Bobby Charles-s/t

May 18, 2012

Bobby Charles

s/t(1972 Bearsville)

Sometimes an album cover succinctly captures the essence of the music percolating inside that cardboard sleeve. There is just something inexplicably inviting and endearing about a casual snapshot of a bearded and bedraggled Bobby contentedly gazing into his dog’s eyes. These two rascals share a moment of solitude alongside a murky riverbank with only the shade of a towering tree to keep them company in the light of a gorgeous afternoon. It nails the mellow, lackadaisical vibe of his self-titled debut while projecting the joy, camaraderie and gentleness that Charles exudes throughout each of these slices of life and their respective protagonists just trying live an celebratory existence unbothered by the drama and heartache nipping at their heels. Some of them succeed, some fail. All of them live life to its fullest and chase the high and lows with all their earthly might.

His 1972 debut was his only real attempt at stepping at the spotlight. It’s follow-up didn’t arrive until 1987 for god’s sake, but Bobby Charles was a reluctant performer who played no instrument and couldn’t read music. However, that didn’t stop him from penning “Walking to New Orleans” for Fats Domino and “See You Later Alligator” for Bill Haley and the Comets. In an interview, he simply stated that songs occasionally sprung fully-formed in his mind and he would then go to a payphone and sing them into his answering machine for posterity. He was a man who walked between the raindrops and exuded a charismatic air, but was also a reclusive soul burdened by the weight of the successive days of his existence.

It’s testament to the wild and wooly life of the Cajun songwriter that he somehow jumpstarted the careers of some rock and roll’s earliest stars, got signed to seminal blues label Chess Records, drifted away from the music industry altogether and found himself in Woodstock, NY where he was hiding out due some charges of drug possession. It was one of many moments of kismet in Bobby Charles’ life as he met Paul Butterfield who then introduced him to the Bob Dylan’s infamous manager, Albert Grossman. Grossman promised to take care of the charges and attempted to turn Bobby into a star and lined up Rick Danko as the producer and lined up Dr. John and most of The Band to play alongside him during the recording of his self-titled debut. The stars were aligned for greatness and the results were indeed transcendent, but Bobby Charles joined a long line of great musicians who deserved the love of the masses and received only indifference in return. An aborted attempt at a follow-up was shelved and Bobby took advantage of a loophole in his oppressive contract with Grossman and hightailed it back to Louisiana where he lived a quiet, unassuming life until his death in 2010.

Dr. John and The Band were the perfect partners in crime for Bobby Charles’ muse at this point and time in his life because this batch of nine songs is a true intersection of the loose and joyous side of the former and the rural grandeur and gravitas of the latter. However, Charles has a few curveballs in his selection of pitches and “Let Yourself Go” almost sounds like a single from Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey transplanted to a rickety honkytonk where R&B, countryi and the blues happily mingle as if they were long lost brothers and sister. It’s a bruised plea for love and its most carnal pleasures as he slowly chips away at her doubts and concerns about this man who is most certainly the wrong kind of fellow for her.

I could listen to the spare, haunting, yet subtly funky organ break that flows through “Small Town Talk” and how Charles kind of sings a duet with it and adjusts the rhythm and flow of his singing to mimic it’s herky-jerky grace. Plus, it begins with the best goddamn whistle and “mmm-hmm” known to mankind as Charles bemoans the suffocating nature of a small town and delivers a humble sermon on the sinful nature of tossing stones in glass houses. It’s a graceful song that seemingly glides along effortlessly as the whole band just locks into a stoned groove that would’ve been a hit if I ever had omnipotent powers over the Top 40 charts in 1972.

“Street People” feels like an autobiographical narrative of the vagabond life that led him to Woodstock as he champions a wayward lifestyle without a paycheck or cumbersome list of responsibilities as the true enlightened path to happiness. Hanging out is a virtue and simplicity is an artform in Bobby Charles’ world.

As the temperatures rise and humidity rears its ugly head, I cannot imagine a better soundtrack for those hazy nights than Bobby Charles’ self-titled debut. Nothing goes better with a cold drink, a starry night and escapist hijinks than this starcrossed and soulful collection of songs.


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Virgil Caine

May 12, 2012

Virgil Caine

s/t (Fulcrum 1971)

Most music junkies eventually fall into the trap of unjustly glorifying obscurity for the sake of diving headlong into something new to them.  It’s understandable since the internet has made it all too easy to paint oneself into a corner when downpours of discographies rain down upon the eager like manna from heaven. I come from the last gasps of a time when neglected classics were unattainable unless you had the good fortune to have an elder sage to take you by the hand and make cassette copies or burn a cd and pay it forward to the next generation. Thankfully, my social circles were populated by a few of these altruistic punks, hippies and burnouts and my eyes were opened to artists like Skip Spence, Ted Lucas and Michael Hurley that expanded my horizons beyond the indie rock cul de sac I inhabited. As I obsessively dug deeper and deeper into the cavalcade of wounded souls that recorded in the 60s and 70s, I found myself falling into the aforementioned trap of blindly embracing the obscure and viewed too many flawed albums through rose-colored glasses. I guess I became so addicted to the initial rush one gets when an album immediately embraces you and shakes your hand like an old friend at first listen. I just wanted all of them to be my companion and spent too much time justifying their faults.

However, I recently discovered Virgil Caine’s s/t debut and it sparked the same sense of awe and familiarity that the aforementioned artists once inspired in me and reminded me why music encompasses so much of my life. It is one of those small, but transcendent moments in life when you stumble upon such greatness and realize that you haven’t heard a damn word about in it’s forty year existence and it was just lying around unloved for so long until now.

There is no one named Virgil Caine in this trio. The name is borrowed from the protagonist in The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which is fitting since their music is indebted to Dylan and The Band and sometimes reminds me a bit of a loopy, southern gothic cousin to The Velvet Underground’s minus all the pretensions. Honestly, drain all the bombast and grandeur from all three, mix it up in a pot and it kind of sounds like Virgil Caine.

What makes Virgil Caine more than a likable footnote in the annals of 70s folk and private press oddities is the Appalachian drawl and literary knack of guitarist and vocalist Roger Mannon who paints  a southern tableau populated with swamp witches, environmental destruction, small towns where everyone is welcome at the dinner table and mischievous barn cats who raise havoc to a Vaudeville soundtrack.  It’s an absurdist slice of the south depicted in the most endearing way possible as Mannon pays tribute to an America where pagans hide in the shadows and organized religion demands blind allegiance. Yet, Mannon romanticizes the concept of genteel southern hospitality and its genial smile as many of his songs glorify the humility and helping hands that drive the small towns that litter the landscape of his songs.

Just listen to the opener “The Great Lunar Oil Strike, 1976” and you gain immediate entry into Mannon’s sincere, yet tongue in cheek lyrical bent. Centered around a sloppily strummed guitar and messier backbeat, it’s a biting and bitterly sardonic commentary on the oil industry that is eerily prescient of what was to come in the future. It might be the first recorded protest against deep sea drilling and exploitation of the American wilderness by big business. It fittingly ends with the coda”You just can’t see the moon at night” as Mannon describes an America that doomed to be subjugated by its industrial master. It’s as timely today as it was in 1971.

However, my favorite song on Virgil Caine is “Swamp Witch” as Mannon cooks up some imaginary southern mythology about a swamp witch who beckons visitors with promises of armadillo meat and a place to lay your weary head in the mire. Mannon speaks of his desire to learn the voodoo arts, but has his mind torn apart and falls under the spell of this enchantress. These spoken word interludes are always broken up by a bewitching chorus celebrating this swap witch until Mannon jumps back in to depict the swamp an elemental force that has the power to literally rend him limb from limb. It all sounds so sinister if you listen to the lyrics, but the vibe of the song is so relaxing and inviting as if it were a song from a siren itself.

Ultimately, Virgil Caine’s one and only album is one of those rare albums that give birth to its own insular universe populated by a cast of paranoid crackpots, broken hearts, kind souls and simple folks who aim for nothing more than doing right thing in a world full of wrong. I revisit it often since each song is like a vignette that I want to obsessively read over and over again and linger upon each syllable and chorus.


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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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