May 2000

Jon Tiven Group - Yes I Ram
New West NW6009
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]The Jon Tiven Group is a very good rhythm & blues band, and Yes I Ram is a fine CD containing 16 tracks. Many of the songs are more accurately described as rock -- they’re so far from "standard" blues rhythms and chord progressions that people not associated with R&B could have created them.

The Group keeps mainly to singer, guitar, bass and drums, with a little harmonica, organ on several cuts and some background vocals and hand-claps, but nothing gratuitous or bulky is thrown in just to be fancy. A psychologist might say purity is "an issue" here. A message "stamped" on the liner notes and on the inside of the box, so you see it when you remove the disk, reads, "CERTIFIED ORGANIC: This album contains no samples, loops, or digital instruments. All the music herein was performed by actual musicians in real time without click tracks."

Yet Tiven, a sometimes music reviewer himself, has been quoted as saying, "I don’t pretend to be a purist, and I don’t wear the uniform. I just play the music that’s deep in my soul, and you can call it what you want." What does it matter, though? Whether or not the music resides deep in Tiven’s soul (must we accept an artist’s word on such personal-spiritual matters?), it is gripping stuff. Although I hear influences of other fine musicians, I don’t hear cheap imitation; it’s original R & B and rock.

Perhaps to plant the album in the blues tradition, the Group opens with "All You Ever Give Me Is the Blues," a thumping number that spends most measures on the one chord, most of the rest on the four and has a conventional blues lyric. "I gave you a diamond ring you won’t wear/It’s a nine-thousand-dollar thing, but you don’t care/I set up a winnin’ date, you couldn’t make it/You said, Oh, the love we made, you were fakin’." Refrain: "But girl, you know, what hurts me so/I give all my love to you/But all you ever give me (repeat) is the blues."

The third track, "Heavy Love," opens with a Hendrix-like introduction -- a repeated phrase made up of a couple beats on a strummed chord followed by a stabbing high guitar note. Elsewhere, too, Hendrix’s influence on Jon Tiven’s playing makes itself felt. "Like a Radio," the next track, is the first decidedly upbeat song, and it really takes off, also departing from the more typical blues lyrics that precede it. "They give me their word, you know/It was like a radio/You get no choices/Just hear their voices/They fill me with mild derision/Like not having television/Empty voices, broken choices/They give me two, not one/That’s twice as much as God’s first son/But they forgot to mention the tension." In the middle, the band modulates to a higher key, and Jon Tiven’s guitar flies into a Hendrix-like rhythmic sustained single note.

He’s not a Hendrix wannabe, though (any more than anyone else who’s played the guitar in the last three decades!). Tiven uses a wide variety of guitar licks and demonstrates a lot of control and thought about what he’s doing, sometimes sounding pretty old-timey like B.B. King or Muddy Waters; sometimes it’s more like Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, though his occasional Lee-like repetition of un-ambitious phrases and machine-gun-style sounds a little like he’s joking. Alan Merrill comes through with excellent lead vocals throughout the album; he sounds like every song matters to him, and if he ever lapses into affect or pretense, I haven’t caught him in many listens. Sally Tiven is highly skilled on the electric bass, forming a fine rhythm section with drummer and percussionist Todd Snare.

None of the 16 tunes really bombs, but I tend to go for the up-tempo songs, including Jon and Sally Tiven’s "Differing Touch" and "Jessie." Most of the songs are credited to Jon and Sally Tiven, many with Jim Carroll or other co-authors, one being Mick Taylor. Several are credited to Jon Tiven with Roger Reale, one to Van Morrison ("If You Rock Me," 1970). Jon Tiven, indeed, has a long history as a songwriter -- for Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Robert Cray, and others. The Jon Tiven Group has one previous CD (under its earlier name, Jon Tiven’s Ego Trip) --  Blue Guru -- and is also the core band on Wilson Picket’s first album in 12 years: It’s Harder Now. Yes I Ram is a great place to start if you like serious, fun R & B that branches out into some peppy rock.