Bentley’s Bandstand: February 2022
By Bill Bentley
The Campbell Brothers, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Sacred steel music started peaking in popular circles about 20 years ago, and thanks to the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph became something of a sensation. Of course, like most sensations the popularity has died down but the style of pedal-steel guitar-driven wildness still thrives. In 2014 the Campbell Brothers, one of the pivotal drivers of sacred steel, were commissioned to create a celebration of John Coltrane’s sacred opus A LOVE SUPREME. Naturally, the unique and uplifting end result was nothing short of riveting. Performed live in Amsterdam, this Four-Part beauty is one for eternity. Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel guitar and the lap steel of Darick Campbell, who died two years ago, join for some holy-rolling testifying on their respective instruments for a truly innovative take on Coltrane’s majestic music. Joined by Phillip Campbell on Midi guitar and bassist Darik Bennett and drummer Carlton Campbell, this is one swinging grooveathon from the start. It is a sound that is never forgotten, and the unison strut of Part One sets the titanic tone for all that follows. There is plenty of swagger in the house, but also a deeply touching tribute to not only A LOVE SUPREME, but also all those who have followed its 58-year glow. There are certain jazz mountaintops that will live forever, as long as those who worship at the altar of improvisation survive and continue their quest. Now, to hear some true believers playing instruments from another realm head into the inner space of John Coltrane is a revelation of the highest order. A sound supreme.
Julie Christensen, 11 From Kevin: Songs of Kevin Gordon. What an inspired idea. Julie Christensen, who has never let a thing hem her in, decided to record an album of songs written and co-written by Kevin Gordon, and set about giving the Louisiana artist some new attention. It’s long deserved. Gordon is an artist of all trades, from painting to poetry to American music from way down in the swampland. Christensen’s voice is a perfect fit for expanding what Gordon has done, taking it to an audience that likely hadn’t heard him much before. Her gorgeous vocals capture the rapture of the Louisiana man’s virtues, and take them to a place where the sky is the limit. She is also able to inject the 11 songs with a realistic sense of drama that isn’t heard everyday. “Fire at the End of the World” is one of the many standouts, conveying a sense of how life in small American towns can rise to a boiling level, leaving all kinds of emotional uproar. In some ways, this album is like a dramatic exploration of what is going on in America: things are getting crispy and there doesn’t seem any solution to rolling things back. Gordon is the perfect songwriter to express all this semi-turmoil and give a hint of optimism that maybe there is a way to the other side. Or maybe not. What is absolutely obvious is that no one except Kevin Gordon has taken on this telescopic perspective looking out from Louisiana. All the musicians on 11 FROM KEVIN have instantly tapped into the beauty of the music from the Pelican State, and helped Julie Christensen create an astonishing album that may not offer any answers but sure make the questions unable to resist pondering. Paradise or bust.
Elvis Costello, The Boy Named If. It sounds like Elvis Costello has stuffed his socks full of hot peppers, plugged his electric guitar into a sno-cone machine and is ready to rock. This really is a no-holds-barrred assault on the lower digestive tract and a chance for all those within the AARP-membership requirements to cut the cord and go for broke. Because, actually, not many mature artists can rock like Costello still can, and it’s massively inspiring to have some company out in the danger zone. It’s the audio equivalent of getting marooned on the tilt-a-whirl at the local carnival while the hooligans are moving in for the final drubbing. And that’s a good thing, song-wise, because this is a musician who operates best when there’s something at stake–like survival. Elvis Costello has recorded some of the very best albums in rock & roll, never falling into the fatal area of just going through the motions. And on THE BOY NAMED IF, it sure sounds like he’s cashed in all his chips and hit the bright lights. Now that he’s on the same label as The Beatles, perhaps Costello felt like he owed his British heritage the very best and was not fooling around. Whatever got into his innards, look out because this is a sonic collection not to miss. It all brings back those heady days of the second half of the 1970s when LPs were falling out of the sky that felt like they could all change the trajectory of rock & roll history. And maybe they did. The fact that everyone is still here and fairly lucid means something was done right, and there’s a good chance it all could continue that way. For now, songs like “Farewell OK,” “The Difference,” “My Most Beautiful Mistake” and, really all the rest are bringing the present into focus and boding well for the points ahead. Green shirts suggested.
Bruce Hughes, Late Night Polaroids. If there is a designated player in Austin, Texas right now, better make it Bruce Hughes. He has covered the waterfront for over 40 years there, putting in time with Poi Dog Pondering, Cracker, the Resentments and any number of other worthies. The consistent aspect of all Hughes’ music is that it’s going to groove, and it is going to be great. Fortunately, he has really outdone himself on LATE NIGHT POLAROIDS. It is such an all-inclusive round-up of the many different styles which assure Hughes’ long-ranging coolness that it is actually awe-inspiring. Without a doubt. It veers from caressing to careening and never loses its powers. Maybe that’s because for so much of his musical life Bruce Hughes has remained a kingpin on the electric bass, but has not really grabbed the spotlight before. That changes now. With a studio full of River City’s finest and a dozen songs of stellar soul, this is an album that in any given year would grab the golden ring and keep it. Each song is filled with different sounds and strengths, and an undeniable undertow of magical expression. The real knockout punch, though, is Bruce Hughes’ voice. He really is a mesmerizing singer that always seems to hit the most shimmering sonics with his vocals, and then jacks it up to be irresistible. Hopefully this collection of wonderment will put the man in a place where we hear what has been in our midst for so long. Bass of love.
Alias James, Free Country. It’s not that often now that a country-based artist breaks through the glass ceiling that surrounds too much of Nashville’s music, and delivers the kind of songs that feel like there’s enough danger in them to push past the norm. Alias James is someone who clearly is walking the tightrope, and is not going to back down. There’s even a lyric warning on the album cover sticker that flags “explicit lyrics.” Not much of that going on over on Music Row these days. But that’s exactly what makes Alias James someone who is ready to push the ordinary into new territory. He’s someone who spent time in the rock & roll trenches, even though he never made the crossover completely. Maybe that’s why there’s only a shadow on the album cover, so the music will come first. Later for the image-making machine to kick in. The best news is how powerful songs like “Another Last Chance,” “Catch Myself,” Kickin’ Up a Shitstorm” and “Where You Used to Be” are. There is a feeling like there was in the mid-1970s when artists like Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and a few others said the hell with how things were being done in Music City and decided to do it their own way. It was fun while it lasted, even if the corporate power tribe stepped in a few years later to put the muzzle on where they could. It’s the continual push and pull of Nashville, one that the regulars there get used to but never give in completely. Alias James is swinging strong enough and tough enough to maybe make a difference again, and who knows, by the time he moves up a few notches his real name will be known and things could get really intersting. For now, the music is burning and there’s more there for the learning. Get ready now.
Mance Lipscomb, Navasota. There are many blues people out in the world who stayed away from the limelight. For whatever reason, they didn’t command the big-time attention of some of the top rollers, but their time served in the trenches playing America’s greatest sound will always be honored. Mance Lipscomb kept it low-key for most of his life around Navasota, Texas. He didn’t make his first record until he was 65 years old, but let there be no mistake: Lipscomb was the real deal blues singer and guitarist who became a Lone Star treasure of the highest order. He had almost a sweet voice, but it carried a hefty sense of strength, and once he was discovered and began playing rock clubs, folk festivals and such around Texas he became a musician looked up to for the rest of his life. These newly-released concerts, recorded in 1964 and 1972, are the mesmerizing capture of a man who had been picking cotton as a youngster and staying close to home for most of his life. But when Mance Lipscomb ventured into the outside world he quickly earned a name for himself among the most discerning blues fans. He even recorded for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, and then built a legend that never wavered. This two-disc collection is a perfect example of a musician who stayed absolutely true to his roots and spread rapture wherever he took the stage. There won’t be another. Blues to use.
John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down. It’s smart to remember that the first three guitarists featutred (in a row) on John Mayall’s early recordings were Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. And then Mayall made a recording which featured only him called THE BLUES ALONE. Not a bad introduction into the musical world that was the 1960s. The Englishman’s latest includes a whole host of guests, ranging from Mike Campbell to Buddy Miller to Scarlet Rivera, and shows how Mayall stays relevant while still mining the rich proving ground of the blues. It’s not always an easy route, and considering now that John Mayall has cointinued 55 years on the journey surely there is a way to honor his efforts. As long as he keeps zeroing in on the bottom line basics of the blues, everything is going to be just fine. He is not someone to turn super fancy on where he aims his abilities, and even with some zigs and zags in the ’70s, John Mayall never left the fertile place that he’s called home all these decades. His voice is still right in the pocket, a wonder of expression even when age takes a toil on some of the outer reaches. And with semi-newcomers like Marcus King and Jake Shimabukuro cranking their amps, there is no doubt the chills will continue. Then there’s ace guitarist Carolyn Wonderland taking over the vaunted lead guitar spot and stepping out on the riveting title song at the end of the album, proving that Mr. Mayall still has one of the keenest eyes around at finding the guitarslingers who know how to get the job done right. All said, this is a bluesman who dove into the deep end at the very start of his profession, and has stayed there ever since. Room to move.
John Mellencamp, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack. How’s this for a song’s opening lines: “The show is over and the monkey is dead / Turn that music down and put that rag on my head…” There are times in an artist’s life when they hit their own naked lunch: “A frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” That moment has come for John Mellencamp and is so overwhelming that his album might not be suitable for every occasion like weddings, graduations, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Maybe that’s because the man’s voice is scrapped raw like Mellencamp has been gargling with sand, and his worldview is drifting towards the end game. But the good news is that this makes for one of the great albums of this century, because finally someone has fessed up that not only is history no longer on mankind’s side, but it may be the game is in the final innings. Which is exactly where strength and courage come in, and John Mellencamp feels like he has a busload of both. He just chooses to ditch the sugarcoating and let the rough side drag. This is not music for the faint-hearted, but rather it’s a fascinating confrontation of hope and hard lines. The way the man stands up to everything being thrown his way really is a amazement, and one which rarely gets addressed in popular music. And who knows? It might not be again. But for now Bruce Springsteen is onboard for a few songs, Mellencamp’s voice is still arriving in the same zip code as the melodies and the EQ of everything heard on STRICTLY A ONE-EYED JACK is so right on the money that in many ways it’s hard to resist. That’s the way reality works. It’s easy to hide the harsh lights of the truth, but it’s a better bet to go head on and confront what surrounds us and let it rip. And while there’s a pretty certain chance there won’t be another album like this anytime soon, get it while you can and be ready for the riptide. Water is rising.
The Rave-Ups, Tomorrow. Every scene has a high point: that place where all the bands playing around the swirl eventually shake themselves out, with some going up and some going down. But there’s usually one that really feels like it has the goods to go all the way. That was The Rave-Ups in the second half of the 1980s in Los Angeles. Jimmer Podrasky, Terry Wilson, Tommy Platnik and Timothy Jimenez had a vibration which felt like forever. The group had escaped the confines of the cowpunk cadre and were swinging for the fences after their TOWN + COUNTRY debut and following with THE BOOK OF YOUR REGRETS album. Podrasky’s voice had a twisted beauty to it, like he was singing about visions only he could see, but somehow still translated into the outside world. Being part of the major label scene by then in Los Angeles, it was a wild, wild time for the group, and when the third album, CHANCE, was released but didn’t hit lift-off, things narrowed. There were a lot of close calls with success, but no jackpot. So the next 30 years the Podrasky ripped and ran with different personnel, various releases and close-calls. Here The Rave-Ups are now with a new label, new album and a passel of great, great songs. Jimmer Podrasky has never lost the thread of alluring songwriting, and sings it with such a deep-down passion that there is no way not to pay attention. No matter what, he has always delivered music that feels meant for the long run, and finds ways to record it so that it lasts. The new full-on Rave-Ups reunion and album release is kind of like a fairy tale, but also a Raymond Chandler novella. Things have happened in Los Angeles, and now somehow the future is here and it feels like it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. A mystery lingers around the edges, but everything works out. For now. And TOMORROW has arrived.
St. Paul & the Broken Bones, The Alien Coast. Every band at some point has to confront that new breed thing. The point where the future beckons and it will not do to just stay safe in the present. St. Paul & the Broken Bones come from Birmingham, Alabama, a very happening city for musical roots that mainly seems to detour away from modernity. Not no more. Because the Bones are all about what’s happening now, and with singer Paul Janeway leading the charge they have made an album for the future. They’re even dressed in shiny Mylar jumpsuits on the inside booklet photo, like a nod to Devo, and soundwise have embraced a spacey tripped-out attack that spreads the love and passes the peyote. Not a bad combo, really. It’s a ways from the horn section-driven fun and funk of the Broken Bones’ earlier albums, but there is absolutely no harm in moving on up. And that’s what St. Paul & the Broken Bones are doing. Album producer Matt Ross-Sprang has plenty of big time credits with artists like Jason Isbell, Margo Price, John Prine and even Elvis Presley remixes, and he never fails to deliver the goods. The producer threw open the palette on THE ALIEN COAST, and it worked. As long as it’s clear the neo-soul shingaling and boogaloo have been put back in the band’s storage boxes while they explore the future in hyperdrive. Janeway and band have locked in on an experimental edge, where the beat is less pronounced and the vocals are emanating from somewhere in the outre field, but always land with an intriguing overdrive and often subdued beauty. Have no fear: St. Paul & the Broken Bones are here and mean no harm. Instead, hey want to take you higher, no doubt, and promise to return all back home in one piece. What a trip.
Gene Sculatti, For the Records: Close Encounters with Pop Music. Very few writers about music–both popular and less popular–have the street cred of Gene Sculatti. He wrote the very first story about the exploding San Francisco psychedelic music scene in his own backyard in September 1966, and went on from there to penning mighty wordage for the Bay Area’s pioneering Mojo-Navigator Rock and Roll News. It was a short step into the early pages of Rolling Stone, Creem and all the other popping periodicals and newspapers. Through all his work right up to today, Gene Sculatti has kept his eye on the prize and approached music from the holy sport it is. This short but intriguing memoir is like taking a cross-country road trip in the front seat with a man who has covered the waterfront and still loves the view. Sculatti’s impeccable taste rips and runs across all the different byways of music, and he never gets too hung up on being the absolute expert on anything except that which he has devoted his life to. The wisdom and warmth that flows off every page is an unending sharing of the sounds which have made life bearable since the 1950s, and sometimes even before. No one else can deliver such a wide-ranging explanation of how so many eras have steamrolled across the world’s earwaves and helped the ongoing evolution of humanity to keep moving forward. Underneath it all is a passion for what brought him to the party in the first-place. And that, dear listeners, is what it’s all about. Gene Sculatti rules.
Lucinda Williams, Funny How Time Slips Aways. Subtitled “A Night of 60s Country Classics,” these lucky 13 songs are a knocked-out set of total country bliss, from every side of the emotional spectrum there is. From the happiest songs in the world to those that would make suicicde sound like a walk in the park. Songwriters like Buck Owens, Hank Cochran, Johnny Paycheck, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow and so many other stellar artists show what true-blue country music sounded like when it was written and performed down to the nub. Lucinda Williams’ voice is able to convey the kind of feelings that are often found at the bottom of the wishing well, when all the wishes don’t come true. She has such an intimate relationship with heartbreak that it sometimes sounds like the end of the line has finally been reached. But then the music rushes in and fills the heart with hope that another day might be bearable. Williams has been recording a series of albums dedicated to other songwriters, including Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and this time around she chooses a decade to zero in on. Lucky for listeners, because her voice is absolutely a. perfect fit for this era, and actually sounds like she was born to hang her guitar there. At album’s end, Lucinda Williams and album co-producer Tom Overby pen “Take Time for the Tears, ” and have written a modern song that could easily have been hiding in the bottom of a drawer at the remains of Acuff-Rose’s vaults, it’s that moving. The time machine.
Bentley’s Bandstand: February 2022