Friday, November 25, 2022

CD Review: John Lee Hooker's The Healer (1989/2022)

John Lee Hooker's The Healer
By 1989, blues legend John Lee Hooker was entering the final chapter of an impressive career that had endured for over 50 years. Hooker scored his first chart-topping R&B hit in 1948 with “Boogie Chillen”, and he visited the charts sporadically over the years with songs like “Crawlin’ King Snake”, “I’m In the Mood” (a Top 30 pop hit!), and “Boom Boom”. He’d recorded better than 100 albums over the course of his career, including collaborations with young blues bands like the Groundhogs and Canned Heat and guest appearances on albums by artists as diverse as Peter Townshend, Jim Morrison, John P. Hammond, and Miles Davis. Clearly, John Lee had little left to prove…

Enter Mike Kappus, a legendary artist manager and agent. Kappus became a licensed booking agent in 1970 at the age of 19, promoting shows while attending the University of Wisconsin. Moving to San Francisco in 1976, he founded the Rosebud Agency, signing guitarist Michael Bloomfield and singer/songwriter John Hiatt the first day he opened the doors. Over the ensuing years, Kappus was instrumental in launching the careers of artists like George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Robert Cray, and Los Lobos and he also worked with veteran music-makers like Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Captain Beefheart and … you guessed it … John Lee Hooker. Kappus dabbled in record production as well, receiving ‘Executive Producer’ credits on albums by Hooker, Robert Cray, J.J. Cale, Duke Robillard, and Loudon Wainwright III, among others.

John Lee Hooker’s The Healer

Kappus helped launch the HART (Handy Artists Relief Trust) Fund for The Blues Foundation in 2000, providing financial assistance to blues musicians in need, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2014. As Hooker’s manager and agent, he envisioned a late-career “comeback” album by the 73 year old bluesman, assisted by some of the talents whose contact info stuffed his Rolodex. He found a like-minded ally in Stephen Powers, the founder and president of Chameleon Records, who he knew from his early days in Wisconsin. Chameleon had recently purchased the long-dormant Vee-Jay Records label and had reissued several of Hooker’s earlier Vee-Jay albums with some success so, after a little coaxing, Powers agreed to release The Healer.

Recruiting blues guitarist Roy Rogers from Hooker’s Coast To Coast Band to produce the album, Kappus enlisted eager volunteers like guitarists Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, George Thorogood, and Robert Cray to join Hooker in San Francisco’s Russian Hill Recording Studios in September 1989. Hooker’s basic backing band in the studio was comprised of Rogers on guitar and drummer Scott Matthews, with members of Canned Heat and Los Lobos sitting in on some tunes. The album’s tracklist featured material from Hooker’s deep and wide song catalog, with the new title track co-written by the blues legend along with Santana, Rogers, and keyboardist Chester D. Thompson.

With Carlos’s guitar weaving a Latin-flavored tapestry of sound and the rhythm section establishing a strong rhythm with timbales, conga, and drums, the title track kicks off The Healer with a jazzy, exotic vibe that’s only enhanced by Hooker’s smoky, almost-muted vocals and Thompson’s nuanced keyboards. Santana’s mid-song solo soars out of the mix, the guitarist clearly enjoying himself (he’d enjoy a late-career revival of his own a decade later, with 1999’s Supernatural album). Hooker’s duet with Bonnie Raitt on “I’m In the Mood” earned the bluesman his first Grammy™ Award (for “Best Traditional Blues Recording”). The combination of the two old friends, a darkened studio, and an erotic vibe sizzles like steak on the grill, with sultry vocals and the red-hot coals of Raitt’s slide-guitarwork. Hooker originally released the song in 1951, enjoying a #1 R&B chart hit, but the ‘89 version is superior in sound and performance.

Hooker ‘n’ Heat

John Lee Hooker
“Baby Lee” was the B-side of Hooker’s 1956 R&B hit “Dimples” and, revisited for The Healer with Robert Cray on guitar, the performance is so laid-back that you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. The song’s strong rhythm overwhelms Hooker’s slight vocals, but Cray’s subtle fretwork rides along Richard Cousins’ fluid bass line to create a cool, bluesy ambiance. By contrast, Hooker and his old friends from Canned Heat (their 1971 collaboration Hooker ‘n’ Heat is a blues-rock treasure) raise a bit of dust with “Cuttin’ Out”. Henry Vestine’s guitar licks rip ‘n’ roar alongside Hooker’s spoken-sung vocals while the rhythm section of bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Fito de la Parra establish a swinging booger-rock groove. As icing on the cake, blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite rages on the harmonica in counterpoint to the rhythm, making for an invigorating performance.

Hooker is backed by Los Lobos for “Think Twice Before You Go”, the entire band pitching in and creating a low-slung sound above which Hooker croons his vocals. With David Hildago’s accordion in the background, it really sounds like a Los Lobos cover of a vintage Hooker song, with the bluesman guest-starring on vocals … and that’s not a bad thing! Probably the oldest song on The Healer, “Sally Mae” was the flipside of Hooker’s first hit, “Boogie Chillen’”. He’s accompanied here by George Thorogood, who’s forged a decades-long career from his Hooker influences, but the guitarist plays it straight here, reverent to the material, garnishing Hooker’s smooth-knit vox rather than stomping on them.

“That’s Alright” defines the difference between the Detroit school of blues (i.e. Hooker) and the better-known Chicago style … the song establishes a strong, stuttering rhythm endemic to the Detroit style, courtesy of drummer Matthews and bassist Steve Ehrmann, and then layers on Rogers’ ringing guitar tones and Musselwhite’s mournful harp notes beneath Hooker’s moaning, droning vocals. Whereas Chicago blues often relies on an up-tempo swing with both rhythm and guitar, Detroit blues is heavier and more atmospheric, often as thickly-constructed as night in a Louisiana swamp. Hooker breaks out his National Steel guitar for the haunting “Rockin’ Chair”, the solo performance echoing the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta while displaying his fractured, jagged guitar style. “No Substitute” is in a similar country-blues vein, Hooker wielding a twelve-string like Big Joe Williams, while the previous “My Dream”, with Canned Heat’s rhythm section, is a soulful ballad that displays a more constrained side of John Lee’s talents.         

The Healer eventually sold better than a half-million copies, an unheard of number in the blues world, and it helped launch a roots-music revival that continues to this day. Quoted in British music critic Charles Shaar Murray’s John Lee biography, Boogie Man, Kappus states that “The Healer had a major impact on the entire genre of roots music. The door had been cracking open for years for roots music with George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray, but here was an older artist, one of the originators, actually having success on the level of a contemporary rock star.” Recently reissued on CD and vinyl by Craft Recordings after being out-of-print for over a decade, The Healer was pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Quality Records Pressing with lacquers cut by award-winning engineer Bernie Grundman. Although the new reissue doesn’t include any bonus tracks (according to Murray, several tracks were recorded at the time and used on subsequent albums like Mr. Lucky), it’s just good to have this groundbreaking album available once more.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If The Healer represented the final chapter of John Lee Hooker’s lengthy career, it was really just the opening paragraph. Using the album’s guest-heavy format as a blueprint, Hooker went on to write a hell of a closing for his story with subsequent albums like 1991’s Mr. Lucky (which included Santana, Keith Richards, and Albert Collins); 1992’s Boom Boom (with Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray); and 1995’s Chill Out (with Santana and Van Morrison), all of them produced by Rogers and overseen by Kappus. The Morrison-produced Don’t Look Back (1997) was Hooker’s final studio album, earning him his third and fourth Grammy™ Awards.

Hooker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He also received the Grammy™ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Passing away in June 2001, John Lee Hooker went out on top, enjoying more than a decade of critical and commercial success (and long-overdue monetary reward) as well as numerous accolades and the respect and adoration of his peers. His career was often overshadowed by the successes of his contemporaries, but after better than half a century in the blues business, John Lee became a bona fide “overnight success”… and it all began with The Healer. (Craft Recordings, reissued October 28th, 2022)

Buy the CD from Amazon: John Lee Hooker’s The Healer

R.A.D! Short Cuts: Big Audio Dynamite, Omar & the Howlers, Skyclad, Steel Pole Bathtub, 'Mad Love' OST & Wailing Souls (1995)

Big Audio Dynamite's F-Punk
Big Audio Dynamite – F-Punk (Radioactive Records/MCA)
Big Audio Dynamite closed out 1994 with a contract-ending record for Sony that was truly terrible. Many thought that it might be the band’s swan-song, but here they show up a few months later with a new label, a new line-up, and F-Punk, a promising new album. Although F-Punk still doesn’t show the sparks of brilliance that B.A.D.’s early work did, at least former Clash axeman Mick Jones and company are headed in the right direction. “I Turned Out A Punk” is a hilarious lyrical testimony from Jones, one of the true survivors of the 1970s punk daze, while “Psycho Wing” is a tongue-in-cheek satirical look at society. B.A.D. delivers a fair cover of Bowie’s “Suffragette City” on F-Punk, and they close the album with the insightful “What About Love?”, which tends to ask as many questions as it answers. F-Punk partially redeems Big Audio Dynamite’s status in my eyes, but we’ll wait until we see that they do with their next album before passing judgement.

Omar & the Howlers' Muddy Springs Road
Omar & the Howlers – Muddy Springs Road (Watermelon Records)

There are a number of fine blues outfits wandering around the states these days, from ex-Nighthawks axeman Jimmy Thackery’s smokin’ posse to perennial W.C. Handy Award winner Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets. For my money, though, none of them hold a candle to the biggest, baddest rockin’ blues daddies of them all, Omar & the Howlers. Omar Dykes’ vocal growl is tailor-made for the sort of material he writes – laying down on disc like a half ton of whiskey-soaked gravel while the tight-knit Howlers kick out a nasty boogie. Muddy Springs Road is their latest, a rip-roarin’ collection of sweat, soul, and fire that sounds every bit like a hot Saturday night in a rural Mississippi roadhouse. Cuts like “Black Bottom,” “Hoo Doo Ball,” “Dangerous Man,” and the title cut are hard-rocking blues numbers, springing full-grown from the swamp with fat guitar riffs, howling harmonica lines, and swinging rhythms. If the blues are your thing, then you owe it to yourself to take a wild walk down Muddy Springs Road.

Skyclad's Prince of the Poverty Line
Skyclad – Prince of the Poverty Line (Noise Records)

With jangling guitars sounding a bit like your typical rock anthem from the likes of U2 or the Alarm, Skyclad’s “Civil War Dance” rapidly dispels such notions. Martin Walkyier’s tense, sandpaper vocals lead an assault of metallic guitars, pounding rhythms, and … yes … gently weeping violin. Skyclad is not just another mindless hard rock band, Prince of the Poverty Line mixing disparate elements of classic British heavy metal, hardcore thrash, and folkish lyrics with a left-leaning political orientation and the odd addition of Cath Howell’s tasteful violin fills. Although they tend to go over-the-top and fall into clich├ęd musical histrionics a few times too often for my taste, when they hit the mark – with cuts like “Land of the Rising Slum” or “A Dog In the Manger” – they hit the bull’s eye dead on with a perfect mix of lyrics and music.

Steel Pole Bathtub – Scars From Falling Down (Slash Records/London)
Once the bastard children of the indie rock scene – everybody acknowledging their talents but unsure of how to categorize them – Steel Pole Bathtub have made the jump to a larger indie and the big league distribution available to them. It doesn’t seem to have affected the band any, as Scars From Falling Down is one scary, menacing, bad-ass mofo of a record, just what you’d expect from this gang. Guitars fly every which way, vocals are screamed to the point of distortion, odd riffs sound like encoded messages from outer space … in short, all of the elements that make a great Steel Pole Bathtub record. Scars From Falling Down refuses to be pigeonholed or easily categorized, Steel Pole Bathtub choosing instead the more difficult path of blazing their own unique musical trail. Make the trip with them, you’ll be glad that you did…

Various Artists – Mad Love OST (Zoo Entertainment)
The latest trend in Hollywood seems to be the “alternative’ music soundtrack – put together a handful of hot bands and a few soundbites from any youth-oriented movie and watch the kiddies flock to their local vinyl emporium for the opportunity to thrown down a dime and a half on the “original motion picture soundtrack” from Bloody Egg Nightmare or some other such cinematic treasure. In this vein, the Mad Love soundtrack is better than most, not as good as others, compiling tasty tracks from folks like Magnapop, Throneberry, Grant Lee Buffalo, Madder Rose, and the always enjoyable Kirsty MacColl. On the other hand, though, I’d like to find the schlemiel that hand-picked these cuts and ask them just who the hell is Fluorescein, and why do we have to suffer through not one, but two miserable 7 Year Bitch cuts, and why they had to choose such a poor song from a good band like Rocket From the Crypt ... why?

Wailing Souls' Live On
Wailing Souls – Live On (Zoo Entertainment)

Wailing Souls, the duo of Lloyd “Bread” McDonald and Winston “Pipe” Matthews, have been stuck with a ‘cult artist’ tag forever, it seems. Album after album, they play to the same core audience, adding a few new listeners with each passing effort. Sure, reggae has never been a major commercial force, stateside – the Marley clan notwithstanding – and a lot of deserving artists like Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, or Bunny Wailer have failed to grab a significant U.S. audience. Although they all deserve another listen, it’s Wailing Souls that have a new album out in Live On, so it’s them which we’ll champion right now. Live On is a solid example of roots-reggae: a handful of island-flavored original reggae tunes complimented by a smattering of soulful covers like Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” or the classic oldie “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Good-Bye).” The constant Rasta themes of brotherhood and unity that are often present in reggae lyrics cut across all barriers of race, creed, and nationality and Matthews expresses them well, with a great deal of wisdom and insight. Live On shows, once again, that Wailing Souls stand at the top of the reggae world.

Reviews originally published by the R.A.D! (Review and Discussion of Rock ‘n’ Roll) zine, summer 1995

Friday, November 18, 2022

Archive Review: Eric B & Rakim's Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990)

Eric B & Rakim's Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em
Rap music, more so, perhaps, than any other form or genre of popular music, relies heavily upon the personality of the artist and performer. The unthought-of commercial success of rap artists such as Ice T, Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions are driven by the image and peculiarities of the Iceberg, Chuck D, or KRS-One as much as their message. It is the consumer’s perception of this reality which tends to define the artist’s message and, in the long run, propel creativity. A mere handful of rappers are true innovators; most are pale imitators, at best or, at worst, tawdry parodies of the real thing relying on cheap sexual references and an outrageous image replete with gold chains, a big car, and other trappings of wealth.

Why intellectualize the meaning of rap music? Because rap, as a popular art form, is still growing. The creative and conceptual boundaries of rap music are still being defined and, by some like the aforementioned artists, expanded upon or destroyed in their entirety, replaced with a new model and message. Along among styles and genres, rap offers its artists the opportunity to experiment with sound and substance, to expand creativity both lyrically and musically, while still remaining a part of the commercial mainstream. It is into this vortex that come Eric B. and Rakim.

Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, the duo’s third album, firmly places Eric B & Rakim alongside the true innovators in rap music. The two mesh together perfectly, delivering a unique sound which incorporates, musically, elements of rock, blues, jazz, and Latin rhythms to serve as an impenetrable wall of sound atop which to layer their breathless, nearly-non-stop rhymes. Rakim’s vocals are deep and dusky, words rolling off the tongue like machine-gun fire. The ten songs included here run the gamut from sociological insight and commentary to blatant braggadocio and crude sexual boasting. It is their original and fresh use of music and the pairing of instrumentation with vocals, with very little sampling evident, which set Eric B. and Rakim above the mass of ordinary rappers and makes the groundbreaking Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em a worthy follow-up to 1988’s Follow the Leader, winning the gifted pair their deserved share of commercial and critical success. (MCA Records, released June 19th, 1990)

Review originally published by Sound Shop’s Play Magazine

Radical Pizza Wax Works: Ice-T, Ice Cube, Haunted Garage, Kinetic Dissent, MC5 (1992)

Ice-T's O.G. The Original Gangster
Ice-T – O.G. The Original Gangster (Warner Reprise Video)
Sure, we all know that Ice-T is fly, the baddest rhyming rap mutherfucker on the scene. But T is also a socially conscious satirist and political commentator of the first order. T’s second full-length home video release, O.G. The Original Gangster, is a collection of two dozen music videos, various conversations and commentary, and miscellaneous footage all tied in with the recent Ice-T album release of the same name. You’ll find the sex rhymes and funky raps here, but what you’ll see the most is T’s brave socio-political insight on songs such as “The Tower,” “Escape From the Killing Fields,” “Body Count,” and the wickedly scatological “Ya Shoulda Killed Me Last Year.” Go get ‘em Ice!

The video also includes musical insight into Ice T’s unique streetside experiences, recounted in rhymes like “Home of the Body Bag” and “Midnight.” With the force of his lyrics, T manages to transport the listener to East L.A. and right into the face of the poverty and violence found there. As one of the elder spokesmen of rap, Ice-T has been instrumental in fighting censorship of the music as an art form, appearing on numerous teevee talk shows and on radio. In his music, as in life, T always walks it like he talks it … no bullshit, no compromise. The O.G. The Original Gangster video is the same way. Though it doesn’t do much in the way of furthering video as a musical art form, it does manage to present the powerful work of Ice-T, the artist, in a visual format. On that level, it succeeds quite well.

Ice Cube – Death Certificate (Priority Records)

Casual fans who may have discovered Ice Cube from Boyz In the Hood, believing him to be the proverbial “bad kid with good intentions,” have reacted with more than a bit of dismay since the release of Cube’s latest sides, represented by Death Certificate. Too damn bad, I say; if you’re silly enough to venture into these waters, then why worry about the tide. After all, Cube, one of the leading proponents of “gangsta rap,” has never shied away from controversy; this disc is no exception. With this collection of 22 righteous tunes, Ice Cube slings his razor-sharp lyrical barbs at his former bandmates in N.W.A. and their Jewish manager; he also comes down on women, other blacks, and even Korean grocers. To be sure, some of the hatred which flows from these rhymes seems a bit misplaced, and could be directed into a more positive milieu (see what Ice-T has done in this area, for instance), but Ice Cube remains one of the genre’s most outrageous, influential, and articulate spokespersons.

Kinetic Dissent's I Will Fight No More Forever
Haunted Garage – Possession Park (Metal Blade Records)

Next to these spud-boys, Gwar are a bunch o’ pansies and the Butthole Surfers mere choirboys. Haunted Garage are the new kidz on the (cell) block, thank you, tougher then leather, crankier than yer near-dead great grandpa, and nastier than a blocked rectum. Stinging guitars tossing out lightning-like riffs, guttural vocals spitting out tasteless, obscene lyrics, throbbing rhythms spelling out S-I-N … Haunted Garage deliver the goods, all blood ‘n’ guts ‘n’ questionable sanity spewing out bile and noise and Satan with a capital ‘S’! C ya in hell, kiddiez!!!

Kinetic Dissent – I Will Fight No More Forever (Roadrunner Records)
As commercial rock ‘n’ roll becomes wimpier and even more bland … music made for geldings by eunuchs … hard rock, heavy metal, thrash – whatever you want to call it – is putting balls back into the music. Poetry, too, as I Will Fight No More Forever will attest to. Taking their title from Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph’s famous speech, Kinetic Dissent infuse the entirety of this disc with thoughtful lyricism and hard-rocking performances. Delivering tasty thrash with musical and lyrical depth which belies any pre-conceived notions of the genre, Kinetic Dissent place themselves firmly among the forefront of the underground rock scene that is making waves (and winning fans) worldwide.

MC5's Kick Out the Jams
MC5 – Kick Out the Jams (Elektra Records)

Tho’ I came to the Motor City a decade too late to be a part of the crowd who worshipped before the altar of the holy ‘70s trilogy of Iggy/MC5/Nugent, I did manage to hang out down at the New Miami (located in the infamous Cass Corridor of East Detroit) enough nights to see what influence they had on their children. With this CD reissue of Kick Out the Jams, you can relive those fabulous, acid-soaked early ‘70s nights at the Grande Ballroom (where this LP was recorded). The voice of the Midwest’s White Panther Party, managed by radical iconoclast John Sinclair, MC5 mixed the leftist political rhetoric of the times with a bone-crunching rock sound that was equal parts late ‘50s R&B and roots rock and 1960s-era psychedelia. This disc isn’t just a historical curiosity, though, but an important rock ‘n’ roll milestone. MC5 were one of the first ‘heavy metal’ bands around, mixing punkish attitude with loud, LOUD music. Along with other “oddities” of the era like the Velvet Underground and Iggy and his posse, MC5 can be considered a precursor to many of those who followed.

All reviews originally published in the ‘Wax Works’ section of the Radical Pizza zine, February 1992

Friday, November 11, 2022

Archive Review: Southside Johnny & LaBamba’s Big Band’s Grapefruit Moon (The Songs of Tom Waits) (2008)

Southside Johnny’s Grapefruit Moon
As a songwriter, Tom Waits seems to be undergoing a sort of popular revival these days. During the spring of 2008, actress Scarlet Johansson released her collection of Waits songs; produced by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Anywhere I Lay My Head was a collection of textured fantasy-pop more akin to polished early ‘80s studio concoctions like the Cocteau Twins than to Waits’ gritty, world-weary portraits in sound. Sitek’s production removed too many of the sharp edges from Waits’ work, and I for one don’t believe for a minute that Johansson, who just began her singing career a couple of years back, was thoroughly invested and in love with the material … no matter how many hipster critics say it’s so.  

Southside Johnny & LaBamba’s Big Band’s Grapefruit Moon (The Songs of Tom Waits)

Now it’s Southside Johnny Lyons’ turn, and with Grapefruit Moon, the Asbury Park veteran takes a completely different tack on the Waits songbook. Backed by LaBamba’s Big Band, fronted by his New Jersey pal Richie “LaBamba” Rosenburg, Lyons has reinvented these Waits songs as grand jazzbo antiques with big band arrangements and lots of horns up front in the mix. Channeling both Duke Ellington and Woody Herman, Lyons’ gruff, slightly-worn voice sounds good on both the slow-crooned ballads and the album’s rambunctious up-tempo flare-ups, while the band’s overall excellent performance is integral to the success of the material. LaBamba runs a damn tight ship, and these boys are playing their hearts out … sounding uncannily like a white-suited-and-gloved throwback to a kinder, gentler era.

It’s the songs that matter, though, and Grapefruit Moon doesn’t duplicate any tunes from Johansson’s casual gaze through the Waits canon. Lyons digs a little deeper, reaching as far back as Waits’ 1973 debut album. The result is an interesting and eclectic choice of songs. “All the Time In the World” offers a forceful vocal performance, more closely resembling Lyons’ typical R&B stomp, while the band delivers a very cool and slightly atonal ‘60s-styled movie soundtrack sound that is complimented by Glenn Alexander’s ripping guitar solo.

“Tango ‘Til They’re Sore” comes the closest to mimicking Waits’ original version, with guttural vocals and discordant instrumentation, and the songwriter himself drops by for a duet on the lively “Walk Away And Start Over Again.” The two singers’ personal styles might be wildly different, but here they mesh together nicely, with sparse instrumentation, led by manic piano, supporting the song’s odd meter and syncopated rhythms. And so it goes, Lyons knocking each one out of the park, even oddball pitches like “New Coat of Paint.”

As a concept album, Grapefruit Moon works on several levels. Waits wrote solid songs; Southside Johnny wraps his voice around the material like a worn, slightly scratchy velvet blanket, and LaBamba and the boys carry the heavy instrumental load. For everybody involved, it’s win-win situation! (Evangeline Records, 2008)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Also on That Devil Music:
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ The Fever
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ Live In Cleveland ’77

Buy the CD from Amazon: Southside Johnny’s Grapefruit Moon

Book Review: John Dougan’s The Who Sell Out (2006)

John Dougan’s The Who Sell Out
The Who Sell Out is, undeniably, one of the legendary rock band’s most adventuresome yet lighthearted of albums. A tribute to the notorious pirate radio stations that operated off the coast of England during the mid-‘60s, The Who Sell Out mixes Pete Townshend’s uncanny ear for melody (songs like “Glittering Girl” and the Top Ten hit “I Can See For Miles”) with made-up jingles and fake radio commercials that echo the sounds then being heard by U.K. teens from stations like Radio London.

John Dougan’s The Who Sell Out

Author John Dougan attempts to dissect and analyze this classic album with his book The Who Sell Out, part of Continuum’s rightfully acclaimed 33 1/3 series of books. The result of Dougan’s efforts is a delightful trip in the wayback machine to the swinging ‘60s of London and a British music scene dominated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who. Dougan sets the stage for the story with a personal recollection, talking about the differences between him and his father, not only in their musical preferences, but also in their relative degree of musical fanaticism. Whereas family and obligation caused his father to put aside music as an adult, the younger Dougan – not unlike many of us children of the ‘50s – became hopelessly addicted to rock ‘n’ roll, an affliction that the author has obviously carried to the present day.

It was his unquenchable thirst for new music … a trait also shared by many collectors and critics … that led Dougan to discover the British Invasion and, subsequently, the Who. In a strange twist of fate, however, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that this hardcore Who fan finally added a copy of The Who Sell Out to his personal library. Such are the fortunes of the music fan, and when Dougan describes living in a “cultural backwater” in Massachusetts, many of us can identify. I remember living in a rural suburb of Nashville, my lifeline to the outside world consisting of copies of Creem magazine, dog-eared by constant reading, and the irregular packages of promo albums sent for review by my editor Rick Johnson at Sunrise.

Dougan lays the groundwork for the recording of The Who Sell Out by going into the history of the UK pirate radio scene with some detail. I find this aspect quite fascinating, the thought that a handful of illegal offshore stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline could have such a cultural impact is mind-boggling. There was nothing like this phenomenon in the United States – pirate stations stateside were erratic, disappearing frequently, and were greatly limited by America’s size and geography. Dougan provides interesting details on the history of England’s state-sponsored media, the BBC’s reluctance to embrace rock ‘n’ roll an important deciding factor in the creation and popularity of the U.K. pirates.

Dougan’s discussion of ‘60s-era art and art theory is equally fascinating, his exploration of the influence of these factors on Pete Townshend’s work ties together disparate snapshots previously provided by the band’s biographers like Dave Marsh and Richard Barnes. No artist lives in a vacuum, and Townshend was certainly no exception, and the opportunities to immerse one’s self in radical and thought-provoking cultural scenes during the era were seemingly endless. There was an almost unbelievable co-mingling of art and commerce in those days, unthinkable by today’s “alternative” mindset, but much of what we think of as classic works from the ‘60s were fresh, original and unabashedly commercial.

It was from this miasma of art and commerce that Pete Townshend conceived of The Who Sell Out. Townshend’s aim was not, as the album’s title implies, to actually “sell out” but rather to offer listeners, as Dougan describes it, “a celebration of the zeitgeist, a joyous reaffirmation of the discrete cultural elements that had defined British postwar popular culture and the Who as a pop art musical experience.” Townshend correctly found British pop culture to be less cynical and more positively-oriented than that of America, and it’s true that the British have, and continue to embrace a much wider range and diversity of cultural media.

Dougan recounts the creative and technical obstacles that were overcome during the making of The Who Sell Out and, sadly, tells of the album’s immediate commercial failure. A bit too cerebral, perhaps, for mainstream audiences, the album’s fortunes waned after the last chords of “I Can See For Miles” disappeared from the charts. Undaunted, the Who would go onto greater triumphs and tragedies but, strangely enough, The Who Sell Out continues to hang around, 40 years after its initial release. An intriguing and many-layered work of art, the album continues to win converts and influence people long after its “sell by” date has expired. Just as importantly, Dougan outlines how the album was a vital work, aiding the Who’s transformation from a chart-topping pop band into a legendary rock band.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Who Sell Out is a worthy addition to the 33 1/3 series. Dougan’s prose is lively and informative, his insights well-considered and crafted by spending most of a lifetime living with and considering this often overlooked album. His account of the cultural forces that helped shape Townshend’s work is immensely important in a historical context, and I can see myself referring back to this tome in the future. Unlike many of the well-written books in the 33 1/3 series, Dougan’s The Who Sell Out provides a textural framework that actually enhances the listening experience rather than merely supporting an album’s critical credentials. Dougan’s efforts made a fellow Who fanatic listen to The Who Sell Out with fresh ears, and for that I thank him! (Continuum 33 1/3 series, published September 15th, 2006)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the book from Amazon: John Dougan’s The Who Sell Out

Friday, November 4, 2022

Archive Review: Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon (2008)

Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon
Forget all about Wanted Dead Or Alive, Warren Zevon’s uncharacteristic 1969 debut LP. The album shows none of the wit or caustic wordplay that Zevon would become known for, and is clearly an attempt by a young artist to make a play for success long before he’s ready to do so. The album deserves neither your time nor a place in your collection. Opt instead for Zevon’s self-titled 1976 follow-up, his true debut and, perhaps, one of the finest sophomore efforts in rock music. Warren Zevon, the album, also represents the beginning of an amazing rock ‘n’ roll success story.

By 1975, Zevon had spent nearly a decade in Los Angeles, doing session work, writing advertising jingles, performing behind the Everly Brothers, and occasionally writing songs for folks like the Turtles. What Zevon didn’t have was a record deal, or even the promise of one. Fearing that his career would never take off, he fled to Spain with his wife, taking up musical residency in a local bar owned by an American soldier of fortune. A postcard from his friend, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, hinting of the possibility of a record deal lured the ex-pat musician back to the United States and California.

Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon

The eventual result would be the brilliant Warren Zevon album. With an additional six-plus years spent honing both his songwriting craft and performing chops, Zevon entered the studio with seasoned veterans like multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and saxophonist Bobby Keys. Friends like Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Everly, and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac provided vocal harmonies behind Zevon’s incredibly designed songs.  

Displaying the same sort of gonzo sensibilities as author Hunter S. Thompson’s best work, Zevon’s songs are filled with brightly-colored and finely-crafted characters from the seedier fringes of society. “Frank And Jesse James” is a finely-detailed tale of the Civil War vets turned outlaw gunfighters, Zevon’s fully mature vocals matched by spry, vaguely Western piano (think San Fran goldrush) and shotgun drumbeats.

The beautiful “Hasten Down the Wind” was covered wonderfully by Linda Ronstadt, but Zevon’s original version is equally considerate, with Phil Everly’s harmony vocals adding depth to Zevon’s deep purr as David Lindley’s slide guitar weeps openly. The boisterous “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” was also later covered by Ronstadt, but not like this. On Zevon’s version, Wachtel’s guitar rips-and-snorts and tears at the reins while honky-tonk piano blasts out beneath the singer’s half-mocking, self-effacing vocals.

The Dylanesque “Mohammed’s Radio” sounds a little like Jackson Browne, too, but the song’s contorted, colorful personalities and gospel fervor belie its anthemic nature. In many ways “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” presages Zevon’s notorious hard-partying lifestyle, while “Desperados Under the Eaves,” perhaps the best song ever written about Los Angeles, is haunted by the reckless spirits of Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby, Jr. (yes, both were alive and well when the song was written, thank you, but they still had their otherworldly stank all over the song).

A bonus disc provided this reissue of Warren Zevon is chockfull o’ demos and other goodies for the fanatical completist. A solo piano arrangement of “Frank And Jesse James” is fine, but lacks the powerful drumwork of the final version, but the sparse arrangement given the alternative take of the junkie’s tale “Carmelita” enhances the song’s inherent loneliness and hopelessness. The second take of “Join Me In L.A.” evinces a looser, funkier vision of the song while a live radio performance of “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” is a rollicking, joyful reading of the song that places the spotlight firmly on Zevon’s lyrics. Taken altogether, the second disc’s rarities provide some insight into Zevon’s early creative process.

Zevon would follow-up his self-titled sophomore effort a couple of years later, 1978’s Excitable Boy yielding the hit “Werewolves of London” and making the singer/songwriter a rock star. Over the following 25 years and a dozen albums, until his tragic death in 2003, Zevon would cement a legacy fueled by his unique talent and personality … and it all started with Warren Zevon. (Rhino Records, 2008)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Also on That Devil Music:
Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School CD review
Warren Zevon’s Life'll Kill Ya CD review

Buy the CD from Amazon: Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon

Book Review: Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street
He’s not a household name, although his influence on folk music falls just short of Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan. A charismatic performer and tireless champion of traditional folk and blues, Dave Van Ronk was one of the leading lights of the early ‘60s folk movement that was based in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street

The Mayor of MacDougal Street is Van Ronk’s infectious and friendly memoir. Written with help from, and completed after his death in 2002 by music historian Elijah Wood, Van Ronk spins tales and unravels yarns that document his evolution from a musically-obsessed high-school dropout to his role as a mover and shaker in the admittedly small, insular world of folk music. A self-taught musician, Van Ronk launched his career in the early ‘50s as a died-in-the-wool traditionalist, playing guitar and banjo in jazz and Dixieland bands in New York and New Jersey.

Van Ronk quickly figured out that this road led towards starvation, so he cast aside his “carefully cultivated jazz snobbery” and taught himself the finger-picking guitar style practiced by folk musicians. By mid-decade, he was a Washington Square regular, playing in the park with musicians like Barry Kornfeld and Dick Rosmini. His weekly (free) performances in the park led to marginally paying gigs in the clubs and coffeehouses around the Village and, eventually, to record albums and a fair degree of notoriety.

Van Ronk and Wald do an excellent job of capturing the gradual build-up, short “boom” period and eventual decline of the Village folk scene of the ‘60s. Van Ronk explains the importance and influence of leftist politics on folk music, the roots and history of the genre and introduces many of the major players. Along the way, he shares memories of talented musicians that he played alongside and those that he mentored (or those that mentored him). Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Mississippi John Hurt, Joni Mitchell and Rev. Gary Davis are among those friends and colleagues Van Ronk talks about.

Van Ronk colors the Greenwich Village folk scene with many details and memories, discussing folk music publications like Broadside and Caravan that he wrote for, as well as the influence of visionaries like Moe Asch, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith on the genre. The style here is conversational and lighthearted, Van Ronk’s self-effacing humor and refusal to take his experiences too seriously making his memoirs an enjoyable and informative read.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Mayor of MacDougal Street is vital not only for those who love folk music, but also for those of us who enjoy music at all. The styles performed by Van Ronk – traditional folk and folk blues – are deeply intertwined with rock, rap and country music to the point where it’s difficult to separate them. Dave Van Ronk understood this musical cross-pollination decades ago and his career of almost 50 years is a testament to the enduring nature of folk music and its roots. (Da Capo Press, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Buy the book from Amazon: Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Jimi Hendrix Reader w/annotated discography, reviews & more!

The Jimi Hendrix Reader by Rev. Keith A. Gordon
Better than 50 years beyond his tragic death at the too-young age of 27, Jimi Hendrix still manages to turn heads and stir up controversy. Arguably the most innovative and influential guitarist to wear the “guitar god” mantle in rock ‘n’ roll, Hendrix – for reasons outlined in this book – was all of the above, and more. Hendrix created an entirely unique musical voice and language, blending such diverse (and divergent) genres as blues, jazz, R&B, soul, British Invasion rock, psychedelia, and even American folk music into the creation of a newly-exploding supernova of sound.

The Jimi Hendrix Reader attempts to provide the rock ‘n’ roll fan with an introductory tome. Hendrix’s catalog of music may seem daunting – there are a lot of recordings out there to choose from – which is why The Jimi Hendrix Reader was built around an annotated discography to help separate the wheat from the chaff. An incomplete biography outlines the highs (and lows) of the guitarist’s career, whereas reviews of a dozen key Hendrix albums provide greater context and insight into his music and enduring popularity.

Rev. Keith A. Gordon has been writing about rock and blues music for over 50 years. A former contributor to the All Music Guide books and website, and the former Blues Expert for, Rev. Gordon has written or edited 25+ previous music-related books, including Blues Deluxe: The Joe Bonamassa Buying Guide, The Other Side of Nashville, and Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook.

The Jimi Hendix Reader
140 pages w/color and B&W photos • 6” x 9” trade paperback

Buy an autographed copy of The Jimi Hendrix Reader directly from the Reverend for $19.99 with free shipping!

Prefer to buy from Here's a link to the print version of The Jimi Hendrix Reader (also available as a $3.99 Kindle eBook

Friday, October 28, 2022

On the Shelf: 2023 Blues Images Calendar w/CD!

Blues Images 2023 calendar
Another year is coming to a close and, yes, it’s time for the Reverend to preach his annual sermon on the joys of having a Blues Images calendar hanging on your wall. The 2023 calendar is now available and, much as with previous years, John Tefteller and his Blues Images crew have outdone themselves with another great effort!

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Tefteller’s annual gift to blues fans, the Blues Images calendar features vintage advertising artwork from the long-gone, legendary Paramount Records label. Each year’s calendar preserves an invaluable slice of visual history of the early years of the blues. Whereas previous publications have skewed more heavily towards early, primitive B&W pen ‘n’ ink artwork, last year’s calendar included more photo-oriented advertising. This year’s banger does even better, with several photographic ads (reproduction technology was in its infancy in the 1930s) as well as more than a few splashes of color.

The Blues Images 2023 calendar features advertising promoting Paramount releases of plastic fantastic sides like Joshua White’s “No More Ball and Chain”, Bessie Smith’s “Shipwreck Blues”, Charley Patton’s “Poor Me”, Ma Rainey’s “Big Boy Blues”, and Blind Blake’s “Worried Blues”, among other classic old-school blues 78s from folks like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Texas Alexander, Henry Thomas, and Ida Cox. Each calendar page is annotated with historical and biographical information about the featured artist, and each month also includes the birth and death dates of classic blues artists.

The Blues Images 2023 calendar cost slightly more than some cheap wall-hanger you’d buy from the mall or local bookstore, but for the hardcore blues fan, Tefteller packs a lot of value for the $29.95 (plus shipping) it costs. Each Blues Images calendar includes a full-length CD that features rare, impossible-to-find, and often one-of-a-kind tracks, many of them sourced from Tefteller’s extensive personal collection. The performances, which include the songs from the original advertising in the calendar as well as related releases, have been remastered from the original 78rpm records using the ‘American Epic’ digital process that makes the sound on these antique shellac marvels really pop out of your speakers.

Blues Images 2023 calendar
This year’s accompanying CD features recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s, a fine selection that includes the aforementioned sides featured in the monthly advertisements, as well as too-cool-for-school obscurities like “Funny Paper” Smith’s 1930 track “Old Rounder’s Blues”, Brother Fullbosom’s 1931 gospel-blues “A Sermon On A Silver Dollar”, and Texas Alexander’s 1928 side “Blue Devil Blues”. Since there are only twelve months in a year, and that’s too few songs to fill out a complete CD, Tefteller has dipped into his vast record collection to include several rare tracks recorded in 1953 by ‘Playboy Fuller’, a pseudonym for bluesman Louisiana Red (a/k/a Iverson Minter). There are also songs by Scrapper Blackwell (1930’s “Springtime Blues”), Edith North Johnson, Memphis Willie Borum, and Pete Franklin, among others, 25 tracks total. The CD closes with the bittersweet “I’m Going Away Blues” by Frank Stokes.      

The annual Blues Images calendar and CD is a “must have” addition to the collection of any serious old-old-school blues fan. Blues Images sells other cool blues-related stuff, too, like posters, t-shirts, CDs from previous years, and past years’ calendars. Sadly, as Tefteller writes in the intro to the 2023 calendar, this will be the last calendar after publishing annually for 20 years. A dwindling market for this sort of thing, plus the increased cost of printing and distributing makes the yearly labor-of-love a money-losing proposition. There are many of us who are going to miss the annual calendar, but you can still grab some blues music swag from the Blues Images website. Tell John that “the Rev sent ya!”

Archive Review: Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 (2014)

Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972
In the 40+ years since the event, the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival has become known as one of the premiere live concerts in blues history. Although the event was only attended by roughly 16,000 intrepid souls, it has since been blown up and exaggerated much like the original Woodstock Festival so that two or three times the actual number of attendees feel like they experienced the magic that occurred over that three-day weekend in September 1972, a familiarity bolstered, perhaps, by Atlantic Records’ release of a two-album set of performances from the festival in early 1973.

The festival was the brainchild of a group of University of Michigan students, with organizer Cary Gordon (no relation) at the helm. Receiving backing from both the school and Canterbury House, an Episcopal Church, the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival was held in September 1969. To find artists for the event, however, first Gordon, John Fishel, and other students travelled to Chicago, where they met with Bob Koester of Delmark Records and checked out artists at some of the city’s Southside clubs. To give their fellow students a taste of the blues, they booked a successful performance by the Luther Allison Trio at the school in the spring of 1969, and held the full-fledged festival in September.   

Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972

Although the 1969 and 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festivals were artistic successes, bringing a wealth of talent to perform, neither event was financially successful. After a year’s absence, during which time both Gordon and Fishel had left school, new U of M Events Director Peter Andrews was asked by the university to promote another festival. Working with former MC5 manager and White Panther Party founding member John Sinclair, they expanded the musical focus of the event and renamed it the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. The pair held shows in 1972 and 1973, but after a disastrous attempt at promoting a 1974 festival in Windsor, Ontario, the event went on hiatus until the early 1990s.

As mentioned above, the 1972 festival was released on vinyl months after the event, but the album has been largely out-of-print until its 2014 rescue and reissue by Wounded Bird Records, a U.S. based archival label. Although Wounded Bird is primarily known for 1970s-era rock and jazz releases, they’ve done the blues world a large favor by releasing Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 as a two-CD set. The briefest of glances at the track list will convince even the most traditional of blues fans to add this budget-priced set to their library. Boasting of performances by legends like Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Bonnie Raitt, and others, how much more value could you expect for your dollar?

Hound Dog Taylor’s Kitchen Sink Boogie

After a brief introduction, disc one of Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 kicks off with the raucous “Kitchen Sink Boogie,” courtesy of Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers. Hot on the heels of his inaugural Alligator Records album release, Taylor and his red-hot band rip through the nearly-four-minute instrumental like a hot knife through soft butter, Taylor’s guitar screaming and screeching like a rabid beast while the rhythm section holds down a swinging boogie beat. Koko Taylor follows with her equally audacious performance of “Wang Dang Doodle.” Accompanied by the song’s writer, Willie Dixon, and backed by a band that includes guitarist Mighty Joe Young, pianist Rick Wright, and a full horn section, the duet raises the rafters with an energetic and rowdy showing.   

The great Bobby “Blue” Bland brings a bit of smooth R&B vibe to his reading of “Ain’t That Loving You,” the singer silkily crooning the romantic lyrics while Dr. John (a/k/a Mac Rebennack) adds some elegant guitar licks. Speaking of Mr. Rebennack, his original “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” brings some New Orleans-styled swamp-blues to the stage, the original voodoo “Night Tripper” growling his vocals above a smothering, claustrophobic arrangement while backing singers add sweet backing harmonies. Howlin’ Wolf simply dominates the stage with his high-octane reading of “Highway 49.” Backed by a talented band that included guitarist Hubert Sumlin, pianist Detroit Junior, and sax legend Eddie Shaw, the Wolf roars through the song like a hurricane staggering through southwest Michigan.  

Dedicated to Otis Spann

Not to be outdone by his Windy City rival, the great Muddy Waters delivers an equally powerful rendition of his classic “Honey Bee.” With his wiry slide-guitar dancing in the background and harp player George “Mojo” Buford blowing a mournful riff, the performance captures the essence of the Chicago blues. Waters joins promoter John Sinclair and Lucille Spann, widow of former Waters band pianist Otis Spann, in dedicating the festival to the late bluesman. Mrs. Spann, joined by guitarist Mighty Joe Young, acquits herself well on “Dedicated To Otis,” a slow-burning, Chicago-style three-alarm fire fueled by Wright’s jaunty piano and Spann’s gritty, emotional vocals. Guitarist Freddie King keeps the party going with his lively take of Don Nix’s “Goin’ Down.” With David Maxwell banging away at the piano keys and Deacon Jones chiming away on the organ, King tears through the song with reckless abandon, his high-flying solos bringing down the house.

The great Luther Allison returned to Ann Arbor to brilliantly cover the classic Percy Mayfield ballad “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” While Allison’s stellar fretwork dominates any performance, the guitarist’s brassy horn section adds some punch to the song with its blustery blasts. Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 offers just two bona fide jazz performances, the first of which – CJQ’s “Form Kinetic” – providing a little too much shrill instrumentation for my taste. By contrast, Sun Ra & His Solar-Myth Arkestra tickles your ears with their dissonant, improvisational take on “Life Is Splendid.” Both jazz numbers may sound a little harsh to the average blues fan, but they both provide a valuable snapshot of musical undercurrents in the early 1970s.        

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

As good as all the above performances may be, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the eighteen artists represented on Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972. Junior Walker & the All Stars, Johnny Shines, Otis Rush, and the Boogie Brothers all deliver exemplary performances. Bonnie Raitt offers a fine tribute to her mentor Mississippi Fred McDowell with a three-song medley, and later joins Sippie Wallace on the stage for a lively recreation of the singer’s 1929 song “Women Be Wise.”  

Taken altogether, there’s barely a wrong note on Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972, and if the artists and performances included on the set don’t prompt you to put down some hard coin for a copy, you’re probably not much of a blues fan in the first place. I hear that Taylor Swift has a new album out that might be more your taste. For those of us whose blood runs blue, listening to Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 proves why the event has exceeded its humble roots to live on in memory. As good as this stuff is, however, I have to ask – is there any more tape from the festival in the vaults? I’m surely not alone in wanting to hear more music from this weekend in Ann Arbor… (Wounded Bird Records, released July 15, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972

Friday, October 21, 2022

Archive Review: James Blood Ulmer’s Birthright (2005)

James Blood Ulmer’s Birthright
There’s no doubt in my mind that James Blood Ulmer is one of the most ground-breaking, earth-shaking musicians to ever strap on a guitar and make the six-string beast talk. Best known as a “free jazz” artist and an acolyte of Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, Ulmer has been kicking around since the early ‘60s, first playing with folks like Art Blakely and Coleman and, later, with Ronald Shannon Jackson, through whom he met Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Ulmer has enjoyed a lengthy solo career as well, recording his debut in ’77 and nearly two dozen albums since, the artist’s work gradually redefining the role of guitar in both jazz and contemporary rock music.

James Blood Ulmer’s Birthright

Heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Ulmer has always incorporated elements of rock and blues into his jazz experiments, but it was Reid who convinced the guitarist to rediscover the blues at length. Beginning in 2001 with Memphis Blood, a stellar collection of blues classics recorded with Reid in Sun Studios in Memphis, through No Escape From the Blues two years later, Ulmer has embraced and sharpened his understanding of the blues. With Birthright, Ulmer completes his journey into the heart of the blues. Recording unaccompanied, again with Reid at the board, Ulmer turns the blues into a sort of spiritual journey from which no one returns unscathed.

James Blood Ulmer
If previous albums in this loose-knit trilogy mixed traditional blues with scraps of guitar rock, psychedelia and funk with full band accompaniment, Birthright strips the music down to the bone. Raw, fiery and unadorned by modern trappings, Ulmer takes the blues back to its Delta roots (and maybe even further back, to Africa) with a stark and dark-hued collection of songs and performances. Ten of the twelve songs are Ulmer originals, but they successfully channel the cold presence of ghosts long passed. The Gospel-tinged “Take My Music Back To the Church” evokes the haunting sound of Blind Willie Johnson while “The Evil One” is a musically hypnotic dirge with eerie black cat moan vocals. A cover of Willie Dixon’s classic “I Ain’t Superstitious” is transformed into a plea for divine intervention supported by forceful six-string work. “Devil’s Got To Burn” offers a complex soundtrack of guitar rhythms behind Ulmer’s gleefully diabolic vocals.  

Along the lengthy musical sojourn that is Birthright, Ulmer makes his guitar scream, cry, dance and sing with the skill that only a master can bring to bear. Ulmer’s mournful, weathered vocals perfectly embrace the lyrics with a combination of soul, pathos, fear and passion. Birthright is a heady musical elixir, an incredible musical effort that could only be created by an artist that threw away the textbook long ago. Musically and intellectually challenging, Birthright may prove too difficult for some, though it is well worth the journey for the adventurous listener.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Underrated and overlooked by all but a handful of aficionados, one day in the not-too-distant future academics and musical historians will recognize James Blood Ulmer for the genius that he is and Birthright as a shining example of Ulmer’s incredible talents and far-seeing vision. (Hyena Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine
Find the CD on Discogs: James Blood Ulmer’s Birthright

Archive Review: North Mississippi Allstars’ Shake Hands With Shorty (2001)

North Mississippi Allstars’ Shake Hands With Shorty
Must be something in the water down there, some sort of magic that seeps out of the river into wells and springs across northern Mississippi. It starts down around Clarksdale and reaches as far north as Memphis, but something is surely going on ‘cause this small region has produced some of the damn finest musicians that you’ll ever hear play. You’ll find a trio of them in the North Mississippi Allstars, one of the hardest rocking electric blues bands you’ll find on the planet. Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson – the real “Blues Brothers” – and bassist Chris Chew have kicked around in various northern Mississippi bands for years now. They’ve hit the proverbial bull’s eye tho’ with the release of Shake Hands With Shorty, their phenomenal debut album.

North Mississippi Allstars’ Shake Hands With Shorty

With a help with some friends like Garry and Cedric Burnside (the other “Blues Brothers” and sons of Hill Country blues great R.L.), Alvin Youngblood Hart, East Memphis Slim, and Otha Turner, the Allstars kick out ten fine blues tunes on Shake Hands With Shorty. They don’t stray too far from what they know best, drawing their material from talents like “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Memphis legend Walter “Furry” Lewis. They embroider this classic material with a few instrumental flourishes, creating an original and individual sound that should appeal equally to blues purists and rockers alike.

Guitarist Luther Dickinson, in particular, draws a favorable comparison to the elder Burnside, playing his axe with the same sort of bent-string technique as the blues statesman. You’ll also hear strains of Stax soul, Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan in the material, the resulting clash of rock and blues influences branding the band as unique. The brothers Dickinson come by their roots honestly – their old man Jim is a legendary musician and producer and the brothers have grown up among some of the most creative and original artists in American music. The results of their unusual childhood shines brightly throughout Shake Hands With Shorty, a highly recommended first effort from the Northern Mississippi Allstars. (Tone Cool Records, 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine

Find the CD on Discogs: North Mississippi Allstars’ Shake Hands With Shorty

Friday, October 14, 2022

Archive Review: Frank Black’s Honeycomb (2005)

Frank Black’s Honeycomb
When Nashville indie record store owner Mike “Grimey” Grimes told me about sitting in on a Frank Black recording session a year or so ago, the time and setting seemed unlikely. After all, Black was about to launch a full-fledged Pixies reunion tour, giving fans that missed the band the first time around a taste of what all the brouhaha was about in the first place. However, Grimey waxed ecstatic about Black playing with a veritable “who’s who” of legendary Southern musicians in the Music City studio, promising an eye-opening CD as the result of the four-day working weekend.

Frank Black’s Honeycomb

Black’s Honeycomb is the result of those recording sessions, an uncharacteristic collection of traditional songs that incorporate elements of Southern soul, alt-country and roots rock. Fifteen, sixteen years ago, when the Pixies ruled the indie-rock roost with a barrage of amplifier squall, fractured vocals, and discordant six-string work, Honeycomb would have been a radical departure for the American idol known as Black Francis. After nearly a decade and a half of a scattershot solo career that has seen the one-time poster child for alt-rock defiance careen off varying musical styles and styles of vocal delivery, Honeycomb instead serves as another indicator of Black’s seemingly bottomless well of talent.

As stated above, for his Nashville side trip, Black recruited some of the true giants of Southern music to back him in the studio. Among the players on Honeycomb are Steve Cropper, better known for his role in the two Blues Brothers movies than for his groundbreaking guitarwork and songwriting at Stax studios in Memphis; pianist Spooner Oldham, a Muscle Shoals veteran and accomplished Memphis songwriter; and bassist David Hood, an integral piece of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Throw in well-traveled drummer Anton Fig and guests like Reggie Young, Buddy Miller, and Ellis Hooks and you have better than two centuries of combined musical talent. The whole affair was brought together by noted producer, musician, and songwriter Jon Tiven and captured on tape by legendary songwriter/producer Dan Penn.

The results of Black’s dream project are evident in the songs on Honeycomb. Perhaps Black’s most personal and reflective collection to date, the singer sounds downright wistful at times, many songs alternately both joyful and melancholy. With these topnotch studio professionals behind him, Black delves deep into the realities of romance and relationships, life and death with material that, at times, veers dangerously close to foppish singer/songwriter territory. Black’s collaborators prevent their morose frontman from plunging headfirst into the abyss of self-pity, though, with a loose funky groove, the subdued soundtrack propping up Black’s often somber vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Black also pays homage to both the players he’s sharing the moment with and to his deep-rooted musical inspirations, covering songs by both Dan Penn and Doug Sahm. On the Penn/Chips Moman classic “Dark End of the Street,” Black plays it straight with soulful vocals and a dark, subtle arrangement that redefine the song in a way that makes it sound like you’re hearing it for the first time. Black has a little more fun with Sahm’s “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day,” capturing a laid-back feel with a bit of a Tex-Mex vibe. Combining a strong set of songs with spectacular musical performances, Honeycomb is an unlikely but welcome direction for Frank Black’s solo work and, like Grimey proclaimed those many months ago, a hell of a lot of fun. (Back Porch Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine

Find the CD on Discogs: Frank Black’s Honeycomb

Archive Review: Little Feat’s Kickin’ It At the Barn (2003)

Little Feat’s Kickin’ It At the Barn
Formed in 1969 by singer/songwriter Lowell George, a veteran of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Little Feat was a group of skilled musicians whose abilities were surpassed only by their eclectic collective tastes. Taking a cue from the roots-rock approach of the Band, Little Feat effortlessly blended rock, country, blues, and anything else that struck their fancy. This melting pot approach to making music struck a chord with critics and attracted a hardcore fan following, and if the band’s early-to-mid-‘70s albums didn’t exactly light up the charts when released, they’ve withstood the test of time. Thirty years later, most of ‘em remain in print.

The loss of a creative voice as unique as George’s would derail most bands and Little Feat was sidelined for a while after its founder’s death in 1979. The core of the original line-up reformed in 1988, and sixteen years later the band remains a popular concert draw and continues to make interesting new music. Kickin’ It At the Barn is Little Feat’s 14th studio album and it shows a band still willing to experiment, to try something new. Little Feat takes an “anything goes” approach to recording, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the album’s stylistic stew.
Kickin’ It At the Barn has its share of funky rockers like “In A Town Like This” that feature the band’s trademark Dixie-fried, roots-rock sound. The album also offers soulful ballads like “Heaven Forsaken” and  “I’d Be Lyin’.” The cornerstone of Kickin’ It At the Barn, though, is the eight-minute “Corazones y Sombras,” a Spanish folk song that offers proof of the band’s instrumental prowess. Accompanied by some fine Mexican musicians, it’s a joyful performance, grounded in tradition and reveling in a shared musical language.

Kickin’ It At the Barn doesn’t break much new ground but then again, with as much ground as Little Feat covers on the album, it doesn’t really have to... (Hot Tomato Records, released October 31st, 2003)

Review originally published by the Community Free Press, Springfield MO

Buy the CD from Amazon: Little Feat’s Kickin’ It At the Barn

Friday, October 7, 2022

Archive Review: Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information/Wings of Love (1974/2013)

Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information/Wings of Love
The truncated solo career of Shuggie Otis is one of those great mysteries of modern music. An enormously gifted guitarist and multi-instrumentalist born into a musical family (dad was R&B legend Johnny Otis – a singer, bandleader, and record producer who discovered Etta James), young Shuggie was playing professionally, in his father’s band by the age of twelve. He grew up amidst brilliant blues, jazz, and R&B musicians that helped inform and shape his talents, but Shuggie also found influences in 1960s-era artists like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Arthur Lee of Love.

Otis had recorded several albums with his father as well as working on Al Kooper’s second Super Session LP (later re-named Introducing Shuggie Otis) before recording his solo debut, Here Comes Shuggie Otis in 1970, when he was just 16 years old. The phenomenal Freedom Flight album would follow a year later, yielding the classic song “Strawberry Letter 23,” a huge chart hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977. Inspiration Information, which Otis began recording in 1971 and which was released in 1974, is widely considered to be the artist’s masterpiece. An understated collection of psychedelic soul and funk with the barest of blues influences, the album has grown in stature since its release, and artists as diverse as David Byrne of Talking Heads, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and British electronic pop pioneers Stereolab have sung its praises.

Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information

Although a commercial disappointment upon its release in 1974, Inspiration Information has only grown in influence and importance since. The album opens with the title track, a low-key, soulful affair that boasts of a deep funky groove and syncopated vocals, with a little blues vibe creeping in at the edges. The lush instrumentation is balanced by ethereal backing harmonies, making for an odd combination of (then) contemporary soul-funk but harking back to the R&B jams of the 1950s and early ‘60s. The effervescent “Sparkle City” brings the fatback in a big way, Otis’s funky chicken-pickin’ accompanied by a big bass line and a slippery rhythm, the song boldly mixing jazz, blues, soul, and funk into a single invigorating listening experience. Otis’s vocals are understated and don’t drop into the mix until around two minutes in, but the meter of the lyrics matches the song’s overall rhythmic blueprint to create one fun mess!

Using a bossa nova styled rhythmic backdrop, “Aht Uh Mi Hed” is an odd piece, the tick-tock percussion running throughout the song delivered a stark counterpoint by lush strings and swells of exotic instrumentation, Otis adding minute amounts of finely-crafted, filigree guitar layered beneath the unusual vocals and violin flares. The short-but-sweet instrumental “Rainy Day” perfectly showcases Otis’s immense six-string skills, his jazz-infused licks bouncing off of mournful strings, while the sci-fi instrumental “XL-30” is electronic space-rock at its best, strange musical tangents jumping out unexpectedly from a droning keyboard hum.

This 2013 reissue of Inspiration Information includes four previously-unreleased bonus tracks tacked onto the original nine, two of which – the soulful, bluesy “Magic” and “Castle Top Jam” – were originally recorded in 1971 for the album but ultimately rejected, although both are quite good enough to have made the cut. “Things We Like To Do,” laid on tape in ‘77, is an unlikely marriage of old school R&B and 1970s-era soul, with muted vocals embroidered through a lush soundscape of rhythmic percussion, sumptuous strings, and “come hither” lyrics.   

Wings of Love

huggie Otis’ Inspiration Information
Inspiration Information circa 2013 also includes a second disc of tunes titled Wings of Love, a baker’s dozen of previously unreleased live and studio tracks pulled from the archive, cleaned up, and remastered by Otis personally. Offering material dating from as early as 1975 and as current as 2000, a lot of the songs on Wings of Love sound as good as, if not better, than those on Inspiration Information. Any combination of these 13 songs would have made a killer album in their own right, and the quality of performances from the late 1980s a the lone 1990 track show that Otis was still making great music even if few got the chance to hear it.

As Otis himself explains in the album’s liner notes, it’s not so much that he gave up on the music business when he all but disappeared from the spotlight after the 1974 release of Inspiration Information, it’s really more of a case of the business giving up on him. A lot of Wings of Love delves into the same soul-blues-funk turf as Information Inspiration, but material like the bouncy “Special” (1980) is every bit as satisfying as anything that Prince was dominating the R&B airwaves with at the time. “Give Me Something Good” should have owned radio in 1977, the song a dynamic mix of Hendrixian guitars and icy, Isley Brothers-styled funk, with strong vocals and a little R&B flavor added to the brew for good measure while “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” predates the aforementioned Prince’s best soul-funk efforts by a decade.     

Wings of Love’s title track is an ambitious eleven-minute jam recorded in 1990 that blows anything Otis had done previous right out of the water. With gorgeous Spanish guitar leading into classically-styled synthesizer riffs, the song explores decades of musical themes, and the careful listener can hear elements of jazzy, 1940s-era torch songs (think Billie Holiday); 1970s-era prog-rock (with a pop edge, like Todd Rundgren); adventurous 1950s-styled rhythm and blues; 1970s influenced flights of fanciful guitar; and much, much more. It’s a stunning musical tour de force. The shorter-by-half “If You’d Be Mine” is, perhaps, its creative equal, the 1987 recording perfectly fusing rock, soul, and pop music together seamlessly in the creation of a truly electrifying performance.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

To be honest, there’s not much in the way of blues music to be heard on Inspiration Information, Otis’s R&B roots hidden beneath mountains of psychedelic-soul and raunchy funk. “Fireball of Love” from the Wings disc probably veers the closest to a blues sound, the song’s raucous vocals and fretwork reminiscent of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s funky 1970s era recordings. The acoustic “Black Belt Sheriff,” from 2000, is the most recent track and it displays a sort of Delta-styled country-blues vibe with some mighty tasty slide-guitar work.

Truth is, Shuggie Otis was a visionary musician of no little genius, his brilliance and talent unrecognized until a raft of acolytes picked up on Inspiration Information in the 1990s and spread the word to fellow travelers. Listening to the better than two-dozen tracks on this reissue, one can easily hear the pop, rock, soul, jazz, funk, and blues influences that Otis used to create a blueprint for some of the biggest, brashest, and most commercially-successful music of the 1980s and ‘90s. This is ambitious, sometimes complex stuff, to be sure, but it’s never difficult to listen to, and quite entertaining for those looking for depth, honesty, and artistry in their preferred music. (Legacy Recordings, released April 16, 2013)

Also on That Devil Music:
Shuggie Otis’ Shuggie's Blues CD review
Shuggie Otis’ Live In Williamsburg CD review
Shuggie Otis’ Inter-Fusion CD review
Buy the CD from Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information/Wings of Love