Friday , January 22 2021

Music Reviews: Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimi Hendrix, and Kevin Rowland

A Jerry Jeff Walker Anthology Underscores His Strengths

Texas’s Jerry Jeff Walker wasn’t originally from the Lone Star State, nor was he originally Jerry Jeff Walker. Born and raised in upstate New York as Ronald Clyde Crosby, he reinvented himself by the early 1970s as an Austin-based proponent of the burgeoning outlaw country genre. The name and geographical change notwithstanding, Walker—who passed away only about a month before the November 20 release of a new anthology of his early work—was the real deal. A key influence on numerous other musicians, he issued dozens of albums in his half-century recording career. 

The new anthology, Mr. Bojangles: The Atco/Elektra Years, packages five of the most noteworthy ones. It includes Mr. Bojangles (1968), whose title track, Walker’s most famous song, has been covered by everyone from Nilsson to Bob Dylan and provided a major hit for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Also here: Five Years Gone (1969), which features a live-on-the-radio version of “Mr. Bojangles”; Bein’ Free (1970), which is highlighted by Walker’s tale of a character called “Stoney”; Jerry Jeff (1978), which includes covers of songs by such fellow outlaw country artists as Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, and Keith Sykes; and Too Old to Change (1979), which incorporates such numbers as “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose,” by Clark’s wife Susanna, Paul Siebel’s “Then Came the Children,” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

As these albums demonstrate, there was much more to Walker than “Mr. Bojangles.” He was a first-rate songwriter, capable of sweet, evocative folk tunes that limn memorably iconoclastic characters; and he could also churn out raucous country like Bein’ Free’s “Where Is the DAR When You Really Need Them?” as well as lilting, upbeat numbers like Mr. Bojangles’s “Gypsy Songman.” 

And his vocals fit the material to a tee. Witness, for example, his aforementioned cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” This song has been well recorded by many artists, but none of them does a better job than Walker of making you conjure up a singer who is “busted flat in Baton Rouge.”

A 1970 Hendrix Concert Surfaces

Jimi Hendrix has been gone for half a century, but somehow, the stream of previously unreleased material keeps coming. This latest package evolved from an ill-fated mess of a film project called Rainbow Bridge, which was a well-deserved box office bomb.

For the film, Jimi Hendrix and his Experience bandmates, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, performed two July 1970 outdoor concert sets on the Hawaiian island of Maui for an audience of only about 400 people. But Mitchell’s drums were improperly recorded and had to be overdubbed in the studio for the mere 17 minutes of the show that were used in Rainbow Bridge. And none of the music turned up on the film’s soundtrack album. 

Now, thanks to today’s studio technology, the original hour-and-40-minute concert recording has been enhanced and is being released on a two-CD set called Live in Maui. It comes packaged with a 32-page booklet and a Blu-ray that includes all existing footage of the concert performances plus a documentary about Rainbow Bridge called Music, Money, Madness: Jimi Hendrix Live in Maui

Granted, it can seem as if there are already 10 million or so Hendrix concerts on record, but this one—which includes “Foxey Lady,” “Stone Free,” “Purple Haze,” “Fire,” “Spanish Castle Magic” and 14 other numbers—is generally quite good and features 5.1 surround sound. The video, unfortunately, cuts frequently to still images and an onscreen message indicating that all cameras have been shut off, but the audio never stops, and neither do Hendrix’s guitar pyrotechnics.

Kevin Rowland’s ‘My Beauty’ Gets Another Shot

As lead singer with the Birmingham, England–based Dexys Midnight Runners in the early 1980s, Kevin Rowland scored several major U.K. hits. The biggest was “Come On Eileen,” a pop tour de force that incorporates Celtic fiddle, many chord and tempo changes, and a lyric about sexual desire. The song topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1983 but in the years after that, Rowland faded from the limelight as he struggled with self-esteem issues and cocaine addiction.

He attempted a comeback in 1999 with My Beauty, a collection of renditions of well-known pop tunes, including Squeeze’s “Labelled with Love,” the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road,” the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer,” Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life,” and Unit 4+2’s “Concrete and Clay.” Most of the songs feature radical rearrangements and on several, Rowland even tweaks the lyrics. Critics panned the album, with some opting to focus on the cover, where the artist appears wearing makeup and dressed—well, partially dressed—in women’s clothing.

The music deserves a second chance, however, and it gets it with this 2020 reissue, which supplements the original’s 11 tracks with instrumental versions of two of them and a reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” (That number had been slated for the 1999 album but was omitted because copyright approvals couldn’t be arranged in time.) There’s also a booklet that includes a new interview with the singer.

In a few cases, such as the sappy “The Greatest Love of All” (a hit for both Whitney Houston and George Benson) and Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You,” Rowland’s recordings prove forgettable. But many of these highly personalized performances are excellent—imaginatively arranged, well produced, and powerfully sung. The high point is “Rag Doll,” where Rowland transforms the Four Seasons’ 1964 chart topper about a romance with a poor girl into an exuberant, nearly nine-minute anthem with a wider message about accepting people as they are.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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