Brigitte DeMeyer, Seeker. There are some singers who get right to the core from their very first note. Something about the way they live a song, and don’t just sing it. It’s clear they’ve been through the fire, and have come out the other side with their spirit intact. Brigitte DeMeyer is one of those people. Though she’s lived in Nashville for years, DeMeyer is originally from Northern California. You can hear it in her wide-open expression, and the way she takes on a song. For her new album, a stunning collection of soul deep songs and vocal virtuosity, the singer had moved back to the Golden State before the sessions began. Some family and health hardships hit her head on, which sounds like it led her to write the kind of songs that come from challenges and courage. This is an album for the ages, and with producer Jano Rix from the Wood Brothers they have created the kind of collection that often comes only once or twice in life. It’s instantly obvious there is some kind of heartfelt reality at the center of the music, something that changes how life is lived, and the way it comes out in the recordings gives everything an extra dimension. Whether it’s on “All the Blue,” “Already In,” “Louisiana” or “Roots and Wings and Bones,” there is the feeling of a divine hand guiding everyone involved in the sessions, like a light is shining on all involved. Seek and receive.
Steve Earle & the Dukes, J.T. .This an album that should never have been necessary to make. There is no way to even consider anything like it, until it became so necessary there is no way it could be ignored. When Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle died last year, his father decided to record ten of his son’s songs. Considering what a deep and soulful songwriter Justin Townes Earle was, it wasn’t a matter of finding the best ones, because in reality they were all great. Rather, the question is how in the world does a father approach even the loss of a son, much less recording his music. But Steve Earle has always been someone familiar with tough challenges, and with his crack-ass band The Dukes they went into the studio and lent their hearts to the task at hand. And what an album they made. Songs like “I Don’t Care,” “Far Away in Another Town,” “The Saint of Lost Causes” and “Harlem River Blues” come to life in a whole new way this time around, tinged with the unfathomable pain at the heart of the endeavor. Earle’s voice breaks with feeling at almost every turn, but there is also a resolve in it which speaks to standing up when almost everything in life is there to knock you down. The way Steve Earle goes the distance here is something that needs to be heard by both those who’ve lost their center in life, as well as those who haven’t. The final song, “Last Words,” is just that: a look at loss that hopefully few will ever have to face. It ends: “Last thing I said was ‘I love you’ / your last words to me were ‘I love you too.'” That is everything.
Allen Ginsberg at Reed College, The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems. When it is time to go to the source, one of those moments when America’s consciousness was plugged into the wall and there could be no turning back, it might as well be Valentine’s Day in 1956 at Reed College in Portland. That is the day of the first known recording of the spirited poet Allen Ginbserg reading his soon-to-be epic poem “Howl” in public. The words were like throwing gasoline on a burning fire, and exploded in the audience’s mind as surely as a personal neutron bomb had been planted there. There is something still so scintillating about “Howl” that it’s permanently current: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” that never seem to go out of fashion. Each generation’s minds get destroyed in their own way in America. It’s the price of freedom. This recording was done that ominous night in 1956, and then put away in someone’s box and forgotten until 50 years later when it was discovered. Talk about hallelujah moments. Now it’s available for all to hear, and bask in the glow of feeling a generation change directions. Once Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beat poets, painters and novelists started spreading their message of experience, the men and women in the gray flannel suits that were turning conformity into the new American religion were finally turned back at the barricades. This recording of “Howl” and seven other Ginsberg poems is a battle cry of freedom. Angels dancing together.
Rickie Lee Jones, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour. This is a book that will set your hair on fire. It’s that powerful. It will also bring tears of joy and sadness, a newly discovered grasp of what cosmic gratitude really means and, by the end, an ability to come close to understanding a little better one of the strongest and most unique singers of the past 40 years. Of course, Jones has written her own life story. There is no way another writer could have accomplished anything close to this. Because the way the woman writes is overflowing with a magical sense of the life she has lived, and that’s what the story demands. Everything Rickie Lee Jones has experienced is told with words that make the pages tingle with a three-dimensional excitement, and an ability to allow the miraculous to spring to life. Maybe that’s because Jones’ life really is a fairy tale of sorts, both the ups and the downs, one that was lived first in her own private world as a child, and then in front of millions of fans. It couldn’t be anything but true, because no one could make up such a story. In the world of musical autobiographies, nothing else compares. Starting in her earliest years, the young girl’s memories take on fantastical elements that move things into another realm, and no matter the twists and turns of what’s in front of her, life keeps unfolding. Rickie Lee Jones has always been a warrior for living life on her own terms. To read the full inside story of what that has been is a righteous and sometimes riotous ride down a road full of breathless adventure and hard-won truths. It is a life still in purposeful progress, and for that we can all be thankful. Infinity comes alive.
Daniel Lanois, Heavy Sun. Whenever Daniel Lanois releases an album, it feels like a special occasion. Maybe that’s because it’s a sure bet to be full of new sounds and surprises, and songs that take nothing for granted. Rather, Lanois sounds like he is building a new house with the current songs, and it’s always got surprises galore both in the layout and materials used. This time around the musician has joined with frequent collaborator Rocco DeLuca on pedal steel, Hammond organist Johnny Shepherd and bassist Jim Wilson and taken a journey into a sound that borrows things from gospel music, ethereal instrumentals (natch) and other styles that don’t even have names yet. Everything joins together for a worshipful excursion into a vibration, one fueled by a powerful mojo propelling them forward. Not only is this one of Lanois’ very best albums, it already feels like the most exciting release of the year. Groove monsters like “Dance On” and “Under the Heavy Sun” collide with “Tree of Tule” and “Angels Watching” for a hypnotic blast of spirit-curdling grooveaciousness. There is no other way to say it. Shepherd clearly comes out of a gospel background the way he finesses the Hammond, pulling out big chords for some colors, and then walking a more delicate line on others. Of course, Lanois’ guitarisms originate in unexplored areas of what that instrument can do, and teamed with DeLuca they head off into outer space when needed. Bassist Jim Wilson pushes everything into originality with bass lines that percolate more than pound, which is just what the music needs. And drummers Brian Blade and Kyle Crane (who each perform on two seaparate songs) use percussion as an elixir, adding living beauty to all they touch. While it is not a surprise just how dynamic the latest recordings are, what a glorious wake-up call for a time that feels like the world is beginning to move into a pulsing zone of hopeful openness and a brand new light after a long year’s night. Time to shine.
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Volume 2. When the Zebra Ranch studio down in Independence, Mississippi started jumping in late 2007, thank goodness there were tape recorders rolling to capture the full-tilt magic of what was going on. Charlie Musselwhite, Jim Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus and Cody Dickinson, also known as the New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers had joined together for a long-view look at Southern music that each had been playing their entire lives. Volume 2
of these sonic shenanigans has all the force of the first set, and then some. These are players who not only know how to play, they also wisely know what to play and what not to play. And that difference is a big plus. Original songs are joined with classics by Charles Mingus, Jimmy Reed, the Mississippi Sheiks, Junior Wells, Earl Hooker and even the Sir Douglas Quintet for such a raucously rockin’ adventure that
it’s hard to believe there’s anything else left to hear. These six players, aided by Chris Chew on electric bass and Paul Taylor on tub bass, brew up such a mighty storm of funky frivolity and blues-blasted
ballistics there is clearly no way to resist. In a time when finding music that captures the true essence of the blues’ inspiration, it’s a small miracle that this crew got together in the first place. Add in the fact that these recordings are almost 14 years old and there has to be something in that new moon smiling down on all those involved. The late Jim Dickinson was a cultural shaman at heart, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he gathered his two sons and their friends to turn on the tapes and start doing what each does best: play songs aimed at the heart and performed with the kind of love and respect that ensures this sound will live forever. Jelly Rollers unite.
Important Trash. In so many ways Important Trash’s mesmerizing music sounds like it comes from another time. Fortunately, it’s not really a time the finger can be put on so it becomes its very own era. There is plenty of vocal and instrumental breathiness so the sound seems to float in space in a unique dimension, with lyrics that are down to earth and at the same time super ethereal. It’s a very different take on what modern music has become, but in the end is impossible to resist. Mary Parker’s Important Trash is the perfect example of someone who has thought long and hard on what she wants her songs to feel like, and then with super-focused effort zeroes in on exactly how to make that happen. It’s like a spinoff of a romantic style that stays just off center enough to sound only like itself. Of course, the ultimate allure of songs like “Fancy You,” “Home” and “If I Can’t Have All of You” is that they can’t really be pinpointed, even in their influences. It’s like they’ve arrived full-born from another land, and it’s up in the air on how they got there. Music that retains an element of mystery is the kind that lasts the longest of all, because guessing is what makes life stay new. Important Trash promises to stay important. Now and forever.
Sara Petite, Rare Bird. It’s obvious when an artist comes around that is clearly on their own path. It’s not just the way they can mix musical influences into a unique concoction, or that their followers come from different areas of fandom. Rather it’s more the sound of freedom that fills their songs, like they’re singing to their own vision of how they see the world. Sara Petite has been doing it her own way for some time, and that’s a very good thing. On her sixth album, the native of the farming community Sumner, Washington has taken a giant leap and landed right in the middle of greatness. There are enough songs on RARE BIRD that could proudly sit on any album released this century and be declared a classic. Maybe that’s because the woman has reached her strongest calling, and has rounded up a roomful of musicians who are right there with her to go the distance. On the song “The Misfits” she comes right out and says it: “We are the misfits we are the ones / we are the rebels with the smokin’ guns…” The whole album sounds like a clarion call to how it feels to be making a way on your own terms, whether it’s on “Scars,” “Missing You Tonight” and especially the title song “Rare Bird.” Often it feels like time actually stops when a certain verse comes around, and Petite’s voice breaks the silence with such surety that there are no words to describe it. It just is. Ask any artist who’s been recording and performing for twenty years, and it doesn’t take long to find out who’s in it for life. There is a permanent passion to how they approach a song, almost like it’s a life or death proposition. On “I Just Keep Moving On” it’s easy to hear the strong spirits that are passing through the song and Petite herself. Sara Petite has an everlasting passion all day long, and she and producer Ben Moore have filled this album with it. The music doesn’t really fit any specific style except her own, which means she has come all the way home. Right on time.
Joel Selvin. Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise. To be able to see behind the curtain of the birth of the California rock & roll dream is a gift Joel Selvin is offering readers at maximum cool. There are so many absolutely intriguing stories in Selvin’s swinging new tome, whether it’s about Jan & Dean, Nancy Sinatra, Sandy Nelson, the Beach Boys and a whole host of other iconic musical Golden Staters that it feels like the Hit Parade itself is our tour guide. And the way so much of the fascinating story unfolds in the confines or different high schools feels like we’re getting the deluxe tour of
the promised land by someone who has discovered what really happened there. Still, this is no magic carpet ride: there are car crashes, bad trips and a few painful endings, told with such an astute eye for detail that the endless summer is just a Corvette ride away. Paradise might not have been perfect, but for the period when so much perfect music was becoming the soundtrack for teenagers all across America, this is the real deal story of how it happened. And why it all mattered. Then, without warning, The Byrds and LSD were ready to throw the West Coast into fourth gear and we’d never hear surf music again. Tune in now.
Lorenzo Wolff, Down Where the Valleys are Low. Judee Sill is one of the beloved artists of the 1970s, someone who wrote the kind of songs that her fans never forget. Unfortunatley there just weren’t enough of her fans to give her the impact she surely deserved. One of the very first signings to the Asylum Records label, she struggled to maintain a highly demanding lifestyle marked by drug addiction and all that went with that and fell prey to hardships that eventually destroyed her career and then took her life. But not before making two albums that are still worshipped by fans to this day. Lorenzo Wolff’s free-form tribute album to Sill’s songs is such a captivating affair because of the way Wolff uses the songs as a jumping off point, and not a final destination. Seven singers lend their voices to a different track in a way that totallly reimagines songs like “The Pearl,” “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” “Crayon Angels” and “There’s a Rugged Road” and makes them feel like brand new compositions. Luckily, they don’t veer so far away of what Judee Sill first invisioned that her overwhelming essence evaporates. Rather, it becomes even stronger as artists like Grace McClean, Mary-Elaine Jenkins, Osei Essed and others step up to push the power of Judee Sill to the sky. It’s truly a phenomenal accomplishment to take something that seemed so unique to the songwriter and give it a life that suddenly takes off on its own. This music might have originated in a world that was full of promise at the same time it was also controlled by despair, but today it has become a true touchstone for sheer greatness. Judee Sill isn’t here, but with recordings like this her aura is all around those who are open to her music. The Phoenix rises.
Neil Young, Young Shakespeare. At the Shakespeare Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut in 1971, Neil Young had gone worldwide. After the Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young explosions, he had recently released the solo album AFTER THE GOLDRUSH in 1970. And all systems were ready for lift-off. So when he took the stage at the Shakespeare, fans were all lined up. Still, there is something so open about Young’s music on this night that it’s still awe-inspiring to hear. It’s like he was just getting started, and even though songs like “Ohio,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Helpless” and “Down by the River” were almost modern classics by then, on this night in Connecticut they sounded brand new, like he had just written them and was testing them out on the audience. It wasn’t a show as much as it was a soul-baring session for a 25-year-old man who had already surpassed some of his wildest dreams, but wasn’t taking anything for granted. Rather, Young was creating a world on the stage that he believed in, and was hoping others would believe in with him. In so many ways, this is someone discovering himself. And for that this
album ranks right up there with any of the live releases of Neil Young’s long and ongoing career. There is also, believe it or not, a film of this show included with the vinyl and Compact Disc box set that is an eye-opener. It is like watching an artist painting a new canvas, one that will become historical one day. The film crew that happened to be there that night captured something so special it feels like we’re visiting Young at home. A half-century later history has come alive–again. Sugar Mountain survived.
Reissue of the Month
Gerry Beckley, Keeping the Light On. As part of the mega-band America, Gerry Beckley, along with Dan Peek and Dewey Bunnell, took over the radio airwaves in the 1970s for a good chunk of the decade. Their music fit right in the space where rock, country, folk and a touch of the cosmic lived, and it stayed there. And, of course, they sold millions of records. Once Beckley started recording solo albums in 1995 he was able to carve out his own niche, and on seven releases showed that his success in America was no fluke. The singer’s voice is so sure with clear feeling that it takes hold of a listener like a trusted friend. The man can broadcast such emotional truths that it becomes almost medicinal. This 20-track overview from Gerry Beckley’s solo releases are brilliantly curated in a way that feels like a road trip across, well, America, and includes five previously unreleased tracks. He got to discover various ways to record his songs, and didn’t waste a single song when investigating various ways to present his songs. On 2019’s “Watching the Time,” Beckley teams up with the late Beach Boy Carl Wilson and Chicago’s Robert Lamm for a voicefest of the highest order. After 50 years as a professional singer-songwriter in so many ways Gerry Beckley sounds like he’s just getting started. The light’s on.
Song of the Month
John Oates & the WildRoots, “Our Last Goodbye.” There was an unforgettable song on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ debut album titled “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Founding member Al Kooper wrote and sang it, and it was so stellar that soon none other than Donny Hathaway covered it. It’s one of those one-in-a-million affairs. John Oates, best known as half of Hall & Oates, recorded “Our Last Goodbye” for the WildRoots’ SESSIONS VOLUME 1 album, and it’s up there in the same territory as Kooper’s song. Oates’ voice gets low down and dusty from note one, and works the dark end of the street like few singers can do these days. The band’s Victor Wainwright and Stephen Dees make sure the players keep everything shoved way deep in the pocket, and near the end the saxophone solo that takes over is dripping with such feeling the whole affair might as well be at a Sunday morning gospel get-down. It’s that good.