Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy
Three 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.
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
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
Posted July 8th, 2014
dissertation on Big Bill Broonzy
Dave Alvin’s website
Tags: blues, country, folk, jazz, ragtime, rockNo Comments »
Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan
For anyone who’s lost touch with Charlie Daniels over the past few decades, now’s a good time to check him out again.
Inspired after providing music on period instruments for AMC’s transcontinental-railroad-era “Hell on Wheels,” the Charlie Daniels Band went full steam ahead with “Off the Grid,” an acoustic take on a set of Dylan covers.
Daniels has a long-ago connection with Dylan: In 1969-70, he played guitar and bass at sessions for Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” “Self-Portrait” and “New Morning” albums. As a last-minute replacement for a guitarist during the recording of “Skyline,” he played so well that Dylan insisted he be used as a guitarist for the rest of the sessions. Daniels has credited the experience as giving him the confidence to start writing songs, some of which were covered by Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette, which in turn led him to start a solo career.
“I was not naive enough to think I could swim in the same stream as Dylan, try to emulate what he had done or cop his licks,” Daniels says in the album’s press release. “Nobody could do that, but my ambitions were to provoke some thought, to color the imagery of my songs, to think outside the box of conformity” — all of which he is still doing on “Off the Grid.”
As far as “acoustic” albums go, this is the real deal, with nary an electric bass or electronic keyboards. It’s just the Charlie Daniels Band, which since keyboardist Joel “Taz” DiGregorio’s death in 2011 has been Daniels — acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle; Pat McDonald — drums, congas, shaker, tambourine; Charlie Hayward — acoustic bass; Bruce Brown — acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, harmonica, banjo; Chris Wormer — acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, slide guitar; and Shannon Wickline — piano. Engineer and co-producer (with Daniels) Casey Wood contributes harmonium.
The only song here on which Daniels played on the original with Dylan is “Country Pie” from “Nashville Skyline,” but this time he plays fiddle. Source LPs for the balance of “Grid” are “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963); “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (1964); “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965); “Blonde on Blonde” (1966); “John Wesley Harding” (1967); “Self Portrait” (1970); “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II” (1971); “Blood on the Tracks” (1975); and “Slow Train Coming” (1979).
For the most part, Daniels goes with traditional country arrangements with a strong mandolin and fiddle presence. Dobro and acoustic slide also figure prominently. While “Doin’ It Dylan” is excellent across the board, CDB does Dylan especially well on the fast-talking “Tangled Up in Blue,” the tipsy “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the nearly jazzy “Gotta Serve Somebody” and the not quite bluegrass “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”
1. Tangled Up In Blue
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’
3. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
4. Gotta Serve Somebody
5. I Shall Be Released
6. Country Pie
7. Mr. Tambourine Man
8. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
9. Just Like A Woman
10. Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)
Total time: 40:36
Posted June 17th, 2014
Tags: blues, country, folk, rockNo Comments »
Blues for Use
Three things for instrumental music lovers to keep in mind about Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess’ third solo effort:
1) It’s guitar-bass-drums.
2) Despite jazz, folk and blues elements, it’s still rock ‘n’ roll.
3) Guitarist Teddy Kumpel pole-vaults over Comess’ sky-high musical bar with finesse.
“My natural instincts tend to go to the weird side of things,” says Comess in the album’s press release, “but I’m also just as interested in a simple pop song — I tend to try to make my instrumental songs get to the point like a song with someone singing words would.”
“Blues for Use” is indeed a weird album, but in an awe-inspiring way. Take “Hard Ball” for instance: Set up by the spacey cinematic intro of “Surprise – Part 1″ (think “Ra”-era Utopia minus the synthesizers), it startles with “Black Dog”-like bombast but soon switches to the gentle cry of electric slide, alternating between the two motifs and topping it off with a well-conceived bridge in the middle of its ABACABA construction.
Also in the press release, Kumpel says he enjoys “letting Aaron guide my guitar in a direction I never would go on my own. He jokes that he tries to write things that make me uncomfortable to play because sometimes it takes me a lot of work trying to make the songs my own and interpret them in a way that makes him happy. It’s always a satisfying challenge.”
Comess explained the method behind his dazzling compositions in an email to Good New Music: ”Most of the songs I wrote on an acoustic guitar, then I would demo the song myself playing the guitar, bass and drums, and then send them to Teddy and Rich. Then we would go over them and record. Some of the songs on this record we got to play out live before we went in the studio.”
Especially noteworthy are the variable-speed “Gorilla,” which approximates a great ape lumbering through the forest; the Friends of Dean Martinez/Sonny Landreth/Eric Johnson-like “Bajelirious,” which at times is sort of a reverse-electronica composition where the bass (Richard Hammond really shines) and rhythm guitars mimic Moog effects; “Casa Colonial,” an ode to the American Primitive genre; and the title cut, another alternating tune — this time between harmonics-laden friendly folk (à la Hot Tuna’s “Water Song”) and foreboding fusion (à la Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire”).
1. Surprise – Part 1
2. Hard Ball
3. Guilty Until Proven Innocent
8. Casa Colonial
9. Blues For Use
12. Surprise – Part 2
Total time: 37:12
Posted May 21st, 2014
Tags: blues, folk, instrumental, jazz, rockNo Comments »
After Russell’s successful 2010 duet album with Elton John (“The Union”), big labels were suddenly knocking again on the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter/pianist’s door. But they wanted him to do something he’d never done: use a producer.
So Russell recruited Tommy LiPuma, one-time principal at Blue Thumb Records, the late 1960s/early ’70s album-oriented independent rock ‘n’ roll label whose roster included Captain Beefheart, Albert Collins, Earl Hooker, Dave Mason, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and the Crusaders. The two had never worked together, but LiPuma had produced George Benson’s 1976 cover of Russell’s “This Masquerade” (No. 3, Billboard R&B singles; No. 6, adult contemporary; No. 10, Hot 100).
LiPuma granted Russell carte blanche to play whatever he liked. As the album progressed, Russell realized it was shaping up as standards he’d either done in session or solo work, or had always wanted to do — “a record of my musical journey through this life,” as he relates in the liner notes.
Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” it ain’t. From the down-to-earth reading of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” (featuring former band member Chris Simmons’ rollicking slide-guitar work) to the simmered-in-strings slow blues/jazz of “The Masquerade Is Over,” Russell is clearly having a ball jumping from genre to genre.
A pair of unexpected tunes turn out to be worthy: Paul Anka’s “I Really Miss You,” first heard as an Anka-Russell collaboration on Anka’s 2013 “Duets,” here featuring pedal-steel player extraordinaire Greg Leisz; and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” one of three tunes with L.A.’s Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Only two songs are Russell compositions: “Big Lips” and “Down in Dixieland,” earlier versions of which are found on his 2008 “In Your Dreams.”
• ”Georgia on My Mind,” a reciprocation of Ray Charles’ cover of Russell’s “A Song for You.”
• ”Fever,” tweaked into a jump-gospel version and again featuring Simmons’ exquisite slide.
• “That Lucky Old Sun,” a prior rendition of which appeared on Russell’s 2002 “Moonlight & Love Songs,” but here showcasing the heavenly sound of pedal steel (Leisz) and Hammond B3 organ (sideman supreme Larry Goldings) in tandem.
1. Come On In My Kitchen
2. Big Lips
3. Georgia On My Mind
4. That Lucky Old Sun
6. Think Of Me
7. I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good
8. The Masquerade Is Over
9. I Really Miss You
10. New York State Of Mind
11. Fool’s Paradise
12. Down In Dixieland
Total time: 47:34
Posted April 21st, 2014
Tags: blues, country, easy listening, jazz, pop, rockNo Comments »
This is Canadian guitarist/producer/record-label head Dawson’s second instrumental release, the first being 2008′s “Telescope,” which was the result of a grant to study pedal steel guitar under L.A. session man Greg Leisz. “Rattlesnake,” however, is strictly acoustic.
The album was recorded between tours and production work during the latter half of 2013. There were no overdubs or effects: just some fingers, slides and four guitars (a Larrivée Jumbo, Michael Dunn-built Weissenborn, National Tricone and Taylor 12-string) stuck in front of a Neuman M49 mic rescued after 50 years from a Detroit church.
There are shades of Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Rose in the 11 original compositions. Ragtime, fingerstyle, slide, gospel, resophonic, country — all manner of old-time guitar is here, recorded and mastered oh so well for optimum enjoyment.
A few of the tunes even have that authentic speed-up/slow-down thing, where the music sounds like a 33⅓ LP perfectly sped up to 45 or 78 rpm and then brought back to normal.
Slide fans will take special note of “Flophouse Oratory,” the title cut, “Butterfly Stunt,” the interestingly titled “While the West Was Won, the Earth Didn’t Know It” and “Chunky.”
1. Blind Thomas At The Crime Scene
2. Flophouse Oratory
3. The Medicine Show Comes To Avalon
4. Rattlesnake Cage
5. Lighthouse Avenue
6. Butterfly Stunt
7. While The West Was Won, The Earth Didn’t Know It
8. J.R. Lockley’s Dilemna
9. The Flagpole Skater Laughs From Above
11. The Altar At Center Raven
Total time: 41:26
Posted February 19th, 2014
Tags: acoustic, blues, folk, guitar, instrumentalNo Comments »