Thanks, Watson!

I saw the recent blog about Johnny Guitar Watson and wanted to add my two cents about this brilliant guitarist by reviewing a different compilation from a year ago. Regardless of when you discover “Guitar” – it will always be a scintillating funktastic experience.

Johnny Guitar Watson – The Funk Anthology
Shout Factory
Right off the bat I have to say these are the funkiest two CDs I have heard in a long time. CDs so funky I will put up a dare to you: I will wager my unassailable credentials as a hipper-than-hip music journalist, my various lifetime achievement awards for snarky critique-writing, my curmudgeon’s license, and my title as Funk Overlord (yes, Funk Overlord – I won it fair and square from the guys in Black Merda in a card game!) if you can find two CDs funkier then this. Now, James Brown doesn’t count, but anyone else is fair game.

Though Watson originally started his career and gained his first fame as a bluesman, Watson was a master at continually re-inventing himself throughout his career and by the end of his life was known more for being a George Clinton-esque funkmeister than for his blues. He first started in the ’50’s as a piano player and then switched to guitar, which is where he first began getting noticed. In this way he was a lot like Ike Turner, who also first strarted working as a piano player before picking up the guitar. Like Turner, Watson was an inventive bandleader who came up with many innovative arrangements and skillful gimmicks to set himself apart from the pack. While not pursuing the business angles Turner did to get noticed, Watson was able to market himself as a viable solo artist due to his excellent singing voice, which led to many opportunities never open to Turner. Where Turner had to either find his Tina or record instrumentals, Watson was able to take advantage of many styles, though paradoxically, it took Watson many more years to become a household name than it did Turner.

He eventually did get his due, though. Starting with his signing to the Dick James Music Group in the early ’70’s, Watson was set to take his road-tested funk persona to a new level. He had long since went through his early blues phase, a soul phase in the ’60’s, and several other R&B-based experiments which kept him on the verge of breaking through in a big way but had not quite clicked with the public. Luckily for Watson, he was always ahead of the curve in terms of his ability to judge what would be popular next, what the public was looking for. His problem was he had just not been in the right place or situation to capitalize on it. His extraordinary musicianship kept him in the game as well. Capable of playing many instruments, Watson was always an innovator with sound just as much as with vision. One of the first to experiment with synthesizers, Watson was dreaming up funky applications for them years before most of the artists people readily assume as being the leaders of the new technology. For example, Watson was using the talkbox years before Peter Frampton and funkateer Roger made their names with the device.

This 2 CD set covers the best of Watson’s time with the Dick James Music Group and also includes cuts from his last recording, Bow Wow, which was released in 1994. Of course, most of the set leans towards Watson’s work from the mid-70’s to about 1982 – which was the last time he recorded before his comeback Bow Wow so the set pretty much covers his latter and most fertile period right up until his death. There are a healthy four cuts each from the six albums he released – and one can definitely hear the progression as Watson’s funk style became more and more assured and confident with each subsequent release. While Bow Wow is nothing more than a desperate, lackluster attept by Watson to show he could still funk with the best of them, the album does have a few moments on it that a Watson fan (or any stone funk fan for that matter) would like and most of those are included on this CD set.

For those of you who think Sly Stone and George Clinton’s various projects were the only funky things going on in the ’70’s, this set is going to shock the hell out of you. Music just can’t get any funkier than this. Pick this up now!

So that’s it. Get you some Johnny Guitar Watson as soon as you can ’cause you don’t want to live without the funk for very long!

The Music Nerd knows…..about Da Fonk!

Black Merda

Small Image

In a recent post on the current resurgence of soul, Scott Homewood mentions that the cult funk act Black Merda is again active. When I stumbled on their website a few months ago their reemergence, though welcome, seemed improbable, given the apocalyptic desperation that pervades their classic second album, Long Burn the Fire. As far as I knew, nothing had been heard from the group since 1973.

Perhaps the pleasant surprise of their return is just the result of too-close identification of the artists with their work. Still, listening to Long Burn the Fire, it seems like an easy mistake to make. Warnings about the dire effects of economic depression, too rapid racial integration, and general social upheaval flash by like dispatches from the ghetto wire service, mixing with elaborately arranged confessions of personal failure that cut heartbreakingly close to the bone. It would have made sense if the band had, along with the family in one of their songs, “decided to go to the moon.”

On their site, which is the first information about the group I’ve come across beyond what can be gleaned from the sleeve of Long Burn the Fire, the second album is treated as the poor relation of the group’s canon. Frankly, this surprised me: their debut (which, admittedly, I came to later and know less well) strikes me as fairly rote post-Hendrix black rock, not that much different from what other groups were doing at the time. Long Burn the Fire, on the other hand, incorporates white pop elements as brilliantly as Cicero Park or even Forever Changes. The strings that appear on about half the tracks might have seemed unnecessary or even ideologically retrograde at the time, but from a more distanced perspective they serve an important aesthetic function, highlighting through contrast the band’s unconventional and unsentimental approach to the exposition of interior states.

From the opener, “For You,” the writing is startling sophisticated. Riding on a sprung, vaguely Caribbean rhythm, major/minor key changes mirror the inconstancy of the person addressed in the song and the bipolarity of the singer. In pop music, one normally takes the assertion that “I’m nothing without you” with a grain of salt; the statement itself implies a fairly significant level of egocentrism. When Black Merda sings “I could have been a great man, you know I could’ve/ But the great man is gonna be somebody else/ ‘Cause you lied to me. . .” it’s clear that even before his inamorata’s deception the singer’s chances of being somebody were slim at best.

The pay-off at the end of “My Mistake” ensures that it will remain Black Merda’s most notorious song, but it can obscure the care with which the evolution of the singer’s attitude toward his dead friend is elaborated throughout the song. The rambling lyrics, with their circularity and loosely extended metaphors, perfectly encapsulate the dynamics of thought: “I know my love for you will last through the ages/ Just like a monument/ To a president of our land/ Who was great. . . .” Why Coleridge himself couldn’t do better than that! The pizzicato strings that respond to the closing call of “I made a mistake” sound as if they’ve stumbled in, disoriented, from a Barry White session. If the listener laughs, it’s only to keep from crying.

Of course, the band’s own playing is sufficiently awesome to obviate the need for additional instruments. As they motor into infinity on the closing instrumental, “We Made Up,” it’s clear that even lyrics and vocals are unnecessary adjuncts to their ability to capture the rhythms of introspection. To me, this makes Black Merda not only funky but truly psychedelic as well. Do them and yourself a favor and buy their CD, The Folks from Mother’s Mixer, which packages both the early 70s albums, on Funky Delicacies. Let it burn!

Bless My Soul

As I sit here, pondering what ponderers usually ponder and listening to the radio in a rare moment of non-CD music enjoyment, I have discovered something really cool: soul music is coming back. Now, you might say to yourself, “That Nerd’s crazy. Soul music never left.” and you’d be right. But, it did vanish for a long time as rap, techno and other forms of synthesized dance music took over.

Over the past few years, however, there has been quite a renaissance of what can only be called The Funk.

I first felt soul was coming back when I heard Joss Stone’s first album. To hear a British teenager sing with such soul made me feel there was something bubbling underground I hadn’t heard about yet. That soul queen Betty Wright produced Stone’s album – that she would even be given a chance to do that for an artist on a major label – made the feeling intensify. Of course, there is a big Northern soul movement in the UK – Northern meaning US-based soul stars, usually obscure at that – but there has been a Northern soul scene in Britain since the early ’70’s so I knew that wasn’t it.

After the success of Stone came a lot of career resurrections for various soul heavyweights of the past: Wright as a hit producer, Al Green reunited with Willie Mitchell for two great CDs, Solomon Burke put out a marvelous CD on Anti produced by T-Bopne Burnett, Bettye Lavette put out two great CDs, the late Eddie Hinton has been rediscovered, obscure soul titan Howard Tate was found and has had albums put out, Soul group Black Merda has been making great new music, Don Covay released a fine disc and many more. All this has happened since the turn of the millenium.

New artists have been plying the soul trade as well, aiming for Sam Cooke most of the time. Earl Thomas, James Hunter, Ellis Hooks have all been cast as Cooke-alikes – aiming for the suaveness and retor sounds Cooke made famous.

There have also been a plethora of archive releases from new labels specializing in vintage soul. Labels like The Numero Group, Ubiquity, Light In The Attic and many others. Rappers have even gotten into the soul game including Madlib with his Stone’s Throw label, specializing in modern variations of classic soul grooves. Not to mention the blogs and websites galore dedicated to the music.

It seems a new day is dawning in the world of soul and I couldn’t be happier about it. Once again music with heart, soul and meaning is rising to the forefront and I couldn’t be happier.

And as usual, you’ll be reading about the best of it in my blog.

How is your soul?

The Music Nerd knows…..