Thursday, October 31, 2013

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 17: Willie Nelson & Friends: Live at Third Man Records

This week I received the seventeenth set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postal service, my package was sent on October 23rd. I received it on the 28th.

This seventeenth set of items revolves around the celebration of the 80th birthday of country legend Willie Nelson at Third Man Records on April 18th, 2013, featuring a live double-LP recorded at the studio, and a one-sided 6-inch single (you read that right) containing a duet between Nelson and Jack White.

That 6-inch single, pressed in transparent yellow vinyl, captures a less-than-two-minute recording of Willie and Jack playing Willie’s 1975 song “Red Headed Stranger” in Third Man’s Voice-O-Graph recording booth. The use of the antique recording machine results in a grainy sound that seems slowed down, much like the sound of a record that is warped or a cassette tape that is being played back with low batteries. This short-playing one-sided single is basically a novelty for music history buffs, but it’s a good one.

The double-LP Willie Nelson & Friends: Live at Third Man Records (pressed on one “smokey grey” record and one “bio-diesel green” record) documents Willie’s 80th birthday concert at TMR, much of which was broadcast on the CMT channel’s Crossroads program on June 24th of that year. Willie was surrounded by a stellar group of guest musicians for this privately held event. Each of them performed duets with Willie, and this three-sided LP set features some performances that were omitted from the hour-long broadcast.

The set starts off with Willie’s performance of “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, in which he shows plenty of attitude at age 80. Although it is easy to mistake the title for a marijuana reference, the song actually shows Nelson defiantly expressing that he is not afraid of dying, and telling his fans and loved ones not to be sad on the day he passes. (Fat chance!).

The rest of the set has Willie performing alongside some of his famous friends. The mood of these performances tends to be casual, yet respectful. There is remarkable chemistry to be heard in Willie’s two duets with Leon Russell, as they do spry renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Townes Van Zandt’s “A Song For You” that are among the set’s high points. Willie jibes almost as well with Norah Jones as they play two of his compositions: Jones turns “Funny How Time Slips Away” into a smooth jazz number, with Willie’s guitar blending in very nicely; and Jones provides good enough support on “I Gotta Get Drunk” (although she lets Willie do most of the country singing on that track). Willie’s duet with Sheryl Crow on Whitney & Kramer’s “Far Away Places” has a sophisticated type of country feeling that makes a good case for Crow’s recent crossover into the genre. Although five guest performers give backing to Willie on “Whiskey River”, they wisely underplay their parts and allow the guest of honor to dominate the song.

Neil Young’s performance of “Long May You Run” is clearly meant as a tribute to Willie; although Nelson does play on it, he mainly seems to be simply allowing Young to sing it to him. Young also dominates their rendition of Sam Neely’s “Sail Away”, and that works just fine in both cases, because Young is in fine form here.

At the end of the set, we hear Nelson and Jack White sitting down and working on their “Red Headed Stranger” duet in impromptu fashion. It’s a pleasure to hear.

One false note: Willie’s duet with Ashley Monroe on “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” is missing the chemistry that Nelson shares with the other guests. It was a nice touch to include a fresh-voiced singer who is nearly young enough to be Nelson’s great-granddaughter, and Monroe does fine when she sings the sole lead vocal on “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”. But there is clearly a wide musical generation gap between her and Willie, and their duet does not work very well. Another quibble: “Shotgun Willie”, a duet between Nelson and Jamey Johnson shown during the broadcast, is omitted from this set.

Those flaws aside, this album captures an agreeably touching tribute to a musical legend, while proving that the living legend himself still has considerable life left in him at age 80. Long may Willie run.

Besides the striking colors that the two transparent records are pressed in, there is another unique vinyl visual asset on display here: the fourth side, which has no musical grooves, has an image of Nelson’s famous Martin N-20 guitar named “Trigger” etched into the disc. It’s a clever bit of artistry that vinyl lovers will appreciate.

The proper “bonus” item in this package is a double-sided fold-out metallic-print poster, with a handsome Third Man logo printed on one side, and a black-and-white photograph of Nelson performing in the recording booth on the other side. The folks at Third Man threw in a few other goodies this time around: a sticker containing a drawing of the original tower that the Third Man logo is based on; an enamel Vault lapel pin shaped like a key; and a cardboard model of the Third Man tower that can be assembled and placed upon the spindle of a record player so it will spin as the record is playing. It’s all very creative, although I am personally not likely to use any of these mementos.

A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The A-side of the single has “I’m not Willie Nelson” carved in the dead wax; the blank side has “Hear yourself as others hear you” printed large where the grooves would have been. The double-LP has these three messages carved on its respective sides: “If only the water broke…”, “Even teleprompters get it wrong”, and “No, really, I’m not Willie Nelson”. The blank fourth side (with the guitar image etched) has “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” printed plainly in the center.

Willie Nelson & Jack White - Red Headed Stranger (from Third Man Record Booth)

Willie Nelson and Jack White “Red Headed Stranger” (Third Man single TMR229) 2013

Track Listing:

a. Red Headed Stranger

Willie Nelson & Friends - CMT Crossroads: Live at Third Man Records

Willie Nelson & Friends “Live at Third Man Records” (Third Man TMR228) 2013

Track Listing:


1. Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
2. Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground – with Ashley Monroe (unreleased)
3. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain – with Ashley Monroe
4. Funny How Time Slips Away – with Norah Jones


5. I Gotta Get Drunk – with Norah Jones (unreleased)
6. Sail Away – with Neil Young (unreleased)
7. Long May You Run – with Neil Young
8. Far Away Places – with Sheryl Crow


9. Whiskey River – with Neil Young, Ashley Monroe, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Jamey Johnson
10. A Song For You – with Leon Russell
11. Heartbreak Hotel – with Leon Russell (unreleased)
12. Red Headed Stranger – with Jack White (broadcast version)

SIDE D has an image of Willie Nelson’s famous guitar named “Trigger” etched in the green vinyl.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Primitives with Lou Reed – “The Ostrich” (1964)

This past Sunday, October 27, 2013, Lou Reed died at the age of 71 from complications caused by a liver transplant. As the creative force behind the influential – and subversive – ‘60’s band known as the Velvet Underground, Reed inspired (either directly or indirectly) nearly every musical artist who has defied the mainstream over the last 45 years. Volumes have been written about how the punk, new wave, and alternative rock genres probably owe their existence to Reed and the Velvets. More of my personal thoughts on Reed and the VU can be found on their respective pages on my website.

While we mourn the passing of the legendary inspiration for so many musical innovators, I wish to point out a little-known rarity from Reed’s earliest years in the recording business: a single from before his Velvet Underground days.

One of the things that made Reed different from his peers was his unconventional way of tuning his guitar. He did this in such a way that all the strings were tuned to “D”, in order to achieve a droning effect that is common in avant garde music. This type of method is traditionally called “trivial tuning”, but Reed gave his version his own name: Ostrich guitar. And where did this name come from?

In 1964, shortly before the formation of the Velvet Underground, Reed worked as a staff songwriter and session musician for Pickwick Records, a budget record distribution label. Reed recorded a single for Pickwick titled “The Ostrich” with a studio band called the Primitives (not to be confused with a late-‘80’s alternative pop band of the same name). The single attracted enough attention to bring about the formation of a live performing version of the Primitives, with John Cale playing bass. The Primitives soon evolved into the Velvet Underground…and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what did Reed’s pre-VU single sound like? Was it characteristically weird, noisy, abrasive, and defiantly anti-mainstream for its pre-punk time period? Well…yes, as a matter of fact, it can be described that way.

“The Ostrich” comes on like a parody of early-‘60’s dance-themed songs such as “The Loco-Motion” and “Hanky Panky”. The riff is blatantly lifted from the Crystals hit “Then He Kissed Me”, and the sound is like a low-budget imitation (parody?) of Phil Spector’s “wall-of-sound” production style, with background singers who hoot obnoxiously around Lou. Seemingly poking fun at the era’s pop trends, Reed already came across as the type of iconoclastic rebel that he would soon become. The B-side, “Sneaky Pete”, is a slightly less wild doo wop number in the Dion mold. It may have been meant as a straightforward entry in that genre, but those hooting backup singers (who are very annoying here, by the way) do raise some doubt about that. If the song doesn’t give you a headache, you might hear early echoes of White Light/White Heat in it. Maybe this is the moment when the alternative music genre was truly born.

The Primitives - The Ostrich / Sneaky Pete

The Primitives “The Ostrich” (b/w “Sneaky Pete”) (Pickwick City PC-9001) 1964

a. The Ostrich
b. Sneaky Pete