Three White Men With (Rhythm and) The Blues

A few weeks ago I decided to take a break from combing through new album releases, so I put my personal collection on random play. Three cuts from three great late 1990’s albums by three great veterans of R&B oriented music came up in succession. I had not heard these tunes in quite some time, so I did a deeper dive into these albums. It was a pleasure that made me remember just how much I love these superlative performances.

One singer is from Texas, one is from Ireland, and the other is from Boston. Thus they come at R&B from different perspectives.  They do share the same love for the genre’s roots. I decided to write about them in case they had slipped below your radar.
Delbert McClinton – One Of The Fortunate Few

Delbert McClinton is one of my all time favorite singers, and One Of The Fortunate Few is one of my favorite of Delbert’s albums. Released in 1997, it was his biggest selling album in well over a decade. (He must have loved the title; he cut a fabulous song with the same name on a later album.) It reached number two on the US Blues charts and paved the way for four number one’s over the next few years. If you missed it, or if it’s been buried in your collection for awhile, I highly recommend you jump all over it.

Delbert first burst on the scene as the harmonica player on Bruce Channel’s huge and enduring hit “Hey Baby” in 1961. Legend has it that on their subsequent tour of Great Britain, he met John Lennon and taught him the harmonica riff he used on the Beatles breakout hit in England, “Love Me Do.” I saw Delbert in Rhode Island around the time this album was released, and I can attest he packed his band with ace players, and his horn section was as tight as any I’ve ever heard.

The album is chock full of solid Blues/R&B beginning with “Old Weakness Coming On Strong.” Having said that, there are a handful of cuts that lift it above most albums. “Leap of Faith” is set to a classic blues shuffle groove. The band and Delbert are really cooking, and then you hear B.B. King on guitar and Bekka Bramlett on harmony vocals push everything to an even higher level. I dare you to sit still while this one plays.

Almost as good is the spiritual tinged “Sending Me Angels,” helped along by Lee Roy Parnell on slide guitar and Vince Gill on harmony, and a classic blue lament “(I Didn’t Lose You) You Were Never Mind.” For a bit of humor, the unlikely duo of Lyle Lovett and John Prine join in the fray for a rollicking “Too Much Stuff.” Scattered about the album in supporting roles are such talents as Mavis Staples, Pam Tillis and Reese Wynans, all in the service of the rhythm and the blues. And then there is the classic put down line, “If you can’t lie no better than that, you might as well tell the truth,” which just makes the point that the west Texas born McClinton delivers his brand of Blues/R&B unvarnished and with plenty of punch. As Delbert sings in the closer, “oh baby, you’re ‘bout to get the best of me.” The best of Delbert is ‘bout as good as it gets.

 

Van Morrison – Back On Top

Delbert McClinton may be a first tier talent, but he’s been the type of second tier star who could easily slip through the cracks for all but hard core fans. On the other hand Van Morrison has been a Hall of Fame top tier international star for decades. Yet even guys like that can have albums that slip through the cracks, or at least slip through my cracks. I was a big fan back in the late sixties and most of the seventies with terrific albums like Moondance and hits like “Brown Eyed Girl,”  “Crazy Love” and “Jackie Wilson Sang.”  Byy the nineties, however, I had stopped following him. Most of his albums during that decade were either compilations or live in-concert performances of his classic catalog. Thus when a night of following my nose through iTunes led me to Back On Top, I felt almost like I had reconnected with an old friend via an album that had slipped right by me when it was released in 1998. Bottom line, this is a really good R&B album. It’s straight ahead grooves overlaid by horns and inspired, intelligible singing. I say intelligible because I frankly had a hard time understanding much of what Van was trying to say in many of his eighties albums, which for a lyric lover is annoying.

The album jumps right out with a twelve bar blues “Goin’ Down Geneva.” Melodically and rhythmically, it could have been written in Mississippi in the forties or fifties. The giveaway is the story’s settings. When he sings Paris, he means France.

Morrison varies the tempos as the album goes along but not the soul vibe with one exception. He includes one pop style ballad, “When The Leaves Come Falling Down.” The song is so gorgeous that, rather than break the mood, it acts as a kind of interlude allowing the listener to very pleasurably catch his or her breath before taking off again with the harmonica led “High Summer.” This is one of those albums you can put on in your car, roll the window down, stick your arm outside and tap time on the door with your fingers. Pretty soon you’ll be singing along.

 
Peter Wolf – Fool’s Parade
Peter Wolf – A Cure For Loneliness

In case the name is only vaguely familiar, Peter Wolf first achieved stardom as the front man vocalist for the J Geils Band in the seventies and early eighties. He left the band when he felt they were veering from their R&B/Soul roots, released a couple of solo hits in the mid to late eighties and then went into a hiatus for several years. He began his comeback in 1996 with an album called Long Line, but he really hit his stride with Fool’s Parade, released like Morrison’s Back On Top in 1998. Wolf returned to soulful ground not too unlike that toiled by Boz Scaggs in his most recent release, A Fool To Care, which I wrote about last summer. That is to say his music is heavily imbued with R&B/Soul influences but not slavishly so. There are tastes of rock, blues and country woven throughout. His voice has traces of Dylan and Jagger, but it’s his own, and it’s an instrument he uses with consummate skill. While  he sings sometimes with resigned regret and other times with bravado, the overriding theme is of a man looking back on his life. I would describe many of the songs as being a cousin, albeit a distant one stylistically, to Frank Sinatra’s hit, “It Was A Very Good Year.”

The album begins strongly with the cooly mid-tempo “It’s A Long Way Back Again,” which announces the themes I’ve mentioned. “Turnin’ Pages” continues the look back, but this time with a rousing rave-up sing-along. It should have been a top ten hit!

While the album varies tempos and rhythms from there, it never loses momentum. Aside from Wolf’s spot on match of vocals to material, the strength of it all is the quality of his songs. A majority are co-written with Grammy and Academy Award winner Will Jennings, and the craftsmanship is evident throughout. The album is also graced by an A list of instrumentalists and back-up singers. Wolf’s singing, the songs and his fellow singers and musicians sound better every time I play the album.  Although Fool’s Parade had limited if any chart success, it was named one of the “essential recordings of the 90’s” by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner.

No sooner did I start work on this blog about three albums from 1997-98, when Wolf up and put out a new one,  A Cure For Loneliness. I gave it a listen, and damn if it isn’t every bit as strong as Fool’s Parade. While my intent with this post was to mine the vaults and ignore the hot, new releases – as I stated in my opening sentence – I decided to abandon  adherence to an arbitrary idea and recommend this one to you as well. I do quibble with the opening number – it’s minor key is too much of a downer to be a starter for my tastes. Still, the album as a whole is marvelous.

The songs range from an old country classic, “It Was Always So Easy To Find An Unhappy Woman,” (co-written by one of my favorites, Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer) to a cover of the Fleetwood’s 1961 hit, “Tragedy.” (Kind of a weird coincidence as he has an original tune also called “Tragedy” on another album.) As on Fool’s Parade,  there are several songs Wolf co-wrote with Will Jennings and other strongwriters. Surely one of the highlights is a slow soul shuffle, “It’s Raining,” co-written with R&B legend Don Covay. Wolf intended to record it as a duet with Bobby Womack, who unfortunately died before they could get into the studio together. Like most of the other songs on the album, it just sort of sweeps you up in it’s beauty, groove and sentiment.

One of the best tunes continues the “looking back” theme of Wolf’s last several albums as he reminisces about the escapades of his youth, yet with no illusions of returning:

“Winking that wicked eye,
Drinking that river dry,
Thinking we’d never die,
It was fun for awhile…
Nothing could stop us then,
No one could top us then,
Don’t want to go back again,
But it was fun for awhile.”

Albums like these by pros like Delbert McClinton, Van Morrison and Peter Wolf are not only “Fun For Awhile,” they’re pleasures we will want to go back to again – and again and again.

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Guy Clark – In Appreciation

Yesterday morning I was making tweaks to the new post I planned on publishing later in the day when I received the news about Guy Clark’s death. I had seen Jerry Jeff Walker in concert at the Birchmere in Alexandria recently, and he mentioned Guy’s failing health before playing the title song from Guy’s last album, so the news wasn’t a surprise.

Still, this was a finality I dreaded. It made me think of lines from a song on his album Cold Dog Soup, which Steve Earle wrote following the death of their mutual friend Townes Van Zandt.

“In Ft. Worth all the neon’s burnin’ bright
Pretty lights, red and blue
But they’d shut down all the honky tonks tonight
Say a prayer or two
If they only knew”

We’ve lost so many wonderful musicians in the last year or so, giants from Allen Toussaint to Merle Haggard and from every corner of the music world. Some famous; some not so famous. In the big picture, I suppose Guy falls in the second category, but none of the others have meant as much to me personally. Almost every time I pick up my guitar, I play one of his songs.

Every list of my favorite songs, no matter how short, includes at least one of his tunes. No matter what mood I’m in, there’s a Guy Clark song that suits it. I read somewhere that Guy maintained he didn’t make up songs. Rather he wrote about things he knew to be true brought to life by details in scene, character and narrative. Certainly his songs seem like the truth to me.

He was a songwriter’s songwriter. One time I heard Jerry Jeff sing a new song he’d just written. When I told him it was great, he replied, “I know; Guy said so.” And he’s just one of the great songwriters whom I’ve heard say the same thing, all reveling in Guy’s validation of their work. He was almost more poet than songwriter, often extolling the pleasure he took from working with words. For Guy, words really had meaning. And he made phrases from those words which in themselves were musical. Still his melodies have such appeal and such variety in support of his lyrics, they could not have been secondary to him. So he was also a singer’s songwriter. Great singer’s love singing his songs, and I can attest first hand that amateurs love singing them too.

For twenty-three years, my brothers and I produced a music-based fund raising event, the Western Classic Benefitting the Foundation Fighting Blindness. In the mid-1990’s, Guy honored us by performing on our bill with his friend Jerry Jeff. It was not really his kind of gig. He preferred small, quiet rooms over an outdoor festival environment like ours. Still, being from Texas, this was not the first party crowd he had encountered. Accompanied only by his son on a guitar bass, he soldiered on and soon seduced a small core of real music lovers among our crowd. He didn’t do it with glib repartee or showy machinations. Focusing on the core who were focused on him, he did it with the enveloping presence of his calmly looming visage and the quality of his material.

Some of Guy Clark’s songs strike deeply into your emotional core. Others make you throw your head back and grin. They range from outrageous tales of dance hall tarts to the dreams in his grandfather’s immigrant eyes.

Either way, he made me feel he was letting me in on a secret; I was somehow a silent participant in the story he was telling. He made me feel I intimately knew the places and characters about whom he sang. Maybe I do. Maybe we all do. Because as specific in focus as his songs are, they’re equally universal in the truths they tell.

A month of so after Guy’s appearance at our Western Classic, I saw him with Van Zandt at a club called the Tin Angel in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time. After his set, as he made his way to the bar where I was sitting, our eyes met. Without hesitation he called out “los Leas, how’d you find your way here.” For just a flash, I felt like we were old friends. I know Guy didn’t know me well enough to consider me even a new friend. But his songs feel like old friends, and they bring me comfort today.

 

Can’t Stop The Music

On the one hand, this is a terrible time to be a recording artist. The digital market place has decimated royalties and a new business model friendly to artists has not emerged. In addition, the consolidation of record companies and the preponderance of “suits” in control of what gets released by major labels and what gets played on commercial radio has driven songs that become hits to the lowest common denominator. Still, somehow quality music keeps pouring forth from independent artists of all stripes.

As regular readers know, this blog is not really about reviews of the “hot” new releases. I’m searching for quality performances in the classic forms of country, R&B, folk and jazz whether it was released last week or last century. As regular readers know, I rarely write about an album until I’ve listened to it at least a half dozen times. I want to be sure it’s something I want in my record collection for a long time before I recommend you add it to yours. So much good music has been released already in 2016 that I can’t keep up, much less mine the vaults. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it’s the worst of times; it’s the best of times” as really good songwriters, singers and musicians somehow manage to find a way to our ears and hearts.

Here are a few recent releases in multiple genres that I feel meet the test:

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Margo Price could be Loretta Lynn’s heiress. Compare these lyrics, straight talking to her wayward man:
“I’ve given you four years of chances,
but you threw ‘em all away,
I gave you one thousand four hundred sixty-one days”

to Loretta’s “Don’t come home drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind.”

Or she could be Merle Haggard’s daughter. Again compare these lyrics:
“Cause all I wanna do is make a little cash,
I’ve worked all the bad jobs, bustin’ my ass,
I wanna buy back the farm, bring my momma home some wine,
And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”

to Merle’s in “If We Make It Through December” or “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”

Or she could be both. I’m not sure what else I can say other than this is the best country album I’ve heard since Chris Stapleton’s Traveller.

Margo Price’s voice has that combination of vulnerability and feistiness that marked classic singers like Loretta and Kitty Wells. And like Merle, her songwriting deals with  mature themes be it stories of the little guy getting screwed once again, or the broken hearted turning to the bottle, sinking into despair or a little of both. Her lyrics are clever but never cute. She can deal straight from the top of the deck, or turn a phrase tinged with humor or irony. Yet she always clothes even her sad songs in melodies that catch your ear with tempos that pull you up out of your chair for a lively two step or a tender waltz.

Despite my references to musical legends, Price is not a retro act. I’d describe her as neo – classic in the best sense of the word. She takes classic forms as a foundation and builds something new from there. I like her album better with every play, and it’s probably going to make my top 100. What a pair it makes with Loretta’s recent release, Full Circle. And on top of all that, she proves she can honky tonk with the best on “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle.)”

Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

The first track of this album comes roaring out of the box sounding like a wild combination of Robert Plant and Richie Havens. I have to warn you; Millsap is probably not for everybody, but his voice, his songs and his primarily acoustic band – especially his fiddler/violinist – grabbed me by the ear and wouldn’t let go. No, it doesn’t maintain the intensity of the first song throughout. If it did, it would be an acoustic Led Zeppelin album. I can say that, while the themes of his songs are both current and universal, the music sounds like something the teen age Elvis might have heard on trips to visit his relatives down in Mississippi. It’s right at that juncture where folk and delta blues intersect with gospel just before it becomes rock ’n roll.

Millsap grew up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oklahoma, and he brings that fervor and passion to both his rave-ups like the opener, “Hades Pleads,” or quieter tracks like “Pining” or “Heaven Sent.” In addition to his compelling singing, he’s quite a story teller. In that sense, his music is more folk than country or Americana. While he often sings in the first person, he made clear in an interview for NPR last February, the “I” of the song is not him; rather, it’s a character in the song. The comment reminded me of an article I read some time ago about Merle Haggard in which he said most of his songs were not as autobiographical as many thought. Rather when he got the idea for a story he wanted to tell in song, he tried to put himself in the character’s place and imagine how he might think or feel in the particular situation. Merle was a master at it, and Parker Millsap is pretty darn good at it, too. The NPR article described him as a charismatic live performer. If he carries what I hear on record to the stage, it’s a show I want to see.

(And for a fun change of pace, find the You Tube of his performance of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.”)
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony

So two guys and two girls meet at the New England Conservatory of Music, decide to become a country music band, and rather quickly dump that to develop a retro mash-up of Motown soul, early 60’s Brill Building pop-rock and pre – Sergeant Pepper Beatles. Then after dumping various side projects, cutting an album delayed a couple of years by contract disputes, and playing several hundred live performances dates, they team up with Dave Cobb, Nashville’s country revivalist producer du jour who enables Lake Street Dive to roll where they want to go. Voila, the result is a thoroughly entertaining throw back romp of hummable melodies, catchy lyrics, enticing singing and great playing – and a title tune named after a rather too cute hair style adopted by Bridget Kearney, who otherwise plays a mean upright bass and sings beguiling harmony.

I could easily say the star of the show is lead singer Rachel Price because she’s damn good. But given where they met, you know that would shortchange the contributions of the other three – Mike “McDuck” Olson, trumpet and guitar,  Mike Calabrese, drums, and Kearney – who do most of the songwriting, play all manner of instruments and provide strong backing vocals. Rarely do you get so rich a sound from just four musicians without electronic tricks. Their uptempo numbers are exhilarating, but I’ve chosen the video for the album cut “Mistakes” because I think it so nicely shows off their musical chops.

 

Folks, these kids are flat talented, have worked hard to build their sound, and love making entertaining music that works as well live as it does on vinyl, CD or digital. It sounds frivolous, but so did King & Goffin until you listened a little closer. Just enjoy that a group this talented wants to entertain you.  They’ve put the work in to do it as shown on this video recorded on a sidewalk in Boston way back in 2012.

Garry Tallent – Break Time

After discussing all these newbies, you surely expected I’d bring up an old graybeard didn’t you? If the name sounds familiar, it should. He is a founding member and bassist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and is thus in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also spent many years in Nashville producing for the likes of Jim Lauderdale and playing with folks ranging from Gary US Bonds to Robert Earl Keen and Greg Trooper about whom I wrote in a previous post. The album sounds like a collection of rootsy, at times country tinged R&B tunes from the 1950’s, but in fact every song was co-written by Tallent. He apparently culled from his collection, those that were most evocative of what he said has “always been my favorite era of music,” according to backstreets.com. He even has a couple of guys from back in the day like Duane Eddy and Doug Kershaw join him in the merry making. Kristi Rose deserves special mention for her duet turn on “Stay Away” cowritten by Southside Johnny Lyon.

Tallent is a pro knows how to use his limited voice to serve the song. He’s also a marvelous musician and songwriter with a great ear for fun music evocative of the period he wants to honor with this album. Call it a sleeper, if you want. I guarantee you’ll keep coming back to it when you want to lighten the load of the day, or pick up the mood in a gathering of friends. Relax, crack open a cold one, and put it on.