A Big Live Box from Chicago
Though Chicago continued to score major hits through the 1980s and are “still going strong” according to the liner notes here, their heyday really ended with the 1970s. The album title notwithstanding, therefore, it’s appropriate that the vast majority of VI Decades Live: This Is What We Do—including everything on three of its four CDs as well as its DVD—was recorded between 1969 and 1977. The remaining disc features a couple of tracks from 1978, plus several from the 80s and 90s and only two (both pretty awful) from the current century.
The box devotes all of its first two CDs to the group’s August 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, where they shared top billing with the Doors and the Who and were introduced as “the finest band from America.” Discs three and four collect material from a variety of shows in France, the U.S., and Australia while the DVD features performances of seven songs from a 1977 German concert plus a 1973 video of “What’s the World Comin’ To.” (The DVD’s audio and picture quality are fine, given their age, but don’t expect widescreen or surround sound.) Among the five discs, you’ll find one or more versions of most of the group’s best-known songs, including “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” “Colour My World,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “If You Leave Me Now,” and “Saturday in the Park.”
Overall, the package makes a much better case for Chicago’s strengths as a concert band than did 1971’s Chicago IV: Live at Carnegie Hall. But there are no revelations here: this is still the Chicago that you probably already love or hate. On the one hand, this is no Bitches Brew: there’s a fair amount of schlock and self-indulgent soloing, along with evidence that the group did more to water down jazz than to integrate the real thing with rock. On the other hand, there are a surprising number of moments when the guitar and horn work in particular really shines: listen, for example, to the Isle of Wight performances of “25 or 6 to 4,” “You’re Not Alone,” and “Mother.”
If you’re already a fan, you’ll be pleased with this package. And if you’re among those who think Chicago did more for Roman numerals than anything else, VI Decades Livemay give you reason to at least partially reassess.
A Sterling Concert Collection from the Electric Flag
The Electric Flag didn’t fly for long: not counting a film soundtrack for The Trip, they issued only one studio album with their original members, 1968’s A Long Time Comin’. But the group—which made its first public appearance at the deservedly legendary Monterey International Pop Festival—made a big mark in a short time with an inventive combination of blues, soul, and rock. One of the first rock bands to employ a full horn section, they were largely the brainchild of virtuoso guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who had recently left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Among the other members was the then-19-year-old drummer and vocalist Buddy Miles, who would go on to join Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies.
Bloomfield, who died in 1981, played on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and as Dylan later commented, “He could outplay anybody…I mean, he was the best guitar player I ever heard on any level.” You may well share Dylan’s assessment after listening to the two-disc Live in California 1967–1968, which offers two hours’ worth of frequently stunning performances. Most of the first CD comes from Hollywood’s Whiskey a Go-Go in September 1967; that disc’s final three tracks and all of the second CD preserve a May 18, 1968 gig at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco.
The program includes several songs drawn from A Long Time Comin’—“You Don’t Realize,” “Texas,” “Another Country,” and two versions of “Groovin’ Is Easy”—plus soulful readings of B.B. King’s “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long.” Other highlights include a version of the often-covered rock standard “Hey, Joe,” with a great lead vocal by Miles, and two long, jazzy versions of the horn-spiced “Soul Searchin’.”
The entire band really cooks throughout, but on virtually every number, it is Bloomfield’s guitar work that steals the show. Dylan had it right: that guy could play.
Gene Turonis, All the Pretty Girls. Gene Turonis has been a New Jersey plumber for decades, but it turns out that not all his pipes are stored in his truck. The guy can sing—and play and write—and he has enlisted some first-rate backup here, including the accordionist Charlie Giordano, who is best known for his fine work in Bruce Springsteen’s band. This album offers several Turonis originals plus a party-ready reading of Chris Kenner’s 1961 hit, “I Like It Like That,” Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s “Going Back to Louisiana,” and Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy.” Also here: two numbers associated with George Jones, including “Things Have Gone to Pieces," whose first line, appropriately enough, is “Oh, the faucet started dripping in the kitchen.”
Yung Wu, Shore Leave. No, they’re not Chinese: Yung Wu was among several side projects and alumni bands to emerge from the Feelies, the influential New York City-area indie rock group that formed in 1976. The name, according to liner notes by frontman Dave Weckerman, came from a band member’s mispronunciation of a Chinese menu item. Recorded over eight days in 1987, the long out-of-print Shore Leaveis delightfully lacking in overdubs and production flourishes—it sounds like the result of a garage jam session. The only LP ever released by Yung Wu, it is loaded with jangly acoustic guitar work, pop melodies, and strong original material. Like such other period outfits as the Only Ones (“Another Girl, Another Planet”), this group manage to straddle a line between punk and pop. The predominant originals are first-rate, and so are the covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Child of the Moon” and Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.”
Heather Styka & the Sentimentals, North. Heather Styka, who plays guitar, piano, and organ, applies her gorgeous voice to a dozen folk-rooted, pop-and country-flavored originals on a lyrically rich album that makes you feel as if you’re peeking into her diary. Many of these numbers—such as the powerful “Michigan or Minnesota”—concern romantic relationships, though one (“Love Harder”) focuses on America in the aftermath of the Trump election and another (“O’Hare”) is about Styka’s hometown of Chicago. Sprinkled throughout are lines that make you suspect she enjoys listening to other people’s music as much as making her own: one song, for example, mentions “arming ourselves against the apocalypse with Leonard Cohen songs” and going to Coney Island to “chase down Woody Guthrie.” In another, she refers to “singing that Greg Brown tune.” Clearly, she has good taste—and a lot of talent.
Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the just-published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.