Saturday, January 29, 2005

Mississippi Fred McDowell

Mississippi Fred McDowell >John Henry

In 1971, Tom Pomposello was a guitar playing, married 21 year old father of a two year old boy, hippie co-owner of a suburban New York "liberation record store" in my hometown, who wanted to be a bluesman.

I was a 19 year old Columbia University student with a college radio show, who was dropping out of pharmacy school because I liked the Beatles better than chemistry.

Tom, who I'd interviewed excitedly, but badly, interviewed on my WKCR-FM show, told me he was the "New York bass player" for legendary country blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell. Maybe I could record their upcoming set at Village Gaslight for my radio show?

Let's forget that the only blues I knew was from English rock bands (I did know that old black men had started it all, and they did it better) and I didn't really play blues on my show. Or that I no absolutely no idea was Mississippi Fred McDowell was. Or how to record anything. Or that I was low man on the totem pole at the radio station, and there was no way the powers-that-be would ever allow me to take the expensive tape recorder out of the station. Somehow I ended up in the kitchen of the Gaslight with our only professional one-track Nagra recorder, a Shure mike mixer, some microphones, and my new buddy Roy Langbord roaring to go.

A still unrecorded Bonnie Raitt opened the show (Bonnie and Fred shared Dick Waterman as their manager). Roy and I recorded Fred and Tom's sets. I took the 7" tape reels up to the station and dutifully played them on my show. Eventually, the tracks became the basis of our first release on our first record label.

Mississippi Fred McDowell >John Henry

Monday, January 17, 2005


Geez, I love this band.

They're smart, fun, rockin', goofy, sophisticated, modern, retro, pop-y, weird, somehow all at once. When I've been attracted to an artist for eclecticism, eventually I get bored because there's often no center, no core. These guys belie that lack; NRBQ know who they are, and we do to. Somehow. I don't know how they've done it.

Sending you Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm made me think of NRBQ all over again. They're the first ones I heard play it (on my favorite At Yankee Stadium, their 6th of over 20+ albums), before we knew what 'roots' music was. Originally, with their first LP in '69, I thought it was cute they'd cover Sun Ra's Rocket No. 9 and put lyrics to Carla Bley's Ida Lupino, but other than that never paid them nevermind. And I thought it was curious they backed up Carl Perkins on Boppin' the Blues, and hilarious that on the same LP they wrote and recorded a homage to the Three Stooges, Dr.Howard, Dr.Fine, Dr.Howard. I thought Scraps had a neat album cover and I loved the opening track, Howard Johnson's Got His Hojo Working, a reworking of the old Muddy blues riff. By this point I guess they were a funny, groovy curiosity. Then I saw them at New York's Bottom Line, and I got the dose that clubgoers up and down the East have been talking about for 35 years. Sure they've got one of the best, funniest, liveliest club acts you could imagine, but I've never seen a band go from rock to rockabilly to 40s pop to avant garde jazz to who knows and then back again. These guys could play the piss out of anything --anything!-- play it well, and have a great time doing it.

None of them sing all that well, but their voices are perfect for the songs they write, and for the way they play. Joey Spampinato's bass holds the band down, and he writes light, nice songs that always make me feel good (and he was the bass player on the Chuck Berry tribute movie, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll, and he was married to country legend Skeeter Davis). Al Anderson's guitar has a chunky rollicking sound, he's got a slightly ripped voice (he finally quit the band after decades, relocated to Nashville, and I hear he's a successful songwriter and producer).

And then there's Terry. Terry Adams plays piano and clavinet. You can't tell if he plays like Professor Longhair, Cecil Taylor, Little Richard, or Thelonious Monk. He mainly plays like himself. His voice is reedy, a little thin, but he can sing his power pop, or any of the other wildly broad selection of songs he brings to the band. He's a complete madman, as anyone who's seen him play can tell you, and I always felt he was entirely bent, stoned, looney, and somehow, vulnerable and hurt.

(I was the road manager and soundman for Carla Bley when she first took her big band on the road in 1977. Imagine my surprise when I found out Terry Adams was the pianist [Carla played organ]. He was a great guy, soft spoken, but he brought incredible musicianship to the band, an exhuberant and carefree showmanship to the stage.)

I wanted to play you a song, in two tracks, that shows a lot of what Terry (and NRBQ) was about. I always liked Yes, Yes, Yes, from 1978. It was a pop-y type, ballad, but I always wondered how he could use such a Monk-ish, broken melody line, sing to it, harmonize to it. Then in 1995 comes Terry's only solo album, Terrible, an instrumental, jazz album on the avant label New World, featuring trombonist Roswell Rudd (another alumni of Carla's first touring band), and, lo and behold, a track called Yes, Yes, Yes. Yes, it's the same song, done like Monk would have done it. Yikes.

So, there it is. Think I like these guys? Look, they didn't make it for a reason. Their albums are often a mess, with a lot of ill considered, ill conceived tracks. They really can't sing, even though I love their voices. And I've heard excruciating stories of the the things they've done to undermine any possible success. But, hey, that's their business. The Rhino collection sort of starts to capture it, the live records give you a taste, these tracks here are kind of cool. But who knows? Will you like them? Don't know.

NRBQ >Get Rhythm
NRBQ >Green Lights
NRBQ >I Love Her, She Loves Me
NRBQ >It Comes to Me Naturally
NRBQ >Rocket No. 9
NRBQ >Dr Howard, Dr Fine, Dr Howard

NRBQ >Yes, Yes Yes
Terry Adams >Yes, Yes, Yes