2017: A Vintage Year So Far – Part 1

So far in 2017, I’ve seen a boatload of new music that fits easily under the big tent of Classic CowjazzR&B, to mix at least two metaphors. In the first couple of weeks of February, I was almost overwhelmed by the number and variety of promising looking albums. About half of them proved to be inconsequential, but many turned out upon repeated listening to be great joys. Subsequently, despite a few quiet weeks, the flow of top shelf music has continued.

For this week and the next couple of weeks, therefore, I will pass along to you my recommendations for what I consider the best new releases of the first third of the year. No doubt you may have heard about some of these already, but I hope I’ve found some you love but missed. These will be “quickie” reviews rather than more lengthy descriptions and back stories. Bottom line: I want you to know about these albums. We’ll start with four:

  • Louisianna swamp R&B,
  • classic country,
  • contemporary “commercial” country with classic vocal chops,
  • and a folk album that is contemporary in presentation yet 60’s era classic in commitment  to justice.

Shiny Ribs – I Got Your Medicine

Shiny Ribs leader Kevin Russell was formerly frontman for Austin based band The Gourds. This amazing group was grounded somewhere near the nexus of progressive country and R&B. Russell’s vision, given shape with Shiny Ribs, took him further toward R&B. His new band came to my attention via my youngest brother and his friends who attend Merlefest every year. Their first few albums had some great and some not so great tunes, in my opinion. With this album, he hits his stride as one of the most fun, entertaining and yet never slick acts I’ve heard in a long time. When a song with as much crowd appeal as “I Don’t Give A S- – t” is not even the best song on the album, well it’s a damn fine, fun album. You’ll have to get up off your butt and let it all loose.

 

Allison Krauss – Windy City

Buddy Cannon, who has brilliantly produced Willie Nelson’s last couple of albums, helped Krauss select and develop a marvelous collection of mid-twentieth century album cuts and B-sides by some of country’s best songwriters. As you listen to her voice float over the melodies, you’ll wonder why they weren’t all top ten tunes like “Gentle On My Mind,” which was one of the few here that were. She’s terrific and the arrangements and musicians are first rate. There are several highlights, but my favorite is Roger Miller’s beautiful “River In The Rain” from his score for the Broadway re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn, Big River.

Tony Jackson – Tony Jackson

Quick – name an African American country music singer other than Charlie Pride. Darius Rucker doesn’t count. And when I listened to the first cut of Tony Jackson’s first album, I thought, heck, I could be listening to Darius or any number of young faux country artists. But then I got into the meat of the album, and I found one of the best country voices I’ve ever heard. Unlike Pride, Jackson didn’t grow up on country music. It didn’t cross his radar until he found himself as a US Marine in the middle east, far from home. Much later after quite a few years as a bank executive, he started singing. Fortunately for us he hasn’t stopped. Although he’s quite facile on contemporary pop country, his real strength is classic country. He tackles toughies like George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Conway Twitty’s breakout hit, “It’s Only Make Believe” with aplomb. Another particular favorite is the John Sebastian tune, “Last Call.” Tony proves sometimes commercial is cool.

 

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens proved on her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn that she’s an extraordinary talent capable of singing in just about any genre she chooses. Her voice is rich and able to be both powerful and subtle, sometimes within the same song. She can be blue, she can be gay.

Giddens can also be angry, and she can be mournful. She is at heart a folk singer. Not the sappy variety. Freedom Highway in fact has a sharper point of view than her debut. Some of her songs make you a bit uncomfortable. Some lift your spirit. All of them have strong stories to tell. And her voice compels you to listen, to cry, to laugh, to rejoice in her talent.

Giddens was born a decade after the folk boom.  Regardless, she can certainly carry the torch for the likes of Odetta, Judy Collins, Mary Travers (of Peter Paul & Mary) and fellow banjoist Pete Seeger. For evidence, check out her album’s title song written by Pops Staples for the Staples Singers in 1965.

Okay folks, these are my first but by no means final four picks from 2017’s bumper crop. Stay tuned next week for four or five more.

A Big Week For Two All Time Greats

Last week was truly special for music lovers. For starters, Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday was April 25; she would have been 100 years old. Ella was the quintessential female jazz/pop singer, and a case could be made that she would edge out Frank Sinatra as the greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Her influence on vocalists over the decades regardless of genre cannot be over estimated.

In addition, last week saw the release of Willie Nelson’s umpty umpth album, God’s Problem Child, a remarkable collection of songs that may well be his best in quite awhile. Willie’s output of albums is unprecedented, and there have been times, perhaps every couple of dozen albums or so when he almost seemed on auto pilot. Yet at 83, Willie has produced a collection of songs as vital and fresh as his classic tunes were back in the 1960’s.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

Willie writes and sings about growing old with sentiment but never sentimentality. He can convey nostalgia, regret, or sweet memories in one song and stab you with humor the next. A classic example of the latter is “Still Not Dead,” co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, in which he muses about rumors that spread on the internet not too long ago that the old red headed stranger was on his last legs.

 

“It Gets Easier” epitomizes the former, blending quiet humor with the regret in lines like, “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do, except for missing you.”

 

One of my favorite tunes is “Old Timer” by the great and underrated Donnie Fritts. “You think you are a young bull rider, then you look in the mirror and seen an old timer.”

There’s also a fine tribute to Willie’s great friend Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” written by Gary Nicholson whom I wrote about a few months ago. These two songs, notwithstanding, the strength of the album lies in the seven tunes Willie co-wrote with Cannon.

I also have to say that in addition to Willie’s great writing and singing, any description of the strength of this album has to include his guitar playing, which has not diminished at all with age, and the incomparable harmonica of his long time sideman Mickey Raphael.

 

Ella Fitzgerald And The Count Basie Orchestra – A Perfect Match (Live)

There are literally dozens of Ella Fitzgerald albums I could recommend. For starters over several years in the fifties she recorded a series of albums focused on the songbooks of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook from Duke Ellington to Cole Porter to the Gershwin’s to Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and others. The collection is excerpted in Best Of The Songbooks. There are many others including great live recordings and her marvelous duets with Louis Armstrong. I happen to like A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. It catches Ella still young enough at 62 to ignite an audience united with one of jazz’s hardest swinging big bands and recorded with reasonably modern technology.

I’ve had the album since it was released on vinyl, and I always get a kick when I put it on. In researching for this post, I found a number of reviews with a variety of quibbles. All I can say in rebuttal is it won the Grammy in 1980 for best female jazz vocal performance. No singer could swing, improvise of scat like Ella as evidenced by the closing number “Basella,” the opener “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” or the romping conclusion to “After You’ve Gone” as you no doubt saw.  And few could match her on love songs tinged in blue like “You’ve Changed” or Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” Her rich voice saturates these songs like honey poured over a warm biscuit.

 

Yes, Ella in 1979 may have been past her prime as a vocalist. As a singer who could convey the essence of her songs and both connect with and entertain her audience, however, she was still at the top of her game. She and the Basie orchestra deliver the passion and punch that make for a concert performance to cherish.

And what the heck… Duke Ellington’s birthday was also last week, so I’ll close this week with one of the most beautiful versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. From the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here is “Mood Indigo.”

Departures

In the last two weeks of February, the music industry released a veritable flood of interesting albums across a wide spectrum of genres. I’ve been busy listening to music searching for those albums that I can genuinely endorse with enthusiasm. Long time readers of this blog know I don’t necessarily chase the “new,” but rather give each album multiple listenings to separate the wheat from the chaff. By spending the necessary time on all of this new music, I fear I’ve neglected the first obligation of the blogger – to write.

Tonight I’m taking a departure from working through the new music to tell you about a couple of albums that I’ve been enjoying for several years. By coincidence I’ve revisited both in the last few days to “clear the palate” so to speak when taking a break from assessing all the new music. Both albums are by contemporary artists who took a departure themselves to pay homage to two of the giants of jazz singing from the past. Generally, I question my expertise to write knowledgeably about jazz. Occasionally, however, I come across albums that deliver music that one can thoroughly enjoy without necessarily knowing what a diminished chord is. The singers on these two albums made that leap and showed the true depth of their vocal chops while delivering immense pleasure.

Please join me on this departure. I think you’ll find it a timeless adventure.

Deborah Cox – Destination Moon

Deborah Cox came onto the recording scene in 1995 when Clive Davis signed her to Arista Records. After a couple of years she began to achieve considerable record sales and acclaim in hip hop and dance music scoring several number one hits in those genres. In the early 2000’s she began to move back and forth between her hip hop and dance recording career and theater work, such as a run on Broadway in Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s production of Aida. In fact she’s currently starring in the touring company of the theatrical version of the movie The Bodyguard.

In 2007, she took a major departure from her musical comfort zone and released Destination Moon, a tribute to the great jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington. This was not a change of direction. Rather it was just something she wanted to do and in fact worked on for a couple of years. I consider it a huge success, and it’s among my favorite albums.

First, Washington was in many ways a precursor to the great R&B singers. She was in that second generation of jazz singers who were inspired by the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, yet still wedded tightly to the blues. Although she could caress a lyric, she had a sassy personally and projected supreme confidence. Thus she was an excellent choice for a tribute from someone like Cox. Dinah Washington was a unique talent who bridged the transition from jazz to soul so well that she’s in the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. If Cox’s work brought her to the attention of a new generation of music lovers, then I’d say “well done.”

Although Washington’s biggest hit was probably “What A Difference A Day Makes,” I happen to love her in her “Queen of the Blues” mode covering Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.”

 

The surprise is how damn good Cox is. Released from the repetitive pounding and electronic rhythm of hip and hop and dance music, she really takes hold of Washington’s songs and more than holds her own with a big band backing her. She handles big brassy uptempo numbers like the title track, classy ballads like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” or gut bucket blues like “New Blowtop Blues” with aplomb. In the early sixties, Washington herself took a departure from her normal jazz setting to record a couple of more commercial pop oriented R&B numbers with Brook Benton. Cox takes on one of those tunes, “Baby, You Got What It Takes,” interestingly with a more jazz oriented arrangement than Miss Dinah’s.

In this video, she not only sings “Destination Moon” but also talks a bit about why she made the album.

 

As I said, Destination Moon was a departure for Cox, and she went immediately back to her comfort zone. This was despite the fact the her album hit number one on the iTunes Top Jazz Albums and number three on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums charts. My recommendation to you is that you enjoy this great departure by Deborah Cox. And my second recommendation is that you give a listen to Dinah Washington herself.
Patti Austin – For Ella

By 2002 when she released For Ella, Patti Austin had already enjoyed a long career dating from the mid-1980’s working in the contemporary intersection of smooth jazz, pop and R&B with a touch of dance thrown in. She distinguished herself from others in the field with her uncommonly rich and supple voice whose almost natural antecedent was Ella Fitzgerald. I had an earlier album by Austin called That Secret Place, which could have easily been discarded if it weren’t for her magnificent vocal instrument and the depth of feeling that cut through the overly slick arrangements. So when I first saw For Ella, my reaction was “aha, Patti’s taken on a project worthy of her talent.” When I realized it had been cut with a classic big band, my anticipation ran even higher. When I heard the record, I smiled with joy by the match of material, singer and band.

Ella started as a teenage singing sensation with the hottest band playing  Harlem’s Apollo theater in the 1930s, The Chick Webb Orchestra. When Webb died, she took over the band. Her career continued to develop in the 1940s when she mastered singing bebop while with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. During this period, inspired by Louis Armstrong, she took his scat singing to dazzling new heights. Then she really hit her stride in the fifties with a series of landmark recordings, each focused on the songbook of the greatest writers of the thirties, forties and early fifties – everyone from Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to the Gershwins. She became a favorite not only of audiences but also of the musicians and other singers with whom she performed. She could improvise with the best jazz players and hit any note, seemingly in any sequence, whether in beautiful ballads of when swinging like crazy.

In a sense she became a female counterpart to Frank Sinatra as both built their careers from the 1950’s onward by focusing on the “great American songbook.” For starters that means that Patti Austin’s tribute is first of all built upon magnificent songs. She doesn’t try to copy Ella, but she is able to put her own marvelous voice in service to songs associated with Ella in a manner that is fitting and, more importantly to you, thoroughly entertaining. Songs like “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Satin Doll” and “The Man I Love” soar anew.  As with Deborah Cox, I hope you enjoy Patti Austin and are inspired to check out Ella Fitzgerald. (Among others, I recommend her pairings with Count Basie.)

Not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Frank, but then again not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Ella. See for yourself:

 

And in the category of why not…

Hey, I needed a break from country, cowjazz and R&B, and I do hope you enjoyed this little departure.  And while we’re on the subject of great singers of great American songs, the Smithsonian’s 2016 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song was awarded to Smokey Robinson, one of my favorite songwriters. I saw the award concert on NPR last week and was particularly enthralled with Smokey singing Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” So I’ll leave you with that – one of the great R&B/soul artists takes on a songbook classic.

 

PS Just learned a few hours ago that Chuck Berry, the personification of rock ‘n’ roll passed away at 90. You can expect more on that from me in the coming days.

 

 

 

 

 

Out With The Old, In With The New – Not So Fast!

There will be loads of good new music to hear and talk about in 2017, I’m sure. Yet in the waning days of 2016 and the snow bound days of early 2017, I decided to slow down my rush to the new and spent some time rummaging through the “dust bins” of yesteryear. There I found a couple of albums that hardly made a ripple when they were released in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and another from the last decade that suffered the same fate. Regardless of their fate, all three are filled with great songs and performances, and despite or because of their relative anonymity, they sound fresh today.

Dionne Warwick – Soulful

By 1969, Dionne Warwick had established herself as a singular talent turning one song after another from the writing and producing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into sophisticated pop gold. In doing so, she differentiated herself from the somewhat grittier soul singers like Mary Wells, Betty Everett, Tina Turner, and the soul queen Aretha Franklin. I don’t know her motivation. Maybe she just wanted to remind her audience, and perhaps her peers as well, that she too grew up in the church and could bring the soul whenever she wanted. Whatever the reason, she took a one album break from Bacharach and David, and went to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. Chips was about as hot as a producer could be at the time working with Neil Diamond and more importantly Elvis Presley on what would become the album that turned around the King’s career, From Elvis In Memphis. Together Dionne and Chips produced this mighty fine collection of classic soul covers.

I shouldn’t say the album didn’t make a ripple because it did reach #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart, #11 on the pop chart, and the lone single, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” reached 16 on the pop charts and 13 on the R&B charts. From a chart perspective, it was one of Warwick’s most successful albums. Still, fairly quickly after its release, Dionne went back in the studio with Bacharach and David and resumed the string of pop songs that had been so successful for the three of them.

Perhaps because of her quick return to pop, or because there was no new material on Soulful, the album has been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Yes Dionne was different from most female soul singers. Where many of them range from nitty gritty to soaring, Dionne’s voice seems to float. But the emotion is there all the same. The album cover photo fits the album’s title and the singer, not to mention the Memphis studio players.

The arrangements for most of the tunes are reminiscent of the originals of songs like “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “People Got To Be Free,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and the aforementioned “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The one major exception arrangement-wise is on the Beatle’s “A Hard Days Night.” The tempo is slowed to a grinding groove transforming the song from a rock ‘n’ roll romp into R&B dirty dance – a very pleasing change up. It makes me wish Dionne had worked more with Moman and writers like Dan Penn to come up with a new batch of R&B/Soul. Why she didn’t is a mystery to me.

 

 
John Sebastian – The Tarzana Kid

How could an album featuring a multiple hit maker, who took a memorable star turn at Woodstock, with backing by the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Lowell George, Buddy Emmons and David Grisman, and with songs by some of the best tunesmiths around fail to even scratch on the charts. It’s not as if the output from all this talent isn’t worthy. In fact, it’s a damn fine album.

The Tarzana Kid, released in 1974, contains several Sebastian penned tunes including a couple of covers of songs from his Lovin’ Spoonful days, and a co-write with George, “Face of Appalachia.” There’s a nice version of John’s “Stories We Could Tell,” which had been the title song of the last Everly Brothers album before their early seventies break up. In fact, the great Phil Everly provides the harmony vocals. There are also entertaining covers of Lowell George’s Little Feat classic “Dixie Chicken.” the old Guy Mitchell chestnut “Singin’ The Blues,” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo.” The latter was adventurous then because few, if any, white musicians had tried their hand with reggae at the time.

Here’s one of my personal favorites from an early Lovin’ Spoonful album given an acoustic treatment on The Tarzana Kid with the great Ry Cooder backing John on slide guitar and mandolin.

So despite great talent, strong songs and the very engaging Sebastian, the album bombed. Ironically Sebastian had a surprise #1 hit with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the hit TV comedy “Welcome Back Kotter” two years later. His label Reprise rushed out an album to cash in on the hit, and for my money it’s nowhere near as good as The Tarzana Kid. The point is, this is a really fine album, if you like well crafted songs played by genuine talents in a manner that feels like you’re all just sitting around the living room having a good time. I’m darn glad I found it, and I’m tickled to be able to tell you about it.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Souls’ Chapel

Marty Stuart hasn’t had a hit since the early 1990’s, and this is an album of gospel songs, so it’s easy to understand why the album barely scratched into the top 100 on the country charts and produced no singles. It’s a shame because this is one terrific album. First, forget it’s gospel because it’s really rockabilly that could have been cut in Sun Studios in 1956 complete with extra reverb on the simmering guitars.

Marty was born to sing rockabilly, just born too late. Plus his band, the Fabulous Superlatives are aptly named not only for their playing but also for their harmony singing and their turns on lead vocals that Marty generously shares. I’m not a big fan of gospel music typically, but here it’s the emotional grit that gives the band traction. I can’t get the soulful voices and bent strings on songs like “There’s A Rainbow (At The End of Every Storm) out of my mine. These may be songs of praise, but the performances are country fried Rhythm and Blues as well.

My least favorite song on the album is the first, so I suggest you skip over that one and jump right into “Lord, Give Me Just A Little More Time,” a sentiment we probably all embrace.

Last Minute Shopping For Music Lovers

Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas is closer than right around the corner, so if you’re looking for a last minute stocking stuffer for yourself or your favorite music lover, I’ve got one recommendation for each of the genres I cover in “Finding Classic CowjazzR&B.”

Let’s start with Cowjazz…

Robert Earl Keen – Live Dinner Reunion

Robert Earl released No. 2 Live Dinner in 1996, and it’s one of his best albums for sure. Makes sense, therefore, that he would try to recapture the magic with a twentieth anniversary reunion back at the scene of the original, John T. Flores Country Store in Helotes, Texas. I’m not going to compare the two efforts, and I’m not going to quibble over the fact that every tune on the new one has been released before, some multiple times. What’s new and fresh about it is the enthusiastic performances themselves. Keen and his band are relaxed and rolling. And he’s brought along enough special guests like Lyle Lovett, Bruce Robison, Cody Braun and Cody Canada to juice up both his own band and the crowd. Here he is with Lyle on the song that started both of their careers.

Very generously, he even steps aside completely to let Joe Ely close the show with “The Road Goes On Forever And The Party Never Ends.” After all, Ely’s the singer who put Keen’s song on the map in the first place. The whole thing’s just damn good fun.

 

How about some good old rock n’ roll?

The Rolling Stones – Blue And Lonesome

The story goes that the Stones were messing around in the studio earlier this year warming up to record an album of new material. To get the juices flowing they went all the way back to their roots and started playing a bunch of Chicago blues from the late forties and early fifties. It sounded so good, and they were having so much fun, they postponed the original project, and in short order, with much of it recorded “live,” they produced this fiery, energetic homage to the music that inspired them in the first place. There’s a cut or two that don’t work for me, but by and large, they did Muddy, Little Milton, Willie Dixon – and themselves – proud.

For old folkies at heart like me…

John McKuen – Made In Brooklyn

John McKuen got his musical start during the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties before becoming the multi-instrumentalist playing leads on banjo, mandolin and fiddle for the seminal folk/country/rock group The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Over the years he’s indulged his folkie heart with side projects, this being his most recent. He lured several terrific acoustic players and singers like David Bromberg, John Cowan, John Carter Cash, even Steve Martin, and others to a small, primarily jazz studio in Brooklyn. They recorded a serious collection of folk and traditional country tunes drawn from across many decades. McKuen and his friends prove that energetic playing need not not be loud or raucous to be a lively counterpoint to more languid numbers. The result here is a varied lineup of traditional tunes and reimagined newer songs that is both soothing and entertaining. Check out this folk version of Warren Zevon’s bizarre tale of the “Excitable Boy” featuring Steve Martin on banjo and multiple singers.

As good as the music is, however, it’s the recording method described on McKuen’s web site that makes this album unique. Without getting too technical, David and Chesky have been perfecting the art of recording musicians “live”  in a resonant church with a single, specially designed multi-directional microphone, primarily on extremely hi fidelity jazz records dating from the mid-eighties. Everyone is grouped in a circle around the mic. There is no over dubbing or re-mixing later. The onus is on the players and singers to get it right. A note or pluck of a string might be slightly off, but with artists this talented, it usually means a richer reality. While the album is enjoyable on any decent stereo, the beauty of the recording technique can really be heard using headphones. I listened using just the ear buds that came with my old iPhone 5S and was astounded by the spatial clarity audible among the instruments and voices. It truly sounds as if you’re sitting in the middle of the circle of musicians. If you like folk music with a slight country tinge and enjoy immersing yourself as you listen, this album is for you.

 

And, of course, we need a little R&B

Robin McKelle – Mess Around

I first encountered Robin McKelle as a Berklee College of Music trained jazz singer fronting a big band with a lustrous voice in a manner akin to Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn. Turns out, however, that she grew up listening to R&B divas like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. By the time of this 2010 release, she had made her way just across the border from jazz to R&B. She kept moving deeper into R&B/Soul on later records, but I really like her in the spot she occupies here.

She writes as well as sings, so the album is a mix of originals like the title song – a nod to Ray Charles’ first hit with a similar name – and R&B standards like Ray’s “Lonely Avenue.” McKelle’s approach is more R&B than jazz, but the musicians are primarily drawn from jazz circles. The result is a refreshing take on time tested material. And yes, you can dance to it, if you like.
I guess no list of mine can be complete without a Texas bred country singer.

Leon Russell – Hank Wilson’s Back

When I read a few weeks ago about the death of multi-talented singer, musician, band leader, producer, arranger Leon Russell, I dusted off an LP I hadn’t listened to in so long I’d all but forgotten about it. In 1973, Russell took a brief detour on his road to rock and pop stardom to assume the persona of country honky tonker Hank Wilson. Only someone like Russell, who combined giant talent with Oklahoma roots, could pull off something like this. In fact I remember thinking it was all a parody when I first saw the album cover. When I put it on the turntable, however, I found “Hank Wilson” to be as genuine as the songs he chose. Russell put as much love as talent into a collection of classics from Hank Williams, George Jones, Leadbelly, Johnny Horton, Bill Monroe and on and on. The best part is, these performances and these songs stand up as tall today as they did 43 years ago. It’s clear everybody involved has chops galore, and they’re having a blast.

 

This close to Christmas, I have to include one song of the season. I heard this young artist Friday night on Sirius/XM’s broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. I think you’ll agree William Michael Morgan is a new talent to watch when you hear what he does with “White Christmas.” Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year to all.

 

Who Is Gary Nicholson?

Like so many songwriters, musicians and producers, Gary Nicholson is largely anonymous to the public at large, yet he has played an enormous role in the creation of hundreds of songs and albums. In fact, working as so many Texans do at the intersection of country and blues, he’s collaborated as writer, producer or guitarist for a galaxy of stars ranging from Willie to Garth to Ringo to Buddy Guy to Delbert McClinton and the late, great Guy Clark.

I featured one of his best songs, “Leap of Faith” as recorded by Delbert, in my post titled “Three White Men With (Rhythm and) The Blues” last May. Recently, I came across the same tune as the title track for an album by Seth Walker, a North Carolinian transplanted to Austin. You can probably see where this is going. Please allow me to introduce you to Gary via Seth and Delbert.

Seth Walker – Leap of Faith
and
Seth Walker – Gotta Get Back

Seth Walker is generally labeled as a blues artist, as is Delbert McClinton with whom he apparently connected after moving to Texas. But neither artist is that easy to categorize as their music ranges across R&B, country, folk, pop, New Orleans second-line and wherever their mood and song choices take them. I was previewing Seth’s most recent album, Gotta Get Back, when I learned that his biggest selling album, Leap of Faith, was produced by Gary Nicholson and featured seven songs co-written by the two of them, plus the title song. I fell in love with the range of songs, Seth’s very fine guitar (never overdone) and his expressive yet restrained singing.

He doesn’t go for the big brassy sound that’s associated with Delbert, nor the long guitar solos typical of many bluesmen. Still the album has an impressive array of instruments put to service in stompin’ toe tappers like the opening “Can’t Come With You” and “Somethin Fast,” groovin’ shuffles like “Rewind” and the title tune, soul ballads like “I Got A Song,” the church tinged “Lay Down,” and the semi-country cover of Nick Lowe’s, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.” I think this album is going to be in my heavy rotation for quite a while.

There’s a gorgeous fully orchestrated version of Seth and Gary’s “I Got A Song,” which iTunes’s reviewer described as Ray Charles -like.  Here, however,  is Seth with a stripped down version, the unvarnished songwriters’ art.

 

Gotta Get Back has a little less Nicholson influence but as it’s Walker’s newest release, you will want to check it out. It does include five numbers he co-wrote with Gary including the kickoff number, “High Time.”

 

This album is a bit different in that Walker is trying to pay tribute to a number of musical styles which have influenced him over the course of his life. There’s New Orleans with “Fire in the Belly” (funk) and “Way Past Midnight” (second-line), folk with “Home Again,” gospel with “Turn This Thing Around,” pop with “Dreamer” and R&B groove with “Movin’ On.” If I had to pick just on of these albums, I’d go with Leap of Faith. But I’m more than glad to have both.

 

Delbert McClinton – Nothing Personal

Delbert frequently titles his albums with something other than one of the tunes included as he did here. He can also be a bit sly with misdirection. In fact the tone of the album is very personal in several ways: song selection, arrangements, vocal delivery, indeed in overall atmosphere. Gary Nicholson not only co-wrote five of the songs, he also produced this 2001 Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Blues category. Oh, and he played some fine guitar as here with Delbert on the “Sandy Beaches Cruise” in 2013.

It’s not that the album lacks the barroom blues kickers Delbert’s so well know for – there are several, but by eschewing the big brass section in favor of a smaller combo style, Nicholson gives the entire project more of a small room feel. It doesn’t detract at all from the rockin’ numbers, and it really shows off the more intimate ballads. On Nothing Personal Delbert ironically seems to be singing for you personally rather than shouting to a big honky tonk crowd. Numbers like the south of the border tinged “When Rita Leaves (Rita’s Gone)” – truly one of the greatest can’t-believe-she’s-gone-but-maybe-it’s-for-the-best songs ever written, the classically blue “All There Is Of Me,” and the philosophical “Watchin’ It Rain” take on the intimacy and emotional weight that makes them, in fact, truly personal. There’s not a bad tune in the bunch. Heck there’s even a terrific Texas two stepper. And Delbert and Gary surely hit the jackpot when Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had a big hit with their rollicking co-write “Squeeze Me In.” Obviously, I love this album! And I love this Delbert and Gary collaboration on a beautiful love song, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

Gary Nicholson has written too many of Delbert’s songs to count, and he’s played guitar and slide guitar on many others to boot. He’s produced five of Delbert’s albums, two of which won Grammys. Delbert would be great regardless, and Seth Walker would be too. Still there is something about Nicholson’s songs, playing and production that bring out their best. You’ve heard the evidence: the songs I’ve featured from these three albums were each co-written and played by the singer and Gary. The fact that he can do that with two guys born 34 years apart (not to mention all the others with whom he’s collaborated) sends a loud and clear answer to my question, who is Gary Nicholson?  He’s a huge talent, a helluva partner for an artist to have, and the emodiment of the best in Classic CowjazzR&B.  

Here are Gary and Seth showing us what it’s all about on a recent night in Dallas.

Southern Soul That Slipped Through The Cracks

Of all the genres I cover in this blog, traditional soul seems to offer the most opportunities to discover or in some cases re-discover really solid performances. Here are three that I’ve pulled from the digital version of the old bargain bin at your favorite record store. One is a re-discovery from 1969. One is a R&B diva, who never really broke beyond her strong regional following in Memphis in the nineties and early 2000’s. And one is an old master, albeit largely unknown to the general music consumer, who cranked out a gem of a soul/funk/blues album near the end of his long, productive life.  Interestingly, all three have a musical connection to Memphis. Use the comments link, and let me know what you think about them.

Delaney & Bonnie – Home

Many people my age claim to remember Delaney & Bonnie, especially if they were fans of the Allman Brothers, other southern rock bands, or Eric Clapton. For awhile they billed themselves as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, the latter of which included the likes of Clapton, Duane Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell and others. The fact is, however, they only had a couple of hit singles, none of which hit the top ten, and a couple of albums that charted none of which reached the top 20.

Having said that, this album Home, which was their first in 1969, never even made the Top 200. It’s a shame because this is a really good soul album. In fact, most of it it was recorded in Memphis by Stax and features Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns, with tunes by the likes of Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. A few tracks were recorded in LA where Leon Russel and Carl Radle led the rhythm section. Somehow it all got lost in the shuffle as Stax released some 27 albums at about the same time. Or maybe soul music fans like me couldn’t picture a couple of hippie looking singers making like Otis and Carla or Marvin and Tammi. Having said all that, I’m inclined to classify this gem as a discovery. I know I never heard it, but if you did let me know.

And what fun it is to hear this music. While their later, better known albums edged a little closer to rock, this one is predominantly a soul revue.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett came by their musical bona fides honestly. By the time they signed with Stax, they were prepared to perform to the label’s soul stirring standards, and for the most part they do. As originally released, the album contained ten tracks. The Bonus Track Version on iTunes released in 2006 has sixteen which may be a couple too many. Regardless, the album has more than it’s share of highlights. For me these include two tunes by Cropper and Eddie Floyd, “We Can Love” and “Things Get Better” and another by Cropper and Bettye Crutcher, “Just Plain Beautiful,” all of which have a good Stax groove and tasty horns. Then there’s Booker T Jones’ beautiful, soul ballad “Everybody Loves A Winner” featuring a marvelous tenor sax by, I believe, Andrew Love. The most pleasant surprise perhaps is Bonnie’s take on Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart.” Although not as intense as Janis Joplin’s nearly out of control version released a few months before, it is still a darn fine rendition.

Stax’s own web site notes that even with all the label firepower employed in the recording, “the record went virtually unnoticed.” Thanks to the internet and digital outlets like iTunes, that need no longer be the case. Take a moment to notice – and enjoy – this really fine record.
Ruby Wilson – Ruby Wilson and A Song For You

I’m often asked where I find the more obscure artists I feature. Sadly, I found Ruby Wilson when her obituary in the New York Times caught my eye a few weeks ago. She was a Texas born blues and R&B singer who spent a big chunk of career from the 1980’s until her recent death delighting both locals and tourists as the Queen of Beale Street in Memphis. Intrigued, I searched for her albums and found two you might like.

The self titled first one was released in 1981. The first three songs are uptempo in the disco style arrangements popular at the time. While I prefer the soul grooves of Muscle Shoals, a couple of these do nicely showcase a strong, assured talent. The tempo shifts with the fourth cut, a classic-style soul ballad, “Bluer Than Blue,” which is as strong a performance as you’ll find short of Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight. The tunes that follow are similar in style and quality. The woman can flat out sing.

A Song For You, released in 2009 bookends her career. Firmly established by this time as a blues and R&B belter with regular gigs at Memphis clubs like B.B. king’s, Wilson strikes a different note with this covers collection of jazz influenced ballads. Her vocals are soulful but more graceful and nuanced than soaring. It’s cocktail hour with classics like “At Last,” “Fever,” “What A Difference A Day Makes,” and maybe my new favorite version of the title track. Good stuff.

Who knows why some artists make it big and others with equal or better talent don’t? Is it management, poor record company promotion, failure to find that signature hit, some of all three or dozens of other reasons. I don’t know. I do know I’m thankful to find artists like Ruby Wilson. I just wish it had been in a club in Memphis rather an obit in the Times.

 

Calvin Owens – That’s Your Booty

My search through Ruby Wilson’s discography led me to Calvin Owens and this album apparently released after his death in 2008. Wilson is one of a strong contingent of singers, including the likes of Otis Clay and Archie Bell, whose vocals add power to Owens’ big band tour de force through soul, funk, blues and jazz. The presence of a couple of strong ballads notwithstanding, this is a “turn it up and boogie” joy ride.

Born in 1928, Owens grew up literally and musically in Houston in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Like many Houston musicians of that era, he’s always blurred the distinctions between blues and jazz. He met B.B. King and joined his band as trumpet soloist through the middle of the decade. Years later he rejoined King as his bandleader and trumpeter from 1978 – 1984, playing a key role on King’s Grammy winning album Blues and Jazz in 1983. In between and after his tenures with King, he played behind a long list of luminaries and led his own smokin’ bug band.

The cut “On My Feet Again” with Wilson in full blues belting mode could easily have been a vehicle for B.B. On the other hand, Owens stretches his boundaries with the funk of “The Dog ” and the jazzy “Trumpet Blues”

 

Owens obviously had a taste of the big time touring and recording with King. Similarly, Ruby Wilson played with several big names and also had roles in several movies. Although Delaney and Bonnie never had a top ten hit single or album, they certainly enjoyed high profile exposure touring with Eric Clapton, not to mention raves from Hall of Fame level stars testifying to their talent and influence. Still, none of these albums made a ripple much less a splash on the charts. Give them a listen. I bet you’ll agree  this is music that deserves to be recovered from the cracks in the market, and most importantly, heard and enjoyed.

 

What the heck…

Here’s one more that may have slipped through the cracks for you: the talented Tasha Taylor singing her dad’s, the great Johnny Taylor, greatest hit, “Who’s Making Love?”

 

 

Readers’ Recommendations

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.

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.

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.