Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rant 'n' Roll: Frank Zappa as Hologram??!!!

Frank Zappa photo by Bruce Linton, courtesy Universal Music
Zappa photo by Bruce Linton, courtesy Universal Music
When you get to be the Reverend’s age and have spent as many years hanging around the fringes of the ‘respectable’ record biz as I have (45+), you see a few things…and I’ve seen few things as cockamamie as this. The Zappa Family Trust announced this week that Frank Zappa, the family’s patriarch and namesake, will be hitting the road again despite the unfortunate fact that he’s been dead for nearly 24 years. Dear Frank has kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!

Working with Eyellusion, ‘live music’s premier hologram production company,’ the Zappa Family Trust has developed Frank Zappa – Back On The Road: The Hologram Tour. According to the bloato-hype accompanying the estate’s press release, ‘Hologram Frank’ will provide fans “an opportunity to experience the prolific, eclectic and critically acclaimed music legend live in concert again.” Production for the hologram tour will begin later this year with performances expected sometime in 2018.
“I’m thrilled that Frank Zappa will finally be going back out on tour playing his most well-known music as well as some rare and unheard material,” said Ahmet Zappa, co-Trustee of the Zappa Family Trust, in a press release. “We can’t wait to bring his creative work back to the stage with the musicians he loved to play with, such as Steve Vai, Ian Underwood, Adrian Belew, Arthur Barrow, Vinnie Colaiuta, Scott Thunes, Mike Keneally, Denny Walley, Warren Cuccurullo and Napoleon Murphy Brock among others who are committed to being part of this epic endeavor. When I spoke with them, they were excited at the prospect of performing alongside Frank once again and can’t wait to give fans an unforgettable experience.”

Now either Vai, Belew, et al are all strapped for the cash this bad idea might provide them, or else they were all just humoring Ahmet when he rang ‘em up and proposed this horrible example of a craven cash-grab. “Sure, kid, I’d love to play with the disembodied shadow of your late father; can’t think of anything else I’d rather do next year.” I don’t imagine that any of these talented musicians are chomping at the bit to line-up on stage and perform alongside the ghostly image of their former bandleader. I realize that the Zappa Family Trust has been hemorrhaging cash and is allegedly millions of dollars in debt, but pimping out the corpse of dear ol’ dad isn’t the way to dig out of the hole.

Frank Zappa photo by Greg Gorman, courtesy Universal Music
Zappa photo by Greg Gorman, courtesy Universal Music
In the press release for this travesty of bad estate planning, Ahmet had to throw in an unnecessary dig at his estranged brother and sister, i.e. them what got the shit end of the deal with their mother’s death. “Also, how radical would it be to have Moon singing ‘Valley Girl’ onstage with Frank? Or to see Dweezil side by side with our father playing dueling guitar solos? That would be my greatest wish and I look forward to bringing this special celebration of Frank’s legacy to a town near you. But if that wasn’t enough Zappa coolness, we’re also planning on staging Joe’s Garage The Musical with none other than Frank Zappa himself starring as the Central Scrutinizer.”

Yikes, that’s a self-serving line of bullshit…and no matter what side of the Zappa family feud you come down on, you have to admit that Dweezil has done more to keep his father’s music alive by performing it publically over this past decade as “Zappa Plays Zappa” than anything that Ahmet has achieved by whoring out their father’s legacy with a steady flow of “product” that includes CD reissues, a glut of live recordings, and gratuitous vinyl reissues. If I were the 40% half of the trust (i.e. Dweezil and Moon), I’d be challenging Ahmet’s oversight, its millions of dollars of debt in spite of the abundance of major label reissues, and other issues that have created familial discord, not the least of which is this crappy hologram tour idea.

I never knew Frank Zappa personally, but I know enough about the man and his music from a lifetime of listening and researching my Frank Zappa Buying Guide book to believe that Frank the Artist would hate this idea. A musical perfectionist and restless creative spirit whose legend is built not only on his compositional genius and immense six-string skills but also on his improvisational abilities, ‘Hologram Frank’ will display none of these attributes when performing alongside whatever high-profile former sidemen the ignorant half of the family can bribe to tour with the evanescent apparition of Daddy dearest. This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, it’s zombie karaoke, and woe upon any of you that support this shitshow by buying a ticket.

Third Man Records remembers Muddy Waters

Blues legend Muddy Waters
Third Man Records – Jack White’s boutique label of oddities and delights – has decided to dip its toe into the rich back catalog of the legendary Chess Records with a series of 7” single reissues. Much as they previously did with Sun Records, reissuing sizzling slabs o’ hot wax from the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley; and as they did with Detroit’s Tamla Records, with too-cool reissues of musical gems by Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Barrett Strong, and the Miracles, so too does Third Man plan on revisiting long-lost treasures from the beloved Chicago blues label.

Appropriately enough, the first seven-inchers in Third Man’s Chess reissue series focus on the King of the Blues, the almighty Muddy Waters. Unearthing three musty singles from the darkest recesses of the Chess Records vault, Third Man has pressed high-quality 45rpm discs from the early days of Waters’ career – 1950’s “Rollin’ Stone” b/w “Walkin’ Blues,” 1953’s “She’s All Right” b/w “Sad, Sad Day,” and 1955’s hit “Manish Boy” b/w “Young Fashioned Ways.”

Waters would re-record several of these songs in various sessions over the ensuing years, but Third Man is offering the raw, vibrant early versions, the first two of which were originally issued only on fragile 10” shellac 78rpm records (“Manish Boy” seems to have been released as both 10” 78rpm and 7” 45rpm singles). “She’s All Right” is a straight-up solo performance featuring just Muddy and his guitar while “Manish Boy” includes Junior Wells’ harp flourishes.

Third Man is offering these three first Chess singles on gorgeous black vinyl for $6 each or as a three-disc bundle for $15 plus shipping (that’s what I bought). Get ‘em via the Third Man Records website. There is also a limited edition of each single pressed up on electric “Chess-nut” brown vinyl and available only from the Third Man Records storefronts or from Reckless Records in Chicago, while supplies last. Can’t wait to see what the next batch of Chess singles brings!

Muddy Waters' Rollin' Stone single

Monday, September 18, 2017

CD Review: Bash & Pop’s Friday Night Is Killing Me (2017)

Bash & Pop’s Friday Night Is Killing Me
Widely considered one of the greatest outfits in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the Replacements enjoy a cult following far above and beyond the band’s meager commercial accomplishments. Part of their hallowed status among fans is due to the band’s unpredictable live concerts where the ‘Mats could be the best band in rock on any given night…or possibly the worst. Either way, the band’s ramshackle performances were never dull and were always entertaining. Considering the enduring nature of the band’s classic recordings like Let It Be and Pleased To Meet Me, the Replacements have earned their place on the Mount Olympus of rock ‘n’ roll.

When internal tensions broke up the Replacements in 1991, bassist Tommy Stinson – an integral part of the band’s honest, anarchic sound – wanted to continue playing in a group. Switching to guitar, he convinced Replacements’ drummer Steve Foley to join the new band, along with his brother Kevin Foley on bass, and he brought in guitarist Steve Brantseg to form the outfit known as Bash & Pop. The foursome subsequently recorded Friday Night Is Killing Me with producer Don Smith, the 1993 album including guest appearances by Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Wire Train’s Jeff Trott. The album received modest critical acclaim for its energetic, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll but went nowhere fast, and Stinson soon wandered off to eventually join Guns N’ Roses.

Bash & Pop’s Friday Night Is Killing Me

Although Friday Night Is Killing Me paled in comparison to the Replacements’ best work, the album has grown in stature in the nearly quarter-century since its release, no mean feat as the CD has been out-of-print for 20 years. Nothing more was heard from Bash & Pop until earlier this year, when Stinson hooked up with friends like Steve Selvidge of the Hold Steady and Luther Dickson of the North Mississippi Allstars to record Anything Could Happen, the first Bash & Pop album since 1993. With renewed interest in the band growing, Omnivore Recordings has reissued Friday Night Is Killing Me as a deluxe two-disc set featuring the original album mastered by current B&P bassist Justin Perkins as well as an eighteen-track bonus disc featuring rare singles, home demos, and B-sides, most of which are previously-unreleased.   

The original tracks on Friday Night Is Killing Me offer no-frills, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Album opener “Never Aim To Please,” for instance, twangs ‘n’ bangs like the Georgia Satellites on dexies, with a BIG drum sound, scorching fretwork, and a melody you could hang your coat on. The mid-tempo “Loose Ends” is similarly rootsy, Stinson’s drawled vocals matched by Steve Foley’s measured timekeeping, a throbbing bass line, and scraps of twinkling guitar. “One More Time” bursts out of the gate like a champion race horse before teetering off the track, Foley’s can-slamming providing the only anchor to the musical chaos.

Fast & Hard

The punkish fervor of “Fast & Hard” is perhaps the closest that Stinson comes here to replicating the inexplicable chemistry of his former band, the song displaying reckless energy and great musical dynamics while the album’s title track is a grandiloquent almost-ballad with tortured vocals and lush instrumentation. The bonus disc provided with the Friday Night Is Killing Me reissue is a roller-coaster jaunt through the Bash & Pop archives, a mish-mash of demos and rarities that is uneven by nature. The home demo of “Hang Ups” is delightfully raw and more ramshackle than the final version while the rowdy “Situation” reminds of Rod Stewart & the Faces and should probably have made the cut on the original album tracklist.

Ditto for “Harboring A Fugitive,” a feedback-laden slab o’ punky power-pop with ringing guitars and enchanting instrumental drone; tailor-made for ‘90s era rock radio it could have cut through the grunge onslaught on the FM band. The band’s contribution to Kevin Smith’s 1994 cinematic debut Clerks, “Making Me Sick,” is chunky and discordant enough that it should have leapt off the soundtrack and grabbed the audience by the ears. Of the alternative versions, none really stand out as superior to the final line-up, tho’ the charming “Tiny Pieces” comes close with Stinson doing his best Westerberg vocals. The unreleased instrumental cover of Terry Reid’s “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece” is a fine, high-octane showcase for Stinson’s underrated six-string skills (and another track that should have made the album).      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

For long-suffering Bash & Pop fans, Omnivore’s reissue of Friday Night Is Killing Me provides just the right amount of a good thing, offering the true believer a wealth of engaging bonus tracks that shed a light on the band’s in-studio creative process. The original eleven-song album stands proudly enough on its own as one of the long-lost semi-classic recordings of rock ‘n’ roll but was overshadowed (and out-sold) at the time by grunge-y outfits like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. Whether with the Replacements or fronting Bash & Pop, though, Tommy Stinson a considerable talent as well as a talented songwriter and bandleader; Friday Night Is Killing Me the moment he stepped out of the shadows of his notorious band and began to make a name for himself. Grade: B (Omnivore Recordings, released September 8, 2017)

Buy the CD from Bash & Pop’s Friday Night Is Killing Me

Sunday, September 17, 2017

CD Preview: The Pretty Things’ Greatest Hits

The Pretty Things’ Greatest Hits
The Pretty Things are undeniably one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll outfits of the 1960s and ‘70s…though they weren’t always considered so. After scoring hits out of the box with timeless tracks like “Roslyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the PTs suffered through an extended streak that saw a largely indifferent response from the record-buying public after the mid-‘60s. But as the band evolved beyond its early British R&B roots into a psychedelic and subsequent hard rock sound, the Pretty Things released great albums like S.F. Sorrow (1968), Silk Torpedo (1974), and Savage Eye (1976) before breaking up in the late ‘70s.

The original PTs – singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor – put the band back together in the early ‘80s and have been plugging away in the trenches more or less ever since (with a few hiatuses here and there). The latter-day band has released a few gems as well, including 2007’s Balboa Island and 2015’s critically-acclaimed The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, of Course…). The year 2015 also saw the release of Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky, a career-spanning box set honoring the band that influenced artists as diverse as David Bowie, the Clash, and the Libertines, among many others.

On October 13th, 2017 Madfish Records will release the Pretty Things’ Greatest Hits, a two-disc collection of (their hyperbole, not mine) “25 of the very best tracks from the dirtiest, loudest, most controversial and influential band the world has seen.” The first disc includes the band’s initial 1960s-era U.K. chart hits “Roslyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Honey, I Need,” “Cry To Me,” and “Midnight to Six Man” as well as latter tracks like “S.F. Sorrow Is Born,” “Defecting Grey,” and “L.S.D.” It looks like Greatest Hits only covers the period of the band’s first four album releases (1965-1968) and eschews any of their fine ‘70s work (a second volume, maybe?) but it does include a 2016 recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was originally offered to the band to record but they passed on it.

The Pretty Things’ Greatest Hits also includes a bonus CD of an exclusive recorded performance of the band’s self-titled 1965 album form the legendary 100 Club in London. The album will be available in CD, vinyl, and digital download formats and includes comments on individual tracks from May and Taylor as well as liner notes from longtime band manager Mark St. John.

Buy the CD from The Pretty Things’ Greatest Hits

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, R.I.P.

Hüsker Dü (Grant Hart, center)
Grant Hart – singer and drummer for the influential, almighty punk rock onslaught that was Hüsker Dü – passed away at the University of Minnesota Medical Center of complications from liver cancer and hepatitis. Hart was only 56 years old.

Hüsker Dü was formed in 1979 in St. Paul, Minnesota by singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, and Hart. Initially known as a hardcore punk band, Hüsker Dü’s music eventually evolved into a more melodic yet aggressive sound that was fast and loud but offered intelligent, erudite lyrics courtesy of Mould and Hart. The band signed with Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s SST Records, releasing three groundbreaking albums for the label, including the classic 1984 double-LP set Zen Arcade and its follow-up, 1985’s New Day Rising.

Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade
Signing with Warner Brothers Records, the band released a pair of critically-acclaimed studio albums before the band’s break-up in 1987. Hüsker Dü would later become known as one of the most influential bands to emerge from the punk underground of the ‘80s, inspiring artists like Metallica, the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, among many others.

Hart launched a lengthy solo career with his 1989 SST Records album Intolerance; Hart’s 2013 album The Argument was his most recent release. In between solo albums, Hart also fronted the critically-acclaimed band Nova Mob, releasing two albums, the best of which is 1991’s The Last Days of Pompeii.

Hart’s death at a too-young age comes just as interest in Hüsker Dü is growing due to the forthcoming release of the three-disc Savage Young Dü box set by The Numero Group. A lot of other folks have waxed eloquently on Hart’s death, so here are a couple of links to stuff you should read if you’re a Grant Hart and/or Hüsker Dü fan:

Fred Mills in Blurt online
Chris Willman in Variety online
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in City Pages
Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone online

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Go Johnny Go! with Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran & Ritchie Valens

Go Johnny Go! DVD
Rock ‘n’ roll was still in its infancy as an art form in the late ‘50s, which led to the creation of a number of films (the predominant form of pop culture at the time) targeting the red-hot teenage market. Although today we look back in embarrassment at a lot of these movies, they helped create a youthful rock ‘n’ roll demographic that would carry the music better than five decades until the present day.

Directed by Paul Landres – who made movies like Destiny and Johnny Rocco and directed episodes of Maverick, Flipper, and other TV shows – Go Johnny Go! was released in 1959 and starred celebrity DJ Alan Freed, rocker Chuck Berry, and singers Johnny Clanton and Sandy Stewart as the romantic couple at the heart of the film. Clanton was a respected talent, part of the New Orleans music scene, working with legends like Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) and Allen Toussaint. Clanton’s best-known hit was 1958’s “Just A Dream,” the singer placing seven singles in the Top 40 during the 1950s and early ‘60s.

On October 17th, 2017 VCI Entertainment – the oldest surviving home video company in the USA – will reissue Go Johnny Go! on DVD, to be distributed by our friends at MVD Entertainment Group. Previously released under titles like Johnny Melody, The Swinging Story, and The Swinging Story of Johnny Melody, the film has become a cult favorite for its engaging story and rockin’ soundtrack. The film offers the only cinematic appearance of singer Ritchie Valens before his untimely death, and features Eddie Cochran’s third and final appearance on film.

Featuring a based-in-reality story of DJ Freed searching for the next rock star, the soundtrack to the 75-minute film features performances by Clanton, co-star Chuck Berry, and such luminaries as Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran, Jackie Wilson, Harvey Fuqua, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, and others. Go Johnny Go! is an interesting and entertaining artifact of the early rock ‘n’ roll era.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Grapefruit Records’ Looking At the Pictures In the Sky celebrates 1968!

Grapefruit Records' Looking At the Pictures In the Sky
Everybody is just so jazzed up because this year is the 50th anniversary of 1967, the vaunted “summer of love.” Well, kiddies, the year is officially 75% over and done with and while that still leaves roughly three months to celebrate the hedonistic excesses of ’67, a new year is right around the corner. The good folks at U.K. archival specialists Grapefruit Records must agree, ‘cause they already have their eyes on the semicentennial of 1968...

On September 29th, 2017 here in the USA, Grapefruit will release Looking At the Pictures In the Sky, a three-disc anthology of British psychedelic rock that features 77 tracks and rocks an almost four-hour running time. The set is packaged in a cool clambox and includes a 44-page booklet brimming over with biographical information and rare photographs of the artists featured. Best of all, the set is budget-priced – selling on for $19.99 as of this writing – a bargain considering the tonnage of music included.

And just what, exactly, will you hear on Looking At the Pictures In the Sky? Well, among the 77 tracks here, you’ll find a number of the ‘usual suspects’ like the Move (“Omnibus”), the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (“Spontaneous Apple Creation”), the Pretty Things (“Talking About the Good Times”), and Procol Harum (“In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence”) offering lesser-known, lysergic-drenched tunes released in 1968.

The set also includes songs from a number of cult bands whose early singles demand platinum-prices from collectors, bands like the Fire (“Father’s Name Is Dad”), Tuesday’s Children (“She”), the Spectrum (“Music Soothes the Savage Breast”), the Alan Bown (“For Your Thoughts”), Andy Ellison (“Cornflake Zoo”), Blonde On Blonde (“Country Life”), and Skip Bifferty (“Round and Round”).

Grapefruit Records’ Looking At the Pictures In the Sky
Grapefruit Records has also dug up some truly hard-to-find, bona fide psych-rock classics for Looking At the Pictures In the Sky, rare 45s by bands like Fleur de Lys, the Barrier, the Factory, the Glass Menagerie, Rupert’s People, and Mike Stuart Span that are virtually unknown outside of the rabid psych collectors’ community. Throw in a handful of singles by unlikely candidates like the Spencer Davis Group (“Time Seller”), Status Quo (“Technicolor Dreams”), Graham Gouldman (“Upstairs Downstairs”), and the Marmalade (“Mr. Lion”) as well as the rarity “Aeroplane,” the flip-side of the debut single by Jethro Tull (credited incorrectly to ‘Jethro Toe’) and what you have is a mind-blowing collection of cult classics, obscure B-sides, and unreleased treasures of British psychedelia circa ’68!

Looking At the Pictures In the Sky is a sequel, of sorts, to Grapefruit’s critically-acclaimed 2016 box set I’m A Freak, Baby: A Journey Through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-72 (check out the Rev’s review). The label’s efforts in preserving this creative era of rock ‘n’ roll history is a godsend for those of us who can’t spend $1,000 on a rare single. Check out the full tracklist of Looking At the Pictures In the Sky on the Grapefruit Records website and use the link below to order your copy from…your ears will thank me later.

Buy the box set from Various Artists - Looking At the Pictures In the Sky 

Friday, September 8, 2017

CD Review: Flamin' Groovies' Fantastic Plastic (2017)

Flamin' Groovies' Fantastic Plastic
Who would have thought that, after 38 years, the Flamin’ Groovies would see a reunion of original band member Cyril Jordan and longtime singer/guitarist Chris Wilson to write and record a new album? Well, fellow travelers, the word is true and Fantastic Plastic is the result of this holy matrimony of teenage kicks and cheap thrills. The first Groovies’ flapjack since 1979’s criminally-underrated Jumpin’ In The Night, the new platter was produced by Jordan and guitarist Joel Jaffe and features ten red-hot new tunes penned by the team of Jordan and Wilson as well as a pair of too-cool-for-school covers in NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” and the Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk To Strangers.”

The Flamin’ Groovies were formed in San Francisco in1965 by guitarist Jordan and singer/guitarist Roy Loney. The independent release of a seven-song 10” EP called Sneakers led to a CBS Records contract, the label releasing the Groovies’ 1969 debut LP Supersnazz. The band’s fast-burning, high-octane blend of ‘50s-inspired and ‘60s-wired power-pop, punk, and garage-rock was easily a decade or three ahead of its time, and CBS dropped the Groovies after poor sales. This forced the band to play major label bingo over the next few years, timeless albums like1970’s Flamingo and 1971’s Teenage Head released by Kama Sutra, later albums released by Sire Records. Loney jumped ship in the mid-‘70s, replaced by Wilson for 1976’s classic Shake Some Action album. The band broke up in 1980 after releasing a couple more rockin’ records that were ignored by a music-buying hoi polloi mesmerized by Top 40 hit radio.

Flamin’ Groovies’ Fantastic Plastic

In spite of their tragic obscurity during the rough ‘n’ tumble decade of the ‘70s, the Groovies’ handful of albums have since become considered important signposts along the pop/rock highway, influencing artists like NRBQ, the dB’s, and the Plimsouls, among many, many others. Listening to Fantastic Plastic, I’m not going to tell you that it’s a “return to form” or that it “sounds as good as the old stuff,” although the long-admirable musical chemistry between Jordan and Wilson couldn’t be re-created in a laboratory with any currently-known scientific equipment. I will tell you, however, that Fantastic Plastic rocks from stem to stern, a dozen sizzling tracks to bend your brain and cause rhythmic spasms in your metatarsus.

Forty minutes of musical bliss rolls out slowly with “What The Hell’s Goin’ On,” a low-slung raunch ‘n’ roll groove asking a question for the ages with a grinding rhythm, greasy fretwork, and drawled vocals that sound drenched in 90-proof whiskey. The whirling energy of “End of the World” harkens back to the band’s psychedelic SF roots, with an understated riff sounding like Blue Oyster Cult on a peyote bender while melodic crescendos of sound wash over your ears. The Groovies’ hit full stride with “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” an obscure Beau Brummels single they give a full 1965 makeover, the band capturing the original’s throwback vibe with Byrdsian jangle and shards of hallucinogenic-drenched guitar.

Just Like A Hurricane

The band original “Let Me Rock” is equally invigorating, solid rhythm guitar and explosive percussion creating a cacophonic backdrop for Wilson’s soulful vocals and the band’s backing harmonies. Squealing guitar licks and dense production create an exhilarating listening experience while the “save our music” lyrics are delightfully retro. The Groovies’ influence on their contemporaries NRBQ flows both ways, and the band’s cover of the Q’s “I Want You Bad” is every bit as heartbreakingly yearning as the original. With a wall of sound blanketing the performance, ‘60s-styled guitars break free to create a vibe while the wistful vox are spot on. The rockabilly-fueled “Crazy Macy” is the unusual misstep here, the crack in the windshield that you’ll stare at for hours, wondering when it’s going to break loose.

Although a technically perfect pastiche of rockabilly sound with manic guitars and machine-gun rhythms, “Crazy Macy” falls short of the high standard set by the other material on Fantastic Plastic. Much better is the British Invasion-tinged “Just Like A Hurricane,” a roller-coaster ride of echoed vocals and claustrophobic rhythms with piercing git licks (anybody else here remember Speedy Keen?). The shimmering instrumental “I’d Rather Spend My Time With You” features noted producer and rock ‘n’ roll archivist Alec Palao on bass and Tubes/Todd Rundgren drummer Prairie Prince for a surf-rock inspired rave-up that reminds of Dick Dale’s classic romps. Fantastic Plastic closes with “Cryin’ Shame,” the Byrds/Roger McGuinn-styled guitar intro evolving into a lovely mid-tempo rocker with gang harmonies and sparkling fretwork balanced atop a steady rhythmic framework.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There’s some mad genius level insanity going on in the grooves of Fantastic Plastic, the Flamin’ Groovies delivering a much better album than one would expect after nearly four decades of creative separation for songwriters Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson. It’s like they dug a beloved old hot rod out of the garage from behind the stacks of old newspapers and worn-out tires and found that, with a little polish and some fresh gas, the monster cranks right up like it’s 1980 all over again.

The Flamin’ Groovies’ first album of the 21st century is by no means a classic on the level of Shake Some Action, but it ain’t chopped liver, either. The Groovies shake off the ring rust to deliver one of the most consistent – and consistently entertaining – recordings of a career that now spans seven decades. Fantastic Plastic promises old school rock ‘n’ roll in a manner unlike just about any other band spinning its wheels these days, the Flamin’ Groovies proudly carrying the torch for an era that refuses to die. Grade: B+ (Sonic Kicks Records, released September 22, 2017)

Buy the CD from Flamin’ Groovies’ Fantastic Plastic

Soulsville U.S.A. A Celebration of Stax

Soulsville U.S.A. A Celebration of Stax
As we’ve written about over the last couple of months, 2017 is the 60th anniversary of the legendary Memphis-based label Stax Records. As part of the year-long celebration of all things Stax-related, the good folks at Concord Music Group and Rhino Entertainment have been collaborating on some essential soul releases, but probably none as cool as this one...

On September 22nd, 2017 the two labels will add points to their cosmic karma with the release of Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax. A three-CD collection featuring a liver-quivering 60 tracks in total, the set spans the early 1960s through the mid-‘70s and features music from such soul legends as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the M.G.’s, Carla Thomas, the Dramatics, William Bell, the Staple Singers, and Sam & Dave, among many others. The collection also includes new liner notes by journalist Jeff Slate.

An update, of sorts, to the best-selling Stax 50: A 50th Anniversary Celebration box set that has sold better than 100,000 copies since its 2007 release, Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax ups the ante by including rare tracks by lesser-known (tho’ no less talented) Stax label artists like Mable John, Little Milton, and the Soul Children alongside hits from folks like Rufus Thomas (“Walking the Dog”), Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”), Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”), and Shirley Brown (“Woman To Woman”) as well as the aforementioned label stars. Check out the complete track listing for Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax below and you’ll agree that this is some of the best soul music every made!

Disc 1
1. The Veltones - Fool In Love
2. Carla Thomas - Gee Whiz
3. The Mar-Keys - Last Night
4. William Bell - You Don't Miss Your Water
5. Booker T. & the MG's - Green Onions
6. Rufus Thomas - Walking The Dog
7. Wendy Rene - After Laughter (Comes Tears)
8. Otis Redding - I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
9. The Astors - Candy
10. Sam & Dave - You Don't Know Like I Know
11. The Mad Lads - Don't Have To Shop Around
12. Carla Thomas - Let Me Be Good To You
13. Mable John - Your Good Thing (Is About To End)
14. Eddie Floyd - Knock On Wood
15. Sam & Dave - Hold On! I'm Comin'
16. Otis Redding - Try A Little Tenderness
17. Carla Thomas - B-A-B-Y
18. Booker T. & the MG's - Hip Hug-Her
19. The Bar-Kays - Soul Finger
20. Otis & Carla - Tramp

Disc 2
1. Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign
2. Sam & Dave - Soul Man
3. Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay
4. Eddie Floyd - Big Bird
5. Ollie & The Nightingales - I Got A Sure Thing
6. Booker T. & the MG's - Soul Limbo
7. Linda Lyndell - What A Man
8. Judy Clay & William Bell - Private Number
9. Eddie Floyd - I've Never Found A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)
10. The Staple Singers - The Weight
11. Johnnie Taylor - Who's Making Love
12. Carla Thomas - I Like What You're Doing (To Me)
13. William Bell - I Forgot To Be Your Love)
14. Booker T. & the MG's - Time Is Tight
15. Rufus Thomas - Do The Funky Chicken
16. The Emotions - So I Can Love You
17. Isaac Hayes - Walk On By
18. Johnnie Taylor & Carla Thomas - Just Keep On Loving Me
19. The Staple Singers - Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)
20. Rufus Thomas - (Do The) Push And Pull (Part. 1)

Disc 3
1. Jean Knight - Mr. Big Stuff
2. Johnnie Taylor - Jody's Got Your Girl And Gone
3. Isaac Hayes - Never Can Say Goodbye
4. The Dramatics - Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get
5. The Staple Singers - Respect Yourself
6. Isaac Hayes - Theme From Shaft
7. The Bar-Kays - Son Of Shaft
8. Little Milton - That's What Love Will Make You Do
9. The Soul Children - Hearsay
10. The Dramatics - In The Rain
11. Isaac Hayes - Do Your Thing
12. Frederick Knight - I've Been Lonely For So Long
13. The Staple Singers - I'll Take You There
14. Mel & Tim - Starting All Over Again
15. Temprees - Dedicated To The One I Love
16. The Dramatics - Hey You! Get Off My Mountain
17. Johnnie Taylor - Cheaper To Keep Her
18. The Staple Singers - If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)
19. The Soul Children - I'll Be The Other Woman
20. Shirley Brown - Woman To Woman

Also on That Devil
Sam & Dave - Stax Classics CD review
Carla Thomas - Stax Classics CD review
Otis Redding - Live At the Whiskey A Go Go CD review 

Buy the box set from Soulsville U.S.A.: A Celebration of Stax

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Numero Group’s Hüsker Dü box set

Hüsker Dü

Archival experts The Numero Group have announced the label’s long-rumored and much anticipated Hüsker Dü box set. Scheduled for early November release, Savage Young Dü is a three-CD or four-LP set packaged in either tip-on jackets or die-cut sleeves and boxed in a linen-finished slipcase and including a 108pp or 144pp hardcover book with 40 previously unpublished photographs, a flyerography, a sessionography by Paul Hilcoff, and a 12,000 word essay by writer Erin Osmon.

The Numero Group’s Hüsker Dü box set
Savage Young Dü features 69 songs, 47 of them previously unreleased, all of them remastered from the original analog tapes and including Everything Falls Apart, the band’s first studio album, and an alternative version of their live debut, Land Speed Record. Savage Young Dü is priced at $40 plus shipping for the three-CD version and $50 plus shipping for the CD box including a limited-edition 7” EP titled Extra Circus that is only available for mail order customers. Featuring five previously-unreleased songs from the January 1983 Metal Circus sessions, Extra Circus is packaged in a full-color sleeve designed by band member Grant Hart. The four-LP vinyl version of the box set has already sold out but, as of this writing, the four-LP box with the 7” EP is still available and priced at $95 plus shipping from the label.

Hüsker Dü was formed in 1979 in St. Paul, Minnesota by singer/guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, and drummer/singer Grant Hart. Initially known as a hardcore punk band, Hüsker Dü’s music eventually evolved into a more melodic yet aggressive sound that was fast and loud but offered intelligent, erudite lyrics courtesy of Mould and Hart. The band signed with Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s SST Records, releasing three groundbreaking albums for the label, including the classic 1984 double-LP set Zen Arcade. Subsequently signing with Warner Brothers Records, the band released a pair of critically-acclaimed studio albums in 1985 and 1986 before the band’s break-up; a live album featuring 1987 band performances was later released in 1994.

Hüsker Dü would become one of the most influential bands to emerge from the punk underground of the ‘80s, inspiring bands like Metallica, the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, among many others. Savage Young Dü offers an in-depth look into the band’s early, formative years, collecting original soundboard tapes, demos, and session masters recorded by Hüsker Dü between 1979 and 1983. Reasonably-priced even by the exaggerated standards of archive box sets, and a must-have for any Hüsker Dü fan’s collection, Savage Young Dü is available from The Numero Group website – get ‘em before they go!

Monday, September 4, 2017

CD Review: Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie - The Atco Recordings 1970-1972 (2017)

Jesse Ed Davis's Red Dirt Boogie
Jesse Ed Davis was an extraordinarily-talented guitarist who parlayed his skills into a career as an in-demand session player and touring musician. Originally part of country legend Conway Twitty’s band, Davis switched gears when he became an integral part of root ‘n’ blues legend Taj Mahal’s band, playing on Mahal’s first three albums. Introduced to session work by Leon Russell in the late ‘60s, Davis would lend his talents to recordings by John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Gene Clark (The Byrds), and many others.

Lesser-known – and tragically so – was Davis’s short-lived career as a solo artist. Launching his solo career with a self-titled release on the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco, the guitarist’s debut featured high-profile musical guests like Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Gram Parsons, and Alan White (Yes). Two subsequent critically-acclaimed albums would quickly follow, 1972’s Ululu (also released by Atco Records) and 1973’s Keep Me Comin’ (recorded for CBS). None of his albums sold too well in spite of their inspired blend of rock, blues, jazz, and country sounds and Davis’s incredible guitarplay. Davis would retreat back into session work, performing on albums like Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man and John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges as well as on albums by artists like Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, Donovan, and Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth).

Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie

Real Gone Music’s Red Dirt Boogie: The Atco Recordings 1970-1972 offers every song from Davis’s two Atco albums, seventeen tunes in all, with the exception of his take on the traditional country jaunt “Oh, Susannah.” In its place, the label added a pair of studio outtakes in the form of the previously-unreleased basic track for “Rock N Roll Gypsies” and an unreleased instrumental, “Kiowa Teepee (Washita Love Child).” As the disc is squeezed for space at roughly 75 minutes, I personally might have dropped the former track and kept the latter and run both of Davis’s Atco albums in full in their original sequencing. For whatever reason, producers Gordon Anderson, Pat Thomas, and Mike Thomas chose to shake things up, and songs from both albums are intertwined, eliminating any sense of artistic evolution.

These minor cavils aside, Red Dirt Boogie is an impressive collection overall, offering stellar musicianship and an inspired mix of original songs, traditional material, and well-chosen covers. Davis was the consummate root ‘n’ blues artist, equally conversant in several musical styles and their history, and his knowledge and skills show in the grooves. While “Every Night Is Saturday Night” is a lyrical trifle, an up-tempo party song with blasts of manic horns and a foot-shuffling rhythm, it does display some fierce guitar licks. “Washita Love Child” is much better, combining Davis’s Kiowa-Comanche Indian heritage with Okie soul and a gospel fervor with low-slung vocals, a driving rhythm, angelic backing vocals, and what sounds like a guitar battle between Davis and guest Eric Clapton.

Rock N Roll Gypsies

Davis’s original “Reno Street Incident” displays the guitarist’s not-inconsiderable skills as a songwriter, the lyrics showing a fine eye for detail, Davis’s laid-back, nuanced vocals telling a sordid tale while the band rambles on, the languid vibe punctured time-to-time by Davis’s razor-sharp fretwork. A version of George Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” was released before Harrison would record the song, Davis backed by a band that included Dr. John on keyboards and Stax Records legend Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. Davis’s take on the song is more honky-tonk flavored than George’s, with twangy instrumentation and stinging guitarplay. A cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” strikes a low-down soulful groove that offers, perhaps, one of Davis’s best vocal performances, backed by gorgeous backing harmonies.

The title track from his sophomore album, Davis’s “Ululu” opens with shimmering guitar lines and ethereal vox before settling into a mid-tempo hippie ballad with a hearty bass line and Jim Keltner’s strong tho’ subtle percussion. A cover of Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz” offers a funky rhythmic backdrop for Davis’s passionate vocals, which are almost smothered by the mix, while a cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” twangs-and-bangs with the best of them, Davis’s vocals more spoken than song, and accompanied by shards of nicely manic guitar.

“Golden Sun Goddess,” from Davis’s debut, is a delightfully wan slab of shiny cosmic pop with otherworldly harmonies, a subtle underlying bass line (Billy Rich?), and elegant guitar. The mid-tempo “Rock N Roll Gypsies” is a vintage sing-a-long with gang vocals, fiery guitar licks, and heavy drumbeats (Chuck Blackwell?) while “Kiowa Teepee (Washita Love Child)” is a tribute to Davis’s Native American ancestry, beginning with an Indian chant and rhythms before bursting into an infectious instrumental jam based on the melody of “Washita Love Child.” It’s a stunning performance and a great way to close out Red Dirt Boogie.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Tragically, by the end of the ‘70s, Davis’s personal demons would catch up with him and the guitarist spent much of the decade of the ‘80s battling addiction to drugs and alcohol before his death by overdose at the too-young age of 43 years old. Davis had resurfaced during the mid-‘80s, playing with Native American poet and activist John Trudell as part of the Graffiti Band, but his meager back catalog of solo work has gone in-and-out-of-print frequently through the years and has been hard to find by any measure.

Real Gone’s Red Dirt Boogie collection does a fine job of rescuing this underrated talent from obscurity, preserving Davis’s solo work and placing it in context with informative liner notes by noted writer and producer Pat Thomas. Davis wasn’t the most accomplished singer, his voice sounding like a cross between Leon Russell and Randy Newman – except grittier – but he did a fine job in conveying heart and soul in his material. While he also wasn’t the most gifted songwriter, Davis’s lyrics nevertheless told heartfelt stories forged from his personal experience. Where Jesse Ed really shined was with his phenomenal six-string skills, which provided energy and life to every performance. Davis is an artist worth rediscovery, Red Dirt Boogie an invaluable collection of ‘70s-era roots ‘n’ blues music. Grade: B (Real Gone Music, released June 9, 2017)

Buy the CD from Jesse Ed Davis’s Red Dirt Boogie: The Atco Recordings 1970-1972

CD Preview: Peter Case’s On the Way Downtown

Peter Case’s On the Way Downtown
It should come as no surprise that we’re rather fond of singer/songwriter Peter Case ‘round the That Devil world HQ. The artist’s storied career has taken him from punk pioneers the Nerves to power-pop trailblazers the Plimsouls to a solo career featuring Case’s whip-smart songwriting and folk-rock sound that earned the artist a Grammy® nomination for his self-titled 1986 solo debut album.

As such, we’re always happy to hear of some new music from Case even if, in this case, it’s old music in a form that we haven’t yet heard. On October 27th, 2017 Omnivore Recordings will release Case’s On the Way Downtown: Recorded Live on FolkScene, the album featuring previously-unreleased performances from nearly 20 years ago.

Documenting a pair of live radio performances on the popular KPFK-FM syndicated radio program FolkScene, the eighteen-track album features nine songs from Case’s 1998 album Full Service, No Waiting, a full-band performance that includes such great tunes as “Spell of Wheels,” “See Through Eyes,” and “On the Way Downtown.” The second half of the new album features material from Case’s 2000 album Flying Saucer Blues as well as songs from earlier releases, material like “Paradise Etc,” “Walking Home Late,” and “Blue Distance” performed by Case and violinist David Perales. Both acoustic sets have remained unheard since their original radio broadcasts.

In the liner notes to the album, Case recalls “It felt like such an honor to play Howard and Roz Larman’s FolkScene. All the great people were on it, a Who’s Who of folk music. I’d loved the program for years. I listened in every week. Roz spun the coolest records, Howard deftly handled the interviews, and a key member of the team was Peter Cutler, their sound engineer. He tuned in great sound for each session. Live six-piece band with an hour soundcheck? No problem for Cutler.” On the Way Downtown should provide an appropriate companion to Case’s critically-acclaimed 2015 studio album for Omnivore, Hwy 62.

Buy the CD from Peter Case’s On the Way Downtown

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, R.I.P.

Walter Becker photo by Arielinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Walter Becker 2013 photo by Arielinson
Rolling Stone magazine and other outlets have reported the death of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker at the age of 67 years after an undisclosed illness. The talented musician and songwriter will forever be yoked to Steely Dan and his longtime creative partner, Donald Fagen, the pair creating a back catalog of innovative music that was meager in numbers but over-sized in influence and creativity.

Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in upstate New York in the late ‘60s, forming a band that included comedian and actor Chevy Chase on drums. Becker left school before getting a degree, moving to Brooklyn, New York with Fagen where they worked towards a career as songwriters, which included a gig backing the pop band Jay & the Americans. They moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s and scored a gig as staff songwriters for ABC Dunhill Records and artists like the Grass Roots and Three Dog Night. When their material proved to be too complex for radio-friendly pop artists, they were encouraged to form their own band.

Steely Dan Years

As a result, Fagen and Becker put together Steely Dan with singer David Palmer, guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, and drummer Jim Hodder (with Becker playing bass). This is the band that recorded Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, which scored hits right out of the gate with “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years,” the album peaking at #17 on the charts. Although the following year’s Countdown to Ecstasy album brought the band universal critical acclaim, representing a huge step forward in terms of creativity, it was also a step backwards commercially, peaking at #35 on the albums chart and its two singles failing to reach the Top 40. Palmer had left the band and Fagen took over vocals, but neither he nor Becker were happy with the recording of the album, which was done in between tour dates.

Pretzel Logic, the band’s third album, fared much better due to the chart success of the single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which peaked at #4 and pushed the album itself to #8 on the charts on its way to eventual Platinum™ sales status. After touring for several years, Fagen and Becker decided to stop touring and become a studio band, using session players to fill the roles of the former band members. Katy Lied, the band’s 1975 release, would be the first to feature Becker’s guitar skills; the pair were assisted in the studio by talented session musicians like guitarists Larry Carlton and Rick Derringer, and drummer Hal Blaine.

The Royal Scam, released in 1976, followed a similar musical blueprint (using many of the same musicians), and both albums would chart in the Top 20, in spite of the meager chart showing of their single releases, the band targeting AOR FM radio instead. Steely Dan would hit the big-time with their 1977 album Aja, which featured a jazzier sound, yielding Top 20 charting hit singles in “Peg” and the Classic Rock radio staple “Deacon Blues” while earning the band its first Platinum™ album (awarded before Pretzel Logic). Working with talents like guitarists Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and Jay Graydon; drummers Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, and Jim Keltner; and saxophonists Tom Scott and Wayne Shorter, around whose solo the title song was constructed, the album was a pioneering work of jazz-rock fusion.

The partnership between Becker and Fagen was strained by this point, partially due to Becker’s increased drug use. The pair took two years to record the 1980 release Gaucho, the two men obsessing over the sound of each performance, using better than 40 different musicians in the studio and spending far above the label’s studio budget. There was additional stress created by a fight between the band, MCA Records, and Warner Brothers Records over the rights to the album (their former label, ABC Dunhill, had been bought by MCA but the duo wanted to sign with Warner). In spite of its troubled creation, Gaucho would enjoy Platinum™ sales status, peaking at #9 on the charts on the strength of the Top Ten hit “Hey Nineteen.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan

Becker & Fagen Reunite

That would be it for Steely Dan for better than a decade, Fagen breaking up the band and Becker moving his family to Hawaii where he’d kick his addictions and slide into production work, most notably two albums for the British pop group China Crisis, which was heavily influenced by Steely Dan, and an album for singer Rickie Lee Jones. Becker and Fagen reunited to perform on a 1986 album by former model Rosie Vela, which led to a handful of songwriting sessions. Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993 and the two would tour in support of the recording. A year later, MCA Records released the Citizen Steely Dan box set, and Becker released his solo debut album, 11 Tracks of Whack, with Fagen co-producing.

The two reassembled Steely Dan and toured in support of the box set, subsequently releasing a 1995 live CD Alive In America. The pair continued to tour, returning to the studio to record Two Against Nature, the band’s first album in nearly 20 years. Released in 2000, the Two Against Nature won the pair four Grammy® Awards while returning the band to their Platinum™ sales status. Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and released the critically-acclaimed Everything Must Go album in 2003. Becker released his second solo album, Circus Money, in 2008.

Becker and Fagen continued to tour as Steely Dan through the present day, Becker’s illness forcing him to miss the band’s recent east and west coast concert dates. In a statement about his longtime partner’s death, Fagen says “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”

Writer Roger Friedman has a great interview with Becker and Fagen from 2000 on his Showbiz411 website. Check it out!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Isaac Hayes’ The Spirit of Memphis box set

Isaac Hayes’ The Spirit of Memphis box set
Here’s a ‘gimme’ for your Christmas list…on September 22nd, 2017 Craft Recordings will release The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976), a four-disc, career-spanning retrospective of the great Isaac Hayes’ storied career. The set is packaged inside a 60-page hardcover book that includes a slew of rare photos and memorabilia, as well as an essay by one of my favorite music historians, Robert Gordon (no relation) that includes an interview with Stax Records founder Jim Stewart and contributions from Floyd Newman (member of original Stax session band the Mar-Keys) and Sam Moore (one half of soul legends Sam & Dave), among others. The set also includes a replica 7” vinyl single of “Laura, We're On Our Last Go-Round,” Hayes first commercially-released recording.

Hayes’ story is that of the American dream. Born in rural Covington, Tennessee near Memphis Hayes was the child of sharecroppers and he grew up working in the fields. He began singing in his local church at the age of five and would later teach himself to play piano and organ, flute, and saxophone. Hayes began his career by playing clubs and juke-joints at night while he worked at a meat-packing plant in Memphis by day. Hayes began his recording career as a session player for Stax Records, later hooking up with songwriting partner David Porter to write hit songs for artists like Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas and, most notably, Sam & Dave. Hayes and Porter also produced several Stax artists, the pair helping to define the “Memphis soul” sound.

Hayes released his debut album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, in 1968; when the jazz-flecked improvisational collection failed to chart, he radically changed musical directions, re-writing the book of soul in the process. Working with producer Marvell Thomas (brother of Carla, son of Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas) and backed by the Bar-Kays (guitarist Michael Toles, bassist James Alexander, and drummer Willie Hall), Hayes recorded one of the most influential albums of all time with 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul.

Featuring just four extended songs (two per side), including a twelve-minute cover of the Bacharach/David tune “Walk On By” and an eighteen-minute cover of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” Hot Buttered Soul broke all the rules for “radio-friendly” content while still peaking at #8 on the pop charts (#1 R&B), Hayes contributing to the ushering in of AOR FM radio. Several hit albums would follow, including the equally-innovative and influential Top Ten 1971 release Black Moses and that year’s chart-topping soundtrack to the hit movie Shaft.

Soul legend Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes photo courtesy Stax Archives

Each disc of Hayes’ The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) documents a different facet of the artist’s lengthy career. The first disc documents his early work as a songwriter and producer for Stax, including songs by Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Mabel John, and even country legend Charlie Rich. The second disc showcases Hayes’ work as a solo artist with singles recorded for Stax subsidiaries Volt and Enterprise Records, including an early single as “Sir Isaac and the Do-Dads (“Blue Groove” b/w “The Big Dipper”). Disc two includes such Hayes’ classics as “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “The Look of Love,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and the smash hit “Theme From Shaft” (so ubiquitous in the early ‘70s that my high school had a “Shaft Gang”).

Disc three of The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) offers examples of Hayes’ uncanny ability to cover a song and make it entirely his own, including “Walk On By,” “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The third disc also includes six live tracks recorded at the Operation PUSH Black Expo in November 1972, half of which have never been previously released, including Hayes’ takes on “The Ten Commandments of Love” and “Stormy Monday.”

The fourth and final disc in the set is titled “Jam Master,” the disc featuring Hayes jamming in the studio on seven songs, five previously-unreleased including covers of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Shaft soundtrack outtake “Black Militant’s Place,” and a 33-minute psychedelic jam on “Do Your Thing” with the Bar-Kays. The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) is being released as part of Stax Records’ 60th anniversary celebration, the set the effort of a year’s work and coming hot-on-the-heels of the recent digital release of Hayes’ Enterprise albums, which were re-mastered from the original analog tapes by engineer Dave Cooley at Elysian Masters. Vinyl reissues cut from these new masters – including Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses – will be released later this year. 

There can be no debating that Isaac Hayes was one of the most influential and innovative artists in the history of soul music. Hayes’ songs have been sampled over 1,000 times by hip hop artists like 2Pac, Kanye West, Jay Z, and the Wu Tang Clan as well as by rockers like Portishead and Massive Attack. Hayes influence reached beyond the R&B chart to impact artists as diverse as Prince and Henry Rollins of Black Flag, among others. The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) is a landmark collection of great music created by a legendary artist.

Buy the set from Isaac Hayes’ The Spirit of Memphis 

Isaac Hayes’ The Spirit of Memphis box set

Friday, September 1, 2017

CD Review: Joe Bonamassa's Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening (2017)

Joe Bonamassa's Live At Carnegie Hall
For no good reason, a lot of people just don’t like Joe Bonamassa; for many good reasons, there are more people that do like the popular blues-rock guitarist. Haters gonna hate, I suppose, ‘cause there’s really quite a lot about Bonamassa’s career to admire. Young Joey B. was mentored by the late, great Danny Gatton and opened for the legendary B.B. King when he was only 13 years old. After a short-lived mid-‘90s stint with the blues-rock ‘supergroup’ Bloodline with the sons of Miles Davis, Berry Oakley (Allman Brothers Band), and Robby Krieger (The Doors), Bonamassa launched his career as a solo artist with the underrated major label album A New Day Yesterday in 2000.

In the seventeen years since, Bonamassa has established an extremely successful cottage industry that includes his own independent record label (J&R Adventures), which has released roughly three-dozen Bonamassa live and studio albums and concert videos as well as collaborations with singer Beth Hart and L.A. friends Rock Candy Funk Party. He’s part of the classic rock supergroup Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian, and Jason Bonham, and he’s played on stage with giants like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Warren Haynes, among others – none of which are likely to share the spotlight with just any old scrub. Bonamassa has lent his talents to recordings by a dozen or more artists, and he founded the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation to fund scholarships and music education resources to young musicians-to-be.

Joe Bonamassa’s Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening

Yeah, Bonamassa is merchandised to the hilt, and any old cheesy product you can dream up, you can probably buy it with JB’s logo or cartoon visage inked on the surface somewhere. But Joey B. also delivers value for his fans’ money with deluxe album and video packages, and he and his long-time manager Roy Weisman (along with producer Kevin Shirley, the third part of this mega-million trio) don’t skimp on filming concerts for video release, ponying up the bucks to provide the best multi-camera product possible. I suspect that it’s his ubiquitous success that has so many people denying Bonamassa the respect he so richly deserves, success that he’s earned onstage a couple hundred nights a year for a couple of decades now.

Bonamassa is neither a great singer nor songwriter, though he’s taken huge steps in improving his skills in both areas and, truthfully, he’s better at both than many of his contemporaries. He’s a traditionally-styled blues guitarist with great chops who typically stays in the groove but every now and then takes an inspired, imaginative flight of instrumental fancy. More to the point, Bonamassa is an adventurer, a capital ‘A’ Artist who continues to grow, evolve, and challenge himself in ways that few blues or rock musicians attempt these days. Case in point, Bonamassa’s recently-released Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening set, two discs capturing a sublime performance at yet another historic venue that JB can cross off his bucket list (along with Royal Albert Hall, the Beacon Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, and the Vienna Opera House).

Driving Towards the Daylight

It’s not the first time that the guitarist has waxed acoustic (there are at least a half-dozen other albums in Bonamassa’s rapidly-growing catalog that have been created sans electricity), nor is it the first time he’s taken to a legendary stage. It’s his efforts to re-contextualize his songs, to place them in a different light that is so admirable from an artistic perspective. More than merely performing his trademark electric blues with a beat-up old Martin guitar, Bonamassa re-imagines the material, sometimes in vastly different ways. To join him on the Carnegie Hall stage, the guitarist enlisted a multi-racial, multi-ethnic group of talented musicians like cellist Tina Guo (China), percussionist Hossam Ramzy (Egypt), and singers Gary Pinto, Juanita Tippins, and Mahalia Barnes (Australia) alongside longtime musical foils like pianist Reese Wynans and drummer Anton Fig along with multi-instrumentalist Eric Bazilian (The Hooters).

Although Bonamassa is center-stage here, he frequently shares the spotlight in service of the performance, especially with Bazilian’s nimble mandolin and Guo, who often looks like a woman possessed with her furious style of play. By fleshing out his original songs with unusual acoustic instrumentation alongside his nuanced fretwork, Bonamassa alchemically transforms songs like “This Train” – from his 2015 album Blues of Desperation – into entirely new works. With Wynans’ piano intro nicking a few licks from an old Jethro Tull song, “This Train” crystalizes into a country-flavored rustic rave-up with Guo’s cello sounding like a fiddle, Wynans’ honky-tonk piano-pounding accompanied by a choogling rhythm on top of which Bonamassa adds a bit of chicken pickin’ and the background singers sound like a church choir.

How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

Joe Bonamassa photo by Robert Knight, Jr.
The magic is everywhere in these grooves – “Black Lung Heartache,” a bluesy dirge from 2011’s Dust Bowl album – is reimagined as a fierce, Delta blues death letter with exotic instrumental flourishes. “Driving Towards the Daylight,” from his 2012 album of the same name, is made even more wistful courtesy of Guo’s mournful cello and Bonamassa’s anguished vocal performance while “Mountain Time,” from way back on JB’s 2001 sophomore album So, It’s Like That, is afforded a lush, beautiful performance that showcases the various instrumentalists’ immense talents. There are only three cover tunes among the fifteen tracks on Live At Carnegie Hall, among them the Depression-era country ramble “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?,” which offers a blues vibe but is delivered with gospel fervor, bolstered by soaring solos from Mahalia Barnes, Juanita Tippins, and Gary Pinto, three very fine vocalists, indeed.

The Black Country Communion tune “Song of Yesterday,” off the band’s 2010 self-titled debut, is shed of its classic rock bombast but made all the more powerful by the song’s sparse arrangement, which increases the ambient claustrophobia and allows the backing harmonies to shine above Guo’s melancholy cello and Bonamassa’s darkly elegant fretwork. A cover of the late Leon Russell’s classic “Hummingbird” benefits from Wynans’ skilled piano-play and while Bonamassa’s vox will never be mistaken for Russell’s soulful grittiness, he acquits himself well, providing an emotional foundation for the instrumentalists to build on. Better yet is the album-closing cover of Bette Midler’s hit “The Rose,” which provides a showcase for Bonamassa’s underrated vocals alongside Wynans’ lovely piano accompaniment with crescendos of gorgeous instrumentation and Barnes’ soul-drenched backing vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Joe Bonamassa has built a large (and still-growing) worldwide audience precisely because of artistic gambles like Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening. It takes an artist willing to subsume their ego and share the spotlight with equally-talented instrumentalists to make great music, and in an effort to satisfy his wandering muse, Bonamassa is willing to risk alienating his fans to continue challenging himself by exploring different facets of his art. That so many people come along for the ride is a testament not only to Bonamassa’s skills but also to the honesty and reverence with which his music is imbued.

Inspired by guitarists like Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher, Joey B. never strays far from the blues-rock sounds he grew up with. But with each new album and every fresh challenge he submits himself to; Joe Bonamassa not only expands his own musical palette but also quietly broadens the definition of blues music unlike all but a handful of his contemporaries. Love him or hate him, Joey B. is the stone cold real deal. Grade: A+ (J&R Adventures, released June 23, 2017)

Buy the CD from Joe Bonamassa’s Live At Carnegie Hall: An Acoustic Evening

The Rock 'n' Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers

The Rock 'n' Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers
Excitable Press and Rev. Gordon are happy to announce the publication of the first book in what will be an ongoing series of material from the good Reverend’s files. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers is a budget-priced collection of ten artist interviews with the ‘90s generation of Southern rockers like Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites), the Cactus Brothers, Warren Haynes, Brent Best (Slobberbone), Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’), Widespread Panic, the Kentucky Headhunters, Webb Wilder, and Jason Ringenberg and Warner Hodges as well as old school influence Charlie Daniels.

The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Keith A. Gordon has been writing about music for 45+ years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide books and website, and the former Blues Expert for, Rev. Gordon has written or edited nine previous music-related books, including The Other Side of Nashville and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers is a 54pp 5.5” x 8.5” paperback  with B&W photos, priced at $5.99 retail with a $2.99 eBook version available with the same interviews. Get your copy through the handy Amazon links below:

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers eBook

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Archives, Volume One: Southern Rockers print version

CD Preview: NRBQ’s Happy Talk EP

NRBQ's Happy Talk
The New Rhythm & Blues Quartet – better known to fans and friends alike as ‘NRBQ’ – enjoyed a banner year in 2016. Celebrating an amazing five decades of great music, Omnivore Recordings released the critically-acclaimed High Noon: A 50-Year History of NRBQ, a five-disc career-spanning box set that collected 106 of the band’s best and best-loved songs that helped introduce the ‘Q to a brand new audience.

The band has lost a few souls along the road over the past fifty years, most recently former member Bobby Lloyd Hicks, who passed away earlier this year. NRBQ keeps choogling along, tho’, the current line-up of founder Terry Adams, guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and drummer John Perrin touring continuously and bringing the band’s unique blend of rock, pop, jazz, and blues to the audiences worldwide.

Never a band to rest on its considerable laurels, on October 20th, 2017 Omnivore Recordings will release Happy Talk, a new five-song EP by the fab foursome. Recorded at Harmonium Studio in Haydenville, Massachusetts Happy Talk features two new original songs along with three covers, including a spontaneous take on Roy Orbison’s classic “Only the Lonely” and the title track, taken from the 1949 Rogers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

Says Terry Adams in a press release for the EP, “I’ve been crazy about the song ‘Happy Talk’ since I was a kid; I bought every version I could find and still do. I’ve always wanted to record it. To get it right, you must realize that it’s in its own place that's entirely separate from any song ever written.” Our friends over at Blurt magazine posted a preview of the EP with the Adams’ song “Head On A Post.” Check it out, then get over to and order a copy of NRBQ’s Happy Talk!

Archive Review: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' Cadillac Jacks Number One Son (2012)

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' Cadillac Jacks Number One Son
Best-known as a longtime buddy of both Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt, “Southside” Johnny Lyon and the Asbury Jukes enjoyed a couple of minor hits in the late 1970s and early ‘80s before sinking below the pop culture radar. It hasn’t stopped the crew from cranking out new music, however, and save for a few years during the 1990s sitting on the sidelines in Nashville (recharging his batteries), Southside and his gang of rhythm and blues true believers have continued to deliver Memphis soul, Chicago blues, and old-school rock ‘n’ roll with the fervor of a traveling R&B revue, the band just as likely to kick up some dust with a vintage Willie Dixon number as they are to belt out a custom-fit Springsteen song.

Exhibit A for the defense is this nifty lil’ two-disc import set Cadillac Jacks Number One Son, brought to our attention by our friends at Secret Records in the U.K. and containing a red-hot 22-song performance from a sold-out November 2002 show at The Opera House in Newcastle upon Tyne in jolly ole England. Originally released on DVD back in the early-oughts, as well as on CD as From Southside to Tyneside four years ago, its subsequent re-birth on compact disc is a boon for we original Jukes fanatics, and if you’ve ever loved Southside Johnny’s soulful howl of a voice, you’re going to want to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of Cadillac Jacks Number One Son for yourself. It has just about everything you could ask for from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on a live disc, an exciting mix of old and new, rhythm and blues, and all the blue-eyed soul your hungry ears can handle.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' Cadillac Jacks Number One Son

Cadillac Jacks Number One Son finds the band performing with a renewed vigor thanks to the addition of longtime Jersey cohort Bobby Bandiera on guitar and keyboardist Jeff Kazee. The set includes a handful of tunes from the band’s then-current release, 2000’s Messin’ With The Blues, Lyon’s furthest sojourn onto blues turf on record, and songs like the horn-driven big-band rave-up “Baby Don’t Lie” or the Albert King doppelganger “Living With The Blues” (which offers up some incredible Southside vox and meaty Bandiera solos reminiscent of you-know-who) are barely-controlled wildfires. A cover of Tom Waits’ “Gin Soaked Boy” is cranked-up-and-tight like a Little Walter joint, with greasy git licks from Bobby B and flaming harp tones from Lyon’s capable hands.

The performance doesn’t eschew the old crowd favorites though, and several of the best and brightest from the Jukes’ 1970s-era releases shine famously in this new light. The Little Steven-penned “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good” (from 1978’s Hearts of Stone) is a lush heartbreaker worthy of Otis Redding while the bittersweet “Some Things Just Don’t Change” (from 1977’s This Time It’s For Real) is simply, eternally divine. Southside has probably performed the title track to his 1976 debut, “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” literally thousands of times, but he refuses to phone it in, imbuing the song with the same lonesome heartache that he did some 25 years earlier, while the romance-gone-bad finality of “Hearts of Stone” will induce tears from all but the most emotionally-choked listener. Van Zandt’s blissfully wonderful “All I Needed Was You” (from 1991’s comeback LP Better Days) is reminiscent of everything you ever loved about 1950s-and-60s-era rock ‘n’ soul music, while the band’s lively cover of the Willie Dixon-penned, Sonny Boy Williamson gem “Help Me” is a slice of blues heaven.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Altogether, getting a promotional copy of Cadillac Jacks Number One Son in my mailbox was like getting an early Christmas’s just that damn good! If you love rhythm and blues and want to hear it from one of the funkiest, tightest, blue-eyed soul bands that’s ever been, you owe it to yourself to track down Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ overlooked but perfectly-cooked Cadillac Jacks Number One Son and have your bad self a house party! Grade: A (Secret Records U.K., released September 13, 2012)

Also on That Devil Music: Southside Johnny and the Asbury JukesThe Fever CD review

Buy the CD from Southside Johnny’s Cadillac Jacks Number One Son