Bentley’s Bandstand: November 2021
By Bill Bentley
Ape Pop. This impossible-to-define trio has fashioned the kind of album that starts on a launching pad somewhere in the Mojave desert and before it’s over has circled the earth several times, sent back images from various areas of outer space and then landed with such finesse it’s like they could do such an escapecapade in their sleep. It’s like the members went from playing with super stars to being among super novas without blinking. Paul Lacques, Shawn Nourse and Rick Alonso have all kinds of other groups they work with, and no doubt save Ape Pop for those moments when all bets are off and they can take to the stratosphere without looking back. Even though it might not be a sound for everyone, for those who are exploring as many styles as possible, songs like “Destination Earth” and “Directed Mutagenesis” have enough pure (ape) pop for now people to curl the toes and fry the potatoes. At its essence, there really isn’t anyone else like this band right now. They combine elements of ’70s retroisms and days of tomorrow projections with a supple spin which keeps anyone listening from being able to predict just where they’re going. It is the perfect 4 a.m. album for those intending not to even try for sleep, but instead need a booster rocket to hurl them into the early morning of a new day’s dawning. In the olden days of rock starhood, they would call something like this intriguing mix a “side project” for someone who hangs their hat in an English manor. But now Ape Pop feels more like music made by adventurous souls who realize the lines have been broken forever for those adventurous enough to take advantage of such freedoms. Every new work now is a go-for-broke assault on everyday expectations, and Lacques, Nourse and Alonso are just the trio to take on such a task. Don’t look back.
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. When it’s time for a total brain cleansing, this is the music to do the deed. For almost his entire professional life, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane was lighting up the skies. Even from his earliest days in Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s band in the 1940s, on through recording dates with Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Miles Davis and more, it was like there
was a burning star affixed to Coltrane’s jacket, one that said this was someone to watch. And sure enough, beginning in the late 1950s and for the rest of his life he was a musician who may as well have been walking on air. Coltrane had the touch. By the time John Coltrane and his expanded quartet got to Seattle in October 1965 to perform at The Penthouse, all the musicians were throwing fire when they walked onstage. To say the evening was set is an understatement, and those there with Coltrane included McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Carlos Ward and Donald Rafael Garrett. Playing one of the saxophonist’s true stupefying original treasures like “A Love Supreme” took total ability and concentration. Divided into four main sections–“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm”–the spiritual aspects of the composition were obvious. It required unwavering devotion to really make the music rise above, and that’s exactly why Coltrane picked these musicians to work with him. Listening to the unstoppable power of the players behind Coltrane is like living through a small hurricane, and could get close to being too much for some in the audience. But in Seattle that October night in ’65, it seems like everyone was primed to throw audio caution to the wind and go wherever the bandleader wanted to take them. Hearing the music now, over 55 years since it was recorded, it still feels as if history is being made. The opening of the evening portends greatness, like listeners are being primed for a life-changing event, and as “A Love Supreme” flies through the different movements it becomes more and more clear that John Coltrane has reached the mountaintop, and is playing for his life. Though he would make it to many other apexes in the two-plus years he had left on the planet, in some ways “A Love Supreme” sounds like a work the musician knew would be the one he would be most known for. To experience one of the great–and most challenging–evenings of recorded jazz in history, head for The Penthouse in Seattle, Washington on October 2, 1965 and let the fireworks begin. By the end, mysteries may be revealed and the Superman of the saxophone will have done the musical equivalent of leaping tall buildings and giving all in his presence a glimpse of the divine. Love reigns supreme.
Michael Elliott, Have a Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story. In the past 40 years, there haven’t been many singer-songwriters who have risen to John Hiatt’s level as someone who can not only nail the human experience in a song, but deliver it in a way that will never be surpassed. His voice captures the hardest and sometimes even happiest moments of life in a way that makes them feel sung in stone. And while Hiatt has been a force on the music front for all those years, his real life story has never been told. Sure, glimpses here and there come out in interviews, but there has always been a sense there is so much more to be shared about how he got to where he is. Writer Michael Elliott goes there and far beyond in this mesmerizing biography that travels all the way to John Hiatt’s earliest years, and then has the understanding and clarity to convey what has really happened in what followed. It’s really an astonishing accomplishment, and one that very few rock & roll books are able to achieve. A lot of that is because of the dramatic twists and turns of the life Hiatt has lived. But it wouldn’t have been such an irresistible tale unless Elliott had the story-telling talent and taken the prodigious research time it must have involved to find out what really happened. So many fascinating fellow musicians and record business whizzes are included in interviews to make sure all the areas of interest are investigated that the book sometimes feels like a fascinating novel. Hiatt has been there, and he made it through to really shine. It is all incredibly captured in these pages. Keep the faith.
Sue Foley, Pinky’s Blues. Blues guitar players aren’t exactly in short supply, but the certified great ones surely are. It takes an endless soul, a spirit-lifting sensibility and a sound that stands out from others to really ring the blues bell in 2021. Which is exactly what Sue Foley can do. Though born in Canada, Foley has had Austin as her mailing address for enough years to become a home girl. She has paid her dues and then some, crossed the river and come out on the other side. When it was time to
record a new album pandemic-style, the primary players whittled everything down to the minimal, without losing the muscle needed to deliver a punch. That included making sure the sonics don’t go array. The band features drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton, Hammond B3 organist (and album producer) Mike Flanigin and bassist Jon Penner. And, just for good luck, resident modern guitar great Jimmie Vaughan guests on the sizzler “Hurricane Girl.” There are several Foley originals, two Angela Strehli songs and enough other keepers that PINKY’S BLUES clocks in as one of the best blues releases in several years, and shows why the woman in charge here gets such accolades by those in the real know. And, don’t forget, she can sing as good as she plays, and never takes things too far in the direction of overkill. The blues, at its core, is all about finesse, and how to make the most out of the essentials. It’s the way Lightnin’ Hopkins could make one single note sound like the entire universe, and Little Walter would set ablaze a bandstand with a two dollar Hohner harmonica. Sue Foley has learned all the lessons, and keeps them right next to her heart whenever she picks up her guitar named Pinky. By the end of the album, it feels like Foley and band have taken a trip across the continent spreading the real blues wherever they stopped. That day has now come, and it’s time for everyone to rejoice in the music born here, and the person who has taken it to a brand new level of soulful beauty. And that would be Sue Foley. Wear it out.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days. There are moments when it’s obvious that gospel music might just be the only sound that will save the day. No matter what particular religious belief is being praised, what matters is the underneath essence of a spiritual survival that speaks to eternity. There is nothing to really compare it to. Elizabeth King is living proof that these are songs to help survive anything. At 77 years young, there can be no doubt she is someone who has seen it all, and never backed down from life’s challenges. Instead, Elizabeth King digs down deep on songs like “No Ways Tired,” “A Long Journey” and “Reach Out and Touch” with such unshakeable belief that there is only one way to go: forward. Southern gospel music surely supplied the inspiration for so much rock & roll and rhythm & blues in the early days of those two styles, and continues to light the fuse for anyone who wants to get over to the other side. Producer Bruce Watson knows exactly what these songs need, and with the Sacred Soul Sound Section and some special guests builds a framework for the woman to find the glory land on every song. Each one feels like a natural born look at exactly what’s needed to make it through the modern challenges trying to tear down today’s walls. With a voice directly tied into a higher power, King doesn’t flinch an inch in bringing the Word to light. It’s all over LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS, and isn’t going anywhere but up. King is Queen.
Billy Joe Shaver & Kinky Friedman, Live Down Under. Pairing Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman together for three nights in Sydney, Australia was sure to cause a few fireworks to go off, and
indeed it did. Shaver’s songs are soaked in the true blue emotions of life lived on the cutting edge of the hardline, that place where the heart breaks with an unstoppable regularity and the only sure-fire
solution to finding a way back is to believe in a more persuasive power of understanding and forgiveness than gets taught in school rooms and churches. This kind of learning is best found on the streets of our cities, sitting on bus benches or waiting to come up with enough coins for coffee. Listen to “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” for reference. Friedman’s originals, on the other hand, are equally moving, but more often than not start with a semi-humorous premise that can either go dark or light, depending on the song. Try “Wild Man from Borneo” and “Ride ’em Jewboy” on for size there. Luckily, even if somewhat oddly, the pair go together like barbecue and beans. There are just enough laughs to keep the night lubricated, and just enough tears to make sure that hearts have been messed with. Even when Australian comedy makes a short appearance, it quickly realizes it’s met its match with these roughed-up Texans and heads for the kangaroos. In the end, this is a fine night to celebrate two of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, and be glad they both found
themselves together onstage at The Basement by K.S. Mysinski. Hook ’em horns!
Wesley Stace, Late Style. Some artists will never be confined to one bag. At the top of the list of multi-faceted creators is Wesley Stace, who had a very productive run as singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding before going back to his birth name, and along the way wrote novels and became a college professor to boot. Stace’s newest musical release is aces all the way through. He zeroes in on semi-pop beauties written in mind for the late night crowd, and while he might tiptoe up on crooning, it never crosses over into that sugary zone. Instead, he sounds like the mind is living in smoky cabarets that might find Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain lurking in the doorways while eyeballing the clientele for the lowlifes they’re chasing for rich clients. Wesley Stace has hit on a major vein of music that remains timeless, and performs it with such clarity it feels like a time machine has brought the past into the future. Which is definitely not a bad place to be. Arranger David Nagler has a perfecto eye on how to make less sound like more, creating tension with a few instruments and perfectly-placed vocals. The songs, all written by Stace and Nagler were recorded in what appears to be a cross-country run (to avoid the private eyes on their tail?) in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Lenox and Chicago, capturing the dark-night aura in many of America’s urban meccas. To make sure the circle remains unbroken, novelist Barry Gifford writes a liner note essay that feels like the glory days of Blue Note Records incredible writers are still at work, invoking even the pulsing beat of Gifford characters Lula and Sailor in his unforgettable series of road trip novels. It’s the crowning touch of a glowing album in the splendid career of a modern treasure: Wesley Stace. By whatever name.
Stash, Walk The Walk. Here’s a band that came out of the woodwork but arrived with such force on this album it’s like they’ve been here forever. Ted Russell Kamp has made more than a dozen albums, and continues to be one of Los Angeles’ somewhat-secret weapons, always delivering a honed-down approach to songs that will surely last forever. Kamp also plays in Shooter Jennings outfit and appeared on Tanya Tucker’s recent knock-out album WHILE I’M LIVING. Joey Peters was the drummer in Grant Lee Buffalo’s long ascendancy into L.A. rock’s pantheon, as well as being a member now of Rusty Truck. Rich McCulley releases solo albums and produces and engineers a dozen Los Angeles artists. Which is all a long way of saying this is a trio with incredibly strong roots, and at the same time sounds like they’re busting at the seams to break through on their own. There is such a vibrancy of performance power on songs like “Queen of the Highway,” Talk the Talk ” and “Sweet Salvation of the Dawn” that Stash sure sounds like their moment has arrived. Their astute way of writing and then recording their songs one at a time gives the collection such a solidified attack there can be no mistaking such a mindful strength. It’s often not easy to be a new group with a lot to prove, and then have to step up and prove it. But Stash has no jitters or seams: everything sounds like this is a trio who have been performing together for years, and belong at the top of any list of the City of Angels’ most potent bands. And make no mistake. Stash is a band in every sense of the word, and never drifts into three different artists vying to take the lead. This musicians are playing for now and they’re playing for keeps. The walk begins.
Texas Tornados, A Little Bit is Better than Nada: Prime Cuts 1990-1996. In the late 1980s, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers rode onto the world stage straight outta the Lone Star state, with Sahm tagging them the Tex-Mex Beatles. For sure the band’s musical velocity could match anyone, and before long the group was an aggregation ready for its grand entrance. Their first album was a total charmer, and naturally went gold–in Mexico. As for America, the Tornados carved out a nice degree of stardom and started tearing down stages wherever they went. This double-disc captures the pure essence of the band, from Jimenez’s incendiary accordion, Sahm’s smoking guitar and Meyers’ rollicking Vox organ. Naturally, the nuclear bomb in the band was Fender’s voice: just a few notes and the female members of the audience were sharing romantic secrets with the man born Baldemar Huerta via telepathy that were better off left out there. This collection of songs from the Tornados’ four albums along with the Spanish-language version of their debut release captures all the wondrous reasons for their success, and shows how they really did become the State Band of Texas in so many minds. Even with Sahm and Fender now departed for the next plane, the Texas Tornados still stir the blood like very few groups did in the ’90s, and have proved that like the Texas icons of the Alamo and University of Texas tower, they will live forever. It’s all here in vivid living truth, right down to the previously unissued Miller Lite beer spot. Which brings to the fore that age-old culinary question: What’s a Flaco taco? Easy. A Miller beer wrapped in a flour tortilla. A yi yi.
Various Artists, The Velvet Underground. Todd Haynes’ new documentary film about the world’s most groundbreaking band has gone a long way to shed light on how the New York crew first got started, but even more the way their influence continues to grow and become more permanent to this day. Needless to say, at their beginning Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker shook the very foundation of 1960s American rock & roll, and it hasn’t been the same since. This 2-CD collection of not only the VU’s recordings but some of their prime influences is a heat-filled excursion into rock’s future at a time when artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan were ruling the world. That the Velvets’ still sound so totally unique comes as a breathtaking rush all these years later, and is one likely to never disappear. To provide context for what influenced Lou Reed and the band at their very beginning, there are songs from the Diablos featuring Nolan Strong, The Theatre of Eternal Music, Bo Diddley doing an amazing live version of “Road Runner” that suggests where the Velvets’ “Sister Ray” sonics were inspired and an early Lou Reed band called the Primitives and their outre song “The Ostrich.” The only thing missing in this gang of prime influences is Lou Reed’s very favorite single “Outcast,” by soul duo Eddie & Ernie. It is said by first-hand witness Sterling Morrison that Reed became so enthralled by the song once in 1965 he ripped it off their turntable and took a bite out of it. From all this cornucopia of sound, including a 1967 Nico single of the Lou Reed-Sterling Morrison original “Chelsea Girls,” comes a deluge of greatness with nine Velvet Underground recordings–some studio and some live–that really do make an unbeatable case for the band being the most futuristic in rock & roll for what would come in the 1970s and beyond. During their prime, the Velvet Underground was soundly ignored by all outside the most hardcore of musical explorers. But that didn’t slow down the group an inch, which is likely the most important of all their mighty accomplishments. In the face of hatred, rejection and just downright ignorance, the quartet–which replaced John Cale with Doug Yule halfway through their existence–never did back down. Ever. Early in the morning of August 24, 1970 when Lou Reed, after finishing a live set at Max’s Kansas City club in Manhattan, told the band he was quitting, not many in the rock & roll world noticed. But the sparks and musical earthquakes which lay in his and John Cale’s futures were gearing up to start round two, and Lou Reed was starting a new part of his journey to become a rock & roll savior. Then and forever.
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