Joseph Arthur, Come Back World. If there is a present day hidden missile waiting in the rock ranks ready to explode, look to Joseph Arthur. With decades-long dedication to chasing his inner muse, sometimes in the open and others in the darkness, the Akron, Ohio native has never wavered from the course. His albums hit the highest level of inspiration with stunning regularity, and with fans like Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and R.E.M., over the years it always seemed like Arthur was zeroing in on breakthrough status. The good news is he still is, and on the appropriately named Moonage Rebel record label it’s an honor well-earned. Joseph Arthur’s crazy-glue mix of melody, rhythms, lyrics and just plain uniqueness isn’t often equaled, and the way he delivers such an intriguing reverie is nothing short of breathtaking. There is never any question that Arthur is giving everything he has on these ten songs, supplying almost all the instrumentation except drums. And with backing vocalists like Greg Dulli, Ben Harper, Marley Munroe, Jesse Malin and Chris Seefried weaving a wonderful web of singing behind him, this is rock that tiptoes into the spiritual in a way that evokes real survival. Near the end, as “Mayor of the Lower East Side” brings that storied New York neighborhood to shivering life, the spirit of Lou Reed is right there on the sidewalk, taking a walk on the wild side once again with his good friend Joseph Arthur. Little Joe lives.
Big Band of Brothers, A Jazz Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band. Easily in the upper echelons of great rock bands, the Allman Brothers always worked the inner edges of musical improvisation starting on day one. Why would Duane Allman and gang do it any different? These Southern players could really burn, and if they never went full-tilt jazz, on certain songs the Allmans traveled right up to the line. So it makes perfect sense for a stellar line-up of today’s jazzers to take on such perennial Allman staples as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” Les Brers in A Minor” and “Hot ‘Lanta” to see where it takes them. It’s a great revelation to hear big horn sections of saxophones, trumpets and trombones hit these magical grooves and keep on going. Mark Lanter sits in the producer (and drum) seat and makes sure the album never slips into an academic endeavor, but rather stays focused on keeping everything swinging. There is no doubt that brothers Duane and Gregg Allman, along with Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks, are smiling somewhere on the other side of life as they hear their sonic children let loose on the playground and be encouraged to run around freely. The Allman Brothers Band was always an aggregation that held the keys to rock & roll freedom, even in the years when it seemed like their later personal scrapes took centerstage. Let there be liberation now, and celebrate what such an amazing amalgamation of musicians first gave us, as their present day instrumental acolytes, along with guest vocalists Marc Broussard and Ruthie Foster, continue to create. An Allman joy.
The Carter Family, Across Generations. A musical family like the Carters is total country kryptonite. Starting with father A.P. Carter, Maybelle Carter and enough sisters, daughters and brothers to fill the Grand Ole Opry, the family dynasty continues to grow. They’re now into their fifth generation with no signs of slowing down. Producer John Carter Cash had the daunting charge of taking brand new and seriously old recordings by the Carters and weave them together into a staggering series of songs written by A.P. Carter, along with the traditional “Farther On” and Maybelle Carter’s “Maybelle’s New Tune.” It is a full-on stunner, like an undeniable history lesson which has sprung to vivid life. It would take a road map to accurately follow the voluminous lineage of this musical clan, but with sounds so emotional it’s worth the study. Realizing that the birth of so much country music started in Hiltons, Virginia at the foot of Clinch Mountain, first recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company in Bristol, Tennessee in the summer of 1927. The recordings that have since traveled for over ninety years to where they are today is a wonder of the modern world. Without the Carter family, and their first exposure to America via border radio station XERA located in Ciudad Acuna across the Mexican border from Del Rio, Texas, who knows what the country would be listening to? Luckily no one will have to find out, and today the Carter Family on this momentous album continues to stride through generations like one of those long-ago diesel trains ballin’ the jack across the entire United States of America. The First Family.
Kinky Friedman, Resurrection. Richard “Kinky” Friedman has been masquerading as a country singer for almost fifty years, when in fact he is a Texas-cured philosopher who favors steel guitars and barroom bandstands over the Torah and synagogues. The singer-songwriter has been out there pumping and thumping his own brand of personal salvation so long that he is indeed a living tradition. Leave it to the Kinkster to record one of the best albums of his long career at the tender age of 73, a career which started so long ago with SOLD AMERICAN and a cultural call-to-arms for all those within earshot. Clearly someone who thrives on controversy, in 2019 Friedman is offering a steaming heaping of hope and understanding, something that shines with pure poetry and the kind of songs that become beacons of light. It is all rather overwhelming, produced to perfection by American legend Larry Campbell, featuring the ultimate musical shaman Willie Nelson on guest vocals and new songs that are inspired by Nelson Mandela, Billy Swan and others. Never one to lack a healthy dose of self-belief, Kinky Friedman has outdone his past greatness this time ’round. Super shalom ya’ll.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Cypress Grove. This bluesman is 72-years-young and he do not play no rock & roll. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes comes straight out of Betonia, Mississippi, where he also runs America’s longest operating juke joint, the Blue Front Cafe. He is someone who knows how to stomp out the blues in his sleep. It’s a sound that has become so second-nature to Holmes that it’s as comfortable as the shoes he wears and the air he breathes. For this go-round on record the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach steps into the producer’s chair to make sure not a single note is anything less than deepest blue, whether it’s by Holmes himself or his backing band. This is blues the straight up and low down way, with Mississippi mud in the grooves and a lot of hard luck life running through the lyrics. Make no mistake: “Duck” Holmes is on a mission to share as much as he can about life, love, loneliness and lunacy while he’s still able. It’s been hard traveling in the Magnolia State, ripping and running to make a living on the blues circuit, juking at home in the Blue Front and showing all who listen how the old style country blues sounds when its delivered by someone born into the world feeling it. And who will surely be singing the blues until he’s taken out of it. In the alley.
Janiva Magness, Change in the Weather: The Songs of John Fogerty. It can be rough going when an artist does an entire album of songs written by only one other artist. Usually that means the artist being covered is well-known, which also means they’ve already seared their songs in the public’s mind with their original versions. But when Janiva Magness records twelve of John Fogerty’s many iconic originals, she takes them to a place they haven’t been before and turns the affair into a flat-out jubilation of some of America’s very best music. Maybe it’s because Magness herself is such a deeply soulful singer that she can inhabit songs like “Lodi,” “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and others, then wear them like a brand new set of clothes. And when she takes on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” she moves it all the way to the dark end of the street and finds the holy spirit waiting there to make sure the circle remains unbroken. It also doesn’t hurt that she goes beyond Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival years and does some off-road exploration on “Change in the Weather,” “Blueboy” and a few others to show there was plenty of life after CCR for John Fogerty’s greatness. The woman’s voice is so sexy, expressive and real that everything starts to feel brand new, a look at America from the inside out that has rarely been equaled in rock & roll songs. It also makes a valid case that the Great American Songbook has not ended. As long as music is born in the American land there will always be new songbooks to open the door for exciting exploration. Feel and heal.
Steve Miller, Welcome to the Vault. For someone who had several of the biggest hits of the 1970s, Steve Miller managed to remain somewhat of an enigma through it all. It’s no accident he wore a mask on the cover of one of his most popular albums, but the man has always been a musician who refuses to be hemmed in by any one style. Miller’s early electro-blues bands in Chicago eventually led to one of the more exploratory albums released out of San Francisco in the 1960s. CHILDREN OF THE FUTURE will always stand as a semi-Owsleyized leap into the unknown. That was just the start, too. This unique box set includes three CDs and a DVD full of live and unreleased favorites, rare video performance footage from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, the Monterey International Pop Festival and other shows, along with a 100-page hardbound book of total Miller mania. Just for kicks, Capitol Records throws in 10 guitar picks, 4 postcards, a poster and, yes, an authentic backstage pass. The only thing missing is Stevie “Guitar” Miller delivering it all personally to lucky buyers. Sure, all the hits are here, but even better is the range of the songs that haven’t been released before. By the time everything is heard and seen, it’s almost like the listener has taken a cross-country trip with an American original who never quit pushing forward. The Joker kills.
Van Morrison, Three Chords & the Truth. When this man heads for the outer zone and finds that spot right between Earth and the ozone, there is really no one else in his realm. Van Morrison sings like he’s been given the keys to a whole other kingdom, and depending on the song he can transport listeners wherever he wants to take them. Fortunately on this new album, his seventh in the past five years, there is no going back. At least half the songs make the cosmic meter blast right into the red and ensure that everywhere within striking distance knows Morrison is living on his own astral plane. It’s the place where time comes to a standstill, and the music and words combine into a hypnotic dance guaranteed to open up the sky and let a gorgeous warmth drift down like a fog of love enveloping all it touches. Over the top? Most likely, but that’s not what matters. What’s important is to realize just how totally unique Van Morrison is, and have the loyalty to stay with him over all these years, right back to when his mesmerizing Belfast band Them first appeared in the mid-1960s. No one else from that era has been able to maintain such a glorious run, and from a quick sweep of the modern musical landscape it’s very unlikely there will be another in his category. While there are times when Morrison’s albums get close to predictable, he never fails to zero in on his very best and deliver the goods soon enough. From “Mystic Eyes” to “Madame George” to “Into the Mystic” all the way through to today’s breathtaking “Up on Broadway” is a heart-tugging example of how human beings can travel to a higher world, one out of reach of everyday boundaries and zooming right for the upper cosmos. Go with him.
Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Andy Aledort and Alan Paul. For the deep-dig story on the life of the guitarist who took blues into the stratosphere, longtime Guitar World magazine writers Alan Paul and Andy Aledort went directly to the source, starting with Vaughan’s family members and earliest musical collaborators. They wanted to bring Vaughan into total focus and tell the real story of an American original who won’t be seen again. The way the book takes readers there is such a superlative tale that by the end it is like Stevie Ray Vaughan is standing right here, smiling his knowing smile and looking out into the world with those happy searching eyes. Though it’s heartbreaking to realize how the world lost this treacherous explorer much too soon, there is also such a complete understanding showing how soulful Vaughan really was, it humanizes the loss because he accomplished so much. Stevie Ray Vaughan reignited the blues and made it modern so all who listen can understand it’s actually a music of happiness and wonder. As those who knew the Texan remember what happened and why it really matters, a moving time machine kicks in and takes us into all areas of Vaughan’s life, from top to bottom, and allows a world of music to break open in deep detail. Listeners sometimes ask who the next Stevie Ray Vaughan will be, and an answer becomes evident: there won’t be another. With this tremendous book, the reasons are beautifully shown why. Stevie raves on.
Various Artists, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969. During the 1960s blues made its comeback, hurtling through college dormitories and hipster neighborhoods like a subway ready to jump the rails. There were dozens of original blues people recording, touring, being photographed and nearly worshipped for their music and bravery to exist all those years, often in a world that didn’t seem to care. From Robert Johnson’s groundbreaking reissued album to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and all the other heroes, it felt like the blues would live forever. In so many ways it has, but in others it seemed to peak as the 1970s got started. And surely the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 was a mountaintop event. It was a roll call of the greats, and was never equalled in musical scope. This double-disc collection consists of never-released live recordings from that three-day event on the Fuller Flatlands at the University of Michigan, a most worthy follow-up to the other original festival performances first released on Atlantic Records almost 50 years ago. So many major and lesser-heard blues artists of the day back then are captured here in fine form, from Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams and Lightnin’ Hopkins to Waters, Wolf, King, Big Mama Thornton and so many others. There are highlights galore, including an incendiary version of “So Many Roads” by Otis Rush and Charlie Musselwhite’s muscular “Movin’ and Groovin.” For some reason Freddie King’s estate didn’t allow his set to be included, which hopefully means that someday it will be released in its entirety. Until then this is live blues that will heal all wounds, and point the way to secular salvation like nothing else can. A mind-bending collection of twenty-three artists, and dozens of never seen photographs, that we won’t find the likes of again. Blues on high.
Kelsey Waldon, White Noise/White Lines. Reality can often be the most seductive aspect of life, and when it comes in the form of a Kentucky-raised singer like Kelsey Waldon it is often an overwhelming rush of just how wonderful things sometimes work out. Though she’s lived in Nashville a good while, her Bluegrass State bloodlines are in full force on these 11 new recordings. It also doesn’t hurt that after two independent albums Waldon has signed with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, the first new label addition in fifteen years. But best of all is just how evocative and entirely overwhelming all these songs are. It’s like reading the very finest novella about someone’s life, and going with them as they remember all the ups and downs and in-betweens of how they’ve ended up in the place they’re in. Kelsey Waldon is someone who sounds like she’s never turned away from who she is, and when times got hard she dug in and did her best–and always survived. Whether it’s on “Kentucky, 1988” or “Sunday’s Children,” these are songs up there in early Kris Kristofferson territory, which is about as fine a songwriting place as there is. Waldon’s voice doesn’t hold back either: it’s as Southern as black-eyed peas and pecan pie. At the end of the album, she steps into Ola Belle Reed’s “My Epitaph” like she owns it. To hear Waldon sing Reed’s lyrics, “Now God gives life freely, then he takes away / what we do for each other oh let us do it today” is to discover in only two lines a total plan for living that just might solve the world’s problems. By-and-by.
Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Colorado. There is only one Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They may not record very often, but when they do it’s guaranteed powerful sparks will fly, beating hearts might cry and simply being alive will become infused with a spirit only they can create. Part of it is the sheer sound of the band. Without ever being over-accomplished, which would be boring, they still soar beyond most other rock aggregations. It is based on their own personal history, but even more exciting is their willingness to go out on the ledge to see if they can jump to the other side. These nine new songs cover the entire waterfront: social issues, romantic ecstasy, cosmic musings and everything in-between gets the Neil Young stun gun. It doesn’t really matter whether the sound fits in with whatever else is out there now, because the Horse can only play what they can play. Which is a very good thing. There is no arguing with songs like “She Showed Me Love,” “Olden Days,” “Milky Way,” “Rainbow of Colors” or any of the others, because the laser beam of a band that’s been together 50 years is something to behold. The air was rare in the mountains of Colorado when these sessions occurred, and that can be heard to chill-bumping effect throughout the whole album. Ride ’em home.
Song of the Month
Eric Tessmer, “Good So Bad.” In the rip roarin’ 1970s in Austin, an amorphous cult began that used the initials TMFG as a rallying cry. Without spelling it out, some there felt enough was enough for the deluge of six-stringers around town. Luckily, guitarists kept moving to Austin, new styles developed and budding stars were plugging in and plying their trade in front of curious eyes and ears. Eric Tessmer came along a couple of decades later, and let it be said he’s jumped to the front of the guitar line in Austintown, and his second EP proves it. “Good So Bad” is a mid-tempo burner that is equal parts wailing guitar and soul-steeped vocals, tempered by an alcohol habit that had threatened to take Tessmer down. Luckily that didn’t happen, and the musician busted loose and went all the way into new terrain. Now, with a recovery program and quiet miracles the young musician is moving straight into a striking future. It’s a lifelong pursuit, just like playing guitar, but by all accounts sobriety is now the greatest gift he has in pushing his guitar into a brand world, for him and for us. Happy Destiny Road.