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Pretty Boxes Under the Tree

Recent box sets provide insight into New Orleans and bluegrass music, as well as the careers of the Grateful Dead, Albert Ayler, the Faces and Al Green.

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Various Artists
Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans
(Shout! Factory)

Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens sets a major challenge for itself, trying to wrestle with the taxonomic question that people here have dealt with for years: What exactly is "New Orleans music?" Does it have to have jazz and R&B roots? Does it have to be made by natives? Is there some sort of purity standard that has to be met to be New Orleans music?

On the surface, this collection leans more heavily on Cajun and zydeco than might seem appropriate. It's nice to see the Red Stick Ramblers, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Clifton Chenier, and Beau Jocque recognized, but those of us living here associate those sounds with central and southwestern Louisiana more than with the Crescent City. On the other hand, the box set captures most effectively what a night in New Orleans' music clubs might sound like, and nightlife here includes those sounds as well as rock, funk, blues and jazz.

Like any night in New Orleans, there's a wide range in this set. Disc one is representative in the way it alternates classics like Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-In-Law" and Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues" with tracks like "Foot of Canal Street" by Cowboy Mouth's Paul Sanchez and Lil' Queenie & the Percolators' "My Darlin' New Orleans." By collecting tracks from established legends as well as artists like the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Galactic, pianist (and sometime Gambit Weekly contributor) Tom McDermott (with Evan Christopher) and Walter "Wolfman" Washington, it starts the process of widening the canon of New Orleans music beyond the jazz and R&B singles that have defined the city's musical heritage for so long.

Still, it doesn't widen the canon much. It does modernize it, with tracks by the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Deacon John and Anders Osborne & "Big Chief" Monk Boudreaux among the tracks from the past four years. It suggests new artists but not necessarily new content. Twelve songs mention New Orleans or Louisiana in the title with another 10 or so about New Orleans or part of the city's mythology. By omitting modern jazz and rock 'n' roll -- the forms most likely to offer alternatives to traditional conceptions of New Orleans music -- Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens offers an incomplete sense of what musical life in New Orleans is life. In that respect, it's more like Jazz Fest. -- Rawls


Various Artists
"Can't You Hear Me Calling:" 80 Years of American Music
(Columbia Legacy)

With more than 100 tracks, Can't You Hear Me Calling is an epic, four-CD collection that offers a comprehensive look at the history of bluegrass from early 1920s string band music up to the Dixie Chicks.

Possibly the most important person, however, in this or any other collection of bluegrass music, is the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. Monroe's music was so different from that of his predecessors that it created a whole genre of music bearing the name of his band -- the Blue Grass Boys -- and became a foundation for generations of musicians to come.

Evident in the first couple of Monroe tracks on the collection are the signature traits of what would become to be known as bluegrass music. His version of Jimmy Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues" showcases his high lonesome voice, a quick, driving tempo and his blues-infused mandolin style. On "The Road Is Rocky," Monroe's combination of country and blues has a jumpy, almost rock 'n' roll feel that isn't present in earlier country music.

Monroe also had a gift for putting together and leading a band. In 1945, his star-studded band with Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs defined bluegrass instrumentation for years to come: mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. Before Monroe, instruments often all played the melody of a song at once, while after Monroe -- on tracks such as Flatt and Scruggs' "Don't Get Above Your Raisin'" or the Stanley Brothers' "Man of Constant Sorrow," for instance -- you can hear the five distinct instruments playing interlocking rhythm parts. Much like jazz, each is showcased in a solo break.

His innovations continue to be heard today on tracks such as Ricky Skaggs' "Walls of Time" or the 1998 recording of "Carrie Brown" by the Del McCoury Band with Steve Earle. Of course, McCoury was also once a member of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, as were so many of the other luminaries on this collection, including Sonny Osborne, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Carl Story, Vassar Clements and Don Reno. Collectively, the bands those musicians subsequently formed play on more than half the tracks on this collection.

Appropriately, this collection takes its title from a Bill Monroe song. "Can't You hear Me Callin'" is a question first posed by Monroe in 1949, and it continues to be answered with a resounding "yes" so many years later. Since he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, listeners continue to flock to bluegrass music. It is a truly American music that continues to evolve with the times while remaining grounded in its rural past. -- Burke

Grateful Dead
Beyond Description (1973-1989)
(Rhino)

It's usually not a good sign when the music journalists and band historians commissioned to write liner notes for a lavishly assembled box set consistently temper their praise for the project's musical content. That's the scenario that unfolds in the Grateful Dead's new 12-CD box set, Beyond Description (1973-1989), which collects eight wildly uneven albums and a pair of live shots the Dead recorded after its shimmering, early-1970s gems American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. Encompassing the Dead's output from 1973's jazzy Wake of the Flood to 1989's Built to Last, its final studio album prior to Jerry Garcia's death, Beyond Description is a meticulous warts-and-all portrait of a band that, by its own admission, always felt more comfortable onstage than in the recording studio.

It wasn't for lack of trying. The Dead did hit the mark on occasion, pumping out catchy, concise FM-radio staples like "U.S. Blues" and "Alabama Getaway," not to mention its 1987 Top 40 single, "Touch of Grey." But for an ensemble accustomed to experimenting and stretching songs out past the 10-minute mark in concert, capturing that approach on record proved elusive. Songs that were epic live anthems ("Shakedown Street," "Eyes of the World," "Franklin's Tower") sounded neutered in the studio, and were often marred by ill-conceived production touches. The disco version of the Rascals' hit "Good Lovin'" and the Doobie Brothers impersonation on "Easy to Love You" are particularly painful in retrospect, and the cheesy keyboard tones on late-80s breakthrough album In the Dark haven't aged well.

That won't matter to hardcore Dead fans, who'll find plenty to like in the wealth of previously unreleased bonus material on Beyond Description. Those highlights include a gloriously ramshackle acoustic version of "Iko Iko" culled from the Dead's 1980s run at Radio City Music Hall, the rarely performed Garcia ballad "What'll You Raise," a typically groove-heavy live version of "Fire on the Mountain" and a muscular, extended vamp through "Foolish Heart."

As usual, Rhino Records' remastering and packaging on Beyond Description is top-notch. But for Dead neophytes or casual fans, the set's hefty $100-plus price tag is cause for pause; that amount would be better spent on the five-CD career retrospective So Many Roads and a few choice shows from the ongoing Dick's Picks series of complete Dead concerts. And with the Jerry Garcia solo vaults now being opened up (www.purejerry.com) for engaging releases like Garcia's acoustic and electric 1987 Broadway shows, Beyond Description has some serious competition for Deadhead dollars. -- Jordan



Albert Ayler
Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Recordings
(1962-1970)
(Revenant)

The sanctified, deck-clearing blast of Albert Ayler's tenor saxophone is one of the most terrifying yet beautiful sounds in all music. In his eight year-long career, Ayler set the bar for high-energy playing in free jazz, synthesizing black spiritual and secular musics on a level comparable only to Ray Charles, and profoundly influencing his elder, John Coltrane. An iconoclast of such magnitude demands considered treatment, so it's only fitting that Revenant's Ayler box is one of the most singular and thought-provoking items released this year.

The Ayler roar was a shock to many and is now inextricably linked to the '60s, but it doesn't seem wholly a part of that moment. At that time, the prevailing orthodoxy for saxophonists was a tone of violin-like refinement, and Ayler's playing couldn't have sounded more out-of-step -- gruff, vocal and drenched in a throbbing vibrato unheard since Sidney Bechet.

He used ancient folk themes and explosive improvising to project a spirit both earthy and ghostly. It was like hearing a preacher declaiming his sermon so loudly that the pulpit microphone overloads into rich distortions. Ayler created this sound with nothing more than a super-hard plastic Fibercane reed, Berg Larsen metal mouthpiece, and his tenor saxophone.

Holy Ghost's sumptuous design and impeccable attention to detail draw the listener into an imposing monument: seven CDs of (mostly) unissued music, two CDs of interviews, a lavish 208-page hardback book with copious liner notes, a bonus CD of Ayler in the U.S. Army band, and reproductions of period publications all encased in a black plastic "spirit box" molded from the wood original. It's quite the music fan fetish object, but eerie in its emphasis on personal detritus. Thankfully, the booklet notes are erudite and the CDs include some impressive finds, including a performance with pianist Cecil Taylor in Copenhagen in 1962, at Newport Jazz Festival in 1967, and at John Coltrane's funeral later that year. Fidelity ranges from fine to rough, enhancing the set's scrapbook feel.

In 1970, Ayler's body was found floating in the East River in New York City, dead at 34. His early end may have enshrined him as a jazz legend, but it is the monolithic power and aching spirit of his music that should be celebrated. Holy Ghost is clearly for the diehards, the ravenous faithful who must hear it all. Neophytes should begin with his ESP-Disk recordings like 1964's Spiritual Unity, but once under his spell, they will want to dive in headlong. Music like this demands a strong response. -- Cambre

The Faces
Five Guys Walk Into a Bar ...
(WB/Rhino)

One of the enduring rock 'n' roll myths is the inspirational power of booze. Theoretically, bands loosen up a bit, making the performances more inspired, more spontaneous and rhythmically more engaged. There's probably something to that belief, but far too often the band and its audience need to be equally inebriated for that effect to take place; more often than not, the performances just feel better to the half-cut band onstage playing them.

The Faces, however, are the band that made the most persuasive case for the musical benefits of Guinness with "Black Madness," as keyboard player Ian McLagan refers to it in the liner notes to Five Guys Walk Into a Bar Š . The British band made Ron Wood and Rod Stewart's reputations in the early 1970s alternating blues-based rock 'n' roll with remarkably melodic, wistful ballads courtesy of bassist Ronnie Lane. McLagan culls four discs from the band's five albums and numerous BBC live sessions and comes up with a startlingly good way to enjoy the band.

Rather than go through the band's output chronologically, he starts with the band's first single -- "Flying" -- then sequences the songs in an order that simply seemed interesting and listenable to him. As a result, each disc is representative of what's fun about the band. One disc has the melancholy "If I'm on the Late Side," a breathless, rollicking "Too Bad," as well as a live version of "Maggie Mae." Each disc reaches similar extremes, mixing in classic R&B covers or hits by contemporaries like John Lennon's "Jealous Guy."

In songs like "Ooh La La" and "Debris," Ronnie Lane gave the band a heart that added emotional gravity to the good times. His sad, boozy romantic stance is one male rock 'n' roll singers and fans have found appealing ever since. He has shown many singers and songwriters -- the Replacements' Paul Westerberg chief among them -- how to wear their hearts on their sleeves while remaining alcoholically insulated from the unpleasant possible consequences of such vulnerability.

That barroom romanticism sets the Faces apart lyrically, but the interplay between Wood's guitar, Lane's bass and Kenney Jones' drums is the reason to listen in the first place. In so many of these songs, it does seem like some sort of fuel must be required to feel the nuances of the beat so intimately. The results are always at least physically moving, and periodically, they're thrilling, making this box set an actual public service. -- Rawls



Al Green
The Immortal Soul of Al Green
(Hi/the Right Stuff)

The most startling thing about The Immortal Soul of Al Green is how little there is to learn from it. Box sets typically give listeners a chance to study the arc of an artist's career, but in Green's case, there isn't much of a curve. Disc one is good R&B, but it lacks the sonic fingerprint that made his greatest songs distinct. By 1971's Gets Next to You, though, his signature sound was in place with producer Willie Mitchell writing spacious arrangements that allowed Green to sing more quietly and more intimately. Once that development occurred, Green and Mitchell stuck with a good thing, making excellent records together until 1977's The Belle Album, which Green produced himself.

Green's greatest tracks are models of economy. "Let's Stay Together," for example, sounds like the track has little to it beyond his voice, Al Jackson's drums, and the occasional swell of organ until the first horn stab that introduces the chorus. The result is clean, spare soul that is elegant and conversational, simultaneously dramatic and accessible.

The end of disc one through the first third of disc three collect the most popular Green hits and documents his output from 1971 through 1974. Arguably, buying Tired of Being Alone, Let's Stay Together, Still in Love With You, Call Me, Livin' for You and Explores Your Mind is a better way to get to know this period. The albums were recorded in pre-CD days, so they're 30 to 40 minutes long -- a length easier to enjoy than these hour-plus discs -- and they're uniformly great. Still, it's hard to argue with having this many great songs in one place.

In chronologically organized box sets, disc four is often the weakest, the one that collects the highlights from the period after the shouting is over. On The Immortal Soul of Al Green, the tracks from 1975 and 1976 find Green and Mitchell trying to adapt to changes in R&B, particularly the development of disco. That and growing distance between the duo account for the slacker material that opens the disc. It is redeemed by material from the Green-produced The Belle Album and the often-overlooked Truth n' Time. Both show Green dealing with how spirituality fits into a person's life, but because neither album spawned successful singles, both have been unfairly overlooked. -- Rawls

NEXT WEEK: A look at DVD gift-set releases including films by Alfred Hitchcock, Wong Kar-Wai, Oliver Stone and Fritz Lang.

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