Thursday, January 31, 2019

Atomic Road Kings: “Clean Up The Blood” (2019) CD Review

The moment I first put on Clean Up The Blood, the new release from Atomic Road Kings, I knew it was something special. This album is blues with a bit of rock and roll, and a lot of soul, with a delicious classic sound. That sound is by design, as the album was recorded using old analog equipment. What a treat this disc is, especially today when the country is almost unrecognizable in its ugliness, and so many of us want to escape to another time, another place. A place that feels real, that feels honest. You know? And this music is just the right vehicle to take us there. The album features mostly original material. Atomic Road Kings are Jon Atkinson on vocals and guitar, Eric Von Herzen on harmonica, Bill Stuve on bass, Danny Michel on guitar, Malachi Johnson on drums, Tony Delgado on guitar and Scot Smart on guitar.

The album gets off to a great start with “I’ve Got Time,” blues with something of a Memphis feel. I love everything about this, for (as I mentioned) it all strikes me as honest and real. And a large part of that is due to its being recorded on old equipment, everything having an immediate and true sound. But the song itself is really good and features some great stuff on both harmonica and guitar. However, it’s that solid and cool work on bass that grabs me and holds me. “The time I was given could surely have been worse/But being from my family is nothing but a curse/I’ve got time/I’ve got time to be alone.” That’s followed by “Rumors,” the guitar having a delicious raw sound. Oh man, this is just so bloody good. Again, it has a classic sound, yet this song – like almost all of this disc’s tracks – is an original composition. Listen to that great vocal performance, the way he makes the words vibrate at times. “To lose this woman would be the death of me/I’ve seen the truth/Lord, I’ve seen it in her eyes.” This track features more great stuff on guitar. If you want the real deal, you’ve got to give this disc a listen.

“In Arms Reach” rolls along with a groove that got me smiling. We get more great work on harmonica, and another wonderful bass line. Then there is a bit of rock and roll to the sound of “Have Your Way.” And yet there is also a darkness, creating a very cool vibe. This is one of my favorite tracks. The vocals are kind of smooth, coming at us from the corners of an underground club where the chicks are all in black sweaters. “I feel all right/I feel, yes, I feel all right.” But ah, it is over too soon. Then “My Way Back Home” jumps off to a lively start. Hell, there is just not a single false note on this entire disc, no bullshit whatsoever, just some great playing. I dig the instrumental section of this track, particularly the work on drums. This tune has a damn good groove, and becomes a fun jam, that harmonica singing with a powerful voice. “With my baby in my arms I can do almost anything.”

“Clean Up The Blood,” the disc’s title track, has a slower, somewhat heavier feel, but with some touches on electric guitar that rise fiery above the general heat. This tune has a gloriously sweaty sound, a heat you can’t escape. I love the combination of darkness and joy that this music has. Take a track like “Ain’t For Me,” for example. There is a deep rumbling at its core, and yet is also totally danceable. This is just so damn good. The disc’s only cover is “Two Sided Story,” which fits right in with the rest of the material, not standing out as being older, though it is listed as “traditional,” because that is the sound and vibe of the entire album. It develops into a good powerful jam, driven by harmonica. It’s followed by “Vibrations,” a tune that is just dripping with cool right from its start. Robert Welch joins the group on piano for this track, delivering some absolutely delicious work and helping to make this another of my favorites. This album gets in one final bang with “Back Down South,” a raw, rockin’ tune with some more good stuff on harmonica. “For all my troubles, baby, I’ve got you to thank/I’ve got you to thank, I’ve got you to thank.”

CD Track List
  1. I’ve Got Time
  2. Rumors
  3. In Arms Reach
  4. Have Your Way
  5. My Way Back Home
  6. Clean Up The Blood
  7. Candy Man
  8. Ain’t For Me
  9. You Got To Change
  10. Two Sided Story
  11. Vibrations
  12. Back Down South
Clean Up The Blood is scheduled to be released on February 21, 2019 on Bigtone Records.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bird Streets at The Hotel Café, 1-29-19 Concert Review

Bird Streets performing "Carry Me"
Last August, Bird Streets released their self-titled debut album, an excellent disc featuring a wonderful pop sound and some great vocals. That same month they did a full-band performance at The Federal Bar in North Hollywood, playing all eleven tracks from the album. Last night I saw a markedly different performance from Bird Streets at The Hotel Café. While the material they performed was largely the same, the approach and the sound were unlike what I had experienced earlier. And, to my ears, this approach was even better. They performed as a duo, with John Brodeur on acoustic guitar and Jason Falkner on upright piano and electric guitar.

At 8 p.m. (artists at this venue always begin promptly), John Brodeur took the stage and began the show solo, opening with “Direction,” one of my favorite tracks from the album. It was a treat to hear a solo acoustic rendition of this one, and it worked remarkably well in that setting. That was followed by a song not from the Bird Streets release, but from John Brodeur’s Tiger Pop Ten, “Masterpiece,” which he also performed solo. (This song was also included on The Suggestions’ Mix Tape.)  “Masterpiece” was the only selection of the evening to be from an album other than the Bird Streets disc, and after it John played “Stop To Breathe.” He introduced it as another ballad. “I thought we’d get into some ballads tonight,” he told the crowd. “Stop To Breathe” was just as powerful and beautiful as an acoustic song as it is on the album. “Is there any way to take the high road when down is where it leads?

After “Stop To Breathe,” Jason Falkner joined John on stage, and John remarked that this was the first time they’d performed as a duo. Jason sat at the upright piano, and they played “Thanks For Calling,” a completely enjoyable and fun song. It was during this song that I came to the conclusion that I should have recorded the show. This was certainly something special. They followed that with “Bullets,” after which John jokingly asked Jason, “Do you want to do another one?” It became a running joke during their set. After “Bullets,” they performed a fantastic rendition of “Heal,” the blending of their voices sounding absolutely wonderful, one of many highlights of their set. Then, after “Pretty Bones,” Jason switched from piano to electric guitar, and they played “Betting On The Sun.” Jason delivered some excellent stuff during his lead part, getting some appreciative applause from the audience. The crowd at The Hotel Café is not always attentive (a drawback of the venue), and there was certainly some chatter toward the back of the room at the beginning of the set, but by the fourth or fifth song everyone was focused on the music. Bird Streets concluded the set with the last track from the album, “Until The Crown,” and then the first track, “Carry Me.” The show ended at 8:43 p.m. There was no encore.

Set List
  1. Direction
  2. Masterpiece
  3. Stop To Breathe
  4. Thanks For Calling
  5. Bullets
  6. Heal
  7. Pretty Bones
  8. Betting On The Sun
  9. Until The Crown
  10. Carry Me
Here are a few photos from the show:

"Thanks For Calling"
"Betting On The Sun"
"Betting On The Sun"
"Carry Me"

The Hotel Café is located at 1623 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Los Angeles, California.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Tony Monaco: “The Definition Of Insanity” (2019) CD Review

I’m a big fan of certain so-called jam bands, and on Tony Monaco’s new album, The Definition Of Insanity, he covers songs from both the Grateful Dead and Phish. That is what got me excited to give this disc a listen. This CD, unlike Monaco’s past releases, actually features mostly covers. There is only one original track on it. In addition to tunes from Phish and the Dead, he covers music by Floyd Cramer, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Leon Russell (among others). Yes, the material is from a wide range of styles and genres. Tony Monaco plays organ, piano and accordion on this album, and also sings on three tracks. Joining him on this release are Derek DiCenzo on guitar and Tony McClung on drums.

Tony Monaco opens with a cover of Phish’s “Cars Trucks Buses,” an instrumental track from Billy Breathes. That tune was written by Phish’s keyboardist, Page McConnell, so it is perhaps a perfect fit for Tony Monaco. And, yeah, this version has plenty of delicious work on organ. The group does jam on it, turning in a version significantly longer than Phish’s studio rendition, more in line with the length of live versions. I dig Derek DiCenzo’s work on guitar. And toward the end, there is a cool drum section. Tony Monaco then switches gears with a sweet rendition of trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “Ceora” (the original version featuring Herbie Hancock on piano). Things then get groovy and funky with “Root Down,” a delicious composition by Jimmy Smith (it was the title track to a 1972 live album). This track features some cool work on both guitar and keys, over that great groove. It’s a fun track from beginning to end, and is one of my personal favorites. There is a playful ending.

Asako Monaco (Tony’s wife) joins him on piano for “Never Let Me Go,” adding to the beautiful romantic feel of this one. This is the first track of the album to feature vocals. It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and has been recorded by folks like Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington. Tony Monaco turns in a really good vocal performance here. He then goes in yet another direction with “Non Ti Scordare Di Me,” which also features vocals. I love this one especially once it reaches the main section. I dig that timeless European sound, and Tony Monaco plays accordion on this track. That’s followed by the album’s sole original number, “Awa Athar,” which has a seriously cool vibe right from the start. It develops a good groove, and I like that guitar work. This, for me, is another of the disc’s highlights. Tony Monaco then goes in a totally different direction with a cover of Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.” Yes, this album is even a little bit country, with Monaco’s organ taking on the sound of pedal steel.

Then we get the track that got me interested in this disc, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” (a song from my favorite album, American Beauty). This instrumental rendition begins on drums, and quickly establishes a nice groove. Tony Monaco delivers the vocal line on organ, and, yes, it’s difficult to keep the lyrics from running through my head as I listen. Tony Monaco gets good and loose on the organ here (I think Brent Mydland would smile if he were listening). Then we get some good stuff on guitar, Derek DiCenzo delivering a different take on the guitar part than I’ve heard in other versions. Tony concludes the album with a song by Leon Russell, one of the great musicians we lost in that most foul year 2016. “A Song For You” is one of Leon Russell’s most beloved compositions. It was the lead track on his self-titled debut solo album. Tony Monaco delivers a pretty, heartfelt rendition on piano and vocals, with the band coming in a couple of minutes into the song. I am really fond of this rendition. “I love you in a place where there's no space or time/I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine/And when my life is over, remember we were together/Now we’re alone and I’m singing this song for you.”

CD Track List
  1. Cars Trucks Buses
  2. Ceora
  3. Root Down
  4. Never Let Me Go
  5. Quando Quando Quando
  6. Non Ti Scordare Di Me
  7. Awa Athar
  8. Last Date
  9. Truckin’
  10. Triste
  11. A Song For You 
The Definition Of Insanity was released on January 18, 2019 on Chicken Coup Records. By the way, for me the definition of “insanity” is believing a single word that Donald Trump utters. Would someone please just put an end to the insanity and horror of this administration?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Michael Nesmith at Troubadour, 1-22-19 Concert Review

Michael Nesmith performing "Some Of Shelly's Blues"
In the early 1970s, Michael Nesmith worked with pedal steel player Red Rhodes on the album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. In the back of his mind, Michael had always hoped to one day revisit that sound. And with his current touring partner, Pete Finney (who plays pedal steel on a track of the recent Monkees release, Christmas Party), now he is. At the beginning of last night’s concert at the Troubadour, Michael Nesmith explained that was the genesis of this short west coast tour, which is perhaps a test run for something bigger, more extensive. If so, it was a wildly successful test. At the heart of the show was material from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, and while the tour was named after that 1972 release, this was not one of those concerts where the artist plays the album in order (though he did perform every song from it). Michael Nesmith and Pete Finney played material from other albums from the early 1970s, as well as treating the audience to a few Monkees songs during their absolutely wonderful set.

They took the stage at 8:02 and opened the show with “Two Different Roads,” from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, and it was immediately clear just how good Michael Nesmith’s voice still sounds. With only his acoustic guitar and Pete Finney’s pedal steel accompanying his voice, the focus was mainly on his vocal performance. After just the briefest of pauses, the duo went right into another track from that album, “Tomorrow & Me.” They followed that with “Some Of Shelly’s Blues,” a song that The Monkees did record, but one that didn’t end up on an official Monkees release until Missing Links Volume Two. Michael and Pete delivered a sweet, kind of slow, heartfelt rendition that completely delighted the audience. After that, Michael told the crowd, “I’m so sorry you have to stand up.” The way the Troubadour is set up, it’s general admission, with standing room on the floor, and some seats up in the balcony. By the way, fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz was in attendance at this show, seated up on the special balcony off stage left.

Michael Nesmith also reminded the audience that it’s all right to clap after an instrumental solo, joking that it’s “great to see Pete get the respect I deserve.” He then played “The Keys To The Car,” a song from Magnetic South, introducing it as “in the style of Jimmie Rodgers, 1927.” After Pete’s lead on this one, he got a lot of applause, making Michael smile. (And, actually, every lead by Pete from that moment on received a good amount of applause.) “The Keys To The Car” was followed by a couple of songs from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – “Listening” and “The Upside Of Good-Bye.” When he introduced “The Upside Of Good-Bye,” the song got a cheer, surprising Michael. “Really?” he asked. He mentioned that “Most of these songs were part of a quest,” and that “The Upside Of Good-Bye” is one about when it went wrong.

They then gave the audience a gorgeous, sweet rendition of “Papa Gene’s Blues,” a song from the very first Monkees LP (where it was originally misspelled as “Papa Jean’s Blues”). The rendition last night was so good, it seemed the way the song was meant to be played. It was a bit longer than usual too. The line “Play, magic fingers” was directed at Pete. That was followed by “Keep On,” one of my favorite tracks from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, and one that speaks strongly to me these days. It’s good to hear someone tell us, “You’re doing just fine/Keep on keeping on.” We then got a moving rendition of “Continuing,” a song from Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. Check out these lines: “So the shock that she felt didn't show/When I told her that I had to go/She just stood there somewhere in between/A smile and an unpleasant scene.” Yeah, Michael Nesmith can really write some excellent lyrics, as he showed again in the following song, “Marie’s Theme,” its opening line being “Her only remark was a closing remark.”

“Joanne” is such a beautiful song, with a wonderful vocal line. Some women in the audience sang along, which clearly delighted Michael, while the story he told in introducing the song delighted the audience. A woman near me was taking photos and video with her phone and after the song told her friend, “I’m so glad I got that.” Michael, hearing her remark, responded, “I’m glad you did too,” which, as you can imagine, totally elated the woman. Michael and Pete then returned to material from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, playing “Harmony Constant” and following it with “Lady Love” and then “The Candidate.” Michael mentioned that though “The Candidate” was written in 1972, it is rather timely now. “The patience of the people soon will end.” (My patience with the current administration ended even before the inauguration.) That song is certainly another highlight from that album, and the rendition last night was excellent.

In introducing “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care),” Michael told the audience he tried to get it on The Monkees, but was told it was too country. It did eventually end up on The Monkees’ Missing Links Volume Three. That was followed by another song that showed up on a Monkees compilation, “Nine Times Blue” (this one on the first Missing Links). The lines from “Nine Times Blue” that always stand out for me are “And like a fool I tested you/By demanding things of you which weren't mine.” Michael then went back to And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ for a song that actually was a hit, “Different Drum.” This song was performed by Michael Nesmith in an episode of The Monkees, where it was done in a playful, fast, nervous style. That wasn’t the hit version. The hit version was by the Stone Poneys in 1967. It was warmly received last night, with the audience singing along.

My favorite song from And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ is “Roll With The Flow,” and it was such a treat to get to see Michael Nesmith perform this one, certainly a highlight of the set for me. Michael was clearly having a good time with it, and Pete Finney delivered some excellent work on pedal steel. After that song, Michael announced the next one would be the last song of the evening, eliciting a collective sound of disappointment from the audience. It was a truly special night, and the crowd had no desire for it to end. The song Michael chose to close the performance was “Silver Moon,” a wonderful tune from Loose Salute, and another that the crowd sang along to. (I couldn’t stop singing the chorus as I walked back to my car). Before leaving the stage, Michael told the audience, “That was a gas.” Indeed. The show ended at 9:43 p.m. There was no encore.

Set List
  1. Two Different Roads
  2. Tomorrow & Me
  3. Some Of Shelly’s Blues
  4. The Keys To The Car
  5. Listening
  6. The Upside Of Good-Bye
  7. Papa Gene’s Blues
  8. Keep On
  9. Continuing
  10. Marie’s Theme
  11. Joanne
  12. Harmony Constant
  13. Lady Love
  14. The Candidate
  15. Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care)
  16. Nine Times Blue
  17. Different Drum
  18. Roll With The Flow
  19. Silver Moon 
Here are a few photos from the show:

"Two Different Roads"
"Tomorrow & Me"
"The Keys To The Car"
"The Upside Of Good-Bye"
"The Upside Of Good-Bye"
"Papa Gene's Blues"
"Marie's Theme"
"Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)"
"Roll With The Flow"

Troubadour is located at 9081 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, California.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Cora Jane Sugarman at Republic Of Pie, 1-18-19: Photos

Last night my girlfriend and I caught a really good set by singer and songwriter Cora Jane Sugarman at Republic Of Pie in North Hollywood. At 7 p.m., she took the stage and got right into the music, without introduction, opening with “Love Is Like A Pretty Bird.” She then mentioned that the venue was a relaxed spot on a Friday night. Indeed, the place had a wonderfully casual and mellow vibe, and some of the patrons were there for the atmosphere, working away on their laptop computers while the music played, and no one pushing them to order more food. By the way, the pie is delicious, and there is plenty of other food there as well (I had a grilled cheese sandwich and salad). Cora Jane Sugarman followed “Love Is Like A Pretty Bird” with a cover of Lindi Ortega’s “Angels.” She performed some other covers, including a nice rendition of “These Days,” a song written by Jackson Browne and most famously recorded by Nico (you can hear that version in The Royal Tenenbaums). But it was mainly her original material that stood out for me, with “Growing Pains” being my favorite. “Change is hard, but staying the same is harder.”

Here are a few photos from her set:

Republic Of Pie is located at 11118 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood, California.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Flesh Eaters: “I Used To Be Pretty” (2019) CD Review

The Flesh Eaters are back, with their first new studio release in fifteen years, I Used To Be Pretty. The music is punk, but these are not short songs, like those offered by most punk bands. These guys dig into their tunes, create a world and invite you to live there (and by “invite,” I mean grab you in your sleep and pull you inside). The disc has eleven tracks, nearly an hour of music. There is some new material, but they also revisit several older tunes, including tunes from the 1982 record Forever Came Today. Even if the name The Flesh Eaters is unfamiliar to you, you do know this band, or at least its members. Members have come and gone over the years, the only constant being Chris Desjardins (Chris D.), but the lineup for this new release is basically the same as for the album that is considered by many to be the band’s best, 1981’s A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die: Chris D. on vocals, Dave Alvin (from The Blasters, X) on guitar, John Doe (from X, The Knitters) on bass, Bill Bateman (of The Blasters) on drums, D.J. Bonebrake (of X) on marimba and percussion, and Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) on saxophone. How is that for a lineup? But that’s not all. Julie Christensen joins the band on vocals for several tracks. I became a fan of Julie Christensen because of her fantastic work with Leonard Cohen. But before that, she was a member of the Divine Horsemen with Chris D. (she and Chris D. were also married). So what I am saying is there is a ridiculous amount of talent on this album.

The album gets off to a great start with “Black Temptation,” one of the disc’s new tunes, and one that features Julie Christensen on vocals. This is a seriously cool punk tune with a raw vocal delivery. And I love the way the saxophone creates a kind of strangely sexy atmosphere during certain sections. Check out these lyrics: “I always think the queen of wolves/Is a delicate flower/And end up just meat/For the bitch to devour.” My favorite line, however, is “The history we’re writing has no tomorrow.” That’s followed by “House Amid The Thickets,” a song that first appeared on The Flesh Eaters’ 1999 release, Ashes Of Time. I love the vocal delivery immediately. There is something dark and forbidding here. “Then she starts going back out to bars/Before you know it, she wrecks all her cars/How does she stay so beautiful?/And why am I such a goddamn fool?/I guess because I’m a man, sucker for sexy firebrands.” But the song also has a good groove. It has something of a different feel from the earlier version, in part because this one features saxophone and not organ.

“My Life To Live” has a more upbeat, fun feel from the start, and a driving rhythm (I’m digging that bass). This one rocks. This song was originally the lead track on 1982’s Forever Came Today. After listening to it several times, I think this new version is actually better than the original. That’s followed by a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown).” This is a song from Fleetwood Mac’s early blues days (which I still think is the absolute best stuff Fleetwood Mac ever did). This version by The Flesh Eaters has a heavy, dark feel (like the original), but with saxophone (which I love). It sounds like a beast that crouches and is ready to pounce and pull you into its lair. “Miss Muerte” was the title track to The Flesh Eaters’ 2004 album. This new version has a wonderful intro by D.J. Bonebrake, then kicks in. This is a fun track, and I love the backing vocals by Julie Christensen. Plus, it has some bloody great lyrics, such as these lines: “There’s no such thing as a real-life story/As soon as you’ve lived it, it’s gone/And so’s all the wealth and glory/You just don’t understand, you, you’ll never understand.” And these: “I’m so sick of all you angry people/Killing each other for the sake of your god/You just can’t seem to understand/Your enemy is god-made man/So get off your goddamn cross/And let go your fetish of loss.”

“The Youngest Profession” begins with something of a march on drums, and develops into a slow, haunted bluesy groove. These are the opening lines: “If you know what’s good for you/You’ll be too tough to care/Coming from a home where kindness is rare.” A sudden command to “Get crazy” is answered and obeyed by the guitars. The vocal work here reminds me at times of Jim Morrison in his most unhinged moments. “We’ll stay together  and stop second guessing/We got to tame our hearts, but steer clear of obsession.” The order to “Go crazy” is issued again, and perhaps this time it isn’t just the guitars that respond, but us too. That’s followed by a cover of The Sonics’ “Cinderella,” a song that The Flesh Eaters included on the 1988 album Live. This track comes on fast, with that driving drum beat, and is cool, raw fun. Then “Pony Dress” is classic, pure punk, whatever that might mean. It is a song that first found its way onto a 1979 compilation titled Tooth And Nail. This new version is fantastic.

“The Wedding Dice” is a tune from Forever Came Today. This is a fast, hard, lively punk tune. “Somebody gives you arsenic so you won’t be lonely/Fire in the brain is calling it quits.” I love the sax in this new rendition, particularly at the end. There is another strong groove in “She’s Like Heroin To Me,” a song written by Jeffrey Lee Pierce and originally recorded by The Gun Club, from that band’s first LP, Fire Of Love. The Flesh Eaters deliver a damn good rendition. I Used To Be Pretty then concludes with its longest track, “Ghost Cave Lament,” a slow, unsettling number featuring good work on saxophone. I also particularly like the guitar work on this track. This is a new composition, one of only two on this disc. “The love that I steal is fuel for this madness.” This track features a powerful vocal performance, and the lyrics contain some horror imagery, such as “Oh, St. Lucy, she plucked out her eyes from her sockets.” This is a wild ride to wrap up an excellent album.

CD Track List
  1. Black Temptation
  2. House Amid The Thickets
  3. My Life To Live
  4. The Green Manalishi
  5. Miss Muerte
  6. The Youngest Profession
  7. Cinderella
  8. Pony Dress
  9. The Wedding Dice
  10. She’s Like Heroin To Me
  11. Ghost Cave Lament 
I Used To Be Pretty was released today, January 18, 2019, on Yep Roc Records. The band is now on tour, so check the official website to see if these guys are heading to your area.

Elsa Nilsson and Jon Cowherd: “After Us” (2018) CD Review

The duo of flutist Elsa Nilsson and pianist Jon Cowherd recently released a wonderful new album, After Us. The first time I popped on this disc was a morning when I was feeling frustrated and disappointed by people. That feeling occurs with some regularity in these ugly days of the Trump administration. Rather than arguing with people online, I decided to listen to this album, and its beauty and tenderness immediately set me at ease and reminded me of the good qualities that people possess. Music can lift us up out of the darkness of our own anger and hatred, and apparently we need it now more than ever. All tracks on this release are originals, most of them written by Elsa Nilsson.

The CD opens with “Same Trees,” a moving piece that begins with some pretty work on piano. The flute then enters gently, and the track has a calming effect. Once the music has us, the flute then raises us up a bit, takes us on a journey that has a natural beauty. There is a gorgeous piano solo toward the end. “Same Trees” is followed by “How To Keep Moving, How To Stay,” which has a brighter sound from the start, the flute rising and dancing, making things seem a bit lighter. And isn’t that what we need sometimes – a little of the weight lifted? Then more than halfway through, Jon delivers a wonderful solo on piano, and that leads to an interesting section where the flute has an insistent and percussive feel. By the way, I love the title of this piece.

“Distant Dawn” begins with piano, a somber tone that is quite effective in conjuring the dark night that the distant dawn of the piece’s title will eventually break. And when the flute comes in, it feels we are closer to that dawn, hints of light making their way into our field of vision. But this track feels of loss and despair, a melancholy that the sun might not in fact dispel. Still, there is something gorgeous here in Jon’s work on piano. And the flute, when it becomes dominant again, feels eager, perhaps even desperate, to lead us to a better place, to bring the dawn to us, if not move us to it.

There is something loving to the sound of “With A Smile,” but at moments near the beginning it feels sad as well. Is it perhaps a sad smile that is mentioned in the piece’s title? It then blossoms and grows, becoming beautiful and powerful, particularly the flute. It then relaxes again, leading to Jon Cowherd’s piano solo. That’s followed by “Blessings,” one of the tracks composed by Jon Cowherd. Here too the flute rises to become powerful and insistent while the piano provides a beautiful base, keeping us somewhat grounded even as we reach out. Then Jon’s solo on piano has an uplifting, even cheerful vibe. The other of the album’s tracks to be written by Jon Cowherd is “Baltica.” This one begins with piano, and has a sweet beauty. It feels like walking through some natural, ageless landscape, skin caressed by winds, the mind untroubled. The album concludes with its title track, “After Us,” which has a gentle touch. It feels almost like a letting go, leaving problems and everything behind. It then builds in power, rising to certain heights, before returning to that thoughtful, introspective place.

CD Track List
  1. Same Trees
  2. How To Keep Moving, How To Stay
  3. Distant Dawn
  4. Crimson
  5. With A Smile
  6. Blessings
  7. Practice Patience
  8. Baltica
  9. After Us 
After Us was released on October 12, 2018.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Bend The River: “Through The Long Night” (2018) CD Review

I was turned on to Bend The River several years ago when the band released So Long Joan Fontaine, an album that I love. I mentioned in my review of that CD that it came as a wonderful breath of fresh air, and it still feels that way to me. Soon after that, I was enjoying solo albums from band members like Ronok Sarkar (the band’s principal songwriter) and Norma MacDonald. Now Bend The River has released a new EP, Through The Long Night, featuring all original material written by Ronok Sarkar with Bend The River. This release was produced by Joel Plaskett and engineered by Thomas Stajcer, so there is a whole lot of talent behind this one. And it certainly shows in the resulting four tracks. The sound is a bit different from the group’s previous release, but it’s exciting to hear how these folks are evolving. I’m not sure what it is about Halifax, but it seems there is an incredible amount of talent up there. I hope to pay a visit at some point.

The EP opens with “White Line,” which fades in like the music is already in progress, and we are just entering the room. It is like the music is ongoing, and when we enter, it immediately embraces us (even if we’re a bit late). It has a warm folk and country vibe. Check out these opening lines: “Standing by the white line, the remnants of your past/Still, you’re only just your past/All the revolutions that a heart can take you ‘round/Leaves you spinning on the ground.” This song has a lot of lines that stand out for me, such as “And time won’t make things clear” and “I know, the emptiness still lingers in our bones.” That’s followed by “Remnants.” It’s always interesting to me when an album has a recurring image or idea, and the word “remnants” is in the first line of both “White Line” and “Remnants” (as well, obviously, as being the title of the latter). “We found the remnants of an old love that once sailed.” This song has a catchy 1970s-like pop vibe, particularly with that keyboard part and the backing vocals. I especially dig the bass line. That section where the vocals are supported by mainly bass and drums is wonderful.

“Another Shade Of Blue” also has a 1970s vibe, reminding me of some of Paul Simon’s work from that decade, particularly the way the vocals and keyboard interact at the beginning (think “Still Crazy After All These Years”). This track features some good vocal work, as well as another strong bass line, with touches of funk. And it too has some excellent lyrics, such as these lines: “Everything that goes away/Is still in the north sky somewhere/I still hear her voice sometimes/Through the darkness/Like another shade of blue.” The EP then concludes with its title track, “Through The Long Night,” which is the most intriguing song of the disc. It goes through some interesting changes, and features good work on keys and guitar. But the vocals and the lyrics are what make it my favorite track. “The hours roll and she drifts so far away/To all the places in her past/Where the light won’t go/It’s a sort of madness in this world she sees/But who am I to fix her dreams?/Who am I to think I know?

CD Track List
  1. White Line
  2. Remnants
  3. Another Shade Of Blue
  4. Through The Long Night
Through The Long Night was released on December 6, 2018.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Hilary Scott: “Don’t Call Me Angel” (2018) CD Review

Hilary Scott is a singer and songwriter working largely in the country and folk realm. Her newest release, Don’t Call Me Angel, however, has a good deal of soul added to her sound. This album contains mostly original material, written by Hilary Scott, songs that are emotionally engaging. Hilary Scott plays piano, acoustic guitar and ukulele on this release. Joining her are AJ Gennaro on drums and percussion; Josh Schilling on bass, electric guitar and ukulele; Johnny Lee Schell on guitar and mandolin; and Mike Finnigan on organ.

Don’t Call Me Angel opens with its title track, one of the album’s best songs. This is a beautiful song that features some excellent lyrics, such as these lines: “I’ve got more than dust on me/And plenty mistakes to my name.” Those are the lines that immediately stood out and pulled me in. “Don’t call me angel…I never looked good in white.” That’s followed by “Not Used To Being Used To,” which has quite a different feel right from the start with the piano and the finger snaps. There is a lot of soul to Hilary’s vocal performance here, and a joy to her blues. “I’m not used to being used to being treated so well/Honey, you took my hand and led me straight out of hell.” This is a really strong track.

On “Make It Right,” Hilary Scott delivers a gorgeous vocal performance that has an intimate feel at first and then builds from there. Check out these lines: “You know how to make it painless when you hit the ground/You know when it’s just not worth the fight/You know how to do wrong and make it right.” Not bad, eh? This song also features some nice work on keys, and is one of my favorites of the album. “Heartless” also has an intimate vibe and builds to become a powerful song. These are the lines that open this one: “I washed most of my makeup clean/Just a few lipstick stains/And though now it’s just plain old me/A bit of you still remains.” But perhaps my favorite lines are these: “You brought me a paper bouquet/And it won’t die, but the colors will fade.” This track also features more good stuff on keys.

I love the soulful, moving songs on this album, like “Moon And Back,” which begins with piano and vocals, and slowly, beautifully builds from there. “It seems like such a long ride/So can you stop it now.” Oh god, there is something heartbreaking about those lines, particularly as they feel to not be just about a relationship, but about some of the harsher things in life, or life itself. “Sometimes the choices we make/They make it seem there’s no escape/Where would I go anyway?/Just a lonely fall through space.” This song itself takes us on a ride, and ultimately raises our spirits, letting hope and optimism return. That’s followed by “In Time,” which has a pretty folk sound on guitar. “Do you always say there’s tomorrow/Do you always think I’ll change my mind/What if you never get the chance in time.” This one gets its hooks in me immediately. “Did you forget there is no promise/Did you forget love is all we have?” There is something delicate in her delivery at times, something that feels ephemeral, which is so fitting for lines like “’Cause everything in passes in time.”

The album’s sole cover is a rendition of Prince’s “Kiss.” Since Prince’s untimely death in 2016 (the worst year), I’ve heard several folk artists cover this one. Hilary Scott’s version is somewhat mellow, and quite a bit different from other renditions I’ve heard. She changes the lyrics to “You don’t have to be rich/To be my boy/Don’t have to be cool/To bring me joy.” She also changes “You don’t have to watch Dynasty” to “You don’t have to watch bad TV.” A comment on Dynasty, or simply an update for those somehow unfamiliar with that 1980s program? (Though didn’t they recently remake that show for some reason?) The album then concludes with “Here I Am,” another track with a good amount of soul. I love how this one opens with the line “I am a mess.” No hiding there, eh? “I never dreamed you could change my whole world/With a smile and the touch of your hand/You have my heart and you won’t let it go/You know I can’t stop, here I am.”

CD Track List
  1. Don’t Call Me Angel
  2. Not Used To Being Used To
  3. You Will Be Mine
  4. Make It Right
  5. Heartless
  6. Unlove Story
  7. Moon And Back
  8. In Time
  9. Kiss
  10. Here I Am
Don’t Call Me Angel was released on October 12, 2018 on Belltown Records.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Paul Nelson: “Over Under Through” (2019) CD Review

What first got me excited to listen to Over Under Through was the fact that Ellis Paul provides some backing vocals on one of its tracks. I’ve been a fan of his music since the late 1980s when I saw him open for Roger McGuinn at the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus (remember that place?). But it wasn’t long before Paul Nelson’s style and vibe had me completely under his spell. There is just something arresting about the sound of this album. It is somewhat dark, somewhat haunted, but with an underlying hope. Besides Ellis Paul, he has several other talented musicians helping him out on this release, including Kevin Barry on guitar and lap steel, John Sands on drums and percussion, Richard Gates on bass, Paul Kochanski on bass, Tom Eaton on keys and percussion, and Jeff Oster on flugelhorn and trumpet. All but one of the songs on this album were written by Paul Nelson.

The album opens with “Go Down Ezekiel,” which has a cool, slow, dark blues vibe, with a steady rhythm that you can feel in your heart. “Move out a bit further/Move out further still/It’s only when you leave the shoreline/Oh, brother, you will be filled.” Tom Eaton adds some work on rain sticks on this track. That’s followed by “Ghost In The Basement,” which also has a somewhat haunting vibe even before the song’s first line about the ghost, “There’s a ghost in the basement, I know she’s there.” Paul Nelson’s vocal delivery, and that wonderful guitar part over that raw steady thump of the drums quickly draw me in until I feel emerged in the world of this song. This is one of my personal favorites, in part because of lines like “Should I turn on the light so she can see?/Or leave her in the dark just like me” and “And I’m chained to her by choice, I guess,” but also because of Kristin Cifelli’s presence on backing vocals, which gives the song a beauty and something of an uplifting quality. Also, there is something angelic in her deliver, and it is almost like she is the ghost, and she too is asking how long it will be until she is free to move on. It’s an interesting idea, that they are both haunted by each other, wondering when they can move on. Kristin Cifelli also adds her voice to the following track, “Color It Blue,” her work here having quite a different effect than on “Ghost In The Basement.” What I really dig about this track is the addition of horns approximately halfway through.

“Secret” has a groovy, mellow vibe and features some nice work on lap steel by Kevin Barry. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Well, I’ve got a secret/I’ve been keeping for some time/One I’ve been saying is dead/Still very much alive, still very much alive.” That’s followed by “Lay A Little,” which has a sweet, pretty folk sound. Something about this one makes me feel relaxed and hopeful. “Crawling out from the wreckage of/Broken trust and shattered dreams/Tried to make our way back to the start/And find ourselves some peace.” Kristin Cifelli again joins Paul Nelson on vocals. I love the addition of flugelhorn on “Alice Mullins,” a song that has a sweet, comforting Van Morrison-type vibe. “There’s a girl who can chase these blues away/With eyes the color of an autumn day.”

Ellis Paul joins Paul Nelson on vocals for the album’s sole cover, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line.” Ellis is a big Cash fan (his “Kick Out The Lights” about Johnny Cash is a fan favorite during live performances), so it makes perfect sense that he would sing on this one. This is a mellow, thoughtful, unusual take on the song, with some pretty work on lap steel. Kristin Cifelli contributes vocal work to the track as well. That’s followed by “Relative Work.” The lines that stand out for me from this one are “We’re surely on the long decline/Well, we gotta make the best of times.”  Then “Silent Majority” has more of a blues rock sound. Kristin Cifelli and Nickie Fuller join Paul Nelson on vocals on this one. “Will you join the majority/Or say what needs to be said/Violence isn’t the remedy/To injustice that plagues our land/But let your words be a sword/In love take a stand.” Does that bridge halfway through remind you a bit of “Hey Bulldog”? “One well-placed stone of truth/Can make a giant fall/You don’t need money or power/To plant the seeds of change.” That’s followed by “Over Under Through,” the album’s title track, a song with a serious, engaging sound. I dig the trumpet that rises in the distance and moves through us. And is that a talking drum? “Over the mountain of sorrows/Under the crashing waves/Through the valley of pain and suffering/To the land where freedom waits.” The disc then concludes with “There Is Weeping,” a soulful tune with some wonderful backing vocals by Kristin Cifelli and Nickie Fuller. This is a positive tune, a good one with which to finish the album. “Rise up, open your eyes/Wake, o’ sleeper, from your rest/Only you and I can be the feet and the hands/To bring a song of hope to the world.”

CD Track List
  1. Go Down Ezekiel
  2. Ghost In The Basement
  3. Color It Blue
  4. Secret
  5. Lay A Little
  6. Alice Mullin
  7. I Walk The Line
  8. Relative Work
  9. Silent Majority
  10. Over Under Through
  11. There Is Weeping 
Over Under Through is scheduled to be released on January 25, 2019 on Riverwide Records.

Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band at Masonic Lodge, 1-13-19 Concert Review

Phil Lesh performing "I Know You Rider"
Last night Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band played the second of a two-night stand at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in Los Angeles. What a treat it was to get to see Phil Lesh at such an intimate venue. Supposedly the capacity is 150, but it felt more like 250 or 300 people were there. Still, I’d never seen any member of the Grateful Dead at a place that small. The sound wasn’t perfect, but the vibes certainly were. It was a good crowd, good people. And the music was excellent, the band playing several songs I’d never seen performed before, including “Pride Of Cucamonga” and “Born Cross-eyed.”

The venue was not created for music, and so there is no special entrance to the small stage. The band had to walk through the audience to get to the stage, and at 8 p.m., the members began to make their way through the crowd. They then kicked off the first set with “Tennessee Jed,” establishing a good groove before delivering any of the lyrics. Several of the band members sang lead on different verses, with female vocalist Elliott Peck taking the “Drink all day and rock all night” verse. “Tennessee Jed” featured a really good lead on keys by Jason Crosby. That was followed by what was for me one of the show’s highlights, “Pride Of Cucamonga.” It is a song that I’d never seen Phil perform before, and that morning I’d had a dream where I asked Phil to play it. It was great to hear this song, and the rendition was fantastic, with some wonderful work by Ross James on pedal steel. And that section where this cool country tune suddenly turns bluesy was explored more than is done on the version on From The Mars Hotel. Then we got a version of “Jack Straw” that really moved, driven by some excellent stuff on guitar, and then a sweet rendition of “Teach Your Children,” featuring some nice harmonies and more good work on pedal steel.

“West L.A. Fadeaway” is one song that has really found its life in the post-Grateful Dead world, with better versions being performed now than in the 1980s. Dead And Company has done some excellent things with it, and last night Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band delivered a phenomenal rendition, with some delicious jamming. Am I insane, or did Jason Crosby dip into Gershwin during the song’s stellar jam? Anyway, it is interesting how this song has really taken off in the days since the Grateful Dead. “West L.A. Fadeaway” led straight into “No More Do I,” a tune from the Phil & Friends’ There And Back Again. It seemed to be leading to something else, but then just sort of drifted off at the end. That was followed by one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, “Stella Blue,” a surprise for the first set. It was wonderful watching Phil conduct the band near the beginning, an adorable moment. And there was some beautiful vocal work toward the end. The first set then concluded with “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” with Phil singing lead on the first verse. “We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back,” Phil told the crowd. And indeed – particularly by Dead standards – it was a short break. The first set ended at 9:22 p.m., and the band started heading back to the stage at 9:49 p.m., certainly not enough time for everyone to use the loo. I should mention that this venue has only two toilets upstairs, one for men and one for women, and so the line before the show began was rather long (apparently there are more toilets downstairs, but those weren’t available then). I didn’t even bother leaving my spot during the set break.

The second set got off to a fantastic start with “Born Cross-Eyed,” a song I was certainly not expecting to hear. It was another of the show’s highlights, and it was followed by “Playing In The Band.” This one developed into a seriously cool jam. Phil gave it a strong pulse, but the jam had a gentleness to it, and the band took an interesting, unusual path back to the main section of the song. And, yes, Elliott Peck did her own version of the Donna scream. Phil then sang “Mountains Of The Moon,” which had a smooth feel at first. This was when things start getting weird for me, the engine of the song catching fire, then suddenly cooling down and returning us to a land that resembled Earth, though we were still on the moon at that point. Phil delivered the song’s lyrics gently, kindly. That was followed by “Caution,” a jam that chugged along on a fast track, giant rodents scampering to either side, as holy men lay sacrifices at the train’s many feet. The guitar suddenly cut through the walls, the hills, the air, a blazing knife dividing and then uniting, as we spilled out and tumbled underground to a gloriously hellish celebration catered by slightly domesticated trolls in striped outfits and surgically achieved smiles. Where were we being led? For a moment it seemed like the band had strayed into Who territory, but soon after that slid into “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Ah yes, the band had done this one during the soundcheck. We could hear it from outside – that and “Playing In The Band.” And on this song, Elliott Peck finally got a chance to really show her vocal chops. Fantastic!

The rhythm of “He’s Gone” began on guitar, lifting us up just a bit from the mellow and darker realm of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” That led straight into “The Other One,” a song that is a force to be embraced or destroyed by. This version took us in strange places, with unusual phrasing, and it led directly into “New Speedway Boogie,” and then into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and back into “New Speedway Boogie,” ending with a nice bit delivered a cappella, the audience finishing the line. That was followed by Robert Hunter’s “Jack O’ Roses,” a song I didn’t recognize at first. It has been a while since I listened to my Robert Hunter albums (I have them all on cassette). That slid nicely into “Terrapin Station,” though something felt weird about this “Terrapin” at one point near the beginning. Did Phil start singing the wrong verse or something? Well, by the time they got to “Inspiration!” it was clear this was a spiritual service and we were all a part of it, the audience supplying the shouts of “Terrapin!” That led into a fun rendition of “I Know You Rider” to wrap up the second set. It featured a wonderful conversation between piano and guitar. The band stepped off the stage at 11:34 p.m., but basically just hid behind the curtain at stage left rather than walking through the audience. After a minute, Phil returned to the stage to urge folks to become organ donors. Then the band came back on to play a rockin’ rendition of “Ripple.” “Ripple” is my favorite song, and this version was so different that I didn’t even recognize it at first. It sounded like a Rolling Stones song from the early 1970s or something. But I quickly got into it. It had a tremendous amount of life and energy and joy, a new way of looking at what I consider to be the best song ever recorded. The show ended at 11:43 p.m., and some of us made our way over to right side of the room to give Phil a high-five as he passed by to the rear of the venue. It was a wonderful night.

Set List

Set I
  1. Tennessee Jed
  2. Pride Of Cucamonga
  3. Jack Straw
  4. Teach Your Children
  5. West L.A. Fadeaway  >
  6. No More Do I
  7. Stella Blue
  8. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad
Set II
  1. Born Cross-Eyed
  2. Playing In The Band
  3. Mountains Of The Moon
  4. Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) >
  5. Death Don’t Have No Mercy
  6. He’s Gone >
  7. The Other One >
  8. New Speedway Boogie >
  9. Whole Lotta Love >
  10. New Speedway Boogie
  11. Jack O’ Roses >
  12. Terrapin Station >
  13. I Know You Rider 
  1. Ripple
Here are a few photos from the concert:

"Pride Of Cucamonga"
"Teach Your Children"
"Stella Blue"
"Playing In The Band"
"Mountains Of The Moon"
"Mountains Of The Moon"
Phil between songs
Phil urging folks to become organ donors

Friday, January 11, 2019

Taylor Martin: “Song Dogs” (2018) CD Review

Taylor Martin is a singer and songwriter based in Asheville, North Carolina. On his new album, Song Dogs, he delivers a damn good mix of folk, country, rock and pop. The disc contains mostly original material showcasing his songwriting talent, but also a few good choices of covers. Joining him on this release are Matthew Dufon on bass and backing vocals, Richie Jones on drums and percussion, Josh Shilling on keys, Aaron Woody Wood on guitar, Matthew Smith on electric guitar and pedal steel, Aaron Ramsey on guitar and mandolin, Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle, and Amanda Anne Platt on backing vocals.

The album opens with “Little Pictures,” a seriously enjoyable tune featuring some wonderful work on keys, plus a delicious rhythm at its base. Taylor Martin’s vocal delivery has something of a Dr. John rough and cool quality here. “Me, I love to keep my eyes closed/I love it when you close yours too/One so that they think you’re sleeping/While the other one’s looking, baby, right at you.” Toward the end, this track also features some good stuff on guitar. While there is a bit of a bluesy vibe to this song, the following track, “Here Comes The Flood,” has more of a country pop feel. “You’d better run for cover/No better cover than your man/Baby, if I’m him, let me help you to understand.” Amanda Anne Platt provides some backing vocals on this track.

“Eden Colorado” has a wonderful, kind of quiet folk vibe, and features some really good lyrics, with lines like “I make her laugh one time/To leave her memory behind” and “I’m looking for a dream somewhere deep inside of me” standing out. But probably my favorite line is “But out there on these highways every sign it reads do not worry about me.” I also love the guitar work on this track. This is a hopeful song, and is one of my personal favorite tracks.  That’s followed by one of the album’s three covers, Neil Young’s “Music Arcade,” a song from Broken Arrow. Taylor Martin’s rendition has a more cheerful and lively country sound, and features some nice work by Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle. Amanda Anne Platt joins him again on vocals. The fiddle is what makes “Second Sight” so beautiful. Interestingly, this love song also makes use of the image of the two having their eyes closed: “It’s all right, close your eyes/I’m going to close mine too.” A line that stood out for me the first time I listened to this song was “Help me remember when I first saw you again,” with that little pause before “again.”

Debrissa McKinney joins Taylor Martin on vocals on “Hollywood,” which is more of a pop tune with something of a 1970s vibe and some nice stuff on bass. Then Phil Alley joins Taylor Martin on telecaster for “Our Memories,” a song with a relaxed, pretty sound and more sweet work on fiddle. This track also has some nice harmonizing with Amanda Anne Platt. “This old house of earth and wood/Stood longer than we could/It always seemed too big for me/The perfect size for our memories.” That’s followed by the second of the album’s covers, Merle Haggard’s “Kern River.” The sweet nostalgic sound of the pedal steel fits this song so well. And, yes, this track also features some wonderful work on fiddle. Then “Milk And Honey” has a beautiful folk sound, with Aaron Ramsey on mandolin. “We’ll close our eyes and disappear.” I also like these lines, which end the song: “I was born a dreamer/You were born a dream.” The final cover is Bob Dylan’s “Sign On The Window,” a song from New Morning. The album then concludes with its title track, “Song Dogs,” which begins with some nice stuff on piano. This track too has its own beauty, aided by pedal steel and by what is probably Taylor Martin’s best vocal performance on the disc. “Though all the lines we’ve drawn are gone, and still we make it back.”

CD Track List
  1. Little Pictures
  2. Here Comes The Flood
  3. Eden Colorado
  4. Music Arcade
  5. Second Sight
  6. Hollywood
  7. Our Memories
  8. Kern River
  9. Milk And Honey
  10. Sign On The Window
  11. Song Dogs 
Song Dogs was released on November 16, 2018 on Little King Records. By the way, the notes on the back of the CD case are basically impossible to read. I know I’m getting older, but holy moly, you’d have to have some kind of superhero vision to make out the print there below the track list.