Casey James Finds His Own Voice With New Album

The Texas singer-songwriter leaves his country past in the dust with smoking electric blues

Until a few hours ago, I had never heard of Casey James. Then I coincidentally came across his new album Strip It Down in Apple Music. Now I think I’m a new fan. All it took to get my full attention was to listen to the opening notes of the first track, and I immediately liked what I heard!

Released independently on June 9, Strip It Down is the kind of electric blues that puts a big smile on my face. According James’ web site, blues is the music the 35-year-old from Fort Worth loves, citing Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall II and ZZ Top as key influences. And it shows!

Casey James_American Idol

James initially became known as the third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010. In August that year he signed with Sony Music Nashville. In March 2012, his eponymous album appeared on the BNA Records label. The country-oriented pop rock album was co-produced by Casey and country heavyweight artist and producer Chris Lindsey, who has worked with Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Martina McBride, among others.

But while his debut brought James some success, apparently, it did not bring him happiness as an artist. Explaining the new album’s title, his web bio notes, “It’s titled Strip It Down because it’s exactly what Casey James did – shed off the layers of stylized artistic clothing that he’d been given in those other public ventures to find the real artist underneath, a guy with a convincing, smoky vocal quality and a burning, lyrical skill with a guitar.”

Strip It Down opens with All I Need, a nice blues shredder that does remind me a bit of Vaughan. I could not find a clip of the studio version, but here’s a nice one of a live performance.

Things continue briskly with Bulletproof, a co-write with Tom Hambridge, a country and blues artist and producer, who reportedly has been called the “White Willie Dixon” by Buddy Guy. The tune features Delbert McClinton.

Next up is Hard Times, Heartaches & Scars, where Casey is slowing things down for the first time. The horn accents give this track a nice dose of Memphis soul. I also love the Hammond-style keyboard.

Another great tune is the album’s title track, which apparently is a co-write. Here is a nice clip about the song’s making.

The second soulful tune on the album I’d like to call out is Supernatural. Written by James, it again features great horns, similar to Hard Times, Heartaches & Scars. The track also has great background vocals.

Strip It Down was produced by Hambridge mostly live in a Nashville studio in just four days. Hambridge brought in a top-notch musicians, including guitarists Pat Buchanan and Rob McNelley, bass player Tommy McDonald and keyboarder Kevin McKendree. Most of the songs were recorded in three takes or less. James funded the album through fan contributions with a one-month Kickstarter campaign.

Says James on his web site: “If you were to give me two options – one to have a shot at being famous, but it might mean I never play music again, or the other, to play every single night at bars, I would immediately choose option B. Because I want to play music.” Most importantly, James appears to have finally reached his ultimate goal: being himself.

Sources: Wikipedia, Casey James web site, YouTube

Buckingham/McVie Is Fleetwood Mac Sans Stevie Nicks

New album sticks to Fleetwood Mac’s tried and true pop rock formula

Initially, it was supposed to become the first new studio album of the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup since 1987’s Tango In the Night, after Stevie Nicks had announced plans to work with the band on new music in 2015. Then in Sep 2016, Nicks unexpectedly revealed she was going on the road with the Pretenders in support of her last solo album 24 Karat Gold – Songs From the Vault. So Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, who had started to work together on new material in 2014, decided to forge ahead as a duo, sort of – they did have a little help from their band mates Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.

“I just woke up one morning and said I have two years off before Fleetwood Mac comes knocking on my door [for another tour],” Nicks told The New York Times in Sep 2016, as she was gearing up for her tour with the Pretenders. “Why would I want to sit around and do nothing?” More recently, she voiced doubts there would be another (full) Fleetwood Mac record during an interview with Rolling Stone. “I don’t think there’s any reason to spend a year and an amazing amount of money on a record that, even if it has great things, isn’t going to sell. What we do is go on the road, do a ton of shows and make lots of money. We have a lot of fun. Making a record isn’t all that much fun.” Apparently, her Mac compatriots begged to differ. And the result?

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie in studio

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, which was released on June 9, pretty much sounds like a Fleetwood Mac album without Stevie Nicks. Given what a terrific songwriter she is, not to speak of her distinct voice, I was a bit skeptical what to expect. When listening to the album for the first time, I thought it sounded okay, but none of the ten tracks really stood out to me. After having listened to the record a few more times, I feel it’s solid pop rock. It doesn’t get close to Rumours, my favorite Mac album and one of the best records I know. But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison.

Buckingham/McVie saw the two artists work together on new material for the first time since 1987 – the year Fleetwood Mac released Tango In the Night. Buckingham left in Aug that year and Nicks followed him three years later. In 1997, McVie essentially retired from music after the band’s successful reunion tour with Buckingham and Nicks, which is captured on the fantastic live album The Dance. McVie rejoined Fleetwood Mac in 2014. At that time, Buckingham and Nicks had returned as well, so the band’s classic lineup was finally back together.

Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie in studio 2

In a just-published Rolling Stone story, Buckingham said he noticed “within the first hour” that “it was like, ‘Holy shit, whatever we used to have” was still working. “We’ve always connected musically in Fleetwood Mac,” added McVie, referring to their respective roles as the band’s guitarist and keyboard player. “We’re the only people who play more than one note. I’m not the best pianist, but I know how to interlace around what Lindsey’s playing.”

Explaining their approach to record the new album as a duo as opposed to making an official Fleetwood Mac record, Buckingham noted, “In the context of the band, there might have been more politics.” As the Rolling Stone story pointed out, Buckingham and McVie didn’t have a previous romantic relationship, unlike Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood and Nicks and of course McVie’s marriage to John McVie. “We are free of baggage,” McVie added. With the band’s complicated relationship entanglements out of the way, let’s finally turn to the music!

The album kicks off with Sleeping Around the Corner, a tune Buckingham initially had included as a bonus track on his 2011 solo album Seeds We Sow. The tune starts off in a somewhat grim manner: She called to me, “Meet me at the border”/Oh, wake me up, oh, when my papers are in order. It then launches into a cheerful sounding chorus: “Lord, I don’t wanna bring you down/No, I never meant to give you a frown/I’m just sleepin’ around the corner.” The apparent disconnect between the music and the lyrics isn’t new for Fleetwood Mac. A Rolling Stone review of the album cleverly called it “California sunshine on the surface, but with a heart of darkness.” Okay, I’m not going to over-analyze it!

Next up is Feel About You, one of album’s three Buckingham/McVie co-writes. Here’s a clip from a recent performance on CBS This Morning Saturday.

In My World, the third track, is the album’s lead single. Written by Buckingham, the catchy tune sounds like hit material. Buckingham’s and McVie’ alternating “oh”, “aah”, “oh” are reminiscent of Big Love, one of the many hits from Tango In the Night. Here’s a nice clip from a recent performance on Jimmy Fallon.

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Carnival Begin, one of the two songs solely credited to McVie.

Buckingham/McView was recorded at Studio D at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, the same studio Fleetwood Mac used for the 1979 album Tusk. “There was some worry about whether it was a good idea to come back here,” Fleetwood told the Los Angeles Times in early May. “Maybe it would be better to go someplace new, someplace we hadn’t worked before. But since we started working here, it couldn’t be more fantastic.” As noted at the outset, Fleetwood and John McVie were actively involved in the recording of the album, “the greatest rhythm section there is,” as Buckingham put it.

Speaking of great musicianship, I think Buckingham is an outstanding musician and one of the most underrated guitarists, both electric and acoustic. Like on many Fleetwood Mac albums, sadly, his talent on this record oftentimes gets a bit lost in the production. Perhaps the best way to experience Buckingham’s craftsmanship is to witness it live. In 2014, I saw a Fleetwood Mac show, just a few months prior to McVie rejoining the band. His performance was truly amazing. One of the highlights I still recall was his solo performance of Big Love on acoustic guitar. It was much better than the studio version on Tango In the Night and needed nothing else – no additional instruments, no additional vocals. Check out this clip!

Buckingham/McVie was produced by Buckingham, Mitchell Froom and Mark Needham. Froom has produced more than 60 albums and worked with numerous other top-notch artists, such as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few. He also contributed keyboards on the album. Needham’s impressive credits include Fleetwood Mac (mixing of Say You Will [2003] and Live in Boston [2004]), John Hiatt, Elton John and Stevie Nicks, among others.

Buckingham and McVie will go on the road to promote the new album. The tour, which includes 14 dates, will kick off in Atlanta on June 21 and wrap up in Denver on July 27. On July 15 & 16 and July 29 & 30, they will join their Fleetwood Mac mates for performances at the Classic West and Classic East festivals. For additional thoughts on these events, read here.  Fleetwood Mac is also planning a big tour in 2018. “We’re going to start rehearsing in March, next year,” Christine McVie told NME. “The tour is around June. It will be global.” Separately, she characterized it as a “farewell tour” during an interview with Uncut, but then appeared to caveat it: “But you take farewell tours one at a time. Somehow we always come together, this unit. We can feel it ourselves.”

Finally, here’s a nice clip about the making of Buckingham/McVie.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, YouTube, Los Angeles Times, Lindsey Buckingham web site, NME, Uncut

Rock & Roll Pioneer Delivers Strong Final Bow

One more time Chuck Berry is playing guitar like he’s ringing a bell

While it’s no Berry Is On Top and Chuck Berry didn’t need this final album to establish his incredible legacy, it’s simply a great joy to listen to this record. Released today, Chuck is Berry’s first new record in 38 years and the first new album that appears following his death on March 18 this year.

When Berry announced Chuck on October 18, 2016, his 90th birthday, he obviously knew it was going to be his final record. He had stopped performing in 2014 due to his declining health. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry in the above announcement, referring to Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

chuck_berry

The songs on Chuck are mostly taken from tracks Berry recorded between 1991 and 2014. Released by Dualtone Records, the album was recorded in various studios around Berry’s hometown of St. Louis. All recording work was finished prior to his death.

The record features the Blueberry Hill Band, Berry’s longtime backing group, including Robert Lohr (piano), Jimmy Marsala (bass) and Keith Robinson (drums). Additional musicians include his son Charles Berry Jr. (guitar), his daughter Ingrid Berry (harmonica) and even his grandson Charles III (guitar on Wonderful Woman), as well as Tom Morello (guitar on Big Boys), Nathaniel Rateliff (guitar on Big Boys) and Gary Clark, Jr. (guitar on Wonderful Woman).

Chuck kicks off with Wonderful Woman, a song with a classic Berry groove, featuring his signature guitar sound. Clark Jr., together with Berry’s son and grandson chime in on their guitars as well, making it a tune that features three generations of Berrys, as NPR pointed out.

Big Boys kicks the beat up a notch. Initially released in March as the album’s lead single, the tune is a bit reminiscent of Roll Over Beethoven. Here’s the official video.

3/4 Time (Enchiladas) is a waltz that sounds like it could have been recorded live at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis where Berry used to perform regularly from 1996 to 2014. The song illustrates his sense of humor about getting old: I like enchiladas/old Eldorados they’re shiny/old red guitars, rock & roll, nice girls and wine/that ain’t good for me but people I’m still feeling fine/I just hold on to my guitar and rock it out four, five times/sometimes it gets sideways/I stay up all night writing songs/I know it ain’t healthy/But somehow I keep going on.

Darlin’ is a sweet country ballad a father sings to his daughter, telling her he is getting older each year and that time is passing and getting shorter. Berry’s daughter Ingrid joins him on vocals, adding to the song’s emotional feel.

Another tune I’d like to call out is Lady B. Goode, a follow-up to Johnny B. Goode. The song pretty much has the same iconic guitar opening and a very similar groove driven by guitars and honky tonk-style piano. Like on Wonderful Woman, Berry’s son and grandson support him with their guitars. Lady B. Goode was also released as the album’s third single two weeks ago.

Initial reactions to Chuck are favorable. Rolling Stone calls the album “a classic as he always made them.” To Ultimate Classic Rock, “It’s a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll music — something Berry did better than almost anyone else.” Perhaps NPR sums it up best: “Your mind says “heard that before!” and your body cannot possibly care – because for that moment all that matters is Chuck Berry playing guitar like he’s ringing a bell, affirming the spirit of this music in ways that no performer, of any age, has done before.”

For more on Berry’s legacy read here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Ultimate Classic Rock, NPR, Chuck Berry web site, YouTube

 

Sgt. Pepper Hits 50 And Is Getting Better

Producer Giles Martin and music engineer Sam Okell have created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967

On June 1, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in England. The U.S. release appeared the following day. Since so much has been written about the history of the groundbreaking album, I won’t repeat it and instead focus on the 50th anniversary special edition, which appeared yesterday (May 26). The impressive reissue comes in four different configurations, including a double LP-set I’m proud to own – my first new vinyl in 30 years!

No matter whether or not you agree with Rolling Stone’s bold assessment that Sgt. Pepper “is the most important rock & roll album ever made,” there can be no doubt it’s one of the most famous records of all time. And an album that took recording innovations The Beatles had introduced on their previous studio album Revolver to the next level and completed their transformation into an all-studio band. So why did Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, make the gutsy decision to tinker with it? In a nutshell, he wanted to improve the listening experience of the album’s most common version, the stereo mix.

“In 1967, all care to attention and detail were applied to making the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all mixes,” explains Martin in the liner notes of the reissue [note: I can only quote the liner notes for the deluxe vinyl set, since I don’t own any of the other three configurations]. “Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without them. Yet it is the stereo version that most people listen to today. After forensically working out what the team had been up to when mixing the mono album, engineer Sam Okell and I set out about creating a new stereo version by returning to the original four-track tapes. We soon realised why we were doing this. The music recorded five decades ago sounds both contemporary and timeless; trapped in a time-lock waiting to pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.”

Sgt. Pepper 2

Martin’s comments are a nice way of saying that the previous stereo remix, while representing an improvement over the original rather poor stereo version, still by far did not come close to the mono version. Essentially, his goal was to create a new stereo mix that preserves the best elements of the mono version, which is widely considered to be the best mix. So how did he do?

My point of reference is what must be the initial “bad” stereo mix, which I’ve owned on vinyl since my teenage years, not the mono version. I also should mention my home stereo and loudspeakers are not high-end equipment. Even with all these caveats, and I’m afraid partial hearing loss from my long ago band days as a bassist, there are definitely some obvious improvements I’ve noticed. Getting a good set of headphones would probably reveal more.

One of the things The Beatles’ record engineers did to quickly create stereo mixes back in the ’60s was to put all or most of the vocals on one channel and most of the instruments on the other channel. Unfortunately, this oftentimes made the singing less forceful and muffled some of the music. One of tunes where this is very obvious is the album’s title song. For the remix, Paul McCartney’s lead vocals were moved to the center, making it more like a mono version, which substantially adds to its dynamic.

Another notable difference between the two vinyl stereo mixes I own is that the instruments have a clearer and more vibrant sound on the new version. Good examples are the horns in the title song, Ringo Starr’s drums in With a Little Help From My Friends and McCartney’s bass in Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. “My father had to record everything on a four track,” explained Martin in an interview with NPR, conducted ahead of the remix’s release. “And that was bounced to another four-track. [Each time sounds are bounced to another tape the sound degrades]. What we do is we go back to the previous generation, so we’re mixing off generations of tape that they never mixed off…What was recorded in ’67 sounds pure and crystal clear — there’s not any hiss or anything.”

Sgt. Pepper 3

In addition to the stereo remix, all configurations of the special anniversary release include earlier versions of the songs. In the case of the vinyl set, it’s one earlier take of each song, with the tracks being arranged in the same order than on the final album. I think it’s safe to say these earlier takes are primarily meaningful to true Beatles fans, less to casual listeners.

Comparing the takes with the final versions certainly is fascinating to me. But I think I’m okay with one alternate take per song and don’t need to have multiple earlier versions. Perhaps the most notable example on the vinyl set is take 1 of A Day In the Life, in which the final E note is hummed by “The Beatles and friends gathered around a microphone,” as the liner notes describe it. But even after overdubbing, the humming was a mismatch to the preceding climax of the orchestra. Therefore, it “was replaced by a cavernous E major chord struck on a variety of keyboards.”

What I find even more intriguing than the unfinished tracks is listening to the conversations right before and after the takes between (George) Martin and The Beatles and among members of the band. One cool example occurs right after Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, when McCartney demonstrates to John Lennon an alternative rhythm to sing the line Cellophane flowers of yellow and green. It’s a nice illustration how the two truly collaborated in harmony, something that would start to unravel only a few months later after Beatles manager Brian Epstein had passed away.

George and Giles Martin

The remix of Sgt. Pepper was not Martin’s first foray into Beatles territory. In 2006, he collaborated with his father on Love, which is part soundtrack to the theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil and part remix album. In fact, as George noted in a 2007 interview with Sound on Sound, he had given up recording because of bad hearing, but when McCartney, Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono approached him about the project, he couldn’t refuse. “But I couldn’t have done it without Giles. He’s my ears.” In 2009, Giles produced the music for the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. He also was executive producer for McCartney’s 2013 studio album New.

The above poses the question whether Martin has any plans to remix other Beatles albums that will hit their 5oth anniversary over the next couple of years. “I don’t know,” he told The Independent. “I speak to Paul or Olivia Harrison or Ringo and Yoko [Ono] about this…We all talk about what’s the right thing to do morally. It’s not a question of keeping the brand going or shifting units…There’s so much love for it that if people want it… I mean, The White Album turns 50 next year which actually, to be honest, I’d love to have a go at mixing. There’s a weird moral context behind this: the mono of Sgt. Pepper’s is the definitive version and the studio was done very quickly, but you can’t say that about The White Album as it was mixed very quickly in different rooms by different people. I think if there’s a desire for it, then yes is the answer…But it’s not my decision. If people want me to work, I’ll work.”

Sources: Wikipedia; liner notes, Sgt. Pepper deluxe 2-LP vinyl package; The Beatles web site; NPR “All Songs Considered”; Sound on Sound; The Independent

UK Band Determined to Defy ‘Death of Rock Era’

Junk Antique’s debut album proves rock & roll isn’t dead yet

This post is different from anything I’ve done on the blog so far. It all started about 10 days ago when I received a brief introductory email from Nix Dadry, who encouraged me to check out a YouTube clip of a song from a new UK rock band called Junk Antique. I did, liked what I heard and started engaging with Dadry in a back-and-forth via mail. And voila!

But before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that Dadry didn’t ask me for any favor, and I don’t expect anything in return for writing this post. I also don’t know whether this may lead to interviews with additional up-and-coming music artists. It’s certainly not what I had in mind when starting the blog. My writing is really all about my passion for real music – past and present (okay, mostly past!) – that involves artists who are true musicians playing real instruments! With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it!

Junk Antique, which hails from London, was formed in 2015. Dadry told me some of the artists they like include Guns N’ Roses, The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Jack White, Sheryl Crow, The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Led Zeppelin – in other words all members of what nowadays increasingly seems to be a dying breed called real musicians who are true craftsmen!

The YouTube clip that led to all of this is the album’s opener Black Cocaine. After listening to the tune’s opening guitar riff, which reminded me a bit of Metallica, my first thought was, ‘sounds grungy and a bit grim’ – after all, based on the title, you wouldn’t expect a sweet love song! But then a few things happened that got my full attention and made me realize Junk Antique is more than a one-trick pony.

While Black Cocaine has a grungy sound, it’s not as hard-edged as some of the other grunge I had heard before – so it’s definitely closer to Lenny Kravitz than Green Day, especially their older stuff. Then came the chorus. It immediately struck me as both dark and catchy at the same time. ‘Okay, that’s kind of cool,’ I said to myself. And just after I thought I had finally figured out the song, something else occurred that was unexpected – a bongo-like percussion part. Now I was definitely intrigued!

I started to google Junk Antique and quickly got to SoundCloud where they’ve uploaded the entire album. The 10-track set offers a nice variety of songs ranging from rockers like Black Cocaine and Push the Domino to quieter tunes like Rats N’ Frogs and A Girl. These guys sound like they’ve played together for many years, not exactly what you typically expect from a band on their debut album. And, best of all, the bongos on Black Cocaine are not the only surprise.

I’d like to touch on a few tunes that stand out to me for different reasons. There is the already mentioned Rats N’ Frogs, an acoustic mid-tempo song. It features an Arabic tambourine played by young percussionist Joelle Barker – not exactly an instrument you’d expect in rock!  It sounds a bit like castanets, which together with the rhythm give the song some Spanish flair.

Be Somewhere Else is a nice mid-tempo pop rock tune featuring two excellent back-up vocalists, Natalie Brown and Adele Bailey. Brown sings the verses, while Bailey comes in on the chorus. They are a great match with Dadry’s lead vocals.

Another tune I’d like to call out is the album’s title song. It incorporates some sitar sounding accents (played on keys), which together with background percussion create a somewhat mystical touch. While surprising at first sight, it’s actually not so much on closer scrutiny – Dadry’s ethnic background is Indian, plus he loves George Harrison! I also like how the song’s dynamic is building.

The album was co-produced by Dadry and Dan Willett, a recording engineer at Univibe Audio studios in Birmingham, England, where the album was also recorded. Willett, who primarily specializes in rock and metal genres, is also a professional bass player. In addition to the above, other musicians on the album include the drummer and keyboard player Fez. Junk Antique hasn’t named the drummer, since they’re not sure whether he is going to join them permanently. The band is also looking to add a lead guitarist.

Junk Antique

So what else would I like to say about Junk Antique? Following are some excerpts from my email interview with Dadry.

The band’s name is unusual. Does it have a particular meaning?

Well, the second song on the album has the same title. We decided on using it as a band name because it conjures up something retro, vintage, classy and trashy. 

Are you looking for any sort of record deal?

With the way the industry has become, we’re not sure yet. It’s in free fall. I’d be great to get some backing and distribution from people who understand us. We truly believe our songs are very strong and would do well, but the world’s gone mad with judging everything on popularity with social media instead of merit. [So true!]

In addition to that, we’re not playing trendy music! But I’m proud we’re not fickle. I think we’d do a lot better in the US and Canada because of our influences.

In addition to SoundCloud and Bandcamp, are you looking to other channels where people can listen to and buy your music, such as iTunes or Spotify?

We’d like to get them on iTunes. Not sure about Spotify but we need to build some interest first. Otherwise the record will just sit there.

Are you touring in support of the album, locally or regionally?

We’re gonna focus on London and Birmingham as that’s where we have a crowd. Kinda starting afresh and still in the middle of rehearsals.

Do you have any more music in the works?

We have about nine new songs so far. These could make a new album or 2 EPs.

I’ve also written two songs for Jack White and Lenny Kravitz, respectively. The one for Jack is a deliberate skeleton because I know what he would do with it using his wizardry. The one for Lenny is an old solo song I recorded and we play it live at present. If he reworked it by adding horns and his vocals, it could be amazing. 

Do you agree with some of the “old rockers,” who basically say the rock era is over?

I understand why the older legends…may feel this way. Especially as there hasn’t been another rock revolution since grunge. However, I’m not only optimistic but I’m defiant! Even though I love & respect musicians who can evolve with changing styles, such as David Bowie, U2 and Prince, I strongly believe that artists need to be sincere with what they do. Not jump on bandwagons.

I absolutely love Springsteen & The E Street Band, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s. But we’re not revivalists! We also believe this whole isn’t about genre. I haven’t heard enough good soul or hip-hop from modern acts either! What music is missing in the mainstream is: Balls, Grit, Good Lyrics, Groove – that bite and knockout punch that people like myself heard the first time I encountered Public Enemy, Gun N’ Roses and Jack White.

Amen to that!

Sources: Nix Dadry, YouTube, SoundCloud, Junk Antique web site and Facebook page, Dan Willet web site

Little Steven’s New Album Rocks & Souls on Six Cylinders

Van Zandt’s first solo album in nearly 18 years is a great collection of horn-accented rock and a couple of surprises.

When I listened to the title song of Steven Van Zandt’s new album Soulfire, which was released as the record’s lead single a couple of weeks ago, my first thoughts were his guitar gig with the E Street Band and his fantastic radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. The fact Van Zandt does his own music wasn’t on my radar screen. Perhaps that’s not such a big surprise, given Soulfire is Little Steven’s first solo album since 1999’s Born Again Savage. But what a terrific return!

From the great opener (title song) to the last tune Ride the Night Away, it’s simply a joy to listen to Soulfire, which takes you on a trip back to the ’60s, rock with plenty of horn accents, as well as some blues, R&B and even doo-wop. “For those who are familiar with my work, Soulfire is a return to how most people identify me, which is that soul-meets-rock thing,” Van Zandt told Billboard. As noted above, admittedly, I only had limited knowledge of his impressive work, so I definitely had and still have some catching up to do!

Steven Van Zandt Soulfire 2

Soulfire is a collection of songs Van Zandt has written or co-written over the past four decades, supplemented with a few covers. To me the standout among the latter is his take of the James Brown tune Down and Out in New York City. When I heard the beginning for the first time, I was like, ‘wait a moment, what just happened?’ The percussion and the wah-wah guitar sound like the start of a Barry White grove. I could literally picture White’s deep voice coming on next – very cool!

“I love the blaxploitation genre,” Van Zandt explained to Elmore Magazine. “We do a special on the radio show every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we call it ‘Blaxploitation Friday.’…….We did it for BluesFest, came up with a really cool groove and a new horn line and made it our own.” Apart from being a great version, the tune also showcases Van Zandt’s versatility.

Blues Is My Business, written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and initially performed by Etta James, is another terrific cover. I like the way USA Today characterized the song: “Nothing else on Soulfire so clearly traces his key roots, including an introductory riff that echoes Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and a slamming bass and guitar groove grounded in Otis Redding’s and Carla Thomas’ Tramp.” The way Van Zandt sings the song, the great background vocals and the groove also remind me a bit of Joe Cocker.

Five songs on Soulfire go back to Van Zandt’s time with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a band he co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced. Some of these tunes include I Don’t Want to Go Home, the title song from the Jukes’ 1976 debut album; Love on the Wrong Side of Town, a co-write with Bruce Springsteen that appeared on This Time It’s For Real (1977); and I’m Coming Back, from the Jukes’ 1991 release Better Days.

Standing in the Line of Fire is a great version of the title song of Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1984 album, which Van Zandt co-produced with Bond. Soulfire is a perfect opener that sets the album’s tone. The intro with its funky guitar and pumping rhythm immediately draw you in. “I wrote it several years ago with one of the Breakers, a Danish band on my label Wicked Cool,” Van Zandt told Rolling Stone. “The song felt like the obvious centerpiece of an album that is conceived to not only reintroduce myself as an artist, but also serve as a summary of a lifetime of work.”

Another standout on the album is The City Weeps Tonight, which illustrates Van Zandt’s appreciation of doo-wop music, a genre he also likes to play on his great radio show. In fact, in 1973, he even toured with a doo-wop band, The Dovells. Initially, Van Zandt had planned to include the tune on his 1982 debut album Men Without Women but didn’t finish it at the time.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul

I realize I’m already very deep into this post without having said a word about Little Steven’s backup band: The Disciples of Soul. Van Zandt initially put the band together for his debut solo album. They were also prominent on his 1994 follow-up Voice of America. Last year, he reformed the Disciples. Other than the fact that it’s a 15-piece band he put together to record the new album during a break between the European and Australian legs of Springsteen’s last tour, I couldn’t find any information on the current lineup. What I can safely say is the Disciples are a killer band!

In addition to his solo music and Little Steven’s Underground Garage, there are are so many more sides to Van Zandt that it’s pretty much impossible to give him full justice in one post – from political activist to TV actor and producer to philanthropist – so I’m not even gonna try. Let’s just say, Van Zandt wears many different hats or perhaps more appropriately bandanas. This certainly at least in part explains why it almost took him 20 years to release a new solo album.

Little Steven also always has something interesting to say about music. So what’s his take on the status of rock? “I call it an endangered species,” he told Billboard in the above interview. “The rock era is over. I clock it from [Bob Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” [1965, added for context] to the death of Kurt Cobain [1994, added for context], which was almost exactly 30 years. At that point we returned to a pop era and rock returned to being a cult, which, to be honest, is probably where it belongs. It was never meant to really be the mainstream. We just staged a coup d’état on the charts in the mid-’60s.”

As big rock fan, I hate to admit Van Zandt pretty much nailed it with his above comments. And while he doesn’t believe rock will come back “because the infrastructure that created rock is no longer there,” I’d like to stay a bit more optimistic – maybe there is also a dose of naivete. As long as we have guys like Van Zandt, the Boss, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, to name a few, rock isn’t dead yet. Hopefully, these artists will inspire more younger musicians to take the torch – obviously big shoes to fill!

Steven Van Zandt

Van Zandt will shortly embark on a tour to support Soulfire. According to the tour schedule on his web site, things will kick off next Sat, May 27, at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., a great venue I visited myself for another show last month. Interestingly, this already sold out gig appears to be the only planned performance in the U.S. thus far. Van Zandt & The Disciples will then take the show to Europe, where they are slated to play 17 dates across the continent in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, to name some. The current last date is the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway on Aug 5.

Here’s a clip of a nice live performance of Soulfire, which appears to have been captured last October at London BluesFest in the U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Elmore Magazine, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Little Steven’s web site, YouTube

 

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Team Up For Uplifting Blues Album

What do you get when Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ get together? TajMo and a great dose of beautiful music!

Unless I know of a newly released album that interests me, I usually don’t bother browsing the “new music” section in iTunes. Well, this morning I did so anyway and came across TajMo, a new album from Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. And it’s a true gem!

Perhaps the first thing that’s striking about TajMo, which was released on May 5, is its upbeat music – not exactly how you traditionally picture the blues! “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal in an interview posted on the web site that supports the album. “It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” He added, “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do.”

While the two artists have known each other for a long time and Mahal helped Mo’ get his first record deal, this is their first collaboration album. What took them so long? Well, for one, both have been busy with their own careers. Since his 1980 debut Rainmaker, which appeared under his actual name Kevin Moore, Mo’ has released 14 additional albums. The last one was That Hot Pink Blues Album from April 2016. Mahal’s most recent solo album (his 26th) Maestro dates back to 2008. Additionally, both artists kept busy with touring. Sometimes good things take time to happen!

“The making of this record spanned two and a half years, whenever we could get together between tours,” Mo’ said during the above interview on the album’s web site. “And over that two and a half years, I got to know Taj really well. We’d talk about music and life and what we were doing on the record. He’s a stellar human being, just a brilliant man. Making this record was a really big deal for me. I learned a lot working with him.” Added Mahal, “Keb’s really good at keeping the ball up in the air. I got to see quite a few sides of him, and I was really impressed. He’s a hell of a guitar player, and I’m just amazed at some of the stuff that he put out there.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo 3

The album kicks off with Don’t Leave Me Here, which has a cool grove with Memphis style horns and a great blues harp, with Mahal and Mo’ taking turns on lead vocals. Shake Me In Your Arms is a great old-school soul tune featuring Joe Walsh on guitar. Another standout is Soul, which provides a nice dose of Afro-Caribbean grove – an invitation to get up and dance!

The album also includes various terrific covers. One is Squeeze Box, a song from The Who I’ve always loved. Mahal and Mo’ truly make it their own, turning it into a Cajun-style tune. Another cover I’d like to call out is Waiting On the World to Change, my favorite John Mayer song. While I’m a huge fan of the original, after listening to Mahal and Mo’, I can’t help but think these guys were meant to sing this song. Further kicking it up a notch for me is Bonnie Raitt on background vocals.

In addition to Walsh and Raitt, other guest musicians on the album include Sheila E. and Liz Wright. TajMo was self-produced by the two blues men. The album was recorded in Nashville by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner and mixed by Ross Hogarth.

I think No Depression’s take sums it up nicely: “This is how you create a masterpiece, layering it slowly and carefully. Two and a half years in the making, pieced together in Mo’s home studio between tours, the record sounds like one special night when the planets were perfectly aligned and the artists and the sound man was too. But the real beauty of this creation is that this creature won’t give you nightmares, and in this story, the night never ends.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo Concert Poster

Mahal and Mo’ will criss-cross the U.S. and play 39 shows in support of the album. The tour kicks off in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30 and concludes in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on Oct 28. After listening to this album, I couldn’t resist to get a ticket for Aug 10, when they’ll play the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa – not exactly next door for me, but I’m already excited and will be sure to blog about the show.

Here’s a clip of Don’t Leave Me Here.

Sources: American Songwriter, TajMo web site, American Blues Scene, Glide Magazine, No Depression (The Journal of Roots Music), Wikipedia, YouTube