AL KOOPER: SOUL OF A MAN (1995)
1) Somethin' Goin' On; 2) I Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes; 3) I Stand Alone/I Can Love A Woman/New York City; 4) Flute Thing; 5) Don't Tell Me (Repo Man); 6) Two Trains Runnin'; 7) Heartbeat; 8) Sleepwalk; 9) Just One Smile; 10) I Can't Quit Her; 11) I Want A Little Girl; 12) My Days Are Numbered; 13) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 14) Spoken Intro; 15) Made In The Shade; 16) Downtime; 17) Violets Of Dawn; 18) Albert's Shuffle; 19) Closing Medley (You Can't Always Get What You Want/Season Of The Witch).
Is this a stupendous live album, or what? Imagine a double live CD led by, say, Eric Clapton, with three songs performed by the original Yardbirds, four by the original Cream, and an extra three by the original Derek & The Dominos (minus the dead guys, of course), plus a bunch of solo stuff plus a bunch of whatever else came along — old stuff, new stuff, you name it. Clearly, despite all of his allegedly easy-going nature, Clapton could not pull it off in one go, nor would he ever want to. Leave that kind of bewildering stuff to crazy schemers like Al Kooper.
For a series of three gigs, recorded in New York in February 1994, Al got together the original members (well, not all of them, but most) of both of his old bands —The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, as well as his new band, the Rekooperators, led by Jimmy Vivino. In addition, he got Johnnie Johnson (the Johnnie Johnson, of Chuck Berry fame) to play some piano, and John Sebastian (the John Sebastian, of the Lovin' Spoonful fame) to blow some harmonica — in fact, something tells me he could have gotten anybody, including President Clinton on tambourine, they just ran out of space listing all the guests on the album cover.
With such an eclectic presence spearheaded by one of the most eclectic artists the world has ever seen, one should be prepared for everything. Now, obviously, Al did not get the old bands back together to make them play post-rock: the old chestnuts are respectfully revisited en masse, from the Blues Project's 'Flute Thing' and 'I Can't Keep From Crying' to BS&T's 'My Days Are Numbered' and 'I Can't Quit Her'. Apart from that, however, instead of concentrating on his solo career (mostly reduced to a brief three-song medley in the early part of the set and just two numbers from Rekooperation), Al concentrates on...
...oh boy, this is always my favourite part with this guy. Let's see now: there's Randy Newman ('Just One Smile'). The Rolling Stones (well, somehow, Al is justified in choosing 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', considering that he played on the original; and this is the only live rendition of this classic song I've ever heard that emphasizes the initial choral part instead of just dropping it, as the Stones always do). Friggin' Lynyrd Skynyrd — 'Made In The Shade', not even one of their better-known tunes, but turned into a New Orleanian hedonistic delight with Johnnie Johnson's help. And, even less expected — Adrian Belew, with 'Heartbeat' ("I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it is to play this song", Al complains before launching into it, "cause Adrian Belew is nuts!"). The band does a great job on the song, though.
Not everything is picture-perfect. The Blues Project, for instance, was a really early venture for Kooper, who did not really begin to bloom until 1968, and while the band was quite decent when covering contemporary psych-pop (e. g. Eric Andersen's 'Violets Of Dawn', one of the highlights here as well), their «blues» thing was rather generic, and little has changed since then — eleven minutes for Muddy Waters' 'Two Trains Runnin' is overkill. And on 'Albert's Shuffle', Jimmy Vivino does not particularly well match the shoes of the late great Mike Bloomfield (who, himself, must have had a great time watching the shows from Heaven through direct satellite transmission). Also, one strange post-production defect concerns Steve Katz, the guitar hero behind both Blues Project and BS&T, who, for reasons beyond rational comprehension, did not give permission to release his playing, so his parts had to be re-recorded in the studio by Vivino.
But none of this is truly significant next to the general feel of the record: once again, and once again from an entirely different angle, you get a potpourri of Americana (I sometimes forget Adrian Belew is American, too) played with just the right mix of professionalism, sincerity, and accessibility. And Al is in perfect form as a singer, too — for instance, his rendition of 'I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know' almost matches the original in tension and passion, and this is a major feat; the original vocal performance was so perfectly modulated that each single live version by BS&T I've ever heard was always a letdown. Here, allowing himself some minor leeway during the coda, Kooper delivers the goods exactly the way I feel they should always be delivered if 'I Love You More' is destined to remain what it has always been (namely, one of the most soul-shattering, tear-jerking songs ever written). His grumbly sense of humor works well, too ("I hate playing this song...", he says about 'I Can't Quit You', "...except with these guys").
Soul Of A Man is a goddamn perfect title. It is not a «career summary» — it omits way too much from Al's career, and adds way too much from his non-career for that — it is merely a reaffirmation of Al's original purpose in music, and shows him fully capable of pulling off everything he did thirty years earlier, and more. Look up «artistic integrity» in your local encyclopaedia — if you don't find a picture of Al Kooper next to it, I'll be very much surprised.
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