Sandy Bull - Still Valentine's Day 1969 (Water CD)
What better way to start 2007 than by catching up with all the hot releases I missed in 2006? Well you can't really fault me for this one. It came out late enough in the year and plus, it was a Christmas gift! And what a gift at that. I'm not a scholar of a lot of things, and I'm certainly no Sandy Bull scholar, but I have heard his Vanguard albums "Inventions" (1965) and "E Pluribus Unum" (1969) and I do know he was a major rager of the four/six/twelve/non-stringed motherfucker, so I couldn't pass up a chance at hearing Bull performing live as released for the very first time anywhere. The tracks on "Still Valentine's Day 1969" are culled from a couple of '69 shows, one on February 14th and the other on April 5th, both at the Matrix in San Francisco although the liner notes don't exactly clarify which song is pulled from where. Bull shared the bill with this Fahey guy, and you can hear the fruits from his set on the "Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick" LP, also released by Water.
If you know Sandy Bull already, then you know he was influenced by a wide variety of musics - rock, blues, classical, raga, jazz and Indian - and had an arsenal of instruments to match. Bull plays not only acoustic and electric guitars but also oud and banjo, all four of which all make appearances somewhere along the terrain of his live shows. As if that wasn't enough, Bull often accompanied himself when playing live, setting his rolling guitar rhythms to prerecorded tapes...and he also gets some help from Ornette Coleman drummer Billy Higgins on a couple of pieces. Overall though the results on "Still Valentine's Day" are somewhat scattershot (keeping in mind that Bull himself was a kind of a scattershot-type dude). That is to say they'll never achieve the free-flowing completeness of "E Pluribus Unum"'s two side-long jams, but obviously they're not supposed to. They're rough cuts from a performance where Bull admittedly wasn't on top of his game: he's playing with entirely new gear due to lost equipment or some such mix-up. But that only adds to the charm of the set. Who wants a polished Sandy Bull anyway? Man I want to hear him as ragged as the beard that sits on his face while he's (s)laying out these tunes. The highlights of the disc are the three cover versions he interprets with a mastery of the original song that borders on pure wizardry. Case in point: the haunting melody of Bach's "Bouree" (you'll know it when you hear it), Luiz Bonfa's "Manha de Carnival" (an incredible pre-bossa nova hammock twister stretched out to ten glorious minutos) and Chuck Berry's "Memphis, TN" that Bull had to stop playing for awhile because he lost the backing track for it. "The quality's not too good, but at least it's a background" sez he. Ay-men! If I'm not mistaken there is a more expanded rendition available on his "Pluribus" LP but this'll do just fine in a pinch. Among his originals are "No Deposit, No Return Blues" which is an echo-y dustbowl that is probably due to be given the once-over into 45-minute form via Matt Valentine, Erika Elder and their like-minded troupe, all surely devotees to the altar of the Bull. Rounding out the album are two sets of improvisations, the first two being "Improvisation for Oud" numbers one and two and "Electric Blend" parts one and two. Both oud improvs are short, the first one featuring Bull solo doling out naked refrains and the second in accompaniment of Billy Higgins' sublime drumming. Higgins also appears on the "Electric Blend" couplet but I found these to be somewhat less interesting, especially when the two combined total more than twenty minutes worth of electric reverb stabbing that bounces against my eardrums a few too many times for my liking. The tracks do have their share of inspired brilliance though, as does much of the rest of the set. I wouldn't necessarily recommend "Still Valentine's Day" to a total newcomer but at the end of the day it's still an invaluable document of a desperately under-recorded artist.
The Water label really did a top-notch job packaging this thing up, as it comes in one of those cardboard fold-out sleeves that seem to have become all the rage these days (I forget their actual name) with lovely pictures to match, not to mention an essay from Byron Coley (which alone should be enough to tell you how essential this album probably is...right?).