By Bill Bentley
Marshall Chapman, Songs I Can’t Live Without. When it’s time to throw some black cat bones and light the voodoo candles. this new Marshall Chapman album would be a good listening companion. The woman whose voice often sounds like it’s coming from the other side of the spirit world rounds up some favorite songs written by other people, and then puts her personal stamp on them so strong it’s like they’re chiseled onto a tombstone. Starting an album with Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is no trivial matter; it shows a certainty of purpose that only the strong can suggest. But Marshall Chapman has always had the goods. She expects nothing but the best from both herself and those she respects, and to include favorites by Otis Blackwell, Bob Seger, Bobby Charles, Chet Baker and others shows her strengths. For a few years it looked like the singer-songwriter had hung up her musical shoes as she veered into dramatic film roles, but the artist’s musical mojo is such a defining aspect of her life there is no way she wouldn’t come blasting back into the recording studio. SONGS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT is the kind of release an artist gets to make just once, and it better hit the bullseye right away. And that’s exactly what Marshall Chapman and producer Neilson Hubbard have done. Naturally the collection would end with the first song she remembers singing as a child: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” to bring it all back home. Circles stay unbroken.
Doug “Cosmo” Clifford, Magic Window. Very often in rock & roll, a band’s spirit starts with the sonics of their snare drum. The music was born from a beat, and the snare is the very thing that supplied that do-or-die beat. Everything was added on from there, but without it the songs will not spark. Doug “Cosmo” Clifford supplied the drums in Creedence Clearwater Revival, and if nothing else was ever achieved his musical legacy would be complete. But that’s not all that Clifford did: he and bassist Stu Cook created the integral bottom for what is one of the greatest American aggregations ever. Their sound together gave the songs of John Fogerty an always exciting propulsion that will live forever. After 25 years with Clifford and Cook’s band Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the man is releasing 10 songs that Doug Clifford originally recorded in 1985, and has finally been able to finish for release. It is a revelation of someone who’s never stopped writing, singing and playing. In his home studio in Lake Tahoe, he worked with Russell Dashiell, who supplied lead guitar and also engineered and co-produced the sessions with Clifford. They were eventually joined by bassist-keyboardist Chris Solberg and rhythm guitarist Rob Polomsky for a groove-infused run at rock & roll with nods to the past and an eye on the future. The drummer’s lead vocals are a source of instant power, something he’s been doing his whole life. Sometimes a musical surprise can come from far out in left field, but when heard the results make perfect sense. That’s what Doug “Cosmo” Clifford has achieved now, and like most surprises, it is one definitely worth waiting for. Cosmo’s Factory reopens.
Heath Cullen, Springtime in the Heart. This artist from Candelo, Australia has an ability of finding himself in unique situations. For one album he recorded with Elvis Costello’s band the Imposters, the only time that has happened. And on the new release, producer extraordinaire Joe Henry steps up to the board, employing some of the very best players in America: Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keyboards), Adam Levy (guitar) and Levon Henry (reeds). The whole scene is such a super righteous fit that it’s surely something meant to be. Cullen’s songs have the heft of the past pushing the wind at the sails, invoking a period when most things were still unknown and the future was a question waiting to be answered. His songs thrive on timelessness, and the possibility of love. Joe Henry’s production is the perfect complement for Heath Cullen’s music, able to shape the shadows around the songs and bring out the notes like they’re caressing the lyrics. This is music meant to be heard away from the noise of everything else, in a place far from the glare and closer to grace. Australia and America have often been good musical mates, and if Heath Cullen has anything to do with it this great relationship will continue to thrive. On an album this strong, it’s only natural the last song is one of T Bone Burnett’s thrillers. “Kill Switch” is a mini-study in human history, and Heath Cullen zeroes in on the heart of it to prove that some things truly are eternal. A human heart.
Dion, Blues with Friends. The Wanderer has finally found his way home. During the heady days of rock & roll that was the ’50s and early ’60s, before the British Invasion tidal wave came storming in, Dion was one of the most popular singers in America. He had a string of hits that took him all the way, and the singer’s stage presence made him almost impossible to beat. But once The Beatles and their brethren rolled over the land, Dion lost much of his footing. He always made beautiful music, but it was just that not as many people noticed. What a lot of his fans never knew was his early reverence for the blues. It was something that gave Dion his spirit of strength from the start, and has continued to this day. His new album of of commanding collaborations with the best of the living blues crowd is a moment of massive clarity. And the fact that Dion wrote all these songs with Mike Aquina (except one each with Buddy Lucas and Bill Tuohy) is a mind-bending achievement. With singers and guitar players like Jeff Beck, John Hammond, Billy Gibbons, Paul Simon, Samantha Fish, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Louis Walker, Patty Scialfa, Van Morrison, Joe Bonamassa and more, this is a certified event, one that thrills from note one and then twists and burns all the way through. Co-produced and played with plenty of fire by Wayne Hood, these modern blues come at a time when the world not only needs healing like only the blues can offer, it also needs the hope it will take to rebuild what has been so badly broken. That’s exactly what Dion’s blues can do: offer a hand to hold in moving forward and a song to sing for the long walk ahead. Blues power forever.
Dr. John, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch. It really doesn’t matter what Dr. John’s albums are seemingly about, because he brings so much of himself to each of them his essence burns bright all the way through. This 2014 collection was inspired by a dream Dr. John had with Louis Armstrong in it, telling him to do this album. When Armstrong talks, even from the beyond, Dr. John listens. The imminently New Orleans artist gathered up an album-full of lucky friends and did Satch proud. Kicking things off with trumpet whiz Nicholas Payton joining The Blind Boys of Alabama on “What a Wonderful World” is the best of all worlds. The pure joy is all over the song, suggesting that what lies ahead on the next dozen selections will be a Crescent City cornucopia of musical grace. Guests like Terence Blanchard, Anthony Hamilton and the McCrary Sisters join Ledesi, Arturo Sandoval, Bonnie Raitt, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and more to turn these Louis Armstrong-associated songs into a mos’ scocious travelogue of musical bliss. Everything is even more poignant because it’s the one year anniversary of Dr. John’s passing, and to say an unfillable hole in the planet now exists is an understatement. Dr. John, more than anyone after Fats Domino, took the New Orleans spirit into the world like that’s what he was put on the planet to do. And guess what? He was right. So ske-dat-de-dat right down Esplanade Avenue and back, kicking high and dancing low, celebrating the world that can be shared with precious music like this. Yeah you right!
Paul Drummond, 13th Floor Elevators: A Visual History. When it comes to psychedelic bands, there are several that got to the summit of the mountain. But none except the 13th Floor Elevators went there and lived. Formed in 1965 in Austin, Texas, the Elevators were the brainchild of lyricist/electric jug player and acid acolyte (how’s that for a combo plate?) Tommy Hall. Once he found the delivery vessel for his prophetic message of LSD-inspired higher intelligence in singer Roky Erickson, the Elevators cracked open the egg of existence for good. This spellbinding book by author Paul Drummond takes any willing reader on the visual equivalent of a very good trip. Starting with each Elevators’ childhood and continuing through several members’ deaths–and also the glorious band reunion in 2015 at the Reverberation Festival in Austin–right up to today, the photos and text combine to tell the story of an absolutely unique confluence of musical magic, psychedelic enlightenment, societal assaults, and ultimately redemption. For those who are vested in what the 13th Floor Elevators accomplished in only a short three years and two complete albums, this book is without doubt the Holy Grail. And just like the Elevators, there won’t be another. It is a story of a time and place–fueled by psychedelics and prophecy–and should not be missed for all who want to complete the picture and bathe in the sun of an American mystery. Don’t pass by.
Tommy Emmanuel CGP, The Best of Tommysongs. This is a double album of pure amazement: the sound of a guitar that sings. Tommy Emmanuel has built a life around what he can do with the acoustic instrument. His gift is being able to play the melody, the supporting chords and the bass lines all at once, while not turning that talent into a circus act. He accomplishes that by injecting the music with such an abundance of feeling that the guitar seems to come alive in his hands. Emmanuel’s life in music is unequaled: touring Australia at the age of six with his family band, at 30, he was in a rock & roll group headlining stadiums in Europe, and at 44 he became one of only five people named a Certified Guitar Player (how’s that for a honor?) by music king Chet Atkins. All that would be just words on a page if Tommy Emmanuel have the superlative gift to take his own songs and fill them with a breathing presence. The 24 songs on this double-disc set includes many of the musician’s permanent favorites, songs that’s he’s been thrilling audiences with for years, along with some that aren’t as well-known. Either way it’s a tour de force of acoustic guitar, played by someone who has become his own category of greatness. Six string nirvana.
Ruthie Foster Big Band, Live at the Paramount. A Texas-born singer who has the vocal force of messing with mountains, Ruthie Foster was destined to make a live album with a big band. It was like it was written in her DNA, and she just needed the right place and right time to call in the troops and light the fuse. Foster’s got a big voice, and she knows how to use it. The seeds of this idea came when the woman was in the service and joined the Navy Band Southeast.. That’s a long way from where she ended up later in life, but it gave her a foundation in big band singing that always stayed at the front of her imagination for future projects. Once the curtains pulled back at the 105-year-old Paramount Theatre in Austin to record this album, it was all over but the shouting. Ruthie Foster had come full circle, and with music director/conductor John Mills, arranger John Beasley and a 14-piece orchestra, they gathered all her experiences and desires together to achieve an ultimate dream. She hits the dark end of the street with a song she wrote with William Bell, “Might Not Be Right,” and it remains obvious in her voice when she sings a stunning version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that turns the country classic into a smoldering romantic burner. The standards “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack the Knife” are molded by Foster’s voice into rhythm & blues-infused jazz treasures that beg for a whole album of just such songs. The artist proved what had been evident all along after the many years of shows and albums: Ruthie Foster can sing anything and turn it into her own style. And she got to wear a gown doing it. Now the question might seem like where she goes next, but that’s beside the point because wherever she goes is a place true-blue music lovers will want to be. The only question is will be how long until it happens. The world needs Ruthie Foster to lead them on. Follow her there.
Mitch Greenhill, Raised by Musical Mavericks. Musical autobiographies can be tricky. First, the story itself needs to be compelling, one that has an arc which keeps things moving. Second, the artists involved need to be those who aren’t always the most written about. More books on The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen? Pass. Mitch Greenhill grew up in a family with a father who had a very unique perch to observe the musical revolution starting in the 1950s. Manny Greenhill was a manager and booking agent, working with pivotal people like Pete Seeger, Reverend Gary Davis, Lightin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Joan Baez and many others. Of course, Bob Dylan wanders into the scene on numerous occasions. Mitch Greenhill got in the middle of it all while still in high school, traveling with the artists and soon enough playing guitar with them. It lead to a unique career in music as both performer and facilitator, and his story resonates for anyone who ever wanted to discover what life was really like during the earliest days of the great folk scare right into the present day. Greenhill’s memory is astounding, and mixes a love of the artists along with a sense of the absurd that results in a book like no others. Everything from how Lightnin’ Hopkins liked his scrambled eggs to how Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis created their guitar secrets is shared, in a writing style that is folksy and serious at the same time. In a word, RAISED BY MUSICAL MAVERICKS is a treasure, revealing how things really were when everything seemed brand new. It’s no accident that Mitch Greenhill took over his father’s business: he was practically born with a guitar in his hands. Such a life.
Jon Hassell, Vernal Equinox. In the mid-1970s musician Jon Hassell was following a trail of wonder and woe all over the Northern and Southern hemispheres. From New York to Colombia, Venezuela, Malibu and points wherever, and then landing in a basement studio at York University in Toronto to record his debut album. During those wanderings he had encountered the primordial questions of just what the hell existence is, and found it in the moon and the stars and the mountains and the molehills of life. Was there also LSD involved? Thank goodness, yes. Through it all Hassell stayed true to his trumpet, and also ran headfirst into Indian ragas, exploding tabla drums and anything else that sounded like it might hold some kind of secret. In truth, the musician has always been exploring the contours of his own mind, and looking for a way with sounds to blast it open. And that’s pretty much what Jon Hassel has continued to do for the next 40 years, employing an overpowering sense of curiosity as his primary excavation device, sometimes in cahoots with Brian Eno and other times out on the long end of a lightening rod on his own.There is always a buzz of discovery in Hassell’s music, like he knows he’s working without a net and that is part of the joy, showing how when a fearless musician enters the picture, they usually occupy the spotlight alone. VERNAL EQUINOX is like an audition tape for a life on the sonic high-wire. Leave it to Jon Hassell to have gotten to the other side. Cue the lights.
Beau Jennings, Son of Thunderbird. Last year Oklahoma’s best kept semi-secret Beau Jennings made a smoker of an album titled THE THUNDERBIRD. It captured the dust-blown creativity of all the musicians from that prodigious state. Now Jennings has gone one step better and recorded an acoustic re-imagining of that album. To say it’s a stunner is an understatement. This is a singer-songwriter who is as good as anyone out there right now, someone who can zero in on what makes a song vibrate inside a listener. It’s not an easy task, but when it happens like Jennings is able to do, the sky opens up and the last 70 years of rock & roll recedes into the background so the only thing that matters is what is happening right now. That’s really why the music matters: it is able to redefine life in the moment, and make everything else superfluous, even if only for three minutes. What Beau Jennings discovers here is that certain songs sound best stripped to their inner core, a place where a guitar and harmonica, and maybe a piano here and there, are all that is needed to fire up the booster rockets so the music really takes off. Many of the best songwriters have maintained they know they’ve written something worth keeping when the song is performed with just a guitar, and it still holds an audience’s full attention. Jennings’ “Back in Town” and some other songs on this intriguing album are now added to that list. The other side.
Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few. Watching an artist’s career over a forty-year period is like reading a good novel. There are hills and valleys, challenges and chills and most of all an astonishment that musical persistence often has its own engine. Monte Warden moved from Houston to Austin at the perfect time in the mid-’80s. The Texas capital had shrugged off some of the inertia of the early part of that decade and was swinging again. There was talk of the cowpunk crowd raising sand in Los Angeles, and when Warden got his new band the Wagoneers all teed up they took full advantage of the excitement. Scoring a recording contract with the mighty A&M Records, the Wagonners were definitely the band to beat in that crew. And for awhile they led the pack with great songs and a real kick in their style. Like so many endeavors in the music business, though, things slowed down and Monte Warden was starting anew with different musicians and attack. With his recent band the Dangerous Few it feels like the musician has hit a new plateau. He weaves in elements of big band sounds, vocal finesse and songs that tip their hat to the past but don’t ever stay there. In the end, Monte Warden is going to find a way forward. He is possessed by music and always able to excite others in that possession. Horns, swinging rhythms, savvy arrangements and an overall locomotion promises big things. No matter what, this is still a Texan to watch because he continually keeps things burning. Let it swing.
Song of the Month
Robert A, Kraft, “Everybody’s Alright.” This is the perfect song to fit the crazy quilt times that have fallen on the world. In a time when everything seems up for grabs, Robert Kraft kicks in with an unrelenting attack to assure listeners things are going to get in the groove and everyone will get through. His neo-soul instrumental pulse is irresistible, while Kraft’s voice is so warm and reassuring the sun instantly shines as the dark clouds are pushed back where they’re invisible–at least for now.. No easy task in 2020, but isn’t that a musician’s job? Robert Kraft has been burning up bandstands and delivering the good news for years, and now that he’s on his own and band-free it sounds like the sky is the limit for a man who’s never been shy about his good-time intentions. Everybody’s alright.