HuffPost Reviews : Chuck Berry His Complete Chess Recordings 1960 - 1966 / Steve Forbert The Place And The Time / A.J. Croce Cage Of Muses

Considering his fifties classics "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Back In The U.S.A," "Memphis, Tennessee," and "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry (born Charles Edward Anderson, October 18, 1926) could have retired before the next decade as one of the reigning champions of rock 'n' roll since those songs alone would have been a mighty legacy. His blend of r&b, electric guitar energy, and lyrical, hook-centric songwriting qualifies him as one of that era's premiere amalgamators of that little thing Moondog Alan Freed dubbed "rock & roll." But taking a cue from his cover of the Bob Russell/John Benson song, he came a long way from St. Louis, but he still had a long way to go; and a funny thing happened on the way to the sixties. The legendary guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, onstage performer, movie star (with roles in the musical teen flicks, Rock, Rock, Rock and Go, Johnny, Go!), and influential rock pioneer (who was among the first members inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986) created yet another, valid volume of his musical catalog that, in some ways, are just as endearing and important as his previous works--and that's without any giant hits.

As you listen through the four discs of You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, you get the tour of a post-rock 'n' roll era Berry whose experiments, mostly, are neatly strung upon his usual three chord skeletons. The material comprises of sturdy pop song crafting ("I'm Talking About You," "Come On," "Go Go Go"), explorations of the "blues" part of "rhythm and blues" ("Drifting Blues," "I Still Got The Blues"), dabbling with Bobby Bland-ish torch ballads ("Stop And Listen"), reinterpretations of a few standards ("Route 66," "One For My Baby..."), perfect choices of cover material ("I'm Just A Lucky So And So," "Things I Used To Do"), further development of that zipper-quick, story-telling wordplay ("Jaguar And Thunderbird," "Promised Land"), charismatic live performances ("Guitar Boogie," "Let It Rock"), novelty songs ("Trick Or Treat," "The Man And The Donkey"), and mature songwriting ("Why Should We End This Way").

Playing musical wing men on a majority of the box set's tracks are pianist Johnnie Johnson and other great studio guns including Willie Dixon on double bass, Chuck Bernard on bass, Jasper Thomas and Odie Payne on drums, eventual Blues Brother, Matt "Guitar" Murphy on guitar (also of Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim fame), and Leroy C. Davis and James Robinson on sax. Every period-relative Chess single is included (especially "It Wasn't Me" with guests Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield), plus we get complete albums such as Chuck Berry In London (recorded December 15, 1964 and January 9, 1965), his 1964 collaborative release, Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry: Two Great Guitars (featuring the ten minute workout, "Chuck's Beat," and their over fourteen minute marathon, "Bo's Beat"), and 1966's Fresh Berrys.

Of the box's most interesting moniker tracks (there are quite a few), there's "Brenda Lee," a track in which wordsmith Berry serves up the clever with lines like, "She's rankin' third in her class in her second year at Central High." Also, there's "Little Marie," Berry's sequel to "Memphis, Tennessee" (the latter also a huge hit by Johnny Rivers) whose b-side was "Johnny B. Goode" re-gendered as "Go, Bobby Soxer." On the rare side of things, we are gifted with "Spending Christmas," a surprising, previously unreleased should-have-been holiday classic. In fact, there are plenty of non-issued tracks for the rarities miner, including some stereo remixes, plus a full October 1963 Detroit, Michigan, concert with a band that is merely credited as the "Berry Gordy All Stars." (Hmmm, wonder who THEY could be?) With a fair share of instrumentals, alternate takes, and dabs of dialog, these 108 tracks inhabit a beautifully designed quadfold package, complete with a textured booklet and portfolio-like string-tie to keep your new treasures safely locked away.

If you're wondering why the bulk of this material is somewhat obscure--with the exception of the classics "Nadine (Is It You?)," "No Particular Place To Go," "You Never Can Tell" (sometimes titled "C'est La Vie" on cover versions), and "Let It Rock"--blame it on the era. The sixties came along and displaced rock 'n' roll's formula with Brill Building pop and British Invasion platters, and that, of course, affected artists like Chuck Berry whose records were a cornerstone of the previous decade's sound. Still, his music career would have faced challenges anyway due to his prison incarceration for supposedly violating The Mann Act (involving "white slavery") by transporting a Native American minor across state lines. Trumped-up charges or not, Berry's conviction ate up about a year-and-a-half of his life, although it produced one of the most fruitful, creative periods prior to and following his sentence. Another factor working against Berry was his admirable choice to broaden his style by, initially, embracing the less commercial blues genre, and that resulted in confusing his fans and the marketplace.

Regardless, the recordings are quality, and everyone, especially The Rolling Stones (who covered this set's "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Come On") understood its value. Artists like Johnny Rivers, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, The Beach Boys, and many others, recorded highly-respected cover versions of the man's songs for their own repertoires. About the man, the late John Lennon once stated, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, it might as well be Chuck Berry," and the highly-influenced Dave Edmunds told Newsday's David Herndon, "He was it. He's the poet."

Combining this body of work with Berry's fifties material is one of the best ways to get the lowdown on the glory days of rock 'n' roll and its aftermath. There is so much to explore here, such as this box set's instrumental version of "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"--along with a handful of other instrumental, fretboard dances like the bluesy "After It's Over"--that should be mandatory studies for anyone serious about his or her axe. Let's face it, before Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix became guitar hero models, for decades, kids first learned Chuck Berry's riffs because of their feel, rhythm, and general fun playing simple leads that complicated a song's chords by augmenting and suspending them. And don't forget all that slippery note-bending. Once you got the hang of it, it wasn't brain surgery, but it had to be right to feel good. And, oh, there were those verby songs that served as templates for our own goofy initial attempts at songwriting. So, heads up, all you young'ns and middle-aged "kids" who never even heard about this additional harvest of Berry's: Get those guitars back out, you've got a lot more shredding to do...

Tracks:

Disc 1
1. Drifting Blues
2. I Got To Find My Baby
3. I Got To Find My Baby - stereo remix
4. Don't You Lie To Me
5. Worried Life Blues
6. Our Little Rendezvous
7. Bye Bye Johnny
8. Bye Bye Johnny - stereo remix
9. Run Around
10. Run Around - stereo remix
11. Jaguar And Thunderbird
12. Diploma For Two
13. Little Star
14. The Way It Was Before
15. Away From You
16. Down The Road Apiece
17. Down The Road Apiece - stereo remix
18. Confessin' The Blues
19. Sweet Sixteen
20. Thirteen Question Method
21. Stop And Listen
22. I Still Got The Blues
23. I'm Just A Lucky So And So
24. Mad Lad - instrumental
25. Surfin' Steel (Cryin' Steel) - instrumental
26. Route 66 - take 10
27. Route 66 - alternate take 11
28. I'm Talking About You
29. Rip It Up
30. Come On
31. Come On - alternate take - stereo
32. Adulteen
33. The Man And The Donkey

Disc 2
1. Go Go Go - alternate take
2. Go Go Go
3. Trick Or Treat
4. Brown Eyed Handsome Man - instrumental
5. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
6. Brown Eyed Handsome Man - stereo remix
7. All Aboard
8. Guitar Boogie - Live
9. Let It Rock - Live
10. Almost Grown - Live
11. Chuck Berry dialog - Live
12. Johnny B. Goode - Live
13. Introduction / Instrumental - Live
14. Sweet Little Sixteen - Live
15. Wee Wee Hours - Live
16. Chuck Berry dialog - Live
17. Maybellene - Live
18. Medley: Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight / Johnny B. Goode / Let It Rock / School Day - Live
19. Nadine (Is It You?)
20. You Never Can Tell
21. The Little Girl From Central
22. (The) Things I Used To Do
23. I'm In The Danger Zone

Disc 3
1. Fraulein
2. Lonely All The Time (Crazy Arms)
3. O Rangutang - unfaded instrumental
4. Big Ben (Blues)
5. Promised Land
6. Brenda Lee
7. No Particular Place To Go
8. You Two
9. Liverpool Drive - instrumental
10. Chuck's Beat - instrumental
11. Bo's Beat - instrumental
12. Little Marie
13. Go, Bobby Soxer
14. Lonely School Days
15. His Daughter Caroline
16. Dear Dad
17. Want To Be Your Driver
18. Spending Christmas
19. The Song Of My Love
20. Butterscotch - instrumental
21. After It's Over - instrumental
22. Why Should We End This Way

Disc 4
1. You Came A Long Way From St. Louis
2. She Once Was Mine
3. Jamaica Farewell
4. My Little Love Light
5. I Got A Booking
6. St. Louis Blues
7. Shake Rattle & Roll
8. Wee Wee Hours - instrumental
9. Honey Hush - take 3
10. Run Joe
11. It's My Own Business
12. One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)
13. Every Day We Rock & Roll
14. My Mustang Ford - instrumental
15. My Mustang Ford
16. My Mustang Ford - stereo remix
17. Merrily We Rock & Roll
18. Vaya Con Dios
19. We Hour Blues
20. It Wasn't Me
21. It Wasn't Me - stereo remix
22. Ain't That Just Like A Woman
23. Right Off Rampart Street
24. Welcome Back Pretty Baby
25. Sad Day, Long Night - instrumental
26. Ramona, Say Yes
27. Ramona, Say Yes - alternate mix
28. Viva Viva Rock & Roll
29. His Daughter Caroline - fast version
30. Lonely School Days - fast version

Steve Forbert - The Place And The Time

Remember the comparisons of a certain young folkster to a certain middle-aged Dylan? That was Steve Forbert. Remember that guy with the complicated come-on hit in the seventies, "Romeo's Tune" ("It's king and queen and we must go down 'round behind the chandelier")? Steve Forbert. Remember that guy who suddenly arrived at the party in Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" video? Yup, Steve Forbert. For over three decades, this singer-songwriter has been one of the more prolific recording artists, releasing an album every couple of years on various labels such as Nemperor, Columbia, Geffen, Giant, Koch, 429 (his latest), and others. He's amassed a ton of live albums, early rarities CDs, a Jimmie Rogers tribute, and scores of songs full of well-played scenarios, played-out relationships, general observations, and folksy wisdom.

When the young Steve Forbert arrived in NYC's downtown folk-rock scene in the seventies, he was the wisest guy--in all uses of that expression--around. After earning his stripes playing Grand Central Station and the like for spare change, he eventually graduated to Greenwich Village clubs, soon causing a ruckus because of word-of-mouth Bob Dylan comparisons. He was signed to Nat Weiss' Nemperor Records, and the style and smarts of his first album Alive On Arrival (produced by Steve Burgh) and early trademark songs--especially "Goin' Down To Laurel," "Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast," "Tonight, I Feel So Far Away From Home," "What Kinda Guy" (also recorded by Rosanne Cash), "It Isn't Gonna Be That Way," and "You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play"--did seem to support elements of the "New Dylan" theory. At this time, this guitar-toting performer's fiery live shows also grew their own mythic reputations.

His newfound FM popularity propelled the folk-rocker's hit "Romeo's Tune" up the charts, and its John Simon production and Roy Bittan-esque piano intro by Bobby Ogdin evoked Bruce Springsteen's records, which was just fine with radio programmers. Its companion album, Jackrabbit Slim (check out the cover--man, Forbert was skinny!), also was a hit, and its successor, Little Stevie Orbit (that featured the edgy tracks "Cellophane City" and "Get Well Soon") rocked harder than Slim as Forbert's music took on elements of the era's new wave. His Geffen Records tenure that began in the eighties re-launched him as an A-list recording artist with two solid albums: The E Street Band's Garry Tallent-produced Streets Of This Town, and also The American In Me. To this day, he enjoys packed live venues and international acclaim for each of his newly-released albums.

That brings us to The Place And The Time, Steve Forbert's latest effort to catch us up on what's going on in the prolific mind of one of the last remaining and still reigning princes of folk-rock. Backed by co-producer Robby Turner on bass, Paul Errico on keyboards, Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums, Reggie Young and Steve Allen on electric guitars, and Anthony Crawford on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, the project takes a more spacious sonic approach, emphasizing its acoustic nature. Thematically, we get a feel for where the album is headed in "Blackbird Tune," a simple song apparently inspired by the artist's listening to the feathered vertebrae sing while visiting Beverly, England. It does share something in common with The Beatles' "Blackbird" in that both are simple on the outside, but still carry some weight. In his composition, Forbert sings, "I let my feet go where they want to be, they took me here to hear your sweet melody," and we're offered a contrast of simplicity versus overkill in the song's next line, "The songs of man sound louder day after day, I hope your blackbird song will not fade away." The storm clouds that form within the verse's minor chords are dissipated quickly by the chorus' positive la-la lyrics, "Blackbird, singin' in the afternoon, blackbird, singin' like he won't quit soon."

Forbert still is searching for that sweet melody (or at least a "memory") in "Sing It Again, My Friend." In it, he would love to revisit the way things used to be, and suggests that a tune of yore will invigorate those memories. But the concept of reminiscing becomes moot with the line, "Sing it again while the old folks explain the more things have changed, they're the same." Next up is the album's Cajun-esque party track, in which someone's got a bad case of "Stolen Identity": "There ain't no tellin' where I'll be because, of late, there's two of me, and one had tons of fun for free with...," well, you get the picture. Of the poor sap's unfortunate predicament, Forbert admits, "I couldn't help but see the situation as funny--the victim being more and more personally tormented by 'himself.'" Next, the moody, jive "Write Me A Raincheck" features some jazzy guitar licks and a lot o' jazz about times being hard as the reason the dude's honey will just have to wait 'til he can come back to town. Eh, smells a bit fishy, no? And he's still trying to get back to someone in the romantic "Who'll Watch The Sunset?" (co-written with Steve Allen). This time, it seems like a genuine effort, with sweet lines like, "Once you and I watched a bonfire made of sky," coloring the whole affair.

This is all prime Steve Forbert who's writing at his best, and we get to the heart of this project with "Simply Must Move On." It's a lesson that--regardless of achievements and failures here and there--in the end, there's no choice but to move on. The theme stalks each song's subject and protagonist, such as Forbert when he becomes an enlightened attendee at a ridiculous arena concert where the rock star in "The Beast Of Ballyhoo (Rock Show)"'s tattoos contradict his gold satin jacket, and who has "a ring on ev'ry finger" yet his green eyes glow. In "Labor Day '08," the artist moves to a new town where he's "knockin' back a Bud Light on a Labor Day, thinkin' 'bout the jobs that are gone to stay." Even in Forbert's cover of East Coast folk newbie Devin Greenwood's "Building Me A Fire," the smoke from his metaphorical blaze is meant to lead his love to him. Then, another winged creature enters the picture. This time, it's "The Coo Coo Bird," Forbert's blending of Lightfoot's "Sundown" and Dylan's "Meet Me In The Morning" that rearranges an old traditional. But our hero won't get distracted by life's overall craziness since he is traveled, seasoned, and has learned a thing or two along the way ("I've played cards in England and I played cards in Spain, and I bet you ten dollars I can beat you next game...").

Probably the most poignant piece of the twelve-song collection is "Hang On Again Till The Sun Shines..." that could be interpreted as a post-911 NYC tribute. Forget that "New York City's grown old now, its arms won't unfold now, strangers' faces all cold now, and I'm cold too" because, though all that may be true, the song's title is what Forbert is suggesting we do to get through it. He brings that message home in "Blue, Clear Sky" in which "Sometimes you glimpse that shimmering childhood sense of things, sometimes you sense that simple thing it brings." He reminds us that even though, "Songbird sail away, jet plane fly," and we sometimes can't leave behind our troubled circumstances, there's still a blue, clear sky if you want to see it. That's the way things are in Steve Forbert's world, drawn as a flexible graph on the album's front cover. Though the place is always changing, it's wherever we find ourselves; and the time is always about the now, regardless of what looks better in a rear view mirror.

Tracks:
1. Blackbird Time
2. Sing It Again, My Friend
3. Stolen Identity
4. Write Me A Raincheck
5. Who'll Watch The Sunset
6. Simply Must Move On
7. The Best Of Ballyhoo (Rock Show)
8. Building Me A Fire
9. Labor Day '08
10. The Coo Coo Bird
11. Hang On Again Till The Sun Shines (NYC)
12. Blue, Clear Sky

A.J. Croce - Cage Of Muses

His dad, the legendary Jim Croce, would be proud. Just considering this new album's lyrics exist on a level that surpasses some of the most successful singer-songwriters' best efforts makes A.J. (Adrian James) Croce's music essential and that much more of a "find." Previously, he recorded seven critically-acclaimed albums, was compared musically to Leon Russell, Dr. John, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits, and was produced by hotshots like T-Bone Burnett and John Simon; yet the name "A.J. Croce" astonishingly has eluded the kind of status you imagine an artist of this caliber would have experienced by now. Well, don't be surprised if that changes with his new release.

Let's pretend it's day one and you've just heard of this cat. You need an entry point to his material, one that shows both his artistic side, depth as a person, and musical prowess. A.J.'s latest effort, Cage Of Muses, should serve quite nicely as it spreads his cred. "My goal was to make a 'live' concept album," A.J. reveals, then admits, "if I would have had a budget for this, it's hard to say if I would have had the restraint to produce such a minimalist collection of songs." Whatever took place behind the scenes financially was a blessing since the result was an understated album that encompasses big topics, unique melodies, a variety of tempos, interesting vocal approaches (that help create a kind of Glenn Tilbrook sound), minimalist arrangements, and delicate mixes that capture the performer and his crew--guitarists Michael Bizar and Nick Kirgo, bassist Davey Faragher, drummer Brian Macleod, and pedal steel player Greg Leisz--performing at their best.

In the first track, "Gold And Green," A.J. takes on society's greed from many angles, one of the best examples involving "specialists" who are "Lookin' for a patient instead of lookin' for a cure 'cause there isn't any money in a cure anymore." His phraseology is reminiscent of another famous offspring, Arlo Guthrie, but the production puts it solidly into pop crossover land, a block away from One Tree Hill. "Most of this album deals with the way all of us relate to the world and one another," A.J. says, and the personal variety is explored on "You've Said Too Much." The track plays like a word game on the subject of communication, and it employs both unique phrases you've never heard utilized quite this way before plus purposeful clichés. After its Beatles-ish "Hey Jude" piano intro, "Coraline" suggests Billy Joel with a twist of Lennon. Its verse declares, "Though she calls me crazy, well, she calls me nonetheless, she's as helpless as the mistress lying in her bed undressed," and it's followed-up by the infectious sing-a-long, "She sang la-la-la-la..."

That John Lennon comparison also applies to "I Want It All," whose high-pitched vocals and cool "Watching The Wheels" wink (especially at the song's end) will have you heading for your Double Fantasy vinyl. "There is a fair amount of social commentary," A.J. points out, and "Bury Me Standing" contains one of the finest examples of that lyrically (especially given our past, disastrous global approach and current economic crisis): "The world was painted black, we all stood around to pat the painters on their backs, we paid 'em well to give us hell, now we need a light." It doesn't beat you up with any further heavy-hitting hooks or messages, and that adds to its effectiveness. "The songs I like on my records are rarely catchy and almost always slow, introspective, or both," A.J. confirms. "In this case, 'Bury Me Standing' is one of my favorites."

In yet another of the album's best songs, "What Do You Believe," A.J. accurately visits dumb tenets of organized religion asking the obvious question its title suggests. The essence of Crowded House's Neil Finn comes a-knocking on "Now And Then," a simple treatise on what happens post a relationship. The song's lingering line, "I didn't mean to call...I just accidentally dialed, that's all," introduces a Thomas Dolby ...Flat Earth-era watery sound collage, and then we get another relationship-thrown-to-the-gutter track in "It's Gone." The intimate "I've Been Changing" is another example of A.J.'s piano playing serving as the beating heart of most of this album's musical "feel," that earlier-discussed low production value allowing songs like this to breathe deeply throughout. The album's strummy mood waltz, "Where Are We Now," might have benefited the most from the frugal approach, and A.J.'s vocals sound so much like Maury Muehleisen's (Jim Croce's back-up guitarist) that the initiated will hear the similarity immediately.

Every composition here is well done, and with any artist, that's pretty rare. It probably was the result of the holistic approach A.J. took with Cage Of Muse's successfully deployed material. He says, "When I sit to write a song, I think twice and write once. These songs were different, I kept coming back to them. They became the cage and the muse," though he now must be feeling a great release after completing such a terrific yet simple album. "As I have gotten older, I seek out simplicity. In my songs, I am able to edit myself and I do my best to figure out the simplest and most interesting way to say the most and least at the same time." That last point he makes is the key to most of the great works of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, and, of course, Jim Croce. Yeah, his dad would be proud.

Tracks:
1. Gold And Green
2. You've Said Too Much
3. Coraline
4. Bury Me Standing
5. I Want It All
6. What Do You Believe
7. Now And Then
8. It's Gone
9. Where Are We Now
10. I've Been Changing