Thursday, 23 November 2017

Bridge Of Sighs - Robin Trower

Provenance: Ah, the rowdy old days of the internet at the turn of the millennium. I was (just) getting into guitar, and my dad had come home from work with a suggestion from one of his colleagues; give a guy called Robin Trower a go.

Naturally I booted up the PC, opened Napster (the repository of all music back then, kids) and found a file called something like 'xXx2_Rolling_Stoned_0105xXx'. I knew that, unless it had been mislabelled or was just a bunch of white noise, if I left the download going overnight in a mere eight or nine hours I'd be listening to my first Robin Trower track.

To breakfast next morning, and I was in luck! Not only did the song match the title, but I had the whole thing bar the last twenty seconds. I could rule this a success. What a tune, too. Funky, soulful and spacey all at once; I spent no time delaying my trip to the local HMV.

Review: This is another collection I don't need to listen to in order to write about it, but will do so for the sheer pleasure of it.

Over the years, I've come to regard Bridge Of Sighs as a top ten all time album. There's simply nothing bad or even mediocre about it, at all. I've heard a lot of idiots talk shit about Trower being too derivative or a poor Hendrix imitation, and whilst the latter's influence is undoubtedly the most obvious in his playing, Trower is a sublime craftsman in his own right. You can call his style bluesy but he never seems to fall back on the hackey cliches of the more prosaic blooz-rockers. You could say he was stoner rock before the genre had been properly pinned down, but Bridge Of Sighs is neither lumpen nor plodding. The moods conjured up sometimes hint at space rock, but where Hawkwind clatter into deep space on the whoosh of their thrusters, Trower glides along on the Sea of Serenity.

If I could play guitar like one individual on this planet, it would be Robin Trower.

The difficulty I have with Robin Trower, and Bridge Of Sighs specifically, is that after I listen to it much else seems so prosaic, shackled to the earth, never able nor destined to take flight. The sheer ability to impose his will so fully upon his chosen instrument and coax all those weeping, howling, swirling sounds out of it is mystifying. Little tops the excitement I still feel when the first staccato notes of 'Day Of The Eagle' explode out of the speaker; to have that followed up by the stately, mournful title track is so indulgent as to be the aural equivalent of a lemon cheesecake, topped by a Black Forest gateau, topped with ice cream.

One aspect of his sound is that, although the guitars can seem thick or even sludgy, in fact what they play is almost always fragmentary, or at most arpeggiated. It's as if each song is a mosaic that Trower assembles from shards of electric guitar. Couple this approach to his signature style, namely masterful sustain and fluid legato picking, feed it all through some trippy effects and you have a the fundaments of a very singular sound that, when wrapped around the songs, can be a thing of wonder. I should also add that Trower's vocalist (and bassist) at the time, the late James Dewar, was one of rock's most underrated white soul voices. His performance on 'About To Begin' prickles the hairs on your skin.

I'm not going to talk about individual tracks too much here. Bridge Of Sighs is sensational and should be listened to front to back, but as that's less fashionable these days, here's one of the many, many highlights:

I count myself lucky to have seen Trower a few times live. The first of these was in Exeter with my then-girlfriend at the time, Sarah - or rather, then ex-girlfriend, as we had broken up not long beforehand due to my terrible behaviour. Nevertheless, I had tickets and for reasons that still remain a mystery, Sarah consented to go with me. Not only was Trower magical but Sarah also took me back that evening (which I absolutely didn't deserve), and we would spend the rest of university and some time beyond together.

We've since gone separate ways but I still remember Sarah with great fondness. She's a brilliant person, with a cool yoga business, and not only gives classes in the Bath area but also organises retreats in some fabulous locations. As someone who has never tried yoga I can't comment on Sarah as an instructor, but the tolerance and forbearance required to put up with me for such a long time bespeaks someone with the patience of a saint. In any case, it's something Sarah has an enduring passion for, so I am adamantine in my certainty that she's ace.

We all graft our own stories and meanings to the things in life that affect us in a profound way - be it music, literature, places or people - and so it goes with this. The wistful, foreboding, luminous, beautiful Bridge Of Sighs has for me become inextricably bound to my time with Sarah. I wouldn't wish it any other way.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

High On The Hog - Black Oak Arkansas

Provenance: I saw these chaps at Sweden Rock Festival one year and had a fine time. Online consensus seemed to suggest that this was a good album for the beginner, so here I am, listening to High On The Hog.

Review: God bless Black Oak Arkansas. They've been around since protozoa first slimed their way onto the primordial beaches of Pangaea, around fifty or so people have passed through their ranks, the rhythm guitarist has two, separate, unrelated nicknames and the lead singer doubles up on the washboard. On that basis alone I am a fan of Black Oak Arkansas. If only they did that cool double drumming thing that .38 Special had going on we might be talking about the world's greatest band.

Alas, they didn't, but a pre Ozzy Osbourne / Whitesnake / born-again Christianity Tommy Aldridge can be found thumping the tubs on this release, though it is unrecorded as to how many nicknames he earned whilst serving his time in 'the Oak'. All kidding aside, this is a really fun slice of southern rock; looser than Skynyrd, less virtuosic than the Allmans, rootsier than Molly Hatchet or Blackfoot, Black Oak Arkansas had a more overt country music influence than many in their genre. What sets them apart is frontman Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum, he of the washboard and a voice that wavers between hillbilly rasp and Beefheartian growl. A curious guy, he's part good ol' boy, part flower child, the self-proclaimed blueprint for David Lee Roth with a penchant for fast living that saw him suffer his first heart attack around age 30.

What I like about High On The Hog is that it's a bit of a grab-bag, with each song inhabiting its own little patch of dirt somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. So 'Swimmin' In Quicksand' has an infectious, funky Memphis groove, 'Happy Hooker' is a fairly straight blues (with a, shall we say, less than progressive lyric?), 'Moonshine Sonata' is a mellifluous instrumental in the vein of the aforementioned Allman Brothers Band and both 'Back To The Land' and 'High 'N' Dry' are down-home, deep-fried, back-porch country; the latter is especially, and unexpectedly, gorgeous.

Where High On The Hog really excels, however, is when it mines a seam of heavy redneck psych that is both slightly unsettling and quite unique. Thus 'Red Hot Lovin'' (these guys love a contraction) 'Why Shouldn't I Smile' and 'Mad Man' all have a faintly ominous atmosphere about them which really works to their advantage in the context of the rest of the album, which is all rather upbeat and rambunctious. Around the same time British bands like Atomic Rooster, Edgar Broughton Band and the Groundhogs were all recording albums swirling with unease and paranoia, so it's interesting to hear these moods given a southern rock twist.

Saying that, for me the masterpiece on the album is the rollicking boogie stomp of 'Jim Dandy', featuring guest vocals from the late, leather-lunged singer Ruby Starr. Doesn't it look like everyone's having the best time?

Given the prodigious turnover of personnel, just by being in the same field as the band there's a good chance that I'm actually a member of Black Oak Arkansas right now. Frankly, if I got to play 'Jim Dandy' and 'Uncle Lijah' (from their first album) and hang out with 'Risky' Rickie 'Ricochet' Reynolds every night, I wouldn't mind one bit. Great album cover, by the way. Top entertainment.