Jane Lee Hooker Deliver Strong New Album Rollin’

Today, Jane Lee Hooker released their third studio album Rollin’ and it’s a fun listening experience! The New York rock band has been on my radar screen since I caught them live at a summer-in-the-park concert on the Jersey shore in August 2017. Two things struck me right away: Their raw power and that they were an all-female band, something that remains relatively rare to this day. Four and a half years later, the group delivers an album that offers their familiar hard-charging guitar-driven rock, as well as some new elements, including acoustic blues and vibes of soul.

While Jane Lee Hooker’s music is generally categorized as blues-rock, I feel their own characterization as being a blend of rock & roll, blues, punk, R&B and soul is more accurate. That’s especially the case on the new album. Jane Lee Hooker were founded in 2013 by Dana “Danger” Athens (vocals), Tina “T-Bone” Gorin (guitar), Tracy Hightop (guitar), Hail Mary Zadroga (bass), Tracy Hightop (guitar) and Melissa “Cool Whip” Houston  (drums) – in addition to the cool band name, you just gotta love these stage names! The group’s original line-up remains in place to this day, except for Houston who left in 2020 and has been replaced by ‘Lightnin’ Ron Salvo

Jane Lee Hooker (from left): Tina Gorin, Dana Athens, Ron Salvo, Mary Zadroga, Tracy Hightop. Photo by Rob Carter.

In 2015, Jane Lee Hooker signed with Ruf Records, a prominent independent German blues and blues-rock label, and released their debut No B! in April 2016, a collection of high-energy blues covers. This was followed by sophomore release Spiritus in November 2017, which featured originals. According to the band’s Facebook page, Rollin’ was written and recorded during the pandemic, which resulted in Jane Lee Hooker trying out new methods of songwriting and recording.

With COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing requirements in effect in NYC, the band found themselves locked out of their Brooklyn rehearsal room – the creative space where they write and rehearse with amps cranked up at maximum volume. Says singer Dana Athens, “Aside from Jericho and Lucky, which were written before 2020, the rest of the songs on Rollin’ were primarily written on acoustic instruments in my backyard while social distancing underneath the grapevines my Greek grandparents planted in 1968. We had this oasis to gather and make music and pass the time the pandemic had afforded us.”

She continues, “…we recorded this record very differently than we have done with our other albums. Beginning with focusing on drums at one studio, then tracking vocals, guitars, and other things at two other locations. This process was very different from our “plug-and-play’ attitude of yore.” Let’s check out some music!

Here’s the opener Lucky, a smoking mid-tempo blues rocker. Like all of the other six original tunes on the album, the song is credited to the entire band. “I love how “Lucky” came together because it was written in Fred’s studio on Stanton St. during practice out of the blue,” Zadroga recalled. “We took a smoke break and were saying we needed to write something new. All of it. Together!”

Drive is one of three tracks that were released as upfront singles. The soul-oriented rock ballad is my personal favorite on the album. “I was not intending to write about travel, the song is really about long-standing plans to see a friend and how you can still feel connected to someone no matter the distance between you,” Athens told Blues Matters! “Lockdown made these friends seem even further away, so I guess the song also contains a bit of escapism and fantasy – wishing that you could be together.” I love Athens’ vocals and keyboards and the beautiful guitar work.

Next up is Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, one of two covers on Rollin’. The original is a jazz tune written by Austrian jazz keyboarder and composer Joe Zawinul in 1966 for Cannonball Adderley. Athens, who had not known the instrumental until she coincidentally came across it on Spotify, added lyrics. “Dana picked this cover months before recording, but we hadn’t arranged much less played it, until the end of our session,” explained Salvo. “It came together perfectly and Dana’s lyrical stamp made it our own.” Jane Lee Hooker did a great job with their rendition. If you’re curious, you can check out the original here.

White Gold, a neat acoustic blues tune, provides a nice contrast to the otherwise electric sound of the album. “I can’t remember the name of the studio in Woodstock [Dreamland Recording StudiosCMM], but it was an old church,” Hightop said. “Matt [producer Matt ChiaravalleCMM] and Ron [drummer Ron SalvoCMM] had already gone to sleep and Dana, T-Bone and I snuck back into the old dark church to practice the song. Just two guitars and Dana’s massive voice filling the church.” Added Gorin: “I always knew we had a song like this in us. It doesn’t even feel like a departure for us to me. We always had roots in our music and this shows our purer side of that.”

The last track I’d like to call is Runaway Train, another blues rocker. “I guess I started writing this one in late 2019,” Athens pointed out. “I didn’t want to
use the potentially over-used train theme, but the song just came out. At this time Mary and I were getting together at my house to write and jam. The very first recording of this song is a voice memo from December 2019 of just Mary and I fleshing it out.” Salvo added, “Sounds exactly as the name implies! High speed and off the rails.” Gorin concluded, “Very JLH tune. We love dealing out energy and this one is the perfect vehicle for that.”

“Somehow, amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, we were able to write and record what I feel is our best work as a band yet,” Athens summed up the album. “Astounding that some things, like writing music with each other, will always be a beautiful and safe world, even during a worldwide health disaster like COVID19,” added Gorin. Hightop concurred, stating, “We were really able to take our time and do these amazing songs justice. This album is just next level in so many respects.” I have to agree. With a more diversified sound, Rollin’ feels like a step up from the band’s two previous albums.

Rollin’, a self-released album, was produced and mixed by Matt Chiaravalle who has worked with the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Warren Zevon and Courtney Love. It was recorded at three studios: Virtue and Vice Studios in Brooklyn, NY; Dreamland Recording Studios in Woodstock, NY; and Mercy Sound Recording Studios in New York, NY).

Here’s a Spotify link to the album:

As a bonus, here’s a live version of Drive I captured at a recent album release party in New York City. Thanks again to the band’s manager Gregg Bell who kindly invited me to the fun event and took the time to chat for a few minutes. He’s actually based in Australia, and this gig was the first time for him to see the band live – well, they certainly rocked the place!

On May 13, Jane Lee Hooker are scheduled to kick off a European tour to support the new album, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria. Their current schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; JLH Facebook page & website; JHL press kit; Blues Matters; YouTube, Spotify

My Playlist: Melissa Etheridge

I still remember when I first heard Bring Me Some Water by Melissa Etheridge, which received lots of radio play in Germany when it came out in 1988. Her raspy vocals and the tune’s catchy melody grabbed my attention right away. Then except for occasional songs on the radio, she largely disappeared from my radar screen until 2016 when I came across her killer cover of Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming. It was on a great album titled Memphis Rock and Soul, a compilation of classic Stax tunes.

Melissa Etheridge was born on May 29, 1961 in Leavenworth, Kan., which is in the Kansas City metropolitan area. During her teenage years, she started performing in local country bands. Following high school graduation in 1979, Etheridge went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After three semesters, she decided to call it quits and moved to Los Angeles to start a career in music. Eventually, she was discovered by Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records where in May 1988 her eponymous debut album appeared.

The record did pretty well, climbing to no. 22 on the Billboard 200. The lead single, the above noted Bring Me Some Water, peaked at no. 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, but surprisingly missed the Hot 100 altogether. Etheridge has since released 14 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, The Medicine Show, came out in April 2019. Her best-selling record became Yes I Am from September 1993, which was certified six times Platinum in the U.S. Her highest charting record on the Billboard 200 was Your Little Secret from November 1995. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s Bring Me Some Water from Etheridge’s eponymous debut. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks in this playlist were written by her. In addition to singing vocals, Etheridge also plays acoustic guitar. It’s just a great tune!

In September 1989, Etheridge released her sophomore album Brave and Crazy. Here’s the You Used to Love to Dance.

I’m the Only One, a nice slow rocker, became Etheridge’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 where it climbed to no. 8. It topped the Adult Contemporary chart. The tune appeared on the above mentioned Yes I Am, which was her fourth studio album.

In November 1995, the follow-on album Your Little Secret appeared. I Want to Come Over became the second single. Here’s the official video for the tune.

Tuesday Morning is a moving tribute to the victims of 9/11, in particular Mark Bingham, a PR executive who was on United Airlines Flight 93 and one of the four passengers who attempted to retake control of the plane from the hijackers. This resulted in the tragic crash into a field near Shankville, Pa., preventing the plane from hitting its intended target in Washington, D.C. Co-written by Etheridge and Jonathan Taylor, the tune was included on Etheridge’s eighth studio album Lucky from February 2004.

At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge and Joss Stone performed a great tribute to Janis Joplin. Stone kicked it off with Cry Baby and was joined by Etheridge for a scorching rendition of Piece of My Heart. Etheridge, who appeared bold, had undergone chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer following her diagnosis shortly after the release of the Lucky album. The medley was subsequently made available as a download-only single. Here’s a clip of the Grammy performance. What a triumphant return for Etheridge to the stage!

Let’s do two more. I simply can’t skip the above noted cover of Hold On, I’m Coming. Co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the tune was first recorded by Sam & Dave and released in March 1966. It became one of their biggest hits that has been covered by countless other artists. Etheridge’s smoking hot rendition has to be one of the best. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to call out is from Etheridge’s most recent album, The Medicine Show, her fifteenth from April 2019. Here’s Faded By Design, which also appeared separately as a single.

I also want to acknowledge the recent news of the tragic death of Etheridge’s 21-year-old son Beckett Cypher from opioid addiction, as reported by CBS News. Etheridge’s former wife Julie Cypher had given birth to Beckett in 1998 after artificial insemination. Later the couple revealed the donor had been David Crosby.

Etheridge has won multiple music awards, including a 2007 Grammy in the category of Best Original Song for I Need to Wake Up, a tune from the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Over the course of her 30-year-plus recording career, she has had five Platinum and two Gold certified albums and six top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Etheridge has given close to 60 daily live performances on Facebook throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the bio on her website rightly calls her “one of rock music’s great female icons.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Melissa Etheridge website; CBS News; 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 Tierinii 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): Tierinii 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, Tierinii 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 Tierinii 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 Tierinii: “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