Bentley’s Bandstand: December 2022 (Part 2)
By Bill Bentley
Gail Ceasar, Guitar Woman Blues. There might not be many female blues singers out of Pittsville, Virgina, but it’s a surety there won’t be another better than Gail Ceasar. Born in 1984 and taught to play by her uncle Pete Witcher, there is something so sweet and captivating by this woman that she is impossible to resist. She mixes bluegrass vibes into her guitar playing, but never strays far from American classics like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Freight Train.” Ceasar has captured a touch on how she shares her emotions that scales any walls and always delivers a depth of glory without having to get too fancy about it. Her voice captures what it means to be alive, and while there are no doubt struggles in her life, she never succumbs to them. A house fire last July destroyed her guitars, and the Music Maker Foundation quickly stepped up to replace what she lost, and then some. And what a great bet that was because this debut release by Gail Ceasar is like a promise kept and fulfilled. Her soul shines so brightly out of everything she touches, and makes life feel, even if just for a fleeting amount of time, that surely there is goodness to the grand scheme of things. Maybe that’s because this is music that really does live in eternity. It is the sound of humans searching for a spot on earth where they can make a stand by playing songs that can be lived as a true fact of life. There is no fooling around with a person like this. She is as real as a morning sunrise and a full moon at night. Gail Ceasar rules.
Charley Crockett, Lil’ G.L. Presents: Jukebox Charley. This is the kind of life story that really can’t be made up. Charley Crockett was born in San Benito, Texas and then raised at a trailer park in nearby Los Fresnos. And, of course, he spent summers with relatives living in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The only thing missing from a down home bio like this is being a distant relative of, say, Ray Price. The good news is that all those bona fides make a great case for Crockett being one of the strongest new hopes of country music. He sings with a restrained power that fills his songs with a sure-fire feeling of greatness. Taking on lesser-known songs here by George Jones, Red Sovine, Willie Nelson and others brings out his inner power. The man never stretches trying to sound like anyone else, but he’s clearly at home in his own skin. He’s got a no-nonsense way of phrasing songs with a deadly seriousness, while never crossing over into overkill. One of the lifelong qualities of timeless recordings is that they never sound like they’re shooting for a dusty hall of fame anywhere. Instead, the intent sounds like an absolute attempt to capture real feelings in lyrics that never cry for attention. Instead, the words are more telegraphed to hit home with a subtle whammy, one that sneaks up on listeners before landing the knockout punch. Charlie Crockett has it all to go to the top, even if he doesn’t have the Nashville machine grinding the gears to get him there. He’s got something way more important: reality is on the man’s side. This is country music made for people who actually love country music, and not the idea of maxi-pickups filled with beer kegs. Instead, these listeners have hearts hoping for repair, and dreams of a life lived long and free. Remember the Alamo.
Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg. There are a dozen or so writers who really bumped up the quality of music writing in the 1970s. The superstar journalists of the ’60s, mostly who called Rolling Stone magazine home, began to spread out into other outlets. Some, obviously, stayed at Rolling Stone while others went wandering. Michael Goldberg followed his own north star and took his work where he could. But in late 1984, when he launched the first internet rock & roll magazine called, obviously, Addicted to Noise, he had opened Pandora’s box. Journalism became more immediate, longer in length (later for print journalism’s word count restrictions), and just all around more adventurous. This mind-blowing collection from Goldberg’s entire writing career is like a tome for what happened the past near-50 years in music and just as importantly, how it has been covered. That’s because Goldberg’s goal was to explore wherever his musical muse took him. He broke down stylistic worries about whether a subject fit the publication, and rather went for free-range rules of freedom. Which is exactly why this fascinating compendium of the writer’s work is almost unequaled in the breadth and width of where it goes. From the first article on blues guru John Lee Hooker to the last featuring feminist aggregation Eyes is a rollercoaster of a ride for all those who absolutely adore reading about music. The fact that Michael Goldberg has done all he’s done while also helping blast open the idea of the internet’s fascinating ability to cover his subjects in a brand new form is maybe enough to call the progression Goldbergian. When he began knocking on record company publicists’ noggins with the idea of an online magazine, it’s probably a good chance he got the “say what?” response at the start. Computers were still new in label offices, if they were there at all. But soon enough it didn’t take an Einstein to see the writing on the wall, or rather the screen. The world completely changed, and even cooler, Michael Goldberg helped change it. Addicted to Now.
Dose Hermanos, Persistence of Memory. As every single Grateful Dead zealot knows, keyboardist Tom Constanten performed with the band starting at their real breakthrough period when the group’s sophomore release ANTHEM OF THE SUN was being recorded. He added an electronic experimental element to the outfit that changed so many things in how they approached rock & roll. For that, and the period after while Constanten stayed in the Dead, he will always be a knight in shining ions. Now, all these decades later, TC has teamed up with another Grateful Dead auxiliary player. Bob Bralove joined the production crew of the band in 1986 and buried himself deep in the pudding to become an integral part of their expanding world. Now, as Tom Constanten and Bob Bralove throw together in Dose Hermanos, the time couldn’t be more ripe for the roads they are traveling. Going to town on a lot of their Grateful Dead territory of the past, the pair has also found a way to push forward with a mighty attack. All their songs sound fresh out of the 2000s, created by a pair of experimentalists who are unafraid to try something new. The studio concoctions fit perfectly next to three live tracks, and are such a seamless slice of expanded consciousness that it feels like the Further converted school bus with Cowboy Neal Casady at the wheel is turning the corner towards 710 Ashbury right now. The true beauty of the Grateful Dead was they were never hemmed in by anything. Their musical abilities and thought patterns were all in an elevated place, and didn’t have to be squeezed to fit any preconceived notions. That was the beauty of LSD’s teachings: let what is be what is, and don’t worry about the rest. No one took that theme farther than Tom Constanten and Bob Bralove, and the gorgeousness of it all is that the pair are still seeking that same audio and astral projection. Be here now.
Early James, Strange Time to Be Alive. In today’s world, musical oddballs are what makes the world go around. They take the rulebook and tear it into tiny pieces that they then set fire to. Good for them, because in a world that’s heard almost everything it takes some of the friskier ears out there to know what to rip apart and what to keep. Early James, aka James Mullis, comes from Alabama, but ain’t got no banjo on his knee. Instead he has what sounds like the ultimate pawn shop electric guitar and a skewed eye on what is happening around him. That said, he’s also got a good dose of beauty that slide through songs like “Straightjacket for Two,” “If Heaven is a Hotel” and “Splenda Daddy” that hint at the way his brain is slanted. It’s not full-tilt sideways, but it’s for sure swirling in its own trajectory. Naturally, Early James ended up on The Black Keys Dan Auerbach’s radar and found the way to his Easy Eye Sound roster. This sophomore album by James takes all the promise of the debut disc and ramps it up real good. His vocals are just jagged enough to make their own mark in the sand, and rhythmically there is plenty of room for speculation. Which means STRANGE TO BE ALIVE is one of the most intriguing albums of 2022, and promises even more wonderful surprises will likely be revealed before too long. There is something going on this man’s mind and without doubt it’s got to come out. Be prepared now.
Kristina Koller, Get Out of Town. Talk about artistic visions: singer Kristina Koller wades into the Cole Porter songbook and comes back with a totally original take on one of songwriting’s greatest heroes. Koller has a voice that is uniquely gifted to make Porter songs like “Get Out of Town,” “Greek to You” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye” come alive again in whole new wrappings. The woman sings with a total sense of strength, never really sounding like anyone else. There are elements of South America-shading in Koller’s voice, but she is clearly someone who grew up with New York City in her soul. There is such a strong embrace of rhythmic originality in the foundation of these songs that many come across as classics that really haven’t been heard before, which is not an easy feat to achieve. Instrumentally the album erases the normal concepts of what a jazz backing would sound like on Cole Porter’s songbook, and adds a modern mode to the edges of music that’s been played closing in on a century. Just that idea alone is mind-blowing, but Kristina Koller never backs down from the challenge. The end result, really, is a breathtaking achievement of something brand new, but has all the underpinnings of the very foundations of modern vocals. In doing so, this is someone who has leaped to the top of the list of singers that follow their own beliefs into the land of the free. Go with her.
Gurf Morlix, Caveman. At this point musician, producer, songwriter and all-around semi-eccentric Gurf Morlix has built his own treehouse to play in. He plays just about everything on CAVEMAN, give or take an accordion or drum track here and there, and has fashioned a type of sonic resume that cannot be beat. It feels like he’s playing a Pandemicana-inspired sound, one that reaches back into the past for soulful freedom, and isn’t afraid to sound like he’s howling at the moon when he needs to. Don’t forget: he named his song publishing company Crankbait Music. But none of this means the ten songs on CAVEMAN don’t kick some serious ass. Morlix hasn’t come this far to stumble. When roots music began to take over a large branch of rock & roll in the 1980s there weren’t many other people who had their mojo working as hard as Morlix. He continually jumped into all kinds of interesting scenarios, and had a completely groovacious way of making them all better. Kind of like a producer and professor rolled into one. He’s continued on that journey ever since. Just when it looks like Gurf Morlix’s proclivities have been pegged, he’ll squiggle off into a different direction to keep the music fresh, with plenty of snappy guitar and bodacious background sounds. In the end, this is a musical hero that has built his own swamp to swim in, and will no doubt continue into the future with enough surprises in his pockets to keep everyone entertained. Rootball Studio’s finest.
Silent Partners, Changing Times. Sometimes a bodacious band gets locked in the closet of being a backing group. Which they surely can be, maybe even the best of, but that bag runs the danger of not allowing a group to really spread their own wings. Silent Partners have been onstage with the best, supplying the grooves and the greatness artists like B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Denise LaSalle and others rely on. But on their own, Tony Coleman (drums and vocals), Russell Jackson (bass and vocals) and Jonathan Ellison (guitar and vocals) give ground to no one. Their ability to take a wide variety of music into the end zone for almost anyone is not an ability to be ignored. Luckily, CHANGING TIMES gives the three all the room they need to show just how wide their roots-based reality can be stretched. Each one of the musicians has the kind of chops that are revered by those who know the territory, and when the album opener “Ain’t No Right Way to Do Wrong,” there is not an ounce of doubt about just how funky a trio can be. All the songs on CHANGING TIMES prove that backing bands can be fronting bands too, and by the time Silent Partners’ kick-in with their grooveadelic cover of The Crusaders’ “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” it is a solid fact that the surprise attack of 2022 has arrived. Don’t stop now.
Various Artists, Jazz Dispensary: Haunted High. This knocked-out series of digging deep into the vaults of the rich treasure of jazz standouts never ceases to amaze. Just when it seemed like everything had been found and annotated, out pops something like HAUNTED HIGH to rearrange the musical molecules in the room. The lineup varies from the Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s “Phases” to Barbara Lewis’ “Windmills of Your Mind,” and the way the funk is dished out — sometimes in fancy dishes — is a constant thrill. There are a bevy of big names included on this fabulous slab of pink wax, and the one constant of it feels like each artist was intent on stretching out of their more familiar bags, and venturing into slightly unknown territories to see what musicality could be discovered there. With songs recorded in the 1970s, it’s obvious everyone knew a new day in jazz was dawning and they were going to have to investigate their new proclivities to find what modernity meant to them. The fact that everything is so solidly based on high ground is such a testament to the utter wonder of all people like Gene Ammons, McCoy Tyner, Flora Purim and others accomplished in these pursuits that it puts a fascinating shine on what jazz is truly capable of. Never let it be said that Woody Herman was spinning his wheels on “La Fiesta.” Like all the musicians included on HAUNTED HIGH, they were searching for the future while celebrating both the past and the present. The Dispensary’s open.
The Williams Brothers, Memories to Burn. David and Andrew Williams are singer’s singers. The fact they’re brothers may have given them an edge in the beginning, but voices like this are finely developed over a lifetime. And what a use they’re put to on MEMORIES TO BURN. These ten tracks have all the verve and vividness of a classic album released in 1968, when the music that was being created seemed to jump right off the vinyl platters they were pressed on. Songwriters Robbie Fulks, the Kinks’ Dave Davies, Iris Dement, Marvin Etzioni, Buffy St.-Marie and the Williams Brothers themselves supply the perfect amount of songwriting purity for this affair, but also it’s nothing short of amazing how much gorgeous energy is packed into every song, whether uptempo, downtempo or just absolute gorgeousity lurking in the grooves. No doubt recorded about as live as can be done, MEMORIES TO BURN is an unforgettable capturing of everything great about sound. Considering the band — Greg Leisz (steel guitar), Marvin Etzioni (bass), Don Heffington (drums) and Andrew Williams (acoustic guitar) — it’s no puzzle just how incandescent these roots royalty sound. And Etzioni’s production is a time-traveling trip to behold. The Williams Brothers’ success at Warner Bros. Records starting in the late 1980s now feels like a prophetic prediction of the soul-tingling power of this new album. For all those who love everything the music of the spheres has to offer, these ten songs hold an unfaltering collection of affection and allure. Magic lives forever.
Bentley’s Bandstand: December 2022 (Part 2)