Graded on a Curve: Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade, Sunday Morning Revival

Straddling the fence between jam session and no-fuss recording date, Sunday Morning Revival by the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade features major figures from the fledgling late ’60s Cleveland rock scene including three members of The James Gang and harmonica maestro Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. The first release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga Series 2, this archival recording (once thought lost) is loaded with covers tackled with a combination of studiousness and verve; destined to bring a smile to the face of Butterfield and Musselwhite fans far and wide while deepening the already rich history of its municipality, it’s out now on LP, CD, and digital.

Smog Veil’s Platters Du Cuyahoga Series 1 illuminated a wide array of Cleveland underground nooks, specifically post-Electric Eels-style punk racket with a freedom jones (Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto by X__X), glam-tinged avant-pop (French Pictures in London (1975) by the Robert Bensick Band), and post-Butterfield harmonica-driven blues-rock (Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 by the Mr. Stress Blues Band).

Series 2 appears to be an equally broad affair, though it begins by burrowing deeper into the city’s blues-rock backstory and adding another chapter to the tale of the late Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller; Sunday Morning Revival finds the singer, bandleader, and mouth harp specialist in a loose conglomeration of likeminded upstarts. There’s keyboardist Mike Sands (Mr. Stress Blues Band), guitarist Glenn Schwartz, drummer Jimmy Fox, and bassist Tom Kriss (all from The James Gang), and guitarist Rich Kriss (Chuck Bates & The Barons and The Joyful Wisdom).

Today the impulse of white guys playing the blues is often oversimplified as mere cultural appropriation, but Nick Blakey’s outstanding footnoted liner booklet for this set does a fine job of complicating this scenario by describing the friction between the ’60s establishment and the sustained tide of nonconformity. One way of articulating opprobrium with the prevailing norms was that of d.a. levy, the jailed Cleveland poet whose work served as posthumous inspiration for Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers.

Another way to removing oneself from the mainstream was to embrace the music of the oppressed. Sunday Morning Revival isn’t a calculated political maneuver a la the early MC5, again coming closer to Butterfield and Musselwhite, but in a city identified by Blakey as being still largely segregated, the simple act of identifying with black culture made one disliked by a segment of authority and in turn a target; levy and the members of Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade were part of the same u-ground, even if they expressed themselves differently.

Sunday Morning Revival was indeed cut on a Sunday morning in the first half of 1967, the participants having come together in response to an individual approaching Jimmy Fox with the desire to record a blues album. The result offers a solid mix of genre staples (though most wouldn’t have seemed so at the time) and deeper borrowings like opener “Ninety-Nine,” originally by Sonny Boy Williamson.

Rock lore holds numerous supposedly happy accidents that were at least to some degree finessed into being. In this instance, the vocals of Glenn Schwartz make the lowkey reality of the session apparent; his singing gets the job done, but it’s clear why guitar was his main axe (after Walsh replaced him in The James Gang, he went on to Pacific Gas & Electric). Indeed, depth of instrumental feeling (but thankfully not flashiness) is the raison d’être of the album.

Miller holds his own on a tune sourced from an absolute titan of the blues harp, Sands’ does sturdy work on the electric piano (which in blues terms is frankly an iffy instrument), and Schwartz rips off a pair of solos of inclining intensity as the rhythm team of Kriss, Fox, and Kriss avoid the indulgence of overplaying.

Next is a treatment of B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel,” although the post-Chicago electric ensemble style the band proffers owes at least a little something to a prior version by Robert Nighthawk (that was King’s inspiration; the song reaches back to Lucille Bogan’s 1930 recording with a couple of versions by Tampa Red). Rich Kriss’ lead vocal smacks of the cherubic earnestness of the early Brit blues boom (the Yardbirds are a key precedent for what’s here), but the collective playing is strides beyond mere hero-worship.

It’s Mr. Stress and Schwartz who lead the way throughout this tidy set, however. A reading of the oft-covered Big Joe Williams’ staple “Baby Please Don’t Go” might suggest the sprint through the tune by the Irish outfit Them, but instead it recalls previous versions (Broonzy, Muddy, Hooker) utilizing a slower tempo. Schwartz was understandably unlikely to wail the lyrics like Van Morrison, but the pace is also suitable for Miller’s currents of post-Little Walter/ Williamson-style harp moan.

A take of “Evil,” a Willie Dixon song notable from its hit by Howlin’ Wolf, finds the band upping the tempo to fruitful effect as the cut holds some of the record’s strongest playing. “Sunday Morning Revival” rounds out side one with a minute-long dose of humorous cacophony that further distinguishes these guys from rote disciple-dom.

Side two opens with “Long Distance Call,” the Miller-sung version of Muddy Waters’ ’51 classic integrating elements of the songwriter’s ensemble sound alongside ’60s progressions a la Albert King. From there Schwartz steps back up to the mic, the better to let Miller dish it out on “Dissatisfied,” the first of back-to-back Williamson nuggets completed with a run-through of “Checkin’ On My Baby” that was surely inspired by the ’65 Junior Wells/Buddy Guy version.

Closing the disc is a powerful “Dust My Broom,” the Elmore James number (drawn from the repertoire of Robert Johnson) already approaching blues-rock staple status at the point of this recording; as Blakey’s notes underline, the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade’s take was inspired as much by the Yardbirds, and is approximately equal with “Evil” in terms of group interplay.

If Sunday Morning Revival maintained that standard throughout, it would rank as a startling achievement; instead, the enjoyment and enlightenment inspired by its modest qualities amass considerable worth.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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