LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’

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It was early my freshman year of high school when Led Zeppelin’s final album, ‘In Through The Out Door’ came out. Say what you want about Zeppelin’s swan song, it’s still amazing that they could put out that kind of quality record when the drummer was a raging alcoholic and the lead guitarist was strung-out on heroin. Ah, the 70s. ‘In Through The Out Door’ ushered in a different kind of vocal from Robert Plant. He wasn’t the shrieking banshee of ‘Zeppelin II’ any more, he was actually singing. Purportedly, Bonham and Page felt ‘In Through the Out Door’ was too “mellow” and were making plans for a more rocking follow-up when Bonham sadly passed away. For my part, I think “In The Evening” is a great rock tune. When your guitarist is sitting in a dark room with only a candle for light, comatose on heroin, it’s hard to put together an album that sounds like ‘Presence.’

At my high school, there was a group of guys who put up a sign-up sheet in the lunch room when Zeppelin announced their US tour. The guys had arranged to rent a bus that would take anybody who had the money up to Chicago, the nearest concert venue that Zeppelin was to play on that tour. Zeppelin rarely played Kansas City… there was a story, probably apocryphal that they’d been booed off staged early in their career in KC and they eschewed returning. I heard that same story about Bad Company, so who knows. Anyway, I can remember the dejected look on the faces of the guys who rented the bus when the news of Bonham’s sad passing was announced by our high school, lunchtime DJ. They had been so close to seeing Zeppelin, yet so far. I’m still surprised they let us play music in the lunchroom, my school was run by fascists.

And so, with a foolish, massive intake of vodka, Led Zeppelin, a pillar of 70s rock ‘n’ roll and well, rock ‘n’ roll in general, had toppled. I felt like I’d missed a great party… well, not missed, but only managed to get in on the tail end of the party, after all the pretty girls had left. I was, however, consoled in 1982 when Plant emerged with his first solo album. Those of us of a certain age still love ‘Pictures At Eleven.’ Plant’s singing on that record was more akin to what he did on ‘In Through The Out Door.’ Anybody looking for “The Immigrant Song” style of singing from Plant should have known back then, it wasn’t happening. “Burning Down One Side” is one of Plant’s best rock tunes… “How could I fall, without a show…” is a lyric that I only understand on a visceral, non-intellectual level, yet still love.

Thus began, for me, a life long devotion to the solo music of this brilliant artist. There is very little in Plant’s career that I could say I don’t like. I wasn’t crazy about his side-project The Honeydrippers but only his album ‘Shaken N Stirred’ could be described as missing the mark (way too much synthesizer). I love that Plant has gone through different phases of his career. He’s always searching, always testing his limits. He’s collaborated with different musicians at different times, always tinkering with his sound and approach. If that’s not the hallmark of an amazing artist, what is?

After a brief reunion with Jimmy Page for the Page-Plant albums and tours, both of which I saw (and was amazed by), Plant returned to his solo career with a covers album, ‘Dreamland.’ Despite it being mostly covers, I loved ‘Dreamland.’ It marked another evolution in Plant’s vocals. They started putting his voice right up front and augmenting it with more nontraditional, world-music kind of sounds. That sound carried through the exceptional album of originals, ‘Mighty Rearranger’ and led to the ‘Raising Sand’ project with Alison Krauss. ‘Raising Sand’ was a lot more successful than I think Plant was prepared for. If his reluctance to get Zeppelin back together is any indication, I think Plant shies away from the expectations to out-do his past… I doubt we see him do anything else with Krauss on a major scale ever again, much like Zeppelin.

Since the Plant-Krauss thing Plant simply returned to releasing great solo albums. ‘Band of Joy’ was produced by the lead guitarist of the Krauss album, Buddy Miller and boasted a  great harmony vocal from Patty Griffin. Band of Joy was the name of Plant’s first band with Bonham and the album by that name was Plant looking back to rootsy covers. I really thought that was a great, overlooked album. He followed that up with 2014’s ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ an exceptional album. ‘lullaby’ is the type of album this blog was founded on: a great, latter day album from a more mature artist that’s criminally overlooked. The first single from that record, “Rainbow” is one of my all-time favorite Plant tunes… although even I’ll admit, that’s a long list. The man has a golden voice.

I mention the album ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ because the sounds on that album really inform Plant’s stunning new record, ‘Carry Fire.’ His backing band, the Sensational Shape Shifters is back – Skin Tyson, Justin Adams on guitar, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, John Baggot on keyboards and (the secret weapon in the band) Juldeh Camara on West African instruments. Plant and his band are pulling together American roots music, folk, traditional Welsh, African, rock and roll and “world-music” into a swampy gumbo of sound. As has been the case since ‘Dreamland’ Plants vocals are right up front in the mix, where they belong.

It’s easy to describe Plant’s music as a little mellower or quieter nowadays, but again, when you compare most music to say, ‘Physical Graffiti’ it’s probably going to sound mellow. The first single, “The May Queen” (reviewed earlier, Robert Plant: “The May Queen,” The New Song From The Upcoming ‘Carry Fire’) is wonderful up-beat acoustic number not dissimilar to “Gallows Pole.” It’s a perfect introduction to this music. The pace quickly picks up with the rocking guitar crunch of “New World…” You quickly realize on first listen, this album is special.

Plant then takes a huge left turn with the ballad “Season’s Song” which reminds me of the lush “Song To the Siren” from ‘Dreamland.’ Love remains the topic on the next track, “Dance With You Tonight.” All four of these tracks go in different sonic directions yet it’s all held together as a whole by Plant’s vocals… I just love where his voice is right now. He even manages a touch of politics in the topical “Carving Up the World… A Wall and Not a Fence.” I love Plant’s hippy, 60’s vibe. He’s like that cool  hippy uncle who let you drink beer before you were legally able to.

“Keep It Hid” is an atmospheric number that just seems to get better with each repeated listen. I love the guitar solo on that one…  “A Way With Words” is another piano driven ballad with a honey sweet vocal. The title track, “Carry Fire,” in another stylistic turn, has a middle eastern vibe that makes me feel like I’m sitting in a hashish den in Morocco with Plant while exotic women dance in veils around us… but that just might be me.

There are guitar driven songs here, like “New World…” and “Bones of Saints” that I think rock. Again, it’s not “Misty Mountain Hop” but they are rocking tunes. Plant’s vocals drop an octave and it’s hold on til the finish line time… The way Plant sings, “No, no, no, no, no, no no” in the latter track just grabs me…that and he name checks a Robert Johnson track, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”  With Plant, some of the non-verbal, singing, where he just holds an “o” or moans is as effective as when he’s singing words, if that makes any sense. He is probably the most charismatic singer I’ve ever heard. I don’t mean his physical presence when I speak of charisma, I’m talking about the sound of his voice. It’s an intoxicating, seductive instrument.

The album ends on another atmospheric, almost dark track, “Heaven Sent.” When Plant sings the lyric, “There’s an angel at the gate, singing a stolen kiss,” he could be singing about himself.

This album is great from start to finish. This is definitely a must-have record and for those of us down at B&V, it’s a candidate for album of the year. It’s a huge deal when an artist of the heft and talent of Robert Plant puts out a record. Everyone should hear this album. I can only hope I get a chance to catch him when he tours…No renting a bus this time around… Turn this one up and enjoy.

 

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LP Review: David Crosby, The Beautiful ‘Sky Trails’

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My path to the solo music of David Crosby was somewhat circuitous. By the time I graduated high school, I was already a big Neil Young fan. My college roommate Drew turned me onto Crosby, Still, Nash &/or Young and really expanded my knowledge of Neil Young’s solo catalog. I was always more into the yang of the Stills/Young part of the band than the yin of Crosby/Nash. Or are Stills/Young the yin and Crosby/Nash the yang? I can never keep that straight. Anyway, over time I began to realize that songs like “Deja Vu,” “Long Time Gone,” and “Guinevere” were amongst my favorite songs from CSN/CSNY. Crosby’s impassioned harmony vocal on “Ohio” is the thing of legend. There is something so distinctively sweet about David Crosby’s vocals…the guy was probably humming a counter-melody to his ultrasound whilst still in the womb… if they did ultrasounds back then?

In college, I was too busy burying myself deeper and deeper into Neil Young’s catalog to really explore any of the other members of CSN’s music. I finally got around to checking out Stephen Stills’ early solo work and his brilliant double-LP with Manassas. Eventually this meandering musical spelunking led me to the classic duo albums Crosby did with Graham Nash. Those guys are just meant to harmonize together. Two of their early records, are simply put, must-haves. ‘David Crosby/Graham Nash’ from 1972 and ‘Wind On The Water’ from 1975 are exceptional showcases for Crosby and Nash’s ability to bring out the best in each other. Crosby’s “Carry Me” and “Mama Lion,” both of which I believe were written about the passing of his mother, were the tracks that first jumped out at me from ‘Wind On The Water.’

Finally, years later, after Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young put out the box-set, triple-disc live album ‘1974’ I realized it was time to start checking out David Crosby’s solo stuff. The only thing I was really familiar with was the song “Drive My Car” from ’89’s ‘Yes I Can,’ his first LP after his stint in jail. It was while I was in college that Crosby famously melted down and ended up in a prison in, I believe, Texas. I always liked “Drive My Car,” it’s a great tune, but for whatever reason, maybe it was the legal stuff, I didn’t explore Crosby’s solo stuff any further. I did really like the songs Crosby contributed to CSNY’s reunion album, released around that same time, ‘American Dream,’ especially, “Compass,” a harrowing acoustic journey through his addictions. Yet, I never jumped in…

After the release of ‘1974,’ I finally went back to his first proper solo album, ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ What a stunner of an album that was. I’ve read in several places that it’s considered a “cult classic.” I just call it a classic. It was this bizarre amalgamation of folk, jazz with a good dose of psychedelia thrown in. I absolutely love the record. I know it went gold, but it’s surprisingly an album that you only rarely hear about. “Cowboy Movie” is an epic tune with both Jerry Garcia (who arranged and helped produce the album) and Neil Young on guitars. I’ve always been surprised that “Laughing” wasn’t a huge hit. It’s a beautiful song, amongst Crosby’s best.

The rest of Crosby’s solo career was sporadic. It wasn’t until 2014’s ‘Croz’ came out that the critics started to notice his solo recordings. He returned quickly in 2016 with the spare, acoustic LP ‘Lighthouse’ produced and cowritten with Snarky Puppy’s Micheal League. ‘Lighthouse’ was a return to and a publicly admitted homage to ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ It’s an unvarnished, almost under-produced gem of a record. While I didn’t hear anything as immediately impactful as “Cowboy Movie” I certainly appreciated the effort. After ‘Croz’ and ‘Lighthouse,’ it was official: David Crosby was on a late-career hot streak!

Now, merely a year after ‘Lighthouse,’ David has returned with his superb new album, ‘Sky Trails.’ Cheap Trick, Van Morrison and now David Crosby all putting albums out in successive years… it feels like the 70s again. The album is produced by his son, James Raymond who also plays a lot of the instruments on the album. There’s some great acoustic guitar work on this album and while I can’t find credits, I think its both Raymond and Crosby playing. Crosby has worked with Raymond before and I do think Crosby does better in collaborative situations, be it this one, Jerry Garcia on his first record, Micheal League on ‘Lighthouse’ or Graham Nash on those classic Crosby/Nash albums.

I kept reading that there were some songs on here that were Steely Dan-jazzy type songs. I was skeptical about that until I saw that former Steely Dan member Michael McDonald had cowritten a song here… I will say, the opening track, “She’s Got To Be Somewhere” is a funky Steely type keyboard with saxophone song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Aja.’ It’s a great track but it’s really the only Steely Dan-like track I hear here.

The epicenter of the album for me are the two overtly political songs, “Capitol,” and “Sell Me A Diamond.” Although in his 70’s it’s nice to see that his old hippy protest spirit is alive and well. “Capitol” is the best protest track Crosby has written since “Stand And Be Counted.” I dig the righteous rage. “Sell Me A Diamond” is a brilliant tune and reminds me of some of the stuff CSNY did on the wrongly maligned ‘Looking Forward’ album (It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t that terrible, folks). “Diamond” has a soaring chorus and a nice little pedal steel. I love the coda of the song, where Crosby repeats “Makes conflict free sound good to me…”

There are some great quieter moments here. Crosby duets again on this record, like on ‘Lighthouse’ with Becca Stevens on the title track and their voices harmonize like Crosby’s and Nash’s. It’s a spare, acoustic number punctuated with light saxophone. It’s an ethereal song about being lost out on the road and a true highpoint here. “Before Tomorrow Falls On Love,” cowritten with Michael McDonald, is a piano/vocal number with a great jazz vibe. I feel like I’ve just walked into a hip jazz club and there’s a guy singing at the piano. Crosby also beautifully covers Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” I know they go way back and she has had some health issues of late… it’s a nice gesture to hear Crosby sing one of her songs. “Somebody Home” is an atmospheric acoustic/vocals tune with just the right amount of organ and some more pedal steel and naturally, another great vocal.

Towards the end of the first half is another favorite of mine, “Here It’s Almost Sunset” that has some beautiful percussive elements with a sax that almost sounds like early Sting and Branford Marsalis. It’s a beautiful melody that drifts by like a cloud. There are just so many moods here. And through out are Crosby’s spectacular vocal performance. His voice brings all these different moods and tempos together, it’s the common thread. Toward the end of the album comes “Curved Air” with some great percussive elements and almost Spanish-guitar type riffing. It’s just great.

This is the most enjoyable, consistent thing I’ve heard Crosby do since ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ It’s great to hear a more mature artist exercise his beautiful vocal instrument against these various musical backdrops. It still has that folky/jazzy vibe of his first record and I mean that in a good way. This is the kind of record that often gets overlooked out there in today’s market but is definitely worth the investment. Pour your next nightcap and drop “Home Free” on the stereo and drink in the night.

Cheers!

LP Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘As You Were’ A Pleasant Surprise From an Unpleasant Man

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I know that many of you out there have given up on Oasis and it’s famously feuding Gallagher brothers. When I posted my review of the first two tracks from Liam Gallagher’s superb ‘As You Were’ (Liam Gallagher: The First Two Songs From “As You Were”) one reader, commenting on something else I’d written, famously said, “Not even you can convince me to listen to Liam Gallagher again.” And I totally get that sentiment. I’ve posted before about bands formed by brothers and other than the Allman Brothers, it’s never really turned out very well. And when you think about the Allman Brothers, that didn’t exactly turn out well for Duane…but as usual, I digress.

As is well documented in the pages of B&V, I was never terribly into Oasis. However, with the dawn of the new millennium came my relationship and now marriage to the Rock Chick. While I remain delighted by this wonderful woman and all the great things and great music she’s turned me on to, she also brought Oasis into my life. And, as I’ve said before, if you put aside the stupidity and antics (fist fights on stage?), the music was really great. Now, I’m the first one to say they were somewhat derivative of the Beatles and later on derivative of the Stones. That said, 2005’s ‘Don’t Believe the Truth’ and 2008’s ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ were both great, largely ignored, late career gems.

After their rather nasty split, also somewhat reminiscent of how the Beatles split up (alas, without the hateful songs about each other), Noel Gallagher, the songwriter/guitarist formed Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. The rest of the band formed Beady Eye, led by Liam. While over the years the Rock Chick got me to warm up to Oasis’ catalog of music and she loved the Beady Eye thing, I was more lukewarm on it. There was nothing as grand as ‘Champagne Supernova’ to be found on their first LP, ‘Different Gear, Still Speeding.’ Beady Eye didn’t even release their second album in the U.S. I read an interview with Noel and he said something like, Liam needs to put out a solo album, step up and put his name on something. While apparently the two don’t speak, Liam must have been reading and now has delivered his first solo album, ‘As You Were.’

This weekend, as the Rock Chick and I are prone  to do, we got in the car and toured around Kansas City… we like to explore parts of the town we haven’t been to in a while. I believe the Rock Chick is secretly looking for a new place for us to move to, but I just roll the window down and turn up the music. I spent all day Saturday listening to ‘As You Were’ and I have to say, it’s a great album. Everything sounds better in the car… This new Liam Gallagher is a really pleasant, enjoyable listen… I probably can’t describe Liam that way, but hey, the music is great.

While I’ve only heard a few tracks from Noel Gallagher’s new band, I think I can state, without too much fear of being wrong, that this is the most Oasis-sounding record that either of them have made since the band broke up. Liam worked with a trio of different producers, each of whom was a multi instrumentalist. Greg Kurstin, Dan Grech-Marguerat and Andrew Wyatt all get a production credits for different tracks. The best track here remains “Chinatown” which is one of those great ethereal ballads with a great vocal from Liam. I was surprised to find that Andrew Wyatt actually wrote “Chinatown.” I mention this merely to point out what a large contribution the separate producers made to this album.

“Wall of Glass” is a squalling rocker and a great opening track. “Greedy Soul” is another great rock tune with a pounding drum beat. “You Better Run” is another driving tune, with big drums and an acoustic strum that carries Liam’s vocals forward. “I Get By” is another big loud Oasis-y rocker. “Come Back To Me” is another really great upbeat tune. I really like Liam’s vocal on “Come Back To Me,” he’s impassioned and the song is hooky as hell. I know I’ve described this as sounding like Oasis, but it definitely has Liam’s imprint.

While I like all those rockers, its some of the slower, more meditative songs that bore into my brain. As mentioned, “Chinatown” is just a great song that I can listen to all day. I’m stunned Liam didn’t write it… “Paper Crown” is a wonderful, spare acoustic ballad. “Universal Gleam” is one of the most beautiful things Liam has ever committed to tape. “I’ll give you universal gleam, I’ll help you fix your broken dreams,” is a just great lyric. It’s like he’s reaffirming his commitment to his fans. “I’ve All I Need” is the Rock Chick’s second favorite track, after “Chinatown” and it’s another great vocal from Liam. It’s a beautiful lyric as well, written as a plea to a lover… “If all I have is you, then darling please be true…” I will admit he name checks at least two Beatles songs in the lyrics, “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “All Things Must Pass,” but like Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

I was stunned, considering the multiple number of producers, what a consistently good album this is from start to finish. From the rocking tunes to the ballads this album is strong all the way through. Having literally spent all day Saturday with it in the car, this album grabs you on first listen but it’s the repeat listens that will reward you. I know that Liam and Noel’s public squabbling has turned a large majority of people off, but if you liked Oasis you will like this album. Hell, I wasn’t crazy about Oasis but I like this album. And yes, Liam’s stupid Twitter rants about his brother are hard to take, we have to set that aside and remain objective… And while Liam isn’t the most pleasant man, his album certainly is…

This one is a perfect album for a Saturday afternoon drive… roll the window down and turn this music up!

LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party

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In the 60s and even into the 70’s, record companies pushed artists constantly for new material, or as the record companies called it, new “product.” Early on, I think the Beatles put out three albums in one year. Apparently the record companies weren’t familiar with the concept of burn out, but when has any faceless corporation cared about burn out. By the 70s the pace had slowed a little bit… artists were only expected to put out an album a year. I can remember the Faces even saying, “thank you and we’ll see you next year” or something to that effect in the liner notes to one album. But that was the formula, put out an album, tour and do it again next year. Wash, rinse, repeat. When Springsteen took three years  between ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ due to legal issues it was a big deal. That kind of gap between records, which is fairly standard now, was considered career suicide. The term saturation apparently hadn’t been discovered yet.

Nowadays artists can take up to five years between albums and nobody bats an eye. U2 usually  takes about five years between records… Although I’ve noticed Springsteen, a notorious perfectionist, is only taking about two to three years between records lately…making up for lost time, no doubt. Metallica took eight years between ‘Death Magnetic’ and ‘Hardwired.’ I was surprised earlier this year when Cheap Trick, of all people, bucked that trend and returned only a year after 2016’s ‘Bang, Crazy, Zoom…Hello’ with this year’s exceptional ‘We’re All Alright.’ If I was surprised that Cheap Trick put out albums in consecutive years in the 2010s, imagine my downright shock that Van Morrison, only one year after his fabulous 2016 album, ‘Keep Me Singing’ (reviewed on B&V: LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return) has returned with this year’s ‘Roll With the Punches.’ This is starting to feel like the 70s and I mean that in a good way, not the 70s disco-leisure suit bad way… At least this time around it’s the artists who are choosing to put the music out so quickly and not the dictates of some faceless record company.

When I started to dig into my research on ‘Roll With The Punches’ I quickly discovered this was predominantly a cover album of old blues and soul tunes by Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Doc Pomus to name a few. That might explain why he was able to release this album so quickly after ‘Keep Me Singing,’ not a lot of that pesky songwriting to do. Ten of the records 15 tracks are cover songs. Of the ten covers songs, Van has sung “Bring It On Home” before, released on his epic live LP, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’ and he covered “Lonely Avenue” on ‘Too Long In Exile.’ Of the five original tracks, two are songs he’s done in some form before: “Ordinary People” was included on the superb archival release ‘Philospher’s Stone’ and a slightly different version of “Fame” came out on the great record, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture.’ Van doing songs where he complains about being famous are wearing a little thin, like Ozzy always doing the obligatory “I’m Still Crazy” tune on every album. We get it, you hate being famous. I will say, all of the five originals fit seamlessly with the old blues tunes. The title track could have been a Muddy Waters tune, it sounds timeless. The only original I would say is an exception to the sound is the beautiful transcendent song, “Transformation.” It’s a classic, soaring Van song, it just seems a tad out of place amongst all this other blues and soul music.

When most people think of Van, they think of his 70’s “golden” era when he released masterpiece after masterpiece. ‘Astral Weeks’ is singularly brilliant. There’s never been anything before or since that comes close to that record. He followed that up with ‘Moondance’ and ‘His Band And The Street Choir.’ Van could do no wrong in those days. He was a wild-eyed Celtic soul man. He seemed like an Irish mystic who had wandered out of the mist with transcendent truth and “Moonshine Whiskey” on his lips. He’s gone through many phases and released a ton of music since those heady days… but much like Dylan, many people want to compare his current work to that wonderful purple patch in the 70s. I loved that part of Van’s career, but I was also a fan of his earlier, pre-solo work, with Them. While Them was basically just Van surrounded by an ever changing cast of other musicians, they were a gritty blues and soul band. It was then that Van penned his garage band classic, “Gloria,” covered by so many other artists: Patti Smith and perhaps definitively by Jimi Hendrix, just to name two. Them’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” was the first version of that tune I ever heard and it remains my favorite version. So when I heard that Van was doing a blues album, I couldn’t help but think maybe we’d hear some of that fire and brimstone blues of his earliest Them days, much like what the Stones did on ‘Blue And Lonesome.’ And while this isn’t quite the Van of his 20’s when he was in Them, (and who of us are like we were in our 20s) this is pretty kick ass blues.

One thing I can say about ‘Roll With the Punches’ is that Van sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. He’s clearly completely engaged. Part of that might be that he invited a bunch of friends into the studio with him. It’s like Van decided to throw a laid-back blues party. He brought in Georgie Fame (keyboards/vocals) who has been his band’s musical director for a while.  He also brought in Paul Jones, the original lead singer in Manfred Mann and harmonica player extraordinaire. He also brings in Chris Farlowe to duet on the “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” medley, which is an inspired choice – Farlowe’s first hit in the sixties was “Stormy Monday.” Pianist Jason Rebello also contributes to a few of the tunes. Most importantly, Van Morrison brought in Jeff Beck to play guitar. A few years ago, Rod Stewart tried to lure Beck back into the studio to do a blues album but Jeff quit early on in the process… he said he didn’t want to play the kind of music Rod wanted to play. And here he is playing his ass off on this blues album. I guess when Van The Man calls, you gotta answer. Beck’s guitar fuels a lot of these tunes. His guitar solo in “Bring It On Home To Me” may be the high point of the record. I love that before the solo, Van says, “alright Jeff…” “Bring It On Home” is probably the greatest moment on this album. Sam Cooke inspired so many singers from Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart and Van himself.

I really like this album, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I love the blues. And I love Van’s vocals. He sings with a passion on these songs that really resonates. The title track, “Roll With the Punches” and “Too Much Trouble” are my favorite of the original, Van-penned tracks. Those are just good ol’ blues tunes. If I have a complaint about the early part of the record, it’s that Van lets his buddies sing a verse or two (too many) on several of the early tracks. I like Chris Farlowe duetting with Van on “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” but I’m not as crazy about Georgie Fame singing entire parts of “Goin’ To Chicago.” I mean, I wanna hear Van sing. when he comes in on “Goin’ To Chicago” it’s just apparent he’s such a better singer than Fame is. Oh well, this music all has a loose, laid-back vibe, why not toss the lead vocals around the room.

“How Far From God” by Sister Rosetta Thorpe (with great boogie-woogie piano and rumbling vocal from Van) and “Benediction” by Mose Allison remind us that blues ain’t that far from gospel. I really like those tunes. Van’s own “Ordinary People” is bluesier and grittier in this incarnation with Jeff Beck’s slippery guitar, although I’ll admit I wish they’d turned off Georgie’s microphone on the harmony vocal. Towards the end of the album, the blues start to really take off. “Automobile Blues” is a great car/road blues tune and might have been the blueprint for Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It rumbles along. “Mean Old World” is an old T Bone Walker song that I think Clapton might have done in Derek And The Dominos. Van does it right on this album with a piano, bass, brushed drums and Paul Jones’ wonderful harmonica solo. It’s another highlight here. The last track, “Ride On Josephine” might just be the best track on here, other than “Bring It On Home To Me,” its another rolling blues tune. Beck’s guitar is again, exceptional as is Van’s vocal on “Josephine.”

This is a very strong return after last year’s exceptional ‘Keep Me Singing.’ It appears Van is on another late career roll, similar to when he released ‘Down The Road,’ ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture,’ and ‘Magic Time.’ This album gets a strong recommendation to purchase immediately. Pour some good Irish Jameson in a tumbler and ride the blues train, baby.

Cheers!

 

 

Greta Van Fleet: Kids Channeling Zeppelin On ‘Black Smoke Rising’ EP

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“Good artists borrow, great artists steal…” – Picasso

I was lounging upstairs in the BourbonAndVinyl lounge a couple of weeks ago, doing “something next to nothing, but different than the time before” as Prince would say. As often happens, the Rock Chick came charging into the sanctity of the B&V lab and said, “I don’t know who this Greta Van Fleet chick is, but she sounds like Robert Plant…” Intrigued by anybody who could sound like The Golden God, Robert Plant, I immediately had the Rock Chick summon up this Greta Van Fleet chick on her Spotify app… these kids and their apps, what are you gonna do? Suddenly I heard some dude scream “Ooooooooooooh, Mama” over a crunchy guitar that sounded like it was lifted from the “Immigrant Song.” Stop the press…

This was no chick. This was a band… Don’t be fooled by the weird name…like Lynyrd Skynyrd, these four young lads chose a person’s name as the band name. It turns out this band is three Kiszka brothers, Josh (vocals), Jake (lead guitar), Sam (bass guitar) and a drummer, Danny Wagner. It appears they’ve released a 4-song EP, entitled ‘Black Smoke Rising.’ I quickly pulled up the album art and it looks like a poster from the Goonies movie… Hmmm, this is trending badly. But then I listened to the EP again, and damn if they didn’t sound great. They sound, well, like Zeppelin.

I pulled them up on YouTube and these kids look like baristas from your neighborhood cool coffee joint, run amuck with instruments. And while the name, album art and well, their appearance put me off a bit, when I closed my eyes and listen to these guys play, especially Jake on lead guitar, I have to admit, I like what I’m hearing. Of all the artists they could emulate, or nay, rip off, these guys went straight to the top. In this day and age when I thought playing real rock and roll was dead, these kids may have proved me wrong. If they’d stayed true to their generation they’d be doing hip hop or some mopey Morrisey thing. Thankfully, they’re playing rock and roll with loud, Zeppelin abandon. These guys are good.

It’s easy to listen to these tracks and play the “which Zeppelin song is this” game. The first track is a blast of blues rock named, “Highway Tune” that reminds me of, well, “The Immigrant Song.” This kid, Jake Kiszka on lead guitar has got some chops. I love the riff on the song. And if, like Picasso suggested, great artists steal, you might as well steal from the greatest. “Highway Tune” is the Rock Chick’s favorite track of the four. I might agree with her, but there’s a lot to like here.

“Safari Song” starts off with a Plant scream that makes me and the Rock Chick laugh every time it comes on. God bless this kid, he’s got the swaggering vocals down. He drops down an octave here and gives it the Plant bluesy growl… think “Bring It On Home.” He goes from the lower octave up to a scream without breaking a sweat. I also get a slight “Black Dog” feel from the tune but that just might be me. I do love the guitar solo in the middle…it’s a weird meandering thing, but I dug it.

I know I’m doing the name a Zeppelin song thing here, but it’s hard not to. “Flower Power” is a mash up between “Hey Hey What Can I Do” and “Thank You” complete with the little organ figure at the end of the song. It think even John Paul Jones would envy the Hammond B-3 at the end of this tune.

The title track wraps up the EP and it also contends for my favorite track. “Black Smoke Rising” has a thick riff that Josh just rides over with his vocal. It’s even got a spacey breakdown in the middle ala “Whole Lotta Love.” It is not hard to imagine Jake, the guitarist, wearing black pants with a big dragon on the side and pulling out a bow and dragging it across his guitar strings.

Again, I would have expected hip hop from kids this age. I would have expected electronic dance music. But these kids defied my expectations and are playing blues rock! And while their songwriting may be a tad, shall we say, derivative, I’m ok with that. They’re young and have plenty of time to develop the songwriting. I just hope they keep rocking out like this. They’ve found a great sound, now they just need to make it their own. I think anybody playing blues rock and rock n’roll should be celebrated!

As your intrepid blogger, I try to keep my eye on true rock and roll when I hear it… Keep your eye on this band and especially their lead guitarist. I so worry that the flame of rock and roll that has nourished my soul my whole life is dying down to it’s basic embers. When I hear a young band tear it up like this, I see a spark from that fire…and a glimmer of my hope returns.

Rock on kids! Cheers!

LP Review: Gregg Allman, ‘Southern Blood’: A “Brother’s” Beautiful Farewell

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“I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m running out of time, my friend” – Gregg Allman, “My Only True Friend”

I saw on-line the other day that it was the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September of 1970. Maybe it’s me, but it seems like in the old days rock stars more often than not met early, tragic deaths. Sometimes it was too much booze or drugs. Sometimes it was something darker and more tragic like Kurt Cobain taking his own life. All these young artists, taken too soon… It’s that whole morbid “27-Club” thing. Gregg and the Allman Brothers weren’t immune to tragic loss, early on, as both guitarist extraordinaire Duane Allman and bassist Barry Oakley were taken in their prime, both victims of motor cycle crashes, Duane after the Allman’s third album, ‘Live At the Fillmore East,’ and Oakley after ‘Eat A Peach.’

These days I’m seeing a recurring phenomenon that rock stars are thankfully living to ripe, old ages while continuing to be vibrant creative artists. However, as we all know, the road comes to and end. There’s only so much sand in the hour glass. Since I started this blog, we’ve seen the loss of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and now Gregg Allman all marked by the release of an album they were working on at the end. The first time I remember hearing anything like these releases was Warren Zevon’s extraordinary album, ‘The Wind,’ recorded while he was battling lung cancer. Bowie’s final album, ‘Black Star’ was the boldly experimental exclamation point on a boldy experimental career. Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ was a continuation of many of the themes he’d been exploring throughout his career, only…well, darker. These guys saw the end coming and used it for their art. (Both these LPs have been reviewed here on B&V.) And now, we have Gregg Allman’s last LP, the soulful ‘Southern Blood,’ which is nothing short of a beautiful farewell.

Don’t think for an instant this is a downer album about death. Yes, there are recurring themes: the road, time running out, and yes, mortality. But this is a vibrant, strong album with different moods. There is a presence on this record that hovers over Gregg, that of his long-departed brother Duane. The album was recorded with the talented producer Don Was at the helm, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where Duane was a session guitarist and where Gregg & Duane’s band Hour Glass recorded their first album. The chills-up-the-spine inducing first single, “My Only Friend, (reviewed on B&V Gregg Allman: “My Only True Friend,” The First Song From The Upcoming ‘Southern Blood’) was written by Gregg with Scott Sharrad as a conversation between Gregg and Duane. Gregg chose the song “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” a Johnny Jenkins cover, because Duane once played with him (who didn’t Duane play with?). Equally important, Gregg turned to his old, old friend Jackson Browne’s catalog to cover “Song For Adam,” a track Jackson wrote about his friend Adam Saylor who had died young, like Duane did… Gregg gets so emotional you can hear him break down toward the end of the song. It seems that as he neared the end, Gregg looked backward toward the beginning, toward Duane.

The Allman Brothers Band were so huge, especially in the 70s, they sort of overshadowed Gregg’s solo career. When you release one of the greatest live albums ever, ‘Live At Fillmore East’ and get credited with “creating southern rock” like the Allman Brothers did, you’re kind of a big deal. The Allmans were always considered a jam band, but I always considered them more of a blues band with a jazz sensibility. The virtuoso guitar playing over Gregg’s bedrock hammond B-3 was more powerful than most jam bands. However, starting with 1973’s ‘Laid Back’ Gregg began an up-and-down but quite often strong solo career. I have always loved his soulful 1977 record, ‘Playing Up A Storm’ as well. ‘Southern Blood’ certainly reminds me of ‘Laid Back’ in terms of the sound of the record. Gregg’s solo albums, especially the early ones, had a little more of the R of R&B than the Allman Brothers albums did.

Gregg’s voice, in spite of the illness, is very strong and expressive on this record. He was simply one of the most distinct, bluesy singers ever. I will say, the one thing about this record that surprised me a bit was there are few tracks that have a bit of a country feeling. For the most part, any time the Allman Brothers sounded a bit country, like “Ramblin’ Man,” it was typically the result of something Dickey Betts had written. Maybe that slight country vibe was Gregg reaching out to his old, estranged band mate. I heard they reconciled before Gregg’s death…I hope that’s true.

Originally this album was going to be a record of all original compositions, since Gregg’s previous album, the T Bone Burnett produced ‘Low Country Blues’ was mostly all blues covers. ‘Low Country’ is an exceptional record and a real return to form… Gregg’s plans to write new material for ‘Southern Blood’ were dashed by his health issues, but he and his manager and guitarist/musical director Scott Sharrard made some exceptional choices in cover material.

The album opens with one of Gregg’s best tracks ever, the haunting, previously reviewed “My Only Friend.” Written by Sharrard and Gregg, Sharrard conceived the song as a conversation between Duane Allman and Gregg. He said it was almost eerie how Gregg responded to the verses he supplied him… It’s the high point here. Hell, it’s a high point of Gregg’s career. All of the songs from this album, again mostly covers specifically chosen, tell the holistic story of Gregg’s life. The man didn’t just sing the blues, folks, he lived them – whiskey, women, drugs, lawyers, legal issues, and in the darkest chapter of his life, Cher… These songs tell that story. Well, not the Cher part.

From the cover songs, there’s so much to love here. Allman dusts off the old Dylan chestnut, “Going, Going, Gone” which Dylan did on ‘Planet Waves’ with the Band. Gregg’s version here may just be definitive. Apparently when his manager suggested it, Gregg said, “wow, that’s kind of dark, man.” Indeed it is. Of the more surprising selections, they do the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” one of the tracks I mention as having a real country flavor. I’m not a huge country music fan, although I always liked the Dead’s foray’s into country-rock on say, ‘Working Man’s Blues.’ Gregg’s vocal is impassioned on the track and it just works. The song, “Out of Left Field” is a beautiful thank you to a lover. I’m hoping Gregg had someone at the end… everybody needs someone at the end… for me, it’ll be the Rock Chick.

I love that they also chose to do some blues songs here. Muddy Waters’ “Love The Life I Live” is a great, joyful blues number. Hearing Gregg Allman sing Muddy Waters, well, he was just born to sing Muddy songs… Or Willie Dixon songs, either way you look at it. The Jenkins’ cover, “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” the nod to Duane, is another great blues tune here. “Blind Rats…” has a real New Orleans, swampy vibe to it. It’s a nice slow crawler of a record with some laid back horns. I also love the fact that he covers Lowell George of Little Feat’s “Willin'” on this record, another great road song… “And if you give me weed, whites, and wine, Show me a sign, I’ll be willin’ to be movin’.” Great stuff! And a really funny song. There are moments in “Willin'” where the band tails off and it’s just Gregg’s voice…outstanding! “Love Like Kerosene” is anther track written by Scott Sharrard and it’s a nice bluesy, scorcher. “Kerosene” may be the most upbeat song on this record. Great guitar/horns interplay with a nice boogie-woogie piano solo.

When Duane and Gregg’s band Hour Glass broke up and Duane went back to Muscle Shoals to do session work, the record company threatened to sue them. To avoid that, Gregg agreed to remain in Los Angeles, and to cut a solo record. It was a low point for Gregg as he was far from home and his brother was back east. A young songwriter, a kid named, uh, Jackson Browne, who’d written tracks for the first Hour Glass album, was looking for a roommate. Believe it or not, Gregg Allman and Jackson Browne were roommates. While it may have been a low point for Gregg, it produced one of the longest lasting rock and roll friendships ever. On his first solo album, Gregg did Jackson’s oft-covered track, “These Days,” and I believe Gregg’s version is definitive.

For ‘Southern Blood,’ Gregg not only turned back to those early days by recording Jackson’s haunting “Song For Adam,” he has Jackson singing harmony vocal on the track. It’s, again, an inspired choice. Clearly as he breaks down while singing toward the end of the song, you know Gregg was thinking of Duane, who had died too soon. The fact that Jackson Browne showed up this way, with a beautiful harmony vocal for his old friend, is one of those special moments in life that must be celebrated. Good on ya, Jackson. ‘Southern Blood’ started with “My Only Friends,” which gave me chills… and it ended with “Song For Adam” with Jackson on harmonies… more chills. Those two voices, from those two old friends, intertwining… not a bad way to go out.

There are two bonus live tracks on the record… they’re nice to have but not essential. I’d say the two bonus tracks are more for the completist… FYI.

I can’t say enough good things about ‘Southern Blood.’ It’s essential listening for Allman Brothers fans, Gregg Allman fans, and well, fans of rock and roll music everywhere. This ranks amongst Allman’s best work (solo or with the Allman Bros Band) and it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a few more years and few more records from the man. Turn this one up loud…

There’s only so much time, only so much road left for any of us, folks… use it well.

 

LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’

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“You ready Briggs?” – Neil Young to producer David Briggs, August 11, 1976, Malibu

It would be easy to look at the track listing of ‘Hitchhiker’ and be confused. “Wait a minute, I’ve seen all of these tracks before…is this a greatest hits album?”…I can almost hear you say. And yes, eventually most of these tracks came out on other albums… But on a magical night, August 11th, 1976 Neil Young entered a studio in Malibu with producer David Briggs and cut all 10 of these tracks. He and Briggs had made a habit of going into the studio, on nights with a full moon and cutting music. According to Wikipedia, Neil wouldn’t have anything prepared, he’d just sit down with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and say, “Time to turn on the tap…” Purportedly, he’d only pause in recording the songs that night to take breaks for “weed, beer or coke.” If that’s how Neil turns on the “genius” tap, I think we need to get a friendly beer distributor to send a loaded beer truck over to Neil’s… maybe pick up a dealer or two on the way… I’m not condoning anything, just saying though…

Neil Young is one of those rare artists, like Dylan, Springsteen and yes, Prince who can go into a studio and cut a full album’s worth of material and then, strangely, shelve it. There are songs that appear on 1989’s ‘Freedom’ that were originally written and laid down in the mid-70s. I was always baffled when I heard bootlegs, as to why Neil wouldn’t have put out these songs/albums that he’d cut when he recorded them. What was he thinking? I’d ask myself. In the case of the all-night session for ‘Hitchhiker’ he submitted the results to his record company and they rejected the album as sounding too much like a demo. Re-record this stuff with a band they said… If we need any proof record company guys don’t get art, just listen to this album. This album would have been a great appendix to his “Ditch Trilogy” and would have been better than the ‘Stills/Young’ album he actually put out in 1976.

I’ve heard a lot of bootleg, demo type stuff. One needs only to turn to Bob Dylan’s box set ‘The Cutting Edge’ to hear an artist cutting demos and shaping songs. Typically you get a lot of studio chatter… ‘Hitchhiker”s songs sounds like a complete set of songs. There’s no start/stop moments here. These songs don’t feel like demos. These are fully realized songs. Give credit to the only other person in the studio that night, producer David Briggs, for catching the immediacy and brilliance of these songs as they were being formed. Briggs literally captured Neil’s lightning in a bottle or, well, on tape. For the most part, these songs were eventually released in the form they were originally recorded in August of 76… proof these tunes don’t sound like demos. What’s great about ‘Hitchhiker’ is this album, from deep in Neil’s vault, gives us the chance to finally hear all of these songs as a set. This is the way to listen to these songs, as a complete piece, versus a track or two on scattered albums. That’s what makes this essential Young listening, instead of something for completists.

“Pocahontas,” a song so epic even Johnny Cash covered it during the American Recording period with Rick Rubin, kicks off this album. I’ve always thought it had dreamy, trippy lyrics… perhaps Neil’s consumption the evening it was recorded explains that feeling. It was eventually released on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ It’s the same track found here, although Neil overdubbed some weird squeaky sound-effects onto it, for reasons unclear, on it’s eventual ‘Rust’ release. I love the version here, stripped to the bone. Also from ‘Rust’ is “Ride My Llama,” basically as it appears on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ One of the revelations here is the original version of “Powderfinger,” here, acoustic. “Powderfinger” is one of my favorite tracks, not only from ‘Rust,’ but ever. The epic electric guitar on the ‘Rust’ version seems to imitate the violence that occurs in the lyrics, like Hendrix playing “Machine Gun.” Who are these men on “the white boat comin’ up the river,” and why are they armed. Are they revenuers coming to seize the still? Why is our 22 year old hero firing shots from “daddy’s rife” which felt “reassuring” in our hero’s hand? Supposedly, Neil Young offered the tune to Lynyrd Skynyrd before their fateful plane crash. I can’t imagine it getting any better than Neil’s version… Neil has always had two sides to his music – the epic electric, usually with Crazy Horse and the quiet acoustic of say, ‘Harvest.’ This version of the song encapsulates that dichotomy perfectly.

“Captain Kennedy” was another great tune, released eventually on ‘Hawks And Doves,’ in much the same version as here. “Campaigner,” the excellent track here was released on Neil’s epic greatest hits record, ‘Decade.’ “Even Richard Nixon has got soul…” Does he? “Human Highway” was also cut that August night in Malibu but not released until ‘Comes a Time.’ “Country Waltz” was released in a different form on ‘American Stars ‘N Bars,’ which by this point in the song list you have to wonder… why wasn’t this released in 1976. The craziest thing to me was the version of the title track, “Hitchhiker” was released in a weird version on ‘Le Noise’ the 2010 album produced by Daniel Lanois. I’ve always felt like ‘Le Noise’ was a missed opportunity… I’ve often referred to it as “Le Crap.” The version here is so far superior… Again, I wonder how this song took so long to see the light of day…

The song that is a real revelation to me was “Give Me Strength.” It, and “Hawaii” are the only tracks I don’t believe have ever seen release on a Neil Young album. “Give Me Strength” is an amazing track and frankly, worth the price of admission here. “Hawaii” is an OK track, and I can see perhaps why it was left in the can. It’s an album track, nothing revelatory.

Again, the fact that most of these tracks, 8 of 10, came out in some form or other over the years may make this album seem superfluous. But trust me, it’s not. This form, all acoustic, cut together as a piece, is the way to hear this record and to hear these songs. This is essential for any Neil Young fan. Pick this one up asap.

Chris Cornell, who toward the last part of his life was recording acoustic-based songs, and then returning to Soundgarden for loud rock n’ roll said he kind of got how Neil could go from loud rock to acoustic. It was great to have the option… This album is some of the best of Neil’s acoustic, quieter, non-Crazy Horse side. “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her…” I hope he’ll pry open the vault for more of this! It’s truly a treasure.