Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound. In this blog, Nelson reviews and recommends a few new, bluesy CD recordings for you to enjoy this spring!
SPRING FLING LISTENING SESSION WITH THE BLUES RUNNING THROUGH
By Nelson Brill May 26, 2021
“If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb
And we can walk together down in Dixieland..
Down in Dixieland” – Little Feat
Taking a Spring Fling clue from the rollicking Lowell George and his legendary boogie band, Little Feat, (soaking up their medley of “Dixie Chicken” into “Tripe Face Boogie” from their matchless 1978 live album, Waiting For Columbus (heard best -still with some thin highs- on Stan Ricker’s half-speed mastering on Mobile Fidelity LP #2013], here are some recommended new CD recordings that shimmy with joyful spring grooves for your listening pleasure:
First up, a barn-burning new archival recording from 2007 in which the Dickinson Brothers (guitarist Luther and drummer Cody, along with their late father, pianist and producer Jim Dickinson), dig deep into the blues in a casual “potluck” session, jamming with studio guests Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus. The camaraderie of this hot session, captured on two separate CD releases, New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers Volume I and II [Stony Plain Music; www.stonyplainrecords.com] invites us in to hear all the rich musical dialogue shared by these razor-sharp musicians in their jovial company. My favorites, from the stunning Volume I session, are the Musselwhite-driven beauties driven by Musselwhite’s gritty vocals and sharp harp careens.
Other highlights include Jim Dickinson’s stomping version of “Come On Down To My House” and his swinging version of the classic feel-good rocker, “Let’s Work Together”. Alvin Youngblood Hart’s cranking hot version of Hendrix’s “Stone Free” and Jimbo Mathius’s steamy “Night Time” are also knockouts. These two Volumes rock from start to finish, hunkering down with roughhousing grooves and startling musicianship wrapped up in a layered and spacious acoustic. For all their verve and gleeful sound, I voted these two Volumes “Best Blues Albums” in the recent DownBeat Annual Critics Poll (www.downbeat.com).
Blues also spark the rollicking singing, songwriting and guitar playing of William Apostal, aka Billy Strings, on his terrific 2019 CD, Home [Rounder Records; www.rounder.com]. Home is another great studio recording delivering palpable ambient heat, natural images and a soundstage layered with plucky dynamic delights (if your quality audio system is up to the task!).
The musicianship on this recording is boundless and irresistible. Strings’ assembled a stellar band for this recording, including Billy Failing on banjo, Jarrod Walker on mandolin, Royal Masat on bass and John Mailander on violin. They are joined by a glowing string section and the great Jerry Douglas adding his expressive dobro to the acoustic delight.
Strings’ songs are smart, swinging and fresh. His skill on acoustic and electric guitars is a marvel with his frenetic fingering and the clarity and expressiveness of his note and chord selections. The opening “Taking Water” is a twinkling swinger with political fervor. “Must Be Seven” is a striking narrative with optimistic leaps while “Hollow Heart and “Everything’s The Same” are joyful romps of kinetic heat. Strings’ guitar explorations can also teem with soulful play, such as on the atmospheric title cut where his electric guitar rises and falls in company with his magnetic string and percussive partners. Strings’ voice is a confident vessel: strong, expressive and hardscrabble. It fills his bracing songs with sweet rapport, such as on the light swing of “Watch It Fall”, and can be gracious and glowing, as on his “Enough To Leave” or “Love Like Me,” (with Douglas’ dobro blossoming in the layered soundstage). The band careens away on “Highway Hyphosis,” a heavy pedal on bluegrass sway and soar. Each player is set in their airy individual space on this superb studio recording that ensnares this shining band’s down-home roots, freeform and gleeful.
Billy Strings and his band’s charm and potency inspires a listen to a new recording from a favorite blues dynamo: vocalist and guitarist, Janiva Magness. On her latest album, Magness creates her own barn burning concoction by mining the rich vein of songs penned by the great singer/songwriter, John Fogerty, on her superb CD, Change In The Weather [Blue Elan Records; www.blueelanrecords.com]. The recording quality here is excellent, offering layered warmth, air, natural image dimensionality and an up-front, crackling presence.
I first heard Magness on bluesman Doug Macleod’s brilliant 2000 CD, Whose Truth Whose Lies [Audioquest; www.doug-macleod.com] where Magness joined Macleod on a stunning vocal duet on Macleod’s song, “Norfolk County Line”, one of my favorite audiophile references for its beauty and sonic splendor. Magness brings this same expressive vocal grace and powerful presence to her mining of these classic Forgerty tunes. Her version of Fogerty’s ballad, “A Hundred And Ten In The Shade”, is a powerful statement riding on Magness’ silvery fluid vocals and her gliding pitch-perfect leaps and plunges. The stirring Fogerty ballads, “Someday Never Comes”, and “Wrote A Song For Everyone” also deliver the beautiful range of Magness’ voice filled with ardor, charisma and spunk. Her playful duet with Taj Mahal, on Fogerty’s “Don’t You wish It Were True” springs forth on Taj’s crisp slide guitar and dusty vocals entwined in Magness’ fun-loving, creative calls. Guitarists Zachary Ross, Dave Darling (who also produced this bracing outing) and Zachary Rusty Young share duties sizzling away with chiming guitar lines, keeping the blues rock pulse grooving and punchy. The band is in full grooving flight on such toe-tapping Fogerty gems as “Lodi” and “Fortunate Son,” Magness’ vocals soaring high and expressive around her rocking partners.
Magness’ venturing blues, inspired by Fogerty’s indelible songs, led to a listen to a new recording from another brilliant songwriter, the late Tom Petty. In the mid-1990’s, Petty and his band worked through dozens of new songs in a series of recording sessions produced by Rick Rubin in Los Angeles, and the result was the sterling Petty album, Wildflowers. Now, with efforts from the Petty family, the original band members and superb re-mastering by Chris Bellman at legendary Bernie Grundman Mastering, we are gifted with Wildflowers & All The Rest [Warner Records; www.tompetty.com], a CD collection brimming with original cuts and alternate and unreleased takes from these legendary recording sessions. This is another studio recording gem, firing away with toe-tapping presence and tactile energy.
The blues were embedded in Petty and his band’s creative arsenal in their Wildflower sessions, and this influence can be heard in the pump of “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, the fury (of guitar slashes) on both “You Wreck Me” and “Cabin Down Below” and the slow brewing punch of “Honey Bee.” The band also had an inventive way with combining blues with folk influences, such as on the soft chiming leaps of “A Higher Place” and the willowy title cut, swooping away on Petty’s tenor climbs.
The re- mastering of these classics reveals new treats, most notably the zestful interplay of Petty with his longtime sparring partner, Mike Campbell. Campbell’s spirited guitar is a marvel: angular, sweet, ferocious, funky – all in the service of Petty’s songs. Steve Ferrone’s drums are also magnetic and vital on this new recording, as is Benmont Trench’s piano and organ that sweep to and fro in the layered soundstage on “Hard On Me” or wistfully on “Crawling Back To You.” The second disc, “All The Rest”, contains alternative takes and unreleased songs that hold such treats as Petty’s sly “Something Could Happen”; his driving “Hope You Never” and two takes of “Climb That Hill” – one an acoustic blues and the other an electric rocker. The brilliance of Petty’s songwriting is revealed in the sprite and jangly sounds of his play with his sympathetic partners, captured crisp, creative and rocking.
Petty’s song, “Wildflowers” has been covered by many bands. On another new recording, it is transformed into a spry nugget of light and groove in the creative hands of guitarist Andrew Renfroe and bassist Luke Sellick, on their self-produced CD, Small Vacation [www.sellickrenfroe.bandcamp.com]. Sellick and Renfroe are both stalwarts on the New York City music scene and their keen companionship and chemistry makes for a contemplative, glowing romp on Small Vacation.
Their interplay teems with skittering lightness, funky soul and twinkling zeal. Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” unspools on Sellick’s pungent bass lines and softly punctuated plucks (captured coherent and deep) plied with Renfroe’s spidery guitar twists and twirls (relishing the blend of colors in his deep strums and accentuated notes). Those colorful strums and deep pulses drive McDowell’s “Someday Baby” with swanking power while Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” is re-envisioned as a dancing frolic, combining Reinfroe’s wistful guitar with Sellick’s buoyant bass. The blues reach deep and gravelly on a cool version of James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, a slow-stirring combustion with Renfroe’s guitar shuffling with string bends and colorful accents. The sound quality is also excellent: tactile, with natural tones, textures and image dimensionality. It delivers all the glowing warmth and vividness to the drama created between these two sterling musicians at joyful, creative play.
Another beautiful CD collection that takes classic blues to venturesome new places, (where jazz and blues meld in fresh and glowing ways), is Adam Nussbaum’s Lead Belly Project, consisting of two separately released recordings: 2018’s Lead Belly Project and 2020’s Lead Belly Reimagined, both on the Sunnyside Records label [www.sunnysiderecords.com]. Nussbaum, a drummer of ebullient flow and exploration, brings new colors to these classic Lead Belly tunes by combining his frolicking drums with the sounds of two guitars, plied by virtuosi Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley, with a glowing muscular saxophone, played by Ohad Talmor. The results are fresh and delectable. The recording quality of both CD’s is stunning. Every instrument is captured in its true tonal colors with great clarity and tactile presence. Each player’s image is placed in perfect three-dimensional acuity with Nussbaum’s drum kit naturally anchored and focused in the soundstage – with no artificial, confusing lateral spread. Everything is heard crisp, tactile clear and tonally right – a sonic joy!
Focusing on the newest CD, Lead Belly Reimagined, this tight band greases these Lead Belly nuggets with cavorting fun, always keeping the blues and jazz inspiration fresh and gut-thumping. Their “Rock Island Line” train gets pumping down its tracks on a shimmer of Nussbaum’s glittering cymbals and brushes, (some of the truest tones for this percussion that you will ever hear!), gaining momentum until interwoven with Talmor’s streaking sax. The inventions of guitarists Cardenas and Radley are spicy-sweet delights to explore: Cardenas gently shape-shifting his assured notes with sharp, angular twists (coaxing surprising colors) while Radley draws more on fleshy deep patterns and colors, bluesy and pungent. On the slow-rollicking “Relax Your Mind”, each guitarist gets a chance to jostle and shine within Nussbaum’s animated percussion while on the following cut, “Laura”, the band goes into a frenetic spidery whirl, firing away on Nussbaum’s quicksilver snare/cymbal combinations and Talmor’s careening sax runs. The roguish “Governor Pat Noff” rocks away on Nussbaum’s big pulses and the band’s comic spirited runs (ending on a howl of laughter). “When I Was A Cowboy” and “If It Wasn’t For Dicky” are two incandescent ballads, softly intrepid on cymbal washes, swashes of guitar colors and Talmor’s ardent sax. This is plucky, sweet and inventive music that brings a new dimension to Lead Belly’s peerless blues: intrepid, open-minded and beautiful to explore.
From Nussbaum and his band’s funky and fresh Lead Belly spirit, lets conclude this blues-drenched listening session with a young guitarist, singer-songwriter from Boston who brings his own fiery, creative blues rock passion to every string bend and volcanic hold. This is the youthful blast of Tyler Morris, whose new CD, Living In The Shadows [Vizztone; www.tylerdmorris.com], is a molten rocker. Keep in mind that this blues recording suffers from the sonic limitations of many a modern studio manipulation. It has a constricted soundstage (with little layering or depth) and its treble is artificially ramped up so that as dynamics increase, so does the brittle nature of its upper mid-bass to its treble regions (i.e. cymbals are thin and mere splashes of sound). Even with its sonic limitations though, this is a fine rock-surging blues recording from a vivacious young talent- thus the audiophile quality exception made here. Morris is joined on Living In The Shadows by a tight power trio: Terry Dry on bass, Matthew Robert Johnson on drums and Lewis Stephens on piano and Hammond B3. Together, they make a fire-alarm commotion that speaks the language of their electric blues with rocking pulse and power.
Morris’ thrashing electric guitar lays down some serious heat and raw vitality. The special thing is that his bravado and confident technical skills are all put to the service of his songs. He loves to hit frenetic trills, bending his strings and declaring some great slide guitar thunder- all in partnership with his brawny-toned vocals (tough minded in their limited range) to tell his stories. The opening “Mov’in On” is a sizzling feast with the band tight and nimble as Morris burns with athletic driving force to map out his escape down the road. The pile driving continues on “Why Is Love So Blue”, a grooving boogie number laced with Morris’ animated playing, his beefy vocals and his rhythm section’s bold foundation. Morris is joined by several kindred guests on Living In The Shadows. The legendary guitarist Ronnie Earl joins Morris for a blistering duet, “Young Man’s Blues”, in which Morris and Earl trade radiant and decisive riffs (Earl’s spidery and eloquent next to Morris’ galvanizing attack). Vocalist Amanda Fish joins Morris on a rocking “Better Than You” with sly, assured vocals that fit like a glove into Morris and his band’s tight-knit urgency and pump. “Polk Salad Annie” features virtuoso blues guitarist and vocalist Joe Louis Walker and guitarist Mike Zito joining Morris in a swanking romp that showcases Walker’s smooth-gliding vocals with fierce guitar inventions from Morris. Morris’ title cut, along with his tune “Temptation”, also offer a nice slice of his slow-blues artistry, glowing with twisting power chords, brewing invention and his incandescent guitar power. The future heart of the blues beats fierce and vital in Morris’ young hands on Living In the Shadows, taking his electric blues into animated, limb-shaking and open-hearted territory. Turn up the volume, let the blues flow and take a joyful “walk down in Dixie Land!”
You can read more of Nelson’s concert reviews at www.bostonconcertreviews.com.