Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2021
By Bill Bentley
Sam Filiatreau. He comes from Kentucky, and–fortunately–sounds like it. Sam Filiatreau has the feeling of someone who just walked in from the front porch, sat down in a long-used rocking chair and started singing songs that could easily have been on earth for a hundred years. Every single thing about him is real, and couldn’t be any other way. When two members of the exciting band Caamp first heard Filiatreau, they knew in an instant they wanted to record him. Both Taylor Meier and Matt Vinson had been waiting for someone like the young singer-songwriter for awhile, and once they’d sealed a deal they headed for a cabin near Athens, Ohio and turned on the tape recorder. That’s because Sam Filiatreau was full-blown and ready to go. With Meier on drums and Vinson on bass, the mandate was to not get too fancy about what everyone was trying to do. The trio would record a song or two, go swimming in the pool out back, return to the studio to do more work and repeat until all eight songs were done. Filiatreau’s partner Maggie Halfman came the third day to add harmony vocals and, voila, the eight-song set was done. The music is so direct and unencumbered that you can almost feel the evening breeze blowing through the songs, and the musicians smiling at each other at the end of a take. This is a sound that comes around every few years to show there is no need to overthink some things, but rather to be sure to stay out of the way. Let it flow.
Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son. It’s not as easy as it sounds to bear down on the blues and make sure nothing drifts too far into the outre zone. Keeping America’s bedrock sound real is a precious pursuit, and nothing to trivialize. Robert Finley comes by his music the real way. Born in Bernice, Louisiana, the young man made his way into the Army and found a good career there. But the sounds he had heard growing up, including a deep immersion in gospel music, never left him. And when he started recording hard-popping blues songs a
half-decade ago Finley made sure to leave out anything that wasn’t completely necessary. This new set of ten songs was produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and doesn’t give an inch to modernity. It is the real deal wailing sound of Southern majesty, with Auerbach’s guitar burning up the frets while Finley sings like a man trying to save his own life. This isn’t a sound that can be dreamed up in a boardroom. Rather, it’s born on the backroads of America and captured with true care just the way it was lived on the down-low. Sharecropping ain’t for lightweights, and that’s where this funkified concoction got started. There aren’t many humans capable of delivering it now, but as long as Robert Finley digs into his past and keeps his hand on the throttle his holy effort will live forever. Blues to use.
Greta Gaines, Pale Star. There are certain albums that proclaim at the very start that they have every intention of going all the way, down to the core of the human spirit, and find a way to bring back the visions they find there to share them with the world. Greta Gaines is no stranger to going all the way. Whether it’s snowboarding or singing, or any of her many other pursuits, it’s like this human is on an unstoppable trip to the outer limits. And Gaines’ new album reflects all her accomplishments as well as the courage she has of not turning away from a challenge. With a voice that reflects the most soulful side of modern life, she is able to mix genres in a way that really hasn’t been done before. Gaines clearly is walking a road of her own discovery, one that is filled with victory as well as near-defeat, and the way that extra depth sinks into everything she does gives her an X-factor that is unmistakable. She stands up to what the tragedy of the past 16 months has delivered, and does not fail to offer the hand of hope no matter what. The singer-songwriter knows that from loss comes new life, and that the only way to overcome the sadness is to look for the light. Greta Gaines is truly a spiritualist, and sounds like she is still just getting started. Follow her there.
Howard Grimes with Preston Lauterbach, Time Keeper: My Life in Rhythm. True blue soul music, the kind that works its way down into the deepest parts of the human spirit and becomes a force of life like few others, is built on the drummer. The strength starts there, in the rhythmic beats supplied by those who zero in on how to make the music move in the right places, rising and falling with the emotional resonance of songs which have lasted. Whether it was early James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, O.V. Wright or whoever else called that creative nucleus home, the drummers made sure the grease got delivered. Howard Grimes might not have gotten his name in lights as a few other drum kingpins, but make no mistake: on hundreds of sessions, starting at Stax Records in the early 1960s and continuing at Hi Records into the later ’60s and all through the ’70s, Grimes put body to soul and made sure the songs he played on never missed. Artists like Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and dozens of others went to school on what Grimes provided, and would not have reached their peaks without him. This autobiography goes all the way in letting the drummer tell what he did, and also how he did it. For anyone interested in finding out how a huge portion of America’s soul sound was created, this is the handbook for finding out. Of course, it is often a rough and tumble tale, because the music business is rarely fair and not always honest. But one thing is 100% for sure. Howard Grimes is always straight-up in telling his tale, even when things turn dark and he gets lost in the spotlights and has trouble finding a way forward. Above all, there is an honesty and hopefulness that keeps the man pushing, even when it seems like it’s all uphill. When it’s time to really give the drummer some, this is the man to turn to. His faith and forbearance are a real life example of musical miracles. The Memphis Bulldog.
Amy Helm, What the Flood Leaves Behind. Whoa! Who knew that out of nowhere Amy Helm would waltz down the middle of the street and deliver an album that is so beautiful, so resolute, so winning and so downright heavy that it feels like things aren’t going to ever be the same. It’s quite likely this has been building up in Helm for a few years, since her last album three years ago. Every song on this new album feels like it is arriving with an overwhelming purpose, like Helm was challenged to make every song one of the best she’s ever recorded. She wrote many of them, co-wrote several and found some perfect covers for the rest. Every one of them is unforgettable. Amy Helm’s voice has found a new power too, like she knows exactly what she’s doing to make the words cut through reality and imbed themselves inside the spirit of those listening. “Are We Running Out of Love” has all the earmarks of a new anthem, like a challenge to us all to keep our guard up
against losing the way. Coming into the world of the new abnormal will surely be like moving into uncharted territory, and there can be no doubt love in whatever form it can be found will be the secret for the future. And the inspiration for so much of all these songs is the never-ending undercurrent that gospel music provides for whatever it touches. It’s always there, and makes sure its inspiration stays present. It’s the river for everything. Amy Helm knows.
Gary Louris, Jump for Joy. There is something about artists who decide to record an album with no outside help that is totally intriguing. It takes hubris, to be sure, but it’s also courageous. Gary Louris, well known for his long career in The Jayhawks among other outfits, goes the Skip Spence route on his very own version of Spence’s OAR classic, minus the mental illness of course, and provides by himself all the exciting elements on these ten stellar tracks. It’s a tour de force if there ever was one. For the musician, it’s likely a nice switch-up when no one else’s approval is needed in the studio, except maybe the mixer’s, and Louris is able to zig and zag any which way he wishes. Needless to say, the results are beyond stellar, resulting in one of the best albums of the last few years. The vocals themselves are constantly gorgeous, with all kinds of cool references while never failing to sound mainly like Gary Louris himself. On his own, the Minneapolis mainstay drills down on everything from pop songs to a density that will not be denied. Some songs can be intriguingly puzzling, but that’s half the fun: trying to figure out where they’re coming from. The dream now is to see the musician alone on stage, with a few tape recorders wired together to pump out the backing tracks while Gary Louris twists himself into a pretzel pulling the one-man band show off. And there is no doubt he can do it. Jump for joy!
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, A Few Stars Apart. This Texan has grown up onstage and took to music early like life itself. Lukas Nelson, at the helm of a constant quest to find his own sound, keeps refining his songs and sharing the kind of vision worthy of the tradition he comes from. This new album makes his strongest stand yet, and signals such an emotional arrival it is simply breathtaking. Like so many other current releases, it was recorded during the pandemic, and sounds like it. There is a laser-like approach to making sure every single note and lyric is there to create something eternal. It’s somewhat like being given a limited amount of time and space to make a real difference in life. And Nelson comes through like he knew he had to. This would count forever. Songs like openers “We’ll Be Alright”–with the shivering chorus “Empires will fall and everything dies / but don’t worry baby we’ll be alright”–and “Perennial Bloom (Back to You)” start the album at an absolute height of expression. like the artist understood there would be no second chances. The music had to be all the way in. And it keeps rising from there. Lukas Nelson’s voice sounds like it’s carved out of mountains, and that it’s always been here. He really has become an American all-timer, first performing with father Willie Nelson, and then with his band Promise of the Real and touring with Neil Young. But all along Lukas Nelson has been his own person, smart enough to know that’s where his heart can be expressed the highest. And now he’s there. A few stars apart.
Various Artists, Alligator Records: 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music. It all started a half-century ago when blues fan Bruce Iglauer saw Hound Dog Taylor playing at Chicago’s Florence Lounge. Iglauer got bitten big time by the blues bug, and while not realizing it that night, his life’s journey had started. So overtaken by Taylor’s power, Iglauer started Alligator Records in 1971 to release an album by the man. Now, over 350 albums later, his record label burns the torch for the music he loves so much brighter than ever. It’s been a wild ride, with artists as varied as Albert Collins and Koko Taylor bumping up next to Professor Longhair and JJ Grey and Mofro, all calling the little label that could their home. Except Alligator isn’t so little anymore, but they are still as driven as day one to spread the word on the blues. This careening collection of songs from all their artists is a pure testament to the company’s taste and staying power. Blues is the kind of music that you either love or you probably don’t like at all. Luckily for Bruce Iglauer and his hardy bunch it seems like every generation there’s a new gang of the blues crew that climbs aboard the bus to keep the music going and growing. It’s been a wonder to watch and hear all these years, and the fact that Alligator Records still feels like it’s as sharp and soulful as the day of that first Hound Dog Taylor album is a modern miracle of music. Wear it out.
Various Artists, Party for Joey: A Sweet Relief Tribute to Joey Spampinato. NRBQ set the gold standard for idiosyncratic American rock & roll bands, those outfits who dance to their own dreams and let the chips fall where they may. The group has flirted off and on with success for over 50 years, and left a mighty streak all over the music they love so much. Band member Joey Spampinato has faced some serious health issues recently, and this album organized by the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund will hopefully help with his expenses. The collection is a Who’s Who of groovers, that’s for sure, and shows how Joey Spampinato’s songs have held a near-magical glow for anyone looking for knocked-out originality and deep connections. Zooming from NRBQer Al Anderson to Los Lobos, Deer Tick, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Case and a multitude of other American heroes lets the world know all that Spampinato has contributed to the rock canon all these years. More than anything else, this is a far-out frolic into the grooviest side of American music. There is nothing maudlin about it, either. This one is for the roses. Any album that also includes a song performed by Penn and Teller immediately shows its priorities are on straight, and cannot be taken lightly. There are plenty of kicks and no tricks on these 14 songs, and shine such a beautiful light on Joey Spampinato’s talents that hopefully the next move is NRBQ’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Like a locomotive.
Min Xiao-Fen, White Lotus featuring Rez Abbasi. Sometimes there is no other choice except to jump off the deep end and see what’s next. Listening to various world music artists is almost always a great surprise, and that is the case with Min Xiao-Fen’s new album. The multi-instrumentalist and composer’s latest release is an original soundtrack to The Goddess, a 1934 silent film from China’s cinematic golden age. The music is such a stirring sound that it feels like a true revelation. And while widely-known for her performances on the four-string pipa, Xiao-Fen has always been a musical explorer who is unafraid of exploring new territories. She has collaborated with artists like Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, Bjork and Randy Weston, and on this moving new collection the woman performs with guitarist Rez Abbasi. Songs like “Anicca,” “Gassho” and “Karuna” delve into the deeply evolved fusion of Chinese and American music, always respecting the folk elements at its core but also willing to move into a new mixture between the instrumental joy of the two cultures. Recording now with Abbasi gives each artist the freedom to bring their own backgrounds together to create a new synthesis of sounds, using instruments like the pipa, guqin, ruan and sanxian together with acoustic and electric guitars. With Min Xiao-Fen’s vocals taking the music into a whole new realm, this is an album that is a breakthrough
for all. Borders are crossed.
Reissue of the Month
Grateful Dead, Skull & Roses: Expanded Edition. There are likely as many live tapes of Grateful Dead concerts as there are grains of sand on Stinson Beach north of San Francisco. The group, over the course of 30 years, not only played constantly but they also taped nearly every show they did. Their 1971 album, lovingly nicknamed SKULL & ROSES after the cover artwork, was their first release to go gold, and totally cemented the Dead’s reputation as the go-to live band for forever. This expanded edition, which doubles the number of songs as the original, shows why the masses gathered around the Grateful Dead like they did. It’s a ferocious tribal stomp of a concert, starting with the absolutely elevating classic “Bertha” and going all the way to the end of the line with “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” It not only captures the hallucinations of the Grateful Dead’s sound, but it also lays out just how downright American they were with their twisty take on iconic songs like Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” Papa John Phillips’ “Me and My Uncle” and “Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” at the same time their own cosmic code was shared on originals “The Other One” and “Playing in the Band.” It really was a joyous time 50 years ago when this album was heard out of just about every window there was in cities like Berkeley, Austin, New Orleans, Ann Arbor, Portland and anywhere else where the swelling new hippie hordes were gathered. This new edition includes ten previously unreleased recordings that were captured in July 1971 at the closing of the Fillmore West in San Francisco. And while there’s duplication of some titles that were on the original double-disc vinyl set and the new disc, appearances of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” and the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” deliver
plenty of high-stepping moments adding to the historic occasion of the Fillmore Auditorium’s last moments–at least for a decade or two. It is often said that there was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert and for sure there’s nothing like this night from 1971. Changes for the band were coming around the corner, but that was always the way of the Dead. The trick was to hold on and enjoy the ride on the long strange trip on the band’s journey. Keep truckin’ on.
Song of the Month
Brett Dennen, “Serenity.” Here’s an artist who always makes music right on the edge of destiny. Brett Dennen has recorded so many timeless songs that it feels like he is on the verge of crossing over into permanent greatness. This new track is no different. “Serenity” captures the side of life that strives for eternity, a place where understanding has come on so strongly there can be no worries about the future. In some ways, Dennen has the aura of a musical philosopher. After 18 years of recording, 2021 has the vibration that maybe this is the moment when it all comes together for the man. This new song would be a high-water mark for anyone, and for Brett Dennen it appears he’s made yet another quantum leap, one in a series over a strong career. As anyone living through these times can attest, now is the time for serenity no matter where it is found. The singer’s vocal captures an elusive glide that erases worry and replaces it with, well, serenity. With lyrics that go all the way down the path of inner peace. Listen and learn.