By Bill Bentley
Alabama Slim, The Parlor. The true blues from the back alley is coming to an end. While this isn’t a judgment, it’s going to feel pretty empty when it’s gone. Alabama Slim is one of the last of the breed, born in 1939 in Vance, Alabama. He lived a life that really isn’t there anymore, working with his grandparents on their farm and listening to the 78s of Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He sings with a voice that hasn’t traveled that far from the country, never slicking up his songs or adding anything flashy. Instead, he aims for the heart and hits it with sure-shots like “Rob Me Without a Gun” and “Forty Jive.” With guitarist Little Freddie King and Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus on keyboards helping lead the instrumental charge, they jump in the way-back machine with bassist Matt Patton and drummer Ardie Dean and zero in on the early sound of blues titans like John Lee Hooker. Alabama Slim doesn’t miss a lick. There is something eerily permanent about his voice and his whole approach to how to handle a song. It gives hope that maybe there are others in the small Southern towns of this huge country, those that came by their blues the hard way. They lived it.
Dave Alvin, From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings. Listening to this transcendental collection of songs Dave Alvin has recorded over the years that might never have been heard before, or showed up on various tribute albums, is like taking a master class in how to make music. Each and every one now feels like a stone cold classic, and the fact that most of them weren’t written by Alvin, who knows a thing or two about writing songs, makes it feel like a hidden present he’s now decided to share with us. It is a mind-blowing stroll through Alvin’s soul to see where he wanders, from Earl Hooker to Bob
Dylan to Lillian Hardin Armstrong to Doug Sahm. And that’s just for starters. Every song sounds like it’s plugged all the way into the wall socket, and no way are any of them less than riveting. Once again, it’s the element of surprise that really seals the deal, because there is no way to predict which direction Dave Alvin is steering the bus as the album really gets rolling. It can jump from swinging blues to bone-chilling country, with stops in swampland and, well, anywhere. Plus there has to be a shout-out to Alvin’s late running buddy Chris Gaffney on the heart-stopping “Amanda” and “On the Way Downtown,” where Gaffney throws in on vocals and accordion. Time stops for a few moments as it feels like Gaffney is still in the room, smiling that funny grin and coming up with a deadly quip or two. History is flying by these days, and albums like this capture it all for posterity. Good on that.
Peter Ames Carlin, Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records from Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince. If there is only one book ever to be read about a record company, this is it. A big part of that is because Warner Bros. Records really did do things differently than the rest: they bet on the artist and led the way to so many innovations in how they backed up that belief. Add to that an artist roster second to none, starting back in the 1960s when they signed the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Captain Beefheart to mention only a few, always looking at a record label’s commitment as a long game, one where the artist is always right, even when they’re not. Believe in the music and those who make it was the Warner Bros. credo. But the real secret, starting with Mo Ostin and the WB roster, was the people who worked there. They were crazed for the sounds swirling around them, and looked at having
their jobs as if they’d won the lottery. Peter Ames Carlin gets inside the minds of most of the major players in the company ranks, and weaves a totally fascinating tale how it all came to be. Of course, nothing lasts forever, especially entertainment companies, but up until Chairman Mo left the Burbank building in 1994, Warner Bros. Records was as close to Camelot as a company can get. It was the place to be seen and to get heard, and while it won’t happen again, it was a bodacious blast while it lasted. 3300 Warner Boulevard. (Reviewer Bill Bentley worked at Warner Bros. Records 1986-2006.)
Sherry Rayn Barnett, Eye of the Music: New York to LA 1969-1989. Photography books are like sunken treasure: to find all these images of favorite artists from the past is to discover a whole new world up close and personal. There is nothing like coming across page after page of musicians who have become iconic over the years, and suddenly feel a new closeness to them that was never imagined before. New Yorker Sherry Rayn Barnett started photographing musicians in the 1960s with a Kodak Brownie camera. Her father loved cameras, and passed his enthusiasm on to her. By 1964 she was on the road to
becoming a professional, and has never looked back. This stunning book of her images starts with Ike and Tina Turner at New York’s Chelsea Hotel at the end of the ’60s, and continues until the ’80s were winding down. In those twenty years is a wild and wondrous array of artists of all musical persuasions. It’s hard to grasp that one person did it all. One of the real sweet spots of these photographs is how Barnett got right in the middle of it all. It’s not just an array of the best artists of our times, but more how she captured who they really were, in those moments when she was right next to them. To see Lou Reed onstage at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan for his last night with the Velvet Underground in August 1970, with 17–year-old drummer Billy Yule in his only time with the band, is to feel like you’ve been invited into sharing history. And this happens over and over in the glorious pages of EYE OF THE MUSIC. Whether it’s Joni Mitchell, B.B. King, James Taylor, Little Richard or any of the other artists featured in these pages, every single one is sharing their soul with the camera, and Sherry Rayn Barnett is there to capture the moment. In 2021 those moments won’t be coming again for so many of these incredible people, so it’s best to see it while you can. Worth 1,000,000 words.
Joe King Carrasco y Colectivo Chihuahua, Mariachi Blues. If there is a search for a real wandering musician in the world right now, point that spotlight on Joe King Carrasco. For the past 45 years the West Texan has been the kind of artist who never slows down. He’s been ripping and running around the globe so much recently that he recorded this King-sized new album in several different countries, always making sure to keep his first love of Mexican music at the forefront. It’s been that way ever since the Texan first jumped over IH-35 in Austin and headed for the Eastside. He traded in his birth surname of
Teutsch for Carrasco and has not looked back. Which has enriched all his devoted listeners now for nearly a half-century, and made him unique in how the music he makes has been so wildly authentic from his very first band El Molino. Joe King Carrasco dances to the sounds in his own frenzied head like nobody’s business, and that he can make one of the very best albums of his long career at this date is nothing short of revelatory. He zips from, yes, mariachis to blues to Tex-Mex to all points south in the drop of a song, and fills each and every one with excitement and love like very few other artists who’ve been in the game this long. This is a human who has been touched by the spirit, and is able to muscle the kind of electricity and eclecticism in a way few other musicians equal. For those who’ve seen the King swinging from the rafters in nightclubs across the land, it’s no surprise that he’s still able to pull surprises out of his sombrero with such ease. From the heart-tugging “Can’t Push a River” to “Watch My Smoke” is an autobiographical tour de force of a man and his muse. Ay yi yi.
Churchwood, Plenty Wrong to Go Awry. Now that Churchwood has come up with the ultimate collection of hoodoo grooves galore crossed with a rambunctious but always semi-controlled vision, it’s time to give them the bona fides they so richly deserve. Based in Austin (where else?), singer Joe Doerr and his gang have really cut loose on their fifth album. But make no mistake: this is not a bar-based blend of ethanol-inspired craziness. Rather, it’s a poetically passionate run at nirvana, where every song points to a higher level of loup garou. The quintet has a laser-like vision of how they want their own personal madness to sound. The roux starts with a Captain Beefheart bouillabaisse, adds a few boiling lyrical inspirations from the Leonard Cohen crowd, and then rides out in the beat-up back seat of Tom Waits’ 1964 Oldsmobile. The beauty of this mumbo jumbo mixture is that Churchwood ends up sounding like no one but themselves, and these days that is a high accomplishment indeed. It’s a bit like a band that rehearses at the University of Texas Academic Center, and then hauls their gear across the Drag and moves into the Hole in the Wall on Friday nights for the next 52 weeks. Something strange is going on, and luckily no one needs to figure it out. Rather, these are ten songs to twist the volume knob up to 12 and let them rip. The last song, “Fixin’ to Crawl,” is a perfect outro for the band’s boogie. Written by brothers Joe and Steve Doerr (longtime Austin fixture in the early LeRoi Brothers and more), this is a song to revel in, a travelogue across the South fueled by looniness and love before finally announcing, “Fixin’ to crawl for you like a king snake in some John Lee Hooker song.” Wear it out.
A.J. Croce, By Request. Talk about a perfect party. A.J. Croce invites some stellar musicians and friends into the studio, sets the band gear real tight and lets it fly. From note one on Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing” it’s obvious this isn’t a nightly affair, but a special evening of turning down the lights and turning up the musical spirits. Croce is no stranger to big stages. In the past three decades he’s established a reputation as someone whose piano and vocal abilities easily equal a slew of great originals. But this night is for fun, and joining Croce are primo players Gary Mallaber on drums, David Barard on bass and Garrett Stoner on guitar. Tearing into songs by Sam Cooke, Randy Newman, Shorty Long, Allen Toussaint, the Beach Boys, Tom Waits and others, a sheer joy is felt splattered all over every one. These people are having fun, and it’s completely contagious. Croce himself is a study in sophistication crossed with funk, someone who clearly was born to sing and share his soul. While he may have been only two years old when he lost his father Jim Croce, the musical bloodlines travel deep. And joining in on guitar for one song each, Billy Harvey adds plenty of electric fireworks to The Faces’ “Stay with Me,” while Robben Ford’s fretwork on Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee’s “Better Days” is a masterful country blues knockout. Many artists talk about making albums for kicks, and if ever one truly fits that bill it’s this collection of thrilling songs sent directly from the heart of one of America’s finest musical prodigies. It’s open house night at A.J. Croce’s, and everyone’s invited. Turn it up.
Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection. When it’s time to take an excursion inside the mind of a living instrumental legend, Spencer Cullum is the man to see. Known near and far for his pedal steel playing, theEnglishman decided to go for broke on this new album and let his guide be the deepest boundaries of a musical excursion. Little else could be expected from someone who learned how to play the instrument from British steel guru B.J. Cole. Cullum has done his lessons well. The songs on COIN COLLECTION don’t really sound like anything else, at least not anything recorded in the past 50 years. There is a definite feel of the outer cosmos running through the music, as if the musician teleported himself to a distant galaxy and pulled down these songs. Maybe that’s because Cullum has spent much of his career playing on other people’s records, and now that it’s time for his solo debut he realized he had to open up all of the psychic portals and let everything flow. Starting with some very outre lead vocals that he has probably been thinking about for awhile. There was a time when artists could find their own universe and explore it according to whatever they felt. Think Alexander “Skip” Spence on his 1969 solo masterpiece OAR. And while the roots of British folk music show their influence here, that’s just the jumping off point. Once the free fall starts, there is no place to stop. That’s what infinity is all about, and Spencer Cullum is going there with everything he’s got. Jump aboard now.
Dave Keller, You Get What You Give: Duets. There’s something about the snow that turns players into soul musicians. Maybe it’s the time spent with mandatory indoor schedules, or just the necessary fortitude in trying to keep warm. Either way, it works. Dave Keller, straight outta Vermont, is a perfect case in point. He’s got the feeling in his songs that goes deep, all the way back to the South, where this music was born, but Keller turns to new invention and never imitation. He’s got his own feelings to share, which he surely does on these 13 songs with guests a-go-go and some mighty righteous roof-raising. Kicking an album off with singer Annika Chambers is a strong sign something is up. The names that follow on Dave Keller’s burning collection is like a small miracle: it ranges from Trudy Lynn, Joe Louis Walker, Johnny Rawls, a handful of new names right to the end with Toussaint St. Negritude on his co-write with Keller, “I’m Gonna Let it Shine.” The only other non-original, Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel classic “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” is a stirring cover with Brother Bob White supplying the vocal, showing how certain songs will live forever. But throughout this album is a continual raising of the spiritualized side of soul music, giving hope that not only will this music live forever, but that listeners will discover what capable hands it’s in now with Keller. The man is definitely not fooling around with something he loves so much. Let it shine.
Up From the Streets, New Orleans: The City of Music. There are moments when just thinking about the music that originated in New Orleans can be an overwhelming celebration. There is so much, and almost all of it has been a true gift of life to hear and experience live. That said, many of those who made that music have gone on to that great Crescent City in the sky that there can be a case of massive melancholy for all who’ve been lost. Watching this totally knocked-out film of absolute musical ecstasy goes a long way in recharging the batteries that used to fuel all those who would visit the city of New Orleans with senses wide open and the spirit tuned into that life-affirming inner-psychic station of WJOY. Basking in all the crazed expectations of just how liberating a visit to the City that Care Forgot could be. Director Michael Murphy and film host Terence Blanchard really have hit the note with all they offer up on this unbeatable viewing pleasure. As New Orleans treasure Allen Toussaint says in the documentary: “New Orleans makes you fall in love with music.” All the giants are in the film, from the earliest days of jazz to gospel greats, the city’s irresistible street parade bands on to rhythm & blues kingpins who actually helped invent rock & roll, soul kings and queens, right up to the new breed hip-hoppers and beyond. It’s not possible to really describe everything that is captured here, except to say it would be a tear-jerking crime to miss out on the movie. And thankfully the section on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shows how courage and inspiration helped save a city like no other in the world. Years ago the musical philosopher Ernie “Mother-in-Law” K-Doe stated: “I’m not sure but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans.” And to immerse the soul into this film completely–because there is simply no other way to watch it– is to understand exactly what K-Doe was talking about. Yeah you right.
Various Artists, The Gospel Truth: The Complete Singles Collection. For so many years, Stax Records in Memphis was Ground Zero for soul music. It was a record label that offered everything that musical style’s audience wanted or needed. Except gospel music. The label had tried once to launch a gospel enterprise, Chalice Records, but it hadn’t worked. What they needed to succeed was a sharp and well-studied person who could get things right. Enter music whiz Dave Clark, and his decades of being in the middle of rhythm & blues and gospel music throughout the country. With Clark at the helm, in 1972 Stax-imprint Gospel Truth Records was born. Because for Stax to really be an all-around success, gospel was mandatory. Along with the savvy assistance of executive Mary P. Peak and an artist roster of the brightest up-and-coming singers and groups, it didn’t take long for success to start knocking on Gospel Truth’s door. Hard. This double-disc collection of all the label’s singles is as breathtaking as it is groundbreaking, because this music was made to expand what gospel music was. The musicians and producers knew that Stax had the ears of both a young and older audience, and with the growing eclecticism of rock & roll, they didn’t see any need to confine themselves within a traditional heritage. Stax’s releases of the Staples Singers had been so groundbreaking that the company knew the possibilities had been broadened, and they were ready to walk in and take control. The Rance Allen Group, Reverend Maceo Woods & the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, Joshie Jo Armstread, Blue Aquarius, Jimmy Jones and others were all ready to burn, and Clark and his crew felt like they
had the goods to bring a brand new day to gospel sounds. The only problem was Stax Records’ financial challenges, which became so pervasive that by 1975 the label was forced to close those vaunted doors. With the dreams of so many artists, including those on THE GOSPEL TRUTH, it seemed to end as quickly as it started. Still, all this incredible spiritual music lives on in eternity, just like the audience that loves it so much. Raise a hand.
Song of the Month
John Fogerty, “Weeping in the Promised Land.” Popular songs have sometimes coalesced with moments in history in ways that could never have been guessed. John Fogerty’s new song, “Weeping in the Promised Land” is just that: a deep cry from the soul about current events that feels like a prayer for understanding at a time when it is absolutely needed. And for someone who has long been a real rock & roll hero for 50-plus years, “Weeping in the Promised Land” is like a brand new style. At heart, this is a gospel song of the highest order, one rooted in a searching that comes with troubled times. It also happens to be such a stunning accomplishment that it really does seem heaven-sent. John Fogerty, never known as a piano player, sits at the keyboard and lets the spirit overtake him, as his lyrics portray a deeply troubled land in need of strength and healing. Backed solely by rising voices, the music takes on a glowing power that is rarely heard in modern music, as Fogerty searches to find a way to comprehend what is happening in our country. And while he has been in this neighborhood before–“Bad Moon Rising,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and more–John Fogerty has never sounded like this. The rainbow sign.