Rock and Reprise.net
The Sixties. New York City. Bleecker and MacDougal. Strike a note? If it does, you're more than likely a dinosaur (like myself) or a student of folk history. It was one hell of a scene. More than one label embraced it: Verve Folkways, Vanguard, Elektra. Even Columbia Records dipped into the huge pool of talent playing the clubs, scooping none other than Bob Dylan. Of course, Dylan wasn't the only one there. You want names? Tim Hardin, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Odetta, Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk, among others, put in time on Bleecker Street. And Randy Burns.
Burns was almost an afterthought to the scene, though few who know his music consider himself such. He started his music career at the Exit Coffeehouse in New Haven in 1965 and exited Connecticut for the more promising New York scene in 1966. He had no money. He had few clothes. All he had was an acoustic guitar and a dream. He wanted to play music, yes, but more than that, he wanted to play music for people and there were more people in New York City than New Haven or any other place within striking distance. He did what most artists did when first arriving. He slept on couches, in the street, in flophouses. He played open mikes and street corners and for anyone who would listen. He ended up scoring what was then a dream job--- permanent opening act at The Gaslight, one of the top clubs in NYC--- opening for acts the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, among others. Which led to a record deal with ESP-Disk Records. After releasing three fairly well-received albums on that label, he moved on to Mercury Records and then Polydor to record more rock fare. All were good, but none better than those recorded for ESP-Disk.
The ESP years were magic years for Burns and for folk rock. Burns might diss his first effort for the label, Of Love and War, but if nothing else it gave a hint at what he could do. The music was sparse, just Burns and his guitar with support from a 12-string guitarist, one Emery Fletcher. While it had its positives, it was a first effort from a very young and not-ready-for-prime-time Burns.
It all changed with Evening of the Magician, though, when Burns found future Sky Dog Band members Matt Kastner, Bruce Samuels and John O'Leary. Delving into the deeper side of folk (the side now referred to as folk/psych and folk rock), the message became more personal and more mystical. Standard folk rock fare like Ron's Song and Susan, Your Mind's Got Wings and the beautiful Girl From England were paired with the more haunting Echoes of Mary's Song and When Daylight Comes In Everything. Two things separate Of Love and Magician. One: Burns was coming into his own as a vocalist. He sang the songs on Magician with a soft and wavering voice and was developing his own unique sound. Two: He was becoming a songwriter. A real songwriter. He was finding his voice, if you will. His songs were not only getting better, they were becoming more personal. Looking back, I would say that he had arrived.
Just in time for what I consider the apex of Burns' ESP recordings: Song For an Uncertain Lady. As good as was Magician (and I consider it very good and a classic of the folk rock era), Uncertain Lady was that much better. Randy Burns had morphed into Randy Burns & The Sky Dog Band, whether it was presented as such or not. The songs were more mature, the band tighter and the production more on point. The lead-off track, Sorrow's Children, set the pace and it never let up. Track two, the more cerebral and oddly chorded Autumn On Your Mind, cushioned the transition into the signature song, Song For an Uncertain Lady, a light trip into psych and one of the best songs Burns ever wrote or recorded. There are other classics here, too--- to me, anyway. Besides the aforementioned, there was Maybelline, a song which in the chorus seems a precursor to Jackson Browne's These Days but isn't. Child For Now steps more toward Richie Havens than anything I can recollect, an upbeat screaming moaner with attitude--- six minutes' worth and worth every minute. Waiting For an Old Friend/Randy's Song is, to me, a song written for the future--- mine. A reflection of the past and the ancient present, both a look back and a look at what was (and they are two separate and different things). I lose myself in such songs when they are done right. Burns did this one right.
These two albums have recently been repackaged and basically re-released. Joe Phillips, a one-time chief engineer at ESP-Disk, filled me in on the process.
“This project started several years ago when I was chief engineer for ESP-Disk,” he said, “the label which originally released Randy's first three albums. My intent then was to put out a double-CD set which included all three albums, tentatively titled Our Roads Will Meet Again. We had cover art, liner notes, and digital masters. The project got canceled after I'd spent many months on it. I had meticulously restored the original tapes, evening out the sound quality across tracks. Some of the tracks suffered from 'muddiness' and others had high levels of tape hiss, uneven tape speed, and other sins. My goal was to bring it up to contemporary standards and create a listening experience, as if you are 'hearing it for the first time'. It now sounds clear, crisp and intimate. Pretty much the same treatment I had previously given to my issue of the first two Pearls Before Swine albums which I put out several years ago to critical acclaim.
“Evening of the Magician is a magical, delicate album. There is so much beauty in the music and so many subtle details previously unheard. Some of Randy's most memorable songs are here and possess an engaging, inviting aura. It is hard to describe. Tom Rapp, in his liner notes of the scrapped project, called When Daylight Comes In Everything 'the most intelligent take on psychedelia I've ever heard'.
“Songs For an Uncertain Lady got the same treatment and expands Randy's sound even moreso. The arrangements are more adventurous and recorded to much higher standards.
“Both albums were released on CD in the early nineties by a German company, ZYX Records, through a very bad licensing deal with ESP. They were horrible! All they did was transfer LP copies directly to the CD master without any processing, so surface skips, clicks and pops were all there, like playing a badly worn record. There was even an egregious speed error on many of the tracks, where it was slowed down almost a whole note. It sounds as if the turntable speed wasn't calibrated or something. Wow.”
Joe suggests looking for these albums on CDBaby to make sure you get the upgraded albums. He also suggests waiting until the audiophile LP release of Evening of the Magician to order or download that album. He has given it an “extreme makeover” and hopes it will be released early this Fall. Initially, it will only be available as a 180 gm vinyl album, though negotiations are in the works regarding a CD, possibly to be released at a later date if negotiations go well.
In the meantime, take a little time to sample Randy Burns. A handful of his albums are available through CDBaby (the upgraded copy of Uncertain Lady is available digitally now) including his latest, Hobos and Kings, and 2008's The Simple Things. Yep. He's still cranking them out. And he's one of the good guys. You'll know that when you hear the music.
Frank O. Gutch Jr.
Supporting the Indies Since 1969