Friday, July 12, 2024

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory (2024)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory
“Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day;
rage, rage against the dying of the light.” – Dylan Thomas, 1947

If rock ‘n’ roll has the equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s famed protagonist, it would be Joe Grushecky. The Pittsburgh rocker has been fighting the good fight since the mid-‘70s, first with the Iron City Houserockers, and later as Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers. Joe released four critically-acclaimed albums between 1979 and 1983 with his former band and, since ’89, has released four “solo” and eleven band albums with one version or another of the Houserockers. Even more impressively, he’s accomplished all of this largely outside of the major label infrastructure.

Still, Joe has lived, loved, and sang long enough to realize that, as he so insightfully observed with the title track of his 2018 album, there are “More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows” on his horizon. Joe’s seen his son Johnny grow up and become a valued member of the Houserockers, but lest one think that Mr. Grushecky is ready to pass the torch to a younger generation, here is a brand-new album, Can’t Outrun A Memory, to belie that thought. At an age where his contemporaries have long given up the dream or – even worse – spend their days playing golf or tending to their wine cellar, Grushecky has delivered an album that’s every bit as fierce, ambitious, and defiant as anything he’s ever recorded over the past 45 years.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Can’t Outrun A Memory opens with its poignant title track, a mid-tempo rocker with resigned vocals, big beat rhythms, and resonating guitarplay. “I’ve been thinking that it’s been too long since I listened to that old sad song. When I hear that soulful melody, it stirs something deep inside of me,” Joe sings, partly reminiscing, partly wrestling with ghosts of his past that we all possess. None of us can outrun the memory of past loves, past losses, and the risks we didn’t take (and some of those we did). With Grushecky’s gorgeous throwback guitar lines anchoring the song, embroidered by  Danny Gochnour’s intricate fretwork, Joe succinctly states, “time keeps marching on, blink an eye and it’s all gone,” drawing on his own experiences and losses to fuel the song’s wistful lyrics.

By contrast, “Just Drive” is more laid-back, with Johnny Grushecky’s elegant acoustic guitar strum opening and with lovely echoed intertwined electric guitars swirling around the mix above cautious, almost hesitant instrumentation. For those of us without a yacht to chill out on, driving around town, or out in the country, in our car is a form of meditation that provides solace from the barbed-wire existence of everyday life. It reminds me a lot of John Hiatt’s “Drive South,” but with more “Rust Belt” soul to its overall sound, the song dominated by Joe’s yearning vocals. Joe says of the song, “this one is for all of us who ever thought about getting away from it all and jumping into the car to drive off into to the sunset.”

An up-tempo, anthemic rocker with elements of the British Invasion seeping in at the edges, “This Is Who We Are” is the sort of populist message that Grushecky excels at, rock ‘n’ roll as balm for the soul. Singing above a massive drumbeat (courtesy of the ever-reliable Joffo Simmons), with Jeff Garrison’s fluid bass lines providing a rhythmic foundation, Joe shares his vision of the American dream: “I want a home on a quiet street, I just want to be left in peace. When I kiss my kids goodnight, I pray everything’s gonna be all right.” Grushecky’s vocals race out of the speakers like a high-speed chase, lyrically referencing both Dylan and his own past (“I had a good time but got out alive”), roaring out a message of American unity that seems to have been lost in our current quarrel over the soul of the country while guitars duel in the background. “My wife suggested this title to me,” says Joe. “It’s about where we are right now. I’m living on a quiet street, going to work every day, and hoping that we turn ourselves around for a better life for our children.”

Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings
Joe Grushecky photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy Omnivore Recordings

Here In ‘68

Grushecky has long been lauded as a brilliant lyricist, yet it’s amazing and inspiring that he can still dig into his memory and experience to pull out a plum as perfectly-formed as “Here In ’68.” A look back at one of the most tumultuous years in American history, Joe name checks Viet Nam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and much, much more in a vivid lyrical history of the year that is punctuated by the poetic refrain “I can smell the smoke from a distance, feel the fire burning in my bones, hold out for hope peace love and desire, question everything that I’ve ever known, trying hard to keep the faith.” It’s a powerful song, Gochnour’s effervescent electric guitar providing a strong counterpoint to Johnny G’s subtle acoustic patterns, while Simmons and Garrison provide a strong, supportive rhythmic backdrop.   

Grushecky seldom covers other artist’s songs on his albums so, when he does, it’s an important moment worth paying attention to. Much as he did with “Old Man’s Bar” and “Junior’s Bar” on the I.C. Houserockers’ sophomore album, here Joe pairs the classic Animals’ track “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” with his own “Living In Coal Country” as matching blue-collar ballads. Eric Burdon delivered a powerful version of the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song for the Animals in 1965, and while Grushecky and the Houserockers basically follow that Top 20 hit’s original blueprint, they roughen up the edges and amplify the overall vibe with louder instrumentation and a high-octane arrangement. Garrison’s full-throated bass licks, for instance, build upon Chas Chandler’s original instrumentation, taking the song further onto blues turf.  

It’s the perfect lead-in to “Living In Coal Country,” a tuff-as-nails rocker with Joe’s mournful harmonica and raging vocals, which are accompanied by scorched earth guitars and jackhammer rhythms that drive home the lyrical message. With devastating imagery, Joe snarls “while the company blows up another mountain top, the brown dust mixes with the falling rain. When you do a deal with the devil, you lose all rights to complain.” It’s a protest song, and a wickedly surgical one at that, the singer’s anger at the region’s poverty, addiction, and economic desolation cutting like a scalpel to your conscious. “Both sides of my family were coal miners,” says Joe. “I grew up in coal country. When we went to visit relatives, we drove from one ‘coal patch’ town populated by company houses to another. I know these people and I wanted to tell their story.”

Until I See You Again

“Until I See You Again” is, in my humble opinion, the best song on Can’t Outrun A Memory, a heartfelt ode to that channels a great deal of emotion without ever becoming the least bit maudlin. Remembering those souls we’ve lost – and we all have a similar list of long-gone friends and family who have affected our lives in untold ways – Joe joyfully declares with the chorus “let’s raise our glasses and drink a toast, to all the ones that we love most. To our brothers and sisters and our best friends, I’ll keep you in my heart until I see you again.” The song’s buoyant rhythms and precise-yet-rockin’ instrumentation supports Joe’s electrifying vocals. “This one is about my old friends and how we had so much fun back in the day,” says Joe. “I miss them every day. I wanted to salute all our friends and family both here and gone.”

Can’t Outrun A Memory closes with “Let’s Cross the Bridge,” a nuanced take on life and mortality. Singing above a running river of instrumentation with ringing guitars and backing harmonies, Joe admits that “you can rage on forever, you can rage until you die, or go searching for an answer, and ask yourself the reason why.” With an almost Gospel fervor, Joe invites us all to step out of the darkness and into the light, to throw off the chains of the past. With reverent keyboard fills amping up the emotion, Joe and the musicians raise their voices in a joyous chorus that promises a better life is within our grasp.

It’s not the first time that Grushecky has visited this territory – he covered the 1930s-era Gospel song “Ain’t No Grave” on More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows – but it’s an inspired (and unexpected) spiritual moment nonetheless. The CD includes a brace of bonus tracks, including a bluesy, horn-driven take on “Sleeping Dog,” and powerful, inspired acoustic takes of “Living In Coal Country” (with mournful harmonica) and “Here In ‘68” that would make Woody Guthrie smile. The studio outtake “Leave Well Enough Alone” is a sizzling slab o’ energetic James Brown-styled funk with a hard luck tale that would be more than good enough for any other artist’s album, but sounds out of place compared to the rest of the material on Can’t Outrun A Memory.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If Grushecky’s last album concerned itself with mortality and legacy, Can’t Outrun A Memory deals with how we get to the end of the road…do we seize each day with unbridled energy, or do we allow entropy to creep into the short time we have on this spinning orb. Memories provide a signpost to the future and, for many, music allows us to approach the dying of the light with no regrets. Meeting Joe for the first time at a 1995 show in Nashville, I asked him why a middle-aged man would give up his job to hit the road with his band. Grushecky simply smiled and said, “it’s rock ‘n’ roll, man, it’s rock ‘n’ roll…” Nearly three decades since that meeting, Joe and the gang – Thomas’s “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight” – are still burning bright. If Can’t Outrun A Memory is any indication, Joe’s gonna keep on rockin’ until they turn out the lights… (Omnivore Recordings, released July 12th, 2024)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Can’t Outrun A Memory

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon review
Joe Grushecky’s It’s In My Song review

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live (2000)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live
A few years ago – 1995 to be exact – I saw a rock ‘n’ roll show that, if not number one on my all-time list, stands in the top three out of over 200 shows I’ve attended. No, it wasn’t the Stones or the Who or one of rock’s legends that I saw. Those guys couldn’t hold a candle to the spectacle that I witnessed that night. Sitting in a dark, smoky club in Nashville I watched Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers demolish the joint. Six guys crammed on a stage the size of a postage stamp; they spilled out onto the floor and, in the case of lead singer/guitarist Grushecky, on top of the tables. I’d waited fifteen years to see one of rock’s most underrated talents perform live, and Joe and his crew did not disappoint.

At the beginning of the show there were exactly three people in the audience who were familiar with the band (my wife and myself and one of Joe’s former producers). After two sets stretched out over almost three hours, it’s a safe bet that nobody leaving the club that night would ever forget Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. I’ve thought about that night a lot since then, played it over again in my head, smiling, and marveling that a middle-aged man (only slightly older than myself) could still bring such energy and passion to a live performance. After the show I asked Joe what prompted a man to keep on toiling away in a field that had always shown him such indifference. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll” was his reply and it’s all he had to say…

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ Down the Road Apiece Live

If there was a lick of justice in this wicked world – and we all know that there is none – Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers would be revered as elder statesmen of rock rather than as one of the genre’s more obscure cult bands. The Houserockers would be facing the twilight of their musical careers with their walls covered in platinum records and mucho money in the bank. If this sounds like a fan talking, well, I am and have been since I bought that 7” picture disc of the Iron City Houserockers first single “Love’s So Tough” some twenty years ago. The critic in me, however, recognizes that Joe Grushecky truly is one of rock music’s greatest treasures and that in spite of the commercial and corporate indifference that he’s faced during the past two decades, Grushecky still manages to kick out a new album every two or three years.

I can’t help but thinking that this career insecurity has taken its toll, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from Grushecky’s music. Each album shows a little harder musical edge, the songs featuring more insightful lyrics. Over the course of four I.C. Houserockers albums and five “solo” releases, Grushecky has matured as an artist and performer in a manner that greater career comfort probably wouldn’t have nurtured. At an age when most men are counting their pension funds and looking forward to playing golf three days a week, Joe Grushecky is still following his rock ‘n’ roll dream with a fervor and reckless abandon that young cubs less than half his age can’t muster. All of which is my way of bringing you, gentle reader, to the subject at hand: Down the Road Apiece Live.

For a band that has earned their audience one set of ears at a time by delivering uncompromising live performances night after night, it’s somewhat strange that they haven’t released a live album before now. A few Houserockers performances have found their way into tape trading circles (I have one tape spirited out of WMMS-FM in Cleveland that is phenomenal), circulated among rabid fans. There are also a couple of Springsteen bootleg discs – Paradise By the Sea and Nick’s Fat City – that are really Houserockers performances that the Boss happened to wander onstage during. Down the Road Apiece Live is the band’s first official live set and it sounds, to these ears, as representative of a Houserockers onstage performance as you’re going to capture on disc.

Blood On the Bricks

Assembled by Grushecky and the band, Down the Road Apiece Live is as much a career retrospective as it is a performance disc. Of the baker’s dozen songs that are on the disc, some are from the Iron City Houserockers days, a few are from Grushecky’s early solo career and the rest from his later studio efforts, American Babylon and Coming Home. The album is designed as a straight-ahead rocker, with no fluff and no slow moments – just high octane, turbo-charged street level rock ‘n’ roll. Grushecky has always been known as a populist songwriter in the Springsteen vein, but I honestly think that he brings a working class perspective to his material that Springsteen hasn’t been able to for years. Several of Grushecky’s anthemic “call to arms” are here, including the haunting “Dark and Bloody Ground” and the angry “How Long.”

Other Grushecky originals are inhabited by the kind of literary characters that only a few songwriters can create, such as the memorable Frankie in “Dance With Me” or the star-crossed lovers of “Blood On the Bricks.” Springsteen even drops in for a few songs here, including one of the best Elvis songs ever written, “Talking With the King.” Behind all of these songs stands a band as polished and as rowdy as any rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced. Although many refer to Grushecky’s post Iron City albums as “solo” efforts, they’re really band creations that rely as much on the foundation of original I.C. Houserocker Art Nardini’s bass and drummer Joffo Simmons drums as they do on Grushecky’s taut guitar playing and trademark vocals.

These guys have been playing with Grushecky for more years than the lifespan of many better-known bands’ entire careers and it shows. A Houserockers show is an exercise in musical chemistry and a sincere love of rock ‘n’ roll – after all, these guys ain’t getting rich here, folks! When Billy Toms steps out front on guitar, Joe Pelesky screws up his face and makes a run down the keyboards, Bernie Herr adds some fine percussion touches to a song or Joe G. himself climbs atop your table to kick out the jams, the joy and release that they feel is infectious. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll should be about and for Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, it always will be…

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The bottom line on Down the Road Apiece Live: buy it! Forget that trendy new punk rock record or moody, dark-hued album by this week’s “rock rebels.” Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers bring more energy, attitude and sincerity to their music than any of those chart-topping poseurs, kicking out each night’s sets with the same blood, sweat and tears that they did twenty years ago. One of rock’s true original indie bands, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers don’t get the respect that they deserve but deserve every ounce of respect that they’ve earned. If I had to pick one record to explain to future generations what rock & roll was about, this would be it. That’s all there is to say… (Schoolhouse Records, released 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Friday, July 5, 2024

Archive Review: Cream's The Very Best of Cream (1995)

Cream's The Very Best of Cream
In their time – which was almost thirty years ago – Cream was every bit as big commercially as Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Green Day are today. The band that introduced the term “supergroup” to the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll, the trio of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker managed to live up to everyone’s lofty expectations and then some during their brief tenure. Their long-standing influence upon rock music is often overlooked these days, however, overshadowed by legends like Led Zeppelin or the Doors. The band’s seminal fusion of blues, jazz, and rock was to form the bedrock upon which many bands were to build their sound in the decades to follow, while one of the architects of Cream, guitarist Clapton, currently lives a revisionist daydream as an elder statesman of rock while most of his brightest moments lie in the past.

The Very Best of Cream is the first Cream “greatest hits” album to be released on CD that pulls together material from across the stylistic spectrum that the band musically explored. A collection of twenty songs, it includes the expected – ground-breaking covers of blues gems like Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” as well as metal-tinged rockers like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” – as well as the unexpected, songs like the surprisingly popish “Wrapping Paper” or the psychedelic “Dance the Night Away.” Other Cream standards, such as “Badge,” with its incredible Clapton solo, “Strange Brew,” or the blues-tinged “Tales of Brave Ulysses” sound remarkably undated even with all the years that have passed. The Very Best of Cream draws heavily from the band’s three original studio recordings and the hits they yielded, filling out the edges with the handful of remaining singles that the band had released.

Given the benefit of hindsight, rock critics such as yours truly can make all sorts of claims about bands. Suffice it to say that Cream were...and still are...important. I can’t think of many recent hard rock and heavy metal bands that don’t some sort of musical debt to the trio. Clapton’s work with the band earned him a place in the pantheon of rock, regardless of what was to follow, and it was with Cream that he took his budding stardom to the heights of the music world. The Very Best of Cream is an excellent look at a band that, given their short time in the musical landscape – a little over two years – burned brightly, nonetheless. (Polydor Chronicles, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine

Archive Review: Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton (1995)

Eric Clapton's The Cream of Clapton
These days, Eric Clapton is considered one of rock’s elder statesmen, a blues-oriented artist working in a narrow musical vein. Many of his current fans have only fleeting memories of his early career, and those that do are saddened by what he has become: a commercial shill getting by on reputation and mediocrity ... even if he is selling more records than ever.

At one time, however, Clapton made great music. By the time that he formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and released their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, he was already considered rock’s premiere guitarist. Stints with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had earned him a reputation as a superstar axeman; by the time that Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears, spawned the hit “Sunshine of Your Love,” the trio sat alone atop the rock world.

Post-Cream projects such as the Blind Faith collaboration and his 1970 solo debut carried Clapton’s reputation until the release, later in 1970, of the landmark Derek and the Dominos’ album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Spurred on by a superstar band that included Duane Allman, Clapton reached his artistic and musical peak with the creation of classic songs like “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues” from that album. Solo albums would follow throughout the 1970s, artistically sporadic affairs that yielded a handful of hit singles in songs like “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” By the time that the ‘80s dawned, Clapton had lost his artistic edge to heroin addiction, becoming a painful musical anachronism until his rediscovery in the current decade.

If all you know of Eric Clapton is beer commercials and his recent CD releases, allow me to suggest The Cream of Clapton. Kicking off with his seminal work with Cream in the mid-‘60s and carrying through late 1970s/early ‘80s solo discs like Backless and Another Ticket, this nineteen song collection showcases “Slowhand” Clapton at his very best. All of the aforementioned cuts are included here, as is Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and solo cuts like “Blues Power,” “Let It Rain,” and his haunting rendition of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” It’s not a perfect collection of Clapton – I could have easily filled up a second disc with favorites – but it’s a wonderful sampler of a great talent at his artistic peak. If you want more, you’ll have to wait for the upcoming A&M/Polydor release of a “best of Cream” collection. Along with The Cream of Clapton, the two discs will stand as a monument to one of the icons of rock ‘n roll. (A&M Chronicles/Polydor Records, released 1995)      

Review originally published by R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine

Friday, June 28, 2024

Archive Review: Dr. John’s Locked Down (2012)

Dr. John’s Locked Down
As the story goes, in late 2010 Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys traveled down to Louisiana to visit New Orleans musical legend Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. A longtime fan of Rebennack’s late 1960s/early 1970s recordings as “Dr. John the Night Tripper,” the now-classic albums fusing psychedelic rock with New Orleans funk, Mardis Gras R&B, and reckless swamp-blues, Auerbach promised Rebennack that if he allowed him to work with him in the studio, he’d help him make “the best record you’ve made in a long time.”

Rebennack’s children had told him nothing but good things about the Black Keys, so the pair decided to try out the new musical marriage at the 2011 Bonnaroo Festival, the resulting jam session leading to the recording of Locked Down, the follow-up to Dr. John’s acclaimed 2010 album Tribal, in Auerbach’s Nashville studio with a group of musicians hand-picked by the producer. The results seem to have exceeded both men’s expectations, described in the album’s liner notes as “a return to the heady sound that defined the legend of Dr. John and a new chapter in a long book.”   

Dr. John’s Locked Down

It doesn’t take song for Locked Down to display an innate musical chemistry between the musical legend and his (relatively) young acolyte. The album-opening title track is a sordid tale of life on the wrong side of the law; Dr. John’s soulful, patois-heavy vocals and street-smart, slang-ridden lyrical imagery matched by a deep groove fueled by chiming keyboards and energetic percussion. By the time that Auerbach’s guitar solo jumps out at you, it cuts like a knife, leaving as unexpectedly as it arrived. The New Orleans pedigree of “Revolution” shines so brightly that you’ll need sunglasses, bleating horns striving with a dangerous, syncopated rhythm, the singer’s shotgun vocals slung low but effective in the mix.

Opening (and closing) with a found snippet of sound from an old movie or TV show, “Big Shot” perfectly captures Dr. John’s infamous “Night Tripper” persona. Above a languid groove, the singer spits out lyrics like a conman’s tease, the song itself evincing a brassy New Orleans vibe that swings and sways like an out-of-control metronome. By contrast, “Ice Age” masks it social commentary with a mix of Cajun-styled swamp-blues and old school R&B, Dr. John’s stream-of-consciousness lyrical rant be-bopping and scatting machinegun-like above a rich, blustery soundtrack complete with swaggering percussion and scraps of guitar and keys.

Kingdom of Izzness

The up-tempo “Getaway” continues in a similar jump-n-jive vein, the song’s brief, albeit image-filled lyrics almost overwhelmed by a wall of instrumentation and backing harmonies that send wave upon wave of sound up against Dr. John’s vocals. Auerbach’s fierce guitar solo almost three-and-a-half minutes into the song delivers a scorched-earth finish to the sentiment, firmly punctuating the song’s tale of troubled lovers. No less confusing is “Kingdom of Izzness,” some sort of deep, back-alley wisdom going on in the seemingly random words and thoughts that Dr. John strings together here, the lyrics threaded in between the song’s rich mix of blues, soul, and gospel music.
The spry “Eleggua” is funky lil’ romp across the New Orleans musical landscape, the song’s instrumentation bringing to mind the Meters, fife-and-drum music, barrelhouse blues, and much, much more with Dr. John’s rich vocals hidden beneath the cacophonic soundtrack. Locked Down closes with “God’s Sure Good,” an old-fashioned, houserockin’ rhythm and blues song with a great deal of soul rising up above the wiry fretwork, keyboard riffs, gospel-tinged harmony vocals, and fluid rhythms. Dr. John’s vocals are inspired and energetic, tipping towards a sort of spiritual joy as his keyboards reach a crescendo of life and light above this mere mortal plain.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Auerbach has delivered everything he promised Rebennack, producing in Locked Down an album that perfectly captures the spirit and energy of the singer’s earlier work under the Night Tripper persona while providing Dr. John’s sound with a raw, raucous contemporary edge. Auerbach’s production of Locked Down is nuanced and light-handed; never do you get the sense that the guitarist is trying to push the singer out of his own album like some producers will do.

Instead, Auerbach provides Dr. John with the support and motivation to deliver one of the best albums of his lengthy career. While Rebennack’s efforts these past few years have certainly provided several fine showcases for the artist’s immense talents and songwriting skills, with a little help from a sympathetic producer and instrumentalist like Auerbach, Dr. John has delivered what will be considered a late-career tour-de-force in Locked Down. (Nonesuch Records, released April 3, 2012)

Archive Review: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home (1999)

Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home
Lone Justice was a band at least ten years, maybe even a decade and a half ahead of their time. They were one of the first outfits to take their cue from Gram Parsons and the Byrds, successfully mixing traditional country leanings with roots-rock and punkish energy, pre-dating such “cowpunk” bands as Rank & File or Jason & the Scorchers by a year or two. Although Lone Justice was comprised of talented musicians with a bit of experience under their belt, it was the golden angelic tones of vocalist Maria McKee that made this material special. With one foot in her country and gospel upbringing and the other in the early-‘80s L.A. punk rock scene, McKee was often compared to a young Dolly Parton. Like Parton, McKee lent a presence to a song that was undeniably distinctive and unique.

The band’s first two albums were completely unexpected affairs, offering songs with complex themes of sin and salvation, love and lust that featured McKee’s incredible voice and were propelled by a band that was as equally endeared of the Sex Pistols as they were of Hank Williams. This World Is Not My Home is the first proper compilation to take a long hard look at those first two Lone Justice albums, paying the band their due respect. Offering up the most magical moments from those discs alongside a number of unreleased and obscure import tracks and a handful of live performances, This World Is Not My Home is as good a snapshot of Lone Justice as you’re likely to find.

All of the best songs from the band’s mid-1980s college-radio days are here, great big slabs of country soul like “East of Eden,” Tom Petty’s “Ways To Be Wicked,” and “I Found Love.” Some of the unreleased early tracks are real gems that should have seen the light of day before now. Among these are McKee’s duet with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock on “The Train,” the spirited “Drugstore Cowboy,” and the gospel-tinged title track. The live tracks are a bit of a disappointment, however. Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is steady enough until guest star Bono from U2 sticks his smarmy nose into the song. The other live cuts are from a later, inferior incarnation of Lone Justice without guitarist Hedgecock or bassist Marvin Etzioni and just aren’t up to the band’s earlier standards.

As with all good things, the members of Lone Justice eventually went their separate ways, with McKee moving on to a critically-acclaimed though short-lived solo career. The band never broke out of the alternative, college-radio market, however, standing alongside such equally esteemed but commercially bankrupt bands as the Long Ryders, the Del Lords, Green On Red and the True Believers as the lost children of Gram Parsons. This World Is Not My Home is a good place to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with Lone Justice, however, a fine band that would have fit in right at home with today’s alt-country scene. (Geffen Records, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Buy the CD from Amazon: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home

Friday, June 21, 2024

Archive Review: Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing" (1999)

Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing"

When I lived in the Detroit area back in the late 1970s I used to hang out at a place not far from the house called Dearborn Music. A third-generation record store that had been passed down in a straight line from grandfather to grandson, the store had never sent back any records that it ever bought during its thirty-year history. This practice would make today’s retailers, with their sorry philosophy of limited selection and “just-in-time” inventory, wince and cry. But the result was a wonderfully dusty, crowded store that offered everything from still-sealed Big Band albums to ‘60s psychedelica and punk rock imports. Knowing my penchant for loud, high-octane Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, the grandson called me over one day and laid a 7” 45 rpm copy of “City Slang” on me. It was the first release from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, a local “supergroup” made up of members from the MC5, the Stooges, and SRC and named after guitarist extraordinaire Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Little did I know at the time that this single would also be the last official release from the band. Although a couple of live bootleg tapes have circulated among the faithful during the past couple of decades, those of us thirsting for more had to be satisfied with our rare copies of “City Slang.” Imagine my surprise then when I opened up a copy of Mohair Sweets zine and saw an article on Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and a listing of a web site. Although Smith died a few years back, his wife – the talented Patti Smith – asked longtime associate Freddie Brooks to look through the band’s collection of tapes with an eye towards releasing some of the material. The first result of this jump into the vaults is the “Sweet Nothing” CD, which captures the band alive and scorching during a 1978 performance. Needless to say, I sent in my hard-earned coin as soon as possible and grabbed a copy of this gem before it disappeared on me.
Even though it had been twenty years since I saw the band play live in Ann Arbor, “Sweet Nothing” immediately brought up fond memories of that night. A solid hour-long set of raging “Motor City” rock ‘n’ roll, “Sweet Nothing” does not disappoint, even given my high expectations. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a monster of a live band, with Smith and fellow guitarist Scott Morgan dueling like sword fighters in a death match, trading deadly, razor-sharp riffs with abandon. Ex-Stooges’ drummer Scott “Rock Action” Asheton kept up a steady, often-times manic beat while bass maestro Gary Rasmussen laid down a rhythmic groove that propelled the music along like nitro in your gas tank.

With a sound that’s loud, meaty, and muscular, booming out of your speakers like a metal stamping machine in a Detroit auto plant, the songs on “Sweet Nothing” are almost immaterial, given the heaviness of the performances. These are good, not great songs, mostly originals by Smith or Morgan. Some are standard, guitar-driven love songs, like the mesmerizing “Hearts,” the engaging title track or the band’s drunkenly passionate cover of the Stones’ “Heart of Stone.” Other songs – like “Asteroid B-612,” for instance – are more esoteric, blazing a musical trail across territory that’s more akin to Sun Ra than to anything rock ‘n roll was spitting out in the late ‘70s.

That legendary single, “City Slang,” is presented here as an eight-minute, album-closing rave-up that’s guaranteed to stand you on your head, leaving you with the certain knowledge that Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a great band. It’s a damn shame that they never became huge stars, but then again, their cult status befits them. After all, like Neil Young once said, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” For a too-few brief years, Sonic Rendezvous were the underground rock scene’s brightest burning stars, blazing their way through hundreds of live shows. Lucky for us that somebody captured one of these special nights on “Sweet Nothing”. (Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Sonic's Rendezvous Band

Archive Review: Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI (2004)

Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI
The epitome of the modern heavy metal guitarist, few log-splitters play with the speed, dexterity, and complexity of Zakk Wylde. Chosen in 1987 by rock legend Ozzy Osbourne to handle his six-string chores, the 19-year-old Wylde followed in the footsteps of acclaimed players like Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee, earning a reputation as a skilled instrumentalist while touring and recording with Ozzy. Wylde formed Black Label Society in 1998, the band conceived of as both a collaborative effort of like-minded hard rockers and as a vehicle for Wylde’s artistic vision.

As a showcase for his immense talents, Black Label Society has excelled beyond even the chainsaw guitarist’s expectations. Each album has shown Wylde evolving and growing as a musician; with Hangover Music, Vol. VI, he has taken a major step in defining himself as a legacy artist in the game for the long haul. Whereas previous BLS albums like Blessed Hellride successfully blended heavy metal chops with Southern rock aesthetics, Hangover Music takes the hybrid a step further, revealing more of Wylde’s personality and relying less on his trademark six-string pyrotechnics and more on solid musicianship and songwriting.

Backed by former Crowbar drummer Craig Numenmacher and a revolving cast of musicians including former White Lion bassist James LoMenzo, Wylde covers a lot of stylistic ground on Hangover Music, Vol. VI. “Crazy Or High” is reminiscent of late ‘70s Black Sabbath and “Queen of Sorrow” is a guitar-driven dirge that features Wylde’s tortured vocals and monster riffs. “Steppin Stone” is an atmospheric rocker long on grandeur while “Layne” is a somber tribute to the late Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley.

Adding piano to his instrumental palette, Wylde brings a previously unrevealed artistry to the acoustic-based “Woman Don’t Cry” or his inspired cover of the classic rock gem “Whiter Shade of Pale.” While there is nothing to alienate long-time fans here – there is enough string shredding to satisfy even the most die-hard headbanger – Wylde is quietly breaking new ground and taking his music to heights that few critics ever suspected he’d reach. (Spitfire Records, released 2004)

Review originally published by the Community Free Press, 2004

Friday, June 14, 2024

Hot Wax: John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell (1964/2024)

John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell
In 1959, blues legend John Lee Hooker was at a crossroads in his career. The music industry was evolving from a singles-oriented medium towards full-length albums and “The Hook” was in danger of being left behind. Hooker had enjoyed a string of seven R&B charting singles circa 1948-1958, including five Top 10 hits like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Huckle Up Baby,” and “I’m In the Mood” (which also rose to #30 on the mainstream singles chart). These songs wrote the lexicon of the artist’s rhythm & blues saturated boogie-blues sound that he would pursue for the next 40+ years.

Hooker’s first bona fide album release was 1959’s I’m John Lee Hooker. Released by Vee Jay Records, it was a collection of seven previously-released singles and five newly-recorded tracks (a parallel album release, Chess Records’ House of the Blues, was comprised entirely of singles). Around this time, Riverside Records owner Bill Grauer traveled to Detroit with the idea of recording a new John Lee Hooker album consisting entirely of Leadbelly songs. Riverside was essentially a jazz label, so recording a blues artist of Hooker’s stature was an out-of-the-box notion, especially once Grauer discovered that John Lee had no idea of who Huddie Leadbetter was, and was unfamiliar with his music. Grauer quickly regrouped and produced sessions with Hooker and his acoustic guitar at the familiar United Sound Systems in Detroit where the artist had recorded several previous hits.

The core of Grauer’s brainstorm had merit, as acoustic-based “folk blues” artists were beginning to rise in popularity at the time. Long lost Mississippi Delta and Hill Country bluesmen like Fred McDowell, Skip James, and John Hurt were being “rediscovered” and shoved into studios to re-record their “old songs” before hitting the coffee house circuit and folk festival trail. Even Chicago blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson were re-branded as authentic, acoustic-toting “folk blues” singers. Grauer left Detroit with enough songs on tape for two albums, the first of which was released in 1959 as The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (quickly re-titled as The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker). The second album arising from those Detroit sessions was Burning Hell, which wasn’t released until 1964 and then only in the U.K. by Fontana; Burning Hell wasn’t reissued on CD until 1994, and it’s been long out-of-print in any format.

John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

The first release from the newly-resurrected Bluesville Records label (part of the Craft Recordings family), Hooker’s Burning Hell is an often-overlooked entry in his massive and decades-spanning catalog of music. With a tracklist largely comprised of roughly half Hooker originals and the other half choice covers, Burning Hell showcases Hooker’s deep, fluid vocals laid across several styles of acoustic blues. The title track is a spry, Piedmont-styled morality tale with scrappy guitarplay and strong vocals but “Graveyard Blues” is a dour, Delta-styled dirge with intricate guitar patterns and Hooker’s sonorous, almost droning vocals. Hooker isn’t the deftest of string-pullers, especially when compared to contemporaries like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Kirkland, or even his cousin Earl Hooker, but his performance here is simply mesmerizing.

Hooker’s cover of the Big Joe Williams’ classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is provided an emotionally-charged performance that relies on the singer’s pleading vocals more than on his boogie-stomp fretwork. Ditto for his reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” which substitutes soaring, almost falsetto vocals (well, as high as Hooker could go…) for The Wolf’s primal howl; combined with Hooker’s circular guitar strum, he creates a sort of melodic and enchanting tone poem. “You Live Your Life and I’ll Live Mine” is based on a standard blues scale with a few instrumental flourishes here and there as Hooker sings of his romantic woes while “Jackson, Tennessee” is afforded an up-tempo, loping guitar riff atop of which Hooker pounds out his Delta-dirty vox. Hooker’s jaunty “How Can You Do It?” is almost pop-styled with radio-friendly, intelligible vocals, an upbeat and melodic guitar line, and an undeniably sunny performance.

John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives
John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives

On the other hand, the odd bodkins Lightnin’ Hopkins cover “I Don’t Want No Woman If Her Hair Ain’t No Longer Than Mine” is an awkward talking blues with meandering guitar licks and disjointed vocals. Hooker’s “Blues For My Baby” pursues a similar theme, but with better results, his powerful vocal performance matched by bog-standard boogie-blues git licks with the occasional (and delightful) instrumental detour. Bluesmen and rock stars alike have covered Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” for decades but, for my money, Hooker’s reading is one of the best, with yearning vocals and a jazzy acoustic soundtrack. His reading of the Willie Dixon-penned “Natchez Fire” provides the song – originally recorded as “Natchez Burnin’” in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf – with an eerie chill as his haunting vocals and arcane guitar playing mourn the true-life tragedy that took 200 lives at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Looking at its history and provenance, Burning Hell is an odd choice to kick off the new era of Bluesville Records. Perhaps it was chosen because Hooker is a well-known artist among casual blues fans, as Burning Hell was never released previously by Bluesville. When Riverside impresario Bill Grauer passed away in 1963, the label’s catalog passed through the hands of ABC Records before being bought by Fantasy Records in 1972. Fantasy, in turn, was bought by Concord Records in 2004, forming the Concord Music Group. Bluesville Records was a subsidiary of the esteemed Prestige Records jazz label that also became part of CMG via its purchase by Fantasy in 1971…and that’s how you get a 1964 John Lee Hooker album on Riverside Records seeing reissue by Bluesville Records some 60 years later. *

There were a number of other choices for an inaugural Bluesville reissue, including long-forgotten but worthy flapjacks from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Sonny Terry, Snooks Eaglin, and Pink Anderson (who inspired Pink Floyd’s band name). The minor cavil of its dubious status in the Bluesville label universe aside, this version of Burning Hell is nevertheless a godsend for hardcore blues fans and collectors. The packaging is hearty, with a thick cardboard sleeve, glossy laminated cover, and a padded, archival quality inner sleeve to cradle the vinyl. Little has been changed with the graphics, which are perfectly garish for the era, and the back cover includes Alan Bates’ insightful original liner notes. Cut from the original master tapes and pressed on black 180-gram vinyl, this Bluesville edition is the first time that this long-lost album has been released domestically on record.

In the end, however, it’s the music that counts, and Burning Hell showcases a different side of John Lee, his flirtation with “folk blues” opening new doors for his career as he entered the decade of the 1960s as a grizzled veteran. No less than six “folk”-oriented Hooker albums would be released just prior to, and shortly after Burning Hell for labels like Vee-Jay, Crown Records, Chess, and Kent Records, many of them constructed from vintage 1950s-era recordings. Hooker hit the summer folk festival circuit with aplomb, which helped carry him through the difficult ABC Records years to The Healer and his successful final chapter. With its raw vocals and wiry fretwork, Burning Hell isn’t the crown jewel of the massive John Lee Hooker catalog, but it represents a significant turning point in his career and is well worth rediscovery by both fans of the artist and blues fanatics alike. (Bluesville Records, reissued June 7th, 2024)

* For more on the Bluesville Records story, check out my interview with producer Scott Billington on the Rock and Roll Globe website!  

Many thanx to Charles Shaar Murray, and his wonderful John Lee Hooker biography Boogie Man, for info on the artist’s Riverside recordings...

Buy the LP from Amazon: John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

Also on That Devil Music:
John Lee Hooker’s The Healer review
John Lee Hooker’s The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 review

Charles Shaar Murray's Boogie Man