Monday, May 30, 2016

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: “Got A Mind To Give Up Living: Live 1966” (2016) CD Review

I think I first listened to Paul Butterfield Blues Band in my teens, and it might have been because of the reprints of all those psychedelic posters from the 1960s. I was very much into the Grateful Dead (still am), and became interested in (or at least curious about) all the other bands whose names were printed on those posters. And in all the artists who performed at Woodstock. Well, a few years before Woodstock, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band played a series of gigs at a small club in Boston. And now we can hear one of those gigs (though just which one is unknown – I guess people didn’t keep careful track of such things that much in those days). Got A Mind To Give Up Living: Live 1966 contains more than an hour of music from two sets. There are liner notes by Chris Morris, and several photos. Oddly, one of the photos is of a concert calendar from Club 47 (now known as Club Passim), though that is not the venue where this music was recorded. This was recorded at the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston. The sound, by the way, is not crystal clear, but is not a problem. It feels just about right for blues rock in a small club. The impressive lineup of the band at the time of this recording was Paul Butterfield on vocals and harmonica, Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Elvin Bishop on guitar and vocals, Jerome Arnold on bass, Billy Davenport on drums and Mark Naftalin on organ.

The CD opens with a brief band introduction and then an instrumental which is here titled “Instrumental Intro.” In the liner notes, Mark Nafalin is quoted as saying that the band referred to it as “The Medley,” though that wasn’t its official title either. The tune touches upon some blues themes. The band then goes into “Look Over Yonders Wall,” an old blues song written by James Clark. This song is often titled “Look On Yonder Wall,” and was famously recorded by Elmore James. It is also known as “Look Over Yonder’s Wall” and “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.” Things then get moving with “Born In Chicago,” the song that led off the band’s debut record. It was written by Nick Gravenites.

Paul Butterfield Blues Band does a cool rendition of “Get Out Of My Life, Woman,” a song Jerry Garcia used to do in concert. (And last year, when songwriter Allen Toussaint died, I saw Dead & Company perform this song.) This version by Paul Butterfield features nice work on both guitar and organ. I particularly like Mark Naftalin’s work during that instrumental section halfway through. Things get more mellow and darker with “Never Say No.” This is some deep blues here, coming as kind of a surprise, as I’m more accustomed to that loud, unbridled energy of this band. But this track is excellent. It really drew me in, and features some wonderful stuff on harmonica.

The giant track on this disc is a cover of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” with the harmonica as the lead instrument at the beginning. This is an instrumental track, Paul Butterfield Blues Band not using the lyrics that Oscar Brown, Jr. added to the tune, and it’s a fantastic combination of blues rock and jazz. Seriously, this becomes a phenomenal jam, the disc’s best track, with all of the musicians getting chances to shine. Apparently, this tune ended the first set of the show. The band began the second set with another instrumental, “Comin’ Home Baby,” written by Ben Tucker and originally recorded by the Dave Bailey Quintet. Like “Work Song,” lyrics were added to this tune, but Paul Butterfield Blues Band doesn’t use them, doesn’t need them. This is another of the disc’s highlights.

“I Got A Mind To Give Up Living” is a great blues song that would be included on The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s 1966 record, East-West. Actually, several songs from that record were played at this show. “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living” featuring some delicious work on guitar. That’s followed by “Walking By Myself,” a song that would end up on the 1969 album Keep On Moving. The CD then wraps up with “Got My Mojo Working.”

CD Track List
  1. Instrumental Intro
  2. Look Over Yonders Wall
  3. Born In Chicago
  4. Love Her With A Feeling
  5. Get Out Of My Life, Woman
  6. Never Say No
  7. One More Heartache
  8. Work Song
  9. Comin’ Home Baby
  10. Memory Pain
  11. I Got A Mind To Give Up Living
  12. Walking By Myself
  13. Got My Mojo Working 
Got A Mind To Give Up Living: Live 1966 is scheduled to be released on June 3, 2016 through Real Gone Music.

The Bangles: “Ladies And Gentlemen…The Bangles!” (2016) CD Review

The early to mid-1980s were probably the most fun years in pop music. Probably? No, definitely. And The Bangles were a big part of that. Seriously, how can you beat “Walk Like An Egyptian”? Different Light was one of the bright spots of 1986, easily one of the best records of that year. I didn’t get a chance to see them perform live until the late 1990s when they got back together. And they were fantastic. Originally called The Bangs, they had to change their name when it became known there was another band by that name. Ladies And Gentlemen… The Bangles, a compilation originally released digitally in November of 2014 and soon to be released on CD, captures the band in its glorious and insanely fun early years. Seriously, this is some of the best music I’ve heard from this group. Most of these tracks feature the band’s original bass player, Annette Zilinskas.

Yes, it opens with a bang. The opening track, “Bitchen Summer/Speedway,” begins with someone whispering, “Ladies and gentlemen…The Bangs” (thus the title of this compilation). And then there is an explosion. The tune itself is an instrumental that has kind of a 1960s surf vibe, but with a bit of an edge. It was written by Susanna Hoffs and David Roback, and was originally released on Rodney On The ROQ Vol. III in 1982. It’s followed by “Getting Out Of Hand,” written by Vicki Peterson. This, too, has a 1960s pop feel. And it is so much fun. I had worked fourteen hours the day I first listened to this disc, and having it on totally energized me and made me want to have a little party. It’s great pop, with a Beatles feel to the bass. This was the first single to be released by the band. It came out in 1981. The flip side, “Call On Me,” is also included here.

In 1982, The Bangles released a self-titled EP, and all five tracks from that record are included on this compilation. “I’m In Line” is another with a strongly Beatles-influenced bass line. It’s fun, but probably my favorite song from that EP is “Want You,” written by Vicki Peterson. It is just fucking great, a rock and roll tune with energy to spare and a catchy guitar part. Push the furniture out of the way, and put on your favorite dancing feet because this one is bound to get you moving. And then “Mary Street” will keep you going. The band, on these tracks, has a deliberate 1960s sound, and they conclude the EP with a cover of a mid-1960s gem titled “How Is The Air Up There?” This song was written by Steve Duboff and Artie Kornfeld, and recorded by their group, The Changin’ Times.

There are four demos on this compilation, including a cover of The Turtles’ “Outside Chance,” written by Warren Zevon, and a cover of “Steppin’ Out,” the Paul Revere & The Raiders song that led off the Just Like Us! record. The other demos are “The Real World” and “Call On Me.” There are also two live tracks, both recorded in 1984. These are the only tracks on this disc to feature Michael Steele on bass. The first is “Tell Me,” a song that was included on the band’s first full-length record, All Over The Place, released in 1984. The second is a cover of Love’s “7 & 7 Is.” The band introduces it, “You’ll remember this one.” Their version has all the attitude of the original.

The compilation then ends with its two oddest tracks, the first being a commercial. “Here’s The Bangs for No Magazine.” And they sing a little jingle about a new issue being out on the stands. It ends: “Pop, trash, noise, music, Nancy Reagan. Yeah.” And the second is “The Rock & Roll Alternative Program Theme Song,” for a radio program at KZEW in Dallas (the station was also called “The Zoo,” and thus the line, “It’s all happening at the zoo,” which is also a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song). It’s pretty repetitive, though some of the spoken word stuff in the background reminds me of “Square Pegs” (but that might just be me).

CD Track List
  1. Bitchen Summer/Speedway
  2. Getting Out Of Hand
  3. Call On Me
  4. The Real World
  5. I’m In Line
  6. Want You
  7. Mary Street
  8. How Is The Air Up There?
  9. Outside Chance (Demo Version)
  10. Steppin’ Out (Demo Version)
  11. The Real World (Demo Version)
  12. Call On Me (Demo Version)
  13. Tell Me (Live)
  14. 7 & 7 Is (Live)
  15. No Mag Commercial
  16. The Rock & Roll Alternative Program Theme Song
Ladies And Gentlemen… The Bangles! is scheduled to be released on June 24, 2016 through Omnivore Recordings.

Dwayne Dopsie at the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival, 5-29-16: Photos

Recently I saw a couple of documentaries on zydeco, and one thing that stayed with me from those films is just how much fun everyone seems to be having at those concerts. So I was excited to be able to experience some of that myself at the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival yesterday. Dwayne Dopsie closed out the show at the Cajun stage, and even though I had fairly high expectations, I was completely blown away by the energy and joy of both the band and the audience. I posted some notes about the set in an earlier blog entry, and a few more photos in another entry. But the show was so damn good, and I had great access to the stage, so I ended up taking quite a lot of photos and wanted to share some more of them with you. I hope you enjoy them.

Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival: Photos From 5-29-16

I had such an excellent time yesterday at the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival. I'm already looking forward to going again next year. I posted some notes about the performances I saw, as well as some photos. But the thing is, I took a ton of photos, even more than usual. So for those who are interested, here a few more of the photos from yesterday...

Alvon Johnson

Booker T

"Hey Joe"

Leon Russell

Dwayne Dopsie

Notes From Day Two Of The Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival

Booker T and Leon Russell performing "Green Onions"
The Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival is an annual event, featuring some great blues and zydeco artists, and plenty of food and drink. Sunday, the second day, really couldn’t have been a much better day. The weather was perfect – not too hot or anything. The people were cool and relaxed. There was a good crowd, but still plenty of room to move around. And of course the music was fantastic. There were two stages, something I’m generally not all that fond of, because it means inevitably that I’m going to miss something that I want to see. Yesterday it meant missing Chubby Carrier and Doug Kershaw. I also missed Kelly’s Lot, but that’s because I was exhausted and didn’t wake up in time. My own fault there. They went on just after noon. The festival took place at the Rancho Santo Susana Community Park, and at one end was the Cajun and zydeco stage; at the other was the blues stage.

I arrived in time to see Alvon Johnson at the blues stage. I wasn’t all that familiar with him, but got into his set immediately. Alvon had a good rapport with the crowd, particularly when dedicating a song to those who are with a special someone who isn’t worth a damn. The song ended up being a fun, groovy rendition of “Hey Joe.” Alvon changed the line to “I’m going down to Simi Valley,” which of course got a cheer. He then stepped off the stage to play just in front of the audience.

I stayed at the blues stage because Booker T was up next. He opened his set with “Boot-Leg,” a cool instrumental tune, and, after band introductions, followed it with “Hang ‘Em High.” And then he did “Born Under A Bad Sign.” Yes, for those who didn’t know, Booker T sings. He switched to guitar for a really good rendition of “Respect,” singing “Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give it to me,” and then “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me.” Oh yes! He then went back to organ for “Green Onions.” Leon Russell joined him on organ partway through, drawing a huge response from the crowd, and after a moment Booker T went to the guitar, leaving Leon by himself on keys. Yes, it was pretty awesome. Booker T stayed on guitar for “Mannish Boy.” And then, interestingly, he did “Hey Joe.” It was a very different version from what Alvon Johnson played. This was a slower, heavier rendition, somewhat closer to the Jimi Hendrix version. Booker began it solo, and then soon the band came in. Booker T returned to the organ for “Hip Hug-Her,” another of those great instrumentals that Booker T. & The M.G.s are known for. And then Booker T did a sweet, delicate, respectful rendition of “Purple Rain.” For this, it was just Booker and his son on vocals and guitar, and it was a surprising highlight. Booker T introduced “Soul Limbo” by saying it’s a song that was played at cricket matches, and then wasn’t surprised when there wasn’t much of a reaction to the cricket reference. This version featured a good drum solo. He concluded his set with “Everything Is Everything” and “Time Is Tight,” the latter being an excellent tune that always makes me happy.

I was told by several people that I shouldn’t miss Doug Kershaw’s set over at the Cajun stage. But Leon Russell was going on at the same time, and so I made my choice. Was it the right one? There is really no way of knowing, but I was very happy with my choice. Leon Russell put on a good set, sometimes moving quickly from one song to the next, and sometimes telling amusing anecdotes between songs, like about a conversation he had with Elvis Presley. And before “One More Love Song,” he joked about his wife telling him that his fans wouldn’t like him as much if they knew him like she did. He did kind of a fast rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” (which is often listed as “Let The Good Times Roll”), and probably the happiest version of “Wild Horses” I’ve ever heard. He followed that with a really nice version of “Georgia On My Mind,” and then a fast and fun rendition of The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” Of course he did “Tightrope,” which led straight into “Delta Lady.” And then the band left the stage, and Leon Russell performed a few songs solo (just vocals and keys), including “The Ballad Of Mad Dogs And Englishmen,” “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” “Magic Mirror” and “A Song For You.” The band returned to the stage for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which led right into “Papa Was  A Rolling Stone” and a brief instrumental version of “Paint It Black” and then into “Kansas City.” Leon Russell then ended the set with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Like I said, it was a really good set, and everything was great over at the blues stage, but the real party was at the Cajun stage when Dwayne Dopsie took over. By the time I made it over there after Leon Russell’s set, Dwayne and his group were already in full swing. I got there just before he started a really cool version of “Jambalaya,” which led straight into “Iko Iko,” during which Dwayne went into the crowd. The band was seriously cooking, and “Iko Iko” led back into “Jambalaya.” Dwayne and Paul Lefleur (on washboard) later went into the crowd to play on a table at one point. Their set was just fun, fun, fun, and with a ton of energy. A washboard solo? Why the hell not? And who knew an accordion could sound so soulful? I do have to wonder if the bands booked for this gig got together beforehand, because Dwayne Dopsie also did “Hey Joe.” Was this something the bands had decided on collectively? This was the third “Hey Joe” of the day (that I was aware of anyway; there could have been more). And it was the second “Hey Joe” of the day to include the line “I’m going down to Simi Valley.” But this was the only “Hey Joe” I heard to feature an accordion solo. Before that song, Dwayne borrowed a hat from an audience member. Their whole set had a party atmosphere, where the audience was just as involved as the band, and Dwayne even invited several people up on stage to dance toward the end, and also had several people sing with him, including some children. And that was how he ended his set. And that was how the festival ended. I had to walk back past the blues stage on the way to my car, but the folks had already long cleared out of that area.

Here are a few photos from the day:

Alvon Johnson
Alvon Johnson
Booker T
Booker T
Leon Russell sits in with Booker T
Leon Russell
Leon Russell
Leon Russell
Dwayne Dopsie
Dwayne Dopsie
Dwayne Dopsie

I will be posting more photos soon.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Asia: “Phoenix” (2008/2016) CD Review

The first release by Asia, a self-titled record, was something of a monster of an album. It had several hits, including “Heat Of The Moment,” “Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor.” It came out in 1982, when I was ten, and I listened to that record over and over that year. That was also the year I was turned on to Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps partly for that reason, I fell in love with the album’s cover, which depicts a giant sea dragon looking into a floating orb. Very cool. I remember being excited to hear what this group would do next, but then ended up being not nearly as taken with Alpha, the band’s 1983 release. And after that, I kind of lost track of the band as it began to go through its many changes. Steve Howe was the first to leave. And after the next release, Astra, John Wetton left. After a while, Geoff Downes was the only original member remaining. It wasn’t until 2008, with the release of Phoenix, that all four original members put out a studio album together. And, if I recall correctly, there was a short time there when there were two bands called Asia touring simultaneously (the second being the band that Downes left to join the reunion, a band led by John Payne). Anyway, there were two versions of Phoenix released, one in Europe and one in the United States. And now both have made available in one two-disc set, which also includes a couple of bonus tracks.

The album’s first track, “Never Again,” opens with guitar, reminding me a bit of the way the band opened its debut album. Not that this song sounds like “Heat Of The Moment,” though there is certainly something of a 1980s feel to it. “Never again will I bear arms against my brother/Never against will I dishonour anyone/Never again will I wish evil on another/Never again will I spill blood of any mother’s son.” “Never Again” was written by John Wetton and Geoff Downes. It’s followed by “Nothing’s Forever,” which actually begins with a bit of acapella singing. This one was written by John Wetton, and to my ears is a stronger track. Check out the chorus: “You know that nothing’s forever/It’s just for today/Can’t live for the future, forget yesterday/And hold onto life, for in moments it can fade away.”  But those Latin-flavored touches on guitar are what really make this song special.

“Heroine” is kind of cheesy, with lines like “I always saw you as an eagle high in the sky/So tell me why/Only you hold the key to set me free.” It’s followed by “Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise,” which begins as a strange and engaging mood piece, like a religious sect on top of a mountain calling or responding to a sunrise. Or perhaps to an alien landing, as a few minutes in, the song takes a sudden turn, with a strong pulse. “No way back, no way back, no way back.” There is a bit of mixing one’s clichés near the end: “We stand on the ledge, this time it’s sink or swim/We’re spreading our wings and we’re learning to fly.” Wait, are we swimming or flying? I guess it doesn’t matter. The song then returns to an interesting instrumental at the end.

“Alibis” has a 1980s sound and vibe. This is the one track on this album to be written by all four band members. I particularly like the instrumental section toward the end, with a surprising combination of sounds and moods. “I Will Remember You” is a love song of sort, the woman in question being gone but certainly not forgotten. Is it sweet, or is it an obsession? “The only face I see/I can’t forget/In dreams you come to me/I’m never free.” Hugh McDowell joins the band on cello on this tune. The first disc contains, as a bonus track, as acoustic remix of this song. I actually prefer this bonus version.

“Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà” is the second track on this CD to be made up of three songs. The first part has this great instrumental moment when the guitar licks have a sort of bluesy feel. The track then becomes kind of a wonderful instrumental, a tune that pulls you along into its own world, opening up gloriously. This actually might be my favorite section of the album. It features some great work on drums by Carl Palmer. And then it relaxes greatly, and becomes really pretty. I absolutely love that guitar. This track is one of Asia’s best.

“Orchard Of Mines” is the only cover on this album, written by Jeffrey Fayman and Daniel Pursey, and originally recorded by Globus. “Over And Over” has a positive and uplifting feel. It was written by Steve Howe (and is one of only two tracks on this CD to be written by Howe, the other being “Wish I’d Known All Along”). The album then concludes with another positive song, “An Extraordinary Life,” a bright song urging us to “Enjoy today” and reminding us that “This is an extraordinary life.” I love the vocals on the chorus; they have a simultaneously rousing and comforting quality, if that’s possible. And Hugh McDowell joins the band again on cello. “An Extraordinary Life” was written by John Wetton and Geoff Downes. The first disc includes an acoustic remix, and as with “I Will Remember You,” I do prefer this version.

The second disc contains the American version of the album, which features a different mix of “Never Again” and different mastering. There are no bonus tracks on the second disc.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Never Again
  2. Nothing’s Forever
  3. Heroine
  4. Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise
  5. Alibis
  6. I Will Remember You
  7. Shadow Of A Doubt
  8. Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà
  9. Wish I’d Known All Along
  10. Orchard Of Mines
  11. Over And Over
  12. An Extraordinary Life
  13. I Will Remember You (acoustic remix)
  14. An Extraordinary Life (acoustic remix)
Disc 2
  1. Never Again
  2. Nothing’s Forever
  3. Heroine
  4. Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise
  5. Alibis
  6. I Will Remember You
  7. Shadow Of A Doubt
  8. Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà
  9. Wish I’d Known All Along
  10. Orchard Of Mines
  11. Over And Over
  12. An Extraordinary Life
This special re-issue of Phoenix was released on May 6, 2016.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bill Phillippe: “Parade” (2016) CD Review

Bill Phillippe is a singer, guitarist and songwriter based in San Francisco. Inspired by his love of delta blues, he released his first solo album, Ghosts, a year and a half ago. That album contains some classic blues tunes like “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Death Letter,” as well as some original compositions. He has now followed that up with a new CD, Parade, which features almost entirely original material. This is bluesy folk, with some jazzy elements as well, giving it a very cool, laid-back sound and vibe, like a late night or early morning in New Orleans, when most people have gone to bed or passed out, but there are still things to be said, things to be felt and expressed for those strange denizens of pre-dawn dealings, that half-light of farewells and possibilities. And it’s not just jazzy because of the presence of the clarinet, but its willingness – or eagerness – to play a bit with form (like on “Everything I Have Is Grey”), sometimes going in unexpected directions. Ah, who knows just what the day will bring? And before that, the question is, “If I should lose my mind tonight, would you love me anyway?

Parade opens with “Blues Come Callin’ (Home),” a seriously cool tune with the bass having a strong presence. The clarinet acts like a voice perhaps doing the calling. I’m certainly ready to answer its call, as it sounds inviting, rising up from the streets like a possible angel among derelicts. Bill Phillippe’s vocal approach is like one singing almost to himself, not needing to belt out the lyrics, but knowing his voice will reach those it needs to, those it can reach within this environment. And he finds support by some nice touches on accordion.

That’s followed by “Proper Street,” which contains a reference to Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” in the lines “I need you always exactly like this/I play the prelude to a kiss.” Duke Ellington is one of only two songwriters that Bill Phillippe turns to for covers on this CD. He does a version of Ellington’s “Solitude,” combining it with a song of his own titled “A Kinder Voice.” He performs “Solitude” as a guitar piece, without the lyrics by Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills.

A song that grabs me each time I listen to this disc is “14th Street,” with its line “Please find me” reminding me of the Leonard Cohen poem that goes “Marita/Please find me/I am almost 30.”  And I love the clarinet here. Both it and the accordion provide a kind of uplifting feel which we need. And check out that bass line. “As you wave goodbye/Memories refuse, refuse to fade/My penance, this solitary space.” Another favorite of mine is “Parade,” the CD’s title track. It has such a wonderful vibe. I particularly like the way the bass and accordion work together. “We danced round and round/And the circus band played.” I also really love “Red Beret,” which has a playful and cool tone and attitude. Ah, every girl, a song.

Perhaps Tom Waits will cross your mind once or twice while listening to Bill Phillippe. Clearly, Bill embraces this, as he actually ends the album with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me,” a song from the Mule Variations album. Bill makes it a slow kind of waltz, with the clarinet taking a lead spot at the beginning before the vocals come in. It’s a really good rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Blues Come Callin’ (Home)
  2. Proper Sorrow
  3. 14th Street
  4. If I Should Lose My Mind
  5. Solitude/A Kinder Voice
  6. Everything I Have Is Grey
  7. Parade
  8. Tonight
  9. Little Zion
  10. Red Beret
  11. Take It With Me
The musicians on this release are Bill Phillippe on vocals and guitar, Ivor Holloway on clarinet, Swen Hendrickson on bass and Glenn Hartman on accordion.

Parade was released on May 17, 2016 on Arkansas Street Records.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Jane Kramer: “Carnival Of Hopes” (2016) CD Review

Jane Kramer’s new album, Carnival Of Hopes, is full of sweet, beautiful, honest songs in the folk and country realm. This is her second release, following 2013’s Break And Bloom, and contains mostly original material, written by Jane Kramer. These are songs I liked a whole lot the first time I listened to this CD, and which I appreciate more and more each time through. On this disc, the singer/songwriter is backed by Pace Conner on guitar, ukulele, mandolin and backing vocals; Michael Evers on dobro, banjo, mandolin and backing vocals; River Guerguerian on drums; and Eliot Wadopian on upright bass. And she has some special guests on certain tracks, including Nicky Sanders (of Steep Canyon Rangers), Franklin Keel (of The Blue Ridge Orchestra) and Chris Rosser on piano and harmonium. This CD was recorded at Sound Temple Recordings Studios in Asheville, North Carolina.

Nicky Sanders joins Jane Kramer on the opening track, “Half Way Gone,” his fiddle announcing itself right at the start, adding to the bright sound of this delightful country and folk tune. “Babe, I’m so tired of missing you while you’re next to me.” There is a great lead section by Nicky Sanders on violin halfway through the song. I also really dig the bass line on this song. “I just want you all the way here instead of halfway gone.” That song is followed by the title track, “Carnival Of Hopes,” a pretty and emotionally engaging folk song that creates a strongly defined character through some good lyrics. Check out lines like “Just a woman getting older, holding a fraying rope” and “This fellow here knows I like whiskey, he don’t know nothing about my heart.” This is one of my personal favorites. Jane’s is a voice I trust, and when she sings “But I promise we’ll be fine” on “Your Ever-Green Heart,” I believe her.

Interestingly, she opens the next track by claiming to not be a good woman. “I lie and I cheat,” she tells us in “Good Woman.” This is another really strong and moving song, another of my favorites, in large part because of Jane’s passionate and vulnerable vocal performance. But it’s also because she creates a compelling character. Early on, she sings, “And I ain’t striving for greatness, I am just trying to sleep.” And these lines grab me every time: “So you’ve sent me a-packing/And it’s for good now, you say/If I were you, I’d have sent me long ago/Don’t get me wrong, love, I wanted to stay/But you dream of hopeful things/Like wedding rings/A settled down soul to share your days/I tried to settle down my soul/But the damn thing just wandered away.” How’s that for some excellent songwriting? The whole song is like that. Check out these lines: “The river bottom calls to me/It’d be so easy/But I can’t unlearn to swim.” This is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year so far. Nicky Sanders plays violin on this track, and Franklin Keel is on cello.

For the one cover on this release, Jane Kramer has chosen Tom Petty’s “Down South,” from his Highway Companion album. Of course, lines like “Gonna see my daddy's mistress/Gonna buy back her forgiveness” have a different feel when sung by a female voice. But I really like what she does with this song. The instrumental section has a sweet tone, and some really nice work on guitar. “I’ll give you all I have and a little more.”

Jane Kramer approaches “Why’d I Do That Blues” with a delightful playfulness that helps make this track another of this disc’s highlights. “Believe me, babe, I ain’t going to paint myself with any shade of virtue/If I had some to begin with, I lost it when I hurt you.” And then suddenly there is a wonderful section with trombone and trumpet, the two instruments as in conversation. That’s JP Furnas on trombone and Ben Hovey on trumpet. Jane concludes Carnival Of Hopes with “My Dusty Wings,” a fun bluegrass number which features Nicky Sanders on fiddle.

CD Track List
  1. Half Way Gone
  2. Carnival Of Hopes
  3. Your Ever-Green Heart
  4. Good Woman
  5. Down South
  6. Truck Stop Stars
  7. Why’d I Do That Blues
  8. Highways, Rivers & Scars
  9. Truth Tellin’ Eyes
  10. My Dusty Wings
Carnival Of Hopes was released on February 26, 2016.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Muffs: “Blonder And Blonder” (1995/2016) CD Review

Last year saw the re-release of The Muff’s self-titled debut album, with lots of bonus tracks. It was a whole lot of fun revisiting some of the great music from my college years. And now the band’s second album, Blonder And Blonder, is getting a special re-issue as well, with plenty of bonus material, including five tracks that were previously unreleased (actually six, including the unlisted track). This is the album that really got me into this band. I worked at a college radio station at the time of its release in 1995 (the same year The Muffs had a song on the Clueless soundtrack), and this disc was in heavy rotation, and for good reason. It’s seriously fucking fun, some great rock and roll delivered with punk energy, and excellent songs written by Kim Shattuck. Chris Crass Utting and Melanie Vammen had left the band after the release of the first album, and Roy McDonald had joined on drums, and so this CD was the first to have what would be the group’s steady lineup – Kim Shattuck on vocals and guitar, Ronnie Barnett on bass and Roy McDonald on drums. And this re-issue includes liner notes by all three members.

Blonder And Blonder opens with a bang, a great, tough little rock number titled “Agony.” “And when you think you're more clever than anyone/Now think again, we knew it all along/But in reality I know you'll never be okay/So now you're all alone/And you don't really like the way he went away/And now you're living in agony.”  I totally dig the ending of this song, like they are just not ready to let go yet. (By the way, both Roy and Kim talk about that ending in the liner notes – clearly, I’m not the only one to bloody love it.) The rhymes of “Oh Nina” always make me smile for some reason – “Pasadena,” “ballerina.” And I just can’t get enough of Kim’s screams and shouts. “You! You!

“Sad Tomorrow” is one of my favorites. Sure it’s an obvious choice of favorites, but that’s okay. The songwriting is spot-on, and there is something strangely and undeniably happy about the sound. Check out these lyrics: “I don't know why you're so glad/When my head's filled with sorrow/So maybe if I fade away/There'll be no sad tomorrow.” Is it perverse to dance around to someone singing, “Maybe one day I’ll die – who cares?

“Red Eyed Troll” is another favorite. It’s just a bloody fun, incredibly catchy song. It’s so much fun to dance around to, and I love hearing Kim shout, “And I don’t need your attitude/I don’t need no attitude/Oh yeah.” This re-issue contains another version of “Red Eyed Troll,” a demo version that was previously unreleased. On this demo, Kim plays all the instruments. “Won’t Come Out To Play” is another seriously fun number, and is also one for which the demo is included in the bonus tracks. At the end of the demo, she goes into “Become Undone,” just on vocals and guitar.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but sometimes Kim’s vocals remind me of Joan Jett’s early material, like on “Funny Face.” That’s followed by “Ethyl My Love,” a straight-ahead unabashed rocker. Oh yes! (By the way, a demo version of “Ethyl My Love” was included on the re-issue of the band’s first CD.) The original album ends with “Just A Game,” a sweeter-sounding song than the others. As Kim explains in the liner notes, this track is actually a demo. For me, it’s another of the album’s highlights.

Bonus Tracks

This disc contains eight bonus tracks. In addition to the ones already mentioned, the two tracks backing “Sad Tomorrow” on the 1995 European CD single – “Goodnight Now” and “Become Undone” – are included. The rest are previously unreleased demos, with Kim playing all the instruments. These include “Born Today,” “Look At Me” and “Pennywhore.” I can’t help it – “Pennywhore” just totally delights me. A different version of this song would end up on the band’s next album, Happy Birthday To Me. The version here is even shorter (just over a minute long), and features Kim playing slide guitar. And yes, at the end of this disc there is an unlisted extra track (as there was on the re-issue of the band’s first album).

CD Track List
  1. Agony
  2. Oh Nina
  3. On And On
  4. Sad Tomorrow
  5. What You’ve Done
  6. Red Eyed Troll
  7. End It All
  8. Laying On A Bed Of Roses
  9. I Need A Face
  10. Won’t Come Out To Play
  11. Funny Face
  12. Ethyl My Love
  13. I’m Confused
  14. Just A Game
  15. Goodnight Now
  16. Become Undone
  17. Born Today (Demo)
  18. Look At Me (Demo)
  19. Pennywhore (Demo)
  20. Red Eyed Troll (Demo)
  21. Won’t Come Out To Play (Demo) 
This special, expanded edition of Blonder And Blonder is scheduled to be released on May 27, 2016 through Omnivore Recordings. In addition to CD, a vinyl release is planned, and I hear the vinyl will be a baby blue.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Rachael Sage: “Choreographic” (2016) CD Review

On Rachael Sage’s new release, Choreographic, she delivers a sound that mixes pop and folk really well. She is backed by a band that features prominently both cello and violin, instruments I love, creating an emotionally moving and satisfying group of songs, nearly all of which she wrote. In addition to writing and providing lead vocals, Rachael Sage plays piano, guitar, Wurlitzer and Mellotron on this album. Her band, The Sequins, is made up of Ward Williams on cello, Kelly Halloran on violin and backing vocals, and Andy Mac on drums and backing vocals. Joining them on this disc are some excellent musicians, including Doug Yowell on drums, Russ Johnson on trumpet and Dave Eggar on cello, all of whom have played on some of Rachael’s earlier releases. Peter Himmelman also joins Rachael on one track.

Choreographic opens with a beautiful, bright pop song with an unusual title, “Heaven (Is A Grocery Clerk).”  Give me something to dance about,” she sings in this song. In the liner notes she mentions that this CD is a “love-letter to dance, to dancers everywhere, and to the cast of Solid Gold, the only show I was allowed to watch on a school night, growing up.” (Wow, mentioning that show really takes me back!) This is an excellent song, and is one of three tracks that I heard earlier, tracks that got me excited for this release. One of the others is the following track, “Loreena,” on which Rachael delivers a sweet vocal performance, of both innocence and love. “But I’m not scared of being someone who reminds you of/Who you were when you followed your bliss.” The strings are so beautiful; this music will lift you up.

Then “Try Try Try,” the other song from this CD to be released earlier, opens with more of a rock feel. There is a really good energy to this tune, but it is the violin part that I love most about this song. This is actually the first song I heard from this release, more than a month ago. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “He wrapped his arms around me like a blanket/He spun a web around me like a spell/He flung an anchor through my ship and sank it/I never knew that I could drown so well.

This CD includes another excellent song titled “Home,” though this one also has a parenthetical title, “(Where I Am Now).” I know I’ve said this before, but I really need to make a mix CD of songs titled “Home.” There are so many good ones. Check out these lines: “Home is where you’re taken in/Fearlessly breathing with the wind/Home is where you set your spirit down/I’m at home in all this beauty, everything about it moves me/I may be from another place but home’s where I am now.” This disc features a second version of this song at the end, and I actually think that version might be even better. “Home” was written by Rachael Sage and Fiona Harte.

I really like the jazzy elements to “French Doors,” particularly that wonderful lead on trumpet toward the end. And Rachael’s vocal delivery has something of a delightful vulnerability. And the opening lines of “I’ve Been Waiting” are great: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone who is/Nothing anything like you at all my love.” That song also has a good groove, a vibe you can totally sink into.

“Learn To Let You Go” is the album’s only cover song. It was written by JP Hoe, and included on his 2012 release, Mannequin. It’s a really good song, and Rachael does a wonderful job with it. It’s followed by “Five Alarms,” a gorgeous song that draws me in every time I listen to this disc. There is something sexy and oddly haunting about its sound, with that great percussion and the wonderful work on strings and Rachael’s excellent vocals. Lyrically, it’s not the disc’s strongest song, with the line “A watched pot will never boil,” and yet it’s one of my favorites. “Now you’re here in my arms and we’re on fire/Five alarms.”

And then “7 Angels” is one of the most moving tracks on this CD, and this one features some excellent lyrics. Check out these powerful lines, which begin the song: “In a sea of all the faces that I have ever seen/In a crowd of all the strangers whose shoulders I have touched/In an ocean of unfathomable loss and need/I see seven small coffins and it’s just too much.” Peter Himmelman joins Rachael Sage on this track. That’s followed by the beautiful “It Would Be Enough.”

CD Track List
  1. Heaven (Is A Grocery Clerk)
  2. Loreena
  3. Try Try Try
  4. Home (Where I Am Now)
  5. I Don’t Believe It
  6. French Doors
  7. Clear Today
  8. I’ve Been Waiting
  9. Learn To Let You Go
  10. Five Alarms
  11. 7 Angels
  12. It Would Be Enough
  13. Home (Acoustic) 
Choreographic is scheduled to be released on May 20, 2016 through MPress Records.

Janis: Little Girl Blue DVD Review

Janis: Little Girl Blue is an excellent and completely engaging documentary about Janis Joplin. It takes an interesting approach to its subject, using letters that Janis wrote to tie concert footage to her ongoing internal struggles, to provide a more rounded and personal perspective. And this approach is incredibly effective.

Interestingly, the first letter read begins, “Dear family, I managed to pass my twenty-seventh birthday without really feeling it.” It’s interesting, because as we all know, Janis wouldn’t see her twenty-eighth. In that letter she talks about talent and ambition. The letters, by the way, are read by Chan Marshall. After that first letter, the film goes back to her youth, and essentially from there goes in chronological order. A lot of information is supplied by her younger sister, Laura, in an interview. Also interviewed are her younger brother Michael and several childhood friends, one of whom mentions being stunned the first time he heard Janis sing an Odetta song. Another friend recounts the time that Janis was voted “ugliest man” by fraternities. “And it crushed her,” he says. It was soon after that that she moved to San Francisco. There is also footage from several interviews with Janis, including one where she says, “I couldn’t stand Texas anymore and I went to California, ‘cause it’s a lot freer.”

Of course the documentary provides plenty of live concert footage of Janis Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company, including them performing “Down On Me.” The film includes interviews with Big Brother members Dave Getz (who says early on she was afraid of drugs), Sam Andrew and Peter Albin. And Bob Weir provides some funny anecdotes. Janis was romantically linked to the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan for a time, and in a letter home she writes, “Isn’t Pigpen cute?” She had included a photo of herself and other members of Big Brother on the steps of the Grateful Dead’s house on Ashbury, and the documentary includes that photo as well.

There is also some interesting stuff about the Monterey Pop Festival, and how the San Francisco bands didn’t sign the movie releases, which led to director DA Pennebaker (who is interviewed in the film) and others convincing Big Brother to do another set so that they could film it. In a letter home afterward, Janis talks about things going well for her, about moving into a house and about her new boyfriend, Country Joe McDonald. McDonald is interviewed, and he says: “We were never in love with each other. There was no sizzle going on.” The footage of the band in the recording studio is great, especially as the band discusses the song “Summertime.” The film does a good job of stressing the sense of community among the musicians of San Francisco, and how when Janis left Big Brother it was like she also left that feeling of community.

This documentary does a great job of showing the connection between her life and her music, like in that awesome version of “Cry Baby.” And because most of the letters included in the film are letters to her family, the ties to her childhood dreams and fears are maintained, and the connection between her music and her personal life is thus strongly illustrated. Through the letters and interviews, the film gives us a sense of being really close to her, and because of that, at times, this film is heartbreaking.

Special Features

The DVD includes a few extra scenes, including one about San Francisco venues the Avalon and the Fillmore. In this scene, Bob Weir talks about the venues being dance halls, and Dave Getz and Peter Albin talk about the differences between the venues. Another scene shows members of Big Brother doing a little impromptu acapella jam. The third scene is about Janis Joplin’s influence on music and singers, and includes interviews with Chan Marshall and Melissa Etheridge. The last scene is footage of the ceremony on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, when Janis Joplin’s star was presented.

Janis: Little Girl Blue was directed by Amy J. Berg, and was released on DVD on May 6, 2016 through MVD Visual.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bobby Darin: “Another Song On My Mind: The Motown Years” (2016) CD Review

Bobby Darin went through a lot of musical changes in his short life (he was only thirty-seven when he died). His career really took off in 1958 with the release of “Splish Splash,” a fun and kind of goofy rock and roll song that he co-wrote with Murray Kaufman. He followed that with several other hit singles, much of which he wrote or co-wrote, including “Early In The Morning” and “Dream Lover.”  He also covered other people’s material, including standards. And in the early and mid-1960s he recorded both country and folk albums, while also continuing to put out pop albums. He recorded on many different labels, including Atco, Capitol and Atlantic. And at the end of his career, in the early 1970s, he recorded for Motown. Another Song On My Mind: The Motown Years is a new two-disc set collecting the material he recorded for that label, including two complete albums, singles and alternate versions.  Most of these tracks are covers, but there are some original tunes as well. This set includes liner notes by Joe Marchese, along with a few photos.

The first disc contains the complete self-titled 1972 record, as well as single versions of several songs. It opens with a good version of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” the title track to one of Randy Newman’s best albums. Bobby Darin sounds a bit like Randy Newman, especially as he delivers the song’s first line, “In America, you get food to eat.” I really like the backing vocalists on this version, giving the song something of a gospel vibe. These backing vocals feel so natural to the song that it now seems odd they weren’t in the original. The first disc also includes the original single version of “Sail Away,” which is slightly shorter. Bobby follows “Sail Away” with “I’ve Already Stayed Too Long,” a sweet country tune written by Ben Peters.

“Something In Her Love” is the only song on Bobby Darin to be co-written by Bobby Darin (with Tommy Amato). It’s a touching love song in which Bobby sings, “As long as she’s around there’ll be a morning sun/Even when the sky is grey above/All she has to do is say good morning, hon/’Cause there’s something in her love I love.” The song has a full sound, with strings, but it is the little touches on piano in the first section of the song that I really like. This disc also includes the single version of this song.

One of my favorite tracks on this first disc is “Who Turned The World Around,” in large part because of Bobby Darin’s vocal performance. He delivers this one with such passion. But it’s also just a really good song, written by Scott English and Richard Kerr. It’s followed by “Shipmates In Cheyenne,” another good tune. This is one I’m curious about. The liner notes indicate it was written by Joe Henry and Kerry Chater. But on the 1975 John Denver record, Windsong, where the song is listed as “Shipmates And Cheyenne,” it is credited to Joe Henry and John Denver. Obviously, the Bobby Darin version came out first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the title and credits are correct. If anyone has the answer to this, please let me know.

I’m a big Cat Stevens fan, and on Bobby Darin, Bobby covers “Hard Headed Woman.” Here he employs some backing vocalists, which add to the power of this rendition. Bobby changes the line “People who can glide you on a floor” to “People who can slide you on a floor,” and the line “And how you do” to “And they always do.” Also included is the single version (this song was the flip side to “Sail Away”), which has a slightly shorter fade-out at the end.

Another highlight of the first disc is “I Used To Think It Was Easy,” a song written by Pat St. Clare. This is such a playful song, and I love the keys at the beginning. This song has a great opening line: “When the sun is hot and my old lady is not.” Bobby Darin is clearly having a good time with this song. Nancy Sinatra also recorded this one, including it on Woman (singing, “When the sun’s too hot and my old man’s not”). I also really like the live version of “Simple Song Of Freedom” that is included on the first disc. This song was written by Bobby Darin, and was released as a single. It was from the album Live From The Desert Inn, which was intended to be Darin’s first Motown LP, but ended up not being released until 1987. It’s an excellent tune. The flip side is a wonderful cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” also recorded live.

The second disc contains the complete album of Darin 1936-1973, which, as you can guess from the title, was released after Bobby Darin’s death. It wasn’t an album planned by Darin, but rather assembled after his passing. And yet it includes some excellent tracks. It opens with a cover of the Paul Williams/Roger Nichols song “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” which was a hit for the Carpenters. I don’t know what it is about this song, but it always seems to affect me, no matter how cheesy it might be. This disc also includes an alternate CD version of this song, which was included on the 1991 CD release of this album.

This album includes a different mix of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.” That’s followed by an original song, “Another Song On My Mind,” written by Bobby Darin and Tommy Amato, the song that gives this compilation its title. It’s an odd, mellow tune. “But I cannot sing your melody with another song on my mind.” That’s a kind way of saying that, eh? “Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues)” is a song that Bobby Darin released as a single, and that single version is included here, as well as the full-length album version, and also the alternate CD version, which is actually even longer (approximately six minutes). It was written by Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Smokey Robinson, and was also recorded by Michael Jackson.

Bobby Darin goes back to the 1950s with a cover of “Blue Monday,” which he begins a cappella. This is a fun rendition, and the bass line is given prominence. The alternate CD version is also included, which has a different beginning. Darin also covers Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and delivers it with a kind of rough, tired quality to his voice. This disc also includes the alternate CD version.

Live versions of “If I Were A Carpenter” and “Moritat (Mack The Knife)” are also included. These are tracks that would be released on Live At The Desert Inn. The alternate mix single versions of the other two live tracks – “Simple Song Of Freedom” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – are also included on this disc. The compilation ends with the stereo single versions of “Melodie” and “Someday We’ll Be Together.”

CD Track List

Disc One
  1. Sail Away
  2. I’ve Already Stayed Too Long
  3. Something In Her Love
  4. Who Turned The World Around
  5. Shipmates In Cheyenne
  6. Let It Be Me
  7. Hard Headed Woman
  8. Average People
  9. I Used To Think It Was Easy
  10. My First Night (Alone Without You)
  11. Melodie (Original Single Version)
  12. Someday We’ll Be Together (Original Single Version)
  13. Simple Song Of Freedom (Original Single Version)
  14. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Original Single Version)
  15. Sail Away (Original Single Version)
  16. Hard Headed Woman (Original Single Version)
  17. Average People (Original Single Version)
  18. Something In Her Love (Original Single Version)
Disc Two
  1. I Won’t Last A Day Without You
  2. Wonderin’ Where It’s Gonna End
  3. Sail Away
  4. Another Song On My Mind
  5. Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues)
  6. Blue Monday
  7. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  8. The Letter
  9. If I Were A Carpenter
  10. Moritat (Mack The Knife)
  11. Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues) (Original Single Version)
  12. Simple Song Of Freedom (Alternate Mix Single Version)
  13. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Alternate Mix Single Version)
  14. I Won’t Last A Day Without You (Alternate CD Version)
  15. Wonderin’ Where It’s Gonna End (Alternate CD Version)
  16. Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues) (Alternate CD Version)
  17. Blue Monday (Alternate CD Version)
  18. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (Alternate CD Version)
  19. Melodie (Stereo Single Version)
  20. Someday We’ll Be Together (Stereo Single Version)
Another Song On My Mind: The Motown Years was released on May 6, 2016 through Real Gone Music.