By Jeff Burger
Steve Goodman Before the Fame
Steve Goodman, who died from leukemia in 1984 at age 36, has now been gone for as many years as he lived. Today, it’s likely that some folk fans don’t even recognize his name while others think of him only as the author of “City of New Orleans,” which won him a posthumous Grammy and produced hits for Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Those who know Goodman’s work, however, realize what a large loss his passing represented. He penned many other first-rate songs and was also a charismatic performer who radiated personality, good humor, and a passion for life.
Now comes evidence of just how early in the game he had his stage act down pat. Live ’69 captures the then 21-year-old Goodman performing for a University of Illinois audience of around 100 people about two years before he scored his first record deal. The previously unreleased concert, which consists solely of covers, shows off his eclecticism—everything from Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” and Bob Dylan’s “Country Pie” to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Goodman’s work, you’d be well advised to start with his largely self-penned later material, some of which has recently been reissued with bonus tracks. But after you get a taste of that, you’ll probably also be interested in this concert album, whose contents were remastered from the original tapes.
“But for leukemia, Steve would have been as famous as his friend John Prine,” writes Rich Warren, who recorded the 1969 show and provides the liner notes for this release. No doubt he’s right about that.
David Bromberg Hits the ‘Big Road’
“If you don’t like the weather,” goes an old saying that has been applied to many locales, “just wait a few minutes.” You could probably make a similar comment about David Bromberg’s albums. The singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist—who has been issuing records under his own name for nearly half a century and has appeared on other artists’ LPs for even longer—shifts effortlessly from song to song among a wide variety of genres.
Big Road, his latest album, is no exception. One of the best of his long career, it features a superb core band plus additional backup from piano, organ, accordion, mandolin, pedal steel, and a horn section (trumpet, trombone, sax, and even tuba).
The predictably unpredictable 12-song set list includes a couple of nods to country (Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” and Bromberg’s own “George, Merle & Conway”), an acapella gospel track (“Standing in the Need of Prayer”), a traditional folk tune about the joys of marijuana (“Mary Jane”), and a nearly 11-minute Bromberg original that boasts stunning guitar and violin work (“Diamond Lil,” a ballad he first recorded way back in 1972).
The CD comes packaged with a DVD that incorporates full performances of those last three tracks, plus the title cut and the traditional “Roll On, John” and also features a mini-documentary about the band.
More Noteworthy Releases
Western Centuries, Call the Captain. This is the finest album yet from a Seattle-based trio that deserves to be a household name from Washington to Maine. The best reference point for their work is probably the Band; like that classic outfit, Western Centuries deliver timeless-sounding roots rock that incorporates influences ranging from bluegrass to honky- tonk. And like the Band, Western Centuries feature multiple terrific lead singers, instrumentalists, and capable songwriters, all of whom seem to favor collaboration over a solo spotlight. Their intelligent lyrics avoid clichés and tackle subjects ranging from Donald Trump’s proposed sixth military branch (the tongue-in-cheek “Space Force”) to the need to take a chance on love (“Sarah and Charlie”).
Rory Block, Prove It on Me. In 2018, veteran blues singer Rory Block launched her Power Women of the Blues series with A Woman’s Soul, a deservedly acclaimed tribute to the great Bessie Smith. Now Block is back with the second release in the series, this one focused on a variety of her musical forebears. She covers Ma Rainey (the title cut) and Memphis Minnie (Ernest Lawler’s “In My Girlish Days”), both of whom remain well known to fans of the genre; but most of the set shines a light on relatively obscure artists such as Helen Humes, who replaced Billie Holiday in Count Basie’s orchestra, and Arizona Dranes, a blind gospel singer. Block—who also makes room here for her own autobiographical “Eagle”—delivers soulful vocals and consummate guitar work on every track. This is no blues rock fusion—just sweet, unadulterated country blues.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.