Friday, May 13, 2022

Archive Review: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground (2014)

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground
It would be pretty safe to say that without legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, the sound of Chicago blues – and all of blues music, really – would be vastly different than it is today. A country bluesman with roots in Mississippi and Arkansas, Broonzy served his country during World War I. When he returned home he found that farming no longer held any interest and, relocating to Chicago, he started a life in music. Broonzy would become a popular bluesman, talented songwriter and guitarist, and a prolific recording artist as well as an important catalyst in the evolution of the country blues sound into big city urban blues during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Through the years, Broonzy performed in country blues, ragtime, hokum, R&B, and folk blues styles and wrote for, performed and recorded with talents like Memphis Minnie, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and Tampa Red. His kindness was legendary, and he helped Southern immigrants to the Windy City like Muddy Waters get a toehold in the city, arranging gigs and recording sessions for the newcomers. It is Broonzy’s influence on blues and rock music that is most keenly felt, however, not just on Chicago bluesmen like Waters and Buddy Guy, but also on young rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, among many others.    

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Two young musicians that Broonzy influenced were brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Growing up in Downey, California in the 1960s, the brothers shared a love of music. As Dave Alvin remembers in the liner notes to Common Ground, Broonzy’s music was a revelatory discovery for the two teenagers, an artist that remains their musical touchstone to this day. The brothers would go on to form the Blasters in 1980, the band recording a handful of critically-acclaimed albums featuring a high-octane blend of roots-rock, rockabilly, blues, and R&B that found an appreciative audience on the Southern California punk rock scene. The band called it quits by the end of the decade, though, with Dave Alvin launching an acclaimed solo career in much the same musical vein as that of his former band that is still winning the artist accolades today.   

Part of the reason for the break-up of the Blasters was the notoriously combative relationship between the two brothers. As Dave has been quoted as saying, “we argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy.” It is the brothers’ shared love of the revered blues legend that brought them back together in the studio for the first time in nearly 24 years to record Common Ground. Credited to Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, and subtitled “Play and Sing The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” Common Ground is exactly that – a heartfelt tribute to Broonzy by a couple of musicians that felt his influence at an early age.   

The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Broonzy was a gifted songwriter, so there was no dearth of material for the brothers to choose from, and it’s a credit to Broonzy’s talents that the Alvin’s duplicate only two songs from Muddy Waters’ tribute to his mentor, the 1960s album Sings Big Bill Broonzy. The album opens with the jaunty “All By Myself,” an upbeat ragtime-styled romp that features the brothers’ shared vocals and Dave’s elegant National steel guitar. If not for the modern recording technique, the performance might be mistaken for an old slab o’ 78rpm shellac, the brothers playing it straight and having a ball with their careful interpretation of the song. “I Feel So Good” differs from the aforementioned Waters’ rendition, skewing closer to Broonzy’s courtesy of Gene Taylor’s light-fingered piano-play and drummer Lisa Pankratz’s lively percussion. It’s a swinging tune, and tailor-made for Phil’s yelping vocals.

In contrast to the pair of openers, “Southern Flood Blues” rocks like a juke-joint Saturday night, with Dave’s wiry electric guitar licks and ominous vocals punctuated by Phil’s mournful blasts of harp. It’s a fine performance, the song’s disturbing lyrical tale emphasized by the strength of the instrumentation. It’s probably the furthest the brothers get from Broonzy’s original intent, sounding more like a long-lost Blasters’ outtake, but it’s also entirely appropriate. “Big Bill’s Blues,” one of Broonzy’s first recorded sides, returns to a country blues sound, the performance fueled by Phil’s wonderful heartbreak vocals and Taylor’s lonesome piano runs.

Key To The Highway

Since first recording the song in 1941, Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” has become a blues standard, recorded not only by blues legends like Waters, Little Walter, and John Lee Hooker but also by rockers like Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos and the Rolling Stones. The Alvins’ reading of “Key To the Highway” is a country-styled blues tune capturing the spirit of the original with Dave’s engaging National steel play and Phil’s friendly harp and acoustic guitar. The jazz-flecked “Tomorrow” is another one of those songs perfectly suited to Phil’s soulful twang, and his vocals here swing on one of Broonzy’s better R&B tunes. Taylor’s hands dance across the keyboard and bassist Brad Fordham holds a steady rhythm while Dave lays down a hearty solo that fits in perfectly with the other instrumentation.

“Just A Dream” is the other Broonzy tune recorded in tribute by Muddy Waters, and the brothers Alvin hew closely to Waters’ electric Chicago blues styled romp here. Phil’s vocals are lower and slower, perfectly capturing the moment as Taylor does his best Otis Spann imitation, Dave layers in some fine, fuzzy fretwork, and Phil adds dashes of energetic James Cotton-styled harmonica. The brothers share vocals again on the underrated Broonzy gem “Stuff They Call Money,” Taylor’s piano tinkling low in the mix beneath the hearty rhythmic play of Fordham’s bass and Pankratz’s drums, with blasts of icy harp underlining the song’s insightful social commentary. The instrumental “Saturday Night Rub” is a perfect showcase for the brothers’ intertwined guitarplay – Dave on the steel, Phil on acoustic – while the Fordham/Pankratz rhythm section rides along. It’s a joyous performance and an appropriate choice to close out the album.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like about Common Ground? It’s the first album from Dave and Phil Alvin together in two decades, and for an old Blasters fan such as myself, that’s like manna from heaven. Plus, these are Big Bill Broonzy songs, so it’s hard to go wrong. The brothers are obviously familiar with the material, and not only bring a reverence to their performances, but also a playfulness that is completely in the spirit of the late blues legend.

There are tribute albums where it’s obvious the performers are going through the motions for a payday, the publicity, or the cache of being associated with a project considered “hip.” Then there are great tribute albums where the contributors truly love the artist and songs they’re honoring and they juice up their performances with passion and energy…Common Ground is one of those kind of albums, a tribute that truly lets the music do the talking. Get it! (Yep Roc Records, released June 3, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Archive Review: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues (2012)

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues
Over the course of a career that has spanned an amazing seven decades, Dion DiMucci has worked his way across a full spectrum of American musical styles. From the pop, rock, R&B, and doo-wop of his 1950s-era hits to the folk-and-gospel leanings of his ‘60s commercial comeback – as well as the soulful electric-blues that he’s explored during the new millennium – Dion has done it all and done it well.

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Spurred on by conversations with music journalist Dave Marsh, who stated that Dion is the only first-generation rocker of the 1950s who remains artistically relevant today, and with his wife Susan daring him to live up to Marsh’s claim, DiMucci dove headfirst into a creative frenzy that resulted in Tank Full of Blues. The last leg of a blues-n-roots trilogy that began with 2005’s Grammy® Award-winning Bronx In Blue and continued through 2007’s Son of Skip James, Dion’s Tank Full of Blues is a stunning musical statement delivered by an artist who has lived and breathed the blues for decades.

Unlike those aforementioned albums, the former of which was a collection of classic blues covers, the latter mixing a handful of originals amidst sturdy old warhorses, Tank Full of Blues offers up a slate of mostly original material, the result of a divinely-inspired songwriting jag that provided Dion with a wealth of material. The title track is a vintage-sounding throwback to the 1950s with a Chicago blues lilt and finely-crafted fretwork, while “I Read It (In the Rolling Stone)” evinces a swamp-blues menace with appropriately dark-hued guitar paired with topical lyrics.

Dion’s “Ride’s Blues” is his tribute to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, the lyrics weaving an enchanting tale while the sparse, atmospheric, guitar-driven soundtrack adds steel-coiled muscle above a steady pounding drumbeat. The “Two Train” medley welds Muddy Waters’ “Still A Fool” with Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” evoking a spirit of wanderlust with a wonderful, nuanced performance. The stream-of-consciousness “Bronx Poem” is a talking-blues tone-poem with elegant fretwork and insightful, autobiographical lyrics.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Throughout Tank Full of Blues, Dion’s powerful vocals are matched by his fierce, unbridled guitarplay and an uncanny songwriting sense. Those who dismiss Dion as yesterday’s news display their own ignorance, as Tank Full of Blues is one of the most soulful blues albums that you’ll hear this year…or any other. (Blue Horizon Records, released November 14th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Friday, May 6, 2022

Archive Review: Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country (2012)

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country
Mississippi Hill Country, the fourth Homemade Jamz Blues Band album, was financed by the band’s fans through a Kickstarter fundraiser (the Reverend among those who donated). From all indications, the money was well-spent, as the production preserves the raw spirit of the band’s performances but never sounds cheap or underserved. The biggest difference between Mississippi Hill Country and the band’s third album, 2010’s self-produced The Game, is in the growth shown by the Perry siblings as artists, frontman Ryan Perry in particular.

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country

It is Ryan’s songwriting on Mississippi Hill Country that stands out; six years into an acclaimed career, the oldest Perry sibling is still only 22 years old. But it sounds like he’s been listening (heavily) to his father’s record collection, Mississippi Hill Country displaying a wide range of styles and influences, from 1960s era blues-rock and ‘70s soul to the 1990s sounds of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Throughout it all, the band evinces a strong identity, the material relying more on subtlety and talent than on the novelty that often plagued their youthful performances. Ryan, Kyle, and Taya have grown up, and they sound better for it.

The album-opening “Buy One Get One Free” is a blustery blues-rocker reminiscent of Michael Bloomfield and Electric Flag while “Times Are Changing” offers a timeless romantic plea that matches Ryan’s soulful vocals with a throwback vibe that reminds of Curtis Mayfield. The hypnotic “Red Eye Flight” is the sort of menacing juke-joint jam that the Burnside family built its legend on, full of circular guitar riffs, heavy throbbing bass lines, and steady rhythmic percussion, a spirit also shown by the title track, a full-tilt tribute to those Hill Country legends that captures the essence of this hardscrabble region.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mississippi Hill Country closes with a bit of magic, the acoustic “Love Doctor” catching lightning in a bottle as Ryan calls on the influence of Delta greats like Charley Patton and Son House to bang out a haunting, powerful bit of old fashioned black cat moan. I tell ya, the blues seldom gets better than this… (self-produced, released 2012)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2012

Friday, April 29, 2022

Archive Review: Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976 (2012)

Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976
One of a legion of young soul rebels who emerged during the early 1960s with guitar in hand, Sandy Bull was in the same league as fellow travelers like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Britain’s Bert Jansch. Unlike those aforementioned contemporaries, however, who pulled the majority of their inspiration from blues and folk music, often with a smattering of jazz, Bull’s restless musical spirit would lead him to incorporate elements of classical, Indian, and droning Arabic raga style into his playing.

Also unlike his fellow string-benders, Bull largely eschewed the traditional three-to-four-minute pop song format in favor of extended instrumental jams that would allow him to stretch out like an improvisational jazzman and get to the heart of the performance, providing his breathtakingly intricate compositions with greater texture and tone. Bull would also pick up a bass guitar, banjo, and oud once in a while, his proficiency in these various instruments lending a dangerously-exotic vibe to his compositions.

Signing with the noted folk label Vanguard Records, Bull released a handful of albums circa 1963-72, the most acclaimed of these, his 1963 debut Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, recorded with jazz percussionist Billy Higgins (who had played with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock, among others). Featuring the twenty-minute, side-long “Blend,” the album featured Bull’s myriad of influences and introduced him as a serious, talented musician. But by the time of the release of 1972’s Demolition Derby, Bull had sunk deeply into drug addiction, and he seemingly disappeared from music altogether until resurfacing in 1988 with the acclaimed Jukebox School of Music album.  

Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace’s Live 1976

The truth is, Sandy Bull hadn’t turned his back on music during the 1970s, and after going through rehab, he relocated to San Francisco and began performing again, including the May 1976 appearance opening for Leo Kottke at the Berkeley Community Center that is captured by Live 1976. Remastered from a long-lost tape made by friend and engineer Hillel Resner, Drag City’s vinyl-only release of Live 1976 shines a light on Bull’s enormous talents with a set of performances and soft-spoken intros that paint a fuller portrait of this unfairly obscure instrumentalist.

Accompanied by “The Rhythm Ace,” his electronic drum machine, and a four-track TASCAM recorder on which he would often place backing bass and drums to accompany his live lead instrument, Bull displayed the technological acumen of a prog-rock virtuoso while unfolding his largely acoustic-based, dream-like compositions. Live 1976 opens with “Oud,” a seven-minute-plus instrumental performed with the pear-shaped Middle Eastern stringed instrument that Bull had come to favor. The performance is simply magical, mesmerizing in its depth and tone as Bull explores several varying musical landscapes within the confines of the song.

A brief interlude follows where he jokingly introduces “the band” and demonstrates the abilities of “The Rhythm Ace,” a still-unfamiliar bit of technology in the mid-1970s. With “Love Is Forever,” Bull tries his hand at a more-traditional, albeit elongated pop song, his imperfect but aching vocals accompanied by elegant acoustic fretwork, the drum machine, and syncopated riffing on an electric oud. Inspired by the Drifters, Bull introduces “Driftin’“ as a “beach tune,” a pre-recorded bass line providing support beneath Bull’s spry, soulful guitarplay that weds an odd folk-rock sound to a lofty R&B framework, with a little weepy country steel twang laid in on top as an exciting counterpoint.

Alligator Wrestler

Bull’s humorous introduction to “Alligator Wrestler” explains the childhood interlude with the song’s protagonist and veers off course into a story from his rehab before tying it all together with a nice bit of metaphor. The song itself is an energetic, upbeat instrumental that evinces a swamp-rock vibe, adding a loping, funky rhythmic track with heavy bass and some of the oddest, Southern-styled chicken-pickin’ that you’ll ever hear. Running nearly nine-minutes, the performance is exhausting and awe-inspiring, and is the beating creative heart of Live 1976.

The album ends with “New York City,” the performance falling just shy of eight minutes and displaying a more urbane, sophisticated edge to Bull’s playing than previous tracks. The guitarist’s nimble licks are paired with a jazzy, syncopated rhythm resulting in an inspired piece that easily places Bull alongside such vaunted contemporaries as Larry Coryell and Al Di Meola as a skilled jazz-fusion stylist.

While continuing to perform, often outside of the public’s eye, throughout the 1980s, Bull would eventually land in the rural countryside near Nashville, building a home and studio and raising a family. He would return to the recording world with the aforementioned Jukebox School of Music, followed by 1991’s Vehicle, and 1996’s Steel Tears, both albums released on his own independent Timeless Recording Society label, all three treated with deference by critics.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Although passing away in 2001 at the too-young age of 60 from cancer, Sandy Bull left behind a body of work that, while not large by contemporary recording standards, nevertheless represents the best qualities of his playing – creative, efficient, meticulous, imaginative, and adventuresome. Live 1976 is a welcome addition to this catalog that serves to bolster Bull’s growing reputation, the album a warm and entertaining collection that reveals another dimension of this underrated instrumentalist’s enormous talents. (Drag City Records, released February 8, 2012)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Friday, April 22, 2022

Archive Review: Big Mama Thornton's With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 (2007)

Big Mama Thornton's With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966
If she is remembered by any but the most dedicated blues historians, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is best known for her 1953 hit single “Hound Dog.” The song spent seven weeks on top of Billboard magazine’s R&B charts and made Thornton a minor star on the SE/SW chitin’ circuit. Later appropriated by Elvis Presley, his 1956 recording of the song overshadowed Thornton’s considerable success and launched Presley’s career beyond the confines of Sun Records.

It’s high time that modern blues fans rediscovered the talented Thornton. Signed to Peacock Records in 1951, Thornton released a number of singles for the label throughout the decade. None hit as big as “Hound Dog,” however, and Thornton was eking out a meager living through sporadic performances well into the ‘60s. The singer with the giant voice hooked up with blues fan and Arhoolie label founder Chris Strachwitz for a handful of mid-‘60s album releases that helped redefine her career. Strachwitz had recorded an inspired Thornton performance in Europe with a band led by guitarist Buddy Guy, and he thought that lightning might strike twice. He arranged for Muddy Waters’ band to back Thornton on these April 1966 sessions; Thornton’s powerful vocals perfectly matched by the group of veteran performers.

Big Mama Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966

After all these years, the release of Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 is a revelation. Thornton is in good form on songs like the soulful “I’m Feeling Alright” and the dirty blues of “Black Rat.” Waters’ band – which included Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton soaring on harmonica – embraced the material, their immense skills amplifying Thornton’s performances. Especially welcome is Waters himself on guitar, the blues giant’s often-overlooked six-string prowess on display in songs like “Everything Gonna Be Alright” and “Sometimes I Have A Heartache.” The gospel-tinged “Guide Me Home” foreshadows what might have been if Thornton had been able to record the album of spiritual tunes that she wanted to while “Big Mama’s Bumble Bee Blues” is a more secular example of traditional blues double-entendre lyrics.
The long overdue CD release of With the Muddy Waters Blues Band - 1966 also includes seven previously unreleased bonus tracks, including alternate takes of “Black Rat,” “Gimme A Penny” and “I’m Feeling Alright.” It is the new songs that really stand out, though. The lively instrumental “Big Mama’s Shuffle” showcases Thornton’s harmonica skills, an instrument she would use more and more on her work into the 1970s, the song becoming a literal battle between Thornton and the raging James Cotton. “Since I Fell For You” is an old-fashioned torch song, drenched in emotion and dripping with passion. The album-closing “Big Mama’s Blues” is a slow, smoky Chicago-styled blues, Spann providing rhythm on the ivories while Cotton plays off of Thornton’s vocals with an impressive performance. It was well worth the almost three-decade wait to hear these tracks.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Remastered for CD from the original three-track (!) recordings, Thornton’s With the Muddy Waters Blues Band – 1966 sounds damn good for its age, suffering little from the digital transfer and playing loud, raw and vibrant. Hopefully some blues fans will pick up the album simply because of the Muddy Waters connection, or maybe the recent Janis Joplin tributes and revivals, which include Joplin’s version of Thornton’s “Ball And Chain,” will cause some young listeners to seek out the original. Either way, they’ll be rewarded with the ample talents of one of the blues most underrated and unique vocalists, Big Mama Thornton. (Arhoolie Records, released January 29th, 2007)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2007

Friday, April 15, 2022

Archive Review: Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (1971/2012)

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions
In 1970, Chess Records producer Norm Dayron had the idea of pairing Chicago blues legend Howlin’ Wolf in a London studio with a bevy of his young British blues-rock acolytes to record an album of the Wolf’s old songs. After all, Dayron had found a modicum of chart success the previous year by hooking up the great Muddy Waters and his pianist Otis Spann with a group of young turks that included guitarist Michael Bloomfield and harp player Paul Butterfield, the resulting album, Fathers and Sons, slipping into the Billboard Top 200 albums chart at number 70 and receiving overall positive critical reviews.  

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

For The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, Dayron enlisted a band that included the Rolling Stones’ rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts, and guitarist Eric Clapton, who was still flush with fame and fortune from the success of his blues-rock power trio Cream. The producer flew Wolf, his longtime guitarist and musical foil Hubert Sumlin, and young harpslinger Jeffrey Carp to London to record with the British chaps for a week. The sessions weren’t without drama, however – by 1970, Wolf was a sick man, with heart and kidney problems that made the mercurial bluesman even grouchier. Wolf didn’t know what he was doing messing around with these damn fool kids, and some of his performances were tentative, at best.

However, as music journalist and blues historian Bill Dahl outlines in his excellent liner notes to the deluxe edition of The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, eventually everything began to gel in the studio and Wolf and the assembled band knocked out an acceptable, if not remarkable album of classic blues music. As a kid I was enchanted by both Howlin’ Wolf and The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, one of the first blues albums I’d heard at the time. I had no idea in 1971 or 1972, when I first picked up the album, that blues purists had dismissed it as a trivial work on the part of those involved; or that Clapton had virtually disowned the album (perhaps “Slowhand” should be so frank in reconsidering much of his mediocre 1980s work!).

Built For Comfort

For a fourteen-year-old budding blues fan, however, everything from the painted cover art to the B&W session photos inside, not to mention the music found on The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, all came as a revelation that would lead to a deeper study of the blues. Through the years, the initial harsh critical reception afforded the album would soften somewhat, and I’ve since spoken with many musicians that revere these performances. So, some 40 years after its recording, how does The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions stand up to the master’s body of work?

The album holds up better than might be expected, and maybe even moves up a notch or two towards minor classic status in my estimation. Sure, nothing here is going to match the Wolf’s powerful mid-1950s work for Chess Records, or even his earlier recordings for Sam Phillips in the Sun Studio in Memphis; then again, nothing ever could. Truth is, as the Wolf’s early-to-mid-1960s “albums” were really nothing more than collections of previous singles releases, he wasn’t really an album-oriented artist like Waters would become. Later attempts to appeal to young, album-oriented blues-rock fans with releases like 1969’s This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album or 1971’s Message To the Young would fail miserably commercially and critically. That leaves us with The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, a spirited collection of new performances of old songs, delivered with a fresh perspective on the blues while retaining their traditional appeal.   

Sittin’ On Top of the World

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions leads off with the spry, slightly funky Wolf original “Rockin’ Daddy,” the performance fueled by Sumlin’s loping fretwork and Clapton’s Southern-fried licks. Wolf roars and bellows like the artist of yore, while Phil Upchurch’s (later overdubbed) bass line plays nicely off of Charlie Watt’s timekeeping. Willie Dixon’s classic “I Ain’t Superstitious” is afforded a lush, busy mix with Wolf’s rote vocals nearly lost amidst a wash of overdubbed horns. Clapton’s fretwork here is nuanced and imaginative, if buried in the din, while Ringo Starr’s drums (the musician credited as “Ritchie” on the original album) rise above the otherwise messy mix.

It’s with “Sittin’ On Top of the World” that the album really begins to cook, with Jeffrey Carp’s greasy harpwork sizzling beneath Wolf’s languid vocals; Lafayette Leake’s later overdubbed piano play tinkling in the background as Sumlin’s solid rhythm guitar serves as a foundation on top of which Clapton lets fly with an elegant, undeniably bluesy solo. The rollicking “Worried About My Baby” also makes good use of Carp’s harp, his blasts of harmonica reminding of Junior Wells as Wolf belts out the lyrics above Leake’s lively piano. Wolf’s classic cover of James Oden’s “What A Woman!” (a/k/a “Commit A Crime”) is the most traditional Chicago blues number on the album, the song’s distinctive hypnotic rhythm punctuated by Clapton’s short, shocking leads and a fine, blustery Wolf vocal turn.     

The Red Rooster

Another Dixon gem, “Built For Comfort,” was tailor-made for Wolf, and he walks his way through the lyrics with a familiar swagger as the horns flare brightly behind him and Ian Stewart’s intricate piano play is matched by Clapton’s intermittent solos. As Dahl recounts in the album’s liner notes, it was the recording of “The Red Rooster,” with Clapton asking Wolf to show him how to play the song, which would break up the tension of the sessions. While critics like Cub Koda have expressed their dislike of the studio dialog that serves as an intro to the song, it’s intriguing to hear at this late date, and by the time the full band roars into the actual song, everybody is rockin’ full-tilt, from Clapton’s fluid riffing to Wolf’s sly vocals to Leake’s trilling piano.

Although Dixon’s “Do the Do” sounds an awful lot like a Bo Diddley song with its familiar beat, it’s all Wolf, baby, the singer slipping into the fat groove with a fine vocal performance that is itself enveloped by Wyman and Watt’s gorgeous lockstep rhythms and Clapton’s rattletrap fretwork. “Highway 49” rocks hard, with a strong Wolf vocal bolstered by Clapton’s innovative leads, Sumlin’s bedrock rhythms, and Steve Winwood’s lofty piano-pounding, which was dubbed in later. The original album ended with a spirited take of “Wang Dang Doodle,” the song’s mesmerizing rhythms captured perfectly by the band, the slightly-echoed production adding to the song’s exotic vibe, Carp’s harmonica creeping in on the fringes as Stewart’s energetic piano notes dance in the background.  

Rockin’ Daddy

This 2012 “deluxe edition” of The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions includes three bonus tracks at the end of the first disc, performances originally released in 1974 as London Revisited. Of the trio, Wolf’s “Killing Floor” stands out, the song’s sparse arrangement and familiar rhythm complimented by a fair Wolf vocal performance, and some intricate interplay between Wolf and Clapton on guitar. This set also includes a second disc of alternate takes from the London sessions, some varying only slightly from the released version, some drastically so. For instance, an alternative “What A Woman!” includes Winwood’s overdubbed organ, which adds to the general cacophony but does little to enhance the performance.

By contrast, a sparse rehearsal take of “Worried About My Baby,” features Wolf on harmonica, Clapton’s subtle guitar fills, and Wyman’s throbbing bass, the performance displaying a different possibility for the song. The alternate “I Ain’t Superstitious” sounds even funkier than that used on the original album, bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Ringo Starr doing a fine job on the rhythm while Carp adds some inspired harpwork, but Wolf’s vocals slight and unsatisfying. An extended version of “Do the Do” stretches the song into a bona fide blues jam with Clapton and Stewart in particular playing above the locomotive rhythm. Wolf’s original “Poor Boy” is provided different lyrics and instrumental mix, but Wolf’s vocals still shine brightly amidst the claustrophobic arrangement which is busy with Clapton’s wiry guitar and Carp’s emotional harpwork.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

A lot of blues have passed through these ears since I first heard The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions as a teen. While I’d like to think that my musical tastes have expanded and grown more sophisticated through the years, the comfort of the familiar relics of our early years grows larger in our minds. Even when viewed apart from the prism of sentimentality, this most-maligned of albums from the great Howlin’ Wolf’s career sounds better than its most vocal critics dare to admit.

In retrospect, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions was a successful experiment that captured the great Howlin’ Wolf during the waning days of his strength and power, the elder bluesman still providing many of his performances with a brittle ferocity. Hubert Sumlin, the rock upon which Wolf’s legacy was built, provides the singer with a familiar face and shared history, while the British players – especially Clapton, who has seldom played better than he does here – infuse the performances with energy and zealous enthusiasm. In short, The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions stands up well to re-inspection, outliving decades of unfair criticism to achieve classic status on its own numerous merits. (Chess Records, released 1971, reissued August 31, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

Archive Review: Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay (2015)

Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay
After a half-century spent “treading the boards,” Savoy Brown has become a British blues institution. Formed by guitarist Kim Simmonds in 1966 as part of the blues-rock boom that included Taste, Free, and Gary Moore’s Skid Row, Savoy Brown quickly found a lasting identity in Simmonds’ fluid guitar lines. Commercially-successful and critically-acclaimed 1970s-era albums like Looking In and Hellbound Train helped introduce many a teenage punter to the blues idiom.

Eternally led by Simmonds, Savoy Brown has kept the flame of guitar-driven blues-rock burning bright long after many of their contemporaries have gone home. While the band stumbled a bit during the 1990s, releasing a string of albums featuring more chaff than wheat, they’ve more than made up for it over the past decade with solid LPs like Voodoo Moon and Goin’ To the Delta. Savoy Brown’s The Devil To Pay is their 10th since 2000 and, like most of their efforts since the new millennium, it’s a mixed bag, musically. Fronting, essentially, the same road-tested band since 2009 – minus vocalist Joe Whiting – the trio of Simmonds, bassist Pat DeSalvo, and drummer Garnet Grimm is a dynamic blues-rock bar band capable of putting on a heck of a live show; on record, results may vary…

The Devil To Pay is a mish-mash of blues styles, from the jazz-flecked slow-burn of “Ain’t Got Nobody” and the Chicago-flavored vamp of “Bad Weather Brewing” to the twang ‘n’ bang title track or the blustery, heavy blues of “Evil Eye.” The band’s instrumental mastery allows them to pull off these varying hues easily, but the sticking point is Simmonds’ vocal skills...or lack thereof. On some songs – like the boogieing “Oh Rosa” or the Texas blues romp “I’ve Been Drinking” – Simmonds’ raging fretwork overshadows weak vocals, but on other performances, the strain is evident. Simmonds’ guitar playing is beyond reproach, remaining as inventive and electrifying as ever, but he needs a bona fide singer like Chris Youlden or Dave Walker that allows him to just play guitar. This shortcoming makes The Devil To Pay an entertaining blues-rock disc that could have been so much more. (Ruf Records, released August 12, 2015)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2015

Buy the CD from Amazon: Kim Simmonds & Savoy Brown’ The Devil To Pay

Friday, April 8, 2022

Archive Review: Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast (2012)

Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast
In the absence of legitimate contemporary rock ‘n’ roll heroes, a sort of “cult of personality” has grown up around a number of admittedly eccentric 1960s-and-‘70s-era musicians. From Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock to Todd Rundgren and other aging rockers raised in the long shadows of the second World War, the digital era has been kinder to them than most, prompting a rediscovery of their early, acclaimed work by a younger audience, extending their careers long past the ostensible commercial “sell by” date. In many instances, it has enabled these artists to grow old with dignity and grace, allowing them to deliver some of the best music of their lives in the 21st century.

Of all of these fellow travelers, Ian Hunter is the oldest and, perhaps, the most iconoclastic. A late arrival to U.K. glam-rock cult faves Mott the Hoople, Hunter quickly took over the band’s creative reins and became its best-known member. (Don’t think so? Quick, name another Mott member other than Hunter or guitarist Mick Ralphs…) Hunter’s often-snarky, Dylan-inspired wordplay and the band’s guitar-heavy hard-rock sound would earn them a modicum of fame, if little fortune, and by the mid-1970s, realizing that the party was coming to a close, Hunter jumped the Mott ship for a solo career, taking former David Bowie/Lou Reed guitarist, and recent band addition Mick Ronson with him.

Although a direct line can be drawn from Mott the Hoople to the intelligent punk-rock of the Clash and the less-intellectual, but admittedly more commercially successful pseudo-metal of Def Leppard, it is Ian Hunter’s sporadic solo career that has influenced a generation of British, as well as a lesser number of American musicians. Beginning with his self-titled 1975 debut, which yielded the classic “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” through the end of the decade and a handful of albums culminating in 1979’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, which entered “Just Another Night” and “Cleveland Rocks” to the rock ‘n’ roll lexicon, Hunter wrote a musical legacy that continues to resonate loudly even in recent works like 2007’s Shrunken Heads and 2009’s Man Overboard.

Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson Live At Rockpalast

In April 1980, reunited with his friend and longtime musical foil Ronson (management problems having kept the two madmen apart for several years), Hunter performed for the popular German TV show Rockpalast. Translating, roughly, as “Rock Palace,” the program has been broadcast since 1974, airing performances from, literally, hundreds of rock, blues, jazz, and other artists. Video clips from the TV show have been a staple of YouTube since the dawn of that website, but only within the last couple of years has Germany’s MIG Music made a number of full-length performances available on CD and DVD. Hunter’s 1980 Rockpalast performance, prominently featuring guitarist Ronson, stands as a true gem among an eclectic and varied catalog offered by MIG Music.

Fronting a band that included Ronson, bassist Martin Briley, a pair of keyboard players, and a drummer, Hunter rips through a baker’s dozen of songs from both his solo albums as well as his tenure with Mott the Hoople. Performing in front of an enthusiastic German audience at the large Grugahalle arena in Essen, Germany, the first half of Live At Rockpalast mimics the tracklist, if not the actual performances, found on Hunter’s 1980 live release Welcome To the Club. The album-opening instrumental “F.B.I.” is effectively a raucous band intro fueled by Ronson’s wiry fretwork and a driving rhythm that leads straightaway into “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the hoary hard-rock chestnut stripped down here, provided a slight boogie-rock framework with Hunter’s wry vocals dancing atop a sparse arrangement that explodes into a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll cyclone.

The beautifully lovestruck “Angeline” (a/k/a “Sweet Angeline,” from Brain Capers) is the first of several Mott the Hoople treasures recreated here, the song’s simple, slightly-twangy construction reminiscent of Nick Lowe’s Brinsley Schwartz, Hunter’s passionate vocals rising above a cacophony of chiming guitars and cascading drumbeats. A pair of beloved tunes from that band’s breakthrough 1973 album Mott are provided similar reverence, the wistful “I Wish I Was Your Mother” benefiting from Ronson’s elegant guitarplay and Hunter’s haunting, weary vocals while the up-tempo “All the Way From Memphis” displays all the reckless abandon and joyful banter of the original.

Cleveland Rocks

Of Hunter’s modest solo hits, “Cleveland Rocks” may be better-known than “Just Another Night” due to its use as the theme of The Drew Carey Show for several years, performed there by the Presidents of the United States of America (remember “Lump”?). Hunter’s version kicks ass, hands down, the singer declaring the city one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll and then kicking out the jams with a high-octane performance that is over-the-top delicious in its unbridled energy. Hunter’s vocals ride a wave of distorted guitars and crashing rhythms, feedback creeping in at the edges as the singer delivers the lyrics with a punkish sneer and a sly grin. “Just Another Night” ain’t chopped liver, though…Hunter’s swaggering vocals sit comfortably within a blanket of sound, keyboards tinkling above a sweaty, grinding dancefloor rhythm.

Live At Rockpalast includes performances of several of Hunter’s lesser-known songs as well as an intriguing cover of the obscure mid-1960s Sonny Bono single “Laugh At Me.” A spry pop-rock tune with an undeniable melody, vocal harmonies, edgy guitarwork, and period-perfect alienated teen lyrics, Hunter and crew crank up the pathos and turn up the amps and deliver a riveting performance. “We Gotta Get Out Of Here” debuted on Welcome To the Club and, sadly, wouldn’t be reprised on any later studio albums. Here the song is a hard-rocking sledgehammer with an infectious chorus, scraps of honky-tonk piano, tense guitar, bashed cymbals, gang vocals, and an overall crescendo of chaotic instrumentation.

The set, somewhat appropriately, closes with the Mott hit “All the Young Dudes” and Ronson’s “Slaughter On 10th Avenue.” The former, handed to the band by the album’s producer David Bowie, is played embarrassingly straight. Ronson’s guitar mimics perfectly Mick Ralph’s original rakish note-picking, and Hunter’s vocals sound every bit as punkish in 1980 as they did in 1972. The upbeat “Dudes” leads right into Ronson’s languid instrumental; taken from the guitarist’s 1974 solo album by that name, the song starts out slow and jazzy and builds to an enormously satisfying finish.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson would more or less carry on their musical collaboration until Ronson’s untimely death in 1993, frequently touring throughout the early 1980s as the Hunter Ronson Band of which, sadly, only bootleg recordings seem to exist. When Hunter went on hiatus during the latter half of the 1980s, Ronson continued to record and produce, touring with Dylan and working with artists as diverse as Morrissey, Meatloaf, Roger McGuinn, and John Mellencamp, among others.

The two friends would reunite for Hunter’s 1990 album YUI Orta, and performed together one last time in 1992 during a tribute to Queen’s Freddie Mercury that would be documented on Ronson’s posthumous solo album Heaven and Hull. For a couple of nights in Germany in 1980, however, both artists were at the top of their game, and Live At Rockpalast captures the magic that was Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson together. (MIG Music, released August 8, 2012)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Ian Hunter Band featuring Mick Ronson - Live At Rockpalast

Review originally published by Blurt magazine

Friday, April 1, 2022

Archive Review: Don Nix’s Living By the Days (2013)

Don Nix’s Living By the Days
Singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Don Nix is one of the most overlooked heroes of the blues, if only for his support of the great Furry Lewis, which provided the elderly blues legend a second chapter to his lengthy career. Nix wrote one of the classic standards of the blues in “Goin’ Down,” the song recorded by artists like Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others; he was also a high school classmate of Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn in Memphis and a session player for the legendary Stax Records label. Nix is one of the integral figures in blues, soul, R&B, and Southern rock music and his meager catalog as a solo artist is dominated by a handful of obscure 1970s-era albums that have sadly been long out-of-print.

Nix’s Living By the Days, was the first of two releases by the artist on the respected Elektra Records label, which at the time was flush from cash from successful albums by the Doors and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among others. This 1971 album was largely recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with a little help from friends like guitarists Wayne Perkins and Jimmy Johnson, bassists “Duck” Dunn and David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins, and keyboardists Barry Beckett and Chris Stainton, who was on loan from the Grease Band, best known for their association with Joe Cocker. Musically, Living By the Days is a homemade quilt carefully sewn together with bits and pieces of blues, blues-rock, gospel, and the sort of Memphis soul that Nix helped define during the late 1960s.

Don Nix’s Living By the Days

Opening with a haunting keyboard intro that fades into the sound of falling rain, Nix’s “The Shape I’m In” is a classic Southern tale about the search for redemption. The song’s protagonist is suffering a crisis of faith, lost, wondering where he’s going, a situation that Nix describes quite poetically with memorable imagery. His somber vocals are backed by the gospel-styled harmonies of Claudia Lennear, Kathi McDonald, Don Preston, and Joey Cooper, the soundtrack a sparse roots-rock ramble of guitar and rhythm. It’s an effective construct, and a perfect introduction to the artist’s unique blend of blues, rock, country, and gospel music.

By contrast, “Olena” is a more upbeat, up-tempo rocker that displays tinges of Memphis soul and gospel beneath its rollicking, keyboard-dominated soundtrack. Whether it’s Perkins or Jimmy Johnson that delivers the short, succinct, and spot-on guitar solo, it’s Barry Beckett’s rolling honky-tonk 88s that drive the song’s rhythms, backing harmonies chiming in behind Nix’s almost-lost vocals that drawl out a story of the rambling man and the woman that’s waiting for him at home. Blues great Furry Lewis adds a bit of narration before the gang jumps into a joyous cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” Nix’s twangy vocals are joined by the Mt. Zion Choir (Jeanie Greene, Marlin Green, and Wayne Perkins), there’s a bit of chicken-pickin’ going on, and the jangly percussion supports the upbeat, church revival spirit of the performance.

Going Back To Iuka

The album’s title track is a grand mid-tempo Southern rocker that’s heavy on lyricism and offers but a hint of blues underpinning. Amidst a swell of epic instrumentation, Nix’s heartworn, world-weary protagonist speaks of unrequited love, the object of his affections looking for more than he can offer – “rainbows that never appear” – and while she’s dreaming of hundreds of years, he’s merely “living by the days.” It’s a powerful song, a great performance, and while the 1970s-era literary aspirations are a bit dated, there’s a timelessness to the emotional lay of the lyrics. “Going Back To Iuka” rides a similar train but on a different track, its minimalist lyrics paired with a rockin’, ramshackle soundtrack, guitars rising above the fray of crashing drumbeats and chaotic instrumentation.

The spry “Mary Louise” is the square peg on Living By the Days, an odd little morality tale, the title character a young woman leaving home for the bright lights of L.A. The carefully-spun lyrics are told from a third-person perspective…a jealous boyfriend, a possible suitor...while musically a mesmerizing recurring riff is joined in the gumbo pot with heavy percussive brush work and flashes of twangy piano-play. The album ends with “My Train’s Done Come And Gone,” a bit of brilliant roots-rock reminiscent of the Band that features Nix’s wistful, almost melancholy vocals wrapped around a set of insightful lyrics, the accompanying music a perfect blend of Southern rock, blues, and gospel, the song perfectly capturing the overwhelming wanderlust of the era.     

The Reverend’s Botton Line

It’s hard to believe that Elektra thought that Living By the Days would launch Nix into the commercial stratosphere then occupied by Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie. Although it’s a fine album, a classic of sorts, Nix’s creative but eclectic musical hybrid lacked the marketing hook provided by Russell’s exposure from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album and film or D&B’s friends like Duane Allman and Eric Clapton. Still, Living By the Days is a showcase for the artist’s Americana aspirations, the album one of those lost gems of an era when music – if not the industry itself – was truly colorblind in its influences and artistic expression. (Real Gone Music, releases April 2, 2013)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Archive Review: Motörhead’s Inferno (2004)

Motörhead’s Inferno
Motörhead has been this “legendary heavy metal band” for so long that even many critics have overlooked the metal icon’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Frontman Lemmy Kilminster’s roots are in typical ‘60s-era British R&B, but it’s when he joined prog-rockers Hawkwind that things began to get interesting. As bassist for the space-rock outfit during the early ‘70s, Lemmy perfected both his bottom-heavy instrumental style and his songwriting skills. 

When kicked out of Hawkwind for a myriad of offenses, Lemmy formed Motörhead as an outlet for his aggressive hard rock vision, equal parts British biker culture, pre-punk punk rock attitude, and heavy metal thunder. Over the course of dozens of albums, Lemmy and Motörhead’s ever-evolving line-up managed to affect punk, heavy metal and thrash unlike any other artistic influence.

Motörhead’s Inferno

For almost thirty years, Motörhead’s musical blueprint has been consistent and consistently powerful: Lemmy’s gruff vocals spitting out lyrics above a massive slab of feedback-driven guitar riffs and thunderous drumbeats. Inferno, the band’s latest, doesn’t stray far from the formula. The blistering “Terminal Show” kicks off the disc, a futuristic tale of woe set to a speed metal soundtrack that careens out of control approx. Thirty seconds into the song, guest axeman Steve Vai’s razor sharp leads standing in counterpoint to Phillip Campbell’s percussive riffs. From here, the pace never diminishes, drummer Mikkey Dee’s merciless rhythms driving the songs forward while Lemmy’s bass bludgeons the listener and Campbell’s six-string work punches with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The only surprise on Inferno, perhaps, is the acoustic “Whorehouse Blues,” an overt reference to the influence of traditional blues (and British blues-rock) on Motörhead’s metallic sturm-und-drang. Inferno is both timeless and out-of-time, Lemmy serving up uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll field-tested by better than a quarter-century of hard roadwork. In Campbell and Dee, Kilminster has the band he’s always wanted, the iron fist inside the tattered leather glove. Like most Motörhead albums, Inferno is dominated by themes of sex, death, power and the near-mystical aesthetic of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs roar like a wolf at the door and scream louder than Dante’s nightmares, Motörhead an anachronistic thorn in the side of the music business, the rude guest that refuses to leave the modern rock party.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

You won’t hear Inferno on the radio, but its importance will be felt five or ten years from now when the kid who discovers Motörhead through this album forms the next Metallica or Nirvana. In the end, Lemmy won’t be remembered so much for the remarkable simplicity and strength of his music but for the young musicians who continue to be influenced by the uncompromising honesty and anarchistic spirit that is Motörhead. (Sanctuary Records, released June 22nd, 2004)

Review originally published by the Community Free Press (Springfield MO)

Buy the CD from Motörhead’s Inferno 


Friday, March 18, 2022

Archive Review: Muddy Waters’ Soundstage: Blues Summit In Chicago, 1974

Muddy Waters’ Soundstage
In July 1974, Muddy Waters was chosen to host the inaugural episode of Soundstage, the beloved live concert series broadcast by PBS stations around the country for thirteen subsequent seasons. Waters was the first in a long run of talented performers to appear on the acclaimed TV show, and he brought some friends with him, resulting in what the producers called a “Blues Summit In Chicago.” The King of Chicago Blues brought along his Queen, the phenomenal Koko Taylor, and a full suite of acolytes and admirers, including Junior Wells, Michael Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Buddy Miles, and Dr. John, among others.

Muddy Waters’ Soundstage Blues Summit In Chicago 1974

After a solid performance of Waters’ “Blow Wind Blow” that’s interrupted by introductions, the show gets down to business with a sizzling take on “Long Distance Call.” Muddy is in fine voice, belting out the lyrics with perfect timing and emotion, accompanied by Wells’ icy harp and Bloomfield’s twangy guitar licks, with Pinetop Perkins banging the piano keys. Singer/songwriter Nick Gravenites joins Wells on his signature “Messin’ With the Kid,” the pair ripping the roof off the sucker with an energetic performance, Bloomfield’s wiry solos underlining a smiling Wells’ lively vocals.

Waters returns to the stage for a raucous read on his “Mannish Boy,” the band delivering a white-hot groove for Waters to croon above while Winter and Bloomfield swap licks. Taylor is joined by Willie Dixon for a romp through “Wang Dang Doodle,” guitarist Phil Guy receiving a well-deserved spotlight while Koko outshines her male colleagues with an electrifying performance. With his usual modesty, Johnny Winter introduces “Walking Through the Park,” leading the band on a livewire cover of the Buddy Guy tune featuring three dueling guitarists and Wells’ raging harp play.

An extended take on Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin’” literally has the audience on its feet as everybody hits the stage. Wells offers a freight-train solo, Winter lays down a finger-blistering lead, and Pinetop hammers the keys alongside Dr. John. There are other solid performances here, ten in all for this first Soundstage release, the DVD a definite “must have” for any old-school Chicago blues fan! (Legacy Recordings, 2015)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2015

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Archive Review: ZZ Top’s La Futura (2012)

ZZ Top’s La Futura
Over the past decade, ZZ Top – that little ol’ band from Texas – has largely relied on their electrifying live show to push their career forward as it enters into its fifth decade. The trio of guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard has been together since the beginning and the band’s 1970 debut album, a raucous amalgam of blues and rock that took both genres into new territory. They would build on that sound with subsequent landmark releases like Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres, reaching their commercial peak with 1983’s Eliminator.

The band has been absent from the studio for much of the 2000s, though, ZZ Top’s last studio album also the fourth release under a reported $35 million deal with RCA Records. When 2003’s Mescalero met with diminished commercial returns, however, the band was left in the hinterlands without a label deal, and save for a couple of well-received live releases – including Live In Germany 1980 – ZZ Top has done much of their talking from the stage. Changes were afoot, however, and around 2008 the band broke with long-time manager Bill Ham and signed with producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, the result being La Futura, the band’s first studio effort in over nine years.

ZZ Top’s La Futura

Four years in the making, La Futura takes ZZ Top recklessly into the future while unashamedly drawing upon the band’s storied past. Gibbons and gang delve into a bit of what Chris Thomas King calls the “21st century hip-hop blues” for the album-opening “I Gotsta Get Paid.” The song is based on a 1990s track by Houston rapper DJ DMD (“Lighters”), and the ZZ crew dirty it up a bit with some Rio Grande mud, drawing out the groove to a monolithic drone while Gibbons’ guitar screams and stutters like James Blood Ulmer’s Harmolodic blues. More of a greasy Texas blues-rock vamp than anything remotely hip-hop, it’s an interesting and edgy direction for the aging greybeards in ZZ Top. By comparison, “Chartreuse” is a mid-tempo boogie-blues tune firmly in the band’s wheelhouse, a rolling, rollicking beat punctuated by Gibbons’ fuzzy, frenetic guitarplay.

La Futura also takes ZZ Top onto new musical turf with the emotionally-raw and darkly elegant ballad “Over You.” Co-written with roots ‘n’ blues musician and songwriter Tom Hambridge, “Over You” is a slow-paced, smoldering, and heartfelt ode that levels Gibbons’ rough-throated, heartbroken vocals over a swelling crescendo of sound. His fretwork here evokes the best of every blues guitarist that comes to mind, but especially Albert King for its raw strength, and Otis Rush for its understated beauty. Gibbons’ shaky, slightly distorted tone adds to the mournful resonance of his solos. Revisiting the twelve-bar blues of their youth, “Heartache In Blue” is a torrid, mid-tempo rocker with Hound Dog Taylor roots, Gibbons’ torn ‘n’ frayed vocals complimented by rolling blasts from James Harman’s harmonica and his own switchblade guitar notes.   

Big Shiny Nine

Another Hambridge co-write, “I Don’t Want To Lose, Lose You,” treads similar lyrical ground, but with a bigger, bolder sound, the double-tracked machine-gun guitars reminding of the band’s Tres Hombres era, Gibbons’ blustery vocals backed by a choogling rhythm (think “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers” on steroids) and sonic blasts of razor-sharp guitar licks. “Flyin’ High” sounds more like the Eliminator ‘80s, but with less emphasis on synthesizer hum, the song copping a melody from a vaguely-remembered minor hit of the era and embroidering it with classic rock chops – soaring guitarplay, riffs that circle back around on you, a mean-as-hell backbeat, and a heavy bass line.

The trio visits Nashville for a cover of country-folk duo David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “It’s Too Easy Manana.” Much as they did with the aforementioned rap song, ZZ slaps layers of bluesy grime and grit onto the song like cheap paint at Earl Scheib. Slowing down the pace to a dinosaur plod, texture is provided by Gibbons’ electronically-enhanced guitar sound, a big drum blast, and world-weary vocals. It’s a great performance that bears repeated listens. Ditto for “Big Shiny Nine,” possibly the best…or at least the most fun…song on La Futura, a blues-rock romp from the 1970s with flamethrower guitar and driving rhythms. Gibbons’ guttural, growling vocals (think Howlin’ Wolf with a cold) are matched only by his jagged git solos and the song’s fluid groove. Down ‘n’ dirty in the pocket for “Have A Little Mercy,” the band closes with another throwback to the early ‘70s, the song bringing to mind “Waitin’ For The Bus” but with a slightly-funky, slow-boiling groove and shards of deep-cutting, raw-boned guitar.           

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Bringing a fresh perspective into the studio in the form of producer Rick Rubin – the first person not named “Gibbons” or “Ham” to sit in that chair since 1970 – has paid off in spades for ZZ Top, the band delivering its most inspired work since 1983’s Eliminator, and possibly its most blues-oriented album since Tres Hombres, nearly 40 years ago. The band has never strayed far from its Texas blues roots, but the synthesizer overkill that characterized its chart-topping tunes of the 1980s has been dialed back to a mild buzz, allowing Billy Gibbons’ joyful guitar playing to dominate the performances and lead the band back into the blues-rock spotlight. (American Recordings, released September 11, 2012)

Buy the CD from ZZ Top’s La Futura

Friday, March 11, 2022

Archive Review: Roy Buchanan’s Live At Rockpalast (2012)

Roy Buchanan’s Live At Rockpalast
Roy Buchanan is probably the best guitarist that you’ve never heard. Although he found a modicum of success with the twelve albums he released during his lifetime, two of them achieving Gold® sales status (a heady accomplishment in the 1970s), his influence reaches far beyond the meager commercial returns of his work. The “Master of the Telecaster” provided inspiration for fellow guitarists like Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Danny Gatton, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, among others with his heady brew of blues, roots-rock, R&B, and country music.

After an amazing string of eight studio and a single live album recorded and released during the brief space of nine years, by 1981 Buchanan was burned out. The vagaries of the recording industry, and his labels’ attempts to conform his talents to a saleable commodity had left him disgruntled and disillusioned. The guitarist would virtually disappear for a spell, taking a four-year hiatus to re-think and re-charge his batteries. Lucky for us, Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer convinced Buchanan to return from his self-imposed exile, giving the guitarist artistic control in the studio that would result in some of the best recordings of Buchanan’s career.

Roy Buchanan’s Live At Rockpalast

Live At Rockpalast is taken from a February 1985 performance by the guitarist and his band for the popular German TV show Rockpalast, and would mark Buchanan’s return to music…and what a return it would prove to be! Buchanan’s performance here, prior to the recording of his Alligator debut When A Guitar Plays the Blues, shows an artist and musician back in fighting form and shaking off the ring rust. Leading a band that included (seldom used) singer Martin Stephenson, keyboardist John Steel, and bassist Anthony Dumm – all members of U.K. pop/rock band the Daintees – as well as drummer Martin Yula, Buchanan cranks through a baker’s dozen of original blues-flavored roots-rockers and favorite covers, much to the delight of the enthusiastic German audience.

The set kicks off with the spry “Thing In G (Short Fuse),” a funky instrumental romp that sounds not unlike some of the material Stevie Ray Vaughan would be vamping on a couple of short years later. While the band provides a supple rhythm, Buchanan embroiders the song with his red-hot fretwork, the guitarist firing on all cylinders as he throws in sly blues, jazz, and rockabilly references throughout the four-minute firecracker. Buchanan’s subsequent take on Booker T & the M.G.s’ classic “Green Onion” is unlike any you’ve ever heard…while the band offers up a standard take on the song’s keyboard riffing and swaggering drumbeats, the guitarist stomps all over tradition with his wild-ass flamethrower solos, which bounce off the arrangement like a madman careening off the walls of his rubber room. It makes for an energetic and unpredictable performance, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Blues In D

Buchanan was well-known and revered for his ability to fuse blues, rock, and country music into an earthy, organic sound, and nowhere did he ever do it better than with “Roy’s Blues (Roy’s Bluz).” An intricate instrumental backdrop frames the almost whispered, briefly spoken lyrics as Buchanan’s fretwork ranges from low-key blues and roots-rock to jagged shards of angular jazz licks and twangy, barbed-wire country tones. It’s not blues as we know it, but it’s breathtaking nevertheless, the song stretched out to ten minutes by Buchanan and band so that by the time he hits the crescendo almost six minutes in, when the raucous vocals fly out of nowhere, you’re left exhausted.

By contrast, Buchanan’s instrumental “Blues In D” is a more traditional blues shuffle, with the guitarist showing his mojo hand through a number of passages throughout the song. Above a standard Chicago blues bass/drums rhythm, Buchanan tacks on an incendiary display of six-string pyrotechnics, emotion pouring from his fingertips in a performance that is pure instinct and adrenalin. He takes much the same tack with songwriter Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams,” Buchanan’s mournful, tear-jerking solos echoing the song’s heartbreak lyrics, adding a bit of blues hue to this instrumental take on a beloved country classic.

Foxy Lady

Like just about every other guitarist that came of age during the 1960s, Buchanan was touched by the incredible sounds that issued from the instrument of the late Jimi Hendrix. Buchanan’s take on Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” – the song a garage-rock standard first hit big by the Leaves in 1965 and later adapted by Hendrix as the Experience’s first single – skews more towards Hendrix’s vision in this performance. Although Stevenson’s vocals are unremarkable, it’s Buchanan’s mangling of his instrument that draws your attention, his solos incorporating scraps of blues, rock, and some otherworldly sounds that even Jimi couldn’t reach. The following version of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” soars even further into the stratosphere, the vocals overshadowed and hidden beneath Buchanan’s unbelievable, high-flying guitar and the muscular rhythmic soundtrack provided by Dumm and Yula.

Buchanan’s “Messiah (Messiah Will Come Again)” is provided a truly ethereal performance here, the song’s unlikely fusion of blues and rock with classical music overtones unique to Buchanan’s particular experience and perspective. His haunting guitarplay here is elegantly beautiful and tragically dark, the guitarist wringing every bit of energy and emotion from his fretboard. The mood is heightened greatly, however, by the upbeat “Night Train,” a rockabilly-tinged instrumental with a ramshackle framework that rocks and rolls like the wheels on a freight train. Buchanan closes Live At Rockpalast with “Wayfaring Pilgrim,” another haunting instrumental that showcases his immense abilities, great tone, and masterful blending of musical styles.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The 1985 release of the acclaimed When A Guitar Plays the Blues represented the beginning of a fertile period of Roy Buchanan’s career, the guitarist quickly recording 1986’s Dancing On the Edge and the following year’s Hot Wires before his tragic death in 1988. Returning to the trenches after a four-year break, Buchanan sounds recharged, revved-up, and ready-to-roll on Live At Rockpalast. There are few live documents of this unique and influential guitarist available, and this one is well worth your hard-earned coin. (MIG Music, released March 6, 2012)

Buy the CD from Roy Buchanan’s Live At Rockpalast

Friday, March 4, 2022

Archive Review: Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool (1978/2008)

Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool
Nick Lowe has been making great music for so long that we often take him for granted. Over a career that has spanned nearly forty years, Lowe has released around a dozen albums of consistently entertaining and adventurous songs that venture into sounds of pop, rock, country, and all things in between.

As member of early ‘70s pub-rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe earned a reputation as a snappy songwriter with a skill for turning a phrase. The band’s roots-rock sound never caught on far beyond the streets of London and Camden Town, however, and Brinsley Schwarz broke up in 1975 after recording five now highly-collectible albums. The independent spirit of Brinsley Schwarz, combined with the band’s part in convincing British pubs to feature live music, paved the way for the back-to-the-basics movement of punk rock and helped spawn the legendary class of ‘77 that included the Damned, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols.

Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool

Lowe had a direct hand in shaping both punk and new wave, working for Stiff Records as a producer on important and influential records from talents like Graham Parker, Wreckless Eric, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and the Damned. During this post-Brinsley period, Lowe also toured the U.S. as part of Dave Edmunds’ band, opening for Bad Company. Lowe released an initial single – “So It Goes” – on Stiff in 1976, and would subsequently launch his solo career in earnest in 1978 with the release of Jesus of Cool, a whip-smart collection of pop-rock gems that welded contagious melodies with Lowe’s often-demented lyrical tales.

Because the album’s original British title was considered too “edgy” and controversial for the United States, Lowe’s debut album was released stateside under the wonderfully descriptive title Pure Pop For Now People with different sequencing and songs. Under either title, the album won no little amount of critical acclaim. Although it has sadly been out-of-print for better than a decade, this situation has recently been remedied by Yep Roc Records. The label has reissued Jesus of Cool in a 30th anniversary edition with its original schizo cover art and track sequencing, with a wealth of bonus material and a swanky package that includes a nifty annotated booklet with liner notes and lots of photos. The entire package folds out into a cool stained-glass cross-type thingie in keeping with the whole “Nick Lowe is the Jesus of Cool” theme.

Pure Pop For Now People

What has made Jesus of Cool a cult favorite for three decades, though, is the undeniably entertaining music contained within. Lowe’s talents aren’t contained by any single pigeonhole, and musically the songs here run the gamut from the hard-edged martial minimalism of the anti-industry “Music For Money” and the twisted ‘50s-styled rock ballad “Little Hitler” to the whimsical casual vandalism of “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass.”

The swaggering “Shake And Pop” features a Jerry Lee-styled piano-bashing as its musical signature, while the song’s lyrical doppelganger, “They Called It Rock,” is an equally breathless exploration of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, supported this time around by a rollicking rhythm and stabs of Duane Eddy-styled guitarwork. “So It Goes” is a popish new wave roller with an infectious chorus and a bit of vocal gymnastics by the good Mr. Lowe. The finely-crafted power-pop construction and lighthearted vocals of “Marie Provost” barely cover the dark humor of the song’s sordid subject matter. “Nutted By Reality” offers up a funky bass groove and lively rhythm before dropping into an unlikely bit of McCartneyesque pop surrealism. A live version of “Heart of the City” is a driven slab o’ rootsy rock with squirrely guitar, rapidfire vocals, and a perfect bash-and-crash drumbeat.

There are a number of gems thrown in amidst the ten bonus tracks afforded this deluxe edition of Jesus of Cool. The uber-groovy instrumental “Shake That Rat” is a Dick Dale inspired walk on the beach while “I Love My Label” is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek observation of recording industry expectations. The Phil Spectorish “Halfway To Paradise” is an understated, ‘60s-style flight-of-fancy with delicious harmonies and lofty instrumentation. The fan-tastic “Rollers Show” is a fab slice of teen-beat adoration for the Bay City Rollers, delivered with a Britpop beat and a heart of gold. An original take on the classic “Cruel To Be Kind” is faster-but-slighter than that found on Labour of Lust, but no less fetching with its beautiful pop sheen.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Beneath all of the bluster and genius, however, Jesus of Cool is a wonderfully concise collection of songs that evince as much anger and vitriol as anything recorded by new wave’s “angry young men” like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. Unlike either of those talented artists, however, Lowe – a veteran tunesmith with better than a decade of performing and recording beneath his belt – learned how to mask his venom with a spoonful of sugar. The result is a timeless classic of true rock ‘n’ roll music – intelligent, witty, clever, angry and, most of! (Yep Roc Records, 2008)

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

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Friday, February 25, 2022

Archive Review: Johnny Winter’s Step Back (2014)

Johnny Winter’s Step Back
The death of blues guitarist Johnny Winter in July 2014 took us all by surprise. Sure, the man had been ailing for some time, but that didn’t stop him from touring non-stop and performing like a dervish for the audience each and every night. It seemed like he’d be with us forever, and while it’s sadly fitting that he should hang up his guitar for the last time while on the road, it did little to lessen the loss.

Before his death, Winter had all but finished up Step Back, his star-studded follow-up to 2011’s critically-acclaimed Roots set. Comprised of vintage blues and R&B songs that Winter grew up listening to as a teen in Texas, Step Back features covers of classics by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, to name but a few. Winter was joined in the studio for his blues odyssey by such fellow fiends as Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Brian Setzer, and Dr. John, among other talents, the result being one of the best and most spirited albums of Winter’s lengthy career.    

Johnny Winter’s Step Back

Winter departs from his signature sound somewhat with the album-opening “Unchain My Heart.” Winter’s cover of the Ray Charles classic probably skews closer to Joe Cocker’s later version than Charles’ original hit, but he does it up right. Accompanied by the “Blues Brothers Horns,” led by trombonist Tom “Bones” Malone and saxman “Blue” Lou Malone, Winter infuses the track with a big band, R&B vibe complete with angelic female backing vocals. Winter’s voice is surprisingly smooth here, taking on a silkier feel even while his guitarwork retains its razor edge. It’s a wonderful and atypical performance that proves that, even in the latest stages of his career, Winter could still hit us with a creative curve ball.

“Can’t Hold Out (Talk To Me Baby)” is a lesser-known Elmore James track, but a blues gem nonetheless, written by Willie Dixon and recorded in 1960 for Chess Records. Winter is accompanied Ben Harper on vocals and guitar, and much as he did working with Charlie Musselwhite on the pair’s award-winning Get Up! album, Harper’s contribution perfectly complements the older bluesman’s performance. Winter is provided a chance to display his slide-guitar prowess on the raucous track, but Harper lays in a few nice licks as well. Winter is joined by Eric Clapton on a laid-back cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Don’t Want No Woman” and, as usual, when “Slowhand” is recording with and challenged by another talented guitarist, he rises to the challenge. The two guitarist’s solos are things of beauty, drenched in the blues and polished off with a soulful shine while pianist Mike DiMeo layers in some tasty honky-tonk fills in the background.

Killing Floor

Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” is a tune familiar to anybody reading this, a blues standard that has been etched in wax by everybody from Jimi Hendrix and Electric Flag to Clapton and many others. Winter’s manager and rhythm guitarist Paul Nelson is featured here, acquitting himself nicely with a lively solo that keeps the song’s momentum going nicely. Winter’s vocals are playful and energetic, not as gruff as the Wolf’s but like fresh sandpaper nonetheless. Bo Diddly’s “Who Do You Love” is required reading for any young blues-rock band, and Winter and crew bite into it like a pride of hungry old lions on a gazelle. Meredith Dimenna’s backing vocals soften Winter’s raw tones somewhat, and his greasy slide-guitar licks are highlighted by Nelson’s accompanying acoustic and electric guitars; DiMeo’s spry piano-pounding adds a little livewire electricity to the performance.

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons guest stars on a Jimmy Reed’s “Where Can You Be,” his reckless six-string sound a perfect foil to Winter’s scorched tones. The mid-tempo number sizzles and sparks like a smoldering fire, and there’s not nearly as much difference in the two men’s solos as one might think; both are short, sweet, and strong and prove that while you can take the man out of Texas, you’ll never get the Texas out of the man. Joe Bonamassa stands alongside the Blues Brothers Horns for “Sweet Sixteen,” Winter proving with his opening solo that he can channel his inner B.B. King with the best of them. With DiMeo’s Hammond organ adding color, the two men put on an instrumental clinic certain to thrill any blues guitar fanatic. Winter’s vocals are soulful, the band keeps a steady, swaying rhythmic backdrop, and the horns add accent on what is a brilliant performance.  

Son House’s Death Letter

The heart and soul of Step Back, however, is Winter’s solo performance on Son House’s mournful “Death Letter.” Accompanied only by his National steel guitar and his weary voice, Winter’s intricate guitarplay is matched by the urgency of his gritty, haunted vocals. It’s a powerful performance, and one that shows how deep the blues ran through Winter’s DNA. His cover of Little Walter’s jaunty “My Babe” is much livelier by contrast. With the band laying down a traditional Chicago blues rhythm, Winter’s vocals are matched by harpist Jason Ricci’s dancing notes. Winter’s fluid guitar solo approximates Walter’s original harmonica solos, and sounds great next to Ricci’s underrated harpwork.

As a band, Aerosmith has always worn its blues fascination on its collective sleeves, and whatever one may think of them, there’s no denying that Joe Perry is a first class stringbender – a status proven by his appearance here. Dueting on Lightnin’ Hopkins' signature tune “Mojo Hand,” the band lays down a rollicking beat on top of which Winter and Perry slap out a pair of rattletrap solos that buzz and hum with unbridled blues electricity. Step Back closes out with a fine cover of Fat Domino’s finest, “Blue Monday,” Winter joined by Dr. John, who brings a bit of New Orleans flavor to the performance, his upbeat piano playing nicely off the Blues Brothers Horns and their nuanced R&B fills.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Johnny Winter fans are a rabid, loyal bunch, so the Reverend’s definitely preaching to the choir; the faithful already have a copy of Step Back tucked away on their shelf. As for the rest of you, if you’ve been sitting on the fence about Mr. Winter, this is the album to tip you over to the right side. Hearing Winter hold his own with some of the best and brightest from the blues and rock worlds is impressive enough, but with Step Back the guitarist makes the argument that even if an individual man’s life is frail and finite, the blues ring eternal.

Kudos to producer Paul Nelson for capturing these fine performances on tape; to the guest musicians who brought their best to the studio; to Winter’s talented band for their spirited and supportive playing; and most of all to Mr. John Dawson Winter III, who plays guitar and sings on his final album with the same love and affection for the music that he brought to his first recording. A one of a kind talent and a charismatic performer, Winter’s death is a huge loss for the blues…but as swansongs go, you won’t find better than Winter’s Step Back. (Megaforce Records, released September 2, 2014)

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