There’s so much good new music out there. The best music of 2012:
1. Radio Music Society, Esperanza Spalding: Invigorating blend of R&B, funk and jazz infused with top-shelf musicianship and an enticing lyrical quality. This is perhaps her best yet. Spalding sports a fluid, proficient and pleasing voice that delivers her poignant lyricism over the engaging compositions. Get the Deluxe Edition with a Making of DVD.
2. Locked Down, Dr. John: Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach gets an inspiration to record with the N’Awlins legend and they whip up a spooky, funky, voodoo dose of swamp funk mixed with hard rock sensibilities. Some of the best from recent vintage of the good Doctor.
3. Tramp, Sharon Van Etten: One of the truly remarkable and original sounding records from a singer/songwriter whose dense, penetrating lyrics are revealed through inventive arrangements that complement her songwriting.
4. Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen: At his wry, funky, satirical and stinging best. Glossed with a Steely Dan sheen but it still swings like mad.
5. Everybody’s Talkin’, Tedeschi-Trucks Band: Live outing from one of the best ensembles around today. A beautiful combination of blues, rock and pop whipped together with Derek Trucks’ slide lacing through it and the marvelous Susan Tedeschi’s soulful, blazing voice on top. Not to be missed live.
6. Sun, Cat Power: Return of the elusive, mercurial and magnetic singer/songwriter. Her best since The Greatest.
7. Election Special, Ry Cooder: Venerable American music stylist gives his biting political take on the present state of affairs with his usual entertaining, insightful views served with a helping of exquisite string playing.
8. Driving Towards The Daylight, Joe Bonamassa: Another edition in the evolving style and development of one of our best modern-day blues guitarists, who happens to have a soulful voice as well.
9. The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: From the opening strains of the remarkable title track through another set of inspired rock and pop, a step forward and upward from this New England-based group. Their roots are firmly planted in the fertile ground of the 1960s and early ’70s. All framing Potter’s gloriously wild and unrestrained voice.
10. Blues Funeral, Mark Lanegan: Love him for his various collaborations over the years, not the least with Isobel Campbell, but there is something dark and compelling about this bluesy and funereal outing that is addicting. (continue reading…)
Recently a tepid review of Roberta Flack’s latest offering put me off a bit on checking it out right away. But I thought to myself that Flack covering The Beatles sounded refreshing and intriguing. She is one of our great song interpreters and the album had to be worth a listen, no? What have I ever heard by Roberta Flack that I didn’t like?
I came across it in my local library and immediately scooped it up. I’m glad I did. Let It Be Roberta – Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles is a wonderfully inventive, imaginative approach to classic tunes many of us have grown up with. And why wouldn’t it be? This is what Flack does – brings her own special style and creativity to songwriters’ material.
With the help of a number of producers, but mainly the remarkably talented Sharrod Barnes, Flack has produced a poignant and mesmerizing set breathing yet new life into these standards. Her voice is alternately as delicate and as fiery as it ever has been and her way with a melody is, as always, rarely rivaled.
She takes In My Life, a Lennon tune from Rubber Soul, and gives it a Latin samba feel, infused with a middle eastern opening and repeating riff, while playing with the melody in various combinations, making it her own. McCartney’s Hey Jude is a stripped down acoustic folk number in contrast to the choral tour de force it becomes in The Beatles’ hands.
We Can Work It Out has a moderate R&B feel, while Let It Be retains its gospel roots but features a seering guitar solo by Barnes that stands in stark contrast to the original. Not necessarily better, but just as valid. Her bluesy take on Oh Darling places this ’50s style rocker in a new light and features another hot guitar solo, this time from Dean Brown. The Long And Winding Road, which employs a novel electric sitar in the backing, features a soulful duet vocal with Barnes, a form long associated with Flack for her stellar collaborations with Donny Hathaway.
The only misfires and they are slight are the dance house treatment of I Should Have Known Better and a quirky rhythmic feel to And I Love Her, though her vocal treatment on each is still exquisite. As it is on If I Fell, another that becomes Flack’s own as she weaves her way through the melody in myriad variations. On Come Together she almost sounds child-like and her inclusion of the Harrison tune Isn’t It A Pity is inspired, the only song from a Beatles solo album. Although in truth it was demoed for The White Album.
The set ends with a beautiful live version from 1972 of Revolver’s Here, There And Everywhere.
Not enough can be said about Barnes’ production and particularly the arrangements, which are all inspired and effective.
It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a Roberta Flack album. I’m glad I picked this one up. One of my favorites from this year’s releases.
Click to view more Gil Scott-Heron. (continue reading…)
Here’s my Top 10 for the past year along with a few bonus selections and various related categories:
1. The Union, Elton John & Leon Russell: A collaboration made in heaven and one wonders why it took so long for these two to get together. The record brings out their similarities, differences and a wonderful melding of their talents with some of their best songwriting in years. A truly inspirational collection.
2. Band Of Joy, Robert Plant: Another entry on the road of Americana from the transplanted Led Zeppelin lead man. Almost every bit as good as The Union with interesting and well-executed covers as only Plant has been able to deliver in recent years.
3. I’m New Here, Gil Scott-Heron: 28 minutes of bliss from the commander of narrative R&B. Scott-Heron is still here and as relevant as ever.
4. San Patricio, The Chieftains with Ry Cooder: A mythical adventure, cloaked in reality, that brings together Mexican, Celtic and American blues and country into one steaming pot of influences.
5. Tears, Lies & Alibis, Shelby Lynne: Stripped-down Shelby Lynne and she greatly benefits from the sparse arrangements putting the emphasis on her singing and songwriting.
6. Have One On Me, Joanna Newsom: It took a while to warm to this unusual songwriter with the reedy, young girl voice but this triple album is captivating and expressive.
7. The Stanley Clarke Band, Stanley Clarke: A bass hero for the ages re-engages with his jazz-rock roots on new and revisited material with a sympathetic and proficient group of musicians.
8. Chamber Music Society, Esperanza Spalding: One of the most unusual and ultimately satisfying collection of songs from a performer/composer who continually surprises and delivers.
9. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (self-titled): Fourth outing from a group with all the signs of breaking out big-time and it appears they’re finally starting to catch on in a bigger way.
10 Naked Honest, Kala Farnham: Honest, heartfelt, poignant lyricism backed with prodigious keyboard chops and crystal clear vocal styling from this rising solo artist. (continue reading…)
I couldn’t resist putting this video of Leon Russell from 1971 on top of a piece that actually is about a recent show Leon played at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut.
This show was taped in Los Angeles with his Shelter People band and a bunch of hippies in attendance dancing, listening and even preparing food, a very relaxed atmosphere. The song is one of the great rock ballads of all time, A Song For You.
His performance is masterful, the song is melodically beautiful and the lyrics poignant and penetrating. One of the great lyric ballads. There is another performance at the end of this piece of more recent vintage, same song. You’ll see Leon hasn’t lost much. To testify to that, he put on a brilliant show at the Infinity of good old Rock ‘n Roll with an excellent band, which included guitar virtuoso Chris Simmons.
This is the third time I’ve seen Leon, the first two in 1971 and 1972. The 1971 show was at the Fillmore East with Elton John opening, a show I’ve touched on a few times and that I need to write about in more detail. The ’72 show was at the Long Beach Arena (Calif.), when Leon was probably at the height of his popularity capable of filling large auditoriums. Later I would learn it was the show used for his classic live album, Leon Live. More on that one later, too.
At the Infinity, which has a relatively small stage, the right-hand side was taken up by Russell’s elaborate, almost montrous keyboard setup. No more grand piano as in the early ’70s. He gets acoustic sound from an electronic grand and it works out just fine. The audience can really only see the back of the keyboard setup, which is built in a large anvil case for traveling. The back is open and has hundreds of wires and connections so completely entwined with one another, you wonder how that actually works without a hitch and if anything went wrong how would a keyboard tech track down the problem. (continue reading…)
It’s not often I get to see an act twice in a calendar year. Last year, The Derek Trucks Band; this year Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. We saw Potter at the Infinity Music Hall in January, when I knew virtually nothing about them, and this past Sunday at the Ridgefield Playhouse, knowing a little bit more, well considerably more.
The performance Sunday was every bit as good as back in January but it was quite different. The Playhouse is a nice venue, my first time. It looks a little like a refurbished auditorium with a proscenium style stage, which in fact it is, being the auditorium of the old Ridgefield High School. A very high ceiling helps provide excellent acoustics and there isn’t a bad seat in the house, which holds about 500. We were about seventh row left on the aisle.
The main difference in this set was that it was more of a slow burn building into a fiery peak rather than a hit-you-over-the head, drive-it-right-at-you affair right from the beginning. In contrast to the Infinity opener Medicine, an infectious blues-rock tour de force, the group opened with That Phone, a nice tune but a strange opener with guitarist Scott Tournet doubling with Matthew Burr on drums.
Much of the first set was filled with tunes from the group’s latest self-titled album. It included Oasis, another moderate to low-key tune, which was given an extraordinary arrangement featuring an extended vocal vamp by Potter; Apologies; Money, more of an upbeat tune; the country-flavored One Short Night and the others listed below, including Tiny Light. If you are at all familiar with their material, you get the idea.
The second set opened low-key as well with a two-song acoustic coupling, featuring Potter, Tournet and second guitarist Benny Yurco, but after the reggae-inflected Goodbye Kiss, the group started cranking it up with the scorching Hot Summer Night from the latest and building to a climax with Stop the Bus and Medicine to finish off the set. The group returned for an 18-minute encore leading off with White Rabbit, then Paris, and what was the regular set closer at the Infinity, Nothing But The Water to end the proceedings.
Check my earlier review of the Infinity show for more details on some of the live renditions of these tunes. The band, which also includes bassist Catherine Popper, was in fine form at The Playhouse. Potter’s voice and stage presence are still impressive and hot, one of the best voices around today in rock. The band plays very well together as a unit, and Tournet does some nice soloing. And Potter’s songwriting is inspiring.
Lacking any photos from the gig without a watermark, I give you two performances from Jimmy Kimmel Live in July, which give you an idea of what to expect if you haven’t seen this outfit, and a video of Paris. One of my favorite new bands, I love how they mesh the roots of American blues-rock and country with a modern day musical sensibility. Catch them.
One Short Night
Ain’t No Time
Treat Me Right
Hot Summer Night
Stop The Bus
Nothing But The Water
Tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus introduced guitarist Larry Coryell to Gary Burton, master of the vibraphone, sometime in 1966. I always thought it was the other way around, i.e. Burton saw Coryell in The Free Spirits in New York, which he actually did, and then the Coryell-Marcus association came later.
According to notes from the reissue of Marcus’ album Tomorrow Never Knows, he already knew Coryell through mutual friend and pianist Mike Nock, who lived with Coryell in Greenwich Village. After Burton saw Coryell play in 1966, he asked him to join his quartet with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow. What resulted was a truly inspiring combination of players, who played jazz with a difference. They were all well-schooled in the bop and contemporary jazz traditions but they also skirted rock and pop territory with rhythms and feels you just didn’t find in jazz.
The quartet produced the landmark Duster, then Bob Moses replaced Haynes and the group recorded two more albums, Lofty Fake Anagram, which pushed further into rock territory, and the exquisite Live at Carnegie Hall. Coryell was incorporating rock tendencies more than anyone in the group with a fierce, biting tone at times and the use of feedback and rock phrasing juxtaposed with his masterful jazz leanings.
Shortly after Coryell left the quartet, he joined Marcus for two of three albums that were among the first to fuse rock and jazz. The records featured jazz-schooled players, who loved rock and pop as much as the jazz tradition they came up in, and showed them displaying more of a rock attitude than ever before for jazz players. These albums are certainly among the first genuine examples of the fusion of the two genres.
The first, Tomorrow Never Knows in 1968, featured the Beatles psychedelic title track, along with another Fab Four offering Rain, the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, Mellow Yellow by Donovan and two other tracks, including a Coryell composition, Half A Heart. A fine album with outstanding interpretations.
Then came Count’s Rock Band, the peak of this triptych and our Hidden Treasure No. 8 in ’69, followed by the mostly forgettable The Lord’s Prayer, sans Coryell, also in ’69. According to Marcus’ notes, Gary Burton, who was a neighbor of Marcus’, actually produced the first album, but when it landed on Herbie Mann’s new imprint Vortex, distributed by ATCO, Mann got credit for production on all three outings. Joining Marcus and Coryell on Count’s Rock Band and Tomorrow are Moses on drums, Nock on piano and Chris Hills on bass.
Count’s Rock Band follows the pattern of Tomorrow and includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair with Marcus on soprano sax and The Stones’ Back Street Girl. But the two Hills compositions, Theresa’s Blues and Ooh Baby are easily the album’s highlights and make this record a gem. (continue reading…)
I’ve watched quite a few films and videos about The Doors, from various collections to concert footage to Oliver Stone’s twisted yet fascinating motion picture. And I’ve read a number of books from ones written by Jon Densmore to Ray Manzarek to Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman to the much-maligned Patricia Kennealy.
All this and I wasn’t really a Doors fan during their heyday although I came to appreciate them fairly early on and have warmed much more to their music in the past couple of decades.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached When You’re Strange, a new documentary by director Tom DiCillo, narrated by Johnny Depp. Shown at Sundance earlier this year, the doc was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Most interesting is the reliance on only footage of The Doors, some never seen, rather than the well-worn technique of talking head interviews with people related to the project now commenting on what happened then. For that, it brings us a fresh approach on a well-traveled topic.
But the film has some obvious shortcomings. The narration delivered in a dry, matter-of-fact tone by Depp, is very basic. There is virtually nothing there for fans of the group who have followed, read and watched most that has come before. It’s really geared toward people just discovering the group.
Worse, the film glosses over some rather important aspects of The Doors story. For instance, almost no time is devoted to the album Morrison Hotel, which was really The Doors comeback album of sorts after Soft Parade. Though the latter enjoyed some commercial success, it critically received a mixed reaction. Morrison Hotel was a back-to-roots record that resonated with their fan base. But here it’s given one or two sentences before launching into L.A. Woman, their last record.
Also glossed over, Morrison’s relationship with Kennealy, which most of the other Doors evidently were almost totally unaware. But it’s clear although Morrison always returned to his common-law wife Pam Courson, there is definitely something to the story of his pagan bride Kennealy and until that is fully explored a big part of the picture is missing. (continue reading…)
In the first half of the year, I’ve been listening to three CDs quite a bit, all beautifully executed but quite different from one another. They are easily three of the best records from the first six months of 2010 and three you should give a listen.
The Chieftains’ San Patricio gives a featured billing to Ry Cooder, an occasional collaborator with the Irish group who writes, plays, sings, produces and arranges on this unusual yet intriguing mix of Celtic and Mexican music based on a fictionalized version of the story of Irish soldiers fighting with the Mexican army.
San Patricio is somewhat reminiscent of Santiago, another Chieftains’ effort from 1996 on which they blended Celtic sensibilities with Galician music from northwest Spain.
The group showed the direct link between the two musical heritages while including collaborators Cooder, Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos, among many others.
The music on San Patricio is joyous, celebratory, heartfelt, forboding and ultimately upbeat and forward moving. The highlights are many, including the opener La Iguana with sensuous vocalist Lila Downs, who also appears on El Relampago; Ronstadt’s tender La Orilla de Un Palmar; the Cooder compositions The Sands Of Mexico and Cancion Mixteca (Intro) along with the song proper by Jose Lopez Alavez; March To Battle (Across The Rio Grande), which features a narration by Liam Neeson; and traditional numbers that feature Los Folkloristas and Los Camperos deValles.
It’s all a rich tapestry of the blending of these two musical styles that share so much in common.
The Irish soldiers, led by Captain John Riley during the war with Mexico (1846-48) were discriminated against and treated brutally by the American troops. So much so they defected to join a people with whom they had much more in common.
Although the thread of story on this record is entirely fictitious, there is no doubt music must have been a big part of the Irish soldiers’ experience as it is imbued so deeply in both cultures. A wonderfully realized example of what we now call World Music but is simply an inspiring work under any title. (continue reading…)
Every so often one can sense an artist or group about to make a big stride artistically and commercially to the next level. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals might not be headed for superstardom, but with a new album this month the group appears to be breaking through in popularity and artistic achievement as it hasn’t before.
With their self-titled CD on Hollywood Records produced by Matt Batson, Potter has her second record on the label, a new producer with a proven track record and some nationwide publicity to go with what has been a relentless touring schedule since the early 2000s. We caught the group in January at the Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut, and some of the same magic that drew us to the music from Potter’s extraordinary live performance is evident in the group’s new recorded work.
This is Potter’s fourth album, the first two self-released. She is in all ways the focus of the group as a singer with memorable chops — a voice that flows from sugar sweet to raunchy rasp coupled with an impressive range — as a musician, on guitar and Hammond B-3, and most important as a songwriter. All the material is hers or co-written with group members or Batson (six songs) on the album.
Her group is a solid collection of players, too, that is far greater than the sum of its parts, as I have written before. Scott Tournet on lead guitar is the driving force of the band, Matt Burr provides steady and groove-oriented drum patterns and new members Catherine Popper on bass and Benny Yurco on rhythm guitar fill out the sound with quality work of what was a four-piece until about a year ago.
In most cases on the album what you get live is what you get on record. There are few embellishments, except those provided by the group through overdubs. There’s no filler on the album, but the group is definitely at its best on all-out rockers or tunes that develop from moderate-paced to blazing. (continue reading…)