Archive for the ‘blues’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews for September (sic), Part 1 of 8

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Time to clear the backlog of discs – worthy ones all – cluttering my office. Beginning today, and occasionally interrupted by other content, here’s a solid two weeks of hundred-word reviews.


Terell Stafford – BrotherLee Love

Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who recorded between the mid 1950s and 1971, mostly for the Blue Note label. His most renowned sideman session was John Coltrane‘s Blue Trane (1957), and he was a longtime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On this album, Philadelphia-based trumpeter Stafford pays homage to Morgan. Stafford and a tight four-piece run through nine cuts associated with – and nearly all composed by – the late Morgan. Tasty stuff indeed, rendered in adventurous hard bop style. Plenty of solo breaks make this a worthwhile listen even for those who don’t know Morgan’s work.


Alison Faith Levy – The Start of Things

Former Sippy Cups member Levy records for Mystery Lawn Music, a label renowned for its intelligent power pop and art-pop artist stable. Levy makes music for kids, but her appeal extends far beyond the tot-rocking set. The lyrics are squarely aimed at youngsters, but not in a saccharine-sweet manner; Levy never “sings down” to her audience. And adults will find plenty to like in the music and arrangements. Levy’s music truly does bridge the gap between music for children and for grown-ups; in that way she’s heir to the music of The Banana Splits, nearly always a very good thing.


The Lucky Losers – A Winning Hand

To my ears, most modern blues is stale and uninspired. I can’t think of another genre that cranks out so much dull material. So when an exception comes along, it’s all that ore remarkable. Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz sing together in harmony, and trade vocal lines on this album’s dozen tunes, backed by a solid but not showy) band and horn section. They capture the fun and excitement of a bluesy band in a dimly lit bar. And at its core, that’s what modern blues is about. That Berkowitz is a skilled blues harpist only adds to the enjoyment.



Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat
Sixty-seven year old bluesman Otis Taylor has a long and storied career. This idiosyncratic outing finds the multi-instrumentalist and singer constructing a sort of song cycle built around the chestnut “Hey Joe.” His readings don’t recall Hendrix or The Leaves; no, they have more of an Americana feel. Some of the guitar work recalls The Allman Brothers (thanks to guest Warren Haynes), and the musical dialogue between guitar and fiddle) has shades of Jefferson Airplane with Papa John Creach. Extensive use of cornet (Taylor Scott) adds an interesting character to the songs. On the whole, exceedingly eclectic, understated, and worthwhile.


Phil Lee – Some Gotta Lose…

Lee’s previous album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, knocked me out with its windswept singer-songwriter vibe. He reminds me a bit of James McMurtry crossed with Leon Russell, and his music is equally informed by blues, Americana, old-school country and plain old rock’n'roll. Some Gotta Lose… is another showcase for Lee’s well-worn voice. This is as real as it gets, straightforward poetry and stories set to music. One of these days, he and I really will meet up for that cup of coffee; until that day, I’ll enjoy his music on this shiny disc.

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Album Review: Muddy Waters 100

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

I’m on record stating my belief that the majority of tribute albums are generally a waste of nearly everyone’s time. Often, the tribute version of the tributee’s songs are too reverent by half, adding nothing to the original. Or, in other cases, the artists go too far, applying their own trademark “sound” for better or worse (usually the latter) to a song that really didn’t need any help, thanks.

Tribute albums tend to be indulgent and self-conscious even when they don’t involve the participation of the omnipresent three (Bono, Jack White, Dave Grohl) who seem, somehow, to attach themselves to every project that’s ostensibly about someone else.

And it’s because of that baggage that I bring to my listening experience that very few tribute albums make it past my slush pile. But I’m very pleased to report that Muddy Waters 100 is a highly worthy exception to the rule. In celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), Chicago producer Larry Skoller has brought together a superb band to interpret  fifteen of Waters’ best-loved songs, and some well-chosen guests help out.

John Primer is no youngster himself; at 70 years of age, he’s a well-seasoned journeyman bluesman. His guitar and vocal skills are stellar, and he manages to conjure the ambience and spirit of Muddy while (a) not aping the great man and (b) maintaining his own identity in the process. Backed by a crack team of musicians that includes guitarist Bob Margolin (he and Primer were members of Waters’ band) plus some younger but supremely talented players, Primer leads the band through Waters tunes that are well-known (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Mannish Boy”) as well as some that won’t be familiar to those who aren’t hardcore blues fiends.

The guests are players whose presence make sense: musicians who’ve been influenced by Muddy Waters show up here, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month stars brought in more for their marquee value. But nonetheless, they’re names most listeners will recognize, and their participation is welcome. Derek Trucks, Johnny Winter (in one of his last sessions before his death), James Cotton, Gary Clark Jr., and Keb’ Mo’ are just some of the spotlighted guests.

The arrangements are familiar enough that purists shouldn’t be put off, but they happily avoid that slavish reverence to which I alluded earlier. Modern beats find their way into some of the performances, but unobtrusively so. One can’t help think that the man who once deigned to make Electric Mud would have smilingly approved.

The well-annotated booklet provides some historical context for the songs chosen. An excellent essay on Muddy Waters provides more background. And the photography deserves mention: all manner of archival photos of the master at work are included in stunning clarity. The hardbound case makes the whole package a souvenir-of-sorts, but it’s all in service to the music therein.

True, April 4, 2013 was the actual 100-year anniversary of Muddy’s birth, but these things take a while to assemble, and the care that went into the making of this package – the music, the liner notes, the booklet and the physical package itself – is such that Skoller and company deserve a pass on that minor point.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 4)

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: A lot of highly-regarded musicians have named you as an inspiration. David Byrne was instrumental in the first [2001] CD reissue of Inspiration Information. Lenny Kravitz has said great things about your music. And I hear your influence in some of Prince‘s music. Those are just two examples. What do you think about the fact that your body of work – the music you’ve made – has been influential on other artists?

Shuggie Otis: I’m flattered. It’s beyond me what has happened with my music. It’s amazing that my music has touched stars and other artists. It’s even been used in TV commercials. “Strawberry Letter #23,” for example. It’s been sampled so many times, too. The idea has been used in a lot of things, too: they change the notes around, but you still get the idea. And I’m just amazed that I had anything to do with something so big. Because that song is way, way, way bigger than I’ll ever be. When you have a hit song, it’s always gonna be bigger than the person who wrote it. No matter how big the star is, if somebody’s going to be humming that tune during the day, they’re not even thinking about the star.

I wrote the song, and I take credit for that, but I don’t take full credit. Because I feel that I’m channeling music. Apparently, I’m a medium; I realize this more as I get older. I feel like music is something that’s coming through me, and sometimes it’s really quite interesting as it’s happening.

When that happens to you as a writer, you’re usually by yourself. And you’re communicating with someone, because – with the respect that you’re writing words, you’re saying them out loud. And so at times you’re talking to what seems to be another individual. One or more. You can’t see them, but there’s usually that one spirit that you’re communicating with.

I don’t know what the name of all that is. But music has got to be the biggest healing force in the universe; one of my musicians was telling me that Jimi Hendrix used to say that. I said, “Yeah, I remember that album that Albert Ayler put out, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe [1970].” I’ve always liked that title. And I realized, yes it is! Not only is it a healing force, it is the biggest healing force. And I think a lot of people agree with me.

I love music so much. And to be a part of it, now, it’s something like a new high to me. First of all, you’ve got to get a little success to feel that way. You have to have been, I say, blessed with a chance to feel that feeling where you’re not jealous. Because jealousy has to go away – all away – in order to be able to write and play music well. You can’t think about anything but the music. So lately I’ve been playing more music than I ever had before. And it seems to be – it doesn’t seem to be, it is – very therapeutic for me.

And I hope that I can bring that onstage, and be therapeutic for someone who needs it. I don’t feel that I’m going to be some big healer, I just want to go there and have a good time like everybody else. I don’t want to be all serious about Shuggie Otis or his music; I just want to be a part of the crowd.

I always wanted to be separate from the crowd, before. That was a problem. I didn’t know how to relax around people. Now it seems to be much easier. I mean, I did; there is still this big misconception of me. When you’re out for so long, there’s this idea, “Oh, Shuggie? He’s shy. He’s doesn’t like people. He’s afraid. He’s paranoid.” Some of those things were true. But now, for some reason – and like I say, I don’t know why – I’ve chosen to stay alive for another day. I hope!

I’m elated these days, and I don’t feel the need to ever stop being that way. As long as I stay in touch with the music, I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all: music is a natural high. It gets people to laughing and dancing and all kinds of stuff. And they get their minds off of everything that’s bothering them. And if there’s nothing bothering them, then they just keep having a good time.

Life can be worrisome sometimes; I understand that. And I’m trying to relate to people in a much different way. I know that I can, now. Whatever conception I had of myself before, it’s different now. The things that used to bother me, it seems like I’ve gotten over those things. The main thing is to stay alive so I can play music. And music keeps me alive. Music is what I do.

I used to think, “Oh I should have done this or that before.” But it’s a mistake to think about the past. You’ve got to just keep going.

BK: Talking to you now, it really seems that now is your time…

SO: I feel the same way. It’s my time, whatever happens. It’s my time to share the music, if nothing else.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 3)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Shuggie Otis: But the songs kept calling me back. A song would be really good, and I’d think about it, and realize that I have to face whatever it is that’s bothering me about this song. It might be something personal. It’s not not necessarily that the song has anything to do with real life, but what the song is saying. I guess when the album comes out, you’ll know more about what I’m talking about. I’m happy with the songs now.

I was playing the guitar for hours last night, coming up with new ideas; all kinds of stuff. At one point I went and listened to some of the stuff I’m working on. All of the ones that I didn’t want to be on the album are going to be on there after all! I came back around and realized, “These songs sound like my fans would like them.”

But it’s not just my fans I’m thinking about. The songs have to please me first. And that’s what the problem was before: “I don’t want to use that song; it bothers me personally.” I had to detach myself and say, “Wait a minute; forget that. Is the song any good? Do you think somebody else might like it? Forget what it’s saying, because not everybody cares that much about what [lyrics] you’re writing!” If the music’s good, you have to ask yourself, “Will this work? Do you want to put this out?” And I thought it was kind of funny how many times I’d keep shelving these songs. But now, okay, they’re coming out.

Bill Kopp: Where does your music come from? Do you sit down and say, “Okay, time to write a song,” or does it happen some other way?

SO: I can’t do that too well. I can, but I don’t ever accept what comes that way. Because I know it won’t come out they way I’d like. I mean, it has to come to me. Believe it: I’ve come up with ideas that I thought were great – just recently – and then a few weeks go by, and then, “No, that’s one’s going away forever. And that one, too. And that one.” But some of them call you back. And once they come to me, then I’ll stay with them for hours. And days. Weeks, however long it takes.

And I’m trying to step on it now, because I don’t want to hold up the record company and just take my time. That’s not the [goal] at all. What I’m trying to do is work with a quick pace. When I’m in the studio, I pretty much go at it without taking a break. And I’m very, very happy to get into a studio again. Because I had been working out of my home studio. And that’s great, but to get back into a real studio is something extra special for me. That’s something I haven’t done in, I don’t know how many years.

It’s a very special time for me. And I’m just praying that everything goes right. We’re all really excited. I have a band of great musicians, really great guys. We’re happy to be playing together, and to be getting such a great reaction. And I’m not going to let anything get in the way of this. If I can help it, we’re going to just keep on playing. Keep on playing, and don’t think too much about the business. Because focusing more on the business surely does hurt the music.

Before, I had that wrong mindset; I was thinking about, “Oh, how the record companies are treating me bad!” And I couldn’t get past that anger. Now, I think to myself, “It was a natural reaction; you’re a human being.” Because for years I felt for the most part that I wasn’t wanted in the business. And perhaps that was the truth. But you can take something like that and stretch it into a big, crazy notion. It shouldn’t have to run your whole life, but it can affect a person.

So my case was kind of different in that I couldn’t get a record deal even though I was so well-known. Still, it didn’t affect my life in a really bad way; I still had a good time. My life was okay; it wasn’t all as dreary as it might sound. I felt like I had been in the business since I was a kid, with my father, his band rehearsals, and that kind of thing. I was right there with show business even as a little child. So I did feel at the time that they didn’t want me, that my time would come back around. And it did come back around. I look back now, and I think, “Wow. I must have a lot of patience!” I’m very fortunate. And blessed. So I’m just going to try to give back now.

And hopefully there’s no ego trips any more. I’m not saying that I’m all the way there, that I’m perfect. Every day can be a challenge. Maybe every day is a challenge. For me, I see something happening that’s so good. So I don’t let those things bother me.

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling him Back (Part 2)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You sent demo tapes to many labels, but nothing happened for years, until the reissue of Inspiration Information with the added Wings of Love material. That you finally got the notice you deserve seems to be more than luck. Why do you think you’re getting noticed now after being ignored for so many years? What’s special about now?

Shuggie Otis: I don’t know. I can’t really answer what’s special about it, but life continues to be special to me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m very inspired to play music right now. Just like I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m 61 now. There’s something special about having that kind of enthusiasm, I think. For me, it’s a very good time now. And it hasn’t always been that smooth. Things are much brighter now.

BK: If I had to pick one word to describe the album Inspiration Information to someone who had never heard it, I’d pick the word “quiet.” The album seems like the opposite of the idea of shouting to get someone’s attention. The music seems, sometimes, to almost whisper to get people to be quiet and listen.

SO: Yes, it was quiet; I agree. But it wasn’t an approach that I took purposely for that effect. It was just the way I felt. I wanted the music not to be so loud, trying to get [the listener's] attention, trying to how express how good [I am]. I wasn’t thinking about being “out front” at that time. I feel more comfortable with that idea now. It’s kind of odd, but that’s the way it is. I’m more out front now with the guitar, so the [new] music – onstage these days – is almost the opposite of Inspiration Information.

Now I’m working on a bunch of things, including an album for Cleopatra Records. It’s coming along. I don’t know how to describe the music, but I’m very excited about it. It should be coming out later this year, for sure.

BK: One of the great things about your music is that one can’t really pin it down and call it psychedelic soul, or funk, or rock, or blues.

SO: Yeah. I like so many different kinds of music; I don’t feel like I need to stop at one style and stay there. I’m pretty free with that idea. I’ve never had to adjust or conform; I’ve had that freedom since I was a kid with the record labels. Whatever happens musically, happens. Music gets to be a problem when you try to express it in words. But I hope that you like mine. It’ll be a different concept; I can say that much.

BK: Since you are proficient on so many instruments, when you write songs, do you have specific things in mind with regard to what, say, what the drums should do, what the keyboards should sound like and play, and so on?

SO: I usually have an idea of what the [parts] will do that will go along with the song. On Inspiration Information I played all the instruments, and I continue to record that way. But I am going to incorporate my band into the new recordings, too. Because the band has a special sound to it, and I want to get back into playing with live musicians.

I had been doing sessions alone for so many years; it feels so good now to play with a band these days. And I’ve got a band where I can feature myself on guitar in a different way; there’s more guitar featured now than before. And I’m very happy about that.

BK: You’re playing live onstage more now than you have at any other time in your career. What do you like most about performing, and is there anything about it you don’t enjoy?

SO: I like performing. There isn’t anything I don’t like about performing! I know that probably seems funny to people that know I’ve been away from the limelight for so long. And that wasn’t always my choosing.

I had a different mindset. My frame of mine wasn’t centered so much about…I had a sort of ego trip. Because I couldn’t get a record deal, I was thinking more about record deals, vast money, and being treated like a star. And that’s negative, when you think about it. When it comes to music, you shouldn’t have those kinds of problems going on in your head. But I did.

And now I don’t. I don’t think about music as far as making money anymore. When I write a song, it’s just stuff from the heart. Way more than it ever was before, it’s important for the song to mean something to me.

For instance, I’ve written some songs recently that I thought were good songs after I recorded them. But then I would say, “Okay, I’m not using it no more. I don’t even want to hear it.” In fact I would put almost a whole album down. I’ve done that maybe three times with the album I’m working on now.

I’m sharing something funny with you here. I wanted to know if putting the songs out would affect me in a bad way after people started listening to them. It’s a paranoia, and it’s really unnecessary. I would think, “Well, with this song here, it might sound…they might think…”

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Shuggie Otis: The Music Keeps Calling Him Back (Part 1)

Monday, August 10th, 2015

“I look back now,” says Shuggie Otis, “and I think, ‘Wow. I must have a lot of patience!’” The multi-instrumentalist is reflecting on the curious arc of his career so far: his fame began in earnest when he was a young teen, continued into his early twenties, and ended abruptly after the relative commercial failure of his 1974 LP Inspiration Information (now regarded as a classic) when he was dropped by his record label. Otis largely disappeared from public sight after that, and didn’t resurface for almost forty years. These days, he’s working on a new studio album – Live in Williamsburg was released last year – and engaging in an ambitious touring schedule.

Otis was born in Los Angeles, the son of famed bandleader and r&b legend Johnny Otis. The senior Otis (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” Of Greek heritage, Johnny lived among – and lived as – an African American. He co-wrote “Hound Dog” and was an influential part of the American music scene, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.

Son Johnny Alexander Veliotes, Jr. (his mother nicknamed him Shuggie, and the sobriquet stuck) and his brother Nicholas both picked up their father’s musical interest and prowess. A natural talent, Shuggie had taught himself guitar, and was gigging with his father’s band by the age of 12. By 1969 he was featured on an album of his father’s called Cold Shot, and another disc, the X-rated Snatch and the Poontangs. A live album, 1970′s Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! also featured Shuggie’s impressive guitar work. “Working with Dad was mostly a good time; it was fun,” says Shuggie. “He was a strict kind of a bandleader, but he was also a fun guy. Everybody liked him. Even if some kind of argument popped up, [the other person] would always come back to him.”

Around that time the now-fifteen year old was “discovered” by Al Kooper and showcased on Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis; B.B. King called Shuggie his “favorite new guitarist” and Shuggie played bass guitar on Frank Zappa‘s Hot Rats cut “Peaches en Regalia.” Shuggie’s first true solo album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was released in 1970. While the superb “psychedelic soul” album featured many of the elder Otis’ bandmates (Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Al McKibbon), it was also notable for Shuggie’s multi-instrumental prowess on guitar, piano, harpsichord and celesta.

Freedom Flight followed in 1971, with Shuggie taking a greater role in the album’s development. Playing even more instruments and composing most of the songs, Shuggie penned the classic “Strawberry Letter #23,” which would reach #1 on the 1977 soul charts in a cover version by The Brothers Johnson.

But it would be three more years before Shuggie delivered Freedom Flight‘s followup to his record label. The simmering Inspiration Information was very different from Shuggie’s earlier work. Now just 21, Otis had recorded the album almost completely on his own (save for session players on strings and horns). The muted, intimate-sounding Inspiration Information featured extensive use of the Rhythm King, an early electronic drum machine, in place of “real” percussion. Well ahead of its time – and not, thought the execs at Epic Records, delivered on time – the album was poorly promoted, and was a commercial disappointment. The label summarily dropped Otis, and the 21 year old was now without a record deal. To the public at large, it was as if Shuggie Otis had vanished.

Rumors swirled around the seeming disappearance of such a bright talent. Was he hard to work with? Was he dealing with any manner of personal issues? Nobody seemed to know for sure, and while some began to forget about him, those who appreciated his work kept hoping that he’d return one day. Shuggie recalls that period. “People [had] said, ‘Everybody loves him. He’s gonna be a big star!’ And the next thing I knew, nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. That was kind of strange…not strange; it was disillusioning. It was a disappointment.”

Meanwhile, his songs were sampled by OutKast, Beyoncé, J Dilla, Digable Planets, Kanye West and others. But none of those people, it seemed, were in a position to offer Shuggie that elusive record deal.

Shuggie Otis continued to record and perform, all as he searched without success for a new recording contract. A 2013 Sony Music collection of the best of his material from the post-Inspiration Information era was compiled and released as Wings of Love, packaged with a reissue of the ’74 album.

That reissue sparked renewed interest in Otis’ music, and to promote the 2013 reissue/compilation, Shuggie Otis put together a band and toured, playing for audiences he hadn’t faced in years. A contract with Cleopatra Records followed, and the 2014 Live in Willamsburg disc documented the high-energy stage show, a set list that contained old favorites and newer material.

At the start of the current leg of what’s billed as The Never Ending World Tour, I spoke with Shuggie Otis about the past, the present, and the future. Over the next three days, I’ll present that conversation.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 3

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Blues, r&b, post-jazz and country-flavored singer/songwriter music: never let it be said that I only write about rock. Here are five fine releases in a wide array of musical styles.

Rusty Wright Band – Wonder Man

Take the attitude of big-band swing and electric guitar blues, and apply it to uptempo rock’n'roll, and you might end up with something like The Rusty Wright Band. Too many modern-day blues exponents have nothing interesting to offer musically. Wright deftly avoids falling into the strict confines of 21st century blues by widening his musical scope to incorporate other styles. And he does it in a way that won’t offend blues purists (neat trick, that). “Black Hat Boogie” feels like a cross between ZZ Top and Deep Purple; that’s just a hint of what’s on offer here. Wonder Man indeed.

The 24th Street Wailers – Where Evil Grows

I get letters; I do. Actually, they’re usually emails. But owing to the large number of ‘em, few get a “yes, please send a CD” reply from me. Here’s a worthy exception. Imagine a group that plays like JD McPherson and boasts songwriting and a production aesthetic reminiscent of the late and great Nick Curran. Add in some gritty 40s and 50s rhythm and blues, and top it all off with a strong female lead singer who just happens to site behind a trap kit. Whaddya got? This group. On Where Evil Grows, they tear shit up. Get this now.

Victor Krummenacher – Hard to See Trouble Coming

If asked to name a musical act of the last few decades that draws from the widest possible range of musical styles and genres, I’d answer without hesitation: Camper Van Beethoven. That group’s bassist, Victor Krummenacher is endlessly busy with all manner of projects in and outside that group. His latest is this, his tenth solo album. An acoustic-leaning affair, the disc features strong melodies in a slow-to-midtempo vein; the tracks find Krummenacher in an agreeable troubadour/singer-songwriter album, and should appeal to fans of Crosby, Stills and Nash (but not so much Young) and the solidly dependable Bakersfield c&w sound.

Tas Cru – You Keep the Money

Another example of an artist who deftly expands his musical scope beyond the solid lines some draw around the blues idiom (see Rusty Wright, above), Tas Cru starts with the tried-and-true electric blues elements – electric guitar, bass, drums, B-3-sounding organ, overdriven blues harp – but he applies those tools to a rock songwriting style. His assured and expressive vocal style is strong and unaffected, and the production style avoids cliché. Oh, and as “A Month of Somedays” and the subtle, smoldering “La Bell Poutine” both illustrate, Cru can play some mean guitar in the traditional blues style as well.

Throttle Elevator Music – Jagged Rocks

Maybe you’ve heard the term post-rock; it attempts to describe a sort of music that’s both cerebral and visceral, but that moves beyond the idiom from which it was borne. Well, with that in mind, here’s some post-jazz for ya. This trio is shepherded by Gregory Howe, head of Wide Hive Records, and features a sax/drums/guitar lineup. The instrumentation pieces tend toward the short-and-snappy, and they’re alternatively mysterious/gauzy and noisy/aggressive. Howe’s intimate production aesthetics make it feel like you’re in a small room with the band. That’s good, but be warned: like the old saying goes, it might get loud.

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Album Review: Leo Bud Welch – I Don’t Prefer No Blues

Monday, May 25th, 2015

When I first heard the debut album by then-81 year old Leo “Bud Welch (2014′s Sabougla Voices), one of my initial thoughts was that the fine record would have even wider appeal if it wasn’t so lyrically gospel-centered. Of course that’s the man’s right to make the kind of music he wants to, I told myself. And there’s no denying the power and allure of Welch’s music, even if one isn’t especially receptive to the message in songs like “Praise His Name.”

While I’m all but certain that the octogenarian gospel-bluesman from Bruce, Mississippi is well above issues of commercialism and unit-shifting, his followup album – the ironically-titled I Don’t Prefer No Blues focuses many of its lyrical concerns on subjects more suited to the blues idiom. And the instrumental support – once again led by the inimitable Jimbo Mathus, a Southern musical treasure in his own right – increases the wattage a few notches over the approach used on Sabougla Voices.

Now, it’s mere speculation on my part, but while Welch’s first outing on Big Legal Mess used what I call the Syd Barrett approach to recording (the artist sings and plays his idiosyncratic tunes solo, and then later the producer and support musicians create and overdub [underdub?] a sympathetic backing), there’s good reason to suspect that I Don’t Prefer No Blues was cut with the whole band live in the studio.

Whether that guess is correct or not, the resulting recording sure feels like it. There’s an organic sensibility that one rarely finds in today’s ProTools-based digital recordings. Many of the tracks on the album are based around the I-IV-V blues pattern that has served generations of blues players so well. “Poor Boy” features Sharde Thomas on support vocal, echoing Welch’s lyrics. And the instrumental backing is not just spare, it’s stark: bass guitar and a bit of brushes on a snare drum, and that’s it. Anything more would take the attention away from the soulful vocals.

“Girl in the Holler” takes a wholly different approach: fret-buzzing electric guitars sound like their strings are about to fall off the instrument, and the entire track is a (just-barely) two-chord jam that suggests what some fictional swamp-rocking musical grandpappy of John Fogerty might’ve sounded like. By all accounts Welch is a lovely gent, but here he sounds like he’d cut you if you looked at him wrong.

After Welch counts in “I Don’t Know Her Name,” he and his players tear into some insistent, uptempo blues that might remind listeners of a certain age of Muddy Waters by way of Savoy Brown. The stinging lead guitar howls menacingly while Welch tells us he can’t eat, can’t sleep. And he even howls like a wild dog. As the track fades, we hear a bit of organ; it’s almost filigree on this largely unadorned record.

Though it slows things back down, “Goin’ Down’ Slow” is even more aggressive, with a delightfully sludgy backbeat supporting a dirty electric guitar that answers Welch’s vocal phrasing. He sings “please forgive me for my sins,” but one can imagine a sly wink that suggests it’s a pro forma apology. The drums sound like they’re being played as they tumble down a flight of stairs, and that’s meant in the best way.

The swaggering “Cadillac Baby” reminds listeners of one of the unwritten tenets of country blues: the form doesn’t require equal numbers of measures per phrases. The song structure bends to fit the lyrical storytelling. Generations-old blues tropes sound fresh and new coming from Welch and his fellow musicians. And a bit of piano crops up, leading into the chant about riding, baby, all night long. (Another sly wink.)

“Too Much Wine” adds some early 70s-style wah-wah guitar textures into the mix. Welch testifies about the dangers inherent in overindulging, and seems to be having the time of his life delivering the message. The song is reminiscent of some of the late 60s attempt at hybridizing blues and rock (Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, for example), but there’s an informal vibe at play here. The support players never overwhelm the main man.

“I Woke Up” continues in a similar vein, but the band changes up the tempo throughout the song; the net effect leans in a Chicago electric blues style. It absolutely swings. The band slashes and thrashes for nearly five minutes, and things never get dull. (The fadeout suggests that they might have kept right on jamming; maybe they still are.)

“So Many Turnrows” returns to the stripped-down approach. Skronky electric blues guitar, a slow yet insistent footstomp, and Welch’s voice are all that’s heard for the first minute of the tune. The bass eventually comes in to provide bottom-end support, but it’s another minute before the drums arrive. An appropriately primitive guitar solo is followed by a second solo for the long, long fade.

“Pray On” wouldn’t have been out of place on Sabougla Voices, save for the effects applied to the second guitar (it sounds like Mathus is using an envelope follower, a pedal famously used on The Who‘s “Goin’ Mobile”). Never before has “The Lord’s Prayer” sounded so down-home funky. When Welch tells you that you’d best pray on, you’d best listen.

The disc wraps up with “Sweet Black Angel,” a tune that distills all of I Don’t Prefer No Blues into one song. Some very subtle use of accordion adds the perfect bit of texture.

Now 83, Leo “Bud” Welch is an in-demand live performer, having appeared at a number of high-profile blues festivals. And filming is now complete on a soon-to-be-release documentary about his life. The only criticism of I Don’t Prefer No Blues – and it’s an exceedingly minor one – is that the album is short. It blows by quickly: listeners won’t be unsatisfied, but they likely will be left still somehow wanting more. Here’s a toast to Welch, and the hope that he has many years of recording ahead of him.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 6

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Last week I presented 25 capsule reviews; 100 words each, these were quick critical looks at new CD (and vinyl) releases. This week, I dive into the pile of reissue/compilation CDs that have been crowding my office. Don’t mistake my relative brevity for mild praise; all of the discs reviewed deserve attention.

Chuck Berry – The Complete Chess Singles As & Bs
Thanks to the different (read: less restrictive) laws in the UK concerning licensing and royalties, compilations like this are cost-effective efforts on the part of reissue labels. This fifty-track 2CD set collects all of the 45rpm A- and B-sides from Chuck Berry’s tenure on Chess Records. I’m not going to waste space explaining the musical/historical importance of this set. Nicely packaged, expertly annotated, and featuring an informative essay from Paul Watts, it contains exactly what the title indicates, and seems to be truer soundwise to the originals than the controversially “cleaned up” Chess Box released stateside in the late 1980s.

Various – Beale Street Saturday Night
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of interesting, intelligent reissues. And here’s another one. The Memphis Development Foundation was founded in 1977 to support the rescue/renewal of the historic city so important in the history of American music (blues, country, rock’n'roll, jazz…you name it). Originally issued in 1979as an unbanded LP, this album is described as “a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.” It deftly mixes music and spoken word, and features Memphis legends Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Grandma Dixie Davis, and others. Conceptually related to the Alabama State Troupers album, it’s a pop culture lesson with great music.

Various – Apollo Saturday Night / Saturday Night at the Uptown
In 1961, the now-legendary Atlantic Records entered into a fruitful relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records; Ahmet Ertegun and his team knew a good thing when they saw and heard it. These two LPs were released in 1964, and documented live showcases featuring great and less-known acts at their best. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Barbara Lynn and other leading lights are captured live onstage at the height of their powers. These all-killer-no-filler LPs haven’t been paired before, and they fit together nicely. Kudos to the folks at Real Gone Music for thinking of it. Great liner notes, too.

Various – All About Elvis: A Tribute to the King
Sam Phillips is often remembered by his quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Of course he did find such a man in Elvis Presley, but the billion dollars part didn’t quote work out. Still, in the wake of Elvis, countless artists (and their management) sought to grab their own piece of that pie. This 3CD collection brings together nearly 100 artists – some well-known, others exceedingly obscure – all of whom pay tribute to (read: rip off) Elvis’ style. Many do quite well.

Jerry Williams – Gone
Pop music history is littered with stories of near-misses and shoulda-beens. This 1979 LP from Texas-born Williams (not to be confused with the man born with the same name but known as Swamp Dogg) was (until this Real Gone Music reissue) a fairly rare item. Imagine JJ Cale with a horn section and some shuffle/disco influences (or early Boz Scaggs with the dance-oriented feel of, well, mid-period Boz Scaggs), and you’ll have a rough idea of what this sounds like. Williams is better known for the tunes he’s written for others, but he acquits himself well on this, his third LP.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

Friday, May 8th, 2015

This week of capsule reviews spotlighting new music wraps up today with five releases that all came to me on vinyl. I love vinyl. Did I mention that I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl? Well, I do.

Anthony W. Rogers – Wrong…
When this record arrived in my mailbox, I thought to myself, “I know that name…”. Then it came to me. Through the 1990s and beyond, a network of hardcore fans collected and traded live recordings of Todd Rundgren and related artists. And Anthony Rogers was one of the scene’s leading lights. But on this new solo album, Rogers stakes out musical territory that supposedly draws on SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. The tunes on Wrong… have a distinct DIY/lo-fi ambience, occasionally recalling Wilson, sometimes Rundgren. But Rogers’ music nearly always reminds me of that most idiosyncratic of pop artists, R. Stevie Moore.

Harpoon Forever – American Flag EP
This four-song EP sounds as if it were recorded in somebody’s garage, on cheap equipment. But that lo-fi approached worked for Guided by Voices; it works here, too. Shifting time signatures applied to sturdy, vaguely folk-rocking songs might confuse some listeners, but the catchiness of the melodies and the fetching everyman vocals of guitarist/songwriter Alex Goldstein shine right through. A gauzy approach vaguely recalls Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, filtered through the sensibility of someone whom (I’m guessing) digs prog as much as he likes Pavement. On this disc, Harpoon Forever is a duo; these days they’re a full band.

Lannie Flowers – “Best I Can” b/w “Back of a Car”
Lannie Flowers really has it going. He writes, play and sing fantastic, infectious pop tunes. And he’s quite consistent at it. Better still, he’s quite prolific these days. Just last year he released an excellent live set, Live in NYC. That collection presented Flowers and band in front of an audience that was as enthusiastic as it was small. This single’s b-side, a lovely Big Star cover, is taken from that set. But the a-side is another in Flower’s growing catalog of winning rocking pop tunes. To his tried-and-true mix he adds some simple but dramatic keyboard work. Another winner.

Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Helluva Way (For a Man to Make a Livin’)” b/w “Watchin’ Brian Jones”
An object lesson in the “never judge a book by its cover” category, this single features the customarily acoustic guitar playing Hart (of the South Memphis String Band) rocking out in a big way. If his greying beard and Gibson Flying V don’t provide enough cognitive dissonance, a listen to this blistering 45rpm single should do the trick. Taking his “Helluva Way” at breakneck speed, it’s garage punk at its finest. The flip is a low-and-slow bluesy romp full of sly, clever lyrics. Less than seven minutes with Hart will convince you he could succeed in damn near any genre.

TimLee3 – 33 1/3
Tim Lee was a key member of 80s alternarock underground darlings The Windbreakers. These days he shares the spotlight with his missus (Susan Bauer Lee) and drummer Chris Bratta. Lee’s old group’s twangy take on powerpop is built upon in his trio: Susan takes many lead vocals, giving the band an original sound reminiscent of Jason & the Scorchers crossed with X, but decidedly upping the hooks-and-melody quotient to Plimsouls level. The chiming “Photo Booth” is guaranteed ear candy; the sweeping, dusty grandeur of “Our Lady of the Highway” is breathtaking. “Daddy’s Girl” is a delightful c&w romp. Highly recommended.

More to come.

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