Sunday, August 30, 2015

CD Review: Lazer Lloyd's Lazer Lloyd (2015)

Lazer Lloyd's Lazer Lloyd
I’ve long heard it said that blues music is an international language, and it seems to be true. You’ll find a thriving blues scene in the U.K. and northern Europe, thousands of miles away from its Delta roots. Hard-touring road warriors like Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa have spread the gospel of the blues to corners of the world, like Southeast Asia, that hadn’t yet heard the word. In over 40 years of covering music, however, much of it spent in thrall to the blues, I had never heard of blues coming from the Middle East until I heard Mr. Lazer Lloyd.

Lazer Lloyd – for those of you who have yet to discover this talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist – brings the blues from Israel. An American by birth, Lloyd was raised in Madison, Connecticut and taught a love of music by his father, who exposed the future musician to blues, folk, rock, and jazz, all vital elements of his current sound. Lloyd began playing in his first bands as a teenager, and migrated to his adopted homeland a few years ago, finding an eager audience for his intelligent songs and dynamic, charismatic performance style.

He released his first album, Lazer Lloyd Unplugged – Blues In Tel Aviv in 2011, following it up with My Own Blues in 2012, which was honored as the best blues album of the year by the Israeli Blues Society. Lloyd’s acoustic Lost On The Highway album was released in the U.S. in 2013 by Blue Leaf Records, leading to a North American tour. In other words, Lloyd is a veteran bluesman with a few miles on his odometer. 

Lazer Lloyd – Blues From Israel

Lazer Lloyd, the album, was released by the Chicago-based independent Lots of Love Records label, which doesn’t seem to have anyone other than Lloyd on their roster, which is cool by me. If you’re going to launch a label, you may as well start with a good ‘un, and Lazer Lloyd is a revelation, indeed. The album features twelve red-hot tracks, eleven of them original, the lone cover an inspired take on Otis Redding’s classic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Lloyd eschews the usual, by-the-books reading of the timeless hit, his somber vocals displaying an enormous emotional depth, a weariness that is accompanied by his nicely elegant acoustic fretwork. He knows he’s not going to match Redding’s version, so he infuses the song with his own personality while holding onto the bittersweet elements of the original.

Lloyd’s original “Burning Thunder” kicks off the album, his slash ‘n’ burn electric guitarplay providing the muscle to his powerful, albeit oblique lyrics. His solos are as sharp as a stiletto, his deep, rich vocals backed by a crescendo of bass notes and explosive drumbeats. The tongue-in-cheek autobiographical “Rockin’ In The Holy Land” tells of Lloyd’s move to Israel with an up-tempo, rockabilly-tinged soundtrack that features some snappy harmonica lines, a locomotive rhythm, and livewire guitarplay. By contrast, the self-referential “Never Give Up” is a thoughtful ballad that reminds of Jeff Healey, with sharp, clean guitar solos and softer, more considered vocals wrapping around inspirational lyrics that carry a positive message for all of us.

The bluesman goes caveman on us with the dino-stomp wonder of “Out of Time.” Although the song’s lyrics are based on traditional blues, albeit with a contemporary tilt, musically the song is an edgy, raucous construct – all sinew ‘n’ bones with stunning, chaotic guitars and sledgehammer rhythms, with powerful vocals and an overall 1970s arena-rock sound that sits comfortably alongside Pat Travers or Robin Trower’s best work. The tearful “Broken Dreams” is a clever note on lost love with beautiful guitar tone and trembling vocals that make for a timeless performance. The haunting “Moroccan Woman” brings an exotic air to the album, with sparse lyrics and an overall swamp-blues vibe, while “Time To Love” offers up a Chicago-styled blues sound with Otis Rush influence and a universal message that soars on the strength of Lloyd’s breathless fretwork, which veers dangerously into Jimi Hendrix territory at one exhilarating point in the song.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

In my humble opinion, Lazer Lloyd is one of the most exciting blues artists to come down the track in many a year. His songs display a unique lyrical perspective; the music derived from familiar blues forms but imbued with Lloyd’s own original vision. The invigorating performances on Lazer Lloyd display a uniformly high quality of musicianship, from Lloyd’s imaginative guitarplay to the band’s masterful backing. Overall, the album is a fine, entertaining, and innovative effort from the unlikely blues hotbed of Israel. RIYL Joe Louis Walker, Walter Trout, or Coco Montoya. Grade: A (Lots of Love Records, released June 23, 2015)

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Fossils: The Faces' Ooh La La (1973)

The Faces' Ooh La La
[click to embiggen]
The Faces – Ooh La La

In the three years following the Faces’ rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of British mod-era rockers the Small Faces, it had been a hell of a party. Although albums like 1971’s Long Player and A Nod Is as Good As a Wink…to a Blind Horse are now considered rock ‘n’ roll classics, and both were modest-to-impressive commercial successes (the former hitting #29 on the charts, the latter rising to #6 on the strength of the hit single “Stay With Me”), by the time of 1973’s Ooh La La, frontman Rod Stewart’s solo success had begun to outshine his erstwhile band. Ooh La La would take a step backwards on the charts, rising only as far as #21and yielding no hit singles; by contrast, Stewart’s fourth solo album, the previous year’s Never A Dull Moment, hit #2 on the charts and coughed up a pair of hits.

While it was apparent to anybody at the time that Stewart was sidling, albeit in slow-motion, towards the door on his way to exiting for a full-time solo jaunt, that doesn’t mean that Ooh La La doesn’t have its charms. Rod the Mod may have been gracing magazine covers instead of, say, bandmates Ron Wood or Ian McLagen, but Ooh La La was a true group effort, with all five members involved in the songwriting, resulting in great tunes like “Cindy Incidentally” and “Borstal Boys.” It was bassist Ronnie Lane, one of the original Small Faces, who was the band’s creative heart, and he dominated the songwriting on the album’s second half, providing the Faces with a fitting swansong for their final album.

The Warner Brothers label ad for the album was a perfect portrayal of the band’s public image, the reckless rockers gazing upwards at the upturned skirt of the dancing girl as the album cover’s leering visage sits in the top right corner. When the label called Ooh La La the Faces’ “sauciest album,” they may have been partly kidding, but they also weren’t that far off the mark!

Friday, August 21, 2015

CD Preview: Walter Trout’s Battle Scars

Walter Trout's Battle Scars
Listening to “Almost Gone,” the lead-off track from blues-rock guitarist Walter Trout’s upcoming album Battle Scars, all I can say is “Damn!” If this white-hot slab o’ scorching guitar and anguished vocals doesn’t sucker-punch your soul, well, all I can say is that it must suck to be you…

On October 23rd, 2015, Provogue Records will release Trout’s Battle Scars, the much-anticipated follow-up to the guitarist’s acclaimed 2014 album The Blues Came Callin’, and his first since undergoing life-saving liver transplant surgery last year. If Trout’s previous album was reflected the uncertainty and fear caused by his illness, Battle Scars is a chronicle of Trout’s fight to survive, the singer/songwriter staring down death and living to tell the tale.

One thing for certain, as shown by the heat and energy of “Almost Gone,” is that Trout is back and better than ever. In a press release for Battle Scars, Trout says “I’m thrilled about this album, about my life and about my music. I feel that I’m reborn as a songwriter, a singer, a guitarist and a human being. I have a new chance at being the best musician and the best man that I can be. And I’m incredibly happy and grateful.”

A little more than a year ago, Trout was lying in a hospital bed, unable to move or speak as his liver was failing. After receiving the transplant in May 2014, and suffering through the difficult recuperation process, Trout began the long and tortuous process of healing. “At first I wasn’t strong enough to play a single note on the guitar,” he says, “but as I regained my strength, the music came back to me. Now when I pick up the guitar, it is liberating, joyful, and limitless. I feel like I’m 17 again.” 

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1973, Trout was schooled in the blues while playing behind legends like John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Finis Tasby, and Lowell Fulsom, among others. Trout burnished his blues bona fides first as a member of blues-rock legends Canned Heat, then moving on to play five years as part of British blues legend John Mayall’s famed Bluesbreakers band. Trout launched his solo career in 1989 with his debut album Life In The Jungle, and has since become one of the blues most beloved artists, earning the guitarist numerous awards and accolades. 

Before his illness sidelined the hard-touring guitarist, Trout had planned on celebrating the 25th anniversary of his solo career with a lengthy tour and deluxe vinyl reissues of many of his solo albums. Rescued From Reality: The Life and Times of Walter Trout, Trout’s autobiography, was written with noted British music journalist Henry Yates (full disclosure – Henry is my editor at The Blues magazine) and released to great reviews in 2014. Although the planned 2014 tour didn’t happen, Trout returned to the stage this spring and plans on touring heavily in support of Battle Scars with his band – keyboardist Sammy Avila, bassist Johnny Griparic, and drummer Michael Leasure.

As for all his loyal fans that stood by Trout during his illness, and donated over $240,000 to help with his medical expenses, the guitarist says “I don’t take this lightly. Marie [his wife] says that all of the people who donated to our fundraiser for my medical expenses bought stock in me and my liver. When I play for them now, I have a responsibility to give back and offer the very best that I have.” As anybody who has ever attended one of his shows already knows, Walter Trout has always been an electrifying live performer. Given a new lease on life after a lengthy struggle, and with the “battle scars” to prove it, Trout will be paying his fans back one show at a time.

CD Preview: Ironing Board Sam’s Super Spirit

Ironing Board Sam's Super Spirit
Since hooking up with the good folks at the Music Maker Relief Foundation in 2010, blues legend Ironing Board Sam has been making up for lost time. After the non-profit outfitted the flamboyant musician with new gear, Sam has been hitting the road and the recording studio alike, releasing four critically-acclaimed albums under the Music Maker banner in four years.

The 75-year-old bluesman isn’t done yet, nosirree…on October 2nd, 2015, Big Legal Mess Records (a subsidiary of Mississippi’s esteemed Fat Possum Records) will release Ironing Board Sam’s Super Spirit, a new ten-track collection produced by Big Legal Mess head honcho Bruce Watson and roots ‘n’ bluesman Jimbo Mathus at Watson’s Dial Back Studio in Water Valley, Mississippi.

Ironing Board Sam is backed on Super Spirit by a band that includes Mathus on guitar, bassist Stu Cole (Squirrel Nut Zippers), and drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees). In his role as producer, Watson drew inspiration from classic 1960s and ‘70s era singles, pulling out songs by Ann Peebles, the Gories, Mathus, Jack Oblivian, and Roy Hawkins, among others for Sam to wrap his soulful voice around. The result is Super Spirit, a lively collection of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll with a funky undercurrent that’s guaranteed to blow your mind!

Born Sammie Moore in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1939, Sam got his nickname by strapping his keyboards to an ironing board hanging from his neck, allowing him to move around on stage. Way back in ’62, Sam’s band included a red-hot guitarist who would become known as Jimi Hendrix, and throughout the 1960s and ‘70s he released a number of singles for Atlantic Records and numerous soul labels, and was a regular guest on the Night Train TV show.

Although Sam scored some regional hits through the years, he wouldn’t release a debut album until 1996’s Human Touch. An earlier album, Ninth Wonder of the World of Music, which Sam using as a sort of calling card with promoters, was recorded in the 1970s but not released commercially until 2011. With Super Spirit, Ironing Board Sam is building on a legacy decades in the making. Check out Sam’s “Baby You Got it,” a track from Super Spirit, embedded below. You’re welcome…

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Webb Wilder goes “Mississippi Moderne”

Webb Wilder's Mississippi Moderne
On September 25th, 2015, Landslide Records will release Mississippi Moderne, the first album in almost six years from Nashville roots-rock legend Webb Wilder. Before he landed in the Music City back in the mid 1980s, Wilder hailed from Mississippi, and he was honored with induction into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2011.

Mississippi Moderne was recorded at Studio 19 in Nashville (formerly known as Scotty Moore’s Music City Recorders), and produced by Wilder, Joe McMahan, Bob Williams, and Tom Comet. The roots ‘n’ blues veteran was backed on the recording by his longtime, road-tested band the Beatnecks, consisting of bassist Comet, guitarist Bob Williams, and drummer Jimmy Lester.

Mississippi Moderne features a mix of Wilder originals and co-writes with folks like Dan Penn, John Hadley, and Patrick Sweany, as well as covers of songs by Otis Rush, the Kinks, Charlie Rich, and Jimmy Reed. Wilder and the Beatnecks will be touring in support of the new album, and we have the first scheduled tour dates listed below. If you haven’t experienced Wilder’s unique blend of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and R&B before, you owe it to yourself to check out Mississippi Moderne and then get to a show.

Buy the CD from Webb Wilder's Mississippi Moderne

Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks tour dates:

8/29 @ Woodhouse Concerts, St. Louis MO
8/30 @ Lafayette's Music Room, Memphis TN
9/25 @ The Basement East, Nashville TN
9/29 @ Cypress Moon Studios, Sheffield AL
10/3 @ Public Theatre of Kentucky, Bowling Green KY
10/8 @ Thacker Mountain Radio, Oxford MS *
10/9 @ Proud Larry's, Oxford MS
10/17 @ Log House Concerts, Edwardsville IL *
10/23 @ Straight To Ale, Huntsville AL *
10/28 @ Gene's Beer Garden, Morgantown WV *
10/29 @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA +
10/30 @ Ram's Head Tavern, Annapolis MD +
10/31 @ The Birchmere, Alexandria VA +
11/14 @ Exit/In, Nashville TN
11/21 @ Knuckleheads, Kansas City MO

* Solo show
+ Opens for Dave & Phil Alvin

Sunday, August 16, 2015

CD Review: Steppenwolf's The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection

Steppenwolf's The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection
If all you know of Steppenwolf is “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” you may consider them to be just another ‘60s-era hard rock band. During Steppenwolf’s brief initial run (1968-72), however, they often straddled the fine line between pop chart singles band and nascent FM radio rockers…sometimes they were successful, sometimes they weren’t, but it was never for lack of trying. Steppenwolf racked up a handful of Top 10 singles, and the band’s first five studio albums would all chart Top 20, with most of ‘em scoring Gold™ record status for sales.

Few American bands can claim similar chart success while still retaining a certain amount of rock ‘n’ roll street cred – only Creedence Clearwater Revival comes to mind – but, unfortunately, Steppenwolf’s contributions to this beast we call “classic rock” seldom extend beyond the aforementioned pair of hit songs. Formed in 1967 by members of the Canadian blues-rock outfit Sparrow, the core of the band was singer/songwriter John Kay, keyboardist Goldy McJohn, and drummer Jerry Edmonton. Steppenwolf scored gold in 1968 with “Born To Be Wild,” their third single, taken from the band’s self-titled debut album. Written by former Sparrows band member Mars Bonfire (Edmonton’s brother), “Born To Be Wild” hit #2 on the U.S. charts and launching the band’s lengthy career.

Steppenwolf’s The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection

In spite of their modest success, Steppenwolf’s singles have been largely unavailable on CD in their original 45rpm mixes, an oversight corrected by Real Gone Music’s The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection. A two-CD set, The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection includes every A and B-side released by the band on the label, 30 tracks in all, as well as another eight John Kay solo tracks, making for a sumptuous hard rock feast, indeed! The set has been compiled from the best sources available (the original tapes for this material were reportedly trashed years ago), with nearly two-dozen of the tracks in their original mono mixes. Mr. Kay himself was enlisted to pen lengthy and insightful liner notes for the set. Aside from Kay’s personal memories of the songs, the set’s 24-page booklet includes rare photos and chart info.

One thing that readily apparent from The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection, is the band’s steady musical evolution. The band’s first single release, “A Girl I Know,” is a charming slab of period psychedelic rock with a wistful, psych-pop intro and driving rhythms, with full instrumentation backing Kay’s vocals and Michael Monarch’s swirling guitar licks. The B-side, “The Ostrich,” is a bluesy hard rocker with McJohn’s aggressive keyboard washes underlining a performance that is a curious cross between Love and the Doors.

Heavy Metal Thunder

The band’s sophomore single, “Sookie Sookie,” was a cover of a Don Covay song the R&B great wrote with Steve Cropper. Although Steppenwolf’s livewire version captured the soul of the original with Kay’s hearty vocals and screeching guitars, the song failed to chart as radio program directors between the coasts refused to play the single, not knowing (or caring) what a “Sookie Sookie” actually was. Steppenwolf definitely found its mojo with their third single, though...“Born To Be Wild” would dominate the charts throughout the summer of ’68, its lyrics coining the phrase “heavy metal thunder” while selling a million copies.

Dennis “Mars Bonfire” Edmonton’s original version of the song positioned it as a ballad; the band amped up the tempo, welded on Monarch’s legendary guitar riff, and graced the performance with Kay’s sandpaper vocals to create a rock ‘n’ roll legend. As Kay tells the story, neither the band or the label could figure out whether “Born To Be Wild” or “Everybody’s Next One” should be the A-side of the single, so they left the record unmarked and left it up to radio DJs to choose between the two songs…the rest, as they say, is history. Still, “Everybody’s Next One” is an engaging song, with a throwback melody that reminds of early ‘60s British Invasion bands like the Kinks, with Monarch’s piercing guitar licks balanced by Kay’s folkish strum, and Edmonton’s thunderous percussion.

Magic Carpet Ride

With ABC/Dunhill desperate for a follow-up to “Born To Be Wild,” Kay and band bassist Rushton Moreve swung for the fences and came up with “Magic Carpet Ride.” Another smash hit, the combination of Monarch’s innovative fretwork and McJohn’s spacey keyboard notes set the stage for Edmonton’s bombastic percussion and Kay’s growling, nimble vocals. The single release of the song offers a different vocal take by Kay, and is shorter than the album version by a couple minutes, which only strengthens its bludgeoning sonic impact. “Magic Carpet Ride” would peak at #3 and stay on the charts for 16 weeks – longer than any other Steppenwolf song – on its way to a million flapjacks sold. The single’s B-side, oddly, was the previously released “Sookie Sookie,” an act of charity, perhaps, that garnered Covay and Cropper some nice royalties.

It’s a hard to believe, in this era of artists taking two or three years to create new material, but the pace for rock bands in the 1960s and early ‘70s was brutal. Record, tour, back to the studio, and then tour some more – Steppenwolf released four studio albums in two years, circa 1968-69, a breakneck schedule that often didn’t help any band that running on that commercial treadmill. Still, Steppenwolf managed to score Top 10 again with “Rock Me,” the Kay-penned lead-off single from their third album, At Your Birthday Party. The band’s last real chart “hit,” the song’s infectious melodic hook and up-tempo mix of solid lyricism and vaguely exotic instrumentation (slightly Latin-tinged a la Santana) made for heady radio airplay. The single’s B-side, the equally engaging “Jupiter Child,” is a muscular, mid-tempo sledgehammer of psych-drenched rock with abrasive guitars and fierce vocals chased by a heavy bass line and mortar-fire drumbeats.

The Pusher

Although Steppenwolf wouldn’t again hit the top regions of the chart after “Rock Me,” that’s not to say that they didn’t release some fascinating and satisfying singles. The anti-drug dirge “The Pusher,” written by Hoyt Axton, who may have been the first true alt-country artist, originally appeared on the band’s debut album, but earned new notoriety with its inclusion in the 1969 movie Easy Rider. With Kay’s powerful vocals riding atop a spacey, psychedelic acid-rock soundtrack (that sounds somewhat drug-fueled itself), the song’s strong language (“God Damn the pusher man!”) caused radio programmers to run away from the song faster than an IRS audit. The follow-up to “Rock Me,” the folkish “It’s Never Too Late” is a solid effort featuring brilliant but claustrophobic “wall of sound” production that starkly underlines Kay’s intelligent lyrics. Scraps of McJohn’s piano vie with Monarch’s scorching fretwork amidst the song’s busy instrumentation.

Kay’s “Move Over,” co-written with longtime band producer Gabriel Mekler, knocked on the door of Top 30 chart success at #31, but the song should have risen higher. Kay’s hearty vocals are mixed with a memorable bass line courtesy of new band fat-stringer Nick St. Nicholas, complimented by new guitarist Larry Byrom’s wiry guitarplay. Edmonton’s timekeeping is especially noteworthy here, his steady rhythms and high-octane drum fills kicking the arrangement into overdrive. The band’s fourth studio album, Monster, included “Move Over” and the title track, which was released as a single in its stereo LP mix. Maybe the reshuffled band line-up hadn’t had time for the individual members’ chemistry to gel, but “Monster” strains at its restraints, the band’s tentative instrumentation often at odds with Kay’s passionate vocals. While the extended nine-minute-plus track works fine on album in context with its surrounding material, “Monster” was tailor-made for AOR radio…and Steppenwolf found itself in the vanguard of the fledgling FM rock format.   

Hey Lawdy Mama

Kay admits in the liner notes to The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection that he had run out of gas as a songwriter by the release of Monster. As a stopgap measure, the label released Steppenwolf Live in early 1970, Steppenwolf scoring an unexpected Top 40 hit with the band-written “Hey Lawdy Mama.” A swaggering, R&B influenced hard rocker, the tune was a favored addition to the band’s rowdy live set. Other singles from this arid period included the former Sparrow song “Corina, Corina,” an enchanting folk-rock ballad which the band re-recorded in the studio. It was added to Steppenwolf Live along with “Hey Lawdy Mama” and other studio tracks by the label against the band’s wishes to fill out four sides of a double-album set. The band worked with new producer Richard Podolor on “Screaming Night Hog,” a bluesy rocker that features some inventive circular guitar riffs and Kay’s hypnotic harmonica licks, but the single went largely unnoticed.

After again revamping the band line-up with new bassist George Biondo, Steppenwolf recorded what would be their fifth studio effort (and seventh album overall, with two live discs under their belts). Steppenwolf 7 displayed further evolution in the Steppenwolf sound as the other band members – especially guitarist Larry Byrom – began to contribute more to the group’s songwriting efforts. The band’s instrumental chemistry improved with the addition of Biondo as well, the bassist’s style meshing nicely with drummer Edmonton. Although the album’s lead-off single, “Who Needs Ya,” was a ballsy, free-wheelin’ rocker with an infectious chorus and gang vocals, it only peaked at #54 on the charts in spite of its charms.

Steppenwolf 1971 courtesy ABC / Dunhill Records


By contrast, the largely instrumental “Earschplittenloudenboomer,” with its vaguely boogie-blues foundation and uncharacteristic blasts of horn, made for an interesting B-side that displayed the band’s musical chops. Kay dipped back into the Hoyt Axton songbook again for the folk-country anti-drug ballad “Snow Blind Friend,” the song’s more gentle sound presaging the direction of the singer’s future solo work. It’s a magnificent performance, Kay infusing the song with heart and character while the band offers subtle instrumental flourishes which enhance the lyrics; sadly, as a single, it peaked at only #60 on the charts although it did receive widespread FM radio airplay.

For Ladies Only, released in late 1971, was the last Steppenwolf album before the band’s short-lived break-up. Guitarist Kent Henry replaced Byrom, who would end up in Nashville as a respected (and busy) session guitarist. A loose-knit concept album about male/female relationships with a definite feminist slant, For Ladies Only took the band into a different creative direction, with Kay contributing only a pair of songs, along with the group-penned title track. The band tried to capture lightning in a bottle again by recording an old Mars Bonfire song, “Ride With Me,” a good hard rock number with a driving rhythm, but no discernible melodic hook to hang AM airplay onto. The album’s title track offered a twangy undercurrent beneath its guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll trappings, Kay’s vocals easily adapting to the country-rock sound, but the backing instrumentation is too jarring and discordant for a straight country tune, yet showed a little too much twang ‘n’ bang for AOR playlists.

Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes

The last eight songs on The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection are actually John Kay solo tracks, four each culled from 1972’s Forgotten Songs & Unsung Heroes and the following year’s My Sportin’ Life. Recorded during the first Steppenwolf hiatus, the former album included spirited covers of country classics from the likes of Hank Snow and Hank Williams amidst harder-rocking original material while the latter album mixed Kay’s pensive originals with material from contemporary songwriters. Suffice it to say that you’ve never heard Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” sound quite like Kay performs it, Kent Henry’s swamp-blues guitar licks matched by Kay’s hoarse vocals and a busy instrumental arrangement which walks a tightwire between blues and rock.

Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” is played more traditionally, with acoustic guitar and Kay’s soulful vocals turning the country classic into a Southern rock jam complete with gospel-tinged backing vocals. “Moonshine (Friend of Mine)” is basically a country song clad in rock ‘n’ roll garb, Kay successfully capturing the good ole boy vibe of Charlie Daniels or Waylon Jennings with the song’s jaunty arrangement  and spry fretwork. Alan O’Day’s “Easy Evil” is a more considered work, with O’Day’s soulful keyboards offering a counterpoint to Kay’s breathless vocals and a Memphis/Stax Records style instrumental groove. Needless to say, none of Kay’s solo singles charted any higher than the #52 of “I’m Movin’ On,” and the erstwhile Steppenwolf frontman would reform the band around Biondo, McJohn, and Edmonton with new guitarist Bobby Cochran. The reunion proved to be short-lived, however, the band breaking up again in 1976, only to be resurrected by Kay in the 1980s as John Kay and Steppenwolf, which is where it remains today, more or less, the band performing sporadically on the oldies circuit.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Steppenwolf undeniably had a signature hard rock sound, the band’s blues roots and willingness to incorporate folk and country influences into its songs displayed a deftness that belies their reputation. Although Steppenwolf enjoyed a modicum of chart success with its single releases circa 1968 to ’72, its evolution into one of the first (immensely) popular AOR bands can be seen in commercial success of their full-length albums. Even the band’s Steppenwolf Gold “hits” compilation would chart Top 30 in 1971 and achieve Gold™ record sales levels.

As showcased by The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection, Steppenwolf was a hard-working outfit, cranking out tunes on demand for a demanding label, more often than not with positive commercial and creative results. This two-disc set is a fine addition to the long-suffering Steppenwolf fan’s collection, providing long-lost mono mixes of those early AM radio hits alongside stereo mixes of the band’s harder-rocking AOR tracks (as well as Kay’s obscure solo sides). With much of Steppenwolf’s back catalog a literal label afterthought (comprised entirely of budget CDs from the 1980s), The ABC/Dunhill Singles Collection is like an early Christmas present, the set hopefully kick-starting a reconsideration of the legacy of this too often overlooked band. Grade: B+ (Real Gone Music, released August 14, 2015)

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Friday, August 14, 2015

CD Preview: The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard

The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard
Blues guitarist Duke Robillard has earned his share of W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards yet he doesn’t seem to receive the respect due his status as not only one of the most innovative artists in the genre, but also one of blues music’s greatest traditionalists. These two things aren’t as mutually exclusive as they may seem – Robillard’s creativity as an instrumentalist has influenced a generation of blues guitarists, his immense legacy built not only on his tenure with seminal modern era blues bands Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but also for his lengthy and exhaustively prolific career as a solo artist. With dozens of albums released under his own name, Robillard has also recorded and toured with folks like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Pinetop Perkins, and Robert Gordon, among many others.

As a producer, Robillard has produced albums by such diverse talents as R&B great Jimmy Witherspoon, Chicago harp wizard Billy Boy Arnold, Kansas City piano giant Jay McShann, and legendary jazz guitarist Herb Ellis. Robillard’s role as a traditionalist extends beyond his work in the studio with legendary figures into his own recordings, where he regularly revisits and often re-interprets blues and jazz songs from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, exposing this influential material to a new generation of fans.

On September 25th, 2015 Stony Plain Records will release the guitarist’s The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2013 album Independently Blue. Featuring Robillard’s underrated vocals and performances on multiple stringed instruments, the guitarist has dipped into his Rolodex to enlist the help of several talented friends to appear on the album, including singers Maria Muldaur and Sunny Crownover, harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, the late pianist Jay McShann, and some other well-known names in the blues world like sax player Doug James and drummer Mark Teizeira, among other folks.

With The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard, the guitarist reaches into the great American songbook to dig up songs by blues legends like Big Bill Broonzy, W.C. Handy, Sleepy John Estes, and Robert Lockwood as well as country tunes by Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers which are interpreted by Robillard in his own indomitable style. The album was recorded primarily at Robillard’s own Mood Room studio with additional work done at Lakewest Recording, and some live recordings captured at Blackstone River Theater in Cumberland, Rhode Island.      

“This project has been about a decade in the making for various reasons I won't go into here,” Robillard states in the liner notes for the new album. “As many of you know, I am, and always have been, a huge fan of American roots music in its entirety. Blues, ragtime, early jazz, Appalachian music, early country, swing, honky-tonk, folk, R&B, soul, New Orleans music, rock and roll and all kinds of roots music have always moved and inspired me the most. Especially the artists that were there at the beginning of each style. Those artists always seem to be the most honest to my ears.”

As such, The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard is a tribute to those disparate influences, a collection of material recorded by some of the greatest and most influential innovators in their individual genres. “With this album,” says Robillard, “I honor many of the pioneers of true American music, from close to the beginning of recorded music to the 1940s. This is the time period I love most and find a never-ending river of new music to discover, enjoy and be influenced/inspired by. This recording concentrates on music written and recorded in the ‘20s to the ‘40s, with the exception of some original songs and Robbie Robertson's ‘Evangeline,’ which sounds like it could be from that time period!”

You can bet that if it has Duke Robillard’s name on it, The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard is going to be great, and if all you know of the blues and American music comes from the legion of Stevie Ray Vaughan clones weighing down bar stools across the land, you owe it to yourself to open your ears and expand your mind with The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard!

The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard tracklist:
1. My Old Kentucky Home
2. Big Bill Blues
3. I Miss My Baby In My Arms
4. Jimmie's Texas Blues
5. Backyard Paradise
6. Evangeline [featuring Sunny Crownover]
7. Left Handed
8. I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water
9. I'm Gonna Buy Me A Dog (To Take the Place of You)
10. Nashville Blues [featuring Mary Flower]
11. St Louis Blues
12. What Is It That Tastes Like Gravy?
13. Someday Baby
14. Let’s Turn Back the Years
15. Take a Little Walk With Me
16. Santa Claus Blues [featuring Maria Muldaur]
17. Profoundly Blue [featuring Jay McShann]
18. Ukulele Swing

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Real Gone Reissues The Beckies

The Beckies
The Beckies, featuring the talented Michael Brown, are one of the great lost bands of the 1970s era. Pursuing a power-pop direction not dissimilar to Badfinger or the Raspberries, the band released one self-titled album for Sire Records in 1976 and then all but disappeared. During the ensuing years, the Beckies album has become a sort of holy grail for power-pop collectors; to my knowledge, it has never been released on CD, and a vinyl copy of the album in good condition will set you back at least $25 on eBay.

On October 9th, 2015 Real Gone Music will make power-pop fanatics’ dreams come true with a long-anticipated CD reissue of the sole Beckies LP. Although the label sadly didn’t include any bonus tracks on this reissue (rumors abound of a wealth of Beckies music hidden away somewhere), the Real Gone set does include extensive liner notes by the knowledgeable music historian Jeremy Cargill as well as song lyrics.

As mentioned above, the Beckies were notable primarily for the creative contributions of Michael Brown, a beloved cult figure in pop-rock circles. As a songwriter, Brown had a penchant for incorporating classical music motifs into his lofty pop compositions, and he’d scored two Top 20 hits in the late 1960s as a teenager with the Left Banke – “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” – before leaving that band to hook up with the garage-rock outfit that would later become known as Montage. After one 1969 self-titled album by Montage (reissued in 2001 by Sundazed), Brown would later resurface with Stories, recording two acclaimed and well-respected early ‘70s albums but, once again, leaving before the band scored a hit with “Brother Louie.”

Brown’s final stop was with the Beckies, and the band’s album was the last to feature Brown’s musical and songwriting skills. Brown co-produced the Beckies album, co-wrote all of the songs with drummer Gary Hodgden, and played keyboards on the recording. Although the album offered plenty of Brown’s trademark fusion of classical and rock ‘n’ roll in its energetic power-pop sound, it was released at least a half-decade before its time. Disco ruled the clubs and the charts in ’76, while hard-rock dominated the arenas and hockey sheds, leaving little room for smart, snappy, hook-laden music. With The Beckies LP receiving its long-overdue reissuing on compact disc, power-pop fans young and old have something to sing about!

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Dave Davies Takes NYC By Storm!

Dave Davies' Rippin’ Up New York City
Former Kinks guitarist and frequent songwriter Dave Davies has been making up for lost time since suffering a stroke in 2004. In the decade since, he’s released three solo albums, including last year’s critically-acclaimed Rippin’ Up Time. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee did a short tour in support of that album, and on September 4th, 2015, Red River Entertainment will release Davies’ Rippin’ Up New York City: Live at the City Winery.

Culled from a pair of New York City performances on November 24th and 25th, Rippin' Up New York City features Davies, guitarist Jonathan Lea, bassist/keyboardist Tom Currier, and former Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken. The City Winery shows balanced material from Davies’ new album with Kinks’ klassics like “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me,” as well as lesser-known but no less powerful tunes like “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” and “Death of A Clown.”

Davies’ new songs hold their own with those from his legendary former band, rockers like “Front Room” and “King of Karaoke” prompting the Reverend to deem Rippin’ Up Time a “snortin’, stompin’, hard-rockin’ record that entertains, Davie Davies’ earnest music evincing more heart that nearly any other album released this year.” In a press release for Rippin’ Up New York City, Davies says “I’m very excited about the live album, and the band sounds great. My son Simon did a great job helping me with the production.” With a tour in support of the live album being scheduled, Davies adds “I look forward to seeing you all on the road this fall.”

Dave Davies’ Rippin’ Up New York City tracklist:
1. Intro
2. Rippin' Up Time
3. I’m Not Like Everybody Else
4. I Need You
5. Creepin’ Jean
6. Suzannah’s Still Alive
7. See My Friend
8. Strangers
9. Flowers in the Rain
10. Front Room
11. King of Karaoke
12. Death of A Clown
13. Livin' On A Thin Line
14. Where Have All the Good Times Gone
15. All Day and All of the Night
16. You Really Got Me

Related Content: Dave Davies' Rippin' Up Time CD review

Sunday, August 9, 2015

CD Review: Ted Drozdowski's Scissormen's Love & Life (2015)

Ted Drozdowski's Scissormen's Love & Life
It’s just not fair that one guy should be so dang talented…Nashville-based, award-winning music journalist and former Boston Phoenix editor Ted Drozdowski is a heck of a writer with keen insight and no little knowledge of the music that he covers, his words appearing in dozens of publications through the years, including Rolling Stone magazine and Billboard magazine’s Jazz & Blues Encyclopedia. Ted is also the author of Obsessions of a Music Geek, Volume 1: Blues Guitar Giants, a very cool eBook that tells the stories of blues and blues-rock giants like John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Freddie King, Michael Bloomfield, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

If that wasn’t enough to make the average punter (or minor league rockcrit such as the Reverend) crazed with envy, Drozdowski also fronts the Scissormen, one of the leanest, meanest, bad-ass gang of juke-joint blues noisemakers to roll down the highway on four fiery, alcohol-fueled wheels in as long as the Rev can remember. Ted’s gruff, soulful vocals, erudite songwriting chops, and greasy six-string pyrotechnics, combined with the band’s percussive din, make the Scissormen natural heirs to the Delta and Hill Country blues traditions.

Love & Life, the second Scissormen studio album (and fifth recording overall) follows their acclaimed 2012 CD/DVD release Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, a live set documenting the final reunion tour of the original two-piece version of the band, which was also captured by filmmaker Robert Mugge’s 90-minute documentary film. Underwritten by the Scissormen’s fans around the world via a crowd-funding campaign, and released on Drozdowski’s independent Dolly Sez Woof label, Love & Life features a new band line-up and an aggressive, primal sound that straddles the fence between traditional country blues and high-energy, highly-amped blues-rock.

Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen’s Love & Life

Featuring a slate of eleven mostly-original songs – save for a lone cover of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” – Love & Life kicks off with the low-slung, Texas-styled groove of “Beggin’ Jesus,” a morality tale featuring an infectious riff and Paul Brown’s melodic keyboards. The song’s protagonist may be seeking salvation, but he’s having too much fun sinnin’ to stop now. With Brown’s keyboards providing the church choir, Drozdowski’s chaotic solos are balanced by his steady, hypnotic riffing. The following song, “Letter From Hell,” seems to reflect the preceding song’s protagonist in his final destination, drummer Matt Snow’s syncopated percussion providing the perfect framework for Drozdowski’s shotgun guitar licks. The song’s blues-hued ambiance is bolstered by its undeniable, foot-shuffling rhythms.

Drozdowski’s original “Watermelon Kid” is a fine tribute to blues legend Watermelon Slim, his lyrics perfectly capturing the man’s essence with just a few finely-crafted verses. Drozdowski’s vocals are delivered above a sparse, almost haunting arrangement, with piercing, nearly psychedelic guitar lines swirling around your head and punctuating the lyrics with certainty. The softer in tone “Let’s Go To Memphis” is a delicious slice of old-school Southern soul featuring the magnificent voice of the Mighty Sam McClain. His warm, rich vocals soaring above a reverent soundtrack that features Drozdowski’s subtle, chiming fretwork and Brown’s creative keyboard flourishes, McClain offers a wonderful performance on what is essentially a love note to the Bluff City and its deep musical heritage.

Can’t Be Satisfied

Paying honor to another blues legend, as well as Drozdowski’s friend and mentor, “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return)” is a spankin’ good song, featuring some of the guitarist’s finest guitar playing as well as Marshall Dunn’s sly recurring bass line. Drozdowski’s lyrics are insightful and personal, the sentiment heartfelt, and the performance simply blistering with imaginative fretwork and rock-solid percussion. The album’s lone cover, the aforementioned “Can’t Be Satisfied,” is writ larger than life, Drozdowski and crew taking the Chicago blues giant’s song back to the Mississippi Hill Country with a locomotive rhythm, and buzzing, rattling, strident guitar licks that hit your ears with the speed of a falcon and the force of a sledgehammer.

Musically, “Black Lung Fever” is slightly less manic in pace than “Can’t Be Satisfied,” but it’s no less intense. A highly personal tale of backbreaking labor and tragedy, “Black Lung Fever” details the coal miner’s plight with venomous lyrics, fierce guitar lines, and blustery percussion. Brown’s keyboards paint outside the edges to intensify the song’s already muscular sonic cacophony to heighten its malevolent vibe. By contrast, the melancholy “Dreaming On The Road” is a hard-luck tale of the weary American dreamer, Drozdowski’s lonely acoustic guitar the perfect accompaniment to his wistful lyrics. Switching gears again, “Living To Tell” is a blues-rock wildfire that references John Lee Hooker in its black cat moan tale, the song’s swamp-blues voodoo giving way to an explosive instrumental clash between good and evil complete with slashing guitars and crashing rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

It’s no surprise that Ted Drozdowski would be a fine blues songwriter, his often-minimalist lyrics managing to capture a great deal of emotion in a few words while still conveying brilliant imagery. It’s with his innovative fretwork that Drozdowski really shines, though, the guitarist pulling together disparate threads in the creation of a unique sound. You’ll hear scraps of the Hill Country drone of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough as well as the haunted melodies of Robert Johnson sitting side-by-side the troubled soul of John Lee Hooker and the fatback slide-guitar sound of Muddy Waters, all expressed through Drozdowski’s personal muse.

You won’t find a tastier slab o’ off-highway juke-joint blues than Drozdowski's Love & Life anywhere these days…he may be one enviously talented sumbitch, but Ted Drozdowski and the Scissormen are the stone cold real deal… Grade: A (Dolly Sez Woof Recordings, released July 31, 2015)

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Buy the eBook from Ted Drozdowski's Obsessions of a Music Geek: Volume I: Blues Guitar Giants

CD Reissue: Carole King & The City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said

The City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said
The good folks at archival label Light In The Attic Records have plucked a real gem from obscurity for their next CD/LP release – The City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said. Originally released in 1968 by producer Lou Adler’s Ode Records, the band comprised singer and pianist Carole King, bassist Charles Larkey, and guitarist Danny Kortchmar (with help from drummer Jim Gordon). The album didn’t really go anywhere and failed to chart; a year after its release, when Ode switched distributors, Now That Everything’s Been Said was deleted from the catalog and not reissued again until it appeared on CD in 1999.

At the time, although she had recorded some singles of her own, Carole King was best known as one-half of a mega-successful Brill Building songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin. With King creating music that featured her distinctive melodies, and Goffin penning the lyrics, the pair scored a slew of hits in the mid-to-late ‘60s with artists like Aretha Franklin, the Drifters, the Monkeys, and even King’s babysitter, Little Eva. When the duo’s marriage broke up, King moved to Laurel Valley with future husband Larkey and created the City in an attempt to jump start her long-dormant music career.

Fate had different plans for Ms. King, however, and after the City’s lone album crapped out, she started a proper solo career that, two albums in, blew up big-time with the 1971 release of Tapestry. The album would hit number one in the U.S. and Canada and number four on the charts in the U.K. on the strength of its chart-topping hit “It’s Too Late,” launching King’s solo career into the stratosphere as the album eventually went 10x Platinum™.  A string of a half-dozen hit albums would follow, King becoming the most commercially successful female artist of the decade. Her star would begin to recede in the ‘80s as mainstream musical tastes moved away from her sort of singer-songwriter fare, but she’s continued to make music, most recently scoring a Top Ten album with Live at the Troubadour, recorded in collaboration with longtime friend James Taylor. 
As for the City, Now That Everything’s Been Said displayed King’s songwriting acumen in a band setting, the accompaniment by Kortchmar (a talented guitarist who would make a name for himself playing with folks like James Taylor, Warren Zevon, and Jackson Browne as well as on King’s solo albums) providing invaluable balance to King’s piano and vocals. King’s stage fright prevented the band from touring in support of Now That Everything’s Been Said, which was released two or three years too early to capitalize on the 1970s-era West Coast singer-songwriter boom. The album’s disappointing sales weren’t due to a lack of quality material, however – several songs from Now That Everything’s Been Said would result in hits for other artists, including the Byrds (“Wasn’t Born To Follow”); Blood, Sweat & Tears (“Hi-De-Ho”); and James Taylor (“You’ve Got A Friend”).

Light In The Attic’s long-anticipated reissue of Now That Everything’s Been Said features 24 bit/96 kHz re-mastering from the original master tapes, and new liner notes by writer Steve Hochman that include interviews with the band members and producer Adler. This represents the first official vinyl reissue of the album in 45+ years (yes, there were numerous counterfeit copies floating around in collectors’ circles in the late 1970s and throughout the ‘80s), available in limited edition gold wax as a LITA subscriber exclusive, and black & white haze wax for those that pre-order the LP from the label.  

The Reverend has to admit a certain fondness for The City’s lone album…a former flame and Carole King fanatic had originally turned me onto Now That Everything’s Been Said which, in the wake of King’s enormous solo success and the album’s poor sales, had made it a rare, expensive, and sought-after vinyl collectible by the late ‘70s. Imagine my surprise when, moving to the Detroit area in 1979, I discovered five copies of the album in a local record store (which never sent anything back to their distributor) at $5 each! I bought ‘em all up, keeping one and selling the rest at $25 a piece at Detroit-area record conventions…the profits of which were promptly reinvested in Springsteen bootlegs. If you’re a fan of introspective 1960s and ‘70s rock music, the City will be right up your alley…

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Revisiting Shadow Gallery’s Early Days

Shadow Gallery's Double Feature
Shadow Gallery is one of those rare bands that has built upon its own musical influences and used them to weave a unique sound and vision that, in turn, has influenced other bands in the prog-rock and metal communities. Originally formed as Sorcerer in 1985 by singer Mike Baker and bassist Carl Cadden-James, the band went through various line-up changes until it settled with guitarist Brendt Allman and keyboardist Chris Ingles.

Drawing upon influences as diverse as Rush, Dream Theatre, and Pink Floyd, the band changed its name to Shadow Gallery and recorded the demos that would become their self-titled 1992 debut album, which was released in Europe and Japan by Magna Carta Records. Another line-up shuffle followed, the band adding guitarist Gary Wehrkamp and drummer Kevin Soffera for Shadow Gallery’s 1994 sophomore album, Carved In Stone. The band was the second signed by Magna Carta after Magellan, and would record four of their six albums to date for the label.

On August 7, 2015 Magna Carta will release Shadow Gallery: Double Feature, a limited edition, budget-priced two-disc set comprised of the band’s self-titled debut and Carved In Stone. This is a pretty good deal for stateside prog-rock fans, as Shadow Gallery’s debut has never been released in the U.S. in any form. Although widely acclaimed for its myriad of prog-rock styles, Shadow Gallery, the album, suffered from weak production. It’s notable for the band’s mature songwriting, however, Baker’s incredible vocals, and their virtuoso instrumental skills.

Carved In Stone is revered by prog fans as an enormous stylistic breakthrough for the band, the addition of Wehrkamp and Soffera providing the missing links in the Shadow Gallery chemistry, representing the point where the band’s talents and their musical ambitions first aligned. Primarily a studio outfit for the first decade and a half of the band’s existence, Shadow Gallery began making sporadic festival appearances in 2010, the electrifying performances cementing the band’s legacy as one of the most innovative and exciting prog-rock outfits of the 21st century.

The current Shadow Gallery roster features original guitarist Brendt Allman and bassist Carl Cadden-James, longtime guitarist and keyboardist Gary Wehrkamp, singer Brian Ashland (taking over after the 2008 death of Mike Baker), and drummer Joe Nevolo. This is the line-up that recorded the band’s 2009 Inside Out Records release Digital Ghosts. It was those first two Shadow Gallery albums that set the stage for the band’s subsequent success and status in the progressive rock community, now available together as the inexpensive Shadow Gallery: Double Feature courtesy of Magna Carta.

Buy the CD from Shadow Gallery's Shadow Gallery: Double Feature

Shadow Gallery tracklist:
1. The Dance of Fools
2. Darktown
3. Mystified
4. Questions at Hand
5. The Final Hour
6.  Say Goodbye to the Morning
7. The Queen of the City of Ice

Carved In Stone tracklist:
1. Cliffhanger
2. Interlude #1
3. Crystalline Dream
4. Interlude #2
5. Don’t Ever Cry, Just Remember
6. Interlude #3
7. Warcry
8. Celtic Princess
9. Deeper Than Life
10. Interlude #4
11. Alaska
12. Interlude #5
13. Ghostship

Fossils: Dwight Twilley Band's Sincerely (1976)

Dwight Twilley Band's Sincerely
[click to embiggen]
Dwight Twilley Band – Sincerely

Although cult rocker Dwight Twilley scored a Top 20 hit single in the spring of 1975 with the infectious, melodic “I’m On Fire,” he was nevertheless about five years too early for the 1980s power-pop revival he helped inspire and influence. For Twilley and musical partner Phil Seymour, it would take almost a year and a lot of false starts before they’d come up with a proper debut, 1976’s excellent Sincerely album.

Sadly, it seemed to be a case of “too little, too late.” Although Sincerely scratched its way onto the Top 200 chart (peaking at #138), there wouldn’t be another “I’m On Fire” in the offing. The pair built upon a fine pop-rock tradition that included similar cult faves as Crabby Appleton and Big Star, or even moderately-successful bands like Badfinger and the Raspberries, with songs like “Could Be Love,” “Release Me,” and “Baby Let’s Cruise” finding an appreciative, albeit smallish audience that has only increased over the ensuing decades.

Although the band’s label – Leon Russell’s Shelter Records – lacked the financial resources to fully promote Sincerely, the advertising that accompanied the album’s release masterfully evoked a simpler time, calling up the nostalgia of summertime, drive-in movies, and intelligent pop-rock music of the Dwight Twilley Band variety. Twilley has continued to make great music in a similar vein, most recently with 2014’s Always album…but he’ll forever be revered by power-pop fanatics for the groundbreaking Sincerely and it’s follow-up, 1977’s Twilley Don’t Mind

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

CD Review: Jeff Healey's The Best of the Stony Plain Years (2015)

Jeff Healey's The Best of the Stony Plain Years
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Healey wore many faces. To casual music fans, he was the singer of the hit “Angel Eyes,” a pop-blues artist who scored Top 30 albums in 1988’s See The Light and 1990’s Hell To Pay with the Jeff Healey Band. To blues fans, Healey was a solo artist, the expressive guitarist behind albums like Mess of Blues and Songs From The Road, which represented both his studio and on-stage faces, both released after Healey’s tragic death in 2008. 

There was another side to Jeff Healey, however, a face known mostly to the hardcore faithful – that of the jazz master. Blind since childhood, Healey never allowed his lack of eyesight to stop him from enjoying life to its fullest. A rabid record collector with tens of thousands of 78s, Healey was a fan of 1920s and ‘30s-era American jazz, a style he pursued with gusto on a handful of albums like 2002’s Among Friends and 2004’s Adventures In Jazzland, recorded with his band the Jazz Wizards.

Truthfully, Jeff Healey was all these faces and more, an artist of many talents that may not have been a household name, but was adored by his fans and respected by the peers that he played alongside, artists like Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Walter Trout, to name a few. 

The Best of the Stony Plain Years

There has been a glut of posthumous Healey releases over the past seven years, some authorized, many of dodgy provenance, most of them derived from live performances – an atmosphere in which Healey typically flourished. The compilation album The Best of the Stony Plain Years gathers a dozen of the guitarist’s underrepresented jazz-oriented performances from those albums that he recorded between 2002 and 2008 for the Canadian label, featuring Healey on vocals, guitar, and the occasional trumpet, backed by a crackerjack band that included talents like bassist Colin Bray, pianist Reide Kaiser, and clarinetist Ross Wooldridge.

Healey’s The Best of the Stony Plain Years offers up the guitarist playing music for the sheer joy of playing. The dozen songs here will be familiar to any 21st century jazz aficionado, and there are some big names behind the music – legends like Eddie Lang, Hoagy Carmichael, and Shelton Brooks, among others. Healey’s take on the originals tends to slant towards the traditional, and there’s no hiding his enthusiasm on tracks like the classic “Three Little Worlds,” which offers up an energetic vocal performance, or “The Wild Cat,” a rollicking instrumental with machine-gun guitar pickin’, blasts of horn, and a screeching violin. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” is a classic from the American songbook, and Healey acquits himself nicely with wistful vocals and elegant fretwork.

There are times when jazz and the blues intersect, and Healey is quite adept at those moments as well, Shelton Brooks’ “Some of These Days” concealing a bluesy undercurrent beneath the brave fa├žade of the lyrics and Healey’s filigree guitarplay. The standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” has been recorded many times since its origin in 1925, and Healey leans heavier towards the hallowed Cab Calloway version than any others, right down to the abstract vocals. “Sing You Sinners” is a scorching slice of vintage New Orleans barrelhouse that features British music legend Chris Barber while Carmichael’s exotic “Hong Kong Blues” provides a bit of Asian flavor in its unusual syncopated rhythm, but Healey’s warm vocals and six-string gymnastics can’t help but bring a contemporary edge to the song.        

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While The Best of the Stony Plain Records stands entirely on its own, fans of Healey’s major label era work may be better suited looking for a mainstream release like The Master Hits collection. Those who prefer Healey in his role as guitar-slinging bluesman might find Live At Grossman’s 1994 to their liking. However, both groups – if they’re willing to experiment and listen with open ears – might find much to like in the jaunty throwback jazz of Jeff Healey’s The Best of the Stony Plain Years. Grade: B (Stony Plain Records, released July 17, 2015)

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Book Preview: Lloyd Price’s sumdumhonky

Lloyd Price's sumdumhonky
New Orleans R&B legend Lloyd Price is best known for his string of late 1950s/early ‘60s chart-topping hits, classic songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Stagger Lee,” and “Personality,” several of which crossed over from the R&B chart to become Top 10 mainstream hits as well. Price’s songwriting skills are often overshadowed by his dynamic and powerful vocals, but his songs have also been recorded by artists as diverse as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, and Dr. John, among many others. Price was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

Along with Price’s status as a recording artist and live performer, he has also found success as a pioneering businessman. His Double L Records released soul giant Wilson Pickett’s first recordings, and Price was one of the first African-Americans to own and operate a nightclub in New York City (Lloyd Price’s Turntable, on 52nd and Broadway). His Icon Foods brand is known for its Lawdy Miss Clawdy food products and Energy-2-Eat snack bars, and Price also has his own line of clothing and collectibles. Price’s historic career has spanned seven decades and, at 82 years old, the singer shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. 

Needless to say, Price has stories to tell, and on October 13, 2015 the singer’s book sumdumhonky will be published by Cool Titles. No garden variety autobiography – he already covered that territory with his 2011 book The True King of the Fifties: The Lloyd Price Story – Price’s sumdumhonky mixes stories from across Price’s lengthy and storied career with his unique perspective on matters of race. No matter how successful he may have been in bridging the pop and R&B charts with his music, Price was still too-often judged by the color of his skin, and he writes frankly and openly of the racism he found in his hometown of Kenner, Louisiana and beyond – bigoted policemen, record executives trying to take advantage of him, and of his eye-opening sojourn to Africa. 

“Times have changed since I was born more than eighty years ago,” Price says in a press release for the book. “Blacks can now drink from the same water fountain as white people, eat at the same restaurants, ride in the front on public transportation, get a bank loan, hold jobs in management and we don’t get lynched quite as often as we used to.”

As a Southern-born African-American who came up through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s, Price experienced his share of racial discrimination, and he takes on the hatred and bigotry he’s suffered with insight and humor. If you’re looking for an intelligent, first-hand account of where race and rock ‘n’ roll intersect, look no further than the great Lloyd Price’s sumdumhonky.

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