Downtown NYC jazz ensemble Sex Mob proves this Skynyrd “Bird” can change. Lord knows MAGNET’s Mitch Myers is to blame.
With the recent passing of guitarist Ed King leaving a scant number of living members from the original Lynyrd Skynyrd gang, it’s hard not to reconsider the impressive evolution of the band’s famous anthem, “Freebird,” and its ultimate absorption into the greater lexicon of American culture.
Back in 2002, I commissioned my good friend Steven Bernstein to create an instrumental version of “Freebird” for an audio piece I was putting together for the All Things Considered program on National Public Radio. That story, which can be heard here, recounted a fictional, semi-poignant tale about the first dude to ironically shout out for the song “Freebird” at a totally unrelated musical event.
So, it was my good fortune that Bernstein enlisted his working group, Sex Mob, to create an extraordinary version of “Freebird,” which my NPR editor, the esteemed Bob Boilen, wove seamlessly into the fabric of my story, and brought it to life on the radio.
Anyhow, this instrumental version of “Freebird” deserves to take flight on its own. Besides the cultural significance of the song, the performance exists within a long-hallowed tradition of jazz artists interpreting pop standards, making it no different than Miles Davis covering “My Funny Valentine” or John Coltrane tackling “My Favorite Things.” Not only that, the Sex Mob version of “Freebird” is a textbook example of how avant-garde jazz can work. The performance may not be totally free jazz, but it sure comes close and is well worth checking out:
The group begins with a gentle incantation—a meditative coalescing of Bernstein’s slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss’ alto sax, Tony Scherr’s bass and Kenny Wolleson’s drums. A sly suggestion of the opening theme slowly emerges, there are some fluttering birdcalls, Scherr pushes things up a bit, and Bernstein finally restates the introductory theme. Then, at about 2:50, Krauss steps forward with his moving invocation of Ronnie Van Zandt’s most famous vocal line. Krauss and Bernstein joust playfully around the melody, both ragged but right and raising the intensity until they cut loose completely in homage to Skynyrd’s iconic three-guitar rave-up. They even include a peak-moment rhythmic stop/start/stop/start—taken (abstractly) from the original version. After the cumulative freak-out, the tune’s initial theme is revived and then gradually withdrawn, winding its way back into our collective unconscious—a one-time-only spontaneous expression of a great American standard, all preserved digitally for your consideration.
Sex Mob? They’re free as a bird now. How ‘bout you?
MAGNET’s Mitch Myers packs his peyote and takes a trip through the history of “Witchi Tai To,” a minor-hit jazz-fusion song written by a little-known Native American sax player that remains relevant half a century later thanks to some almost-famous friends
It’s 1969, OK? And there’s something in the air. Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper had been part of the first ever jazz-rock fusion group, the Free Spirits, but the band broke up after guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Bob Moses split to play with vibraphonist Gary Burton. Pepper and the other members morphed into an eclectic rock group called Everything Is Everything and released an album titled Everything Is Everything (Featuring Chris Hills). Despite Hills’ top billing, the album’s lasting contribution turned out to be the unique Pepper tune, “Witchi Tai To,” a hypnotic chant and haunting melody based on a tribal peyote ritual he had learned from his grandfather.
Pepper was of Kaw and Creek descent, and his novel song arrangement tapped into an older, divine sense of the spiritual self in relation to the physical world, which appealed to the burgeoning hippie culture of the late ’60s. This was the same era books like Carlos Castanada’s The Teachings Of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way Of Knowledge were becoming popular, and Castanada’s mythic encounters with the great and powerful mescalito gave peyote use an irrevocable modern mystique. Like, what’s cooler and more authentic than a sacred drug song?
For one brief moment, “Witchi Tai To” was a late-night underground FM-radio staple, turning the collective heads of the love generation including wayward rock musicians, L.A. studio rats, young jazzmen and moccasin-wearing folksingers, too. While Pepper’s tune ultimately became an improvisational anthem for jazz-world musicians of a certain age, it also caught the ears of semi-enlightened rockers partial to the grounded religious traditions of the American Indian. Since that era, “Witchi Tai To” (it’s also been released as “Witchi-Tai-To,” “Witchitai-To” and “Witchitaito”) has taken on a life of its own, even outliving Pepper, who rerecorded his classic composition on two more albums before dying at the age of 50 in 1992.
So, here are some vintage examples of the spirit song’s curious trajectory—it’s been recorded dozens of times, performed live even more, and there are plenty of inspiring versions still waiting to be uncovered.
And remember …
Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Water Spirit feelin’ springin’ round my head/Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way
Everything Is Everything, 1969
The original. One-hit wonder Everything Is Everything released its cosmic single on the Vanguard Apostolic imprint to a surprisingly positive response. With composer Pepper singing lead, the band laid down a soft, pulsing rock rhythm that gently opens up into a soaring melodic refrain. Chanting the simple verse over and over into infinity with ornamental flute, saxophone and bells, Pepper leads Hills, guitarist Chip Baker, organist Lee Reinoehl and drummers John Waller and Jim Zitro up to the next level of consciousness in just less than three minutes. The track was later used quite dramatically in the movie Sleepers. In any case, let the games begin.
Topo D. Bil, 1969
This stately version was the first single issued on the famous Charisma label in the U.K. It’s performed by “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band; label founder Tony Stratton-Smith claimed “Legs” wanted to record either this song or “Springtime For Hitler.” Luckily, Pepper’s prayerful tune won out over the Mel Brooks ditty. They used the pseudonym Topo D. Bil because the Bonzos were still under contract with United Artists. Supposedly, the track features Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear and Dennis Cowan as well as loons like Keith Moon and even members of Yes. Whether it’s an odd parody or a sincere homage, this recording is undeniably anthemic and totally engaging. Kudus to Ed Ward for reviewing the single in Rolling Stone at the time, and dig the horns!
Harpers Bizarre, 1969
Future Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Templeman (Vans Morrison and Halen, Doobie Brothers) was a member of this accomplished sunshine-pop ensemble. The song was chosen for the album Harpers Bizarre 4, so somebody in there had to be hip. Signed to the W.B. and produced by Lenny Waronker (Randy Newman, Ry Cooder), the group already had some success with Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and also performed the music in Paul Mazursky’s romantic dope comedy I Love You Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers. With slide guitar courtesy of Cooder, smooth group harmonies, swelling strings and bells buzzing gently throughout, this was almost certainly Waronker’s soft-psychedelic, subliminal triumph and likely designed specifically for headphone use. Try it—you can literally feel the water spirit spinning ’round your brain.
Brewer & Shipley, 1969
Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley were idealistic Midwesterners who lived in L.A. briefly to play music. Socially conscious folk/rock performers, the duo managed to make two solid records before finally abandoning the Hollywood wasteland. In 1969, sophomore album Weeds was released on the Kama Sutra label, produced by the formidable Nick Gravenites (Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and featuring a smart lineup of quality musicians. True hippies, Brewer & Shipley sincerely related to the resurgent Native American scene, so playing this song just made sense to them. Simplifying the tune by using a riff similar to Lou Reed’s iconic “Sweet Jane,” they employ the tabla, multiple guitars, rich harmonies and a light rhythm section—transforming the chant into a mainstream sing-along without sacrificing Pepper’s uplifting intent. Of course, B&S became known for yet another dope anthem: “One Toke Over The Line.” Go figure.
Jim Pepper, 1971
Recorded in NYC in 1971, Pepper reclaimed his signature tune for his solo debut, Pepper’s Pow Wow. Only now he was playing with progressive peers and had received encouragement to explore his Native American roots from prescient jazz rebels like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. On the Embryo label with its inimitable die-cut cover, the album included notable jazz-rock drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Chuck Rainey and Pepper’s old buddy, guitarist Coryell. The opening chant is more overtly traditional this time, and the song stretches out over seven minutes, displaying its instrumental strength and emotional power. Pepper himself is in spiritual post-Coltrane blowing mode, while Coryell was wrestling with his own Jimi Hendrix fixation. Pepper’s sonic universe had clearly blossomed into an all-encompassing jazz/rock/world-music sound of great resonance, as evidenced by this performance.
Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet, 1973
By 1973, “Witchi Tai To” had evolved into a durable jazz standard where likeminded musicians might take a stab at the structure and content of Pepper’s mystic composition and come up with something evocative, beautiful and a little bit different. Hence the title track on this ECM album by the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet. Half Swedish (pianist Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson) and half Norwegian (saxophonist Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen), the Scandinavian foursome embraced Pepper’s tune with knowing intuition. Garbarek played in a style similar to Pepper, and soon after this recording, American piano legend Keith Jarrett drafted Garbarek, Danielsson and Christensen for his own “European Quartet” and made five albums of comparable material. The Witchi Tai To LP remains a high-water mark in the ECM catalog, and the song is an obvious highlight.
Oregon, 1974 and 1978
Springing fully formed from the confines of the Paul Winter Consort, this quartet played a unique brand of improvisational jazz suffused with world music, which somehow made Oregon the perfect group to cover Pepper’s illuminative tune. Ralph Towner and the other Oregon guys liked “Witchi Tai To” so much that they recorded it at least three different times, and it became a staple for both Towner and Oregon in concert. The group’s 1974 performance from the Winter Light LP is a brief, reflective meditation featuring Towner on piano and the late Collin Walcott strumming the dulcimer. Four years later, the band tried it again on Out Of The Woods. This time, Oregon let things unwind, interacting for eight-and-a-half minutes with Walcott on sitar, Towner on acoustic guitar and piano, Paul McCandless on oboe and Glen Moore playing stand-up bass. Both versions are lovely.
Jim Pepper, 1983
One more time! Pepper reprises his most famous song alongside Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, drummer Hamid Drake, pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Lester McFarland and guitarist John Scofield. Pepper sounds inspired, and the other musicians rise to the occasion for this version, off Comin’ And Goin’. Recorded impeccably for the classy little Antilles label, this album was a culmination of Pepper’s earthly experience at that time. Perhaps not so many surprises here but still a refinement, passionately played and spiritually uplifting. What more can we say but, “Sing along if you know the words.”
Michael Stanley, 2006
Looks like we’re not only ones to notice Brewer & Shipley’s version of “Witchi Tai To” sounds a lot like the riff from “Sweet Jane.” Cleveland rock journeyman Michael Stanley combined the two tracks on 2006’s The Farrago Sessions with entertaining results. Both songs were anthems, written in the same era, and Stanley manages to make them sound as if they’ve been sung together forever. Just because, you know, those were different times.
As music lovers around the world celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Band’s landmark Music From Big Pink debut, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers digs a little deeper to introduce you to some lesser-known, sonically similar, mostly non-American artists from that time period
When the Band released its first two albums in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the impact was seismic. Four-fifths Canadian but living in upstate New York (i.e. Woodstock), the group emerged as an attractive aesthetic alternative when popular music had gotten much louder and more complex. A no-frills antidote to harder rock and psychedelic, studio-enhanced wizardry, the Band’s collective approach expressed a rustic, informal simplicity rife with archetypal storytelling and imagery of an earlier time in the Southern and Western regions of the United States. Reigning rock royals of the era took note, as Eric Clapton left Cream to pursue a more moderate, American roots-infused style. Other artists inspired by the “getting back to the country” vibe included George Harrison, Van Morrison and, even, Elton John. Of course, any acknowledgement of the Band’s influential sound would have to include some consideration of its collaborations with Bob Dylan—and his evolution via the group’s instrumentation into that classic “thin, wild mercury sound.”
Much of the Band’s influence can be perceived simply by watching Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 1978 document, The Last Waltz, but we here at MAGNET would like to dig a little bit deeper and go a shade off center. In the early ’70s, there were plenty of lesser-known groups bitten by the Band bug that made countrified, folk-derived rock music reflecting a fascination with early Americana, even if (and especially when) those groups hailed from England. These crafty U.K. ensembles swapped up old-timey combinations of keyboards, accordions, guitars, mandolins, drums and harmonicas, backing emotive singers telling soulful tales of the Old West as well as narrating new dilemmas, hard times, spiritual struggles and occasional triumphs.
So, for your consideration, here’s a conceptual playlist of quality Band-like tracks by often-forgotten, mostly British acts from the early ’70s. We hope you’ll be entertained by the musical connections as we see them. You’re encouraged to make your own.
Don Nix “My Train Done Come And Gone,” from Living By The Days (1971) For the sole American performance on our playlist, check this out. Hey, isn’t it just “The Weight”? No, Memphis-born Don Nix nicked that inimitable melody from an old Canadian folk tune that naturally demands comparison with Robbie Robertson’s finest hour. Nix’s penchant for Civil War garb notwithstanding, the man’s innate grasp of Southern-gospel/American-roots music mirrors the Band’s unified sound in a good way. Over the years, Nix fit right in with the company of Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh and the like. Get the picture?
Heads, Hands & Feet “Jack Daniels,” from Tracks (1972) “Just Another Ambush,” from Old Soldiers Never Die (1973) This versatile British country-rock band made four albums before throwing in the towel. Boasting three singers and the finger-busting guitar playing of Albert Lee, these guys flirted with commercial success but never could really figure out their ultimate sound. Be that as it may, with dusty allusions to a vintage-American mythology and Lee’s angular Robertson-inspired six-string playing, these two tracks are about as Band-like as they got back in the old U.K.
Brinsley Schwarz “Range War” and “Silver Pistol,” from Silver Pistol (1972) So much talent in one group that it just couldn’t last. Critics called this outstanding band “pub-rock” before it morphed into the Rumour and backed up Graham Parker. To be sure, the group had a warm, keyboard-based sound with scruffy songwriters Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm along with the sharp economical guitar style of Mr. Schwarz himself. The organ-driven “Range War” features Gomm singing lead, while “Silver Pistol” is Lowe’s sterling showcase. Clearly tracing the early musical and vocal blueprints laid out by the Band, the group’s third album was practically homage.
Juicy Lucy “Prospector Dan” and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live,” from Pieces (1972) Yet still more vintage Old West preoccupations by journeymen musicians from the U.K.. Juicy Lucy was originally a bustling British blues-rock ensemble, but these guys had run out of gas by the time they patched together this album. Thank goodness for singer Paul Williams (no, not him) and his fondness of musical American folklore. His original “Prospector Dan” fits right in the Band’s oeuvre, while the cover of “How Can A Poor Man Stand These Times And Live” hopscotches right over Dylan to draw directly from Woody Guthrie. Sounds authentic.
Fleetwood Mac “The Derelict,” from Penguin (1973) Atypical for Fleetwood Mac—all eras. Post-Peter Green and pre-Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac’s Penguin featured a few stray vocal performances by former Savoy Brown singer Dave Walker. Known better for his own blues-rock credentials, Walker brings this heartfelt, down-home track to the table even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album. It’s a thoroughly countrified performance complete with plunking banjo and wheezing harmonica, and it could’ve been found on a Band album from an alternate universe all those years ago.
Mott The Hoople “The Original Mixed-Up Kid” and “Angel Of Eighth Avenue,” from Wildlife (1971) After two hard-edged albums produced by genius/madman Guy Stevens, Ian Hunter and Mott The Hoople tried to make a much softer record and produced their third LP all on their own. Thanks to guitarist Mick Ralphs’ tasty country-rock leanings, Hunter’s Dylan-esque vocal manner and a distinctive two-keyboard attack, this is the Hoople at its most reflective, playing quasi-American roots music. Subdued and uneven—but not without its charms—Wildlife included these two Hunter-penned, Band-like classics. Mott would never sound so pastoral again.
Al Jones “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” from The Fairport Companion: Loose Chippings From The Fairport Convention Family Tree (1969) Inspired English dudes getting together to bash out a Dylan tune and the track ends up sounding like it could be taken right off of The Basement Tapes? Al Jones was an unknown English singer tangentially associated with Fairport Convention, and his Dylan performance featuring bassist Ashley Hutchings has somehow survived mightily. Recorded in 1969 and first presented on obscure compilation 49 Greek Street, the durable track has been subsequently archived on several other British music anthologies. Not much else to say except watch out for A Tree With Roots: Fairport Convention & Friends And The Songs Of Bob Dylan, out next week.
Ronnie Lane “Give Me A Penny,” from Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance (1974) After leaving the Faces, bassist/singer Ronnie Lane began a wandering quest to find his true musical self. More like spiritual cousins than direct musical heirs, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance embraced a shifting, informal rapport similar to the musical makeup of the Band. With fiddles, mandolins and accordions framing Lane’s po’-boy vocal approach, backing band Slim Chance gave Lane just the loose-limbed, boozy support required to flow from original songs to old show tunes and drinking-hall favorites. The Lane-penned “Give Me A Penny” is one lovely example.
Fotheringay “The Ballad Of Ned Kelly,” from Fotheringay (1970) With echoes of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” floating in this song’s refrain, the U.K. band played its paean to the Australian Jesse James much like the true veterans of Woodstock. On this British folk/rock curveball, renowned singer Sandy Denny takes a back seat to her (Australian) husband, vocalist/guitarist Trevor Lucas. The group’s collective Band-like sound clearly benefits from extra-sharp guitar work by Jerry Donahue and the ace rhythm section of bassist Pat Donaldson and drummer Gerry Conway. Implicitly similar to Fairport Convention’s noted handling of Dylan material.
Elton John “Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun,” from Tumbleweed Connection (1970) Finally, there’s this memorable recording from young Elton John. He cited Music From Big Pink as a big influence on Tumbleweed Connection, and you can tell—from the sepia-toned album cover to brawny, rustic-themed tunes like “Country Comfort” and “Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun.” If Elton’s over-the-top vocal power still throws you off, just imagine “Well-Known Gun” being sung by Levon Helm. Now, is the tune more like “Up On Cripple Creek” or “Rag Mamma Rag”? The short answer will always be yes.
BONUS TRACK The Mekons “It Makes No Difference,” from F.U.N ’90 EP (1990) Full circle when the U.K.-formed Mekons played an earnest, compelling version of “It Makes No Difference,” a shrewdly chosen Robbie Robertson tune from the Band’s 1975 album, Northern Lights—Southern Cross. Guitarist/singer Tom Greenhalgh leads the way here for the Mekons, and his vulnerable vocal performance is as naked and direct as Rick Danko’s original effort. Simple, leisurely paced and sounding only slightly modern, the Mekons dutifully approached the music of the Band with utmost respect back in 1990.