Steam Powered Aereo-Takes
Produced by David Bromberg
Rounder Records 82161-0480-2
by Ky Hote
Steam Powered Aereo-Takes is a collection of "unissued songs, alternate versions... and revealing takes" from the sessions that produced John Hartford's innovative 1971 album, Steam Powered Aereo-Plain. Since Hartford's death in 2001, it's appropriate to see retrospective recordings of out-takes and unfinished material from this prolific musician, such as this one and the recently-released Hamilton Ironworks.
Out-take albums rarely stand on their own without context. The best ones are usually collections of "Alternate Takes" that are special in their own right. Sometimes recorded before an audience, often with different instrumentation or lyrics, one could argue that they could have been released instead of the "real" cuts. When the context of an out-take album is clear, we also hope to find "Undiscovered Gems," polished songs that were never released, and "Insightful Takes," songs that fill in the gaps of an era or the completion of a album. Steam Powered Aereo-Takes is certainly an insightful look into the making of Steam Powered Aereo-Plain. I wish they had made it a double album and included the finished album as well, so we could see the full evolution. Aereo-Takes includes a few previously unreleased Hartford compositions that qualify as Undiscovered Gems, though they mostly seem unfinished compared with his published catalog. As for Alternate Takes, there are fewer still. All in all, it seems easy to see why they chose the versions that were released. This album will certainly please any Hartford fan, but it may be a little uneven and quirky for the uninitiated.
So let's begin the initiation with some history. In the sixties, Hartford made music and paid his dues from Nashville to Hollywood. In the early seventies, as a result of writing Glen Campbell's runaway hit, Gentle On My Mind, Hartford enjoyed the financial freedom to pursue music as he saw fit. Instead of trying to duplicate his success, he assembled a wonderful band of musicians (Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor) and played live shows around the country. When they were ready to record, they collaborated with up-and- coming session musician and producer, David Bromberg. Bromberg gave the album a "New York sensibility," even though Hartford instructed him to "let the tapes roll, we don't want to hear playbacks until you've put the master together." The result is an album that has been hailed as the forerunner of the genre now known as "Newgrass."
Besides the out-takes from Aereo-Plain, there are recordings that led to Hartford's next album, Morning Bugle. Aereo-Plain sold poorly and Warner Bros. decided not to promote Morning Bugle at all. Hartford was released from his contract at his own request.
The historical value of this collection is clear. Now let's go over the Gems, Insights and Alternate Takes.
This collection features three songs written by Tut Taylor. They certainly qualify as Undiscovered Gems for Tut Taylor fans. According to Bob Carlin, who supervised the re- mastering of Aereo-Takes, Bromberg wanted the album to highlight Hartford's compositions, rather than reflect the Aereoplane band's on-stage repertoire. Considering that two of Taylor's tunes (Bad Music (is Better than No Music At All) and Oasis) are strong instrumentals, one wonders why Bromberg didn't include either of them, instead of the "trad" instrumentals that eventually appeared on Aereo-Plain. Perhaps someone had it in mind to release an album devoted to Taylor's music.
The album opens with Hartford yodeling and reworking an old bluegrass tune, Where The Old Red River Flows by Jimmie Davis ("You can hear them hippies singing soft and low"). Covering a tune in a genre different from its original version was a technique he enjoyed throughout his live stage shows and on through his last recording with Dave Grisman and Mike Seeger (Retrograss). That style was disregarded on Aereo-Plain in favor of Hartford's own unique compositions.
Blame It on Joann begins the Hartford originals on Aereo- Takes. It falls into the Undiscovered Gem category. This tune is evocative in that haunting Hartford way. The protagonist blames Joann for everything ("We love you 'cause you always let us hate you/We love you 'cause you do not take it well/We love you because you put us all in heaven/let us sit and wish you'd go to hell"). Emanuel Cant is typical Hartford humor, punning Emanuel's last name with the present-tense verb of the same sound. Lady Jane is my favorite of the Undiscovered Gems. It's a fine four-chord vamp with a twisted melody, a veiled meaning, and Hartford's lovely falsetto voice.
The Vamp from the Back in the Goodle Days is a noteworthy Alternate Take and also an Insightful inclusion. It is a two-chord vamp similar to part of Vamp In The Middle with the words to the chorus of Back In The Goodle Days sung to a sad minor old-timey tune. Two cuts that might have been Alternate Takes of note, but only rate as Insightful Takes, are Presbyterian Guitar and Because Of You. The former features a mandolin-family trio accentuating the cadences, and the latter includes Hartford yodeling, which is implied (although omitted on Aereo- Plain) by the lyrics ("Because of you I close my eyes when I yodel").
Morning Bugle and Howard Hughes Blues are alternative takes from the Morning Bugle album. They are particularly welcome because the production of Morning Bugle often obscured the lyrics. This makes "Morning Bugle" the only cut on Aereo- Takes that seems to be an improvement of its released equivalent. The lyrics for Aereo-Takes' Howard Hughes Blues include some lines that are a little more accessible ("If it wasn't for his money/I'm sure he could be free/ and walk around all over town/just like you and me") than the final version, but still doesn't quite hold up as well. Howard Hughes Blues was meant to be a side of a single (remember those?) backed with Don't Ever Take Your Eyes Off the Game, Babe), but that single was never produced.
Hartford fans - enjoy this album for all its worth! Personally, I relish every new insight into this performer's enigmatic life and catalog. But for your friends who have never heard him before, I would recommend starting with the tried and true recordings first.
except where noted, all cuts by John Hartford