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2005-06-01

Note: I'd like to thank Peet's Coffee, Red Bull, Tejava and Coca-Cola for getting me through last week. --BB ******************************************************

By Buddy Blue

This Spring has been a very special season for Les Paul. Last month, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall Of Fame for creating the illustrious, iconic electric guitar that bears his name. Next: a 90th birthday gala at Carnegie Hall on June 19th. "I'm right up there with the Wright Brothers and Edison," quips the man affectionately dubbed the Wizard of Waukesha, Wisconsin.

All this on top of Paul's five extant Grammy awards, 1988 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction, eminence as a pioneering jazz guitar great, pop hitmaker and innovator in recording technology -- multi- tracking and reverb effects are his crowning accomplishments in that field. In short, it's impossible to imagine the evolution of music playing out as it did without Paul's various contributions; he certainly ranks among the most significant musical figures of the 20th Century.

Yet for all he's achieved, it's the celebrated Les Paul guitar that continues, and probably shall for eons, to make his a household name.

"Les Paul got people to understand that an electric guitar didn't have to be an acoustic-bodied instrument, he was touting the sound of the electric guitar as something good in and of itself," says Dan Altilio, luthier, guitar historian and owner of Top Gear, a respected custom music shop in La Mesa. "Before that, nobody believed that a solid hunk of wood without a resonant chamber could ever work."

Several luthiers were experimenting with the concept of the solid body electric in the 1940s; Paul and his friend Leo Fender, among others. So much debate over who conceived the idea has been tabled that the matter will probably never be settled conclusively, but it's Paul's creation that went on to achieve and maintain recognition as the finest model on the market.

Getting there took much trial and error. Paul initially tried jamming a phonograph needle into his acoustic guitar; wild feedback resulted. He stuffed it with cloth to attempt sound control, even going so far as to fill the chamber with plaster at one juncture, all to no avail.

Finally, Paul took a piece of broken railroad track, wired a double-magnet telephone mouthpiece to it, added a single guitar string and hooked the contraption up to his radio; this is how the Les Paul guitar - and the still-popular humbucking pickup - were born.

"Lo and behold, there was the sound I wanted," Paul reminisces. "The first thing I wished to get was sustain and clarity, to reproduce everything I could capture off the string; then I could make it sound like an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a sax, a bass, do anything I wished with it. I wanted to get that string to behave, to ring forever."

Paul and Fender spent many an afternoon discussing how to perfect their common passion. "We were working on it at the same time but going in different directions with it," Paul says. "We'd sit in my backyard, barbecuing and talking about what we craved to hear but couldn't find anywhere on earth."

Ultimately, Leo Fender's adaptation of the solid body electric was released first, in 1950. Paul had long been negotiating with historic Gibson guitars, which he considered the world's finest, but it wasn't until Fender offered Paul collaboration with his own fledgling company that Gibson finally acquiesced.

"They called me 'The Character With The Broomsticks With Pickups On It,'" Paul recalls. "They laughed at me for ten years. It wasn't until Leo and I decided we were gonna be partners that they agreed to work with me."

It's probably best that the friends became business rivals, as their vision of the instrument couldn't have been further removed from one another's. You might liken Fender's ultimate triumph, the Stratocaster, to driving a zippy Toyota, while the Gibson Les Paul, first released in 1952, was more akin to cruising in a dressed-out Caddy.

"Fenders were designed for mass production where Les Pauls were quality instruments made by

luthiers," says Altilio. "Gibsons have leaned towards glued-on necks with fine, furniture-quality woods like mahogany and maple. Fenders have screwed-on necks with woods that weren't selected for their fine characteristics, they were selected for their economy. Gibsons are viewed as the more legitimate instruments."

Paul has his own, less technical take on the matter: "One was an ironing board, the other was something that'd you'd want to love and hold and take to bed with you," he laughs. "A Fender says what it's supposed to say and it does it well, but we had another idea in mind: to make a beautiful instrument that would be your wife, your mistress, your bartender, your best friend; everything you could ever dream of."

Sound design engineer Tim Pinnell works with Altilio at Top Gear; he's played and collected Les Pauls for 30 years. "I washed dishes at a restaurant in Mission Valley for a year and a half so I could buy a real Gibson Les Paul the week I graduated from high school," he says. "I still have it today. It's proven itself over the years. Its sound can be applicable to just about anything you're doing. Other guitars sound brighter and thinner, but I just like the pure, thick, strong tone of the Les Paul, I find it very musical."

Pinnell is attracted to the guitar's classic design as well as its sound.

"It has a conservative look as opposed to more modern designs that have unusual shapes," he says. "The style of a Les Paul reflects who I am - I'm less of a flashy, over-the-top guy and more of a meat-and- potatoes type."

Many flashy guitar players have adopted the Les Paul as a personal trademark over the years, however. In the '60s, Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton were among its prime proponents; Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts and Joe Perry were renowned Paul-slingers of the '70s, while Slash of Guns 'n' Roses near single-handedly brought about the Paul's resurgent popularity in the '80s.

According to Mike Fenton, owner of the quarter-century-established guitar shop Muzik Muzik in El Cajon, the Paul's regard among clients largely hinges on which stars are playing it at a given time.

"When Jimmy Page was the man, if you didn't have a Les Paul then you didn't really have a guitar," he says. "Then when Eddie Van Halen (who played a custom Charvel) got popular, the demand for Les Pauls dropped off completely. Then Slash started playing 'em and they got popular all over again. I was talking to Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) about it and he said people actually give him a hard time - you know, 'Why don't you ever play a Strat?' It's funny, because he's always been a Les Paul guy."

The market for Pauls has dropped off again in recent years, but according to Fenton, this time around it's due to a case of diminishing returns.

"What Gibson has done over the years is give you less guitar for the same price," he says. "I saw one that retailed for $899, but it was a total piece of crap. It didn't have a maple cap, there was no binding, it had a cheap satin finish, it was like a piece of mahogany that just looked like a Les Paul."

Classic-quality Pauls are still available, but a new one can set you back several thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the most collectible models, produced between 1958 and 1960, fetch up to $300,000 at auction.

"I think Les Pauls are drastically over-priced these days," says Fenton. "Gibson is just banking on their name. The only people who buy them now are collectors who sit in their bedroom with it and make good money selling stocks or whatever. The guys who really go out and play guitar for a living can't afford them."

Meanwhile, people who can afford as many Les Pauls as they want - people like Paul McCartney and Keith Richards -- still come to sit in with the man himself every Monday night at New York City's Iridium Jazz Club, where Les Paul has been holding court for years. Does the jazzman embrace the distorted raunch that rockers came to wring from his venerated invention?

"I love anybody that does anything on the guitar," says Paul. "Even the worst stuff always has some good in it. Every player amazes me with something they do, and I still learn from them all."

>>>>>>>>>>>>>> By Buddy Blue

Mainstream country clearly contends for recognition as the most wretched music extant on the planet today; we all recognize this, no? The alt-country movement, one the other hand, is undoubtedly preferable, if characterized by three well-defined schools with issues of their own. They are:

1.) The self-serious arteests who perform with one foot in tradition and the other in contemporary, derivative trendiness, inevitably becoming abysmally over-rated, cherished darlings of the rockcritc set despite sounding as if they believe playing music some gallant mission with earth-shaking ramifications, as opposed to something so frivolous as, oh, say, actually having fun. Exhibit A: Son Volt.

2.) The frat-boy-sensibility-having, white-trash-chic funsters, whose sophomoric sense of humor inexorably celebrates double-wides, methamphetamine abuse and semi-functional automobiles, and who glean tremendous pride in their studiously cretinous persona and lack of musical skill, but who have a wonderful time entertaining their heavily-tattooed, halitosis-afflicted fan base. Exhibit A: Supersuckers.

3.) The piously retro singer-songwriter who slavishly assumes the sound and appearance of Merle Haggard, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, and who shamelessly plagiarizes the songs of one or more of the above, while employing a group of ace sidemen from Austin to camouflage the fact that they can't play a note and possess nothing original whatsoever to offer. Exhibit A: Wayne Hancock.

Happily, an antidote to all this alt-unpleasantness appears Saturday night at Acoustic Music San Diego in the form of a group curiously christened I See Hawks In L.A. Where the alt-schools above draw their inspiration from the honky tonkin' '50s and/or post-punk '80s, the Hawks' sound derives from the nascent country-rock merger of that most musically fertile of decades: the '60s, an era oddly ignored by most alt- slingers.

On the Hawks' second and latest album, "Grapevine," one encounters the thrill-seeking, psychedelic cowboy sensibility of the Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage; the cactus harmony and ghost town steel guitar of Gram Parson's Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers; the earnest, pastoral songcraft and time-honored instrumentation of Johns Stewart and Prine.

"We don't want be all about old Cadillacs and wife-beater T-shirts," says singer/guitarist Robert Rex Waller Jr., who's joined in the Hawks by guitarist Paul Lacques, fiddler Brantley Kearns, bassist Paul Marshall and drummer Shawn Nourse. "On the other hand," Waller says, "we don't feel to need to dress up like Gram Parsons, either. I love Gram Parsons, but I don't have to put on a Nudie suit to prove it. With some people, the fashion aspect is as far as it goes; their music doesn't even necessarily reflect that (love of Parsons)."

Nope, the Hawks are hardly about fashion, vintage or otherwise. Variously bearded, balding, bounteous-bellied and bespectacled, this isn't a group to dazzle with image; these guys are all about the music. It's no coincidence that most of the acts name-checked above hail from the Golden State, either.

"Our vision is as a California country outfit, writing songs about the whole Californian experience," Waller says. "There's also the aspect of the effect California had on country music, adding electricity and sort of a psychedelic sound. Bands like the Byrds took roots music and paid homage to it very respectfully, but also added vocal harmonies, effects and other experimentation. Those are the two streams that came together for us; country music with that rich, reverby, psychedelic thing."

The multi-generational Hawks range in age from thirties to fifties, helping to strike an uncommon balance between veteran instinct and youthful daring; members have worked with an array of artists from old-time country icons Rose Maddox and Hank Thompson to contemporary roots music heroes Dave Alvin and Dwight Yoakam. Just don't try to lump these guys in with the usual alt-county suspects.

"People talk to me like they think we're doing the same kind of thing as Son Volt or Ryan Adams, and I really don't understand where that comes from," protests Waller. "I can't even listen to that stuff!"

You are not alone, Mr. Waller. I See Hawks In L.A., June 4 at Normal Heights United Methodist Church, 4650 Mansfield Street in San

Diego, 7:30 p.m., $15 - $20, (619) 303-8176. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Blue Notes By Buddy Blue

Time to catch up on the latest batch of cool CDs to cross the desk!

James Blood Ulmer, "Birthright" (Hyena)

Call him an avant-garde guitarist for want of a more apt designation if you must, but Blood Ulmer has for years

really been a genre unto himself. Fans of Ulmer's more experimental work will surely be taken aback by this, his

first true solo (unaccompanied) album. Abandoning the free jazz sensibility in favor something more venerable,

primeval and deeply personal, this is Ulmer's take on country blues. That said, "Birthright" is far removed from a

device so mundane as mere traditionalism; Ulmer's playing comes off like John Lee Hooker dueling Ali Fakra

Toure, with spoonfuls of sophisticato-jazz chops occasionally oozing through the cracks in the sharecropper's

cabin. Ulmer's tormented, guttural, gospel-steeped singing intensifies the hypnotic drone - this music is at once

meditative and enraged; celebratory and heartbreaking; bathed in folklore but strikingly fresh. Stunning, A+, five

stars.

Jeffrey Halford and the Healers, "Railbirds" (Shoeless)

San Francisco roots rocker Halford's latest is more a conventional effort than its jittery, oddball predecessor,

"Hunkpapa," but at the end of the day, that's not necessarily a bad thing: where the critically-lauded but

commercially-disappointing "Hunk" was fearlessly idiosyncratic, this is by leagues the more purely listenable

album. Introspective, country-informed ballads, slashing-riff rockers and Creedence-worthy swamp blues, all

infused with Halford's evocative, hard-life lyrics and blazing slide guitar work, combine to maintain his status

among the outstanding, essential voices in Americana today.

Buckwheat Zydeco, "Jackpot" (Tomorrow)

I've never bought into the indictment of Buckwheat as heretic commercializer of zydeco; his genuine love and

instinct for funk, rock and R&B is incontrovertible, so why not let the man come in and do his thang? Apparently

to poke a stick in the eye of critics, Buckwheat here includes a trio of all-electric, accordion-free jams, cruelly

labeled "Organic Buckwheat" on this, his first studio album since 1997. While I'd be lying if I didn't 'fess up to

preferring the more down-home party fodder -- nine dance-happy servings are on hand -- Buckwheat's use of B3,

funkslap bass, horn sections, female vocal choruses and distorted guitar never come off as crass; this is, in

fact, perhaps his best work since 1990's acclaimed "Where There's Smoke There's Fire."

Little Milton, "Think Of Me" (Telarc)

The veteran bluesman's debut for Telarc is more tuff and variegated than anything we've heard from him in the

past decade, unfettered of the stately if profuse production that hallmarked much of his work for old-school deep

soul specialty label, Malaco. At age 71, Uncle Miltie remains in peak, brawny form as a singer/guitarist; still

serving as a one-man bridge between B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland and the inspiration for younger

performers like Joe Louis Walker and Robert Cray. If it's unlikely he'll ever recapture the brassy, theatrical

magnificence of his '60s Chess sides, this is as close as Little Milton has come in a stretch.

Sue Palmer, "In The Green Room" (self release)

Palmer, San Diego's Queen Of Boogie Woogie, has come into her own on this wonderful new release, with studio

and live tracks re-defining her rep as "just" a gifted pianist/bandleader. Palmer may now add producer and

visionary to her resume; she, her Motel Swing Orchestra and many notable guests combine to create an

expansive, eclectic album that touches on everything from Ellingtonia and trad piano boogie to the sort of giddy-

but-musical tomfoolery that Frank Zappa once defined. Highlights include the amusing, Sappho-centric cabaret

"Gertrude & Steins" (penned by local singer/songwriter Janell Rock); Palmer's own sleazy instrumental stroll

"Boogie Noir" and droll, new wave-ish "Killer Tiki Boogie" -- not to mention an unlikely, uke-and-steel-steeped

cover of "Aloha Oe" (really!). The roster of San Diego heavies on hand includes April West, Candye Kane, David

Mosby and Adrian Demain.

The Greasy Pete's, "Two And Ten" (self-release)

The good news: singer Dave Stanger is one mighty, world-class blue-eyed soulman; close your eyes and you

won't believe you're listening to a Caucasian fellow; Stanger comes off like Sam Moore beating his chest after

pounding a shot of Everclear. Meanwhile, the San Diego-based Petes kick and buck like an enraged Brahma bull,

all toughman-contest soul/blues grooves and slicing guitar solos; greasy as advertised. The less happy news?

Only two of the dozen tunes here are original (one of which, "Kiss It Goodbye," is wholly superb); the covers are

K-EARTH-worthy, over-played barroom fare, none of which stray far from the original versions. Guys, the last

thing San Diego needs is another predictable oldies group; I normally wouldn't have reviewed this CD, but

recognized enormous potential going to waste. Step up to the plate, grab the brass ring (insert other clich├ęs here)

and send me something of your own next time. Manly is as manly does.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

By Buddy Blue

A British fable from days of yore, with implications pertinent to the present:

At the tender age of 15, Stevie convened with an elder Welshman named Spencer, who picked blues guitar

Once upon a time, there was a fine young lad from Birmingham named Stevie Winwood. Stevie's mum and dad

and all his mates knew that Stevie was a most extraordinary little fellow, as he could sing like a proper grown-up

from the time he was a wee lad, and performed prodigiously on several musical instruments; some even

whispered that Stevie might be a genius in the works. By the time he was eight, the precocious youngster was

playing in a combo with his daddy and older brother, Muff.

There are several morals to this story:

* Appreciate your friends, for without them you are truly alone.

* Understand that synthesizers are sod.

* Should wealthy, contented elderly people sing your praises vociferously, recognize that you may well have

gone astray.

* It is unwise, under any circumstances, to become Phil Collins.

Steve Winwood plays a sold-old show at Humphrey's Concerts By The Bay on Saturday night.

splendidly. Stevie sang and played mighty Hammond organ while Muff handled bass chores in the Spencer Davis

Group. Everyone marveled at the thin, wan Brit teen who sounded for all the world like a strapping African-

American man on songs like "Gimme Some Lovin,'" "Keep On Running" and "I'm A Man," and the Group soon hit

the toppermost of the poppermost. Brilliant!

But the lad was undergoing growing pains - a malady to plague him lifelong -- and the restless boy felt the

need to seek fame, fortune and adventure on his own terms. And so it came to pass that Stevie became Steve

and started his very own combo, which he christened Traffic.

Traffic garnered even wider reputation than had the Davis Group with fabulous, extrapolating sonnets like

"Paper Sun," "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Smiling Phases," but Steve's ever-impatient vision to chart bold new

courses made it difficult for him to get on with his bandmates.

And so Steve disbanded Traffic and teamed up with a similarly fidgety fellow named Eric, who played right

magnificent guitar and was even more celebrated than Steve for his work in a combo known as Cream. Steve,

Eric and some mates from Traffic and Cream formed a new collective, which they presciently titled Blind Faith.

The masses trembled in anticipation, deeming Blind Faith the world's first "supergroup" before Steve and Eric

had even played a note together before the public.

Blind Faith, however, was ill-omened from the start, as Eric was an unpredictable, easily-shaken sort, and it

didn't help matters a bit that the cover of Blind Faith's LP featured a juvenile lass displaying her naughty bits,

upsetting respectable sorts. When the combo took to the shores of America, a messy riot ensued and many of

their unruly fans were whacked nastily about by ill-tempered American policemen at Madison Square Garden.

Even Ginger the drummer was clubbed to the noggin and Steve's piano was destroyed during the unpleasant

melee.

Discouraged and disheartened, Blind Faith dispersed after a scant few months, and Steve reunited Traffic,

which finally lived up to the gallant vision its helmsman had prophesized, meshing Steve's penchant for jazzy

improvisation with his mastery of Yank R&B and inborn instinct for the Anglo folk and pop loveliness of his

homeland. Good show!

Still, Steve suffered tedium yet again after a few years back in the Traffic jam, and finally resolved to grasp the

wheel of fate firmly in hand to become a solo artist, at times even playing all instruments himself. This decision

Steve made at a time when a cadre of his youthful, snarly countrymen were going about the business of

dismantling the rules of the rock music which Steve had played so bold a role in fashioning; these young Brits

flailed about noisily and impertinently, stirring up quite the ruckus in their campaign to start anew at "Year Zero."

Steve was undaunted, however, and at least the elders in the music world wobbled at the very thought of what

he might ultimately unleash, unencumbered at last by lesser others. And so it came to pass that Steve Winwood

went on to realize his full potential to become......Phil Collins!

This was quite the remarkable feat, as no one had heard of Phil Collins at the time, but let his solo legacy not

be denied: Steve Winwood was Phil Collins before Phil Collins was Phil Collins. Even though he briefly reunited

Traffic some years hence, Steve Winwood remained Phil Collins evermore.

The End.