My Playlist: Fastball

When I recall a song I haven’t heard in ages, I tend to revisit the band or artist who performed it, especially if I don’t know them well beyond a tune or two. That’s what happened with Fastball when I remembered The Way the other day and included the cool tune in my last Sunday Six feature. After sampling a bunch of other songs from different albums by the American alternative-rock-turned-power pop band, I liked what I heard and decided to put together this profile and playlist.

Fastball were formed in 1994 in Austin, Texas by Tony Scalzo (vocals, bass, keyboards, guitar), Miles Zuniga (vocals, guitar) and Joey Shuffield (drums, percussion). After Shuffield had introduced Zunigo to Scalzo who had been with California group The Goods, the three of them decided to start their own group.

Following a series of names, including Star 69, Magneto, Magneto USA, Ed Clark’s Business Bible and Starchy, they decided on Fastball. What appears to be a baseball metaphor is definitely more memorable than some of the other names they had considered. Fastball managed to quickly gain popularity in the Austin music scene. After a local journalist had seen them perform, they brought them to the attention of Hollywood Records, which led to a record deal soon thereafter.

Up to that point, Fastball’s story almost looked like a fairytale. Other bands struggle for years to sign with a label if they ever get that far. But the Texas group’s ride wouldn’t be without bumps. While their debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996 yielded a win in the “Best Pop Band” category at the Austin Music Awards (tied with The Wannabes, another Austin group), the record sold poorly (about 5,500 copies as of April 1998). Suddenly, the future was wide open, to creatively borrow from Tom Petty, and all of the band’s members felt compelled to keep their day jobs.

Then came their break – again, something many music artists never get. And it was a big one. In February 1998, Fastball released the above-mentioned The Way, the lead single of their then-upcoming sophomore album All the Pain Money Can Buy. The Way, which only was the group’s second single, hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, as well as in Canada on both the mainstream and alternative rock charts. Overseas, it also reached no. 7 in Sweden and no. 21 in the UK.

By September, only six months after its release, All the Pain Money Can Buy had sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, thus reaching Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Interestingly, the album “only” reached no. 29 on the Billboard 200. It did better in Canada where it climbed to no. 18 and also charted in a few European countries. Fastball had arrived. But their commercial and chart performance would be short-lived – again, an all-too-familiar playbook in the brutal music business.

In September 2000, Fastball’s third album appeared. It was appropriately titled The Harsh Light of Day. While it received positive reviews, once again, it turned out to be a record that didn’t sell well. As of January 2004, sales totaled a mere 84,000 copies – definitely a harsh drop compared to the predecessor’s million units sold in just six months! It also was the group’s last album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 97.

Despite lacking chart and commercial success, Fastball managed to soldier on. They remain active to this day in their original line-up and have since released four additional studio albums. Their catalog also includes two live records and a compilation. I’d say the time has come to take a closer look at some of their songs. And there’s definitely more to this band than The Way.

I’d like to do this in chronological order starting with Fastball’s debut album Make Your Mama Proud from April 1996. Compared to their sophomore record, the songs on their debut effort sound a bit rawer and remind me a little of Green Day’s 1994 album Dookie. Here’s the title track, written by Scalzo.

Turning to Fastball’s hugely successful second album All the Pain Money Can Buy, I’m skipping The Way, since I just covered it (though the tune is included in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post). Instead, I’d like to highlight Out of My Head, the only other song that had sounded vaguely familiar when checking out the band’s music. Penned by Scalzo, the song also became the third single off the album and the last to make the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 20 – interestingly outperforming The Way, which missed the U.S. mainstream chart but as noted above was pretty successful elsewhere.

You’re an Ocean is a catchy pop-rock tune from Fastball’s third album The Harsh Light of Day, the last appearing on the band’s original label Hollywood Records. Once again, the song was written by Scalzo. The record featured some notable guests, including Billy Preston and Brian Setzer.

In June 2004, Fastball released their fourth album. Previously, they had signed with new record label Rykodisc. The record was mixed by Bob Clearmountain who is known for having worked with major acts like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Toto and Bon Jovi. Two tracks, Someday and Red Light, were produced by Adam Schlesinger who among others founded Fountains of Wayne. Here’s Someday written by Miles Zuniga – nice power pop! The album did not chart.

The Beatlesque The Malcontent (The Modern World) is from Fastball’s fifth studio album Keep Your Wig On that came out in April 2009. The band had switched labels, and the record appeared on MRI/RED Distribution. It was co-produced by Miles Zuniga and CJ Eiriksson, with mixing once again done by Bob Clearmountain.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Friend or Foe, the opener of Fastball’s seventh and most recent studio album The Help Machine from October 2019. The song was written by Zuniga. The record appeared on the group’s own 33 1/3 label.

It’s a pity Fastball have largely been under the radar screen for the past 20 years or so. I find their melodic rock and power pop that oftentimes is reminiscent of The Beatles and Badfinger enjoyable. Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above and some additional tunes by the group.

“When I look at our catalog, there’s not a bad record in there,” notes drummer Joey Shuffield in the band’s online bio, “We’ve been through our ups and downs, but I think we’ve really found our groove over the last few years.”

“We spent a lot of time on a major label, so initially the transition back to being an indie band was a little bumpy,” Shuffield further points out. “But now it feels comfortable being responsible for everything ourselves, because that way we’re more likely to get it right. We’re all so into the music now, and I think you can hear that on the last couple of albums.”

Adds Tony Scalzo: “It’s only natural that you get better at what you do as you get older and more experienced. But you can’t always figure that out when you’re in your 20s. Now that we’re on our own label, the pressure’s all on us, and that’s fine. All I ever really wanted was a consistent creative outlet, and we’ve got that now.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Fastball website; YouTube; Spotify

Dion Releases Incredible Blues Album

Blues With Friends features Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, John Hammond, Samantha Fish and other impressive guests

Dion DiMucci hasn’t exactly been on my radar screen. While I knew and have always liked his early ’60s hits like Runaround Sue and The Wanderer and was aware that he is revered among many artists, I simply didn’t follow him. I also had no idea that Dion had turned to the blues in more recent years – until Friday when I coincidentally came across his new album Blues With Friends, a true gem I could see win blues awards.

Released on June 5, the record features guests like Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Sonny Landreth and Samantha Fish. And the list goes on and on. If you’re cynical, you might say, ‘sure, we’ve seen this before, an aging rocker is getting some help from big name friends.’ But once you start listening to the album, this feels different.

To start with, Dion who is turning 81 years in just a little over a month on July 18, still has a compelling voice. He is not outshined by his formidable guests. It’s also noteworthy this record isn’t a collection of blues covers. These are 14 original songs, of which Dion co-wrote 13 tunes, mostly with Mike Aquilina.

And then there’s this excerpt from the liner notes: Dion knows how to sing, and he knows just the right way to craft these songs, these blues songs. He’s got some friends here to help him out, some true luminaries. But in the end, it’s Dion by himself alone, and that masterful voice of his that will keep you returning to share these Blues songs with him. The author? Bob Dylan. I guess it’s time for some music!

Blues Comin’ On is the excellent opener featuring some sizzling slide guitar action by Joe Bonamassa. All of the tracks I’m highlighting in this post were co-written by Dion and Aquilina. This one has a Gary Moore feel!

Let’s move on to some rockabilly: Uptown Number 7. And who better to have as a guest guitarist on this one than Brian Setzer! “I wanted to write an old-fashioned gospel number in the style of the Golden Gate Quartet,” explains Dion in a press release. “I wanted this one to be about moving forward in the spiritual life… having a goal…facing temptations along the way. So, I put it all on a train, because that’s what New Yorkers do if they want to get anywhere: they take the train.”

One of the sonic highlights on the album, perhaps not surprisingly, is when Jeff Beck does his guitar magic: Can’t Start Over Again. “My earliest influences were country blues, especially Hank Williams,” explains Dion. “Any money I earned I took to the neighborhood record store, where the owner used to razz me about my “hillbilly” tastes. I guess I still have that hillbilly inside. For my last album I wrote a song called ‘I Can’t Go Back to Memphis,’ but I go back there with this number. It’s about love and loss and heartache, the classic themes. I believe it’s a true blues song.”

Next up: My Baby Loves to Boogie, featuring John Hammond on harmonica. “John Hammond and I go back to the ’60s at the Gaslight coffee house in Greenwich Village,” Dion points out. “I’ve always admired John. He’s a dear friend. I played him this song and he said he heard harp on it. Well, friends, now you could hear exactly what he was talking’ about. It sounds like ‘Boogie Beyond.'”

A particular moving and beautiful tune is Song For Sam Cooke (Here in America). “I wrote this tune back many years ago,” Dion recalls. “At first I just had the melody and the refrain ‘Here in America.’ A friend suggested I use an episode from my memoir about walking southern streets with Sam Cooke in 1962. I finished the song, but it felt too personal, so I put it aside. Then in 2019 I saw the movie Green Book and after that I couldn’t shake the song.” Sadly, the lyrics remain relevant in present-day America. Paul Simon proves to be a great guest to help bring the song to life. Here’s the official video for the tune.

I’d like to close with What If I Told You, a great tune featuring hot guitar work by Samantha Fish. “Same old story: suspicion,” comments Dion. “The challenge is to make it new and fresh and I think I did. If I put out the same amount of energy and emotion that Samantha Fish put into this song, I wouldn’t be able to walk for three weeks. EPIC!!!”

“I wanted an album of songs that were strong and memorable and told stories that were worth telling,” says Dion. “The blues have been at the heart of my music since the early 1960s. ‘The Wanderer’ is a twelve-bar blues and I was covering Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed in my early years at Columbia – much to the dismay of my corporate masters.”

Blues With Friends was produced by Wayne Hood and appears on Keeping The Blues Alive Records, a new label started by Joe Bonamassa and his manager Roy Weisman. It’s an offshoot of Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation, Bonamassa’s non-profit that aims to conserve the art of music and the rich culture and history of the blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Dion DiMucci website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I could have called this latest installment of the recurring feature best of what’s new in blues. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may have read this sentiment before: In my opinion, unlike classic rock, the blues remains as vibrant as ever. And this, my friends, makes me a very happy camper!

Are you ready for some good ole’ blues, featuring three veterans and three younger female artists? Ready or not, here we go! Coz, to creatively borrow from the American blues artist who was known as Little Milton, hey, hey, the blues is alright, alright (alright), alright (alright) every day and night.

Joe Louis Walker/Blues Comin’ On

How can you go wrong with a guy named Joe Louis Walker and a tune called Blues Comin’ On? From his web bio: Joe Louis Walker, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee and four-time Blues Music Award winner celebrates a career that exceeds a half a century…A true powerhouse guitar virtuoso, unique singer and prolific songwriter, he has toured extensively throughout his career, performed at the world’s most renowned music festivals, and earned a legion of dedicated fans…Born on December 25, 1949 in San Francisco, at age 14, he took up the guitar. Just two years later, he was a known quantity on the Bay Area music scene, playing blues with an occasional foray into psychedelic rock. For a while, he roomed with Mike Bloomfield, who introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Okay, I have to say I feel a bit ignorant that I don’t recall having heard of this blues veteran before who released his debut Cold Is the Night in 1986. Blues Comin’ On, which features Eric Gales and Dion DiMucci, is the title track of his most recent 26th album that was released on June 5. Dion co-wrote the tune with Mike Aquilina and included his own version on his Blues With Friends album, which interestingly also came out on June 5.

Dion/Bam Bang Boom

Obviously, I couldn’t ignore the above noted Blues With Friends by “The Wanderer” Dion, who after a 63-year career is still marching strong. With those friends including the likes of Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Sonny Landreth, Brian Setzer, Joe Louis Walker and Bruce Springsteen, this surely looks like a killer album! Dion has been active since 1957 and is turning 81 years on July 18 – holy cow, how many other artists can you name with such a long career! And, boy, does he still sound great! “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?” is how Dion confidently summed up the record in a statement. Here’s Bam Bang Boom featuring Billy Gibbons. “Billy Gibbons was a joy to work with on this,” noted Dion in the same statement. “There’s nobody like him.” This surely sounds sweet – damn!

Gina Sicilia/Love Me Madly

Gina Sicilia is a 35-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Newtown, Pa. Characterizing her music as blues, roots, Americana, soul and R&B, Wikipedia notes Sicilia began singing at 6 years old performing at local talent shows and by the age of 12 she began writing songs. At 14 years old she became interested in blues and classic soul music and decided to pursue singing in that genre. Sicilia’s debut album Allow Me to Confess came out in 2007. She has since released eight additional albums. Love Me Madly is her most recent, which appeared on May 29. Here’s the soulful title track, co-written by her and the album’s producer Cody Dickinson. He is also a member of North Mississippi Allstars, a Southern blues rock band he formed together with his brother Luther Dickinson. I really dig Sicilia’s vocals. Gosh, I can hear some Anita Baker in here!

Dani Wilde/Brave

Here’s another female performer with a compelling voice: 34-year-old Dani Wilde from the village of Hullavington, England. Well, whatever they may have in their water there, it doesn’t seem to damage the vocal chords! According to her website, Over the past 10 years Blues and Country singer-songwriter Dani Wilde has performed at thousands of venues and festivals across Europe, America, Canada and Africa; from the main stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall, to the slum communities of Kenya, to Times Square – New York City…In September 2015, Wilde was awarded ‘Best Female Vocalist” at the British Blues Awards. Wilde has released four studio solo albums to date, starting with Heal My Blues in 2008. Written by Wilde and released on May 6, Brave his her latest single. The tune is dedicated to healthcare professionals and other essential workers around the globe. “I wanted to maintain the organic raw emotion of the blues whilst also taking inspiration from traditional popular song arrangements,” Wilde told Blues Matters. “I love how artists like Patty GriffinPaul Simon and John Mayer take the blues but fuse it with Americana and popular song to create something beautiful.”

Eliza Neals/Black Crow Moan

From her website: Eliza Neals is a prolific songwriter, confident producer, arranger, bandleader, pianist, and one-of-a-kind live performer…Eliza’s history of performing/opening for legendary musicians goes back many years from Detroit’s songwriting godfather Barrett Strong to George Clinton, The Four TopsKenny OlsonMike ZitoTommy CastroWalter TroutPoppa ChubbyAlbert CastigliaMicki Free, Victor Wainwright and recently Blues Foundation HOF man Joe Louis Walker. Kind of ironical – until today, I had not been aware of Walker, and now he seems to be everywhere. I suppose this only confirms my prior ignorance! Black Crow Moan is the title track of Neals’ most recent studio album that was released on April 6; if I interpret it correctly, it’s her seventh. And, yes, you guessed it correctly, the tune features Walker – okay, keep rubbing it in my face!

Mick Clarke/Snappin’ at Your Heel

Let’s wrap things up with another blues veteran: British blues guitarist Mick Clarke, who began his career in 1968 as co-founder of blues rock band Killing Floor. They recorded two albums until their break-up in mid-1972. In 2002, the original line-up reunited. The band remains active with Clarke and Bill Thorndycraft (vocals, harmonica) as original members. During the ’70s, Clarke was also involved in two other bands, Salt and Ramrod, before forming The Mick Clarke Band in the early ’80s. His first solo album Looking For Trouble came out in 1986. Snappin’ at Your Heel is from Clarke’s most recent album Big Wheel released on April 17.

Sources: Wikipedia; Joe Louis Walker website; Dion DiMucci website; Gina Sicilia website; Blues Matters; Eliza Neals website; Mick Clarke website; YouTube