Album Review

A Previously Unreleased Phil Ochs Concert, plus More New Releases

Phil Ochs - Live in Montreal 10/22/66

A Previously Unheard Phil Ochs Concert

Live in Montreal 10/22/66, a two-CD, 20-song set that clocks in at a little more than two hours, is a welcome addition to the still-growing list of live Phil Ochs releases. It catches this one-of-a-kind folksinger during a transitional period between his final Elektra album, Phil Ochs in Concert, and his first A&M LP, 1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor, which marks a major step forward.

The sound quality is excellent and so is the program, which embraces such now-classic early gems as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “There but for Fortune,” and “Changes” and also some of the best songs that Ochs had yet to release at the time of this concert. Among them: Rehearsals for Retirement’s “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” Tape from California’s “Joe Hill,” and every one of the eight numbers that would surface on Pleasures of the Harbor. Those include “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” Ochs’s simultaneously funny and not-so-funny comment on public apathy; and such impressionistic epics as “The Party,” “Crucifixion,” and the title cut. Live versions of some of these songs are available elsewhere, but others could previously be found only on studio recordings.

Ochs used to jest about his failure to achieve the level of success enjoyed by contemporaries like Dylan. He jokingly titled one album Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits; and on this Montreal set he draws a laugh from the audience when he calls a song “one of my hits.” You can tell that the humor is an attempt to mask his hurt and that he can’t understand why he hasn’t achieved wider recognition for his brilliant work.

I’m still wondering about that myself. More than 40 years after Ochs’s suicide, this album underscores just how much we lost with his death. His wit, imagination, humanity, and social activism set him apart, as does his instantly recognizable voice. I still miss him. And like Michael Simmons, who wrote the liner notes for this release, I can only imagine what Ochs would be writing in the age of Trump.

A Massive Solo Outing from Translator's Steve Barton

Steve Barton—best known as cofounder of the San Francisco band Translator—makes a strong impression with the massive (three-CD) Tall Tales and Alibis, due out March 2, which melds punk and psychedelia with traces of the Beatles. Like many multi-disc albums, this seventh solo release might arguably have benefited from being pared back a bit, but I’d be hard-pressed to decide what to cut in this two-hour-long package, which finds Barton brimming over with good ideas.

The largely upbeat disc one and darker disc two contain stripped-down solo sets that feature Barton on guitar or piano; they sound like demos, but the kind that get you signed in a hurry. Disc three is a live-in-the-studio band album that features such musicians as Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Translator’s Dave Scheff.

There are some gentle ballads here (“Sweet Sweet Sad Girl” is a standout), but much of this is rough-edged and fast-paced; think early Elvis Costello, the Clash, and especially Joe Jackson. Most of the songs (including a version of the Translator hit “Unalone”) are Barton originals but two covers give a sense of the breadth of his turf: “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” an old pop song often associated with Frank Sinatra; and “Dandelion,” the great 1967 Rolling Stones B-side.

BRIEFLY NOTED

The Rex Granite Band, Spirit/Matter/Truth/Lies. This blues/rock outfit is named for its slide guitarist, whose virtuosic work will keep you coming back for more. But vocalist Sarah Benck’s performances really deserve equal billing. She radiates energy and personality on such band originals as “Stop Doing What You Want” and “What You’re Missing.” Other highlights include the menacing “Two Trains” and a simmering cover of “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” the Percy Mayfield chestnut.

Backtrack Blues Band, Make My Home in Florida. Performing live on their home turf in St. Petersburg, Florida, Backtrack Blues Band serve up a potent mix of rock-influenced originals and tracks from the likes of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson. The five-member group includes a noteworthy drummer, bass guitarist, and rhythm guitarist, but the main attractions are Sonny Charles, who provides most of the vocals and terrific amplified harmonica; and lead guitarist Kid Royal, who also handles some vocal leads. Listening to the album, I occasionally wished the band incorporated a horn section, but for the most part, these guys have everything they need to get the job done. This two-disc set delivers the show on both CD and DVD, so you can watch as well as listen.

*****

Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His latest book, Bob Dylan on Bob Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, is set for publication in May 2018. His earlier books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters