After having worked my rear end off these past weeks and after having gotten up too darn early today, on this year’s 23rd of December, to get some last minute rush jobs done, I have to say that the Christmas spirit has been about as far away from my own life as possible much of this past month.
Looking back at 2006, which I’ve been doing these past days as well, I have to say it wasn’t a good year, at all. I had some major problems, had to admit to myself that I had made one major mistake these past years, I lost a good friend, and many other things didn’t turn out at all.
Mind you, there were many good things as well, but they were few and far between and didn’t really come in larger numbers until the end of the year, and although things have started picking up again, to have to write off an entire year (probably even the ones before) and file it (them) under “Life sucks and then you die” (a motto which I used to jokingly refer to all the time) does not put one into any sort of Christmas spirit. Indeed, it kills just about any spirit.
Along came The Siegel-Schwall Band.
I know it will make you laugh out loud, but I’m a music guy and I find solace and spirit in all kinds of places. Ever since I got this triple-CD set, my mood’s been picking up again and it has helped me put a lot of the crap away some place to hopefully be buried there forever.
The Siegel-Schwall Band you ask?
Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I did not listen to the same music most of my friends were listening to. I had my jazz, I had my early Santana, I had my Status Quo. And I had my Siegel-Schwall records. They weren’t mine – I borrowed them from a long-haired freak down the road about ten years my senior, a real hippie – but they became “mine” after I had taped them all.
When I was on a short and very nice trip the other weekend, I stumbled over this set. To be quite honest, I had researched the band many years ago and had not really found anything worthwhile to buy, but when I walked into that second-hand shop that weekend, my entire childhood rushed back at me with that whooshing sound. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but The Siegel-Schwall Band hadn’t been on my radar for such a long time, and there it suddenly was. Whoosh! Just by looking at the cover I was transported back into my 9 square-meter room with its green (yep) furniture, it’s fluffy wall-to-wall carpet, the plastic stereo and the many other things that populated a young teenager’s room at the time.
Now, most people have never even heard of the Siegel-Schwall band and if you haven’t been a fan as I have for many years, you might probably brush the band off as a poor man’s blues band, but you know the saying: “Different strokes for different folks”.
I loved The Siegel-Schwall Band for years and their music was played daily in my small room. Whereas others might have been listening to the latest European one-hit wonders of the day, or even the ones with much more staying power, one could always hear that white blues music oozing from my small window, the distinctive blues harp sound, the unique vocals.
There were plenty of white blues bands at the time, amongst the most prominent probably The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but I was sold on the Siegel-Schwall sound. Corky Siegel (harp, Wurlitzer and vocals) and Jim Schwall (guitar, mandolin and vocals) formed the band in the mid-’60s in Chicago and started playing the clubs as a duo. It is perhaps their different backgrounds that, when they merged, drew me to their sound, and what came out is perhaps best-described as a country-tinged white blues sound with a hefty dose of folk.
Their “education” must certainly have been their stint as the house band of Pepper’s Lounge where just about every great blues artist sat in. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters – they all went there and Siegel and Schwall played with them. Later they took the gig at Big John’s on Chicago’s North Side that Paul Butterfield had vacated, and Vanguard legendary scout Sam Charters signed them in 1965.
No matter what you can say about the band, they were instrumental in bringing the blues to a much larger (white) audience and as they started touring the festival circuit, their fame spread.
You have to understand where I’m coming from on this set to understand why I might disagree with the sometimes lukewarm reviews it received. These are good childhood memories flooding back, en masse, and I just love(d) this music.
“The Complete Vanguard Recordings and More!” collects every sound snippet ever recorded by this band from 1966-1970 (basically the content of the first four albums with alternate takes) and it is my own personal dream. Others have voiced criticism and, perhaps, it is even true. All Music Guide writes:
Is a three-CD set of the Siegel-Schwall Band — including all four of their Vanguard albums (spanning 1966-1970) in their entirety, along with six previously unissued cuts — too much to take at once? In a word, yes. If you’re a blues-rock history nut, though — and there must be some such listeners out there — it is a handy collection that gathers every last shred of recorded evidence of their early years. In the Chicago-style 1960s white blues sweepstakes, the group lagged way behind the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, an unavoidable reference point due to the similarity of approach and repertoire. Nor were they as good as Charlie Musselwhite or John Hammond, in part because of their vocal limitations, and also in part because of their lesser levels of virtuosity and imagination. They could, however, sometimes summon respectable raffish energy, particularly on the faster or more Bo Diddley-esque tunes, though the slow ones were usually pretty mundane. The highlights of this set are the moments when they do manage to break toward some more original territory, whether it’s in the occasional use of mandolin, or the tentative psychedelic pop of the atypical “Song,” from Siegel-Schwall 70. If you’ve heard the albums already, you’ll be most interested in the half-dozen previously unreleased tracks, none of which are too great or different from most of their early work. These include two 1965 demos (one of them a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Darlin'”); two outtakes from their first Vanguard recording session in 1966; and two 1970 demos, the highlight of that pair being “Easy Rider,” which has good slide work. The 12-page booklet, which contains some quotes from the band, is a plus; the absence of songwriter credits is a minus.
Hell, it might even be true, but I don’t care. Besides some clunkers, it is the music I listened to day in and day out. From somewhat of a distant vantage point, this set also clearly shows a band coming into their own, improving and maturing substantially, from garage-band to concert hall band and beyond. It’s got all the ingredients that made subsequent records such a blast … up until their final album just a few years later, in 1974, “R.I.P. Siegel/Schwall” – perhaps my favorite blues album (I still have the LP).
So, this might not be the one for you.
It was the one that managed to reverse my mood these past seven days and it has helped me get into the Christmas spirit. Yes, I know that’s very odd because this material couldn’t be farther removed from that time of year, but it has done me good. Much good. And that’s the best compliment I can give any band or any music.
Check it out, if you are so inclined.
Have a very merry Christmas and see you after the holidays.