By Bill Bentley
Matt Andersen, Halfway Home by Morning. When the soul starts flowing and the music starts going, there is no holding back an artist like Matt Andersen. Even though he’s a Canadian, it’s like he parked himself in the South spiritually at some point in his life and absorbed everything great about the endless music that evolved in that rich area of American sounds. He went all the way to the other end and became someone who could hold his own next to anyone raised there. His recent album includes enough earth-moving songs that there’s no way to walk away from it without being profoundly moved. Whether it’s “What Would Your Mama Say” to “Nothing to Lose” to “Take Me Back,” Andersen plants his flag in the Southern soil and announces he’s arrived. Sunshine be out.
Gary Clark Jr., This Land. For those who made a musical stand in 2019 and put their artistic reputation on the line, Gary Clark Jr. takes a backseat to no one. The guitar-slinging hero from Austin has had a vision from the start, as he learned and listened to everything under the sun when he was young, and then turned that into his own creation. Teenaged club gigs and even an early movie role set him on his course, so that today he’s the kind of musician that others look to in finding their own future. THIS LAND arrived like a personal neutron bomb, as Clark ventured into new territory and spoke his head and heart about the way the world appeared to him. It might have taken some listeners a moment to hear it for what it is: a call to arms for understanding and strength, with a guitar born in the blues becoming his cosmic calling card. Right now, Gary Clark Jr. is primed to be a trailblazing pioneer for the next decade, and this is where all that promise can now be heard best. Train’s a comin’.
William Harries Graham, Jakes. When someone starts so young, like William Harries Graham did when he was in his early teens and started doing his own shows, the arc of development can be astounding. Graham’s latest album, JAKES sounds like a full-blown announcement of a major new voice, one that is sometimes right out front and others semi-hidden in audio atmospherics. Either way, it’s impossible not to be impressed by such a fully-formed artist barely in their 20s sounding so unique. Maybe they’re born that way, or possibly genetics even comes into play. The son of Jon Dee Graham, formerly of the True Believers and countless solo incarnations, there is no way the offspring can’t be affected. The thing to remember is that everyone starts somewhere, and a few get a familial boost that can open creative doors. The sure thing is that someday William Harries Graham will walk in the parade of greats right down the middle of the boulevard, and all can hear what a modern visionary sounds like. Start right here.
Durand Jones & the Indications, American Love Call. True blue soul singers aren’t roaming the earth like they once were, so when one steps onstage and demands instant attention it can be a true hallelujah moment. As the drums starts popping, the horns blasting and the bass is walking the dog, the sky’s the limit. Durand Jones and vocalist-drummer Aaron Frazer are heaven-sent singers from Indiana who have it all. Jones’ vocals have fire and finesse, his moves are irresistible and with Frazer sharing several vocals, the Indications are supplying the perfect accompaniment, and all things are possible. Jones’ sophomore album arrives like a combination summer breeze and backyard barbecue. He’s been developing his attack a few years out of the spotlight, but clearly is ready now for his close-up. If the Impressions, Temptations, Four Tops or, hell, Dyke & the Blazers ever held steady sway on the emotions, run don’t walk to hear Durand Jones & the Indications. Time is tight.
Rickie Lee Jones, Kicks. When this Los Angeles-based artist arrived in 1980 with an introduction like “Chuck E’s in Love,” it was obvious something huge had happened, and she would not be going away. There is a sense of permanence in all the greatest music, and Rickie Lee Jones had it written all over her songs. Part beatnik, part chanteuse, part world traveler and all awesome, the past 40 years have been a rollercoaster ride of inspired creations and an unrelenting quest to keep moving. Surely there’s a touch of gypsy blood inside her, because there’s never been a question of where she’s going. She’s going to get over, and in a place she hasn’t been. With a cool album of cover songs this time around, Jones immediately makes them all her own, whether it’s Dean Martin’s “Houston,” Steve Miller’s “Quicksilver Girl” or America’s “Lonely People.” And the way she does it all with such ease and elegance shows someone who has found a way to walk their musical path without having to touch the ground. Color her real.
John Kilzer, Scars. Memphis has its own way of hitting all the glory marks, but also suffers its personal heartbreak. It’s like with so many things: if you wanna have a dance you gotta pay the band. When John Kilzer’s album SCARS was released in January, it seemed like such a perfect return to form. Kilzer had made a splash in the 1980s with a distinctive mainstream rock sound, but soon left the grind and headed off to get his Ph.D in Theology. Yes, Theology. He even became a minister specializing in recovery work. But rock & roll, once inside the bones, never goes completely away so the Memphis man came back and recorded SCARS, a knocked-out compendium of all things Southern. It also just happens to be one of the best albums of the year, and held such hope for a full-blown return to form, that when John Kilzer died in March it felt like a door had slammed shut on a revitalized believer. One that doesn’t come that often. So say a prayer for someone who once again saw the future and the future was himself. Bless his heart.
Mavis Staples, We Get By. If there needs to be a chief cheerleader for spiritual salvation and social justice, Mavis Staples got the gig decades ago and never even came close to losing it. There is something eternal about what she does, both in the Staple Singers and on her own. It comes with such an obvious righteousness there can be no instance of doubt. This is the human for that job, and she carries the mantle with such certitude it feels like a relief someone’s got it covered. For this recorded go-round, friend Ben Harper stepped in to assist with songwriting and production, as others like Ry Cooder, Jeff Tweedy and Matt Ward have done in the past, completing a circle of positivity and proving that Mavis Staples has everything needed to help keep the world turning. Spin and grin.
Jimmie Vaughan, Baby, Please Come Home. Blues guitarists were once an endangered species, but in the mid-1960s word went out about the open fields of fiery possibilities that had started growing there. Before you could say “B.B. King” dozens and dozens of players started to swarm. In the past 50 years it’s lightened up a bit, but no matter how you slice it Jimmie Vaughan is one of those long-time blues men now at the head of the class. His recordings never get fancy, which is one of the true mind-blowing values of them, but in the end Vaughan delivers the goods like only a handful of musicians can do these days. He does it with singular style and savvy smarts, never over-playing but also not forgetting to soak everything in the essence of what the blues has always been about: feeling. Jimmie Vaughan has become a class act with one foot still in the alley, just the way he likes it, and knows exactly how to hit the monkey nerve every time. Blues to use.
The Wild Reeds, Cheers. Very little beats the sound of human voices singing together. It’s like the curtain is lifted back for a few precious moments and heaven can be seen on the other side. Life soars and rides a carpet of goodness. The Wild Reeds have that ability to take listeners on the ride with them, and finally capture it all on an album. Their songs can go way up, low down and pulsate with electricity right in the middle, but always get to a place where their humanity becomes electric and the sound waves surround the ears with an inviting grandeur. It comes so naturally to The Wild Reeds the three women become sisters in song. The summer is the perfect season to step into the group’s world and become filled with the buoyancy that comes when music finds its higher purpose and extends a hand on the road of happy destiny. So it is.
Yola, Walk Through Fire. Why do the English so often understand American music better than Americans themselves? Maybe the distance over the Atlantic Ocean gives them a perspective to better view the various sounds emanating out of the United States? Or maybe they just care more? Yola definitely has a line on what’s at the top of U.S. sounds, and assimilates it with such intuitive beauty that hearing her songs feels like a living welcome home. She is a pure-born natural, primed to become a major voice and in the process prove that the desire to express her deepest inner feelings is the key to eternity. Whether she is mining the rich veins of country or blues, rock or soul, doesn’t really matter. Because, in the end, it all becomes Yola music, which is the ultimate stamp of artistic permanence. When a singer can sound like no one but themselves, they’re always onto something. With producer Dan Auerbach and co-writers Auerbach, Dan Penn, Pat McLaughlin, Bobby Wood, John Bettis, Joe Allen and Bobby Cook, Yola has moved quickly to the top of the mountain. Find her there.
Michael McDermott, “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago.” Every few years there is a song that completely captures the longing and regret of days gone by, evoking the loss of innocence and the shame of mistakes with such volcanic truth that the only recourse is to shudder in sadness. There can be no solution to the despair that floods the heart in such moments except to wait it out and hope it does not return too soon. Michael McDermott does all that and more on “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago.” The Chicago singer-songwriter had a flirtation with fame in the 1990s when he lived in Los Angeles, and it looked like his music career was ready for real takeoff. Things changed, got darker and eventually stalled, but McDermott is now back with the album ORPHANS and this song, which is one so memorable and momentous it feels like it’s tattooed on the heart. “Some dreams they don’t die easy / some dreams they never seem to grow,” he sings, as breath becomes scarce and the eyes shine with tears, it’s clear the man is possessed by greatness. And Los Angeles will always be home. Boardner’s or bust.
Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa. San Francisco’s finest began with an urge to turn the world on. Once the band escaped playing pizza parlors and Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead took off for brand new territory carrying a caravan of day-tripping acolytes in the direction of the promised land. And never looked back. As the Sixties gained momentum and got thrown into overdrive the Dead took all their new found freedom and plugged it into the cosmos, making early albums that might not have exploded but definitely blew some minds. Their third release, 1969’s AOXOMOXOA, always felt like a bastard child, not quite finding the massive audience it should have but still pointing the way powerfully forward. Then later the same year the double-disc LIVE/DEAD hit with such a seismic psychic force that its predecessor got left in the golden dust. Unfairly, because there was so much experimentation and outright flights of fancy on AOXOMOXOA that it deserved better. Opening with a studio version of “St. Stephen” was a game-upper all the way, and then other songs like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” “Doin’ That Rag,” “China Cat Sunflower” and “Cosmic Charlie” showed how much lyrical magic writer Robert Hunter was bringing to the music. Known for their instrumental prowess and psychedelicized oeuvre, Hunter equaled that mighty thunder with words up to the task. This expanded 50th anniversary reissue lets AOXOMOXOA shine in newfound splendor. It includes the original 1969 mix with a 1971 remix for those with ears still able to hear the difference, and a second disc featuring nine songs from two different nights at the Avalon Ballroom in January 1969. And, yes, the 8-and-a-half minute “What’s Become of the Baby” still sounds like the perfect advertisement for Owsley’s Orange Sunshine acid in all its technicolor luminosity, reminding everyone as the 1970s lay right ahead that there was no going back now. The world turned.