069: Catherine Russell, ‘New Speedway Boogie’

Posted by on Feb 20, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists |

This week’s SoTW shouldn’t have even made it to our turntable. The song is a toss-off by The Grateful Dead, a band more successful in leading acid-drenched mobs on long, aimless trips than in providing fodder for covers. The singer is a first-timer backup singer steeped in string jazz-blues from the 1920-30s, not exactly a favorite of mine. The band features a banjo and trombone. Need I continue?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Catherine (Cat) Russell. She’s a musically pedigreed NYer whose father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director, and whose mother holds degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Cat has sung backing vocals for the likes of David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Levon Helm, Madonna, Diana Ross, and Paul Simon.

Her debut album, “Cat” (2006), like its successors “Sentimental Streak” (2008) and “Inside This Heart of Mine” (2010), is steeped in Fats Waller-era tunes, where the line between blues and jazz wasn’t yet drawn. My friend JE likes that stuff. My friend EM likes that stuff. Guess what? JM doesn’t, not ordinarily. But this Cat Russell is just full of surprises. There’s not a bad note, not a bad decision, not a single boring passage. She’s refreshing, charming, sexy, wry and tasteful.

Cat with Satchmo

She charms all her material, nary a dud song in the bunch. She even takes Darn that Dream, a song I’ve encountered only about 300 cloying versions of, and makes it swing.

Her phrasing is reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but where Lady Day pulled phrases way beyond the beat out of pain or world-weariness or a drug cloud, Cat does so with a twinkle in her eye, for the calculated effect of dramatic irony. But if the material is often 1920s, and the frame of reference 1950s, the particular song here quintessential 1960s, the sound here is sparkling fresh.

Lots of Cat’s music is available on YouTube. But what I find so surprising is how much my listening pleasure is enhanced by the terrific sound of her recordings. I’m surprised to hear myself saying that. In my anal, obsessive pursuit of musical minutiae, I often avail myself of “The Penguin Guide” to jazz, to classical music. They like writing things like, “The Strinenphfuffen AC-327 microphone is unfortunately placed several millimeters above the 1926 Gringenhofger instrument’s D-string, flaunting the more respectful tradition of a restrained approach. The playing, however, is faultless and the music as perspicacious as is usually found in Count Wxyzerhofsky’s middle period.” But here on “Cat”, what can I tell you? I actually revel in the sound itself. The videos made in the studio are fun to watch, but I greatly prefer the glow of the higher-quality recordings.

This stands in marked contrast to The Grateful Dead’s studio incompetence. I guess if they were sober enough to find the studio, they were too straight to play. “Workingman’s Dead” is one of only two or three exceptions, an album I’ve known and loved since its release in 1970. Its success is in its tight, acoustic, close-harmony sound, much influenced by Crosby, Stills and Young, in great songs such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘High Time’. To tell you the truth, I’d skip over ‘New Speedway Boogie‘ as often as I’d listen to it. I always had the impression that Jerry Garcia didn’t choose to write the song in a modal mode; he was just too stoned to change chords. I always dismissed the lyrics as typical Robert Hunter psychedelic babble. Till Cat Russell kicked the song in the butt and made me listen.

The song describes the infamous Altamont Free Concert, which took place in December 1969, a few months after Woodstock, at the Altamont Raceway. The Dead organized the gig, which was supposed to be Woodstock West. But while the Rolling Stones were singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, an innocent listener was beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, who were inexplicably and bizarrely hired to ‘keep order’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. The beating took place right under Jagger’s nose, was captured on film, and together with the Kent State shootings put an end to the Age of Aquarius. Here’s a nice video of The Dead singing ‘New Speedway Boogie’ live, a pretty typically spacey performance.

Hunter’s lyrics, as usual, defy simple explication, but now that I look at them, they make a whole lot of sense. And they certainly do reflect The Dead’s disillusionment –and ours – with what went down at that racetrack. They organized the festival, and never got to play.

So here’s Cat Russell’s take on the song. The band is comprised of a mandolin, a stand-up knock-down bass, and a tambourine. Oh, and one fine, fine singer.

Recommended Listening:

Cat Russell on record (can you still say that?):

Just Because You Can

We The People

My Man’s an Undertaker

Inside This Heart of Mine

Long, Strong and Consecutive

Close Your Eyes

New Speedway Boogie (live)

‘New Speedway Boogie’ — Music Jerry Garcia, Lyrics Robert Hunter

Please don’t dominate the rap, jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.
If you please, don’t back up the track; this train’s got to run today.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I heard someone say “Better run away”, others say “better stand still”.

Now I don’t know, but I been told it’s hard to run with the weight of gold.
Other hand I have heard it said, it’s just as hard with the weight of lead.

Who can deny, who can deny, it’s not just a change in style?
One step done and another begun and I wonder how many miles.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
Now, I don’t know but I was told in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.
Keep on coming or stand and wait, with the sun so dark and the hour so late.
You can’t overlook the lack, jack, of any other highway to ride.
It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.

I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I saw things getting out of hand, I guess they always will.
Now I don’t know but I been told
If the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load.
I don’t know whose back’s that strong, maybe find out before too long.

One way or another, one way or another,
One way or another, this darkness got to give.

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Oct 2, 2010 at 6:04 pm

I’m glad you’re starting to listen to Robert Hunter, he wasn’t on-stage but he really made the band. For studio work try Wake of the Flood.

Oct 2, 2010 at 7:53 pm

I really like her, even though I never liked Jerry Garcia or his band. It was a bold and interesting choice of songs she made.

Have we ever discussed Tuck and Patti?

Keep telling/introducing me to stuff – evidently I’m [still] not too old to learn.
Best, Z

Oct 2, 2010 at 9:05 pm

I admire Tuck & Patti a lot, but I rarely listen to them. This song stuck out at me from Cat Russells CDs, but they’re almost all really attractive, listenable, entertaining. I’ve found myself going back to her over recent weeks, something that never happened with T&P.

Oct 2, 2010 at 11:08 pm

I always enjoy hearing a different version of a Dead song. The Dead have inspired so many artist to cover their songs. The list is too long to post but there is some amazing music out there, then there are some of the Dead’s live shows. You don’t really understand the music until you have seen it and tasted it. Also there is the spin off stuff like the Garcia Band and their version of “Dear Prudence” or “My Funny Valentine” from the live at the keystone album.

Oct 3, 2010 at 8:18 am

Daniel, I wouldn’t consider myself a Deadhead by any shake of the stick, but I did spend a pretty outrageous weekend with them. Maybe I’ll write a SoTW about that… What Dead songs have been covered by other artists?

David Rubin
Oct 3, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Loved the music. Cat’s version brought this GD toss-off to life.

On the non-musical side: 18-year old Meredith Hunter was knifed to death by Hell’s Angel Alan Passarro after he pulled out a revolver and tried to get up on stage during the Rolling Stones set.

For another look at how crazy the scene was you can check out a clip of Jefferson Airplane earlier in the day where Marty Balin is knocked out by one of the Angel’s and Paul Kantner and another Angel argue it out on stage. End of an era. http://www.youtube.com/results?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC7tBJiIUsA

David Rubin
Oct 4, 2010 at 6:57 am

Apologies. The correct link for that clip /www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC7tBJiIUsA

Oct 11, 2012 at 3:52 am

Just a correction: the Dead did not “organize” the Altamont concert, the Stones did. The Dead were asked to, and some folks from the Dead organization did, help organize some logistics and helped set up the sound system. And while they were a conduit of introduction between the Stone and the promoters to the Hell’s Angels. The Stones and the promoters may have thought they were “hiring” the Angels for security, but the Angels never did. The Dead were supposed to play, but the vibe during the day before the Stones set was too weird and the didn’t play.

The Stones wanted to recreate Woodstock, with themselves as the stars. They had no idea what they were doing and the whole thing was a flustercluck. New Speedway Boogie, I think, captures the situation very well.

Paul Kahn
Feb 21, 2016 at 7:47 pm

Hi Jeff,
Thanks for your excellent post on Catherine Russell & “New Speedway Boogie”.
For anyone interested in exploring additional recordings, Catherine has released 5 albums, including “Strictly Romancin'” (2012), and “Bring It Back” (2014), with a 6th album due out this summer 2016 (“Harlem On My Mind”). For anyone who enjoys her first 3 albums (yes, we can still call them albums), or just might be curious, check them out~!
Cat Team a/k/a Catherine Russell management
ps. wondering if anyone caught Catherine Russell “live” when she played 7 concerts in Israel in March of 2014? or anywhere else along the trail?

Feb 21, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Thank you, Paul. I remember having an insoluble conflict. She’s certainly a singer I would make an effort to have the pleasure to hear.

Mar 7, 2016 at 5:23 pm

I would add All the Cats Join In and As Long as I Live to your recommended listening for Cat Russell. After I saw her perform once, I went out and bought all of her recordings. She is a breath of fresh jazz air..



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