Ted Fox with James Otis Smith
Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem's Legendary Theatre
The Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem is like the Vatican of Afro-American music, and even walking by it can cause the feet to slide and the blood pressure to rise. There is no other theater in all of America that comes close to the third-dimension feelings radiating inside the Apollo. Ted Fox, whose original book about the venue was published in 1983, goes the graphic biography route this time and it is a rush from start to finish. So many stories from the earliest days of the Apollo right up to the present are told and illustrated that surely the ghost of James Brown is doing a split somewhere. And artist James Otis Smith makes sure every detail is right in the telling of this American tale. Even the years when it looked like the theater might fall prey to the crushing reality of modern urban development come across as a hero's story, with various angels running to the rescue to save the day. For all those who've been lucky enough to be in the audience at the treasure on 125th Street, this book will feel like a family album. As for those who are still awaiting that day, living with Showtime at the Apollo will feel like a peek inside the goldmine. Ready for showtime?
Dry the Rivers
There is no doubt that life's challenges are etched the deepest inside an artist's songs. It's the hard parts that carry the most weight, calling for courage and creativity to keep the ball rolling. Singer-songwriter Melody Guy is all paid up in the challenges department. A rough childhood, including being kidnapped and held for ransom at 19, filled her with a determination that permanently ruled out ever giving up. Instead, it infuses her songs with ever-present power and lasting love. A life on the road has given her the kind of insights that aren't always obvious but so often there for the inspiration. Guy's signature song, "Mistakes Like Me," was inspired by her autistic son, and all the roadblocks the music business has put in her path have become fuel for the fire. With the new album, it sounds like Melody Guy has finally found her own rainbow road and can move into a new plateau. Producer Michael Webb, who's worked with everyone from John Prine to Miranda Lambert, brings the kind of abilities that give Guy the sonic spark she's long deserved. She rounds up all the rawness and righteousness of what she's experienced and creates an album that most artists wait their whole career to create. For those who want to hear what real life sounds like, in all its guts and glory, this woman is here with the hallelujah answer. Do not miss.
Durand Jones & The Indications
When it comes to true blue soul music, there can be no substitutes or trickinations. Durand Jones knows how to point his bad-ass band the Indications to the funky side of the street, and head for the mother lode of influences like James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. His voice is so far in the pocket you might need a drumstick to get it out, and the way he can soar from spine-tingling screams to Aqua Velva smoothness puts him in the upper echelons of today's singers. It doesn't hurt that with the Indications the man has an A-plus band behind him. With an airtight rhythm section, four superlative horn players and backing vocalist Anastasia Talley, this is an artist who has everything lined up just right. On the eight original songs, ranging from "Can't Keep My Cool" to "Tuck 'n' Roll," Durand Jones feels like he's shining in the spotlight of a soon-to-be stardom. He recorded this debut album for a little over $400, and it has all the high-flying mojo of rhythm & blues played like it's meant to be played. Don't be surprised if Durand Jones & the Indications become a cause célèbre of musicians in the know, and before too long they'll be doing the boogaloo and the shingaling on Saturday Night Live. Fame is calling.
Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson with the Tennessee Valentines
It isn't often that two guitarists of Colin Linden and Luther Dickinson's major mojoitis join together in the studio to chase a vision. Here the idea is to create some serious Valentineish vibrations in a rootsy vein, invite a few guest vocalists to join the party and then let the lovelight shine through. Luckily, Linden and Dickinson are different in their playing attacks, so each gets to groove without stepping all over each other's notes. It's a positively brilliant idea, and a wonderful way to spotlight a romantic rendezvous with music. A mesmerizing duo tack on "Careless Love" kicks this date off, and a journey through songs by Jesse Stone, Jimmy Reed, Kris Kristofferson, Bo Diddley and others feels like a stroll through lover's lane. The tempos never get too crazy, and by the time Billy Swan joins in on vocals on his own "Lover Please," the deal is sealed. It would be hard to imagine anyone topping what Colin Linden and Luther Dickinson do here, and who knows, maybe they'll make it a yearly affair. Amor or else.
Any band named after a ghost is bound to end up in the spiritual end zone sooner or later, and sure enough Marley's Ghost goes there this time around. It's an extremely moving selection of songs, many of them from the gospel side of the street, but of course the group maintains their own groove through it all. Producer Larry Campbell, best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, knows exactly where to go. Over 30 years, Marley's Ghost has always followed their own muse, adding members through near divine providence. Whether they're working with Campbell, Van Dyke Parks, Cowboy Jack Clements or any other producer, the Ghost find a way to maintain their own voice. And who knows, maybe getting older brings things of the spiritual realm a little closer, or possibly it's just that gospel songs hit home the hardest this time around. The reasons why aren't as important as the end results, and these selections sparked a super intense attack by Marley's Ghost. When instruments like bass fiddles, bagpipes, steel guitars, dobros, bouzoukis, mandolins join in with acoustic guitars the sky is the limit, and when the inspiration is supplied by songs like "Run Come See Jerusalem," "You Can't Stand Alone," and other classics, it's no surprise that a divine aura brings everything home. Glory Ghost time.
When your competition is artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, the music world can get a bit daunting for a newcomer from Chicago. But that's the way it was back in the early '90s when Michael McDermott left the Irish Southside of Chicago for the promising vistas of Los Angeles. He was in his early 20s and wasn't quite able to navigate the challenges of success, even though he tried. The music was there, but the coping skills needed for success eluded the young man. After barely escaping a prison sentence and falling prey to a decade of addiction, McDermott saw the light on the other side of the road and started moving towards it. With Orphans, the singer-songwriter has rediscovered his greatness, and actually gone beyond it. These are rock songs carved out of the life of middle America, with an eye on the sparrow but also taking in the hard-won lessons of a crooked past. It's not important that most of the album's songs were leftovers from previous projects, because taken together they feel like they are all of one piece. There is so much hope and promise sewn into their fiber that the album feels like a study in survival. Michael McDermott is still with us for a reason, and the way he's gathered up this wayward flock of songs feels heaven sent. Connection and protection.
If there's a mystery man in Americana music these days, chances are good it is Gurf Morlix. He's had his hand in enough album productions and bone-chilling collaborations that Morlix is the go-to man to make sure all the juju is lined up just right, whether on the bandstand or in the studio. His newest album feels like the culmination of a long road of work. It includes nine songs among the best he's ever written, has a stripped down band of no-nonsense players, and more than ever before he's entered the high-flying end zone of vocals that thrill and chill at the same time. The way Morlix mixes blues deep into the ethos of his songs makes him something of a musical magician, because it's a sly but ever-present feeling that never seems dated or derivative. Instead, the sound becomes ghostly, like he's been living in the graveyard of greatness, someone who can take the spirits and turn them into a valued vibration. Gurf Morlix is way off into the other world, a place artists work their whole life to find. The album closer, "Backbeat of the Dispossessed," is inspired by drummer Michael Bannister, a longtime friend dating back to their childhood days in Buffalo, who died by his own hand without any explanation. Morlix himself had a heart attack in 2016, and luckily survived. Since then, he's tried to paint every day among the living with emotional colors that can be shared with all who listen. Mission accomplished here.
I Fell In Love with You Tonight
There are armies of young singer-songwriters marching around America who fell in love with soul music at an early age and remain dedicated, in one form or another, to that heart-beating sound. At the very top of those ranks is, well, Michael Rank. Being a son of the South, North Carolina to be exact, the music comes to him naturally from the oozing ozone around him, and not only albums and photos from the past. The way Rank internalizes the surroundings into his very own future sets him apart from almost all the others rolling around the genre. His voice fills a space like he's lived there a while, and the singer goes beyond notes into the realm of pure feeling. Instrumentally, joined by collaborator Brian Dennis, Michael Rank mixes an electronic modernity into the mix so freshness stays in the forefront of all the songs. It's not an easy thing, attaining such a sweeping approach to the future, and very few ever get to the place that visitors would want to stay for a spell. But Mike Rank, while no newcomer to this world, now sounds like he's found a permanent home and is ready to explore his inner world and the outer edges. What a wonder.
Buskin' in the Subway
Hard to believe, but one of the very best rock albums of recent years is also one that threatens to stay hidden. Don Stevenson is one of the most inspired singer-songwriters of the '60s, but he mostly stayed hidden then playing drums in Moby Grape. With early songs like "Hey Grandma," "8:05" and "Murder in My Heart for the Judge," Stevenson, along with songwriting partner Jerry Miller, surged to the lead in the San Francisco scene only to be scorched by questionable management and other obstacles. The Grape got squashed, and when the dust cleared Stevenson retreated to his previous home in the Pacific Northwest and kept writing and playing. This new album is a mind-blowing testament to all his talents, the kind of songs created by a 50-year-veteran which rarely gets recorded. Don Stevenson's voice is as affecting as ever, and with new songs equal to any he's ever written, not to mention a shivering new version of "8:05," everything feels like a comeback of stunning proportions. Maybe that's because Stevenson has nothing but strength and honesty up his musical sleeve, singing with all the sincerity that so beautifully marked his days in Moby Grape. As time rolls forward, it sometimes feels like the bright lights of the past are flickering out with chilling regularity. Fear not, because there are a few foundations that will not be shaken. Like Don Stevenson.
Feelin' Right Saturday Night: The Ric & Ron Anthology
When NASA announces the next monstrous outer space asteroid is on trajectory for a direct hit on planet Earth, this is the album to play and await the Big Boom. There is something so effortlessly awesome about each of these 28 songs there can be no worry about whatever awaits the world. Beginning with Professor Longhair's miraculous "Go to the Mardi Gras," the die is cast that mankind's last hour will be a good one. Maybe that's because during the late 1950s and early '60s, New Orleans' Ric and Ron record labels were always able to hone in on what made the City that Care Forgot's music so righteous. Was it the ultimate frivolity of Eddie Bo's "Check Mr. Popeye" and Lenny Capello & the Dots' "Tootles?" Or maybe the heart-caressing melodies of Johnny Adams' "(Oh Why) I Won't Cry," and Irma Thomas' "Don't Mess with My Man?" Could it have been the way some of the songs tickled the joy bone, like Al Johnson's "Carnival Time," or the undeniable universality of Joe Jones' "You Talk Too Much." It's likely it's all these things, and more. Sometimes record companies are just in the right place at the right time, and there's a jacked-up owner who knows when to throw caution and cash to the wind and gather every great song they can. That's exactly what Ric and Ron's Joe Ruffino did, and music lovers owe him an unending devotion. Even if those heady days today seem done, fear not as long as reissue outfits like Craft Recordings are on the case and distill all that is good and fine about humanity into one irresistible disc. Find the levee.
Bill Bentley © 2019
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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