Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Sucking on a few blues notes, through my Kalamazoo 1 just now, reminded me that I jumped on another one of those Stephen Schneider suggested modifications about a month or so ago and figured I would go and post it up for those interested and while I was thinking about it. The Kalamazoo acquisition is detailed in one of my older posts, so I won't repeat just how much I love it as a small harp amp (that's way louder than it looks).
Stephen cannot keep his hands off his myriad of amplifiers and is continually tweaking them to see how much better he can make his already great harp amps sound. The majority of his mad science experiments work and his amps just become more beastly. When they don't work to his satisfaction, he just undoes what he did and no harm is done. When they do work, he shares his results and convinces me to try it out.
I've balked at his suggestions for the Kalamazoo 1 because it just didn't seem to need anything else--except maybe a bit more thump from the bass frequency, but I figured that just was the character of the small, low power amplifiers. I did notice that his Harmony amplifier from the same family size (single EL84 power tube) did produce better lows. His suggestion was to add a bit more filtering value to the first stage power filter capacitor.
So, reluctantly (and why, I don't know--because his mods always work for me), I added a Sprague 20mfd/500v capacitor to the two 10mfd that were already there--for a total of 40mfd first stage filtering. I knew when I ordered it that the Sprague was gonna be a fat dude (and it was as you can see in the pix), but I figured that I had plenty of room for its diameter (which there was). The amp had a cap job before I bought it, so I didn't replace any of the caps.
The results were immediately obvious. The Kalamazoo 1 sounded as sweet as before (or as nasty, depending on how you perceive such), but the bass blossomed and tightened and those low frequencies thumped out significantly better. It may be my imagination, but I'm thinking that the amp is putting out a smidge more volume than before. My ears seemed to ring a bit after a substantial test run and I can't remember the Kalamazoo generating such before.
So, another successful Schneider special. Of course, he said good, now you might as well try this next....Anyway.
P.S--I updated the mod info on 9/30/08. I erroneously wrote that I swapped the caps out for a 20mfd capacitor--which simply would have replaced two 10mfd caps with one 20mfd cap, resulting in the same cap values. Didn't proof read and Professor Schneider caught my error. Thanks again, my friend!
Friday, September 12, 2008
On The Harp Side
People have been asking me for years to do a more low-down, harmonica-focused CD...here it is.--Rick Estrin
Amen, Rick. I've been waiting for such myself. Don't get me wrong, I love what Little Charlie and the Nightcats have been putting down for the past many moons. The mix of Charlie Baty's swinging, stinging guitar slinging and Estrin's hepcat singing and wry, tongue-in-cheek songwriting cut a definitive path that set the band apart from every other blues band. When Estrin put his harp to mouth, though, magic happened (for me anyway) and I always wished for a bit more of it with each CD release. Of course the band was not called Rick Estrin and the Nightcats and some may argue that more variety was had by not including harp on each cut. This CD negates all that.
The Nightcats are Rick Estrin's band now that Charlie has opted for a sabbatical of some sort. Seems that they re-ignite for a few choice concert dates, but it is officially Rick Estrin and the Nightcats doing the do and this CD is documented proof that a harpcentric album can be way far from stale with a whale of a lot of variety. I'm guessing here, but since there is nothing in the way of a label name on this offering and very little in the way of liner notes, that this recording is sold at their gigs until Alligator (I'm guessing again) decides what to do with 'em.
Ain't no re-inventing the wheel here. What you get is what we've always gotten with Rick Estrin's mouth--singing and sucking and wearing his influences on his sleeve or mustache or whatever. I've only listened to the release a couple of times, but that's all it took me to say, "Yeah, man!" and just enjoy the hell out of it. He does kicking instrumentals like the opening track, Headin' Out, which is his nod to Little Walter's Juke, Off the Wall, etc...Like traditional Chicago blues harp tonal technique done right? He lays it all out on this one and then follows it with Walter's Tell Me Mama.
If you'd rather he get licking with something more original, then wait till you get to the instrumental Porn Bred, which has some of the NASTIEST, low end, dirty drawn bent note tones ever pulled from a 10 hole diatonic. He does some kind of low-down honking that just hits the spot.
Fans of the Nightcats know that Estrin pulls off some great Sonny Boy Williamson II tones that are so eerily close to the master that suggests a reincarnation could be a possibility. He covers several of SBW II's tunes, including one of my favorites--Fattening Frogs For Snakes. I don't know of anyone who comes as close to this harp sound as Estrin. SBW II proved that the blues can certainly stir a little humor into heartbreak, a style that had obvious effect on Estrin's lyrical commentaries.
He doesn't leave his other main man, Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson hanging by covering his Tell Me Baby and since it follows Fattening Frogs For Snakes, it offers up how different the two were in their tonal presentation and how proficient Estrin is at pulling off sounding so authentic.
If that's not enough variety, he breaks out the chromatic to crank one of his signature tunes, Big and Fat, into groove city while lauding the assets of the large and lovely. Nothing fancy here, just proving that he knows how to fit the instrument into a driving blues tune. He does get fancy with the chromatic on the jazz chestnut, Harlem Nocturne. I'd challenge anyone to point out a better played version than what the Nightcats get up on here.
With a generous helping of 17 cuts, that include the aforementioned, 6 originals and covers of Muddy Waters, Big Boy Spires and Eddie Burns and all with a heaping, helping dose of Rick Estrin's variety of harp skills on display, harp fans have a reason to rejoice. Estrin's Nightcats have Kid Andersen filling Little Charlie's esteemed shoes. He's been the go to guy out on the West Coast for awhile and was on Charlie Musselwhite's tour dates and recordings for the past year, put out one of his own critically acclaimed CDs and made numerous studio appearances for a number of artists. He knows his blues guitar and can also get a jazzy touch or two going on. On this release he has a partner in crime with Rusty Zinn (see an earlier blog post) and we know what he brings to the table. J Hansen (drums) and Lorenzo Farrell (bass) fill out the rest of the band, with Ronnie James Webber (past Nightcat) playing bass on about half the cuts on this album. Bob Welsh does the keyboarding here. Haven't listened to the CD critically enough to analyze the musical detail that everyone is putting down here and don't intend to--just think the Nightcats, without Little Charlie, but with lots of harp by one of the modern masters of the instrument.
Again, I don't know any label details. If all you care about is amped up, gritty Chicago harp, then this may disappoint you a bit--what there is of it, can't be beat, though. If you enjoy both SBWs along with your Little Walter, then you've gotta have this one. I got my copy from Charlie Lange over at www.bluebeatmusic.com Check out Estrin's myspace page. Anyway--
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Down in Houston
Bayou City Blues
By Roger Wood
356 pp 122 Duotones
Even though I've offered my written opinion on a couple of books here on the blog and I'm about offer up another, I really have no intention of becoming some kind of book reviewer. Peggy Ehrhart sent me a copy of her book and since there aren't many fictional stories themed around the blues, then I thought whoever reads this blog stuff needed to hear about her. While reading the Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock and just how much of my 'back in the day' days were being captured, I just had to share my impressions with anyone whom might relate. So, I'm not really going to call this or those real reviews.
Where Jan Reid's book gave an account the musicians that were relative to Austin's rise as a music mecca, Roger Wood's Down In Houston Bayou City Blues documents a past that established the city as a blues haven as important as Chicago or Memphis with just as much vitality. More than that, his book is a document to those that are still soldiering on in the city. So, I have to share this just to give Houston equal time and importance, in particular to how it is relative to my experience. Where the scene developing in and around Austin was bending genres and was overwhelmingly inviting to college age students and I was a willing participant to the party-on atmosphere, the blues in Houston was sorta operating out of earshot of us Anglo types. It was there, but we weren't. I grew up in the marvelous little coastal town of Brazoria, which was 50 miles south of Houston. When we got our driver's licenses in the late '60s, it was the bright lights and big city that lured us away--BUT we dared not venture into neighborhoods known as the Third and Fifth Ward. There was a lot of unrest along the racial divide during that period of time and those areas were absolutely not our turf. That was, though, where Houston blues was born, bred and nurtured. We had to wait for the blues to ease out of these neighborhoods and find us and it did, but until then, we went to places like the Love Street Light Circus and the Cellar, bought grape juice and pretended it was wine and listened to psychedelic bands, who sometimes jammed the blues. Quite frequently Billy Gibbons (of ZZTop) would bring his Moving Sidewalks to our teen dances and blow us away and he'd venture off into blues riffed rock for us.
Soul and R&B music was feeding the hit factories of the day back then. Garage bands had to play Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Junior Walker or get run out of the building. Roy Head and the Traits and B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs were trumping everyone in the region. Our prom committees booked the TSU Toronadoes, who were quite the R&B showstoppers, for both my junior and senior years. There weren't many of us listening to the blues back in those days. So, even though I had grasp what it was I liked about the blues vs R&B/Soul about that time and we were crawling around Houston looking for things to do, we darned sure were not about to drive along Dowling Street or Lyons Avenue looking for anything. Then Liberty Hall opened and Lightnin' struck.
I had actually moved off to college, but was back visiting the folks when a friend of mine told me that Lightnin' Hopkins was playing Liberty Hall (a venue that opened in 1971 and was an answer to Austin's music swagger--the Armadillo had nothing on them with their roster such folks as Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, etc..). So, it took Lightnin' being enticed out of his neighborhood to expose me to my first real live bluesman. I didn't know what to think when he came out and had a seat in a folding chair and an assistant came out and strapped his guitar on him. I figured I'd missed him in his prime. I was wrong. He rawked the place. The Liberty Hall had two Lightnin' shows at 8&10pm and when my friend suggested that we hide in the restroom when they ran the first patrons out, I readily agreed to the risk. There aren't too many moments in life such that one, being able to witness greatness in two set. And this is actually where Roger Wood's book picks up--'bout time, huh?
Wood relates as to how he read a funeral notice for Lightnin' Hopkins shortly after he moved to the city in the early '80s to beginning teaching at Houston Community College. He was intrigued enough with the obit that he considered going to the funeral, but didn't and regretted it from that time forward. He quickly became aware of just how historically important the neighborhoods adjacent to his classroom were in nurturing some of the best blues musicians, and hence their music, that the genre had ever seen. He determined that it was his mission to find out what it was all about and share it with the rest of us. Like we all were, back in the day, he was a little leery about wandering around neighborhoods that may not be welcoming--even in this day and age. He sat his mind to it, though, and found that not being welcome was all in his mind as he began to frequent the modern day juke joints that were still hosting blues shows for the working class. He began to hang out in spots like Miss Ann's Playpen where bluesmen with national recognition, such as Sherman Robertson, would play when they were back in the 'hood.
As an aside here--my good friend Sonny Boy Terry decided to record a live album at Miss Ann's a few years ago and invited all to attend. As I said, even at this late date, some have a little trepidation about venturing over to such a place. Even though I was well into blues music by this time, most of the venues that I visited for my fix were own by white folks and inhabited by white fans. On the phone Sonny Boy told me, "Hey, their cool, if you're cool." That was enough for me. I invited my brother-in-law, who grew up in Houston, to come along and he wasn't sure at all if that was the part of town WE should be in, so he invited his bouncer size brother-in-law and before he was through, I had 6 grown men in my pickup truck with me. No one wanted to drive their vehicles down there. Bottom line is--it was all foolishness. EVERYONE was beyond cool and we had a fine time. I even discovered that I had left my truck doors unlocked with a cell phone or two left behind unmolested. So, there you go.
Wood enlisted esteemed photographer, James Fraher, to help him capture the Houston story as they hung with the locals at such spots as Miss Ann's Playpen, El Nedo Cafe, C.Davis Bar-B-Q, Shady's Playhouse, Etta's Lounge and the Silver Slipper. Fraher's photos have graced the covers, and illustrated articles for many publications, including the premier Living Blues magazine and his work here of blues artist captured at work and at home are of the highest quality. Together they reveal a slice of musical life that has existed for decades in one of the nation's largest cities, but has been virtually unrecognized and ignored by most of its population.
Wood spins tales from the mouths of those that witnessed the development of blues as it burst out of the Third and Fifth Wards of the city. Many of the musicians, that were still gigging around town while he was researching this book, played for and on recordings by such artists as Bobby Bland, BB King and Junior Parker. They relate tales of the road and in the studios of Duke-Peacock run by Don Robey, one of the few African-American owned recording companies in the 1950s. Of special importance is his interviews with the classy Evelyn Johnson, who ran Buffalo Booking Agency with Robey and managed artists such as BB. The stomping grounds of Albert Collins, Johnny 'Clyde' Copeland, Gatemouth Brown, Lightnin' Hopkins, Weldon 'Juke Boy' Bonner and Billy Bizor come to life within these pages and you can smell it.
The splendor and hey day of the Eldorado Ballroom is recounted by those that had the privilege to either play there or put on their finest threads and take a swing on the dance floor of one of the nation's finest musical venues booking the most popular African-American bands of the period. The club was the cultural centerpiece for a proud neighborhood and after years of neglect has been renovated for special events. It was the uptown to Shady Playhouse's lowdown, which also receives its due as a breeding ground for some of the best blues ever played. Sadly, many of the musicians that shared their history with Wood have passed in recent years, such as Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Calvin Owens and Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson. That fact makes this document all that more important and valuable. These were all musicians whom recorded and toured the country back in the day when blues was boppin' and played for their people.
I mentioned how much I could relate to Reid's book because I lived around much of what he wrote he wrote about and actively participated as a fan. I also lived around much that is written here, but had no idea what was going on until they brought it to me. When us Anglos began attach ourselves to the attraction of the blues and the artists began to entertain in places such as club Hey Hey, the Bon Ton room, Fitzgerald's and Rockefeller's, we began to understand that the music was under our nose's the entire time. This is what Roger Wood brings to light and illuminates so brightly within the pages of his book. Once he ventured into the belly of the beast, he uncovered the remarkable sub-culture that had its roots in the beginnings of the music and he provides us with a greater understanding of the when's and where's of Texas blues. After reading through the pages, it is quite clear Houston absolutely has to be included when discussing, dissecting or analyzing cities that are important to the music or intertwined with its development.
I had the pleasure to meet and chat with quite a few of Wood's participants over the last couple of decades. Folks such as Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins (Lightnin's cousin), Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, Big Roger Collins, Earl Gilliam,Joe Hughes, Calvin Owens, Big Walter Price and Jimmy Dotson were always willing to share their stories and insights. It is such a treat that their stories, tales and histories are so well documented. All Houstonians owe it to themselves to understand such a valuable piece of their city's cultural history and everyone else should grab a copy to grasp just why Houston should be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago, Memphis or even Mississippi. Anyway--
Check out http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/woodow.html for additional information. Roger Wood has also documented Texas Zydeco as well as he did the blues.