Allman Brothers Band, The Final Note. When it’s time to bow down in worship to musical outfits from the 1970s that really set the rock world on fire, it might be good to start with the Allman Brothers Band. Between Duane Allman and Dicky Betts’ mesmerizing guitar gyrations, dynamo double drummers, visionary bass runs and Gregg Allman’s vocal attack, these Southern men could do no wrong. This totally unheard of live tape–right off a small cassette recorder held by an audience member–from October 1971 is near the end of the line for the original lineup, and shows the sextet hittin’ the note at the top of their abilities. And while the technical sonics of the set are most definitely subpar, in a way it only adds to the uniqueness of the release. There’s even a guest saxophonist named Juicy Carter on three songs. The music feels like the band came to burn, proud of all they’d accomplished and who cares if the album sounds like it was recorded in an outdoor field by an amateur. That’s the kind of challenge that separates the real players from the weekend pickers. Once Duane Allman was gone 12 days after this night, the band of brothers would be no more. Then bassist Berry Oakley’s sudden death not long after pretty much ended the Allman Brothers Band’s original velocity. But those who saw that first incarnation will remember forever how amazing rock & roll can be when it’s played like there is no tomorrow. This musical time capsule will be remembered forever as a late-arriving gift for all those who wish to celebrate what once was, and now October 17, 1971’s concert will be for forever. A surprise goodbye from a band, who at its essence could never be topped. Turn it up.
Dawes, Good Luck with Whatever. The search is still on for the Great American Band, and in so many ways Dawes is among the top candidates. Singer-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith’s songs continue to grow with unrelenting wisdom, even at the times it could appear they’re sticking to the surface. Not so. There is so much underneath everything that it’s like some of them need CAUTION signs around them. “Still Feel Like a Kid” and “None of My Business” are intriguing slices of the world in 2020, and then there’s “St. Augustine at Night,” which zeroes in on the third dimension of life like very few other others have this year. It is obvious that Goldsmith has a lot on his mind, from the past and the future, to figure out and hearing him do it in song has been one of the joys of the past decade. And luckily, he’s got a crack band to do the heavy lifting with him, including brother Griffin Goldsmith on drums and vocals. The way the quartet never shies away from the subtle sides of rock has been a continuing gift, showing that the creative ability to look at music like a permanent challenge is one that eventually offers endless reward. With Dawes it’s never really about the guitar solos, tricky rhythms or even vocal ensemble tricks. Instead it’s about those songs that hit the heart directly head on, with just enough yearning angst to make it feel like Dawes has the strength as well as sensitivity which makes American bands so unequaled. It’s like they’re still living out the dream of frontier life, where culture isn’t nailed down quite yet, and it’s okay to write up a new rulebook for what their songs can be. There is no doubt Taylor Goldsmith has direct insight into where love lives, where love goes wrong and what one person can hopefully do about it. He’s had it from Dawes’ very first songs, and he has it now. With a new record label and growing power in the music, this remains very much a band to watch and hear. Part two begins.
Divine Horsemen: ‘Live’ 1985-1987. This Los Angeles-based band always rang the bell. Loud. Bandleader Chris D. had been making noise in various ways since the start in the city’s underground scene, and once Divine Horsemen coalesced around him and singer Julie Christensen it really was all over but the shouting. They shot to the top of the in-crowd scene like rockets, and mesmerized audiences from postage stamp-sized stages to some of L.A.’s biggest venues. These live tracks, recorded at Safari Sam’s in Huntington Beach and The Rat in Boston, are a primo slice of just how great a band the quintet was. The power of the players feels like a locomotive train looking for a track, slicing and dicing various rhythms with an eye on the end zone during every song. And Chris D.’s vocals are a study in drama. He clearly knew exactly the effect he was searching for, and always found it. Julie Christensen is a study in velocity and variations. Her background in jazz vocals–she also sang with Leonard Cohen’s band for many years–lets her improvise at the same time she zeroes in on where the songs need her passionate wailing. There really hasn’t been a band like Divine Horsemen before or since, and to hear them at the peak of their mid-’80s’ power is a clear cause for jubilation. The band’s two covers–The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” and Texacala Jones’ “He Rode Right Out”–are a fitting inclusion in a vibrant landmark of Los Angeles rock during a memorable heyday. What a time.
Edge, Keep Me Around. Every group has a different story, and Edge’s near-50 year history is a study in patient survival. Players Lee Feldman, Bob Windbiel, Paul Adamy and Mark Macksoud were earnest high school students who joined the brigade of high school basement bands in the early 1970s, dedicating themselves to learning their instruments as they continued living the normal lives of American teenagers. Except these adolescents were serious: they tuned into the growing world of modern jazz as they were also hammered with the monsoon of music blasting out of the rock & roll world. It was a heady time to be in a band, and Edge found their way to building a local following and kept progressing. Of course, like for almost all young musicians, real life intervened and the four young men went in their own directions. Some jumped into jazz, while others found careers playing folk and rock. The good news is they never quit. Now, through the wonder of modern communication, Edge has returned with a real vinyl album and a sound that is still looking ahead. The songs are an intrguing mix of what Todd Rundgren might sound like now if he’d never discovered a synthesizer, or if Steely Dan hadn’t gone to Bard College but instead, maybe, the University of Pennsylvania. These four are completely accomplished musicians, who like to bend the rules just enough to make them their own. Still, they can stay inside the parameters of ’70s rock so the scent of sweet nostalgia is never far from the turntable. It’s a beautiful world when old friends stay good friends, and even better when they continue growing as musicians who enjoy each other’s company. Like a dream.
Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom. In the history of classy moves by musical artists, it’s hard to top Kathleen Edwards’ semi-disappearing act. In 2014, after a very successful career, Edwards took a hard left turn and moved back to her Canadian homeland to open a neighborhood shop naturally called Quitters Coffee. She stepped out of the spotlight, though there’s little doubt she kept playing music and writing her unforgettable songs. It sounded like she needed a break from the hustle, and knew it was time. Now, six years later, Kathleen Edwards returns with her best album yet. It’s instantly obvious the time off served her well, as the set opens with one of her very best songs: “Glenfern.” From there, Edwards’ guitar and pen take her on an eagle-eyed trip through the vagaries of love and the heartbreak of loss, while never giving in or giving up. There is no way around what time does to young lives that start out so free and formidable, but that’s exactly what offers the roadmap for growth. These ten songs are a super study in strength, and show how there is no substitute for staying committed to moving forward. Sometimes it takes turning the volume down to zero for awhile so the angels of inspiration can return anew. Which is exactly what Kathleen Edwards has done, and not a moment too soon. It’s time for a renaissance everywhere, and who better to help lead it than this woman. She has an unstoppable ability to confront life on its own terms, and fashion that into songs which will live forever. Let freedom ring.
The Flat Five, Another World. Here’s a fivesome that is absolutely fun as well as being capable of turning deadly serious, as in the psychic subject matter swing from Sears’ photo booths to prison executions. When those two juxtapositions are featured next to each other on songs like “Look at the Birdy” and “Greater State of Texas,” well, just say it’s the kind of creation that makes life jump. The Flat Five are Chicago’s finest, and include members from a wide range of stellar careers, including vocalists non pareil Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, along with players Casey McDonough, Alex Hall and Scott Ligon. Brother Chris Ligon supplies all the songs, and oh what songs they are. In a time when seriousness rules the day–for good reason–it’s a joy-busting kick to hear a band that knows where the inner soul seeks to thrive and survive. This is a band who likely went to school on Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, and then amped things up a bit to come out with a righteous run at a modern style of semi-mayhem. Album opener “Drip a Drop” borrows a vibe from Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” (in a good way), and that’s just the beginning. When band members’ credits run from Brian Wilson, NRBQ, the Decemberists, Neko Case, Iron & Wine and Mavis Staples, well, it’s clear they’ve got the waterfront covered. And while the masses haven’t caught up to The Flat Five quite yet, that shouldn’t stop any and all from finding a way into their groovehood. It’s obvious when an album appears that can help what ails us, and do so with such a wisened third-dimension it would be a big loss to miss it. This is a combo which floats through the atmosphere with passionate precision and otherworldly cool, equaled by no others. The Ironic Twist.
Peter Guralnick, Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing. When this young man from the North fell in love with the music of the South, he knew he had to become a part of it. Past giants Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley and present kings Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters might have seemed beyond Peter Guaralnick’s reach when he began, but with a pen and a vision he set on his life’s course. It has become clear that Guralnick is a seer as much as a writer, and the way he has become one of the most trusted voices in writing about music has been a pure source of passion for all who enter his pages. The 27 chapters in this superlative collection feels like life has opened up in ways that few other writers can equal. Guralnick knows exactly where the heart lies in his subjects, and then finds his way to that place without err. Whether it’s Ray Charles, Tammy Wynette or Eric Clapton on one side of the fameometor or Dick Curless, Doc Pomus and Delbert McClinton on the other doesn’t really matter. Peter Guralnick feels where each’s humanity really lives, and goes there to tell their truths. He even delves into his personal history here to turn the spotlight on things that have made him who he is. Rarely do those who begin their journey as music journalists get to that sacred spot, but this man does so with such moving insight there are times when the air around his words takes on an invisible glow. There are books about music, and then there are Peter Guralnick’s offerings. This is his tenth tome, and feels like a formidable summation of where he’s been and through his past where he might go. The road continues.
Homer Henderson & Friends, Great American Hymns. Driving out Ceasar Chavez Street into East Austin once felt like there was a different country there. One closer to Mexico than America. Now, like so many cities, everything is starting to feel the same. But not to Homer Henderson. He’s found a community of bohemians living in trailers above the Colorado River, turning their back on the future and digging into the past right up to the now. Henderson’s music comes in all shapes and sizes, whether’s he manhandling an electric guitar or adding on a bass drum and harmonica to play all at the same time. It’s all in the name of personal expression, and no one gets more personally expressive than Mr. Henderson. He’s carved out his own spot in the Live Music Capital of the World the past 40-something years, whether everyone knows it or not. The man is looking heaven-bound lately, and his latest collection, GREAT AMERICAN HYMNS, gathers together 10 sacred songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” “In the Garden,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Rock of Ages” is an inspired run at eternity. There is such a aura of righteousness in the songs, like this is something that is meant to be, that a Church of the Infinite is opened right in front of the eyes and ears. Joined by Ann E. Wade (vocals), Maryann Price (vocals) and Matt Farrell (piano, organ and vocals), Homer Henderson and pals play these songs for real, like they’re being auditioned for the Hereafter Band up above and have no intention of blowing the gig with overwrought voices or wanky solos. This is Sunday morning music, coming down or going up, and the quartet hits exactly the right feeling to bring everything home with exactly the right delivery. Glory glory hallelujah.
Andy Neill, Ready Steady Go!: The Weekend Starts Here. Rock & roll on television in America during the 1960s left a lot to be desired. There was The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, where the era’s top bands got to perform one or rarely two songs, surrounded by comedians, plate spinners and Italian puppets. Then there was the perennial American Bandstand, which featured dancing teenagers and lip-synching performers. Enter Shindig and Hullabaloo mid-decade, and while each of those shows spotlighted some of the best artists of the day, a show-biz gloss kept things earthbound. Over in England, though, the rock & roll cat was out of the bag as the weekly program Ready Steady Go! was blazing a trail that would never be equaled. From August 1963 and for the next three-and-a-half years, the show featured almost every exciting artist alive, from The Beatles, Animals and Rolling Stones to Otis Redding, Martha & the Vandellas and Jimi Hendrix, and captured their unequaled power like they were in the viewer’s living room. Finally there is a book that features what really happened, how it happened and just how astonishing the whole thing was. This stuffed-to-the-top book includes essays by managers, artists, directors, set designers, dancers and seemingly everyone else who had anything to do with Ready, Steady, Go! It is such a lovingly-compiled tome that it’s hard to imagine any book about a musical television show ever being better. There is also a complete guide to all 173-programs, which includes a list of every song ever performed on the program. Introductions by the show’s original editor, Vicki Wickham, and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg kick things off in fine form, and create an overwhelming longing not just for the unsurpassed music of those years, but also for a absolutely hip television endeavor that matched the power of the sounds themselves. Ready steady read!
Charlie Parker, The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection. When it comes to bebop jazz, there is one king: Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. These 28 songs originally released on four 10-inch LPs in the 1940s, were the first shots fired across the bow of jazz that soon changed everything. The great thing about them all is that they still sound absolutely modern, something that turned heads at the time and still have a swiveling effect on new listeners. It’s like Charlie Parker had tapped into some vein of eternity when he and his musical cohorts took a run at the future and headed for the moon. There is such a rush of energy and excitement about bebop that it is forever contagious. While there were some in the jazz world that rejected the music as being too over the top, for those who jumped into the deep end on songs like “Ko-Ko,” “Another Hair-Do” and “Bird Gets the Worm” there was an endless effervescence to the style which soon spread around the world. Of course, there have been countless reissues of Charlie Parker recordings over the decades, and all of them are super-fine examples of his genius. Still, for starters, THE SAVOY 10-INCH LP COLLECTION stands supreme. These were not only some of the first Parker recordings laying out the new land, but it’s like the original rocket ship to outer space: it only happens once for the first time. Be prepared for some ripping and running with gassed-up tempos, saxophones and trumpets zipping all over the place, pianistic certitudes and rhythm sections that feel like the New York E-train at full speed. In other words, this is a revolutionary event that over 75-years since its initial creation hasn’t aged an inch. Fans used to write “Charlie Parker is God” on the subway walls in Manhattan, and while the words have been painted over a dozen times in all these years, spiritually they’re still there. For all to hear on mind-blowing reissues like this. Hearing is believing.
Duke Robillard & Friends, Blues Bash! There is only one Blues buddha now, and his name is Duke Robillard. There is an all-knowing sound that comes out of this musician’s guitar, who’s been tearing up bandstands and recording studios with sweltering blues and smooth soul moves for over a half-century, first with Roomful of Blues and later on his own. Robillard has come to the point in his life where everything flows freely right out of him. For this new album, he amassed a menagerie of horn players, God’s own keyboard kings, a couple of guest singers and let it all fly. It’s the kind of blues sessions that used to happen on Beale Street in Memphis, Dowling Avenue in Houston, 125th Street in New York, Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, Central Avenue in Los Angeles, all over Chicago’s South Side and Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Wherever blues players with an open spirit would land, that’s where the true blues began. Which was exactly Duke Robillard’s intention when he mapped out this out of sight album. The songs fit right in: nothing too fancy but everything with that back alley groove and late night moves. Guest vocalists Chris Cote and Michelle “Evil Gal” Wilson take over the microphone when necessary, and by album’s end everyone felt like they’d hit the monkey nerve right on the spot. As the world cruises into the Soaring Twenties, it’s time to remember what got us here and what it’s going to take to keep us going: some loving harmony among the people and some heartfelt sounds to supply the soundtrack. It’s too late to stop now, and this musician knows how to help everyone get over to the other side. Lord have mercy.
Various Artists, 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace. The first half of the 1970s were a bit blahsville. Sure, there was great music to be heard, but it all felt scattered and without much galvanizing import. Leave it to The Ramones to help turn everything around. They likely weren’t the first punk band, but they were the one that drew all the initial attention and felt like the quartet had made a pact that it was time to shake things upside down. Way out in San Francisco, Howie Klein and Chris Knab were rocking big time to various local bands and 45s, deciding the Bay Area needed its own label, and it had to be called 415 Records. Soon enough there were singles releases, live music clubs springing up and a real scene to be seen. This 21-song collection of some of the label’s greatest crushers carries the clarion call feel of something new in the air, with bands like The Nuns, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions and Red Rockers prime examples of what was so undeniably awesome about 415 Records. It’s not that there was a sonic thread through the different songs, because in an incendiary way everything had its own explosive fingerprint. That was the beauty of it: street to street and neighborhood to neighborhood was a swinging series of different sounds. Not unlike it was during the Haight-Ashbury gestalt in the 1960s, San Francisco once again was pointing a way forward, away from the prevailing wave of disco and corporate rock and right into the Pacific Ocean. Life felt unlimited again, like nothing was needed to drop a new rock bombshell on the city except dedication and fearlessness. And 415 Records. Every song on this ear-blowing collection is a keeper, so by the time Monkey Rhythm shows up at the end with their song “This Must Be the Place,” a case has been made for Klein and Knap’s endeavor being an American treasure. Then, of course, the suits with big checkbooks came calling and before you could say “bottom line” the little-label-that-could was part of the Columbia Records distribution behemoth and things started to change. Surely that can be the only reason that Roky Erickson’s brain-splitting music on his 415 Records album “The Evil One” isn’t represented here. But as punk rock taught its listeners, nobody’s perfect. As long as they try. 5150 or bust.
Song of the Month
The Deep West, “Dominoes.” Once every few months a song suddenly appears out of nowhere. There is no advance warning except possibly an email with a video link, but almost instantly it feels like the world is transformed into the better for a few minutes. The Deep West, featuring brothers Adam and Joey Chavez, have surely been doing their soul music homework for a few years, but the emotions they immediately hit when “Dominoes” starts is one full of colorful melodies and an infinite rhythmic bottom. It’s the kind of sound that O.V. Wright and Bill Withers called home, and speaks to the endless struggle of humankind, and the inspirations that somehow come to the rescue. This is no fairy tale romance song, or pie-in-the-sky hallucination. Instead, The Deep West sings of what it means to see the dangers of losing it all unless the tide turns their way. It’s long-shot hope chased by steel-hard beliefs. Th Deep West’s celestial harmonies are sturdied by street level reality, resulting in what is surely this year’s glory-be moment. Miss this one at extreme peril. Hearing is believing.
Bill Bentley © 2020
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.