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Son Volt, The Jayhawks, Jetpacks and Ted Nugent

By Brian Baker · July 14th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released
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For those of you who have enjoyed my vinyl reminiscences in this column since its inception back in January, please accept my sincerest apologies for their absence in recent postings. My schedule of late has precluded me from combing through my LP collection and pulling out selections to commit to CD, with billable assignments far outweighing my capacity for discretionary listening. This apology also extends into the rest of July and early August, as I prepare to take a long overdue vacation and am currently attempting to cram five weeks worth of deadlines into three weeks of work, and see no imminent break in the action that will allow me the necessary turntable time to properly revisit my days of vinyl and neurosis. And for those of you who could give a gilded crap what I have to say about albums from three and four decades ago, the good news is that the vinyl burning draught is likely to continue until late next month. Celebrate or mourn as you see fit.

Like a good many people these days, Jay Farrar has an axe to grind about the state of just about everything, and on Son Volt’s latest missive, American Central Dust, he details his dour dissatisfaction accompanied by an appropriately raw and rootsy soundtrack. There is a quiet resignation in Farrar’s lyrics and voice and that audible sigh is mirrored in Son Volt’s melancholy Country hymns for contemporary glass-half-empty boosters.

While there may be any number of naysayers who long for meatier electric passages like the Creedence/Crazy Horse melodic dirge of “When the Wheels Don’t Move,” Farrar’s cautionary tale about an auto industry in economic freefall, there is no denying the aching beauty of “Cocaine and Ashes,” a gorgeously burnished piano waltz that quietly tributes Keith Richards and the strangely intimate way he honored his late father. Farrar inhabits the Stones guitarist not as a freakishly overdrawn character in an overdramatized scene but as a relatively normal yet admittedly larger-than-life human being. Just as powerful is the gently swaying “Dust of Daylight,” a lilting Country ode that Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers would have embraced as their own four decades ago, and the elegiac “Pushed Too Far,” a pedal-steel-flecked reminiscence of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Farrar has never been averse to dialing back the wattage to push his point to the forefront. On American Central Dust, he’s found the perfect ratio of electric/acoustic texture to melancholy message.

When The Jayhawks eased into the public consciousness with 1989’s Blue Earth, their sound was so timeless it was like hearing their tenth album instead of their introduction, and little wonder. The Jayhawks forged their rootsy Americana Pop sound from Bob Dylan’s folk authenticity, Gram Parson‘s translational Country, Neil Young’s rough hewn guitar Rock and the Everly Brothers’ angelic harmonies. They’d only begun and The Jayhawks seemed ready to be fitted for their Hall of Fame induction tuxes. Sadly, tensions within the band and apathy within the industry sealed The Jayhawks’ fate. Mark Olson’s 1995 departure, Gary Louris’ reconfiguring the band in his own dark image and the lack of breakthrough success were all steps toward an inevitable end.

As such, Music From the North Country, The Jayhawks’ new career spanning compilation, could have been viewed as a beautiful epitaph for an incredibly undervalued American band.

But the 2008 reunion of Louris and Olson for the duo’s Ready for the Flood album led to a one-off Jayhawks appearance at a Spanish festival, resulting in a few select Jayhawks dates here this year. So North Country represents a possible new beginning rather than an unfortunate and premature end.

North Country comes in two incarnations; as a single disc, 20-track overview of the band’s history and as a three-disc deluxe package featuring a second disc of rarities (including “Falling Star,” from the band’s self-released debut, known as The Bunkhouse Album), B-sides, live tracks and demos, and a DVD containing six music videos and the electronic press kits for 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1997’s Sound of Lies. For the uninitiated, the compilation is a great sampling of The Jayhawks’ impressive catalog, but for fans, the second disc is a treasure trove of largely unreleased nuggets, from the raw demos to the European B-sides for 1995’s “Bad Time,” and the DVD is similarly stocked with visual gems. The only thing that would make Music From the North Country better is if The Jayhawks used its release to announce a new studio album.

Six years ago, We Were Promised Jetpacks came together in their native Edinburgh and almost immediately notched a significant accomplishment when they won their high school’s battle of the bands contest. It was portentous of things to come; WWPJ were scoring major airplay at home and here in the States on the basis of their three-song demo, long before a label deal or official release were in the offing.

On their full length debut, These Four Walls, the Scottish quartet crafts a frenetic sound from anthemic Rock bombast while tempering it with visceral blasts of ’70s melodic Pop/Punk and contemporary Indie urgency, like a grafted mutation of countrymen Big Country, martial rhythmatists Gang of Four and romantic Punk classicism from The Cure. Like the U2 of three decades ago, We Were Promised Jetpacks manages to sound magnificently expansive and confessionally intimate all at the same time. From the blistering pulse of These Four Walls’ opener “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” to the quietly boisterous “Ships With Holes Will Sink” to the delicately gorgeous and noisy “A Half Built House,” We Were Promised Jetpacks plays with the innocent abandon of the children that handily beat their school mates a half dozen years ago and the weary wisdom of a band twice their age and three times their experience.

Terrible Ted. The Motor City Madman. The Nuge. If you grew up in Michigan in the ’60s, these were all acceptable methods to refer to Ted Nugent, one of the most outrageous guitarists that ever roared out of the southern side of the Lower Peninsula. Nugent’s national profile began with the Amboy Dukes and their trippy single “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” even though he claimed naiveté over the song’s seemingly pro-drug stance; Nugent was infamously straight and fired band members with substance issues. The final version of the Dukes signed to Frank Zappa’s Discreet label in the early ’70s for a pair of Nugent’s finest albums; Call of the Wild and Tooth, Fang and Claw. But it was Nugent’s signing to Epic as a solo artist in 1975 that cemented his place in the Rock pantheon. His first five albums in this new incarnation — Ted Nugent, Free-For-All, Cat Scratch Fever, Double Live Gonzo, Weekend Warriors — were all platinum successes and the Nuge became one of the top grossing touring acts of the late ’70s. Success was sporadic after that — the solo stuff sold in spurts, Damn Yankees was a big deal — but Nugent never stopped cranking out unapologetically loud and proud American Rock & Roll.

Last year on July 4th, Nugent celebrated Independence Day by performing his 6000th show at the DTE Energy Centre in Clarkston, Michigan, an event documented on Nugent’s fourth official live album, Motor City Mayhem. The two CD set (a DVD of the show is also available) is further proof of Nugent’s consummate skill as a guitarist in a trio format, a fact that is often obscured by the sex-guns-party juvenalia of his songwriting. His leads pummel with the thunderous pulse of a rhythm player and his solid chording barely holds the rails as he veers toward solo improvisation.

For the momentous and unbelievable occasion of his 6000th show, Nugent pulled out all the stops, freewheeling through a crowd-pleasing cross section of his voluminous catalog in the first set, from the leering “Wango Tango” to the rafter rattling “Free For All” to the delirious “Weekend Warrior” to a taste of his more recent efforts on the solid “Love Grenade,” and finally finishing up with a cover of “Honky Tonk,” featuring Nugent’s original guitar teacher, Joe Podorsek. And for those of us old enough to remember the venue’s pre-sponsor status, Nugent repeatedly refers to the shed by its original nomenclature, Pine Knob.

The show’s second set featured more guests and an even broader range of material, from Nugent’s inspired cover of “Jenny Take a Ride” with original Mitch Ryder drummer Johnny Badanjak sitting in, to a blazing take on the Amboy Dukes’ first regional hit, their psychedelic spin on John Lee Hooker’s “Baby Please Don’t Go.” But the real treat comes near the close of the show, when former Nugent lead vocalist Derek St. Holmes returns for a trio of classics; “Hey Baby,” “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold.” Whatever you may think of Ted’s political views (I grew up listening to and loving Nugent, and I had an incredibly hard time swallowing his eight-year cheerleading pose for the Idiot Who Would Be King), there is no denying his power and mastery as a guitarist and a showman and Motor City Mayhem is another fine example.



 
 
 
 

 

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