Bentley’s Bandstand June 2022
By Bill Bentley
Nicki Bluhm, Avondale Drive. Nicki Bluhm has been heading for making this album for many years. After other solo albums and some with Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers releases, Bluhm found herself at a crossroads. She had moved from San Francisco to Nashville alone, in many ways starting over in a city she had never lived in. But losing so many California connections and new to being in a city she really didn’t know that well was the perfect learning experience for AVONDALE DRIVE. Deciding to record at home, with a stellar list of players and producer Jesse Noah Wilson felt like a dream come true for the singer, and that feeling is all over these stellar recordings. Nashville has a way of pushing major musicianship onto the tracks, with all the best musicians gathered there trying to find a way onto sessions. Bluhm and Wilson took advantage of who was available and hit the record button. The end result is that AVONDALE DRIVE sounds like the breakthrough album Nicki Bluhm has always been searching for. The vulnerability in her voice seems like she’s in the middle of being reborn, songs like “Sweet Surrender” and “Fool’s Gold” hint at a new life, while “Leaving Me is the Loving Thing to Do” and “Wheels Rolling” show how the new strength setting in will take her to a higher level. She is singing like a stronger spirit has found her. There is no doubt Nicki Bluhm is on the way to a wonderful place in her life and her music. It is all over these songs. One listen to “Juniper Woodsmoke” says it all, and also assures that whatever lies ahead is going to be where her road is supposed to go. 2022’s very best.
David Bennett Cohen, Bittersweet. Even if David Bennett Cohen is not an everyday name, his years playing keyboards with Country Joe & the Fish have earned him permanent prominence in any discussion of irreplaceable American musicians. That’s because the Fish helped invent psychedelic music, even if the Berkeley band was overshadowed by the San Francisco scene-stealers. It’s often said Country Joe & the Fish took enough LSD to catch up with the crew across the Bay Bridge. Either way, David Bennett Cohen’s organ-wanderings on the Fish’s wondrous songs will live forever. For this six-song solo salvo, the man zeros in on the original “Dylan’s Hat” and a funkfied rootsy original rendition of Professor Longhair’s “In the Night” to add to other winning originals like “Afterglow” and the cautionary “Booze.” There is no doubt Cohen has a major presence on piano, and has assembled a band of pros to make sure he can deliver the goods. Thankfully, he has kept a whimsical eye out on “Hot Chocolate,” with a 1960s’ reverberation to remind us what fun everything was when it was brand new. The groove isn’t that far from Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks at their best. Naturally, the last song, “Bittersweet,” captures the passing of all the years from the Avalon Ballroom’s light shows and free music in the Panhandle to today, but the good news is that David Bennett Cohen is still here, and hasn’t dropped a note in how he can capture life from all angles on just 88 keys. And the paper flower-filled CD cover is perfect for busting out the Krayolas and setting those artistic urges free. Daisaku Ikea lives.
Steve Forbert, Moving Through America. Mississippi born and raised, Steve Forbert has always been a groundbreaker. In the 1970s when he left the Magnolia State and took off for the less-welcoming environs of New York, it was because he had songs in his soul he wanted to share with the world. It’s a long way from Meridian to CBGB’s, but that’s where Forbert went in what has been a lifelong pursuit of writing, singing and performing. Nothing has slowed him down, and now with one of the best albums of his long and lively career, Forbert has every bit of his early enthusiasm and keenly-sharpened view of living in all its glory. The way he can invent characters that come alive in lyrics is a gift not every writer gets. Part of that surely comes from the imagination-driven American South, but it also comes from decades spent zeroing in on what makes a great song. MOVING THROUGH AMERICA allows all these invented and observed characters to come fully alive in songs like “Buffalo Nickel,” “Times Like These” and “Say Hello to Gainesville.” If there is such a thing as a modern troubadour, that would surely be Steve Forbert. His songs continue to grow, becoming more and more precise in just what the crazy contours of the human heart are capable of, and the way he can embrace the whole scope of love is surely one for the ages. For someone who became one of the candidates in the ill-fated “New Dylan” sweepstakes of the mid 1970s, Forbert stuck to his own fishing pole and rode out the ridiculousness to now inhabit his very own style. It’s been an incredible experience to hear unfold all these years, and the best thing of all is that it sounds brand new. Romeo still thrives.
Michael Goldberg, Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey. This is the rock & roll book to read this year. It is a thrilling, heart-breaking, mind-blowing, cautionary and in the end passionate tale of how a guitarist of infinite ability and absolutely addictive tendencies attains the highest success on the rock & roll merry-go-round, only to flame out in a desperate tale of heroin, homelessness and, in the end, suicidal escapades that killed him. Rock & roll can be the scariest game there is if the person isn’t wired for success. Failure is survivable, but for those not ready for it, success is the killer. Author Michael Goldberg knew guitarist James Wilsey back in his early days in San Francisco’s punk kings The Avengers. There were enough warning signs even then that Wilsey might not be ready for the long game. But once the musician got into Chris Isaak’s Silvertone band and the big time started knocking at their door, there were plenty of warning signs that something was about to blow but with the record sales and touring money pouring in, it was not in the cards for Wilsey to put on the brakes. Nor was anyone in their camp going to do it for him. There are times when the rock & roll boat isn’t going to get rocked. Goldberg captures all the lunacy of those years, and how it led to an end game where James Wilsey had to go. Michael Goldberg captures the whole story 360-degrees, almost like he was in the band back then. Wilsey’s unmistakable guitar heroics on Chris Issak’s massive hit “Wicked Game” will live forever. It’s the kind of sound that can never be forgotten for what it does in the song. Unfortunately, James Calvin Wilsey was outlived by his incredible guitar playing, losing a battle that in so many ways is almost impossible to win. This riveting book is the whole story of who, what, when, where and how. Nobody loves no one.
Beau Jennings & The Tigers, Heavy Light. Once in a while an artist makes a move to the front, and there is so much going in their favor it feels like something could finally happen. That’s true of Beau Jennings & The Tigers on HEAVY LIGHT. Jennings is a dirt-road rock & roller from Oklahoma who is also sophisticated beyond his years. He made the move to Brooklyn awhile back, and likely floats back and forth whenever the urge calls. He also is known for his recordings with Cheyenne, but it looks for now The Tigers are his full-time musical home. Either way, Jennings is someone to pay strong attention to. He sings with a tough devotion that is also laced with a massive sense of sensitivity, always a good combo plate, and he writes songs that live in a timeless zone of romantic overtones but also ride the electric rail of rock & roll. It’s not often these past few decades when an Oklahoman has stepped to the front of the musical line, but that might change with Jennings. “Sunflower,” “Juniper” and “Bring a Little Light” are the kind of songs that have a beauty and sense of purity about them that there is no way not to take them in. In some ways, they feel like orphans in the rain that need a human home, and it’s the duty of music lovers everywhere to offer one. In the modern world where it’s next to impossible to be noticed, it’s time for listeners to offer shelter from the storm of streaming and take a chance on something they haven’t heard before. The last song on the album, “May This Song Be In Your Heart,” is a classic in the making, the level of which is so high that if Tom Petty had written it and played it for his followers it would rise to the top of whatever lists are still being kept. It really is that good. Do not miss Beau Jennings & The Tigers’ new music. We need it in this world. Heavy light indeed.
Don Leady, Panther Pink. There are some guitarists who just won’t behave. Thank goodness. They swerve from lane to lane, sometimes switching bands and other times just shaking up a spot or two in the group they’ve got. It takes a ton of talent and a fervent imagination to keep the engine cranking at full power, and that’s exactly what Don Leady has been doing his whole life. First known as a foundation in the LeRoi Brothers, along with Steve Doerr, the group quickly climbed to a regal spot in the exploding Austin music omelet in the 1980s, and Leady hasn’t looked back since. It was then off to the Tail Gators for years, which also featured late Fabulous Thunderbirds’ bassist Keith Ferguson, and after that it’s been a full plate of playing and oscillating for Leady. The man does not have a neutral spot on his musical gear box, that’s for sure. The latest salvo from Leady’s guitar is titled PANTHER PINK, and full of inventive musical gyrations, kind of like if Brian Eno might have grown up in a bat cave in West Texas. Instrumentally, this is ambient-on-steroids, and seems perfect for a remake of “A Fistful of Dollars” set in Big Bend. There is a fusion of the high lonesome sound but fueled by a hot pink Fender Telecaster and maybe two Twin Reverb amps patched together. When all is said and strummed, it is a true fact that Don Leady is one incredibly possessed guitarist who hears things from a different cosmos and has always been able to ground himself in the earth and bring those noises down to street level, where he can run them through his rig and make music that is, fortunately, by no means normal but also a stone cold gas to grok. Turn it up.
Lyle Lovett, 12th of June. Texas singer-songwriter has covered the waterfront for forty years, and the beauty of his music is that he can never be pinned down to one approach. He came out of the Houston-Austin congregation in the early 1980s, with a considerable following thanks to a unique style and approach. Luckily for him, he dodged getting painted into any one corner, and from that earned freedom has been able to roam about vast landscapes of music, movies and a few other sidelines. He’s still roaming too, which is great for those who signed up for Team Lovett all those years. ago. 12TH OF JUNE is a potpourri kind of album, with several styles bumping up against each other, each and every one a thrill for those who want to hear what Lyle Lovett is up to now. There is a definite jazz tinge to a few of the opening songs–first done by people like Horace Silver, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and David Frishberg. Then it’s off into the wild Lyle wonder with six new originals that help reflect on Lovett’s new role as a father to twins born five years ago. There is a certain settling in some of these songs, supplying a gorgeous sense of permanence and gravity that brings both smiles and certainty to the singer-songwriter’s creations. From country to big band to the outer limits, and utilizing plays like drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Victor Krauss and the best string and horn players in Nashville, along with vocalist Francine Reed, this is such an enhancing album to all that Lovett has already done it has the feeling of taking him to yet another new phase of accomplishment. It’s been a never-ending ride for one of the truly original artists of the past four decades, and it is no small thing that it still feels like the man is still in the process of inventing himself. For someone who received a college degree with dual majors (German and Journalism), has always had a unique presentation with his music and has never looked back, the future is still full speed ahead. Don’t look back.
Delbert McClinton, Outdated Emotion. When it’s clearly time to roll up the rugs, push back the furniture, turn up the hi-fi and turn down the lights, there is a much better than average chance that one Delbert McClinton will get the nod for who supplies the soundtrack to a night of knocked-out night crawling. Just the sound of his voice alone is enough to stir the heebie jeebies inside anyone, and by the time he starts blowing his harmonica and leading a stellar band through enough sonic shenanigans to untwist a pretzel, it ain’t nothing but a party going on. McClinton’s new album, most likely about number 99 in a long pedigree of releases, is as super-fine as anything he’s ever done. This time out he pulls down a long enough roll-call of early rock & roll, rhythm & blues and country classics to please even the unpleasable. And by adding a few new originals, it seems like the mighty Texan is gearing up for another run for the roses. Even though Delbert McClinton has announced he’s hanging up his touring shoes, that doesn’t mean by a long shot he’s packing up the microphone. Or at least let’s hope not. This man has way too much soulful singing left in him, and if this new album is any indication, the sky is still the limit for where he can go. One listen to selections like “I Want a Little Girl,” “The Sun is Shining” and “Two Step Too” is enough to pray that we all live forever, because that’s how long it’s going to take to get enough Delbert McClinton. In the end, this is a voice for forever. Retirement not allowed.
Michael McDermott, St. Paul’s Boulevard. There is no doubting it’s a crazy mixed-up world. It often feels like every day has a new surprise of sadness. Which, of course, is when songs like Michael McDermott’s surely mean the most. The Chicagoan has been making music a long time, and like someone imbued with undeniable greatness, these new songs are so centered and flying for the bullseye that listening to them often feels like endless revelations are swirling about. New album-opener “Where the Light Gets In” is absolutely one for the ages, an affirmation of faith and fearlessness that can be something to hold onto for years to come. The whole album is really like this. Michael McDermott has traveled enough rough roads to know the difference between down and up, and as he struggles to stay on the path going forward what he reveals is that he is holding onto a strength that once gave him a chance at a new life. Literally. There is nothing now that is going to rob him of that, at least nothing he can perceive of, and as he lives through today’s struggles it sounds like a palpable passion that keeps him searching for signs of salvation. In the end, Michael McDermott has found a joyous noise to fuel his efforts, one that has the full-tilt support of an inspired collection of musicians and, somewhere, someone surely looking down on McDermott and letting him know he’s not alone. In the end, ST. PAUL’S BOULEVARD is as good as rock gets in 2022, and for that everyone should be thankful to Michael McDermott for offering a hand. We’re going to need it. Feel to heal.
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get On Board. In one of the more surprising wonders of this century, blues perennial Taj Mahal and his one-time bandmate from the mid-1960s Ry Cooder have made a new racket. And what a racket it is. They have returned to their primordial musical roots on songs by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and a few other left-field delights while they whittle the sound to the roots of America’s birthright musical treasures. In so many ways, there aren’t but a few others who could even conceive of making this sound, and the way Mahal and Cooder make it take flight from note one is such an eloquence of expression that the walls vibrate and, yes, the sun shines a bit brighter. In the end, the two-man assault team, along with Joachim Cooder on drums and bass, zero in on exactly what the blues is based on: inner power. This is a style that had all but disappeared from the modern landscape, but fortunately is now recast in a new flood of passion. There are no trickinations involved in the performance of such quiet devastation. The blues, or course, was put on the planet to get past the hard times and find a road, no matter how overgrown, to a place of light. Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder walked that road together over a half-century ago. Listen to the song “Deep Sea Diver” and know that, as Sun Records’ Sam Phillips once said, this is the sound “where the soul of man never dies.” Listen and live.
Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son. The blues never had a better friend than Charlie Musselwhite. Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis before heading off to Chicago, it was like the young man was predestined to be a blues guru. Musselwhite started singing and playing harmonica young, and has never looked back. MISSISSIPPI SON is a perfect example of the circle remaining unbroken, as the musician recently left his Northern California home and returned to live in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He knew the time was right, and now that he’s there Charlie Musselwhite has made the album of his life. MISSISSIPPI SON is mostly songs he’s written, with such a down home gait and soulful embrace that it’s almost downright eerie. Accompanying himself on guitar and harmonicas with a stripped-down rhythm section, the man zeroes in on songs that tell the story of his early life in the Delta. There is an aura around the songs that feels like Musselwhite is letting listeners in on some deep and sometimes dark secrets of his life, and how the music he loves so much completely took over who he was and what he does. His voice has an an ethereal feel, like he is channeling other spirits from the blues past to walk this road with him. It is an absolutely irresistible achievement, one this man has been moving towards for 60 years since he started recording. There won’t be anyone like Charlie Musselwhite again, so now is the time to take this journey with him. In the light.
Charlie Winton, The Soul and the Shadow. At the deepest core of rock & roll, the element of surprise reigns supreme. Listeners live for the moments when a new discovery is made, one out of left field and often arriving like a delivered promise. That is the music of Charlie Winton. Even though this is the musician’s sophomore release, it may as well have been his debut. Which is say nothing prepares a listener for just how deep and soulful and full of strength these nine songs are. They are a combination of the wonders of the late 1970s when rock & roll seemed to be reinventing itself just in the nick of time, but Winton never gets stuck looking back so there’s also an ultra-modern sharpness to all the songs. This is full-speed-ahead music, steady with a propulsion and promise not heard that often today. One part of this power comes from producer Scott Mathews, a man of endless depth and twisted vision who plays all the instruments on THE SOUL AND THE SHADOW except Winton’s acoustic guitar. Having that steady production hand on the knobs and ideas of songs like “True to You,” “Sad Song Singing” and “Autumn Leaves are Falling” means this is an album that could not only go the distance but will be around forever. Pop music in 2022 is anyone’s guess but like history has shown, predictions are often useless when it comes to the public’s picks. A great song is a great song is a great song. And, yes, there are plenty of great songs here. So remember this name: Charlie Winton. Accept no substitutes.
Zero, Naught Again. The urge to ease into the primal pudding that is the sound of the Grateful Dead is a long and unshakeable one. There is something about the cosmic edges to that San Francisco odyssey which allows the human psyche to live in a peaceful land. Zero is a Bay Area group that has a cosmic pedigree with so many of the Dead’s incarnations, and an ability to push the button on the psychedelic phaser in a way that few groups ever attain. But in a band including Vince Welnick, Martin Fierro, Nicky Hopkins, Pete Sears, John Kahn and other heavyweights, the release of this live double-album recorded at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1992 is a true occasion to bang the drum loudly. Add on the lyrics of Robert Hunter, and the whole event takes on a golden shimmer. There is no way to understand the undulation of songs like “Cole’s Law,” “Gregg’s Egg” and other all-timers without a decades-long simmering in the Haight-Ashbury stew of the early pioneers. This is the certified real deal, on equal with anything ever recorded in the shadow of 710 Ashbury Street. That it has appeared now since its origination 30 years ago is near miraculous and is a jubilation-inducing celebration on its own. Zero, on their second release from these nights onstage, have taken us to the promised land of improvisational rock & roll, thrown open the door to the next dimension and set their followers free. Chips cashed in.
Bentley’s Bandstand June 2022