By Bill Bentley
Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band, Just Like Moby Dick. If there is a renaissance person alive in the world today, better make it Terry Allen. Between his paintings, plays and music, Allen has whacked out his own swath the past 50-something years in all kinds of directions. He made most of his early noise in Texas, starting in Lubbock around the Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock crowd. But Terry Allen has always been too big an artist to be contained by any one scene. Soon enough the tall Texan was off and running all over the world. Luckily, he continues to write country-based songs that tend to shape the universe into some fairly unique pretzels, slightly hallucinatory while always planted in the soil. They hit hard and always make sense, sort of. It’s exactly those question marks in the music that define Terry Allen’s greatness. It’s like there’s always something right outside the frame that pulls the mind and soul in a different direction, one all its own. Through it all runs a slightly mystical musical stance that keeps the imagination jumping. This new album is one of the man’s finest, offering irresistible looks at family twists, spooky pirate ships and all kinds of other oddities. With participating players like Charlie Sexton, Lloyd Maines, Davis McLarty, Richard Bowden, Glenn Fukunaga and vocal wonder Shannon McNally–not to mention three other members of the Allen clan–every song has that X-factor glow often found under those big Lone Star skies. When a good dose of wonder is called for, head for Terry Allen territory. And look up.
Drew Fish Band, Wishful Drinkin‘. Honky tonkin’ will never go out of style, as long as beer is brewed, working class warriors remain ready to blow off some serious steam and country singers like Drew Fish spin out songs like “Lone Star Saturday Night,” “One Beer at a Time” and a fistful of other instant country classics. Fish has been working his way upstream in honky tonks around the South for several years, and looks now like he’s one hit away from grabbing lightning. That’s because his voice is real. There is no way to cut corners or throw out slick tricks with music like this. Either the singer delivers or it’s time to unplug the amps and head home. Without doubt, Fish delivers. There is an easy swagger in his sound, one that pays homage to the singing greats before him. He’s also deadset on putting his own stake in the ground. With a band that sounds like they honed their attack on stages from Tyler to El Paso and back enough times to be known in all the truck stops along the way, there aren’t many groups that can play harder, pull back as quickly and then drop the hammer at the end of a set to leave audiences in semi-delirium. Country music is like salvation on the bandstand to its fervent followers, which is one of the reasons it still sells like it’s the good old days pre-Spotify and other streaming shenanigans. Watch out for Drew Fish soon at the CMAs, ACMs and whatever other alphabetical rompers hit the screen. The real deal.
Ian Gothe, Memento. Talk about a left-field surprise. Ian Gothe has been around long enough to be known in certain circles, but across the board he feels like a newcomer. That shouldn’t last much longer, because his grasp of all the great elements of rock seems limitless. Born in Iran to Armenian parents, he set out as a young teenager on a voyage all his own. Call it wanderlust or whatever else works, but Gothe gathered influences and experiences like beautiful jewels, and has created a debut album like few others. Produced by the sure hand of Jim Scott, who has worked with everyone from Tom Petty to Robert Randolph, this is a breathtaking collection of music that though rooted in the 1960s, is really in a time of its own. Astute covers like the Bee Gees’ “Holiday,” The Doors’ “Spanish Caravan,” Camel’s “Airborne” and the off-the-chart discovery of The Coral’s “Liezah,” are more than matched by Ian Gothe’s originals. His “Blood on the Rooftops in Montrose,” inspired as a tribute to Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, lifts off into a world of its own immediately, and doesn’t come back to earth until the very end. It’s as clear as day that this is someone who’s devoted his entire life to music, and has now found a new solid ground. Gothe and Scott chose to record the album without band rehearsals, which is one of the smartest decisions they made. Every note hits with an indelible strength and inner beauty that makes this album feel on fire. Whether he’s singing in English or Armenian, everything is expressed for keeps, and the worldly aura that infuses the album puts it in a universe of its own. Earth call home.
Grateful Dead, Ready or Not. Could it be? The subtle noodling guitar lines, played with a cosmic twist; a bouncing rhythm, like riding an older horse; and the celestial piano, like it’s being played on the far end of a stage where it curves into infinity. And that voice? Sometimes the only voice that really matters: Jerry Garcia coming home like a long lost uncle that can never be replaced. Could it be the good ol’ Grateful Dead, returning with a new song? Glory be that’s exactly what it is, and it’s called “Liberty.” For 55 years the Grateful Dead’s music has ridden to the rescue, whether it was to kickstart a countercultural revolution in America in 1965, or to take its followers into a whole different consciousness for the next 30 years, and near the end lend a hand to those who needed a few survival tips for the new world order. Now the Grateful Dead return ever so slightly from the beyond with a live album of new songs they’d written in the early ’90s and were going to record when they finished their endless tour. But it never happened. Jerry Garcia died in ’95, and the cosmos split apart. There are now different Deads, called different things, but without Garcia there can be no Grateful Dead. That is a true fact. These 9 songs, some of the last the band wrote, became part of the band’s endless repertoire in the early ’90s, and were planned for the group’s next studio session. Instead, we get the primo live versions of nine stellar originals, captured when Captain Jerry was still at the wheel, recorded in concerts around America, from New York’s Madison Square Garden to Memphis’ The Pyramid to their home court at Oakland’s Alameda County Coliseum. It is all a very beautiful thing, bringing back memories that will never go away, like framed photos in a room you’ve always lived in. The album’s shimmering ender, “Days Between,” says it all: “Gave the best we had to give / how much we’ll never know…” There were days.
Bobby Hatfield, Stay with Me: The Richard Perry Sessions. One of the great mysteries of modern music is how albums get recorded that possess something so thrilling it sounds destined for the stratosphere. And then that music is never released. Bobby Hatfield, who with Bill Medley made the Righteous Brothers one of the best-selling duos in rock & roll history, went into The Beatles’ Apple Studio with mega-producer Richard Perry in late 1971 to do a solo album. The singer had decided to go for a solo career, and it seemed like he’d grabbed the golden ring for his first effort alone. The band included Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Al Kooper, Chris Stainton, Bobby Keys and Jim Price, and songs by George Harrison, Cole Porter, Holland-Dozier-Holland and other noted songwriters. At the top of that song list is an ethereal version of a stone-cold gem written by Jerry Ragovoy and George David Weiss titled “Stay with Me.” It was initially done by Lorraine Ellison in the 1960s, and still stands as one of the great achievements of modern music, though it never really found a place in the public’s heart. Bobby Hatfield does the song justice, with the Righteous Brothers-falsetto that shook so many hearts during the pair’s heyday. This new collection gathers the results of those Hatfield sessions, and include different takes and some tracks that were never completed. It’s all proof how an indisputable vocal icon and the perfect producer made magic together, and then it somehow evaporated into thin air. It’s not too late to turn back the hands of time and discover what could have been. Hearing is believing.
Sam Llanas, Return of the Goya: Los Ochos Final. BoDeans were a one-in-thousand band that had every base covered. With two lead vocalist-guitarists, a rock-steady rhythm section and, soon enough, keyboard wizard, they took over Milwaukee after only a few shows and then spread across the country with an astounding debut album produced by T Bone Burnett on Slash Records in 1986. It looked like they would be around for decades, but like so often happens in the record business, reality set in and they split apart much too soon. One of those lead vocalists, Sam Llanas, immediately started recording solo albums that keep getting better and better. The third in his trilogy RETURN OF THE GOYA, is the finest yet. Inspired by a Goya guitar Llanas loved and lost to the winds, but luckily got replaced in a new model made by a fan, these are songs that come from so deep in the heart it feels like we’ve all lived them. “Hold on Tight,” “Lay with Me,” “Beautiful Day” and “Hey John” are the sound of America when its eyes are wide open and heart is hitting on all cylinders. Llanas’ voice can go from bone-chilling intensity to joyous reverie with such feelings, they sound like newly discovered truths. Hopefully the three RETURN OF THE GOYA releases will be released in a single set someday, like an emotional travelogue through America as the country continues to find its way. Now’s the time.
Tami Neilson, Chicka Boom! There are several singers scattered around the world that know when to turn on the juice and head for the stars. Their voices have a not-so-subtle velocity which causes the atmosphere to shake, and can also soothe everything else which ails the universe. Tami Neilson is leading the charge of this brigade with bells on and whistles blowing. She may have started out in Canada performing with the Neilson Family Band, but that was just her earliest education, working live right there with giants like Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker and Kitty Wells. Of course, Neilson fell in love with a New Zelander and headed Down Under-way to start her own solo career. It didn’t take long for those vocal chords to start busting heads wide open there and back in Canada, and soon enough the good ol’ U.S.A. She can veer from Western Swing to rockabilly to rhythm & blues, barreling right through country, gospel and anything else that gets in the woman’s path. To see her live, standing straight up and mowing down listeners is to see a musical wonder of the world. And when Tami Neilson comes your way, shout out for her heart-murdering version of Sir Douglas Sahm’s “At the Crossroads.” Guaranteed that things won’t be the same when it’s over. Chillbumps or bust.
Phantom Blues Band, Still Cookin‘. Sometimes there is no other choice than to call in the soul music’s special squad and let them take care of plenty business. The Phantom Blues Band has been setting fire to dance floors for decades now, and keep burning up nightclubs no matter where they land. The line-up is a Who’s Who of funkiness and festivity: Joe Sublett, Larry Fulcher, Mike Finnigan, Tony Braunagel, Les Levitt and Johnny Lee Schell. Between them there aren’t many worthwhile artists they haven’t played with, having worked with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and so many more. The way the aggregation always stays on the good foot should be bottled and sold. These not-so-mellow fellows know that R&B, no matter when it was recorded, has to immediately excite an audience and entice them to throw inhibitions to the wind and go for the true blue gator get-down. The PBB’s new album includes a handful of time-tested covers, as well as originals that take their place right alongside those classics. Everything is put through a soul strainer set on STUN to ensure a momentous groove leads the way. And as a nod to mortality’s grasp, there’s also a heartfelt original for Little Feat’s recently departed Paul Barrere titled “Wingin’ My Way,” showing there’s no gap for this band on the sensitivity front. Feel the flames.
Christopher Paul Stelling, Best of Luck. Asheville, North Carolina has been boiling musically for awhile now, and in 2020 the artist who could well lead the most recent charge into the new decade is Christopher Paul Stelling. The multi-threat man has made four other albums, each with its own essential strengths, but now with Ben Harper as producer, Stelliing takes a giant leap into the front row of America’s most promising musicians. It is exactly his combination of songwriting, singing and guitar gifts which makes him so strong. It’s almost like a healer has come out of the North Carolina woods with a sound and substance which will not be denied. Part of that is because he is able to confront many of the problems and perils of life in today’s America, but is not going to give them an inch. Instead, Stelling taps into a healthy hope to take on the undeniable challenges knocking on the door, and finds a way to move through it to the other side. No small feat. And with an uncanny ability to weave several different musical strains together, it’s like Stelling has been able to use the best of all that he’s learned, from gorgeous finger-picking instrumental beauty to stirring vocals that sound like they’ve been hugged by heaven. He emerges with a new presence, something that arrives every few years to make the ions sizzle. Music like this has always been a lighthouse in troubled times, and now is no different. Best of luck.
The Third Mind. Is this an awesome hallucination: a new California band that begins their debut album with Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda” and ends with the 13th Floor Elevators’ righteous “Reverberation (Doubt).” And in-between are chill-bumping covers of Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins,” Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew” and the Butterfield Blues Band’s absolutely mind-blowing 17-minute instrumental “East-West.” The group also throws in a new original called “Claudia Cardinale” for kicks. Maybe they’re “81/2” or “The Pink Panther” fans? But the best news of all is that the quartet–featuring Dave Alvin, Michael Jerome, David Immergluck and Victor Krummenacher, along with special guest Jesse Sykes–is just as amazing as the songs they cover. There is something so vibrant and strong about The Third Mind’s powers that it feels like the earth came together for them to join forces. They were rehearsal-free when the record button was pushed in the studio, and as the songs unfolded surely there was a bright luminosity in the musicians’ souls as one song after another was captured forever. The opening track, “Journey in Satchidananda,” clearly states the outfit’s intention: to go where the musical road leads no matter the destination. The definite 1960s’ vibe of the music lays claim to some of rock’s earliest improvisations, and a time when the rule book had been thrown out the high-rise and all bets were off. “East-West,” which was a total revelation for rock listeners when first recorded by the Butterfield Blues Band in 1966, again departs in soaring flight by the unrelenting vision of The Third Mind. Said to be originally written near the end of an LSD trip by guitarist Michael Bloomfield with Chicago musician Nick Gravenites, “East-West” is given shining new life once again, reminding all that music is a pursuit of passion never finished. It’s the journey that counts. Four fine minds.
SONG OF THE MONTH
Harry Nilsson, “Love is the Answer.” The wunderkind singer-songwriter was a natural original, someone who really didn’t sound like anyone else. Harry Nilsson had a way of writing songs that encapsulated modern life like very few other composers. He was a favorite of many of rock’s most elite strata, but had a career of star-crossed luck that often made Nilsson his own biggest challenge. Needless to stay he did not live to be old. When Nilsson died much too young, not many of his biggest fans were surprised. This instant classic is on an unreleased album made shortly before Nilsson’s passing. Titled LOSST AND FOUNND, it’s unbelievable the recently released album never came out. “Love is the Answer,” written by Nilsson and Perry Botkin, Jr., sounds now like a standard from the Great American Songbook, just waiting for someone to cover it for the ages. Of course, there’s a good chance that a new singer would not be able to beat Harry Nilsson himself at conveying the happiness and heartbreak at the song’s core, but that’s the way it always was for this American music hero. Nilsson’s right again.