Bentley’s Bandstand: March 2022
By Bill Bentley
Sarah Borges, Together Alone. There are certain modern troubadours who don’t back down. Ever. It’s just not in their nature. For the past 20 years, Sarah Borges is one of those perennial pushers who write and record songs of high import, and then take to the endless highway to play them in front of fans. Then the pandemic hit, and all bets were off. Like so many other musicians, the woman looked at what was possible and decided to push ahead with musicians spread out in different studios recording her newest songs. Having fellow bandmate and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel along for the ride surely helped keep the quality level pinned to the top of the meter while Borges and bunch did the level-best to make sure quality control never wavered. The challenges were high, but so was the band’s resolve to deliver their best, and in the end TOGETHER ALONE is one of the highlights of all Sarah Borges’ many stellar albums. It’s almost like there was so much on the line that nothing less than top-notch would do. Album opener “Wasting My Time” sets the pace, putting the price of isolation right at the forefront of how recording a band has become a question mark. Of course, everyonne involved kicks the song into fourth gear immediately and proves that there are no unsolvable problems in the world of the New Abnormal, as long as people stay committed to finding a way through. That’s the unspoken key for all of TOGETHER ALONE. It’s audible how strong Sarah Broges feels about pushing ahead, and she made certain she was not alone with that commitment. Every player on the album threw in all the way, making this the kind of release that will stand forever. There is a riveting strength of purpose that says whether together or alone, the beauty of what songs like this can accomplish will shine through. One listen to “13th Floor” will take new and longtime fans to that place, whether they’ve been there before or not. Take the trip.
Stephen Doster, Over the Red Sea. Austin, Texas has always been something of an enigma musically. For a city that calls itself The Live Music Capital of the World, there are still a lot of somewhat hidden surprises lurking down its alleys and surrounding environs. The nearby Hill Country also has its semi-secrets that can come to light and then go away. In some ways that’s the story of Stephen Doster. For those who really listen carefully to Texas music, he is an all-timer, starting in the 1970s at local bars like the Hole in the Wall. It didn’t take long for the man to find the spotlight and start producing and recording music by himself and others. And while he’s made several distinguished albums, “over the red sea” pushes him to his best work yet. That joy is palatable on every song, reflecting the different horizons that inspired them and the instrumental awe for the level of musicians performing with him. With players on vibraphone, keyboards, cello, flugelhorn and more, the range of sounds is endless. It is no secret that Stephen Doster is also a world-class producer of over 70 albums, working with Nanci Griffith, Maren Morris, Carolyn Wonderland, Stanley Smith, George Ensle and even early efforts with the Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott, all of which is reflected mightily in this new release. Even Dr. John recorded a Doster original, “Baby There’s No One Like You,” which in realspeak is one of life’s great honors. When it’s time for those doing the best musical work of the times to be given their due, Stephen Doster should be one of them. In Austin and far beyond, he is leading that parade. Time to begin.
Rick Holmstrom Get It! When it comes to electric guitarists who are not afraid to get deep down in the groove, Rick Holmstrom is right at home. He’s worked with bluesers like Smokey Wilson and Johnny Dyer, and then there’s the string-bender’s 15-year stint with none other than Mavis Staples. In all that music-making the man became a true fan of instrumentals. The way they can get an audience into the ozone, and also the expansiveness of the music that can be explored with very few borders. Those word-free expressions are a sure-fire moodsetter, and always will be. On GET IT!, Rick Holmstrom shows all he has learned in his many years tearing up a bandstand, and lets it be known that he takes these sessions as seriously as nuclear war. With bandmates Steve Mugalian and Gregory Boaz, the trio went into different tiny studios and garages in Los Angeles. There didn’t need to be any control room frills or fancy gear to get between the players and their abilities. Each musician was ready to go for the essentials in how a song can connect with a listener’s heart, and then light a fire within that doesn’t have to ever go out. This is music made for the ages, no matter what funny business or fashions have set it. That’s because instrumentals were how music started, and who knows, maybe how it will end. But until then, count on Rick Holmstrom to get it all while he can, and share with those who need to fill a hole in their soul. And how many other guitarists have performed with a President of the United States, as Holmstrom and Mavis Staples did with Barack Obama at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. That’s high-steppin’.
The Hoodoo Loungers So Beautiful. There can never be enough music soaked in New Orleans’ inspiring grooves. There is something so natural and magnetizing in those Crescent City sounds that in the end it all seems like a ride to heaven on the streetcar straight down Canal Street. While The Hoodoo Loungers are centered around Long Island and New York City, everything feels like the grooves that have inhabited their souls are straight out of streets like Esplanade, Decatur, Tchoupitoulas and Claiborne way down yonder. Best of all is how easeful their action is on songs like “Hoodoo Time Machine,” “Get Ready for the Party,” and because no New Orleansized album is complete without an Allen Toussaint classic, “Yes We Can Can.” The seven-person aggregation catches the smell of the city on note one, and takes it all the way out to Lake Pontchartrain–and back. It’s all in the way The Hoodoo Loungers put a glide in their stride, never rushing to the finish line in a huge hurry. Instead, the band’s backfield is in motion and everything dips and dives in perfect deliberation. It’s always a truth that the music of the City that Care Forgot gets remembered over and over every few decades, and reminds all how much salvation can be found in the feeling of those mos’scious moves buried in everything bands like The Hoodoo Loungers do. And with a singer with the first name Dawnette there is no way to lose. So wear it in or wear it out, but whatever happens don’t forget to jump and shout. Yeah you right!
Hurray for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth. It has been a true fact that for a decade Alynda Segarra had a date with destiny. The singer-songwriter had an aura of greatness from the very first songs she recorded with Hurray for the Riff Raff. Coming out of New Orleans, Segarra and band played with a sense of fearlessness that makes all the great groups. And while Segarra grew up in the Bronx, she has readily adapted to the Crescent City’s unique relationship with realities like time and space. She had the spark at her very center, and it was going to breakthrough someday. That day is now, and LIFE ON EARTH is the kind of collection that indelibly makes its mark of greatness evident. These are songs that are game-changers, and will not be denied. There is something so original about them it’s almost like everything sounds like it’s being created with a brand new language. Or course, it doesn’t hurt that the music comes across as notes of survival for the planet, and is raising a flag of caution that not everything is right and the wake-up call for a change of gears is no longer ignorable. Survival is the topic of discussion and, without jumping off the bridge, it could be now or never. Compare and contrast the band’s album cover with the CD booklet front photograph and it’s like a after-and-before effect. Great music has often painted what may be up around the bend, and the words printed on the booklet front–“BLESS ALL BEINGS RUNNING FOR THEIR LIVES. LIFE ON EARTH IS LONG.”–are as much a prayer as a prediction, with striking songs like “Wolves,” “Pierced Arrows,” “Jupiter’s Dance,” “Precious Cargo” and “Rosemary Tears” signals that the rainbow sign is right around the corner. Fire next time.
Bill Kopp Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave. Once upon a time there was such a scene with small independent record labels. The land was filled with an undulating sense of excitement, as musicians found homes in the most unlikely of places: companies that really had little clue what they were doing. The only sure-fire thing these outlets did have was a fevered devotion to getting in the middle of the music that made life worth living for them. Enter Howie Klein and Chris Knab in the streets of San Francisco. They each were possessed by helping artists record songs and then get them out into a store where the discs could be bought by true believers. Neither Klein nor Knab had any transcendent ideas of how this would all work. Instead they believed in what they heard and wanted to have some fun. And boy did they. Their label, 415 Records, helped the Bay Area explode once again along the lines in how it did in the psychedelic ’60s, and insure that life in America still had fire in its soul. Bill Kopp’s incredible new history of all that was 415 Records rings as true as the music did, and is a perfect illustration of what the human spirit is capable of. It paints the most alluring picture of how the creators of the label came to spur into action and create the company, and then with an unendingly accurate eye Kopp lays out the history of the company’s artists (from The Nuns–with Alejandro Escovedo–and Pearl Harbor & the Explosions through Roky Erickson & the Aliens right up to the end with Wire Train and Until December. It is so exciting to take the trip as all this wondrous music unfolds that it often feels like being at a roaring night of rock & roll at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens in 1978 watching SVT. Bill Kopp catches it all, and writes with a private detective’s instinct in telling the entire story. Even when the writing is on the wall after 415 makes a deal with Columbia Records that pretty much ensures the good times have an expiration date, the author continues telling the tale with an eye on how the music of this era really did change some things. Indie labels became the spelunkers for the majors, and while the wildness was starting to be drained out of the business end of punk/new wave/whatever, there were still great records being made and lives being saved. Read it all here and be amazed. Disturbing the peace.
Lee Oskar, Never Forget. It’s a long way from “Spill the Wine,” recorded by War when harmonica cat Lee Oskar was in the band’s early ranks, to NEVER FORGET, but in many ways it is truly all one story. That story would be about a musician who is possessed by how to get his feelings from the little instrument that could out into the big world. At the center of it all is a player who is in the highest list of anyone who ever picked up a harmonica and blew, and continued to challenge themselves in all they did. Oskar’s new album is fueled by the feelings of the atrocities of the Holocaust, and attempts to replace that monumental history of loss with a positive force of sound. Part of the genesis of NEVER FORGET is that Lee Oskar is the son of a holocaust survivor, and knows firsthand what that horror meant to those who lived–and died–during that era. The musician uses that history as a departure point, and then injects his own gifts of playing into songs that take the worst parts of humanity and offer the chance to heal from knowing how wrongs things can go. Nothing like this has quite been attempted before, at least not in the past few decades, and Lee Oskar’s songs like “Far Away Dreams” and “Song From Mom” become a healing force to those terrible memories from World War II. In many ways, the soaring notes from the man’s harmonica allow the human spirit to move toward healing, even all these years later, and find a place where uplifting sounds takes the place of memories of war. The way these songs offer a path past the lowest depths of human depravity is a miracle in the making, and one that Lee Oskar will always honor. Never ever forget.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, In Paris. It’s not every day that a female blues guitar player born in 1939 releases an album of such burning beauty that there is no way not to stop and be overwhelmed. But that’s exactly what Beverly “Guitar” Watkins has done now, even if she is no longer residing on the planet. The fact that it is Watkins’ first live album makes it all the more poignant. In her long career the guitarslinger from Atlanta worked with James Brown, B.B. King, Piano Red and Ray Charles, and made a name for herself for the ability to play guitars she had nicknamed Red Mama and Sugar Baby both while on her back and behind her head while sliding across the stage. Being in that very small crew of guitarnasts Watkins made a lasting impression on everyone who ever saw her live show. The fact that this was a somewhat small audience never deterred Watkins, who kept playing her entire life and finally released her debut solo album BACK IN BUSINESS when she was 60 years old, proving once and for all that age ain’t nothing but a number. Recorded in 2012, IN PARIS captures at full strength what Beverly Watkins could do with a guitar and lively band, fanning the flames in front of a room full of Parisians whether the guitar Wakins was playing was in front of her, over her head or behind her back. This was a musician who knew the meaning of not only the deepest blues, but also the business of show. Whether she is singing “Do the Breakdown,” “Sugar Baby Swing” or “Blues Ain’t What It Used to Be,” there is such an elemental power of hope in the woman’s blues that the world feels like a better place to be. Burn Beverly burn.
Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros Live in Colorado. Surely Bob Weir is the musical cheerleader now for the American soul. For more than half a century, with both the Grateful Dead and all their later offshoots, Weir has been working in the coal mines in spreading the word how music keeps a country going. At first, the Dead were classified freaks and strictly for a chosen few. Then the band’s anthems spread into the very fabric of life to become a binding belief for an entire population. In so many ways, the group took up where Mark Twain left off in describing what it means to be an American. Once again, with the Wolf Bros band, Bob Weir is taking on the quest to keep pushing the frontier forward. This live set of eight songs sets the perfect tone for just what that means. Opening with the 1970 Grateful Dead classic “New Speedway Boogie” is a cautionary revisiting of the counterculture’s mood after the 1969 Altamont concert warning. America is in another dilemma, and it’s going to take some real coming together to get out of it. But the band sounds completely up for the task, as their striking take on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway” feels like a true visionary trilogy. It’s as if Weir and crew know what we’re all up against, and there’s no reason not to face it head on. Tough times are here, like they have been before, but there is a way through it. Then five Weir originals, all but one written with long-time lyric accomplice John Barlow, let fellow band members Don Was (bass), Jay Lane (drums), Jeff Chimenti (piano) and Greg Leisz (pedal steel) prove that this is forever music. Sometimes the going gets thick (with the Wolfpack horn/cello section throwing in), and others it’s like a quartet of beautiful birds are playing, but either way it’s all a part of the music of the spheres. Flights leave hourly.
The Whitmore Sisters, Ghost Stories. Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore finally decided to zero in on the obvious and have released their debut album together. It includes songs about the loss of all kinds of
family, friends and more. To say that it is beautifully haunting might be the understatement of the year. This is music that travels to the spirit world, and takes inspiration from all the things in life that can hurt the most. But it also celebrates just the fact that while nothing lasts forever, it is the moments we are given to connect with family, friends and those things that can’t be seen which will always matter the most. The Whitmore’s voices are perfectly suited to express such far-reaching feelings, and while they stay rooted in the deepest elements of American music, their sound also reaches out in the cosmos to give everything a mighty strength. Producer Chris Masterson takes all the very best aspects of American music and uses those strengths to give a wall of beauty to every song. In the end, this is an album that feels like a gift from two people who were given an expanded view of life growing up, and did not take it for granted. Instead, they joined all their experiences in bringing to life all the joys as well as challenges of those years into an unequaled sound of creation. In the end, there is a strength of purpose in GHOST STORIES that strikes home again and again. Near the end, the sisters’ version of Paul McCartney’s song he wrote for the Everly Brothers, “On the Wings of a Nightingale” comes floating through the ethos like a message from eternity. It is said there are some sisters who are meant to sing together, and the Whitmores are surely in that number. But really, it’s what they accomplish when they join together that puts them in the very top row of modern musical greatness. These are songs that will last forever. Listen right now.