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Monday, January 28, 2013

Bo Diddley: Live At The Ritz


1) Road Runner; 2) I'm A Man; 3) Crackin' Up; 4) Hey! Bo Diddley; 5) Plynth (Water Down The Drain); 6) Ooh La La; 7) They Don't Make Outlaws Like They Used To; 8) Honky Tonk Women; 9) Money To Ronnie; 10) Who Do You Love.

Bo's recording activity throughout the late Seventies and the Eighties was about as high as any activity you'd expect from a bear in prolonged hibernation. He did record and distribute several cassette-only albums, produced in his own home studio in Archer, Florida, and fairly hard to locate these days (al­though they are sometimes offered as digital downloads): Ain't It Good To Be Free («...ain't it a bummer that nobody really cares?») in 1983, and Breaking Through The B.S. («...because Ol' Man Bo can still do better than goddamn Pump!») in 1989. I have not heard them, know next to nothing about them, and have a deep suspicion that neither is a masterpiece — but that suspicion don't amount to no fact, so you might wanna be on the lookout if you think an Eighties' album from Bo Diddley looks like a sufficiently kinky proposition.

The only Eighties' record with Bo's active participation that is readily available today is this concert album, recorded in New York in November 1987 by the short-lived «Gunslingers» pro­ject, involving Bo Diddley and Ronnie Wood. Considering that 1987-88 was the only period in the history of mankind during which The Rolling Stones had «ceased to be», the project actually had a theoretical chance at longevity — purely theoretical, that is, because already the first expe­riment showed that the matching was far from perfect.

Technically, Live At The Ritz may, and should, be included into both artists' discographies, but I prefer to review it under the Bo Diddley section, because (a) Bo's the older one, (b) the ratio of Bo to Ron songs here is approximately 3/2 (and only if we formally count ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ as a Ronnie Wood song; ʽMoney To Ronnieʼ, despite the title, is a semi-improvised blues jam with Bo taking control), (c) Bo starts off the show as well as closes it, (d) the event was clearly of more importance to Bo than to Ronnie — it's one thing to simply fool around on the stage with one of your idols, and another thing to get your first major label record out in twelve years, even if you have to share it with some grinning clown from England who prefers to jump around the stage rather than actually play guitar (okay, so it wasn't nearly as bad in 1988 as it is now).

The problem is that a good live Bo Diddley show needs a good live Bo Diddley backing band — and the people assembled on that stage had fairly little to do with that. The rhythm section, con­sisting of Debby Hastings on bass and Mike Fink on drums, is fairly flat-footed (they can't even set up a proper Diddley beat on ʽHey! Bo Diddleyʼ); the keyboard player (Hal Goldstein) occa­sionally switches from regular old piano — the only keyboard instrument suitable for this kind of event — to state-of-the-art synthesizers, killing most of the joy on ʽCrackin' Upʼ; and as much as the presence of two of the Temptations (David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, the latter also play­ing harmonica and occasional keyboards) could adorn the show... it didn't.

Above all else, the mix is quite poor: Bo's own rhythm playing is rarely elevated from anything other than background din, and Ronnie's leads (some, if not many, if not most of them actually supplied by third guitarist Jim Satten) are sometimes barely audible against the huge drum sound (remember, the late Eighties were a drummer's paradise — everybody used to think that ampli­fying the drum sound gives you complete, absolute power over the listener). All in all, the ambi­ence just isn't that great for a real sweaty rock'n'roll show.

The other side of the business is, of course, that Ronnie has no business taking part in Bo's stuff, and Bo has no business whatsoever to strut along on Ronnie's material. As good as all that mate­rial is on its own, I fail to see where it is that the two actually help out each other — unless we begin to count harmony singing, and I'd rather we don't (everybody knows that Ronnie is the only person in the world who sings even worse than Keith Richards, and using Bo Diddley as the re­sident «Auto-Tuner» is hardly a good solution to the problem). Ronnie gets a few of his trade­mark bluesy slide leads, e. g. on ʽI'm A Manʼ, but Bo Diddley songs are not solo guitar vehicles, and the leads aren't stunning enough to justify turning them into such vehicles. And whether Bo is actually doing anything on Ronnie's numbers, I have not been able to find out.

The Ronnie-led chunk part of the album is actually better than the Bo-led majority part, if only because the backing band is so clearly geared towards more «modern» numbers than the oldies. The performance of Ronnie's ʽOutlawsʼ, for instance, approaches first-rate barroom-boogie rock­'n'­roll, and he gets in a rough, but expressive slide-fest on ʽPlynth (Water Down The Drain)ʼ, which also incorporates contrasting bits of ʽAmazing Graceʼ and ʽProdigal Sonʼ. (The decision to also include ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ was either due to audience pressure — or, perhaps, Ronnie always had that secret craving to finally wrestle the classic solo away from Keith. Spoiler bit: Keith is still the winner).

Still, this is never really «bad» — it is saddled with too many problems to reach «classic lost gig» status, but both of the gig's protagonists clearly had themselves some fun; it simply failed to be perfectly captured on the recording. Historically, it was important for the effort to drag Bo, a little bit at least, back into the spotlight and show that, at the age of sixty, he personally had not lost it at all: guitar chops intact, powerhouse voice still well-powered. A little more sad is the realization that he was actually dragged out of a deep freeze — having him play on that stage with all those people is like watching some resuscitated pre-historical mammal put in a cage with its modern descendants. But, on the other hand, he doesn't seem to mind, bother, or show any serious dis­comfort about this — so let us not look at this from pessimistic angles, either.

Check "Live At The Ritz" (CD) on Amazon

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