Shane Alexander, A Life Like Ours. Is it possible to find an album that feels so right, so true, so, well, spiritual, that it feels like life has just turned the bend into the 1970s and the past fifty years of broken promises and dead ends hasn’t occurred? It’s not a retro experience either, as it is a shining moment of belief and beauty. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Shane Alexander has previously made six solo albums, and each of them have a strong aura about them. But Alexander’s latest is one that establishes such a pure presence that it’s like he’s a brand new artist. There is an authenticity to his new songs that defies the passage of time. It’s like he’s tapped into an ethereal zone that cannot be explained except by listening to the truth. It is no accident he calls his record label and Ventura, California studio Buddhaland, because as a long-practicing Buddhist Shane Alexander has continually sought the steps beyond this life to a permanent home of acceptance. All that glow shines through so clearly in songs like “Everything as One,” “Slow Goodbye” and “Evermore” that the effect is nothing short of stunning. There are secrets inside this album that feel like they’ll be unfolding forever. Which makes it make sense Alexander covers The Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin,” maybe as a nod to a time in the 1960s when the world was wide open for exploration and self-discovery was the most sacred pursuit of all. Which well could be the real message of this album: life is here for the looking, and what is to be seen is what is within us and without us. Still the truth.
Teodross Avery, After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane. It seems like a very good bet that the spirit of John Coltrane will infuse the molecules of life forever for all who want to know what immortality feels like. There is something about his music that transcends everything and evolves into a whole other essence. Saxophonist Teodross Avery has absolutely hit on the astral plane where Coltrane’s inspiration resides, and tapped into it for a supercharged night of performing. Taped live at Oakland’s Sound Room last year, these six songs are beyond being a concert. There are a glimpse into where music sometimes goes to fuel the world. Avery’s horn is blessed with power and driven by love as he takes John Coltrane songs like “Blues Minor,” “After the Rain,” “Africa” and “Pursuance” into the level where the originals were born. It is no easy accomplishment, but Avery discovers the avenue to find his own place there. His artistic commitment allows this understanding of Coltrane’s music find a new birth, one that envelops the master and his younger acolyte. The greatest news of all is that Avery becomes his own person by standing in the fire of the elder’s music and moving on up from there. Coltrane’s lessons live.
Brian T. Atkinson, The Messenger: The Songwriting Legacy of Ray Wylie Hubbard. The singer-songwriters were falling out of the trees in Texas during the 1970s. They came in all stripes and saddles, and once they got plenty of notice, a lot of the music got tagged cosmic cowboy. It wasn’t too long before it started to feel like there was an expiration date on much of it. But there were real keepers among that crowd, none finer than Ray Wylie Hubbard. He might have had a taste for wildness just a few notches short of Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver, but he still knew how to find trouble wherever he looked. Brian T. Atkinson’s book is a mesmerizing collection of interviews and memories with a huge swath of those around the scene then, along with some more modern voices that know greatness when they hear it. Listening to them recall so much of those comings and goings brings to life a certain time that surely won’t come again. Just about any and all behavior was evident, and the songs that came out of those shenanigans will no doubt last forever. They were that good. One thing is sure, and that is Hubbard is the real deal. The fact that he’s still rolling down the highway is a testament to good genes and better luck. For those seeking a wide-screen look at one of the strongest and most lasting musical movements of the past half-century, this tome is a treasured resource, and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s trajectory is one to be savored. Redneck mothers allowed.
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, Contemporary. Some players are born to fly. When he was a teenager, Rick Estrin took a walk on the wild side in San Francisco and got in with Fillmore Slim and Roger Collins, then started opening shows for Lowell Fulson and Z.Z. Hill. Estrin took off for Chicago when he was 19 to work with Johnny Young, Eddie Taylor and others before returning to California to become the frontman for Little Charlie & the Nightcats. When Little Charlie retired in 2008, Rick Estrin didn’t miss a lick taking over the band in spirit and name, and has been flying high for over a decade leading that active aggregation. He quickly recruited guitarist Christoffer “Kid” Anderson and never looked back. The band’s new album covers all the blues bases they’ve specialized in, but also tips their hand in the direction of some more modern-leaning songs to show it’s never too old to take some new tips. Estrin’s voice’s is 100% certified blues, while his harp playing shows there is still fertile new territory for the Mississippi saxophone to till. The sheer propulsion of the Nightcats never fails to thrill. They’re the type of band that once they take the stage there will be no breaks until the amps are turned off at the end of the night. As for Rick Estrin himself, with razor-sharp pleats in his silk slacks, a gleaming jacket to match, white shoes that always look freshly painted and a black shirt and snappy tie, he is strictly business on the bandstand. Once he starts singing and blowing, it’s all over for anything but blues soaked in soul and a heart full of heaviosity. Blues to use.
Jazzmeia Horn, Love and Liberation. Jazz singers have had some of the highest callings of any American musicians. They are able to take basic musical constructs, turn them upside down and inside out and create brand new living breathing entities. A jazz singer is basically a magician with notes. Without or without instruments for support, the music takes flight and takes listeners away. Jazzmeia Horn was clearly born to soar, and in the past few years has become one of the brightest lights in jazz. Growing up in Dallas, the young singer found her home early, and once she began performing everyone realized something serious was going on with Horn. She stood out at her arts-oriented high school, previously attended by the likes of Roy Hargrove, Norah Jones and Erykah Badu, and moved to New York a decade ago to attend the New School’s jazz and contemporary music program. Since then Jazzmeia Horn has received enough awards to fill a bookshelf, but more importantly has also tapped into her inner strengths to find that place where jazz truly comes alive. There is no mistaking it when it’s heard. She wrote eight new originals for the latest release, and sounds like she is now in a class by herself. Horn’s vocals are sensual and swinging, often at once, and when she sings a ballad it immediately becomes a glowing gem. Like on her solo debut, producer Chris Dunn helps Jazzmeia Horn stake her claim as America’s most exciting new hope in jazz vocals, someone who is both bandleader and vocalist and so much more. Deliverance is here.
Greg Laswell, Covers II. It’s pretty much a given that when Greg Laswell recorded an album by himself it’s going to be a free-range affair that can lead anywhere. And when that album consists of covers of some of Laswell’s favorite writers, well, be prepared for what will undoubtedly be a very intense experience. This time ’round, artists like The Verve, Placebo, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode and others provide this engrossing musician the ammo as he lights the fuse. Rest assured this isn’t the type of album that would work at a kegger (do they still have those?) or bachelor party (ditto on those), but for anyone in the mood to be taken on an always engulfing journey into a darkness of heart, accept no substitutes. Greg Laswell has carved out a place that is all his own. The fact he plays all the instruments, sings all the vocals except for gorgeous assists on some tracks by Molly Jenson, and even engineers and mixes the sessions, gives an idea of how life on Laswell Island goes. There are very few modern musicians who can take all those chores on and come out the better for it, but it’s a good bet this is exactly how Greg Laswell works best. Don’t give up.
Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Brighter Days. Steel guitar players aren’t the obvious people to front a band, but when that person is Robert Randolph it’s a done deal a savior has arrived. He’s a musician who has created close to his own genre, taking the sacred steel style into brand new extraterrestrial territory. Randolph attacks his instrument sitting down, but quickly makes clear the sonics he’s striving for are somewhere up in the stratosphere and he’ll be going there to grab them. He is a man possessed when he tears into solos that can be as sweet as they are vicious. With producer Dave Cobb making sure Randolph and his Family Band put it into power drive, this is the best album they’ve ever made. The songs are full of fire, and there is a sense of urgency to the music that promises musical blessings with every note. It is a sound that always shoots for redemption, so it’s serious business when songs like “Baptise Me” and “Strange Train” up the ante and head for heaven. It’s hallelujah time over and over again here, and when the group takes on Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ “Simple Man,” the third-dimension comes alive and Robert Randolph shows just how deep he can go. He gets straight-up sanctified, and points to the promised land right ahead. Cut ’em loose.
Tad Robinson, Real Street. Any real soul singer needs to get down in the dirt to adequately express the kind of deep-seated emotions that lie buried in the music. There just isn’t a pretty way to paint that picture, and Tad Robinson sounds like he’s known that since birth. Realizing there is no substitute for experience, Robinson traveled to Memphis to gather the kind of soul band that rarely exists any more. He enlisted Charles Hodges, Leroy Hodges and Howard Grimses from the Hi Records studio band, featured on hundreds of sessions with the likes of Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and so many others. With Tad Robinson, that holy trio was joined by other players to zero in on the essence of what makes this music so devastating for those whose feelings are open to discovering the inner gyrations of a beating heart. His voice is no trick: he sings like he was born in the cradle of the Mississippi River and knows just when to lean in on a lyric to make it unforgettable. Tab Robinson might be from Indianapolis, but as has been proven over and over, it’s not where you’re from but where you’ve gotten. And this is a man who has arrived smack dab in the middle of American greatness, and been able to make it his home. One listen to Robinson’s vocal on, yes, Bread’s “Make It With You” will not only light up the sky, it’ll make true believers of all within earshot. It’s a hallelujah moment when this irresistible new album starts punching the air and making sure the world knows that reality has busted down the door and taken over the dance floor. Do not get in the way. Pure soul gold.
Various Artists, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection. The name Narvel Eatmon isn’t really well-known in the world of urban blues, but then again neither is his nickname Cadillac Baby. Hopefully this four-disc set of the man’s Bea & Baby Records label will fix that once and for all, because it really was a mind-blowing amalgamation of what African-American audiences were listening to starting in the mid-1950s. The country was splitting at the seams in the decade after World War II ended. There was a growing sense of anything goes in those heady times, even though the races were still vastly unequal and miles apart. Major cities had blues scenes which sounded like someone had been drinking rocket fuel and was ready to blast off into outer space. The music felt like freedom was creeping around the corner and surely life would get better all across the United States. Cadillac Baby had owned a nightclub on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1940s, and when he expanded into the record business in 1955 he brought a glorious flair that grabbed a good amount of attention, especially in the ghetto. Artists like Earl Hooker, Eddie Boyd, Singing Sam, Arlean Brown and dozens of others filled Bea & Baby Records’ release sheets, and with a boost by the owner’s savvy promotional antics made some real noise in the blues world. The company also got into gospel music as a valued side operation, and was seen as an outfit with its finger on a blood-pounding pulse. This absolutely bodacious boxset is one not to miss for all those who follow the blues like a beacon of light. Extensive liners notes, gorgeous photos and just a general air of joy–along with a boatload of tried and true down-home blues–doesn’t come along like this every night. With a thrilling sense of discovery about it, it feels like a hidden cellar door has been opened and hidden jewels are waiting inside. Come on down.
Geraint Watkins, Rush of Blood. The real kick of record listening is a discovery that comes out of the back alley and takes over the turntable. There is no predicting what it might be. That is a fool’s folly. The best tack to take is be open for a surprise, and then bask in its glory when it occurs. Welshman Geraint Watkins has played keyboards with just about every great artist worth listening to in the past five decades, ranging from Bob Dylan and Nick Lowe to Eric Clapton and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. For his new solo album, the man has really hit one out of the park with enough moving feelings and sonic surprises that makes it easy to ask where Watkins has been hiding all these years. Something entirely different is going on now, and it is both heartwarming and heat-inducing. Aided cooly by producer Simon Ratcliffe of Basement Jaxx, who is more than happy to pour his secret sauce in goodly amounts wherever needed, the two have attained alchemy where normal songs rise way above the common and are given a golden coat of shimmering beauty. Bringing in like-minded soul man Little George Sueref on harp shows they both have their thinking caps on tight. Watkins’ voice is a thing of simple but spine-tingling depth, one that produces waves of euphoria just listening to a human able to share such intimacy. In 2019, it sometimes seems like all the great music has been made, and it is no easy task to come across a treasure chest of new recordings. Fear not, because that is exactly what has happened here. It’s the kind of music that dangles hope we all will live forever just to keep being able to come across such expressions of eternity. When the monkey nerve gets hit this hard, look for the reverberations to ring loud and long. The blood rushes.