Music Reviews: ‘The Harry Smith B-Sides’ and a Bee Gees Live Collection, Plus Johnny Nicholas and Flamin’ Groovies

By , Contributor

The six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, which first appeared on the Folkways label in 1952, represents one of the most influential releases in the history of folk—and country, gospel, and blues as well. Culled from the personal collection of 78 rpm records of filmmaker Harry Smith, its 84 tracks all originally appeared between 1926 and 1933. 

Besides inspiring countless artists over the decades and helping to spawn the 1950s folk music revival, the Grammy-winning box has led to a variety of other releases, including Tribute to the Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith (covers of the original recordings by various contemporary artists); Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited (a document of concerts featuring Lou Reed, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, and others); Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4 (recordings that Smith inadvertently omitted from the original set); and David Johansen and the Harry Smiths (an eponymous  CD from the former New York Dolls leader that includes new versions  of tracks from the original anthology plus covers of other period material).

Now, nearly 70 years after the release of Harry Smith box, comes the best follow-up of all—and one that answers a question so obvious it’s a wonder that nobody previously thought to ask it: What was on the flip sides of all those 78s that surfaced in the original collection? Good stuff, as it turns out.

The Harry Smith B-Sides, a four-CD set, delivers newly remastered copies of almost all of this material. (The producers chose to omit a trio of numbers that contain racist language, replacing each of them here with five seconds of silence.) The collection comes with a 144-page book that includes essays about the music, notes about each track, and numerous photographs.

Many listeners will know some of the artists represented in this set, including Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sleepy John Estes. Aficionados of this period may also recognize names like Frank Hutchison and Charlie Poole. Many of the other performers—such as Nelstone’s Hawaiians, Sister Mary Nelson, and Hoyt Ming—will likely be familiar only to those who have spent time with the first Harry Smith release.

Be that as it may, this music is as rich, revelatory, and evocative of another time as Harry Smith’s original Anthology of American Folk Music. And like that box, it belongs in the collection of every fan of the genres whose roots it mines.

A Wealth of Live Bee Gees Material

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The Bee Gees—Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, who concocted their name from the initials for Brothers Gibb—rank among the most commercially successful groups in the history of popular music. And no wonder: they wrote superb melodies and delivered terrific three-part harmonies, plus lead vocals that featured Robin’s head-turning vibrato and Barry’s great falsetto. As a bonus, they had the ability to reinvent themselves when tastes changed. 

You’ll be reminded of all their strengths by Transmission Impossible, a three-CD set that covers virtually all of their important work. BBC performances—including more than a few that slightly predate the July 1967 release of the bestselling Bee Gees 1st—dominate disc number one, which also includes a few numbers from radio broadcasts in Stockholm, Sweden. The second CD contains a 1975 PBS Soundstage concert in Chicago and a Melbourne, Australia, show that aired live on the radio. Disc three features a 45-minute VH1 Storytellers concert from 1996.

In addition to dozens of musical performances, there’s also a fair amount of spoken content, including three brief Q&As with Robin Gibb, a 38-minute group interview, and brief spoken introductions to many of the songs by band members and radio announcers. The Bee Gees’ comments are mostly lightweight, as are the DJs’ intros but the latter are pretty atmospheric. It’s easy to imagine yourself listening to the radio in England in 1966 as an announcer proclaims, “You’re tuned to the all-happening, all-live show from London, Top of the Pops, and here come the brilliant Bee Gees again, with another of their distinctive songs!”).

Throughout, the sound quality is excellent, and so are the performances, which differ enough from the well-known studio versions to be noteworthy. And the set lists cover lots of territory. There are multiple renditions of virtually all of the group’s classic early hits, including “To Love Somebody,” “I Can’t See Nobody,” “Holiday,” “Words,” “I Started a Joke,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Lonely Days,” and “Massachusetts,” plus, from the Bee Gees’ disco-era second act, such tracks as “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Jive Talkin’,” and “Stayin’ Alive.”

The set also embraces “Spicks and Specks,” the Bee Gees’ early Down Under hit, as well as deep cuts like “Cucumber Castle,” “One Minute Woman,” and “With the Sun in My Eyes.” In addition, you’ll find a few 1950s covers you’d probably never expect: the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet 16,” and the Chordettes’ “Lollipop.”

Also Noteworthy

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Johnny NicholasMistaken IdentityBlues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Johnny Nicholas’s long resume includes more than half a dozen solo albums, years as a frontman for Western swing purveyors Asleep at the Wheel, and tours with such blues giants as pianist Roosevelt Sykes, guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr., and harmonica player Big Walter. 

Now he has returned to southwest Louisiana, an early home base, for a largely live-in-the-studio recording of swampy, gritty music that features nine originals plus Stephen Bruton’s “River Runs Deep.” The largely upbeat album touches lots of Americana bases—from accordion-flavored Tex-Mex (the terrific “She Didn’t Think of Me That Way”) to foot-stomping boogie woogie (“Tight Pants”) to blues rock (“Wanna Be Your Baby”). Just when you think you have Nicholas pigeonholed, he throws you a curve. 

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Flamin’ GrooviesJumpin’ in the Night and NowThese recently reissued albums, which first appeared in 1978 and 1979, respectively, find the early Groovies doing what they did best: delivering high-energy garage rock cover versions of some of the best songs of the 1960s. There are few reinventions here, though a speeded-up reading of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” comes close. The group was always more about paying loving tributes than breaking new ground. 

 

While derivative, at any rate, their covers of numbers like the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “It Won’t Be Wrong,” and “5D” are hard to resist. Ditto their versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Blue Turns to Grey” and “Paint It, Black,” and the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place.” And these albums’ dozen originals (including two cowritten with Dave Edmunds) show that the group could compose almost as well as some of the acts they admired. 

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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