My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me


Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

John Mayer Is Back With Reflective New Album

After three and a half years, singer-songwriter John Mayer has released a new full-length album, reflecting on love, life and getting older.

After two EPs each consisting of four songs from his new album, John Mayer has released the entire record. The Search for Everything is the seventh full-length studio album of the singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer, and his most personal and reflective work to date.

Mayer clearly put a lot of ambition in the album, reportedly spending hundreds of hours in the studio. “This is the longest I have gone in the incubation of a record,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to stoke the fire of abstraction and just start punching hard.”

John Mayer

The 12-track set kicks off with Still Feel Like Your Man, a soulful ballad with a soft, laid-back, funky guitar feel. Other tunes with a similar groove include Helpless and Moving On and Getting Over. Helpless also nicely showcases Mayer’s great abilities on electric solo guitar, as does Changing.

Love on the Weekend, the first single released last Nov, is perhaps the album’s most catchy tune. While in this regard it doesn’t quite reach previous songs, such as Daughters, Waiting on the World to Change or Say, it proves Mayer still knows how to write hit songs. Love on the Weekend charted within the Billboard Hot 100 at no. 53 and climbed to no. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.

On two of the songs Mayer has some great help on background vocals. The above mentioned Helpless features Tiffany Palmer, who according to her bio has also worked with artists like Bette Midler, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. In addition, she has written for Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle. And then there is none other than Cheryl Crow, who provides background vocals on In the Blood.

john_mayer 2

Overall, The Search for Everything is a pretty solid album. Mayer’s guitar-playing is superb. A review in Entertainment Weekly noted it’s reminiscent of “the most reeled-in work of Eric Clapton’s solo career.” Perhaps one drawback is that all of the songs are slow or mid-tempo, which does make listening to the album a bit monotonous after a while. Throwing in a couple of uptempo tunes here and there could have mixed things up, even covers of blues rockers, which is a genre in which Mayer absolutely excels. On the other hand, I get this would have thrown off the album’s overall focus on personal reflection.

Further commenting on the album, Mayer told USA Today it’s about “getting older and comparing my track to other people’s. Part of me is a quote-unquote ‘rock star’ and part of me is this kid from Fairfield, Conn., who really wasn’t made for this. That part looks around at the other parts and goes, ‘Is any of this OK? Am I alright doing this?'”

All tracks on The Search for Everything were written by Mayer. He also produced the album, together with Chad Franscoviac and Steve Jordan (executive producer), with whom he has frequently worked in the past. Mayer is currently on the road to support the record with an extensive tour that mostly focuses on the U.S., with a few gigs in Canada and one show in London, UK.  The tour is scheduled to conclude in Noblesville, Ind. on Sep 2.

Here’s a clip of Helpless from a recent live performance in Albany, N.Y.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, USA Today, Tiffany Palmer web site, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: John Mayer

While I grudgingly agree with a recent Wall Street Journal story that the end of the rock & roll age has started, great young contemporary artists like John Mayer give me hope that not all may be lost.

Yesterday, I found myself listening to The Search for Everything: Wave Two. It’s the second batch of songs from John Mayer’s upcoming seventh studio album. Essentially, he has been releasing the new material as EPs since January, though the next release reportedly is going to be the entire record rather than Wave Three. The Search for Everything is slated to come out April 14.

After I had enjoyed the four songs from Wave Two, I decided to pull up my John Mayer playlist in iTunes. It includes material from all of his previous six studio releases, his excellent 2008 live album Where the Light Is, as well as his cool version of rock & roll classic Route 66 from the soundtrack of the 2006 animated motion picture Cars.

As I started listening through the playlist, I was reminded what a talented singer-songwriter Mayer is. Plus, the fact Eric Clapton repeatedly invited you to perform at his Crossroads Guitar Festivals, which in addition to “Slowhand” featured giants like Buddy Guy, B.B. KingJeff Beck and Carlos Santana,  it’s a good indication you must be a pretty decent guitarist as well. Mayer participated in four of the five festivals in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013.

Mayer started his recording career as a 21-year-old with the EP Inside Out, which appeared in Sep 1999. He has since become a pretty prolific recording artist with five additional EPs, six studio records and seven live albums. His discography also includes three compilation and two video albums. And, as if his solo work didn’t keep him busy enough, Mayer also formed a blues rock band in 2005, the John Mayer Trio, together with two of the finest studio musicians: bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan.

So what is it about John Mayer? To start with, he has a great ear for catchy melodies. There is also something very soothing about his voice, which becomes particularly apparent in quieter, acoustic-oriented tunes. Great examples are Love Soon from his first EP and Daughters from Mayor’s second studio album Heavier Things. Released in September 2003, the album debuted at no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and the tune song won “Song of the Year” at the 2005 Grammy Awards.

While Mayer wrote many great songs, the standout to me is Waiting on the World to Change. From the soul grove to the lyrics, this masterpiece could have been written and performed by none other than the great Marvin Gaye. I could see it on Gaye’s 1971 gem What’s Going On. Appearing on Mayer’s 2006 third studio release Continuum, Waiting on the World to Change reached the top spot of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 2007 Grammys.

And then there is of course Mayer’s love for the blues. It doesn’t hurt he is also a gifted electric blues guitarist. One very cool example is his cover version of the Ray Charles tune I Don’t Need No Doctor from the above mentioned live album Where the Light Is. The sound of what must be a Fender Stratocaster and even his voice remind me of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my absolute favorite electric blues guitarists. While I do like Mayer’s more pop-oriented music, I actually wouldn’t mind, if he would focus more on the blues going forward.

The blues is an appropriate transition back to that Wall Street Journal story, which by the way is great though somewhat depressing read. Yes, I’m afraid the reporter is right: the end of the rock era as we’ve known it has begun. Defining artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are in their seventies or not far from it – not to mention all the giants we’ve lost over the past couple of years, the latest being Mr. Rock & Roll himself, Chuck Berry.

While it is impossible for John Mayer to replace the above rock & roll giants, as long as there are young and talented music artists like him who deliver true craftsmanship, I’m carefully optimistic there is a future for great music. Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Waiting on the World to Change.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Wall Street Journal, YouTube