Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

Album Review: Tower of Power — Hipper Than Hip

Monday, April 7th, 2014

For quite a number of years – primarily the mid 90s to around 2006 – I was immersed in a consuming hobby of sorts: I collected and traded bootlegs (aka ROIOs or recordings of indeterminate origin). For me, listening to unreleased recordings of artists I like – studio outtakes, live concert tapes, radio broadcasts and the like – provided an additional window of understanding into their work, a depth of understanding often unavailable through more conventional means.

With the rise of faster internet speeds and peer-to-peer sites, the trading of physical artifacts has largely died off. In the same way that trading of those physical CDs put a practical end to the for-profit (and illegal and unethical) practice of commercial bootlegging, the end of trading came on suddenly.

But a desire for these kinds of recordings persists. And just when one thinks the unreleased cache has been completely mined, something new turns up. The latest example of this is Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Tower of Power. This 2CD set documents a WLIR radio broadcast from Long Island’s Ultrasonic Recording Studios on May 14, 1974. While Real Gone Music focuses primarily on rare and archival reissues, Hipper Than Hip is two-plus hours of previously unreleased material.

Tower of Power was (and remains) an eleven-piece band to be reckoned with. They brought the energy and fire of funk by expanding the basic rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums) with keyboards, percussion and a horn section. With Lenny Williams fronting the band on vocals, TOP tore through their tunes, giving ample spotlights to soloists. Chester Thompson‘s keyboard work is the centerpiece of many of these tracks, often engaging in incendiary dialogue with the horns (trumpet, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax).

Recorded in the studio but with a live audience, the recording is the best of both worlds: high quality recording techniques and the energy that can only be captured when the band plays in front of real human beings. The 2CD set captures the band at the height of their success, running through their hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What is Hip” along with perennial favorite “Squib Cakes”) and a dozen others.

Led by founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (both of whom remain in the band today, along with a couple others from back in the 70s), Tower of Power provided a sort of updating of the hard-charging road bands of the swing era (Duke Ellington‘s band, for example), injecting the music with heavy doses of soul, r&b and the ever-present funk.

From start to finish, Hipper Than Hip is a thrilling document of a band and horn section at their best. Whether it’s a smooth soul ballad such as “You’re Still a Young Man” or an irresistible groove, Tower of Power delivers. The liner notes provide a bit of history and context along with some background on the sessions that produced this historic recording. As successful as the studio albums of that era were (1974′s Back to Oakland was the group’s then-current release), it was in concert that Tower of Power were best experienced. And while they did release a live album in the 70s (1976′s Live and Living Color) that contains versions of four of the numbers on Hipper Than Hip, this new 2CD set is worth having for its combination of up-close-and-personal with studio production values.

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Album Review: Barry White — Can’t Get Enough

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

James Brown might have been Soul Brother Number One, but it was Isaac Hayes who brought soul into the mainstream with his lush, romantic workouts such as his cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And while Hayes would remain the master of that style, he had other things on his mind as well, such as the driving soundtracks to Shaft, Truck Turner and other flicks of the era.

But in the 1970s we had Barry White to carry the torch of that particular sub-style. Rock fans might even think of White as a sort of ELO to Isaac Hayes’ Beatles: he took one specific part of a great act’s musical approach and ran with it.

Some say he ran it into the ground. But with the benefit of hindsight, and if approaching it while attempting to keep irony at a safe distance, it’s actually a lot of fun. Can’t Get Enough was White’s third album, but he had been successful right out the gate with his first two solo LPs: I’ve Got So Much to Give and Stone Gon’ (both 1973) hit #1 on the US R&B charts, and top-twentied on the pop charts. Still, Can’t Get Enough was the crowning achievement: number one on both charts, and certified Gold in both the USA and UK.

The album is characterized by a mix of lush songs – often including his lugubrious Isaac Hayes-inspired raps – that were in turns heavily orchestrated and filled with propulsive, proto-disco beats. “Mellow Mood (Pt. 1)” is such an orchestrated number that segues quickly into the #1 dancefloor hit “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything.” But most of Side One is consumed by the slow jam “I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” a prototype of 70s makeout music that features equal parts low-register rapping (the old kind, kids) and equally-low-register romantic crooning. A studio full of strings, harpsichords, Rhodes, female choruses and a slowed-to-the-breaking-point drum part all come together to make this signature track.

The sort-of title track, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby” topped the pop and R&B charts, and deservedly so. With the drums mixed way out front (right up there with the orchestra and ol’ Barry’s multi-tracked voice), it was made for dancing. And the production and arrangement are impressive and crystalline. “Oh Love, Well We Finally Made It” has a memorable sax riff, but otherwise it tends – at least when compared to the other tracks on Can’t Get Enough – to come off a bit faceless.

“I Love You More Than Anything (In This World Girl)” features a stronger melody, and strikes a balance between slow jam and disco territories; it probably works best as a slow dance number, conjuring as it does visions of glittery disco balls. The brief “”Mellow Mood (Pt. II)” wraps up the disco with a repeating riff of strings and wah-wah guitar while imaginary credits roll.

When White was ruling the charts, this ten-year-old Billy had no use for his romantic notions and discofied beats. When I was a teen and bought my first of several copies of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I laughed aloud when I read part of Dave Marsh‘s review of White’s side-project Love Unlimited Orchestra: “And Barry White is (you know, baby) pretty (uh-huh) goddamn lame.” But hearing Can’t Get Enough some forty years after its original release – on 180-gram Audio Fidelity vinyl, I must hasten to add), it’s some pretty fine music, well worth reconsideration. This 2014 reissue comes in numbered editions housed in a sturdy gatefold sleeve; like the ’74 original, it includes all of the (yeah, baby) lyrics so you can (uh-huh) sing along.

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Hundred-word Reviews: Deluxe Packages

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Each of these is a multi-disc set collecting archival (and sometimes previously-unreleased) music, but other than that, there’s little to connect these releases in any stylistic fashion: Celtic soul, proto-funk/pop, hard rock, comedy spoken word, and psychedelic post-punk. All have been sitting on my desk awaiting review for far too long. So, here ya go.

Van Morrison – Moondance (Expanded Edition)
Moondance was released in 1970, and several tracks – “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic” and the title track ( a de rigueur dance-band number) – have since assumed “standard” status. And that kind of over-saturation can result in people forgetting just how good the album really was/is (see also: Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP). A new 2CD set appends eleven outtakes – all previously unissued – to the album. The outtakes add to the listener’s understanding of the album as an organic whole, and there’s even a 4CD version (with more unreleased goodies) available as well.


Various – Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound
The Diminutive Purple One didn’t spring forth fully formed; the Minneapolis scene had long been a breeding ground for all kinds of r&b talent. And while most never broke out in any major way (Morris Day being a notable exception), they left behind a cache of music. Those crate-digging folks at Numero Group have unearthed the best of these and compiled them in three formats (2CD w/book, 4CD w/book, MP3). It’s really more of a book with a soundtrack than the reverse; at 144pp, one can delve deeply into the history of African-American modern r&b out of the Twin Cities.


Deep Purple – Now What!? (Gold Edition)
You can be forgiven for initially looking upon this release with skepticism. After all, Deep Purple’s high water mark came in the very early 1970s. Like so many hard rock bands of their ilk, they floundered creatively (and commercially) in the 1980s and beyond, releasing little of note and becoming somewhat faceless. So it’s some great surprise to learn that the group (comprised mostly of prime-era members) has roared back with their best album in decades. Now What!? sounds and feels like the Deep Purple of old, and a bonus disc of live tapes show that it’s not sessioner trickery.


The First Family – 50th Anniversary Edition
The early 1960s was a golden era for the comedy LP; releases from Bob Newhart, Allan Sherman and others enjoyed success in the marketplace. While those vintage LPs make for quite the dated, quaint listen today, they’re fun nonetheless. The First Family capitalized on craze for all things Camelot, when the public couldn’t get enough of the Kennedy clan. A followup album (cut five months later) got much less notice, and when JFK was killed in November of that year, most people quietly shelved the first LP. Both are gathered together with some bonus material for this 2CD anniversary set.


Red Temple Spirits – s/t
This package has an extremely high “boutique” quotient; how else to describe a set that places CDs in what look like embossed, wax-paper sleeves, encased in a gold-toned envelope? This is one set that won’t fit on your CD shelf, nor will it stand alone like some box set. And the music – post-punk from the late 1980s – isn’t the sort of pretty, filigreed stuff you’d expect to get this kind of treatment. It will appeal to fans of Public Image Limited; though RTS was California-based, vocalist William Faircloth added a veddy British vibe to the goth-rock proceedings.

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Album Review: Volker Kriegel — Mainz 1963-1969

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Consider yourself forgiven if you find yourself unfamiliar with the name Volker Kriegel, and even more forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with his work as pioneering artist in the soul-jazz genre. I mean, who would expect a mild-mannered German guitarist born in 1943 – the same year as George Harrison, for goodness’ sake – to make serious inroads in a musical style more closely associated with Americans, specifically African Americans.

In fact Kriegel’s earliest material finds him working in more of an electrified Django Reinhardt style. Only around 1967 did he begin to develop a sound more in a soul jazz vein. But when he did, the results were thrilling. The latest Jazzhaus release – another in its “Lost Tapes” series – collects 29 studio recordings Kriegel made in the early parto f his career. Mainz 1963-1969 is a 2CD set of pristine studio tracks featuring smallish jazz ensembles with Kriegel leading the way on amplified hollow body electric guitar.

Many of the tracks feature Kriegel accompanied by one of a few upright bassists and a drummer; and while those are interesting and a delight to hear, they’re not revelatory in the manner of the other cuts. Those other ones feature vibraphonsits (either Claudio Szenkar or Fritz Hartschuh) and show a dazzling interplay between Kriegel’s nimble guitar work and the vibes.

On the vibes-less tracks – mostly recorded in a November 1963 session – Kriegel’s clearly enunciated single note guitar lines lead the trio through appealing jazz arrangements; the rhythm section is able enough, but is rarely called upon to do much beyond supporting the guitarist. This they do well, but listeners will have no trouble deciding who the star is here. Kriegel’s guitar mimics the sound and feel of a jazz vocalist. His lightning runs (and dissonant fills) on Thelonius Monk‘s “Rhythm-a-Ning” are the undisputed highlights of the 1963 set of recordings. The spare accompaniment on a reading of “Autumn Leaves” is lovely, and the track subtly points the way toward the future.

Because once Kriegel began working with vibraphonists on his Mainz recordings – mostly in three sessions from 1967, 1968 and 1969 – the band became a more democratic institution. His own playing is even more fascinating, and now that he’s joined by soloists of comparable skill and invention, his own playing improves. The interplay between guitar and vibraphone is a study in economy and taste. From the first cut of this era – a 1967 reading of “Tea and Rum” it’s clear that Kriegel has arrived; he’s barely recognizable form his sound of just a few years earlier. Even the rhythm section charges harder. And so it’s here that the soul jazz leanings come to the fore: on cuts like “Soul Eggs” – a tune he’d cut for official release with The Dave Pike Set in 1970 – there’s a thrilling, soulful feel to the entire affair. Even the more contemplative numbers — like “Morandi” — feature more in the way of texture.

The less well-known cuts that make up Kriegel’s ’67-’69 sessions on this disc are nearly as exciting. Surely the highlight – perhaps second only to “Soul Eggs” – is Kriegel’s unexpected cover of “Mother People,” a manic Frank Zappa track that originally appeared on The MothersWe’re Only in it for the Money album (and a tune which Zappa memorably “performed” on a TV episode of The Monkees).

Jazzhaus archive curator Ulli Pfau recounts in the accompanying booklet how he stumbled across the tapes that make up this set. Readers are left wondering what other treasures may yet lie undiscovered in that archive. And Pfau’s editorial note tantalizes further: “This double CD contains only a selection of the recordings. Others are available for download online.” Anyone who enjoys the CD tracks will doubtless want to pursue the other cuts.

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Concert Review & Photoblog: Fitz and the Tantrums, Asheville NC, 5 Nov. 2013

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Modern r&b-flavored pop act Fitz and the Tantrums returned to Asheville recently for an enthusiastic, packed-house reception. Focusing on tunes from their second album (2013′s More than Just a Dream) and peppering the set with cuts from their breakout 2010 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces, the group wowed the audience. A high-energy show from start to finish, the performance slipped in a few crooner/ballad type numbers, but even on those, the group kept the audience on its feet.

The tunes on More Than Just a Dream have a bit more slick studio polish and radio-ready sheen than the debut, but onstage, the songs all flowed together nicely in a solid mix. Lead vocal duo Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs shared the spotlight, alternately drawing attention to themselves as individual singers and as a tightly-knit team.

With the success of the slicker approach on the second album, it remains to be seen what direction the band’s studio releases will follow, but onstage, they’re as exciting and soulful –in the classic sense – as ever. Below are a couple dozen photo highlights from the November 5 show at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel.

All photos © Bill Kopp.

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Album Review: Calvin Keys – Electric Keys

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Soul jazz is alive and well. With a sound that updates Wes Montgomery‘s fluid lines and combines that style with a head-nodding groove that will be familiar to fans of boogaloo revivalists such as The New Mastersounds and Soulive, Keys is in fact the real deal. Having cut his teeth as an able sideman to the likes of Ahmad Jamal and Jimmy Smith, Keys’ career releasing albums under his own name only began in earnest relatively recently; though 1997′s Standard Keys was his fifth album, the previous four were released across a span of some sixteen years.

On Electric Keys, he’s backed by an able ensemble that bills itself elsewhere as The Wide Hive Players. Keys shares songwriting duties with his band mates, as well, but as is so often the case with jazz, the compositions are often frameworks – albeit tasty, inventive ones – for solo excursions. The warm, intimate ambience of the ten songs on Electric Keys is a constant, though the tunes themselves are varied lot. Melody is to the fore on tracks like “Love and Innocence,” wherein the horn charts sustain enough interest to carry the song. Keys’ sinewy guitar simply makes it even better.

When the group gets down to some funkiness (as on “Backyard”) it’s thanks in no small part to the hard-hitting drum work of either Thomas McCree or Josh Jones (the credits don’t make it clear who’s on which track). The band walks the fine line between complicated melody and straight-ahead funk, and the results will please aficionados of both approaches. Utility man Matt Montgomery is credited with songwriting, bass, piano and keys.

On the title track, the band plays with a fiery intensity not found elsewhere on this already fine disc; here Keys tears up and down the fretboard while the drummer – again, not sure which one – lays down an insistent, searing groove. The band is firing on all cylinders; those who dig rock but not-so-much jazz may find this the best entry point on the album. Echoes of Hendrix and McLaughlin can be heard, though Keys never loses his identity in the process. On “Telegraph Blues” and “The Hernia,” Keys breathes new life into the well-worn format; while the band does pretty much what you’d expect, Keys’ jazz-inflected runs expand the dimensions of the form. Best of all, with each at under four minutes, the tracks make sure not to wear out their welcome.

On “Senior Moment,” the horns go all exploratory, and Keys heads down the same knotty path. But the funky foundation – drums plus Montgomery’s assured bass – anchors it all in accessible territory. The disc wraps up with “Touch,” a gentle and beautiful solo spot from the guitarist.

Expertly fronted by Calvin Keys, these guys bring the boogaloo on Electric Keys, and never let it go. Recommended.

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Clearing the Backlog: Ten Micro-reviews

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As the end of 2013 closes in, I look at my inbox and see a massive stack of CDs. Best as I try, I don’t always follow a first-in/first-out policy with regard to covering releases I find worthy. And while my occasional capsule reviews do help reduce the pile of CD on my desk, today I realize that more drastic measure are necessary. Each of the following albums deserves more space than I’m about to give, but waiting until I have time and space would likely mean that some never get covered at all. So instead, I give you some exceedingly brief (50-word) reviews, with the additional comment applicable to all: these are worth hearing. All feature new music for 2013.

Pete Anderson – Birds Above Guitarland
Loping electrified blues with feeling. Tasty electric guitar licks (hints of c&w among the blooze) with soulful, greasy backing by a crack team, compete with horn section and Wurlitzer electric piano (almost always a good thing). Anderson can sing, too. Delaney and Bonnie‘s daughter Bekka Bramlett guests on one track.

Nathan Angelo – Out of the Blue
Neo-soul, Motown revival…whatever you care to label it, the funky sounds of Angelo’s debut are fetching indeed. Album opener “Get Back” (not the Beatles classic) is perhaps little more than a rewrite of The Jackson 5ive‘s “I Want You Back,” but it’s still fun. For fans of Mayer Hawthorne.

Chris Biesterfeldt – Urban Mandolin
I’m all in favor of outside-the-box musical approaches. And I believe this one certainly qualifies: a jazz trio led by a mandolin player. He charges his way through reinventions from among the best – Charlie Parker bebop, the soul-jazz of Jimmy Smith, the fusion of Chick Corea, even Frank Zappa.

The Bottle Kids – Such a Thrill
This isn’t a “they,” it’s “him.” Eric Blakely is the latest in a long line of powerpop do-it-all auteurs, and he knows his way around a Beatlesque hook. Harmonies meet guitar crunch and the result is as good as the genre gets. He sounds like a “them.”

Hickoids – Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit
The title has nothing to do with Harry Chapin (the king of maudlin), thank goodness. Instead, this is a comedy-leaning meat’n'potatoes rock album. Jeff Smith roars while the band spits out licks behind him. The production is on the homespun side, but that fits the loose vibe of the music.

The Nomads – Solna (Loaded Deluxe Edition)
Who would have ever predicted that in the 21st century, uncompromising punk rock would be made by middle aged guys? Guys from Sweden, no less, the land of ABBA. Anyone who digs no-bullshit rock (see: Smithereens, Sex Pistols) will get a charge out of this. It’s also available on vinyl.

Third of Never – Downrising
Arena-sized riff rockage with soaring harmonies and fret buzz, but without all the trappings of strutting rock-star poseurs. Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) does this outfit as a side project. Kindred spirits Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (The ‘Oo) guest, but it’s great at its core anyway.

Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders – 14th & Nowhere
Familiar chord progressions delivered in a spirited, barroom-brawl country-rock style. Fifteen songs, zero bullshit. Sample/representative song title: “Small Town Rock Ain’t Dead.” Guitars, guitars and more guitars (and hardly any keyboards). Earle Mankey pops up on banjo(!) Infectious and fun, this will delight fans of Jason & the Scorchers.

Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around the Sun
In reviewing their last album (Above the Blue) I made comparisons to Fountains of Wayne; this time out VWR have asserted a bit more of their own identity. It’s still catchy, intelligent and slightly adventurous powerpop, with a slightly harder edge. Maybe the Seattle recording studio helped conjure that vibe.

Steve Weinstein – Last Free Man
Reading the press kit I learned that Weinstein is both a philosopher and physicist, and that the album includes protests against our modern surveillance society. None of which I found especially appetizing propositions, so I was surprised to find a tuneful, friendly album in an earnest, heartland Tom Petty mode.

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Album Review: Various — Pete Townshend’s Jukebox

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

UK-based Chrome Dreams has released a number of these Jukebox titles over the last few years, including titles exploring the influences upon Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and even The Grateful Dead. And while some of these artists have endeavored to do something similar themselves (McCartney’s 1999 Run Devil Run comes to mind), the concept is a sturdy and often illuminating one.

At its simplest, Pete Townshend’s Jukebox is a 28-song single CD survey of the songs that informed the musical sensibility of The Who‘s primary composer and lyricist. Townshend himself – a rather chatty interview subject in his day – made explicit mention of many of the artists and songs now brought together on this set. And in fact The Who covered several of these tunes: Sonny Boy Williamson‘s “Eyesight to the Blind” was the sole cover on Tommy (1969). And even back in the earlier 60s when The Who played Murray the K‘s NYC showcases, Townshend championed Mose Allison as an influence (his “Blues” is included here).

Some of the selections are pretty obvious, having influenced most all of Townshend’s contemporaries in one way or another. But listening to Link Wray‘s “Rumble” in this context, it’s clear that Townshend spent many hours letting the distorted jangle of Wray’s guitar seep into his psyche. And The Who always made their soul roots explicit, so having a James Brown tune (“I Don’t Mind”) here is little surprise.

The bluesmen included here would enjoy a belated and mightily-deserved renaissance/re-evaluation in Townshend’s 1960s Britain: Howlin’ Wolf (“Spoonful”) and John Lee Hooker (“Dimples”) are thus represented here as well. But while the jazz influences upon Townshend might be less obvious, works from Cannonball Adderley, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker fit smoothly into this collection.

Such a collection wouldn’t be complete – or even taken seriously – if it didn’t included some of Townshend’s rock’n'roll heroes; this set does, spotlighting Johnny Kidd & the Pirates (Shakin’ All Over” and “I Can Tell”) and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues,” of course). But despite the inclusion of Otis Blackwell‘s “Daddy Rolling Stone” and Bo Diddley‘s “Road Runner,” Pete Townshend’s Jukebox isn’t merely a here’s-the-originals-of Who-covers set. The featuring of Ray Charles (the kinetic jump blues of “Mess Around”) and Booker T & the MGs helps remind listeners what was finding its way into Townshend’s ears while he was writing “Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere” and “My Generation,” for example.

If there’s one shortcoming of this set, it’s the lack of any country-and-western tracks; Townshend cited Jim Reeves as an influence, and Chet Atkins-styled licks abound on early Who albums.

Derek Barker’s liner note essay draws upon quotes form the man himself to illustrate the connection each song has to Pete Townshend. And its context taken away, one can merely enjoy this CD as an eclectic collection of various (mostly but not exclusively American) music from the 1950s and 60s.

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Cody ChesnuTT: Everybody’s Brother

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

by Special Guest Blogger Annelise Kopp

Though hailed in some quarters, Cody ChestnuTT‘s debut album, Headphone Masterpiece, received mixed reviews, some unforgiving. While critics seemed to agree that the R&B/neo-soul artist possesses an incredible singing voice, some harped on what they saw as the inconsistent quality of the album. Rob Mitchum, writing for Pitchfork, decried the album’s “embarrassingly juvenile, sexist psuedo-raps.” Fresh Air‘s Ken Tucker described the 2003 album as “self-indulgent, sloppy and more than a little mean,” going on to reprimand ChesnuTT for “throwing out insults at the women he claims support him.” Still, Tucker closed his review by recognizing the artist’s potential, and The Roots liked the album’s track “The Seed” enough to cover it. Their version, featuring ChesnuTT, made Top 40 charts internationally.

Nearly a decade later, ChesnuTT’s Landing on a Hundred marks not only his transformation as an artist but also as a human. With this new album, Cody emphasizes the importance of his work as a reflection of what he “wanted to do as a person.” With two kids growing up and already expressing their love for music, Cody has experienced a greater awareness of his values: “I wanted to be conscious of what I was saying and the language I was using… I didn’t want anyone to be excluded from what it is I had to share.”

When Cody’s daughter was still an infant, he “could hear her sort of humming along or trying to express herself through music.” She is now four and taking ballet, while her older brother is learning his first chords on the guitar. ChesnuTT ruminates on the changes in his life on “Everybody’s Brother” off of his 2012 album: “I used to smoke crack back in the day / I used to gamble rent money and lose / I used to dog the nice ladies, used to swindle friends / but now I’m teaching kids in Sunday school.”

Cody employed a Kickstarter program to fund the making of Landing on a Hundred. In addition to expressing his gratitude for all of the support his campaign received, Cody says that it’s great to “get a chance to see how people are really passionate about music,” the fact that they have “the ability to support it, to help bring it to life.” This passion and emphasis on community are central to the message of Landing on a Hundred. I ask if he experienced any disadvantages to raising funds this way. “(Crowdfunding is) a brilliant concept. It helps bring life back to the creative process…and I don’t think there are really any disadvantages. It seems to be a pretty sincere exchange in the form that it’s in right now.”

If you visit the Kickstarter page for Landing on a Hundred, you’ll be greeted with a different Cody than we met back in 2003. “Landing on a Hundred. What does that mean? Landing on something truthful. Landing on something purposeful… something meaningful.” With beginnings a decade ago singing tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “all I want is pussy, give me some religion…a brand new Cadillac, a winning lotto ticket,” ChesnuTT raised over $22,000 (his goal was $20,000) from fans who got behind his matured, positive new message.

“I love writing a song and watching it come to life,” he says. He talks about his interest in the life and development of a song, saying he doesn’t really favor one aspect of the process over another. Once you bring it on tour, “you have the connection with the audience — the reaction to those songs that you spend so much time with alone, in a small place. To actually see people that are standing come in closer because of the emotion of the song — that experience is priceless.” And it happens, too. At Cody’s recent performance in Asheville NC, he invited the crowd to move in towards the stage, and it seemed natural for them to oblige. People were dancing. At several points he had the whole audience joining him in call-and-response.

Cody ChesnuTT’s performance at the Grey Eagle in Asheville confirmed what he had shared in his interview about the importance of inclusiveness in his music. You get the sense at his show that — while enjoying the hell out of performing — he is constantly aware of his audience and working to ensure a shared experience. He even took the time to address any fans that might have come hoping to hear tracks off of his debut album, lest they be disappointed. He let them know that he wants to perform things that resonate with where he is in his life, with his soul. Cody, once criticized for being arrogant and alienating, individually pointed out members of the audience during the last song of his set to show his appreciation. He thanked the audience numerous times and made himself available afterwards to meet with his fans, making it clear that he really sees himself as “Everyone’s Brother.”

Shuggie Otis at The Orange Peel, Asheville NC 9 October 2013 (Part Two)

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Once the doors opened, we entered and secured our barstools, settling in to wait for the show. Minutes earlier, the Orange Peel’s Facebook event update status had informed us that the opening act had canceled last-minute, and as such Shuggie Otis would be taking the stage earlier than usual. At this point, only a handful of attendees had shown up, though by showtime the place was a hive of activity.

A few feet away from us, there was a surprising sight: Shuggie was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and chatting with a few people. Now, the green rooms at the Orange Peel are well appointed, and most artists hang backstage pre-show. It’s a rarity to see a performer out in the venue-proper before the show begins. But here was Shuggie, smiling and conversing with various people.

When I had made my initial press inquiries, I was told that interviews with the man were few and far between. So with that in mind, I was hesitant to approach him. But other people seemed to have no compunction about doing so, and Shuggie was clearly engaging in conversation with them. So we wandered over and said hello. Shuggie shook our hands, thanked us for having helped him get into the venue, and graciously posed for a photo, still wearing his suit and hat, and sporting a big smile.

I was immediately stuck at his relaxed, casual demeanor. Based (unfairly, perhaps) on the hushed rumors I had heard, I half expected him to be a huddled recluse, wheeled out onstage to perform. Instead he was a cool and very approachable cat. There were no signs of him being anything other than a completely together performer, patiently waiting for his time to go onstage. After a few moments, we returned to our seats. Shuggie continued to chat with other people, posing occasionally for yet another photo, and mere minutes before showtime, he headed backstage.

When Shuggie Otis came out onto the Orange Peel’s stage, he was dressed in that same suit and hat. He had set aside his cane and donned a pair of large, dark sunglasses. He was wearing a vintage red Gibson SG with tremolo bar. The band vamped a bit while a robotic voice (a recorded intro) name-checked the onstage musicians, assigning them all pseudonyms. Otis introduced the first song – a variation on “Inspiration Information” and off they went, laying down a groove that was equal parts soul, funk and r&b. That song – punctuated by Otis introducing his band mates one by one – led into a straight reading of the actual “Inspiration Information,” one that melted away the years. Otis sounded exactly the same: those fluid grooves, that silky yet assertive guitar, that voice.

At the end of that song – and after grappling with an unruly Marshall half-stack and some pedals – Otis introduced each of the band members…again. This left us slightly perplexed: would he be doing this all evening, after every song?

His band was tight. Featuring his younger brother on drums, the band also included a keyboard player, bassist and a three-man horn section. Several of the musicians sang backup and took their turns at soling on their instruments, but it was always Otis who held center stage. Alternating between the SG and a black Les Paul, Shuggie delivered a set that drew from his three albums plus Wings of Love. The material from the latter was significantly better onstage than on the disc, perhaps owing to the full-band arrangement (in the studio, even as far back as the 70s, Otis has often favored primitive drum machines) and the organic feel of a live performance.

Blues numbers gave Otis ample opportunity to show off his sharp skills as a lead guitarist, and the sax, flute and keyboard solo spots gave him the chance to display his funky rhythm guitar chops. Between songs he’d sometime ramble a bit, occasionally laughing heartily at something the rest of us didn’t quite catch, but he was clearly having a good time. During the set, Shuggie endured some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates, and responded in kind. “What’d he say?! I should dock him. But he’s also my road manager. He handles the finances. So what’s a man to do?” Mid-set Shuggie teased the audience that he’d invite us all up onstage.

And to my great surprise, he eventually did just that. Near the end of the set, I wandered up close to the stage to get a few more photos. At that point, Shuggie’s road manager/horn player leapt to the front edge of the stage and began waving his arms, exhorting people to come on up onto the stage. Finding myself right there, I gamely went along. As it happened, of the dozen-plus people who made it up there, I was one of only two males. The rest were women who clearly came to dance. And dance they did, surrounding Shuggie as he knelt down, coaxing extended lead guitar lines from his SG. The crowd loved it, and welcomed him back for an rousing encore that included “Strawberry Letter #23.”

Otis’ site has a bit of information about his current studio project, due out sometime in 2014 and featuring some “special guests.” In the meantime, his current road show has wrapped up: last week’s Asheville date was followed by shows in Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans and Austin. If Asheville’s show was any indicator, the man is back in top form, and if there’s a tour in support of his as-yet-untitled album next year, I’ll be there, holding the front door open for him once again.

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