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Album Review

Steve Miller: J50: The Evolution of The Joker (2CD)

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Steve Miller: J50: The Evolution of The Joker (2CD)
There is no shortage of throwaway songs on Steve Miller Band albums early—Brave New World (Capitol, 1969)), Your Saving Grace (Capitol,1969)—or late—Circle of Love (Capitol, 1981), Abracadabra (Capitol, 1982). But there had never been a piece of fluff positioned as the centerpiece of one of his long-players until The Joker (Capitol, 1973) came out,

Hardly anyone could have foreseen the massive success racked up by Steve Miller's eighth studio album, perhaps least of all the idiosyncratic nouveau bluesman himself. The self-anointed 'Space Cowboy' forged an eminently accessible rock and roll pop sound laced with more than a little tongue- in-cheek attitude (though one which ever so slightly undermined the authentic nods to his blues roots).

The half-century milestone of this pivotal LP of Miller's compels just the kind of in-depth examination the artist himself provides on J50: The Evolution of The Joker. Notably, the conglomeration of live recordings, demos and alternate takes in conjunction with the Texan's own commentary—plus the formal takes as officially released—reaffirms his purposeful approach to this project, one that belies the all-too-casual attitude which permeates so many of those aforementioned earlier records and, to some extent, this one too.

Consequently, utilizing the word 'evolution' in the title of this project is at once melodramatic and pragmatic. Hearing finished versions of songs as released a half-decade ago completes the revelation(s) of the thought processes arising from early demos and studio rehearsals of, for instance, "Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma." What may be most revelatory, however, is that the sequence of events goes back to the year prior to release.

The arc of the album's development thus takes many forms including, for just one example, the unlikely offering of an acoustic reading of the title song from the Steve Miller Band's very first album. But "Children of the Future" is just the first of a handful of selections providing a cross-section of the man's earliest discography. It is proof positive his forthcoming album was not created in a vacuum.

Reaffirming that very idea, a similarly skeletal solo version of "Sugar Babe" (in a hotel room!) appears just prior to a ripping live rendition from a concert over eighteen months later. And for further comparison purposes, the final studio take is juxtaposed with that recording: it is ample illustration of how, even without overdubs of voices and various guitars, Miller and his band—bassist Gerald Johnson, keyboardist Dickie Thompson and drummer Jack King—could honestly replicate the arrangement of the composition.

As curator of J50, Miller emphasizes the chronological nature of the enclosed content. If nothing else, his vocal affectations on an early take of "Mary Lou" call to mind "Gangster of Love" from the aforementioned Glyn Johns-produced debut. And in the midst of what Miller himself describes as something of a fusion experiment—in itself hearkening to the atmospheric "Song For Our Ancestors" from the SMB sophomore work Sailor (Capitol, 1968)—"Say Hey Ray" features the softly wailing harmonica which has been a staple of his blues-rooted sound since he began recording.

Along those same lines, Miller's influences early and late are as prominent throughout this reissue as on the half-century-old album. Scorching takes on blues icon Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" and the Miller original "Evil" illustrate how the man cut his teeth on such elemental genre pieces and thereby never ceased to include passionate performances of same in the relentless touring from which these cuts and their aforementioned corollaries come.

Arguably the most substantial compositions on this compilation—apart from the harmony-laden archetypal Miller ballad "Something To Believe In"—, by themselves lend more than a little gravitas to proceedings highlighted by a title cut which seems like the definition of a throwaway. Yet four different tracks of these twenty-seven-total depict the gestation of the song which helped elevate to platinum sales status the album on which it appeared (in the modified single version included as the last cut).

However notable (or not) the differences between that and the album track are may ultimately be as negligible as the insight afforded casual followers of Steve Miller through perusal of The Evolution of The Joker. And yet it is that demographic with whom the original title resonated so deeply, one that is no doubt the target of a vinyl version that includes a 7" single plus other tchotchkes.

For the long-term admirer of the self-described 'Pompatus of Love,' his own narrative of the sequence of events will doubtlessly be an object of fascination, albeit perhaps not often in its entirety, but in a custom-programmed track sequence—for instance, all the live cuts—that carries its own inimitable revelations.

Track Listing

CD 1: Steve Miller Commentary 1; Children Of The Future; Brave New World Live; Dear Mary; Space Cowboy; Ginger Man; Nothing Lasts; Steve Miller Commentary 2; Sugar Babe; Sugar Babe; Sugar Babe; Mary Lou; Mary Lou; Steve Miller Commentary; Hat; Say Hey Ray; White Elephant; Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma; Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma. CD 2: Steve Miller Commentary 4; Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash; Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash; Lidi (Twang Guitar); Lidi; Lidi / Travelin’ (Harmonics); Travelin’; The Joker; Steve Miller Commentary 5; The Lovin' Cup; The Lovin' Cup; Come On In My Kitchen; Come On In My Kitchen; Evil; Evil. Steve Miller Commentary 6; Coupe de Ville (A Cappella); Something To Believe In; Something To Believe In; Something To Believe In;I Don't Mind; I Don't Mind Studio; Mama Church (A Cappella); The Joker Single Version.

Personnel

Steve Miller: guitar and vocals; Steve Miller Band: band / orchestra; Dickie Thompson: keyboards; Gerald Johnson: bass, electric.

Additional Instrumentation

Steve Miller: harmonica; Lonnie Turner: bass; John King: drums.

Album information

Title: J50: The Evolution of The Joker (2CD) | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Universal Music Enterprises

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