The Continuing Epic Saga of Sandy Bull: Jukebox School of Music, Steel Tears, and Vehicles
Anybody who knows me knows I unabashedly worship the musical ground where Sandy Bull treads. I’ll tell you now that I always feel a little privileged just listening to Sandy Bull. That will set the respectful tone for this review.
Early in his career, Sandy went sojourning on musical voyages where no other had dared venture before him. Inspiring musicians of the time who we all have heard since, his reputation became the stuff of legend. He’s still inspiring musicians, too.
Jukebox School of Music (ROM 26002), released in 1988. “Moodswing” is an 80’s sort of word. “Moodswing Salsa” opens the disc, and Sandy explains in the liner notes this song is built on two salsa riffs, one a 12-bar blues pattern and the other a swinging Caribbean party groove. That’s Sandy and his complex humor, playing some of the dance music we all love best. Later on in the disc, he’s performing on an instrument that can easily buck off and dust up the trousers of even the most experienced player. Sandy finally trained Sho-bud, his wild country pedal steel guitar enough to be shown in public. Here they lope through an old George Jones song, “Don’t Be Angry” and then break into a fast canter through “Sanctified Steel.”
Other songs on the disc are representative of Sandy’s continuing tasteful sweep through different forms of music. Playing the oud, he revisits a personal favorite, Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnival.” Another sparkler is his “Fifth of Brandy,” a transcription of a harpsichord progression in Bach’s Fifth Brandenberg Concerto into a fantasy presentation on Fender stratocaster.
I just happened to remember that Shaw once called music “the brandy of the damned.” That’s ok, because Carlyle said music is “the speech of angels.”
The Bach interpretation is placed just before the “Salsa d’Amore” played on fender reverb and “Samba de Sandy” both of which have the sweetest party feel. All instruments played by Sandy Bull and all instrumentals written, arranged, and background instruments programmed by Sandy (except for an appearance on “Truth” by drummer Billy Higgins). You will not believe what you’re listening to here, but it’s true.
Vehicles (Timeless Recording Society 26003-2), released in 1991. Sandy shows us something of his strong music baseline, an inherent quality as requisite to a real musician as the heavy steel chassis is on a world class cruiser. “Ray’s Dream” is a delightful blend built on some of the lead-in elements of “What’d I Say.”
Sandy’s the designated driver on this one and once behind the wheel, he takes us on a delightful spin through his various stylings and instruments, from the heavy reverb fender into pedal steel, a samba with oud blending in.
If any high points are to be singled out on this cd, “Nostalgia” is a good one, a raga that captures the quintessence of some musical explorations in certain times. But “Rain Forest” is a place I want to visit a lot, a lovely musical landscape under the wild canopy of shakers, rattles, birdcalls, and temple bells, water dripping off the leaves and saturated with the rhythms of an elemental place. Back to Bach for Concerto for “The Wood.” Is it good to combine oud with an ethereal Bach cantata? Hamza El Din liked it. Percussion and talking drums provided by Aiyeb Dieng, who started out in salsa bands in his native Senegal, and drums by jazz and r&b great Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.
Steel Tears (Timeless Recording Society 6005-2), released in 1996. Sho-Bud’s back. Pedal steel can be both the most melancholy and the bounciest sort of instrument, and Sandy brings all that feeling out through the steel strings. Here, for the first time, Sandy has included his own vocals and can melt the hardest heart with one of his favorite Hank Williams tunes, “Old Habits Like You.” Sandy takes us on a trip out into the country on this cd, a few Scotty Moore guitar licks, lots of pedal steel, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup songs, but this record is more than that. Just listen to “I Don’t Care” and you’ll see what I mean. A few country-inspired songs written and performed by Sandy, one tinged with a sense of melancholy resignation “I May Never Pass Out” and the strangely funny “Steel Tears.”
With music like Sandy’s, which is made up of such a broad span of diverse sources and tasteful stylings that always work well together, I usually advise people to get three copies of each record. One for now which you will play through to the other side, one for later, and one for posterity.
The CD’s mentioned above in this review are only available mail order from the Timeless Recording Society, at www.sandybull.com.
Reinventions: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard 79520-2)
As of 1999, selections principally drawn from Bull’s two early ground-breaking albums are finally available on CD, including his original 22-minute visionary guitar raga “Blend” and “Memphis”, his Fender reverb drenched tribute to Chuck Berry. “Carnival Jump” (with spare change percussion and hand drums) from 1972’s Demolition Derby. This one is available from many merchants.