Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lost Classic Gem - Widowmaker - S/T (1976)



Not having an older brother myself, I can tell you, musically speaking, the next best thing is having a best friend with an older brother.  And not just any older brother, mind you, but an infinitely cool one, with his varsity football letter, massive Spanish 'fro, and even more massive record collection.  It can't be understated how big of an impression my best friend's big bro had on me.  By the time I was in 6th or 7th grade, I already knew the names and could draw the logos of every seriously heavy '70's band like a pro. Whenever, Dan left for football practice -- or wherever it was that seriously cool big brothers went to -- Paul and I would sneak into his "way-off-limits" room and beeline right to his records, grab a stack of vinyl and sprint to their parents all-in-one wooden stereo console.  There, we'd rejoice for hours, soaking up the variety of musical treats that unfolded before us like some new and freshly discovered hard rock oasis.  I can still remember my heart racing wildly the first time Nazareth's "Hair of Dog" pounded out of the rickety speakers, followed by Night at the Opera, Tommy Bolin's Private Eyes and the seemingly endless John Bonham drum solo that was "Moby Dick."

But perhaps no other record in Danny's collection ever captured my musical imagination as much as the ghastly ugly,  white album-covered copy of Widowmaker's debut album, Widowmaker.  A super group of less than truly superstar composition, Widowmaker was the creation of Luther Grosvenor (Ariel Bender) upon his departure from Mott The Hoople, combined with an assortment of players from various U.K. acts, Bob Daisley (formerly of Mungo Jerry, soon to be of Ozzy Osbourne, Uriah Heap, Black Sabbath, and Rainbow fame), drummer Paul Nichols (Lindisfare), Hawkwind guitarist, Hugh Lloyd-Langton, and singer Steve Ellis, previously of the U.K. chart toppers, Love Affair.  Not a line-up that meant much to a 12 year old boy.  The band's name also failed to do justice to the band, not offering the slightest hint at the true sound of the music was that lay inside the vinyl grooves.  A note on the back of the album described a "widowmaker" as a powerful hydro-drill (which explains the bizarre photo of the band members all looking very uncomfortable next to what looks like a jack hammer, wrapped up in its chord).  But if the record label's intent in placing that note there was to get buyers to think that Widowmaker was a relentless assault of all that was heavy, that certainly was a total misrepresentation of the music they were supposed to be selling.  In truth, I think the record label had no idea what to do with this raggedy, raw hodgepodge of an album, and even less of an idea on how to sell it.

So it seems that nobody besides Danny had ever of it.


But, Oh God, what the world missed! With this ragtag collection of artists and musical backgrounds, it's no surprise that they'd each bring something different and unique to the table, and they certainly did.  Rather than being some monstrous metallic machine, as the name implied, Widowmaker was a loosely arranged collection of blues-based rocking, country tinges, folk flourishes, and even a smattering of acoustic funky gospel. Of course, all of this "creative differences" eventually led to the band's demise after their less interesting second album, Too Late to Cry, but in their scattered wreckage, they left us with one gloriously imperfect, loosely assembled collection of some of the '70's best unheard rock.

It doesn't take long to realize the brilliance here.  Daisley brings the same songwriting chops to this project that he'd later sue Ozzy for ignoring on the opening cut, "Such a Shame."  And what a gem this is!  Easily, this song gets my vote as one of the 10 best unheard songs of the seventies, bubbling out of the speakers on the back of one of the most perfect, undulating, percolating, bass heavy, distorted blues riffs of all time!  Sexy, sultry, powerful, and swaggering, it only takes one second into the opening to know that something intense is coming.  Daisely has fashioned such a compelling riff, played in twin speaker stereo by the two guitarists, and filled in solidly with Daisely's own bass, that I defy anyone who loves riff heavy rock not to get caught up in it's infinite groove.   Stuttering, stop-starting, under-mined by Nichols funkiest drumming, the song needs to be heard, needs to be felt to be appreciated.  Ellis has a soulful, if mildly shrill voice, and he digs deep into his gut to belt this one out, his voice beautifully ragged and leathered, to belt out the deepest emotion in Daisley's lyrics.  A true lost masterpiece and a tune I find nearly impossible to stop listening to.  I played this on Ripple Radio once to an audience as tough as the hardened musical mind, Bob Vinyl, and even he immediately fell under its spell.



Things change on a dime as the loose-strung acoustic guitar chords of Langston and the slide work of Bender trickle out of the speakers, bringing on the country-flavored, hippy leftover, "Pin a Rose on Me."  As tight and punchy as "Such a Shame" was, "Pin a Rose," is just as loose and languid.  If a rocker had bought this album on the strength of the name and the first track, right around here they'd be wondering what they'd gotten themselves into.  Fortunately, I didn't make that mistake.  The strength of the guitar work pulled me in, Ellis's emotive performance, held me, and then the frankly gorgeous melody and compelling harmony vocals locked me in place.  "On the Road," picks the pace back up, rummaging out as a gut-busting, amped up blues rock, hitting-the-road number.  Shades of Nazareth are apparent here, but there's so much more.  Listen for Daisely's bass flying up and down the neck between powerchords.  Dig into the dual guitar interplay at the mid-break.  This one is a floor-stomper of a song.

Then just as quickly, the boys change it up again, dropping down into the starkly gorgeous twin harmony guitar lead intro to "Straight Faced Fighter," a mournful, mid-tempo, off-blues excursion, that brings some stunning guitar work in amongst it's riding acoustic chords.  "Ain't Telling You Nothing," brings the raw bluesy swagger back full force, blaring out amongst big chugging chords and tempo changes.  Another barnburner here, raging in perfect 70's rock fury.   And that's just the first half of the album!

The boys are too contrarian to let things settle into any sort of predictability, and the album benefits (some may suffer) from it's ability to be staggeringly diverse.  "When I Met You," another one of my favorite tracks, begins with a shimmering, near psychedelic, neo-sitar sounding intro before it literally explodes into a rumbling barroom raver.  Widowmaker mined a rather unique tone to their big guitar parts, making them sound bluesy and flavorful, without necessarily sounding metallic or chunky.   This worked really well on the ballsier numbers like "When I met You."

What the earlier tracks did to throw a change-up at the face of blues-rock, "Shine A Light On Me," does to funkified gospel with unbridled success.  There's no way to avoid the groove in this baby.  The twin guitars mine an intensely fertile, pure smoldering funk vibe, completed by some beautiful Daisely bottom end.  A chorus of female gospel vocals make it abundantly clear what we're listening to here, and man, does it work.  Those heavenly angels singing their hearts off, punctuated by the glory of that massive funky riff.  Beautiful.  Then, about 2 minutes in, when Ellis leaps into his vocal, some dynamite scratch guitar and a subtle time change in the drums drives the song into an overdrive of spiritual frenzy.  "Lord listen to me on this judgment day/ I need a little love, I need it right away."  You may hate gospel, but you'll love this!  Bender also pulls out his most mind-bending solo of the album midway through, with beautiful tone and mouth-watering sustain.


"Running Free," is a perfectly done folk-rocker that rolls along much harder than that description might evoke.  Again, the boys lock into a riffmaniac bluesy groove that totally charges throughout the song, seeming to gain momentum and power as it rocks on, like some blues locomotive running headlong down the tracks. Gentle acoustic reign through the chorus, before the rampaging kicks in again.  Simple, yet effective.  Tight, yet remarkably loose.  Another standout track on this criminally overlooked album.

No album as deliberately diverse as this hits it all the time.  While I find tremendous charm in the single take, acoustic blues, disintegrating into a rumble of voices, laughter, burping, and toilet flushing that is the gospel-tinged "Got a Dream," "Leave the Kids Alone," is a little too intentionally hippyish and coy for its own good.  But even then, the songs add to the unpredictability and originality of what the guys were aiming for.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this one. It really is way too good to remain unheard.  A true top 10 all-time, lost classic!  The original vinyl might be a bit dicey to uncover, but in 2002, Castle Music re-issued Widowmaker as  a 2 CD-set combined with Too Late to Cry, 6 live tracks and some rare, unreleased material, called Straight Faced Fighters.  Last I checked, this disc set can still be found on Amazon and it's well worth the time to track it down.  I picked it up to hear the live cuts alone, even though I already had the original Widowmaker and Too Late to Cry on vinyl, still shining as bright as the day I first bought them, so many years ago.

Yes, I still have my original release vinyl.  Well worn and certainly well-loved.  And for that, it's long overdue that I say thanks to Danny, the coolest older brother I never had.

--Racer

Buy here: Straight Faced Fighters

http://www.bobdaisley.com

1 comment:

Woody said...

Nice one, Racer. Bonus points for using the term "spanish 'fro!"

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