Luther Dickinson and Sisters of the Strawberry Moon,
In the land of Mississippi musician Luther Dickinson, there are moons of every persuasion. Those people that live on the land there find a strong rapport with things which glow in the sky, and Dickinson has made a life of using that inspiration in making his magical music. This time around, he gathers up a group of female singers, calls them the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, and goes for broke. Luther Dickinson has been involved in an endless array of formations, but this one might just be the strongest of all. The vocalists include Birds of Chicago, Sharde Thomas, Amy LaVere, Amy Helm and the Como Mamas. They all perform on various instruments, and then take the vocals alone on songs like "Superlover," "Hallelujah (I'm a Dreamer)," "Hold to His Hand" and "Search Me." Everything adds up to a majestic army of voices and a deeply soulful collection of what makes life so often a joyous journey. It would take forever to really describe the wonder of what each song accomplishes, but the most important thing is that a whole world of music comes out of the sky and lands below. These are sounds also rooted in the ground, ones that offer hope that the world will be turning again towards the light. Sometimes the moon can capture the imagination like a message sent from above, which is exactly what Dickinson and the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon do here. Visions for all.
Steve Earle & The Dukes,
If anyone was ever going to record an album of Guy Clark songs, it had to be Steve Earle. Maybe that's because Clark was Earle's early mentor, or possibly it's just that both had the same sharp-eyed approach to songwriting and shared the Lone Star state growing up. Still, that didn't guarantee such a stupendous collection of songs as this. Earle, like Clark, never suffered fools easily and wouldn’t flinch from the hard emotional truths of how the modern age didn't always work for either. Both approached songwriting as a time-honored tradition, and never showcased their efforts until the results were ready. These sixteen songs include many Guy Clark classics, as well as some real surprises. Every one of them feels like something that the songwriter chiseled in stone when originally written, which explains why they've all stood the test of time so well. But to hear each of them come alive now with such deep feeling and exciting performance is like visiting an old friend to find they're still full of fire and ready to take another run at destiny. Never say goodbye.
If It's Love.
When you grow up in Northern California, then relocate to Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music, later call San Francisco home and finally do the Texas throw down and move to Austin, that's what's called chasing the muse. Soul singer Kelly Hafner takes all those geographical influences and comes up with a style that is absolutely her own. And that's because when she sings you believe her. Flat-out. Her gorgeous voice has plenty of life lessons etched into it, and the way she shares them is unique. On her debut album, it's like she waited until the perfect moment to step out into the public view and show all she has. Whether she scales everything down to an acoustic guitar or utilizes many of the ten musicians on this beautiful album, it comes out like a major new talent has grabbed the spotlight. It is not easy taking a musical style with this much heritage and turn into it something new, but that's exactly what Kelly Hafner has done. The key to that accomplishment is that the woman never overdoes it. She lets a quiet power turn up the heat on songs like "Dreams" and "Give Light," to where the seductiveness of her voice matches perfectly with the performances on the song. It's the key between good and great, and Hafner is most definitely the latter, recorded straight out of Sugar Land, Texas of course. Hear her now.
Durand Jones & the Indications,
American Love Call.
True-blue soul music is in limited supply these days. The music that shaped so much of the 1960s and beyond got initially crushed by disco, and what was left got chopped and channeled into pieces by hip-hop. But slowly and surely it continues to make a comeback, because when it comes to vocals that make the heart race and the rest of the body follow suit, nothing beats soul. It is romantico to the max, and with the right lead singer and backing vocalists anything can happen. Durand Jones is the real thing: he can go up and then get down, showing off a voice that sounds like it was cured in love beads. And when Jones isn't on the microphone, drummer Aaron Frazier takes over vocals like a blue-eyed soul brother in heat. His high voice is toe-curling and libido liberating. Between the pair of singers, along with the right-on Indications supplying the perfect back-up, this is a band to see and hear. It will not only take you back to the days of the boogaloo and shing-a-ling, but also point the direction to plenty of love and happiness for the future. Pass the peas.
Live on the Queen Mary.
Talk about surrealism in action. When Paul McCartney decided to throw a wang dang doodle release party for his Venus and Mars album in 1975, of course he would hire New Orleans' piano king Professor Longhair to play it. Why not? Some of his album had been recorded in the Crescent City, and McCartney knew an original when he saw one. Professor Longhair could syncopate the cosmos like nobody's business, and even when he was drifting into the outer limits, he always took his devoted crew along with him. This live recording from that party bumps and thumps enough to make the Queen Mary come back to life, and no doubt the good Professor was holding court as he'd radiate on the 88s. There has not been anyone like him before or since, which when you throw in all the characters that called New Orleans home over the years that's really saying something. His piano style defies rational description, and no matter if he was playing rhythm & blues standards like "Mess Around" and "Everyday I Have the Blues" or his own "Tipitina" and "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" didn't matter much. That's because Professor Longhair knew exactly how to throw the gris gris in the gumbo to turn everything into his own. And, to show how he knew how to do the do, in his 1972 Cadillac he had matching CB radios on the front dashboard: one for him and one for his wife so they could broadcast at the same time. That's thinking ahead, which is exactly what Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd always did, right out into the ozone and beyond. Yeah you right.
When it's time to seek music from out in the fringes of the ether zone, Jimbo Mathus will be waiting there. He has a way of scavenging the entire spectrum of sounds that makes America the psychedelic shack it is, blending them all into a Dixie-fried amalgam of sweetness and sass, and then turn that concoction a few spins until something totally original pops out. It comes from Mathus' thousands of hours playing and singing, and also an unabashed ability to remain fearless with an instrument in his hands, whether he's working with the Squirrel Nut Zippers or lost deep in his own forest. There really isn't anyone like him today, and say amen for that. This new collection goes beyond anything he's ever done, tapping into the spirit world while he continues to play in the traffic. There is something unhinged about it all, except that it also makes complete sense as long as all receptors are firing on optimal openness. Jimbo Mathus, like only a few other modern musicians, is a shaman who can cut-and-paste a lifetime of music and build an ark. This time 'round he's really hit the bullseye. Special guests Andrew Bird, Kevin "Shinyribs" Russell and Lily Hiatt swing by to throw their two cents in, and producers Bronson Tew and Matt Patton guide the proceedings with special care. In the end, though, every note on here feels like it was fashioned from Jimbo Mathus' eccentric psychic oeuvre. There are people in this world who refuse to behave, and more power to them. Especially when they're in a recording studio or on the bandstand. Wear it out.
Still Tryin' to Believe.
Sometimes steelworkers make the best music, especially when it comes to country-funk that lets all their hard-earned hours of physical labor seep deep into their songs. Peter Rogan is an electrician by trade, and spends his days at a Pennsylvania steel mill. But when he's home, Rogan is writing songs, entering contests and chasing the dreams that will always fuel America's fire. This time we have a winner, because these are songs that come from right in the middle of reality, and can swerve from being rockin' chuggers to vein-slicing beauties. They aren't the kind of songs which can be totally made from the imagination. They must be lived. And while this man has been playing guitar in various bands for decades, it is really just now that he's stepped to the front of the stage. We should be glad he did, too, because without that gems like the title song "Still Tryin' to Believe," the all-timer "The Start of Something Easy" and the knee-buckling "Beautiful Honey" would not exist. It is hard to predict where Peter Rogan can go, but there is something in his music which says that it's the journey which is pushing him onward, and not just a destination. Making an album this good probably seemed like a dream twenty years ago when he'd shut off the alarm clock in the morning and head for the mill. There is no doubt that Peter Rogan had this kind of musical greatness buried inside him for many years. Now that it's come out there is no going back. Believin' has arrived.
Live in London.
It's impossible to fault an artist who teamed with the Almighty over six decades ago and has never looked back. Mavis Staples joined her family band The Staple Singers at such an early age she could probably sing before she walked. The kind of career Staples has led is the stuff of legends, and to see her taking continuous victory laps the past ten years is a joyous example of the greats being rewarded now. This live album is the perfect cherry on top, considering she gets to explore her recent albums for righteous songs, and cast the net even wider when she wants, recording illustrious originals by Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Harper, George Clinton, youngster Benjamin Booker, of course father Roebuck "Pops" Staples and others. It's like the whole world has opened to Mavis Staples, which is just as it should be. And when she gets to Little Milton's mid-'60s hit "We're Gonna Make It," life feels like it's come full circle as an overwhelming feeling of faith takes control of the wheel. It also reminds all within earshot that the struggle for equality continues. With a burning band behind her that includes guitar guru Rich Holmstrom, the whole evening turns into a long hallelujah moment for one of the most wondrous musical heroes to ever take listeners to the river and wash them in the water of love. Touch a hand.
Townes Van Zandt,
With so many reissues and various live recordings released by Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt in the 22 years since his death, it is getting harder to land a knock-out punch with another collection. But Sky Blue sure does. It includes never heard songs, unearthed new renditions of several favorites and covers of Richard Dobson's "For Ever, For Always, For Certain" and Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" stunners. From the very start, Van Zandt was marked for greatness. There was something about the way he carried himself, along with some of the finest songs written in the past 50 years, that signaled a unique human had wandered onto the stage. He was great right from the start, and as he continued on a zigzag journey of life that often threatened to run right off the rails, Townes Van Zandt grew into a legend while he was still alive. Thankfully, the music more than lived up to the legend, and as these 11 songs show in 1972 there wasn't anyone better on the planet with just a microphone and acoustic guitar. Van Zandt could take listeners all the way down past the darkest depths of despair, and still make life seem like a treasured gift. Which is no easy trick. Now, with such a valued gift from the vaults suddenly appearing, it makes the artist's demise seem even sadder. That would be a mistake, though, because Townes Van Zandt chose the road he traveled and never looked back, never asking for favors. Such a life.
Walk Through Fire.
Once or twice a year a new artist appears, and immediately the questions began where that person has been all these years. Yola is that artist this year. Raised in Bristol, England, she earlier sang with the Phantom Limbs, and started gathering notice for guest slots with other outfits. Then she walked into the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach's world in Nashville and turned on the magic sauce. The results, naturally, have been surreal. Yola has a voice that is like dark honey, which means it can drip with sweetness and then catch afire, sometimes on the same song. She has concocted a southern country-soul amalgamation that doesn't happen often anymore, but when it does shows why America will always be the home of fantastical creations of sound. Yola's voice has such strength and beauty, it's hard to believe she hasn't been a household name for years, and fortunately through songs like "Faraway Look," "Deep Blue Dream" and "Love is Light" has established herself on an album that will likely live forever. It's amazing how in the world of modern music so much stays hidden, sometimes forever, but when it does break through it makes it hard to conceive of a time when it wasn't ever-present. That is Yola. She will likely be in our lives now for a very long time, and for that we can be most grateful. She is a soul chanteuse, and has only started. The heat's on.
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.
Join the conversation, click here to comment