Bentley’s Bandstand: June 2023
Jim Brunberg, You. Deserve. More. & Other Sequels. Once every few decades an American singer-songwriter emerges from the sidelines to stake a place right up front in the music madness. Very often they are so unique there is no way to describe them, let alone pigeonhole them. In the early 1970s Jake & the Family Jewels were like that. They made two albums for Polygram Records and then pretty much disappeared. Let’s hope that Jim Brunberg doesn’t do the same. There’s actually little chance of that, since he’s involved in enough other creative pursuits besides recording his own songs it tends to boggle the mind. But since it’s the songs themselves that is the subject at hand, let it be said that there is little like them. They are impossible to categorize, difficult to analyze but always totally able to be absorbed as joyous slices of noise and words that will not go away. They get inside the heart and soul and stay there. Forever. It’s most like some kind of down home magic the way Brunberg’s musical delights just keep on coming. And, really, seem like they are growing higher and deeper and completely irresistible. YOU. DESERVE. MORE. & OTHER SEQUELS really have to be heard to be completely appreciated. They swerve and swing and burrow and spread belief like a secular religion that isn’t pitching anything other than radiance in the human spirit to share genuine warmth and feelings. Who knows if that’s enough to exist in the modern world, but in so many ways it has to be. Because what else is there? Jim Brunberg has opened a door to everlasting effervescence. Give or take a few moments of pain here and there. Start with “Before I Met Lydia.” From there lives the universe. Hearing is believing.
William Lee Ellis, Ghost Hymns. Talk about a past. Wiliam Lee Ellis’ godfather was Bill Monroe, and his father respected banjo composer Tom Ellis, one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. That’s cred. But none of that would matter if William Lee Ellis wasn’t such a high-flying musician in his own right. He specializes in a style of guitar that is really beyond description. Though centered in original American folk music, Ellis gives his music a celestial patina, like it’s being played with a feeling of such beauty that it’s almost not of this earth. Maybe that’s because during his college career he concentrated on classical guitar, and even got a Master’s degree in classical performance from the Cincinnati College Conservatory. Which is all well and good, but the real gift of GHOST HYMNS is the fully-realized performances that are captured on the album. In many ways songs like “Cony Catch the Sun,” “Mumblin’ Word” and “Bury Me in the Sky” become a soundtrack to another life. One that exists somewhere between the earth and the clouds, and doesn’t ask for explanation or understanding as much as emotional resonance. This is a sound that isn’t just for those who are bound to the planet. Instead, maybe they really are ghost hymns meant to find a place to be outside our day-to-day consciousness. Dr. John used to call that place the spirit world, as opposed to the meat world. And he was someone who honored the spirits and visited them as often as possible. William Lee Ellis really does sound like a fellow traveler, one who is inviting all to go with him. Take a ticket.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes. Sometimes the very best albums are ones that arrive majestically on release, and feel like the ominous achievements they are. And then, with time and understanding, they grow even stronger into being collections that move into the deepest recesses of the heart and soul and become life-changers. WEATHERVANES feels like that. On the top surface, it is clear Jason Isbell’s latest is a keeper. A complete keeper. But with repeated listens, something else happens because of the songs. They start to feel like the kind of momentous pieces of life that are capable of turning things in new directions. Even though a real explanation stays just out of reach, the signs are all there. Jason Isbell’s voice feels now like something to really believe in. The Alabama son’s early days in Drive-By Truckers are well-documented as being seriously great, but these new songs are a whole other breakthrough. The two album openers, “Death Wish” and “King of Oklahoma,” don’t appear everyday. Or, hell, every decade. Instead, they tear down the wall of resistance to having music be a soul-changer and go directly there. This is someone who has been imbued with a new overwhelmingness. It can’t even be described, except it’s one of those musical happenings that leaves no doubt the earth has shifted a bit, and there is a new sheriff in town. The voice speaks with a celestial clearness. There is nothing to do but sign on for the journey now. Even though there is no guarantee there will be more WEATHERVANES in this man’s future, the smart money is there will be. These 13 songs are no accident. They come from way too deep in the center of who Jason Isbell is now to disappear anytime soon. That is written.
Amos Lee, My Ideal: A Tribute to Chet Baker Sings. There is a good chance there won’t be new jazz recordings that have the warmth, velocity and earth-moving beauty of the classics from the 1950s and early ’60s. Like the Blue Note, Prestige and other earth-moving labels released. Those are like sounds carved in stone on listeners’ hearts. They will never go away for those who snapped then they’d found the sonic promised land. One of those albums was CHET BAKER SINGS. The revered trumpet player and vocalist recorded a set of songs that opened up life to all those willing to take the plunge. Believe it or not, vocalist Amos Lee has taken that album and given it a new chance at the present. That is not to say Lee has equaled the original. That isn’t physically or spiritually possible. But what Amos Lee has done is create something from today that can convey the feelings of what has come before, in a way that seems just new enough to wrap the heart around today. With the perfect trio behind him, the singer takes on Baker’s original set list, all-timers like “That Old Feeling,” “It’s Always You,” “Like Someone in Love” and 13 more to celebrate a high-water mark in jazz and give it a bit of a shine so not everything spirit-shattering has to come the past. Not to be forgotten, either, is there are millions and millions of jazz lovers who never heard CHET BAKER SINGS. Ever. So now they can experience something brand new without having to carry any baggage with them. There is something to be said for the new, and how it can find openings that older recordings don’t exist in younger listeners. They aren’t burdened with history. This is their’s to own and cherish in the present. So give Amos Lee a standing ovation on this contemporary victory lap for jazz, and hope that it is a tradition of history that lasts forever. Future straight ahead.
Tracy Nelson, Life Don’t Miss Nobody. If anyone deserves bringing home a blues album that rings powerfully true from start to finish, it is Tracy Nelson. LIFE DON’T MISS NOBODY carries with it an understanding not only the essence of mortality, but also the massive strength of music’s immortality. The woman’s first album, 1965’s DEEP ARE THE ROOTS on Prestige Records, gave a signal that blues was Nelson’s breeding grounds, even though she was just starting her 20s. It’s where her earliest recording roots began, and though the past near-60 years have seen the singer veer in several fascinating directions, it’s always been the blues that brought her home. LIFE DON’T MISS NOBODY is nothing short of stunning. Tracy Nelson’s is all the way there, her grasp of the music she has always loved so much is without equal and the musicians who accompany her on this journey, which include musical heroes like Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, Charlie Musselwhite and so many more, these recordings are unmistakably centered in Nelson’s soul. With New Orleans’ queen Irma Thomas singing on several songs, Nelson even returns to one of her first band Mother Earth’s classics, “I Did My Part”–written by Allen Toussaint aka Naomi Neville–for a freshly kicked-up version. Needless to say, it smokes like crazy. By the end of this historic album it feels like Tracy Nelson has returned home, and in so many ways has brought her lifetime of achievements with her. Nelson sings like she has not only reached the top, but also feels like she’s even got more places to go. There haven’t been many in this singer’s league who has done so many soulful things with a voice that remains a national gift. And she’s still in the move, and not slowing down. Go with her.
The Rumble Featuring Chief Joseph Boudreaux Jr., Live at the Maple Leaf. Just to mention New Orleans’ unstoppable Uptown nightclub the Maple Leaf is to turn on the shudder machine at full blast. Located down Oak Street not far from the St. Charles/Carrollton streetcar line, the small nightspot has been grooving in overtime since it sprang to life in the 1970s. Known for hosting all the native greats of the Crescent City, there have been legendary jam sessions there that are still being talked about. The early days of the semi-modern brass bands like the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth were home here, along with James Booker, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, various members of the Meters and so many more. Just to walk within a block of the Maple Leaf is to feel the sonic vibrations that still make this building shimmy and shake whenever the front door gets unlocked. Naturally, Chief Joseph Boudreaux Jr., heaven-sent Mardi Gras Indians and his kicking and stomping band the Rumble couldn’t resist recording their album at the Maple Leaf. It might have been a punishable crime if they’d decided anything else. The seven member posse, along with two special guest horn players, absolutely set fire to the surroundings the second they take the stage, and when they kick into “Up Until the Morning,” they are surefire telling the truth. Don’t forget: this is a city where a lot of clubs and bars never put locks on the doors because they never close. And somehow it all works. The Rumbles know exactly when to set off their explosives and other times just to let the rhythm percolate right off the chart. Either way the spirit of New Orleans’ multi-century groove-a-tude never stops. All the players here are certified monsters, and the vocalists are right there with them. When it’s time to Rumble, find the levee right here and then proceed to burn it down. Yeah you right.
Son Volt, Day of the Doug: The Songs of Doug Sahm. If there are going to be any single-artist tribute albums recorded around these parts, it should most definitely be for certified-Texan Doug Sahm, aka Sir Douglas. The man who showed the world just how unendingly bodacious Lone Star state music could be given the ultimate enchilada plate honors now by those super-fine Americans Son Volt. Jay Farrar and musical family wade into the songbook of Mister Sahm and come out with a dozen classics, ten written by the man himself and two noted covers, that epitomize not only how great he was, but even more how the music that Sir Doug wrote total encapsulates everything he did over his 50-plus years of playing, back to a startling start while he was barely in elementary school in his beloved San Antonio. Listening to DAY OF THE DOUG is such a mind-blowing trip that it’s completely overwhelming, even for those who have been living in the Key of Sahm all these years. Son Volt’s joyousness tackling songs like “What About Tomorrow,” “Yesterday Got in the Way,” “Keep Your Soul” “Juan Mendoza” and all the others feels like a non-stop ride to the center of Sahm musical universe that might not happen again, but Lordy what a ride it has been when the Texan first created it, and then has been in our ears all these years now. Douglas Wayne Sahm was surely tagged State Musician of Texan in his early career, and there hasn’t been a serious contender to ever take the title away from him. Luckily there are dozens of Sahm’s own albums still available, and now that Son Volt has paid their passionate respect to him, there’s a good chance that generations after generations will keep discovering just how treacherous and true he always was. Keep your soul.
Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire. Of all the rock and rollers who found their way out of the alternative music firmament in the 1980s, the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson always seemed to have the most true blue rock spirit of predecessors that the Rolling Stones and the Clash always possessed. There was something about Stinson which spoke to a man who was born and bred on the ledge, and didn’t have any aspirations of going anywhere else. It was home. Once the Replacements started kicking up a mountain of sand and looked like they were heading for the toppermost of the poppermost, Stinson didn’t change a lick. He was still the hell-bent-for-action son of rock & roll he’d been born into, and stayed when he joined the ‘Mats before he went to high school, which he probably dropped out of as soon as he could. Once the Minneapolis aggregation imploded, Tommy Stinson stretched his wings in his band Bash & Pop and continued on. As he does to this very day, now in Cowboys in the Campfire. Like all his own discs there is a wide-open feeling of life being the true gift it is, even with the heartache and hassles that come the musician’s way. These new songs are closest to being the very best of his solo career, too. Written by Cowboys in the Campfire with main player Chip Roberts, they catch the glimmering rays of goodness hiding in life, and let the singers move into a cocoon of warmth that is positively infectious. Right – hand Cowboys in the Campfire compadre/producer Christine Smith and the band never look back at what was or what could have been.This is a totally 2023 affair and opens a huge door for an American outfit to bust their way in to make music that not only shows where Americana sounds come from, but also one more place where it’s going. Tommy Stinson has seen it all, played it all and lived it all. And best of all, the man still feels like Stinson’s on the ride of his life. He knows it.
Various Artists, The Next Waltz: One Night in Texas. The chances of an album with 11 different artists on it remaining as stellar as ONE NIGHT IN TEXAS are pretty rough, but this collection of participants ranging from Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, Sheryl Crow, Shinyribs and more is a such a grand slam is full-on breathtaking. The idea was to record a boatload of Willie Nelson originals at his Luck, Texas studio/ranch when his 89th birthday was nearing. And that’s exactly what happened, and then some. With Nelson originals like “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Night Life,” “Crazy,” and more on the launchpad, that helped. But, still, the artists recording the songs really had to deliver. And they did. There is the shimmer of eternity in these tracks, like everyone knew Willie Nelson had lived an amazing life and touched so many listeners that it was beyond count. Which meant each song got the cosmic touch, featuring vocals which completely capture all the beauty and braveness that Nelson has always exhibited in his music and his life. Ensconced in the part of Texas that for so long has been one he called home since returning to the state in the early ’70s, there is a gorgeous feeling of homecoming all through the album. There are times when someone’s soulful stature feels like the only thing in the room, and that’s exactly what’s shining all the way through THE NEXT WALTZ. This is that place and that time, and everything comes rushing back home. What a life.
Rufus Wainwright, Folkocracy. Sometimes there are albums that come together in such a cosmically-lifted way that it feels like the music itself could fly into the outer ozone and live among the extraterrestrials. There is no doubt that Rufus Wainwright is gifted with unique qualities, ones that define his worlds as the land and oceans define our own. But with Wainwright the sound of the songs he sings and performs have their very own environment to live in. It’s not quite like anywhere else. So on FOLKOCRACY the Canadian comes down to the planet a bit, working with other vocalists and singing a range of songs others wrote, like Neil Young’s “Harvest,” the Mama & Papas’ John Phillips’ “Twelve Thirty,” Van Dyke Parks’ “Black Gold” and other intriguers. Then there’s the guest vocalists like John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Anhoni, Chaka Khan, David Byrne and a handful more including what seems like his entire family of female singers. FOLKROCACY is a whole conglomeration of its own, and one that hits lift-off on the very first song and stays there. It’s a good bet saying that no one else but Rufus Wainwright could have created this album, and here’s hoping he does it again someday. The songs are all a trip of the highest order and bring a zing to modern life like no other, one we desperately need. Folk it up.
Song of the Month
Conrad Fisher “You Asked Me To”
It takes big vision and great belief to take on a Waylor Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver original like “You Asked Me To,” first immortalized on Jennings’ HONKY TONK HEROES album, and record it today. Maybe that’s because it always seems like perfection is too precious to tamper with, but don’t tell that to Conrad Fisher. The Pennsylvanian is clearly fearless. On his new seven-song mini-album he also tackles Tom Petty’s “Walls,” which takes equal guts. The truth is Fisher has everything it takes to tread in such sacred water, and the other five songs Fisher either wrote or co-wrote stand tall to these two classic renditions. Remember that name.
Reissue of the Month
Various Artists Written in Their Souls: The Stax Songwriter Demos
The Mother Lode has landed, and while it’s not technically a reissue since so few of these recordings have been previously released, the 7-disc 146 songwriter demos and arrangements from the Stax Records Studios are most definitely a gargantuan gas from the past. It’s almost inconceivable that this many songs, 140 previously unreleased, have stayed in silent captivity all these years. It goes without saying that Stax Records in Memphis will always be the most revered true soul music entity of all-time. It was there at the start of a musical revolution near the beginning of the 1960s. The label defined what that movement really sounded like and turned the world onto soul music once and for all. Now there really won’t be any more chances at that, at least not with the human gravitas and spiritual glory of the label, so that musical history has already been completed. And WRITTEN IN THEIR SOUL: THE STAX SONGWRITER DEMOS really does feel like the music’s Bible. Besides including all that trance-inducing music, even in its demo form, is a 50-page book with rare photographs from the Stax archives and liner notes by Stax Records’ Emmy Award-winner Deanie Parker and Emmy and Grammy-Award-winning author Robert Gordon. This is a full-on hallelujah moment, and gives real rejoicing for an accomplishment that only happened once. Sing it loud.
Book of the Month
Earth Angels: The Short Lives and Controversial Deaths of Three R&B Pioneers.
The trail of those singers and musicians who set off on the rhythm & blues trail in the early 1950s is filled with heavenly sounds, aching heartache and a long list of those who didn’t live as long as they should have. The pitfalls of ripping and running back and forth across America for those Black artists were legendary, and the chances of making it through to old age were stacked against those making the trek. Jesse Belvin, Guitar Slim and Johnny Aces all took the big plunge and went for it, and in some ways they made a huge difference in the never-normal development of the sounds they loved so much. But all three paid a huge price for their courage. Jesse Belvin, best known for the smash hit “Goodnight My Love,” was killed in a head-on collision along with his wife at the first racially integrated concert in Little Rock, Arkansas when he was only 27 years old. Guitar Slim, created of “The Things That I Used to Do,” died in New York at the age of 32 due to pneumonia. And the most legendary of all the musical icons was the originator of “Pledging My Love,” Johnny Ace’s self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 25 backstage at a concert in Houston. Steve Bergsman’s fascinating and in many ways heartbreaking book digs all the way down into the depths in discovering the lives these men led, as well as the cause of much of the sorrow and too-young ends each suffered. It’s an endless tale of missed opportunities and so many of the unfair racial injustices that these artists went through, and the pages are guaranteed to shed light on how hard it was to exist in those early years of R&B history. There is no way to walk away from this tome other than to feel like fairness wasn’t really part of the trio’s trajectory, and totally illuminates what greatness lived inside of all of them. History comes alive.
Bentley’s Bandstand: June 2023