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Bentley's Bandstand / Best of 2016 (so far)

Eric Clapton, I Still Do. It's highly likely that if Eric Clapton was only allowed to play one style of music (as if such a thing were ever possible), it would be blues. There is something about his past that makes blues the salve for all that ails him. When he tears relentlessly into songs by Leroy Carr, Skip James, and Robert Johnson like he does on this album, everything makes perfect sense. Fires get lit that can never be put out, and Clapton becomes a presence beyond this day-to-day world. His passion becomes bedrock. Which isn't to say Clapton's takes on J.J. Cale, Paul Brady, Bob Dylan, Sammy Fain, and his own originals aren't striking, because they are. Still, it will always be the blues where the Englishman sounds like he's arrived home. For him to make recordings so strong and essential at this time in life is an empowering achievement, and comes from all his years of listening and playing. There is no substitute, and Eric Clapton would probably be the first to say it. Long may he burn.

Luther Dickinson, Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook Volumes I & II. Like a one-man army marching into the fray, Mississippian Luther Dickinson takes in the whole scope of Southern music and then jumps in. It's such a joyous journey it's often hard to know where to start. The first song, "Hurry Up Sunrise," is one Dickinson and fife legend (that's right, fife!) Otha Turner wrote together, which is the perfect start to an album so moving that it should be given to every American as a testament to our nation's heritage. Other songwriting collaborators include father Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker (both late members of the reality-busting band Mudboy & the Neutrons), Jimbo Mathus, and Jim Lauderdale, while guest singers include Mathus, Mavis Staples, JJ Grey, Amy LeVere, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and others. But make no mistake: this is Luther Dickinson's opus all the way, and is one he's been preparing for his whole life. His day job may still be in the North Mississippi Allstars, so consider this collection a love letter from the heart of one of those in charge of our musical souls. Then get ready for some serious thrills and chills.

Charlie Faye & the Fayettes. What might at first sound like a total homage to girl groups of the '60s turns quickly into something else entirely: an enticing showcase for a fabulously talented singer. Charlie Faye grew up in New York before taking off for points west and finally settling in Texas. Once there, she went all the way into an examination of all things great. The songs she writes could be from tomorrow just as easily as yesterday, and there's no way she'll ever get trapped in the past. One listen to "Eastside" shows a young woman intent on finding her place in the world through music. Producer Dave Way employs the instincts of a true sound guru, helping to make the music turn up the spotlights and demonstrate just how intriguing modern life has become. In a world of new soul singers who actually get what they're talking about, enter the name of Charlie Faye and her unbeatable Fayettes to that list. They could go all the way.

The I Don't Cares, Wild Stab. An intriguing excursion is listening to this album without knowing who it really is. The songs capture the innocence and inspiration of great rock & roll. They are not fancied up and filled with hotsy totsy hoo-hah. Instead, the emotions of the singers are allowed to ride the crest of a sound wave, propelled forward by crunching guitars and kicking drums. They could come from any time in the last 50 years, but always sound brand new. Sure, there are bumps here and there, but that's half of the fun of rollercoaster rides of all persuasions. The last song, "Hands Together," feels like something momentous without really trying, with the opening lines "I attended Ty Cobb's funeral / and managed to find a seat / and I went out dancing with Miss Garbo/ tried my best to not step on her feet..." Spoiler alert coming: this is the unassuming duo of Paul Westerberg and Julianna Hatfield, and sounds like the pair went on a holiday run that just happened to include a two-day stop at a recording studio in Iowa City with the über -producer Bo Ramsey twiddling the knobs. Just in the nick of time.

Dylan LeBlanc, Cautionary Tale. It's always a striking surprise when an enigma comes into view. Dylan LeBlanc made two previous albums that were stellar. When very little happened, it seemed like he could easily be returning to the shadows. Then this new album appeared that was not only his best yet, but also came with it the sense that LeBlanc might be heading for higher ground. That's happened, in fits and starts, but most important is just how glorious his new music is. There is a Southern sense of permanence on every song, starting with the title track and flowing right to the end on "Paradise." There aren't many singers who possess this young man's ability to take a song to the middle of an emotional universe and then stay there while a new view on life and love has come alive. Those words might sound slightly over the top, but that's exactly where this music goes. Produced in Muscle Shoals, Alabama by John Paul White and Ben Tanner, Dylan LeBlanc has made the best album of the year so far, and it's going to take a miracle to top it. Then again, miraculous is exactly what this music sounds like. Amen.

Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, I Long to See You. Sometimes a great jazz album comes out of left field and opens the door to a beautiful vista. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd has been doing exactly that for 50 years, and it is an amazing achievement at this point in his life to make what might be best recording of his life. Working with guitarist Bill Frissell, bassist Ruben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland, and steel guitarist Greg Liesz, it's like the quintet entered a cocoon of coolness and came out with a majestic result. Whether it's on Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" or Lloyd's own "Barche Lamsel," his horn sound is celestial. He takes listeners so deep inside it's like there is no other space left anyone would want to be. Joined by vocalists Willie Nelson and Norah Jones is an added delight, but the center of Charles Lloyd will always remain inside his horn. Going there with him is an indescribable sonic odyssey. Do not delay.

Eve Monsees and the Exiles, You Know She Did. Deep down in Austin, Texas, Eve Monsees has been tearing it up since her high school days. She took to guitar like it was part of her soul, and never thought about doing anything else. Finally she's made an album that expresses everything she's ever felt about music. Fortunately that's a whole wide world. Her band the Exiles play like they are unafraid of veering off-road, mixing punk, blues, and any other style they can wedge into the mix. It's cathartic to hear people who could care less what anyone might think of them, and have grabbed a little chunk of the country to roam freely in. So whether it's kicking original songs, Jackie DeShannon and Delbert & Glen covers, or anything else they might smear their stamp on, look for Eve Monsees and the Exiles to ignore the stop signs and blast right through whatever musical intersection they encounter. This is Texas music that wraps its warm arms around the whole tradition of the Lone Star State. And never looks back.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter. A new star isn't born very often, but this year when Margo Price finally found a home for her debut album the signs were all there that something was up. Jack White was the person who ponied up his label, and before anyone knew it, Price was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. The fact that the lady is no youngster, not to mention some of the scrapes she's encountered leading up to this new attention, proves she's earned her shot and spot. None of that would matter if her songs and singing weren't so wonderful. Margo Price has tapped into the wellspring of country greatness, that sound where life feels like a constant contest between getting over and giving up, and even the smallest break takes on the joy of divine goodness. There are so few artists now who get to this place that a full-on celebration is called for. Sometimes things really do work just like they're supposed to.

Bonnie Raitt, Dig in Deep. Who's better than Bonnie Raitt? Who can play guitar like it's in her DNA, sing to make everyone laugh and cry, lead her band like nobody's business and, yes, write songs as good as any being done today? Even better, the way she's taken control of her music and releases it on her own label is an inspiration to everyone. For this set, she digs in deep and hits paydirt on the very first song, written with Jon Cleary. From there comes an unfolding that might make this the very best album of her long and distinguished career. Talk about victories. By assembling blues, soul, rock & roll, and all the other musical elements like she does helps to build a momentous mountain. What's also a stone-cold groove is how she still sounds like she's just getting started. This isn't a finale, but rather a fresh attack on why Bonnie Raitt matters more than ever. Like Dyke & the Blazers once sang: "Gotta let a woman be a woman." Sure 'nuff.

The Relatives, Goodbye World. Moving into the light can sometimes take travelers through the darkness. And what better music to help make that crossing than gospel? For those who can throw open their beings to the input of the spiritual world, anything is possible. Religion often feels like the biggest Band-Aid in the world, something to hold humans together when all the forces conspire to tear them apart. It has gotten cultures through the cruelest twists of history's tragedies, and hopefully will continue to offer that solace until the very end of time. Reverend Gean West led the Relatives the past 45 years with a soothing and inspired hand. His voice is treacherous; there is no other way to describe it. It can sound like a dangerous thing, something that packs so much feeling that the tilt light threatens to go off. But on a dime, West is able to do an about-face and take our hands for a righteous stroll to the promised land. This last release is a testament to what one man's offerings gave to the planet, and as Reverent Gean West moved to the other side he no doubt wanted to remind us of all that is great and glorious right in front of our eyes. Believe it.

Compilation: Various Artists, Day of the Dead. Just when it seems like tribute albums had gone the way of pay phones, leave it to the music of the good ol' Grateful Dead to bring them back with a resounding crash. Spread over five discs, there are enough songs and artists here to last an entire LSD trip—and then some. What's really astonishing is just how good almost every track is, whether it's Wilco, Bonnie Prince Billy, the War on Drugs, or any of the other many participants. That's likely due to the source material. Has there ever been another band who explored the highs and lows of the cosmos like the Dead? Aimed at the start as music to trip to, the San Francisco aggregation became like a touchstone to all that young people aspired to, whether they knew it or not. Like the band's music itself, there is no way to adequately describe what's on this compilation. Rather, it's best to dive in and let it take willing minds where it will. By the end, when the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir joins the National to sign off with "I Know You Rider," one of the very first songs that Weir, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and Bill Kreutzmann performed 51 years ago at a pizza parlor in Palo Alto, California. The long, strange trip continues—thank goodness.

Song: Dion, "New York is My Home." It's wild how New York gets the best songs written about it, and Dion's new one is right up there with the finest. He is such an exemplary example of all that makes that city so great. Here he taps into the ethos there like only a handful before him have done. There is an inescapable melancholy that gets coupled with a yearning for all that goes on in the five boroughs you can almost smell the hot dog, pretzel, and roasted nuts carts in Times Square. With Paul Simon joining in on vocals, the city that never sleeps has an instant new anthem as sung by one of its favorite sons. Yes, he's talking to you.

Bill Bentley © 2016

Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: THE PEOPLE'S PICTURES will be published by Smithsonian Books, available October 2017.


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