Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Wilko Johnson has been around long enough to become one of those quintessential British characters, beloved in his homeland because he's such an odd duck.  Back in the 70's he was the attack dog-guitarist for pub rock vets Dr. Feelgood, pre-punk meat and potatoes R'n'B bar band with an unlikely #1 album, Stupidity, in 1976.  Cut loose by the band the next year, he drifted with his own groups, then joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the early 80's.  Since then, albums and bands have come and gone, but Dr. Feelgood's reputation as increased in the last few years, as punk's hierarchy started paying their debt to the group that paved the way.  Meanwhile, Wilko appeared in the acclaimed Julian Temple documentary Oil City Confidential about the group in 2009, and the resurgence placed him back in the spotlight.  Bald, menacing but with a heart of gold, he was finally getting his due respect.

Then last year, it was announced Johnson had terminal cancer, and with a stiff upper lip and a mix of toughness and humour, he went about doing interviews, playing final shows, and living his last days to their fullest.  Roger Daltry felt some affinity, shared R'n'B roots and working class upbringing with Johnson, they'd talked about recording together in the past, but with the cancer news, Daltry stepped up to the mike to record this quickly with Johnson and his band.  It's eleven songs, under forty minutes, all written by Johnson over the course of his career, except a cover of Bob Dylan's Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.  It landed in the Top Five in the British charts, so it's already the biggest hit for either in years.

All of this is fine, and good for both of them.  But I'm not going to hype the disc, it's a bit of a routine run-through of mostly basic and middling songs.  Even the numbers from Feelgood's glory days (Going Back Home, Keep It Out Of Sight) have little to raise them above the sound of a million blues bar bands.  It's all the same; Wilko's slashing chords up front, bass loud, piano, organ and harmonica chiming in.  Daltry has lost a bit of range in the last few years, and substitutes some growling for nuance.  Only the jovial boogie of All Through The City livens things up, and that is saved for the last track.  See, it has a memorable lyric and hook:  "I've been searching all through the city, see you in the morning down by the jetty."  Like most beloved British characters, Johnson is better known for being himself than for a great body of work.

Monday, April 21, 2014


It's interesting that there's a current vein of music in the Americana genre that's very...well, very American.  It's got energy, passion, roots, and most of all, it's got Springsteen.  There are a few folks moving in this direction, younger than the crop back in the 70's trading in the same stock as Bruce.  This bunch, which includes Dave Hause and Northcote for instance, have punk roots but when they went solo as singer-songwriters were looking for some intensity.  Chuck Ragan shares that pedigree, four albums and a decade into his solo career.  My theory goes like this:  Springsteen had all those hits back in the 80's, when this bunch was growing up, which sounded great back then amidst the rest of the junk on MTV and MuchMusic.  Then, over the last decade Springsteen has become more overtly political and angry on his albums, no longer worried about saying whatever he damn well wants about presidents, corporations and banks.  Angry Bruce attitude, post - 9/11, and classic, intense American sounds.

Ragan's new album has all those hallmarks, and an especially appealing sound.  It's righteous rock band, along with violin, harmonica, and pedal steel, fronted by his gruff but pleasing vocals, not unlike you-know-who.  He's clearly caught on to the need and belief that lyrics should be important, be direct from the heart, and can say something that will inspire others.  For the most part, it's uplifting.  But then there's Whistleblower's Song, dark and powerful, the corporate or government crime unspoken but the desperation fully spoken:  "Deliverance from damnation's got a way to let you do what you want."  The bulk though, have sing-along choruses, pounding drums and rally-cry words: "We can do some damage, before the hour's handy...something may catch fire" goes the opening cut, burning into your inner groove.  Non Typical is just as intense in its declaration of love:  "I need you like I need all of my blood and my breath."  Ragan has embraced the big sound, and it's the kind of album that will sweep you along from the opening notes.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Very interesting move for Rutledge, following up the Juno-winning Valleyheart album (Best roots/traditional solo) with an all-covers album.  But what a project;  he's tackled the songbook of The Tragically Hip, ten cuts including big hits and small album cuts.  Can anyone else do the Hip?  They are a unique beast with Gord Downie's singular vocals and lyrics.

Rutledge's answer was to tone down the rock, and concentrate on the beauty and mystery.  That works perfectly for his amazing voice, always a sweet whisper.  The electric guitar is mostly relegated to the background, with piano, acoustics, and voices getting the promotion.  And harmonies!  Something you just don't associate with Downie is all over this album, as Rutledge is joined by an all-star selection of co-singers, including Jenn Grant, Andy Maize, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Brendan Canning and Julie Fader, offering a whole new angle on the songs.

Mostly, the tunes are opened up and given lots of air and room so you can concentrate on the words. Rutledge brings a storyteller style to them, the rich language somehow making more sense slowed down sung gently, and cushioned in studio effects rather than band explosions.  Courage and Grace, Too are the biggest revelations, probably because we're so used to them over the years, but lesser-known numbers such as Long Time Running are just as enjoyable, that one turned into a bare country number, with steel guitar.

The best way to describe it, I think, is to imagine Tragically Hip if they had been the Cowboy Junkies.  There aren't many of these truly successful covers albums, one singer tackling all songs from another act.  There's Danny Michel's Loving The Alien Bowie disc, Nillson Sings Newman, Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat, and now this.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Byrnes is one of the finest Canuck blues singers, but he's actually from St. Louis originally.  This album is a tribute to the songs he grew up with, most associated with the city and its great players from jazz, blues and soul history.  He's also penned some originals inspired by that rich legacy, and the glory of the album is trying to spot the original versus the more obscure covers, such is the high quality.  A few you'll recognize, such as W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, included here in a more rootsy interpretation, and Chuck Berry's Nadine, a little less frantic, the better to hear the awesome wordplay of rock and roll's first poet.

Producer once again by Steve Dawson, the master acoustic musician is the perfect collaborator for this, recreating everything from early 1900's jazz to Lonnie Johnson blues to Fontella Bass soul.  Highlights include an old St. Louis brothel number from Stump Johnson, The Duck's Yas Yas Yas, risque back then, but just funny now, as Byrnes is joined by old pal John Hammond to trade verses.  Situated between Motown and Memphis, it's fitting that the Fontella Bass/Bobby McLure number, You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone) sounds equal parts southern and northern soul.  It's another fine duet, this one with Colleen Rennison of the group No Sinner.  Cake Alley is a true gem, an old horn number about a real place on the very poor side of town.

As for Byrnes' own numbers, Somebody Lied could have come out in the 60's and been a hurtin' soul ballad, and the spoken-word The Journey Home is quite poignant, a series of memories from decades ago, the band laying back and Byrnes reminiscing about the Cardinals and the intersection of the Missouri and Mississippi.  St. Louis gets left out of most conversations about American music, but in the year of the 250th anniversary of its founding, an old homebody has come back to speak up for its history.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Don't know why you'd need this double CD, as you can turn on any classic rock radio station and hear the same songs pretty much daily.  Sweet Home Alabama, Rebel Yell, Maggie May, Takin' Care Of Business, American Pie, Rocky Mountain Way, it's got to the point where I turn the station when they come on, I've heard them so much.  I hate the idea these stations have narrowed the 70's down to the same few songs on their identical playlists, instead of simply going to the third or fourth biggest hit by any of these artists, just for diversity.

There, my griping is done, and actually there are a few more inspired choices on this double-disc.  You don't hear Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band that much, or Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate.  It looks like compilation-makers have put a moratorium on George Thorogood's One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, and replaced it with Bad To The Bone, a good decision.  Joe Cocker's always welcome at the table, especially if we're talking older Joe, Feelin' Alright.  However, J.Geils Band should never be represented by Centerfold, no matter that it was their biggest hit.  That was their sell-out period.  In fact, all the 80's cuts here pale, including The Motels, Billy Squier, and especially Pat Benatar.  I'd rather hear Rocky Mountain Way again then anything by her.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Fresh off his successful reunion with Emmylou Harris, which produced the Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon album and major tour, Crowell returned to another pet project. This album was actually started back in 2010, but had to wait for the Harris work to finish. Those with a hankering for Crowell's literary country will recognize the core players here, folks such as Steuart Smith and MIchael Rhodes, the players he made his biggest hits with back in the 1980's.

Country radio has moved on since then though, and you won't find these tight rockers and heartfelt ballads topping the charts like She's Crazy For Leaving and After All This Time did back in 1988. However, you will hear fine musicianship and Crowell's great phrases as always. After drifting around the turn of the century, his biographical The Houston Kid album put him back on course, and since then he's been mining tales from his own past for inspiration, usually to great effect.

This album isn't completely soaked in memories, but they do provide some of the best moments. The title refers to his poverty childhood home, Jesus Talk To Momma is a letter to his own mother through her savior, and various uncles, grandparents, and characters show up. It's not a full concept piece like Houston Kid, and some of the songs are just for fun, like his Cajun homage Fever On The Bayou, or the rocker tribute to a helluva woman, Frankie Please.

It's all stuff fans are by now used to, which is of course, good news, because the quality is right up there. It does feel a bit like business as usual for a bit, until Crowell drops a bombshell. He's always had a way with a sentimental love song, but God I'm Missing You is one of his very best yet. "Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air/But it can't hold the image, if I blink you're not there/God I'm missing you." You should own this album for this song alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


It sure looks good on paper.  The combo of one of the country's greatest front men, and arguably the best band around immediately has the promise of something grand.  And so we've been waiting, seven years now this has been brewing.  Having heard them live 18 months ago, I still wasn't sure what to expect.  You know what?  It sounds just like Gord Downie fronting The Sadies.
What I mean by that is that neither party has changed much of how they sound.  Downie brings the drama, his gruff, tense story-telling in full flight.  The Sadies riff and smash through some tunes, turn up the psych machine on others, some alt-country here, full-out rock on others.  "It Didn't Start To Break My Heart Until This Afternoon" explodes with punk/Neil Young-Rust Never Sleeps intensity.  Budget Shoes has The Sadies Spaghetti Western style, and Downie's slightly surreal dream state lyrics, hard to understand but words that sound just grand.  Devil Enough has that great Sadies trick where they have three different music sections in a tune, slow, medium and fast, with some of that great country picking from Travis Good. Demand Destruction is kind of poppy, in a post-Byrds world, a lighter break from the fine flow of guitars, drums and words.

The group is touring this summer, and it feels much more like a real band than other similar projects, and certainly not like a Gord Downie solo album.  Sometimes these dream team projects don't yield good results, but in this case, what looked good on paper sounds pretty fine too.