Lowell Fulson with Jeff Dale & The Blue Wave Band
Lowell Fulson Live!
I remember going to St. Mark's Place in high school and seeing the people selling bootleg concert tapes on the street. The whole endeavor was sketchy, but also fascinating. Finally, one afternoon I bought a Led Zeppelin cassette, thinking it would be the only chance I'd have to hear the band live (other than the imperfect The Song Remains the Same), with the Robert Plant/Jimmy Page reunion still a few years away, and YouTube even further down the road. The sound was awful, like it was recorded from outside of the venue, perhaps hidden under a pile of quilts, but I loved the ability to hear something captured—a moment that had only existed for the people within earshot—and that I could now access across time and space. Lowell Fulson Live! evokes a similar emotion.
The album comes via guitarist Jeff Dale, who found a tape of the show during the pandemic and decided to release it. Dale and his band perform here with singer/guitarist Fulson, at Los Angeles' Club 88, on November 5, 1983. The quality isn't as bad a cassette purchased off of someone crouching over a blanket in a Greenwich Village doorway, but it's a live-to-four-track performance captured on 1980s' technology. The fidelity is a selling point, making you feel like like you're there in Club 88 with Fulson and Dale.
Fulson's voice is strong, although the recording doesn't pristinely catch all of it. His guitar playing is powerful and up-front, but the interplay with the horn section is what sells you on the album. Saxophonist Marshall Crayton Jr, grandson of blues singer/guitarist Pee Wee Crayton, sits in with the band, joining Pete Zifchak and Steve Primo, so there's some acclimation in their dynamics. On top of that, the Blue Wave Band wasn't Fulson's usual group, but rather one that occasionally set-up gigs for and with him. All of these factors create a fearless performance, where everyone is trying to get a feel for everyone else, with occasional bumps that give the show an electric excitement, sort of like a bluesy episode The Muppet Show, but without the puppets.
"Stoop Down Baby," a Chick Willis cover, is blues funk. Fulson and the band lock in on a groove while the saxophones try to find space to jump in. They often go head-to-head with the guitar, starting and quickly stopping. But it doesn't impact your enjoyment of the track. It's a treat to hear artists figuring things out on the fly, live and in front of a crowd. And while there are some stumbles in the journey, when they lock in, the music is all the more beautiful. As are the saxophone solos, which feel propelled by the chaos.
The insights into Fulson's process go even deeper. He begins "Lowell's Lollipop" a cappella, unleashing the full depth of his voice. Guitar, perhaps Fulson's own, tentatively accompanies him, before he invites the band to play with him. The groove comes together very quickly, and the song ends just as abruptly, with Fulson telling the audience that the band hasn't played together long. "Reconsider Baby," one of Fulson's best-known songs, features stinging, defiant guitar work that echoes and amplifies the vocal lines. The saxophones look for space, supporting the melody, but not stepping in front like a typical uptown blues. You can hear them trying to find a place to merge in, with varying degrees of success, but the quest is compelling listening.
The sonic quality of contemporary live albums spoils us. So many sound so clean, capturing every part of a performance, good and bad, that when you hear something a bit older, and a bit rawer, there's a tendency to dismiss it. This isn't the best introduction to Fulson's work, but it's a wonderful window into his creativity. It'll make you wonder what else Dale has in his closet.