Monday, September 21, 2020

Planet of Sound book now available!

Rev. Gordon's Planet of Sound
The Reverend's latest effort, Planet of Sound, is now available from Planet of Sound is a collection of essays, retrospectives, artist interviews and album reviews penned by award-winning rock critic and music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon. Originally published by the Rock and Roll Globe website, the Reverend covers a wide range of rock and blues music with these essays.

From well-known artists like Steve Miller, Walter Trout, Frank Zappa, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the Blues Brothers to lesser-known talents like avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, singer/songwriter Buzzy Linhart, British oddball Screamin’ Lord Sutch, and cult rockers the Flamin’ Groovies, the Reverend explores the history of these artists and places their legacies into proper context.  

Within these pages are 33 aggressively looong essays, etc on rock and blues music – popular and otherwise – that you can read for free online but, in keeping with my obsessive quest to publish nearly every word I’ve ever written in some misguided and utterly futile attempt at immortality, I’m trying to sell you in printed and eBook form. I can only hope that you have as much fun reading this stuff as I did in writing it. Rock on!

Buy the print version from Planet of Sound

Friday, September 18, 2020

Archive Review: Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session & Fillmore East The Lost Concert Tapes (2008)

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Super Session
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are two of the most underrated and influential talents in the canon of blues-rock. Both were phenomenal musicians (Bloomfield died in 1981, Kooper now only plays sporadically), insightful and knowledgeable with a true love of music. Both men’s credentials are impeccable. Kooper was, perhaps, the most valuable session player in the ‘60s rock universe, adding his considerable talents to records by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. A founding member of two seminal ‘60s bands – Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears – Kooper also discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing their first three albums.

Bloomfield was an equally decorated veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll army. A familiar presence on the early ’60s Chicago club scene, Bloomfield made his bones as a guitarslinger with the Butterfield Blues Band. He toured with Dylan, formed Electric Flag with Nick Gravenites and subsequently played sessions with Kooper, Muddy Waters, James Cotton and folks of that caliber. Between the two, they have played on/produced/written some of the most memorable music in rock music. So why aren’t more people familiar with these two? Blame it on the short-term memory, perhaps, of pop culture or blame it on an industry that no longer nurtures talents of extraordinary vision like Kooper and Bloomfield.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session

Two recordings document the pair’s legacy. At the time of its 1968 release, rock fans had never heard anything like Super Session. Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia Records at the time, dreaming up a project to produce. Kooper thought of his old Dylan session cohort Bloomfield and, with a crack rhythm section in tow, retreated to a Los Angeles recording studio to “jam.” Half of Super Session offers day one of the sessions, Bloomfield’s guitar ringing clear as a bell on the Chicago blues-styled instrumental romp “Albert’s Shuffle,” the nine-minute ‘90s-jam band precursor “His Holy Modal Majesty” and the mournful blues jam “Really.”

Bloomfield was AWOL come day two of the session, his health problems and insomnia aggravated by a growing heroin addiction. Bloomfield simply picked up his guitar and went home, forcing producer Kooper to recruit Steve Stills, fresh from a stint with Buffalo Springfield, to fill in for the missing guitarist. The Stills-dominated tracks travel in a more psychedelic direction than Bloomfield’s blues-rock virtuosity. A faithful cover of Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” leads into a dynamic eleven-minute reading of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Kooper’s vocals and keyboard work on the song are spot-on, Stills’ wah-wah driven six-string providing the fire while the rhythm section of bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh provide the pulse.

Super Session spent several weeks in the top twenty upon its release and helped spawn the first generation of “jam” bands (including the Grateful Dead), opening the door to greater instrumental improvisation. This remastered reissue of Super Session includes four bonus tracks, including original takes of “Albert’s Shuffle” and “Season of the Witch” sans horns (which were added to the final mix later) and two interesting outtakes. The success of Super Session led to a sort of sequel in The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, the live album a document of three nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco featuring mostly new material.

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield's Fillmore East

The previously unreleased Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is the second of two releases that further highlight the often-overlooked talents of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Recorded two-and-a-half months after the “live adventures” disc, these tapes were all but discarded after the performance due to engineering problems and musical incompatibilities between some of the players. Rediscovered by Kooper a couple of years ago, the performance has been carefully resurrected, masterfully remixed and skillfully remastered for the digital age. A real treat for Bloomfield fans, any young musician with an interest in the blues should check out this set and hear the playing of a true blues aficionado.

Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 is a veritable showcase for Bloomfield’s enormous talents, the guitarist dazzling the audience with his fiery fretwork. Bloomfield pulled every trick he had out of the bag for covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out” and “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and his original “(Please) Tell Me Partner.” He wasn’t afraid to share the stage, bringing out Texas guitarist Johnny Winter for a scorching take on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” the red-hot performance subsequently earning Winter a recording contract. Throughout Fillmore East, Bloomfield’s six-string work is fluid and graceful, Kooper’s keyboard work is subtle and if the rhythm section often seems at odds with itself, it does little to distract from the prominent guitar pyrotechnics offered by Bloomfield.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

It could be argued that Mike Bloomfield never played better than he did circa 1968, the Super Session album and accompanying live performances spotlighting his talent at its peak. Bloomfield wrote the blueprint for the white blues guitarist, informing the work of those who would follow, from Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and David Jacobs-Strain. (Legacy Recordings, released 2008)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

Buy the CD from
Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield Super Session
Al Kooper & Michael Bloomfield’s Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68

Archive Review: The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True (2007)

The Detroit Cobras' Tied & True
The band line-up of the Detroit Cobras changes more often than a politician’s poll numbers, but the band’s trademark sound seldom budges an inch. Built around a solid core of sultry singer Rachel Nagy and guitarslinger Mary Ramirez, the Detroit Cobras continue to crank out soul-drenched rave-ups and garage rock gems with Tied & True, the band’s dynamic fourth album. With the addition of Memphis guitar-for-hire and boy genius Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound, and slammin’ bassist Carol Schumacher of the Gore Gore Girls, Tied & True offers the most enjoyable Cobras listening experience yet.

The Detroit Cobras’ Tied & True

Any old rock band can grab a hit song off the charts of yesteryear and jazz it up for the modern record buyer, usually slaughtering it in the process. The Detroit Cobras, on the other hand, take an old song and handle it like a nebbish collector at a record convention. They treat each one in the spirit of the original, with love and reverence, and they never cease to amaze with their spot-on choices of rare and obscure cuts. Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” is provided a cool rocking arrangement, with Ramirez’s and Cartwright’s guitars intertwined behind Nagel’s best upbeat Martha Reeves vocals. “Nothing But A Heartache” is all swooning girl-group goodness, an aged U.K. hit for the Flirtations, a mid-60s Northern Soul band, that the Detroit Cobras play straight with delicious harmonies and soaring vocals.

“Puppet On A String” has a sort of syncopated beat and features a hypnotic guitar lead with great tone and vocals to match while “The Hurt’s All Gone” offers up a fine vocal performance, lush arrangement and authentic feel. A vintage ‘60s R&B classic by the Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, “The Hurt’s All Gone” is about as smooth and soulful as you can get and keep your feet on the terra firma. The Detroit Cobras continue their Louisiana road trip with the wonderful “Try Love,” a Dori Grayson original from Shreveport’s Murco Records. In Nagy and crew’s hands, the lovely romantic tune is supported by gentle shimmering guitar, tasteful background vocals and deliberate rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, Tied & True is the Detroit Cobras’ best album since their first, the band adding subtlety and tact to their performances where once they depended on balls and bluster. There’s room for plenty for rocking when you’re on stage, but the low-key and relatively subdued treatments provided the songs on Tied & True greatly enhances the material, rather than detracting from the original magic. It’s tempting to call the Detroit Cobras America’s best cover band, but it takes a considerable amount of creativity to grab a song and make it entirely your own. A lot of bands have tried and failed, while the Detroit Cobras keep on rocking, relentlessly… (Bloodshot Records, released April 24, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2007

Friday, September 11, 2020

Archive Review: Ken Hensley's Elements (2006)

Ken Hensley's Elements
Back when I was a wee lad, attending Franklin H.S. in lovely suburban Nashville, my friends and I were simply *ga-ga* over Uriah Heep. We all thought that they were the bee’s knees, the hot-cha-cha, the Nazz…well, you get the point. With Heep’s landmark 1972 album Demons & Wizards as our starting point, we championed the band’s excesses while reveling in their Goth-inspired, fantasy-influenced proto prog-metal trademark sound. Our love affair lasted throughout high school as albums like The Magician’s Birthday (also ’72); Sweet Freedom (1973, with the great AOR track “Stealin’” leading the way) and Wonderworld (1974) dominated our turntables.

Aside from the operatic voice of frontman David Byron, the other dominant element in Heep’s mid-70s sound was provided by guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter Ken Hensley. Byron and guitarist Mick Box originally formed the band, called Spice, changing the name to Uriah Heep when Hensley joined. Hensley came over from a British band called the Gods which, at one time, included future Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor and future ELP member Greg Lake. Hensley’s influence can’t be found on Heep’s debut album; however, with Salisbury (1970) and Look At Yourself (1971), Hensley took over the reins as the band’s primary songwriter. Writing both punchy metal-edged cuts like the title song as well as prog-oriented tracks like the symphonic “July Morning,” Hensley provided the band a distinct identity and a future direction.

Shaping the Uriah Heep Sound

With the addition of bassist Gary Thain and drummer Lee Kerslake – a former bandmate of Hensley’s from the Gods – on Demons & Wizards, the band found the players and chemistry that would take them over the top. Kerslake proved to be a talented songwriter in his own right, penning three of the eight songs on the band’s breakthrough album, and serving as a valuable counterpoint to Hensley’s efforts. Whereas Hensley’s work tended to lean more in a poetic prog-metal direction, Kerslake’s songs tended to be darker, more Goth-oriented exercises. The work of both writers coexisted well on the album. Gary Thain would also spread his wings as a songwriter for the band, contributing two tracks on The Magician’s Birthday. Hensley would still carry the brunt of the creative load, however, writing five songs for the album, including the incredible tracks “Sunrise” and “Rain.” By the time of Sweet Freedom and Wonderworld, the Hensley/Thain songwriting axis was well in place, the two experimenting with a more radio-friendly, harder-edged sound on songs like “Stealin’,” “Seven Stars” and “Something Or Nothing.”

Ken Hensley's Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf
In a case of “did he jump or was he pushed,” Thain would leave the band in 1974, after the release of Wonderworld. Suffering from a serious drug problem, Thain tragically died a year later. Kerslake would subsequently pick up the pen once again for 1975’s Return To Fantasy, writing six of the album’s nine songs. I mention the Hensley/Thain/Kerslake songwriting tandem as a way to underscore the dynamic that was created by having three solid writers in one band. Although not privy to any “backstage” maneuvering by any of the songwriters, it’s clear that having a trio of such talents drove the band to new heights. It’s also telling that when Hensley recorded his first solo album, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf, he recruited Thain and Kerslake to play on the sessions. I feel that the competition between the three was a healthy one, pushing each to achieve great things.

Hensley’s solo debut was released in 1973, Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf benefiting from Heep’s commercial success at the time. According to interviews with Hensley, the prolific songwriter would offer a slew of songs to the band and they would subsequently record some and discard others, mostly due to the 40-odd-minute time constraints imposed by the vinyl LP format. Thus songs like “Proud Words” would never be recorded by the band while “Rain” is afforded slightly different interpretations on both The Magician’s Birthday and Hensley’s solo album. Hensley has said that the solo album wasn’t an effort to try and launch a solo career, as such, but rather as a forum for sharing all the songs that he had written with his fans.

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please

Ken Hensley's Eager To Please
Hensley would record his second solo album, Eager To Please, in 1975 while trying to figure out exactly where Heep was going, commercially and creatively. Thain was gone, replaced by journeyman bassist John Wetton, a detour on his way towards forming Asia. Byron would leave after 1976’s High and Mighty album to pursue solo fame, replaced by former Lucifer’s Friend frontman John Lawton. Lawton would subsequently record three albums with the band, leaving after 1979’s Fallen Angel to be replaced by the generally reviled John Sloman. Kerslake would also leave at this time, working on Ozzy Osbourne’s first solo album before rejoining Heep in time for 1982’s Abominog. Along with founder Mick Box, Kerslake has been with Heep ever since, until he had to retire from the band in late 2006 due to health problems.

The tensions surrounding Lawton’s departure from Heep, and the conflicts created by the band’s internal struggles spelled the end for Hensley. The talented songwriter and musician would leave the band after 1980’s ill-conceived Conquest album to pursue a full-time solo career. Hensley would release his third solo effort, Free Spirit, the following year. Representing somewhat of a departure from both his previous solo work and his legacy with Heep, Free Spirit includes synth-pop songs and new wave flourishes that were decidedly un-metal like in their execution. Hensley himself seems to have expressed reservations about the album’s material, and it stands alone as an anomaly in the artist’s catalog.

The party was pretty well over by the time that I got to see Uriah Heep live, in May 1978, probably touring in support of their twin 1977 releases, Firefly and Innocent Victim. In a rare show of largesse, Rush had asked the band to open for them on their 1978 tour, paying back Heep for dragging Rush along on one of their previous tours. I had just scored my first ever backstage passes through Thom King’s Take One Magazine to interview Rush and figured out that the passes could also be used to get backstage and meet my idols, Uriah Heep. Although Hensley was reserved but friendly, Mick Box and Lee Kerslake were both chatty and accommodating. Box got the entire band to pose for pictures holding a copy of Take One and he invited my friend Wayne and myself backstage after Rush’s set to talk some more. We ended up drinking champagne and talking about music and motorcycles until early in the morning with Box and Kerslake.

Ken Hensley & Visible Faith

Ken Hensley
Ken Hensley’s influence on a generation of musicians is often understated. From his 1981 solo album, Hensley would go on to hang out for a while with southern rock band Blackfoot, performing on two of the band’s albums and touring with them for several years. Although it seemed as if Hensley had retired from music by mid-decade, a number of bands called upon his talents to contribute to their songs in the studio. Well into the late ‘90s, when Hensley became “born again” and rebooted his career with 1999’s A Glimpse of Glory, recorded with the band Visible Faith, Hensley lent his unique keyboard signature to recordings by Cinderella, Metalium, Ayreon and W.A.S.P.

Elements, released late last year in the U.K. by Castle Music, attempts to place Hensley’s contributions to rock music in context. The two-CD set features a handful of tracks by Hensley’s early bands the Gods and Toe Fat, with the Gods’ “Looking Glass” standing out as a strong cut from one of the ‘60s lesser-known outfits. There are fifteen Heep songs on Elements, ranging from “The Park” and fan-favorite “Lady In Black” from Salisbury, to “Falling In Love” from Fallen Angel. These aren’t necessarily Heep’s best-known songs, or even the hits, but from “Look At Yourself” and “The Wizard” to “Sunrise” and “The Easy Road,” they represent some of Heep’s best work.

Disc two of Elements jumps right into Hensley’s solo career, offering up six songs from Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf and five songs from Eager To Please, including the album’s lone single, “In the Morning.” The anthology also includes three songs from Free Spirit, including a standout track in “The System.” A lone Blackfoot track, “Send Me An Angel” is included here, as is “The Return” from A Glimpse of Glory. A rare recording of “I Close My Eyes,” originally from Running Blind, features the first reunion of Hensley and former Heep frontman John Lawton since ’79. Elements closes with a fine recording of the previously-unreleased “Romance,” part of the 2005 album Cold Autumn Morning where Hensley re-recorded some of his classic songs.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Elements is a fine representation of Hensley’s career, presenting his work in a strong light and successfully balancing his band and solo efforts accordingly. The anthology serves as an excellent bookend to Hensley’s 1994’s rarities collection, From Time To Time, and is a great place for the neophyte to experience Hensley’s musical talents. The time is ripe for a critical rediscovery of Ken Hensley. A new Hensley album, titled Blood On the Highway, is scheduled for release in 2007, and features vocal contributions from prog and melodic rock heavyweights like Glenn Hughes, Jorn Lande and John Lawton. To the delight of his fans, Hensley’s biographical book When Too Many Dreams Come True will also be reissued in 2007. Some 40 years after his first recordings, Ken Hensley is still going strong. (Castle Music, released 2006)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2006 


Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 (2001)

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985

When Stevie Ray Vaughan took the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 17, 1983, few watching could have expected the subsequent events his performance that night would inspire. The relatively unknown Stevie Ray and his seasoned band delivered a red-hot set of Texas blues to an indifferent and hostile audience. Sitting in the crowd that night, however, was a thoroughly impressed David Bowie, who provided an artistic “coming out” for Vaughan by later using the six-string wizard on his highly-successful Let’s Dance album. Jackson Browne, who also witnessed Vaughan’s incendiary Montreux performance, provided free studio time for SRV and Double Trouble to record their debut album, the ground breaking Texas Flood.

With a pair of critically acclaimed, best-selling albums providing his credentials, Vaughan recreated the blues-rock genre and kick-started a blues revival that continues today. Two years after his Montreux debut, Stevie Ray returned to the festival stage as a conquering hero. This time, the young guitarist delivered another smoking set to a far more receptive crowd than previously. Both historic performances are paired on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985, a scorching two-disc set that showcases Vaughan’s considerable live chops and further cements his legacy as one of the greatest guitarists ever.

Listening to these two live performances – one as a brash, youthful guitarslinger and the other as a maturing, confident artist – one can hear strains of Vaughan’s artistic lineage, masters such as Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Lightning Hopkins. You’ll also hear signature songs such as “Pride and Joy” and “Texas Flood,” refined from show to show, performed alongside such gems as “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Much of the material on Live At Montreux, 1983 & 1985 is previously unreleased, the set complimented by extensive liner notes and rare photos. Vaughan’s accidental death in 1990, while on the verge of even greater success, robbed the music world of an incredibly gifted guitarist. If you’re unfamiliar with the brilliant blues-rock of this legend, these inspired Montreux sessions serve as an excellent introduction to Stevie’s world. (Legacy Recordings, released 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001


Friday, September 4, 2020

CD Review: Little Richard's The Rill Thing (1970) & King of Rock and Roll (1971)

The Legendary Little Richard

In the early 1950s, “Little Richard” Penniman was just another struggling Southern rhythm & blues singer. A handful of singles released by both RCA Victor and Peacock Records between 1951 and 1954 failed to chart, leaving the dynamic performer back in Macon, Georgia working as a dishwasher. He’d form a new band, the Upsetters, touring the Southern chitlin’ circuit for months before fellow R&B performer Lloyd Price recommended that he send a demo tape to Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. The label liked what it heard and Rupe paired him with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, sending Richard to New Orleans to record at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, thereby changing the course of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Initial sessions at J&M Studios yielded little in the way of marketable recordings. When Blackwell and Richard went to the Dew Drop Inn to relax one night, Richard commandeered the piano and launched into a song he called “Tutti Frutti.” Sensing a hit, Blackwell hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to rework Richard’s risqué lyrics into something more “radio friendly,” and they managed to record Little Richard’s first hit single in a mere three takes. Released in November 1955, “Tutti Frutti” peaked at #2 on Billboard magazine’s R&B chart and #21 on the pop charts, eventually selling better than a million copies. Richard’s next single, “Long Tall Sally,” was released in March 1956 and surpassed its predecessor, topping the R&B chart and peaking at #13 pop, while also hitting Top Ten in Great Britain on its way to another million flapjacks sold.

During the mid-to-late ‘50s, Little Richard and producer Blackwell recorded a string of Top Ten R&B hits, songs like “Rip It Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” By the end of the decade, though, Richard had grown dissatisfied with his fame and turned to the ministry, releasing a trio of gospel-oriented LPs in 1960 and ’61. When the British Invasion struck, and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were confessing their love for Little Richard, the singer turned back to secular music with an under-performing string of singles and albums like Little Richard Is Back (1964) and The Explosive Little Richard (1967), which did little to improve the singer’s commercial fortunes.     

Little Richard’s The Rill Thing

Litle RIchard's The Rill Thing

Flash forward a few years and Little Richard was working on his comeback. Booked by his then-manager Larry Williams, a R&B singer from New Orleans, to perform rock festivals like the Atlantic City Pop Festival and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, Richard would steal the show from stars like Janis Joplin and John Lennon. Subsequent TV appearances cemented his renewed celebrity status, while Richard’s still-explosive live performances earned the singer a three-album deal with Reprise Records that resulted in 1970’s The Rill Thing, 1971’s King of Rock and Roll, and 1972’s The Second Coming, three somewhat underrated albeit uneven recordings that served to complicate rather than cement Little Richard’s legacy at the time.   

Little Richard journeyed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the legendary FAME Studios to record his comeback disc, 1970’s The Rill Thing (Grade: B). Produced by Richard, the album featured the minor hit single “Freedom Blues.” Co-credited to longtime friend and musical influence Esquerita, the song found Richard in R&B shouter mode, his vocals riding high in the mix above blasts of sax, Travis Wammack’s fatback guitar, and Roger Hawkins’ steady drumbeats. The song’s socially-conscious lyrics attracted an audience, the single hitting #28 on the R&B chart and inching up to #47 on the pop chart. The album’s second single, the energetic “Greenwood, Mississippi,” performed less well, the rocking tune failing to break on the R&B chart and only rising to a meager #85 on the pop chart.

‘Tis a shame, too, ‘cause Richard’s performance on “Greenwood, Mississippi” is like lightning in a bottle, the singer delivering inspired, soulful vocals around which he layers Wammack’s red-hot, psych-tinged guitar licks, and a solid, almost funky rhythmic track. In 1972 or ’73, they might have garnered FM radio airplay as part of the “Southern rock” revival but, in 1970 with AM radio still relying on bouncy pop songs, programmers largely ignored the adventurous and exciting track. Memphis guitarist Larry Lee’s “Two-Time Loser” rides a similar musical vein, Richard’s bluesy delivery nicely complimented by some fine chicken-picking and an up-tempo R&B groove. Paying homage to the New Orleans club that helped launch his career, Richard’s “Dew Drop Inn” is a reckless, old-school rocker with plenty of whoops and hollers and raging piano-play and honking saxophones.

“Somebody Saw You” is another Southern rock precursor, the band’s strolling rhythms matched by a bit of country twang and Richard’s unvarnished R&B vox. The album’s title track is a real poser, however – when you have one of the greatest, most recognizable vocalists in rock ‘n’ roll and R&B history, why do you want to hide him in a ten-minute instrumental track? That’s what “The Rill Thing” is, ten minutes of Little Richard not singing, nearly a quarter of the album’s running time spent jamming to a funky groove…fine, maybe, for Booker T. & the M.G.’s but not for Little Richard’s first album in three years. It’s not a bad song, just a bad choice – cut the performance in half and stick in another song the quality of “Freedom Blues.”

Luckily, the album finishes with the playful, New Orleans-styled romp “Lovesick Blues” and a high-octane cover of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” which both showcase Richard’s powerful vocals and underrated keyboard-bashing. Only Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps, could do as much damage to a piano as Mr. Penniman. This Omnivore reissue includes bonus tracks in the form of the single edit version of the Beatles’ songs as well as promotional radio spots as only Little Richard could deliver them, along with the non-album single “Shake A Hand (If You Can),” a very cool, gospel-tinged slow-rolling R&B jam with a great vocal performance, a swinging rhythm, and funky sax-play. 

Little Richard’s King of Rock and Roll 


Little Richard's King of Rock and RollAfter the modest success of The Rill Thing, Little Richard returned to L.A. to record the album’s follow-up, the audaciously-titled 1971 release King of Rock and Roll (Grade: B-). Working with his old friend, H.B. Barnham, as producer and, well…who else? Reprise Records oddly didn’t keep any records for the sessions, so there’s no clue to the guitarist or others that played on the album, just Little Richard’s vocals and electric piano. The album cover features Don Peterson’s regal cover photo of Richard sitting on the throne in all his resplendent glory with beams of light shooting out of his head as he reigns at the top of the world. It’s a fitting image for an album comprised largely of contemporary rock and soul covers by artists as diverse as John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, among others.

King of Rock and Roll kicks off with the bold, throwback title song, a swaggering R&R honker with a farcical introduction replete with horns and excited shouting before Richard cranks up the amp and belts out his roller-coaster vocals, name-checking peers like Ike & Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin to a soundtrack that evokes his best-known hits of the ‘50s. Little Richard wears his best P.T. Barnum ringmaster clothes throughout the album, introducing songs with the self-mythologizing and braggadocio that would become the singer’s stock-in-trade throughout the ensuing years. The Hoyt Axton-penned Three Dog Night hit “Joy To the World” is provided nearly two minutes of introduction before launching into a perfectly on-point performance that adds gospel-styled harmonies to Richard’s soulful vocals.

A cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” suffers not from a lack of commitment on the part of the legendary vocalist as much from a lackluster arrangement that robs the song of its bite and sidelines Richard’s performance behind mediocre instrumentation and shallow production. We may not know who was playing on the record, but they sure weren’t the Swampers. Richard’s original “In the Name” fares better, offering a more nuanced and soulful vocal performance on a fine lyrical Penniman story-song. Richard’s take on the antique folk-blues standard “Midnight Special” is all over the place, the singer choogling like a rattletrap freight train one moment and pouring it all out with joyful abandon the next.

The lone single released from King of Rock and Roll was “Green Power;” ostensibly penned by Barnham, the song’s chill funk soundtrack and a powerful Little Richard vocal performance that offers both bluster and nuance should have made the song a hit. It seems that, much as with his previous Southern rock exercises from The Rill Thing, Richard was a couple of years ahead of the trends with the engaging “Green Power,” the song failing to make the charts at all. Richard displayed a deft hand with the Hank Williams’ chestnut “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” imbuing his performance with a yearning, emotional edge while his cover of Hank’s “Setting the Woods On Fire” is reimagines the song as a rompin’, stompin’ R&B rave-up with a vocal performance that’s hotter than July, accompanied by roaring saxes and backing harmony vocals.

The Omnivore reissue of King of Rock and Roll offers six additional bonus tracks, including Richard’s original “Still Miss Laza Jane,” which takes flight from what is essentially an a cappella opening to become a rowdy juke-joint rocker. Three instrumental performances – the sizzling “Mississippi,” with its loping keyboards and guitar licks; an instrumental version of “Setting the Woods On Fire,” which does exactly that with a no-holds-barred performance; and the best of them all, the raucous “Open Up the Red Sea,” which showcases Richard’s fierce piano-pounding – all could have replaced the dowdier cover tunes here and made King of Rock and Roll a much better album. It fell short of its predecessor as it was, yielding no hit singles and peaking at a lousy #193 on the Billboard pop chart.

Critical Response

Little Richard In Person

Critical response for Little Richard’s first two Reprise recordings proved to be a mixed bag. In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, critic Joel Selvin effusively wrote that “as incredible as it may seem, Little Richard is as great as he says he is. His new album, the first in three years, is packed with the sort of stuff that all good rock is made of,” Selvin concluding that The Rill Thing was “the most significant chapter in the living legend of the greatest rock and roll singer ever.” By contrast, Rolling Stone critic Vince Aletti would subsequently pan King of Rock and Roll, writing that “the new album is the vocal equivalent of running through the studio audience and just as disappointing for its lack of real audacity behind the pretense of outrageousness. Much of the album seems designed around the Talk Show Personality rather than the Singer, giving it the sticky veneer of a jive extravaganza.”

These Omnivore Recordings reissues feature nice CD booklets with extensive and informative liner notes by blues and R&B historian Bill Dahl, who places these albums in proper context in regards to Little Richard’s overall legacy. Both albums have been out-of-print for over a decade, and were reissued only sporadically before that, so it’s nice to see them available again. The singer’s third and final Reprise album, The Second Coming, would reunite Little Richard with producer “Bumps” Blackwell and familiar faces like drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen but when it, too, failed to chart, it looked like Richard’s ‘comeback’ had stalled.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although Little Richard’s career would rise and fall throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, his status as a rock ‘n’ roll innovator and originator was set in stone with his 1986 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With his death earlier this year at the age of 87, only the seemingly immortal Jerry Lee Lewis remains from that groundbreaking group of early rock ‘n’ rollers that would launch a musical revolution and influence generations of musicians to follow. There’s unlikely to be another performer like Little Richard to come our way again... (Omnivore Recordings, released September 18th, 2020)

Buy the CDs from
Little Richard's The Rill Thing
Little Richard's King of Rock and Roll

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: September 2020 releases

September is upon us and the new music is flying high in spite of the pandemic and the lack of live shows across the country. The next best thing to rockin' your local venue is getting your kicks with new music, so pick yer poison, kiddies! There's blues and roots music from the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Grant-Lee Phillips, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, and the adept pairing of legends Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. There's classic prog-rock from King Crimson and Flying Colors; high-octane rawk from Bob Mould and the duo of James Williamson and Deniz Tek; and groovy reissues from Little Richard, Johnny Thunders, and the Rolling Stones. Who could ask for anything more? 

Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. 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! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers' Volume 1

King Crimson - The Elements 2020 Tour Box   BUY!
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers - Volume 1 [w/Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus & friends!]   BUY!
Grant-Lee Phillips - Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff   BUY!
Throwing Muses - Sun Racket   BUY!

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters' Beyond the Blue Door

Blitzen Trapper - Holy Smokes Future Jokes   BUY!
Doves - The Universal Want   BUY!
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters - Beyond the Blue Door   BUY!
The Flaming Lips - American Head   BUY!
Gasoline Lollipops - All the Misery Money Can Buy   BUY!
Marilyn Manson - We Are Chaos   BUY!
Mastodon - Medium Rarities   BUY!
Johnny Thunders - Que Sera Sera: Resurrected [3-CD box set]   BUY!

James Williamson & Deniz Tek's Two To One

Ace of Cups - Sing Your Dream   BUY!
Flyer Colors - Third Stage: Live In London [prog-rock supergroup w/Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy & Neal Morse]   BUY!
Gazpacho - Fireworker   BUY!
Little Richard - King of Rock and Roll   BUY!
Little Richard - The Rill Thing   BUY!
Napalm Death - Throes of Joy In the Jaws of Defeatism   BUY!
Sugar Ray & the Bluetones w/Little Charlie - Too Far From the Bar   BUY!
James Williamson & Deniz Tek - Two To One   BUY!

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite's 100 Years of Blues

Ayreon - Transitus   BUY!
Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite - 100 Years of Blues   BUY!
Bruce Cockburn - True North (A 50th Anniversary Box Set) [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Deftones - Ohms   BUY!
Thurston Moore - By the Fire   BUY!
Bob Mould - Blue Hearts   BUY!
The Pretty Things - Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood   BUY!
The Rolling Stones - Steels of Wheel Live [unreleased 1989 concert]   BUY!
Surfer Blood - Carefree Theatre   BUY!


The Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood

Album of the Month: Man, there's a lot of great music to choose from this month but I'm going to have to go with the Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood LP. The final recording by legendary PTs' frontman Phil May, this collection of acoustic performances is basically May and PTs' guitarist Dick Taylor, literally finished up days after Mays death in May 2020. This promises to be a fitting swansong to a great, unheralded band. Check out the latest issue of Ugly Things music zine for more info on May's enormous musical legacy.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Archive Review: Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger (2005)

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger
Simply put, Mighty Rearranger offers Robert Plant's best work since, perhaps, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Invigorated by his skilled backing band, the Strange Sensation, Plant takes musical risks and climbs out on a limb more than once with the finest batch of songs he's delivered during a lengthy solo career that has lasted nearly a quarter-century. Picking up where he left off with 2002's acclaimed Dreamland LP, this is the Robert Plant of yore – dropping the hammer of the gods and belting out songs with a cocksure confidence that many lesser vocalists have tried to capture and failed, often times miserably.

Robert Plant & the Strange Sensation's Mighty Rearranger

Working in tandem with his excellent band, especially guitarists Justin Adams and Skin Tyson, with no little assistance from keyboardist John Baggot, Plant has crafted a solid collection of material. The songs on Mighty Rearranger revel in their hard rock roots, but also incorporate Plant's fascination with Eastern modality and poly-rhythms, elements of complex, Zep-styled British folk and the singer's love for classic American blues and soul music. If it sounds like a heady mix, well, it is, Plant and the Strange Sensation masterfully weaving in and out of genres, challenging one another and coming up with truly breathtaking performances.

Suffice it to say that the second coming of Robert Plant is no dull affair. Mighty Rearranger is filled with memorable moments that blister and peel. The Middle Eastern rhythms of "Another Tribe" are paired with weeping lead guitar and Plant's mournful vocals offer precise social commentary, asking hard questions. The singer attempts a bit of vocal gymnastics on "Freedom Fries," the syncopated rhythm track approximately a sort of rockabilly shuffle but matched swerve-for-swerve by Plant's assured phrasings. "Tin Pan Valley" takes a look at days gone by, Plant's subdued vocals supported by a sparse soundscape as he takes a few lyrical jabs at contemporaries trying to hold onto past glories. By the time the guitars roar into the mix and Plant's voice soars to Wagnerian heights, it's clear that the rock legend is moving forward, not back. "Dancing In Heaven" offers the sort of crystalline acoustic guitarwork that Zeppelin fans cut their eye teeth on, Plant's brilliant lyrical imagery matched by the band's instrumental virtuosity. The title cut is a bluesy, gospel-tinged rocker with raw fretwork and otherworldly keyboards.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Mighty Rearranger is not a reinvention of Robert Plant as such, but rather a showcase for the artist's creative evolution. Without ignoring his past triumphs, Plant has built a bridge to the future, finding a revival in fortunes by working with the second great band of his career. With Mighty Rearranger, Plant and the Strange Sensation have discovered the legendary fountain of youth, and its name is rock 'n' roll... (Sanctuary Records, released May 3, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Book Review: Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies (2004)

Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies
I'm pretty much a half-assed, unmotivated music collector. I love music and with a little over a thousand vinyl albums and close to three times that many CDs, my collection never fails to impress the squares, and it has a little of everything that I like to listen to during the average week. While I enjoy the odd bargain-bin album discovery and have been known to dig through hundreds of CDs just to find a handful of 99-cent discs to tote home, my feeble efforts pale in comparison with the freaks featured in Brett Milano's book Vinyl Junkies. While my collection (and the mild compulsions that led to its creation and ongoing evolution) astounds the average citizen, my personal obsessions bow down with awe in the face of collectors like John Tefteller, Jerry The DJ or 'Monoman' profiled by Milano.

Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies

With his novel High Fidelity and the film subsequently made from the book, writer and music lover Nick Hornby defined the different types of collector personality, from the elitist record geek to the seriously-disturbed completist who collects everything and anything, as long as he gets it all. Milano, on the other hand, attempts to unmask the collector's psyche, delving into the reasons behind the vinyl junkie's unrelenting obsession. Milano restricts his topic strictly to, well, vinyl, and to the reasons why the collector is driven to amass incredible archives of (typically) obscure and, in some cases, unbelievably bad music. Although some collectors will focus exclusively on format – 78 RPM shellac discs or 12" mono LPs, for instance – others are drawn entirely to style, such as the hunters of '50s-era doo-wop or gatherers of circa-60s psychedelica. Then there are those who concentrate on finding everything available by a single artist like, say, Olivia Newton-John (to use an example from the book). Perhaps the mildest form of stalking, every single import album version, alternative picture sleeve and rare fanzine interview is fair game for this class of collector.

In his attempt to get to the bottom of this collecting business, Milano speaks at length with several vinyl junkies of note. Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth share their collecting stories, as do Steve Turner of Mudhoney, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and the J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf (notice how many collectors are musicians?). My friend, Ireland-born/England-raised Nashville record store owner Mike Smyth (himself a collector), once told me that the British are even more whacked out than we Americans, with collections often spanning several generations, never moving out of a single rent-controlled house or apartment. Milano has tracked down collectors across the pond like the Bevis Frond's Nick Salamon and his friend Stewart Lee for their valuable perspectives on music and collecting. The comments of label executives and music industry veterans, zine publishers and used record store owners add to the diverse group of collectors that Milano has talked with in putting together the book.

Throughout Vinyl Junkies, Milano adds his own voice, relating personal experiences as a collector and adding personality to what might otherwise be a rather boring subject for those not caught in the grip of record collecting. Although Vinyl Junkies is academic in scope and ambition, the book is lighthearted and enthusiastic in its treatment, a quick, entertaining and informative read. Although consumerist by its very nature, with collectors spending hundreds or thousands of dollars annually on music, the pursuit of record (and CD) collecting is a side of the industry that multi-national media companies would rather you ignore. Collecting usually steps beyond the confines of hype-driven corporate music choices, snubbing the marketing department in favor of personal empowerment. Finding that one disc that you've been searching for since you were a teenager tucked away in a box under a dusty shelf in a used record or thrift store is an adrenaline-pumping moment that satisfies in a way that a hundred image-driven Britney clones could never provide. Serious music collectors program their own personal playlist, creating a soundtrack for their lives that no record company could ever imagine. It's certainly a form of addiction, albeit a mild and mostly harmless diversion, but collecting and the music it brings into our lives provides a natural high.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

There seem to be as many reasons for record collecting as there are record collectors, and Milano does an admirable job of sorting through the chaff, sidestepping enervating collector arguments (mono or stereo? vinyl or CD?) and providing insight into this growing musical subculture. It's a tribute to the writer that after my first reading of the book, I had to run out and buy several of the titles mentioned within, including albums by the Bevis Frond and H.P. Lovecraft. If you love music in the least little bit, you owe it to yourself to add Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies to your collection. (St. Martin's Griffin, published November 10, 2003)

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

Buy the book from Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies

Friday, August 21, 2020

Archive Review: Cluster & Eno (1977)

Cluster & Eno
More musically adventurous than his Roxy Music bandmates, Brian Eno left that successful British band and struck out on his own in 1973 to follow his own unique musical vision. Although he would later build a significant body of solo work, become the superstar producer of bands like U2 and the Talking Heads, and record groundbreaking collaborations with artists like Robert Fripp, David Bowie and David Byrne, one of Eno's first stops along the road to fame and fortune was in Germany.

Cluster & Eno

Fascinated by the conceptual possibilities of ambient music – one of many logical endpoints for the fledgling art form of electronic music during the mid-70s – Eno would team up with the duo of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius for a series of albums that, while not earthshaking in their scope and ambition at the time, have nevertheless crept into the shared consciousness of popular music over time to become influential pieces of the puzzle that is Eno's wonderfully enchanting canon of work.

Eno's first collaboration with the two members of Cluster would be released in 1977 as Cluster & Eno. By the time of the album's release, Eno had already made his first forays into creating ambient music with the release of 1975's Discreet Music and the recording of Before and After Science, which included Cluster in the studio. His first album with Moebius and Roedelius, however, an entirely instrumental affair, would serve to define the boundaries of ambient music and then shatter them. Utilizing a series of set pieces – loosely-structured songs, really – the three visionary artists experimented with various found sounds and instrumentation, studio wizardry and the electronic synthesis of sound. The resulting mix of musical styles, instrumentation and sonic manipulation flows from your speakers like watercolors on a canvas. Cluster & Eno is a challenging and invigorating listen, with fragments of the album's compositions blending, chameleonlike, into the background (Eno's vision of ambience) while others jump up from the grooves to grab you by the ears and demand your attention.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Although the trailblazing electronic experimentation by Eno, Moebius and Roedelius, as well as other fellow travelers like Klaus Schulze would later become the foundation of prog-rock and, much to our dismay, the keystones of both techno and new age music, at the time of this recording, this was revolutionary work, weird in both its ambition and its execution. Recently reissued on CD for the first time, Cluster & Eno deserves a listen by any music lover interested in this essential touchstone in the evolution of electronic music. (Water Music, reissued 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Buy the CD from Cluster & Eno's Cluster & Eno

Friday, August 14, 2020

Archive Review: Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 (2005)

Spock's Beards' Gluttons For Punishment
The remaining members of Spock's Beard had a lot to live up to when founding member and songwriter Neal Morse left the band a couple of years back. The major architect of the trademark Spock's sound, Morse's departure forced the other band members to step up and take the reins of the popular prog-rock trailblazers.

With drummer Nick D'Virgilio assuming lead vocal duties and underrated guitarist Al Morse stepping into the spotlight more often, the band took on a harder, rock-oriented edge with its two post-Neal albums, Feeling Euphoria and Octane. The band developed a collective approach to songwriting that took advantage of their individual strength's, bringing in friends John Boeghold and Stan Ausmus for lyrical assistance where needed.

Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment

All that was missing was for the "new" band to establish its identity as a top-notch performance outfit, a questionable goal they seem to have rapidly achieved. After all, this is basically the same batch of guys that recorded such classic modern prog albums as The Light and Beware of Darkness. Morse's abdication changed the band's sound and, perhaps, its focus but the talent and instrumental creativity remained in place. As documented by Gluttons For Punishment, the first live set from Spock's Beard, version II, any questions about the band's performance skills were absurd from the beginning.

Recorded during Spock's Beard's Spring 2005 European tour, Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 effectively recreates the recent Octane album almost in its entirety and in virtually the same running order as the studio original. Although it's unusual for a band to release a live disc in such close proximity to a studio album, the clamoring of fans evidently tipped the band's hand. There is some embroidery provided the studio versions of the Octane songs, albeit very little, and although the performances are dynamic and multi-layered, one can't help but wonder what a little more time might have added to these songs in the way of instrumental interpretation.

At the End of the Day

The band all but ignores its recent Feeling Euphoria album, covering only two of that disc's songs in "The Bottom Line" and "Ghosts of Autumn," alongside a sparse selection of songs from earlier Spock's releases. "Harm's Way," from 1998's The Kindness of Strangers, provides an ample dose of keyboard wizard Ryo Okumoto's mad riffing while also offering an excellent showcase for Al Morse's understated and elegant fretwork. V's "At the End of the Day" kicks off the second disc, D'Virgilio's vocals taking the song in different directions than Morse's original reading, the tune benefiting from some improvisational jazz-rock fusion styled passages.

Since taking over as the band's frontman, D'Virgilio vocals have steadily improved, the talented drummer also forging a distinctive vocal identity around the band's evolving sound. Nowhere is D'Virgilio's confidence more evident than on the album-closing, nearly twenty-minute revisiting of "The Light" from the very first Spock's Beard album. The vocalist stretches his talents to their limits in recreating the roller-coaster highs and lows and dangerous curves of the song's lengthy and varied performance. Given new muscle by the various players' more aggressive direction, "The Light" is both a reminder of the past and a bridge to the band's musical future.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Spock's Beard remains one of the most intriguing and innovative bands on the modern progressive rock landscape, a wonderful match of talents and musical chemistry that has continuously moved forward for over 20 years. Gluttons For Punishment, Live In '05 is a fair snapshot of this moment in time for Spock's Beard, an entertaining and exhilarating performance from one of the guiding lights of the current prog-rock movement. (Inside Out Music, released May 3, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Buy the CD from Spock's Beard's Gluttons For Punishment

Archive Review: Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica (2005)

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica
Longtime David Bowie foil and session gunslinger-for-hire Reeves Gabrels isn't a well-known name, even among guitar fanatics...though he should be. Besides recording and performing alongside the legendary rocker for most of the '90s, Gabrels has also turned in admirable session work with a diverse range of artists like Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy, the Cure and the Mission UK. Although his solo recordings have been few and far between, with several years spanning each effort, Gabrels' third album – Rockonica – should be the one that puts his name on the rock 'n' roll map for good.

Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica

Whereas on previous albums Gabrels would call in favors from famous frontmen like Bowie or the Cure's Robert Smith to provide vox on his songs, with Rockonica the axeman truly flies solo without a net, handling most, if not all the singing chores. It's not surprising to say that his vocals aren't half bad, his soulful Yankee drawl working well with the material. Sure, he's no Bowie, but Gabrels' voice does bring a bounce to his lyrics, with a cadence that is reminiscent of Wayne Kramer's early solo work. This is no coincidence, I'm sure, since Kramer drummer Brock Avery is on board, providing a rhythmic, Motor City edge to the songs (especially on "Underneath," which quotes quite liberally from the Kramer playebook).

It's all academic, really, since Rockonica is, first and foremost, a showcase for Gabrels' enormous skills. A vastly underrated guitarist often overlooked in the music media's rush to crown a new "guitar god," Gabrels is a hard rock instrumentalist with an avant-garde heart. Think of a cross between Johnny Thunders and Robert Quine and you're probably in the right ballpark. Gabrels' material cuts across stylistic barriers and genre considerations, the six-string maestro mixing straight-ahead rock riffs with taut leads that unwind like a runaway spool of razor wire. Angular, prog-flavored song structure, heavy metal thunder and jazzy, free-form improvisational soloing are blended together with incredible phrasing, unmistakable tone and breathtaking dynamics.

Gabrels is no string-shredder like Zakk Wilde or fretboard racer like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Reeves Gabrels is an entirely different creature, an experimental musician whose powerful performances and instrumental wizardry don't get in the way of having a good time. The ten-minute "Anywhere (She Is)," for instance, offers more twists and turns than a mountain road while "The Conversation" starts out big and blustery, like prog-rock run amok, before settling into a minimalist soundtrack with odd time signatures and an almost bluesy riff. "Leper" offers some tasty lead work before bouncing into a funky groove of '70s vintage while the lengthy, epic "Long Day" displays just about every weapon in Gabrels' toolbox, from slow, considerate chording to shimmering, hypnotic fretwork.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

If you're the type of listener that appreciates skillful guitar playing within a heavy rock 'n' roll background, then Rockonica might just possibly be an album worth looking for. With more experience than today's typically young string-bender, and with a penchant for coaxing just about any damn sound out of his stick, Reeves Gabrels creates music that is intelligent, challenging and, ultimately, rewarding in a way that much of the current corporate chart-fodder fails to achieve. (Favored Nations Records, released 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Buy the CD from Reeves Gabrels' Rockonica

Friday, August 7, 2020

Archive Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion (2004)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' True Companion
Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky may well be rock music’s least-known cult artist, his longtime backing band the Houserockers the best bar band in America. An underrated songwriter and storyteller and a guitarist of no little skill, if not for his connection with fellow blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, Grushecky would get no respect at all. In the eyes of many critics, however, Grushecky’s 2002 solo effort Fingerprints outdistanced Springsteen’s The Rising in both ambition and pure rock ‘n’ roll thrills.

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion

Working without the Houserockers net, Grushecky’s solo turn was impressive, but it also proved to be invigorating. Back in the studio with the band he’s fronted in one form or another for a quarter-century, True Companion is the Houserockers’ sixth studio album and first release in almost five years. The time apart has allowed players like guitarist Billy Toms, bassist Art Nardini, drummer Joffo Simmons, and the others to recharge their batteries. The chemistry between band and band leader is undeniable and Grushecky has delivered a solid batch of songs for True Companion, the Houserockers responding with spirited, energetic performances that have more in common with the Stones, CCR, and Memphis soul than with anything you’ll hear on the radio these days.

Grushecky is at his best when writing about his place in the world around him, and True Companion offers several insightful (and revealing) glimpses into the soul of the man. “A Long Way To Go” is a perfect recounting of the joys of rock ‘n’ roll, the lyrics tracing the artist from enthusiastic teenage rocker to middle-aged family man and rock ‘n’ roll lifer who has come too far to quit now. It’s as close to a biography as Grushecky has allowed, the defiant closing lines – “I still want to rock and roll/Hell I’m only in my fifties/And I still got a long way to go” – stating that the old dog still has some music left in him yet.

“Strange Days” is the opposite side of the coin, however, the wondering aloud of a man whose best efforts have been overshadowed by the success of lesser artists. Grushecky has always ignored trends, playing a timeless style of rock ‘n’ roll, although it has cost him greatly. “If only I would have known,” he sings, “maybe I would have changed my look.” He continues “Someday I’m going to write a book/And tell the world out there/About a mighty man they have overlooked/And spread my philosophy/Hey man, it ain’t what you eat, it’s who’s the cook.” Whether we like it or not, age catches up with all of us, and self-doubt creeps in when “all the things I like are so outdated.” Grushecky knows that the world has little place for a fifty-something rocker that few have heard of, yet he continues to hope that “tomorrow’s a better day.”

A Shot of Salvation

It is with the title cut, “True Companion,” however, that Grushecky delivers on every promise that he has ever made to his listeners. With a mournful melody reminiscent of Springsteen’s “The River,” the artist questions his ability to carry on in the face of indifference. In reflecting, he draws strength from those he cherishes – his father, his wife, and his family. Seldom has Grushecky’s guitarwork flown so high, punctuating his lyrics with a lonesome wail that channels the ghosts of a dozen Delta bluesmen. It’s not the only time on True Companion that Grushecky calls upon his family to get him through – “Count On You” is a wonderful love song for his wife, a Southern fried rocker with a funky rhythm and enough joy to share, a musical departure and a lyrical gem.

Grushecky has not abandoned his trademark tales of blue-collar woe on True Companion. “She’s A Big Girl Now” tells the story of a domestic abuse victim that manages to break free and start a new life while “A Shot Of Salvation” offers the lament of every family living paycheck to paycheck in a world where there are “too many songs, not enough soul.” The lively “A Silver Spoon” pokes fun at the privileged few that run this country while “The Shape I’m In” is a hard-rocking accounting of the fears experienced every day by both those who punch a clock and those who have no clock to punch. An electrifying cover of the garage rock classic “Dirty Water” is dedicated to the hometown that has supported Grushecky for decades (and the three rivers that define the city).

The album closes with “Call Him,” the artist coming to grips with the trials and self-doubt experienced across the previous ten songs, finding solace in his faith and the ability to carry on in the face of the dream-crushing daily treadmill. “Well I get up in the morning/And I do it all again/And I never tell nobody/About the pain I’m in” sings Grushecky, searching for a light to lead him out of darkness. It’s a powerful and personal song and a magnificent testimonial. Throughout all of True Companion, Grushecky’s guitar moans and cries and screams like a tortured soul, the Houserockers offering dignified support behind Grushecky’s soulful vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Far too often has Joe Grushecky been compared to Bruce Springsteen, denied his place as a rock ‘n’ roll original. If not for decisions made long ago, or perhaps a stroke of luck or fate’s touch or whatever you want to call it, their roles might have been reversed. Grushecky is a true rocker, an artist of distinctive voice that stands in nobody’s shadow. He keeps struggling to create the perfect rock ‘n’ roll album because that’s all he knows to do. True Companion showcases Grushecky’s best work yet, proof positive that you’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. (Schoolhouse Records, released January 27th, 2004)

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

Also on That Devil

Saturday, August 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: August 2020 releases

Is it hot enough for ya?! Yeah, it's August and the summer has been every bit the slog we thought it would be. Half the country is eat up with the Covid and the other half is trying to avoid the virus. The good news is that while the month starts out slow, it picks up by week three with a slew of new music from folks like King Buzzo, Cidny Bullens, Guided by Voices, the Lemon Twigs, Chuck Prophet, Deep Purple, reggae legends Toots & the Maytals, and blues giants Walter Trout and Bobby Rush, among others. Throw in a live sets from Iggy & the Stooge and Nils Lofgren and reissues from the Flamin' Groovies, the Tom Tom Club, and Collective Soul and August is starting to look pretty good! 

Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. 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! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

Deep Purple's Whoosh!

Collective Soul - Collective Soul [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Collective Soul - Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Deep Purple - Whoosh!   BUY!
The Flamin' Groovies - Jumpin' In the Night   BUY!
Glass Animals - Dreamland   BUY!
The Stooges - Live At Goose Lake: August 8th, 1970   BUY!

Biffy Clyro's A Celebration of Endings

Biffy Clyro - A Celebration of Endings   BUY!
King Buzzo - Gift of Sacrifice   BUY!
Robbby Krieger - The Ritual Begins At Sundown   BUY!

Nils Lofgren's Weathered

Cidny Bullens - Walkin' Through This World   BUY!
The Georgia Thunderbolts - The Georgia Thunderbolts EP   BUY!
Guided By Voices - Mirrored Aztec   BUY!
The Killers - Imploding the Mirage   BUY!
The Lemon Twigs - Songs For the General Public   BUY!
Nils Lofgren - Weathered [live album]   BUY!
Old 97's - Twelfth   BUY!
Chuck Prophet - The Land That Time Forgot   BUY!
Tom Tom Club - Tom Tom Club [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
Various Artists - Willie Nile Uncovered [tribute album w/Nils Lofgren, Graham Parker, Elliott Murphy, others]   BUY!

Toots & the Maytals' Got To Be Tough

My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II   BUY!
Dan Penn - Living On Mercy [Memphis soul legend]   BUY!
Bobby Rush - Rawer Than Raw   BUY!
Savoy Brown - Ain't Done Yet   BUY!
Toots & the Maytals - Got To Be Tough   BUY!
Walter Trout - Ordinary Madness   BUY!

Willie Nile Uncovered

Album of the Month: It's no secret that we're big Willie Nile fans 'round these parts (Willie is from WNY, after all!), but even in a month with new albums from the great Walter Trout and a live Nils Lofgren set, the tribute compilation Willie Nile Uncovered would stand out. Nile is an extremely gifted songwriter, and this two-disc, 26-song set features other very talented folks like Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, Dan Bern, Richard Barone, Nils Lofgren, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky, among many others, interpreting songs from across the four decades of Nile's critically-acclaimed career. If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Nile, you owe it to yourself to check out Willie Nile Uncovered  

Friday, July 31, 2020

Archive Review: Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign (2013)

Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign
When blues guitarist Albert King signed with Stax Records in 1966, he was a known commodity on the blues circuit, but not yet a star, much less an artist with crossover potential. Based in St. Louis during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, King was a popular draw throughout the Midwest U.S. and had recorded sides for labels like King Records, Vee-Jay, Parrot Records, and others and had even released a full-length album, 1962’s The Big Blues, to little acclaim.

Working in the Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee with the label’s house band, Booker T & the MG’s – keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. – along with Stax songwriter Isaac Hayes and Wayne Jackson and his Memphis Horns, King recorded a bunch of songs between March 1966 and November 1967 that would later comprise his Stax debut album, Born Under A Bad Sign. Widely considered as one of King’s career milestones, the album would bring the guitarist’s unique vision of the blues to a white rock ‘n’ roll audience and influence young musicians like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign

The album starts out big and bold, the familiar strains of the title song kicking out the jams with reckless aplomb as King’s throaty vocals and equally vocal guitar licks moan their tale of woe. King takes a familiar blues theme – that of the luckless loser, the hapless gambler, the failed ladies man – and pumps it up with his stinging notes riding high above Steve Cropper’s tasteful rhythm guitar and Booker T. Jones’ background keyboards.  “Crosscut Saw” would be equally as audacious, the song’s jaunty rhythm bolstered by the rhythmic muscle provided by the Memphis Horns. King’s guitar playing here is just as grand as on the opening tune, if not more so, displaying more texture and a fluid grace, but the vocals are weak and sound washed out.

The frequently-covered Leiber/Stoller R&B classic “Kansas City” is provided an appropriately swinging arrangement, King sleep-walking his almost-spoken vocals atop a rich soundtrack dominated by the Memphis Horns and “Duck” Dunn’s gorgeous walking bass line. Again, whether due to problems with the original tape or the primitive recording technology, King’s voice unintentionally drops into the background at times, but his lively fretwork bursts above the mix nonetheless. King’s original “Down Don’t Bother Me” is an extension, of sorts, of the title track, pursuing a similar hard-luck lyrical tale, but the guitarist’s playing here is phenomenal, meshing perfectly with Perkins’ horns and Al Jackson’s sparse percussion to great effect. King’s vocals are better-balanced here, providing the right amount of emotion to match his anguished guitarplay.

Laundromat Blues

Blues legend Albert King
Blues legend Albert King
King tackles the well-traveled Booker T. & the MGs’ composition “The Hunter,” which would later be covered by folks from Free to Koko Taylor, the guitarist adding a bit of bravado to his vocal performance. While the song’s double-and-triple-entendre lyrics are pretty frisky when left on their own, King’s deep voice and deeper blue guitar playing add gravitas to the recording. A cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” displays King’s versatility as a singer; his somber, heartbroken vocals bring a strong emotion to the words as his subtle guitar lines tell the rest of the story. “Laundromat Blues” is another gem in King’s catalog, a straight-forward blues-as-betrayal tune that channels the romantic woe into a fine vocal performance and tearful fretwork that sizzles with barely-contained rage and frustration.

The 2013 Stax Records reissue of Born Under A Bad Sign offers five bonus tracks in the form of previously-unreleased alternate takes and an untitled instrumental. The first (unused) take of the title track reveals a few differences but otherwise hits every mark as the take that ended up on the album; by contrast, the alternate take of “Crosscut Saw” includes an extra chorus tacked on the end, features a stronger King vocal performance, and all the houserockin’ guitar banging of the original. The bonus version of “The Hunter” also seems more muscular and self-assured, but the album-closing “Untitled Instrumental” is a revelation, King laying the smackdown on a fatback rhythmic groove, the soulful Memphis horns slung low beneath the guitarist’s raging leads, which run amok across the loose-knit studio jam.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

My colleague Bill Dahl sums it up best in his new liner notes for Born Under A Bad Sign, stating that King would “make more great Stax albums, but he’d never top this one.” King’s performances here are those of a hungry man ready to feast on the world, and they would create an artistic blueprint that the guitarist would hew closely to for the remainder of his career. Although the digital re-mastering provided this 2013 reissue hasn’t cleaned up all of the original audio issues, it has brightened the performances and added extra depth to the sound.

The songs themselves – “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw,” “The Hunter,” “Personal Manager,” and “Laundromat Blues,” the album’s first hit single – would become part of King’s canon, superb performances that influenced a generation of blues and blues-rock guitarists to follow. A bona fide classic of electric blues, if you don’t have a copy of King’s Born Under A Bad Sign in your collection, then you don’t have squat! (Stax Records, reissued April 2, 2013)

Buy the CD from Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign