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 now, I 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.