Pieta Brown, Postcards. Emotionally exquisite and passionately provocative. Those are the best two phrases to describe Pieta Brown's absolutely astounding new album. Ms. Brown has always made irresistible music, and it's hard to say any of her previous releases have been any less moving than these ten songs. Still, there is something about selections like "In the Light" with Calexico, "Street Tracker" with Mark Knopfler, and all the other worthy contributors that it feels like she has gone to the very center of her soul and returned with an achievement that is at the top of her abilities. Brown has stayed a bit below the radar so far, at least for what her music deserves, and who knows if this collection will be the one to break down the levee and take her to the mountaintop. But it sure does deserve to. There are very few artists who can take timelessness into their heart, let it live there and then return it to their listeners with such a shining power. But that's exactly what Pieta Brown has been doing since the start of her career, and to hear her now continue to deliver that gift with such overwhelming grace and beauty is to know we're in the presence of a true master. These are musical postcards from a very powerful place. Do not delay in taking delivery today.
James Luther Dickinson featuring North Mississippi Allstars, I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone (Lazarus Edition). There aren't many shamans left in the music business, and now that James Luther Dickinson is no longer walking this planet there is definitely one less. Dickinson had a way of turning everything he touched into being something more than it was before he got there. Call it vision, call it magic, call it your mama, but this Arkansas/Memphis/Mississippi hybrid had his mojo working at all times. This live set, recorded with sons Luther and Cody Dickinson, comes from a 2006 show at New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street. Everyone is in fine form, firing on all barrels and lost in the zone where history meets heresy. Maybe's that's because elder Dickinson was not afraid to tangle with the unknowns, break all the rules and fire scattershot songs into a crowd of juiced-up locals. From "Redneck Blue Collar" to "Midnight Rider," the father-and-sons team burned Beale Street down. For good measure there are two additional songs included from a 1983 show recorded with Sun Records regulars like Billy Lee Riley and J.M. Van Eaton. They fit right in, showing how the South was not only going to rise again, it was going to levitate too. Not to be missed: James Luther Dickinson's long-awaited autobiography of the same title.
The Bill Evans Trio, On a Monday Evening. In 1976 the Bill Evans Trio traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for what at first seemed like a standard weeknight show. Fortunately two college students were astute enough to record the evening and now, over 40 years later, that show is available in all its percolating and pristine glory. Evans was a national musical treasure then, someone whose piano playing crossed the cerebral with the muscular. He could go so deep inside himself that Evans would almost get lost, but then come out with such force that no one could compete. By 1976 he was already established as one of the very best jazz musicians of the post-modern era, someone who knew tradition but wasn't afraid to make it his own. With bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Sigmund on this night all the stars aligned and the trio became celestial. Classic songs like "Up with the Lark" and "All of You" joined Evans originals "Sugar Plum," "T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune)," "Time Remembered," and other selections for an eight-song set that seemingly had been lost to time—until now. To hear Bill Evans in such interstellar form is to know why jazz is capable of turning normal life into true fleeting moments of perfection, even on a regular Monday evening in Madison, Wisconsin so many years ago. Wow.
The Mavericks, Brand New Day. Raul Malo knows what he's doing. The singer has been running circles around other bands for almost 30 years, mixing up his Cuban roots with soaring Nashville country and some savvy Tex-Mex spices. Now that Malo and his fellow Mavericks have started their own label, Mondo Mundo Recordings, they've got no one to answer to except themselves. They take this freedom and make the very most of it, blasting out songs like "Rolling Along" and "For the Ages" with enough brio to float a boat. There is a way the Mavericks can cross hold-on-tight rhythmic surges with near-operatic excursions that mark them as unique no matter where the music is played. Much of that is because Malo is such an expressive singer, with a voice big enough to make most other vocalists sound anemic. The Mavericks wisely bring in a horn section, backing choir, accordions, and the illustrious McCrary Sisters on various songs, completing one of their very best albums of a storied career. Fantastico.
Scott Nolan, Silverhill. Is there room in the world now for such a hypnotic album that even though it's on a label living beneath the underdog, one not likely to afford radio airplay grease, it can still soar like a silver jet onto the bestseller lists? Let's all hope so. Scott Nolan is just such a keeper. When he drove straight through to Loxley, Alabama to record these songs—in only two days—with producer Anthony Crawford at Admiral Bean Studio with the Southern collective Willie Sugarcapps, nobody likely knew what would happen. That greatness could be captured amid the fireflies and deep feelings. With no pre-production or demos, Nolan and band hung themselves on the line and went for it. There was no other way with songs this sure-footed and soulful, full of characters like a no-handed drummer and Bucket the three-legged dog, living at the Downtowner for $48.50 cash a night with Spanish television coming up through the floor. Every single song smells like it's been living in the same clothes for a while and ready for action. And with co-writers like Mary Gauthier, Jaid Dreyer, and Hayes Carll there is no room for anything but a bullseye. There is plenty of perfection in the modern world, and what's not perfect is often prefabbed into instant oblivion. So when a human heart breaks through the bushes and stands perfectly straight and ready for inspection, it can be too much. Too real. Missing Scott Nolan and this mesmerizing set of songs cannot be. Don't leave alone.
Holger Petersen, Talking Music Volume II. When music is something that worms down deep in the DNA and refuses to go away, a book like Holger Petersen's second volume of interviews with some incredibly worthy subjects is a gift from above. Very few people are as knowledgeable and enthralled with music like Petersen, who also just happens to be owner of Stony Plain Records in Canada, and through many decades of watching and listening knows just where to find the artists who have intriguing memories to share. From icons like B.B. King and Allen Toussaint to off-road heroes like Bobby Charles and Maggie Bell, this book is a real treasure of discussions about what makes music so indispensable. No matter how much is already known about all these artists, there are so many surprises and hearing them discuss their long careers it feels like peeping behind the curtain and eavesdropping on history. It's obvious every one of those interviewed had a ball talking with someone who knows just what they're talking about. Here's hoping there's many more volumes like this one, and that Holger Petersen has jumped headfirst into sitting down with new artists to see what rings their bell. So far, both volumes truly are the gift that keeps on giving.
Raging Fire, These Teeth Are Sharp. In Nashville during the '80s Raging Fire looked like they had a chance. They chiseled out rock & roll in a town that wasn't quite ready for them, but never backed down from the challenge of staring down the listeners-come-lately. Unfortunately, reality set in and the band broke up in 1989. Prime member Michael Godsey died in 2012 just as the band was starting work on a career-compilation. To honor their departed member, Raging Fire reformed for a show in 2015 and it went so well Raging Fire reignited. Original singer Melora Zaner grabs the spotlight like it's always been hers with a rampaging style and chilling seduction. For their new album, the band resurrected past songs that hadn't gotten the delivery they deserved the first time around, adding new originals and even recording a treacherous version of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog." Luckily, everything merges into one modern sound, never looking in the rear-view too long. Drummer and vocalist Mark Medley was there at the start, when Raging Fire was knocking down the same doors as X and Gun Club, and he's there now, when Nashville seems wide open to any and all rock band permutations. Those sharp teeth from over 30 years ago feel sharper than ever.
Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues, Different Voices. Why not? Take a long-time Chicago blues groover and cross him with a chamber string quartet and several very special guests and see what happens. Corky Siegel has always been someone with an ear for adventure, all the way back to the Siegel-Schwall Band that infiltrated the South Side clubs in Chicago to learn blues at the feet of masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Siegel's harp playing became its own force of nature, and he's survived a lot of miles and milestones. He's also been someone who likes to cross-pollinate and work with outside influences like classical musicians to see what happens. His compositions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra blew minds a half-century ago, and Corky Siegel hasn't slowed down since. Now that he's recording here with a classical string quartet along with guests like Paul Butterfield Blues Band drummer Sam Lay, singer Marcy Levy, tabla master Sandeep Das, folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong, and jazz saxophone legend Ernie Watts, it's like his palette is growing exponentially. It's almost like listeners need scorecards to track all the action. But that's Corky Siegel, a true pioneer who won't dream of slowing down.
The Suitcase Junket, Pile Driver. Musician Matt Lorenz found a calling. Taking found instruments and recording down home sounds so the results feel like something from a paradise antique store, a persona was born. Calling himself The Suitcase Junket and describing his sound as "swamp Yankee," this one-man band has been reborn as someone else entirely. Have a look at his instrument list: suitcase bass drum, box of bones, baby shoe gas can, cookpot, circular sawblade, a nasty old guitar, and other assorted castoff treasures. Mr. Junket would end up a novelty if it weren't for his voracious musical talents and unhindered inquisitive nature. Fortunately that talent is never in question. Lorenz's bluesy and blustery vocals literally soar over vast canyons and heartfelt ravines, songs that cry out in primal passion for someone to hold them close. "Busted Gut" and "Swamp Chicken" collide with "Seed Your Dreams" and "Red Flannel Rose" to show a backroads balladeer who has truth and wisdom on his mind. It's just too bad The Ed Sullivan Show is no longer on the air, a place where a true original can capture the fancy of the entire United States of America on a Sunday night with one single song. This is music perfect for between spinning pie plates and miniature mice. Demand no less.
The Wild Reeds, The World We Built. When it comes to picking future winners in the music wars, there are no guidelines other than gut feelings. Since everything is a guess, why not choose The Wild Reeds as the Los Angeles-based band who will cross the winner's line by Christmas in the lead position. Singers Kinsey Lee, Mackenzie Howe, and Sharon Silva have been working like mad the past few years: touring, recording, interviewing, radioing and everything young groups are expected to do in the drive for deliverance. More important than that, they've also been writing songs that stick and developing their vocal styles into an emotionally-charged edge beat by no one. Their new album declares a glorious supremacy that bands reach when everything synchs together, and for an outfit named after a 1994 French film to reach this point feels like freedom has finally been attained. Songs like "Everything Is Better (In Hindsight)" and album-closer "Fruition" take classic Los Angeles vocal harmonies to ecstatic new heights, and with an album likely to be one of the best of 2017 it looks like The Wild Reeds have reached lift-off. Hear a young band as it turns into one for the ages right before your ears.
Bill Bentley © 2017
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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