Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This is the fifth installment of Best of What’s New. I’m starting to think this may become a weekly feature, which would make me happy and frankly is something I had not expected when I introduced it five weeks ago. Unlike the previous times, this installment mostly features new releases by well-established artists from Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples. Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the songs were released because of COVID-19, though three were written pre-pandemic. In one case, the lyrics were slightly tweaked, so the tune better fits the current situation. Let’s get to it!

Bob Dylan/I Contain Multitudes

What’s up with Robert Zimmerman? Last Friday, he released his second new song in three weeks. I Contain Multitudes, which took its title from the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself, comes on the heels of the 17-minute Murder Most Foul centering on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While as a more casual Dylan listener, I would not dare to try and figure out what’s going on in his head, releasing a song about a traumatic event in 1963, followed by a tune with cheerful lines like The flowers are dyin’ like all things do or I sleep with life and death in the same bed doesn’t strike me as a coincidence during a global pandemic. It is also likely to fuel hope among Dylan fans that a new album may be in the making, though in perhaps typical fashion Mr. Zimmerman hasn’t made any comments in this regard.

Alicia Keys/Good Job

Earlier this week, I had caught a CNN announcement that Alicia Keys was going to debut a new song on the cable news channel last night. And she did: Good Job. While Keys recorded the powerful ballad last year for her next album ALICIA, the lyrics are a beautiful fit to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all folks who look after the sick and keep the country going during the pandemic, oftentimes by risking their own lives. The tune was co-written by Keys, her husband and producer Swizz Beatz, singer-songwriter The-Dream and songwriter, composer and producer Avery Chambliss. “Whether you’re on the frontlines at the hospitals, balancing work, family and homeschool teaching, delivering mail, packages, or food, or facing other personal difficulties because of COVID-19, I feel you. You are seen, loved and deeply appreciated,” said Keys. While I don’t necessarily dig each and every song by Keys, I believe she has an incredible voice and is a powerful performer. She also comes across as very genuine to me.

The Rolling Stones/Living in a Ghost Town

I’d like to give a shoutout to Hanspostcard who first brought this new tune by The Rolling Stones to my attention yesterday on his Slicethelife blog. Similar to Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger wrote Living in a Ghost Town prior to COVID-19. As reported by Rolling Stone, it’s the band’s first new original tune since their 2012 compilation GRRR!, which featured two new tracks, Doom and Gloom and One More Shot. To make it a better fit for the current situation, Jagger had to tweak some of the lyrics. The Rolling Stone story quoted him from an interview with Apple Music: “Keith Richards and I both had the idea that we should release it,” he said. “But I said, ‘Well I’ve got to rewrite it.’ Some of it is not going to work and some of it was a bit weird and a bit too dark. So I slightly rewrote it. I didn’t have to rewrite very much, to be honest. It’s very much how I originally did it.” The Rolling Stone piece also included this quote by Richards: “We’ve got another five or six tracks and there’s a lot of sort of soul feel about it for some reason without anybody intending to,” Richards said. “Obviously right now we’ve got nothing else to do but write some more songs, right?” Could this finally be a new Stones album, which has been rumored for some time?

Cowboy Junkies/Misery

I think the only time I had heard of this Canadian band, which Wikipedia classifies as alternative country and folk rock, was in the late ’80s – probably in connection with their sophomore album The Trinity Session from November 1988, which looks like their most successful release. It included a cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, which became their highest-charting single the U.S., peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Well, it turns out Cowboy Junkies are still active, and on March 30, 2020, they released their latest album Ghosts. Three of their founding members, Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar, ukulele) and Peter Timmins (drums, percussion) – are siblings, and the album’s eight tracks are all related to the death of their mother Barbara, who passed away in 2018. The fourth member, Alan Anton (bass, keyboards), has also been part of the band since its formation in Toronto in 1985. I’ve listened to some of the album’s songs and like what I’ve heard so far. Here is Misery.

Ron Sexsmith/Dig Nation

Ron Sexsmith, a singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Canada, is an artist I had not heard of before. According to Wikipedia, he has been a performing musician since 1978 and began releasing his own music in 1985. To date, he has issued 16 studio albums, the most recent of which is Hermitage that came out on April 17. Here’s Dig Nation. Really like the warm sound of that tune. And it’s quite catchy, too. Check it out!

Mavis Staples/All In It Together

Mavis Staples, who started her career in 1950 at the age of 11 as part of her family band The Staple Singers, needs no lengthy introduction. Since 1969, she has also performed as a solo artist and has released 14 solo albums to date. The most recent one, We Get By, came out in May 2019. The single All In It Together, which was released on April 2, 2020, is a collaboration with singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy who is best known as the vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. “The song speaks to what we’re going through now – everyone is in this together, whether you like it or not,” Staples said in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race or sex you are, where you live…it can still touch you…We will get through this but, we’re going to have to do it together. If this song is able to bring any happiness or relief to anyone out there in even the smallest way, I wanted to make sure that I helped to do that.” According to Staples’ website, proceeds from the song will be donated to My Block, My Hood, My City – a Chicago organization ensuring seniors have access to the essentials needed to fight COVID-19. Staples and Tweedy’s vocals nicely blend in this blues-oriented rock tune. I also like Tweedy’s slide guitar work.

Steve Forbert/Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues

Here’s another great new tune by a long-time artist I mostly know by name, and this needs to change: Steve Forbert. Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues is the lead single from Forbet’s covers album Early Morning Rain, which is set to come out next Friday, May 1. “I wish I could release this record as a magic wand, in order to renew people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship these songs represent,” Forbert writes on his website. “Early Morning Rain contains 11 of my favorites, with only one written later than 1973.” Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues was written by Danny O’Keefe who also first recorded the song in 1967 but did not release it at the time. Instead, it was a band named The Bards who first put out the tune in 1968 as a b-side to a single. O’Keefe first included the song on his eponymous debut album from 1970. A re-recorded version was released as a single in August 1972 and became his best-known song. “I think ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ will be really good to put out there right now,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “I’ve always had a kinship with this song.”

Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp/Isolation

While multi-talent Johnny Depp certainly is not a newcomer to music and has played with the likes of Joe Perry and Alice Cooper, teaming up with guitar legend Jeff Beck is intriguing. The first outcome of their collaboration is a great cover of the John Lennon tune Isolation, which appeared last Friday, April 16. Lennon included the song on his first official solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band from December 1970. According to a statement on Beck’s website, The musical soulmates have been working behind-the-scenes for the past few several years on new music. “Isolation” finds Beck in classic form on guitar with Depp on vocals, joined by long-time Beck collaborators Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass…“Johnny and I have been working on music together for a while now and we recorded this track during our time in the studio last year. We weren’t expecting to release it so soon but given all the hard days and true ‘isolation’ that people are going through in these challenging times, we decided now might be the right time to let you all hear it,” says Beck. “You’ll be hearing more from Johnny and me in a little while but until then we hope you find some comfort and solidarity in our take on this Lennon classic.” Johnny Depp adds, “…Lennon’s poetry – ‘We’re afraid of everyone. Afraid of the Sun!’ – seemed to Jeff and me especially profound right now, this song about isolation, fear, and existential risks to our world. So we wanted to give it to you, and hope it helps you make sense of the moment or just helps you pass the time as we endure isolation together.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Mavis Staples website; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Jeff Beck website; YouTube

Best of “Bobfest”

Sometimes one beautiful thing leads to another. In my previous post, I wrote about Tom Petty’s affection for The Byrds and how he covered some of their tunes. One of the clips I included was a performance of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan tune popularized by The Byrds with their beautiful jingle-jangle version in the mid-’60s. The footage came from a concert that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s eponymous debut album. This prompted me to further check out that tribute show and boy, do I love what I found!

The four-hour concert took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16, 1992. Regardless of what you think of Dylan, the fact that he is revered by so many top-notch artists speaks for itself. It was certainly reflected in the concert’s line-up, which featured John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn, among others.

The house band for the show included Booker T. Jones (organ) and other former members of the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar), along with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner (each on drums). And there were countless other musicians in different capacities I haven’t even mentioned. This was possibly a one-of-a-kind concert!

Let’s kick off the music with Like a Rolling Stone performed by John Mellencamp and special guest Al Kooper on the organ – great way to open the night! Dylan first recorded the classic tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited from August 1965.

Among the show’s true gems was Stevie Wonder’s performance of Blowin’ in the Wind. One of the defining protest songs of the ’60s, it was the opener to Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963. As Wonder eloquently said, it’s a tune that “will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.” I’m afraid his words still ring true today.

Next up: Tracy Chapman and her beautiful version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Recently, I’ve gained new appreciation of the singer-songwriter thanks to badfinger20, who covered Chapman the other day on his great PowerPop blog. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track of Dylan’s third studio album that appeared in January 1964.

Ready for some hardcore blues? Enter Johnny Winter and his scorching version of Highway 61 Revisited, the title track of the above-noted album from August 1965. Ohhh, wham bam thank you man, to borrow creatively from David Bowie. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio version, but I think you can still picture it.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is yet another tune from the Highway 61 Revisited album. If I would have to name my favorite Dylan record, I think this would be it. Of course, the caveat is I haven’t listened to all of his records, not even close! The artist who got to perform the tune during the concert was Neil Young, who did a great job. BTW, he dubbed the concert “Bobfest,” according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a great cover of I Shall Be Released by Chrissie Hynde. The first officially released version of the song was on the July 1968 debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. Dylan’s first recording occurred during the so-called Basement Tapes sessions with The Band in 1967, which was released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991. In 1971, Dylan recorded a second version that appeared on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II from November that year.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, so I faithfully followed his advice and didn’t hesitate to call it out. It’s another song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton did a beautiful job making it his own. Don’t think twice, check it out!

George Harrison’s appearance at the show was remarkable. It marked his first U.S. concert performance in 18 years. Sadly, it would also be his last time performing in public, as Rolling Stone noted in a January 2014 story previewing the March 2014 super deluxe reissue of the concert. Harrison covered Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s seventh studio album from June 1966.

Of course, I couldn’t write about the bloody concert without including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, another track from Blonde on Blonde. Love it!

For the final clip in this post, it’s about time to get to the man himself and My Back Pages. He first recorded the tune for his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August 1964. For his rendition at the show, he got a little help from his friends Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. That’s what friends are for, and they did a great job!

The last word shall belong to guitarist and the show’s musical director G.E. Smith, who is quoted in the above Rolling Stone story: “That gig was one of the highlights of my career… There aren’t a lot of people that can attract a lineup like that, and everyone was on their best behavior. Lou Reed and Neil Young can be prickly, but not in the three days we were prepping that show. I also got to talk to Johnny Cash. What’s cooler than that?”

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Soul Men Comin’ To You With Good Lovin’

Sam & Dave were Stax top act along with Otis Redding

With the country teetering from one crisis to the other, the news isn’t great these days, but not all is bleak. When I spotted this recent story from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it put a smile on my face. Sam & Dave will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on February 10, 2019. While I don’t ever need a reason to cover great music, this well-deserved honor provides a great angle to celebrate “The Dynamic Duo” that became Stax Records’ top performers in the ’60s, together with Otis Redding.

Sam Moore, born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, and Dave Prater, born on May 9, 1937 in Sycamore, Ga., met at the King of Hearts Club in Miami in 1961 while working on the gospel music circuit. At the time, they had already individually established themselves in the gospel groups The Melionaires and the Sensational Hummingbirds, respectively. They decided to team up but success didn’t come right away.

Sam & Dave In Concert
Sam Moore & Dave Prater

Shortly after meeting at the above Miami club, Moore and Prater got a contract with Roulette Records. They released a series of six singles that went unnoticed. In late 1964, Billboard journalist turned record company partner Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic Records. Moore and Prater were excited about the prospect to record at the label’s headquarters in New York or perhaps at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. But, as the above Commercial Appeal story notes, “instead they were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.”

To further quote from the article, “When Moore and Prater got off the bus, they were shocked at what they found: an integrated collection of musicians working out of a funky old studio on the city’s south side.” And I might add all of that during a time and in a place where racial segregation was still very much a reality despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act on June 2, 1964.

Sam & Dave at Stax
Sam & Dave at Stax Records ca. 1970 (from left): Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper

Initially, Sam & Dave worked with Stax producer and engineer Jim Stewart and songwriter Steve Cropper, guitarist of Stax dynamite house band Booker T. & The M.G.s. Then they moved to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who at the time were still relative newcomers to writing and producing music. Sam & Dave’s first two singles didn’t make the charts. But success came with the third release You Don’t Know Like I Know, a no. 7 on the R&B chart.

In April 1966, Sam & Dave released their debut album Hold On, I’m Comin’. And comin’ they did. Both the record and the title track became hugely successful. Over the next three years, Sam & Dave scored eight additional consecutive top 20 R&B chart hits. Then their luck ran out. After a series of unsuccessful singles in 1969 and early 1970, they broke up in June that year.

Sam & Dave_Back at 'Cha

Each went on to record some solo singles that didn’t make an impact, and in August 1971, Sam & Dave decided to reunite, just before their contract with Atlantic expired. While they didn’t have a label, they continued to be a sought after live act. In 1975, they released a new studio album, Back At ‘Cha via United Artists. Produced by Steve Cropper and featuring the M.G.s and The Memphis Horns, the record yielded a top 100 single appropriately titled A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad).

The emergence of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s and their cover of Soul Man brought Sam & Dave back into the limelight. A series of concert appearances and two compilation albums (Soul Study Vol. 1 and Soul Study Vol. 2) followed, before The Dynamic Duo gave their last concert as a pair on new year’s eve in 1981.

Sam Moore at the White House
Sam Moore performing at The White House in July 2013

Following the second and final break-up, Prater hired singer Sam Daniels to perform the Sam part and started touring under the “Sam & Dave” name or as “The New Sam & Dave Revue.” This didn’t go over well with Moore, who tried to block Prater from using the name. On April 9, 1988, Prater was killed in a car accident in Sycamore, Ga.

Since 1981, Moore has continued to tour with other famous soul artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The M.G.s and Carla Thomas. He has also done some recording, for example, You Must Not Be Drinkin’ Enough, together with Don Henley for his 1984 album Building The Perfect Beast. In 1986, he also re-recorded Soul Man with Lou Reed for a motion picture with the same name. In October, Moore turned 83 and still appears to be active. Let’s get to some music!

What better tune to start off this playlist than with Hold On, I’m Comin’, the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album released in April 1966. The song was co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Initially, I was going to include a clip of the studio recording. Then I came again across this killer live footage. Damn’, if this doesn’t make you get up and dance or at least groove along by snipping your fingers, you’ve probably had too much eggnog or too many Christmas cookies!

In addition to Hayes and Porter, other Stax musicians were involved in writing music for Sam & Dave. One such example is If You Got The Loving, another tune from the debut album, for which Steve Cropper received a co-writing credit, along with Hayes and Porter.

Here’s Soul Man from Sam & Dave’s third studio album Soul Men, which appeared in October 1967. Another Hayes-Porter composition, Soul Man became a no. 1 single on what was then the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, nowadays known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like for many other Stax recordings at the time, the label’s killer house band Booker T. & The M.G.s  provided the instrumentation. It’s acknowledged in the second chorus with the line, I‘m a soul man, play it Steve, a reference to guitarist Steve Cropper.

Next up: Broke Down Piece Of Man, another great tune from the Soul Men album. This song was written by Cropper and Joe Shamwell, a frequent co-writer of Stax music.

In 1968, Sam & Dave released I Thank You, their fourth and final studio album prior their first official breakup. Here’s the title track

I Thank You was the title track from Sam & Dave’s fourth studio album from 1968, the final record prior to their first official breakup. Another great Hayes-Porter co-write, the tune became Sam & Dave’s last top 10 single.

Here’s another hot tune from the record: Wrap It Up, yet another co-write by Hayes and Porter. If the song sounds familiar, yet you haven’t heard this version, you may know it from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who included a great cover on their January 1986 studio album Tuff Enuff.

I’d like to close this post with two tunes from Sam & Dave’s final studio album released in May 1974. First is the above mentioned A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad). The song was co-written by Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarri, who also performed as Dalton & Dubarri and released four records in the ’70s.

Last but not least, here’s Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah, a nice cover of a tune written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by American soul and R&B singer Betty Wright.

In addition to the upcoming Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sam & Dave have received various other accolades. In 1992, they were induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to Wikipedia, they are also members of the Grammy Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame – gee, frankly, I didn’t know there were so many different halls of fame. Apart from Soul Man, their songs have been covered by many other top music artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton & B.B. King.

Sources: Wikipedia, Memphis Commercial Appeal, YouTube