Up Late with Keef

(Photo by Deborah Feingold)

It’s 1 a.m., and I’m up doing research for a writing project I can’t talk about just yet. Part of that research requires me to play the solo recordings of Keith Richards, when he of The Rolling Stones had a little something he needed to express sans his musical brother/sparring partner Mick Jagger.

I mention the time because it actually comes into play here. As I burned through Keith’s first album, Talk is Cheap, I found myself looking at the clock as the leader and his tres cool backing band effortlessly grooved through tune after tune. When I saw what time it was, I found myself thinking I couldn’t have played this at a better time. Keith Richards albums belong to the night, regardless of when you choose to play them.

I remember buying Talk is Cheap when it was released in 1989. On top of the college and progressive rock I was digging, I was also going through a serious Stones phase. This would be around the time of the Steel Wheels album, which I remember liking, even if “Shattered” remains my favorite song. Keith’s album dropped either just before or just after Steel Wheels, I don’t remember (and it’s not really relevant).

I loved the marked lack of hype, musically, behind Talk is Cheap. Keith wasn’t trying to make a statement. Or at least I didn’t think so. To me, it sounded like he wrote some songs and decided he liked them. So why not record them? So he took a top-shelf crop of session cats into the studio and did just that.

This wasn’t stadium rock. This was music fit for a bar. I mean that respectfully. This band and these songs should be experienced up close in some smoky (at the time) nightclub late in the evening. Really late, “last call” be damned. I should practically be able to put my feet up on the stage while the other 50 or so people and I watch this band nearly burn the house down!

It’s appropriate that Keith named his band The X-pensive Winos, because everyone in that room would be joining the band for a sip or three. This was the kind of music that should have been recorded with the entire band on stage, playing live (and maybe the basic tracks were in the studio). I can just see the band wrapping up a tune to Keith’s satisfaction, and him saying “Right then! Give us a drink!” Then they move on to the next number.

Talk is Cheap was followed by Main Offender in ’92 and Crosseyed Heart 25 years later. The vibe on each record is similar. There’s no mistaking Keith’s guitar and voice on these records. But what really makes these records for me is the snare drum of Steve Jordan (who also co-wrote some of the tunes). It’s that air-right crack on the two and the four that propels the music forward. Add to that talents like guitarist Waddy Watchell and keyboardists Ivan Neville and Bernie Worrell, among others, and you have a band personifying what I’m told Jimmy Page called something like “tight looseness.” There’s no mistaking the groove. It’s right there. But it’s not stiff and machine-like. This band is as organic as it gets. You can feel the groove swaying.

You don’t even arrive at the club to hear this band until around midnight. There are no bad seats, so there’s plenty of time to grab a scotch and get a table. The band saunters out sometime between 12:30 and 12:45 and proceeds to kick things right into gear. They’ll play a couple of sets, with a little “cock and bull” session with the audience in between. The last notes will fade just before 4. They want to keep going, but the bar manager insists we get the hell out!

I like the idea of imagining myself in this band, happily grooving away on rhythm guitar, helping to make the music swing. Keith looks back in my direction, and I offer him a cheeky little grin that he returns. We know what’s happening. There’s no need to say anything.

I haven’t played these records for quite some time. I’m glad they came back on my radar. It’s moments like these that make me appreciate music that much more.

Especially when it’s properly timed.


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My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com

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