Sunday, February 10, 2019

Short Rounds: Pete Berwick, Big Star, Ted Drozdowski, Walter Trout & Watermelon Slim (2019)

Pete Berwick's Island
New album releases in 150 words or less…

Pete BerwickIsland (Shotgun Records)
Second-generation country outlaw Pete Berwick made his bones playing the honky-tonks and juke-joints that existed on the fringes of late 20th century Nashville. Berwick’s intelligent wordplay has always been his strength and previous albums like Ain’t No Train Outta Nashville show that he could rock a bit as well. Island is a departure for Berwick, a collection of mostly-introspective, insightful mid-tempo tunes that lean more country than rock, more blues than folk. You can’t argue with the results, songs like “Anyway” and “Island” speaking to the heartbreak of love and loneliness while “The Streets of Pasadena” is country tear-jerker worthy of George or Merle. “One Setback At A Time” gallops by comparison, the song a statement of defiance set to a lush soundtrack that would make it a hit single in a more enlightened era. Island is Berwick’s most melodic and mature album yet, a masterwork from a unique craftsman. Grade: A+   BUY! 

Big Star's Live On WLIR
Big Star – Live On WLIR (Omnivore Recordings)
After the release of 1974’s sophomore effort Radio City, power-pop pioneers Big Star sojourned to Ultrasonic Studios in Long Island, NY to record this live-in-the-studio radio broadcast. Although this performance was previously released by RykoDisc as Live, it’s been out-of-print for the better part of a quarter-century until rescued by the good folks at Omnivore. Working from the original studio session tapes, the often-bootlegged performance captured by Live On WLIR displays all the rawness and immediacy of the radio broadcast but provided a modern-sounding sonic clean-up. The then-new line-up of Alex Chilton, John Lightman, and Jody Stephens crank out an energetic 14-song set that includes “September Gurls,” “Mod Lang,” “Thirteen,” and “I’m In Love With A Girl,” classic tunes upon which the Big Star mythology would later be built. If you’re a fan of Big Star and/or power-pop and don’t have Live On WLIR, what are you waiting for? Grade: A   BUY! 

Ted Drozdowski's Coyote Motel
Ted DrozdowskiCoyote Motel (Dolly Sez Woof Records)
Nashville-by-way-of-Boston blues guitarist Ted Drozdowski steps aside from his regular band the Scissormen to explore the outer edge of Americana with Coyote Motel. Not surprisingly, given his status as a well-respected music journalist, Drozdowski is a superb, if underrated lyricist and his intelligent story-songs here are accompanied by apt, imaginative music and wickedly effective six-string play. The based-on-a-true-story “Still Among the Living” benefits from Drozdowski’s devastating fretwork, somber vocals, and an overall ominous vibe. The “whimsical” apocalyptic tale “Los Alamos” is deceptively poetic with a maddening riff. The heartfelt “My Friend” is a powerful tribute to R&B great “Mighty” Sam McClain while the anti-racism ode “Jimmy Brown” is an artistic maelstrom, roaring with a punkish fury. Altogether, Coyote Motel is a hell of a lot of fun, a near-perfect fusion of blues, country, rock, and folkish elements that shouldn’t work but instead sounds like Drozdowski invented the entire Americana genre. Grade: A   BUY!

Walter Trout's Survivor Blues
Walter TroutSurvivor Blues (Provogue Music)
Contemporary blues artists stand on the shoulders of giants, and the great Walter Trout pays tribute to some of these legendary talents with Survivor Blues. Not your run-of-the-mill covers album with predictable results, the guitarist digs deep into blues history to unearth long-hidden gems by often-overlooked talents like Sunnyland Slim, Luther Johnson, and J.B. Lenoir, among others, each performance provided Trout’s unique creative spin. Trout inhabits Chicago bluesman Jimmy Dawkins’ “Me, My Guitar, and the Blues” with soaring solos while Floyd Lee’s “Red Sun” is a potent blues-rock stomp with classic rock riffs. Guitarist Robbie Krieger of the Doors sits in on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s country-blues classic “Goin’ Down To the River,” providing elegant solos above Trout’s hypnotic riffs. The twelve tracks chosen by Trout for Survivor Blues serve as a primer for the genre, each performance imbued with the passion and sincerity that has long been the guitarist’s trademark. Grade: A   BUY!

Check out the Reverend’s interview with Walter Trout on the Rock and Roll Globe website!

Watermelon Slim's Church of the Blues
Watermelon SlimChurch of the Blues (Northern Blues Music)
Erudite singer/songwriter Watermelon Slim worships at the Church of the Blues, delivering his typically droll brand of roots-rock and traditional blues music with whip-smart lyrics and no little insight. Slim is fronting a trio here, but he’s joined in the studio by a wealth of musical talent including legendary guitarists Bob Margolin and Joe Louis Walker and soul-blues singer John Nemeth. The results are stunning, Slim layering his half-spoken, half-sung Okie drawl and greasy slide-guitar atop original tracks like the topical “Charlottesville (Blues For My Nation),” “Too Much Alcohol,” and “Post Modern Blues” as well as covering gems from legends like Muddy Waters, Allen Toussaint, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Howlin’ Wolf. Church of the Blues provides the listener with an entertaining, spiritual experience that rocks like a tent revival, Watermelon Slim a true believer preaching the power of the blues. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, January 2019: Badfinger, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Billy Bremner, Dave Davies & Midnight Oil

Short Rounds, December 2018: Doug Deming, Tom Guerra, Handsome Jack, Tom Morello, NRBQ & Unicorn
Short Rounds, November 2018: Joe Bonamassa, Peter Holsapple & Alex Chilton, Winston Jarrett, Permanent Green Light, The Posies & Rolling River Royalty   

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Book Review: Martin Popoff's Born Again! Black Sabbath In the Eighties and Nineties (2019)

Martin Popoff's Born Again! Black Sabbath In the Eighties and Nineties
As a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fanatic in the early ‘70s, you discovered bands in a myriad of ways. Sure, FM radio was the primary source of exposure, especially if you were lucky enough to live someplace like Nashville where WKDA-FM offered a progressive rock playlist (the station would get much more conservative in its musical choices after changing its call sign to WKDF later in the decade). Zines were another invaluable tool in discovering new music, and I devoured monthly issues of Creem and Crawdaddy, trucked down to the corner store every two weeks for a new Rolling Stone, and cherished copies of obscure rags like Zoo World, Fusion, and Rock magazine whenever they could be found. Friends, especially older ones, helped fill in a lot of the blanks, and I have to thank long-lost compadres like Rick DiBello and Mark Vantrease for introducing me, respectively, to Spirit and the Mothers of Invention.

As I wrote in my review of rock historian Martin Popoff’s excellent Sabotage! Black Sabbath In the Seventies book, it was Rick and Bill Berg and their biker buddies that turned me onto Sabbath, a band that has remained among my favorites for nearly 50 years. Popoff is a familiar, much-reviewed writer ‘round these parts; the author of some 80 books on hard rock and heavy metal, he was the founder and former editor of the Canadian metal zine Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, and a frequent contributor to music publications like Goldmine and Record Collector (U.K.), among many others. Here is the part where I’m duty-bound to mention that Martin is also a pal of mine, a friend and colleague of many years, and a fellow masochist trudging away in the treacherous trenches of self-publishing.

Martin Popoff’s Born Again! Black Sabbath In the Eighties and Nineties

Black Sabbath is obviously one of Martin’s favorite bands as well, as he’s madly written three previous books on the band, including the aforementioned Sabotage!, the informative (and essential) Black Sabbath F.A.Q., and Black Sabbath: Doom Let Loose, a gorgeous illustrated history of the British metal pioneers. Born Again! Black Sabbath In the Eighties and Nineties compliments the other three volumes by plowing new turf; nothing here overlaps those other books. As is his usual literary modus operandi, Martin provides the reader with an album-by-album history of these contentious two decades, relying on interviews with Sabbath members and fellow-travelers to create a narrative that includes just the right amount of his critical insight.

Born Again! opens with the release of Sabbath’s 1980 “comeback” album, Heaven and Hell, which vaulted the band back into Platinum™ record sales territory. Sabbath had booted flamboyant frontman Ozzy Osbourne, whose well-documented rock star excesses had begun catching up with him in the late ‘70s. Enlisting former Elf and Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Sabbath forged a heavier sound for the new metallic decade with the Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules albums. In recapturing a bit of their former creative and commercial glory, they also sparked an ‘Ozzy or Dio’ debate that, while not as turbulent as ‘David Lee or Sammy’ discussions among the Van Halen faithful, nevertheless split the band’s fans into two distinct sides.

Tony Iommi’s Years In the Wilderness

All good things eventually come to an end, however, and when egos clashed over the mixing of Sabbath’s 1982 Live Evil album, Dio packed his bags and exited stage right, taking drummer Vinny Appice (who had replaced the ailing Bill Ward for Mob Rules) with him to form the subsequently-successful band that bore his name. Thus begun Tony Iommi’s years in the “wilderness,” the Sabbath riff master keeping the band together, for better or worse, over the ensuing years and decades. The band would become a revolving door of musicians and singers, Iommi recruiting legendary rockers like Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) and Glenn Hughes (Trapeze) and lesser-knowns like Tony Martin and Ray Gillen (Badlands) to front Sabbath and journeymen musos like drummer Cozy Powell and bassist Bob Daisley to fill holes in the roster as Ward and original fat-string player Geezer Butler rotated in and out of the line-up.

The results of this uncertainty and tumult were mixed – only Martin held onto the microphone for more than a single album, and Gillen didn’t even get that – but Sabbath nevertheless released some pretty decent, albeit overlooked records during this period (1983’s Born Again and 1987’s The Eternal Idol) as well as some stinkers (1994’s Cross Purposes), and one that never should have seen the light of day (1995’s horrible Forbidden). An ill-fated reunion with Ronnie James Dio resulted in 1992’s Dehumanizer album and, after much blood, sweat, and fiercely-negotiated tears, the inevitable band reunion with Ozzy occurred (tho’ it didn’t include original drummer Bill Ward at first), which yielded the rockin’ two-disc live Reunion album (which did include Ward!). Popoff dives deeply into these shadowy corners of the band’s career, standing out of the way and allowing Sabbath band members and related parties to create an oral history of the 1980s and ‘90s.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

I admittedly knew a lot less about the lengthy period of Sabbath’s career covered by Popoff’s Born Again! than I did about the early years of the band, but I walked away from the book with a better knowledge of the artistic dynamic that drove Black Sabbath through the ‘dark’ years. The late, beloved Ronnie James Dio comes across as a bit of a prima donna in his comments and recollections. Tony Iommi’s ego matches that of other great musicians (Ritchie Blackmore comes to mind), which made clashes of personality with other strong-willed talents (Dio and Ian Gillan, notably) a certainty.

Ozzy Osbourne comes across as a clueless dolt in Born Again!, a charismatic singer whose wife and manager Sharon holds the strings (and has seemingly been the ‘agent of chaos’ in the Ozzy/Sabbath camp all these years). Beleaguered original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward is the conscious of the band, and has usually gotten the short end of the stick when dealing with his former band members while Geezer Butler is the literal and figurative ‘heartbeat’ of the band, reappearing in the story to help propel Sabbath to the next level when needed. Popoff spins the tale, warts and all, providing the reader with no little insight into the musical legacy of one of rock’s most misunderstood and often-maligned bands. Grade: A (Power Chord Press, published January 2019)

Buy the book directly from the man himself!

Also on That Devil
Martin Popoff - Sabotage! Black Sabbath In the Seventies book review
Black Sabbath - The Dio Years CD review

Friday, February 1, 2019

New Music Monthly: February 2019 Releases

It may be cold as the dickens outside your window, but the spring thaw could come up quickly in the wake of February’s red-hot slate of new releases guaranteed to tickle your eardrums. Aside from new tunes from talents like Tommy Castro, R. Stevie Moore, Bob Mould, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and the Long Ryders your auditory canals can feast on archive music from Alex Chilton (two of ‘em!) and U2 among much, much more! 

If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy!

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers's Killin’ It Live

Beirut - Gallipoli   BUY!
Tommy Castro & the Painkillers - Killin’ It Live   BUY!
Girlpool - What Chaos Is Imaginary   BUY!
Van Duren - Waiting: The Van Duren Story Original Documentary Soundtrack   BUY!
The Specials - Encore   BUY!

Alex Chilton's From Memphis to New Orleans

Alex Chilton - From Memphis to New Orleans   BUY!
Alex Chilton - Songs From Robin Hood Land   BUY!
Charlie Faye & the Fayettes - The Whole Shebang   BUY!
Humble Pie - Joint Effort   BUY!
Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson - Amour   BUY!
Marley’s Ghost - Travelin’ Shoes   BUY!
Gurf Morlix - Impossible Blue   BUY!
Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock   BUY!
The Lemonheads - Varshons 2   BUY!
Mercury Rev - Bobby Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited   BUY!
Panda Bear - Buoys   BUY!

Humble Pie's Joint Effort

Hayes Carll - What It Is   BUY!
Jon Fratelli - Bright Night Flowers   BUY!
The Long Ryders - Psychedelic Country Soul   BUY!
Millencolin - SOS   BUY!
Tedeschi Trucks Band - Signs   BUY!

Tedeschi Trucks Band's Signs

Claypool Lennon Delerium - South of Reality   BUY!
Dream Theater - Distance Over Time  BUY!
R. Stevie Moore - Afterlife   BUY!
Overkill - The Wings of War   BUY!
Rockin’ Johnny & Quiqué Gomez - Dos Hombres Wanted?   BUY!
Luther Russell - Medium Cool   BUY!
U2 - No Line On the Horizon [vinyl reissue]    BUY!
Various Artists - 3x4 (The Bangles, Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, etc)   BUY!

R. Stevie Moore's Afterlife

Kinetic Element - The Face of Life   BUY!

Album of the Month: The Long Ryders’ Psychedelic Country Soul (Omnivore Recordings), the reunited legendary band’s first studio LP in 32 years. Produced by noted board-wrangler Ed Stasium, who has worked with the Ramones and the Smithereens, among many others, Psychedelic Country Soul is a collection of eleven brand spankin’ new original slabs o’ rockin’ Americana along with an inspired cover of the Tom Petty song “Walls.”

Says Long Ryders’ singer, guitarist, and songwriter Sid Griffin in a press release for the new LP, Psychedelic Country Soul is  “the album we were always trying to make… each flavor which made the band unique is there be it C&W, rock ’n’ roll, troubadour folk music, raw R&B, or out-there psychedelia.” The new album comes in the wake of deluxe three-disc reissue versions of the band’s classic 1980s-era albums State of Our Union and Two-Fisted Tales by the U.K. archival label Cherry Red.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Short Rounds: Badfinger, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Billy Bremner, Dave Davies & Midnight Oil (2019)

Badfinger's Wish You Were Here
New album releases in 150 words or less...

Badfinger – Wish You Were Here (Real Gone Music)
The Badfinger story is one of malfeasance and mismanagement that robbed the popular U.K. band of both money and momentum – a tale for another time, perhaps. The last gasp by the band’s best-known incarnation, Wish You Were Here is a stunning, critically-acclaimed collection of rock ‘n’ roll and power-pop that, if not for insurmountable legal issues, could have been huge. I count at least three hit singles here – the grandly-orchestrated “Dennis” (beating ELO at their own game), the enchanting “Know One Knows” (in the vein of earlier hit “Day After Day”), and the country-flavored “You’re So Fine,” which is what the Beatles might have sounded like if they hailed from Nashville. This expanded CD version doubles-down on the goodness with nine bonus tracks, mostly alternative mixes save for the unreleased gem “Queen of Darkness.” Call it Badfinger’s “lost album,” Wish You Were Here is a classic waiting to be rediscovered. Grade: A   BUY!

Big Brother & the Holding Company's Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills
Big Brother & the Holding Company – Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (Legacy Recordings)
San Francisco’s Big Brother & the Holding Company made a star of singer Janis Joplin with their classic Cheap Thrills album, but there was a lot of material left behind that further cements the album’s status as a landmark of rock ‘n’ roll. Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills is a two-disc, 30-track collection of 29 mostly-unreleased alternate takes from the album’s original recording sessions along with a rare, blistering live performance of “Ball and Chain” from Winterland Ballroom that highlights Joplin’s whiskey-soaked vocals and the twin-guitar attack of the underrated Sam Andrew and James Gurley. There’s nothing truly revelatory here, save for the mesmerizing “Oh, Sweet Mary,” on which Janis shares her vocals. Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills will appeal mostly to the hardcore faithful, but it’s fun (and a little intriguing) to hear the band’s varying approaches to well-worn and familiar material like “Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart.” Grade: B   BUY!

Billy Bremner's Singled Out
Billy Bremner – Singled Out (RPM Records, U.K.)
British rocker Billy Bremner is best known for his tenure with the band Rockpile and association with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, having contributed musically to solo albums by both artists. But the singer, songwriter, and guitarist has enjoyed a lengthy solo career dating back to the early 1980s, with a handful of albums to his name. Singled Out is a career-spanning, 21-track compilation, and it’s a dandy, indeed! Bremner wrote “Trouble Boys,” a hit for Edmunds, and was an early Stiff Records label artist in the power-pop vein of Lowe, but he’s often been overshadowed by his friends. Singled Out puts his talents on display with smart wordplay and wiry fretwork as on the lovely “I See It In Your Eyes,” the rockabilly-tinged “Fire In My Pocket,” or his first single, the loping “Loud Music In Cars.” Bremner’s masterful style of rootsy pub-rock is timeless, his talent seemingly endless. RIYL Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile. Grade: A   BUY! 

Dave Davies's Decade
Dave Davies – Decade (Green Amp Records)
Ray Davies is lauded – and rightfully so – as the songwriting genius behind legendary British rockers the Kinks. Several songs written by brother Dave through the years has shown that there was more than one creative spark in the band, and Decade proves this in spades. A collection of 13 previously-unreleased songs recorded by Dave Davies between 1971 and 1979, Decade offers a something for everybody, from the country-flavored pub-rock of “Midnight Sun” and the soulful “If You Are Leaving” to the bluesy “Mystic Woman” and the swirling prog-psych of “Mr. Moon.” Brother Dave is a top-notch wordsmith in his own right, and if his vocals aren’t as melodic as Ray’s, they’re not half-bad either, and his immense six-string skills imbue each performance with the same sort of energy and emotion that he brought to his full-time band’s work. You don’t have to be a Kinks fan to love Dave Davies. Grade: A-   BUY!

Midnight Oil's Armistice Day
Midnight Oil – Armistice Day: Live at the Domain, Sidney (Sony Music, Australia)
Australia’s favorite rockers returned in 2017 after a 15-year hiatus, the band’s best-known line-up bringing their lyrical message of social justice and environmental awareness to over 500,000 fans with 77 shows around the world on “The Great Circle” tour. The tour ended, appropriately, in Sydney, which is where Armistice Day was recorded. Featuring an explosive 26 performances across two discs and packaged in a handsome square-bound book with lots of photos, it’s really like they never left! Vocalist Peter Garrett still roars like a wounded lion across familiar songs like “Beds Are Burning,” “Blue Sky Mine,” “Redneck Wonderland,” and “Forgotten Years” while guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey destroy everything in their path. There are a lot of great “deep tracks” from the band’s extensive catalog included here as well and, overall, Midnight Oil sounds every bit as powerful and passionate on Armistice Day as they did 30+ years ago. Grade: A+   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, December 2018: Doug Deming, Tom Guerra, Handsome Jack, Tom Morello, NRBQ & Unicorn

Short Rounds, November 2018: Joe Bonamassa, Peter Holsapple & Alex Chilton, Winston Jarrett, Permanent Green Light, The Posies & Rolling River Royalty
Short Rounds, October 2018: Mike Felten, Eric Lindell, John McLaughlin, Daniel Seymour & Mark Robinson, Bob Seger & Ska Authentic

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Blues Singer Michael Ledbetter, R.I.P.

Michael Ledbetter, R.I.P.
We're saddened to report on the death of blues singer Michael Ledbetter, an incredible talent who was only 33 years old at the time of his passing.

Ledbetter came to prominence singing with Chicago blues veteran Nick Moss's band, first appearing on record the Nick Moss Band's critically-acclaimed 2014 album Time Ain't Free. Ledbetter toured with the NMB through the band's 2016 album From the Root to the Fruit, spending seven years with Moss before striking out on his own. Ledbetter would leter form the Welch Ledbetter Connection with guitarist 'Monster' Mike Welch, releasing the Right Place, Right Time album in 2017.

On his Facebook page, Moss wrote "my little brother shone brighter than the flames he left behind when he walked off the stage." The best way to remember Ledbetter's enormous talent is hear him sing. These videos provide a taste of what the blues world has lost. R.I.P.

For more on Michael Ledbetter, check out Marty Gunther's interview with the artist from the October 2018 issue of Blues Blast magazine...

Archive Review: Nick Moss Band's Time Ain't Free (2014)

Nick Moss Band's Time Ain't Free
It’s been nearly 13 years now since guitarist Nick Moss released his debut album, 2001’s Got A New Plan, and better than two decades since he first broke onto the scene as the bass player for bluesmen Buddy Scott and, later, Jimmy Dawkins. After all this time, Nick’s fans have become somewhat complacent, expecting the same high-octane Chicago blues performances that Moss has become known for on every album release, maybe with a little blues-rock influences thrown in for good measure as they were on his recent Here I Am (2011) and Privileged (2010) albums. After all this time, too many expect too little from the ever-surprising Mr. Moss.

Credited to the Nick Moss Band, Time Ain’t Free was crowdfunded through the Indiegogo website. This was Nick’s first surprise – although the album is released under Moss’s independent Blue Bella Records label, a big chunk of the money to finish up the recording, packaging, and publicity was supplied by the guitarist’s hardcore fan base (yours truly included). It proves to be a good investment, Time Ain’t Free the hottest, most satisfying slab o’ blues and blues-rock that Moss has released to date. Crowdfunding is the future for indie artists, allowing them to connect with the fan directly and allowing them the freedom to make the music they want without interference from a label or, in Moss’s case, with the financial freedom to push yourself in the studio and make something truly special.

Nick Moss Band’s Time Ain’t Free

The other big surprise with Time Ain’t Free is the addition of singer and guitarist Michael Ledbetter, a descendent of folk-blues giant Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Moss has always had a keen eye for talent, whether in choosing the fine musicians he had as his former band the Flip Tops, or those talents he used on his two previous solo albums. With Ledbetter, though, he’s found a massive talent to not only handle nearly half the vocals (thus freeing Moss to concentrate on guitar), but also to share in the songwriting. The wisdom in this choice is glaringly apparent with Ledbetter’s first turn at the microphone, the shuffling, greasy blues tune “Light It Up.” An original, mid-tempo Chicago blues-styled romp, Ledbetter does an incredible job of dancing atop the song’s spry rhythms with his warm, lively vocals. Moss’s funky guitar strains play nicely off Bryan Rogers’ piano, creating an electric track that is going to translate well to a live setting.

But first Moss ignites Time Ain’t Free with a pair of solid performances in “She Wants It” and “Was I Ever Heard.” The former offers up a Southern rock ‘n’ soul styled groove with slippery fretwork, honky-tonk piano, and a slinky rhythm while the latter throws some greasy guitar into the bucket above a choogling, locomotive rhythm, Moss’s vocals underplayed in favor of the unrelenting, driving beat and subtle, circular guitarplay reminiscent of R.L. Burnside’s Mississippi Hill Country drone. Ledbetter jumps back into the fray with “Fare Thee Well,” a smooth-as-silk urban blues tune with smoldering vocals and frayed emotion pouring out of every one of Moss’s guitar licks. Ledbetter’s incredible vocal turn here reminds of Bobby “Blue” Bland, every inflection hitting a soulful high while Moss lays down a tearjerker solo.

Death Letter Blues

The album’s title track is a monster blues-rocker with muscular fretwork and a fluid groove, drummer Patrick Seals really shining with an explosive performance. Moss’s vocals are a bit slight here, but his guitar sings loud and clear with imaginative, fleet-fingered solos. “Been Gone So Long” is cut from a similar cloth, with a bit of Canned Heat-styled boogie-blues flavor rolling low and slow in the background as Moss roars out the lyrics above Rogers’ chiming keys, the guitarist slicing and dicing the arrangement with a switchblade solo as deadly as a knife’s edge which not-so-subtly punctuates the song’s heartbreak lyrics. The gospel-tinged “I Want The World To Know” offers a stark contrast, making the best use of Ledbetter’s soulful voice on a tradition-clad, old-school romantic blues ballad.

It’s a true measure of a band in how well they handle a cover of a blues standard like Moss and crew do here on Son House’s classic “Death Letter Blues.” The band amps up the Delta blues tune with soaring guitars and raucous, chaotic instrumentation that brings the 90-year-old song into the 21st century with a bang. Moss’s subtle but strong vocals might pay homage to the great Delta legend’s original, but his stinging six-string and Rogers’ furious keyboards are more reminiscent of late 1960s British blues-rock bands like Cream or Free. The mesmerizing throwback tune “Walkin’ On A Ledge” blends Isaac Hayes with Curtis Mayfield, Ledbetter’s excellent vocals supported by backing singers and an infectious groove that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the Stax Records studio circa 1971. Time Ain’t Free closes with “(Big Mike’s) Sweet Potato Pie,” a rowdy instrumental with a definite 1970s era vibe that features lightning-fast keyboard runs, a rock steady beat, and shards of slaphappy guitar and bass.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

With his tenth studio album, bluesman Nick Moss proves that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Time Ain’t Free is his bluesiest studio recording in years, and potentially his most acclaimed, the guitarist downplaying his classic rock tendencies in favor of a carefully-achieved balance of blues, rock, and soul music that flows out of your speakers like honey from the hive. The addition of Ledbetter on vocals provides a creative new facet to the band, while Moss continues to expand and experiment with his sonic palette, bringing a myriad of fresh flavors to his guitar playing and exploring new directions with his songwriting. Consider Time Ain’t Free as another winner from one of blues music’s most innovative talents and exciting live performers. (Blue Bella Records, released March 18, 2014)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Archive Review: Jello Biafra & the Melvins' Sieg Howdy! (2005)

Jello Biafra with the Melvins' Sieg Howdy!
America loves a sequel! How else could you explain the inexplicable success and dubious achievements of American Idol, the gasoline crisis, or George W. Bush (Reagan-lite)? America seems to love the comforts of familiarity…but familiarity inevitably breeds contempt, and where there’s contempt, you’ll find Jello Biafra. For better than a quarter-century now, Biafra has given voice to our contempt, first through his groundbreaking and influential hardcore punk band the Dead Kennedys and later through a series of spoken word albums and musical collaborations with fellow travelers like Mojo Nixon, DOA, and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, among others. It’s safe to say, however, that Biafra has found his perfect musical foils in the Melvins.

Last year, Biafra the punk icon teamed up with grunge forefathers the Melvins to create a red-hot blast furnace of an album in Never Breathe What You Can’t See. The collaboration proved to be Jello’s most productive and critically-acclaimed since the heyday of the Dead Kennedys, and your humble scribe echoed the sentiments of many punk fans when, reviewing that album, I stated that “hopefully this will be but the first of several collaborations between Biafra and the Melvins.” Like a kid eagerly ripping away wrapping paper on Christmas morning, the Reverend was overjoyed to open a recent package from Alternative Tentacles to find a copy of Sieg Howdy!

Jello Biafra photo courtesy Alternative Tentacles Records
I’m here to tell you boys and girls, that not only does Sieg Howdy! meet the high expectations created by its predecessor, in many ways the new album passes Never Breathe What You Can’t See like a DeTomaso Pantera screaming past a Volkswagen on the autobahn. Biafra sounds more comfortable working with King Buzzo and the boys, easily delivering his most spirited vocal performance in a decade or more. On the flip side, the Melvins also sound more natural backing Biafra, the band mixing shades of DK-inspired hardcore thrash alongside their trademarked metallic sludge and riff-happy, feedback-ridden instrumentation. The resulting sound is simply invigorating, a heady musical elixir that kicks the stall like a horny, drunken mule.

The songs on Sieg Howdy! also showcase some of Biafra’s most inspired lyrics since Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Tackling issues like the “War On Terrorism,” Christian extremism, the Middle East, and Republican politics with deadly accuracy and more than a little intelligent humor, Biafra again proves that the pen is mightier than the sword in spreading seditious ideas and satirizing your enemy. Jello updates one of his better earlier songs as “Kali-Fornia Uber Alles 21st Century” to include Governor Ah-nold’s political ambitions, while a spot-on cover of Alice Cooper’s “Halo of Flies” recreates the original song’s reckless menace. Biafra even takes aim at the complacency of young punk fans with “Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)” and puts his relationship with his former band members in perspective with “Voted Off the Island.”

Whenever times have gotten dark, we have always been able to depend on Jello Biafra to shine a light on greed, injustice, and hypocrisy. With the Melvins at his side, Biafra has delivered his most incendiary collection yet in Sieg Howdy! Ignore this album at your own peril ‘cause it rocks like Friday night at a Delta juke joint and displays more intelligent thought than the entire Bush administration combined. (Alternative Tentacles Records, released September 27, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Alternative Tentacles is reissuing Sieg Howdy! on vinyl – get it now!

Monday, January 7, 2019

Book Review: Randy Fox's Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story (2018)

Randy Fox's Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story
One needn’t be a historian to recognize the widespread changes that the United States experienced in the wake of World War II. As the country’s industrial capacity turned from servicing the war machine to manufacturing washing machines, American society experienced an economic boom unparalleled in American history. With the growth of a relatively-wealthy consumerist society also came a post-war “baby boom” of children that largely came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, further turbocharging the economy.

As the U.S. economy grew, so too did the country’s appetite for entertainment, which resulted in a rapid growth of the film and music industries as well as technological advances that resulted in an expanding number of radio stations across the country and prompted the evolution of television programming. Large numbers of teenagers and adults had disposable cash to spend in the 1950s, which directly fueled the sales of pop, country, and rhythm & blues records that both parents and their children would hear playing on their favorite radio stations.

Mr. Ernest Young would step into this growing market for music in the late 1940s. The Nashville businessman had made a respectable living from placing popular coin-operated ‘flipperless’ pinball machines in stores, restaurants, and bars in the Middle Tennessee area. Patrons would rack up “free games” on the machine that were paid off in cash, making it a form of gambling in the eyes of the strict Southern Baptist church. It was a dirty business, though, requiring regular pay-offs to the police in order to continue operations without being raided and your machines seized. By the end of the decade, Young had divested himself of the pinball business to focus on a new and profitable fad – jukeboxes, which played 7” vinyl records.

Jukeboxes took in nickels and, if placed in the right environment (like, say, the Elliston Place Soda Shop), would spit out tidy profits. But records had to be swapped out frequently, so that the jukebox had a good selection of current hits to ensure regular plays, leaving the operator with a surplus of 45rpm records. Young responded to the challenge by opening Ernie’s Record Mart in downtown Nashville, where he sold new and used 45s (from his jukebox stock). With regular advertising on local clear-channel AM radio station WLAC (a 50,000-watt behemoth that could be heard from Canada to the Caribbean and across most of the United States), Ernie’s Record Mart branched out beyond its retail storefront, launching a successful mail-order operation. The store would ship out records to eager buyers across the globe throughout the 1950s and well into the ‘70s.

Randy Fox’s Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story

Excello Records' Slim Harpo 45
Young realized that he could “double dip” and make more money if he produced records as well as selling them so, in 1951, he launched Nashboro Records as a label specializing in African-American gospel music. Nashboro would release records that would subsequently be promoted during WLAC’s Sunday night gospel program and sold via mail order by Ernie’s Record Mart. Author Randy Fox’s excellent book Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story tells the rest of the tale, how Young expanded his operation to include a song publishing company and, most importantly, forming the legendary Excello Records label in 1953 to take advantage of the growing popularity of R&B and blues music.

Excello Records is a name well-known to rock ‘n’ roll aficionados, record collectors, and music historians who obsess over such things. The Nashville-based label made a deal with a Louisiana-based producer (J.D. Miller) to provide master recordings which resulted in Excello releases by artists like Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Tabby Thomas, and Lazy Lester, among others – classic sides that would spark the imagination of musicians and fans on both sides of the pond. Excello also released music by homegrown R&B singers like Marion James, Roscoe Shelton, and Arthur Gunter, whose song “Baby Let’s Play House” would be covered by Elvis Presley, resulting in a financial windfall for both the artist and Excello’s in-house publishing company.

Fox’s Shake Your Hips tells a story of, basically, three different companies, beginning with the original version of Excello as founded by Ernest Young, writing of its importance and influence on popular music. The second version of Excello/Nashboro was owned by the local Crescent Company, which bought the entire operation – the labels, the publishing, the record store, and the mail order business – from Young when he retired in 1966. Crescent wisely kept longtime employees Shannon Williams and Dorothy Keaton, and hired a sympathetic manager in Bud Howell to run the labels. This version of the company continued to thrive well into the 1970s, with Williams’ love of gospel music and production talents allowing Nashboro to expand its influence in the black gospel community while Excello would ride workhorse Slim Harpo while trying to capture a measure of the growing soul, funk, and rock ‘n’ roll markets.

The third company, however, was the broken-down version operated by Los Angeles-based music firm AVI, Inc. which bought the operation from Crescent in 1980. The company’s fortunes had been waning for several years, with neither Excello nor Nashboro able to grow their market share in the face of ever-changing trends in music. Both labels had essentially ceased to exist by 1977, releasing their final records mere months before founder Ernest Young’s death later that year. AVI’s interest in the labels’ properties was negligible save for a few licensing deals. AVI itself was purchased by an investment group led by a former Motown executive, which resulted in a slate of CD reissues of Excello label releases during the mid-to-late 1990s. They would, in turn, be subsequently gobbled up by the multi-national Universal Music conglomerate in 1997, with UMe barely scratching the surface of the deep Excello catalog since.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Excello's The Best of Slim Harpo
That, in a nutshell, is a capsule history of Nashville’s Excello Records label. Fox’s Shake Your Hips provides the full story of this historic independent record label with a narrative delivered at a breakneck pace. Fox’s well-researched tome is chockful of details on artists and record releases without ever getting bogged down in arcane minutiae. It’s a quick read, and a fascinating story for any true-blue R&B fan – I ran through the book in two (lengthy) sessions – Fox managing to capture the zeitgeist of the era within the pages of Shake Your Hips.

A casual acquaintance of mine from my Nashville days, I can avow that Randy Fox is particularly suited to documenting Excello’s storied history; he’s been walking this particular beat of obscure R&B history for a long time and is deeply knowledgeable of the music and its artists. It’s a tale of a different time, to be sure, but an important one nonetheless, Shake Your Hips an entertaining as well as educational history of a record label that made waves beyond its commercial fortunes. If you love the music of Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, et al or simply love old-school R&B music altogether, you owe it to yourself to check out Randy Fox’s Shake Your Hips. Grade: A (RPM Series/BMG Books, published November 20th, 2018)

Buy the book from Randy Fox’s Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Spotlight on R.L. Burnside

R.L. Burnside photo by Bill Steber
R.L. Burnside photo by Bill Steber, courtesy Fat Possum Records

R.L. Burnside Select Discography:
Bad Luck City (Fat Possum Records, 1994)
Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum, 1994), produced by Robert Palmer
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Fat Possum, 1996) [with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion]
Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum, 1997) [two tracks with Jon Spencer]
Acoustic Stories (M.C. Records, 1997)
Come On In (Fat Possum, 1998)
My Black Name a-Ringin' (Genes, 1999) [vintage recordings from 1969]
Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum, 2000)
Burnside On Burnside (Fat Possum, 2001) [live LP]
First Recordings (Fat Possum, 2003) [George Mitchell sessions circa 1967]
A Bothered Mind (Fat Possum, 2004)

North Mississippi Hill Country blues legend R.L. Burnside had been performing and recording for decades before he struck paydirt in the 1990s as part of an overall rediscovery by indie rock fans of Mississippi blues music that was fueled by Fat Possum Records. Burnside found a new audience with his sincere, high-energy blues sound among young punk and garage-rock fans after recording with indie rocker Jon Spencer in the middle part of the decade, but it was his own recordings like Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down and the live Burnside On Burnside that cemented his legacy as one of the most innovative and influential artists in the history of Mississippi blues. Sadly, Burnside left us in 2005 at the age of 78 years, but he leaves behind an enormous musical legacy that is being carried on to this day by his grandson Cedric Burnside.

Also on That Devil Music: R.L. Burnside - Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down CD review