Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N’ Roll

J. Howard Duff… Rock Star

In 1973, 18-year-olds could legally drink in New Jersey. Bars all across the state catered to those 18 and over by employing live rock ‘n’ roll bands. It was a glorious time to be a Jersey Boy… so much great music, freedom, and girls. As a healthy red-blooded 22-year-old, I fully indulged in the moment, singing in cover bands, reviewing other bands in these very pages, and having the time of my life. One of the bands I wrote about, befriended, jammed with, and got high with was called The Institution. Its lead guitarist was a hairy-headed hippie by the name of J. Howard Duff, who had been at it since 1967. I can still see him in my mind’s eye at a Staten Island joint called The Hofbrau House playing a rock-hard guitar and covering the Aretha Franklin hit “Chain Of Fools” which he sang like nobody’s business.

Fast-forward 46 years, and J. Howard Duff is still making music, still singing and playing that rock-hard guitar. He’s no different, in that sense, from Keith Richards who once said, “about myself I have no illusions. I know what I am. I know what I’m good at. I know what I ain’t. I’m always hoping to surprise myself. But I do have a love of music and I do love to communicate it, and that’s the best I can do, really. And I can raise a good family, too.” When I asked Duff to comment for this article, he gave me that Keith quote.

Duff moved decades ago to South Carolina with his vocalist girlfriend Dawn Gaye, his wife for the last 40 years. They’re still together. She’s a story unto herself. She was 16 at Woodstock. I interviewed her for my book but the tale she told was edited out for being too salacious. I do intend to tell that story one day with her permission. For now, though, my ears are burning with J. Howard Duff’s new self-released album, Time Pieces, that resurrects and revitalizes 14 rockin’ gems from ’62 to ‘70. Like Steve Van Zandt’s “Underground Garage” radio show, Duff has amassed these oh-so-discreet picks, performing them—some with Gaye singing lead—in different ways that accentuate their unerring feel for this era of music. His honesty comes across loud and clear. Some songs you might know—“Factory Girl,” Stones; “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” Young Rascals; “Lonely Avenue,” Ray Charles; and “The Stealer,” Free—but most you won’t (deep cuts by The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Beau Brummels, The Syndicate Of Sound, The Shadows Of Knight, Richard & The Young Lions, Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Hollies, and The Institution). It’s a time trip back to when we were all young and the sky was the limit.

You can digitally download Time Pieces at Amazon, Apple Music, iTunes, and CD Baby. You can buy a CD on his website.

Hot Tuna So Tasty

You know I loves me some Hot Tuna. Guitarist/vocalist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Cassidy came rumbling out of Jefferson Airplane a half-century ago fully formed and ready to bring the blues on down, especially when Jorma plays that classic Piedmont-style of blues finger-picking like his hero Rev. Gary Davis. They’ll be at New York City’s Town Hall November 29 & 30 and the MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, P.A. on December 2. 

That Smell

That smell comes from singer/songwriter/guitarist Stephen Clair’s Strange Perfume (Rock City Records). It’s the smell of rock ‘n’ roll, not the smell of death that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant wrote about in 1977 just weeks before he died. Rock ‘n’ Roll these days is like a rare flower trying to blossom in the dead of winter. That’s why when such an earthy rock mixture like this sees the light of day, it’s worth rejoicing over. As produced by keyboardist Malcolm Burn (Clair’s upstate New York neighbor), the guitar/bass/drums/sax/keys personnel rocks it like the rock of ages on 10 autobiographical originals. Burn’s logged studio time with Dylan, Iggy, and Emmylou. His ear can ferret out the dross. His keybs add swirly frills to Clair’s profundity and rough-around-the-edge vocals. This kind of Strange Perfume is alluring and will suck you right into its charms without you even knowing it.  

Greatest American Band?

Quick. Name the greatest American bands. 

CCR? Doors? Skynyrd? CSN? Beach Boys? Ramones? Bruce? Jukes? Petty? Allmans? Byrds? Cheap Trick? Pearl Jam? Sly? Metallica? ZZ Top? 

Sure, they’re all in the conversation. Now add NRBQ. This Kentucky quartet, starting in 1966, ending in 2004, restarting in 2011, and still going strong, has confounded listeners around the globe with their oddball mélange of avant-garde, jazz-rock, punk-rock, country-rock, blues-rock, roots-rock, rockabilly, pop-rock, comedy, Americana, alternative, and  jam-band propensities. Terry Adams, the larger-than-life rock star hero who started it all and who is still in the band, in the liner notes to the new Turn On Tune In (Omnivore Recordings) says, “we have our own genre. It’s can’t be contained by somebody else’s idea. There’s not a preexisting niche or style that we’re willing to sign up for.”

Recorded live earlier this year at SiriusXM in New York City and WFMU-FM’s Monty Hall in Jersey City, the self-produced 21-track album is an exquisite package, containing a DVD and great liner notes from longtime WFMU DJ, Bob Brainen. Adams still plays marvelous keyboards and with guitarist Scott Ligon (since 2007), bassist Casey McDonough (since 2012), who’s also in Brian Wilson’s band, and a new drummer, John Perrin, who brings a real kick of his own, they’ve never sounded better. (Joey Spampinato , 71, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. Tom Ardolino died in 2012. Al Anderson, 72, quit the band in the nineties to become a hugely successful Nashville songwriter.)

Most of these 21 tracks have never been recorded live. Six have never been recorded at all. They cover Brian Wilson’s “Don’t Worry Baby.” Their 3 Stooges tribute “Dr. Howard Dr. Fine Dr. Howard” put a smile on my face after the first note. On song after song, their zestful love-of-life comes shining through.