Friday, November 26, 2021

Archive Review: Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea (1972)

Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea
Following up on the modest success of 1971’s It Ain’t Easy album, which spawned a chart-scraping minor AOR radio hit in “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On the King of Rock & Roll,” British blues-rock icon Long John Baldry went back to the same well for his 1972 album Everything Stops For Tea. While the previous year’s effort represented a return to the blues for Baldry, who had enjoyed a string of pop ballads in the U.K. during the late 1960s, Everything Stops For Tea reached further back into the singer’s history, incorporating elements of British folk and R&B alongside Baldry’s usual mix of blues and rock music.

Baldry again enlisted the help of long-time friends and former bandmates Rod Stewart and Elton John to produce the new album. The first time around, Stewart’s productions were featured on side one of the original vinyl LP release, while John’s work was featured on side two. With Everything Stops For Tea, however, John’s production shines clearly on the first side, while Stewart’s seemingly rushed efforts hold down side two. Whereas on the first album, the best performances spanned the entire disc, here the highlights mostly come from John’s side, which offers up an inspired mix of material. Like with the previous album, an all-star cast of musicians was used, John utilizing his road-tested touring band, including guitarist Davey Johnstone, while Stewart used friends and former bandmates like the underrated guitarist Sam Mitchell, and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller.  

Long John Baldry’s Everything Stops For Tea

Opening with the folksy “Come Back Again,” Baldry’s twangy vocals sound uncannily like a cross between the Band’s Levon Helm and singer Leon Redbone. Johnstone’s guitar playing is superb here, capturing a Nashville country vibe without discarding Australian songwriter Ross Wilson’s original folk-blues roots. Baldry cranks it up for a raucous, R&B styled cover of Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Seventh Son.” Johnstone adds gospel-tinged piano and slinky guitar here while John Lennon cohort Klaus Voorman unwinds a deep, funky bass line for drummer Nigel Olssen to punctuate with his subtle percussion. Baldry is joined by John on backing vocals for the traditional folk standard “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the singer really nailing the song’s winsome lyrics with a fine vocal performance which is assisted by Johnstone’s spry mandolin picking.  

One of John’s most inspired song choices for the album can be found in the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” which Baldry delivers with reckless aplomb. The performance starts out low and slow, just Ray Cooper’s syncopated percussion and Baldry’s quiet vocals, before the volume and the temperature rises and the singer starts jumping ‘n’ jiving above a soundtrack that features Johnstone’s banjo and Olssen’s lively drumbeats. Altogether, they capture the sound and spirit of New Orleans R&B in a little recording studio in London. “Jubilee Cloud” is the last of the five John-produced tracks, the song a rollicking bit of blues-rock with folkish undertones driven by Ian Armit’s honky-tonk piano and a solid Voorman/Olssen rhythmic backbone. Baldry delivers a strong, Southern soul styled vocal performance while Cooper throws in a bit of chaotic percussion.  

You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover

The Stewart side opens with the comedic title track, itself introduced by an odd, entirely British spoken word bit before rolling into Baldry’s old-school crooning. It sounds a little strange to American ears, but I’m sure the U.K. audience adored it at the time. Not to be outdone by his colleague John, Stewart throws in his own Willie Dixon song, the boogie-woogie favorite “You Can’t Judge A Book (By the Cover),” originally a hit for the great Bo Diddley. Baldry does the song right, knocking out an energetic performance with improvised lyrical asides, backed by Armit’s manic piano-pounding and part-time Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Weston’s serpentine fretwork. The other highlight of side two is Baldry’s take on the traditional British folk tune “Mother Ain’t Dead,” which features a sublime performance by the singer on guitar, accompanied only by Stewart on banjo and backing vocals.

This CD reissue includes a number of bonus tracks, including two radio spots produced by Warner Brothers to originally advertise the album. More interesting is a live performance of Baldry’s original “Bring My Baby Back To Me” from the 1972 Mar-Y-Sol Festival in Puerto Rico. An unabashed electric blues song with a suspiciously hypnotic circular guitar riff (think Hill Country and R.L. Burnside), Baldry channels his best Howlin’ Wolf Delta blues growl above the scorching fretwork and swaggering drumbeats. A haunting cover of Neil Young’s melancholy “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (mistakenly credited to Leadbelly?) features singer Joyce Everson, as does the folk-blues rave-up “I’m Just A Rake & Ramblin’ Boy,” which features a beautiful duet between the two singers above Baldry’s nuanced acoustic guitar.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Less bluesy and spontaneous, perhaps, than It Ain’t Easy, the following year’s Everything Stops For Tea nevertheless has its moments. Baldry’s voice is in fine form, the backing musicians are definitely inspired, and Elton John’s production, in particular, is subtle yet confident. These two early 1970s albums, originally released by Warner Brothers Records, represent the cornerstone of Baldry’s immense musical legacy in England, and provided the singer with a modicum of commercial success and popularity in both the United States and Canada. Both albums are highly recommended for the curious who want a taste of this talented and admittedly eclectic artist. (Stony Plain Records, released April 24, 2012)

Also on That Devil Music: Long John Baldry's It Ain't Easy album review

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Long John Baldry’s Everything Stops For Tea

Archive Review: Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy (1971)

Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy
An influential veteran of the early 1960s British blues-rock scene, Long John Baldry performed with and/or inspired nearly every musician of note on the island. The popular singer and songwriter had been a large part of two essential and seminal bands of the era, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and Cyril Davies’ R&B All Stars, and had led Long John Baldry and His Hoochie Coochie Men with lead singer Rod Stewart, and Bluesology, which featured future pop star Elton John.

During the late 1960s, however, Baldry strayed from the blues and blues-rock music with which he’d made his reputation in favor of pop ballads that provided minor chart hits. By 1971, the singer’s career had stalled, and with the help of old friends Stewart and John, Baldry made a successful return to the blues with It Ain’t Easy. With one side of the original album produced by Rod Stewart and the other side produced by Elton John, It Ain’t Easy featured Baldry performing alongside some of the best and brightest musicians that England had to offer, including guitarist Ron Wood, Stewart’s bandmate in the Faces and a future Rolling Stones member; guitarist Caleb Quaye, from Elton John’s band; and Jeff Beck Group drummer Mickey Waller, among others.

Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy

It Ain’t Easy starts off with an odd little spoken-word intro titled “Conditional Discharge.” Part reminiscence, part stream-of-consciousness rant, Baldry’s low-key voice is accompanied by Ian Armit’s spirited boogie-woogie piano-pounding. The piece serves as the perfect opening for the raucous “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie Woogie On the King Of Rock & Roll.” With Ron Wood laying down a smoking guitar riff, Baldry’s howling, growling vocals strut and swagger atop the instrumentation, Waller’s powerful drumbeats driving the song alongside blasts from Alan Skidmore’s saxophone and Sam Mitchell’s guitar, Baldry’s vocals doubled-and-tripled by a female vocal chorus. It’s a heady way to launch the album, resulting in a minor AOR radio hit that pushed the album into the Billboard Top 100.

There’s more to It Ain’t Easy than the aforementioned house-rocker, though, Baldry performing a duet, of sorts, with fellow British blues singer Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows) on Leadbelly’s classic “Black Girl.” The performance is rife with slinky, Delta-inspired stringwork, Baldry playing a 12-string guitar alongside Mitchell’s weeping Dobro steel guitar and Ray Jackson’s spry mandolin. Baldry and Bell’s vocals are dirty, drawling, and often overwhelmed by the chaotic instrumentation – a delightful mess, really, contemporizing the antique song while paying proper reverence to its origins. The album’s title track is delivered in a similar Mississippi blues vein, with a bit of gospel fever thrown in for good measure, Baldry’s soulful, shouted vocals bolstered by Bell’s harmonies, accompanied by Mitchell’s Dobro and Wood’s hot git licks.

Rock Me When He’s Gone

Baldry’s cover of the folkish “Morning, Morning,” written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, may seem an obscure and unlikely choice, but Baldry’s wistful, mourning vocals and Woods’ 12-string plucking bring a bittersweet measure to the song, which mixes folk, rock, and blues to its maximum emotional impact. Blues legend Willie Dixon’s classic “I’m Ready” is spruced up and jacked up by this British blues-rock crew, the song’s original Chicago blues strut amplified by a rowdy instrumental arrangement built around Baldry’s gruff vocals and Mitchell’s Delta-dirty slide-guitarwork. Armitt throws in some Otis Spann-inspired juke-joint piano, and as they say in Merry Ole England, “Bob’s yer uncle!”  
    
Elton John’s “Rock me When He’s Gone” is a blues-tinged rocker with John’s typical pop overtones. Baldry does a good job with the vocals, backed by his female vocal choir, John’s lively piano and Caleb Quaye’s chiming organ. The original ten-track release of It Ain’t Easy closed out with the Rod Stewart/Ron Wood/Ronnie Lane tune “Flying,” a mid-tempo, folkish affair with slight vocals, minor guitarplay from Quaye, and John’s background piano. It was a rather weak way to end an otherwise strong album, but this reissue CD tacks on seven red-hot bonus tracks to pacify the punters. An acoustic version of the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee gem “Blues (Cornbread, Meat And Molasses)” is Piedmont blues by way of London, with lively guitar and harmonica, with Baldry’s perfect drawl bringing the lyrics to life. Delta great Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vein” is delivered as a guitar-heavy dirge with a juke-joint heart, while Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues” is a joyous celebration of the Delta spirit with lonesome harp and sparse but effective guitar picking laid beneath Baldry’s wailing vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Baldry would go on to record several albums that were bluesier than It Ain’t Easy – including Remembering Leadbelly, his 2001 tribute to the legendary Huddie Ledbetter – a large part of this British blues-rock institution’s legacy is built upon this early album. Representing somewhat of a U.S. commercial breakthrough to go along with his longstanding popularity in the U.K., this is the album that introduced us to Long John Baldry and made many of us look at British blues in a different light. Best of all, It Ain’t Easy still rocks hard and sounds great even after 40+ years, and if you ain’t heard it, maybe it’s high time you did! (Stony Plain Records, reissued April 24, 2012)

Also on That Devil Music: Long John Baldry's Everything Stops For Tea review

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Long John Baldry’s It Ain’t Easy

Friday, November 19, 2021

Archive Review: Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil (2012)

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil
Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumental talent Harrison Kennedy, a veteran of the 1960s and ‘70s Detroit soul scene – it was his voice on the 1970 Chairmen of the Board hit “Give Me Just A Little More Time” – launched his solo career in the mid-‘70s and hasn’t look backwards since, forging a unique sound from a mix of blues, rock, and soul music. Born and raised in Canada, Kennedy’s previous albums have earned the artist a handful of Juno Music Award nominations and other accolades, but he hasn’t yet managed to break through to the greater U.S. blues audience.

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil

Maybe it’s time for us American blues fans to wake up, shake the wax from our ears, and discover what our friends to the north have known for quite some time now – Harrison Kennedy is a hell of a talent. His sixth album, Shame the Devil, is a complex and imaginative collection of mostly original material. The album’s lone cover is a reverent re-working of the Ray Charles classic “You Don’t Know Me” that leans closer to Charles’ soulful take than country legend Eddy Arnold’s original, with only Keith Lindsay’s lonely keyboards backing Harrison’s emotionally-charged vocals.

As for Harrison’s originals, the man is a natural storyteller and truth-bringer, his lyrics somewhat of a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Otis Taylor, championing the working class, the downtrodden, and the unfortunate. The Delta blues-styled “Trouble” could pass for early Son House, Harrison’s mournful vocals accompanied by a bit of solitary guitar and his fluid, tearful harp play. The haunting social commentary of “That’s Just Stupid” is bolstered by Harrison’s eerie banjo picking and Lindsay’s jarring wah-wah organ effect, while the mesmerizing “Musta Bin the Devil” channels Robert Johnson with deep, sonorous vocals and a driving acoustic soundtrack. The powerful “Hard Time Blues” is more than a mere country-blues throwback to the 1930s, Harrison’s strong vocals and locomotive harpwork matched by socially-conscious, prescient lyrics.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil offers an entertaining and thought-provoking mix of contemporary and traditional blues music, masterfully delivered by a skilled songwriter and truly gifted musician that has flown under the radar for too long. (Electro-Fi Records, released September 4th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Harrison Kennedy’s Shame the Devil

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Anarchy In The Music City! The Other Side of Nashville's Musical Pioneers

Since the early 1960s, Nashville has been known worldwide as the "Music City" for its robust country and gospel music industries. For over 40 years now, Nashville has also been home to a thriving hotbed of rock, blues, rap, and Americana music. "The Other Side of Nashville" has grown from a few makeshift bands playing original songs and scraping for gigs into an internationally-respected scene that has attracted creative immigrants from across the globe.


Anarchy In The Music City! is an oral history of the origins and evolution of Nashville's alternative music scene as told by the pioneers that made the music. Using artist interviews culled from the pages of Rev. Keith A. Gordon's critically-acclaimed book The Other Side of Nashville, this illustrated volume includes conversations with both well-known music-makers like Jason & the Scorchers, Webb Wilder, Tony Gerber, David Olney, and Chagall Guevara as well as regional cult rockers like Tommy Womack, the Dusters, Donna Frost, and Aashid Himons, among many others.  

The “Reverend of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rev. Gordon has been writing about rock and blues music for 50 years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide books and website, and the former Blues Expert for About.com, Rev. Gordon has written or edited 25 previous music-related books and eBooks, including Blues Deluxe: The Joe Bonamassa Buying Guide, Planet of Sound, The Other Side of Nashville, and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook

Buy an autographed copy for $14.99 directly from the Reverend:

 
Prefer to buy from Amazon.com? Here's a link to the print version of Anarchy In The Music City! (also available as a Kindle eBook

Friday, November 12, 2021

Archive Review: The High Dials’ War of the Wakening Phantoms (2005)

The High Dials' War of the Wakening Phantoms

War of the Wakening Phantoms is chapter two for the High Dials, in which the Montreal band expands upon its original ‘60s-based pop-psyche sound to incorporate later and more extensive musical influences. The new jacket of many colours suits the band well, exposing more of the player’s talents while offering up matured songwriting and vocal delivery. This is not to say that the High Dials have totally jettisoned the fab ‘60s flavor that originally made critic’s darlings of the band; instead they have simply put these influences into context in creating a grander and more inclusive sound that spans four decades of rock ‘n’ roll.

The High Dials’ War of the Wakening Phantoms

Acoustic guitar and synth washes kick off “The Holy Ground,” a swirling, gentle pastiche of bright psychedelic vibes and earnest new wave rhythms. It’s an engaging song, singer Trevor Anderson’s lofty vocals adding to the attraction. “Soul In Lust” grinds in a little harder-edged direction: the riffs are bigger and the rhythms more strident, representing a seismic shift in the High Dials’ sound that continues on throughout War of the Wakening Phantoms. From this point, it’s a roller-coaster ride through a sonic funhouse of musical styles and interpretations. The High Dials never come across as derivative, instead grabbing for scraps of melody and long-forgotten riffs, weaving them together into an entirely distinctive musical identity.

The results are quite invigorating, from the ethereal atmospherics of “Winter Ghosts” to the exotic use of a sitar – reminiscent of George Harrison – on “Our Time Is Coming Soon.” The beautiful “Master of the Clouds” features delicious vocal harmonies, some effects-laden, surf-guitar influenced fretwork and a multi-layered tapestry of sound and emotion. Anderson’s vocals are warm and friendly throughout War of the Wakening Phantoms while guitarist Robbie MacArthur’s string-bending is shimmering, creative and quite infectious with great tone and stylistic experimentation. The rest of the band fills out the sound admirably, bassist Rishi Dhir and drummer Robb Surridge providing subtle, supportive rhythms while various guest musicians pitch in with horns and strings.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There are a lot of indie rock bands galloping across the pop culture horizon these days, all of them trying to capture your attention, some ink in all the right music zines and maybe an appearance on Conan or The O.C. Don’t fall for the hype. The High Dials are the real deal, an honest-to-god organic rock band working to hone their craft and make music because they like to rather than because they think they’ll get rich and famous. War of the Wakening Phantoms is a delight, an entertaining album totally devoid of pretension and filled with moments of unbridled, exuberant joy. (Rainbow Quartz International, released July 25th, 2005)

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

Archive Review: Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost (1988)

Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost
It may surprise you, but Nashville is rapidly gaining a reputation as a hotbed of “space music,” that ethereal art form which includes a myriad of musical styles and genres, consisting mostly of instrumental pieces and including everything from experimental jazz and esoteric classical works to aggressive noise and electronic wizardry. Creative and innovative musicians such as Anthony Rian, Kirby Shelstad, and William Linton have put the Music City on the “New Age” music map. The best-known of all our local creators is Giles Reaves.

Reaves, known locally for his engineering skills while associated with the Castle Studio, released his first collection of space music a year ago, the brilliant and effervescent album Wunjo. Inspired by the clairvoyant Nordic runes and performed on keyboards and synthesizers with the aid of a computer, Wunjo was a highly-textured and forceful work, and it captured the attention and imagination of listeners all over the globe.

Giles Reaves’ Nothing Is Lost

As wonderful as his previous album was, Reaves’ latest, Nothing Is Lost, is a more realized work. Exploring a different reality than that on his first recording, Reaves’ new album is a masterful and introspective creation, a rare combination of artistic vision and technical proficiency. Blending traditional instrumentation with synthesizers and a computer, Reaves has created a fully-developed, cohesive collection of pieces.

Nothing Is Lost draws from a more diverse sphere of influences and inspiration than Wunjo. An Asian feel pervades side one, incorporating the rhythms and syncopations of the islands to create a textured veil of sound and sensory appeal not unlike the lesser-known works of Brian Eno or the magnificent, Malaysian-influenced dreamworks of Jon Hassell. The second side of Nothing Is Lost is equally enjoyable, more fragile and mystically-oriented than the first side.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Reaves deserves any success or accolade heaped upon him and I, for one, hope that he continues to follow this particular music in creating further works of this nature. Space music composers are often ridiculed and patronized by lesser talents in other fields as mere panderers of spiritual Muzak. But, at their best, they are our generation’s equivalent to the classical composers of centuries past. Nothing Is Lost is no mere New Age snooze Muzak, but an intelligent and demanding work of art. It deserves to be listened to, judged, and appreciated on these lofty terms of sophistication. It requires nothing less. (MCA Masters Series, released 1988)

Review originally published by The Metro, 1988

Friday, November 5, 2021

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon (1995/2021)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon
I bought my first Iron City Houserockers’ album on a whim, after seeing a picture single of “Love’s So Tough” featuring the same soft-focus, high-contrast photo of  feminine beauty that was to be found on the front cover of the band’s debut album of the same name. A cursory glance at the credits (if not the band’s name) revealed their Pittsburgh roots, enough to sell it to this Greensburg, Pennsylvania-born Pirates fan. That purchase happened around 1979 or so, just as the first exhilarating wave of punk was fading away and rock music was threatening to become dreadfully bland once again.

A quick listen to the I.C. Houserockers put those fears to rest, the band kicking out a bluesy, street-smart style of rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics concerning themselves with the hopes and dreams and desires of the great unwashed working class, of which I was a proud member. I became a life-long fan of the band, and it was greatly disappointing that the I.C. Houserockers never found an audience beyond its cult of hardcore fans and appreciative critics. The band broke up before the great mid-‘80s indie rock boom, leaving in their wake a handful of albums and a lot of great songs. Luckily, the talent behind the band – singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joe Grushecky – would later embark on what is now a lengthy and critically-acclaimed solo career as an indie rocker.

Joe Grushecky’s American Babylon

Flash forward from 1979 to 1995 and the release of Grushecky’s landmark album, American Babylon. Produced by rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, who also co-wrote a song and played and sung on several others, it represented the first significant Springsteen creative collaboration since Southside Johnny’s early albums in the late ‘70s. Although Bruce’s name, at the time, didn’t carry the weight it once did in mainstream rock, it still provided thrilling possibilities. Along for the ride were the Houserockers, those seasoned veterans who had worked with Grushecky on the early solo discs – guitarist Bill Toms, drummer Joffo Simmons, and original I.C. Houserockers bassist Art Nardini.

From the opening lyrics of “Dark and Bloodied Ground” to the fateful closing riffs of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” American Babylon is a powerful collection of songs, brimming over with the sort of rock ‘n’ roll spirit that most artists never approach, much less capture in song. Much like Springsteen himself, Grushecky was raised on the music of the 1950s and ‘60s, the first generation literally weaned on rock ‘n’ roll and infatuated with the power of the music to change lives, the music’s ability to transcend class and race, and its promise of escape.

Like Springsteen, Grushecky is also teller of tales, a point illustrated by cuts like “Never Be Enough Time,” with its ill-fated lovers, or the broken family searching for hope on “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The passion and emotion expressed on “Labor of Love” comes only with age and experience, lifting the cut far above the level of the typical love song you’ll hear on the radio. Thirty years of American history are dissected by the clever verses of “What Did You Do In the War.” Phrased as a child’s questions to their father, the song crams Vietnam, 1960s-era rock and Woodstock, the moon walk, Iran-Contra, and much more into the child’s innocent queries. “No Strings Attached” is an anthemic rocker reminiscent of the old Iron City Houserockers’ finest moments.

In Homestead

Joe Grushecky photo by Pam Springsteen
It’s with his social commentary, however, that Grushecky’s skills as a wordsmith really shine. Witness “Homestead,” the logical sequel to “The Biddle Mine” from Grushecky’s 1989 “solo” debut, Rock and Real. The story of a steel mill worker, it evokes memories of Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” with a more midwestern, ‘rust belt’ point-of-view. Co-written with Springsteen, the song describes the horrors of the foundry – as close to hell, I’m told, as one can get on Earth – with a poet’s deft touch: “And the steel glowed in the white hot chambers/The furnace spit fire and smoke/And the sunlight came through the cracks in the roof/The dust was so thick you could choke.”

“Homestead” speaks with great eloquence of organized labor’s betrayal of the working man and expresses the importance of the mill town community to the workers (“It was more than a job, it was my family/I got married, settled down, bought a home/And in the bars down the street, in the late summer heat/You never had to feel alone”). In the end, it’s the loss of the job and the stubborn loyalty of the worker to a dying industry that remains: “I got work tearin’ those old mills down/Until there’s nothing left but the sweat and blood in the ground/At night we tuck our little babies in bed/We still pray to the red, white and blue in Homestead.”

If the story told by “Homestead” is strong in its simplicity, the sort of ode to the working man that Woody Guthrie championed, then it is American Babylon’s title cut that tears off the veil that covers what Guthrie’s cherished land has become. The song’s opening verse is based on a true event suffered by Grushecky: “A kid stole my car the other day/Broke in and drove it away/Took it for a joy ride and when he was done/Held up a liquor store with a great big gun/He said I didn’t do nothing wrong/It’s just the way we live around here.”

The song rolls into an anecdote of a junkie’s dilemma, her desire mixing with pragmatism before slamming into the chorus: “In American Babylon, puttin’ my protection on/Got everything I need – drugs, money, sex and greed/In American Babylon, puttin’ my blindfold on/I can’t tell right from wrong/In American Babylon.” Backed by a no-frills, guitar-driven soundtrack, “American Babylon” sums up the results of three decades of ill-conceived social policy in a few short lines. It’s a powerful statement of despair, one far-too-seldom expressed by rock music in any era.

American Babylon Revisited

The recently-released two-disc version of American Babylon expands the album with a trio of demo tracks tacked onto the first disc, while the second disc offers a raucous live set by Grushecky and the Houserockers, playing on their home turf at Nick’s Fat City, with Springsteen as a special guest. All three of the demo songs are winners, providing an invaluable blueprint to the construction of the final versions. “Never Be Enough Time” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” are both finely-crafted songs with smart, insightful lyrics that would stand out in any situation; I’m still not a huge fan of “Chain Smokin’,” which nevertheless gets the job done in a workmanlike fashion.

On the original album, “Chain Smokin’” serves an important purpose in bringing the listener down from the ledge after the lightning bolt that is “Dark and Bloody Ground.” The haunting “Only Lovers Left Alive” is enchanting in this subdued initial take, but the full album version provides a simply devastating ending to American Babylon, the song’s desolate lyrical theme writ large with its explosive instrumentation. Grushecky’s powerful vocals, wavering with emotion, are matched by his taut, evocative fretwork and the band’s muscular soundtrack. It’s one of Grushecky’s best songs in a catalog full of winners, and the original album version’s awe-inspiring instrumental ending provokes shivers with every listen.

I was lucky enough to see Grushecky and the Houserockers perform for the first time on the American Babylon tour and it was easily one of the top three rock ‘n’ roll shows that I’ve ever witnessed out of hundreds. Playing in Nashville at the smallish 3rd and Lindsley club, the band dominated the postage stamp-sized stage, spilling over into the audience. Joe jumped up on our table in front of the stage for a guitar solo and the audience of around 100 drunk-on-rock ‘n’ roll patrons went nuts. The live disc of American Babylon offers similar cheap thrills, Grushecky and his talented band commanding the stage at the Pittsburgh venue in October 1995. The twelve-song set features much of the American Babylon album, performed with all the electricity and energy Houserockers fans have come to expect.

The live versions of “Dark and Bloody Ground” and “Homestead” are particularly brutal, offering the full, complex instrumentation of the studio versions but pumped-up on steroids. Grushecky’s fiery fretwork leaves scorched earth in its wake on the former, while the latter is a deceptively damning slab of working class blues. Joe throws old-school I.C. Houserockers fans a bone with a swinging take on that band’s “Pumping Iron,” and Bruce joins in fun for high-octane performances of his roadhouse rocker “Light of Day” and the booger-rock jaunt “Down the Road Apiece,” which would sound perfectly at home in any Southern juke-joint. The live disc is more than enough reason to pick up the expanded reissue of American Babylon. I’ve heard bootleg recordings of Joe’s shows from the club, and they never sounded this good, producer Rick Witkowski (also a member of prog-rockers Crack the Sky) doing a magnificent job of capturing the band’s livewire set on tape.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Joe Grushecky has often been compared to Springsteen, because of his similar vocal style and sound, the commonality of their musical influences, and their shared lyrical concerns for the working class as related in story and song. It’s an unfair comparison, however, one that robs both artists of their dignity and creative integrity. The two rockers are similar enough to fit into the same critical pigeonhole, sympathetic enough to understand the other’s plight, but there the similarities end. Both are extremely talented artists, among the best that rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced.

Since the mid-‘90s release of American Babylon, Springsteen has become an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll tradition, still creating engaging music but with nowhere near the commercial impact he had in the ‘80s, after the release of Born In the U.S.A. and the accompanying worldwide tours. By comparison, Joe Grushecky has been forced to stay true to his muse, working for every break he’s received, staying honest by default. It’s hard to sin when temptation is never offered. He’s a rocker through and through, his work influenced by weary experience formed by hundreds (thousands?) of nights slamming out tunes in bars and clubs.

Although he and Bruce have remained friends and creative collaborators, Joe’s perspective was never been further from that of Springsteen than was with American Babylon. A fierce statement of defiance that said that the artist was not “going quietly into that good night,” a quarter-century afterwards, Grushecky is still creating intelligent, insightful, and hard rocking music with albums like 2004’s True Companion, 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden, and 2018’s More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows, to name but three of many. It was with American Babylon, however, that Grushecky gave voice to society’s ills and purged his inner demons with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. It’s a bona fide classic, and the rare “anniversary” reissue that lives up to its promise. Grade: A+ (Cleveland International Records, reissued October 29th, 2021)
      
Buy the CD on Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon Live CD review

On Rock & Roll Globe:
Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive! Turns 40

CD Review: Landslide Records 40th Anniversary (2021)

Landslide Records 40th Anniversary
It’s a tough road for any independent record label these days, which makes it all the more impressive when one beats the odds and makes a go of it in spite of the obstacles and trials inherent in recording and releasing music for a dwindling audience of record buyers. Landslide Records was founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1981 by Matthew Rothschild at the urging of his friend Col. Bruce Hampton, who told him that “we would all be riding around in limousines.” Rothschild launched the label and released as his first title Outside Looking Out by Hampton and his band the Late Bronze Age. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, positive early reviews raised expectations for the album which, Rothschild later confessed, “probably sold two copies in every state.”

Considering that Hampton was the evil genius behind the Hampton Grease Band, whose surreal 1971 experimental jazz-rock album Music To Eat was reportedly one of the worst-selling releases in the history of Columbia Records, Rothschild should have thought twice before taking his musician friend’s advice. Luckily, he forged right ahead with Landslide Records and, undaunted by the lack of success with Outside Looking Out, would move forward with a singular vision and great taste in music to make Landslide Records into the champion of American music. Four decades after their first album release, the label is celebrating its 40th anniversary with the release of a two-disc compilation featuring some of the best artists and music from across its storied history.  

Landslide Records 40th Anniversary


Bruce Hampton & the Late Bronze Age's Outside Looking Out
The first disc of Landslide Records 40th Anniversary opens with bluesman Tinsley Ellis’s incendiary “Drivin’ Woman,” a swingin’ little sucker from 1986 that fuses Southern grit and Chicago-styled urban sophistication into a rompin’, stompin’ musical thrill ride. Ellis’s flamethrower guitar licks and gruff, whiskey-soaked vocals are matched by the gleeful sound of Dave Cotton’s bleating sax and a rock solid rhythmic foundation. It’s a great way to pull the listener in, followed by the equally charming “Phone Don’t Ring” by the Bluesbusters. A veritable roots ‘n’ blues supergroup, the band features the talents of Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, Catfish Hodge (a longtime fave of mine), and Terry ‘T’ Lavitz of the Dixie Dregs. A bluesy, soulful tune featuring Barrere’s underrated vocals and Hodge’s distinctive fretwork, it’s another treasure from the mid-‘80s.

Both of the aforementioned outfits feature on another pair of songs dating earlier, from 1983, with Ellis and his band the Heartfixers kicking out the jams with a little help from singer/harmonica player ‘Chicago Bob’ Nelson. Covering the Chicago blues classic “Walking Thru the Park,” Ellis and the Heartfixers rock ‘n’ roll like a trailer park in a typhoon. The Bluesbusters’ romp through Hodge’s “Elmo’s Blues” features the Detroit bluesman on the microphone while Barrere tears up the strings. Much of the rest of the first disc follows a similar vein, offering choice cuts by folks like legendary juke-joint pianist Piano Red; guitarist Damon Fowler and his blues-infused Southern rock sound; and Mike Mattison’s sorely overlooked roots-rock outfit Scrapomatic, which combines Delta blues with Southern-fried soul, and even a bit of funky New Orleans in creating a unique and exhilarating sound.

Hard Luck Blues


Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks' It Came From Nashville
The late Tom Gray’s beloved band Delta Moon is represented by “Coolest Fools,” a languid rocker with deep blues roots and a pop-rock heart fueled by Gray’s and Mark Johnson’s stellar guitar playing. Late blues guitarist Sean Costello is remembered with a live take of “Motor Head Baby,” the on-stage setting a perfect showcase for the underrated fretburner’s immense talents. Nashville’s own Webb Wilder has recorded several albums for Landslide over 40 years, and his “Dance For Daddy” offers up the sort of livewire roots-rock and twang that had built the great man’s legend. Nappy Brown is an underrated R&B vocalist in a field dominated by great singers, and his performance of “Hard Luck Blues,” backed by Ellis and the Heartfixers, is a thing of pure joy.

Disc two of Landslide Records 40th Anniversary offers a more eclectic mix of styles, ranging from the improvised jazz vibes of David Earle Johnson and the jazzy fretwork of a young Derek Trucks to Widespread Panic’s modernized Southern rock sound and Col. Bruce Hampton’s eclectic, and electrifying avant-garde noisemaking with his band the Late Stone Age. One of the earliest tracks on the set is from Tom Gray’s band the Brains, their rare 1982 track “Dancing Under Streetlights” the perfect fusion of synth-pop and guitar rock. Scrapomatic frontman Mike Mattison’s solo effort “Midnight In Harlem” is a wonderful old-school soul ballad with gorgeous instrumentation while his band’s “Night Trains” is a greasy slab o’ funk with plenty of Paul Olsen’s imaginative guitarplay.

Webb Wilder checks back in with the spry “The Nail Right On the Head,” featuring his infectious vocals, a strong melody, and the talented George Bradfute’s six string skills while Jan Smith’s upbeat “Woman Your Guitar” is a charming blend of country and rock, Smith’s lofty vocals and nimble fretwork backed by an all-star band that includes guitarist Johnny Hiland and bassist Byron House. Curlew’s “Panther Burn” is a slice of avant-garde jazz by a little-known band that nevertheless can boast of a roster that includes saxophonist George Cartright, bassist Bill Laswell, and guitarist Nicky Scopelitis. Americana artist Gary Bennett delivers an upbeat honky-tonk rave-up with “Human Condition,” featuring guitarist Kenny Vaughan, pedal steel maestro Lloyd Green, and Marty Stuart on mandolin. There’s plenty of other fine music to be heard across the two discs, including tracks from talented folks like Jim Quick, the Cigar Store Indians, Geoff Achison, the Lost Continentals, Paul McCandless, and probably a few that I’ve forgotten.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


If you know nothing about the Landslide Records label, this budget-priced anniversary set offers plenty of reasons to discover why the plucky lil’ indie imprint has successfully carried the torch for authentic American music for four decades now. There are plenty of gems to be found among the 33 songs on the two discs, which provide over two hours of consistently enjoyable listening and, if you’re intrigued by an artist or three, you can dig into their individual catalogs with reckless abandon. Yes, it’s a celebration of 40 years of great music – a milestone by any standard, but Landslide Records 40th Anniversary set is also a great introduction to a label (and artists) worth your time to hear. Grade: A (Landslide Records, released October 29th, 2021)

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