Tag Archives: Leland Sklar

Yet More Live Gonzos, part 1: Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

There’s a moment early in Jackson Browne’s 1977 album Running on Empty that isn’t merely an impressive production coup, although it is that. It functions as a thesis statement for the record, and simultaneously elevates it above any similar album in the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

Essentially a concept piece about a life spent touring, with new songs by Browne augmented by a number of co-writes and covers, Running on Empty was recorded entirely outside the traditional studio environment. Some of the tracks were recorded live in concert; others were cut backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus itself (a Continental Silver Eagle, since you ask).

The Road, the second track, initially sounds like a moment of pensive, quiet introspection after the adrenaline-fuelled high of the opening title track. Browne sings the song quietly, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and David Lindley’s smoky fiddle. The liner notes tell us it was tracked in Room 301 of the Cross Keys Inn, Columbia, MD *. The verses rest upon the tension created by moving back and forth between G major and a G augmented, a tension that isn’t fully released until just before the end of the chorus, where a chord is held and the singer pauses long enough for us to hear the night-time sounds of crickets through an open window. “It’s just another town along the road,” Browne concludes over a descending sequence that takes us back to G major and the start of the next verse.

The song is a meditation on the cost of a life spent always on the move, losing contact with people you care about, taking drugs you oughtn’t to, and making only superficial connections with the people you meet. It’s a cover of a song by Danny O’Keefe, but Browne sings it as if it is his own, inhabiting every note convincingly. But then, after the second chorus, as the major 7th chord fades, the crickets are replaced by cheers from an audience, and we crossfade into a live-in-concert performance of the song. It’s done so subtly that the first time you hear it, you probably won’t hear the join or realise what’s happening until it’s happened.

That cross-fade from motel room to concert hall may have been a relatively simple matter for audio engineer Greg Ladanyi (the album’s unsung hero), but the emotional effect of it, the dramatic change it causes to the song’s meaning, is huge. Yes, the song says, the life of a touring musician – boring when it’s not bacchanalian, and harmful to the soul when it is – takes a great deal from you, but it’s a price worth paying to get to play for people for an hour or two a night. It would be one thing to write a song that contained that message. Plenty of people have, including Jackson Browne. But with this song, he found a way to illustrate it, to show without telling. It’s this that I find so impressive, and this that makes the album probably the best of its type.

That said, there aren’t many live albums of its type*. Live records are more usually recorded at one show to document a set that contains at least some old material, and over the years have been so routinely touched up in the studio, or in extreme cases re-recorded so extensively, that calling them live albums might be a bit of a stretch. What we have with Running on Empty, if we take the sleeve notes at face value (and I’m inclined to, having watched the bass player on the tour, Lee Sklar, talk about Running on Empty on his YouTube channel – the guy has had such a storied career that he has no reason to embellish the truth where this one record is concerned), is very different. This is more akin to a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a rock band on the road, in which concert footage is juxtaposed with jam sessions on the tour bus and songs being rehearsed backstage.

Even if you don’t know the album, you may well know the title track, which was one of Browne’s biggest hits. It’s played so cleanly that during its running time we may well forget that it’s a live recording (from a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion), but there’s an edge to it, a power, that Jackson Browne’s studio records sometimes lack. The Section  – Russ Kunkel on drums, Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on keys and Danny Kortchmar on guitar – are in fiery form, with Sklar and Kunkel a thrilling blend of power and agility, while David Lindley’s scorching lap steel guitar eggs Browne on to really let go in his vocal performance; when he cries out “I don’t know about anyone but me” halfway through the track, there’s an edge, a grain, to his voice that feels raw and genuine, as if he’s just being carried away by the music.

The other famous moment from the record is the medley of Browne’s The Load Out and a cover of Maurice Williams’s Stay, during which backing singer Rosemary Butler (who along with Doug Haywood does yeoman work throughout) takes a verse, before David Lindley does likewise, bringing the house down with his best doo-wop falsetto.

It’s easy to forget about The Load Out, to enjoy it just as a prelude to the warm, funny climax of the record, but it’s one of the record’s most important songs. The Load Out (and Rosie from earlier in the album) is as concerned with the roadie’s experience of the touring life as that the musician’s, and it has an eye for detail (“I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs and that’s a sound they’ll never know”) that raises it above the many, many road songs that got written in the seventies. So many of those songs talk only of the alienation of life on tour. The Load Out acknowledges the loneliness, the endless time to fill, but is ultimately about the camaraderie between musicians and crew, which is why when it segues into Stay and Browne sings that they want to play just one more song, it works so perfectly.

Jackson Browne himself produced Running on Empty, and what makes it successful, apart from that crucial decision to record outside the concert venue as well as in it, is his choice of material. Browne wrote only two of the songs by himself, unusually for him, and included four covers (The Road and Stay, and also Danny Kortchmar’s R&B-flavoured Shaky Town and a version of Cocaine with new lyrics by Browne and Glenn Frey).

Browne is an excellent writer. These Days, Jamaica Say You Will, Late for the Sky, Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty and many more all stand as testament to that. But his decision to forgo his own material and bring in work by other writers that fit the album in mood and subject, like The Road and Shaky Town, was astute and refreshingly free of ego. Better to have 10 songs that belong together and form a musical and conceptual unity, whoever wrote them, than to have 10 disparate songs that all feature solo writing credits for the artist. Likewise the co-writes, particularly the gorgeous Love Needs a Heart (by Browne, Valerie Carter and Little Feat’s Lowell George), and The Load Out (by Browne and Bryan Garofalo) are crucial to the album’s success.

I’d never completely dug Jackson Browne at album length until getting familiar with Running On Empty. Previously, I figured that Browne’s greatest hits would suffice for me, having not been impressed by much on Late for the Sky other than the title track. There’s something, and I don’t use the word lightly, magical about Running on Empty, though. As a document of a truly special band whose greatness is as apparent during a casual post-show jam as it is in front of 20,000 people at an outdoor arena, there’s simply nothing like it. The songs are, perhaps with the exception of You Love the Thunder, all first rate, and Browne is on great vocal form throughout. If you’ve never really heard his albums, start here.

RoE2
Browne and Danny Kortchmar, recording Nothing But Time aboard the Silver Eagle bus

*That is, albums of new material recorded live rather than in the studio. I’ll be writing about a couple over the next few weeks. Maybe not sequentially though. I might break things up with some shorter posts. The next one, when it comes, might be lengthy, as I’ve got some rather cool stuff to put in it.

 

 

 

 

Give some to the bass player, part 8 – Gloria by Laura Branigan

The endearing thing about Italo disco is how unashamed it is. It’s totally committed to the idea of being pop music. While never hugely popular in the US or UK, several Italo or Italo-derived records did hit big, Ryan Paris’s Dolce Vita from 1983 and Gloria (originally by Umberto Tozzi), but covered by Laura Branigan (with English lyrics by Branigan and Trevor Veitch) in 1982 among them.

Made in California her version may have been, but Gloria retains its Italo ethos: from the endlessly repeated three-note synth hook to the trumpet fanfares in the coda, no idea is too obvious and no hook is too crass. Branigan, 27 when the song hit and a one-time backing singer for Leonard Cohen, sings it with throat-tearing commitment. It’s a big excitable dog of a song.

We often associate disco with complicated, funk-derived bass lines (Chic’s Good Times and I Want Your Love, Teena Marie’s I Need Your Lovin’, Narada Michael Walden’s I Should Have Loved You, that kind of thing). When hi-NRG appeared in the wake of Donna Summer’s epochal I Feel Love, it did away with much of the funkiness in the low end which had been one of first-wave disco’s calling cards. Before long, root-octave basslines at brisk tempos (130-140, as opposed to the classic disco tempo of 120 – try walking down the street Travolta-style to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel and see how long it takes you to keel over), had been normalised within dance music. Hence, when Branigan and her producer Jack White picked up Tozzi’s 1979 track Gloria, they substituted the original’s straight-eight bassline for an eighth-note root-octave line.

There are two bassists credited on the album Branigan, Bob Glaub and Leland Sklar. I always assumed the player on Gloria was Glaub, as Sklar is primarily known as bassist from the section, the LA studio band who backed Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other such 1970s singer-songwriters of the mellow school. Tonally it doesn’t sound like Sklar as I recognise him (it sounds like it was played with a pick). But more than one article I’ve read about Sklar has credited Gloria to him, so who knows.

Whoever it was, it’s a great performance. It sounds suitably machine-like in the verses, with a clear debt to Moroder’s pioneering I Feel Love bassline (created with a delay – if you want to hear the original line, listen to the left channel only), but in the chorus sections (“You really don’t remember”), the line becomes more fluid and melodic, with scalar passing notes providing a marked contrast to the roots and octaves that dominate the verses. All of which, we should again stress, is played at a pretty damn fast tempo.

Branigan’s discography contains one other unimpeachable classic, Self-Control from 1984 (a song I really should write about in more depth), but she’ll always be remembered for Gloria and her Tiggerish performances of it. She died in 2004 from a cerebral aneurysm when she was just 47.

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Since I don’t know who played bass on Gloria, here’s Laura Branigan instead; she’s definitely on it

Graham Nash David Crosby Part 2; or a great-sounding record deconstructed; or a case study in LCR mixing

I’ve seen Crosby, Stills & Nash. They’re groovy. All delicate and ding-ding-ding.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi wasn’t wrong. CSN were delicate and ding-ding-ding; particularly in an era of heavy freakout records, Crosby, Stills & Nash could scarcely have sounded more different. Jimi’s own music sometimes traded sonic clarity for head-turning effects or the raw spontaneity of a captured moment. Such a mindset was pretty alien to the CSN way of working.

How did they achieve this?

When I hear the records the Crosby, Stills & Nash diaspora made together and separately in the early to mid-seventies, the word that springs to mind is lucidity. The parts are largely simple, recorded in a relatively no-fuss manner, with little in the way of trickery, and presented in mix in the most straightforward way possible. They’re bright without being cutting and harsh. They’re warm and intimate but not sludgy and ill-defined. There’s strength and muscularity there, but never in a way that overwhelms the music.

By the time Bill Halverson recorded and co-produced 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby — by which time he’d already worked on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Déjà Vu, Stephen Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name and Songs For Beginners — he’d got the CSN thing down to an art. There are great songs all over the album, as we discussed on Sunday, but there are also great performances and sounds. And while Halverson gives Stephen Stills a lot of credit for the sounds on the CSN debut, Stills does not play on Graham Nash David Crosby; the sounds come from Halverson and from the musicians, who as we noted the other day, comprised the very best players on the West Coast/Laurel Canyon scene: Craig Doerge, Danny Kortchmarr, Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead; CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves; the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason.

Doerge, Kortchmarr, Sklar and Kunkel are known collectively as the Section. When you listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne, it’s the Section you’ll hear. They were a key component of the sounds of the records made in LA for about a decade, starting in around 1971. No wonder they also called these guys the ‘Mellow Mafia’. Peter Asher had brought Kunkel and Kortchmarr in on drums and guitar for Sweet Baby James, looking for players who wouldn’t get in the way of Taylor’s vocal or intricate acoustic guitar playing. After that record’s success, the pair were involved in the recording of King’s Tapestry. Completed by pianist Doerge and the truly remarkable bassist Lee Sklar, the Section appeared as a full unit on the Jackson Browne and Nash and Crosby records, and later with Ronstadt and Carly Simon too.

On Graham Nash David Crosby, it all came together. A great group of musicians, playing strong songs and recorded by one of the best in the business at the top of his game.

Let’s look at a couple of songs. One thing you might notice listening to pre-1980s records is that the stereo image tended to be wider. There’s an approach to mixing often called LCR. LCR stands for left, centre and right. What it means is that elements within the stereo image are panned to those points only. Nothing is panned a little bit left, or a little right, or to 10 o’clock, rather than 9. There are advantages to this method. It’s bold, it clears a lot of real estate in the centre of the stereo image for the stuff that sells the song or holds it together (usually bass drum, snare drum, bass guitar, principle rhythm instrument if there is one and lead vocal), making the mix feel spacious, and it tends to provide a stereo image that feels stable even if you move around relative to the fixed positions of your left and right speakers. It’s something of an old-school technique, a legacy of an era where some mixing desks allowed you to rout tracks only to the left or right channel or both. It started to disappear a bit in the 1980s, an era where – coincidence or not – the craft of record making began its slide into the rather dispiriting mess we have today.

When you listen to say, Girl to be On My Mind, which has some fairly big drum fills from Russ Kunkel, you can hear a drum sound that appears to be a very narrow stereo (probably an XY overhead pair with close tom mics, breaking the LCR ‘rule’, panned to the positions where they appear in the overhead image), with an LCR mix constructed around it. Piano on the left, rhythm guitar on the right, bass and lead guitar in the middle, a stereo organ, and all vocals in the middle. It’s well balanced and extremely spacious. Everything has its place. It is, as I said up top, lucid, with a great sense of depth. While allowing for some lovely details – the manually ridden vocal delay at the end of the bridge for example – it’s extremely unfussy. Bold Southern European brush strokes, if you will.

Here’s the rub: a mix this good is not achievable with a half-assed arrangement. Pan LCR with an arrangement that didn’t balance in the rehearsal room and it won’t balance on record either. A lot of young mix engineers are scared of LCR mixing as they haven’t worked with musicians that give them arrangements that create this natural internal balance. Or they’ve tried to create a wide stereo mix out of two or three elements (in a sparse mix, you’ll have a hell of a time creating a coherent whole if you insist on panning the acoustic guitar out on the left and the vocal in the middle, with a mono echo on the right – but then, there are some complete wingnuts crashing around out there).

If you’re into the details of record making, and God me help I am, Graham Nash David Crosby is a treat. It sounds so good, it’s actually a little depressing hearing a modern record after it. I don’t think I’m simply romanticising the old-school methods here; I hear few records that are played as sensitively and mixed as lucidly as this now, where the details are all so clearly audible, where the sounds themselves are so rewarding. But then, I’ve never been one for a big, soupy wall of sound. I like clarity and audible detail. Halverson, Henry Lewy, Alan Parsons, Ken Caillat, Roy Halee, Tom Flye, Ron Saint Germain…

Bill Halverson

Bill Halverson

Graham Nash David Crosby

Long-time readers may recall that I’m a big David Crosby fan. Yeah, he’s an easy punchbag, but he’s also been a fearless musician, staking out a musical territory that is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them his. He imitates no one, and you have to respect that. He may have the smallest body of work of any musician of his stature, he may have wasted the latter part of the seventies and all of the eighties in a cocaine haze, but I’ll take 25 David Crosby songs over 200 of almost anyone else’s, thanks very much.

This week a cover spread on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s infamous 1974 world tour prompted me to pick up Mojo for the first time in getting on for a decade. This is a period I’ve got reading material on already (Shakey, Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California), but it came with a CD of stuff from the upcoming live album (compiled painstakingly by Graham Nash over several years), so I dug into it over the course of a journey home, the train journey courtesy of Southeastern lasting nearly twice as long as it should.

Among the article’s sidebars was a round-up of CSNY-related records from 1970-1974, in which After the Gold Rush, Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name, Harvest and Graham Nash David Crosby and On the Beach all received rapturous, 5-star reviews. If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably know all of these already, but if any of them is unfamiliar to you, it’ll probably be Graham Nash David Crosby, a 1972 collaboration between Stephen Stills and Neil Young.

Just kidding. It’s by Graham Nash and David Crosby.

“Now oddly overlooked, this is the most blissfully lovely of all the CSNY side projects,” reckons Mojo. Yes, I’d agree with that. I bought it looking for another couple of those precious David Crosby songs. If you like the Cros, you’ll end up buying a lot of records with a lot of crap on them to get at the one or two moments where he was on peak form. But to my huge surprise, I ended up loving almost all of Graham Nash David Crosby.

It helps that there’s no Stills; it’s not that his songs are always terrible, though he is by a distance my least-favourite writer and singer in CSNY, but without Stills in there, the mood is more low key. C&N aren’t trying to take over the world; they’re just trying to express themselves and impress each other. What really hit me about the album, though, was the quality of Nash’s work. I’d never previously liked his songs all that much. Marrakesh Express is not for me. Our House even less so. Teach Your Children is a lovely tune, but sickly sweet, and swallowable only rarely. Yet, his voice, presented alone, retains a surprising Mancunian bluntness, and it’s this quality that pervades much of his solo album Songs for Beginners and on Graham Nash David Crosby. Southbound Train, Stranger’s Room, Frozen Smiles (with its accusatory pay-off, “You’re supposed to be my friend”) and the beautiful Girl to be on My Mind are all great songs with far less hippie-dippyness than his contributions to Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu – being confused and a bit pissed off suits Nash well. Only Blacknotes betrays any of the childlike whimsy that sinks some of his work elsewhere.

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(photo by Henry Diltz)

Crosby, meanwhile, is on magisterial form. All his contributions reward repeated listenings and detailed study: Whole Cloth, the harmonically confounding Page 43, Games, The Wall Song and the delicate, gorgeous Where Will I Be?, which with its distinctive polyphonic organum-style harmonies is very much in the mould of Orléans and I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here, from If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby would have made a good 12th-century French monk.

cros

A huge part of what’s so appealing about the album is the lucid, spacious engineering of Bill Halverson and Doc Storch, and the ensemble playing of the backing musicians, a who’s-who of the early-1970s West Coast scene: all of The Section (Craig Doerge on piano/keyboards, Danny Kortchmarr on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums), as well as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh, CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason. The drumming throughout is stellar, with sounds that do the performances ample justice. Kunkel, in particular, is on especially impressive form on Nash’s Girl to Be on My Mind and the tricksier Crosby compositions Games and Page 43.

If you’re agnostic about Graham Nash or David Crosby, this album may just convert you. If you like either of them and haven’t yet heard this, remedy that now, please.

nash and crosby
(photo by Joel Bernstein)