Boxed In; Part Three
Johnson Cummins continues his look at recently released box sets in this third and final instalment. These following two box sets demand to take up virtual space in your online shopping cart and should prove to be a revelation for guitar players and non guitar players alike.
Right in the middle of quarantine, we are sliding right into the third and final instalment of Boxed In. Much like the previous two editions, we continue to look at some previous recordings that now breathe with new life, and have finally received the royal box set treatment as they grey around the temple at the half century mark. Of course, like all box sets worth their salt, we are also treated to added bonus tracks, a brand spankin’ new remastering, and other rarities held in the virgin vinyl wax grooves.
This edition of Boxed In looks specifically at two serious six string slingers who could both be best described as truly musician’s musicians. I am perfectly aware that the mere mention of electric guitars is going to make most people bust out in a case of hives; believe me, I feel your pain. Certainly since the British Invasion of 1964, we can’t seem to escape the incessant whine of an amplified plank of wood with wires on it. Over the past decades, guitars have been clutched like weapons, fallen into the ham fisted paws of technical nerds treating music like athletics, and into the hands of novices possessing all the musical ability of a dishcloth. The guitar solo, particularly when it is taking up centre stage as the main narrator in a jam that sprawls over the twenty minute mark, is going to challenge even the most ardent music fan.
These two reviews, featuring two seriously burning guitar players, are an exception to the rule. Even though the recordings are now nearing fifty years of age these two albums are shining examples as just how deeply soulful a guitar can be in the hands of true masters, who even over the decades can still push music through the stratosphere. Lets just thank God that they are not box sets dedicated to bass solos.
Fleetwood Mac - Before The Beginning, 1968 - 1970: Live and Demo Sessions (Sony/Legacy)
“Fleetwood Mac?” Damn, you people are a hard sell, just hear me out a second here. Firstly, flush out your mind of all images of classic rock radio, your father-in-law holding you hostage to his car radio, shawls, dancing that involves twirling willy nilly, scented candles, handkerchiefs strewn over lampshades, and cocaine being administered up poop chutes.. Long before Lyndsey and Stevie lulled a nation into a gentle strum while chopping lines of pure grade Peruvian marching powder, the band was under the leadership of “acid casualty” Peter Green. Green is easily one of the most emotional players to ever lay hands on a Les Paul and can reduce even the most callous listener to tears. Like all truly great musicians, it doesn’t matter if you play guitar or not, as Green can easily speak through his instrument. Although he is extremely technically proficient, he really hangs his tweed flat cap on the fact that he is immensely tuned in with his true musical spirit. In short, Green is a musical giant who walked amongst us for one all-too-brief moment.
Coming out of the British blues boom of the mid sixties, Green originally made his name after taking Eric “slow hand” Clapton’s place in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, directly after the release of the seminal ‘Beano’ record (which would mark the last time Clapton did anything listenable, but I digress). After his brief stint in Mayall’s quartet, Green snatched his rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood - Mac! Get it?!), and quickly began blowing minds with blues based pop, traditional Chicago blues and searing long improv laden improvisations that continues to inspire even today.
Tread lightly and proceed with caution though as it wasn’t all peaches and cream. The Mac were at its zenith here with Green leading the charge, but there were three songwriters in tow, rounded out by Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwin. While Kirwin was perfectly acceptable when grasping the pen while harnessing some serious chops, Spencer’s cardboard caricatures of legendary bluesman Elmore James are just too much to handle. Kirwin is good, but still cowers in the shadow of the mighty Green. Spencer, on the other hand, mars any recorded work of Fleetwood Mac with mawkish comedy and one dimensional lampoonery that at best hopes to be a half decent impersonation.What I’m really trying to say here is he’s a major bummer, maaaaan!
The three CD set and nine LP spread over three volumes of ‘Before the Beginning’ make the picking up the needle on Spencer songs more than worth the journey from couch to turntable. There is more than enough Green to go around. In fact I will just put a sock in it regarding Spencer, and just concentrate on the massive amount of gold glimmering in this gorgeous package.
Although the cover boasts both live recordings and demos, we are thankfully treated mainly with live recordings from various sources. Don’t expect scrappy, out-of-phase warble and hiss, as these recordings are all crystal clear with the mastering bringing out every nuance (including primordial grunts from Mick Fleetwood). Sans four songs of previously released demos, this is as live as it gets, and is truly the real platform to hear this era of Fleetwood Mac. Green feeds off the crowd, spreading wings and soaring while wringing out every vibrato note, exploring needle drop silence to decibel-drenched slash and bash. Songs suddenly take on hairpin curves and natural flows, sometimes within the same bar, as Green’s stolen rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie hold it down like ballast.
On the second song of this massive collection, ‘Something Inside of Me’, we are quickly reminded why we paid the hefty admission fee to get in this room. Green dazzles throughout with more dynamics squeezed into his pinky than humps like John Mayer will ever know. Green’s influences are obviously coming from the Texas dustbowls and poverty filled streets of South Side Chicago, but is able to wriggle out of his influences and stamp his own signature on songs like ‘Trying So Hard To Forget’, Little Willie John’s ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’ or Shadows-tinged instrumental gem ‘Albatross’. It’s not just Green’s obviously advanced knowledge of blues guitar that gleams here. His thick-as-a-rolling-Thames-fog British accent doesn’t prevent him from completely giving himself over to the blues. The gentle lilt to his voice provides the perfect vessel to his often downtrodden and desperately hard-fought pearls. His rendition of the brilliant Robert Johnson penned ‘I Believe My Time Ain’t Long’ will guarantee to leave emotional marks.
On the untitled instrumental jam on the first side of the second vinyl, you get the full force of ‘The Green Manalishi’ and ‘Rattlesnake Shake’. It is these extended jams where Green really stretches his legs, where you can see the undeniable direction the band were about to take if they had held onto Green for a little bit longer.
For those of you who will be lining up to get the physical version of this (as you should), you might want to think about both the vinyl and CD versions. The three record sets are absolutely gorgeous; adorned with crisp photos within the triple fold jacket, perfect pressings on 180g vinyl with crystal clear mastering that puts everything front and center while also providing depth to the soundstage. This is not, I repeat NOT, an ‘official bootleg’ hatchet job cash grab. The three CD version is also a must have, as it comes in a handsome hardcover book with tons of unpublished photos, as well as a 45-page book by Christopher Hjort (author of Strange Brew: Eric Clapton and the British Blues Boom: 1965-1970).
For dyed in the wool fans as well as the curious, this is as good as it gets. Shortly after the later recordings in the collection, Green suffered mental issues that were exacerbated after one LSD-fueled night in Munich. After receiving electroshock therapy, he never really regained the mighty power unleashed in these grooves. It’s one of the most criminally sad stories in the history of rock and roll, but in the brief period between1968 and 1970, he buried the competition.
Well almost all of the competition, as there was this other guy you might have heard of...
Jimi Hendrix - Songs For The Groovy Children; The Fillmore East Concerts. (Sony/Legacy)
This massive (count ‘em) eight record set is definitely earmarked for the Hendrix obsessive. Since I am a card-carrying member of collecting all things Hendrix, I gave the pedestrian CD box set a pass, and dove straight into the five-and-a-half pound vinyl box set (yep, I weighed it).
Although Hendrix in the studio was truly breathtaking and enthralling, his work in the live setting is a different beast altogether. I wouldn’t say I prefer one over the other, but Hendrix simply giving up the reins and taking in the scenery with no destination, all in front of a slack-jawed room of hippies tripping balls, is nothing short of glorious.
As mentioned, this is definitely for the Hendrix completist, as it is yet another version of his Band of Gypsys Fillmore East shows (of which I own four other versions, but consider Songs For The Groovy Children as the definitive version). While previous iterations, including the illuminating 1999 two disc version, should be mandatory to any fan of rock music, this new boxset includes all four sets recorded between New Years Eve 1969 and New Years Day 1970, at the hallowed hall tucked away in Uptown Manhattan.
Hendrix is rounded out with a new rhythm section of bassist Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, who replaces the Experience. With the cement mixer groove and rock solid foundation of Miles/Cox, things get far funkier than previous Hendrix outings, while Jimi is given the elbow room he needs to reach new sonic heights.
But I hear you naysayers, I really do. “Johnson, you handsome devil and knower of all things, do we really need four versions of ‘Machine Gun?’” Youbetcha Poindexter! Probably now more than ever! For the uninitiated, who may be suspicious and thinking I am merely blowing smoke here, go ahead and punch in ‘Machine Gun Fillmore’ into your favourite search engine and prepare to have your little mind blown to bits. Go ahead—I’ll wait for you.
These concerts that are clocked in at fifty years old are important in Hendrix’s career. At this point, the road had worn him down, as he tired of his rhythm section of the Experience, and management and business difficulties were rife. His catalog of songs from his previous three records offered no new challenges, as Hendrix desperately sought to realize new musical goals. The original recorded versions of this album were only made to fulfil a contract with his previous label, but Hendrix was able to take what could have been lockstep renditions of his hit parade, and managed to find musically fertile ground.
This isn’t all Hendrix’s show, though. This is the first time in his solo career where he left a bit of room for his old friend, drummer Buddy Miles, to stretch his legs. Although Miles is definitely, uh, listenable when he steps up to the mic with his songs ‘Changes’ and ‘We Got To Live Together’, it really is Hendrix’s name that shines brightest on the marquee. Things really transcend when Miles knows his place behind the kit and gives room for Hendrix to commandeer the flight. Just watching the twists and turns on the numerous versions of ‘Machine Gun’ and ‘Earth Blues’ is stunning. Watching the different versions getting led by the sleeve in inspired improvisational moments make this 8 LP box easily digestible in one sitting.
Perhaps in an attempt by Sony to make us purchase this set again, or in my case the fourth time shelling out, the packaging is indeed fetching. Once you crack open this massive box, you are greeted with a comprehensive booklet with a ton of unpublished photos, an essay/love letter written by scribe Nelson George, as well as an essay by bass player Billy Cox. The real reason you will be lining up for the one, though, is for the music. It leaves no stone left unturned over the four shows collected here, which is nothing short of a revelation for the Hendrix obsessive. For the audiophiles: I was able to directly combine the original U.S. vinyl pressing, 1999 two CD set and the 2010 remaster version, and this eight record set will be the only thing I’ll reach for from now on.
For those of you who have made it this far in the review and are not as passionate about Hendrix as me but now find yourself intrigued, I would suggest you hit up the regular used CD/vinyl sites now, since people digging this new boxset are probably unloading their old copies en masse. I for one will be putting my three previous copies, which have served me well for years, to rest, because this edition can proudly step up as the truly definitive version of the famous Fillmore East concerts.