Dennis Coffey, Hot Coffey in the D. In 1968 Detroit was still on fire for musicians. Motown Records’ success had lit the city up, and its glow spread far and wide. Guitarist Dennis Coffey had been on a batch of successful records, and he soon found himself a Funk Brother in the hallowed rooms of Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studio. This live album, recorded at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in ‘68, is the perfect combination of soul and jazz, showing how the two more often intersect than not. The musicians, which include organist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis, ignore all rules and go wherever the sounds lead them. Coffey’s guitar is a study in style: he can burn hard and turn around and go quietly deep. There are only seven songs on the release, but everything that needs to get played gets played. It’s like sitting in a red naugahyde booth in the back of a cozy corner bar and listening to the world unfold around you. Sadly, there aren’t many spots or bands like this anymore, so an album like this is even more valuable. It’s a time capsule from one of America’s most glorious musical eras, including liner notes that explain why it was so magical, and will open doors that have been forgotten for too long. Burn baby burn.
Stan Coppinger, Fortune Morning. When it’s time to play a down-home version of stump the band, seeking out those who may recall certain musicians from the past is a cool pursuit. Stan Coppinger comes from Dallas, but hit Austin at the start of the ‘70s and stayed there. Early groups included being bassist in a reformed Conqueroo, Lea Ann & the Bizarros, and other helter skelter aggregations around groover’s paradise. He even hit pay dirt in Europe with the Rattlers. Finally, though, Coppinger has a solo album that plays to all his many strengths, and not a moment too soon. From affecting folk rock to Lone Star boogie, this is one fellow who really does cover the waterfront, writing songs that are able to round up all the appropriate Texas musical styles and turn them into his own. It’s amazing Stan Coppinger didn’t make this album 30 years ago, but he got sidetracked as an attorney for the state of Texas. Don’t hold that against him: it’s never too late to go for the gusto, and anyone who can get elusive Austin harmonicat Moon D. Bellamy into a recording studio deserves unwavering respect. Surprises a go-go.
Brian Eno, Reflection. At just under an hour in length, Brian Eno’s new album is mesmerizing ambient music for all occasions, which hopefully results in a change of state of mind. This is the perfect soundtrack to listen to driving through a tunnel, staring at the stars, imagining what it’s like being upside down on a trapeze, climbing down a steep mountain, waiting for a city bus, locked inside a car trunk, ordering fried dumplings at a Chinese restaurant, praying to find a place to park, watching cats stalk squirrels, raking leaves after a wind storm, trying to catch raindrops in a tin cup, searching the racks of an antique store looking for ancient Duke Records 45s, walking the beach in winter remembering sunny summer days, waiting in security lines at airports, scouring bookstores for first editions, throwing lucky pennies into reflection pools, reading the Sunday papers, going through old albums and falling upon a favorite, discovering a photograph assumed lost from 50 years ago, and most of all remember what a lucky break it is to be alive even in these most topsy-turvy of times. Brian Eno knows.
Lee Fields & The Expressions, Special Night. Soul music often feels like an endangered species, when in fact there are still many true believers driving the backroads and doing their best to deliver the musical goods. Lee Fields is surely one of those anointed. He’s also one of the very best. Fields has got that realistic view that these are songs meant to provide solace to the listener, and a way to help those in need to get across a burning bridge and hopefully on to a better day. Even when love tears the heart apart, there’s still a chance for something stronger to appear. Fields’ voice has all the grit of someone who’s spent their entire life in drafty dressing rooms and aging Cadillacs, getting to the next gig to try and take the stage intact. This album has all the earmarks of an instant classic: right-on songs, razor-sharp backing, and a singer aspiring to add his name alongside Otis Redding, O.V. Wright, and Al Green. So if Memphis and Muscle Shoals still suggest a magical spell, Lee Fields & the Expressions are waiting to fill the spirit. Wear it out.
Roger Street Friedman, Shoot the Moon. There’s nothing better than starting a new year with an album that comes from beyond left field. Roger Street Friedman has a previous release that somehow slipped under the radar, but this one could change that. He writes with the wisdom of someone who’s seen his share of living, and actually was savvy enough to take notes along the way. What initially seems like it could be a singer-songwriter groove quickly kicks in with healthy measures of rock, R&B, and even some nods to New Orleans. Imagine a potent new strain built on The Band, Little Feat, and a sprinkling of Bruce Hornsby. Having guest vocalists Nini Camps and Amy Helm on board keep that particular circle unbroken. At a time when the world can get to feeling crispy rather quickly, Friedman’s songs provide the kind of perspective that proves longevity is a friend to us all, while the panic button provides no appealing solution. So when it’s time to take a gamble on an unknown, start with Roger Street Friedman. He isn’t fooling around, and at 54 years old knows there is no time like right now to do the very best work possible. So here it is: what will surely be one of the best albums of this still brand new year—delivered right on time. Real life guaranteed.
Jude Johnstone, A Woman’s Work. There are certain artists who songs go so deep it’s like they’re heart surgeons. They know the way to that place where all human emotions begin, and are able to put into words our deepest pain as well as our most transcendent joys. Jude Johnstone has been able to do all that and more for so many years it’s almost like she has a patent on it. Her new album goes all the way, and even farther. It is music taken down to the bones, and built into a sound that is able to enter the bloodstream. There’s a reason singers like Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler, Jennifer Warnes, and more have all recorded Johnstone’s songs. They know greatness when it greets them, and also know it’s something that doesn’t come around that often. These new songs, whether they’re “The Woman Before Me” (already a #1 song for Trisha Yearwood), “Little Boy Blue,” “What Do I Do Now,” or the devastating “Before You” all point to someone who is at the uppermost of their abilities right now, and continues on that path to glory. Jude Johnstone has found the truth and wants to share it. Listen to her.
Bill Kirchen & Austin De Lone, Transatlanticana. What happens when the musical linchpins of Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen and Eggs Over Easy collide at the corner of country & western and rock & roll? Look no further than this latest collaboration by Bill Kirchen and Austin De Lone. The guitarist and keyboard player are no strangers to creating musical mayhem, and together it’s like two long-lost brothers are reunited for tons of fun and frolic. They write new songs with the same astute talent that they pick covers, and don’t limit themselves to any single genre to cast their own unique spell. Even if it sounds like playing this music might have an eye in the rear-view mirror, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes guts to punch up the timeless button, and true love to keep nostalgia at bay. These two men have been around every kind of foolishness the music business can offer, and still sound like the start of each day begins with a shining smile and a big beat. Hit repeat now.
Jane Siberry, Angels Bend Closer. Whenever a singer is able to establish a genre they live in pretty much alone, that’s a serious singer. Jane Siberry has done that since her start 30 years ago. The Canadian went for the ethereal and found a way to live there on her own terms. Not an easy thing to do when the music world has so little room for real originals. Siberry’s songs and voice demanded that though. She never had an instinct for how to do things like others, and fortunately found a way to survive without having to. It likely wasn’t always easy, but her creations were moving enough that her following followed her anywhere. After a multi-year hiatus, including a period when she recorded as Issa, she is back and as wondrous as ever. Maybe even more so, because so many recordings today play it safe and stay within the boundaries, while Jane Siberry still sounds like she’s up on the tightrope working without a net. On songs like “Walk on Water” and “Anytime,” this is a woman that has found her own zone and sings to the angels living there and beyond. What a world.
Various Artists, Unsung Heroes: Songs of Eleni Mandell. For those in the know, Los Angeles’ Eleni Mandell has been a natural resource of inspiration for years. She continues to record some of the most intriguing solo albums of this century, and collaborates with others in ways rarely equaled. It is no wonder the title of this collection of others doing Mandell’s song includes the words “Unsung Heroes.” That’s exactly who she is. This idea grew out of a live concert at Topanga Canyon’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum produced by Inara George (Mandell’s bandmate in the Living Sisters), and includes contributors Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, Harper Simon, fellow Living Sisters Becky Stark and Alex Lilly, among many. Each and every song is an Eleni Mandell gem no matter who sings them, and combine to create a multi-artist compilation as impressive as any in recent years. Great singers performing timeless songs: what a concept! Add in that sales proceeds benefit the Plastic Pollution Coalition, an alliance working toward a planet free of pollution, and the compilation is a smart start to a new era of needed participation in steering the world towards survival. Mandell and Milo Miles add her song “Empty Lockett” to close the album with a perfect touch. And it’s a digital-only release, of course, assuring that no paper or plastic products were injured in its manufacturing. Go Eleni go.
Mike Zito, Make Blues Not War. The blues often can’t get no respect. It’s been sliced and diced so much sometimes it’s difficult to tell what is exactly is going on. Mike Zito has no such problem. He’s the kind of musician who lasers in on what he wants to do, and then will not be stopped. Zito brings plenty of fiery rock & roll propulsion to his blues, and it’s easy to hear that the musician is not interested in being a purist. Rather he is a player who wants to get the job done and let the notes fall where they may. Fortunately Mike Zito’s guitar playing is both muscular and mighty, and he has been doing it long enough to know what fits in and what needs to be left out. Aiding in that quest is veteran producer Tom Hambridge and a studio full of musicians who remain fool-proof. These mostly new songs are joined with a couple of choice Luther Allison and Clarence Garlow covers, not to mention one, “Chip Off the Block,” where son Zach Zito throws down on lead guitar. So make this a family affair where the entire family of man joins in for spiritual sustenance and righteous rocking in gathering a blues force of global proportions. No more war.
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.