NRBQ: NRBQ

April 23rd, 2018

The 1969 debut of a polyglot music legend

Originally released in 1969, this debut outlined the wide musical grasp and irreverent sensibility that would grow the band’s legend over the next 49 years. 49 years in which this initial explosion of creativity sat in the vault unreissued. 49 years in which either the group’s continuing activity diverted their attention from a reissue, or in which lawyers intermittently haggled over muddy contractual rights. Either way, Omnivore has finally liberated the album from its resting place and reissued the fourteen songs in a tri-fold slipcase with original front and back cover art, Donn Adams period liner notes, and contemporary notes by Jay Berman. Berman characterizes the band’s repertoire, even at this early point in their career, as including “nearly anything,” and the eclectic mix of covers and originals bears that out.

This first studio lineup included long-time members Terry Adams and Joey Spampinato (the latter then credited as Jody St. Nicholas), along with vocalist Frank Gadler, guitarist Steve Ferguson and drummer Tom Staley. The group stakes out the audacious corners of their musical omniverance with covers of Eddie Cochran’s rockabilly “C’mon Everybody,” Sun Ra’s avant garde jazz “Rocket Number 9,” Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s folk blues “C’mon If You’re Comin’” (which the group revisited on 1972’s Workshop), and a country soul arrangement of Bruce Channel’s 1962 chart topper, “Hey! Baby.” Few bands at the time would have even known this range of material, let alone find a way to make it fit together on an album.

The original material from Adams, Spaminato and Ferguson is equally ambitious. Adams mashes up trad jazz and rock ‘n’ roll for “Kentucky Slop,” boogies hard on “Mama Get Down Those Rock And Roll Shoes,” captures the melancholy of Carla Bley’s 1964 jazz instrumental “Ida Lupino” with original lyrics, and closes the album with the piano-led “Stay With Me.” Ferguson’s trio of originals include the pop and soul influences of “I Didn’t Know Myself,” the gospel rocker “Stomp” and the country, folk and gospel flavored “Fergie’s Prayer.” Spampinato offers the album’s most ebullient moment with “You Can’t Hide,” a title the band would revisit ten years later on Tiddlywinks.

The album’s collection of first takes (including the previously unreleased first take of “Stomp” substituting for the re-recorded version that appeared on the original vinyl) provides a snapshot of the band as they played live. The set list reflects the confluence of musical interests, knowledge and talent the band members brought to the group, and the performances have an all-in quality that made second takes superfluous. Whether or not the renditions were note-perfect (and they pretty much are), they were perfect expressions of the musical ethos that sustains the band to this day. It’s a shame that the originally released second take of “Stomp” wasn’t included as part of this reissue, but that’s a nit, given the historical and artistic riches that have been sprung from the vault. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

Juliana Hatfield: Sings Olivia Newton-John

April 18th, 2018

Charming and heartfelt tribute to Olivia Newton-John

Born in 1967, Juliana Hatfield was seven years old when Olivia Newton-John scored her first U.S. pop chart topper, “I Honestly Love You.” Newton-John scored again with the follow-up singles, “Have You Ever Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please,” and though she continued to chart adult contemporary, it took her three more years to climb back to the top of the pop chart with 1978’s John Travolta duet “You’re the One That I Want.” Hatfield, known for her work with Blake Babies, the Juliana Hatfield Three and solo has “never not loved Olivia Newton­-John,” and it shows in the endearing performances and song selection of this tribute album.

In addition to heartfelt interpretations of Newton-John icons that span 1974’s “I Honestly Love You” to 1981’s “Physical,” the song list includes several deep fan favorites. “Totally Hot,” which stalled out at #52 in 1979, is deftly recast as buzzing Suzi Quatro-styled glam rock, and the pop-country “Dancin’ Round and Round” is taken uptempo and backed by hard-charging guitar and drums. The album reaches an emotional peak with “Please Mr. Please,” as Hatfield pours every last drop of the emotion she must have felt as an eight-year-old bonding with her first artistic idol.

Hatfield has internalized these songs and their artist in a thousand bedroom and car singalongs, and filters them through the original artistry they helped inspire. The contentment of “Have You Never Been Mellow” retains its optimistic mid-70s introspection while being deepened by Hatfield’s additional decades of life experience, and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” could just as easily be Hatfield singing about Newton-John as it was Sandy singing about Danny. This is a treat for fans of both Newton-John and Hatfield, and the only thing missing are some Grease photo cards to stick inside your locker. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Juliana Hatfield’s Home Page

The Oak Ridge Boys: When I Sing For Him – The Complete Columbia Recordings & RCA Singles

April 16th, 2018

The pre- and post-MCA sides of the Oak Ridge Boys

Those who know the Oak Ridge Boys from the hit singles that began with 1977’s “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and ran through crossover icons “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” may be surprised to find the group’s Southern gospel roots stretch back to the 1940s. Starting out as Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers, they became the Oak Ridge Quartet, and then in the early ‘60s, the Oak Ridge Boys. The group’s best-known lineup came together in the early ‘70s when bass singer Richard Sterban and tenor Joe Bonsall joined mid-60s arrivals Duane Allen and William Lee Golden. It was this quartet that charted with Johnny Cash on the 1973 single “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup” and eventually expanded from gospel to country hit making.

By 1974 the group had moved from the Heart Warming gospel label to the secular Columbia where they recorded the trio of albums anthologized here: The Oak Ridge Boys, Sky High, and Old Fashioned, Down Home, Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Southern Style, Gospel Quartet Music. The self-titled Columbia debut cracked the top 40, but the remaining two albums, despite quality material and performances, failed to chart. The group’s Columbia singles fared no better, with the first six failing to chart, and the seventh, “Family Reunion,” barely scraping onto the charts at #83. A large part of the group’s problem seems to have been Columbia’s lack of service to gospel radio, but their stylistic range, which included gospel harmony, MOR ballads, country and soul diluted their identity as gospel singers without providing a ready hook for secular radio.

Which is a shame, because the singles and albums deserved an audience. The group’s debut single for Columbia, the Grammy-winning “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,” could easily have fit country radio in 1973, but it was a year or two late to mingle with the God Rock pop hits of 1971-2. Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me” hasn’t the wasted soul of the original, but it was a canny pick for a cover, as was their non-charting take on Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The group turned soulful with Allen Toussaint’s widely covered “Freedom for the Stallion,” and the debut album’s “Give Me a Star” provides a powerful close to the debut Columbia album. Their sophomore effort opens with the album’s non-charting single “Rhythm Guitar,” featuring honky-tonk piano and a terrific bass vocal.

The opening verse of “Nobody Special” briefly shows off the quartet’s vocal blend in an a cappella arrangement that could have supported the entire track (or an album!). Porter Wagoner’s “When I Sing For Him” gave lead vocalist Duane Allen an opportunity to really soar, a performance so moving that Wagoner asked him to sing the song at his funeral, which he did in 2007. Beyond the album’s songs of praise, the group offers Christian life principles in “We Gotta Love One Another” and “Plant a Seed,” essaying the pitfalls of part-time faith. The closing “Mighty Fine” would have made a catchy second single, had Columbia been more interested in promoting the group. Disc one is filled out with six bonus tracks that include a pair of vault tracks from All Our Favorite Songs, the singles “Heaven Bound.” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” and the B-side “Look Away Mama.”

Disc two opens with the ten tracks of the group’s third Columbia album, and features a second collaboration with Johnny Cash on his original “No Earthly Good.” The non-charting single “Where the Soul Never Dies” and “Jesus Knows Who I Am” offer revival tent zest, but the album’s split between old-timey gospel, country-flavored numbers and middle-of-the-road ballads doesn’t quite live up to the collection’s home-spun title. As with the previous two albums, the breadth is admirable, but it plays more like a variety show than a group’s album. The final two Columbia singles, David Allan Coe’s “Family Reunion” and George Jones’ “All Our Favorite Songs” are included along with their B-sides.

The group moved from Columbia to Dot in 1977, then to Dot’s parent, ABC, and then to ABC’s parent MCA, minted the biggest hit albums and singles of their career. In 1990, with Steve Sanders having replaced William Lee Golden as the group’s baritone, the group signed with RCA and released Unstoppable and The Long Haul. Disc 2 is filled out with four RCA singles from this period, including a grandiose cover of Mann & Weil’s Brill Building classic “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” the country hit “Lucky Moon,” its bluesy B-side take on “Walking After Midnight” and the fine, but low-charting “Fall.” The set closes with a funky cover of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” drawn from Sounds of the Season.

The Columbia sides show the group branching out from their gospel roots, but not yet fully committing themselves to the country market. As Joe Bonsall opines in Joe Marchese’s detailed liner notes, “Those were the days when we rode the fence musically trying to appease everyone… Although some of the songs were really cool, we just couldn’t seem to gain any real traction.” This set provides bookends for the group’s hit years on MCA, showing how they expanded their material and style from gospel to pop, rock, country and soul without ever dropping the thread of faith. Their Columbia material didn’t produced the mainstream fame they’d find on MCA, but it opened their ears to the opportunity that lay just ahead. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

The Oak Ridge Boys’ Home Page

6 String Drag: High Hat

April 5th, 2018

Long-lost 1997 Americana swan song finally back in print

By the time 6 String Drag caught the attention of Steve Earle and his producing partner Ray Kennedy, the band’s initial run was nearly over. Although they’d pioneered their sound in the middle of the Americana movement, this 1997 sophomore release on Earle and Kennedy’s E-Squared label would be their last album of new material until 2015’s reunion, Roots Rock & Roll, and the recent follow-up, Top of the World. With the band back in action, the time was right for a remaster and reissue of this classic, on CD, digital download, and for the first time ever, vinyl. The album finds vocalist Kenny Roby and the band stretching out across a variety of American sounds, including country, rock, southern boogie, rockabilly, bluegrass, trad jazz, soul and gospel, exploring the rootsy polyglot ground tilled by NRBQ, Rockpile and others. “Driven Man” has the meter and wordiness of an Elvis Costello song, and the addition of horns on several tracks gives the album a fuller sound than the group’s self-titled debut. The group’s abbreviated first life temporarily cut short a talented musical collective, but more lastingly seems to have consigned this shining moment to undeserved obscurity. Hopefully this 2018 reissue, augmented with a previously unreleased cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Lorene,” will restore the album to its rightful place in the Americana canon, and point new listeners to the group’s renewed lineup. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

6 String Drag’s Home Page

6 String Drag: Top of the World

March 23rd, 2018

Long-lost Americana pioneers pick up the trail

Having disbanded in 1998, only a year after the release of their Steve Earle-produced (and recently reissued) second album, High Hat, these Americana pioneers went their separate ways for more than fifteen years. The group reunited in 2014 for live dates, and a 2015 album of new material, Roots Rock & Roll, showed their premature ending left plenty of juice for an encore. That encore has now extended to a second reunion album, with vocalist/songwriter Kenny Roby and bassist Rob Keller joined by multi-instrumentalist Luis Rodriguez and drummer Dan Davis. As good as the first reunion album sounded, this second is even more vital and energized.

Roby’s new material is filled with kaleidoscopic memories of younger, more daring days, but there are also songs streaked with troubled and failed relationships, and the wear of an adult’s daily grind. Much of the discord is camouflaged behind poetic lyrics and melodies that belie the personal gravity. As with the band’s original incarnation, the musical influences cast a wide net. There are Brill Building flourishes of baion beat and baritone guitar, vocal hooks that suggest Dwight Twilley and Tom Petty, pop punk, pub rock, and psych flavors in both the somnambulistic title track and the faded “Waste of Time.”

It was surprising that the reunited band could rekindle their chemistry, and it’s even more surprising to hear that DNA transplanted into a refreshed lineup. This album is neither a rehash, nor the long tail of what was once great, but a lively continuation of something that was interrupted. The time off hasn’t so much dimmed the flame as it has stoked the fire with new musical and life perspective. The dynamic between Roby and Keller is as strong as ever, and Rodriguez and Davis add new flavors to an already flavorful band. This is no longer a reunion, but a vital, on-going concern. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

6 String Drag’s Home Page

Laura Benitez and the Heartache: With All Its Thorns

March 21st, 2018

An album of country heartache and grief

Benitez’s 2014 debut, Heartless Woman, was a breath of fresh country air. Though she favored a classic sound laced with pedal steel and twangy electric guitar, her lyrics picked up and modernized the empowered themes of Tammy Wynette and other breakthrough women of country. She opens her third album with a twangy, accordion-lined two-step that admits that her efforts to sustain a failed relationship have only produced a broken heart and the scar of self realization. She looks forward to fondly looking back with the expectant “Our Remember When,” but when those memories finally arrive, they turn out to be the bitter pills of “Easier Things to Do” and the murderous end of “In Red.”

Guitarist Bob Spector lays down a fetching acoustic solo and accordionist Billy Wilson adds atmosphere as the wavering bilingual vocal of “Almost the Right One/Casi mi Cielo” offers the intensity of Joan Baez and the heartbroken longing of Linda Ronstadt. She sings of cheating lovers and endless romantic disappointment, yet remains optimistic and surprisingly trusting as she revels in the relationship of “The Fool I Am Right Now.” She’s often willing to take what she can get, and rather than growing embittered when what she can get isn’t enough, she finally takes off on the album closing “Nora Went Down the Mountain.” As throughout the album, the interplay of twangy electric guitar, steel and fiddle is perfectly balanced against Benitez’s vocal.

The album’s biggest heartache and most gripping moment is its memorial to the victims of the harrowing 2016 Ghostship fire. Benitez flashes the outlines of the horrific event and laments the emotional aftermath of those missing the missing. A strummed guitar, droning low notes and Steve Kallai’s mournful violin underline the grief that grew with each addition to the list of those caught in the conflagration. Four years on from Heartless Woman, Benitez’s band is tighter and her voice has found a deeper pocket in the mix. Like a moth circling a flame, she’s drawn to the glow of love, even as it singes her romantic wings, and that’s good news for fans of country music, as she delivers a strong album of original, twangy heartbreak – thorns and all. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Laura Benitez and the Heartbreak’s Home Page

Jackie DeShannon: Stone Cold Soul – The Complete Capitol Recordings

March 16th, 2018

DeShannon’s short, artistically rich early-70s stop at Capitol

After an eight-year run on Liberty/Imperial that included the Bacharach-David-penned “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and the original “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon made a brief stop at Capitol before moving on to Atlantic. Capitol initially sent DeShannon to Memphis to record with producer Chips Moman and his American Sound studio regulars, but other than the single “Stone Cold Soul” and the LP track “Show Me,” the sessions were shelved. Her second session, recorded in Los Angeles with Eric Malamud and John Palladino, resulted in the album Songs, and just like that, DeShannon was off to Atlantic. Eleven completed Moman masters appeared in the UK on RPM’s 2006 reissue of Songs, all of which is collected here along with five additional previously unreleased Memphis tracks, and liners from Joe Marchese that include a fresh interview with the artist.

DeShannon arrived in December 1970 at 827 Thomas Street to record at a studio that had put itself on the map with iconic records by the Box Tops, Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley. Though she’d previously tapped into her childhood love of R&B with a cover of Holland, Dozier & Holland’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” settling in with Moman and his “Memphis Boys” house band afforded an opportunity to fully fuse her love of soul music with original songs and well-selected cover material. One of DeShannon’s lasting artistic assets is her dual excellence as a songwriter and an interpreter of other writers’ songs. Here she shows off her interpretive abilities with selections from William Bell, Goffin & King, Emitt Rhodes, Arlo Guthrie, Van Morrison, and the non-charting title track by Mark James, the writer of Elvis Presley’s American Studios recording of “Suspicious Minds.”

The set opens with a short, previously unreleased take on Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til Your Well Runs Dry),” establishing the Memphis session’s southern credentials with DeShannon’s soulful vocal and the piano and guitar “goodies” (as DeShannon calls them in the liner notes) of Bobby Woods and Reggie Young. The band plays as a tight, adaptable unit, providing thoughtful backing for the rural struggle of “West Virginia Mine,” and a more optimistic mood for the poetic look at the Israeli settlements of “Now That the Desert is Blooming.” The arrangements take the cover songs in subtly new directions as the guitar, strings, horns and backing vocals of Carole King’s “Child of Mine” gently frame DeShannon’s rough-edged vocal, and an upbeat soul treatment separates the cover from Emitt Rhodes’ original of “Live Till You Die

Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s “Sweet Inspiration” might seem like a gimme for the American Sound crew, but DeShannon leads them with a gentler vocal groove than the Sweet Inspirations’ original, and Arlo Guthrie’s B-side “Gabriel’s Mother’s Highway” fits easily into the album’s gospel vibe. The collection features five previously unreleased Memphis recordings, including keyboardist Bobby Emmons’ “They Got You Boy” and a cover of George Harrison’s deeply moving “Isn’t It a Pity.” While the Memphis tracks don’t necessarily jump out as hit singles, the material was well picked, DeShannon was in fine voice and found real chemistry with the house band, so it’s hard to imagine why Capitol didn’t hear the commercial potential, and scrapped the sessions.

But scrap them they did, and DeShannon moved on to record in Los Angeles with a different set of studio hands. The results would be released as the Songs album, opening with one of the two songs salvaged from the Memphis sessions, “Show Me.” Written by session guitarist Johnny Christopher, the song’s musical hall style was at odds with the soul of the Memphis sessions, but indicated the variety the Los Angeles album would bring. In addition to her downbeat folk “Salinas,” upbeat funk “Bad Water” and a new arrangement of “West Virginia Mine,” DeShannon picked up Bob Dylan’s “Lady, Lady, Lay,” Hoyt Axton’s “Ease Your Pain,” McGuinness Flint’s “International,” a blistering version of the traditional “Down By the Riverside,” and original material from the session players.

The Los Angeles sessions didn’t have the regional flair or musical centeredness of Memphis, but the individual tracks were well picked and thoughtfully performed. DeShannon returned to Memphis to record Jackie for Atlantic, and edged a few singles onto the bottom of the chart, but like her earlier Memphis session, the material remained largely unknown to all but dedicated fans. Real Gone’s 25-track collection includes all of the finished tracks DeShannon recorded for Capitol, highlighted by five previously unreleased Memphis selections (1, 3, 7-9). Joe Marchese’s liner notes feature fresh remembrances from DeShannon and the booklet includes previously unpublished photos. Fans finally have the full story of DeShannon’s short lived, but artistically rich Memphis-to-Los Angeles ride with Capitol. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Jackie DeShannon’s Home Page

Janiva Magness: Love Is an Army

March 16th, 2018

Award-winning blues soul singer explores wider roots

Janiva Magness had an artistic coming out with her self-penned 2014 album, Original. Though she’d dabbled in songwriting before, the album marked a turn from interpreter of other people’s stories to essayist of her firsthand emotions. She continues that direction with her latest, co-writing four of the album’s twelve tracks, and selecting material from collaborator and producer Dave Darling, as well as Paul Thorn and others. She also welcomes several guests to the album, including vocalist Delbert McClinton on “What I Could Do,” harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite on “Hammer,” and most surprisingly, Poco pedal steel player Rusty Young on the shuffle “On and On.” The latter, taken with Doug Livingston’s dobro on the Western-tinged “Down Below,” shows off the range of roots Magness has been exploring.

The album opens on an emotionally low note of romantic dissolution, but Magness doesn’t stay down for long. She admits her faults, pines, lauds the resolve needed to power through heartbreak, and continues to leap forward with a spirit whose optimism isn’t grounded by past falls. When knocked to the canvas, she picks herself up before the bell, and when serving as the cornerman, she provides unwavering support to those she loves. The 60s-styled soul of “What’s That Say About You” offers a moving message of community, but elsewhere she excoriates the divisions sewn by America’s leaders. The album closes with the gospel faith of “Some Kind of Love,” complementing the threads of Memphis soul and Nashville country that have inspired a winning display of songwriting and vocal versatility. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Janiva Magness’ Home Page

America: Heritage – Home Recordings & Demos 1970-1973

February 23rd, 2018

Plotting the course of soft rock with demos from 1970-1973

The three expats that formed America in London in 1970 began their climb to stardom in late 1971 with the release of their eponymous debut. But it wasn’t until the album was reissued with the addition of “A Horse With No Name” that they captured the top spots on the album and singles charts. The debut also spun off “I Need You,” and the follow-up album, Homecoming, launched “Ventura Highway” the same year. The rest of the second album’s singles, and the third album, Hat Trick, registered successively lower on the charts, and it would take a few more years to return the band to hitsville with 1974’s “Tin Man” and “Lonely People,” and 1975’s “Sister Golden Hair.” The band has continued on to this day (minus Dan Peek, who left in 1977 and passed away in 2011), occasionally popping back up on the adult pop and contemporary charts.

Omnivore’s volume of demos and home recordings shows that the band was always destined for success. The magic blend of their voices was present from the beginning, and even as teenagers, they had a clear idea of their direction. Although many of these demos were successfully re-recorded for their albums, the excitement of recording together for the first time gives these initial takes their own unique feel. The earliest recordings were laid down at Chalk Hill Studios in 1970, and combines material from their debut (“Riverside” “Here” “Rainy Day” “Donkey Jaw”) with songs that never made it back to the studio. All are surprisingly well played and recorded, with the acoustic and electric guitars in balance and the harmony and backing vocals tightly arranged and sung.

The second set of recordings, from 1972 and 1973, were recorded at Gerry Beckley’s home studio, and include several titles that ended up on Hat Trick, songs and fragments that were never completed, and bits of studio chatter. Of interest to even casual fans will be a 1972 take of “Ventura Highway” that preceded the hit recording, and a vocal isolation of “A Horse With No Name” that’s nearly a cappella. Tracks 1, 3, 6, 7, 9 and 14 have been previously released on earlier America anthologies, but the remaining ten tracks are issued here for the first time. Founding member Dewey Bunnell provides original liner notes, and period photographs by Henry Diltz grace the cover and booklet. This is a great find for the band’s fans! [©2018 Hyperbolium]

America’s Home Page

Doc Watson: Live at Club 47

February 22nd, 2018

Newly discovered Doc Watson live set from 1963

At the time of this February 1963 appearance at Boston’s Club 47, Doc Watson was a regional country and pop performer, but not yet the international exponent of traditional folk music he’d soon become. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler had started Watson on the path to fame with home recordings issued by Folkways in the early ’60s, and as his renowned grew, he began performing for urban audiences in New York, Boston and other outposts of the folk revival. His career took off over the next year with a performance at the Newport Folk Festival and his debut record on Vanguard. The seeds of that success are all here, as Watson strums, picks and sings a widely drafted catalog of folk tunes, embellishing each with both the song’s history and his history with the song. Watson flat- and finger-picks guitar, plays the autoharp and harmonica, and entertains the audience with stories and stage patter throughout the set. This is a terrific document of a deeply talented musician on the cusp of turning his artistic mastery, encyclopedic knowledge and affable stage presence into long-lasting influence and stardom. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Doc Watson Fan Site