Charlie Faye & the Fayettes. One of the hardest musical needles to thread is the one that separates past styles from more modern ones. No one wants to get caught in that trap of the past, but it's hard to be so in love with so much of what came before to abandon it entirely. The challenge, of course, is to push ahead with all the strengths of the present while also acknowledge where you come from. Singer Charlie Faye has done exactly that. She is so engaging on today's stage, that her clear devotion to girl group sounds of the '60s becomes a pure positive. Along with fellow Fayettes BettySoo and Akina Adderly, Charlie Faye has inhabited a new world. Her voice soars over inspired lyrics and grooves straight from the stratosphere, helping make an enticing place for youngsters and oldsters to overlap in beautiful harmony. Her secret weapon are the songs she writes, some alone and some with co-writers, that effortlessly invoke all that is endearing from the Crystals, the Supremes and others to the most engaging of current instrumental prowess. There is a resurgence of real soul right now, from Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Leon Bridges, Nathaniel East on to St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Those aggregations hear the heartbeat of what rhythm & blues offers, and have taken it to the river. Now there is a female to join their ranks, and it comes not a moment too soon. Making sure those grooves are never less than life-changing is drummer Pete Thomas, straight out of Elvis Costello's prime-time powerhouse the Attractions. This is an album all set to bust the windows out and let a new day arrive. Hooray.
Eric Lindell, Matters of the Heart. Scattered around America are pockets of musical greatness, places where certain artists have captured the glow of being able to really shine. Eric Lindell has been doing that in New Orleans since moving there in 1999. Over the course of several albums and countless live shows, he is a Crescent City guru. And, finally, he has fashioned a new release that reflects all that grooviness and more. He writes songs in the same league as those he covers, which are by such august figures as Merle Haggard, George Jones, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and others, and finds musicians to make them burn, including guitarists Anson Funderburgh and Luther Dickinson. There is such effortlessness to what Lindell is able to do here that it feels like music that could have only been recorded in the City that Care Forgot. It's like taking a stroll down Decatur in the French Quarter, hanging a left on Esplanade, putting it in "S" for stroll and cruising all the way out the Fairgrounds. Happily copping beaucoup visuals all the way to the track. It's slightly disconcerting that the country doesn't all know Eric Lindell's name just yet, but then again, there's still time so no need to worry. Order up a lime sno-ball, some pralines and maybe a side of beignets and let the good times roll. This is the soundtrack for all that and so much more. Yeah you right.
Professor Longhair, Live in Chicago. Talk about New Orleans, Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd might be the ultimate musical ambassador to that fine burg that ever lived. Right up there with Fats Domino for sure. He created a crazed piano style that was equal parts rhythm & blues, stride, rhumba, and 100% personalized tomfoolery, and then threw it all in a blender and took on the world. Who could ever argue with a song as perfect as "Tipitina," and that's just for starters. Naturally, New Orleans being the home of utter nonsense, Longhair's career came to screeching halts more than once, and it was only in the last few years of his life that the big old world had any real awareness of his existence, much less his divine awesomeness. This 1976 concert was recorded at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and is prime-time Professor Longhair. His backing quartet was right on the money that evening, and included the illustrious guitarist Billy Gregory on all kinds of scintillating leads. But it was primarily Longhair's piano that dispensed the thrills and chills over all those years, and coupled with those heartwarming vocals and tickling whistle, showed his listeners a way to find that levee and burn it down every time the man took the stage. In the end, Professor Longhair was someone who no one could have made up. It was like he landed on earth fully formed and ready to boogie, spreading the joy of the easeful living straight outta the Big Easy.
The MnMs, Melts in Your Ears 1980-1981. It's the first years of the '80s in L.A. and all bets are off. The nightclubs have been turned up to stun, bands are racing the streets from gig to gig like there's no tomorrow, and it feels like the rulebook has been torn in two and tossed out the car window. Anything goes. Enter The MnMs, fronted by the unstoppable Marci Marks and guitarist Harlan Hollander. Though they don't quite grab the brass ring, they definitely get ahold of the copper one. Their first single, "I'm Tired" b/w "Knock, Knock, Knock," was released on Bomp Records offshoot Quark in 1980, and became an underground sensation everywhere from KROQ to Japan. It appeared The MnMs were ready for liftoff. Marks' vocals had an irresistible spark, part scream and part seduction, and even if the Go Gos were taking up a lot of space in the room, they didn't have quite the confrontation of this outfit. Unfortunately, things started to splinter within the band and all the members were soon chasing other dreams. Marks began writing for the L.A. Weekly and, yes, today is publisher of the Studio City/Sherman Oaks/Encino News. It's never too late, though. This collection shows what could have been, and big demand today in Japan just might mean a run to the land of the rising sun someday soon. Even if not, maybe a reunion night at the Hong Kong Café in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Because whether they were covering girl group classics, blasting originals, or being one of the only bands to ever record a song by Heinz (check Youtube immediately for that man), The MnMs were/are a band that still melts in your ears while it blows your mind. So fine.
The Relatives, Goodbye World. Gospel funk has to be one of the most effective musical styles to ever hit home. Think about it: the lyrical content puts God in the driver's seat, while the musical side attacks the monkey nerve on all kinds of levels. For those with an open spirit and willing backbone, there is nowhere to go except the promised land. Reverend Gean West has led the Relatives through all kinds of twists and turns over the past years, and while he's moved on to the other side now, West was able to finish these tricked-out tracks of Holy Ghost heaven before he departed the planet last year. The Relatives' first single, "Don't Let Me Fail," was released in 1971, and since then they've become more like a whispered secret than a full-scale assault. West himself is someone who likely receives his signals from the outer world as he beams in interplanetary messages from the Lord to share with his brethren. He fell into a coma while recording this last album, but luckily through the grace of (you guessed it) God recovered long enough to bring it all home. Except the very last song, "Forgive Me Now (Songbird Goes Home)," which he was too weak to record. All his forgiven now, because not only have the Relatives, with the assertive guidance of producer Zach Ernst, recorded one of the finest albums of the year, they've also proven once and for all that if you feel, you're healed. The line forms straight ahead.
Curtis Salgado, The Beautiful Lowdown. Blue-eyed soul brothers used to roam the land like Chevys and Fords. Everywhere you turned, there would be someone singing the music from the ghetto, but often in a bar far from it. Curtis Salgado, born in Washington state and raised in Eugene, Oregon, comes by his rhythm & blues naturally. As a young man he went straight to the source, getting right next to the songs of O.V. Wright, Little Johnny Taylor, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and anyone else who knew where the nose goes when the doors get closed. It wasn't long before he was a singer in the Robert Cray Band, and showing John Belushi how the music really worked when the star showed up in Oregon to film "Animal House." Before anyone could say "Sho' nuff," Belushi and crew were doing the Blues Brothers on "Saturday Night Live," whose debut album was dedicated to, it's true, Curtis Salgado. Almost 40 years later, Salgado just happens to have made the best album of his life, and it's probably because he realized time is tight and if he didn't do it now, then when? With co-producers Tony Braunagel and Marian McClain, the soul man had a strong hand writing every song on the album except the closer, "Hook Me Up," by Johnny Guitar Watson. Even more powerfully, perhaps, Curtis Salgado's voice is drenched in ferocious feeling. Sometimes it's almost too strong to take, which is about the highest praise a singer can get. They have reached the very top of the emotional world and shown anyone who listens what real music can do to willing followers: give hope for making today the wonder it's meant to be, no matter how lowdown it sometimes gets. And that is a beautiful thing.
Dr. Lonnie Smith, Evolution. Hammond organists who play jazz are almost a part of a religious cult. Devotees worship at their keyboards, and tend to get all warm and fuzzy whenever their names are mentioned: Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Big John Patton, Joey Defrancesco and others. It's an elite group and membership is limited to only those who can burn a hole in the soul with their musical machinations. Dr. Lonnie Smith, who holds a degree in the college of musical knowledge if anyone does, has been a card-carrying member of that clique since his early days in the George Benson Quartet. Groups like theirs could set fires in small clubs wherever they set up shop, and even when they moved on to the concerts halls and festivals of the world could always be counted on to make a stage go tilt. Maybe that's because players like Dr. Lonnie Smith know that the heartbeat is connected directly to their playing, and without any obstacles to water it down, the Hammond had an instantaneous vibe to it that other instruments had to work to hit. For the Hammond, it was flip a switch, crank up the Leslie to instigate that bubbly underwater sound and wait to be melted in your booth. Hours and days could go by and there was no reason to do anything else. For Smith's latest opus, he gets the deluxe Blue Note Records treatment with producer Don Was, special guests Robert Glasper and Joe Lovano, the perfect turban with an immaculate fit and seven songs sent from above. This is music to contemplate those things that words cannot describe, and then hit repeat and do it all over again. The second-to-last song is truth in advertising all the way: "My Favorite Things." Say no more.
Various Artists, Day of the Dead. When does a tribute collection turn into a celebration? Maybe when it's devoted to the Grateful Dead and spans the band's entire career over five compact discs. How could this wonderful trip ever be any shorter? The Dead turned not only the record business on its head with their debut in 1967, but also defined the new world of touring in a single word: endless. And that's a compliment. For this massive set recorded for the good deeds done by the Red Hot organization, it would be easier to list those bands who don't appear. Disc 1 starts with the War on Drugs' "Touch of Grey" and Disc 5 ends with the Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Bob Weir performing live with the National on "I Know You Rider." In between are the Lone Bellow, Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Bela Fleck, Charles Bradley, and dazzling others. The overall effect is a joyous dance to what the Grateful Dead always aimed for: a shot at eternity. The original band's live shows still stand as what happens when minds and music take off for outer space together. The newly-recorded songs do their very best to make that same excursion, and much more often than not get there. A finer tip of the soul to the Grateful Dead could not be imagined. Turn on, tune in, and work out today.
Bill Bentley© 2016
This column appears regularly in the Morton Report.
Bill Bentley is the head of A&R at Concord Records.
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William Bell, This Is Where I Live.Deep soul music, darker than blue and always true, is one of the rivers of life. When it hits, it hits hard. It also takes all acolytes to new places, some they may have never found without it. William Bell is one of the originators of the vaunted Stax Records sound, having had hits there throughout the '60s that helped define the idiom. "You Don't Miss Your Water," "Everybody Loves a Winner," "I Forgot to Be Your Lover"—the list continued throughout the decade. For his new album, back on Stax thank goodness, Bell turned to that most private of spots inside him and shares it with the world. It's an overwhelming experience, to hear someone who meant so much to the music all those years ago reclaim his spot. Part of that power goes to producer John Leventhal, who co-wrote many of the songs with Bell and fashioned a studio sound that feels like warm granite. But it is always William Bell's voice that brings everything home. The man is an amazing singer who isn't afraid to open up about all that has happened to him. Soul music is like a church on the street: the bumps and bruises of life combine with the celestial tilt of the cosmos to make every day a wild ride to the other side. This man has been there and he's extending a hand to go back again, taking all who feel it with him and ring that Bell together. Don't say no.
Eric Clapton, I Still Do. A half-century after Cream made their debut, there aren't many fellow musical travelers from then with Eric Clapton's cool. Slowhand has been all over the place, but his guitar has never let him down. The Englishman has such an intimate relationship with the instrument that it is like they are one. While some of his albums burn more than others, there is no way for Clapton to lose his way. His latest release, which pairs him with past producer pal Glyn Johns, sounds like he's moved his mojo up a few notches and is firing on all burners. There are incendiary blues songs, two J.J. Cale keepers, heart-tugging ballads including the Paul Brady/John O'Kane stunner "I Will Be There," two originals, a Bob Dylan cover, and some American Songbook classics. What matters most is that Eric Clapton sounds like he's inside all the songs, vested in their emotional weight in a way that puts him pretty much in a party of one. In fact, what a night it would be if he did a show of these 12 songs for the first set, followed by a set of his less known songs for the second. They would all flow in and out from each other with an idiosyncratic logic that only a true artist could fashion. The world should listen to Clapton's new music for a dozen reasons, none more important than to hear how a lifer keeps his passion on full throttle while taking followers on a sonic journey second to none. In 1965 London, the graffiti said "Clapton is God." Today it need only say "Clapton is Here." Which says it all.