"Riverboat captain, they called my name / Time to sing my song / I didn't know that the song was wrong / Don't sing that way again."
These lyrics from the song "Trout Steel" are penned by guitarist, singer and songwriter, Mike Cooper, and they point directly to the iconoclastic nature of his art. While he is often conveniently pigeonholed as a blues guitarist, Cooper is so much more, and he often sings the "wrong" songs, venturing into a myriad of genres and sounds.
The sprawling nature of Mike Cooper's oeuvre is highlighted in a 3CD-package from BGO that collects his early work from 1969 to 1972 on Pye Records and its sub-label Dawn Records. It is five albums in all that documents Cooper's restless musical nature. When asked by Mike Absalom in 1969 about his style, his answer was simple and direct: "It changes constantly, that's all I can say."
The first album in the package, Oh Really!? (1969), was released on the Pye label. It primarily introduced Cooper as a solid country-blues musician and songwriter, whose mastery of the idiom took its departure in the teachings of Blind Boy Fuller. His "Bad Luck Blues" is covered on the album. Cooper is mostly alone with his guitar and vocal, but on two tracks, "Leadhearted Blues" and "Electric Chair," he is joined by guitarist Derek Hall.
Cooper's next album Do I Know You? was released on Pye's progressive sub-label Dawn. He still mines the country-blues idiom in a sparse set-up, but he also branches out as evidenced by the droning modal beauty of the opening instrumental track ,"The Link," and the folk-ballad "Journey To The East," with subtle strings added to the sound. This time he is also aided by bassist Harry Miller and singer Poor Little Anne, and it's clear that he positions himself as a singer and songwriter that can go in any direction he pleases.
This happens on his third album, Trout Steel (1970), where he takes advantage of a full band sound, bringing in bass, drums, extra guitars, piano, saxophones and strings. The pianist is John Taylor and the saxophone section consists of other British jazz musicians: Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore and Geoff Hawkins. Together they take Cooper's music in a new direction, merging folk, blues and jazz in the spirit of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley. The most interesting and surprising piece is the homage to avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders on "Pharoah's March," where saxophones wail joyfully in the company of abstract acoustic soundscapes.
Cooper's final two records for the Dawn label were recorded at the same session, but they were very different, although they were originally conceived as parts of a double-album. Places I Know (1971) was seen as the country-rock part of the album, but also takes in different aspects of the styles Cooper had examined so far, bringing it all together with a solid pinch of R&B.
The Machine Co. with Mike Cooper (1972) is more experimental in nature. It represents a point where genres dissolve and there's only music left. Cooper has continued to explore different musical avenues, singing and playing the "wrong" songs in the right way. He is still on the path of musical discovery, and this fine package with three bonus tracks, session info and liner notes is an excellent documentation of the early part of his journey.
CD1: Death Letter; Bad Luck Blues; Maggie Campbell; Leadhearted Blues; Four Ways; Poor Little Annie; Tadpole Blues;
Divinity Blues; You’re Gonna Be Sorry; Electric Chair; Crow Jane; Pepper Rag; Saturday Blues; The Link; Journey To The
East; First Song; Theme In C; Thinking Back; Think She Knows Me Now; Too Late Now; Wish She Was With Me; Do I Know
You?; Start Of A Journey; Looking Back. CD2: That’s How; Sitting Here Watching; Goodtimes; I’ve Got Mine; A Half Sunday
Homage To A Whole Leonardo Da Vinci (Without Words By Richard Brautigan); Don’t Talk Too Fast; Trout Steel; In The
Mourning; Hope You See; Pharaoh’s March; Weeping Rose; Country Water; Three-Forty Eight; Night Journey; Time To
Time. CD3: Paper And Smoke; Broken Bridges; Now I Know; Goodbye Blues, Goodbye; Places I Know; Song For Abigail;
The Singing Tree; Midnight Words; So Glad (That I Found You); Lady Anne; Your Lovely Ways (Part 1 & 2); Time In Hand;
Mike Cooper: National steel, rhythm & bottleneck guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, vocals; Derek Hall:
guitar; Poor Little Anne: vocal; Harry Miller: double bass, string bass; Stefan Grossman: guitar; Bill Boazman: guitar; The
Heron: vocals; Mike Osborne: alto saxophone, clarinet; Alan Skidmore: tenor and soprano saxophone; Geoff Hawkins:
tenor saxophone, flute; John Taylor: piano; Jerry Field: violin; Roy Babbington: string & electric bass; Alan Jackson: drums,
percussion; Nick Pickett: violin; Alan Cook: piano, grand piano; John van Derrick: violin; Jeff Clyne: bass; Laurie Allen:
drums; Norma Winstone: vocal; Jean Oddie: vocal; Gerald T. Moore: vocal; Mike Gibbs: arrangements; Tony Pook: vocal,
French horn, Castillian horse bells; Tim Richardson: drums; Les Calvert: drums; Martin Nichols: trombone; Martin Fry:
tuba; Tony Coe: tenor saxophone; Stan Sulzman: alto saxophone; Bob Burns: alto saxophone; Peter Civil: French horn;
Chris Spedding: 12 string guitar; John Marshall: drums; Frank Ricotti: percussion; Michal Pyne: piano; John Michell: piano.
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