Sharp Diamonds and Haystack Jewels – ‘New’ archival releases from John Prine, The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis
Reviews by Doug Heselgrave
Sometimes, there’s a disconnect between an artist’s creative output and the product they produce that finally makes it to the market. The music business is so carefully managed and manipulated today that it’s difficult for most of us to remember a time when singers and players regularly put out more than one record a year. For example, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Bringing it all Back Home’ both came out in 1965 – ‘Blonde on Blonde’ was recorded the same year. There’s no way that any record executive worth his salt would allow that to happen in 2011. For decades, Miles Davis recorded constantly while Neil Young has made it a policy to flip the recording switch every time he touches his instrument. For most of his career, Bob Marley would cut a song or more a day in the studio, and a great deal of that music has yet to see the light of day. So, there’s no shortage of good music lying around in the vaults, but the current perception in the industry seems to favour regulated product flow rather than allowing a musician’s natural creative arc determine the timeline for new releases. While some artists have nurtured hardcore groups of fans that will buy anything they record, the logic of the marketplace still dictates that not everything a musician plays will get put out – regardless of its quality.
But, in the last 20 years, the rarities and archival live CD market has experienced a renaissance and ‘new’ music from iconic artists – some of whom are long deceased – makes up an increasingly large percentage of overall music sales. There are probably lots of reasons for this – the most compelling being that the demographic who still buys physical product – the over forties – often haven’t bought into new music like hip hop or electronica. So, having long ago bought all the official releases by their favourite artists, they’re happy to see high quality products in the form of studio outtakes, withheld albums and live recordings from these musicians’ peak periods of creativity made available for the first time.
This phenomenon first appeared after the death of Jimi Hendrix. In the half decade or so following his passing, there were at least half a dozen partially finished recordings released. Not surprisingly, most of them were not very good and for many years a lot of suspicion surrounded any newly discovered releases from the Seattle guitarist. Thirty years later, the Hendrix family is in charge of Jimi’s legacy and his unreleased work is finally being properly packaged, mastered and released. Similarly, Bob Dylan’s music has been poorly bootlegged from the beginning of his career, until finally in the early nineties, he began to release ‘Official Bootlegs’ of his unreleased material, thereby taking charge of his legacy by assuring a bottom line of quality.
Whether one wants to think of this new flood of bootlegs as a cynical cash grab for senior citizen musicians on the downward slide into senility or a musical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it doesn’t really matter. From my perspective, each of the sets under consideration here adds something to the legacy of the artists or groups in question. John Prine has been releasing a lot of music on his ‘Oh Boy ‘label in the last few years with live and tribute albums preceding this wonderful set of early demos and radio performances. Hopefully, this one will be a success and set the stage for more archival releases. Since his death in 1991, Miles Davis’ estate has carefully released live sets from all phases of his career, adding greatly to an understanding of his music. This year’s ‘Live in Europe 1967’ is full of dynamic, scorching performances from an under-represented period of his work. Finally, of course, there’s this sequel to ‘Europe 72’ from the Grateful Dead- the band who virtually invented the official bootleg industry. This new sampler from the Europe 72 tour is one of their best ever.
John Prine – The Singing Mailman Delivers
Central to the John Prine mythology is that he began his career as a mailman. During his mail route, he apparently wrote many of his most enduring songs and this set of early recordings, set to tape while he was still pounding his letter delivery beat, is going to melt a lot of hearts and remind people what’s so deeply enduring about the man’s music.
Essentially, this two CD set covers most of the songs from Prine’s first few albums. Split over two discs, the first disc features Prine singing and accompanying himself on the guitar in Studs Terkel’s studio. It wouldn’t’ be accurate to call these versions demos in the conventional sense. After appearing on Terkel’s program, Prine asked if he could turn on the tape machine and use the studio to record all of the songs he had written to date. Thankfully, Terkel agreed, allowing Prine to quickly rattle his way through his growing repertoire. The performances are strictly off the cuff. They are – to quote Prine himself –real diamonds in the rough. His voice hadn’t quite assumed the casual power it would have a few years later, and the warmth and nuance of his simple guitar style was still in an embryonic form at the time of these recordings. Yet, despite these criticisms, these simple versions of Prine favourites have the power to draw a person in and keep listening.
The second disc features live versions of many of the same songs recorded at the Fifth Peg in Chicago in November, 1970– as well as a few Hank Williams covers ( Hey Good Lookin’/Jambalaya) and an unreleased original entitled ‘A Star, A Jewel, and a Hoax’ that I would love to hear Prine play again. As often as I’ve heard all of these songs, there is still something very compelling about listening to Prine introduce songs like ‘Paradise’ and sing them just after they were written.
John Prine’s gotten better over the years – I am among those who thinks he’s performing his best work now, but this set shouldn’t be missed. At ten bucks for 2 CDs, it’s the best deal in the world from one of its nicest citizens.
The Grateful Dead – Europe 72 Volume 2
Jerry Garcia used to joke that the Grateful Dead were the slowest rising act in show business. Well, they certainly have never appeared to be in much of a hurry, so it’s not much of a surprise that it took nearly four decades between the first and second volumes of this set to come out.
The original Europe 72 was one of the most celebrated live collections ever released that – more than anything else – helped forge their reputation as a premier concert band. Still, this two CD set probably never would have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the furor created by 70 + disc ‘The Complete Europe 72’ box set that’s coming out this month. Because the whole tour was remastered for the box set, it
wasn’t much of a stretch for The Grateful Dead’s archivist David Lemieux to put together two CDs crammed with tour highlights for people whose budgets couldn’t accommodate $450 for the deluxe edition.
Volume Two offers great value. First, it features none of the same tracks that were on the first Europe 72 albums. The CDs follow the arc of a typical Dead show ,if there is such a thing, in that the first disc features mostly shorter songs while the second disc showcases longer jams and improvisational tracks. The first disc opens with a scorching version of ‘Bertha’ followed by a bouncy ‘Me and my Uncle’ – the song that has the distinction of being the song most often played live by the band. There are several soulful contributions such as ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ from Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan who died the year following the Europe sojourn.
Personally, I have always liked the more experimental side of The Grateful Dead’s music best – so the second disc is the one I listen to most often. It has a truly amazing, meditative version of Dark Star that I’ve been playing over and over again. Other favourites include wonderful versions of Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing me Back Home’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Going down the road feeling Bad’ that NoDepression readers should appreciate. Like the Prine set, this one is bargain priced, and is a good way to catch up with some fantastic early Grateful Dead music from one of their most legendary tours.
Miles Davis Quintet – Live in Europe 1967
Casual fans of Miles Davis whose collections are bookmarked by ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ may have forgotten or not be aware that in between those two iconic recordings, Davis composed and played some of his most unrelenting and challenging music.
1967 was a transitional period for Miles Davis. John Coltrane had died a few months before these recordings and his second quintet featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums was in the third year of its fourth year run. He had not yet jettisoned the traditional jazz structures or acoustic instruments that ushered in his Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way period, but he was encouraging his band to play in a tight and aggressive way that was quite unlike anything he had played before. In the early days of the quintet, Davis had his group play selections from his back catalogue in concert – a choice that kept the players ‘somewhat in line.’ (Although it would be pretty easy to think the opposite judging from the way out versions of ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ that Miles and the band play here) But, by 1967, he had recorded a few albums worth of new music with these musicians and by the time they’d reached Europe to play their fresh material in front of live audiences, the band was on fire. The resulting performances captured here are nothing short of revelatory.
None of the music featured here could be described as ‘free jazz’ , no matter how many solos and sojourns the musicians go out on. Davis’ solos direct the band to aggressively go out on limbs, but there’s still an underlying structure and sinew holding each piece together. Everyone is obviously listening intently to each other as the slightest diversion or hint from Davis encourages the whole ensemble to follow. Shorter’s sax is angry and metallic one minute, swooping like a bird the next. Tony Williams pushes the group in and out of the beat, with his savage pounding filling any silence that threatens to creep in. Much of the credit for holding the whole ensemble together must go to Ron Carter whose bass notes pick out just the right emphasis from Williams to deepen and channel it for Davis and Shorter to play off of.
‘Live in Europe ’67’ is available in one disc and four disc versions. The four disc version features complete shows from Antwerp, Copenhagen and Paris. The set lists of each of the concerts is almost identical, but not surprisingly the tempos,solos and track lengths vary widely from night to night. There is so much diversity in this music that it’s difficult to choose a representative track, but the version of ‘No Blue’ (perhaps an antidote to Kind of Blue’s boudoir ready ‘All Blues’) from Copenhagen that clocks in at nearly 15 minutes, is a good contender. Almost forty-five years after it was first played, it still sounds ahead of its time with its crazy counterpoints, wild time signatures and constantly shifting morphing leads and rhythms.
‘Live in Europe ‘67’ features some of the best music from one of the 20th century’s most important musicians.
Like the other sets described here, this one is very reasonably priced and comes highly recommended.
this posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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