Bentley’s Bandstand: September 2023
By Bill Bentley
Gregg Hill, Bayou St. John. There is sometimes a singer-songwriter who has eluded the spotlight. They write and sing moving songs of beauty and depth, but don’t get recognized as much as they should. Gregg Hill’s new album BAYOU ST. JOHN should be a collection of songs that brings him fully into the public’s appreciation. One of the standout characteristics is that it’s truly a New Orleans album, including the fact that all the musicians playing call the Crescent City home. Which means that they have an ease of playing that loses nothing in intensity, but does give the sound of the songs an easy groove that never misses a backbeat and a forethought. This is what it sounds like to actually live in the City that Care Forgot. The great Time magazine writer Jay Cocks once described the sound as “easeful antics of absolute insignificance.” And what he likely meant was that the sound of New Orleans is as serious as a big-clawed crab getting ready to grab the nose, but also as beautiful as a banana tree growing in a neighbor’s backyard getting his glow-on with the morning sun in May. In the end, the Louisiana city offers everything, much like Hills’ songs like “Places in Between,” “Magnolia Bridge,” “Pooh Nanny” and all the others do. BAYOU ST. JOHN is an astonishing accomplishment, and truly a wonder of the ages. When the aching soul yearns for a walk down Esplanade all the way to the Splish Splash Laundromat, a detour over to City Park to watch the alligators crawl around, and then maybe a ride back downtown on the St. Charles street car to Acme Oysters on Iberville in the French Quarter, this is the soundtrack for that stroll around heaven. Gregg Hill has a magic in his heart, and the way he shares it in sound is very close to miraculous. Yeah you right.
Steve Howell, Gallery of Echoes. It is instantaneous when Steve Howell begins singing and playing his acoustic guitar that he is a true blue lover of music from an earlier period of time. He performs songs that feel like they were written in the United States Constitution, and show a sign of American life that often feels it only existed in a history book. By the time Howell is through playing, though, that life stands right in front of us in all its guesswork and glory. Maybe that’s because suffering is such an entrenched element in some of his songs, like “Easy Rider Blues” and “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?” It’s impossible not to feel everything that poured through the souls of those who came a century or more before us. And it’s not really that Howell is singing blues. It’s more like a panorama of everything that made places like his home state Texas so vivid in the country’s memories. Truth comes ringing out of these songs as sure as the hard times are coming, and helps believers stand up to those travails. It’s been said often that the blues is the way to get over the hardships of living, and this is one man who is here to testify to that thought’s truth. Steve Howell, who stands alone, is someone who can twist and turn his songs into sparkling stones of beauty. His is a sure-fire treasure all around his home of Marshall, Texas, and GALLERY OF ECHOES feels like something that will last forever. Don’t ever change.
Buddy & Julie Miller, In the Throes. When Buddy and Julie Miller record together, there is often a sense of wonder in their songs. Inspired by deep faith and love of music, there is always a feeling of time stopping when they venture deep into the wonder of life, both now and possibly the one after this one. It is impossible not to feel; maybe that’s because their voices singing together open up a whole new room of truth. IN THE THROES is one of the very finest albums of their long collaboration, and it arrives at a time when songs like “You’re My Thrill,” “The Last Bridge You May Cross” and “I’ve Been Around” tug at the heartstrings the same time they offer a glimpse of a bigger world. Julie Miller has always had a way of approaching her songs that takes in the full sweep of an emotional world that can almost be seen it is so vivid. There aren’t many songwriters at her level right now. There are moments when it seems like she has been imbued with a magical touch which gives her lyrics an X-factor not heard that often. Both Buddy and Julie Miller are first-class vocalists, never crossing over into anything other than the absolute expression of how they feel. The purity of passion overflows from each one like it is as natural as taking a walk around the block, only it lasts for an eternity. And when the man takes on “Don’t Make Her Cry,” which Buddy Miller wrote with Regina McCrary and Bob Dylan, there is no doubt a new classic has just been offered, the king tears flowing freely. This is music meant to stand forever. Hear it now and know the presence of greatness runs through every note and word. The Millers rule.
Mood Vertigo, Verdango. Every decade or so a new group appears with an album so totally original and even challenging that it defies the imagination. And while Mood Vertigo might not be a group group–one who tours and plans to last dozens of years– doesn’t really matter. Because what counts is that VERDANGO has been made, and deserves to be heard. One big reason why is that singer Loey Norquist is present. She is also in actuality Loey Nelson, who made a deeply moving album on Warner Bros. 30 years ago that disappeared way too quickly. But now Norquist is here and is nothing short of thrilling to hear. Equally awesome is that the group Mood Vertigo is just as good as she is, grooving and gyrating through a wide range of styles that all somehow fit together. It’s almost like modern art: it kind of makes sense as a whole and kind of doesn’t. But luckily the end effect is that greatness has arrived no matter how you see or hear it. Like the old proverb that a band is only as great as its covers, look at the Mondo Vertigo list on this album: Badfinger, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Shocking Blue and Electric Light Orchestra. Add to that the track “My Queen,” which is inspired by activist Greta Thunberg, and the band’s zeitgeist really starts to come into focus. The guitars rip and roar, the rhythm section locks everything down at the same time it sets the music free, and vocalists Loey Norquist, Lori Jablonowski, Mike Hoffman and Kirk McFarlin free-range everywhere to make sure all the songs hit the zinger zone. By the last track “Karen, ” which sounds like it would fit right in on 1960’s music shows Shindig and Hullabaloo, and Mood Vertigo feels like it might be able to make the listener dizzy, it’s so good. But all the styles and sounds always return to earth, and make life more joyous in the way that the best music always does. That, of course, is what it’s all about. Best Album 2023.
Abby Posner, Second Chances.There are those who really get their second wind and show that all the belief in them was well-earned. Posner was born and raised in a small town in Colorado, and has spent the past two decades in Los Angeles. While she’s adjusted to big city life there is such a warm strain of flowing folk songs and roughed-up sweet rockers on SECOND CHANCES that it feels like an album which will open the doors to everything. Posner is queer and came out at a very young age, which has taught her the one way to the future is to be real and live your feelings. Which applies to her music as well, and one of these gorgeous tracks has the subtle spins to surely bring the woman the audience she has earned. The way she can weave pop textures into songs like “If You Wanna Love” or “Simple Life” shows how the musician has always stayed wide open for whatever influences fit her spirit. It almost feels like the end of the 1960s when singer-songwriters were casting their nets far and wide for ways to express their deepest feelings, and when they found that place they went all the way in. This is someone who recorded most of this album at home, playing all the instruments herself and acting as producer and performer. Sometimes there are those moments when the only person who really knows what the songs need is the person writing and singing them. Not all artists are capable of producing themselves, but when they are often an immediate quiet fire becomes a part of the sound, like the artist is going for broke. This is a woman who has appeared on television series and written songs for films. Abby Posner has indeed jumped around the musical playing field, and on SECOND CHANCES has landed on the perfect spot at just the right time. The world has opened up in the past generation, and now is the moment for artists who believe in themselves strong enough to be exactly who they are get to move forward. That’s Abby Posner.
Teddy Thompson, My Love of Country. It seems totally apt that the best country album of this year is made by the son of English artists Richard and Linda Thompson, and that he’s tried his hand at hard country quite like this. But the deep heart of songs like “A Picture of Me Without You,” “Crying Time,” “Oh, What a Feeling” and “You Don’t Know Me” and others come through so overwhelmingly that there is no way around: Thompson has blown out the bullseye with undeniable authority. His voice sounds weathered in the sadness of a homewrecker, and someone who never lets his bottle run dry. Great country music has always been about hurting on a magnitude most humans can’t tolerate. Leave the happy songs to the churchgoers, because these classics are capable of making the world mighty dark. Even though Teddy Thompson is a fairly young man that is no matter at all. He is capable of zeroing in on pain like someone looking for the broken side of the street. With a stone cold rhythm section and mighty veteran David Mansfield on all the string instruments means there’s almost a holy barroom tinge on the music itself, like it belongs in the glow of beer signs and a jukebox, with listeners who are past the end of their roads. It also doesn’t hurt that father Richard Thompson contributes the brand new classic “I’ll Regret It All in the Morning” to the lineup, which is instantly a song that should be kept away from anyone contemplating suicide. It’s that bleak. Teddy Thompson has defied normal logic and jumped right into the midst of heroes like Merle Haggard, Gary Stewart and Dwight Yoakam with a voice that shines like the sun while it also casts a darkness deeper than a dungeon. It’s the ultimate mystery of why some music can be in two places at once, and inspire and pulverize the listener with such ease simultaneously. Turn off tomorrow.
Johnny Rawls, Walking Heart Attack. If you’re going to be as funky as soul music maven Johnny Rawls, it makes perfect sense to release your music on Catfood Records. And like many of Rawls’ previous recordings, there is a song first recorded by soul king O.V. Wright, who Rawls worked with as guitarist and band director for many years. That kind of credibility alone is enough to move the soulometer into the red. The fact is Johnny Rawls is a stone-cold force of nature, and has been for decades. His never-overpolished vocal delivery is just a few short steps from the alley, and the way he can rip into a song is often nothing short of breathtaking. Just to make sure that fact is not overlooked today, the selection initially recorded by O.V. Wright that Rawls has chosen for this release is “Born All Over.” It is such a chilling testament to the power of love that Johnny Rawls soars into the ozone when he sings it, making sure that listeners know they are dealing with an all-timer. Everything else on WALKING HEART ATTACK is right there in the same pocket: funky, just lowdown enough and a trip into the reality of living in an America-adjacent land that so much of where the rhythm & blues sounds thrive in. There isn’t a lot of polish on John Rawls recordings. He gets just the right sense of bottom-heavy rhythmic power and adds his voice to make everything soar, and then lets it all fly. In a period when the soul music of those who thrived on the sound in the 1960s and early ’70s can sometimes feel sparingly served, here is a born-Mississippian who hasn’t strayed too far from home, and after winning almost every blues award known to the human species still likes to keep his heart planted in the soil of the South, and always remembers where he comes from. Heart attack city.
Matt Von Roderick, Celestial. When jazz starts to drift a bit into the outre zone is often when things really start jumping. Matt Von Roderick is no stranger to watching things boil. The trumpet player has been bending the rules almost his entire musical life, and on CELESTIAL it sounds like he’s found his spiritual home. Von Roderick veers into the wild world of sounds when playing, ignoring normal roads and building his own. He used his voice as a pure instrument to push these covers and original songs to a place not many other artists go, never fearful of sounding completely different than anyone else. The way this works so well is exactly what makes a jazz album something close to being brand new. Tracks like “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Seventh Son” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” free themselves from their past and set off on a distinctly different trajectory, and the beauty is the way they never look back. Matt Von Roderick is obviously someone comfortable in his own abilities, and finds ways of skirting cliches like an ice skater on fire. To aid in his conquest he has enlisted some major league players, starting with drummer Jim Keltner. He’s someone who is on the list above the A-list on most musicians calls, and while he’s not always thought of as a jazz drummer, in reality he’s not only that but so much more. Often wandering into his on world on CELESTIAL, Keltner is a total inspiration. Joined by guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, bassist Mike Valerio, violinist Alvin Shulman and orchestra producer and pianist Gil Goldstein.
Various Artists, More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith. It seems like Tribute Album City these days, with new collections appearing weekly. While all of them carry strengths and weaknesses, this new set for Texas singer-songer Nanci Griffith is soulfully stellar. Griffith was a young teenager when she started writing songs, and by 1974 when she grabbed the Sunday night slot at an Austin joint called Hole in the Wall, she had the steely strength to last in a wild and wooly bar. One night she showed her tough stuff. The small room could get good and raucous regularly, and this one in particular: the bar drinkers were sitting with their back to the stage, and one of the crispier ones yelled out to Griffith halfway through her set: “Hey, could you hold it down up there onstage. We’re trying to have a conversation over here.” She just gave the offender the look of death and kept on singing. Now with a stellar list of friends and fans singing her songs, Nanci Griffith might have gone on to the honky tonk in the sky but these new versions are so rich and wonderful they’re impossible to not fall in love with. Every single artist hits the note, whether it’s Sarah Jarosz, John Prine, Shawn Colvin, Iris Dement and any of the other fans of the woman from Austintown. And for a real ender bender there’s The War and Treaty’s new version of Julie Gold’s all-time “From a Distance.” It might be a little strange having a non-Griffith song on the set, but it turns out that particular beauty was one of her breakthrough songs back at her start, so it fits in fine as the album ender. It’s got just enough gospel sprinkled on it to seem like a rousing musical prayer. No doubt Nanci Griffith would be proud it’s there. Not to mention liner notes written by album participant Mary Gauthier that are worth the price of admission themselves. This tribute soars.
Various Artists, A Song for Leon: A Tribute to Leon Russell. The unendingly talented Leon Russell, a musical force of nature not equaled by man, remained a mega-popular enigma for many years, and then seemed to disappear into the woodwork for a few decades as if that’s exactly where he wanted to be: alone. But he can’t run from all the amazing songs he wrote, and on this class-act tribute album many of those very songs get a new-life injection to bring them right back to the forefront. Starting with Margo Price’s stun-gun take on “Stranger in a Strange Land,” it’s obvious this is one of those tribute collections that really does rise to the height of the original recordings. Durrand Jones & The Indications is a modern day aggregation of soul brothers who go right to the heart of the matter on “Out in the Woods.” A brand new chillbumper to carry everyone forward. A hard act to follow, but there is never a problem for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats. This is a group that can go heart to heart with anyone, and here they grab hold of Russell’s glorious song “Tight Rope” and ride it for all it is worth. Four songs in and the album already feels like a classic. Other all-time highlights include Pixies’ “Crystal Closet Queen,” Monica Martin’s “A Song for You” and perfect album-ender Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Prince of Peace.” And that’s not to say the other songs tributed are any less because they’re not. It’s not that easy for a tribute album to bat 100% but that’s exactly what happens on “A SONG FOR LEON.” Volume II anyone?
Song of the Month
Grace Potter, “Mother Road.”
The fact that Grace Potter’s greasy new keeper title song from her new album sometimes invokes the majestic presence of the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” is a hard-kicking testament to greatness. The recording includes the best-sounding snare drum sound since Charlie Watts left the Big Stage, funkier than a cat box and as glorious as a cold shot of Boodles gin. Potter sings with an obvious affiliation with the grittier side of town, and is unafraid to kick off her shoes and dance in the dirt. With lyrics like “Looking for my true north in the Southwest / Tumbleweeds and lonely roads rolling down the Mother Road / As the gold sun sets and wherever I’m headed / I know she won’t let me down…”, this is a song marinated in frog water, rubbed with snake oil and left to dry in a Mason jar of juju juice. It sounds like Grace Potter has grabbed the hot wire and is ready to sizzle. Let it rip.
Reissue of the Month
Second Line Stomp: New Orleans R&B Instrumentals 1947-1960.
The City that Care Forgot has a long and valued history of jumpin’ and jivin’ and carrying on like there’s no tomorrow. This 31-song collection of just such songs from New Orleans is a thrill from start to finish. It includes many of the greats from the Big Easy, everyone from Professor Longhair to Gene & Al’s Spacemen. Of course the piano, which should be dubbed the Official Instrument of New Orleans, takes the lead on many of these tracks, as well it should. But there are also plenty of groovin’ horns and swinging drums to keep everything on the okie doke. And, yes, the collection was produced in England. It has never made much sense that so much of roots-based American recordings somehow find their way overseas before a company takes the big leap into production. Someone suggested it’s because recording royalties don’t have to be paid outside American soil, but surely that little fact has been changed in the modern era. But either way, it’s a wonder to hear illustrious songs like “Cow Cow Blues,” “Creole Alley,” “Tickle Toe” and so many other hot-blooded boilers in one place. Walking around New Orleans with this kind of sonic boogie bouncing around the cranium sure sounds like a most bodacious recreation, and even if it’s undertaken in another locale, definitely the excitement of 24-hour bars and clanging streetcar bells comes rattling through these songs to put the glide in the stride and a funk in the bump. Find the levee.
Book of the Month
Will Hermes, Lou Reed: The King of New York. The chances of a biography as great as Will Hermes’ THE KING OF NEW YORK are about as likely as Reed’s Velvet Underground song “Heroin” advertising the new Ford Mustang. But, somehow, Hermes has done it, starting with finding the truth and then telling it. Or at least as close to the truth that anyone can get writing about Lou Reed. The musician who did as much for rock & roll as any human ever wasn’t a big fan of showing his innermost world. He often did his level best during 60-plus years of playing, writing and singing to keep the waters murky, except in his songs. He knew the spotlight was sometimes a laser ray meant to destroy anything in its path, and avoided it like, well, death. Considering that from Reed’s first prominence in the Velvet Underground in the mid-’60s onward to his death in 2013, there really weren’t many equals in taking rock & roll to new places. The man had a way of creating different ways of being, and even when Lou Reed was raked over hot coals for what he offered it never deterred him from following a path of his own. He relished in the new, and saw things as they were and likely were going to be. That Will Hermes spent the time and his insight into capturing as true a book about one of modern music’s most inspirational artists says so much about the power and passion of Lou Reed. And as well as Hermes himself. The author likely knew how needed THE KING OF NEW YORK was in terms of modern music history and its telling, and spent the time and the effort to do it right. Coney Island Baby.
Bentley’s Bandstand: September 2023