Posts Tagged ‘Rounder’

Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

bobbyrush_porcupinemeatOctogenarian blues master remains vital, funky and blue

Your should hope to have this much life force at the age of 82. Sixty years into his career, and still logging more than two-hundred live dates each year, bluesman Bobby Rush sounds as vital as he did in his twenties. Born in Louisiana and musically schooled in Chicago clubs, he finally broke out as a solo artist in the early 1970s, adding soul and funk sounds to a blues base as he released a long string of albums and singles. This first release for Rounder teams him with producer Scott Billington and a slate of New Orleans musicians who double-down on Rush’s funky brand of the blue grooves. Rush’s voice is strong and his harmonica says as much as his lyrics.

At turns he’s ornery, defiant and stalwart in his own defense; he’s lived long enough to know what he wants, and what he doesn’t, but he’s not immune to the world’s irresistible forces. He’s a victim of circumstance, accused of crimes he didn’t commit and hamstrung by the siren’s call of mistreating women. The slow, spare blues of “Got Me Accused” provides the perfect space for a moving vocal and a deeply felt harmonica solo, and a horn section adds snap to the “Polk Salad Annie”-styled funk of “Catfish Stew.” Guests include Vasti Jackson, Dave Alvin, Joe Bonamassa and Keb’ Mo’, the latter adding his slide guitar to “Nighttime Gardener.” But Rush is the star of the show, and one who’s still shining bright and blue. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Bobby Rush’s Home Page

James Booker: Classified – Remixed and Expanded

Monday, December 9th, 2013

JamesBooker_ClassifiedThe last studio recordings of a New Orleans legend

Though often cited as one of three primary New Orleans piano legends, James Booker’s popular renown never grew to the size of Professor Longhair’s or Dr. John’s. Launching his career in the mid-50s, he was sidetracked by a late-60s drug bust and continuing brushes with the law. One of those brushes, apparently, was with legal counsel Harry Connick, Sr., whose son became one of Booker’s students. The mid-70s roots revival brought renewed opportunities for Booker, particularly in Europe, and upon returning to the U.S. he took up residency at the Maple Leaf Bar. At the end of this run, in 1982, he hurriedly recorded this last studio album, and the following year succumbed to the physical and mental ravages of his drug use. Rounder’s remixed and expanded 2013 reissue adds ten bonus tracks to the original dozen, including nine previously unissued performances.

Booker is heard here playing solo as well as with a quartet of Alvin “Red” Tyler, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich. Playing “with” the quartet may be an overstatement, as they often seem to be chasing songs that he selected on a whim. Still, his playing and singing both show a lot of verve in each setting. The material is drawn from an incredible array of sources, including R&B (Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Titus Turner’s “All Around the World”), country (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”), classical (Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto”), jazz (“Angel Eyes”), film (Nino Rota’s “Theme from the Godfather”) and the great American songbook (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Baby Face”). Booker also drew from the New Orleans repertoire with Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” Fats Domino’s “One for the Highway” and a Professor Longhair medley; but even when he was playing outside material, the Crescent City was always in his fingers.

The fluency with which Booker plays this wide range of material is breathtaking. He’s equally adept at classical fingerings, florid jazz changes, blue R&B chords and the rolling arpeggios of New Orleans. There are many highlights among the original album tracks, including a lighthearted take on “Baby Face” that shows more finesse than Little Richard’s 1958 hit, with a vocal that maintains the spark of Al Jolson. The reading of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” added to this reissue is even funkier, with Booker on organ, a wicked second-line drum beat from Vidacovich and some fat sax from Tyler. There’s little hint of Eddie Cantor here (and perhaps a touch of Ricky Nelson‘s sax man), but the core emotion is swing. Booker’s classical training comes forward for dramatic readings of the Rachmaninoff inspired “Warsaw Concerto” and the title theme to the 1966 Lana Turner film Madame X. Note that “Madame X” was listed by its subtitle, “Swedish Rhapsody,” on previous reissues, but it’s the same track.

From the pop songbook, Booker tears into Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” The former is played with great percussiveness, the latter as a haggard ballad. Booker’s singing never really matched the easiness of his piano, but it serves both of these songs well, the former coy and sassy, the latter a bit shopworn. The bonus solo take of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is speedier than the band version included on the original album, but each approach has its own merits. Booker’s originals include the album’s title song, the bonus track “I’m Not Sayin’,” and the original closer, “Three Keys.” The first two have edgy rhythms and unusual fingerings that bring to mind Thelonious Monk, the third weaves “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” into a rolling New Orleans’ piano solo.

Rounder’s reissue was remastered from the 24-track analog tapes, and includes Bunny Matthews’ 1983 liner notes alongside new notes by producer Scott Billington. The latter’s stories of Booker’s fragile and agitated state belies the remaining solidity of his musical mentality and ability to perform. The song list is all over the map, but Booker’s intellect and talent are enough to hold the album together. He pays homage to New Orleans in both song and style, giving traditional R&B tunes their due and pulling everything else into his Crescent City orbit. There are few who could so naturally give the “Theme from the Godfather” a helping of rhythmic soul and then add romantic flourishes to the jazz standard “Angel Eyes.” The album’s original lineup can be heard by programming 6, 20, 10, 9, 17, 19, 1, 12, 7, 14, 2, 21, but the expanded, rearranged track list plays as beautifully as Booker’s piano. This set makes a nice companion to Lily Keber’s documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, and a good introduction to the breadth of Booker’s genius. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

George Thorogood: The First Two Albums

Friday, September 6th, 2013

GeorgeThorogood_GeorgeThorogoodAndTheDestroyers1977 debut beats the blues

George Thorogood unleashed his Delaware-born and Boston-bred blues just in time to catch a transition in FM radio. Pressured by the growth of AOR stations, and striving to maintain currency with younger audiences, freeform stations were both tightening their playlists and stretching beyond their heritage artists. Thorogood’s tradition-laden blues (eight of this debut album’s ten cuts are covers) was an easy bridge from alternative FM’s roots, and the ferocity with which he and his band (not accidentally christened “The Destroyers”) played was fresh, powerful and a surprisingly good fit with the punk rock and new wave that were just starting to pick up commercial notice. The eight-minute “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” quickly became a bathroom-break staple on both commercial and college stations, and covers of Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Bo Diddley sent DJs to the stacks for some history lessons. Thirty-six years after its initial issue, the album hasn’t lost a bit of its drawing power, and the steady, unrelenting drive of “Ride on Josephine” will still make your feet move. Rounder’s 2013 reissue is a straight-up reproduction of the album’s original ten tracks, with a four-page booklet that includes a double-panel gatefold photograph and back-panel credits.

GeorgeThorogood_MoveItOnOverConfident and swaggering second album

Thorogood’s debut had been a turntable hit on freeform FM and college radio stations, fitting well with both those station’s heritage artists and the punk rock acts that were just starting to gain commercial traction. Thorogood’s no-holds-barred approach had roots in both blues and early rock, and though he was clearly a practiced player, there was a rawness (even a purposeful lack of finesse) that mated well to the rejection of studio-bound prog rock and overblown stadium prattle. His second album doubled down on the swagger of his debut, with a tour de force cover of “Who Do You Love?” whose howling vocal and rumbling rhythm figuratively and literally amplify the essence of Bo Diddley’s classic. The set’s opening take on “Move it on Over” likewise finds a second gear for Hank Williams’ first country hit. As with his debut, Thorogood leans on material from Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Brownie McGee and others, wearing his influences on the album sleeve and leading fans to look back in awe. Rounder’s 2013 reissue is a straight-up reproduction of the album’s original ten tracks, with an eight-page booklet that includes the label’s original liner notes. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

George Thorogood’s Home Page

The Deadly Gentlemen: Roll Me, Tumble Me

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

DeadlyGentlemen_RollMeTumbleMeAcoustic string band that goes beyond Bluegrass convention

This Boston-based quintet sports a traditional string band lineup of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass, and though that adds up to the acoustics of a bluegrass band, their original material is something distinct from that of the typical festival players. The differences likely stem from the varied background of the band members: fiddler Mike Barnett, bassist Sam Grisman (son of mandolinist David) and mandolinist Dominick Leslie had traditional childhood immersions in acoustic music, while banjoist Greg Liszt had a dual life as a picker (with the Crooked Still) and a scientist (including a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT), and guitarist Stash Wyslouch followed a route through rock and heavy metal before settling into country and bluegrass.

The band’s moved closer to traditional song structures over their five years and three records, but the remnants of earlier experiments are still to be heard. Their harmonies, for example, range from traditional high-low bluegrass singing to unison passages they’ve characterized as “gang vocals.” There’s also a helping of country that suggests harmony acts like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. There’s a hopefulness to their tone, even when singing lyrics of failed love, buoyed by rolling banjo, sawed fiddle and fluttering lines of mandolin. The tempos leave little time for dwelling on failure; “Bored of the Raging” emerges from a crawl to a run, and “A Faded Star” waves off inevitability in favor of the changeable present moment.

In contrast, the passing years of “Now is Not the Time” and stagnant living of “Working” seem to spark genuine worries (though the latter does manage a rare use of the word “wankfest” in a song lyric). The band’s hopefulness is also interrupted by the dichotomies of “Beautiful’s the Body” and “It’ll End Too Soon,” each serving up conflicting impulses and no clear answers. Greg Liszt’s songwriting straddles portrait and poetry, drawing characters and situations that layer abstraction on concrete foundations. His optimistic joys and thoughtful concerns give the album a believable outline whose emotional details are inked in by the band’s talented and soulful musicianship. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

The Deadly Gentlemen’s Home Page

Steep Canyon Rangers: Nobody Knows You

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Bluegrass emboldened with newgrass, country and gospel

Having hooked up with Steve Martin in 2009, this quintet gained mainstream attention that mirrored the renown they’d built in bluegrass circles over the previous decade. After backing Martin for a tour of his 2009 album, The Crow, and collaborating for last year’s Rare Bird Alert, they now return to their own work and original material. The only cover in this lot is Tim Hardin’s “Reputation,” sung at a tempo that inches towards the Association’s 1967 blues-rock cover and with harmonies that expand upon the Byrds’ 1968 version. The original tunes are all rooted in bluegrass instrumentation, but interweave elements of newgrass, country and gospel. The songs include stories of earnest courting, lost souls, tenuous relationships and natural pleasures. The band’s harmonies are strong, perhaps even a tad in your face in spots, and contrast with playing that’s tight and enthusiastic, but relaxed and delicate enough to have soul. The latter is the sort of thing that can escape players with bluegrass-quality chops, and though you get to hear the instrumentalists solo, they do so without having the band drop into the background. The album’s one instrumental, “Knob Creek,” is fittingly, an ensemble piece. The Rangers are a talented band with taste, chops and enough invention to keep their music growing. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Steep Canyon Rangers’ Home Page

Tony Rice: The Bill Monroe Collection

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

An anthology of Tony Rice’s recordings of Bill Monroe’s songs

The centennial anniversary of Bill Monroe’s birth has produced an outpouring of tributes (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5) from many of the musicians who’ve descended from the master’s vision. Each of the disciples has played Monroe’s tunes on stage and recorded them sporadically, but with these tributes they’ve made album length statements about their relationship to the music and the man. Tony Rice has also played and recorded Monroe’s music, but instead of recording a purpose-built tribute, his label has cherry-picked fourteen tracks from nine albums released between 1981 and 2000. This includes solo titles and sessions with David Grisman, the Tony Rice Unit, the Rice Bothers and the Bluegrass Album Band.

Fans may already have many of these tracks on original albums or previous collections (Lonesome Moonlight: Bluegrass Songs of Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Guitar Collection), but for those not steeped in the Tony Rice catalog, this is a fine anthology. Not only is Rice a preeminent bluegrass guitarist and singer, but twenty years of recordings say as much about Rice’s evolving relationship to Monroe as they do about Monroe himself. The set mixes vocal and instrumental tracks, and ranges from traditional playing to styles influenced by jazz and swing. Marian Levy’s liners fill out Rice’s view of Monroe, though the ink she spends on ponderous philosophizing would have been better spent discussing the songs, performances and settings. Chuck the liner notes and you’ll find all you need to know in the grooves. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Tony Rice’s Home Page

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Mellencamp visits country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll ghosts

John Mellencamp is an artist whose depth continues to impress and surprise. His populist anthems of the 1980s demonstrated heartland roots that Springsteen could only write of, and even as he was charting with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” he was filling out his albums with the social commentary of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and co-founding Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His commentary continued to mature and turned naturally introspective, and though he continued to place singles on the charts, his albums became increasingly whole in tone. He explored urban soul sounds, returned to rock ‘n’ roll basics, explored historic folk and blues songs, and wrote through a dark streak of social and eprsonal commentary on his last few studio albums.

In many ways, the winding path of his career, the early malice of the record industry, the misunderstanding of music critics, the fight to regain his name and his artistic bona fides, is the road that led to this collection of original songs. The roots introduced on Lonesome Jubilee and explored on Big Daddy are now taken for granted, both in Mellencamp’s music and across the Americana scene. The mountain sounds, slap bass and vintage blues tones are no longer seen as affectations or anthropological explorations, but as the foundation that’s always underlined Mellencamp’s music. On this new, brilliantly executed album, Mellencamp visits and records at three historical locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.

There’s a bit of fetishism in toting along mono analog equipment, lining up on the marks laid down by Sam Phillips, and reinstalling a wood floor in the hotel room, but the connections made to the musicians who first sounded out these spaces famous was worth the effort. Mellencamp doesn’t attempt to raise ghosts as much as he amplifies the echoes that have always threaded through his music. The slap bass of “Coming Down the Road” catches the excitement of mid-50s Sun records without imitating them. Best of all, the minimalistic live recording – no mixing or overdubs – is mostly shorn of T-Bone Burnett’s influences as a producer. What this record (and yes, it is available on vinyl) shows is that it’s not the recording, it’s what’s being recorded. The primitive sound serves to focus the listener’s ear on the artist’s lyrics and moods.

Mellencamp wrestles with the existence of life-after-death, opting to appreciate his time on Earth in the opening “Save Some Time to Dream,” and taking a more laissez-faire attitude (“I’ll see you in the next world / If there is really one”) in the defeated “A Graceful Fall.” The latter’s misfortune would play more darkly if not for Mellencamp’s large, near Vaudevillian vocal, as would the self-pity of “No One Cares About Me,” were it not sung to a country-rockabilly backing and tagged with an optimistic hint of redemption. That optimism segues into the album’s most touching song, “Love at First Sight,” which is matched by the heartbreaking wistfulness of the 50-years-later “Thinking About You.” The opening lyric of the latter proclaims “It’s not my nature / To be nostalgic at all,” but it’s only a device within the song’s story, as Mellencamp medicates on missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires and youthful lessons that only become clear with age.

This album shouldn’t be as surprising as it turns out to be. The elements have been evident throughout Mellencamp’s career, but never before has he so thoroughly leaned on his influences or strained them through such a vintage sound. The edges of his voice mate perfectly with the live recording and mono production’s punch to make these performances weathered exhalations of emotion rather than manicured studio creations. This is a great example of how the artifice that multi-track recording, overdubbing and other studio manipulations have interjected themselves between artists and listeners; and when an artist is really digging into himself, his life and the history that’s fueled his music, the more immediate the recording the better. These songs capture a reflective time in Mellencamp’s life and the recordings serve to amplify his every thought. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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