Saturday, September 23, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, featuring Rick Vito (KPBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite good Live from the Belly Up episode featuring “The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band with Rick Vito.” Mick Fleetwood, you’ll recall, is the drummer for Fleetwood Mac and has had that gig since the band started in 1968 — it was named after him and the original bass player, John McVie, who met in the 1967 edition of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with lead guitarist Peter Green and decided to form a blues band of their own. They added a young British musician named Jeremy Spencer and the four of them recorded the first Fleetwood Mac album, called simply Fleetwood Mac, at the CBS Studios in London in 1969 for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label. Blue Horizon was a label that specialized in reissuing American blues records, including quite a lot of Elmore James (they licensed the tapes of James’ last sessions in 1963 for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label — Fire was one of only a handful of labels recording African-American music in the 1950’s that was actually Black-owned — and so Elmore James became one of Blue Horizon’s most prolific artists even though he’d been dead for four years when the label was founded), and in recording British musicians who played in the American blues style. (Their biggest acts were Fleetwood Mac and the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, another band formed by an ex-Mayall drummer.) They made three albums with that four-piece lineup, one for Blue Horizon and two for Andrew Loog Oldham’s short-lived Immediate Records label, as well as a marvelous set of recordings, originally issued as Blues Jam in Chicago and later in the mid-1970’s as Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (an obvious attempt to cash in on the later success of a quite different, in both personnel and style, Fleetwood Mac, though anyone who bought Fleetwood Mac in Chicago expecting it to sound anything like Rumours would have been sorely disappointed!), in which the Macsters backed real Black blues musicians from the Windy City. (For me the high point of that album was the appearance of Elmore James’ surviving band, led by saxophonist J. T. Brown, backing Jeremy Spencer on great performances of some of James’ songs.) 

In the early days Fleetwood Mac’s material was almost all blues — either covers of Black blues songs or their own originals written in the same style — until the band in general and Peter Green in particular got to be more experimental and started sniffing around what would eventually become known as “progressive rock.” Green started writing and playing long, atmospheric songs, many of them either outright instrumentals or long jams with just bits of vocal. He also started taking a lot of LSD, and after one of his trips he announced to his fellow band members that from then on he wanted them to take just enough money for bare subsistence, and give the rest away to various charities. Needless to say, the other band members weren’t too thrilled about that, so they fired Green and hired another guitar player, Danny Kirwan, to take his place. Then, just as the new Fleetwood Mac was about to start a major U.S. tour, Jeremy Spencer suddenly became a born-again Christian and quit the group to join the Children of God cult. Since there was no time to break in another new musician and teach him all their material for their tour, the band had to go, hat in hand, to Peter Green and ask him to rejoin — which Green agreed to do, but only for that one tour. Over the next few years the band went through various personnel changes and morphed their music from blues to mainstream rock, and they added the other three members — McVie’s then-wife Christine, Lindsay Buckingham and his then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks — recording another album simply called Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and then following it up with the 1977 mega-success Rumours. The “new Fleetwood Mac” hung together for a while, broke up more due to personal than musical issues, and periodically have re-formed for widely publicized and highly lucrative reunions. Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood decided to form a side project that would allow him to get back to his blues roots, and the result was the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band — though I couldn’t help but make the joke, when Charles arrived home early on while this show was on, that with his other band Mick Fleetwood gets to play stadia and with this band he gets to play bars. The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a solid band that puts on a good show and, like the original Fleetwood Mac, relies for material on a mix of Black blues covers (Elmore James in particular) and originals in blues style. 

If they have a weakness, it’s their front man, singer-guitarist Rick Vito, who’s a perfectly competent blues-rock player but one would think that someone with Mick Fleetwood’s prestige and money could get a stronger, more assertive, more charismatic musician. Through much of the show I wondered what this band would sound like with Joe Bonamassa fronting it; though Bonamassa’s e-mails get awfully strange at times he is an excellent player (in a review of one of his own performances on PBS I called him the best white blues guitarist to emerge since the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990 — has it really been that long?) and a collaboration between him and Mick Fleetwood would be considerably more exciting than the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band as it stands. Fleetwood himself remains an excellent drummer, though when the show opened I was struck by the sheer amount of equipment he had on stage — at least four tom-toms, two or three bass drums and three crash cymbals as well as a set of little bells and a gong that looks like Fleetwood bought it at J. Arthur Rank’s garage sale — and couldn’t help but reflect how much Gene Krupa got out of just a snare drum, two tom-toms, a bass drum, two crash cymbals and a hi-hat. Much of the material the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band played was from Fleetwood Mac’s first three albums — including the song “Black Magic Woman,” which Peter Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac’s second album (Vito mentioned that in the U.S. it bore the title English Rose and the cover shot was Mick Fleetwood in drag — Fleetwood was predictably embarrassed that his band’s front man was reminding people of this) but which didn’t become a huge international hit until Santana covered it (less effectively, I might add, mainly because Carlos Santana, a great technician, simply isn’t as creative or individualistic a guitarist as Peter Green). They began with a song called “Fleetwood Boogie” which I suspect was written especially for this band, then went into a cover of another Peter Green original for the first Fleetwood Mac, a minor hit called “Oh Well,” and then a cover of an Elmore James song called “My Baby’s Hot.” Then they did a medley of two blues songs, “Rollin’ Man” and “Voodoo Woman,” followed by their version of “Black Magic Woman” — which was quite good even though Vito probably didn’t relish having to compete with both Peter Green and Carlos Santana! Then they switched gears for a nice bit of New Orleanian funk called “Lucky Devil,” for which Mick Fleetwood got up from his huge drum set and played another set of drums, and the keyboard player, Mark Johnstone — whom I thought was the best musician in the band next to Fleetwood himself: though he was playing two stacked Roland electronic keyboards he had one set to sound like a real blues piano and the other like a Hammond B-3 organ, so the sounds were authentic and right for the music — doubled on harmonica. 

Later another percussionist, Paulinho Morelli (at least I think that’s the name — he’s not listed on the official Mick Fleetwood Blues Band Web site and I suspect he was a guest the Belly Up Tavern brought in for this gig), took over that second drum set for a long song that was a blend of an instrumental called “Passage East” (which I suspect was a Peter Green composition because it was strongly reminiscent of Green’s more atmospheric instrumentals, both with Mac and on the beautiful 1971 all-instrumental solo album The End of the Game he recorded right after he left the band for the last time) and a song called “World Turning.” The band’s final song (of nine; Live at the Belly Up is one of those TV shows where the number of songs the band is able to squeeze into the hour-long time slot says a lot about their musical style — I’ve seen progressive-rock acts play only four, five or six songs in the slot and pop and blues acts play 12) was the searing Elmore James blues “Shake Your Money Maker,” which Fleetwood Mac played (with Jeremy Spencer on lead vocal and slide guitar) on their first album; Vito was hardly in Spencer’s league, let alone James’, but the message still got through and it was one of the infectious things the band played all night. Live at the Belly Up is one of the most important local resources for live music on KPBS — as the Belly Up Tavern itself remains a huge asset to the local music scene as well as a favored venue for major acts (like Fleetwood and Joan Osborne), as well as their offspring (Willie Nelson’s son Lukas has played a Live at the Belly Up telecast with his band Promise of the Real), doing off-beat side projects. Though not a patch on the Black musicians who created these sounds — in the 1960’s, when I first started listening to British blues records, they sounded a lot better than they do now, when the American originals they were covering are readily available in reissues of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and others — the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a quite appealing blues-rock act, and the large, grey-haired, grey-bearded Mick Fleetwood himself has the look of an ancient sage behind all those drums, someone who has traveled the world to bring back wisdom in the form of a 12-bar blues.