Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blood Sweat & Tears - Not Really an Appreciation, But Maybe

A week ago I mentioned listening to the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album, Child is the Father to Man and how I felt a greater appreciation for it than I originally had when I first heard it years ago. The next night I got out the group's second, self-titled album. That's the one with all the big hits: "Spinning Wheel," "You've Made Me So Very Happy," "And When I Die" and a slew of other AM hits.

That album looms large in my musical history because it was one of the first records I remember listening to as a kid, right up there with Herb Alpert. I actually have a distinct memory of being left alone in front of the stereo listening to it and getting to flip it over and play it all by myself. I recall this in part because I used to begin with Side Two, probably because "Spinning Wheel" kicks off that side. Also this means their versions of the Erik Satie theme came back to back instead of at the beginning and end.

That album would probably qualify in my case as a guilty pleasure. While there are a number of elements with the album that are pretty progressive and unique, it also contains a lot of things that are kind of hokey. Number one being David Clayton-Thomas, the band's vocalist. After Al Kooper's white boy blues on Child I guess the CBS brass wanted to make sure the band got someone with soul, but Clayton-Thomas is closer to Vegas than the Apollo in his execution. In my memory, I feel like I associate him more with my parents' Four Freshman albums than I would with my brothers' Janis Joplin or Beatles records, meaning he sounded to me less like a rock guy than an adult contemporary guy.

While I was away this weekend, I kept getting snippets of the album stuck in my head. Most of the time it was "Blues Pt. 2," the 11-minute opus made up of solos by different band members. As a kid, I found Dick Halligan's organ solo both eerie and fascinating. It rises and falls in dynamics, implying scariness and wild imagery, the latter especially when the Leslie speakers start rotating towards the end. It always made me think of some clump of dark clouds floating in the sky. Jim Fielder's bass solo is fast and impressive and Bobby Columby's drum solo is full of chops. Fred Lipsius' alto always sounded to my young ears like a human voice. It almost like he's running through modes as Fielder plays a one-note octave vamp. There's one point where it always sounded like crying to me.

Listening to it now, I'm curious how the whole thing happened in the studio. Was it one take or did they edit it all together? Did producer Jim Guercio have to make something out of a mish-mash of solos, and was that the idea?

Regardless, the track goes to pot after Lipsius winds down. Things get very quiet before the group launches into a brief, extremely lumbering riff from "Sunshine of Your Live" followed by guitarist Steve Katz briefly quoting "Spoonful." Sorry guys, I know you have the chops but it sounds too stiff. Sometimes rock and jazz don't mix.

With another fanfare, Clayton-Thomas enters testifying about the women in his life. Nothing against the singer - who looked a little like Jonathan Winters and Roy Clark to my young eyes - but he doesn't convince me that he's a stud. Things eventually build up into a vamp that recalls the coda of "Try a Little Tenderness" with our hero begging his woman to give him the affection he deserves, wailing as the song fades out. That freaked me out as a kid. The proceedings end calmly with a flute and acoustic guitar redux of the Satie piece, almost as if to assure the three-year olds in the audience that the scary man is gone.

Damn, I can't believe I've said this much without even touching on the first side. There's the awful rendition of "God Bless the Child," which nevertheless has a great blowing breakdown in the middle, with some great trombone (Jerry Hyman), trumpet (Lew Soloff) and sax (Lipsius) solos. Their funky take on Traffic's "Smiling Phases," which still sounds a little unconvincing, although the piano solo  in the middle must've blown minds at the time, especially after coming right after the psychedelic re-voicing of Satie that opened the album. How many college student jazz heads saw their future open up for them upon hearing that? (Apparently Sammy Davis, Jr. liked their take on "Smiling Phases" so much that he lifted the whole arrangement for himself.)

Back to Side Two for a moment: Their arrangement of "You Made Me So Very Happy" is a little slick but it's also very well done, with all the horn punctuation and the dual piano and organ in the coda. That's Al Kooper's work, it should be noted. With all their ducks in order, they have the cohesion of a soul band.

I started looking around youtube for some vintage BS&T footage, hoping to come across them stretching out and blowing over some blues changes or "Cherokee" or something. There was one high-quality performance of "Spinning Wheel"  from some t.v. show, where they play the edited, single version of the song, sans Soloff's trumpet break. Upfront there's ol' Dave smiling like a pro, with the rest of the band looking stoic (something that always drew me to the inside design of the album). There was also some grainy live footage of the band that only focused on Dave's face, with cuts to the horns and to Columby's hands.

I ran into a trombone-playing friend of mine last week and we were cracking up, thinking about a later BS&T song "Lucretia Mac Evil" which beats all the above songs in terms of corniness. That same album (BS&T 3 - not to be confused with Chicago III; very creative Columbia marketing peeps) has a medley called "Symphony for the Devil/Sympathy for the Devil" which, after a quick thought, might be worth a purchase for a few bucks if two friends can get a big laugh out of it.

Then there's "Go Down Gamblin'" from BS&T 4 (c'mon guys, you're killing them!) which IS actually pretty badass.

I'll stop now.

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