Thursday 7 March 2013

CD Review: "Til Your River Runs Dry" by Eric Burdon

Rock ‘n’ roll fans who grew up in the fifties and sixties will remember Eric Burdon best as the distinctive, deep-voiced lead singer of the English blues-rock band The Animals. Who could forget the astonishing sight of this diminutive figure with the mop-top haircut, clad in a smart grey suit with thin lapels, poised in front of a microphone stand, opening his mouth and belting out the blues like a cross between Ray Charles and Howlin’ Wolf?
The Animals came together as a five-piece beat-group in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1963, when Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo – formed the previous year. They became a fixture of the city’s music scene, centred on nightclubs like the Club A-Go-Go on Percy Street. The Animals moved to London in early ‘64, after getting a record contract with EMI’s Columbia label. With the release of their second single, an irresistible version of the much-covered folk standard “The House of the Rising Sun” – which features a stunningly gritty vocal by Burdon - the band hit the big-time. They flourished for a couple of years and had half-a-dozen memorable hits, including the classics “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, and “It’s My Life” – all from 1965. This first version of The Animals, which had already changed personnel several times, finally fell apart in late 1966.
The Animals in 1964: Eric Burdon up front

Eric Burdon moved to southern California in December ‘66 and put together a new band. They called themselves Eric Burdon and The Animals – although only drummer Barry Jenkins had been a member of the group’s English incarnation, and then only since February of that year. Burdon reinvented himself in America as a psychedelic rocker, and became a proponent of the hippy ethos and a spokesman of the San Francisco “love generation”. This band also lasted for about two years. They had minor hits with “San Franciscan Nights” and “Monterey (both from 1967) and the mesmerising anti-war epic “Sky Pilot” (1968).
Eric Burdon at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)

After that, Burdon enjoyed another two-year stint as a mainstream rocker – as frontman for the L.A. funk band War. They put out two albums in 1970 and had a major hit that year with the single “Spill the Wine”, which became a staple of FM radio in the 70s.
Eric Burdon and War

After splitting with War in 1971, Eric Burdon has pursued a fitful solo career ever since – every couple of years or so, he has put together bands of his own for brief tours, festival appearances, and the occasional record album. Whether focused on his own compositions, or relying primarily on covers of songs by his favourite bluesmen, the quality of his solo recordings has always been good. Burdon has appeared in a couple of dozen films since the mid-60s – either as a performing musician, or in a small dramatic role. He has also written (with help from ghostwriters) two well-received autobiographies:   I Used to Be an Animal, but I’m All Right Now in 1986 (which I’ve read – it’s excellent), and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: A Memoir (2001). He’s never really stopped working, but he has been out of the limelight for many long years.

And then in March 2012 Bruce Springsteen gave a memorable keynote address in Austen, Texas at the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), which features work in music, film and independent media. In the midst of an inspirational speech to young and aspiring artists, he talked about the debt he owed to Eric and The Animals. He grabbed an acoustic guitar and sang verses from “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”:

In this dirty old part of the city,
Where the sun refused to shine;
People tell me there ain't no use in tryin'.

Now my girl you're so young and pretty;
And one thing I know is true;
You'll be dead before your time is due, I know.

Watch my daddy in bed a-dyin';
Watched his hair been turnin' grey;
He's been workin' and slavin' his life away;
Oh yes I know it …

We gotta get out of this place,
If it's the last thing we ever do;
We gotta get out of this place,
'Cause, girl, there's a better life for me and you.

“That's every song I've ever written,” Springsteen said. “Yeah; that's all of them. I'm not kidding, either. That's ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the USA’ – everything I've done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones. But that struck me so deep. It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.”

Eric Burdon: lead singer with The Animals on Ready, Steady, Go!

And then he talked about the look of the band. And Eric. And the attitude they projected. As luck would have it, Eric was in Austen that day. He got several twitter messages almost immediately telling him about Springsteen’s effusive tribute. He got in touch and they met that evening. Soon they were singing  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” together – Burdon providing a few minor pointers on its chord sequence. That night at the Festival, Springsteen was scheduled to give a live performance – during which Eric joined him on stage, and they did the song together live.

This emergence into the limelight happened to coincide with Eric Burdon’s plans to put out a new album – which was released in North America at the end of January. ‘Til Your River Runs Dry is Eric Burdon’s first album in six years – since Soul of a Man, recorded in January 2006. It was co-produced by Eric and the blues drummer Tony Braunagel, who has played with many of the great blues artists, including B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker. He now has a regular gig playing with the Robert Cray band. Burdon and Braunagel met in 1981. Braunagel has produced several of Eric’s albums over the intervening years. This new album was recorded primarily at the Ultratone Studio in Los Angles. Two tracks were done at the Playback Studio in Santa Barbara. And one memorable cut was recorded at Funk Headquarters in New Orleans.
The album sounds great and features a crack band – many of whom have played with Burdon on previous CDs: the core band includes Johnny Lee Schell, Billy Watts, and Eric McFadden on guitar; Mike Finnegan playing the Hammond B3 organ; Jim Pugh and Jon Cleary on piano; Wally Ingram on percussion; Terry Wilson playing bass; and co-producer Tony Braunagel on drums. The music here is mostly blues, R&B, and blues-based rock. It’s a rather old-fashioned, rock ‘n’ roll sound, and it fits the songs perfectly. Nearly all of the songs on ‘Til Your River Runs Dry were co-written by Burdon. He wrote the lyrics; for the music he gets help from several others – most notably his bass player Terry Wilson.

The retro musical style gives the album a traditional feel, and Burdon uses it as the foundation for a very personal set of songs: some look back with a sense of nostalgia; some are ruminations on mortality; there is a bit of social protest included; and a couple of tributes to one of his long-time idols, Bo Diddley. A familiar set of themes, really – if one is aware of Eric’s past work as songwriter.

The album kicks off with a rousing track called “Water”. Burdon has a long-standing interest in water conservation – not surprising, because he has lived in the arid desert-region of southern California since the early 1970s. He recalls an inspired conversation he had with Mikhail Gorbachev at a conference in Germany. “What can you tell me about?” he asked the former Soviet leader. “What’s the world in for?” “Water,” Gorbachev replied. The verses in this song are quite vague; Burdon decries the hopelessness he feels for the modern world. The chorus, however, is a stirring anthem:

I cry Water! Water! Water!
To drink, to put down the fire;
I cry Water! Water! Water!
Like these teardrops from my eyes.

But the production on this opening track is overdone – as though it was designed specifically as a single, or pumped up intentionally in order to serve as the lead-off track.

The second track also strikes a note of social protest. “Memorial Day” is an anti-war song. It’s a familiar theme for him, and the chorus hearkens back to the early days of his pacifist stance:

On this Memorial Day,
The hippies and the poets and the Spartans say,
Forget the reasons why we war,
This is the season we’ve been waiting for, Memorial Day;
It’s a rich man’s war, but the poor will pay.

“I don’t want to only remember the combatants,” Burdon explains, “there were also those who came out of the trenches as writers and poets, who started preaching peace, men and women who have made this world a kinder place to live."

From here, the songs take on a more personal tone. And they are pitched with a variety of moods and styles. “Devil and Jesus” is a bluesy piece about the warring impulses inside us that pull us towards the opposing poles of good and evil.

“Wait” is a love song to Eric Burdon’s wife. The Latin lilt to the melody is given a complementary accompaniment by Eric McFadden on Spanish acoustic guitar. The song is for all those lonely souls who feel that love will never come to them. “I’m here to tell you,” he declares, “that it can happen to you as it happened to me.”

The pace is cranked up next with a rousing rocker called “Old Habits Die Hard”. Burdon portrays himself as a recalcitrant anarchist: “Nothing’s changed, I’m still the same.” In this song Burdon has in mind the protesters in Egypt and Libya, trying to throw off centuries of oppression. “It reminds me of Paris in 1968”. The band really hits a groove on this one.

And then Burdon gives us a heartfelt tribute to Bo Diddley (Ellas McDaniel) – one of the many black musicians whom Burdon idolised. Eric was invited to the great man’s funeral, and sang at a memorial concert after the service. “I never had the chance to meet him face-to-face, until he was lying in his coffin.” On this track, “Bo Diddley Special”, he offers another take on Diddley’s life. It reminds me of a song that Eric Burdon wrote way back in his days fronting the original Animals band. It was called “The Story of Bo Diddley”, and appeared as the opening track on the band’s first LP The Animals in 1964. To that familiar, hypnotic, bilongo-beat, Burdon gives a quick account the life of Bo Diddley – sometimes dubbed The Originator, because of his key role in the transition from blues to rock. Eric also slips into the Diddley story a capsule history of the English rock ’n’ roll scene. It’s an amusing, self-deprecatory piece that ends with an account of Bo Diddley’s visit to Newcastle’s Club A-Go-Go. Asked to comment on the performance of the beat groups playing that night in The Animals favourite club, Burdon quotes Diddley as saying it was “the biggest load of rubbish he had ever heard in his life.” It’s funny stuff. You can hear the song on this YouTube video (the poster has added some interesting footage of Eric Burdon and Bo Diddley to the Animals track).

At the end of ‘Til Your River Runs Dry, Burdon concludes with a stirring version of one of Bo Diddley’s best-known songs, “Before You Accuse Me”. He decided to add this cover late in the game – in order to go out on a positive note: “I wanted to pay homage to the wonderful guy who wrote this, to fulfill my promise to him to sing more Bo Diddley songs.”

But Ellas McDaniel is not the only southern musical patriarch to get a nod on this CD. In the album’s stand-out track, “River is Rising”, Burdon sings about the Katrina floods in New Orleans. He was inspired by the story of Fats Domino’s fate. Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino (“King Antoine” in the song) had been reported missing early on during the Katrina catastrophe. “The King thought, Lord, is this the time I’m gonna die?” Burdon sings. But, no, he rose up from the flood: “He was nailed to [his] piano like pages from a yellow telephone book.”
This piece was recorded in New Orleans at John Cleary’s studio. Some of Fats Domino’s former band play on the track. Cleary prepared the musical arrangement and plays piano. There’s also a brass trio of tuba, trombone and trumpet that adds atmospheric flourishes throughout. It’s a wonderful track, with a slow, mesmeric, funky groove. And Burdon is very proud of the result: “To me, it’s the greatest piece of music I’ve been involved with, since the musicians in New Orleans understood where I was going with this song."

Another highlight of the album is “In The Ground” – a gospel-tinged song which serves as a meditation on death and the meaning of life.

It’s in the ground, when they lay your body down;
It’s in the ground, will peace ever be found.
“27 Forever” is also focused on mortality. The song is focused on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – how many great rockers have died young “down the path to fame and glory”. And, coincidentally, at the age of 27: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain, to name a few.

You’d sell your soul to the devil
To stay at this level, and be 27 forever.

But Eric Burdon doesn’t need to be 27, apparently, to still put out excellent blues-based rock albums. He’s 71, now – for crying out loud – and still able to belt out the blues, still able to put together a good set of songs, and still able to transmute his personal vision into an excellent rock ‘n’ roll album. If you’re an Eric Burdon fan, this is one to get. If you like traditional guitar-based blues-rock, this is an album to check out. It’s good to see Burdon back – hitting such a creative peak late in his career.


  1. This sounds like an album I would enjoy. I've been listening to some of FREE's, old tracks recently,All Right Now, Heartbreaker and Wishing Well.

    Eric Burdon,Paul Rogers,Daltrey et al. You just can't beat them.

    Thanks for this Clive.

  2. Must check this out. I've been a huge fan of Eric Burdon's and of the Animals since childhood! You mentioned many of my other favourites as well. Can't see John Lee Hooker's name without feeling a pang of regret--he actually came to my town once, but I couldn't go to the concert because of work, then just a short time later he died, an opportunity gone forever. (Must go play the piano now - just learning, and one of my few songs is House of the Rising Sun.)