Gary Clark Jr., This Land
Those moments when a musician explodes into a whole other galaxy are ones to cherish forever. There is usually a sign in the artist's previous work which predicts what the possibilities for true greatness might be, but still there is no sure-fire way to know it will happen. Gary Clark Jr. has been a candidate for just such greatness for over a decade, since his first beginnings on the club circuit in Austin. Without a doubt Clark was destined to be a stellar guitarist, rooted in blues but also capable of turning his six-string Gibson into a world unto itself. On his new album, the man positively radiates what music can achieve when it involves this kind of deep soul, someone who takes in life completely and turns that into the kind of songs that feel like they define a wide new sweep. This is aggressive music written by someone who feels all the trials and tribulations of life as it is lived today. As an African-American, Clark has to confront a lot of realities many don't see, and the way he does it is with bravery and bravado. This Texan is not backing down from anything. Instead he plays with a sonic strength that is unmatched, and turns the entire history of music into something very much his own. In the end, this album is a breathtaking tour de force that will reverberate through the stratosphere for decades to come. Even better, it is only the latest leap forward for a guitar man who can help us re-discover where we've been, and hopefully what we can all become. Turn this up.
William Harries Graham, Jakes
There aren't enough moments today when music makes time stand still. With so many songs now streaming through the ether like six zillion molecular structures, the search is on for the one to stop time like a Rolex shot by a .357. That changes with William Harries Graham. On his sophomore album, the young man's music seems like it drifted down from the sky and found a place to live on earth. What's even more daunting is that it happens over and over on Graham's 13 new songs. Each feels fully formed from a different type of singer, one who finds inspiration in places most artists never visit. He's an honor student in college, a Jefferson Scholar, and has been playing since he was six years old. What matters most, though, is how he has completely found his own voice and being, and on songs like "Victoria," "Towers at Night," "Forget," and "Farewell," the results can only be described as illuminating. It isn't a far stretch to say he has greatness written all over him, and it will only be a short time before the whole world discovers him. He is an artist who is far too advanced to miss, even out there among those other six zillion beings zinging around the ozone. William Harries Graham will be heard by all. The only question is when. It is written.
Grateful Dead, Dick's Picks: Volume 29
As the 1970s rounded the corner toward the end of the decade, many eyes were on the Grateful Dead for how they would handle the aging process. But as longtime free-form followers could have predicted, the band turned up the notch a couple of clicks and kept on doing what they did best: blow minds. It was the Dead's time-honored tradition to transform the psychedelic experience into an evening of music dedicated to free their listeners' neurons and follow that golden road of unlimited devotion. Opening this three-disc concert from early 1977 at San Bernardino's aptly-named Swing Auditorium, the Dead lit the fuse with "Terrapin Station," no walk through the park, and didn't look back. Right away they journeyed into the pudding with "New Minglewood Blues" from their very first album, and soon enough veered into concert classics like "Sugaree," "Playing in the Band" and "Mama Tried." The deepest beauty of the Grateful Dead was their fearless approach to building set lists. Early on they realized that it wasn't the perfection of performance they and their crowd craved, but rather a spirit of discovery that led the charge. It's why the Grateful Dead were revered for righteous nights of unmitigated bliss, and, yes, even a clunker evening here and there. It was music, no matter how it was played, and there could be no glory without the guts to gamble. For fun on this set, there are three songs from the next evening's show in Santa Barbara included as an end cap, proving the road really did go on forever. With no end.
Rebecca Loebe, Give Up Your Ghosts
Sometimes the sheer gorgeousness of an album is overwhelming. Rebecca Loebe is someone who is unafraid to confront her challenges, and after four previous albums decided now was the time to see where that questioning path has taken her. Fortunately, she went all the way down to find out what was stirring inside, and came up with a courageously compelling collection of songs. It wasn't always easy, but she had able musical assistance with producer-instrumentalist Will Robertson who was more than up for the journey. Loebe's voice might have been formed in the folk wars, but she's gone beyond that now into a full-on attack. This is the story of a woman who was always trying to find a way to share her life through songs. Rebecca Loebe appeared on The Voice television competition in 2011, joining Maroon 5's Adam Levine's team. While she didn't win, that might have been a stroke of luck, because in the past eight years she's been able to find out what she really wants to do. And that, this time at least, is to confront the ghosts of the past and find a way to move beyond them. Keep on pushing.
Lone Justice, Live at the Palomino 1983
The early 1980s in Los Angeles were a musical free-for-all that ran from the beach clubs of Santa Monica and Venice all the way to East L.A., into the Valley and beyond. A variety of scintillating styles bumped up on each other with the end result of excitement and roaring fun for listeners. One of the bolder permutations was cowpunk, because it inferred that punk and country music could be groovy bedfellows. And guess what: they could. Lone Justice got in with that hybrid early, but in many ways weren't really the ringleaders of it. Maybe that's because the punk part of the equation wasn't their ultimate bag. Singer Maria McKee had more in common with a hopped-up Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn than the grungier side of the fence. Her dreamy voice and steamy delivery could take listeners on a trip to the promised land, and as Lone Justice developed it seemed like they would go all the way. This 1983 previously unreleased live performance from North Hollywood's honky-tonk Valhalla, aka the Palomino, goes a long way in exhibiting the band's early prodigious strengths. That night Dwight Yoakam was opening for them, which shows Lone Justice's lofted place in the Los Angeles firmament then, and proved true everything great that was being said about the band. McKee is on fire, and with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni, and the late drummer Don Willens, Lone Justice demonstrated why within a year record labels were chasing them all around Los Angeles with contracts waving in the wind and expense account credit cards wagging on restaurant tables, hoping to sign them. The truth of this early recording is the sheer energy emanating off that little red-lit bandstand on North Lankershim Boulevard, and all the hopes and dreams that came with it. They say you can't go home again, but what they don't mention is you can cruise by for an emotional hello. Here is how.
The Long Ryders, Psychedelic Country Soul
Truth in advertising here, because the long gone Long Ryders are back, and yes, they mix together a powerful brew of country music with just enough psychedelic and soul elements that the whole affair is a real ride. The band were originally part of the Southern California craziness in the 1980s, and contributed mightily to everything that era created. Now, after a few decades off, The Long Ryders return like they never went away. In fact, they're even better than ever. Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Greg Sowders, and Tom Stevens had an intriguing sound from their earliest shows, and kept finding ways to blend country and rock in a way that no one else was quite doing then. Several albums and an endless slew of live shows made it seem the band was on the fast track to greatness from the start. But then real life intervened and each went their own way. Lucky for listeners, though, that the lust to try again got so strong the quartet recently teamed up with producer/instrumentalist Ed Stasium to record a dozen of the best songs they've ever written. In a way, this music feels like it's meant to be made by full-on grown-ups, reflecting all the changes and challenges of 30-plus years of playing and persevering. Reunions can sometimes remain a little stiff, but not for The Long Ryders. The obvious charismatic chemistry these four fine fellows share marks them as a band for the ages, no matter when they assemble. And it also provides a trunkful of good cheer to know that it is never too late to take a glorious run at those musical passions which live so deep within. Long Ryders forever.
Jason Ringenberg, Stand Tall
There aren't many third acts in life, let alone music, but Jason Ringenberg has found one. Jason and the Scorchers were the man's first run at success, and it worked. That particular outfit tore the roof off the coming Americana scene, leading Rolling Stonemagazine to say the band "single-handedly rewrote the history of rock & roll in the South." That's a big statement, but in reality it held a lot of truth. Then there was Farmer Jason, where Ringenberg scaled things down and fought the good fight as a solo persona. Now Ringenberg takes a left turn to Sequoia National Park in Northern California, where he wrote the songs for his new album. The National Park Service let him live in a remote mountain cabin for a full month's time to write these new songs. It's an inspired idea too, because it has led him to an epiphany of creative highlights. When it came time to go into the studio and try to turn them all into an album, inspiration set in again with the inclusion of musicians like Richard Bennett, Fats Kaplin, Steve Fishell, and Robert Bowlin. The stage was set for something high and mighty to occur, and damned if it didn't. Songs like "God Bless the Ramones" and "Many Happy Hangovers to You" blend seamlessly with "John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger" and "John Muir Stood Here" to show that Jason Ringenberg still has all the imagination and intelligence he's always possessed. The last song is a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan's "Farewell Angelina," also covered by Joan Baez in 1965. "Who knows: maybe the Space Station is the next stop for this man to fire up the brain cells for the next album? Never say never.
Various Artists, Cover Me: The Eddie Hinton Songbook
Scratch the hard-dirt surface down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and a few infamous names will quickly surface among the town's musically informed. And right at the top of the list will likely be Eddie Hinton. He arrived in that town from Tuscaloosa in 1966, and quickly got marked as one of the keepers of the flame. With songs like "Breakfast in Bed," "Sure as Sin," and "Cover Me," many co-written with Marlin Greene or Donnie Fritts, everyone from Aretha Franklin to Mink Deville to Cher recorded Hinton's work. At the same inspiring level were his vocals and guitar playing, which somehow eluded the attention of record buyers everywhere. Maybe it was the mental demons that dogged Hinton throughout his life, or it could have been the well-known condition of being on the right label at the wrong time. Or possibly it was his inability to really play the record business game the way the rules sere written. For on brief period, he was selling amazing new album Letters from Mississippi via mail-order out of friend John Wyker's toy store in Decatur, Alabama. Sadly, Eddie Hinton never got hold of the brass ring he so richly deserved. None of that diminishes what he did accomplish during his short 51 years on the planet, and this 24-song collection of his songs mostly recorded by other artists is a love letter from someone who opened up his heart all the way and allows others to bask in the glow of the kind of soul music that kicks life up a few notches. At the same time it always reminds us of the wondrous gifts we've been given, the ones that cannot ever be erased or replaced. Ride Hinton's highway.
Watermelon Slim, Church of the Blues
As everyone adjusts to life in this fairly new century, the age-old question of whether the blues will survive or not stays relevant. The music is definitely morphing into less a low-down call for soul-splitting contemplation of the human condition, often from the bottle of distilled spirits, and more of a run at amped-up entertainment that could someday find its way to the Mountain Railroad stage at Disneyland. It's sometimes hard to see a good end for the music that came up as a life-or-death question of survival for those who had very little to look forward to. It was all about staying alive then, and not how many plushed-up tour buses are needed to move a small band from city to city and pull a small mountain of equipment. But enough about that. Watermelon Slim stands in high cotton as a man who will always honor the blues for the permanent physical and psychic band-aid it so richly is. The singer hit a rough patch serving in the Vietnam war, and has been out there searching for salvation ever since. The latest album is his best yet. It's a tip of the harp to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Joe Blue, Mississippi Fred McDowell and even Allen Toussaint, along with several big-bottom originals. The stripped-down music all sticks to the low-down road of permanent groovation, never looking for the bright white lights or big city nights. This man sings like he walked through a shredder once upon a time, and there is no way--or need--to pretty anything up now. Watermelon Slim has got the goods up, down and doggie, and you'd have to have a huge hole in your soul not to feel it. Wear it out.
Leo Bud Welch, The Angels In Heaven Done Signed My Name
When it comes to down home Mississippi blues, no one had anything on Leo Bud Welch. Born in the Magnolia State's Sabougla, Welch learned to play guitar on one-string nailed to the wall. That's called starting with the elemental, and once he had that down the musician quickly moved to the six-string, where he spent the rest of his long life pounding out unrelenting blues that dug into the inner core of his listeners, teaching them about that most bedrock of human feelings of happiness and pain. He zig-zagged between gospel and secular songs his whole life, likely realizing they're flip sides of the very same coin, and are both used to bring some relief from the hardships of life. Leo Bud Welch strolls from the rock-hard pounding pulse of "Don't Let the Devil Ride" to the final song, "Sweet Home," which pointed the way to Welch's final resting place when he passed in 2017. For his last album, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, the 10 traditional songs are like a roadmap for a man who never left Mississippi until he was in his 80s. But when Leo Bud Welch finally took his unmistakable sound and unbeatable spirit around the world, cheering fans and strangers were saved through his indomitable dedication and unstoppable courage. All was revealed for what the blues is here to do. Heal the heart.
Trisha Yearwood, Let's Be Frank
A singer is a singer is a singer, right? It's the voice that really tells the tale. The Rolling Stones summed it up best back in 1966: "It's the Singer Not the Song." Country super duper star Trisha Yearwood is here to say "Hell yeah" to that as she takes on classic songs associated with Frank Sinatra on an intriguing study of the Great American Songbook. Yes, it's been done before and will no doubt be done again, but why not? For Yearwood it's almost a given for her to make this run. Her voice has always been stunning, even if it was hidden in the Nashville camouflage of country hits. Now, on everything from "Drinking Again" to "The Man That Got Away," the woman can really show a natural-born side of her. Produced by Don Was and recorded and mixed by Al Schmitt, they've got that side down pat. The musicians are all swinging and shining like mad too, and when the lights get turned low for the romantico side of the street, everything gels like satin sheets and snowy streets. If luck holds, there will always be a place for these songs for whoever wants to sing them. And whether that person is Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Scott or Trisha Yearwood will be a wonder to behold. When Yearwood sings the last song, "I'll Be Seeing You," the curtain gets closed for this album in such a moving manner it might have been appropriate to include a Kleenex inside. Don't ever go.
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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