Monday, February 29, 2016

Janiva Magness: “Love Wins Again” (2016) CD Review

Janiva Magness is a singer and songwriter working primarily in the blues realm. And reading up her, that comes as no surprise. Her teen years alone would give her enough fuel for several blues albums. But of course it’s the healing power of the blues that draws us all to that music. Who couldn’t use a little healing now and again? And on her new album, Love Wins Again, she creates such a positive atmosphere with many of these tracks. I found myself smiling a lot while listening to this CD. This album, however, is anything but straight blues. There are soul, folk, country and rock influences here, as Janiva feels free enough to let the music take her in the direction it desires or needs to go. Most of the songs on this CD are originals, with producer Dave Darling writing or co-writing the majority. And there are some beautiful songs on this album.

The CD opens with the title track, “Love Wins Again,” a bright, positive-sounding tune written by Janiva Magness, Dave Darling and Carl Sealove. It has a great R&B vibe (and I mean real R&B, not what tries to pass for R&B these days), and gives us a promise of things improving. And listening to Janiva belt it out, I don’t doubt it. “This is where we begin/Now this is so much more than romance.” It’s followed by “Real Slow,” a song about taking one’s time and allowing one’s self to get lost in a moment. It was written by Dave Darling and Colin Devlin, and it has a cool groove. Janiva sings, “All those other people/Yeah, they’re acting insane/You know how much I want you/Got me feeling deranged/I want you so bad/I’ll do anything that you want,” and then she adds, “What you want?” (a nice touch).

“When You Hold Me” is a blues love song, which might sound like a contradiction of sorts. This song, another penned by Darling and Devlin, is one of the tracks that get me smiling each time I listen. It is kind of beautiful and sweet, yet also has a power in taking what’s intimate and celebrating it. “Nobody knows the places we go/When you hold me, when you hold me/Darlin’ when you hold me/Everything’s all right.” This is one of my personal favorites. Another favorite is “Doorway,” which boasts a beautiful and emotionally charged vocal delivery, and an interesting perspective. Check out these lines: “And I’ll stand in your doorway/’Til all your pain is gone/I swear that I forgive you/It’s been so long/It’s been too long.” I love this song. Another one I love is “Just Another Lesson,” which is more in the folk realm, driven by guitar and vocals. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “And I know I should know by now/Sometimes that thing that you fight for/Is gone when you turn around/You might say that it’s all meant to be/But it’s just another lesson to me.

Probably the most fun track on this release is “Your House Is Burnin’.” You might not expect a song with that title to be so much fun, but really this is like one of those great Stax tracks, complete with horns right at the beginning, also reminding me of James Brown. “Get up, your house is burnin’ down/Somebody needs to fix some things round here/Before we burn down to the ground/Oh, get up, there ain’t no time to waste.” It also features some wonderful work on electric guitar. “Your House Is Burnin’” was written by Janiva Magness and Dave Darling.

The only cover on this CD is “Long As I Can See The Light,” one of my favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival songs (probably second only to “Someday Never Comes”). Janiva Magness does a pretty good job with it, and I like the work on keys. The CD then concludes with another highlight, “Who Will Come For Me,” a gorgeous and moving song with a powerful chorus. “Who will come for me? Who will come for me?/When all my youth is spent, I can’t see where it went/Who will come for me?/Who will come for me? Who will come for me?/When all my years are spent, the dance comes to an end/Who will come for me?

CD Track List
  1. Love Wins Again
  2. Real Slow
  3. When You Hold Me
  4. Say You Will
  5. Doorway
  6. Moth To A Flame
  7. Your House Is Burnin’
  8. Just Another Lesson
  9. Rain Down
  10. Long As I Can See The Light
  11. Who Will Come For Me 
Love Wins Again is scheduled to be released on April 8, 2016 on Blue Élan Records.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lafayette Harris Jr.: “Hangin’ With The Big Boys” (2016) CD Review

Lafayette Harris Jr. is a talented jazz pianist, and this spring will see the release of a new CD, Hangin’ With The Big Boys. Like his previous release, Bend To The Light, this new CD features a lot of original material, some of it having been previously released in different versions. And also like that previous release, Jazzmeia Horn joins him on vocals.  And unlike that previous release, this CD features Antoine Drye on trumpet, Caleb Curtis on saxophone, and Houston Person on saxophone. Bend To The Light was a trio recording, with Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Willie Jones III on drums (and with a couple of special guests). Taking over on bass on this new CD is George DeLancey, and on drums is Will Terrill.

Lafayette Harris Jr. opens this CD with a lively, joyful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” where he is joined on vocals by both Jazzmeia Horn and Noël Simoné Wippler. There is a lot of playful energy in the vocals, and there are good lead sections by both Houston Person on tenor saxophone and Lafayette Harris Jr. on piano. That’s followed by a beautiful and cool, smooth version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” with Houston Person really creating the perfect mood with his tenor sax. I just want to drift away on that sax. Lafayatte Harris Jr. then delivers an absolutely wonderful moody lead on piano. I love this rendition, and it’s one of this CD’s highlights. (By the way, Houston Person used this tune as the title track to one of his own releases.)

We then get into the original material, beginning with the CD’s title track, “Hangin’ With The Big Boys,” a great tune that asserts itself immediately. Lafayette mentions in the CD’s liner notes that this is actually an older composition, written in the 1990s. I am particularly fond of Will Terrill’s drumming on this track. At times he creates this kind of wild, yet controlled intensity, and really drives the tune along. And both Antoine Drye and Caleb Curtis provide some wonderful stuff here.

“We In The House” is a tune that Lafayette Harris Jr. has recorded before. In fact, it was included on last year’s release, Bend To The Light, as well as on an earlier album. Clearly it’s a favorite of his. That works for me, as it’s a composition that I love too (though that hook still reminds me of The Association’s “Never My Love”). The version here is quite good, a few minutes shorter than the version on last year’s CD. This version begins with drums, as did the previous version, but quickly this new rendition sets itself apart, especially because of the presence of Antoine Drye and Caleb Curtis. (Harris’ first version was a solo recording and last year’s was by the trio.) There is some great play between the horns and piano, which I love.

Zombies sure are popular these days, even popping up in the titles of jazz tunes. “The Zombie Blues” is another original composition, and an interesting one. It begins with just piano and creates a certain, somewhat dark mood. Then the bass and drums come in, adding a somewhat chaotic element. I love what George DeLancey does on bass. (Incidentally, I just enjoyed his playing on the new CD from Svetlana And The Delancey Five, Night At The Speakeasy.) Then, nearly a minute in, the horns come in, and the song develops more of a swing, and then just builds from there, before returning to its opening at the end. This is another highlight.

“Little Kevin’s Embrace” is another original composition, and one that Harris has recorded before. It’s a cool tune, and this version features vocals by Noël Simoné Wippler (but no lyrics). It’s followed by another original composition featuring a vocalist – this time with lyrics – “Drinking Wine Blues.” The first time I popped this CD in, I had already been drinking wine for a couple of hours, and this tune hit the right spot. Jazzmeia Horn has a great loose vibe in her vocal approach. “I’m drinking my wine/I’m feeling real fine/I’m drinking my wine and feeling real fine/And doing this all of the time.” And there is some wonderful work on saxophone by both Houston Person and Caleb Curtis, as well as on trumpet by Antoine Drye. This is one of my favorite tracks. Then “The Wheelhouse” is one written by saxophone player Caleb Curtis, and it has a breezy, light feel. And check out Harris’ work on piano toward the end.

Then for the last two tracks, Lafayette Harris Jr. returns to covering some extremely well-known and beloved material. He does a delicate, sweet, pretty, wonderful rendition of “The Very Thought Of You,” led by Houston Person’s moving work on saxophone. This song always makes me think of that beautiful montage at the end of Home For The Holidays (one of my favorite movies), where it is done by Nat King Cole. And of course it makes me think of my beautiful girlfriend. When I first heard this version by Lafayette Harris Jr., I had to call her. This is such a good rendition, and is another of my favorite tracks on this CD. The CD concludes with “They All Laughed.” I’ve said it often, but it remains true: You can’t go wrong with Gershwin.

CD Track List
  1. Blue Skies
  2. In A Sentimental Mood
  3. Hangin’ With The Big Boys
  4. We In The House
  5. Don’t Worry About It
  6. The Zombie Blues
  7. Little Kevin’s Embrace
  8. Drinking Wine Blues
  9. The Wheelhouse
  10. The Very Thought Of You
  11. They All Laughed 
Hanging With The Big Boys is scheduled to be released on May 6, 2016 on Airmen Records.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Svetlana And The Delancey Five: “Night At The Speakeasy” (2016) CD Review

Svetlana And The Delancey Five are an excellent jazz band based in New York City, playing regularly at a venue called The Back Room. That venue is located just off of Delancey Street, thus the band’s name. The band’s new CD, Night At The Speakeasy, also gets its name from this venue, as The Back Room has been operating since the days of Prohibition. And the music here has that sense of fun and excitement, and also that sense of community and camaraderie that I imagine the speakeasies generated among their clientele (yes, I realize I have a romantic vision of speakeasies). There are some standards, as you’d expect, but also some original material, which are among my favorite tracks. The musicians are all talented, but of course it is Svetlana Shmulyian’s voice at the center of it all, and what a voice it is. A voice that is strong, playful, friendly and also sexy – it’s a voice you want to wrap yourself up in for a night on the town.

Night At The Speakeasy opens with one of Svetlana’s original compositions, “All I Want,” which is delightful right from the start, with the horn working almost as a comedic companion to her, responding to her lines, adding its own observations, thoughts. “All I want is always and forever/But for now I’ll take your tender kiss.” There is then a wonderful instrumental section, with the bass and drums holding things together, keeping a great groove, as each of the other instruments gets a chance to be the voice. There is such joy in this music. This is one of my personal favorites on this album.

“All I Want” is followed by Duke Ellington’s “Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’” (which Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn and Lee Gaines), an inherently fun tune. I love how Svetlana begins it with her voice accompanied by George Delancey on bass. There is also some nice work by Dalton Ridenhour on piano during the instrumental section. (By the way, on this CD this song is listed as “Just A Sittin And A Rockin.”) Svetlana also covers Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” for which Bob Russell wrote the lyrics. This is such a wonderful song, and this is a cool, playful rendition, with great stuff on piano. And when Svetlana sings “True, I’ve been seen with someone new/But does that mean that I’m untrue,” she makes that sound right and logical. “Some kiss may cloud my memory/And others’ arms may hold a thrill/But please do nothing till you hear from me/And, baby, you never will.” By removing the word “it” from the line “But please do nothing till you hear it from me,” she changes the meaning quite a bit. Sounds like he’ll be waiting forever for her to call him.

“You Won’t Be Satisfied” is done as a duet with Wycliffe Gordon, who gives off a strong Louis Armstrong vibe. He also plays trombone on this track. Each singer gets a chance to sing lead, first Svetlana. There’s a pause before Wycliffe then gets to reply with his side of things, and the music picks up in pace a bit for him, as if he’s the more fun of the two. And then to prove he’s the more playful, he tosses in some delightful scat. And then it has a strong finish with the two together. “You Won’t Be Satisfied” was written by Freddy James and Larry Stock, and this version has an additional verse written by Svetlana Shmulyian. Wycliffe Gordon also joins Svetlana on a sweet rendition of “Under A Blanket Of Blue.”

“It’s All Good (Big Noise)” is another of the original compositions by Svetlana, where she is accompanied at the beginning by Vinny Raniolo on guitar before the rest of the band joins in. (Vinny Raniolo has been showing up on some of my favorite recordings lately; last year he played on Myriam Phiro’s fantastic Voyages.) Toward the end of this track, Svetlana does some scat of her own. Svetlana Shmulyian also co-wrote “Temptations” with Brandi Disterheft. This is a bright-sounding song that has the feel of a standard (who knows, maybe someday it will be), providing lots of places for the musicians to go during the instrumental section.

“God Only Knows” is my favorite Beach Boys song. I’ve always loved how it seems equal parts positive and depressing, contemplating the death of a loved one and knowing somehow you’ll move forward. It’s such a beautiful song. Svetlana And The Delancey Five give it a bit of a swing. I love the trumpet. This band also does a wild rendition of “Because,” a rather unusual choice of Beatles songs to cover. I completely love what this band does with it, giving it an old, fun jazz feel. And Svetlana really goes for it, belting out some of the lines. It is really an extraordinary rendition, with Adrian Cunningham and Charlie Caranicas giving it even more character.

I’ve said it many times before, but you can never go wrong with Gershwin. On this CD, Svetlana covers “Oh, Lady Be Good” (here simply titled “Lady Be Good”), and does an excellent job with it. The whole band is clearly having a great time here, and this song moves along just right. I love Svetlana’s delivery, and at one point she is accompanied by just Rob Garcia on drums, an interesting and cool choice. Garcia’s playing is impressive, and he has a solo here (two, actually). This is one of my favorite tracks. Speaking of Rob Garcia, he contributes an original composition, “Dance Inbetween The Moments” (and yes, that’s how it’s written). This song encourages us all to go dancing down on Delancey Street, and could very well have you dancing wherever you are.

CD Track List
  1. All I Want
  2. Just A Sittin And A Rockin
  3. You Won’t Be Satisfied
  4. It’s All Good (Big Noise)
  5. Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
  6. Under A Blanket Of Blue
  7. Temptations
  8. God Only Knows
  9. Lady Be Good
  10. Because
  11. Dance Inbetween The Moments
  12. You Are Like A Song
  13. Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue)
  14. Tea For Two
Night At The Speakeasy was released on January 15, 2016 on OA2 Records.

And I just have to include this photo of Svetlana in a fur from her website (adorable, right?):


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Julian Shore: “Which Way Now?” (2016) CD Review

Pianist and composer Julian Shore’s new CD, Which Way Now?, features mostly original material exploring several realms and emotional landscapes. Joining him on this release are Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, Aidan Carroll on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums. He also has several special guests on certain tracks. One thing I love about this music is that these are ensemble pieces. It never feels like a musician is waiting for a turn to solo; everyone works toward the same end, supporting the main vision, while contributing some wonderful playing. That’s not to say there aren’t leads, but that the leads and solos feel integral to the pieces.

The CD opens with “Our Story Begins On A Mountain,” which has a soft, pretty and at times uplifting feel, with string arrangement by Edward Perez. I love music like this that’s able to transport us from our current space and time. That one is followed by the CD’s title track, “Which Way Now?” This is one of my personal favorites. As it begins, it creates for me the feeling of drifting into memory, the piano rising up and catching us. And then as the bass and drums come in, it’s like the memory has become the present, has taken over, and it becomes a wonderful place to be. We become invested in the world of this composition. It’s interesting that this track feels both relaxed and exciting at the same time. There is some wonderful work on bass by Aidan Carroll, and on guitar by Gilad Hekselman. Godwin Louis plays alto saxophone on this track (Louis had played on Shore’s earlier release, Filaments). “Which Way Now?” was written by Julian Shore and Jean Caze. Godwin Louis also plays alto saxophone on “Moss, Mansion, Sandstorm.”

“Back Home” has kind of a sweet groove, driven by the saxophone for the first half. And then Julian Shore takes over the lead on piano. Michael Thomas plays clarinet and alto flute on this track. There is something light and happy about this tune, helped in great part by Colin Stranahan’s drumming.

“Alpine” is the only track on this album to feature vocalists. Michael Mayo and Alexa Barchini both provide vocals, accompanied only by Julian Shore on piano. This track has an interesting, kind of unusual tone, with the two voices sometimes blending together, sometimes one supporting the other, as in conversation. “When all the world was two/Just me and you.” And the only cover on this CD is a good rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” which begins as a piano solo by Julian Shore. Shore is then joined on this track by Jorge Roeder on bass and Samuel Torres on percussion.

My absolute favorite track on this CD is “Pine Needles,” a sweet, fun, beautiful tune that features Kurt Ozan on guitar, dobro and pedal steel, as well as Noah Preminger on tenor saxophone and clarinet. It’s such a delightful mix of jazz with country elements. It has me swaying and smiling each time I listen to it. I just love the world of this composition. The album then concludes with “Lullaby,” which is based on part of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s “Clair De Lune.” This track has something of a magical feel.

CD Track List
  1. Our Story Begins On A Mountain
  2. Which Way Now?
  3. Back Home
  4. Moss, Mansion, Sandstorm
  5. Alpine
  6. Across The Ice
  7. Con Alma
  8. All Heart
  9. Pine Needles
  10. Lullaby (From Clair De Lune)
Which Way Now? was released on February 12, 2016 on Tone Rogue Records.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Town Mountain: “Southern Crescent” (2016) CD Review

I got turned on to Town Mountain recently when the band released The Dead Session, an EP containing two songs associated with the Grateful Dead. Being a big Grateful Dead fan, I’m always excited to hear how new artists will interpret that band’s music, and I loved what Town Mountain did with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” making it a sweet country tune. But I hadn’t heard any of Town Mountain’s original material, so I didn’t really know what the band was about. Now with the release of Southern Crescent, I have a pretty good idea, and I am definitely on board. This band does some great bluegrass music, with influences from other realms, like country and rock. When I was still in my teens I briefly dated a girl whose parents were in a bluegrass band. The music was so fun, so pure, so natural, so honest, so true, and I saw how it united people in a way that a lot of music seemed unable to. That group gave me a lasting appreciation for this music, and so I am excited to hear new bluegrass bands. Not that Town Mountain is all that new. Southern Crescent is actually the group’s fifth CD. It features original material, with four band members contributing songs. These songs have both a fresh and traditional sound. Nick DiSebastian plays bass on this album, and Dirk Powell plays drums on several tracks.

The CD opens with one of those delicious fast-paced bluegrass instrumentals. Titled “St. Augustine,” it was written by the group’s fiddle player, Bobby Britt, and yes, it features some wonderful work on fiddle. That’s followed by “Ain’t Gonna Worry Me,” a song turning what was once heartache and loneliness to happiness. Ah, bluegrass can do that so well. “So many miles between us now/I’m gonna do just what I please.” “Ain’t Gonna Worry Me” was written by mandolin player Phil Barker. From there, we go a song about desiring to close the distance between a traveling musician and his gal. “Comin’ Back To You” has a bright, peppy feel, and was written by guitarist Robert Greer and Mark Bumgarner. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Two shows in Alabama/Down to Louisiana/Saturday is Baton Rouge/Then I’ll be flying through that Buncombe County line/Comin’ back home to you.” (Town Mountain is based in Asheville, North Carolina.) This track features some rock and roll piano by guest musician Wilson Savoy (giving us a Jerry Lee Lewis energy). Joel Savoy plays fiddle on this track.

One of my favorite songs is “House With No Windows,” written by banjo player Jesse Langlais. It’s a beautiful, slower song, and yes, the simple but effective banjo reminds me of Kermit the Frog (that’s a good thing). I also love the vocals, the lyrics delivered with great, emotional country ache. “This dollar in my pocket is worth two on the table/And if you’ve got the notion, I’m willing and able/This dollar in my pocket is gonna burn away the blues/Gonna burn the fire between us long as you let it do.” This is such a beautiful song. Another of my favorites is actually another tune written by Jesse Langlais, “Long Time Comin’.” Right from the beginning, the fiddle makes me smile, and then the blending of vocals on the chorus is wonderful. And I like these lines: “If you see her, tell her I love her/There’s no one gonna rise above her/If there’s fire in her eyes and desires on her mind/Tell her that I want her to come home.”

The music takes on a more Irish feel for the sweet instrumental, “Leroy’s Reel.” I wonder if that’s why I so instantly took to bluegrass music. Perhaps I was predisposed to it because of the similarities to Irish folk music. Anyway, I love this track, which was written by Bobby Britt. Nick DiSebastian plays guitar on this one. I am also really fond of “Tick On A Dog,” written by Robert Greer. This song has energy and attitude. “You’re like a tick on a dog/Just bleeding me dry.” And there is some great playing here. But actually that’s true of every track. There isn’t a weak tune here.

CD Track List
  1. St. Augustine
  2. Ain’t Gonna Worry Me
  3. Comin’ Back To You
  4. Southern Crescent
  5. House With No Windows
  6. Wildbird
  7. Long Time Comin’
  8. I Miss The Night
  9. Leroy’s Reel
  10. Tick On A Dog
  11. Arkansas Gambler
  12. Whiskey With Tears
Southern Crescent is scheduled to be released on April 1, 2016 on LoHi Records.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Willie Nile: “World War Willie” (2016) CD Review

I’m always excited when a new Willie Nile CD arrives, because I know there will be some excellent songwriting, some delicious vocals and some surprises. If I Was A River, his 2014 release, had a more stripped down sound, focusing on his vocals even more than usual. His new album, World War Willie, is full of energetic rock and roll tunes, songs that demand some volume, some of them with plenty to say. Like, for example, “Let’s All Come Together,” in which he sings, “Now some may want to fight and some will go to war/But after all these centuries who even knows what for.” But don’t worry – Willie Nile doesn’t take himself all too seriously. Listen to “Grandpa Rocks.” The line “His hair what’s left grows down to his socks” made me burst out laughing the first time I listened to this disc. There is a whole lot of energy here, and a lot of fun. This CD is made of mostly original material, and some interesting characters populate these tunes. And it’s all delivered with that distinctive voice.

This disc kicks off with “Forever Wild,” which begins like a great classic rock burst, and tells a good rock and roll story of youth and holding onto it. “Now people may come and people may go/And things can fall apart/But this I swear and this I know/You’re still here in my heart…forever.” And hey, on the line “Sixteen and crazy,” he sounds like Meatloaf, right? “Forever Wild” was written by Willie Nile and Frankie Lee. That’s followed by another lively tune, “Let’s All Come Together,” about improving the state of the world together.

Willie Nile then displays a bit of good-natured humor, directed even at himself (as he’s a grandfather), in “Grandpa Rocks.” I think it was Grace Slick who said no one over the age of fifty should rock. Willie Nile is certainly taking up an opposing viewpoint here, and for my money, Willie wins the argument, no question. “Grandpa rocks, Grandpa rocks/He ain’t quite ready for the pine top box.” This song mentions the Rolling Stones, and at the very end there is a humorous reference to their song “Get Off Of My Cloud.” The album’s title track, “World War Willie,” also shows his sense of humor. It begins with a pointedly juvenile rhyme, “I got a girl and she comes from France/She looks so good in her underpants.” But then it builds from that, with funny lines like “I got a girl and she comes from Mars/She lives on cake and candy bars” and “I got a girl and her name is Jean/She puts my dog in her washing machine.” And I love these lines: “Well, I know a woman on the east coast/She fries my eggs and she burns my toast/She’s the one I like the best/That’s why I have to move out west.” This is fun rock and roll.

With “Bad Boy,” Willie Nile gets rough and bluesy. “I’m a bad boy, I ain’t no good/They’re gonna love me out in Hollywood.” It’s a good song, though it uses that “self”/“shelf” rhyme, which always bothers me. It’s followed by “Hell Yeah,” a really good rock and roll tune to get your body moving, and one that will likely have you shouting along as well. Then suddenly we get this kind of beautiful and sweet love song, “Beautiful You.” But it certainly is no standard love song, for it has Willie Nile’s particular style and spin, with some unusual, unexpected lines. Check out these lyrics: “Who laughs inside the raindrops and says just let it pour/Who navigates my crazy and parks it by the door/Beautiful you, beautiful you.” Play this song for that special person in your life. It’s one of my favorite tracks.

It’s followed by another of my favorites, a fun song titled “When Levon Sings,” which was written by Willie Nile and Jefferson Grizzard. It’s about Levon Helm, who died in 2012. “Once upon a time was a drummer in a band” is a funny line, as the name of the band in question of course is The Band. Helm sang lead on most of my favorite Band songs. This CD concludes with its sole cover, “Sweet Jane.” This version is closer to Lou Reed’s solo version than to the original Velvet Underground version, but Willie Nile also adds his own spin to it, particularly that section with the groovy bass line during the lines “Some people like to go out dancing/You and me, we gotta work.” This is a really good, energetic rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Forever Wild
  2. Let’s All Come Together
  3. Grandpa Rocks
  4. Runaway Girl
  5. World War Willie
  6. Bad Boy
  7. Hell Yeah
  8. Beautiful You
  9. When Levon Sings
  10. Trouble Down In Diamond Town
  11. Citibank Nile
  12. Sweet Jane
World War Willie is scheduled to be released on April 1, 2016 on River House Records.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Popa Chubby: “Big, Bad And Beautiful Live” (2016) CD Review

Popa Chubby (Ted Horowitz) has been playing blues rock for more than two decades. In October of 2014 he released I’m Feelin’ Lucky, and then did an extensive tour supporting that CD. Three shows he performed in France in March of 2015 were recorded, and those recordings resulted in his new two-disc live album, Big, Bad And Beautiful. The band is Popa Chubby on vocals and guitar, Dave Keyes on keyboards and vocals, Francesco Beccaro on bass and Andrea Beccaro on drums. Popa Chubby tells us in the CD’s liner notes that these tracks contain no overdubs and nothing added in post. Most of these songs are originals, but there are a few cool covers as well, including a couple of Rolling Stones songs. (I do wish his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” were included here; he was doing that one at a lot of shows at that time, though I don't know for sure that he did it at these shows in France.) There is a lot of music here (more than two and a half hours), and plenty of good blues jams.

The first disc opens with “Working Class Blues,” a tune included on The Hungry Years. The band is off to a good start with a song that most of us can relate to (or at least have related to at some point), with lines like “Twenty dollars in my pocket ‘til the next pay day” and “I got no bank account, got no pension plan.” This song features some nice work on keys as well as guitar during the jam. Popa Chubby follows that with another tune that was included on The Hungry Years (and also on Booty And The Beast), “Stoop Down Baby.” This is a fun song, with a catchy guitar hook and a great jam, making it one of my favorite tracks. And it’s followed by another favorite, “One Leg At A Time,” which Popa introduces as “Put Your Pants On One Leg At A Time.” This one is from I’m Feelin’ Lucky. It has a great rhythm to get folks dancing, and some wonderful work on keys. Tracks like this one make me think Popa Chubby must put on a fantastic live show.

There is some good songwriting on this release, though of course we also get that tired old blues comparison of rain and tears in “Same Old Blues”: “Morning rain keeps on falling/Like the tears falling from my eyes.” Then again, the title is “Same Old Blues,” so perhaps using that familiar simile is part of the point. In “I Don’t Want Nobody,” Popa Chubby gives a little nod to “Next Time You See Me”: “Next time you see me, little baby, things won’t be the same.” That track also features a great jam with some really nice, energetic stuff on guitar.

“Life Is A Beatdown” is one of the first disc’s highlights, and it features some lyrics delivered as a kind of rap: “Running like a locomotive out of steam/Got a piece of the American dream/Then I got a guitar, fell into my hand/Playing for myself, I’m not a company man.” This song is from Peace, Love And Respect, and it contains more wonderful work on keys. It also contains a reference to Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” “Sweat” is another good track, with a very cool vibe. Check out these lines: “It made you sweat/Lost all means of self-control/Sweat/Like a twenty-dollar whore” and “She said, lay back and enjoy it/It’s gonna hurt/A blow job’s better than no job/A girl’s just gotta work.” This track contains a little James Bond tease. The first disc ends with “Chubbfatha Medley,” which includes an instrumental rendition of “Speak Softly, Love” (the love theme from The Godfather) and “Miserlou” (a song now associated with the film Pulp Fiction).

The second disc opens with a nice long version of “Rock On Bluesman,” a song from I’m Feelin’ Lucky, followed by the fun “Take Me Back To Amsterdam.” The second disc also features a section of Rolling Stones songs. Actually, the first, “Love In Vain,” was originally done by Robert Johnson and then covered by the Stones on their fantastic Let It Bleed record. Popa Chubby does a really good job with it, letting loose on the guitar. The other two are both from Sticky Fingers, another of the Stones’ best albums: “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” (Both of those were also on Made In The Shade, one of the first Rolling Stones cassettes I ever bought.) Popa Chubby’s version of “Brown Sugar” is fairly straightforward, but “Wild Horses” has a raw power and beauty.

“Caffeine And Nicotine” is a whole lot of fun. It’s a short track, but still somehow manages to pack in a great little jam. “Finger Bangin’ Boogie” is another fun track, with lots of great stuff on both keys and guitar. With a title like that, it would have shocked me if it weren’t fun. The second CD concludes with a ten-minute instrumental rendition of  “Over The Rainbow.”

CD Track List

Disc One
  1. Working Class Blues
  2. Stoop Down Baby
  3. One Leg At A Time
  4. 69 Dollars
  5. Same Old Blues
  6. Angel On My Shoulder
  7. I Don’t Want Nobody
  8. Life Is A Beatdown
  9. Palace Of The King
  10. Sweat
  11. Signed With Heartache
  12. Rock Me Baby
  13. Blues Bearin’ Down
  14. Chubbfatha Medley
Disc Two
  1. Rock On Bluesman
  2. Take Me Back To Amsterdam
  3. I Was Lookin’ Back
  4. Love In Vain
  5. Brown Sugar
  6. Wild Horses
  7. Another Ten Years Gone
  8. Caffeine And Nicotine
  9. Daddy Played The Guitar
  10. Finger Bangin’ Boogie
  11. The People’s Blues
  12. Noise Making Love Machine
  13. Over The Rainbow 
Big, Bad And Beautiful Live was released on January 22, 2016 on Cleopatra Blues Records.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lee Harvey Osmond: “Beautiful Scars” (2015/2016) CD Review

Lee Harvey Osmond is one of the projects of songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Tom Wilson. I first heard him at the end of 2013, when I received the Blackie And The Rodeo Kings disc, South, a really good CD. That album opens with a song that Tom wrote and sang lead on, “North.” And right away I was hooked. His voice struck me as so expressive and so bloody cool. Tom Wilson’s new CD, Beautiful Scars (the third album to be released under the Lee Harvey Osmond name), features all original material, written or co-written by Tom Wilson. And this is one hell of a good CD, produced by Michael Timmins (of Cowboy Junkies). It was released in Canada last year, and next month those of us in the States will get a chance to enjoy it as well.

It opens with one of its strongest tunes, “Loser Without Your Love,” a very cool song with a kind of mean, mellow Dr. John vibe. Yeah, there’s a bit of voodoo hypnotism happening here, and don’t kid yourself that you could be immune to it, because you won’t be. “I’m still in love with the girl that you used to be/A little Jesus walking on your endless sea.” And, being the CD’s longest track, it turns to a delicious little jam for a while before returning to the vocals near the end. This is such a great song. It’s followed by “Blue Moon Drive,” another cool tune, this one with something of a Tom Waits feel. It’s like a combination of whiskey and a haunting at some indeterminate time at night, a road that navigates itself while you hold onto the wheel and stare out ahead. “The night is long, but the coast is far/Crashing under the western stars/Lay your darkness down.” This is a song I’ll be wanting with me on future road trips.

“Shake The Hand” has a different vibe, the guitar at a couple points having a classic garage rock sound, like the Kinks, or perhaps The Who. “Come shake the hand that shook the Earth.” “Shake The Hand” was written by Tom Wilson, Jesse O’Brien and Colin James. Jesse O’Brien plays organ and piano on this album, and also co-wrote the following song, “Oh The Gods,” a tune that has an eerie intimacy. “Have mercy on my head/Because your memory is burning in my bed.” And I love that guitar.

Then “Dreams Come And Go” has more of a folk feel, a good natural vibe, and is another of this CD’s gems. “Are you coming back or going home/All strung out down on my floor/You’re in my dreams, they come and go/Whoa, you come and go.” “Dreams Come And Go” was written by Tom Wilson, Thompson Wilson, Colin James. Thompson Wilson provides some backing vocals. And then check out these lines from “Hey, Hey, Hey”: “When I’m busted and I’m broke/Hey, hey, hey/Would you give this heart some hope/I’ve been looking for a way out/And a way back in to you/So come on, baby/What do you say?” “Hey, Hey, Hey,” was co-written by Andrea Ramolo, who provides backing vocals. And I love Tom Wilson’s vocals when he reaches these deep, intimate, raw places, as on the lines “I always told the truth, but for you I’d lie/I can’t win you, but I’d love to try” from “How Does It Feel.”

“Bottom Of Your Love” is one with more of a straight folk feel, and has a wonderful beauty, with an aching in Tom’s voice. And check out these lyrics: “From the bars where we drown in this hard rock town/I fell for you every night/All my sorrow’s laced with codeine/And the taxis all know my name/They take me away at the end of the day/From my penthouse to the gutter again.” I love this song, and the line “And all of my lovers have skipped town” always makes me laugh. Just one more great tune on this great album.

CD Track List
  1. Loser Without Your Love
  2. Blue Moon Drive
  3. Shake The Hand
  4. Oh The Gods
  5. Dreams Come And Go
  6. Hey, Hey, Hey
  7. How Does It Feel
  8. Planet Love
  9. Black Spruce
  10. Bottom Of Your Love
Beautiful Scars is scheduled to be released in the United States on March 25, 2016 on Latent Recordings. It was released in Canada on April 7, 2015.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Cristian Perez: “Anima Mundi” (2016) CD Review

Cristian Perez is an accomplished guitarist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, now living in the United States. He applies classical and jazz influences and techniques to world music to create his own wonderful sound. His new CD, Anima Mundi, features mostly original material, along with a few interesting choices of covers. The Cristian Perez Quintet includes Yana Hristova on flute and piccolo, Emmanuel Trifilio on bandoneon, Daniel Brown on upright bass and Bruno Lucini on drums, and they all play on this release. Joe McCarthy plays drums on several tracks. Christian Perez also has some special guests joining him on certain tracks. This is music that will take you on many interesting journeys, journeys certainly worth repeating.

The CD actually opens with one of its covers, a beautiful and fun rendition of “El Condor Pasa,” a song written by Daniel Robles and one that I basically only knew from Simon & Garfunkel’s version on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, that version of course containing the English lyrics by Paul Simon. I always thought it was a beautiful song, and this instrumental version by Cristian Perez certainly captures the piece’s beauty. I love this track, and it has an uplifting quality. Yana Hristova’s work is particularly pretty and powerful. And of course there is some impressive work on guitar. Then four minutes in, there is a short bass solo followed by percussion, before the song moves into a more old-European feel for just a bit. And there is some more wonderful guitar work. What strikes me is the amount of joy in the playing, in the performance. There is a false ending, and then the tune goes in a more playful direction.

With “La Flor Que Nunca Te Di,” Cristian Perez creates a mellower, more relaxed, romantic yet introspective atmosphere. And then “The Persistent Elephant” has an exciting characteristic. There is a delightful and youthful sense of wonder and sense of adventure to the sound, and in the telling of this song’s story. And the world it creates for the listener is likewise exciting.  Haroon Alam joins Cristian Perez on tablas on this track, giving it more of an Indian flavor. This is one of my favorite tracks. “Longing” goes in some surprising and wonderful directions, beginning almost tentatively and then adding this great, forceful sound and presence at moments. It is another favorite of mine.

“Relentless Dragon In Agony” is another interesting piece, at times delicate, at times pretty, at times sad, but all the while with an underlying strength. Devree Lewis plays cello on this track, an instrument I’m always happy to hear. By the way, Devree Lewis is also a member of Trifilio Tango Trio (along with bandoneon player Emmanuel Trifilio), as well as the Pan American Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on this CD is Cristian Perez’s cover of “Moon River,” written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Joining him on this track is vocalist Lynn Veronneau (of the group Veronneau), and this is the only track to include vocals. Kevin Elam provides some backing vocals. This is a sweet, almost magical rendition, and is totally enjoyable. Also enjoyable is the following track, an original piece titled “Hojas Podridas” which features Victor Provost on steel pan. The album’s final cover is a very cool rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s famous “Libertango,” featuring wonderful work by Yana Hristova on flute and, as you might expect, Emmanuel Trifilio on bandoneon. There is also a good drum solo by Joe McCarthy.

CD Track List
  1. El Condor Pasa
  2. La Flor Que Nunca Te Di
  3. The Persistent Elephant
  4. Longing
  5. Journey Of An Exhausted Penguin
  6. Luna Furtiva
  7. Relentless Dragon In Agony
  8. Moon River
  9. Hojas Podridas
  10. Libertango
  11. Footprints In The Wind
Anima Mundi is scheduled to be released on February 22, 2016.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys: “The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus!” (2016) CD Review

If the topic is bluegrass music, then it won’t be long before Ralph Stanley’s name is mentioned. His music and playing are so influential, and also so damn good. He’s been performing for more than six decades, which is an incredible feat. He had planned on retiring this year, but changed his mind, and is still going strong. That’s a good thing for those of us who love music, that we can still hear new things from this important artist. And now we can also take a look back at some of his earlier material. The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus! contains three albums recorded in 1971. This group features Ricky Skaggs (who was sixteen at the time) and Keith Whitley (who was fifteen), and the story of their joining is recounted in part in this two-disc set’s new liner notes by Colin Escott. The rest of the band includes Roy Lee Centers on guitar and vocals, Curly Ray Cline on fiddle and Jack Cooke on bass.

The first disc contains Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys’ Featuring Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs, which was originally titled Tribute To The Stanley Brothers, with the artists listed as Keith Whitley And Ricky Skaggs (Ralph Stanley apparently doesn’t play or sing all that much on these particular tracks). That album was originally released on Jalyn Records in 1971, and features all older songs written by Carter Stanley (and one co-written by Carter and Ralph Stanley). It opens with a really nice version of “We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven,” a song that the Stanley Brothers released as a single in 1950. “Darling, do you really love me/Are you the girl I used to know/Something’s happened to you, darling/But it pleases me to know.” But this version actually opens with the lines, “Many lonely nights I’ve traveled/Far across this barren land.” That is followed by a sweet rendition of “Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home,” the one track co-written by Carter Stanley and Ralph Stanley (and was one of the earliest recordings by the Stanley Brothers). Other highlights include an excellent version of “Lonesome River” and a wonderful rendition of “Too Late To Cry.”

The first disc also contains the first six tracks from Sing Michigan Bluegrass, released on Jessup Records in 1971 (the first of the two Jessup releases). This album features mostly original material, and opens with “Are You Proud Of America,” a then-new tune written by Gene Duty and Ralph Stanley, which asks questions like, “If America calls on you to defend her/Would you be willing to stand by her side?” and “Can you say you’re proud of America?” Remember, this was 1971, and folks were fairly divided on various issues at that time. That’s followed by another tune written by Gene Duty and Ralph Stanley, “Rock Bottom,” one of my favorites. “Rock bottom, rock bottom/I hit rock bottom when I fell in love with you.” Ah, but they sing and play it with such joy and enthusiasm. I love how bluegrass is able to do that, get you dancing to stories of cheating and despair. “Take Me Back” is another delicious and lively bluegrass tune, with some wonderful work on fiddle. This one was written by Roy Lee Centers and Ralph Stanley. “I believe that you could love me/If only you would try/But you’d rather see me lonesome/Than to have me by your side.” The first disc ends with “Hulla-Gull,” a good instrumental tune written by Ray Cline and Ralph Stanley, and actually it’s the disc’s only instrumental. This tune is really driven by the fiddle.

The second disc contains the rest of Sing Michigan Bluegrass, beginning with “Let’s Keep Old Glory Waiting,” another timely number by Gene Duty and Ralph Stanley. I am not into flags or patriotism at all, but there is still some good banjo picking on this song. I definitely prefer the following track, “River Underground,” which was written by Wendell M. Smith and Ralph Stanley, and which tells a great story that starts off in childhood and ends in adulthood, with a loveless woman… or without her. “So we went to the cavern/We strolled hand in hand/I came out alone/The way I had planned.” This is such a great song, and is one of my favorites on the second disc. Wendell M. Smith and Ralph Stanley wrote another of this disc’s highlights, “Daughter Of Geronimo,” which also tells a good story. Other highlights include “Ain’t It Hard,” one of those great, fast-paced, energetic bluegrass songs, with lines like “You’ll tell me more lies than the stars in the skies,” and “Buckwheat,” another instrumental written by Ray Cline and Ralph Stanley.

The second disc also contains the second Jessup release, Gospel Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers, full of glorious bluegrass gospel music. You certainly don’t have to be a believer to enjoy these tunes. This album begins with “Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side,” written by Ralph Stanley, and featuring some wonderful vocals. That’s followed by “In Heaven We’ll Never Grow Old,” a delightful song that seems custom-made to be a sing-along, and is one of my favorites. There is also a really nice rendition of “Working On A Building.” The liner notes credit Ralph Stanley as the writer, but of course that’s just not the case.  Ralph has been around for a hell of a long time, but not long enough to have written this song. On this record, Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys revisit an excellent early Stanley Brothers song, “White Dove,” and this is such a good version, definitely one of the highlights. (By the way, this is a song that Jerry Garcia sang with Old & In The Way in the 1970s.) The CD concludes with “My Main Trial Is Yet To Come,” written by J. L. Frank and Pee Wee King, and another of this album’s highlights.

CD Track List

CD One
  1. We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven
  2. Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home
  3. Our Last Goodbye
  4. Lonesome River
  5. I Love No One But You
  6. It’s Never Too Late
  7. Loving You Too Well
  8. Too Late To Cry
  9. Little Glass Of Wine
  10. I Long To See The Old Folks
  11. Are You Proud Of America
  12. Rock Bottom
  13. Another Song, Another Drink
  14. Take Me Back
  15. You’re Going Away
  16. Hulla-Gull
CD Two
  1. Let’s Keep Old Glory Waving
  2. River Underground
  3. Ain’t It Hard
  4. Daughter Of Geronimo
  5. Buckwheat
  6. Keep My Love With You
  7. Let Me Walk Lord By Your Side
  8. In Heaven We’ll Never Grow Old
  9. Wings Of Angels
  10. The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn
  11. Working On A Building
  12. Master’s Bouquet
  13. Leaning On Jesus
  14. White Dove
  15. Shouting On The Hills Of Glory
  16. A Few More Seasons To Come
  17. Daniel Prayed
  18. My Main Trial Is Yet To Come
The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus! was released on February 5, 2016 through Real Gone Music.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Ronok Sarkar: “Waiting For Alice” (2016) CD Review

I got turned on to Bend The River a couple of years ago with the release of So Long Joan Fontaine, an excellent and delicious surprise, featuring some seriously good songwriting. All of the songs on that album were written or co-written by singer/guitarist/pianist Ronok Sarkar. Sarkar has now released a new solo album, Waiting For Alice. As you might imagine, my expectations were extremely high when I popped this disc in. And there were immediately met, and then surpassed. I love the raw, honest, open feel of this music. All of the songs on this disc were written by Ronok Sarkar, and every track here is strong. Ronok is joined on this release by Bend The River bandmate Adam Fine on bass. He also has some special guests on certain tracks.

The album opens with “All Along It Was You,” a gorgeous, mellow tune on piano, with a kind of late-night feel, a weariness in the vocals. “Wandering around half-dreaming/Not knowing what I wanted to be/Finding your shadows/Looking back at me/And all along it was you.” And then nearly three minutes in, Rebecca Zolkower comes in on violin, and there is a sweet section with the violin accompanied by some jazzy work on upright bass and piano. I wish that went on a bit longer, actually. This is a really good song. It’s followed by one with more of a timeless folk feel, with Ronok on acoustic guitar. Titled “Frank,” this song has its own quiet power and beauty. “I’ve come this far, and I won’t go back again/This emptiness was here before I came.”

One of my favorites is “Maybe This Time.” It has this gorgeous, sad yet positive, wonderful sound that I love immediately. “You can hide in the train station when the sun goes down/You can meet the midnight ladies in their gambling gowns/Sleep out by the roadside with a bottle of wine/Maybe just once/Maybe this time.” On this track, Ronok is joined by Andrew Sneddon on dobro and Scott Trivers on mandolin. I’ve listened to this song already close to a dozen times, and I just can’t get enough of it. It is followed by another favorite of mine, “Tanya Davis.” Dean Gallant joins him on banjo, and Chris Godwin is on harmonica on this track. Tanya Davis is a poet and songwriter based in Halifax (where Bend The River is also based). I love these lines about when Tanya steps onto the stage: “There’s a nervous buzz among the college-aged/You don’t know what she’s feeling or what she will say/But you know the next drink will taste different.” (By the way, you can check out some of Tanya Davis’ poetry on her website. I particularly like these lines, which end her poem “Ravish your lover while you still love her”: “I remember the days our skin was first waking/and the love we made then/like we were scorched earth/and it was raining.”)

Something about the guitar work and vocal line of “Philip” reminds me of some of Leonard Cohen’s early work. And then “The Open Way” has a cool country feel, and more of a full band sound, with Andrew Sneddon, Rebecca Zolkower, Scott Trivers, Chris Godwin and Benn Ross all contributing to this track.  It’s a really good song, and I like those touches on harmonica by Chris Godwin. “And I’ll ask you once, could you really love me/Or is it all just too much to bear.” The album then concludes with “This Fight,” with Ronok on piano, as the album opened. The song is wonderfully sad, with lines like “Let it all slip away/’Til there’s nowhere to go and nothing to be” and “Between your heart and mine/There’s no longer anything/Anything left that’s worth this fight.”

CD Track List
  1. All Along It Was You
  2. Frank
  3. Maybe This Time
  4. Tanya Davis
  5. Money Bet On You
  6. Philip
  7. The Open Way
  8. This Fight
Waiting For Alice was released on January 19, 2016. Well, that’s the official release date, anyway. It was available digitally through Amazon on January 12, 2016. And on January 14 the official CD release show was held, and the album became available that day through Bandcamp. By the way, the album’s title comes from these songs being written while Ronok waited for the birth of his second child.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Tim Hockenberry: “Tim Hockenberry” (2016) CD Review

I became interested in Tim Hockenberry because of his Grateful Dead connection. He sang with Mickey Hart on Mickey’s Mysterium Tremendum CD, and also played trombone on a couple of tracks. So I was curious to hear his new self-titled solo album, his first to feature all original material. There are some really wonderful songs here, with tracks like “Ease Your Pain” and “Carrying You” standing out. The songs here are a combination of folk, rock, blues and pop elements, all written or co-written by Tim Hockenberry. And yes, he does play trombone on a track. He is joined by multi-instrumentalist Justin Miller on every track, and has some other excellent guests backing him.

The album opens with “Me And You,” and right away I love the combination of sounds of the clean, clear mandolin and Tim’s deeper, rougher voice as the song begins. “But I’m a firm believer in a certain kind of confrontation/But the kind that’s only meant for two/That’s me and you.” The song then becomes a really sweet-sounding folk pop song. “Me And You” was written by Tim Hockenberry and his son Maxx back in 2012. Maxx also provides some backing vocals on this track. “You’ll never get conviction in your endless search for consolation/As long as you don’t look at you/But I’m  the only mirror that’ll bring you back to your reflection/A little mirror meant for two/That’s me and you.” That’s Gawain Matthews on the mandolin, by the way; he also played with Mickey Hart.

That is followed by “Ease Your Pain,” one that stood out for me for the first time I listened to this CD. The vocals are passionate, loving. “I told you I was sorry/A thousand times before/But it’s so hard to hear those words/Behind a closing door.” Plus, there is some nice work by Russ Pahl is on pedal steel. Tim plays piano on this track, and Carl Wheeler is on organ.  It’s a really good song.

“Faith In You” is more of a rock song, and for me isn’t quite as interesting or compelling as most of the other tracks. I much prefer the track that follows it, “Carrying You,” which has a delightful, light, playful vibe. It’s such a pretty and sweet song, with lines like “I’ll take you to the top, where I’ll kiss you like a fool/You lift me up, but it’s me who’s carrying you.” And then it features a sort of yodeling, which comes as a surprise. And just when I thought this song couldn’t possibly get any better, there is suddenly an Irish-sounding section. I absolutely love this song. Gawain Matthews plays mandolin on this track, and Dan Feiszli is on upright bass.

I am also really fond of “Come On Let’s Dance,” which is another that is more in the folk realm.  This music makes me happy. It’s an unabashed love song, simple perhaps, but true, with lines like “All the ones that came before, they just vanished on that night” and “It doesn’t matter what you do, I just want to be with you.” On this song Tim is joined by Natasha Miller on violin, Gawain Matthews on mandolin and John Deaderick on organ. 

“I’ve Got Nothin (Better To Do)” has a nice bluesy soul vibe, perfect for that rough quality in Tim’s voice. “I’ve been cleaning up all morning, babe/I even took out my garbage too/And when I was putting away my old suitcase/Guess what, I found your other shoe.” And I love those backing vocals by Danetra Moore and Sara Williams. With the backing vocals and organ, this track at times makes me think of the Jerry Garcia Band. Carl Wheeler plays organ on this track. “I’ve Got Nothin (Better To Do)” was written by Tim Hockenberry and Natasha Miller. “Crazy” also has a cool bluesy thing happening, and some really good lyrics. Check out this line: “Tell me, when did crazy about me turn into just plain crazy?” Excellent! Seriously, that is one of my favorite lines from any song this year so far. By the way, this is the track with Tim on trombone (as well as trumpet, for that matter).

The album then concludes with “This Time By Me,” another unabashed love song, this one about realizing what he feels isn’t new but also realizing that that doesn’t lessen the strength and impact of what he’s feeling. And Tim’s vocal delivery has the appropriate emotional charge. “Having you in my life is everything to me/I know it’s all been said before/But this time by me.”

CD Track List
  1. Me And You
  2. Ease Your Pain
  3. Faith In You
  4. Carrying You
  5. Little Angel
  6. Come On Let’s Dance
  7. I’ve Got Nothin (Better To Do)
  8. If The Sky Was To Fall
  9. Crazy
  10. This Time By Me
Tim Hockenberry is scheduled to be released on March 4, 2016 on Poignant Records.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 17” (2016) CD Review

For Christmas I received a year’s subscription to the Dave’s Picks series of Grateful Dead live recordings, and the first show arrived several days ago. It’s a three-disc set containing the complete show the Grateful Dead performed on July 19, 1974 at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. Yes, the Wall of Sound days. It includes Phil and Ned’s “Seastones,” which was performed between sets. This set is limited to 16,500 copies.

Disc 1

The first disc contains most of the first set. The band kicks off with “Bertha,” a song that is always appreciated. The mix is a little off at the beginning, with the guitars disappearing for a bit. Just consider it a good chance to groove on Keith’s playing. The problem seems fixed within a couple of minutes, and I am dancing around my apartment (having dressed myself in green). There is a bit of stage banter after “Bertha,” in which Bob asks those with fireworks to stop lighting them. Then they go into a fun rendition of “Mexicali Blues.” Bob’s vocals sound a bit tinny, a bit harsh, but hey, these kinks are always worked out. The band keeps things moving with “Deal” and “Beat It On Down The Line” before slowing things down for a sweet “Row Jimmy,” with Jerry and Donna sounding really good together at moments in the chorus. And there is some really pretty stuff on guitar. That’s followed by a nice version of “Me And Bobby McGee.” I love that moment when Phil’s bass rises with Jerry’s guitar.

One of the highlights of the first disc is “Scarlet Begonias,” a song that appeared on From The Mars Hotel, which had been released just a few weeks before this concert. “Well, I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong/It seldom turns out the way it does in a song.” This tune has the first great jam of the show. The first disc then concludes with good versions of “El Paso” and “Tennessee Jed.”

Disc 2

The second disc begins with the end of the first set, an excellent rendition of “Playing In The Band.” The band wastes no time in getting to interesting territory. Basically the moment the jam starts, they’re jumping off into the unknown. And there is plenty of great stuff here to take you on an interesting trip, while keeping you somewhat grounded as well. Bill is really dancing on his kit, keeping us grooving, even as things get crazier around the ten-minute mark. And a couple of minutes later the bands lands upon another great groove, and things keep moving forward. There are moments of chaos, but this version just keeps finding these fantastic areas to land, fantastic areas to leap from again. At nearly a half hour, this version has a whole lot of jamming. And the main theme re-emerges so perfectly. Sure, Donna’s scream is a bit rough, but who cares? This is just bloody awesome.

That’s followed by what people sometimes labeled as Set 1.5, which here is titled “Seastones” because of the record title, but which tapes often had as simply “Phil & Ned.” It’s a spacey improvised piece that Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin performed between sets in 1974. It’s like an electronic noise landscape, sometimes frightening and forceful. This is approximately fifteen minutes.

Then we go into the second set, which the band kicks off with a kind of mellow “Brown-Eyed Women” followed by “Me And My Uncle.” A pretty “It Must Have Been The Roses” and the always-welcome “Jack Straw” finish up the second disc.

Disc 3

The third disc contains the rest of the second set, starting with “He’s Gone.” I love the way it eases in, with the guitar doing a sort of relaxed version of the vocal line before the vocals come in. This song was about different things over the years, and at this point Pigpen’s death from the previous year was still felt strongly, and the song has a mellow, thoughtful vibe (though Jerry still belts out “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile”). There is a messy transition to “Going where the wind don’t blow so strange,” with not all members on the same page, but overall this is a nice version, and I particularly like the vocal play after the verses – “Nothing’s going to bring him back” – which they handle beautifully. And the jam goes in an interesting direction; offhand, I can’t think of another “He’s Gone” that goes that way. And it works really well.

The band then picks things up with “U.S. Blues,” which in its final form was still pretty new at that time (earlier it had been “Wave That Flag,” with different lyrics). This is always a fun song, and a good one to listen to in this nutty election year.

The second set also features “Weather Report Suite,” which the band did in its entirety only around that time. In later years, they’d do only the third part, “Let It Grow.” The jam in “Let It Grow” gets pretty energetic, pretty powerful in this version, and is one of this disc’s highlights. It leads to a spacey jam, which is presented as its own separate track. That jam develops a good groove (which reminds me just a bit of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” at moments). That jam eases into “Eyes Of The World,” one of my favorites. “And the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay/And night comes so quiet, it’s close on the heels of the day.” We’re really feeling that these days, eh? This is a great version of “Eyes,” particularly the jam, which includes that added section which was present in 1973 and 1974 but dropped later on. That slides into a really nice “China Doll.” They then wrap things up with “One More Saturday Night,” a song that later on would be played at basically every Saturday show. (In 1995, I was designing a humorous shirt which I had planned on selling on the fall tour. On the front was a close-up of Jerry’s face, with a finger over his lips, urging us to be quiet; on the back it was to say, “Don’t tell Bob it’s Saturday.” Of course, the fall tour never happened, and I never made those shirts.)

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Bertha
  2. Mexicali Blues
  3. Deal
  4. Beat It On Down The Line
  5. Row Jimmy
  6. Me And Bobby McGee
  7. Scarlet Begonias
  8. El Paso
  9. Tennessee Jed
Disc 2
  1. Playing In The Band
  2. Seastones
  3. Brown-Eyed Women
  4. Me And My Uncle
  5. It Must Have Been The Roses
  6. Jack Straw
Disc 3
  1. He’s Gone
  2. U.S. Blues
  3. Weather Report Suite >
  4. Jam >
  5. Eyes Of The World >
  6. China Doll
  7. One More Saturday Night 
Dave’s Picks Volume 17 was released at the end of January, 2016. My copy arrived on February 1, 2016.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Brett Harris: “Up In The Air” (2016) CD Review

It seems like we’re hearing a lot from The dB’s and their extended musical family these days. And that’s a good thing. The latest offering is one of the best – Brett Harris’ new CD, Up In The Air.  Brett Harris has performed with both The dB’s and Big Star, and he is based in North Carolina, where this album was recorded (part of it was recorded at Modern Recording, which was started by Chris Stamey). All songs on this CD are originals, written by Brett Harris, and he can certainly write some damn good pop songs that are both catchy and meaningful. By the way, Skylar Gudasz, another of member of that extended family, provides some backing vocals on this album. (Skylar has a track on The dB’s And Friends’ Christmas Time Again! CD.)

The album opens with “End Of The Rope,” which begins with a guitar lick that reminds me strongly of The Beatles. And when it kicks in, it becomes an absolutely delicious, bright pop song.  Maybe it’s wrong, but I just don’t care what’s right/As long as I’ve got you here with me tonight.” And I love the long pause before “tonight.” “End Of The Rope” is followed by a sweeter-sounding, prettier pop tune titled “Don’t Look Back,” which is another of my favorites. Most of us can relate to lines like “But I’m proceeding carefully/Because I don’t want my poor heart to be broken again.” There is something warm in his delivery, even as he sings of missed opportunities, “So baby, just once grant me this last request/Don’t look back when you go.” And check out these lines: “Believe me when I say/How I wish that I could stay/Trade all my yesterdays/For the chance of one tomorrow.”

There is something really catchy about “Lies,” both in the music and the pattern of the vocal line. Like on lyrics like these: “Seems my mind’s made up/But my heart, it feels so hollow/The unintended consequence of bitter pills I’ve had to swallow.” And then suddenly this track takes an interesting and fun turn, dipping into a twisted old jazz feel, which I totally love. This song has an odd ending as well. This is probably my favorite track. Another track I am especially fond of is “Rumor.” It has an interesting combination of musical vibes, with a kind of cool, slow groove, some nice work on keys, and then suddenly this great horn rising up toward the end. “Down to the wire/And under the gun/You shrug it off, but you know, you know, you know/You ain’t foolin’ no one.”

“Up In The Air,” the CD’s title track, is another of the album’s highlights. It’s a sweet and kind of quirky combination of pop and folk elements. “I confess/Without you I’m a mess/I need your tenderness/So, darling, reconsider.” The album concludes with “Spanish Moss,” an interesting and pretty song. What I particularly love about this track is that moment when the backing vocals come in. They raise the song to a place of beauty. And from there, the song becomes more powerful emotionally, with wonderful touches on strings. It’s a gorgeous ending to this CD.

CD Track List
  1. End Of The Rope
  2. Don’t Look Back
  3. Lies
  4. Out Of The Blue
  5. High Times
  6. Rumor
  7. Summer Night
  8. Up In The Air
  9. Shadetree
  10. Spanish Moss
Up In The Air is scheduled to be released on March 4, 2016 through Hit The Deck Recordings.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ellis Paul at McCabe’s, 2-5-16 Concert Review

Ellis Paul is one of the greatest living singer/songwriters, and he also puts on an excellent show. I’ve seen him in concert more than two hundred times, and he always impresses me. What’s perhaps more important is that I always feels so damn good at the end of his shows. Music at its best has the power to move us, to unite us, to embrace us, to warm us, to make us hopeful and excited about our own lives and about life in general, and even to make us want to be the best people we can be. Ellis Paul’s music does this. And it does it every time.

Last night he played at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. Right before the show he met with a photographer who was going to shoot the performance. If you’ve never been backstage at McCabe’s, there are some amazing photos lining the walls, photos of artists who have played there over the years. So when Ellis began his show, he mentioned these photographs, joking that there are photos of everyone who had ever played there except him. But soon there will be a photo of him on those walls. He then kicked off the show with “I Ain’t No Jesus,” a wonderful song. “The only miracle that I’ve seen is you walking down the aisle to me.” He then talked a bit about McCabe’s, which for those who haven’t been there is a guitar shop during the day when not hosting concerts. He told the story of the guitar that he wanted to purchase there several years ago, but which was eventually bought by Neil Young.

That’s one thing about Ellis: he’s a damned good storyteller as well as singer. I’ve heard that story a few times, but it still feels fresh, still makes me laugh. After a sweet rendition of “Rose Tattoo,” he talked about Kurt Russell accidentally destroying an expensive old guitar that he thought was a prop, and then talked about his first road trip, encouraging audience members to remember their own first trips. It got me to thinking about a road trip I took to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1991. We had no money for a hotel, and ended up sleeping in my van at a rest stop on the outskirts of the city for a week. What the story also did was make me eager to hit the road again. The story of his road trip was the introduction to “Chasing Beauty,” the title track to his 2014 release (which was on my list of the ten best CDs of that year). From that album, he also did “Drive-In Movie,” “Love Is A Curious Thing” and “Kick Out The Lights.” “Kick Out The Lights” was particularly good, with a lot of energy, both from Ellis and from the crowd who sang along.

One song I am always happy to hear is “Maria’s Beautiful Mess.” Over the years there have been a few songs that he’s played consistently (such as “3,000 Miles” and, for a while, “The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down”), and these days it is “Maria’s Beautiful Mess.” It is one of his best songs (sometimes I think his very best), and last night in his introduction he sort of broke the song down to its components, showing how he gives it a sort of drum beat and a bass line, saying the song is like a combination of James Taylor and the Rolling Stones. He followed that with “This Is Where All Good Trees Go,” a song about McCabe’s which he improvised at a show there back in 2011, and which he’s played during at least one other show since then.

He did two covers at the show last night. The first was “The Only Way,” which was written by Mark Erelli and which Ellis recorded with Vance Gilbert for their Side Of The Road album. Ellis played harmonica on it. The second was “The Circle Game,” one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs. He introduced it by saying, “I want to do a Joni Mitchell song for you… because it’s Super Bowl weekend.” While tuning his guitar, he also joked, “I’m going to throw this guitar away after this show.” A version of this song by Buffy Sainte-Marie is played during the opening credits sequence of The Strawberry Statement, one of my favorite films. I’ve seen Ellis play this one before, and he always does a really good job with it. It’s such a beautiful and moving song, and the audience sang along with the chorus.

While Ellis was tuning before “The Circle Game,” Lincoln, who works at McCabe’s, brought out a guitar that’s for sale, one that Ellis has his eye on, and put it on a guitar stand on stage, humorously setting it with the price tag visible. So after “The Circle Game,” Ellis played a few songs on it, including “Kiss The Sun,” which was a request. The guitar had no electronics or strap, so he sat on a stool in the audience, performing the songs unmiked, and that’s how he concluded his set.

Interestingly, for his encore, he actually improvised a song on piano, a funny song about Kurt Russell destroying the guitar, told from the perspective of the tree that became the guitar. Titled “My Big Break,” it features lines like these: “It was my big break in so many ways/Kurt Russell, is this the way you treat Goldie Hawn?/What the fuck are you on?/I’m a forty thousand dollar guitar.”

Set List
  1. I Ain’t No Jesus
  2. 3,000 Miles
  3. Rose Tattoo
  4. Chasing Beauty
  5. Drive-In Movie
  6. Hurricane Angel
  7. Kick Out The Lights
  8. Maria’s Beautiful Mess
  9. This Is Where All Good Trees Go
  10. The Only Way
  11. The Circle Game
  12. Kiss The Sun
  13. Snow In Austin
  14. Thomas Edison
  15. Love Is A Curious Thing 
  1. My Big Break
The show ended a little before 10 p.m. After the concert, Ellis had a brief photo session. So the next time you’re at McCabe’s, there should be a photo of Ellis Paul on the walls. McCabe's is located at 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.