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The Return of Jeremy Spencer
by Bill Wasserzieher

The music-biz heavies who serve as doorkeepers for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed two very different bands among their 1998 inductees. One group epitomized mega-selling '70s and '80s rock; the other played hardcore blues with a British accent. Both were named Fleetwood Mac.

The more famous version of the band was its Stevie Nicks-Lindsey Buckingham-Christine McVie lineup. Their 1977 album Rumours stayed on the pop charts for 134 weeks and had sold more than 18 million copies by the time of the Hall of Fame ceremony.

The other, earlier version of Fleetwood Mac began life in 1967 as "Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac Featuring Jeremy Spencer" and barely lasted into the 1970s before guitarists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan left, one by one, each suffering from some combination of mental, spiritual, and emotional breakdowns. Only the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie linked the two bands.

But the stature of that first Fleetwood Mac - the one so steeped in blues that B.B. King regularly shared marquees with them - has continued to grow. The curious can find the early Mac's studio albums, various live performances, the essential two-disc Fleetwood Mac in Chicago 1969 sessions with Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, and intriguing outtake collections such as The Vaudeville Years, Show-Biz Blues, and Madison Blues.

That night in 1998, both Fleetwood Macs were represented at the Hall of Fame. The Buckingham-Nicks-McVie version performed their hits, and Peter Green jammed with Carlos Santana on "Black Magic Woman."

Jeremy Spencer could have been onstage, too. But he wasn't. He was half a world away - in India, playing charity benefits for the blind. After all, Spencer is the slide guitarist who bolted Fleetwood Mac in 1971 to join a religious commune. Having turned his back on fame, he has wandered the globe, living not only in the U.S. and England but also in France, Brazil, Italy, Greece, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, and Switzerland.

Today he's back in the public eye with a new recording, Precious Little, issued domestically in July on Blind Pig Records. Spencer tells his story to Blues Revue.

How did you come to record a new album?

The promoters of the annual Notodden Blues Festival asked if I wished to play at their 2005 festival. They presented me with a number of choices for an accompanying lineup, one of which was playing with a group of Norwegian blues musicians. Most of the band had been playing blues together for the last 25 years and were heralded as the best in Norway. I discovered there was more interest in, knowledge, appreciation of, and passion for blues in Norway than I'd encountered anywhere else in the world, to the point that they have as many as 25 blues festivals a year.

Not having heard the band, I was especially concerned about Espen Leland, the 40-year-old backup guitarist, as I did not want a "whiz-flash Harry" who could do anything while reading the newspaper. "You want that Delta crap? Sure, watch this: 'ratatatatatatata.' Want jazz, hip hop, funk? No problem."

I pushed the envelope and asked if Espen played like T-Bone Walker! They said yes, with a mixture of early B. B. King and Albert Collins thrown in. Fortunately, it turned out to be true. And playing together with the rest of the band flowed so well, like, hand in glove. For the first time in 27 years, I seriously considered recording a studio album.

I tested them with a couple of my personal, sensitive favorites not in the blues or '50s vein, "Maria de Santiago" and "Precious Little," and they passed with flying colors. Not only did they just play along, but they also got genuinely excited about the songs. I felt I could pull out anything, and they would handle it with sensitivity. So, recording was a serious consideration.

We recorded the album in five days at the analog 24-track Notodden Juke Joint studio, where, amongst antiquated two- and four-track tape recorders, stood the company's pride and joy: the late-'60s Atlantic studios mixing desk!

What are your favorite songs?

I assume you're talking about [my favorites] on the CD. This is hard to answer, as when I listen to it - which, amazingly, I do quite often, as most of my recorded work in the past has made me cringe - each song has its special thing for me at that moment. Overall, I would say "Bitter Lemon," "Maria de Santiago," and especially the title song, "Precious Little."

Do you feel that you've gained a deeper feeling over the years as a musician?

It's hard to say that about oneself. But I can honestly say that I have. I think that the feeling for playing with emotion beyond mere frustration improves with age. It seems especially true of the blues, in my opinion. The phrasing, when to "speak" and when not to, etc. It's not something you can do merely by playing cosmetically minimalist, or with an intellectually conscious "less is more" feel.

Did you find yourself asking, "Do I really want to do this again?"

I had been pretty badly burned by the last commercial attempt with Atlantic in 1978 [Flee], so the idea of going into a studio to record for a major label did not appeal to me. In the '90s, an Indian label released a live CD recorded at an outdoor concert in Bombay, but I was far from satisfied with the results. I'm glad it stayed local.

In recent years, however, I felt I just wanted something to be out there for those that are interested, an album that I was musically happy with and that was representative of me now, with no pressure of opinions, preconceived ideas of how I should be "marketed," and trends. Yet the idea of sitting in a studio with a bunch of hotshot "do-anything" musicians didn't appeal to me, either.

That's why I immediately felt at home with the Norwegian musicians. There was a chemistry that made me feel instantly relaxed. Plus, for the last eight years or so, I've had a whole new lease of life on playing slide guitar, to the point that playing straight-style finger lead or rhythm no longer interests me.

The decision to record again must have required courage.

It did take some courage just to do it, regardless of what I imagined people would expect of me in terms of a "comeback" style - you know, big, flashy, and screaming. "Come on, Jer, give us the ol' piss-takes and 'Shake Your Moneymaker.'" I wanted it small, simple, and uncluttered. Collectively, including the engineers, it seemed we were always unconsciously thinking small, tasteful. If there was anything I wanted to prove, it was that I could do just that and have a listenable product that the public and even I would enjoy.

Bluestown [Spencer's European record label] gave me a lot of space musically and encouraged me. I don't think a big company in the States and especially England would have been so generous. However, Bluestown couldn't afford to be too generous with time, and we had to record it in five days on their analog 24-track. That was good, because we had to get it and like it, and we did. It kept that urgent spontaneity that I like. Analog says "no" for you when you can't say it for yourself. We had no time for ProTools.

(continue to part 2)

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