By Bill Bentley
Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite, 100 Years of Blues. When Elvin Bishop whips out his Big Dog red Gibson guitar and Charlie Musselwhite begins blowing on his Seydel Mississippi saxophone harmonicas, it is clearly all over but the shouting. This a Southern-bred pair that is not kidding around. Between them, they’ve played with just about all the blues giants of the past 60 years, and learned their lessons so well they’re now among the last real bluesmen standing. And believe it or not, this is their first album together. It couldn’t be stronger either, a weaving of their souls that sounds like it was recorded with eternity in mind. They’re joined by Bob Welsh and co-producer Kid Andersen for a down home drum-free blues fest. None miss a lick in showing what they’ve learned from the masters. Bishop can throw in some quirky humor to keep things rolling, while Musselwhite puts it way back in the alley so everyone knows just where they’re coming from. Their originals sit pretty right next to blues classics by Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr and Roosevelt Sykes, and there is even the currently pertinent “What the Hell?” to prove the blues never dies. In so many ways, it never even gets older. The blues just stays permanent. To hear Bishop sing Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues” and Musselwhite perform Roosevelt Syke’s “West Helena Blues” is to experience something so strong it feels like a mountain: it cannot be moved. Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite are American musical heroes pure and simple, and have never lost their way. Instead, the pair has continued on a road of courage riding right down the middle, staying true to the blues they fell in love with all those years ago. They ain’t lyin’.
Eddie Bo & Chris Barber, The 1991 Sea Saint Sessions. When New Orleans musical maestro Eddie Bo enters a recording studio, it’s obvious he has come to groove. One of the early kingpins of the Crescent City sound, Bo knows what it takes to make things cook. English trombonist Chris Barber took Bo and a completely killer band into Allen Toussaint’s studio in 1991 to kick up some sand. Now, finally, the results are at hand. The band was an illustrious bunch, that’s for sure, and included longtime Bobby “Blue” Bland’s jawdropping guitarist Wayne Bennett, bass and tuba player Walter Payton, and a young Russell Batiste Jr., who’d recently joined the New Meters, on drums. They got down to business with six Eddie Bo originals, and extended versions of the standards “Careless Love” and, yes, “You Are So Beautiful.” Needless to say, this is an album for the ages, even if it’s taken almost thirty years to see the light of day. Bo is in super-fine form, and shows why he was always such a major league player in the very crowded New Orleans musical firmament. During the 1970s the man ran the El Grande Lounge on Broad Street, and if a daytime event was in the making it always included an extra ten minutes for Eddie Bo to install his white turban on top of his head before the action commenced. That is New Orleans to the max. This is an album that brings to mind the absolute glory of the city’s music, and how it has always been capable of turning each day into a divine affair no matter what else was going on in the world. This album is a new treasure to be valued forever. Eddie Bo knows.
Dane Clark & the Backroom Boys featuring John Sebastian, Songs from Isolation. It’s always a good idea to keep an ear on the drummer, because they’ve got a lot of down-time waiting for the rest of the band to gear up. Dane Clark has been admirably holding down the beat with John Mellencamp’s outfit for many years, and in that time has made a half-dozen solo albums displaying his strong multi-instrumental skills. Clark, though, has never made an album like this. Housebound by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indianan tapped into the talents of some of his musician friends and recorded these scintillating songs born by the New Abnormal. They range from bluesy rave-ups to heartbreaking ballads, and offer an understanding hand for all that the world is going through. There’s even a funkified remake of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “Sitting in Limbo” that feels so right-on about today’s events there’s chills galore. Clark’s vocals are full of fire, and when he’s joined by daughter Abigail Clark on “Keep the Lights On” there is not a dry eye around to be found. Her vocal puts things right down in the street as she explores the devastation the pandemic has wrought. From turmoil and loss can often come a time to grow. That time has come. Dane Clark delivers.
Joachim Cooder, Over That Road I’m Bound: The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon. Leave it to the multi-gifted musician Joachim Cooder to go off-road for awhile and come back with an album so beautiful, so mesmerizing, so unique that it is impossible to resist. Starting with his mastery of the Mbira instrument, Cooder and his prodigious crew take on the songs of early country music pioneer Uncle Dave Macon and drive them on a time-travel into the future. The Mbira itself is enough to fire off the booster rockets for music meant to weave a spell not felt that often. And Cooder’s vocals are also a revelation: they have a shimmering spark that evokes a place far away and at the same time right next door. In a time when the rips in America’s fabric are starting to be felt all around, this is a healing sound, one that was born in the Great Depression of the 1930s and is just as relevant today. The way Cooder and friends have turned it into a modern revelation is like a musical magic display. It opens a crack in the door to what seems like another world, one where pure feelings are the order of the day. When a little goofer dust gets sprinkled over the songs, all of a sudden it’s time for a journey to a new land. Joachim Cooder’s soul is really something to behold, and will be a glorious gift to turn to in all the days ahead. Right on time.
The Dillards, Old Road New Again. The Dillards were a very important part of the bedrock of young bands in the early 1960s who brought country music to rock audiences. They did it in a way that few others could equal, and over the years have stayed true to always casting a curious eye how different genres cross-pollinate for something new. Rodney Dillard has recaptured the glory of everything the Dillards brought to music in the beginning, and continued to share over the past 60 years. Their harmonies and hearts are as strong as ever, and give hope the road ahead will bring along the beauty of the past. With special guests Don Henley, Ricky Skaggs, Herb Pedersen, Bernie Leadon, Sam Bush and Sharon and Cheryl White, it’s like the home team has been augmented with heavy hitters so anything is possible. Luckily, the Dillards have zeroed in on the music that made them so great in the first place, and make sure it is even greater today. Which is no small feat in a time when so many have either left the planet or lost their way. So the next time the topic of country-rock comes up, point to the Dillards as being there at the very start and, somehow, continuing to stay there in all their musical splendor. The road continues.
Larkin Poe, Self Made Man. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell take Southern rock and make it kick hard. From Georgia and now based in Nashville, this is a multi-armed group that melds burning guitars, boisterous rhythms and super-sonic vocals in ways not heard for awhile. Named after their great-great-great-grandfather, Larkin Poe’s deep roots poke through all their songs, without ever limiting them to the past. Instead, it’s like they make sure the songs have enough modern bluster so they’re always aimed at tomorrow. Having worked as vocalists with Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst and others helps them remain rooted in diversity. Rebecca Lovell’s lead vocals and electric guitar are both wonders, and with Megan Lovell’s lap steel and keyboards they’ve fashioned a sound that never quits churning and burning. They dig into a backwoods velocity on songs like “Holy Ghost Fire” and “Scorpion” that have a chicken-fried crunch. With co-writer Pat McLaughlin “Every Bird That Flies” the pair steps into the future like the adventurers they are. Self made women.
Barrett Martin Group, Scattered Diamonds. Barret Martin may be best known as a rock drummer first heard in Screaming Trees, but he has become a renaissance man who records stunning and esoteric albums rooted in jazz, publishes books and tours the world in search of the new. Martin’s latest album is a breathtaking collection of songs and styles, using players from India, America, Senegal, Iraq and beyond. The music ranges from celestial to fierce, but always maintains a singular definition as Barret Martin’s. He is the center of this sonic universe, and his spirit seeps into everything the aggregation achieves. Martin has honed the DIY approach to a new high, and become a model musician for those who are looking to blaze a new trail in the post-pandemic world. In the end, though, it’s the sound Martin is creating now that continues to ignite his listeners, and this new album is like a travelogue of influences. To call it jazz is too limiting, and luckily none of the musicians get stifled by definitions. Instead, they play freely and with deep feeling so from note one it’s obvious they are all on a well-tuned quest to create something new and lasting. To hear it unfold is among this year’s finest moment. Barret Martin rules.
Grant-Lee Phillips, Lightning Show Us Your Stuff. There is no telling how singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips continually comes up with songs that sound like no one else. Not even close. When Phillips first appeared on Los Angeles’ music stages in Shiva Burlesque, it was like he was giving a hint of what lay ahead. Then Grant Lee Buffalo was born, and Phillips showed his cards. This was a musician who pulled down a plethora of influences to fashion a sound that demanded attention. Not just because no one else was doing what the band was doing, but because Grant-Lee Phillips had hit a nerve of such originality he quickly found his way to the front of the musical line. Then, when he went solo, it’s like the tension in his visionary songs expanded and threw a bright light on a new view. The past 20 years have been an exciting exploration of different worlds, so that today Phillips really is in a party of one. It’s like he’s got a direct line into a spirit zone no others can get to. Maybe some of that comes from his Native American heritage, or possibly of how he stands solidly on the planet. Either way, the man is clearly receiving transmissions from another astral plane and is able to turn the information into songs. The sky is showing Phillips its stuff, and he’s not wasting a moment turning it all into the songs of a new vision. The best yet.
Lou Reed, New York: The Deluxe Edition. Reissues may not be the rage they once were, but Lou Reed’s 1989 album NEW YORK surely deserves this mondo-complete collection, which includes three CDs, two vinyl discs, a cassette and a DVD. They might as well have included a Manhattan street sign with a Gray’s Papaya hot dog. The fact that the music is based on Reed’s bone-chilling examination over 30 years ago of life in the city he loved so much means that it’s all worth it. Beyond unreleased demos, the live concert recording and a DVD performance of the entire album filmed in Montreal in 1989 is the mind-blowing 14 songs on the original album itself. From “Romeo Had Juliette” to “Dime Store Mystery” is a multi-layered journey through New York with the best tour conductor that ever lived. The songs Reed wrote are head-shaking standouts from one of the great rock careers. David Fricke’s perfect booklet essay explains how it happened. NEW YORK’s last lines, from the goodbye song “Dime Store Mystery” written for Lou Reed’s earliest defender Andy Warhol, say it all: “What must you have been thinking when you realized the time had come for you / I wish I hadn’t thrown away my time on so much Human and so much less Divine / The end of the Last Temptation / The end of a Dime Story Mystery…” Fly fly away.
Jimmie Vaughan, The Pleasure’s All Mine: The Complete Blues, Ballads and Favorites Sessions. Ten years ago Jimmie Vaughan decided to record what he calls The Great American Blues Songbook. Over the course of two albums he chose 30 favorites from the deep vaults of blues treasures, and added one of his own knock-out instrumentals for good luck. This new compilation of those two albums is like a deep immersion in American music, but in a way that it makes it feel brand new. Part of that allure is from Vaughan’s guitar. He is nothing less than a master of the music of earlier artists like Jimmy Reed, Amos Milburn, Freddie King and others from the golden period of American blues. With a crack rhythm section aided by horns and keyboards Vaughan gets down to the essence of what blues has always been: the music of hard times turned happy. It’s as simple as that, and the music here is the perfect course in what it was and how it should sound now. He even ventures into the songbooks of Gene Autry, Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson and others to show how country music and the blues have always been kissing cousins. It’s all in the way in how it’s played. For an irresistible walk into the woods to hear the real thing, start right here. Jimmie Vaughan, who has become an arresting vocalist in aiding his hypnotic guitaristics, knows the way and is here to take you there. Blues to use.
Bonnie Whitmore, Last Will & Testament. It’s obvious when an artist makes a major breakthrough. Their songs coalesce into a full picture of who they are, the recordings themselves sound fully finished and their voice has a different force. Bonnie Whitmore’s new album does all this and so much more. It could be the breakthrough of the year, just because she has such a personal sound now. With a touch of cowgirl kickass and a string of firecrackers in her style, the Texan has grabbed the brass ring this time around. Her sister and brother-in-law are in the Mastersons, and it’s taken Whitmore a few years and several albums to get out front to solidify her own career. But with co-producer Scott Davis she’s really done it this time. There are a handful of songs that sound better than just about anything else out now, and make it clear this singer-songwriter has arrived. The sole cover on the new release, “Flashes & Cables,” written by Will Johnson from Centro-matic, a band in the Denton, Texas scene a decade ago, is a breathtaking vehicle for Whitmore’s voice, a song that starts softly and then cannot be stopped. By the end, it’s become an anthem for everyone, and an announcement this woman has arrived. Bad and nationwide.
Song of the Month
Neil Young, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” When it’s time to step up and lay it on the line, Neil Young remains ready. Considering the political fervent of 2020, Young’s plaintive and passionate version of Bob Dylan’s anthem is perfect for the backstretch of this election year. Though the song first appeared in 1964, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” sounds like it could have been written yesterday. There is no way to look the other way when these verses roll by with such devastating power. It’s clear the old days are once again done, and a new one needs to be born. Even if the song is almost 60 years old, like all great art it truly is timeless. It often seems like the past is just a memory and the future remains a maybe, but Neil Young’s passionate evocation of Bob Dylan now feels like a call to what has to happen. Hope sings eternal.