Tag Archives: New Orleans

Mitch Woods: A Tip of the Hat to Fats

Paying tribute to Fats Domino at the Jazz & Heritage Festival

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting stage for pianist Mitch Woods and his hand-picked New Orleans Rocket 88’s band than the Jazz & Heritage Festival’s blues tent. Though he was born in Brooklyn, and came of musical age on the West Coast, his New Orleans influences flow through him as he consecrates the stage with jump blues, boogie-woogie and swing. Woods and his musical colleagues are deep in their element, and their element is deep in them, swinging tightly through both original material and covers of Wynonie Harris, Clarence Garlow, Hank Williams, Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner, and as the album’s title signifies, Fats Domino.

Woods opens the set with his own “Solid Gold Cadillac,” with drummer Terence Higgins quickly setting everyone’s toes tapping and the three-piece horn section flexing its muscle. Woods exhorts the audience to acknowledge the band as he rolls out the boogie-woogie piano and sings with infectious joy. The saxes offer both punctuation and hot solos, including a stellar outing by the legendary Roger Lewis on a rousing cover of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Guitarist John Fohl adds sizzling licks and the rhythm section alternately lays back in second-line grooves and spurs the band forward.

Woods is both studied and artful as he pays tribute to Professor Longhair with the original “Mojo Mambo,” and tips his hat to Fats Domino with the Imperial classics, “Blue Monday” and “Walking to New Orleans.” The audience responds with enthusiastic appreciation throughout the set, and Woods’ song intros add context to the deep dish helping of entertainment. There’s clearly nowhere else that Woods, his band and the audience would rather be than sharing this music with each other; and after listening, you may find yourself booking a ticket to the next gig. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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World Famous Headliners: World Famous Headliners

Terrific country, rock and soul from A-list songwriters with an A-list rhythm section

Leave it to ace songwriters – Big Al Anderson, Shawn Camp and Pat McLaughlin – to come up with an attention-getting, tongue-in-cheek name for their new group. All three are indeed world-famous, at least among those of who read songwriting credits, and Andersonis widely known, at least among a well-bred set of listeners, for his guitar slinging and lengthy tenure in NRBQ. All three have written Nashville hits, co-written with rootsy outsiders, and had their songs covered by both mainstream and non-mainstream legends. Together with veteran players Michael Rhodes on bass and Greg Morrow on drums, the trio of songwriters steps up front for a set of country, rock, blues and soul originals whose eclecticism is not unlike the variety recorded by Anderson’s previous band.

The set opens at a Rockpile-styled canter with “Give Your Love to Me,” featuring call-and-response vocals and electric guitar solos; Morrow kicks off the subsequent “Mamarita” with a solid second-line beat that eases the band into the song’s New Orleans mood. 1950s balladry threads through several songs, but the modern touches, such as the bewitching bass vamp of “Heart of Gold,” keep the productions from turning retro. The vocalists often sing as a chorus, but there are solo turns that conjure the straight-shooting delivery of Waylon Jennings, with some yowling harmonies that suggest The Band. The group plays loping country soul, ala the Hacienda Brothers, and Cajun-spiced rockers that will remind you of David Lindley’s solo work.

The trio’s songs are as good as the band they’ve assembled, with catchy melodies, deep grooves, and lyrics that are both playful and thought-provoking. They write mostly of love’s pains and pleas, leavened with apology and elation, and couched in finely-crafted lyrics and clever rhymes that can be funny and sad at the same time. The band’s collective pulse, particularly on the mid-tempo R&B numbers, belies the five individual careers twined together for the first time. Their chemistry is the result of decades of complementary work that, in a just world, would actually lead to headlining gigs around the globe. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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Great American Taxi: Reckless Habits

Loosely polished album of country, blues, bluegrass, boogie and rock ‘n’ roll

The second album from this funky jam-band exhibits the same sort of artistic serendipity with which the group was born. In the wake of Leftover Salmon’s demise, front-man Vince Herman hooked up with Chad Staehly and a hand-picked group of local musicians for a charity performance that spawned Great American Taxi. The polished looseness of Leftover Salmon’s jam-band legacy informs the new group’s music, as do the New Orleans influences found on songs like “Baby Hold On” and “Mountain Top,” but there’s a heavier dose of blues and southern rock boogie here. Think of the Grateful Dead at their most driving, Little Feat traipsing through their trademark rhythm ‘n’ roll or The Band playing reflective and bittersweet.

The group’s country tunes, such as the pedal steel-lined “New Madrid,” have more in common with cosmic American music than Leftover Salmon’s string-band influences, and the album’s title track pays twangy tribute to Gram Parsons. “Unpromised Land” suggests what Lynyrd Skynyrd might’ve sounded like as a progressive-bluegrass band, and at six minutes you get a taste of the band’s instrumental jamming. The original “American Beauty” (with its tip of the hat to the Dead) rolls along on an Allman-styled groove. There’s funk, boogie and humor that variously brings to mind the Neville Brothers, Commander Cody and the Morrells, but more than anything there’s an enormous feeling of satisfaction that comes from making music.

The album opens on an optimistic note with the fanciful dreaming of “One of These Days,” and the road warrior of “Unpromised Land” is pained by his longing for someone back home. But really, how bad can you feel when you’re packing a banjo player and a fiddler to cut a jig for you? Even the list of modern-ills that fuel the fast-paced “New Millennium Blues” are rolled out with the matter-of-factness of fatalistic observation rather than the ire of complaint, and the daily grind of a working musician has more fringe benefits than the title “Tough Job” might at first suggest. The group’s guitar, bass and drums are augmented by a four-piece horn section that adds New Orleans-styled brass (leading the march on the bonus instrumental “Parade”), and a trio of backing singers that adds gospel flavor.

This is a seamless hour of confident and self-assured roots music that effortlessly combines country, rock, blues, bluegrass and second-line funk. The instrumental jamming is fluid but focused, limiting the album’s three longest tracks to six minutes and the two instrumentals to fewer than three apiece. The top-line string band sound of Leftover Salmon has given way to sublime country-rock and the flavors of New Orleans. Herman seems tremendously energized by this music, his band is sharp and the guest playing of Barry Sless (pedal steel), Matt Flinner (banjo), the Peak to Freak Horns, and Black Swan Singers provide icing on a sweet cake. Fans of the Dead, Band, Burritos, Byrds and Little Feat, as well as recent acts like the Band of Heathens will love this one. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Elvis Presley: Frankie and Johnny

Elvis is taken for a ride on a riverboat

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions about Elvis Presley’s film career: Elvis couldn’t act, his movies were all throwaways, and the soundtracks were populated entirely with substandard material. But key films in the King’s catalog show that he could indeed act, if called upon, there are several high-quality dramatic and musical films in Elvis’ oeuvre, alongside many good lightweight romantic musical comedies, and his soundtracks are laced with hits and terrific albums sides. To measure the highpoints of Elvis’ soundtrack catalog by virtue of the low points (of which there are admittedly many) is to miss out on a valuable dimension of Presley’s musical career.

1966’s Frankie and Johnny was Elvis’ twentieth film, and co-starred Donna Douglas who was then starring on television’s Beverly Hillbillies. The soundtrack was recorded in Hollywood with the usual mix of West Coast studio players (including guitarist Tiny Timbrell), and longtime Elvis associate Scotty Moore. The Jordanaires are replaced here by the Mello Men on background vocals, and a brass section (trumpet, trombone and tuba) was brought in to give a New Orleans edge to several of the songs. The songwriters included many of the usual crew, such as Sid Tepper, Roy C. Bennett, Ben Weisman, Sid Wayne, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, and the trio of Florence Kaye, Bernie Baum and Bill Giant.

Many of the album’s songs are meant to evoke the era of river boats and music calls, but they’re campy, faux-Dixieland theatricality doesn’t survive the transition from film to soundtrack album. Elvis sounds as if he’s being forced to march along to “Down by the Riverside,” though he loosens up for the second half of the medley with “Saints Go Marching In.” Pomus & Shuman’s “What Every Woman Lives For” would be a more appealing blues if the message wasn’t so retrospectively sexist (though, to be fair, it is Elvis singing, and it’s possible that every woman does live to give him their love). The revival “Shout it Out,” though lyrically light, gives Elvis a chance to rock it up, and the blues “Hard Luck” features Charlie McCoy on harmonica.

Several of the tracks feel under-arranged, as if producer Fred Karger was in a hurry to get these tracks finished. Perhaps when you have the film’s director Fred De Cordova (of Tonight Show fame) waiting on you and you’re asking Elvis to sing mediocre material, you get what you can get. Sony’s reissue features a four-panel booklet and no liner notes discussing the music or its making. The 27-minute running time suggests that the earlier import two-fer or Follow That Dream’s collector’s edition might be more compelling to Elvis diehards. Still, the budget price and remastered sound make this reissue attractive. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Sonny Landreth: Levee Town (Expanded Edition)

sonnylandreth_leveetownExpanded edition of Landreth’s blues-rocker

Originally released in 2000 by Sugar Hill, Landreth’s album is augmented on this reissue with five tracks from the same era. As on last year’s From the Reach, Landreth proves himself a guitar hero whose music runs deeper than his incomparable slide work. His songs, all seventeen are originals, are more than showcases for his instrumental prowess. To be sure, his powerful slide playing is a dominant voice, but his vocals are roughly melodic and emotional, his blues are seasoned with second-line rhythms, and his lyrics chronicle the people, stories and ghosts of his native South. He sings of social and political pressures, but also finds time to revel in the delights of a comically oversized Oldsmobile.

The album’s basic tracks were produced in Los Angeles by Mike Post, and then finished by Landreth and R.S. Field. The results are occasionally too polished, and the edgy guitar harmonics can sound dated; yet when Landreth is left to indulge his guitar playing, such as on the standard blues “Broken Hearted Road,” the results are electrifying. The power-trio instrumental “Z-Rider” with a Zydeco double-kickbeat neatly evokes the open throttle thrills of trail riding, Bonnie Raitt adds a superb harmony to “Soul Salvation,” Michael Doucet plays fiddle on “Love and Glory,” and horns add sparkle to the album’s last two tracks.

The bonuses were recorded between 1998 and 2000, with the same core quartet as the album, and sweetened for this reissue. Fans of Landreth’s slide playing will enjoy the four instrumentals, but the sleeper is a fetching duet with Jennifer Warnes, “For Who We Are (The Night Bird Sings).” The deluxe packaging includes a tri-fold digipack, a 28-page booklet, complete lyrics and an additional two-page insert with the bonus disc. Those who own the original might be inclined to get the whole package for its remastered audio, but the bonus tracks, particularly the Warnes duet are the real sweetener. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Snooks Eaglin: Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!”

snookseaglin_babyyoucangetyourgunLegendary New Orleans blues guitarist’s 1987 debut for Black Top

Snooks Eaglin – known as “The Human Jukebox” for the unmatched catalog of songs in his head – first surfaced in the 1950s New Orleans scene. As a guitarist with Allen Toussaint, he was on hand for the elemental forging of blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. He recorded under his own name for the Imperial label until it folded in 1963, and then only sporadically until he caught on with Black Top twenty-four years later. This 1987 album was the first in a run of five for Black Top, and shows off his encyclopedic knowledge, dexterous guitar playing, low-key vocals, straight blues sensibility and the funky second lines he carried from New Orleans.

Backed by a veteran Crescent City rhythm section of Erving Charles Jr. on bass and Smokey Johnson on drums (the latter of whom backed Eaglin on his early ’60s sessions for Imperial), legendary session saxophonist David Lastle, and the highly regarded pianist/organist Ron Levy, the group hits a groove on all eleven tracks. A few, such as the original “Oh Sweetness,” fades just as the band seems to be warming up for an extended jam. The song list includes straight blues, New Orleans second-lines, James Brown funk, and an instrumental salute to the Ventures in a cover of “Perfidia.” Eaglin also takes to R&B ballads, such as Percy Mayfield’s “Baby Please” and Dave Bartholomew’s “Lavinia.”

In addition to three originals, Eaglin resurrects tunes associated with Guitar Slim, Earl King, Smiley Lewis, and The Four Blazes. The album closes with the irresistible Crescent City funk of “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” which at 3’35 would need to be played twice to keep dancers happy. Eaglin’s at the top of his game threading his leads around his accompanists, providing driving rhythm lines and singing with a confident, easy swing. His early recordings for Imperial are worth tracking down, but for a full dose of his eclectic range, you can’t top this album. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]