Monday, October 14, 2019

Bombadil: “Beautiful Country” (2019) CD Review

A new release from Bombadil is always a cause for celebration and excitement. This North Carolina-based trio has consistently put out excellent albums, each one among my favorites of the year it was released. So my expectations were high when I received Beautiful Country, the group’s new album. I stopped everything I was doing and popped the disc in, lying down and closing my eyes to focus on the music. How often do we feel compelled to do that? Well, this music deserves that kind of attention. It is a fantastic album. Bombadil features some of the best vocals of any group going these days, and these guys construct engaging and wonderful songs. The band is made up of Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stacy Harden. The new album features all original material, the music coming from that appealing land in the middle of folk, country and pop.

The album opens with “Oh Suzanne,” and as you might expect from that title, there is a strong folk element to this one. I love the way it builds to the chorus (the vocal approach to the chorus reminds me a bit of The Proclaimers). “Oh Suzanne/I love you/More than you know.” Check out the song’s opening lines: “Sometimes a man tells you he loves you/And maybe he does/But there are things in this life/That you cannot control.” And toward the end, there is a nod to “Oh! Susanna.” That’s followed by “Pillows And Prine,” a song title that I adore. This song is ridiculously catchy, and is one of my personal favorites (though, honestly, there is not a single weak track on this disc). “I see it one way/And you see another.”  Seriously, this song is a delight. It creates a vivid image of a relationship that John Prine could easily embrace and laugh and cry about. “That’s why we put space between our pillows at night/I know how to make her cry like a movie at its peak/I know how to make her crack in my sleep.” Interestingly, the next song, “Goodwill Socks,” opens with the lines “I saw you like I always saw you/And you saw me like you always saw me.” There is something catchy about this one too, with pop elements, including hand claps and a brief moment with just the beat. “Taking, taking the easy way out with you/Making, making the same mistakes we always do.”

As I mentioned, their vocal work is extraordinary and beautiful, and the sound of their music makes me feel so damn good. There is some humor to their songs as well, and in “Wisconsin Wedding” the line “To marry a Minnesota somebody” makes me laugh. Ah, is it any wonder this guy is getting cold feet, having second thoughts? “You can rattle the door/I’m on the floor with my eyes closed.” That’s followed by “Faces,” which begins with some pretty work on keys. “Put on the same clothes/And put on the same faces/Write the same name/With all the right spaces.” Then “The Man Who Loves You” has a bright pop sound. Another of my favorites is “On A Seashore,” a strange and delightful song coming to us from a distant realm. This one builds slowly and wonderfully, overtaking us, surrounding us, until its breath is ours. “Lovers on a park bench/Make me happy/Lovers on a seashore/Holding hands/Lovers getting married/Facing death together.” Kate Rhudy joins them on vocals on this song.

“Feather Thief” has a pleasant, relaxed vibe and some interesting work on percussion. That’s followed by “Girl With A Kite,” a pretty and sweet-sounding instrumental track that begins slowly and then picks up speed as it goes, rushing along at the end as if the wind has picked up and is carrying us all off into the bright sunshine. This is the album’s only instrumental. Then we get “Beautiful Country,” the album’s title track. This one has a sweet sound. “Oh, I fell in love with this beautiful damn country.” This release concludes with “The Real Thing,” a beautiful and intimate folk song that features Kate Rhudy joining them on vocals.  I want the real thing/I want the storm clouds/I want the rain upon my face.”

CD Track List
  1. Oh Suzanne
  2. Pillows And Prine
  3. Goodwill Socks
  4. Wisconsin Wedding
  5. Faces
  6. The Man Who Loves You
  7. On A Seashore
  8. Feather Thief
  9. Girl With A Kite
  10. Beautiful Country
  11. The Real Thing 
Beautiful Country was released on September 20, 2019 on Ramseur Records. It is available on both CD and vinyl (I need to pick up a copy of this exceptional album on vinyl the next time these guys come through town). And for those of you who might not be familiar with this group’s previous work, I’ve posted reviews of 2009’s Tarpits And Canyonlands (which was re-released in 2014), 2013’s Metrics Of Affection, 2015’s Hold On, and 2017’s Fences.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dave Stryker: Eight Track Christmas

Five years ago guitarist Dave Stryker released an album titled Eight Track. It was a celebration of music from the 1970s, a time when folks had 8-track players (I remember them being a standard part of a stereo system, though my family stuck with records and cassettes). It was a good idea and a fun album, and was soon followed by Eight Track II and then Eight Track III.  That last one came out only a few months ago, and it is now being followed by Eight Track Christmas. And yeah, it is still early to be thinking about Christmas (and damn any store that puts its Christmas display out before Halloween), but the holiday will be here before we know it, and there’s not a thing we can do to stop it. Joining Dave Stryker on this release are Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Jared Gold on organ, and McClenty Hunter on drums and percussion. Dave Stryker does the arrangements.

Eight Track Christmas opens with a song titled “This Christmas,” a holiday tune I had forgotten about. It was originally released in 1970 by Donny Hathaway, and has been covered several times since then. This version has a bit of funk to its groove, which I appreciate. I particularly like Dave Stryker’s work on guitar. That’s followed by “What Child Is This?” This one becomes a surprisingly cool jam, something I wasn’t expecting from this song. It gets good and loose at moments, due in large part to McClenty Hunter’s excellent work on drums. I love his playing here. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is also a song I would not expect to be anything spectacular, but Dave Stryker somehow makes this song sound cool, giving it a decent groove.

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is one of the first Christmas songs that I really liked when I was growing up. I appreciated the message, particularly as I was getting into my teens. And, yes, I was a big John Lennon fan (still am). This is a fairly mellow rendition, and is kind of pretty at moments, especially when Dave Stryker takes his lead on guitar halfway through. “Soulful Frosty” is a fun version of “Frosty The Snowman.” Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, let me say that what makes it fun is that it is combined with “Soulful Strut.” That’s the part that’s fun, for we all know that “Frosty The Snowman” is a rather stupid song (though not nearly as bad as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Far and away the best Christmas television special is A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a large part of that show’s appeal is Vince Guaraldi’s music. On this album, Dave Stryker delivers a sweet, cool rendition of “Christmastime Is Here,” this too having a good dash of soul. The organ is at the heart of this track, with Jared Gold delivering some wonderful stuff. I also really like the work on vibes on this one.

“Sleigh Ride” is one of those goofy, cheery holiday tunes that you hear in every department store toward the end of the year. This year, I hope the stores get copies of this album so they can play this fun rendition. Once you get past that familiar main line of the song, this version goes into some rather exciting territory, moving at a good clip and featuring lots of impressive work on guitar. And then there is a drum solo, so, yeah, I’m digging this rendition. That’s followed by a nice version of “Blue Christmas,” which has an easygoing vibe. Then “We Three Kings” becomes a decent jam. I particularly like the way it builds beneath the vibes during that lead section in the second half of the track. Also, early in the track, there is a brief nod to “Ode To Joy.” The disc concludes with a bright, groovy rendition of “O Tannenbaum.” This version pops and moves, and is quite enjoyable.

CD Track List
  1. This Christmas
  2. What Child Is This?
  3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  4. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
  5. Soulful Frosty
  6. Christmastime Is Here
  7. Sleigh Ride
  8. Blue Christmas
  9. We Three Kings
  10. O Tannenbaum
Eight Track Christmas is scheduled to be released on CD on November 1, 2019. Apparently, it was released digitally earlier.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Wentus Blues Band with Duke Robillard: “Too Much Mustard!” (2019) CD Review

Hey, we all know the blues are not limited to the United States, but it is still surprising to me that Wentus Blues Band is based in Finland. If you’d said they were from Chicago, I’d say sure. If you told me they were from somewhere down south, I’d say okay. But the blues are universal, and this band delivers some great tunes on their new album, Too Much Mustard! This album is a joint effort with guitarist Duke Robillard, who is based here in the U.S. You probably know him from his work with Roomful Of Blues and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, but he also has a solid solo career. This album features a good mix of covers and original material, some composed by members of Wentus Blues Band and some by Duke Robillard. The Wentus Blues Band is made up of Juho Kinaret on vocals and percussion, Robban Hagnäs on bass, Niko Riippa on electric guitar, Daniel Hjerppe on drums and percussion, and Pekka Gröhn on keys. By the way, Duke Robillard offers his personal thoughts about the band in the disc’s liner notes.

The album gets off to a hopping start with a cover of The Holmes Brothers’ “Stayed At The Party.” This song itself sounds like a party, though its opening line is “Well, I stayed at the party a little too long.” If this is a song of regret, then regret never sounded so good. Check out that work on keys! The band then changes gears with a cover of Tom Waits’ “2:19,” which has a cool bluesy groove. The vocals have something of that raw, rough quality that Tom Waits possesses. I dig that lead on guitar, and then there is another nice lead on keys. They follow that with Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” here titled simply “Judgement Day.” This a fun rendition, with a full, rowdy sound and a good, mean groove. These guys pick some excellent material to cover. The best songwriter who ever existed is of course Leonard Cohen, and I am always excited to hear folks cover his material. The song that Wentus Blues Band performs here is “First We Take Manhattan,” from his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. Wentus Blues Band and Duke Robillard offer an interesting rendition of this one, adding some blues guitar, as you might expect, but also giving it a somewhat lighter, more relaxed vibe than the original.

We then get into the original material, beginning with “She’s A Killer Hot Blonde,” a rocking, jumping song about a woman who loves the blues. “She’ll make you dance to the rhythm, holler and scream/She will make you see how she fulfills her dreams.” It was written by Robert Hagnäs. And if you’re looking for something with that delicious classic blues sound, these guys offer “Right In Your Arms,” another original tune. There is a whole lot of great playing on this track. This one should succeed at making you feel good. It is certainly working for me. “I’ve found what I’ve been searching for/Because the place I love the best is wherever you are/Right in your arms/That’s right, baby.” Indeed! That’s followed by “Too Much Mustard,” the album’s title track, which is another seriously enjoyable and lively number, with a bit of a classic rock and roll vibe. This is a tune to get you on that dance floor and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face (especially during those brief vocal parts). Swing your partner around and realize that life is pretty damn good. Yeah, this is one of my favorite tracks. It was written by Duke Robillard, Robert Hagnäs and Niko Riippa

The band delivers a good rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’,” a fun track about leaving and not coming back. “I hear you knocking/I hear you calling/I hear you every time you say my name.” It features another good groove and more great stuff on guitar. “You Got My Love” is an original song, one that quickly establishes a good groove and maintains it, something to keep your body moving. Yeah, this disc features a lot of fun material, including a rousing cover of Chuck Willis’ “I Feel So Bad,” here titled “Feels So Bad.”  I tell you I feel so bad/I feel like a ball game on a rainy day/Since I lost my baby/I shake my head and I walk away.” That’s followed by “Where Have All The Songbirds Gone,” which has a sweeter, prettier sound with some nice vocal work. You might just float along on this appealing sound, but pay attention to the lyrics. Lines like “You’ve got to tell me, tell me why/There’s no help from the sky” and “Look, all the leaves turning rotten/Soon we are gonna hit bottom” stand out. The disc then concludes with “Passionate Kiss,” a song written by Duke Robillard, and one he recorded himself earlier, including it on The Duke Robillard Band album Turn It Around. This new version features some nice stuff on keys, and has a more delicate, moving sound at the beginning, then builds from there.

CD Track List
  1. Stayed At The Party
  2. 2:19
  3. Judgement Day
  4. First We Take Manhattan
  5. She’s A Killer Hot Blonde
  6. Right In Your Arms
  7. Too Much Mustard
  8. She Made My Mind
  9. I Hear You Knockin’
  10. Miranda
  11. You Got My Love
  12. Selma
  13. Feels So Bad
  14. Where Have All The Songbirds Gone
  15. Passionate Kiss 
Too Much Mustard! was released on September 13, 2019.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Fleur Seule: “Standards And Sweet Things” (2019) CD Review

Fleur Seule is a jazz group based in New York that is led by a strong female vocalist straight out of the 1940s. This group specializes in music from that period, making the music sound as fresh as it was the day it was first performed, basically transporting us out of our current time. And the music they choose to cover comes from several different countries. Lead singer Allyson Briggs speaks multiple languages, and seems at ease singing in any one of several languages, not only transporting us to a different time, but to different places as well. Allyson Briggs, in addition to singing in this group, works as a voiceover artist, and clearly has perfect control over her voice. The band is incredibly talented as well, and features Jason Yeager on piano, Richard E. Miller on guitar, Michael O’Brien on bass, Paul Francis on drums, Ivan Llanes on percussion, and Andy Warren on trumpet. Backing vocalists Martina DaSilva, Vanessa Perea and Marg Davis perform on certain tracks. Their new album, Standards And Sweet Things, features exactly what its title promises. Listening to this music, our current cares and woes and fears seem to vanish. What more could we ask for?

The album opens with an absolutely delightful and cheerful rendition of “Taking A Chance On Love,” a song written by Vernon Duke, John Latouche and Ted Fetter for the musical Cabin In The Sky. This version swings and features some nice work on piano. Allyson Briggs’ vocals have that wonderful classic sound and style, and she even delivers some bright scat halfway through the track. It’s a wonderful way to get the album going. The band then turns to a Latin rhythm for a cover of “Piel Canela,” probably the most famous composition by Bobby Capó. This version has a cool, relaxed vibe, and features some sweet work by the backing vocalists. I also really like that lead on guitar.

When I think of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” I usually think of the 1959 version by The Flamingos. But the song was already a couple of decades old when that record was released. Fleur Seule delivers a great rendition, more in line with the way Peggy Lee with The Four Of A Kind performed it in the 1940s. It begins gently on piano, and then Allyson’s vocals have such a beautifully romantic sound that you want to make a home for yourself inside them. This version has a gorgeous, late-night sound, and listening to it, you are certain there is no chance for the romance to fail. It is one of the best renditions I’ve heard, and features some good work on bass. Fleur Seule then turns playful with “Zou Bisou Bisou,” a song from the 1960s (it is also sometimes written as “Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo”). Richard Miller gives us some wonderful stuff on guitar. This group also turns in a fun, upbeat version of “Them There Eyes,” featuring some work on trumpet that should get you on your feet. Allyson Briggs is having a lot of fun with this one, and includes a bit of scat in the second half of the song. That’s followed by a gorgeous and gentle version of “Tenderly,” her vocals supported most prominently by piano, but also by some wonderful work on bass. I love this track.

Any way you slice it, “Shoo-Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy” is a goofy song, and, yes, I’m totally enjoying the new rendition by Fleur Seule. It just gets better and better, especially when that delicious lead on trumpet begins, and then when those backing vocals come in. And then, when I think it can’t get any better, we get those totally wonderful touches on drums. It is a completely enjoyable track. However, my absolute favorite track on this disc is “La Vie En Rose.” It is beautiful and moving. In fact, this track is so good, my girlfriend asked me to dance the first time we listened to this album. Dancing with her while this song played is definitely the best thing that has happened in the last month or so. I could listen to this song all day. The disc concludes with a couple of Gershwin numbers. First we get “Embraceable You,” another beautiful romantic number featuring lovely work on piano. And then we are treated to a perky, swinging version of “’S Wonderful.” It is erroneously listed as “S’ Wonderful” on the CD case and liner notes, but wherever you put the apostrophe, this is a wonderful song. And this group does an excellent job with it. I particularly love the drums. As I’ve said before, you can never go wrong with Gershwin.

CD Track List
  1. Taking A Chance On Love
  2. Piel Canela
  3. I Only Have Eyes For You
  4. Zou Bisou Bisou
  5. Sabor A Mí 
  6. Them There Eyes
  7. Tenderly
  8. Manuelo
  9. Misty
  10. Shoo-Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy
  11. Con Los Años Que Me Quedan
  12. Almost Like Being In Love
  13. La Vie En Rose
  14. Sweet Happy Life
  15. Embraceable You
  16. ‘S Wonderful
Standards And Sweet Things is scheduled to be released on October 9, 2019.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Paper Beat Scissors: “Parallel Line” (2019) CD Review

The title of Paper Beat Scissors’ new album, Parallel Line, made me smile the moment I saw it. Because of course there can’t be a single parallel line. It must be parallel to something. And so the title offers a question, really: what is that missing something, that missing line? It is a title that introduces an uncertainty, and that turns out to be so fitting for this wonderful new album, with songs that delve into the glorious mess of existence. I was first tuned onto Paper Beat Scissors several years with the release of Go On, an excellent album combining folk and pop sounds. Paper Beat Scissors is the project of singer and songwriter Tim Crabtree, based in Montreal. The new album features all original material, written by Tim Crabtree, who also plays many of the instruments, including guitar, bass, piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and percussion. He is joined by Pemi Paull on viola; Sebastian Chow on violin; John Corban on violin; Chloe Chabanole on violin; Jean-Christophe Lizotte on cello; J.J. Ipsen on bass, organ and vibraphone; Sage Reynolds on double bass; Marshall Bureau on drums and marimba; Michael Feuerstack on pedal steel guitar and electric guitar; and Pietro Amato on French horn.

The album opens with “Respire,” a short and strangely pretty instrumental track. It leads directly into the second track, “Gun Shy,” a mellow and intriguing song, the acoustic guitar prominent in the mix, but with strings behind it giving the song a gorgeous, almost angelic quality. This song builds in intensity toward the end, particularly in the vocal delivery. “When we pour out the venom we’ve known/Crawl out, can’t undermine, can’t fall in line/We’d fall apart/Fully, fully loaded, fully empty of all heart.” How about those lyrics? This album is really a thing of beauty, though that beauty has a somber element at its base. Take “All It Was” for example, which seems to rise from the ground as it moves, as if to lift us too, yet asks “Is that all it was?” Check out these lines: “Caught between your rules/Cling to virtue, only you cannot believe/That you’re all that if you’re caught too.”

“Don’t Mind” has a more cheerful, upbeat vibe from its start. “Strong words, few deeds/Tell me what a friend should be/Go again, roll the dice/Show me where my heart should be.” The strings are still present, but here the beat takes a more prominent role for most of the song. Then toward the end, there is a pretty section of strings (reminding me a bit of Cat Stevens’ “Lilywhite,” where the strings take over at the end). That’s followed by “Grace,” another beautiful and touching song, the strings adding a soothing element, like they’re accompanying us as we pass from this world. “As much as you’ll ever hold/Is it enough?” Then “Anything” is a short instrumental piece, this one existing on its own, not really connected to the track after it. Tim Crabtree pays baritone saxophone and clarinet.

The first line of “All We Know” is “All we know is wrong,” though it takes a while to get the full line, Tim Crabtree first teasing us with repetition of “All we know is.” This is another interesting song. Check out these excellent lyrics: “My conceit has been razed/And the folly has crumbled/You can leave when you like/The halls and the doors haven’t changed.” Then the opening line of “Shapes” draws me in: “You pull me into shapes that I can’t get out of.” When we listen to a song like this, I feel that what we are experiencing is in part what the artist intended, and in part what we ourselves bring to it, so that each person gets something different from it. Each person has a slightly different experience of the song. “I want it all. I want none.” Pietro Amato plays French horn on this track.

“Better” has a more lively sound and an edge, its insistent rhythm driving us forward with the music. There is something wild here. “Of all the golden sheets we make it between/For all of us we know better/And each and every night, get sewn in the seams/And wash it off, can’t wash it off.” Paper Beat Scissors returns to a gentler, prettier sound with “Half Awake,” one of my favorite songs on the album. “Let it go for a while/But you won’t see it/Getting hard of hearing/Let it go, call it dying.” That moment toward the end where the strings rise is beautiful. Then the track shifts into another place, a bright place, and once there, it begins to slow, to gently let us down, or perhaps let us go. The disc then concludes with “Little Sun,” which begins a bit chaotically, until a beat emerges. The song builds from there, developing before the vocals come in. J.J. Ipsen plays vibraphone on this track. “Start a flame, some little sun.”

CD Track List
  1. Respire
  2. Gun Shy
  3. All It Was
  4. Don’t Mind
  5. Grace
  6. Anything
  7. All We Know
  8. Shapes
  9. Better
  10. Half Awake
  11. Little Sun 
Parallel Line was released on September 13, 2019 through Forward Music Group.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Ellis Paul at McCabe’s, 9-29-19 Concert Review

McCabe’s has an ongoing Sunday Morning Kids Concert Series, and today Ellis Paul took part, delivering a completely delightful set of both originals and classic children’s songs, directly engaging both the kids and their parents. He performed the set unmiked and in the audience, pulling up a chair to create a more intimate setting. As he started his set, he spoke with each of the kids, getting their names, which he would use in an improvised song at the end of the set.

He kicked off the set just after 10:30 a.m. with “The Cat Came Back,” a song he used to perform back in the End Construction days. I remember End Construction doing some fantastic and hilarious renditions, with a ton of energy. This version was mellower, but still quite funny. He asked those in the audience to add some cat noises, and not only did the kids take part, but so did Darryl Purpose, who had opened Ellis Paul’s show last night. Then as people added their own “meow” sounds, Ellis asked, “You know what this is called?” He then answered, “It’s called s-catting.” A moment later he added, “I’ll be here all morning, thank you.” He followed that with an original number, “Because It’s There,” which was on his first children’s album, The Dragonfly Races. The song’s positive vibes were appreciated by adults as well as by children.

Ellis then brought out his harmonica holder, and asked the kids if they knew what it was. One kid guessed, “A necklace.” Ellis told them it was a bagel holder. “I put a bagel in here and I eat it when I’m on the freeway.” He then demonstrated the harmonica by playing a bit of “Oh! Susanna” before going into “Wabi-Sabi,” another sweet track from The Dragonfly Races. He followed that with a cover of Tom Paxton’s “Goin’ To The Zoo.” Rather than doing most of the lyrics, he asked individual kids to pick an animal he or she might see at the zoo and then had them all imitate a noise that animal might make. This rendition included joking references to Kung Fu Panda and The Wizard Of Oz. That was followed by a cover of “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that Ellis plays sometimes at his regular shows. The version he played today did not include all the verses (the “no trespassing” verse was missing, as was the “shadow of the steeple” verse). It did, however, include some hand movements for the children to take part in during the chorus.

Ellis recited the poem “I Opened My Mouth And My Mother Popped Out,” and had the children snap their fingers at the end rather than clap. He then played a medley of “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain,” turning it into a sort of game, telling the kids to freeze in place whenever he stopped playing. One kid unexpectedly took charge of the game. Each time Ellis would stop, the kid would wait a moment and then tell him, “Go!” And Ellis obligingly would start the song again. The children had a lot of fun with that one, but afterward one of the children shouted that he wanted to go to the park. Ellis said he would play just one more song, and improvised a song using all the children’s names, and included lyrics about going to the park. The show ended at 11:10 a.m.

Set List
  1. The Cat Came Back
  2. Because It’s There
  3. Oh! Susanna
  4. Wabi-Sabi
  5. Goin’ To The Zoo
  6. This Land Is Your Land
  7. I Opened My Mouth And My Mother Popped Out
  8. I’ve Been Working On The Railroad >
  9. She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain >
  10. I’ve Been Working On The Railroad
  11. The Name Song 
McCabe’s is located at 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.

Ellis Paul at McCabe’s, 9-28-19 Concert Review

Ellis Paul is currently touring the west coast, and last night delivered an excellent set at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. He focused on material from his new album, The Storyteller’s Suitcase, and in fact actually told the crowd early in the set that he wouldn’t be playing the old songs. “I am here to play new songs,” he told them. “I know a lot of you want to hear the old songs. I’m not going to do it, and I just want you to know that up front. There will be no refunds. Now listen, the reason why I’m doing that is because I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I feel like my best stuff is yet to come.” That’s great for someone like me who is always eager to hear new material from my favorite artists. And indeed, most of the set was made up of new material, songs from his twentieth album. It was probably the only show I’ve seen him do in many years that did not include either “3,000 Miles” or “Maria’s Beautiful Mess.”

After a really good opening set by Darryl Purpose (with David James joining him on mandolin), Ellis Paul took the stage at 8:45 p.m., kicking off his set with “I Ain’t No Jesus,” a sweet song, and one that I love more each time I hear it. He has been opening his shows with it for a while, and it really is a great way to start the night, setting a loving tone. It is also the song that he chose to lead off the album. McCabe’s is one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles to see live music, and it is a favorite place for musicians to play. “I love this place,” Ellis said after “I Ain’t No Jesus.” “It’s partly because of you,” he told the audience, “but I think it’s because I buy guitars here, and I end up spending more than I make at a show.” He also thanked a couple that had sent a bottle of excellent Scotch to him backstage before the concert. “Thank you for that. You’ve ruined the show, but thank you.” He then described the time in Big Sur that provided the inspiration for “Slingshot.” Ellis played harmonica on both “I Ain’t No Jesus” and “Slingshot.”

“Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July” is always a fun one to hear, and last night in particular was enjoyable, for the crowd got really into it. In fact, one woman finished a line for Ellis. The line is “Uncle Buck is rolling somethin’ he calls a monster doobie,” and he draws out the last two words, “mon-ster doo-bie.” A woman finished the line by singing “bie.” “Thank you,” Ellis said to her. The audience also sang along with the “We Are Family” section at the end. While he offered introductions to most of the songs in his set, Ellis just jumped right into “Election Day” without a single word of introduction. It was a good rendition, and a song that the audience appreciated. We are all eager for the next election and the end of this corrupt and incompetent administration. He followed that with another timely and powerful song, “The Battle Of Charlottesville,” and then “The Innocence And The Afterlife,” one of my personal favorites from the new album. It is a song inspired by a conversation he had with his daughter when she was five years old, a conversation about death. After those songs, Ellis promised the audience the music would be happy from there on out. “Well, that’s a lie,” he corrected himself after a moment. “It’s folk music.” Yet the next song was a happy song. He delivered a great, mean, fiery rendition of “Kick Out The Lights,” with audience participation, of course. This was the first song of the set that was not from the new album, but it was after that one that he showed the audience the contents of the deluxe edition of The Storyteller’s Suitcase.

Ellis then switched to piano for a really good and passionate version of “Scarecrow In A Corn Maze.” He followed that with a couple of tracks from The Hero In You, one of Ellis Paul’s children’s albums, first mentioning that he would be doing a children’s show in the morning. He started with “Thomas Edison,” and followed that with the title track, which was actually a request and dedicated to a guy in the audience who was celebrating his birthday. Ellis stepped off the stage to perform it unmiked in the audience. Interestingly, he followed that with “You’ll Never Be This Young Again,” perhaps a perfect song for someone having a birthday, a song reminding us that it’s not too late to chase our dreams, and urging us to start now. He concluded his set with “The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down.” “It’s my most well-known song, and it’s also about not wasting time,” Ellis said in the introduction to the song. He performed this one unmiked and in the audience, the crowd singing it with him. And that was how the concert ended. There was no encore. The show ended at 10:11 p.m.

Set List
  1. I Ain’t No Jesus
  2. Slingshot
  3. Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July
  4. Election Day
  5. The Battle Of Charlottesville
  6. The Innocence And The Afterlife
  7. Kick Out The Lights
  8. Scarecrow In A Corn Maze
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. The Hero In You
  11. You’ll Never Be This Young Again
  12. The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down

McCabe’s is located at 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, California.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

David Hasselhoff: “Open Your Eyes” (2019) CD Review

Recently David Hasselhoff released a music video for “Open Your Eyes,” the title track from his new album. It seemed a perfect song for these days, with the line “Open your eyes, see the lies right in front of you.” Yet the song actually came out in the early part of the Reagan years, another frightening time politically, when it was performed by The Lords Of The New Church. On Open Your Eyes, David Hasselhoff offers renditions of some popular songs, covering a surprisingly wide range of musical genres, including hard rock, new wave, pop, country and folk. He also has special guests joining him on nearly every track. Most of the songs he has chosen are from the 1980s, a decade that gave us a whole lot of fun music, as well as the decade that David Hasselhoff came to our attention in Knight Rider. It was also the decade that he began releasing records. Yeah, David Hasselhoff has released more albums than you’re likely aware of, certainly more than I was aware of, including a Christmas album. This CD includes a “Hoff Army” patch, which made me laugh and which my girlfriend refuses to wear. I think once she hears this entire disc, she will change her mind.

Open Your Eyes begins with its title track, a powerful song that seems to speak directly to our times. Check out these lines: “Violence rules within our nation's midst/Well, ignorance is their power tool/You only know what they want you to know.” David delivers a passionate, earnest rendition that captures the strength of the original. James Williamson (from The Stooges) joins David on guitar on this track. “They scare us all with threats of war/So we forget just how bad things are.” That’s followed by “Head On,” a fun tune with a delightful 1980s sound. It was written by William Reid and Jim Reid, and originally recorded by The Jesus And Mary Chain. “Yeah, the world could die in pain/And I wouldn't feel no shame/And there's nothing holding me to blame/Makes you want to feel, makes you want to try/Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.” David Hasselhoff delivers a seriously good vocal performance here, and is joined by Elliot Easton (from The Cars) on guitar. Then Steve Stevens (Billy Idol’s guitarist) joins him on a rendition of Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” a song I love. Actually, that entire Modern English album, After The Snow, is excellent, and should be a part of your music collection. This version features some wonderful touches on guitar, and it is those moments that really distinguish it from the original, giving it a slightly harder edge.  I love the way David sings the lines, “I made a pilgrimage to save the human race/Never comprehending the race has long gone by.” There is a bit of sadness to his delivery, matching what a lot of us are feeling these days. David follows that with another 1980s pop song, “Lips Like Sugar,” delivering a cool version of the Echo And The Bunnymen tune. He is joined on keys by Mike Score (of A Flock Of Seagulls).

David Hasselhoff then dips into the 1970s with a wonderful take on David Bowie’s “‘Heroes’,” singing a portion of the lyrics in German. This song was from Bowie’s Berlin period, and he himself released a version in German. The song is closely tied to the Berlin Wall, perhaps a reason why David Hasselhoff chooses to cover it. You might recall him singing “Looking For Freedom” at the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Gil Sharone plays drums on this version of “‘Heroes’” (you might know him from his work with Stolen Babies and Marilyn Manson). That’s followed by “Here I Go Again.” I have to admit I loved this song when I was a kid, and listened to that Whitesnake cassette quite a bit. But then I moved on, and hadn’t listened to it in decades. Well, it is fun to revisit it here. Tracii Guns (of L.A. Guns) plays guitar on this version. Then Todd Rundgren joins David Hasselhoff for “Jump In My Car,” a song originally done by Ted Mulry Gang. This track is a total delight. There is something completely lovable about David Hasselhoff. He seems to have never taken himself too seriously, and has a good time with whatever projects he is involved in. That is evidenced, for example, in his cameo in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame (my vote for best cameo ever in a film), and in this wonderful track. David Hasselhoff released this song as a single more than a decade ago, putting out a rather goofy music video to accompany it (if you watch it, be sure to watch it to the end). This new version ends with him asking “What was I thinking in the first place?

At the beginning of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” David Hasselhoff dedicates the song to Glen Campbell, who had recorded it in 1975. David had recorded this song before, including it on his Sings America album. On this new rendition, he is joined by Charlie Daniels on fiddle. This version has more of a pop vibe. What I love is that David really throws himself into each of these songs, singing each with conviction while simultaneously enjoying himself. He follows “Rhinestone Cowboy” with an unusual take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” giving it a bit of an electronic pop sound. His vocal performance is heartfelt, and he is joined by Ava Cherry on vocals. David then throws himself into one of the silliest and catchiest of bubblegum pop songs, “Sugar Sugar,” a song originally done by cartoon darlings The Archies. Here he is joined by Steve Cropper on guitar. Is this version fun? You bet! But it’s not as fun as “Mit 66 Jahren,” a song by Udo Jürgens, here delivered partly in German, partly in English. “Life begins as 66/I’m having a wonderful time/Life begins at 66/And everything is fine/Life begins at 66/The best is yet to come.” This is probably my favorite track. I fucking love it. Patrick Moraz (of The Moody Blues) plays keys on this track. “People try to tell me I should be slowing down/I’m putting on my dancing shoes and heading for the town.” Amen!

Coming from Massachusetts, I have a special love for Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” It is a song that is in the air there, and it is played at every Red Sox game in the eighth inning. David Hasselhoff’s rendition of “Sweet Caroline” has a strange, industrial sound. He is joined by Ministry on this one. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an approach quite like this before. It is likely not the only industrial pop version of a Neil Diamond song, but it is the only one I think I’ve heard. So good, so good. David Hasselhoff wraps up the album with “That’s Life,” a song associated mainly with Frank Sinatra. This is the one track of the album not to feature a special guest. David delivers a totally enjoyable rendition, featuring some good work on keys. This is a song that feels like some kind of blessing in these twisted times, a song we need to keep in mind and in heart. “Each time I find myself flat on my face/I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

CD Track List
  1. Open Your Eyes
  2. Head On
  3. I Melt With You
  4. Lips Like Sugar
  5. “Heroes”
  6. Here I Go Again
  7. Jump In My Car
  8. Rhinestone Cowboy
  9. If You Could Read My Mind
  10. Sugar Sugar
  11. Mit 66 Jahren
  12. Sweet Caroline
  13. That’s Life
Open Your Eyes was released on CD and vinyl (red vinyl!) on September 27, 2019 on Cleopatra Records.

Friday, September 27, 2019

HeavyDrunk: “Holywater” (2019) CD Review

HeavyDrunk is a band based in Nashville that delivers some great raw soul and blues music. Their new album, Holywater, features mostly original material, written or co-written by singer and guitarist Rob Robinson. And, yes, the fact that there is no space between “Heavy” and “Drunk,” nor one between “Holy” and “Water” does bug me a bit, but it certainly doesn’t keep me from enjoying the excellent music on this disc. Though the first time I listened to it, I wasn’t sure initially what to make of the opening track, “If I Loved You Hard Enough.” I mean, its opening lines are at first violent then seriously goofy: “I grabbed her by the hair of her head/And drug her across the Piggly Wiggly parking lot/She lost her hot pink flip flop/In the disabled parking spot.” But approximately a minute in, I fell for it. Those fantastic soulful backing vocals certainly didn’t hurt, and I loved the horns, of course, but the lyrics and his vocal delivery also became strangely endearing, and soon I was totally grooving to this bluesy song. So, yes, by the end of the first track, I was firmly in the grip of this album.

“Walking To The Mission In The Rain” has a delicious groove and features more good work from the horn section. Yeah, the title at first reminded me of the Jerry Garcia song “Mission In The Rain,” but this song sounds nothing like that one. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “You’re reaching back where there ain’t no reaching back/It’s all uphill from here/Burning out, nothing left to feel.” I love that guitar lead in the second half of the song, particularly the way it starts, that one note held long enough to tease us and draw us in, get us ready for whatever might be coming our way. This one was written by Rob Robinson, Will Beeman and Joseph Shackelford. That’s followed by “HeavyDrunk Holywater,” a slower, soulful number with a moving vocal performance. “The only thing they left standing was her old piano/I am playing for you now.” How can those words not affect you? I wasn’t expecting a song this beautiful. Yes, that’s right, it’s beautiful. This is one of my favorite tracks. I’ve been keeping a list of bands that have a song whose title is the name of the band (such as Bad Company, Night Ranger and They Might Be Giants). This one doesn’t quite make the list, but it’s the only song I can think of whose title is the name of the band combined with the name of the album. Anyway, this sort of thing might only be interesting to me, but there you have it.

Just give me one dancing fool/Just give me one dancing fool/And we can change the world together” are the first lines of “One Dancing Fool.” Oh yes, I love it. Then the song kicks in to become a glorious, funky tune. Fantastic! And yes, I think music can change the world. Just imagine a protest that involved everyone dancing, like two million people dancing in Washington D.C.  Mike Pence’s brain would fucking explode. And isn’t that what we all want? “High On Love” is another soulful, moving song featuring a wonderful vocal performance. I also really dig that bass. The jam toward the end has an introspective feel, a mellow sound that will carry you along if you let it. It’s pleasant sometimes to let the music take hold of your brain and relax you. Then “Memphis” begins like a soulful folk song before the horns come in to give it a classic sound. “Just like that winding river/Her love is overflowing.” That’s followed by “Somebody’s Got To Take Them Panties Off.” This is an odd one, because it has this sweet, romantic soul sound, and then the main line seems to work in contrast to that. It is like a wooing happening before our ears, as he sings “I want to be whatever you need.” But then suddenly we get the real thrust of his romantic overtures. “It’s not all about you/It’s not all about me/But I’ve been thinking about it/And it occurred to me/Somebody’s got to take them panties off, babe.”

As I mentioned, most of the tracks on this album are originals, written or co-written by Rob Robinson. Only two tracks are covers, and they are presented back-to-back just before the end of the disc. First, we get a cool cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Slave,” a song originally included on Tattoo You, the last really good Stones album (which itself was made up of tracks recorded for earlier albums). It might seem a strange song to cover, as there aren’t many lyrics apart from the main line and a bit of odd spoken word. But it’s a good jam and features saxophone, making it perhaps perfect for HeavyDrunk. Plus, I love hearing HeavyDrunk’s backing vocalists singing “Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it.” HeavyDrunk adds more lyrics to this rendition. That’s followed by a cover of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s “Midnight In Harlem,” a song included on that band’s debut album, Revelator. HeavyDrunk does a good job with it, remaining faithful to the original. The disc then concludes with another number full of soul and beauty, “Shine On.” This song makes me feel good, makes me feel that humanity is actually a worthwhile thing. Certainly we need that right now.

CD Track List
  1. If I Loved You Hard Enough
  2. Walking To The Mission In The Rain
  3. HeavyDrunk Holywater
  4. One Dancing Fool
  5. I Can’t Be Satisfied
  6. Keeping Up With The Kid
  7. High On Love
  8. Memphis
  9. Somebody’s Got To Take Them Panties Off
  10. Pick You Up Along The Way
  11. Slave
  12. Midnight In Harlem
  13. Shine On 
Holywater is scheduled to be released on October 4, 2019.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Holland Greco’s Record Release Show Was Canceled

Things were weird in part of downtown L.A. tonight, where Holland Greco was scheduled to have her record release party. My first clue that something was off was the stop-and-go traffic on the 101 freeway all the way from Hollywood Blvd. to the 110 South. At that hour and in that direction, things should have been moving. Then when I got off the freeway at 8th, I came into total darkness. The only lights were from the fire trucks which were blocking the right turn I was supposed to take. Traffic light after traffic light was out, and no one seemed to have any idea what to do. And every third block had a fire truck blocking a road. And there was no parking anywhere. It took me approximately thirty-five minutes to find a spot, and I got that by driving half a block in reverse after seeing someone pull out in my rear view mirror. There was a strange energy in the air, crackling between people, and I got the feeling it could turn bad at any moment. So I hurried to The Mayfair Hotel, a cool venue where I’d seen Holland & Clark play once before, last November.

When I arrived, the hotel lobby was full of people. They all seemed to be waiting for something, and not for the concert. As I made my way around everyone to the back of the lobby toward the Library Bar where the show was to happen, an employee stopped me. “It’s not open yet,” he told me. That was strange, since the show was scheduled to start at 9 p.m., and at that point it was 8:40 p.m. “But that’s where the Holland Greco concert will be, right?” I asked. “It’s not going to happen,” he said. Apparently, some transformer blew nearby, or some such thing, and the hotel was running on its backup generator. That’s why all those folks were hanging around in the lobby. Their rooms had no power. I looked around the room for familiar faces, and, seeing none, I made my way to the other set of doors to the venue. Through those doors I saw Holland Greco and Megan Jacobs, and went inside. There was no security guy on that side to stop me. And Holland confirmed the show was canceled. “I had a good show planned,” she said. Undoubtedly. Holland Greco has never delivered anything less than a stellar performance. And this show was to celebrate the release of her new single, and on clear vinyl at that. It was definitely going to be a fun time. The one good thing about the evening was that I was able to pick up a copy of the record, which has “We Could Still (Get It On)” on one side and “Reach For Me” on the other. And did I mention it’s on clear vinyl?

The show will be rescheduled soon, so everyone will have a chance to dance to some great tunes. See you there!

Ellis Paul: “The Storyteller’s Suitcase” (2019) CD Review

It has been thirty years since I first saw Ellis Paul in concert, and in the time since then he has performed all over the country and has released several tremendous albums featuring excellent material. He embodies the best of the folksinger tradition. That is to say, in addition to having a distinct and appealing voice, he is one hell of a storyteller. Anyone who has ever seen him in concert can attest to that. And of course it is not simply the stories he tells during performances, but the stories his songs tell us. His new release is full of such stories, full of such songs, and its title directly refers to his vocation as storyteller. Many of the songs that make up The Storyteller’s Suitcase tell of significant and memorable days in his life. By the way, in addition to the regular CD release, there is a deluxe edition of this album which comes in its own little suitcase and contains (in addition to the CD) a poster, a flask, a journal, a pen and – most importantly – a USB containing nearly all his previous releases (I believe the only one missing is the Tree Full Of Crows album, which to this date has only ever been released on cassette). It’s an instant Ellis Paul collection. Ellis Paul has several musicians joining him, including Radoslav Lorkovic on keys, Craig Akin on upright bass, and Ryan Hommel on pedal steel.

The CD begins with “I Ain’t No Jesus,” a song Ellis Paul has been playing in concert for several years now, often opening his shows with it. It’s a sweet song, and it has a gentle and intimate sound here. Adding to its beauty on this recording is the presence of Eric Lee on fiddle. What I’ve loved about this song since I first heard it is the tenderness and also wonder in Ellis Paul’s voice and in the lyrics, particularly in the lines “The only miracle I’ve seen/Is you walking down the aisle to me.” Laurie MacAllister provides some really nice backing vocals. That’s followed by “You’ll Never Be This Young Again.” This version has a cheerful, delightful sound, particularly because of the work on keys. This song should have a lot of appeal, because most of us can relate to the ideas here. Who hasn’t thought his or her life was going to be more magical? Don’t lose that drive to make it happen, for it’s not too late. But, bloody hell, get started because life is short, “The mountain top/Ain’t gonna wait forever.” “You only get so many heartbeats/You only get so many first kisses/So sweet/Dreams don’t come easy/And they don’t come cheap.”

“Kiss Me ‘Cause I’m Gone” is a song I first heard at the CD release show in Boston. It’s a song Ellis co-wrote with Abbie Gardner, and is a song about pursuing your dreams, regardless of what others might say. It’s also a perfect song to add to your road trip play list. “No more waiting for lights/That are slow to change/I’m gone/Chasing the white lines/Down the old highway.” That’s followed by “Scarecrow In A Corn Maze,” another song that he’s been performing for several years, and one he plays on piano rather than guitar. “Scarecrow in a corn maze/Tryin’ to find some way out/Storm clouds are comin’/Take shelter in the bar/Let the twister just spin out.” “Slingshot” has a delightfully cheerful sound, and is another that I first heard at the album release party. I love the positive feel of this one, a song about possibilities. Listening to this song makes you feel empowered in a way, that you can realize your dreams. And the lines “The world could use a hero/’Cause the lunatics/Are running the shop” feel particularly apt these days. “The Storyteller’s Suitcase,” the album’s title track, was written after Ellis Paul had already decided on a title for the album. It’s a song about being a traveling musician. While a lot of songs tackling that subject speak of loneliness, motels, playing in bars, and being away from home, this one takes a lot of those elements and gives them a positive sound. This is not a singer looking for sympathy; he’s not decrying his profession, but celebrating it. “A song is just a skeleton key/That can open any palace door,” he tells us. Mark Dann plays mandolin on this track.

Ellis Paul does not include a lot of material by other people on his studio releases, but here he covers “How You Say Goodbye,” a good song written by Kyle Hancharick which appeared on his 2018 release Breathe. Baseball is by far my favorite sport (though I despise these new rules that remove the human element; pitchers should have to throw the four pitches in an intentional walk), and this song uses imagery from that great game. And no, the Red Sox won’t be in the playoffs this year, but relax, it was only a year ago that they won the World Series (the fourth time in my lifetime, which is incredible). That is followed by “The Innocence And The Afterlife,” one of my personal favorites from this album. This song affected me strongly the first time I heard him play it in concert, and seems to affect me even more each time I listen to it. It’s a beautiful and moving song about explaining death to his daughter. He doesn’t have the answers (no one does), so he tells her the various things people believe about the afterlife. The lines about her asking to come back as a puppy often reduce me to tears. You need to hear them. I would include this song among Ellis Paul’s very best. And this version features some gorgeous work by Mairi Chaimbeul on harp.

“Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July” is a fun song about a day from Ellis Paul’s youth, when the farmhouse caught fire at a family reunion and burned down. No one was hurt, so the song has a pleasant and humorous vibe. As he does with the song in concert, Ellis includes a nod to “We Are Family” at the end. That’s followed by a song that tells of a very different day, when someone was certainly hurt. Ellis Paul has been living in Charlottesville for a while, and so that horrible day affected him perhaps even more than it did the rest of us. The song “The Battle Of Charlottesville” is the result, and it’s a powerful track. “Lives blown out like a candle/The president must love a scandal/He wouldn’t take a side/Though people died/And Heather Heyer got mowed down.” Kyle Hancharick plays guitar on this one.

“Mammoth” is a beautiful song of longing and memory. Ellis co-wrote this one with Seth Glier, who plays piano and provides backing vocals on this track. Jenna Moynihan adds some wonderful stuff on violin. That’s followed by “Heaven.” In the CD’s liner notes, Ellis explains that this song came about when a friend asked him to compose a song for his brother who had died. It’s a beautiful song about goodbyes. The disc then concludes with “Election Day.” The opening lines of this song, “I can feel a new day coming/Change is on the way,” feel particularly right today, when maybe, just maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end of the horror show in the capital. The corrupt scoundrel in the White House is getting nervous. Anyway, it is a great song. Interestingly, this is actually a cover. It was written by Michael K. Brown. “You have tried to keep me quiet/But I have things to say/I’ve got a voice and it won’t be silent/You’re gonna hear in on Election Day.”

CD Track List
  1. I Ain’t No Jesus
  2. You’ll Never Be This Young Again
  3. Kiss Me ‘Cause I’m Gone
  4. Scarecrow In A Corn Maze
  5. Slingshot
  6. The Storyteller’s Suitcase
  7. How You Say Goodbye
  8. The Innocence And The Afterlife
  9. Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July
  10. The Battle Of Charlottesville
  11. Mammoth
  12. Heaven 
  13. Election Day
The Storyteller’s Suitcase was released on May 31, 2019.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Robert Hunter (1941 – 2019)

No group has had a greater impact on my life than the Grateful Dead. Known perhaps primarily for their extended exploratory jams, a good deal of the appeal of their music for me has always been the lyrics. The group had two main lyricists, John Perry Barlow, who wrote mostly with Bob Weir, and Robert Hunter, who wrote mostly with Jerry Garcia. We lost John Barlow last year. And now I am incredibly sad to say we’ve lost Robert Hunter too. Hunter was responsible for the lyrics to such fantastic songs as “Dark Star,” “Stella Blue” and “Brokedown Palace.” He also penned the lyrics to my all-time favorite song, “Ripple.”

I was fortunate enough to meet the man once. He gave a poetry reading at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s, when I was a student there. I got to the auditorium early (I am always early to everything), and grabbed a seat in the front row. There was an open door next to the stage leading outside, and through that doorway I spied Robert Hunter standing there, smoking a cigarette. I could see only him, not whoever might be accompanying him. I grabbed my copy of A Box Of Rain from my backpack and went outside to see about possibly getting an autograph. Turned out he was by himself out there. That surprised me. I assumed he’d have a group of friends and maybe some fans around him. But he was alone. So I had a chance to talk to him to a bit. And he signed my book. I was struck by how relaxed he was, how friendly and completely natural and genuine he was. He put me at ease immediately.

Meeting him meant a lot to me, but the lyrics that he wrote of course mean so much more. These are the songs I sing to myself when I’m driving, when I’m worried, when I’m confused about the world, when I’m sad, and when I'm happy. These are the songs that are with me whatever I’m doing. So many of Robert Hunter’s lyrics deal, in one way or another, with death itself, and I have a feeling these songs will be with me when I go. At least, I hope so. As Jerry Garcia sings in “Ripple,” “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Carolyn Lee Jones: “Close Your Eyes” (2019) CD Review

Carolyn Lee Jones is a jazz vocalist based in Dallas, Texas. Her full-time music career started only a little more than a decade ago, and in that time she has released several albums and singles. Her latest, Close Your Eyes, finds her singing material covering the many facets of love. Joining her on most tracks of this release is Brad Williams on piano, synthesizer and organ. He also arranged several of the tracks. Sergio Pamies, the other pianist joining her on this album, arranged a couple of the other tracks. Carolyn Lyn Jones has an array of other talented musicians joining her on various tracks.

Close Your Eyes opens with its title track, which features some delicious work on bass, including a truly expressive solo. The bass is really a second voice on this track. That is Jonathan Fisher on upright bass. There is also some really nice work on keys, particularly in the second half. Carolyn Lee Jones’ vocals have a romantic, somewhat soothing quality, but there is also a youthful excitement to her delivery at times. “Close your eyes/When you open them, dear/I’ll be near/By your side.” She whispers the last line, “I can feel you next to me,” a line I don’t recall hearing in other versions. Then Andrew Griffith starts the following track, “No Moon At All,” on drums with some gentle playing. And for a moment Carolyn Lee Jones’ voice is supported just by drums, before the bass and piano come in. There is something sexy and also playful about this rendition, a song to bring you closer to that special someone. This track features some wonderful work by Brad Williams on piano. Interestingly, Carolyn Lee Jones whispers the last line to this one too, “Kiss me,” which I also don’t remember being in other versions.

“The Nearness Of You” begins with some beautiful work by Sergio Pamies on piano. Soon Daniel Pardo joins on flute, giving this version a light quality, a quality which Carolyn’s vocal approach emphasizes. Pepe Valdez joins Carolyn Lee Jones on acoustic guitar. Young Heo plays bass on this track, and Lupe Barerra is on drums. Things then get snappy and fun with a good rendition of “That Old Black Magic,” which has a touch of funk. Also, this track has a horn section, adding to the joy of the sound. Dave Pierce is on trombone (he also arranged this one), and Dave Monsch is on saxophone. Joe Lee plays electric guitar on this track. Jeff Plant is on electric bass, Dennis Durick is on drums, and Arno Lucas adds to the groove on percussion.

Carolyn Lee Jones delivers a sweet, smooth, sexy vocal performance on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” which also features Daniel Pardo again on flute. Pepe Valdez is on acoustic guitar. Sergio Pamies gives us some wonderful work on piano. It is a cheerful rendition, if perhaps a bit mellower than some versions I’ve heard. Then “When I Found You” has more of a big band sound, with that horn section of Dave Pierce on trombone, Pete Clagett on trumpet and Dave Monsch on saxophone. Matt Young is on drums, and Joe Lee is on electric guitar. Brad Williams plays organ on this one. Carolyn Lee Jones’ vocals have a delightful energy and cheer. “All Night Long” is a late-night romantic number written by Curtis Lewis, featuring some gorgeous work on horns. Pete Clagett is on trumpet and Dave Monsch is on saxophone. Jeffrey Eckels plays upright bass. Carolyn Lee Jones delivers another beautiful and alluring vocal performance here, pulling us in. “When I sleep, he tells me he’s in love with me/And how much he needs me to be near/But at best a dream is just a fantasy/When I touch his hand, he just disappears.” The disc then concludes with a kind of dreamy rendition of “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Brad Williams plays both piano and synthesizer on this track. As she did on the first two tracks, Carolyn Lee Jones ends this one with a whispered line, a breathy “I love you.”

CD Track List
  1. Close Your Eyes
  2. No Moon At All
  3. I Was A Fool
  4. The Nearness Of You
  5. That Old Black Magic
  6. Love After Midnight
  7. Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You
  8. When I Found You
  9. Confession
  10. My Foolish Heart
  11. All Night Long
  12. I Only Have Eyes For You
Close Your Eyes was released on September 15, 2019.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Jennifer Saran: “Smoky Nights” (2019) CD Review

Jennifer Saran is a vocalist and songwriter who works in a variety of musical realms, dipping into soul and pop on earlier releases, and now delving into jazz with her delicious new EP, Smoky Nights. This CD features all original material, written by Jennifer Saran and Narada Michael Walden. Narada Michael Walden also produced and arranged these tracks, as he did for Jennifer Saran’s previous releases Walk With Me and Wake Up. Narada Michael Walden also plays drums, bass and keys on this release. The other musicians joining Jennifer Saran on Smoky Nights include Tammy Hall on piano, Jim Reitzel on guitar, Rich Armstrong on trumpet, Daniel Casares on saxophone, and Charles McNeal on saxophone. Jennifer delivers some gorgeous and exciting material here, and is not shy about addressing some of the topics troubling our nation today.

The EP opens with its title track, “Smoky Nights,” a sexy, late-night jazzy gem, Jennifer Saran’s voice having a sultry quality. “I turn down the lights/You’re still fooling me/Smoky nights.” And the way those horns rise up from the darkness is fantastic. This track features some good work on keys as well. The whole thing works like a spell gliding around us, gathering us in, enchanting us. “Wrap your arms around me/'til your charm surrounds me/Hold me forever more/Smoky nights.” That’s followed by “Love Is Now Gone.” This one too seems to be emerging from a dark, mysterious place, the keys pushing open the door and tempting us inside, the saxophone offering little observations and glimpses into this world. Of course, it is Jennifer’s voice that is queen of this land, gorgeous and strong and commanding. Her voice gathers all around her, and she tells us her woeful tale. “Love is now gone/All happiness, I see/Will no longer be/Plans we made/The music we played/Where did it go?” Her voice grabs hold of us, seemingly without effort, pulling us into the darkness, or perhaps making us aware of the darkness already surrounding us. “Loneliness always comes/Everyone’s life’s undone/Love cannot survive/With stories or lies/You know what you’ve done.”

“Let The Waves Wash Over” is a somewhat more energetic number, mostly because of its rhythm. Yet it touches on a serious subject: rape. It was written after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, when people like Susan Collins and Jeff Flake voted to confirm a rapist to the Supreme Court. It opens with these lines: “I fought him off/I cried out and no one came/I live with the shame.” Yet this song has an empowering and positive message: “It is time for a change/Vote them out in my name/Let the waves wash over me/No more time should go by/Daughters, sisters and wives/Let the waves wash over me.” Let’s hope that every last person that voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh is removed from office through the voting process. “Let The Waves Wash Over Me” is followed by “Don’t Forget My Name,” which has a pretty sound. “Have you loved me for the last time?/I cannot see, I cannot see/Have you touched me for the last time?/It cannot be, it cannot be.” Those short instrumental sections are powerful, and the track builds wonderfully.

The EP concludes with “Get Over Yourself,” which, though recorded in the studio, has the feel of a live track, with some background sounds as it opens. It begins with a groovy bass line, and once that is established, Jennifer’s vocals come in, followed soon by the rest of the band. This is a seriously cool tune, in part because of the bass. Plus, I’m glad to hear a jazz singer taking on that mendacious criminal in the White House and the entire corrupt Republican Party. “Give me a break/I know you can tell/What you’re saying is fake/Get over yourself.” The track then bursts open in the second half, and sounds fantastic. This is such a good tune. “From the president on down/Y’all screwing up/Y’all screwing up everything.” Indeed.

CD Track List
  1. Smoky Nights
  2. Love Is Now Gone
  3. Let The Waves Wash Over
  4. Don’t Forget My Name
  5. Get Over Yourself 
Smoky Nights was released on September 20, 2019 on Tarpan Records.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Conrad Merced: “Tender Beats” (2019) Vinyl Review

Conrad Merced is a singer and songwriter based in Chicago. He was a member of The Red Jacket and Shoplifter, and last year, after a long absence from music, released a two-song EP in tribute to Shel Silverstein titled, appropriately enough, A Tribute To Shel Silverstein. He has now followed that with his first full-length solo album, Tender Beats, which is available on vinyl as well as digitally. This album is truly a solo effort; Conrad Merced plays all the instruments and provides all the vocals. He also wrote all the material, songs that are emotionally engaging, with good, honest lyrics. The music is largely folk, but with some atmospheric work on synths giving it a different sound and mood.

Side A

The record opens with its title track, “Tender Beats,” which has a gentle, pretty, and sweet sound. There is a loving, yet sad vibe to Conrad Merced’s vocal approach. He returned to music after the unexpected death of his mother, and this touching song in particular feels informed by that loss. Some lines like “Is it cold where you are/And do I seem that far?” are surprisingly heartbreaking. It’s a gorgeous and moving song. That’s followed by “Thirty Five” (yes, without the hyphen). This is one that really grew on me. There is beauty to this track, particularly in that instrumental section in the middle, which is then revisited at the end. “We’ve got no demons to fear/And we can ride together throughout the years.” Another line that stands out for me is “And when the song is over, we can hit rewind.” That line takes me back to my childhood, when a lot of my music was on cassette. Do kids today know what “rewind” means? There is a bit of a pop flavor to “Before The Storm,” in part because of the use of drum machine. “You can leave me lying right beside her/When Southern California was always on fire.”

There is something intimate and moving about this music, particularly a song like “Don’t Stop Here,” which is one of my personal favorites. This track includes theremin and xylophone, though neither becomes too prominent in the mix, but rather adds to the atmosphere of the song. “Forget your name/And I’ll do the same” Interestingly, Conrad Merced returns to that idea in the next song, “Against The Grain”: “And I’d still tend to you/Even if you forget my name.” And the lines “But it’s all right now/And we’ll be all right somehow” make it feel like a love song for our times. That is as much optimism as we can expect, and it feels like enough. This track also features a really nice lead guitar part. Then some pretty guitar work begins “Dragonfly,” the final song of the first side of the record. This is another song of love, another song that feels intimate. “And if the world around us starts changing/We wouldn’t care anyway.” And check out these lines: “Feels like no one’s around when I’m with you/And we can take it day by day/And if the skyscrapers start falling/We wouldn’t have to get out of the way.” I really love the guitar on this track, helping to make this song another of my favorites. This music itself seems to create a place where the outside world can’t harm us, where it has no effect on us.

Side B

The second side opens with “Dog In The Fight,” a song with a happier sound which is surprising, particularly as it begins with a mention of war: “In 1990 and 1991 my father fought in a war called Operation Desert Storm.” This is a song about growing up, being different from those around him. He sings, “And I thought, Is this the American dream/Is this what we look forward to.” Yet, the song is not cynical. Rather, it is surprisingly positive, with lines like “And I don’t have a single regret” and “Fond memories and good times I had back then.” It’s an interesting track. That’s followed by “I Just Wasn’t Wired That Way.” There is a strange beauty to this one, a song in which he reaches out to someone. “When you left that day/I could have asked for you to stay/But I just wasn’t wired that way.” I love how this music creates its own atmosphere, its own world, just different enough from the regular world that we feel safe within it. You know? Once you’re inside, you feel a desire to drift along within, and with eyes closed or open, you’ll see the same things, experience the same sensations.

Then “Ghostwalking” surprises me by opening with an electronic beat, a steady pulse in an otherwise dreamy atmosphere. The tone then changes, as the acoustic guitar takes over and the pulse takes on a more natural sound. Then it is like these two sounds are combined, and all that is before the vocals come in. Conrad Merced creates the mood and an unusual landscape before offering the lyrics, an interesting approach that works so well for this track. “You always asked me if I was warm/When you called me on the phone/Chicago winters are relentlessly merciless/Freeze you to the bone/And I can’t feel my hands tonight/I’ve been ghost walking in your footsteps lately/Down a cold and darkened path.” Then as the other instruments recede, the beat – the pulse – remains a moment longer. There is a flow to the music on this album, sometimes lyrically, like the repeating of the idea of forgetting one’s name that I mentioned earlier. Also, “Ghostwalking” mentions winter, and the next song, “The Bittersweetness,” opens with these lines: “The bitter sweetness comes and goes/I always think of you when it snows.” There is certainly something beautiful about this song. The record then concludes with another sweet tune, “Still Can’t Walk Away,” a song that seems to me to address Conrad’s absence and return to music, to approach artistic inspiration as a relationship. “And when you came to me, you made my fingers bleed/When we argue, we put it on display/But after all this time, I still can’t walk away.”

Record Track List

Side A
  1. Tender Beats
  2. Thirty Five
  3. Before The Storm
  4. Don’t Stop Here
  5. Against The Grain
  6. Dragonfly
Side B
  1. A Dog In The Fight
  2. I Just Wasn’t Wired That Way
  3. Ghostwalking
  4. The Bittersweetness
  5. Still Can’t Walk Away 
Tender Beats was released digitally on July 23, 2019 and on vinyl on August 15, 2019. It’s a beautiful album that I’ll likely be returning to often.