Monday, 30 April 2012

Bass From Ear To Ear

Vail Johnson - Come Together
Album Review
Genre: Funk/Jazz

If you don't know the man's work, here's a brief bio quoted from his website.

"Vail has been playing bass for a living since graduating high school in Seattle.

His first 'professional' gig was with 2 of his older brothers (musical family of 6 boys and mother, Dad was somewhat tone-deaf!) playing and singing Dixieland and Bluegrass songs. The bros both played banjo and one doubled on sax, the other trombone; they played to sold out crowds in Pioneer Square, Seattle for a number of years.

Vail learned the number system and gained invaluable ear training from the fast paced leader (brother Gareth) who called out keys with hand signals and numbers for chord changes. 

Tons of club gigs playing pop/ rock and R&B followed (many years' worth of 5 nights a week, talk about second- hand smoke!) and led to a great opportunity in 1986 to play with Kenny G.

He moved down to Los Angeles shortly after to seek his 'fortune and fame'.

Vail has also enjoyed working with many other great musicians from Herbie Hancock to Stevie Nicks; George Benson to Michael Bolton and lots more."

A few years back, Vail Johnson decided to take on The Beatles with a solo album, Come Together. Most bands will have their own take on one or more songs from the Fab Four. As an example, I give you Aerosmith's version of the song, "Come Together," which I enjoy equal to or more than the original. It's dirtier, grouchier, and if you've ever seen the movie, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," you know that Steven Tyler smokes it in mood and facial expressions alone.

But could Aerosmith do an entire album of Beatles music, keep each song true to its roots, yet take it to a new and interesting place?

My point is that it's risky making an entire cover album of Beatles stuff. We all know the songs and how we want them to be. Some of us won't even "go there" when it comes to Beatles covers. We love our Lads from Liverpool and everybody else can just go find something else to record. But Johnson fills his album with enough mood, feel, jazz, funk, swing, slap-pop, and rock (either on the yummy yellow Kubicki headless - below - a Mick Donner EUB, or his 1962 Fender P-Bass) to give the listener a reason to stay with him on his bass romp through Beatlesville.

If you like the original tunes, you'll find yourself bouncing and tapping along with Johnson's instrumental interpretations. First and foremost, the songs are treated with respect. He mixes lead bass with background bass, so you are filled ear-to-ear with all the sounds a thunder-maker can produce. The bass is both the beat and the voice. This allows the listener to sing along with his or her own vocal stylings - very interactive and emotionally satisfying!

It helps to be backed by great musicians, too. Most of his compatriots here are co-workers from the Kenny G days.

My particular faves are:

Come Together - Funky as all get-out. Great sax!
Let It Be - Just like back in school, at the Friday dances. Warm and spiritual.
Get Back - Mind-blowing bass chops!
Something - George would like this. While my (bass) guitar gently weeps.
Yesterday - Such thoughtful blends and harmonies.
The Long and Winding Road - A beautiful take, with feeling and heart.

Rounding out the pack are:

Eleanor Rigby - Moody like a rainy day, with Kenny G on sax.
Hard Day's Night - Bouncy, twanging bass.
Lady Madonna - Love the bassline at the very bottom.
Can't Buy Me Love - Funky fun.
Penny Lane - Impressive bass blends.
I Want To Hold Your Hand - More great harmonies and blends.

All great tunes, well done.

My faves are based on my love for the originals, but everybody likes what they like, so I'm sure you'll find your sweet spots among this impressive collection.

Definitely check this one out, bass lovers - it'll hit the spot!! Available everywhere great music is found!  And check out Vail Johnson on the web, for more info on this talented bassist, and some great sound samples, too!!

© 2012 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

Meet Vail himself...

...and then see him on stage...

Sunday, 1 April 2012

It's Life

Album Review
George Porter Jr - It's Life
Genre: R&B/Funk

When I first decided to take a look at George Porter Jr, there were many albums from which to choose. I decided to stay with something solo rather than from his work done with The Meters, or Runnin' Pardners. I listened to a few samples on iTunes, and chose the album, "It's Life." I was looking for something with a strong Blues flavour, and this album seemed to provide that.

Once I had a chance to listen to the album in its entirety, I found that it was actually more of a Blues-Funk mix, with a tremendous 70s feel. The album was recorded in 2007, so it's been around a while - anybody who knows me knows that the date of an album's release rarely affect my choice to review it.

Before we talk about the album, let's take a look at George Porter's biography, as borrowed from his website.

"George Porter, Jr. is best known as the bassist of The Meters, along with Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste. The group was formed in the mid-60s and came to be recognized as one of the progenitors of funk then called R&B. The Meters disbanded in 1977, but reformed in 1989. Today the original group still plays the occasional reunions but the Funky Meters, of which Porter and Neville are still members, most prominently keeps the spirit alive.

Few bass players in the history of modern New Orleans music are as storied as George Porter Jr. During the course of a career spanning more than four decades, Porter has not only made a deep impression with his work in the Meters, but he's notched session work with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, David Byrne, Patti LaBelle, Robbie Robertson, Tori Amos, Taj Mahal, Ryan Montbleau and live performances with Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Warren Haynes, John Scofield, Steve Kimock, Eric Krasno (and including recent studio releases with Warren Haynes and Bill Kreutzmann) just to name a few. Early in his career, Porter worked with seminal New Orleans artists like Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, The Lastie Brothers again to only name a few.

Porter is also the band leader of his own unique long term project the Runnin' Pardners, well respected not only as a quintessential New Orleans band, the touring band continues to receive accolades on the jam band and festival scene. He has assembled some seasoned and talented musicians to join him on this project. Familiar Pardners - Brint Anderson (guitar) and, Michael Lemmler (keyboards) and rising stars on the New Orleans music scene Khris Royal (saxophone) and Terrence Houston (drums). George Porter Jr. plans to keep a smile on his face." I feel like I am working towards something that will be remembered."

Porter has proven to be capable of the ultimate fusion of rock, funk and R&B, and has gained recognition as one of the industry's elite bass players. He continues to be not only an in demand performing artist but an accomplished studio musician and producer."


George Porter Jr.
It's Life

As both bassist and singer on this album, Porter's work is very well integrated. The bass rules the show when it wants to, but doesn't overshadow the vocals or other instruments. It's embedded quite nicely into the mix. I think that because Porter is splitting the attention between his playing and singing, he wants to give each aspect of his talent a fair shake at the spotlight. That having been said this remains a bassman's album, without a doubt.

Before actually listening, I read a couple of other online reviews, and to my surprise I found the word "spacey" used to describe some of the sounds present in the lineup. None of the samples I had pre-screened had anything "spacey" about them, so this seemed a strange description. After giving the album a listen however, I actually began to agree with it.

There's a 40 second intro (called "I've Been Thinking") before the first song, and as it turns out, "spacey" is pretty much the exact word I would've chosen even if I hadn't seen it online! It's kind of a sweeping ethereal thing, neither Funk nor Blues, that just kind of gets the album started.

The first real track is called, "All I Do Every Day." Deep, low-down funky bass tune, with a "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" feel. "It was the third of September...a day I'll always remember..." Then it switches to a brassier mood as the song opens up. Nice and smooth.

"Don't Turn Your Back" is an easy ballad - a man asking for some compassion. Very retro-feel to this song.

"Here But I'm Gone" is a cover of the Curtis Mayfield addiction song, done up as Porter Blues - slow, with an incredible, expressive fill in the middle. You might actually get a taste of that "spacey" word again during the fill. I also hear a little Brook Benton "Rainy Night in Georgia" in places. Songs about sadness and human struggle always find their way into my soul. Check out the last notes - the outro.

"I Get High" is a funky, groovy number about the thrill a man gets watching a girl's bottom as she walks away from him. Basic and primal. What can I say?

The title track, "It's Life" is super-funky, with an addictive bass line. The song lacks some of the emotional punch I would have expected from a title song, which should be the entire focus of the album. To me, this was not the most impressive track, but it's still good. The toes are still a-tappin'.

"Lonesome And Unwanted People" - this is a great, meat-and-potatoes R&B track with full on retro feel - remember the 70s R&B when people sang about giving love to your brother? Social consciousness songs? This one's got it. I love the piano/bass blend.

"Out In The Country" starts with a saxophone, but the rolling bass underneath makes itself known throughout. I didn't quite get into this track as much as some of the others (it's a bit too long), but it has some fine instrumental moments.

"She Said" brought me right back to why I enjoyed this album. Funk. A guy singing about a girl and how she shakes his rafters! Say no more! "I love you, but I'm not in love wi'choo!"

"The Blues I Love". Here it is. Best track on the album, bar none. Pure emotion. The rich piano-pumps at the opening feel like a bass guitar. But then, when the real bass begins to speak, you know what's what. Then comes the crying lead guitar. The instrumental middle section puts the bass and drums together in a way that reminds me of what Bonham and Jones used to do for Zep Blues.

This video is a live version of the song, done by George Porter Jr and The Runnin' Pardners.

"Waterfall" appeals to me because of the vocals. Well...okay, the bass does a number, too. Heh, heh. And the piano. Ah, who am I kidding? This is a great mood-song. It just feels good.

The last song on the album surprised me...pleasantly! It's a cover of the Seals & Crofts number, "We May Never Pass This Way Again". Porter does a seriously good job with it. Spacey? Well...maybe the beginning. Then it opens up into this funkalicious bass number. At seven minutes in length, you get a lot of time to appreciate that mood. The song ends with Porter and Co. drifting out of the room, as if they have taken off and left this moment in time. At about the five minute mark, after the fade-out, we get our final ride on the spaceship. I won't describe it here - just enjoy it for yourself.

All in all, I enjoyed this album very much. There were a couple of slow points in my adventure, but I'm okay with that. I f the entire package is appealing as a whole, I can accept the quieter moments.

© 2012 CL Seamus for Thunder Row