Timely observations of the African-American experience
Otis Taylor continues to create a very individual sound. The heart of his music is in the blues, but he sings in short phrases and plays in circular grooves that invoke a trance-like mood; and with Ron Miles’ cornet and guest string players Jerry Douglas and Brandon Niederauer, he adds jazz, Americana and Latin flavors. It’s a powerful musical base for his latest album of original material, essaying the African American experience from slavery to heroism, and documenting racism, hatred, violence and fear as constant, unwanted companions. The opening “Twelve String Mile” echoes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but the album quickly turns to the ways in which unsolicited notice unilaterally distorts African-American lives.
When we first heard Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell as a solo artist on 2010’s Well After Awhile, he was taking a short break from his Austin band, The Gourds. Since that time the group regrouped for Old Mad Joy, starred in the documentary All the Labor, and then declared themselves on hiatus. Russell’s used the free time to expand his solo catalog with albums in 2013 and 2015, and now offers a deep soak in Southern soul, co-produced by Jimbo Mathus. The band simmers New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ roll, Memphis soul and Louisiana swamp pop into a unique gulf coast stew whose flavor is enhanced by the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns (Tiger Anaya and Mark Wilson) and the backing vocals of the Shiny Soul Sisters (Alice Spencer and Sally Allen).
Bonus-laden reissue of stellar 1987 all-star tribute to Roy Orbison
Rarely have stars aligned so figuratively and literally as for this Roy Orbison concert. More than a gathering of famous fans, the performance was a testimonial to the Big O’s lasting impact and enduring artistry. Backing Orbison was Elvis Presley’s TCB Band of Ron Tutt (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and James Burton (electric guitar), augmented by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Alex Acuna, Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett, a backing chorus of k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Steven Soles and Jackson Browne, and a quartet of violins and violas. Recorded at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel, the program was cablecast on Cinemax and released as a live album. It’s subsequently been reissued on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD and was turned into a PBS fundraising perennial.
The song list mixes Orbison’s biggest hits with a few lesser-known selections, including the B-sides “Leah” and “Go! Go! Go! (Move on Down the Line).” The latter finds Burton, Orbison and Springsteen trading guitar solos, and the look on Springsteen’s face as he plays for Orbison is priceless. Throughout the program there’s an overarching sense of admiration as the band and guests are spellbound by Orbison’s operatic flights and emotion-drenched songs. Springsteen is giddy as he sidles up behind Orbison to sing harmony on “Sweet Dream Baby,” and when Orbison nails the climax of “Crying,” the band stops to applaud along with the audience. Although the group rehearsed twice before the show, you get the feeling that these artists had been singing and playing these songs their entire musical lives, and that they weren’t just paying fealty to Orbison, they were paying back a debt.
So why another reissue? Aside from leveraging the thirtieth anniversary to introduce this one-of-kind performance to a new generation, the new DVD and Blu-ray include previously unseen performances, newly integrated camera angles and a mini-documentary, and the running order has also been restored to reflect the set as it was played. The new performances include “Blue Angel” and a shorter alternate take of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and five songs (“(All I Can Do Is) Dream You,” “The Comedians,” “Candy Man,” “Claudette” and “Uptown”) performed after the audience left for the evening. The 37-minute documentary includes rehearsal footage, along with pre- and post-show interviews with Springsteen, Costello, lang, Raitt and Browne. All together, the new cut of the concert and the generous extras provide a terrific complement to (though not a replacement for) the original release.
1977 Muhammad Ali biopic soundtrack reissue with bonuses
Muhammad Ali’s 1977 biopic was drawn from his like-titled biography, and though Ali was arguably the greatest boxer of all time, he wasn’t the greatest actor, even when playing himself. Which is strange, because in real life he played the character of Muhammad Ali with incredible creativity, charisma and panache. Perhaps it was a disconnect with the script (courtesy of noted journalist and screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.) or director, but the physical and intellectual poetry of his real life didn’t come through on the screen. The film’s soundtrack is remembered largely for the song “The Greatest Love of All,” a #2 R&B hit for George Benson, and even more famously taken to the top of the charts by Whitney Houston in 1985. Others may remember the song from Eddie Murphy’s performance in Coming to America.
Austin-based Mark McKinney inhabits that special nation of singer-songwriter that is the Texas music circuit. Though he’s gained recognition outside the Lonestar State, notably through song placements with NASCAR and ESPN, it’s his home state that supports the bulk of his extensive annual touring. His fifth solo album (he’d previously led the roots-rock band Cosmic Cowboy) will remind you of circuit stalwarts like Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Charlie Robison and Kevin Fowler, the latter of whom McKinney’s written for. Produced with his brother Eric, the record is both rootsy – acoustic, electric and slide guitars, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and drums – and modern at the same time. It’s a clever sound that could hook Nashville fans without alienating the Austin base.
When you first pop this disc in the player, you’re braced to hear Raphael Ravenscroft’s iconic late-70s saxophone riff on “Baker Street.” But before you get that, you’re treated to Rafferty’s other Top 10 hit, Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Rafferty had actually exited the group by the time the single made its way up the charts, leaving co-founder Joe Egan to mime the video. The song’s breakthrough persuaded Rafferty to return, and the band carried on into 1975 without further commercial gains. More importantly, when the band broke up, amid disagreements, managerial problems and lawsuits, Rafferty was left to ponder his future.
Sidelined by legal issues, and commuting from his native Scotland to London for court dates, Rafferty stayed in a friend’s Baker Street flat, mulling over his stalled career, and, as detailed in the last verse of “Baker Street,” eventually finding resolution and an optimistic return to work. Though he’d released the solo album Can I Have My Money Back? in 1971, his solo career really began with 1978’s City to City, topping the U.S. album chart and garnering a platinum record. The album’s hits included “Baker Street,” as well as “Right Down the Line” and “Home and Dry,” but despite the commercial breakthrough and continued artistic vitality, Rafferty’s success, particularly in the U.S., quickly decayed.
Austin Hanks may set his music in country, rock and blues settings, but at root, he’s a soul singer. After leaving his native Alabama, he had a cup of coffee in Nashville before a writing deal with EMI turned him into a Los Angeles-based expat. But he brought his Southern roots with him, and they shine brightly in the blue soul of the opening “Toughest Part of Me,” as Hanks realizes that scar tissue can patch a broken heart. He lays himself on the line with a cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” but he’s more regularly prone to seeking second chances, doubling back on “Delta Torches” and grasping for emotional ignition on the Springsteen-ish “Worth the Fight.”
After a gap in the first half of the ‘70s, alto saxophonist and West Coast Jazz icon Art Pepper returned to recording. By decade’s end he was under contract with Galaxy, and when a small Japanese label came calling, he had to get creative. Unable to record for Atlas as a group leader, he picked session leaders and took credit only as a sideman. The albums were issued only in Japan, previously anthologized in the box set Hollywood All-Star Sessions, and now being reissued individually by Omnivore with bonus tracks. The first volume, a double-CD headlined by Sonny Stitt, is joined by this volume headlined by pianist Pete Jolly. Originally issued as Strike Up the Band, the original seven tracks are augmented by two bonus takes of Pepper’s original “Y.I. Blues,” one previously unreleased.
Recorded in February 1980 at Sage & Sound in Hollywood, Pepper and Jolly were joined by bassist Rob Magnusson and drummer Roy McCurdy as they worked through a selection of standards from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Pepper had played all of these tunes in the 1950s, so the value here is what this quartet could do with them on these dates. Pepper and Jolly are melodic and lively as they fly through an up-tempo take on the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band,” and McCurdy is crisp as he pushes with his cymbals and fills with his full kit. Pepper’s stretches out on the ballad “You Go to My Head,” bridging the lyrical sections with quick runs and giving way for a reflective solo by Jolly. Pepper and Jolly get more conversational on the chestnut “I Surrender Dear,” with Magnusson and McCurdy vamping the ending.
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