Friday, May 22, 2020

Gravel & Grace: “Bringing The Blues” (2020) CD Review

Gravel & Grace is a fairly new blues band led by vocalists Ava Grace and Earl Matthews. On their debut studio release, Bringing The Blues, they alternate lead vocal duties, with Ava Grace taking the odd-number tracks, and Earl Matthews taking those with even numbers. They are backed by Isaac Lewis on guitar, Ricky Galvan on guitar, Joshua Broom on bass, Ray Vazira on drums, William Melendez on saxophone, and Bart Szopinski on organ and piano. The songs on this release are mostly originals, mixing blues with elements of other genres of music to create an enjoyable and vibrant sound.

The album opens with “Scares Me,” which was written by Earl Matthews, Ava Grace Merchant and Ray Vazira. It starts off as a cool blues tune, with Ava’s powerful vocal performance drawing us in immediately. “Yes, it scares me, baby, when you talk to me that way.” Is she really only seventeen years old? Then, once it kicks in, this tune has a disco feel, which comes as a delightful surprise. Plus, there is some good work on sax over that fun rhythm, helping to make this a totally enjoyable way to kick off the disc. It is followed by “Next Move,” written by Earl Matthews and Ray Vazira, with Earl on lead on vocals. “Well, work’s been slow lately,” he sings, which to me seems to be the understatement of the month. Yet this song ends up being a positive number, with a groovy rhythm. “Well, I’ve gotten this far/And I can go a little more/To try to figure out my next move.” Yup, that sounds about right. Seems like how we all are approaching the world these days, right? This track features some nice work on sax, especially during that lead section, and a good guitar part too.

Grace then sings lead on “Bottles,” a slower, soulful number that she wrote. I love that moment when the saxophone rises up to punch a hole in the darkness and lead us all out. It sounds so good. This song develops into a powerful track. That’s followed by “When I’m Hungover,” which has a sweet, cheerful vibe, particularly because of that work on acoustic guitar, and has more of a country sound. Earl is on lead vocals. “But all the whisky in this town/It couldn’t even start to drown/These lonely voices that I found/Saying I want you back.” Yet, on those lines, he is joined by Ava on vocals, lessening the sense of loneliness of the lines. Ah, to be lonely together. That’s followed by “Love On The Brain,” the album’s only cover, originally included on Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s 2016 release, Anti. On this rendition by Gravel & Grace, they punch up the song’s 1950s doo-wop vibe, which is wonderful. Ava sings lead on this track, and I love when her voice and the saxophone rise together. There is something kind of sexy about this track.

At the beginning of “Sunday Afternoon,” Earl Matthews sings “Let’s get together and have a real good time/You bring your friends, and I’ll bring mine.” Oh, that sounds so good. I wish we could get together. This track has something of a smooth jazz vibe at the start, and then when it kicks in, it has the feel of some glorious gospel number, featuring some great lively work on keys. Oh yes, this certainly is a celebration. You might almost forget that we’re in the middle of a pandemic while listening to it. I am looking forward to the time when we can get together, have parties, have jams, have something to celebrate. This too shall pass, right? That’s followed by “Not About A Boy,” with Ava on lead vocals. Here she delivers an interesting and compelling vocal performance, and at one point the band drops out (apart from the bass player) so that we can focus on her voice. It is a moment of intimacy and vulnerability. That moment is followed by a delicious lead on saxophone. This song also features some wonderful bluesy guitar work in the second half of the track. The song’s title of course reminds me of that Hugh Grant movie About A Boy. It is followed by “Picture Perfect,” another song whose title reminds me of a movie, this one starring Jennifer Aniston. This song is another lively number, with a New Orleans flavor. I love that work on keys, which seems to fly right out of my stereo speakers. And check out these lyrics: “She’s picture perfect, but practically insane/Yeah, that little girl, she’s so pretty/Pretty crazy is what I mean.” Oh yes, I think I dated her too. And is that a cha-cha-cha ending? You bet!

“Pennies” is a song written by Ava Grace Merchant, and it was chosen as the first single from this album to be released. This one too has a great energy, especially in Ava’s vocal performance, with more of a pop vibe and a bit of a 1980s flavor. “I know this song/Used to make you cry/So I kept the melody/And rewrote all the lines.” The album then concludes with “Wash My Blues,” written by Earl Matthews and Ray Vazira. This one too has something of a pop vibe, with some soul flavor and another wonderful lead on sax.

CD Track List
  1. Scares Me
  2. Next Move
  3. Bottles
  4. When I’m Hungover
  5. Love On The Brain
  6. Sunday Afternoon
  7. Not About A Boy
  8. Picture Perfect
  9. Pennies
  10. Wash My Blues
Bringing The Blues is scheduled to be released on June 19, 2020.

King Ropes: “Go Back Where They Came From” (2020) CD Review

King Ropes is a band based in Bozeman, Montana, mixing elements of rock, pop and country, with more than a hint of psychedelia. On their new album, Go Back Where They Came From, they offer some delicious covers, material covering a fairly wide spectrum of artists and styles, including pop and country. It is probably not often that you find songs by Roger Miller, Elton John and Beastie Boys all on one album. Yet the way these guys handle the material keeps it from being jarring when they switch from one genre to another. The band is made up of Dave Hollier on vocals and guitar, Ben Roth on guitar and keys, Keith Martinez on bass, and Jeff Jensen on drums. On this release they are joined by Aaron Banfield on bass and guitar, Sam Hollier on cello, and Lucy Hollier on trombone.

The album opens with a cover of “Tall Trees,” a single from Matt Mays & El Torpedo’s 2008 release, Terminal Romance. And right away I am excited by the approach they take to the song, opening it with a drum beat, and speeding the song up a bit. But what I love most is the addition of cello, giving the track an interesting and unusual sound, which I am crazy about. That is Sam Hollier on cello. This version is a bit more pop than rock, and the vocals have a sweet folk edge. It’s a wonderful start to the album. It is followed by “Take Me To The River.” This song was originally recorded by Al Green, but the first version I heard was that by Talking Heads, and it sounds like that version helped inspire this rendition. It is a cool rendition. Things get wonderfully strange toward the end. And then they follow that with a Talking Heads song, “Drugs,” from that band’s Fear Of Music LP (my personal favorite Talking Heads album, and an interesting one to listen to while on acid). King Ropes offers a really good rendition, with some cool touches and additions, particularly on the vocals, but also on cello.

King Ropes delivers an unusual take on Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” For some reason, this song has been in the air a lot lately. Ellis Paul has been offering a rendition during his nightly concerts online, playing it on acoustic guitar. This version by King Ropes has some interesting percussion during the verses. On the chorus, it sounds more like you might expect it to, though I love that work on guitar during the chorus. And this track features more wonderful stuff on cello, which really adds a lot to that atmosphere, to that sense of loneliness. That’s followed by a haunting, moody rendition of “Eisler On The Go,” a song with lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, but with music by Billy Bragg. It was originally included on Mermaid Avenue, and is one I haven’t heard covered all that much (or at all?). The song from that album it seems most folks gravitate toward is “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” (though “California Stars” is my personal favorite). This rendition features some beautiful work on cello (yes, I love that instrument). Then Lucy Hollier joins the band on trumpet for a gentle and pretty rendition of “Girls Like Us,” a song from Tandy’s album To A Friend. This is a song I wasn’t really familiar with, and it ended up being one of my favorites. The original version is excellent too. Here is a taste of the lyrics, written by Mike Ferrio: “See how long this lasts/Anything could break/And everybody knows/That’s the chance you take/Your hiding place/Now you see it, now you don’t/Without a trace/You need to be alone.” That is followed by a good version of Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues.”

King Ropes gets into the country realm with a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning.” I really like what these guys do with this song. It’s quite different from other versions I’ve heard. I’m used to bluegrass rendition. It certainly has more of a rock sound, but not like that version Supersuckers delivered on the Twisted Willie album. This one has a slower groove, and features some cool guitar work, as well as more good work on cello. I’ve always enjoyed this song, but appreciate it even more since I’ve been living in Los Angeles. The band follows that with another country number, Roger Miller’s “King Of Road,” a song that has been covered a lot over the years, including an odd, messy version by R.E.M. and a cool , delightful rendition by The Proclaimers. This version by King Ropes is a bit slower than many versions, and the steady percussion features prominently.

We then get a cover of Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles),” here listed as “Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles),” a song from that band’s debut LP, Funeral. This is another one I wasn’t familiar with, but I am seriously appreciating it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sam Hollier returns on cello for this one. “Killing old folks just like we knew it would” is a line that stands out during the pandemic. From there, the band takes another turn to deliver a rendition of Beastie Boys’ “Song For The Man,” a fantastic song from their 1998 album, Hello Nasty. This version omits that opening comment, “I don’t like your attitude, boy.” I dig the catchy garage sound once the song kicks in. Lucy Hollier plays trumpet on this track, and on the album’s final track, an interesting take on “The Danger Zone,” a song written by Percy Mayfield and recorded by Ray Charles. It was used as the flip side to the 1961 single of “Hit The Road Jack,” also composed by Percy Mayfield. That is, the ABC-Paramount release of it, not the Phillips record, which also came out in 1961. Anyway, is this not a perfect song to leave us with? The opening lines are: “Sad and lonely all the time/That’s because I’ve got a worried mind/You know, the world is in an uproar/The danger zone is everywhere.”

CD Track List
  1. Tall Trees
  2. Take Me To The River
  3. Drugs
  4. Rocket Man
  5. Eisler On The Go
  6. Girls Like Us
  7. Transcendental Blues
  8. Bloody Mary Morning
  9. King Of The Road
  10. Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)
  11. Song For The Man
  12. The Danger Zone
Go Back Where They Came From was released today, May 22, 2020.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Jake Blount: “Spider Tales” (2020) CD Review

On his new album, Spider Tales, banjo player, fiddler and vocalist Jake Blount digs deep into the roots of folk and blues to deliver excellent and honest renditions of some classic material, some you certainly know (such as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) and some you might not be all that familiar with. The liner notes include interesting information on each of the songs chosen for this album. By the way, the Spider of the album’s title is a trickster with an ample supply of wit and wisdom, which he uses against those who oppress people, and the songs contained here are pertinent as we move into a challenging and frightening decade and seek the strength to deal with the troubles the lie ahead. Joining Jake Blount on this one are Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle, Judy Hyman on fiddle, Jeff Claus on banjo-uke, Nic Gareiss on percussion, Rachel Eddy on guitar, and Haselden Ciaccio on bass. The album includes several instrumental tracks, some of which are banjo and fiddle duets.

The album opens with “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone,” an instrumental piece from banjo player Lucius Smith. This track consists of banjo and percussion, and from what I gather from the liner notes the percussion is all done with the feet. So there is a loose and intimate vibe to this track, a back porch kind of thing happening. You might find yourself adding your own percussion as you listen – a knee to slap, whatever is handy. But there is also a rather somber vibe to the piece, an unusual and distinct style for the banjo (if you listen to the original recording of Lucius Smith performing this tune, you’ll hear a woman – Shirley Collins – remarking, “I’ve never heard anyone play the banjo like that”). That’s followed by “Roustabout,” a song from banjo player Dink Roberts. Tatiana Hargreaves’ fiddle plays a prominent role on this track, seeming to be the driving force. This one is fiddle, banjo and vocals. “Where you going, you roustabout/Where are you going fishing.”

Jake Blount delivers a pretty and moving rendition of Lead Belly’s bluesy interpretation of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a striking song that has been covered a lot over the years, telling a dark tale in which a man is decapitated by a train. This tale and this song have many variations. On this rendition, both Jake Blount and Hargreaves are on fiddle and vocals. Their work on fiddle is absolutely wonderful. Rachel Eddy is on guitar, and Haselden Ciaccio is on bass. Jake changes the line “My girl, my girl” to “My boy, my boy,” making it a gay couple. That’s followed by “Old-Timey Grey Eagle,” a bright, fairly fast-paced tune from fiddler Manco Sneed, here presented as a duet by Jake Blount on banjo and Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle.

“Move, Daniel” is an interesting song composed by slaves and sung to help guide one of them safely along so as not to be caught by their master. It is incredible that music was used that way, and that the slave owners paid so little attention to what they were singing that they didn’t catch on to the purpose of the song. After all, it is not all that subtle. They are essentially shouting out directions, “Go the other way, Daniel.” In a recording of this song by The McIntosh County Shouters, they tell the story of this song, about the slave named Daniel who was stealing some meat for a party. It is also interesting that the song has a gospel vibe. Tatiana Hargreaves plays fiddle on this rendition. “Blackbird Says To The Crow” is instrumental tune from fiddle player Cuje Bertram, this version featuring banjo, fiddle and percussion. Yup, more work from Nic Gareiss’ feet. Cuje Bertram’s music survives only because of home recordings he made when he was in his seventies, since the record companies wouldn’t produce so-called “race records” featuring old-time music. That’s followed by “Brown Skin Baby,” a solo effort by Jake Blount on fiddle and vocals, and then by “English Chicken,” an instrumental track featuring banjo and fiddle. I love the timeless quality of these tracks. It seems some care has been taken to create as authentic a sound as possible. There is also joy heard in the playing.

“Rocky Road To Dublin” is an Irish song written (as far as we know) by D.K. Gavan in the 1800s. It is a hell of a tricky song to sing. You have to have pretty good command of your lungs to get all the words out. Many folks avoid that trouble by performing instrumental renditions. Osey and Ernest Helton were a Cherokee banjo and fiddle duo who performed the song, and this version by Jake Blount takes its inspiration from that rendition. Both Jake and Tatiana Hargreaves are on fiddle. Jeff Claus plays banjo-uke, Rachel Eddy is on guitar, and Haselden Ciaccio is on bass. There is a delightfully bright sound to this rendition, so put on your dancing feet. Then Jake Blount takes us into gospel with a good rendition of “The Angels Done Bowed Down.” On this one, Jake provides the vocals, and the full band backs him, including both Tatiana Hargreaves and Judy Hyman on fiddle, Jeff Claus on banjo-uke, Rachel Eddy on guitar and Haselden Ciaccio on bass.

While most of the songs on this album have been around a long while, “Beyond This Wall” is a tune written by Judy Hyman, who co-produced this album with her husband, Jeff Claus. It is a banjo and fiddle instrumental tune featuring Jake Blount on banjo and Tatiana Hargreaves on fiddle. It is a moving and somber number. That’s followed by “Boll Weevil,” a solo performance by Jake Blount on vocals and fiddle. A spider actually plays a part in this song: “Yonder comes a spider/Crawling up and down the wall.” Then “Done Gone” is a fun, lighter number, another banjo and fiddle tune. The album concludes with “Mad Mama’s Blues,” a seriously cool and delightful song from Josie Miles. This playful and wonderful track features some excellent work on fiddle by both Jake Blount and Tatiana Hargreaves, and also probably features my favorite vocal performance of the album. The lines “You don’t believe that I’m sinking/Just look what a hole I am in” also show up in “Stealin’.” But it is that fiddle part that really makes this track something special. The pace suddenly picks up in the second half. As delightful as this song is, its lyrics contain a pretty serious warning. This track fades out, giving us the sense that that instrumental section is continuing for a while. I could certainly have used another two or three minutes of this one.

CD Track List
  1. Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone
  2. Roustabout
  3. Where Did You Sleep Last Night
  4. Old-Timey Grey Eagle
  5. Movie, Daniel
  6. Blackbird Says To The Crow
  7. Brown Skin Baby
  8. English Chicken
  9. Rocky Road To Dublin
  10. The Angels Done Bowed Down
  11. Beyond This Wall
  12. Boll Weevil
  13. Done Gone
  14. Mad Mama’s Blues
Spider Tales is scheduled to be released on May 29, 2020 on Free Dirt Records.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dr. John: “Ske Dat De Dat: The Spirit Of Satch” (2014/2020) CD Review

In 2014, Dr. John released Ske Dat De Dat: The Spirit Of Satch, a fantastic tribute to Louis Armstrong, which found the singer and pianist joined by a lot of special guests, including The Blind Boys Of Alabama and Bonnie Raitt. Now that album is being re-issued, with different artwork on the cover, and will be available on vinyl. We lost Dr. John last June, a distinct and joyful voice in music, and the world just isn’t the same since then. But the re-issue of this spectacular album should help us cope.

The album opens with a really hopping rendition of “What A Wonderful World,” a song written by George Weiss and Bob Thiele. It begins with the first lines delivered a cappella, featuring The Blind Boys Of Alabama, and then kicks in with a bright, positive sound. Nicholas Payton delivers some absolutely wonderful work on trumpet. This is  a song I want to hold onto in these days of anger and division and fear. And in this rendition, Dr. John offers a celebration of life, and of this planet we all have found ourselves on. Then he gets funky with a great and unusual rendition of “Mack The Knife,” the horns delivering some excellent work, with Terence Blanchard shining on trumpet. On this track, Dr. John is joined on vocals by Mike Ladd, who delivers a rap in the middle of the song, even making a reference to Stephen King’s The Shining (a book I happen to be re-reading at the moment). And Dr. John sounds so damn cool here (well, he always did, didn’t he?). That’s followed by “Tight Like This,” with Dr. John joined on vocals by Telmary Diaz, delivering some of the lyrics in Spanish. And yes, this track features more wonderful work from the brass section, particularly Arturo Sandoval on trumpet.

Bonnie Raitt joins Dr. John for a seriously cool rendition of “I’ve Got The World On A String.” She sings, “I’ve got a song that I sing/I can make the rain go anytime I move my finger/Lucky me, oh can’t you see/Baby, I’m in love.” Oh yes! And Dr. John tells us, “Life’s a beautiful thing/Long as I hold the string.” They are clearly having a great time singing together, making this song a delicious duet. I love the way they approach this song, enjoying this rendition much more than, say, the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minnelli duet version. That’s followed by “Gut Bucket Blues,” featuring Nicholas Payton on trumpet. This lively rendition has a good amount of funk to it. It is followed by “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” I think the first version of this song I ever heard was that by Richie Havens, in the documentary film of the Woodstock concert. I loved the raw energy of that performance. There is what sounds like a genuine need in his passionate delivery. The version here has a much different approach; it is much smoother, kind of gentle, with vocals by Anthony Hamilton. I took me a moment, but I got into it.

Wendell Brunius and The McCrary Sisters join Dr. John on this sweet and soulful rendition of “That’s My Home.”  Folks say how do you do/And they really mean it too.” Sounds so good, doesn’t it? “I’m always welcome back/No matter where I roam.”  I hope each of us has a place where we always feel welcome, and I hope we can all visit those places soon. The McCrary Sisters also sing on a moving version of “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” that has a great deal of soul and features Ledesi Young on lead vocals. There is tremendous amount of joy in Ledesi’s performance, helping to make this track stand out. Then The Blind Boys Of Alabama join Dr. John again for “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” a song Louis Armstrong recorded in the early 1930s. Terence Blanchard is featured on trumpet on this uplifting track. I love the way that trumpet rises up to lead us out of the mire. There is something almost magical about it. This is a glorious and wonderful track.

Things really take off with “Dippermouth Blues,” a lively and totally enjoyable track featuring James Andrews, a musician from New Orleans who was one of the first to perform in the city following Hurricane Katrina. Here he delivers some excellent stuff on trumpet, and Dr. John rocks that piano. This entire album is good, but this track is certainly a highlight. It’s followed by “Sweet Hunk Of Trash,” featuring Shemekia Copeland on vocals, delivering those lines with attitude, with Dr. John reacting, a playful kind of duet. It was Billie Holiday who sang this one with Louis Armstrong. The band backing Dr. John and Shemekia Copeland jams on this one a bit. Then Arturo Sandoval joins Dr. John on trumpet for a gentle and pretty version of “Memories Of You,” which features a wonderful vocal performance by Dr. John. The album concludes with a popping version of “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)” that features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. A great ending to this spectacular album.

CD Track List
  1. What A Wonderful World
  2. Mack The Knife
  3. Tight Like This
  4. I’ve Got The World On A String
  5. Gut Bucket Blues
  6. Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
  7. That’s My Home
  8. Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen
  9. Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams
  10. Dippermouth Blues
  11. Sweet Hunk Of Trash
  12. Memories Of You
  13. When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)

Ske Dat De Dat: The Spirit Of Satch is scheduled to be re-issued on June 5, 2020, and will be available on vinyl.