Saturday, November 19, 2005

CD Review by Mark Dalton

Blue Universe
Jeff Simmons
Blue Fox Records

There was a popular cartoon image back in the day (both in New Yorker-type cartoons, and the Warner Brothers kind) that you don’t see much any more, but which strikes me when I think about Jeff Simmons and this fine CD he just released – the image is these guys in white uniforms with giant butterfly nets, chasing after a guy in a hospital gown with a gleeful, manic grin on his face… the guy looks smart, if a little crazy, he is quick on his feet, the uniforms look a little slow and none too bright, and you just know our boy is going to get away, at least for now!

This cartoon image, I believe, plays on a classic American archetype, Br’er Rabbit – that quick-witted hare who is always a couple steps ahead of somebody who is seriously irritated with him, usually with very good reason. “Stop! Stop, I say! You can’t get away with that! Somebody stop that man!”

To get to the point here, the will o‘ the wisp Seattle singer and all-around musician, Jeff Simmons, a man with his heart in the blues no matter what he’s doing, has a hilarious persona as a performer that draws from this same well. Simmons has written a whole cycle of great tunes about “Treatment,” for example – with a couple such tunes residing on this CD. Simmons’ ner-do-well musician character is always one step ahead of those pesky treatment program guys - whether he’s “Breakin’ Out of Treatment,”or kicking back and enjoying the life of a “Treatmon’ Center Playboy” while he’s there, as he does on this CD.

This CD is a result of work-in-progress for the last 20 years or so, going through many sessions and many musicians. I used to play some gigs around town with Simmons in his alter ego as Robert Sumpner (aka Little Bobby) and his band, “The Stump Blasters.” Guaranteed big fun with Little Bobby, let me tell you! One time I showed up at a Simmons recording session, and Guitar Shorty was onboard for the evening, but he didn’t make it on this CD. Blues harpist Dave Prez is here, and has been an onboard contributor for many years, as has sax ace Billy Joe McPherson. Simmon’s pals from Vancouver B.C. are also here, along with a great mixture of original tunes and a handful of carefully chosen, duly Simmonized covers.

There are a couple of different bands at work here – one is a group of Canadian studio guys that play a kind of commercial blues sound that is just a little bit slick and generic for Simmons, in my opinion, but over which he handily triumphs - on the radio-ready “Bucket of Blues” for example, where Simmons’ pounding piano and Shaft-style wah-wah guitar are notable, along with good lyrics. Simmons’ accurate rockabilly reading of the classic “Bertha Lou” boosts this tune above average, too - but it could be bristling with manic energy – a little more dangerous, you know?

Things start to heat up real nice on the jazzy “Vancouver by Night,” with its funky organ holding things together, and the stuff that really knocks me over begins ha-pen-nin’ next with “New In Town.” Remember “The Shining?” This tune sounds like it was recorded in the lounge of the Overlook Hotel – in the dead of winter – the production is just spectral enough, and Simmons’ wonderfully smarmy delivery has those ghostly bootleg jazz babies swooning… “New in Town” is the first one hit over the fence by Jeff and his long time compadre, Billy Joe, whose sax is perfect here.

“Warned You Baby” is another radio-ready cut, this time in a kind of funky Texas shuffle vein that will sound fine midway through your favorite weekend blues show, but it is really a warm up for the next two great tunes in a row, again with our resident Br’er Rabbit and the Overlook Hotel Band (playing those hotel chords, too you bet!) – the impeccable (send out for a) “Bucket of Beer” (and while you are up, “Send out, for a gallon of wine, if the other men drink it, all their women could be mine!”). Then comes the Simmons classic “CD Party” – “with no cassettes!” The title is also an obvious play on Seattle’s Central District, or “the CD”- a neighborhood that used to be for musicians, adventurous souls and the wildest parties in town before the forces of gentrification spoiled that party too.

For my money, these two tunes capture Simmons (left - photo by Phil Chestnut) at his exuberant best. If this was a better world, Jeff would have a house band gig, Thursday through Sunday, in the lounge of someplace old and plush like the Sorrento Hotel, for the rest of his life, playing tunes like these to his heart’s content. And the rest of us could go down there and sit in, and play them too! Wouldn’t that be heaven?

In the home stretch, “Sweet Little Hobby Rocker” is another great cut – rolling piano, great vocals, and cool lyrics about one of those coast-to-coast teenage dream girls that get further and further out of the reach of grizzled old rockers like us – still fun to write songs about though!

This CD ostensibly winds up with an instrumental – pounding Fats Domino piano and stuttering Hammond organ with some wild guitar flowing over the top, a musical hot fudge sundae of sorts with a tasty glissando conclusion… but wait! Don’t touch that stereo! They haven’t got our boy yet…

“Yon’ come the bus, for the L.A. County Home… I’m going back to Canada, where I’m better known! They try to grab you, put you on the treatment farm, I’m going back to Canada, where you can’t do nobody no harm!”

Things keep on like they are ‘round here, I’m gonna be crying “Take me with you Jeff!” ‘fore you know it!" Meanwhile, I can put this excellent collection on the box, and get a smile back on my face! Check it out!

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with the Chris Stevens Band. Photo by Ronda Lee.


philustr8r said...

As usual, Mark Dalton's revue is well written and insightful with a more liberal understanding of Jeff Simmons' music than your basic writer would have. Jeff Simmons is a true one-of-a-kind and so is his new CD. I haven't been this excited about an album with real lounge lizard songs and an FZ wha-wha pedal since "Tinseltown Rebellion." Thumbs up for "Blue Universe."

Mike Lynch said...

Yeah, I've been digging this disk too. I like the hidden live cut at the end - Jeff throws off some smokin' Hammond B-3 riffs on that tune. I playd a few songs with Jeff at the China clipper a few weeks ago. Hell, I didn't even know he played guitar! He was playing through a Guild echoplex thingy (never saw one before), a Silvertone amp, and a Supro speaker cabinet. Sounded great, of course!