[21 February 2014]
In an early episode of Family Guy, during a very special moment, Peter Griffin described being given “a great gift. The Complete Boz Scaggs!” and added “How did you know?”
While that fabled (and animation-immortalized) boxed set does not actually exist, fans of Boz Scaggs would have a hard time arguing that such a treasure trove would, indeed, be among the greatest gifts of all. William Royce “Boz” Scaggs is a Rock Guitarist who grew up in the Southern United States of Texas and Oklahoma before travelling to England and Europe and finally hitting the big time with his school friend Steve Miller in the Steve Miller band. However, Scaggs’s guitar playing, while impressive, is not what made him a star or allows him a double-album retrospective that is, thus far, the next best thing to “The Complete Boz Scaggs.” This 2013 release, The Essential Boz Scaggs was made possible almost exclusively by one thing: Boz Scaggs’s voice.
Scaggs’s singing is at once unboundedly versatile and difficult to mistake. While still sounding like the same man, Scaggs handles Al Green-esque soul in songs like “Harbor Lights”, Steely Dan-like jazz rock in songs like “Lowdown” and straightforward classic Rock & Roll in songs like “Lido Shuffle”. Scaggs aficionados will point out that all three of these aforementioned tracks were culled from the same album, his breakthrough 1976 record Silk Degrees. This is, of course, true, but makes his diversity even more noteworthy, not less. Skaggs has experimented with varied styles and has evolved over the years, but his range is evident not merely on a retrospective like Essential, but in any given era of his career.
The beauty of The Essential Boz Scaggs is that the double album lives up to its title by going far beyond the singer/guitarist’s hits. Essential’s 32 songs also include many of Scaggs’s most memorable album tracks, all the way up to his most recent LP, 2013’s MEMPHIS. Although the song “Gone Baby Gone” is the sole representation of MEMPHIS on this collection, this closing track proves to be an excellent choice, showcasing Scaggs’s smooth voice against light female backing vocals, amplifying the soul for a truly vintage Boz Scaggs song.
While “Gone Baby Gone” closes the album’s second half, the second disc kicks off with the jazzy “JoJo”, a song so smooth and textured, one can almost picture Scaggs walking down Broadway, lighting the streetlights and tipping his Fedora to the ladies as he passes. The bookends of “JoJo” and “Gone Baby Gone” serve as a message that the second half of the collection is hardly second best. This also sets the tone for the second half, so that it focuses more on the poppy Jazz and Blues numbers than Scaggs’ more rockin’ tracks from his later periods. This is a beautiful thing, of course, as the guitars are still impressive (and the solos can be entrancing, especially on “Isn’t It Time”), while the horns, strings and keys flow directly into the silky backing vocals for an orchestral sound that practically demands that the blinds be drawn and the eyes be closed to fully capture each sound.
On the other hand, those who are less inclined to sail the seas of Scaggs’s smooth Jazz rock (which, as on the track “Simone”, can feel alternately classic and dated) and who prefer the more rocking Scaggs may enjoy such tracks as “Breakdown Dead Ahead” with its reverberating, echoing guitars and driving bass line, “Some Change” with its deep and dirty blues stylings or “I Just Go”, which echoes somewhere in the space between these two tracks in a haunting and sad blues vibe. The big hit “Look What You’ve Done To Me” (from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack) features the Eagles on backing vocals and members of Toto on the instruments, with the Eagles’ Don Felder on lead guitar. Although a ballad, “Look What You’ve Done To Me” may satisfy rock fans, even as the tune bridges the gap between the smooth Jazz Scaggs and the guitar Rock Scaggs.
However, this gap-bridging does serve the second disc well so as to maintain the groove that the second half espouses. But this groove starts immediately with the album opener “I’ll Be Long Gone” (making the final track of “Gone Baby Gone” all the more poignant a bookend). The second track on the first disc is “Loan Me A Dime”, a 13-minute blues jam that shows off just about every capability Scaggs has under his hat in one tune with both guitar and vocals proving Scaggs’s excellence.
Although also dominated by ballads and jazzier tunes, the first half also shows some of Scaggs’s best rock hits like “What Can I Say”. That song so perfectly shows the melding of rock and soul that it should have its own encyclopedia entry. “It’s Over” follows and flows between orchestral strings, rock and roll and soul all at once. After three more great Silk Degrees tracks (the aforementioned “Lido Shuffle”, “Lowdown” and “Harbor Lights”), one of Scaggs’ most beautiful ballads, “We’re All Alone” takes the stage and soars to impressive crescendos, all of which his voice easily keeps up with. The final track is the funky blues rocker “Hard Times”, which may feel a bit jarring after “We’re All Alone” but the song does set the stage for “JoJo” just right, especially when Scaggs croons over the bridge that there’s “No way to rescue me.”
There is no dearth of retrospectives of Scaggs’s work and the aforementioned aficionados of rock may wonder why Essential warrants a purchase when My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology already provided an excellent collection of Scaggs’s best songs. In truth, My Time is an excellent collection with the same number of tracks, albeit consisting of different songs. Essential is arranged with a much better flow to the songs, as if they all comprise one double album. However, My Time is slightly more representative of Scaggs’ diversity with more of a Rock & Roll influence. It could be argued that the absence of the Scaggs rocker “1993” (included on My Time) constitutes something of a travesty, but with the songs on the second half of Essential flowing together so beautifully, one might ask where “1993” would fit. On the other hand, My Time was released in 1997 and the man called Boz has released four studio albums (and two live collections) since that date. Incidentally, all six of these albums also saw release after the Family Guy episode that joked about the complete boxed set. While The Essential Boz Scaggs doesn’t quite earn the title “The Complete Boz Scaggs”, this 2013 anthology is a much more representative history of Scaggs’s work than has ever before been available (and includes an excellent booklet/ biography to boot).
In short, there is no substitute for the albums themselves and The Essential Boz Scaggs is still a best-of or greatest hits collection. That said, the way that the songs are arranged and the flow between them make for a beautiful consolidated listen that is hard to turn down. With a career that has lasted from the 1960s on through the 2010s, there is plenty of room for more Boz Scaggs collections, at least until The Complete Boz Scaggs becomes a reality. Surely Peter Griffin will be among the fans bellying up to the record counter for that one, unless the stalwart Scaggs outlives even Family Guy.