Thursday, July 30, 2015

Unreleased Concert LP by Finnish Rockers Smack

Smack's Helsinki 1986
Chances are that you’ve never heard of them, but take my word for it – Smack were one of the great unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands of the 1980s. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was enamored of the of the band, covering Smack’s “Run Rabbit Run” in concert during his ground-breaking band’s early, pre-fame days. The influence of Smack’s punky, ramshackle sound and on-stage ferocity can be heard in bands like Guns N’ Roses and D Generation, but unlike their fellow countrymen Hanoi Rocks, Smack never achieved even cult status stateside.

We’re going to get another chance to discover Smack, however, on August 7th, 2015 when Cleopatra Records releases Helsinki 1986, a previously-unreleased concert CD from the too-often-overlooked Finnish rockers. The fourteen-track disc includes rare photos of the band as well as liner notes by Jyrki 69 of the Finnish Goth band The 69 Eyes. Smack was at the top of its game in ’86, touring in support of their sophomore album, 1985’s Rattlesnake Bite (their acclaimed debut, Smack On You, was released in 1984).

The band’s electrifying mix of the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls won converts wherever people heard the band, but Smack suffered from being an indie band with poor album distribution stateside. Helsinki 1986 should bring the band a new audience and, with little luck, maybe we’ll get CD reissues of Smack’s hard-to-find studio albums down the road sometime.    

Smack’s Helsinki 1986 tracklist:
1. Some Fun
2. Rattlesnake Bite
3. Black Bird
4. (I Think I’m Gonna) Buy This Town
5. Cemetery Walls
6. Walkin' On the Wire
7. Good Morning Headache
8. Wishing Well
9. Somewhere Out of the Day
10. Run Rabbit Run
11. Pass That Bottle
12. Stepping Stone
13. Pills
14. Paint It Black

Sunday, July 26, 2015

CD Review: Fanny's Fanny Hill (1972)

Fanny's Fanny Hill
There has been a lot of recent hype (and no little notoriety) surrounding the Runaways and their status as the “first female rock ‘n’ roll band.” Although both Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett and her bandmate Lita Ford would emerge as successful solo artists in the 1980s, the members of the Runaways had yet to enter kindergarten when distaff rockers like Goldie and the Gingerbreads (featuring Genya Ravan) and the Pleasure Seekers (with the talented Quatro sisters) were rockin’ clubs from east coast to west.

Too often lost in the discussion is the band Fanny, who were the third all-woman rock ‘n’ roll group to be signed to a major record label (after the two above-mentioned bands), and the first to release a full-length album (their 1970 self-titled debut). Originally known as “Wild Honey,” the band changed its name to Fanny when producer Richard Perry got the L.A. based outfit a deal with Reprise Records. The band’s best-known line-up featured singer/guitarist June Millington and her sister, bassist/vocalist Jean Millington, drummer Alice de Buhr, and keyboardist Nickey Barclay. This is the group that would record Fanny’s first four albums, the quartet scoring a Top 40 hit with the title track of their second album, 1971’s Charity Ball

Fanny’s Fanny Hill

Fanny Hill was the band’s third album, and the last to be overseen by superstar producer Perry, an eclectic boardman whose credits included albums by artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart, Tiny Tim, Ringo Starr, and Barbra Streisand, on whose 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand the four members of Fanny played. Recording at the famed Apple Studio in London with engineer Geoff Emerick, Perry proved to be a sympathetic sounding board for the band, his careful production imbuing Fanny’s songs with a timeless quality while coaxing great performances out of the four musicians. Fanny could rock like a house on fire, but there’s an abundance of post-hippie folk-rock tunes to be found on Fanny Hill, as well as some well-done blues and R&B.

The album kicks off with an upbeat take on Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Ain’t That Peculiar,” the band mixing a sly New Orleans R&B vibe with a bluesy undercurrent. Although June Millington’s breathless vocals are underserved by the mix, frequently overwhelmed by the instrumentation, her welcome slide-guitar licks are simply devastating, displaying why she was held in such high esteem as a guitarist by her male contemporaries. The song’s bluesy arrangement and full-bodied instrumentation, along with great harmony vocals and blastin’ sax courtesy of Bobby Keys, bring a whole other dimension to the familiar tune. “Knock On My Door,” an original song penned by keyboardist Barclay, switches gears entirely, Jean Millington’s lofty vox supported by complex and intriguing instrumentation on a wildly syncopated arrangement that includes some scorching guitar from June.

You’ve Got A Home

June Millington’s “You’ve Got A Home” is a wonderfully textured folk-rock song that, if it had been released a couple years later, would certainly have sat at the top of the charts alongside similar singer/songwriter fare from James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. The song’s gentle, pastoral sound is precious; its lyrics – a loving ode from a single mother to her son – are well-crafted, poetic, and thoroughly engaging. Supported by a sparse instrumental arrangement and tasteful acoustic and slide guitar, “You’ve Got A Home” is the heart and soul of the album. Sister Jean’s “Wonderful Feeling” is yet another song out of time, a bittersweet romantic ballad with smart, considered lyrics and no little emotion that fully displays the band’s instrumental skills with a melancholy arrangement and overall vibe that sounds like, but pre-dates mid-1970s Fleetwood Mac.  

Barclay’s delightful “Borrowed Time” is an unabashed, up-tempo rocker with undeniable R&B roots. Written in response to the out-of-control egos of their male rock contemporaries, “Borrowed Time” offers up some of Barclay’s most inspired keyboard-pounding and brassy vocals, June’s fretwork soars in its imaginative elegance, and the addition of horns by Bobby Keys and Jim Price bring a Southern rock/Rolling Stones vibe to the performance that drives it over the top. A unique cover of the Beatles’ deep track “Hey Bulldog” brings a different perspective to the grand psychedelic-era gem. Fanny keeps the song’s original piano riff intact, as performed admirably by Barclay, but the band heaps on red-hot guitars and explosive percussion alongside the orchestral backing provided by June’s clavinet.

Rock Bottom Blues

The band’s “Rock Bottom Blues” is a slippery slab o’ roadhouse grease that offers up some po’ boy (girl?) lyrics and a rockin’ arrangement that incorporates Jean’s spry bass line, June’s serpentine guitar licks, Barclay’s honky-tonk piano, and a rare vocal by drummer Alice de Buhr that, although trashed by critics at the time, is appropriately stressed and strained considering the lyrics while being badly lost in the mix. By contrast, “Sound and the Fury” is a country-styled tune that absolutely nails the overall sound and cadence of Byrds/Burritos-styled country-rock. June’s lyrics perfectly capture that cry-in-your-beer vibe, her vocal performance, while not incorporating a lick of twang, is nonetheless expressive and emotional. An un-credited Sneaky Pete provides tasty pedal steel for an additional bit of Bakersfield authenticity.

Barclay’s “The First Time” is a slice of Southern rock not dissimilar to Delaney & Bonnie, the song evincing a great mix of rock, soul, and gospel fervor with dancing keyboards, church-choir harmonies, and Jim Price’s subtle horn play. Barclay proves herself to be the strongest vocalist among the band’s four members, her turns at the microphone generally displaying more confidence and greater range, but with three talented songwriters among their ranks, Fanny’s ability to create a diverse blend of music was unparalleled at the time.

This Real Gone Music reissue of Fanny Hill tacks six bonus tracks onto the album’s original eleven songs, including the single version of “Wonderful Feeling” and an outtake of “Rock Bottom Blues” with de Buhr’s original vocal track, which is definitely stronger and more inspired than the version that Perry chose for the album. Notable among the bonus tracks are a raucous cover of Ike Turner’s “Young and Dumb,” which was released as a non-album single and features some devastating guitarplay by June alongside Barclay’s rough ‘n’ tumble keyboards, and the previously-unreleased “No Deposit, No Return,” a country-tinged Barclay original with twangy vocals, clever lyrics, and an undeniable shit-kickin’ grin.       

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

As mentioned above, Fanny was definitely a band (slightly) ahead of its time, and I can easily see Fanny Hill being a chart-gobbling monster if it had been released in, say, 1975 or ’76 instead of 1972. The album’s overall singer/songwriter direction is bolstered by the band’s instrumental ability to sound big or go soft, to tear the roof off the sucker or to strum and sing in a folkish vein. Featuring an unsung, talented singer in keyboardist Nickey Barclay and two underrated vocalists in the Millington sisters, Fanny also had the benefit of three gifted songwriters among its four skilled musicians, and a world-class guitarist in June Millington. Widely considered to be the band’s best recording, Fanny Hill is well worth your time to check out if you’re a fan of 1970s-era singer/songwriter styled music.

Unfairly lost in the shuffle (the early 1970s produced a wealth of great rock ‘n’ roll), Fanny Hill peaked at only #135 on the charts. Fanny worked with Todd Rundgren as producer for their 1973 album Mother’s Pride, which was the last to feature the band’s original line-up. June Millington and Alice de Buhr left the band after this fourth album, Fanny adding guitarist Patti Quatro from the Pleasure Seekers and drummer Brie Brandt as Jean kept the band going for one more shot at the brass ring, 1974’s Rock and Roll Survivors. The Millington sisters continue to play music as Fanny from time to time, but the gorgeous Fanny Hill is the foundation of the band’s enduring musical legacy. Grade: A- (Real Gone Music, released June 29, 2015)

Buy the album from Fanny's Fanny Hill (expanded edition)

CD Preview: Dr. John’s The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974

Dr. John's The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974
Mac Rebennack a/k/a Dr. John the Night Tripper, is one of the most colorful and talented figures in rock ‘n’ roll history. A true New Orleans music legend, he began his career playing sessions for famed producer Cosimo Matassa, working with local legends like Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, and Art Neville, among others. Rebennack would become an essential part of the Crescent City’s music scene, scoring a regional hit as an artist with the 1959 instrumental “Storm Warning” and working as a staff songwriter for Ace Records and as a producer and A&R man for labels like Ron and Specialty Records.

In the mid-1960s, though, Rebennack was facing some legal problems at home even while job opportunities were shrinking. A talented songwriter and pianist, he relocated to Los Angeles and picked up his career as a session player, contributing to hits by artists like Sonny & Cher and Van Morrison as well as working with producer Phil Spector. He launched his solo career in 1968, creating the “Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper” voodoo witch doctor persona to sell his unlikely and unique hybrid of psychedelic-rock, blues, and New Orleans-flavored R&B. Rebennack would later shorten his chosen moniker to “Dr. John” and, signed to Atlantic Records’ Atco subsidiary, would release his solo debut, Gris-Gris, in 1968.

Throughout the remainder of the ‘60s and well into the 1970s, Dr. John would build a cult following with his flamboyant stage show, where he would often wear Mardis Gras costumes and headdresses. This would be a prolific period for the veteran musician, Dr. John recording seven albums for Atco in six years, including often-overlooked gems like his 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo, an inspired collection of covers of classic New Orleans R&B and jazz, or the previous year’s The Sun, Moon & Herbs, which included guest performances by Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and horn players Bobby Keys and Wayne Jackson.

Dr. John would mine gold with 1973’s In The Right Place. Backed by fellow New Orleans legends the Meters, Rebennack scored a Top Ten single with the classic “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which pushed the album into the Top 30, and the song “Such A Night,” which peaked at #42 on the charts but has since become equally as popular through its frequent use in movie soundtracks and TV shows.

Dr. John’s legacy as a pop-rock songwriter and performer is often overlooked, but will receive a new evaluation on September 18th, 2015 when archival label Omnivore Recordings releases The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, a 22-track compilation that includes all the A and B-sides from Dr. John’s singles for the label. There’s a lot of fine music to be found in these grooves – New Orleans R&B, traditional zydeco, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, including songs like his biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” as well as “Iko Iko,” “Cold Cold Night,” “Loop Garoo,” “I Walk On Gilded Splinters,” “Such A Night,” and “A Man of Many Words,” which features Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

The list of producers involved making in these original recordings represents a “murderer’s row” of classic soul and R&B talents, including Allen Toussaint, Harold Battiste, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd, and the track listing for The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 includes some of the best songwriters of the 21st century, including Willie Dixon, Huey Smith, Buddy Guy, Allen Toussaint, and Dr. John himself.

The set includes extensive liner notes by critic and historian Gene Sculatti. Dr. John is a six-time Grammy® Award winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and while he’s made plenty of great music over the decades, he’s seldom matched the quality and quantity of these late ‘60s/early ‘70s singles. Check out the video below for a taste of Dr. John’s heady musical gumbo and then get over to and order a copy of The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974.

Dr. John's The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 tracklist:
1. The Patriotic Flag Waver (mono version)
2. Mama Roux
3. Jump Sturdy
4. I Walk On Gilded Splinters (Part I)
5. I Walk On Gilded Splinters (Part II)
6. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
7. Loop Garoo
8. Wash Mama Wash
9. Iko Iko
10. Huey Smith Medley: “High Blood Pressure” “Don’t You Just Know It” “Well I’ll Be John Brown”
11. Wang Dang Doodle
12. Big Chief
13. A Man Of Many Words (w/Buddy Guy & Eric Clapton)
14. Right Place, Wrong Time
15. I Been Hoodood
16. Such A Night
17. Cold Cold Cold
18. Life
19. Let’s Make A Better World
20. Me-You=Loneliness
21. (Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away
22. Mos’ Scocious

Fossils: The Doors' Morrison Hotel (1970)

The Doors' Morrison Hotel
[click to embiggen]
The Doors – Morrison Hotel

You’d think that with the Doors’ fifth studio album in four years (plus 1970’s live Absolutely Free, the less said about the better…), that Messrs. Morrison and company would begin to run out of musical ideas, but it wasn’t so. Whereas 1969’s The Soft Parade witnessed a band treading water and wondering how to get out of the pool, just a year later Morrison Hotel found a re-energized, raw, and ready-to-rumble outfit revisiting their blues roots (the Texas-flavored “Roadhouse Blues” and “The Spy”); delving into psychedelic mysticism (“Indian Summer,” “Waiting For The Sun”); and diving back into the existential deep end with the dark-hued, malevolent “Peace Frog.”

Although Morrison Hotel yielded no hit singles (tho’ “Peace Frog” grabbed a lot of FM airplay and “Roadhouse Blues” would rise as high as #50 on the singles chart), it was a commercially-successful mix of blues and hard rock (hitting #4 on the album chart) that paved the way for L.A. Woman the following year. Advertising for Morrison Hotel was just more or less a variation on the album cover, but the band photo – taken in some little alcove off some street – displays a certain gritty authenticity that plays well with the music. At this point in their career arc, the Doors really only needed to let fans know that a new album had been released and the rock ‘n’ roll gods would take care of the rest… 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wilson Pickett Gets Real Gone with RCA Studio Set

Wilson Pickett's Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings
One of the true giants of American soul music, singer Wilson Pickett scored 17 Top Ten hits on the R&B chart during the ten years 1962 to ’72. He had a total of 50 charting songs during his career, including such classic hits as “In The Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Funky Broadway.” Pickett’s influence on a generation of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll artists is undeniable, and the singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Pickett spent almost the entire 1960s with Atlantic Records, who lent him out for a while to the Memphis-based Stax label. During this prolific period, Pickett recorded a dozen albums for Atlantic/Stax and scored his biggest hits. After leaving Atlantic in the early 1970s, the singer landed at RCA Records, where he recorded four studio albums and a live set, beginning with 1973’s Mr. Magic Man. Although his chart-topping days were behind him, during his tenure with the label that Nipper built, Pickett delivered a handful of Top 20 R&B chart singles and remained a popular live draw.

While Pickett’s early career triumphs with Atlantic/Stax are well-documented and most of his classic albums are readily available on CD, the soul singer’s half-decade with RCA Records is too-often overlooked. This oversight will be rectified on September 4th, 2015 when Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records releases the two-disc Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings. The set features all four of Pickett’s studio albums for the label – 1973’s Mr. Magic Man and Miz Lena’s Boy, 1974’s Pickett In The Pocket, and 1975’s Join Me and Let’s Be Free. The set also includes four rare bonus tracks that have never appeared on CD, 42 songs running some 148 minutes in total.

During his RCA years, Pickett worked with producers like Brad Shapiro, Dave Crawford, and Yusuf Rahman, recording at legendary facilities like Muscle Shoals Sound and Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings was re-mastered by Vic Anesini at Sony’s Battery Studios and the set features liner notes by the Second Disc’s Joe Marchese. While not necessarily the most essential of Pickett’s recordings – I’d check out The Exciting Wilson Pickett or Hey Jude albums first – but for longtime fans of one of the greatest soul men of all time, Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings fills a giant-sized hole in many a record collection.

Buy the CD from Wilson Pickett's Mr. Magic Man: The Complete RCA Studio Recordings

Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Bird of Fire Gets Audio Fidelity Treatment

Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire
Along with Return to Forever and Weather Report, guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra were one of the creators and innovators of what we rockcrit types called – back in the 1970s – “jazz-rock fusion,” the combining of the two genres providing musicians with both the artistic innovation of improvisational jazz and the exploding freedom of rock ‘n’ roll music.

British-born McLaughlin was a veteran of both England’s R&B scene and the tumultuous U.S. jazz world of the ‘60s, making his bones playing with trailblazers like Graham Bond and Brian Auger before moving to the states and playing with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Miles Davis. Forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, McLaughlin enlisted a group of below-the-radar jazz and rock talents, the band including violinist Jerry Goodman (from The Flock), keyboardist Jan Hammer (who would later play with Jeff Beck), bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham (whose 1973 album Spectrum is itself a classic of jazz-rock fusion).

It was this talented musical roster that recorded Mahavishnu’s classic sophomore album, Birds of Fire. Released in early 1973, it was sadly the final studio album by this group (a live album with the original band members, Between Nothingness & Eternity, was released in late ’73). The follow-up to the band’s 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu’s sophomore effort incorporated the primal rock ‘n’ roll energy of its predecessor with an ambitious, more experimental jazz edge that found an unlikely but adventure-seeking audience. Birds of Fire would peak at #15 on the Billboard albums chart (a feat no other Mahavishnu album would repeat, although subsequent releases would graze the Top 40.)

On August 21st, 2015 Marshall Blonstein’s Audio Fidelity label will provide Birds of Fire the deluxe sonic treatment it deserves when the label releases the album as a limited-edition Hybrid 4.0 Quad SACD. Mastering for the stereo CD and SACD was done by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, while Gus Skinas oversaw the 4.0 analog to hi-def DSD digital transfer. Audio Fidelity’s Hybrid Super Audio CDs offer three layers on the same disc – a single layer of two-channel stereo sound, a dual layer SACD, and a 4.0 Quadraphonic Surround Sound layer; the Audio Fidelity Hybrid SACDs are compatible with all standard CD players. Provided this sonic upgrade, Birds of Fire promises to sound better than ever, the album a classic gem of jazz-rock fusion.

Buy the SACD from Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire

Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire tracklist:
1. Birds of Fire
2. Miles Beyond (dedicated to Miles Davis)
3. Celestial Terrestrial Commuters
4. Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love
5. Thousand Island Park
6. Hope
7. One Word
8. Sanctuary
9. Open Country Joy
10. Resolution

Greg Lake’s 1981 Hammersmith Odeon Performance Gets CD/LP Release!

Greg Lake's London '81
Greg Lake is best known as a founding member of King Crimson and, of course, and one-third of the prog-rock world-beaters that were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The talented singer and multi-instrumentalist has dabbled in a solo career these past 30 years, releasing his self-titled solo debut album in 1981. Enlisting blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore and a studio band that included the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemmons and members of the band Toto, Lake ventured out of his prog-rock comfort zone to explore a guitar-driven, hard rock direction.

Touring in support of his debut album, Lake performed a legendary show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on November 5th, 1981. The Greg Lake Band at the time featured Lake playing guitar, bassist Tristian Margetts, keyboardist Tommy Eyre, and drummer Ted McKenna, with special guest Gary Moore. The concert was recorded for a King Biscuit Flower Hour radio broadcast, and was originally released on CD in 1986 as Greg Lake In Concert. The performance re-appeared on disc again in 2004 as Nuclear Attack, but it’s been out of print for the better part of a decade.

On August 7th, 2015 Purple Pyramid Records – a subsidiary of Cleopatra Records – will be reissuing this classic concert on CD and vinyl as London ’81. Whether or not you’re an ELP fan (and the Reverend certainly is…), this concert is definitely worth your while. Lake and his skilled players crank out an inspired, high-octane performance of classic tracks by ELP and King Crimson as well as material from Lake’s solo debut. Recorded in front of 2,000 rabid fans, London ’81 offers up gems like “Love You Too Much,” a song co-written by Lake with Bob Dylan; “21st Century Schizoid Man,” from Crimson’s debut; Gary Moore’s enchanting “Parisienne Walkways,” and the ELP medley “Fanfare For The Common Man/Karn Evil 9.” Unlike previous CD releases of this frequently-revisited show, London ’81 includes a bonus track in the form of ELP’s “C’est La Vie,” recorded live at a 1981 show in New York City.       

Buy the CD from Greg Lake's London '81

Greg Lake’s London ’81 tracklist:
1. Medley: Fanfare For the Common Man/Karn Evil 9
2. Nuclear Attack
3. The Lie
4. Retribution Drive
5. Lucky Man
6. Parisienne Walkways
7. You Really Got A Hold On Me
8. Love You Too Much
9. 21st Century Schizoid Man
10. In The Court of the Crimson King
11. C'est La Vie

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Cleopatra Records Snags Junior Wells Estate, Launches Blues Imprint

Junior Well's Southside Blues Jam
Here’s some interesting news for blues music fans – the estate of Blues Hall of Fame inductee and Chicago blues legend Junior Wells has been entrusted to Cleopatra Records through an agreement worked out between the label and Wells’ daughter Regina Brown. The deal includes Wells’ sound recordings as well as his song publishing, an extensive catalog that ranges from the harp player’s earliest recordings in the 1950s through his death in 1998. The deal also includes unreleased master recordings, and Wells’ personal memorabilia including his harmonicas, performance outfits, photos, and personal journals, among other artifacts.

Born Amos Wells Blackmore, Jr. in December 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee, Wells was raised on the other side of the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas. He learned the fundamentals of blues harp from another future legend, Junior Parker, before moving to Chicago in 1946. Wells hooked up with guitarists Louis and David Myers, the three young men playing house parties and infrequent club dates as the Three Deuces. They later changed their name to the Three Aces, and finally just the Aces when they added drummer Fred Below.

Wells’ big break came when he joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1952, replacing Little Walter Jacobs, who enlisted the Aces to launch his own solo career. Wells began playing with guitarist Buddy Guy in 1958, the two forming a creative relationship that would last some 20 years. Wells’ raucous, no-holds-barred playing style, characterized by his staggering solos and vocal interplay, was perfectly suited for the era, defining the Chicago blues harp sound at a time when the music was shedding its country roots and becoming more sophisticated.

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues
Wells recorded for a number of labels during his 50+ year career, including Chief, Profile, Vanguard, and Telarc Records, but it is the recordings he made with Guy for Delmark Records during the 1960s on which his enormous legacy rests. Albums like Wells’ 1966 solo debut, Hoodoo Man Blues, and 1969’s Southside Blues Jam would cross over to young blues-rock fans and lead to collaborations with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and the Rolling Stones. In 1990, Wells worked with fellow harp players James Cotton, Billy Branch, and Carey Bell to record the W.C. Handy Award-winning collaboration Harp Attack!      

It seems like the marriage of old-school Chicago blues and Cleopatra Records would be an odd fit, the Los Angeles-based label better known for its signature Goth, punk, and hard rock releases. Formed in 1992 by Perera, the label has released albums by an eclectic roster of artists, including Christian Death, the Damned, and U.K. Subs. Through their Deadline Music imprint, the label has released albums by bands like Quiet Riot and Cinderella, but Cleopatra has branched out in recent years through its Purple Pyramid subsidiary, releasing psychedelic and prog-rock archival material from artists like Iron Butterfly, Nektar, Tangerine Dream, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, among others.

Junior Wells & the Aces' Live In Boston 1966
In spite of the label’s storied history, the label seems psyched to venture into blues territory. “We’re very excited to enter into this deal and be a part of the one of the all time icons in American blues history,” says the label’s Brian Perera in a press release about the historic agreement with the Wells estate. “We intend to keep the Junior Wells legacy alive with a variety of releases as well as merchandise and branding partnerships in the years to come.” Perera has announced a newly-launched Cleopatra Blues imprint that will feature future releases from Wells and other artists including Eric Gales, Shuggie Otis, and Harvey Mandel. Given the label’s acclaimed previous efforts in rescuing long-lost music from the archives, I’m anxious to see what they’ll do in a blues vein. Stay tuned…

CD Preview: Robert Cray’s 4 Nights of 40 Years Live

Robert Cray's 4 Nights of 40 Years Live
It’s my personal feeling that legendary blues guitarist Robert Cray has been somewhat underserved when it comes to the release of live material during his lengthy career. With nearly two dozen albums to his credit since his acclaimed 1980 debut, Who’s Been Talkin’?, only three of these discs have represented the guitarist’s spellbinding, dynamic live performances, all of ‘em released in a cluster by Vanguard Records between 2007 and 2010.

Although there’s certain to be some tasty live morsels hidden away in the vaults somewhere, at least loyal fans have something concrete to look forward to on August 28th, 2015 when Provogue Records releases Cray’s 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, a career-spanning set comprised of both new live recordings and archive material. 4 Nights of 40 Years Live will be available in a number of formats, including a two-CD set with accompanying DVD or Blu-ray disc, a two-LP vinyl album with download card, and straight digital download.

The first disc features live performances recently put to tape by Cray and his current band, including bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Dover Weinberg, and drummer Les Falconer, thirteen songs recorded at four different venues in the Los Angeles area. The tracklist represents a cross-section of Cray’s career, truly spanning the decades by offering songs like “Bad Influence,” from the 1983 album of the same name; “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” from 1986’s Strong Persuader; “These Things,” from 1990’s Midnight Stroll; and “I’ll Always Remember You,” from the more recent LP Nothin But Love. Steve Jordan returns to the producer’s chair for the album, which includes guest appearances from the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson, harmonica wizard Lee Oskar, saxophonists Trevor Lawrence and Tom Scott, and trumpeter Steve Madaio.

Disc two takes the listener on a ride in the “Wayback Machine,” featuring performances from Cray’s appearance at the 1982 San Francisco Blues Festival and a 1987 appearance on the Dutch TV show Countdown, including tracks like “Smoking Gun,” “Too Many Cooks,” and “T-Bone Shuffle.” The accompanying DVD/Blu-ray disc offers 94 minutes of Cray and crew’s red-hot live performances from the four L.A. shows along with video from the aforementioned S.F. Blues Festival and Countdown TV broadcast as well as interviews with Cray friends and admirers like Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Buddy Guy.

Although we’ll always like to hear more live music from the Cray and his band, the deluxe set that is 4 Nights of 40 Years Live goes a long way towards presenting the guitarist’s on-stage legacy in a proper light.

Check out the trailer for the album below and then get on over to and order the album: Robert Cray's 4 Nights of 40 Years Live (2CD + DVD)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fossils: Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!
(click to embiggen)
Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Only in the heady 1970s could a label (Warner Brothers, in this instance) wager on such an unlikely act and pull off a commercial coup. Devo arose from the ranks of the indie punk/new wave scene with a striking visual image (yellow industrial jumpsuits and sunglasses with red plastic ‘flowerpot’ hats) and bizarre philosophy (the concept of ‘de-evolution,’ that mankind had begun to evolve backwards rather than progressing, witnessed by the dysfunction and consumerism of American society). The band released a couple of singles (“Mongoloid,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”) on its own independent Booji Boy label, bringing them to the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who helped the band get signed to Warner Brothers.

Bowie was evidently on the hook to produce Devo’s debut, but previous commitments led to Brian Eno replacing him in the producer’s chair for the creation of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! The band re-recorded its early singles (including the popular B-side “Jocko Homo”) as well as a bunch of new originals like Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Uncontrollable Urge,” Gerald Casale’s “Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’),” and Mothersbaugh’s “Too Much Paranoias.” The music was jumpy, dissonant, and edgy with odd time signatures and amateurish, tense vocals mixed with out-of-control guitar and synthesizer. The band’s lyrics were satirical, humorously tongue-in-cheek, and intellectual – hardly the stuff of Top 40 prospects. Regardless of its odd duck status, Are We Not Men inched up to #78 on the Billboard album chart, the band striking gold two years later with its Freedom of Choice album and hit single “Whip It.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Archive Review: The Rick Johnson Reader (2007)

The Rick Johnson Reader
Hmmm…where to start, where to start? How do you sum up the tragically short career of a rock critic, that most ephemeral of literary pursuits? After all, only a few bona fide, truly insightful rockcrits have ever made the jump from the fleeting, yellowing page of the periodical to a culturally-significant-and-acceptable placement between the covers of a book. Dave Marsh has always done it well, Greil Marcus, Meltzer, Christgau…heck, the almost-famous Lester Bangs had to wait until he died to earn his own ISBN number. Of the current crop of music writers – most of whom lack the passion and reckless temerity of the aforementioned first-gen giants – only Jim DeRogatis is worth reading. Weaned on ever-evolving musical trends and “bloato hype,” today’s rockcrits aren’t fit to hold Lester’s stash, so why should we trust their opinions?

So where do you start when talking about Rick Johnson? Well, he was this guy, you know…“Ranger Reek,” a writer and critic…beloved by a smallish legion of fanboys and serious music geeks that troll eBay to this day looking for dog-eared copies of Creem to purchase. Ostensibly a “FOL” (Friend Of Lester) at the same time that Cameron Crowe was ditching his junior prom to write for Rolling Stone, Johnson was my reviews editor at Sunrise, a small mid-1970s politics-and-culture publication that today would be called a “zine.” Through his friendship with Bangs, “Reek” – as he was known to his readers – made connections at Creem that would later come in handy. In fact, Reek left Illinois in 1980 or so to live in the Detroit area and work at the Creem offices as a writer and editor. In between, he followed friend and editor Bill Knight from Sunrise, after its demise, to write for Prairie Sun, a record store-sponsored tab that carried on the great Midwest rock tradition.

Johnson’s brief writing career extended from around 1972 until 1984, when the ownership of Creem gave up on Michigan winters and moved lock, stock, and barrel to L.A. As best as I can tell, the vast bulk of Reek’s writing was done for three publications – Sunrise, Prairie Sun, and Creem – with a few pieces published by ‘70s-era cultural rag Fusion, skin-mag Oui, and a handful of other print forums. After leaving Detroit, Johnson went back to Macomb, Illinois, where he had previously attended college. Sadly, he published few pieces afterwards; even more tragically, he died last year, at the still-young age of 55, an obscure writer whose passing was noted only by friends and a handful of colleagues in the music journalist community.

So where do you start when talking about Rick Johnson? First, and foremost, he was deserving of a much larger audience than he ever received. If the magazine publishing world hadn’t become the namby-pamby, corporate-drone-filled haven for safe-as-milk scribes that it is today, some editor somewhere might have recognized Johnson’s literary brilliance and offered him a place for his words. But it did, and they didn’t, and Reek’s voice was silenced by small minds with no vision, and obviously no sense of humor; uptight assholes more worried about not upsetting the reader and keeping their own gigs than in publishing something insightful and entertaining and the least bit edgy.    

Not that Johnson was a controversial writer…on the contrary, he was a unique product of his day and age. Unlike his obvious influences – writers like Bangs or Meltzer, whose cultural perspective was formed by Beatnik poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac, and by Elvis and Chuck, Bob and the Beatles – Johnson’s creativity was shaped and molded by ‘60s garage-rock, baseball, television, and mass market advertising. His best and lasting role was that of the cultural commentator, and his overt influences typically spilled over into his reviews. Unlike some writers, Johnson never tried to stir things up; but when you start with the intellectual ammunition that he had at his disposal, and hurl your words-and-phrases rapid-fire at your readers like molten slag from the barrel of a critical Gatling gun, you’re likely to upset somebody’s tender vittles.        

Johnson was, above all else, a highly entertaining writer. Erudite and well-read, he was one of the few members of the rockcrit literati that could mix classical literary references with bits-and-pieces of TV sitcom humor and contemporary events to make some obscure point seem important and relevant. Reek’s work was (and is) always fun to read; as a writer, he was a clever wordsmith, quick with a phrase and inventive in his use of language, witty to the point of absurdity. Whereas Bangs might wander off aimlessly in search of an expression or reference worth quoting in his reviews, Johnson typically cut to the heart of his subject; even when he was being purposely surreal, he usually managed to tie it into the review in the end.

After his death, many of Reek’s friends and admirers in the world of music journalism lamented the fact that no collection of his work existed outside the bounds of over-priced copies of Creem. Bill Knight, Johnson’s editor at Sunrise and Prairie Sun and a professor of journalism at Western Illinois University, took on the task of editing Reek one more time. Knight got the “old gang” back together during the summer of 2006, two dozen former writers (including yours truly) who volunteered to type up Johnson’s old reviews and articles for use in a collection that was published this year as The Rick Johnson Reader: ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’.

The material chosen by Knight to represent Johnson’s writing legacy includes some of his best, brightest and funniest work. From album reviews, which provide the bulk of the book’s content, and television commentary to baseball forecasting and book and videogame reviews (a form of criticism that Reek pioneered), ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ illustrates Johnson’s unique and original writing style, his absurdist sense of humor and, most of all, his ability to stay critically detached – it’s only rock & roll, ya know! The book features a lot of material from Sunrise and Prairie Sun, which is where Reek published an abundance of great writing, and which are nearly impossible to find these days compared to the early 1980s issues of Creem that his words appeared in.

All other considerations aside, the album review was Johnson’s true forte, and he brought no little insight and a great deal of joy to his work in this area. Reek was never beholden to the label hype machine, and he had great fun poking holes in sacred cows. He was never afraid to write about a little-known band like the Gizmos or MX-80 Sound, and was not reserved about fragging the overblown work of a behemoth like Jefferson Starship or the Eagles. He had his favorites…as do all critics…typically straight-ahead rockers like Thin Lizzy or the New York Dolls, but he would also hold their feet to the fire if so required. Johnson wrote an impressive number of reviews during his all-to-brief career and, after reading this book twice, I can honestly say that his work is never dull and always entertaining.

The Rick Johnson Reader: ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ should be required reading for every hopeful rock critic, and most current so-called writers, the book providing an example of how good music writing can be. The best compliment that I can give Reek is that, after reading several of his reviews, I either bought the albums or put them on my “want” list for future purchase. Music lovers should rejoice in the collection, as it offers a snapshot of a decade in pop culture. Bill Knight and his crew have provided a valuable service by preserving Rick Johnson’s words for posterity.           

As a young rock critic, Rick Johnson was my first editor when I was published in Sunrise. Our brief friendship, which began around 1975 and lasted into the early 1980s, launched me on the dubious career path of the rock critic. I don’t know if I should thank Reek or curse him, but mostly because of him, I’ve had a hell of a ride. Deserving of space on your bookshelf, ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ is an essential collection and a fine memorial to Johnson’s work. Buy or die, buckaroos!

Buy the book from The Rick Johnson Reader: 'Tin Cans, Squeems and Thudpies'

Friday, July 10, 2015

Revisiting Magellan’s Early Days

Magellan's Double Feature
Formed in 1985 in San Francisco, progressive rock band Magellan was part of the second wave of neo-prog outfits that included bands like IQ and Marillion.  Singer and keyboardist Trent Gardner is architect of the Magellan sound, his brother Wayne serving as the band’s guitarist until his death in 2014.

Magellan released its debut album, Hour of Restoration, in 1991 on the fledgling Magna Carta Records label, following up in 1995 with their sophomore effort, Impending Ascension. Both albums have been long out of print but, thanks to the good folks at Magna Carta, they’ve been reissued as a budget-priced two-disc set titled Magellan: Double Feature which features both albums in their entirety.

Trent Gardner’s lyrics are often based on historical subjects, and so it was with Hour of Restoration, which musically explored the signing of the Magna Carta and its impact on the evolution of British society. Musically, the album is heavy on the to-be-expected influences of Yes, Rush, and Kansas – touchstones for much of the neo-prog bands of the ‘80s – but bearing Gardner’s unique musical signature. The band used a drum machine throughout the album, with guest Hal Stringfellow Imbrie adding bass guitar.

Long considered one of the true classics of prog-rock, Magellan’s Impending Ascension showcased significant musical growth within the band, building on the successes of its predecessor while displaying a more aggressive sound and better songcraft while not entirely abandoning its lyrical focus on historical subject matter (including the epic “Storms and Mutiny,” written about Ferdinand Magellan – the inspiration for the band’s name – and his sojourn across the globe). Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry guests on the song “Waterfront Weirdos.”

Longtime Magellan fans will be overjoyed at the new availability of these classic albums in a single package, while any prog-rock fanatic would be well-served by Magellan: Double Feature.

Buy the CD from Magellan's Magellan: Double Feature

Maria Muldaur’s Debut LP Reissued On Vinyl

Maria Muldaur's Maria Muldaur
When it was originally released in 1973, singer Maria Muldaur eclectic self-titled debut album scored gold. On the basis of “Midnight at the Oasis” – a major league pop and rock radio hit – the album peaked at number three on the Billboard magazine album chart. It remains Muldaur’s best-known and, for some music fans, her only song, the singer too often unfairly considered a “one hit wonder.” 

For Muldaur, though, that debut album was the culmination of a lifetime of work. The New York native was a veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene, had studied bluegrass fiddle with the legendary Doc Watson, was a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band with John Sebastian and David Grisman, and sang in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Geoff Muldaur, her future husband and recording partner (the duo recording a pair of albums together).

When Muldaur launched her solo career in the early 1970s, she called upon talented friends like Ry Cooder, Dr. John, Bettye LaVette, Klaus Voorman, and Amos Garrett, who played guitar on the hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” The album’s mix of rock, pop, blues, country, and bluegrass was ambitious even by the standards of the era, and it features songs penned by some of the hottest talents at the time, including Dan Hicks, Wendy Waldman, and Kate McGarrigle. The album has held up phenomenally well due to Muldaur’s gorgeous vocals and the musicianship provided by her friends.

Maria Muldaur, the album, has been reissued on glorious 200 gram vinyl by Exhibit Records, with the colorful original album artwork presented in a sturdy, old-school tip-on gatefold jacket. The label is earning a reputation for releasing high-quality vinyl LPs across a diverse range of musical styles, from Muldaur and Johnny Cash to the Dillards and Trini Lopez. After the success of her self-titled debut, Muldaur would release a handful of acclaimed major label albums through the rest of the 1970s while experiencing diminished commercial returns.

Although she’d never again match the commercial heights of her debut album, Muldaur continues to perform and record, returning to her musical roots and finding a home in the blues world. Since 1980, Muldaur has released better than three dozen albums of blues, rock, and folk music, including a tribute to the legendary Memphis Minnie released in 2012. It all started with the self-titled Maria Muldaur, though, and it’s good to have the album back on vinyl once again.   

Side One:
1.  Any Old Time
2.  Midnight at the Oasis
3.  My Tennessee Mountain Home
4.  I Never Did Sing You a Love Song
5.  The Work Song

Side Two:
1.  Don't You Make Me High (Don't You Feel My Leg)
2.  Walkin' One and Only
3.  Long Hard Climb
4.  Three Dollar Bill
5.  Vaudeville Man
6.  Mad Mad Me

Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special Back On Vinyl!

Johnny Cash's Orange Blossom Special
Country and Americana music legend Johnny Cash was already a superstar when he released his 21st album, Orange Blossom Special, in 1965. Recording with producer Don Law and backed by the Tennessee Two – guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant – Cash knocked out a dozen inspired performances. Guest appearances by Nashville greats like saxophonist Boots Randolph, pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Norman Blake, and harmonica wizard Charlie McCoy helped flesh out the album’s sound.

The importance of Orange Blossom Special in the evolution of Cash’s career is often understated. The previous year’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, featuring songs written by Cash and Peter La Farge, solidified the singer’s status as an activist and supporter of Native American rights and signaled a populist turn by the popular country star. With Orange Blossom Special, Cash began turning to songwriters outside of the Nashville machine, including three songs by Bob Dylan on the album – “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind,” which had yet to be recorded by Dylan. By mixing traditional country, folk-rock, and modern country, as represented by Harlan Howard’s “The Wall,” Cash’s expanded stylistic palette would become a major influence in the creation of Americana music.    

Exhibit Records has reissued Cash’s Orange Blossom Special on lovely 200 gram vinyl as a special, numbered limited edition album. Remastered from the original master recordings, and presented in an old-school gatefold jacket with liner notes, historical information, and rare photos, the “Box Car Series” version of Orange Blossom Special includes a tiny replica of the actual railroad boxcar that appears on the album cover, foil-stamped with a unique edition number. Exhibit Records is earning a reputation for releasing high-quality vinyl LPs across a diverse range of musical styles, from Cash and Maria Muldaur to the Dillards and Trini Lopez. Find out more on the Exhibit Records website.

Side One:
1.  Orange Blossom Special  
2.  The Long Black Veil  
3.  It Ain't Me Babe  
4.  The Wall 
5.  Don't Think Twice, It's Alright 
6.  You Wild Colorado  

Side Two:
1.  Mama, You've Been On My Mind  
2.  When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below)  
3.  All Of God's Children Ain't Free  
4.  Danny Boy  
5.  Wildwood Flower  
6.  Amen  

Friday, July 3, 2015

CD Review: Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer (1973/2015)

Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Michael Fennelly isn’t the most obscure of cult heroes, but his status as a critic’s darling and favorite of 1960s-era rock aficionados is undeniable. Hitchhiking from New Jersey* to Los Angeles at the tender age of 17, Fennelly was subsequently signed to a song publishing deal with musician and producer Curt Boettcher’s Mee Moo Music. Fennelly contributed to Boettcher’s studio project Sagittarius, and was a member of legendary pop-psych band the Millennium.**

By 1969, Fennelly wanted to pursue music with his own band. He hooked up with the members of a blues-rock outfit called Stonehenge, forming a new band named Crabby Appleton and earning a recording contract with Elektra Records on the strength of Fennelly’s original songs. Although the band’s self-titled 1970 debut barely charted, it nevertheless scored a Top 40 hit with the Fennelly song “Go Back,” the album displaying an invigorating mix of power-pop and boogie-oriented rock that would become the band’s signature sound. A year later, Crabby Appleton released its sophomore effort, Rotten To The Core, moving as a band away from 1960s-styled power-pop and into a harder rock direction. The album failed to chart, Crabby Appleton broke up, and Fennelly took time off the road to write new songs.***

Michael Fennelly’s Lane Changer

Signed to Epic Records on the strength of his demo songs, Fennelly would record his long-anticipated solo debut album, 1973’s Lane Changer, in England. Produced by former Zombies bassist Chris White, Fennelly was backed by a number of England’s best, tho’ admittedly underrated musicians of the era, including bassists Dave Wintour (who had played with Rick Wakeman) and Jim Rodford (Argent, and later with the Kinks); and drummers Robert Henrit (Argent, and another future alum of the Kinks) and Henry Spinetti (who would later play with both Eric Clapton and George Harrison). White’s former Zombies bandmate Rod Argent and Argent’s Russ Ballard added backing vocals on several tracks. In-demand U.K. session horn players Mike Cotton and Alan Holmes augment a number of performances on the album with their immense sound, and Fennelly’s former Crabby Appleton bandmate Casey Foutz brought his keyboard prowess to the party.

In many ways, Lane Changer continues in a similar vein to Crabby Appleton’s Rotten To The Core; that is, hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll with pop and psychedelic undertones. The album-opening title track is an engaging slab o’ slippery hard rock featuring Fennelly’s lofty vocals, a busy arrangement with chaotic instrumentation, and rapidly-shifting changes in musical direction, all held together by Fennelly’s wiry fretwork which runs throughout the song. By contrast, “Touch My Soul” is a gentle, slow-paced ballad that mixes a folkish lyrical construction with touched of gospel grandeur and Fennelly’s soaring vocals. The highlight of the song, however, is Fennelly’s underrated guitar playing, which bolsters a wonderful vocal performance with both emotion and imagination.

Shine A Light

Michael Fennelly's Lane Changer
Jumping right back into high-octane, hard rock territory, “Won’t You Please Do That” is an unabashed Zep knock-off that expands that band’s classic sound even further with Fennelly’s hypnotizing guitar, explosive rhythms, and a call-and-response chorus that includes Argent, Ballard, and an unnamed “mystery singer” that sounds suspiciously familiar. “Dark Night” is more of a stripped-down affair, with Fennelly’s haunting vocals front and center in front of a simple bass/drums rhythm and flourishes courtesy of Casey Foutz’s Mini-Moog.**** It’s a downright beautiful song, full of texture and complexity, with a lot of musical invention hiding in the grooves beneath Fennelly’s soulful vocals and Foutz’s symphonic swells and electronic sojourning.

The solo performance “Easy To Love” displays Fennelly’s talents nicely, his acoustic guitar strum nestling right nicely up against his expressive vocals, which at times hit a tone not unlike bluesman Skip James’ voice on what is otherwise an engaging folk-rock ballad. “Shine A Light” builds upon its predecessor, adding drums and bass to an unassuming, mid-tempo rocker that offers some of Fennelly’s most inspired fretwork on Lane Changer, his breathless vocals punctuated by a short but lovely solo. On the other hand, “Bad Times” offers up some good ol’ ‘70s-styled dino-stomp with bombastic rhythms and blazing guitar, the song’s lengthy intro leaping, headfirst into a raging boogie-rock with Fennelly’s sly guitar leading the charge.

A stunning, guitar-driven rocker, “Watch Yourself,” features an uncredited Jeff Beck playing lead guitar while Fennelly himself keeps pace with an intricate rhythm guitar performance, his high-flying vocals presaging the rise of the arena-rock godhead. The album ends with a classic fake-out in “Give Me Your Money,” the song starting as a sort of jazz-flecked, late-night torch-song with a dark ambiance and syncopated rhythms driven by Foutz’s tinkling keys before bursting out into a fast ‘n’ furious boogie blast that, once spent, gives way to the song’s darker tones and slower pace. It’s a truly schitzo and altogether wonderful performance to close out the unique musical experience that is Lane Changer.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

We have Sundazed Records to thank for the long-overdue release on CD of Michael Fennelly’s Lane Changer by Wounded Bird. In 2013, the esteemed archival imprint released the compilation Love Can Change Everything: Demos 1967-1973, which featured rare Fennelly material from the Millennium era, songs by Crabby Appleton, and from his solo albums. The success of that title directly (or indirectly) resulted in Lane Changer finally becoming available on CD for Fennelly’s long-suffering fans. Now if somebody would only reissue Fennelly’s other solo album, Stranger’s Bed, life would be one step closer to perfect.

Fennelly’s Lane Changer is an awe-inspiring collection of pure, inspired rock ‘n’ roll songcraft that, perhaps, in any other year, may have exploded into the mainstream and garnered the artist the success he deserved. But in 1973, a year that included big rock albums by the Rolling Stones, the Who, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Todd Rundgren, and David Bowie, among others, Fennelly’s equally superb effort was buried in a veritable landslide of great music that would achieve classic rock status. Thanks to the good folks at Wounded Bird (and Sundazed), though, we have another chance to appreciate the too-often overlooked talents of Michael Fennelly. Grade: A (Wounded Bird Records, released May 12, 2015)

Review Corrections
Michael Fennelly was kind enough to get in touch and set the record straight on several incorrect notions that have long surrounded Lane Changer, so the Reverend has made the following corrections to his review:

* Fennelly moved from New Jersey to California, not from New York.

** The Millennium was a band while Sagittarius was a studio collective that included members of the Millennium.

*** After the break-up of Crabby Appleton, Fennelly spent time off the road in the Hollywood hills; he didn’t move to England as was previously stated.

**** Rod Argent’s Mellotron playing credit on the song “Dark Night” as listed in the album liner notes is incorrect. It was Fennelly’s former Crabby Appleton bandmate Casey Foutz who made the magical sounds on the song with his Mini-Moog.

Also, Brother Steve Morley pointed out that Russ Ballard’s membership in the Zombies was fleeting, at best, and I’ve changed the text above to better reflect this.

For more info on Michael Fennelly, check out his interview with It's Psychedelic Baby! zine

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Fossils: Canned Heat's Future Blues (1970)

Canned Heat's Future Blues
(click to embiggen)
Canned Heat – Future Blues

It had been a long, strange trip for blues-rock stalwarts Canned Heat between the band’s founding in 1966 and the 1970 release of Future Blues. Formed by blues fanatics and record collectors Al Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, and named for an obscure blues song by an even more obscure Delta bluesman, Canned Heat had recorded four studio albums, enjoyed a couple of smash hit singles, and performed a knock-out live set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 previous to Future Blues.

For any other band, this modest commercial success and traditionally-based blues-rock sound would have had rock’s critical establishment hanging by their tails from the trees and throwing poo at anyone who dared dissent from the conventional wisdom. Oddly enough, however, Canned Heat never received much love from the scribes, the band somehow deemed “inauthentic” and/or “sell outs” by the rock ‘n’ roll press (in spite of their later collaboration with blues legend John Lee Hooker, a rigid taskmaster who didn’t suffer fools lightly).

Regardless, the band had its fans, and Future Blues performed about as well as Canned Heat’s previous efforts, scoring a minor Top 30 hit with a cover of Wilber Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together.” The album itself inched its way up to #59 on the Billboard Top 200 chart…no mean feat, considering the band’s blues obsession in the fledgling era of album oriented rock (AOR). The label’s creative department did little but splash the album’s cover art on the page with the “one small step for man” tagline, but the cover art itself was brilliant, if controversial.

Blending the iconic photo of the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima during World War II with the recent (summer 1969) moon landing, it’s as if the band was declaring both a new sense of musical freedom as well as commenting on the country’s social distress (thus the upside-down flag), the imagery conceived, no doubt, in response to Al Wilson’s growing environmental concerns. The cover perfectly captures the vibe of the band at the time as they were striving to move beyond mere blues and R&B cover tunes (“Let’s Work Together,” Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama”) towards a new blues-rock sound (“London Blues,” “Future Blues,” Wilson’s eerily prescient “My Time Ain’t Long”).

Other than the aforementioned John Lee Hooker collaboration, Future Blues would be the last album to feature band founder Wilson, who tragically passed away not long after its release. The album remains an unheralded gem in the band’s catalog, its long-term legacy lessened, somewhat, by inferior versions of Canned Heat that still perform to this day.

CD Review: Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues (2015)

Sonny Landreth's Bound By The Blues
Although he’s enjoyed a solo career that dates back some 30+ years and includes ten overwhelmingly acclaimed albums, guitarist Sonny Landreth remains best known for his role as ‘sideman to the stars.’ Throughout his lengthy career, Landreth has played and recorded with artists like John Hiatt, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Buffet, to name but a few. But since the release of his 1981 solo debut Blues Attack, Landreth has consistently delivered high-quality, guitar-oriented music that cleverly mixes blues, rock, folk, zydeco, and jazz into a sound that defines the Americana genre.

Bound By The Blues is Landreth’s first album since 2012’s Elemental Journey, the guitarist’s first totally instrumental work, one that incorporated more than a little jazz influence along with Landreth’s signature guitar-driven blues-rock sound. Landreth takes back the microphone with Bound By The Blues but, really, the new album is notable in that it represents the guitarist’s most blues-oriented effort since 2003’s The Road We’re On, which was also recorded with bassist David Ranson and drummer Brian Brignac. Although Landreth has never strayed too far from the blues he loves with his solo work, neither has he been afraid to experiment with other forms, challenging his talents as well as those of his band members.

Sonny Landreth’s Bound By The Blues

So what does Sonny Landreth’s first blues album in over a decade sound like? Well, Bound By The Blues opens with the deep Southern groove of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” which is about as bluesy as one can get unless your name is Charley Patton. Landreth’s familiar, fluid slide-guitar slithers throughout the arrangement, the band banging and crashing nicely in developing a chaotic rhythm behind Landreth’s warm vocals as his guitar leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by the ears. Landreth’s original title track keeps the raucous vibe going strong, the singer name-checking his musical heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters while picking out a strong, affecting guitar line. Landreth’s blistering solo here is washed in Delta mud, soaring and swooping like the ghosts of a dozen long-dead Mississippi bluesman laying down a juke-joint stomp.

A cover of Elmore James’ beautiful “It Hurts Me Too” displays the perfect balance of blues and soul, the mid-tempo ballad built on a swaying Chicago blues rhythm but featuring plenty of Landreth’s signature guitar tone and technique, his emotional vocals supported by considered guitarplay that, while reverent in honoring the original, threatens to leap over the edge nonetheless with crackling electricity. The original “Where They Will” changes gears somewhat, the song’s slightly exotic rhythms matched by Landreth’s somber vocals and scraps of subtle, almost understated guitar that explodes with the singer’s refrain “let the blues takes me where they will,” his haunted voice increasingly supported by graveyard fretwork as the song’s protagonist stares down his own mortality. It’s a subtle but strong performance, one that nicely showcases Landreth’s underrated talents as a singer and songwriter.

Firebird Blues (In Memory of Johnny Winter)

A lively cover of Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues” is less serious than its predecessor on the album, Landreth putting a little more twang into his reading of the lyrics, cutting loose with a red-hot barrage of notes that flows like molten lava beneath the band’s explosive rhythms. Landreth’s solo at the two-and-a-half mark veers dangerously close to heavy metal territory, combining the blues-influenced hard rock edge of, say, Robin Trower or Pat Travers with Landreth’s undeniable sense of the genre. Landreth ventures further onto blues-rock turf with “Firebird Blues,” his tribute to the late Johnny Winter.

A heartfelt instrumental track, Landreth pours his grief and loss into a phenomenal performance on “Firebird Blues” that honors the history of Texas blues, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson through Lightnin’ Hopkins and Winter himself. What better way to further pay tribute to Winter than to re-visit the Johnson songbook via Elmore James and a rowdy version of “Dust My Broom”? Landreth shakes the arrangement up a bit, his take on the blues classic a little looser, but no less swinging, the guitarist coaxing some unusual tones out of his guitar while doing the song proud with a strong vocal reading that dances spryly on top of the jaunty rhythmic foundation constructed by bassist Ranson and drummer Brignac.

An equally effective cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s classic “Key To The Highway” skews closer to the Piedmont blues of the original than to Eric Clapton’s British blues perspective. Beneath his hearty vocals, though, Landreth lays down greasy, Louisiana swamp guitar licks that outpace either of the aforementioned artist’s efforts; Landreth’s imaginative playing moving in lockstep with the rhythm section. Bound By The Blues closes out far too soon with Landreth’s rockin’ original, “Simcoe Street.” A fleet-footed instrumental track with a locomotive rhythm and Landreth’s livewire fretwork, the song sounds like a contemporary take on the sort of boogie-infused blues-rock practiced by 1970s rollers like Foghat and Humble Pie.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’re already a Sonny Landreth fan – and how can you not be? – you don’t need to be told to run down to your indie record store and lay down your shekels for a copy of Bound By The Blues. But if you’re unfamiliar with the talents and charm of Mr. Landreth, or just a newbie blues fan altogether, the album is a great place to begin delving into the music of this (still) underrated singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Grade: A- (Provogue Records, released June 9, 2015)

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CD Preview: John Mayall’s Find a Way To Care

John Mayall's Find A Way To Care
For anybody that’s been following the British blues ‘Godfather’ John Mayall’s lengthy career – spanning six decade and still going strong – knows that he’s been making some of the best music of his life here in the new millennium. Mayall’s 2009 album Tough was pretty bad-ass, while last year’s A Special Life can be counted among his greatest efforts (just behind Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, A Hard Road, Crusade, and Blues From Laurel Canyon in my humble opinion…).

Well, blues fans, hold onto your hats ‘cause fresh off the triumph that was Mayall’s look backwards at his early days (the amazing Live In 1967 with Peter Green) comes the bluesman’s much-anticipated follow-up to A Special Life (yeah, it was that good!). On September 4th, 2015 Forty Below Records will release Mayall’s Find A Way To Care in both compact disc and glorious black vinyl versions.

Find A Way To Care was recorded at the House of Blues Studio in Encino, California and produced by Mayall and Forty Below’s Eric Corne (Mayall also did the graphic design and artwork for the album). As usual, Mayall handles vocals on the album as well as playing piano, Hammond organ, guitar, harmonica, and other various instruments, and he was joined in the studio by his talented band of seven years – guitarist Rocky Athas (shouldn’t we be talking more about this guy?), bassist Greg Rzab (ditto), and drummer Jay Davenport. A full horn section was brought in to compliment several tracks on the album.

The album features an even dozen songs, including inspired covers of Don Robey’s “Mother In Law Blues,” Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “I Feel So Bad,” and Percy Mayfield’s “The River’s Invitation,” among others. In a press release for the album, Corne says, “I really wanted to feature John's keyboard playing on this record. He’s truly one of the most lyrical, economical and underrated keyboardists around. We also wanted to change things up a bit after the success of A Special Life and the addition of a horn section on several tracks was a really fun way to do that. As good as the last album was, I think this one is even better.”

In talking about his choice of cover songs on Find A Way To Care, Mayall says, “every time I make an album, I always feel I owe it to my fans to come up with fresh and varied interpretations of the blues. With this in mind, I chose an assemblage of songs that includes perhaps some slightly lesser-known bluesmen, and that all had either different beats or special instrumental treatments. I also found three songs that would be further enhanced by the addition of horns.” The album also features a number of original songs written by Mayall and inspired by real life. “As always, I draw from my own experiences and thoughts about things in my life so that from album to album I create on ongoing musical diary of my life,” he explains. “The blues never lets me down!”

Check out the video trailer of the making of the new album below and then hie thee onward to and pre-order the album: John Mayall's Find A Way To Care

Related content: John Mayall's Live In 1967 CD review