Social Distancing Spins – Day 13

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone is staying inside and remaining healthy while we traipse through my album collection.

Chico Hamilton – The Further Adventures of El Chico (1966) Chico Hamilton was a drummer who played with Count Basie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne. For this album he is joined by Clark Terry (another Basie alumnus) and Ron Carter. The set mixes jazz standards (“Stella by Starlight,” “Who Can I Turn To?”) with blues, a few originals and covers of then-contemporary pop songs. It works well for the most part, but the jumps to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday” are jarring and remind of the exact moment the album was recorded. The pop covers aren’t bad on their own – although they cling pretty faithfully to the original charts – but they work against the rest of the material.

Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth (2019) A friend summed it up perfectly: Van Morrison’s output for the past three decades is always good, rarely great. I couldn’t tell you that Three Chords and the Truth is any better than the two albums he released the year before this, or even the two albums he released the year before that. I could tell you that all but one of the tracks are new Morrison compositions. I can also tell you that guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on Astral Weeks, is back in the band. His distinctive guitar lines color the album effectively. With four full sides of music there is a lot for Morrison fans to digest. I don’t think this will win any new fans, but if you like anything he’s released since his classic run in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, too.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) I’m generally not a fan of lyrics being added to instrumental songs. This album is a delightful exception. Ella Fitzgerald scats and floats across Duke Ellington’s enduring melodies like a spring breeze kissing laundry on a clothes line. Of course having Ellington’s orchestra on hand doesn’t hurt, either. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson also pop up. You already know most of these numbers, now hear them anew with Ella and the Duke as your tour guides.

I got this double-album set at an estate sale. The previous owner wrote down the date, location and price of album on the inside of one of the sleeves. I love these little touches that show how these songs were here long before we came along and will exist long after us as well.

Warren Zevon – self-titled (1976) The album that introduced Warren Zevon to the masses (or at least his devoted cult) plays like a greatest-hits album. Linda Ronstadt covered no less than four of the 11 tracks performed here. Jackson Browne produced the album and plays on most cuts. Members of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and the Beach Boys also pop up in the musician credits. You may think you don’t know Zevon, but I bet you’ll recognize at least a couple songs here. And if you like that laid-back, 1970s L.A. singer/songwriter vibe, you’ll love everything here. A true classic.

Various Artists – American Epic: The Soundtrack (compilation) The majority of the 15 songs in this collection were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fans of early folk and roots music will be familiar with most of these songs. What they likely haven’t heard is the clarity of these performances. The compilers cleaned up all the hiss and noise that usually comes with primitive recordings like these. The songs here by blues, country and folk pioneers aren’t just a nice collection of Depression-era musicianship. They are an essential part of who America is as a nation today. To learn why, you’ll need to watch the American Epic documentary. Enjoy.

Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (2018) Tonight’s the Night was the first of Neil Young’s so-called ditch trilogy, his non-commercial response to watching “Heart of Gold” hit No. 1. The studio version was held by the label for two years before finally seeing release. This live album comes from the same period (1973) but is less bleak than its studio counterparts. The songs are Young’s responses to the death of two close associates from drug overdoses. Their spirits hang heavy over the night, but the intensity is dissipated by Young’s stage banter about topless women, burlesque dancer Candy Barr, Perry Como and label honcho David Geffen. The band also goes into a short rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The heavy emotion in the songs never flinches, but onstage Young allows the audience to take breaks. These moments of release are what makes Roxy a compelling bookend to the studio edition.

Warren Zevon far from forgotten

Above: The Excitable Boy performs “Excitable Boy.”

By Joel Francis

 

Warren Zevon fans can be forgiven if the seem a bit excitable recently. Two out-of-print albums have been remastered and debuted on CD with bonus tracks, a two-disc set of demos and early recordings dating before 1976, a no-holds-barred biography and the remaster of Zevon’s best-selling album, “Excitable Boy,” complete with a trio of unheard tracks, have all been dropped on consumers in the past several months.

 

“Excitable Boy” is the best album in Zevon’s catalog. It contains his biggest hit “Werewolves of London,” along with several other biggies, like “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most fans already have this album, but the bonus cuts and improved sound may be a temptation to pony up again. Producer Jackson Browne was wise in dropping “Tule’s Blues” and “Frozen Notes” from “Excitable Boy”’s running order – they would have killed the album’s momentum. But separated as bonus tracks they are beautiful numbers that deserved to have airing.

 

“Stand in the Fire” is a live album made during one of Zevon’s brief mid-life bouts of sobriety that swaps booze for pumps an extra dose of adrenaline. Zevon’s energy is infectious and its hard not to wish you were at the club the night this was recorded. But for all the zest he pumps into rocking numbers like “Jeannie Needs A Shooter” and a closing Bo Diddley medley, Zevon is just as affecting in ballad mode on the bonus tracks of  “Frank and Jesse James” and “Hasten Down the Wind.”

 

Released just a year after “Stand in the Fire,” “The Envoy” finds Zevon back on the wagon. While there are some gems – author Thomas McGuane co-wrote “The Overdraft,” – the album also contains an ode to Zevon’s drug dealer, which should always be a red flag to the uninitiated to drive around the block and come back later. The bonus tracks aren’t any more inspired – an alternate take, an outtake, a plodding instrumental and a tossed-off cover of “Wild Thing” – but it’s still nice to have this one back in print.

Zevon’s ex-wife Crystal Zevon and draws on interviews with dozens of musicians, producers, former girlfriends and family members to paint a personal portrait of Zevon in the biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. Memoirs penned by ex-wives should be approached with caution, but this project got Zevon’s blessing and is admirable in its objectivity. In the first half of the book, Zevon mixes a dangerous cocktail of vodka, cocaine and firearms in his quest for the exposure he knows he deserves. Zevon got his shot, but the same addictions that drove him cost him his wife and daughter.

 

When he loses his record contract Zevon plunges further into excess, but is eventually rescued and rehabilitated. Finally serious about his sobriety, Zevon found a new addiction in sex. The diary entries reproduced in the book are peppered with stories about neighbors he slept with, daliances with groupies (he duped one into having an abortion) and his hobby in videotaping his adventures. The book’s concurrent themes of addiction and music paint Zevon as a volatile person probably best appreciated from the stage or album. Readers looking for the enlightenment behind their favorite song or album are likely to be disappointed, but they will have a better understanding what Zevon was going through personally while writing, touring and recording.

 

 

“Preludes” is the greatest treasure for long-time fans. This two-disc set contains an interview from 2000 and an intimate look at Zevon in his pre-fame days crafting demos of “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” “Desperados Under the Eaves” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and six unreleased tracks including “Studebaker,” which Zevon’s son Jordan performed on a 2004 tribute album. Jordan Zevon found these recordings, along with hundreds more, when he was cleaning out one of his dad’s storage spaces.

Zevon always hovered in that zone between critical acclaim and mainstream success. Its nice to see, four years after his death, that he continues to get the respect and exposure he deserved. These releases, and hopefully future ones in the same vein, will ensure that Zevon is kept in our hearts a while longer.

Warren Zevon Remembered

By Joel Francis

Warren Zevon died today, but like most things in his life, he did it on his terms.
Over a year ago, doctors gave Zevon three months to live. Of course he proved them wrong and stuck around not only to witness his grandsons births, but to write and record his final album and watch it debut in the Top 40 (a feat he hadn’t accomplished in 25 years). Death has a funny way of propelling forgotten careers.
If Mark Twain were a songwriter, he’d have been Warren Zevon. I’d like to think that right now Zevon and Twain are sitting around backstage in heaven smoking huge cigars, drinking brandy and arguing about who has to open for whom.
“When you get Dylan, Neil Young and REM to appear on your albums as sidemen, you come talk to me about headlining,” Zevon says.
“Yeah, well when you write a satire about racism that is still being banned and burned 150 years after publication, you come talk to me about acerbic wit,” Twain retorts.
The two end up laughing and embracing and a little brandy spills on Twain’s immaculate white suit.
“Crap, now I’ve got to go change before I go on. How do you think I’ll look in orange?” Twain jokes.
“Don’t worry, I’ll cover for you,” Zevon says, grabbing a guitar and heading for the curtain. Ninety minutes later Twain appears onstage with Mae West and Jack Lemmon to sing the backing vocals on “Excitable Boy.”
“Who says life’ll kill ya, anyway?” Zevon says, winking at the audience as the curtain falls.