Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son. When Ry Cooder decides to rear back and hit one completely out of the park, it is always a sight to hear. He's become the near-official American Musician, and all the good things that implies. No one has a deeper feeling for the sounds that make music our universal and hopefully unifying language. For his first album in six years, Cooder walks the inspirational side of the street, singing songs that provide springs for the spirit as well as feathers for the feet. Whether it's the opening irresistible cover of the Pilgrim Travelers' vintage gem "Straight Street," Cooder's own "Shrinking Man," or any of the other nine songs, the new album has such a zestful glide and soulful stride it actually feels like a new day is a-borning and all fine things are possible. There hasn't been a release like this in a long time, and in the midst of the nation's tumultuous turmoil, there is plenty that sounds celestial-sent about these songs. Cooder's vocals are downright ethereal, and his playing beside son Joachim Cooder's passionate percussion paints a picture of solid bliss. The musician, who has been thrilling listeners even before he could drive a car, is a walking, talking, wailing and scaling musical giant, and when he gets into the zone and throws a light on his inner gyrations, it's time to let the holy ghosts get down and take everyone for a ride to the promised land. We must unload.
Kat Edmonson, Old Fashioned Gal. And now for something completely different. This Houstonian, an only child raised by a single mother, has been raising eyebrows in Texas since her start. She favored jazz-flavored songs, but sang in a completely distinctive voice that gathered influences like strands of gold which Edmonson then wove together. She's made several albums, starting in 2009, and worked with Lyle Lovett and Asleep at the Wheel among many, attended college in Charlotte, North Carolina, lived in Austin and New York and, overtly, refuses to let others decide her path. Edmonson continually searches for patches of beauty in pop music and then finds ways to use them for her own invention. The new album is an absolute wonder, and feels like it's a ready-to-go Broadway play of classic songs set in our semi-new century. What's truly intriguing is that she wrote and produced them all herself. The woman's voice takes in plenty of influences, and is probably more than a little inspired by Billie Holiday's immovable strength, but gladly never sounds like anyone but herself. Musically featured are some of the best players there are, and with veteran mixer Al Schmitt behind the console the final sounds of Old Fashioned Gal feel like someone who's been singing to us for an entire lifetime while always delivering recordings as fresh as tomorrow. For off-road musical surprises that will undoubtedly last forever, Kat Edmonson is a new-fashioned hero shining illuminative beams of truth and power. Do not miss.
The Electric Flag, Live from California: 1967-1968. One of the most anticipated bands of the 1960s surely had to be The Electric Flag. When the indisputable O.G. (Original Guitarist) Michael Bloomfield walked away from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to start the Flag, the hipster enclave held their breaths. Bloomfield had almost singlehandedly invented the Guitar Hero model in 1965, and for freaks and fans it felt like the sky could be the limit. The Electric Flag debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, and their potential was instantly electric. These three shows recorded in 1967 and 1968 illustrate what could have been. Bloomfield walked out in 1968, never to really recover his musical momentum, while the Flag sputtered to an end shortly after. Soundwise the shows have a subterranean wallop like few bands could deliver then. Drummer Buddy Miles is a monster on his kit, demonstrating how his teenaged years in Wilson Pickett's road band were not wasted. Various singers, including Miles and Nick Gravenites also throw down with beaucoup soul, indicating the Electric Flag could easily have been contenders if things had lasted longer. Still, the band was over as quickly as it started and music lovers have been wondering ever since what we all missed out on. Despite sound quality issues on some of the tracks ("Another Country" ends midstream), a lack of songwriting credits and photographs, and somehow erroneously including Bloomfield's fellow guitarist Elvin Bishop from the Butterfield band in the Electric Flag line-up, enough moving music is offered to, once again, wish this was a group that could have lasted. The band's explosive first real album (after a strange debut with a soundtrack for Roger Corman's film The Trip), was titled A Long Time Comin’. Now it painfully feels like a long time gone. Rest in peace.
Bill Frisell, Music IS. Imagine somehow serendipitously sitting in a rehearsal room when one of the world's most inspired and innovative guitarists is playing at the top of his game. That's what Bill Frisell's album is, and so much more. This is a musician who can play anything, and probably has. Frisell's recording career stretches over so many genres, some that don't really have a name, the mind boggles. He has an inner reserve of creativity that remains permanently replenished, and his new release he taps all corners of it. There are drop-dead gorgeous ballads, moody reflections on modern life, hard-edge fret chompers—and that's only the start. The song titles alone reflect some of that diversity: "Pretty Stars," "Winslow Homer," "Ron Carter," "Go Happy Lucky," "Made to Shine," and more. There's even the stray ukulele that wanders onto the tracks, all for good effect. If there is a mad scientist of guitar right now, surely it is Bill Frisell. The good news is how he stands tall for beauty and musical bravery, without ever blinking an eye or E-flat major. And as the album progresses, some kind of undeniable evolution takes over the soundscape, like there's a secret scheme to the tune-stack. It's one that portrays a world just beyond our grasp, while at the same time laying a trail how to get there. Six-strings shining.
George Jones & the Smoky Mountain Boys. Sometimes the number of truly perfect country singers can be counted on one finger, and that name would be George Jones. From his earliest days on the streets of Vidor, Texas, Jones seemed destined to become a one-man army in the cause of singing songs that made the heart rush, the blood bubble and the spirit feel wrapped in a long warm glow. It was a physical thing that he did to his jury of listeners. Beyond their control, the songs became something to believe in. In the early 1970s, George Jones had become good as gold across America's airwaves, nightclubs, and concert stages. When he went into the studio with to record this only recently-released album with Roy Acuff's legendary Smoky Mountain Boys and producer Peanuts Montgomery, he was likely chasing a sound in his head he'd heard as a small boy, when country music was all about swinging fiddles and high-flying songs. Finding these songs now is like discovering a long-lost script from a long-gone world. The dozen selections are a peek into a precious freedom, and what a true pioneer can do when the music calls out to them in a voice that cannot be ignored. "Possum" Jones recorded more albums than just about any other country singer, but he never made one like this. This is the sound of music played by people who lived their lives serving its true inspiration, and sung by a man who walked this world only once. No Show abides.
Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco, You're Driving Me Crazy. For a singer not known for flooding the market with music, Van Morrison has released four new albums in the past two years, each one a beauty in its own right. But for this collaboration with organist-trumpet player Joey DeFrancesco, Van the Man has outdone even his recent self. Maybe that's because the album is a full-tilt jazz excursion, and Morrison sounds like he hasn't had this much fun in a recording studio in a very long time. Also, there's the material, which is top-notch jazz standards as well as savvy picks from Morrison's own originals, ranging from Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" to the singer's "Celtic Swing." Morrison feels like he's fully off the commercial leash, the one he's said has kept him from being free for decades. He and his bopping quartet are both in top form, maintaining a high swing quotient with just the right amount of grease to gun the works. Listening to Van Morrison sing has been a life's pleasure for over half a century; he is someone who offers inspiration and joy through the good times and bad, and has never been really been topped no matter what style he's offering up for his endless Irish soul to fill. In his own way, Morrison remains a natural wonder and true treasure, as this album proves from note one. Belfast or bust.
John Prine, The Tree of Forgiveness. When the days start to dim and life itself takes on a glow that obviously won't last forever, John Prine offers the perfect soundtrack for those times. Prine writes songs that tug at the heart in a way that can't be explained as much as they demand to be heard. There are no fancy phrases or convoluted meanings here.There is no time for that. Instead, the long-venerated singer-songwriter comes across like the finest high school teacher on the planet, speaking in a straightforward language that all can understand. It is guaranteed to get to the very core of anyone alive with a sure hand of empathy. It feels like the whole world is twanging when John Prine has his way with words, and it is ungracious to think of life without him. Try this lyric on as a sampler: "The lonesome friends of science say / the world will end most any day / well if it does then that's OK / 'cause I don't live here anyway..." It's Prine time.
Professor Longhair, Fess Up. It's time to find the levee and burn it down, as this totally knocked-out 2-DVD collection of New Orleans' piano guru Professor Longhair comes charging to life. Disc one includes the fully-restored "Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together," Stevenson Palfi's 1982 award-winning film featuring Longhair, Allen Toussaint and Tuts Washington, along with excerpts from the 1987 documentary Southern Independents, which explores Palfi's unique filmmaking process. Disc two is a real lost jewel, with a 95-minute interview with Professor Longhair filmed in 1980 just two days before his death. For anyone who has come in cosmic contact with Longhair or his wild-eyed expression of Crescent City creations, there is unanimous decision the man is a bedrock of American music, one who will not come this way again. The 38-page booklet in this breathtaking set includes insightful essays, original reviews of Palfi's film, personal remembrances, and photos that all scream Grammy Award. Producer Polly Waring has done what has previously seemed impossible: she has brought Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd back to life. Yeah you right.
Kid Ramos, Old School. It makes perfect sense the Southern California-born son of opera singers went on to become one of the best modern bluesmen alive. Kid Ramos fell into a blue spell young, and by 1980 was burning down beach clubs along the Pacific Ocean with the bodacious James Harman Band. That was just the beginning; he hung his guitar strap in future bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Roomful of Blues, and other bandstand-busting outfits. On his new album, 17 long years since his last, the man sounds set free from everything but the desire to express as much real emotion as he humanly can with a stripped-down jacked-up aggregation along with some outstanding special guests and a rich brew of original and cover songs. There are no hotsy-totsy tricks to be found anywhere on this thriller of a set, because Ramos has been through way too much, including a bout with cancer, to waste any time. The opener, an instrumental written by Ramos, throws down with a stinging bite and is of course dedicated to B.B. King. The covers imaginatively roam from Magic Sam, Buddy Holly, Arthur Alexander, Wes Montgomery, and T-Bone Walker, and each is nailed with bluesy precision. Sit-in singers Kim Wilson, Johnny Tucker, Jon Atkinson and, yes, son Johnny Ramos brightly light up the boards, as do Kid Ramos' own vocals. His take on the classic "Mona Lisa" jumps like mad and won't be soon forgotten. Still, it's Ramos' guitar that does the main talking, and it's an eye-opener that in 2018 there are still plenty of alley sounds being played with such force and feeling. Bluesville old school.
Walter Wolfman Washington, My Future is My Past. How can anyone with a pulse resist an album of sophisticated blues that begins with the sound of the artist taking a healthy drink from an ice-filled libation, and then happily stating, "That's gonna work." There is the essence of Walter Wolfman Washington, and for those who have been under the musical spell of the New Orleans titan for awhile, there is no way to expect any less. The Wolfman has been holding court for over 50 years around the City that Care Forgot and sounds like he owns the joint now, which he just about does. He started playing guitar in Lee Dorsey's band in the mid-'60s, and went on to serve an unforgettable stint with Johnny "The Tan Canary" Adams at Dorothy's Medallion Lounge near Dookie Chase's. Washington has aged into an absolute class act who never forgets his roots. His voice was matured in places ranging from the Claiborne Projects to Commander's Palace, and whether he was wearing his front teeth or not on any particular evening, he is so soaked in New Orleans soul they should name a city park in the Ninth Ward in his honor immediately. For this inspired session, a handful of New Orleans' most groovacious musicians gather to pay tribute to a real musical brother. Everything is kept to a semi-slow boil, with an ingenious approach to arrangements that hint at the beat rather than overdo it, with Washington's sultry voice front and center. It all works like a magical spring night down at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon streets. But make no mistake: the album is also full of an inward fire and shot through with sonic surprises. Naturally, the Soul Queen herself, Ms. Irma Thomas takes a night off from her own Lion's Den and joins in on the kind of ballad that comes along once a decade or so. For anyone who wants to hear what love really sounds like, try "Even Now" right away and don't forget to double-up on the hankies. Wear it out.
Bill Bentley © 2018
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.
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