The Jayhawks, Secret Policeman's Balls and Sensational Alex Harvey Band

I have not yet heard the new Bruce Springsteen (no promo love from the label), and the weather conspired this week to keep me from hitting a store to pick it up. One disc that did make its way into my P.O. box is 'Ready for the Flood,' the first equal st

Jan 30, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The weeks are very quickly passing from the December/early January dearth of albums when there’s little to review to the overstuffed release sheets heading into February/March when there’s more to talk about than I have the time or ability to discuss.

I have not yet heard the new Bruce Springsteen (no promo love from the label), and the weather conspired this week to keep me from hitting a store to pick it up, so maybe I'll be reporting on that one next week.

And I’ve heard just five tracks on a label sampler from the new Hoobastank disc, For(N)ever, but that batch sounded like an Emo/Pop blast, especially the anthemic and insanely catchy “My Turn,” which slams and roars like a Pop-tinged Kings X Jr.

One disc that did make its way into my P.O. box was Ready for the Flood, the first equal studio collaboration from Mark Olson and Gary Louris since the pair parted company in the mid-’90s. Once upon a helluva long time ago, Olson and Louris fortuitously crossed paths in Minneapolis, discovered their otherworldly capacity to mesh musically and turned that rare ability into The Jayhawks, one of the leading lights of the nascent Americana scene of the late ’80s. After Olson bailed nearly a decade and a half ago, Louris maintained a Jayhawks presence until production and session assignments diverted his time away from the group. In the meantime, Olson immersed himself in the Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, his acoustic group with his then-wife Victoria Williams. Over the years, Olson and Louris have mended fences and toured as a duo, and Louris contributed vocals to a handful of tracks on Olson’s debut solo album.

It was the last Olson/Louris duo tour that convinced the pair that the time was finally right to document their reunion in the studio, and Ready for the Flood is the amazingly low-key result. Both of them originally came to The Jayhawks from Bluegrass outfits and those roots surface consistently throughout Flood, their tremulous vocal interweaving reminiscent of the sibling harmonies of The Delmores or The Carters. The glue that holds Olson and Louris together on the largely acoustic Flood is a combination of the chemistry that bonded them 20-plus years ago, the separate identities they forged in the absence of the other and the incredible experience they now bring to this new collective venture. If anyone was hoping for a Jayhawks reunion on Ready for the Flood, Olson and Louris have provided 15 moving tracks that prove beyond question the inherent flaw in having low expectations.

Another notable serving this week is musical, but not a CD. Shout Factory has compiled all of the wonderfully quirky mid-’70s-to-late-’80s comedy/Rock fundraising UK concerts (for the benefit of Amnesty International) under the variously tweaked banner of The Secret Policeman’s Ball (Other Ball/Third Ball/Biggest Ball) into a three-DVD box called, appropriately enough, The Secret Policeman’s Balls.

One of my first dates with my new girlfriend (now my wife of nearly 25 years) was to the 1982 film compilation of the 1979 and 1981 Secret Policeman’s Ball and Other Ball, respectively. When I laid down the money and asked for tickets, the girl at the Showcase Cinema counter looked at me gravely and said, “Are you sure you want to go in there?” I looked at her with equal concern and said, “Why, is there a guy with an axe in the theater?” She said, “No … it’s just that everyone who’s seen it wants their money back.” I smiled and said, “Then you’ve been selling tickets to idiots.”

We loved every minute of it, especially Sting’s spine-tingling solo renditions of “Message in a Bottle” and “Roxanne” and the uniquely British comedy of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Beyond the Fringe troupe, the soon-to-be Mr. Beanisms of Rowan Atkinson, the speed-fevered Alexei Sayle and, of course, the incomparable Monty Python.

This new Secret Policeman’s Balls box is a treasure trove of period music and comedy. The very first concert in 1976 (known as Pleasure at Her Majesty’s) was largely a comedy affair with musical parodies; it wasn’t until 1979’s rechristened Secret Policeman’s Ball that organizers recognized the appeal of offering some musical interludes, that year in the form of Pete Townshend’s solo versions of “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (the latter with Classical guitarist John Williams) and New Wave raver Tom Robinson doing his out-of-the-closet anthem, “Glad to Be Gay.”

The 1981 concert was weighted more heavily with musical artists (Sting, Phil Collins, Donovan, Bob Geldof and a brilliant duet of “Farther Up the Road” by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck), and 1987’s show was bigger still (Nik Kershaw, Jackson Browne and Paul Brady, Duran Duran, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading and a couple of stunning partnerships: Kate Bush with David Gilmour on guitar and guitar duets with Mark Knopfler and the legendary Chet Atkins).

1989’s Biggest Ball was largely a return to the comedy format, with Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese reprising classics like “The Argument Clinic” and an update of “Pet Shop” and featuring sketches by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (nearly two decades before he became a U.S. star on House) and the British puppet troupe Spitting Image (renowned for their outrageously caricaturized figures). Some of the topical references in the comedy bits might be slightly dated, but The Secret Policeman’s Balls DVD package is a fabulous collection of incredibly hilarious people and wildly inventive musicians all doing what they do best, and all for a great cause. Hopefully, the next box will feature the Ball’s revivals in 2006 and 2008.

The strangest things seem to direct my vinyl-burning activities as this project unfolds. The other day, I came across a mix CD that a friend had burned when he had first gotten into Napster. He had neglected to include a track listing, and since I’m anal with a capital A-S-S I decided to skim through it and document the disc’s contents. As I skipped through the tracks and copied down title and artist, I eventually came to a fabulous cover of “Shakin’ All Over” by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Once that particular earworm was lodged in my brainpan, it was only a matter of a day or so before I dug out my SAHB vinyl and starting the burning process.

One of my fondest concert memories from the mid-’70s is roadtripping to Detroit to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1975. I’d discovered them the previous year on a college FM station and I was a huge fan by then and had converted my best friends, so it wasn’t difficult to convince them that we had to make the pilgrimage to see Alex and the boys.

We were not disappointed. Alex read from the Book of Vambo, climbed the stage scaffolding and spray painted the Styrofoam wall behind drummer Ted McKenna with the legend “Vambo Rools!,” pulled a pair of pantyhose over his face and held the audience hostage with a blunderbuss that featured two retina-scorching klieg lights stuffed into the ends of its dual barrels. And while Alex howled in his unmistakable Scottish brogue at the front of the stage and entertained us with the unbridled glee of a psychotic vaudevillian, the band cooked with Prog bombast and Blues intensity; the incomparable Zal Cleminson on guitar, drummer McKenna and bassist Chris Glen providing the manic anchor and keyboardist Hugh McKenna offering up the perfect high drama/hard Rock/ music hall atmosphere throughout.

Harvey dissolved the band in the late ’70s but put together a new outfit in the early ’80s that had the potential to come close to equaling the magnificence of their catalog to date, but sadly it was tragically derailed. Alex Harvey died of a massive heart attack after a show in February 1982, the day before his 47th birthday, closing the book on one of Rock’s most colorful and obscure figures.

I’ve managed to get most of my SAHB vinyl in CD format, but I still have a good many turntable-only pieces, so I pulled a few out and considered my choices. I decided to burn Framed first, as it features a number of my favorite SAHB songs, including their title take on the Lieber/Stoller classic, the thunderous “Hammer Song” and the Folk/Prog epic “Isobel Goudie.” This one predates my introduction to SAHB (which came through 1974’s The Impossible Dream) and it was hard to find at the time, typically available only as an import. After I finally found it (when I was in college), I played it obsessively as if to make up for the time that I hadn’t owned it since its release. I hadn’t played it in years and it certainly brought back the potent memories of the show and the many hours spent bombing around Michigan back roads with our SAHB 8-tracks blasting into the night sky.

While there are a few other SAHB and Harvey solo oddities to revisit in the vinyl vault, I also pulled out my copy of Fourplay by SAHB, the 1977 album that featured the band sans Harvey, who was either off producing his Loch Ness Monster solo album or having a nervous breakdown, whichever story you prefer. Fourplay is a fun work, not nearly as manic or theatrically musical or frenetically diverse as its Harvey-fronted predecessors, but it definitely shows the critical importance of the remainder of SAHB to the band’s creative process. From the swaggering riff wrangling of the album’s opener “Smouldering” to the bootstomp boogie of “Pick It Up and Kick It” to the slow burn bluster of “Too Much American Pie,” the Alex-less SAHB was every bit as entertaining (if slightly more focused) as the band with its compelling frontman.

For the uninitiated, a lot of the SAHB stuff is available as twofer CDs — a good place to start would be The Impossible Dream/Tomorrow Belongs to Me, as those may be the quintet’s two most accessible albums and should give you an idea if you want to pursue the rest of the catalog. For the hardcore SAHB fan, the band reunited a couple of years back with new lead vocalist Max Maxwell and released a double live album (a ’70s staple) called Zalvation. I haven’t heard it and I’ve read both positive and negative comments on it, but I’ll likely try to track it down just to hear that magnificent band again.

Week four: No shows to report. (I told you I don’t get out much.)

So I’ll use this space to once again wish a very happy birthday to Michael Riley, longtime Clifton denizen, hand jive star of George Thorogood’s mid-’80s video, tireless H-Bomb Ferguson booster and certainly a member in good standing in the Rolling Stones Ticketholder’s Hall of Fame. Michael was one of the first people I met when I moved to Cincinnati in 1982. He was cleaning records behind the counter at Mole’s and offering up his irascible opinion about the state of modern music (“It sounds like some guy in a suit said, ‘Do this four times, do that twice, play it loud and it’s a hit.’ ”). I hesitantly laid down my copy of XTC’s English Settlement as the first of what would be an endless series of purchases at the store, and Michael looked at it, offered one of his patented crooked half-smiles and said, “I kinda like those guys.” I felt like I had somehow passed kind of Short Vine gauntlet.

Michael’s got a million stories. and they’re all great. Happy 6-0, Holmes.