BENTLEY’S BANDSTAND: MARCH 2023
By Bill Bentley
Barbara Blue, From the Shoals. By this time, it’s common knowledge that the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama is sacred ground for soul music. Going back to the early 1960s when soulster Arthur Alexander started pumping out hits from the Shoals, the small town has been a mecca for artists of all kinds, from Percy Sledge to Cher and beyond. There is something in the air there that hits the monkey nerve of all those who wait for the record button to be hit and then let the feelings fly. Barbara Blue, a native of Pittsburgh, has taken a circuitous route through the eastern side of the United State–Pennsylvania, Detroit and finally ending up in Memphis at Silky O’Sullivan’s to be exact for 25 years–where she got tagged the Reigning Queen of Beale Street. Anyone who has lived that kind of trajectory better have their musical shoes tied on tight and an attitude of “blues me or lose me” down cold. Barbara Blue has traveled around the world spreading her joy, and this trip down Alabama way to the Nutthouse and Bessie Blue Studios in Muscle Shoals-adjacent Sheffield lets her live it like she sings it. Starting with a dream team session gang including drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Clayton Ivey and guitarist Will McFarlane, Barbara Blue lays into 11 originals and downright devastating covers of “Tell Mama” and “Steal Away.” It’s not always easy to nail this sound of Southern soul as devastatingly as this crowd does, but having a voice like this woman does makes sure there is no reality check needed here. She sings like someone who has believed in the ability of the human voice to lift up all those within hearing distance, and isn’t about to change that approach at this late date. This is someone of the female persuasion who knows exactly what it takes to get the fire burning, and is more than happy to light the match and pour gasoline on the flames. Wear it out.
Marc Broussard, SOS IV: Blues for Your Soul. Louisiana man Marc Broussard has been singing his entire life, and for his latest foray into the studio he’s going for broke. In the fourth edition of his S.O.S. series he jumps into the deep end of America’s incredibly rich blues and soul world with producers Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith and shows everyone just how heartfelt and right-on a singer Broussard is. Mixing classics by Roosevelt Sykes, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Womack, Son House and other all-time greats, this is the kind of collection that sure sounds like it will stand tall forever. On sessions like this, the excitement level on the players’ part is what kicks everything into gear. It is there in aces all over these tracks, to the point that everything sounds brand new. And then Marc Broussard’s vocals come in to show just how bad-to-the-bone he has always been, and still age is allowing him to grow into a true treasure on his own. This set is of recreation; rather it’s a brand new take on music that lives at the backbone of American music, and now feels like it’s getting a fresh chance at turning on decades-long fans and brand new listeners. And with special appearances by Bonamassa, Roddie Romero, Bobby Junior, JJ Grey, Josh Smith and Eric Krasno, BLUES FOR YOUR SOUL is a for-sure home run any way you look at or hear it. There is such a mountain of soul on every aspect of this album that it sounds like an insta-classic, right down to the funkified photos at the recording sessions. These dozen tracks are the kind of set that will fry whatever groove is being grilled, and then some to solidify the testifying going on in front of the microphones. What a deal.
Clarence Bucaro, The Hardest Parts. Cleveland, Ohio might be the place where singer-songwriter Clarence Bucaro was born, but surely New Orleans is the place where his soul was cemented in music. Moving there in 2004 for the next decade opened the man’s spirit to a whole new way of living and thinking. Naturally, it all seeped into Bucaro’s music. Now that he’s moved on to different parts of the world, Bucaro has embraced many new styles and sounds, but it always goes back to the deepest part of himself that he expresses all over THE HARDEST PARTS. It is a truth-seeking mission the man is on, one that takes in a lot of different sounds but always turns them into his very own expression. Maybe that’s how Clarence Bucaro has found out so much more about who he is these past few years. There is such an easeful sense of expression on new songs like “Heart Like Glass,” “Brown Eyes Beautiful” and “Tirelessly Blue” that it now feels like the musician has found his deepest spirit, and is able to tap into that place to make sure in this new album of 16 songs he comes across as someone who is ready to step out in front of the world with everything showing. There is no hiding place on this album, and it’s immediately clear that the person behind these songs isn’t looking for one. It isn’t easy to tackle this kind of wide-open honesty, but make no mistake that this is exactly what is shared here. Musically and lyrically there won’t be another album released in 2023 that captures full-tilt personal clarity like Bucaro has done here. The finest parts.
Iris DeMent, Workin’ on a World. Straight outta Paragould, Arkansas and the youngest of 14 children, Iris DeMent really does live in her own musical world, one she has been workin’ on understanding her whole life. It would be hard not to, considering where she started. Then again, the DeMent family moved to Los Angeles when their youngest child was only three years old. The strength and vision she has continually displayed attests to a higher musical power that guides her steps. When she first arrived on the national scene her impact was instantaneous. And it still is, though it’s been eight years since her last release. Maybe the woman needed time to take stock on where she began, where she’s been and where she’s going. Or maybe it was just a matter of recharging the inner batteries and living life on her own terms. Either way, WORKIN’ ON A WORLD most definitely feels like a major event in the woman’s life. The singer-songwriter is able to meld country and folk styles into something of her very own creation. Part of that ability is because of the totally unique sound of Iris DeMent’s voice. There is an openness to it that pretty much defies description. Growing up with a Pentecostal background lends something of the sacred to these songs, but not so much in a religious manner. Rather, there is a reach for an eternal zone, as well as a deep understanding of the demands of the secular side. Prime examples like “The Sacred Now,” “How Long” and “Waycross, Georgia” will take listeners all the way there. That’s the paradox of the music DeMent creates. It’s of this world, but also has a reach for the one possibly just beyond this one. Musically, all the backing instruments stay grounded to the land, which lets the vocals soar towards their own target. To say that no one else really sounds like Iris DeMent is not a stretch. Fortunately, after a relatively long layoff, this is still the case and hopefully signifies as equally strong a return as when the young woman first appeared over 30 years ago. This is a singer who is clearly workin’ on a world of her own design, and singing her way to the stars and back. What a trip.
Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade. This Texan’s first three solo albums, 1977’s self-titled JOE ELY, 1978’s HONKY TONK MASQUERADE and 1979’s DOWN ON THE DRAG are like a trifecta of American music. Ely came roaring out of the gates fresh from several years with Lubbock’s infamous Flatlanders, and boy was he ready. Listening to that debut solo release was like climbing onto a rocketship and taking off for the moon. No one ever sounded more ready to blast off on their own. There was something so jet-propelled on songs like “I Had My Hopes Up High” and “Suckin’ a Big Bottle of Gin” that instantly there was never any doubt an all-timer had taken the stage. Joe Ely was that great. It was no wonder he would soon be hand-picked to open shows when British bombshell band The Clash toured the United States, or that all these years later Ely would still be on a short list of artists who have never diminished their hold on greatness. The vinyl reissues of this trio of aural wowness couldn’t come at a better time to celebrate just how rock & roll or whatever it’s called has been a prime pleasure of life all these years. There is nothing even in a close second place. This Texan’s way of mashing together several styles into a mother lode for musical liftoff can never really be explained other than to say there is something so deep down inside the Amarillo-born and Lubbock-reared Lone Star stater it’s like encountering a messiah on a musical march. The songs captured here feel like all-time high points of not only how life was then in the 1970s, but also a peek into how the music would always be the fuel for taking true believers to a place they longed to be. Then and now.
The Mother Hips, When We Disappear. Whenever a band becomes an institution in San Francisco, it’s a strong bet something special is going on. All the way back to 1965 when bands like the Charlatans raised the flag in the Bay Area, it’s been that way. The Mother Hips surely hold the same kind of sway in the City by the Bay now. For 30 years original members Tim Bluhm and Greg Lolacono have shown how completely special an aggregation can be there. The group’s new album was recorded in New Mexico where the celestial vibes are known to coalesce in all kinds of unique ways. Of course, The Mother Hips were in on the ground floor of what was soon to be called Americana, but in a way that’s beside the point. More important is how the sextet can spin together a whole range of instruments to create something that is full of a joyous uniqueness. Over the course of the band’s dozen albums is a march towards greatness, one that shows zero chance of stopping now. Maybe that’s because the group is so adept at mixing in different styles and sounds so there is no chance of becoming complacent at stretching the limits of what they can do. There is always a shimmering sense of discovery in songs like “She Stepped Away” and “Lost Out the Window” that not only hit the long ball now, but also point to a promise what The Mother Hips will do in the years to come. And then there’s “Spirit of ’98,” which takes an atmospheric trip to the out limits, traveling a road so many other San Francisco bands have journeyed on in the past. The closing song, “Stories Unborn,” points to a continuing future for a band that not only respects the past–a bruising cover of Buffy St. Marie’s 1964 crusher “Codine”–but also knows the only way to go is ever forward. The hip trip.
Willie Nelson, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love. Anyone who can make it to 90 years young and still sound so heartwarming and, well, cosmic, there must surely be a way in the world where they will live forever. Willie Nelson is on the first page of any book about staying soulful, and this album of ten songs by all-time songwriter Harlan Howard is a feat of nature. Nothing less. These are recent recordings that go straight to the heart of the eternal, and prove that there are miracles still to be had in this aging world. Nelson has always been someone who can take almost any song known to man or woman and turn it into an ear-turner and heartwarmer. Maybe that’s because he never goes overboard on anything. He stays deep in the pocket of beauty with a voice so true that the world shudders whenever he takes a stage. It’s been that way forever, and when he first moved to Austin from Nashville in the early 1970s and found his groove among the hippies and the hardhats it was all over but the sighing. That the man from Abbott, Texas has been able to walk the line so wonderfully is not a surprise to anyone who’s ever seen him live. He stands straight up, looks into the eyes of the crowd and sings his songs. And plays his ancient guitar Trigger. That’s it. Taking on Harlan Howard’s songbook is the perfect move for Willie Nelson now. These aren’t showoff songs. Instead, they are lean and loving, even when knee-deep in heartache, and point to a place where the heart of mankind will always exist: l-o-v-e and all its percolations. There is nothing left to say. Now just listen.
Lou Reed, The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi. There is a bookshelf full of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground books. Many of them open a door or two into the life of one of the most influential and powerful rock musicians of the past 50-plus years. But this new collection based on Reed’s Tai Chi practices is the one that most conveys what the man was really like. Maybe that’s because the Tai Chi study itself is only a jumping-off point for a totally fascinating examination of not only who Lou Reed was, but what made him that way. Those interviewed range from his sister to Reed’s liver transplant doctor, and every single one has something strategic to add to Reed’s life story. Of course, there are also interviews from Lou Reed himself, and he completely opens up about where he came from, what shaped him and where he was going, right up to the end in October 2013. There has never been as open and honest a book about a rock & roll artist. It is both fascinating and in some ways heartbreaking, in that Lou Reed didn’t get to live another twenty years into his 90s. It’s obvious no one enjoyed life more than he did, and with his marriage to the equally-intriguing artist Laurie Anderson it was like the two were the tag-team giants of a modern artistic age. Lou Reed had so much more to give, and no one wanted to continue that more than he did. This gift of a book Reed and editors Laurie Anderson, Stephan Berwick, Bob Currie and Scott Richman have delivered is one that will live for generations in explaining both how Tai Chi contributed to Reed’s life, but also how Reed so very clearly contributed to ours. For a chance to step inside the man’s soul and learn what really made Lou Reed who he was, start right here. See the light.
Various Artists, Tribute to a Songpoet: Songs of Eric Andersen. In the thick firmament of New York City folk music at the start of the 1960s, the streets and coffeehouses were bursting with singers of all persuasions. None had more to offer than Eric Andersen, and all the years he’s been covering the waterfront of whatever scene he finds himself in, this is truly an American music hero of the strongest order. So it’s no surprise that the bulging list of singers and musicians who gather on this 3-CD tribute extravaganza really is a major event. Beginning with a 1970 recording of Bob Dylan performing a previously unreleased rendition of Anderson’s civil rights anthem “Thirsty Boots” is about as auspicious a kickoff as could be imagined, and it just goes onward and upward from there. The performers list is too much to run through thoroughly here, but just let it be noted that it’s easier to pick out the few that aren’t on the collection than list all those that are. It points to the passionate fandom of some of the world’s great singer-songwriters for the man who has helped lead the charge from the recording studio into the real world in trying to make a difference with their songs. At a time when so much of America’s past has come home to roost in civil rights challenges and economic inequality, TRIBUTE TO A SONGPOET is a potent element of potential change, even if some of the songs live on for over a half-century and more. Great music, like all great art, is totally timeless and to hear this truly amazing collection of one man’s march into the history books is about as thrilling as could ever be imagined. A country’s dream.
The War and Treaty, Lover’s Game. Every decade or so a new group will appear that instantly feels like an event has occurred. There is something unique about them, or maybe it’s just the persona they project. Either way, The War and Treaty are clearly of that class. Wife-husband team of Tanya Trotter and Michael Trotter Jr. take their prodigous backgrounds in gospel music and spin them into a gorgeous web with the more secular sounds of popular songs. It is clearly a stunning combination of emotions. Both of their voices are worthy of total attention, and are never less than stellar. Tanya Trotter has a cutting ability to go straight for the heart of a lyric, while Michael Trotter Jr. is schooled in the sanctified allure of church-cured deliveries of the great gospel singers of the past few generations. What is especially appealing is how they can swerve in and out of the sacred and the secular lanes without losing a stitch on either side of the highway of love. Writing most of their songs gives them the laser-like insight into what they are there to connect with, and with producer Dave Cobb’s always-kicking punches the songs on LOVER’S GAME always hit right in the center of the bullseye. This is a duo that is destined for the toppermost of the poppermost, one that doesn’t appear that often but when it does there is nothing left to do but fall in love with the entire scope of music. There are hallelujah moments all over these 10 songs, and while their previous releases were totally worthy of attention, this new album is one that feels like a game-changer for the Trotters. There hasn’t been a pair like them in several decades, and to experience the team live onstage is breathtaking. And this new album shows why. It’s no accident that they were on a recent country music awards show tearing it up with the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock & Roll,” and now that this new album cements their ability to set concert halls asunder is well proof positive a new star team has arrived. Surrender and see.
Bentley’s Bandstand: March 2023