Sunday, January 29, 2017

Ellis Paul at McCabe’s, 1-28-17 Concert Review

Ellis Paul introduces "Kick Out The Lights"
As the world spins completely out of control and into the land of the strange and ugly, we are going to be turning more and more to those few things we’ve learned to count on. And one thing I know I can rely on to raise my spirits and reaffirm my faith in humanity is an Ellis Paul concert. He played last night at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. I deliberately avoided the news all day before the show in an effort to keep myself from turning toward anger and despair, and it worked, basically. Though when Ellis Paul took the stage just after eight o’clock, he immediately made a reference to the state of things: “Beautiful day today…unless you’re a Muslim immigrant trying to get in.” He then dedicated the first song to an audience member who is turning 89 tomorrow (well, today now – happy birthday).

That set opener was “I Ain’t No Jesus,” and this was a good version. It felt more poignant than usual, with lines like “The only miracle that I have seen is I can call you mine” really striking a chord. Perhaps that is because, with the world becoming more and more fucked up with every passing hour, we are focusing more on our personal relationships, really appreciating the people in our lives. I know I am, and I am thankful for the wonderful friends and family in my life, and especially for the woman who I hope one day will walk down that aisle to me. That would be, without a doubt, a miracle.

Ellis followed that with one of his absolute best songs, “Maria’s Beautiful Mess.” Before he started that one, he mentioned the planned protest over Donald Trump’s insane order to keep Muslims out of our country. “There is supposed to be a protest tomorrow at LAX. It’s at one o’clock, if you want to go. I’m going to be there, just trying to get home.” He also talked about playing a gig the day of the inauguration, and then waking up the next morning at a rest stop in Maryland, surrounded by buses of women coming in for the Women’s March. That was a day that gave hope to a lot of people, and one thing that was remarkable about it was that there was no trouble at any of the marches. There was a joy attached to the anger, and that’s something we have to hold onto. “And she loves like it’s thirst/Like she’s never been hurt/She’s dancing just like nobody’s watching.” After “Maria’s Beautiful Mess,” he played a relatively new song, “Scarecrow In A Maze,” performing it on piano, first talking a bit about the music that was playing in his house while he was growing up. At this show, Ellis told a lot of stories, weaving them together with the music, and developing a strong rapport with the audience, and he identified this song as a “story song.” This was the third time I’d seen him perform it, and I think this was the best of the three versions.

As usual, “Kick Out The Lights” was one of the set’s highlights, with the audience singing its parts (the women sounded great singing “Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash”). This was a particularly good version, with the guitar sounding deliciously mean at moments. Ellis followed that with “You Ain’t From These Parts,” playing it unmiked in the middle of the audience, with some new lyrics he wrote just before the show. He employed the help of a woman in the audience, having her hold the book of lyrics open to the new verse, which featured lyrics about towns in California. It’s a fun folk song about the pronunciation of town names, and this one too features a part for the audience.

Before “Snow In Austin,” he mentioned the lawsuit involving the song “Stairway To Heaven,” and the use of the same chord progressions in various songs. To prove his point, he played bits of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Landslide,” “Dust In The Wind” and “The City Of New Orleans,” all of which have the same chord changes as “Snow In Austin,” as he led into the song. During the song, someone in the front coughed, and Ellis whispered to him, “You have what I have.” And indeed, he still wasn’t over the cold he had during the New Year’s run, though his voice was significantly stronger than it was, say, on December 30th. He playfully went directly into a bit of “Mr. Bojangles” at the end.

Ellis read the poem “Thomas Edison” from his book The Hero In You, then returned to the piano for a beautiful rendition of “Home.” “Home sits across the table/Home is dreaming in my sheets/Home, home/This house is just an address, you lift me from all sadness/This house is just an address, you're my home.” One of these days I’m going to make a mix CD of songs titled “Home,” because there are several really good ones. He followed “Home” with a short version of “This Is Where All Good Trees Go,” the song about McCabe’s that he’s been playing at this venue for the last few years.

The audience sang along with “3,000 Miles,” and after that song, Ellis talked about how of all the arts music is the one where the audience plays an active part in the result, how audience members relate the songs to their own lives and thoughts. “This is one of the problems with music videos. You suddenly start associating the song with the video instead of the pictures in your head.” Ellis played harmonica on this song. After that, he asked the folks in the audience what they wanted to hear. Various requests were shouted out, including “Translucent Soul,” “The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down,” “Angel In Manhattan” and “Paris In A Day.” Of those requested, it was no surprise that he chose “The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down.” He played it unmiked in the middle of the audience. The audience sang along, but without the volume they had for “Kick Out The Lights.”

Ellis Paul then ended the show back at the piano, playing a short tune titled “California.” “California, California, California/You get the best of everything/You get the best of everything/You got Charlie Chaplin and the Hollywood sign/Avocados growing deep on the vine/Marilyn Monroe and the sweet sunshine/You make it hard to be from Arkansas.” That led directly to an excellent and moving rendition of “If I Had A Hammer.” There was no encore.

Set List
  1. I Ain’t No Jesus
  2. Maria’s Beautiful Mess
  3. Scarecrow In A Corn Maze
  4. Kick Out The Lights
  5. You Ain’t From These Parts
  6. Snow In Austin >
  7. Mr. Bojangles
  8. Thomas Edison
  9. Home
  10. This Is Where All Good Trees Go
  11. 3,000 Miles
  12. Rose Tattoo
  13. The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down
  14. California >
  15. If I Had A Hammer 

soundcheck
Ellis Paul introduces "Rose Tattoo"
 McCabe’s is located at 3101 Pico Blvd, in Santa Monica.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Joe Goodkin: “Record Of Loss” (2017) CD Review

In 2015, Joe Goodkin released his first solo album, an EP titled Record Of Life. He now follows that with Record Of Loss, a six-song EP that had me in tears before its end. I suppose I should admit that I am on the edge of despair these days anyway, what with the daily attacks on all that is good coming from Donald Trump and his regime. But that shouldn’t in any way be a slight on the power of this CD to move us emotionally. As the CD’s title promises, these are songs of loss, songs which I believe will be particularly poignant for most people these days. It feels we’ve all lost something of consequence, doesn’t it? All the songs on this CD were written by Joe Goodkin, and are performed by him on his 1963 Gibson.

He starts the album with “Nothing To Lose,” in which he sings “This is how the cards fell/This is the blues/This is really living with nothing to lose.” His voice is perfect to convey sadness, melancholy, but with love and even a bit of hope. Perhaps I always feel there is hope in honesty, as this song is disarmingly honest. “The pastor said a quiet prayer, and his suffering came to an end.” It’s a song that deals in part with death, an individual death, then ending with the line, “And we all just disappear.” And then in “Never Come Back,” Joe Goodkin sings, “And my dad spoke up/With an edge in his voice/He said you never know when someone might walk out of your life/And never come back/Never come back.” This is one of my personal favorites. There is something beautiful about it. And I also appreciate that even in loss, these are not songs of isolation, but rather work to bring us together. “And I wish had spoken up/And said I love you all/Because you never know when someone might walk out of your life/And never come back.” (Yes, this is one of the songs that make me cry.)

“Charlie And Roger” tells the story of sickness and death of loved ones. It opens with these lines: “My uncle and Charlie moved west so Charlie could die/In a house on a lake with a cat on his lap/He slowly said goodbye.” And those are soon followed by these heartbreaking lines: “I wish I knew him better than I did/The memories I have are mostly of after he got sick.” In a way, I suppose this song is about knowing him better, about learning something about his life by singing about it. The song is about two couples, each suffering a loss like that. That’s followed by “Sarah And Julie,” which is about living with an affliction, and while it is sad, there is a positive bent to the song, an optimism heard in lines like “But she’s going to make the most of her time,” “And each year’s a gift, a mix of work and luck” and “Let us be judged by the love we give.” And check out these lines: “My friend Sarah is living her death/I guess all of us are/But most days we forget.”

In “Eric And Gina,” Joe Goodkin sings of both his wife’s ex and his own, and how they have affected his life and marriage. It’s a powerful and brutally honest song, another of this CD’s best. “And though it tore her heart in half/She was secretly relieved/To be out from his collapse/And the endless tragedy.” And these are perhaps the best lines I’ve heard about divorce: “And so a lifetime worth of plans/Became a year of paperwork.” The CD then concludes with “For The Loss,” a moving and personal account of abortion. “I’m not even sure that it was mine/That somehow makes it worse/I took her to the clinic/And paid the money/I drove her home in tears/So she could get some sleep.”

CD Track List
  1. Nothing To Lose
  2. Never Come Back
  3. Charlie And Roger
  4. Sarah And Julie
  5. Eric And Gina
  6. For The Loss
Record Of Loss is scheduled to be released on February 10, 2017 on Quell Records. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Kenny Neal: “Bloodline” (2016) CD Review

As the frightening and depressing news continues unabated from Washington, D.C., it seems like it would be easy to succumb to misery and defeat. What can we do? Donald Trump seems determined to destroy everything that is good about this nation, and lead us down the darkest possible path. The only solace to be found is in music. And the blues seem particularly appropriate, and perhaps more needed than ever. Take this misery and this pain, and give it expression in song to gain some control over it. Isn’t that what the blues are all about? Isn’t that why the blues often make us feel so good? Well, Kenny Neal’s newest release, Bloodline, is certainly having that effect on me.

Bloodline features mostly original material, written by Kenny Neal. He is backed by an excellent group of musicians, including Tom Hambridge on drums and backing vocals, Bob Britt on guitar, Tommy MacDonald on bass, Noel Neal on bass, Lucky Peterson on keys, Kevin McKendree on keys, John Lancaster on keys, Steve Dawson on guitar, Quentin Ware on trumpet, Billy Huber on trombone, Tyler Summers on saxophone and Dana Robbins on saxophone. On backing vocals he is joined by the McCrary Sisters as well as what appears to be his entire family. Chris Carmichael provides the string arrangements. Bloodline follows Kenny Neal’s 2015 CD, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, one of the best Christmas albums of recent years.

It opens with “Ain’t Gon Let The Blues Die,” and man, this is the happiest, most celebratory blues sound I’ve heard in a while, complete with horns and a good driving beat. I love it, and I need it. It was written by Kenny Neal, and the lyrics mention and celebrate many famous blues musicians. “We had Jimmy Reed, the Big Boss Man/We had Albert King playing the blues for you/We had Koko Taylor pitching a Wang Dang Doodle/Say I ain’t gon’ let the blues die.” That’s followed by “Bloodline,” the CD’s title track, also written by Kenny Neal and featuring a meaner Louisiana vibe, with some nice work by Neal on harmonica as well as guitar. And it certainly does seem like the blues run in his family. “Blues bloodline runs deep/I got the blues from my head to my feet.” There is a fantastic moment in the middle of this song, where the song breaks down to mainly drums and vocals, with some delicious backing vocals adding beauty and soul to the tune.

In “Plain Old Common Sense,” Kenny Neal sings, “Well, it’s best to think twice and only speak once/Don’t let your mouth overload your tongue/Sometimes it’s better to listen than to be heard/You’re better off not saying a word.” Common sense seems a rarity these days. Oh well. I really like this song. And it’s followed by one of my favorites, and the first cover of the album, Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (one of Willie’s earliest songs, when he had short hair and was clean-shaven – yes, there was such a time). This tune has a sadder feel, and is kind of beautiful. Willie Nelson can sure write a good song, and Kenny Neal does a phenomenal job with it, delivering an honest, passionate and moving vocal performance. Plus, there are some nice backing vocals. “I gotta go now/I guess I’ll see you around/Don’t know when/I’ll be back in town.”

Kenny Neal then brings us back up again with “Keep On Moving,” an original tune that features some fun work on horns. In this one he offers this bit of advice: “You gotta take life in stride.” Indeed. “Life is an adventure with a lot of surprises/Things could change in the blink of an eye/Just when you think you made it through/The whole damn world come crashing on you.” Let’s hope things change for the better soon, because right now we are plummeting into a deep, dark abyss, with nothing to break our fall. But the groovy instrumental section of this song makes me feel a bit better. It’s hard to not enjoy life when you have a good jam going on. “I’m So Happy” is also fun and positive, with a great groove, and with Kenny Neal singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody worry me.” I keep trying to take that line to heart, but it’s damn near impossible these days. Still, the music is helping. “I’m So Happy” was written by Kenny Neal, Tom Hambridge and Syreeta Neal.

For a blues album, there are plenty of fun and uplifting songs here. “I Can’t Wait” is a playful, delightful tune written by Tom Hambridge, Seth Walker and Gary Nicholson, and it features more good work on harmonica. It’s about being happy and excited to get home to his girl. “I’m going to tell you how bad I missed you/I’m going to kiss you like I never kissed you/We’re going to start real early and stay up late/I can’t wait/I can picture how good you’re lookin’/I can smell what you got cookin’/Thinking about all the good love we’re going to make/I can’t wait.” Oh yes. We could all use some good lovin’ right about now. The other thing we all need is a good friend, someone we can call at any time, and that’s what “Real Friend” is about. Things are tough enough out there, we can’t get through it alone. Plus, I love the horns. This CD then ends with a tribute to B.B. King, “Thank You BB King.”  I said, the thrill ain’t gone/And your blues gonna live on.”

CD Track List
  1. Ain’t Gon Let The Blues Die
  2. Bloodline
  3. Plain Old Common Sense
  4. Funny How Time Slips Away
  5. Keep On Moving
  6. I Go By Feel
  7. I’m So Happy
  8. Blues Mobile
  9. I Can’t Wait
  10. Real Friend
  11. Thank You BB King 
Bloodline was released on July 22, 2016 on Cleopatra Records.

Ruthie Foster: “Joy Comes Back” (2017) CD Review

As the world continues to break from its axis under the extreme weight of Donald Trump’s ego, and a blond screeching pet lizard named Kellyanne Conway insists on the veracity of his twisted delusions, denying reality loudly and repeatedly, it’s difficult to keep from questioning one’s own sanity. It’s impossible to reconcile what they insist is truth with what we know to be true, and some people simply snap under the pressure to accept these fiends’ fantasy as fact. The only thing I’ve found that I can count on to keep us somewhat grounded while also lifting our spirits is music. Fortunately, there is a lot of great music out there to keep us going, to remind us of what’s important and what’s real. Music to scare off the monsters and unite those of us who haven’t succumbed to the lunacy they churn out from their lofty lair. One new album that should do the trick is Ruthie Foster’s Joy Comes Back.

On this CD, Ruthie Foster covers a wide range of material, providing only one original track (unlike 2014’s Promise Of A Brand New Day, which included quite a lot of original material). But Ruthie Foster has proved that she can take others’ songs and sing the hell out of them, making them her own. Just listen to her incredible rendition of “If I Had A Hammer” from her 2012 release Let It Burn, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. On this album, she delivers an even more surprising cover, but more on that in a bit. First, what an optimistic title for this talented artist’s new album: Joy Comes Back. It seems damn unlikely, with the nation run by a mendacious narcissist without a shred of humanity. But hell, let’s make it true, folks, no matter how difficult it might seem at the moment. Let’s bring back some joy. On an individual level, listening to this album will be a step in that direction.

She opens the album with a great, soulful rendition of Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To?” There is still that country heart to this song, but Ruthie’s version has a more intimate feel than the original. By the way, Ruthie Foster is backed by some excellent musicians on this CD. On this track, Joe Vitale (who played with Crosby, Stills And Nash) is on drums, and Larry Fulcher is on bass. Ruthie follows “What Are You Listening To?” with “Working Woman,” written by Grace Pettis. It’s a celebration of women, and a reminder of what women are capable of, a perfect song coming on the heels of the Women’s Marches. Ruthie sings, “This country’s run by the working woman/Don’t be fooled – she ain’t no pretty face/She rules this roost, she runs this place.” Ah, if only a woman were running our nation. Songwriter Grace Pettis plays acoustic guitar on this track. And Frank LoCrasto provides some nice work on keys. Ruthie Foster also covers Grace Pettis’ “Good Sailor,” a song Pettis co-wrote with Haley Cole. And again Grace plays acoustic guitar, and also provides some backing vocals. The lines I love from this song are, “Easy living never did me no favors/Smooth seas never made a good sailor/So bring on, bring on the crashing waves.”

“Joy Comes Back,” the album’s title track, is one of my favorites. It was written by Sean Staples, and this rendition features Derek Trucks on slide guitar and Red Young on organ. Here is a song to listen to (and to sing) while we try to get back on our feet, while we try to move forward, while we try to rise above the incredible nonsense being spouted every day by that slime occupying the White House. “I want to be ready/I want to be ready/I want to be ready/When joy comes back to me/I’ve been downhearted/I’ve been downhearted/I’ve been downhearted/But I won’t be down for long.” Amen.

The one track on this album written by Ruthie Foster is “Open Sky,” a moving song with a slow modern R&B groove. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Lately I don’t have a clue/Where I want to go/But I know one thing’s for sure/It’s you I want to know.” The incredibly accomplished Willie Weeks provides a cool bass line on this track.

As I mentioned earlier, this CD contains a seriously fantastic and surprising cover. And that is “War Pigs,” the opening track from Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. And just as her unusual cover of “If I Had A Hammer” was one of the best tracks of Let It Burn, her Black Sabbath cover is one of the best of this new album. Ruthie Foster plays dobro on this track, and Simon Wallace provides some great work on harmonica. But it is Ruthie’s vocal performance here that is really stunning, and makes this track something worthy of admiration. You should definitely check it out. That’s followed by a really good cover of The Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” a song written by Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder.

Another of my favorite tracks is Ruthie’s playful and joyful cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues,” on which Warren Hood plays both fiddle and mandolin. Ruthie plays dobro on this one. Mark Epstein is on upright bass. That’s followed by a cool and passionate rendition of Shawnee Kilgore’s “Abraham,” a song about Abraham Lincoln. “When I do good, I feel good/When I do bad, I feel bad/That’s my religion.” The album then concludes with Deb Talan’s “Forgiven,” with Brian Standefer on cello, Kim Deschamps on pedal steel, Frank LoCrasto on keys, Eric Holden on bass, Daniel Barret on percussion and Joe Vitale on drums. It has a somewhat different feel from Deb Talan’s original acoustic guitar version, but the heart of the piece remains the same. “You are forgiven/I open all my doors/You are forgiven/It’s what a heart is for.”

CD Track List
  1. What Are You Listening To?
  2. Working Woman
  3. Joy Comes Back
  4. Open Sky
  5. Good Sailor
  6. War Pigs
  7. Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
  8. Richland Woman Blues
  9. Abraham
  10. Forgiven
Joy Comes Back is scheduled to be released on March 24, 2017 on Blue Corn Music.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Curtis McMurtry: “The Hornet’s Nest” (2017) CD Review

I am always excited and enthusiastic for cello and for good songwriting, and Curtis McMurtry’s new album, The Hornet’s Nest, delivers a healthful dose of both. The Hornet’s Nest is Curtis McMurtry’s second solo album, following 2014’s Respectable Enemy, and on it he is backed by some of the same musicians who joined him for that earlier release, including Diana Burgess on cello, Taylor Turner on bass, and Nathan Calzada on trumpet. Also joining him on this CD are Mike Meadows on percussion, Evan Kaspar on pedal steel and Claire Trowbridge on bass clarinet. All of the songs on this album are originals, written by Curtis McMurtry, and feature some excellent lyrics. Check out these lines from “Coward”: “We talk over and under each other these days/And every time I try to help, I realize I’m in the way/And I’m too fearless to be careful/Too fragile to be kind/Too stubborn to admit when I agree/So even when I know you’re looking down on me with love/You looking down is all I see.” And these from “Shot At The Title”: “Fall through the cracks, then claw your way back to the surface/Sharp as a thorn and certain you’re born with a purpose/Keep hold of the wheel, because you know even steel can shatter/Don’t be surprised if what you feel inside doesn’t matter.”

He opens this disc with “Hard Blue Stones,” a short and unusual bluesy folk song presented with just Curtis’ sparse work on banjo accompanying his vocals. The first lines are: “You stand forever over me/Without kindness or concern/I know I must look desperate here/With nothing left to burn.” But my favorite line is, “You’ll notice I still wear the bandage even though the wound has healed.” That’s an excellent line. I don’t want to compare Curtis to his father, James McMurtry, but clearly he has his father’s knack for writing a great lyric and creating compelling characters and tales. Curtis follows “Hard Blue Stones” with “Smooth As Thorns,” in which he asks, “Will you be all right if I fall to pieces?/Will you be all right if I don’t become the one you dream of?” Toward the end, the trumpet comes in like a lonely voice in the night.

“Loves Me More” is one of my favorites, and is one I saw him perform more than two years ago at The Hotel Café.  This rendition is quite different from the solo version I heard then. It has a cool, old-time vibe, thanks to the work of his band. This is a fun tune, and I love the lead on trumpet. It’s about a man betraying a friend with his woman. “I did it for myself, you know/I never meant to hurt you so/But I can’t say I won’t do it again.” Yes, it has a playful feel. Check out these lines: “It’s not a race unless I win/I know where her mouth has been/Believe me when I tell you I don’t care/And anyway, she came to me/I never made her do a thing/You’re a grown man, now, it’s time you learned to share.” And oh, that instrumental section led by the cello is absolutely wonderful. Sometimes a despicable character can make for a great song.

“Wrong Inflection” is another delight, and on this one Diana Burgess sings lead on certain lines. “I tell you everything/You still don’t trust me/Am I so easy to despise?/Sometimes you say the right words/With the wrong inflection.” Yet another favorite of mine is “Can’t Be Better,” in large part because of Diana’s work on cello, and I love the way that instrument sounds with the banjo. But this playful love song also boasts some good lyrics: “There’s nothing I prefer to being pressed against your skin/And no one can convince me feeling this good is a sin/I will get down on my knees if you want for me to beg/With your fingers in my hair, my mouth between your legs/Because I think you are perfection, I think you are divine.” Ah, yes! And then that horn! What a wonderful song.

“Together For Now” has a gentle, romantic feel, but its lyrics tell us more of the truth behind the couple of this tale. “No matter how hard I try to be careful/I still end up in the fire somehow/Your honey tongue dripping all over/And we’re still together for now.” And it ends with the line, “Together forever for now.” The album concludes with “Silver World,” which has an excellent instrumental section with the trumpet, clarinet and cello combining to create a compelling sound and atmosphere. “The dead don’t care if they’re forgotten/But the old, they surely do/Build your towers to the heavens/Nothing made is here to stay/Put up a stone to mark our bones/’Til the wind wears it away.”

CD Track List
  1. Hard Blue Stones
  2. Smooth As Thorns
  3. Loves Me More
  4. Wrong Inflection
  5. Bayonet
  6. Rebecca
  7. Can’t Be Better
  8. Coward
  9. If I Leave
  10. Tracker
  11. Together For Now
  12. Shot At The Title
  13. Silver World 
The Hornet’s Nest is scheduled to be released on February 24, 2017.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Big Shoals: “Hard Lessons” (2016) CD Review

Big Shoals are a band from Gainesville, Florida. Last summer they released their second album, Hard Lessons, the follow-up to their 2014 debut, Still Go On. Hard Lessons features an excellent group of songs, all within the country and folk realm. The band delivers intimate, soul-baring moments, as well as energetic country rock songs. This disc boasts some seriously good lyrics, such as these lines from “The Fall”: “It took losing you/To see what I put you through/It took falling apart/To fix a broken heart.” All the songs were written by singer and guitarist Lance Howell.

They open the album with “Only Queen,” which starts with a sweet, comforting folk vibe, which I appreciate. Ease us in with a touching moment of beauty. “Been holding onto my youth/Like it’s my last piece of gold/Been hiding from the truth/I’m just scared of letting go.” Then when it kicks in, the song takes on a stronger, brighter country feel. “Baby, when I make it back through town/I might give a second thought about settling down/You’d be the only queen to wear my crown.” That sounds so appealing to me right now. This is one of the disc’s many highlights. They follow it with “You Ain’t Nothing Like The Girls Back Home,” which has more of a pop flavor added to the country rock, but is also a love song. “I want to be the one who’s crazy/I want to cross the line/I want to be the one you think of/When trouble’s on your mind.” And after the lines “I want to lose control/I want to sell my soul to you,” singer Lance Howell delivers a good lead part on harmonica. Chad Voight plays drums and percussion on this track.

“Union Son” is a song of a family divided during the Civil War. There is a kind of quiet power to this track. Check out these lines: “But I watched my daddy grow/To a cold and bitter soul/What once he did for country became fun/And every day I fought the fear/That the smoke would one day clear/And I’d have to face my father’s union son.” That’s followed by a more rockin’ number, “Only God Knows.” The line from this song that stood out for me the first time I listened to this disc is: “I’ll never be a better man than who I was when I was with you.” This is a man who sings that he’s left his past behind him and is curious about what an uncertain tomorrow will bring. Usually, a line about leaving a past behind has a positive, optimistic ring to it. But in this case, it’s a mixed bag, since he sings that he was at his best in the past, which makes for a more interesting character and song.

In “Happy For A While,” Lance Howell sings, “I just want to be happy for a while.” It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, right? I can’t help but agree with him when he sings, “It seems like the world’s gone to hell.” Things are twisted and grim out there, and though the protests and marches yesterday raised my spirits, it doesn’t seem like the state of the nation is going to change soon enough. I’ve been turning to music and alcohol, lots of both. It’s sort of a selfish move, I admit, but “I just want to be happy for a while.” The band then returns to a friendly folk feel with “Love, Fortune Or Fame,” which features more nice work on harmonica. I also really like that catchy bass line. “Did you pray for the sun, and get pissed on by the rain?” Yup.

Another of this album’s highlights is “Losing Hand,” a sad and moving song, with lines like “Dreams are just dreams/I gave this my whole life/Got no kids, got no wife/Just a lost trail of old hearts/And torn at the seams.” There’s also a hard-hitting instrumental section that is really effective. Fans of bands like Wilco should appreciate this. “Losing Hands” is followed by another of my favorites, “Amelia,” which begins with some wonderful work on acoustic guitar before the vocals come in. This song features possibly the most passionate vocal performance of the album. “You took my heart/And left behind/A broken man/A darkened light.” I love this song. The CD then concludes with “The Way It Goes,” which tells the tale of a friendship. “I know time will change you/Hell, it’s changing me too/Back then it used to move so slow/I see our glory days fading out of view/I guess that’s the way it goes.”  

CD Track List
  1. Only Queen
  2. You Ain’t Nothing Like The Girls Back Home
  3. The Fall
  4. Union Son
  5. Only God Knows
  6. Happy For A While
  7. Love, Fortune Or Fame
  8. Losing Hand
  9. Amelia
  10. The Way It Goes
Musicians

The musicians on this album are Lance Howell on vocals, guitar and harmonica; Jacob Riley on bass; Ryan Williams on drums and percussion; Todd Beene on pedal steel guitar; Ryan Baker on piano and organ; and Chad Voight on drums.

Hard Lessons was released on July 15, 2016.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Vivian Cook: “The Long Shot” (2015/2017) CD Review

Today, in celebration of the passionate Women’s Marches all over the country, I’ve been listening to some cool female recording artists, such as Vivian Cook. Vivian Cook’s debut release, The Long Shot, features original material, mainly in the pop realm, but with folk elements, and also with a sense of humor. Vivian Cook has a distinct voice, and plenty to say. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and recorded this album in Los Angeles. It was produced by R. Walt Vincent, who has worked with Pete Yorn, Liz Phair and Tommy Keene. R. Walt Vincent also performs on the album, playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, piano, organ and percussion. Also joining Vivian Cook on this release are Malcolm Cross on drums and Zak Ambrose on acoustic guitar and slide guitar.

She kicks off the CD with “Know-It-All,” the opening verse of which really caught me by surprise the first time I listened to it, and made me pay closer attention: “Turns out a second-hand account of watching your mother die is still/Two hands too close for I cried on the kitchen floor listening to ‘No One Is Alone’”/Boo, Sondheim, you whore/Nobody likes a know-it-all.” I love how emotionally you’re prepared for one direction, but then she switches gears with the line, “Boo, Sondheim, you whore,” a change that had me laughing aloud. By the way, “No One Is Alone” is a song from Into The Woods, a musical that I suffered through once and hope to never encounter again. The song then kicks in after those lines. And check out these lines: “And the only promise I ever made/Was to do anything I could so/Sorry I’m shit at the hospital bit/But if you’re looking to forget I’m the good/Witch of distraction, absinthe ready for action.”

That’s followed by “Whatever,” a cool and surprising pop song, a strange combination of cute and gritty. Like the first song, the vocal line features some unusual and interesting phrasing. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “So let’s do whatever we want/I’m pretty sure it’s legal long as we don’t get caught/Yeah, we can do whatever you please/Long as it ends with you on your knees.” Then “Hazy” is a fun song that begins as sort of a folk tune, but with a catchy chorus you can dance to. But the lines that always stand out for me are these: “Just because I couldn’t come/Doesn’t mean we didn’t have any fun.”  And in “Just Kids,” Vivian sings, “So let’s move somewhere cheap/And just read for like a year/I’ll bring the weed, you bring the beer.” Amen. I’ve had desires like that often throughout my life, and now more than ever it is appealing. Just move away and immerse ourselves in literature and mild drugs.

“Truth” is an oddly beautiful and humorous folk song, which I totally love. This is another that made me laugh out loud, and yet is also a quite moving song, something of a feat, really. The first lines of the song are also the first that made me laugh: “I got lost the other day/So I tried to find my way by the North Star/But no one ever/Really taught me how to do that.” And I love these lines: “You can’t have everything/And nothing at the same time.” This is one of my favorites.

Another favorite is “Nights End.” It has a catchy groove, bordering on reggae. And check out these lines: “Yeah, I was once in love, now I don’t know/What it would take to open up that door/That’s been locked for so long, what do you think?/Just one more song?/If that bitch plays something beautiful/I’ll make him a part of my whole.” Again, there is some interesting phrasing here. Like the line “Yeah, I was once in love, now I don’t know.” Taken by itself, there is something sad and funny about it, like she doesn’t know if she’s still in love. But then the line continues into the next line, so she’s also saying she doesn’t know what it would take to be in love again. Vivian Cook does that quite a lot on this album, running lines together to allow for different and surprising meanings. She concludes the album with “Farewell L.A.,” which opens with these lines: “Seems like everybody’s somebody in L.A./What would you pay for it to rain?” Yesterday, I would have paid somebody to make it stop raining. But that’s a rarity. This is a really strong song, and makes me excited to hear more from this unusual artist.

CD Track List
  1. Know-It-All
  2. Whatever
  3. Hazy
  4. Take Me To The Water
  5. Just Kids
  6. Train Conversations
  7. Truth
  8. Down To Frat
  9. More
  10. Nights End
  11. Farewell L.A. 
The Long Shot is scheduled to be released on January 27, 2017 through Omnivore Recordings. However, it seems that it was released with a different album cover in September of 2015.

Sex Stains: “Sex Stains” (2016) CD Review

As our nation descends into what promises to be a dark and horrible time, many of our citizens have taken to the streets today to combat the rising tide of terror, and to show a brighter, most positive face to our country. It’s wonderful to see that many, many more people turned out for the women’s marches than did for the inauguration of that narcissistic, racist, misogynist monster. It gives us hope, and we could all use a bit of that right about now, eh? But I’m still furious, and it’s difficult to let go of that anger. So the music for today had to be loud, kind of angry, but with a sense of play (because, hell, I don’t want to descend into my own darkest places). And also, in solidarity with the days’ events, it had to be by women (or at least with female lead vocals). So I’ve been listening to the Sex Stains.

Yes, I know, I know. But don’t let the band’s name scare you away.  Sex Stains are actually a really good band, fronted by Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe. I saw them in concert in September, on the same bill as The Mekons, and they were a lot of fun, with a great energy (though it was difficult to make out the lyrics). Their self-titled debut CD was released that month, but for some reason I never got around to reviewing it until now. Today seems like the perfect time for the Sex Stains, for their energy.

The CD opens with “Countdown To…,” a not-quite-nostalgic look at a childhood of poverty. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I don’t remember anything/But Dad kept a loaded gun in the bedside table/When my sister and I were five, Mom came into the bedroom/To find us pointing the gun at each other/Give Mommy the gun.” But the line from this song that always stands out for me is “Music saved me.” I expect it to do the same for all of us. By the way, the sort of spoken-word style of the verses reminds me a bit of some of the work of the Dead Milkmen and King Missile. That’s followed by “Land Of La LA,” one of my favorites, and not just because I live in Los Angeles. This is a seriously fun and catchy tune, with a great groove, but not with innocent or meaningless lyrics. “Welcome here to the land of la la/Happy to serve, don’t quite your day job/Can’t get ahead or off the streets/So who do you know and who do you meet?

“Period. Period.” is a strange one, mainly because of the way most of the lyrics are delivered. But I totally dig it. It reminds me a bit of The Waitresses. “Could you please leave me alone now?/I didn’t sign up for this shit, wow/You’re not invited tonight – ouch/And oh no, you want to cramp my style/Well, your need for male attention sucks/And no one here really gives a fuck/So why must I spell it out for you?” This is one of the disc’s highlights.

“Oh No (Say What?)” has some lyrics that seem just exactly right for today (not that the song is about Donald Trump): “Hateful. You ain’t grateful/We put your heart to the test/Let’s rearrange that fucking mess/You’re hateful. You ain’t grateful.” “Who Song Love Song” is ridiculously fun. But yes, I admit I am guilty of that sort of thing from time to time. “Oh no! Did you just tell me that’s a Who song?/‘Can’t Explain’ when I was singing you a love song/Why do boys always gotta tell us what is/What I want is you to listen up and shut it/Up to you. It’s what you want and when you want it.”  

“Cutie Pie” has something of a reggae vibe, and is another that is making me feel better about the world. “I like you, it’s like a tantrum/But now I don’t like you/Feel free to split like a phantom.” Before the line “Here’s a correspondence,” there is a sound like a chime on the computer that a new message has arrived. The CD then concludes with “Crumbs,” a heavy and wild tune. “I’ll take your crumbs, I’ll beg for your scraps/Tell me when you want me – I’ll take that/Talk like a baby, but it ain’t real/And all of your money, can’t buy you to feel/None of your fame will clear your name.

CD Track List
  1. Countdown To…
  2. Land Of La LA
  3. Period. Period.
  4. Don’t Hate Me Cuz I’m Beautiful
  5. Oh No (Say What?)
  6. Done Popped
  7. Confrontational
  8. Who Song Love Song
  9. Spidersss
  10. Sex In The Subway
  11. Cutie Pie
  12. Crumbs
Sex Stains was released on September 2, 2016 on Don Giovanni Records.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

David Wise: “Till They Lay Me Down” (2017) CD Review

David Wise is a saxophonist from Richmond, Virginia who is now based in Los Angeles. Though he has appeared on recordings since 2007, Till They Lay Me Down is his first solo album. It features mostly original compositions, written or co-written by Wise, with just a couple of covers. Joining him on this release are Bruce Forman on guitar, Alex Frank on bass and Jake Reed on drums, along with a few guest musicians on certain tracks. There are also vocals on a couple of tracks.

The CD opens with one of the vocal tracks, “What More Could One Man Want?” This was written by David Wise, though it has a wonderfully familiar vibe and sound, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard it before. It just has that feel of being a song that’s already made a home for itself in my life. You know? Jason Joseph provides the lead vocals on this track, with Laura Mace backing him. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “If you’re by my side/Then even that would be much more than I deserved/What more could one man want?” Ah, I’m happy to say I know just how he feels. This song also features some nice work on keys by Amy K. Bormet. Josh Smith joins the group on guitar, playing that great solo partway through, and this track also features Mitchell Cooper on trumpet, Glenn Morrissette on alto sax and R.W. Enoch on tenor sax. I would not be surprised if this song became a standard in the years to come.

“Sylvia” then follows with some sweet, romantic tones on saxophone. This track also features Mikala Schmitz on cello, an instrument I’m always happy to hear. This is a beautiful piece, with something of a 1940s feel, and I really like the percussion. David Wise then plays one of the album’s covers, a rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. It’s a song that’s been covered by a wide range of artists over the years, and here David Wise gives it his own personal spin. It has a kind of peppy romantic feel, and features a very cool bass line by Alex Frank (there is even a bass solo in the second half of the song), and some great work by Bruce Forman on guitar. And to top it off, there is a groovy drum solo by Jake Reed. This version should have you feeling good. The album’s other cover is “Kol Nidre,” a traditional piece for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s presented as a solo on saxophone.

“Till They Lay Me Down,” the album’s title track, is probably my favorite. This one makes me feel seriously damn good, even in the days before the inauguration of that horrid creature (I keep trying to put that out of my mind, but keep failing). There is even a cool bass solo. But it’s David Wise’s smooth, intimate, expressive and groovy sax that is at the heart of this piece and makes it something special. Somehow this tune is giving me hope (though perhaps this bottle of Italian wine is also contributing to that feeling). That is followed by a track titled “Lullaby,” and it does feel like a gentle late-night piece, letting us know the world is okay, that it’s safe to go to sleep, that the world will still be here in the morning.

The CD then concludes with two tracks featuring vocals, “Life Is But A Song, Parts 1 & 2” and “Life Is But A Song, Part 3.” David Wise himself provides the vocals for these two tracks, though the lyrics for the first track were co-written by Amy K. Bormet. Mikala Schmitz joins the group on cello for that first one. The second track has a cheerful vibe, and features Mitchell Cooper on trumpet. “So happy I have you in my life/So thankful to have you in my heart.” Yes, it’s a happy, slightly cheesy song, but I’m in touch with this. And for all of us who have a special someone, it’s good to regularly remind him or her just how you feel. If you don’t feel like saying it, for whatever reason, then play your loved one this song.

CD Track List
  1. What More Could One Man Want?
  2. Sylvia
  3. Here’s That Rainy Day
  4. Home
  5. Kol Nidre
  6. Till They Lay Me Down
  7. Lullaby
  8. Life Is But A Song, Parts 1 & 2
  9. Life Is But A Song, Part 3
 Till They Lay Me Down was released on January 6, 2017.

Mason Summit: “Gunpowder Tracks” (2016) CD Review

I first listened to Mason Summit a couple of years ago when I got Loud Music & Soft Drinks, an album that caught my interest in part because of the musicians supporting him, including Carl Byron and John McDuffie, two people I always love hearing. They both also play on Mason Summit’s newest release, Gunpowder Tracks, which, like his previous release, features all original material written by Mason Summit. This guy is young, but there is nothing immature about his lyrics, even when singing from a youthful perspective as in “Splatterpaint.”

He opens the new album with “Cellophane Skin,” a tune with a pleasant, relaxed vibe and a good vocal performance by Mason. “He’ll tear right through her cellophane skin/And she’ll wait until he does it again.” Mason Summit also plays electric piano on this track. He follows that with a more energetic number, “Splatterpaint,” in which he confesses “What I’m trying to say/Is that I don’t know what to say.” Both tracks are really good, but the following song, “Detour,” is one of my favorites. It’s a catchy, kind of quirky and delightful tune that makes me smile every time I listen to it. Sure, part of it is the horn, and part of it is that great work on piano. But a good deal of it is the song’s lyrics, which have an inventive playfulness. Check out the opening lines, for example: “I took a circuitous route/A lengthy commute/Around your backstory/Avoiding traffic and geographic memories/Your inventory of unseen footage/Because it’s better if I don’t know/It’s better that I go/Through the detour.” In a time of fear and misery and hatred, this song makes me truly happy. What more could I ask for?

Of course, then it’s followed by a song that begins with the line “Tonight she called and said that we were through.” “When Time Was Mine To Spend” is a song about wishing to be able to return to childhood before troubles and concerns took over our lives. I understand this idea, of course. But then again, I’m reminded that Mason Summit is only nineteen or twenty years old (depending on whether you’re looking at his Facebook page or official website), and the second line of this song is “Tomorrow the big paper is due.” Come on! You’re making me feel old. There are those among us who could write a similar song about wishing to return to one’s college days. But anyway, it’s a good song. “It seems the list of troubles never ends/I wish I was a little kid again.”

And speaking of being a child again, in “Hitting All The Reds,” Mason Summit mentions butterscotch Life Savers. I haven’t had butterscotch Life Savers in years, but those were always my favorite when I was growing up. Anyway, this song is another with lyrics that I just love, with lines like “And it seems like there’s a dead end/Behind every bend” and “We both look newer than we are” and “And I’m trying to get ahead/But I’m hitting all the reds/So I put my dreams to bed.” We’ve all had days like this, eh? Especially lately. This is one of the disc’s highlights.

That one is followed by another favorite, “Gunpowder Tracks,” the CD’s title track. It opens in a kind of folk vein, and halfway through becomes another strangely joyful tune. Yes, again, it’s in part because of the excellent horns, and because of that delightful piano part, both giving it something of a New Orleans vibe, which is always appreciated. This might be a good time to mention the musicians who play on this album. Mason Summit is on vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric sitar, Mellotron, synthesizer, electric piano and rainstick. Joining him are Shawn Nourse on drums and percussion; Jeff Turmes on bass and clarinet; Carl Byron on piano, electric piano, organ, harmonium and accordion; John McDuffie on pedal steel, lap steel, electric guitar, and slide guitar; Lynn Coulter on congas and tambourine; Chad Watson on trombone; and Neil Rosengarden on trumpet. “How could I have fucked up when I didn’t even try?/The sparks are my calling card, the ashes my goodbye.”

The CD concludes with “Last Time,” which has something of smooth jazz vibe. “There’s a last time for every first/And the last time will be the worst.”

CD Track List
  1. Cellophane Skin
  2. Splatterpaint
  3. Detour
  4. When Time Was Mine To Spend
  5. Suede Pockets
  6. Hitting All The Reds
  7. Gunpowder Tracks
  8. Snakeskin Shoes Crocodile Tears
  9. Sidestreet
  10. Good Thing Going
  11. Particles
  12. Last Time
Gunpowder Tracks was released on September 16, 2016.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Greg Diamond: “Avenida Graham” (2016) CD Review

These are rough times, no doubt about it. And as we get closer and closer to the day the monster assumes office (he’s even provided a countdown to disaster on his Facebook page), I’m finding it more and more difficult to find solace, even within myself. Even retreating into music is becoming difficult, though I keep trying. Today I’ve been enjoying Avenida Graham, the latest release from jazz guitarist Greg Diamond. Greg Diamond is based in New York, and lived for a decade near the corner of Graham Ave. and Broadway, the spot depicted on the CD’s cover. His music is influenced by the different cultures and peoples of that city, often with a strong Latin feel (which you might have guessed by some of the track titles). Joining him on this disc are Stacy Dillard on saxophone, Seamus Blake on saxophone, Mike Eckroth on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, Henry Cole on drums, and Mauricio Herrera on percussion. These tracks were recorded in New York in May of 2015.

“Synesthesia,” the opening track, has a great groove, and some excellent work on guitar. But what really makes me love this track is that saxophone, sometimes sounding like something coming in from a distant, foreign land, entering from above, from below, from all sides, commenting on the action and then quickly becoming a part of it. That’s Stacy Dillard on saxophone. I also love the percussion, which dominates the track at the end, taking it in a different direction. Actually, the first time I played this CD, I thought that ending was actually the beginning of the second track. Henry Cole does some great work on drums here.

Then things get mellower with “Rastros,” which has a quiet, gentle feel to start. Then the tune begins rising above that initial feel, like finding strength in crying out loud to the night, and this time it is Seamus Blake who provides that voice on saxophone. I just want to ride the waves of that sax, right on through the darkest of days. Greg Diamond’s lead part on guitar toward the end is wonderful, and I particularly like the way it rises over that great percussion and piano. And then the sax joins its voice to that of the guitar, like everything coming together in a beautiful and lasting way. “Hint Of Jasmin” also begins in a mellow way, with some really nice solo work on guitar. This compassionate piece draws me in, feeling like a caress within a cold city.

“Laia” begins with a cool bass solo, and goes in some interesting directions. I love that gentle saxophone over the guitar and percussion early on, like a breeze washing over my face and rustling the leaves of the nearby trees, while I keep my eyes closed. Things then take a turn when the piano takes on a steady groove, and soon the track gets a bit wild, the saxophone rising in energy and freedom of expression. And check out the way the guitar and percussion interact toward the end. Wonderful stuff. That’s followed by a moving and beautiful piece titled “Ultima Palabra,” featuring Mike Eckroth on piano at the beginning and then again in a lead section halfway through that is excellent. Peter Slavov turns in a wonderful lead on bass in the second half of the song. But Greg Diamond’s work on guitar here is the heart of the piece, and is what makes this track one of my favorites.

Greg Diamond concludes the CD with “Motion Suite,” which at times is a more joyful piece, with the vibe of a busy optimism. I love that piano. Ah, maybe we just need to keep moving. Don’t provide an easy target, right? And don’t let despair overtake you on January 20th.

CD Track List
  1. Synesthesia
  2. Rastros
  3. El Coronel
  4. Hint Of Jasmin
  5. Gentrix
  6. Laia
  7. Ultima Palabra
  8. Cascade
  9. Motion Suite 
Avenida Graham was released on November 4, 2016 through Zoho Music.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Stephen Bishop: “Blueprint” (2016) CD Review

Stephen Bishop is known for mellow hits like “On And On” “Save It For A Rainy Day” and “It Might Be You.” He also did that ridiculously fun and catchy theme to Animal House, a movie that he also appeared in (though it’s a funny moment, I always hate to see a guitar smashed like that). He did “Dream Girl” from that same film, as well as the theme from the 1984 remake of Unfaithfully Yours (a movie I love particularly because Nastassja Kinski is insanely gorgeous in it). Most of these are songs that he wrote, and many artists (including David Crosby and Art Garfunkel) have covered his material over the years. He’s co-written songs with Kenny Loggins and Eric Clapton, and on his newest release, Blueprint, he delivers his version of “Holy Mother,” the song he wrote with Clapton and which is on Clapton’s August album. Blueprint contains some romantic, unabashed love songs like “Someone Like You,” and also features some striking lyrics.

Though this disc contains mostly original material, Stephen Bishop opens it with a cover of “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon,” which was written by Kenneth King (also known as Jonathan King). This version has an odd beginning, with the song gently emerging from a dark cloud. “Eyes full of sorrow, never wet/Hands full of money, all in debt/Sun coming out in the middle of June/Everyone’s gone to the moon.” Ah, I know the feeling, especially these days. And in the coming four years, the moon might be the safest and sanest place to be. I really like this rendition. It’s kind of quiet and pretty, and it sneaks up on you.

He follows that with an original song titled, “Little Bird,” written with Dominique Star. This is one of my favorites, in part because of lines like “The signs were there all along/But it takes all the strength I have just to be yours/I never made you happy, did I?” And there is something pleasant about its groove, about its vibe. “Ultralove” he wrote with Jeff Jones. And yes, as you might guess from its title, it’s kind of cheesy, and definitely has a strong 1970s vibe. But that’s not necessarily a negative thing. “Time goes by so slowly when you’re gone/So I tell my heart that soon you’ll be here in my arms.”

“And I Love You” is sweet and simple, delivering a beautiful late-night promise that you just know he’ll keep, because this night will go on and on, without need of a dawn. “And I will follow you anywhere.”  Then “I’ll Sleep On The Plane” has a very different vibe, with a kind of jazzy sensibility and a sense of humor, making it one of the album’s most interesting songs. Plus, it tells a good story, and features some lines that stood out for me, like “Posing for Playboy as she reads Voltaire” and “It’s gonna be a brand new life for us, my love/You’ll wear your white fake fur in the Vatican hall.” And I love the backing vocals.

The lines from “Before Nightfall” that stand out for me are “When you’re tearing yourself apart/When you’ve broken your own heart/I’ll help you mend it.” Every time I listen to this disc, those lines grab me. This one too has a sweet vibe. “Holy Mother” is a song that Stephen Bishop co-wrote with Eric Clapton. Clapton included it on his 1986 album August, and now we get Bishop’s rendition. It’s beautiful and moving. “Oh, I need your help this time/To get me get through this lonely night/Tell me please which way to turn/To find myself again.”

“Slippin’ Into Love” comes as a surprise, for suddenly we have a pronounced beat and a more electronic 1980s pop feel. It’s kind of a dance song, but a somewhat mellow one. This CD concludes with a new rendition of “It Might Be You” (which is listed as a bonus track). This song was a hit for Stephen Bishop in the 1980s, when it was featured in the movie Tootsie. Hearing it now really brings me back to my childhood. It certainly got a lot of airplay in 1983, and it holds up remarkably well. A nice way to end the album.

CD Track List
  1. Everyone’s Gone To The Moon
  2. Little Bird
  3. Ultralove
  4. And I Love You
  5. I’ll Sleep On The Plane
  6. She’s Not Mine
  7. Before Nightfall
  8. Love At Stake
  9. Holy Mother
  10. Someone Like You
  11. Slippin’ Into Love
  12. Blue Window
  13. It Might Be You
 Blueprint was released on July 29, 2016.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reverend Freakchild: “Preachin’ Blues” (2017) CD Review

It’s not yet clear if one certain genre of music will emerge as the dominant one to get us through the coming horrors and embarrassments of a Donald Trump administration (typing that just made me queasy). But if one does, it may very well be the blues. And if God has abandoned us to our follies (and who could blame him if he did?), we still have the holy men of this plane to enlighten us and lift us up out of this political mire. Reverend Freakchild is here to preach the good word, and that word seems to be “perseverance.” On his new CD, Preachin’ Blues, he reminds us to enjoy our lives because death is constantly hanging about, ready to fuck up our day. This is a solo acoustic album, recorded live in a studio in Portland, Oregon, without any overdubs. It’s sort of like a concert presented for us in our living rooms (or wherever we listen to our CDs). As he would at a concert, Reverend Freakchild introduces the songs, even saying at one point, “But it’s great to be here in Portland, thank you all so much for having me.” The stage banter is presented as separate tracks, so you can take it or not, depending on your mood. Each of those tracks is given a title, and all of them begin with the word “Preachin’.” “Preachin’ Blues,” the title track, is the one song that begins with that word, and is a really cool rendition of the Eddie “Son” House, Jr. tune.

Reverend Freakchild opens this new CD with a great instrumental number, “Holy Breathing Blues,” a raw and loose original tune that he plays on guitar and harmonica. It’s pretty short, and seems designed to get him warmed up, get things off to the right start. I love that song title. He then does the famous Blind Lemon Johnson song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” delivering a good rendition, with something of a solemn spiritual air to it, combined with an energy firmly rooted in the dust and dirt of our world. And in introducing “In My Time Of Dyin’,” he says: “Like my mama said, Death is part of life, you know. The point is to have a good life before you die.” Yes. He then seems to touch upon the sense that more people than usual have been dying lately. “But it seems like there’s a lot of people going on before their time.” The song is then offered as help to those passing on to whatever existence is next.

And speaking of people who have gone on before their time, Reverend Freakchild does a cool, bluesy rendition of Prince’s “Kiss.” I just saw Ellis Paul play this one in concert (during his New Year’s Eve shows at Club Passim), so it’s being given different treatments these days, which seem to work quite well. These two renditions are making me take a fresh look at this song, and giving me more appreciation for it. In the song’s introduction, he talks about his chosen name and whether he’s a legitimate reverend, and calls the song a “purple song.”

“All I Got Is Now” is clearly one of his favorites of his own material. In his previous release, Illogical Optimism, a three-disc set, the second disc contains nothing but variations of this song, twelve in all. And before that, it was the lead-off track to Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues. So you’d think by now he would have played every possible version and maybe be tired of it. But no, here he gives us a new blues rendition. It’s a song about how it’s difficult to live in the moment, to let go of yesterdays and to not try to figure out the tomorrows. I try sometimes myself, but it feels damn near impossible. My thoughts naturally go to both events from the recent past and worries and concerns of the near future.

In introducing “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” Reverend Freakchild says, “This is a tune to help you enjoy your time on Planet Earth here, man.” He also quotes Shakespeare: “Like Shakespeare says, you know, things are not good or bad, it’s thinking that makes them so.”  The actual line is, “Why then, ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” a line I’ve always strongly believed to be true. That’s from Hamlet, by the way, which is probably the single greatest work of art that the human race has created. Hamlet speaks the line to Rosencrantz in Act II. Reverend Freakchild offers a playful, totally enjoyable rendition of this song. All of these tracks were recorded in July of 2016, except for the final track, “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” which was recorded in concert in 2013.

CD Track List
  1. Holy Breathing Blues
  2. Preachin’ About The Ancestors
  3. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
  4. Preachin’ About Life And Death
  5. In My Time Of Dyin’
  6. Preachin’ About The Silver Lining
  7. Preachin’ Blues
  8. Preachin’ About The Philosophical Investigation
  9. Kiss
  10. Preachin’ About Luxury Problems
  11. All I Got Is Now
  12. Preachin’ About Time
  13. Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down
  14. Preachin’ About Enjoying Your Time On Planet Earth
  15. It’s Gonna Be Alright
  16. Grinnin’ In Your Face
Preachin’ Blues was released on January 1, 2017. By the way, if you put this disc into your computer, you can read an essay titled “Transcendence Through Music: Buddha And The Blues,” in which Reverend Freakchild writes, “Music, especially the Blues, because it is rooted in suffering, provides a powerful path to transcendence” (p. 5). Well, okay then. And regarding the concept of the character named Reverend Freakchild, he writes, “I am constantly questioning the identity of this character and thus myself” (p. 29). I think we’ll all be questioning ourselves soon, perhaps retreating into ourselves and into these personal questions rather than confronting the horrible reality out there. But who knows? And who knows what wonders might come from such exploration?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Boo Ray: “Sea Of Lights” (2016) CD Review

These days I often feel like hiding under the covers in my apartment with just my stereo for company, for the world has gotten positively bizarre, and not bizarre in any kind of delightful or exciting way, but rather in a terrifying, horrid way that makes you question whether reality has permanently shifted from tolerable to shitty. But then I put on the new (well, sort of new) disc from Boo Ray, Sea Of Lights, and its energetic country rock just wouldn’t let me sit still. For one thing, I had to make it to the counter to pour myself a glass of whiskey. The music demanded it, you understand.

Boo Ray is from North Carolina, but spent some time here in Los Angeles, and his time here has informed the music on at least a couple of tracks on this album. Now he’s based in Nashville, a great town with the best pancakes in the nation, and certainly that place has also influenced the music on this CD. And this mix, this combination of influences lends itself to a strange and potent brand of southern rock, with a dash of humor working alongside the sincere, straightforward guitar. And man, the photo on the back of the CD case seems almost too perfect for these strange times, with its image of a red and black U.S. flag on a billboard against a darkening sky. Now isn’t that exactly the right image for these times of Trump and Putin and this fucked up carnival ride they’re determined to strap the world into? And what’s the right music to be played on this ride? Perhaps it would be Alec Baldwin’s proposed rendition of “Highway To Hell.” I’m not sure, but for now I’m definitely digging this Boo Ray disc, and it’s keeping me from taking up permanent residence under my furry blanket.

The album opens with “Redneck Rock & Roll,” which comes on hard and mean and honest. And in this song he tells us he’s looking for just exactly what he’s delivering here, as he sings, “It’s got to be country/It’s got to have soul/Strip it down to the bone/Just give me that redneck rock and roll.” Oh yes. “I can’t stand people talking, not saying a damn thing.” This song was written by Boo Ray and Davy Ulbrich. It’s followed by the album’s title track, “Sea Of Lights,” a song that mentions Los Angeles, where the CD was recorded. “Put me way up on the silver screen/A broken heart and shattered dreams/A sea of lights, a gentle breeze/Take me to Los Angeles.” A good portion of us here in L.A. can relate to this song, no question. It was written by Boo Ray and Noah Shain. Noah Shain also produced this CD. By the way, the musicians backing Boo Ray on this disc include Steve Ferrone on drums, Paul III on bass, Sol Philcox-Littlefield on guitar, Dallas Kruse on keys and Smith Curry on pedal steel.

“Bad News Travels Fast” was the title track of an earlier Boo Ray release, and on this album he revisits the song, this new version having a harder country rock vibe. It sounds more like something you’d hear at a roadside bar than the previous version. “The girls in California just love the way I talk/They drop me off on Sunset, and I’ll take a little walk.” That’s followed by one of my favorite tracks, “A Melody, Some Guitars & A Rhyme” (which also has my favorite song title of the album). It’s a mellower country number about the healing power of music, and it features one of the best vocal performances of the CD. “The sun goes down on me, the day fades away/It breaks my heart every single time/That honky tonk music takes my pain away/With a melody, some guitars and a rhyme.” This one was written by Boo Ray and Travis Porterfield.

“Chickens” is one of only two covers on this album, this one written by Hayes Carll and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Hayes Carll’s studio version begins quietly, then kicks in, whereas this version by Boo Ray starts off with the energy already high. The other cover is “Emmaline,” which was written by Errol Brown and Tony Wilson, and originally recorded by their band Hot Chocolate (it is usually titled “Emma”). This song is an interesting companion to the CD’s title track, about large dreams in Los Angeles, with lines like “Emma was a star in everyone's eyes/And when she said she'd be a movie queen/Nobody laughed” and “I'm gonna write your name high on that silver screen.” Here those dreams go unfulfilled, leading to the woman’s suicide one December night. Perhaps a bit heavy for us these days, but a good song. How long can we go on living on dreams?

“Keep That Hammer Down” is a pounding, thrilling tune that delivers every time I listen to this disc. This is one I’m adding to my road trip play list. Keep moving, keep going, and this song will urge you along, keep you awake as you push on through.

CD Track List
  1. Rednecks Rock & Roll
  2. Sea Of Lights
  3. Bad News Travels Fast
  4. A Melody, Some Guitars & A Rhyme
  5. Chickens
  6. I Got The Jug
  7. Keep That Hammer Down
  8. Emmaline
  9. One More Round
  10. Johnny’s Tavern
Sea Of Lights was released on August 12, 2016.

Dennis Coffey: “Hot Coffey In The D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge” (2017) CD Review

Dennis Coffey is a guitarist known for his work in Detroit on funk and soul recordings, heard on Motown albums by The Temptations and The Supremes, among others. You might recognize him from the documentary film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. He is also known for his own solo career, including the groovy instrumental hit “Scorpio.”  His new album, Hot Coffey In The D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, is a live recording from 1968 which was previously unreleased. On this one, he plays in a trio with Lyman Woodard on organ and Melvin Davis on drums. They had a regular gig at that Detroit venue, combining jazz, rock, funk and soul, and on this recording they play to a fairly attentive crowd. They do a couple of original numbers, credited to all three musicians, and covers of material by folks like Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. This release contains a 56-page booklet, with notes by Zev Feldman and Kevin L. Goins, as well as interviews with Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore and Melvin Davis, all conducted by Kevin Goins. There are also interviews with Bettye LaVette and Clarence Avant, as well as some photos.

Hot Coffey In The D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge opens with an original tune titled “Fuzz.” And yes, there is certainly a distinctive fuzz in the sound of the guitar here, and the track has a great late-1960s jam vibe. In the liner notes to this release, it’s mentioned more than once that the audience would sit and listen to the music, and that that was appreciated by the musicians, but I don’t think I would have been able to stay in my seat during this jam. Nope, I would have found a spot to dance. They follow that with a groovy, somewhat loose, jazzy rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” featuring some cool work on organ. This is quite a bit different from most versions of this song that I’ve heard over the years.

The trio also does a very cool cover of “The Look Of Love,” that familiar song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which at the time of this recording was still a relatively new song (though it had already been covered by several artists). It was featured in the 1967 film Casino Royale, in which it was presented both as an instrumental and a vocal number with Dusty Springfield singing the lyrics. This rendition by Dennis Coffey becomes a really good jam, with Dennis and Lyman totally going for it. At nearly twelve minutes, this is the longest track of the disc. The trio goes from Burt Bacharach to Herbie Hancock, with a cover of “Maiden Voyage,” and for this one they stick fairly close to the original.

One of my favorite tracks is “The Big D,” a great bluesy rock number written by Coffey, Davis and Woodard. This is another that would have had me dancing at the venue, and features some delicious work on guitar. When I was in high school I worked at a grocery store called The Big D, but it wasn’t nearly as cool as this tune. Perhaps if they had pumped in some Dennis Coffey music, the store would have thrived, and I could have danced while bagging groceries. Oh well, a missed opportunity. That’s followed by another of the disc’s highlights, “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over),” a song written by Jo Armstead and Milton Middlebrook, and originally recorded by Ruby Andrews. This version by Dennis Coffey is excellent, taking it to heights not realized in the original. I love what he does on guitar.

The CD then concludes with a somewhat funky rendition of the traditional spiritual “Wade In The Water,” another highlight featuring more great work on guitar. And then check out that energy on the organ. This track even includes a drum solo, which I appreciate.

CD Track List
  1. Fuzz
  2. By The Time I Get To Phoenix
  3. The Look Of Love
  4. Maiden Voyage
  5. The Big D
  6. Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)
  7. Wade In The Water 
Hot Coffey In The D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge is scheduled to be released on CD on January 13, 2017 on Resonance Records. It was released on vinyl on Black Friday in 2016 as one of the special Record Store Day limited edition items (only 1,500 were available). By the way, Bill Morrison did the album cover artwork.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Kelly's Lot: "Bittersweet" (2017) CD Review

The first Los Angeles band I saw in concert after moving to this city was Kelly's Lot. This was back in the late 1990s, and they were playing at an outdoor festival in North Hollywood, and I liked them immediately. They've gone through a lot of changes in the years since then, dipping into different musical realms, reinventing themselves while still keeping that great bluesy, ballsy core intact, and to my ears have gotten better and better. There is still that power at the heart of their music, even as they try different sounds, and that power comes mainly from lead singer Kelly Zirbes' vocals. There is a raw and beautiful honesty to every note she sings. She never offers anything artificial, and that in itself is noteworthy. But this band also delivers some damn good original songs. Their new album, Bittersweet, contains all original material, written or co-written by Kelly Zirbes. Lyrically and thematically, it is a very strong album. Yes, it's different from previous releases by the band, but I think their fans will enjoy this next turn in the journey, and the album should bring in some new fans as well.

Bittersweet opens with "About Her," which begins with percussion, and there is a brief moment at the beginning that makes me think of Los Lobos' "Kiko And The Lavender Moon." It's a cool tune, with an interesting vibe, and it features some wonderful work by Bill Johnston on clarinet. Yes, it's quite a bit different from earlier work by this band, but the blues are still present in Kelly's vocals. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "She understood your emotions/And gave you the key to your heart/She did something to you/That was warm and true/Don't let it fall apart/You got to do the right thing." That's followed by one of my personal favorites, "Come Home," a sweet, pretty, and incredibly moving folk song. Here Kelly's voice has a delicate power, vulnerable and passionate. She is accompanied only by Perry Robertson on guitar, which helps give the song an intimate feel. "No walls can hold me like your arms/No light to start my day/No answer will bring me peace/I cannot see the way/So come home to me/Come home." I highly recommend checking out this song, and that you listen to it without distractions.

The album then takes an abrupt turn with "Mr. Chairman," a fun bluesy tune with great old-time rock and roll touches on saxophone. That's Bill Johnston on sax. This tune also features some cool work on keys by Bobby Orgel, and is a song that might be more in line with what you know from this band, with Kelly singing, "I can't get down with nothin' but the blues." Oh yes. And then the band moves into country with "Thorn," with Doug Pettibone adding some delicious pedal steel. Check out these lines: "They say forgiveness will set you straight/And time will tick away the hate/And truth can never come too late/But it's too late."

Kelly's Lot goes in another strange and unexpected direction with "Sleep," which has pop elements and yet also a strong haunting quality. It was written by Kelly Zirbes and Scotty Lund. Scotty plays both bass and drums on this track, and also mixed and produced it. Ted Russell Kamp joins the band on guitar for this one. I've learned to pay close attention to the projects that Ted Russell Kamp gets involved in. He is a musician who gets around, but always seems to choose wisely. And this is a powerful and effective song. Check out these lyrics: "And the little boys I used to love/Smile as the evening fades/As their faces turn to angry men/In this bed I made." Excellent, right? It's followed by another intriguing track, though with a very different sound, "On Fire." It begins in a folk vein, and then kicks in with a great and sudden force. I always want to turn the volume up for that moment. "On Fire" was written by Kelly Zirbes and Perry Robertson.

"Bittersweet," the CD's title track, opens with a nod to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," with Kelly Zirbes whistling that familiar theme. That song contains lines like "When Johnny comes marching home again/Hurrah, hurrah/We'll give him a hearty welcome then." Those lines, which are not sung in "Bittersweet," nevertheless provide an interesting contrast to the story of the song. The song is told from the perspective of a U.S. soldier who fought in Vietnam. As you're likely aware, many of those soldiers were not given a hearty welcome when they returned. But "Bittersweet" actually functions as sort of that welcome they didn't receive then. "I am strong and still standing here/I'm living proof that you can live with fear/It's time that we welcome each one home/Nobody should ever be that alone." It ends as it began, with Kelly whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Frank Cisco Hinojosa plays harmonica on this track.

"Stay Away" has a delightful energy, and is one to get your toes tapping. Then "Love Is Hard To Catch" is a cool bluesy tune. "You've loved before/Don't settle for less." "Without A Song" features a sad, moving, beautiful vocal performance by Kelly Zirbes. It's a song about living in the moment, before the moments are gone, which will happen sooner than any of us would like to think. This song was written for the film Last Call At Murray's, in which it is sung by Paula Jai Parker. The band follows that with "Happy," which opens with these lines: "Happy is right around the corner/Happy is right behind the bend/Things are bound to get better/Get better, but we don't know when." Ah, I hope so.

CD Track List
  1. About Her
  2. Come Home
  3. Mr. Chairman
  4. Thorn
  5. Rise Above
  6. Sleep
  7. On Fire
  8. Bittersweet
  9. Stay Away
  10. Love Is Hard To Catch
  11. Without A Song
  12. Happy
  13. Proud
  14. Colours Of December
Bittersweet was released on January 6, 2017.