Dedicated Men of Zion, Can’t Turn Me Around. When gospel music comes rolling out of the ozone and takes over, it always feels like a bigger presence has arrived to visit. There is a bouncing glory in the music, and a committed zeal in the songs. Like there is a higher calling in the house, and it is ready to share that spirit with all within earshot. Sometimes, when the juices heat up and the world starts to glow, it can even feel like an almighty aura has arrived to make sure all doubts are erased, at least for the time being. The Dedicated Men of Zion are a North Carolina quartet that has a holiness deeply ingrained in all their offerings. Righteousness and repetition combine as a force that cannot be stopped, and before anyone can resist they’ve transported listeners into a field of belief. All dark doubts are chased away. At a time when the world is being tested beyond the imaginable, this quartet’s songs like “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me,” “Leaning on the Lord” and “Work Until My Days are Done” are a sure bet to bring a goodly feeling swinging back home. And like most gospel music, when it rubs up close to rhythm & blues like it does here on “I Feel Alright,” well, maybe it’s time for the Reverend Al Green to take a close listen and see if he can make a little trip to Memphis’ Royal Studio and set his inner hallelujah free. It’s about time.
Eddie Floyd with Tony Fletcher, Knock! Knock! Knock! on Wood. Soul music lives in a world of its own. The stars who helped build that music into one of America’s musical foundations are mostly gone now. Some by accident, some by misadventure and some by age. What is still here is the incredible sounds that was stamped into the world’s consciousness, with artists like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Otis Redding and others becoming timeless reminders of what is possible in the home of the brave. One of the illustrious members of that unbeatable crew is still alive and well, and has written a book that gives a deep peek into how soul music was born and thrived. Eddie Floyd made his first big noise in the Falcons in the Detroit area, but once he made his way to 926 East MeLemore Avenue in Memphis and walked into the doors of Stax Records it was obvious Floyd had found a new field of dreams. One that he he would help build into a monument to music that lasts to this day, even with enough twists and turns to confuse a large pretzel. Of courser, Eddie Floyd’s eternal claim to fame, the single “Knock on Wood,” has become permanently imprinted on the national psyche, but it’s in so many more songs that his endless ability to sear the mind with soulful delight that makes Floyd unforgettable. He wrote this autobiography, no doubt, to tell his whole story, and it’s one of intrigue and inspiration. Floyd found the calling inside him at a young age to let his heartful songs and voice lead the way, and he’s still following that road. He and co-writer Tony Fletcher offer a peak into American history that is changed America and the world. The singer was there when history was being made at Stax Records, and he was part of it. This soul-splendent book tells it all. Read and repeat.
Johnny & the Mongrels, Creole Skies. Go deep enough in Louisiana and there’s a strong probability they’ll be a wall of fun and funk awaiting just around the corner. Johnny & the Mongrels are living testament to that true fact. The quartet, with a trio of backup singers and a mess of guests, recently took over the fabled Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana and turned things loose. How could they miss, with a co-producer with the first name JoeBaby and a drummer with the last name Christmas? Sprinkled in were a few special guests and nine original songs of supreme bliss, guaranteeing their debut album was going to light up the landscape. Just for kicks, Johnny & the Mongrels also included one cover song, by (who else could it be?) Tony Joe White. The Swamp Fox’s “Saturday Night in Oak Grove Louisiana” makes sure the point is not missed: this is a band that can hit all the targets, from danceadelic groovers to heart-rushing ballads. Like Louisiana itself, there is such a depth of feeling in everything they touch it sounds like they’ve captured the Pelican State and planted it right on a record. These are serious musicians, seasoned in some of the most notorious nightspots in the world, and there was no way they weren’t going to make sure they came out burning. To hear a new band go from zero to a hundred like this is to know that the world is in good hands, and no matter what the music is going to continue to spark a fire. Hey la bas.
Ted Russell Kamp, Down in the Den. Sometimes an artist appears who has kept it on the down-low about all they have to offer. Ted Russell Kamp is one of those people. He’s been a major league bass player, producer, songwriter and singer for years, something those in the know are gladly aware of. But a bigger public? Not so much. His new album really jacks up the attack and hopefully lets the world know Kamp is the equal of anyone. His music rounds up a headful of influences like he’s got enough to spread around for years. Kamp can boogaloo through the South, tear up the California coast and now hopefully grab some widespread attention all over for making the kind of music which lives forever. His songs are beyond almost everything out there right now, and Ted Russell Kamp has a voice that grabs all the emotions head on. The man has a wisdom in what he writes and a stone cold vocal strength in everything he sings that shows the deep reward inside this music. These 14 songs are the great surprise of 2020, and really should be heard immediately. Any doubters are directed to the song “Hold On.” With guest singers Shooter Jennings, Gordy Quist, Sarah Gayle Meech, Shane Alexander and Kristen Proffit, everything is covered for outside excitement, but make no mistake: Ted Russell Kamp on his own offers the real rewards, and he’s ready to show why. Bad and nationwide.
Bill Kirchen, The Proper Years. The only thing overly proper about super guitarist Bill Kirchen is Proper was the name of his record label for many years. The truth is that Kirchen is a guitar-playing fool, starting when he was still a teenager in Ann Arbor, on through his high-octane years in Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen in Berkeley and beyond, right into a half-dozen bands and plenty of Telecaster shenanigans around the world. Kirchen has been calling Austin, Texas home now for years, but he continues to be a main conspirator in the Twang Gang wherever great music is played. These three albums–HAMMER OF THE HONKY-TONK GODS, WORD TO THE WISE and SEEDS AND STEMS–are combined for a roots-bustin’, diesel-truckin’ collection of the guitarist’s music made this century. The great thing about Bill Kirchen’s abilities is that there are no limits. While he may have made his early name in a genre-spreading country-rock band, there was no way he was going to stay confined to any one style. Once he got out on his own, Kirchen revved up the sonics and spread his irresistible abilities far and wide. His early excursions to England taught him that it’s perfectly okay to borrow any number of styles to craft his own, and the guitarist has been following that path ever since. Bill Kirchen’s guarantee of never-a-dull-moment onstage has been holding true for half a century, and at this rate often feels like it’s just getting started. His guitar continues to have a mind of its own and busts boundaries wherever it’s plugged in on any given bandstand, Looney-tuned and ready to roll. Do not miss.
John Lake, Seven Angels. Jazz will always be the epitome of musical freedom. Though built on a foundation of theory and tradition, by definition it is driven to self-expression of the highest order. John Lake is someone who has taken that charge to heart, and on his debut solo album shows that modern jazz is in able hands. Lake’s trumpet ventures into impressionistic improvisations immediately on album opener “The Bet,” and never looks back. He is a player of undeniable excitement. This is a jazz album which would rise to the fore in any era, and though some feel it’s hard to make a modern statement without referencing much of the past, Lake shows how it can be done with sheer talent and an amazing array of fellow players. Tenor saxophonist Paul Jones and alto saxophonist Michael Thomas are Lake’s equals, which is saying something, and the way they settle into songs and then push them forward with pianist Steven Feifke, bassist Marcos Varela and drummer Jeff Davis gives hope that a new formidable septet has been born. Lake spent his youth and college years in Ohio, but was born to live and create in New York City. He is also a member of the adventurous New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra, a player to watch for now and years to come. John Lake’s eight originals and inventive interpretations of Joe Henderson’s “A Shade of Jade,” Tadd Dameron’s “Ladybird” and Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” show both he and the group know that jazz is a music which always pushes forward at the same time it respects the past, playing in and out at will. Then and now.
Dan Penn, Living On Mercy. When searching for the deepest soul music being recorded today, it’s a good bet to head for Vernon, Alabama and find Dan Penn. Though he lives much of the year now in Nashville, when Penn heads home to Alabama there is a 100% chance he’s mining the well for writing songs that bring it all home. It’s an amazing process Penn has perfected over the 60 years since he first made the trek to Muscle Shoals to try and sell a song. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and wrote hits for dozens of people, from James Carr, Aretha Franklin, James & Bobby Purify, Clarence Carter and so many more. When he started recording his own albums it also was clear the man could sing. Maybe not like the voices he’d paved the way for on the record charts with his songs, but Dan Penn’s voice always carried a mountain of soul inside it. His new collection of songs is the stunner of his long career. Creating a warm and pulsing ambience, the depth of feeling can only come from a big-hearted person who can capture emotions and then make sense of them. It is something this man has been doing his whole life, when he first took a gamble on himself and became a songwriter. Dan Penn has seen the world change several times, but the way he can still zero in on what makes everyone tick—love–and then highlight it in music is like receiving the best gift in the world. There likely won’t be another, so now is the time to hear what is possible when Penn puts pen to paper and voice to microphone. A soul stunner.
Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started. On her third mind-blowing album, Margo Price pulls out the stops and proves she is the singer to show the way to the future. With honky tonk roots and an unforgettable voice, she digs down so deep on all these songs that it’s like she’s found a whole new genre of her own. Even better, she meets the challenges of modern life head on, wading into a world where the American dream is cracking apart and life is starting to feel like it’s every person for themselves. With producer Sturgill Simpson, someone who knows a thing or two about tough times, the pair stand tall and start swinging on note one. Flanked by fiery electric guitars, celestial keyboards and damnation drums, Margo Price has made a record for the ages. She isn’t afraid to scream when she needs to, or face the kind of emotions most people run from. Maybe that’s because not that long ago she lived the classic lyric, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and through determined talent and total commitment has been able to rise above it. There’s a good chance this is an album that has the executive suites on Nashville’s Music Row feeling shaky, because it’s so certified real. That’s okay, because Margo Price was never really welcome in those suites anyway. She fought back against the odds, and is now celebrating the beautiful feeling of believing in herself above all else. To end an album with a devastating song like “I’d Die For You” is to raise a flag for freedom, no matter which way the chips fall. Price is righteous.
Jenny Reynolds, Any Kind of Angel. Austin via Boston singer-songwriter Jenny Reynolds has been quietly building a career of soul-filling songs and a unique way of blending influences into a thrilling tapestry. The staggering “There is a Road” and it’s tale of hope and determination opens an album that will shine forever. Folk music was most likely her springboard, but Reynolds luckily did not stop there. Pulling in diverse rhythms when needed and a shimmering guitar style that brings a heart-rushing sound on songs like “Dance for Me” and “The Way We Say Goodbye,” she accomplishes the near impossible, which is to create an album that never feels anything but brand new. Reynolds’ voice can be smokey when needed, and then crystal clear as called for. It really is a wondrous thing, and makes it obvious why she has been able to move to the top in the music-jammed city of Austin. Producer Mark Hallman zeroes in on Jenny Reynolds’ ample strengths, and then makes sure players like Scrappy Judd Newcomb on guitar and Warren Hood on fiddle build an intriguing layer of sound around her. And the winner of song puzzle of the year goes to “Love & Gasoline,” one so good Reynolds will probably be performing it the rest of her life. Townes Van Zandt would be proud of her, like Pancho and Lefty had lived and stumbled back into town to look around. Closing with a breathtaking take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (Bentley’s Bandstand’s Song of the Month in July) points to a bright future for Jenny Reynolds, a singer fearless about what she has done and what she can do. What a life.
Chris Stamey & the Fellow Travelers, A Brand New Shade of Blue. All-around musical whiz Chris Stamey has been an expectation-buster now for over 40 years, going back to his early collaboration with Peter Holsapple in the dB’s. The man has clearly gotten the Great American Songbook under his skin during the past decade, as this latest new achievement attests. Stamey has written 13 brand new standards that fit right in with the music of the late ’50s jazz combos of Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and others. The way Stamey is able to capture those highlights and compose brand new songs of equal stature is astounding, and needs to be heard to really be believed. Then, with singer Brett Harris, along with guest singers Django Haskins and Ramune Martin, whose “I Don’t Think of You” is breathtaking, the album achieves modern classic status. The way the superlative band of jazz players on the songs bring to life a period that included Frank Sinatra and, soon to be, the songs of Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach, is like nothing that’s been heard for many years. That period now seemed to be long gone. Clearly, Chris Stamey is a man possessed, which is often when the very best music begins. That this album was largely recorded in the days of the pandemic seems slightly miraculous considering the demands of the music, but record it the musicians did. What has now been released as a digital-only album should thrill music lovers of all persuasions, and prove that there is no stopping a great idea. Ask Chris Stamey.
Song of the Month
Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio Plus!, “Lockdown.” When it is time to call in an astute look at some of the dangerous absurdity of life in 2020, Elvin Bishop is the perfect person to get the nod. A man who made his early bona fides playing massive blues with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the mid-’60s, Bishop kept crushing the blues as well as hitting the humorous side of the street on special occasion right up to today. His over-the-top look at the quarantine quagmire we’re in will hit the funny bone as well as ask the age-old question: “What the hell is going on?” Naturally he keeps the blues licks flowing and big beat rolling while all this action gets stomping, and it’s no accident Bishop’s original Oklahoma ways get a cameo in his blue denim overalls. What do they say? Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. Start right here.