Thursday, August 31, 2023

Nuggets Redux: A Song-By-Song History of the History of the Most Influential Album In Rock 'n' Roll

Rev. Gordon's Nuggets Redux
Since its release in 1972, the multi-artist compilation Nuggets – featuring songs hand-chosen by legendary musician and rock critic Lenny Kaye – has arguably become the most influential album in rock ‘n’ roll history. With 27 songs spread across two vinyl records and packaged in a colorful, multi-hued cover, Nuggets, sub-titled “Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,” would become one of the most popular and enduring anthologies of rock music ever created.

With Nuggets Redux, music historian Rev. Keith A. Gordon dives deep into the album, providing a song-by-song history of the magic made by psych-and-garage rock legends like The Electric Prunes, The Vagrants, The Remains, The Shadows of Knight, The Chocolate Watchband, and many others. Gordon also digs into the album’s ongoing influence in the decades since and provides a succinct history of Nuggets sequels and copycats, including the 50th anniversary Record Store day vinyl box set. Nuggets Redux is illustrated with over three dozen color and vintage B&W photographs.

Order an autographed copy of Nuggets Redux for $17.99 postpaid direct from the publisher! (U.S. orders only)

Rather buy the book from Amazon? Here are some links:
Nuggets Redux print version
Nuggets Redux eBook

Friday, August 25, 2023

Buzz Kuts: The Gadjits, Guided By Voices, Iggy Pop (1999)

THE GADJITS' Wish We Never Met
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, September 1999

THE GADJITS
Wish We Never Met

Ska punks from Kansas? Although they may hail from the great American heartland, I’d challenge any reader to a blindfold taste test. Through this speaker we have your generic SoCal ska band blastin’ out attitude-ridden tunes about teen angst and getting laid. Out of this other speaker we have, well, ska songs about teen angst and getting laid. Although the grooves they’re laying down may sound like there’s sand between the notes, the Gadjits second Hellcat album, Wish We Never Met, forges its own path through the ska punk minefield. With occasionally whip-smart lyrics punctuated by a steady ska rhythm, Wish We Never Met differentiates itself from many of its California cousins by throwing in a little musical diversity. While songs like the sex fantasy “Manuhkin” or “Angel and A Devil,” an insightful look at drug abuse, showcase an intelligent lyrical slant, the ska undertones of Wish We Never Met are colored with shades of soulful R & B and a little classic pop influence. “Cleveland, Ohio” is a great song about being on the road while the album-closing “Jenny Jones” takes the talk show hostess and her colleagues to task for fucking around with the kids. Overall, the Gadjits grow enough musically with Wish We Never Met to keep things interesting without alienating any fans. It’s a good path to take and one that many ska punk outfits have gotten lost on during the past couple of years. (Hellcat Records)

GUIDED BY VOICES' Do the Collapse
GUIDED BY VOICES
Do the Collapse

Robert Pollard and his revolving Guided By Voices line-up have long enjoyed status as critic’s darlings, but have never found the edge that would allow them to break-out beyond their significant cult following and become true rock ‘n’ roll stars. Perhaps one of the alt-rock world’s best-known and least understood talents, Pollard defies expectations exactly because nobody really knows what to expect from the man. GBV has always been a vanity project, and where Pollard differs from his contemporaries is in age, outlook, and experience. Pollard possesses an enormous musical vocabulary, one that encompasses almost forty years of rock music. That he often deconstructs his influences and recreates them as his own is one of the facets of Pollard’s peculiar and unique artistic vision.
    Although the last couple of GBV albums displayed an artistic weariness, a new label and a new album – Do the Collapse – go a long way towards providing Pollard with some commercial attention to go along with the accolades. The most-accessible GBV album yet, the songs on Do the Collapse are fully formed pieces, not mere glimpses of ideas or outlines. Do the Collapse provides the best look at Pollard’s considerable talents since the acclaimed Bee Thousand, the songs full of life and energy, filled with charming melodies and lush instrumentation. Although cuts like “Dragons Awake!,” “Hold On Hope,” or “Wrecking Now” are scattered with Pollard’s often-times oblique and highly symbolic wordplay, they also show a maturity of imagery and execution that make them among the best he’s written. The pop/rock soundtrack that underlines the words is as adventuresome as it is familiar. Produced by Ric Ocasek, another artist who knows his way around a pop song, Do the Collapse is a vital, creative work and one that’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. (TVT Records)    

IGGY POP' Avenue B
IGGY POP
Avenue B

One of the problems of being a cultural icon is that it becomes increasingly harder to fool the marks. So much has been said of the legend that is Iggy Pop – the violent stage antics with the Stooges, his self-destructive “Idiot” era, the Bowie years, movie stardom, MTV, and his rebirth as a buffed-up, iron humping metal master – it’s really difficult to separate fact from fiction, myth from missteps. Sitting, as we are, on the edge of the 21st century, nobody in their right mind could have predicted – not even ten years ago – that Iggy would be poised to begin his fifth decade in rock ‘n’ roll. Stranger still is that with the release of Avenue B, Iggy has transformed himself into some sort of beat poet. Huh?
    That’s right – Iggy fucking Pop, the godfather of punk and founding father of heavy metal, the guy that used to roll around bare-chested on a stage littered with broken glass and flagellate himself with the mike cord – has delivered an album that owes as much to Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac as it does to “Louie Louie” and chaos theory. Surprisingly enough, though, Avenue B works. Iggy’s baritone vox have always had a smokey room quality to them, and some of his better songs over the years have been more spoken than sung. Avenue B offers up a few no-frills rock riffs, but the main course here is a beat-infused jazzy ambience aided by the instrumental skills of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The old Iggy energy and attitude is still here, as is Pop’s penchant for highly personal and introspective lyrics. Produced by Iggy’s old Motor City pal Don Was, Avenue B presents the artist in an entirely new light, a flattering and intelligent guise for a legend not quite ready to rest on his significant laurels. (Virgin Records)

The View On Pop Culture: Todd Snider, Tommy Womack, Jason Ringenberg (2002)

Todd Snider's New Connection
V2.31

When people think of the city of Nashville, their thoughts often turn to the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash, or maybe even Garth Brooks. The shadow of the country music industry casts its net over everything in the city, from art to commerce. Few people outside of the southeast know that Nashville is the “Music City” in more ways than just Shania Twain and Alan Jackson. The city also has a thriving gospel music industry and a rap music community to rival such “Dirty South” hotspots as Atlanta and New Orleans.

Nashville has long been home to critically acclaimed rockers like Jason & the Scorchers, Webb Wilder, Bill Lloyd and Threk Michaels and is also the center of a growing “space music” community driven by artists like Aashid Himons, Tony Gerber, and Giles Reaves. No matter what style of music you enjoy, from dancefloor rhythms to heavy metal, from punk to folk to roots rock, the Music City has something for you. As a number of fine albums have recently been released by some of Nashville’s brightest talents, your humble columnist is overjoyed to offer readers the following “summer required listening list.” Pay attention…there will be a pop quiz in September.

A Nashvillian by way of Seattle, Austin and Memphis, singer/songwriter Todd Snider has so much talent and charisma that just his presence in the city makes every other artist work that much harder. After an artistically fruitful trip through the major label minefield that brought Snider some fame and little fortune, he has landed on John Prine’s Nashville label. As shown by New Connection (Oh Boy Records), it’s a good fit for both Snider and the label. A quirky songwriter with an eye for life’s absurdities and an imagination as long as his arm (much like Prine), Snider cranks out verbose story-songs that show a considerable amount of humor and intelligence. Whether Snider is bragging about his record collection on “Vinyl Records,” having a little fun on a “Beer Run” or playing the starving artist on “Broke,” Snider imbues his songs with life and energy, mixing folk and blues and rock-roots with just a little country twang. Regardless of whether he’s making you laugh, or making you cry with his songs, Todd Snider never fails to wring an emotional response out of his audience. For an artist, there is no greater praise...

Tommy Womack's Circus Town
A long-time fixture on Nashville’s rock scene, Tommy Womack was a member of southeastern cult bands Govt. Cheese and the Bis-Quits and is the writer of The Cheese Chronicles, the best book about being on the road with a rock band that you’ll ever read. A pair of excellent solo albums has established Womack as an individual talent on the rise. His third album, Circus Town (Sideburn Records) cements Womack’s reputation as one of the most insightful and entertaining rockers on the independent scene today. Much like Snider, Womack brings a lot of his own personality to his songs, sometimes funny/sometimes serious tunes that reveal and cherish the foibles of the human condition. “The Replacements” is a fond remembrance of and homage to one of the greatest (and sometimes the worst) live rock bands in history while “The Highway’s Coming” is a circular tale of sin and redemption. Songs like “You Can’t Get There From Here” or “Circus Town” have more in common lyrically with the Ramones than with Hank Williams, Womack adding elements of talking blues and traditional country to his punkish roots-rock blend. Unlike a lot of pop songwriters who write down to their audience, Tommy Womack demands that you join him on his level. Considering the lofty creative standard set by Circus Town, Womack has a lot to live up to next time around.

Jason Ringenberg's All Over Creation
He might not like the description, but Jason Ringenberg is one of the influential graybeards of the Nashville rock scene. Country punk pioneers Jason & the Scorchers have been tearing up stages across the country and overseas for two decades now, helped give birth to the “alternative country” genre and spawned dozens of bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown. Ringenberg leans more towards the country side of the musical equation with his solo albums and All Over Creation (Yep Roc Records) may be his most inspired work yet. A collection of duets between Ringenberg, friends and followers, All Over Creation offers up a delightful mix of country classics and original material.

Jason revisits a Scorcher favorite with “Bible and A Gun,” turning it into a somber Civil War morality play in his duet with Steve Earle, and follows “James Dean’s Car” over the cliff with collaborator Todd Snider. With one foot in the honky tonk, Jason and BR5-49 provide Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” with a lively reading while the critically acclaimed Lambchop back Ringenberg on a haunting tale of Irish immigrants, “Erin’s Seed.” Tommy Womack, Kristi Rose and Paul Burch are among the other artists adding their talents to All Over Creation, Ringenberg delivering an album that has more reckless country soul than anything that Nashville’s Music Row will release this year. (View From The Hill, July 2002)

Friday, August 18, 2023

Buzz Kuts: Down By Law, Jethro Tull, The Neckbones, 22 Jacks, 'Morning Becomes Eclectic' (1999)

DOWN BY LAW's Fly The Flag
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, August 1999

DOWN BY LAW
Fly The Flag

Down By Law deserves a place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, if only for the pointed commentary of “Nothing Good On the Radio” from Fly the Flag. The most scathing slam at pop music and corporate broadcasting since Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio,” Down By Law hits the nail right on the head with a 50-lb. sledge. The fact that the remainder of Fly the Flag rocks harder than your granny on dexies and grape-ade helps bolster the band’s claim to infamy. Ostensibly a punk rock outfit, Down By Law, in reality, are a good old-fashioned rock band, cranking out high amperage rockola that draws as much from roots rock aesthetics and new wave melody as it does hardcore energy and punkish attitude.
    Fly the Flag is a hard rocking effort from start to finish, with barely a break to catch your breath. Lyrically, the album runs the gamut from the aforementioned “Nothing Good On the Radio,” which takes a well-aimed and well-deserved jab at the Backstreet Boys and their ilk, and the corporate media that creates them, to the Celt-flavored “Breakout!” which sounds like the Dropkick Murphys without the whiskey. “Automatic” is a great Gary Numanish look at technology and “Revolution Compromised” decries the lack of political leadership among the youth culture. A band with a conscience, Down By Law manages to deliver politically charged songs in an energetic punk rock framework without the empty rhetoric and polemics that plague many hardcore bands. Eschewing conformity in favor of originality, fighting ignorance with intelligence and compassion, Down By Law deserve their spot on the airwaves. (Go Kart Records)

JETHRO TULL
J-Tull Dot Com

The individual members of Jethro Tull may age, but the band’s sound – thanks to frontman Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre – never gets a minute older. Poised on the brink of the 21st century after three decades of plugging away at this rock ‘n’ roll game, Anderson and crew continue to crank out their own brand of unique, esoteric prog-rock that sounds as contemporary today as it did in 1970. Put aside for a moment the unfortunate fact that, in the face of electronica, hip-hop, various dance beats and bare-chested metallic funk, Tull is as unfashionable as cholera. A few spins of J-Tull Dot Com however, might convince you that there’s life in this old ghost yet.
    A solid collection of tunes that showcase Anderson’s ever-melodic flute riffs and oblique lyrics and the underrated Barre’s subtle, understated six string work, J-Tull Dot Com effortlessly blends together delicate pieces of progressive rock and Celt traditionalism with strains of classical, world music and British jazz. Jumping headfirst into the cyberage, Anderson delivers in the song “Dot Com” what may well be the first intelligent commentary on the effects of technology on romance. The glib “Black Mamba” spotlights the dangers and attractions of love while Barre’s whimsical “Hot Mango Flush” offers some clever wordplay, revealing an unknown side to this talented musician. Grand in scale and deceptively enchanting, J-Tull Dot Com may not win Jethro Tull many new fans, but it does a great job of luring back some old ones. (Fuel 2000 Records)

THE NECKBONES' The Lights Are Getting Dim
THE NECKBONES
The Lights Are Getting Dim

It says right here on the cover of the Neckbones’ latest album, The Lights Are Getting Dim, that the boys are a “cross between the early Rolling Stones and the Dead Boys.” After giving The Lights Are Getting Dim a listen or six, however, they seem more like the mutant offspring of an unnatural mating between Bo Diddley and Johnny Thunders. A raucous, no frills collection of gonzo rock ‘n’ roll, The Lights Are Getting Dim showcase a band that cops from every classy source they can find, from Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry to the Stones and the New York Dolls and every damn thing in-between. They throw the riffs into a blender and hit the fastest speed that they can.
    The Neckbones are young, loud and snotty and, like the Dead Boys’ best moments, seem to teeter on the razor’s edge. The vocals often veer out of control and the guitars, especially on songs like “Cardiac Suture” or “Sick Twist,” fly in the wind like a dervish’s loincloth, threatening to explode into a white-hot nova of sheer religious rock ‘n’ roll frenzy. The Lights Are Getting Dim offers fourteen frantic songs in a mere 34 minutes, averaging out at a fast-paced 2.5 per – hell, these boys ain’t the Ramones, but they recognize that brevity is the soul of rock ‘n’ roll. They crank up the amps to eleven or so, shout and snarl into the mike and kick the shit out of any songs that get in their way. As such, the Reverend has to give The Lights Are Getting Dim his highest recommendation. If this disc doesn’t chase away your blues then it’s too damn late, bunkie – you’re already dead. (Fat Possum Records)

22 JACKS
Going North

Take a guitarist from the Adolescents and a vocalist from Wax – one of the more criminally underrated bands of the 1990s – and you’ll have the core of 22 Jacks, as fine a pop/rock posse as you’re liable to find on the current musical landscape. 22 Jacks deliver the real deal with Going North. You’ll get clobbered with mondo cheap thrills from an album with so many infectious tunes that it’s the musical equivalent of Ebola. Drawing upon a host of friendly influences, from pop punk and new wave to sixties-styled garage rock, Going North offers excellent rave-ups like “Somewhere In Between,” “Without You” and “Slipping Down,” which sounds like one of those upbeat, poppy songs you’d hear in a sixties-vintage movie soundtrack. “Too Much Time” sounds like Graham Parker fronting the Jam, with great rhythm and Joe Sibs’ likeable vocals, tasteful horns lending a half-dozen Stax sides worth of soul to the song. Guitarist Steve Soto keeps things rocking with some impressive six-string work while luscious harmonies and musical hooks big enough to hang your coat and hat on are the norm with Going North. With this album, 22 Jacks achieve the sort of flawless pop/rock fusion that better known pretenders like the Goo Goo Dolls or the Gin Blossoms can only aspire to. A disc that will grow on you with every spin, Going North will have you scouring your local green grocer’s shelves for the band’s earlier work. I can think of no higher praise than that. (Side1 Dummy Records)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Morning Becomes Eclectic

The acclaimed Morning Becomes Eclectic program, which airs on public radio station KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, California has earned a deserved reputation for musical diversity. Showcasing lesser known, though by no means lesser talents in the areas of pop, rock, folk, jazz and world music, the program is an adventuresome kaleidoscope of musical flavors. Evidently the station has been compiling some of the best performances from these broadcasts onto CD for some time, but this is the first collection to be released on a widespread basis. Morning Becomes Eclectic, the album, lives up to its advance billing, offering the unsuspecting listener a wide variety of musical styles – something to suit every taste, I’d dare say.
    Featuring exclusive on-air performances taken from the KCRW archives, Morning Becomes Eclectic throws the spotlight on artists like progressive folk legend John Martyn, alterno-faves Cake and P.J. Harvey, ska stylists the Freestylers, and acclaimed singer/songwriter Beth Orton, among others. The album is rife with exquisite moments, from Air’s atmospheric melodies on “All I Need” and Mercury Rev’s hauntingly beautiful “Opus 40” to the wistfully romantic “Kiss Me” from Nashville’s own Sixpence None The Richer. The album-closing version of “Que Sera Sera” from Pink Martini is simply incredible, an accurately morose treatment of the song that sound like something straight out of a David Lynch movie. Altogether Morning Becomes Eclectic offers up 17 cuts from a like number of artists and none will disappoint the true music lover. Let’s hope that there’s more where this came from. (Mammoth Records)

The View On Pop Culture: John Lee Hooker, Florence Dore, The The (2002)

John Lee Hooker's Live At Newport
V2.30

During the 1930s and ‘40s, countless hopeful musicians traveled the “blues highway” from the Mississippi Delta through Memphis and St. Louis to their final destination, Chicago. Many of these talented former sharecroppers, the sons and grandsons of slaves, made a name and eked out a career in the Windy City. John Lee Hooker’s sojourn took a different path, however, the blues legend turning off the well-traveled path from Clarksville, Mississippi in Memphis, making his way to Detroit in 1943 and starting a musical career that would span six decades. John Lee was a true original, the “Godfather of Boogie” more comfortable in blazing his own trail rather than following someone else’s lead.

Influenced in his childhood by blues talents like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton, friends of his stepfather Willie Moore, Hooker absorbed the music around him and was comfortable performing in a number of stylistic genres, from big city blues to raucous R&B, all tempered by his Delta upbringing. The recently reissued Live At Newport (Vanguard Records) portrays Hooker in a different light, that of the acoustic “folk blues” artist. The tracks are culled from two different performances at the Newport Folk Festival – a handful of songs feature Hooker in solo performances from the 1960 festival, while the remaining tracks are taken from the 1963 festival and include Bill Lee on upright bass.

The resulting performances are stark reminders of Hooker’s roots, dark-hued dirty blues that rise up out of the Delta like saber-rattling ghosts to demand your attention. Along with better-known songs from the John Lee milieu, tracks like “Boom Boom” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” you’ll find gems like the forceful “Bus Station Blues” or a powerful cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Stop Now Baby.” John Lee Hooker was a singular talent, a charismatic presence that mesmerized audiences wherever he performed. Live At Newport may not be the most technically polished album you hear this year (there’s only so much improvement that can be made on 40-year old tapes), but there’s no denying the power behind the performances. Although he died in 2001, John Lee Hooker remains a giant among blues musicians; his influence will continue to be felt by musicians for a generation to follow.

Florence Dore's Perfect City
With a voice eerily similar to Lucinda Williams and equally impressive songwriting skills to match, Florence Dore forges her own distinctive identity with her amazing debut Perfect City (Slewfoot Records). Dore treads much the same creative territory as Williams, leaving her stylistic imprint at the crossroads where the genres of country, folk, and rock music intersect, delivering a highly personal and thoroughly mesmerizing collection of songs. A daytime academic with a background in American literature, Dore’s love of Faulkner and enchantment with written word find a suitable home in her intelligent wordplay.

Dore’s lofty vocals soar above Chris Erikson’s Byrdsian guitar lines, songs like the bittersweet “Christmas,” the Thomas Wolfe-vibe of “No Nashville” or the raucous “Everything I Own” transcending alt-country clich├ęs to stand on their own as wonderfully timeless songs. Produced with his typically knowledgeable hand by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Perfect City is a mature, considerable work from an artist still developing her artistic wings. With the voice of an angel and the soul of a poet, Florence Dore may be following the footsteps of giants like Williams and Emmylou Harris, but she is doing an admirable job as she finds her own way.

The The's 45 RPM
Matt Johnson, the brains (and brawn) behind critical favorites The The is one of rock music’s great enigmas. Sure, he garnered plenty of ink during the band’s high profile, late ‘80s run at the charts, but Johnson the artist remains a mystery, a conundrum that won’t be solved with the release of 45 RPM, The Singles of The The (Legacy Recordings). 45 RPM is the first shot in a campaign to restore and reissue four important albums from Johnson’s The The catalog, including the band’s 1983 debut Soul Mining and the acclaimed 1989 release Mind Bomb with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. To this end, 45 RPM collects a dozen essential The The singles, from the 1982 hit “Uncertain Smile” through Johnson’s cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” A limited edition of the collection includes a second disc with rare remixes of eight songs taken from hard-to-find 12” singles created for the club and dancefloor market.

Part of the mystery of Johnson’s genius is the artist’s penchant for changing horses in the midst of a stylistic stream. The hit “Infected” from the 1986 album of the same name is an infectious dance track (pun intended) while “Uncertain Smile” is a new wavish rocker not dissimilar to, say, Simple Minds. “Heartland,” also from the Infected album, is a jazzy slice of social commentary, Johnson rolling his damning lyrics past tinkling ivories and a snappy string section while “Dogs of Lust” is a blues-tinged rocker dating from 1993. Much of the collection is equally intriguing, Johnson pairing his intelligent lyrics, often obsessed with man’s alienation and despair, or with government’s role in shaping (and dominating) our future, with complex, unpredictable music that blends British pop, jazz and dancehall traditions with cutting edge rock and top-notch production. 45 RPM: The Singles of The The is an excellent introduction to a peerless talent. Although Matt Johnson and The The remain a cult favorite on this side of the Atlantic, the release of this compilation and the subsequent reissuing of important parts of the band’s catalog should win them a rightful place in rock history.  (View From The Hill, July 2002)

Friday, August 11, 2023

Blues Bites: Albert Cummings, Dave Keller, Oli Brown (2012)

Albert Cummings' No Regrets
Reviews originally published as a “Blues Bites” column in October 2012 for the About Blues website…

Albert Cummings – No Regrets
Guitarist Albert Cummings launched his career at the turn of the century as a Steve Ray Vaughan-styled fretburner, even going so far as to record his sophomore album, 2003’s From the Heart, with the members of Vaughan’s Double Trouble band. Since that time, Cummings delivered three well-received albums for Blind Pig Records and has shared a stage with such heavyweights as Charlie Musselwhite, Tommy Castro, Duke Robillard, and Chris Duarte, among others. This experience has proven invaluable, Cummings developing a voice and creative vocabulary all his own – definitely blues-based but with elements of rock and country creeping in around the edges.

No Regrets is Cummings’ latest, a follow-up to his 2008 live release Feel So Good and his first studio collection since 2006’s Working Man album. To say that Cummings was ready to blow up the studio would be an understatement, the guitarist working up an invigorating brace of original songs for No Regrets that both explore his love of blues and roots music as well as serve as an excellent showcase for his underrated six-string skills. No Regrets opens with the Southern-fried rocker “Glass House,” a traditional love-gone-wrong blues tune with soulful undertones, a slippery groove, and Cummings’ twangy, wiry fretwork, which takes Duane Allman one step further. On the flip-side of the coin you have “Eye To Eye,” a deep, moody, introspective tune that allows Cummings to cut loose with emotionally-powerful blues licks that will elicit squeals of joy from any guitar-lovin’ fool like yours truly. The extended solo that leads out of the song is enough to put one in a coma of joy.

By contrast, “Checkered Flag” is the sort of raucous, guitar-driven, poop-puntin’ honky-tonk rave-up that Nashville has long since forgotten how to create. Cummings’ band paves the road with an infectious groove wide enough to drive an eighteen-wheeler right down the middle while pianist Rick Steff lays down a Lower Broadway key-pounding that would bring a smile to Jerry Lee Lewis’ face as Cummings embroiders the song with spirited guitarplay. A cover of the Willie Dixon classic “Mannish Boy” tilts closer to Muddy Waters than Bo Diddley, the song’s muscular rhythm paling in comparison to Cummings’ monster blues-rock riffs and flamethrower solos. No Regrets closes out with the introspective “Home Town,” a simply delightful ballad that features Steff’s piano running beneath Cummings’ heartfelt vocals. If most of the album showcases Cummings’ enormous guitar skills, this closing number offers proof of his abilities as both a singer and songwriter. No Regrets is the real deal, rootsier, perhaps, than some hardcore blues fans may like, but chockful of good singin’ and playin’ and well-written songs – what more could you want? Grade: B+ (Ivy Music, released August 28, 2012)

Dave Keller's Where I’m Coming From...
Dave Keller – Where I’m Coming From...

This one seems to have fallen through the cracks, and maybe I should be kicking myself for taking almost a year to review this fine disc, but if you’re a soul-blues fan and haven’t heard Dave Keller’s Where I’m Coming From… then maybe we should swap boot prints together. A solid talent on the guitar and an extraordinary singer, Keller learned his chops from folks like Mighty Sam McClain, Otis Clay, and Fontella Bass, and when guitarist Ronnie Earl wanted a singer for his Living In the Light album, he turned to Keller.  

The follow-up to 2009’s excellent Play For Love album, Keller’s Where I’m Coming From… is an inspired set of soul covers performed as only this blue-eyed devil could perform. Unlike other albums in this vein, Keller has deliberately gone with quality over familiarity, the result being an eclectic collection of material from some of soul music’s lesser-known but definitely no-less-talented artists. Where I’m Coming From… opens with a little Southern soul from the great Bobby Womack, Keller backed by a full R&B styled band, including horns, for a divine reading of the song. As Keller’s vocals plead and moan and cry, the horns roll in the background and his tasteful guitar notes frame the lyrics as the song eventually descends into an emotional funk with blasts of sax blowing our way out...

Songwriter George Jackson penned hits for everybody from R&B greats Clarence Carter and Z.Z. Hill to rocker Bob Seger, but I don’t think that he ever wrote anything as joyously entertaining as “If I Ever Got You Back,” as classic slice of 1960s-era soul as your ears will ever experience. Keller does the song justice, bringing just the right amount of light and energy to his performance, bringing emotion to bear where needed, imbuing the groove with hope and desire. Keller tackles another Jackson song, the Clarence Carter hit “Too Weak To Fight,” with equal aplomb, bringing a weary wistfulness to the lyrics.

J.J. Barnes’ “Baby Please Come Home” is a mournful R&B gem that sounds like the Four Tops if they’d been recorded in Memphis instead of Motown, while underrated Muscle Shoals songwriter Donnie Fritts is represented by Arthur Alexander’s heartbroken “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way,” Keller channeling as many forlorn tears as the original with a stunning, inspired performance that is enhanced by his understated, elegant fretwork. Where I’m Coming From… is exactly that, an R&B family tree, as it were, of Dave Keller’s influences and idols, every performance coming direct from the heart and delivered from the singer to your ears. Recommended…  Grade: A- (Tastee-Tone Records, released October 25, 2011)

Oli Brown's Here I Am
Oli Brown – Here I Am
Oli Brown is the latest in a long line of British blues guitarists to pick up the torch from Eric Clapton and Peter Green and put a definite English spin on the ol’ Stevie Ray sound. Brown is younger than most of ‘em, but older than some others, with experience that includes tours with Johnny Winter and Walter Trout. With Here I Am, his third album, Brown works to further develop his own sound and distance himself from the glut of fellow SRV clones swaggering across the continent.

Brown is a self-aware sort, more than I can say for some of his peers, so much so that in the album’s title track he confidently – or maybe defiantly – declares “here I am with a new intention, be just who I want to be, a little change wouldn’t do any harm, so I’m going to take a chance and see, ‘though I’m not hiding from anything else, ain’t trying to be no Jimi or Stevie, I want to be my goddamn self.” Ironically, Brown delivers this screed above a fractured soundtrack that is more Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin than the guitarist may be comfortable in admitting, but there’s no denying that the song rocks with hard, bluesy fretwork and strong vocals riding high above a heavy, John Bonham-styled percussive drumbeat.

The blues-rock blueprint of much of the rest of Here I Am is similarly familiar, although Brown does layer some of his own personality atop the styles he’s clearly nicking from other artists. He boogies like Stevie Ray on “Thinking About Her,” adding a jazzy bent to the hard-edged solo but riffing like early Vaughan above a shuffling rhythm, while the Chuck Berry via Keith Richards licks clearing rise above the Rolling Stones-styled “Start It Again.” Brown is much better as a stylist interpreting the work of others, as he does with a solid cover of Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat & Tears classic “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Although Brown’s vocals lack the subtle shading of Kooper’s weary voice, he does a fine job in capturing the melancholy vibe and dark emotion of the original, adding in subtle touches of guitar that seduce rather than bludgeon the listener.

Overall, Brown is a talented guitarist and fair-to-middlin’ lyricist that still relies too much on his influences and not enough on his own vision. He’s barely of drinking age, though, and has a lot of life ahead of him. With a little more seasoning, maybe record a few more inspired cover tunes like the aforementioned B,S&T for flavor, and maybe the doors of perception will open and we’ll see the real Oli Brown. Grade: C+ (Ruf Records, released June 12, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Jethro Tull, Sideswipe, Otis Taylor (2002)

Jethro Tull's Living With the Past

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Dismissed – unfairly – by many critics during the 1970s as progressive-rock dinosaurs, the members of Jethro Tull have since had the last laugh. A new breed of music critics (your humble columnist included), raised on classic Tull albums such as Aqualung and Thick As A Brick have been more gentle in their consideration of the band’s legacy. From their first album, released in 1968, through the underrated1999 release J-Tull Dot Com, Jethro Tull has managed to put eleven Gold™ and five Platinum™ albums on the table during a nearly 35-year career. Fronted by colorful singer, songwriter and manic flautist Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre, Jethro Tull has ridden out the ever-changing trends of pop culture with a unique mix of guitar-driven hard rock and British folk with threads of blues and jazz thrown into their heady musical brew.

Over the course of the band’s lengthy career, there have only been a few officially released live Jethro Tull albums, which makes Living With the Past (Fuel 2000 Records) a delight for old-school fans. Living With the Past was compiled from several live performances and television appearances, including a November 2001 concert in London’s Hammersmith Apollo. With this CD, Anderson and crew come face to face with the band’s historic past, revisiting classic and obscure songs alike. Unlike many affairs of this sort, which have the artist re-recording their biggest hits for a pittance so that some huckster can peddle them to old fan’s memories, Living With the Past plays as more of a career retrospective than as a jaded cash-grab.

Anderson is reunited with original band members Mick Abrahams, Clive Bunker, and Glenn Cornick, who join the current Tull line-up as guest performers to run through tunes like “Aqualung,” “Living In the Past” and “Jack In the Green.” The performances are charming and professional, befitting a group of master musicians in the fifth decade of their trade. A welcome addition to the band’s lengthy canon, Living In the Past closes a chapter in Jethro Tull’s history and offers a new beginning for the rock legends. A DVD release by the same name offers the complete London concert as well as interviews with band members and other special features certain to thrill old and new Tull fans alike.

Sideswipe's Greatest Hits
Los Angeles is a veritable hotbed of indie rock, bands like Firebug or Sideswipe cranking out refreshing, powerful music without so much as a sidelong glance from major label scouts busy seeking the next trend. With Greatest Hits (HoJo Records), the distaff foursome Sideswipe prove that not only can girls rock as hard as the boys but also that the major label A&R drones have been living too high on their expense accounts if they’ve overlooked a band as obviously talented as this. The core members, guitarist/vocalist Sally Landers and drummer Michelle Mangione have been playing together for over a decade with mixed success. Along with bassist Nancy Doyle and keyboardist Angela Riggio, Sideswipe has toured the U.S. and Europe, placed songs on TV shows like Dawson’s Creek, and has won all sorts of critical accolades.

Sideswipe’s sound has been described by other critics as a mix of the Indigo Girls and the Who, and there’s definitely that aspect to their songs, an inspired blending of folk roots and rock energy. The sweet harmonies of “Never Gonna Be The Same” owe a large debt to the Beatles, while several other cuts tread much the same artistic territory as ‘80s bands like the Bangles. The powerful “Make My Own Tracks” is obviously influenced by Melissa Etheridge’s folk-rock style while “Crucify Me” starts out with a Stax soul groove and pairs wonderful harmonies with Landers’ stinging six-string work. The delightful “Prisoner of War” showcases the band’s lyrical talents, falling in much the same vein as songs by the Indigo Girls or Disappear Fear. Surprisingly, material produced by Landers and Mangione for Greatest Hits shows a subtlety and deft touch lacking in songs shaped by other produces; it takes some skill for an artist to frame their material in such a proper light. Although they haven’t had many hits, and have never received the attention they deserve, Sideswipe’s Greatest Hits is a wonderful introduction to a talented band that has a bright future to explore.

Otis Taylor's Respect the Dead
Otis Taylor
is, perhaps, the most unique bluesman that you’re likely to hear. Born in Chicago and raised in Denver, he learned to play guitar, banjo, and harmonica at the city’s Folklore Center. He later became part of the city’s late 1960s music scene, associating with musicians like rock guitarist Tommy Bolin. A brief residence in England yielded a failed record deal and Taylor subsequently retired from music in 1977 to pursue a successful career as a broker in antiques. As luck would have it for music lovers, noted bass player Kenny Passarelli convinced Taylor to pick up his guitar again in 1995. Since that time, Taylor’s original and highly personal sound has impacted contemporary blues music like few artists have been able to.

As shown by his latest CD release, Respect the Dead (Northern Blues Music), Taylor has a tendency to push past the barriers of traditional blues, creating a new modern sound that incorporates his rock and folk roots with Delta-inspired blues and a literate and imaginative songwriting style. Taylor fearlessly runs across lyrical turf upon which even angels fear to tread, recounting in song the lives and experiences of African-Americans in a brutally realistic and often disconcerting manner. Respect the Dead offers many such dark lyrical moments, from the racially-inspired murder of “Black Witch” to the Civil Rights struggles of “32nd Time.” Although not a household name on par with contemporaries like Keb’ Mo’ or Alvin Youngblood Hart, the enormously talented Otis Taylor is nevertheless creating timeless music, important art that reflects the history, the hopes and the fears of the artist, his family and his ancestors. (View From The Hill, June 2002)

Friday, August 4, 2023

Blues Bites: Blodwyn Pig & Mick Abrahams' Band, Booker T & the M.G.'s, Grady Champion (2012)

Blodwyn Pig & Mick Abrahams’ Band's Radio Sessions ‘69 to ‘71
Reviews originally published as a “Blues Bites” column in September 2012 for the About Blues website…

Blodwyn Pig & Mick Abrahams’ Band – Radio Sessions ‘69 to ‘71
A real find, this one, for fans of the often-maligned British blues-rock upstarts Blodwyn Pig, featuring the underrated guitarist Mick Abrahams. Radio Sessions ‘69 to ‘71 offers up a rare set of previously unreleased radio broadcast recordings from both Blodwyn Pig and Mick Abrahams’ subsequent self-titled band, a baker’s dozen of cool performances that runs roughly 50%-50% between the Pig and Abrahams’ solo stuff. The provenance of the tracks is hard to tell, and the liner notes provide no insight, but as the late, great BBC radio DJ John Peel introduces a couple songs, I’m guessing that many are from his show.

The Blodwyn Pig performances feature a band line-up that included sax blaster Jack Lancaster and violinist Phoon Horn. The assembled tracks are culled from 1969’s Ahead Rings Out and the following year’s Getting To This, along with a handful of unreleased cuts. “Ain’t You Comin’ Home” is an exotic blues-rock tune with menacing fretwork, a hypnotic recurring riff, and Lancaster’s sax blowing hard with jazzy flourishes, not unlike what John Mayall was doing with Johnny Almond on the Bluesbreakers’ The Turning Point album. My personal fave Pig tune, “See My Way,” is provided a ripping performance, the song’s start/stop dynamics creating tension alongside Berg’s monster percussion and Abrahams’ free-flying guitar.    

Best I can tell, “Same Ol’ Story” was previously unreleased on album, and here it mixes the energy and complexity of Jethro Tull – Abrahams’ previous band – with the livewire energy of jazz-rock fusion and bluesy overtones. Of the Mick Abrahams Band songs, only a couple come from the guitarist’s self-titled solo debut, but they’re both firecrackers: “Greyhound Bus” is a soulful blues stomp that proves that Abrahams is one of the most underrated of British blues guitarists, while “Seasons” displays the band’s prog-rock dexterity with elements of blues and jazz thrown in, Bob Sargeant’s keyboards chiming in unison with Abrahams’ imaginative guitarplay. Peel introduces the band for the spry acoustic folk-blues of “City of Gold.” Docked a full grade point for poor, bootleg-grade sound quality, Radio Sessions will mostly appeal to existing Blodwyn Pig/Abrahams fans which is a shame, ‘cause these are quality British blues-rock tunes from back in the day. Grade: C+ (Secret Records UK, released July 10, 2012)

Booker T. & the M.G.'s Green Onions
Booker T. & the M.G.s – Green Onions

By this point in our ever-shifting musical timeline, the classic Booker T. & the M.G.s’ song “Green Onions” has become a bona fide cultural touchstone. Nearly three-minutes of sweet-talking, fast-walking musical perfection, Booker T. Jones’ recognizable keyboard riffs, Steve Cropper’s near-mythical slashes of guitar, and the steady-rolling rhythm section of bassist Lewis Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. created a radio-friendly R&B instrumental that went supernova, building on the success that Freddie King had with “Hide Away.” Go ahead, try and find somebody that doesn’t like “Green Onions,” I’ll wait…the song hit the top of the soul chart three separate times, sold over a million copies, and has since been covered by dozens of artists and been used in countless movies and TV shows.

Interestingly enough, “Green Onions” was a happy accident, the band vamping in a Memphis studio while waiting for singer Billy Lee Riley to show up for a session. Stax Records top man (and producer) Jim Stewart, liking what he heard, recorded the jam and released the song as a single in the late summer of 1962 to great response. The band had to scramble to record a full-length Green Onions album, which would subsequently rise to #33 on the pop charts on the strength of the title track, although a sound-alike follow-up single, “Mo’ Onions,” barely scraped into the top 100. Too bad, ‘cause the subtle differences between the two songs speak volumes, “Mo’ Onions” more low-key in following a similar musical tack, with Jones’ keyboards down-played in favor of a loping groove and Cropper’s twangy fretwork.  
 
Although the casual pop music listener may think of Booker T. & the M.G.s as a one-hit-wonder, true blues and R&B fans no better, and as this recent reissue of Green Onions on CD proves, the band had a lot of tricks in its bottomless bag. For instance, “Behave Yourself,” the B-side of the hit single, is a deeply bluesy instrumental with plenty of ambiance and an almost gospel reverence. A cover of Doc Pomus’s classic “Lonely Avenue” is extravagantly moody, with Jones’ fingers flying across the keys while the band keeps a respectful distance. While “only” an instrumental, the band’s take on Smokey Robinson’s “One Who Really Loves You” manages to capture the romantic wistfulness of the better-known vocal version.

Green Onions circa 2012 includes a pair of live cuts circa 1965 that feature the legendary Donald “Duck” Dunn replacing Steinberg for a raucous performance of the band’s greatest hit. The sound quality of these two is spotty, but the energy level is anything but, Cropper’s guitar reaching out of the speakers to grab you by the throat so that Jones’ keyboard can bludgeon you into submission. A live cover of the R&B standard “Can’t Sit Down” is even more frenzied than the LP version, rocking and rolling out of the box like an uncaged beast. If you’re looking to upgrade your worn antique vinyl copy of Green Onions, this is the CD version to grab. Grade: A (Stax Records, released July 24, 2012)

Grady Champion's Shanachie Days
Grady Champion – Shanachie Days

Mississippi bluesman Grady Champion is a pretty damn talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist and an above-average harpslinger in the Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson vein. The winner of the 2010 International Blues Challenge, Champion has since been slowly but surely building a worldwide audience for his R&B-drenched, old school blues sound and throwback soul-shouter vocal style.

It’s hard to tell by how easily he’s slipped into the blues world, but Champion began his career in the early 1990s as a rapper, later falling in love with the blues and incorporating a hip-hop edge into his music similar to Chris Thomas King’s “21st century hip-hop blues” sound. A self-produced album, 1988’s Goin’ Back Home, lead directly to a deal with Shanachie Records, the eclectic roots-and-traditional music label best known in the blues world for reissuing essential blues albums acquired from Yazoo Records.

Champion recorded two albums for Shanachie at the turn of the century, 1999’s Payin’ For My Sins and 2001’s 2 Days Short of A Week, both of which earned a degree of critical acclaim but eventually went nowhere fast. In the wake of Champion’s Blues Music Award nominated 2011 disc Dreamin’, GSM Music has released Shanachie Days, a seventeen-song compilation that draws upon material from Champion’s two albums for the label, reprising eight songs from the first and nine from the second. This is some of the singer’s earliest performances, and thus a scattershot affair, but there’s something to be said for the raw blues approach.

The material here is entirely original, either written by Champion or co-written by cohorts like underrated guitarist Eddie Cotton and producer Dennis Walker. The more polished songs from 2 Days Short of A Week, which include a guest shot from guitarist Duke Robillard, stand a bit taller, whether it’s the soulful groove backing the social commentary of “Policeman Blues” or the slinky serpentine blues of “Lady Luck” which includes some fine, Robert Cray-styled git. The title track of Payin’ For My Sins is a throwback blues confessional with bleeding vocals while the John Lee Hooker-styled groove of “My Rooster Is King” rocks the house with reckless abandon. Overall, Shanachie Days provides a valuable glimpse at the roots of an up-and-coming albeit underestimated blues talent. Grade: B- (GSM Music, released May 29, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Jeff Lynne, The Band (2002)

Lynne Me Your Ears

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Jeff Lynne’s impressive musical career spans some five decades, from mid-to-late ‘60s British bands like Idle Race and the Move to the 1970s hit-making machine that was the Electric Light Orchestra. During the late ‘80s, Lynne joined George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty to record two hit albums as the Traveling Wilburys. Lynne has also achieved a great deal of success on the other side of the mixing board, producing notable albums like George Harrison’s 1986 comeback Cloud Nine and Paul McCartney’s critically-acclaimed Flaming Pie as well as works from folks like Tom Petty, Dave Edmunds, and Ringo Starr. It’s a tribute to the man’s talents that he has worked in the studio and behind the microphone with three of the four Beatles, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

It is Lynne’s talent as a songwriter, however, that is under consideration on the two-CD tribute album Lynne Me Your Ears (Not Lame Records). Project coordinator and executive producer Doug Powell (himself a member of alt-country supergroup SWAG) has lined up an impressive roster of musicians to pay tribute to Mr. Lynne. From old school pop devotees such as Todd Rundgren, Peter Holsapple, Richard Barone, and Bill Lloyd to young turks such as Sixpence None The Richer, Sparkle*Jets UK, and the Shazam, the contributing artists do a wonderful job in representing the magic of Lynne’s classic lyricism and Beatlesque melodies. Like any affair of this sort, there are some song tributes here that work better than others, but I can safely say that there is little chaff to be found among the thirty-two songs on Lynne Me Your Ears.

I have my personal favorites on the album, among them a wistful reading of the Wilburys’ hit “Handle with Care” by Jamie Hoover and former Jellyfish frontman Jason Falkner’s strong performance of the Move’s “Do Ya.” Lynne’s former Move bandmate Carl Wayne blows away the youngsters with a soulful reading of ELO’s “Steppin’ Out” while another of rock’s legends, superstar producer Tony Visconti (Bowie, T-Rex), shows his musical chops behind Richard Barone’s vocals on “Mr. Blue Sky.” Contributions from the set’s producer Doug Powell (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head”), Bill Lloyd (“When Time Stood Still”), Jeffrey Foskett (“Telephone Line”) and the Shazam (“Twilight”) are masterful individual tributes that pair each artist’s reverent performance with one of Lynne’s timeless songs. If you’re a fan of Jeff Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra or classic pop/rock acolytes like the aforementioned contributors to Lynne Me Your Ears, you owe it to yourself (and your ears) to seek out a copy of this wonderful tribute album.

The Band's The Last Waltz
By the time of their 1976 “farewell” performance, the Band had been on the road together for the better part of two decades, first as Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band the Hawks and later as Bob Dylan’s house band. After a memorable 1965/66 tour with the future rock legend, the Hawks settled in Woodstock, New York and became known, simply, as the Band. The release of their 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, would forever change the future of rock ‘n’ roll. While the rest of the musical world was exploring the limits of hard rock and psychedelica, the Band fused roots rock, folk, county, and R&B into an entirely new and uniquely diverse sound.

Eight years later, though, guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson felt that the Band had run its course and the members agreed to call it quits on Thanksgiving Day 1976. Their good-bye show was set for Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco, and to celebrate the Band invited old friends like Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters as well as their mentors Dylan and Hawkins to perform. Director Martin Scorcese agreed to capture the event on film and the rest is, as they say, is rock ‘n’ roll history. The resulting concert film, The Last Waltz, expanded the possibilities of the music documentary much as the Band had changed the perception of how rock music could be played.

The recently released DVD of The Last Waltz (MGM Home Entertainment) offers several high-energy performances by the Band as well as classic turns by guests like Waters, Dylan, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, and Joni Mitchell. A snapshot of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, The Last Waltz captures a precious moment in pop culture history unlike few albums or videos have been able to. The DVD includes audio commentaries by Scorsese and Robertson, footage not included in the original film and crystal clear, remixed sound. Rhino Records has also released a four-CD box set of The Last Waltz, the audio documentary of the concert including two-dozen previously unreleased performances. Although the other members would later reform the Band without Robertson (and, as it was later proven, didn’t really want to break up in the first place), the night frozen in time by The Last Waltz film and recording nevertheless closed an important chapter in the history of the Band. (View From The Hill, June 2002)