Bentley’s Bandstand: April 2023
By Bill Bentley
Walter Bishop Jr., Bish at the Bank: Live in Baltimore. Pianist Walter Bishop Jr. was one of the all-time finest pianists in jazz, even though he doesn’t have as well-known a reputation as many other players. That might be because Bishop often pursued teaching positions in colleges, or possibly just didn’t want to have a public persona like other keyboard giants. No matter what, though, there are plenty of recording sessions starting in the late 1940s to show just how swinging and full-of-fire Bishop could be. These two live nights were recorded in Baltimore in 1966 at the Madison Club and 1967 at the Famous Ballroom. Each disc is an incredible insight into how stellar Bishop was. And for an absolutely mind-blowing add-on to Bishop, Lou McIntosh’s bass and Dick Berk’s drums, none other than Harold Vick is on the bandstand playing saxophone and flute. There is no way to convey what an unbeatable quartet BISH AT THE BANK has captured. The velocity of swing the group goes for right from the start is like an enticing notice of things to come, and it doesn’t take long for each musician to have hit their peak. These live recordings were done by the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and are a highlight of America’s finest improvised playing. When the sets arrive, they always feel like a gift from the beyond, because very few people realize just how adventurous and downright impeccable these programs were then. It was like Baltimore was the equal of New York in presenting jazz, but you had to almost live in the city to know about it. But between Bishop and Vick’s leading roles on these eight songs, ranging from “My Secret Love” to “Pfrancing, ” the music hits like a hurricane and lets it be known everyone involved from the band to the audience was in it for keeps. Reel-to-Real Recordings has become a company that can always be counted on to deliver musical surprises no matter who they are featuring, and BISH AT THE BANK is now at the very top of their offerings. Bank on it.
Peter Case, Doctor Moan. Though the man has played blues, rock, folk and country music for over fifty years, Peter Case is someone who somehow never seems to repeat himself. His approach to the songs he writes and those he covers always feel like he’s just stumbled over a whole new sound, and his energetic playing and singing sweeps listeners up into that joyous area which is always uplifting. Case’s vocals have an appealing edge to them so his sound is fiery but never off-putting. Instead it’s the sound of inclusion, like through the songs he sings, the musician is offering a ride to a new land. Maybe that’s because the former Nerves and Plimsouls kingpin has an eternal energy in the delivery. Whether the music is emotionally up or down doesn’t really pin Case in. Instead, it opens all the doors to an American treasure, a real-life troubadour who travels all sorts of roads without ever getting lost. DOCTOR MOAN is the perfect example of everything the Hamburg, New York native has always aspired to. Originality reigns supreme on songs like “That Gang of Mine,” “Downtown Nowhere’s Blues” and “Brand New Book of Rules” in a way that is both challenging and endearing. Maybe that’s because Peter Case’s voice honors the past but also charges into the future. With bandmates bassist Jim Flaugher and organist Chris Joyner, there is no waste of sound or space. This is modern music at its most passionate. An American original.
The Cash Box Kings, Oscar’s Motel. While it’s true when they said the blues will never die, it doesn’t always mean it can’t use some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This hard-charging group was born in Madison, Wisconsin 22 years ago, which means they are fully street legal now and free to kick up as much major musical sand as they can these days. Fronted wonderfully by singer and songwriter Oscar “Mr. 43rd Street” Wilson and harmonica guru, songwriter and singer Jos Nosek, this is an aggregation that’s gone to the battleground of the blues and made sure business is being taken care of. And while it’s almost impossible to ride the golden rail of originality playing blues in 2023, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done with a totally burning attack that makes sure listeners are picked up and thrown in the air for a night of get up and get down bluesalating. The Cash Box Kings are the real thing and their brand new gyrating disc OSCAR’S MOTEL is proof positive that misbehavior is not only allowed within those four-walled rooms, it is completely encouraged. For starters, Mr. Wilson don’t take no mess. He is the kind of vocalist who isn’t afraid to get in the gutter and sing his blues like it’s in him and it’s got to come out, and also ain’t shy to write the kind of songs that might bruise the funny bones on their way to the bedroom. Sharing the vocal mic and blowing harp, Joe Nosek is always a frontman who knows his followers didn’t come for a funeral, but instead they want their blues bands to rip it up with all the soul inside them. For OSCAR’S MOTEL, all bets are off except the one that says the Cash Box Kings are not waiting for anything to change before they go all out and chase their devils through the cornfields with extreme gusto. There are really only a handful of bands like this prowling the highways anymore, so when one comes along and slams the monkey nerve into the floor it’s best to give them plenty of room to do their thing. The good news is that there’s a vacancy or two at this no-tell motel for some monkeying around, and this band is the one in charge of all that amped-up business. King Coleman, a wise emcee from the golden era of soul music, used to end his onstage yelping with the wisened line, “Nobody knows where the nose goes when the doors are closed.” Open for business.
Julie Christensen, The Price We Pay for Love. There might just be another album released in 2023 that is as absolutely amazing as Julie Christensen’s new set, but there most definitely won’t be one that is better. This is a time-stopper set of songs that just keep getting more and more overwhelming the more often it is heard. Really. Christensen, a wondrous singer who has decades of rich experience in her arsenal, has somehow found a way to make a cosmic leap on songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” Michael Moss’ “Goldridge Road,” Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and, well, every single track is breathtaking. Christensen herself contributes her own writing to several stunners here, and has such a delicate but devastating way of picking other writers’ work that it is almost beyond the believable. Produced and arranged with Terry Lee Burns, who also contributes acoustic bass, string arrangements and orchestral programming, THE PRICE WE PAY FOR LOVE is the kind of release that comes every decade or so, and the fact that Julie Christensen brought it all to life is surprising but totally understandable. This woman has been on this journey in life many years, and even though she zigged and zagged for some of those years there has always been a burning rightness in what she does that has kept capturing the deepest meaning of music. There is no other way to say it but that Christensen has entered the clouds. The last song on the album, “Hilltop,” written by Burns and accompanied on piano by Karen Hammack, is one for the ages, a song with the soulfulness that only an all-timer can achieve. Which is exactly what Julie Christensen is, and what she and Terry Lee Burns have accomplished on an album that will live forever. Their time’s now.
Andy Fairweather Low, Flang Dang. When it comes to subtle wailing by a musician from Wales, there is no finer candidate than Andy Fairweather Low to fill that bill. For someone who’s been writing, singing and playing guitar for well over 50 years, this is the man. Fairweather Low got his first attention in the band Amen Corner, and once he cornered the ears of other musicians in the top tier like Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Roger Waters and others, he found a saved-seat in their bands as well as a turn leading his own. There is something so solid and swinging in the Welshman’s guitar that he is the ultimate designated hitter for others to look to and make sure the sounds coming off the bandstand stay superfied. FLANG DANG is a welcome return to the headliner slot on this album of such positive pleasure it should be given out after therapy sessions around the globe. Lead track “Waiting on the Up” is the ultimate opener to such a sturdy set of songs, and arrives in the nick of time to help all listeners get on the good foot in a time of such challenges. Andy Fairweather Low’s voice is one that hits all the British rhythm & blues grooves, but never tries to sound like anything but his own. As the good-time rocker winds through ways to get rid of the ick, he hits all the bases on an album of all-originals like “Somebody Wants My Soul,” “Keep Your Faith,” “Looking Down,” Stand Up” and the heart-tugging closer “At the End of All the Roads” with such clear-eyed clarity and funkified finesse that they should be calling him Doc. Andy Fairweather High.
The Long Ryders, September November. There were so many new genre names being thrown around in the 1980s that a scorecard was needed to keep up. One of the primary ones then was the Paisley Underground, and out of that vaunted crowd came the Long Ryders. Named after a popular Walter Hill-directed movie, the group would more appropriately have been a newly-added heavy in country rock, soon to be tagged Americana, but in the end it didn’t matter because the Long Ryders were one of the very best bands of their era, no matter what they were called. They quickly conquered the club scene in Los Angeles, and before long Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Greg Sowders and Tom Stevens started a long march around the world in spreading the glory of their sound. They return now, minus member Tom Stevens of a sudden death in early 2021, with all guns blazing. In so many ways, the Long Ryders are really best-tagged a rock band, because that’s what they really do. McCarthy and Griffins’ guitars are clearly slanted in a rock direction, while vocally the band can sing just about anything. What is so righteous about SEPTEMBER NOVEMBER is just how strong it is, even if the new album is something of a reunion record. Every new song feels like one of the group’s very best, an amalgamation of the many influences they have so wisely used over the years. Different bassists are beautifully filling Stevens’ bass slot, but in the end his spirit is still in the band, laying down the bottom notes in a never-ending rush of excitement. What has been clear since day one of the Long Ryders is just how much they love the music they are creating, like it’s the life blood in all of them. And, so very beautifully, Tom Stevens steps back into the spotlight on his song “Flying Out of London in the Rain,” like he’s still right in the front line of the group. It’s a tremendous way for Stevens to wave goodbye, and such a heartfelt chance for the Long Ryders to send their musical brother to his next journey. SEPTEMBER NOVEMBER is one of the band’s very best albums, passionately produced, recorded and mixed by Ed Stasium, and feels like a direct line from his work with the Ramones. And that’s saying something. Tom Stevens RIP.
Van Morrison, Moving On Skiffle. One thing is certain in popular music: never try to second-guess Van Morrison’s decisions. One of the very finest singers of all-time has zigged and zagged the 60-plus years recording in a way that is both mesmerizing and magnificent. And while not every release has made the world seem more fantastic, there is something in the music of Morrison that really does make the spinning planet more joyous. His voice holds magic in it. That is for certain. And the best of the songs he writes are very rarely surpassed by any other songwriters. So if Van the Man’s latest project seems like it’s focusing on an early UK skiffle sound, don’t despair. Because Morrison is paying homage to the early sound of music in his youth that pulled his coat on a place he could start. Always deep in the blues and early jazz performers of the past century, skiffle gave those starting to play in the 1950s a roots-rich area of history that wasn’t already mined to death by the pop charts. There was still room for new interpretation on the skiffle scene, and to turn it into something all his own. Now Van Morrison is repaying history with a 23-song double-album that reaches up in the sky and captures a source of musical freedom that is all about Morrison’s roots, without being a rehashing of history. Rather, it is surely an account of where he started and what Van Morrison has done with his life. And how he continues down that road of freedom is nothing short of a sonic miracle. Belfast Cowboy forever.
Molina, Talbot, Lofgren, Young, All Roads Lead Home. Crazy Horse has quietly been one of America’s top of the line rock bands for almost 55 years, and often gets overlooked in how good they really are. Their years with Neil Young are usually front and center, as they should be, but the Horse has made a few solo records that burn extremely bright on their own. Their latest endeavor is an interesting apex. Band members Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot and Nils Lofgren each contribute three songs done separately, and add their longtime friend Neil Young on one song, “Song of the Seasons,” from Young’s latest album, recorded in a special acoustic version. This route gives each member of the Horse a total spotlight of their own, and they make breathtakingly original tracks that show just how striking their abilities are, and always have been. Drummer Molina takes a high, melodious attack on his three songs; bassist Billy Talbot goes for a hard-edged sound while Nils Lofgren does what he is so well-known for, which is recording music of such beauty and emotion that shows he is an equal of anyone. ALL ROADS LEAD HOME was recorded during the pandemic years, and there is a wistful feel to a lot of the songs, where Crazy Horse is clearly stretching their wings at the same time they’re paying tribute to all they’ve done. The three members have made one of the most alluring albums of 2023, and hopefully they might even tour performing these nine songs along with other career highlights. And by pitching in “Song of the Seasons,” which immediately goes onto the all-time classic Neil Young heartbender list, this family affair casts a glow in all directions at a time that the world most definitely needs it. Home straight ahead.
Stephen Stills, Live at Berkeley 1971. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this previously unreleased 1971 live show by Stephen Stills now sounds like a rock & roll highlight. In 1971, not long after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had conquered the world, leave it to Stills to take on a solo career. Even with a string of accomplishments that put him at the top, it’s clear from these performances that the musician still had a lot he felt like proving. Mainly how there were very few solo artists then that could top his game. So off Stephen Stills went, including this incredible night in his adopted home in California, to show the world just what he could do on his own. Songs like “Love the One You’re With,” “Black Queen” and others stand tall next to his Buffalo Springfield and CSNY blockbusters. And with a live band second to none, this disc now appears like an unknown achievement rarely equaled in an age of giants in the early 1970s. Maybe that’s because Stephen Stills had a way of making his massive talents look easy. One of the best guitarists of that age, he could also sing circles around most other rock titans and make it look easy. So for those who still have memories of all that was exploding in rock & roll in the early ’70s, it’s time for a time travel journey to hear just how overwhelming a concert could be. With David Crosby singing on two songs and the Memphis Horns standing tall those two August nights, LIVE AT BERKELEY 1971 arrives out of left field to remind all just how transcendent a night of live music could be when it seemed like the world was changing daily and the sky was the limit for the hopes and dreams of a new youth culture still being born. And the really good news is that concerts like this are still happening, and if Stephen Stills has anything to do with it they aren’t going away anytime soon. Lean on him.
Mike Stinson & Johnny Irion, Working My Way Down. Don’t forget this: Mike Stinson is one of the few musicians who left Los Angeles and moved to Houston to try and move on up the music ladder.. That’s original thinking of the highest order, and also a good key to how this artist looks at things. The powers that be could have invented the phrase “out of the box” to describe who and what Stinson is. Not only has he written the best semi-country songs of the past two decades, he also has exhibited a ferocious take-no-prisoners attitude about how the world works, and always proceeds to do things his way–come hell or high water. Mike Stinson’s new release, a collaboration with fellow musician Johnny Irion and other songwriters, is a boulder-throwing success, full of songs that hit smack between the eyes and the brain, and aren’t afraid to say exactly what they mean. “Working My Way Down,” “Taking No for an Answer” and “Stranger Here Myself” show such an originality of spirit and substance that it is a head-shaking case of wondering why in the world this is someone who isn’t nationwide yet, but refuses to bend in any way, shape or form to get there. The smoking rhythm section, which includes Stinson himself on drums, lead guitars Johnny Irion along with Stinson and some zinger fellow sidemen have made one of the most burning sets of the still-young year and are no doubt hoping they get some kind of shot to get the recordings heard. And who knows: now could be their time. The definition of country music is twisting and turning so much–once again–that it feels like the people making the most individualistic styles are getting the best chance to be heard. It happens every few decades and maybe 2023 will be Mike Stinson along with Johnny Irion’s time. The Houston Astros finally won the World Series straight-up, which is absolutely proof positive that anything can happen now. And any collection that includes an opening track with the honest guts of “The Bottle and Me.” deserves a deep dive. Buffalo Bayou’s finest.
Reissue of the Month
Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign. There are albums that totally define a time and place in American music. There is no other way around them. They must be acknowledged and admired for showing what the United States is capable of at its finest. Albert King’s 1967 release on Memphis’ Stax Records was a golden achievement in an era of true greatness. King had been criss-crossing the country riding high on the chitlin’ circuit, the big man just getting started on breaking through with rock & roll crowds. When King went into the label’s studio on McLemore Avenue in Bluff City, well, no one was really prepared for the creation of such an immortal recording that resulted from those days. Backing band Booker T. & the MGs were clearly fired up for the sessions, and were more than ready to play the blues groove they’d grown up hearing in the South. But what Alert King and crew really did was totally make an amalgamation of several styles of America’s greatest music, whether it was blues, soul and everything those genres represent. So from a sizzling monster like “Born Under a Bad Sign” to a back alley version of the Ray Noble pop standard “The Very Thought of You” is 11 songs that zig and zag through the very finest achievements of artists of that era. And when BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN was released, listeners from far and wide rushed to it as a new musical touchstone. And while King only had one original on the set–the subtle bulldozer of the track “Down Don’t Bother Me”–there was never a shred of doubt one of the very strongest albums of the century had come to life. There is something so elegant and elemental on all the songs that it was like the public knelt down in respect for a man who may not have been as famous as B.B. King, but surely had an individualist stranglehold on the blues he did play and sing that there would never be an iota of questioning Albert King’s bona fides as one of the very greatest bluesmen of all time. This new vinyl reissue of that ’67 classic is perfection personified, and one of the best evidence of what can happen when a blues giant enters the building and puts it in the alley. All the way.
Book of the Month
James Talley, Nashville City Blues: My Journey As An American Songwriter. Sometimes the greatest music books are the ones that come unexpectedly out of left field. As singer-songwriter James Talley’s tale of the ups and downs and back up again attests, he is an extraordinary man of talents and who also is fearless in staying true to his muse. Raised in eastern Oklahoma, he had always heard songs in his head as he also zeroed in on social causes that he felt needed fixing. With those values in mind, it seemed like a longshot to break into the country music business in Nashville. But that’s what Talley did when he moved and started knocking on doors. The man’s intriguing memoir is a how-to manual on how to believe in yourself and never quit. With the groundbreaking 1975 release GOT NO BREAD, NO MILK, NO MONEY, BUT WE SURE GOT A LOT OF LOVE, he seemed to do the impossible and get the kind of attention very few country music stars received then: from the rock press. That’s because Talley wrote and sang songs that hit heart and the head equally strong. And addressed tough subjects in American social and financial equality, and did it without pulling any punches. In a way, he was fighting for the right to sing about matters that really matter to him, and those he felt should matter equally important to his audience. Music City didn’t really bust open the doors of acceptance, but they knew they had a true believer on their hands and for awhile gave him room to move. Of course, it remained a tenuous relationship with the hit-making machinery in charge, but as his book testifies James Talley was not someone to back down. What he writes about his life on the music biz merry-go-round is an insider’s story that has never really been told before. It is like a handbook on the rough road guaranteed to any artist trying to write their own rules, but also the book is a testament that with all great things, there are those that are worth fighting for. Needless to say, at its heart NASHVILLE CITY BLUES is really a study of a man’s spirit and the strength it takes to stay on their truest path. Talley’s book is unlike almost all others: it tells the hardest truths and captures the greatest achievements of someone who started with nothing, never flinches and is still doing his best to follow his dream. Don’t back down.
Song of the Month
Leeann Atherton, “You Are Not Alone.” Right on time Austin-based singer Leeann Atherton shows up with a song that offers such overwhelming hope and understanding that it should be required listening in churches, schools and, hell, at sporting events. That’s because Atherton has survived in the musical saving game for decades, been through more than a few ringers, and come out the other side proving she knows of what she speaks and has the inner guts to share it with anyone who might just need a helping hand and has the spirit to listen. There are moments in life when a song seems to descend from another level, one that can’t really be explained, but offers moments of salvation just the same. This is that moment, and it is one that should not be missed. What a world.
Bentley’s Bandstand: April 2023