Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2023
By Bill Bentley
The Americans, Strays. It takes a lot of belief to name a band The Americans. And that’s exactly what Patrick Ferris, Zac Sokolow, Jake Faulkner and Tim Carr prove without doubt on STRAYS, their latest collection of songs. The band has been together since 2010, releasing a handful of albums and EPs. And every single song they’ve ever recorded shows a self-belief which never blinks. Instead, it illustrates how these musicians are able to walk a tightrope of roots-powered strength and inner-wanderings that never get lost. The Americans remain roots-based without painting themselves into a corner. Instead, with the never-erring voice of Ferris, the ups and downs of life in the United States become a calling card of beauty. Because there are so few promises to be found now in the country that was built on them, this quartet looks inward in hopes of discovering them there. When they do, it’s like a door has been knocked down and a burning light shines through. The key to the Americans’ strength is how each member contributes exactly what’s needed. And they don’t back down. This is music that looks square in the eye of what’s ahead, and with songs that add layers to the most basic of emotions comes to a place that is undeniable. Not unlike the definition of the title of William Burroughs’ novel NAKED LUNCH: “A frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” The Americans can show us those same kinds of truths, and help everyone get home. “Right your wrongs.”
Kevin William Ball, Helluva Town. There really aren’t that many songwriters who are singing from the soul of the street. They might be sleeping indoors and taking the stages of music rooms around the country, but it’s obvious from their first song delivered onstage or on record that their spirit still is hanging out with the underdogs of the so-called music business. Kevin William Ball is one of those who thrives on reality and how uphill the walk is when trying to get over. Luckily, HELLUVA TOWN has everything to bring the man onto a bigger stage and under a bigger spotlight. There is an honesty inside him, born in California and raised in southwest Michigan, even if it seems like Ball’s geographical trek was backward. His first 45, “Somewhere Somehow Lady” was released in 1974. For those counting that’s right at 50 years ago. And here Kevin William Ball is, releasing the album of his life and honed to as sharp an edge of realness as anyone in music today. It proves that eternal adage that the only way to lose is to quit trying. But with the towering grace of the title song, along with “Teardrops and Tequila, “Waiting on the Rain” and “You Ever Get to Memphis,” this is a picture of perseverance if there ever was one. Do not let Kevin William Ball go unheard. He is too good, too generous and just plain too gracious to miss. There is no way of telling where country music is going. And, really, it doesn’t matter. As long as there are people like this man to keep his eye on the sparrow and his microphone on, things are going to be alright. Count on it.
Be, Here. It seems like a toss-up sometimes what David Hawkins has in mind. As a visual artist, he is a leader in that field. And as a musician his band Be floats through the ethos in a cloud of questions, but by never being overly concerned with the answers seems to do just fine. Any band called Be better know what they’re doing, or there’s a chance they could evaporate into the clouds on Be’s new album cover. But Hawkins really does seem he’s playing a clairvoyant’s hand. A quick check of his credits on HERE says it all: guitars, vocals, bass, keys, piano, accordion, mellotron (strings, flute and choir), organ, banjo, horn and string samples, celeste, synths, vibes, melocia, timpani, percussion, programming, spoken word, arrangements. And, of course, he wrote all the songs on the album. And yet there are eleven other musicians involved in the recording sessions. Brian Wilson is smiling somewhere. The best news of all, though, is how human and involving songs like “I Need You Like the Sun,” “Can Dreams Come True,” “When You Shine” and a mesmerizing track titled “Superterranean Homesick Blues” all are. Maybe that’s because it feels David Hawkins has cut the cord on trying to play by any established modern rules and finds the flame in making up his own list. The fact that it all works so well is something not to overlook. Hawkins is not only painting outside the lines, he’s painting right off the page. Be HERE now.
Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps, Rose-Colored Glasses. There is modern soul music, and there is Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps. This is a group who knows how to zero in on the heart of the music that brought such pride and joy to America starting in the early 1960s, and then carried through on ways to really move ahead. James’ voice is a natural treasure, something that goes in all the places the human heart travels, and takes listeners with her. She never loses control of what she’s trying to do, which is spellbinding, and is able to make us feel what she is feeling. Which is modern magic and something never to be forgotten. The songs James and her co-writers create sound forged in the inner force of America, and no matter the amount of happiness or pain they are carrying forward, everything takes those in for the ride to the glory zone. And that’s because the secret to soul music is that it’s all a healing force. It shows how there is a point in life where the ups and downs equal out as long as the soul keeps alive. Join Ms. James and her unbeatable Rhythm Tramps as they take off for the finish of finding and keeping love in front of them. Because without it the lights might dim, and there is no way this gang of Texans and other true believers is going to let that happen. Rose-colored hearts.
Peter Lewis, Imagination. One of the great musical surprises of 2023. That’s Peter Lewis’ unforgettable album IMAGINATION. An original member of one of the 1960s’ finest outfits, Moby Grape, Lewis has been recording solo albums almost since the band splintered in 1970. As a writer/singer of some of the Grapes’ classics, it’s no surprise the singer has always continued to thrill their veteran fans and newcomers. Lewis’ voice is a total study in emotions, and his songwriting is right there with it. IMAGINATION ups the ante all the way to capture ballads and rockers like the imbued original he is. On new songs like “Just Like Sunshine,” “Without You,” “If I Just Had You” and title track “Imagination,” it really does begin to feel like its 1967 and Peter Lewis with Moby Grape is stepping to the microphone as the opening band at the Monterey Pop Festival. He is someone who has persevered through the decades because this is the life he chose and there was no going back. His mother, actress Loretta Young, had the same strength, and it’s not hard to see where Lewis got his resolve. It may not have been the smoothest ride in the musical world, but there is no denying that hearing the man sing now is one of the modern wonders of musical life. And that this is the finest release of Peter Lewis’ career is cause for jubilation. With co-producer John DeNicola, Lewis is able to reflect on the wins and loses of a long life without askng for favors or boasting of accomplishments. Instead, he has collected ten songs that will absolutely live forever. As the ranks thin from the Summer of Love in San Francisco, this rock & roll advances to the front of the line with new songs in proving that not everything from that era is over. Peter Lewis lives.
Carla Olson, Have Harmony Will Travel 3. It sometimes feels like all-around musician Carla Olson is a part of everything happening. She produces albums constantly for some of the finest musicians anywhere, makes much of her own with a guest list that won’t quit, and plays some of the best shows of the year. The Texan started young in Austin, and formed the Violators there in the mid-1970s, one of the first punk bands in town. A move to Los Angeles a few years later really turned up the heat and Olson has been at it every since. The recent series of HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL is now at 3, and it might just be the best set yet. It’s got the constant kick of all great rock albums, starting with “In Another Land,” featuring Craig Ross on lead guitar. There is no way to keep still. From there she calls on Austin guitar kingpin Eric Johnson to make sure “Face to Face” rocks relentingly. Next up is the surprise of the set: a bluesy take on “Street Fighting Man” that gives none other than blues whiz Jake Andrews the opportunity to really let loose. Three songs in and the album is ablaze. Other guests include Gary Myrick, Todd Wolfe, the Mighty Echoes’ Harvey Shield, Robert Rex Waller Jr, the Hollies’ Allan Clarke and Hazeldine’s Shawn Barton. As the recent recordings come to the end it’s time for startime, and one of Texas’ finest singers ever steps up. B.J. Thomas has been performing since the 1950s around Houston and then the world, and for his collaboration here there is no finer song to do than “Cool Water.” It’s such a classic that both Sons of the Pioneers and Marty Robbins had hits with it. The last three songs on the album are breathtaking duets with the man who co-formed The Byrds in the mid-1960s and went on to a stellar solo career: Gene Clark. Recorded live at an outdoor festival in Nashville in 1987, the Clark and Olson duo are joined at the voice and guitar on “Gypsy Rider,” “Del Gato” and “Set You Free This Time.” All are chillbumpers of the highest order and offer a stunning glimpse at the way the duo always merged together like few singers can. It won’t come again. Carla Olson is an all-star, and here is one more album showing why. Such a thrill.
Rolling Stones, Hackney Diamonds. When the Rolling Stones made their first American television appearance in 1964 on Hollywood Palace hosted by Dean Martin, there was a true inkling that this was a band that would be around 60 years later. It was in their music, it was in their eyes and it was definitely in their souls. So it’s really not surprising that after these 60 years they are still playing with the fire and ferocity they did then, and have made an album which carries the same determination of their origins. Maybe that’s because the group never put entertainment before the music. Inspired by American blues players like Jimmy Reed and Elmore James, the Stones carried about their mission with the spirit they got from those earliest heroes. There may have been sidesteps when the group wandered off the path, but the men always came back on track. There may have been long periods when their original songs didn’t have the vision they once did, but it never went away. Not completely. The band were true believers in the blues, and kept that feeling at their core. Hope is the word all their fans held close about the Rolling Stones’ future, and that hope is paid off on HACKNEY DIAMONDS. These songs, the best ones at least, are the story of a gang of musicians who live for what they can create. And it is felt all over this record. It’s almost impossible to learn to play like the Rolling Stones. That’s the reason no other band ever really has. Not for this long. Whatever it is that keeps them pushing forward is all over this collection, the last of which “Rolling Stones Blues” is a Muddy Waters’ original, and where the British band got their name. There is no way Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will ever double-cross the memory of the Chicago blues king. And now that drummer Charlie Watts isn’t here to be the band’s musical conscience, out of honor to him no doubt they’ve become their own. Today and forever.
The Third Mind, 2. Los Angeles psychedelia is a tad different than that north in San Francisco. L.A. is more of a psylocibin city, since it thrives more on cars than ambulatory movements. In the Bay Area it was flat-out acid-a-go-go, with the more hallucinatory desinations part of the plan. The City of Angels kept things a bit more subdued, but still found ways to trip the light fantastic often. The semi-new aggregation The Third Mind takes advantage for as much hallucinatory activity needed to record a sound that still swings for the heavens, and gets there every time. Electric guitarists David Immergluck and Dave Alvin (yes, that Dave Alvin) have no troublte hanging their musical ravings on the stars overhead, and in fact sound like they were born to travel there. Vocalist Jesse Sykes is a singer for the ages, a woman who mixes her folkie roots right along with the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and the Byrds’ Gene Clark. That leaves the band’s unbeatable rhythm section of drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Victor Krummenacher and guest keyboardist extraordinaire Willie Aron to lend big hands in building The Third Mind’s Wall of Sound just like they want to. This really is a band for all-time, and even if feels somewhat like a side project for the musicians, do not be decieved. It is sextet for the ages. Also interesting is the crosstown traffic from the influence of Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, once in Butterfield’s Chicago blues band until Bloomfield helped found The Electric Flag. The Third Mind records the Flag’s “Groovin’ Is Easy” as well as Butterfield’s gem “In My Own Dream.” The way all the sounds and vibrations merge on this entire collection is a study in the fantabulous fabric of sound, and something definitely not to miss. Minds wide open.
Sylvia Tyson, At the End of the Day. There is no doubt that Ian and Sylvia Tyson were once the king and queen of Canadian music. They had a history of always representing their country with many of the greatest songs of their time. In a way they were right next to hockey as one of Canada’s finest efforts. Ian and Sylvia’s huge hit “Four Strong Winds” became like a second national anthem. Now, at the end of a long and successful career, Tyson has announced AT THE END OF THE DAY is her final album, and she will no longer be touring. She had taken a decade off from recording on her own, and knew it was time to look back and forward and make a decision about her future. So this is it, and what an overflowing collection of songs it is. There is a heartbending finality to many of the dozen tracks, coming across as a musical summary of a life well spent. There is no easy way to sum up such a life, but these songs surely get as close as possible. Sylvia Tyson’s voice, at eighty-three years old–is still true and strong, conveying with pride and power all that she’s created. “Leaves in the Storm,” “Generous Heart,” “Angels in Troubled Times” and “Jane’s Garden” all capture just exactly who this lady was–and still is. It’s an undeniable truth that every life has a point when it’s time to let the past be what it is–past–and to try and live in the present of whatever time is left. That’s what Tyson’s knockout of a disc does now. The woman tells the truth about her life, and includes many of the adventures that got her there. It’s time to celebrate an artist that did it all and made a big difference. Now’s the time.
Aretta Woodruff, A Tribute to Denise LaSalle. The high-heeled shoes of blues maven Denise LaSalle are not an easy pair to fill. The woman who hit big with the song “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” did not take a backseat to anyone and had a decades-long career showing audiences the full-on righteous way to get down. So it’s only a natural blues thing for a singer as blessed as Alabama’s Aretta Woodruff to grab hold of two handfuls of LaSalle’s songs and head into the studio. Which is where she was able to take on “Love is a Five Letter Word,” “Hit and Run,” Holding Hands with the Blues,” and other classics and show how the blues will never die. Woodruff has prodigious church credentials, which never hurts a blues singer, and when the music starts she steps right in and sings like her life depends on it. There is a Holy Roller vibration in these tracks, like the church is watching what the woman does, and while some of the elders might not approve of it there is a great likelihood they’re in the back room after services on Sunday and doing the Sideways Boogie like nobody’s business. That’s because the blues is baked into the South, and while its sound has spread around the world there is nowhere like places in Mississippi, Alabama and other surrounding states where these sounds are sacred right outside the church’s front door. They are there to turn the downs into ups and give a hand to those who need it most. Ms. Woodruff has it all served for how to keep the blues alive, and there is no way she is backing off. Denise LaSalle lives.
Song of the Month
“See It Through”
Fresh from his band the Indications, Durand Jones’ first solo album is a stone cold gas from start to finish. One of the most moving moments is in “See It Through.” It’s a plea for a new day to arrive and see everyone through wherever they’re going. There are no other words that will do. Jones’ voice has a combination of uptown swing and downtown dreams, and there is no way to miss its momentum. The guitar solo alone is the kind of sound which puts a smile in the world, and passes along faith as surely as church bells ringing. The bopping funk is at full force without being intrusive, and it’s clear this is a man on his way to the bright side of the street. Follow him there.
Reissue of the Month
Wake of the Flood
When the Grateful Dead recorded WAKE OF THE FLOOD, there were a lot of question marks in the air. Not least of which was how in the world they were going to start their own record company to release the album. So clearly what the band did when they went into the studio in 1973 was let the sounds be their guide. And in so many ways the Dead made a masterpiece out of that time. Maybe because they had to. Now the business of selling the music was all on their back–no more Warner Bros. Records–and it was time to step up their game. The songs on this new WAKE OF THE FLOOD edition (which now also includes bonus demos and a fine live 1973 concert, natch) are not only some of the very best of the group’s incredible career, so were the performances. With Pigpen gone, Mickey Hart moving on and new members Keith and Donna Godchaux onboard, this was a time of real reckoning. And, of course, the group hit a grand slam right out of the park in the bottom of the ninth innning to win the World Series. It can be argued that the nine songs on WAKE OF The FLOOD are the last great collection the group wrote and recorded. From album opener “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” to the multi-part ender “Weather Report Suite,” this was five men and one woman out on their own, and they knew it. The only way to succeed was to turn inward and discover just how great they could be. And that’s exactly what the Grateful Dead did. Listening to the reissue now is like running into a great friend who hasn’t been seen in 50 years and realizing how so much of this life is built on the closeness that used to fill up their lives. Songs like “Row Jimmy Row,” “Stella Blue” and “Eyes of the World” are career-definers, originals that not only inspire life and but also define it. With the best Grateful Dead music it’s like time doesn’t pass; it dances. And the inspiration received and lessons learned add up to life itself. The last lyrics of “Stella Blue” say it best: “And when you hear that song / come crying like the wind / it seems like all this life / was just a dream / Stella Blue…” Amen to that.
Movie of the Month
Highwire Act Live in St. Louis
Here’s a Los Angeles-based band that turned the boogie loose in rock & roll and showed fans and strangers alike just how far the sound could go. Early Little Feat albums, especially SAILIN’ SHOES and DIXIE CHICKEN unleashed an irresistible tsunami of sonic heat that still hasn’t been bested. Even with the tragedy of losing their high priest leader Lowell George in 1979, the band has kept on to today. Hearing is believing and the boogie and brains are still there, in the hands of keyboardist Bill Payne. These live discs filmed in St. Louis and recorded in St. Louis in 2003 are a captivating congregation of musicians that somehow found each other, six during Little Feat’s foundation years, and soon with vocalist Shaun Murphy a decade later, and turned American music on its head. All for the better. It’s breathtaking to hear on two CDS and see on a Blu-Ray DVD it happen again, even if it was 20 years ago, and realize that greatness really doesn’t have an expiration date. The playing level of Little Feat has always been at the very top of the class, and to hear “Willin’,” “Time Loves a Hero” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” this century is to know that eternity is indeed a best friend. Especially when it comes to music as iconic as this. Little Feat will always be revered by those who loved them at the start and others who jumped on the train later. The way they could take off on back-snapping improvisations and then ladle on lyrics that still defy absolute definition is a wonder of modern life. There is something so American and unbeatable in Little Feat’s music that it’s like they should have their own national holiday. Seriously. And while they may not have been as popular as others that could be named from the past 55 years, that is no matter. Little Feat moved the bar high and dared others to meet them there. “Tripe Face Boogie.”
Book of the Month
Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History
There are very few biographies that take as deep a dive as Bill Janovitz’s terrific tome on Leon Russell. In fact, this one could be subtitled “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” because it is such a thorough study of the Master of Space and Time that it should come with a scuba tank. Every fact, fiction, accomplishment and disaster is within these pages, and there is nothing to do but be amazed by it all. Maybe that’s because in many ways Russell was an acquired taste, and not someone who burned up the upper echelon of the record charts. Make no mistake, the man did very well for himself, but it wasn’t like he was closing in on Elton John territory. Instead, the Oklahoman’s world was more in the ultra-influential side of rock & roll, leading artists like Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton to their Valhalla moments in making the massively successful muisc they created. Sure, Leon Russell had huge hit albums and an incredible influence that is still being felt to this day. Luckily, that is all explained how everything happened starting, really, in the 1950s when Leon Russell discovered the piano and where it could take him. Sometimes it feels like the man knew exactly where he was going and how he was going to get there. And other times, well, not so much. There were mental conditions and just plain bad decisions that often stepped in to send Russell back to the start. He never complained, not really, and had a view of history and philosophy that surrounded his soul in a way that isn’t often seen. By the end of his life, it almost felt like Leon Russell lost as much as he gained, and he somehow knew that’s how the game had to played, or maybe it was the only way he could play it. Wild happiness and deep despair both marched on the showman’s stage, and lucky for music lovers everywhere Bill Janovitz has captured it all. Like, really all of it. It is a story almost beyond belief, but explained all within these pages. A mind-blower.
Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2023