Do Look Back: Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace: Live 1976
Sandy Bull was one of America’s all-time guitar greats, but judging by barometers like Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitarists of All Time you wouldn’t know it. The highly influential master of many instruments (in addition to guitar) was mainly active through the sixties and seventies, releasing some of the most forward-thinking music of his day. He played folk, he played jazz, he played eastern ragas, he even reinterpreted classical music for the banjo. Though incredibly talented and well regarded, Sandy Bull never really reached the kind of cultural cachet that he deserved. Today, if he’s remembered at all, it’s generally by other musicians, those who follow guys like John Fahey, Jack Rose, etc.—not names you hear come up often in dinner-table conversation.
Chicago label Drag City remembers Sandy Bull, though, and this spring they are putting out a previously unreleased live recording of Bull from 1976 (adding to the numerous list of Bull reissues they have released over the years). Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace / Live 1976 is a collection of tunes from Bull’s performance at the Berkeley Community Center. Interspersed with Bull’s oud-, guitar-, and Rhythm Ace-accompanied tunes, the singer rambles good-naturedly through stories and jokes. He spends a little too much time outlining the various technical capabilities of the Rhythm Ace, an early drum machine, however, in 1976 the machines weren’t quite as common as today and probably seemed legitimately space-aged. (Even if bands like Can had been using them since the sixties…) The rambling spent on the various beats are worth sitting through to hear Bull tell the backstories of songs like swamp-funk jam “Alligator Wrestler,” which Bull says was inspired by the furious masturbation habits of a roommate at a halfway house.
For the Sandy Bull novice, Live 1976 probably isn’t the best place to start listening. It does present a very wide variety of Bull’s instrumental capabilities and influences (particularly folk, jazz, and Eastern music), but it’s also less of a “best of” compilation than an excellent selection of deep cuts. Bull’s lengthy spoken portions give the listener a vivid picture of the man’s playful personality, while acknowledging at the same time his difficult, drug-addled past. Maybe, though, it is the best place to start listening to Bull. What better way to introduce yourself to music than by getting to know the man himself? While it is no longer possible to “get to know” Sandy Bull in person (he passed away from lung cancer in 2011), Live, 1976 is possibly the closest equivalent.
Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace / Live 1976 will be available on March 27th via Drag City