Music

Hot Club of Detroit: Hot Club of Detroit

Evan Perri and others, including the dangerously brilliant Dave Bennett, extend the range of transDjangoReinhardt music.


Hot Club of Detroit

Hot Club of Detroit

Label: Mack Avenue
US Release Date: 2006-08-01
UK Release Date: 2006-08-01
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HCD? Well, QHCF has long been a handy acronym for one of this excellent band's major exemplars, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, in which Django Reinhardt shone on guitar beside the non-Gypsy violin of Stephane Grappelly (before he deFrenchified his name back to his Italian forebears' Grappelli). The Hot Club of Detroit don't follow a stereotype, citing a 1940s Benny Goodman ensemble which featured accordion and guitar with clarinet and rhythm, and sidestepping out of strict emulation of the original QHCF into other small-group swing territory. Maybe they have to maintain the original flavour as adhesive to retain a World Music label which encourages listeners who'd not listen to such good stuff if it hadn't that sort of menu? The music does stay closer to QHCF than Martin Taylor's British band with Jack Emblow on accordion, and Dave O'Higgins on tenor and soprano saxophones.

It would be no sort of dismissal to report a suggestion that nobody in this band is an instrumentalist in the same class as these three, and of course I can't report that: Dave Bennett's clarinet work is right up there, even obscuring a little how amazingly well the other guys play. While the notes say Bennett even looks a bit like Benny Goodman, he certainly brings to mind the still very active Kenny Davern, in earlier days when after a high-register performance Davern would mention the white powder everything in a venue was covered with: "my teeth", he would add. Davern's latest work is no less good, he just has other things in mind. Bennett is really exciting, and in taking for his solo feature the one standard tune in the enterprising repertoire, "Honeysuckle Rose", he's no coward. This is not just another of the innumerable performances of that number.

Evan Perri, leader and lead guitarist, isn't so dramatic a player, and I'd suspect he's still developing as a soloist within the style, capable of still better playing than in this set. On the planning and preparation front he gets full marks, having programmed such a range of Reinhardt compositions, in themselves worth hearing by a modern band. Lazy choices are out, and there's also "Aurore" by the amazing current Django-inspired guitarist Fapy Lafertin, whose guest appearances (inspired is the right word) have awed bands who essay this style. Perri's other attempts to inspire everybody include a programming of Wes Montgomery's "Leila", in especially Reinhardt/ QHCF style. This might be still more interesting in live performance.

Bowed bass intro a la early Ellington, and after the QHCF mannerisms suddenly Spaghetti Western flamenco chords, faint flute, and Klezmer overtones in the clarinet: the theme turns out to be Nino Rota's for a film named something like The Codfather. The one time I went to Sicily, we were landing and the idiot beside me on the plane had his cell-phone still on. We were landing and he had that tune for his ringtone! The properties hitherto mentioned, and the "Swing, Swing, Swing" quote and "Hang 'em High" accordion, are delivered here with a subtlety matched by a certain manner developed toward the ending of this very uncharacteristic performance on Rota's tune. The musicians seem blasé, as if nothing really had happened. As if? A lot happens on this long track, and description can't do justice to the levels of shading.

In Julien Labro this otherwise North American ensemble has a French member, an accordionist with a rather bustling manner, who seems to have an agreement with the clarinetist that if the latter blows a little low-register run phrased like accordion, the squeezebox will be applied to some clarinet phrasing.

Of course, the bassist and rhythm guitarists sound unlike the original QHCF performers, lacking various European characteristics of the time: HCD seem uninterested in period provincial plod, or in applying models from QHCF to create what's not so much easy listening as easy (and shallow) expression. Colton Weatherston and Paul Brady on rhythm guitars do at times interact very neatly with Perri.

There are today, as I said in reviewing the Rough guide to Gypsy Jazz on this site some time back, quite a number of serious performers of this style and repertoire. There are both Gypsy performers, playing what has extended their traditional music without necessary dilution, and jazz musicians who have found the influence invaluable in keeping their own non-Gypsy music elements alive. Some links to that review brought in private feedback representing high passions and standards relative to the music. Someone somewhere may well ask, if you praise some performers highly, "but have you heard . . . ?" A healthy critical climate!

I don't recall ever having seen the large instrument Shannon Wade plays here referred to as "stand up string bass". I might allow standout string bass for the bowed solo with its sense of long, long line on the Reinhardt original "Stompin' at Decca", here in an arrangement enterprisingly led by the accordion. "Nuages" isn't the most obscure Reinhardt tune, but why not find a tried vehicle for innovative ensemble arrangement. The bowed bass works well.

In the sequence of titles, "Aurore" is followed by a generalised Jobim-esque intro, affectionate on the edge of playing around, to what turns out finally to be a performance of a Jobim tune, "How Insensitive". It would be crass of me to omit mention of the gentle and entrancing music the band can also make, especially in the course of the last two numbers of the set. A happy contrast with Wade's slap bass on "Honeysuckle Rose", or the three-guitar accompaniment to Bennett the Magnificent's clarinet on the leader's composition "Swing One". Swing one? Swing all! Swing on!

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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