My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

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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

Ryan Adams Releases Great Alternative Rock Album

As a guy who primarily likes music from the 60s, 70s and 80s, it always reassures me when I come across great new music like this just-released album from Ryan Adams.

I have to admit I like to live in my time bubble when most music was true craftsmanship involving real instruments and real singing, not songs that oftentimes sound indistinguishable from one another and essentially computer-generated. When browsing iTunes these days, I primarily do so to see whether an “old act” has released anything new. I always get excited when I find “new artists” whose music I like.

I had heard of Ryan Adams before, but he wasn’t exactly on my radar screen. While as such he is new to me, the singer-songwriter from Jacksonville, N.C. is anything but a newbie – he’s been around since 1994, when he became a founding member of alternative country band Wiskeytown.

Prisoner is Adams’ 11th solo album. In addition, he previously released three albums with Wiskeytown; five albums with The Cardinals, a rock band Adams fronted between 2004 and 2009; and one album with hardcore punk band, The Finger. These are 20 studio releases (not counting various EPs) in close to 22 years, a sure indication Adams has been a pretty prolific artist! It begs the question what took me so long to find him? Oh, well, the bubble.

Back to Prisoner. Pretty much all of the reviews I’ve seen note the album’s 80s AOR feel. I would generally agree, though I sometimes think critics try too hard comparing new music to other artists. So, yes, you can definitely recognize some Bruce Springsteen and some John Mellencamp in Ryan’s music on the album. Actually, his voice reminds me a bit of Jackson Browne. But I don’t want to fall into the same trap noted above, so I’ll stop the comparisons here!

Before the album came out on Feb 17, Ryan already had released three singles: The opener Do You Still Love Me? and To Be Without You in December, followed by Doomsday in January – all pretty strong tunes. By the way, the not exactly cheerful titles of these and the album’s remaining nine tunes reflect Ryan’s divorce from actor and singer Mandy Moore, which was finalized last June. The music generally is more upbeat than the song titles suggest.

Some of the album’s other standouts include the title track, Haunted House, Anything I Say to You Now and Outbound Train. In addition to melodies that are easy on the ears and Ryan’s solid voice, I like the sparse instrumentation on most of the album’s songs. Many are dominated by acoustic guitar accompanied by bass and drums, with some accents of electric guitar and keyboards here and there. Where electric guitars are more in the foreground, Ryan barely uses distortion. Altogether, this creates a very transparent sound.

Here’s a clip of the album’s opener and first single, Do You Still Love Me, one of the few tunes with dominant keyboards and a more electric rock guitar sound.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Bon Jovi’s New Album Hits the Mark

The New Jersey rocker delivers a solid set of new songs.

On Friday (Nov 4), Bon Jovi released his 13th studio album, This House Is Not For Sale – the first without Richie Sambora. For the most part, it sounds like classic Bon Jovi.

When Sambora left in 2013 after 30 years, many people were wondering whether Bon Jovi could continue. My initial doubts were largely pushed aside after seeing one of the band’s shows that year in New Jersey. I always thought Sambora was such an integral part of the band who would be hard to replace, but I have to say Phil X did a great job. As such, I’m not surprised he appears on the new album as a core member of the band.

Another new official member is Hugh McDonald. After having worked with Bon Jovi in the studio since the band’s inception and been its bassist since 1994, this was long overdue. The remaining line-up includes original members Tico Torres (drums, percussion) and David Bryan (keyboards, piano).

Bon Jovi has always had a great gift to combine rock music with catchy hook lines. The album’s title song, which was previously released as a single in August, perfectly illustrates this. While it’s probably hard to write another Livin’ On a Prayer, the tune could well have been included on Crush, Have a Nice Day or The Circle, Bon Jovi’s studio releases from 2000, 2005 and 2009, respectively. I have no doubt it will become a crowd pleaser during future live shows, as will Knockout, the second single released last month.

Some of the reviews I’ve seen note Sambora brought a certain edginess to Bon Jovi’s sound that’s missing on the new album. Sure, the songs don’t rock quite as hard as on the band’s releases from the 80s. But their music started to evolve from pop metal to more of a pop rock formula while Sambora was still there.

Sambora may have left the band in 2013, but he certainly continued to be on Jon Bon Jovi’s mind. While in various interviews Bon Jovi suggested the door isn’t necessarily shut for Sambora to return, he was quick to add he didn’t think this was possible after having been absent for such a long time. He is probably right.

The album’s second song, Living with the Ghost, is said to reflect Bon Jovi’s thoughts on Sambora’s departure. While Bon Jovi has denied rumors about a fall-out over money, Sambora’s departure remains mysterious to this day. Regardless of the specific circumstances, the lyrics suggest some bitter feelings, at least on Bon Jovi’s end:

“I ain’t living with the ghost

No future living in the past

I’ve seen what hate has done to hope

Tomorrow wasn’t built to last

I ain’t living with the ghost

How can I scream? I’m scared to breathe

I wrote each word, you gave the toast

But we were fire and gasoline

I ain’t living with the ghost…”

Labor of Love, a ballad, has guitar portions that remind me a bit of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. The album also includes two other slow songs. To me the standout among these tunes is Scars on This Guitar.

Jon Bon Jovi co-wrote most of the album’s songs with Billy Falcon and John Shanks, both musical collaborators on previous studio releases. Shanks also became the band’s touring rhythm guitarist this year.

Now that the new album is out, Bon Jovi fans won’t have to wait for too long for a chance to see the band return to the stage. According to a Rolling Stone story from last month, Bon Jovi is planning a six-week tour in 2017 in support of the new album. The 20-gig tour is supposed to kick off on Feb 8 in Greenville, SC and conclude on March 22nd in Indianapolis.