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

Advertisements

The Doobie Brothers Shine On New Live Album

Live From The Beacon Theatre presents hits and deep cuts from Toulouse Street and The Captain And Me albums

When I saw The Doobie Brothers are coming out with Live From The Beacon Theatre, I didn’t pay a lot of attention initially. At first glance, it largely looks like a greatest hits compilation played live, i.e., tunes we’ve heard many times before. Finally, I got curious yesterday, and, man, what an amazing and fresh-sounding album – if you dig the Doobies, there’s no way you’re not gonna like this!

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised in the first place. After all, I saw the southern rockers last July together with Steely Dan, and they were dynamite! Just like Donald Fagen and co, after the co-headlining summer tour, the Doobies hit The Beacon Theatre in New York for special album-focused performances, which in this case included Toulouse Street (1972) and The Captain And Me (1973).

The Doobie Brothers
The Doobie Brothers (left to right): John Cowan (bass, vocals), Patrick Simmons (guitars, vocals, co-founder), Ed Tooth (drums), Marc Russo (saxophone), Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, co-founder), John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, dobro, fiddle, vocals, core member since 1979) and Bill Payne (keyboards; not in photo)

Given the band’s sophomore and third studio records, respectively, included tracks like Listen To The Music, Rockin’ Down The Highway, Jesus Is Just Alright, Long Train Runnin’, China Grove, South City Midnight Lady and Without You, it’s really no wonder this new  album looks like a greatest hits live compilation. But there is more to picture. Plus, amazingly, even these well-known tunes sound very fresh!

The Doobies’ two concerts at The Beacon Theatre last November marked the first time they returned to the renown venue in 25 years. In addition to the above hits, the set lists included deep cuts and songs the band had never performed live before like Mamaloi, O’Connelly Corners, Ukiah and The Captain And Me. The live album is available in audio and video formats, including CD, DVD and Blue Ray. Let’s listen to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the aforementioned Mamaloi. Written by Patrick Simmons, this tune first appeared on the Toulouse Street album. Check out the harmony vocals – these guys still sound mighty!

Here’s another great track from Toulouse Street, which I don’t believe is very well known: Cotton Mouth. This song was actually penned by Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts, a.k.a. Seals & Crofts. Listen to that beautiful horn work, which together with some funky guitar action give the tune a southern soul flair – fantastic!

Let’s jump to The Captain And Me set. Ever heard of Ukiah? Frankly, I did not recall that tune written by Tom Johnston. Another nice rocker!

Last but not least, I simply couldn’t resist highlighting one of the Doobies’ best known songs, since their Beacon performance is just so damn good and it’s available as a video clip on YouTube: the funky Long Train Runnin’, another Johnston composition. Again, check out the horns on that one – it simply is friggin’ amazing!

Here’s the album’s complete track list:

Disc One: Toulouse Street
1. “Listen To The Music”
2. “Rockin’ Down The Highway”
3. “Mamaloi”
4. “Toulouse Street”
5. “Cotton Mouth”
6. “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’”
7. “Jesus Is Just Alright”
8. “White Sun”
9. “Disciple”
10. “Snake Man”

Disc Two: The Captain And Me
1. “Natural Thing”
2. Band Intros
3. “Long Train Runnin’”
4. “China Grove”
5. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman”
6. “Clear As The Driven Snow”
7. “Without You”
8. “South City Midnight Lady”
9. “Evil Woman”
10. “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners”
11. “Ukiah”
12. “The Captain And Me”

Encore
13. “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)”
14. “Black Water”
15. “Listen To The Music” (Reprise)

The Doobies nicely timed the album’s release with the start of their tour with Carlos Santana. Tonight they’re playing Ridgefield, Wash. This is followed by Salt Lake City (Jul 2), Denver (Jul 3), Dallas (Jul 6) and Austin (Jul 9). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Doobie Brothers website, YouTube

Rolling Stones Can’t Get No Satisfaction And Release New Live Concert Film/Album

I suppose after more than 25 predecessors, it’s fair to ask whether we really need another live album from The Rolling Stones, especially knowing there will never be a repeat of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. As somebody who has enjoyed listening to the Stones for some 40 years, I don’t have a problem with it; while I don’t necessarily love each and every new Stones record, I always find it cool when they release new albums, though it’s safe to assume I’m biased here.

Bridges To Bremen first and foremost is a concert film that’s also available in audio-only formats. It captures the Stones’ full show at Weserstadium in Bremen, Germany on September 2, 1998 during what was the fifth and final leg of their Bridges To Babylon tour. For the most part, it is a collection of the band’s greatest hits, combined with some songs from their then-new album Bridges To Babylon.

Rolling Stones Bridges To Bremen Concert Shot
The Stones in action at Bremen’s Weserstadium (from left): Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

According to the Stones’ website, Ever the innovators, Bridges To Babylon was a tour of firsts – the first time the band went on the road with a permanent B-stage, and also the first time where fans could vote on the band’s website for a track they wanted to hear on the setlist – Memory Motel in the case of the Bremen fans. This concert film has been meticulously restored from the original masters, and the audio remixed and remastered from the live multitrack recordings.

Interestingly, the Stones opted to kick off the show with their best known song that is oftentimes reserved until the end of their concerts: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The tune was first released as a single in the U.S. in June 1965 and was also included on the band’s U.S. version of Out Of Our Heads, their fourth studio release in America. I wouldn’t have called it out, would it not have been for the fact that there are currently only two clips on YouTube from the concert film and I didn’t want to settle for audio clips only. Plus, let’s be honest here, while I must have listened to the friggin’ tune more than one thousand times, I still get a kick watching Keith Richards launch into the song’s signature riff.

The other clip I’d like to highlight is a nice cover of Like A Rolling Stone. Obviously, the band’s formation predates the Bob Dylan tune, so there’s no connection between the song and Stones’ name. In fact, the latter was inspired by a 1950 Muddy Waters track called Rollin’ Stone. Dylan first released Like A Rolling Stone as a single in July 1965. The tune also was included on his fifth studio album Highway 61 Revisited that came out in August that year.

Bridges To Bremen came out today. Here’s the complete track list:

1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
2. Let’s Spend The Night Together
3. Flip The Switch
4. Gimme Shelter
5. Anybody Seen My Baby?
6. Paint It Black
7. Saint Of Me
8. Out Of Control
9. Memory Motel
10. Miss You
11. Thief In The Night
12. Wanna Hold You
13. Its Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)
14. You Got Me Rocking
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. Sympathy For The Devil
17. Tumbling Dice
18. Honky Tonk Women
19. Start Me Up
20. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
21. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
22. Brown Sugar

In addition, the concert film comes with four bonus tracks that were captured in Chicago during the same tour:

1. Rock And A Hard Place
2. Under My Thumb
3. All About You
4. Let It Bleed

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stones website, setlist.fm, YouTube

Keb’ Mo’ Releases Roots-Oriented Album Oklahoma

Keb’ Mo’ fully entered my radar screen only two years ago with TajMo, a collaboration album with Taj Mahal and one of my favorite new records from 2017. My fondness for Mo’ grew further when I saw him together with Mahal during the TajMo supporting tour, one of the greatest shows I’ve been to in recent years. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was full of anticipation about Mo’s new album Oklahoma, which appeared yesterday. Let me say this right upfront: It’s very different from TajMo, but after having listened to the 10 tracks for a few times, I like it and with every additional run-through, I like it even better.

Typically, the Nashville-based guitarist and singer-songwriter whose real name is Kevin Roosevelt Moore, is characterized as a blues artist. But based on my understanding, Mo’ has frequently ventured beyond the blues into other styles like R&B, Americana and roots music. While Oklahoma has some bluesy moments, it primarily falls into the Americana/roots genre.

Keb' Mo' & Dara Tucker
Dara Tucker & Keb’ Mo’

According to Mo’s website, the inspiration for the album’s title track came to Mo’ after he had visited the state for a benefit show in the aftermath of a tornado and seen all the destruction. But it wasn’t until he met American vocalist and Oklahoma native Dara Tucker that the idea of making an album focused on The Sooner State was born. As Mo’s website puts its, Together, they set about to portray the complicated depth of American history played out in her home state. Native American connection and tragedy, natural and man made disasters, incredible musicians and the Tulsa Sound, and western ruggedness and fortitude are all themes.

Initially, Mo’ had set out to make an acoustic solo album, and it wasn’t supposed to be called Oklahoma. “I just wanted some good songs, like I always do—I wanted 10 really good, authentic songs,” Mo told Blues Rock Review. “I had this idea about Oklahoma, and I was like, ‘Oh god, Oklahoma—that’s just crazy. That has nothing to do with me.’ I had a writing session with a writer I’d never written with, Dara Tucker. I said, ‘Where are you from?’ She says, “Oklahoma.” I go, ‘Okay—there might be something with this Oklahoma idea. Let’s just write this idea; I don’t know what’s going to come of it.'”

Well, let’s find out! Here’s the title track co-written by Mo’ and Tucker. The tune features great lap steel guitar playing by Robert Randolph.

Put A Woman In Charge features singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash. The track was co-written by Mo’, John Lewis Parker and Beth Nielsen Chapman. “That was supposed to be a stand-alone single, but I loved the way it turned out, so I had to put it on the album,” Mo’ noted on his website. “I’d never worked with Rosanne before, but somebody suggested that she might like it. She said yes, and she put down her part, and it was just so badass.” The message of the groovy tune is pretty clear. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics.

Way back when/In the beginning of time/Man made the fire then the wheel/Went from a horse to an automobile

He said “the world is mine”/He took the oceans and the sky/He set the borders – build the walls/He won’t stop till he owns it all

And here we are/Standing on the brink of disaster/Enough is enough is enough is enough/I know the answer

Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge…

Since I previously wrote about This Is My Home, one of my favorite tunes on Oklahoma, I’m skipping it here and jump right to Don’t Throw It Away. Co-written by Mo, Charles Esten and Colin Linden, Mo’s friend and the album’s primary producer, with Mo’ co-producing, the bluesy tune about the virtues of recycling features Taj Mahal and is the closest it gets to TajMo.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Ridin’ On A Train, another bluesy tune co-written by Mo’ and Jenny Yates. The song only features Mo’ on vocals and resonator guitar and drummer Marcus Finnie.

Commenting on the album overall on his website, Mo’ said, “I’m more interested in pleasing myself, and making records that make me feel proud and make me feel like I’ve done my best. And if other people like it, that’s gravy.” He further pointed out, “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.”

Oklahoma appears on Concord Records. Mo’ dedicated the album to his late mother, Lauvella Cole, who passed away in September 2018 at the age of 91. Mo’ is currently on the road to support the record. After finishing a U.S. leg, he is headed overseas at the end of the month for a series of dates in Europe, lasting well into the second half July, before returning to the U.S. in late August after taking a break. The full schedule is on his website.

Sources: Wikipedia, Keb’ Mo’ website, Blues Rock Review, Glide Magazine, YouTube

 

Clips & Pix: Carole King/It’s Too Late

This great clip of Carole King performing It’s Too Late is from Live At Montreux 1973, a new released film documenting her concert at the Montreux Pavillon. According to King’s website, this appearance during the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival was her first landmark show outside the United States. Watching this clip just gives me goosebumps.

As previously noted, my older sister introduced me to Carole King as an eight-year-old or so with the Tapestry album, one of the first vinyl records I ever heard. I loved King from the very beginning, even though I couldn’t understand a word she was singing. It didn’t matter. Her powerful voice and beautiful music were more than enough, though of course only add to the timeless classic. I still believe Carole King is one of the best American singer-songwriters I know.

Like most songs from Tapestry, the music for It’s Too Late was written by King. The words are by lyricist Toni Stern, who also wrote or co-wrote the lyrics for several other Carole King songs in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Live At Montreux 1973 is available on DVD, CD and LP.

Sources: Wikipedia, Carole King website, Toni Stern website, YouTube

Peter Frampton Releases Covers Album Featuring His Favorite Blues Classics

Peter Frampton these days seems to get the kind of attention I imagine he hasn’t seen since 1976 when he broke through with Frampton Comes Alive!, one of the most acclaimed live rock albums. Unfortunately, the story has been a mixed bag for the 69-year-old rock guitarist. The good news is his new covers album All Blues, which is out via UMe since yesterday. The not so great side of the story: his recently disclosed diagnosis with inclusion body myositis, a progressive autoimmune disease causing muscle inflammation, weakness and atrophy. Since the condition eventually is likely to prevent Frampton from playing guitar, he decided to do a farewell tour and retire from touring thereafter – and ultimately I guess from music altogether.

But let’s focus on the positive. While by its very nature a covers album doesn’t really present anything new, this is a great collection of classic blues tunes, which nicely displays Frampton’s blues chops. And, btw, he’s a pretty decent vocalist as well. The rock guitarist is getting a little from his friends, including Kim Wilson, Larry Carlton, Sonny Landreth and Steve Morse. All Blues was co-produced by Frampton and Chuck Ainlay, and recorded at Frampton’s studio in Nashville, together with his long-time touring band featuring Adam Lester (guitar, vocals), Rob Arthur (keyboards, guitar, vocals) and Dan Wojciechowski (drums).

Peter Frampton

“I have always loved to play the blues,” Frampton explains on his website. “When we formed Humble Pie, the first material we played together was just that. For the last two summers I had been playing a handful of blues numbers every night on stage with Steve Miller Band. I enjoyed this immensely and it gave me the idea of doing an ‘All Blues’ album live in the studio with my band. We started the resulting sessions nine days after coming off the road last year. Over a two-week period, we recorded 23 tracks, all live in the studio. The energy of these tracks is completely different from building a track one instrument at a time…I’m not sure if you can say we had fun playing the blues. But we definitely did.” With that, let’s get to some it!

Here’s the great opener I Just Want To Make Love To You. Written by Willie Dixon in 1954 and first recorded by Muddy Waters, Frampton’s version features great harmonica playing by Kim Wilson, who is best know as the lead vocalist and frontman of The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Next up: A nice instrumental take of Georgia On My Mind, which was made famous by Ray Charles in 1960. And while as such the tune is mostly associated with Charles, it was actually co-written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930 and first recorded that year. A few weeks ago when I first learned about the album, I read somewhere that when the song was proposed to Frampton, he saw no way his voice could give it justice. But since he digs the tune, he decided to cover it as an instrumental – great choice, I really like Frampton’s tone here!

All Blues, the title track, is another beautiful instrumental. It features guitarist extraordinaire Larry Carlton, who has played with artists like Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, and has been a member of jazz fusion band The Crusaders. All Blues was written by Miles Davis and first appeared on his 1959 album Kind Of Blue. Again, I love the guitar tone on this cover.The smooth jazzy groove is pretty cool as well!

Next up: The Thrill Is Gone, one of my all-time favorite blues tunes I just couldn’t skip. Co-written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951 and first recorded by Hawkins that same year, it became a signature song and major hit for B.B. King in 1970. The thrill is definitely not gone on this great rendition, which features Louisiana blues guitarist Sonny Landreth.

The final track I’d like to call out is Frampton’s cover of I’m A King Bee. In part I decided to select the 1957 Slim Harpo swamp blues classic since it includes what became a distinct feature of Frampton’s sound in the ’70s – a talk box!

Similar to the great new Santana album I reviewed in the previous post (btw, I can’t remember the last Friday that saw the release of two great albums the same day!),  All Blues on some level makes me feel I should see Frampton during his upcoming tour, especially given it looks like it is going to be the last opportunity. But again, it’s the same old dilemma that I simply can’t see everybody I’d like to see, and I’m probably already going beyond what I should do – unfortunately! And while he’s undoubtedly a great guitarist, I’m not sure I’m enough of a Peter Frampton fan to justify buying a ticket.

Frampton’s farewell tour, which has many dates together Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening (sounds like fun to me as well!), kicks off in Tulsa, Olka. on June 18. It won’t be until Sep 13 before they come to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. I guess this means I have some more time to change my mind! 🙂 The current last scheduled show is Oct 12 in Concord, Calif. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Peter Frampton website, JamBase, YouTube