Do I Care If I Ever Hear This Song Again?

The first quarter of the year is ending. I have to say 2018 has started a bit slowly for music that meets my criteria for classiccowjazzrandb compared to the hot start to 2017. Granted there have been quite a few earnest efforts by both new and veteran artists. Earnest does not necessarily equate to entertaining, however.

My definition of entertaining is quite broad, I think. It certainly covers music that makes you laugh or want to dance or make love. It covers music that makes you cry and music that makes you think. Ultimately for me, it comes down to a simple question: do I really want to hear this song again…and again. Admittedly this is very subjective. Take four songs off the top of my head – “Red Neck Mother,” “Respect,” “Over The Rainbow,” and “Blowing In The Wind.” One is silliness washed in a modicum of truth. One grabs your gut and your feet. Two of those are beautiful, yet one tugs at your heart, and one stirs your conscience. About the only thing these four songs have in common is that whenever they come on the radio or surface on a playlist, I smile, and more importantly, I listen.

I’ve spent too much time literally working my way through albums that just don’t do it for me. Maybe it’s my fault; maybe I just haven’t been tuned in properly. I have, nevertheless, found a few that ring the bell. This week I’m going to tell you about two that are as good, and as much fun, as anything I’ve heard in quite awhile. One is from Texas, no surprise there, by a road and barroom tested band. The other is a finger-picking guitar maestro from Australia who was designated by none other than Chet Atkins as a C.G.P. – certified guitar player, one of only five so “knighted” by the original CGP. I don’t mind fewer good albums, if we get a couple of strong albums like these two.

 

Mike and the Moonpies – Steak Night At The Prairie Rose

 

 

Mike Harmeier got his start at age fourteen singing and playing guitar in a cover band at The Prairie Rose in the suburbs of Houston. Between 2008 and 2010, Mike and the Moonpies came together as a bar band in Austin and began hitting the road throughout Texas. They’ve been playing 180 to 200 nights a year ever since, and it shows. The band is tight and loose at the same time, a dichotomy that can only be achieved by many, many nights playing together. The interplay and beautifully timed riffs among twin guitars, steel and keyboards – organ and piano – can’t be accomplished in just a few hours of rehearsal before hitting the studio. The result no doubt propels dancers to hit the floor wherever and whenever this band strikes a chord.

Mike is the band’s songwriter as well as singer. HIs lyrics may not be literature, but they make the tunes much more than just something for dancing or background for a night out drinking. Some of his songs are semi-autobiographical, like the title cut. Others like “Beaches in Biloxi” add new twists to the old “he done her wrong” tales. “Wedding Band” starts off like a song of seduction but ends up being a sales pitch for the singer’s band. “Getting High At Home” is the tale of a slightly aging good ole boy who finds alternative fun on nights when he’s too tired for boot scootin’ at the local dance hall.

 

The album is slightly flavored with a mature theme here and there, but Mike and the Moonpies learned well from their early “outlaws” heroes that folks come to venerable dance halls like the Broken Spoke because they like a bit of two-steppin’ style with their substance.

 

Tommy Emmanuel – Accomplice One

Tommy Emmanuel is a guitar virtuoso and pretty fair singer, now in his early sixties, who usually works solo both in concert and on albums. He uses a finger picking style inspired by Chet Atkins to simultaneously play bass lines, chords for rhythm, melodies and harmonies. All the more amazing, he’s self taught and doesn’t read music. In case like me you have been only vaguely familiar with him ’til nowI want you to see and hear what he can do all by himself before talking about Accomplice One.

Quite honestly his solo albums are a bit like drinking from a fire hose, the notes and riffs come at you so fast they can become exhausting after two or three cuts. His playing often overwhelms the songs. On Accomplice One he’s taken a different approach. He’s chosen a different collaborator for each of nearly a dozen and a half classic songs. Most are accomplished players in their own right and/or wonderful singers. For example, he’s joined by two bluegrass stalwarts, David Grisman on mandolin and Bryan Sutton on second lead guitar for an unlikely but blistering instrumental take on Duke Ellington’s jazz classic, “C-Jam Blues.”

 

Some critics carp that Emmanuel has hidden his talent on this record, but I feel he has used it judiciously. Moreover, by sublimating his wizardry in service to his partnerships, he gives the listener a richer experience. It’s not that he hides his light under a blanket, but rather by sharing the spotlight with others, he actually amplifies his own presence much in the way a great actor uses pauses or moments of silence to amplify key lines in a Shakespearean soliloquy.

The songs range from blues to jazz to R&B to country. His accomplices include the likes of Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Bryan Sutton, David Grisman, Mark Knopfler, Suzy Bogguss, Jormo Kaukonen,  J.D. Simo and others. It’s so much fun to hear such talented musicians blend their talents while pulling out all the stops on such a rich, eclectic vein of material. Like Mike and the Moon pies demonstrate with their 200 night a year tour schedule, these guys are certainly earnest. But I was darn happy to find they’re also entertaining.

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There’s More To Music Than What Meets The Ear – See It Live

I absolutely love listening to music. It’s playing in my house all through the day. I can’t walk or drive down the street without firing up my iPod or radio. Sometimes I pour a little Jack Daniels on ice and sit alone in front of my very best speakers, so I can enjoy every instrument and every voice. You probably feel the same, if you’re reading this blog. To really hear music, however, you have to see it performed live. Something communal happens when a superior performer and the audience are together that enhances the listening dynamic.

I know nothing I’ve just said is new, but it was brought home to me again just a few nights ago when I saw a thrilling two for one show put on by one of the best known acts in bluegrass and a comparatively much lesser known folk singer at the Carolina Theater in Durham, NC.

The Earls of Leicester were the headliners. There’s no wonder they’ve won the IBMA Entertainer of The Year three years in a row. The brio and speed with which they perform the oeuvre of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys combined with a relaxed manner and humorous repartee made for a truly fun evening. I had the pleasure of seeing Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in person in about 1964 or ’65. They were better than anybody else in my opinion including Bill Monroe’s band because they had three guys, Scruggs on banjo, Paul Warren on fiddle and Josh Graves on dobro, who were the best in the business on their respective instruments. Anyway, the Earls boast top of the line talent across the board themselves, led of course by dobro phenom Jerry Douglas, who organized the group as an homage to Lester and Earl. As you’ve probably guessed, the group’s name is a play on their names.

I spoke with Shawn Camp, the band’s lead singer and guitarist after the show. He’s a particular favorite in part because of his work previously with Guy Clark and because of his performance at the Western Classic Benefit for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He’s a damn good lead guitar player in his own right, but in the Flatt and Scruggs arrangements, he’s strictly a rhythm guitarist. Having said that, the pace at which most of the songs are played means his right hand is a blur song after song after song. I don’t know how anybody can strum that fast for that long. My real point with this observation is that seeing the performance added another dimension to hearing the music. Watching the musicians bob, weave and maneuver among the omni directional mics, trade quips, and interact with the audience was exhilarating. Yes, these guys are premier musicians, but they are also performers of equal rank as you’ll see in this two song segment from Merlefest.

(I wrote about The Earls’ second album, Rattle & Roar, in a previous post. Their debut album was titled simply The Earls Of Leicester. Both are excellent.)

The opening act was every bit as compelling in a different kind of way. I was not familiar with Jonathan Byrd who lives in Chapel Hill but tours quite a bit, especially in Texas, where he plays places like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Gruene Hall. He’s clearly influenced by some of my Texas songwriter faves, yet he has his own style. He writes, plays a strong acoustic guitar and sings quite well. On this night he was accompanied by a guy named Johnny Waken, a virtuoso who played mandolin, electric guitar, harmonica, tambourine and the saw, while also singing backing harmonies at times. These two guys blew me away. Byrd’s songs were terrific, powerful at times, humorous at others – all in all genuine folk music. And the songs were enhanced by the showmanship, which in Waken’s case involved singular attire and an unforgettable beard reminiscent of the Soggy Bottom Boys in the finale to the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Plus he moved all about the stage, sometimes dramatically, sometimes comedically.  He was one cool dude. The stage in these videos is not as expansive as the Carolina Theater’s, but I hope they give you a feel for the experience of Jonathan and Johnny live.

 

In a sense, Byrd played the straight man, stationery at his vocal mic in jeans, shirt and battered straw cowboy hat, while Waken was free to roam. The effect was never distracting. Rather it compelled me to watch as well as listen, and the dance between the two combined with marvelous playing reinforced the drama, comedy or tragedy of the songs. Even though the crowd was there to see The Earls, they were truly mesmerized by Byrd’s and Waken’s show and gave them a standing ovation. I picked up a couple of Byrd’s CD’s after the show. Cackalack includes several numbers he performed that night. Trio is the only one I found that includes Waken, so it’s closer to the sound of their show.  I enjoy the albums, but what I really want to do is see him again in person. For those of you who can easily get to the Chapel Hill area, he often plays on Wednesday nights at a club just outside town called The Kraken. His website has him there on Wednesday’s through mid March, then again in late March. Highly recommended. “Working Offshore” is a tad lengthy at about seven minutes, but it’s a classic example of a performance whose power builds through lyrics that steadily reveal a gripping story augmented by instrumental improvisation that builds searing intensity.

Check out Jonathan Byrd’s story and another sample video on his web site www.jonathanbyrd.com.

Finally,  just to bring this all around full circle, here is Lester and Earl and the Foggy Mountain Boys doing their own rendition of “Salty Dog Blues.” And as a poignant footnote, the fiddler here Paul Warren is the father of Johnny Warren of The Earls of Leicester, who plays his father’s fiddle.

The Best Singer-Guitarist You May Never Have Heard

I hope a flood of comments to this post prove me wrong, but I bet many of my readers have never heard of, much less heard, Josh White. If you’re one who has never heard Josh White sing and play the guitar, or even if you have but not in a long while, you’re in for a treat. His obscurity today is hard to explain, given what a big star he was in his day. He performed, for one example, at Franklin Roosevelt’s third inauguration and later became the first African-American invited to perform in the White House.

Let me introduce him to you via one of my Josh White favorites, “Jelly Jelly!,” a tune written by big band stalwarts Earl Hines and Billy Strayhorn in the forties and covered by virtually every blues artist since, from John Lee Hooker to the Allman Brothers. Josh, here on guitar with a bassist, added a few of his own R-rated lyrics to the original.

 

Josh White was born in South Carolina in 1914.  At age seven he began working for a blind singer, leading him around from place to place. Soon he began playing guitar and singing himself, learning various techniques while working for several blind musicians. He built a unique style in which he would in essence play rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously. His voice was rich and expressive, and he could use it equally well on blues, folk and occasionally pop music. Moreover, he had a commanding yet warm stage presence and was a superb entertainer, a talent he honed early when holding an audience’s attention meant more grocery money in the tip jar.

White’s talents took him from backwater joints and over many obstacles all the way to New York City where he became a nightclub mainstay in the 1940’s, specially at the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, the first club in America to actively attract integrated audiences. White became an international star in nightclubs, concert halls, the movies and Broadway. His recording of “One Meat Ball” became the first million selling song by a male African-American and was later covered by Bing Crosby among many others.

Josh White along with the Weavers, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie were key drivers for the first folk boom in the 1940’s and early 1950’s.  Alas, almost all of these artists were driven underground, blacklisted by the McCarthy inspired witch hunts. White’s primary sin was that he mixed anti-segregationist songs like “JIm Crow Train,” “Free And Equal Blues,” and “Strange Fruit” into his repertoire of traditional folk and blues.  McCarthyites used this aspect of his work to brand him a communist sympathiser, and he was blacklisted from performing in concerts, radio and television.

Fortunately for him, he was able to find club and concert work albeit far from home as an expat in Europe. Luckily for me, and I hope for many of you, the folk music revival ignited by The Kingston Trio brought many of these earlier artists back into the spotlight and record stores in the US. White never became nearly as big a star as he had been, but he had a good run on Elektra Records in the fifties and sixties. In 1963 his blacklisting from TV was lifted when President Kennedy included him on a CBS special, “Dinner With The President.” He battled heart issues throughout the sixties, finally succumbing in 1969.

Today there are a couple of “best of” compilations of his Elektra recordings and some individual albums as well available on iTunes and Amazon, so I assume on Spotify also. I recommend The Best of Josh White, with 22 songs, and there’s also a 39 tune collection on Elektra. These are songs recorded primarily in the fifties and early sixties. My ears prefer them to earlier recordings only because they’re in high fidelity which was not available in the forties. Both give a good survey of White’s repertoire. Here’s another favorite, the venerable New Orleans staple, “St James Infirmary.”

Two individual Elektra albums that I like are Empty Bed Blues, White’s last album for Elektra in 1962, and Josh White Sings Ballad And Blues recorded in 1956-57. Both are excellent and are near bookends to his Elektra run. Both are represented on the two compilation albums though not in entirety.  Ballads and Blues intrigued me because it includes two pop songs from the Great American Songbook in addition to his usual folk and blues selections: “Miss Otis Regrets” and “One For My Baby.” Given the blues-like themes of both songs, White’s masterful renditions are not surprising.

 

Just a note of caution: when searching for Josh White’s music, you will likely also be shown albums by his son Josh White, Jr. as well as a contemporary white singer named Josh White. Neither is the the man I’m writing about, although Josh White, Jr. worthily followed his dad as a folk/blues singer.

Since most of my videos for White are static visually, I’ll close with this one and only excerpt I could find from a 1962 TV concert in Sweden. If you want to see the whole 30 minute show, you can search on YouTube for “Josh White in Sweden.” Most of the songs performed are fairly traditional folk and blues tunes. This one, however, is a bluesy Josh White style rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”

 

Merry Christmas Baby

The title and lyrics for “Merry Christmas Baby” we’re written in 1947 by the great Charles Brown, who naturally was cheated out of the songwriting credits, as so often happened in those days. He was, nevertheles, the lead singer on the original hit release. Here’s his update with an assist from Bonnie Raitt on “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990’s.

 

Charles Brown also co-wrote and recorded another of my Christmas season faves, “Please Come Home For Christmas,” initially released in 1961.

I have no way of knowing, but perhaps as he wrote Charles recalled the bittersweet Christmas classic written and recorded in 1943 as a tribute to American forces serving far from home in World War II. Well we still have marines, soldiers and sailors serving overseas, so the song remains timely.

 

I realize I’ve brought a little melancholy to the holiday mood, so let’s kick the Christmas cheer back home with a hot version of this week’s title tune by Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I hope you’re with the ones you love.

 

Quick Cuts: Comfortably Alluring

Caleb Caudle – Carolina Ghost

I first heard about Caleb Caudle when he made Rolling Stone’s list of “10 New Country Artists You Need To Know.” Frankly the more I read about him, and with whom he was being compared, the less interested I became. I’m not sure why; maybe just feeling cranky that day. But he’s from my home state of North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the album’s title, Carolina Ghost, so a few months later I gave him a listen. What I heard were songs, guitars and keys, and a voice that all together rested as comfortably as a front porch rocker on an early fall afternoon. In the interst of full disclosure, about a third of the tracks don’t do anything for me. Ah, but the others? They just keep speaking to me and calling me back. They’re not all happy songs, but they make me feel happy whenever I answer the call to hear them again. There’s not too much more you can ask of a musician, is there?

Stop reading and start listening to lyrics like “This afternoon was nothing less than lonely, and yesterday was one long kiss goodby.”

 

And you have to love vivid imagery like, “I see my breath, and I hear winter’s lonely croon.”

Quick Cuts: Faulkner, Haggard and Murder – Lots of News in the “Crier”

Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

The concept behind Enderline’s second album is that each song could be a story in this fictional small town newspaper, the “Whiskeytown Crier.” Her web site bio connects her songwriting inspiration to her love of William Faulkner, and her songs are similarly rich in character, story and details of place. Most of her tales are sad, even heartbreaking, but her skill makes hearing them a pleasure.

She had her first song recorded by Alan Jackson (“Monday Morning Church”) before she graduated from college. Soon she had placed tunes with the likes of Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”)  and Luke Bryan (“You Don’t Know Jack.”)   She toured with Willie Nelson and made friends with Merle Haggard. She confessed to Merle she was inspired by his approach, especially to phrasing, when she wrote “The Blues Are Alive & Well.”

On Whiskeytown Crier Enderline proves she can sing as well as write. Anybody who can write lines like these deserves to be heard:

“She could’ve had any man,
I thought he was just another one,
’Til that No Tell Motel shotgun epiphany…

My baby sister, sweet baby sister,
I knew you were a pistol,
But I never knew you owned a gun.”

Or…

“I smoked one to the filter, and I watched the ashes fall,
Blew smoke rings at your memory as it danced across the wall,
’Til it was gone.”

Or…

“If I start thinking about your sweet kiss,
I start thinking ‘bout your goodby,
Baby that’s the kind of heartache that can take all night,
When it comes to you,
That’s more than a glass or two,
That’s a whole ‘nother bottle of wine.”

 

Quick Cuts – “Let’s Go Honky Tonkin’ Round This Town”

Midland – On The Rocks

Imagine that somehow your travels have taken you to a small town in west Texas, maybe Abilene, San Angelo or Big Spring. You’re by yourself with nothing to do, so after washing down a chicken fried steak with a couple of beers, you mosey down to the nearest honky tonk. There on stage are three guys who look a bit like the Flying Burrito Brothers and sound like George Strait meets seventies LA country rock. Before you know it the music drags you out onto the dance floor in the arms of a friendly cowgirl wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots and off you go two-steppin’ in the great counterclockwise circular sea of folks from eight to eighty having a damn good time.

It takes awhile, but soon you realize these guys are a cut above. They can play; they can sing in harmony. You haven’t even noticed until now that this is not the typical small town cover band. They’re playing their own songs – catchy melodies, traditional country lyric themes – and nobody’s throwing bottles through the chicken wire fronting the stage. And like I’ve said once before already, everybody’s having fun. Sometimes that’s all you want from a batch of tunes.

Quick Cuts – Grace = Simple Elegance or Refinement of Movement

Lizz Wright – Grace

My first impression of Lizz Wright’s newest release Grace was that this is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard in any genre. I know I shouldn’t say something like that because the album, no matter how beautiful, may never be able to live up to that hype. Yet repeated listens continue to affirm my first impression. Grace seemed such an apt moniker that I looked up the formal definition of the word. While it has several, the first became the title for this blog post because it so well described the feeling I derived as the songs flowed through the album.

A Georgia native and now part time North Carolinian, Wright grew up musically in the church as did so many wonderful singers from Aretha Franklin to Parker Millsap. Although they cross many genres, their music has an innate soulfulness in common.

Wright’s music simmers at the nexus of folk, gospel and jazz. Although she’s written many songs for her previous albums, this one includes only one co-write. The others are drawn from an eclectic mix of songwriters like Allen Toussaint, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Cortez Franklin and this number by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.

When I describe the album as beautiful, I don’t mean that every song is a lovely ballad. In fact the songs vary in tempo and rhythm. I mean we are treated to compelling lyrics, seductive melodies and Wright’s beautiful voice – especially moving in her lower registers. Moreover, those elements are masterfully combined with brilliant musicians and instrumentation by producer Joe Henry. He provides room for every note and every nuance in the performances. The album is an homage to Lizz Wright’s native south and a gift to all who will hear her music.

 

Quick Cuts – Old School Soul

Syleena Johnson – Rebirth Of Soul

The title might be hyperbole, but the delivery is silky old school soul singing punctuated by bright horn riffs and shimmering strings. Syleena is the daughter of Syl Johnson, a somewhat overlooked singer, songwriter, guitar player and producer from the classic soul period in Chicago in the sixties. He hooked up with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis in the seventies, where unfortunately he was overshadowed by the great Al Green. Syleena’s earlier recordings were in the contemporary vein of R&B and Hip Hop, but when she decided to record Rebirth Of Soul as a tribute to her dad, her old man eagerly signed on as producer. The result is superb, one of the better revisits to the soul standards catalog of recent vintage.

The song selection is key to the album’s success, in my opinion, because even though they’re all covers, for the most part they’re not rehashes of the typical lineup of big hits. A couple are included like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Chain Of Fools.” Most, however, were lesser hits like Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours,” Otis Redding’s  “These Arms Of Mine,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings Of You.” She also covers a couple of her dad’s records. My point here is that the selections paired with the arrangements – retro yet fresh – add to a package of music you’re not tired of hearing before it even starts. Plus Syleena’s voice is well up to the task. She’s neither gritty nor a belter, but she has the chops to glide or soar as the songs demand all the while giving them a mature shading of her own, as on this classic “hold your baby close and slow dance” number originally recorded by Betty Everett.

One of the better tunes on Rebirth of Soul is Syleena’s cover of her dad’s minor hit “We Did It.” But what the heck, let’s give papa Syl a little respect and close with his own version from the seventies.

Short Cuts – One Slice At A Time

Here’s the thought I put on hold when I wrote my tribute to Fats Domino: I’ve listened to a tremendous amount of new music over the last few months. To borrow an old cliche, I’ve thrown quite a bit of stuff against the wall, and quite a bit of it has stuck. It’s too much to even think about much less write about all at once. So I’ve decided to take ‘em one at a time.

This means that for the next few weeks, I’m changing my approach to my blog posts. I’ll write one short recommendation every three or so days and include just one or two videos. I can get a bunch of very good music to your ears more quickly. Plus you’ll know when you open these “Short Cuts” that you can enjoy the post and tunes in small bites – less than ten minutes in most cases. Let’s get started!

Christian Lopez – Red Arrow

Lopez is a 22 year old from West Virginia blessed with a stress free tenor voice that hits all the notes and slides easily in and out of falsettos as the song requires. He’s also a fine guitar player, and he’s smart about his choices of collaborators and songs. Red Arrow is his second album, and it’s stronger than his debut. He presents a set of tunes with lyrics befitting his age, but thanks to marvelous melodies and arrangements that touch on multiple genres under the Americana umbrella – a bit of country, a bit of folk, a bit of r&b flavored pop, they should also appeal to even old cats like me. After all, we were 22 once. Us older guys even get a bit of a nostalgia trip of our own as Lopez sings about “1972.”

 

And keeping the youthful take on old school rolling…

 

 

He looks like he’s having fun, and certainly fun is the feeling I get most listening to Red Arrow, but as he shows here, he can write, sing and play beautiful melodies as well.