Parsons and Hillman sharing most of the credits and the two ‘Hot Burritos’ co-credited to Parsons and Chris Ethridge. They do make good choices in covers, though (unlike on the Byrds’ album – ‘The Christian Life’, remember? God!). ‘Do Right Woman’ has no interesting melody to speak of, but Parsons’ singing is heartfelt and convincing, while Mr Sneeky Pete always seems to know how to pick the least generic chord progressions; and ‘Dark End Of The Street’ is positively gorgeous, again showing what a great singer Parsons is when he’s in the mood. And they have a great way of producing harmony vocals, too: next time you’re listening, note that on every line he’s singing in harmony with Hillman, the Hillman/Parsons duo is only heard in one channel, whereas the other is pure Parsons. That gives you cool harmonies AND a distinct individuality at the same time – something I’ve always wanted to get from the Byrds but never could get.

The originals also follow the country formula pretty neatly, but there’s still much more variety within the formula than on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. ‘Christine’s Tune’ is upbeat and slightly poppy, with an actually memorable chorus – and trippy, loud, psychedelic electric guitar parts which, of course, would immediately make the album taboo for yer average “salt-o’-the-earth” guy. ‘Sin City’ is Parsons’ curse-and-blessing ode to Los Angeles, not particularly inspiring musically, but I kinda like the lyrics – ‘on the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain’, and again, Pete’s guitar parts are not to be missed. ‘My Uncle’ is boppy and fun, so fun, in fact, that it’s not easy at first to realize the song’s actually carrying a vivid anti-war message.

The two major highlights on the second side are ‘Hot Burrito No. 1’ and ‘Hot Burrito No. 2’. The first one, actually, sounds more like a sentimental Bee Gees ballad than any country song I’ve heard (an analogy further aided by the fact that Parsons keeps hitting these very high notes that make his voice sound all trebly and shaky like Robin Gibb’s), but that’s not a denigration – it’s really a great ballad, with a simple, but fine solo to boot, and a sincere broken-hearted performance from Gram the likes of which can hardly be found anywhere else. As for ‘No. 2’, it’s more of a laid-back roots-rocker which is confusing because it’s Gram again, confessing his love further, but each refrain ends with a desperate wail of ‘Jesus Christ!’. Blasphemy!

Not every track has a lot to offer – there’s a couple relative duds on the second side, and apart from the lyrical message of ‘Hippie Boy’, there’s not much to say about that (perversely the longest) number, but that’s all right by me. Believe me, a record like this is blessed if it has only like a couple of duds… if you don’t think so, look at all the heaps of banal forgettable hogwash this stuff has inspired. The important thing is, this is a country-rock album that manages to avoid most of the usual country-rock cliches, and apart from the Burritos and maybe the Band, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of people in the good ol’ US of A who ever could (or would) avoid these cliches. Poco! The Eagles! Ah, the pleasure of having to think about a mediocre band without actually having to listen to it.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons: The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)


You never know how much a ‘secondary’ figure in the band can suddenly influence the sound of the whole band. Just like Mick Taylor revolutionized the Stones’ sound a year later without the band even realizing it, the arrival of Gram Parsons on the scene proved to be crucial and, in the long run, disastrous for the Byrds. McGuinn originally planned a double album drawing on every genre in the history of American music, a kind of anthology of Folk, Bluegrass, Country, Jazz And Blues – an idea later shared by the Doors, surprisingly. However, neither of the bands had enough guts to carry out the idea, so the Doors recorded The Soft Parade (bummer), and McGuinn took Parsons’ advice and recorded an all-country album instead. This isn’t even country-rock – it’s just pure country, with pedal steel guitar as the only prominent instrument in existence. The result is that it gets boring. And boy, does it get boring…

Now I don’t know that much about country music – I’m no expert, really. But I know for damn sure country music can be really really entertaining – like, for instance, the countryfied version of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ that opens the album. Once again, McGuinn does an outstanding singing job on this one, maybe their third best Dylan cover after ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘My Back Pages’: for once, the composition can be called ‘improved upon’, at least as compared to the rather sloppy version on The Basement Tapes. And the Parsons-led choruses are particularly impressive, with the band soaring up to the skies with simple and uncomprehensible, but beautiful lyrics (‘ooh-wee, ride on high/Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come…’)

But what about the rest? One after another, we get ten dull, gloomy, ploddering numbers that resemble each other like two drops of water and make the record sound horrendously dated and pointless – sometimes it seems that McGuinn didn’t really care at all about what he was singing as long as it featured some steel pedal. The songs are all covers, except for the sole Parsons original (‘Hickory Wind’) which everybody seems to love for no obvious reason – to me, it sounds like everything else on here: a slow, dreamy pedal steel ballad with a primitive melody and typical country lyrics. It’s… how do you describe it? It’s like the proverbial country song – all the necessary ingredients to form a country song are there, but there’s nothing to distinguish it from every other country song in existence.

In fact, I pretty much prefer listening to Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’: at least it’s fast, and I like the tongue-in-cheek accent of McGuinn on this one. Another good number is ‘Nothing Was Delivered’, yet another Dylan cover: which actually convinces me as further proof to the fact that they just didn’t get enough good material. ‘The Christian Life’? ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’? ‘Life In Prison’? Bores the living hell out of me.

I mean, really, country music can be much more exciting. It’s not the great melodic diversity, of course – like all ‘root’ genres, country is pretty limited – but it’s the interesting tricks and mood shifts you get that make a country track sound great. Songs like the above mentioned ones, or, for instance, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, don’t lift their heads up from the ‘zero level’ not for a single second: just the same expressionless, formulaic slide guitars (God knows I love slide guitars – but you gotta diversify the chords, too), expressionless, soulless vocals, and trivial arrangements. Berk. Country my ass. I’ll take Dylan’s Selfportrait over this stuff easily, at least Bob shifts tempos and puts some colour and flavour into his voice as he goes along.

On the positive side, I don’t have anything in particular against this stuff – it doesn’t offend me nohow. But I tell you, these songs shouldn’t have all made it to the same album, because it ruins their individual charm (not that all of them have individual charm: ‘Blue Canadian Rockies’ is as dull as may be). And some sound like countrified takes on their earlier and better material (‘I Am A Pilgrim’, a pale shadow of the far superior ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’).

The endless bonus tracks on here mostly add alternate takes with Parsons vocals instead of McGuinn ones, which isn’t as interesting as it might seem. However, it does include three previously unreleased cuts which liven up things quite a bit, just because they break with the pattern: ‘You Got A Reputation’ is still countryish, but it sounds mean and menacing, with an atmosphere that recalls the dangerous psychedelia of ‘Thoughts And Words’; ‘Lazy Days’ is a groovy Chuck Berry-style rocker where McGuinn sounds like Ringo Starr, so you just have to give it a listen; and ‘Pretty Polly’ is one of those scary, nightmarish folk songs that Bob Dylan was so fond of, with a lyrical subject that reminds me of ‘House Carpenter’. Why they haven’t made the grade back in 1968 seems obvious – they have next to none pedal steel; however, in retrospect it seems that, were they included, the album would only have benefited from that. And yet – didn’t they inspire Dylan for Nashville Skyline? I mean – lead for once instead of follow? Who cares? Skyline isn’t one of his best albums, anyway.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons Archives Volume 1: Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969


Live at the Avalon Ballroom is the rock equivalent of the Jackson Pollock discovered at a flea market, or the first-edition William Faulkner found in the dollar bin at a used book store. These recordings of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ two shows in San Francisco in April 1969 were long buried in the Grateful Dead vaults (which many listeners speak of in the same terms explorers once used for El Dorado) until Dave Prinz, the co-founder of Amoeba Records, tracked them down and worked for more than a year to secure permissions from the Dead’s soundman, Owsley “Bear” Stanley. Prinz compiled the recordings into a 2xCD set (one for each show) and released them on the newly launched Amoeba Records label– its second release, in fact. The title, Archives Volume 1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969, teases with the tacit promise of a second volume– more buried treasure.

For Parsons fans, this constitutes a major event– perhaps more anticipated than even Rhino’s long-awaited reissue of his two solo albums in 2006– not only because it contains numerous unheard covers, but primarily because Parsons didn’t leave a whole lot of live material behind when he died in 1973. Even the supposedly “live” medley from Grievous Angel was just a studio re-creation, and the real live recordings that survive are marred by poor sound quality or, in some cases, poor performances. Live documents of Parsons’ short tenure with the original Flying Burrito Brothers line-up are even scarcer. What makes Live at the Avalon Ballroom so special is that the performance is just as good as the sound quality. As professional hanger-on Pamela “Burrito Sister” Des Barres writes in the liners, “I have literally been waiting for this album for decades.”

As promising as that title is, the artist credit– Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers– is misleading. Parsons may have stood center stage in 1969, but this was truly a Burrito Brothers show. The band sounds tremendous on the first disc, with a superlatively tight rhythm section carrying each song and Sneaky Pete Kleinow adding flourishes of pedal steel. Striking the right balance of tight C&W showmanship and loose hippie slack, they plow into Little Richard’s “Lucille” and the Buck Owens hit “Close Up the Honky Tonks”, which opens the show on a raucous note. But the Burrito Brothers prove just as adept and controlled on slower songs like the down-hearted “Dark End of the Street” and “Hot Burrito #1”, one of the band’s best compositions. “Hot Burrito #2” breaks down into a short jam lead by Parsons’ organ licks, and “Sin City”, the band’s contribution to country music moralism, sounds sturdy and steadfast as it closes the first night with apocalyptic images of “the Lord’s burnin’ rain” falling on Los Angeles. Of course, they all flub their cues on the later performance of Delaney and Bonnie’s “We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Together”, but there’s a certain charm to their stoner haze, especially on their nearly a cappella reading of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” (a bonus track on what might be considered a bonus release), which emphasizes their homey harmonies.

But it’s Parsons who remains squarely in the spotlight, then as now. The late musician has become such a legend that it’s nice to hear him sound so human on Live at the Avalon Ballroom, haphazardly addressing the audience or even simply introducing the songs. It’s all so mundane that it makes him much more compelling than the myths that surround him. Furthermore, these two concerts showcase his effortless vocals; Parsons may not have had the most commanding voice, but he used it well, intuitively interpreting songs like “Undo the Right” and “Dark End of the Street” so that they fit perfectly and naturally among the Burrito originals. George Jones may still have the definitive take on “She Once Lived Here”, but Parsons makes the song newly devastating, affecting a precarious quaver in his voice on the verses and keening more boldly on the chorus. And his solo piano performance of “Thousand Dollar Wedding”– not part of the concert, but a demo dug up by Parsons’ road manager Jimmi Seiter– completely reinvents the song, slowing it even more from its familiar country gait and reveling in its left-at-the-altar heartbreak.

Ultimately, Live at the Avalon Ballroom shows these songs in continual flux, as the band constantly reinvent and reinterpret them via the circumstances of the performance and the whims of the individuals. Even though the tracklists for these discs are nearly identical, the shows themselves aren’t redundant. Instead, they reveal the Burrito Brothers’ considerable musical chemistry while providing a useful historical document of the nights they turned the Avalon into a rowdy roadhouse.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers Live at the Avalaon Ballroom 1969 | | Leave a comment

Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons & The Roots Of Country Rock by Bob Kealing (2012)


I once boldly stated without checking that Gram Parsons had more books written about him than anyone else who died by age 26. Someone did their homework and corrected me: King Tut and Anne Frank evidently have had more (perhaps others). By pointing to such notables from history, I think this critic made my case.

So, why another book about Gram Parsons? If you throw in the Gandolf Hennig movie, one wonders what more one could know about this gentle though brightly shining comet that seemed to come out of nowhere and burn out far too quickly for most to see on the horizon.

Turns out a journalist from Florida now gives us the reasons why. Seems there actually were parts of Gram’s life that had not been thoroughly explored and people who were close to Gram that had not said much before, possibly because no one thought them important enough to talk to. Bob Kealing sensed their stories untold, and they opened up to him.

It took a journalist with Bob Kealing’s cred and easy manner to uncover these friends, relatives, and band mates and their informative tales. How? Like any good journalist does: by going after the story. By finding those folks, and squeezing all he could from them without them even knowing he had done so. By taking the pieces, putting them together, and going where the story took him — with no preconceptions based on previous works or even on a complete knowledge of Parsons’ catalog. And perhaps most importantly by nature of being a journalist who shared a homeland that Parsons loved and that informed his art; where others covered Gram’s early years in the South mainly from the viewpoint of his tragic family background and left it there, Kealing found there was much more to discover and share with us.

This review is not going to do the obvious: once again summarize the usual and well-known facts about Gram’s life and death. Kealing’s dealing with the latter is key to his overarching reason for writing about Gram, someone he actually knew relatively little about when he began the project. While many if not most over the years have focused on Parsons’ death in the desert, Kealing does the opposite; his focus is primarily on how Gram’s formative years informed his art. While the book covers the arc of Gram’s career, this focus makes the narrative special. “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock” (University Press of Florida) is about just that: a land that always beckons, that underlies most of Gram’s songwriting, especially on his best songs, a land that informs not only him but all others with whom he associated and who learned from him, from Keith Richards to Emmylou Harris to all those many present-day performers who attest to Parsons being the reason they do what they do. It’s a land, whether or not we know it as intimately as Parsons or Kealing, that calls us all back home, that all roads lead to, a place made universal by an artist who made us all feel, through his art, that we all long to be “safe at home.”

This is not to say Joshua Tree should be ignored. Southern California and Joshua Tree, the region usually associated with Gram Parsons, was without doubt important to Gram personally and to his career path. But to the author the sanctification of the Room 8 and Joshua Tree mythology ultimately becomes obstructive to a full appreciation of this seminal artist. Yes, after 40 years that is being overcome, in part thanks to works such as this, but still 40 years is a long time. Kealing compares the need to look South to Waycross and Florida to that of another subject of this biographer, Jack Kerouac. Kealing states, “It just gives all the cynics more fodder to look at Gram and his legacy as some sort of twisted, drug-addled joke. There’s a strong parallel with Kerouac. Before we brought Orlando into the picture, people always talked about Kerouac’s Florida years in narrower terms; before his death in Saint Pete as a drunken, pathetic joke. It’s where he went to die. Turns out, his years in Orlando, his last prolific period, saw him catapulted from nomadic nobody to literary immortality. I have no doubt this can happen for Gram’s legacy too.”

The author, therefore, mercifully doesn’t spend much time on the death and next to none on “the caper.” Kealing concludes with an account of one of the annual Waycross events a couple years ago that he attended. The late great Charlie Louvin headlined the bill; he had recently put the Country Music Hall of Fame medal around the gorgeous neck (sorry for editorializing) of Ms. Emmylou Harris. Also there was “Hickory Wind” co-author and Parsons band mate Bob Buchanan. They met and shared stories on the steps of the old Waycross City Aud where Gram had been inspired by Elvis as a youngster.

In doing his research, Kealing has uncovered some surprises along the way, and I’ll leave it to the reader to find them. As a historian and one fascinated by the early days of rock as it merged with folk and country, the stories alone about Florida’s youth centers and the region’s rich heritage from garage bands to Coconut Grove, where Gram’s idols and peers often hung out, including Bob Buchanan, the great Fred Neil, and others like John Sebastian, are priceless. It takes an award-winning journalist such as Bob Kealing to tie all this together with final events such as the historic Houston Liberty Hall Fallen Angels concert to complete a portrait of a seminal artist as a young man right up to the time of that still young man’s death.

Five years ago when this reviewer began the Gram InterNational concerts in Nashville, it was held on the date of Gram’s death. I used a picture of a Joshua Tree as the background for the poster. Several years ago I moved the event to Parsons’ birthday, and this year a lush green setting with a large live oak provided the backdrop for the poster. The parched desert that holds the stars together overhead joins with the South, where the verdant land “trembles and it shakes until every tree is loose,” to form a metaphor for the whole of this American original, and it’s nothing but a good thing that the entirety of his short but undeniably influential life is now being explored. “Calling Me Home” does much to take that exploration beyond metaphor.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Book Gram Parsons & The Roots Of Country Music by Bob Kealing | , | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions (2006)


Several weeks ago I completed a thirteen part retrospective of the major album releases in The Byrds catalogue. While Gram Parsons was with the group for only a short period of time, his contributions would help pave the way in the development of the fusion of rock and country music. At the time I made a mental note to visit some of his solo material in the near future and so here we are.

Gram Parsons left behind quite a legacy, having died at the young age of 26. He was a member of The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and performed as a solo artist. He traveled and partied with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and was a drug addict, which would ultimately cost him his life. Through it all he created wonderful music that fit his gentle vocals.

The Complete Reprise Sessions gathers together the two studio albums that Parsons recorded for the Reprise label, each of which comes with a number of bonus tracks. A third disc is included which provides 18 rare and alternate versions of many of his songs. GP and Grievous Angel are a wonderful look into the mid and music of Gram Parsons shortly before his death in 1976.

Country star Emmylou Harris was a part of Parsons musical entourage at the time and she was the creative force behind this release plus also serves as its co-producer. The two albums come in separate packages with the original art work intact. The accompanying booklet contains many rare pictures plus a nice biography of Parsons and the music contained within. It is the clarity of the music that really stands out however. The tracks have been re-mastered so that every nuance of the music and vocals come together as they were originally intended.

GP comes very close to being a classic modern day country album. “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” features a classic duet between Harris and Parsons. Their voices on “A Song For You” run counterpoint to each other. While they were close in age, the hard living was catching up with him. Her voice is fresh and new while his is forlorn and straining which ends up creating a memorable listening experience. “Big Mouth Blues” is an up-tempo tribute to his southern roots.

Grievous Angel was the most consistent work released by him and serves as his musical epitaph. He seems to have been in a better place emotionally and physically as his vocals are purer than on GP and the songs are universally strong, well chosen, and fit together well. The most memorable track is “In My Hour Of Darkness” which serves as a eulogy for three dead friends and as the last track on the original release would be like a coffin lid closing on his own career and life.

The third disc of alternate versions is interesting but pales next to the original albums. The best of the tracks are the three songs by Boudleaux Bryant and his wife Felice. “Sleepless Nights,” “Brand New Heartache,” and especially “Love Hurts” all stand on their own very nicely.

If you want to explore the legacy of Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions is a good place to start. There is a lot of good music contained in this nice little box set which is also a poignant reminder of the fragility of life.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons The Complete Reprise Sessions | Leave a comment

Genesis Duke (1980)


Alright, if you did not immediately hear the opening synth chords to “Behind the Lines” after looking at this album cover, you are not a proper Genesis fan! I happen to own two vinyl copies of this album; one has been through Hell on someone’s turntable, and the other well preserved. While I also have a copy on my computer, I first heard “Behind the Lines” …on a Phil Collins album.

After …And Then There Were Three what deserves to be the most famous divorce in music happened, and Phil Collins went through every emotional change possible. In 1977, he was the drummer who happened to take Peter Gabriel’s place as the Genesis lead singer. In 1981, when Face Value was released, Phil Collins was well on his way to becoming a household name. Had Collins not been distressed enough to leave Genesis and begin working on solo material, we probably would not have the same bald singer today. In fact, we probably would not have Duke.

To my ears, Duke’s narrative screams of someone going through a midlife crisis. You have terrible breakups, stalking, self-realization, and a search for something meaningful in life, but written by all the members of Genesis (Collins would not be a predominant lyricist until the group saw the success of his first solo record). The late seventies and early eighties was a turning point for everyone, musically, politically, and socially, so Duke was not only setting trends, it showed the group in a web of confusion. What can we do next? Is this the new sound?

Synthesizers as eighties pop radio knew them had not been fully realized when they first began to show up on albums in the late seventies. While The Human League, The Cure, The Police, and other groups were experimenting, Genesis probably revolutionized this new sound. I would not bet an internal organ on that, but perhaps one of my copies of Duke. All that aside, listening in the new millennium to “Behind the Lines” may sound like any popular record from the 1980’s, but it is a lot different from what would follow through the years. Tony Banks certainly abused the sound throughout the record, but could actually play, unlike the simple chord maneuvers heard from top 40 bands.

Phil Collin’s drum sound on Duke is not the classic sound most eighties fans are used to. While he developed the gate drum technique with Peter Gabriel the same year, with Genesis he had a much more natural sound. Anyone who has heard “Return of the Giant Hogweed” knows Collins can play drums insanely well, but Collins never abandoned that part of his style. Genesis would later incorporate the drums like lead guitar, but Duke has many moments without any beats, or a drum machine droning on. The main attraction to Collins would come from his voice. Every time I hear “Turn It On Again” I get chills, because Collins proves he is one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time each time he opens his mouth. Through somewhat growling, often smooth lines of grief, Phil is the quintessential voice of a generation.

Mike Rutherford, probably the most underrated member of the band, becomes more of a guitarist on Duke. Previously, before Steve Hackett left, Rutherford focused on bass playing and the occasional twelve-string part. While Rutherford admits to being a guitar player first, his bass lines are always inventive and smooth. “Heathhaze” and “Cul-de-Sac” are dripping with incredible, perhaps innovative, bass, but it is evident that Rutherford was coming out of his shell with lead guitar. The lush chords of “Duchess” and “Please Don’t Ask” with the virtuosity of “Behind the Lines” and “Dukes End” definitely show Rutherford as a genius in his own right. While I am not fond of his solo material, or Mike and the Mechanics, within Genesis, Mike is a key ingredient.

Genesis never sold out at any point, and no one will kill you for liking Duke or their later albums. This is a Progressive Rock classic, in a decade where all the bands from the seventies, such as King Crimson, Rush, and Yes, were buying chorus pedals and digital keyboards. I cannot diminish what those bands did, as I love them too, but Genesis stands apart. They were more popular, but still technically inclined.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Duke | | 3 Comments

The Faces First Step (1970)

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This week in the “rock room” I decided to drop the needle on a famous but undervalued LP by the “Small”, soon to be only “Faces”. This LP was released in early 1970 by the conglomerate of the remnants of the “Small Faces” with the addition of Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart from the “Jeff Beck Group”. Critics sometimes dismiss the record as being not the best effort of the Faces discography, but in my opinion it is a record full of enthusiasm, and some tasty musical nuggets. The rough and ready attitude of this LP is one of its charms, as is that its a band oriented recording,before ego and hurt feelings ate at the core of the group. While there is some “filler” on the LP, the classic songs outweigh any weaker tracks. This LP is an Instamatic portrait of rock and roll when it was it was still dirty, fun, and loud, played by musicians seeped in the craft.

The first side of the LP opens with a cover of the Bob Dylan song “The Wicked Messenger”, punctuated by Ian McLagan’s cathedral organ flourishes and Ronnie Lane’s “plonking” bass lines. Rod’s voice is serious, yet pure rock and roll, as he owns one of the most diverse voices in rock. In my opinion, while Rod was fronting the Beck band and the Faces he was the best rock singer around. It was hard to match his range and stage personae, as even Jagger had some competition when Rod was at his peak. For me the translation of Dylan tunes is one of the hardest things to do as a musical artist. Even The Byrds couldn’t always pull it off to full effect. This version of ‘The Wicked Messenger is indeed a success as the band conveys the mood effectively through their instrumentation and attitude. The appealing and unique aspect of The Faces is in their group attitude. As they did not give a shit about anything but their music. They were going to get sloppy, boozey, and say “Sod it!” to anyone who disagreed. That’s the way I feel about this record, its a good time record and anyone who doesn’t like it can “F” off!

Continuing on as the needle caresses the blank grooves between song one and two the spiritual and delicate opening of the Ronnie Lane track “Devotion” hovers from my speakers. For those who are not familiar Ronnie Lane is still one of the most overlooked songwriters in rock history. Though many of his songs fill the classic FM airwaves his voice is not recognized nor talked about like other songwriter/musicians of his ilk. Beginning with a dampened and tender Ronnie Wood guitar opening “Devotion” sounds as if its humming out of a church gathering field tent. This song contains a blessed vibe, and healing attitude that never fails to direct me to contemplation and happiness. Mac’s organ paints light strokes of gospel color, while Rod just sings his ass off. Ronnie joins Rod to sing the change in the middle of the tune which takes the song to magical levels. Underneath this Woody plays “Robbie Robertson” riffs tastefully underpinning the vocals, eliciting warmth and making my windows fog. The song keeping out the brisk winter night with notes that contain a luminosity like flame.

The third track on side one is the Lane/Wood composition “Shake Shutter Shiver” containing a dual organ and guitar revolving ballroom dance as its centerpiece. Rod and Ronnie Lane share the vocals on the verses, and Woody again delights with his demonstrative slide work. The song swirls and agitates itself into a nice peak before it fades to silence. Following “Shake Shutter Shiver” comes one of my personal favorite songs on the LP and possibly of all time, “Stone”, again penned by Ronnie Lane. This song similarly to “Devotion” is a highly spiritual tune, based in Ronnie’s faith in Meher Baba’a teachings. The song grooves on an acoustic guitar played by Lane, and banjo riff played by Rod Stewart, with some honky-tonk bar room piano tinkled in by by Mac. The earthy title of the song is reflected in the the rustic atmosphere of the instrumentation and the reincarnation themed content of the lyrics. The tune has a stomping celebratory vibe with Rod and Ronnie singing call and response during the middle eight to take any edge of the philosophical lyrics. “Stone” would remain a song that Ronnie would return to over the course of his career many times in many different arrangements. A towering song and one of the best on the album.

Side one closes with a popular Faces live track that always reached extraordinary heights when played in concert, “Around the Plynth”. “Plynth” is a despondent song about a man reflecting on his life and using the image of water going down the drain as a metaphor for his existence. Centered around fervent slide guitar work by Ronnie Wood and heavy footed bass drum stomps by Kenney Jones the song is a quintessential Faces track. Tight instrumentation with a feeling that it could careen off of the tracks at anytime is a hallmark of many of the Faces best songs. A gold star goes to Kenney Jones on this track for his sturdy and tenacious drumming. Any fan of the Faces should hunt down some of the legendary live versions of this song.

Side two opens with what many, including some of the band members consider to be the definitive example of the Faces at their best. “Flying” a Wood/Stewart/Lane composition fades in with a metallic picked guitar introduction by Wood, which reaches out of the speakers and grabs you with its windy etheral vibe. Mac’s ghostly organ follows, then Lane’s bass with “plonking” neck slides setting the stage for what are probably Rod’s most superlative vocals on the record. This is the “best” band performance on the record, and a true collaborative effort. If someone asked me who The Faces were I would play this song. Side two continues with Ronnie Wood’s “Pineapple and the Monkey” which opens dramatically with Mac’s silky smooth organ introduction, soon after joined by Woody’s funky chunky guitar riff. This instrumental track does seem like it may have been taken out of the oven a bit to early, but it does contain a lovely melody line featuring Woody’s guitar and Lane’s bass locking together like a DNA helix.

“Nobody Knows” is up next and spotlights shared vocals between Lane and Stewart once again. Its such a pleasure to hear those two guys sing together, its unfortunate that as time passed it happened less and less. Another fantastic band performance containing tasteful drumming, and slippery round guitar licks abound. A tender song containing the yin and yang of exsistence, and the optimism and pessimism we all feel traveling the road of life, perfectly packaged in a tuneful format. A marvelous song stashed away on the “B” side of a sometimes forgotten album is exactly why I write this blog. To rediscover, reconnect, and reintroduce these dusty hidden treasures back into the light of day. I have included some rare footage at the bottom of the page of the group performing this song. The next to last track on the album is again an instrumental this time composed by Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. Propelled by Woody’s bouncy rubber ball guitar work, this tune has the feel of a rehearsal that was quickly committed to tape. This in no way diminishes the tune, it just has that “jammy” attitude to it. At around two and a half minutes in the groove picks up slightly with Kenney and Mac pushing the song forward and Lane holding down the bottom end like a ships anchor. I feel that moments like this on the LP show the guys feeling each other out and learning how to play together. For that reason alone the instrumentals on this record are perfect looking glasses into the band’s development.

The closing song on the album is again a song that continued to be part of the Faces stage show throughout their career. “Three Button Hand Me Down” is a swaying and swinging rock and roll number. You can’t help but to stomp your feet or bob your head to this track. Ronnie Wood takes over bass duties for this tune, like his previous stint in The Jeff Beck Group, and leads the way with his upfront sound and rock steady heartbeat.”Three Button Hand Me Down” elicits shades of Motown classics gone by mixed with the drunken “Englishness” of The Faces. The song dissolves into a small little improv toward the end, and that signals the conclusion of The Faces debut LP.

The one characteristic of The (Small) Faces that separates them from other rock bands of the era is their ability to not compromise who they truly were as artists. The music they created, starting with “First Step”, was birthed by a organic process taking into account all of their influences and infusing them into a unpretentious rock and roll stew. All of the members would go on to have their own musical careers filled with artistic achievement after the group disbanded. But for a short time they collaborated to create some of the finest, most diverse rock and roll ever composed and performed. It all started with that “First Step” that they took in 1970. Time for me to stop writing and throw the LP on the turntable for another spin, and try not to be so serious about my rock and roll.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | The Faces First Step | | Leave a comment

Genesis And Then There Were Three (1978) & Duke (1980)


I base this prediction on the fact that even though this version of the band unquestionably sold a buttload of albums, the fanbase itself was more casual in nature. There was never the sort of intense fan devotion that was involved in earlier incarnations of Genesis.

The following that this band had during its early, so-called “progressive rock” years may have been smaller than the millions who gobbled up albums like Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance. But they were a rabidly devoted lot. Much more so I would say, than what I would call the more transient fans who picked up albums by the Phil Collins-led Genesis of the “pop years,” right alongside their purchases of Journey, Loverboy and REO Speedwagon.

But I digress.

I guess that I just don’t see the memory spans of those fans matching that of those queueing up for the other big ticket reunion tour this year by the Police. Now if this reunion was with the band featuring Hackett and Gabriel doing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway for example? Different story entirely. But only time will tell if I was right or wrong on this.

But anyway, like I said it’s looking to be a big year for these guys either way.

As part of the Genesis reunion hoopla, Rhino/WEA has released Genesis: 1976 – 1982, a boxed set covering the albums released during that period in new remastered and enhanced CD/DVD versions. They have also reissued each individual album by itself as a double remastered and enhanced CD/DVD.

These albums are interesting mostly because they serve as a bridge between the old, prog-rock version of the band, and the hit machine they became in the eighties. They are bookended by Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering — the first two post-Gabriel albums in which the band simply continued doing the prog-rock they were then best known for — and Abacab, the album which completed the band’s transition to more commercial fare.

Landing right in the middle of that are these two albums, and for that reason alone they may be the most noteworthy of this entire period. On And Then There Were Three and Duke, Genesis were a band caught between directions, seeming unable to decide which way it wanted to go. On these albums, what you hear is a clear case of a band with one foot in and one foot out. It’s fascinating to be able to re-explore them in their newly remastered and enhanced context, knowing what has now come to light historically.

With Steve Hackett out of the band on the appropriately titled And Then There Were Three, you can hear Phil Collins begining to really assert creative control. The drums are mixed a lot higher for one thing – and on this remastered version they sound pretty amazing.

And let’s face it, Phil Collins was and is one hell of a drummer. It’s just too bad that what he really seemed to want to be was more of a song and dance man. Here, this first manifests itself in “Follow You, Follow Me,” which despite it’s nice, sugary enough pop sensibilities, sticks out like something of a sore thumb on this album.

Fortunately, Rutherford and Banks still made up the other two thirds of this band at this juncture, creatively speaking as well as in name. And for that, you get the soaring keyboard swells of “Snowbound” and the romantic textures of “Many Too Many.” The band also flexes it’s progressive rock muscles on tracks like “Down And Out,” “Deep In The Motherlode,” and even “Say It’s Alright Joe” which builds from a slow rock ballad to a nicely layered crescendo of crashing keyboards and guitars.

But on the seven-minute “Burning Rope,” Genesis really remind you just why they were considered one of progressive rock’s greatest bands. Banks and Rutherford build a virtual wall of layered sound on this track, and Collins just plain drums his ass off here. On this new remastered version it sounds even better than I remembered it.

By the time of Duke, Collins — by now, a commercial success as a solo artist — was well on his way to taking over the drivers seat completely in this band. Duke stands as the last gasp of the band’s former progressive sound. By the time of the next album, Abacab, it would be replaced pretty much entirely by the fusion jazz and big drum leanings of Collins. Which wasn’t so bad, because the full-on schlocky pop/R&B of later albums hadn’t yet completely reared it’s ugly head. However, it was still lying in wait and lurking just around the corner.

On Duke, there are for the first time two bonafide pop singles – the bouncy “Turn It On Again” and the more romantic sounding “Misunderstanding.” Again, two great songs from a band by now nonetheless moving further and further away from it’s former self. The best remaining evidence of the band’s prog-rock sensibilities captured here lies in the grand sweep of “Duchess/Guide Vocal” and the closing drum driven jazz-rock of “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End.” Again, the remastered sound here does both great justice, especially on the grandly layered keyboard swells of “Duchess.”

The remastered versions of these two albums each include some great extras on the bonus DVD. Duke, most noteworthily, features a decent-sized chunk of video from a 1980 live concert in London. And Then There Were Three also has live footage, plus new interviews with band members — including Steve Hackett, who explains his departure — conducted just this year.

Taken together, both of these records close one chapter of Genesis history. They capture the final moments of a band clinging to its legacy as one of progressive rock’s most innovative and original sounding bands, right before they rode a wave of hits to become, well, that “other band” in the eighties.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | Genesis And Then There Were Three, Genesis Duke | | Leave a comment