Lane Tietgen’s album Wheel of Fortune is finally available on cdbaby. I recommend it highly. What follows is the broad outline of Lane Tietgen’s story and a review of the CD by his fellow Kansan musician, Steve Strickland. To read my own comments, click on the “Lane Tietgen” tag at the bottom of this article. Take it, Steve…
Wheel of Fortune’s 10 songs have a familiarity about them stemming from the fact that Lane Tietgen is a contemporary of the artists of whom the music is reminiscent.These songwriters who for the most part were already involved in music at the time of the British Invasion of the early-mid 60’s shared many of the same influences: from the blues to jazz to the folk archives of Harry Smith and the Lomax’s – and all American music up to that point. This is to say that Tietgen knows the way to the well and has his own bucket.
The Serfs, the preeminent Kansas bar band in 1968, scored a record deal with the Capitol label. The band formed around Tietgen (guitar and bass) and Michael Finnigan keyboards (principally Hammond B-3) in Lawrence, Kansas, but was based primarily out of Wichita. They were to be produced by Tom Wilson (Dylan’s producer of the period) who had recommended the Record Plant to Jimi Hendrix’s people as the happening new place to record. Working down the hall from each other, Hendrix recruited Finnigan and Freddy Lee Smith (sax) and Larry Faucette (congas) to play on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Rainin’, Still Dreamin.’” The Serf’s Early Bird Café was an adventurous album featuring Tietgen’s originals with covers ranging from Dylan to Miles Davis. Perhaps too eclectic for their own good and because perhaps Wilson couldn’t get a handle on what they were all about, the record went nowhere.
Finnigan recorded two more legendary-in-musician-circle records, The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood (Columbia) and Crazed Hipsters (with Jerry Wood, on Blue Thumb), in 1970 and ’72 relying heavily on Tietgen compositions before going on to a storied career as sideman deluxe. The second track on the Finnigan & Wood album, “Highway Song,” contains the lyric “So I took a job out on the road/I was a tent-show roustabout/But when I asked to know their code/That old ringmaster threw me out.” Evidenced from his first album in 40 years, it may be that Lane Tietgen not only cracked the code, but also took over his old boss’s job.
The title track begins with some hand-jive, body slappin’ percussion and sets the blueprint for much of what follows. Lane Tietgen sings in a raspy tenor with urgency and a yearning that belie his age. He consistently employs a melisma that sounds both middle-eastern and bluesy. “Wheel of Fortune” could be a collaboration between Jerry Garcia and early Steve Miller. It features an allegorical feminine trio on a tear, like up-dated figures from a Zap comic. The percussion, programmed by Dave Westerbeke and analog played by Adam Berkowitz, grooves without being overbearing. The listener is most often not aware of which is which. Tietgen uses mandolin as a rhythm guitar as well as playing acoustic, slide, electric wah, harmonica, bass, organ, accordion, and trombone—sometimes all on one song. He also arranged the horns. Terry Anne Gillette, on loan from the Deadish The Thugz, plays violin on this and several tracks in a style that harkens to Scarlet Rivera’s work with Bob Dylan.
“Deep Waters of the Heart” expands the aquatic motif of the first song—a rollicking number worthy of The Band at their best. “Sweet Alchemy” is an unabashed love song in the mode of “Tupelo Honey.”
“Some Call It Evil,” a narcotic ska piece, protests corporate genetically altered agriculture. It features an incredibly catchy trombone riff with the mandolin carrying the offbeat. Tietgen’s voice conveys indignation without sounding whiny. If one didn’t know better, it could be mistaken for a Toots Hibbert cover.
“My Heart’s One Desire” would be the side one closer were this a vinyl release. It combines romanticism with an unspecific spirituality. Dave Westerbeke, who instigated this project, handles the backing vocals as well as lead guitar and bass. The harmonies throughout are California sunny. The melodies on all the material are whistle-friendly catchy.
Like many classic albums, side two is even better than the first. “Love and Redemption,” the record’s centerpiece, has a poignant chorus about “Margdelena lighting her candles for all the unfortunate ones.” The accompaniment features a call and response between arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Gillette’s violin. It’s a beautiful ballad with a big backbeat. It contains romance, religion, political commentary, and eroticism effortlessly.
“Raindrops on the Page” is a tour de force lyrically & instrumentally. Molly Ann is a longtime member of some traveling show replete with roustabouts, grifters, a gambler, and a thief. There’s an apocalypse goin’ on. Accordion and harmonica playing together can be a dangerous combination for pitch, but it works here, along with Tim Cain’s saxophone. It makes for a cacophonous but not discordant soundscape that supports the cinematic tale. Shades of Blonde on Blonde and Band & Street Choir era Morrison mixed with a little Ray Bradbury.
The song sequencing on Wheel of Fortune is remarkable as “Eight Ball Blues” finds Tietgen channeling Leadbelly and Robert Johnson in a nicely minimalist setting featuring Lane’s twelve-string bottleneck and Berkowitz’s brushwork with strategic bass guitar shots. A short story of Hemingway-worthy brevity and this great line “The Devil walked in wearing a pork pie hat…a little goatee and eyes just like a cat.”
“Mamma, Bring That Good Thing Over Here” continues the rootsy denouement with playful innuendo over a piedmont-style rag. Westerbeke plays his one solo of the record like Michael Bloomfield morphing into James Burton – all in 12 bars.
I came to this recording with only the slightest familiarity regarding Lane Tietgen, aside from the songs sung by Finnigan mentioned earlier. Driving home late at night on a rainy highway listening to the CD, the epic “MLK Riot 1968” came on. I immediately flashed to Hendrix’s “Somebody’s House is Burning.” It occurred to me that the legendary Serf’s album and Hendrix’s third album happened at the time of King’s murder. The song recalls “All Along the Watchtower” (Dylan’s original) and “Hurricane” with a very personal narrative. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, the tale clocks in at nine minutes but doesn’t seem the least bit too long.
In the couple of months since Lane gave me this recording, I’ve done a bit of research and have cajoled my old college room-mate out of a digital copy of the Serfs’ CD. The things that strike me are the vocals: Finnigan and Tietgen’s voices haven’t changed much in 4 decades. Lane, in particular, has become a much better singer. And as a songwriter he has few peers. The songs from the past hold up as classics all, but this material shows an empathy and maturity and makes this listener hope there’s more to come. —Steve Strickland