The story goes like this: two men walk into a bar. They see two brothers, brothers who came to the bar from somewhere else to play music, not just any music, but the blues, the blues with a menacing messianic rhythm that might drive listeners to a kind of rapture. That might send the two men out into the night on a mission from God. Or maybe just a mission to replicate what they’ve seen at their job in New York City, where they don black suits and black shades to become Blues Brothers of their own and play their own hopped-up music and eventually make an album and the movie. The two brothers they saw go back to Ohio.
The story goes like this: Bob Marley is in Cleveland on June 16, 1975. He’s headlining at the Agora, and opening for him is this band with numbers for their name, 15 60 75, the Numbers Band, those two brothers who once visited New York and five other men. They play a 40-minute set to an “utterly indifferent” audience, according to Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, a compatriot and fan of the band, who describes one woman’s reaction: “I didn’t like that … it hurt.” The set is recorded as the band’s first album, Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town. It’s released, and it sinks without a trace.
The story goes like this: Jimmy Bell comes to town. He is a pimp, a preacher, a husband. And he might be moving on. But right now he’s here, and Cat Iron will tell you so:
The two brothers in New York are Robert and Jack Kidney, walking up the road from Kent, Ohio. Robert plays guitar and sings, Jack plays harmonica and saxophone and percussion. They’re good friends with fellow sax man Terry Hynde, whose sister Chrissie has had some musical success of her own. Robert is the leader and forms them into a band, a collective, with more guitars and horns over the bass and drums and congas, a band that in some form or another plays in their pocket of Ohio for four decades. The numbers in their name map onto the 1-4-5 chord progression that is the backbone of so much blues and rock, but the Numbers themselves often don’t play blues that straight. They ride grooves and vamp, swinging wide on a dime like a flock of birds twisting about itself and then turning around again, funk and even disco slipping in as Robert preaches his blues with flat conviction that what he says is gospel, even if you don’t know what it means.
This music isn’t without precedent — in the liner notes for the album, Thomas brings up Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra. But less astrally out-there bands touch the record too: the Rolling Stones jam their way toward it (especially around Goat’s Head Soup). The opening track here on Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town, “The Animal Speaks,” kicks off with insistent horns and a driving riff that is not that far off from the sped-up version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” used as an opener by those very same Blues Brothers the Kidney brothers allegedly inspired. Robert Kidney’s lyrics are a guy at a bar, talking up himself and his prospects, and the song bleeds into “About The Eye Game” and its more merciless beat as the game gets darker. Hynde skronks with fellow sax man Tim Maglione and Robert says no, he’s playing no eye game. Maybe he’s getting out before the blues start singing him.
Those songs rock, but “Walk Down The Narrow Road” is where the band really starts to take off. The low groove pushes forward, bass and guitar not-quite-doubling a slinky riff that congas and maracas skitter over — Jack Kidney’s additional percussion is the band’s secret weapon, the pops and steam of the funk simmer. Robert’s lyrics here are an incantation: “When I get lonely, when I get lonely, when I get lonely, I walk down the narrow road.” The groove lurches at points, hits double time, and pulls back, always finding itself again as the horns wail.
“Thief” gets swampier, a wah-wah morass, quicksand in the urban jungle as Robert walks down another road and gets mugged. Or so the mugger thinks. “Face to face/Understand/He was a man/But not for my two dollars, not on this street!” he snarls. The production is great for a live album — if you listen, you can easily focus on individual instruments, but the sound they make — the squeals of the horns, the slash of the guitars, the slap and shake of the percussion — locks into a larger whole. The sound is collaborative, the sum of the Numbers’ parts.
They subtract for a minute, back down to just David Robinson’s drums and Jack Kidney’s percussion. And then the bass comes in with that groove, three notes on one chord, never finding rest but pulsing forward and back. In a year, something like it will mutate and burn down the floor and burn up the charts in The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” and in a few decades, James Murphy will spend an entire career lifting and reworking what bassist Drake Gleason locks down and then riffs off of, but here and now it is time for “Jimmy Bell.”
That see-sawing groove is there in the guitar of the original “Jimmy Bell,” which Cat Iron recorded in 1957 and was covered quite a bit before the Numbers took it on. That record takes a little more than two minutes to tell the story of Bell. The Numbers take more than ten to describe a guy with “greenbacks enough to make a man a suit,” who preaches from the pulpit with a bottle and not a bible in his hand, who tells the sisters in the corner “there’s no need to shout — pay your dues or the deacon will throw you out.” Robert Kidney says this with assurance that Maglione emphasizes with a twisty sax solo. But with all that, Bell is not satisfied. “If things don’t get better here,” he tells his wife, “We’re going up the road.” Kidney gives her the last word: “What road?” And then co-guitarist Michael Tracey steps in and goes off. This is the paradox of the sounds coming together, it creates a space for Tracey to spiral and fractal, blues riffs cutting into lines and riding Robert Kidney’s counterpoint and the tectonic shifts of Gleason’s bass. The music and momentum never slow, but time stops for a while, and then Robert Kidney takes over for his own solo, more restrained and mysterious, before bringing it back to that first verse and a percussion breakdown. We’re where we began — right? “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time,” T.S. Eliot wrote. The exploration here is unceasing and creates its own knowledge in the moment. The journey is the destination — but wait a minute, Jimmy Bell is still in town. What road? (The straight and narrow one?) Where do you go from here?
The band’s final song, “About Leaving Day,” doesn’t have any easy answers, and it’s ready to tell you so. “Looking for a change/Something must change for chance,” Robert Kidney declaims over a hard-on-the-3 record-skip of a riff, somehow weary and jacked-up at the same time. “My sleep’s been shattered.” The chords are 1 and 4, where’s the 5? No rest for Kidney, no rest for the saxophone howling and the guitar shrieking. “I can’t get out of bed in the morning/But on that leaving day you know I will see feet/On a smooth cool floor.” This isn’t the player at the start of the show, dipping in and out of the Eye Game.
Some people been telling you it’s easy.
It gets hard to feel.
It gets hard to feel.
If it gets hard to feel,
Then it’s hard to love
…One thing must change.
The riff is the only thing keeping the band from collapse at this point, and then they fall through it. Up next, Bob Marley.
I wasn’t there then, but I can listen now and I can hear cheers at the end of the set, even louder at other points on the album. Perhaps it was just a few people, but some folks in the audience knew what they heard, they weren’t indifferent. I wasn’t there in New York City in the mid-’70s either and the line from the Kidney brothers to the Blues Brothers is — well, it’s “complete horseshit,” according to Robert Kidney himself. Apparently, the rumor was started by a friend of the band and Dan Ackroyd actually had a long history of playing the blues in Canada. In that same interview where he firmly contradicts the SNL connection, Kidney talks about playing free jazz over abstracted rock and roll, using whatever he wanted to make something that wasn’t quite blues either, and is on less solid ground:
“We’re off in this other genre that doesn’t exist…There’s no simple term. Music is an ancient form, that’s the way I look at it. It’s ancient. It speaks and should say something — it should have meaning. It isn’t something to be disposed of.”
“It was a disaster,” Kidney laughs at another point in the interview. “I assumed people would like it, and they had no idea [what] was happening, but what do I know?”William Carridine lived in Natchez, Mississippi, and probably played “Jimmy Bell” for decades before a musicologist making blues field recordings caught it on tape a year before he died. The song found its way into a documentary, and the people recording the song and making the film butchered Carridine’s last name into “Cat Iron.” Maybe they didn’t understand the man, maybe they thought that name told a better story. Natchez librarian Elenora Gralow saw the documentary some years later and realized something was off. She wrote a letter to the University of Mississippi identifying Carridine, explaining how she traced him by talking to her postmaster and an old school principal and finally looking him up in the phone book. “I really didn’t expect to find anything,” she concludes. Who knows what you may find when you walk up the road, when you play a song? Not all stories are true, and not all stories end where people say they do. That interview with Robert Kidney took place in 2010, on the occasion of the Numbers Band’s 40th anniversary — with a concert in Kent, Ohio, of course. They kept playing and putting out albums, they stayed in town but still went up the road. Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town is a map of one journey they took, a clear record of unfamiliar territory and what they found there. Put it on (again) and listen. The story goes like this…