This is a new 7 disc set that chronicles the illustrious career of Preston born drummer Keef Hartley and contains his entire output of seven albums recorded for Decca’s Deram label in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
Keef Hartley was a fine drummer, in fact he was closely associated with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and was even a member for the album ‘Crusade’ before leaving to form his own band. Keef had got bored with the whole blues thing and had set his sights on something different, a little less blues and more jazz rock oriented.
Growing up, I saw lots of these albums In my local record shop shop but never actually got around to hearing them for myself. This meant I was unaware of the fine music that he and the group were offering the public. What a tragedy that was, mind you I was very much into heavy metal like Judas Priest at the time and this sort of music was beyond my understanding. Now that I am older, I can now discover these treasures for myself. This fabulous set contains the seven albums made from 1968 to 1973 and what a set it is, all sympathetically remastered for optimum sound with bonus tracks, live tracks and, best of all a truly wonderful booklet that chronicles Keef’s thoughts and recollections of each album, this is how a retrospective should be done.
Hartley recorded his first album, ‘Halfbreed’, in March 1969 and it is now regarded as a classic of the genre. The music itself is also rather special as it fuses rock and blues leanings with horns to make a jazzy tone. Keef kept his work relatively straightforward and, in addition, he chose his group carefully with Gary Thain (bass) a mainstay. He also introduced Miller Anderson as guitarist and vocalist for most of the earlier albums. Thain and Hartley formed a fine rhythm section and the powered the band well, creating a solid bedrock off which the other members could leap off. This approach seemed to work well for the band as it allowed everyone to do their part. The music was pretty free form really, especially for the time it was recorded. There are strong jazzy interludes but the horns really added emphasis and drive to the proceedings. At times they could be fierce whilst at other points they were gently cosseting the sound, you could feel their presence even when they were being subtle.
The second disc, ‘The Battle Of North West Six’, is a prime example of this approach, especially the track Me And My Woman, with its excellent guitar lines and the horn stabs filling out the sound in-between while the ever busy bass of Gary Thain helps anchor the rhythm section, it’s a fabulous track. I actually think this is a better group effort than the debut as it feels more cohesive somehow. It now seems odd beginning to appreciate something that over fifty years old, just shows what was missing with my entrenched thinking. The track Not Foolish, Not Wise is another fine song with a small drum solo from Keef and great horn playing, And there’s more excellent music, the plaintive Waiting Around and the brooding Tadpole, with its slide guitar lines and the organ of Mick Weaver. There are also 4 live tracks from 1969 to enjoy in which you can hear how good this band really were, especially on Spanish Fly and Me And My Woman, which get a bit of a stretch out in a live setting.
The next album is 1970’s ‘The Time Is Near’, sadly not a gatefold CD and one without any bonus tracks. No matter, this is an album that may be more widely known as its cover is very distinctive, featuring an Indian on horseback with his arms open wide and with empty hands as if in supplication. Once again ,the songs are penned in the main by Miller Anderson and are generally a little softer sounding, but still with sufficient space for the horns to be present. A good example of this being the title track, hinged on a busy bass line by Gary, some mariachi style trumpet from Dave Caswell and some jazzy Sax from Lyle Jenkins along with some great guitar lines from Miller. It’s a gentle track overall as is the last track Change, although it does gain both pace and volume as it proceeds. This album is better sounding than its predecessors, which maybe because it was cut by George Peckham, an old friend of Keef, who did a fantastic job in giving the album real clarity and presence.
1971’s ‘Overdog’ is a far looser and more funky album with some blistering performances. The track Theme Song has an amazing drum duel between Keef and John Hiseman of Colosseum. They were friends as well as competitors and both avail themselves with dignity here. There is another somewhat unusual track that features backing vocals from Val Doonican’s backing singers, it’s very different from the norm but highly effective nonetheless. The record is bolstered by six lives tracks, including the epic Roundabout.
Following the release of ‘Overdog’, Hartley formed his own Big Band with a large horn section and performed a series of concerts, including a show at the Marquee Club in London which was released as the album ‘Little Big Band’. At this stage the band had a nine piece brass section, as the BBC had requested this for an in concert recording that was so well received, Keef repeated the idea again on a UK and short European tour. This live recording was done as part of that undertaking, it’s a bit rough and ready but it captured the excitement of the shows and gave airtime to some great tracks.
After this album, Miller left the band for a solo career. It was an amicable parting but meant the next album had a different line up. ‘Seventy Second Brave’ is another album that I used see and ignore regularly, what a fool. It is even funkier than ever, a new line up and a fresh start left Keef to really funk it up big style, which they do, especially on the first two songs Heartbreakin’ Woman and Marin County. The rest of the album has its moments, to be sure, there are even cameos from Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, who provide backing vocals. You’ll have to work out which track for yourself. I suspect it to be Hard Pill To Swallow but I could be totally wrong. The album also has four live studio performances, you can hear the fabulous bass playing of Gary Thain who pulls the track along, locking in with Keef’s drums. Sadly Gary left shortly afterwards to join Uriah Heep until his death from a heroin overdose in 1975.
The next adventure for Keef was a solo album, ‘Lancashire Hustler’, which included some great guest vocalists in Robert Palmer, Elkie Brooks and Jess Roden. The album is very interesting as it features orchestrations on several tracks and you can clearly hear the trio of singers covering the Vinegar Joe track Circles. The music is less busy than his Keef Hartley Band output and this really works well. The voices melding well together to make some great tracks like You And Me and Australian Lady (which even includes Keef’s mother adding piano at the end of the track), Jess Roden taking the lead vocals and he does a splendid job of it too. There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work it up on several of the tracks.
There are some lovely performances on offer in this 7 disc box set which is why I can highly recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca. You will find much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be the guide on your discovery, thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too.
Released 8th May, 2022.
Order from Cherry Red Records here:
There is still a strong brass element on display and they really work in up on several of the tracks, some lovely performances on offer here which is why I can recommend this particular journey back in time to rediscover the wonderful music that Keef Hartley and his band produced over their stint with Decca You willing much to enjoy here and the informative booklet and liner notes can be your guide on your discovery..
Highly recommended set thoroughly comprehensive and highly enjoyable too,