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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Blues Project: Projections

THE BLUES PROJECT: PROJECTIONS (1966)

1) I Can't Keep From Crying; 2) Steve's Song; 3) You Can't Catch Me; 4) Two Trains Running; 5) Wake Me, Shake Me; 6) Cheryl's Going Home; 7) Flute Thing; 8) Caress Me Baby; 9) Fly Away.

The band's first «proper» album, recorded without Flanders (everybody except for the rhythm section has his share of lead vocals), is the first proper LP-size imprint that Al Kooper made upon the world, and for that fact alone, is worth owning, admiring, and cherishing. However, like all Blues Project albums, it is inconsistent, and only occasionally starts scaling visionary heights — with Al as the band's resident visionary, and Katz and Kalb as a pair of disloyal henchmen, who, instead of supporting their clearly more gifted buddy, try in vain to steal the spotlight on every occasion. It is not that either of them is a poor musician: it is simply that, without Kooper, they seem unable to transcend the paradigm in which they had started out.

Take the cover of Muddy Waters' ʽTwo Trains Runningʼ, for instance. Even in late 1966, 11-minute tracks with long jam sections were still a relative novelty, and it took some guts to dedicate so much precious LP space to even one of them. But for the most part, it looks like the band itself is not quite sure about what to do with all that amount of time — mostly, they just waste it on a very slow tempo and a bunch of guitar and harmonica solos that sound a little... obsolete, perhaps, for an age where the Yardbirds and Cream were already setting new standards (and Jimi was just coming around the corner). They were probably thinking that, by expanding the composition, they could ensure some proper build-ups, climaxes, and finales for Muddy's «apocalyptic pin­nacle» of a song. But they do not.

Amusingly, it is actually the midsection of the much shorter ʽWake Me, Shake Meʼ that stands sonically close to the other well-known 11-minute monster from 1966 — the Stones' ʽGoin' Homeʼ, with freely ad-libbed vocals over a repetitive R&B groove. But although the song itself is among the most fun and rousing romps in Blues Project history, the groove section limps — too clean, too restrained, too laid-back to compete with the bite-and-snarl of classic Stones.

No surprise, then, that the most famous piece of the Blues Project's legacy, captured on the album, is neither a lengthy improvised blues-rock jam, nor a stark-ravin' rock'n'roll number: rather, it is Kooper's instrumental ʽFlute Thingʼ, a slightly dreamy number that rolls folk, jazz, and psyche­delia all into one, with Andy Kulberg's simple, but elegant and memorable flute part standing out as probably the first «serious» example of the flute as a lead instrument in a «pop-rock» context, a couple years before Ian Anderson made the situation casual. This is what the Blues Project should have done more often — an open-door synthesis of beauty and innovation. It isn't much of a «blues project», of course, but then again, ʽFlute Thingʼ does convey a blue feeling all the same, and whoever said that by «blues» we only mean the Chicago 12-bar stuff anyway?

This does not mean that the band is somehow pathologically unable to «rip it up». When Al is given the ideological lead, he knows how to make it work — his arrangement of the old blues tune ʽI Can't Keep From Cryingʼ as a hard-rocking stomper, with screechy distorted organ solos and accordingly screechy guitar counterparts from Danny, is first-rate, as it scales epic / anthemic heights, rather than attempting to delve into the devilish depths à la Muddy / Howlin' Wolf or to rapturously kick ass like the Stones. There isn't much credibility to the lyrics this way — the whole performance should rather be associated with punching fists through walls than with shed­ding an occasional tear over lost love, so something like "I can't keep from cursing" would have been a better idea for a title change — but this is not essential. What is essential is how the organ and the guitar meld together in ecstasy.

Other than those two obvious highlights, Projections is rather evenly divided between blues-rock escapades (including a fun, but superfluous cover of Chuck Berry's ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ — again, the Stones did that one in a sparser arranged, but tighter and sharper fashion a couple years earlier), and friendly rootsy compositions like Kooper's ʽFly Awayʼ (fast country-pop with a light­ly psychedelic flavor) or a cover of Bob Lind's ʽCheryl's Going Homeʼ which sounds like... uhm, sounds a bit like the Monkees, I guess. Yes, I'm sure the Monkees would have loved to have that one on their debut album. Steve Katz also steps into the spotlight with ʽSteve's Songʼ, an in­teresting attempt at fusing a baroque-style menuet with gallant singer-songwriter folk-pop à la Donovan, although its consciously experimental and glaringly derivative nature still make it feel a bit artificial.

In conclusion, I think that anyone who would bother to seriously sit down with this record back in 1966 and listen to it several times in a row could have prognosticated the obvious — namely, that the conflicting forces within The Blues Project would not allow the band to last for long; that the only way it could have carried on would be by turning into Al Kooper's backing band (with Danny Kalb playing loyal second fiddle, as he does on ʽI Can't Keep From Cryingʼ), which was impossible; and that, most likely, The Blues Project would have remained in history as an im­portant, but brief page in the personal biography of Mr. Al. Nevertheless, Projections, even with all of its imminent flaws, does remain as Al's finest moment with the band, and fully deserves its thumbs up — ʽFlute Thingʼ alone is a steady guarantee, and individual flaws, after all, only ac­centuate the rich diversity of approach: other than modern classical and Eastern stuff, there is hardly a musical genre that does not get a nod on the record.


Check "Projections" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Projections" (MP3) on Amazon

4 comments:

  1. I remember being very disappointed in this album when I first heard it. I was comparing them to Paul Butterfield and they just didn't cut it. I'm tempted to give this another listen after all these years and judge it on it's own merits (or lack thereof).

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head here, George. I like the Blues Project, but they tend to come of as a second or third string band that are just as, if not more, famous for being the starting point of people's careeres than as a great unit in of themselves. However, I do think this is a solid album, if not a major lost masterpiece of any kind. I do find it amusing/ironic that "Flute Thing" is probably the best song on the album, despite being the least representative of what the band were doing at the time.

    I'm also looking forward to your reviews of the weird, semi/psuedo-live album "Live At Town Hall" and "Planned Obsolescence," the Blues Project album that's really a Seatrain album.

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  3. These guys were obsolete almost upon entry. Ten Years After's debut came a year later and completely smoked these palookas. For that matter, Cream's debut utterly annihilated the need for this sort of stuff, and Hendrix then completely redefined the genre itself. On top of it all, the Allman Brothers came along to consign these "white boy academic" projects forever to the back footnotes by simply omitting the self conscious (read, arrogant) "look at how brave and daring we are" factor.

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    1. Couldn't have put it any better myself. The only thing I could add would be that Paul Butterfield made these guys unnecessary in the first place.

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