Friday, April 24, 2015

Little Richard – The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years

Little Richard's Directly From My Heart
Little Richard – The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay YearsOne just can’t overestimate the importance and influence that Mr. Richard Penniman – better known as “Little Richard” – had on the evolution of rock music. Along with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, Little Richard formed the Holy Trinity of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, influencing a generation of rockers and soul shouters to follow, from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John to James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince, among many others. Little Richard’s string of hits, classic songs like “Long Tall Sally,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Tutti Frutti,” have long been considered standards of rock ‘n’ roll.

Little Richard’s flamboyant and incendiary mix of New Orleans boogie-woogie, R&B, and gospel music was revolutionary in the mid-to-late 1950s, and throughout a lengthy career that continues to this day, Little Richard’s most groundbreaking work was created during his tenure with the Specialty Records and Vee-Jay Records labels.

On June 2nd, 2015 Specialty Records, which is now a division of the Concord Music Group, will release Little Richard’s Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years, a three-CD box set featuring 64 songs that document the singer and pianist’s gravy years with the two labels, circa 1956 to 1965. Directly From My Heart includes Little Richard’s classic hits from the era, single B-sides, and several rarities as well as a 30+ page illustrated booklet with seldom-seen photos and brand new liner notes by singer/songwriter and music historian Billy Vera.

The Legendary Little Richard, photo courtesy Specialty Archives
After short-lived stints with RCA Victor and Don Robey’s Peacock Records, Little Richard was signed by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label in 1955. Rupe sent Richard to New Orleans to record with legendary producer Cosimo Matassa and an all-star band of Crescent City talents like pianist Huey Smith, guitarist Justin Adams, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Earl Palmer. After a bumpy start, the sessions started rockin’ and the results were pure magic; Little Richard enjoyed a run of success with Specialty, placing fourteen songs in the R&B Top Ten between 1955 and ’57, at which time he temporarily retired from rock ‘n’ roll to pursue the ministry.

Upon returning to secular music in 1964, Little Richard signed with Vee-Jay Records, where he spent a year, recording classic material like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Money Honey,” which were released on the Little Richard Is Back album. The Upsetters, Richard’s touring band at the time, included a young hot-shot guitarist who would later find his own stardom as Jimi Hendrix. But during Richard’s hiatus, pop and rock music had evolved, and British Invasion bands that he’d influenced, as well as the Motown sound, dominated the charts.

Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty & Vee-Jay Years includes all of the above-listed songs, and many more, the three discs representing a particularly inspired and prolific period of Little Richard’s career that would lead to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a well-deserved status as a legendary artist.

Royal Southern Brotherhood Visits Muscle Shoals

Royal Southern Brotherhood's Don't Look Back
The award-winning roots ‘n’ blues outfit the Royal Southern Brotherhood has gone through some changes as of late, but they’re happy to announce that the band is back in the groove and ready to rock! The RSB’s third studio album, Don’t Look Back: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, will be released digitally on May 26th and on compact disc by Ruf Records on June 9th, 2015.

Don’t Look Back was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama – the same room where giants like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, among others, made their musical magic. The sessions were overseen by Grammy™ Award winning producer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, George Thorogood) and feature a new Royal Southern Brotherhood line-up that is lead by the legendary Cyril Neville, whose incredible musical pedigree includes the Neville Brothers and the Meters.

Following the departure of guitarists Mike Zito and Devon Allman following the release of the band’s 2014 album HeartSoulBlood, the Royal Southern Brotherhood brought in two new talented gunslingers in Nashville-based bluesman Bart Walker (whose 2013 debut album Waiting On Daylight is pretty darn great) and Tyrone Vaughan, the son of the great Jimmie Vaughan. The band’s line-up is rounded out by frontman Neville and the awe-inspiring rhythm section of bassist Charlie Wooten and drummer Yonrico Scott. Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville (Cyril’s nephew) added keyboards to the album while former Wet Willie soul-shouter Jimmy Hall brought his raging harp to the party.

As for the new album, well, Don’t Look Back doesn’t veer far from the signature RSB blend of Southern rock, blues, soul, and funk that has quickly earned the band a growing worldwide audience. Working in the storied FAME Studio, however, helped the band achieve a transcendent creativity that, with the addition of a pair of talented artists on guitar, broadens and sharpens the overall Royal Southern Brotherhood sound.

In a press release for the new album, producer Tom Hambridge says “we got to Alabama and dug deep down in the dirt of Muscle Shoals and created this wonderful gumbo of sound. It’s easy to get creative with a band when everybody is open and flowing in the same direction. This band has such a positive energy around it. They are truly a brotherhood and it was a joy producing this album.” Not surprisingly, the band will hit the road in support of Don’t Look Back, and we have the initial slate of tour dates below.

Summer of RSB tour dates:
05/02 @ New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans LA
05/02 @ Saenger Theatre, New Orleans LA
05/15 @ Stargazers Theatre, Colorado Springs CO
05/16 @ Lost Lake Lounge, Denver CO
05/17 @ Taste of Durango, Durango CO
05/19 @ The Orpheum Theater, Flagstaff AZ
05/20 @ The Rhythm Room, Phoenix AZ
05/23 @ Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival, Simi Valley CA
05/24 @ Semi-Annual Blues Festival, Oroville CA
06/19 @ Blues on the Fox, Aurora IL

Royal Southern Brotherhood 2015, photo by Jerry Moran

CD Preview: Sonny Landreth’s Bound By The Blues

Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues
It’s been almost three years since the extraordinary guitarist Sonny Landreth released his last album, 2012’s Elemental Journey. The disc was Landreth’s first totally instrumental work, and it veered – ever so slightly – from his typical Delta-bred slide-guitar sound into a more jazz-flecked direction. On June 9th, 2015 Provogue Records will release Bound By The Blues, which is said to represent a return, of sorts (he never really left) to his blues-based sound.

Landreth returns to the microphone for Bound By The Blues, the album offering ten tracks that showcase the guitarist’s amazing tone and dexterity, as well as his subtle, uniquely twangy vocals. The album’s title track name checks Landreth’s musical heroes like Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, and thanks to the good folks at Provogue Records, you can listen to it below via SoundCloud.

In a press release for Bound By The Blues, Landreth says "ever since The Road We’re On, fans have been asking me, “When are you going to do another blues album?’ After expanding my songs for Elemental Journey into an orchestral form, I thought I'd get back to the simple but powerful blues form. I’d been playing a lot of these songs on the road with my band, and we’ve been taking them into some surprising places musically. So going into the studio to record them with just our trio seemed like the next step.”

Landreth has enjoyed a lengthy and critically-acclaimed career. Through the years, Landreth has played and recorded with artists like John Hiatt, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Buffet, among many others. Since the 1981 release of his solo debut Blues Attack, the guitarist has released better than a dozen live and studio albums that mix blues, rock, folk, zydeco, and jazz into a sound that defines the Americana genre.

“Developing a style and an approach that is your own musically is not something to be taken for granted,” says Landreth. “I'm at a point in life where I want to make the most of every moment I can and that changes your perspective, your priorities and how you relate to everyone else. And at the end of the day, I think that's the essence of what I wanted to express with Bound By The Blues.”

Buy the CD from Sonny Landreth's Bound By the Blues

Sonny Landreth tour dates:
4/26 @ Mid-City Bowling Lanes, New Orleans LA
4/29 @ Guitar Frenzy, New Orleans LA
5/03 @ Mid-City Bowling Lanes, New Orleans LA
5/07 @ Acadiana Center For The Arts, Lafayette LA
5/08 @ Acadiana Center For The Arts, Lafayette LA
5/16 @ El Paso Blues and Jazz Festival, El Paso TX
5/30 @ Dallas International Guitar Festival, Dallas TX
5/31 @ Dallas International Guitar Festival, Dallas TX
6/04 @ Callahan's Music Hall, Auburn Hills MI
6/05 @ Fitzgerald's, Berwyn IL
6/06 @ Fitzgerald's, Berwyn IL
6/11 @ World Cafe Live At The Queen, Wilmington DE
6/12 @ Musikfest Cafe, Bethlehem PA
6/13 @ Boulton Center For The Performing Arts, Bay Shore NY
6/14 @ City Winery, New York NY
6/18 @ The Southern Cafe and Music Hall, Charlottesville VA
6/19 @ Ram's Head, Annapolis MD
6/20 @ Columbia Pike Blues Festival, Arlington VA
6/21 @ Bayou Boogaloo And Cajun Food Festival, Norfolk VA
7/11 @ La Fete de Marquette, Madison WI
7/16 @ Gitare En Scene Festival, St. Julien, France
7/17 @ Sion Sous Les Etoiles Festival, Sion, Switzerland
8/02 @ Sonny Landreth Workshops - Vail Academy, Vail CO
8/03 @ Sonny Landreth Workshops - Vail Academy, Vail CO
8/04 @ Sonny Landreth Workshops - Vail Academy, Vail CO
8/05 @ Sonny Landreth Workshops - Vail Academy, Vail CO
8/09 @ Guitar Town, Copper Mountain CO
8/15 @ Big Bull Falls Blues Festival, Wausau WI

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Merrell Fankhauser's Calling From A Star (2014)

Merrell Fankhauser's Calling From A Star
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Merrell Fankhauser is the epitome of the rock ‘n’ roll “cult artist.” He has paddled furiously against the tide of a largely indifferent recording industry for better than 50 years, amassing an impressive catalog of material that roams across a wide swath of 20th century musical styles, from surf and psychedelic-rock to folkish singer/songwriter and traditional Hawaiian music. He’s written literally hundreds of songs and released dozens of albums, and if Fankhauser isn’t a household name, it’s not due to a lack of talent or effort on his part.

Merrell Fankhauser’s Calling From A Star

Calling From A Star is Fankhauser’s long-awaiting autobiography, a no-frills and concise recollection of better than a half-century spent on the fringes of the music biz. The book opens with some family history and Fankhauser’s early days, none of which is especially fascinating, but it does serve to lay a foundation for the stories to follow. Fankhauser was the child of proud, hard-working blue collar parents that provided invaluable support for what would become a life-long obsession with music. Born in Kentucky, the Fankhauser family made its way to California, and once they’ve settled in The Golden State, that’s where the rock ‘n’ roll tale really begins. 

Fankhauser’s first band of note was the surf-rock combo the Impacts, whose song “Wipe Out” is claimed (with some controversy) as the inspiration and/or basis for the Surfaris' hit by that name. Regardless, the Impacts were a popular coastal California performing band in the early 1960s, and Fankhauser would frequently revisit the instrumental surf-rock of his youth across a number of album releases in the 1980s and ‘90s that earned him a significant following in Europe and Japan. A cascade of bands followed the Impacts – outfits like Merrell and the Exiles (which emerged during the British Invasion years), Fapardokly (amusingly named for the band members’ initials, they were less a band than a 1966 psych-folk LP that would become a much sought-after collector’s item), Merrell and HMS Bounty (late 1960s psychedelic rock), and MU (early ‘70s era psych-blues and space-rock).

Through the years, Fankhauser has performed with a veritable “who’s who” of California musicians. Jeff Cotton and John “Drumbo” French of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band both played in a version of the Exiles, and Cotton was also a major part of MU as Fankhauser and the band re-located to the then-lush jungle island of Maui in Hawaii. Amidst some discord, MU recorded a pair of albums, although only one would be released during the band’s existence. Fankhauser also recorded with John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Ed Cassidy of Spirit, and extensively as a solo artist or as a duo with various female partners. Through the years, he has appeared on stage with artists like Dean Torrence (of surf-rock duo Jan and Dean), Chuck Negron (Three Dog Night), Sky Saxon (The Seeds), and country music legend Willie Nelson, among many others.

Visiting The Tiki Lounge

Merrell Fankhauser
To his credit, Fankhauser never sugar-coats the rough ‘n’ tumble life of a professional musician on the edge of fame. Through his lengthy career, Fankhauser has escaped largely unscathed by the drug and alcohol abuse that claimed so many of his friends. Fankhauser has loved and lost several women to his dogged pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll, and he speaks of the time he regretfully didn’t spend with his two sons. In the pages of Calling From A Star, Fankhauser brilliantly outlines the personality conflicts, intramural squabbles, and petty jealousies that derail even the best of bands, the break-up of MU a particularly unsavory clash of egos and religion. Seldom speaking poorly of his former bandmates, Fankhauser saves his scorn for the record business itself, telling a tale of lost (and stolen royalties), false starts and near misses, and the lies and deception that sometimes seem to fuel the industry.

Still, Fankhauser has kept on truckin’ through the decades, and he has enjoyed a bit of a revitalized career over the past decade as albums from his former bands received legitimate re-release (amidst a sea of bootleg releases of often-dodgy quality) alongside a lot of his solo albums. Although having an impressive body of work behind you helps when appealing to new fans, Fankhauser’s recent higher profile has been fueled partly by YouTube and the Internet, as well as by his long-running cable TV show Tiki Lounge. Featuring performances by Fankhauser and various musician friends, the popular regional program has transcended its humble roots to achieve a worldwide cult audience, and Fankhauser has some great stories connected to the show in the book.

In 2014, prior to the release of Calling From A Star, Gonzo Multimedia in the U.K. released The Best of Merrell Fankhauser, a delightful two-disc compilation that features 32 tracks and over 90 minutes of music, comprised not only of Fankhauser’s solo performances, but also material from Merrell and the Exiles, Fapardokly, Merrell and HMS Bounty, and MU as well. Released at the same time were two volumes of Tiki Lounge on DVD, so a lot of Merrell Fankhauser’s music is now available (at a reasonable price, as opposed to inflated collectors’ tolls) for both the new listener and longtime fan alike.

DIY and Proud Of It

The Best of Merrell Fankhauser CD
Calling From A Star is a refreshing change of pace from most celebrity bios, Fankhauser consistently focusing on his music-making while still unflinchingly recounting the many ups and downs of his life in music. Fankhauser’s writing style is conversational and flows in an effortless and laid-back style seemingly not much different than the artist’s overall personality. Although he’s often prone to excitement (using a lot of exclamation marks!) and infrequent exaggeration, Fankhauser is honest to a fault, and this eye-opening tome offers a cautionary tale that should be required reading for any young artist with an eye towards a career in music.

The book’s DIY nature befits the artist, but a good editor could have reined in some of Fankhauser’s editorial lapses (misspelled words, incorrect grammar and punctuation) and while profusely-illustrated, Calling From A Star suffers from the same marginal photo reproduction quality as many of my own “print on demand” titles. Those minor cavils aside, Fankhauser’s wit, humor, and dedication to his music make the book a quick read.     

At this point in his lengthy career, Merrell Fankhauser is unlikely to strike gold, and I’m sure that he long ago gave up any dreams of rock ‘n’ roll fame. Still, he’s enjoyed a lifetime of making music on his own terms, and all his songs that I’ve heard have been of uniformly high quality and creativity. With a wealth of suddenly available music by Fankhauser, Calling From A Star provides a fitting accompaniment the late-career emergence of one of the best rock ‘n’ roll artists that you’ve never heard!

Buy the book from Merrell Fankhauser's Calling from a Star

Buy the CD from The Best Of Merrell Fankhauser


CD Review: Pat Travers' Retro Rocket (2015)

Pat Travers' Retro Rocket
Guitarist Pat Travers earned his considerable reputation by playing aggressive, livewire rock ‘n’ blues music. Along with such contemporaries as Leslie West, Robin Trower, and Frankie Marino, Travers was a bona fide 1970s-era arena-rock guitar god. As musical currents changed during the mid-to-late ‘80s, though, Travers et al found themselves on the outside looking in, commercially speaking, as a new wave of punk, pop, and stylized rock washed away the heroes of the previous decade. The guitarist has soldiered on for better than four decades, pursuing his own unique vision of blues-rock music while playing to a loyal, if dwindling fan base.

To be honest, I didn’t expect much more than a good time from Retro Rocket, Pat Travers’ latest album. Although I’d heard and enjoyed a number of Travers’ post-2000 releases, some of them recorded with bassist T.M. Stevens and drummer Carmine Appice, none of the albums really broke new ground. Sure, Travers’ guitar playing has remained top notch, but often the performances were lacking in inspiration. So when I read that Retro Rocket was, in part, patterned after such late ‘70s and early ‘80s creative and commercial triumphs as Heat In The Street, Crash and Burn, and Black Pearl, I was hopeful. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut that is Travers’ Retro Rocket.      

Pat Travers’ Retro Rocket

Retro Rocket leaps from the launching pad from the very first track, “I Always Run” fueled by a rampaging riff that’s met by wiry lead strokes before Travers’ whiskey-soaked vocals come roaring in. The six-string interplay between Travers and guitarist J├╝rgen Engler displays a primo, 1970s-style scorched earth style, the song’s driving rhythm (courtesy of bassist Scott Telles and drummer Lisa Cameron) building a perfect foundation for the dueling guitarists to dance atop. It’s a muscular song, a throwback to an earlier time, perhaps, when dinosaurs ruled the rock ‘n’ roll planet, but it strikes a perfect chord for this child of the ‘70s. Both high-flying and yet earthy, “I Always Run” defies any expectations you might have had of Retro Rocket.

“Searching For A Clue” is less affecting, perhaps, albeit just as pumped-up and steroidal as its predecessor, with stunning guitarplay and locomotive rhythms. The surprise of the opening cut may damper enthusiasm a bit for track two but on its own, “Searching For A Clue” is a no-frills rock ‘n’ stomp wailer that should pacify any guitar geek. Musically, “Who Do You Turn To” reminds of British blues-rock stalwarts Savoy Brown, the song displaying a similar blue-veined hue, but Travers’ vocals soar effortlessly over the song’s complex arrangement while the instrumentation builds to a chaotic crescendo that channels more than a little late ‘70s punk-rock energy in its anarchic sound and gnashing fretwork. 

Hellbound Train

Damn, “Up Is Down” is a nearly perfect hard-rock romp, beginning with Telles’ Jack Bruce-styled opening bass line and Cameron’s crashing drumbeats and peaking with the psychedelic-tinged, yet bombastic guitar licks that dominate the song. You won’t find a more “old school” performance than this, but Travers and his merry pranksters pull out the stops to make it sound fresher than any of the young crop of retro-rockers currently plodding across the musical horizon. The song jumps effortlessly into “Mystery At The Wrecking Yard,” a sly little tale that delivers lyrical cheap thrills above relentless, devastating, wrecking-ball instrumentation that shreds metallic while welding shards of blues and acid-rock to the chassis. If this pyrotechnic display doesn’t rock you, then I can only conclude that you’ve assumed room temperature…in which case, it sucks to be you, don’t it? 

Travers swaps bands for the final four songs on Retro Rocket, with drummer Sean Shannon bashing the cans and keeping time while bassist Neil Carpenter holds down the bottom end. Guitarist Joe Stump jumps in here for a couple of songs, “I Am Alive” being the better of the two, Stump and Travers laying waste to everything that lies before them. Stump brings a more brutal, metallic style for Travers to play off of on this lyrical statement of defiance, and it’s sheer delight hearing the two of them tear it up. Travers' “Hellbound Train” isn’t a cover of the Savoy Brown classic but rather a co-write by the guitarist and drummer Shannon. No less menacing than its namesake, this “Hellbound Train” rips up the grooves like an out-of-control tornado, Travers’ lower-register vocals delivered above raging guitar while the song’s crushing instrumentation paints a bloody backdrop.

In a somewhat different vein, a vintage live recording of “Looking Up” – the title track of Travers’ 1996 album – sounds a bit out of place…but only slightly, the song’s bluesy fretwork and explosive percussion tempered by a funky groove laid out by bassist Kevin Ryan. Travers’ solos are no less expressive, and just as powerful as any of the newer songs on Retro Rocket, so the song slots in here perfectly. Travers’ take on “Lead Me Home,” the theme from The Walking Dead TV show, is included here as a “bonus track,” and it’s a resonant lil’ sucker. Travers’ wailing vox are paired with some fine, shimmering git-picking that capture the spirit of the lyrics perfectly.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

With nary a punter to be found on Retro Rocket, Pat Travers delivers a stunning tour de force that equals any of the classic albums he recorded during his halcyon years. Seldom has Travers’ playing sounded more vital, energetic, and passionate than it does here, and working on creating material that evokes his glory days while remaining contemporary in feel clearly lit a fire under the guitarist’s sleepy muse. Retro Rocket delivers an unabashedly hard-rocking set of guitar-driven songs that will make you fall in love with Pat Travers all over again… Grade: A (Purple Pyramid Records, released March 17, 2015)

Buy the CD from Pat Travers' Retro Rocket