Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late to the Party--15-60-75: The Numbers Band's "Jimmy Bell's Still in Town" (1976)

While the music scenes based around Los Angeles and New York City get most of the press, Northern Ohio produced a healthy number substantial musical acts in the 1970s. Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Pere Ubu, and The Dead Boys all originated there, and so did lesser-known but no less brilliant groups like Rocket from the Tombs, The Electric Eels, Ex-Blank-Ex, Tin Huey, and The Waitresses. One of the hidden gems of the Kent, Ohio scene has remained 15-60-75, also known more simply as The Numbers Band. They formed in 1970 and are still active to this very day, primarily playing in small clubs in Ohio. The band has counted among its alumni Gerald Casale (later a founding member of Devo), David Robinson (who drummed in the original line-up of The Modern Lovers and in The Cars), Terry Hynde (Chrissie Hynde's brother), and Chris Butler (the leader of Tin Huey and the primary songwriter of The Waitresses, who had a MTV hit in the early 1980s with "I Know What Boys Like"). To most experts, their crowning achievement is their 1976 live album Jimmy Bell's Still in Town. It was recorded June 16th, 1975 at the Agora in Cleveland. Reportedly, The Numbers Band was the opening act for Bob Marley and the Wailers. When it was released in album form a year later, it appeared on their Water Records label, getting little distribution, and quickly falling into obscurity. Long since championed by David Thomas of Pere Ubu (who currently releases the album on his Hearpan Records label), it has maintained a small but loyal group of listeners.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is a remarkably tight set, and each of its five tracks flow smoothly into each other, as if there are no breaks between the songs. It is also rather difficult to categorize. Ostensibly, The Numbers Band are a roadhouse blues rock band. The title of the album even refers to an obscure blues 1958 song by Cat Iron called "Jimmy Bell." Their ten minute cover of the song, on Side Two, is without question the centerpiece of the album. While the stamp of the blues is all over this record, it is a remarkably off-kilter variation on the form. It hints at Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's 1968 Mirror Man sessions, but is far more cohesive. Similarly, the lineup and musical arrangement of The Numbers Band is highly unusual by blues band standards. They have two guitarists (frontman Robert Kidney and Michael Stacy), a bassist (Drake Gleason), and a drummer (the aforementioned David Robinson), which is not all that aberrant. However, their sound is augmented by three saxophonists (Robert Kidney's brother Jack, Terry Hynde, and Tim Maglione). Their ensemble playing is disquieting and discordant, their horns often slipping slightly out of pitch. When they solo, they owe more to Ohio native Albert Ayler than to, say, Jr. Walker or King Curtis. The guitar solos vary range traditional blues workouts to oblique motifs that foreshadow the playing of Tom Verlaine or a more restrained Robert Quine. As a result, Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is an album in which comparisons to the first two Bruce Springsteen LPs and later recordings such as Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, Television's The Blow-Up, and Morphine's Cure for Pain are all appropriate. It is not an album that necessarily resonates on first spin, though. This is because the material is so uniformly constructed and tightly delivered that it's often difficult to distinguish when they are improvising or deviating from the structure of the tunes. Vocalist Robert Kidney's vocals are largely free from emotion or theatricality, which can give off the initial impression that he is not all that enthusiastic about the material. But once you recognize the powerful and unusual grooves they are able to develop and pursue, it becomes a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is available from Hearpan Records' website.

Below is an audio clip of "Jimmy Bell."

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