REVIEW: Bill Kirchen’s “The Proper Years” Double CD Maintains a Potent High-Octane Energy

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Review by John Apice

Bill Kirchen – The Proper Years – Double CD

Many may not know Bill Kirchen but for decades he was known as the Titan of the Telecaster. For aging hippies, he was a co-founder of Commander Cody & his Lost Planet Airmen & kicked around as a guitar slinger since 1967.

This double CD (3 solo LPs & bonus cuts) are collected on The Proper Years (“Proper” the original record label, drops July 24 – Last Music Company-UK).

It’s possible that the modern roots-Americana genre is in these grooves. The LPs: “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods,” (2006 – include English pub-rocker Nick Lowe — one of many guests on the LPs). The 2nd “Word to the Wise,” (2010) & 3rd “Seeds and Stems,” (2013).

This effort shows lots of versatility, & it’s done with precision. Engaging originals, covers, rockabilly (“Working Man” is cool), country, western swing, honky-tonk, jump blues, jazz, boogie-woogie & some psychedelic folk-rock.

Connecticut-born Bill maintains a potent high-octane energy — no lead-foot excess. Maybe Bill isn’t as memorable as a Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, or Johnny Cash but he does possess sincerity in his tone & consistent showcase.

His cover of “Devil with the Blue Dress On,” doesn’t borrow from Mitch Ryder’s hit. Kirchen adds tradition & a sprightly gospel type soul backup. His guitar solo is warm & glides in faithful Steve Cropper tradition. Kirchen could’ve been a Stax Records/FAME Studios guitarist at any time.

The real test is how an artist interprets a classic song – listen to Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” it’s glorious. Kirchen could’ve easily been a Grateful Dead lyricist/songwriter. He has what many famous musicians don’t have — a repertoire as rich as this. I’d like to see Bill play with Goose Creek Symphony & Charlie Gearheart. That would be something.

For my taste CD #1 is stronger but there isn’t a poor track here. “Heart of Gold,” is a dynamic performance. “If It’s Really Got to Be This Way,” — beautiful. “Bump Wood,” has a great vocal, electrifying guitar & the solo piano sizzles. “Shelly’s Winter Love,” is superb.

Elvis Costello sings lead on “Man in the Bottom of the Well,” & along with Bill’s lead guitar, is fiery. “I Don’t Work That Cheap,” is set in an early 60s Dylan narration style & is wonderful. “Time Will Tell The Story” has a haunting steamy Blasters-type lead guitar.

Asleep at the Wheel’s Chris O’Connell is exceptional with Bill on the cover of Roger Miller’s “Husbands & Wives.” “Valley of the Moon,” with the late Norton Buffalo on harmonica is breezy. Sparks fly off the anvil with “Too Much Fun.” “Swing Fever,” is retro classy in a Hoagy Carmichael style.

Among the many musicians with Bill (lead, acoustic, baritone guitars), are Jack O’Dell (drums), Johnny Castle (bass), Austin de Lone (piano, electric piano, organ acoustic guitar).

Guest musicians: the late Norton Buffalo (harmonica), Commander Cody (piano), the late Dan Hicks (acoustic guitar, vocal), Maria Muldaur (vocals), Nick Lowe (vocals), Elvis Costello (vocals), Paul Carrack (vocals), Peter Bonta (mandolin, harmonica), Blackie Farrell (acoustic guitar), Asleep at the Wheel’s Chris O’Connell (vocals), Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Danny Levin (fiddle), Cindy Cashdollar & David Berzansky (steel guitar), Louise Kirchen, Lisa Best, Bucky Lindsey (backing vocals), & Paul Riley (bass).

Also: the late Maurice Cridlin (electric & string bass), Micky Kemp (harmony vocal), Garry Walsh (organ – “Mama Hated Diesels”), Johnny Castle (bass — “Talkin’ About Chicken” with Jorma Kaukonen (acoustic guitar).

There’s also: Gurf Morlix (electric guitar), David Carroll (bass), Rick Richards, Robert Treherne & Malcolm Mills (drums), & Butch Hancock (vocals). Backing singers – Chris Gaffney, Dave Gonzales, Sarah Carroll, Trish Anderson & Suzannah Espie. Many lead musicians add vocals throughout.

The 3 original LPs were produced by Malcolm Mills. Each CD has 19 tracks. A full-color 12-page insert details the players.

Musicianship? It’s all masterful.

Available at Amazon. Website: https://www.billkirchen.com/music/the-proper-years

 

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