TO The Record Shelf #4 – “Blue Ice of Winsted” by Steve Ferguson

It came in a flat box, as vinyl albums did for decades. One day, YEARS ago, I got 29 albums in the mail on the same day. But the one that landed Saturday was the first new album I’d seen in years. 

The return address was Terry Adams’s P.O. box. 

Inside was: “Blue Ice of Winsted,” the last songs former NRBQ guitarist Steve Ferguson recorded before he died of lung cancer in 2009. He played this music on dulcimer, a late-in-life enthusiasm when his waning strength put the guitar out of reach. His former band-mate Terry Adams, NRBQ pianist and now clearly its leader, assembled it with care and devotion.

In 2006, Adams had brought his friend and erstwhile bandmate into the studio for “Louisville Sluggers,” a time-travel through NRBQ personnel and power that they also took on the road. 

That tour hit WAMC’s The Linda, the first venue Adams would visit with his Rock and Roll Quartet in May 2009. (He recorded and toured under that name until he felt satisfied the new band deserved the NRBQ name.) On a warm November night in 2007, Adams and Ferguson, bassist Pete Toigo and NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino played a sold-out show spanning 20-plus songs including early ‘Q classics Ferguson played on, later NRBQ faves and such left-field numbers as “Suki Yaki” (Ardolino sang that one up front, Adams at the drum kit), also the “Dragnet” TV theme and “Flat Foot Flewzy.” 

For guitarist Al Anderson, who replaced Ferguson in NRBQ (mid-70s to mid-90s plus reunions) that song was crucial. “I heard him play the intro to ‘Flat Foot Flewzy,’ which was life-changing for me because all the other guitar players at the time were trying to distort and be like Hendrix,” Anderson told Mass.live.com before a 2009 Ferguson tribute show. “But Steve was the real deal, the only guy playing like that — real.” 

When frequent NRBQ guest saxophonist Jim Hoke complimented Anderson’s playing on a vintage NRBQ song that featured Ferguson on the original, Anderson modestly said, “Fergie could play stuff I can’t touch.” 

The sense of reality that Anderson cites, of somebody playing music they really mean, shines through “Blue Ice of Winsted.” As Rick Mattingly wrote in the album notes, “‘Blue Ice of Winsted’ combines Steve’s spiritual journey with his travels in the physical world.”

“This music was his last; he knew that,” said Terry Adams by email.

The opening and title track “Blue Ice of Winsted” describes a landscape in simple, sincere instrumental terms; portraying roadside ice formations Ferguson spotted on the way home with a new dulcimer he bought in Winstead, Connecticut after working with Adams on “Louisville Sluggers.”

“Waitin’ On the Avalon” traces a raffish riverboat journey complete with gamblers, fugitives and other ne’er-do-wells. Apart from a count-off later, It’s the only vocal number, a crackly, plaintive sound, and it testifies to Ferguson’s admiration for colorful miscreants.

In “Journey of the Magi,” his playing achieves a stately grandeur akin to viola da gamba master Jordi Savall’s early-music explorations.

Ferguson next manages a zippier evocation of Savall’s questing internationalism in “Melungeon Son Dance,” a celebration of the multi-culturalism he’s honored throughout his career, from the soul-rock-jazz amalgam of NRBQ through his own Midwest Creole Ensemble. (Check that band’s sparkling, funky album “Mama U-Seapa” Schoolkids’ Records 1995).

Flip the record over and up comes “Angelic Waltz,” the first song Ferguson crafted on dulcimer and a short, graceful mood piece here.

“Gathering of the Eagles” acknowledges a tribute to a tribute: a fundraising tribute at the Eagles Club in Louisville for Ferguson’s medical expenses. We hear his voice, for the last time, count off this quiet tune.

“WanDer of the Orient” is another tribute; Ferguson wrote it to honor his guide on wide wanderings in Japan when he and Adams toured there after “Louisville Sluggers” hit. It sounds like friendship more than anything specifically Japanese.

And the album ends with “Ode to McGuinn,” a contemporary of Ferguson and Adams. The Byrds were one of Ferguson’s favorite bands; but rather than echo how the Byrds echoed John Coltrane, Ferguson goes back to the source for a timeless feel.

As Adams said by email, “I just oversaw the project after the fact, seeing that it was mixed and mastered well, and looked good.” He said, “It was Steve’s gift to the world and I wanted to make sure it was received.”

“NRBQ was a rehearsal band, playing for ourselves only, at home,” Adams explained, noting how Ferguson transformed it. “When Steve came over and joined in, it didn’t take long to realize we would be living rich lives by bringing our approach to people,” said Adams, defining his own life’s work. “Even though Steve left the band in 1974, we remained musical brothers,” said Adams, explaining, “We did an album together called ‘Louisville Sluggers’” (Clang! Records 2007).

“When I became the producer for (Chuck Berry pianist) Johnny Johnson’s album (“Johnny B. Bad” Elektra Nonesuch 1991), he was the first person I called,” said Adams. Johnson’s album also featured Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bernie Worrell and members of NRBQ.

“His music still lives in our recordings and concerts,” said Adams of his late friend – a gifted music-maker with a distinctive, cleanly articulated approach, a now-vanished star who made music to cherish.

Steve Ferguson’s album “Blue Ice of Winsted” is available at http://nrbq.com/store_lps.html.

From the Record Shelf: Alone Together

Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” (1970) leapt off the shelf at me, and not just because it’s on marble vinyl and Mason autographed it when he played downtown Albany’s Alive at Five summer freebie concert series. Maybe because I think it’s his best.

Mason recorded “Alone Together” after touring with Delaney & Bonnie, an influence as clear as the earlier (mid-1960s) smash impact of Chicago blues on the Rolling Stones, Cream and other British bands. In fact, it’s a perfect echo that Eric Clapton personifies, as a member of blues power trio Cream, a touring member of Delaney & Bonnie and Tulsa shuffle enthusiast himself. 

“Alone Together” hit early in Mason’s up-and-down solo career, usually with solid but unremarkable bands. Meanwhile, he periodically stepped into a brighter spotlight with top-shelf collaborators, then just as quickly stepped back out.

The mercurial Mason joined and left Traffic three times, recorded on “Electric Ladyland” with Jimi Hendrix, then toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, all in the 1960s. In the early 70s, he recorded with George Harrison, who’d also toured with Delaney & Bonnie, as did Eric Clapton. A few years later, Mason became second guitarist in Derek & the Dominoes with Clapton but quit after recording a few songs and playing a single live gig before Duane Allman replaced him. After making solo albums and leading his own bands in the 1980s, he joined and left Fleetwood Mac in the mid-1990s, then quit a tour with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band after rehearsals.

Mason’s 15 studio albums, six live sets, 12 compilations, plus several Traffic albums, include a full-album project with Cass Elliott, a song with Phoebe Snow and dozens of other sessions, most in the 1970s.

Dave Mason played the Union College Memorial Chapel in Schenectady, NY, in October 1972; six years after Jimi Hendrix played the same stage. Michael Hochanadel photo

The “Alone Together” album credits (using original spellings and with selected credits added) list Leon Russell (Delaney & Bonnie’s bandleader), Delaney & Bonnie themselves, Jim Capaldi (Mason’s bandmate in Traffic), John Simon (The Band’s producer), Jim Keltner (every great LA pop-rock record of the 70s, the Traveling Wilburys, Little Village), Jim Gordon (maybe as many top sessions as Keltner, Derek & the Dominoes), Chris Ethridge (the International Submarine Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers), Carl Radle (Delaney & Bonnie, Derek & the Dominoes, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the Concert for Bengladesh), Larry Knectel (soon to found Bread), John Barbata (Jefferson Starship), Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear (both members of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends), Don Preston (Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention), Mike DeTemple, Jack Storti, Lou Cooper, Mike Coolidge, and Bob Norwood.

Eric Clapton isn’t in these credits or on the album, confusing listeners who thought Slowhand had played the guitar solos; no, it’s Mason. 

Mason produced “Alone Together” with Tommy LiPuma, and recorded in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound and Elektra Recording Studio with engineers Bruce Botnick and Doug Botnick; mix engineer was Al Schmitt.

“Alone Together” seems to zig-zag stylistically among Tulsa -time rockers (the Delaney & Bonnie/Leon Russell influence), bluesy pop (ala Clapton), quiet troubadour tunes and psychedelic guitar (Hendrix). Song by song, and most could have been hit singles, it traces a troubled emotional through-line in perhaps a single relationship. 

“Only You Know and I Know” – The album opens with this cautionary tale as mid-tempo Tulsa shuffle. A kicking bass line sets up laced guitars including a discrete interstitial acoustic, then an electric guitar solos with repeating triplets into a chorus with fine harmonies. As coda, an even better electric guitar solo revs up all the cool stuff from the first.

“Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” – Lush acoustics beckon us into a dark night of the soul where dreams are hammered low and the troubles we try to leave behind crawl into the suitcase anyway.

“Waitin’ On You” – Tulsa time again, with beautifully-balanced keys and guitars; then harmonies carry us toward hope that is not easily won. There’s a cheerful, spunky break, then a chorus pledges to build happiness, if possible…

“Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” – Another chiming keys and guitars tag-team, but also another roller-coaster accusation, in a stately build. Then a wah-wah electric guitar injects a mournful feel as the drums shift things up. Guitar and vocal join in a fatalism that edges into guarded optimism that the despairing opening returns to ice up again – beautiful pain.

SIDE 2

“World in Changes” – A crisp, meshed-acoustics intro, with organ edging into a fat-back groove. The vocal declares love a two-way street, like an announcement of something new. Then a powerful, surging organ solo pushes an upshift, cueing a falsetto vocal with exuberant whoops.

“Sad and Deep as You” – Slower, contemplative and just as emotionally complex and soft-spoken without drums or bass, this layers a gentle vocal on a firm piano line, positing the eyes as metaphor, tool and weapon.

“Just a Song” – Another warning, this soft-rock cautionary tale cruises mellow, a mid-tempo stutter-step shuffle spiced with banjo. Sweet women’s voices repeat Mason’s phrases declaring consolation and independence and “oooh” beautifully in the seams.

“Look at You Look at Me” – What a great build! Organ and piano chug under a plaintive vocal, then guitars shimmer to pick up the beat, the piano catches up and the vocal opens like a heart. The chorus – “I’m feeling, up I’m feeling down…but now my feet are on the ground for everyone to see” – curls with riffs that carry into an “All Along the Watchtower”* groove. Mason plugs in and hits full flight under the unguarded vocal admitting “I need you every day.” Mason takes it back down to acoustic guitar and piano before the electric edges in, takes over and guides the band’s lift-off echoing both “Sad and Deep as You” and “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving.” Mason’s beautiful tone and graceful phrasing carry such emotion you want the fade to keep going since it soars to a ghostly but serene voice at the end.

Dave Mason at the Union College Memorial Chapel, Schenectady, NY. Michael Hochanadel photo

If the early songs feel edgy, like rocky waters, “Alone Together” glides into shore in a satisfying, mature resolution, noisy and proud. But, what else lurks on that misty island, that emotional land-fall?

  • Mason is entitled to evoke “All Along the Watchtower.” He played acoustic 12-string guitar on Hendrix’s immortal Dylan cover the year before he made “Alone Together” and recorded it himself on “Dave Mason” (1974, reissued 1995). On “Alone Together,” he echoes the ecstatic acoustic guitar chug that helped push Hendrix’s version. Also, check the new composite tag-team Playing for Change cover, featuring numerous artists who’ve played here including Warren Haynes, Cyril and Ivan Neville, Bombino and Amanda Shaw. 

From the Record Shelf: Accept No Substitutes

Son Zak suggested I grab and gab: pick out, listen to and talk about an album. So I picked a buried treasure, Accept No Substitutes, a half-forgotten masterpiece by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. It’s a 1969 classic from the mid-south by way of LA, a record Jimi Hendrix described as “Call it spiritual, and leave it at that.” I’ve loved it since the summer of Woodstock.

Acceptmay be less well known than Motel Shot, a later effort whose bulging talent roster boasted British superstar Eric Clapton. “Slowhand”/God jumped the sinking ship of Blind Faith to sail instead on the soul-gospel-R&B wings of the loose crew of flyover-state pros Mississippian Delaney Bramlett recruited from LA’s Wrecking Crew studio gang. An elastic ensemble, Delaney and Bonnie’s “Friends” featured top talent including George Harrison, Duane and Gregg Allman, Dave Mason, King Curtis and more. Clapton once said Bramlett taught him how to sing. This album shows those lessons in Delaney’s confident soulful swagger. Then-wife Bonnie – likely the palest ever Ikette (background singer in Ike and Tina Turner’s Revue) – more than holds her own with power and subtlety. 

Like the Mad Dogs and Englishmen touring juggernaut he launched a few years later behind Joe Cocker, and with some of the same players, Leon Russell was the guiding principle shaping the Friends as keyboardist and arranger.  But here, the hit-record aim of LA studio cats animates the music more than the laid-back Tulsa shuffles that dominated his later music, while also miraculously retaining a proud regional tang.

Acceptis a glorious monster of deep soul. 

Only Dan Penn’s exhortation “Do Right Woman” stretches past five minutes and most tunes hit it and quit it in around three. They’re righteous radio-ready blasts of concise power. 

Like “Do Right,” many songs urge better behaviors, but without preaching or pretense. They deliver their wisdom from the neighboring barstool, not the pulpit. Huge sonic generosity confers a welcoming acceptance that renders the album title deliciously warm, un-ironic. 

There’s a dancefloor beat under nearly everything. Voices and horns mass into choirs with soloists standing up amid muscular harmonies. They shake out their robes and reach for the stars; most later became stars. The Friends on Acceptinclude future luminaries Jim Keltner, drums; Carl Radle, bass; trumpeter Jim Price, organist Bobby Whitlock and saxophonist Bobby Keys, guitarist Jerry McGee and singer Rita Coolidge. But the album is less about star-time than about speaking to us since these masters play with such low-key, well, human-ness and a well-oiled command of sounds that, like The Band’s music, predates commercial trends of the time. It helps that Keltner’s drum sound feels way clearer and cleaner than most percussion engineering of the time. 

The opening “Get Ourselves Together” enlists the listener in the vibe right out of the box. More than reminding us that we’re all in this together – a lesson compelling enough in these times – it announces that we’re doingthis together; active and energetic. Just try to listen passively to Accept– can’t be done.

Next, “Someday” revs the sonic-righteous force with a tempo shift in the middle that carries your pulse with it, inside it.

“Ghetto” is Delaney at his most powerfully plaintive, riding Russell’s choir-loft piano like sun sparkling on moving water, until women’s voices edge their way in, pushing him into falsetto, then shouts, as strings gang up on us for a minute.

A march beat chugs foursquare under “When the Battle Is Over,” Bonnie’s voice answering Delaney’s power in “Ghetto,” This time, stirring women’s voices lock to bluesy piano-and-guitar chords before Delaney knocks on the door, walks in, sings his piece (or peace?), both challenging and decorating Bonnie’s lead. On its face “Battle” may seem a simple, obvious report on the battle of the sexes – and Delaney and Bonnie divorced three years after this album hit. So the next three tunes – “Dirty Old Man,” “Love Me a Little Bit Longer” and “I Can’t Take it Much Longer” – deliver pleas powered by defiance more than desperation. In “Dirty Old Man,” Bonnie warns, “Darling, listen here” and growls strong in accusation.

If “Do Right Woman” is the album’s moral fulcrum, its last two tunes bear enough heft in exultant forgiveness to balance it. The pulsating “Soldiers of the Cross” waves the flag of united action, in humility, before breaking out into “This Little Light of Mine,” Bonnie leading in proud exhortation. After its up-and-down dynamic, you wipe sweat from your face and marvel that this great band drove us so hard in just a few breaths over three minutes.

Where to go from there but “Gift of Love” with its serene mid-tempo benediction reassuring us that “love is everywhere.”

As it fades, Bonnie’s voice rings in the choir behind Delaney’s comforting words.

Fast forward 44 years in a future post.