Saturday, 8 September 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen-Joe Cocker

Mad Dogs and Englishmen is an iconic live album, it's a quintessential rock and soul album, full of blaring horns a pounding rhythm section and intense soulful vocals. The album was recorded during a two night stand at the Fillmore Auditorium in March of 1970 and was released in August that year. The whole project was hastily assembled with an exhausted Cocker having already completed a lengthy tour and expecting some time was duly informed by his manager Dee Anthony that he had about 11 days before a seven week U.S tour was due to commence. Cocker didn't want to tour and wanted it cancelled but was threatened by his management that it would ruin his career. Cocker arrived in the U.S about 8 days before the tour was due to begin without a band, hearing of his predicament Leon Russell a noted session player and songwriter stepped in and assembled an incredible list of musicians to help. The band numbered about 21 with a choir of 11, the list of players is a dream list of some of the best players to come out of the 60's. On drums were Jim Keltner a celebrated session player, Jim Gordon another session great and member of Derek and The Dominoes, Chuck Blackwell from Taj Mahal's group and Sandy Konikoff  who had previously played with Ronnie Hawkins. Also in the band were bass player Carl Radle also from Derek and The Dominoes, Chris Stainton on keyboards and a horn section featuring Bobby Keyes on saxophone.

You might think that having that many musicians on stage that the sound would be shambolic but the album is remarkably disciplined probably helped by the calibre of the musicians. Keltner and Gordon work well together in tandem, providing a rock solid beat but with flashes of sublime rolls and fills. The album kicks off with a horn driven and funky version of Honky Tonk Women with Cocker at times ad libbing the verses but giving a full throttle performance, as he does throughout the album. Cocker sticks to material that has a soul flavour he does a Latin tinged cover of Ray Charles' Sticks and Stones with percussion from Chuck Blackweel and Sandy Konikoff adding some meat to the rhythm section. Cocker wrings everything from Cry Me A River which is transformed into a horn driven soul belter, Russell in his arrangements is adept at creating a real dramatic impact on each song, there no extended solos or improvisation it's tight but loses none of it's raw power. Leonard Cohen's Bird On a Wire is given a gospel treatment, and Rita Coolidge is given the spotlight for Superstar but her rendition just lacks the required softness, her vocals and the backing vocals are too overpowering. The group then ends the first side in familiar R&B territory with once again a propulsive version of the Ashford and Simpson penned Let's Go Get Stoned.

Side two is the blue medley featuring Cocker screeching and beseeching through I'll Drown in My Own Tears, the Sam and Dave chestnut When Something Is Wrong With My Baby and the Otis Redding classic I've Been Loving You Too Long, once again the backing is amazingly powerful when required and equally understated when needed. Leon Russell duets with Cocker on Girl From The North Country, Leon too me doesn't have the vocal chops required for that song. Cocker and co then ramp things up with true rock and soul fervour for the beautiful Space Captain with soaring backing vocals. The Letter has some nice piano fills from Russell especially in the verses in a call and response style against Cocker's vocals, I really like the cacophony of the ending, horns and drums and vocals all colliding and meshing together and then thump we are done. The album ends with the appropriate Delta Lady with Joe exalting and mourning for his southern belle. The album was a huge success on release but due to exhaustion Cocker wasn't really able to capitalise on the success. Leon Russell however used his prominence on the album to launch a successful solo career. I've read that many felt Russell hijacked the tour for his own purposes and that he and Cocker are no longer on speaking terms. I would love to see them re-unite and do another live album with the same group although some of those members are no longer alive. The original album stands as a telling testament to the blazing fire of rock and soul.

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