Bentley’s Bandstand: May 2023
By Bill Bentley
Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Shake It for Me. In so many ways it feels like the blues, that music which started in a world of hurt and moved through changes that helped turn the world around, is shrinking. Yes, there are plenty of players that still take on that Herculean task of making a mountain out of pain and joy, but the way it’s presented has moved beyond the elemental into a world of entertainment. At its essence, the blues is an instrument, a voice and a dedication to doing something about helping humans find the light. It’s something that demands total dedication and devotion to helping others. Not an easy task by any means. For an early blues player like the 78-year-old Clarence “Bluesman” Davis straight out of Eutaw, Alabama, there is nothing he cannot accomplish. The way Davis plays guitar sets the tone for the simplicity so much of the greatest blues has. It finds its final strength in the hard emotions expressed inside the songs, all the time delivered with the eternal forgiveness the best blues can extend. This is a healing job, this music, and there can be no doubt when it works. The world becomes a little less heavy, the future feels that somehow it will be brighter, and ultimately even though no one gets out of this life alive at least there is a sense that it will be worth it. Wear it out.
The Ducks, High Flyin’. There’s not much better than a truly great bar band in a great bar. The Ducks didn’t exist that long in Summer 1977, but when they did come together there weren’t many outfits playing better anywhere in the world. Neil Young, Bob Mosley, Jeff Blackburn and Johnny Craviotto took to mostly small spots in the Santa Cruz area and turned it up. Nights at the Crossroads Club, The Back Room at the New Riverside, the Catalyst, the Steamship and others, including for a few days Magic Devices studio, are still being talked about for those lucky enough to have been there. The music sounds like something that was being played for the first time, with all the kick and freshness of a sound that had just been invented, with no expectations to be fulfilled and nothing but fun to be had from it all. In some ways, that is the highest point of a song’s life, when it’s being performed nearly in the dark. Bars are the spot that so much of where rock & roll was invented, and when it returns home expectations are turned down and excitement turned up. Songs like the Bob Mosley (ex-Moby Grape) classic “Gypsy Wedding,” Neil Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country?” and others here pour the fuel on the fire and much to the delight of the lucky audience in the houses everything took off for the roof. There have been bootlegs galore of these recordings, but now that the Neil Young Archives is releasing a wide range of legendary tapes, there is no telling what might come next. Like with most things in life, it’s best to be grateful for today and celebrate the present. That’s what rock & roll was invented for, and hopefully that will continue into the foreseeable future. To get lost in a long guitar solo and not really know where it came from nor does it matter is to crack the true code of rock, and these four Ducks are ready to supply the secret. Open all night.
Tommy Emmanuel CGP, Accomplice Two. This Australian whiz is so immersed in American country music there’s a good chance he’s received a passport out of respect by the State Department for all he’s done for the idiom. This knocked-out release has many special guests, much musical excellence and just downright righteousness to it, Emmanuel might even be awarded a Medal of Honor from the Congress in D.C. Listening to ACCOMPLICE TWO in one sitting is like getting a history lesson and massive jolt of country juju simultaneously. There haven’t been many albums quite like it, ranging from special guests like Billy Strings, Jamey Johnson, Sam Bush, Little Feat, Michael McDonald, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury Band, Jorma Kaukonen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, David Grisman, Raul Malo and a hay bale more, all playing their hearts out for the sheer love of country songs. The logistics and legal contracts alone are enough to melt a stick of butter on an ear of corn. In the end, it is worth it because Tommy Emmanuel sounds like not only is he on fire to deliver his very best, but so are all his guests. The album is nothing short of epic . The song selection–ranging from Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner Blues” to Jimmie Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud”–even includes new Tommy Emmanuel originals that can stand side-by-side with the classics. That, of course, is a feat in itself. At a time when modern country music can head a bit too close to the beauty shop, all it takes is an album like this to show the towering strengths of an absolute American art form. And the way Tommy Emmanuel fits right in and helps fuel the fires is a timeless testament to what this music can be at its height. What a world.
Boris Garcia. It’s Time For Tea. It is almost impossible to attach a style to this timeless quintet. They have been performing for years, and developed a faithful following which attests to the transformative power of their music. Hard to explain, like their name maybe, but impossible to resist. That’s because the musicians–Jeff Otto, Bob Stirner, Bud Burroughs, Ed Simpson and Dave Mattacks–have become mind-readers with their fellow bandmates. And while initially the songs might sound slightly delicate, in reality they are full of powerful strength. Produced by Tim Carbone, IT’S TIME FOR TEA is one of those double-duty discs: it invokes past music in a way that is instantly nostalgic, and then takes off from the present into the future like it is the exact next step called for. In so many ways, there is a sense of mystery woven into songs like “Everybody Knows,” “Breathe” and “Running Off the Road” that just cannot be pegged. Vocalists Otto and Stirner sing like no one else, not an easy accomplishment, and invoke different eras of modern music that in the end can only be called timeless. Using instruments like harp, banjo, ukulele, banjo, guitar and, yes, Marxophone along with bass and drums gives Boris Garcia an individualist sound and spirit so they instantly stand out from all others. Even if they sometimes recall the sonics of the Grateful Dead’s quiet side, they do it all to their own ends, sounding like no one else. Describing their band name Boris Garcia as a way of invoking a musical spirit of the East meets West is right on the money, because that is exactly what the outfit invokes. Then and now.
Rickie Lee Jones, Pieces of Treasure. A song is a promise, written with hope and feelings and inspiration. The recording, in the hands of a master, is like a promise delivered. One that starts with notes and words and then is infused with the soulful qualities to turn it into magic. That’s what Rickie Lee Jones has done with her perfectly-titled new album PIECES OF TREASURE. It is filled with the sound that makes music the force of the world. Songs are a living thing after someone sings them. “Nature Boy,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “One for My Baby”: every song on this breathless collection takes off on a life of its own with Jones’ abilities. As they have been captured in a recording studio, with the form-fitting help of producer Russ Titelman, a listener can be changed forever. The way this music lives in the air is one of the wonders of the world. They are written, they are sung and then they exist in life for eternity. This woman is no stranger to eternity. From her earliest days she saw how some things were able to become a guide for living. Music was at the top of her list, and now on PIECES OF TREASURE she has reached out and created such an entity–again. A hundred years ago singers and songwriters began creating a new world, and now there are still those artists who continue in that quest. On this album’s ten songs, the woman has entered the exalted zone of the music of the spheres. Listening to her going all the way back to “Chuck E.’s in Love” and forward to today, it is obvious that is the only way she knows how to do it. And thank goodness for that. This music feels like it is a dream come true. The band is playing in the same deep vein as the singer is moving in, the incredible songs remaining faithful servants waiting to be offered. It is another miracle of the circle remaining unbroken. All the way.
Taj Mahal, Savoy. This legend is a walking and talking, singing and swinging force of all kinds of roots music. Taj Mahal may have gotten an early liftoff with the Rising Sons rock band in Los Angeles in 1965 alongside guitarist Ry Cooder, but it didn’t take long for him to blast off in his very own orbit. He initially got tagged as a bluesman, but that too got expanded into a global attack that has served him well the past 60 years. His latest foray, SAVOY, is somewhat of a tribute to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom near where Mahal was born in 1942. The legendary music room was like a talisman for those who grooved in that sector of Manhattan starting in 1938, and the fact that Taj Mahal’s parents used to frequent the spot gives this album a full-on foundation in their son’s own history. SAVOY, produced with the legendary John Simon, sounds like a dream come true for all who participated and is surely one of the highlights of the exuberant life of Mahal himself. The songs explore with a mighty zest so many of the different strains of American jazz and blues, and in the end brings an era alive again for all who consider this music a holy grail. There is such an energetic gait to songs like “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” “Lady Be Good” and “Caldonia” that if often feels like time has been suspended in a sound that not only helps define roots music for so many, but also puts a major kick into what is still capable for those who want to follow these sounds. All those involved in SAVOY deserve a special commendation for anyone who has been on this sonic course all these years. And Taj Mahal himself, at the head of this brigade, has always been a musical general leading his troops onto nightclub and concert hall stages. This is someone who really does exist in a time and space of his own, and hopefully will be there for many years to come. He is needed.
Queen Esther, Rona. While early descriptions of Queen Esther were along the lines of “the unknown queen of Americana,” a little dynamite should be added to those words to call her the “ecstatic ruler of the outer cosmos.” Because she sings like a cosmic visitor from another solar system, and then takes semi-normal songs and turns them into irresistible creatures of the semi-beyond. Her voice possesses feelings inside it that sound like they originate in a place that no normal humans can reach, and at the same time are as simple as the South Carolina low country where she once lived. Raised in Atlanta, George before striking out for various outerlands, the Queen received early musical visions performing with James “Blood” Ulmer, which included a tour of duty with his band Odyssey. Needless to say Queen Esther drinks in fully from the musical waters that really have no name, but instead come from an inner fabrication where the woman understands what roots are really all about, and then implants them wherever she sees fit. This is free-form fullness that knows no walls. There is no real description of what Queen Esther has accomplished on RONA. Rather, it is a musical osmosis that is exactly what America and the rest of the world surely needs to assimilate into modern life, so maybe the human race can get on with living openly instead of boomeranging between fear and fanaticism. In a time when the ticking countdown has begun, and it often feels like only some new coagulate of magic can save the day, songs like “All That We Are,” “Oh My Stars,” and, yes, Bread’s “Lost Without Your Love” ride to the rescue in the loving arms of a woman who has seen the future and knows it is firmly on the way. Do not despair.
Tremoloco, Curandera Volume 1. A lot of different words have described Tremoloco over the years: Sonoran Gothic folk, Gulf Coast roots and Tex-Mex Americana. And that’s just for openers. Usually when a group is hard to pin down with descriptions it means they’re doing something incredibly right. Which is the case for Tremoloco. The group, based both in Houston and Los Angeles and co-led by Tony Zamera, Cougar Estrada and Richard Rodriguez III, they are in the happy habit of inviting all kinds of friends and special guests to throw in on their recordings, and have outdone themselves with CURANDERA VOLUME ONE. There is a way the group has of throwing in all kinds of influences into songs that are always on the verge of taking off when they begin, and by the time they’re finished sound like nothing else but themselves. That’s the key. In a musical world where it sometimes seems like everything has already been played and recorded, Tremoloco aren’t satisfied in what’s already been done. Like the pioneers their ancestors were, the musicians are adept at crossing borders and using both what came with them and what they’ve discovered and mixing them together in ways that haven’t been heard. On their fifth album, that’s really the case in spades. The energy level of songs like “Mezcal,” “Dixie Highway” and “El Paso” are slightly subversive but always original. Maybe that’s because the band isn’t afraid of employing whatever musician they need to get the music played right. There are nine special guests on this new set, and it would be hard to pick any one of them out as not full-time band members. They all know exactly what to add to get the fire lit, and aren’t afraid of going to the wall to make sure it works. It all feels like Tremoloco has built their own new home, and are ready to take it across the country as a traveling town open to all listeners. Don’t look back.
Nick Waterhouse, The Fooler. Here’s a blue-eyed soul brother who isn’t afraid to wade into the deep end on his new album and see what awaits him there. Masterfully produced by Mark Neill in (where else?) Valdosta, Georgia, it feels like a new jumping-off point for the Los Angeleno singer, freeing him from some of the musical constraints of the past and letting him set those chickens free. Waterhouse often veers into Velvet Undergroundian freedom and ’60s punk-rock bite in such an appealing way that the whole thing becomes appealing in a way that not all rock does these days. Songs zig and zag and clearly are celebrating a subversive audacity that makes life itself feel more open and less-oppressive. In a way, there is a post-pandemic playbook in effect here. Maybe Waterhouse and Neill sat down in advance and crossed-out anything underlined in the rule book of making music and instead figured out the less restraint the better. Nick Waterhouse’s voice is the star of this show, and the instrumental strengths are icing on the cake. And, of course, the songs themselves are calling most of the shots for what gets recorded, and luckily they are the highlight too. This is music for the ages, no matter what age the listener is. Whatever the reason, THE FOOLER is a freedom-busting kick to listen to, and never gets too smart for its own good. Nick Waterhouse has taken some gambles this time around, and hopefully his faithful followers and newcomer fans encourage him to travel this road ahead. Subtlety and salvation have never sounded so good together. “Unreal, Immaterial”–amazing.
Reissue of the Month
Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes. Little Feat’s true masterpiece, this sophomore set from 1972 always felt like it got shorted. The band’s self-titled debut was heralded by the hipster brigade in glowing description, but never really broke through to its true audience: the entire rock world. And while the group’s third album, DIXIE CHICKEN seemed to do just that, it left an aching heart for the faithful who came to worship SAILIN’ SHOES like the Valhalla it is. With a lineup of forever classic songs like “Easy to Slip,” “Cold, Cold, Cold,” “Tripe Face Boogie” and “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” the Feat’s lineup here remained its original group, before the additions and replacements occurred on DIXIE CHICKEN. For whatever reason, SAILIN’ SHOES somehow didn’t bust down the record shop doors. Listening to this new reissue collection now, including the original and remastered version of the album itself, along with collectible tracks, outtakes and rarities–and a live 1971 show at the Palladium in Los Angeles–it feels once again like the music is finally receiving the attention it always deserved. These are rock & roll songs played like the group knew exactly how incredible they were, and held back nothing. Every single one is an all-timer, and with producer Ted Templeman they had discovered what sparked their studio mojo into overdrive. It’s much too late to make up for lost time, with this original Little Feat lineup member Bill Payne the only one walking free on the planet–Lowell George and Richie Hayward have passed on and Roy Estrada is serving a life sentence without parole in prison–so a reunion is no longer a possibility. But with an astonishing two-CD collection like this reentering the atmosphere maybe a little history catch-up is still possible. And, yes, DIXIE CHICKEN is also experiencing the Cadillac reissue version too, simultaneously, so a boogie outbreak is entirely available in America in 2023. Listen and learn.
Song of the Month
Jimmy Bennett, “Easter Morning Melody.” When the pandemic first began in Spring 2020, guitarist supreme Jimmy Bennett noticed things shutting down all around across New York City. Fear was setting in. On that Easter Sunday morning he recorded a song and posted a video of it on Facebook. The word started spreading as people responded, and Bennett has continued adding postings right up until today. “Easter Sunday Morning” has such a graciousness to it that it feels like a buoyant spiritual, something that not only offers hope but also provides solace now. It’s a double-winner as they sometimes call it. Collected on the album SUNDAY MORNING SESSIONS, this is music that is a gift to those who need it, and a deliverance to all. “Easter Morning Melody” is a permanent prayer as the world turns. Turn with it.
Book of the Month
Lucinda Williams, Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You. As a singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams has always lived in a party of one. The way she sings, writes and, well, lives puts her in a very exclusive world. Reading her autobiography makes all that clear. This is someone who was raised in a world very much of her own making, and followed her dreams and determination with all the gusto inside her. Which is plenty. Living as a youngster in unique circumstances with a professor father and mentally-challenged mother gave the young girl the keys to the highway pretty early, and Williams was never shy about taking her own path. Bit by the music bug at a very early age, her entire existence has been a shining star of how to let the inner heart lead the parade, and learn how to deal with all the highs and lows as the challenges arise. What has gotten Lucinda Williams through it all, now with so many flying colors, is her unassailable talent for all she does. The fact that she’s written some of the very best songs of the past 40-plus years is one thing, but the dedication she has shown in singing them and never looking back or down has taken courageous talent, and one not to be taken lightly. In so many ways, there is no one really like Lucinda Williams, and the story she tells in her own words is one that isn’t likely to be equaled anytime soon. A proud daughter of the South, and an exploring soul of both the ups and downs of what it means to be alive, this book offers a primer of tremendous emotions, remembered and explained by an artist of the very highest rank. In a way, it lives in and out of the world of music, and is able to grab the reader in a way that will never be forgotten. Lucinda Williams forever.
Movie of the Month
A Night at the Family Dog (1969), Go Ride the Music and West Pole (1969). Talk about flashbacks: this 2-DVD set arrives like an offering from another era that was sent to remind all just how spontaneous and creative rock & roll was in this time all around the Bay Area. Produced as television documentaries by San Francisco newspaper guru Ralph J. Gleason, they feel like an invitation for expanding the mind. And using all that was created in the counterculture reverberations of a time that had such a supercharged influence on the nation. Featuring on A NIGHT AT THE FAMILY DOG, filmed on February 4, 1970 Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Santana all pull out the stops for the cameras and show just how psychedelic they can be in sets that swirl and twirl in ways that really haven’t been equaled again. The freedom of the Family Dog and the mindsets of the musicians pull together to illustrate what the cultural revolution was capable of. Naturally, it’s the Grateful Dead that leads the charge, but the other two bands pick up the flag and prove they would take no backseat to anyone. And the fact that it’s all captured for posterity feels like a great gift from another lifetime. GO RIDE THE MUSIC actually manages to turn up the intensity a few notches with the Jefferson Airplane joining Quicksilver Messenger Service for what seems now like a historical double-bill. Too often Quicksilver seemed left by the wayside of the top tier of San Francisco’s early psychedelic warriors, when in fact they were right in the front formation. Joining in the fun are appearances by Jerry Garcia and David Crosby. WEST POLE is a wild gathering of Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others for what is one of the few filmings of such an evocative conglomeration. These musicians were heading for the ceiling in a way that will not be seen or heard again. Break china laughing.