Groundhogs-Blues Obituary

March 29, 2012


Blues Obituary(1969 Liberty)

This is kind of a fitting title since it stands as one of the last hurrahs for the British strain of blues rock perfected on Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, even though Cream, the Yardbirds, John Mayall and Led Zeppelin might have a few words in opposition to that claim. Hell, even the Groundhogs themselves would probably disagree  since most point to the subsequent duo of Thank Christ for the Bomb and Split as the best albums of their career. However, their is something special about how Blues Obituary borrows from all the right touchstones of their American idols while imbuing each song with the just the right amount of swagger, brooding and instrumental pyrotechnics. Yeah, so many of the contemporaries did the same, but they lacked the important ingredient of all–a mutant strain of funk that serves as a subtle, but powerful undertow on many songs that drags you right into the repetitive groove of each song. Sure, Split and Thank Christ for the Bomb take the groundwork of Blues Obituary and turn it up ten or eleven notches, but there is something special about how they stretch out and really pound each riff into dust or elongate it into infinity via riffs that rise and fall like humble crests that slowly mature into tidal waves.

Unsurprisingly, they were named after a John Lee Hooker tune since they both knew how to mine a sinister vibe even when they were cruising at leisurely pace. Guitarist and vocalist Tony McPhee is the obvious focal point throughout as he solidifies his claim as one of the most underrated rock guitarists of the 60s and early 70s. You know you live in a shitty world when Eric Clapton gets canonized while McPhee’s name wouldn’t garner a speck of recognition from 99% of classic rock aficionados. Outside of a number one hit in Lebabon of all places and a prestigious opening slot on a 1971 Rolling Stones tour, they never gained much traction outside of their native England where their next three albums hit the top 10 on the albums chart. I guess it is somewhat understandable since they only hit their stride in 1969 at the tail end of an era amenable to bluesy rock and roll acts more interested in showcasing the solo than the chorus, but they’d probably be more of a household name if they released Blues obituary a few years earlier. Oh well, life ain’t fair and god knows how many bands were birthed in the right place at the wrong time. I probably have written about a lot of them here. I guess I must be drawn to the gentle tragedies in life.

That’s enough whining about a hypothetical world where the Groundhogs reigned supreme. Let’s get to the stumbling fury of “Times” which might be one of my favorite songs to listen to while barreling down the highway. Let’s be honest. I’m lame, so barreling means a slight gradation over the speed limit in my world, but that’s not the point here. I’m a stone cold sucker for the slide guitar in a driving rock and roll song. Although the Jesus Lizard’s “Nub” ekes out a victory over “Times” in my imaginary sweepstakes, it doesn’t lessen the brilliance of how McPhee’s fingers race up and down his guitar as the rest of the band does it’s best job of imitating Bo Diddley after a bottle of codeine syrup as he relates a heartwarming tale of pondering suicide via a one way dive into the depths of the ocean. It’s a nihilistic, bleak tune that is simultaneously triumphant and beaten to a pulp.

“Mistreated” has a hard act to follow, but does it with impeccable style. Centered around a stuttering riff that could almost pass as a precursor to Black Sabbath if it was slathered with distortion and electrified, it lays the groundwork for an impassioned plea by a naive soul confused by the collapse of a romance. It doesn’t take a therapist to sort out that he is the source of his own ruin, but McPhee’s vocals are full of such pain and frustration that it melds perfectly with the agitated and and uneasy instrumentation that coalesce into a cry for help and forgiveness. Ultimately, those are probably the best adjectives to describe the overall vibe of Blues obituary–agitated and uneasy. On the surface, it’s just an adventurous blues rock album, but there is something malignant, restless and disastrous lying underneath if you listen closely.


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Magicistragic Mix Number Four

The sprouts are poking their nosy green tendrils out of the ground and a menagerie of critters are shaking the dust from their britches to live life for another year. It’s a time for a more dynamic and sprightly soundtrack to counteract the glacial pace of the last two mixes posted here. Oh yeah, if you’d like more videos, links and assorted debris, please befriend magicistragic on facebook.

Tucker Zimmerman-Another Normal Day

The Golliwogs-Don’t Tell Me No Lies

Selda-Meydan Sinzidir

Jerry Garcia-Run For the Roses

Dynamic Truths-You Take it All

B.F. Trike-Be Free

Bailter Space-Robot World

Lower Dens-Tea Lights

Charlie Daniels Band-Uneasy Rider

Fresh and Onlys-Waterfall

Psychedelic Aliens-We’re Laughing

Dorothy Berry-Standing on the Corner

Ducktails-Killing the Vibe

The Edwards Generation-You’re the One For Me

Bobby Charles-I’m That Way

Michael Rother-Sonnenrad

Spur-Eight Days a Week

Smokey Hogg-When You Get Old

George Brigman-Schoolgirl

Blackfoot Sue-Standing in the Road

When I Loved Her-Kris Kristofferson

Allen Toussaint

Life, Love and Faith(Reprise/Warner Bros. 1972)

Allen Toussaint is one of those musicians who never quite got his due even though he is responsible for an impeccable quartet of early 70s albums beginning with 1970s From a Whisper to a Scream and ending with 1975’s Southern Nights. What makes his relative anonymity even more surprising is that he also was responsible for producing and writing for such New Orleans icons as Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey as well as legends like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and the Yardbirds, albeit in the form of a B-side. Hell, he even arranged the horn sections for The Band’s 70s output culminating with his work on The Last Waltz. In short, that is too glamorous a resume to be relegated to second string status and Toussaint deserves a reexamination by anyone with even a passing fancy for stoned r&b, the rich musical history of New Orleans  and the footloose and fancy free side of 70s funk. There isn’t any room for navel gazing, meandering jams or pity parties here, Life, Love and Faith conjures the vibe of those nights where the company you keep is close-knit, the nights blur into dawn and everyone involved wrings every ounce of enjoyment from these precious moments where all is good in our collective world. I just don’t want to live in a world where Touissaint doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as the masterpieces created by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Al Green during the same era. Life is unfair and I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I was the old man yelling at the clouds about how my favorite albums are beloved by too few souls.

Just take one listen to “Soul Sister” and all of my hyperbole becomes quite literal as Toussaint’s gently hypnotic and irresistibly playful arrangements meld perfectly with a too cool for school refrain of “Hey you with the curly bush on your head baby. You know you are looking, looking looking good, soul sister” that gives way to the choppy seas of a minimal, yet perfect riff that melts into the call and response of a female voice that confidently replies “Thank you brother, thank you baby” as if it completes an equation for the secret to the perfect pickup line in an alternate universe. It grooves and glides in all the right places as if a bacchanalian New Orleans funk session were taking place on an air hockey table as each note elevates it higher and higher in my personal pantheon of songs that epitomize the season of summer.

His expertise in arranging a horn section is evident throughout Life, Love and Faith as the opener “Victims of the Darkness” deals with the darker subject material of the oppressed choosing a violent or non-violent path of protest as a means of achieving their aims. It’s a dire political anthem if taken word for word, but his arrangements make it an almost celebratory moment where the downtrodden are empowered by the divergent paths trailblazed during the civil rights movements. The people can shout out loud or take to the streets and forcefully create a world in their own image and Toussant doesn’t care which way your wind blows as long as your purpose is righteous. Those horns are simultaneously a call to arms and a celebration of free will that drive the message straight into your subconscious.

“Out of the Country(Into the City)” is a stroke of genius that somehow imagines a world where mellow boogie rock riffs mate with New Orleans musical DNA as the incessant guitar hook rises and falls like a day-glo wave as Toussaint shares a simple tale of escaping the hustle and bustle of city living for the country. It’s quite the hippie sentiment as he champions the simple virtues of a crisp gust of wind, the smell of grass and the simplicity of life far from the grit and gasoline fumes. It’s quite the badass ode to country living and beats any longhaired paean to communal living to accompaniment of a mere acoustic guitar. I love that Toussaint’s whole musical career celebrates the city of New Orleans, but takes the time to insert a back to nature anthem. However, that’s the kind of musician, arranger and songwriter Allen Toussaint was during this period of his career. He was a complex artist who wanted nothing more than a good time to be had by all who listened and subtly inserted his political worldview, deceptively challenging arrangements and surprising twists in subject material into each of the four albums that marked him as a profound soul whose music had a depth of soul lacking in most of those who sold far more albums than he.

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New Riders of the Purple Sage

s/t (Columbia 1971)

If there was some way to astrally project myself into the my college dorm room circa 1993, I would take great pleasure in revealing that I now absolutely adore the Grateful Dead just to watch my shaggy, elitist doppleganger retch and vomit in disapproval. “Believe me, I tried to fight it, but the years just mellowed my edges and I found myself becoming more and more of a kindred spirit with my hippie brethren whom I once mocked and assailed for their worn shoeboxes of meticulously documented Dead shows. In retrospect, I had no leg to stand on as I look back upon my worship of melancholy mopers and nihilistic noise mongers that seems so shallow and trite when I kick back and listen to a righteously gorgeous, life affirming and downright genius string of albums beginning with Anthem of the Sun and ended with From the Mars Hotel before the drugs, hangers-on, financial and personal disasters took their toll and they slowly became the punchline I envisioned in my 20s. However, my wife has seen the Grateful Dead over twenty times and converted me to the other side.

You are all grown men and women here and have probably picked what side of the fence in which you reside regarding the Grateful Dead, so there’s no point in delivering a passionate sermon about how “Pride of Cucamonga” is a flawless mutation of country music or why American Beauty is a seamless suite of songs that perfectly encapsulate all that is transcendent about 70s Americana, so let’s focus on New Riders of the Purple Sage, an offshoot of the Dead that’s been brightening my dark corners these days.

Although the New Riders of the Purple Sage were an ongoing and occasionally brilliant concern until 1997, it’s their self-titled debut and its followup Powerglide that are worth examining closely if you have even a passing interest in 60s and 70s country rock in the vein of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Dillard and Clark, Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. However, their self-titled debut is the strongest entry in their discography and best conveys the rollicking, loose and patchouli scented vibe they aimed for throughout the 70s. Centered around David Nelson and John “Marmaduke” Dawson, the band got their start via their connection to Jerry Garcia since they used to play together in the mid 60s and Dawson was the one who turned Garcia onto the sounds of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. This seamless synthesis of the Bakersfield sound and psychedelic country was  achieved through the talent imported from the Dead as Jerry Garcia returns the favor by playing an integral role here playing pedal steel, guitar and banjo while Mickey Hart provides percussion alongside Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane. I always liked the more country-tinged side of the Dead instead of the bluesy workouts, so the New RIders of the Purple Sage give me all I could ever want since every song mines this fertile vein.

All that is impeccable about the New Riders of the Purple Sage can be found in the very first song on the album. “I Don’t Know You” bests anything recorded by their contemporaries by a long shot as it intersects the late 60s Byrds and 70s Dead and encapsulates all that was blissful about both bands at their best. It captures all the bright eyed and bushy-tailed innocence of meeting a potential love connection and deriving their true intentions as hormones cloud your vision and you battle the urge to dive into the pool or dip your toes in the water. It’s followed by “Watcha Gonna Do” which may repulse anyone who dislikes the Dead since it’s central hook is almost a archetype for any number of Dead “jams” as the guitars lope and dive in a nimble dance in a way only they could in the early 70s. Well, I guess their hippie credentials are stamped and validated next on “Portland Woman” which champions the superiority of those Portland women that “treat you right.” I guess somethings never change since hippies of today would probably parrot the same sentiments. “All I Ever Wanted” counters the Bacchanalian call of “Portland Woman” and flips the script as our protagonist bemoans a love gone sour as the target of his affection spurns him and parades her suitors before his teary eyes as a gentle riff builds and builds in unison with chiming harmonies as instrument and voice plead their case for a little respect and honesty. It’s kind of a simple song, but deep as an abyss if you listen to it enough times. By now, I guess you’ve surmised I’m the guy who listens to New Riders of the Purple Sage far too much. However, I’m unashamed since this is a forgotten gem that has been tarred by its association with the Dead while the same folks embrace Gram Parson and his nudie suit. They may have traveled far beyond their expiration date, but dig into any of their 70s albums and you will find yourself wondering why you’ve ignored them all these years.