Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lyn Stanley: “The Moonlight Sessions Volume One” (2017) CD Review

Last year, talented jazz vocalist Lyn Stanley released two volumes titled The Moonlight Sessions, featuring her wonderful interpretations of familiar songs, including standards. I was first turned on to this artist a few years ago when she released Interludes. On that release, she mixed standards with some more surprising choices, such Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” On The Moonlight Sessions Volume One Lyn Stanley continues to offer surprises, though most of the song choices fit comfortably under the banner of standards. It is her voice and her style and her approach to the material that continue to surprise and delight me. Her voice sounds to me like something that comes alive at night, that thrives in those hours of excitement and mystery and promise.

She opens the album with “All Or Nothing At All,” a song made famous by Frank Sinatra. One of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” which is used so well in my favorite Woody Allen film, Manhattan. On this album, Lyn Stanley starts “All Or Nothing At All” with a taste of that tune, which is wonderful, and then the drums lead us into the song. Sometimes I want music to transport me away from the current state of things, more so now than in previous years. Who would have thought Donald Trump would last a full year? It’s depressing, and I look to music for escape. Lyn Stanley is able to open a door into a better time, a better world with this timeless and delightful music. And as on Interludes, she is backed by some incredible talent, and this track features some great work on horns and guitar. This track ends with a bit more of “Rhapsody In Blue.”

“All Or Nothing At All” is followed by “Willow Weep For Me,” which is sexy right from the start, with that horn, and with the way Lyn sings just the word “Willow.” Oh yes! I love her delivery. It’s enchanting and unusual and gorgeous. This track also features some delicious work on guitar. I can’t get enough of this one.  There have been a lot of good versions of this song over the years – by folks like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald – but this one is among the very best. You should definitely check it out. Lyn then delivers a gentle, romantic rendition of “Moonlight Serenade,” full of yearning and passion. I could be carried away on her voice to a place where love and romance reign – a land without school shootings; a land without lies; a land without heartless, two-dimensional, pointless characters like Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos.

Then Lyn Stanley gives us an interesting take on “My Funny Valentine.” Something about it from the start makes me nervous; this track has an uneasy, haunted quality. Perhaps it’s that work on piano. As they get into the song, however, the tone changes, and I relax.  That piano solo halfway through the song is really something. This is a captivating rendition. Lynn takes an interesting approach to “Why Don’t You Do Right?” too, putting it in the same realm as Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” with the finger snaps and that cool vibe with the bass line.  It reminds me just a bit of the version that Jessica Rabbit sings in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This rendition is better, and I really dig that bass solo. That’s followed by a playful rendition of “Girl Talk,” a song written for the 1965 film Harlow. More good work on bass is prominent in Lyn’s wonderful version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” Another highlight of this CD is “How Insensitive,” featuring Tamir Hendelman on piano. The album concludes with “In The Wee Small Hours Of Morning,” a perfect song to end a night spent listening to Lyn Stanley. This version features some good work on harmonica by Hendrik Meurkens.

CD Track List
  1. All Or Nothing At All
  2. Willow Weep For Me
  3. Moonlight Serenade
  4. My Funny Valentine
  5. Embraceable You
  6. Why Don’t You Do Right?
  7. Girl Talk
  8. Crazy
  9. Close Your Eyes
  10. How Insensitive
  11. Break It To Me Gently
  12. In The Wee Small Hours
The Moonlight Sessions Volume One was released on May 30, 2017.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 25” (2018) CD Review

For the first Dave’s Picks release of 2018, we go back once again to one of the Grateful Dead’s best years, 1977 (in my mind, second only to 1973). The band seems to have been on that entire year, with things going just exactly right. This three-disc set contains the complete show the Dead performed on November 6, 1977 at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, New York.

They get the festivities started with a really nice version of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” with Jerry Garcia delivering the goods both vocally and on guitar. There is an excitement here that is nearly palpable. No easing into things at this show, just nailing it right out of the gate. The jam is so good that for a moment I forget all about that last section of the song (the “across the lazy river” part), and think the song is coming to a powerful end. But then that last section is sweet and wonderful, and the song feels like a set closer rather than opener. But hell, the band is just getting started. They then gently begin “Jack Straw,” and it sounds pretty, but of course soon builds in power. This is one of those special songs where the band and audience all become one, living and thriving and moving within its story. “We used to play for silver, now we play for life.”

It’s then time for a playful “Take A Step Back.” “Isn’t that better? Isn’t That better?” Bob Weir asks. The band goes into “Tennessee Jed,” and I’m digging Keith Godchaux’s work on keys, keeping the tone fun and in motion for all of us dancing around at home. And listen to the forceful way Jerry sings the line “And he kicked my dog.” And does the band give the song an air of mystery and suspense on “The wheels turned around and the letters read”? As if we didn’t already know the outcome of that one. But, hey, for a moment maybe we don’t. The band can always surprise us.

Then it’s time for a little Cowboy Bob, with a fun, but slightly messy “Mexicali Blues,” leading straight into “Me And My Uncle,” that segue sounding different than usual, no hesitation, just bang, and we’re already there. The crowd is clearly having a great time. Jerry then calms things down a bit with a beautiful rendition of “Friend Of The Devil,” Jerry and Donna’s voices sounding wonderful together. That’s followed by an energetic “New Minglewood Blues.” Oh yes, “The preacher man calls me a sinner, but his little girl calls me a saint.” And then we get a cool, groovy rendition of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” That’s followed by “Passenger” and “Dire Wolf,” after which there is a request to Candace Brightman, the lighting director, on behalf of Bill Kreutzmann, who comes up to the microphone to request a light himself. The first set then concludes with “The Music Never Stopped” to keep us dancing. “We’re going to take a short break, and you can too.”

The band kicks off the second set with “Samson And Delilah.” “It being Sunday, we’re going to do a little tune of spiritual derivation,” Bob Weir says by way of introduction. There is a ton of energy here, particularly toward the end. That’s followed by “Sunrise,” another song from Terrapin Station, which had been released earlier that year, and is one of the few songs that Donna sings lead on. But it is with “Scarlet Begonias” that the second set really gets going. Always such a delight to hear, this version is a lot of fun. “Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” I love what they do right at the end of the lyrics, suddenly getting kind of quiet, with Phil Lesh delivering interesting stuff on bass, and Donna soaring gently above. They keep this groove going for a little while, adding to it and developing an interesting jam that leads into “Fire On The Mountain.” Jerry seems to have forgotten some of the lyrics, but it’s still a seriously good version, with Jerry’s guitar driving the tune forward and upward during the jam. There is the briefest of pauses before the band starts “Good Lovin’,” solid rock and roll to finish up the second disc.

The third disc then picks up with “St. Stephen” after a brief birthday message. This song is always appreciated, though of course the late seventies “St. Stephen” is quite a bit different from the late sixties “St. Stephen,” in part because of Donna’s voice added to the mix. The jam starts to get interesting, then suddenly leads to a short drum solo, and that familiar beat soon takes shape, leading to “Not Fade Away.” They let the groove develop for a while before tackling the first verse. From that song, the band goes to a moving rendition of “Wharf Rat,” one of my favorites, and then back into “St. Stephen,” before wrapping up the second set with a rousing version of “Truckin’,” with an unusual ending. The encore is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
  2. Jack Straw
  3. Tennessee Jed
  4. Mexicali Blues >
  5. Me And My Uncle
  6. Friend Of The Devil
  7. New Minglewood Blues
  8. Dupree’s Diamond Blues
  9. Passenger
  10. Dire Wolf
  11. The Music Never Stopped 
Disc 2
  1. Samson And Delilah
  2. Sunrise
  3. Scarlet Begonias >
  4. Fire On The Mountain
  5. Good Lovin’ 
Disc 3
  1. St. Stephen >
  2. Drums >
  3. Not Fade Away >
  4. Wharf Rat >
  5. St. Stephen >
  6. Truckin’
  7. Johnny B. Goode 
Dave’s Picks Volume 25 is available now (my copy arrived on January 25th). This time around, there are 18,000 copies, 1,500 more than in previous years.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Culture Club: “Live At Wembley” (2017) DVD/CD Review

When I was eleven years old, my first girlfriend asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told her I wanted the new Culture Club record, Colour By Numbers. I remember that she said, “Really?” Hell yes, really. I loved the music, and was fascinated by Boy George. What a voice. I still have that record, and the music has never lost its appeal, though for one reason or another I’ve never seen the band perform live. The group disbanded in the late 1980s, then got back together, broke up again, and is now together and perhaps stronger than ever. Culture Club did an extensive tour in 2016, ending it at Wembley Arena in London. That show is now available as a two-disc package – a DVD and a CD – this performance being clear evidence that the band members have put aside their earlier troubles and are all about the music. Hell, maybe 2018 will see the release of the long-awaited new album, Tribes. Maybe not. Either way, fans get to hear a couple of those songs on this release – “Like I Used To” and “Different Man.”

The DVD opens with snippets of an interview with Boy George, in which he says: “Culture Club was a big, glorious accident. Nobody ever thought little girls were going to scream at me.” He talks about the 2016 tour, and how band relationships had changed. The interview is intercut with footage of the band performing a cover of “Bang A Gong.” And then we get into the show, with drummer Jon Moss taking his spot first, getting a beat going for the others to come out to. And soon it becomes clear the song is “Church Of The Poison Mind,” a song from Colour By Numbers. The band is joined by several other musicians, including horn players, a keyboardist and three backing vocalists. There are several cameras, providing shots of all the musicians as well as plenty of shots of the crowd, and I appreciate that the DVD doesn’t use frenetic cutting between cameras, but rather works to show us as much of the concert as possible.

Boy George develops a relationship with the audience early on, joking with them a bit between songs, telling them after the first song, “You look so young.” And after “It’s A Miracle,” also from Colour By Numbers, he addresses a specific guy in the front: “Are you the one who stole my hat?” The band then goes into “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” from the first album, Kissing To Be Clever. This song is so much fun, and it looks like the entire crowd is dancing. I love that percussion! Boy George tells the audience, “We specialize in these kind of happy-sad, kind of oxymoron types of songs, where they seem really happy but actually they are a little bit melancholy.” They then play “Move Away,” from the 1986 LP From Luxury To Heartache. For the first cover of the night, they give “Everything I Own” (yes, the Bread song) a reggae rhythm, and it works ridiculously well. This band is so much fun.

Before “Black Money,” Boy George introduces vocalist Theresa Bailey, saying that for the purposes of this song, she’s going to pretend to be his estranged girlfriend. “It could happen,” he teases. I like the saxophone toward the end of the song. That section with sax and keys is really pretty. “Time (Clock Of The Heart)” never really did all that much for me, but I like the short saxophone part in this rendition. They then get a bit funky with “Like I Used To,” from the unreleased album. “I don’t do emotion like I used to.” This one ends up being one of my favorites, with the horns, those soulful vocals, that rhythm. This is a great tune from beginning to end, and I sincerely hope that studio album is released soon. “Like I Used To” is followed by another song from Tribes, “Different Man.” In introducing this one, Boy George talks about Sly Stone. “So this song is about redemption, it’s about recovery, it’s about change. And you don’t get wiser just because you get older.” Boy George mentions he’s been sober for nine years, which the audience predictably cheers.

“Miss Me Blind” has a pretty good jam to it. When introducing “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” Boy George mentions that he didn’t want to release it as a single, thinking it wouldn’t sell. It’s hard for me to hear this song without thinking of the Violent Femmes version in which they eventually answer, “Yes, I suppose I want to hurt you.” Boy George delivers a heartfelt rendition of “Victims.” I particularly like those moments with the backing vocalists. That’s followed by one of my favorite Culture Club songs, “The War Song.” “War, war is stupid/And people are stupid/And love means nothing/In some strange quarters.” This is a seriously excellent version of the song, certainly one of the highlights of the show.

The encore starts with my other favorite Culture Club song, “Karma Chameleon.” I still absolutely adore this song, and always like that harmonica part. They then finish up with a good cover of T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On),” which includes band introductions by Boy George, as well as a fun harmonica part with a tease of War’s “Low Rider.”

DVD Special Features

The DVD includes a couple of special features. There are some backstage interviews with band members talking about the tour. About music, Boy George says, “I’m not made for anything else.” He mentions how music saved him as a teenager. This is approximately five and a half minutes. There is also an interview with Boy George, in which he talks about his childhood, and some of the music he listened to as a kid. He also recollects some of the earliest songs he wrote, and about briefly being in Bow Wow Wow. He tells the story of how Culture Club came about, and the band members’ various influences. He does talk a bit about clothing, saying “How you dress doesn’t make you interesting; it’s how you think that makes you interesting.” And about music and songwriting, he has this to say: “You know, songs are like questions. You’re kind of asking out loud, ‘What should I do about this situation?’” This interview is approximately twenty-four minutes. The DVD also includes a trailer.

Track List
  1. Church Of The Poison Mind
  2. It’s A Miracle
  3. I’ll Tumble 4 Ya
  4. Move Away
  5. Everything I Own
  6. Black Money
  7. Time (Clock Of The Heart)
  8. Like I Used To
  9. Different Man
  10. Miss Me Blind
  11. Do You Really Want To Hurt Me
  12. Victims
  13. The War Song
  14. Karma Chameleon
  15. Bang A Gong (Get It On)
Live At Wembley was released on December 8, 2017 through MVD Visual and Cleopatra Records.

Mick Kolassa And Friends: “Double Standards” (2018) CD Review

Last year, Mick Kolassa and Mark Telesca released You Can’t Do That!, an album of blues renditions of Beatles songs. Now Mick Kolassa is teaming up with several vocalists on his new release, Double Standards, a collection of covers of well-known blues tunes. Double Standards is a clever title for what is an album of duets of classic blues numbers. Backing Mick Kolassa and his guest vocalists are Jeff Jensen on guitar, Bill Ruffino on bass, James Cunningham on drums and Chris Stephenson on organ. There are also several guest musicians on certain tracks.

The album gets off to a good start with “600 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy,” with Sugaray Rayford joining Mike Kolassa. In the CD’s liner notes, Mick Kolassa mentions that this is the song that began the whole project. They’d been joking about doing this song together for years. Of course, it was originally titled “300 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy,” but as there are two vocalists, well, the amount is doubled. This song was written by Willie Dixon, and it is followed by another Willie Dixon tune, “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” one of his more popular tunes, one that has been covered by a lot of artists over the years. There is something seriously sexy about this rendition of the Willie Dixon classic, thanks to Heather Crosse’s vocals and that cool guitar work. Eric Hughes joins the band on harmonica. The third Willie Dixon song covered on this disc, “Spoonful,” is a song I first heard on a Cream cassette in my childhood (I also saw the Grateful Dead do this one). Here Mick is joined by Erica Brown, who delivers a delicious vocal performance, sometimes sounding smooth and sexy, other times getting mean (and still sexy), belting out lines. There is also some cool work on organ on this track.

Victor Wainwright joins Mick Kolassa for a delightful, playful rendition of Tampa Red’s “It’s Tight Like That.” This one is just a whole lot of fun, certain to put a smile on your face. Hell, just the lines “Little red hen, she said to the rooster/You don’t come around here as often as you used ta” ought to do the trick (lines I don’t think were in the original recording, though this is one of those songs that has different lines in different versions). They also throw in a bit of “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” for good measure. Eric Hughes plays harmonica on this track too, adding some wonderful stuff. Mick Kolassa also covers Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too,” with Patti Parks joining him on vocals. I think it was Chuck Berry’s version that I heard first (which is fantastic), but this is another song that I love almost regardless of who is performing it. It’s just one of those great tunes. That being said, this is an excellent rendition, with some beautiful work on violin by Alice Hasan. Both Mick Kolassa and Patti Parks deliver really good vocal performances. I love that little laugh in Mick’s voice on the line “When things go wrong” early on. It feels human, real. It’s interesting to hear this as a duet, as it gives the song another dimension, making us feel even more that these two people should be together. This is one of the disc’s highlights. Mick Kolassa also covers Tampa Red’s “Don’t You Lie To Me,” joined by Gracie Curran. This song is also sometimes titled “I Get Evil,” which is why this version has “Evil” in parentheses. This track features great work on organ and bass.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “Fever” is a song that is just inherently cool, and it’s nearly impossible to fuck it up (as far as I know, Madonna is the only one who has managed to perform that feat). The version here, with Annika Chambers joining Mick Kolassa on vocals, is a good, jazzy, totally enjoyable rendition. That’s followed by an excellent version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” with Tas Cru. I love the addition of violin. This is one of my favorite tracks. At the very end, Mick says, almost under his breath, “Man, ain’t that the truth.” Indeed. And that’s what you’ll get from this album – the truth. No nonsense here, just some great music.

I was just the other day enjoying the new album from Eric Hughes (check out my review of Meet Me In Memphis), and here he not only plays harmonica on a few tracks, but also joins Mick Kolassa on vocals for a wonderful rendition of “Key To The Highway.” I love the way his harmonica sounds like a third voice over that good groove. Jeff Jensen joins Mick Kolassa on vocals for “Outside Woman Blues,” this rendition owing something to Cream’s version (which, if I recall correctly, was the first version I ever heard). The album concludes with a big, wonderful rendition of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” featuring the entire company of singers. Yeah, it’s like the last number of a big concert where they bring everyone back out on stage. Mick even introduces singers as they take a few lines, and this version features some lyrics seemingly written specifically for the occasion. The first verse sung includes the lines, “If I get together/With all my friends/And we sing an old blues song/That don’t ever end.” And Gracie Curran sings, “If I want to get high/And smoke a big fat joint/You want to bring me down/And what’s your point?/Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.” Jeff Jensen’s line about the vocalists singing together receives some laughter. You’ll know why when you hear it. The song has a big finish, with a strong soul vibe.

CD Track List
  1. 600 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy
  2. I Just Want To Make Love To You
  3. It’s Tight Like That
  4. Fever
  5. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And out
  6. Rock Me Baby
  7. Key To The Highway
  8. Spoonful
  9. It Hurts Me Too
  10. Early In The Morning
  11. Don’t You Lie To Me (Evil)
  12. Outside Woman Blues
  13. Ain’t Nobody’s Business 
Double Standards is scheduled to be released on February 5, 2018 on Swing Suit Records.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Eric Hughes Band: “Meet Me In Memphis” (2017) CD Review

Yes, blues is the order of the day, and The Eric Hughes Band delivers a healthful dose of music to help with what ails you. And if you’re conscious, then probably a whole lot is ailing you these days. The Eric Hughes Band is based in Memphis, and their new album, Meet Me In Memphis, works as homage to that city. It features all original material, written by Eric Hughes. The Eric Hughes Band is made up of Eric Hughes on vocals, guitar and harmonica; Walter Hughes on guitar, mandolin and lap steel; Leo Goff on bass; Brian Aylor on drums; and Chris Stephenson on keys. Joining them on this release are Marc Franklin on trumpet, Art Edmaiston on saxophone, and Reba Russell and Susan Marshall on backing vocals.

The album opens with a good blues rock tune, “Freight Train Of Pain,” in which Eric Hughes sings “If you don’t like the blues, you’d better get off the track.” Yup, that’s just about right these days. It feels like we’re all on that train. “If you’re feeling low down, and all you do is lose/I’ll holler ‘All aboard’ ‘cause I was built for blues.”  That’s followed by “Meet Me In Memphis,” the title track, which has a sweeter, folk and soul vibe, with something of that classic Memphis sound, including some nice work on horns. Ah, perfect for a song about Memphis. “To feel the cool of the early morn/To hum a tune in the land where soul was born.” This song has a wonderful, easygoing feel that is working just exactly as it should. “No matter where you roam, no matter where you’re from/When you’re in Memphis, it always seems like home.” And that’s exactly how this song feels – like home.

“Roll A Fatty For Your Daddy” is a grooving, rockin’ blues number featuring some good work on guitar and keys. Man, there are some seriously cool moments in this tune, where it gets downright jazzy. This number kind of swings, you know? I love it. And then there’s the harmonica. Oh yes, Eric’s harmonica drives this one, and I’ll follow it down any road it travels. “It’s too bad I got to work hard all the time/I said, it’s too bad I got to work hard all the time/Roll me a fatty for your daddy/You know it’ll ease my worried mind.” Yup, that will work, and this music helps too. The next tune, “The Day They Hanged The Kid,” opens with the sound of a record starting, that bit of a static sound, which is unnecessary. But it’s a good song, with some really wonderful, expressive work on horns toward the end. “At a shamefully young age/Full of whiskey and rebel rage/He shot a stranger just to smell the smoke.”

“Left My Heart At Your Place” has a sweet, friendly feel that I love. Sure, the title is a bit cheesy, but the song is so damn effective and feels true and honest, and that goes a long way. “We should take it slow, give each other space/Falling too fast, ends up in disgrace/But when I close my eyes, I can see your face/I know I left my heart at your place.” I can’t help but love this song. That’s followed by “Midtown Blues,” which is kind of fun and playful with lines like “I walked to the grocery, I’m too hip to own a car” and “I wear an army jacket, but I never did enlist” and “Down to my cruelty-free shoes.”  This one employs a standard blues feel, which actually adds to the playfulness of the lines. By the way, I can’t recall the last time I heard the word “barf.” I’m thinking it was in high school. And I can’t offhand think of a single other song to use it. So, yeah, it caught me by surprise. “Made me some ramen noodles/But you know they made me barf/I was going to go out tonight, but I can’t find my scarf.” This track features some nice work on guitar, as does the following track, “I’m Knocking On Your Door.” I seriously dig that guitar part on that one. The album then concludes with “Believe I’m Going Fishing,” a fun, joyous song with a bright folk bent. And the line “We can tie you to the motor, so that fish don’t pull you in” made me laugh out loud the first time I listened to this disc.

CD Track List
  1. Freight Train Of Pain
  2. Meet Me In Memphis
  3. Roll A Fatty For Your Daddy
  4. The Day They Hanged The Kid
  5. Here Comes The Boogie Man
  6. Left My Heart At Your Place
  7. Midtown Blues
  8. I’m Knocking On Your Door
  9. Believe I’m Going Fishing 
Meet Me In Memphis was released on October 20, 2017.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Janiva Magness: “Love Is An Army” (2018) CD Review

Janiva Magness has won several music awards in the blues realm, and clearly deserves them. However, she does not limit herself to strictly blues, as she shows on her excellent new album, Love Is An Army, which has elements of soul and country and rock. These influences were also present on her previous full-length studio release, 2016’s Love Wins Again, the album that turned me on to this artist. As on that album, Love Is An Army features mostly original material, written or co-written by producer Dave Darling. Joining Janiva Magness on this album are Stephen Hodges on drums, Davey Faragher on bass, Arlan Schierbaum on keys, Doug Livingston on pedal steel and dobro, Dave Darling on guitar and backing vocals, and Phil Parlapiano on piano. On horns are Darrell Leonard, Joe Sublet and Alfredo Ballesteros. There are also several guests joining her on certain tracks.

The album opens with “Black To Blue,” a song written by Janiva Magness and Dave Darling. This is blues with a whole lot of soul, and features some nice touches on horns. I love the emotion to Janiva’s vocal delivery. It feels like she is really opening herself up to us. “Looking for some mercy/But there’s none to be found/It’s so messed up, a dirty deal/There’s no going back now.” That’s followed by “Hammer,” featuring Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. His harmonica is a great presence right from the start, and I love it. But it is Janiva’s voice that is the star here. There is something both powerful and comforting in her voice here, a voice that can kick ass and ease your pains. While the asshole in the White House wants to build a wall, Janiva sings, “You’ve got to keep on swinging/Until the walls come down.” This song too was written by Janiva Magness and Dave Darling. Check out these lines: “You’ve got to try to keep laughin’/Even when your heart breaks/You just keep on pushin’ up the mountain/No matter what that mountain takes.”

Janiva Magness then dips into country with “On And On,” featuring Rusty Young (from Poco) on pedal steel. Of course, it’s a bluesy country. The image of a mountain plays a part in this song too: “But love is like a mountain now forever/And when I finally reached the top/I could see for miles/And all I knew was you were on my mind.”  And when she sings that they will go “On and on until we get it right,” I have faith that they’ll get there. This song has a positive vibe that I like, that I need. It was written by Colin Devlin and Dave Darling.

“Love Is An Army,” the title track, is one of the album’s best. It’s a moving and engaging song, one of those songs that give you the feeling that things are going to be okay, that we aren’t alone, and I’ll take a song like this any day I can get it. Janiva shares vocal duties on this one with Bryan Stephens, and his presence adds to that comforting sense that we are not alone. “Look all around you/There ain’t no heroes here/You know there’s only flesh and bone/No wings, no angels flying/There’s only walking here/But we don’t walk alone.” This song, written by Janiva Magness and Dave Darling, has a beautiful power. That’s followed by “Down Below,” another seriously effective and captivating song, this one with folk and country and soul elements. Janiva seems able to draw us in with ease. “Say my name, you’ll see/When the devil cries, he’s a lot like me/So darlin’ now just go to sleep/And I’ll go back to the cold, dark deep.” Courtney Hartman joins Janiva on guitar and banjo on this track.

Janiva Magness turns in another moving vocal performance on “What I Could Do,” one of only two songs on this CD that Dave Darling did not have a hand in writing. It was written by Paul Thorn, and features Delbert McClinton on vocals with Janiva. “If I didn’t need you, I’d turn the radio on/And it wouldn’t kill me/When I heard our old song.” This is a gorgeous track. It’s followed by another of the disc’s highlights, “Home.” I keep saying I need to make a mix CD of songs titled “Home.” There are so many good songs with that title, by artists like Ellis Paul, The Evangenitals, Erica Blinn, Michelle Malone, Joe Walsh, The Spongetones, James Houlahan, Rachael Sage, The Ides Of March, and on and on. What is it about the word home that inspires so many songwriters to craft some of their best material? This “Home” was written by Gary Pinto, Natasha Pinto and Dave Darling, and features Cedric Burnside on guitar and vocals. This is a powerful and timely song, with a steady thumping rhythm and honest, impassioned vocal performances. “Peace of mind is hard to find/Here in the world today.” And I have to remind myself daily, as Janiva sings, “This all will pass – you can count on that.” (Though I am not patient and wish someone would put an end to Trump and Pence today.)

I love the idea behind “Love To A Gunfight,” in which Janiva sings “This song’s our weapon tonight/We’re bringing love to a gunfight.” It’s an idea I want to embrace and put into action, but these days I often find myself so fucking angry that I am afraid of what I might do if I run into someone with, say, a “Make America Great Again” hat. Will I remain peaceful? I hope so, but I don’t want to find out, because honestly I want all of those people to disappear from the planet. The album concludes with “Some Kind Of Love,” which also seems to urge us to choose love. It’s the right path, of course, but can be difficult. “It’s gonna take some kind of love/To cure all this pain/It’s gonna take some kind of love/To wash it away.” Janiva delivers another excellent and powerful vocal performance here. This, by the way, is the other song not co-written by Dave Darling. It was written by Lauren Bliss and Andrew Lowden. “When you’re low/When you’re in pain/And nobody knows/How you stumble again and again and again/Remember, truth flows like a river/Across the Mississippi plain/So send me some, some kind of love/And hold out for that change.”

CD Track List
  1. Back To Blue
  2. Hammer
  3. On And On
  4. Tell Me
  5. Love Is An Army
  6. Down Below
  7. What’s That Say About You
  8. What I Could Do
  9. Home
  10. Love To A Gunfight
  11. When It Rains
  12. Some Kind Of Love
Love Is An Army is scheduled to be released on February 23, 2018 on Blue Élan Records.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tom Killner: “Live” (2017) CD Review

Lately I’ve been listening to more blues and blues rock than usual, and I think that’s because of the sorry state of the world. I need music to absorb my despair and anger, and turn it to something better. You know? The live album from Tom Killner, simply titled Live, is full of energetic, heavy blues rock, with Tom’s rough vocals sounding like he’s giving it his all, like by completely draining himself he’ll be able to drain the world of its blues. That might just be my reading, of course, but I appreciate the effort and the energy. The songs here are covers, including several 1960s rock tunes, such as “Crosstown Traffic,” “Whipping Post,” “The Weight” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.” This is Tom Killner’s second release, following 2015’s Hard Road. It’s interesting to me that for his second release, he decided to put out a live album of covers. It was recorded at The Old School House in Barnsley, England. The band is Tom Killer on vocals and lead guitar, Jack Allen on guitar and backing vocals, Oliver Tallent on bass, Jake Ashton on drums, and Wesley Brook on keys.

The album begins with an introduction in which someone urges the crowd to make a lot of noise: “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, as you all know, this is going out live. So I want you to make as much noise – dance, scream, shout – as possible.” Tom Killner then kicks things off with “Like It This Way,” a seriously cool song from the early days of Fleetwood Mac, when they were still a great blues rock band. Sure, I like Rumours as much as the next fellow, but I still think the band’s best material is that early work before the girls joined. Tom Killner does a really great job with this one, and I have to imagine the audience was dancing to it. There is plenty of good blues guitar work over that fun, pounding, moving rhythm, and the tune features some damn good jamming. That’s followed by Slim Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee,” here titled simply “King Bee,” and introduced as “a little Muddy Waters’ track.” Muddy Waters did indeed record this song, but did not do the original version. This rendition by Tom Killner has more of a heavy blues rock sound than most renditions I’ve heard – a full, loud, driving sound. “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” is a song by Cage The Elephant, a song that Tom Killner included on his previous album, Hard Road. Tom’s rendition is somewhat slower than the original. My favorite part is that quieter instrumental section approximately halfway through; it always grabs my attentions, and leads so well into the rest of the song.

“Have You Ever Loved A Woman” features a really nice intro on keys by Wesley Brook. This one also has peaks and valleys, and Tom Killner does some interesting things with his voice on this track, sometimes getting a bit playful. There is some strong work on guitar, and more wonderful stuff on keys, with a lead section halfway through. This is one of my favorite tracks. It was written by Billy Myles and first recorded by Freddie King. That’s followed by a blues version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” There is still a bit of funk to it, of course, but it keeps pounding ahead. “People keep on dying/While powers keep on lying/World keep on turning/’Cause it won’t be too long.” Then halfway through, Tom Killner breaks it down, engaging the audience, having the crowd echo him.

Tom Killer delivers an intriguing and engaging version of “Cocaine Blues.” I’m so used to Johnny Cash’s version of this song, that at first I didn’t even recognize it. This rendition is much slower, meaner. It took me a while with this rendition, but now it is really working for me. This song was also included on Hard Road. Tom Killner covers two Jimi Hendrix songs on this album, the first being “Crosstown Traffic.” His version is fairly faithful to the original. The second is “Foxy Lady,” with the band stretching out a bit, jamming on this one. There are also band introductions during this song, as well as a little tease toward the end of the jam. He also covers a couple of Allman Brothers Band songs, the first a later number written by Warren Haynes, “Soulshine” (from the band’s 1994 release Where It All Begins). This song is kind of beautiful, and Tom Killner delivers a powerful and moving version. That’s followed by a much earlier song from the Allman Brothers repertoire, “Whipping Post,” which was included on that band’s first studio album as well as the Live At Fillmore East album (where the song clocks in at twenty-three minutes). The version here is only five minutes or so, but is still pretty damn good.

“The Weight,” that great number by The Band, is one of my all-time favorite songs, and on this album Tom Killner does a nice job with it, not trying to pump up the energy or add too much of a blues rock vibe to it, but rather sticking to the spirit of the original, which I appreciate. This is a song that always resonates strongly, with an inherent beauty. Here some of the lyrics are changed slightly (or perhaps forgotten), and there is good work by Jack Allen on guitar. The album concludes with a cover of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” this version certainly owing a lot to that great Joe Cocker rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Like It This Way
  2. King Bee
  3. Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked
  4. Have You Ever Loved A Woman
  5. Higher Ground
  6. Cocaine Blues
  7. Crosstown Traffic
  8. Soulshine
  9. Whipping Post
  10. The Weight
  11. Foxy Lady
  12. With A Little Help From My Friends
Live was released on June 2, 2017 through Cleopatra Blues, a division of Cleopatra Records.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Laura Benitez And The Heartache: “With All Its Thorns” (2018) CD Review

Time is flying by (although it does seem like Donald Trump has been occupying the White House for 144 years), and it’s been more than three years since Laura Benitez And The Heartache released Heartless Women, an excellent country album. Now they are following that up with With All Its Thorns, featuring all original music, written or co-written by Laura Benitez. As on the previous release, Bob Spector plays guitar, and Ian Sutton is on pedal steel. Joining the group this time are Mike Anderson on bass, Steve Pearson on drums, Billy Wilson on accordion, Steve Kallai on fiddle, and Jim Goodkind on backing vocals. This group is based in Berkeley, California, and performs mostly in Northern California. But these musicians have classic country sounds running through their veins, though without a fear of mixing in other elements.

The album opens with “Something Better Than A Broken Heart,” in which Laura Benitez laments the end of a relationship that should have been the one, singing “I always thought I’d get that diamond ring/Always thought we’d take that trip to Spain.” But it is not a depressing-sounding song. The accordion is what really makes this song for me; it has a happy sound, a bit of Cajun party vibe added to this country tune. Something you can dance to. Yes, it’s always best to dance away our troubles, our disappointments, maybe even our longings. “Something Better Than A Broken Heart” was written by Laura Benitez and Doug Tieman, and it one of my personal favorites. It is  followed by “Easier Things To Do,” a gentle, sweet country tune, with some really nice work on pedal steel. “Might have been easier things to do/Than love you/But I do, but I do.” I love the truth and experience in Laura Benitez’s voice. There is more good work on pedal steel on “Our Remember Whens,” another love song, this one with a lighter vibe. Check out these lines: “Looking back is something I look forward to/’Cause I can’t wait for our remember whens.” Nice, right? Yes, this song makes me want to kiss and squeeze that special someone.

“In Red” has a more serious tone. There is something of a haunted, doomed sound to the approach of this story and character, which is kind of delightful and perfect, particularly as the song is largely about a wine stain on a wedding dress, and how that was a portent of the marriage to come. This is another of my personal favorites. I love that guitar part in the second half of the track. “Why did I wear white to our wedding/I should have married you in red.” That’s followed by “Whiskey Makes Me Love You,” which has my favorite song title of the album. “I love you when you’re sleeping, darling/I love you when you open those blue eyes/I even love you when you’re mad and when you’re keeping score/But whiskey makes me love you more.”

“Ghostship” is another of this album’s highlights. Right away I love the violin, the way it sounds both sorrowful and hopeful over that simple strumming on guitar, setting the mood. This song features probably my favorite vocal performance of the album as well. This is a wonderful, gorgeous and moving song, about the fire in a warehouse in Oakland in which thirty-six people died. “Why Does It Matter” is an unusual, pretty, gentle tune with the feel of a waltz. It is yet another favorite, and features another striking and moving vocal performance by Laura Benitez. “It doesn’t matter how much you would take with you if you walked away/I’d still have what I need and more if I didn’t have us/But if it doesn’t matter, than why does it matter so much?” I love this song. The album then concludes with “Nora Went Down The Mountain,” which begins with the line “On a cold and sunny day in January,” which seems timely. Not for us here in Los Angeles, of course, but for those elsewhere in the country. This song has a cheerful vibe, and some nice work on violin. “Someone heard she went to New York City/Someone said she’d been seen in Paris, France/The only thing that anyone could ever say for sure/Is Nora went down the mountain and she never came back.

CD Track List
  1. Something Better Than A Broken Heart
  2. Easier Things To Do
  3. Our Remember Whens
  4. In Red
  5. Whiskey Makes Me Love You
  6. Almost The Right One/Casi Mi Cielo
  7. Ghostship
  8. The Fool I Am Right Now
  9. Secrets
  10. Why Does It Matter
  11. Nora Went Down The Mountain 
With All Its Thorns is scheduled to be released on January 26, 2018 on Copperhead Records.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Music Memories From The Old Refrigerator

My refrigerator – which I’ve owned for something like twenty years – woke me up the other day, angry, shouting at me for attention. This went on for fifteen or twenty minutes; then, exhausted, it fell silent. But it did not remain silent for long. Every time the motor kicked in, the bugger got damn ornery. Having basically no knowledge of electronics whatsoever, I did what I could – I cleaned the back of it (something I apparently had never done before – holy shit), smacked it a few times, scolded it, and pleaded with it. None of that worked. So I ordered a new refrigerator. That meant taking off everything I had taped to the refrigerator door, including some music-related items.

These items included a little promotional card for a Gaelic Storm concert at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went to that bar quite a lot. Gaelic Storm was the house band back then, playing every Sunday night, and doing nice long shows (several sets). There were drinking contests between the band and the audience (during “Seven Drunken Nights”), and it was basically the same crowd each week, so it felt like a party. Fuck, it was a party. Of course, that – like everything else – had to come to an end. Gaelic Storm became more popular and started touring fairly heavily. But on at least one occasion they came back and did a show at that little bar. The card tells me it was a Sunday, in keeping with tradition. It doesn’t list the year, but the cover of Special Reserve is pictured, and that album came out in 2003, so I’m guessing that was the year of the show. I have vague recollections of the concert – that it was more crowded than before, that a lot of the old gang attended, and that it was shorter than before. I think the band played only two sets. But the music was fantastic. It always was.

Another item is a similar card for a Los Abandoned concert at The Echo. Actually, for two Los Abandoned concerts at the Echo – one on July 18th and one on July 25th. I’m not certain of the year. I probably attended both shows, though I can’t be sure. Los Abandoned was one of the bands that I was turned on to through The Peak Show. There was a really fantastic music scene based in and around Highland Park back in 2002, 2003, 2004 (oh, Mr. T’s Bowl, how we miss you). Los Abandoned was a band I loved seeing perform, and I think I saw them play at The Echo several times. Los Abandoned – as far as my memory tells me, anyway – seemed to do more club gigs than did The Peak Show. The card indicates that these two shows were free (unless you were younger than 21, in which case admission was $5).

Over the years, both of these cards got wet. Or something spilled on them. Who knows? There were also several Grateful Dead photos and Leonard Cohen photos on that refrigerator, as well as one photo of The Monkees, one of Go Betty Go, and one tiny ad for a concert by The Submarines. Some of those will end up on my new refrigerator. Onward!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Bob Holz: “Visions: Coast To Coast Connection” (2018) CD Review

Visions: Coast To Coast Connection, the new album from accomplished drummer and composer Bob Holz, features compositions co-written by Bob Holz, most of which were also included on earlier releases, though in often very different versions. Interestingly, this is his third release in as many years to include the word “vision” or “visions” (following 2016’s A Vision Forward and 2017’s Visions And Friends, both of which featured Larry Coryell on guitar), and his group itself is called A Vision Forward. Music is considered largely an auditory experience, but some of this music could certainly create strong visions for the listeners. Just let your imagination follow the music. Joining Bob Holz on this release are (on various tracks) Stanley Clarke on bass; Ralphe Armstrong on bass; Andrew Ford on bass; Randy Brecker on trumpet; Louis Ludovic on trumpet; Jeff Jarvis on trumpet; Billy Steinway on keys; Alex Machacek on guitar; Chet Catallo on guitar; Frank Stepanek on guitar, bass and keys; Dave Porter on vocals; Ada Rovatti on saxophone; David Goldberg on saxophone; and Andrew Lippman on trombone.

This disc kicks off with “Split Decision,” a tune that combines progressive rock, jazz and even some soul elements. This track builds well, and its energetic conclusion is my favorite section. There is some great work by Louis Ludovic on trumpet, and by Andrew Lippman on trombone. “Split Decision” was also the title track to an earlier release by Bob Holz. It is followed by “Espresso Addiction,” which features Dave Porter on vocals. It’s the only track on the album to feature a vocalist, and the only track to have not been included on an earlier Bob Holz CD, and it is dedicated to guitarist Larry Coryell, who died last year. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “The world keeps spinning/And when the madness gets too much/When you, when you’re feeling so right/You’d better let your guitar play.” And later in the song, Dave sings “You know the world will remember you.” Oh yes.

“Next In Line” goes in some interesting directions. It starts with a slow groove, with some cool and prominent work on bass. Both Stanley Clarke and Ralphe Armstrong play bass on this one, delivering some great work here, some seriously impressive playing. As far as visions go, this is one of the tracks that will probably take you on an intriguing journey if you let it. This tune was also included on Split Decision. That’s followed by another tune was included on Split Decision, “Jammin’ Man,” which – as you might guess from the title – has a bit of a reggae thing happening in the rhythm, but with some interesting work from the other musicians rising above that groove, including Randy Brecker on trumpet and Ada Rovatti on saxophone. The tune then ventures into a more progressive rock landscape, before returning to the reggae feel. Both Stanley Clarke and Ralphe Armstrong play on this track as well. Bob Holz then revisits a song from his Pushin album, “Richie’s Trip.” On that album it’s titled “Richie’s Trip (A Tribute To Richie Hayward),” whereas here it is simply “Richie’s Trip,” but then dedicated to Richie Hayward. It starts off okay, but when it takes on this cool groove, verging on space disco, I start to love it. And that work on keys gives it a very different feel from the version included on Pushin. This song has a delicious vibe at times, like some wonderful jazz fusion party. And I love the horns in the second half of the track.

Okay, I admit it: the title of the sixth track, “Pink Fur,” is what got me interested in putting on this CD in the first place. It’s a fun, playful, sexy image, so I figured this track would also be fun. And it is. It’s funky and totally enjoyable, with some great work on bass and keys, and of course drums. This track would have been one of my favorites, no matter the title. “Pink Fur” was written by Bob Holz, Steve Weingart and Frank Stepanek, and is another composition that Bob Holz is revisiting here. It was also included on Split Decision. That’s followed by “West Coast Blues,” a blues number that was also included on Pushin. This one too becomes a fun jam, with some delightful work on trumpet. I particularly like that section with the bass taking lead. “West Coast Blues” was written by Bob Holz, Paulie Cerra, Billy Steinway and Joel Kane. “Light & Dark,” a tune also on Split Decision, features Alex Machacek on guitar.

“Spanish Plains,” written by Frank Stepanek (it’s the only tune on this release not co-written by Bob Holz), was also included on Bob Holz’s Higher Than The Clouds album. This one features some wonderful, impressive, effective and moving work on guitar. Frank Stepanek plays guitar, bass and keyboard on this track (the only track he plays on), and it’s one of my favorites. The album then concludes with a live track, “Flat Out,” recorded in May of 2017 at a club in Hollywood, featuring nice work by Jeff Jarvis and David Goldberg and Billy Steinway, as well as some cool, even humorous playing by Ralphe Armstrong on bass. This tune was also included on Bob Holz’s 2017 release, Visions And Friends.  

CD Track List
  1. Split Decision
  2. Espresso Addiction
  3. Next In Line
  4. Jammin’ Man
  5. Richie’s Trip
  6. Pink Fur
  7. West Coast Blues
  8. Light & Dark
  9. Spanish Plains
  10. Flat Out
Visions: Coast To Coast Connection is scheduled to be released on February 23, 2018 through MVD Audio.

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters: “Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters” (2017) CD Review

I was turned onto The Honeycutters a couple of years ago when they released On The Ropes. Most of the songs on that album were written by the band’s lead vocalist, Amanda Anne Platt, and – as I mentioned in my review of that album – the songwriting is one of the band’s strengths. Well, after that album – the band’s fourth – Amanda decided to include her name in the band’s name. And so for their 2017 release, the band’s name, as well as the album’s title, is Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters. But that is all that has changed. The songwriting is just as strong, and the band is still recording excellent tunes. All of the songs on this release are originals, written by Amanda Anne Platt. As on the previous release, Matthew Smith plays guitar and pedal steel, Rick Cooper is on bass, and Josh Milligan is on drums. Joining them this time is Evan Martin on keys. Tim Surrett, who co-produced the album, provides backing vocals on a few tracks.

Lately, songs about birthdays and aging have spoken to me a bit more strongly, and I suppose there’s no question about why that is. In this album’s opening track, “Birthday Song,” Amanda Anne Platt sings, “Fall is settling in/Days are getting short again/And the morning’s getting real nice for sleeping/Every time it gets colder, I get another year older/I start looking for lines in the bathroom mirror.” And we’re finding them, aren’t we? A bit later she sings, “I’m just so damn glad to be here,” and I think, oh yes. With all the craziness in the world and all the problems these days, I still can’t help but be so damn glad to be here. This is a wonderful song, with ultimately a positive vibe, which I appreciate. This is one of my favorite tracks. “I know you worry, but what’s your hurry, baby/We’re all going to get there in the end.”

That’s followed by “Long Ride,” a sweet and moving country tune about death and life, looking forward and being present. The line “This is goodnight, not goodbye” is of course not exclusive to this song, but it’s still effective. And check out these lines: “We were dying but you couldn’t tell/If you only would have dreamed the same dream too/Maybe then you wouldn’t worry what we’re coming to.” And I really like these lines: “You say your life has been a study of goodbye/Oh, but honey, can’t you feel your hand in mine?” Then some nice pedal steel sets the tone of “What We’ve Got,” an unabashed love song that is going to make you want to hold that special someone in your life.  Maybe I’m just an emotional wreck, but this one brought tears to my eyes (I can hear my girlfriend saying, “Oh god, you’re goofy,” but there it is). “It makes me want to/Call you up and say I’m coming home tonight/’Cause all the time I thought that I was wasting/I was just learning how to look into your eyes/And say I want you, I want to call you mine.” Beautiful, right? And there is some nice work on both keys and pedal steel toward the end.

There is an important message in “Diamond In The Rough,” something we need to be reminded of these days, when many of us are quick to anger: “That woman in the check-out line/Ruining everybody’s day/You know nobody’s born that angry/How you think she got to be that way/So when a stranger meets your eye, be the one that smiles first/Nobody ever died from a little kindness no matter what you’ve heard.” We’re all struggling, we’re all trying to figure out what the hell is going on, trying to make something of our lives, and wanting affection. Yes, even those goddamn Trump supporters (though sometimes that is difficult to remember). “But it’s only ‘cause I want you to be happy, baby/And tell me what’s so wrong with that?

“Eden” is a song with a sweet folk and country vibe. There is a bit of nostalgia to its sound and feel, and perhaps all songs that take place in the middle of the country have that element. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “We moved back here from Boston ‘cause I lost my job and this is where I’m from/And the kids seem pretty happy, they don’t miss their dad too much/I can’t answer all their questions but they never lack for love/And that’s what I tell my mother when she calls.” I do have mixed feelings, of course, on the desire for ignorance, in lines like “It’s what I don’t know that makes this living easy/The more I learn, the more it brings me to my knees/And I say please/Let me back inside the garden/I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamn tree.”  But you just can’t argue with these lines: “We don’t keep a TV ‘cause the news is always bad/And it teaches us to want all the things we’ll never have/And there’s always someone getting hurt cause someone else was feeling too let down.

“Learning How To Love Him” is a bittersweet love song about a marriage, a song of looking back and taking stock, and ultimately realizing things aren’t so bad. “We raised our children, we raised our voices/Made mistakes, made our choices/We’ve both been right and we’ve both been wrong/And after all these years, I’m still quick to draw.” This is a beautiful song, delivered in a perfect, unadorned way, giving more weight to the vocals and lyrics. “And after all these years, this is what love is.” That’s followed by “Brand New Start,” another song about taking stock in a long relationship, though this one seems to be going in a different direction.

I love the sweet feel of “Rare Thing,” another of this album’s highlights. This one is really making me miss a certain someone, a rare thing herself. “Oh, honey, you’re a rare thing/Since the day I started caring, I’ve been hooked/You keep writing the book, I hope you don’t ever stop/I know they said that it would never last/But these years go by so fast.” That’s followed by “The Things We Call Home,” a playful country tune that I can’t help but enjoy, moving my head to the bass line and smiling at Amanda’s vocals and the delicious work on keys. The album then concludes with one of its strongest tracks, “The Road.” I appreciate the perspective here. I mean, it’s about an end, but there is no real bitterness, nor glee. There is hope and kindness and sympathy. “I hope the road is good to you ‘til then.”

CD Track List
  1. Birthday Song
  2. Long Ride
  3. What We’ve Got
  4. Diamond In The Rough
  5. Eden
  6. The Guitar Case
  7. Learning How To Love Him
  8. Brand New Start
  9. Late Summer’s Child
  10. The Good Guys (Dick Tracy)
  11. Rare Thing
  12. The Things We Call Home
  13. The Road 
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters was released on June 9, 2017 on Organic Records.

Leonard Cohen: The Daughters Of Zeus DVD Review

The documentary Leonard Cohen: The Daughters Of Zeus is actually just a repackaged version of the documentary Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes. In fact, the title on screen is still Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes. All that has changed is the DVD packaging. And what’s particularly shitty about this is that there is nothing to indicate that on the box. There should be a warning or notice saying, “Previously released as Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes.” And the copyright on the back of the box is 2015. That is the only date mentioned, so it would like seem like a newer film. It doesn’t say anything about the program’s contents being from 2010, which would also indicate that it was previously released. So basically the people behind this DVD release are sneaky, greedy, dishonest bastards, trying to put one over on Leonard Cohen fans.

That being said, the rest of this review is about Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes, which was released in 2010. The film is about the influences on Leonard Cohen’s work, and features interviews with music journalists and biographers (though no interviews with Leonard Cohen himself). At the beginning, there is a bit of biographical information on Leonard Cohen. Cohen biographer Stephen Scobie talks about Leonard Cohen’s early poetry and its relation to his music: “There is the same care for language, the compulsive revision that goes into so many of his songs, that meticulous craftsmanship which he brings to songwriting.” But this film is largely about those people who influenced him and played a part in the development of his craft, with sections on Federico Garcia Lorca, Irving Layton, the Beat poets, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins.

While there are no interviews with Leonard Cohen, there is footage of him in concert, performing “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Take This Waltz,” and “Tower Of Song,” as well as talking about Federico Garcia Lorca. There is also some footage of those who influenced him, including Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl, Jack Kerouac reading from On The Road, and Bob Dylan performing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The best section is that with Judy Collins, in large part because the film actually includes an interview with Collins. She talks about meeting Leonard Cohen and hearing him sing his first few songs, and about his first performance. There is one very weird choice, however. As we hear a bit of Judy Collins’ excellent rendition of “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” what we’re shown on screen is a doctored image of part of the suicide scene from The Rules Of Attraction.

The film also explores the influence of country music on Leonard Cohen’s work, as well as the spiritual element to his life and music. The film is narrated by Thomas Arnold.

Special Features

The DVD includes Judy Collins On Leonard, which is more of the interview with Judy Collins. She talks about her In My Life album and about her Leonard Cohen tribute album, Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy. There is also a bit of footage of her performing “Bird On The Wire,” and footage of Leonard Cohen performing “Suzanne.” This feature is approximately seven and a half minutes.

There are also brief written biographies of the folks interviewed for the documentary.

Leonard Cohen: The Daughters Of Zeus was released on June 9, 2015, but was originally released as Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes on October 19, 2010.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Art Pepper: “West Coast Sessions! Volume 6: Shelly Manne” (2017) CD Review

The final volume of Art Pepper’s West Coast Sessions! features Shelly Manne on drums. As a way of dodging contractual restrictions on his recording, Art Pepper pretended to be a sideman for different musicians, and six albums were released as a result. Those have now been reissued as West Coast Sessions! and include bonus tracks. Originally titled Hollywood Jam, this album features Bill Watrous on trombone, Bob Cooper on tenor saxophone, Art Pepper on alto saxophone, Pete Jolly on piano, Monty Budwig on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums. The band was originally called Shelly Manne And His Hollywood All Stars. This CD re-issue includes one bonus track, as well as new liner notes by Laurie Pepper. Like most of the recordings of this late period in his career, there is a lot of joy and freedom to the sound of this album, which I relish these days.

This CD opens with “Just Friends,” a popular song from the 1930s written by John Klenner and Samuel Lewis. This rendition has a joyous swing to it, and the horns rise like the voices of friends, full of affection and excitement. The lead on piano is an absolute delight, with lots of playful touches. And there is a brief drum solo near the end, as you might expect since this album was led by Shelly Manne. In the liner notes, Laurie Pepper says that of the six volumes, this is the one time when Art Pepper truly was the sideman, as Shelly Manne did act as leader of the band for this 1981 session. Interestingly, this tune was also included on West Coast Sessions! Volume 4: Bill Watrous.

Art Pepper turns toward romance with a beautiful rendition of “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You).”  I think I prefer instrumental versions of this song, as I’m generally not a big fan of list songs, even if the list includes great lines like “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiters whistling as the last bar closes.” (I love lists, but not list songs. Go figure.) I dig the late-night vibe of this track, particularly Pete Jolly’s work on piano. This rendition is gorgeous, warm, loving. This is a song that Art Pepper had recorded before. He included a version of it on his 1959 album with Sonny Redd, Two Altos, as well as the late 1970s LP Today. “These Foolish Things” is followed by “Hollywood Jam Blues,” the only original composition of the album, written by Shelly Mann, Art Pepper and Bill Watrous. This is probably my favorite track. It has such a cool, sexy vibe right from its opening. Ah, here is a tune you can just sink into, wrap yourself up in, get into bed with. Light some candles and treat yourself right, and be ready for a powerful, glorious climax to the song. This was sort of the title track of the original release.

“Lover Come Back To Me” is another fantastic track. Included on West Coast Sessions! Volume 5: Jack Sheldon is a tune titled “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” which originated in the 1928 musical The New Moon. “Lover Come Back To Me” is from that same source (with the line “The moon was new, and so was love” making it a sort of title track). This rendition from Art Pepper is quite a bit different from other renditions. It has its own energy, its own pace (it’s fast, man), and is probably the best version I’ve heard. No sentimental nonsense here, just a great time. This band takes this song and makes it cook, makes it live. Plus, this rendition has a very cool lead on bass. So there. That’s followed by “Limehouse Blues,” which has a delightful easy-going attitude at the start, as if to say things are good, and the world is ours. There is a sense of play here, helping to make this another highlight for me. This one too has a wonderful bass section, with just some light touches on drums and piano to accompany that instrument. And listen to those horns!

The original album then concludes with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” written by George Bassman and Ned Washington, and famously recorded by Tommy Dorsey And His Orchestra in the 1930s. Art Pepper also included it on Among Friends, an LP released in 1978, with a distinctly less sentimental feel. The version on this album is somewhere in between as for its vibe and sense, and is really good. This re-issue contains one bonus track, an alternate take of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” that was originally included in the 2001 Art Pepper box set The Hollywood All-Star Sessions. This is a significantly longer version, and features some wonderful work by all the musicians, especially Art Pepper and Pete Jolly. It is the better of the two takes.

CD Track List
  1. Just Friends
  2. These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)
  3. Hollywood Jam Blues
  4. Lover Come Back To Me
  5. Limehouse Blues
  6. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
  7. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Alternate Take) 
West Coast Sessions! Volume 6: Shelly Manne was released on September 29, 2017 through Omnivore Recordings. West Coast Sessions! Volume 5: Jack Sheldon was also released on that same date.

Art Pepper: “West Coast Sessions! Volume 5: Jack Sheldon” (2017) CD Review

When I became a big fan of Art Pepper’s work, it was through listening to recordings from late in the saxophonist’s career and life. The three volumes of Neon Art really impressed me. And now the fifth volume of West Coast Sessions! gives us another excellent taste of his later period. There is something about those last few years, when he made that comeback, that is exciting and loose and moving and free. And during this time, Art Pepper played with several different musicians. In part, that was because he had to, as a way of sidestepping the restrictions of his contract. As far as the record label was concerned, Art Pepper was a sideman in these recordings. West Coast Sessions! Volume 5: Jack Sheldon was originally released as Angel Wings by Jack Sheldon And His West Coast Friends, and features Jack Sheldon on trumpet, with Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. This expanded re-issue includes four bonus tracks, including one that was previously unreleased. It also includes new liner notes by Laurie Pepper.

The album opens with an original tune, “Angel Wings,” written by Art Pepper and originally used as the title track for this album. It has a light, brisk, cheerful feel, and makes me smile almost immediately. Hey, we can all use that these days, right? And I love that bass line. Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon also recorded this one a couple of decades earlier, and it was included on the 1957 LP The Return Of Art Pepper. “Angel Wings” is followed by “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” which eases in but soon develops its own fun rhythm. Both Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon deliver some wonderful stuff here, and I particularly like those moments when they’re working together. Seriously, there is some glorious work here, and while listening to this album, my worries about the sad state of the country fade away. And, hey, it’s a catchy tune, originally written for the 1928 musical The New Moon.

Art Pepper turns romantic with “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” Not that this track is mushy or slow; in fact, after its moving opening section, it has something of a swinging rhythm and a cheerful, happy vibe that I really appreciate. Ah, Cole Porter sure could write them, eh? And this particular recording of this particular tune is making me think of a particular girl in a particular city far from my city, and how it would be so nice to come home to her. But rather than making me sad about the situation, this track is filling me with optimism and joy. I love Milcho Leviev’s work on piano in the second half of the tune. Absolutely wonderful! “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is a song that Art Pepper also recorded back in the fifties, including it on 1957’s Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section. And the bonus tracks include an alternate take of this tune, originally included in the Art Pepper box set The Hollywood All-Star Sessions, released in 2001. This take is a bit shorter, but still features some fantastic playing. The main difference is that this take does not include the return to the opening part at the end.

“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is followed by an original composition by Jack Sheldon and Art Pepper, “Jack’s Blues.” What a fun ride this one is, cooking along at times as if with no cares, but just the love of the trip, keeping things kind of light and fluid. With that title, you’d expect some great playing by Jack Sheldon, and you’ll get it, no question. But everyone gets a chance to shine here, and there is a section of just bass and drums, with Tony Dumas and Carl Burnett responding to each other, a playful bit of give and take, before the horns return to finish things up in a bright, joyful way. The horns then begin the next track, “Broadway,” working together, dancing together like a duet in a musical on the Broadway of the composition’s title. This is another composition that Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon had tackled before, including it on The Return Of Art Pepper. I really dig that drum solo. The bonus tracks include an alternate take of “Broadway.”

There is a moment near the beginning of the beautiful and moving “Historia De Un Amor” that I completely love. It’s a brief, little interaction between piano and saxophone, but something about it is so bloody wonderful and true. I’ve listened to it a dozen times now, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. You’ll have to check it out for yourself. And then Art Pepper’s lead is stunning in its emotional depth, with Jack Sheldon’s playing equally moving. This is an incredible track. The bonus tracks include a different version of “Historia De Un Amor,” with Jack Sheldon providing vocals. It is the only vocal track on this release, and is also the only previously unreleased track. It’s a gorgeous rendition, with Sheldon delivering a passionate vocal performance. Art Pepper’s playing is at least as passionate, making this a seriously good rendition. I’m surprised it was left unreleased until now. The only thing that detracts from its beauty at all is that brief shouting toward the end, which feels out of place.

The original album concludes with another Art Pepper composition, “Minority,” which Art and Jack had recorded together earlier for The Return Of Art Pepper. The version here is a couple of minutes longer than that earlier version and features a great lead on bass, with just some touches on piano and drums. There is also a short drum solo right before the end. There is something really fun about this track. The bonus tracks include an alternate take of this tune. At the beginning, we learn that it’s the first take, and you can hear the song being counted off.

CD Track List
  1. Angel Wings
  2. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
  3. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
  4. Jack’s Blues
  5. Broadway
  6. Historia De Un Amor
  7. Minority
  8. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To (Alternate Take)
  9. Broadway (Alternate Take)
  10. Minority (Alternate Take)
  11. Historia De Un Amor (Jack Sheldon Vocal) 
West Coast Sessions! Volume 5: Jack Sheldon was released on September 29, 2017 through Omnivore Recordings. By the way, West Coast Sessions! Volume 6: Shelly Manne was also released on that same date.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Lex Grey And The Urban Pioneers: “Usual Suspects” (2018) CD Review

After Heal My Soul, the 2016 release from Lex Grey And The Urban Pioneers, I was completely smitten and under this band’s spell. That was in large part because of Lex Grey’s voice, which is a force all its own, bursting in and controlling any space it wants to occupy. But the band is damn good as well, and Heal My Soul ended up as one of my favorite releases of 2016. And so my expectations could not have been higher for their new release, Usual Suspects. This album features all original material, written or co-written by Lex Grey, and, as I assumed, it’s excellent. It’s blues, rock, country, and it may be just exactly what you need to get you through the day, because, let’s face it, things are totally screwed up out there and we rely on music and these tough souls to carry us through.

The album opens with its title track, “Usual Suspects,” which starts by setting up a very cool vibe and rhythm. Lex Grey And The Urban Pioneers are adept at creating an intriguing landscape, populated by characters, by themselves, and perhaps by those of us listening as well. Lex’s vocals are delivered with restraint at first, so she has a place to go, to build to. And, indeed, this song goes in some interesting and unexpected directions, and it pulls me right along. The way the song just drops out for a moment after the line “You’ve got it all wrong” adds weight to the line, gives us a moment to consider it, the line feeling like it’s directed at us. And for just a moment, we worry that that’s what we’ll be left with. But after that, that cool rhythm returns, and there are nice touches by Walter Tates Jr. on saxophone. “Wasn’t about the sorrow/I like the comradery/Same time tomorrow/Definitely.”

The band then moves to a fun, light rock and roll tune about eating, “Chow Down,” with Lex Grey singing “I don’t want to fool around/I just want to chow down with you.” Okay, it’s nice to be reminded that things aren’t all dour and dire. Here is a song that tells us to forget our troubles, have a drink and enjoy a good meal. And it includes accordion, so there you go. That’s Brian Dewan on accordion (and on piano). That’s followed by one of my favorites, “Dirty Secret.” This one has a classic and delicious blues and soul base, giving it a timeless quality. Then her voice just tears into you, completely owning the space – glorious and sexy and fantastic. And she does some surprising things with her voice. Just listen to the way she delivers the first line, “Why don’t you tell everybody the way you told me,” particularly the way she sings the words “the way you told me.” Wonderful. And she sounds almost delicate on the word “anymore” in the line “I’m not your dirty secret anymore,” which obviously comes as a surprise. But even her vulnerable quality comes across as strength, as she tells us “I’m moving on, I’m moving on, I’ve got to be strong/I’ve got to find somebody who loves me, who loves me, who loves me.” “Dirty Little Secret” was written by Lex Grey and Kaia Updike (Kaia also plays bass and piano on this track).

Another of my favorites is “Sunshine And Blue.” This one has a great vibe right from the start, with that sexy work on trumpet. I’m completely sold even before Lex Grey’s vocals come in. And when she begins singing, she delivers a simple and sincere declaration of love: “I love you/Sunshine and blue/My heart is true/My heart is you/Sunshine and blue/You’re my dream come true/And when I’m with you/There is nothing I can’t do.” From there, the song goes up a level and Lex Grey’s vocals come on stronger. I love how she tackles this one, but it’s Chris Pasin’s work on trumpet that really makes this track something special. “Sunshine And Blue” was written by Lex Grey and Vic Deyglio. That’s followed by a fun country tune about being in a band and being on the road. “I met an ex-con with an accordion/His soul was on parole/We had cheap thrills/In fleabag hotels/Prescription pills/And a whole lot of running from the law.” Oh, they make it sound like a blast. Plus, this one features Kaia Updike on violin, Kenny Siegal on lap steel and Brian Dewan on accordion. I love this song more and more as it goes on. “I said temptation’s coming to get me.”

Usual Suspects ends with another highlight, “Renegade Heart,” which might actually be the album’s best track. The instrumental section, that combination of horns and ukulele delights me in a way I can hardly begin to describe. And of course Lex Grey gives us another excellent vocal performance. Check out these lines: “The sky outside looks like your eyes/Except the parts the clouds disguise/That’s the reason for my lies.” But when she sings “Take my blues away,” I have to object. Sorry, but we need you to have the blues, Lex Grey, so that you can help take the blues away from the rest of us. We need you, especially now. Not until the country claws its way out of its current abyss, tearing through the rotted flesh of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, should you even consider stepping away from the blues. “It’s the last hope/The last tear/The last minute that I’m spending here/It’s the last time/The last place/The last words, baby, that I’ll ever, ever, ever say.”

CD Track List
  1. Usual Suspects
  2. Chow Down
  3. Dirty Secret
  4. SRV
  5. Warrior Squaw
  6. Sunshine And Blue
  7. Cheap Thrills
  8. My Jellyroll
  9. Renegade Heart 
Usual Suspects is scheduled to be released on January 22, 2018.