Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leon Russell - 1971 - Asylum Choir II (With Marc Benno)

Leon Russell 
1971 
Asylum Choir II (With Marc Benno)




01. Sweet Home Chicago 3:20
02. Down On The Base 2:18
03. Hello, Little Friend 2:52
04. Salty Candy 2:26
05. Tryin' To Stay 'Live 2:50
06. ...Intro To Rita... 2:07
07. Straight Brother 3:08
08. Learn How To Boogie 2:40
09. Ballad For A Soldier 4:24
10. When You Wish Upon A Fag 4:10
11. Lady In Waiting 3:37

Leon Russell Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Vocals




1971's "Asylum Choir II" was originally intended as a follow-up to 1968's "Looking Inside the Asylum Choir".  Unfortunately Smash Records executives shelved the set where it sat for the next three years.  The collection was ultimately rescued in 1971 when Leon Russell (enjoying stardom as a solo act), bought the tapes and released the collection on his newly formed Shelter imprint. Ironically, by the time the sophomore album saw the light of day, Russell and singer/multi-instrumentalist Marc Benno had dissolved their musical partnership.  Musically the set wasn't a major change from the debut, though there were a couple of marked differences.  While the debut was very much a collaboration, this time around the focus was clearly on Russell.  That may have something to do with the fact Russell was responsible for the collection's release.  As on the debut, Benno was credited with co-writing most of the material (there were three tracks credited to Russell alone), but Benno's other contributions were far and few between.  He handled backing vocals on a couple of tracks, but elsewhere was largely absent.  While full of engaging melodies, lyrically the album was a topical timepiece - though I've always found it an engaging reflection of the times.  There were a couple of nifty anti-war tracks ('Down On the Base' and 'Ballad for a Soldier') and some dated social/political commentary ('Sweet Home Chicago' with it's not-to-subtle commentary on 1968's Democratic National Convention and 'Straight Brother'). Speaking of dated, amazing how time impacts language ...  "when you're bass player's flat and your drummer drags, don't you wish you had a fag"  Anyone under 30 probably doesn't realize he was talking about cigarettes, not lifestyles.  Bottom line is that it was a good effort, though largely a Russell solo effort and simply not on a par with the debut.

Initially kept in the can until Leon Russell started hitting his stride in the early '70s, Asylum Choir II is an artifact from 1967-1969. This was a fertile time for music. All the popular themes of the times show up here: protests of the Vietnam war in Down on the Base and Ballad for a Soldier; notes on the political scene and corporate profit-making in the face of the war in Sweet Home Chicago, Tryin' to Stay Alive, Lady in Waiting, and Straight Brother; and, of course, love in Hello Little Friend (which would later prove a hit for Joe Cocker when Leon was running that show). The tracks sound fairly dated in part because many songs were so topical.
Although Leon Russell is credited as contributing bass, guitar, piano, keyboards, vocals, and being the producer while Marc Benno is credited as a performer and producer, the music does not suffer from the "Winwood" syndrome, which occurs when one musician tries to do everything and the resulting product sounds flat and uninspired. Quite the opposite, the music, for the most part, is jaunty and full-bodied.
For example, on Straight Brother, the sound is a rich pastiche of fiddle, wah-wah, percussion, bass, and some great vocals from, I would guess, Rita Coolidge (set up in the Intro to Rita). Which also begs the question: who else is making some uncredited guest appearances? I find it hard to believe the late Carl Radle only served as a photographer and never plugged in his bass here. Could one of the drummer Jims (Gordon or Kneltner) be sitting in, too? No doubt, there are quite a few uncredited performers lurking on this recording, perhaps uncredited because of contract issues.
Russell, who was just gaining his musical footing about the time this album was orginially recorded, wrote some great lyrics and sings with great verve. His vocals, veering from ragged to howling, still can conjure chills on Straight Brother. And his keyboard playing is articulate and quirky, a harbinger of what was yet to come.

Not awesome, but consistently good southern boogie rock with a minimal sound. I found it much better than I expected based on many negative reviews. 'Salty Candy', 'Tryin' to Stay 'Live' and 'Ballad for a Soldier' are my favorites.

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