Back with another ten reviews of new releases, it's music industry vet Bill Bentley! This month Bill discusses Joseph Arthur, The Evenfall Quartet, Andre Williams, Laura Mvula, Mudcrutch, and more.
Joseph Arthur, The Family. Have mercy. How does someone like Joseph Arthur continually top himself? He's one of the most free-range rockers the world has seen the past 20 years, and just when you think Arthur can't take it any farther, wham. There he goes again. Joseph Arthur turns his laser soul on his past this time around, and while there is no doubt plenty of artistic license taken when writing about his family, it's also likely there's plenty of truth-telling going on here. The great thing about the Akron, Ohio native is how he operates without restraint. It's like he likes it best up on the high-wire, with nothing beneath him but his own beliefs. Arthur will take his songs as far out as they need to go, and then when it seems like it's time to bring everything back home, he'll go even a little farther. Never mind that he plays all the instruments himself, because Arthur has so clearly staked his claim on the universe everything belongs to him anyway. Listen now as his father, mother, sister, and himself come to life in the glorious 3D of song, and once more a breathing human proves what is possible through the sheer wonder of music. The luminous liner notes penned by Joseph Arthur give an opening glimpse at what he accomplishes on this album. The songs then bring him—and us—all the way home.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Got a Mind to Give Up Living/Live 1966. Of all the bands that broke through in the 1960s, put the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the very top echelon of those that made a real difference. Their electrifying blend of Chicago urban blues with an integrated band turned heads and burned ears in a way that no other combo accomplished. It's probably not an accident that members of the Butterfield band backed Bob Dylan when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. There weren't many other players who could have quite done that. Butterfield himself was a monster harp player and singer, someone who went into the Chicago clubs at the start of the '60s and learned what really mattered about Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter, and all the other kingpins playing there. By the time Paul Butterfield and band went into the studio to record their debut album in '65 it was all over but the shouting. For this live set, recorded in Boston in May 1966, Butterfield, guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, drummer Billy Davenport, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, and bassist Jerome Arnold were setting bandstands aglow. Butterfield's harp was nothing short of treacherous, while Bloomfield's leads seemed to take on a supercharged life of their own. And the rest of the band was right there with them. All the live staples are included here, along with a few surprises like "Love Her with a Feeling," "Memory Pain," and "Comin' Home Baby." Even if the vocals are somewhat muffled, probably due to the tape machine being set in the middle of the club, the pure and passionate feeling that bursts through on every song is mind blowing. It's like stumbling across an historical artifact long after it looked like everything had already been found. Chris Morris' astute liner notes offer an intriguing look into the history of a band that is still making waves a half century later. The self-described "3 Bs and the A-N-D" of the blues aren't about to stop now.
Little Charlie and Organ Grinder Swing, Shronky Tonk.Are there ever enough organ trios? Probably not, but when a new one comes along and hits the bullseye it's time to roll back the rug and get ready for a little uptown boogaloo. Little Charlie Baty has been a presence on the blues scene with his band the Nightcats for a very long time. They always get right down to business and entertain their audiences with a ton of attitudinal atmospherics. And they hit the sweet spot of blues every time they take the bandstand. For this go-round, Little Charlie has rolled in Lorenzo Farrell's Hammond organ, enlisted drummer J. Hansen, and gotten down to business. Their rollicking take on songs by Charlie Christian, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, and others, along with a steaming heap of originals, should get even the most sedate swingster in the spirit. They might not be exactly rewriting history, but Little Charlie and Organ Grinder Swing do the genre mighty proud. There is so much sweet power in the playing, whether it's Baty's hypnotic big Gibson guitar or Ferrell's heart-pounding Hammond that it's hallelujah time from the start. No more words are needed. The Evenfall Quartet.There was a time when an untold number of jazz outfits were loose in the world, recording albums whenever they had a day or two to go into a studio and just play. There wasn't any thought much beyond capturing the very best music they could make in the moment. That was more than enough, because all these musicians had the goods and knew how to deliver them. Gradually, studio gymnastics came into play, and less and less jazzers had a chance to show what they could do. Which all makes the Evenfall Quartet even more special, because this is four musicians who go for it. Tenor saxophonist Mark Earley leads the charge, blowing like there's no tomorrow on what is mostly songs from the American songbook: "That Old Black Magic," "If I Were a Bell," "Stardust," and others. It's just such a warm and enveloping sound that nothing else is needed. No matter when it's played, this music always works. Labels like Prestige, Blue Note, and others used to release this type of album almost weekly, and it felt like that golden era would never end. Of course it did, but the Evenfall Quartet now brings it to life again, and praise be to them. Extra bonus: a Lucky Thompson gem, "The Plain But Simple Truth," that reminds just what a gem tenor terror Thompson was.
Mudcrutch, 2. Maybe every famous band leader should be required to go back to their very first group and get together. It's like first love: things get learned that are brand new and can never be quite duplicated. Tom Petty's first working aggregation was Mudcrutch, formed in Gainesville, Florida at the start of the '70s. Some Mudcrutch members stayed with Petty to start the Heartbreakers and others went on to other endeavors. To reform like they did eight years ago and record again was semi-miraculous. Now, for their sophomore release, it feels like a real-deal band that can have whatever kind of life they want. The new songs are of such a high quality that it doesn't matter what else the members went on to do. Mudcrutch is road worthy and more than ready for their close-up. Petty's songs are among some of his best; "Trailer," "Beautiful Blue," "I Forgive It All," and "Hungry No More" will hopefully stay in his set lists no matter what band he's in. Other members Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Tom Leadon, and Randall Marsh each get a turn or two at the microphone with their originals, making band democracy a beautiful thing to hear. Mudcrutch may be a matter of the whole being more than the sum of its parts, but what powerful parts they are. Turn this one up.
Laura Mvula, The Dreaming Room. It's never been adequately explained why the British have such an emphatic handle on African-American music, but it seems to work out that way. Laura Mvual mixes in a dizzying number of influences but everything comes out as real soul. She can record with a small electronic piano or a full-on orchestra without ever losing her inner dedication to self-expression. It's close to being unexplainable, but maybe that's where the outer limits visit those open to its influence. Her second studio album explores places that are perfect for Mvula, and seem heaven sent to a person that is born to deliver dreams for those who count on them for inspiration. The song "Overcome," done with producer Nile Rodgers, could be the one to open up a whole new vista for a young woman who is fast becoming a messenger for the next step the world will have to take to keep turning. This lady will be leading that charge up the hill. Bill Phillippe, Parade.Ghosts can come in many guises, and there are times when their very presence can be a blessing. And other times a curse. Bill Phillippe, one of San Francisco's very finest singer-songwriters, is no stranger to the ethereal beings who haunt that city. Somehow, Phillippe manages to pull their elusiveness down to earth and put them right into his songs. With backing by a clarinet, bass, and accordion, he uses his vocals and guitar to create a sound that lives in the fog and flows out into the bay. No one else right now sounds quite like this, and isn't likely to anytime soon. It's like a cross of the Mississippi Delta with Mississippi Street in Potrero Hill, a unique pairing no doubt, but Bill Phillippe is able to convey that cross-cultural blend to perfection. It's not blues, but it's not big city music either. It's more like a cakewalk into the Castro district, with a detour through the kudzu around Clarksville, ending up atop the Coit Tower watching the fireworks on the Chinese New Year. America's a big melting pot of people, places, and music, and as long as artists like this are around to keep stirring things up everything should work out just fine. "No dream of life is spared this parade," Bill Phillippe says in the first song, "Blues Come Callin' (Home)," so let it begin and keep going.
Quinn Sullivan, Midnight Highway. Young guitarists have a way of hitting the crossroads and either taking the high road or disappearing. Quinn Sullivan definitely decided to go in the right direction and keep growing. He first came to attention playing with blues guru Buddy Guy, and no doubt learned the kind of lessons that only a few players ever receive. It put him on a true blues path early, but also showed him he needed to become his own person. Now that he's finishing high school, Sullivan steps way out and made the album his fans always knew he had in him. He mixed rock and blues together in a way that sounds like he's been doing that his whole life—which he almost has—and grabs the songwriting reins with a sure hand. For someone who's already been on just about every television show known to man and toured around the world a few times, it's only a matter of time before he becomes a guitar hero who makes a difference in moving the music forward. Album producer Tom Hambridge is the trusted guide on these new recordings, and wisely brought in seasoned and savvy players like bassist Michael Rhodes and keyboardist Reese Wynans to ensure the sound in the studio captured an artist coming into his own. There's even a fiery cover of George Harrison's classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," that defies the odds and still matters. Quinn Sullivan: he's street legal and ready to roll. Watch out.
Allen Toussaint, American Tunes. Elegance comes in all shapes and sizes, but none with more class than Allen Toussaint and his music. Known as an architect of the New Orleans sound, Toussaint's piano helped write the book for so much of the Crescent City's majesty. This album, recorded not long before his untimely death last year, is an absolutely breathtaking journey into the heart of an American hero. Perfectly produced by Joe Henry, who seems to do that so much these days, it is a mixture of Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Thomas "Fats" Waller, and, yes, Paul Simon. There is such an ever-present sense of pure strength on the songs that it's obvious something slightly otherworldly was going on. The presence of players Jay Bellerose, Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Charles Lloyd, and David Piltch should also be mentioned, because they provide the bedrock with Toussaint for all that's accomplished. Pianist Van Dyke Parks joins in on two songs, including a mesmerizing version of Toussaint's "Southern Nights," while vocalist Rhiannon Giddens is featured on two Duke Ellington songs to fairly stunning effect. Allen Toussaint saves his only vocal to the end, when Simon's "American Tunes" becomes the New Orleans icon's bittersweet farewell to this world, especially when he sings, "But it's all right it's all right, for we've lived so well so long." Good night Mr. Toussaint, and thank you.
Andre Williams, I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City. A lot can be told by the title of Andre Williams' early hits: "Jail Bait," "Greasy Chicken," "Bacon Fat," and "Cadillac Jack," and as a co-writer of "Shake a Tail Feather." There was something a little outside the norm at work in Williams' active mind and, thankfully, that has continued to this day. As one of the few surviving elder statesmen of rhythm & blues, the native Alabaman still has lots of love for Detroit City, and decided to pour it all into his new album. While the man may have toned his song titles down a bit, he still has a ton of sass in these new songs and isn't afraid to strut his stuff all over Motor City. In his two-tone spats, too. Andrew Williams is a force of nature, someone who knows show business is a fictional creation of fevered minds to begin with, so why not ride the crest of that fun wave all the way to the end of the line. Luckily, he's got a band with plenty of kick and a record label that backs his play, so who knows what the future may hold. He's got a lock on the outré, and a voice that could start a ruckus in graveyards around the world. Motown still don't take no mess.
Bill Bentley © 2016
Bill Bentley is a music industry veteran who currently is the head of A&R for Concord Records and has produced tribute albums for Roky Erickson, Skip Spence, Sir Doug Sahm, and Lou Reed.