Bentley’s Bandstand: January 2023
By Bill Bentley
The Bad Ends, The Power and the Glory. What’s better than a surprise? When The Bad Ends album was released and holding down the drum spot was R.E.M.’s Bill Berry, it was like a circle had been completed. Berry had supplied so much of the power and finesse for R.E.M. that it was like he had created a whole new universe for rock & roll. And now here Berry was, swinging and slamming in a brand new group. Fronting The Bad Ends is Mike Manitone from the Five Eights, a singer who knows where the soul side of rock lives and isn’t afraid to go there. The Bad Ends are a bad-ass band. There isn’t any other way to say it. It sounds like they’ve been together for decades and are still hitting it as hard as if they’d just started. Manitone is the kind of vocalist that carries his heart in his hand; there is no need to guess how he feels. It’s all there in the words. And a testament to the aggregation’s true power sneaks in on the gorgeous instrumental “Ode to Jose,” which sure feels like the group is saying goodbye to a dear friend. Have no fear, because they immediately slam into “The Ballad of Satan’s Bride” just to jack the rock level back to 11 and start demonstrating how The Bad Ends are one of the great new surprises of this decade. The South has always had a direct line on the massive grooves that rock musicians are capable of, and how songs can be shaped to go beyond being just songs.They become anthems, and there are plenty of those on THE POWER AND THE GLORY. It’s all here, tailor-shaped for listeners who’ve been craving something that lights up the sky and kicks out the jams. Power AND glory.
The Black Keys, Dropout Boogie. This Ohio duo has been playing the working man’s boogie for a long time now. They never drift too far from the backwoods backbeat crossed with a slithering guitar getdown, and always seem to make it meaningful in a world that has left that sound behind. Maybe it’s because guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney never try to go much beyond the boundaries of the blues. They have always been able to zero in on the lowdown sound of the street, and write songs that fit exactly what they can play. There will be no blues operas cottoned to by this doggy-down duo. Still, on DROPOUT BOOGIE there is a whiff of modernity sneaking in at the edges to make things perk up pretty strong. Opening track “Wild Child” takes things to the upper side of getting down real quick, and chugs along with some power chords that would be right at home on an Aerosmith cruncher. That’s not to say the Black Keys are selling out, because they’re not. Likely they’re trying to keep themselves on the good foot at what they play, and don’t mind a little diversity to light their own fire. Luckily it works like a charm. And when ZZ Top’s ringmaster Billy F Gibbons steps forward on his co-write with the band “Good Love,” their percolation gets in the gutter real quick. This ain’t no pretty boy show in the least. The Black Keys have had their sweaty hand on the wheel a long time now, and there isn’t much chance we’ll be hearing a duet with Josh Groban anytime soon. Instead, their blues-me-or-lose-me vibe is here for keeps, aiming for the alley and settling for no less. Blues ‘r us.
Jim Brunberg, Songs of Stupid Hope. When an album comes from so far out of left field it can feel a bit like a letter from another planet, that is often a very good sign. The fact that it arrives with zero expectations opens the door for an often revelatory experience. Which is true in aces for Jim Brunberg’s new release SONGS OF STUPID HOPE. The singer-songwriter has kept himself super busy for many years: recording, working on radio productions and running the Mississippi recording studio from his home base in Portland, Oregon. He’s clearly someone who is multi-purposing this thing called life. Still, just how amazing SONGS OF STUPID HOPE is comes as a bit of a shocker. Brunberg’s originals, along with “Sunny Smokes’ Long Ride” written with Austin queen Charlie Faye and the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” are the kind of songs that might appear on the quieter side at first but quickly become major achievements that just don’t happen all that often these days. Even with their folkish bent, the power of “Aftertimes,” “Hard Year,” “Everybody Hurts Just Like You” and others feel like a musical knockout punch, and present the fact that Jim Brunberg is a major talent hiding his light behind a bit of a bushel. Throw in that he also plays all the instruments himself except a few guests, including the Jefferson Airplane’s bass guru Jack Casady on two songs, and various backing vocalists and wind instruments, and SONGS OF STUPID HOPE begins to become one of 2023’s major achievements, even though the year has barely started. It’s hard to imagine many other albums being quite this stunning over the coming year. Jim Brunberg has most definitely arrived, and has offered up enough chills and thrills to show everyone how it’s done. Hope for all.
Art Fein, Rock’s In My Head. In a lot of ways, all-around rock & roll handy man Art Fein is like a Zelig of the music business the past half-dozen decades. He’s done a little bit of everything, including hosting his own television show, and excelled at some of it, not so much as other parts but always kept his hand in the game because in the end there was no other way to live if you truly love music the way Fein did. It’s like they took away the ability to do anything else, which actually is a stroke of great luck. Because it meant the man couldn’t go out and get a semi-normal day job. He became chained to the sound. This extraordinary book lays out his entire journey through the innards and outtards of the scene, which in Los Angeles meant he saw it all. He even elevated the art of bitching about almost anything to a fine art. Not many people can do that. Maybe because Art Fein really did have a 360-degree view of the music business and life in Los Angeles with all its con jobs and corny disappointments he had been able to fashion his own perch in a continually evolving hierarchy of has-beens, still-beens and to-beens without letting hit knock him out of the game. This book tells the complete story of someone who was there in the middle of the action and, in his own quiet way, is still watching the river flow. Real names are used and super-cool stories are told, most of which have never been heard but were duly jotted down at the time in Fein’s 10,000-page journal. The mind boggles at what he has seen and now that’s finally shared it all, the eyes often boggle at what’s on the page. Hopefully the next volume is already being written. Fein, fein, fein.
DaShawn Hickman with Charlie Hunter, Drums, Roots and Steel. Sacred steel guitar has become a small cottage-industry in the past two decades, considering that before then it had not really been recognized beyond the House of God church circuit. Thanks to several pivotal players, including the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph, the cat came out of the bag bigtime and people started swinging hard along with the sound of a pedal steel wailing at top form, many times in service to the Lord. DaShawn Hickman is a smart musician who plays pedal steel as well as anyone, but also had the bright idea to merge it with new rhythmic and African infusions to take the sound to a new place. Hickman also stays close to the deeply spiritual overtones of the pedal steel, and while he can wail with the best of them chooses to address the deepest elements of the instrument. Producer-bassist Charlie Hunter knew exactly what the sonic target was for this album, and came through with such a focused attack that in the end, the whole affair is highly irresistible. Atiba Robie and Brevan Hampden’s percussion is mesmerizing and takes sacred steel’s majesty all the way to the moon. And Wendy Hickman’s vocals become a total extra surprise on songs like “Morning Train” in a way that will cause listeners to take a whole new look at the genre. In so many ways, this album feels like a breakthrough affair, giving music that many might have felt they already knew and an incredibly addictive and wonderful slant. As always, the pedal steel is speaking to the deepest feelings in all of us, and DaShawn Hickman is the person in charge. Say hallelujah somebody.
The Jorgensens, Americana Soul. The world is hopefully ready for a new wife-and-husband team to take it to the limit and back. Brianna and Kurt Jorgensen formed the Jorgensens in 2014 in St. Paul Minnesota, and quickly realized that the way forward for them both was as a duo specializing in American roots music, heavy on the soul side of the street. Hence the name of their new album: AMERICANA SOUL. They are able to push together all kinds of rootsy influences, but at the same time don’t get overwhelmed by the music of the past. Instead, The Jorgensens twist and turn all those influences into a modern sound, one that knows how to stay centered on their strengths while they pull from those of others before them. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because it takes some large doses of originality so as not to get pulled backwards. Both Jorgensens are strong enough singers to make sure AMERICANA SOUL keeps a modern spin on the songs they write, and while they totally introduce the great sound of past American masters they never try to stay there. Modernity beckons on the very first song on the album, “Old Black Crow,” and it’s obvious The Jorgensens have a bigger plan than respinning the past. Brianna Jorgensen’s classical training slinks through the songs in a way that can be stealth-like, but always there. Kurt Jorgensen’s mastery of all things stringed sets the fires on many of the songs, and his emotive vocals keeps things on edge. Which in roots music is what it’s all about, never falling too heavy into the musical arms of what came before. It’s really the way the future is embraced that makes the music burn, and these ten songs are all about the heat. Light ’em up.
Johnny Nicholas Presents Moon and the Stars: A Tribute to Moon Mullican. What a totally intriguing tribute album to someone who was overwhelmingly influential in his time, and continues to draw new devotees to this day. Aubrey “Moon” Mullican was a keyboard player born in 1909 who had an uncanny way of mixing Louisiana sounds with the wild strains of Texas country music. No one had done it before Mullican, and in many ways no one has yet done it better. For this 20-song collection producers Johnny Nicholas and Joel Savoy rounded-up an awe-inspiring group of players that gave total allegiance to Mullican’s jaw-dropping originals, and then added their own spice to the sauce to make sure this isn’t just a regurgiational affair. Artists like Ernie P. Ball, Peter Rowan, Marcia Ball. Augie Myers and even Los Texmaniacs grab hold of songs like “Good Deal Lucille,” “I’m Waiting for Ships That Never Come In” and “There’s a Little Bit of Heaven” and light a brand new fire under them. That’s when the utter fabulousness of Moon Mullican’s originality and futuristic gifts collide in new lights that flash across the night sky. It also doesn’t hurt that Mullican was one of the early characters of popular music, pounding the piano while throwing all caution to the wind. When it’s time to reach for the past in brand new grooviness, this is where to reach. For what Mullican himself used to call “East Texas sock” that could “make goddamn beer bottles jump on the tables,” MOON AND THE STARS is absolutely undeniable. If he were still alive, Moon Mullican devotee Jerry Lewis would no doubt on been beating down the piano keys and raising up a storm on one of his heroes songs, and then threaten anyone who didn’t like it outside for a good stomping. To hear music meant for the spirit and backbone, here are brand new renditions of songs meant to set fire to the soul. Play it again!
Dale Ockerman Project, Memories of the Future. There are some musicians who work a bit away from the spotlight, maybe, but that surely doesn’t mean they’re any less powerful. Dale Ockerman is an original, a California-based player who has been creating music in the Santa Cruz area for decades and keeps getting closer and closer to total liftoff. MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE is his finest effort yet. Beginning with a glorious new version of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “What About Me” featuring vocalist James Durbin, the album is announced straight-up as one that demands to be heard. This group of musicians is treading in sacred territory and you can tell they realize that in the way they deliver the goods. The second track takes it to the next level: a new version of Moby Grape’s classic “Bitter Wind,” written by the band’s Bob Mosley. To up the ante now even more, vocalist Omar Spence, son of the Grape’s unforgettable Skip Spence, sings this new version. It is a heart-bumping example of how so much of the 1960’s high points will stay current forever. Two songs in, and this album clearly is one for the ages. All the following songs live up to these early mind-bogglers, with vocalists Richard Bryant and William Russ, Jr. joining in on mostly Ockerman originals that soar with a timeless glow. The stunning “Shine” near the album’s end brings in another Moby Grape member, drummer and vocalist Don Stevenson, for what may be the release’s biggest surprise. It is such a fine-pointed ballad of unbeatable intensity that it sounds like a modern classic. Stevenson’s moving voice is right there with it, and strong and moving as it was in Moby Grape. Dale Ockerman has made an album that will no doubt live into the future, making new memories of a present golden era. Do not miss.
Margo Price, Strays. When this woman decides to light the house on fire to see what new forms are left standing afterward, it is a breathtaking event to behold. STRAYS is the kind of album that an artist makes usually once or twice in their career, and this time ’round Margo Price goes for broke. The way everything pays off on this awe-inducing release reminds everyone that music is here to be pushed forward. And that the listeners are always the lucky ones when the results are released. It’s obvious from note one that Margo Price has surprises up her sleeve. With producer wunderkind Jonathan Wilson there is a whole new tone to the recording. It’s edgy but also warm, and that alone is an accomplishment to revere. Then when the songs start to kick in, it’s like there are one after another of sounds that haven’t been heard in quite this way. The jacked-up tone that runs through everything puts a vibrancy to the music that is always a welcome sign, especially as most music associated with Nashville seems to be heading for the tollbooth right now. Not for this woman. STRAY’s second song, “Light Me Up,” features Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar, and conjures up the dynamism of Price’s recording of Roky Erickson’s “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)” last year in all its enigmatic essence. After that it’s all bets off for what to expect from this total future-setter collection. Singer Sharon Van Etten guests on “Radio,” and all this fascinating excitement has come on just the first three songs. Then it’s on to “County Road,” a classic that bands will be playing for the next half-century at least, and “Time Machine,” which sounds like an instant classic that promises everything. The rest of STRAYS stays laser-focused on delivering music that matters, and kicks down plenty of doors making sure the heat stays on. When Lucius steps up on “Anytime You Call” with their, well, luscious harmonies, it’s obvious Price has no intent on not going for broke. It’s been a long time since anyone even loosely called a country artist has taken these kind of chances on their music and delivered even more. Maybe that’s because Margo Price is someone who has always bet on herself, even when no else was. Best album bet.
Bob Weir, Ace (Reissue). When Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Bob Weir’s debut solo album was first released in 1972, there wasn’t any great expectation for it. Jerry Garcia was at his peak then, and all eyes were on his creative fastballs. But for those who zeroed in on Weir’s ACE, it was a total eclipse of the soul. Not only was the man’s voice at an apogee, but the songs were right there with it. “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Black-Throated Wind,” “Walk in the Sunshine,” “Playing in the Band,” “Looks Like Rain,” “Mexicali Blues,” “One More Saturday Night” and (yow!) “Cassidy” each felt on a level with the Dead’s best fare, and the way Weir and band (which was pretty much the Grateful Dead) delivered those songs was completely intriguing. There was a different approach on these songs than the intensity of the Dead’s, but it was never less than thrilling to hear. Bob Weir became his own star on this album, even though not everyone noticed. He was no longer “The Kid,” but had quickly become an equal. It was a totally righteous thing to notice then, just as it is to appreciate now. This mind-blowing 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition takes the original ACE album, remixes and remasters the songs to perfection and lays it out for all to hear. And, of course, being part of the Grateful Dead archives program there has to be more to the original release, which there surely is. How about a recent live recording at New York’s Radio City Music Hall of ACE as played by Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros featuring the Wolfpack from April 3, 2022? And a stellar one at that, which includes a closing 11-plus minute version of “Cassidy.” Modern rock doesn’t get any better than this, and it’s a good bet Bob Weir knows it. There aren’t many left alive who’s seen and heard from the stage all this man has, and the way he continues on in his quest to play music that meant so much those many years ago and still means as much now is a gift to all that was, is and will be. Tap the tambourine.
Bentley’s Bandstand: January 2023