Monday, September 30, 2013


There's nothing I like better than checking out old singles from the past, gems from the 60's or early 70's when the name of the game was duking it out to make the best hits.  The competition was fierce; to get played on the radio or stocked in juke boxes, you had to rock like the newest Beatles or Stones, make 'em dance like all those Motown greats, or create sonic symphonies like Phil Spector or The Beach Boys.  For every Top 40 hit, there were dozens of failures, but often not for quality reasons, they just couldn't get heard by enough people to make them hits.

Across North America there were hundreds of little regional labels, who might have a local hit with an artist, but couldn't get wide enough distribution or radio play to make it onto the charts.  Flip through the lists, and you'll find Bobby Hamilton, George Hamilton IV, Roy Hamilton, and of course Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, but unfortunately Big John Hamilton never made the Top 100, let alone the Top 40.  That's because Big John recorded for the tiny Minaret label, based in Valparaiso, Florida.  He was a killer soul singer, with that deep south sound, the Stax and Muscle Shoals version, not the slicker Northern equivalent.  He recorded from 1967 to 1976, the life of Minaret, the biggest name in a stable of similar hitless artists.  Of course, that doesn't mean he wasn't good.

He was, in fact, quite a fine singer, and these productions cook with fine quality production, arrangement and performance.  Minaret was set up by a local entrepreneur, Finlay Duncan, a guy so universally liked that his nickname was Friendly.  Friendly got into the music game after owning juke boxes, and set up his own recording studio in Valparaiso.  Like other great Southern studios, that attracted local talent looking for work, including singers, writers, arrangers and musicians.  Soon he had a crack team hanging around, the studio was hopping, and a bunch of great records were made.  Too bad none of them ever got out of the South.

There are twenty Minaret singles collected here, both A and B-sides, spread over two discs, and a full half of them feature Hamilton.  Big John was an excellent singer in the Otis Redding style, which by '67 was huge across the South.  But Big John was no copyist, he brought his own take on things, a little more Gospel, a little less plaintive, and more partying.  Cuts such as Fine Time and Big Fanny were aimed at the dancers.  All his singles are worthy in fact, and the b-sides are no toss-offs either, as much quality went into them, which makes this collection even better.  There's a delicious country-soul version of Before The Next Teardrop Falls, far funkier than the version Freddie Fender had a hit with in the 70's.

Other artists came and went on Minaret, including Genie Brook, Leroy Lloyd and Johnny Dynamite.  Their singles all met the same fate, but thanks to the high standards at the label and studio, all are gems to be discovered by soul fans.  You don't have to stick with the same Stax hits over and over, go deeper into the South and find something that deserved a better fate.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Webb's been writing songs for others since 1965, and has regularly recorded himself as well.  For some reason, while others have had huge, enduring hits, he has never broken through on his own, even though he's a household name.  Conventional wisdom is that he doesn't have the voice and personality to hit on his own, but he sounds just fine on this new collection.  He's joined by a mixed bag of stars, old and new, going through choices, famous and lesser-known, of his huge catalog. 

He's done this before, as recently as 2010's Just Across The River, so the hits have largely been claimed already.  So no Galveston, Wichita Lineman, or By The Time I Get To Phoenix here.  That's okay though, because it forces him to find some other good ones that haven't been heard too much.  That includes Elvis And Me, one of the few songs about Presley that actually is interesting, and completely true.  In a classy move, Webb's guests here are The Jordanaires, The King's old backing vocal buddies.  Another lesser-known gem is Easy For You To Say, covered first by Linda Ronstadt on her 80's album Get Closer.  With her recently-announced illness, in steps Carly Simon for the duet duties, no slouch in that department.  But it's here that Webb really shows his voice has grown better with maturity, as he ably carries his end with a the famous pipes of Simon.

Newer guests include English star Rumer, whom Webb has championed in her short career, joining in on the title cut.  The left-field choice of guests has to be Justin Currie.  It turns out Webb is a fan of Currie's group Del Amitri, and simply wanted his voice here.  Most of the other folks are pretty obvious choices, friends from Webb's long career, including Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, America, all of whom he's worked with in the past, plus Crosby & Nash, Marc Cohn, Keith Urban, Lyle Lovett and Joe Cocker.

Not all of Webb's big hits had been taken up by the Just Across The River project, and this proves to be unfortunate.  He attempts a remake of Honey Come Back, this time with Kris Kristofferson handling the spoken word part first done by Glen Campbell, and its just cornball.  It never was much of a song, anyway.  Worse though is the highly-contentious MacArthur Park.  It's always had many detractors, and despite a new arrangement and quite glorious backing vocals featuring Brian Wilson, it's still an overwrought lyric.  Donna Summer's disco take was better.  But the good ones outweigh the clunkers here, and once again Webb shows why he's one of the best songwriters of our time.  More surprisingly, he proves a better interpreter of the songs than he's been credited with in the past.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Yoakim's hit-making string stalled in the new millenium, but this collection attempts to show he still made magic.  It grabs cuts from the several albums released since 2000, a mixed bag at best.  While always being touted as a maverick, trumpeting "real" country over Nashville pop, Yoakam came to prove he's not above going slick either.  Or selling himself.  His version of Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love was originally a Gap commercial, so successful he released it as a single, a #1 in Canada and the last time he visited the Top 10 country singles charts.  There's a (previously unreleased) duet here with Michelle Branch, she of crossover fame with Carlos Santana.  And there's the obligatory team-up with Willie Nelson, the guy you phone when you're desperate for a hit.  Yoakam's no purist.

Elsewhere, he does stick true to his roots though.  There's an entire tribute album out there to Buck Owens, his mentor and muse, called Dwight Sings Buck, released in 2007, just after Owens passed.  That includes a couple of faithful renditions included on this package, reclaiming Act Naturally from Ringo, and also a thoroughly excellent reworking of Close Up The Honky Tonks, made a modern ballad.  So there you go, you can have it both ways, old and  new style country.  The main thing is to write or cover inspired songs. 

He's only partially successful with that, at least weighing the 14 cuts here.  For some reason, the only track from the acclaimed 2010 album 3 Pairs included here is a muddy mess produced by Beck, A Heart Like Mine, a case of the wrong producer wrecking a good cut.  There are far better numbers on that disc.  The compilers do grab a couple of gems from the 2005 disc Blame The Vain, the title cut and Intentional Heartache, but those were (failed) singles, so they didn't have to think too hard.  I have all those Yoakam albums, and have pretty much enjoyed them all.  The problem here is a sloppy job choosing his best, which is odd, since Yoakam himself is one of the two people who picked them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This is blues with a punch from Waterloo, Ontario's Daddy Long Legs.  Proudly electric and raunchy, the group turns it up and keeps it there, eleven originals all from a nasty place.  They rock more than most rock bands,

Each cut features searing leads from harp player Chris "Junior" Malleck, and guitarist MIke Elliot, who also handles the vocals. Add rock-solid rhythm section Steve Toms on bass and Jeff Wagner on drums, and that's all they need, no guests, no horn sections, no detours.  The guitar and harp and lead vocals are pushing into the red, distortion almost a fifth member of the band.  Play loud to get the maximum effect.

There are a couple of jump blues numbers, which prove where rock n' roll came from, one slow number to end things off, but the rest are head-on, hard-working, 12-bar workouts.  Verse, verse, rip a harp solo, another verse, do the same on guitar, and nobody lets up until its done.  While they haven't re-invented the wheel, Daddy Long Legs give it more gas than most.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


This one's for the audio fans, and those who like nice big packages.  It's a four-disc, one DVD version of the famous Rock Of Ages live set from late December of 1971.  Is there much new?  Song-wise, no, just one actual tune that hadn't been heard from these shows, Strawberry Wine.  What is new is a greatly-revamped sound mix, and the complete New Year's Eve show of the four-night stand, from start to finish.  So that means there's a virtually identical set list, a compilation of different performances on Discs 1 and 2, and the Dec. 31 show on 3 and 4.  The DVD provides yet another mix, this time in 5.1 sound, with the only visual content a couple of recently-found fim clips from Dec. 30.

Rock Of Ages has already been expanded once before, in The Band reissues series, with the most significant edition the four-song encore set with Bob Dylan, certainly a highlight, but it's inclusion here is no longer newsworthy.  So really, you have to ask yourself if you want the best-possible audio treats, and a nice new package for your money, rather than the old 2-disc or 2-album set.  It does sound remarkable, and even better, it's nice to have the complete New Year's Eve show in the exact running order, as the original Rock Of Ages for some reason mixed the tracks up mightily.  Now, all the delicious horn arrangements are found on the second half of the show, when the players were brought on that night.  The box itself is nice, with a good essay from Robbie Robertson, and some words from Jim James and Mumford and Sons, flavours of the day who bow at the alter.

Now, let us address this package for those who've never heard the album.  GOOD LORD, why are you still reading this, and not on some website ordering it?  Rock Of Ages is simply one of the best live albums ever, with The Band at the peak of its powers.  The plaintive vocals of the three lead singers, each one (Helm, Danko, Manuel) with their own specialty, and together simply miraculous, are just the start.  You can listen to Rick Danko's amazing bass playing the whole way through, and marvel at what a master he was.  Robbie Robertson is probably the most tasteful lead guitar player of his day, his stinging, short passages coming in just at the right moment to raise the emotion.  Richard Manuel is a tempest on piano, vastly underrated, and when he goes mad on the rock and roll numbers such as Rag Mama Rag, nobody can touch him.  Garth Hudson is the wild card, his organ and keyboard tricks coming from a place no one but he could imagine.  His classic improv number, The Genetic Method, incorporates space-rock to licks learned playing the services in the Anglican Church back in Ontario.  Plus, the show is pretty much a greatest hits package, with Up On Cripple Creek, Stage Freight, The Shape I'm In, The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Live Is A Carnival and many more faves.

Then there's the encore, first added on the expanded CD of Rock Of Ages, with Dylan.  The four-song set shows why The Band were always Dylan's best on-stage group, with jovial versions of Basement Tapes-era tunes Down In The Flood, When I Paint My Masterpiece and Don't Ya Tell Henry, capped off with a rousing Like A Rolling Stone, Dylan sounding fully engaged and happy.  Robertson reveals in the booklet it was all pretty casual coming together, including the merging of the group with Allan Toussaint's horn arrangements.  Even Dylan didn't know what they'd play until he stepped on stage.  All this proves what most already know, The Band were the best.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Here's how the pattern goes:  Elton releases a new one, it has some echoes of the past, and there seems to be a bit of interest, certain reviews claim its his best since, what, Yellow Brick Road, or compare it to Tumbleweed Connection, a few others say its fine but there's no hit singles, and it disappears.  Elton does a bit of press, but then hits the road with the same old That 70's Show tour.  It's been that way for 20 years now.

But something felt better about his last album, The Union, with his old hero, Leon Russell.  It had a maturity to it, and seemed to grab Elton's interest a bit more than in the past.  I guess you could say it felt like he was hungrier.  It's been a long time since he put out a true clunker, and you can't say the guy's ever been lazy, but he's old school too.  You write, you record, you tour, you live with it.  This one feels like he tried harder, and worked longer.  It's been pushed back several times, and was originally supposed to come out over a year ago.  New songs have been written, others dropped, and a theme emerged to John, that of a real piano album.

Aiding in that was producer T Bone Burnett, returning from The Union sessions.  Burnett suggested a return to the old Elton John Band days, with just piano, bass and drums, and aside from a few deviations, that's pretty much what this album is.  I don't think there's ever been an album of his with so much piano.  Each song has a mellow melody, John's keys up front, instrumental passages connecting verses and choruses.  Long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin contributes some of his strongest lyrics in years, largely a set of reminiscences, typified by Home Again.  That key ballad is filled with the sadness of someone who realizes all of life's searching brought little except the desire for comfort found in the familiar.  More memories can be found in Oceans Away, of ones they left behind, trees in winter, old grey lions, the stuff of age.  The title cut again looks back in time, when the singer was 16.

In response to the words, the usual way John writes, it's a low-key album, with no big choruses, no I'm Still Standing bravado, and yes, no hit singles.  But that's perfectly within rights and reasonable expectations;  he's a singer with a piano here, a tear and a beer, not chasing Top 10 dreams anymore.  He's making music he can be proud of.  It takes a listen or two to come around to the blue piano theme of the album, but once you settle in, you'll find a different Elton John to enjoy, and we still have all the 70's music to enjoy anyway.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


While there are only two previously-unreleased tracks here, this two-disc set does a good job of collecting all the harder-to-find Stewart tracks from his great early days in one place.  These are, for the most part, taken from the sessions for his first five solo albums, from The Rod Stewart album in '69 to Smiler in '74.  As every fan, and Rod himself knows, this is the best he ever did, especially the remarkable Every Picture Tells A Story album of '71.

That's the home to Maggie May, and we get two versions here.  The first is a previously-unreleased BBC radio recording, with a full (unidentified) band, in fine form doing a great live take.  The other is a working version of the track, before the lyrics were finished, with Stewart adlibbing some lines, something about "I don't wanna tell ya/but you kinda look like a fella."  This, and several of the other cuts were released on the The Rod Stewart Sessions box set in 2009, but nobody bought that.  At a much cheaper price you can now pick up early takes of Seems Like A Long Time, Lost Paraguayos, Italian Girls, I'd Rather Go Blind, and Stewart's grand take on Jimi Hendrix's Angel.  There's also a version of You Wear It Well, again with only partial lyrics, but that familiar band arrangement already in place.

There are some hard-to-find single tracks here, including his b-side country cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' What Made Milwaukee Famous, and the one-off Rod/Faces 45, Oh! No Not My Baby/Jodie, the latter a highlight cut.  The Smiler album turns out to be a goldmine of out-takes, including several tracks that didn't make the album.  While those showed up on a 2002 3-disc compilation of these years, again it's likely that isn't in your collection and this is a cheaper way to do it. 

The other new cut here is again from the BBC vaults, a 1971 recording of Elton John's Country Comforts, done at such a slow tempo the band has a hard time holding back, but Stewart sounds great of course.  I'm a little disappointed there weren't more previously unreleased cuts included, but I'm one of the few that has those other collections, so this should be a pretty attractive number to fans of golden-era Rod.

Friday, September 20, 2013


Another garage-psych-heavy twang disc from The Sadies, just the way we love 'em.  As well as some ferocious playing, the hallmark of a Sadies release, this one includes some of the best individual songs they've penned.  The Very Beginning is a heavy powerhouse, propelled by monster drums from Mike Biletsky, Dallas and Travis Good in close harmony, the tune itself one of their fine examples of updated Summer Of Love-era sounds.  Starting All Over Again goes through several tempos and sections, a journey of a song that circles back on itself, like the relationship described in the lyrics, "there's no way of telling the beginning from the end."  The Very Ending, one of the group's trademark instrumentals, closes off Side 1, with a taste of their epic Morricone/surf melange.  Another Tomorrow Again is The Byrds on speed, with some of the fiercest guitar licks they've ever done.

The disc is split into Side 1 and Side 2, like their beloved 60's albums, and it's short and sweet like them too, under 40 minutes.  You can't begrudge that, the band has already put out one album this year, all playing on the excellent Good Family disc, and has another due soon, collaborating with Gord Downie on his long-awaited next solo project.  But they are wise too, always leave 'em wanting more, and anything over 45 minutes inevitably leaves the listener restless.

There's a special track closing things out, as the group teams up with First Nations and Canadian hero Buffy Sainte-Marie, for a song called We Are Circling.  It's a unique piece that was started by the group, who then asked Sainte-Marie to join in.  Being mutual fans, she played mouth bow on the droning track, and then brought in some older words from the 70's, coming up with this new version.  It continues the circular theme, and although you'll barely recognize The Sadies in it, is such an uplifting number, it's wonderful it has found a home here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Tony Joe White does what TJW has always done; a swampy take on one-chord John Lee Hooker blues, albeit fleshed out with bass, drums and lots of fuzzy guitar licks.  It's all done at one slow tempo, seemingly leisurely, but tight as a knot.  There's danger in every song, not that you can make out what from his mumble.  But that's the blues, isn't it?  He tells us his baby's got a sweet tooth in one verse, and the next she's got a mean streak.  That's dangerous sugar.

Simplicity is the key here, not the sameness in each track.  What you're looking for is the subtle differences; where the bass steps up a tone during the brief instrumental break, and quickly slips back down to the usual key.  The way the guitar licks answer the vocals, different in each song.  How the basic drumming differs from cut to cut.  In the words of Neil Young, it's all one song, but White and co. show there's lots of ways to play it.

The album's filled with Southern tales, of floods and alligators and gypsies.  You know there's nastiness and cheating and such, but it's not overly dramatic, it's just life.  Sometimes bad things happen.  They usually make a good song.  White's not the best vocalist for his efforts, always hard to make out, which explains why others (Brook Benton, Rainy Night In Georgia, Tina Turner with Steamy Windows) have had bigger success, but nobody else will get the sound quite right.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Welcome back, Neko, after four years, and according to her recent interviews, a bout of depression and tough times, including the death of her father.  What we get is a fascinating album, musically and lyrically adventurous, hard to describe, sometimes hard to fathom, but top-notch right through.  While there are still little bits of the alt-country she became known for, she's advanced into territories that defy easy categorization, and all the better for that.  There's are left-field rockers that recall the sounds of Los Lobos and Calexico (Steve Berlin, Joey Burns and John Convertino all appear, along with several other guests), great pop charmers (AC Newman, her pal from New Pornographers is here too), and stripped-down acoustic, quiet numbers as well.

Still, the star as always is Case's voice, one of the great set of pipes, tough and dramatic, edged with sadness.  She can sing it all, and always leads the song, no matter what's happening musically.  Her tender, soft vocal on the only cover here, Nico's Afraid (nice namesake choice there), is performed with such clarity and precise diction, it becomes a nursery rhyme, albeit a spooky kind of one.  And of course, the co-star is Kelly Hogan, her long-time harmonizer and backing weapon, especially on the rockers, where their one-two punch is irresistible.

All this vocal power is particularly effective with the rather odd set of lyrics here.  Many of the tracks are said to be autobiographical, but she's not giving too many hints.  Try to get your head around I'm From Nowhere's opening, "Goodnight, sunshine..The ghetto-bird shines 4 am, welcome to the West.  A mosquito to kiss your hands and feet, welcome to this dirty business."  I predict hours of fun trying to understand what's what, but the words sound great, are sung great, and nobody writes like her.  Here's some more: "My brain makes drugs that keep me slow/A hilarious joke for some dead pharaoh/But now, not even the Masons know what drug will keep night from coming."  I got nothing.  Yet.  No worries though, whatever tumult she's been through, there's much strength passed on here, in an album that's special from start to finish.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


This is a fine double-disc best-of, but what I really want is the new Sound System box set, a gorgeous new 11 CD - 1 DVD collection, housed in a replica ghetto blaster and retailing for around $200.  It features all the original albums plus rare tracks, demos, live stuff and non-LP material.  Sweet.  Someday.

Meantime, this packed set comes at the same time to appeal to us financially impaired fans.  It's well-packed at 32 cuts, and an interesting collection.  It was assembled not in the usual manner, but instead comes from a Joe Strummer 1982 set list.  Strummer spent a lot of time coming up with the ideal selections, and as this collection proves, he was a better judge than most at appealing to fans and finding the core tracks that showed what the band was about.  It's certainly a more representative bunch of tracks than what can be found on The Essential two-disc set, the current hits package that's available, better cuts overall, and a better listening experience.

Instead of going chronologically through the band's career, the set-list inspired track listing bounces all over the place, up to that year's hit album Combat Rock.  And since the only other album issued was the abysmal Cut The Crap, this doesn't miss out on any potential inclusions.  The obvious ones are here, London Calling, Clampdown, Rock The Casbah, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Train in Vain.  Since it was a live show, it's heavy on rockers, reggae and ska-influenced numbers (Wrong 'Em Boyo, Police & Thieves) and rampaging covers (I Fought The Law).  While I miss some of the softer moments, such as Lost In The Supermarket, The Clash were at their best with power, and that's what you get here.  A set list that made for a great concert now makes for an excellent driving mix.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Cale Sampson has more to say in one tune than most writers do in a career.  The Toronto rapper takes on everything from world banking to hunger to the wage gap to corporate deception, tracing economic political control over centuries, and that's just in the first track, Reach Up.  Sampson calls his stuff info-rap, and he's sure laying it down here, attacking the twin towers of government and banks in several numbers, getting pretty deep into complex economic theory.  That's his bag, he wants to make a difference and use his microphone to educate and rally the troops.  In other words, he ain't rhymin' about ho's and pimps.

There probably isn't another forum where you could rhyme about "Goldman-Sachs sold sub-prime mortages they knew were bad/they also profited by betting they'd all fail, so they'd win any way/and no one went to jail."  The trick is to make it entertaining, and despite his getting into the 50-trillion dollar U.S. debt, the C.I.A. and money-laundering and flouride and Monsanto, it's a hell of a lot more interesting than 99 per cent of most MC's output.  Throw in media monopolies controlling mass communication, and it starts to feel a bit like Conspiracy Theory 101, but as Sampson says himself, "If you think I'm wrong, go ahead try to stump me/let's see you write a song smart as this to debunk me."

Whether you agree with anything he says or not, the point is, it's good fodder for songs, and a whole lot better than most lyrics from any genre.  About the only thing Sampson has in common with other hip-hop writers is the bragging; on Nothing To Prove, he lays down his manifesto, tells us he's smarter than the average bear, and explains how he's getting successful without selling out, no record company, no manager, just himself:  "It's time for you to think outside of the box/the music I make's not your typical hip-hop/I can do the punchline thing, but it's easy for me/It's boring, I'd rather say something that's important/There's a difference between me and other rappers/all you have to do is listen to the subject matter/Ain't nobody else trying to enlighten your minds/putting their life on the line with what they're writing in rhymes."  While most of the set is devoted to the big picture topics, he breaks things up with, of all things, a love song, and a good one, Jamie's Song, about how is life is better with his partner.

Sampson's launching his disc this coming Saturday, Sept. 14 for you folks in the Toronto area.  The release party is being held at The Winchester Kitchen and Bar.

Monday, September 9, 2013


"Have a bunch a kids that call me Pa, that must be what it's all about."  Bob Dylan pondered that in Sign On The Window, originally released on the New Morning album in 1970, recorded in a massive session that saw both that album, the earlier Self Portrait set, and most of the out-takes that make up this two-disc set.  It was the question that in some ways haunted Dylan over the years, the one people thought he could answer, such as the infamous stalker/garbage researcher A.J. Weberman, who taunted him with the shouted question, 'What's it all about, Bob?'.  Then there was the lover who, to his shock, asked him much the same in Idiot Wind:  "Even you yesterday you had to ask me where it was at/I couldn't believe after all these years you didn't know even me better than that."  At the time of writing that line from Sign On The Window, Dylan had been hiding out for a bit, raising a bunch of kids, and maybe it was what it was all about then.  But it didn't stay that way for long, and his restless spirit took over.  Bob Dylan rarely stops for long, changes frequently, but always seems to have a greater plan in mind.

That's certainly what you'll discover with this set, an alternate look at the period that roughly covers 1969-1971, a hitherto somewhat maligned period, looked upon as the era that saw Self Portrait come out, his critically smashed album of cover versions, and a handful of live cuts.  New Morning came out just four months later, and although better received, full of originals, damage had been done.  Dylan himself has stated he was trying to stop the belief he was the one who knew it all, by releasing the covers.  That's long left the question, was it any good, then?

This alternative look at Self Portrait, and the associated New Morning sessions, will change the way we see that period.  Filled with some radically different versions, completely unheard further covers, and familiar ones stripped of producer-led overdubs, we get yet another treasure trove from the ongoing Bootleg Series.  With a huge booklet explaining the times, and the recent discovery of many of the pre-release tapes, it continues the program of top-notch packages.  Whether or not Dylan was trying to be difficult, as he's proven many times before and since then, he's a big lover of real folk songs, whether they are numbers that can be traced back a century or more, or fitting originals by some of his more recent peers.  Here we get alternatives recorded but discarded for Self Portrait, such as Greenwich Village colleague Eric Andersen's Thirsty Boots, or the delightful Tom Paxton number Annie's Going To Sing Her Song.  House Carpenter, a standard of the folk clubs he haunted, as ancient as they get, is a return to his own roots.  Tattle O'Day is the kind of number he'd start doing again in the 1990's, often opening concerts with a public domain number.

It's a time when Dylan was unsure of his own voice, and you'll hear him go through several different styles and ranges, attempting (quite successfully) to be more of a singer and less the shouter he'd been during the mid-60's electric sessions.  It's a joy to hear this crooning voice, at a time when he could still pull it off without the wear and tear of age.  The performances are largely simple, the bulk of them just acoustics, Dylan often accompanied by David Bromberg, keyboards, including many fine contributions from Al Kooper, and sometimes a small group.  Mostly though, it's an intimate collection.  Dylan might be pulling old covers out of his hat, but he had a big hat, great ears, and a real enthusiasm for the material, hardly the work of someone sneering at his audience, as has been suggested.  Perhaps it was the overdubs on Self-Portrait that tainted the songs more, so getting ones such as Little Sadie and Wigwam without the orchestration is yet another bonus to the set.

For me, it's the alternate versions from the New Morning sessions that are the biggest and most enjoyable surprise.  A rockier Time Passes Slowly, Sign On The Window well-sweetened with orchestra, and a stunningly different If Not For You all are highlights.  Then there's a previously-unreleased cut from the Basement Tape sessions of '67 with The Band, low on fidelity but high on performance, Minstrel Boy, and a lovely alternate take of Nashville Skyline's I Threw It All Away, grand to have.  The set closes with a demo of the well-known When I Paint My Masterpiece, a strong piano version by Dylan, including a couple of very different lines to the well-known Band version.  Big fans or casual ones will find much to enjoy, and best of all, we just got two more hours of excellent Bob Dylan music.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


There's a sweet-looking four disc box set of the same name just out, but you can cheap out with this single-disc version to grab some hits and obscurities.  It's not a greatest hits, but it does include the big ones:  Family Affair, Dance To The Music, Hot Fun In The Summertime, Everyday People, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), several in original, glorious mono mixes.  Stand! is also included, in a strong live version, from 1970's Isle Of Wight concert.  So if you want it to fill the job of a best-of, it does pretty well.

The rest of the 16-track disc is an interesting cross-section, with some failed but strong 45's, unreleased out-takes, and even a wacky experiment, a thing called Small Fries which is Sly speeding up his vocals helium-style.  Mostly though, you get ground-breaking funk, soul and jazz in that incredible blend Stone put together, mixing races, genders and genres when any such combo was considered risky at best, and an affront in some States.   Brimming with ideas, every new release would bring in another milestone in the group's glory years, whether it was Larry Graham introducing his plucked-bass style on Thank You (and planting the seeds for disco) or Sly and the jazz underpinnings and heroic horns of Dance To The Music.  Pity it all went pear-shaped by the mid-70's, hopefully this will raise the band's profile because in my thinking, not enough credit or cachet goes their way.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Here's the answer to the theoretical question, what if Ian Curtis hadn't committed suicide, but through intervention and talk therapy had cheered up a bit, and then re-joined his fellow band mates, happily following the more dancey-techno path they would soon embrace?  In other words, a slightly-gloomy, shoe-gazey New Order, with more guitar?  Methinks it might sound like this new L.A. duo, fond of pretty much anything post-1978 with a synth in it.  They like their old-school drum machines, their Britpop melodies on top of dance grooves, a little psych to add to the atmosphere, and low, earnest singing and lyrics.

The big breakthrough is the blend here, which does the tough trick of making the more dark elements of the music and mood succumb to the danceable, happy side.  It's not as disparate as it might seem on paper, as one side tends to balance off the other.  There's lots of echo and slightly-muddy singing, for instance, but the clean machines shine some light in.  Big, melodic bass lines contend with distorted or jangly guitar.  A little noise here and there offsets the programming.  It's a fine compromise album, for people who like a bit of everything and aren't too snobby about their genres.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


A fine addition to the Americana family.  This North Carolina duo will get the usual comparisons to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but they are a little more sweeter and simpler, and they share the vocals more.  Andrew Marlin even takes a few more leads than Emily Frantz, although the harmonies are all through.  If you want a comparison, I'd peg him more of a Guy Clark type, laid-back and lived-in with a campfire delivery.  Frantz is sweet on the harmonies, but more rural-sounding on the leads, all the g's cut off the end of words, leadin', singin', etc.

It would be pretty hard to put a date on the music, somewhere between 1850 and yesterday, but the words are current, no old-timey wannabes.  There's beauty infused in each song, in a lovely melody or harmony, a sweet mandolin, chilling and soaring violin, or ringing piano.  That's a real key here, to my ears, how pleasing the music is, and how well it offsets the rustic vocals.  Plus, the duo and band manage to make the songs swing at times, no easy feat with dusty-road ballads.  The roots world is getting pretty crowded these days, but when you can sing this well together, and make your songs sound so rich, you deserve a prime spot at the table.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Sures is a blues man with a difference here, a refreshing change of pace.  His short, witty songs certainly don't sound like the standards.  Love Will Kick Your Ass is an obvious grinner, and on I Could Be Your Man, the usual blues bragging is replaced by up-to-date reasons:  "I'm like Darth Vader with a carburetor."  Even when he's playing it relatively straight, such as the longer Pamela Pamela, his guitar solo is suitably wacky.

Produced by the sublime Don Kerr (Ron Sexsmith), and accompanied by A-listers (Paul Reddick on harp and harmonies, Kerr on drums, Ken Whiteley on piano), this is relaxed and raw, but lively and pure pro.  Eat Drink And Make Babies keeps up the smiles, with the quick closing line "..and maybe when it's over take a nap" typical of the lyric surprises he likes to drop like little bombs.

Sures is usually found in the roots department, but this time he decided to visit the blues aisle for a full disc, bringing over his quirky writing.  He also has his ear to the rest of the world's blues roots, covering African and Spanish numbers as well, showcases for his strong guitar playing.  In his understated way, he's a master at these foreign styles as much as he is the North American versions.  Hearing his deconstruction of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean is worth the price alone.  He's someone who really knows how to breathe fresh life into a too-often staid genre.