Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio, Something Smells Funky 'Round Here.
Time for some bluesy trickinations like only Elvin Bishop can provide. The guitarist got his lifetime credibility card punched in full as a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and has been having an unmitigated ball ever since. Maybe that's because Bishop is smart as a whip but doesn't let that stop him from cutting up at will. Or possibly it's that big vegetable garden he grows at his home in Lagunitas, California, keeping his hands in the dirt. Either way, there is never an existential crisis in the man nicknamed Pigboy Crabshaw's songs. Instead, there is a swinging and sharp-eyed view of life that brings a smile and gets the job done. Then, when he and bandmates Bob Welsh (piano, guitar and vocals) and Willie Jordan (a cymbal-free cajon—that's right, cajon—and vocals) really start raising sand all bets are off. Add in a few Jackie Wilson, Dave Bartholomew, Ann Peebles, and Ronnie Hawkins covers and Elvin Bishop has made, once again, one of the best collections of his long and proud career. These men have earned the smiles on their faces, and are ready to spread them around like the professional funsters they are. Start right here.
John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album.
Sometimes a surprise arrives from so far out of left field that at first it feels too good to be true. Yet it is. By March 1963 John Coltrane had made several different types of album, but there was no question he resided at the pinnacle of jazz. The musician was exploring new sounds, and the way he did felt like a whole different force of nature lived on the planet. These recordings were recorded, put away and then—nothing. Today it clearly sounds like it was meant to be a new album then, but so much else in Coltrane's career was happening they have been overlooked for 55 years. Music being the gift that keeps on giving, the music's loss is now our gain. Coltrane's inimitable saxophone sounds like a feral cat chasing a mouse around the studio floor as it pursues the rhythm section. Drummer Elvin Jones is building walls with his kit, an unstoppable presence not to be denied. Pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison give such a melodic support it borders on mesmerizing. John Coltrane would only live four more years, but no one knew that then. Instead, it sounds like he would live forever, showing the world a new vista of energetic beauty every time he picked up his horn. A love supreme.
Rodney Crowell, Acoustic Classics.
As so many singer-songwriters in their 60s take their victory lap, none stands higher or shines brighter than Rodney Crowell. Like others before him, he started in Houston with humble roots and eventually cracked open the musical universe. His songs all have an earth-bound honesty with an eye on the cosmos and an edge of masterful mystery. Crowell and producer Ray Kennedy have assembled a crack acoustic group, chosen a dozen of those songs and created the kind of album that will surely live forever. It is such a timeless peek at life and love that it sends shivers though the soul. Rodney Crowell can make loss seem like a gift, and never give in to hopelessness. It's like there's an unspoken faith in the Texan's core that cannot be moved. The world has always been a much better place because of the way this man makes music directly aimed at the heart. There is no way to explain how Crowell does it, but like so many things in life, an explanation doesn't really matter. As long as Rodney Crowell's warm sonic glow takes hold deep inside the human spirit, there is no more that is needed. We'll be home.
Joe Ely, Full Circle: The Lubbock Tapes.
When Joe Ely left Lubbock to conquer the country with a hair-raising live band and a suitcase full of songs, on paper it may have looked like a long shot but in reality there was no way it could lose. Ely was that good. In the mid-'70s he jacked-up country music right into the rock & roll zone, and had the charisma of a wind-blown Elvis Presley who read books and had the looks to match. While it might not have happened as quick as first thought, the fact is that today Joe Ely is just about in a party of one for Texans who stuck to their guns and still split the atom. This compilation of early demos made before Ely's first album and later ones for his third album are an intriguing peek into a work-in-progress and then a period of growth. Through it all are the songs by Ely, along with some by fellow Flatlander Butch Hancock, that capture Texas music better than anyone before or since. There's something about musicians from Lubbock. Maybe it's the way the sky goes on and on, or how the wind blows through their minds. Or it could be their sense of forlornness, and being way out in the middle of nowhere, that sets them apart. Either way, Joe Ely had it in spades. And still does. There are early versions of later classics like "Standin' at a Big Hotel," "I Had My Hopes Up High," and others that now sound like a calling card to greatness. By the second set of demos the band that included guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone had the sonics moving past 100 mph and then dismantled the brakes on the tour bus. There was no going back. Listen and groove.
Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun.
When the word first went out in 1966 there was a San Francisco band called Grateful Dead that was blowing the doors off dance halls in the Bay Area with their hour-long songs, the rest of America was exploding with anticipation. Rock & roll fans wanted to be set free, finally, from the British Invasion. They wanted enlightenment, and they wanted it now. But in 1967 the Dead's debut album didn't set off mass hallucinations. So when Anthem of the Sun was released in 1968 the stakes went up but, for many, it remained more a ball of confusion than instant third-eye revelations. There were live recordings woven into studio sessions, along with feedback and phase-shifting experiments in primordial ooze. The band even wanted to go to the Mojave Desert to record "thick air" to be mixed into the tapes. Still, for those with ears to hear songs titled "Cryptical Envelopment," "Quadlibet for Tender Feet," and "The Faster We Go the Rounder We Get" stripped the chrome right off their grill. Finally, this was for-sure psychedelic heaven, which the band's Phil Lesh described as "music you listen to when you're on psychedelics." Surf music would be heard no more.
Grateful Dead never made an album as adventurous again either, and this primo 50th anniversary reissue proves once and for all that more than any other release by the band, this combination of five songs spread out over an entire album changed everything. Never mind that it didn't really sell, and scared a lot of listeners away. This new deluxe two-disc edition includes the original 1968 album mix as well as the 1971 remix, along with a blistering 1967 live show from Winterland in San Francisco. While the two studio album mixes are different, they're not that different. What's most important is that willing souls are being given a second chance at having an experience of the highest order, and hear, with or without proper dosage, what psychedelic music really sounds like. Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison once said he could tell who the real fans of their band were. They were the ones who believed the VU's challenging White Light/White Heat release was their best. Same for Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun holds the key to their kingdom. It is once again time to paddle into the pudding. Cowboy Neal's back.
Ted Hawkins, Watch Your Step.
At the start of the '80s on the boardwalk in Venice, California, bluesman Ted Hawkins stood on stark and lonely ground. With just a guitar he would sing and play the deep blues of those who had massacred their past and weren't sure the future would be much better. Blues was their sole possession, and it was one that no one could take away. Hawkins made a stand playing for tips from those who took the time to listen to his aching and timeless sound. He had made recordings during the '70s, but little happened then. There had also been some misunderstandings with the legal authorities and the kind of life that usually ends in despair. Still, the musician would not quit. This reissue of Ted Hawkins' 1982 Hightone Records album arrives like a postcard once lost in the mail that finally has found its way to the intended party. His voice is full and, well, gorgeous. Whether the song is "Who Got My Natural Comb" or "Sorry You're Sick," Hawkins was a bluesman through and through, the kind that doesn't really exist anymore. His recordings, instead of being an historical artifact, sound now like they were done by someone who never found peace before he left this world. It is a living, loving, bleeding, and bodacious statement from someone's life in all its guts and glory. Very few album credits include a thank you to a probation department, public defender's office, and sheriff's deputy. But Ted Hawkins' does for a very good reason. Find out why.
Yvette Landry & the Jukes featuring Roddy Romero, Louisiana Lovin'.
Take a ride out to Lafayette, Louisiana and enter the first roadhouse with a live band the minute you're in the city limits. Chances are strong the payoff will be high, because this is jukebox country and the groups onstage know they need to play those songs on it. Yvette Landry is one of the most acclaimed singers in the Sportsman's Paradise state today, and when it comes to singing songs that honor the past she has a highly-honed antenna to find them. For this album, Landry teamed with a group of musicians tagged The Jukes featuring Roddy Romero. Talk about perfect choices. Romero is a rising hero himself on the roots music front with his Hub City All-Stars. Those are the stats, and the results go way beyond even that. This is a band that sounds like it's been gigging daily for dozens of years, and picked a set list to shine a spotlight on those talents. Including four Bobby Charles gems, Landry and her collaborators find songs that let them capture a cherished part of the Louisiana past without getting too far back in the bayou. Her voice pulls notes right out of the thick swamp-infused atmosphere, and wraps them in a swinging Spanish moss flair. This is someone who is one song away from the full-tilt hit parade boogie, and it's only a matter of time before it happens. For now she's found a fevered devotion with The Jukes to let their Louisianaisms hang loose, and listeners are lucky indeed. Wear it out.
Trudy Lynn, Blues Keep Knockin'.
There aren't many blues people left like Trudy Lynn. In Houston, she can play the high-class joints, play the low-class joints, and even play the honkytonks. She takes her well-seasoned voice wherever the action is, and never forgets to bring along a band that can hit the bulls-eye with their eyes closed. That's because Ms. Lynn has been there and back. She has seen things out on the chitlin' circuit the past 50 years that will never be seen again. But those days are done. Everything from her background goes into a blues view that puts believability right at the top of the list. Fortunately she is anything but a museum piece. She sheds real tears while walking the back streets and crying, as Little Milton once sang, and isn't afraid to show it all. Those who live check-to-check, drink-to-drink, and can't worry about much else treat Trudy Lynn like the blues queen she is. This collection of songs, ranging from "Never Been to Spain" to "When I Been Drinkin'," don't get fancy because they don't have to. They stay in the alley and are open for business to anyone with a hurting heart and an empty bed. Blues to use.
Walter Salas-Humara, Walterio.
Here's someone who wears a lot of intriguing hats. He's been in several bands—some of his own, including the well-known Silos, and some with other like-minded adventurers. He's also a successful painter whose dog portraits, like the one on this new album's cover, have even appeared in movies. Most of all, he's a musician comfortable in his own boots who counts many other players as friends, which isn't always as easy as it sounds. Salas-Humara's Cuban family roots mix into a decidedly original view of American music, one that can veer from punk-like simplicity to jazz-influenced complexity, along with a theatrical project co-written with novelist Jonathan Lethem. Running through that line is an always unswerving level of emotional honesty which has cemented his solid reputation. On Walterio, which is Salas-Humara's nickname, the musician blends all these different elements into a wild-eyed journey of where he's been, where he's at and where he's likely to go. It's a wide-screen album, which is what this artist's life has always been about. This new solo album opens the gate on rounding up all his divergent influences and then doing a mix-and-match on what sounds best. When Walter Salas-Humara performs the album's sole cover, written by Timbuk 3's Pat MacDonald, he swiftly makes it his own. And near the album's end, "Should I Wait for Tomorrow" is the kind of ballad that asks the big questions, then smartly realizes there is no need to reply. No answers needed.
Boz Scaggs, Out of the Blues.
Soul music has no boundaries other than to be soulful. For over 50 years Boz Scaggs has been someone who may zig and zag through musical styles, but always keeps the soul quotient on full blast. Scaggs' new album is a perfect example, because it includes original songs by Scaggs along with Jack "Applejack" Walroth right next to timeless treasures by Jimmy Reed, Bobby Bland, and Jimmy McCracklin. It's apparent just how inspired Scaggs has remained by the seamlessness of the set. He makes everything Boz Scaggs music, with vocals among the best of all his recordings, and an easeful sharpness to every note played. With a rhythm section of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Willie Weeks, along with guitar assists from Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall II, it's like the dream team is together again. So when the lights are low and Scaggs steps up to the microphone, know there is a true blue soul brother in charge, someone who has spent his life chasing this sound and knows it when he's found it. There is a deepness of feeling that seems to open up everything else in the world, and points a path to freedom. Music has always been the stepping stone to salvation, and Boz Scaggs is now in charge of taking listeners down that road. It may take a few twists and turns, but that's where the thrills come in. Hold on tight.
Theotis Taylor, Something Within Me.
When it's time to get right with the big spirit in the sky, find this previously unreleased album from 1979 that proves there are angels among us that sometimes are able to step forward and spread the word. Taylor's voice has a blessed quality that is fast disappearing, and with newly-recorded studio accompaniment from Jimbo Mathus, Liz Brasher, Will Sexton, and others, it's been given a brand new life to celebrate. First recorded with only Taylor's piano almost 40 years ago, the celestial album feels brand new, like a minor miracle gave it a second chance. Gospel music is among the bedrocks of America's earliest explorations of sound, and this is about as convincing a document there is to show just strong that influence was. The way the songs take on an insistent beat that will not be stopped is evidence that the spirit world is alive and well, and as long as recordings like this exist there is no way the evil empire will prevail. Righteousness is in short supply in the record business right now, not to mention an artist like Theotis Taylor, who spent most of his life as a custodian, turpentine harvester, farmer and, finally, as the first African-American foreman in Miami's Parks and Recreation department. Beneath it all always existed someone with their eye on the sparrow and their dedication to a life of goodness. This is music to prove it. Believe in miracles.
Song of the Month:
"Maria Consuelo Arroyo," Tim Henderson
Though born in Charleston, West Virginia, Tim Henderson is a Texas folk singer. He spent so many years there, and was influenced so deeply by all that he heard, Henderson became an honorary denizen of the Lone Star State. He also became a somewhat infamous artist who influenced many of his cohorts and built a large following among them. Other singers recorded his songs, like Tompall and the Glaser Brothers' version of "Maria Consuelo Arroyo," and everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Butch Hancock spread Henderson's praises. The recent 6-CD boxset titled The Legacy Collection shows why he made such an impact and also represents so much of what he had accompanied. Tim Henderson died in 2011 and left a history that will be listened to for years to come. "Maria Consuelo Arroyo" is a moving tale of family, conflicts, and ultimately hope that puts it all into one song. Start right here.
Bill Bentley © 2018
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: LIVE AND UNSEEN was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.
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