Category Archives: Reviews

Laura Nyro – Trees of Ages – Live in Japan (review)

Laura Nyro – Trees of Ages – Live in Japan (Omnivore Recordings)  

Staggeringly good live album showcases under appreciated songwriter

Yes, Laura Nyro was that good.  Sadly, the world wasn’t fully ready for her unbridled talent.  Her compositions drew on classic doo wop, girl groups,  jazz, folk, even Broadway musicals.  Her songs sped up and slowed down, bending to her wishes rather than keeping time to a monotonous beat. Other artists, like Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night and Barbra Streisand, would take her songs and have hits, while Nyro languished in relative obscurity.  Her voice – what range and soul!  And, even though she would disappear for years and then come out of retirement now and again, she always kept her gifts, right up to her untimely passing in 1997, at the age of 49.  

All of her talents are on full display in a new, archival live set from Omnivore Recordings called Trees of Ages – Live in Japan – available in the US for the first time.  

Nyro was a sucker for girl groups – they were a huge influence on her as a young woman.  That’s all well and good on paper.  But, listening to her rendition of the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” is something entirely different – an otherworldly experience, as she imparts a mature perspective on this well-known classic.   I’m just blown away.  She goes from that to Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby,” an extremely difficult song to sing – and she just nails it – changing the songs tempo at will, and even the key at one point.

Several songs are from what would be her final studio album, Walk the Dog and Light the Light.  Despite taking long stretches of time away from the spotlight, these compositions showed that she’d lost none of her abilities.  “A Woman of the World” is soulful, “Louise’s Church” name checks some of her idols and has a fabulous vocal coda, while “Lite a Flame (The Animal Rights Song) shows that her activism hadn’t lost any of its bite.  

Her version of “And When I Die” is telling – she would be gone in under three years, and her delivery is steeped with a wisdom of someone who probably knows their time is short.  Gone are some of her vocal acrobatics of her original from the late Sixties, replaced by a soulful assuredness.  

During one of her sabbaticals from the music business, she would have a son, and “To a Child” is one of her best latter day compositions.  Her voice soars in classic fashion in another recent track, “The Descent of Luna Rose.”

Mostly, the concert is just Nyro on piano and vocals, but she’s joined from time to time by a trio of singers named Diana (!) and they shine on “Wild World,” while the crowd claps along with “Wedding Bell Blues,” perhaps her most enduring song.

She weaves an interesting medley of “Tree of Ages” and her classic “Emmie” (from her breakthrough Eli and the Thirteenth Confession).  She also has time to dig back to her roots for a fantastic rendition of “Walk on By” and the Everly’s “Let it Be Me.”  

The fidelity is crisp, allowing her voice to come through and touch you deeply. Trees of the Ages is an excellent reminder of Laura Nyro’s singular talent.  Any fan of her music should make this a part of their collection.  —Tony Peters

Various Artists – Party For Joey (review)

Various Artists – Party For Joey – A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato (True North Records)

Good fun…with a purpose

NRBQ is a band that’s always believed in music without borders – they never had a hit song on the radio or a successful album on the Billboard charts, due in part that they never settled on a genre of music.  They did it all – really well.  Their bassist for the first 40 years of their existence was Joey Spampinato.  Although he’s not a household name, Bonnie Raitt has recorded his songs and Keith Richards picked him to play on his Chuck Berry tribute, Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll.  Joey has recently fallen into ill health, so his fellow musicians have banded together for a fundraising album of some of his compositions.

Spampinato had a knack for writing fun songs that sound great cranked at high volumes, so this might be a good candidate for your next party.

The set leads off with fellow NRBQ-alum Al Anderson’s solo take on “You Can’t Hide,” which is very faithful to the original band version.  Los Lobos is the perfect band for “Every Boy, Every Girl,” because they really make it swing.  Deer Tick does a Creedence-infused version of “That I Get Back Home.”

One of the many surprises is the all-star teaming of Keith Richards (guitar), Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica), Ben Harper (vocals), Don Was (bass) and Don Heffington (drums) on a searing take of “Like a Locomotive.”  These recordings sadly mark some of the last of drummer Heffington’s, who played on hundreds of recordings, and was a member of Lone Justice.

Peter Case is no stranger to roots rock, and he turns in a faithful reading of the rockabilly rave up “Don’t Knock on My Door.” The Minus 5, another all-star collaboration featuring members of R.E.M., do an off-kilter version of “Don’t She Look Good.”

Most artists are very faithful to Joey’s original.  One exception is the ethereal, harmony-laden, yet sparse “How Can I Make You Love Me” by She and Him – it’s absolutely gorgeous, and Steve Forbert adds a banjo to the Spampinato ballad “Beverly.”  

Bonnie Raitt liked Spampinato so much, she titled an album after one of his songs, “Green Lights.” Here, Raitt reprises that role, joined by the current version of NRBQ, with arguably a better vocal than her original from 1982.

Although most of Spampinato’s songs borrow heavily from early rock n’ roll, there’s still room for diversity.  Robbie Fulks is the perfect fit for the countrified “Chores,” while Penn and Teller take “Plenty of Somethin’” and well, give it the Penn and Teller treatment.

As a bonus, Joey’s wife duets with Joey himself on the final track, “First Crush,” which has a smoky jazz feel, complete with a flugelhorn solo.  

Obviously, the first goal of a disc like this is to raise funds.  But, the music contained in this tribute is just so damn infectious.  Joey Spampinato may have never written a hit song – but this set shows that he had a knack for writing fun songs that were catchy as hell.  Every musician turns in a stellar performance, making this the rare tribute album that transcends its initial goal – it stands on its own as just a great collection of songs. —Tony Peters

Wanderlust – All a View (review)

Wanderlust – All A View

Band reconvenes to complete songs written in 1996

The Philly band Wanderlust had a rock radio hit in 1995 with “I Walked” – a perfect blend of post-Grunge tension and melodic power pop.  The group opened for The Who and toured the country, but were dropped from their label before they could finish their second album.  In subsequent years, singer Scot Sax became a Grammy-winning songwriter and a sought-after filmmaker, while guitarist Rob Bonfiglio played with Brian Wilson’s band.

During the height of the pandemic and holed up at home, Sax was going through some boxes when he stumbled on an old DAT tape (a now-defunct technology that bands used to record on) that featured demos for a dozen or so songs written during Wanderlust’s brief heyday, and decided to complete them by enlisting his three former bandmates.  Remember though, this was COVID-19’s peak, so everything was done remotely, with each member adding their parts at their home.  The band also wrote a few new songs as well.  

Despite the somewhat Frankenstein-like circumstances, the result is All A View…an album that sounds like four guys, with amps cranked, playing in a room together, even though they were hundreds of miles apart.

The album opens with “All a View,” a song that manages to be both trippy and ferocious – it sure sounds like a band just jamming together in a garage.  “Black Currant Jam” features a great guitar riff, and once again channels that great mix of darkness and light that they were so good at back in the 90’s.  The Beatle-infused “Something Happens” is another highlight.

The album’s first single, “Corduroy Moon,” features some tasty Neil Young chord changes and harmonies, with lyrics that act as an interesting time capsule of their time on the road. Another surprise is Bonfiglio’s “Trick of the Light” – he’s got a soulful voice and the track recalls Matthew Sweet’s best moments.

“Bored and Blue” is the kind of song you’d write in your twenties, “I just want to see some action / I just want to make it happen,” that’s augmented by some nice pedal steel.  The record closes with the jangly “Inspiration” that has a Jayhawks’ feel.  

Many bands try to recapture their glory days, but few succeed the way Wanderlust has.  Their new album proves that it wasn’t the expensive studio, hot-shot producer, or even their youth that made their sound – it was the coming together of four musicians.  If you dig the power pop genre and long for the days when songs actually had melody, I highly recommend All A View.  —Tony Peters

Travis – The Boy With No Name (vinyl review)

Travis – The Boy With No Name (Craft Recordings)

First-ever vinyl release of band’s fifth album

Scotland’s Travis had big success with their second and third albums, with singles like “Why Does It Always Rain on Me” and “Side.”  Their sixth album, Ode to J. Smith, is regarded by many to be their best album from start to finish.  Sandwiched somewhere in the middle is their fifth long-player, The Boy With No Name.  Underrated?  Perhaps – but we get to have a second look with Craft Recordings recent reissue, including the first-ever release on vinyl  

Also during this time, singer Fran Healey and his partner, Nora, had a son, but were unable to name him for four weeks.  The subject line in an email to friends and family read “The Boy With No Name” – hence the album’s title (eventually they would agree to call him Clay). 

The album opens with “Three Times and You Lose,” featuring a hypnotic, acoustic guitar interplay.  “Selfish Jean” starts with drums borrowed from Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” before chiming guitars enter – it’s bouncy good fun.  “Closer” is Travis’ best ballad – a gorgeous song with a great falsetto chorus – the single peaked at #10 in the UK.

“Big Chair” lays down an uncharacteristic, light funk groove during the verses before giving way to another great chorus.  “Battleships” is reminiscent of peak-era R.E.M., while the hard pounding “Eyes Wide Open“ gives us a temporary break from the lighter, acoustic material.  

The shimmering “My Eyes” references the moment Healey found out he was going to be a father, while KT Turnstall can be heard on backing vocals on the excellent “Under the Moonlight.”

For the album’s debut on vinyl, Craft did a great job of expanding things.  The front cover has so much more power in this large format, as does the band photo chosen for the gatefold.  The inner sleeve has additional pictures, as well as lyrics to every song (you don’t have to squint to read them like the original CD booklet!).  

The 12 song album is augmented by a bonus, one-sided 7-inch single of “Sailing Away,” originally a “hidden track” on the original CD.  The song is great, except for the oddly-distorted solo in the middle – sounding more like a kazoo than guitar.  I wish Craft had done this with the bonus tracks that were left off the vinyl reissue of The Man Who.

While their earlier albums were hits in America, by the time of this release, Travis’ success had started to wane – I admit to not paying much attention to its release back in 2007.   After giving things a second listen, The Boy With No Name stands up to any of the band’s other albums – an under-appreciated gem.  And, the vinyl sounds warm and inviting. Here’s hoping Craft Recordings continue to release the band’s catalog with this much care. —Tony Peters

Peggy Lee – Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook (review)

Peggy Lee – Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook (Omnivore Recordings)

All we know is that she’d rather sing than eat”

We need compilations like this to remind us just how unbelievably talented certain artists of the past were.  Peggy Lee had major hits with songs like “Fever” and “Golden Earrings,” but she recorded in the “pre-rock” era, so she’s often not given the credit she deserves.  Enter Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook, a two-disc collection of performances, culled from radio broadcasts from 1951-52. The quote about her singing comes from the excellent liner notes of the set.

This collection gives so many opportunities to marvel at Ms. Lee’s staggering talent.  

After the birth of her daughter, Nicki, she returned to the spotlight as a frequent guest on various radio shows.  Eventually, she was asked to host her own program – The Peggy Lee Show and then, Club 88 Starring Peggy Lee.  Although these recordings were produced for radio and usually done before a live audience, the fidelity is very good and the editing is fantastic, making for a very enjoyable listen.

There’s something comforting in these times about Peggy Lee being beamed into living rooms all over the country on a weekly basis.

This is companion piece of sorts to one that came out in 2015 on Real Gone Music, At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings, which we reviewed here.  It’s funny, back then we remarked “perhaps this could lead to a Lost Radio Recordings Volume Two” and here we are.

This collection chooses to group performances by classic songwriters of the Great American Songbook, such as Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Matt Dennis and Frank Loesser, all of whom are present to duet with Lee on some of these tracks. In fact, the Carmichael medley is particularly fun – Lee’s smooth, strong voice is a stark contrast to Carmichael’s sandpaper. 

Throughout these two discs, there are times when Lee only sings one stanza of a song before switching to something else.  She really truly had an uncanny ability to give every song just what it needed. 

There are also times when she outdoes the original – “Goody Goody” swings more than the version by Helen Ward backed by Benny Goodman.

This is also an opportunity to recognize Lee as a gifted songwriter.  One section is devoted to tunes that were penned by her, and – even standing next to this hallowed material, they hold their own.  “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” and “Mañana” are just three examples of her craft.

The one section that really stuck out to me was Loesser’s.  Not quite the household name of the others, nevertheless you should recognize “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Bushel and a Peck” and “On a Slow Boat to China.”  And, once again, Lee approaches each snippet differently – buoyant with “Jingle,” sultry with “China,” goofy on “Bushel” and sassy on “Cold.”  What other artist could do this so effortlessly?

There’s also a humanness to these recordings – as Lee interacts with the guests, you get to hear her personality come through.  During another highlight, she reads a self-penned poem before launching into a seductive reading of “Somebody Loves Me.”  

Radio recordings are often used as “cash ins” – just look on eBay or at your local independent record store, and you’ll find unauthorized radio shows from Springsteen, Petty, or any number of other artists.  But, Something Wonderful rises above all that – managing to shine a new light on a spectacular talent.  —Tony Peters 

The Palace Guard – All Night Long – An Anthology (review)

The Palace Guard – All Night Long: An Anthology 1965-1967 (Omnivore Recordings)

The early days of Emitt Rhodes – here, as a drummer!

Omnivore Recordings chronicled the early days of the Beach Boys, back when they were just a garage band from Hawthorne, CA, on Becoming the Beach Boys (which we reviewed here). The Palace Guard were another group from that small suburb, who also boasted a three-brother lineup. Although nowhere near as popular or prolific as the Beach Boys, their music deserves to be heard – especially if you’re a fan of the Nuggets collections over the years. They’ve just assembled the groups’s entire recorded output in All Night Long: An Anthology 1965-1967.

The band’s most famous member happened to be Emitt Rhodes, who would later go onto moderate success with the Merry Go Round and then solo, releasing a trio of critically-acclaimed, Beatle-esque-infused albums before retiring to relative seclusion in the mid-1970’s. Here, Rhodes is simply the band’s drummer, contributing neither vocals or songwriting to the band’s recordings.

The set opens with “All Night Long,” with a guitar riff that’s borrowed from the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone.” The “kootchy kootchy kootchy ooh” lyrics were too suggestive for some stations, and prevented the single from taking off nationally. Honestly, the b-side, “Playgirl,” is far superior – the harmonies are gorgeous and the minor chords make for a great, haunting ballad. Don, John & David Beaudoin created a unique harmonic blend that only comes from siblings.

Rick Moser’s bass was front and center for many of the tracks, like “A Girl You Can Depend On.” Most of the songs draw heavily from British Invasion and the subsequent American answer, with bands like the Byrds. When they do try and step out of that style, like in their serviceable take on Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me,” the results are less convincing.

Rhodes’ drumming is heard only on the first few tracks – his desire to write and record his own songs clashed with the band’s management. He’s gone by the band’s best single, “Falling Sugar.” Honestly, you can really tell a difference – Rhodes’ replacement, Terry Rae, was a stronger percussionist. The track swings, jangles and features a descending guitar line and excellent vocals. The song was co-written by Paul Leka, who would pen the smashes “Green Tambourine,” and “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).” The track has been featured on several garage-rock compilations over the years.

The band tackles David Gates’ (later of Bread) composition “Saturday’s Child,” a track that was also covered by the Monkees. This version is grittier, with fuzz guitar and lots of harmonies. Although, I think the Monkees’ take is superior, due to its polish and humor. The single’s b-side is even more strange – “Party Lights” is a cover of the Claudine Clark song, performed at half-speed for most of the tune, it’s hardly recognizable. Then, about halfway through, the track picks up. It’s definitely an interesting arrangement.

“Greed” shows the band stretching out, with a psychedelic, Yardbirds feel, tempo changes and gong rings.

The final two tracks, “Little People” and “Summertime Game,” are curious – a teaming with actor-turned-singer Don Grady, who was a star on My Three Sons. Grady is a decent singer, but these songs are more cute than good and not up to the quality of the other ten on the disc.

Like a lot of bands, their time was brief, marred by poor management decisions and and lack of financial compensation. All Night Long features enough great tunes that any fan of Sixties’ garage rock should take notice. —Tony Peters

Allman Brothers – Down in Texas ’71 (review)

Allman Brothers Band  – Down in Texas ’71 (Allman Brothers Band Records)

It’s like cross-breeding your music for the finest possible strain —Duane Allman on his band’s progress to that point

Fans of the Allman Brothers are getting a treat as the band’s own label is issuing Down in Texas ’71, an archival live concert recording done at the Austin Municipal Auditorium, showcasing the original lineup at their zenith, just 31 days before brother Duane’s untimely passing.

The first thing you notice is that the band is even tighter than they were during their classic Live at the Fillmore concerts – and it make sense too: six months had passed, and the band had played a ton of shows together since then – they were a well-oiled machine.

There’s something about the quality of this recording that you actually feel closer to the music.  It’s not pristine like Fillmore, and there are times when the audio drops out.  Yet, there’s an analog warmness that bathes these tracks, giving them more of a small club feel than a big arena.

The set opens with “Statesboro Blues,” already in progress.  Once the engineer gets the mix right, you hear the band cooking, right out of the gate.  The keyboard and bass are more prominent than the Fillmore version, and Duane’s slide work is razor sharp.  That gives way to a chugging rendition of “Trouble No More” – everyone is just in sync. 

“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” shows brother Gregg in fine, soulful voice, while Duane’s slide work is like a man possessed.  Before Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong,” Duane tells the crowd that they have to move back from the stage or the Fire Marshall will stop the show.  He says, “it’s a bummer, I know,” before putting a dig in – “you know the Fire Marshall?  The cats that can’t get jobs as policemen.”  

Listening to Duane, it’s easy to take for granted his work on the slide guitar.  He makes it seem to effortless – trust me, it’s not.

This gives way to a second James’ song, “One Way Out” – here Gregg switches to electric piano, which adds a different element not heard on the Eat a Peach version.  Dickey lays down a blazing solo, that borders on metal, the way he tears off licks.  

On the Betts’ instrumental,“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” the band is absolutely on fire.  Unfortunately, guest musician Juicy Carter is heard prominently here – his sax is either not in tune or he’s playing in some other key.  Yet, even with this distraction, the performance is other-worldly.

Listening to this concert, it’s clear the band was absolutely peaking – after years of live performances, they knew each other..  Where this lineup would’ve gone from here?  No one knows.

As a bonus, there’s an audio interview with Berry Oakley and Duane Allman.  Even though it’s not the best quality, the tape speeds up and slows down often, it’s still a rare opportunity to actually hear these two talk.  Oakley is jovial as he takes questions about their upcoming Fillmore album’s release, while Duane seems more contemplative.  At one point, the interviewer asks if he has any more session work planned and he replies “I’m a little past that now.”  

Proceeds from the sale of Down in Texas ’71 will benefit The Big House, the Allman Brothers Museum in Macon, Georgia.  —Tony Peters

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising (review)

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

For her eighth solo record, Maia Sharp has created an album that is both haunting and incredibly human. Sure, the California native has made a career with her confessional songwriting. But, this album is something all together deeper. 2020 was a rough year for everyone, but I think one of the things we miss the most is being in the presence of others – sharing the same space, breathing the same air, basking in the communal aspect of music.

What strikes me about Mercy Rising is that it’s like Sharp has zoomed all the way in – bringing the listener as close as possible, through the lyrics and music. There are great-sounding records and then there’s Mercy Rising. Other albums, you think “wow, that sounds fabulous,” but it’s obvious they did it in some fancy studio. Here? The musicians sound like they’re in the room with you. And, we all could use some musicians in the same room with us, right? Feeling the vibrations, the bass, the kick drum and being moved by the music.

Her husky voice also has a pull to it. She’s not trying to wow you with vocal gymnastics. Instead, you feel like you’re getting straight honesty, with just enough humor to make it all palatable.

Mercy Rising captures so much warmth, it’s like seeing the sun after months of nothing but gloom. And, this doesn’t mean that the music is often cheerful. Not really. Whether she’s trying to let go of someone in “Missions” or mend a relationship in “Things to Fix, there’s an immediacy and intimacy that, it’s as if you’re being told a secret.

She’s always had a gift for putting a fresh spin on carnal desires, and her latest offering, “You’ll Know Who Knows You” is right up there with her best – she’s got the “record on down the hall” because her lover likes the “echo off the hardwood.” All of this is done over a loping, hypnotic rhythm track that is super sexy.

Not surprising, there’s a darkness to some of the songs – she’s been tossed aside like a “Junkyard Dog,” and she wants you to know that she’s “Not Your Friend,” but still has time to not overthink “Whatever We Are.” There’s a gentle funk to “Backburner (the album’s excellent first single),” while “Nice Girl” shows off her impeccable wordplay. “Always Good to See You” is listed as a bonus track, but it’s spine-tingling good and ranks with the best of the bunch.

And, there really isn’t a more appropriate song for our current state of affairs than “When the World Doesn’t End.” We’ve all feared the worst, and yet here we are.

There’s a haunting, cinematic element to much of the album – reminiscent of the Plant/Krauss collaboration Raising Sand. Take the opener, “Mercy Rising,” which begins with some strange feedback noises, or the aforementioned “When the World Doesn’t End,” which has some crying pedal steel that weaves in and out. All these additions enhance a good record, pushing it to greatness.

Sharp has covered a lot of ground over the years; producing, collaborating and writing for others. But, Mercy Rising is the best thing she’s ever done as a solo artist. —Tony Peters

Maia’s album drops May 7th. In the meantime, preview the singles on her Spotify page:

https://open.spotify.com/artist/08vGa4eSfPKe22qVnkuI6N?si=knMAFKpJReS-t3td7Qp6_A

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Pendulum (50th Anniversary Vinyl Edition)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Pendulum (50th anniversary vinyl edition) (Craft Recordings)

This new version blows away my original copy

This vinyl resurgence is fun. Seeing records and record players return to the big box stores warms my heart. However, not all new vinyl is created equal. Some of it is just a hack job. Just like I wouldn’t recommend a $50 Crosley or Victrola turntable (they’ll eat your records, folks), there’s also vinyl records being produced that are nothing more than cash-grabs, quickly-produced with no attention to quality.

Thankfully, there’s companies like Craft Recordings that truly do care about their product.

The latest installment in their Creedence Clearwater Revival series is Pendulum, the band’s sixth, and last, truly great album.

In a side by side comparison with an original copy from my collection – there’s absolutely NO comparison.

This new version from Craft Recordings is superior in every way.

My earlier pressing is noisy between songs, while the new version is super quiet. But, that’s just the start. You can feel Stu Cooks’s bass on “Hey Tonight” pounding, and the jangly guitars are bright on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” On my original, Doug Clifford’s cymbals on “Molina” just rolled off – while here, they’re crisp and bright. The remastering really makes this music come to life, like never before.

The album is pressed on 180-gram, high quality vinyl, and the packaging faithfully reproduces the original gatefold cover in heavy-grade material.

The music on this record finds CCR stretching out. It’s their only album of all original compositions, and there was also an attempt to add new elements – sax, organ, piano, and tape loops, to try and freshen the band’s approach.

Unfortunately, this would be the band’s final triumph. Tom Fogerty would exit and the band would soldier through one final, albeit spotty, album, Mardi Gras, before calling it quits.

Pendulum is CCR’s last great album, and it sounds fantastic in this new release. —Tony Peters

First two Richard Pryor albums get the reissue treatment

It seems superfluous to say the importance, impact and influence of Richard Pryor cannot be understated, both in black culture and to the world of comedy.  His jokes weren’t always jokes – they were often true stories whose punchlines were born of hard living and bitter personal experience.  His language was raw and profane; his ideas unfiltered and profound; his comedy real and as revelatory to black audiences as Lenny Bruce’s had been to primarily white audiences.  Maybe best of all, one didn’t have to be black or have the same life experiences as Richard to appreciate his sometimes dark, yet always innovative humor.

In the mid-60’s, Richard was like any other struggling young comic trying to find how and where he fit in.  Bill Cosby was arguably the most successful, mainstream black comedian at the time, so Richard reluctantly tried to make himself and his comedy in the mold of Cosby.  The problem was that Pryor wasn’t Cosby, and he quickly realized it wasn’t in his character to be a clone.  He had shit to say – shit that other black comedians weren’t saying, or were afraid to say.  And after an on-stage epiphany in late 1967, Richard began to discover who he really was, and what he really wanted to talk about.  There begins the historic, hilarious recorded journey of the birth, subsequent re-birth, and genius of Richard Pryor.

The change in Richard’s tone didn’t happen overnight, and his self-titled 1968 debut already found him at a crossroads.  He was in the throes of an internal, professional conflict – caught between who he was, and who he desperately longed to be.  And that struggle was being recorded.  The joy of performing to an enthusiastic audience is evident in his delivery and the material is solid, as he had been honing the bulk of it for a year or two prior.  Two of his early signature pieces are front and center – the career tone- setting opener “Super Nigger”, depicting Richard’s envisioning of the first black superhero, and the character-driven tour-de-force “Prison Play”, starring Richard as Black Ben the Blacksmith.  Bold and funny as his jokes are, a tense hint of Richard’s restraint is detectable.  That tension would eventually bubble over, driving him to no longer stifle his creative ambitions.

It would be over two years before the release of his sophomore album “Craps (After Hours)” in 1971.  However, it was far from a lack of creativity, or having nothing to say that would account for this lapse.  During his time away from the record bins, Richard immersed himself in black culture, multi-racial counterculture, and found his true voice.  Gone is the rehearsed, occasionally profane comic previously inhibited by convention.  Gone, too, is his cast of colorful, fictional characters.  In their place – a now frequently profane comic, more comfortable with himself and with blazing his own controversial path, along with a new cast of edgier , seedier characters more uncomfortably close to his reality.

“Craps” is simultaneously the antithesis of Richard’s debut record, as well as a mission statement.  It is the re-birth of Richard Pryor with newfound confidence, swagger, and brutal honesty.  His brilliance is in the way he can publicly exorcise so many personal demons, and be so goddamn funny and fearless doing it.  Fifty years on, “Craps” still sounds like a dangerous, decadent, irresistible party – the after-hours yang to the debut’s closing-time yin.

This pair of reissues from Omnivore offers the opportunity to re-discover these master class comedy records.  The first album is supplemented by a generous collection of gems from Richard’s formative years as a budding comic, recorded prior to his debut.  It showcases a fascinating, evolutionary period of his humor and on-stage persona.  Many of the selections were released in edited form on multiple, slap-dash budget albums (without Richard’s involvement) throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s.  The bonus disc was assembled from Richard’s personal archives prior to his passing, with his assistance and approval.  Likewise, “Craps” offers a handful of period-era bonus cuts, including an early 1971 take of his classic routine “Wino & Junkie.” –Jay Scott