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Thursday, November 12,2009

Creedence Clearwater legend John Fogerty reexamines musical roots

By Ben Corbett

When it comes to vintage rock ’n’ roll, the popularity of few bands has crossed generations and weathered the years like that of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Together and recording a mere half decade between 1967 and 1972, the band’s music has long outlived the namesake of its collective makers, as well as any lingering feelings from the bitter feud that tore them apart. But by this point, staple hits like “Proud Mary,” “Run Through the Jungle,” and “Green River” have become virtual appendages to the institution of American radio as they continue to inform and influence the culture.

John Fogerty — who wrote the bulk of CCR’s repertoire — is a true entertainer in the old-school sense of the word. He’s as picky about presentation as he is about delivery, and he makes sure his people get their money’s worth. Never one to fluff it off, Fogerty is one of those self-loyal purists that would sooner case his guitar and wait for the muse to strike rather than fake it through the slow times. Which accounts for the two long sabbaticals the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer took over the span of his long, roller-coaster career — the first occurred in 1975 after the final demise of Creedence. Embroiled in a dispute with his bandmate and brother Tom, as well as the rest of the group, Fogerty forked over the rights to his label, Fantasy Records, in exchange for having his contract shredded.

After a couple solo albums and a few singles, Fogerty disappeared for 10 years, not to reemerge until 1985 with Centerfield, featuring the instant classic, “The Old Man Down the Road.” Sued by Fantasy Records for self-plagiarism, an embittered Fogerty won the case, yet thereafter refused to play anything from the CCR catalog to avoid having to pay royalties for playing his own songs. A year later, Fogerty released the less-than-well-received album Eye of the Zombie, and once again submerged underground for another 11 years. That is, until the 1997 release of the long-awaited and Grammy- winning Blue Moon Swamp, the comeback album and tour that immediately repositioned the singer-songwriter as a musical force to be reckoned with. For fans it was a true homecoming. Not only did Fogerty at last seem at complete ease musically, but finally he was playing full sets of classic CCR hits at live performances. Now, more than a decade later, Fogerty is still enjoying his freshly achieved summit, staying busy as ever, and he’s plenty happy about it.

“You know, I don’t walk around with that baggage on my shoulder, which I confess was there for a long time,” Fogerty allowed in a recent telephone press conference. “When you get ripped off, you tend to feel that something unjust happened. I’m just happy and very grateful that I get to make music and that the music is now pure and joyful and energized from all the right motives. I consider myself really the luckiest man in the whole world, so I don’t dwell on the past much.”

But even though he isn’t dwelling on the past, he is revisiting it these days, which seems to be a recurrent theme each time he pulls a new project from his pocket. Besides Comin’ Down the Road, the newly released DVD of the Royal Albert Hall concert filmed in 2008 (exactly 37 years after Creedence played their last London show there), Fogerty is gearing up for a 12-city tour in support of his latest disc, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again.

The original album, 1973’s The Blue Ridge Rangers was Fogerty’s post-CCR debut solo effort — a handful of country and gospel cover songs ranging from George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care” to Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling.” Unable to groove with other musicians on the heels of the bitter breakup of CCR, and in reaction to his nasty battle with Fantasy Records, Fogerty played all the instruments on the original Blue Ridge Rangers, an album that, stylistically at least, wasn’t a huge leap from the fat, natural sound of much of CCR’s country-rock and Deltainspired repertoire. And while it may seem odd to revisit the album in 2009, almost four decades after the fact, the idea of doing a follow-up has never been never lost on Fogerty.

“The concept has never been far from my mind,” he explained. “I would think about it every month or so. I’d just kinda think to myself, ‘Gee, it’d be nice to do that again.’ Sometimes I’d even go to the trouble of making a short list of songs, and then I’d lose the list.”

However, during post-production work on the Royal Albert Hall DVD, Fogerty said, “My wife just suddenly suggested it. She said, ‘You know that Blue Ridge Ranger album you did. Why don’t you do another one of those?’ And that really tickled me. I was just happy that she thought that would be something cool that I could do now, so I sort of jumped in with both feet. That was wherethe motivation came from.”

From John Prine to John Denver to Buck Owens, even Pat Boone, revisiting The Blue Ridge Rangers pays homage to a far-flung range of musicians and songs that had a major influence on Fogerty’s own musical style and success. The only song on the disc actually written by Fogerty, who also produced the record, is a new take of “Change in the Weather,” the only track from Eye of the Zombie that you’ll likely ever hear him play live. As far as friends go, in tribute to Ricky Nelson, Fogerty did a new rendition of “Garden Party,” featuring the vocals of Eagles alumni Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. Meanwhile, longtime friend Bruce Springsteen, who played with Fogerty at the Madison Square Garden Vote for Change concert, joined in for a new version of the Everly Brothers classic, “When Will I Be Loved?” As far as recording all the instrumentation himself on the original album, according to Fogerty, that was a one-off idea. Having had less-than-satisfactory results using studio musicians in the past, Fogerty hand-picked the lineup used for Rides Again — a handful of veteran pros like guitarist Buddy Miller, as well as drummer Kenny Aronoff from his own band. What ensued was an organic studio chemistry that most record producers pray for every time they enter a studio.

“After the first one was released way back in ’73, a week or 10 days later I told myself, ‘Man, if I ever get to do this again, I’m going to get real guys,’“ Fogerty explained. “Every bit of music on that first one was done by me, and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll is made that way, but this Blue Ridge Ranger music really cries for spontaneity. The first song we recorded was ‘Never Ending Song of Love.’ When I heard them start to play, I could just hear how spirited they were. It was beyond just playing the song like a session musician might do. These guys are all very experienced ... long past that syndrome where you gotta show off to everybody. They’re experienced enough to show restraint when the other guy is playing, and then strut your stuff when it’s your turn. It really makes for a wonderful band environment.”

If past experience means anything, that environment will be as portable as it is tight, as Fogerty throws down a handful of those country chestnuts interspersed with plenty of vintage CCR. For this tour, Fogerty is hitting the road with longtime stage mates Aronoff, Billy Burnette (guitar), Jason Mowery (fiddle/ mandolin), Matt Nolen (keyboards), Hunter Perrin (guitar), David Santos (bass) and James Pennebaker (pedal steel). In the meantime, fans may want to stay tuned for reruns of the PBS special taping of Live By Request that featured Fogerty and company, plus an upcoming performance slated to air on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.

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