Posts Tagged ‘Blues’

Various Artist: The Ru-Jac Records Story, Volumes 1 & 2

Friday, January 19th, 2018

The history of a 1960s should’ve-been soul powerhouse

The Baltimore-based Ru-Jac label, a long-time favorite of in-the-know collectors, is finally getting its historical due. Omnivore began digging the Ru-Jac vault with 2016 titles on Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie, and now traces the length of the label’s entire story with four expertly curated, smartly illustrated and knowledgeably notated volumes [1 2 3 4]. Ru-Jac was born from the unlikely confluence of a numbers-running real estate investor and a dry cleaner with a sideline as a promoter. The latter, Rufus Mitchell, gained a spot managing the operations of the summer resort Carr’s Beach, and developed a nexus of musical acts, managers and disc jockeys that provided a foundation for a booking agency, a song publishing concern, and finally, the Ru-Jac record label.

Mitchell drew his acts primarily from Baltimore and D.C., releasing a string of excellent singles that began with Jesse Crawford’s dramatic plea “Please Don’t Go” and it’s sorrowful B-side “I Love You So.” A distribution deal with a larger label wasn’t enough to garner any commercial action, but Mitchell was undeterred, and doubled-down with a second pair of soul laments by Sonny Daye. The A-side, “A Woman Just Like You,” is a deeply wounded mid-tempo number with a fetching sax hook and a Latin undercurrent; the flipside pairs a raw blues guitar with a soul croon. As with the initial release, the single’s lack of commercial success barely slowed Mitchell down, as he continued to capture magic on tape, whether or not the stars aligned to lift his singles onto the charts.

The first two years of Ru-Jac were filled with terrific records, and even more impressively, a few A-side-worthy tracks that never made it out of the vault. The set opens with the wicked soul jam “Fatback,” a tune that should be the fondly remembered closing theme of an early-60s Baltimore TV dance show; something John Waters could have reintroduced to the world in Hairspray. In that same fictional history, the slower “Cross Track” would have replaced “Fatback” mid-way through the second season (after a single episode in which “Trash Can” was used) when the show’s producer and the record label had a falling out, and fans would argue to this day which was the better show closer. Those same kids likely would have spent their summer time at Carr’s Beach, making the resignation and renewal of Brenda Jones’ “Let’s Go Back to School” someone’s very fond memory.

Baltimore native (and former carnival pitchman) Winfield Parker first appeared on Ru-Jac with the moody, Stax-influenced 1964 ballad “When I’m Alone,” backed with the mid-tempo “One of These Mornings.” The latter is presented here in a previously unissued horn-lined alternate that some will find bests the master found on Omvnivore’s Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker At Ru-Jac. Winfield would turn out to be one of the label’s most prolific artists, and perhaps even more importantly, the caretaker of the label’s legacy. With Mitchell’s passing in 2003, the label’s riches – which included tapes, promotional material and business records – passed to Parker, who has now passed that archive on to Omnivore, while serving as the executive producer for these releases.

Volume one is filled out with numerous little-known, or in the case of the ten previously unreleased tracks, unknown gems. Jeanne Dee roars through a vault recording of the blues standard “Every Day I Have the Blues,” Tiny Tim’s “Saving All My Love” suggests Clyde McPhatter, and Celestine’s B-side “You Won” borrows its hook and New Orleans roll from Barbara Lewis’ “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” Mitchell tried out gospel with the Fruitland Harmonizers, torch-singing with Marcie Allen’s “All Over Again,” soul-jazz with its flip “Crying Won’t Help You,” fast-talking jive with Rockin’ Robin’s “Don’t Bit Mo,” and numerous deep-groove instrumentals, including the Jolly Sax’s “The Monkey Cha-Cha.”

Volume Two picks up the story in 1964 with Brenda Jones’ second Ru-Jac release “It Must Be Love,” its flipside, and the previously unreleased 50s-styled ballad “So Alone.” The year finished out with singles by D.C. native Shirley Grant and Harrisburg organist Butch Cornell. The latter pair of sides are particularly fine, as Cornell offers up Hammond B-3 licks in a trio setting with a jazz-chording rhythm guitarist and a hard-swinging drummer. A previously unreleased alternate take of Cornell’s “Goose Pimples” gives the song an entirely different feel from the single, with a full horn section and dance-friendly go-go beat. 1965 brought the legendary Arthur Conley to Ru-Jac as the songwriter and vocalist on Harold Holt’s “Where You Lead Me” and its flipside “I’m a Stranger.” Conley’s songs graced other Ru-Jac artists records, and Conley self-recorded several piano-and-voice demos, two of which are included here.

1965 also brought a sharper focus on DC acts, including The Neltones and Bobby Sax, and in 1966, The Mask Man & The Cap-Tans with The Paul Earle Orchestra. Like many of Mitchell’s signings, all three were one-off Ru-Jac artists, and though there was some regional action, like the rest of the Ru-Jac roster, there was no national breakthrough. The durable Winfield Parker is represented here by two previously unreleased recordings of “I Love You Just the Same,” one a demo with Parker singing slightly off mic, the other a finished studio alternate of the original single. Two garage rock bands borrowed talent agent Lillian Claiborne, The Reekers and The Henchmen, are omitted here, leaving the door open for Bear Family to render the Complete Ru-Jac box set.

Track after track it’s hard to imagine how this music failed to break; but the business of hit singles has never been strictly meritorious, and Mitchell’s Baltimore-based connections apparently didn’t have the juice to gain the national attention his productions deserved. Other labels, such as Lieber & Stoller’s Daisy/Tiger imprints, suffered the same fate, but it still remains stupefying in retrospect. Each of the four volumes in this series is illustrated with vintage photos and ephemera, and the history of the label and its artists is given detail by Kevin Coombe’s studious liner notes. Volumes 3 & 4 are due in March, and a set of Arthur Conley’s demos in May, but these first two collections are ready to take you to Charm City. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Banditos: Visionland

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Southern rockers with twists of garage, psych and more

The second album from these Birmingham-to-Nashville transplants opens with a garage-rock sound that wasn’t as evident on their self-titled 2015 debut. Mary Beth Richardson’s bluesy vocals are given the context of San Francisco-sound powerhouses like the Jefferson Airplane, and though a banjo peeks through the haze, the ‘60s rock vibe is strong. The title track suggests a psych-rock Richard and Mimi Farina, the ballad “Healin’ Slow” has a ‘50s vibe, “Lonely Boy” might have been a country song written in the Brill Building, and the whispery “When It Rains” could be a fondly remembered ‘70s radio hit. The band seems to be democratic in exploring their influences, cross-pollinating without overwhelming the base flavor of each song. They’ve added new spices to the boogie, blues and soul of their debut and shown themselves to have both musical vision and reach. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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NRBQ: Happy Talk

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

Playful new EP from the new NRBQ

Some of NRBQ’s longtime fans have a hard time accepting this revision of the band as legitimate, but with founding member Terry Adams at the helm, the new quartet has captured a chunk of the original band’s ethos as they move forward with new material. 2011’s Keep This Love Goin’ and 2014’s Brass Tacks each displayed the broad musical taste and sense of irreverence that were hallmarks of the earlier lineups. This five-song EP continues in the same direction with two originals, and covers of Roy Orbison, Rodgers & Hammerstein and the blues saxophonist, Abb Locke (“Blues Blues Blues”). The originals are playful novelties, while the covers are given original spins such as a tic-tac rhythm for “Only the Lonely” and the dreamy quality of “Happy Talk.” If it sounds a bit like a lark, that’s because amusement and adventure married to taste and musical chops have always been the band’s raison d’être, and that DNA has passed through to this revitalized quartet. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

Peter Case: On the Way Downtown – Recorded Live on FolkScene

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Peter Case’s on-stage magic from 1998 and 2000

Peter Case has had a music career that few of his contemporaries can match. Breaking in with Jack Lee and Paul Collins as the Nerves, no one would have guessed it was the beginning of a musical road that’s now stretched more than forty years. Case’s second band, the Plimsouls, garnered a major label contract, tours and an appearance in Valley Girl, but this too ended up as prelude to a solo career launched by his eponymous 1986 album. Unlike the rock ‘n’ roll of his earlier bands, his solo work – both on record and in performance – put a greater focus on his songwriting, and it’s that songwriting that’s highlighted in these tracks taken from live radio performances in 1998 and 2000.

Both performances are drawn from Case’s appearances on KPFK’s FolkScene. The earlier set highlights material from Case’s Full Service, No Waiting, while the latter set combines material from Flying Saucer Blues and earlier releases, and adds covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Poole. Both sets were engineered by FolkScene’s resident engineer, Peter Cutler, and sparkle with the show’s warmth and Case’s creativity. Case is joined by the Full Service album band for the 1998 set, and by violinist David Perales for the later tracks.

At 40, Case was thinking deeply about the path from his childhood to his present. The title track is filled with the memories an ex-pat relishes in revisiting his hometown, while “See Through Eyes” laments the incursion of doubt that middle age brings. Case remembers his San Francisco years in “Green Blanket (Part 1)” and “Still Playin’,” and explores the roots of his rambling in the acoustic “Crooked Mile.” The first set closes with the adolescently hopeful “Until the Next Time,” while the second set opens in a more present frame of mind with “Something Happens.” Two years on, Case was still remembering notable moments from his past, but also looking forward.

The songs easily fit the band setting, but the starker guitar-and-violin arrangements of the second set provide Case’s singing and lyrics a more intense spotlight. He slips easily into the acoustic picking of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day” and wears the lyric with a familiarity that belies its mid-60s origins. Case moves easily between blues and folk, and Parales violin provides moody underlines, rapidly bowed sparks and intricate, emotional accompaniment, highlighted by his ornamental line on “Beyond the Blues.” Peter Cutler’s recording is clean and unaffected, and presents Case as you might expect to hear him in a club or on a street corner, with his musical magic at full power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter Case’s Home Page

Various Artists: The Roots of Popular Music – The Ralph S. Peer Story

Monday, October 30th, 2017

The recordings and song publishing of a legend

It’s hard to imagine someone more important to American popular music than Ralph S. Peer. His pioneering achievements in blues, country, jazz and Latin music vaulted him into the highest echelon of A&R, and his career as a publisher built a foundational catalog that remains sturdy to this day. Peer’s recordings of Mamie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and a publishing catalog that stretched from Bill Monroe to Perez Prado to Hoagy Carmichael to Buddy Holly speaks to his ears for originality and his unprejudiced love of music. His talent for placing songs with singers exemplifies the sort of contribution a non-musician can make to music, and his extrapolation of regional and societal niches into popular phenomena speaks to a vision unclouded by the status quo.

Ralph Peer was not the only producer to explore the musical landscape of the United States, but unlike his peer John Lomax, Peer was less a folklorist, and more a producer whose studio was in the trunk of his car. In 1927 he discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in a single session in Bristol, Tennessee, and found additional success prospecting in Latin America. His interests in musical areas outside the popular mainstream led him to back the newly formed BMI, which in turn would spur the growth of radio as a medium for records, rather than live performances. The fruits of those labors are heard here in the songs he placed with Jimmy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and others.

The chronological running order of the first two discs gives listeners a sense of how Peer had his fingers in multiple genres at once. The enduring legacy of his work as a publisher is heard on disc 3, in recordings of songs whose appeal continued to grow after Peer’s 1960 death. The focus on Peer’s publishing catalog leaves out many of his landmark recordings, such as Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” The hardcover book includes notes from Peer biographer Barry Mazor, photographs and artifacts, but its lack of discourse on the set’s musical selections renders it more of an exhibit catalog than the liner notes for a fifty-song anthology. Pick up Mazor’s book, and the combination will tell you the story in words and music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Sparkling Jewell covers the blues

Eilen Jewell’s voice has always been from another era. From her earliest country folk to the country shuffles, western swing and hot club jazz that have filled out her catalog, Jewell’s often had at least one peep-toed shoe in the 1930s. Even as she added electric guitars and growling saxophones to the mix with 2009’s Sea of Tears and 2014’s Queen of the Minor Key, she retained the out-of-time otherworldliness of her vocals. Her last album, 2015’s Sundown Over Ghost Town, dialed back the jazz, rock and R&B to electric country folk that married the directness of Woody Guthrie to the choked emotion of Billie Holiday. Two years later, the blues are back, as Jewell rips through a brilliantly selected and deftly executed collection of covers.

The dozen selections here weigh towards the 1950s and 1960s, with sides drawn from the Chess, Checker, Excello, Ace, Finch and Bluesville labels. The disc opens with a killer take on Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” driven by the spellbinding guitar of Jerry (“Not Moby Grape’s”) Miller. The covers include singles and deep album tracks made popular by Howlin’ Wolf, Big Maybelle, Little Walter and Otis Rush, and reach back to earlier sides from Bessie Smith (“Down Hearted Blues”) and Moonshine Kate (“The Poor Girl’s Story”). This is a connoisseur’s’ selection, highlighted by a rockabilly-inflected take on Betty James “I’m a Little Mixed Up” and a smokey, Peggy Lee-styled read of Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World.”

Jewell loosens up her voice, not to a full blues shout, but with an extroverted passion that, supplemented by Miller’s wicked guitar playing and a crack rhythm section, leaps from the speakers with authority. Even when playing coy, there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and unlike idiosyncratic stylists such as Holly Golightly or Lucinda Williams, Jewell takes a lighter touch in rethinking her covers. Jewell tips her hat to the material without losing centerstage, and in doing so the album sheds new light on the songs and the singer. The diverse material, drawn from the 1920s through the 1960s, fits together into a cohesive album, aided by Miller’s range of guitar styles and a flexible rhythm section. From start to finish, this is a love letter to the blues. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Eilen Jewell’s Home Page

Andrea Stray: Into Blue

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Moody rock EP with country and blues echoes

There’s something haunting about Andrea Stray’s new EP. The languorous tempos convey an emotional mood that’s as much weary as it is wary. She sings of love’s dichotomies, suggesting that strength and fragility are two sides of the same coin, and that discord can harden from explosive force to impediment to acrimony. Her vocals are often lost in thought, but the thoughts that break to the surface with “Forgive and Forget” are the last rays of optimism before the unhappy ending is faced on the closing “You’re the Kind.” Recorded in Nashville with professional studio hands, this sounds nothing like the product one associates with the city’s commercial side. J.T. Corenflos’ moody, blues-tinged electric guitar is revelatory, and Scotty Sanders creates atmosphere rather than country twang with his pedal steel guitar. Stray’s singing might remind you of Robin Lane, Hope Sandoval or Neko Case, but her songs, and the moods she creates with them, are all her own. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Andrea Stray’s Home Page

Cowbell: Haunted Heart

Friday, July 14th, 2017

Wicked mix of late-60s and early-70s soul, blues and garage

This London duo’s third album is chock-full of garage-soul built on guitar, drums and splashes of organ that take things into darker places. The title track suggests the voodoobilly of the Cramps, while the rolling “Doom Train” melds sparse blues and tack piano with backing vocals that suggest Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks. There are echoes of the Kinks and Cream, but also the early-60s folk of Richard & Mimi Farina and the 1970s sounds of Laurel Canyon. Guitarist Jack Sandham sings most of the leads, but drummer Wednesday Lyle steps to the mic for the punk-fired “Downlow” and the cool-as-ice “New Kinda Love.” The album is tasteful, but even when taken downtempo, it remains sultry rather than sedate, with horns adding texture to several tracks. This is a sophisticated set that wanders through blues, soul and roots rock, like a shuffle through a music-lover’s record collection. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Tom Armstrong: The Sky is an Empty Eye

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Superb private press album of guitar instrumentals

When you can make a record with a USB microphone and cloud-based recording, it’s hard to remember the revolution that was home recording. TEAC’s 4-track reel-to-reel recorders (and TASCAM’s later cassette-based Portastudio) for the semi-pro market allowed home recordists to multi-track and overdub without the overbearing expense (and ticking clock) of studio time. Some of these sessions ended up in the commercial market, but many were unspooled only for friends and family, or circulated in local vinyl pressings. Tompkins Square sampled several of these small batch recordings on Imaginational Anthem, Vol. 8: The Private Press, and now expands on the theme with this first of several planned full album reissues.

Tom Armstrong had hung around the edges of the music business, playing bars and open mics, but when his engineering career took off, dreams of a professional music career were put aside. But a 4-track gifted to him by his wife kept his guitar playing alive, and provided a creative outlet into which he poured this original music. Though he kept recording for more than a decade, this is the one collection of songs he had mastered and pressed to vinyl, handing out copies mostly to friends and business associates. He favors meditative acoustic tracks, such as the harmonic-filled opener and the somnambulistic “Dream Waltz,” but he adds dripping neo-psych notes to “Keller,” picks electric slide on “The Thing,” and sings the title track.

The album’s variety might have driven a market-seeking record label crazy, but it’s exactly that free-spiritedness that gives the album its charm. The segue from the finger-picked electric “Mama’s Baby” to the echoed, nearly discordant “Bebop” suggests the evolution of blues into jazz, and the album continues to evolve as it closes with the driving spaciness of “Thunder Clouds.” Most of the arrangements appear to be two or maybe three guitars, sometimes rhythm and lead, often interleaving in original ways. Armstrong’s technique is good, but it’s his musical imagination and the freedom to follow his muse without commercial pressure that really gives these recordings their power. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Tompkins Square’s Home Page

Blackfoot Gypsies: To the Top

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

East Nashville blues-soaked rock ‘n’ roll

Oh rock ‘n’ roll, where have you been? Where have your pounding bass lines, screaming saxophones, scorching guitars and wild-eyed vocals been hiding? The Blackfoot Gypsies make the case for East Nashville, as their third album marries together the roots-rock swagger of the Black Crowes, the grit of the early-70s Stones, the West Coast country of the Byrds and Burritos, and the wildness of 1960s garage rock. In addition to reminding you of the Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Matthew Paige might remind you of Steve Marriott, Ian Hunter or Willie Nile, and the band draws on each of these singers’ groups without landing squarely on any one.

The guitars that open the album echo the Kinks “I Need You,” accompanied in the front seat by the rhythm section, Paige’s howling vocal and Ollie Dogg’s wailing harmonica. There’s barely a breath before Dylan Whitlow’s driving bass and Paul Thacker’s urgent sax push “Everybody’s Watching” into the red. Paige and drummer Zack Murphy lock into their shared roots as the founding two piece Murphy describes as “everything in the extreme.” Even when dialed down, the folk-country “Potatoes and Whiskey” and country-blues “Velvet Low Down Blues” are still edgy.

There’s a twist of soul on “Everybody’s Watching,” second-line roll on “Back to New Orleans,” Jan & Dean-styled backing vocals on “Promise to Keep” and a Bo Diddley beat on “Gypsy Queen.” The rootsy “Woman Woman” suggests the Band, and the hard blues of “I’ve Got the Blues” echoes Led Zeppelin in acoustic mode. There’s longing, loneliness, drinking and mean, mistreating women, but more in a blues vein than country, and “I Wanna Be Famous” thrashes out a swipe at those famous for being famous. At 62 minutes, the album’s intensity can get a bit exhausting, but there’s no doubting the band’s talent and groove. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Blackfoot Gypsies’ Home Page