Leeann Atherton, Fallen Angel. Once every few years a song appears that sounds like it’s always been here, something that has to be heard immediately. That’s Leeann Atherton’s “Smack Dab in a Miracle.” It rises and falls and fills in all the missing pieces like an answer to life. Atherton’s mighty voice is powered by that secret source of emotion, the one which cannot be questioned. And that’s just the first track on Atherton’s new album. Followed by a whole other side of the singer, “Joy” is a soaring ode to everything that turns up the fire and keeps things burning. It feels like it comes from several different styles, which are melted down into one. In fact, all twelve songs paint a portrait of someone who’s been chasing the sound long enough to know it’s the journey and not the destination that supplies the kicks, and eternity can often be found in the questions that never really need to be answered. For now, grace and giving is where this music lives, from top to bottom. And with producer-guitarist Mac McNabb so steadily guiding the players, these are songs that feel like they’re built out of stone, ones that were always hiding here until Leeann Atherton came along to free them with her strong voice and sure heart. Collections like this have a way of finding their way out of a dark corner and walking right onto the stage to grab the spotlight and demand to be heard. As a special sign-off, Atherton’s a capella “Motherless Children’s Club,” sung spontaneously at her mother’s memorial, reminds us all where we came from, and where we’re going. Right on time.
Rory Block, Prove It on Me. It’s not easy to make a blues album that doesn’t sound like it’s been made a dozen times before. But Rory Block has a way of zeroing in on unique ways of playing blues that feels fresh. Her series Power Women of the Blues was a brilliant idea, taking songs by female artists both young and old and adding her own distinctive stamp on them. On the second album in the series she hits the long ball all the way out of the park. Block does some digging and discovers several names who are definitely not as known as they should be, like Elvie Thomas and Merline Johnson, and features them right next to female icons Memphis Minnie and Gertrue “Ma” Rainey. Not only that, once she had an unknockable song lineup Rory Block proceeded to play all the instruments herself. All of them. It is an eye-opening experience to hear such a hard-hitting collection of music and realize it’s all done by one person. What becomes obvious from song one is that this woman is a blues crusader, someone who found a lifeline early in life from the music and never questioned its power. Instead, she moved in and stayed there, and can now do just about anything in that world. The Blues Queen.
David Dann, Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues. At 776 pages, this extensive study of 1960s blues guru Michael Bloomfield’s life has everything ever needed to be known about the absolutely thrilling guitarist. Whether it’s the South Side of Chicago, the West Side of Chicago, blues clubs there like Pepper’s and Big John’s, Maxwell Street, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” recording session, the Cafe au Go Go, Dylan’s 1965 electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival, 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival, insomnia, heroin, the Electric Flag, Buddy Miles, the Super Session album with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills: the list goes on and on. Really, this is a big book. Luckily, Michael Bloomfield’s life is very close to being worthy of this kind of massive investigation. Give or take a few hundred pages. Without doubt, author David Dann has the goods on who could well be the most exciting electric guitarist to come out of all the 60s’ musical machinations. And though the ’70s were pretty much a bust for Bloomfield, the decline and eventual sad demise of this nonpareil bluesman holds so many intriguing what-could-have-beens that for anyone who is super-interested in how the modern musical landscape was born and why it went so far south during the ’70s for such a pivotal original, this is the tome that tells the tale. Long time comin’.
Luke Haines & Peter Buck, Beat Poetry for Survivalists. Sometimes you just have to let things fly. Singer-songwriter Luke Haines met, through a somewhat circuitous route, guitarist-songwriter Peter Buck. They hit it off over Buck’s purchase of one of Haines’ reasonably-priced paintings of Lou Reed. So in a way Reed gave birth to this album. And what a groovy birth it is. There are songs of low-down delivery bumped up next to those of wondrous fancy, and all are anchored in the street level rock & roll that keeps things real. Haines is a crispy singer, formerly the guitarist in The Auteurs. He knows where the dark closets are, and isn’t afraid to go there. Buck is a guitarist who isn’t too timid to soar when necessary, or keep it gritty if that’s what the song calls for. Their pairing is a beautiful thing, bringing back memories of the late ’70s when punk and new wave had erased the constraining parts of the rock & roll rule book, and instead allowed audacious ideas to run the table. This collaboration isn’t really like anything before it, and sounds like both artists were on a crazy holiday together and in no hurry to see it end. The music they have created, very likely Pro Tool-free and certified semi-crazy, is a joy to hear when it’s time to find the jams that are still around to be kicked out freely. Sister Ray’s smiling.
The James Hunter Six, Nick of Time. Blue-eyed soul music is a majestic endeavor for all who sign up for the ride. It’s not often easy, and very often commercially questionable, but when the voice and the songs and the instruments and, well, the very soul of it all clicks there is little better. Singer James Hunter is without doubt devoted to hitting the mark for the music he loves so much. All of his albums are collections of true bliss for the sound that’s been bouncing around the floor since the mid-’60s. This Englishman can do the Monkey Dog all night long, from burning boogaloos to grooving cakewalks–and everything in between. Hunter’s albums are always strong, but this latest might just be the best yet. All systems are go in the Daptone label’s soulbratory Pemrose Recorders in Riverside, California (who knew?). All eight tracks of it. The band is so deep in the pocket they might have to pipe in air, and Hunter’s voice has that magic tone that people like Major Lance and Arlester “Dyke” Christian always possessed. And you have to hand it to a band tagged the James Hunter Six which only has five musicians on the back cover. Perfection has never been the point of music this great, and long may Mr. Hunter and however many musicians he wants in his band shine the light on that place where the soul of man and woman never dies. Wear it out.
Jim Lauderdale, When Carolina Comes Home Again. He sings with a king-sized teardrop in his voice, writes songs that can stop time in a single verse and has been at it now for almost 50 years. While he’s never been a raging star on the country music sales charts, Jim Lauderdale has made a difference. Sometimes that’s what counts the most. He’s written songs for the biggest stars in the country world, and his own albums have a devoted following which never wavers. His 33rd album is devoted to that most elemental of American music: bluegrass. That’s a very good thing for listeners, because Lauderdale has such an easeful swinging style that everything feels like home, while still featuring a sophistication only the greats can create. Co-writers include Si Kahn, John Oates, Robert Hunter and several others, but in the end everything sounds like pure Jim Lauderdale. Bluegrass music, at its best, is a revved-up revelation of a life force worshipped by a massive community of music lovers. With this new album they have a major set to celebrate, and no doubt a night of live shows like only Lauderdale can deliver. Get ready now.
Chris Maxwell, New Store No. 2. This Arkansas man has had a twisted road of musical glory. After early work with studio maestro Jim Dickinson in Memphis, Chris Maxwell went to New York in the 1990s for a run in Skeleton Key, and then veered off into studio land as a producer in the Elegant Too duo, and then creating soundtracks and all kinds of other musical kicks. Now Maxwell is back with his second solo album, and it’s a tour de force of inventive brilliance, mysterious inspirations and a general openness to whatever crosses his fervent mind. It is clear this is someone who isn’t afraid to go wherever the muse beckons, and once there to go as deep as needed to get to his soul’s core. What makes songs like “Walking Through the Waters, “Most of What I Know I Learned from Women” and “The Song Turns Blue” so winning is how fearless Chris Maxwell is at composing. He uses a lifetime of influences and a savvy knack for juxtaposition in the studio, going from classic song structures to somewhere out on the edge of the ozone. Recording at the Goat House studio next to his Woodstock home, the man has conjured up an album that can be listened to for years and still hold surprises. Everybody’s hollerin’ goat.
Mustangs of the West, Time. When good things come to those who wait, jubilation fills the air. The music business isn’t really known for offering much slack these days, but Mustangs of the West had a studio full of resolve and the kind of talent that will not be denied. Previously called simply The Mustangs, several early members along with a couple of semi-newcomers reformed last year, rediscovered all the reasons why they’d become a band over 25 years ago and went for it. Why not? Singer-songwriter-guitarist Susanna Spring is clearly someone who is here to share music. Her songs ring true like a mission bell, and she has the kind of voice that lasers in on a listener. Lead guitarist-vocalist Sherry Rayn Barnett lit the match to fire up Mustangs of the West again, and when it was obvious she would not take no for an answer things started really rolling. With Aubrey Richmond, Holly Montgomery and Suzanne Morissette Cruz rounding out the quintet, this is a real band, one that shares not only music but a way of looking at the world. Once they’d written eight songs and found four more, their first shows soared like they’d never parted. Harmonies, rhythm, purpose, passion: everything came together, each element as important as the other. Enter uber producer Mark Howard and things clicked quick. Mustangs of the West have made an album for where the world is right now, and the title song “Time,” with special guest Poco’s Rusty Young on steel guitar, is an indisputable anthem for the challenges of today–and tomorrow. Hear and believe.
Roomful of Blues, In a Roomful of Blues. For any band that perseveres over 50 years, let there be medals of honor for all involved. This East Coast-based blues crew that always featured swinging horns with a jumping rhythm section and all-star guitarists, not to mention singers who knew when to pour on the heat, has never been anything less than superb. Which is as true today as ever, and with guitarist Chris Vachon and Rich Latille in the producers’ chair it’s a stone cold guarantee they’ll be a mess of thrills and chills all over the new album. Singer Phil Pemberton can cruise through all kinds of blues, someone who for the last ten years has fronted Roomful of Blues with such soul that he sounds like he’s heading for joining all the other elite past members in the aggregation’s very own Hall of Fame. There is something so shiveringly solid about Roomful 2020 that it makes their history feel like a proud American tradition of dedication to all those songs and sounds that keeps life rolling. At a time when so much in contemporary music seems to come and go at warp speed, Roomful of Blues is built on solid ground, honoring all the earliest blues giants but also making sure there is a constant move forward. While the band might make it sound easy, it’s not. It takes total devotion to the music, and a desire to share something that can cure all ills. Tried and true.
Stoll Vaughan, Desire’s Shape. It sure sounds like the shape of singer-songwriter Stoll Vaughan’s latest desire is to go as far inside himself as possible, see what he finds there and then write songs that speak to those deepest discoveries. This is an album of soulful purity, one that lets Vaughan not get distracted by anything. It’s all just Vaughan, his 1946 Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar and piano. The level of directness on songs like “Weather in Kentucky” and “So Righteous” are near-chilling. It sounds like the man has confronted things inside which cause him to take stock in how far he’s come and how far he still has to go. The Kentucky musician has had a road case full of experiences, writing and touring with a wealth of well-known artists, but this time out Vaughan strips it down to just himself. The best news is that it feels like he’s entered a brand new level, and opened himself to the world of possibilities which comes with finding out you already have everything you need. Set him free.
Song of the Month
Grace Pettis, “Landon.” In a sure-handed and strong-willed attempt to set things right, Grace Pettis’ stunning new song “Landon” feels like a new watermark for empathy. Addressed to a gay friend who she had hurt deeply by not being there when he needed her, Pettis stands up straight and tall and sings with the kind of feelings almost all of us shy away from. The way her voice expresses these words as a hope for forgiveness breaks down barriers that are not often crossed. That the song is so obviously written from truth makes it totally unforgettable. Grace Pettis has made several albums and been a part of other groups, but “Landon” sets a new bar for where she can go next. Do not miss.