Music Reviews: Cat Stevens, Lucinda Williams, and Joe Grushecky
A 50th-Anniversary Edition of Cat Stevens’s ‘Teaser and the Firecat’
Last year’s holiday season witnessed the release of massive 50th-anniversary editions of Cat Stevens’s Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, both of which originally appeared in 1970. Now comes an equally hefty box set to mark the golden anniversary of Teaser and the Firecat, the 1971 follow-up to those LPs. Even more popular than Tillerman, the multi-platinum Teaser made it all the way to number two on the U.S. charts and spawned three hit singles.
The original LP is a bit of a mixed bag. Unlike Tillerman, it incorporates four rhythm-driven and relatively undistinguished rockers (“Changes IV,” “Tuesday’s Dead,” “Bitterblue,” and the platitudinous “Peace Train,” a Top 10 hit) that fail to take full advantage of Stevens’s most distinctive asset—his voice. But the other six tracks are at least as well-crafted and accessible as anything on Tillerman. “The Wind” (which decades later was featured in the films Rushmore and Almost Famous), “Rubylove,” “If I Laugh,” and “How Can I Tell You” are all acoustic guitar–flavored love songs that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed such earlier numbers as “Sad Lisa” and “Wild World.” “Moonshadow” and “Morning Has Broken,” both of which were hit singles, are almost as likable, though they have been such big radio staples for so long that you may well have had enough of them by now.
Be that as it may, there’s lots more to like in the handsomely packaged new “super deluxe” Teaser and the Firecat box set, which features 59 songs, 41 of them previously unreleased, on four CDs. The first disc showcases a remaster of the original album while studio demos and rehearsals of Teaser’s songs dominate the second. A third CD makes room for 20 live numbers that aired in 1971 on BBC radio and TV and Yorkshire television, including most of the songs from Teaser, plus several of the best compositions from Tillerman. A fourth disc offers a 13-track set from May of the same year in Montreux, Switzerland, that focuses almost exclusively on earlier material, including “Wild World,” “Sad Lisa,” “Lady D’Arbanville,” and “Longer Boats.”
That’s not all. A Blu-ray disc adds an HD-audio copy of the remastered original album plus a 1977 video for “Moonshadow” as well as videos of all the TV performances that are on the third CD and some of the Montreux tracks that are on the fourth. You’ll also find two vinyl LPs, one with an alternate version of the album and one that includes some of the Montreux and BBC material. Other goodies include a 108-page hardcover book, a vinyl single that features “Moonshadow,” and a couple of tracks that demonstrate that Stevens—known these days as Yusuf—can still deliver the goods: the Blu-ray incorporates a live 2020 performance of “The Wind” while the second CD offers a newly recorded, “reimagined” rendition of “Bitterblue.”
If you’re not a vinyl junkie or the full “super deluxe” edition is more than your budget can handle, be advised that you can buy a version that omits only the LPs for less than half the price of the one that includes them. If you want to save even more or are just a casual fan, you can opt for an even less expensive package consisting of only two CDs, one with the remastered original album and one with the cream of the B-sides, demos, and concert, radio, and TV performances.
Lucinda Williams Shines on ‘Lu’s Jukebox’ Series
While some of us simply wore masks, watched businesses go under, and waited for the pandemic to end, Lucinda Williams decided to do something to help struggling independent concert venues. She put together a live-in-the-studio concert series called Lu’s Jukebox, streamed it online to paying customers, and sent a portion of the proceeds to music clubs.
The shows—which are being made available on CD and for download—find Williams covering some of her favorite music. Volume One, for example, is called Running Down a Dream: A Tribute to Tom Petty; it includes a dozen of the late rocker’s best songs, with an emphasis on ones about the South, where Williams, a Louisiana native, also has roots—numbers like “Down South,” “Louisiana Rain,” “Gainesville,” and “Southern Accents,” plus “Rebels,” “Wildflowers,” and more. The set ends with “Stolen Moments,” a song about Petty that Williams wrote. Volume Two, titled Southern Soul: From Memphis to Muscle Shoals and More, finds her tackling classics from a variety of performers, including Joe South’s “Games People Play,” Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” (the Tony Joe White song), and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
On the third disc, she returns to a one-artist focus for Bob’s Back Pages: A Night of Bob Dylan Songs, which features superlative material from across his entire catalog, including “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Make You Feel My Love,” “Meet Me in the Morning,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” Volume Four is entitled Funny How Time Slips Away: A Night of 60s Country Classics, and it delivers just that, with numbers like Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s “The End of the World” (the Skeeter Davis hit), John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” (the Glen Campbell hit), and two Willie Nelson compositions, the title cut and “Night Life.”
The emotion-drenched vocal work by Williams, whose band is first-rate, ranges only from great to even greater. Though the material is diverse, she seems ideally suited to all of it. And though superb versions already existed of many if not most of these songs, her renditions manage to add something new to virtually all of them. Consider, for example, “Ode to Billie Joe,” which appears in Volume Two. Yes, songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s classic original version is virtually perfect; but Williams puts a whole new swampy spin on the number. Listen, also, to the pathos she injects into her masterful reading of Bob Montgomery’s widely covered “Misty Blue” on the same record. Her renditions of Dylan compositions like “Not Dark Yet” and “Idiot Wind” are just as powerful.
Did Williams simply do a great job on Lu’s Jukebox of picking material that suits her style and temperament? Or can she deliver a memorable version of just about anything? The answer is probably Yes to both.
Note: A fifth volume of Lu’s Jukebox, Have Yourself a Rockin’ Little Christmas with Lucinda, has just been released, and a sixth (apparently final) volume—You Are Cordially Invited…A Tribute to the Rolling Stones—is on the way. I hope to be able to write something about these in a future column.
Joe Grushecky Rocks (with Help from the Boss)
Bruce Springsteen is all over American Babylon, the eighth record by Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers, which first appeared in 1995. The Boss produced all but one track on the CD, which also features Springsteen’s wife, Patti Sciafla, and photography by his sister Pam. Bruce also played on most of the tracks and co-wrote two of them (“Dark and Bloody Ground” and “Homestead”).
It’s easy to understand why Springsteen would be attracted to Grushecky’s music—and why Springsteen’s fans likely would be, too. Grushecky’s anthemic songs recall Bruce, as do his voice and phrasing, and his band sounds a lot like the Born in the USA–era E Street Band, sans saxophone. Grushecky’s lyrics, meanwhile, focus largely on social justice and romantic entanglements—the same preoccupations that dominate many of Springsteen’s songs.
But don’t get the idea that this band—which formed in the late 1970s and was originally known as the Iron City Houserockers—consists of a bunch of copycats. American Babylon is loaded with original gems by Grushecky, such as “Never Be Enough Time” and “Labor of Love” (the latter featuring a mandolin riff by Springsteen that sounds a lot like Steve Van Zandt’s contribution to Bruce’s subsequent “Land of Hopes and Dreams”).
A two-CD deluxe reissue of the album (billed as a 25th-anniversary edition, though the record first appeared 26 years ago) adds demos of three of its tracks plus a high-energy 72-minute 1995 concert in the group’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania hometown. The show features versions of most of the songs from the original studio album and several others, including “Light of Day” by Springsteen, who appears on all but the first two tracks.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.