Our friend Sam Wilkes shares some favorites w/ personal write-ups on each pick…
You could be forgiven for scratching your head at news that the Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Sam Wilkes was getting ready to release a new guitar-driven record, and that he’d be singing on it. Wilkes’ work among the city’s experimental jazz scene, especially alongside regular collaborator Sam Gendel, has scored our lives since his early releases on Leaving. If you haven’t checked out Music for Saxofone and Guitaror its More Music … sequel, add them to your holdings pronto. Same goes for his stellar debut, Wilkes, and Live on the Green. As a member of Knower and a regular Louis Cole collaborator, Wilkes can let loose on his bass with a gymnastic force, filled with both grace and power.
All of which is to say, though Wilkes has dabbled with singing and “songs,” most memorably on the sublime song “Descending,” he’s never before gone so full all-in on a vocal record, nor has he layered his midrange with acoustic and electric guitar and not saxophone.
Release notes that accompany Driving first reference Van Morrison when mentioning Wilkes’ influences going in. The notes continue, “Standing beside Morrison, the usual suspects are all present, if somewhat abstractedly: Dylan, The Dead, Joni, the Fab Four. Wilkes has developed a reputation as an experimental jazz luminary, but his deep affinity for the pop/rock/folk idiom of the latter twentieth century rings clear throughout Driving. More so than any Wilkes release to date, Driving is a collection guided by and dedicated to the man’s attention to songcraft.”
Driving is a mesmerizing record whose nine songs are as wildly visionary – in the mystical sense – as they are psychedelic. Sonically contemporary but connected to the essence of 1970s song, layered with accents and flair, expertly arranged, it’s a head record of the highest order. At times, as on “Ag,” Wilkes filters his voice through effects, phrasing lines to create oddball melodies, mixing in finger-picked guitar and washes of strings, metronomic rhythm boxes and robotic sighs. At others Wilkes vocalizes minus filtered effects, layering his voice to create harmonic washes.
Sam Wilkes’ Driving comes out on October 6. Below, some Wilkes favorites.
Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rain Forest of the Democratic Republic of The Congo – Elephant Song
“If I was to pick my favorite recording ever made, I think this is it. Listen all the way to the end. Hearing the multiple interweaving melodies of the Mbuti and the subsequent bath of harmony they create ineffably altered my perspective; quite literally (you’ll see if you finish the song) like being struck by lightning.”
John Martyn – Over The Hill
“I heard this initially on an album my Uncle Larry gave me: a Chris and Rich Robinson, of the Black Crowes, duo record called Brothers Of A Feather. Chris starts off the song saying, “We’re gonna do this song by John Martyn – Scottish folk singer, rock & roll type of guy.” It was the only song I listened to on the record. It affected me very intensely. That led me to John’s album Solid Air, where I listened to this song and “May You Never” over and over again. There’s an equal amount of soul and rock and roll in this music that I find particularly nourishing. For me, II-7 has never felt so good.”
Todd Rundgren – When The Shit Hits The Fan / Sunset Blvd.
“I am a very big Todd Rundgren fan. Impossible to pick one of his songs to highlight – I think I would like to do another Selects entirely devoted to him. But until then, I’m picking this song because re-listening to this album inspired me to finish my most recent album DRIVING. I think this tune showcases Todd’s genius of combining: expert songcraft, experimentalism, humor, through-composition, synthesis, varispeed, and “by any means necessary” self-engineering recording technique to make a result that is wholly his own and truly DIY. Thank You, Todd.”
Leo Kottke – Watermelon
“I would listen to this album every day while waiting for the bus in the 8th grade. It is still as inspiring and joyful to me as it was then.”
Bob Dylan – I Shall Be Released (At Budokon)
“When I was a little kid, my grandpa and I would take fishing trips every summer in Canada and we’d drive for 5-6 hours from my grandparents’ house in Spencertown, NY. We’d pretty much listen to Dylan (his absolute favorite) the entire time (he’d occasionally allow me to play a LivePhish CD — A Live One, volumes 17 and 19 in particular). I would buy him a new Dylan CD every Christmas and our selection got to be pretty good. But the mainstay was always The Essential compilation, which was a pretty great comp. I don’t believe anything from At Budokan made it onto those two discs though.
I came to At Budokan much later in life. I always knew the album cover from digging for CDs in Barnes & Noble as a kid and later on in Amoeba as a college student and new Angeleno. Over 2020 and 2021, I got back into Blood On The Tracks, New Morning, Time Out Of Mind, Oh, Mercy, Desire, and discovered Infidels.
In the midst of all of that, I watched the hysterical mock-doc of Rolling Thunder Revue and flipped out over Rob Stoner’s bass playing. Stoner was also Dylan’s music director and his prowess over the songs and the way his bass playing jet-propelled these new arrangements of classics and new material (Desire etc) BLEW MY MIND. Aquarium Drunkard, naturally, felt the same and did a phenomenal interview with Rob, where he discussed his favorite recordings with Dylan, particularly live material. I downloaded Hard Rain, which he felt contained a version of “Maggie’s Farm” that was to punk what Weather Report’s “125th Street Congress” is to hip hop (according to Zawinul himself). I liked Hard Rain, obviously, so I began down a road of listening to live Dylan recordings (I think I would also like to do a Selects of just Live Dylan).
It was here where I finally listened to At Budokan. I was driving on the Merritt Parkway after visiting my friend Daryl at his parents house in Englewood Cliffs when this version of “I Shall Be Released” came on. Now, there are many great versions of this song; the ones I knew best were both the studio and The Last Waltz versions from the Band. But this one hit me differently. Hearing the slide guitar intro, I literally screamed at the top of my lungs in the car. I started the song over and over multiple times just to hear it again and again. Billy Cross’ guitar playing and melodic contributions cannot be overstated — genius.
Stoner is on bass driving the bus with Ian Wallace (King Crimson) on drums and my USC professor and legend Alan Pasqua on keys. Bob’s delivery of the melody and lyric is entirely flipped from the original and in doing so strikes me in a way that encapsulates the bizarre feeling of joy one can get from the depths exasperation and melancholy (a combination of emotions that only music can bring me) — all capped off by a classic Rolling Thunder-style re-harm of the chorus. I have made my own version of this song where I’ve edited certain parts out, but that’s just for me. This version is one of my favorite recordings and arrangements in the Dylan catalog.”