Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace – Live 1976

January 01, 1970

(Drag City)

 

http://www.dragcity.com

 

One of a
legion of young soul rebels who emerged during the early 1960s with guitar in
hand, Sandy Bull was in the same league as fellow travelers like John Fahey,
Leo Kottke, and Britain’s
Bert Jansch. Unlike those aforementioned contemporaries, however, who pulled
the majority of their inspiration from blues and folk music, often with a
smattering of jazz, Bull’s restless musical spirit would lead him to
incorporate elements of classical, Indian, and droning Arabic raga style into
his playing.

 

Also
unlike his fellow string-benders, Bull largely eschewed the traditional three-to-four-minute
pop song format in favor of extended instrumental jams that would allow him to
stretch out like an improvisational jazzman and get to the heart of the
performance, providing his breathtakingly intricate compositions with greater
texture and tone. Bull would also pick up a bass guitar, banjo, and oud once in
a while, his proficiency in these various instruments lending a dangerously-exotic
vibe to his compositions.

 

Signing
with the noted folk label Vanguard Records, Bull released a handful of albums
circa 1963-72, the most acclaimed of these, his 1963 debut Fantasias for
Guitar and Banjo
, recorded with jazz percussionist Billy Higgins (who had
played with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock, among others).
Featuring the twenty-minute, side-long “Blend,” the album featured
Bull’s myriad of influences and introduced him as a serious, talented musician.
But by the time of the release of 1972’s Demolition
Derby
, Bull had sunk deeply into drug addiction, and he seemingly
disappeared from music altogether until resurfacing in 1988 with the acclaimed Jukebox School of Music album.  

 

The truth
is, Sandy Bull hadn’t turned his back on music during the 1970s, and after
going through rehab, he relocated to San Francisco
and began performing again, including the May 1976 appearance opening for Leo
Kottke at the Berkeley
Community Center that is
captured by Live 1976. Re-mastered from a long-lost tape made by friend and
engineer Hillel Resner, Drag
City’s vinyl-only release
of Live 1976 shines a light on Bull’s
enormous talents with a set of performances and soft-spoken intros that paint a
fuller portrait of this unfairly obscure instrumentalist.

 

Accompanied
by “The Rhythm Ace,” his electronic drum machine, and a four-track
TASCAM recorder on which he would often place backing bass and drums to
accompany his live lead instrument, Bull displayed the technological acumen of
a prog-rock virtuoso while unfolding his largely acoustic-based, dream-like
compositions. Live 1976 opens with
“Oud,” a seven-minute-plus instrumental performed with the
pear-shaped Middle Eastern stringed instrument that Bull had come to favor. The
performance is simply magical, mesmerizing in its depth
and tone as Bull explores several varying musical landscapes within the
confines of the song.

 

A brief
interlude follows where he jokingly introduces “the band” and
demonstrates the abilities of “The Rhythm Ace,” a still-unfamiliar
bit of technology in the mid-1970s. With “Love Is Forever,” Bull
tries his hand at a more-traditional, albeit elongated pop song, his imperfect
but aching vocals accompanied by elegant acoustic fretwork, the drum machine,
and syncopated riffing on an electric oud. Inspired by the Drifters, Bull
introduces “Driftin'” as a “beach tune,” a pre-recorded
bass line providing support beneath Bull’s spry, soulful guitarplay that weds
an odd folk-rock sound to a lofty R&B framework, with a little weepy
country steel twang laid in on top as an exciting counterpoint.

 

Bull’s
humorous introduction to “Alligator Wrestler” explains the childhood
interlude with the song’s protagonist and veers off course into a story from
his rehab before tying it all together with a nice bit of metaphor. The song
itself is an energetic, upbeat instrumental that evinces a swamp-rock vibe,
adding a loping, funky rhythmic track with heavy bass and some of the oddest,
Southern-styled chicken-pickin’ that you’ll ever hear. Running nearly
nine-minutes, the performance is exhausting and awe-inspiring, and is the
beating creative heart of Live 1976.

 

The album
ends with “New York City,” the performance falling just shy of eight
minutes and displaying a more urbane, sophisticated edge to Bull’s playing than
previous tracks. The guitarist’s nimble licks are paired with a jazzy,
syncopated rhythm resulting in an inspired piece that easily places Bull alongside
such vaunted contemporaries as Larry Coryell and Al Di Meola as a skilled jazz-fusion
stylist.

 

While
continuing to perform, often outside of the public’s eye, throughout the 1980s,
Bull would eventually land in the rural countryside near Nashville, building a home and studio and
raising a family. He would return to the recording world with the
aforementioned Jukebox School of Music,
followed by 1991’s Vehicle and 1996’s
Steel Tears, both albums released on
his own independent Timeless Recording Society label, all three treated with
deference by critics.

 

Although
passing away in 2001 at the too-young age of 60 from cancer, Sandy Bull left
behind a body of work that, while not large by contemporary recording
standards, nevertheless represents the best qualities of his playing –
creative, efficient, meticulous, imaginative, and adventuresome. Live 1976 is a welcome addition to this
catalog that serves to bolster Bull’s growing reputation, the album a warm and
entertaining collection that reveals another dimension of this underrated
instrumentalist’s enormous talents.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Oud,” “Alligator
Wrestler,” “New York City”
REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

 

 

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