By Jeff Burger
This has been quite a year for box sets of vintage material. We’ve already witnessed the release of a four-disc Smithsonian Folkways collection celebrating the social power of music, a 14-disc collection from Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and a 38-CD Woodstock festival box, to name just a few of the standouts. Word has it there’s much more on the way in the months ahead.
What does it take to rank among the year’s very best box set reissues in a field like this? Probably what you’ll find in Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection. This four-CD anthology compiles material released by the producer, record label owner, and sometime songwriter Narvel Eatmon (aka Cadillac Baby). He had diverse tastes, as you’ll see from the program, which includes R&B, blues, doo-wop, gospel, hip-hop, and soul. There’s even a bit of comedy as well as some Christmas music. (Don’t miss “Santa Came Home Drunk.”)
Most of the material was recorded between 1959 and 1969, though some of the tracks date from the 70s and 80s. You’ll likely recognize a name here and there: folk/blues guitarist Sleepy John Estes and blues harmonica star James Cotton are on the program, as are blues pianist Eddie Boyd, slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor, and boogie-woogie piano player Sunnyland Slim. But the lion’s share of this material is obscure indeed. Ever hear of a doo-wop vocal act billed as 11 Year Old Faith Taylor and the Sweet Teens? I hadn’t either. And then there are the two tracks that are actually credited to “Unknown Blues Band.” Even the compilers of this box don’t know who they are. The fact that so much of this music is unfamiliar makes its consistent quality particularly surprising and impressive.
About half an hour of the nearly five-hour program is devoted to Eatmon’s reminiscences, which are also featured in an accompanying 128-page hardcover book. Eatmon, who died in 1991, was a colorful character (to put it mildly), and his memories are a kick to hear and read. They leave no doubt that his record labels were a labor of love. That labor pays off on nearly every track here.
Leonard Cohen, The Lost Sessions. Last year, I wrote about The Archives, a superlative six-CD set of concert and radio material recorded by the late, great Leonard Cohen between 1976 and 1993. The Lost Sessions goes back even further: its 17 live recordings, none of which have previously been released, date from 1968, the year after his debut album appeared. The all-originals program embraces eight of the 10 songs from that LP, including such classics as “So Long Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Suzanne,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (two versions, including a duet with folksinger Julie Felix), plus “Master Song,” “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” “The Stranger Song,” and “Teachers.” Also here are several gems that surfaced on subsequent albums: “Bird on a Wire,” “Story of Isaac,” and “You Know Who I Am,” all of which appear on 1969’s Songs from a Room; “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” which shows up on 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate; and the obscure “There’s No Reason You Should Remember Me.” There’s probably no reason you should remember that song, but the rest of these performances will remind you of just how outstanding Cohen’s material was from the start and what a strong stage presence he always was.
Leeroy Stagger, Strange Path. Canada’s Leeroy Stagger balances darkness and light on this well-produced rock set, which features a band that includes Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas. The tracks wed upbeat punk-influenced rock to lyrics that comment on today’s world. There’s a lot of optimism in this music—anger, too. You can hear both in cuts like “Breaking News,” which Stagger notes is “in the spirit of” the late Clash cofounder Joe Strummer: “We all know you’re lying / You can feel it in the air / The fist of human kindness / This we know will get us there / All around the world, the kids are rocking to the beat / Getting hip to revolution, marching in the street.” A few of the tracks sound like filler, but the best ones, including the aforementioned “Breaking News” and “Hey Hey! Song for Gord” are catchy, passionately sung, and eminently playable.
Various artists, International Pop Overthrow, Volume 22. International Pop Overthrow is a music festival that has been held one or more times annually for the past 22 years, initially just in Los Angeles and now also in cities ranging from Austin, Texas to Liverpool, England and Stockholm, Sweden. The idea is to showcase relatively unknown bands, including many that are unsigned. Following the festivals, the organization issues CDs containing tracks from the performers. This latest one—a three-disc set, like nearly all of its predecessors—features 69 bands from 10 countries. A few of these artists have some sort of claim to fame; Kimberley Rew, for example, wrote Katrina & the Waves’ 1985 pop hit “Walking on Sunshine,” and Peter Holsapple cofounded the dB’s. Chances are, though, that you’ve never heard of most of these acts. Given the number and stylistic range of artists represented, if you like every one of them you should perhaps see a psychiatrist; but given the quality level of this well-curated grab bag, you should probably see an audiologist if you don’t like enough of them to justify the modest price of admission.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.