Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2022
By Bill Bentley
Rory Block, Ain’t Nobody Worried. It’s become obvious that during the pandemic years a lot of musicians had a chance to slow down and figure out what it really is that makes their mojo work. For blues woman Rory Block, it’s the great songs of the ages, and she figured out that recording them now was a way to connect with eternity. She went through the songbook in her mind and picked out ten tracks either written or best-known recorded by female artists to spotlight, along with her own “Lovin’ Whiskey” original. The way everything comes together feels like a total love fest of everything that makes blues and soul music such a crowning achievement of American art. So whether it’s heroes like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mary Wells, Tracy Chapman, Koko Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Martha Reeves, or Carole King being celebrated, AIN’T NOBODY WORRIED arrives like a box of firecrackers that immediately kick the insides into high gear in a way that only songs like this can really do. In so many ways, every song is a highlight, whether it’s the stunning “Fast Car” or early classic “Freight Train.” Everything is played with total sonic finesse, and shows that sometimes the most direct highway to the heart is a matter of degrees, all aimed at a quiet revelation of reality. Rory Block has been on the blues trail for decades, and once again sounds like she is still discovering the endless beauty of it all. Freedom for all.
Dr. John, Things Happen That Way. First things first: there is no more unique an artist in the history of American music than Dr. John. Think about it: it’s not like there are any others who can get close to filling his place at the piano stool and create an entire universe based on the sounds he pulls out of the sky. Now that the man has moved to the other side it is like there is a huge hole in the world where Dr. John used to luxuriate in the music he wove together all these years. THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY is the album version of a second line parade, the one that happens on the streets of New Orleans after the body has been buried in the cemetery and the marching street bands kick into high-stepping gear parading back to the neighborhood. These ten songs throw a glow on all that Dr. John stood for, which is music that appeals to the higher consciousness of the human soul, the one that has no physical boundaries and is able to live on forever. Even with the country music overtones of many of these songs, Dr. John takes it far beyond whatever boundaries there could have been and gets to that place where everything is everything. It’s what the man did for his entire life, back to the earliest days as a teenager playing guitar at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio in the Crescent City in the 1950s. The entire panorama of all that this man was is offered here, whether it’s dueting with Willie Nelson and Aaron Neville, or performing ” Walk on Guilded Splinters” from his stupefying 1968 debut album GRIS-GRIS now with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. That’s what is called really making sure the circle remains unbroken. Throughout these ten songs is the earthly essence of what Dr. John accomplished on his unequaled musical journey. It now stands before us in an overwhelming cascade of joy. After it all, of course, is the uncontested fact that there is no way the music of Malcolm “Dr. John” Rebbenack will ever leave the world. It’s right here, next to everyone, whispering in our ears that the good doctor is in the house, and has no intention of ever departing. Yeah you right.
Joe Ely, Flatland Lullaby. If anyone is going to release a semi-children’s album recorded almost 40 years ago when the Ely’s daughter was born in 1984, of course it would have to be this Texas troubadour who has been a constant disrupter of musical convention. The man from Lubbock has never been one to follow a straight line to anywhere, and sure isn’t going to start now. When Ely started making music as a young man he quickly saw that the most important thing was to never be afraid to try anything that caught his imagination, and it’s been that way ever since. Which included back then a trip to Europe with the University of Texas theater troupe in the 1970s in a production of “Stomp (And Now the Revolution).” Ely met electronic music experimenter Eberhand Schoener on that trip to Munich and learned what the future of sounds could be. Applying that to various songs and snippets that would end up on FLATLAND LULLABY was a natural progression, mixing ascoustic guitars with synthesizers. It had all begun, becoming a work in progress for a decade. By the time the not-official album was finished and being handed out to friends and fellow parents it had become a small legend of its own. What is truly amazing about the whole endeavor is how winning and wonderful all the songs are. In a way, it’s music that appeals to the child in all of us, aided with a musicians roll call that feels like a Who’s Who of Texas music. Like so many things that become more panoramic with completion, FLATLAND LULLABY sounds like it has a imagination all its own, one that wanders at will over all kinds of musical landscapes and is never shy about going down roads not traveled before–at least not by this bouncing bunch of Lone Star staters. Naturally, there is also an idea of using the album as a springboard for an animated film. Deep in the heart of Texas the brains are fizzing with thoughts a-whizzin’ into just what that future can be. Once again, it can be anything in the mind of Joe Ely that he wants it to be. Don’t forget, this is someone who once came up with a musical genre called dig-a-billy in the early 1980s when the digital world was just being born. Never say never.
Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal, Green Light. When it is time to boogaloo, shingaling, do the Philly Dog and the Funky Penguin, there is no other outfit to start that fire burning better than Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal. They can take on soul music on its terms, and then amp up the originality factor and make it sound all their own. Hoyer’s amazing voice captures the entire gamut of emtions–from delirious happiness to abject sorrow–like it is something he was put on this earth to do. Earning his early stripes in the legendary Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska is about as good as place as any to find out if you’ve got the grit and guts to go for it. And Hoyer did. After working with Lincoln legends like Little Jimmy Valentine, Magic Slim and Sean Benjamin, Josh Hoyer formed Soul Colossal ten years ago, determined to take what he knew he had inside him and lay it out for everyone to hear. And in that decade he’s toured and recorded enough for several lifetimes, but arriving at GREEN LIGHT sure sounds like he made it to the top of the mountain. With overwhelming songs like “Evolution” and “Mirrors” to spread the long-coming arrival of a new master of soul, it seems like only a matter of time before America and then the world will discover someone who has been in their midst awhile, but are ready to blast through the green lights like a soul train hitting the express lane. Best of all, Josh Hoyer sounds like someone who is happily willing to supply the sounds for happy feet to work out on the dance floor, but at the same has bigger thoughts on his mind, the kind that want to connect the world together so there is not only hope for the future, but a vision for how everyone can move on up together. Hoyer is a singer scaling his own mountain of soul, who wrote all the songs himself and now isn’t shy about taking his fervid followers with him. Colossal is right.
Grateful Dead, Dave’s Picks Volume 43. Four times every year the Grateful Dead archive’s braintrust releases several collections of music the band made over their 30 years together. It is always a fluttering affair, because the San Francisco vets rarely if ever played a poor show. Some may have soared more than others, but in the inevitable experimentation the Dead excelled at there was always the celebratory highlights of being a group of musicians who never quit going for the sonic glory they knew existed within them. It was like an endless quest to crack open the clouds and take a trip to that place beyond the ordinary. This 1969 set, recorded at the Family Dog at the Great Highway in San Francisco and McFarlin Hall in Dallas is the perfect yin and yang of what could be accomplished. There were songs that had become staples in the set list along with more recent originals that showed where the then seven-member band was aiming their artillery. And that was square-on at the land of musical experimentation that no other rock bands had tried to go before. It was as if the Grateful Dead had borrowed a worker’s manual from jazz titans like the John Coltrane and Charles Mingus combos, studied it well and then turned it around enough so electric guitars and soulful vocals could take rock to that place it had never been. In so many ways 1969 was the year the Grateful Dead pushed it as far as it could go before the wings started to shake and feel like they might be falling off the plane. But what a year it was. After, 1970 became a time to settle down a bit with albums like WORKINGMAN’S DEAD and AMERICAN BEAUTY, and save the mind-blowing excursions of songs like “Dark Star,” “Saint Stephen” and “The Eleven” for those special moments when flat-out psychic flailings were called for. In the end, all these live shows prove without doubt one thing that the band was definitely right about: there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Turn it up.
Herman Hitson, Let the Gods Sing. Just when it seemed like every errant music artist had been spoken and accounted for, here comes Herman Hitson with an album about as surprising as it can get. The man is a psych-rock and funk music pioneer, a Jimi Hendrix collaborator way back in the day, a chitlin club veteran who played with just about everyone in the 1960s and, naturally, a recovering heroin addict. Of course. Hitson has a way of weaving some of the most down home sounds on the planet into an interstellar attack on the solar plexus, and does it with total groove and righteous moves. Co-producers Bruce Watson and Will Sexton fell into this musical briar patch with their ears wide open and have helped Hitson fashion an album so individualistic it’s not surprising to have one of the songs titled “Feast of Ants.” Why not? With grooves this willing there is no way to miss. Throw in a wah wah pedal to make sure everything stays tightened up just right, and there is zero chance anything like this will be arriving in the foreseeable future. Herman Hitson joins together some rewired versions of his older staples like “Ain’t No Other Way,” “Bad Girl” and “Suspicious,” which was once mistakenly credited to Jimi Hendrix as songwriter, with newer soon-to-be-sensations that have a can’t-miss whiff to them for about as elaborate a ride on the soul train as can be imagined. The world of modern music thrives on rediscoveries like this, taking listeners to a modern place with a musical tour guide who has been there and done that with such savvy elan that the knees boggle. In a roll call of players who have been former inmates at America’s prime penal institutions, put Herman Hitson on the hit list–preferably somewhere near the top. It sounds now like the man is going all the way to the top … again. The guitar whisperer.
Ming C. Lowe, Mississippi Blacktop: Long Road to the Blues. This book of photographs and text is unlike anything that has ever been attempted. In so many ways, it is like a long letter home from a friend that hasn’t been met yet. Ming C. Lowe was traveling across America in her van and decided to take that Southern trip down to Mississippi and see what she could see. And what that was is an overwhelming outpouring of unforgettable musicians, unequaled people, and soul-stirring buildings and places. It is truly a massive immersion in a life that only came once in this country’s history and won’t be back again. But the way Lowe captured it all in 2005 with her breathtaking black & white photographs and later her 2019 written recollections of everything she saw and all those she met is like an once-in-a-lifetime history of what makes a place like Mississippi so stunningly unique. The blues people and regular citizens that called Clarksdale and that area home seem now like heroes of another world, and to meet them on such visually intimate terms is a gift of the highest order. Lowe’s writing is a treasure from someone who was brand new to the area but clearly had a direct line into the things she was discovering. It allowed everywhere she went to become a journey to a place of spiritual discovery on every level possible. There won’t be another book like MISSISSIPPI BLACKTOP. Too much has been lost and isn’t coming back. But for those who want to really see and feel one of the richest grounds of American majesty, start on the road offered right here. Available at http://www.mingclowe.com. Don’t look back.
Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, More Different Voices. Now for something completely different. Like really completely different. Try crossing classical music with the blues, now tagged chamber blues, throw in a certified Cantor singing “Hine Ma Tov Blues” and filling up an entire album with the kind of genre-crossing greatness that doesn’t happen much any more, and that’s a small instance of the downright mind-blowing mightiness of Corky Siegel’s latest extravaganza. This man just won’t stand still. First known as the harmonica half of Chicago’s celebrated Siegel-Schwall Blues Band of the 1960s, Corky Siegel lit off for new territory in the 1970s and has never looked back. His new release crosses all kinds of ear-expanding boundaries, ones that can’t really be described in words. They must be heard. He’s corralled a wide range of like-minded souls for the latest opus, including singers Lynne Jordan, Toronzo Cannon, Marcella Detroit, Frank Orrall, Tracy Nelson and Cantor Pavel Roytman, along with a bevy of string players, jazz saxophone giant Ernie Watts. And that’s just for starters. As the ten songs unfold there is an air of expectancy that is thrilling in how it pulls back the curtain of sound with such sheer humanity. By the end, on the bonus track “Penguins in the Opera House,” there isn’t much else to say except “Wow!” And then “More!”
The Skippy White Story, Boston Soul 1961-1967. Two of the infamous record stores from the grand old days of such places were Skippy White’s spots in Boston. Collectors and regular consumers from near and far went there to find the sounds that saved their souls. It was a time when every week something new would be released and hit the monkey nerve right on the sweet spot and make the world seem like the wondrous place it could sometimes be. These 15 songs are in honor of that era of American greatness, and range from Sammy and the Del-Lards to the gospel glory of The Lord’s Messenger. The collection is lovingly produced by Eli Paperboy Reed, co-produced by Noah Schaffer and executive produced by Joe “Mr. C.” McEwen. With opening liner notes by the J. Geils Bands’ frontman Peter Wolf and award-winning writer Peter Guralnick, the whole set feels like it has a golden heart looking over it. Every song fits hand-in-glove with what soul music was capable of back in the day, and at least half of the tracks arrive as unheard surprises from deep in the well. Hopefully there will always be small stores that are run by maniacs who can’t live without their own particular style of music and put their total selves into making a space for what turns their gears the strongest. Music really is what makes the world go ’round, and whether it was Skippy White’s obsession played out in his Boston stores or whatever is lurking down the street in American burgs right now, it all comes down to the same thing: find the groove and go for it. Every one of the examples on THE SKIPPY WHITE STORY is a testament to America’s finest. Do not miss.
ZZ Top, Raw. Subtitled “THAT LITTLE OL’ BAND FROM TEXAS” ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK, this is the 50-years running lineup of one of the most iconic rock & roll bands in history. Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard played their first show in February 1970, after the pair of original players had left Gibbons’ group. Hill, who passed away last year, Beard and Gibbons started their half-century ride a little less than auspiciously, playing a Knights of Columbus hall outside of Houston to a total of one person in the audience. It’s said the band bought the person Cokes to keep him there. Now, five decades later the band invaded Gruene Hall in New Braunfels to film a private concert for the fast-paced documentary “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.” The trio crashed into a dozen of their most famous songs with the power of a chopped-and-channeled ’32 Ford Coupe. Opener “Brown Sugar” never had more soul-splittin’ pizazz than this new version, leaving nothing to the imagination that the Houston aggregation knows where their biscuits are buttered. And while the sonics are deep-fried and Gibbons’ voice has wandered down an octave or two, the inert power in the Tops’ backseat boogie is cranked to full tilt. From there the threesome zooms from high-octane favorites like “Heard It on the X,” “Tush,” “La Grange” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” right through to “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and the blues-me-or-lose-me opus “Certified Blues.” Even without an audience to push them on, unless that first fan from the 1970 show snuck his way in, ZZ Top didn’t leave anything in the tank as they went for broke in front of the film cameras. Of course they had no idea this would be one of Dusty Hill’s last shows with his Tejano hermanos, but in so many ways the music feels like ZZ Top have been called from the Boogie Man from above to give it their all and then some so there can never be any doubt they were made of hard steel and hot chiles. By the end of the set, a mind-crunching holler of “Tube Snake Boogie,” it is instantly obvious that there ain’t nothin’ little about this ol’ band from Texas. 50 years of staying true to the unbeatable power of the blues when it’s jacked up with rock & roll proves that ZZ Top will never be equaled in just how far they’ve been able to take it to the limit and beyond playing the music of the spheres, right down here on planet earth. Seat belts suggested.
Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2022