Bentley’s Bandstand: May 2022
By Bill Bentley
Johnny Ray Daniels, Whatever You Need. When the higher powers of the music business make a man wait until he’s 76 years old to make his own first album, there isn’t much left to say except WHATEVER YOU NEED. That is the name of Johnny Ray Daniels’ soul-kicking entrance into record stores and Southern truck stops, and it will sure not go unnoticed. This is a man who has been singing gospel music almost his whole natural born life, and sees no reason whatsoever to stop now. The collection’s first single, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” says it all. Born in North Carolina, Daniels got his calling when he was working in nightclubs and heard the Lord’s voice telling him, “You’re in the wrong place.” Those kind of instructions don’t come more than once, so Johnny Ray Daniels found the nearest church choir he could locate. From there a new life opened up, and after marrying Dorothy Vines of the Vines Sisters group his direction was determined. Soon Daniels’ music career was written in stone and things started to happen. His voice sounds like it was carved from stone, the kind that conveys the strength of his Lord and never wavers. The way the singer takes hold of a song and will not let go until every ounce of inspirtation is wrung from it is a sound that doesn’t come to the front very often. There is never any doubt the man is where he should be. Even when driving the tour bus for his wife’s singing group he knew that it was all leading somewhere. Now that somewhere is WHATEVER YOU NEED. Produced by Bruce Watson and Will Sexton and featuring the Sacred Soul Sound Section, this is a sound with massive roots in the past, but also one that doesn’t flinch with confronting the future head-on. Maybe that’s because Johnny Ray Daniels believed instantly when he walked into the gospel world that he was in the right place. Son, daughter and and granddaughter join in on these songs, making it a family affair that is rare in the 2000s. But it’s all here, sanctified and ready for action. Say amen somebody.
Kyra Gordon, Soul of a Showgirl. There are certain singers who are totally able to take on any style of music and make it theirs. For them, music is a challenge and they are there to face it. Kyra Gordon is like that. The Berkeley-based woman appeared in the stage production about Janis Joplin, “Love, Janis,” and sings jazz, blues, country, rock and whatever else comes before her. Her new album, SOUL OF A SHOWGIRL has an equally wide range. She mixes love songs with ones inspired by rock & roll’s raucous roots, a track inspired by singer-songwriter Powell St. John, who wrote songs for the 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s before co-founding San Francisco’s Mother Earth), titled “Laredo Slim.” It also features Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson on vocals, and is as beutiful a musical portrait of someone’s life ever commited to song. It’s like St. John, who passed away last summer, is standing right before us. SOUL OF A SHOWGIRL has the spirit of someone who has set out on a grand adventure, ready for whatever happens and up for action. There are no fences around Kyra Gordon’s music, which means she mixes in a vagabond variety that is continually winning. Songs flow throughout the album in a way that pulls the listener all the way in, and then delivers such a wide-range of influences that there’s almost no way not to be won over. This is someone who is going places, and whether she’s hitchhiking or flying on a private plane will not matter, because wherever she goes Kyra Gordon will be sitting strong with a soul that could take her anywhere. Go with her.
Diunna Greenleaf, I Ain’t Playin’. Nothing is better than a total surprise. Houston’s bluesy soul queen Diunna Greenleaf’s new album I AIN’T PLAYIN’ is perfectly titled, and arrives like a spirit-warming gift from deep in the heart of Texas. Greenleaf’s voice is 100% real, certified for all those who keep seeking the truth in the music they love. This is a woman who isn’t asking for any favors. Instead she lays her unmistakable power on original songs like “Running Like the Red Cross” and “Sunny Day Friends” bumped up close on others like “Damned If I Do” and “My Turn, My Time.” Producer Kid Andersens sounds like he knew exactly what he was shooting for when he went into the Greasland studio and turned on the juice. Greenleaf’s voice is a natural-born treasure, the kind that sounds at home in Houston’s Fifth Ward juke joints or the River Oaks Country Club. It delivers a dignified funkiness that assures no sass will be taken by this woman, whether on or off the bandstand, and that she comes to go all the way and deliver everytime she takes the microphone. These lucky 13 songs are really a study in revelation. How else to explain the freeloading funkiness of another Greenleaf original “Answer to the Hard Working Woman” that gets cozy right next to Nina Simone’s culture-defining “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”? There are only a handful of humans who would have the nerve to take on that musical twosome. But take it on faith that Diunna Greeleaf does, and she comes out the other side with a glow of glory surrounding the songs. This whole album is like that: one surprise after another that someone so soulful and strong could have been hiding in plain sight down in Space City for so many years. Of course the woman’s parents schooled her in the gospel music they sang, but the beauty of what Greenleaf accomplishes is that she uses that spirituality to take it to the alley when need be, and gets low-down just enough to let everyone listening know she’s not kidding. This is the real-deal like very few singers are these days, and should be celebrated to the max. She ain’t playin’.
Khruangbin, Mordechai. It might take longer to learn how to pronounce the name of this fascinating Houston band than it does to listen to their astounding debut album. Their music is so dreamy, so uplifting, so inspiring that it feels like it comes from another time zone. Lyrically, of course, it’s every person for themselves trying to decipher what these songs might be about. But that really is beside the point. Because what they do to the listener is what really matters. It is obvious it’s time to check the everyday conception of life on Planet Earth at the door and ride Khruangbin’s magic carpet with them as far as the journey goes. And though this album is two years old, the band’s two recent recordings with Leon Bridges (TEXAS SUN and TEXAS MOON) have brought the aggregation of LL, Deej, Marko and various other players into such a new spotlight that it only seems right to hear where they started on MORDECHAI. Such exciting and semi-experimental sounds don’t come rolling onto centerstage every day, and it’s time to celebrate a real arrival of some Texans who are carving out their own road. It’s like KRUANGBIN are opening a door into a new kind of meditative state, and taking the risk of starting a brand new cactus-stewed style. It is probably no accident they are based down in NASA country, because it’s only one small step for man into the beauty of songs like “Time (You and I),” “If There Is No Question” and “So We Won’t Forget.” Fire the boosters.
Ann Peebles & the Hi Rhythm Section, Live in Memphis. Without a single doubt Ann Peebles is one of the great soul singers–male or female–of the past 50 years. The Memphis maven has always been able to get down to the nitty gritty of every song she sings, and deliver it with power and polish while it hits the monkey nerve right on the bull’s-eye. Peebles’ voice has such a distinctive sound that it’s not hard to hear why she’s had so many hit records. When she records with the Hi Rhythm Section, whether it’s in the Royal Studio on South Lauderdale Street in Memphis or at live concerts like this one, the two entities–her and them–blend like grits and gravy. On “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and other classics, Ann Peeble’s sultry and soulful voice always makes sure listeners know exactly who it is. There really hasn’t been anyone in her class in the last half-century. This live concert, recorded at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis with Hi Records’ heavy hitters Leroy Hodges, Charles Hodges, Thomas Bingham and, yes, Howard “Bulldog” Grimes,” is just as historic as the Peabody itself. You can almost feel the spirits of people like Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and other vocal heroes from the majestic Memphis years looking over Peebles’ shoulder and smiling. Full-tilt soul music is in short supply these days, and there’s a good chance it’s not going to come back with unstoppable force. Still, when a 30-year-old recording can kick up the twanger and make sure no one forgets just how strong this woman has always been then, well, it’s time to turn on the lovelights and let them shine. All night long.
Cat Power, Covers. When an artist who normaly writes their own songs decides to record an album composed by others, tricky territory awaits ahead. That’s because the odds are against them: it’s nearly impossible to beat the original. But that’s the name of the game and it’s a thrill when it happens. Cat Power needs no introduction, but it’s a full-on joy to hear her doing songs by Frank Ocean, Dead Man’s Bones, Lana Del Rey, The Pogues, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Jackson Browne, Kitty Wells and Nick Cave, and including her own “Unhate.” The last two tracks on the set, though, live in a rarefied air of their own. The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” just might be the final epitome of an alcoholic’s plight. There is such an overwhelming atmostphere of resignation on Replacements Paul Westerberg’s original that there is barely any breathing room left. The words wring every bit of despair out of that life, and Power’s voice takes it to the very end of the line. It is the final expression of when barroom lights come on after closing time and reality delivers a knock-out punch to those still conscious. Add on Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a closer classic, and there is nowhere to go–not even home–to find the footsteps needed for the next day. Often covers albums are placeholders in an artist’s career as they await the mojo to write new songs, but Power’s COVERS has the guts to show how deep into the weeds the singer is willing to go to open up her soul. This is no diversion. It’s as real as real gets, and hopefully her fans and the world-at-large will hear just what an amazing moment it is. Until next time.
Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That…. Beware when Bonnie Raitt comes back to town, because it’s guaranteed hearts will be broken and then healed, heads will be busted and then filled with joy and, finally, her musical splendor will help solve some of the puzzles of modern life itself. That’s because the woman, who has been recording unbeatable albums for over 50 years, has an uncanny talent at both writing or finding some of the best songs in the universe, assembling a band that knows exactly how to make those songs spring to life, and then sings them like that is exactly the reason she is here. There is no doubt that Bonnie Raitt is sharing the truth and leading her followers to the other side of deep understanding. The title track alone will likely not be equaled for sheer unadulterated emotional devastation for years, telling a tale of the ultimate generosity followed by massive gratefulness. But the whole new album itself is such an amalgamation of devastating ballads, burning beauty and all-around grooving gusto that it’s a total don’t-miss affair. It almost sounds like she lived through the pandemic with her eye on the prize, and gathered these time-tested bandmates together when it was exactly the right moment to announce their return. From crying time ballads to total confunksion and bottleneck guitar bliss is a tour de force through the life of one of America’s musical superheroes. There really is no one like Bonnie Raitt. Wonder Woman forever.
Eli Paperboy Reed, Down Every Road. It’s about time someone wrangled a dozen of Merle Haggard’s country chillbumpers and took them to the river to wash them in the water. Which is exactly what blue-eyed soul brother Eli Paperboy Reed does here. It’s a brilliant idea, surely done before but it’s been awhile, and reminds the world that great music is simply great music. Now matter which genre it’s delivered in. Reed’s voice is right there in the middle of rhythm & blues freedom: an interesting blend of male and female overtones that lets him cruise either side of the street. And what a voice it is. The man can work tight in the clinches, but when necessary can also knock a few leaves out of the trees. Thankfully, he never overdoes it, and through classics like “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings,” along with lesser-known finds like “One Secret Hello” and “Somewhere Between,” this is one savvy soulster who knows exactly where Merle Haggard’s sweet spot is. It was in the utter expression of heartbreak and regret, but not all the way past hope and happiness. Well, maybe not that much happiness. When the clock on the wall says only an album of some of the greatest songs ever written will do, and then done where the dark end of the street is right around the corner, let Eli Reed throw the morning paper, whether it’s the Saturday edition with all the hot nightclub listings or the Sunday edition right before church. Make sure to invite the Paperboy in. He’s got the goods and is ready to share them. Always a pleasure.
Timothy B. Schmit, Day By Day. It feels like being part of The Eagles dynasty includes a duty to make solo albums as well. Some Eagles do it more often than others, but when Timothy B. Schmit steps into the spotlight it’s pretty much a certainty he’ll be recording a keeper. Maybe that’s because he’s got a bit of an enigma about him, and doesn’t show his hand as often as his bandmates. So when he does, it always comes with a depth of purpose that rings true through every song. Of course, with a lifetime of musical friends it’s no surprise that special guests on DAY BY DAY include Lindsey Buckingham, Jackson Browne, John Fogerty, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench and for one knocked-out bluesathon song guitar king Kenny Wayne Shepherd. And many others. Clearly, Schmit listens to a wide range of bands besides his own, and knows how to incorporate influences so they inspire whatever is being played. The key to the new songs are Schmit’s stunning vocals. He is able to capture the deepest feelings of love and loss, and always in a way that sounds like it’s brand new and entirely his own. There is an element of someone who is really trying to surprise himself more than anyone else with what he can discover. That a member of one of the world’s most iconic groups accomplishes that over and over on these ten songs is no small wonder. Timothy B. Schmit has seen and heard it all, but still sounds brand new. Which is probably the most profound creation of all. Day by day.
Tierney Sutton, Paris Sessions 2. Over the course of a long and distinguished career, singer Tierney Sutton has shown an undaunted ability to take on any number of different approaches to vocal jazz and make sure they come out all her own. Sutton’s voice is a pure expression of her soul, and is as natural and appealing as anyone alive. For this release, an extension of the first PARIS SESSIONS collection, she takes off from the territory that has become her own: jazz improvisation. With classically-trained Parisian guitarist-arranger, and now husband, Serge Merlaud, along with bassist Kevin Axt and special guest Hubert Laws on flute, the wide-ranging song list is the perfect reflection of everything these musicians can do. And do it superbly. There is a divine blend of soft beauty and deep-running feelings that fill every song with irresistible gorgeousness. Whether they are performing songs by Jobim, George Gerswin, Cole Porter, Alan and Marilyn Bergman or others, there is a center of expression that never wavers. These are people who take very seriously the sounds they are creating, but also know it’s the ability to communicate feelings that matters most. And that’s where every songs goes directly. In the end, this is an album of intriguing surprises wrapped in a sound of absolute allure. There won’t be another like it anytime soon. The spell continues.
Bentley’s Bandstand: May 2022