Everyone knows Al Kooper in one form or another. If the name isn’t instantly recognizable, then Kooper’s long list of musical contributions and achievements should very well be. After all, this is the man who not only played the legendary and unforgettable organ part on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, but Kooper also did everything from having a hand in penning the classic tune “This Diamond Ring” to founding such incomparable Sixties groups such as Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears. The man even started out as a member of The Royal Teens who charted with “Short Shorts”. He hung out with Hendrix, “discovered” Lynyrd Skynyrd, and produced a ton of classic albums. And he’s still going strong.
So much so, in fact, that Kooper has recently released Rare & Well Done, a two disc collection that fully represent the album’s title. All the tracks were 24-bit remastered with Kooper’s own supervision. Disc one is a 19-track collection of hard to find and previously unreleased material from the Kooper vaults, while disc two features plenty of the artist’s best known work, in solo and various band formats. For longtime fans, this collection is a welcome addition to their Kooper collection. For anyone else who’s even mildly curious about Kooper’s legacy, this album works as a nice springboard from which to begin exploring the man’s vast catalogue. As it usually is with such releases, not everything here works and not every “rare” found here needed inclusion, but overall Rare & Well Done is an indispensable look back at one of rock music’s most prolific artists.
The “Rare” disc opens with a new demo, “I Can’t Quit Her 2001”. It’s not the best song on the disc that the collection could have started with. In fact, it’s a bit schmaltzy and sounds like something that you might hear Paul Schaffer’s band doing on Letterman. It’s certainly not the best version of this classic, as the live version included on the “Well Done” disc proves. However, things fall into place and start to genuinely rock with track two, Kooper’s 1964 demo of “Somethin’ Goin’ On”. Amazingly soulful, gospel tinged and incredibly deep, “Somethin’ Goin’ On” seems light years away from everything else that was coming out in ’64 — especially Beatlemania. Kooper’s voice instantly moves one emotionally as much as those fantastic piano, organ, and guitar parts. Stunning.
But then again, the disc manages to dip down for a moment as “Autumn Song” sounds like a mid-’80s fusion/muzak piece. It would have been better had the contents of this disc been arranged chronologically as the time warps back and forth through the years certainly mess up the grooves more than once. Kooper’s own phrasing of some of the words here, like “winter” also seem a bit silly as if he were just goofing off on the track. “I Can’t Stand The Rain” which follows is a bit better, though the horn section sounds like nothing more than synth brass. These are the kinds of rarities that may have been better off left on the shelves.
Still, one can’t argue with the slow cooking “Baby Please Don’t Go” offered here in a live version from 1971 and getting and eight-and-a-half minute workout. Kooper’s amazing piano work on the track just simply burns, as does his vocal prowess once again. Giving Big Joe Williams a run for his money, “Baby Please Don’t Go” encapsulates not only the blues here, but also takes on funk and classical vestiges that must simply be heard to be appreciated. The band’s solo spots are equally remarkable, with the other-worldy synth break being especially dazzling.
But then the record shifts once more and we’re back into smoove rock territory with “I Let Love Slip Through My Fingers”, a number on which Kooper seems to be doing his best Lou Rawls impression that turns out to be not so good in the end. The sax and guitar parts are overwrought and cheese up the track way too much. “The Earthquake of Your Love” restores the good groove with an undeniably Seventies bounce and charm. This time, Kooper vocally sounds almost like Steve Miller. And that’s not too strange, considering Miller himself went on to create such plastic, yet likable boogie like “Abracadabra” a bit later on.
Getting back to the downright essential tracks on the disc, of important note is the inclusion of Al’s very first single from 1965, “New York’s My Home (Razz-A-Ma-Tazz)”. Again, this long lost Sixties chestnut doesn’t sound much like anything else going on at the time with its pretty flute and string arrangement outdoing the Fab Four (again), and that indelible swinging jazz outbreak at the middle of the tune being especially captivating. If Kooper wasn’t influencing both Brian Wilson and Lennon and McCartney at this time, then I’d damn sure be surprised as Al had created his own “mini-epic” right here . . . in 1965 . . . in two-and-a-half minutes.
The “English Hall” cover of XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” is also excellent. Dare I say that it’s even better than XTC’s. Sure. I’m not so taken with that group that I can’t see that their career has been spotty through the decades. But even better than that is Kooper’s blistering version of Dylan’s “Went To See The Gypsy”, an outtake from Bob’s New Morning LP that rock fiercer than Dylan’s own take. Of course, that version was so subdued (yet equally great) that it wouldn’t be difficult to rock harder. But here, Kooper’s band injects stunning guitar parts that do sound distinctively Sixties, but all the better.
Also of interest is Kooper’s instrumental rehearsal version of “Hey Jude” from 1969 with orchestra. Kooper jazzes the Beatles tune up with swinging horns and lickety-split drumming. It sounds a bit like a Vegas spectacular, but it’s by no means horrible. Hearing someone with Kooper’s talent reconfigure such a song in this format is impressive. Although it is hard not to laugh at “The Big Chase”, a piece of incidental music that was left out of an episode of TV’s Crime Story. It sounds like Jan Hammer and Harold Faltermeyer got together and created the most hellish cop music they could think of. Lots of fun (seriously).
Turning to the “Well Done” disc of the collection now, the old fans should finally start feeling like they’re on familiar territory as nothing on the CD here hasn’t been released before. Things start with a live 1994 take of “I Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes” recorded with the Blues Project. Once again, Al is in his element when he has a band behind him that complements his own talent. The organ work, the guitar licks are both hot, and Kooper puts in some of his most soulful vocalizing. Tasty.
Set the Way Back Machine for 1968 then, because it’s time to hear Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know”. Again, there’s a stunning amount of soulfulness ripping through this track with the undeniable organ and vocal parts (especially those of the backup singers). A slow burner if there ever was one, it’s followed up with a 1975 version of “This Diamond Ring” complete with funky keyboards a-la Billy Preston’s “Outa Space”. Personally, I dig this version a lot more than the original by Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
There’s still no getting over the Kooper/Bloomfield (as in Mike) number “Albert’s Shuffle” from ’68. Here it is once again in all of its blistering glory. The blues as pounded out by two of the best. All you have to do is hear that organ and guitar and those horns and that’s all it takes. Next thing you know, you’re somewhere else. All great music should move you. Here’s a number that does it every time. And the movement continues with the classic “Bury My Body” recorded with Shuggie Otis in 1969 and “Season of the Witch” with Stephen Stills in 1968. It’s truly a joy to hear Kooper’s phenomenal work from the Sixties here all laid out. The man was clearly an inspired and enviable musician at that point in his career.
“New York City (You’re A Woman)” is also great. Here, Kooper’s organ sounds just like Booker T.’s good old Hammond B-3. And who could forget such brazen opening lines like “New York City you’re a woman / Cold hearted bitch ought to be your name / Oh you ain’t never loved nobody / Yet I’m drawn to you like a moth to flame/ . . . Yeah”? This piece of classic funkiness is then followed with a damned great live version of “I Can’t Quit Her” from 1994 that shows just how great the song really is (you wouldn’t know it from that limp version that opened the “Rare” disc as stated earlier).
The classics just keep on coming from there, from the fantastic “I Stand Alone” to another slow burner, this time in the form of “I Got a Woman”. Also included is the closing “Love Theme from The Landlord“, which is the only Al Kooper disc not currently on CD. All in all, “Well Done” lives up to its name and then some
It’s just too bad that the “Rare” portion of this collection didn’t include an equal portion of indispensable tracks. The nuggets from the Sixties and Seventies are cool and wonderful, but with only a couple of exceptions, like “Making Plans for Nigel”, and “The Big Chase”, the rest of the rarities kind of bring about a cringe-inducing element, proving once and for all that there was a very good reason a lot of the tracks here were previously unissued.
Yet the “Well Done” disc is impeccable, making this collection a must-have. It’s great to have all these tracks in once place. Al Kooper continues to play a highly influential part in the music industry. His well-documented history up this point has been preserved beautifully and put on display for all to hear in this collection. Kooper has certainly been deserving of a release like this for a long time, and even if the whole thing isn’t flawless, it damn sure rocks 95% of the time. Thanks for the memories, Al.