The Rides, Can't Get Enough. In musical match-ups, it's impossible to know in advance what will actually work. Super groups are rarely what they set out to be, and most likely deserve to be put on ice forever. However, if a few like-minded players get together and decide to mess with the edges, great things can happen. Which is where the Rides come in. Stephen Stills is no stranger to innovation, having been in folk, folk-rock, super and not-so-super bands the past 50 years. Stills is a master guitarist capable of frying the frets right off a Fender Stratocaster, and still sings like he was born to do it. Keyboard player Barry Goldberg, while not a household name, has been in groups with Steve Miller, Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield and other stellar lights, and was one of the first young Chicago pioneers to venture into ghetto clubs to find the originators of urban blues in the early '60s. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, of course, began burning down stages in his teens and hasn't stopped since. Together they are a somewhat unlikely trio, but it works—all night long.
One reason for the unqualified success of their debut album is the wild mix of songs. Besides new originals they wrote together, there are covers of Muddy Waters' "Honey Bee," the Stooges' "Search and Destroy," Elmore James's "Talk to Me Baby," Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and others. Maybe even best of all, Stills revives his little known chestnut "Word Game" to maximum effect. There is so much verve running through every song it feels like the music is going to fly right off the disc. They were recorded quick, always in deference to the deep groove provided by drummer Chris Layton and bassist Kevin McCormick, and while it's by no means a jam session, the presence of beating-heart human beings on this music is an undeniable joy. Throw in a true element of surprise at almost every juncture and the rollicking release provided by all great rock and roll flows freely. Co-producer Jerry Harrison, no stranger to innovation during his long tenure in Talking Heads, makes sure of that. The next time modern music starts to feel a little prefab and the bestseller chart names might as well be written in Swahili, it's time to take the Rides out for a ride. The pleasure is all theirs.
Watermelon Slim & the Workers, Bull Goose Rooster. There are certain people in life who get to chase their dreams, sometimes because they've been set free by circumstances beyond their control and realize it's now or never. Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans found himself in a veterans hospital after serving in the Army during the Vietnam war and, of course, took up slide guitar and harmonica. Why not? From there the blues crept into his life like an overpowering urge Watermelon Slim could not shake, and thus a new quest in life began. There was lots of rambling and late-night scrambling before the musician found his way in to front a band and start raising sand in the blues world. He did it the only way that works, too, by singing like a man possessed and blowing the kind of harmonica that make the leaves fall from the trees and the girls follow him out past the levees.
Bull Goose Rooster is the album to move Watermelon Slim & the Workers into the driver's seat in the blues world. Slim's voice is a natural-born wonder, sounding like it's been cured in a mixture of rotgut whiskey and marinated alligator drippings. There is really no one singing quite like this these days, most having moved over to the other side years ago. The kind of songs Watermelon Slim writes are those that come to someone way past the middle of the night, when dreams and nightmares combine to turn the world inside out. They really are that good. Throw in two Slim Harpo hits, a Woody Guthrie classic and a few other odds and ends, and pretty soon the picture becomes clear — this is a man on a mission who will not be stopped. It's said that the blues is something you love or don't like at all. Watermelon Slim is a bluesman who is leading the charge on the side of love, and even when it looks like the lights have been turned out and they're digging a deep hole for that endless sleep, guess again, because once more the blues comes racing to the rescue. Long may this man blow.
James Brown, Best of Live at the Apollo: 50th Anniversary. Hands-down, no discussion and don't even try — the best live album of all time is James Brown's Live at the Apollo, first released in 1963. Brown had to pay for the recording himself; his label King Records thought it was a money loser from the start. Wrong, because the revolutionary release spent years on the best-seller charts and changed the way the whole industry felt about live albums. Brown would go on to record two more albums there (in 1968 and 1971), and one featuring his band the J.B.'s in 1972 that was never officially released. As good as the later collections were, nothing touched the original. To this day there is a blown-out electricity to listening to Brown's Apollo debut. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is star time. Are you ready for star time..." is the way the announcer starts, and as the band races into the opening song you can almost see the Hardest Working Man in Show Business rush out from the wings, dancing across the Apollo stage on one leg and creating sheer pandemonium among the audience. It should be required listening for kindergarten classes around the world.
Collecting a mix of other songs from later Apollo shows works, but only up to a point. By 1968 James Brown was veering away from his breathtaking live show of the past years and got busy basically inventing funk music. "Cold Sweat," "Sex Machine," "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" still carried a knockout punch, but even with all that intensity the later recordings couldn't really compete with the glowing vibrancy of the earlier release. Sometimes initial magic just can't be beat. But as a 50th anniversary set celebrating so many shows at the 125th Street theater in Harlem, let's all give it up for Soul Brother Number One and admit what so many have known for a very long time, and that is he invented the live album and continues to this very day to be unbeaten at having made the very best one in existence. At the end of the 1963 show James Brown races into "Night Train," and as he ticks off the names of the cities he's been barnstorming through it feels like the finest geography lesson we could ever receive. We are listening to history being made by a young man from Augusta, Georgia who was right on the verge of conquering the world. All aboard.