Bentley’s Bandstand: September 2022
By Bill Bentley
Dave Alvin, New Highway: Selected Lyrics, Poems, Prose, Essays, Eulogies and Blues. At this point in his long and rollercoaster ride of a career, there’s not much that Downey, California’s favorite son hasn’t done. From a blues-soaked early education in Los Angeles clubs, forming the Blasters in the late 1970s and everything that has happened afterwards, Alvin is a true son of the American sound. What he also is one hell of a writer, which is glowingly collected in this book of, well, everything. The stretch of the stories and memories that flows through NEW HIGHWAY makes it seem like the reader is taking a trip to the sonic promised land. Alvin’s memories of visionaries, heroes, music, places and sometimes just riffing on what a crazy mixed-up world he’s living in come across as a gift of infinite proportion. This is one absolutely true friend of not only the working man, but every man–and woman. If ever there were someone to sit next to on a cross-country trip aboard a Greyhound bus it would be Mr. Alvin. He has a way of looking at life through glasses that show the knocked-out excitement of everything from the miraculous to the mundane, making it all into a gift wrapped in multi-colored bows. If Jack Kerouac had a son that he passed on his deepest humanity, it could be Dave Alvin. And while they don’t write the same, there is such a heart-deep appreciation of what it means to call this weary world a home that both men give you the feeling that whatever road each one has traveled was the one worth taking. Luckily Alvin has years ahead of him to keep a foot on the pedal, eyes on the road, ears to the heavens and a huge soul wandering wherever it may want to go. It’s all there for the sharing, and this Californian sounds like he has no intention of ever turning around. Turn it up.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Various Artists: A Tribute to John Anderson. It’s a true fact that tribute albums can be a considerably tricky business. For starters, there is usually no way the new recordings by different singers of an artist’s mighty repertoire can rise to the originals. How could they? Everyone usually remembers what the first recordings sounded like, having been tattooed on their brains from constant listening. Still, there are examples of a tribute collection really rising to the occasion of feeling revelatory, and this ode to country singer John Anderson is thankfully one of those times. Maybe that’s because these songs once recorded by the country music superstar really are unforgettable. Anderson first appeared in the second half of the ’70s with a sound that quickly dubbed his crew the New Traditionalists, and for good reason. They took the down home sound of country and stripped it of the glitzy style of countrypolitan that was threatening to take over. Anderson’s feel was something the other side of outlaw country, but always kept close to the earth. On SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLUE keepers like Brent Cobb, Jamey Johnson, Ashley McBryde, Sturgill Simpson and others dig deep into Anderson’s recorded catalogue (who wrote about half of his releases) and hit on almost all the gems with an unerring aim of greatness. And while the mega-hit “Swingin'” isn’t to be found here, almost everything else that made John Anderson such a huge superstar is. Produced by David Ferguson and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, every note heard is called for, without any extras. And that is real country music. Listening is believing.
Al Basile, Through with Cool. What are the odds that one of the finest trumpet players in the rhythm & blues world of the past 50 years also taught English, music and physics in a Rhode Island high school for 25 years before devoting himself to poetry and playing music full time in 2005. That person also happened to be the first trumpet player in the groundbreaking 1970s aggregation Roomful of Blues, a longtime partner with guitar whiz Duke Robillard and has recorded 19 albums of his own. Al Basile’s work ethic is pretty much beyond reproach. On THROUGH WITH COOL, the musician has made a real breakthrough, singing with full power and control and writing the kind of songs that will live forever. Sometimes in the circle of life things just come together, beyond explanation really, and everything gels into a brand new being. That’s where Basile is today, joined by horn players he’s been working with for several years and once again utlizing guitar ace Kid Andersen on the affair. Put all that together and this album starts to display a strength completely its own. Maybe it’s in Al Basile’s distinctive voice and the songs he writes, or the fiery abilities he brings to the cornet now, or maybe it’s just that as we all gain experience a powerful essence starts to imbue whatever is attempted. In the end, it’s probably all those things and more: the magical shimmer that lives at the center of great albums, a quality that can’t always be planned but is definitely recognized when it arrives at full force. Listen to a man who has learned his lessons well, paid his dues and now steps into the spotlight of full greatness. Al Basile might be through with cool, but he’s no stranger now to the pull of pure soul. Wear it out.
Laura Benitez and The Heartache, California Centuries. Oakland, California might not be the likeliest of places for one of the year’s most inspired country-based albums to be born, but that’s exactly where the riveting singer Laura Benitez and her band The Heartache’s new album originated. Though it’s Benitez and group’s third album, and her fourth, CALIFORNIA CENTURIES has such a long-range feeling of permanence about it that it begins to sound like a brand new start. Recorded right after the stultifying time of isolation of the pandemic years, Benitez sings like she is fighting for her life. And that is a very good place to start, because these are songs that lay it all on the line. It’s the sound of a world that has thrown down the gauntlet for survival, like there are no guarantees for the future and where humanity actually fits into the big scheme of things. But once The Heartache gathered in an Oakland studio with Benitez at the producer helm, life clicked back into gear and the group found a new power in how they performed. Soon enough it was like the years apart were seen as a challenge for those with the strength to stick together. Make no mistake: this is a formidable band, honed on the tough sounds of Bakersfield country titans like Merle Haggard and then taken a bit uptown to add another dimension. It’s exactly Laura Benitez’s force of spirit that fuels every note on the dozen new songs, like she is staring down the challenging efforts that were needed to continue on her lifelong musical quest. But like it is often proved, no one knows the faith they really have until it is needed to be used. In that manner, color this artist a person who has led a life of life-affirming decisions that brought her all the way to today. As fine as CALIFORNIA CENTURIES is, it also sounds like the new beginning for a journey that is just getting started. She’s the one.
The Chieftains, The Foxhunt: San Francisco 1973 & 1976. These two live recordings of Ireland’s shining light The Chieftains, recorded by Owsley Stanley aka The Bear of the Grateful Dead’s sonic explorations legend, are a full-on capture of what the Emerald Isle’s music heritage is at its best. In some ways, it sounds like an uptown bar fight of down home brilliance. Just the list of instruments alone is enough to generate reeling euphoria: uilleann pipes, tin whistles, Irish harp, dulcimer, timpan, oboe, flute, concertina, bodhrans and, of course, bones. Once the eight singers and players lay into a long list of Irish perennials the feeling of the nights start to gather propulsion until it seems like they will all fly into the air. There is truly nothing like a Chieftains’ concert. Adding on the engineering brilliance of Owsley Stanley is like the ultimate addition to guarantee takeoff. As the music builds and builds, and a overwhelming occurrence of impending glee spreads over the stages of the Boarding House and the Great American Music Hall in the City by the Bay, well, needless to say a reverberating sense of the historic begins to set in. There was never a band anointed with musical brilliance quite like The Chieftains, and of course there can never be again. Those times and musicians are no longer here, which makes releases like this double disc set feel all the more valuable. Listening to the audience respond to the emotionally wondrous sound that is being captured from the stage it all comes back into focus: the Market Street hustle, Owsley, LSD, the morning rays of sunlight in the Panhandle, the fog spread around the city, the sunsets at the beach, the Golden Gate keeping watch on the skyline, slow strollers in North Beach who have conquered time, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner in Vesuvio’s corner, City Lights bookstore where knowledge and history are on display for free, cable cars that clang the sound of perfection and a million other things that could only ever happen in San Francisco. All framed on such an amazing release, proving that the globe is actually a small place, and as everyone rolls around it in their own way and trajectory there are no problems that can’t be solved through the power of music like The Chieftains made on these nights in San Francisco during the 1970s. And a thousand others just like them. The luck continues.
Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Various Artists: Volume 1. There is absolutely nothing as cut-throat thrilling as a great Chicago blues band when it’s zeroing in on the killing floor in a nightclub in the Windy City. In the 1950s into the first part of the ’60s there was such an explosion of musical kingpins there it almost got taken for granted. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all the others painted the city a deep blue, and spread something so original and incomparable around the world music was never the same. They done tore that playhouse down. The first volume of a jaw-dropping three-disc set from Vanguard Records first released in 1966 showed the real nitty gritty of the sound that blues bands made who hadn’t really been discovered much beyond the Chicago city limits. Their music hit like a small neutron bomb. Junior Wells, J.B. Hutto and His Hawks and Otis Spann’s South Side Piano were so overwhelmingly real that there were no words to describe it. Instead, the blues had to course through a listener’s veins like an undiscovered elixir, mixing hope and happiness with despair and dejection. There were zero frills to all three bluesmen on this volume, and the power couldn’t have arrived at a better time. America was getting ready to be torn apart at the seams, with racial strife and economic devastation threatening to end everything the country had hoped to be. Somehow, some way the blues offered a way to see beyond the darkness as the songs became part of daily life and offered a way past the pain. It’s almost like a magic trick how the blues can lead listeners out of the quagmire and into the light. But that’s the way it’s always been, and still is today. Hearing songs now like “It Hurts Me Too,” “Please Help” and “Sometimes I Wonder” is to know the road ahead goes on forever, and that it holds a promise beyond the holy nothingness that sometimes threatens to end it all. Blues to use.
Shemekia Copeland, Done Come Too Far. Here is a woman who is fearless in her ability to wade into the thick of the blues crew and show them how the music can not only be made today, but more importantly what the songs can say. Shemekia Copeland feels the world of hurt that people are in now, and aims her high-velocity songs to address those woes. She goes deep into the real nitty gritty of America’s past, present and quite possibly future, while standing up to the absurdity of not only modern life, but the division of the American population. Copeland’s voice is tough as nails, expressing with bullseye velocity how she feels and what she might do about it. Add to that a band that has the muscle and the musicality to back up this soul master. On songs like “Pink Turns to Red,” “The Talk” and “Fell In Love with a Honky,” this woman lays it flat-out and doesn’t back down from anything. Then Copeland can turn around on “Barefoot in Heaven” and “The Dolls Are Sleeping” and adjust the lovelights low and bring on the deepest feelings on earth. The New Yorker has been making music her whole life, starting when she was still in grade school and going to shows near her Harlem home with her father, the bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. It gave the young woman a completely distinctive view of how the musical world worked, and Shemekia Copeland soon took it to town. On this new Alligator Records release, it sounds like she has planted herself on solid ground and is taking a stand like few others in her field. This is blues that’s meant to shake things up at the same time it soothes things down. Depending on the song on DONE COME TOO FAR, Shemekia Copeland can confront anything. Produced by Will Kimbrough in Nashville, it’s the album the blues woman was born to make, and comes not a moment too soon. The country, and even the world, needs someone like Shemekia Copeland to sing the truth, and show us a way forward where everyone can rise up. All together now.
Craig Finn, A Legacy of Rentals. Not many rockers have a background as a financial broker for American Express, but this native Minnesotan does. He also has a long history as a founding member of The Hold Steady, and a few other outfits from various locales. Once Craig Finn found himself living in New York after some years attending Boston College, he had decided to go for broke with music and the world has been all the better for it the past decade. A LEGACY OF RENTALS is the perfect example of an educated bohemian letting the rough side drag and perfecting a style of songs that are equal parts beatnik and beauty. The wonder of it all is that with a background like Finn’s there is bound to be a hyper sense of smartness to the songs, but never the onus that this is music made for college graduates only. It is truly a sound for everyone, a glorious shout of freedom to those relaxing on the rooftop and those riding the subway. This is a man of the people, someone who can veer into any lane of modern rock and sound at home. Sometimes those who are stone cold members of a band take off like unfettered birds when given their freedom on solo albums, which is exactly what this man has done. In the end, it is indescribable music that still can appeal to anyone with even a semi-open mind and ears. To say it is the secret surprise of 2022 is an understatement, because Finn’s album would be a knock-out punch on any occasion. Do not miss.
Tommy McLain, I Ran Down Every Dream. The chance that a singer-songwriter in their early ’80s, who also plays almost every instrument known to man, would make a timeless album that is not only one of the best of this year but stands at the mountaintop of excellence for any time is next to none. But that’s exactly what Louisiana legend Tommy McLain with producer CC Adcock have created on I RAN DOWN EVERY DREAM. Adcock is a total music fanatic from the Pelican State, and his reverence for McLain knows no bounds. There aren’t any singers in Louisiana or anywhere else, really, that can do what Tommy McLain does. From early years in Southern royalty bands like the Vel-Tones and the Boogie Kings on through years and years of fighting the good fight on local radio stations and nightclubs spread across the South, Tommy McLain kept on pushing when more mortal men would have hung up their microphone. But in 2022, with Adcock’s vision and help from other true believers like Elvis Costello, Augie Meyers, Van Dyke Parks and so many more, they recorded an album that exists in a time zone beyond just music. It captures the very essence of what it means to be a living, breathing human being who chases their dream to rainbow road and beyond. McLain’s voice defies nature, because it imparts such a spiritual essence of how life really feels that it is beyond description. In a way, it just is. These are songs that are about the human side of eternity, where whatever lies beyond here is something that must be taken with a promise that it will all be alright. Because, for now, McLain has grasped that the promise lives today, and he is going to make sure and use his voice to spread the joy of freedom that comes with knowing that in the end today is all we have, and really all we need. So from the opening song, “No Tomorrows Now” to the very end on “London Too” is a true blue testament to not only what it means to be alive, but even more what it means to dream. Don’t ever stop.
Dan Penn, Prodigal Son. There are songwriters who, right from their start, seemed to walk up the stairs two at a time and get to the first row of those creating songs that will last forever. Dan Penn is at the head of that line. He has such a overwhelming list of classics that probably won’t be equaled again that it’s almost like he’s a genre by himself. Those he writes with know better than anyone what the man is capable of, and always shine in those partnerships. On PRODIGAL SON, the Alabaman turned his musical talents to the Lord and let the clouds part in that glory. Frank Cannon co-wrote eight of these ten songs with Penn, and plays almost all of the instruments on the recording. The warm and inspiring album really does feel like a super-focused affair where the spirit side of life is leading the way, and lets Dan Penn’s voice find a perfect place front and center. And, really, what a voice it is. It’s like Penn has found a place on earth that allows him a direct connection to another world. It is unadorned, thank goodness, and addresses that part of life that goes on forever. Listening to Dan Penn sing these songs, obviously ones that mean the world–both in this one and the next– to him. is to hear a whole other realm of expression. “Out of the Blue” is an all-timer written with Carson Whitsett and Bucky Lindsey that sounds just like there is a bright light shining on it, while “In the Garden,” from the public domain, was recorded at fellow Southern song-spinner Donnie Fritts’ memorial service in Florence, Alabama (Muscle Shoals territory) on October 3, 2019. It closes PRODIGAL SON, a chillbumper of the highest order, and offers stone-cold proof that the circle remains unbroken and on some level somewhere we will all shine on. Say hallelujah somebody.
Song of the Month
Darryl Purpose, “A Place Where Everyone Sings.” When a song falls from the sky, resplendent in its character and depth, there is nothing to do but bow the head and say thank you. Here is how the deeply soulful singer Daryl Purpose describes where “A Place Where Everyone Sings” arrived to him: “I was a 23-year old professional blackjack player when Mark Josephs played this song for me on the Atlantic City boardwalk. I handed him $2000 cash to make a recording and we were close friends until his death in 2018. I owe my guitar playing right hand to him.” Now that is a tale of belief. Purpose himself is a formidable songwriter on his own. Still, there is something about Mark Josephs’ song that feels beyond this world, like it is filled with a feeling of finality. There are probably thousands of singer-songwriters wandering the United States with songs like this, but the chance to meet someone like Daryl Purpose who will actually pay for a recording session are long odds beyond belief. Sometimes good luck jumps in at the unlikeliest of places, and a small slice of otherworldiness comes alive. And maybe that really is a place where everyone sings. Mark Josephs lives.
Bentley’s Bandstand: September 2022