Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Mick Kolassa: “They Call Me Uncle Mick!” (2022) CD Review

Blues man Mick Kolassa has certainly kept busy, releasing three albums in the last eleven months. The latest, They Call Me Uncle Mick!, contains a combination of original material and good choices of covers. The music here is acoustic blues. As is mentioned in the album’s liner notes, “No amplified instruments were used on any track, making this album purely acoustic.” Oh yes, acoustic and so damn good! Some talented musicians join him on this album, including three harmonica greats – Eric Hughes, Watermelon Slim and Bobby Rush. Jeff Jensen is on guitar and percussion, Tom Leonardo is on drums, Carl Caspersen is on bass, Rick Steff is on piano, and Alice Hasan is on violin. There are some other guests on various tracks.

The disc opens with a totally fun rendition of Bo Carter’s “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” a track that immediately puts me in a good mood. It has a loose, cheerful vibe, and features some delicious work on both guitar and harmonica. Eric Hughes plays harmonica on this one. Plus, Mick Kolassa delivers a seriously good vocal performance, adding some playful touches. It is a joy from beginning to end. That’s followed by an original number, “Wasted Youth,” a song that Mick Kolassa included on another album last year, where it functioned as the title track. This new version has a different feel, with that cool acoustic blues sound. Both renditions are really good, but I prefer this one. It also contains some excellent work on harmonica, this time by Bobby Rush. There is also some great stuff on guitar. Brad Webb plays slide guitar on this track. This song’s rhythm is part of our biological structure. The blues are part of us, you know. This track features a great jam, yet it is the vocal performance that I love most here. This is one of my favorite tracks.

People have been covering John Prine a lot more than usual in the days since his death near the beginning of the pandemic. On this album Mick Kolassa covers “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin,” a nice choice. This song is from The Missing Years, one of my personal favorite John Prine albums. I had a folk radio program up in Oregon in the 1990s, and I played tracks from that album quite often. Mick Kolassa does a good job with this song. Eric Hughes is back on harmonica, delivering some expressive work. “Well, I’m going downtown, gonna rattle somebody’s cage.” That’s followed by “Used To Be,” an original composition. In this fun, playful tune, Mick Kolassa sings, “The US postal service sure ain’t what it used to be.” Ah, no kidding! And the song also contains this bit of truth: “Now it wasn’t perfect before, but it seemed okay/Everything keeps changing, I guess it just works out that way.” This track contains some excellent stuff on guitar and piano. Doug McLeod joins Mick on guitar on this track. This is a song for anyone who has lately found himself or herself uttering, “Things aren’t what they used to be.” And Mick turns the song onto himself at the end: “I got hearing aids to help me listen/Glasses to help me see/Hey, I guess now I ain’t even what I used to be.”

Mick Kolassa then delivers what might be the coolest rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” you’ll ever hear. It is bluesy, of course, and has an undeniable allure. And Alice Hasan’s work on violin is fantastic. Plus, this track features some excellent work on guitar. This is certainly another of the disc’s highlights. Doug McLeod returns on guitar for the original number, “My Woman She’s So Mean,” another cool track. Here Mick Kolassa sings, “She’s so damn mean, you know one time I saw her scare a snake.” Oh man, this woman makes the worst the rest of us have dated seem sweet by comparison. So count our blessings, I suppose. I dig this track’s groovy jam. “I told her that I loved her/Man, that only made her sore.”

Like a lot of folks, I first heard “Woodstock” done by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was a little later when I heard Joni Mitchell’s own version and was surprised at how different it was. I always felt there was something bluesy about it, so it makes perfect sense for Mick Kolassa to cover it. Of course, his version is completely different from the way Joni Mitchell presented it. It is also quite different from the CSNY version. “He said, ‘I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm/Going to join a big blues band,’” Mick Kolassa sings in this rendition. Watermelon Slim joins him on vocals and harmonica for this track. Brad Webb is on slide guitar. “And I don’t know who I am/But life is for learning.” That’s followed by “Why?” In this one, Mick Kolassa sings, “You tell me lies, you try to make me think they’re true/It seems like you don’t love nobody, love anyone but you.” Well, this song might be about a mean woman, but those lines could easily also address a certain former president (and probably quite a few others in his party). This track features some delicious work on guitar, as well as some good stuff by Eric Hughes on harmonica.

The album’s final cover is “Sunny Side Of The Street,” one that immediately lifts the mood. Mick Kolsassa does such a great job with it. It feels like the song was waiting for him. His vocals here couldn’t be better. And there is more wonderful work on violin. Plus, John Whitman joins on vibraphone. Then “Bless His Heart” will pull you onto the dance floor, and make your smile all the larger. Yeah, it is another fun one. For those who might not know, adding “bless his heart” to the end of a description of someone is a way to show your disdain for that person in the south, or at least condescension. For example, Mick Kolassa sings, “Always paid attention only to himself/He thought he was a winner/He was lost from the start/And he never had a clue/Bless his heart.” The album then concludes with “The Cheese Song,” which has the lines, “But as I search high and low/It’s hard to find any good songs about cheese.” I took that as a challenge. I figured, come on, there must be at least a dozen good cheese songs. But you know what? I couldn’t think of any at first. What kept coming to mind was the Cheese Shop sketch from Monty Python, and then the trailer for This Is Spinal Tap. But neither of those are songs. Then I thought of Chocolate And Cheese, a cool album from Ween, but again not a song. But Ween did have a song titled “Pork Roll Egg And Cheese.” So there. Anyway, Chris Gill joins Mick Kolassa on slide guitar on this track. “Oh man, do I love cheese.”

CD Track List

  1. My Pencil Won’t Write No More
  2. Wasted Youth
  3. Daddy’s Little Pumpkin
  4. Used To Be
  5. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  6. My Woman She’s So Mean
  7. Woodstock
  8. Why?
  9. Sunny Side Of The Street
  10. Bless His Heart
  11. The Cheese Song

They Call Me Uncle Mick! was released on August 18, 2022 on Endless Blues Records.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Tennessee Jed Fisher: “New Beginnings” (2022) CD Review

Tennessee Jed Fisher is a singer and songwriter from Tennessee (thus the name) who is now based in North Carolina. His music is in the bluegrass realm, but with other elements mixed in. The album that turned me on to his music was 2018’s Pimpgrass, which featured mostly original material. His new release, New Beginnings, likewise contains mostly original material. Joining him on this album are Scott Vestal on banjo (Vestal also played on Pimpgrass), Michael Bub on upright bass, Deanie Richardson on fiddle, Jason Carter on fiddle, James Seliga on mandolin, and Mark Schimick on mandolin and backing vocals, along with a few other guests on certain tracks.

The album opens with “Who We Are (Instrumental Fade),” a short instrumental track that is basically a little tease of the album’s final track. With its rather somber, contemplative tone, it is an interesting choice for kicking off the disc. It is followed by the album’s title track, “New Beginnings.” This song announces itself as a song of hope. Couldn’t we all use such a song in these strange and divisive times? And with a friendly voice delivering these lines: “This is a song of new beginnings/A song for happy endings/A song of love against all odds/For hearts that needed mending/A song to light your hope anew/To find your dream and see it through.” The lyrics also contain a reference to The Empire Strikes Back (the same line that Air Traffic Controller refers to in “The Work”). This track features some nice work by Jeanie Richardson on fiddle.

For several years now my girlfriend has been bringing up the idea of getting an RV and just living out on the road, something that certainly has its appeal. It always has, I suppose, even before this country went sideways. “House On Wheels,” a song about doing just that, is also appealing, tapping into that desire to hit the road, which I imagine most of us have. Check out these pertinent lines: “In a world divided by extremes/Just heading west while the rest of the world explodes/But I know I won’t be blue/Because as long as I’m with you/Then I’m at home.” Those lines get it exactly right, don’t they? Then “Drivin’ My Life Away” is the first of only two covers on this release. Yes, it’s the Eddie Rabbit song, here delivered with a delightful bluegrass angle, which works really well. It also works well following “House On Wheels” with the lines “Ooh, I’m driving my life away/Looking for a better way/For me.” This track features lots of good, prominent work on fiddle, and then a great lead on banjo. There is a wonderful energy to this track, and this rendition might actually be better than the original.

In “Bridges,” Tennessee Jed sings, “We can build a bridge/Between extremes/And help each other/Realize our dreams.” Maybe I’m foolish, but I still believe this to be true. And probably you do too, if you are a person for whom music plays an important part in life. We are forever optimistic, even when cynicism drives its way into the middle of things. And even the track’s instrumental sections carry that sense of capability, of moving toward something better, the playing full of heart. That’s followed by “Devereaux Run,” a song that was co-written by Barney Rogers. This one creates a strong sense of place, peopled by characters we can visualize. It has a traditional bluegrass sound and vibe, with each of the musicians getting moments to lead.

“Devil’s Deal (If I Were Johnny)” has a cool vibe right from the start, with its slower, meaner sound. And there is a good amount of attitude in the vocal performance. This song provides a different perspective on “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” “And if the devil jumped up on a hickory stump/With a golden violin/I’d let the devil know/Where to shove that bow/I’m not selling out for a win.” Then “The World That Cried Wolf” sets a different tone in its opening moments with those backing vocals. Trey Hensley and Josh Shilling provide the harmony vocals on this one. Trey Hensley also plays guitar. Rob Ickes is on resophonic guitar, and Jacob Burleson is on both mandolin and bass. This is one that will certainly strike a chord with a lot of folks. “Always preaching the end/Never wanting it more/Now the wolf’s closing in/On a house made of straw/When the world cried out wolf/No one heeded the call.” I love that guitar work, but this track features excellent playing all around.

“Now That You Got Me” is a song about the sometimes confusing and difficult course of love. “Now that you got me/Suddenly you don’t want me/I don’t understand why/You keep pushing me away.” Hey, it doesn’t always work out, but the music surely does. “Now That You Got Me” is followed by the album’s second cover, The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (one of my favorite Beatles songs). Tennessee Jed delivers a fantastic rendition with some beautiful instrumental work (though I could do without the actual laugh after the line about how she started to laugh). Mason Via provides backing vocals on this track. The album then concludes with “Who We Are.” The opening line is so very apt, “What have we become?” That’s a question for our nation. And until a certain ex-president and his cohorts are in prison, it remains an open question. This is a slower song, prompting introspection. “Look what we’ve become/Look what we’ve done/Tried our hands at fate/Whole world crashing/Bowl of epithets/Hear them laughing that the/Joke has been on us/We’re ashamed of what we are/If this is it, then I want off/This shooting star.”

CD Track List

  1. Who We Are (Instrumental Fade)
  2. New Beginnings
  3. House On Wheels
  4. Drivin’ My Life Away
  5. Bridges
  6. Devereaux Run
  7. Devil’s Deal (If I Were Johnny)
  8. The World That Cried Wolf
  9. Now That You Got Me
  10. Norwegian Wood
  11. Who We Are

New Beginnings was released on June 17, 2022.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map To Louisiana Music DVD Review

In 1999, filmmaker Robert Mugge set out to document a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame & Museum tour through New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana, but got sidetracked by the rich music of that area, and the documentary Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map To Louisiana Music is the wonderful result. It was released on DVD in early 2016.

The film is divided into three main sections. The first section is titled “Part One: Another Country,” and focuses on the music of northern Louisiana. Dr. Michael Luster, the executive director of the Louisiana Folklife Festival, acts as our guide through this section, giving information on the history of music in that area and sharing his passion for it. There are several performances, including a very cool rendition of “Susie Q” by Dale Hawkins, featuring some great stuff on harmonica. This section also gets into gospel with Ever Ready Gospel Singers. The performances up to a point are shot in a concert hall without an audience, which is an interesting choice. But after that, the film takes us outside that hall, and includes a performance of “Prison Song” by Henry Dorsey and Marlon Collum that is shot next to the river. And Rev. Gerald Lewis (a cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis) demonstrates his talent on piano at a music store, singing “I’ll Fly Away,” while getting some help from Kenny Bill Stinton on another piano. But perhaps the most adorable footage from this section is of a gospel radio DJ who seems to read more ad copy than play records. “Have you murdered somebody? Well, don’t feel bad,” she says, reading ad copy from a bail bonds company.

The second section is titled “Spirits In The Night,” and focuses on New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The scene shifts, and so does the music. The film takes us into a pub in Baton Rouge, where Henry Gray & The Hurricanes are performing “Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest.” Henry Gray talks a bit about his experience and his craft, which is fantastic, and demonstrates his talent on keys. Taking over as guide for this section of the film is music historian Ben Sandmel. This section also features Henry Butler performing “Deep River” in New Orleans. Butler discusses New Orleans music, and the influence of Professor Longhair. There is also footage of Kermit Ruffins And His Barbecue Swingers, and it is then we get some horns.

The third section, “Music In The Air,” focuses on southwestern Louisiana. Interestingly, this is the longest section of the film (I would have guessed that would have been the New Orleans section). Here we meet Étienne Viator and his family. He talks about how music is part of everyday life in that area. “If you weren’t playing it or singing it, you were dancing to it, and you were loving it,” he says. Deborah-Helen Viator takes us into her workshop where she makes violins, and we are treated to a song by 15-year-old Alida Viator on fiddle and 18-year-old Moise Viator on guitar. There is a lot of joy in the playing of this musical family. Also in this section we learn that Ben Sandmel is the drummer for Hackberry Ramblers. So not just an historian, but a musician as well. Music really is in the blood of the people of this area. This section includes performances by Jambalaya Cajun Band, Warren Storm, Rod Bernard, Nathan And The Zydeco Cha Chas and Rosie Ledet.

Bonus Features

The DVD contains several bonus songs, presented in audio only, with photos of the artists on screen as the songs play. The songs include “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” by Claude King, “Little Pig” by Dale Hawkins, “I’m A Woman” by Rosie Ledet, “Diggin’ My Potatoes” by Po’ Henry & Tookie, “Dr. James” by Henry Butler, and “Tante Rosa” by Nathan Williams. Also included, but unrelated to the film, is Bill Morrissey performing “Inside.” Though it really has nothing to do with the film, it’s a great song.

Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map To Louisiana Music was directed by Robert Mugge, and was released on DVD on March 25, 2016 through MVD Visual.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Steve Goodman: “The Best Of Steve Goodman” (2021) CD Review

This is certainly not your typical greatest hits compilation, but then again Steve Goodman was not your typical singer/songwriter. The Best Of Steve Goodman does contain the songs you’d want on such a compilation, but includes live recordings and even a couple of previously unreleased tracks. So while being a good place for new fans to start, this album is also something that longtime fans will appreciate. Some of these tracks were previously included on the compilation No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology, which came out in 1994, while others come from Live Wire, which was released in 2000. Only a few tracks actually come from his original studio albums.

The disc opens with what is still Steve Goodman’s most famous composition, “City Of New Orleans,” a song that has been covered by a lot of artists over the years, including Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, who each had a hit with it. The version included on this disc is a solo demo version, and it is absolutely wonderful. This is one of the previously unreleased tracks, and it is unknown just where and when this recording was made. It is longer than Steve Goodman’s studio version, and features some really nice work on guitar. That’s followed by “Yellow Coat,” one of the tracks previously included on No Big Surprise. It was recorded in 1981, but this song is a decade older, having been featured on Steve Goodman’s self-titled debut studio album, which came out in 1971. The version on this compilation has a more somber sound, and I actually think this is better than that first rendition. The version of “Would You Like To Learn To Dance” included here was recorded on that same date in 1981, and was also included on No Big Surprise. There is a wonderfully intimate feel to this recording. “You sing so much better when you sing with a smile/That’s what makes all the notes come out so sweet and high.”

This disc’s version of “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” is another track that was previously unreleased. It was recorded live on Johnny Cash’s America on July 2, 1982, and Johnny Cash introduces Steve Goodman. Though it is clear from a bit of the introduction that Cash is referring to “City Of New Orleans,” not “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.” Cash says, “It’s one of the classic railroad songs of the age.” Then Steve Goodman introduces “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” mentioning that it was co-written by John Prine, and that David Allan Coe also recorded it. This is a total delight. I’ve heard this song many times, and it still makes me laugh at certain points. That’s followed by “The Dutchman,” a song that Steve Goodman did not write, but popularized when he included it on his 1972 LP Somebody Else’s Troubles. It was written by Mike Smith. The version on this CD was recorded at WFMT in Chicago, and originally included on No Big Surprise.

The live version of “Chicken Cordon Bleus” included here was originally included on Steve Goodman’s 1983 album Artistic Hair. This is a fun track, and the audience is into it from the moment he starts it. Just before the end, Steve Goodman asks, “Where are the chords?” That’s followed by another live recording, this one from 1977, and originally included on No Big Surprise. “Lincoln Park Pirates” comes from his 1972 LP Somebody Else’s Troubles, and is one of Steve Goodman’s songs about the city of Chicago. He is clearly having a good time with this one, and this recording is wonderful. Then “This Hotel Room” comes from Live Wire. Steve Goodman introduces the song, joking, “You know, I hate songs about the road, you know, because who cares.” The audience gets really into it, clapping along and hollering out at certain moments. Yeah, you get a sense what a great performer he was from this track. “Banana Republics” also comes from Live Wire.

“Video Tape” was recorded in London in 1977, and was originally included on The Easter Tapes, which came out in 1996. This song was originally included on his 1977 LP Say It In Private. “If your life was on video tape/Wouldn’t everything be all right/When your head hurts the morning after/Then you could roll it back to late last night/You could replay all the good parts/And cut out what you don’t like.” That’s followed by “My Old Man,” another track from Live Wire. Steve Goodman introduces this one. It’s a funny and sweet song about his father, and the audience is clearly into it. “He only made it to fifty-eight/And for the first time since he died/Late last night I cried/And I wondered when I was going to do that/For my old man.” Geez, those lines have me in tears. That’s followed by a live recording of “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men” from 1979, with a full band. I love this song, which is a song about various forms of love. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “There are those who make love to machines/That don’t talk back and are easy to clean/And there are those who will tell you out loud/That they can only make love in a crowd.” And I love these lines: “In the pursuit of true love’s joy/Boys will be girls and girls will be boys/But sometimes it’s hard to know what to do/When you don’t know who you’re talking to.”

Then we get a few tracks from Affordable Art, Steve Goodman’s last studio album, beginning with “Talk Backwards,” a song with a jazzy vibe. “Souvenirs” is a song that John Prine wrote, and John Prine joins him on it. I still can’t believe Prine is gone. Though Affordable Art is a studio album, there are a few live tracks on it. One of those is the hilarious “Vegematic.” It might come as no surprise that Shel Silverstein had a hand in writing this one. “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” is another live track from Affordable Art, this one obviously about the Chicago Cubs. Steve Goodman was a big Cubs fan, and did not live long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series in 2016 (the only good thing that happened in that foul year). It is fitting to follow “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” with “Go Cubs Go,” a song released as a single in 1984. This song was used as WGN Radio’s Cubs theme. It became popular again in 2016 when the Cubs finally won the World Series (first time since 1908). That is followed by “Face On The Cutting Room Floor,” a song from Santa Ana Winds, the first posthumously released Steve Goodman album. It is about a woman who wanted to make it as an actor, but was led astray. “She is history/No one will give her the star on the walk/She’d have a hundred if pillows could talk/Where have I seen her before/Well, she’s the face on the cutting room floor.” This collection concludes with Steve Goodman’s somewhat playful rendition of the classic number “As Time Goes By,” featuring some good guitar work.

CD Track List

  1. City Of New Orleans
  2. Yellow Coat
  3. Would You Like To Learn To Dance
  4. You Never Even Call Me By My Name
  5. The Dutchman
  6. Chicken Gordon Bleus
  7. Lincoln Park Pirates
  8. This Hotel Room
  9. Banana Republics
  10. Video Tape
  11. My Old Man
  12. Men Who Love Women Who Love Men
  13. Talk Backwards
  14. Souvenirs
  15. Vegematic
  16. A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request
  17. Go Cubs Go
  18. Face On The Cutting Room Floor
  19. As Time Goes By

The Best Of Steve Goodman was released on November 5, 2021 through Omnivore Recordings.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Ben E. King: “Supernatural Soul” (2022) CD Review

In 1975, Ben E. King released the LP Supernatural, which contained the hit “Supernatural Thing.” Now we are treated to Supernatural Soul, a new album featuring some classic material, recut and with additional performances by some musicians who were inspired by Ben E. King. Folks like Ronnie Earl, Bootsy Collins and Bette Smith lend their talents to these beloved songs. The original vocals by Ben E. King were recorded in late 1996, and these tracks were mixed and mastered this year.

The album opens with Ben E. King’s most popular song, “Stand By Me,” a song written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (though under the name Elmo Glick). This version features Bette Smith on vocals and Ronnie Earl on guitar. It still strikes me as strange, creating a duet with someone who has been gone for a while, because then one of the singers is completely unaware he is engaged in a duet. Weird, right? But it works. Bette Smith is fantastic. If you haven’t heard her yet, her 2020 album The Good, The Bad And The Bette is definitely worth checking out. And Ronnie Earl adds some really nice work on guitar. There is a second version of “Stand By Me” on this disc, this time without the special guests. “Stand By Me” is followed by “Supernatural Thing, Part 1,” this track featuring bass player Bootsy Collins (whom you likely know from his work in Parliament-Funkadelic). His presence is appreciated immediately. Yes, things do certainly get funky here. This disc contains a second version of this tune as well, an instrumental rendition, this one also featuring Bootsy Collins.

“Spanish Harlem” is another of Ben E. King’s big hits. The version on this disc features flamenco guitarist Rafael Riqueni. I love his work here, though at a couple of moments it seems just a tad loud in the mix. This track is one of the main reasons to add this release to your music collection. That’s followed by “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” is a song that was originally included on Ben E. King’s 1962 LP of the same name. This is the album that also included “Stand By Me,” and the similarities between the two songs are readily apparent in the first few seconds. But if you can get past those similarities, this is an excellent song, and Ben E. King delivers a passionate vocal performance here. “Amor” was the lead track on Ben E. King’s debut solo LP, Spanish Harlem. I prefer his vocal performance here. The age in his voice is effective.

We return to funky territory with “Do It In The Name Of Love,” another song that was included on that 1975 LP Supernatural. This track is a lot of fun. “When you’re in love, it’s no easy road/You’ve got to give more than you get/You never know what to expect/Hey, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down/Sometimes your whole world will come crashing down.” Things then slow down with “I Had A Love,” which was the title track to an album released in 1976, and was also released as a single. This track features a strong vocal performance. That’s followed by “Seven Letters,” which was also used as a title track to one of Ben E. King’s LPs. It’s a beautiful song, written by Ben E. King, and is one of my personal favorites on this album.

Before Ben E. King embarked on his successful solo career, he was a member of The Drifters, a band with an interesting history, or several different interesting histories, for there were different bands with that same name. Ben E. King led the second major group to have the name The Drifters. While Ben E. King was with the group, The Drifters had several hits. This CD concludes with “Drifters Medley,” in which he performs a few of those songs. The track begins with “This Magic Moment,” then segues into “Dance With Me” and then “There Goes By Baby.” It wraps up with “Save The Last Dance For Me.” This track is apparently not on the vinyl edition.

CD Track List

  1. Stand By Me
  2. Supernatural Thing, Part 1
  3. Spanish Harlem
  4. Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)
  5. Amor
  6. Do It In The Name Of Love
  7. I Had A Love
  8. Seven Letters
  9. Stand By Me
  10. Supernatural Thing, Part 1 (Instrumental)
  11. Drifters Medley

Supernatural Soul was released on August 26, 2022 on Goldenlane Records.