Tuesday, 22 December 2009

CD Review - Tim Lothar & Peter Nande

Two For The Road
Straight Shooter

By M.D. Spenser

From the first notes of this outstanding country Blues album you know it’s going to be fun.

The rollicking beat and wonderfully relaxed feel of it all might make you overlook just how fine the musicianship is. But don’t.

Tim Lothar, originally a drummer, plays a style that’s pure blues yet recognizably his own: He combines fingerpicking, slide, and a drummer’s intricate sense of rhythm.

Peter Nande’s harmonica ranges from dance-quick and happy to as lonesome as a midnight train.

Lothar and Nande have each been named Danish Blues Artist of the Year, but to say that is almost to undervalue them: Who cares that they’re Danish? They should win some W.C. Handy awards: This is the best acoustic Blues album you’ll buy this year.

It’s produced by long-time American Bluesman James Harman—who, one critic has written, “is incapable of making a bad album.” His production (and guest vocals) infuse the outing with authenticity and humour.

One highlight is a cover of the Lovin’ Sam Theard tune, ‘Can’t Get That Stuff No More’ (wrongly attributed here to Tampa Red)—you just have to sing along.

The nine originals are stellar, too, from ‘Slow Train’, a jaunty toe-tapper, to ‘Rough Ride’, which Lothar’s loping drums and staccato guitar give a propulsive feel.

This album proves that Blues don’t come from place of birth: These guys get it. Beginning to end, this album is a damn good time.

Here’s hoping Lonesome Tim and Big Boy Pete tour the UK—soon.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Album That Almost Never Was: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

By M.D. Spenser

One of the greatest soul albums of all time was almost never recorded.

Had Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” remained but a dream, Maria Muldaur’s latest album, “Yes, We Can”, would not exist. And music would have missed a cry from the heart that remains as moving today as it was nearly 40 yeas ago.

The problem was a dispute between Gaye, Motown’s biggest solo star, and Berry Gordy, the label’s founder.

During the 1960s, Motown racked up an extraordinary string of hits, crossing over to the white audience with Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, The Four Tops, the Temptations, and Gaye himself.

This was dance music; its crossover appeal was rooted not only in its rhythms but also in its avoidance of social comment. Gaye had huge hits in the ’60s, all personal, none political: songs like ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, ‘Ain't That Peculiar’, and ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)’.

But society was changing. As the ’60s wore on, blacks, often lacking student deferments, were sent in disproportionate numbers to fight and die in Vietnam.

In the summer of ’65, racial tension exploded into six days of riots in the Los Angeles area of Watts. When the smoke cleared, 34 people were dead, more than 1,000 were injured, and nearly 4,000 had been arrested.

And in 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. More riots followed, sometimes brutally repressed.

Motown’s hit-factory formula was becoming increasingly out of touch with the black experience.

Nor did Gaye fit the Motown mould. No pretty boy whose talents were limited to smiling, dancing and singing songs written by others, he was a complete musician, a successful drummer and hit songwriter before making it big as a singer—a complex, moody, thoughtful, talented man.

In 1970, he recorded a single: ‘What’s Going On’. It opened with the words: “Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today.”

The song addressed the war in Vietnam and police brutality. Gordy called it “the worst record I ever heard” and refused to release it.

But Gaye said he would record nothing else unless the song was released. In early 1971, Gordy relented.

The song topped the Billboard R&B chart for five weeks. After which Gordy asked whether Gaye could record a whole album of songs like that.

Two months later, in the grip of inspiration, Gaye recorded the album in 10 days. He wrote or co-wrote every track. He produced the album himself, spending as much time at the controls as behind the microphone.

The result was an enormous commercial and critical success.

‘“What's Going On” is not only Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, it’s the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music,” the critic John Bush has written on allmusic.com.

Even the cover heralded something different. Here was Gaye, suddenly bearded, no longer the manufactured star of TV dance programs, with the skinny tie and big grin. He’s walking in the rain, pensive, melancholy, hands in his pockets, drops of water flecking his hair and beading up on his raincoat.

And there’s the title: “What’s Going On.” No question mark: This is a statement. As the song says, ‘Come talk to me/So you can see/What’s going on.”

The music is gorgeous, from the haunting alto sax that opens the title track to the fading drumbeat that concludes ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’. (The two bonus tracks on the CD should not be there.) It’s a symphony, gracefully shaped, a suite of songs that sometimes run one into the next, distinct but of a piece. This is pop that is orchestral, but quietly so; it’s jazzy, relaxed, a sweeter shade of mournful.

Over it soars one of music’s most soulful voices: Rolling Stone magazine put Gaye sixth on its list of The Greatest Singers of All Time.

The album tackles all the issues Motown had avoided: war, brutality, addiction, pollution, the pouring of money into moon shots while inner cities decayed. There’s anger, yes: “Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life”, he sings. But there’s sadness and caring, too, and wistfulness.

The album included three huge hits: the title track, ‘Inner City Blues’ and ‘Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)’. It cleared the way for countless other soul artists to address these issues and to write and produce their own work.

The album still sounds utterly current; covers from it continue to be recorded.

When Muldaur, distraught at the state of the world in the 21st Century, thought of recording a social justice album, she thought first of the protest music of the 1960s folkies. But then she remembered that she didn’t really like it: it was marked by monotonous strumming; it had no groove. Then her thoughts turned to the black social consciousness music of the 1970s—started by Marvin Gaye with this album.

On “Yes, We Can,” Muldaur includes ‘Inner City Blues’ and others songs that followed from what Gaye had begun. This was the music she’d been looking for.

“It was like protest music you could dance to,” she said.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Soul To Soul – A Concert For The Ages

By M.D. Spenser

One of the most exciting R&B concerts ever staged took place not in America but in Africa. And it was originally the brainchild of a former prostitute.

The show, put on in Accra, the sprawling capital of Ghana, began March 6, 1971. More than 200,000 people packed what was then called Black Star Square, on the Gulf of Guinea, and went wild to some of the most supercharged soul you could ever want to hear. Featured were huge American stars like Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, the Staples Singers, Carlos Santana and Roberta Flack, along with a variety of top African artists.

The show lasted 14 hours, until 6:45 the next morning. To watch videos of Tina Turner from that night is to see her in the peak of her fiery form, a dozen years younger than the woman who sang ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’. Her feet are a blur as she shimmies across the stage, shaking a tailfeather in the best tradition of the era, and her vocals a scream of passion from deep within.

Not only did the show electrify those present. In time, it also showed the connections music can form—between African song and American, between white and black, and between past and future.

And it began with an idea from Maya Angelou, the celebrated American writer—and former prostitute.

“Music was my refuge,” Angelou wrote once. “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

Another of her refuges was Africa. She lived in Ghana for a time in the 1960s. And it was she who suggested to the government of Kwame Nkrumah that black American artists be brought in to celebrate Ghana’s independence.

Nkrumah, a Marxist, was overthrown in a military coup—some say it was backed by the CIA—before the concert could take place. But the idea didn’t die.

In the end, the Soul to Soul concert was held in 1971, on the 14th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from Britain. It was a concert for the ages. A documentary about it was released later that year; the film was released again on DVD in 2004, along with a CD soundtrack.

The connections between Africa and America showed in the way the music from both continents fit side by side, each building on the excitement of the other. The way music bridges the races was evident, too: Many people remarked that the performer with the most African sound that night was not Wilson Pickett, for example, or Roberta Flack, but Carlos Santana, a white man born in Mexico.

The connections between past and future have become apparent over time. Just recently, when the jazz and Blues artist Lizz Wright was making “The Orchard,” her newest album, her producer showed her the film of Soul to Soul. Wright was mesmerized by Tina Turner; she heard in Turner’s voice something of her own experience, a feeling she wanted to capture on the new album.

In the end, she included ‘I Idolize You,’ a song sung by Tina but written by Ike Turner, then her husband. Ike had started playing in the ’40s. In the ’50s he backed people like Elmore James and Otis Rush. You can hear him playing piano on early Howlin’ Wolf recordings.

And now, because of that concert in 1971, a song written by man who backed Howlin’ Wolf is the highlight of one of the finest, most progress
ive Blues albums of the 21st Century.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

CD Review - The History Of Rhythm & Blues 1925-1942

Various Artists
Rhythm and Blues Records

By M.D. Spenser

This exhilarating compilation covers the period almost from when the Blues were first recorded until Billboard magazine inaugurated its first sales chart for black music, the Harlem Hit Parade.

It runs from a rough and rhythmic field holler to the smooth tones of Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone, and encompasses along the way developments central to modern music: the introduction of slide guitar, the invention of the walking bass, the development of boogie woogie piano, the advent of swing.

This album is a distillation of a four-CD set; as such, it’s an exceptionally strong collection, each of the 25 tracks a discovery, a joy. The liner notes are worth the price in themselves: Well-written and entertaining, they detail not only the history of each artist, but the context of each song.

We hear John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson pioneer the single-note lead on harmonica, Tampa Red introduce the guitar-piano Blues combo, Jimmie Rodgers mix Blues and country in a way later taken up by Ray Charles and others.

Great names appear: Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. A number of these songs remain famous, too: 1929’s ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’ has been recorded most recently by Seasick Steve; 1940’s ‘Don’t You Lie To Me’ was covered by the Stones.

But some of the best stuff is more obscure: Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup’s ‘Mean Ol’ Frisco’ is a treat, as is ‘I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water’ from The Cats and the Fiddle.

The most recent song on the album was recorded more than 65 years ago, but this is no dusty exercise in musicology. This is creative, vibrant music. Even today, it quickens the pulse.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Music Interview - Maria Muldaur

Maria Muldaur More Sultry Than Ever: I Finally Got the Voice I'd Always Wanted

By M.D. Spenser

Few singers have built such a varied career as Maria Muldaur.

She was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s, and later sang and played fiddle in jug bands. In the early ’70s, she was half of an eclectic duo with her then-husband, Geoff Muldaur. Then, divorced and solo, she scored a massive pop hit in 1973 with ‘Midnight At The Oasis’.

More recently, her voice has become much richer and over the last several years she’s done the deepest Blues of her carer.

Her latest album, “Yes, We Can” explores the black social consciousness music of the early ’70s. She’s backed by a group she calls “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir”, which includes Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow and, of all people, the actress Jane Fonda.

In a recent interview, sounding enthusiastic and girlish at 66, Muldaur seemed to talk with no full stops, one thought running into the next. Some excerpts from that conversation:

MD: Before we get to the new album, I want to ask in general about your recent work. It seems that you’re singing now better than ever. How would you say your singing has evolved over the years?

Maria: From when I was a teenager, I’ve always really loved the Blues, and rhythm and blues. And when I was 17, I discovered and fell in love with Bessie Smith. And a little bit after that I fell in love with Memphis Minnie and a lot of these early Blues women, and have always loved Mavis Staples and all of the black gospel singers.

So, even though I was given a very nice little light lilting soprano voice, in my soul of souls I’ve always wanted to be a Blues and gospel singer. And just as the years make everything on a person go south, so to speak, the good part of it was that it also made my voice go south. If you hear what I’m doing now and then you put on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, you wouldn’t even think it’s the same person.

I find it a very gratifying and nice little unexpected gift, having matured over the years, that I finally got the voice I’d always wanted to have.

Your albums over the last decade have been quite distinct from each other. There’s the Blues-rock of “Southland Of The Heart”, piano Blues in “Meet Me Where They Play The Blues”, vintage Blues in “Richland Woman Blues”, pop in “Heart Of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan”, and now a social justice album. Did there come a point when you felt released from the constraints of Top 40 and free to take on whatever projects you wanted?

I was never in the constraints of Top 40.

I grew up in Greenwich Village, which is where what I always laughingly call the folk scare of the early ’60s started. I got exposed to Appalachian mountain music, Delta Blues. They were rediscovering and bringing up north people like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and black gospel music and bluegrass.

I was in a band with—you know who (bluegrass artist) David Grisman is? We were in a band together in 1962 called Maria And The Washington Square Ramblers. It was a bluegrass band and I was the lead singer.

And then, of course, for many years I was in a jug band, first the Even Dozen, which I was in with David Grisman and John Sebastian (later of The Lovin’ Spoonful), and with the Kweskin Jug Band for about eight or nine years. And then I did two albums with Geoff Muldaur as a duo, and those were pretty eclectic.

So when we broke up, both musically and personally, I got the unexpected opportunity to go out to California and do my own solo album. I made what really, if you look back at it, was a very eclectic album. The first song is a Jimmie Rogers song. I did ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg,’ which was an old New Orleans Blues. I did ‘Walkin’ One And Only’, which was a Dan Hicks song, which is a very hip, kind of early swing kind of thing.

So really, the fact that there was this song that I did as a favour to my young guitar player, ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, just was another gift from above that everybody just fell in love with that song. And it was on the charts for almost a year, it was nominated for a Grammy in several categories, it went gold and eventually platinum, etc. And that was when I became known to a larger audience maybe as a pop artist.

But really, if you go and look at my next album, it starts with a Skip James song, and has some swing tunes on it that I did with (saxophonist/trumpet player/clarinetist) Benny Carter and a big band.

So what I’m saying is I’ve always been about exploring different kinds of American roots music. And that little foray into the Top 10 was a happy accident that I’m very grateful for, but that’s never been what I was about.

How was it making “Sisters & Brothers” with Eric Bibb and Rory Block?

It was like falling off a log. We did it in a town called Unity, New Hampshire. Rory Block’s been my soul sister for years, and we both absolutely drink out of the same musical fountains of the early Delta Blues and so forth. And Eric Bibb was a much more recent discovery of mine, and I love his voice and his whole kind of very soulful, preacher-like way of writing songs and singing and playing the guitar—I just adore him.

We got up there and sat around in the living room of this little bed & breakfast for a couple of days and thought of different songs, and ended up cutting the whole album in a couple of days. It was just a wonderful experience.

You mentioned Bessie Smith—I can’t imagine anyone else doing such a wonderful job of singing ‘Bessie’s Advice’. How did you happen to record that?

I’m glad you asked this, because this is just indicative of what a serendipitous little meeting of the minds and hearts and souls we had up there in Unity, New Hampshire.

Eric, almost as an afterthought, said, “Maria, you know, when I heard I was going to work with you, I wrote this song. It’s called ‘Bessie’s Advice’.” And he played it for us in the living room.

And I said, “I really like the song, I love what it has to say, but it needs a bridge, and it also needs to have—you know, because the whole song’s about if your man does this or that or yells at you or punches you—it’s all negative”. I said, “You have to have the other side where it talks about what if he’s just what you want, you tell him ‘Come on in’”.

And I sat down at the piano with (keyboardist) Chris (Burns) and—this is almost like a scene out of one of those Tin Pan Alley movies—you know, I’m trying to sing it to him, and he’s going, “This chord?” And I’m going, ‘No, no, no, more minor’.

I’m sitting at a stool at the edge of this grand piano, and Eric Bibb has a pencil and a piece of paper, and we get to the bridge, and he’s scribbled out the bridge and put it in front of me. And then as we were sort of shaping the music of the song, he was finishing the last two verses. I was throwing in my two cents with, “No, no, no, it should say something more like this”.

And it just kind of flowed from his pen onto the paper. And what you hear on the record, we recorded it about five minutes after that happened.

It’s wonderfully atmospheric.

I mean, talk about hot off the press or fresh out of the oven. The song was finished and the producer said, “Now, go in the sound booth”, and I thought he was getting sound. I, of course, wanted to rehearse it and rehearse it. And he said, “No, no, just do it. It sounds great.” Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing.

The new album, “Yes, We Can,” is a departure, isn’t it? Were you worried that a protest album would come off as preachy?

I don’t give a damn. I mean, A), I don’t worry about anything. B), I mean in terms of what I’m presenting to the world, I pray about it.

I don’t write, so I have to reach deep inside and figure out what’s resonating with me at any particular time. And what was on my heart and mind was the very dismaying and deplorable condition of the world right now.

So I said, Oh, I’ll make a protest album. But then I quickly decided, no, I don’t want to look back with derision. I want to look forward with vision and present a positive outlook, something to give people hope.

Back in ’60s, when I was living in the village as part of the whole folk scene, there was one faction of people that were trying to discover authentic American roots music of various sorts. And then another faction of the folk scene was people who were into protest songs. And even though I totally espoused the causes they were singing about, the words were humourless and kind of jingoistic, and the music was a little too simplistic. It just didn’t captivate my ear.

So the whole notion was—aww, but wait a minute, I don’t like protest music.

But then I suddenly thought of all the wonderful songs of social relevance that a lot of the black soul artists in the late ’60s, early ’70s were singing. They were certainly very aware of all the social ills that needed to be addressed. And they wrote and recorded wonderful songs that addressed those issues very eloquently but yet with a total groove. It was like protest music you could dance to.

So that’s when I thought of Marvin Gaye, and I did ‘Inner City Blues’, and I thought of ‘War (What Is It Good For)’, and ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’.

One of the secrets seems to be in having the music funky enough that it doesn’t seem in any way preachy.

Because that early stuff, they were just sort of strumming relentlessly on acoustic guitars. To me, it has to be artful. The first, quotes, protest music I ever liked was Bob Dylan, because he raised the bar a thousandfold. ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘John Brown,’ both of which are on this album, he wrote when he was 21. Can you imagine that? I mean, it’s just amazing.

One of the most moving songs on the album is ‘John Brown’—a mother sends her son off to war hoping for glory and he comes back maimed.

He wrote it probably because he was facing being drafted himself. I knew him way back in those days. And that was the Vietnam era. But how much more poignant the song is now, because back in those days, if someone was wounded badly enough, mercifully they usually died.

Now, they can bionically sew them back up, patch them up, you know, give them bionic limbs, and then in some cases they’re even sending them back off to battle. And yet there’s a lot of people in this country that think that’s heroic.

The way I do it, I took that version—which is, I think, really funky—from a version that the Staples Singers did. And Bonnie Raitt says that’s her favorite, too.

Was making the record fun?

Oh, my god, it was the most overwhelming project I’ve ever—because just to ask all these women of great stature, and who were heroes of mine, I had to screw up all my courage to call up and ask all these people, including Jane Fonda. But not a person said no.

And then they just so naturally took to the music. I mean, the version of “Masters Of War” I sing gives me chills. I said, “How are we going to do this?” because Dylan’s way just drones on and on, only a couple of chords.

And the drummer just started playing these ominous, war-like sounding, thunderous rolls on the drums, and then the keyboard player and the guitar player, they just came in with these really dark, moody, ominous chords. It wasn’t like it was all written down and we had a big grand plan. It just organically emerged out of the players because we were all of one heart, mind and spirit on this project.

I have to ask—can Jane Fonda sing?

I’m here to tell you she can sing. What gave me the idea was that I had done a benefit with her the year before for a wonderful film called “Sir, No Sir” (a documentary about soldiers opposing the Vietnam War).

So they had a big benefit to raise money to distribute it. At the end, Holly Near and Jane Fonda did ‘Down By The Riverside’, which has kind of been the anthem for peace-seekers over the years, an old black gospel song. And I’m standing right next to Jane, and I noticed how clearly she sang.

So as I’m sort of trying to plan this whole thing, she came into my mind.

First she was a little intimidated because Joan Baez was there. And she’s like, “Oh, God, what am I doing here? I’m not a real singer.”

And I said, “Now, Jane, just sing it like we were singing it at that benefit”. And she went out there, put on her little headphones and sang her heart out.

It’s really funny. When she starts singing—the lead part was already on, so—(sings) “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield”—and we hear “ba bum ba bum”—“Down by the riverside”—“ba bum ba bum”.

And she’s doing the “ba bum ba bums,” and my main engineer turned around and said, “Well, do you want her to do that? Should I stop the take?” I said, “Are you kidding?”

She just reminded me of a girl in the eleventh grade choral group, just singing her little heart out.

Where did you get the idea to slow the song ‘War’ down, take out Edwin Starr’s grunts, and give it such a delicate, mournful reading?

Mournful—that’s it. I have to say credit goes to Joan Osborne and her band. I had never heard Edwin Starr’s version. But I had heard her version, and I kind of thought that’s how the song went.

And actually it’s funny, because the people at the record company didn’t like my version of ‘War’. And even my guitar player said, “Well, I miss that whole angry thing.”

I said, “But this isn’t about that”. I said, “These are women mourning. Their husbands, lovers and children are being killed for no good reason. The is the feminine take, the people who bring life into the world and nurture and nourish it for eighteen years till your child is grown. And then your child is snatched up and sent off for no good reason to be killed and maimed.”

And that’s my take on the song, and I had to fight to keep it on the album.

Overall, how would you like people to respond to hearing the album?

Well, my music has been the soundtrack—I mean, I could really write a little book, which would have to be X-rated, if I had written down all the little stories that people have told me.

People come up to me and tell me these stories about what they were doing or what they were inspired to do when they heard various songs of mine. So it’s clear to me that my songs have been the soundtrack to various love and lust affairs. People come show me photos of children they conceived to ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg’ or one song or another.

And the thought occurred to me that, if things continue as they are, pretty soon there won’t be any people to make love and make romance and babies, and no place to do so, either, and so it’s our hope that these songs will just give people the idea that instead of feeling utterly hopeless about what’s going on in this world, that they say, yes we can change things.

It’s just like, you know when you have to clean the whole house and you put on some really bumpin’ music to kind of motivate you? Well, I want this music to motivate people to do whatever they can on a local level to effect a change in this world.

Do you know what is next for you?

I would like to make a jug band album and an Appalachian old-timey album. And then I will feel like I will have gone completely full circle. I just follow my heart, and so far in all these years I’ve not run out of things to do or to sing about.

Friday, 6 March 2009

CD Review - Tom Doughty

Have A Taste Of This

By M.D. Spenser

This album of lyrical lap slide guitar is worth your attention.

Tom Doughty, a Cheshire native, mixes originals with covers from an impressive array of sources, including Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Blind Willie McTell (‘Delia’, which Doughty incorrectly attributes to Rev. Gary Davis).

Doughty’s playing is deft, rhythmic and melodic. He fingerpicks while playing slide and the sound is as smooth and Bluesy as you’re likely to hear anywhere.

His singing is expressive, too—owing more, perhaps, to folk than to Blues.

Did I mention that a motorcycle accident in 1974 left Doughty paralyzed from the chest down, impairing movement in both hands? It’s not really relevant: You don’t hear it in his music.

He can’t move the fingers of his left hand; hence the slide, the open tunings, and the guitar in the lap. He says the strength of his right hand is diminished, too, but you sure can’t hear it in his picking.

Apparently, his guitars hung on his wall looking at him for 10 years until he finally decided he’d find a way play again, even with his diminished movement.

Now, he’s invited to lead workshops on technique. Far better to take Doughty’s music on his own terms, never mind the paralysis.

‘Zimbabwe’, an original, is a bit obvious and ham-handedly political: “Mugabe/Killing machine”, he sings.

But ‘Jitterbug Swing’ is lively and jaunty. And Doughty plays a moving and mournful version of ‘Nobody’s Fault’ (“It ain’t nobody’s fault but mine”).

Just a very, very nice CD.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

CD Reviews - Three CDs From Blue Skunk Music

Blues Duo


One-Man Band

Blue Skunk Music

By M.D. Spenser

With these three enjoyable CDs, Blue Skunk demonstrates again the value of small, independent labels: This is good music we might otherwise never hear.

Judging from its Web site, Blue Skunk has only a half dozen or so artists, but they’re skilled and Bluesy.

Doug Adamz and Dan Hayes, both fine guitarists, offer a stripped-down acoustic set: On some songs the spaces speak as loudly as the notes.

Their guitars blend so seamlessly it’s sometimes hard to tell whether two guitars are playing or just one. Their playing is easy, relaxed and rolling, sometimes augmented by harmonica—pure blues from two guys who are in it for life even if the money’s no good. “When you pawn your guitar it just breaks your heart,” they sing.

Steve Rowe, by contrast, is an electric guitarist, and he’s excellent. On “Five” he offers driving Blues-rock, heavy on the drums, with propulsive base lines.

Rowe really cuts loose on the guitar, but always to augment the song rather than to call attention to himself. Unpretentiously, he lays down some stonking blues. He rocks but remembers the roll.

The feeling ranges from swampy to Bluesy to funky. One song has echoes of Carlos Santana, another sounds like Gary Moore.

Bill Abel is an altogether different kettle of fish: On “One-Man Band” he provides the kind of raw and primal Blues the Fat Possum label brought to prominence.

The album was recorded live, no overdubs; Abel produces an unbelievably full sound for a one-man band.

He plays hi-hat and snare with one foot, bass drum with the other, and both rhythm and lead on guitars—some of which he made from cigar boxes.

His voice is a howl that seems to fit his bear-like appearance—at once a wail of desperation and an affirmation of life.

The songs are filled with noise, clatter and emotion. This music is very much in the style of Seasick Steve, but without Seasick’s pop veneer, if you can imagine that.

Good as they are, these albums could have been better. Abel’s CD is 16 tracks. Rowe’s is 15 tracks, most of them long. Paring down the number of tracks, painful as it might have been, would have resulted in tighter, more compelling albums.

Still, it’s a pleasure to listen to all three of these CDs. We can only hope Blue Skunk continues to bring such worthy artists to a wider audience.

Monday, 26 January 2009

CD Review - The Mountain Firework Company


By M.D. Spenser

One of the great joys of being a music lover is stumbling across something as beautiful as this lyrical album of alt-folk. Unheralded, self-produced right down to the photos, this one’s a keeper.

The Mountain Firework Company is a six-piece band of Brits working primarily in an American vein. The sound is full: Guitar, banjo and mandolin are all fingerpicked at once, augmented by a fiddle and anchored by a double bass and tasteful drumming.

The opening cut, ‘Rolling River’ has the feel of John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ or even Harry Nilsson’s version of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’.

But on a deeper level, MFC’s music harks back to the folk that preceded the Blues—it’s not that this has a hint of Blues in it, it’s that the Blues has in it some of this.

The music’s gorgeous, the lyrics poetic. “Those stolen kisses in the moonlight/Were never yours to keep’, Gareth McGahan sings in ‘Love Is A Rose’, a song about love’s mortality.

McGahan wrote all 12 tracks; he’s a superb songwriter. His vocals contain echoes of the great American folk singer Pete Seeger, and the songs feature close harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

But this music is fresh, something all its own. Atmospheric songs in minor keys deal with dark subjects without feeling gloomy. On the title cut the violin adds a Celtic feel. The chord changes are wonderful, the musicianship stellar.

Seemingly out of nowhere has come this gem of an album. Very nice indeed.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Music Interview - Lizz Wright

Singer knows: Home Is Where the Heart Is

By M.D. Spenser

For Lizz Wright, the truest things begin and end at home.

Before she thought of any songs for her most recent album, “The Orchard,” she held in her mind an image—a picture of home. The first work on the album involved no microphones or backup singers, only a camera crew.

She took the crew to Hahira, Georgia, where the earth is fertile and the history rich. Wright didn’t grow up in Hahira, but she was born there, her grandmother lived there, and Wright went there often.

“I always felt that grandma’s house and her land were home,” she says. “She was a very, very tangible maternal figure for me. Grandma was everybody’s mom.”

With 1,800 residents, Hahira (pronounced Hay-HIGH-rah), is just what you’d expect of a southern American town. People still harvest cotton and tobacco. The rusted hulks of old cars lie about, their wheels removed. There’s a swamp, of course; the dirt is moist and pungent.

It’s a sleepy town, Wright says. When you arrive, nothing pops out at you: You have to quiet yourself to feel Hahira’s warmth and richness. There are orchards everywhere, filled with ancient trees bearing peaches or pecans. Sometimes after church, Wright’s family would pile in the car and drive to an orchard to pick peaches together.

One orchard in particular sticks in Wright’s mind—a pecan orchard beside her grandmother’s house. It belonged to the neighbours and, as a child, Wright didn’t dare go into the orchard; that was someone else’s land.

But she used to peek through the fence. The old pecan trees were bigger than any she’d ever seen; they stood arrayed in perfect rows just as they had been planted all those years ago, and the rows went on forever.

Even today, she says, orchards make her think of her family, her people.

It was to the edge of that orchard (but not inside) that she took the camera crew as she thought about her new album.

“I’m grown now, and I still don’t dare go there,” she says. “But I did use pictures of that orchard to go to Verve and say, ‘I have no words but I have a picture, and this is what I want’.”

She wanted, she says, to capture some of the feeling of home. As an interpreter, she felt she could do anything, as long as she held onto her roots, her story.

Wright, who turns 28 in this month, sang her first solo when she was 6 years old, in church. She grew up on Robins Air Force Base, two hours up Interstate-75 from Hahira: Her father was a minister on the base. Wright knew she would always sing—that singing would be her offering, as she puts it, her way of serving.

But she never expected to sing professionally. The Wright family ran the church the way a farming family handles the land, and she expected to follow her father’s path.

She went to Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she studied voice. As she matured, she felt compelled to explore music other than gospel. She wanted to see if music could be a way of sharing, a means of healing, and whether she could create a concert experience in which there was a bond between audience and performer. She asked people around her for advice.

“Don’t you ever say that kind of stuff again,” one person snapped. “Nobody wants to hear that. That doesn’t make any sense. You keep that kind of stuff to yourself.”

That hurt, but Wright ventured into other kinds of music anyway—primarily jazz but also Blues. She kept her day job, though, until music just wouldn’t allow it anymore. She got involved in a Billie Holiday tribute, had to miss a day at the cafe in New Jersey where she worked, and was fired.

“So I was like, OK, you know what? I’ll try this music thing for a while, because it’s getting in the way of all this other stuff anyway,” she recalls.

She signed a recording deal with Verve in 2002. The following year, her debut, “Salt,” was released. It included a number of jazz standards; Wright’s singing, subtle, textured and true, heralded the arrival of a significant new talent.

In 2005, she released “Dreaming Wide Awake”, a rich and quiet album on which Wright showed herself to be an interpreter of the highest order: She breathed freshness into The Youngbloods’ ‘Get together’ and Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’—making them original and exciting in the way a wonderful new book excites an avid reader.

Even so, Wright’s 2008 album, “The Orchard”—the one that began with photographs of Hahira—was a revelation. “Dreaming Wide Awake” was some collectors’ favourite album of the year, but “The Orchard” is one for the decades.

Wright had become pigeonholed as a jazz artist. The new album would include rip-roaring R&B, shimmering folk and full-throated Blues. She knew going into the project that she would disappoint many people who would think she was leaving her true self behind.

“There’s a certain kind of dignified and poised persona that began to develop very quickly around me,” she says. “And I knew I was, in essence, puttin’ on a pair of boots—which is, ironically, more of going home to me than anything. But it didn’t matter to people; the first thing they saw was what they chose to love.”

In a coffeehouse confession, she told her producer, Craig Street, what she wanted to do next. She was so fearful that, when she recounts the conversation, she mimics herself talking in a crying voice:

“Man, I really want to do this,” she told Street, her voice quavering. “I like jazz, I love it, but …”

… But she wanted to go home.

Many labels balk when their artists want to change a successful formula. But Wright had begun her association with Verve with an ultimatum to the president.

“I walked into Ron Goldstein’s office when I first got signed, and I said, ‘Listen, man, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I don’t want this business to change me. I don’t have to have this. If this freaks me out, I’m not going to do it’,” she recalls.

So there was no question of trying to tell her what to do.

The album that resulted transcends genre. It has elements of Blues, gospel, R&B, jazz and folk; and it’s grounded in an honesty both gentle and brave.

The first words the listener hears are these: “Coming home to your shelter/Coming home where I stay…”

More than ever, Wright’s voice has become a deep and vibrant instrument, richly expressive. But what makes this an album for all time are the songs—originals, collaborations and covers—and Wright’s interpretation of them.

The emotional peaks are ‘I Idolize You’, a scorching Ike Turner Blues about infatuation, and ‘Leave Me Standing Alone’, a sizzling, gospel-inflected original in which the lover is sent packing.

From those two opposite poles of love, as if from the towers of a bridge, the other songs are suspended in graceful arcs, beautifully detailing the nuances of love.

We meet the girl who loses the battle to protect her heart, and is “quite well pleased.” We see love’s risk: “And what if the water's cold when I fall?” Wright asks, as she feels herself falling in love.

We watch her heal the pain of lost love in the waves of the ocean. We understand when the lover leaves but the love remains.

“Love and nature are never all of one thing,” Wright says. “And what I enjoy is the challenge of allowing the nuances around those subtle things to speak at once, the way they do in life.”

There’s little nuance, though, in ‘I Idolize You’, a powerful Blues infused with lust: “If you want some loving, Baby/That I’ll give to you/If you want some hugging, Baby/Oh, I can hug some, too.”

It seems a departure from the delicate textures of Wright’s previous work. But she views it as a return.

Her decision to include the song began with watching “Soul To Soul”, a documentary about a 1971 concert in Ghana by American soul artists. Wilson Pickett performed, as did The Staples Singers, Roberta Flack, and Ike and Tina Turner.

“It was wild,” she says. “It was also very sacred to me.”

Two or three weeks later, Street played her the original Ike and Tina version of ‘Idolize’.

“My first impression was, I’ve heard this voice before,” Wright recalls. “This is what the women sing like in the small churches where I’m from—that fight for freedom and that fight for a place and that fight for acceptance and that fight to take care of the family. And I totally heard that in her voice. So it was because that voice was familiar, I was like—well, there’s a piece of home.”

The album’s musicianship is superb, the production flawless, the song selection sterling, the singing in a class by itself. But something else—something intangible—also contributes to the album’s power. It results from Street’s decision to have Wright and her friend and collaborator, Toshi Reagon, first play the songs live in several sets at a small club in New York.

There is in the best of times a transaction that takes place between audience and performer, one revealed not in applause alone but also in rapt attention, the expression on a face, the energy in the air.

“The audiences really let me know a lot,” Wright says. “For me to start performing them right away made the songs more real for me. It wasn’t about making a record, it was about me and these songs. You know, can I go inside of them or am I letting them inside of me? I always think songs really evolve in a performance experience. Sometimes I love what happens to a song after I’ve been playing it in concert for a while, because I always think that the audience creates the experience along with me.”

Wright enjoys the studio: She speaks with joy of the experience of recording “The Orchard”. There were no hired session players, no drummers you’d never met before. All the players were friends. It was a gathering of her favourite people on an estate in the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York, looking out the windows at a reservoir, and working together. The creative conversation, Wright says, was amazing.

But if she had to choose between recording and performing, Wright would choose the latter, the effort to create the bond that someone years ago had told her made no sense: the magical exchange between audience and performer where each gives the other something deep and true.

To do that, Wright gets very quiet before each performance.

“I gather myself so actually I have something to release,” she says. “I sit down and think about the stories that I’m inside of at the time. I think about the roads that are crossing in my life. I borrow information from my life or from my imagination. And I get really still and just try to put all that stuff in a big bowl before I come out.

“I ask the band to do the same thing. I don’t like people checking e-mails. I don’t like guests backstage. I like it quiet. If the green room’s dirty, I bring my own cloths and candles and incense. I will go get flowers or send someone to get them. It’s really important, this gathering.”

At a performance last year in London, Wright walked on stage slowly, regally, eyes downcast, hugging herself. Then, from deep within, she sang with eyes closed, caressing herself, sometimes wrapping herself inside a shawl.

Some might wish for a more extroverted performance. But looking inside herself is the essence of Wright’s art. Not a word falls from her lips without having been first filtered through her soul. Those in the audience understood full well that participating in that most private of journeys was a privilege: They returned the favour in ways unspoken.

For her next project, Wright has only a notion in her mind, maybe a picture, a photograph, or a destination deep within.

“I have some feelings, but not towards an exact idea,” she says. “In a way, I’m thinking more about how to move my career experience closer to my heart.”

Because she doesn’t need fame or fortune, or even the music business at all. She says she could walk away, any time, find something else and be fine. What she needs is to keep in touch with Hahira and the pecan orchard and who she really is.

“I haven’t changed a lot,” she says. “I know I could lose this and find a simpler way. I know what I’ve got to do to feel alive and to wake up in the morning and feel good. I know what I’ve got to do, and I can handle that.”