Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Rod

Rod Piazza
& The Mighty Flyers

Soul Monster
Delta Groove Music

There are only a handful of harpmen working the circuit today that have risen to the professional level of Rod Piazza. He's in the company of Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and perhaps Mark Hummel as far as paying his dues,demanding respect for the instrument, and commanding decent pay for his talents. Piazza began playing and recording the blues way back in the '60s and he's still on top of his game and his twenty fourth album, Soul Monster, stands as a testament to that fact.

The challenge for a blues harp veteran such as Piazza is to avoid recycling what he's blown before in order to keep things fresh. He's always acknowledged this challenge and met it head on by employing different techniques. He's used low keyed harps on some albums, added a little funk to spice up blues covers, varied the amount of amplified nastiness, or he's messed with the meter or tempo of a classic. Regardless, though, Piazza's style shows through and is instantly recognizable. You know what you're getting with him, even though you don't really know what you're gonna get--other than top notch musicianship. What you know that you're gonna get is an album chock full of variety and Soul Monster is no exception to his formula.

Big, fat, chromatic octave chords open the proceedings on the title cut and there just ain't no mistaking that it's Rod Piazza producing those deep tones on this funky instrumental. It represents one of the four originals on the thirteen cut disc. One of the other originals is also an instrumental called Expression Session, but he worries the hell out of a diatonic harp on this one, with a musical head similar to what I've heard Charlie Musselwhite play on Hard Times from his According To album. The vibe is light, but Piazza's throwing all manner of note bending and low end runs all over the tune. Piazza's albums always include such instrument numbers to highlight his harp chops, Honey Piazza's estimable piano skills, his guitarist's string bending prowess, or even his drummer's stick wizardry. Soul Monster's third instrumental comes from Rod's main mentor, George "Harmonica" Smith, and it's called Sunbird and has that ol' amped up nasty sound and some stupendous lick ideas from one of the best. I can't recall a Piazza album void of paying homage to this West Coast master blaster.

One of my favorite cuts from Piazza's Alphabet Blues album was the slow burner, Blues in '92. He reprises it here, but re-christens it Tell Me About It Sam and introduces the tune with an anecdote about the late, great Sam Myers. Seems that the Mighty Flyers were sharing a bill with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets (Sam's band) and Sam requested that song from Piazza. He told Sam that he didn't think that he could remember the words. Sam told him, "Hell, I'll sing it." During the set, Sam was introduced to the crowd and when he got to the mic, he said, "You know, it's a shame when a man doesn't know the words to his own song." The song, about hard economic times, fits today's financial climate perfectly. Just goes to show that times were tough back in '92 too.

This disc certainly isn't challenging Piazza's lyrical ideas, since two of the originals are instrumentals and one is the aforementioned re-do and the fourth, called Cheap Wine, sounds down right silly to me. I think they were sitting around drinking the stuff when he came up with the words. It does make a darned good excuse to give everyone a chance to shine with their instruments,though, especially Dave Kida. He drums the song into submission and makes us forget the insipid lyrics. Actually, my favorite Piazza licks on the album make up for the song's short comings.

Honey's not granted the solo showcase that's standard on numerous Might Flyer's releases, but her talents sweep through the proceedings. The weaving of her notes throughout Jimmy Reed's Can't Stand To See You Go raise the song way above the standard shuffle and keeps it there. When Rod has her take it home, she lights into her keys intensely and does her own mentor, Otis Spann, proud. She also carries the bass line for the ensemble, because they have no bass player employed on this disc.

Speaking of Jimmy Reed. Piazza doesn't shy away from covering well worn chestnuts from the masters and he always does such justice to their memory. Little Walter is never far from the surface of what he's laying on us and Piazza has covered way more than many of Walter's tunes, but he throws in just enough Piazza style to keep it honest. So, I really don't mind hearing Key To The Highway again, particularly played with such feeling as Piazza gives it. You know, I'm quite sure that this Big Bill Broonzy song was worn out by everyone and their dog back when Little Walter chose to cover it, but he darned well made it his own. Piazza certainly doesn't make it his own as much as he's just paying a well played tribute. You Better Watch Yourself is pretty much a straight up LW cover, also, but hell, I like it. He does take Slim Harpo's Queen Bee out for a ride that has a significantly different vibe than the original Louisiana swamp groove.

Jimmy Liggins' That's What's Knocking Me Out has the West Coast style blues covered, along with Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So), which is sort of a duet with guitarist Henry Carvajal, who's also given a solo vocal turn on the '50s style do wop flavored Talk To Me, on which his voice fits appropriately--a bit like a middle aged Frankie Avalon. The song is replete with horns from Jonny Viau and Allen Ortiz. By the way, Carvajal's guitar slinging has grown on me since his first Mighty Flyer's outing. He just seems like a more comfortable fit for the group now than he was then. He also seems to shift styles a lot smoother than before and that is the bands forte.

They cover Hey, Mrs. Jones (a Jimmy Witherspoon hit), but they plant it firmly with a Cha Cha rhythm and Piazza employs a deep in the well echo to the vocal track. So, its a bit removed from the West Coast type of stuff that's associated with Witherspoon. That's the kind of stuff you gotta watch (or listen to) to understand how Piazza makes the old, new again, and keeps it fresh.

So, if you know Piazza, you know what to expect--plenty of variety, some old, some new, some West Coast, some Chicago, but all played well by one of he best blues bands in the country and of course, with harp blown by one of the best in the business. By the way, Delta Groove Music certainly seems like a great fit for Rod Piazza. The owner, Randy Chortoff lets Rod be Rod in the studio and we are rewarded with some great blues. Anyway--'nuff for now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nurbergring World Superbike Races

What a Labor Day Weekend--so I just have to blog about it. My crazy brother-in-law, George, called me Wednesday night of last week and said, "Hey, Rick, I've got tickets to fly to Amsterdam and then we'll drive over to the World Superbike races in Germany. Do you want to go?"

"When are you flying over there, George?," I asked.

"Tomorrow at 3:40 p.m.," he answers.

Long story short--I agreed and off we flew Continental Business First Class for a mighty fine price for a round trip. Which was the deal that he couldn't pass up, especially since some of the best motorcycle riders in the world would be racing within driving distance.

We arrived in Amsterdam at 8:30 on Friday morning, rented a car, and headed out to the Zuiderzee dams. Amazing feat of human environment interacton out there--and the 50 mph+ winds whipped at us pretty darn good once we embarked from the rental Volvo. We took our pictures and enjoyed a rest at a unique snack bar on the dam and headed back to Amsterdam.

After checking into our downtown hotel, we walked down to the Rijks and the Van Gogh museums and snapped some pictures around the downtown area. Way too much jet lag convinced us to forgo waiting in line for a museum ticket and then end up wandering around the halls like zombies on drugs. We headed back to the hotel at around 3 p.m. and soundly sacked out until 8:30, then caught a cab in a torrential monsoon for the Dam Square shopping district--where you can literally buy anything you want. Yep, anything. So, we sloshed around with umbrellas to window shop in the world famous Red Light Distict--which has to be the most unique city blocks on the planet. We eventually plopped ourselves down under the canopy of a restaurant and watched the world go by. Never seen that many people trekking around in a city in the rain.

What really struck me about Amsterdam was just how immaculately clean the city is. That goes for the Netherlands in general. The countryside is all picture postcard and the roadsides aren't used for garbage receptacles. The Dutch are just neat.

We hopped in our Volvo on Saturday for a four hour trip to the Nurbergring race track to watch the practice runs and the bikes compete for pole positions. I don't know much about motorcycle racing, but George spent many a weekend racing for real in his younger days and knows the sport inside out and also many world class riders. The one rider that he was most excited about was Ben Spies from Longview, Texas, who is tearing up the World Super Bike circuit at age 24. I thought that it was fabulous that we had a Texan in the fight. George explained that Spies had the disadvantage of never racing this course, when most of the European riders had many times. We were quite bummed out watching Spies total his bike out on one of the curves as it flipped and flopped off the track. Unhurt and undeterred, he rode the course well enough on his back-up Yamaha to gain a starting position on the second row.

At the end of the day, we programmed our GPS (which we named Ingrid) to get us to our hotel--somewhere in Germany. George had no clue where, so Ingrid took us on the most scenic route she could find, winding through very beautiful German mountains and quaint villages. We ended our trip in the city of Cochem, which we could see right off was a popular tourist resort on the Mosul River. It looked exactly like you picture a German town to look or want it to look--complete with a 1000 year old castle overlooking the inhabitants.

After Ingrid guided us to our hotel, it didn't take us long to discover that George had booked us into a romantic getaway spot. While checking in, George did ask about the room having two beds. The female desk clerk said that she was sure it did, but that she would take us to the room and make sure. I'm pretty certain that she wanted to discreetly hide the heart that was pasted to the door with George's name on it. There were two beds--singles--pushed together. Well, regardless, this was a great place, with a great view.

After breakfast on Sunday, we headed back to the races. Two Super Bike races are run at every venue on the circuit; so as George said, "You get more bang for your buck". In between the 1000cc Super Bikes are the 600cc races. Our spot on the track was at the first curve, which was hairpin and took more than a few racers out of the race. It was the curve immediately following that one that got the first race of to a very bad start. Several bikes flew off the curve, one caught fire, and one rider had his neck run over by a bike. A restart was necessary and Ben Spies found himself running fifth after the first set of curves.

It didn't take the Texan long to begin the process of picking the riders off in front of him. It was exciting watching his world class work. By the half way point he had worked himself up to second place and then we watched him overtake the Japanese rider,Nuriyuki Haga, for first at the curves within our view with two laps to go. He never relinquished the lead and beat the daylights out of the best riders in the world. It was GREAT! And there were a whole host of Germans behind us that loved the Texan and cheered him at every turn.

Spies started off the second race bogged down in ninth position and George figured that he was sunk. But, the boy from the Lone Star state methodically worked his way through the pack until he was riding the back tire of the first place rider, Britain's Jonathan Rea. He tried his best to take him on several turns, but his opponent fought him off. Spies took second. Not a bad day at all for the young man. It also propelled him to the lead in the World Super Bike circuit points. Whoop! Go to Spies' website and check the guy out--he's for real.

We left the race track at around 5 pm and let Ingrid do her thing back to Amsterdam and George did his thing also--which was to see how fast our Volvo would do on the Autobahn. 143.6 mph is what he calculated the kilometers per hour to mean. So, we flew back without wings--just on a wing and a prayer on my part. Of course, he didn't keep it topped out at that speed, but we be cruising most of the time.

We made once last round viewing the Amsterdam sights that evening and hung out on the sidewalk of a bar and George bribed the waiter to have them keep playing blues music over their programmed sound system. Mighty whirlwind trip and one that I'll always remember. Anyway--'nuff or now. I'm still jet lagged.