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Features / News

January 30, 2015

The Elite Half Hundred of 2014 (Part 2)

  1. 442s-coverTHE 442s, The 442s (The 442s)– The most important fact concerning The 442s Kickstarter-funded self-released eponymous debut album is this: the music the quartet presents, composed by multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, accordion, melodica, glockenspiel) group member Adam Maness, is as pleasing, scintillating, smart and life affirming as any you’re likely to hear in this or any other year and the group itself is one of the major finds of 2014.

But, you say, what about the music? Fans of the Goat Rodeo Sessions and of the Punch Brothers will immediately be in familiar territory with the opening track, the bright, languid instrumental “Shibuya” with its rising and skittering violin-cello dialogue, its chiming flurry from the glockenspiel, the bass lines intertwining among the violin and cello parts. To these ears, the 442s begin asserting their own identity on the second cut, “Great Blue C,” in which the jazz-classical boundary line is completely blurred (Duke Ellington would be proud) in an arrangement featuring a jittery violin anxiously pacing above a rather mellow melodica before the cello rumbles in and engages the violin and cello (there might be an accordion underneath it all too) in a few bars of hurly-burly before the pace picks up and everyone begins sprinting to the finish line—until, at the 2:51 mark, a Brubeckian piano joins the fray with a lively outburst. It all sounds like it might have been part of an evocative soundtrack for a ‘60s Italian film. Review continues here…

The 442s, ‘Heston’s,’ with Adam Maness (guitar), Syd Rodway (bass), Bjorn Ranheim (cello), Shawn Weill (violin). From the group’s self-titled debut album.

  1. dulcie-taylor-only-wornONLY WORN ONE TIME, Dulcie Taylor and Friends (Mesa/Bluemoon Recordings)— It’s already been a good year for singer-songwriter Dulcie Taylor, seeing as how she’s won her second consecutive New Times Music Award as Best Songwriter 2014. How appropriate, given the finely etched songs on her fifth album, Only Worn One Time with its reflections on mortality, heartbreak, self-reliance, self-doubt, commitment and similar weighty topics we deal with in the real world on a daily basis. The roiling emotions of which she speaks in her lyrics are expressed both in words and in her backing band’s mix of electric and acoustic instruments as well as in the shifting textures from song to song. These range from the folky shuffle with Dom Carmadella’s B3 underpinning in the album opening “On a Rainy Day” (a wrenching heartbreaker in which the singer awaits “a downpour” to hide her tears, much as the Everly Brothers did in “Crying In the Rain”) to the fierce, stomping rock ‘n’ roll thrust of “Dug a Hole” propelling Ms. Taylor’s sarcastic screed to an ex-lover foolishly seeking to make amends, a kiss-off made complete in the snarling editorializing of Tim Pierce’s electric guitar solo. Review continues here…


SELECTED TRACK: ‘Like My Momma Loved Me,’ Dulcie Taylor, from Only Worn One Time

  1. sallie-cora-martin-talkJUST A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS
    , Sallie and Cora Martin (Gospel Friend)– Sallie Martin, the Mother of Gospel Music, paved the way for those who paved the way. A no-nonsense singer, group leader, choir director, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Martin helped Thomas A. Dorsey sell his catalog of songs before going into business with Kenneth Morris in 1940 to form the Martin & Morris Music Studio.

It is in 1940, when Sallie was a member of the Martin & Morris Singers, where Just A Little Talk With Jesus, Gospel Friend’s superb twelve-year survey of Sallie Martin’s early classic recordings, begins. The 25 tracks represent the first commercially available compilation of most of Sallie’s earliest recordings.

The CD follows Sallie and her adopted daughter, Cora Brewer Martin, from their sweet singing days as part of the Sallie Martin Gospel Singers and their collaboration with the famous Echoes of Eden Choir from St. Paul Baptist Church of Los Angeles, to their duets for Capitol and Specialty Records. As such, the compilation is not only a joy to listen to, it is a mini gospel history lesson. Review by Bob Marovich continues here…

The Sallie Martin Singers, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way,’ with Joe May, Cora and Sallie Martin

  1. sibelius-akatemian-fbbFBB
    , Sibelius-Akatemian Folk Big Band (Siba Records)— Back in the ‘70s, when he was but a lad, David Bromberg dreamed up a musical collective he called the David Bromberg Big Band, a shifting lineup of frighteningly skilled players well versed in folk, blues, country, ragtime, bluegrass, gospel and ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. Bromberg served as these virtuosos’ virtuoso, a multi-instrumentalist who could take any stringed instrument and make beautiful music with it, while also skillfully leading largely improvisational proceedings through majestic, epic sets of memorable original tunes and vibrant covers of songs from the basement of time up to the present day (along the way he even worked up a bluegrass tribute to Ethel Merman). There have since been similar aggregates assembled for one-off projects, but really nothing to compare to the scale, scope and longevity of the DBBB–until now. To the east, in Finland, the Son of the DBBB arises in the form of the Sibelius-Akatemian Folk Big Band with an album, titled FBB, that is one of the most joyous and life affirming musical outpourings this or any other year is likely to produce. Review continues here…

Sibelius-Akatemian Folk Big Band, ‘Kaivantomiehen laulu,’ from FBB

  1. kacey-jones-amenAMEN FOR OLD FRIENDS
    , Kacey Jones (IGO Records)
    — Kacey Jones has been so funny for so long it behooves her to remind us every so often that she is eminently capable of bringing it all back home as a singer too–and not just when she’s skewering a gasbag such as Donald Trump in her sweet, lilting “Donald Trump’s Hair,” the title track of an album that also included a driving punk version of “America the Beautiful” (or “God Save the Queen”) called “God Save the Queens” that contained brilliant nuggets of insight such as “it takes a special guy/to wear hot pink with pride.” You have to go all the way back to 2006, and to her stirring, soulful tribute to a great American songwriter, Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury, in order to experience a full album’s worth of her, shall we say, serious side. She reminds us of all this with the Newbury-penned title track of her long-awaited new album. It’s a holdover from the 2006 album and is every bit as remarkable (as is Mark Dreyer’s gently weeping guitar and Jimmy Nichols’s soothing keyboard support) now in all its sensitive interpretive reading as it was in 2006 and serves as a reminder that the woman who gave us the hilarity of the musical Nipples to the Wind (2007) and the album Every Man I Love is Either Married, Gay or Dead (2000) can also hit your where you live when she turns her attention to matters of the heart. Review continues here…

SELECTED TRACK: Kacey Jones, ‘That’s What I Like About My Baby,’ from Amen For Old Friends

    , Christina Pluhar & L’Arpeggiata (Erato/Warner Classics)— This is an entirely novel treatment of Henry Purcell’s music that may appeal greatly to experimentally minded listeners, but those mulling the purchase should be perfectly clear about what they’re getting into. “Improvisations on Henry Purcell” is not quite the right subtitle. There are elements of improvisation, it’s true, but really these are arrangements of famous Purcell songs and arias, most of them by L’Arpeggiata leader Christina Pluhar. A few of the pieces are performed straight, but most of them are very far from the conventional Purcell sound world, drawing on such diverse genres as rock (the opening “‘Twas within a furlong” and “Strike the viol,” both complete with electric guitar), world music, other Baroque styles, various styles of jazz, and even lounge music, applied to the sublime When I am laid in earth, from “Dido and Aeneas.” Plainly there is a subset of listeners who will be absolutely driven crazy by this release, but just as plainly it gets major points for utter originality. Its strength lies in the fact that it is not simply a jazz or rock version of Purcell but a wholesale rethinking of an antique repertoire for a stylistically diverse modern musical world. Review continues here…

‘Music for a while’ (z583/2), from Oedipus (1692), words by John Dryden & Nathaniel Lee; arranged by Christina Pluhar; Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor


32. OLIO, Gene ‘Daddy G’ Barge (Wildroot Records)– The number of authentic soul-blues pioneers is steadily diminishing, but even when the field was more crowded than it is today Gene “Daddy G” Barge was a man among men. On his new solo album, Olio (“Webster’s dictionary defines olio as ‘a miscellaneous mixture or collection.’ To best describe this production, I refer to the famous wedding cliché: ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.’ Or shall I say, something bluesy?’ he writes in his liner notes), he illustrates rather profoundly and emphatically why he is one of the towering figures of post-war popular music: he blows that sax with fire or tenderness as the situation demands; sings with gripping, gritty authority; produces and arranges; and either writes or co-writes nine of the disc’s 11 songs. Without question his body of work had something to do with him being able to enlist guest artists on the order of Buddy Guy and Otis Clay to lend a hand on a couple of cuts. Furthermore, Olio is released on his own Wildroot label, a name hearkening back to the nickname given him by fellow students during his days at West Virginia State College. Review continues here…

SELECTED TRACK: ‘Give Me My Flowers,’ lead vocal by Gene Barge, from Olio

  1. blind-boys-taj-christmasTALKIN’ CHRISTMAS
    , Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal (Sony Masterworks )– Like the Chieftains, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been embraced by some of today’s hippest rock and roots musicians. On Talkin’ Christmas, the gospel quartet that is now an American icon celebrates the holidays with musical polymath Taj Mahal.

Mind you, this is not the first time the Blind Boys have tackled the Christmas canon. That was 51 years ago, when the group was on Vee Jay Records. They and then-label mates the Swan Silvertones, Charles Taylor and others delivered fairly standard versions of familiar carols.

Talkin’ Christmas, on the other hand, is a mix of new songs and classics, all given Taj Mahal and producer Chris Goldsmith’s funk-n-groovin’ treatment. Familiar titles “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Silent Night” are infused with R&B and country roots, respectively. Review continues here…

Blind Boys of Alabama with Taj Mahal, ‘There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas,’ from Talkin’ Christmas

  1. michael-cleveland-on-downON DOWN THE LINE
    , Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper (Compass Records)— What’s different on his impressive Compass debut is its featuring Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper as fans experience them on stage, as a self-contained band, sans any high profile guest artists. Whether this decision was at Compass’s behest or Cleveland’s (or a mutual agreement), it was a smart move. On Down the Line, a terrific record by any standard, illustrates the band’s elevated cohesion and vibrant interplay even as it highlights the selflessness Cleveland brings to his bandleader’s calling. Which is not to say the fiddle plays a secondary role here—you always know the man is there and will add his signature to whatever’s being played but nowhere does it sound like he’s butting in in order to call attention to himself; rather, his solos arise organically from the well-tempered arrangements, sometimes in a prominent position early in a track, at other moments deeper into the running time when a brief flurry can add a little extra juice or emotional weight to the performance as a whole. And needless to say, when he steps out on a solo he plays with concision and passion, exactly what’s needed in the way of mood and/or energy and nothing more. Review continues here…

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper with a cover of Julian Lennon’s ‘Too Late for Goodbyes.’ The studio version is featured on On Down the Line.

  1. bucky-threeTHREE FOR ALL
    , The Bucky Pizzarelli Trio
    (Chesky Records)– Well how about this? Bucky Pizzarelli is 87 years old and doing that ol’ man river thing of just keepin’ on rolling along every bit as well as his late buddy Les Paul did it from 1928 (three years after Bucky’s birth) up until shortly before his death in 2009 at age 94. On this terrific outing released on the Chesky label, Bucky, born in 1925, teams up with his guitarist compadre Ed Laub, who was born in 1952—there must be some kind of connection there—and his own son and ace guitarist-vocalist in his own right, he being John Pizzarelli, born in 1960 (he missed it!). It is indeed three superior guitar artists conversing amiably with each other within the context of 13 tunes drawn from the Great American Songbook, tunes as timeless as these musicians are melodious, precise, smart and swinging. There are no vocals—the instruments do all the talking—but there is plenty of verve, an abundance of positive energy and frequent displays of jaw dropping virtuosity. As an added bonus, for those listeners into audio quality, Three for All is part of the Chesky Binaural+ Series, which, as a press release accompanying the album claims, is designed to “capture the sound of music as you would if you were sitting in front of the band.” Indeed, it doesn’t take audiophile ears—and yours truly will be the first to admit to not having them—to hear and appreciate the striking, immediate presence emanating from the speakers, be they computer or home, as this gifted trio makes its way through a classy set of tunes sequenced with clear regard for feeling and flow. Review continues here…

Album promo for the Bucky Pizzarelli Trio’s Three For All


  1. rory-block-hard-luckHARD LUCK CHILD: A TRIBUTE TO SKP JAMES
    , Rory Block (Rounder)— For the fifth and final volume of her acclaimed Mentor Series—album-length tributes to “the rediscovered blues masters that I met in person as a teenager”—Rory Block goes out in style with one original song and nine covers of songs by the king of Bentonia (Mississippi) blues, Nehemiah “Skip” James. Not only are the musical performances right on the money in evoking the special lyrical and musical qualities of the singular Skip, but as usual Ms. Block provides the finest annotation in the business, with a personal note full of sharp insights about James and his work and her own encounters with the man. Beyond this she provides song-by-song annotation regarding her personal relationship with each tune and her approaches to the James style. As with her previous tributes to Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt, Ms. Block’s interpretations ought to inspire listeners either to return to the originals or introduce themselves to same for a deeper appreciation of the art these men created and which one gifted woman brings to vivid life. Review continues here…

SELECTED TRACK: ‘I’m So Glad,’ Rory Block, from Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James


  1. james-fortune-live-throughLIVE THROUGH IT
    , James Fortune & FIYA
    (FIYAWorld Music)– The title is a three-word encapsulation of Fortune’s life, one with epic highs and lows. At his lowest point, the singer and his family had no place to live, no car, and no money. “I felt like a failure,” he said. “It was hard to see my family going through that.” Divine inspiration and acute experience during that moment resulted in Fortune writing “I Trust You” in a motel room. It became his breakthrough hit.

“That’s the song that really turned our life around,” Fortune said. “That season taught me a lot about suffering. The present suffering is not worthy to be compared to the glories that will be revealed. God intentionally allows us to go through the storms because he’s trying to get something out of us that would not normally come out.”

Experiences from homelessness to discouragement early on as a Houston-based choir director are in part why several of Fortune’s most popular songs focus on overcoming hardship through faith. The title track of Live Through It is no different. The song is “a word of encouragement that God gave to me,” Fortune explained. “We all have to go through different struggles, different storms in this life, as believers, but we can live through it if we pray through it. God says I’m only allowing it because I know it will make you better.”

Review/interview continues here…

James Fortune & FIYA, the title track from Live Through It

  1. praise-st-columbaIN PRAISE OF SAINT COLUMBA: THE SOUND WORLD OF THE CELTIC CHURCH, Barnaby Brown, Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Geoffrey Webber, Barnaby Brown (triple pipes and lyre); Simon O’Dwyer (medieval Irish horn and bodhrán); Malachy Frame (medieval Irish horn); Liam Crangle (bell and crotal) (Delphian)– On this fascinating new disc on Delphian, Geoffrey Webber and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge are joined by the scholar and Barnaby Brown to explore the sound world of early Celtic church. The disc isn’t so much of a reconstruction as an exploration, looking at the surviving material and trying different sound worlds. The music is all associated with Saint Columba comes from a number of major sources, the antiphons for the Feast of St. Columba come from a manuscript which may have originated on the island of Inchcolm, the mass propers come from the abbeys of St Gall and Einsiedeln which were founded by Irish monks, and the hymns have texts which were written on Iona itself.The disc starts with Os mutorum, lux cecorum from the Office of St Columba in the Inchcolm Antiphoner. The men of the choir sing chant fluidly and fluently accompanied by a drone from a reconstruction of a Celtic triple pipe played by Barnaby Brown, who also provides an instrumental prelude and postlude. It is a fascinating and evocative sound world, the combination of chant and pipe. The pipe is a reconstruction based on surviving images from manuscripts and carvings. Review by Robert Hugill of Planet Hugill–A World of Classical Music continues here…


  1. ferenc-gypsy-dreamGYPSY DREAM
    , Ferenc Illenyi
    (Mesa/Bluemoon Records)– A melody with a wicked glint that sets the pulses racing…a single note that captures and age of heartbreak and sorrow…Gypsy music is unmistakable. The violin soars and dances, playful and inviting, then turns to a sweet, loving ache. It’s pure passion, and that is what Hungarian-born violinist Ferenc Illenyi (pronounced “Fair-ense”) mines on his album Gypsy Dream (Mesa/Bluemoon Records).

A first violinist in the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Illenyi is a lauded figure in the classical world. But on this recording, he delves into his past, to the music that lives inside his soul.

“I was classically trained,” he explains. “That was my education, but growing up in Hungary, Gypsy music is there in your soul, subliminally. With classical music you do as you are told, you play what’s in the score. Gypsy music is so much freer, people take and add their own parts to the melody.”

Gypsy Dream is Illenyi’s opportunity to immerse himself in exploring all the varied facets of Gypsy music, from the old melody “Ando Beco” through the jazz of “A Minor Swing” to the demanding flamenco of “Boabdit, Bulerias.” Review continues here…

The Ferenc Illenyi Group, ‘Gypsy Caprice,’ a live version of the Fritz Kreisler tune appears on Illenyi’s Gypsy Dream album.

  1. gil-shaham-music-to-driveMUSIC TO DRIVE AWAY LOITERERS, Gil Shaham (Canary Classics)– The violinist Gil
  2. Shaham was battling his way through Penn Station recently when he heard a recording of the Haydn Violin Concerto being piped over the public address system. “I wanted to stay and ask if it was my recording, but before I knew it, I was in a cab and on my way out,” he said.

To Shaham, the anecdote illustrates the powerful (some say, unfortunate) effect classical music has, not in enlightening the masses, but on reducing loitering.

Reports of train stations and shopping malls blaring classical music to chase off vagrants, vandals and ne’er-do-wells have been making headlines for over a decade. Along with Penn Station in Manhattan, New Jersey Transit pipes light classics into its Newark transit hub, purportedly to create a soothing ambiance.

While some artists may cringe at having their performances appropriated for nuisance abatement purposes, the internationally recognized Shaham saw an opportunity in the concept, and on April 1—that would be April Fool’s Day–he released Music to Drive Away Loiterers. Review continues here

Bizet (arr. Sarasate), Introduction from Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25 (or Carmen Fantasy, Part 1). Gil Shaham with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castillay León, Alejandro Posada, conductor, as heard on Music To Drive Away Loiterers

  1. williams-brothers-songsSONGS OF WORSHIP, PRAISE & DELIVERANCE
    , The Williams Brothers (Blackberry Records)
    — With more than 50 years of harmonizing under their belt, the Williams Brothers are an institution in the quartet community.

The group’s longstanding willingness and ability to adapt to the latest in sacred and secular sounds is exemplified in its latest album, Songs of Worship, Praise & Deliverance. Here, the Williams Brothers attach their meaty quartet harmonies to the meditative Praise & Worship style currently sweeping the gospel music and church communities.

Listeners expecting to hear hip-slapping, drive-tempo traditional quartet singing on Songs of Worship, Praise & Deliverance will be in for a surprise. The album’s vibe is relaxed and contemplative—-prayerful, really—-and an uncredited small chorus of singers backs the vocalists on ten easy-as-Sunday-morning selections.

As is their MO, the Williams Brothers accomplish a fine balancing act between their traditional roots and today’s gospel on this latest offering. Review continues here….

The Williams Brothers, ‘I Give Up,’ from Songs of Worship, Praise & Deliverance

  1. nawaNAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs From Aleppo
    (Electric Cowbell Records)– It all began with a bad cell phone connection. Musician and all-around creative instigator Jason Hamacher was about to drive into a tunnel near the DC zoo, when a friend and fellow musician called and said he had to check out “Serbian chant” for a new project the two were involved with.

Hamacher heard “Syrian chant.” Then he lost the call. “My mind ran in a thousand different directions in 45 seconds!” Hamacher recalls.

That improbable inspiration launched a journey that took the hardcore drummer and photographer on a years-long quest to find and record some of the world’s oldest yet least known liturgical music, in a country that eventually devolved into civil war. Email shots-in-the-dark, ancient Christian chant, secretive Sufi orders: They all led to Sacred Voices of Syria, a series of recordings of rare traditions from one of the cradles of human culture.

Haunting and undeniably spiritual, NAWA: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs From Aleppo is the first volume from the Sacred Voices of Syria and offers a glimpse into a past that has nearly been erased. Review/interview continues here…

  1. dual-drive-memphisTHE MEMPHIS PROJECT
    , Dual Drive
    (Icehouse Records)– Dual Drive is a project spearheaded by veteran Memphis musicians Garry Goin (guitarist) and Patrick Register (sax and flute), whose sessions credits include work with the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Mavis Staples, et al. On this mostly instrumental outing the duo pays its love and respect to the Bluff City’s rich musical history, covering songs originally recorded in Memphis or by Memphis-based artists such as Al Green, Charlie Rich, Otis Redding, Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, the Staples Singers and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

It’s Funky with a capital “F,” this Memphis Project, but it’s not all in service to the groove—soulful expressiveness is the standard here, and it’s pervasive and deriving from multiple sources: Embracing his starring role on most of the tracks, Register fashions textures on soprano-alto-tenor saxes and on flute reminiscent of the rich sound signatures we have heard on those instruments through the years from brothers Hubert and Ronnie Laws; but when you hear the heartfelt tenderness of his alto soloing on a midtempo treatment of “Suspicious Minds” or the epic hurt he emotes on Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” it’s all Register. Goin demonstrates impeccable taste and feel on the guitar throughout, whether he’s taking the stinging lead on “Respect Yourself”; slicing up those “Green Onions” with a razor-sharp attack way up the neck while Register goes wailing into the stratosphere over a robust horn section; or crafting a soft, dreamy lead on nylon-stringed acoustic on “Never Can Say Goodbye.” But it’s not all Register and Goin in the spotlight. Their bandmates in Dual Drive are fabulous in acquitting themselves more than admirably at every turn. Review continues here…

Official video for Dual Drive’s ‘Green Onions,’ featuring Patrick Register and Garry Goin cavorting on Beale Street. From the album The Memphis Project.

  1. annie-ross-to-lady-with-loveTO LADY WITH LOVE
    , Annie Ross with Bucky Pizzarelli & John Pizzarelli (Red Anchor Records)— To call Annie Ross the grande dame of jazz singing is on the money but too limited an honorific for an artist who created and embodies so much history in her life and career. We come here today, however, not to review her staggering resumé but to announce her triumphant return on record with To Lady with Love. In her solo career, embarked upon before she joined and after she left Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1962, she has been backed by the Modern Jazz Quartet; by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on the same album (1958’s Sings a Song with Mulligan); by Zoot Sims; by Hoagy Carmichael and Georgie Fame; by Art Blakey, Kai Winding, JJ Johnson…you get the drift: only the cream of the crop, players whose improvisational savvy and technical virtuosity could challenge Ms. Ross and she in turn them. We have not heard from Annie Ross musically since 2005’s Let Me Sing (a live album recorded in London was released in 2006, but it was of a 1965 performance), so what a pleasant surprise to have her back and in such good form on To Lady with Love, an introspective, reflective homage to Billie Holiday, whom Ms. Ross looked to for inspiration and also called friend (their life stories also intersect at some very scary junctions, the big difference between the two being that Ms. Ross survived her ordeals). (Note: this attractively packaged set from Red Anchor also includes a DVD containing interviews with Annie and the Pizzarellis, the most interesting being Annie’s biographical sketch of herself in which she goes into depth about her friendship with Billie. This alone is worth the price of admission.) Review continues here…

SELECTED TRACK: Annie Ross, ‘I’m a Fool to Want You,’ from To Lady with Love, featuring father and son master guitarists Bucky and John Pizzarelli

  1. magic-sam-live-avantLIVE AT THE AVANT GARDE
    , Magic Sam (Delmark Records)
    — One of the hot spots Magic Sam and many of his Chicago blues companions gravitated to was a tiny, alcohol-free Milwaukee club called the Avant Garde, which was perpetually under siege by a bluenosed group called the East Side Mothers and, not incidentally, by the Milwaukee police department, both of which objected to the venue’s typical audience of “hippies, college protestors and bad elements,” as a witness to these events, recording engineer Jim Charne, asserts. Charne, in fact, set up some rudimentary recording gear in the club (a second-hand Roberts 455 tape deck, placed right up against the bandstand; some Electro-Voice mics and a Y-adapter to link the mics) on the night of June 22 in the fateful year of 1968 (fateful socially and politically in America, if you think back, and musically coming a year after Sgt. Pepper’s and the Summer of Love and a year before the tide turning Woodstock festival) and recorded for posterity a Magic Sam set, with Sam accompanied by bassist Big Mojo Elem and drummer Bob Richey. Forty-five years later, that tape, now in CD form, has resurfaced on the Delmark release of Live at the Avant Garde, with Charne’s insightful liner notes providing all the necessary backstory both musically and sociologically from the tumultuous era in which the recording was made.Sam is in great form during this set and his band is right there with him. The church cry in his voice was at its most affecting, and his guitar was simply singing its own self. The 16-song set includes a healthy dose of Sam originals—and Sam had a real gift as a songwriter—along with solid entries by Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Lowell Fulson, B.B. King, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, et al. The proceedings are mostly uptempo (this was a Saturday night crowd, after all), but the deep blue interludes are oh so memorable: Junior Wells’s plaintive ode to a gone girl, “Come On In This House,” is chilling, both in Sam’s stark, stabbing guitar interjections and in the epic trill in his falsetto at the height of his misery; Fulson’s “It’s All Your Fault Baby” is an open wound of a communiqué to a faithless lover, positively malevolent in the anguish in Sam’s vocal; in his terse, stinging solos and punishing, repeated riff with its top string run; and in the stalking bass line Elem lays down. Jimmy McCracklin’s forthright love song “Everynight Everyday,” the album’s penultimate track, is remarkable for the intense conviction in Sam’s vocal and the attendant heat he brings to his instrumental voice when he lets the guitar do the talking for him. Review continues here…

From Live at the Avant Garde, Magic Sam with his original instrumental ‘Lookin’ Good.’ With Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums.

  1. j-moss-grown-folks1GROWN FOLKS GOSPEL, J Moss (PAJAM)— The next generation of Detroit’s Clark-Moss gospel dynasty is growing up.

For J Moss, son of Bill and Essie Moss, that doesn’t mean he’s embracing his parents’ traditional gospel style. His music is just settling down, embracing a soft R&B quiet storm kind of pacing, and his lyrics becoming more contemplative.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Grown Folks Gospel is J Moss’s most mainstream effort to date. It grapples with a world in which there are more questions than answers. Album cuts such as “It Is What It Is” and “Beyond My Reach” articulate this well, and add that faith and belief serve a person well in such a world. Meanwhile, “Love Like That” and “Nothing” (featuring PJ Morton, another grown up next gen from a gospel music/ministerial family) wonder aloud, but rhetorically, why God loves us, despite our faults.

Featuring Fred Hammond, “Beyond My Reach” is the album’s highlight, a thoughtful and musically understated ballad that acknowledges our littleness in a world of big questions and few clear answers. In the context of the other album cuts, the effervescent single, “Alright OK,” is a wise reminder to not sweat the small stuff. Review continues here…

J Moss, ‘Beyond My Reach,’ from Grown Folks Gospel


  1. ANTHOLOGY, Too Slim and The Taildraggers (Underworld Records)– We can’t leave 2013 without acknowledging this vital overview of the 18-album career of Too Slim and The Taildraggers. In all incarnations one of America’s best bands, Slim and his compadres have been at it since 1986, and are only getting better as the years pass. The past couple of years, especially, have been bountiful ones featuring the 2012 release of Slim’s stunning solo acoustic album, Broken Halo, followed in 2013 with the monumental Blue Heart, on which all of Slim’s artistry as a singer-songwriter-guitarist coalesced into a major career statement, as brutal as it was beautiful. Blue Heart was honored in this publication as both an Album of the Week selection and as one of our Album of the Year 2013 selections. In toto, however, the 34 choice tracks populating Anthology proves Slim and the Taildraggers to be exactly what the title of their 2000 album claimed—King Size Troublemakers. It also appears that Slim and his Grammy winning producer Tom Hambridge are gearing up for more sonic assaults and blistering social commentary. This comes by way of three new tunes cut especially for this project, two being Slim-Hambridge co-writes, the other a Hambridge co-write with Texas bluesman Jim Suhler. One of those new songs, “Wishing Well,” kicks off Disc 1 on a stomping note before Slim enters, as angry as he is ironic, inveighing and warning against getting taken for a ride by purported men of the cloth. “Pay for Heaven or go to Hell/throw your money in the wishing well” is the key observation preceding a classic Slim guitar blitzkrieg enhanced by a scintillating six-string dialogue with Nashville ace Bob Britt over the solid punch of his current rhythm section, bassist Eric “Stretch” Hanson and drummer Jeff “Shakey” Fowlkes. The other new Slim-Hambridge entry appears amidst the reflective fare on Disc 2, and ranks as one of Slim’s most moving broken-hearted ballads. In 2005 Underworld released a Slim anthology titled Lucky 13. Nine years later this new overview is welcome and warranted, given the artist’s impressive growth over the time span in question. Those who would write off Slim and the Taildraggers as just another blues band and dismiss the genre as being worn out might want to think twice. Review continues here…

Too Slim and The Taildraggers, ‘Good To See You Again,” with guest vocalist Jimmy Hall. From Blue Heart and featured on Anthology.

  1. rawls-clay-soul-brothersSOUL BROTHERS
    , Otis Clay & Johnny Rawls
    (Catfood Records)– Towards the end of a spirited cover of Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” with the horns pumping and soul sisters chanting, Johnny Rawls beseeches his partner Otis Clay to “go back to 1966 and tell me what you were doing.” Gritty-voiced Clay enters and immediately transforms a song about regret over losing a good woman’s love into a pulpit-worthy confession of a more fundamental original sin: “I was doing wrong, and I did for so long/but if I could do it all over/I would go on back home/if I could turn back the hands of time/had a good time, I had a good home but I left/I wouldn’t be here tonight/wishing on a four-leaf clover…” Without question the most powerful moment on the Clay-Rawls collaboration Soul Brothers, this version of “Turn Back the Hands of Time” with its seemingly improvised coda exemplifies the bond these two soul veterans have forged over the course of their ten-year friendship. Whatever personal connections they’ve made, their give and take here shows the depth of  their musical connection. Despite their long friendship, Clay and Rawls did not sing together on disc until the former showed up as a guest on three tracks of the latter’s multi-Blues Music Award-nominated tribute to the late, great O.V. Wright, Remembering O.V. The Wright album continued a late-career resurgence for Rawls, coming one year after his terrific Soul Survivor (enthusiastically appraised in of July 2012) and two years after another inspired outing, Memphis Still Got SoulReview continues here…

Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls, live in Toronto, July 2014, treating an audience to a cover of Tyrone Davis’s ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time.’ The studio version is a highlight of their Soul Brothers album. Video posted at YouTube by Gary Asselstine.

  1. dudley-taft-screamingSCREAMING IN THE WIND
    , Dudley Taft (American Blues Artist Group)– Merciless as ever, and making paint peel from the walls with the heat of his guitar blitzkrieg, Dudley Taft has made his third solo album his most memorable. A native of the Midwest who now makes his home in Cincinnati, Taft brings to bear on Screaming In the Wind all the influences he’s absorbed in his journey, those being punishing electric blues revealing the impact of everyone from Freddie King to Stevie Ray on his style, to the hard blues-rock he purveyed during his two decades in Seattle, when he toured with Alice in Chains and Candlebox, among others, plus a more lyrical side reflecting a full immersion in ‘60s rock. Even this is but a cursory list of the styles at his command—listen, for starters, to the Zep-like crunch of the opening track here, a pitiless cover of Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” its deliberate, stomping attack seemingly designed to underscore the topical message James delivered in his 1931 recording but which is ever so relevant today, to wit: “A hard time is here/and wherever you go/times are harder/than ever before.” This is but prelude to a closing, no-holds-barred instrumental assault by Taft on guitar amidst the angry punch of his rhythm section, bassist John Kessler and drummer Jason Patterson. Three songs in you’ve got the drift of Taft’s lyrical conceit on Screaming In the Wind: his characters are not only restless but deeply, existentially disoriented by the times, much like the protagonist in “Red Line,” and haunted—in the grim crunch of the title track, to which Wynans contributes a ghostly wail on the B3, Taft, his guitar sputtering and moaning, cries out,  “I hear voices/screaming in the wind/I hear voices/of a long lost friend,” a dark sentiment that seems tied to the previous song, “Red Line,” in which he growls, “Thinking about my brothers/who got themselves killed/all the songs of mothers/buried out on Boot Hill” and to the dark sentiments of the sixth track, the paranoid “I Keep My Eyes On You,” which ends with a howling “I hear the voices in my head/they’re loud enough to wake the dead…” All in all, I’m not sure I’ve heard an album plumb spiritual entropy as chillingly and relentlessly as Screaming In the Wind since Too Slim & the Taildraggers’ 2013 masterpiece, Blue Heart, a Deep Roots Album of the Year last year. Review continues here…

Dudley Taft, official video for the title track of Screaming In the Wind

  1. farmer-jason-christmasCHRISTMAS ON THE FARM WITH…,
    Farmer Jason (Courageous Chicken Entertainment)–
    This much is guaranteed: you’ll find no other Christmas album for this season as warm-hearted, warm and downright funny as Jason Ringenberg’s (aka Farmer Jason) Christmas on the Farm. Being nothing less than a holiday lesson for kids in the important role animals of all kinds play in everyday life and did play in the Christmas Story, Christmas On the Farm embraces Farmer Jason’s past as neo-honky tonk punk rocker (as the titular head of Nashville’s awesome Jason & The Scorchers) to advance its messages with a twang here, a backwoods country drawl of a vocal there and with what the Pogues’ late, great Philip Chevron called “a punk rock kick in the arse.”To accomplish this Farmer Jason—the rural personal Ringenberg adopted a decade or so ago—enlisted the formidable assistance of producers Thomas Jutz and Peter Cooper, and further enlisted Jutz to do something else he excels at—playing rootsy, dynamic guitar—added Mark Fain on bass and Lynn Williams on percussion and got some other expert assistance from the likes of Sierra Hull (mandolin), Steve Herman (trumpet), Fats Kaplin (steel guitar and fiddle), Kelli Workman (piano), Dave Roe and Molly Felder (vocals), a memorable guest appearance by Webb Wilder, and even a couple of other Ringenbergs—his daughters Addie Rose on vocal and Camille on flute joining in to create a charming, lilting rendition of “Away In a Manger” that evokes the solemnity and tenderness of the Christ child’s birth night with the animals lowing beside Him protectively.

SELECTED TRACK: A Johnny Cash-influenced ‘Up On the Housetop,’ Farmer Jason, from Christmas On the Farm with…

To accomplish this Farmer Jason—the rural personal Ringenberg adopted a decade or so ago—enlisted the formidable assistance of producers Thomas Jutz and Peter Cooper, and further enlisted Jutz to do something else he excels at—playing rootsy, dynamic guitar—added Mark Fain on bass and Lynn Williams on percussion and got some other expert assistance from the likes of Sierra Hull (mandolin), Steve Herman (trumpet), Fats Kaplin (steel guitar and fiddle), Kelli Workman (piano), Dave Roe and Molly Felder (vocals), a memorable guest appearance by Webb Wilder, and even a couple of other Ringenbergs—his daughters Addie Rose on vocal and Camille on flute joining in to create a charming, lilting rendition of “Away In a Manger” that evokes the solemnity and tenderness of the Christ child’s birth night with the animals lowing beside Him protectively. Review continues here…

Click here for the Elite Half Hundred of 2014 (Part 1)

Click here for the Albums of the Year 2014

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