Many readers have submitted gracious and insightful comments about articles over the past year. I’ve appreciated all of them and published most of them. Many of you have suggested artists or albums for me to explore. For example, my niece Susan recommended Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Lake Street Dive, two groups I really liked and wrote about.
This blog is intended to be a conversation, so I’ve resolved to give more space to your recommendations. I figure there’s no time like Post #1 of Year #2 to start. All of this post’s albums are readers’ recommendations. This is just a sampling of “the good stuff,” and I’ll cover more in future posts. Very importantly, all of these met my most important criterion – that I like them enough to add them to my own personal collection. I hope all of you like hearing about them and that this may trigger more suggestions from even more of you. Listen up, and have fun!
Walter Hyatt – Music Town
A good friend of one of my brothers, Skip Smart, put me on to Walter Hyatt. I was familiar with his name but not really his music. As Skip told me, Walter, Champ Hood and David Ball were all from Spartanburg, SC, and singing together around the time their neighbors The Marshall Tucker Band were taking off. Walter, Champ and David all went on to Nashville and then Austin, TX.
They cross-pollinated with lots of better-known folks in both places. Lyle Lovett used to open for them in Austin and in fact refers to the boys from Carolina in one of his songs, “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas.)” Billed as Uncle Walt’s Band, a play on the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band,” they became one of the most popular and revered bands in Austin in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The great Texas singer/songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore in an article in the Austin Chronicle in 2006 said, “I loved that band; I loved everything about them.”
Walter died tragically in the Valujet Everglades crash in the nineties. Champ passed away a few years afterwards of cancer. David Ball scored several big country hits including “Thinking Problem” and “Riding With Private Malone.” Walter never had a hit like David’s, but his 1993 album Music Town is terrific. He wrote eight of the twelve tracks and co-wrote the others. Listening to the album, you would assume he has to be from Texas. Much of his music has a western swing feel with a tinge of 1930’s era jazz, and there’s a bit of two steppin’ and Texas boogie as well. Hyatt’s singing, with his old pals Ball and Hood helping out on harmony vocals, is a free and easy fit for the melodies and my ear, and his lyrics are sometimes poignant, sometimes clever without being cute.
As we’ve come to know, Austin in the 1970’s was where outlaw country was born. It was where the crazy mix of country, folk, rock ’n’ roll, and classic jazz all came together as cowjazz. Walter Hyatt carried it all forward after Uncle Walt’s Band broke up. The music on Music Town reflects the talent and joy he poured into what he wrote and performed. I think you’re gonna love it.
Here from an episode of “The Texas Connection” on TNN some time around 1990 is Walter’s “Teach Me About Love” from Music Town. I believe his compadre Champ Hood is on lead guitar, and you can see Lyle Lovett at the far right.
Neil Young – Bluenote Cafe
I’ve never been a fan of Neil Young. I like a few of his songs, but his voice often grates on my ear like finger nails pulled across a chalk board. But reader Jim Kyle described Bluenote Cafe so enthusiastically that I had to give it a listen. Wow. This album is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard from Young. It’s big band rock ’n’ roll blues. Think Albert Collins with a high tenor voice.
Here’s what a little research told me: In the late 1980’s Young veered off his usual musical path, as he’s done from time to time, joined his long time bandmates Crazy Horse with a six piece horn section, and recorded totally new material which combined protestations against corporate takeover of popular music with straightforward blues/R&B, and took it all on tour. Apparently the reaction of critics and fans at the time was mixed at best. Many critics didn’t like the records. Many fans didn’t like the shows because he refused to play any of his earlier “hits.” After touring for about two years, he abandoned the whole idea and went back to his usual stuff.
Fortunately, as it turns out, all of his gigs on the tour were recorded. Bluenote Cafe is compiled from several shows. Will Hermes writing in the December 15, 2015 Rolling Stone said “The three-CD set, recorded over an eight-month stretch on that 1987-1988 tour, is an illuminating revisionist-history lesson.” He added, “…the way the album tried to conjure a scrappy South Side of Chicago bar band often works better on stage, with looser horn parts and, of course, stinging guitar.” Best of all, for me at least, Young’s voice sounds just fine here. I don’t know whether it’s the material, the engineering, or just a phase, but his voice works in this setting.
I found that its three CD’s worth of music is maybe one CD too long, much like almost every double album I ever heard – even the Beatles “white album” – contains only about an album and a half of good songs. So you may want to pick and choose your way through it as I did. No matter, if you like full bore horn driven R&B with hints of jazz in the improvisations, you should check this one out. Jim Kyle got it right.
Eric Clapton – Just One Night
While we’re on the subject of live blues oriented albums, this one released in 1980 easily merits your attention. Many of you are probably familiar with it, but for the younger set, or for those like me who weren’t following Clapton in the late 1970’s (I didn’t become a big fan until the late 1980’s.) let’s just say thank you to Tommy Baysden. Tommy recommended this for my “Top 100” album list, which is still a work in progress, and I’ve really been enjoying it. It’s packed with many of the hits from his solo career to that point like “Tulsa Time.” “Lay Down Sally,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Cocaine,” and of course “After Midnight.” But these are not just replications of the studio versions. There’s more energy, more musician’s interplay, and more emotion.
Clapton demonstrates why he became a guitar god, but he avoids the overlong ego driven solos that plague so many of his contemporaries’ live performances. One of the highlights for me is his homage to the blues roots he so reveres: Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues” originally recorded in 1941. It may have been just one night, but on this one night Eric Clapton is rockin’ and rollin’ and he’s in a groove that not only makes your body move, it also reminds you just how much fun music this good can be.
Clapton has performed “Worried Life Blues” many times. Rather than include a static photo with audio from Just One Night, I thought you’d enjoy this performance at Royal Albert Hall.
The Radiators – Zig Zagging Through Ghostland
Rarely have I run into anyone as enthusiastic about a particular band as reader Herb Evans is about The Radiators. This is yet another great New Orleans band whose career has covered about the same timeframe as The Subdudes, whom I wrote about a few months ago. In fact, Dave Malone, guitarist and vocalist for the Radiators, is the brother of The Subdudes Tommy Malone. The Radiators established a reputation as perhaps the rock ’n’ roll party band in perhaps the world’s greatest party town.
I regret I’ve never seen them in person because from what I understand their live repertory is an almost endless mix of their own tunes (their lead songwriter is keyboard man and vocalist Ed Volker) and covers of great tunes from all their heroes, which includes the Crescent City’s all time greats plus many other rock, rock ’n’ roll and blues artists of the sixties and seventies. Alas they’ve broken up. They do, however, reportedly reunite every year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a three night run in January at Tipitina’s. In 2011, they were inducted into the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame. I can’t imagine a more compelling validation than that.
They put out about fifteen albums since 1980. Plus with the band’s blessings, I understand hundreds of concert recordings can be found on the internet. I picked Zig Zagging Through Ghostland to feature because it was their best selling album – and I liked it. On the one hand you could describe it as roots rock, but that would not give just due to the entertaining variety of rhythms and the live band joy of simpatico musicians playing together that comes through so clearly even on a studio album. Volker wrote or co-wrote all the songs except for J.J. Jackson’s soul classic “But It’s Alright.” The Radiators do a darn fine job on that one. Some of my other favorites include the opener “Confidential,” “Squeeze Me,” “Dedicated To You,” and “Meet Me Down In Birdland.” I mention those in part because they exemplify that, although this is essentially a small combo with pretty basic instrumentation playing straightforward rock ’n’ roll, they manage to give you a variety in performance that keeps you looking forward to what may come next. And it’s all done with a good time vibe.
Balsam Range – Papertown
I can’t tell you how many people have recommended Balsam Range to me. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I was mildly disappointed by the first few albums of theirs that I sampled. I love bluegrass, but it’s norms are so set in stone that I often have difficulty distinguishing one group or solo artist from another once you get beyond the icons like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Allison Krauss stands out because of her unique singing style and gorgeous fiddle work, and I love Rhonda Vincent’s sass and talent. Still, too many, talented though they may be, are interchangeable. Balsam Range fell into that crack for me until I heard Papertown, even though as a group and as individuals they had a string of Grammys, IBMA Awards, Gospel Awards, Vocalist of the Year Awards, etc, etc, etc, and had played with a roster of all stars
I’m puzzled why they failed to stand out for me on other albums, but they hit it out of the park with this one. I just know my ear perceives a little extra verve to their playing and singing here. I also know this – Papertown will be among my “go to” bluegrass albums.
So there you have it – a sampling of recommendations from my readers. Keep ’em coming. I’m always working several posts ahead as you might imagine, but I’ll get to yours sooner or later. If I don’t, well, there’s always the possibility I just didn’t like it all that much, or that I’m just procrastinating or looking for the right context. There’s great new music crossing my desk all the time, and I’ve got some interesting new initiatives by one of my favorite singer-songwriters to tell you about. Plus I’ve dug up some fun stuff from my archives. I hope you’ll stay tuned and tell your friends about Finding Classic CowjazzR&B.