Sunday, March 24, 2019

Short Rounds: Tommy Castro, Gary Clark Jr, R. Stevie Moore, Jason Ringenberg, 3x4 (2019)

Tommy Castro & the Pain Killers' Killin’ It Live
New album releases in 150 words or less…

Tommy Castro & the Pain Killers – Killin’ It Live (Alligator Records)

Twice-named “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” by The Blues Foundation, Tommy Castro is one of the most popular artists on the blues scene today. The man’s immense talents as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist are the primary reason for his success, but every aspect of Castro’s music comes alive onstage with each electrifying, crowd-pleasing performance. Castro and his band the Pain Killers kick out the jams with Killin’ It Live, their first live disc, a ten-track barn-burner with a setlist spanning Castro’s lengthy career that delivers a red-hot selection of blues, rock, soul, and R&B. Castro commands the spotlight, but individual band members also get a chance to shine on songs like “Make It Back To Memphis,” “Calling San Francisco,” and a deft cover of Buddy Miles’ classic “Them Changes.” Nothing’s as good as witnessing Tommy Castro perform in person, but Killin’ It Live is the next best thing. Grade: A   BUY!

Gary Clark Jr.'s This Land
Gary Clark Jr.This Land (Warner Bros. Records)
I’ve long been a fan and critical supporter, but I find Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land somewhat of a disappointment. Clark has rightfully been considered a musical visionary, pushing beyond hidebound blues traditions to incorporate elements of soul and hip-hop into his genre-busting sound, Clark’s masterful performances boosted by his incendiary guitar playing and evocative vocals. When it works – as with the title track’s powerful anti-racism screed, the throwback soul of “I Got My Eyes On You,” or the rollicking, rocking “Gotta Get Into Something” – Clark’s muse serves him well. But far too often here, Clark’s blustery, inventive fretwork just isn’t enough to balance out the stretched-too-thin experimental songwriting and awkward artistic flirtations with jazz, funk, and cod-reggae mixed among his modern blues and old-school soul jams. For the first time in his stellar career, the misses far outweigh the hits on Clark’s This Land. Grade: C+   BUY!

R. Stevie Moore's Afterlife
R. Stevie MooreAfterlife (Bar None Records)
Lo-fi pioneer and rock ‘n’ roll lifer R. Stevie Moore has been as prolific as one person could possibly be, releasing literally hundreds of albums over the last 50+ years, both D.I.Y. efforts and through independent labels worldwide. Moore ventured into a professional studio to record Afterlife, an inspired collection of new treasures and well-worn gems all delivered in his indomitable and unique pop-rock style. Moore is joined by fellow travelers like Ariel Pink, Jason Falkner, and Lane Steinberg and long-time friend Irwin Chusid co-produced Afterlife, but it’s entirely Moore’s show. Songs like the breathless “Irony,” the Beach Boys-styled pop-psych of “Here Comes Summer Again,” or the skewed-melodicism of “Too Old (To Fall In Love)” showcase Moore’s lofty vocals, underrated guitar playing, and sly songcraft. Too eccentric for the big leagues, Moore’s poetic lyricism and visionary musicianship has created a legacy that will nevertheless influence artists for years to come. Grade: A   BUY!

Jason Ringenberg's Stand Tall
Jason RingenbergStand Tall (Courageous Chicken Records)
After a productive songwriting residency at Sequoia National Park in 2018, Jason & the Scorchers’ frontman Jason Ringenberg recorded Stand Tall, the singer’s first solo album since 2004’s critically-acclaimed Empire Builders. Wandering around the Sierra Nevada Mountains may have sparked Ringenberg’s restless creative muse, but the raucous instrumentation provided breakneck rockers like “God Bless the Ramones” and “John the Baptist Was A Real Humdinger” are pure vintage Jason. Longtime fans will love songs like the Civil War tale “I’m Walking Home” or “John Muir Stood Here,” a tribute to the naturalist’s contributions to the American landscape, and the singer’s cover of Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” is spot-on with its wistful delivery. The raucous, Celtic-tinged instrumental title track may set the stage for Stand Tall, but it’s Jason’s whip-smart, erudite storytelling and rowdy country-rock soundtrack that drives the sound of the album. Grade: A   BUY!

3x4 The Bangles, Rain Parade, The Three O' Clock, Dream Syndicate
Various Artists – 3x4 (Yep Roc Records)
The concept is simple but brilliant – the cream of the 1980s-era L.A. “Paisley Underground” bands (The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade) – each record 3 songs by their counterparts (3x4, geddit?). The results are every bit as good as you might have hoped…the Bangles bring fierce gravitas to Steve Wynn’s moody “That’s What You Always Say” and Dream Syndicate return the favor with an otherworldly take of the Bangles’ “Hero Takes A Fall.” Rain Parade shines with their shimmering, psych-drenched reading of Michael Quercio’s “As Real As Real” and the Three O’Clock knocks it out of the park with their harmonic caress of Rain Parade’s “What She’s Done To Your Mind.” There’s really not a fumble in the bunch, proving just how talented and creative these bands were in the first place (and remain). Some 30+ years down the road, these bands are still making heavenly music. Grade: A   BUY!

Previously on That Devil
Short Rounds, February 2019: Pete Berwick, Big Star, Ted Drozdowski, Walter Trout & Watermelon Slim

Short Rounds, January 2019: Badfinger, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Billy Bremner, Dave Davies & Midnight Oil
Short Rounds, December 2018: Doug Deming, Tom Guerra, Handsome Jack, Tom Morello, NRBQ & Unicorn

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Archive Review: The Bangles' Everything (1988)

The Bangles' Everything
Dear Susanna, Debbi, Vicki, and especially Michael:

I’ve been reading a lot of words ‘bout how y’all decided to write or co-write all of the songs on your new album, Everything, and how a lot of know-nothing, haven’t-listened-to-a-record-all-the-way-through-in-years critics have been insulting your considerable talents by dismissing the new disc as “too saccharine,” as “too much sweetness and light.” One friend of mine even waggishly suggested that each copy of the album come with a free lollipop (this was before I forcibly changed his mind…in a purely intellectual manner, of course).

Pay no attention to all that vitriolic critical crapola those clown-boys are spreading around like so much manure. I know that Everything is an entertaining and intelligent collection of tunes done up in the finest pop-rock tradition, replete with delicious melodies, hypnotizing harmony, trademark tight instrumentation, and songwriting that, while perhaps not the equal of former Bangles contributors Prince and Kimberly Rew, is mighty darn close (besides, does nobody else remember your 1984 breakthrough LP All Over the Place, of which nine of the album’s eleven songs were Bangles-written jewels?).

Maybe all of those self-righteous prigs are so damn busy listening to their gloomy Joy Division and Bauhaus records that they’ve forgotten that, first and foremost, rock ‘n’ roll was meant to be fun, Fun, FUN! Personally, I spell F-U-N with Susanna’s delicate, haunting vocals; Vicki’s jangling, Byrds-like guitar lines and tough vocals; Debbi’s tasteful, rhythmic drumbeats; and (especially) Michael’s throbbing, powerful bass lines. One spin of Everything proves that y’all deliver the unabashed rock ‘n’ roll goods…not just another bunch of pretty faces printed in 12x12 to try and sell records.

Love to all (especially Michael)...

Review originally published by The Metro (Nashville), 1988

Monday, March 11, 2019

Carbon Records 25th Anniversary Celebration

Carbon Records logo
In April 2019, the Rochester NY based independent record label Carbon Records will celebrate its 25th anniversary. That’s no mean feat considering the alarming pace that indie imprints have popped up and disappeared over the past quarter-century. Yet Carbon Records founder Joe Tunis has thus far dodged the industry obstacles of shrinking music sales, digital streaming, and the uncertain finances of the indie label world. Carbon has consistently released interesting, intriguing, and often-times challenging music.

I got hipped to the label through a great article in Rochester’s City Newspaper alternative newsweekly that was written by Daniel J. Kushner. If you’ve gotten this far, you may want to read the full story on their site; I’m just going to paint a broad picture of the label with info glommed from Kushner’s article. An alumnus of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Tunis is a software developer by trade that has smartly kept his day gig while running the label and playing with his band Pengo. The only guiding principle behind the label, Tunis told the City Newspaper, was that “I didn't want to put out something that I didn't like but I knew would make money, so I've never done that.”

The result is a label that has concentrated on what Kushner calls “left-of-center unpredictability.” Tunis’s musical tastes run towards noise-rock and the avant-garde, artist like New Zealand’s The Dead C and American underground icons like the Swans and Sonic Youth. Through the years, however, Carbon Records has offered more than experimental music, releasing albums by local garage-rock bands like Hinkley or the dark-hued, mesmerizing drone of Ian Downey Is Famous. For a quarter-century, Carbon Records has provided a home to musicians who otherwise may never have been heard. “The noise scene, including Carbon Records, is a place where people can come if they feel like they're not cool enough for the punk and other scenes,” Downey told the City Newspaper.

Crush the Junta’s Hermanos de la Muerte
Whereas in the early 2000s, Carbon released music on homebrew CD-Rs, often with imaginative packaging, over the last few years the label has been releasing much of its new music on vinyl albums and 7” singles (tho’ I see they also offer a few titles on cassette tape). After reading the City Newspaper profile, I decided to surf over to the Carbon Records’ website and pick up a couple of albums to get a taste of what Tunis is doing with the label. I bought a couple of late 2018 releases by the bands Crush the Junta, of which Tunis is a member, and Nod; Tunis was kind enough to also send me a recent album by local rockers Hinkley. 

Crush the Junta’s Hermanos de la Muerte offers up five tracks of noisy, droning, mostly-instrumental music, but there’s not an overwhelming “wall of sound” dominating your senses. “Walk In Time (14 Minute),” for instance, embroiders swirling guitars and subdued vocals atop a driving rhythm while “The Ascent” is a breathless instrumental with relentless syncopated percussion and chaotic guitars that buzz and spark like an electrical fire. The songs here are finely-crafted compositions, often featuring muted instrumentation, with plenty of texture provided by the guitars and percussion; brilliant light and dark musical passages; and the spare use of buried vocals (devastatingly effective on the album-opening “The Hamlet”), all of which provides an interesting and exciting listening experience. Hermanos de la Muerte is highly recommended for anybody looking for a sound that’s delightfully different.

By contrast, Rochester’s Nod’s sound, as offered on their Carbon Records release So Much Tonight, is more melodic, with just a bit of rattle and hum in the grooves. With off-kilter vocals and fractured guitar riffs, Nod’s “X-Mas Song” reminds a lot of Brian Eno’s early, rock-oriented solo albums like Here Come the Warm Jets. The album’s next two songs, “Go For A Ride” and “Time For Tea,” were seemingly inspired by David Byrne and the Talking Heads, but with some important added creative flourishes. The vibrato-laden guitar licks of the former simply jump out of your speakers and hit your ears like a cross between 1960s-era surf music and early swamp-blues while the latter song features a similar Byrnesian vocal style but fretwork straight out of the Robert Fripp songbook.

Nod's So Much Tonight
Nod’s “Rollin Around” is probably the most conventionally rocking number on the biscuit, with a heady underlying rhythm and jade-like shards of electric guitar but the title track paints a discordant, dystopian sonic landscape with cacophonic rhythms, crashing percussion, and jagged, nightmarish fretwork. Even if it evinces a begrudging recognition to the classic rock form, Nod’s So Much Tonight is still noisy and full of unexpected thrills, firmly fitting within the Carbon Records footprint and is another great choice for the adventuresome listener. The third LP on my Carbon playlist is from another Rochester band, Hinkley, who is probably the anomaly on the label’s roster.

Hinkley’s Peak of Light is an excellent album with material that, while sitting outside of the contemporary pop zeitgeist, remains firmly-footed in the realm of experimental rock ‘n’ roll. The album-opening “Above Us” opens with a folkish intro before wandering off the path and over a gorgeous musical horizon of tortured guitar, electronic noise, rhythmic crescendos, and oddball sounds. “Bible Has No Soul” opens gently with pastoral keyboard work before launching into a sort of shoegazing sonic squall that belies the song’s soft-peddled vocals, but “Living In the Shadow of the Universe” displays the full range of the band’s talents. Opening with a subdued vocal passage accompanied by chiming guitar, the song gradually builds into a full-blown assault of bludgeoning instrumentation and hints of feedback.  
Hinkley’s “Untitled” is a masterful (if somewhat disturbing) story-song that places the emphasis on lyrical delivery, its brilliant wordplay accompanied by a minor-key tsunami of instrumentation which, in turn, creates an ethereal, otherworldly vibe that is positively enchanting. The instrumental “Porn’s Revenge” is similarly structured, the song’s deceptively elegant fretwork concealing a malevolent underbelly. If Hinkley had been releasing albums on Sub Pop or Matador Records back in the 1990s, they could have been world-beaters. Instead, they have to settle for entertaining an aging rock critic with music as creative and challenging as that found on Peak of Light. All three of these bands are inventive and not afraid to take musical risks, and I look forward to hearing what they all do in the future.

Hinkley’s Peak of Light
By email, I asked Tunis a few questions about Carbon Records and the label’s 25th anniversary. Did he have anything special planned for 2019 for Carbon? He tells me “Carbon25YR releases basically started back in the fall of 2018 with the release of the Crush the Junta and Nod LPs. At the end of 2018 and very beginning of 2019, I also released the Pengo and Ian Downey Is Famous LPs, as well as one of the larger projects I've worked on, the WOUND 2-LP guitar-centric compilation. For the remainder of 2019, I have at least 3 cassette releases planned, as well as another LP or two in the works.”

It’s no secret that the music business is a difficult industry to find success in. With 25 years under his belt running the label, what has been the biggest obstacle to keeping Carbon Records alive and thriving? “The label has never been a source of income for me,” says Tunis, “more like a drain. It’s definitely a passion project, so when it comes to ‘thriving’ I look at that more from a sense of activity and exposure rather than sales. So time and money are usually the obstacles for me. Having transitioned in my day-job from a full-time corporate job to a full-time freelancer, I found label-time taking the biggest hit, having to concentrate on billable hours, etc. Distribution has also been a life-long obstacle with the label.”

With its eclectic line-up of artists, how does Tunis pick the bands whose records Carbon releases? “I get some solicitations from bands I’m not familiar with,” he says, “but those are nearly always way off mark with regards to musical styles (not fitting with the label’s aesthetics). So it’s usually a matter of me reaching out to artists I really dig and seeing if they’re interested in releasing something on the label. Those are sometimes local artists I know, or come to know, or touring groups I see in-person, or people I just contact online and form a relationship.” 

Ian Downey Is Famous' Destroy Language
Is there any artist whose work he’d like to release on Carbon that he hasn’t been able to get? “When I was brainstorming the list of artists I wanted on the WOUND guitar-centric compilation, there were a few people I reached out to whom I didn’t hear back from, or not in time, or they couldn’t do it for one reason for another. There were also some folks I totally forgot about when coming up with the list, and I felt like an idiot for doing so. Some of these folks include Ben Chasney (Six Organs of Admittance), Richard Bishop, Bill Orcutt, Jim O’Rourke, Oren Ambarchi, etc. The list goes on...”

In his role as musician (Tunis plays in several bands), what keeps him interested in making music? “I love creating new things. Most of the groups I play in are improvisational, or allow for a lot of flexibility, and I love the challenge of coming up with something that fits with the other players, and adds to what they're doing. I really enjoy taking situations, or mistakes, and adapting to get something that ‘works’.”

Check out the label’s releases on the Carbon Records website

Check out the City Paper’s article on Carbon Records

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Spotlight on The Del-Lords

The Del-Lords photo by Jeffrey Scales, courtesy Enigma Records
The Del-Lords photo by Jeffrey Scales, courtesy Enigma Records

The Del-Lords Discography:
Frontier Days (EMI America Records, 1984)
Johnny Comes Marching Home (EMI America Records, 1986)
Based On A True Story (Enigma Records, 1988)
Howlin' at the Halloween Moon (Restless Records, 1989)
Lovers Who Wander (Enigma Records, 1990)
Get Tough: The Best of the Del-Lords (Restless Records, 1999)
Elvis Club (GB Music, 2013)

The Del-Lords remain one of my personal fave bands and one of the tragic rock 'n' roll stories of the 1980s. The band's imaginative mix of roots-rock, blues, folk, and country music went over big with college radio listeners, and the Del-Lords' electric live performances won them a loyal following from coast to coast. Due to label mismanagement and management woes, however, they never got the support needed to break through to mainstream rock audiences via commercial radio. Still, the Del-Lords – singer/guitarist Scott Kempner, singer/guitarist Eric Ambel, bassist Manny Caiati, and drummer Frank Funaro – released four incredible studio and one live album during their too-brief tenure.

The Del-Lords reunited in 2010 to perform a handful of shows, later recording a 2013 album titled Elvis Club. Scott Kempner, who can brag of being a member of two legendary bands in the Del-Lords and the Dictators, has released a handful of critically-acclaimed solo albums over the years. Eric Ambel also continues to make new music, most recently releasing the 2018 album Lakeside, and has made his mark as a producer, working on albums by artists like the Bottle Rockets, Sarah Borges, Steve Wynn, and Jimbo Mathus, among many others. Frank Funaro is currently beating the cans for Cracker and has played with Joey Ramone and Nils Lofgren while Manny Caiati wisely got out of the business, got his law degree, and currently works as a child advocate.   

Also on That Devil Music: The Del-Lords' Based On A True Story CD review

Archive Review: The Del-Lords' Based On A True Story (1988)

The Del-Lords' Based On A True Story
The signs all indicate that spring is in the air: rising temperatures, falling motivations, random thunderstorms. Everybody’s got a snootful o’ pollen, and the songs on the radio are getting braver and bolder. And with a righteous jam like the Del-Lords’ “Judas Kiss” blastin’ across the airwaves, pumpin’ up the adrenalin – and those sneaky hormones – can summer be far behind?

Based On A True Story is the album for consumption this summer, kiddies, a nasty slab o’ PVC-byproduct so funky, so rockin’, so damn baaaaad that you can just forget about all those wimpy art-rockers, flaming dancefloor poof-boys, and wanna-be troglodyte spandex-clad foo-foos with their funny haircuts. As the great Foghorn Leghorn once said, “listen, I say listen to me boy, I’m talkin’ to ya!”

From the opening squeals and crashing chords of “Crawl In Bed,” the wonderful “Judas Kiss” (surely the tune of the summer, a hook-filled lament for a lost lover and a convincingly great anti-drug song), and the hauntingly ethereal “Poem of the River” (featuring sweet, soulful vocals from Pat Benetar) to the humorous “Whole Lotta Nothin’ Goin’ On” and the right Reverend Mojo Nixon’s fire and brimstone sermonette intro to “River of Justice,” and a half-dozen other scorching numbers, Based On A True Story is a hard-drivin’, King Hell rock ‘n’ roll delight.

This sucker cuts to the bone, chock full o’ sonic screaming guitars, Mephistophelean drum beats, and hot, sweaty throbbing rhythms that are guaranteed to induce frenzied, ritualistic movement of the limbs and pelvis. This disc will set ya to foot-shufflin’ and finger-snappin’! Perfect for the beach, the back yard, or cruisin’ to and fro in the car, it’s the perfect rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack for the summer of ’88…and ya know, summer’s not so far away! (Enigma Records, 1988)

Review originally published by The Metro (Nashville), 1988

Friday, March 8, 2019

Archive Review: The Animals' Retrospective (2004)

The Animals' Retrospective
When rock historians chatter over the legacy of the mid-60s “British Invasion,” Eric Burdon and the Animals typically end up short-changed. A working class version of the Rolling Stones, Burdon and his crew were no mere Jagger/Richards/Jones doppelgangers. The Stones might have been a great cover band, but the Animals did more to popularize folk, blues, and R&B with the band’s unique sound and ability to make hits out of the most unlikely cover tunes. From the Animals’ chart-topping 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun” through the band’s 1968 swansong “White Houses,” Burdon and various line-ups of the Animals enjoyed a string of hit singles that rivals even the Beatles.

The Animals’ Retrospective

Unfortunately, a definitive Animals collection has eluded fans for over three decades. Always short on cash, Burdon has been known to take a quick payday now and then, re-recording his “greatest hits” for a variety of fly-by-night producers and hack house bands. If you were duped into buying one of these garbage compilations, toss it out in the yard right now. Your salvation has come in the unlikely guise of Allen Klein and his ABKCO Records label. Much like he did a year or so ago with the 1960s-era Stones catalog, all of the Animals’ classic material is now available on a single twenty-two track disc, remastered for the digital age.

Retrospective is a wonderful document of the Animals’ career, offering every single song of consequence from the band’s brief creative era. Sure, the hardcore fanboy might want some studio outtakes or alternative versions, but for the typical music lover, Retrospective fits the bill perfectly. From the deep opening notes of “House of the Rising Sun” to the easily recognized classic bass line of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” England’s overlooked hit-makers are well represented here. From the band’s best-known mid-60s songs, like those mentioned above and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “It’s My Life,” to Burdon’s psychedelic daze, it’s all here.

Retrospective also offers up a fair share of lesser-known singles as well, cool blues/soul covers like John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” or Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” or weird stuff like Donovan’s “Hey Gyp.” The Animals did a powerful, haunting version of the American prison song “Inside Looking Out” years before Grand Funk Railroad, and the psychedelic-era songs like “Monterey” and “Sky Pilot” still sound great after all these years. The album closes with the radio version of the 1970 hit single “Spill the Wine,” Burdon backed by the (then) unknown funk band War.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Much like the recent Rollings Stones and similar Dylan reissue CDs, Retrospective is a hybrid disc, meaning that it has both CD and Super Audio CD layers. You can play it on both a regular CD player (including car or computer), but when you pop it into a SACD player, the intricacies of the remastering come into play. Burdon’s vocals sound more vibrant, Alan Price’s organ rings like a church organ, and Hilton Valentine’s riffing fretwork offers prove that more than one band influenced the birth of blues-based heavy metal. If you’re unfamiliar with the Animals, or simply want to rediscover a great vintage rock ‘n’ roll band, run out and grab your copy of Retrospective. (ABKCO Records, July 20, 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2004

Buy the CD from The Animals’ Retrospective

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Archive Review: The Greasy Truckers Party (1972/2007)

Greasy Truckers Party
The “Greasy Truckers Party” was a benefit show for Greasy Truckers, an English flower-power group raising money for a number of social causes. Held at The Roundhouse in London on February 13, 1972, the show bill featured the improbable trio of Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwarz and Man. Originally released as a two-album set back in the day, the original eight-track tapes were recently unearthed, cleaned up, and reissued as a proper thee-disc set featuring complete performances from each of the three headlining bands. In a couple of cases (Man, Brinsley Schwarz), the chance to hear the complete set is quite breathtaking – on the original LP, for instance, only two of Man’s five distinctive performances were offered, tho’ that did include the incredible “Spunk Rock.”

Man’s Spunk Rock

Prog-rockers Man opened the show strong with a set that included their impressive twenty-two-minute jam “Spunk Rock.” The song features some incredible interstellar fretwork from Mickey Jones and Deke Leonard, the two guitarists seemingly engaged in some earth-shaking duel as their jagged riffs and razor-sharp leads intertwine like concertina wire. Drummer Terry Williams acts as both a referee and a cheerleader here, his steady, explosive drumbeats providing a constant barrage of rhythm and noise for the two six-string gladiators to build upon. The song’s ever-shifting time signatures, emotions and directions is enough to put many of today’s limp-wristed so-called  “virtuoso” jam bands to shame.

Greasy Truckers Party
It would be tempting to say that the remainder of Man’s set was a letdown after the high-flying antics of “Spunk Rock,” but ‘tain’t so…the band clearly set the bar high and then attempts to demolish it with an impressive set of material, the band clearly influenced by the sounds emanating from San Francisco over the previous five years. Shimmering guitars and subdued rhythms lead into the scary, riff-driven, semi-psychedelic “Many Are Called But Few Get Up,” which sounds eerily like Volunteers-era Jefferson Starship at their dark, menacing, flower-power-is-kaput best. Once again, Williams’ machine-gun drumbeats provide the foundation for some really spacey and entertaining guitarwork.

“Angel Easy,” the other carryover from the original Truckers LP, is a shorter, more traditionally-structured rocker with distant vocals and a slightly funky rhythmic undercurrent. Whether it’s Leonard or Jones kicking in the notes here, the guitars set the pace for the song to rumble along like QMS on any given night at the Fillmore. The fourteen-minute “Bananas” sounds every bit like the band had been torching some peels on its way to the show, a mild hallucinogenic cloud settling over a rollicking pub-rock rhythm. The song extends for a whopping 14-plus, which lends itself to all sorts of cosmic abuse, lane changes, and slippery mountain curves. The set-closing “Romain” is pure electric booger-rawk, with long sweeping rhythms, bent-wire guitar tones and some of the most brilliantly bombastic drumming that you’ll ever hear.

Hawkwind’s Sonic Poetry

Hawkwind's Doremi Fasol Latido
Hawkwind closed the show with its unique psychedelic space-rock, punctuated by Robert Calvert’s bizarro poetry. The Hawks’ set suffered from some initial sound and power problems – a bit of a drag, indeed, for a band whose entire vibe was built upon the manic manipulation of the sonic realm. Nevertheless, by the time that the band gets its set off the ground and launched towards the stratosphere with the lengthy “You Shouldn’t Do That,” the chemically-assisted among the audience were soaring wing-to-wing alongside ‘em, if you know what I mean (and I think that you do). After all, this was ‘72 kiddies, and mind-altering goodies like LSD and ‘shrooms, and even peyote had yet to be bulldozed in favor of the extreme highs-and-lows of coke and ‘ludes (and the coming tragedy of the disco era).

Even if many in attendance had brought their aviator helmets and flight jackets with them, nothing could have prepared them for the lightspeed, white lightning, brightly-flashing magic migraine that was Hawkwind in its prime. This is Lemmy the K era ‘wind, with wings of razor-sharp titanium and the most god-awful sonic roar heard this side of purgatorio. “You Shouldn’t Do That” starts with the sound of full-thrust afterburners and steadily climbs to a crescendo build upon shards of crystal riffage, claustrophobic drumbeats, and switchblade synthesizers. You didn’t have to be as high as a Greek god sitting in a stupor on Mount Olympus to enjoy this stuff, but it didn’t hurt any, either.

Not that the old Reverend would prescribe dangerous substances to his gentle readers, but as one who was around back in ‘72 and…ahem…as someone with a taste for various illicit mind-benders and cerebellum-snacks, Hawkwind was definitely playing my song. “The Awakening” is like falling headfirst into a shimmering puddle of quicksand, as slug-like, squiggly guitar lines and odd bodkins synth-squawks leave a slimy, colorful trail across your skullpan. “Master of the Universe” is a delightful proto-metal spacewalk with stunning fretwork, Lemmy’s incandescently heavy basslines, and steady backbreaking rhythms clearly spawning the entire glut of “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” bands that would stumble into the future from the Roundhouse’s doorstep that night.

Space Rock Pioneers

Hawkwind's Space Ritual
Of course, Hawkwind was never a band to leave an audience simply awestruck when they had a real opportunity to thoroughly reprogram their collective gray matter (reference: the band’s subsequent Space Ritual LP). Devoid of hope, the dark vibe of “Paranoia” is overwhelming in its desperation, but the short, sweet, shock-to-the-brain that is “Earth Calling” is pure Kafka set to something that approximates music, an alien-encounter with intense-sound-and-emotion unheard of in these parts of the galaxy. The out-of-this-world, hard rocking “Silver Machine” was as close to a hit song as Hawkwind’s merry pranksters were ever going to experience (albeit in a slightly different form). Almost traditional in its rock-and-roll aspirations, the song includes some high-flying synth work among its scorching guitars and driving rhythms nonetheless.

The band’s final tune here, the free-form “Brainstorm,” is a cosmic-orgy of massive proportions, a sheer lysergic-fueled attempt at traversing time and space, a mock-battle where no single instrument dominates, but rather they tend to all meld together into a singular noisy conglomeration of sound and fury. When a random guitar or voice does manage to break out of the musical miasma, it’s only to herd the listener back into the hive with electric cattle-prod efficiency. This is the kind of transcendent, out-of-control moment at which Hawkwind often excelled, and their attempt to rewrite the laws of physics that February night back in ‘72 is duly appreciated.

In the middle of the night, however, tucked between the two dynamic, prog-oriented monoliths, was Brinsley Schwarz (with a pre-cool Nick Lowe). The pub-rockers faced down a hostile crowd, winning them over with their exclusive blend of pre-No Depression twang-rock and blue-eyed soul. Whereas the previous two bands left the audience in awe of their mighty instrumental powers, the Brinsley boys pursued a vision of pure songcraft with actual melodies, choruses, and catchy hooks. “Country Girl,” one of the band’s signature songs, is a gently-rolling Byrdsian outtake with more keyboards and less 12-string, while “One More Day” is a playful mid-tempo country rocker that would have fit right in on any Uncle Tupelo album.

Brinsley Schwarz’s Pure Songcraft

Brinsley Schwarz's Silver Pistol
The R&B stomp-and-stammer of the vintage Otis Rush tune “Home Work” benefits from some manic string-mangling, while the Nick Lowe rocker “Nervous On the Road (But Can’t Stay At Home)” offers up swaggering soulfulness, Bob Andrews’ Staxian keyboard riffing, fine vocals and subtle touches of rockabilly-tinged guitar. Blessed with two considerable songwriters in Lowe and Ian Gomm, the band had a wealth of material to choose from. Gomm’s “Range War” is a romping, stomping melodic twangfest that expands upon late-era-Byrds with ringing guitars, rapidfire keyboard-bashing and some truly odd lyrics – something about an Old West fracas with six-shooters and, for some strange reason worthy of Hawkwind’s poetic nightmares, Marvel Comics’ anti-hero the Silver Surfer.

The traditional “Midnight Train” is provided an appropriately raucous reading, with some crafty honky-tonk piano, twangy vocals, and South Nashville chicken-picking. The savvy “It’s Just My Way of Saying Thank You” offers whip-smart lyrics, strutting keyboard-led rhythms, and great live harmonies. A cover of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans soul classic “Wonder Woman” offers a lively rhythmic soundtrack, Andrews’ finest Booker T-influenced pianowork, and some Steve Cropper-styled wiry fretwork. Brinsley Schwarz’s fourth album, 1972’s Silver Pistol, included two songs from obscure American folk-rock songwriter Jim Ford; one of those is performed here – the blues-tinged, countryish “I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind.”

Paradoxical title aside, the song is a freak-folk ballad featuring Schwarz’s finely-crafted guitarwork, mournful vocals, and weeping rhythms … a heartbreaking hillbilly lament if ever there was one. Lowe’s wonderful “Surrender To the Rhythm” is a fine example of what Brinsley Schwarz did best, a seamless fusion of Nashville-by-way-of-Camden-twang with a rolling R&B backbone, ‘60s-era pop aspirations and an “anything goes,” ‘70s rock mentality that lends a timeless quality to a relatively obscure but vastly underrated pub-rock genre.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Sadly, rather than closing on a high note with the delightful “Surrender To The Rhythm,” the second CD in this set instead crawls out on all fours with the atrocious hippie-cretin blathering of Magic Michael. The sort of free-spirited acid-casualty that the late ‘60s and early ‘70s spit out by the handful, Magic Michael haunted London’s rock underground like a drooling phantom, often gracing the stage during mid-band set changes, offering the audience the measure of his limitless lack of talent.  Michael’s “Music Belongs To the People” is a mindless, improvised mess including members of the audience climbing onstage to “jam” alongside the magic one’s yelping vocals and cacophonic guitar strumming. This insipid, fetid chunk of stoner-era trash wouldn’t cut the mustard at the height of Flower Power’s drug-fueled insanity; in this day-and-age, it’s more painful than a botched root canal by a drunken dentist.

If this all sounds like an odd combination of music that I’ve described for you all well, yeah, it is. Any one of these three bands stands on its own, and all three are distinctly different in both style and ambition. That was the magic of the early ‘70s, however…long before corporate radio and major label homogenization lowered expectations across the board, young music fans had a gluttonous buffet of bands to choose from, and we often ate from the trough with glee. It was a high-flying time for “music-as-culture,” and art often times outweighed commerce. Although it’s unlikely that a performance of the diversity and scope of the Greasy Truckers Party concert could take place these days, the album represents more than a mere cultural artifact – Greasy Truckers Party also captures a magical night of music. (Liberty Records, released November 2, 2007)

Review originally published on the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) music blog, 2007

Buy the CD from The Greasy Truckers Party

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: Brucer Iglauer & Patrick A. Roberts' Bitten By The Blues (2018)

Brucer Iglauer & Patrick A. Roberts' Bitten By The Blues
Whether label founder Bruce Iglauer would admit it or not, Alligator Records is an American treasure. From the label’s initial 1971 release – the white-hot self-titled album by Chicago blues trio Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers – and throughout the ensuing decades, Alligator would become the foremost champion of that most American of music genres, the blues.

With a deep catalog of over 350 albums released over the span of almost 50 years, Iglauer and Alligator Records has documented and preserved music by both blues legends and lesser-knowns alike, sometimes dabbling in Americana, R&B, blues-rock, and even reggae music (!) without moving far from the label’s core mission.

Alligator’s legacy is built on the blues, however, with albums from the aforementioned Hound Dog Taylor – whose raucous sound would become the template for the label’s future releases (the label’s slogan is “Genuine HouseRockin’ Music”) – and bona fide greats like Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Charlie Musselwhite building a foundation for the business. There are also artists like Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, and Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women, among several others, whose careers were nurtured by the label and with whom the artists’ fortunes have long been tied.   

Bruce Iglauer’s Bitten By The Blues

Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers
I first met Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer at a NAIRD music trade group convention in Nashville back in the 1990s and would get to know him a little better during my tenure as the “Blues Expert” circa 2008-2014. I’ve found him to be a smart, generous, supportive individual who you’d never guess ran a successful record label, a dolphin swimming among sharks as it were. As a couple of interviews we’ve done over the years has shown, Bruce is also a great storyteller, so it’s only natural that nearly a half-century after launching the label that would become his life’s work that Iglauer would get around to putting some of those stories down in print. Working with noted writer and Northern Illinois University associate professor Patrick A. Roberts, Iglauer has produced Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Records Story, a book that is part autobiography and part label history, the man and his work forever joined at the hip.

Bitten By The Blues tells the tale of blues music in the latter part of the 20th century and the early 2000s, with art and commerce intersecting in often interesting ways. Iglauer has been intimately involved in the blues music scene since his late 1960s college days, and has been deeply immersed in the business of music nearly as long. Bitten By The Blues digs deep into the hidden mechanisms of the music biz, offering up a fascinating portrait of the ups and downs of running what, at this point, is one of American’s longest-running independent record labels. Unlike men in similar positions in the industry, Iglauer isn’t afraid to tell the whole story, warts and all, and the book offers reminders of bad business decisions, or situations where the blues-lovin’ Bruce went into a bad deal following his heart rather than his head. 

The Son Seals Blues Band
Iglauer’s triumphs far outweigh his failures, however, and his successes have led to some mighty fine music. Bitten By The Blues is chockful of inside stories about working with Alligator artists like Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, and Albert Collins as well as Bruce’s friendships with legends like Junior Wells and Luther Allison. Sometimes Alligator’s triumphs aren’t readily apparent, or they’re the result of a stroke of luck, like the recording of New Orleans music legend Professor Longhair’s final album, Crawfish Fiesta. Iglauer writes of loss – the impact of the death of Alligator’s raison d'être, Hound Dog Taylor is notably significant, as was the loss of Michael “Iron Man” Burke – as well as the challenges and obstacles of running an old-school record label in the era of streaming and diminishing sales of physical media like vinyl and CDs.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Koko Taylor's I Got What It Takes
Iglauer imbues Bitten By The Blues with the same wit, humor, and charm that he evinces in person, and his larger-than-life personality shines through every page. Iglauer admits that while he’s always envisioned Alligator Records as a big family, not every artist or employee has always been happy. Although he’s known as a straight-shooter who does right by his artists, a few have complained of royalties they thought they deserved or of slights by the label and, to his credit, Bruce addresses these controversies in the book. It’s telling, though, that not only has Alligator had several artists who enjoyed lengthy careers with the label, they’ve also had more than a handful of talents who have left the Chicago institution’s ranks only to return and record some of the best music of their lives.

Most importantly, perhaps, Bitten By The Blues reveals some of Bruce’s vision for the future of the label, a future that’s not carved in stone by any means, but is strengthened by the label’s discovery and development of young talents like Shemekia Copeland and Selwyn Birchwood as well as the addition of road-tested blues veterans like Tommy Castro, Nick Moss, and Tinsley Ellis to the label’s ever-evolving roster. Bitten By The Blues is an insightful and entertaining read for any blues music fanatic or anybody interested in the business of music. The only (admittedly minor) quibble I have with the book is that I’d loved to have seen more photos, but extra credit to Bruce for including a complete Alligator Records discography that we rabid collectors can use as a convenient shopping list. Grade: A+ (University of Chicago Press, published October 19, 2018)

Buy the book from Brucer Iglauer & Patrick A. RobertsBitten By The Blues

Also on That Devil
Shemekia Copeland - America’s Child CD review
Elvin Bishop - Elvin Bishops Big Fun Trio CD review
Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection CD review

New Music Monthly: March 2019 Releases

Hey now, this is more like it! The floodgates open in March and no matter your taste in music, there's something here to satisfy, pacify, and tickle the fancy of even the most hidebound hater. Blues fans will dig new albums by  Tommy Castro, Nick Schnebelen, Robin Trower, and the first solo effort by the great Reese Wynans while metalheads will be bangin' their craniums to jacked-up new music by In Flame, Demon Hunter, Queensrÿche, and Devin Townsend.

Indie-rock fans will groove to LPs by Weezer, Meat Puppets, Stephen Malkmus, Ty Segall, and Lambchop, among many others. Americana aficionados aren't left out, either, with new albums by Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Son Volt, and a cool reissue of the long-ago debut by Uncle Walt's Band. Speaking of archive release, wrap your brains around long-lost tunes by Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, guitar maestro Dennis Coffey, Americana legend Townes Van Zandt, and the one-and-only Frank Zappa!

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

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters' Many Years Ago

Ian Brown - Ripples   BUY!
Tommy Castro & the Painkillers - Killin' It Live   BUY!
Kid Creole & the Coconuts - Live In Paris 1985   BUY!
Dennis Coffey - Live at Baker's   BUY!
Demon Hunter - Peace   BUY!
Demon Hunter - War   BUY!
In Flames - I, The Mask   BUY!
Robin Lane & the Chartbusters - Many Years Ago [box set]   BUY!
Pond - Tasmania   BUY!
Queensrÿche - The Verdict   BUY!
Royal Trux - White Stuff   BUY!
Nick Schnebelen - Crazy All By Myself   BUY!
Weezer - Weezer (The Black Album)   BUY!
Reese Wynans - Sweet Release   BUY!

Meat Puppets' Dusty Notes

Flight of the Conchords - Live In London   BUY!
Patty Griffin - Patty Griffin   BUY!
Amanda Palmer - There Will Be No Intermission   BUY!
Meat Puppets - Dusty Notes   BUY!
Townes Van Zandt - Sky Blue   BUY!
Leo "Bud" Welch - The Angels in Heaven Have Done Signed My Name [produced by Dan Auerbach]   BUY!

The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Dennis Brennan & the White Owls - Live at Electric Andyland   BUY!
The Brian Jonestown Massacre - The Brian Jonestown Massacre   [vinyl]   BUY!
The Faint - Egowerk   BUY!
Stephen Malkmus - Groove Denied   BUY!
Karen O & Danger Mouse - Lux Prima   BUY!
Todd Snider - Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3   BUY!

Jenny Lewis's On the Line

Matt Andersen - Halfway Home By Morning   BUY!
Andrew Bird - My Finest Work   BUY!
Lambchop - This (is what I wanted to tell you)   BUY!
Jenny Lewis - On the Line   BUY!
Megadeth - Warheads On Foreheads [anthology]   BUY!
Leroy Jodie Pierson - Rusty Nail   BUY!
Mighty Mike Schermer - Bad Tattoo   BUY!
Strand of Oaks - Eraserland   BUY!
Henry Townsend & Roosevelt Sykes - Blues Piano and Guitar   BUY!
Robin Trower - Coming Closer To the Day   BUY!

Steve Earle's Guy

Steve Earle - Guy   BUY!
L.A. Guns - The Devil You Know   BUY!
Yngwie Malmsteen - Blue Lightning   BUY!
Mekons - Deserted   BUY!
Ty Segall - Deforming Lobes   BUY!
Son Volt - Union   BUY!
Devin Townsend - Empath   BUY!
Uncle Walt's Band - Uncle Walt's Band   BUY!
Whitechapel - The Valley   BUY!
Frank Zappa - Zappa In New York [deluxe vinyl reissue]   BUY!

Album of the Month: Tommy Castro & the Painkillers' Killin' It Live. Yeah, I know that I listed this one for February, but I goofed up...the album release actually kicks off March, with multiple Blues Music Award winner Tommy Castro and his band delivering a spanking live set of red-hot blues that showcase Castro's underrated, soulful vocals and scorched-earth fretwork. There's a reason why Castro is probably the most "in-demand" live artist on the blues scene today, and it's shown quite nicely in the grooves of Killin' It Live. Got it? Get it!