Guitarist Carla Olson plays a nasty rhythm & blues-based rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the kind of music that evokes smoky juke joints and clanging beer glasses with voices raised to just an inch below an argument. Her songs offer a catharsis in a world gone hard, where friends do you dirty, and the bosses rule with an iron fist. Like that first shot and a beer after work on a payday Friday, it sure feels good going down.
Collectors’ Choice has just put out some live Detroit, 1985, material of Olson with her band, the Textones, that never saw the light of day, and re-released a classic, out-of-print, 1990 live recording from the Roxy Theatre that featured Olson with Mick Taylor. It includes a bonus disc of 13 studio recordings, some of which were never previously issued. Together, these albums reveal Olson’s hard-working efforts to turn a live show into a working class carnival of sound. The songs seem wrung with sweat.
The Olson and the Textones record comes off a bit too much like a faux Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, mostly due to the constant intrusion of Tom Morgan Jr.’s Clarence Clemmons-style sax solos. This live show occurred less than a year after Springsteen’s Born to Run hit the charts, and dwells in its shadow. This is a shame. Olson has a strong, husky voice that battles to be heard above the din. She plays her axe with soulful abandon. But the song selections are a bit spotty, including a by-the-numbers blue collar ode, “Hands of the Working Man”, and a generic version of John Fogarty’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” that Olson growls out more than sings.
The record does have its highpoints as well. Olson appeared in Bob Dylan’s music video “Sweetheart Like You”, and he gave her the tune “Clean Cut Kid”. She sings, “They took a clean cut kid / And made a killer out of him / That’s what they did”, with a wicked sneer. Olson also offers up a sultry take on Clarence Carter’s classic tribute to underhanded behavior, “Slip Away”. You can feel the physical need in both her voice and her axe.
This disc was originally recorded for a radio program (“Westwood One”) to promote Olson’s debut album, Midnight Mission. Most of the cuts here are from that disc. The live versions don’t really improve on the originals, and Olson and the band never really seem to connect to the audience as much as they seem to just play for themselves.
The opposite is true of the Olson/Taylor live disc. Maybe it’s simply a matter of experience and confidence — it is five years later — or maybe it’s just the luck of the draw. Whatever the reason, there’s a real chemistry between the performers and the crowd on Too Hot for Snakes that really energizes the music. From the first notes, it doesn’t seem that Olson and Taylor are trying hard so much as playing hard. The results kick butt!
Taylor’s probably most famous for his guitar work with the Rolling Stones during the late ’60/early ’70s on great records like Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Olson and Taylor redo some of his efforts with the Stones, including live 7-minute versions of “Sway” and “Silver Train” and an 11-minute-plus studio cover of “Winter”. Needless to say, the guitar interplay on these songs smoke. Ian McLagan’s rollicking piano assistance only adds to the Stones effect, and provides a lush background for the two guitarists to jam in front of. The music just simmers and soars.
The other songs on the Olson/Taylor live disc are either Olson or Taylor originals, with a few tasty blues morsels thrown in, like Jesse Sublett’s “Who Put the Sting on the Honeybee” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move”. All the compositions allow these players to show their chops.
The studio songs for the bonus disc were cherry picked for their excellence. Most of the best tracks were written or co-written by Olson, and show how much she improved as a writer since her debut disc. Cuts like “Justice” and “Reap the Whirlwind” convey an Old Testament imagery used for good effect, and show the harshness of contemporary life to a soundtrack that just rumbles by like freight cars on a fast track. Olson and Taylor trade licks on all the tunes as if they were connected at the soul.
All three disc showcase Olson’s talent as a singer and player. She’s still making music, but these albums indicate that her past efforts should not be lost or forgotten.