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Features / News

January 30, 2015

The Elite Half Hundred of 2014 (Part 1)

  1. eric-bibb-blues-peopleBLUES PEOPLE, Eric Bibb (Stony Plain)– The main appeal with blues troubadour Eric Bibb has always been his positive hopeful tone conveyed with a warm voice, a pristinely picked acoustic guitar and a balanced production from Glen Scott. Those things are present on his latest project Blues People. This time, though, he also wants to nudge listeners toward the path of racial harmony by reminding them of the ugly past and the redemptive major accomplishments that emerged from it, with work still left to do. “The new album is in part a tribute to the memory of the great Dr. Martin Luther King,” explains Bibb.

Recognizing the power of the blues community and its historical part in helping to document the abuses and instigate change, Bibb brought many of his esteemed colleagues on board to demonstrate strength that comes from these numbers: from luminaries like Taj Mahal and The Blind Boys of Alabama to newer stars like Ruthie Foster and Popa Chubby all figure into Bibb’s grand vision of making this music a conduit for positive progress, and they do it by being completely themselves. Review by S. Victor Aaron continues here…

Eric Bibb, ‘Turner Station,’ from Blues People



  1. cecilia-bartoli-petersburgST PETERSBURG: MUSIC FROM IMPERIAL RUSSIA, Cecilia Bartoli with I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis (conductor) (Decca) Though the drawing back of the Iron Curtain at least theoretically opened Russian society to the wider world, the musical culture of Imperial Russia from the time of Peter the Great’s embrace of European artistic traditions until the rise of the popularity of Tchaikovsky’s work beyond Russia’s borders forever altered the insular landscape of Russian music remains almost completely unknown in the West. Nearly every student of opera knows that the bleakly fatalistic first version of Verdi’s La forza del destino was composed for St. Petersburg, where it was premièred at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre—not to be confused with the famous Bolshoi in Moscow—in 1862, but the interactions between European artists and Russian patrons and arts institutions in the generations before Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Glinka have been little explored, even in Russia. When Catherine the Great was crowned Empress of All the Russias in 1762, her adopted country was at the start of a journey that would lead to devastating wars, revolution, the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and cultural upheaval that would bury the efforts of Russian artists beneath layers of insularity and politically-motivated pseudo-nationalism for generations. The first half-century of this journey is the object of St Petersburg, and music composed at the courts of three of Russia’s most powerful sovereigns—Anna Ioannovna, Elizaveta Petrovna, Catherine II—provides abundantly deserving fodder for the famed artistic inquisitiveness of Cecilia Bartoli. Review by Joseph Newsome of Voix des Arts: A Voice for the Performing Arts Throughout the World continues here…

Promotional video for Cecilia Bartoli’s St. Petersburg



  1. benedictines-lent-ephesusLENT AT EPHESUS, Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles (De Montfort Music/Decca Label Group)– After having seen their 2013 album Angels and Saints spend 13 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Classical Traditional Music Chart last year, and finishing #1 in this publication’s Elite Half Hundred of 2013, the vocational nuns of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles are providing heavenly music just in time for Lent with their third release for the De Montfort Music/Decca Label Group, Lent at Ephesus, a timely, seasonal recording of a beautiful compilation of poignant chants, intricate harmonies and rousing hymns of glory and redemption. The album features 23 tracks, including “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” made famous by Bach’s oratorios; “All Glory Laud and Honor”; the well-known “Adoramus Te Christe”; the etheral “Improperia” from the liturgy of Good Friday; Palestrina’s majestic motet ‘Pueri Hebraeorum,’ plus three original pieces by sisters of the community, whose priory is in the Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph.

“We feel like we are stepping out on a limb whenever we record any original pieces,” classically trained Mother Cecilia, prioress of the community, told the Catholic News Agency. “In a way it is difficult, because the hymns we write come directly from our hearts, and lending them to a larger audience always costs something.” Review/interview continues here…

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, ‘Jesu Salvator Mundi,’ from Lent at Ephesus



  1. rhonda-vincent-only-meONLY ME, Rhonda Vincent (Upper Management Music)— Now, after spending more than a decade polishing her bluegrass template to perfection on powerful albums such as The Storm Still Rages (2001), All American Bluegrass Girl (2006) and Taken (2010, released on her own Upper Management Music label), while also embarking on memorable detours into pure southern gospel on Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (2012) and duet territory (Your Money and My Good Looks, with Gene Watson, 2011), she returns with a truly interesting double-CD set tellingly titled Only Me, with one disc being designated as Country, the other as Bluegrass. Although it’s a double-CD release, the two discs combined contain only 12 songs. Why not a single CD then instead of this grandiose presentation? She told Billboard’s Edward Morris Only Me was inspired by George Jones, or rather by Possum’s passing. As a Grand Ole Opry guest the night after Jones died this past April, Vincent, like the other artists on the bill, was asked to sing a Jones song. As she was performing “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” she said, “I thought how fun it would be to do a project that was half bluegrass and half traditional country music.”

I don’t want to say she was pulling our legs, but I believe there’s more to the story than she’s letting on. Review continues here…

‘Teardrops Over You,’ Rhonda Vincent, from Only Me


  1. keb-mo-bluesamericanaBLUESAMERICANA, Keb Mo; (Kind of Blue Music)– Three-time Grammy winner Keb Mo’ returns with another trophy-worthy exploration of the human condition (notably his own) in various iterations of the blues as only he seems to imagine them—consider the deftly executed archetypal Delta blues riff he fashions to kick off “I’m Gonna Be Your Man,” a teaser resolving into a slinky midtempo groove spiced with warm Fender Rhodes marginalia, walking bass and steady, thumping drums underscoring a message of spiritual staying power addressed to a wayward gal. Keb’s sense of humor remains undiminished, notably in the New Orleans-style strut (with rousing clarinet and burping tuba parts) framing the comical reflections of a reformed hedonist lamenting the passing of his dissolute self in “Old Me Better” and especially in “The Worst Is Yet to Come,” wherein banjo, harmonica, B3 and a distaff soul chorus conjoin in stomping fashion in service to a hilarious litany of ever mounting personal woes. Then there’s Keb at his most penetrating and soulful, on “For Better or Worse,” a country-tinged balladic appeal to his significant other to stay the course with him. The uncluttered sonics support Keb’s aim for simplicity in all things musical and consequently render BLUESamericana all the more memorable. –-David McGee

Keb Mo, ‘For Better or Worse,’ from BLUESAmericana


  1. catarina-zapponi-romantica-featured1-240x240ROMANTICA, Caterina Zapponi (Motéma Music)– A chanteuse of French and Italian extraction, Caterina Zapponi returns with her first album since 2001’s well-received Universal Love Songs. Romantica might also be described as “universal love songs” of the French and Italian variety that she grew up loving in Rome as the offspring of Bernardino Zapponi, famed in film circles as Federico Fellini’s screenwriter (Roma and Satyricon, notably), and Francoise Rambert, herself a French chanteuse of note. Her home was filled with music beloved by her parents and her parents’ circle, especially romantic ballads with a heightened sense of poetry, as could be found in her mother’s cabaret chansons, in the Italian folk songs permeating the home and most certainly in the Great American Songbook.

In a sense, Romantica is a reckoning with this history, as Ms. Zapponi sings everything in French or Italian, even a trio of songs associated with Nat King Cole, a muse for Ms. Zapponi’s gifted musician husband, pianist Monty Alexander, who assembled a King Cole-like trio to back his bride, with himself on piano, Hassan Shakur on acoustic bass and Kevin Kanner on drums. Here and there some outstanding guests make welcome appearances…review continues here…

Caterina Zapponi, ‘Stardust,’ from Romantica



  1. the-roys-viewTHE VIEW/BLUEGRASS KINDA CHRISTMAS, The Roys (Rural Rhythm Records)– Steeped in traditional bluegrass and existentialism, much-honored American-born, Canada-raised siblings Elaine and Lee Roy come of age as artists on their third album. That this is so may be only a matter of degrees from what they delivered on their terrific 2013 album, Gypsy Runaway Train (a Deep Roots Album of the Week, June 18, 2013), but it’s due to the duo transferring their individual existential concerns from last year to the lives of others they write about on The View.

On The View what might have been heard as solipsism on Gypsy Runaway Train has given way to a point of view equal parts expansive, populist, existentialist and humanistic in songs pondering the burden of memory as time marches on, along with philosophical appraisals of quotidian troubles and joys. To accomplish this they’ve not enlisted marquee bluegrass instrumentalists such as Randy Kohrs, Andy Leftwich and Justin Moses, all of whom appeared on the previous album, but rather are working with a tight, efficient trio of standout fiddler Clint White, banjo/dobro master Daniel Patrick and bassist Erik Alvar. One big name does drop in for a memorable turn, when former Blue Grass Boy/now full-time bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson checks in on “Mandolin Man,” Lee’s bustling tribute to Bill Monroe, adding a spry vocal and spirited mandolin solo to the heartfelt salute. Review continues here… The Roys also merit an honorable mention here for their terrific seasonal offering, Bluegrass Kinda Christmas, a thoughtful collection of country and bluegrass Christmas tunes of mostly recently vintage plus a couple of evergreens.

The Roys, ‘No More Lonely,’ from The View. Video posted at YouTube by Archie Shaw.



  1. hangtown-dancehallHANGTOWN DANCEHALL, Eric Brace & Karl Straub (Red Beet Records)— So many things about Hangtown Dancehall are truly wondrous it’s hard to know where to begin praising it. How about at the beginning, then? On the CD in question that would be with the liner notes by Eric Brace, whose great, long gestating idea this was. Brace, who on his own and with singer-songwriter partner Peter Cooper, keeps making wonderful, memorable music that stirs the soul and touches places in the heart where we all live, turns out to be a native of Placerville, California. Some may feel this is not so remarkable a fact, but truth be told, Placerville has an infamous history Brace has drawn on in creating what he calls a “folk-opera.”As a youth in Placerville, young Eric found his imagination fired by the colorful, lusty, poignant, often tragic Gold Rush tales he heard over the years (his family moved from Placerville when Brace was seven, but the lad never lost his fascination with Placerville’s colorful history). A decade or so ago, feeling stifled creatively and “uninspired by my day to day thoughts and the songs that were springing out of them,” as he told The East, Brace began writing a songs about the ordeal of chasing the Hangtown dream. In 1999, during the 150th anniversary of the ‘49ers, he filed a piece about his hometown with the Washington Post, for which he also served as a music critic at the time. “Working on that story was an excuse to finally study up on what really happened back then, then hows and whys, and I became obsessed with the Gold Rush. To me it’s the defining moment in American history, the moment when we threw out the work ethic and embraced the get-rich-quick schemes that still define our economic hopes. It was when we as a nation made any excuse we could to take whatever land we wanted, and tough luck for anyone who got in our way.“It laid the groundwork for our so-called ‘Manifest Destiny;’ it led to the mass destruction of all indigenous people in California; it provided us an excuse to enact the most racist and exclusionist laws in the name of a made-up greater good. But it also provided the impetus to create the transcontinental railroad, the telegraph, blue jeans (Levi-Strauss), canned ham (Armour), better wagon suspension (Studebaker). It sparked such a movement of men and goods that the world was never the same after the ’49ers.” Review continues here…

‘El Dorado Two-Step,’ the final tune from Hangtown Dancehall, a folk-opera by Eric Brace and Karl Straub. Tim O’Brien (lead vocal; Eric Brace (backing vocal); Andy Reiss (acoustic and electric guitars); Buddy Spicher (violin); Jen Gunderman (piano, accordion); Kevin Cordt (trumpet); Kurt Storey (viola); Pat McInerney (drums); Dave Roe (bass); Peter Cooper (backing vocals).



  1. radney-everything-240x240EVERYTHING I SHOULD HAVE SAID, Radney Foster (Devil’s River Records)– It’s been five years since New Traditionalist pioneer Radney Foster released a collection of new original songs, dating back to 2009’s powerful Revival. There could be any number of reasons for this sabbatical, but Foster himself provides a fairly strong clue on the first song on Everything I Should Have Said. “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse).” All subdued seething and fractured atmospherics (thanks to some decidedly Tom Waits-ish drums, which are actually, as Foster describes them in a release accompanying the album, “trashcans, a piece of angle iron and a big gear plate”), it finds Foster, in voice low and bruised, grousing, “Sometimes you kiss me, baby, sometimes you don’t/Weave your magic all night long/Next night you won’t/You come and go just as you please/I don’t get no respect/’Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” It would appear, then, that this formidable songwriter, whose facility and polish is the equal of any of his generation, had hit the wall, as will happen. Perhaps in lashing out at his fickle lover, though, Foster got his groove back, because the rest of this album compares favorably to his finest work of yore. Review continues here…

Radney Foster, ‘Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse),’ the opening cut on Everything I Should Have Said



  1. hot-rize-whenWHEN I’M FREE, Hot Rize (Ten In Hand Records)– It starts with a jaunty curlicue riff from “Mr. Banjo,” Pete Wernick, before Tim O’Brien’s plaintive vocal announces “Western Skies,” a tune born of heartbreak and centered on incipient wanderlust and its attendant anxieties. Hot Rize, with three original members in the fold and precision guitarist Bryan Sutton occupying the fourth chair, is back. Still toeing the thin line between progressive and traditional bluegrass it skillfully navigated between 1979 and 1990, the Rizers have delivered an album every bit as fine as it was eagerly anticipated. The bright, crisp sonics frame virtuoso level picking–Wernick’s sprightly “Sky Rider” instrumental is one dazzling, fleet-fingered dialogue between Wernick, Sutton and O’Brien (on mandolin)—and songs from the heart made doubly affecting by O’Brien’s mature tenor and sensitive phrasing. These range from uptempo reflections on love gone awry (“You Were On My Mind This Morning,” “Come Away”) to a dirge-like treatise on the hardships of “A Cowboy’s Life.” Add a jubilant cover of Mark Knopfler’s rustic love song “I Never Met a One Like You” and O’Brien tearing it up on fiddle on the old-time gospel instrumental, “Glory in the Meeting House,” and what’s left to say? Maybe “More please!”–David McGee

Hot Rize, ‘Blue is Falling,’ from When I’m Free



  1. three-bells1THREE BELLS, Mike Auldridge-Jerry Douglas-Rob Ickes (Rounder)– If the music these dobro giants make on Three Bells weren’t affecting enough, one overarching fact about the sessions that produced the scintillating tracks herein lends the project a greater poignancy: Mike Auldridge, founding member of the Seldom Scene who brought the dobro out of the bluegrass shadows and into the roots music mainstream, was dying when he joined Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes in the studio. Sure enough, he passed away shortly after the sessions were completed. But Ickes and Douglas, knowing of their mate’s perilous condition, vowed to do right by the artist whose melodicism and sensitivity also became their hallmark. So it is that the quiet, intimate soundscape provides the perfect meditative atmosphere for a delicate solo flight by Auldridge on a medley of “Til There Was You/Moon River,” even as it highlights the precise interaction and touching responses as the trio converses on the early 20th century popular song “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” There’s grit and tension in Douglas’s “North” and abundant festive spirits in the strut through Leon McAuliffe’s “Panhandle Rag.” And everywhere you turn there’s enough heart to fill many more albums. Auldridge went out in style. Hats off to Douglas and Ickes. Review continues here…

 The Three Bells

SELECTED TRACK: ‘Three Bells,’ Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, from Three Bells



  1. lockwood-albumLOCKWOOD, Jeremiah Lockwood (System Dialing Records)– Without overstating the case, Jeremiah Lockwood is one of the most interesting musicians on the planet. Born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lockwood—intense, warm, voraciously intellectually curious and a dauntingly gifted artist—is the son of composer Larry Lockwood and the grandson of the legendary Cantor Jacob Konigsberg. As his thumbnail bio at indicates, he “began his musical career playing his guitar and singing on the streets of Manhattan. Jeremiah has worked for years as the front man and composer for The Sway Machinery, a blues/world beat/Cantorial music ensemble.” Get that? Cantorial music ensemble? Lockwood has indeed found a way to fuse the music of his faith and heritage with secular music once (and sometimes still) derided as being the Devil’s opiate. At the moment Jeremiah Lockwood is on his way to being Dr. Lockwood, having been accepted for Stanford University’s PhD program in Jewish studies/ethnomusicology. While he toils away at his doctorate on the west coast, he’s back with a solo album, titled simply Lockwood, that returns him to the genesis of Jeremiah Lockwood, if you will, as a powerful acoustic blues artist. The only tune among its 14 that hints at his Sway Machinery incarnation is a sparkling, eerie rendition of “Soundiata” by the towering Mali singer-songwriter Boubacar Traoré that sounds, in its wordless, driven chanting, like a cross between the worlds of Mali, Israel and Native Americans—make that “a bridge” between the worlds of…in true Sway Machinery fashion. The rest of it, however, plumbs the roots of at least a couple of branches of The Sway Machinery’s, as well as Lockwood’s, roots. Review continues here… 

 04 Cold Comfort

SELECTED TRACK: ‘Cold Comfort,’ a Jeremiah Lockwood original from Lockwood



  1. charlies-boogie-andrews-youngCHARLIE’S BOOGIE, Duane Andrews & Craig Young (Independent)– Enter Duane Andrews and Craig Young, redoubtable pickers both and both well familiar to and beloved by their fellow Newfoundlanders. Both maintain successful solo careers, but on this, their debut album as a guitar duo, they seem intent on sticking around in order to say all they have to say, which cannot be contained on one disc. Charlie’s Boogie is a beautiful, thoughtful record radiating an elevated sense of purpose and a keen instinct for precisely the right textures and phrasings in order to elicit emotional responses from listeners enchanted by the instruments’ heartfelt outpourings. In most ways it brooks favorable comparison to Chester & Lester, especially in the pickers’ precision execution and probing solo journeys, but takes a more rustic route to arrive at its destination, a strategy that may well find some historically minded listeners recalling the soulfulness and joy Sam and Kirk McGee brought to their every lick. Atkins and Paul explored the Great American Songbook in sensitive dialogues centered on Duke Elllington’s “Caravan”; Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”; Romberg and Hammerstein’s “Lover Come Back to Me”; Will Hudson and Irving Mills’s “Moonglow,” et al. Andrews and Craig venture into more blues, bluegrass and country territory on several traditional numbers as well as tunes by Bill Monroe, Tony Rice and original tunes of their own. No matter the song’s source, you’ll perk up your ears now and again when you’re sure you’ve heard a strain of Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz floating around an arrangement, and you’ll be right—Andrews is a Django devotee and an assured player in that style, as he demonstrates fully here with a flawless, delightful speed-picked romp through Django’s challenging “Babik.” Review continues here…

From Charlie’s Boogie, Duane Andrews and Craig Young perform ‘Kelly Russell’s Reel,’ written by Emile Benoit, the Newfoundland fiddling giant credited with popularizing Franco-Newfoundlander folk music traditions.



  1. unearthly-black-gospel-260x152-1421678496WHEN I REACH THAT HEAVENLY SHORE: UNEARTHLY BLACK GOSPEL, 1926-1936, Various Artists (Tompkins Square)– Using 1926 as a starting point is not a random decision. That year saw the release of debut recordings by two seminal artists: Church of God in Christ powerhouse Arizona Dranes (who has already received a handsome Tompkins Square retrospective) and Baptist minister Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta, who became a bestselling recording preacher. One can literally trace a shift in the sound of recorded black sacred music from restrained to exuberant after the release of their discs.

By 1936, the collection’s cutoff point, Thomas A. Dorsey and his associates were still trying to gain a solid foothold for their new gospel music in the African American church. While they had scored important successes by 1936, still only two gospel song publishers were active in Chicago. Thus, what the collection provides is an example of black sacred folk music recording A.D. (After Dranes) and B.D. (Before Dorsey). Review continues here…

Blind Gussie Nesbit, ‘Canaan’s Land,’ from When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936



  1. carmen-cuesta-todaTODA UNA VIDA… Carmen Cuesta (Twenty Records)– In some ways Madrid-born songbird Carmen Cuesta picks up in her new album, Toda Una Vida…, where she left off in her late 2011 release, Mi Bossa Nova; in more ways, she asks more of the listener, with the payoff being the spiritual fulfillment a work this tender and deeply felt can bring.

What she has retained from the abovementioned 2011 album (which was largely devoted to the songs of the one towering muse in her musical life, Antonio Carlos Jobim, even though it also included tunes by other South American artists along with two Cuesta originals) is her guitarist and co-producer Chuck Loeb, who also occupies another important position in the artist’s life, namely as her husband. Also returning: her remarkably delicate yet deeply expressive voice, enhanced as it is by its owner’s infallible sense of dynamics and remarkably affecting phrasing. If she isn’t one of the finest singers working today, I’m a suck-egg mule. She reminds us of her preeminence repeatedly throughout the album’s dozen tracks, but it’s fitting that she hits the vocal version of a tape-measure home run on the lone entry from the pen of, yes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar” (“I Know That I Will Love You”), an intense but restrained pledge of love… review continues here

Carmen Cuesta, ‘Voy a Apagar La Luz,’ with Chuck Loeb on guitar, Moises P. Sanches on piano, José San Martin on drums, Yuvisney Aguilar on percussion and Antonio ‘Toño’ Miguel on bass. From the album Today Una Vida…



  1. alejandra-la-bocaLA BOCA, Alejandra Ribera (Imports)– Alejandra Ribera has a small tattoo inside each wrist. On the right, in Spanish, is the word ‘Listen’: on the left, ‘Remember.’ They’re not for display, but reminders to herself, watchwords for living and art. And she does both without compromise on her long-awaited second album, La boca, a disc that brings together all the separate strands of her life and creativity. La boca is a record filled of journeys–to the moon, beneath a lake in Siberia, through mythology, love and language. It’s spiritual, sensual, and very personal. It’s the work of a woman confident enough to follow her own instincts and to follow to all the places her art takes her.“I don’t want to tell a story in my songs,” Ribera insists. “My writing is like an abstract painting. I choose words for their sonic qualities, for the architecture of a phrase. I want to evoke emotions in the listener. Sometimes I begin with the lyrics–I have piles of paper with ideas. But they take usually a year or two to grow. I’ll go back to my notes and suddenly I’ll see how they make sense.”La boca contains three songs in Spanish, Ribera’s first compositions in her mother tongue, all very passionate and very vulnerable.“I was in a state of heartbreak at the time; it was all I could think about. Writing those songs about it in Spanish allowed me to go over the top with my emotions, but at the same time it was like writing in code. It gave it all some distance.” Review continues here…

Alejandra Ribera, ‘I Want,’ from La Boca, official video



  1. billy-boy-blues-soul1THE BLUES SOUL OF BILLY BOY ARNOLD, Billy Boy Arnold (Stony Plain)– Cool, grooving soul and blues with a Chi-town flavor, as authentic as it comes by way of one of the last remaining masters of Windy City blues, an artist who was born there in 1935 and as a wide-eyed 13-year-old sat at the foot of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and was forever changed. Billy Boy Arnold would grow up to play behind Bo Diddley on “I’m a Man,” among other chestnuts, and in his off hours launch a solo career that yielded his self-penned blues classic “I Wish You Would” (memorably covered by the Yardbirds and the Blasters, less so by David Bowie). The last few years have seen a revitalized Billy Boy working at the top of his game, in one case paying homage to Sonny Boy on his heralded Billy Boy Sings Sonny Boy album (2008) and doing the same for another Chicago blues titan on 2012’s tasty Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy; actually, his resurgence can be traced back to the early ‘90s when he signed with Alligator and cut two powerhouse albums, 1992’s Back Where I Belong and 1995’s Eldorado Cadillac. His latest, The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold, produced by Duke Robillard and featuring Robillard’s band, keeps the faith with the artist’s recent work. The tunes are a mix of soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll from familiar and respected sources in those fields; the band misses nary a step in transitioning from one style to another; and Billy Boy’s harp, now piercing, now earthy, remains a wonder, as do his warm, swinging vocal stylings. Coming a year after his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, Arnold has delivered big time in an ideal mating with a producer on intimate terms with his music and history and a band primed to inspire him. Review continues here…

Billy Boy Arnold, ’99 Lbs.,’ a cover of Ann Peebles’ 1972 recording, from The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold. Duke Robillard on guitar, Bruce Bears on Hammond organ, Billy Boy on harp.



  1. donna-hughes-fromFROM THE HEART/FLY, Donna Hughes (Running Dog Records)—For those of us who thought it had been way too long since last we heard from the gifted bluegrass singer-songwriter Donna Hughes, she has more than satisfied our yearnings for some new music from her precinct by releasing not one but two albums containing a total of 33 tracks. Most of these are new original songs, and in typical Donna Hughes fashion they are not mere toe tappers, murder ballads or broken-hearted weepers. No, time seems to have been much on the fetching Ms. Hughes’s mind of late, and so it is that graveyards play a central role here, especially on the 21-song From the Heart. These graveyards are both literal and metaphorical, however, as Ms. Hughes ponders the lives led by many of the unknown, faded names on tombstones here and there, especially as the years pass and those departed souls have fewer and fewer visitors to their final resting place. One of the most moving of these, and in her entire, rich catalogue, is the solemn, brooding ballad “The Red Oak Tree,” to which Scott Vestal adds some of the loneliest banjo fills you’ll ever hear and Jenee Fleenor adds further haunting ambience on fiddle, both musicians supporting a remarkably measured Hughes vocal that is free of melodrama but clearly emotionally invested in the poignant moment. In a similar vein, the lilting bluegrass ballad “Daffodils” ponders perennial blooming in light of the human parade that has marched through the field in ages past and now been forgotten, except for “the yellow daffodils” that return every year—“one day soon I will be free,” she sings softly, “when you find my daffodils.” Review continues here…

Donna Hughes, ‘Dog On a 10 Foot Chain,’ from From the Heart and Fly



  1. gladys-knight-where1WHERE MY HEART BELONGS, Gladys Knight (Shadow Mountain Records)– Like many R&B and soul artists, the multi-Grammy winner Gladys Knight got her start in the church. It’s to the church she returns for her latest release, Where My Heart Belongs.

The album finds Gladys Knight singing as strong as ever and delivering the selections in her signature tear-stained voice as if they were personal prayers or testimonies. Indeed, she has said, “I vividly remember the time in my life when I felt lost, as if something was missing. I was desperately seeking answers and when I finally found the answer, I learned that it was Jesus Christ. He gave me this gift and out of obedience, I want to give Him back to the listeners.”

Kirk Franklin’s “Always,” a song of thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice, is the album’s showpiece. It features heartrendingly rich harmonies from the GK Chorale. “Need You Love You,” on which Knight shares writing credits with Winans and Stephan Moccio, sets the album’s whispered prayer-like tone.Where My Heart Belongs even covers the Christian high holidays. A rich, orchestral version of the Easter spiritual “Were You There,” performed with the Dr. Benjamin Wright Orchestra, is accompanied by the classical SUV Choir and stops just short of an anticipated heart-pounding crescendo. For Christmas, Knight interpolates “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in “Happy Birthday Jesus.”  Review by Bob Marovich continues here…

Gladys Knight, ‘Always’ (written by Kirk Franklin), from Where My Heart Belongs



  1. jungle-cumbiaTHE BIRTH OF JUNGLE CUMBIA, Juaneco y su Combo (The Vital Record)– In the early 1970s, a small and largely unknown city called Pucallpa, nestled in the heart of the Amazon jungle on the far side of the Peruvian Andes, was the birthplace of a genre of music that would become a regional phenomenon and a white whale for Latin music collectors many years later. A mid-century oil boom brought workers to the region to toil daily in the oppressive equatorial heat. Hard living often begets inspired music, the kind that can only be created by people seeking an escape–-physical, metaphysical, both-–from and needing to reflect on and chronicle the drudgery of their days while at the same time celebrating their common bond in life. Out of these conditions came Juaneco y su Combo in the late 1960s. At first they were a standard, six-man dance band playing waltzes and polkas and dressing in conservative contemporary styles. But as the band expanded and made other key changes in its approach, its original music became an expression of the conscience and the culture of the Amazonian jungle people. Out of a kitchen sink of influences that included American surf and psychedelic music along with traditional Latin stylings came a new sound–jungle cumbia, it was dubbed, a genre that now holds near-mythical status for fans of South American music. Review continues here…

Juaneco y su Combo, ‘La Incognita’ (‘The Unknown’)



  1. carlene-carter-carter-girlCARTER GIRL, Carlene Carter (Rounder)– Carlene Carter’s new album Carter Girl, a tribute to the musical heritage of her fabled family, is a triumph. “Legendary” is a shamefully overused word, but how else to describe Carlene’s grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter; her mother, June Carter Cash, who, with aunts Helen and Anita, were the Carter Sisters; her father, Carl Smith and her stepfather, Johnny Cash. Carter Girl is that rare contemporary album with a cohesiveness that rewards listening from start to finish. Asked about this via email, Carlene wrote that the ordering of tracks “wasn’t a conscious decision. Or maybe it was and I didn’t know it! I just followed my instincts with a lot of help from Don. The beginning track, ‘Little Black Train,’ is taking a very old song and making it my own–laying the foundation. The final track, ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow’–one of the last recordings I did with my mother, my aunts and John–completes the foundation. Each song has its own inner arc as well. I want listeners to feel like they’re on a journey, and to sit back and enjoy the ride.” Review by Michael Sigman continues here.

Carlene Carter, ‘Little Black Train,’ from Carter Girl, official video



  1. leo-welch-sabouglaSABOUGLA VOICES, Leo Welch (Big Legal Mess)— It takes no special insight to remind readers of the kinship of blues and gospel but 81-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch’s debut album, Sabougla Voices, presses that truth home with a ferocity and unwavering conviction remarkable even for these most deeply personal musical styles. Born in and remaining a lifelong resident of the Sabougla, Mississippi hill country area, Welch approached Big Legal Mess on his own last year, was signed immediately following a short audition in the label offices, and hustled into a studio to cut Sabougla Voices. Raw and immediate, Welch’s music achieves a transportive, even hypnotizing effect by dint of the artist’s belief in a message of God’s love he has experienced in his own life. In his younger days he was a straight blues artist, playing solo and with groups at whatever place would have him, be it a community dance, a juke joint, a local radio station, a little café in town or simply for family and friends around the old home place, and whenever he could spare time from his full-time job with a logging company. Review continues here…

Leo Welch, ‘His Holy Name,’ from Sabougla Voices



  1. habib-koite-sooSOÔ, Habib Koité (Contre Jour)— Last year Mali music master Habib Koité teamed with the formidable American blues and folk artist Eric Bibb on a delightful fusion of his country’s music with that of Bibb’s and wound up with one of the Deep Roots Albums of the Year, the timeless Brothers in Bamako, an archetypal border crossing exercise. Following a lengthy, acclaimed tour of the States, both artists went back to their solo careers. Habib has now retuned with Soô (or Home, in English), which, like his contributions to the collaboration with Bibb, resonates with the lyrical, gentle, melodic music of the Malian cultures he weaves together in song. (On Soô he reprises, with a greater banjo flair, one of the most popular tunes from Brothers in Bamako, the jaunty “L.A.,” with its irresistible sing-along chorus, “One shot, two shot, three shot, four-shot, five-a… tequila, tequila make me happy…”)

With all the turmoil that has hit Mali since Brothers in Bamako was released, it’s no wonder Habib chose to record Soô in his own home. But Mali’s civil strife was not what drove the musician to do his first home recording. Rather, he did it because he could. What started as a logistical decision paved the way for the album’s theme. Review and interview continues here…

Habib Koité, ‘Drapeau,’ official clip from Soô



  1. tony-trishka-worldGREAT BIG WORLD, Tony Trischka (Rounder)— If the banjo is in resurgence, then credit the likes of staunch traditionalist and media magnet Steve Martin and progressive hotshots with cross-generational appeal such as Bela Fleck, both of whom, of course, would bow at the altar of the great Earl Scruggs. Ultimately, as Fleck asserts in his liner notes for Great Big World, the road leads back to Tony Trischka, who’s been blazing new trails in traditional and progressive worlds since the ‘70s—“the son” of modern banjo, Fleck calls him, alluding to all the influences Trischka absorbed in developing his signature approach. It’s nice to report, then, that although 32—yes, 32–other musicians join him on Great Big World, Trischka and his scintillating, nuanced banjo are always the star of the show, even when he brings on Steve Martin and Noam Pikelny to add their banjo signatures to a couple of tracks and expands the instrumental lineup with powerhouse players such as Larry Campbell on pedal steel, Oteil Burbidge on electric bass, Mike Barnett (from his own group) on fiddle, and an impressive drummer named Sean Trischka on the rousing “Joy.” There is simply no mistaking the lyrical, expressive touch of the Trischka banjo,..Review continues here…


SELECTED TRACK: ‘Joy,’ from Tony Trischka’s Great Big World, featuring Catherine Russell on lead vocal



  1. avi-between-worldsBETWEEN WORLDS, Avi Avital (Deutsche Grammophon)– “Forgetting borders” is what he calls it in the liner notes of his latest CD. He’s mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, and that CD on the Deutsche Grammophon label is Between Worlds.

The disc is a journey with, and a tribute to, those 20th-century classical composers who used music based on folk traditions in their own works. A genre-defying tour of the globe, the program on Between Worlds ranges from Dvořák, Bloch, Villa-Lobos and Piazzolla to folk dances from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Spain and Cuba.

Along the way, he builds sturdy bridges between past and present; joins the old world of Europe and the new world of America in a pas de deux; and shows due reverence for all kinds of folk and popular music without trying to ingratiate himself with those worlds. Thanks to his character and personal aesthetic, the album’s different musical strands are woven together into a harmonious fabric. Classical Perspectives review continues here…

Avi Avital on the making of Between Worlds



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