The Burnt Pines. Sometimes there are semi-secret clues to understanding how bands achieve a unique sound. The Burnt Pines are a polycultural outfit, members coming from various nationalities and pursuits. Bandmember Aaron Flanders is from Illinois and the semi-token American in the band. Besides being in charge of most of the stringed-instruments for the band, it turns out he is also the author of a series of how-to books on balloon sculpture. Of course he is. Maybe that’s where the airy aura of playing comes from that is such a great part of his guitar and banjo performances. Joining Flanders is the Danish-born singer and lyricist Kris Skovmand and Portuguese keyboard player Miguel Sa Pessoa. Joining the trio on The Burnt Pines’ debut album are Fernando Huergo on 5-string electric bass, Luis Barros on drums and percussion and Dan Fox on upright bass for two songs. What they all accomplish is an arresting brilliance of sound that is ethereal and grounded, often at the same time. From the very first song the group heads for the zone where they’re unafraid to follow wherever the feel leads them, like they are discovering what the band is capable of, more than what they think it should sound like. The players recorded over 3,000 miles apart from each other, in both Boston and Lisbon, but you would never guess they weren’t all together in the same studio. The closeness of creation transcended the long distances between them, showing how music like that of the Burnt Pines’ cannot be predicted. There is an intensity of purpose which takes them, almost literally, around the world. Ready for departure. William Harries Graham,
St. Claire. Imagine Brian Eno growing up in Austin, and playing the Continental Club and other spots while still in high school. The big Texas sky was surely influencing him, but the nightclub trickinations were sinking in too. That’s a little what William Harries Graham sounds like now. There is such a sweeping sense of airiness in his songs that there can be no doubt he spends as much time looking up as he does looking ahead. And Graham’s new EP, six songs as strong as anything he’s ever done, feels like an announcement of a new arrival in modern music, one that is ready for his time in the spotlight. The young man’s voice has all the power and passion needed to make a new audience ask, “Who is that?” This recent work with “Fingerprints,” “Silent Film” and “Aaron” are a leap into greatness. It’s impossible not to feel that this is William Harries Graham’s time. He may be a college student at the University of Texas, but he’s also someone whose music people need to hear. The sounds have a sense of other worldly ambience that is instantly distinct, like Graham has discovered a secret how to align the molecules that bounce around his body. And the emotional quotient is off the charts, with much of the power coming from a private place inside the Texan that needs to be leaned into for maximum effect. But that’s the way the all-timers have always operated: meet an artist halfway rather than be smashed over the head, and they’ll be friends forever. William Harries Graham.
Stephen Kalinich and Jon Tiven, The Essential Yo Ma Ma. Cosmic funk? Celestial grit? Call it anything that fits, but the music that Stephen Kalnich and Jon Tiven have been making for several years really has few antecedents. Kalinich carved out his own niche with spoken word performances over the past half-century, along with writing songs for The Beach Boys and others. Jon Tiven has been the designated hitter in various bands and recording sessions long enough to have his own category. But when the two get together something unique happens. The words stay up in the air, but there is a tether to the ground, while the guitar and musical underpinnings get a little cosmic. It really is a wonder that needs to be heard to be understood, and this collection of some of the men’s past work is the perfect place to start. While the lyrics move to inspire and the playing packs the punch, a new groove gets created. Guest guitarists Steve Cropper and Brian May throw in extra fireworks that light things up, while the rhythm section of Sally Tiven (bass) and Cody Dickinson (drums, along with guest hitters Steve Ferrone, Chester Thompson, Darrell Peyton and Jon Tiven) give the songs the kick of, well, the Rolling Stones. Really. All of the selections are from past releases, except for the brilliant new “Life is Just a Kiss,” and “Mabel,” an update of an early Dennis Wilson/Stephen Kalinich original from the 1970s that Jon Tiven has helped finish. There really isn’t anything quite like Yo Ma Ma, which makes this collection as timeless as it is tremendous. And absolutely unique.
The Krayolas, Savage Young Krayolas. Terrorizing Texas starting in the 1970s, The Krayolas are a mystery band that came, tore up every bandstand they ever graced and then disappeared in a cloud of peyote haze like a crowd of Lone Rangers in sombreros. There is no way to quite understand what really happened, but luckily they’ve left us this collection of songs from a 1980 album that very few heard, and even less remember. Of course, being from the Alamo City the quartet owes a delightful debt to the Sir Douglas Quintet, and even have Vox Continental combo organ maven Augie Meyers from the original Quintet sitting in on a song. The end result is rock & roll marinated in a Tecate cooler full of hot sauce, and then burned to a crisp like fajitas on a fiery pit in someone’s front yard. Sal Dana, Jett Bass and Freddie Herman may have disappeared sometime in the 1980s, possibly kidnapped by a Guanajuato cartel and taken to be the house band at a mountain mansion in Mexico, but luckily this sonically savage album has returned like chigger bites in summer to prove once and for all The Krayolas really did exist. Rumors that the aggregation used fictitious names and an exaggerated biography cannot now be confirmed, because apparently the whole band entered the witness protection program and haven’t been heard from since. Probably best not to ask too many questions, and just revel in the sound of unhinged Texicans pretending they’re heading for the toppermost of the poppermost charts and leave it at that. Vamos al gitdown.
The Nude Party, Midnight Manor. Mix together a group of musical friends at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina ten years ago, and listen as they mix up a wide range of American musical influences. Then wait for this recent rollicking set of new songs to bust through the throngs as the band makes a stand as one of the great rock groups of this just-beginning decade. Though some might call The Nude Party’s sound college-rock, that would be selling it short, because this group goes so far beyond that. And there really aren’t any students on campus anymore anyway. Unforgettable originals like “Pardon Me, Satan,” “Time Moves On” and “Things Fall Apart” are permanent marks for greatness. It’s instantly clear this is a sextet that holds nothing back, playing with a relentless push that the Velvet Underground’s classic songs circa their album LOADED possessed, like there can be no turning back now. The genesis of the band’s sound feels innate, like they didn’t have to think too hard about it. It is just there, in such a near-possessed way which gets carried forward by their decade being together. There has never been a shortcut to becoming a band that matters. It comes together with work, time and the most important quality of all: inspiration. Produced by Black Lips’ Oakley Munson in the Catskill mountains of New York, there is something permanent about all these songs, which means they’ll last as long as we’re here. School’s out forever.
The Old Man Dinner Band, Blue Plate Special. There are moments in life when it’s time to chow down, and then there are periods when it’s necessary to get down. The five fine gentlemen who comprise the Old Man Dinner Band (OMDB for short), have been supping together weekly for 10 years in the groovacious ‘hood of Silverlake in Los Angeles, and in those moments of revelry they’ve realized that each not only played music, but they actually loved much of the same sounds. Once that most important detail was discovered, it was only a matter of time before the newly-minted aggregation dragged each other into a recording studio to see what could happen. These six songs, some of the finest ever composed in the soulful catalogue of several American heroes, come to life now like it is still the heyday of rhythm & blues and the record charts are jammed with fiery bliss. But first for the aggregation’s lineup: Pete “Petey” Andrews, Sam “The Man” Graham, Randy “Not Edgar” Poe, Harvey “Gardol” Shield and Pete “Paradiddle” Thomas. Each has credits like crazy, but more importantly it’s what they can now sink into the righteous recesses of these songs that really counts. Bands live or die on how they fit together, and this is a quintet so thick you couldn’t stir them with a stick. Each is a certified bad-ass on their axe, and when those five voices come together, well, it’s all over but the wiggling. Really. Of course, chops (of the instrumental kind, not the pork persuasion) are important, but it’s in the songs that bring on the hallelujah moments when this musical mess gets cranking. And there is no way to beat the six songs featured on the big blue 10-inch record. Original artists Arthur Alexander, Rosco Gordon, Little Richard, The Drifters, Irma Thomas and Chris Kenner might have seared their names into posterity with the first versions, but still, OMDB have that uncanny knack of not only resparking these gems, but really making them come alive again over a half-century later in the ungodly year of 2021. It doesn’t hurt that each of the bandmates were alive and bopping when the magical 45s were first released, but it’s what the mighty men do with the music now that brings it all back home. For a timeless sound not only a kick to listen to but a most bodacious blast to boogie in place with, start with the Old Man Dinner Band. Dessert’s on them.
Joe Nick Patoski, The Ballad of Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers: An Oral History. If there were ever to be a State Writer of Texas Music, let it be Joe Nick Patoski. He’s done several doozies, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and Selena books that wonderfully define their subjects. This unique creation, an oral history with incredible visuals, is all about blues guru Robert Ealey and the wild and wacky world of Ft. Worth sounds that sprang up around Ealey starting in the early 1970s. It is an inspired deep dive that includes revealing interviews with all the major players–and then some. Ft. Worth was a funky place, and this story shows the walls of segregation starting to fall as white musicians began crossing the color lines to discover the three-dimensional world of Black music. Singer-drummer Robert Ealey was the kingpin of the Ft. Worth world then. All the musicians’ memories of the bars, juke joints, diners, pizza parlors and beyond that played host to the music being made is told in such an exciting and revealing way that the book becomes more than just being about that. It’s really about how life happens, and what those unmatchable journeys become. It’s instantly obvious from all the interviews that these years were an explosion of experience for everyone involved, and like many early endeavors, are never really equaled. Book designer Nancy McMillen’s use of never-seen photographs, an endless array of early posters and other mesmerizing ephemera heightens this trip to another time, one that surely won’t happen again. As an inside entry to a world of sonic wonder, start right here. Sometimes a left-field gift like this book seems to fall out of outer space, and once it lands in the right hands the bright lights flash on to remind us just how mind-blowing it all can be. A hidden treasure.
Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Bernstein Reimagined. Composer Leonard Bernstein was more comfortable on a concert hall stage than a jazz club, but that doesn’t mean his songs didn’t work in the hands of players who live to improvise more than read charts. This collection bravely takes many of Bernstein’s best originals and puts them in the hands of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, where everything jumps to life like it’s been given a jolt of adrenaline. Part of that is because the musicians in the large orchestra know what they’re doing. They’re veterans of all kinds of instrumental configurations, and when they come together on Bernstein originals like “Dream with Me,” “Morning Sun” and “Lonely Town” it feels like New York culture has taken the A-train to a whole new land. For many years Leonard Bernstein was the epitome of high-minded musical achievements in America, but he always played the role with an edge of hipness in his persona. He didn’t talk down to his audience, and became a part of several cutting-edge experiments on the stage, concert halls and bandstands. No one could ever accuse Bernstein of being a stuffed shirt, even if he likely owned at least a dozen mondo-fashionable tuxedos. Instead, he incorporated elements of different strains of music and dramatic life, and somehow concocted a new form to blend them all together. Producer-conductor Charlie Young leads the orchestra to the elegant heights and swinging passages these songs demand, and never gets lost in the fact that, yes, everything should swing, whether it’s fast, slow or in-between. On the last song, “Symphonic Suite” from ON THE WATERFRONT, the sounds boil together for over ten minutes of musical bliss. Leonard Bernstein, an excited orchestra and masterful compositions: no wonder jazz was, is and always will be one of the great cultural gifts from America to the world. Reimagined and rejuvenated.
The Sons of the Soul Revivers, Songs We’ll Always Sing: A Tribute to The Pilgrim Jubilees. Gospel music is one of the true glories of American life. It’s likely also the oldest musical style originated in the United States. One of the seminal gospel groups, the Pilgrim Jubilees, were first formed in Mississippi in 1931. They performed throughout the South and soon in northern cities like Chicago, where they eventually relocated. One of the most vibrant modern gospel exponents are the Sons of the Soul Revivers, and this knocked-out collection of songs originally recorded by the Pilgrim Jubilees is full of hallelujah moments that make this music so invigorating. Its power comes from the way it is directed toward God, like the singers are having a discussion with the Almighty. It is really prayers set to sound, and how it can overcome human limitations is always a revelation. The two lead singers of the Revivers, Dwayne Morgan and James Morgan, are pillars of belief. They can soar to the mountaintop, and then take their sound down to the alley. However willing souls gather is where the songs are directed. The opening track, “I’ve Got Jesus,” is a Dorothy Love Coates’ original, one of the most powerful and possessed heroes of the gospel world. And everything on the album takes off after it. In a time when the spirit world can definitely lend a hand to continued travels towards the promised land, this album is an irreplaceable addition. Say amen somebody.
Uncle Walt’s Band, Recorded Live at Waterloo Ice House. Way back in the faraway days of the late 1970s in Austin, before the burg had been officially crowned The Live Music Capital of the World–it was more like The Cold Beer Capital of the Country then–there was a small club on Congress Avenue just a couple of blocks south of the imposing pink granite Capital building. Dubbed the Waterloo Ice House, it featured acoustic music whose audience actually wanted to hear it. Downtown Austin was a rather lonely place at night then. There were a couple of cranking nightclubs on Sixth Street making some joyous noise after the day turned dark, along with a barbecue stand that catered to transvestites. But not really much else. Still, when Uncle Walt’s Band, featuring Walter Hyatt, David Ball and Champ Hood, took over the Waterloo stage, it felt like the city had found nirvana. While they could generate plenty of heat with just two acoustic guitars and a standup bass, it was in the trio’s voices that helped the heavens descend on River City. All three men were capable of fronting their own groups, and in time they would, but together something entirely magical happened every time they rolled into Waterloo. Mixing soul-whipping original songs with standards like “Stagger Lee,” “Since I Fell for You,” “Snowing Me Under” and more, these musicians had the kind of following that would crawl over red-hot coals to listen to them live. This Waterloo show, recorded over four nights in the spring of 1982, is an undeniably historic peek into not only how winning Uncle Walt’s Band could be, but also how special Austin was then, pre-canonization by the outside music industry. It was just a mid-size Texas town, with a strong case of the bluebonnet plague and a groover’s paradise look at life. This indispensable album, first released as a 14-song private pressing in ’82, has been expanded to 21 songs, each and every one a chillbumper of the first order. It is said it’s impossible to go home again, but for those who were there 40 years ago Uncle Walt’s Band’s music is a total reminder why that thought never really disappears. Hook ’em horns.
The War and Treaty, Hearts Town. Someday this male-female married couple is going to make an absolutely incredible album, one that will last forever as a beacon of truth. You can hear it in their voices and feel it in their attack. And while their new release gets somewhat close, it’s not there yet. Take a tip and begin the album on the third song. The first two swing for the fences a touch too hard, sounding slightly forced. It’s a little laborious to kick off a collection that way, and this jaw-dropping duo doesn’t need that. But by “Five More Minutes,” The War and Treaty find a true inner groove and go for it. The glide is fully in their stride while Tanya and Michael Trotter Jr. get down to the real nitty gritty. Each are incredibly powerful singers, and coming out of the gospel camp they obviously are double-packed with belief. It is such a blessed sound they capture, there can be no doubt the Trotters are among the anointed few. With vocals that twist and turn, pummel and persuade like this, there can be no doubters. And while not every song is a knock-out, enough are that this album is a cause for shouting. There aren’t many duos like this who can reach down into the earth and come up with stone-cold visionary vocals. Everything feels like today is a new day and there is a sound in town that definitely threatens to kick up new ground. The War and Treaty might be one of the more adventurously-named groups now, but no matter what they’re called it doesn’t take a prophet to see and hear what is on the horizon for them. Maybe next time head over to Memphistown or down Muscle Shoals’ way and see who’s home at the Royal or Fame studios. Then turn the lights down low while everyone in the room takes care of business. Let freedom ring. Song of the Month
Randall Bramblett, “Pine Needle Fire.” For someone who has been recording albums for 45 years yet still hasn’t kicked down the door of popularity all the way, Randall Bramblett is a study in spirit and class. Born in Georgia, he’s always amalgamated Southern influences into his eternally moving sound, and has never lost sight of what he does best: making music that will not be denied. His striking 2020 album may have slipped by quietly, but the title song of the release, “Pine Needle Fire,” is one of those all-time beauties that brings an ache to the heart and a catch in the throat. It invades the inside of the soul like someone on an invisible mission to remind us all that eternity isn’t just a concept. It could be a reality that offers a promising road forward. A road of reward and redemption, where young passion leads to a full life of love. There is something so undeniable in “Pine Needle Fire” that it doesn’t need to be explained. It is irresistible and, yes, magical, and like the best songs of Van Morrison, opens up the skies and lets the cosmic become real. In fact, Morrison should take the leap and record the song himself. That’s how good it is. Turpentine and tears.
Bill Bentley © 2021
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.