Tuesday, August 15, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE NIGHTHAWKS - ALL YOU GOTTA DO

Blues bands are a little like baseball teams, I figure. Once you root for one, you always like them, no matter how much the lineup changes or their fortunes rise and fall. Real good bands, like real good franchises, always seem to be able to put on a good show. I think of The Nighthawks as like the Yankees or Dodgers, always putting a good team together. I'll stop the baseball metaphor, hopefully you get my point.


I remember seeing the D.C. band back in the mid-80's, when there was a big buzz about them. They put on a steamy show led by singer/harpist Mark Wenner and guitar player Jimmy Thackery. Only Wenner remains of the original quartet all these years later, but that high quality and intensity still remains on this latest disc. Never purists, instead the group is happy to throw a lot of styles out there, as long as has that electric energy. Case in point, this disc ends with the beloved Dirty Water by The Standells, harped-up but still retaining the garage rock feel. I can't think of another blues band that has claimed that tune. Same goes for the Jesse Winchester cut Isn't That So, bringing more of a roots sound to the fore.

There's no short-shrift to true blues either, with the group's strong originals, such as drummer Mark Stutso's VooDoo Doll, and Wenner's mellow instrumental Blues for Brother John. And the band knows how to make those old rent-party blues numbers like Willie Dixon's I Want To Be Loved just as danceable as it was in the day. It's good to know the Nighthawks still wear the team colours with pride.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - OFFICIAL RELEASE SERIES 8.5-12

Here are the latest Neil Young vinyl reissues, part of his ongoing, ever-changing archive work, mastered for this release from the original analog tapes. The latest news is that he's going to put his entire recording legacy online in super high quality for streaming, but we don't know if that means he'll stop putting out physical releases now of his old music. If so, at least all the great original albums up to the end of the '70's have now been brought back to the market with these five albums. Originally issued as a boxed collection back before Christmas, you can now get each separately.

The weakest of the group here is the Stills-Young Band set, the result of another failed attempt at a CSNY album in 1976. Crosby and Nash left the sessions before the album was complete, so the other two wiped their contributions, and used only their own work. The title cut became a Young classic, but mostly due to its inclusion on his Decade collection. The rest of the tracks pale, with four more Young contributions and four of Stills'. Side two is better, with Young's Let It Shine and Fontainebleau approaching, but not worthy of his On The Beach-era work. The biggest problem is that it was Still's band on the recordings, and it just feels that Young wasn't putting out a full effort. Of all his '70's output, this is weak link.

Young's next two albums were a lot better, and still hold up to play. American Stars 'n Bars was a salvage job of nine songs from four different sessions dating back to 1974, after he scuttled the albums Homegrown and Chrome Dreams. There are different styles, from country rock (Hey Babe) to epic guitar (Like A Hurricane). The newer tracks from '77 are more of a lark, but with Star of Bethlehem and Homegrown on side two, it's an important piece in his puzzle. Comes A Time from 1978 went further down the country road, and was seen as a concession back to the Harvest sound. It's the most produced of his albums, featuring a ton of instruments, from strings to fiddle by Rufus Thibodeaux to harmonies from Nicolette Larson. The title cut and his cover of Four Strong Winds brought back a lot of fans of his softer side, but Young wasn't about to stay that calm for long.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It's hard to remember what a shock Rust Never Sleeps was in 1979, but it forever changed cemented Young's reputation as an unpredictable wild card. The wild, distorted guitar of Hey Hey. My My (Into The Black) out-punked the punks, and the surreal lyrics of Ride My Llama and Sedan Delivery showed he was delightfully out to lunch. Meanwhile, Powderfinger was another guitar classic up there with Down By The River and Like A Hurricane. Getting the concert album Live Rust shortly after seemed like an extra present, and Young left the '70's back on top.

Goodness me these vinyl editions sound great, and I don't think I'll ever want to play these albums in any different format again. The 20 minute sides are exactly the way they should be heard, well-sequenced and for me, full of fond memories.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL KELLY - LIFE IS FINE

Kelly has long been a leading light songwriter-rocker in Australia, and occasionally his stuff gets though to a small but mighty following in North America. It's fad-less and no-nonsense, with great stories and excellent ensemble playing, roots-rock if that's a category Down Under. I'd call it Antipodean Austinian.

Above all, Kelly builds solid songs based on smart, conversational lines and moving melodies. Even the break-up song Petrichor has words and a tune that inspires: "I walked straight, didn't turn my head, the hardest thing I ever did, seabirds wheeling overhead and cryin'." Everything is to serve the song, and Kelly even generously hands over the vocal duties on My Man's Got A Cold to backing singer Vika Bull, since it makes more sense, and she nails the wailing blues. Her sister Linda gets to do the same for Don't Explain. He's brave too; Kelly takes an old Roy Orbison hit and updates the story in Leah: The Sequel, thus seeing his name join the legend's in the writer's credits. But it's a darn good one, and I doubt the Big O would have a problem with an album of such fine writing.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID RAWLINGS - POOR DAVID'S ALMANACK

It's no longer the Dave Rawlings Machine, as his first two albums were released as, but it's still the same deal. Rawlings is joined by Gillian Welch all the way through, only he takes the lead vocals. What is different is that this album is a lot more traditional than anything the pair have done, well over half the cuts pure old-time hill music. The songs are said to have been inspired and re-written old numbers, so it's difficult to know where the folk tradition stops and the Rawlings begins, and that is just fine. Certainly numbers such as Lindsey Button and Money Is The Meat In The Coconut sound 150 years old, and that's all that matters.

Rawlings is a master at the relaxed feel of these songs, almost hypnotic in their pace, the music serving the tales being spun. The song Yup is a laugh, each line of the story punctuated at the end with that knowing title word. Good God A Woman is a twist on the creation story: "That's when the Big Man made the little man, and all the animals too, but he saved the best for last." Most of these tracks keep a string band approach, but the pair do add drums to a couple of cuts, including the decidedly rocky Cumberland Gap, but it too is a classic 19th century story about traveling west. If this had come out under Welch's name and with the vocals more evenly shared, there would probably be a lot of talk about a masterpiece, so I hope this finds a large audience as well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: FAIRPORT CONVENTION - COME ALL YE

Fairport fans will go wacky with this new seven-disc box featuring a whopping 55 previously unreleased tracks. That includes two full live concerts from '73 and '74, and everything from outtakes to alternates to BBC tracks. And since it only covers the group's first decade, that means the glory days of their two brightest stars, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny are here.

The box does a great job of being a primer as well, and at a price of just under $100, is a reasonable way to begin the journey. You'll discover they actually started as more of a late '60's rock band with a nod to singer-songwriters, covering Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Dylan, while Thompson tentatively dipped his toe into writing, while firing off guitar-hero leads. With the addition of Denny and then fiddler Dave Swarbrick they started modernizing traditional material into rock band settings, and invented British folk rock. It differed from its American cousin in that it was a lot more folk, and a lot more rock. But the fragile mix was hard to capture for long. Whenever it strayed too far to one side or the other, defections would follow, starting with Iain "Shake It" Matthews, then Denny, followed by Thompson. The Swarb groups of the early '70's produced some good moments, but it was a relief when Denny returned in 1974, such a great singer.

There's so much room in the box, you can follow brilliant side roads in their career, including a stop at the rock and roll cover band The Bunch that featured Thompson and Denny playing Buddy Holly cuts with their old pals. Or you can see Fairport as one of the truly great Dylan covers bands, with early access to The Basement Tapes demos (Down In The Flood), and their British hit cover of If You Gotta Go, Go Now, done as a Cajun number completely in French (Si Tu Dois Partir).

The downside here is the sacrifice of packaging for price points, meaning only a small booklet and no info on where the cuts first appeared. It's a little too democratic as well, with lesser, later albums afforded the same space as classics. For you newbies, if this catches your fancy, you should just go out and buy copies of Unhalfbricking and Liege and Leaf as well. For you old fans, did I mention there are 55 previously unreleased cuts? You can ever own too many versions of Sloth, can you?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS & THE NASH RAMBLERS - AT THE RYMAN

These days, it's hard to find an empty night at the Mother Church of country music, the venerable Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Shows coming up in the next few weeks include Jason Isbell, Father John Misty, Alison Krauss and even UB40. Loretta Lynn had to cancel hers, recovering from a recent stroke. Through the day, you can take tours, or see an audio-visual presentation about the years when the building housed the original Grand Old Opry.

Shockingly, all that was almost lost to the wrecking ball. Back in 1991 when Emmylou Harris took the stage to record this live album, it was so decrepit the balcony was off-limits, and only 200 people were allowed inside the hall meant to hold over 2,000. But Harris's album, and the documentary done to focus attention on the 100-year old building helped spur renewed interest in its fate, and three years later a complete renovation occurred, making it a must-see spot in Nashville.

Par for the course for Harris, who was actually just looking for a spot to record her brand-new old-time group The Nash Ramblers, but turned it into a crusade. In a new second act in her career, she became the spokesperson for classic country, helping launch the Americana movement. The album featured bluegrass players Roy Huskey Jr., Sam Bush and Al Perkins, but with drummer Larry Atamanuik and second guitar/harmony singer Jon Randall Stewart helping bridge the gap to modern sounds. Harris matched old Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash songs with those from Steve Earle, Springsteen and even CCR's Lodi, showing how it all came together, that's it's all great music.

Harris has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Grammy-winning album with a series of projects. In May, she reconvened the Ramblers for a return engagement at the Ryman playing the complete album, soon to be a PBS special seen on every fundraiser. It's been reissued on vinyl, and this CD features two previously unreleased cuts, the song Rollin' and Ramblin' about Hank Williams, and the band instrumental The Nash Ramble.

Monday, August 7, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MATTHEW BYRNE - HORIZON LINES

For anyone who might think there's nothing new to offer from traditional music, I direct you immediately to Byrne's song Adelaide, not only completely new and completely true, it happened to his own family, his father, in 1990. A letter appeared in a St. John's newspaper from an old sailor, wondering if anyone knew what had happened to one Adelaide Byrne, whom he had met and fell in love with in 1947. It turned out to be Byrne's father's sister, who had died shortly after. The mystery had been solved for the sailor of why his first love had stopped writing him back.

Byrne has written a heart-tugging song of that story, fully the equal of the other great traditional ballads offered on his third solo album. Family has always been key to his career, on his own and with The Dardenelles, coming from a family of performers and music historians. With a clear voice that heads straight for your soul, Byrne does a masterful job highlighting the emotion in each song. Nancy From London is a Newfoundland song about that most frightening and common reality for many a century or more past, a sailor's wife having to live for months not knowing if her love would return home. He found Long Years Ago on a tape of his grandmother singing that his mother had made years back. His learned the Scottish number Farewell To Tarwathie from his uncle's repertoire. And his father Joe appears again, this time to sing Kitty Bawn O'Brien. Trad's alive and very well in Byrne's hands, and as it's always been, all about family.