Nathan James

Hear Me Calling / Natural Born That Way

Sacred Cat Recordings

james-naturaljames-hear

Blues artists with a great voice as well as phenomenal guitar chops are rare.

And there are even fewer double albums with one disc acoustic, the other electric. (In the blues category, Taj Mahal’s 1969 landmark “Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home” and Nick Moss and the Flip Top’s 2007 set “Play It ‘Til Tomorrow”come to mind.)

When Nathan James couldn’t decide whether to make his fourth release a solo acoustic or band effort, he decided to record and simultaneously issue one of each.

And solo acoustic for this Fallbrook, Calif.-raised performer doesn’t mean just guitar: He’s a one-man band, playing rack harmonica and suitcase foot-drum as well. Alternatively, the second disc features his Rhythm Scratchers trio, supplemented by pianist Carl Sonny Leyland and guitarist Big Jon Atkinson on seven and three tracks, respectively. Both albums were recorded, mixed and mastered by James at his home studio in Oceanside.

The cover of the 5 Royales’ “I’m Gonna Tell Them,” from the electric disc, “Natural Born That Way,” is a patchwork of genres. The song’s verses have a “Blue Suede Shoes”-style melody, punctuated by brief instrumental Bo Diddley-style rhythm guitar passages that lead into gospel choruses — all laid across a bed of drums straight out of the way the Grateful Dead covered Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”  It’s a one-song encapsulation of James’ ability to play several styles, all of them masterfully.

On the acoustic disc, “Hear Me Calling,” his cover of Lonnie Johnson’s “She’s Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight” is one of the few songs featuring simply James and his guitar, which suits the 1930 murder ballad’s dark theme well.

Artists covered elsewhere on the two discs include Curley Weaver, Freddy Fender, Earl King and Long John Hunter.

Taking into account that four of the same James originals appear on both volumes, the ratio of original to cover songs is about 50/50, with most of the original compositions found on the acoustic disc. “Look Out Your Window,” “Doing the Same to You” and “Don’t Believe What People Say” are prime examples of the artist’s songcraft.

Throw in the facts that 1) James played a National Resonator, a 1956 Martin 00-17 and a self-built washboard guitar; 2) the whole affair was recorded direct to analog eight-track tape; and 3) nearly all the subgenres of blues music are represented across both albums, and “Hear Me Calling”/”Natural Born That Way” are indeed winners.gnm_end_bug

Tracks (Hear Me Calling)
1. Hear Me Calling
2. Look Before I Leap
3. Still I Wanna Know
4. Doing The Same To You
5. Baby Where Did You Go?
6. No No Blues
7. She’s Making Whoopee In Hell Tonight
8. Look Out Your Window
9. Don’t Believe What People Say
10. She Don’t Make A Scene
11. I Know I’ve Got Religion

Total time: 40:51

Tracks (Natural Born That Way)
1. I’m Gonna Leave
2. Look Out Your Window
3. Natural Born That Way
4. Look Before I Leap
5. Take You Back Home
6. Doing The Same To You
7. Ride With Me Baby
8. It Must Have Been Love
9. I’m Gonna Tell Them
10. Cow Pies
11. Don’t Believe What People Say

Total time: 39:07

External links
artist’s website
CD Baby
iTunes Store

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Bill Frisell

Guitar in the Space Age!

OKeh

frisellIn a modernization of the electric-guitar/steel-guitar format pioneered by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant in the ’50s, Bill Frisell — aided by Greg Leisz on pedal steel, lap steel and slide guitar — puts a laidback spin on an instrumental collection of early ’60s guitar music that inspired him as a kid.

It’s always been hard to tell whether guitar hero Frisell’s pigeonhole is Americana with a hint of avant-garde or vice versa. But since this set is space-age music, the debate is rendered pointless. Leisz’s as-always ethereal slide is invaluable in setting the scene, exemplified best on the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You,” in which the two break away at midpoint to simulate Jerry Garcia accompanying himself on pedal steel, then morph briefly into Neil Young hanging ten with Crazy Horse before floating away on a stream of subconsciousness.

Speaking of surf, there are two types represented here: instrumental surf rock (the Chantays’ “Pipeline”) and vocal surf pop (the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl”), in surreal and dreamy versions, respectively. Also present is “Baja,” a reverb-soaked, whammy bar workout on the minor hit for the Astronauts. As well, there are a handful of not-quite-surf tracks, specifically Link Wray’s “Rumble,” Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and the Tornados’ “Telstar,” the last of which is set up by one of two original Frisell compositions, “Lift Off.”

For country and folk aficionados, there’s a Charlie Christian-style take on Merle Travis’ “Cannonball Rag” and a Telecaster-Jazzmaster takeover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Of course, no electric-guitar/steel-guitar instrumental album would be worth its salt without tributes to the afore-mentioned West and Bryant. Hence, the spaciness of “Reflections From the Moon” (from West’s 1962 LP “Guitar Spectacular”) and loopiness of “Bryant’s Boogie” (his first feature side, from a 1950 78 with Cliffie Stone’s Band) become even more so here in the hands of the Nostalgia Bros.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Pipeline
2. Turn, Turn, Turn
3. Messin’ with the Kid
4. Surfer Girl
5. Rumble
6. Shortest Day
7. Rebel Rouser
8. Baja
9. Cannonball Rag
10. Tired of Waiting for You
11. Reflections From the Moon
12. Bryant’s Boogie
13. Lift Off
14. Telstar

Total time: 55:08

External links
artist’s website
amazon.com
iTunes store

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Los Straitjackets

Deke Dickerson Sings the Great Instrumental Hits!!!!!!

Yep Roc

dickersonIt’s like amplifying the experience of hearing Lorne Greene sing the theme to “Bonanza” after only having known it as an instrumental.

Instrumentals have fallen out of fashion over the decades yet fans remain. But the vocal instrumental subgenre is about as esoteric as it gets. And Dickerson — a rockabilly, hillbilly-jazz and surf artist who also collects music outside the norm and beyond — wants to share it via renditions of a few choice examples, with the help of instrumental combo Los Straitjackets.

“Most famous instrumental hits either started out as vocal songs, or — even better — were written as instrumentals, became hits, and then some knucklehead came along and wrote lyrics for them after the fact,” Dickerson explains in the album’s press release.

Songs here originally composed with lyrics are “Theme From a Summer Place,” “Perfidia” and “Misirlou,” given Beach Boys, ska and exotica arrangements, respectively.

The rest are instrumentals that had “knucklehead”-penned lyrics added later. Some of the best are Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” (Doggett himself put out the vocal version as a follow-up single to the instrumental); the Shadows’ “Apache” (uniting disco, hip-hop, surf and country);  ”You Can Count on Me” (sung to the tune of the theme from “Hawaii 5-O” and sourced from Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1976 version); and “Popcorn” (the Gershon Kingsley moog classic popularized by Hot Butter and later performed with vocals by French band Anarchic System).

Dickerson limits his guitar work to electric sitar on “Misirlou” but takes his singing seriously. “When I was recording the vocals,” he recalls in the press release, “I kept thinking of the classic Bill Murray ‘Saturday Night Live’ lounge singer bit, and I quickly realized, that’s my role here: I’m here to interpret these familiar melodies in a recognizable fashion, and to embrace the absurdity beneath it all.”

And just as Murray’s Nick Winters pines for “those Star Wars” and pleads, “Don’t let ‘em end,” so, too, might listeners of this album of reverently irreverent modifications of long-buried treasure be left wishing for a “Vol. 2″ from impresario Dickerson and his lucha libre mask-wearing sidekicks. gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Fury
2. Honky Tonk
3. Magic Star
4. Theme From A Summer Place
5. Perfidia
6. Apache
7. Misirlou
8. Kawanga
9. Wild Weekend
10. You Can Count On Me
11. Walk Don’t Run
12. Popcorn
13. Sleepwalk
14. Pipeline

Total time: 38:30

External links
artist’s website
amazon.com
iTunes Store

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Eric Clapton & Friends

The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale

Bushbranch/Surfdog

claptonThe first question one might ask upon discovering Eric Clapton has released a heartfelt J.J. Cale tribute one year after Cale’s passing July 26, 2013, would be: How closely did the Oklahoman’s No. 1 disciple hew to that remarkably nonchalant, front-porch sound?

As closely as possible. In fact, it seems oxymoronic but state-of-the art technology was used to recreate Cale’s down-to-earth style. “We did a lot of things where (co-producer) Simon (Climie) would put a Pro Tools (computer) program on top of John’s songs,” Clapton said in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “And, bit by bit, we put layers of stuff on, keyboards, guitars, drums, and take John out, so a facsimile was created. And we’d play with that, with the key and length of the track. It would be the same; we just replaced all the instruments. And where appropriate, we’d match what he’d done to try to emulate that and let the moment and the personality (of the guest musicians) take over. I try to sing like John, but I still felt we got to a place where we achieved other things.”

On “Lies,” Clapton’s and John Mayer’s tandem vocals are given equal preference mix-wise, and together they almost sound like one person who sounds a lot like Cale. Other effects are used elsewhere, as on “Cajun Moon,” where Clapton sings alone but overdubs background vocals. And on songs like “Someday,” featuring Mark Knopfler, a guest vocalist handles lead vocals.

Besides Knopfler and Mayer, guest vocalists are Tom Petty; fellow Oklahoman Don White; Willie Nelson; and Cale’s widow, Christine Lakeland. Other guitarists in addition to Clapton are Knopfler; Mayer; Nelson; White; revered Memphis session great Reggie Young; Derek Trucks; Albert Lee; David Lindley; Don Preston; Lakeland; Doyle Bramhall II; and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz.

Three songs are based on unreleased Cale demos: the aforementioned “Someday”; the Nelson-sung “Songbird,” featuring Lindley on lap steel and Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica; and “Train to Nowhere,” boasting a three-way vocal share by Knopfler, Clapton and White, not to mention four guitarists in Knopfler, Clapton, White and Preston (who recorded with Leon Russell in the ’70s on Shelter Records, which released Cale’s first five albums ). Another obscure composition is the Clapton-sung “Since You Said Goodbye,” from a 1973 Bradley’s Barn session and issued in 2007 on Cale’s “Rewind” outtakes compilation.

Among many standouts are the sole non-Cale-penned “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me”), an early hit for Ray Price that gives Clapton an excuse to play dobro; “The Old Man and Me,” Petty’s lead-vocal turn and perhaps the best illustration of Cale’s laid-back singing, boosted by Leisz’s ethereal pedal steel; “Starbound,” another Nelson-sung tune that has the added benefit of Trucks’ slide and Leisz’s steel; and the sendoff “Crying Eyes,” a word-for-word duet between Clapton and Lakeland with a concise slide solo by Trucks at the end.gnm_end_bug

Tracks

1. Call Me The Breeze (vocals Eric Clapton)
2. Rock And Roll Records (vocals Eric Clapton & Tom Petty)
3. Someday (vocals Mark Knopfler)
4. Lies (vocals John Mayer & Eric Clapton)
5. Sensitive Kind (vocals Don White)
6. Cajun Moon (vocals Eric Clapton)
7. Magnolia (vocals John Mayer)
8. I Got The Same Old Blues (vocals Tom Petty & Eric Clapton)
9. Songbird (vocals Willie Nelson)
10. Since You Said Goodbye (vocals Eric Clapton)
11. I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me) (vocals Don White)
12. The Old Man And Me (vocals Tom Petty)
13. Train To Nowhere (vocals Mark Knopfler, Don White & Eric Clapton)
14. Starbound (vocals Willie Nelson)
15. Don’t Wait (vocals Eric Clapton & John Mayer)
16. Crying Eyes (vocals Eric Clapton & Christine Lakeland)

Total time: 51:28

External links
J.J. Cale’s website
Eric Clapton’s website
amazon.com
iTunes Store

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Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin

Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Yep Roc

alvinsThree decades after their last full album together (the Blasters’ 1985 “Hard Line”), the Alvin brothers are making beautiful “American Music” together again, thanks to a near-death experience and the “entrance drug into prewar blues.”

A couple of years ago, Phil Alvin’s throat became so swollen after a Blasters show in Spain that he needed an emergency tracheotomy. At the hospital, according to his account in the Blasters Newsletter, an intern “clubbed my heart back from a flatline TWICE.” Ultimately an abscessed tooth was found to be the culprit, and the singer recovered with vocal cords intact.

Prior to this, the brothers had recorded their first song together since guitarist/songwriter Dave Alvin left the Blasters for a solo career: a duet called “What’s Up With Your Brother?” on Dave’s 2011 album “Eleven Eleven.” After Phil’s 2012 health scare, they reunited again in 2013 for the soundtrack of a Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” Then, in November, they started work on an EP of songs by “shared musical square one” Big Bill Broonzy.

“Big Bill … was the entrance drug into prewar blues,” Dave told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the record Phil came home with that was all late-’30s recordings, and that was an eye-opening thing.” Work on the EP went so well that the project was expanded to an album.

For about half the songs on “Common Ground,” the Alvins are backed by LA session players Bob Glaub on bass and Don Heffington on drums. The other half is Dave’s touring band, the Guilty Ones — bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Lisa Pankratz (sans guitarist Chris Miller) — plus former Blaster Gene Taylor on piano. Phil and Dave share vocal and guitar duties, with Phil also playing harmonica.

Far from a note-by-note exercise drawing upon the Broonzy songbook, the album displays all the styles employed during the artist’s 30-year recording career (country blues, ragtime, early Chicago blues, swing, jump blues and folk) but often features one style being used to interpret a song originally done in another. In one instance, two songs are combined: The guitar melody of 1932′s “Long Tall Mama” is grafted onto the lyrics of 1941′s “All by Myself.”

“Truckin’ Little Woman,” a 1938 boogie-woogie number, is given a West Coast blues treatment to great effect. So are “I Feel So Good” and “Southern Flood Blues,” the latter benefiting from Phil’s authoritative harp playing (he took lessons from Sonny Terry, after all) .

In the acoustic realm, highlights include “How You Want It Done?”; “Big Bill Blues”; the instrumental “Saturday Night Rub”; and Broonzy’s best-known composition, “Key to the Highway.”

An added attraction for audiophiles: stellar engineering by Craig Parker Adams at his Winslow Ct. Studio in Los Angeles (Carlos Guitarlos, the Knitters, Stan Ridgeway, Peter Case, Steve Earl) and Joe Gastwirt’s impeccable mastering.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. All By Myself
2. I Feel So Good
3. How You Want It Done?
4. Southern Flood Blues
5. Big Bill Blues
6. Key To The Highway
7. Tomorrow
8. Just A Dream
9. You’ve Changed
10. Stuff They Call Money
11. Truckin’ Little Woman
12. Saturday Night Rub

Total time: 42:39

External links:
dissertation on Big Bill Broonzy
Dave Alvin’s website
amazon.com
iTunes Store

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