Sunday, February 25, 2018

Short Rounds: 6 String Drag, Tinsley Ellis, Mabel Greer's Toyshop & Wishbone Ash (2018)

6 String Drag's High Hat
New album releases in 150 words or less…

6 String Drag – High Hat (Schoolkids Records)
South Carolina’s 6 String Drag – singer/guitarist Kenny Roby and bassist Rob Keller – were one of the first signings by Jack Emerson’s E Squared Records. The other ‘E’ in E Squared, country-rock legend Steve Earle, produced 1997’s High Hat, 6 String Drag’s wonderful sophomore album. Its recent reissue on CD and, for the first time, on vinyl is a welcome reminder of the band’s talent, vision, and their status alongside fellow ‘90s-era travelers like Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, and Uncle Tupelo as Americana pioneers. 6 String Drag mix up twangy, trad-flavored country, Stax-inspired Southern soul, and boisterous roots-rock on songs like the spry “Bottle of Blues,” the rowdy “Gasoline Maybelline,” or the blustery “Ghost.” Roby’s lyrics are succinct yet insightful, the arrangements deceptively complex, taking country-rock to new heights. This Schoolkids’ reissue of High Hat precedes the upcoming March release of a new LP by the band, Top of the World. Grade: A   BUY IT!

Tinsley Ellis's Winning Hand
Tinsley Ellis – Winning Hand (Alligator Records)   
Guitarist Tinsley Ellis has been kickin’ around the American blues scene since the late ‘70s, both with the Heartfixers and as a solo artist with better than a dozen albums to his name. Still, Ellis doesn’t get nearly enough praise for his enormous talents as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, skills all in abundance on Winning Hand. Ellis strikes a deep groove from the first notes of “Sound of A Broken Man” and remains relentless until the final ringing tones of “Saving Grace.” Ellis is a powerful and original stylist, and while you’ll hear elements of Stevie Ray, Jimi, or Robin Trower buried in the stinging solos of songs like the bluesy “Gamblin’ Man” or the honky-tonk rave-up “Satisfied,” each performance is indelibly imprinted with Ellis’s own robust brand of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. For those who love rowdy guitarplay, it just doesn’t get better than Winning Hand. Grade: A+   BUY IT!

Mabel Greer's Toyshop's The Secret
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop – The Secret (Hagger Bayley Music Limited)
Mabel Greer’s Toyshop was an enigmatic late ‘60s British band notable for evolving into the first incarnation of prog-rock legends Yes. After a name change, band members Peter Banks, Chris Squire, and Jon Anderson moved on, leaving Toyshop founders Clive Bayley and Bob Hagger as the odd men out. The duo reunited under the Toyshop name in 2014 and, enlisting bassist Hugo BarrĂ©, released a new album soon thereafter. The Secret is the band’s second post-reunion release and, as these things go, it ain’t half-bad. Adding keyboardist Max Hunt, the talented foursome create a gorgeous musical soundscape atop which Bayley’s sonorous vocals and erudite lyrics float. The late Peter Banks is represented by a guitar solo recorded long ago and incorporated into the hauntingly beautiful title track. The missing link between the psychedelic ‘60s and the proggy ‘70s, Mabel Greer’s Toyshop deliver imaginative, timeless art-rock that enchants the listener. Grade: B+   BUY IT!

Wishbone Ash's Raw to the Bone
Wishbone Ash – Raw to the Bone (Cherry Red Records)
With their halcyon days behind them, British rock legends Wishbone Ash walked a hard road across the ‘80s. Classic albums like Argus had long passed, the band undergoing an identity crisis in the new decade. 1985’s Raw to the Bone displays their creative uncertainty, the band straddling the line between their trademark proggish hard rock and the era’s commercial nerf-metal, a balancing act many bands of similar vintage tried and failed. As this Cherry Red reissue shows, there’s more good than bad – tracks like “People In Motion” or “Long Live the Night” are muscular rockers showcasing the band’s instrumental prowess while a funkalicious cover of Lowell George’s “Rocket In My Pocket” is hella fun. The two-disc set includes rare radio performances from the BBC and a handful of blistering live tracks. The recently-reissued 1982 set Twin Barrels Burning is in a similar vein, but suffers from period production and arrangements. Grade: B-   BUY IT!

Previously on That Devil Music:
Short Rounds, January 2018 - Ethiopian & His All Stars, Gladiators, Moloch & Phil Seymour
Short Rounds, December 2017 - Flat Duo Jets, Focus, The Original Blues Brothers Band, Uriah Heep & John Wetton

It’s A Memphis Rent Party in March!

Robert Gordon's Memphis Rent Party
Grammy™ Award-winning writer and music historian Robert Gordon (no relation) is the author of some of my favorite books on music, including It Came From Memphis, Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, and Can’t Be Satisfied, the best Muddy Waters bio, bar none. Gordon has a new tome that will be published on March 6th, 2018 titled Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown, an exploration of the great music made by legends like bluesman Furry Lewis, rocker Alex Chilton, and many others.

On March 9th, a few days after the publication of what promises to be another great book by Gordon, Fat Possum Records will release a soundtrack LP on glorious vinyl to accompany the book. Featuring a veritable “who’s who” of unsung Memphis musical idols, the album covers the genres and artists that make the Bluff City special, from the aforementioned Lewis and Chilton to Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, early rockers Charlie Feathers and Jerry Lee Lewis, and bona fide Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson.

Better than half of the Memphis Rent Party album is comprised of previously-unreleased material like Chilton’s reckless performance of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come”; a collaboration between the North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of bluesman Otha Turner; and Big Daddy Jim Dickinson’s tongue-in-cheek track “I’d Love to Be A Hippie (But My Hair Won’t Grow That Long).”

Memphis Rent Party LP
Memphis Rent Party also includes two lo-fi recordings that Gordon made on location with a cassette recorder – Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long,” recorded in 1986 in the Hill Country Blues legend’s living room, and the Fieldstones’ “Little Bluebird,” caught live at the notorious Green’s Lounge in Memphis. The album also features music by local talents like jazz legend Calvin Newborn, pianist Mose Vinson, and country singer Jerry McGill’s reading of the Guy Clark classic “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” the singer backed by Dickinson’s Mud Boy and the Neutrons, the song recorded while McGill was on the run from the law.

No matter your taste in music, there’s something among the dozen tracks on Memphis Rent Party to tickle your fancy, the album’s creative diversity making it the perfect soundtrack to listen to while reading Gordon’s latest book!

Memphis Rent Party LP tracklist:

Side A
1. Jerry McGill – “Desperados Waiting For A Train”
2. Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas – “Chevrolet”
3. Junior Kimbrough – “All Night Long”
4. Furry Lewis – “Why Don’t You Come Home Blues”
5. Calvin Newborn – “Frame for the Blues”

Side B
1. Alex Chilton with the Randy Band – “Johnny Too Bad”
2. Jerry Lee Lewis – “Harbor Lights”
3. The Fieldstones – “Little Bluebird”
4. The Panther Burns – “Drop Your Mask”
5. Mose Vinson – “Same Thing on My Mind”
6. Charlie Feathers – “Defrost Your Heart”
7. Jim Dickinson – “I’d Love to Be A Hippie”

Buy the book from Robert Gordon’s Memphis Rent Party

By the LP from Fat Possum’s Memphis Rent Party

Friday, February 16, 2018

Michael Nesmith’s Solo LPs reissued by Sundazed Music

Michael Nesmith's American Trilogy LPs
Michael Nesmith of the Monkees is at once both one of the most revered rockers of the 1960s as well as one of the most misunderstood. Perhaps the most creative member of the “Prefab Four,” Nesmith consistently chafed against the constrictions placed upon the band by TV and label executives, producers, and songwriters. Nesmith was quite capable of writing and performing his own material, and although he and his compatriots in the Monkees were contributing to the birth of the “power pop” genre with their upbeat blend of ‘60s pop and garage-influenced rock, it couldn’t have been very fulfilling for the talented musician.

As the ‘60s rolled to a close and the Monkees began to run out of steam, Nesmith was looking towards a post-simian career. He had already had songs recorded by artists like Linda Ronstadt, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – as well as the two songs per album he was allowed on Monkees releases – when he formed the First National Band with his friends John London on bass, John Ware on drums, and O.J. “Red” Rhodes, a pedal steel guitar wizard. With piano and keyboards provided by session pros Earl P. Ball and Glen D. Hardin, Nesmith and the First National Band recorded its debut album, Magnetic South, which was released by RCA Records in early 1970.

Michael Nesmith's Magnetic South
Magnetic South yielded a Top 30 hit with the Nesmith song “Joanne,” and although the album itself would only climb to #143 on the Billboard album chart, its creative mix of folk, rock, and country elements won critical acclaim and changed Nesmith’s public image for the better. A few months later, this outfit recorded the Loose Salute album, a ten-track collection of Nesmith originals, a song he’d originally penned for his former band (“Listen To the Band”), and a cover of Harlan Howard’s honky-tonk country classic, “I Fall To Pieces.” Produced by Nesmith himself, the album garnered critical acclaim similar to the debut but performed less well – its lone single, “Silver Moon,” didn’t move the needle on sales at all – and the album rose only as far as #159 on the charts.

Regrouping, Nesmith and the First National Band recorded the third and final album in what the artist had conceived as an ‘American Trilogy’ with the albums sporting individual red, white, and blue cover schemes. Released in 1971, Nevada Fighter featured another ten spell-binding country-rock songs including the title track (which rose to #70 on the charts) and covers of songs by Eric Clapton and Harry Nilsson as well as a Red Rhodes original. It would be the last album by the First National Band, with Wrecking Crew members James Burton, Joe Osborn, and Ronnie Tutt – all of whom had played on Monkees tracks – stepping in to help complete the recording.

Michael Nesmith's Loose Salute
Widely considered as influential milestones in the creation of country-rock, all three of Nesmith’s albums with the First National Band have been out-of-print for decades and all have long since become modestly-priced collectors’ items. On March 23rd, 2018 Sundazed Music will release all three albums on spectacular colored vinyl for the first time since the 1970s.

All three titles have been remastered by producer Bob Erwin for the best audio possible and will be released on appropriately shades of vinyl – blue wax for Magnetic South, red for Loose Salute, and white vinyl for Nevada Fighter. All three of these groundbreaking albums are available for pre-ordering on the Sundazed website, and can also be ordered as a three-LP bundle. 

Omnivore Digs Deep Into the ‘60s Folk Boom

Geoff & Maria Muldaur's Sweet Potatoes
The folks at esteemed archival label Omnivore Recordings have been digging deep into the vaults and, on March 30th, 2018, they’ll be releasing three long out-of-print albums including a pair of LPs from the talented husband and wife duo of Geoff and Maria Muldaur.

Before they married, singer Maria D’Amato and guitarist Geoff Muldaur were both familiar figures on the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York City. Maria performed with artists like Bob Dylan and David Grisman, while Geoff was a founding member of Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, which Maria later joined and recorded three albums with.

Maria and Geoff got married and, after the Kweskin Jug Band broke up, they recorded two albums for Warner Brothers’ Reprise imprint. Pottery Pie, released in 1968, was recorded by producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood, the pair behind several classic albums by British folk-rock institutions Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. The album explored the possibilities of the folk-blues genre, featuring covers of songs by Memphis Minnie, Bob Dylan, Eric Von Schmidt, and Son House, including a version of the song “Brazil,” which would later be used as the theme song for filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s movie of the same name.

Geoff & Maria Muldaur's Sweet Potatoes
Four years later, the duo released Sweet Potatoes, a collection similar to their debut album but also featuring the talents of friends like harp wizard Paul Butterfield, guitarist Amos Garrett, pedal steel maestro Bill Keith, and drummer Billy Mundi, among others. Sweet Potatoes also featured cover art by folk music legend Eric Von Schmidt. It would be the last album the two recorded together, with each going on to successful and productive careers.

Writing for All Music Guide, my buddy Eugene Chadbourne says “as a whole, Sweet Potatoes is something of a masterwork, rich and revealing, possessing the contagious enthusiasm of young musicians finding a personal voice in the rich traditions of the past as well as the relaxed sophistication that develops when these players are no longer novices.” Both albums are being released on CD for the first time in the U.S. and include a 7,000-word interview with Geoff and Maria that is spread across the two CDs and represents their first shared interview since 1972.

On March 30th Omnivore will also reissue another obscure gem of the folk-blues era with the release of American Avatar by the Lyman Family and singer Lisa Kindred. A controversial Boston-area folk musician, Mel Lyman formed the Lyman Family, also known as the Fort Hill Community, in a rundown Boston neighborhood in 1966. The urban hippie commune would become a bona fide cult with Lyman taking on his role as “spiritual leader.” The Lyman Family would later become involved with the community underground newspaper Avatar and would record the American Avatar album in 1970.

The Lyman Family's American Avatar
A blues covers album, American Avatar is notable for talented contributors like Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Bruce Langhorne, and Terry Bernhard performing alongside Lyman. Music historian Richie Unterberger, writing All Music Guide, says “it’s rather like a loose late-night backroom get-together of friends running through familiar material. Since these friends are pretty good musicians, it sounds better than a jam session.” American Avatar is also receiving its first CD release from Omnivore Recordings.

Buy the CDs from
Geoff & Maria Muldaur - Pottery Pie
Geoff & Maria Muldaur - Sweet Potatoes
The Lyman Family with Lisa Kindred - American Avatar

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: Joe Hagan's Sticky Fingers (2017)

Joe Hagan's Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
As advertised on the book’s front cover, Sticky Fingers is author Joe Hagan’s 500+ page biography of Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner as well as a capsule history of the legendary music rag that Wenner founded in 1967. That Wenner and his magazine would co-star together in this hefty doorstop of a tome is entirely appropriate in that one is pretty much inseparable from the other – you can’t divorce Rolling Stone from Wenner’s guiding hand, and vice versa.

Joe Hagan was particularly suited to write the book; an established journalist published in outlets like New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal and, yes, Rolling Stone, the author had acclaimed profiles of political and media movers-and-shakers like Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Dan Rather under his belt when Wenner asked him to pen his biography in 2013. Careful of the minefield that lay ahead, Hagan maneuvered himself to the resulting story quite artfully, promising Wenner naught but an honest overview of his storied, and often controversial life, something that he has delivered in spades.

Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers

Wenner provided Hagan full access to both himself and his massive archive of memorabilia, including photographs, personal letters, and email correspondence, all of which is complimented by hundreds of interviews with Wenner’s friends, former and current Rolling Stone staffers, and the legion of celebrities that “Mr. Rolling Stone” has hobnobbed with during the magazine’s five decades. The resulting book may not be to Wenner’s liking – the story doesn’t frame the RS founder in particularly glowing terms – but it seems to portray him honestly as a narcissistic, ego-driven social climber who pursued wealth and fame at the expense of friendships, romance, and his own bruised homosexuality (which itself was an open secret for decades, even among us on the lowest rungs of the music media) short, a relatively-successful American businessman.

Rolling Stone magazine, issue 1
Many of Wenner’s aggrieved former employees come across as whiny tots jealous of dad’s infamy, and although Wenner’s relationships with his most famous writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Lester Bangs, as well as photographer Annie Leibovitz – all of whom achieved a modicum of fame due to the magazine – are complicated, there’s no doubt that Wenner’s cash-grabbing inclinations short-sheeted those that had helped make the magazine the successful music industry behemoth that it became. Wenner was no capitalist in sheep’s clothing sleeping with the lambs, but rather more of a “fellow traveler,” leaning left politically but harboring dreams of greater things. The prototypical “yuppie,” Wenner never really “sold out” as he had always aspired to fame and fortune and the hollow social status that would allow him to associate as an equal with his musical idols.

Wenner’s relationships with his idols have often been equally complicated and fraught with the clash of too many large egos. A bourgeoning relationship with John Lennon was torpedoed when Wenner chose money over his friendship, leaving the ex-Beatle bitter and feeling betrayed for decades. Wenner and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger enjoyed a similarly complex dynamic, Jagger often playing the magazine publisher like a banjo, manipulating Wenner’s need for approval to help improve his own fortunes. As Hagan found, Wenner frequently left a trail of broken (or at least badly-damaged) relationships behind him through the years, from celebrity friends to former employees.

50 Years of Rolling Stone magazine

Rolling Stone has its roots in 1960s-era San Francisco when Wenner took the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine that his editor at Ramparts magazine (where he was working) and Bay area music promoter Chet Helms were both toying with and made it happen. With money invested by his mentor, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason, and from his family and that of his wife-to-be Jane, Wenner launched the magazine that would come to define the decade, putting John Lennon on the cover of the first issue in late 1967. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and local S.F. bands with growing national followings like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were prominently featured in the zine’s pages, along with record reviews by early rock critics like Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs. To say that the publication struggled, monetarily, during the early years would be an understatement, but as Hagan relays, Rolling Stone has always had cash flow problems through the years, due in large part to the requirements of Wenner’s extravagant lifestyle.

Rolling Stone magazine
Wenner moved the magazine to New York City in 1977, ostensibly to be closer to Madison Avenue and the potential of lucrative advertising dollars. With the move eastward, Wenner shed whatever counter-culture pretensions the magazine might have still clung to, as Rolling Stone embraced Hollywood-bred celebrity and, as the ‘80s wore on, the magazine would feature actors like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere on the cover as frequently as rockers like Bruce Springsteen and U2’s Bono (both of whom would become Wenner’s buddies). The magazine expanded further into pop music with the ascendance of MTV, offering features on Michael Jackson, Madonna and, later ‘90s teen artists like Britney Spears. Although the rag would endure a certain amount of mumbled criticism for its hype of the mundane, people were buying RS in ever-greater numbers, and the publication would rake in tens of millions of dollars for Mr. Wenner during the 1980s and ‘90s and into the new millennium.

Wenner would expand his media empire through the years with various publications like Outside and Us Weekly, the latter of which contributed millions of shekels to the Wenner bank account, but it was Rolling Stone that remained the flagship title of the empire. During the last 20 years of its existence, Rolling Stone – and, by association, Wenner himself – has become the de facto institutional memory of the classic rock 1960s and ‘70s, revering those artists that Wenner himself originally idolized. Hagan delves into the formation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and Wenner’s control of same, which was used to snub bands like Kiss and Bon Jovi while inducting the publisher’s favorite artists (as well as too many non-rock ‘n’ rollers). The book also digs into Wenner’s more recent attempts to ensure his journalistic legacy, especially the inspired work of writer Matt Taibbi – the true heir to Hunter S. Thompson – on the financial crash of 2008 as well as the UVA rape article, a travesty that threatened to overshadow five decades of otherwise solid (and award-winning) journalism by the publication.

Rolling Stone Controversy & Criticism

As mentioned above, Jann Wenner comes across in Sticky Fingers like an autocratic and self-centered creep, double-dealing his employees and exploiting friendships wherever there was a dollar to be made. Wenner’s frequent (and tawdry) affairs with both men and women are provided a thin sheen of admiration, as is his prolific use of cocaine and vodka. In fact, only Wenner’s beleaguered wife Jane comes across as sympathetic here; smart, sexy, sensitive, and quite in love with her emotionally-detached mate, the waiflike Mrs. Wenner charmed all who met her and, for a long time, she served as her husband’s tether to reality and social fixer, putting water on Jann’s frequently fiery and tumultuous relationships. Hagan doesn’t offer up every Rolling Stone controversy – the notorious firing of critic Jim DeRogatis over a negative Hootie & the Blowfish album review isn’t even mentioned – this particular mini firestorm probably a more common event than anybody cares to remember.

Rolling Stone magazine
There are plenty of negative things that could be said about Rolling Stone and Mr. Wenner in particular. The magazine’s bias against heavy metal bands, partially fueled by Wenner’s dislike of the genre, clearly flew in the face of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s zeitgeist, as did the publication’s notorious ignorance of rap and hip-hop, the predominant commercial music form of the ‘90s – Seattle, grunge, and the alt-rock of the decade notwithstanding. The publication has been unfairly criticized for its unrepentant “rockist” leanings, an absurd cavil considering RS’s roots as a rock ‘n’ roll magazine and a criticism that flies in the face of reality. A look at the faces on the cover of Rolling Stone during the 1980s and ‘90s finds an abundance of pop-oriented stars like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, and Janet Jackson, among others, who are represented frequently alongside those of male rockers and Hollywood celebs (especially if Wenner thought that they’d move copies off the newsstand).

More egregious, in my mind, is the publication’s declining coverage of blues artists through the years. Well into the 1970s, blues music found some editorial representation in the pages of Rolling Stone, however meager. This coverage gradually decayed even as artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray helped bring the blues to new audiences, and Cray seems to be the only blues artist to be featured on the cover of hundreds of issues published in the 1980s and ‘90s (and, no, neither the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton count). People of color, overall, have fared less well in the pages of Rolling Stone than their white counterparts, cover features on Tupac, Living Colour, Prince, and Ice-T notwithstanding. No publication can be everything to everybody, but RS has long been casually waving from the dock as the ship of cultural diversity sailed out of sight.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Rolling Stone magazine
Joe Hagan has nevertheless done a solid job with Sticky Fingers, walking the tightrope between respectable journalism and tawdry celebrity gossip without lapsing into navel-gazing or historical revisionism. He paints Jann Wenner as a complex individual driven to success, a flawed man with a certain amount of self-loathing and denial over his own nature (Wenner finally came out as gay in 1995) who often failed to treat friends and employees with respect or kindness. Hagan displays the same sort of love/hate relationship with his subject as do many of Wenner’s associates.

On the other hand, Hagan also portrays Rolling Stone magazine as the true American success story that it is – Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy! music zine was struggling and Greg Shaw was still publishing garage-rock fanzines when Wenner created the publication that will forever be his legacy. Over its 50+ years, Rolling Stone has been shaped by the whims and desires of Jann Wenner, and his instinct has served the magazine well overall, as it has outlasted and outpunched its competition. Rolling Stone helped bring rock criticism beyond its fanzine roots and into the mainstream and, in doing so, helped define the music and inspiring hundreds of musicians and fledgling writers such as myself.

The “Rolling Stone interview” codified conversation as an art form in and of itself, and the magazine broke new ground in art, design, photography, and journalism while introducing us to talents like Annie Leibovitz, Hunter S. Thompson, Cameron Crowe, Ralph Steadman, and many others. Hagan tells as much of this story as possible, warts and all. With the impending sale of Rolling Stone comes the end of an era, Sticky Fingers a testament to Jann Wenner’s original vision of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine that helped shape the culture it documented for decades. Grade: A (Alfred A. Knopf, published October 24, 2017)

Cover artwork courtesy Rolling Stone magazine

Buy the book from Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers

Monday, February 5, 2018

CD Review: Big Star’s Live At Lafayette’s Music Room (2018)

Big Star's Live At Lafayette's Music Room
In the 45 years that have elapsed since the original event, the May 1973 promotional concert by Memphis rock legends Big Star has become a large part of the band’s (still thriving) mythology. Performing at Lafayette’s Music Room in their hometown in front of an audience of critical cognoscenti attending the Memphis Rock Writers Convention, the band’s high-octane performance and whipsmart songwriting convinced a not insignificant number of members of the rock ‘n’ roll media to pen overwhelmingly positive reviews for #1 Record, Big Star’s recently-released debut album, for their respective publications. Critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills, however, and when the record-buying public didn’t buy into the hype, the band pursued a slow and very public break-up.

The casual Big Star fan may be unaware, however, that the band played essentially the same set at Lafayette’s Music Room a couple months earlier. Opening for R&B legends Archie Bell & the Drells, Big Star performed as a three-piece with singer and guitarist Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens (Chris Bell having quit the band). The show had been taped for posterity and was originally released on CD as disc number four of Big Star’s 2009 box set Keep An Eye On the Sky. Omnivore Recordings has provided the concert with its first-ever standalone release on CD, double-LP, and as a digital download. Featuring material from Big Star’s #1 Record as well as covers of song of the band’s favorite songs by Todd Rundgren, the Kinks, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the performance has been sonically restored and newly re-mastered for this reissue.

Big Star’s Live At Lafayette’s Music Room

Sadly, I never got the chance to see Big Star perform in person – I was still in high school during their early touring days – and I only really caught up with the band via the solo Alex Chilton single “Bangkok,” which had received heavy airplay in the early ‘80s on Vanderbilt University’s WRVU-FM station in Nashville. Nevertheless, Live At Lafayette’s Music Room sounds a lot like I had always imagined Big Star would sound like, the set list offering up plenty of jangly power-pop and British Invasion-styled rock ‘n’ roll. The album opens with “When My Baby’s Beside Me” from #1 Record, the song a perfect distillation of the band’s seldom-expressed romantic yearnings, with Chilton doing his best to sing the lines Chris Bell had perfected in the studio.

A new Chilton track, “She’s A Mover,” had been written for a solo project but was repurposed for the band. Delivered as a soulful but muscular rocker with fractured vocals, angular guitar, and an irregular but slightly funky rhythmic undercurrent, the song would later re-appear on Big Star’s second album, 1974’s Radio City. The teenage ennui displayed by “In The Street” is amplified by the raucous live setting, the song’s undeniable melody and propulsive percussion peppered with Chilton’s stinging guitar licks. The wistful ballad “Thirteen” is one of the shining gems of the Chilton songbook, its lyrics cutting through the songwriter’s cynical facade to reveal the heart of a romantic; Chilton’s acoustic fretwork enhances the song’s fragile emotion.

Of the cover tunes performed by the band this night, Gram Parson’s “Hot Burrito #2,” originally recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers, is imbued with a ramshackle, late ‘60s Rolling Stones vibe with reckless percussion and shards of guitar rising through the muddy mix. The T. Rex obscurity “Baby Strange” is offered a solid reading, Stephens’ powerful drumbeats providing a foundation for Chilton’s jagged riffs and Hummel’s fluid bass lines. An inspired reading of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut” showcases the trio’s growing rock ‘n’ roll muscles, capturing the original zeal and odd meter of the song with a unique energy and pacing of its own. It’s with their original songs that Big Star really shines, though, as with Bell’s lovely “I Got Kinda Lost” or his Beatlesque “O My Soul” with its R&B-tinged melody, syncopated percussion, and jangly guitar (later revisited on Radio City).

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Big Star’s Live At Lafayette’s Music Room includes in-depth liner notes written by noted rock critic and music historian Bud Scoppa, who places the performance in proper context amidst the swirl of rumour and myth that swirls around the band. A downloadable vintage interview with Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel by local radio DJ Jon Scott provides fans with a look behind the curtain. The CD’s sound quality is above-average, with a slight hollow echo to the performances, which is to be expected from any antique recording. Sounding more like a pretty good audience bootleg than a sterile soundboard recording, Live At Lafayette’s Music Room does a solid job of capturing the band’s live dynamic and preserving it for modern ears.  

Although undeniably a major addition to the Big Star canon, Live At Lafayette’s Music Room raises as many questions as it answers. An important bridge between #1 Record (created as a foursome) and the band’s fractured 1974 sophomore effort Radio City (performed as a trio), Chris Bell’s absence is apparent in spite of his lingering presence on a large number of the 20 songs performed here. What might have Big Star achieved if Bell had remained and helped make Radio City a more cohesive band statement? What would be his contribution to the band’s live sound? Some things just weren’t meant to be known, perhaps. Live At Lafayette’s Music Room is nevertheless an entertaining and invaluable collection for those of us too young to have seen Big Star in the band’s prime. Grade: A- (Omnivore Recordings, released January 12, 2018)

Buy the CD from Big Star’s Live At Lafayette’s Music Room

Also on That Devil
Alex Chilton’s A Man Called Destruction CD review
Chris Bells I Am the Cosmos CD review
Big Star’s Nothing Can Hurt Me DVD review

Sunday, February 4, 2018

CD Preview: John Mayall’s Three For the Road

John Mayall's Three For The Road
It’s no secret that the “Godfather of British Blues,” the legendary John Mayall, has made his living on the road. An energetic 84 years old, Mayall continues to tour with the zeal of a man a quarter of his age, the past couple of years fronting a lean, mean blues machine comprised of longtime bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport while Mayall sings and adds keyboards and harmonica to the mix. Since beginning his relationship with producer Eric Corne and his Forty Below Records imprint, Mayall has also delivered a trio of albums – 2014’s A Special Life, 2015’s Find A Way To Care, and 2017’s Talk About That – which stand proudly among the best work that Mayall has done over the course of a storied career spanning six decades (and counting).

On February 23rd, 2018 Forty Below Records will release Three For the Road, a live set featuring Mayall and his current touring trio. Recorded live in March 2017 in Dresden and Stuttgart, Germany, the album features nine red-hot performances of original Mayall tunes like “Streamline” and “Lonely Feelings” as well as covers of contemporary songs by Curtis Salgado (“The Sum of Something”) and Sonny Landreth (“Congo Square”) along with classic gems like Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “I Feel So Bad” and Eddie Taylor’s “Big Time Playboy.”   

“I hope the fans will enjoy the fireworks that the three of us came up with during a subsequent tour of Europe last year,” Mayall says in a press release for the new album. “We opted for recording in East Germany purely as a convenience and availability of a recording company. They specialize in live recordings and I must say they captured the energy that took place onstage. The songs come from my extensive library of material composed by some of my favorite blues players. Naturally, my playing is featured quite a lot more than usual in this format, and I hope listeners will enjoy the performances that capture a new chapter in my live shows.”

Longtime John Mayall fans will notice that, for a bandleader notorious for discovering talented young fretburners, there is no guitarist in his current band. “I’ve been using the trio format for our live shows for a year already,” he states, “and the reason for that came about quite accidentally when my guitarist Rocky Athas wasn’t able to make a festival gig due to airline cancellations. Since then, I found that the interplay and dynamics have created a more personal upfront sound in my live performances. I can’t speak too highly of bass player Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, who have been my bandmates for the last ten years or more. Their Chicago roots are to the fore every time we get onstage together.”

Mayall hasn’t given up on including a guitarist in his band, just planning on looking over all his available options. “As for recording, I shall still be exploring the talents of guitar players who will be pretty well-known to all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “They will be strongly featured on the next studio album. I have already got songs lined up for our sessions in the studio at the end of this month. So look out for the prominent interplay and surprises that will be coming your way later this year. Thanks for all your support as usual. I couldn’t do it without you!”

Buy the CD from John Mayall’s Three For the Road

Also on That Devil
John Mayall’s Talk About That CD review
John Mayall’s BluesbreakersLive In 1967 CD review

Thursday, February 1, 2018

New Music Monthly: February 2018 Releases

The floodgates open this month with a wealth of domestic releases, cool imports, and "blast from the past" archive releases that promise to rock your world! February may be a short month, but there's a lot of quality packed into these four release weeks, including new albums from Simple Minds, the James Hunter Six, Neal Morse, John Mayall, Superchunk, and others. Throw in archive releases from Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Chris Hillman, and Muddy Waters and there's a lot of mighty fine music coming our way!

If we wrote about it on the site, there'll be a link to it in the album title; if you want an album, hit the 'Buy!' link to get it from's just that damn easy! Your purchase puts money in the Reverend's pocket that he'll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock 'n' roll ecstasy!

Roger McGuinn's Peace On You
James Hunter Six - Whatever It Takes   BUY!
Jethro Tull - Heavy Horses [deluxe reissue]   BUY!
Roger McGuinn - Peace On You [reissue]   BUY!
Lou Reed - Thinking Of Another Place (import)   BUY!
Roxy Music - Roxy Music [deluxe reissue box]   BUY!
Simple Minds - Walk Between Worlds   BUY!
Wishbone Ash - Raw To The Bone [reissue]   BUY!
Wishbone Ash - Twin Barrels Burning [reissue]   BUY!
Frank Zappa - The Roxy Performances [box set]   BUY!

Phil Manzanera's Live In Japan

Brian Fallon - Sleepwalkers   BUY!
Fu Manchu - Clone of the Universe   BUY!
Chris Hillman - The Asylum Years   BUY!
Phil Manzanera - Live In Japan (import)   BUY!
Various Artists - Stax Singles, Vol. 4: Rarities & the Best of the Rest   BUY!
The Wombats - Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life   BUY!
Muddy Waters - Live at Rockpalast   BUY!

J.D. Wilkes' Fire Dream

The Choir - Artifact: The Unreleased Album   BUY!
Neal Morse - Life & Times   BUY!
Superchunk - What A Time To Be Alive   BUY!
J.D. Wilkes - Fire Dream   BUY!

Alice Cooper's The Sound of A

Alice Cooper - The Sound of A EP   BUY!
Isaac Hayes - Black Moses [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Isaac Hayes - Shaft [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Janiva Magness - Love Is An Army   BUY!
John Mayall - Three For the Road   BUY!
Grant-Lee Phillips - Widdershins   BUY!


Album of the Month: Roxy Music's self-titled 1973 debut gets a super-duper deluxe box set reissue for the album's 45th anniversary. The set includes three CDs and a DVD and includes a remastered version of the original album (which features the hit single "Virginia Plain") as well as previously-unreleased performances from BBC Sessions and In Concert as well as a 1971 demo tape and other groovy stuff. The DVD includes an unreleased 1972 performance from the Bataclan in Paris, UK TV performances, and a 5.1 mix of the album. The box also includes a 136-page hardcover book with rare photographs and Roxy Music memorabilia. It's pricey ($160+), in keeping with similar releases, but there's plenty hear to like for the hardcore Roxy fan...

NRBQ’s First LP Gets First CD Reissue!

The almighty NRBQ – the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet (originally ‘Quintet’) – formed way back in 1967 and released their self-titled debut album a couple years later, in 1969. Signed to a two-album deal by Columbia Records, the band worked with famed producer Eddie Kramer to forge an eclectic debut that mixed what is now NRBQ’s signature mix of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, soul, country, and whatever style or genre tickled the band member’s fancy at the time. As such, NRBQ the album featured a handful of inspired original tracks surrounded by an eccentric mix of covers by artists as diverse as rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran, jazz pioneer Sun Ra, blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and even songs written by keyboardist Terry Adams and avant-garde jazz composer Carla Bley.

For their debut album, NRBQ comprised Adams, guitarist Steve Ferguson, bassist Joey Stampinato, lead singer Frank Gadler, and drummer Tom Staley. In spite of the critical acclaim and cult following the band has long enjoyed, their elusive debut album has never been reissued in any format in the nearly 50 years since its release. Leave it up to the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings to right this wrong... the label has found some success with their five-disc, career-spanning NRBQ box set High Noon – A 50-Year Retrospective and released the band’s 2017 EP Happy Talk to no little critical acclaim.

On March 16th, 2018 Ominivore Recordings will reissue NRBQ on CD for the first time; the album will also be available as a gatefold vinyl LP and as a digital download. The reissue includes additional photos and new liner notes by Jay Berman, who writes “this historic and monumental recording has been remastered, and finally authorized for re-release. This album is a great reminder that NRBQ is on a mission, one that holds steady to its original inspiration to this day. For those fans who missed it the first time around, it Hasn’t Aged A Bit.” Take it from the Reverend, who bought a used copy of the band’s debut LP a year or so ago, if you love NRBQ then you’re going to want to hear where it all began...

Buy the CD from NRBQ’s NRBQ

Also on That Devil NRBQ’s Wally, Stu, Lou & the Q! bootleg CD review

Isaac Hayes Classic LPs Back On Vinyl

Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul
It’s no secret that the Reverend is an Isaac Hayes fan. The Memphis soul legend wrote and performed a large part of the soundtrack of my teen years, and Hayes’ classic albums like Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses, and the soundtrack to the film Shaft were trailblazing, influential releases that vaulted Hayes to superstar status and re-defined soul music for a generation to follow. On February 23rd, 2018 Craft Recording will be releasing newly-remastered editions of all three of these iconic albums on glorious 180-gram black vinyl.

Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses, and Shaft were all remastered by sound engineer Dave Cooley from the original analog tapes and are packaged in reproductions of the original sleeves, complete with old-school style tip-on jackets and, for Black Moses, a replica of the outrageous (at the time) four-foot cross-shaped fold-out image of Hayes. These issues follow the critically-acclaimed four-disc box 2017 set Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976), which celebrated the groundbreaking artist’s talents as a songwriter, performer, and producer which was released as part of the year-long party honoring the 60th anniversary of the legendary Stax Records label.

Isaac Hayes' Shaft
Released in 1969, Hot Buttered Soul was Hayes’ sophomore effort; the album topped the Billboard R&B chart and hit a respectable #8 on the trade magazine’s Hot 100 pop chart, yielding a Top 30 single with “Walk On By” b/w “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” The soundtrack to the 1971 film of the same title, the double-album Shaft would top all the charts on the strength its #1 hit single “Theme From Shaft,” which earned Hayes an Academy Award. Shaft would go on to become Stax’s best-selling LP of all time (even charting in the U.K.).

A few months later, Hayes shocked the world with Black Moses, his fifth studio album, another two-disc set, and a monster creative effort that would hit #1 on the R&B chart and #10 on the pop chart, the album’s cover of the Jackson 5 song “Never Can Say Goodbye” rising to #22 on the singles chart. All three albums are truly revolutionary works, and it will be good to hear them on vinyl once again!

Related Content:
Isaac Hayes - Stax Classics CD review