Posts Tagged ‘Western Swing’

Blue Yonder: Rough and Ready Heart

Monday, November 19th, 2018

Country, swing and honky-tonk from talented West Virginia trio

This West Virginia trio – singer/songwriter John Lilly, guitarist Robert Shafer and acoustic bassist Will Carter – make country music from another era. There are Western tones that suggest the Sons of the Pioneers, but Lilly and Carter’s harmonies are bluegrass brotherly, and Shafer’s picking ranges through swing, rockabilly, bluegrass and folk. Add in the playing of guests Russ Hicks on steel guitar and Tony Creasman on drums, and the group covers a lot of range with their original material. The album opens with Lilly on the side of the road, thumb out and wanderlust intact. His travel turns emotional, as he contemplates the scars that have toughened him and the memories that bind him steadfastly to the past. “Rough and Ready Heart” suggests he’s ready to soldier on, but his attachment to the past puts tomorrow on hold for “Lost in Yesterday.” It’s not until “Emerald Eyes” that Lilly finds his way back to the present, and with the clever barroom lesson of “You Can’t Get There From Here” he spies the exit. The album closes with the upbeat rockabilly “Green Light,” the rhythm section stoking the beat as Shafer shows off his flatpicking prowess. Sharp songwriting and instrumental virtuosity has made Blue Yonder a weekly favorite at the Bluegrass Kitchen, and their latest album brings it home. [©2018 Hyperbolium]

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Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Live From Ebbets Field

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Live from the Denver ozone in 1973

For many rock listeners, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s 1971 debut, Lost in the Ozone, was a taste-expanding experience. The group’s catalog of country, western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues and rockabilly was broader than the country excursions of 1960s rock bands like the Byrds, and though others – notably NRBQ – blended multiple genres, the Airmen’s cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln” turned commercial attention into a following. The band hit the road in 1973 in support of their third album, Country Casanova, with a new-used tour bus and ace steel player Bobby Black in tow. The tour schedule was apparently quite grueling, but produced superb shows, including this stop in Denver, Colorado.

The group’s core lineup – George “Commander Cody” Frayne, Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen, John Tichy, Lance Dickerson, Andy Stein and Bruce Barlow – had been steady since their debut, and the chemistry they’d developed in San Francisco Bay Area clubs is evident in this set. They weave together a handful of originals with a wealth of brilliantly selected covers, including sad truckin’ songs, rockin’ rave-ups, Cajun and swing dance numbers, novelty tunes and a cowboy closer. The stereo recording is well preserved, though there are major dropouts on “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “Diggy Liggy Lo,” and the live mix lets some of the instruments and vocals peak in the red.

The set features three tracks from Country Casanova, including the original “Rock That Boogie,” but skips the earlier hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The Commander gets a spotlight on Merle Travis’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” and the crowd seems quite pleased with the set and six song encore. The 1973 tour has now produced several albums, including the classic Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas and the more recent Tour From Hell. There are a few overlaps in the set lists, but the group’s huge repertoire provides eleven songs here that don’t appear on the other two. There’s a bit of stage banter to give you a feel for the 68-minute show; all that’s missing is the evening’s second set! [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Wayne Hancock: Slingin’ Rhythm

Friday, November 25th, 2016

waynehancock_slinginrhythmThe king of juke joint swing swings the juke joint

Twenty years into his recording career, the most surprising thing about Wayne Hancock is the lack of surprise in his unwavering pursuit of hillbilly boogie. What might have looked like a faddish nod at the start of his career has evolved into the heart and soul of his artistry, transcending the nostalgia that connects him to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and others. His first album since 2013’s Ride is stocked with swinging original material, sublimely selected covers of Merle Travis’ “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and Pee Wee King’s (by way of Hank Williams) “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and steel player Rose Sinclair’s instrumental showcase “Over Easy.”

Hancock is front and center, but he gives his band (Sinclair, electric guitarists Bart Weinberg and Greg Harkins, bassist Samuel “Huck” Johnson and producer Lloyd Maines on dobro) room to stretch out and solo. You probably won’t even notice the lack of a drummer until someone points it out. Hancock writes of a working musician’s fortitude, the toll it takes on off-stage life, and the rewards it pays. Messy homes give way to mistreating and long-gone mates, with “Divorce Me C.O.D.” taunting a soon-to-be ex and the original “Wear Out Your Welcome” kicking the problem to the curb. The few moments of respite include the apologetic “Two String Boogie” and the sweet invitation “Love You Always.”

There’s a conversational looseness to the sessions, with longer songs, such as “Dog Day Blues,” designed to stoke improvisation that suggests the jazz side of Western Swing. The players are up to the task as the rhythm section vamps, the guitarists take their turns in the spotlight and Hancock picks his spot to return to the mic. “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” closes the set, reframing the album’s travails with the sympathetic observation that someone, somewhere always has it worse. And in Hancock’s case, a lot worse, since he’s found the thing he loves the most – juke joint swing – and carries it with him everywhere. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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Bill Kirchen: Seeds and Stems

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

BillKirchen_SeedsAndStemsAce dieselbilly singer-guitarist revisits highlights from his 45 year career

Bill Kirchen’s latest album provides a studio snapshot of his recent UK tour, highlighting much loved songs from the Commander Cody catalog and Kirchin’s solo years. Waxed quickly with his road band in between live dates, the set feels contemporary rather than anthological, and the performances fit together in a way that the original recordings could never be expected to. Kirchen’s originals have stood both the test of time and reinterpretation: the hard-luck “Semi-Truck,” the Merle Haggard-styled “Mama Hated Diesels” and the futuristic “Truck Stop at the End of the World” still pack their original punch, while the Cajun-flavored dieselbilly burner “Womb to the Tomb” is slowed here into a fetching waltz. Kirchen also makes great use of others’ songs, including an appropriately pitiful rendition of the title tune, a thoughtful reading of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry,” and a signature performance of Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Kirchen remains a standard bearer for a seamless blend of rock ‘n’ roll, country, boogie-woogie and western swing, and his catalog grows more burnished with each passing year. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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Hot Club of Cowtown: Rendezvous in Rhythm

Monday, June 10th, 2013


Austin swing trio pays tribute to their gypsy-jazz roots

Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown has been mixing Western Swing and Gypsy Jazz since their inception in 1997. This lineup solidified in 2000, and though they split briefly in 2005, their careers continued to intertwine even as they explored separate pursuits. Reuniting in 2008, the band picked up where they left off, mixing covers and originals, and continuing to grow more adept at both writing their own material and interpreting that of others. In 2011 they paid tribute to half their roots with the Bob Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler, and their latest follows up with a salute to the other half, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France.

The fourteen tracks focus on popular songs, show tunes and folk melodies that became jazz standards in 1930s Paris. The selections include the evergreens “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Crazy Rhythm,” and “If I Had You” (accidentally attributed as Irving Berlin’s like-titled composition), as well as a driving take on Reinhardt and Grappelli’s “Minor Swing” and several lesser-known tunes. The group displays their virtuosity both individually and as a trio, breaking out for solos and effortlessly weaving back together into tight improvisations. Elana James and Whit Smith each sing charmingly, Smith with more of a period style, but they also step into the spotlight with their fiddle and guitar to voice instrumental versions of “Dark Eyes,” “I’m Confessin'” and “Sunshine of Your Smile.”

The set focuses primarily on songs written in the 1920 and 30s, but reaches back to the early twentieth century for “Melancholy Baby” (reportedly first sung in public by William Frawley, later of I Love Lucy fame) and the British “Sunshine of Your Smile.” The song list also pulls in Reinhardt’s 1947 instrumental “Douce Ambiance” and Frank Loesser’s even more recent, 1948 that is, “Slow Boat to China.” It’s nice to hear the band indulge their jazz roots, particularly in this live acoustic setting; but the earthier spark of their western repertoire has always given their standards a kick, and is missed, even as their continental sounds enchant. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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Wayne Hancock: Ride

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

WayneHancock_RideJuke-joint swing, twangy honky-tonk and hot rock ‘n’ roll

Wayne Hancock’s been making great albums since he introduced himself with 1995’s Thunderstorms and Neon Signs. His vocal similarity to Hank Sr. hasn’t abated a bit in the subsequent eighteen years, nor has his fealty to the basic elements of Williams’ brand of twangy honky-tonk and haunted sorrow. But Hancock is more a man out of time than a throwback, and though his music takes on a nostalgic tint amidst Nashville’s contemporary style, he makes the case that the sounds he champions are timeless. He sparks terrific performances from his guitarists (Eddie Biebel, Tjarko Jeen and Bob Stafford), steel player (Eddie Rivers) and bassist (Zack Sapunor), and he sounds happy to be singing,l even when he’s singing the blues.

Hancock’s spent the past few years touring, riding his Harley and getting divorced. The latter has turned his music into an essential salve, and though he sings “it’s best to be alone than be in love,” he’s more likely to pine than actually swear off romance. The album opens at highway speed as Hancock tries to outrun his heartache with an open road, a full throttle and dueling electric guitar solos. He’s soon again singing the blues, low-down and alone, but the tears in his voice can’t disguise the pleasure he gains from vocalizing his troubles, a pleasure shared with anyone who gives this album a spin. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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Marley’s Ghost: Jubliee

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Twenty-five years on, Marley’s Ghost is still digging up roots

After twenty-five years together, there’s nothing tremendously surprising about this quintet’s tenth album, but the ease with which they craft country, soul, swing and bluegrass remains terrifically engaging. Recorded in Nashville with Cowboy Jack Clement in the producer’s chair, there’s plenty of tight harmonizing, some rapid finger work and guest appearances by Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and John Prine. The song list combines five originals with eight covers, including finely selected songs from Kris Kristofferson, Katy Moffatt & Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Levon Helm and Bobby & Shirley Womack. The latter’s “It’s All Over Now,” originally recorded by its author as funky, New Orleans-tinged R&B, and famously covered by the Rolling Stones, is winningly arranged here with the twang and harmony of Old Crow Medicine Show. Butch Hancock’s “If You Were a Bluebird” and John Prine’s scornful “Unwed Fathers” (the latter with Harris adding her vocal to Dan Wheetman’s) are especially moving, and the original “South for a Change” offers western swing piano, guitar, steel and fiddle. Like the Band and NRBQ, Marley’s Ghost is an eclectic outfit with deep country roots; the tether gives their catalog continuity and the variety keeps their albums fresh. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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Willie Nelson: Heroes

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

New songs, western swing classics and contemporary pop covers

Willie Nelson spent nearly two decades with Columbia, starting with his 1975 breakthrough (and first chart topper), Red Headed Stranger. He bounced around a number of majors and indies through the ‘90s and ‘00s, and now returns to the Sony fold via the company’s Legacy division, an imprint known more for its vast array of catalog reissues than for new music. But as a heritage artist, it’s a good fit, as Nelson revisits material from his catalog, chestnuts from the ‘30s and ‘40s, covers of recent pop songs, and new titles from his pen and that of his son, Lukas. The results are vital, and surprisingly coherent, if perhaps not always tightly focused. Covers of Pearl Jam (“Just Breathe”) and Coldplay (“The Scientist”) intermingle with Western Swing (“My Home in San Antone” and a terrifically jazzy “My Window Faces South”), ‘40s weepers (“Cold War with You”), and newly written originals.

The album’s guests include Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and in a bit of stunt-casting, Snoop Dogg. Nelson’s voice is more lined with frailty than in his prime, but his idiosyncratic phrasing plays well with the cracks in his tone. He’s joined by his son Lukas on eight of the album’s tracks, which is a bit much of the junior Nelson’s higher, more nasal voice. More impressive are Lukas Nelson’s original songs, including the father-son duet “No Place to Fly” and the painful memories continually resurfacing in “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her.” The elder Nelson’s two new originals include the honky-tonk “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and the western gospel “Come on Back Jesus,” each describing an element of Willie’s faith. Nelson’s still raising hell, albeit in a quieter, more personal way, and drawing on more than fifty years of writing and singing, his music is aging gracefully. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (Legacy Edition)

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Elvis caps his remarkable comeback

Recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, Elvis Country was the culmination of a remarkable career resurrection. Starting with his 1968 Comeback Special, Elvis went on to reel off the brilliant From Elvis in Memphis (and the second-helping, Back in Memphis), the smartly constructed Vegas show of On Stage, and the studio/live That’s the Way It Is. He capped the run with this 1971 return to his roots, branding these country, gospel, blues, rockabilly and western swing covers with authority. Elvis showed his genius was rooted in his passion for music, which encompassed everything from the early rockabilly of Sanford Clark’s “The Fool” (written, surprisingly, by Lee Hazlewood) to the then-contemporary hit “Snowbird,” as well as classics from Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt & Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran.

Recorded in RCA’s famed Studio B with Presley regulars James Burton, Charlie McCoy and Chip Young; the newly assembled studio hands included several players from the Muscle Shoals powerhouse, and the sessions were produced by Felton Jarvis. The arrangements ranged from loose, down home country jams to Vegas-styled orchestrations, and hearing the variety back-to-back, one quickly realizes how easily Elvis transcended the musical boundaries between his ‘50s roots and his glitzy ‘70s stage shows. Much like the 1969 American Studio sessions in Memphis, Elvis’ enthusiasm and musicality directs the assembled players and provokes top-notch performances; he leads the crew through a rocking workout of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and brings “Tomorrow Never Comes” to a volcanic climax.

The original album tracks are knit together with snippets of “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago,” a gimmick that some listeners find irritating, and which wreaks havoc on shuffle play; the complete take is included in the bonuses. An earlier CD reissue expanded the track count from twelve to eighteen, and this double-CD pushes the total to twenty-nine, including all six earlier bonuses. Disc two opens with the third-helping of the Nashville sessions, previously released as Love Letters from Elvis, and adds three more session bonuses: the singles “The Sound of Your Cry” and “Rags to Riches,” and the album track “Sylvia.” The broad range of material on Love Letters doesn’t always connect with Elvis’ legacy as tightly as that on Elvis Country, but Elvis is in fine voice on each track, and the assembled players are sharp.

Everything here’s been issued before, but pulling together session material previously spread across singles, albums, box sets and latter-day compilations has created a superb recounting of the last chapter of Elvis’ incredible comeback. Not included are the eight Nashville tracks released as part of That’s the Way It Is. A third-disc with banded versions of Elvis Country (minus the musical segues, that is) would have been a great addition, but even without it, this is an excellent expansion upon previous standalone reissues, and a terrific complement to the Legacy editions of From Elvis in Memphis and On Stage. The remastered discs (by Vic Anesini) are housed in a tri-fold digipack with a booklet that includes liner notes by Stuart Colman and terrific photos. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Gary Nicholson: Texas Songbook

Monday, July 4th, 2011

A country songwriter sings his Texas songs

Gary Nicholson is a Texan who’s had a lot of success in Tennessee. His songs have appeared on the albums and singles of country stars Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, marrying the hooks required of a Nashville hit with the complex emotions and deep country roots of Texas songwriting. His recording career has been more eclectic, starting with California country-rock in the early ‘70s, blues-rock in the mid-90s, and a return to his roots with an alter-ego tribute to Texas blues legends on 2008’s Gary Nicholson Presents Whitey Johnson. Last year’s Nashville Songbook, Volume One reclaimed a number of songs he’d peddled to Music Row, adding a songwriter’s expression that’s rooted in first-hand truth rather than interpretation and performance.

His new album sticks to the Texas tip, but in country style with a band full of Texans and Texas-reared guests (Delbert McClinton, Ray Benson, Marcia Ball, Mickey Raphael and Joe Ely) playing and singing songs about the Lone Star state-of-mind. Despite the length of time Nicholson’s spent in Nashville, he still writes in a native’s voice, even as he obliquely notes his two musical families with “Woman in Texas, Woman in Tennessee.” He celebrates the Texas character – tall tales (“Talkin’ Texas”), independence (“Fallin’ & Flyin’,” from Crazy Heart), and the bit of Texas that Texans carry with them wherever they go (“She Feels Like Texas”). The outsized scale of Texas geography is mapped in the compass points of “Lone Star Blues,” drawing a trail of mishaps for a luckless protagonist, and the ups and downs of a relationship are mirrored in the tumultuous “Texas Weather.”

Nicholson may not have the head-turning voice of those who’ve made his songs into hits, but as noted earlier, he sings with a songwriter’s feeling for lyrics and imagines a wide array of musical possibilities for his songs. The arrangements include fiddle-and-steel ballads, Texas two-steps, Western swing (including great steel from Tommy Detamore), New Orleans second-line rhythm and roll, Tex-Mex and country-folk. The album closes with “Somedays Your Write the Song,” co-authored with fellow-Texans Guy Clark and Jon Randall Stewart, and the title track for Clark’s Grammy-nominated 2009 album. The lyrics capture the hold that writing places on its writer, and provide a fitting cap to an album of songs that traverse both the truth and the legend of Texas living. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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