What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube

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Clips & Pix: David Bowie/Space Oddity

While I wouldn’t call myself an all-out science enthusiast, I just can’t help but feeling a sense of excitement about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Since the moon landing happened on July 20 five decades ago, which is kind of mind-boggling, it felt appropriate to post a clip that is related to space and space exploration. The first music artist coming to mind in this context is David Bowie, who clearly seemed to be fascinated by space.

Written by Bowie, Space Oddity was first released as a single on July 11, 1969, i.e., nine days prior to the moon landing. It also became the opening track of Bowie’s eponymous sophomore album that appeared in November of the same year. In 1972, it was reissued by RCA Records as Space Oddity – presumably after some clever marketing person there decided the new title would fuel sales, given the success of the song. Reissues in 2009 and 2015 reverted to the original title David Bowie.

Based on the chiron in the beginning of the clip, the above footage was taken from a live appearance of Bowie and his band on the American late-night TV music variety show The Midnight Special. The show premiered in August 1972 as a special on NBC and ran as a regular series from February 1973 until May 1981. Given Bowie’s looks, it’s safe to assume he was an early guest on the program.

Space Oddity, by the way, had nothing to do with the moon landing but instead was inspired by the 1968 Stanley Kubrick picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. Songfacts quotes Bowie from a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine: “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. ”

Bowie added, “It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.” You just gotta love Bowie’s wit.

Well, I suppose most folks tend to pay more attention to the music than the lyrics. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., which was widely misunderstood as being an anthem and shamelessly misused by a politician. In reality, of course, it was highly critical of the treatment of veterans returning home from war, which sadly remains a serious issue to this day.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

Clips And Pix: Paul McCartney In L.A. With A Little Help From Some Friends

I just spotted a Rolling Stone piece about Paul McCartney ending his Freshen Up tour at Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium last night, which includes some cool footage I simply couldn’t resist sharing. Not only does 77-year-old Sir Paul look in admirable shape, but he also got a little help from some great friends.

First up: Sir Richard Starkey, who just turned 79 years old. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m the first to emphasize that age doesn’t need to be a limiting factor when it comes to music and many other things. Still, you just can’t escape but feel amazed watching these two guys close to 50 years after the split-up of The Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) and Helter Skelter. What a triumph!

But wait, there is more. A Paul McCartney show ain’t over until, well, the end. So here it is: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End. Watch what happens at around 3 minutes and 48 seconds into the closing medley from Abbey Road. Undoubtedly, life’s been good for that audience last night. How friggin’ cool!

Sources: Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

Southern Avenue Come In Hot In Asbury Park

Memphis soul, blues and R&B band delivers energetic set at Wonder Bar

Southern Avenue weren’t kidding when they posted on Facebook yesterday, “our show at Jams On The Sand in Asbury Park, NJ has been moved indoors due to tonight’s forecast of severe thunderstorms. We’re still coming in hot though!” The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn., which blends traditional southern soul and blues with more contemporary R&B, is one of the few bright stars I know in today’s music world, a world I generally find uninspiring. So I was really excited to get the opportunity to see them for the second time last evening.

Initially, Southern Avenue were scheduled to play at Jams On The Sand, a weekly free open air concert series held in Asbury Park during the summer. But the weather gods weren’t kind, and it was great the organizers managed to move the event inside to The Wonder Bar, a well-known local performance venue. While the circumstances were unfortunate and likely decreased attendance, they may well have been a blessing in disguise from a performance perspective. The band had incredible energy and blew the roof off the place. My ears were still ringing this morning!

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierinii Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

More frequent visitors of the blog likely know that I have covered Southern Avenue on various occasions since I started paying attention to them about two years ago, for example here, here and and most recently here. Therefore, instead of recapping band’s history and their members yet another time, let’s get to the action right away!

Southern Avenue’s set included a mix of tunes from their two studio albums they have released to date and some covers. Here’s a nice funky song off their most recent record Keep On from May 2019, which is called Switchup. Co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson, it’s got a cool vibe that reminds me of Commodores.

Most of the songs the band performed were upbeat tunes, with Tierinii displaying an amazing amount of energy, seemingly feeding off the enthusiastic crowd. Every now and then, they slowed things down a bit, such as with It’s Gonna Be Alright, a tune that appeared on their eponymous debut album from February 2017. It certainly was alright!

Here’s another fun track from Keep On: Jive, which was co-written by Ori, Tierinii and her sister Tikyra Jackson who is the band’s drummer. It’s got a great driving beat and nice instrumental parts that in addition to Ori and Tikyra also feature keyboarder Jeremy Powell and bassist Gage Markey.

Next up: A cool bluesy jam take of The Beatles’ 1969 song Come Together, which blends into Keep On, the title track from Southern Avenue’s latest album. That track is credited to Ori, Tierinii and producer Johnny Black.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Southern Avenue’s usual concert closer Don’t Give Up and, it seems to me, is their signature song. Another track from their eponymous debut album, the powerful tune is one of Tierinii’s highlights, who is not only an incredible vocalist but also a compelling front woman.

In addition to being talented musicians and songwriters, Southern Avenue’s members are nice, approachable and down-to-earth people. Last night, prior to the gig, I chatted for a while with keyboarder Jeremy about their current tour and latest album – such a nice guy! I also ran into Tierinii who spontaneously gave me a hug after mentioning that I had seen them previously in New York last year.

Southern Avenue are a fantastic live band. If anything, their extensive touring has made them even better than the band I saw last August. In addition to touring the U.S. and Canada, they also do gigs in Europe. In fact, they just recently returned from a series of dates spanning various European countries, including England, France and Germany, among others. Tonight, they are playing a blues festival in Nescopeck, Pa. Upcoming gigs include Ottawa, Canada (Jul 13); Scranton, Pa. (Jul 26); Edmonton, Canada (Jul 28); and Mad Creek, CO (Jul 31). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Southern Avenue Facebook page and website; YouTube

Rock’s Only Starr Shines On

Peace and love and happy birthday

Rock and pop music has seen many stars, but there is only one Ringo Starr. He is 79 years today and still going strong. Not sure how many other 79-year-old drummers are out there. One who comes close is Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, who turned 78 last month. It’s beautiful to see once again that age does not have to be a barrier when it comes to music!

Of course, when you mention Ringo the first thing that always comes to mind are The Beatles. Yes, he stood in the shadow of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, but I have no doubt The Fab Four would have been a different band without him. Not only did Ringo have a distinct drumming style but also a great sense of humor, which he continues to show to this day. Plus, let’s not forget Ringo has had a long and still ongoing solo career. If you’d like to see him with his All Starr Band during their 30th anniversary tour, which was recently extended, check out the schedule here.

I’d like to celebrate the happy occasion with republishing a slightly edited post from last year. Congratulations and don’t forget to join Ringo at noon today, wherever you are, to wish this world peace and love. I feel this is needed more than ever these days!

Ringo Starr with drum kit

Repost:

As a huge fan of The Beatles, I simply did not want to ignore that Ringo Starr turned 78 years today. Yes, when you think of the Fab Four, it’s fair to say John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison come to mind first due to their amazing songwriting and singing. And, yes, Ringo is no John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker – thank goodness, I don’t think The Beatles would have lasted very long with a volatile character like Baker, as much as a drum genius as he was!. But I also firmly believe The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Ringo. And, frankly, based on many accolades he has received from the likes of Dave Grohl, Jim Keltner, Steve Smith and others, Ringo certainly isn’t a shabby drummer!

In this post I don’t want to focus on recapping Ringo’s life, which I did on a couple of previous occasions, for example here. Instead, I’d like to celebrate his birthday in a way that is more fun than reading stuff: Seeing Sir Starkey in action, based on recent YouTube clips.

Let’s kick it off with a great rockabilly tune recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1956: Matchbox. Ringo shows us how it’s done at age 78 – sorry, he was actually only 77 years old at the time of that performance! Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie are throwing in some nice guitar and keyboard solos!

It Don’t Come Easy was Ringo’s first single from April 1971, released following the breakup of The Beatles. It’s one of the few tunes Ringo doesn’t only sing but for which he also has sole writing credits, though he did have a little help from his friend and former band mate George!

Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition and among the handful of tunes he got to sing while he was with The Beatles. According to Wikipedia, he first introduced the song to John, Paul and George after he had joined the band in 1962. Eventually, it was recorded during four separate sessions in June and July 1968 and appeared on The Beatles, aka The White Album, which came out in November that year. BTW, you just got to love Ringo’s good sense of humor when announcing the track. The German audience clearly enjoyed it!

Here’s another another fun tune: Boys! Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, and originally recorded by the Shirelles in November 1960, the song was first included by The Beatles on Please Please Me, their debut album from March 1963. I also dig the version that’s on the At The Hollywood Bowl live album, released in May 1977.

Of course, no Ringo playlist would be complete without With A Little Help From My Friends. Credited to Lennon and McCartney, the song appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from May 1967 and was the only tune on that album, featuring Ringo on vocals. In the below clip, he surely did have a little help from some fabulous musicians. Like all of the other footage in this post, it shows Ringo during recent performances with his All Starr Band. Very fittingly, they’re also throwing in a little bit of Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance at the end.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ringo Starr official website, YouTube

Christian’s Fourth of July Rock Playlist

While I never need a reason to listen to great music, I certainly don’t mind the idea to combine it with a special occasion. Today happens to be the Fourth of July, which undoubtedly means many folks will be hanging out with family and friends, eat burgers and other barbecued foods, and watch some fireworks. Perhaps with the exception of the latter, all of these activities are much more fun with music, in my humble and completely unbiased opinion.

Before we get to the enclosed playlist, I wanted to express my hope that all people celebrating Independence Day remember this country was built by immigrants, based on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not hate, division and walls. And that’s all I have to say about that, to borrow a line from one of my all-time favorite motion pictures. Time to get to some music!

How to organize a playlist of random rock tunes I found in my music library? Well, how about alphabetically and kicking if off with some Abba? Just kidding! Here’s AC/DC with It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll. Co-written by Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Bon Scott, the track first appeared as a single in December 1975 and also became the opener to High Voltage, the Aussie rockers’ first internationally released album in April 1976. I suppose many people never looked at bagpipes the same way again. While the visual is a bit blurred, I just couldn’t resist to post the video version of the tune. Fasten your seat belts and let’s go!

What comes after “a”? Well, d’uh, “b”! Though don’t worry, I won’t go through the entire alphabet. But I didn’t want to skip Blue Öyster CultCities On Flame With Rock With Rock And Roll is from their eponymous debut album released in January 1972. I’ve always dug that song, which is credited to Albert Bouchard, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Sandy Pearlman. It also became the band’s first single.

I’m skipping “c” and jump ahead to “d”. It didn’t take long to figure which band to feature: Deep Purple.  I just love these guys and still believe they’re the ultimate hard rock band. And while Highway Star or Smoke On The Water may have been more obvious choices, I felt like going with Speed King, the opener to their fourth studio album Deep Purple In Rock from June 1970. Like all tracks on the record, the tune was credited to all members of the band at the time: Ritchie BlackmoreIan GillanRoger GloverJon Lord and Ian Paice – their best line-up, in my opinion.

Before Gary Moore started to focus on the blues, the Northern Irish guitarist was more of a straight rocker and in this case a hard rocker. Victims Of The Future is the title track of his fourth studio album that came out in December 1983. It was co-written by Moore, Neil Carter, Ian Paice and Neil Murray – and, yep, that’s Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, which I didn’t know either until I read up on the tune. Once it kicks into high gear at around the one-minute mark, the track literally feels like fireworks going off!

Okay, I thought a rock playlist has to have some Jimi Hendrix. Given the occasion, Star Spangled Banner it is. And since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, here’s Jimi’s legendary rendition from the festival.

Next up is a choice you may find a bit surprising: Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas. In my book, this tune off their fourth studio album Leftoverture from October 1976 features one of the coolest rock guitar riffs I know. Written by Kerry Livgren, the track also became the record’s lead single in November that year.

We’re up to “l” and that means Led Zeppelin. With so many great tunes from this band, the choice was tough. Whole Lotta Love is one hell of a song that includes one of the best Jimmy Page riffs, in my opinion. In addition to all members of the band, the opener to Led Zeppelin II is co-credited to Willie Dixon, since Zep “adapted” parts of Dixon’s 1962 tune You Need Love. Unfortunately, they didn’t give any love to Dixon when the album came out in October 1969. It took a lawsuit and settlement in 1985 to make this happen – not the only example where Zep obviously stole material from other artists. Maybe I’m a bit naive here, but I never got why they engaged in this kind of BS! Proper attribution wouldn’t have diminished them as one of rock’s greatest bands.

Rainbow, the band founded by Ritchie Blackmore in 1975, may not match Deep Purple, but they released some great music, especially during the initial phase with powerhouse lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Following is their best known tune, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, the title track to the band’s third studio album from April 1978. Dio wrote all lyrics on the record, his last with Rainbow. Most of the music including for this song was penned by him and Blackmore.

As somebody who grew up in Germany, I felt I had to acknowledge what’s probably the most successful German rock band internationally: Scorpions. While I acknowledge their music has varied quite a bit over the decades, these guys have released some kickass rock. Here’s Loving You Sunday Morning, the opener to Lovedrive. According to Wikipedia, the band’s sixth studio album from January 1979 “cemented the “Scorpions formula” of hard rock songs combined with melodic ballads.” Lead vocalist Klaus Meine and drummer Herman Rarebell co-wrote the tune’s lyrics, while guitarist Rudolf Schenker came up with the music. Scorpions continue to rock to this day, more than 40 years on, with Meine and Schenker still being part of their line-up – amazing!

We’re up to the tenth and last tune. Let’s finish it with some early Van Halen, when they were still great: Runnin’ With The Devil, off their eponymous studio debut in February 1978. Like most of the record’s tracks, the song is credited to all members of the band at the time:  Eddie Van HalenAlex Van HalenDavid Lee Roth and Michael Anthony.

And that’s a wrap. Hope everybody who is celebrating it has a great Fourth of July. And please be safe and don’t do anything silly, such as drinking and driving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube