Monday, January 27, 2020

Harper And Midwest Kind: “Rise Up” (2020) CD Review

Rise Up, the new release from Harper And Midwest Kind, is an excellent blues album that speaks to how most of us are feeling these days, addressing those thoughts and hopes and fears and needs we have in common. This is music that speaks to us as we try to remain positive and be active while dealing with the great blues that have descended upon the world in the last few years. The disc features all original material, written by Peter D. Harper, who – in addition to providing the album’s vocals – plays harmonica, guitar, keyboard and didgeridoo. Also performing on this release are Paul Nelson on guitar, Brent Baxter Barrett on guitar, Geoff Michael on guitar, Bobbi Llewellyn on backing vocals, Dan “Ozzie” Anderson on bass, and Jim Pryor on drums.

Rise Up opens with its title track, a call to find our voice and use it. Historically, that would mean gathering together in protest, but these days it sadly often seems to mean whining on social media. I fear we’ve really lost something there. Don’t get me wrong, I like to tear into those Nazi bastards on Facebook too (and I’m permanently off Twitter because of comments I made about that rat in the White House), but I think it’s going to take something more to create meaningful change, and this song offers encouragement and hope in that direction. “People standing up for what they believe/It’s been too long since we had relief/Things can change, you’ve got to be heard/Nothing’s really stronger than words.”  This is a good bluesy number with a message, and it concludes with a nice jam that features some cool work on didgeridoo. That’s followed by “Blues I Can’t Use,” which opens with these lines: “Well, I woke up this morning and I turned on the news/Thinking, what did he say now, what did he do/I can’t believe I’m hearing all the things that he said/Seems he’s getting nasty every single day.” We all do this, waking up needing to know what fresh horror that prick in the White House has unleashed on the world, and it is really not the best way to start our day. We are already on edge, and we haven’t even had breakfast. Then Harper asks, “What can I do with the blues I can’t use?” And that is exactly the question, isn’t it? How do we react? How do we turn this information into something we can handle, something we can act upon? “Someone needs to tell me this will all go away.” We want this horror show over, we want that criminal imprisoned or interred, along with Moscow Mitch and the rest of the scumbags. Enough already. “I guess that things will never ever be the same,” Harper sings, and that is the fear. Have we stumbled so far into darkness that we won’t be able to find our way back?

“I Still Got You” begins with a good groove. As the world deteriorates into disarray and disrepair, led by morons and scoundrels, the main thing that keeps me going is my girlfriend’s love and company. And that is what this song seems to be celebrating. It is so important to have someone at our side as we try to make sense of a world gone stupid. “Whenever I feel blue/Yeah, I still got you.” Plus, this track features some wonderful work on harmonica. That’s followed by “Hateful,” a tune with a deep, dark groove. “We’re so sick and tired of all the lies you use/Why do you need to be hurtful/To get the things that you need/Your mind is full of lots of hate and greed.” Harper then asks, “Why do you have to be hateful/Why do you have to be cruel?” Sure, this song could be about someone in our personal lives, but it’s difficult to divorce these lyrics from those currently in power. I dig that bass line, particularly during that cool instrumental section halfway through. “The hate inside you really is your fear.” And I admit it’s not like I’m innocent. I feel a lot of hatred these days toward a certain segment of our population. But then again, do Nazis deserve anything other than our hatred? I honestly don’t know. But the music seems to be asking me to act on the better part of myself, to not let that hatred dictate the course of my day.

“Heavy Horses” has a brighter sound almost right from the start, and a certain catchy element. Here Harper is joined on vocals by Bobbi Llewellyn, who co-wrote the song with him. This track features more good work on harmonica. Then “Talk To Me” has a pleasant, positive groove. “Yeah, what you say is so hard to believe/Telling the truth would bring us all some relief/You don’t have to lie to get a reaction/I can tell it’s just a distraction.” Yup. And again, this song isn’t necessarily about any specific person, but it is certainly difficult to keep from thinking about one man who can’t seem to tell the truth, no matter the subject. But because Harper refrains from calling him out by name, when this mess is over, these songs will still be relevant, will continue to speak to us, for we’ll be able to apply them to other situations. That is especially true of “World’s Insane.” How many times a day do you find yourself uttering something like that? The world is insane. “Time for change, time for change.” Indeed!

“Welcome Home” begins with some mean, delicious harmonica and a thumping beat. There is more great stuff on harmonica throughout the track, and it is that playing that is really the heart of this one. That’s followed by “Let You Go,” which has a seriously good, strong groove, one you can move to. Somewhat in contrast to that groove are the lyrics about missing someone: “There are so many things I need to do/But I can’t do them without you/Visions running through my head/I find it hard to leave the bed/I seem to waste a lot of time.” The disc then concludes with “Peaceful,” another positive song, a look at a possible reality. “Wouldn’t it be something if we all could get along/There would be no hunger and the world would be so strong/No need for an army, there’d be no one to fear/If we could lose the anger, then the answer would be clear.” The question is, can we get there?

CD Track List
  1. Rise Up
  2. Blues I Can’t Use
  3. I Still Got You
  4. Hateful
  5. Heavy Horses
  6. Talk To Me
  7. World’s Insane
  8. Welcome Home
  9. Let You Go
  10. Peaceful
Rise Up is scheduled to be released on February 11, 2020 on Access Records.

Luke Haines & Peter Buck: “Beat Poetry For Survivalists” (2020) CD Review

I became a fan of R.E.M. in the mid-1980s when a friend played his copy of Chronic Town for me. It was quite a bit different from most of the other music being released at that time, and I got into it. Now guitarist Peter Buck is once again offering something quite a bit different from most of the other music being released, with his collaboration with guitarist Luke Haines, whom you may know from The Auteurs. Titled Beat Poetry For Survivalists, this disc contains some unusual and entertaining songs, all original material, most of it written by Peter Buck and Luke Haines. This is music you’ll need to listen to several times before beginning to get a hold on it, which was what folks felt about those early releases by R.E.M. too, if you’ll remember. Luke Haines provides the vocals on this one. Joining him and Peter Buck are Scott McCaughey on bass and keys, and Linda Pitmon on drums.

I’m not sure just what I was expecting from these two guys, but whatever it was, this album immediately exceeded it, opening with a delightfully strange song titled “Jack Parsons.” Jack Parsons was an odd guy who was both a rocket scientist and a member of a weird cult. The song begins with the question, “Is anybody there,” which is usually how you start a Ouija board session. The answer comes: “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack.”  This track features some wonderful lyrics, like these lines: “You see, rock fuel makes me horny/Terra firma kinda bores me/I want to be up there with the angels/I want to fall back down to Earth with the angels.” This track offers some surprises along the way, as the song shifts to Janet Hodgson, who became famous as a child in 1977 when her house was haunted. When she and her sister were interviewed at the time, the man conducting the interview tried to contact the spirit by asking “Is anybody there?” A small portion of that interviewed is included on this track.

The album continues to address unusual subjects with “Apocalypse Beach,” which contains Donovan references at the beginning: “Just me and Donovan Leitch/‘Atlantis’ or ‘Season Of The Witch’” (mentioning two of my favorite Donovan songs). There are references to other people, such as Maria Callas and Jacqueline Du Pré, but the song then returns to Donovan. By the way, if you don’t own the Barabajagal album, I highly recommend picking up a copy. “Apocalypse Beach” is followed by “Last Of The Legendary Bigfoot Hunters,” which begins from the perspective of someone who claims to have seen Bigfoot, then says he is each of the members of the Ramones. Hey, you figure it out. I am just enjoying the ride. Then we get “Beat Poetry For The Survivalist,” sort of the title track. Ah, is it coming to this? It seems like we might all have to become survivalists. (Do you remember that Robin Williams/Walter Matthau film, The Survivors?) A lot of us entertain these weird visions of survivalism, and what we would do. What would be the items we’d need? This song provides a sort of checklist, but certainly we would not need a Kiss record, right? In that case, I think I’d rather not bother. “Smoke weed in America/Everybody down/Dig deeper down/Under the ground/Underneath the ground/Forever.” Yeah, there is some humor here. But I think there is a lot of fear behind our humor these days. I mean, seriously, what the fuck is going on out there? Well, we can dance to “Witch Tariff,” a song that returns us to contacting spirits: “Sitting in the dark, pushing a glass/Tap, tap, is that Johnnie Ray/Is there anybody out there on Billy Fury Way.”

In high school I took a class called Contemporary American Culture, which included having to write a long paper on one individual who had an important impact on the culture. The person I was assigned to write about was Andy Warhol. I was fascinated by him, but more so by those who surrounded him, such as the Velvet Underground and Candy Darling. Warhol himself seemed rather cold and distant to me, from my research. I was reminded of that by the track “Andy Warhol Was Not Kind.” “Build a wall the length of China/A wall that you can see from space/Calling out to all Venusians/Andy Warhol was not kind.” That’s followed by “French Man Glam Gang,” a tune with a delicious slow groove. I love that crazy whispering of “discotheque.” This is a strange song of cannibals. “We dress in black/Go our own way/Like Fleetwood Mac.” This one was written by Luke Haines and Scott McCaughey.

“Ugly Dude Blues” begins in a wonderfully harsh bluesy realm, and features a wild, unhinged vocal performance. There is a bit of a Troggs vibe, which is acknowledged in the album’s liner notes. Joe Adragna plays drums on this track. “All the girls laugh and all the kids cry/Whenever I walk by.” That’s followed by “Bobby’s Wild Years,” the title of course reminding me of Tom Waits’ “Frank’s Wild Years.” This is a song about a hairdresser, and the lyrics contain a reference to the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The album then concludes with “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ambulance,” a mellower number, a song to ease us into the great unknown, taking us in a “rock and roll hearse.

CD Track List
  1. Jack Parsons
  2. Apocalypse Beach
  3. Last Of The Legendary Bigfoot Hunters
  4. Beat Poetry For The Survivalist
  5. Witch Tariff
  6. Andy Warhol Was Not Kind
  7. French Man Glam Gang
  8. Ugly Dude Blues
  9. Bobby’s Wild Years
  10. Rock ‘N’ Roll Ambulance
Beat Poetry For Survivalists is scheduled to be released on March 6, 2020 on Cherry Red Records and Omnivore Recordings.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Helen America: “Red Sun” (2019) CD/Book Review

Those of us whose eyes are open see that America has become an empty shell, a twisted, crumbling political and social landscape devoid of soul, purpose, sympathy and joy, and every day we must look for reasons and encouragement to not give in to despair and fury. More and more, our salvation and humanity are to be found in music. And in that realm why not turn to a person named America for help in dealing with what’s become of America? Helen America’s new album, Red Sun, presents a response to the destruction all around us, to our sense of impending and unavoidable doom, as well as something new to look toward, a new mythology, a new meaning to help us make our way through to whatever might lie beyond our current troubles, forging a new universe. Even the very idea that there is something beyond is encouraging, isn’t it?

And speaking of mythology, the album opens with a song titled “Thelxiepeia,” the name of one of the Sirens whose songs lured sailors to their doom. The CD comes with an illustrated book, and the illustration that accompanies the lyrics to this song shows us three Gorgons, monsters presented in lovely repose. The artwork, by the way, was done by Helen America, who also wrote all the album’s songs. This song itself has an unusual vibe, a haunted folk sound, the voice coming at us from a being of beauty and danger, yet with a deceptive innocence to her tone. “The wine-dark waters are my chariot and I am here to feed.” The music seems to invite us into the water’s depths, into an alluring lair. And by the end, we are in its grasp, witnesses to our own destruction. Kaia Chessen plays cello on this track, and Christy Mooers is on both violin and bass. Mitchell Wayne Hysjulien provides some compelling work on percussion. “Thelxiepeia” is followed by “Dynamite,” which has quite a different sound and vibe, in large part because Helen America switches from guitar to banjo ukulele. There is a playfulness to the sound that is incredibly endearing and attractive. There is also something adorable about the vocal delivery here, and much as I love this track’s sound, I think I appreciate the lyrics even more. Check out these lines: “Your fuzzy wool coat won’t protect you from carnivores/I’m having congress with your plastic dinosaurs.” And these: “The only thing cold is a promise/The only thing hot is a threat/The only thing worse than the thought of not living/Is living with only regret.”

In “Pygmalion,” Helen America refers to another figure from mythology, and the accompanying artwork depicts a demon butterfly with blood dripping from its mouth and wielding a spear against a strong red background. This song has more of a rock sound, with a fuzzy sound to Helen’s electric guitar. “And do you fear a dark intelligence that differs from your own.” Then “Dissect” opens with some eerie electronic sounds, like signals from a distant and warped civilization. When the song kicks in, there is a dark vibe, and the first line, “Ill met by moonlight in the house of my defeat,” contains a reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon says to Titania, “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” I love Christy Mooers’ work on violin, which is powerful and ghostly. “And I am not your angel but I do know how to bleed/And every drop has always been in my defense.” This song also brings up memories for me of those poor frogs we were told to open up in school in our early teens, something that bothered me even then. This song is followed by “There Is No Love,” which begins with a good beat and soon creates a vivid and strange landscape. Helen sings, “There is no camera pointing down from up above/There is no love.” Are we alone? That violin seems to indicate a funeral, an end of some kind, yet that strong beat keeps marching us forward, doesn’t it? Toward what? Helen America can certainly create some memorable and exciting phrases, such as “And the gibbering ghosts that make all your arguments for you” and “And you can be the monarch of the ruins of my body.” Yes, this is an album you have to let surround you. Mai Li Pittard plays violin on this track.

The title “Three Mice” of course brings to mind childhood and that somewhat morbid nursery rhyme that accompanied us all through those early days of our existence, “Three Blind Mice.” This song certainly offers entrance into a dark land, where the conceit of humanity may not count for much, and we all end up in darkness. That’s followed by “The Rain,” which has a gorgeous and haunted folk sound. “How much we have seen and how fiercely we’ve dreamed and we know what we’ve lost.” Like the first track and others, this one employs images of the sea and being at the mercy of the elements in lines like “But as tight as we’re lashed to the mast/We are light as paper to the raging wind.” The name Helen America, by the way, comes from a short science fiction story by Cordwainer Smith (that name itself a pseudonym for Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) titled “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul,” where starship pilots are referred to as sailors. At the beginning of the story, Smith writes of Helen America, “She was, however, a wonderful sailor.” So some of the sailing imagery that Helen America includes in this song and others may in fact have more of a science fiction basis rather than a nautical one. At any rate, she offers an absolutely beautiful vocal performance here. And that work on violin is excellent.

The first time I listened to “The Bright Room,” these lines stood out for me: “And I dream without losing awareness of my body/Not knowing if it has the strength to take me through December/And all of our dead parents can’t remind us who we are.” There is a sort of calm, almost relaxed sound to this one, at least in the first half. Then in the second half, the sound rises, driven up by the strings and bagpipes, and driven forward by the drums. Roger Parson plays bagpipes on this track. “Arcadia” has a sweet and positive, uplifting sound from the start, a beautiful and wonderful sound. This song has its own sort of magic, tied to the innocence of childhood, as she sings “And we’ll never grow old and we’ll never come down.” Stefanie Brendler plays French horn on this track. Interestingly, that’s followed by a second song with “mice” in its title, “We Are All Mice.” This one takes us into a different land as well, through its lyrics and the use of toy piano and hammered dulcimer. “And blessed is the water of the little wasted lives that nothing feeds on.” This fascinating album concludes with its title track, “Red Sun,” which begins with some pretty work on guitar. On this one, Helen America’s excellent voice is joined by Nina Budabin McQuown and Rebecca Wenstrom, adding another layer of beauty. Plus, that violin seems to promise a new day even as it bids goodbye to this one. “Is there movement in the ashes/After we are gone/Is there light enough to rise/Hide, hide me here/The center of your light.”

CD Track List
  1. Thelxiepeia
  2. Dynamite
  3. Pygmalion
  4. Dissect
  5. There Is No Love
  6. Three Mice
  7. The Rain
  8. The Bright Room
  9. Arcadia
  10. We Are All Mice
  11. Red Sun 
Red Sun was released on November 8, 2019.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Jonathan Ng: “The Sphynx” (2019) CD Review

Jonathan Ng is a jazz violinist and vocalist. On his new release, an EP titled The Sphynx, he focuses on the former, delivering excellent instrumental numbers that take us back to the 1930s and 1940s, music with a certain amount of swing and a tremendous amount of joy, music to get us moving and smiling. Joining him on this release are Albert Alva on tenor saxophone, Luca Pino on guitar, Chris Dawson on piano, Seth Ford-Young on upright bass, and Josh Collazo on drums.

Jonathan Ng opens the EP with its title track, “The Sphynx,” the only original composition on the disc, and a tune I love from the moment it begins. It has that delicious classic gypsy jazz sound, which is so wonderful. There is a feeling of glee, of cheerful abandon, to this sound, and the whole band is hopping here. How can you help but start shaking and moving to this music? By the way, on the back of the CD case next to the title of each song a number is listed. For example, for “The Sphynx,” it is “232BPM.” BPM indicates tempo, but it also means heart rate. And for me, here it seems to refer to both, for it is the heart that is most affected by this music, feeling the joy of the music, and pumping it out to all areas of our bodies.

We then get a delicious rendition of “Maelstrom,” a song by Leon “Chu” Berry And His Stompy Stevedores. As you might guess, there is some totally cool work on tenor saxophone here. I just want to immerse myself in this music, in its world, in its rhythm, and when I emerge find that the rest of the world has been changed, colored by this music too. In addition to plenty of good work on fiddle, this track features some really nice work on guitar. But again, it is the saxophone that is at the center of this one. That horn is like a character in a film or story; it is that distinct, that expressive. You know? And of course I dig that work on drums. That’s followed by Ray Charles’ “Rockhouse, Pts. 1 & 2,” a fun tune with more delicious sounds and vibes, along with a good groove. The sweet work on violin toward the end is like a hand guiding you onto the dance floor and pushing the rest of the world away. There is no need to be self-conscious, just let yourself go, and let the rhythm and the moment take over.

Chris Dawson on piano gets things going on a great rendition of Erskine Hawkins’ “Gin Mill Special,” a track with a playful, loose, casual vibe. Jonathan Ng’s work on violin has an inviting sound, and the bass keeps things pumping along. Again, it is a joy listening to this music. That is followed by “Embryo,” a tune by Illinois Jacquet And His Orchestra. This track is a lot of fun, with some delightful work on bass. My entire body feels like it’s smiling while this music plays. If you need a break from the insanity and ugliness of the country (and who doesn’t?), put this disc on. The EP concludes with an absolutely wonderful rendition of “Stardust,” featuring some gorgeous playing on violin. This song always works for me, and this version has a rhythm like a gentle river at night under a twinkling and loving sky, easing us along, perhaps toward a better world.

CD Track List
  1. The Sphynx
  2. Maelstrom
  3. Rockhouse, Pts. 1 & 2
  4. Gin Mill Special
  5. Embryo
  6. Stardust
The Sphynx was released on December 6, 2019.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sinne Eeg & The Danish Radio Big Band: “We’ve Just Begun” (2020) CD Review

I was turned on to the music of Danish jazz vocalist Sinne Eeg in 2015, when she released Eeg - Fonnesbaek, a collaborative effort with Thomas Fonnesbaek in which they delivered mostly standards. That album earned her another best jazz vocal album award (her fourth) at the Danish Music Awards. Then her 2017 release, Dreams, showed that in addition to being an incredibly talented vocalist, she is also a talented songwriter. A song from that release won her The Carl Prize for song of the year. Her new album, We’ve Just Begun, also contains some excellent original material, along with some good covers. This one finds her joining forces with The Danish Radio Big Band, a group that was formed in 1964.

And right from the start of the first track, “We’ve Just Begun,” that joyful big band sound washes over me and lifts me up. On this track, the album’s title track, there are some sweet and intimate moments vocally, and then moments that are filled with a glorious power. Overall, there is an excitement to her performance, and to the playing, particularly the horns. There is a bit of scat toward the end, which ends up being one of my favorite sections of the song. It is playful, and the horns add their own touches. “We’ve Just Begun” is an original composition by Sinne Eeg, with lyrics by Mark Winkler and Shelley Nyman. That’s followed by another original composition by Sinne Eeg, “Like A Song,” a mellower, romantic-sounding number. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Love is like a song/A melody that lingers on/And takes you back/To days gone by.” I love that instrumental section of piano, bass and drums, and how the horns begin to gently rise from that. Absolutely wonderful.

There is something wistful about Sinne’s delivery on “Those Ordinary Things,” a song she wrote with Helle Hansen. The song tells of a relationship that has ended. “You see him in the street/They’re walking hand in hand/His kind, familiar smile/This wasn’t what you planned/You know the door just closed/But what you really miss the most/Those ordinary things, those ordinary things.” I love that she then equates those ordinary things with extraordinary things, because isn’t that the truth. Those ordinary things with the person you love really are the extraordinary things in life, and we have to take notice of them, appreciate them. That’s followed by “Talking To Myself,” a totally enjoyable song with a bass line that I love. Of course her vocal delivery is at the heart of this one, and she gives us a delightful performance here, including some more scat halfway through. I also really dig that lead on guitar in the second half, and wish it went on a bit longer.

When “Hvorfor Er Lykken Sa Lunefuld” begins, it has a more serious, haunting sound, which pulls me in. It then takes on a lovely groove. This is a song from an old Danish film. I don’t speak the language, but love this track, despite having no idea what she’s singing about. I just enjoy the gorgeous sound of her voice, and the song’s vibe. This one too includes some scat. One of my favorite elements of this track is the way those horns strut about in the second half. This track is certainly a highlight of the album. That’s followed by a cover of “My Favorite Things.” We’ve all heard countless versions of this song, but here Sinne Eeg offers a truly interesting rendition, giving us a fresh appreciation of it. She brings a certain magic to it, changing the pace partway through, and I love the horns. There is also an excellent drum solo near the end. Sinne shifts gears again with “Samba Em Comum,” which has a kind of sweet vibe.

Sinne Eeg delivers a wonderful rendition of “Detour Ahead,” written by Herb Ellis, Johnny Frigo and Lou Carter. The lyrics may indicate trouble ahead, but her voice seems to promise that love will be a smooth road. That’s followed by another standard, “Comes Love.” I love the way she presents this one; it is perhaps the best vocal performance of the entire album, seductive and beautiful and fun. And the way the horns support her is great, almost like they are her dance partners, surrounding her, lifting her up, catching her. This track features a very cool, sexy scat section. The horns then take over, and things somehow get even better. That moment when they suddenly stop is surprising, and that pause before Sinne begins to sing again is perfect. “Comes a nightmare, you can always stay awake/Comes depression, you can get another break/But comes love, nothing can be done.” This is my favorite track. The disc concludes with “To A New Day,” a song written by Martin Schack, with lyrics by Sinne Eeg. This is an uplifting, soulful, positive number with a nice lead on trumpet. It’s a song to rekindle those feelings of optimism we are so eager for. A good place to leave us, don’t you think?

CD Track List
  1. We’ve Just Begun
  2. Like A Song
  3. Those Ordinary Things
  4. Talking To Myself
  5. Hvorfor Er Lykken Sa Lunefuld
  6. My Favorite Things
  7. Samba Em Comum
  8. Detour Ahead
  9. Comes Love
  10. To A New Day
We’ve Just Begun is scheduled to be released on February 21, 2020.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Lois Bruno: “And So It Begins” (2019) CD Review

Lois Bruno has sung with many artists over the years, and has now released her first solo album, titled And So It Begins, featuring mostly standards. Backing the vocalist on this album are Kenny Shanker on saxophone (Shanker also produced the album), Michael Eckroth on piano, Yoshi Waki on bass, and Brian Fishler on drums.

The CD opens with “When Sunny Gets Blue,” featuring a vocal performance that is gentle and intimate, and also rather sexy at moments. I also love the bass line. The saxophone acts as a second voice, first adding little comments, backing Lois, and then taking the lead, becoming beautiful. “When Sunny Gets Blue” was written by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal. It’s followed by an unusual take on Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” which has a fuller, brighter sound almost from the moment it starts. Lois Bruno decides to begin it with the chorus. There is a great energy behind this version, and it feels like it could carry us all off to some glorious land. Yoshi Waki and Brian Fishler really keep things moving, and I like Michael Eckroth’s work on piano. But it is that lead on saxophone that really stands out on this track. Kenny Shanker’s saxophone seems to be dancing at times, and there is a lot of joy behind his playing.

Lois Bruno begins “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” a cappella, which works really well. I love the way she delivers this one, at a few moments so softly you might find yourself leaning toward your stereo speakers, wanting to be closer to her. Her voice is the focus here, though this track also features an excellent lead on saxophone. This is one of my personal favorite tracks. It’s followed by “That Old Black Magic,” which features some delightful work on bass. It is the bass that starts this one, and at first it is the only instrument backing Lois Bruno’s vocals, which is cool. This rendition really moves, in part because of Brian Fishler’s wonderful work on drums. There is a delicious momentum to it, like that old black magic itself is at the reins here, and we will all get caught up in it before long. As Lois sings “I should stay away, but what would I do,” you get the sense there is absolutely no way she could stay away. She is powerless here, just like the rest of us.

Lois Bruno’s rendition of “Always On My Mind” is so beautiful, so touching, so sweet, so honest. This track is another of the disc’s highlights, and it is nearly heartbreaking when she sings lines like “And maybe I didn’t hold you/All those lonely, lonely times/I guess I never told you/I’m so happy that you’re mine/Little things I should have said and done/I just never took the time.” This song acts as a reminder to tell the love of your life how important he or she is to you, and to tell him her or her often, hold that person as much as you can. The saxophone has a gorgeous bittersweet sound. That’s followed by a version of “But Beautiful” that has a rather cheerful vibe, in large part because of the work on bass, which has a sort of bouncy feel. Then with “Feeling Good” Lois Bruno is at her most seductive, particularly when she hits those lower notes. So damn delicious. This is a seriously cool version, featuring some great work on piano and another excellent lead on sax. I’m a little sad when this one starts to fade out, for the ending comes too soon. It feels like it is still going strong and has more to say.

A good, cheerful beat is established at the beginning of Lois Bruno’s take on “My Romance,” and there is certainly a lot of joy in this rendition, both vocally and in the music. “Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true/My romance doesn’t need a thing but you.” Lois follows that with “Over The Rainbow.” She includes that opening section that was not in the version Judy Garland sings in the film. What is it about this song that always makes it so effective? Every time I hear it, it works its magic on me. “Over The Rainbow” is followed by “Cry Me A River.” My introduction to this song was the Joe Cocker version from Mad Dogs And Englishmen, which of course is quite a bit different from other renditions. I have come to love the slower, jazzy renditions, of course, and Lois Bruno’s take is certainly in that realm. This rendition begins on bass. Lois Bruno’s voice has a sexy, sultry quality that is wonderful. Lois Bruno then concludes the album with “Somewhere,” a song from West Side Story. I’m not a big fan of that musical, but some of the music is really good, and Lois delivers a passionate rendition.

CD Track List
  1. When Sunny Gets Blue
  2. Love For Sale
  3. Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered
  4. That Old Black Magic
  5. Always On My Mind
  6. But Beautiful
  7. Feeling Good
  8. My Romance
  9. Over The Rainbow
  10. Cry Me A River
  11. Somewhere 
And So It Begins was released on October 24, 2019 on Wise Cat Records.

The Claudettes: “High Times In The Dark” (2020) CD Review

The new album from The Claudettes is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time, almost since the release of Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium, their last album, one of my favorite discs of 2018. There have been hints and teases and rumors and promises for several months, and now it is here – the new Claudettes release, High Times In The Dark. That title certainly speaks to our wishes these days, right? After all, we could all use some high times, particularly now as the entire country has been plunged into a darkness that seems to have no end. And the album delivers those high times, with a sound that seems unique to this band, combining pop and jazz and blues and soul, with a sense of the theatrical as well that makes the whole thing seem like a living creature. The album features all original material, written by Brian Berkowitz (perhaps better known as Johnny Iguana). It was produced by Ted Hutt, who played guitar in Flogging Molly, and produced albums by Go Betty Go and Dropkick Murphys.

The new album opens with “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch,” a delightful tune with a cool groove and some sweet vocals from Berit Ulseth. “You used to check on me at night/Ask, is everything all right/Spend an hour on the phone/You get so dirty when you’re stoned.” There is something exciting about the song’s rhythm and overall sound, which is full and vibrant, with lots of playful touches, including a big finish. The keys really drive this one forward and give the song a timeless feel. This is a wonderful opening track. That’s followed by “24/5.” Johnny Iguana begins this one on keys, with some rather pretty work. Soon the track busts open with a glorious force, and Berit’s vocals are a strong part of it. This one is playful too, the idea being that 24/7 with someone is too much: “24/7’s a joke/I’ll offer 24/5.” There is a great humor to this one, and it includes a reference to the Smothers Brothers: “This is like a comedy act and you’re the Smothers Brothers/Smothering me with your love.” Johnny is really rocking the keys here. This track is a whole lot of fun, a monster you don’t want to tame.

Berit delivers a wonderful vocal performance on “I Swear To God I Will,” taking us all sorts of places with those variations in her delivery. The first time I listened to this track, I was enjoying her performance so much that I failed to take in most of the lyrics, paying more attention to the sound than the content. But the next time I focused more on the lyrics, which are about attraction and desire. “Smile at me, and I swear to god I’ll dream about you tonight.” There is a bit of a 1970s flair to the music of this one at moments. Then there is a strange intensity to “Creeper Weed” at times, like pop music pumped full of adrenaline. There is some wild stuff on keys in the second half of the track. That’s followed by “Grandkids Wave Bye-Bye,” which as it starts has more of a straight-forward rock vibe. But as we get into it, we find a lot more going on here, particularly lyrically, with lines about the rich looking down on the poor. “I was given mine/When I was born/And here is mine/But where is yours/Don’t feed the animals.” There is a certain scum that through an unfortunate trick of fate became the president of this country, and that orange stain comes to mind when I listen to this track. “There’s really nothing we can do for you/You’ve got to want it/If you’re to have it/You’ve got to work for it/And I’ve just had it with you animals/I will not feed you animals.”

At the beginning of “One Special Bottle,” Berit sings “I’ve got one special bottle I’ve been saving/I’ll open it up/But only on the day/When what I wanted comes to pass.” Oh, if I saved a bottle until what I want to happen comes to pass, it may never get opened. And who can make it through a day without at least one drink? The line “I’ll smash the thing, I’m not above it” made me laugh aloud the first time I listened to this track, in part because of Berit’s wonderful delivery. Then “Declined” is a delight, a song with attitude and joy. “Dear sir, I wish you the best in all your future endeavors/But sir, there is no interest whatsoever/Declined/Please do not apply again.” Hey, you can probably think of a person or two you would have liked to sing this song to.

“I Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore” has a mellower vibe at the start, but with some cool and prominent percussion. But the lyrics are what really stand out for me on this track. Here is a taste:  Endless battles amount to war/So I settle down, I don’t settle the score/I tiptoe around, I don’t slam the door.” This one develops a peculiar beauty and ends up being one of my favorite tracks. Then “Most Accidents Happen” begins with a great beat, and though it is a song about fear, it is actually a lot of fun. “But numbers don’t lie that most accidents happen/If you don’t want to die, then you’ll listen/And be afraid of those unlike yourself/Of anyone who claims to need your help.” I love that guitar work too. That’s followed by “You Drummers Keep Breaking My Heart,” yet another of the disc’s highlights. Check out these lines: “But then there was the accident/And he went and found religion/I wasn’t done carousing yet/I couldn’t go there with him.” There are some interesting changes, and the track becomes rather beautiful in the middle there. “The third and the fourth ones were both named Nick/One got sick of me, the other just got sick/I should switch to guitarists/That would be smart/Because drummers are always breaking my heart.” The album then concludes with “The Sun Will Fool You,” a gorgeous song featuring another impressive and effective vocal performance by Berit, backed by some moving work on piano. “You must be giving off just enough warmth/To keep me clinging to life/Around you.”

CD Track List
  1. Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch
  2. 24/5
  3. I Swear To God I Will
  4. Creeper Weed
  5. Grandkids Wave Bye-Bye
  6. One Special Bottle
  7. Declined
  8. I Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore
  9. Most Accidents Happen
  10. You Drummers Keep Breaking My Heart
  11. The Sun Will Fool You 
High Times In The Dark is scheduled to be released on April 3, 2020 on Forty Below Records.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lizzie Thomas: “New Sounds From The Jazz Age” (2020) CD Review

Vocalist Lizzie Thomas delivers exciting and passionate renditions of some beloved standards on her new album, New Sounds From The Jazz Age, adding her own touches to the familiar material. She is backed by John Colianni on piano, who also did the arrangements, and by Jay Leonhart on bass, Boots Maleson on bass, Russell Malone on guitar, Matt Chertkoff on guitar, Omar Daniels on tenor saxophone and flute, Felix Peikli on clarinet, Bernard Linette on drums, and Doug Hendrichs on percussion.

I’ve said this many times, but you can never go wrong with Gershwin, and Lizzie Thomas chooses to open this album with a totally fun and enjoyable rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm,” which features its own fascinating and delightful rhythm. Lizzie Thomas delivers an excellent and lively vocal performance that features a bit of scat. But the entire band backing her is cooking here, and I particularly love Felix Peikli’s work on clarinet, that instrument seeming to have an energy all its own. And, hey, Lizzie Thomas follows that with another Gershwin composition, “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” The opening lines of this song always strike me as being pertinent: “The more I read the papers/The less I comprehend/The world in all its capers/And how it all will end/Nothing seems to be lasting.” Her delivery of those lines is backed by some gentle and cool work by Russell Malone on guitar. When the song kicks in, it takes on a nice groove, and I love John Colianni’s work on piano. “I Didn’t Know About You” also features some nice work on keys, the sound of this one conjuring images of cool jazz clubs from another time, the song effortlessly transporting us there. Plus, this track includes a wonderful lead on saxophone.

Lizzie Thomas’ rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” opens with a rockin’ section that caught me by surprise, particularly that guitar. It is a bit of “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling,” written by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. The track then quickly transitions into “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” There is a joy to Lizzie’s vocal performance that is certain to make you feel good. She doesn’t hold back. She offers a bit of scat, which quickly leads to a fantastic lead on saxophone, almost taking its cue from the scat, like it was continuing that thought. That is followed by another Cole Porter song, an interesting rendition of “In The Still Of The Night” that begins with a Latin groove.

Lizzie Thomas gives us a fast rendition of “One Note Samba.” It begins at a quick pace, so when it gets to that normally fast section, it reaches an almost frantic pace, which is interesting and also impressive, particularly the vocals. This track also features some great stuff on piano. This one really races along, and, perhaps because of the pace, is a fairly short rendition. She follows that with “Cheek To Cheek,” which she begins slowly, opening with the line “And I seem to find the happiness I seek” rather than “Heaven, I’m in heaven.” When it kicks in, it has a delightful and cheerful vibe, John Colianni’s fingers dancing on the keys. This track also has a cool bass line. Lizzie belts out the line “Dance with me,” like the other person has no choice but to obey. It’s an interesting moment before returning to the main feel of the song. She then offers a kind of fun version of “Close Your Eyes,” not as romantic as, say, the version by Ruth Etting, but with its own charm. Felix Peikli adds some wonderful stuff on clarinet, and I love Matt Chertkoff’s work on guitar.

Lizzie Thomas concludes the album with “The Very Thought Of You,” a song that always reminds me of that montage at the end of Home For The Holidays. It is a beautiful song, one I am always happy to hear. This version has a different and prominent rhythm that gives it a different vibe. What I love is the passion of Lizzie’s delivery. This song sometimes brings tears to my eyes, but this version has much more cheer to it. Things are good, and Lizzie Thomas is celebrating that, celebrating her love, spreading the joy she feels to all who are listening.

CD Track List
  1. Fascinating Rhythm
  2. Our Love Is Here To Stay
  3. I Didn’t Know About You
  4. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
  5. In The Still Of The Night
  6. One Note Samba
  7. Cheek To Cheek
  8. Close Your Eyes
  9. The Very Thought Of You 
New Sounds From The Jazz Age is scheduled to be released on January 24, 2020.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

I See Hawks In L.A. at Mr. T’s Bowl, 1-8-20 Concert Review

I See Hawks In L.A. performing "Hills On Fire"
I am always happy when I get a chance to see I See Hawks In L.A.; somehow the world seems like a better place when they’re playing, a place that makes more sense, a place populated by good people. Last night I See Hawks In L.A. put on an absolutely wonderful set at Mr. T’s Bowl. And, yes, before you say anything, I am fully aware that the venue is now called Highland Park Bowl, but it will always be Mr. T’s Bowl to me, even though it looks completely different than it did the last time I was there, more than a decade ago, when Arlo was the sound guy (best sound guy in L.A.). First of all, when did Highland Park become such a popular place? I got to the venue a bit early and expected to find an empty parking lot in the back, like the good ol’ days. But it was full. I had to park at the next lot, which was nearly full as well. The meters in that lot run until 9 p.m., and someone had kindly paid for my spot right up to that time. (Thank you, stranger.) Then I discovered that you can no longer enter the venue through the back door. I could hear the sound of people bowling through that locked door, something I’d never experienced there (during concerts, the bowling lanes had been hidden behind a thick curtain). After a bit of exploring, I learned that you now enter through a door on Figueroa, and that the stage is just to the right, in a room I don’t believe I’d ever been in before. And that sound of people bowling? Well, that was people bowling. Because the concerts are held in a different room, the two activities can proceed simultaneously. And so they did. The problem with that, of course, is that the sound leaked in from the bowling lanes, noticeable particularly during those moments between songs.

I got turned onto a lot of good bands at Mr. T’s Bowl over the years, and I’m glad to find that tradition continues. Great Willow delivered an excellent opening set last night. The Los Angeles-based trio includes a cello, an instrument I am always happy to hear. Apparently the group is working on a new album, and the set focused on that material. But it was all new to me anyway. I was particularly impressed by their harmonies. And the final song of their set featured a great lead on cello that drew applause from the crowd.  By the way, apart from the external noise leaking into the room, the sound was quite good.

I See Hawks In L.A. was scheduled to go on at 9:30, and actually started a few minutes early, at 9:26 p.m. Rob Waller greeted the crowd: “Hey, everybody, we’re The Hawks. Nice to see you.” And they got right into the music, opening their set with “Carbon-Dated Love,” a song from Hallowed Ground, the band’s 2008 release. And I was immediately feeling great. And I wasn’t the only one. Bass player Paul Marshall seemed really happy right from the start of the show. It was great to see him back. This was the first time I’d seen him play with the band since his eye surgery. They followed “Carbon-Dated Love” with “Planet Earth,” from 2018’s Live And Never Learn. In introducing it, Rob mentioned how he’d just come back from Berlin and was “still pretty jet-lagged, folks.” Well, you’d never know it from his playing or singing. This song featured some wonderful harmonies. I’ve said this before, but Rob Waller’s is one of the absolute best voices in music these days, and last night it showed no signs of wear from his travels.

The set included several songs from the band’s latest release, a joint effort by I See Hawks In L.A. and The Good Intentions titled Hawks With Good Intentions. The first of these songs was “Things Like This,” and while introducing it, the band joked about Rob’s pronunciation of “Nevada.” And the crowd got into it as well. Then, during the song when Rob sang the line “He sure won't make Nevada,” he smiled, a certain twinkle in his eye as he ignored the way others pronounced the state name. After that song, he introduced Paul Lacques on electric guitar. Someone in the audience asked, “Did you cut your hair off, Paul?” Paul responded, “Yeah, all of it.” Indeed, I almost didn’t recognize him at first without his long hair. Rob then joked about his own hair: “I got a haircut in Berlin. I told them to give me the Galdalf. I just need a staff and a robe.” They then played “If You Remind Me,” a song from 2013’s Mystery Drug. This is such a sweet country tune, and those backing vocals remind me of early 1960s pop music. They have that delightful sort of vibe, you know?

“Live And Never Learn” is one that seems particularly apt these days, don’t you think? Paul Lacques delivered some really nice stuff on electric guitar. That was followed by “White Cross,” a song that was included on both Live And Never Learn and Hawks With Good Intentions. “One of the kinds of speed was white crosses,” Rob told the crowd before the song. This one also featured some excellent stuff from Paul Lacques on guitar. Then Paul Marshall took lead vocal duties on “Blue Heaven,” another song from Hawks With Good Intentions. On the album, it is Peter Davies (of The Good Intentions) who sings lead, and the song’s lyrics actually mention The Hawks: “We had guitars and we flew with the Hawks, and hey/It was blue, blue heaven.” It was wonderful hearing Paul Marshall sing this one. He did a fantastic job on this folk song. After that, Rob told the anecdote of the time he had a gun pulled on him at Mr. T’s Bowl and was aided by Arlo, the sound guy I mentioned earlier. “Arlo saved my life that night, talked some sense into a very drunk man,” Rob said. “Wherever Arlo is. Thanks, Arlo.”

They delivered a good, rockin’ rendition of “Ballad For The Trees,” Victoria Jacobs keeping time on the floor tom. “Here's a song just for everyone/Writing down their dreams/Or a ballad for the trees.” Victoria then stepped out from behind her kit to sing lead on “Hills On Fire,” another song from Hawks With Good Intentions, and one that is really pretty and moving. The band then totally shifted gears with a cover of “Take Me Lake Charles,” a fun song by Shinyribs. Paul Marshall sang lead on this one. What a treat to get to hear him do two songs in one set. This was such an enjoyable tune that it ended up being a highlight of the set for me. They concluded the set with another song from Hawks With Good Intentions, the gorgeous and touching “Flying Now.” If you need evidence that Rob Waller has one of the best voices in music, listen to this song when you get a chance. “I just might grow old/My face carries the lines/Of the winds that have whipped me/Now they push from behind/And I'm flying now.” For the encore, they chose another beautiful song, “The River Knows,” from Mystery Drug. The show ended at 10:32 p.m.

Set List
  1. Carbon-Dated Love
  2. Planet Earth
  3. Things Like This
  4. If You Remind Me
  5. Live And Never Learn
  6. White Cross
  7. Blue Heaven
  8. Ballad For The Trees
  9. Hills On Fire
  10. Take Me Lake Charles
  11. Flying Now
Encore
  1. The River Knows
Here are a few photos:

"Carbon-Dated Love"
"Carbon-Dated Love"
"Planet Earth"
"Things Like This"
"Blue Heaven"
"The River Knows"
Mr. T’s Bowl is located at 5621 N. Figueroa St. in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Forrest McDonald Band: “Blues In A Bucket” (2020) CD Review

Forrest McDonald has been performing for more than fifty years, delivering some delicious blues and blues-related music. His new album, Blues In A Bucket, features all original material, written or co-written by McDonald. This band can groove and rock, then drop you deep into the blues and pull you out again. It features Andrew Black on lead vocals, and includes a horn section. Blues In A Bucket follows the band’s 2017 release Stand My Ground.

The album opens with “Boogie Me Till I Drop,” which – as you might guess from its title – is a fun number. This tune has a wonderful New Orleans vibe and rhythm, the horns urging us to join together on the dance floor. Yeah, the band is throwing a party, and it seems we are all invited. Time to cut loose, enjoy ourselves. “When she puts that stuff in motion, lord, the walls come tumbling down.” The Forrest McDonald Band then gets a whole lot deeper into the blues with “Blues In The Basement,” Andrew Black’s voice being the focus here. He gives a really good, powerful vocal performance – sometimes smooth, sometimes gloriously raw. “‘Cause when you’re living your life down in the basement/Lord, mercy, it’s filled with despair/Yeah, so much despair.” This track features some really cool, expressive work on guitar, plus some sexy stuff on keys.

The moment the title track “Blues In A Bucket” begins, its bright vibe works to raise my spirits. Ah, it’s wonderful how the blues can do that. And let’s give credit here to the bass line, because, yeah, it’s working well. “Put my blues in a bucket/Gonna throw it in the sea/I’ll sit and watch the tide roll away from me.” I think we all want to chuck our blues at this point. How great it would be to watch them pulled away by the tide. And for me, really, that means tossing Donald Trump into the ocean, and watching the waves pull him out to sea, never to return. Goodbye, blues. This track becomes a good jam there in the middle. “Windy City Blues” immediately establishes a wonderful groove that is familiar and soulful. This track features some absolutely delightful touches on keys, and a really good vocal performance. “I got them Windy City blues/I’ve got to face the facts/I gave my love to a woman/And she never gave it back.” I also love those horns, the way they are at first so gentle, like caresses offered in the night, and then later more lively, particularly when joining with the guitar in the second half of the song. That lead on guitar is excellent, each note so clear, so precise, so effective. This is one of my favorite tracks.

“Go To The Light” has a fun groove and a cheerful, totally enjoyable lead vocal performance. But what I really love about this song are those gospel-sounding backing vocals and the way they are supported by the horns. Wonderful stuff there. “Everyone is so confused/They don’t know what to do.” Yup, that’s just about right. By the way, whenever I hear someone say anything like “Go to the light,” I can’t help but think of that scene from Poltergeist, with JoBeth Williams shouting, “Run to the light, Carol Anne!” “Go To The Light” is followed by “Misery And Blues,” its opening lines being “The whole world’s gone crazy/It’s filled with misery.” Again, yes, that’s just about right. And every day it is getting crazier. I love the way the backing vocals echo “Misery.” Beautiful. “There’s no more peace and love/Just pain everywhere I see.” This is a serious song with a darker vibe, but it features some great stuff from the horns, plus some excellent work on both guitar and harmonica. That harmonica becomes the soul of the song, crying out and expressing the pain and worry so many are experiencing. “We can’t go on like this, or we’re all going to lose/I don’t know about you, baby, but I’ve had enough of this misery and blues.” I’ve been saying that for three years now. Please, an end to Donald Trump means an end to this country’s misery; or, at least an end to a large portion of it.

Becky Wright joins the band on lead vocals for “Powerhouse,” a strong, mean blues number, with some lyrics to match that sound, that vibe. Check out these lines: “I’ve been standing at the crossroads with a hellhound on my trail/And at the stroke of midnight, he’s going to take your soul to hell/Wish you well.” I love that “Wish you well,” and the way she delivers it, that attitude. Becky Wright turns in one hell of a good performance here. The album began with a fun track, a party song, and it ends that way as well, with “Let The Love In Your Heart,” featuring another great rhythm. Becky Wright again joins the band on vocals, and on this one we have both female and male lead vocals. “There’s a breeze rolling in/A change is going to come/Beyond the yonder mountain/I can see the rising sun/Open up your heart/Listen to your mind/Forget about yesterday/Leave it all behind.” And, yes, I can’t help but smile at the phrase “yonder mountain,” being a big fan of Yonder Mountain String Band. Plus, this track features more good stuff on guitar and harmonica. This track leaves us in a good place, and for that I am thankful.

CD Track List
  1. Boogie Me Till I Drop
  2. Blues In The Basement
  3. Blues In A Bucket
  4. Blue Morning Sun
  5. Hard To Lose
  6. Windy City Blues
  7. Go To The Light
  8. Misery And Blues
  9. Powerhouse
  10. Going Back To Memphis
  11. Let The Love In Your Heart
Blues In A Bucket is scheduled to be released on February 7, 2020.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Who Do I Think I Am? Blu-ray/DVD Review

I never did see Clarence Clemons perform with the E Street Band, but I was fortunate enough to catch him with the Jerry Garcia Band a couple of times in 1989, and even from my spot way back on the lawn, his energy and joy had a tremendous impact. Everything about his sound and presence was big, and so I was surprised by the soft, introspective tone the documentary film Who Do I Think I Am? establishes during its opening credits sequence. Right away you know this film is going to show you another side of The Big Man, a side you probably haven’t seen before. And at the beginning, Clarence speaks directly to the camera, directly to us, telling us, “I’m not just a saxophone player.” Indeed.

The documentary features an interview with Clarence Clemons, which often functions as narration. He tells us: “My purpose in life is to bring joy and light to the world. I got the right job.” But many others also help tell this story. To provide some information about his early days, the film includes interviews with two of his aunts and some childhood friends. One of his friends mentions that they never attended the same schools because of segregation in Virginia. And of course there are interviews with musicians, including Norman Seldin, who asked Clarence to join his band after Clarence sat in with them one night (this was before the E Street Band); Vini Lopez, who was an original E Street Band member; and Nils Lofgren, who later joined the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen was not interviewed, but there is some footage of him introducing Clarence Clemons at a concert, and also footage of some of the play between the two bandmates during performances. Musician Willie Nile talks about the unspoken territory between Bruce and Clarence, saying it “was really something extraordinary, powerful, tender, sensitive, passionate, raw, alive.” Those interviewed talk about the importance of Clarence’s contributions to a song like “Jungleland,” how his solo tells the story of that song just as much as the lyrics. The story of the recording of that part on the album is interesting. The documentary also includes material on that period when Bruce Springsteen worked without the E Street Band (it was early in that period when I saw Clarence play with Jerry Garcia). Joe Walsh is interviewed about Clarence’s time with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. And Bill Clinton is interviewed about meeting Clarence at his inauguration, and – yes – there is footage of the two of them playing saxophone together.

During that period, Clarence Clemons also did some acting, appearing in several movies, including Swing, which was directed by Nick Mead, who also directed this documentary. So Nick Mead appears in the film to talk about that movie, and about a journey that the two of them later took together to China. It is that journey, the impact it had on Clarence’s life, which becomes the focus of a section of the film, and really is at the heart of the documentary. “Not only had they never heard of me or Bruce, but they had never seen a black man before,” Clarence tells us. There is some cool footage of Clarence playing saxophone on top of the Great Wall. But this was also a journey inward for him, and one of spiritual exploration. It is during that moment on the Great Wall that one man interrupts the shot, shouting “Who do you think you are?” That of course becomes the subject of the film. Clarence says, “Spirituality to me is the recognition of a spirit within me that is greater than me.”

The Big Man’s beauty and spirituality and soulfulness are present throughout this documentary, making it a touching and engaging film. Fellow musician Dale Powers says of Clarence Clemons: “At the core of everything was his love of music. That’s what it was all about. He just loved to play, man. He represented power and peace in the same breath.”

Who Do I Think I Am? was directed by Nick Mead, and was released as a Blu-ray/DVD combination pack on August 27, 2019 through MVD Visual. There are no special features.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Janiva Magness: “Change In The Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty” (2019) CD Review

In Janiva Magness’ liner notes for her new album, Change In The Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty, she writes “Just like millions of other people, I’ve always been a fan of John Fogerty’s work.” I am one of those millions. Since I was a child, hearing songs like “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son” and “Down On The Corner,” I have been completely under the spell of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Too young to have heard these songs when they were first released, it was the local classic rock station that turned me onto this band. But I was in my early teens when John Fogerty’s Centerfield was released, and that great voice was on the pop radio stations as well as the rock stations, and I was in heaven. I played the hell out of that album. Janiva Magness pays tribute to this incredible singer and songwriter, choosing songs from both the CCR catalogue and Fogerty’s solo albums. Her love for the music shines through on every track. She is backed by Gary Davenport on bass, Steve Wilson on drums, Zachary Ross on guitar and dobro, Dave Darling on guitar, and Arlan Oscar on keys, and has special guests on a couple of tracks.

To open this album, Janiva Magness chooses a song from John Fogerty’s solo career, but one that sounds like it could have easily been included on a Creedence record, “Change In The Weather,” which she also uses as the album’s title. It was included on Fogerty’s 1986 LP Eye Of The Zombie, and features a jam toward the end that feels very much like something that CCR could have produced. Janiva Magness delivers a bluesy, hard-hitting rendition, with a strong pulse, a track that feels just exactly right for these dark and twisted days. The song was originally released during those awful Reagan years, and we’re now caught in the gnarled claws of a much worse administration. Much of the song’s lyrics feel like they could have been written today. Check out these lines: “Storm warning, and it looks like rain/Be nothing left after the hurricane/This here's a jungle, it ain't no lie/Look at the people, terror in their eyes/Bad business coming, can't be denied/They're running with the dogs, afraid to die.” This song also includes a play on a line from Hamlet: “But every demon has to have his day,” a play on the line “The cat will mew and dog will have his day.” Janiva’s rendition is a couple of minutes shorter than John Fogerty’s, but still features some good jamming. She follows that with “Lodi,” a song from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River LP.  Here Janiva Magness is joined by Sam Morrow on vocals, making the song an odd sort of duet, which works surprisingly well.

“Someday Never Comes” is my all-time favorite CCR song, and Janiva delivers an excellent and completely effective rendition, arousing in me those same complicated feelings as the original version. There is something terribly lonesome about this song, like you can’t count on anyone, and it speaks to that feeling that the world makes no fucking sense whatsoever, and that we never really learn anything. Yet somehow this song makes me feel strangely empowered too, because it’s like we are encouraged to make our own way, to figure things out on our own, since there is no one right way. By the way, my second favorite CCR song is “Long As I Can See The Light,” a song that Janiva Magness covered on her 2016 release, Love Wins Again. Janiva follows “Someday Never Comes” with another excellent Creedence song, “Wrote A Song For Everyone.” This one wasn’t a huge hit or anything, but I think it is among the band’s best. John Fogerty must feel similarly, for he chose it to be the title track of a recent solo album, an album which found him revisiting several CCR numbers. Janiva Magness does a wonderful job with it, giving us a powerful, honest and moving vocal performance. “You know I wrote a song for everyone/Wrote a song for truth/Wrote a song for everyone/When I couldn't even talk to you.”

One of my favorite tracks on this release is Janiva’s take on “Don’t You Wish It Was True,” a song from John Fogerty’s 2007 album Revival. This track has such a great vibe, and is a song I wish the world would embrace these days. “He said the world’s going to change, and it’s starting today/There will be no more armies, and no more hate/Don’t you wish it was true/Don’t you wish it was true.” Janiva is joined by Taj Mahal on vocals and banjo on this one, adding to the track’s appeal. This one also features some very cool work on guitar. “But if tomorrow everybody under the sun/Was happy just to live as one/No borders, no battles to be won/But if tomorrow everybody was your friend/Happiness would never end/Lord, don’t you wish it was true.” This track has a delightfully playful ending, with Taj Mahal riffing vocally. Janiva Magness also gives us an interesting and wonderful take on “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” slowing it down a bit. This rendition has a pretty and comforting vibe, which I appreciate, and features a really nice vocal performance. Janiva also puts her own spin on “Bad Moon Rising,” making it more of blues rocker. I didn’t recognize it when it first began, not until she started singing. The first time I listened to this track, it took me a moment to get into it, but once I was on board, I began to really appreciate this rendition. After all, this song – as good as it is – is one we’ve heard a lot, perhaps a bit too much, and Janiva is able to give it a fresh life, which it deserves.

Janiva then returns to John Fogerty’s solo material with a cool version of “Blueboy,” a song from his 1997 album Blue Moon Swamp, highlighting the song’s blues elements, bringing them more to the fore. This track features more nice work on guitar and a cool beat. That’s followed by “Fortunate Son,” which was one of the first CCR songs I ever heard, and one that demanded a whole lot of volume from my stereo (hey, who was I to refuse?). I always loved the power of the song, the way John delivered the lines with something of an angry snarl, like he could tear into the powers that be with that voice. I believed he could. We could certainly use some of that right now. Janiva’s rendition may not quite have the power of the original, but the energy is there, the attitude is there, and this track features some nice work on keys. From there, she goes to “Déjà vu (All Over Again),” the title track to John Fogerty’s 2004 album and a good choice to have follow “Fortunate Son,” as this one is about similarities between the Iraq war and the war in Vietnam. The same mistakes are made over and over. Janiva follows that with another song from John Fogerty’s solo career, “A Hundred And Ten In The Shade,” from Blue Moon Swamp. Janiva delivers a sultry vocal performance to match the temperature of the song, helping to make this yet another of the disc’s highlights. She concludes the album with a cheerful, folksy rendition of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” which has quite a different vibe from the rest of the album. On this track she is joined by Rusty Young on dobro and guitar, Jesse Dayton on guitar and Aubrey Richmond on fiddle.

CD Track List
  1. Change In The Weather
  2. Lodi
  3. Someday Never Comes
  4. Wrote A Song For Everyone
  5. Don’t You Wish It Was True
  6. Have You Ever Seen The Rain
  7. Bad Moon Rising
  8. Blueboy
  9. Fortunate Son
  10. Déjà vu (All Over Again)
  11. A Hundred And Ten In The Shade
  12. Lookin’ Out My Back Door
Change In The Weather: Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty was released on September 13, 2019 on Blue Elan Records.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Zoe & Cloyd: “I Am Your Neighbor” (2019) CD Review

Zoe & Cloyd is the duo of Natalya Zoe Weinstein on fiddle and vocals and John Cloyd Miller on guitar, banjo, mandolin and vocals. The latest release of this Asheville-based married couple, I Am Your Neighbor, features a good mix of original songs and traditional material, with them sharing lead vocals. This is the duo’s third album, following 2017’s Eyes Brand New, and on this album they deliver bluegrass music that touches on some serious and timely subjects, things that are on our minds quite a bit these days. Joining them are Bennett Sullivan on banjo and guitar, and Kevin Kehrberg on upright bass.

I Am Your Neighbor opens with an original tune titled “Looking Out For You And Me,” a lively and powerful song that should speak to most people, its lyrics about how greed guides the decisions of those in power, leading to the destruction of the environment. “Til someone saw a dollar sign/Now there’s nothing left to see/Something irreplaceable was lost there to their greed.” This line also stands out: “And who is left to turn to when the leaders mislead.” Perhaps politicians have always been corrupt, always been greedy and short-sighted, but the corruption has never been greater and more dangerous than now. Let’s hope the election later this year will remove Trump and all those who support him. This one was written by John Cloyd Miller, who sings lead on it. That’s followed by “Neighbor,” with Zoe taking lead vocal duties. It is a song about reaching out to folks, something that feels more necessary than ever before, and yet also more difficult than ever before. After all, who wants to extend a hand to a Trump supporter? This song provides the album with its title in the lines “We might be different/But I am your neighbor/There’s things about me you may not understand/Don’t be afraid.” And check out these lines: “You don’t see me, but I have my dreams too/Just like your dreams, they’ve traveled so far/Your constellations, they are my constellations/Here now together we count the same stars.” This song has a sweet and positive vibe, which is incredibly appealing. “Neighbor” was written by John Cloyd Miller, Natalya Weinstein and Kari Sickenberger, and is one of my favorite tracks.

We then move into the traditional material, with “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which has a more serious, somber tone. Zoe sings lead on this track, and also delivers some excellent work on fiddle. That’s followed by another traditional number, “Berditchever Sher,” a wonderful instrumental tune that feels designed to transport you from your troubles, and is one of the disc’s highlights. Cloyd then sings lead on “The Past Keeps Getting In The Way,” a pretty song that he wrote with Mark Bumgarner. This song has a gentle sound and vibe, with some absolutely gorgeous work on fiddle. Lyrically, this is one of the album’s strongest tracks as well. Here is a taste: “I thought I felt a change of seasons coming/But I don’t know if I ever will believe/Any port in a storm, still I see daylight through the grey/But the past keeps getting in the way.” Cloyd also sings lead on “Rising Waters,” another song for our times. These are its opening lines: “You’ll get by/So will we/May not be the world we knew/Some say it’s too late/We’ve set the course somehow/We’re in it now.” I keep wondering if it’s too late to solve the climate troubles, and it terrifies and infuriates me that the current government refuses to address the crisis. Still, this song has its own undeniable beauty, and is of course engaging both emotionally and intellectually.

“Only Game In Town” is a more lively and bright number, written by John Cloyd Miller, who sings lead. “Now some folks think I’m just a fool/But no matter how it sounds/Trying to keep from losing you/It’s the only game in town.” This track features some excellent instrumental sections, including some wonderful work on banjo and a cool solo on bass. That’s followed by the disc’s final cover, “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still,” a slower, pretty number that was composed by W.T. Wrighton and J.E. Carpenter, with Cloyd on lead vocals. “Build Me Up” is a sweet and positive folk number written by John Cloyd Miller and Natalya Weinstein, featuring some nice harmonies. “Are we making up or making believe/Build me up/Don’t cut me down/You’re the one I need right now/When my feet won’t touch the ground.” This track features some good work on guitar. It’s followed by “Zisa Meydele,” a pretty instrumental track, one to transport you to another place, another time, something that is incredibly appealing these days. Written by John Cloyd Miller and Natalya Weinstein, this is another of my favorite tracks. I love that work on fiddle. The album then concludes with “No Difference,” a mellow and thoughtful and rather sad song written by John Cloyd Miler. “For what it’s worth, there were some good times/Conversation and lots of laughs/There was a time when we laid it on the line/But the ship was sinking fast.”

CD Track List
  1. Looking Out For You And Me
  2. Neighbor
  3. Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
  4. Berditchever Sher
  5. The Past Keeps Getting In The Way
  6. Rising Waters
  7. Only Game In Town
  8. Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still
  9. Build Me Up
  10. Zisa Meydele
  11. No Difference 
I Am Your Neighbor was released on September 27, 2019 on Organic Records.