Saturday, March 16, 2013

Still Playin'

For a guy who passed away in 1970, Jimi Hendrix sure has been busy. Numerous collections of bootleg material, studio and otherwise, remixes and so on have issued from the different folks who at one time or another held rights to the various parts of the lat guitarist's catalogue.

Beginning in 2010, Hendrix's surviving family members authorized the release of original studio material to which they had successfully gained (or in some cases regained) the rights. Some of the songs had circulated as bootlegs or in remixed forms that involved producers remixing Hendrix's guitars and vocals with other tracks. Valleys of Neptune was the first album to collect these songs in versions as close to their original form as possible. Hendrix himself knew his way around a studio and had a hand in the production of some of them, so it was possible to have a decent idea of what he wanted them to sound like. People, Hell and Angels is the third release of such songs, recorded as the Jimi Hendrix Experience was ending and at various times in and around Hendrix's career.

People is a lot funkier and bluesier than the psychedilia-heavy work of the Experience, although all of its styles are filtered through Hendrix's vision of fuzzy and sometimes distorted guitar sound. "Earth Blues" and "Izabella" especially take a funky walk on the wild side, leading a listener to wonder what Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic's George Clinton might have done in a team-up. "Hear My Train A Comin'" and "Bleeding Heart" mesh Hendrix's hard-rock sensibilities with the old blues he loved, offering some interesting pictures of what Hendrix might have done with the format if he had not died at 27. As he aged (Hendrix would have turned 70 last November) would he, like his contemporary blues devotee and re-interpreter Eric Clapton, grown closer to the traditional sound of the Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James records he listened to? Would he have kept the fuzzed sound that inspired Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughn? Some unwise choices regarding the excesses of the 1960s rock star lifestyle mean we'll never know, but People, Hell and Angels offers some interesting hints as well as fine songs in their own right.
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Country music has never been as far away from rock and roll as many of either genre's fans (including the country-despising teenage Friar) would like to believe. And no other genre of rock music makes that clearer than the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd-born brand called "southern rock." Keeping much more in touch with the blues, soul and boogie-woogie elements that birthed rock and roll, southern rock showcases songs that might be dropped into a country music rotation today without much murmuring.

Blackberry Smoke is one of today's inheritors of the tradition, although they lean closer to the 1990s Black Crowes' strain than Skynyrd's. Although most every song on The Whippoorwill, Smoke's latest album, displays its country influence on its sleeve thanks to Charlie Starr's lead vocals, rock-style percussion, boogie piano and gospel-tinged organ steer them in a different direction.

So does the lyrical content. "One Horse Town" has the elements of one of modern country's hymns to the small-town life, but mixes them with reality -- Starr is "an old married man at the age of 23" who has "swallowed his pride to make his family proud" and "stick(s) around cause they all tell us to." Both "Six Ways to Sunday" and "Shakin' Hands with the Holy Ghost" rely on good ol' church-goin' language and images, but they bend them towards decidedly un-Sunday mornin' activities. Some songs, like "Lucky Seven," rely a little too much on southern rock clich├ęs and just echo other, better songs on the album. But even the genre's best bands struggle to find new ways around its ruts and Whippoorwill has more hits than misses.

Blackberry Smoke is on the road 250 nights a year, which is a good way to make sure you and your bandmates can make the music sound just like you want it to. And enough of The Whippoorwill sounds just fine to make it a worthy addition to all of its genres.

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