By Bill Bentley
Steve Almaas, Everywhere You’ve Been. There are some rock musicians who are so overwhelmingly born to play the music it’s obvious from day one. Steve Almaas was growing up in Minneapolis when the Beatles got inside his head, and he’s been riding a musical express train ever since. Early band Suicide Commandos made a mighty dent on the coming Minneapolis music scene when they began in the 1970s, but for Almaas rock and all its extensions has seemed like something to explore rather than sit still with. And the way his latest album takes everything he’s done and molds it into such an irresistible mix is a true inspiration to us all. Of course, there’s plenty of country rock influences, which is totally understandable from Almaas’ years with the Crackers and Beat Rodeo, and there’s also an alluring shimmer to other songs that feels like Buddy Holly is lurking in the closet, or maybe John Lennon is sending Almaas private messages. Either way, EVERYWHERE YOU’VE BEEN is a wondrous dozen songs that don’t come along that often. The feeling of timelessness that’s woven throughout says it all: this is an all-timer collection that should be heard immediately. Gloriously mixed by Mitch Easter, Steve Almaas has really done it this time. Music for everyone.
Ricky Byrd, Sobering Times. Sometimes when one party is over, an even better one begins. And that’s the underlying foundation of Ricky Byrd’s deep-dish new album. After sobriety came into Byrd’s life, he really began to fly. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the musician has seen just about everything there is to see on the rock front. But now that he’s put the bottle down, the new world that opened up for Ricky Byrd let him enter a zone of even higher achievements, like these dozen songs on SOBERING TIMES. He wrote most of them, and collaborated on several others with Willie Nile, Richie Supa and Emily Duff. And, of course, the rocker couldn’t resist a rollicking take on Merle Haggard’s boozehound lament, “The Bottle Let me Down.” The way Byrd does it is with a wide-open heart, clear eyes and power crunch guitars. It also doesn’t hurt at all that the man can sing as good as he plays. This album is truly an eye-opener in the way it walks a tough line in making rock & roll shine a truthful light on putting the bottle away and how life can begin in such wonderful ways once that happens. The last song, “Just Like You,” will touch those who have struggled with sobriety on that travel to Happy Destiny Road, as well as those who haven’t. And that’s the best message of all. Keep coming back.
Tia Carroll, You Gotta Have It. Soul music is like a mountain range. It will not be moved. The sound will always be here as long as people walk the streets and keep looking for their groove. Tia Carroll has been out on the avenues copping visuals, and performing in clubs all over the Bay Area a long time. She shows zero signs of slowing down. And, unbelievably, this is the woman’s first American album release, after several in foreign countries. It comes at exactly the right time, too, expressing in song what has hit the modern world head-on. People are struggling, looking for omens that promise better days ahead. Of course, it’s always been that way and not just during a pandemic, and that’s where music like this comes in. It is a solace to the human spirit and a bright light that suggests life will get better. Tia Carroll’s voice expresses that belief as strong as anyone alive on these eleven songs, which include originals and blistering covers of favorites by The Staple Singers, Johnny Ace, Z.Z. Hill, Robert Cray and others. There is something in Carroll’s voice that instantly conveys belief, like this woman has seen it all and never quit pushing forward. Of course, the question becomes why isn’t she a nationwide name? As the man once said, “Sometimes it just be’s that way.” The good news is that hopefully Tia Carroll’s time has come, and with the groovacious solidification of producers Kidd Andersen and Jim Pugh along with their studio band of burners, YOU GOTTA HAVE IT isn’t kidding. The musical mountain is here and ready to help. Gotta have it.
Alex Chilton and Hi Rhythm Section, Boogie Shoes: Live on Beale Street. Without a doubt, when Alex Chilton decided to join the Hi Rhythm Section in Memphis to salute long-time saxophone king Fred Ford, he would choose to open the show with KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” Chilton, remembered for galvanizing Memphis both with the ’60s chart-toppers The Box Tops and ’70s infamous Big Star, always did things his way. And that includes having moved to New Orleans and becoming a dishwasher. But boy did Chilton still have the voice, as these 10 songs prove all night long. Changing from some of the growl of the Box Tops and shimmer of Big Star, the singer’s vocals have become bell-clear, and a real work of beauty. Trotting out a songbook that evening that also included Little Richard, Otis Clay, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and more, this performance in 1999 at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street with the Hi Rhythm Section is historic. The Hodges brothers–Charles, Teenie and Leroy–with drummer Howard “The Memphis Bulldog” Grimes had supplied the backing for Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles and dozens of others of Memphis’ finest all during the ’70s, and sound locked into the holy groove that night with Chilton. And thanks to producer David Less’ determination to get it released 22 years later, this is a live album for the ages. It flows like the Mississippi River not too far from the New Daisy, and captures completely why Memphis will always be a knocked-out spot for giving birth to so much of America’s musical mojo. That Alex Chilton and so many others are now gone only makes it all the move poignant. Scream and shout.
Ben Cosgrove, The Trouble with Wilderness. When it’s time to relax and float downstream, there can be no better company than keyboard maestro Ben Cosgrove. He has a way with music that always invokes the outer realm of reality, the place where imagination holds as much sway as the physical. Maybe that’s because Cosgrove dreams in technicolor, and is able to translate his pure love for nature into solid musical constructs that convey that passion. It’s not easy, but his dedication to doing just that is monumental. Cosgrove’s new album was made in a time when his world had been constricted to his immediate environment; there was no more wanderlust through national parks and nature preserves. Gladly, this didn’t diminish his aspirations one iota. In some ways, it might have challenged to reach beyond what he normally uses to fuel his passions and really dig into the psyche where all things originate. He works with a dozen different types of keyboards and other intriguing electronic apparti, including something called a C&G Organelle, all to grand effect. The musician’s ability to swerve from cosmic-leaning melodies to charging rhythmic workouts shows he is basically fearless when it comes to his original compositions, and by now is ready to proceed on the paths he has built himself. And now that the wide world of nature is opening up to Ben Cosgrove’s exploration again, the skies are the limit. Just like this.
Mercy Fontenot with Lyndsey Parker, Permanent Damage: Memoirs of an Outrageous Girl. Whoa! With what sometimes feels like a minor miracle, Miss Mercy’s life story careens from delight to disaster and back so many times there is a considerable chance of whiplash during the reading. Of course, the lead line in her life story is membership in the GTOS, aka Girls Together Outrageously, and the musical group’s brief fling in Frank Zappa’s conglomeration of SoCal offbeats. But there is so much more to Mercy Fontenot’s Hollywood tale there is simply no way to capture it except in reading her book. With writer Lyndsey Parker’s above and beyond assistance, everything from tragedy, treachery, heartbreak and happiness come through in day-glo colors. In the end, Miss Mercy stands upright as a true survivor, except for the fact that she died not long before the book’s completion. But what is surely a small miracle, the memoir was finished and now permanently stands as a cautionary tale for those who get too close to the flame, or don’t have working brakes in how they live their life. There are so many extraordinary coincidences and convolutions, from her marriage to Shuggie Otis to close friendships with enough marquee names to fill a gossip column, that there are likely Hollywood hands working on a biopic at this very moment. And while there is no way to capture the three-dimensional swing of Miss Mercy’s daily travels in black & white, PERMANENT DAMAGE and its evocative prose and complete honesty comes close enough to the bonfire to catch afire. What a trip.
Billy F Gibbons, Hardware. Strange things happen out in the California high desert. Critters rule the land, and odd sightings often happen around every turn. So it’s totally natural that Billy F Gibbons would head in that direction to record a new solo album, and see what he can find in that mysterious terrain. Of course, the electric guitars are turned up to “stun,” and the backbeat boogie is sun-cooked into the grooves, but considering that the Houston native has been playing guitar for six decades it’s always a surprise when so many new sounds appear. Working with Matt Sorum and Mike Fiorentino on drums and bass, respectively, along with engineer Chad Shlosser, HARDWARE is a brand new adventure for someone who has devoted his life to finding the boogie. Razor sharp guitar lines, vocals simmered in hot sauce and an ability to pull a righteous groove out of the ground no matter where he parks his Eliminator: that’s the handbook for Gibbons. But there is always room for a few surprises. Like Larkin Poe’s soaring vocals on “Stackin’ Bones” and a border town bruiser version of Augie Meyers’ San Antonio anthem, “Hey Baby, Que Paso.” Meyers’ years on Vox organ
in the Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados are still legendary worldwide, and when he first recorded the original it felt like the eyes of Texas were upon him. All the livelong day. Now that Gibbons and crew have given it new life, well, the bluebonnet plague is all over us–again. Album ender “Desert High” is where the electric lights go out and the desert stars fill the sky with an eternal vibration, captured in the cosmic guitar tones of one Billy F Gibbons. Gabriel’s horn’s blowin’.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings. Here is a dream musical marriage made in the studios of Nashville. John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas: the perfect pair. The dobros, lap steels, guitars, basses, violins and backing vocals all sound like they are dancing on air together, feet never touching the ground. It has a sense of magic about it, something that sooner or later had to happen. John Hiatt has been writing some of the best songs alive for over 45 years, while Jerry Douglas is the kind of musician that people trade their car keys for to have on their sessions. Each has made a major contribution to what America sounds like today, and when they merge together on their new album LEFTOVER FEELINGS, there is not a leftover feeling anywhere to be found. It all feels brand new and ready to zap listeners with a swinging propulsion and straight-up jubilation. The tyranny of the snare drum has been banished, and these passionate players are all laying it down strong in the grooves while Hiatt, as usual, sings up a storm. Naturally, it’s John Hiatt’s songwriting which really seals the deal. He has forever had a way to inhabit the hollow places inside us, those moments when an overwhelming sense of loss can turn the day dark and the world blue. It’s almost like the man carries a burden of pain tucked away in his heart, and every year or two he’ll let out a few songs which share what he sees at the end of the line. When he does, the clouds part, the sun shines and we realize there is a way out. The pain is not something that defines Hiatt, but it is what keeps him great. On this album, “I’m in Asheville,” “All the Lilacs in Ohio” and “Changes in My Mind” are when he goes there, and those moments are not to be missed. “The Music is Hot” joins his bulging songbook full of all-time classics, and then “Light of the Burning Sun” tiptoes in and completely clears the deck as its overwhelming tragic heaviosity stops time and makes it hard to breathe. Tears are the only response to such a flat-out devastating awesomeness. Really. Then, as Hiatt says goodbye at the end of the stunning collection, “Sweet Dream” is our reward for getting there, and extends a hand of hope that this life has all been worth it. The glow of Jerry Douglas and his band’s acoustic instruments shine through with brilliant light, once again, and everything seems possible. Starting with love.
Shannon McNally, The Waylon Sessions. Now here’s an idea whose time has come, with the one singer alive who could actually do it right. And make no mistake: Shannon McNally has done it right. It goes without saying that the songs Waylon Jennings recorded over his unmatched career are like a roll call of many of the greatest ever written. That still doesn’t mean recording them now was going to be easy. Jennings’ voice was a big part of his greatness, but just as important was the inner spirit he always conveyed: part pure tough guy and part wounded angel. He had a thing that only a handful of country singers have ever possessed, and that was absolute without-a-doubt sheer greatness. And since he’s been gone, no one has even gotten close to that achievement. It’s a blessing that McNally didn’t tiptoe up to these songs. No way. She reared back and gave them the best she had, and it is a true revelation to hear her do it. Always one to follow her own road, McNally found the best producer, rounded up the right musicians, went into the perfect studio and then let it fly. The album becomes a joyous celebration of both Jennings and Shannon McNally, which is a wonderful journey indeed. Whether opening with Waylon Jennings’ own knockout “I’ve Always Been Crazy” and then going all the way and ending with Dolly Parton’s “Waltz Me To Heaven,” the set is such an eye-opening rush of unbridled emotions, this album starts to feel like a groundbreaking moment to once again acknowledge what an overwhelming treasure country music has been for the world. Walk the line.
Various Artists, What Goes On: The Songs of Lou Reed. The man himself once said it best: “No one does Lou Reed better than me.” And Reed wasn’t kidding. Still, this 20-song collection of other artists wading into the wild side to record one of the man’s once-in-a-lifetime rock & roll songs is an intriguing challenge that gets met more times than not. What is so exciting is that still after all these years since the New Yorker carved out his own place in rock history, there is a continuing excitement in taking on a Lou Reed original. From Beck to Iggy Pop, WHAT GOES ON is a thoughtful and often thrilling recasting of some of the best songs ever written. And while it is a collection of previously released tracks that have been recorded from 1967 to 2019, each and every one continues to feel timeless. For that, Lou Reed can be thanked himself, because he was always on the prowl for ways to exist outside time, not pegged to the vagaries of fashionable trends or superficial stylistic variables. The New Yorker was always going for the deepest heart of the matter, no matter where it took him. So from Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” to Kristy MacColl and Evan Dando’s “Vicious” is a 360-degree view of just how inspiring rock & roll can be in the able imagination of Lou Reed’s vision. There surely won’t be another, but for now we get to keep on living in the glow of everything Reed gave us. A perfect day.
Reissue of the Month
Kenny Dorham, Quiet Kenny. While not a lit-up name in the jazz firmament, trumpeter Kenny Dorham sure deserves to be. After his humble beginnings in central Texas, the young musician got in the thick of it in the early 1940s and soon began playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Lionel Hampton. And, of course, Charlie Parker. Those early days of bop completely filled Kenny Dorham’s heart and horn with an exploratory mood, and while he could play a ballad so beautifully that time would stop, he also could hit the horn hard and make it burn. This sumptuous 180-gram vinyl reissue of Dorham’s first album released in 1959 on the New Jazz label, features the impeccable Tommy Flanagan on piano, along with the always-in-demand rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Arthur Taylor. Dorham’s trumpet is the star, though, as he glides and pounces through three originals and the semi-standards “My Ideal,” “Alone Together,” “I Had the Craziest Dream” and “Old Folks.” It is all such a gorgeous affair, recorded at the end of the unbeatable high points of the 1950s jazz scene, it feels like everything is just right in the world: the Korean War was over and smooth waters lay ahead. Of course, a fast-approaching volatility of the 1960s was right around the corner and all bets would soon enough be off. For now, though, QUIET KENNY promises everything. And delivers all.
Song of the Month
Lake Street Dive, “Anymore.” Great ballads don’t appear as often as they should, and maybe that’s because it’s harder to write a song that has to stand up pretty much on its own. There isn’t any outfront racket to kick things in. It’s more like the song is on its own to bring it all home. There is an instant classic on Lake Street Dive’s recent album OBVIOUSLY. Written by the band’s keyboard player Akie Bermiss, it is such an overwhelming ode to a love falling apart that it should come with an attached Kleenex. The love that is dying is impossible to ignore, and there is no way for the relationship to end in anything but heartbreak. Probably for one of those involved, if not both. But isn’t that the way it so often goes: one member of a couple usually wants things to continue more than the other. And that’s the case in spades here. Vocalist Rachel Price goes straight for the heart on the song, making sure it’s known her love has booked a ride home alone on the train of life. And if Bonnie Raitt doesn’t grab this chillbumper for her next album, something is wrong. It’s got her voice written all over it, right from note one. Top 10 contender.