Sunday, April 23, 2017

CD Review: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever The Remastered Epic Recordings (2017)

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever The Remastered Epic Recordings
To be honest, I bought the debut album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes purely on the basis of the singer’s association with Bruce Springsteen and “Miami” Steve Van Zandt. I had witnessed Springsteen perform live for the first time in early 1976 and was ready to put down serious coin for anything that had Bruce’s name on it. When Southside Johnny’s I Don’t Want To Go Home was released that summer, I quickly snatched up a copy – produced by Van Zandt and featuring a pair of songs written, but never recorded by Springsteen – the album promised more of what I loved about Born To Run.

Putting the needle to the vinyl, however, it was obvious that I Don’t Want To Go Home was something else entirely. Evincing a fierce R&B groove – something, as a Four Tops and Motown junkie, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes captured lightning in a bottle with their debut album and won themselves a lifelong fan. The band would go on to record two more albums with Van Zandt on the board (and providing songs) – 1977’s This Time It’s For Real and 1978’s Hearts of Stone – all three released by Epic Records. When none of the three albums managed to achieve even a fraction of Springsteen’s enormous sales, the band was dropped by the label and subsequently signed by Mercury Records, for whom they would subsequently record a pair of studio albums and a much acclaimed live LP.

Southside Johnny’s The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings

Real Gone Music’s The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings is a two-disc set comprised of those first three classic albums by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, digitally remastered for the first time since their original release on CD back in the early 1990s. The 40 song set also includes the rare single version of the band’s “Havin’ A Party” and offers the first appearance on CD of the ten-track 1976 promotional LP Jukes Live at the Bottom Line, a premium-priced collectors’ item on vinyl. The title track of I Don’t Want To Go Home, written by Van Zandt, is the pure distillation of the 1950s and ‘60s-era influences shared by Miami Steve, Springsteen, and Southside Johnny Lyon. The frontman’s vocals soar above crescendos of sound, the song’s orchestration perfectly accompanying Lyon’s wistful, emotional heartbreak vocals. It’s one of the greatest romantic songs of the ‘70s and I’ll fight anybody who’d argue otherwise.

Much of the rest of I Don’t Want To Go Home follows a similar blueprint – an inspired mix of raw bar band rhythm and blues and soul-drenched rock ‘n’ roll, Lyon’s powerful vocals a perfect fit with Van Zandt’s expansive production and the Jukes’ immense musical chops. A cover of the great Solomon Burke’s “Got To Get You Off My Mind” is a brassy, old-school mid-tempo R&B barn-burner with big horns and bigger aspirations while the band’s take on Steve Cropper’s Memphis soul classic “Broke Down Piece of Man” rocks with reckless abandon, Lyon’s and Van Zandt’s intertwined vocals driven by the rich instrumentation.

Havin’ A Party with the Asbury Jukes

Southside Johnny's I Don't Want To Go Home
The original songs on I Don’t Want To Go Home are where Southside Johnny and gang really shine, though. Springsteen’s “The Fever” has since taken on a larger-than-life reputation, and while it’s a fine example of smoldering R&B roots with a fiery Southside Johnny vocal performance and lush instrumental backing, this humble scribe prefers “You Mean So Much To Me.” A duet with the ‘60s girl-group icon Ronnie Spector, their “sweet and sour” vocals work so damn well together as the Miami Horns deliver just the right amount of momentum behind the locomotive instrumentation and Billy Rush’s frenetic guitar solo. Van Zandt’s “Sweeter Than Honey” incorporates 1960s and ‘70s era soul influences in the creation of a joyful noise.
Although the Jukes’ live cover of Sam Cooke’s classic “Havin’ A Party” achieved little or no chart action when released as a single, it’s an infectious rave-up delivered with great heart and no little soul. Starting with a cappella vocals, the band kicks in and everybody adds their voices to a truly magnificent performance. This Time It’s For Real offered more of the same as the Jukes’ debut, but with a lesser reliance on cover tunes and more original songs from producer Van Zandt, who wrote five of the album’s ten songs, co-writing three others with Springsteen. The results were only slightly disappointing considering the high bar set by I Don’t Want To Go Home, but in hindsight are certainly no less entertaining.

This Time It’s For Real

Southside Johnny's This Time It's For Real
The Van Zandt-penned title track is a busy, full-bodied R&B rave-up with the horns sunk in the background of the mix and a greater emphasis placed on the vocals and rhythmic foundation. On the first of two cover songs on the album, Aretha Franklin’s “Without Love” (co-written by the great Ivory Joe Hunter), Lyon delivers a stunning, soulful performance full of nuance and emotion while the swells of backing orchestration provide a fitting canvas for his vocals. Keyboardist Kevin Kavanaugh was the Jukes’ secret weapon, and his understated piano here adds layers of sophistication alongside the cascading percussion.

This Time It’s For Real included more guest stars than the debut album, R&B greats like the Five Satins and the Coasters provided a studio payday by mega-fan Van Zandt. The Drifters’ contributions to “Little Girl So Fine” are pure magic, however, their backing harmonies reminiscent of the band’s 1950s-era hits like “Dance With Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” Lyon acquits himself nicely here as well, his lovely throwback vocals accompanied by swooning horns. Van Zandt’s “I Ain’t Got The Fever No More” is a sort of response to Springsteen’s “The Fever” from the debut, the defiant lyrics shrug off a love gone wrong. “Love On The Wrong Side of Town” is built on the blueprint of the debut LP, Van Zandt mimicking Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production style with waves of smothering instrumentation. As the horns mournfully mark the end of love, Lyon’s pathos-drenched vocals provide a tsunami of emotion.

Jukes Live at the Bottom Line

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes At The Bottom Line
To be honest, I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by this long-lost Jukes’ performance revealed for the first time on CD, Jukes Live at the Bottom Line not nearly as dynamic or electrifying as 1981’s Live: Reach Up and Touch the Sky. It seems more reserved, not as joyfully raucous as the live set that would come five years later, and the album’s lackluster, flat production obviously points to a dearth of any original interest by the label in releasing the set commercially. That’s not to say that it’s entirely a bust, though – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on a bad night are still better than nearly any other band at their best. Recorded in 1976 and released exclusively to radio to promote the band’s debut album, the Jukes didn’t have anywhere near the number of original songs that they would in 1981 (with five more LPs under their belts).

Still, the show’s inclusion here is fitting, and tracks like the soaring “Without Love,” which sports a snappy brass section, lovelorn vox by Southside Johnny, and a fine guitar solo by the underrated Billy Rush, or the non-album track “Snatchin’ It Back,” a cover of a Clarence Carter hit which evokes a rowdy Stax Records/Memphis soul sound, are provided inspired performances. A reading of British songwriter Mark London’s “Little by Little” transforms the song into a Chicago blues rave-up while Springsteen’s “The Fever” is similarly turned a dark hue of blue, introduced by Lyon’s warbling harp and jumping into a claustrophobic, lusty performance. The aforementioned duet with Ronnie Spector, “You Mean So Much To Me,” is ramped up and amped up with wailing horns and a frenetic delivery that bolsters the overall impact of the song.

Hearts of Stone

Southside Johnny's Hearts of Stone
Hearts of Stone, the last of the Van Zandt-produced Epic Records trilogy, is widely – and wisely – considered the gem of the Asbury Jukes’ catalog. Shooting for the proverbial brass ring, Lyon and his monster eleven-piece band tossed aside the obscure R&B cover tunes and further reduced the Springsteen-written content in order to establish an identity of their own aside from ‘The Boss.’ Van Zandt wrote the bulk of the songs on Hearts of Stone with an eye towards better utilizing the Jukes’ talents, including the incredibly flexible vocals of frontman SSJ. As such, there are only three Springsteen-penned tracks here – the classic title track, the strutting “Talk To Me,” and the emotionally-powerful “Trapped Again,” co-written with Van Zandt and Lyon. The results were nothing short of spectacular, a timeless amalgam of traditional R&B and streetwise rock ‘n’ roll that sounds as good today as it did nearly 40 years ago.

The breathless heartbreak of “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good” provides a lot of angst for Lyon to chew on, his mournful vocals firmly in a blues tradition but supported by an old-school rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and a finely-crafted brass performance. The song’s complex instrumental arrangement serves to heighten the emotion of the lyrics, providing a concrete foundation for Lyon’s vocal gymnastics. The hauntingly beautiful title track is cut from similar cloth, with Van Zandt’s transcendent guitar licks offering a tearful counterpoint to what is, perhaps, Lyon’s best ever vocal performance. Springsteen’s tortured lyrics provide the fuel, but it’s Lyon’s weary, yearning voice that lifts the song to greatness. By contrast, “Trapped Again” is more instrumentally buoyant, but Lyon’s soaring vox capture the desperation and emotion of the lyrics. Van Zandt’s “Light Don’t Shine” closes Hearts of Stone, the song a departure from the album’s previous fare, with rich instrumentation and an almost ballad-styled vocal delivery, but with no little emotion to be found between the lines in what is essentially a dirge for a love lost.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes may never escape from the lengthy shadow cast over the band due to their early association with Bruce Springsteen, but Lyon and his long-enduring crew have persevered to the present day, touring constantly across the U.S. and Europe and releasing the occasional gem of a record like 2015’s Soultime! With these first three Epic Records albums, however, the band managed to introduce itself to Springsteen’s expanding audience and evolve a musical identity all its own within the space of, basically, two years and change.

By collecting these precious recordings in one place, The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings is both a fine introduction to the vastly underrated band’s early days as well as a welcome reminder of just how damn good Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were at their peak: as tight as a fist, but as smooth as a velvet glove. Grade: A+ (Real Gone Music, released March 3, 2017)

Buy the CD from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings

Friday, April 21, 2017

CD Preview: Janiva Magness’s Blue Again

Janiva Magness's Blue Again
For my money, Janiva Magness is one of the great vocal talents in the history of the blues…and I’d gladly wallop non-believers with a dead trout than brook any criticism of her talents. A multiple Blues Music Award winner, Magness is only the second woman – after the legendary Koko Taylor – to be honored with the coveted “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” by members of The Blues Foundation. Over the past quarter-century, Magness has released a handful of bona fide blues classics in albums like The Devil is an Angel Too and What Love Will Do.

Still, Magness has recently strayed somewhat from her blues roots to explore her long-dormant songwriting muse, providing fans with recent gems like 2014’s Original and 2016’s Love Wins Again which both explore pop, soul, and gospel music with sly originals, the latter of which earned Magness her first Grammy® nomination. For those longtime fans who want to hear the singer cut loose on a collection of classic blues and R&B tunes, however, wait no longer because on May 12th, 2017 Magness will release Blue Again on the Blue √Član Records label.

An inspired and diverse collection of songs by artists like Bo Diddley, Freddie King, Etta James, and Nina Simone, among others, Blue Again is more than just another ‘covers’ album. “The whole record is about getting back to my taproot,” says Magness in a press release for Blue Again. “The process was just digging through a large pile of some of my favorite material, my favorite classic blues songs, to come up with these, my absolute favorites.” Among the songs chosen by Magness for the album is Bo Diddley’s red-hot title track “Blue Again,” which features the molten guitar licks of guest fretburner Kid Ramos. Magness covers Al Kooper’s magnum opus “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” originally recorded with his band Blood, Sweat and Tears and later a hit for the great soul man Donny Hathaway.

Magness is joined by soul giant Sugaray Rayford for a reading of Etta James’ “If I Can’t Have You,” which was originally recorded as by James as a duet with Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows while she shows obscure soul talent Joe Hinton some love by covering his little-known treasure “Tired of Walking.” Magness explains that the songs on Blue Again were the product of no little deliberation. “There’s definitely been an evolution, an arc over the course of time of the kinds of songs that I’ve elected to do and the kinds of songs I now write,” she says. “I wanted to bring that arc full circle. I wanted to make a record of what and where I come from. It was important to me emotionally and spiritually.”

If you want to hear the work of one of the best singers performing today, period, you owe it to yourself to check out Janiva Magness’s Blue Again in May…

Buy the CD from Janiva Magness's Blue Again

Neil Young revisits the ‘70s with Official Release Series

Neil Young's Official Release Series, Discs 5-8
Neil Young is inarguably one of the most innovative and influential artists in rock ‘n’ roll history. The singer/songwriter is also mercurial and controlling and has been known to shelve otherwise valid music for years or decades if initially unpleased by the recorded results. Still, Young’s Official Release Series is gradually correcting the artist’s oversight by making classic music available once more for the hardcore faithful and new listener alike.  

Young’s Official Release Series, Discs 1-4, released in 2009, included the artist’s first four albums, from his 1968 self-titled debut through 1972’s classic Harvest. On May 12th, 2017 Young will revisit the decade of the ‘70s when he releases two more volumes from the archives on CD: Official Release Series, Discs 5-8 and Official Release Series, Discs 8.5-12. Both sets had been previously released on vinyl.

The limited edition Official Release Series, Discs 5-8 is a four-CD box set which includes Young’s albums Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974), Tonight’s The Night (1975), and Zuma (1975). All the albums have been re-mastered in high resolution from the original analog studio recordings at Bernie Grundman Mastering and feature historically-accurate artwork reproduced by Young’s longtime art director Gary Burden.

Interestingly, Young is finally releasing Time Fades Away on CD for the very first time since it originally went out of print almost 45 years ago (Young wouldn’t release the dark-hued On The Beach album on CD until 2003). Time Fades Away represents a fascinating chapter in Young’s career, the album the first of three that would become known as the “Ditch Trilogy” as the artist veered away from the commercial sound of Harvest in trying to cope with fame and the death of friend and Crazy Horse band member Danny Whitten. More than once Young would refer to it as “the worse record I ever made,” going so far as to cancel a 1995 release of the album on CD.

Neil Young's Official Release Series, Discs 8.5-12
Also on May 12th, Young will release Official Release Series, Discs 8.5-12, a five-CD set that encompasses 1976’s Long May You Run, recorded by the Stills-Young Band, American Stars ‘N Bars (1977), Comes A Time (1978), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), and Live Rust (1979). These albums are as equally contentious as those represented in the previous box set. After reuniting with Crosby, Stills and Nash after a four-year hiatus for a monster stadium concert tour, Young recorded Long May You Run with bandmate Stills. The album was a commercial success, charting Top 30 and earning the pair a Gold™ Record, but Young left partway through a tour in support of the album when tensions flared up between him and Stills.

Young had reformed Crazy Horse with guitarist Frank Sampedro for Zuma, and he brought them back for American Stars ‘N Bars, a Top 30 album pieced together from various sessions and including guests like Emmylou Harris and Nicolette Larson. Young returned to his folk roots for Comes A Time, a Top 10 charting album that was as close as the artist would come to the sound of Harvest in better than five years. Young would change directions once again, again veering towards the ditch with the release of the live/studio amalgam Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, and following it up later that year with Live Rust, a mix of old and new material performed during Young’s 1978 “Rust Never Sleeps” tour. Both albums would chart Top 20 and earn Young Platinum™ sales status.

Together, these two box sets gather together nine albums from what is arguably Young’s most successful and creative period, all of them heightened with freshly re-mastered high definition sound and placed in chronological order.

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Neil Young's Official Release Series, Discs 5-8
Neil Young's Official Release Series, Discs 8.5-12 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guitarist Allan Holdsworth, R.I.P.

Allan Holdsworth
Innovative prog-rock and jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth passed away over the weekend with no cause of death given; Holdsworth was 70 years old.

Although Holdsworth wasn’t well-known outside of a small, loyal group of fans (including many fellow musicians), he made a lot of music over the past four decades, sustaining a moderately-successful career right up to his death. The British-born guitarist released eleven studio and three live solo albums over the years, beginning with 1982’s I.O.U. and running through 2003’s Then!, including such critically-acclaimed works as Metal Fatigue (1985) and The Sixteen Men of Tain (2000).

Holdsworth may be as well known for his musical associations as he is for his solo work. During the ‘70s, he was a member of jazz-rock outfit Nucleus, appearing on their 1972 album Belladonna, and of prog-rock band Tempest, performing on their self-titled 1973 debut. Throughout the rest of the decade the guitarist would play with several bands and artists, including Soft Machine, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, Bill Bruford, and Jean-Luc Ponty. When former Yes drummer Bruford formed the prog-rock supergroup U.K. with Eddie Jobson and John Wetton, he recruited Holdsworth as the band’s guitarist, and he appears on the band’s self-titled 1978 debut album.

Allan Holdsworth's The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!Holdsworth’s style of guitar defies pigeonholing, the highly knowledgeable and technically-oriented string-bender pushing back at the restrictions of the rock and jazz music to create entirely unique and innovative sounds that wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream rock fan. Nevertheless, Holdsworth’s influence can readily be heard in the music of artists as diverse as Eddie Van Halen (an early champion of Holdsworth’s talent), Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci (Dream Theater), and Alex Lifeson (Rush). Frank Zappa once said of Holdsworth that he was “one of the most interesting guys on guitar on the planet” and blues-rock guitarist Robben Ford compared Holdsworth to jazz legend John Coltrane.

Sadly, Holdsworth was still performing at an incredibly high level, touring and recording at the time of his death. Interest in Holdsworth's career remains high, and an impressive twelve-CD box set including all of his solo albums as well as unreleased bonus tracks was released shortly before his death. Although not the best-known of instrumentalists, Allan Holdsworth was the guitar hero’s “guitar hero” and he will be missed...

CD Preview: Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie

Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie
Although he’s not a household name, chances are that you’ve heard Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis playing on one of your favorite records, Davis an in-demand session player and touring musician during the 1970s. Originally a member of country music legend Conway Twitty’s band, Davis went in an entirely different direction as he became an integral part of roots ‘n’ blues music legend Taj Mahal’s band, playing on Mahal’s first three albums and making a guest appearance with Mahal on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.

Davis was introduced to session work by Leon Russell, then a member of the loose-knit L.A. ‘Wrecking Crew’ collective of studio players. Davis lent his six-string talents to albums by David Cassidy, Gene Clark (The Byrds), Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker and others, his instrumental fluency in rock, blues, jazz, and country music making him an invaluable player at any session. Davis also played alongside Leon Russell during Bob Dylan’s performance of “Watching the River Flow” at the Concert for Bangladesh, later accompanying George Harrison during his set.

Davis launched his solo career with a 1971 Atco Records release titled Jesse Davis which featured high-powered guests like Russell, Eric Clapton, Gram Parsons, Merry Clayton, and Alan White (Yes), among others. Two critically-acclaimed albums would follow in quick succession – Ululu in 1972 (released by Atco) and Keep Me Comin in 1973 (recorded for CBS), – after which Davis retreated back into session work, his talents shining on albums like Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man and John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges as well as LPs by folks like Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth), Donovan, and Dion.

By the end of the decade, though, Davis’s demons caught up to him, and he spent much of the 1980s battling addictions to drugs and alcohol. Davis resurfaced in the mid-‘80s, playing with Native American poet and activist John Trudell as part of the Graffiti Band. Sadly, Davis fell victim to an apparent overdose in June 1988 at the young age of 43 years. In spite of his status as a legendary session musician and solo artist, Davis’s meager catalog of solo work has been out-of-print for years. On June 2nd, 2017 Real Gone Music will correct this egregious oversight with the release of Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie – The Atco Recordings 1970-1972. Featuring 17 tracks from Davis’s two of Atco Records albums as well as a pair of unreleased alternate takes, Red Dirt Boogie was re-mastered by Mike Milchner at SonicVision.

The set also includes liner notes by writer Pat Thomas and rare photos from the Atco Records archives. The timing for rediscover of Jesse Ed Davis’s talents couldn’t be better, as the release of Red Dirt Boogie coincides with the guitarist’s appearance in the new documentary film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World which explores the forgotten role of Native American musicians in popular music and also includes the Band’s Robbie Robertson and John Trudell. For long-suffering Davis fans, though, it will be nice to have these performances back on CD after better than a decade off the shelves.

Buy the CD from Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rock ‘n’ Blues Guitarist J. Geils, R.I.P.

Guitarist J. Geils

The last month has been brutal...Chuck Berry, James Cotton, Lonnie Brooks…three legends gone. And now we’re sad to report on the passing of a rock ‘n’ blues icon, guitarist J. Geils. Rolling Stone magazine confirmed Geils’ death and a preliminary investigation by Groton, Massachusetts police indicated that Geils died of natural causes. The guitarist’s friend and fellow musician, Duke Robillard, had mentioned on Facebook that Geils had experienced recent health problems; Geils was 71 years old.

Born John Warren Geils, Jr. in New York City, Geils grew up in New Jersey, developing an interest in jazz and blues music, especially artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Geils’ first instrument was the trumpet, but he picked up the guitar when he went to college in Massachusetts. As “John Geils,” he formed the acoustic blues trio Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels in the mid-1960s with bassist Danny Klein (a/k/a Dr. Funk) and harmonica player Richard Salwitz (a/k/a Magic Dick). In 1968, they changed their name to the J. Geils Blues Band, recruiting drummer Stephen Bladd and singer Peter Wolf (nee Blankenfeld). They added keyboardist Seth Justman later that year, dropped ‘Blues’ from the band’s name, and began gigging heavily in the Boston area.

The J. Geils Band

J. Geils Band
As the J. Geils Band, they quickly developed a loyal regional following based on the band’s high-energy live performances, characterized by Wolf’s charismatic stage presence, Magic Dick’s manic harp playing, and Geils’ underrated six-string skills. Signed to Atlantic Records in 1970, the band toured constantly throughout the year, opening for artists like Johnny Winter, B.B. King, and the Allman Brothers Band. They released their self-titled debut album in November 1970, receiving FM radio airplay for their first single, a scorching blues-rock cover of the Contour’s Motown hit “First I Look At The Purse.” The album included a number of original tracks penned by Wolf and Justman mixed with high-octane covers of blues and R&B classics from artists like Otis Rush (“Homework”), John Lee Hooker (“Serves You Right To Suffer”), and “Sno-Cone” (Albert Collins). The album would barely inch onto the Billboard chart at an encouraging #195.

The Morning After, the band’s sophomore effort, followed in 1971 and scored the Geils’ crew a Top 40 hit with a cover of the Valentinos’ R&B gem “Lookin’ For A Love,” which earned the band a presence on AM radio. The album followed much the same blueprint as the debut, mixing original songs with inspired covers of material from Don Covay (“The Usual Place”) and Juke Joint Jimmy (“Whammer Jammer”), pushing the album to #64 on the charts. The band’s commercial rise continued with 1972’s “Live” Full House, which was representative of the band’s enormous onstage dynamic and which would subsequently set up the success of 1973’s Bloodshot album, which would become their first Top 10 album on the strength of their Top 30 hit single “Give It To Me.”


J. Geils Band's Bloodshot
The J. Geils Band stumbled a bit through the mid-to-late ‘70s, releasing a series of mostly uninspired albums that enjoyed varying commercial returns as the band largely eschewed their normally well-chosen cover tunes in favor of weaker original material. They bounced back creatively with 1978’s Sanctuary, which represented an artistic breakthrough for the Wolf/Justman songwriting team as they started mixing in melodic pop with their blues-rock roots. This slight change in musical direction resulted in 1980’s hit album Love Stinks, which scored a pair of hit singles – the title track and “Come Back” – on its way to Top 20 chart standing and eventual Gold™ Record status.

The band’s pop-oriented direction was amplified by the J. Geils Band’s 12th studio album, 1981’s Freeze-Frame, for which Justman shouldered the lion’s share of the songwriting. Released at the dawn of the MTV era and benefiting from constant video airplay, the single “Centerfold” would hit #1 on the U.S. charts and #3 in the U.K. while the title track itself would hit #4 on the U.S. charts, earning the band its first number one charting album and a Platinum™ Record. Wolf left the band to pursue a solo career after the release of their third live album, 1982’s hit Showtime! The J. Geils Band released just one more album, 1984’s You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Getting’ Odd, with Justman taking over the microphone. The poorly-selling album proved to be the band’s swansong, and they broke up in 1985.


For his part, Geils took a nearly decade-long hiatus from the music biz after his namesake band broke up. Fascinated since childhood with cars and auto racing – especially Italian sports cars – Geils opened KTR Motorsports, a restoration shop in Carlisle, Massachusetts to service vintage imports from European manufacturers like Ferrari and Maserati. Geils also participated in auto racing, and drove in several races a year during the 1980s. He would sell KTR Motorsports in 1996, but would stay involved in auto restoration for years afterwards.

Geils inched back into music in the early 1990s, producing a 1992 album by former bandmate Danny Klein. Geils later formed the band Bluestime with Magic Dick, releasing a critically-acclaimed self-titled album in 1994, following it up with Little Car Blues two years later. Geils teamed with guitarists Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin as New Guitar Summit, releasing two albums in 2004, and the guitarist would release his first bona fide solo album, Jay Plays Jazz!, in 2005. The first J. Geils Band reunion took place in 1999 for a thirteen-date tour, and they would reunite several times over the following decade. When the band went on tour without him in 2012, Geils filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against his former bandmates over the use of his name for the tour.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The J. Geils Band was first nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, but fell short in the votes needed for induction; they also failed with their 2016 nomination and will be eligible for induction again in 2018. This is an egregious oversight on the part of hall voters. The J. Geils Band represented a huge step forward in the evolution of blues-rock during the early 1970s, introducing many white teenage fans to the blues and R&B genres with their spirited covers of often obscure tunes.

Jay Geils was a vastly underrated guitarist whose contributions to the band that bore his name were often overshadowed by the larger-than-life personalities of his other band members. Nevertheless, Geils was an innovative guitarist with deep musical roots, and his influence can be found in a generation of musicians that followed in his wake.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

CD Review: J. Geils Band's Sanctuary (1979)

J. Geils Band's Sanctuary
When the J. Geils Band burst onto the scene in the late ‘60s, they took many people by surprise with their original brand of rock ‘n’ roll, served up with a strong double-shot of rhythm and blues. Their first few albums, with their live shows, proved them to be a powerful band at the least, and a great band on many occasions.

But then it happened…maybe it was boredom that set in, maybe it was just too much of a good thing too soon. Whatever the reasons, suddenly, the J. Geils Band became, well… predictable. And a predictable band often times becomes a dull band. This was the fate that befell J. Geils and crew. The result was several uninspired albums, and many disappointing concerts. For a lifelong fan of the band, it became embarrassing.

Sanctuary, however, is the album that will clear the good name of J. Geils for quite some time. What could have become a slow death has instead become a breath of life for the Beantown boys. The spirit and dynamic felt after sitting through albums like Geils’ Morning After and Full House – Live is here again. The album starts with “I Could Hurt You,” a bluesy, dirty rocker in which we hear Peter Wolf’s gruff, gritty vocals at their best.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Just like a sock hop in the old days, they mix the dancing numbers with a few slow ones like “Theresa” and “I Don’t Hang Around Much Anymore.” Then, after two or three minutes of slow bumping and lotsa grinding, they burst into something like “Wild Man” to relieve you of the sweet pain.

Geils’ guitar work, along with Wolf’s vocals and the mouth harp of Magic Dick are sharp, powerful, and final. Using their influences wisely, at times they sound like everybody from Southside Johnny to Mick Jagger to the Nighthawks. But in the end, they’re just the J. Geils Band. And thankfully, Sanctuary marks their triumphant return to the rock ‘n’ roll/blues scene they helped create.

Originally published by Prairie Sun, 1979

Friday, April 7, 2017

Blues Legend Lonnie Brooks, R.I.P.

Lonnie Brooks
The blues world lost a bona fide legend on April 1st, 2017 with the passing of the great Lonnie Brooks, who was 83 years old at the time of his death. A brilliant guitarist and underrated, soulful vocalist, Brooks was a dynamic live performer who toured the world to no little acclaim.

Brooks was born in rural Louisiana as Lee Baker, Jr. He was taught to play the blues by his grandfather, but didn’t seriously consider pursuing music as a career until moving to Port Arthur, Texas in his early 20s and witnessing performances by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, T-Bone Walker, and Long John Hunter. Brooks’ first job as a professional musician – under the name ‘Guitar Jr.’ – was with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier’s touring band. Brooks also launched a solo career, releasing a number of regional singles for the independent local Goldband Records label.

Moving to Chicago in 1960, the guitarist changed his name to Lonnie Brooks (there was already a ‘Guitar Jr.’ performing in the Windy City) and he quickly found regular gigs in the notorious clubs of Chicago’s west side as well as nearly Gary, Indiana. Brooks recorded numerous early singles for labels like Chess Records and Mercury Records, and performed as a session musician and toured with various artists like Jimmy Reed (even playing guitar on Reed’s acclaimed Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall album).

Brooks recorded his debut album, Broke an’ Hungry, in 1969 for Capitol Records, working with producer Wayne Shuler, son of Goldband founder Eddie Shuler. A second album, Sweet Home Chicago, was recorded for the French Black & Blue label in 1975 during a European tour. Back in Chicago, Brooks came to the attention of Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, the guitarist subsequently recording four songs for the label’s Grammy®-nominated Living Chicago Blues compilation album, which led to a contract with Alligator.

The pairing of Brooks and Alligator proved to be a winning combination, the guitarist releasing his label debut, Bayou Lightning, in 1979, prompting a six-page feature in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine (back when they actually wrote about blues music). Music historian and critic Robert Palmer, writing in Rolling Stone, said of Brooks’ “his music is witty, soulful and ferociously energetic, brimming with novel harmonic turnarounds, committed vocals, and astonishing guitar work.”

Brooks would record exclusively for Alligator through the rest of his career, releasing such acclaimed albums as 1980’s Blues Deluxe, 1983’s Hot Shot, 1991’s Satisfaction Guaranteed, and 1996’s Roadhouse Rules, all showcasing Brooks’ unique blend of Chicago and Louisiana-style blues, R&B, and roots music dubbed “voodoo blues.” He would appear in the 1998 film Blues Brothers 2000 and would co-author the book Blues For Dummies with his son Wayne Baker Brooks and musician Cub Koda of Brownsville Station.

Brooks’ last studio album was 1999’s Lone Star Shootout album, recorded with friends and fellow Gulf Coast blues veterans Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker. Brooks’ two sons – Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks – both played guitar from an early age, and Ronnie toured with his father as a teenager. Both of the younger Brooks have established acclaimed solo careers, and in 2011 and 2012, the three musicians toured as The Brooks Family Dynasty, amazing audiences worldwide with their six-string pyrotechnics. Brooks’ last recording appearance was a guest on Ronnie’s 2017 album Times Have Changed.

Lonnie Brooks may not have been the most prolific of blues fretburners, releasing slightly more than a dozen studio and live albums over a career that spanned 60 years, but everything he recorded was of unusually consistent quality, passion, and musicianship. You can’t go wrong buying any CD recorded by Brooks, whose songwriting and performing skills are underrated, usually overshadowed by his immense six-string talents. Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010, Brooks left an indelible mark on the world of the blues.

Visitation for Brooks will take place on Sunday, April 9th, 2017 from 3:00pm to 9:00pm at the Blake-Lamb Funeral Home on West 103rd Street in Oak Lawn, Illinois and his funeral will take place on Monday, April 10th at 11:00am the Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church on West 79th Street in Chicago. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Lonnie Brooks Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 672, Dolton IL 60419.

CD Preview: Game Theory’s 2 Steps From The Middle Ages

Game Theory’s 2 Steps From The Middle Ages
The good folks at Omnivore Recordings have done long-suffering Game Theory fans a huge favor with their campaign to reissue the out-of-print back catalog of the revered cult rockers. On June 9th, 2017 Omnivore will close the book on the late Scott Miller’s acclaimed band when they reissue Game Theory’s final album, 2 Steps From The Middle Ages on both CD and on vinyl.

Following the 1987 release of the equally acclaimed Game Theory album Lolita Nation (reissued by Omnivore in 2016), the band reunited in the studio with producer Mitch Easter (Marshall Crenshaw, R.E.M.), who had produced the band’s 1985 album Real Nighttime. Whereas Lolita Nation frequently teetered off the tracks, crossing Miller’s power-pop constructions with avant-garde instrumentation and ambiance, 2 Steps From The Middle Ages pursued a streamlined, more mainstream pop/rock sound on its thirteen songs, of which All Music Guide’s Stewart Mason wrote “the songs are uniformly terrific, with a least half a dozen all-time Game Theory classics...”

This Omnivore reissue of 2 Steps From The Middle Ages features the album’s original 13 songs, which are complimented by an impressive 11 previously-unreleased bonus tracks comprised of song demos, cover tunes, and live performances. The first pressing of the vinyl version of the album, which features the original 13 songs, will be on translucent orange wax and includes a download card for the entire CD tracklist. Packaging for 2 Steps From The Middle Ages includes rare and previously-unpublished photos by the band’s photographer, Robert Toren, as well as essays from producer Mitch Easter, musician Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star), and writer Franklin Bruno. The reissue is dedicated to Game Theory drummer Gil Ray, who was involved with the release of the previous albums and sadly passed away earlier this year.

Game Theory’s 2 Steps From The Middle Ages tracklist:
1. Room For One More, Honey
2. What The Whole World Wants
3. The Picture of Agreeability
4. Amelia, Have You Lost
5. Rolling with the Moody Girls
6. Wyoming
7. In A Delorean
8. You Drive
9. Leilani
10. Wish I Could Stand or Have
11. Don't Entertain Me Twice
12. Throwing the Election
13. Initiations Week

Bonus Tracks:
14. Together Now, Very Minor [live]
15. Amelia, Have You Lost
16. Bad Machinery [live on KZSU]
17. Room For One More, Honey [demo]
18. The Waist and the Knees [live]
19. Wish I Could Stand Or Have [demo]
20. Rolling With The Moody Girls [demo]
21. America [demo]
22. I Turned Her Away [live]
23. Wyoming [rough mix]
24. Sleeping Through Heaven [live]