Sunday, 6 October 2019

A Rockin' Decade - Sleepy LaBeef

Provenance: I first heard about Sleepy LaBeef in Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway, a highly readable survey of what could loosely be described as Americana. LaBeef stood out on the page; an interpreter rather than a writer, and something of a human jukebox (claiming to know roughly 6,000 songs by heart) which is impressive enough before you even reach the voice. In his prime the 6'7" native of Smackover, Arkansas must've been an impressive presence merely entering stage left, but what happens when he opens his mouth is something else. His is a clear, generous, country-bred baritone that has an almost physical quality to it - big, wide, deep, indomitable.

However, I never really imagined I would own any LaBeef recordings; he was too cult, too obscure to find without breaking sweat. If he had had anything released on CD, I figured it would be one of those eBay jobs that go for about fifty quid plus. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find this collection of Sun Records sessions from the 1970s lurking in the late-lamented Eastbourne HMV's bargain racks. Guess I underestimated the thirst for rockabilly in south-east England, eh?

Review: There is nothing original on this album, nothing. Not a single note was penned by LaBeef on A Rockin' Decade, and the 26 tracks that make up the compilation never stray far from the traditional rock 'n' roll template. In compositional terms there are zero surprises, and even the choice of covers cleaves very much to what could be considered a canon of the genre; 'Boom, Boom, Boom', 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Mystery Train', 'Milk Cow Blues' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' all make appearances. The playing is competent and uninspired, the musicians sounding like what I imagine them to be - accomplished meat 'n' potatoes barroom pros.

So, seasoned readers of this blog won't be at all taken aback by the fact that I love this album. Love it, love it, love it.

Why? Well, before getting onto LaBeef's individual gifts, I should point out that a lack of originality in rockabilly is pretty much what I hanker for. It is one of those genres that doesn't benefit at all from tinkering with the formula. I don't want some pointy-head turning 'Roll Over Beethoven' into a raga, I want it neat, all three goddamn chords of it, swinging like Tarzan on methamphetamine at shack-shaking volumes. That fairly sums up my attraction to lots of American roots music - be it rhythm and blues, country or rock 'n' roll; the basic ingredients don't change much, giving plenty of opportunity for the performer to stamp their personality on proceedings. This, LaBeef does with aplomb.

I love Chuck Berry as a songwriter and innovator but LaBeef's version of 'Too Much Monkey Business' absolutely smokes the original. As mentioned before, LaBeef's is a huge voice, so it's a delight to hear him negotiating a tricky little number with such nimbleness. It evokes the same joy as watching a burly centre-half tiptoeing his way through an opposition's defence before chipping the keeper. He does the same thing on Willie Dixon's 'You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover', with the additional achievement of rhyming 'cane' with 'man' (though Bo Diddley also did a very decent job with the same lyric).

I recall reading a biography of Orson Welles written by David Thomson, in which he employed a rather striking metaphor to describe Welles' voice during his days as a radio star. He described it as possessing the same qualities as a heavy dinner or of chocolate, somehow made incarnate by Welles, the richness, slightly cloying excesses of the voluptuary coming through over the airwaves. Let me try to do something similar for LaBeef; his is the voice of a lonely honky-tonk, of flickering neon lights, of liquor consumed straight and smalltown boastfulness. There's a brashness there, but it's offset by a complete lack of guile, which equates to a queer kind of charm. There's a couple of times where on 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' LaBeef is a step outside of his usual comfort zone, and it only serves to make him sound all the more honest.

A Rockin' Decade is a pretty lengthy document for such a monochrome palette as adopted by LaBeef and his buddies, so tossing it down in one go is not advisable unless you're hosting a sock hop or whatever the fuck people did for fun back then. I almost want to slap myself for advocating shuffle play, but it's the best way to enjoy the album, especially if it's stirred in with a bunch of other stuff. Just imagine getting hit between the eyes with 'Big Boss Man' or 'Flying Saucers Rock 'N' Roll'(!!) after wading through a load of Yes, Rush or Porcupine Tree. Blessed relief, one should think. Sleepy LaBeef is living history, and has greater claim to being part of what makes America great than a slew of more spurious claimants.

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