Blind Boys of Alabama, Almost Home.When it’s time to turn toward the spirit world and work your way home, take the hands of the Blind Boys of Alabama. They will never let you down and always take you where you need to go. It's been that way for nearly 80 years, and shows no sign of slowing down. The group is like an American musical centerpiece, and has seen the world come and go but never loses the faith in gospel music to cure all ills and spread the love. Their new album can stand strong by anything they've ever done, and spreads its wings over a variety of producers and songwriters in a way which shows they'll never quit growing in their journey to the other side. Writers range from John Levinthal and Marc Cohn, the North Mississippi All Stars, Billy Joe and Eddie Shaver, Valerie June and Ruthie Foster, among others, and songs have a way of zeroing in on the singers' best strengths. The album begins with "Stay on the Gospel Side," appropriately enough, and ends with "I Was Called," moving through the dozen songs like a cavalcade of belief. A feeling of eternal joy permeates everything, offering wizened voices that push goodness forward and remind our wavering world that this too shall pass. Say amen somebody.
Bob Bradshaw, American Echoes. There are most likely hundreds of strong singer-songwriters lurking in America, playing shows where they live, recording albums the best they can and believing in themselves enough to keep going. Some have even come here from other countries, knowing they need to be in the land where rock & roll started, and where it still finds its most welcoming home. Bob Bradshaw moved to America from Ireland, and eventually made his way to Boston, where he went to the Berklee College of Music in classes with students half his age. That was okay, because he was driven to learn and then write songs that deserved to be heard. After a handful of albums and bands, Bradshaw has made the album to define his life. That an Irishman would use the word "American" in the title shows how strong he wants to express how things are now. These are songs that crawl up the back and wrap themselves around the neck, sending feelings to places that aren't easy to find. The man is clearly in thrall of writers like Jack Kerouac and Nelson Algren, but at the same time he has forged his own language. That's what matters most, along with a voice that is inspired in its intercontinental flavor and enquiring eye. In a year full of albums that sound like they'll live forever, Bob Bradshaw has made one of the best. Emeralds for all.
Bill Carter. Sometimes when a singer-songwriter has been successful enough, and people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Waylon Jennings, and others have recorded your songs, it's time to strip them down to the studs and see how they sound. Bill Carter is just such a person, and this acoustic collection of many of his most notable songs shows just how much he has the goods. "Crossfire," "Why Get Up?," "Willie the Wimp," and "Richest Man" are some of the most evocative and grooving songs to come out of Texas in the past 30 years. And though Carter is closely associated to Texas, where he's lived over 40 years, he's actually a son of Kentucky and a distant relative of country music godfather A.P. Carter, which is definitely a good bloodline to have. What it comes down to, though, is how strong Bill Carter's own songs are, many co-written with partner Ruth Ellsworth Carter, and the way they sound when it's just one person and the music. By the last song, the striking "Richest Man," it's obvious one of Austin's finest is still standing right there in the light. Hear him now.
Ella Fitzgerald with the London Symphony Orchestra, Someone to Watch Over Me. If God could sing, She might well sound like Ella Fitzgerald. And what a joy that is. Listening to these Fitzgerald recordings updated with the London Symphony Orchestra is like receiving a reprieve on life from up above. Like walking down a quiet street at dawn and seeing the leaves begin to fall from the trees in October, like watching the people parade and gorging on the dazzling humanity of it all, like discovering a wondrous new book from out of the blue, like finally realizing that the amount of time we all have left to live will somehow be enough to arrive at a state of grace to take us to the other side. There is a beauty to this music that is beyond life on earth. Bless Ella Fitzgerald, all the gifted musicians, her singing partners Louis Armstrong and Gregory Porter, and whoever had the great good sense to put them on this planet. Praise to all.
Robert Francis, Indian Summer. There is a fine spirit in rock & roll for albums that feature one person doing everything: singing and playing all the instruments. Think of Alexander "Skip" Spence's OAR, Paul McCartney's debut solo album, John Mayall’s The Blues Alone and on and on. If the artist is inspired, there is no reason other humans need be called in. Robert Francis has made a series of albums, but this is the first where he goes it completely alone. And it's not a moment too soon, because the Los Angeleno shows just how inventive he can be when left to his own formidable devices. Francis knows his way intimately around stringed instruments, having been mentored by Ry Cooder from a very early age, and his ability to master guitars, mandolins, and banjos has reached a new peak. Keyboards, bass, and drums also seem like his primary instrument too: that's how good he's gotten on all of them. But above everything, it's the songwriting this time out that jumps to the top of his talents. This is music that will last. Songs like "Forgiveness is a Destination" and "The Magic" are ones that Robert Francis can perform the rest of his life. Now if only there was a way to play all the instruments at once live the sky would be the limit. Press play now.
Dylan Hicks, Ad Out. Quirky rock & roll artists are what make the world go 'round. So many enter the fray for a few years and go away, but almost always leave an indelible mark on the music scene that reverberates forever. Think Jake Jacobs, leader of Jake & the Family Jewels in the early '70s. His two magical albums are nowhere to be found on vinyl or CD, but still Jacobs' songs roll around the brain like forever friends. Dylan Hicks could be the King of Quirk right now, but there's something so all-encompassing about his new album that it feels like it could also jump out of that category and find its way into the mainstream, whatever that is. Naturally, Hicks spent his first 13 years in Austin before relocating with his family to Minneapolis. He got his share of influences in these two burgs, and extrapolated from there into who he is today. Which is someone unafraid to cross boundaries and mix it up like a bartender on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Dylan Hicks can veer into country, jump over to folksy whimsy, and end up strutting down the avenue leading a rock & roll band. And, when needed, write a ballad that would bring anyone to their knees. His voice doesn't threaten so much as seduce, and lyrically he writes puzzles that eventually become apparent. No easy feat: just try it. When the brisk fall air kicks in and makes everything seem possible, find Mr. Hicks. He'll be waiting.
The Replacements, For Sale: Live at Maxwell's 1986. The legend of certain bands seems to grow exponentially, especially those whose fans feel met an early demise. Of all the hard luck groups from the '80s, the Replacements live right up there at the top of the stairs. It looked like all systems were go in 1985 when Sire Records signed them, but each year brought new challenges, including MIA co-founder Bob Stinson and enough alcodelic experiences to float Smirnoff's coffers for centuries. No matter, because the Minneapolis outfit was founded on chaos and it was never going to be any different. This 1986 nightclub show is one fine example: taped by the record label for a possible live release, instead it got deep-sixed immediately only to languish in the vaults for 30 years. Not no more. Maxwell's was a time-honored den of inequity in Hoboken where bands went to blow off serious steam right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. So leave it to the 'Mats to show everyone how it was meant to be done by playing one of their patented destructo shows that proved once again there would never be another band like them. Singer Paul Westerberg had his arms wrapped around greatness and it just seemed a matter of one break before the whole world became his and the group's. He wrote the kind of songs people tattoo on their brains, and to this day the Replacements still have fans who haven't fallen in true love since. This double-disc 29-song set is a flashback to a time when rock & roll was without doubt going to save the world, and its ardent followers were fearless in a devotion to the music meant to melt their souls. So whether it's "Color Me Impressed," "Bastards of Young," "Gary's Got a Boner," or "Fuck School" that rings the bell, it's all here in its gut-wrenching glory. R.I.P. The Replacements.
Bette Smith, Jetlagger. What the world needs now is more hardcore soul singers. Those that take lyrics to the mountaintop and ensure that fellow travelers on the planet are not left alone. Their voices ring out over the land, calling all to a meeting of the heart that can save lives. It's almost like alchemy, and when it happens colors come out and passion reigns supreme. Bette Smith is 100% dyed-in-soul, and everything she says or does shows it. Joined by producer Jimbo Mathus from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, they form a treacherous team in the studio that cannot be deterred. Mathus throws in his unerring songwriting chops on several songs, and collects nuggets from Issac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Steve Van Zandt and Maria McKee and a few others to make sure the playlist stays intriguing so the end result is the kind of album that pushes listeners against the wall and shakes their very being. Ms. Smith is not messing around. Instead, she sounds like she knows now is the time to show everyone what her Mama gave her and hit that finish line at full speed. This is soul music that didn't get smoothed to perfection in the studio. Thankfully, it's a sound that can be down home and deep down, both at the same time, and one that cannot be forgotten. Bette Smith is back and she's proud, and not to be missed. Play it strong.
Mary Lou Sullivan, Everything's Bigger in Texas: The Life & Times of Kinky Friedman. At the start of his music career, Kinky Friedman loved to make people mad. There was something in his genes that lived to rile people up. Songs like "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," "They Aren't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore," and "The Ballad of Charles Whitman" put their teeth into a groovy little Texas town like Austin in the early '70s like a mad dog on amphetamines. And it worked. Friedman made a career out of controversy, even though he was one of the more sensitive singer-songwriters of the coming Redneck Rock crowd. Being of the Jewish persuasion, as he liked to say, he was ostracized even more than Charlie Pride, but he didn't let that slow him down a notch. He kept recording and starting trouble wherever he could. Mary Lou Sullivan's insightful and inspiring biography of Friedman captures it all, from growing up the son of a college professor through the '70s music highlights, through the New York years, detective novels and, yes, the increasing craziness of Kinky Friedman himself until he returned to the Texas hill country and started an animal shelter. At the core, though, the man is crazy like a fox and knew exactly what he was doing. Which, in the end, was making a living the best he could. While he lost his campaign for Texas governor, a political possibility might not be out of the question quite yet, as the present landscape clearly proves. Ask the President.
Jimmie Vaughan Trio featuring Mike Flanigin, Live at C-Boy's. Many cities have one: a bodacious band that finds the perfect spot to call home, and then becomes a regular attraction there for years. Blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan has done just that at Austin's C-Boy's Lounge. It's got a small but sizzling stage and a well-used dance floor for those who have to let things loose. Vaughan's music, with Mike Flanigin on Hammond B3 and occasional vocals and the late Frosty Smith on drums, is meant to make people move, an infectious blend of bluesy gyrations and rocking gravitation. The guitarist is no stranger to the spotlight: his years co-fronting the Fabulous Thunderbirds made sure of that. At a certain point, though, the Texan decided to take it home and concentrate on living in the country and burning up C-Boy's bandstand on the weekends. Who wouldn't want to hear vibrational instrumentals like "You Can't Sit Down" and "Cleo's Mood" bumped up hard next to "Hey Baby?” Just to ensure that other continents get a shout-out, Jimmie Vaughan and crew crank up the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" to whiplash speed, then get all the way down on "Dirty Work at the Crossroads," with Vaughan on sultry vocals. This is an album that gets the job done no matter when it's spun, and anyone who ever wanted to Shing-a-ling and Monkey Dog across a crowded dance floor is directed to waste no time and tear that top off now. Boogie or die.
Charlie Watts Meets The Danish Radio Big Band. The Rolling Stones' prime soul man Charlie Watts has had a jazz jones his entire life. In fact, the Englishman's earliest inspiration was drummer Chico Hamilton on Gerry Mulligan's classic "Walking Shoes." For all these years with the Stones, Watts has given them their life pulse, and made sure the band sounded like they would always matter. And they still do. But the drummer also needs his outside action, and this cooking collection recorded live with the Danish Radio Big Band in 2010 is strictly a thrill. It's a full orchestra complete with blasting saxophones, blaring trumpets, and sliding trombones. Like he should, Charlie Watts lays deep in the groove with childhood pal David Greene on bass, making sure all the players are anchored by their prodigious rhythmic skills. Conductor Gerald Presencer is on hand making sure the band is burning, and the range of songs is intriguing: three Stones evergreens, the Watts-Jim Keltner original "Elvin Suite Part 1 & 2," American songbook standard "I Should Care," and the album-ending stoker "Molasses" by Joe Newman. While it's a permanent wish rock's designated drummer will keep his day job in the Rolling Stones forever, what a swinging treat it is to hear him stretch out and fly high. Sir Charlie Watts.
Kim Wilson, Blues and Boogie Volume 1. If there is a heaven strictly for harp players, be assured Kim Wilson already has a spot saved for him. The things he can do with the small instrument once dubbed the Mississippi saxophone almost defy nature. He's been this good for 45 years, and somehow just keeps getting better. Of course, the secret weapon is his vocals, which blend heartfelt singing and mos' scocious harp blowing together into a seamless attack. In what looks like a new series, Wilson digs deep into the revered catalogues of Little Walter, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and a half-dozen other blues giants, and then adds several new originals to the mix, making the kind of album that can be played from dawn to dark and back. The frontman has also invited some heavy-hitters into the studio, including Big Jon Atkinson, Nathan James and Billy Flynn on guitars, Larry "The Mole" Taylor on bass, the late Barrelhouse Chuck and Richard Innes on piano and drums respectively, showing precisely how bandmates supply such an integral ingredient to the ultimate outcome of an album for the ages. Here's hoping Volume 1 is just the start of a long steamy ride to the other side of the alley, and Kim Wilson's unstoppable faith in the blues to heal all woes lasts forever. Say it loud.
Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone.Once or twice a year a new album arrives like a wished-for gift of grace. It is so astonishing that it feels like a personal offering of music worth believing in, and something that can be counted on forever. Lee Ann Womack is no stranger to great recordings. She's made a bundle of them. For this new collection she went home, or very close by, to Houston's Sugar Hill studio, first opened in the late '30s and home to early recordings by Lightnin' Hopkins, George Jones, and dozens of other groundbreakers. Every sound here is soaked in history, and arrives like letters from a time when all kinds of music had the ability to set the listener back a few feet and remind them why living is worth all the challenge. Womack has had her share of chart-toppers in the country field, but she's now stepped into a style of her own. It's one where country runs head-on into soul and gospel with a hot dash of rock & roll thrown in to keep the nerves jangling. The singer has hinted at this sound before, but by being back home in Texas she's clearly been emboldened to go all the way down the road of her own deliverance, grabbing inspirations from everything that ever moved her to start singing as a child. Besides songs by George Jones and Harlan Howard, the final knockout punch on the album is all the original songs Lee Ann Womack has co-written. If there ever was a question if her pen is as mighty as her voice, that is settled once and for all most righteously. Listen to Lee Ann Womack with open ears as she opens all the pathways to the heart. Hope still dances.
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 was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.