It’s That Time Of The Year Again…Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Nominations

Class of 2020 encompasses nine first-time nominees, including Pat Benator, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and The Doobie Brothers

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The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has unveiled the class of 2020 nominees. Inevitably, this will respark the annual debate whether artists who fall outside the rock genre like Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G. or Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan should have been nominated in the first place, or why certain rock bands or artists who have been eligible for many years once again did not make the class. But despite all the Rock Hall’s imperfections, the music nerd in me still gets excited. Following are the artists I dig the most among the nominations.

If you glanced at the subhead of this post, you already know where I’m going with this. Ladies first: Pat Benatar. Having been eligible since 2004, Benatar is one of the great female rock vocalists in my book. According to her bio published on the Rock Hall’s website, Benator is a classically trained mezzo-soprano who quit her job in 1971 to pursue a career in singing. In 1979, she met guitarist Neil Giraldo, and the two formed a long-lasting duo, established their own entertainment company, and are still performing to this day. Here’s Heartbreaker from Benatar’s debut album In The Heat Of The Night, which was released in August 1979. Co-written by Geoff Gill and Cliff Wade, the tune was her breakthrough single, climbing to no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The clip, which is from Benator’s 35th anniversary tour that took place in 2015, also throws in Ring Of Fire by Johnny Cash – fun to watch!

T. Rex, initially called Tyrannosaurus Rex, were formed as a psychedelic folk rock group by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan in 1967. In 1970, the band changed their name to T. Rex and began their transition toward glam rock, which first was on full display on their sixth studio album Electric Warrior from September 1971. The band went on to record six more albums until Bolan’s untimely death in a car accident in September 1997, just two weeks prior to his 30th birthday. T. Rex had many members over the years. From the line-up that existed at the time of Bolan’s death, it appears only Herbie Flowers (bass) and Tony Newman (drums) are still alive. Here’s what’s perhaps the band’s best known song, Get It On. Written by Bolan, it appeared on the Electric Warriors album. T. Rex have been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1993.

Next up: Thin Lizzy, a great band formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1969, who has been eligible for a nomination since 1996. In particular, I dig them for their twin lead guitar harmonies. Until the band’s breakup in September 1983, Thin Lizzy released 12 studio albums. In January 1986, co-founding member, bassist, lead vocalist and principal songwriter Phil Lynott, who had been the group’s de facto leader, passed away from pneumonia and heart failure caused by sepsis. In March 1996, guitarist John Sykes, who had been part of Thin Lizzy’s final line-up, decided to revive the band. While he is no longer part of it, the group remains active to this day. Essentially, they are performing as their own tribute and except for a few live albums have not released any new records. In addition to their great guitar sound, one of the cool things about Thin Lizzy was the band’s interracial aspect – Lynott’s father was from British Guiana. His mom was from Dublin. The Boys Are Back In Town from Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy’s sixth studio album that appeared in March 1976, is a great example of the aforementioned twin lead guitars. On this song, they were played by Brian Robertson and Brian Downey.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I’m a fan of The Dobbie Brothers, so I was particularly pleased to see their nomination. The band had been eligible since 1996. What always attracted me to the Dobbies, which were founded in San Jose in 1970, was the combination of rock and their amazing three-part harmony singing. Two of the original vocalists, Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, harmonica) and Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals), remain part of the band’s current line-up. John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, violin, harmonica, vocals) has been a part of the group since 1979. I’ve seen the Dobbies twice over the past 20 years, most recently last year, and they still sound phenomenal. While I generally prefer the band’s early phase, here’s a great rocker from their 10th studio album Cycles released in May 1989: The Doctor, a tune co-written by Johnston, Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. The clip was captured during a concert in April 2017.

The induction ceremony will be held at Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio on May 2, 2020. It will be preceded by induction week with celebratory events and the opening of the 2020 inductee exhibit. Music fans can vote once a day from now on through January 10, 2020 and pick up to five nominees per ballot. The top five artists will comprise a “fans’ ballot” that will be tallied along with the other ballots to choose the 2020 inductees.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Woodstock 50 Clips & Pix: Tim Hardin/If I Were A Carpenter (Part 1 of 4)

Today 50 years ago, Woodstock kicked off in Bethel, N.Y. To celebrate one of the most pivotal moments in music history, I decided to feature a different clip for each of the four anniversary dates. While my recent Woodstock post was fairly long, I still felt I had to leave out lots of great music. This four-part mini series will feature additional songs.

August 15, 1969 was a Friday. The above clip shows one of the performers on the festival’s opening day, Tim Hardin, who played in the evening (from 9:20 to 9:45 pm ET, according to Wikipedia). Written by him, If I Were A Carpenter became the American folk singer’s best known song, which first appeared on his second studio album, Tim Hardin 2, released in April 1967.

The tune was covered by many other artists, including Bobby Darin, Joan Baez, The Four Tops, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Bob Seger and Robert Plant. Darin’s cover turned out to be the highest charting, peaking at no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hardin’s original was a top 40 hit.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Keb’ Mo’ Releases Roots-Oriented Album Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clips & Pix: Sheryl Crow Featuring Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staple/Live Wire

I came across this great bluesy tune from Sheryl Crow a few days ago. Called Live Wire and written by Crow, the track features Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples – quite a female power trio! It is the second single from Crow’s upcoming studio album Threads, which is scheduled for August 30th.

“Mavis Staples means so much more to me than any words I could write about her,” Crow told Rolling Stone. “I feel like, in many ways, she is the Godmother to Bonnie Raitt. To say that having both of these soulful women on ‘Live Wire’ is a treat would be a huge understatement.”

Threads is a collaboration album, which in addition to Raitt and Staples features many other heavyweights like Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, Sting, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Don Henley and Joe Walsh. Additionally, it includes a posthumous duet with Johnny Cash, Redemption Day, which appeared as the lead single in April. There is also already a third single out, Prove You Wrong, a collaboration with Nicks and Maren Morris.

As reported by Madison.com, Crow talked about the album at the CMT Music Awards in early May, saying it could be her last. “It may be my final album, so I am going out big. I grew up in the age where people made albums. But now, I think people do playlists and they will only hear one of two songs off a full-length album that you tried to make a full artistic statement. I kind of like the idea now of just putting out songs.”

Apparently, Crow is not planning to retire from music, just stop making full-fledged albums and instead focusing on singles and EPs. If that’s true, it certainly looks like it’s going to be compelling final album.

Sources: Wikipedia, Sheryl Crow website, Rolling Stone, Madison.com, YouTube

Southern Avenue Keep On Delivering Distinct Blend of Powerful Soul, Blues And R&B On New Album

Southern Avenue perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better title for their sophomore album. Released yesterday, Keep On continues to effectively draw from different musical backgrounds of the band’s members. Southern Avenue skillfully blend Stax-style soul with blues, R&B, gospel, funk and rock. The result is powerful music combining familiar with new influences and a sound that has noticeably matured and become more distinct since the band’s eponymous debut from February 2017.

The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn. has been on my radar screen since I listened to the first album about two years ago. I also witnessed what a great live act Southern Avenue are when I saw them in New York City last August. At the time, I briefly chatted with guitarist Ori Naftaly, who mentioned their new album. My anticipation grew further with the release of the lead single Whiskey Love in early April, followed by the appearance of the second single Savior.

For brief background, Southern Avenue were founded in 2015 when Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly met Memphis vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson, drummer and backing vocalist. Jeremy Powell on keyboards rounds out the band’s core line-up. Bassist Gage Markey has been a touring member for the past couple of years and also plays on the new record. Southern Avenue took their name from a street that runs from East Memphis to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records. While that’s a clear nod to the band’s admiration for the legendary soul label, they are not a Stax revival act.

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierini Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

Keep On features some impressive guests. In this context, I first would like to mention the great horn section comprised of saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpet player Mark Franklin. They are an important factor for the above noted more mature sound. Edmaiston has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, while Franklin  has supported sessions for the likes of Aretha FranklinB.B. KingSolomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Another prominent guest is William Bell, who is perhaps best known for co-writing Born Under a Bad Sign with Booker T. Jones. The tune was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 and popularized by Cream the following year.

Alright, I think it’s time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. Co-written by Ori Naftaly, Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black, the tune is a nice example of how Southern Avenue blend different genres. Naftaly clearly is a blues guitarist at heart and I can hear some Cream in his cool riff. The horns add a dose of soul while Jackson’s strong vocals throw in some R&B.

Since I previously wrote about the first two singles Whiskey Love and Savior, I’m skipping these great tracks here and jump to the nice funky Switchup. Like the title track, the song is co-credited to Naftaly, Jackson and Black.

Next up: Lucky. Co-written by Naftaly and Jackson, this song has a beautiful retro Stax vibe to it. But, as if to emphasize that Southern Avenue don’t want to be a retro Memphis soul band, Naftaly throws in a fairly rock-oriented guitar solo.

Another great number is Jive, a co-write by Naftaly, Black and both Jackson sisters. I dig the tune’s driving beat, which makes you want to get up and dance. The horns and the backing vocals set great accents.

On the upbeat We’ve Got The MusicWilliam Bell joins Tierini Jackson on vocals. Bell also shares writing credits with Naftaly and her. I like the song’s message about the power of music and how it can bridge differences among people: If you don’t look like me/If you don’t talk like me, that’s alright/We’ve got the music/If you don’t know my face/But you’re feeling the sound, it’s okay/We’ve got the music…

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer We’re Gonna Make It. I think music publication No Depression nicely described the tune in their review of Keep On. “This gospel-inflected song opens with a nod to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and builds a message of love, persistence, and encouragement layer-by-layer. The song takes up where the Staple Singers left off, carrying the torch of hope in a world of darkness and giving us a new anthem for these times.”

“Making this album was an interesting journey,” Ori explained. “Our first album was recorded very fast and released very fast. With this one, we spent a long time planning, and we knew how we wanted it sound. For me, it’s a big progression from the first album.” Added Tierini: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

One of the cool things about Keep On is that the album was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording. The studio was opened in Memphis in 1960 by no one other than legendary Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips, who worked with artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. Wow, one can only imagine what it must have felt like for this young band to record in that studio – the thought of it gives me goosebumps!

Southern Avenue In Concert

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” stated producer Johnny Black. “Even in their selection of studios; by picking Sam Phillips Recording, the band, in essence, forced themselves to record within the same parameters as some of their heroes. And while that process may have taken extra time, it was well worth the effort.” In my humble opinion, I think Black is spot on.

Southern Avenue currently is where they seem to be most of the time – on the road. Their tour schedule is packed between now and mid-November and mostly includes U.S. dates. From late May to mid-June, the band is also playing a series of shows in Europe. I have no doubt Southern Avenue will keep on wowing audiences with their performances that are passionate, authentic and humble at the same time. As a communications professional, I also have to commend the band for their effective use of Facebook to build their fan base. I’m planning to catch them again on July 11 during Jams on the Sand, a free outdoor event in Asbury Park, N.J.

Sources: Wikipedia, Southern Avenue website, William Bell website, No Depression, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lenny Kravitz/Raise Vibration

Eleventh studio album illustrates that after 30 years Kravitz maintains his gift to combine retro with modern sounds and write catchy tunes

Somehow I completely missed Lenny Kravitz’s new album Raise Vibration when it was released on September 7. I guess I should perhaps subscribe to a music publication to better stay on top of new music, except of course I’m not into most music that’s coming out these days. Anyway, I “discovered” Raise Vibration earlier today after I had seen a related clip on Facebook. Most of the reviews I read were quick to point out Kravitz’s 11th studio release doesn’t break any new ground. I mostly agree and that’s just fine with me.

I feel many critics have given Kravitz a hard time since he emerged in September 1989 with Let Love Rule. Some have said his music too much reflects his ’60s influences like Jimi Hendrix or early Led Zeppelin. Last time I checked both were among the most outstanding artists on the planet. Some folks have maintained Kravitz doesn’t sound black enough, while others have found he sounded too white. All of this is complete and utter nonsense, in my opinion!

Lenny Kravitz

When I look at Kravitz, I see an incredibly talented artist who writes, sings and produces his own music. Oh, and apart from being a capable guitarist, he also plays most of the other instruments on his records. Most importantly, Kravitz has the gift to mix retro elements with modern sounds and write catchy tunes. All of these qualities are present on Raise Vibration, his first new album in four years since Strut from September 2014.

But evidently, Kravitz found himself in a very different place three years ago after he had finished his last world tour, he told Rolling Stone in April this year. “I really wasn’t sure where I was going musically,” Kravitz explained. “After doing this for 30 years, I wasn’t feeling it. I’d never felt that confused about what to do. And it was kind of a scary place. You don’t know when it’s going to come.” While there are techniques that can stimulate creativity, ultimately, you can’t force it.

Lenny Kravitz In Concert

Kravitz bravely rejected the advice from others to collaborate with producers and songwriters who know how to score hits. “I’ve never really worked that way, following trends or doing what people think you should do,” he further noted to Rolling Stone. “I’ve always made music that came naturally out of me.” And fortunately that’s exactly what happened when one night Kravitz woke up at 4:00 am in his house in the Bahamas with a song in his head, which would become Low, one of the standouts on the album. It proofed to be the catalyst he needed to spur his artistic creativity. “I learned you have to trust yourself and the artist in yourself. Always trust what you have.” Yes! And with that let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Low. Like all other tunes on Raise Vibration except for two, it was written by Kravitz. The song also became the second single released ahead of the album on May 29. If the “oohs” in the track sound like Michael Jackson, that’s because it features posthumous, presumably sampled “guest vocals” from the King of Pop. This is one great funky tune!

Next up: The album’s title track. I just love the guitar sound and the cool breaks on that track. The native American chants and drums toward the end ad an unusual element. So much for not breaking any new ground!

Johnny Cash, a moving tribute to the country legend, is based on an encounter Kravitz had with the Man in Black and his wife June Carter Cash in 1995, when they were all staying at producer Rick Rubin’s apartment in Los Angeles. At the time his mother was receiving treatment for breast cancer. After getting a call from the hospital that this mom had passed away, Johnny and June consoled Kravitz. “…they decided at that moment (to) treat me like they would treat someone in their family,” Kravitz said during a BBC interview, as reported by Music-News.com. “It was a beautiful moment of humanity and love.”

Another gem on the album is Here To Love, a nice piano-driven ballad.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Enough, which also became the album’s lead single released on May 11. It’s got a cool Marvin Gaye vibe that lyrically is reminiscent of  What’s Going On with a bass line that sounds like it could have been inspired by Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Also check out the horns that start at around 6 minutes into the song: nice touch of ’70s Temptations – super cool!

Like he usually does, Kravitz produced the album and plays most of the instruments. Other than string and horn players, the only other musicians are longtime collaborator and guitarist Craig Ross, who also co-wrote two of the tracks with Kravitz, as well as keyboardist and orchestrator David Baron. Kravitz is supporting the album with a world tour. The 2018 section started in April ahead of the record’s release and mostly focused on Europe. It also included 10 dates in the U.S., which wrapped up in Las Vegas in late October. According to the schedule, the tour will resume in March 2019 with a series of gigs in South America before traveling back to Europe. Currently, the last date is June 11, 2019 in London, U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Music-News.com, Lenny Kravitz website, YouTube