By Bill Bentley
Dave Alvin, King of California. Downeyite Dave Alvin would be the first call if California names a new State Musician, but that would actually be short-sheeting the musician because in reality Alvin’s multi-dimensional songs cover the whole nation and then some. He may have started as a rootsy booster of all things bluesy, but the guitarist’s playing and songwriting quickly went beyond that and put his stake in the ground for so much more. His originals had been the gold standard for over a decade when this 1994 album became a defining moment for Dave Alvin. It included new acoustic-fueled recordings of six songs Alvin had done in the 1980s, like a newly-imagined primer of some of that decades instant classics. Produced with brilliance by Greg Leisz, Alvin’s singing had grown into a vital voice by the ’90s, and to hear it then was a whole new bag of thrills. There were also several songs on KING OF CALIFORNIA which showed a sharp-eyed approach to covers, emphasizing a talent that had always marked the early Blasters, like Whistlin’ Alex Moore’s “East Texas Blues,” Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth,” Tom Russell’s “Blue Wing” and a duet with Syd Straw on George Jones’ “What Am I Worth.” To mark the first vinyl release of this pivotal album, a Katy Moffat duet on “The Cuckoo,” Alvin’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” and the previously unreleased instrumental “Riverbed Rag” add another layer of excitement to the 25th anniversary edition of an American masterpiece, just like Dave Alvin himself. Wenzel’s Music Town!
Will Beeley, Highways & Heart Attacks. When someone waits 40 years to release a new album, it can be a very good or a very not-so-good sign. That’s because either the 40-year lapse was spent writing the very best songs now being sung or Planet Earth, or in those four decades the artist had misplaced their talent and didn’t have a thing to say. Will Beeley falls firmly into that first category, because his new album HIGHWAYS & HEART ATTACKS arrives like a postcard from Austin in the 1970s that somehow got set aside in the post office until it was recently discovered and delivered. His voice is a soothing combination of hard-won experience and emotional expression. Sure, there are elements of lost love and dashed dreams in most of what Beeley touches, but there’s also enough strength and resolve to keep hope alive. While it’s a known fact there won’t be another Townes Van Zandt or even Blaze Foley busting out of the Lone Star state again, there is right here today a Will Beeley, and considering what all is going on in the world that is indeed a joyous cause for celebration. Produced and recorded by a crack team deep in the heart of San Antonio, be prepared to have a unique jolt of righteous reality delivered over the airwaves on eternal songs like “Been a Drifter,” “Help Me Face the Days” and “Taste of the Good Times,” and to discover a voice that has been silent for far too long. Made in Texas.
The Cash Box Kings, Hail to the Kings! It takes some deep digging in the modern world to find a so-called blues band that has all the ingredients needed to make the bells ring: a bulldogging backbeat, swinging guitar, blasting harmonica, syncopated bass and most of all a singer who can handle the curves and the backstretch. Usually bands get lost in the weeds somewhere trying to go for broke, and the blues has never been about that. What it really takes is a pocketful of finesse and enough deep feeling to make even the hardhearted blush. That’s exactly what the Cash Box Kings have in aces. Vocalist Oscar Wilson is someone who grew up in Chicago’s bluesland, on 43rd Street (aka Muddy Waters Drive) to be exact, and came up strong among some South Side legends. His voice is cured with the kind of spiritual juju that makes the blues America’s permanent music. Harp player Joe Nosek knows what to play and what not to play, and is always right on the note. Guitarist Billy Flynn is the same way: no showboating allowed but beaucoup of bluesisms right where needed. Their second Alligator Records release kicks everything up a notch, and for those seeking the glory days of the Windy City scene, start right here. These are songs to give the lonely-hearted instant friends and make a dark night find some light. In some ways, it might just be the only thing to save the day. Down is up.
Dime Box Band, Happy. Maybe the Dime Box Band has been hiding in plain sight. Or possibly they’ve been busting down doors for awhile, and recently upped their profile so this new album quickly erupts wherever it’s heard. For bandleader Kristi Callan, it’s likely both realities are true. These new songs exude the kind of emotional velocity that only the great groups can create, filled with years of playing shows and holding the head high. The Dime Box Band is one where everyone is related in one way or another, and that kind of DNA allows them to play together in ways only shared blood allows. Callan’s vocals are always heartwarming and often ecstatic, from an obviously valued member of humanity, displaying a strong warmth and soaring range. While this is her band all the way, there’s also an undeniable bond that allows their attack to take hold from note one, and through songs like “All or Nothing,” “Close Your Eyes,” “Butterflies” and “Detour” this Southern California outfit sounds like one that could easily conquer the country. They say time waits for no one, and today the Dime Box Band sure sounds like their time has come. HAPPY is here.
Mike Greenblatt, 50th Anniversary Woodstock: Back to Yasgur’s Farm. With all the various Woodstock-related hoo-hay coming out this summer to celebrate the half-century since it happened, it’s possible to almost recall being there even if you didn’t get within a thousand miles of the event. Saturation is building up daily. The good news is that Mike Greenblatt’s new book is a groovy guide to what happened during the three-day trip into togetherness that included many of the best artists of the era. Greenblatt gets the big picture, but also finds ways to tell the story that haven’t been heard to death. Leading with an introduction by Country Joe “Gimme an F” McDonald himself, things start off with a bang. What emerges is practically a play-by-play of Woodstock, with all its complications and what-could-have-beens, so it seems like the curtains have been parted with some mighty memories. And then there’s the photos: over 200 pages of visuals that bring back just how ominous a festival it still feels like. The last chapter, titled “Invited to the Dance But…” lists 25 groups who were extended an offer to appear but for various reasons couldn’t make the gig. Starting with The Beatles and running through Tommy James & the Shondells, it’s interesting but predictable the Velvet Underground didn’t even get included. Lou Reed and band, performing “Heroin” in front of a half-million people in their Manhattan backyard: the mind boggles. Gimme an H: not a chance. Woodstock Nation revealed.
Charlie Karp, Back to You. Consider someone who starts their musical career in 1970 joining Buddy Miles shortly after Miles left drumming with Jimi Hendrix and introduced the Buddy Miles Express. That’s how Charlie Karp first made his name, before forming the band White Chocolate and then segueing into songwriting and studio work. Soon came the group Slo Leak, not one of the more memorable band names, with fellow players Danny Kortchmar and Harvey Brooks. That’s some strong credentials for an artist most have never heard of. No matter, because on Charlie Karp’s new solo album it’s quickly obvious he’s always gone for the deepest center of a song, whether he wrote it or not, and has a beautiful way of stripping sounds to their core and letting them glow. It’s almost uncanny how moving whatever he touches turns out. He can go from taking the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on a voodooized blues saunter down a dark alley, and then turn around to offer his own instant classic “Sure Thing” with all the soulful dexterity of James Taylor, like he was born to do it. Subtlety is sometimes hard to come by, but Karp makes high art of it, even when he’s bearing down on a blues-fueled song like “Show Me the Money.” This musician sounds like he was born in the pocket. The last song, “Lighthouse,” is a spirit-saving ode to finding salvation wherever it lives, and gathering the strength to go forward as long as possible. Unfortunately, Charlie Karp passed away four months ago, a person who gave his life to making memorable music and in return received a wonderful life back. Rest in peace.
Mary Lane, Travelin’ Woman. Who can resist an 83-year-old woman who is still walking the back streets and singing? Perseverance is the key to life, it is said, and the only sure way to failure is to quit. Mary Lane is not about quitting in any way, shape or form. She’s been bulldozed by the blues for so long there is no other path. Her musical rap sheet reads like some fantastical dream, and includes meeting Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and James Cotton at her uncle’s club in Brinkley, Arkansas. In 1957 Lane lit out for Chicago and eventually got there in 1961. It’s been a life of work and singing ever since. Mary Lane’s voice is blues-tested like very few are today. She’s been on the stage of every blues club in the Windy City for almost 60 years, recorded on a variety of record labels to varying effect, and above all else kept the blues coming, never second-guessing it or drifting into alien territory. She can write lyrics on the spot, and lives a determined work ethic that doesn’t ask for favors, at the same time remains fixated with her eye on the sparrow. Best of all, Mary Lane’s voice and spirt are still strong, evocative of a time in America when the blues was the lifeblood of African-American life. Mary Lane and Jim Tullio have written and produced what might be a last call for blues from the bottom, one that apologizes to no one and takes zero prisoners. The last song, “Make Up Your Mind,” written by Lane and Colin Linden and featuring only Linden’s dobro, has got hellhounds on its trail and the Holy Ghost bringing up the rear, but is also full of promise for a better day. Like Mary Lane.
Rain Perry, Let’s Be Brave. When the December 2017 Thomas Fire blazed through Southern California, one of the many structures destroyed was Rain Perry’s music studio. Like so many others hit, Perry immediately made plans to start anew and the result is this album’s attempt to hold strong and go on. And what an album it is. There are all kinds of highlights, including the Bruce Springsteen song “Rocky Ground” featuring Jon Dee Graham (get well soon), and an homage to singer Julie Christensen, “St. Julie of Iowa” with Chuck Prophet’s prophetic guitar blazing away. That’s just the beginning. Perry is someone who has signed on full-time to express as much as possible about all the social and humanistic challenges in modern America. She is someone who goes all the way when it comes time to try to make her music make a difference in how everyone’s struggle is represented. She even includes a burning cover of Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed” to push forward, with her voice always ringing true. Hopefully this is Rain Perry’s time to get the spotlight as she offers solace to the needy and power to the committed. Break on through.
Chris Stamey, New Songs for the 20th Century. Imagine walking around Manhattan in the 1950s, the air tingling with fall and the lights on everywhere with window displays on the Upper East Side and all over Greenwich Village. There is a sense of expectation, like America had made it through World War II on the winning side and now everyone was catching their breath and looking for action. While the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit may have been the look du jour, underneath that was a roiling fever, one hoping to break into new territory, whether it was the beat poets or the sound of new jazz. Also supplying a soundtrack were the classic songwriters like Jerome Kern, the Gershwin’s, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and others. This New York City landscape included their songs, and how the artists were interpreting them then. Chris Stamey knows his way around great songwriting, and has done some of it himself. On his new two-disc set, he takes the vibrant inspiration of the Great American Songbook, and applies it to today with his newly-written originals. This is by no means a walk down memory land; rather it’s a stroll under the influence of the greats that came before him. The ModRec Orchestra, named after his Modern Recordings studio, includes plenty of heavy hitters, and Stamey has assembled a gaggle of guest vocalists, including Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz, Kristen Lambert, Millie McGuire and many others. Taken together, this is a prodigious project that asks for real attention. Fortunately, the gift of this music pays off in timeless beauty and unlimited inspiration. It’s like the past has been reinvigorated by the present, with nothing lost and everything gained. Rain or shine.
The Texas Horns, Get Here Quick. When it’s time for a true Texas twist-off, this is the set to demand to supply the sonics. With Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff on tenor, Al Gomez on trumpet and John Mills on baritone, the Texas Horns is a treacherous trifecta of hornsters. They got schooled in the clubs and concert halls all over the Lone Star State, each learning what it takes to kick things into action and make sure the sounds are soaring. To nail down that the party hits the red-hot zone and stays there, special guests like Curtis Salgado, Gary Nicholson, Guy Forsyth, Carolyn Wonderland, Red Young, John Nemeth, Denny Freeman, Ronnie Earl, Derek O’Brien, Anson Funderburgh and others got the call for these sessions, turning the album into an all-star situation that rarely happens anymore. Add to that a dozen right-on original songs, the best rhythm players in the state and an overall atmosphere of groovosity, and the Texas Horns zoomed right through the bullseye into the outer limits of the musical ozone. Kazanoff, Gomez and Mills have worked with just about everyone great on two legs who’ve played in Austin, San Antonio and beyond the last 40 or so years, and apply all that they’ve learned and earned to make sure GET HERE QUICK doesn’t miss a lick. For those seeking a sure shot of the bluebonnet plague, this disc is a must have. Wear it out.