Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2022
By Bill Bentley
Bhi Bhiman, I’ll Sleep When I’m Famous. “We might be helpless but we’ve got an open heart…” Those are the words that start this musical provocateur’s totally fascinating new album. Though Bhi Bhiman is originally from St. Louis, he really does sound like a captain of the entire universe. His songs feel like they come from a new space, one that honors all styles and judges none. There are moments that are so overwhelming on I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M FAMOUS that the molecules which surround us all seem like they are dancing in unison. And those molecules have a secret plan to make sure humanity finally turns the corner toward wholeness and gets in line with the great thinkers of past centuries and starts to behave. Because Bhi Bhiman has no time for foolishness. He’s got things to do, and beliefs to share. Maybe not unlike if Brian Wilson came from an island far away in the Pacific, free from distractions and left alone to compose at will. Like if the Beach Boys became the Reach Boys, because without doubt Bhiman is reaching for something just beyond the grasp of normal humans. It’s a sense of being that belongs to the chosen few, and the way the man uses music to express his endeavors is quite unique. If a song like “Who Knows” floats into a nearby atmosphere, there’s a good chance the inner signals will start flashing and it will become necessary to reject all other electronics and sit down for an irresistible revelation. It’s not that far from Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” to “Who Knows.” Just a few cultural revolutions here and there. The final point is that as people of the planet we are all on a march into the unknown, and God isn’t talking. It is up to seers and songwriters to help mark the way and maybe find a path which will take us to safety and sanity. Bhi Bhiman might.
The Dip, Sticking With It. It’s easy to flip for The Dip. They are from Seattle, and couldn’t be farther away from grunge than if the Pope was touring with Guns ‘N Roses as an opening act. That’s because this popping septet sounds like they were cured in a Memphis barbecue shed right next to the original microphones from Stax Records. Even better, The Dip doesn’t sound like a Beale Street bar band but rather they throw a whole slab of originality into their sound. There is plenty of beat and bounce in all the songs, but there’s also melodic inspiration, an inner sweetness that sits right below the surface and, best of all, a youthful originality to the way The Dip can go to the upbeat, the downbeat and every beat in-between. The band has been around for awhile, but STICKING WITH IT is their first album with the super-fine Dualtone Records, who know a winner when they hear one. And then there’s a lead singer who sounds like he’s believed every single lyric he’s ever sung, and is named Tom Eddy to boot. There has always been something strong about people who have two first names, something that points to possible greatness. Naturally, the aggregation uses Muscle Shoal’s F.A.M.E. Studio Orchestra when needed, and captures the ethos in that small Alabama town so fully that surely Arthur Alexander and Eddie Hinton are smiling down from above on the outfit. In a time when soul music is starting to feel like it did in the 1960s–a panacea for all that ails the nation–it might just be the right time to turn the southbound sound up and give this music another shot. Dip it good.
Richie Furay, In the Country. There are those albums when they appear it is instantly clear the artist has been waiting their whole life to record it. There is something so settled and also so exciting in the songs they appear with a whole new glow about them, like they are meant for these times. That’s what Richie Furay has done on IN THE COUNTRY. For someone who started listening to country music on the radio as a youngster in Ohio, Furay zeroed in on the singers and the songs right away. He heard in that sound something that went deep in him, even though he hadn’t grown up yet. it was the realness of it all. By the time Furay found himself in California in the mid-1960s and forming Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin, the way they used those country influences in such a free-spirited rock band would create a whole new style of rock & roll, one that still reverberates today in new voices not even born then. For Richie Furay’s tingling new album, he mined the country catalogue of singers stretching from Rick Nelson and John Denver to Garth Brooks and Keith Urban. And the whole release feels like an incredible surprise. There is something so fresh, strong and downright gorgeous to it all that on many levels it approaches a career high for someone who has been at the very top of his achievements since Buffalo Springfield and then Poco. Maybe that’s because this music feels like something Furay was born to do. There is a wholeness to the dozen songs that is irrefutable, and then with the man’s vocals the recordings sound nothing less than stunning. Track by track, over and over, a human soul is shared in the way that all the greatest records do, and gives hope that people like Richie Furay will be here forever. Hallelujah to that.
James Holvay, This Girl. Somewhere Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler are smiling. Those two Chicago giants, who first worked together in The Impressions, helped create a style of soul music in the 1960s that was both sweet and devastating. The vocals could ride the high road while the lyrics pummeled the body with gut punches about what needed to happen in American society that would make life more livable for minorities. Not to mention the lovesick who were having a hard time just coping. James Holvay, once dubbed Jimmy Soul for the musical love of his life, had a Chicago crew then called The Mob that made strong inroads into the local scene, and was said to have righteously inspired another local group called, yes, Chicago. And of course, James Holvay also wrote another Chicago stalwart band called The Buckinghams’ major classic “Kind of a Drag” and three other Top-20 hits for the group. Put all together, that’s some serious cred for one person. One of the semi-miraculous aspects of Holvay’s story is just how incredible his new recordings are–again. Songs like “Hot N’ Heavy Love” and “She’s Gone Away” roll into the modern world like life preservers. They are overflowing with the ebullient groove of Mayfield and company, even when they’re laying open a broken heart. That’s not an easy trick to pull off. The way James Holvay does it is with such a deep-seated love for classic soul music it’s impossible for him to impart anything but passion. It’s like that is the man’s calling card, and it runs through everything he touches. For all those who are still waiting for the reincarnation of Mayfield, Butler, Major “Um Um Um Um Um Um ” Lance, Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler or other Windy City soul royalty, this is new music that hits the monkey nerve while it also offers assistance for filling what’s missing in 2022. Today and forever.
Howell Devine, Strange Time Blues. Listening to the blues regenerate for, well, a century really is undoubtedly a road for the well-rested. Because just when it seems like all the permutations have been heard and it might be time to hang it up, a trio like Howell Devine shows that in reality the road is endless and there’s no need to worry about finality. That’s not in the cards. First the facts: The Howell Devine band is Joshua Howell on vocals, harmonica and strings; Pete Devine on drums, washboard and (why not?) porcelain whiskey jug; Joe Kyle, Jr. on upright bass. The trio kicked around the mountain of blues songs residing on Planet Earth and came up a fascinating list of classics, and then added a few of their own originals. Mission accomplished too, because something like their “Strange Time Meltdown” sits just right next to Blind Boy Fuller’s “Untrue Blues.” Howell’s voice is one that needs no changing. He reaches down where one’s emotions are in constant turbulation looking for a semblance of serenity, and finds a sound which can express the opposites like they were meant to co-exist. That’s called life, and as we all continue to spiral towards what’s ahead, the blues is as good a companion as could be imagined. Together over a decade, Howell Devine has made four previous albums and on this new one sounds like they’ve discovered a brand new land of accomplishment, a place where this blues is all their own. The trio is able to embrace the strange times that have come before, arrived again and will surely be back for another visit sometime in the world’s future. That’s the gig for humanity, and there is no getting out of it. The good news is that for right now, in these strange times, Howell Devine is here to help. Blues or lose.
The Phantom Blues Band, Blues for Breakfast. There are some styles of American music that are getting harder and harder to find, at least being played by those that know the sound backward and forward and can march right into the guts of it and come out shining like the sun. Maybe that’s because the musicians now who really learned how to play it at full delivery were most likely taught by the very people who invented it. And when it’s soul music that’s being discussed, well, the list is getting slimmer for people capable of delivering the real deal. Which is where The Phantom Blues Band enters the picture. Even though it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them a blues band, no matter. The group started their history performing with Taj Mahal in the early 1990s, and have been growing steadily ever since. Today on the bandstand are Larry Fulcher (bass and vocals), Tony Braunagel (drums and percussion), Johnny Lee Schell (guitar and vocals), Joe Sublett (saxophone), Les Lovitt (trumpet) and Jim Pugh (piano and organ), and a setlist featuring songs by everyone from Sam & Dave to Sam Cooke, which only means these six players know exactly what they’re doing. Others they’ve performed with include Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and a full backstage of others. Which brings up special guests now: Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Salgado, Ruthie Foster, Tony Chin, Beth Styne and Kelly Finnigan. BLUES FOR BREAKFAST is likely a breakout album for the Phantoms, because it is so filled to the brim with pure musical spirit, no matter where it’s drawn from things catch afire. And, fortunately, the album also includes their late integral member, keyboardist Mike Finnigan on a burning take of Tower of Power’s “OK, I Admit It.” Put it all into one piece and this is absolutely an album for the ages. Every single track on it has a purity of purpose and power that puts the release into a class of its own, one where an influential bedrock of American music comes completely alive in a way which isn’t heard every day. It often feels so uplifting it’s hard not to stand on the street corner and deliver the news: R&B is here, and best to get it while you can. Clock is ticking.
Grant-Lee Phillips, All That You Can Dream. There are some artists that are absolutely incapable of being anything but totally themselves. The music they write and play comes from a place beyond explanation. It’s almost like they have no influences, except those that are invisible and heard only by the artist. These are the people that live outside the lines, and lucky for listeners they stick to their scruples and don’t worry about the rest. Grant-Lee Phillips, of course, was once the leader of Grant Lee Buffalo, which was a stunning group that was named, almost, for the singer-songwriter. Except Phillips probably knew that it was just enough outside his own total creation that he needed to put in a caveat with the third name. Hence Buffalo. And being part Native American, Grant-Lee Phillips probably dug the allusion to the great years of the American frontier. Through that band’s celebrated history, the trio fashioned a path that dips in and out of different sounds, but always gives allegiance to an ability to factor the ethereal vibration into everything. For music so based in folk, the musician has an uncanny ability to veer straight into the spirit world at will. It can be an adventurous excursion to keep up with the music, but of course that doesn’t stop anyone. Put Phillips on a mission to the moon, and he’d have his acolytes right there with him. Which is all to say that the world is a much better place with someone like Grant-Lee Phillips being able to write new songs, record them when he is good and ready, and as the stars call him to take to the road and wander onto club stages as he wishes. ALL THAT YOU CAN DREAM is one of the very best releases of a stellar career, and even sounds like a song collection which could be a permanent standout. Supported superbly by drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer, along with several other players on a few tracks, this is an heroic sound from the inner zone, and one not to be missed. And, of course, cover and portrait paintings are done by the man himself: Grant-Lee Phillips.
Mavis Staples/Levon Helm, Carry Me Home. There is no way to do anything but stand in awe of Mavis Staples. She has been singing since she was a child with her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, named after the Sears & Roebuck catalog his family used to see in Mississippi, and several sisters and a brother. The Staple Singers were an American treasure from day one, way beyond the record charts and churches and concert halls they appeared in. The family was a living monument to what America is capable of, and they stayed that way as long as they lived. Now that Mavis Staples is the last one standing, she doesn’t flinch from her position. She continues singing and touring without favor, knowing she is upholding what her father started all those years ago. This 2011 live recording from Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock he lovingly named the Barn, is like a time journey into the past and future. That’s because the best gospel music is always timeless, as these songs surely are. And whether the selections are written by Pops Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Buddy and Julie Miller, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson or others, each and every one is done with 100% feeling, like the sound is being born somewhere in the center of Earth. Each is made of sorrow and joy in a way that only the greatest singers can get to, no matter how old they are and what condition their voice is in. Hope is where the heart is, and the way Mavis Staples continually finds it, as does Helm as he struggles with cancer here, is a testament to what the human spirit is capable of when fueled by belief and strength. And as fine as this album is, which it is, maybe even more this is a living example of what the absolute power of music can do. And that is to give those who make it a reason to live in the light of the spirit, and never waver as long as the road goes on. A song like “Wide River to Cross” is enough to impart the hope needed to last another day, another week, another month, another year. Mavis Staples will not live forever, but be assured she will be with us that long and so much more. With Levon Helm.
Various Artists, Wayne Bennett In Session: 1950-1961. There are certain guitarists who acquired their own space to exist in through long careers working with a wide variety of artists. Wayne Bennett is at the top of that tier. Born in Oklahoma in 1931, it was like he was destined for a life equaled by few. Bennett started playing with Amos Milburn’s band and soon found himself in a recording session with the early rhythm & blues innovator in 1950. From there started a wildly-swinging ride on the music trail, in and out of bands and recording studios until Wayne Bennett ended up on the road with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s primo orchestra. Led by bandleader Joe Scott, this was as good as it got starting in the late ’50s, and the guitarist took every advantage in being in one of the most lauded groups ever. His early years during the 1950s when he was working with people like Johnny Watson, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Betty Everett, Junior Parker and others came in handy. Wayne Bennett’s playing in the Bobby Bland band is still spoken about in hushed terms that have never been equaled. Not really. His ability to inject the freedom of the heart into blues songs opened up those Duke Records albums Bland did in the 1960s with such a wide-open feeling of freedom that it felt like a new day was dawning for not only big band R&B, but a super sonic strain of sounds leading right into the creation of soul music’s earliest shining moments. By the time everything hit the mother lode on Duke Records with songs like “Turn On Your Lovelight,” “Your Friends,” “Call on Me,” “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” and so many more in the Bobby Bland canon, well, Wayne Bennett’s reputation was golden for good. The last song on this knocked-out collection of grandness is “Stormy Monday Blues,” a signature song first done by T-Bone Walker that Bobby Bland recorded in 1961. It feels like the American dream being painted in the sky by Picasso. When Wayne Bennett’s guitar parts define the recording right from the start, it seems like a prima ballerina has taken over a subway station to show the world what the meaning of life really is. In so many ways, there is nothing quite as moving as listening to Wayne Bennett float in and out of Bland’s vocals as if to show how life really works. And then when the guitarist steps in front of the band and starts to solo, the impossible is clearly happening right before our ears. Perfection never felt so assured, and as Bobby “Blue” Bland continues to push his vocal to its climax at the end, Bennett opens the door and lovingly shows him through. It is a soul-shuddering moment that in some ways has never been equaled on wax, and for that and so very much more Mr. Bennett’s always sweet smile onstage will live on forever. Wayne’s world indeed.
Ben Vaughn, The World of Ben Vaughn. Never underestimate the ability of an artist to create their own world. Through a thoughtful marriage of technology and inspiration someone like Ben Vaughn can record all the musical parts on an album that he also wrote and sings, especially when he started as a drummer. Once that most crucial element is solid, all the rest of the instruments can flow. For someone like this man, his career has been such a curlycue that everything seems possible. Vaughn’s first album appeared in 1986, and there have been many since. There’s also been a highly cool radio show that knows no boundaries, soundtracks for television shows like “Third Rock from the Sun,” movies, production gigs for Arthur Alexander, Nancy Sinatra and more, and anything else that makes sense for such an individualist. But like the title of his new album says, these new songs really do feel like a definition of Ben Vaughn’s world. Their country-styled underpinnings aren’t so strict that other areas can’t be explored, and with an assured ability to make every instrumental track dovetail perfectly with the overall groove, this is music for everyone. It almost feels like Mr. Vaughn endlessly glides through the American night with his inner antenna tuned into the full scope of the country’s persona. And, of course, there is a slightly skewed outlook of life in 2022, one that lets him combine simplicity with perfect composure. Another high achievement is one of the only songs to ever take a value stance on Sixties British rocker Wayne Fontana. The attitude shall remain a secret for now, so a surprise isn’t spoiled of where Ben Vaughan comes down on this most important question. At the end of the long road, Ben Vaughn is clearly a continuing contestant in the King of Cool contest, and if he keeps making albums like this it’s a very good chance he could end up in the winner’s circle. Vaughn’s songs rule.
Reissue of the Month:
The Rolling Stones, 7″ Singles: 1963-1966. For the longtime Rolling Stones fan, like those who first saw them on The Hollywood Palace television show in June 1964 when host Dean Martin insulted them twice, this box of 18 singles remade to be exactly like the original versions seems like a festival of jubilation. Because, really, original fans hung on the band’s every note those first three years. Once they got past their DECEMBER’S CHILDREN album, and even that one was a bit shaky, it seemed like the band had lost the map a bit. It wasn’t until 1968’s BEGGAR’S BANQUET release when they really found it again. Still, that was just for a few albums before the plot weakened once more. For all intents, then, these recordings are the motherlode of what really made the Stones the Stones. The very first single features an amped-up version of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” just to knock down the door and introduce themselves. And from there, every 45 rpm disc is off to the races at full tilt, whether it’s the early cover of a John Lennon-Paul McCartney original titled “I Wanna Be Your Man” right up until the last small disc of The Rolling Stones’ wing-dinger “19th Nervous Breakdown.” And what a heart shaking/soul making thrillathon it all is. What this band really did best is translate the indisputable power of black music into a sound and visual that white listeners could worship. It was like the Stones slipped Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf onto their bandstand and before anyone knew what hit them those two Chicago titans’ were ruling the roost, even though the new worshippers had no idea who they were. It happened over and over, with original recordings by artists like Arthur Alexander, Big Jay McShann, Irma Thomas, O.V. Wright, Solomon Burke, Barrett Strong, The Valentinos, The Coasters, Otis Redding and more being covered and covered right. The band even threw in a version of country titan Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” just to show their scope, and made it burn. All along the way in those years these English heroes grew their own songwriting exponentially until they too were on the top of the mountain for creating original songs. It was a wondrous transformation unlike any other in rock & roll history. The Rolling Stones are bumping up on their 60-year anniversary in the recording studio and to hear what totally inspirational divinations of American music they created right from the start is nothing short of breathtaking. It is the kind of achievement that can only happen once in history, and it’s all in the grooves of these gorgeous replicas. Call 7″ SINGLES: 1963-1968 the little box that could, and say some words of gratitude that it did. Because if it hadn’t, well, everyone might be dancing the Freddie right about now, and no one would have ever heard the life-changing velocity of either Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. And that, as they say on the Hit Parade, would have been a crying shame. Charlie Watts lives.
Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2022