The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

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

Three Chords, Straight Beats And Catchy Hooks

Status Quo have stayed true to their trademark boogie rock for more than 45 years

The other day, I spotted a live album from Status Quo called Down Down & Dirty At Wacken, (a place in northern Germany of an annual open air heavy metal festival), which was released only a couple of weeks ago. While starting to listen, I was reminded what a fun live band they are and how they’ve pretty much stuck with the same formula since 1970 when they changed from psychedelic to boogie rock. This brilliant insight inspired the idea of a post and playlist!🤓

The origins of Status Quo date back to 1962 when high school mates Frances Rossi (guitar), Alan Lancaster (bass), Jess Jaworski (keyboards) and Alan Key (drums) formed a band called The Scorpions in London (not related to and predating the German hard rock band Scorpions by three years). In 1965, Rossi met guitarist Rick Parfitt. They became friends and later that year started what would become a longtime collaboration until Parfitt’s untimely death in December 2016 at the age of 68. The following summer, the band, which had changed their name to The Spectres, got their first record deal, with Piccadilly Records, and released various commercially unsuccessful singles.

By 1967, the band had embraced psychedelic music, became Traffic, then Traffic Jam to avoid confusion with Steve Winwood’s Traffic, and eventually Status Quo in August that year. Parfitt had joined them as rhythm guitarist the previous month. January 1968 saw the release of Status Quo’s first hit single Pictures Of Matchstick Men. This was followed by their debut studio album Picturesque Matchstickable Messages From Status Quo in September – gee, what a memorable title!

Status Quo
Status Quo circa 1977 (from left): John Coghlan (drums), Rick Parfitt (rhythm guitar, vocals), Alan Lancaster (bass, vocals), and Francis Rossi (lead guitar, vocals)

After the release and commercial failure of Status Quo’s second album Spare Parts in September 1969, the band decided to change their musical style to straight boogie-oriented rock – a decision that is safe to assume they didn’t regret! Piledriver, their fifth studio record from December 1972, finally brought the breakthrough, peaking at no. 5 in the U.K. charts. Since then, Status Quo have released 27 additional studio albums. Their impressive catalog also includes 10 live records and nine compilations.

Given the band’s faithful adherence to the three-chord boogie rock formula, their music starts sounding repetitive after a little while. But so do Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys’ surf rock, to name two artists who spontaneously came to mind! Besides, if it’s fun, who cares! Okay, enough of the blah-blah-blah and time for some of that repetitive music!😆

While the band’s psychedelic phase was comparatively short, it’s still part of their long history, so I’d be amiss not to acknowledge it. My favorite tune I know from that phase is the above mentioned Pictures Of Matchstick Men, which was written by Rossi. It climbed to no. 7 on the U.K. Singles Chart and reached the top 10 in many other European countries. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, the only Status Quo song that got noticed in America. In addition to its release as a single, it was also included on the band’s debut album.

Next Up: Paper Plane from the Piledriver album. The song was co-written by Rossi and Bob Young. Since 1969, Young had contributed to writing Status Quo’s music and was often called their unofficial fifth member. He frequently joined the band during live performances in the ’70s and also occasionally thereafter.

Another co-write by Rossi and Young is Caroline, which became a no. 5 hit in the U.K. in August 1973, Status Quo’s highest charting single at the time. The tune was also included on the band’s sixth studio album Hello!, which appeared in September that year.

In November 1974, Status Quo scored their first of two no. 1 singles in the U.K. with Down Down. Yet another Rossi/Young co-write, the song also appeared on the band’s eighth studio record On The Level from February 1975.

Perhaps my favorite Status Quo tune is Rockin’ All Over The World. As a boogie rock fan, how can you not love that tune, which was written and first recorded by the great John Fogerty in 1975! Status Quo released their cover as a single in September 1977. It also became the title track of their tenth studio album that came out in November the same year. Since this tune is made for live performances, I chose the following clip captured during a 1990 concert in Knebworth, England.

Whatever You Want is another Status Quo classic. It was co-written by Parfitt and keyboarder Andy Bown, who has performed on all of the band’s albums since Rockin’ All Over The World and became a full member in 1982. One of the things I’ve always liked about this tune is the cool-sounding guitar intro.

Status Quo’s biggest hit in the ’80s was their cover of Bolland & Bolland’s In The Army Now from September 1986, which topped the charts in various European countries, including Austria, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland. In the U.K., the tune peaked at no. 2. Since I’m not particularly fond of it, I’m highlighting another cover instead: The Wanderer from October 1984. Written by Ernie Maresca, the tune was first recorded and released by Dion in November 1961. While I prefer the original, Quo’s cover isn’t bad either.

To make this playlist career-spanning, I also like to touch on Status Quo’s music beyond the ’80s. Since I’m basically not familiar with it, it’s a bit of a challenge. As such, the remaining selections for this playlist are somewhat arbitrary. Here’s Can’t Give You More from the band’s 20th studio album Rock ‘Til You Drop, which appeared in September 1991. Written by Bown, the tune is another typical Status Quo boogie rocker – if you like Quo’s ’70s music, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2002, Status Quo released Heavy Traffic, their 25th studio record, which peaked at no. 15 on the charts in the U.K. and earned them silver status there. Here’s Creepin’ Up On You, which was co-written by Parfitt and then-Quo bassist John ‘Rhino’ Edwards. It’s shuffling along nicely!

The final studio release I’d like to touch on is called Acoustic (Stripped Bare) from October 2014. It’s a compilation of stripped down versions of previously recorded Status Quo songs. While there’s no new material here, I’m kind of intrigued by this album and will probably further explore it. The record became another success for Quo in the U.K., climbing to no. 5 on the charts and earning Gold certification there – not to shabby for a band that by then had been around for 52 years, if you include their 1962 origins; if you start counting from when they became Status Quo, it still adds up to a mighty 47 years! Here’s Again And Again, a tune credited to Parfitt, Bown and Jackie Lynton, and first recorded for the band’s 11th studio album If You Can’t Stand The Heat from October 1978. It’s got a nice Cajun feel to it!

So what’s going on with Status Quo these days? Well, it’s more three chords, straight beats and catchy boogie rock – in other words the status quo – that was clever, huh?🤓 Rossi remains the only founding member. Bown (keyboards) and Edwards (bass) are still around as well. The current lineup, pictured on top of the post, is rounded out by Leon Cave (drums) and Richie Malone (rhythm guitar), who replaced Parfitt in July 2016, after he had suffered a stroke and could no longer perform.

I already mentioned the new live album. In addition, a look on setlist.fm revealed the band has been pretty busy touring Europe since May. The current tour schedule on their website shows upcoming gigs in Lisbon, Portugal (Sep 29); Innsbruck, Austria (Oct 4); Kempten, Germany (Oct 5); and Zurich, Switzerland (Oct 6).

Sources: Wikipedia, Status Quo official website, setlist.fm, YouTube