VIEWERS OF star-studded awards shows in recent times may have been intrigued by a gangly six-and-a-half-foot figure occasionally appearing in the background of numerous TV shots. There he was in the shadows while Alison Krauss and Elvis Costello were front and centre on the Academy Awards stage performing the Oscar-nominated songs from Cold Mountain. And wasn’t that his towering frame sharing in the glee when the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? took the Grammys by storm a couple of years earlier?
Now cast your mind back to the late ’80s and the historic black-and-white TV special where Roy Orbison ran through his greatest hits accompanied by A-list admirers like Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and k.d. lang. Our boy was the one just behind the megastar front line with a steady hand on the tiller. Looked a lot like an older version of the guy on the congested stage in that archive footage of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder revue back in the ’70s.
Such has been the varied employment of one Joseph Henry Burnett (T-Bone to his friends), the gifted musician, writer, arranger and producer whose name is never far from the top of anyone’s wish list when a job requires bottomless reserves of quality and credibility. To call him a sideman would be an insult. T-Bone is an extremely hands-on musical director, with an intuitive, almost telepathic, sense of what’s needed to ensure the project that’s been entrusted to him attains landmark status.
With a perpetually busy slate of high calibre tasks, T-Bone Burnett’s own career as a singer-songwriter has tended to take a back seat. You could count his own albums over the last 20 years on one hand, which is a real shame, because he has few equals when it comes to delivering music of instrumental articulacy or lyrical wit and intelligence. It is with unbridled joy, therefore, that we greet the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of his earliest work on this fine compendium of recordings by The Alpha Band.
When the curtain came down on the Rolling Thunder revue at the end of 1975, Burnett regrouped with two fellow players, singer-songwriter Steven Soles and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield. In many ways, The Alpha Band’s sound was informed by the diverse elements of Americana they had witnessed while traversing the country with Dylan; rock, folk, country and bluegrass influences were evident, as were the Tex-Mex sounds of Burnett’s teenage years in Forth Worth.
A huge buzz surrounded the group’s signing to Clive Davis’ Arista label in July 1976, for a reported fee of $6 million. The resulting self-titled album was certainly more eclectic than the standard AOR fare that dominated the Billboard charts, due in no small way to the writers with whom Burnett and Soles collaborated. The opening ‘Interviews’ was credited to T-Bone, folk scene veteran Bob Neuwirth and expressionist painter Larry Poons, clearly indicating that the group were intent on toying with the form and pushing back boundaries wherever they could.
It was more than just a celebration of the sounds of America, and tracks like ‘Ten Figures’ examined the attitudes of people towards their country. The group who’d secured their record deal in the same month as the nation commemorated its bicentennial were conducting a fascinating, unconventional, occasionally surreal history lesson. It may have been too much for the listening public at large, and despite lavish critical acclaim, the album struggled to find a wide audience.
Whether or not Arista were expecting sizeable commercial returns, especially considering the links to Dylan, the label admirably didn’t panic or pull the plug, as more modern-day set-ups are wont to do. Having said that, some of the debut’s more experimental components were toned down for the following year’s Spark In The Dark. There was a straightforward pop cover of Dylan’s ‘You Angel You’, one of the least complex songs he ever wrote, while tracks like Soles’ ‘Blue Lonely Nights’ were a lot closer to the accepted singer-songwriter template that had all but guaranteed sales for less adventurous artists.
The Alpha Band still pushed the envelope as often as they could get away with it, and the opening brace of ‘East Of East’ and ‘Born In Captivity’ owe much to Mansfield’s musical daring, liberally plundering world music styles long before the likes of Fleetwood Mac (Tusk) or Paul Simon (Graceland) started to look beyond their homeland for platinum success.
Burnett’s devout Christianity was given a subtle airing on parts of Spark In The Dark, but he upped the religion and morality ante on 1978’s The Statue Makers Of Hollywood. ‘Tick Tock’ was an eight-minute précis of the Old Testament set to a sub-Latino backing track, while ‘Perverse Generation’ was pretty much the sound of T-Bone kicking over the money lenders’ tables. ‘Your wisdom has deserted you’, he declares in the chorus, before going on to deliver the warning ‘if you close your heart you are surely doomed’. The holier-than-thou lyrical tone may have been unpalatable to some, but musically the album was perhaps The Alpha Band’s most audacious statement, thanks mainly to the inventiveness of Mansfield whose deft arrangements gave the wordsmith’s prosletysing some grounding in pop reality.
But just when the philosophical seriousness of the album threatened to weigh it down, the group offered the deep soul roots simplicity of ‘Back In My Baby’s Arms Again’ and closed proceedings with a downhome romp through Hank Williams’ ‘Thank God’ – testifying at its most foot-tappingly accessible.
However, three albums in the red was enough for everyone concerned, and The Alpha Band folded as a unit in 1979, although its three members have intermittently continued to work with each other.
T-Bone was especially busy following the group’s demise, releasing a string of albums throughout the 80s, which featured an impressive roster of guest players and writers (Costello, Bono, Pete Townshend, Ry Cooder). But it was in the producer’s chair that T-Bone truly found his calling, and he has been instrumental in the formative success of acts like Los Lobos, the Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Gillian Welch. His vast knowledge and understanding of 20th century music has established him as a kind of unofficial archivist of American popular culture, and he is in great demand as a soundtrack adviser for some of Hollywood’s sharpest film-makers, not least Joel and Ethan Coen. His work on their Depression-era shaggy dog story O Brother Where Art Thou? led to the music from the movie picking up the Grammy for Album Of The Year, a previously unheard of feat for a film soundtrack.
Its success must have been gratifying, because in many respects the music was not that far removed from the essence of what Burnett had originally set out to do with Soles and Mansfield back in the ’70s. Some people will tell you that music is cyclic, that a style which was once regarded as old hat can eventually become the most fashionable and sought after thing on the market. There’s a smarter school of thought, though, that maintains there is no such time as a wrong time for something as intelligent, as inventive or as downright joyous as The Alpha Band.
© Terry Staunton, Acadia Records, July 2005