Monday, February 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBERT PLANT & THE SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS - LIVE AT DAVID LYNCH'S FESTIVAL OF DISRUPTION (Blu-ray)

Here's Plant and his fabulous band doing their shape shifting of his music, blending together African, folk, rock and blues to create a sound really not found in any other group around. This set from 2016 predates his latest, last fall's Carry Fire, so the tracks mostly come from 2014's Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, so it's a little dated but still pretty fascinating, with all sorts of odd stringed and percussive instruments, such as the bendir drum and the lute-like tehardant from Mali. It's quite literally all over the map.

Plant's been all over the internet of late as well, telling all why a Zeppelin reunion is pointless, why look back when he has this great band and new sound with which to move forward? Good point, and certainly the albums are worthy of that confidence. However, there's still a life audience to appease, and on this there's a bit too much dabbling in the old Zep cuts. The cheers come up with the recognition of songs such as "Black Dog", "Going To California", and "Whole Lotta Love", the last in a blues medley. He has radically altered them, messing with the time signature, leaving out bits and parts, and no sign of Page-like guitar heroics, or his own classic wails. Yet it still has the feel of a retro show at times, and hopefully he's cutting more ties as he goes.

This show was a benefit for filmmaker/music fan David Lynch's foundation, which is something to do with meditation saving the world. Fair enough, except that means the bonus material here is all Lynch talking about the healing powers of transcendental meditation. Maybe he's right, but I'm here for the tunes, and Lynch being Lynch, most of the interview bites come out kinda kooky. Don't ask about the fish story. Concert yay, extra features blah.

Friday, February 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - IN CONCERT (Blu-ray)

Hello, what's this? Not one, but two Van Morrison concerts grace this Blu-ray? I love you, BBC Music. The first was filmed in 2016 for the Beeb's In Concert series, in front of a small studio audience, Morrison's small, five-piece combo, with the Man himself blowing lots and lots of sax. That set's 76 minutes, while a second, contemporary show called Up On Cyprus Avenue is also included. It features the same-sized group, but a very different set list, with only five songs repeated out of 15 in that hour-long concert.

These shows have a little of everything for fans, which is hard to do when you're talking about a career going back to the early '60's. But Morrison makes it work, sampling his earliest, blues days with "Baby Please Don't Go", with a fine harp solo, throwing in a hit or favourite every little bit ("Wild Night", "Brown-Eyed Girl", "Jackie Wilson Said") and playing six cuts off the recent Keep Me Singing album of that year. Never one to sit still, Morrison has released two full albums since then.

The band needs to be sharp and adaptable with all these styles on parade, and there's some pretty sharp players up there, young (keyboardist Paul Moran) and older (Dave Keary on guitar, one of Ireland's most respected players). Singer Dana Masters gets to duet with Van on a couple of numbers, and her work on "Sometimes We Cry" lifts her boss to an energized performance. Most fun though is watching Morrison these days, enjoying all his sax and harmonica solos, and belting out true blues, his favourite, like "Going Down To Bangor".

The second concert is a special outdoor concert in Belfast, celebrating Morrison's return to the city as a newly-knighted citizen, especially for his services for tourism and charity in Northern Ireland. It was remarked at the time how jovial he seemed about the honour and the hometown appearance, and he does seem to be having more fun, without a bit of the grumpy old Van around. He throws off some asides to the band and front rows, smiles a little and puts everyone, including the viewer, at ease. For this show, he seems keen on concentrating on his vocals, being the jazz man, and "It's All In The Game" is a special highlight. He was 70 for these shows, and performing with lots of passion.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE RU-JAC RECORDS STORY, VOL.s 1, 2 & 3

I'm not really a music reviewer, I just fake it so I can get more records and stuff. See, I'm more of a record collector really. I collect a whole bunch of different genres, soul being one of the main ones. I guess I'm not much of a collector either, because I had never heard of Ru-Jac Records before, until this series of compilations out now on the Omnivore label. It turns out the company was one of those regional labels that existed all over the U.S. until major labels put most of them out of business in the '70's. But back in the '60's, it was still possible to have regional hits that sold enough to keep the small players going, calling on a pool of local talent and those hopeful of breaking outside their market.

Ru-Jac was a small fish on the east coast, set up in the Baltimore area. In the fascinating back story in the liner notes, we find out the owner had been set up in the club business by the local numbers racket king. Through his entertainment business, one Rufus Mitchell became the Berry Gordy-wanna be of Baltimore, and the acts that he met through the clubs provided the label talent.

There were no Ru-Jac stars of note, not one artist broke the national charts, and none of the names are familiar on these compilations, save one. Arthur Conley recorded the smash "Sweet Soul Music", but only after he left the label. Mitchell was a big enough player in the club world that stars such as Otis Redding knew of him, and Mitchell was able to convince Redding to take Conley with him to bigger fame. This set features a couple of demos done before Conley left. Other than that, you get single tracks from such non-notables as Rita Doryse, Leon Gibson, Sir Joe, Little Sonny Daye, and Tiny Tim. Not that Tiny Tim, the other one, without the tulips. Of course, there are going to be people in Baltimore and environs that remember these artists fondly, but not that many.

However, soul fans will find lots to love. Plenty of these singers and groups were pretty darn good. Brenda Jones could easily have been a Motown star, and some of her material is really quite well-written and performed. Same goes for Winfield Parker, another dynamic singer. There were some pretty good studio players involved as well, The Shyndells Band used on many sides here. There weren't any albums though, it was all 45's for the label, they never got close to the point were they could afford to take a chance on that much cash outlay. Often these sessions were scraped-together affairs, paid for by other business interests Mitchell could tap, including partnerships with other local players who wanted in on his club business.

Each volume is jammed with cuts, 22 and more, and they don't dwell on any one artist too long. There are real gems, including the only 45 issued by the classic Gospel group The Fruitland Harmonizers, a wonderful vocal blend with some interesting, unusual harmonies. Some simply are from unknown artists, recorded but never released, names and players lost to time. In some cases, this is probably for the best, as there are a few weaker efforts and lots of bum notes, especially from horn players still learning their craft, if they ever did. One Charles Johnson had been hired to be the Ru-Jac office manager, and got a chance to record. It turned out so poorly, he even lost his office manager job.

It addition to these three compilations, there's a fourth that covers later label efforts in the late '60's and '70's, plus individual sets by the most prolific artists, Winfield Parker and Gene and Eddie, and another that will cover the demo recordings of Conley before he left with Redding is coming in May. Much of the material here comes from unreleased session tapes, or taken from insanely rare and valuable 45's, prized by collectors better informed than me, until now.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: 54.40 - KEEP ON WALKING



The incredibly long-lived band (formed 1981) returns with their first album of new material since 2011, although there was a fine acoustic hits album, La Difference, in 2016. What hasn't changed, and what will never change for them, is the quality songwriting, and attention to production detail. Founding member Neil Osborne writes the words, everybody writes the music, and as usual, it's tight, fun rock, catchy and clever.

Osborne is one of the better observers with his lyrics, reflecting life back at us, with a message or two, nothing preachy but enough to make you think a little. "How's Your Day Goin'" is simple enough, standing in line at Starbucks (Vancouver band, natch), realizing everybody's on their phone in line, and the only person it's okay to talk to is the barista. There was a time we'd all ask the titular question, as a matter of politeness. With lots of experience behind him, Osborne has some advice throughout the album for those having a bad day, week, or year: "I can tell you are walking through hell/if you want to find peace, keep on walking," he sings in the title cut. Meanwhile, the group makes lovely little earworms out of all these sentiments. And that's why they've been around so long.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COLLETTE SAVARD AND THE SAVANTS

A smooth jazz-folk sound is featured across this set from indie Toronto singer/songwriter Savard, a change from previous albums. Putting together a band of high quality vets including Rebecca Campbell (Jane Siberry), the album features a smart playing matched with introspective, thoughtful lyrics. The vibe is Steely Dan-meets-Christine McVie, emotion plus chops.

Savard's lyrics detail the end of a long-term relationship, and determination to move forward. "Give myself very good advice," she sings on "My Last Cigarette", and "I take a leap of faith." Meanwhile, the Savants live up to their name, Megan Worthy dropping in funky piano chords, while Tim Posgate drops in tasty guitar, whether it's an easy jazz feel ("Top Of The Trees") or the cool pop of "In Over My Head". This is what happens when the right band meets the right songs.

Monday, February 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KENNY JAMES - GHOST TOWN

Album number two for Sackville, N.B.'s Kenny James, and he turns further down the roots-rock-country road. He has a natural twang, and that deceptively lyric simplicity that's always a feature of the best country music. There are little lines of wisdom, such as "There's a flower poking up from the crack in the sidewalk/It spoke to me sayin' don't you ever give up." They are honest observations that pack a punch, and make the songs real and meaningful.

Meanwhile, if you like country with a boogie beat, he's the man to meet (stealing a line from Little Feat). "Soul Gambler" features a Farfisa-like organ on top and some killer soloing from guest Dave Rahmer. For more support, James didn't have to look far down the road. Over in Moncton he found The Divorcees' Alex Madsen, always a devotee of Outlaw country. Just across the border in Amherst, N.S. there was Ray Legere, the best bluegrass fiddler and mandolin player about, and a little further along the Northumberland Strait he called on Dale Murray and Christina Martin, on pedal steel and vocals respectively. But James handles all the other instruments and writing himself, from the touching lost-love song "Victoria" to the rockier "One Hit Wonders." There's all kinds of roots in the Eastern soil.

Friday, February 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHRIS HILLMAN - THE ASYLUM YEARS

Always the most underrated Byrd, by the mid-70's Chris Hillman had been an integral member of that group, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Stephen Stills' Manassas, and the Souther-Hillman-Furay group. The only thing he hadn't proved was whether he was a frontman. So that became his next chapter, with two albums in '76 and '77, Slippin' Away and Clear Sailin'. This new collection simply slaps the two of them onto one CD, nothing added or subtracted, and a new essay/interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. There's been great praise for his most recent solo album from last year, produced by Tom Petty, which is probably why this has come out.

Hillman was always reluctant to lead the show, but over the years had added songwriting and vocals to his skillful rock, country and bluegrass playing. The big surprise was what a pleasing voice he brought to these albums. Slippin' Away fits well into the California country-rock school that was still thriving in those Eagles/Poco days, and of course Hillman had been instrumental in that whole scene in his previous groups, standing tall with Gram Parsons in both the Byrds and Burritos. That whole first album is a smooth-sounding and easy-on-the-ears standout, Hillman joined by pals such as Timothy B. Schmit, Rick Roberts of Firefall, another ex-Burrito in pedal steel wiz Al Perkins, and even Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. He wrote most of the songs, and the potential was there for a standout solo career.

When the album failed to hit, a poor decision led to a much glossier, produced sound on the follow-up, Clear Sailin'. Most of the strong players were gone, the material was weaker and the result was a real drop-off. It feels like a generic '70's record, way too thin and polished. Hillman's own songs didn't match up, and a lifeless cover of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" added nothing. So it was back to the drawing board, with Hillman going through a partial Byrds reunion before ending up leading the very successful Desert Rose Band in the '80's, always happiest when he was doing country/bluegrass. I recommend this collection, but I also recommend you stop it halfway through.