Bentley’s Bandstand: December 2022 (Part I)
By Bill Bentley
Johnny Adams, Only Want To Be With You. It is no accident that in his hometown of New Orleans soul singer extraordinaire Johnny Adams was lovingly called the Tan Canary. He enthused such a reverence from his many fans there that they could hardly contain themselves. Whether he was working lobster shift-like hours at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge on Orleans Street performing from 2-7 a.m. on weekends, or playing one of the jazzier joints uptown didn’t matter. The man’s voice inspired the kind of delirious devotion that all he had to do was walk onstage and the crowd started screaming. It was a thrill beyond words to see him tear into one of his early hits like “I Won’t Cry” or “Reconsider Me” and turn the audience into jelly. Unbelievable. This two-disc colleciton of songs produced by Senator Jones between 1975-81 might not be quite on the level of Adams’ earlier highlights, but make no mistake: the man’s voice was still a nuclear bomb wrapped in velvet. Whether he’s covering R&B perennials like “Spanish Harlem” or “Share Your Love with Me” or singing new songs, the Johnny Adams voice is still at full force. He might not have been climbing any radio hit parades outside the Crescent City but Adams always delivered a shivering study in soulfulness. And once he moved on to Rounder Records in the 1980s it was game-on again for a new but equally devoted audience. The Tan Canary made sure he brought that almost beyond human voice to the party and let his lovelight shine no matter where he was. There will never be another Johnny Adams, so rejoice in these 30 songs and know what once was. The Canary lives.
Blue Largo, Got To Believe. Eric Lieberman founded the band Blue Largo 22 years ago, and back then they were tied deeply to 1940s and ’50s blues covers by Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan and others from that era. But life changes everything, and it changed Blue Largo. Lieberman had been a hot-shot blues guitarist in the San Diego scene long enough to see the future when he met Alicia Aragon at the Mandolin Wind club. He’d found the person he knew he’d been missing, except Aragon didn’t want to go pro. That’s when Blue Largo came close to being born, and a few years later they started recording. Today, the band has really grown to the point where they are ready for the national stage. GOT TO BELIEVE has such a sturdy sense of deep soul that it stands up to any and all fellow outfits, and all Lieberman’s original songs like “Soldier of Love” and “Disciple of Soul” sound like modern versions of some of rhythm & blues’ finest classics. It’s often obvious when a great band reaches its tipping point and is really ready to grab the attention of those beyond their hometown crowd. That’s where Blue Largo is today: right on the verge of moving into America’s front lines of modern soul aggregations. That’s probably because the power of belief that fueled Eric Lieberman. He’s been playing music a very long time, and has never lost faith that someday he’d find an audience that would hear the heart of what Lieberman had always heard in his own. Bands like this are lifers, and wait in line for their time to come. Now is that time for Blue Largo. Any group that can record “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” inspired by icon Nina Simone’s original version aren’t afraid of anything. With Alicia Aragon in front of it all and Blue Largo firing up the engine bigtime behind her, their time has come. Better believe it.
A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, Here It Is. The Canadian singer-songwriter is obviously one of the musical icons of the past half-century, and to take on a tribute album to Leonard Cohen is a daunting task. This man is no flash in the pop music pan. And now, how do you top perfection. Luckily, Blue Note Records and producer Larry Klein had the brilliant idea of assembling a core band to work with each artist and let the creative sparks fly where the music took them. To say the release is a stunner is an understatement. Singer Norah Jones starts things off on a gorgeous and haunting rendition of “Steer Your Way” that sets the tantalizing tone for HERE IT IS. Then Peter Gabriel steps in and kicks the sonic ante to the highest bar with title song “Here It Is.” Right away listeners are transported to that place where Leonard Cohen thrived: higher consciousness. From there Gregory Porter’s devastating “Suzanne” and Sarah McLachlan’s spellbinding “Hallelujah” cement the fact that this release is a tribute set which will be very hard to ever top. As the rest of the eight songs unfold there is a wave of enveloping empathy on every one, not just for what Cohen accomplished with his songwriting but really what humanity has created with music. Musicians like guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Kevin Hays, pedal steel guitarist Gregory Leisz and several others paint such a passionate picture of the musical stratosphere that sometimes it gets hard to breath. When James Taylor steps forward on “Coming Back to You” the skies really part as the singer brings a whole new aspect of his voice to the front, which is quickly followed by Iggy Pop’s punching “You Want It Darker” and Mavis Staples’ holiness “If It Be Your Will.” Just when it seems the album has reached the highest floor, David Gray delivers a shivering “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” and Nathaniel Rateliff’s soul-touching “Famous Blue Raincoat” bring it all home. That leaves guitarist Bill Frisell and his prayer of an instrumental, “Bird on the Wire.” The circle is completed on one of Leonard Cohen’s earliest classics, and there are really no more words to say as Frisell’s mind-bending notes drift straight up to the sky to pay his respects to an artist who we might not see the likes of again. Hallelujah for all.
Mark Pocket Goldberg, Off-Balance Blues. Sometimes the only music that makes any sense at all is the back-alley blues that is happy to live in the dark and offer a solace not found anywhere else. Bluesman Mark Pocket Goldberg is a proud purveyon of just that kind of sound, and doesn’t make any pretense about it. He’s played with everyone and their uncle, and is aiming for the monkey nerve with these new songs. He doesn’t call the album OFF-BALANCE BLUES for nothing. It’s pretty obvious that things are out of whack today, and Goldberg isn’t afraid to call it to attention. He’s been playing blues for decades, but has easily outdone himself on these dozen songs. While helping hold down the bottom on Fender bass, the man’s semi-ravaged voice and inner heartbeat swing rides on top of songs like “What You Gotta Have” and “Lookin’ for Insults” that are a clear-eyed view of the modern condition. There are a few bluesmen and blueswomen left who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is, and try to do in a way that doesn’t souind like they’ve been living too long in a museum. The trick is keep the music groovin’ and then tell the whole truth. That’s what Goldberg does with ease. Anyone who has a song titled “Willie Dixon Told Me” knows what he’s talking about, and add to that the ability to get guitar legend Junior Watson into the studio on “Babblin’ Blues” has enough cred to have a permanent house tab at Pioneer Chicken stands everywhere. MPG is not foolin’ around here. He’s going deep into the blues and is willing to take veterans and newcomers alike with him. Do not delay: take this man’s ride today. Time is tight.
The Harlem Gospel Travelers, Look Up! Gospel music is a way of life. Those that sing it and listen to it also usually live for it. It is a sonic sustenance when not much else is, and when younger people get involved it is a hallelujah moment for gospel’s true believers. Which brings in the Harlem Gospel Travelers. The group is an outgrowth of the non-profit Gospel for Teens program, and were assisted by singer Eli Paperboy Reed when they started. Writing songs in the 1960s soul gospel tradition, the group quickly grew a following and started recording. This sophomore album is a stone cold joy stasrt to finish, paying righteous homage to a past style but not stopping there. The Harlem Gospel Travelers know where they’re going, and also know they need to keep a contemporary edge in their style to relate to a wide-range of listeners. They way their voices blend and soar with each other is a heaven-sent affair, anfd with Reed back onboard for their second release it takes on a near-historical frenzy that such youthful voices are stepping up to the gospel gate. Being one of America’s early bedrock contributions to the world of music, gospel’s continued health is good for everyone. And with three youthful men in the group it shows that there is nothing ancient about this sound. It is all in the singing and the writing, and there’s where Thomas Gaitling, George Marage and Dennis Bailey have it all going on. Their young voices take on all the depth needed to deliver the message of spiritual belief and religious relief, with a little bit of yesterday and a whole lot of today at its core. Say amen somebody.
Charles Lloyd Trios: Chapel. It is no accident that saxophonist supreme Charles Lloyd was one of the very first jazz musicians who threw in heavy with the counterculture in San Francisco in the 1960s. He played the Fillmore Auditorium several times then, sharing bills with the city’s high-flying psychedelic bands, and in 1967 released the album LOVE IN, which was recorded live there. Of course he did, because Charles Lloyd had an inner barometer which told him changes in the human experience were one of the ways to save the world and he wanted to be a part of that change. All the years since then the man has never switched course. He’s gone deep into spiritual studies that helped him grow, and wrote and performed music which spoke to that higher good. The last decade of albums he’s released are an astonishing rejuvenation of everything the Memphis-born man’s massive talent had achieve until then, and show just how intense Charles Lloyd’s beliefs are. CHAPEL is sonic gem, recorded live at Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. Lloyd’s saxophone soars and seduces in a way very few players can capture now. It comes from decades of continuing study as well as a spiritual essence in the notes that are always enchanting. Having no drummer frees up completely the rhythmic pulse of bassist Moran, and allows Frisell’s guitar to explore wherever he wants to go. The small but telepathically-focused group almost feels guided by ESP-like mind waves, and after beginning with Billy Stayhorn’s gem “Blood Count,” zeroes in on three Lloyd originals and Vila Fernandez Ignacio Jacinto’s “Ay Amor.” Once again, the Charles Lloyd Trio demonstrates not only what musical freedom allows, but also how three people can meld into one and head for the clouds. Past, present, future.
Stephen McCarthy & Carla Olson, Night Comes Falling. Two of long-time roots rock’s most worthy heroes come together for a duet album that is a full-on thrill. Both Carla Olson and Stephen McCarthy have done just about everything you can do in music the past 45 years, and coming together like this makes perfect sense. Olson has been in pivotal bands like the Violators (in Austin) and the Textones (in Los Angeles) and performed with just about everyone worth their collection of guitars. McCarthy, of course, was a founding member of the Long Ryders and also made a name for himself with an exciting list of collaborations and solo releases. All that said, NIGHT COMES FALLING feels like a sure-fire highlight for both of them. There is something about the way the guitarists light fires under each other and push the music to its very highest levels that is breathtaking. Said to be inspired by one-time Byrds member and all-time legend Gene Clark, the songs fly into the air with a reverberating power not heard that often in the Americana crowd right now. Maybe it is Clark’s inspiration, but “We Gotta Split This Town,” “Long Way Back to Seventeen” and “The Bell Hotel is Burning” are some of the most powerful tracks of this still-new decade. McCarthy’s guitarslinging and singing has always been a showstopper, and along with Olson’s singular chops and inspired vocals, this is a duet made on the streets of Los Angeles like few others. Produced by the pair along with Mikal Reid, there is an undeniable sparkling feel to the music, but also plenty of the dark shadings that have always been a big part of the City of Angels’ allure. And for a single song to set the true tone for 2023, “Night Comes Falling” is a clear winner. And, naturally, it is foretold the album ending song would be one written by Gene Clark. What a beauty it is, too: “I Remember the Railroad,” which captures the inner grandness of the American dream and the strength it takes to keep it going. There are still years to go on this journey, and every reason to keep on pushing. McCarthy, Olson, forever.
A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver, Live Forever. Billy Joe Shaver is a country singer-songwriter who carved out his own island in the past 50 years. He was the kind of Texan who ran rough and rowdy but could write songs to make the most hardened listener curl up and cry. What he could do with the emotional landscape of a human being was always nothing short of miraculous. It’s no wonder this completely compelling collection of Shaver covers is an essential landing place for anyone who has ever loved songs based on reality and able to hit the heart on every try. Perfectly produced by Charlie Sexton and Freddie Fletcher, the artists involved range from Willie Nelson to Edie Brickell, and each and every one is a heaven-sent choice. One of Billy Joe Shaver’s knee-buckling ballads opens the collection with Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams taking over “Live Forever.” It is hard to imagine anyone out-Shavering the writer himself on this all-timer, but the new version sure gets close. It is easily one of the best songs written in the past half-century, and explains the quest for eternity as vividly as it’s ever been done. Once Nelson and Williams finish, though, it feels like everyone on Earth has a chance at completion, and it’s just a matter of time before there is total understanding on the way upward. And that’s just for starters. Rodney Crowell’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and Edie Brickell’s “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” each offer a gusher of glory, as does every single other track on LIVE FOREVER. Tribute albums live or die by the greatness of the original songs, and then take a bullseye choosing of artists who cover them to make it all shine. This is an album that, yes, will surely live forever. “Catch tomorrow now.”
Darden Smith, Western Skies. Leave it to Darden Smith to break the normal record release mode and put out an album of new songs, a book of photographs, lyrics and essays and, why not, a spoken word album. All called, of course, WESTERN SKIES. Smith is a musician who has learned how to look at the tightly-controlled construct of the so-called music business and see ways around the rules to find a path of his own. After considerable success in the 1980s and ’90s, Darden Smith found different new avenues to keep his interest up. And when that didn’t always happen he published books and started non-profit projects to assist others. The good news is that WESTERN SKIES contains some of the very best songs of Darden Smith’s long career, often tempered with a deeply soulful longing for connection and understanding in a time when those two elements are often in short supply. As the singer-songwriter has aged, his long-range view of life in America and elsewhere has taken on a three-dimensional understanding of what it means to be a human being in 2022, one that can take on the hard times and fight for the better ones. In some ways, he is in a class by himself on that front. There is such a deepening of presence on songs like “Running Out of Time,” “Not Tomorrow Yet” and “Los Angeles” that it’s like there is a hidden river of feelings running through them all that finds ways to get out. And that’s just his musical side. He is also a visual artist, radio documentarian, symphony composer, book author and has written music for dance/theatre productions. Among other things. For now, though, the 11 songs on WESTERN SKIES reach out and need to be heard. While they carry the heavy weight of the new pandemic world, they also hold a hope that will no doubt come in handy for all who listen. Perfect for now.
Vieux Farka Toure Et Khruangbin, Ali. There really are some collaborations that are made in heaven. When Vieux Farka Toure crossed musical paths with Khruangbin there was never any doubt that something lovingly beautiful would flow from their crossing. That it coalesced around Ali Farka Toure’s music is a coincidence of cosmic proportions. Some of that is because Vieux Farka Toure’s father Ali is such a figurehead of Malian music, a man whose voice and guitar has taken the sound of a small country all the way around the world. It has influenced thousands of other musicians to expand their horizons and find ways to incorporate the sounds into their own. Ali Farka Toure has been called “the African John Lee Hooker,” but that really is far too small a circle to draw around him, because the man always reached out from this world into the cosmos to seek a unique center. The way he found it it before moving on in 2006 still remains one of the musical gifts of eternity. Vieux Farka Toure himself has been called “the Hendrix of the Sahara,” but also should really be seen as his own entity. With the Houston-based trio Khruangbin helping this excursion into new soundscapes, it is like two continents have joined together to create a different place. The quartet weaves in and out of planetary-originated musical trails like a well-tuned mystical hydra, never content to rest on past patterns and instead always pushing towards unexplored terrain. Nothing quite like it has ever been heard before, and just like Ali Farka Toure opened up ears to a distinct way of listening to African-based music, now his son and a Texas band have defied the odds and found enough common ground to push these explorations past whatever boundaries may have seemed to be there. It is a new age, and that calls for the strength of modernity to allow for new sounds. ALI is it.
Townes Van Zandt, At My Window. Steve Earle’s quote on the front of AT MY WINDOW, originally released in 1987 on Sugar Hill Records, might just be the best album jacket quote of all-time: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Thirty-five years later, it’s easy to hear what possessed Earle to make that profound pronouncement. There is something so deep, so emotionial and so just so completely overwhelming about the Texan’s music it’s easy to feel Van Zandt has never really been equaled. He started out in Houston coffeehouses in the mid-1960s and immediately blew all the competition out the front doors. The then-young man had a way of looking at the crowd and instantly filling them with a melancholic weight which never really went away, even after the singer’s death on New Year’s Day 1997. In so many ways, it was like Townes Van Zandt had died several times before that, and finally caught up with his dark prophecy. But like he once wrote, for so many years the sunshine walked beside him as he wrote songs that not only will live forever, but surely soar as they do. AT MY WINDOW was a near-miraculous comeback for someone who had seemed to peak almost two decades before its initial release. Co-producers Jack Clement (yes, that Jack Clement) and Jim Rooney took Van Zandt into the infamous Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa in Nashville, surrounded the singer-songwriter with some of the very best musicians in Music City and let it all roll. Mixing old and new originals, Van Zandt might have intuited that this was last best chance to really shine, and shine he did. For the next ten years he never made a better album. Craft Recordings has lovingly reissued this vinyl gem and to hear how wondrous an event this is, it will surely go down as a gift to the world. Townes Van Zandt was completely imbued in the glow of all he was on this recording, and now the world can hear what it once had. Of course, it comes on sky blue vinyl–because the big blue sky is where this man still lives. The original Townes Van Zandt booking information still at the bottom of the credits is an apt nod to immortality. No doubters allowed.
Martha Wainwright, Stories I Might Regret Telling You: A Memoir and Love Will Be Reborn. It is not that often that a singer-songwriter releases a new album and publishes a memoir in the same year. Both are such a big endeavor it boggles the mind a bit when it happens. The best news of all, though, is how incredible both of these endeavors are. The book is a masterpiece from start to finish, no matter how much you already know about the singer-songwriter’s life. It reads like a dramatic twister through a life of artistic melodrama and personal challenges. Even though Martha Wainwright was born into a musical dynasty of sorts with mother Kate McGarrigle, brother Rufus Wainwright and father Loudon Wainwright, what she experiences as both a child and adult is an eye-opener of endurance. About halfway through the memoir it becomes crystal clear this is no life-in-fairyland. Rather it’s a study in how someone must navigate the big questions of living that have no quick or easy answers. Wainwright’s writing is over-the-top engaging. In fact, there are many parts of the book that feel like it’s actually a mystery thriller, with enough looming quetions swirling around the young woman’s life it is impossible to stop reading. The eloquence and honesty that Martha Wainwright writes with are unforgettable, and can sear the heart with just a few paragraphs. No matter how much you might know or have heard from Martha Wainwright, read this book. It is an amazing life story like few others. As for Wainwright’s new album LOVE WILL BE REBORN, it is right there in power and intrigue equal with her book. It feels like the woman has really found the major inner wiring of her life, and where love fits in all those parts. She is clearly someone who has struggled with how emotional pieces big and small fit together, and to hear her now is like a life-affirming acclamation of love. Even with the pain of growing and all the knowing that comes with that, Martha Wainwright’s new songs show a sense of bravery that was no doubt hard-fought to achieve. They invoke Jack Kerouac’s meaning of William Burrough’s NAKED LUCH novel title: “The frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” True love exists.
Neil Young, World Order. When it’s time to take a broad sweep of life on the planet and try to capture how we got here and maybe find a way forward, leave it to Neil Young to ride to the rescue. Young has always had a view of life that approaches the world from a different angle. Whether he’s cruising through the clouds or scuffling through the gullies, there is a sense of the emotional explorer in him. His songs capture the spectrum from pure love to outright outrage, but always with an unique sense of consciousness. WORLD ORDER goes the full-on distance in taking on everything. There is a profound sense of awareness of where we are now and the obstacles that lurk right outside the window. These songs started as whistled melodies on Neil Young’s walks through the woods, and from there found their way to a flip-phone and then a page before ending up in the Shangri-La studio with producer Rick Rubin. On the final song on the first disc, “The Wonder Won’t Wait,” Young sings, “Take some time to live before you die / ‘Cause the wonder won’t wait / no the wonder won’t wait for you / to stand outside yourself…” That’s about as solid a suggestion as could be imagined. And then the second disc fires wild with the 13-minute long “Chevrolet,” which is a pure Neil Young rip-roarer with high octane guitar solos and his erstwhile band Crazy Horse pushing him into the zone. In so many ways the album feels like a summation of all the many parts of the man’s life, but at the same time becomes a soulfully telescopic daze into the future. Best of all there is such a solid sculpting of reality that in the end everything in life seems possible. Still forever Young.
Bentley’s Bandstand: December 2022 (Part I)