Friday, September 22, 2023

Blues Bites: Granville 'Stick' McGhee, Roosevelt Sykes (2013)

Granville “Stick” McGhee's Vol. 1 (1947-1951)
Reviews originally published as a “Blues Bites” column in March 2013 for the About Blues website...

Granville “Stick” McGhee – Vol. 1 (1947-1951)
Granville “Stick” McGhee was the younger brother of folk-bluesman Brownie McGhee and while not as well known as his legendary sibling, his contributions to popular music remain arguably as influential as Brownie’s have come to be seen. “Stick” McGhee’s main claim to fame is the raucous “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” originally waxed in 1947 for the independent Harlem Records label. The regional hit came to the attention of Ahmet Ertegun who, in 1949, was trying to get his fledgling Atlantic Records off the ground. Ertegun tracked down McGhee through his brother, and put them both in the studio with pianist Wilbur “Big Chief” Ellis to re-record the song with more dynamics and instrumentation. The Atlantic version of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would hit #2 on the R&B chart and break the Top 30 on the pop chart, providing both McGhee and Atlantic Records with a big hit.

As shown by Document Records’ Vol. 1 (1947-1951), which offers the “complete issued recordings in chronological order,” there was a lot more to Granville McGhee than his proto-rock ‘n’ roll novelty hit. McGhee was a skilled guitarist and a jazzy crooner who was flexible in performing a number of styles, from the early jump-blues of “Tall Pretty Woman (Blues)” with its wiry guitar licks and modified boogie piano, to the more traditional, Delta-tinged country-styled “Lonesome Road Blues,” and most everything in between. “Blue and Brokenhearted,” from 1949, is an early example of the quickly-evolving Chicago blues style, reminiscent of Big Bill Broonzy, while “Southern Menu” is a bluesy shuffle with blasts of horn that pre-dates 1950s-era R&B.

McGhee’s other enduring song was “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” a 1972 hit for R&B group Honey Cone but has since been covered by a number of blues, rock, and R&B artists like Bobby Rush and Joe Tex. McGhee’s original is a rollicking, bluesy, rocking affair with flying piano keys, hot guitar licks, and blaring horns that drive the rhythm. McGhee’s “Wee Wee Hours” is another long-lost gem, a smoldering bluesy torch song that cries for rediscovery and a cover by an appropriately skilled contemporary crooner. Grade: B+ (Document Records, released January 8th, 2013)

Granville “Stick” McGhee's Vol. 2 (1951-1960)
Granville “Stick” McGhee – Vol. 2 (1951-1960)

McGhee’s Vol. 2 (1951-1960) picks up where the first volume leaves off, the talented singer and guitarist delivering one final red-hot single for Atlantic Records, 1951’s “Meet You In the Morning” featuring brother Brownie on vocals with “Stick” on shouted harmonies and guitar. The song itself is an early rocker with plenty of Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano-pounding and a rowdy chorus that nevertheless sold poorly and resulted in a major step backwards for the artist. McGhee was working as a taxi driver when he recorded a pair or sides for the Essex Records label in Philadelphia, the A-side “My Little Rose” an unremarkable, poorly-recorded song overshadowed by the flip-side’s “No More Reveille,” a mid-tempo tune from Granville’s army days that highlights McGhee’s fluid guitar technique.

The bulk of Vol. 2 (1951-1960) comes from McGhee’s roughly five-year tenure with the notable King Records label in Cincinnati, which resulted in several lively jump-blues records. The storyline of “Whiskey Women and Loaded Dice” is pretty much self-explanatory, the thinly-recorded side nonetheless evincing a sly sense of humor and a playful vocal performance that dances across the R&B horns and rudimentary rhythm while the slow-grinding “Head Happy With Wine” is a swaggering, boozy song about drinking ones blues away. The best stuff on volume two is found among the sides McGhee cut for King in 1955, songs like “Six To Eight” and “Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter” displaying McGhee’s whiskey-worn, gruff vocals.

McGhee’s last recording would be 1960’s obscure “Money Fever” b/w “Sleep In Job,” released by the tiny Herald Records. Probably accompanied by Sonny Terry on harmonica and an unnamed rhythm section, McGhee delivers a pair of sizzling up-tempo rockers with semi-autobiographical lyrics and an infectious rhythm that should have been hits. Disillusioned with his treatment by King Records and the record industry on the whole, McGhee would only venture into the studio once more, to play a session behind his friend Terry. Retiring from music in 1960, sadly McGhee died a year later of cancer. If only for his handful of modest hits, McGhee should be remembered as an R&B trailblazer. Grade: B- (Document Records, released January 8th, 2013)
Roosevelt Sykes' Live At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974
Roosevelt Sykes – “Live” At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974
The contributions of boogie-woogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes, a/k/a/ “The Honeydripper,” are often overshadowed by better-known students of his style like Pinetop Perkins and Otis Spann, but there’s no denying the influence the big man had on the evolution and use of the piano in blues music. Originally released as a limited-edition vinyl record back in 1988, Document’s “Live” At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974 captures the legendary pianist performing a raucous set in front of an enthusiastic young audience, Sykes banging away on the 88s and delivering upbeat readings of classic tunes like “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Night Time Is the Right Time,” mixing up blues and jazz and boogie-woogie to the delight of the crowd.

Sykes injects a fair amount of humor into the performance, introducing the songs with stories from his 50+ years in the business, but the real key to Sykes’ longevity was his enormous love of life and playing music, which is readily apparent in his performance of “44 Blues.” His first hit song (from 1929) and now a standard of piano blues, Sykes’ fingers fly across the keys with undiminished elegance, his vocals drenched in emotion that is only bolstered by the mournful vibe of the instrumentation. That lively take on “44 Blues,” combined with Sykes’ energetic performance of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” his fingers dancing across the keyboard with joyful abandon, prove why Roosevelt Sykes remains a major influence on blues artists to this day. Grade: B+ (Document Records, released July 10th, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Trent Gardner's Explorers Club, David Jacobs-Strain, Andrew Vachss (2002)

Explorers Club's Raising the Mammoth

The brainchild of musician/producer Trent Gardner of the band Magellan, his Explorers Club project gathers together the best and brightest from the progressive rock and metal genres to share ideas and create some daring, adventuresome music. Raising the Mammoth (Magna Carta Records) is the second Explorers Club album and the pedigree of the assembled players includes members of Kansas (Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh), Dream Theater (John Myung and James LaBrie), Megadeth (Marty Friedman), and Frank Zappa’s band (Terry Bozzio). With talent like this on board, it’s no wonder that Explorers Club is often called a “prog-rock supergroup.”

Raising the Mammoth is a collection of musical passages – some small and finely crafted, others longer and more majestic – strung together into a single, cohesive creative theme. The first extended section offers vocals from Gardner, Walsh and LaBrie, thrown into the stream of instrumental chaos created by the attending musicians. The result is quite invigorating; Gardner’s lyrical poetry containing many hidden directions while the musical undercurrent batters your consciousness like white water rapids along the Colorado River. The instrumental second section is grander in scope, the music often swelling to a crescendo before swerving off into unforeseen directions. The first section of Raising the Mammoth seems to work better than the second, with the instrumental interplay among the musicians showing a brighter chemistry and more disciplined performance. Taken as a whole, however, the hour-long recording is a wonderful example of a proud progressive-rock tradition, the torch carried well by Gardner and his friends.

Contrary to what this humble scribe has long believed, you don’t have to be old to sing the blues (tho’ I would submit that it certainly doesn’t hurt any). Extraordinary guitarist David Jacobs-Strain first performed onstage at the Oregon Country Fair at the tender age of eleven and was named as a faculty member of the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop in 1999 while still in high school. Jacobs-Strain released his first album before he entered college and Stuck On the Way Back (Northern Blues Music), his sophomore effort, proves that the young blues prodigy has come of age quickly.

David Jacob-Strain's Stuck On the Way Back
Produced by musician Kenny Passarelli, who convinced bluesman Otis Taylor to come out of retirement, Stuck On the Way Back is a magnificent showcase of both Jacobs-Strain’s six-string acumen and his songwriting skills. With sparse musical accompaniment and his stark, powerful guitar playing, the young Jacobs-Strain’s vocals sound as ancient as the music he sings. Original songs like Jacobs-Strain’s apocalyptic “River Was Green” or the discordant “Dark Horse Blues” are terse, muscular affairs with timeless lyrical concerns and strong performances. Covers, such as R.L. Burnside’s classic “Black Mattie” or traditional tunes like “Linin’ Track” are afforded great reverence and excellent delivery. A lyrical collaboration with Taylor, “Black And Blue,” results in a haunting tale of love and betrayal, the music fleshed out by Passarelli’s subtle keyboard work. Unlike a lot of young, white guitarslingers aiming for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s crown, David Jacobs-Strain is the real thing, an authentic bluesman with instrumental chops and lyrical maturity the equal of artists twice his age and experience.

Author Andrew Vachss could be considered the literary equivalent of the Delta bluesman. His fictional alter ego, Burke, is the same kind of hustler and street-level survivor that Muddy Waters was in real life while Burke’s adopted “family” is not unlike that which grew up around the Chicago blues giant. Burke, an ex-con, is a city-bred predator whose religion is revenge; his troubled childhood is the stuff that the blues is born of. In Vachss’ novels, Burke is typically getting even with someone, usually over something done to a child (reflecting Vachss’ own work as a lawyer and children’s advocate).

Andrew Vachss
Vachss has written better than a dozen Burke novels to date, but the latest, titled Only Child (Alfred A. Knopf) may be his best riff yet. Forced to leave New York City, Burke has spent the last few years (and couple of novels) hiding out in the Pacific Northwest. Burke slips back into the Big Apple under the shadow of night and reconnects with his family, which includes an Asian martial arts expert, a reclusive scientific genius and a hustling, streetwise philosopher. Low on cash and eschewing his usual cons and hustles as overpopulated with amateurs, Burke goes back to his roots as a “man for hire” and private investigator without papers. Hired by a Mob boss, Burke assembles his crew to hunt down the murderer of the Mobster’s daughter that nobody knew existed.

Vachss has branched out over the last few Burke novels, changing locales and the situations he throws his protagonist into, and he continues to experiment with Only Child, taking crime fiction to new heights. Vachss writes with a gritty realism and street-inspired rhythm that only Elmore Leonard comes close to matching, his Burke a dark avenger and hunter of men that could only exist in the imagination. If you’re looking for fiction a little headier and more headstrong than what exists at the top of the best-seller charts, give Andrew Vachss and Only Child a shot. Chances are you’ll go back to the store for more of Burke… (View From The Hill, September 2002)

Friday, September 15, 2023

Archive Review: Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 (2013)

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17
Delta blues legend Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. had two very distinct musical careers – one during the 1920s and ‘30s when, as a friend and contemporary of Charley Patton’s, he traveled the Southeast as an itinerant bluesman. The other career occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s when, after being “rediscovered,” House was championed as an authentic folk-blues innovator and booked into coffee houses and festivals. In between these two eras, for a few days in 1941 and 1942, lies a third, lesser-recognized aspect of his career. Although the handful of sides House recorded in 1930 for Paramount Records would be deemed commercial failures, they grabbed the attention of music historian Alan Lomax, who recorded House for the Library of Congress during two trips to Mississippi.

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17

As the story has been written, Lomax had travelled to the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi in late August 1941 to record a young musician by the name of McKinley Morganfield, who would later find fame as the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. Fiddle player Henry “Son” Sims, who played with Waters on the Lomax field recordings, had much earlier recorded with Patton and told Lomax where he could find House. Tracking the bluesman down in Robinsonville, where he was driving a tractor on a plantation, Lomax managed to assemble House and his band – including guitarist Willie Brown and harmonica player Leroy Williams – at Clack’s Grocery store in nearby Clack, Mississippi on September 3rd, 1941 for a raw, authentic recording session.

Lomax captured a number of performances on fragile acetate that day, and they’ve thankfully survived history to appear on Document Records’ Field Recordings Vol. 17. Although limited by the primitive recording equipment of the era, as well as the very nature of the field recording, the sonic magicians at Document have cleaned up the sound a good bit so that these performances sound old, but immediate and exciting. Among the high points of this first LOC session is the complete band cranking out a reckless version of “Levee Camp Blues,” House’s guitar battling with Williams’ harp for the lead, his vocals displaying the energy and quivering emotion of his earlier Paramount sides. “Walking Blues” offers up a powerful House vocal performance with some fresh, innovative guitar interplay taking place in the background while “Delta Blues,” featuring just House and Williams, spotlights House’s high-lonesome vocals and considerable six-string skills while William’s crying harp notes provide nice embellishment.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

When Lomax returned to Mississippi for a second session with House, he would record the singer alone with his guitar in July 1942. The emphasis here is on House’s unique vocals and influential guitar style, and several tracks stand out as classic slabs o’ Delta blues. The sound on “Depot Blues” is a bit muddy, but the guitarplay is exquisite and House’s vocals incredibly nuanced, and the solo version of “Walking Blues (Death Letter)” is especially haunting, with some interesting vocal phrasing and hypnotic guitar. Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 provides an essential missing link between the legend’s two disparate careers, and documents some mighty fine Delta blues in an authentic setting as well. Grade: A- (Document Records, released August 14th, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Dr. John, Etta James, Otis Rush (2002)

Dr. John's The Essential Dr. John

Every summer, a ton of ink is splashed around on newspaper and magazine pages hyping the season’s roving festivals. Through the past few years, Ozzfest, Lollapalooza, the Vans Warped tour and a dozen other here-today, gone-tomorrow traveling minstrel shows are featured in print articles and on TV. What a lot of folks don’t realize, however, is that dozens of annual blues festivals soldier on, unabated, year after year in locales as diverse as Maine, Washington, Pennsylvania, and especially California. These blues festivals may not get as much publicity as the national touring shows do, but they have longevity and tens of thousands of music-loving fans on their side.

On the Labor Day holiday weekend, KKJZ-FM (formerly KLON) will be sponsoring the 23rd annual Long Beach Blues Festival. The radio station, based on the campus of California State University, has been broadcasting jazz and blues programming since 1981 and has lined up a stellar roster of talent for this year’s blues festival. Saturday, August 31st will feature blues guitarists Otis Rush, Robert Cray, and Jeff Healey; soul legends Ben E. King and Arthur Adams; and R&B trailblazers the Ohio Players on the stage. Sunday, September 1st showcases the amazing Etta James, Ike Turner, and New Orleans’ favorite son Dr. John headlining the event along with Tyrone Davis, Mable John and blues axeman Roy Gaines.

As shown by the recently released compilation The Essentials (Elektra Records), Dr. John’s trademark vocal growl and inspired musical blend of R&B, jazz, blues, and rock has served him well through the years. Best known for a smattering of hits such as 1973’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and his 1989 duet on “Makin’ Whoopee” with Rickie Lee Jones, the music of Dr. John (née Mac Rebennack) has deep roots. Rebennack got his start in the business over forty years ago as a teenage guitarist working with famed New Orleans engineer Cosimo Matassa. As a session player, the future “Night Tripper” backed such local stars as Earl King, Professor Longhair and James “Sugarboy” Crawford, whose “Iko Iko” Rebennack recorded in 1972.

This early experience shows on songs such as the soulful rave-up “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,” the raucous “Tipitina” or the smoky classic “In A Sentimental Mood.” Dr. John is a flamboyant and masterful stage presence and, some say, an acquired taste. He is one of the few links to the regional soul and R&B stars of the fifties and sixties, however, and one of the few talents who can draw together such disparate strains of music into one entertaining performance.

Etta James' Burning Down the House
There’s not much that can be said about Etta James that hasn’t already been said during the R&B diva’s fifty-year career. James is simply one of the most magnificent blues and soul vocalists in the genre, with a charismatic stage presence that has made her a top draw in clubs and on the festival circuit for decades. Backed by the top-notch “Roots Band” that includes guitarist Josh Sklair and keyboardist David K. Matthews, James’ new Burnin’ Down the House (Private Music) captures a strong December 2001 performance at the House of Blues in Hollywood.

James runs through a red hot and smoking set that includes such crowd favorites as the Willie Dixon classic “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and the Isaac Hayes/David Porter Stax label gem “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” James includes some of her better-known tunes such as the 1961 R&B hit “At Last,” the 1967 Muscle Shoals classic “Tell Mama,” and the timeless ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Forget about the vacuous pop divas that are dominating the radio airwaves, Etta James is the real deal, a talent of unparalleled genius capable of belting out both hard-rocking blues and mournful, passionate soul ballads. With no disrespect meant to any of the new breed R&B vocalists, fans of talents like Jill Scott or India.Arie should get a copy of Etta James’ Burnin’ Down the House and see how it’s really done.

Otis Rush's The Essential Otis Rush
To blues aficionados, legendary guitarist Otis Rush is considered one of the founding fathers of the “West Side” style of Chicago blues. To fans uninterested in such scholarly minutiae, Rush is simply one of the hottest guitarslingers representing the Chicago blues scene, an underrated talent suffering from his own inconsistencies and often overshadowed by giants such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and even the lesser-known six-string wizard Magic Sam. Released a couple of years ago, The Essential Otis Rush (Fuel 2000 Records) is a wonderful collection of Rush’s studio work for R&B label Cobra Records circa 1956-1958, where the young bluesman built his legacy.

Working with noted producer, songwriter and producer Willie Dixon, the guitarist ripped out such powerful blues hits as “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “My Love Will Never Die” and “Keep On Loving Me Baby” for Cobra. The Essential Otis Rush also includes some scorching lesser tracks, though, such as the down-and-dirty “Groaning the Blues” and the big-band stompdown “Three Times A Fool.” The collection also includes alternate takes for several of the hit songs, and features such future blues and R&B legends as “Big” Walter Horton and Ike Turner sitting in on the tracks. Rush would go on to record for a number of different companies, including Chicago’s Chess and Delmark labels, but he would never equal the performances and passion poured into these tracks recorded at Eli Toscano’s low-rent Cobra Records studio. One of the last surviving legends of the fabled fifties Chicago blues era, Otis Rush continues to amaze audiences with his distinctive guitar style and powerful vocals…catch him live while you can!
(View From The Hill, September 2002)

Friday, September 8, 2023

Archive Review: Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon (2012)

Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon
Guitarist Craig Chaquico was a mere teenager when he first climbed aboard the Jefferson Starship as a passenger during the mid-1970s, but by the dawn of the 1980s he was sitting on the helm, helping guide the pop-rock phenomena to the upper reaches of the charts. Chaquico had musical tastes much loftier than his day job required, however, and his solo records evince a love of (and skill at playing) jazz and blues styles that were seldom utilized on songs like “Sara” or “We Built This City,” regardless of their overwhelming commercial success.

Chaquico has been a somewhat prolific solo artist these past few years, plying a jazz-inflected instrumental sound that typically falls on the Adult Contemporary side of the fence, his most recent album, 2009’s Follow the Sun, kind of a “smooth jazz” breakthrough yielding a minor hit with the Kenny G composition “Songbird.” Considering his background, the guitarist would seem an ill fit with the blues ‘n’ roots mainstay Blind Pig Records, but here he is with Fire Red Moon, Chaquico’s debut for the label and a decent enough effort to start with.

Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon

First, the bad news – Rolf Hartley, who sings the bulk of the non-instrumental tracks here, may be a longtime friend of the guitarist, but he’s just not that great a voice. For example, on Chaquico’s “Devil’s Daughter,” a bluesy tune that cries out for a dirty, gritty vocal instead offers up Hartley’s lightweight, Don Henley-styled croon, making the song sound like an outtake from the Eagles’ Hotel California. He has little presence on any of the songs that he appears on, and his vocals on Robert Johnson’s masterpiece “Crossroads” are lackluster and overwrought to the point of almost overshadowing some of the excellent fretwork that Chaquico is laying down in the background. The best part of the performance here definitely belongs to Chaquico, who takes Eric Clapton’s original blueprint for the song and pumps it full of life and vigor in spite of Hartley’s duff vocals.

Much better is the effort of singer Noah Hunt – Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s longtime frontman – who guests on Chaquico’s original “Lie To Me” and brings a bluesy, emotional gravitas to the performance that Hartley sorely lacks. Next time around, Chaquico should rope Hunt into the studio for a few more tunes. Another guest vocalist, Eric E. Golbach, makes what appears to be his big-league debut on “Bad Woman” and it isn’t half-bad, Golbach and his gravelly vocals displaying a real sense of heartbreak on the lyrics, the performance bolstered by Chaquico’s melancholy guitarplay dancing in the background.

As for the good news about Fire Red Moon, the album offers several fine showcases for the guitarist’s underrated skills, an instrumental take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’“ perfectly capturing the song’s freewheeling locomotive vibe, while the album’s title track mixes blues and jazz together like B.B. King, displaying great tone and texture in equal and entertaining measures. The hauntingly beautiful “Blue On Blue” is a gentler, more ethereal sort of “Little Wing,” i.e. Jimi Hendrix channeled through Stevie Ray Vaughan and filtered through Ronnie Montrose before emerging from the fingertips of Craig Chaquico with his own unique flourishes.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Fire Red Moon isn’t as bluesy (or even blues-rock) as many of us may like, Chaquico is an exceptional musician who, should he decide to walk further down this path (maybe with Hunt in tow), could have a bright future with this thing we call the blues. Grade: B- (Blind Pig Records, released October 16, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weather Report, Brian Gladstone (2002)

Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way

Never a band to allow grass to grow beneath their feet when they could be mowing it down with funky rhythms and staccato guitar riffs, the Red Hot Chili Peppers may well be the quintessential Los Angeles rockers. They kick off their recently released By the Way (Warner Bros.) with the booming title track. Anthony Kiedis’ voice is honed to a fine instrument from years of experience, mixing old-school, Sinatra-styled crooning with a staggering, free-style rapped chorus laid on top of Flea’s (Michael Balzary) superfly bass lines.

Songs like “Cabron” or “The Zephyr Song” illustrate John Frusciante’s incredible guitar prowess, the six-string maestro quite capable of shredding the strings if the moment calls for it, but also able to weave intricate, beautiful instrumental passages behind Kiedis’ lyrics. Because the Chili Peppers have a world-class musician in bassist Flea, the band’s material tends to lean towards a more rhythm-heavy groove while drummer Chad Smith, hidden in the back, is as solid a beatmaster as a band could ever want. The Chili Peppers’ wonderful chemistry, the enthusiasm of the players and the member’s shared experiences (and tragedies) make for exciting music, By the Way as good a rock ‘n’ roll album as you’re going to find this year.

The blues and jazz are America’s two greatest contributions to the shared vocabulary of music, both genres forever intertwined stylistically and both created by African-American musicians in the early part of the twentieth century. Much like the blues, jazz has many different faces, from the big-band swing of Duke Elllington to the hepcat cool of Dave Brubeck and the manic free improvisation of Miles Davis. Jazz is perfectly structured in that it lends itself to both individual achievement and group collaboration. No other jazz band in the history of the genre has had more influence on the style than Weather Report, however. The recent reissue of the groundbreaking 1976 album Black Market (Legacy Recordings), the band’s sixth studio effort, perfectly illustrates the impact that Weather Report would have not only on the world of jazz but on rock ‘n’ roll as well.

Weather Report's Black Market
Formed in 1970 by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxman Wayne Shorter, Weather Report would experience an ever-changing roster of talent through the fifteen-year lifespan of the band, yet always produced a cohesive sound backed by Zawinul’s unwavering vision. Black Market is interesting in that the album represents a transitional period for the band, the great Jaco Pastorious replacing Alphonso Johnson in the line-up (tho’ both play on various tracks), and no fewer than three drummers contributing to the album. Zawinul and Shorter lead the pack, the seven songs composed for Black Market incorporating elements of classic improvisational jazz and electronic experimentation, with undertones of funk and rock and the early signs of Zawinul’s flirtation with world music rhythms and forms. The resulting performances are near flawless, amazing in their scope and invigorating in their execution. Black Market would set the stage for the following year’s Heavy Weather, the band’s best-selling album and one that would see Pastorious taking on a greater creative role in the band. For music lovers whose knowledge of jazz doesn’t extend beyond Kenny G, pick up a copy of Weather Report’s Black Market and get a taste of the real thing...

Folk music is a tricky thing, the format not particularly beloved of radio programmers and label A&R men. Sure, stars like Jewel or Sheryl Crow might pay lip service to their folk roots, but an honest-to-goodness modern day folkie is as estranged from popular music as pro wrestling is from subtlety. All of which makes the gradual upward career arc of folk singer/songwriter Brian Gladstone all the more impressive (and encouraging). The Toronto-based musician recorded his first album, One Step Beyond the Dirt with equipment bought on the cheap at local music stores. Taking the punk rock DIY ethic to the extreme, Gladstone bought a computer, designed his own promotional materials and began the chore of marketing himself to both potential listeners and the industry. He achieved a modicum of radio airplay, sold a few CDs and eventually had that first album – originally a basement demo – picked up for European distribution.

Brian Gladstone's Psychedelic Pholk Songs
Gladstone’s second album, the excellent Psychedelic Pholk Songs (Back To The Dirt) successfully beats the sophomore curse, delivering a wonderful collection of literate and often-humorous songs. “Asphalt Cowboy” leads off the album, a delightfully tongue-in-cheek rave-up that sums up the hopes and aspirations of every artist who ever made their way to Nashville in search of fame and fortune as a country singer. The song throws away better lines than most Music City songsmiths will pen this year (I particularly like “It’s so hard to get paid/Working at my special trade/I like to sleep all day and then/I listen to CDs”). “Mega City Mel” is a sprightly tale accompanied by a ragtime rhythm, “A Father’s Lullaby” Gladstone’s lovely and loving ode to his three children.

Gladstone is an imaginative and intuitive songwriter and a natural storyteller, unrestrained by conventional limitations. A fair-to-middling’ guitar picker, Gladstone has a friendly voice and an infectious musical personality. Your humble scribe doesn’t know a whole lot about folk music, but know what I like and I like Psychedelic Pholk Songs more every time I listen to it. Psychedelic Pholk Songs is a real breath of fresh air, an honest album by a real musician. You won’t find any Pro Tools enhancement or studio polish on Psychedelic Pholk Songs, Brian Gladstone’s music beautiful in its flaws and flawless in its sincerity. (View From The Hill, August 2002)

Friday, September 1, 2023

Archive Review: Black Country Communion's Afterglow (2012)

The classic rock “supergroup” Black Country Communion was always destined to break bigger in the U.K. and across Europe than in the United States – less trend-mongering, more respect for music traditions, and so on – but that hasn’t stopped the band from steamrolling itself to notoriety and a modicum of stateside success. On the eve of the release of BCC’s Afterglow, their third studio effort in as many years, apparent discord had begun to surface as singer, songwriter, and bassist Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple) fretted publically over the future of the band in light of guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s crushing, never-ending solo roadwork. Hughes wants to be part of a touring band like ye olde Purple and other monsters of the ‘70s, while Bonamassa is satisfied with a few BCC side dates to compliment his busy schedule.

Black Country Communion’s Afterglow

Soap opera drama aside, it’s quite obvious from the eleven jams on Afterglow that something is amiss with the band’s world-beating sound. Don’t get me wrong – Hughes and Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, along with producer and unofficial “fifth man” Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, are still one of the biggest-sounding, blustery, and bad-ass outfits on the rock ‘n’ roll highway today. But Hughes shouldered the lion’s share of the songwriting chores for this go-around while Bonamassa was traveling, and it shows in the final product. While Hughes may be an accomplished and skilled wordsmith in his own right, what made BCC so special in the first place was the creative tension between Hughes’ hard rock, soul, and funk tendencies and Bonamassa’s blues-infused rock ‘n’ roll fretburning.

As a result, Afterglow finds the material a slight bit fatigued, down a notch, perhaps, from the first two ground-breaking, earth-shaking albums. Not that you could tell from the all-in, full-blast instrumental assault here, BCC still delivering hurricane-strength thrills and chills for the listener who appreciates 1970s-era Sturm und Drang. There’s always been an air of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in the BCC sound, mainly through Bonamassa’s wiry fretwork and Bonham’s propulsive percussion and Afterglow offers up plenty of the musical chemistry that made the outfit special in the first place, songs like “Big Train,” with its staccato rhythmic intro and subsequent fluid groove atop which Hughes’ vocals soar godlike astride Bonamassa’s subtle six-string flourishes and Sherinian’s underlying keyboards. “Confessor” neatly ties a bow on a the classic rock decade, evoking memories of Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and even a bit of former Hughes bandmate David Coverdale’s Whitesnake.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The lone Bonamassa vocal here, on the growling, howling “Cry Freedom,” mixes up some taut, Joe Walsh-styled guitar-wrangling (more James Gang than solo) with a measure of six-string stomp ‘n’ stammer reminiscent of Dust Bowl, while the album-closing “Crawl” is a sly bit of Zeppelinesque blues-funk with larger-than-life instrumentation and an overall impact like a sledge hammer to your medulla oblongata. Overall, with Afterglow, Black Country Communion delivers almost everything you could want from the band on a silver platter. Considering their haste at music-making and the fractured pace of the individual members’ careers, however, maybe they should take 2013 off and come raging back in 2014 with new fire and commitment (and Joe, take a day off every now and then, will ya?!). Grade: B (J&R Adventures, released October 30, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: The Cells, Rose Tattoo, Disarray, 'Streetwise' DVD (2002)

The Cells' We Can Replace You

The Cells’ web site describes the band’s music as “high decibel post-pop and loud, loud guitars,” about as apt a label as this critic could ever create for the Chicago rockers. We Can Replace You (Orange Recordings), the band’s enormous debut album, features frontman Cory Hance’s distinctive nasal vocal style and guitarist Pat McIntyre’s snarling axework. Drummer Randy Payne and former Figdish bassist Rick Ness add massive, crashing rhythms to the songs, every tune on We Can Replace You a perfectly manufactured three-to-four minute slice of pure rock ‘n’ roll. “Silver Cloud” explores the perils of fame, fictional and otherwise while “Vinyl” offers the suggestion of automotive therapy for the angry and heartbroken. Hance’s bratty vocals rise above McIntyre’s tireless fretwork, spitting out the lyrics of “Say Hello” as the song spirals into a cacophony of feedback before evolving into “What You Did.” A radio-friendly pop song with a memorable riff and relentless wall-of-sound instrumentation, “What You Did” is a fine example of the Cells’ craft. Every song on We Can Replace You is an unpolished gem, the Cells a band with so much life and energy that they sound loud even when they’re being quiet.

Australia’s Rose Tattoo are a rowdy bunch o’ fellows, old school beat messiahs that only know two ways to rock ‘n’ roll: hard and loud. The band has been plying its trade for better than two decades now, instruments turned up past ten and lead singer “Angry” Anderson assaulting his audience with gravel-voiced, full-throttle vocals. Virtual deities both “Down Under” and “Over There” in Europe, Rose Tattoo have never caught on stateside beyond a dedicated gang o’ headbangers. The band’s latest album, Pain (Steamhammer Records), offers everything that any hard rock fan could want. With precise guitar licks sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, courtesy of Pete Wells and Rockin’ Rob Riley, and driving rhythms built, brick by brick, by bassist Steve King and drummer Paul DeMarco, Pain rocks like a house afire.

Rose Tattoo's Pain
The band’s “Union Man” is a raucous rave-up about the merits of organized labor while “I Can’t Help It If I’m Lucky” is an old-fashioned, sappy love song paired with high-voltage instrumentation. “One More Drink With the Boys” is exactly what you’d expect from the title, a barroom ballad delivered with plenty o’ blood, sweat and tears while “Illustrated Man” stands as the band’s theme song. A biker anthem with hard-as-nails vocals and screaming guitar riffs, “Illustrated Men” is a perfect example of “100% rock ‘n’ roll,” Rose Tattoo’s statement of purpose and the band’s guiding light through all these years. Somewhere along the way, hard rock went astray, but Rose Tattoo, with Pain, still play with the fire in the belly and unabashed passion of lifers.

So-called “nu metal” bands are a dime a dozen these days. The phrase itself sounds like a hip marketing ploy, an artificial label used as an epitaph by some critics and as a creative pigeonhole by others. Some bands, such as Mushroomhead or System of A Down, manage to break through the barriers of lame marketing and poor writing on the strength of their talent. Disarray, on the other hand, use their latest album In the Face of the Enemy (Eclipse Records) to literally annihilate the “nu metal” barrier. This three-piece leviathan crushes industry mannequins and mindless critics beneath a ferocious aural onslaught, driving their artistic enemies to either madness or oblivion much like their musical forbears, metal mavens Gwar, did a decade ago.

Disarray's In The Face of the Enemy
In the Face of the Enemy
is a high-speed car wreck of a heavy metal album, produced with a wonderful lack of subtlety by Gwar’s Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie). With their instruments set on dismember, Disarray proceeds to slice and dice forty-five minutes of soundwaves with brute force and extreme insensitivity. Tunes like “To This Day” and “Path of No Regret” display a certain alienation and “might is right” Darwinian philosophy, the angry young men of Disarray reflecting the hopes and fears of the band’s growing teen audience. Frontman Chuck Bonnett’s rough-hewn vocals sound like he blistered his pipes with battery acid at an early age. His guitar talks even louder, tho’, firing off staccato riffs and mixing classic crash-n-bash metal with thrash and hardcore punk, a heady sonic brew supported with devilish glee by bassist Vance Wright and drummer Dave Peridore. Forget about all those “nu metal” poseurs tiptoeing through Linkin Park – Disarray are the “nu” face of metal, LOUD, hard, and as unforgiving as a fist.

Now that he is a TV sitcom dad, the new millennium’s Ozzie Nelson, Mr. & Mrs. Osbourne’s annual Ozzfest summer tour is, without a doubt, poised on the brink of primetime success. For a look back at previous Ozzfest shows, check out the first issue of Streetwise DVD music magazine, available at FYE Music stores nationwide or online at This cheap-o priced, value-packed videozine is divided into sections, the first offering feature stories like “Ozzfest Takes On the World” and “Marilyn Manson Sounds Off.” The “Main Stage” features music videos from rockers like Drowning Pool, Weezer and an ultra-cool, Clockwork Orange-inspired vid by Rob Zombie. The “Side Stage” showcases videos by up-and-comers like 3rd Strike, Otep, and the super-foxy Lennon. A “Back Stage” section provides video stories and interview segments with folks like Bad Religion and Glassjaw. The production is top-notch and the graphics are pretty nifty, although you do have to sit through a certain amount of advertising to see the content. With plans to publish quarterly, the maniacs at Go Street have created a winner in their Streetwise DVD magazine. Did I mention that it’s only $5.00 retail? (View From The Hill, August 2002)

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

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
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
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

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

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)

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 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)

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)

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

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 clichés 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)