Film Review: B.B. King “The Life Of Riley”

May 21, 2014

By Devon Wendell

There have been countless films made about the blues and about B.B. King. A large percentage of these films merely focus on how King (Born Riley B. King on September 16th, 1925, between Itta Bena and Indianola Mississippi) inspired a plethora of overdriven, unoriginal rock guitarists from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Very few have focused on the validity of the man’s music in its own right and the bleak conditions that helped to create the blues.

B.B. King and Lucille

B.B. King and Lucille

Director John Brewer has successfully captured the heart and soul of B.B. King the man and the musician in his new documentary The Life Of Riley (released in select theaters throughout the US on May 21st, VOD on June 1st, and on DVD and blue ray on June 17th.) The film is warmly narrated by fellow Mississippi native and blues lover Morgan Freeman.

Although we hear from dozens of King’s famous admirers and colleagues such as Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, John Lennon, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Rodgers, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bill Cosby, John Mayall, and Robert “Jr.” Lockwood, it’s the true and often harrowing tales of surviving life as a young black share cropper in the deep South that resonate as strongly as the sound of King digging deep into the strings of his guitar Lucille.

Brewer lets King, as well as his siblings, cousins, and distant relatives, tell a story of a life of a young man surrounded by constant labor and the reality of the most inhumane violence, hatred, cruel conditions, terror, and hell behind the forces of that labor.

There is a look of pain on King’s face as he recalls having started picking cotton from “can to can’t” (“from when you can see to when you can’t”) at the early age of seven and witnessing the Ku Klux Klan brutally castrating and torturing a young black boy to death after being accused of talking to a white woman, An image that has haunted the king of the blues his entire life.

As King recently makes his way to his original home, a tape is played of King’s late father Albert, giving directions and reminiscing about the small rural plantation in Mississippi. This is one of the most touching moments in the film. The love and sorrow is in every expression on King’s face as he looks outside of his tour bus at the familiar sites as he hears his dad guiding him back home.

King visits his late mother’s grave site. She passed away of diabetes while King was barely a teen. After that, King was forced to move from one relative’s home to another.

King talks about feeling “abandoned” after his mother’s death. It was around this time that he discovered the guitar and it’s been the driving force of his life ever since.

As each tale unfolds, we hear the music of field hollers, and Mississippi “country” blues icons Charlie Patton, Bukka White (King’s cousin) and Blind Lemon Jefferson, not to mention fantastic footage of King performing throughout his illustrious career.

Brewer takes us on the long journey from Mississippi to Memphis, where King cut his very first sides at the legendary Sun Records studio for the Bullet and Modern labels.

There’s still nothing like that very first recording of “Three O’ Clock Blues” recorded in the early ‘50s for The Bihari Brothers. At this time, King became a disc jockey for Memphis’ radio station WDIA with Rufus Thomas.

From Memphis we’re taken on the “chitlin circuit” in the ‘60s where segregation is ever present. King recalls almost being killed in Memphis the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when every room in the hotel King and his band were staying in was burned down.

In the midst of broken marriages, hit records, and long tours, King never stopped working on his music. Friends and band members praise the work ethic of this great man and how he loses himself in every single note of a performance. B.B. King becomes one with the music that comes from pain but is made out of love.

What makes The Life Of Riley better than most documentaries about the blues is that it serves as a poignant and powerful reminder of the true pain and dreadful conditions that gave birth to the real blues B.B. King plays that has almost been forgotten by younger generations of blues/rock musicians.   Today, hard times for a “blues” musician are when the balance on his/her Starbucks card gets too low for a refill.

Thank God these conditions have changed but it is clear that there are no more musicians alive today who play the honest, unfettered blues the way B.B. King still plays them.

All of the music industry stuff and talk by self- indulgent English blues plagiarists are mere fluff compared to the simple honesty of the story about love and survival portrayed in this film.

Music lovers do not miss this film.

This is the real deal.

 


An Appreciation: Hugh McCracken — A Fond Remembrance

March 29, 2013

By Devon Wendell

I was saddened when I learned that Hugh McCracken passed away of leukemia yesterday – March 28th, 2013 – in New York City.

While working at Donald Fagen’s recording studio in New York in the 90s, I was constantly surrounded by the top session musicians of the world on a constant basis, especially during a Steely Dan recording project. Some of these titans included: Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Paul Griffin, The Brecker Brothers, and Hugh McCracken. I was absolutely terrified and intimidated by just about all of them with the exception of McCracken. He didn’t have the ultra-cool, funky, macho boastfulness that Purdie and some of the others had that could make a wannabe, geeky musician and engineer like myself feel like the most un-hip person in the world.

Hugh McCracken

McCracken was very approachable and generous with his musical abilities. I wanted to meet him the most because I was not only a budding guitarist, but also a blues fanatic and I knew that McCracken played the original guitar rhythm track on B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” which is one of the most original and tasteful guitar parts ever recorded.

During down time, I’d be in the live room of the studio rapping cable or taking down microphones while McCracken would be laying down some sweet bluesy licks and chords, alone on a chair in the corner. He had a relaxed, pensive look on his face.

I was very young and played in an overly, flashy manner, not trusting in the economical power of the blues. Larry Carlton had donated a Gibson semi-hollobody guitar to the studio that I used to play all the time. On a few occasions, I’d talk to McCracken and show him some fast blues runs that I had learned. He’d look at me without judgment and say, “Well, try it this way,” while cutting everything I had shown him into a half or more. It made what I was playing sound sloppy and rushed. He knew exactly how to get right to the point with a few perfectly placed notes and with the right tone.

He taught me that you couldn’t always play like Godzilla behind a good singer or in a larger orchestral sound. All I thought about before then was the guitar solo and putting my stamp on everything too loud and too fast. Can you imagine if McCracken had tried to play like Buddy Guy or Hendrix on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen?”

McCracken also changed my perception of playing the guitar with other artists in the studio. He made it work throughout his entire career with everyone from The Funatics in his youth in New Jersey, to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Lennon, The Four Seasons, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Aretha Franklin, and countless others as a primarily New York based player.

So many guitarists today could learn from MCracken’s example of not tossing out your entire technique within the first four bars and really complimenting a song in a extremely imaginative and funky fashion. I wouldn’t be a session player without having heard McCracken’s timeless guitar playing. He will be deeply missed.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


CD Review: Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

September 15, 2012

Tempest (Columbia)

By Devon Wendell

Savage imagery of Hell on earth, twisted ultra violence, sinking ships, whores, and  dying villains mixed with the language and rhythms of true American blues, country, Celtic traditions, and R&B  make Bob Dylan’s Tempest a sinister yet melancholy masterpiece.

In the rollicking jump blues of the opening track, “Duquesne Whistle,” Dylan takes us right to the heart of the obsession with trains and getting out of town before it’s too late that’s always been a part of blues history. There are intentional similarities to the Memphis Jug Band belting out “I thought I heard That KC When She Blows” from 1925. Tony Garnier’s walking bass line drives the superb multi-layered guitar harmonies carefully crafted by Donnie Herron, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, and David Hidalgo.

The slow R&B flavored ballad “Soon After Midnight” is an anticipation of an after hours romance, while declaring a man’s vitality from a life lived to the bone, and  the many women who’ve come and gone.  Dylan’s sense of urgency –

“It’s now or never more than ever,

when I met you I didn’t think you would do”

– makes it feel as if he is coming to terms with his own mortality, chasing down an old love which has been a common theme of all Dylan’s recent recordings, starting with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind.

“Narrow Way” directly borrows some verses from the Mississippi Sheiks 1934 “Work Down To Me Someday.” This is a classic “You’ll be sorry someday” blues warning of a bitter and scorned lover.  Dylan covers jealousy, anger, fear, and regret in every verse, as the band cooks up a loud electric Delta blues groove.

“Long And Wasted Years” is a sad and remorseful plea to a long lost lover. Dylan sings of an all encompassing romance that made the world disappear and family forgotten.

“I think when my back was turned the whole world burned.

It’s been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle.”

Dylan sings about the double-edged sword of a co-dependent relationship.

In ”Pay in Blood,” Dylan paints a clear picture of a character who’s lived a life of bloody brutality.

I can stone you to death for the wrongs that you’ve done”

Dylan warns politicians, respected leaders, and good time harlots that he’s no man to mess with. The arrangement on this number is reminiscent of late ’70’s Rolling Stones slick rock n’ roll.

On the haunting minor key “Scarlet Town,” Dylan hits us with images of a hometown plagued with death, beggars, a “flat chested junkie whore” and terror, making his 1965 classic “Desolation Row” feel like a peppy walk through Disneyland.

Some of the images here bring to mind the absurdist hell of Samuel Beckett’s Watt mixed with the no-holds barred language of a Nelson Algren novel.

Over the past few albums, Dylan has used classic Chess records blues arrangements, as is the case on “Early Roman Kings,” which is a tale of greed, immorality, and male machismo set to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”

But at this point, the violent boasting starts to feel redundant, and as great as the band is, it would be more interesting if Dylan and company had come up with their own arrangements. But Dylan’s hoarse, strained vocals often bare a frightening resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf towards the end of his life, especially with the backdrop of these Chicago blues rhythms. David Hidalgo’s accordion work brilliantly mimics every nuance of Little Walter’s harmonica phrasing.

More images of a bleak apocalyptic world continue throughout “Tin Angel,” in which Dylan’s narrative is of three traveling characters involved in a murder-suicide. Donnie Herron’s mandolin colorfully laces each one of Dylan’s verses perfectly.

The title track “Tempest,’” with its Celtic rhythms, is about the sinking of the Titanic. Although each verse delivers clear and powerful images of dead bodies floating in water as the ship goes down, 14 minutes is too long to have to endure all of this, and you’d think Dylan could do a little better than making direct references to the Titanic motion picture. Even with that said, Dylan’s detailed snapshots make you feel as if he were there during this historical disaster.

The closing number “Roll On John” is a haunting, mournful ballad, reliving the assassination of John Lennon.  This is the most moving track on the album because you can feel Dylan’s personal connection and love for Lennon, with references to some of Lennon’s lyrics. Dylan sounds vulnerable, as if he is about to burst into tears. He also sounds as though he feels left behind by Lennon.

Many fans may try to decode Dylan’s lyrics on Tempest to find personal, sociological, and political parallels to today’s world. But it’s clear that part of the man’s brilliance is creating well defined characters and telling clear and concise stories – qualities which are too often sadly missing in music today. On Tempest (as on most of Dylan’s past work), he has created a whole album meant to be listened to from start to finish, no matter how far down those dark roads he takes us. And no matter how much we try to decipher what every verse means, only Dylan knows for sure.  So we’ll just have to misinterpret these songs to fit our own lives as we’ve had to do since his very first album, which is fine for Dylan and for all his dedicated fans.

To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Record Review: The Jeff Beck Group (Vinyl Reissue from 1972)

July 14, 2012

 Jeff Beck Group

Jeff Beck Group (Audio Fidelity in Vinyl)

 by Brian Arsenault

Rod (“Where’s my next blond?”) Stewart was gone.  Ronnie (“I’ll be a Face of the Stones someday”) Woods was gone.  The bluesier Bob Tench was brought in to sing and the late Cozy Powell showed why he was maybe the best of the British rock drummers of the era.

This was 1972’s Jeff Beck Group album, the fourth and final of the band under that name whatever the lineup.  And at its best it is the best of the four.

Jeff Beck

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The leadoff song alone — the Beck penned “Ice Cream Cakes” — is an unknown classic, if such a thing can be. It’s a bluesy number wherein Tench makes you wish he’d been the original vocalist, Beck provides rich and vibrant overlays of guitars, and Powell just drums everyone out of the corps. Why this song didn’t have a twenty year run on FM radio is a mystery to me.

And that sort of symbolizes Beck’s career. Revered by other musicians and electric guitar afficionados right up until today, he’s just never received the same public attention as other greats of the Second Golden Era of Rock in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Part of it was that he never quite popped the wow factor of The Who’s Tommy or The Beatles Sgt. Pepper. There was always Clapton forming Cream and of course Jimi mind blowing everybody. Yet there was never better musicianship than that provided by Beck and his band and it’s dazzling in more than one place on this album.

The second side’s lead-in song “Going Down” sees Cozy hit the incredible pace of “Ice Cream Cakes” yet again.  Max Middleton plays his particular brand of honky-tonk rock piano and Jeff jumps in and away we go. The piano and guitar leads bounce off each other throughout to great effect.

What a pleasure it is to hear Beck playing within the structure and rhythms of the band, not jumping over it or simply biding time until his blasting solo. (Others will not be named but they know who they are.)

Another highlight is the cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Beck could be a real slow hand as well as blazing fast and he shows that here. But it’s Tench and the chorus that steal the number and give an early demonstration of how melodic and soulful a Dylan song can be when Bob’s tuneless gravely growl is removed.

Again we hear a generous Beck willing to play under the vocal rather Keith Richards-like. He just doesn’t have to compete with his singer or play over him.

“Glad All Over” has shades of early Cream and also reaches back to the John Mayall connection shared by so many of the elite Brit guitarists of the era. (Note to self: Why doesn’t Mayall get more attention and credit in the Rock Pantheon?)

Listeners will have other favorites but there are only nine songs on the album.  A quirk of Beck’s that probably also worked against him was short albums.  He also didn’t seem interested in producing a rock anthem, bless him. And bless all providers of vinyl albums in this digital (what does that mean anyway) era.

By the way, Johnny Fever said there was an obligation to teach the children about Rock. In that spirit and thinking of the young, all you have to know about the First Golden Era of Rock is the following.

1) Chuck Berry

2) Buddy Holly

One-two ranking is dependent upon my mood of the day.

* * * * * *

To read more reviews and posts by Brian Arsenault click HERE

“Winter and Other Tales” by Brian Arsenault

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Brian Arsenault’s November and Other Tales is a collection of short stories exploring the way cold comes by degrees in winter and in the human heart.  To check it out, click HERE.



An Appreciation: Jimmy Bond 1933 – 2012

May 10, 2012

Mike Lang has been a busy member of the Los Angeles musicians’ community for most of his adult life.  He’s been an accompanist for performers reaching from Ella Fitzgerald to John Lennon.  He’s recorded more than 2000 film scores And he’s written songs for Stan Getz, Fourplay, Herb Alpert and numerous others.  On many of those dates, he worked musically hand in hand with his good friend, Jimmy Bond.

By Mike Lang

Jimmy Bond left us on April 26th. He was and is arguably as close a friend as I could ever wish for, always on the lookout for ways to help others…. in music, in laughter, in living a full vibrant life of which he was “the benchmark” (!). I was a major recipient of his warmth, extraordinary generosity and humor…. Hanging out with “007” was special!

Jimmy was mentored in Philadelphia, a jazz mecca, and the purity and swing of his bass playing was the result we’ve all enjoyed throughout the years. Jimmy made some historic recordings with Chet Baker, including the special presence of Bobby Timmons… his star was rising….

Jimmy Bond

When Jimmy came to LA, he quickly became in demand for all kinds of work…. live and recorded jazz, and then…. freelance recording gigs with an incredibly diverse list of artists in so many fields:  jazz, pop, rock, folk, gospel, R&B and more (!)….. Here’s a sampling:

Henry Mancini, Ella Fitzgerald, The Crusaders, Johnny Griffin, Maya Angelou, George Shearing, Paul Horn, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton, Nina Simone, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa (Lumpy Gravy), Jimmy Witherspoon, Gerry Mulligan, Harry Nilsson, Lou Rawls, Quincy Jones, Tim Buckley, Sam Cook, Sonny Rollins, Tony Bennett, B B King, Don Shirley, Leon Russell, Terry Gibbs, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Brownie McGhee, Johnny Hartman, The Stone Poneys, Ike and Tina Turner. He was the “standup bass” fixture in many of Phil Spector’s recording sessions (now labeled “The Wrecking Crew”), and, if I’m not mistaken, that’s about when we met…. (two “Jazzers” on a rock date… perfect!)

As time evolved, Jimmy became busy as an arranger, working for producers Nick Venet, David Axelrod, Ed Michel and others with artists Linda Ronstadt, The Turtles, The Knickerbockers, Linda Ronstadt, Fred Neill and others.  Also, he was active as a composer and arranger of national jingles for Herman Edel, with film and television opportunities to follow.

His playing career continued to flourish, as he got busier and busier in film and television recording work… playing for the major studio orchestras including Alfred Newman at Fox, Joseph Gershenson at Universal and many others. At a time when very few African-American musicians were established in this field, Jimmy’s incredible grace, warmth, humor and skill opened all doors.

I am grateful to have shared so much with this incredible friend and musician. I miss him in all ways…. Thanks, Jimmy…. for all that you have done…

A memorial service for Jimmy Bond will take place at the Skirball Cultural Center on Saturday, May 26.  For more information, click HERE. 


Live Music: Peter Case at McCabe’s Guitar Shop

December 10, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, Peter Case recorded his first-ever live album in the backroom at McCabe’s Guitar Shop.   For an old school songwriter with as rich a talent as his, it somehow seemed fitting that this album was being recorded on actual reel-to-reel tape in the small McCabe’s sound booth.   As is the case with analog recording, every hour or so, the tape must be changed and this gave Pete a chance to tell stories, involve us in a blues sing-along or just talk.  No problem.  He is one of those somewhat beatnik, deadpan characters who could make reading the contents of the medicine cabinet engaging and entertaining.  In several ways the show was as much about the banter as the actual songs, which is saying quite a bit about both.

Arriving onstage with a long bushy goatee, longish hair, black rim glasses and a stylish hat, he looked like quite the poet.    As he walked through a maze of guitars and chair legs, he announced that he was now quite spaced out.

The format was Peter on stage solo for two sets, each complete with a tape change intermission.  The program featured songs from all points in his song-writing career, not in any particular chronological order.   The stage was festively laid out with bouquets of flowers, a huge American flag on the wall, a well-represented hat rack, a gorgeous old Ampeg guitar amp, and of course the four guitars (2 electrics, and acoustic 6 and 12 strings) he cycled through.

His guitars are less often in standard tuning and for most of the evening he played in a lowered open tuning (open C has been a favorite of his over the years).  This sound lent itself well to a very resonant, signature gut-bucket bluesy guitar sound.   On Friday, his finger picking boomed through the room as he blasted away at the walking bass runs with a thumb-pick.   He sang in a wide range of raspy tone and emotion to fine effect.

Case got into the blues early in his teen years in the Buffalo blues scene.  In fact, he started his career with a strong emphasis on playing piano but he stopped practicing, as the guitar became a bigger part of his life.  On Friday he gave us a pounding and nicely embellished rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Black Crow Blues” on McCabes’ upright house piano.

As the evening progressed and the stories behind the music unfolded we began to get a real feel for the way Case’s career has developed.  Like many songwriters, he left his hometown early and hit the road with his guitar, living a not so easy lifestyle and writing about everything artfully as he went.   He developed and practiced the true art of putting words together to make something memorable and worth thinking about, or maybe just chuckling about the clarity in the sentiment.

As Case spoke between songs you also became aware of how these thoughts grew into lyrics, how observations can develop into stanzas.  His songs are vivid and multi-layered, and they bring out the beauty in simple descriptive language.

On Friday Peter brought out everything from old blues standards dating back to Memphis Minnie, as well as his amazing original folk songs, and even one of his first ever songs about a friend who went to the Woodstock concert in 1969.   Some standouts on Friday included but certainly were not limited to “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More,” “Garden of Earthly Delights,” “The Words in Red,” “Walk In the Woods,” and “Echo Wars.”

People prefer certain songs for reasons of personal taste, and “Walk in the Woods” (from Case’s masterful first solo album Peter Case) has always mesmerized me for its haunting and elegant simplicity.

“News from the radio it rang out through the fields,

Just when they thought they found the track

Through a patch of four leaf clovers, they vanished in thin air

They took a walk in the woods and they never come back”  

The song kept its sense of mystery while maintaining its musical allure in the tie between harmonica and guitar.  And Case was chock full of similar high water marks in terms of matching high musical levels with his words.

On Friday there were stories of dreaming about meeting John Lennon in a used record store, and a hilarious sequence about a recent escapade in New Jersey, which led him far into the backcountry to a club owner’s mansion. Ten pigs had the run of the roost and one of them, Jerry Lee, played a toy piano.   It began to sound like the plot of a long-lost Fellini movie.

Like so many elite wordsmiths, Case writes and sings a poignant set of songs, but he also spins a good yarn.  His descriptions of setting out hitchhiking for the first time (he only got two blocks), of being a San Francisco street musician (at age 15!), and of sleeplessly driving his first band, the Nerves, around on tour in a station wagon while perhaps hallucinating a herd of armadillo were priceless.

One can only wonder how much of his storytelling will make it onto the album, but it was entertaining as hell to listen to him play and dish.

To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


News: Sam Cooke’s 80th — January 22, 2011

January 15, 2011

Had he lived, Sam Cooke would be 80 on January 22, 2011.  Though his tragic death, at the age of 33, deprived successive generations of new music from Cooke, known as ‘the man who invented soul,’ his legacy and influence endure. A feature film biography, based on Peter Guralnick’s critically acclaimed book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, is in development.

His own catalog of original recordings continues to connect with music consumers who are now offered the possibility of hearing the core of his catalog in high-resolution digital audio by agreement between ABKCO Records and HDTracks.  Four albums, Sam Cooke at the Copa, Keep Movin’ On, Ain’t That Good News and the career-encompassing compilation Portrait of a Legend 1951 – 1964 are soon to be available for download in 88.2kHz/24bit audio. Next month, The GRAMMY Museum® in Los Angeles will exhibit artifacts that reflect Cooke’s life and music in celebration of  his 80th year.

In 1986, 25 years after his passing, Cooke was among the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, alongside Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  His transition from gospel music to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll was the template followed by soul/urban performers for the past 60 years.

Cooke’s songwriting has stood the test of time with versions of his classic repertoire performed and released over the years by such notable artists as John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Seal, The Animals, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, Bobby Womack, R. Kelly and countless others.

Rod Stewart recently told Rolling Stone, “To explain what Sam Cooke meant to me, it would take a couple of hours just to scratch the surface. The man basically introduced me to soul music. The first time I heard him, his music hit me like a thunderbolt and just slapped me around the head. I was 15 years old, and he changed my life.”

Aretha Franklin noted, “Sam was a singer’s singer who strongly influenced many male vocalists.  He was loved, respected and revered by artists in the pop and gospel field of music, as well as by his audience, as a unique and extraordinary artist and human being.”

“Sam Cooke is somebody other singers have to measure themselves against, and most of them go back to pumping gas!” quipped Keith Richards while Muhammad Ali succinctly stated, “Sam Cooke was the world’s greatest rock-and-roll singer…the greatest singer in the world!”

Perhaps, Sam Cooke’s most influential song is “A Change Is Gonna Come” which eloquently decried racial discrimination.  On the night he was elected President, Barack Obama, clearly was profoundly aware of the song when he invoked its central them stating, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

The legacy of Sam Cooke will be celebrated throughout 2011 with many radio, retail and online promotions. Check ABKCO Records for updates.

Courtesy Bob Merlis/ABKCO.


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