Just for the record: Let’s doff a stetson to the troubadours
A bi-weekly vinyl review
Let’s drop the needle on two tragic troubadours from Texas, Townes van Zandt and Blaze Foley, cult figures whose lives read like the most heartrending of the ballads they wrote.
The former is perhaps the more well-known. A singer-songwriter who never had a hit in his nearly 30-year career and who struggled to keep his albums in print, Van Zandt was nevertheless widely respected by stars like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hoyt Axton and the Cowboy Junkies, all of whom covered his songs.
Nomadic in nature – his father was in the Texan oil industry and his family tended to move around a lot – Van Zandt settled into a drifter’s life, one which killed him in January 1997. By this time the drugs and alcohol had wrought havoc on his singing voice, and the releases of this period, mainly live albums, are almost too painful to listen to.
His earlier releases are his best, and the place to start is with Live at the Old Quarter, a live set released in 1977 on Tomato Records and reissued in 2016 on Fat Possum Records. It’s a simple and spare performance with just Van Zandt and his acoustic guitar in a stiflingly hot Houston club in 1973. It’s a superb introduction to his work and, for those new to Townes, the likely start to a healthy obsession.For those who can afford it, the triple album set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 (Omnivore Recordings), is also particularly recommended, as are all the studio albums he released from 1968 to 1978: For the Sake of the Song, Our Mother the Mountain, Townes van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and In Between, The Late Great Townes van Zandt and Flyin’ Shoes.It’s not surprising that Blaze Foley, who was shot and killed in 1989 at the age of 39 while defending an elderly friend in a bar fight, was championed by the likes of Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams, both of whom recorded songs about this self-destructing singer-songwriter. His music is exceptionally difficult to find on any format, let alone vinyl, chiefly because most of his energies were devoted to living it up rather than recording. Big on legend, but not so much output.
But interest in his work has grown since his death, and posthumous releases have been issued. One place to start is The Dawg Years, re-released on vinyl by Fat Possum Records in 2016. It’s a collection of 20 songs recorded in three different living room sessions between February 1976 and September 1978, when Foley performed under the name of Deputy Dawg. They may or may not be his first recordings, but they are from the very beginning of the myth and legend that he became.That myth has further been entrenched by Blaze, the Ethan Hawke-produced film that is based on his life. Featuring Ben Dickey, a singer in his own right, as Foley, it’s based on the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze by Sybil Rosen. This month, Light in the Attic Records release Blaze, the movie’s soundtrack album. Featuring new recordings of Foley’s compositions by the film’s cast, it too will be an excellent introduction to a perhaps literally unsung hero.“GET THREE COFFINS READY . . .”
Legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone is to retire at the end of the year and will, at 90, be conducting one last concert of his work at London’s O2 Arena on November 26. It has prompted an appreciative glance back at his seminal music for director Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns”, the most famous of these being the title theme to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo, or as you and I know it, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.The classically-trained Morricone – arguably one of the finest and most prolific composers of the 20th century – didn’t only do cowboy flicks. “No exact figure is available,” according to AllMusic.com, “but he’s scored over 500 films over several decades, plus many dozens of classical works.” An extraordinarily diverse musician, Morricone was adept in any genre, be it classical, jazz, pop, rock, electronica, avant-garde or Italian folk, among other styles.
But it was Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars which first brought him international acclaim and attention, along with its male lead, Clint Eastwood, and for many Morricone’s work with the director remains his best and most innovative. He amplified these Westerns’ plots, editing style and drama with startling arrangements and eclectic instrumentation: percussive echoes, Jew’s harps, dissonant harmonicas, piccolos, trumpets, church organs, human cries, odd choral snatches of gunfighter ballads and, most of all, that eerie whistling that all became trademarks of the Morricone-Leone work.Its influence on pop culture was unmistakable, and echoes of his twanging guitars would find their way into recordings by, among others, the Ventures, Duane Eddy, the Shadows and John Barry (particularly the latter’s James Bond theme.) A cover of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by easy listening maestro Hugo Montenegro and his orchestra was a worldwide hit in 1967. Copies of the album it appeared on, Music From A Fistful Of Dollars & For A Few Dollars More & The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (RCA Victor) are widely available, but it is worth seeking out Morricone’s original versions.Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo was first released in Italy in 1966 on the Parade label, but then issued in English-speaking territories as Original Motion Picture Soundtrack The Good, The Bad, The Ugly by United Artists in 1967. RCA released the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars later that year, and then included selections from For A Few Dollars More for a more complete 1968 release.
Those wishing for a more complete overview of Morricone’s career should look out for Film Music 1966-1987, a double album compilation on the Virgin label. In addition to the spaghetti Western themes, it features selections from such classics as The Battle of Algiers, The Mission and Once Upon a Time in America. The great pity here is that, had they waited a year before releasing it, they could have included music from the 1988 film smash, Cinema Paradiso. But then we can’t have everything …CRATE DIVING
The rand’s pitiful state and the collapse of the SA Post Office has driven vinyl collectors to despair. I’m still waiting to take delivery of fairly rare records that I ordered from Europe in March, while the cost of new imports has shot through the roof. All of which means more time spent in flea markets and local vinyl fairs flipping through bins in the hope of finding some hidden gems among the usual rubbish. Happily, I had a stroke of luck at the Milnerton market recently: a British copy of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends’ 1970 album, To Bonnie from Delaney (Atco), in excellent condition and for only R50.A husband-and-wife US duo, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett made some of the most distinctive and unique music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a rootsy blend of blue-eyed soul, blues, gospel and laid-back country that was, sadly, often marginalised by the focus on some of the more famous of the “friends” in their backing group, namely Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and George Harrison.
Delaney, no slouch on the guitar himself, was a contemporary of Leon Russell and JJ Cale and was working with the house band of the Los Angeles-based TV show, Shindig, when he first met Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell. She had worked as a backing vocalist with blues artists like Albert King and Little Milton before signing on as the first-ever white member of Ike & Tina Turner’s Ikettes. They were married within a week.The gritty soulful sound of their debut album, Home, and its follow-up, Accept No Substitute (both 1969), earned the respect of fellow musicians, particularly Eric Clapton, who became a semi-permanent member of their backing band following the break-up of Blind Faith. A must-have live recording of a 1969 UK concert, On Tour with Eric Clapton (Atco), went on to become their best-selling release.
Their next release, the Jerry Wexler-produced To Bonnie from Delaney, was probably their most definitive album. Backing musicians were stellar, and included the legendary slide guitarist Duane Allman, drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Kenny Gradney – but not, alas, Eric Clapton, who had left to work on his own material and, as a result, interest in the duo began to wane. Clapton, famously, pinched most of Delaney & Bonnie’s backing band to record his best album, 1970’s classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Atco/Polydor) under the name Derek & The Dominos.Delaney & Bonnie had one more stab at greatness, 1971’s Motel Shot (Atco), an album that was intended to document the group’s after-show jams in hotel rooms while on the road. They tried it once, in the living room of recording engineer Bruce Botnik, then did it all over again in a proper recording studio, losing a little spontaneity along the way. That said, it’s still a wonderfully loose and playful acoustic set, with such “friends” as Allman, Russell, Dave Mason, Gram Parsons and Joe Cocker, among others.