Bentley’s Bandstand: August 2021
By Bill Bentley
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound. When certified Texan Leon Bridges decided to make a sharp left turn recently, he moved into the Gold Diggers club and complex on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood and let things percolate real good. Shedding some of the super smooth soul moves that Bridges had become the master of in the past few years, he boogalooed into the future like a man ready to show off a brand new style. And it’s worked like a double-charm potion of gris-gris and super cool. In fact, the Ft. Worth native sounds like a man reborn. There is something so seductive and sly about Bridges’ new music that it cannot be overlooked. Besides inviting guest artists like Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and Ink to help him expand his panoramic view, there is a feeling of a near-reinvention for who Leon Bridges wants to be that is locked inside these unforgettable songs. Whether it’s “Born Again,” “Sho Nuff,” “Sweeter” or “Blue Mesas,” it’s all such a thrilling deliverance of soul that everything feels sparkling. For someone who once was being talked about for his Sam Cooke-like suaveness and ultra-slick sound, the times have changed. Now Bridges is living in the future and extending a sound for listeners to follow him there. The great artists have always been the ones who can come out of the corner like it’s a brand new day, and it’s up to their audience to follow them. This is one of those times for the Lone Star’s most adventurous Pied Piper, and it comes not a moment too soon. Line up for the Soul Train grooves for the future and see where the journey goes. Bridges being built.
The Flatlanders, Treasure of Love. In certain circles, the trio of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock that is the Flatlanders is sacred territory. When they first invaded Austin from Lubbock in the early 1970s, the group took over a weekly night at the Armadillo World Headquarters’ beer garden and quickly became a talk of the town. There was something seriously loose and naturally magical about the band, like they really were playing for the fun of it and were having as many kicks as the adoring audience. Not to mention they had a saw player. Really. That was a half-century ago, and the magic is still there. And then some. The Flatlanders have a way of transmitting joy no matter what song they’re playing. Besides a few originals on their latest release, they also gather winners by the likes of Tex Ritter, Townes Van Zandt, Leon Russell, Leon Jackson, Johnny Cash, George Jones, the Big Bopper, Paul Siebel, Bob Dylan, Ernest Tubb, Mickey Newbury, Lonnie Chatmon and others. Not a shabby songwriter list, that’s for sure. Ely, Gilmore and Hancock’s voices are as rich and powerful as they’ve always been, and are as different from each other as Lubbock, Houston and San Antonio are. In many ways, this album is a total unexpected gift, since no one really knows when and where the Flatlanders will appear again. They’re a little bit like the Lone Ranger of Texas outfits: showing up is often a surprise. On the album cover artwork the trio included the headline: “It’s the fearless who love and the loveless who fear.” A treasure indeed.
Mark Germino, Midnight Carnival. The stop-time greatness of Mark Germino’s long-anticipated new album is a wondrous gift from the music cosmos. The North Carolina native is well-known as someone who marches to his own drumbeat, making albums when the spirit calls him and taking off for the woods when it doesn’t. MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL’s initial impetus arrived on his front door when several musicians showed up and convinced him it was time to head for the studio. Likely realizing a good idea when it comes calling, that’s exactly what he and his talented crew did: make a beeline for Southern Ground on Nashville’s Music Row and start working. These are songs that feel like they are meant to be, a heady mix of lyrical poetry and musical inspiration. Like almost all of Germino’s albums, there is a rollicking sound of unabashed frolic on some of the selections, and a deep-seated revelation of gravitas on others, and the way the two extremes bounce off each other is something that very few artists are capable of capturing. But this is someone who has always seen things unknown to others. Also an accomplished poet, the Southern man has skirted the boundaries of the obvious since the mid-Eighties when he first started recording, and has never really looked back. There isn’t a subject he is afraid of tackling, and if the music business ever dries up completely there’s a good chance Mark Germino could hang out a shingle as a counselor to those in need of help. For now, though, there is little doubt these fourteen songs will be discovered by all who are looking at modern life and seeking someone who is extending a hand for getting unscathed to the other side. Open 24 hours.
Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth, Utopian Ashes. Thirty years ago a wild-eyed rocker was blasting his way out of the U.K. full of fire and fury. Bobby Gillespie and his Primal Scream crew sounded like they were ready to take flamethrowers to rock & roll orthodoxy and show the world that a new groove had taken over and it was time to move aside if it sounded too modern. Because this bunch was not backing down. The years have passed, but Bobby Gillespie has continued on his drive to the outer edges of rockdom with pure power and unbridled lust. This new collection of songs with French whiz woman Jehnny Beth arrives like a massive sunbolt of surprise. Maybe that’s because Gillespie’s voice is dripping with beauty, and his partner on the songs Jehnny Beth is absolutely stunning. Not many would have taken this bet that an album like UTOPIAN ASHES would have been on Bobby Gillespie’s radar, but here it is in all its glory. Jehnny Beth is also known as half of the duo John & Jehn, as well as lead vocalist for The Savages. With Gillespie in the front seat with her now, though, this is a pair straight out of the stars. Songs like “English Town,” “Remember We Were Lovers” and “Your Heart Will Always Be Broken” announce themselves like the brand new classics they are, and it’s nothing less than thrilling that Bobby Gillespie had found this new serious position of strength to launch yet another musical missile into the masses. It’s not an accident the album arrives on Jack White’s label Third Man Records, which seems to be the home du jour for renegade groovers everywhere. Primal dreams survive.
Colin Hay, I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself. In a normal world, it just might be that Men at Work’s early 1980s mega-blast “Who Can It Be Now” would be retired for life. Because after billions of radio airplays, enough is enough. But that doesn’t mean the band’s lead singer Colin Hay should be made to vaporize along
with his hit single. Not by a long shot, because one of the year’s great surprises so far is Hay’s irresistible collection of songs from the 1960s and ’70s that defines what great songwriting is really all about. And singing too, because the man’s vocals are as fine as the songs. So whether it’s classics by Dusty Springfield, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Faces, Blind Faith, Jimmy Cliff and more are part of this playlist, this is a stunning gift of greatosity. And much of that is just how Colin Hay keeps the vocal beauty right in the pocket. His voice never goes over the top, but it is always able to burrow deep into the song and find the true luminosity that resides there. Naturally, all the band players are of an equal sterling quality as well. There aren’t many albums in the past years that have been as large a special surprise as this one. Maybe it’s because no one was really expecting the leader of Men at Work to be, well, so hard at work. And for a super surprise, there’s one here too: Del Amitri’s “Driving with the Brakes On,” written by the band’s Justin Currie. Though it doesn’t really fit era-wise with all these other righteous selections, it is so totally knocked-out awesome that rules be damned. It’s a flat-out stunner. Man at work.
Los Lobos, Native Sons. It’s not quite an act of attrition that Los Lobos has become the house band for Los Angeles, but after 50 years of supplying the soundtrack for what the city sounds like, Lobos has earned every single accolade they’ve ever received, and show no sign of slowing down. Thank goodness. This mind-blowing collection of songs associated with the City of Angels is a clarion’s call of greatness, ranging from original artists like Thee Midniters, Buffalo Springfield, Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos, Percy Mayfield, the Beach Boys, the Premiers, the Blasters, War and more. Naturally, there is also a song from the pen of some of the greatest Los Angeles songwriters ever: Los Lobos’ own Louie Perez and David Hidalgo, on the title song “Native Sons.” What the album becomes is a combination celebration of the city’s musical life as well as an emotional bow to everything that helped Los Lobos become such a moving example of how music makes life so rich. Of course, all these new recordings supply a heart-warming bow to Southern California’s unequaled sonic accomplishments, but they also point to a distinct magical achievement of a place that often gets overlooked when it comes to musical might. Cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis always get the standing ovations for urban areas that have shaped America’s earwaves. This high-flying collection of recordings is a worthy reminder that Los Angeles takes second seat to no one, and can always be counted on to keep history moving forward. Los Lobos became a cultural institution years ago, but it’s best never to forget that they will always remain an aggregation that can burn down a bandstand on a moment’s notice, and point the way forward where music might go. The wolves thrive.
Clint Morgan, Troublemaker. It’s a true fact that trouble isn’t hard to find. Especially in the music business. It’s an up and down world and artists can be kicked to the curb one minute and put on a vault the next. Luckily, Clint Morgan has been able to call his own shots for over a decade, swirling in the murky mix of blues, country, boogie woogie and other highly suggestive styles that literally define what American music is capable of. Morgan pulls out all the stops on this latest groovathon, working with Grammy-award winning producer Kevin McKendree and bringing in just enough special guests to make things spicy without ruining the roux. Because, really, Morgan has the goods to cover everything himself. The songs he writes are close to real-life peculiarities that turn up the heat on the feet and the heart. Raised on a farm in rural Washington state, the man never gets above his raising. He has a way of melting blues and country overtones into such a seamless fit that it’s impossible to separate the two. And then Clint Morgan jacks up the excitement meter to 12 to make sure every track jumps out of the starting gate at full tilt boogie mode. To keep things boiling he has enticed special guests Kinky Friedman, Watermelon Slim, Bob Margolin, John Del Toro Richardson and, for a touch of special class, gospel greats the McCrary Sister to join the fray and take the songs up a few notches to higher ground. Clint Morgan’s third album is surely the charm, and will rev up enough cylinders for those with any love at all for bluesy roots music that isn’t afraid to get next to the boogie flame. This is a musician who isn’t afraid getting close to all that makes this sound so undeniable, and the originality that Morgan brings to the party just makes it all the more fun. Troublemakers Anonymous unite
Nobody’s Girl. Super groups come in all shapes, sexes and sizes, but when Rebecca Loebe joined BettySoo and Grace Pettis for this album, it was a most definite cause for celebration. Besides the important fact that the blending of the three women’s voices is surely a highly-wondrous endeavor, there is also the fact that the songs the trio wrote together mark Nobody’s Girl as a trio which has a lot more ambition than just a fun detour from their regular solo shows. The women approached the job at hand with ultimate seriousness, and wanted to record an album that would stand the test of time rather than come and go as a buswoman’s holiday. Enlisting Grammy Award-winning producer Michael Ramos was the first step showing their industrious seriousness. Then the group went hunting for the primo Austin players and found them: bassist Glenn Fukunaga, drummers J.J. Johnson and Conrad Choucrouns and guitarists Charlie Sexton, David Grissom and David Puckingham. Which is all well and good, but it was in the song search that the skies parted and Nobody’s Girl contributed original all-timers along with right-on covers. They group had the confidence to know that doing songs already imprinted on the public’s consciousness can be a gamble, but in trusting their own talent and instincts it was an absolute chance to prove how much they believed in their own talents. Carole King’s iconic “So Far Away,” was the game-changer. The classic had become like a personal national anthem for romantics everywhere a half-century ago, and now comes alive via Nobody’s Girl in a way that is nothing short of breaktaking. It is the door opener to an album that will undoubtedly live for decades, and a calling card for how folk and pop music can combine to create something totally new. Nobody’s Girl knows.
Ari Surdoval, Double Nickels. There aren’t many novels that come right out and strip life down to its very essence, taking away the false facades of humanity in a way that makes the bones grow cold and has the eyeballs searching for a way out. Writer Ari Surdoval isn’t one to go looking for the easy answers. His characters feel like they’re living on nickels and nails, and don’t have much in the way of hope. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve quit trying. Teenager Tim knows what he’s up against, but still won’t quit. Even when his mother starts the short slide on the opioid express, Tim still looks for a rainbow road. The way Surdoval writes makes it seem like he’s walked these long roads alone, and isn’t looking for a magic escape. Instead, when he meets someone playing equally long odds, the teenager decides to take a run at redemption and see where it leads, even if he doesn’t have a clue what he’s betting on. There are moments in this book where time freezes and it feels like life might just not have much future. And other moments when big promises might just let the skies open up and let everyone have a slight new beginning. When the young character Cara appears, the sun seems to make a cameo appearance and life takes on a shine just big enough to promise tomorrow will be worth waiting for. Such a life.
Kate Taylor, Why Wait! Yes, this is the Kate Taylor who made a nice splash in the early 1970s with an Atlantic Records release which caught a lot of eyes and ears. Some of that attention came from being James Taylor’s younger sibling, hence her Sister Kate nickname, but even more was because Kate Taylor was a soul singer of her own variety, and someone who did her best to live by her own rules. Producer Peter Asher threw in big time to make sure Taylor’s debut album sounded like clear whistles and funkified grooves, and all seemed well. The good news is that Asher is back in the producer’s chair this time round, and many of the same musicians from that 1970s debut session–including Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel Leland Sklar and Waddy Wachtel are back for the downbeat. Taylor herself is singing better than ever, a wisened soul who knows how to take on songs by the Beatles, Ed Sheeran, Taj Mahal and Yank Rachell, Bert Russell, Lowell George, Pops Staples and, yes, Tommy James, along with other gems and turn them into her very own creations. Her spirit is the shining force here. She is clearly someone who has been able to stay on the high road no matter what challenges and changes come blasting at her. It’s called fortitude, and to hear Ms. Taylor still be so strongly in its presence is the kind of inspiration that is a stone cold must during the onslaught of the New Abnormal era in modern life. To hear a brand new album with such legendary roots still able to climb to the top of the mountain and share what’s been learned is a release worth its wait in gold. Kate Taylor, in her own Martha’s Vineyard way, is a national hero of the highest order. She has lived a life of true fullness, and lived it her way. And now the woman is ready to share the lessons she has brought back with her from the front line. Listen and love.
Yola, Stand for Myself. The world is surely ready for a flat-out superstar soul chanteuse to roll over all the competition and stake out a spot for herself as the one and only answer to where music needs to be now. In so many ways, that singer is Yola. She is showing how to wrap her spirit into everything she sings like it is a study in elegant emotionalism. She has learned her history well. Still, no matter what occurs in the future, there will always be a yearning for the Muscle Shoals session musicians of the 1960s backing artists like Etta James and Aretha Franklin, and this woman knows it. So mark up a high grade for Yola, and pray for miracles. Because the world really needs her, even if this new album only opens the window halfway to. peek into the get-down department. Straight outta Bristol, England, the woman is a stand-up wonder, ready to sashay her way into the top realm of modern singers and show them how it’s all done. What’s missing somewhat is the highest level X factor for unstoppable shivers and head-shaking joy. Sure, it could still be waiting right down the line on the next album, one where everything coalesces like a meteor shower and her audience is left in jaw-dropping gratitude. There are moments on STAND FOR MYSELF where the path to that platitude is visible, but still a touch away. Close, but short. Naturally, there is no reason to give up. Not by a long shot. Maybe it’s a case of moving some of the wardrobe and make-up budget to setting up shop in northern Alabama with a few songwriters like Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham for several weeks and see what happens. Yola is almost there. Now it’s just a matter of adding the secret sauce. Feel and heal.
Reissue of the Month
Bill Evans, Everybody Still Digs Bill Evans: A Career Retrospective (1956-1980). If one jazz pianist of the past 70 years would get this kind of deluxe box set treatment, let it be Bill Evans. There is something so cosmically right about Evans’ recordings that they tend to defy gravity. He started in small combos in the 1950s, playing with all the greats, and by the time he made his biggest national debut on Miles Davis’ seminal album KIND OF BLUE, well, the stage was set forever. Maybe that’s because Bill Evans could play hot and cool at the same time, encapsulating what jazz really is and defining it in a way that had never been done. This 5-CD set captures it all, from the early Riverside recordings that introduced the man to the jazz insiders, right through the Verve and Fantasy recordings which settled once and for all that Evans was one of the true piano greats, right into the Milestone and Warner Bros. releases which cemented his repuation forever, and then sadly saw him leave the world stage with an early death. To call EVERYBODY STILL DIGS BILL EVANS a deluxe production would be a massive understatement. There is something so stately and spot-on in how it’s conceptualized and constructed it is a demonstration of a box set’s highest standard. Everything about it is a class act, and of course that starts with the music and goes all the way to the graphic design, written essays, including the one by Grammy Award-winning jazz historian Neil Tesser, and even the orange fabric cover itself. There will never be another jazz pianist like Bill Evans, and there’s a good chance there won’t be another collection like this. Get it now.
Song of the Month
Willie Durriseau, Willie’s Zydeco. Not that different from dialing in a lazy day transmission from Mars, this oggly-woogly single on Nouveau Electric Records by Willie Durriseau is a short peek into another planet. One where button accordions call the shots, metal ruboards supply the boogie and vocals that defy translation impart ancient wisdoms which will forever remain just beyond reach. Which means this is like religious music for purple people. But hearing it in small doses every few years is a reminder that different realities really do exist, and it’s a joy to dip into them now and then just to remind one and all that nobody has this crazy consciousness figured out all the way. Rather, it’s better to let each person to rule his own day, and if at all possible try to get out and play whenever possible. And don’t forget to boogie. Hey la bas!
Find last month’s column here: Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2021