Monday, October 30, 2023

Album Review: The Rolling Stones' Hackney Diamonds (2023)

The Rolling Stones' Hackney Diamonds
I may be a little late to the party with this, but here's my two cents worth of rockcrit blather about the Rolling Stones' recently-released Hackney Diamonds album. I still dislike the first single; "Angry" is hopelessly inane as sung by a wealthy 80-year-old rock star, but it plays better without the absurd music video they hacked together to accompany the song.

There's a few things that I like a lot here..."Whole Wide World" sounds like an edgier version of the energetic Some Girls version of the Stones with some cool avant-garde guitar squonk. Mick's vox on "Dreamy Skies" are a little too featherweight, but I like the song's dominant, sleazy Exile-era vibe and bluesy guitar grease. "Live By the Sword" offers up some scorching guitar pyrotechnics and one of Charlie's last recorded performances... they're really gonna miss Mr. Watts if they carry on.

"Sweet Sounds of Heaven," with Lady Gaga, has really grown on me and probably should have been the album's initial single release, and the band is always gonna bring it on a Delta throwback like "Rolling Stone Blues," with Mick still trying to sound like Muddy Waters after all these decades.
I'm of mixed feelings about the chinzy album cover artwork, which assaults the eyeballs like some cheap-o late '80s heavy metal album, or maybe some of the worst visual abominations that came out of Master P's No Limits label in the late 1990s and early '00s. The album production is a wee too clean and tidy for my taste but, overall, Hackney Diamonds is better than I expected, tho' not anywhere near a "Second Coming"'s a solid late-period Stones effort that reminds one of the band's long-enduring greatness but doesn't add much to their already massive rock 'n' roll legacy... (Geffen Records, released September 6th, 2023)

Friday, October 27, 2023

Archive Review: Garland Jeffreys' The King of In Between (2011)

When he is remembered – if he is remembered at all – Brooklyn, New York born-and-bred singer/songwriter Garland Jeffreys is fondly recalled for either his 1973 FM radio hit “Wild In the Streets” and/or his lively remake of the garage-rock classic “96 Tears,” which brought Jeffreys his highest chart position and best-selling album in 1981’s Escape Artist. Part of Jeffreys’ obscurity is due to his intelligent, challenging lyrics, which often deal with urban life, racial strife, and other heady subjects set to music that cleverly welds streetwise rock ‘n’ roll with elements of blues, jazz, folk, and reggae.

After recording ten albums between 1970 and 1997, Jeffreys literally disappeared from the U.S. music landscape, instead traveling frequently to Europe where much of his back catalog remains in print, performing for a growing and appreciative audience. With The King of In Between, the 67-year-old musician has released his first album in better than 13 years, picking up almost exactly where he left off in the late 1990s. Jeffreys’ whipsmart lyrical observations on life in the Big Apple and beyond lack none of the bite of his earlier work, while the music on The King of In Between is every bit as eclectic and entertaining as ever.

“Coney Island Winter” opens with shimmering guitar and a deep rhythmic groove, Jeffreys’ half-spoken/half-sung words mesmerizing in their impact and intellectual depth. The funky “Streetwise” offers up haunting vocals, lush strings, and Larry Campbell’s imaginative fretwork while the rollicking “The Contortionist” features Lou Reed providing doo wop vocals behind Jeffreys’ pleading voice. The bluesy “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” is a sprawling boogie-rock tune that name checks Hooker, Bo Diddley, and James Brown while also evoking Elmore James.   

While not a conventional blues album per se, The King of In Between will appeal to blues and rock fans alike, Garland Jeffreys’ unique, eclectic sound a welcome antidote to music that too often draws from the same deep wellspring instead of painting with the entire bright spectrum of colors you’ll hear on The King of In Between. (Luna Park Records, released June 9th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2011

Buy the CD from Amazon: Garland Jeffreys’ The King of In Between

The View On Pop Culture: Lightnin' Hopkins, Saliva, Sum 41, Demon Hunter, The Cynics (2002)

Lightnin' Hopkins’ Live At Newport


The importance of Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins on the contemporary blues scene cannot be overstated. Hopkins’ unique guitar style inspired a literal “who’s who” of blues giants, including Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Beginning in the ‘40s, Lightnin’ recorded hundreds of songs, taking his payments in cash (and maybe a bottle on the side), capturing his performances on tape in one take. Hopkins was in danger of fading into obscurity when Sam Charters produced a full-length Lightnin’ album in 1960 and featured the guitarist in his best-selling book The Country Blues. With his natural charisma, six-string talents, and improvised approach to storytelling (Hopkins would often add new lyrics to traditional tunes on the fly), Lightnin’ became a star of the early ‘60s folk-blues revival. Touring the globe, Hopkins’ travels eventually brought him to the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival.

Hopkins’ Live At Newport (Vanguard Records) is a wonderful document of the bluesman at his very best. Taken from the original analog tapes, cleaned up and remastered for the digital age, the sound quality is a notch below what most people expect from a CD. The sound does nothing to detract from the incredible performance offered by Lightnin’, however, and the addition of several previously unreleased songs fleshes out the original vinyl release. Hopkins’ runs through a set that includes such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Mojo Hand,” also offering up red-hot readings of “Come On Baby” and “Where Can I Find My Baby?” Hopkins’ voice is in fine form and his between-song comments are priceless. It is Lightnin’s guitar that holds center stage, however, his fluid leads and percussive bass lines defining a style and establishing Hopkins’ influence on generations to come. An essential addition to any blues’ fans collection, Live At Newport is both a fine introduction to the talents of Lightnin’ Hopkins and a textbook illustration of Texas-flavored country blues.


After a few years of wandering the indie-rock wilderness, Memphis-based Saliva mined platinum with its major league debut, Every Six Seconds. The band’s mix of rap-influenced vocals and hard rock with sharp metal edges caught the ear of the teen market and resulted in a handful of modern rock chartbusters. Back Into Your System (Island Records) attempts to recreate the magic of that debut and, for the most part, succeeds. Fronting a lean, muscular collection of tunes fueled by leather-tough riffs and crashing rhythms, Saliva vocalist Josey Scott shows subtle growth as a vocalist, allowing some of the Memphis soul that he grew up with to creep in around the edges of songs like “Rest In Pieces.” The staccato rhythms and pounding fretwork of “Raise Up” conceal a lyrical braggadocio worthy of any gangsta rapper while the radio-ready “Always” offers all the best traits of nu-metal with few of the clich├ęs. With greater emotional depth and musical dimensions than the typical modern rock band, Saliva prove with Back Into Your System that the band’s early success was no fluke and that they’re here to stay.

Sum 41's Does This Look Infected?
Also delivering a sophomore effort in late 2002, punk pranksters Sum 41 asked Does This Look Infected? (Island Records) with a two-disc CD/DVD set. Shuffling across the same pop/punk tightrope as Blink-182 and the Offspring, this Canadian foursome shows little maturity in its lyrical tales of teen angst and romantic frustration, high-energy tunes playing directly to the MTV demographic. However, Sum 41 shows the improved musical chemistry that a year together on the road will create, adding a dimension to radio-ready songs like “Still Waiting” or the riff-happy “Over My Head (Better Off Dead).” Extra-credit for the late-night, monster movie zombie motif that runs through the album’s graphics – if psychotronic film fans like Sum 41 turn one teenage kid onto George Romero then this will be a better world, indeed…

Just when you figure that this “nu-metal” thing has run its course with a thousand different Slipknot/Mudvayne clones, along comes a band like Demon Hunter to change your perceptions of the trend. With the self-titled Demon Hunter (Solid State), the band brings some intelligence and style to the alt-metal genre, mixing powerful syncopation and chameleon-like time signatures into the standard brew of razor-sharp fretwork and pounding rhythms. Songs like “Through the Black” or “As We Wept” offer more than your typical instrumental mugging, Demon Hunter’s obsession with death and entropy informing the band’s lyrics with poetic erudition. The band is also quite capable of moving from a whisper to a roar and back again in a heartbeat, acoustic-flavored melodies complimenting the industrial-strength riffs and jackhammer beats. Inspired by bands like Black Sabbath, Venom, and Sepultura, Demon Hunter thankfully strays off the beaten path with a fine debut album.

The Cynics' Living Is the Best Revenge
The growing media fascination with “garage rock” bands like the White Stripes and the Hives couldn’t come at a better time for The Cynics. Pittsburgh’s favorite sons have been cranking out highly-amped, ‘60s-styled fuzzbox rock for the better part of a decade with none of the mainstream accolades afforded the aforementioned artistic poseurs. Living Is the Best Revenge (Get Hip Recordings) is just the latest installment in a lengthy tradition of rock solid efforts by the Cynics, the album offering a dozen finely crafted tunes drenched with feedback and manic rhythms. Frontman Michael Kastelic’s snotty vocals lend credence to the theory that he might be Sky Saxon’s lovechild, while six-string maniac Gregg Kostelich keeps the riff-quotient high, tearing off frenzied chords in never-ending pursuit of Cub Koda-styled perfection. Songs like “She Lives (In A Time of Her Own)” or “You Never Had It Better” resonate with undiluted rock ‘n’ roll passion and a fervor that you could spend a lifetime trying to find. Save yourself both the trouble and the airfare and check out the Cynics instead. (View From The Hill, December 2022)

Friday, October 20, 2023

Archive Review: George Thorogood's George Thorogood & the Destroyers / Move It On Over (1977 & 1978)

George Thorogood & the Destroyers
By 1977, blues music had entered a serious slump. The glory days of the mid-’60s had long since passed; trailblazers like Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield had become footnotes in the history of the blues. Chess Records, after being sold to GRT in 1969, was mismanaged into obscurity by 1975. Leonard Chess died in 1972, Howlin’ Wolf a few years later; Chuck Berry was a novelty act and Bo Diddley was touring the nostalgia circuit. Buddy Guy was in exile in Europe and Muddy Waters was in limbo, just about to launch his amazing late ‘70s career revival.

Into the void stepped a young guitarist and former minor league baseball player by the name of George Thorogood. Leading a ramshackle foursome known as the “Delaware Destroyers,” the band was thoroughly steeped in the sort of houserockin’ blues pioneered by folks like Elmore James, J.B. Hutto, and Hound Dog Taylor. Moving the band from Delaware to Boston, Thorogood and crew made a name for themselves on a thriving Beantown blues scene, their demo recordings grabbing the attention of Rounder Records, who would release the band’s self-titled 1977 debut album.   

George Thorogood and the Destroyers

George Thorogood and the Destroyers wrote the blueprint that Thorogood has followed for his records, more or less, for 35+ years now. You’ll get a couple of original tracks written in an old-school blues style, a bunch of classic cover tunes ramped up and amped as only Thorogood and the Destroyers are capable, and plenty of George’s rowdy six-string ringing throughout. This 1977 debut does it better than most of what would follow, Thorogood and gang roaring through ten rough ‘n’ ready blues-rock performances that touch upon some of the best that had come before. Elmore James’ “Madison Blues” was one of the popular radio tracks from the album, Thorogood’s frenetic slidework and the band’s relentless locomotive rhythms making for a red-hot, juke-joint styled performance.

The standout track from George Thorogood and the Destroyers, however, was the lengthy, extended cover of John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” which became a constant of Thorogood’s live shows and a fan favorite. Thorogood surrounds Hooker’s original lyrics and primal rhythm with a slick, street-savvy rap that turns the song into a hard luck tale of woe complete with brash boogie guitar licks and hypnotic drumbeats. If that’s all you know about Thorogood’s debut, though, you’ll be in for a treat, because there are a number of other fine performances on the album that often get overshadowed by the brilliance of the two aforementioned tracks.

Thorogood’s take on Delta legend Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman” is delivered as a country-blues ballad with acoustic guitar and mournful vocals, the guitarist displaying a more subtle side to his talents while bringing a bit of finesse to the performance. Thorogood’s original song “Homesick Boy” fits into the festivities like a glove, his serpentine fretwork matched by a driving rhythmic bedrock, bassist Billy Blough and drummer Jeff Simon the underrated backbone of the early Destroyers sound. A cover of Bo Diddley’s “Ride On Josephine” is spot on, virtually mimicking the original while Thorogood’s “Delaware Slide” is a lengthy, spirited jam that incorporates scraps of Delta, Texas, and Chicago blues traditions while serving up a heady brew of slinky guitar and jagged rhythms.    

George Thorogood’s Move It On Over

George Thorogood & the Destroyers' Move It On Over
George Thorogood wasn’t the best singer to emerge from the blues-rock world, and he wasn’t the flashiest or most talented guitarist, but he had personality, energy, a deep knowledge of the blues, and an undeniable charisma that enabled him to play an audience like one of the old masters. Rigorous touring in support of the debut built the framework of Thorogood’s audience, preparing them for the band’s sophomore effort, 1978’s Move It On Over. Cast, essentially, from the same mold as the debut, Move It On Over branches out into country (with the Hank Williams-penned title track) and early rock ‘n’ roll (a raucous cover of Chuck Berry’s “It Wasn’t Me”) alongside the blues and R&B fare of its predecessor.

It’s safe to say that nobody has done Hank quite like George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the band’s high-octane reading of “Move It On Over” taking an already rowdy tune and revving the motor much faster than is safe. Simon’s staccato drumbeats here are matched by Thorogood’s slash ‘n’ burn fretwork and trademark vocal style (gruff, raw, and slightly twangy) while Blough’s subtle bass provide a fluid groove to the song. The title track, along with a big-beat cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” were the album’s calling card, garnering the lion’s share of the radio airplay and helping push Move It On Over to #33 on the Billboard albums chart. Thorogood’s reading of Diddley’s signature song is inspired, crackling with the electricity of a downed power line, the guitarist’s scattershot licks stinging like a hornet’s nest and stomping like a drunken elephant.   

Thorogood’s slide-guitar on Elmore James’ classic “The Sky Is Crying” is particularly effective as a tearful counterpoint to his soulful, heartbroken vocals. “Cocaine Blues” is a rockabilly-tinged cover of a 1940s-era Western Swing song popularized by Johnny Cash in the 1960s and recorded by artists as diverse as Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Thorogood reclaims the song as a sort of hillbilly blues, light on six-string pyrotechnics but offering up fuel-injected, hot rod vocals and a reckless beat. Thorogood re-imagines Brownie McGhee’s Piedmont blues gem “So Much Trouble” as a guitar-driven boogie-rocker in the style of John Lee while the obscure Homesick James tune “Baby Please Set A Date” is a rockin’ shuffle that showcases Thorogood’s ringing, full-tilt guitar style.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The first pair of albums from George Thorogood and the Destroyers served the band well, grabbing them FM radio airplay (heck, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” is a staple of classic rock radio to this day) and a modicum of album sales. They also served as a calling card, of sorts, driving new fans to the band’s live shows, where Thorogood’s livewire performance style and easy-going charisma never fails to entertain.

Most significantly, however, Thorogood and the Destroyers brought the blues to a new generation of American youth with these two albums, jolting the music out of its late-decade doldrums and paving the way for artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan and the blues boom of the 1980s. That these albums sound as vital and electrifying as they did 35 years ago is a testament not only to the classic songs but to the performance of George Thorogood and the Destroyers as well. If you don’t already have these albums, go get ‘em! (Rounder Records, reissued June 16th, 2013)

Buy the CDs from Amazon:

George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Move It On Over

The View On Pop Culture: Bruce Cockburn, T.M. Stevens, The Libertines (2002)

Bruce Cockburn's In the Falling Dark

A household name among music lovers in Canada, singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn is nevertheless a cult artist south of the border, best known for his lone U.S. hit, the folk-influenced “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” More adventuresome than your garden-variety folkie, Cockburn has redefined the possibilities of folk music during a career that has ranged across four decades. Albums such as Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws and Stealing Fire have broken through the glass ceiling of folk-rock limitations, introducing elements of the blues, jazz, and world music into the mix and opening the door for like-minded artists to follow.

In what one can only hope is the first shot in restoring Cockburn’s fragmented and wonderfully diverse musical catalog, Rounder Records has reissued a handful of early Cockburn albums with additional songs and in-depth liner notes. As me cherished old grandpa used to say, “there’s not a punter in the bunch,” but if this humble scribe had to pick someplace to start, I’d recommend going with Cockburn’s 1976 classic, In the Falling Dark (True North/Rounder). A somber, reflective collection, the album marks the beginning of an artistic evolution for Cockburn as he allows jazz influences to creep into his acoustic, folk-based songs through the inspired use of flute and horns. These melodic flourishes flesh out Cockburn’s songs of faith and social consciousness, his expanding lyrics serving as signposts for the liberal Christianity that the artist would champion throughout his entire career.

Cockburn ended the decade of the ‘70s with his masterpiece Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws (True North/Rounder), which yielded the aforementioned Top Forty hit and is, perhaps, Cockburn’s best-loved album among his fans. With a brighter, livelier sound than shown on his earlier albums, Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws is an excellent collection of songs. Cockburn’s world travels opened his eyes (and ears) to the music of other cultures and informed his deepening spirituality with the realities of the social injustice he witnessed. With a fresh perspective, songs like “After the Rain” and “Incandescent Blue” showcase a maturing lyrical poetry while “Wondering Where the Lions Are” is as near perfect a slice of singer/songwriter heaven as you’ll find on this side of the great divide. Bonus tracks compliment the titles and fit nearly seamlessly with the original material; both albums do a fine job in illustrating Cockburn’s enormous skills as a guitarist and intelligence as a lyricist. If you want insightful and inspired music that will soothe and inform, look no further than Bruce Cockburn.

T.M. Stevens' Shocka Zooloo
On the other hand, if you want some music to raise the roof, check out the raucous brew that is Shocka Zooloo (United One); the latest disc dropped by T.M. Stevens. One of the most in-demand session bassists in the biz today, Stevens has contributed his talents to hits by folks like Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and Joe Cocker, among many others. For his fourth solo album, Stevens recruited a top-flight crew of imaginative players to back his flights of musical fancy, including the legendary Bernie Worrell and members of Megadeth, Savatage, and Living Colour.

Using classic bass-heavy funk as a foundation, Stevens fills Shocka Zooloo to the brim with contagious rhythms, scorching hard rock and ‘60s-styled soul. The resulting collection is as rowdy as a house party and as welcome as the night’s final kiss. Stevens is a fair vocalist and accessible songwriter, lending a down-to-earth feel to songs like the red-hot rocker “No Good w/Out the Bad” or the mesmerizing “The River Flow.” Stevens updates a Sly Stone classic with ”Family Man” while “Got Nothing To Say” offers up a vicious groove beneath its metallic veneer. Shocka Zooloo is forged out of the foot-shuffling rhythms of P-Funk, the hard rock of Living Colour, and the worldbeat of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, an artistic tightwire dance that Stevens manages to make look effortless.

The Libertines' Up the Bracket
During the recent furor over the “new garage rock,” England has been noticeable by its absence. While Detroit and New York were grabbing all of the media attention and Sweden was churning out more hardcore rockers per capita than any other nation, The Libertines very quietly entered the game. With the unassuming and energetic Up the Bracket (Rough Trade), the Libertines put the UK on the garage rock map and walked off with a handful of end-of-the-year accolades in the British music press. Walking much the same side of the stylistic street as the Strokes, Up the Bracket shares a lot of the same musical influences as their stateside brethren.

Drawing from a musical well that includes punk rockers like the Clash, art-rockers like Television, and British mod heroes like the Jam, the Libertines have delivered an engaging debut album. Songs like the rockabilly-tinged “Vertigo,” the Pete Townshend inspired title track or the psychdelic-flavored “The Good Old Days” spark and crackle with raw energy and youthful enthusiasm. The album’s production, courtesy of the Clash’s Mick Jones, is nearly pitch-perfect, emphasizing the band’s assets while masking any musical liabilities with a white light/white heat wall-of-sound. Available only, at this time, as an import album, Up the Bracket shows the Libertines as worthy torchbearers in a proud garage rock tradition and a band worth keeping an eye on in the future. (View From The Hill, November 2022)

Friday, October 13, 2023

Archive Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood (1983/2013)

You all know this story by now, but here’s a condensed version for those new readers wondering just what this brouhaha over Stevie Ray Vaughan is all about. Inspired by his brother Jimmie, a young Stevie Ray picked up the guitar and soon eclipsed his older sibling in talent (though Jimmie Vaughan is certainly no slouch himself…when I met him in Nashville in the early 1980s after a show, after complimenting the guitarist he said something to the effect of “if you think I’m good, you should hear my brother Stevie!”). Various bands like the Cobras would follow before SRV formed Triple Threat with singer Lou Ann Barton. After Barton’s departure, the band became Double Trouble.   

Performing with Double Trouble at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, the incendiary performance brought Vaughan to the attention of two bona fide 1970s rock ‘n’ roll superstars – David Bowie and Jackson Browne. Bowie enlisted the Texas guitarist to play on his 1983 album Let’s Dance, while Browne offered the band the use of his rudimentary personal recording studio in Los Angeles. Traveling to L.A. Vaughan and Double Trouble recorded the basic tracks of what would become the band’s debut album, Texas Flood. Signed by the legendary John Hammond (who had discovered Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others), Texas Flood was released in June 1983 to an enthusiastic audience hungry for the blues, breaking into the Top 40 on its way to Platinum™ sales status.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble’s Texas Flood

The ten songs on Stevie Ray’s Texas Flood are so well-known by now that they’ve become a vital part of the DNA of the blues. Still, they’re worth another spin around the turntable for those who haven’t listened to them in a while. Album-opener “Love Struck Baby” is a rip-roarin’ rocker with plenty o’ twangy blues/rockabilly hybrid guitar, Vaughan’s vocals delivered with a punkish speed and intensity as the Double Trouble rhythm section of bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton bang out a driving rhythm. At less than two-and-a-half minutes in length, “Love Struck Baby” is the perfect lead-in to the album’s swinging hit single, “Pride and Joy.”

A swaggering, boogie-blasted mid-tempo wildfire, “Pride and Joy” better showcases Vaughan’s often-soulful vocals, the band delivering a fast-walking rhythm on top of which Vaughan threads his shake, rattle, and rollin’ guitar licks, his frets buzzing with electricity, the guitarist’s solos scattin’ and be-boppin’ across the landscape like this might be the only record Vaughan ever gets to make. The slower-paced title track sounds downright somnambulant by contrast, Vaughan spitting out the licks with fierce determination, his vocals twisted in anguish as the guitar channels his pain. It’s a great performance, and one that got people to pay attention to the up-and-coming bluesman.

 SRV Pays Tribute to His Idols

Texas Flood
is chock full of sly musical references, SRV paying tribute to his many musical idols, whether through his performance of their material or by slipping in vaguely-familiar notes and riff from influences like Albert King or Otis Rush. Vaughan’s cover of the great Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Tell Me” is anything but a faithful recreation, the guitarist re-defining the song for a new generation, keeping just enough to remind listeners of the original, but injecting it with raucous solos that would make Hubert Sumlin blush, his raging fretwork matched by the band’s traveling, Chicago-styled rhythm.

Buddy’s Guy’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is dirtied up with some Texas fatback, Vaughan’s breathless vocals supported by a slinky groove created larger-than-life by an often-overlooked and underrated Double Trouble rhythm section. Vaughan’s guitar tone here is lighter, higher, and more structured than just about any other on Texas Flood, displaying a different side of his talents.”Rood Mood” is another longtime, crowd-pleasing Vaughan favorite, a rollicking instrumental with more than a little Lonnie Mack influence (another of Vaughan’s musical touchstones), the performance racing at 120mph to the finish line, Layton’s machine-gun drumbeats matched by Vaughan’s frenetic, rockabilly-flavored chicken-pickin’ while Shannon lays down a solid rhythmic foundation.

Live At Ripley’s Music Hall

“I’m Cryin’“ is a sadly-overlooked part of Vaughan’s too-brief catalog, the song’s shuffling beat belying its finely-crafted tearjerker lyrics, Vaughan’s emotional reading of them, and the subtle fretwork that supports what is essentially a traditional blues song. For this 2013 reissue CD, a lone bonus track has been tacked on to the end, songwriter and producer Bob Geddins’ “Tin Pan Alley (a/k/a Roughest Place In Town)” a longtime part of Vaughan’s repertoire, appearing in slightly different form on the guitarist’s second album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather. It’s still a great tune, full of menace and atmosphere, slowly unrolling with muted rhythms and a flurry of notes to nearly seven-and-a-half minutes, fading out as rapidly as the band jumped in at the beginning, leaving nothing but smoldering embers.   

The two-disc 30th anniversary edition of Texas Flood includes a previously-unreleased (albeit frequently-bootlegged) live show recorded at Ripley’s Music Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in October 1983, a few short months after the debut album’s release. The nine-song set runs nearly an hour in length and, naturally, leans heavily towards material from Texas Flood. Vaughan and Double Trouble were built to be a live band, honing their chops in the smoky honky-tonks and back alley blues dives of the Lone Star State, so it comes as no shock that the live performances of songs like “Pride and Joy” or “Love Struck Baby” strike an immediate chord with the audience. The former swings for the fences immediately with livewire intensity while the latter roars down the tracks like a runaway freight train, Vaughan’s rampaging guitar licks hitting the audience like a six-string tornado.

Stomping On Jimi’s Turf

One of the nicest surprises offered by the Ripley’s Music Hall performance is Vaughan’s two detours on to Jimi Hendrix turf, the guitarist and Double Trouble covering Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and mashing together “Little Wing” and “Third Rock From the Sun” into a fetching medley. First, Vaughan revisits the Isley Brothers’ “Testify” from the album, the obscure 1964 single from the R&B giants originally featuring a young Jimi on guitar. Vaughan tears into this instrumental cover version like a starving man at a buffet table, ripping off blazing solos with lightning quickness and thunderous power.   

Vaughan treats “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” with a fair amount of reverence, re-creating the signature opening lick-for-lick before the storm clouds gather and the guitarist descends from Mount Olympus, hammer in hand, to school we mere mortals with a larger-than-life performance that, while falling a bit short of Jimi’s mighty vocals, nonetheless makes up for it with otherworldly guitarplay, the explosive riffs and scorched-earth solos jumping out of your speakers like the Four Horsemen of some sort of blues-based apocalypse.

It’s a heady moment, but handily eclipsed by the medley of “Little Wing” and “Third Stone From the Sun.” Taking one of Hendrix’s most melodically-heartbreaking songs, Vaughan turbo-charges the arrangement while keeping its wistful, haunting familiarity. As it rumbles into “Third Stone,” Vaughan and Double Trouble quicken the pace in an attempt to launch into orbit, expanding the performance into truly psychedelic-blues territory with swirling guitars, hypnotic percussion, and heartbeat bass lines that would shift and soar according to the band’s whim. If anything, Vaughan’s cover of the song here dances over Jimi’s spacey original, channeling just enough of the familiar to be recognizable, but embellishing it with torrents of noise and feedback, unbridled animal energy that borders on the primordial, and enough lofty tone to lift it from the planet and into the stratosphere, delivering an amazing pyrotechnics display of sound and fury.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Vaughan was criticized when Texas Flood was released for the album’s lack of apparent identity. While it’s true that the guitarist frequently wore his musical influences on his sleeve, Texas Flood was an amalgam of years spent by the band on the Southern club circuit, time-tested and proven material that would light up the most hard-bitten of audiences. While the debut’s follow-up, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, often sounds half-baked, Texas Flood by comparison – although recorded over the span of only two short days – is fully-realized and full of energy.

While Stevie Ray and Double Trouble wouldn’t really hit their full creative stride until 1989’s In Step, they were seldom anything but brilliant on the stage. The band’s live reputation, combined with the power and strength of its stunning debut album, would jump-start a commercial blues revival that continues, in admittedly lesser form, to this day. Texas Flood represents Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut as a bluesman, as an influential guitarist, and as an icon in a manner unlike any recording since John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton introduced “Slowhand” to Britain. Texas Flood was, and will always remain, a blues-rock classic… (Legacy Recordings, released January 29th, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood (Legacy Edition)

The View On Pop Culture: Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Peter Case, Bonnaroo Music Festival (2002)

Johnny Cash's American IV

Every year, there are lots of records that fall by the wayside, neglected by critics (or maybe just this critic), overlooked by listeners, and struggling to find a place in music history. Just because the following releases didn’t show up in this year’s Village Voice critic’s poll doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve space on your CD shelf.

When Nashville turned its back on Johnny Cash a few years ago, American Records mastermind Rick Rubin alone recognized the “Man In Black” as a true musical treasure. Pairing Cash with contemporary songs and musicians, the resulting folk/rock albums have become significant additions to Cash’s already considerable legacy. American IV: The Man Comes Around (Lost Highway/American Records) continues the streak. Backed by talents like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and bluegrass legend Randy Scruggs, Cash tackles songs by Trent Reznor, Paul Simon, Martin Gore and, of course, Hank Williams as well as originals like the revelatory title cut and the classic “Tear Stained Letter.” Although Cash’s magnificent baritone has weakened somewhat through the years, when he jumps into the antique “Streets of Laredo” you can hear the hard years melt away. Cash is one of the true giants of American music and thanks to Rubin – best known as a rap and heavy metal producer – Cash’s last years in the saddle will be as important and memorable as those first songs he recorded for Sun Records fifty years ago.

Elvis Costello's Cruel Smile
Elvis Costello
’s first studio album in seven years, When I Was Cruel (Island Records), received so much (well-deserved) hype that many overlooked this wonderful, second CD that was released to coincide with the artist’s 2002 US tour. A collection of rarities, alternate takes and live tracks, Cruel Smile (Island Records) is the perfect addition to any Costello fanatic’s collection. Excellent live performances of “Spooky Girlfriend,” “Almost Blue” and “15 Petals” are complimented by cool, hard-to-find Japanese single versions of “Smile” and a wicked alternate take on “When I Was Cruel.” So-called “Imposter” remixes of “Revolution Doll” and the manic “Peroxide Side” are rhythmic, dark-hued rockers, acid-drenched blends of lyrical bile and muscular instrumentation. Aimed towards the collector’s market, pop aficionados would nevertheless also enjoy Cruel Smile, the collection a fine showcase for Costello’s black humor and immense musical talents. Don’t forget to pick up your Rhino Records reissues of vintage Costello albums like Armed Forces, Spike, and Imperial Bedroom, each two-CD set loaded with outtakes and rarities and offering extensive liner notes, all at a single disc price. Elvis is king!

As frontman of early ‘80s new wave popsters the Plimsouls, Peter Case created one perfect, shining musical moment in the song “A Million Miles Away,” no mean feat for any artist. The Plimsouls faded into rock ‘n’ roll history, but Case is still here, flying solo, pigeonholed as a folkie and relegated to the fringes of alt-culture. ‘Tis unfair and incorrect, as even a casual listen to Beeline (Vanguard Records) proves Case to be an artist of some depth and musical integrity. A kaleidoscope of styles with punchy performances, Beeline is a solid and entertaining collection of songs. Sure, there’s a lot of folk influence here – witness the tender “I Hear Your Voice” or “Gone,” a delightful road song. But Case also exhibits impressive fluency in the language of the blues on “Evening Raga,” hits a funky groove on “Something’s Coming” and rocks with the rootsy “First Light.” Case delivers his material with a welcome lack of pretension and no small amount of intelligence. While my critical colleagues were championing Beck’s latest effort as a brilliant exercise in the folk/rock genre, this humble scribe was listening to the real deal, Peter Case’s Beeline.

Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002
It took ‘em a couple of years to get the recipe just right (anybody remember the Itchycoo fiasco?), but the promoters of last June’s Bonnaroo Music Festival hit a bull’s eye with an inspired line-up that ranged from jam bands and blues-rockers to bluegrass pickers and gospel artists. Held in the rural farming community of Manchester, Tennessee about an hour south of Nashville, Bonnaroo attracted about 70,000 rockers for three days of mighty fine music. Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002 (Sanctuary Records) captures some of the highlights of the event on a highly recommended two-CD set. Much like the festival itself, this set presents a widely diverse collection of artists, and there are plenty of hot tracks to satisfy the desire of any music lover.

Widespread Panic are joined by gospel great Dottie Peoples on the band’s “Tallboy” while North Mississippi All-Stars axeman Luther Dickinson joins Robert Randolph and the Family Band on their “Peekaboo.” North Mississippi’s favorite sons deliver their own scorching “Sugartown” while bluegrass legends the Del McCoury Band knock out a red-hot performance of “Rain & Snow.” Former Primus frontman Les Claypool with his Frog Brigade band render a solid reading of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” and the Blind Boys Of Alabama close out the album with the amazing “Amazing Grace.” From chart-toppers like Norah Jones and Jack Johnson and jam bands like moe, Gov’t Mule and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002 does a great job in documenting the spectrum of styles offered to fans out in the Tennessee countryside. (View From The Hill, November 2022)

Friday, October 6, 2023

Archive Review: Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters’ Just For Today (2013)

While guitarist Ronnie Earl’s enormous talents are certainly well-regarded in the blues world, he remains one step behind friends and contemporaries like Duke Robillard or Jimmie Vaughan in the respect department. It could be because Earl doesn’t sing and typically plays complex, intricately-constructed instrumentals, bringing in an outside vocalist only occasionally. While these vocal experiments usually work out quite well – check out soul man Dave Keller wailing away on a handful of songs on Earl’s 2009 album Living In the Light – the fact remains that better than a quarter-century into his career, Earl’s talents are still too-often overshadowed by younger, flashier players with a fraction of his talent.   

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters’ Just For Today

While Just For Today is unlikely to win many converts to Earl’s subtle charms, for the hardcore faithful, it’s another treasure from the virtuoso guitarist. Recorded live in a handful of venues in Earl’s home state of Massachusetts, Just For Today features the guitarist’s longest-lived Broadcasters line-up, featuring keyboardist Dave Limina, bassist Jim Mouradian, and drummer Lorne Entress as the band celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. And what a celebration it is! The album offers up thirteen red-hot performances, a mix of Earl’s thoughtful originals and a brace of inspired covers, delivered with all the power and passion that have made Earl a popular concert draw.

Earl is capable of packing more emotion into a few notes than a lot of singers can muster during an entire performance, and his instrumentals are always exciting, exhilarating artistic expressions. Witness the emotional “Miracle,” which opens with a swell of Limina’s keyboards, Earl’s wiry fretwork, and washes of bass and drums. Earl speaks through his instrument and the notes paint pictures of heartbreak, hope, and fulfillment in a way that few musicians could achieve. The jaunty “Rush Hour” is a tribute to Chicago blues legend Otis Rush, the song’s walking bass line joined by lively keyboards that would make Otis Spann grin. But it’s Earl’s livewire picking that evokes the spirit of Rush’s South Side blues style.

“Blues for Hubert Sumlin” is a tribute to an equally esteemed, but often overlooked Chicago blues giant. While “Rush Hour” was electric and raucous – befitting a 10:00 or 11:00 PM club vibe – Earl’s tribute to Mr. Sumlin is pure late-night blues, measured and intense with a nuance and emotion directly opposite of “Rush Hour.” The band tackles jazz legend John Coltrane’s “Equinox” with equal aplomb, and it serves, as sorts, as an extension of “Blues for Hubert Sumlin,” taking the instrumentation into jazzy, dark-hued territory that announces that it’s definitely closing time. Singer Diane Blue acquits herself well on an emotional cover of Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” showing what Earl and the band can do behind a good singer.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Just For Today is an excellent representation of the underrated, but never under-achieving talents of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. The live setting allows the band to shine, and provides the perfect showcase for Earl’s six-string mastery as the crew romps across a set list that includes blues, boogie, and a taste of jazz. Just For Today will please longtime fans and serves as a fine introduction to this great band for the adventurous and uninitiated. The Rev says “check it out!” Grade: A (Stony Plain Records, released April 9, 2013)

The View On Pop Culture: Peter Wolf, Warren Zevon, Gary Moore (2002)

Peter Wolf's Sleepless

For every aging rocker like Carlos Santana that revives their creative fortunes with the help of a best-selling album, there is a Mick Jagger, who can’t get his solo career jumping even with the help of Lenny Kravitz. As the rock & roll pioneers of the sixties approach sixty themselves, the industry increasingly treats them as has-beens regardless of their talent and what great music they might still have left in them. A trio of excellent recent releases from three old school rockers illustrates this point and the absurdity of judging artists on their age rather than what they can still bring to the creative table.

Peter Wolf is best known for his work in the seventies and eighties fronting the hard-rocking R&B outfit the J. Geils Band. His own solo work has offered an inspired mix of roots-rock, blues and sweet soul music, and Sleepless (Artemis Records) furthers Wolf’s late-career blooming as a dynamic solo artist. Wolf spent a number of years in Nashville, working with local songwriters and honing his skills as a wordsmith, and it shows on Sleepless, with every song a finely crafted gem.

“Nothing But the Wheel,” Wolf’s duet with Mick Jagger, is unabashed country honk, a twang-filled, pedal-steel powered delight while “A Lot of Good Ones Gone” is a soulful remembrance of times passed that sounds like Stax circa ‘67. Wolf also revisits an old J. Geils’ favorite, “Homework,” reinventing the Otis Rush rocker as a growling, blues-fueled barroom brawl. “Some Things You Don’t Want To Know” offers the unlikely pairing of Wolf and country rocker Steve Earle, a lonesome prairie-styled waltz with some nice fretwork while “Too Close Together” is an old-fashioned romp, Chicago blues style, with Keith Richards of the Stones adding his six-string skills. Sleepless is a wonderful effort on Wolf’s part, a vibrant and enjoyable collection of songs destined to be overlooked in favor of more “marketable” artists…which doesn’t stop you from running to the store and buying it immediately!

Warren Zevon's My Ride's Here
Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon has served as the court jester of rock ‘n’ roll for so long that it will be hard to imagine the genre without him. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Zevon is spending time with his family and recording new songs rather than tour in support of his new album My Ride’s Here (Artemis Records). Zevon’s story-telling skills, macabre humor and dark wit will be sorely missed, but My Ride’s Here offers plenty of each in large measures. One of the most intelligent, erudite and frustrating word-wranglers in the biz, Zevon fills his songs with beautiful losers and dedicated fools, obscure pop culture references and more philosophical couplets than a roomful of monks could contemplate in a lifetime (even if they knew exactly what Zevon was singing about).

My Ride’s Here kicks off with the hard-driving “Sacrificial Lamb,” exposing the charlatans of religion while “Basket Case” is a tongue-in-cheek love song written with novelist Carl Hiaasen. “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)” might be a metaphor for life, with David Letterman adding crucial vocal flourishes and “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks” is a lively Irish reel written with poet Paul Muldoon. “Genius” is an insightful look at the turmoil of a broken heart while the album closing “My Ride’s Here,” with its brilliant imagery and imaginative storyline is, perhaps, the best epitaph that Zevon could have penned for himself. Working with a top-notch band that includes bassist Sheldon Gomberg and Garbage’s drummer Anton Fig and writing with partners like Muldoon, Hiaasen, Larry Klein and Hunter S. Thompson, Zevon has delivered one of the strongest albums in his storied career with My Ride’s Here.

Gary Moore's Scars
Guitarist Gary Moore earned his bones as a blues assassin, mentored by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green and fronting the late-sixties British “blooze-rock” posse Skid Row. After a handful of albums and mid-chart singles, Moore left the band to tool around Europe as part of the jazz-fusion outfit Colosseum before becoming a heavy metal hero as the primary axeman for Phil Lynott’s Thin Lizzy. A series of metal-tinged solo albums made Moore one of the best-loved cult guitarists in rock, but for the last decade or so the chameleon-like artist has returned to the blues with a handful of critically-acclaimed releases. With Scars (Sanctuary Records), Moore enjoys the best of both worlds, blending hard rock energy and his mastery of the blues, updating the Skid Row sound for a new millennium.

Scars burns with a white light/white heat that will blister your eardrums and tickle your id, Moore’s tortured six-string wailing like a metal machine monster. Copping his best Jimi Hendrix/Robin Trower attitude, Moore kicks off Scars with “When the Sun Goes Down,” an electrifying riff-fest that had this humble scribe believing that it was 1973 again. “Wasn’t Born In Chicago” rolls right off the tracks, Moore howling like he’s got Robert Johnson’s hellhounds on his trail, the band – former Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Primal Scream drummer Darrin Mooney – hitting a funky groove and driving it like an out-of-control big rig down the listener’s throat. Another six-string lovefest, “World of Confusion,” conjures up the ghost of Hendrix (think “Manic Depression” and you’re in the right ballpark) while “Ball and Chain” is a powerful blues rave-up that will have you swaying your head and stomping your feet in spite of yourself. A strong effort that showcases Moore’s ability to both blast out power riffs and deliver subtle blues virtuosity, Scars is a reminder that sometimes an old blueshound doesn’t need to learn any new tricks to get by... (View From The Hill, October 2002)