Al Kooper - piano, guitar, vocals
Songwriter, Arranger, Bandleader, Musician, Vocalist, Producer, Performer and Historian cover some of what Al Kooper has simultaneously pursued over the past five decades. Few could lay claim to more consistently captivating results in any one of those challenging occupations.
In terms of the mid-1960s transition from relatively primitive "rock & roll" to the more adventurous and all encompassing "rock" music, Kooper's impact cannot be underestimated. The Butterfield Blues Band and The Blues Project, of which Kooper played a vital role, are probably the two most instrumentally influential American bands of the mid 1960s, particularly on an improvisational level.
Following his tenure in The Blues Project, Kooper founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, expanding his arranging approach to include horns and recording their first and most engaging album in the process, Child Is Father To The Man. Never one to remain in one place very long, he exited shortly afterward, pursuing session work and a solo career, releasing a line of accomplished albums under his own name. Encompassing blues, rock, gospel and jazz, Kooper always achieved a unified soulful sound, full of subtlety, melodicism and depth. His vocals, instrumental performances and arrangements on these albums all reward repeated listening, the true test of a great recording.
Familiarity with Kooper's earlier work makes this solo acoustic performance all the more fascinating. It's a testament to both his abilities as a songwriter and as an interpreter of other songwriters. Beginning the set with three songs on acoustic guitar, he warms up with "Brand New Day" from his 1970 album, Easy Does It. He continues with Harry Nilsson's "Without Her," one of the many standout tracks from the first Blood, Sweat & Tears LP. Even with just acoustic guitar and voice, this song is so melodically well crafted that its charms are obvious, but it's the inherent vulnerability in Kooper's voice that makes this performance so engaging.
Noodling around on "Sweet Home Alabama," Kooper delivers a brief monologue about his recent activities. These include the launch of his fledgling record label, which was enjoying initial success with his production work and release of the debut Lynyrd Skynyrd album, as well as mention of his book soon being published. Revealing his humorous side, he then performs a rare autobiographical number titled appropriately enough, "Autobiography In 725 Bars," referring to the actual length of the song, rather than drinking establishments he had frequented.
After switching to piano the true magic begins on a cover of John Prine's "Sam Stone," recorded for Naked Songs, Kooper's album release the previous year. The piano arrangement and vocal delivery are quite engaging here and he delivers Prine's incredibly eloquent and intensely sad lyric with passion and subtlety. His transition into the bridge is beautiful, and it's hard to imagine following this emotionally draining performance.
He does this by returning to the first Blood, Sweat & Tears LP, with Randy Newman's "Just One Smile." While true to his 1968 arrangement, the solo acoustic nature of this performance reveals that the true essence is all there within Kooper's vocal and piano playing. It's a testament to the craft of this composition as well as Kooper's strength as an interpreter.
The melancholy flavor of "New Fashioned Love Song" follows, before Kooper delivers a remarkable version of Henry Glover's classic, "Drown In My Own Tears," an extended blues oozing with gospel soul. These songs, as well as "Don't Hang Up," which follows, reveal an immediacy here that would be nearly impossible to achieve with additional instrumentation.
Before winding it to a close, he once again revisits the first Blood, Sweat & Tears album for one of his most memorable songs, "I Can't Quit Her." This is a delicious performance, with all the vocal drama of the original. Kooper's solo piano accompaniment, with his unpredictable chord modulations, makes this even more forceful than the original. He adds a nice little piano coda toward the end that is surprising and varies from the familiar recording, before wrapping it up.
He says goodbye by returning to his Naked Songs LP. He advises listeners "to always keep this in mind," before closing with "Be Real," a song about having and maintaining faith in oneself, something Kooper has always applied to his own work. This Record Plant performance is a revealing, intimate glimpse at the artistry of Al Kooper.