Friday, June 28, 2024

Archive Review: Dr. John’s Locked Down (2012)

Dr. John’s Locked Down
As the story goes, in late 2010 Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys traveled down to Louisiana to visit New Orleans musical legend Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack. A longtime fan of Rebennack’s late 1960s/early 1970s recordings as “Dr. John the Night Tripper,” the now-classic albums fusing psychedelic rock with New Orleans funk, Mardis Gras R&B, and reckless swamp-blues, Auerbach promised Rebennack that if he allowed him to work with him in the studio, he’d help him make “the best record you’ve made in a long time.”

Rebennack’s children had told him nothing but good things about the Black Keys, so the pair decided to try out the new musical marriage at the 2011 Bonnaroo Festival, the resulting jam session leading to the recording of Locked Down, the follow-up to Dr. John’s acclaimed 2010 album Tribal, in Auerbach’s Nashville studio with a group of musicians hand-picked by the producer. The results seem to have exceeded both men’s expectations, described in the album’s liner notes as “a return to the heady sound that defined the legend of Dr. John and a new chapter in a long book.”   

Dr. John’s Locked Down

It doesn’t take song for Locked Down to display an innate musical chemistry between the musical legend and his (relatively) young acolyte. The album-opening title track is a sordid tale of life on the wrong side of the law; Dr. John’s soulful, patois-heavy vocals and street-smart, slang-ridden lyrical imagery matched by a deep groove fueled by chiming keyboards and energetic percussion. By the time that Auerbach’s guitar solo jumps out at you, it cuts like a knife, leaving as unexpectedly as it arrived. The New Orleans pedigree of “Revolution” shines so brightly that you’ll need sunglasses, bleating horns striving with a dangerous, syncopated rhythm, the singer’s shotgun vocals slung low but effective in the mix.

Opening (and closing) with a found snippet of sound from an old movie or TV show, “Big Shot” perfectly captures Dr. John’s infamous “Night Tripper” persona. Above a languid groove, the singer spits out lyrics like a conman’s tease, the song itself evincing a brassy New Orleans vibe that swings and sways like an out-of-control metronome. By contrast, “Ice Age” masks it social commentary with a mix of Cajun-styled swamp-blues and old school R&B, Dr. John’s stream-of-consciousness lyrical rant be-bopping and scatting machinegun-like above a rich, blustery soundtrack complete with swaggering percussion and scraps of guitar and keys.

Kingdom of Izzness

The up-tempo “Getaway” continues in a similar jump-n-jive vein, the song’s brief, albeit image-filled lyrics almost overwhelmed by a wall of instrumentation and backing harmonies that send wave upon wave of sound up against Dr. John’s vocals. Auerbach’s fierce guitar solo almost three-and-a-half minutes into the song delivers a scorched-earth finish to the sentiment, firmly punctuating the song’s tale of troubled lovers. No less confusing is “Kingdom of Izzness,” some sort of deep, back-alley wisdom going on in the seemingly random words and thoughts that Dr. John strings together here, the lyrics threaded in between the song’s rich mix of blues, soul, and gospel music.
The spry “Eleggua” is funky lil’ romp across the New Orleans musical landscape, the song’s instrumentation bringing to mind the Meters, fife-and-drum music, barrelhouse blues, and much, much more with Dr. John’s rich vocals hidden beneath the cacophonic soundtrack. Locked Down closes with “God’s Sure Good,” an old-fashioned, houserockin’ rhythm and blues song with a great deal of soul rising up above the wiry fretwork, keyboard riffs, gospel-tinged harmony vocals, and fluid rhythms. Dr. John’s vocals are inspired and energetic, tipping towards a sort of spiritual joy as his keyboards reach a crescendo of life and light above this mere mortal plain.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Auerbach has delivered everything he promised Rebennack, producing in Locked Down an album that perfectly captures the spirit and energy of the singer’s earlier work under the Night Tripper persona while providing Dr. John’s sound with a raw, raucous contemporary edge. Auerbach’s production of Locked Down is nuanced and light-handed; never do you get the sense that the guitarist is trying to push the singer out of his own album like some producers will do.

Instead, Auerbach provides Dr. John with the support and motivation to deliver one of the best albums of his lengthy career. While Rebennack’s efforts these past few years have certainly provided several fine showcases for the artist’s immense talents and songwriting skills, with a little help from a sympathetic producer and instrumentalist like Auerbach, Dr. John has delivered what will be considered a late-career tour-de-force in Locked Down. (Nonesuch Records, released April 3, 2012)

Archive Review: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home (1999)

Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home
Lone Justice was a band at least ten years, maybe even a decade and a half ahead of their time. They were one of the first outfits to take their cue from Gram Parsons and the Byrds, successfully mixing traditional country leanings with roots-rock and punkish energy, pre-dating such “cowpunk” bands as Rank & File or Jason & the Scorchers by a year or two. Although Lone Justice was comprised of talented musicians with a bit of experience under their belt, it was the golden angelic tones of vocalist Maria McKee that made this material special. With one foot in her country and gospel upbringing and the other in the early-‘80s L.A. punk rock scene, McKee was often compared to a young Dolly Parton. Like Parton, McKee lent a presence to a song that was undeniably distinctive and unique.

The band’s first two albums were completely unexpected affairs, offering songs with complex themes of sin and salvation, love and lust that featured McKee’s incredible voice and were propelled by a band that was as equally endeared of the Sex Pistols as they were of Hank Williams. This World Is Not My Home is the first proper compilation to take a long hard look at those first two Lone Justice albums, paying the band their due respect. Offering up the most magical moments from those discs alongside a number of unreleased and obscure import tracks and a handful of live performances, This World Is Not My Home is as good a snapshot of Lone Justice as you’re likely to find.

All of the best songs from the band’s mid-1980s college-radio days are here, great big slabs of country soul like “East of Eden,” Tom Petty’s “Ways To Be Wicked,” and “I Found Love.” Some of the unreleased early tracks are real gems that should have seen the light of day before now. Among these are McKee’s duet with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock on “The Train,” the spirited “Drugstore Cowboy,” and the gospel-tinged title track. The live tracks are a bit of a disappointment, however. Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is steady enough until guest star Bono from U2 sticks his smarmy nose into the song. The other live cuts are from a later, inferior incarnation of Lone Justice without guitarist Hedgecock or bassist Marvin Etzioni and just aren’t up to the band’s earlier standards.

As with all good things, the members of Lone Justice eventually went their separate ways, with McKee moving on to a critically-acclaimed though short-lived solo career. The band never broke out of the alternative, college-radio market, however, standing alongside such equally esteemed but commercially bankrupt bands as the Long Ryders, the Del Lords, Green On Red and the True Believers as the lost children of Gram Parsons. This World Is Not My Home is a good place to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with Lone Justice, however, a fine band that would have fit in right at home with today’s alt-country scene. (Geffen Records, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Buy the CD from Amazon: Lone Justice’s This World Is Not My Home

Friday, June 21, 2024

Archive Review: Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing" (1999)

Sonic's Rendezvous Band's "Sweet Nothing"

When I lived in the Detroit area back in the late 1970s I used to hang out at a place not far from the house called Dearborn Music. A third-generation record store that had been passed down in a straight line from grandfather to grandson, the store had never sent back any records that it ever bought during its thirty-year history. This practice would make today’s retailers, with their sorry philosophy of limited selection and “just-in-time” inventory, wince and cry. But the result was a wonderfully dusty, crowded store that offered everything from still-sealed Big Band albums to ‘60s psychedelica and punk rock imports. Knowing my penchant for loud, high-octane Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, the grandson called me over one day and laid a 7” 45 rpm copy of “City Slang” on me. It was the first release from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, a local “supergroup” made up of members from the MC5, the Stooges, and SRC and named after guitarist extraordinaire Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Little did I know at the time that this single would also be the last official release from the band. Although a couple of live bootleg tapes have circulated among the faithful during the past couple of decades, those of us thirsting for more had to be satisfied with our rare copies of “City Slang.” Imagine my surprise then when I opened up a copy of Mohair Sweets zine and saw an article on Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and a listing of a web site. Although Smith died a few years back, his wife – the talented Patti Smith – asked longtime associate Freddie Brooks to look through the band’s collection of tapes with an eye towards releasing some of the material. The first result of this jump into the vaults is the “Sweet Nothing” CD, which captures the band alive and scorching during a 1978 performance. Needless to say, I sent in my hard-earned coin as soon as possible and grabbed a copy of this gem before it disappeared on me.
Even though it had been twenty years since I saw the band play live in Ann Arbor, “Sweet Nothing” immediately brought up fond memories of that night. A solid hour-long set of raging “Motor City” rock ‘n’ roll, “Sweet Nothing” does not disappoint, even given my high expectations. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a monster of a live band, with Smith and fellow guitarist Scott Morgan dueling like sword fighters in a death match, trading deadly, razor-sharp riffs with abandon. Ex-Stooges’ drummer Scott “Rock Action” Asheton kept up a steady, often-times manic beat while bass maestro Gary Rasmussen laid down a rhythmic groove that propelled the music along like nitro in your gas tank.

With a sound that’s loud, meaty, and muscular, booming out of your speakers like a metal stamping machine in a Detroit auto plant, the songs on “Sweet Nothing” are almost immaterial, given the heaviness of the performances. These are good, not great songs, mostly originals by Smith or Morgan. Some are standard, guitar-driven love songs, like the mesmerizing “Hearts,” the engaging title track or the band’s drunkenly passionate cover of the Stones’ “Heart of Stone.” Other songs – like “Asteroid B-612,” for instance – are more esoteric, blazing a musical trail across territory that’s more akin to Sun Ra than to anything rock ‘n roll was spitting out in the late ‘70s.

That legendary single, “City Slang,” is presented here as an eight-minute, album-closing rave-up that’s guaranteed to stand you on your head, leaving you with the certain knowledge that Sonic’s Rendezvous Band were a great band. It’s a damn shame that they never became huge stars, but then again, their cult status befits them. After all, like Neil Young once said, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” For a too-few brief years, Sonic Rendezvous were the underground rock scene’s brightest burning stars, blazing their way through hundreds of live shows. Lucky for us that somebody captured one of these special nights on “Sweet Nothing”. (Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts, released 1999)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™

Sonic's Rendezvous Band

Archive Review: Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI (2004)

Black Label Society's Hangover Music, Vol. VI
The epitome of the modern heavy metal guitarist, few log-splitters play with the speed, dexterity, and complexity of Zakk Wylde. Chosen in 1987 by rock legend Ozzy Osbourne to handle his six-string chores, the 19-year-old Wylde followed in the footsteps of acclaimed players like Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee, earning a reputation as a skilled instrumentalist while touring and recording with Ozzy. Wylde formed Black Label Society in 1998, the band conceived of as both a collaborative effort of like-minded hard rockers and as a vehicle for Wylde’s artistic vision.

As a showcase for his immense talents, Black Label Society has excelled beyond even the chainsaw guitarist’s expectations. Each album has shown Wylde evolving and growing as a musician; with Hangover Music, Vol. VI, he has taken a major step in defining himself as a legacy artist in the game for the long haul. Whereas previous BLS albums like Blessed Hellride successfully blended heavy metal chops with Southern rock aesthetics, Hangover Music takes the hybrid a step further, revealing more of Wylde’s personality and relying less on his trademark six-string pyrotechnics and more on solid musicianship and songwriting.

Backed by former Crowbar drummer Craig Numenmacher and a revolving cast of musicians including former White Lion bassist James LoMenzo, Wylde covers a lot of stylistic ground on Hangover Music, Vol. VI. “Crazy Or High” is reminiscent of late ‘70s Black Sabbath and “Queen of Sorrow” is a guitar-driven dirge that features Wylde’s tortured vocals and monster riffs. “Steppin Stone” is an atmospheric rocker long on grandeur while “Layne” is a somber tribute to the late Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley.

Adding piano to his instrumental palette, Wylde brings a previously unrevealed artistry to the acoustic-based “Woman Don’t Cry” or his inspired cover of the classic rock gem “Whiter Shade of Pale.” While there is nothing to alienate long-time fans here – there is enough string shredding to satisfy even the most die-hard headbanger – Wylde is quietly breaking new ground and taking his music to heights that few critics ever suspected he’d reach. (Spitfire Records, released 2004)

Review originally published by the Community Free Press, 2004

Friday, June 14, 2024

Hot Wax: John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell (1964/2024)

John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell
In 1959, blues legend John Lee Hooker was at a crossroads in his career. The music industry was evolving from a singles-oriented medium towards full-length albums and “The Hook” was in danger of being left behind. Hooker had enjoyed a string of seven R&B charting singles circa 1948-1958, including five Top 10 hits like “Boogie Chillen’,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Huckle Up Baby,” and “I’m In the Mood” (which also rose to #30 on the mainstream singles chart). These songs wrote the lexicon of the artist’s rhythm & blues saturated boogie-blues sound that he would pursue for the next 40+ years.

Hooker’s first bona fide album release was 1959’s I’m John Lee Hooker. Released by Vee Jay Records, it was a collection of seven previously-released singles and five newly-recorded tracks (a parallel album release, Chess Records’ House of the Blues, was comprised entirely of singles). Around this time, Riverside Records owner Bill Grauer traveled to Detroit with the idea of recording a new John Lee Hooker album consisting entirely of Leadbelly songs. Riverside was essentially a jazz label, so recording a blues artist of Hooker’s stature was an out-of-the-box notion, especially once Grauer discovered that John Lee had no idea of who Huddie Leadbetter was, and was unfamiliar with his music. Grauer quickly regrouped and produced sessions with Hooker and his acoustic guitar at the familiar United Sound Systems in Detroit where the artist had recorded several previous hits.

The core of Grauer’s brainstorm had merit, as acoustic-based “folk blues” artists were beginning to rise in popularity at the time. Long lost Mississippi Delta and Hill Country bluesmen like Fred McDowell, Skip James, and John Hurt were being “rediscovered” and shoved into studios to re-record their “old songs” before hitting the coffee house circuit and folk festival trail. Even Chicago blues stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson were re-branded as authentic, acoustic-toting “folk blues” singers. Grauer left Detroit with enough songs on tape for two albums, the first of which was released in 1959 as The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (quickly re-titled as The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker). The second album arising from those Detroit sessions was Burning Hell, which wasn’t released until 1964 and then only in the U.K. by Fontana; Burning Hell wasn’t reissued on CD until 1994, and it’s been long out-of-print in any format.

John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

The first release from the newly-resurrected Bluesville Records label (part of the Craft Recordings family), Hooker’s Burning Hell is an often-overlooked entry in his massive and decades-spanning catalog of music. With a tracklist largely comprised of roughly half Hooker originals and the other half choice covers, Burning Hell showcases Hooker’s deep, fluid vocals laid across several styles of acoustic blues. The title track is a spry, Piedmont-styled morality tale with scrappy guitarplay and strong vocals but “Graveyard Blues” is a dour, Delta-styled dirge with intricate guitar patterns and Hooker’s sonorous, almost droning vocals. Hooker isn’t the deftest of string-pullers, especially when compared to contemporaries like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Kirkland, or even his cousin Earl Hooker, but his performance here is simply mesmerizing.

Hooker’s cover of the Big Joe Williams’ classic “Baby Please Don’t Go” is provided an emotionally-charged performance that relies on the singer’s pleading vocals more than on his boogie-stomp fretwork. Ditto for his reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” which substitutes soaring, almost falsetto vocals (well, as high as Hooker could go…) for The Wolf’s primal howl; combined with Hooker’s circular guitar strum, he creates a sort of melodic and enchanting tone poem. “You Live Your Life and I’ll Live Mine” is based on a standard blues scale with a few instrumental flourishes here and there as Hooker sings of his romantic woes while “Jackson, Tennessee” is afforded an up-tempo, loping guitar riff atop of which Hooker pounds out his Delta-dirty vox. Hooker’s jaunty “How Can You Do It?” is almost pop-styled with radio-friendly, intelligible vocals, an upbeat and melodic guitar line, and an undeniably sunny performance.

John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives
John Lee Hooker photo by Lawrence Shustak, courtesy of Riverside Records Archives

On the other hand, the odd bodkins Lightnin’ Hopkins cover “I Don’t Want No Woman If Her Hair Ain’t No Longer Than Mine” is an awkward talking blues with meandering guitar licks and disjointed vocals. Hooker’s “Blues For My Baby” pursues a similar theme, but with better results, his powerful vocal performance matched by bog-standard boogie-blues git licks with the occasional (and delightful) instrumental detour. Bluesmen and rock stars alike have covered Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” for decades but, for my money, Hooker’s reading is one of the best, with yearning vocals and a jazzy acoustic soundtrack. His reading of the Willie Dixon-penned “Natchez Fire” provides the song – originally recorded as “Natchez Burnin’” in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf – with an eerie chill as his haunting vocals and arcane guitar playing mourn the true-life tragedy that took 200 lives at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi in 1940.   

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Looking at its history and provenance, Burning Hell is an odd choice to kick off the new era of Bluesville Records. Perhaps it was chosen because Hooker is a well-known artist among casual blues fans, as Burning Hell was never released previously by Bluesville. When Riverside impresario Bill Grauer passed away in 1963, the label’s catalog passed through the hands of ABC Records before being bought by Fantasy Records in 1972. Fantasy, in turn, was bought by Concord Records in 2004, forming the Concord Music Group. Bluesville Records was a subsidiary of the esteemed Prestige Records jazz label that also became part of CMG via its purchase by Fantasy in 1971…and that’s how you get a 1964 John Lee Hooker album on Riverside Records seeing reissue by Bluesville Records some 60 years later. *

There were a number of other choices for an inaugural Bluesville reissue, including long-forgotten but worthy flapjacks from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Sonny Terry, Snooks Eaglin, and Pink Anderson (who inspired Pink Floyd’s band name). The minor cavil of its dubious status in the Bluesville label universe aside, this version of Burning Hell is nevertheless a godsend for hardcore blues fans and collectors. The packaging is hearty, with a thick cardboard sleeve, glossy laminated cover, and a padded, archival quality inner sleeve to cradle the vinyl. Little has been changed with the graphics, which are perfectly garish for the era, and the back cover includes Alan Bates’ insightful original liner notes. Cut from the original master tapes and pressed on black 180-gram vinyl, this Bluesville edition is the first time that this long-lost album has been released domestically on record.

In the end, however, it’s the music that counts, and Burning Hell showcases a different side of John Lee, his flirtation with “folk blues” opening new doors for his career as he entered the decade of the 1960s as a grizzled veteran. No less than six “folk”-oriented Hooker albums would be released just prior to, and shortly after Burning Hell for labels like Vee-Jay, Crown Records, Chess, and Kent Records, many of them constructed from vintage 1950s-era recordings. Hooker hit the summer folk festival circuit with aplomb, which helped carry him through the difficult ABC Records years to The Healer and his successful final chapter. With its raw vocals and wiry fretwork, Burning Hell isn’t the crown jewel of the massive John Lee Hooker catalog, but it represents a significant turning point in his career and is well worth rediscovery by both fans of the artist and blues fanatics alike. (Bluesville Records, reissued June 7th, 2024)

* For more on the Bluesville Records story, check out my interview with producer Scott Billington on the Rock and Roll Globe website!  

Many thanx to Charles Shaar Murray, and his wonderful John Lee Hooker biography Boogie Man, for info on the artist’s Riverside recordings...

Buy the LP from Amazon: John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell

Also on That Devil Music:
John Lee Hooker’s The Healer review
John Lee Hooker’s The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 review

Charles Shaar Murray's Boogie Man

Friday, June 7, 2024

Archive Review: The Roots' The Roots Come Alive (1999)

The Roots are, perhaps, the most underrated players in hip-hop. They may not raise a ruckus like the Wu-Tang Clan, carry a rep like the Ruff Ryders family, or even belong to an impressive Platinum™ album posse like the rappers on Master P’s roster. The Roots nonetheless continue to crank out some of the most interesting and intelligent music you’ll find on the hip-hop scene. Because their songs are based as much on African-American musical tradition as they are on rap’s verbal traditions, the Roots are also one of the few hip-hop crews that can pull off a live show with some energy and dignity.

A tight performance outfit with over a decade under their belts, the Roots hit the stage some 250 nights a year – a pace that would make many “touring” rock bands blush with embarrassment. As such, The Roots Come Alive, compiled from the performances during the past year, showcases the band’s strengths and delivers an accurate documentation of the Roots’ live persona. With various guest vocalists (including the incredible Jill Scott) rapping over a musical undercurrent that draws its influences from the worlds of jazz, soul, World music, and old-school rap, the Roots create a truly mesmerizing vocal and musical rhythm. Flying under the listener’s radar to stealthily deliver the band’s lyrical message, if you’d like to hear how good hip-hop can be, check out The Roots Come Alive. (MCA/Universal)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 1999

Archive Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic's Running With Scissors (2000)

"Weird Al" Yankovic's Running With Scissors
Rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest court jester, “Weird Al” Yankovic follows a pretty successful formula with every album. Toss on a couple of decent song parodies of recent chart toppers, mix in a handful of tongue-in-cheek originals, and complete with a polka-flavored “Stars on 45” styled medley of popular songs. Sure, it’s rote by now, but the key to Yankovic’s genius is in his dead-on, bull’s-eye pop culture parodies that often skewer the ridiculous cult of personality with which we grace musicians, actors, and athletes. Running With Scissors follows Al’s formula to a “T” and although, like most of Yankovic’s albums, there is quite a bit of thrown away material, there are also several very smart and entertaining cuts here as well. The album opening “The Saga Begins” tackles the Star Wars phenomena with a hilarious retelling of The Phantom Menace tale set to the music and rhythm of Don McLean’s classic “American Pie.” Especially clever is the chorus, “Oh my my, this Anakin guy/may be Vader someday later/now he’s just a small fry/he left his home and kissed his mommy good-bye/saying ‘soon I’m gonna be a Jedi’.” The humor here is sly as a fox and sharp as a paper cut.

Other parodies include “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi,” a Yiddish send-up of the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” and the ultra-cool “It’s All About the Pentiums,” taking on Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins” with heavy metal, high-tech aplomb. “Jerry Springer,” a wordy rendering of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” is an engaging look at the addictive nature of tabloid television while originals like the wickedly cruel “Your Horoscope For Today” and the surrealistic story-song “Albuquerque” are hip, funny musical comedies. “Weird Al” is a true treasure, and like I’ve said before, we may take him for granted now but one day we’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nobody else has done more to deflate the egos and absurdity in pop culture, and Running With Scissors is another essential part of Yankovic’s legacy. (Volcano Entertainment)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2000