September 23 – Listen How it Goes, My Rhythm: Abraxas at 50

9/23/70: Santana – Abraxas

We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it “Abraxas”…. – from the Hermann Hesse book, Demian.

There are examples throughout all music genres of bands or individual artists who get into a groove where they can do no wrong in the studio, on stage, or both. In 1970, Latin/blues/jazz/rock fusion band Santana was one such group. It had been just over a year since their breakout performance at Woodstock, followed by the release of their self-titled debut album a couple of weeks after the festival. Santana’s followup was recorded with the same lineup over a period of two weeks in the spring of 1970, and Abraxas was released on this date 50 years ago. It reached the top of the Billboard album chart in the U.S. while featuring three prominent instrumental tracks.

Santana On 'Black Magic Woman,' A Pioneering Cultural Mashup : NPR

The star singles from the album were covers: Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac) reached number four in the U.S. (after leaving Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green derived significant royalty income from Santana’s version), and Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va hit number thirteen. But after many years and many plays, the tracks that keep me coming back are the non-hits, such as the instrumentals Incident at Neshabur with its heavy jazz inflection, and Samba Pa Ti. Carlos’s inspiration for this song was a heavily drinking saxophone busker outside his NYC hotel window. Two of my other favorites were written and sung by keyboardist Gregg Rolie, Mother’s Daughter and Hope You’re Feeling Better. The former maintains much of the Latin flavor of the rest of the album, while the latter features more of a straight forward rock sound. Carlos’s searing guitar licks are the common denominator along with Rolie’s vocals.

Santana - Hope You're Feeling Better - 8/18/1970 - Tanglewood (Official) -  YouTube

While the first three Santana albums have been stuffed into the classic rock pigeon hole over the years, this band perhaps more than anyone carved out a unique niche. The Latin rhythms which form the backbone of Santana’s music just feel good to listen to, and the band must’ve felt an immense sense of freedom when playing it. It could be a bitter cold winter day, but with Abraxas playing it’s always sunny and 75. For many including me, this continued into their lesser known (commercially speaking) fourth album, Caravanserai, before Carlos shifted into a different but also very interesting phase of his career.

Though Carlos and the Latin element of these albums understandably garner the most attention, I feel Gregg Rolie doesn’t receive the praise he deserves. Maybe he has and I’m just not aware. However, it’s no coincidence that Santana and later Journey (who he co-founded with Neal Schon, who also played on the third Santana album) were markedly different bands after his departure. His vocals and signature Hammond B3 were crucial ingredients to both.


Bonus Blurbs:

  • Oye Como Va, translated to English, means listen how it goes, my rhythm.
  • The album was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2016.
  • The album cover art is a painting titled Annunciation, by Mati Klarwein. His distinctive style would be found on later albums by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Gregg Allman.


Side One:

  1. Singing Winds
  2. Crying Beasts
  3. Oye Como Va
  4. Incident at Neshabur

Side Two:

  1. Se Acabó
  2. Mother’s Daughter
  3. Samba Pa Ti
  4. Hope You’re Feeling Better
  5. El Nicoya


Paul Buckmaster, Liner Notes, and Music Geekdom

Music fans, as with any other group of enthusiasts, vary in degrees of interest level. If there’s a scale of music listener nerdiness, I might rate myself a bit more “into it” than someone who grew up listening to music on the radio and owned a handful of albums and/or 45s, and maybe attended the occasional concert. But I’m less so than, say, musicians whose knowledge allows (causes?) them to be quite analytical beyond liking/disliking what they hear, or those who build shelving for their LP collections that take up entire walls in their home, floor to ceiling (something I greedily envy). I don’t know how else to quantify or categorize my level of interest other than to say that since I was a kid I’ve always been fascinated with the who/what/when/where/why of albums, many of the answers to which as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s I found in album liner notes. That is to say, to some extent, I’m a geek. This is something that is largely lost in today’s digital music world.

Does a wall Vinyl /Lp´s shelves work as bass traps at all ...

I know many people can relate. It was about foraging through the album collection of an older sibling, parent, or uncle. Or, hanging out at a friend’s house after school, listening to music and comparing knowledge about music trivialities (just don’t touch his big brother’s albums!). Painting with a wide brush, when shooting the breeze about bands the focus was usually on the primary band members, though occasionally a session player or the producer’s name would come up. In some cases, years later we pieced together just how respected, talented, and ubiquitous some of these “other” names are. Growing up, one of the handful of artists everyone in my home liked was Elton John. All of Elton’s albums up to A Single Man were in my brothers’ combined collection and played regularly, and yours truly was usually right there listening with them, curiously studying the busy artwork on such jackets as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. What is going on with all these cartoon characters? Look at those clothes! How did Dee and Davey get their hair to look like that? Doesn’t Nigel’s drum kit look cool? Why did Elton’s band completely turn over on Rock of the Westies? Gus Dudgeon? That’s kind of a funny name. And, Who is this Paul Buckmaster guy, and what’s so important about an “arranger?”

The Story Behind The Artistry of Paul Buckmaster

Sure, I noticed the strings on such songs as Levon and Tiny Dancer, among other Elton tracks. I liked the sound o.k., but had no real opinion. My mom played a lot of classical music, so I just accepted strings as part of music in general. Fast forward into early adulthood when it had been a long time since I’d given any thought to the particulars of Elton’s recordings. One day in the mid-90’s I was listening to an album by one of my favorite current bands, The Jayhawks. The song was Blue. Violins played from nearly the beginning, but a little over a minute into it the cellos kicked in and it sounded very familiar. “Is that…Paul Buckmaster’s work?” Sure enough, it was. Another time I was listening to the Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, and there he was again, this time on Sway and Moonlight Mile. Who is this guy, and what other albums has he worked on? I wondered. As it turned out, quite a few.

Dusting 'Em Off: The Jayhawks - Tomorrow the Green Grass ...

Buckmaster, who passed in 2017 at the age of 71, was a British cellist, arranger, conductor and composer. His father was an actor, his mother a concert pianist. He studied cello at the Royal Academy of Music and was a talented musician, but found his career path in orchestral arranging across multiple genres, as well as film scores. His debut as an arranger was on David Bowie’s Space Oddity. How’s that for an auspicious beginning? Shortly after that, Buckmaster attended a Miles Davis concert where he met a young Elton John, at the time working on his second album. He was invited to be the music director on what became the eponymous Elton John album. And the rest, as they say…

David Bowie - A Space Oddity | This Day In Music

For those like myself who aren’t well versed in the nuances of orchestral arrangements, check out any number of tracks mentioned in this post and listed in his wiki page linked at the bottom and hear for yourself if there’s a familiarity, a Paul Buckmaster stamp, on the music. Or, try to imagine Your Song, Border Song, Tiny Dancer, You’re So Vain, Terrapin Station, Harry Nilsson’s version of Without You, and many, many other great songs including Train’s Drops of Jupiter, for which he won the Grammy for Arrangement of the Year in 2002, without Paul Buckmaster’s distinctive sound. He described his approach in a 2010 article in The Guardian:

One general rule is to hold back as much as possible,” he said, “to give the listener the chance to let the song grow and unfold, introducing new sonic elements, such as new instruments or sectional groupings. If you use everything from the beginning, you have nowhere to go.” Yep, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say.

Paul Buckmaster - Wikipedia



May 1970, Pt. 4 – The Who and the Definitive Live Rock Album

5/23/70: The Who – Live at Leeds

Inching toward summer 1970, The Who released what is still widely considered the greatest live rock album of all time (with all due respect to fans of live albums by Humble Pie, the Stones, Frampton, Cheap Chick, Deep Purple, and others), and one of the best rock albums, period. The band recorded several shows on tour supporting 1969’s Tommy, but 2,100 capacity Leeds University Refectory and Hull City Hall were booked in February specifically to record a live album.

The Who - Live At Leeds [LP] - Music

Live at Leeds was originally planned as a double album to include the Tommy set, but of the 33 songs performed in the show, Pete Townshend decided on a single, six-song release, with snippets of See Me, Feel Me and Sparks from the 1969 rock opera heard in the stretched out version of My Generation at the beginning of side two. Clocking in at just over 37 minutes as originally released, Live at Leeds captures the frenetic energy and violence of The Who’s live performances arguably at the band’s live peak.

The Vinyl Issue: The Who's Live At Leeds | Louder

Over the course of four reissues in the following 40 years, Leeds went on to include the Tommy set, the complete Hull show from the following night, and finally the entire Leeds show in correct running order for the first time. I actually owned the Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 release from 1996 before I ever gave a serious listen to Leeds, and without wading into the audiophile muck of production pros and cons that largely don’t interest me, I don’t feel there’s too much difference in the feel of the album aside from the fact that the Isle of Wight release contains Tommy.

Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (The Who album) - Wikipedia

The trend over the years of adding previously unreleased material, live or studio, when reissuing albums is something that has been interesting, exciting, and maddening. I’ve reached the point where expanded reissues are no longer automatic must haves. I’ve come around on originals prior to the add-ons. Live at Leeds in its original form is great for those occasions when you want to crank up some live Who to get yer ya-ya’s out but don’t necessarily want to listen to Tommy, which has its time and place for me.

What’s your favorite live album of all time of any genre? Do you value expanded reissues?


Side A:

  1. Young Man Blues
  2. Substitute
  3. Summertime Blues
  4. Shakin’ All Over

Side B:

  1. My Generation
  2. Magic Bus


August 15 – Some Thoughts on Elton and My Top 15 E.J. Albums (11-15)

As things will be slowing down a bit for the next couple of months on the 50th anniversary album front, I’ll wander off course now and then into other topics.  Today I think I’ll take a shot at my favorite Elton John albums.  This would probably be a very difficult task for those who are fans of his work from A-Z, but for me it’s a little easier.  With one exception (and it’s really not much of an exception as you’ll see), there’s not one post-1976 album in my ranking.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was when he parted ways with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, as well as drummer Nigel Olsson and the late bassist Dee Murray for a few years.  But his output in those first 7-8 years is amazing.


I’m glad for Reg that he’s been able to reinvent himself over the years, and we’re fortunate he’s still with us.  But 1976 is a demarcation for his music in my mind, both in the studio and on stage.  I bought The One upon its release, as it sounded like he was returning to his early-70s sound.  Alas, it came up a bit short.  I’d probably enjoy The Union with Leon Russell, but I have yet to listen to it all the way through.  I’m sure it’ll end up in my collection at some point.

That said, ranking my 15 albums is not easy.  All of these titles are very dear to me; each one of them elicits good memories from my youth, and I still enjoy listening to them.  All of them.  I’ll try not to keep repeating my nostalgia attached to these records, but isn’t that what most of us of a certain age or older experience when listening to our favorite music from “back in the day?”  It’s hard to avoid.

For the sake of keeping it a tidy, 15 album list, my parameters for this ranking include:

  • No greatest hits albums included.  This alone is not easy, as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II are iconic in my world, the latter containing the non-album tracks Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Pinball Wizard, and Vol. III contains the post-1976 hit singles which I like.
  • No box sets or other compilations.  The To Be Continued box and the Rare Masters set are wonderful.  They were my first exposure to those cool esoteric singles from ’68-’69.
  • No bootlegs.  There are some pretty good ones out there on YouTube last I checked, including a full show from the Russia tour he did with Ray Cooper in 1979.  If that were cleaned up and officially released, it would automatically be on my list (time to open the vault, Elton!).

Let’s get to it…

15.  Live in Australia (1987)

Apart from the occasional good single, the 1980’s weren’t kind to Elton.  He was productive, but his mental and physical health were in steady decline.  Then one day this live gem appeared.  It’s a celebration of his and Bernie’s early tunes, complete with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which brought back to life those fantastic Paul Buckmaster arrangements.  The show was recorded in Sydney in December of 1986, shortly before he had throat surgery which permanently dropped his voice from tenor to baritone.  His voice was pretty rough, but it’s a great performance.  I’ve heard Elton describe how that surgery forced him to use his singing voice properly for the first time in his life, but an awful lot of songs never sounded the same again live without his occasional falsetto.


14.  Friends (1971)

This soundtrack to the film of the same title (which I’ve never seen) received a Grammy nomination for best film score in 1972.  It became his third gold record in as many months in 1971.  Elton and Bernie were just about to bust loose in America when this came out.  It’s got that great, mellow, early Elton sound.  The title track and Can I Put You On are highlights.


13.  Here and There (1976)

As I’ve mentioned before, live albums in the 1970’s were a different animal.  The excitement level kicked up a notch for me as a kid with live recordings, so much so that it didn’t occur to me that some day I could actually be in a live audience.  This release, recorded at the height of Elton mania in 1974, captures a somewhat buttoned-up Elton performing for the Queen on side one, and buttoned-down Elton at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day on side two.  Skyline Pigeon is my favorite tune on the original release, and Ray Cooper’s duck call on Honky Cat I found somewhat mesmerizing as a kid.  I was also enthralled by the photo of the band equipment, especially Nigel’s drum kit.  When the album was re-released in the mid-90’s, it stretched to two discs and included John Lennon’s guest appearance during the MSG portion, the final time he would grace a stage.


12.  Caribou (1974)

Another chart-topper, this album is a good example of how putting together a list such as this can cause me to re-examine my opinions.  I’ve always considered Caribou a so-so album.  It contains the singles The Bitch is Back and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.  I tired of the former years ago, but looking at the track list the only real stinker here in my mind is, well, Stinker, and even that’s a rocker.  Pinky is a great love song, I just think it would’ve been better with a different (female) name ending in “y.”  It always makes me think of the Fonz’s brief love interest on Happy Days, Pinky Tuscadero.  Grimsby, I’ve Seen the Saucers, and Ticking are other favorites of mine.  By far the worst aspect of this album is the cover.  What was he thinking?


11.  Honky Château (1972)

The first of seven consecutive number one albums for Elton, I can’t really justify why I don’t have it ranked better other than to say this is an honest assessment which includes how often I listen to it in relation to his other albums.  Honky Cat, Mellow, Rocket Man, Mona Lisas and Mad HattersSlave, Hercules, etc.  What’s not to like?  This is a great album deserving of more frequent listens in my home.


6-10 coming up!