The Black Crowes Broke Up, So Let’s Review Their Albums

I guess it was a long time coming. Then again, it seemed it would never actually officially happen, and instead there would be a hiatus every 2 years to make sure things really didn’t fall apart.

But it did and now The Black Crowes are officially no more (at least for now, though it doesn’t look too good for the future).

The Black Crowes Google Images

Don’t they look like they love each other?

Based on a statement made by Crowes guitarist and founding member, Rich Robinson, it seems he and his brother, lead singer Chris Robinson, have finally gotten to the point where they can actually no longer with each other. The brothers Robinson were notorious for their contentious relationship throughout the history of the band (think The Kinks’ Davies brothers or Oasis’s Gallagher brothers). Yet, every time things would come to a head, the brothers would reconcile and the band moved on.

Of course the band had a ton of personnel changes throughout it’s almost 25 year career (28 if you count the Mr. Crowe’s Garden years), with the only constants being the Robinson brothers and drummer Steve Gorman (who actually was officially not in the band for their first few 2005 reunion concerts). It was their band, and they had creative control. So when Chris Robinson allegedly demanded full control over the group, it’s understandable that Rich would shut the whole thing down.

The timing of the whole thing is seemingly odd, since the group had no plans of recording new material and the three main group members all have (semi-) successful solo/side projects that are currently going. And even though, according to Gorman, the group was contemplating a 25th anniversary tour in 2015, nothing was set in stone. So why now? What is the reasoning? I honestly have no idea and I’m not going to speculate in this blog.

Instead, I’m going to rank and discuss the studio records by The Black Crowes. I mean, if there’s ever a time to do it, now it’s a great time.

 


10. Croweology (2010)
This album is a double-disc of mostly previously released material done acoustically (which blackcrowes_croweologyis why it is ranked at the bottom of the list), and sounding like they recorded it live in the studio. The track list is filled with some of the Crowes’ best songs, and the songs are done with live arrangements in mind (several songs have jams and extended solo sections). The only two tracks that were not already recorded by the group are “Cold Boy Smile” (a song that was penned and played live during the 2005-2006 reunion run) and Gram Parsons’ “She.” While it is a definitely a cool concept (think MTV Unplugged), and is an overall great sounding album, it still is a bunch of re-recorded songs, even if they arranged differently. Yet, if you love the Crowes, and haven’t heard this one, you should.

9. Before the Frost…Until the Freeze (2009)
The last studio album of new material put out by the group, this is another double album black-crowes-before-the-frost-until-freeze-300x300 that really shows the style of music the group was going for in their last iteration (well their last major iteration, which included Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars), which is to say, 1970s Americana rock (I don’t even know if that’s a genre). Recorded live in front of an audience at Levon Helm’s barn studio in Woodstock, NY, this double album is really two albums (and was initially sold as such, kind of). The first half, Before the Frost, is filled with some great until-the-freezesongs that rock (“Good Morning Captain”, “Been A Long Time”, “Kept My Soul”), and some pretty ballads (“Appaloosa”, “Last Place That Love Lies”), with a few solid inbetweeners. The second half, Until the Freeze, is much more laid back, filled with acoustic songs. It definitely comes across as an attempt to create an album in the vein of Gram Parsons, whether it is The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, or his solo work. And while, this second half is not terrible by any means, it is also nothing amazing. It doesn’t sound like a Black Crowes record, while the first half does, though not totally either. So unless you’re a fan of 70s folk-rock/Americana music, or a huge Crowes fan, I would think you could skip this one. I have a tendency to do so.

8. Lions (2001)
This album was one of the first I ever wrote a review for (in my high school’s newspaper) 4185T5T93HL._SL500_AA300_and I remember loving it. I talked about how it had a very Led Zeppelin feel to it (which still makes sense since the group had just came off of a tour with Jimmy Page), and lauded how much it rocked. Would present-day me agree with these sentiments? Probably not so much about the Led Zeppelin statement, since there is more funk and soul than any Led Zeppelin album, but there is no question that this is a heavy, rocking album. Of all the albums the group recorded before their first hiatus in 2002, this was definitely the weakest, but it is by no means a weak album. It is just that the lows (“Miracle to Me”, “No Use Lying”, “Losing My Mind”) are pretty low, in terms of the Crowes. The highlights however (“Soul Singing”, “Cypress Tree”, “Midnight From The Inside Out”, “Greasy Grass River”, “Come On“), are pretty fantastic. I still feel that “Soul Singing” is a top 10, maybe top 5, Crowes song. This one is definitely worth a listen, even if you skip around a bit.

7. Warpaint (2008)
This is the first album of the post-hiatus Crowes, and the group had just gone through a P02023-300x300massive turnover in personnel. Okay, not massive since the group replaced two members, but for Crowes fans it was pretty massive. The biggest change was that Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars had joined the group, and though the guy is a guitar wizard, his style is just a little earthier than the previous Crowes guitarists (mainly Marc Ford). Interestingly, his style fit perfectly with where the band was heading (the aforementioned 70s Americana). This album sounds nothing like any of the Crowes albums that came before, but it’s a pretty great album. It is solid and consistent, in both style and quality of songs. There really isn’t a bad song on the album, and the first four songs on the album (“Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution”, “Walk Believer Walk”, “Oh Josephine”, and “Evergreen”) are some of my favorite Crowes songs. This is an album that I highly recommend checking out.

6. Three Snakes and One Charm (1996)
Okay, now we’re getting into the meat of the Crowes’ catalog. Three Snakes was the The_Black_Crowes_-_Three_Snakes_and_One_Charmsecond Crowes album I ever owned (having only gotten into the band the previous year, I only owned Shake Your Money Maker) and it took me about 10 years to really appreciate this album. I attest this to the fact that I needed to really mature to understand how many of these songs are just absolutely stunning and/or beautiful. Case in point: “Girl From A Pawnshop”. 13 year old me was not too into this song because it had slow parts and had a twang in it (I cannot truthfully say this is absolute fact, but let’s go with it), while 23 year old me realized how absolutely beautiful this song is, with it’s musical and emotional dynamics. And the build up with the refrain of “P.S. –All my love” at the end…holy crap, is that powerful or what?!? As I stated, this album is definitely one that you need to listen to several times before appreciating, because there are a lot of layers to it. It’s definitely the most psychedelic of all of the Crowes albums (though not even that psychedelic), and definitely the most complex sonically. This is another album that has no weak songs on it, though there are very few super strong songs beyond the aforementioned “ Girl From A Pawnshop,” “Under a Mountain,” “(Only) Halfway to Everywhere,” and “Evil Eye”. It’s really just a solid, consistent sounding album that blends a bunch of different styles and genres under the auspices of a rock album. It’s great.

5. By Your Side (1999)
The slickest of any of the Crowes’ albums, By Your Side seems to have one purpose, and 41STQ31TK0Lthat is to kick ass and take names. Yet, there is a lot of historical baggage that comes with this album. This was the first album after the departure of bassist Johnny Colt (replaced by Sven Pipien), and more importantly, long-time lead guitarist Marc Ford (who was replaced by Audley Freed after the album was released). On top of this, the Crowes had already made a record (which I will discuss soon) a year earlier, but was scrapped by Columbia Records, who wanted something more commercial. So for hardcore fans, this album is a bit tainted. With that being said, there is no denying the fact that this album has some straight up rockers that can blow the walls down. The one-two punch of “Go Faster” and “Kickin’ My Heart Around” to open the record is a statement telling the world that, yes, this band can still rock, and rock hard. The next four songs do not let up, even when the band slows it down a bit. I mean, these songs aren’t examples of songwriting genius, but they are great blues-based rock songs. Think a mix of the Faces and Humble Pie, if they were recording in 1999. The album’s closer, “Virtue and Vice”, is one of my favorite Crowes songs, because not only does it rock, but it has depth, thanks in part to Eddie Harsch’s piano playing, particularly on the outro. In reality, this is a great album, and one that could easily get people who love to listen to some straight ahead, kick-ass rock n’ roll to become fans of The Black Crowes.

4. The Lost Crowes (2006)
Okay so this double album is technically not a studio album by the Crowes. It is, in reality, 35386170a compilation of unreleased (yet highly bootlegged) material that had been played live for many years. The first disc contains recordings from the 1993 sessions for the scrapped album Tall. A lot of the material from these sessions would be rerecorded to make up the bulk of Amorica. The second disc contains what would have been the album 1997 album Band, but was scrapped leading to the creation of By Your Side. So why is this on this list, and why so high? Simply put, the songs are fantastic. The Tall sessions represent the band’s most prolific (and some feel the best) songwriting period of the band’s career. The bootleg of these sessions, entitled Taller Than All, has a total of 29 tracks, with only a few redundancies. That’s a lot of songs. So while some fans were upset that all of the tracks weren’t remastered and released, almost all were ecstatic that Tall finally got its due. I mean, it’s still mind boggling that songs like “Tied Up & Swallowed”, “Feathers”, and “Thunderstorm 6:54” never got put on any album, or that a song like “Title Song” didn’t even make this compilation (though it did get released on the 2002 Live album). Yet, even as good as the Tall disc is, the Band disc is even better. In my opinion, if Band were released, it would potentially be considered the group’s second-best album. This album (and yes I will refer to it as an album) showcases a band that has found its sound and is locked in. Compared to its would-be predecessor, Three Snakes and One Charm, this album is more stripped down, and possesses songs that hint at what the group would end up being in its post-hiatus days. That is, there is more of a folk-rock in this album than anything that had put out up to that point. So it’s easy to see why Columbia Records would want to scrap this album: it didn’t sound like “vintage” Crowes. But there are some amazing songs on this album, with rockers like “Paint an 8”, “Another Roadside Tragedy”, and “Never Forget This Song”, ballads like “Wyoming and Me” and “My Heart’s Killing Me”, and the wonderful closing track “Peace Anyway”. A few tracks from the sessions did get reworked for By Your Side; If It Ever Stops Raining” (which became “By Your Side”) and “Only A Fool” (which can be found on the bootlegged version of this album). Still, one can wonder what would have happened to the band if they were allowed to continue the course they were on, instead of being forced to make a creative U-turn. So in conclusion, this double-album compilation is one that every fan of The Black Crowes should own, no matter how hardcore you are.

3. Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
In the late 1980s, hair metal was taking up the airwaves of rock radio, and MTV for that matter. 4107KZ2jW1L._SY300_There were, of course, bands like R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers who were still getting played on radio, but for the most part rock music was being saturated with hair metal bands, mainly from L.A. So when the Crowes released their debut, Shake Your Money Maker, I can only imagine that for rock purists seemed like a breath of fresh air. But it is not the only reason that this album spawned 5 singles (2 which went to #1 on the modern rock charts) and sold over 5 million copies. The fact of the matter is that this album is fantastic. It’s raw, it rocks, it has soul, and it has great songs. Let’s list some: “Twice As Hard”, “Jealous Again”, “Sister Luck”, “Seeing Things”, “Thick N’ Thin”, “She Talks To Angels”. Oh and let’s not forget the song that really made The Black Crowes a well known band, their cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”. Now one may think, “Their biggest song was a cover? Come on now!” But let’s be real. What mainstream rock band in the late 1980s was covering Otis Redding? I bet half of the hair metal bands had no idea who Otis Redding even was! (I might lose that bet, but whatever.) The fact of the matter is that they took a great song, made it their own, and killed it (in a good way). I mean this is on top of the songs I previously listed, all written by the Robinson brothers, who were in their late teens/early 20s when they wrote them. They understood what good music was, and were able to make their own great songs using that knowledge. And these songs still hold up, even if the production is very late 80s/early 90s. Throw on “Jealous Again” and try not to rock out. Listen to “She Talks to Angels” and try to not feel any emotions. This is a great album, and if you haven’t listened to it, stop what you’re doing and go listen. Seriously. Go do it now (and then come back and finish reading this entry.)

2. Amorica (1994)

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Oh, and of course who could forget this controversial cover?

So you may be thinking how Shake Your Money Maker was only #3 on this list with all of the praise I just gave it. Well as great as that album is, the two albums that followed are better. One of them is Amorica, the album that came out of the failed, yet prolific sessions for the never released album Tall. As I mentioned earlier, the Crowes were writing and recording songs in 1993 for the album that was to be called Tall. Yet while the band was writing a lot of songs, the group was going through some huge turmoil, mainly between the Robinson brothers. At this point Chris was heavily involved in drugs (as were some of the other band members), while Rich continued to be clean. The two were already fighting a lot, but during the recording sessions, the two brothers would work at different hours, erasing the each other’s work from the previous session. It’s a wonder that anything got recorded. Thankfully, the two brothers worked things out, and though Tall was scrapped, the group still had a plethora of great songs to work with, enabling to them to create Amorica. Now, let me be straight with you: Every single song on this album is good, if not great. This is the album where the group decided to branch out from just playing rock music, and started to dabble in some of the styles and genres that influenced the group. “She Gave Good Sunflower” sounds like a Faces song, while there is some country flare with “Wiser Time” and “Downtown Money Waster”, some Latin influences in “High Head Blues” and the intro of “Gone”. There is also a ballad that doesn’t include any heavy guitar work, “Nonfiction”. But if you want heavy guitar work, don’t worry because there is a ton. The first two tracks, “Gone” and “A Conspiracy” have plenty of that, with the latter being one of the heaviest of the Crowes songs ever, as is “P. 25 London”. Then there are songs like “Cursed Diamond” and “Ballad In Urgency” that showcase the band’s ability to write songs that have musical and emotional dynamics. But in my mind, the piece de resistance of the album is its finale, “Descending”. This is by far the most beautiful song the group ever wrote. The guitar playing is gorgeous and Chris Robinson’s voice is elegant and emotional. Yet it is Eddie Harsch’s piano playing that makes this song. The outro always gives me chills. It’s a perfect way to end a fantastic album.

1. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
To those of you who are fans of The Black Crowes, this should be no surprise. For those of you who have never heard this album, let me explain. The Black Crowes were known for being a true rock n’ roll group. I’m talking blues-based, riff-heavy, distorted guitar, soulful 61Qk904xTgL._SY300_rock music. This album is the prime example of that. This album does not stopping rocking (until the last song). There are 10 tracks on this record, the first 9 of which are some of the most rocking songs I’ve ever heard. That’s 47 minutes straight of non-stop guitar-led rock n’ roll. And when I mean rock n’ roll, I mean ROCK N’ ROLL. These songs aren’t just headbangers, these are songs that make you want to move. Yes there are some moments where the band brings the mood down a bit, but there is always a nasty guitar solo to get the energy back up. The only moment where this album let’s up is on the last song, a Bob Marley cover called “Time Will Tell”, but it doesn’t take away from this album in the slightest. The way this album is constructed, it comes off like a concert (and I highly doubt that any Crowes fan would be upset with a show with these songs, in this order). There are emotional highs and lows, but every song is perfectly placed. “Sting Me” opens with Rich Robinson playing a riff by himself, before Steve Gorman’s drums, Johnny Colt’s bass, and Eddie Harsch’s piano all join him in a heavy down beat pattern, leading to the main riff of the song as the band really gets rockin’. I mean, how is that not a great opening to a show? This is followed by the hit single, “Remedy”, which may be the best Crowes song ever. This song is rock n’ roll. And the breakdown with the background singers is so, so killer. Ugh. Love this song. “Thorn in My Pride” follows, and it is one powerful song. It’s a wonderfully crafted song with peaks and valleys, and a killer guitar solo by Marc Ford. And as good as the breakdown in “Remedy” was, this one is even better. Led by the gospel-inspired piano playing of Harsch, Chris Robinson sings “Lover, cover me; Let your love light shine, let it shine,” over and over, as the group builds to an emotional climax, before going into the denouement. The group slows it down with the next two tracks “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye” and “Sometimes Salvation”, but the energy and emotions are still riding high, thanks to Chris Robinson’s voice and the guitars of Rich Robinson and Marc Ford. The band then delves into their Southern rock roots with “Hotel Illness” and “Black Moon Creeping”, the latter of which has another amazing solo from Ford. “No Speak, No Slave” is next, and it is the heaviest song on the album. There’s the Zeppelin-esque opening riff, the harmonizing guitar riffs (and they are sick), the wah-wah fused guitar solo, and the frenzied, high-energy ending which features Chris Robinson yelling out “Ows” and “Oohs” along with the hits. Then comes the “set closer,” “My Morning Song.” This song has the emotional diversity (and gospel-esque breakdown) of “Thorn in My Pride” but with the energy and guitar sounds of the preceding track, “No Speak, No Slave”. I really can’t put into words how fun this song is to listen. It’s an experience, and a freakin’ great song. The album closes with “Time Will Tell”, which would be an interesting yet fun encored song to close the show. Sounding like a commune singing and jamming over a campfire, the song is a drastic contrast to the rest of the album, but after the high-energy of the first 9 songs, it’s almost cathartic to hear. This is an album every rock music lover should own. I’m being totally serious. You will enjoy it (unless you do not like rock music).


So there you have it: A complete ranking and breakdown of all of The Black Crowes studio albums (+1) by a big fan of the group (they are one of my 5 favorites of all time). Of course, the group did have several live albums [Live (2002), Freak n’ Roll…Into the Fog (2006) (also a DVD), Warpaint Live (2009), and Wiser for the Time (2013)], along with the live double-album with Jimmy Page (Live at the Greek) and the Robinson Brothers’ acoustic live album (Brothers of a Feather – Live at the Roxy), but I really don’t have the energy or the desire to go through those, especially since I have a review of one of their live shows from 2013. This (uber-long) blog entry was just a way to show my love and appreciation for a band that has given the world (and myself) some great rock n’ roll music. If you haven’t listened to them yet, I would seriously recommend that you do (unless rock music is not your bag).

Thanks for the music TBC. My life would not be the same without it.

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White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade

It’s been a while since I last wrote anything, and I have been meaning to, but other things in life have gotten in the way.  Thankfully, I have a free moment to write, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. That’s because I have not been able to stop listening to White Denim’s new album, Corsicana Lemonade.

I first wrote about (and listened to) the Austin-based quartet over a year and a half ago, reviewing their 2011 release, D, a record which I still enjoy. The album is full of music that crosses genres and brings the listener back to different eras in time. It really is a fantastic album, and compared to their earlier work, it is much more accessible to all listeners. Where their early work was a mix of garage rock, psychedelia, sonic experimentation, and raw energy, Corsicana Lemonade finds the band taking another step toward general accessibility without giving up the characteristics that make them an incredibly special and amazing band. That is, the band still has technically and sonically intricate music backed by a steady groove, they’ve just tightened everything up.

A perfect example of this is the album’s opener, “At Night in Dreams.” The song opens with WHITE-DENIM-CORSICANA-LEMONADEan intense and blistering dual guitar lick from James Petralli (vocals/guitar) and Austin Jenkins (guitar) backed by a deep, yet subtly funky groove set by drummer Josh Bock and bassist Steve Terebecki. This feel continues throughout the song until the bridge, where the band decides to break into a jazzy shuffle, before coming back to the main groove for one last chorus and then launching into a ripping, metal-esque outro. While this would all seem out of place for most bands, it fits perfectly into the mold that White Denim has created for itself.

This trend of blending styles and genres was something that was heard on D, but on Corsicana Lemonade the band seems to have focused on writing songs that sound more structured and, dare I say, have the possibility of being on the radio. The two best examples of this being “Pretty Green,” the first single, and “Come Back.”

“Pretty Green” is, for all intents and purposes, a radio-friendly song, which is likely the reason it was the first single. The groove, right from the get-go, is a staccato quarter-note pattern, which creates an incredibly bouncy (pop) feel. There are also the two melodic hooks that appear throughout the song. The first appears at the end of each verse, with Petralli singing, “I was looking up, looking out,” and the second is the chorus itself. Add in the fact that the song is not sonically overbearing, with each riff and groove having space to breathe, and you get a song that was meant to be heard, and enjoyed, by the masses. Now it may seem like I am upset with this, but the opposite is true. I really like this song, and have since the first time I heard it. A good song is a good song, no matter what the intent was behind it, and this is a good song. The band is in the pocket throughout, beefed up by Terebecki’s muddy, sci-fi-ish bass sound, with each sonic flourish perfectly placed, adding color to the track.

While “Pretty Green” seems to have be written for the radio, “Come Back” could be an unexpected hit (if these guys got some more national exposure). There’s a lot more going on in this song, but in an almost Led Zeppelin-esque fashion, all of the intricate riffs and changes in rhythmic feel all come together under the underlying groove that digs down deep into the listener’s soul making it impossible for them not to want to move around. Petralli’s vocal lines are the most straightforward of the rhythmic patterns, which creates an incredibly syncopated feel, with the music and vocal lines playing with each other in a way that is almost hypnotic. A great example of this is the chorus, where Petralli’s quick paced, repetitious vocals weave with Jenkins’ sixteenth-note guitar runs and the changes in feel of the backbeat provided by Bock. In true White Denim fashion, the song takes a few turns during the bridge, which starts with a harsh Steely Dan feel, before turning into a late-70s Zeppelin homage. Even though the song is pretty intricate, it’s packaged really well and the underlying beat is consistent and easy to grasp. It’s also just plain fun to listen to, which makes me think this song could be something big for the band if it hits the masses the right way.

Similar to when I listen to D, it’s hard for me to not hear other bands in the songs on this album. The title track, “Corsicana Lemonade,” has elements of King Crimson mixed with ZZ Top, while “Limited by Stature” is a bit of Yes combined with something off of Brothers or El Camino by The Black Keys, which is probably aided by the fact that Petralli sounds a bit like Dan Auerbach. And then there’s “Cheer Up / Blues Ending” which sounds like a Stephen Stills song played by Humble Pie, before dissolving into an avant-garde outro.

Still, Corsicana Lemonade is pure White Denim, filled with musical chaos and abrupt twists and turns. They have just matured, reigning in and honing the chaos and intricacies of their music. Some fans may see this as the band “selling out,” but I see it as the band maturing and figuring out a way to get their music out to more people without changing who they are. The technical gifts of all four members are on full display throughout the album, and the intensity that the band is known for is still there, it’s just that they’ve learned how to focus it all and package it a little tighter.

But let’s be honest, none of this matters if the songs are not good, and thankfully they all are. This album is great, and even if it may not be the sonic masterpiece that D is, it shows that the band has definitely grown and seems to have found their sound. I’m just hoping they don’t stop here.

Podcast: Toad the Wet Sprocket – New Constellation

So I’m trying something new this week. Instead of having a written review of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s new album, New Constellation (which has yet to be officially released), my friend Chris and I decided to try a podcast instead. If I get enough positive responses from this I may do it more in the future, but I need your feedback!

New ConstellationAnyway, here’s a little background on the album. This is the first album of all new material from TTWS since 1997. Having already recorded the album with their own money, they started a Kickstarter campaign to fund promotion and distribution of the album (since they are doing this without a label). Having donated some money to the campaign, both Chris and I received advanced digital copies of the album a few weeks ago, which is how we were able to review it before it has officially come out.

In the podcast we talk about the album and a lot of other things regarding TTWS, especially about what has been going on with the band since they broke up in 1998. I’ll be honest and say that what you hear is what we said, meaning not much editing went into the final product, and we did it with one mic (if this becomes a thing I will invest in better audio). Also, it’s quite long. About 45 minutes…all about Toad. You’ve been warned.

I hope you enjoy what you hear, and please leave some feedback about whether you’d like this to be a thing in the future.

Thanks.

-J. Frisch

LISTEN TO PODCAST HERE:

Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers

Ray Charles was one of the first people to take gospel music and turn it into secular (or “Devil’s”) music, ultimately changing the course of popular American music. Aretha Franklin found similar success taking the skills she learned and honed in church and bringing them to mainstream music. Though not reaching the superstardom of those two artists, Robert Randolph has taken the style of music that he learned in church, turned it secular, and has become successful in his own right. Yet the difference between him and many other gospel-turned-secular artists is that Randolph is not known for his voice, but for his pedal steel guitar playing.

Robert Randolph grew up going to a House of God Church in Orange, NJ. This Christian denomination is known for having a different style of gospel music than most churches. In House of God churches the lead instrument is a pedal steel or lap steel guitar, and many of their songs are instrumental, with the guitars “singing” praise to the Lord. Thus, this style of music is known as Sacred Steel.

The genre was more or less unknown to people outside of church members, until the late 1990s when Arhoolie Records released a handful of albums by Sacred Steel artists. Yet it was the 1999 album Sacred Steel Live!, which was a collection of live congregational MI0003482996recordings, that would be the game changer. The album found its way to the hands of the members of North Mississippi Allstars (who were already fans of the genre) who in turn showed it to John Medeski. Though the album mainly featured the Campbell Brothers, it was the playing of a young Robert Randolph that caught their ear. The four men got in contact with the prodigy and soon formed The Word, releasing their eponymous album in 2001, an all-instrumental gospel album. Though the album was critically acclaimed, it was the band’s live shows that began getting people’s attention, particularly the fiery playing and stage presence of Randolph. This in turn led to Randolph forming his own band, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, becoming a well known and respected musician (he’s been featured several times on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival).

Having solidified his place in the music industry, Randolph has decided to recognize his musical mentors, showcasing them on the album Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers. The Slide Brothers are Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Chuck and Darick Campbell (of the Campbell Brothers), all Sacred Steel icons. Each man is a beast on the steel guitar (particularly Chuck Campbell), with Cooke and Ghent being fantastic singers as well.

The album is a mix of secular covers (though with religious overtones), traditionals, and straight up gospel tunes, and every track has outstanding musicianship and killer guitar work. The wide range of extremely well-done covers include The Allman Brothers’Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord” (though omitting all Hare Krishna references), Fatboy Slim‘s “Praise You,” and Elmore James‘ “It Hurts Me Too” and “The Sky Is Crying,” as well as Eric Clapton‘s version of the traditional “Motherless Children.” The blending of secular and gospel traditions creates a unique celebration of music, while also showing off the talents of some great, largely unknown musicians.

Though billed as a four man Sacred Steel supergroup, there is not one song on the album that features all four Slide Brothers at the same time. The closest they come is on three tracks, where three of the Brothers are performing, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” “My Sweet Lord,” and “It Hurts Me Too.” However, all three of these songs feature Chuck and Darick Campbell on steel guitar, with either Ghent or Cooke on vocals. Those two do play together on “Sunday School Blues” and “Catch That Train,” but it’s a bit disappointing to not have all four (or five if you include Randolph) playing at the same time on even one single track.

Another interesting aspect of this album is that there is a rotating group of backing musicians throughout. Five of the eleven songs feature The Campbell Brothers as the backing band (who are a fantastic group in their own right), while three others feature The Family Band (one of which has none of The Slide Brothers, “Praise You”). Though this doesn’t take away from high quality of musicianship that engulfs the entire album, it is just an interesting note that shows that this album is more of a collaboration of Sacred Steel icons rather than an endeavor by a supergroup.

Finally, there is the fact that Sacred Steel is known to be a very instrumental-heavy genre, yet the only instrumental track is the traditional “Wade In The Water.” While all the other tracks do showcase the fantastic skills of the four Slide Brothers, this track, played by the Campbell Brothers, is probably the best example of what Sacred Steel is all about. You can really hear why they consider steel guitar playing a different kind of singing. The Campbells’ guitar work soars throughout, evoking an image of preachers and pastors singing and praising their Lord with intense emotion. It’s a shame that there are no other instrumental tracks on the album, because these songs are truly the essence of Sacred Steel.

Still, there is no denying that Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers is a very powerful and energetic album that features highly skilled musicians playing some great songs. Fans of great guitar playing (especially slide guitar) will love this album, as will classic rock and blues lovers. Though the album features gospel musicians, it does an excellent job reinforcing the fact that without gospel, there would be no blues or R&B, and thus no rock ‘n’ roll. It also preaches that no matter where it comes from, music should be a celebration, bringing joy to all who care to listen. Hopefully, this album not only brings that feeling to listeners, but also leads them to discover and appreciate a style of music that all people should love, no matter what their religious affiliation.


For more (non-expert) information on Sacred Steel, here is a paper I wrote on the genre back in 2004 for a History of Blues class in college: Sacred Steel

Little Feat – Dixie Chicken

Forty years ago, Little Feat‘s classic, and best, album, Dixie Chicken, was released. I first listened to the album about 6 years ago. At the time I was getting into Little Feat, and as is typical with me, was becoming a little obsessive. (The year prior I could not stop listening to The Band.) I had known about the band for many years, having listened to bits of my dad’s copies of Waiting For Columbus and Let It Roll, yet it was randomly hearing “Cold, Cold, Cold/Tripe Face Boogie” on Q104 (the NYC classic rock station) that piqued my interest. So after buying Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and doing a bit of research, I eventually bought myself a copy of Dixie Chicken. I knew one track from the album, “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” but only the live version from Columbus, so I wasn’t totally sure what I was in for.

After the first listen through I knew that this was a special album. There was not one bad track on the album, and about half of the songs were absolute gems.

The album opens with the title track, “Dixie Chicken,” which is probably the group’s most well known song after “Willin’.” A light, yet funky, song, it has all of the elements that Little Feat was known for during the Lowell George era of the band: great slide guitar work, syncopated beats, and well crafted lyrics lined with wit. The song also musically sets the tone, not only for the album, but also for the rest of the first era of Little Feat (after Lowell Little Feat Dixie ChickenGeorge’s death in 1980, the band went on hiatus before returning in 1988). New Orleans-style funk was to be the backbone of the band’s next seven years.

The second track, “Two Trains,” is pure funk. I’m not talking about your stereotypical Parliament-esque funk, I’m talking about the laid-back, syncopated feel, that still smacks the two and four, laid down by the late Richie Hayward, Sam Clayton, and Kenny Gradney. Then there’s the guitar work from both Paul Barrere and George. And of course Bill Payne‘s piano adds another layer to the song that is so well constructed that all of the parts seamlessly meld together. Though the song is not one of the band’s most well-known songs, it might be my favorite on the album. (It’s also ten times better than the version on George’s solo album, I’ll Eat It Here.)

I take what I just said back. “Roll Um Easy,” the third track on the album, might be my favorite. This track is all Lowell George, and it’s gorgeous. There’s nothing fancy about the song, but that’s what makes it fantastic. George’s wordwork is on full display straight fromt he get-go, opening with the lines, “I am just a vagabond, a drifter on the run. And eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue. And I have dined in palaces, drunk wines with kings and queens. But darlin’, oh darlin’ your the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Now, I wasn’t an English major, and never have been a lyric person in general, but I would call that some great poetry. It’s simply a beautiful, emotional, yet witty song that I can’t imagine not loving it. Easily one of the highest points of the album, at least in my mind.

A cover of Allen Toussaint‘s song “On Your Way Down” follows, and only hardens the fact that the band is totally entrenched in the New Orleans mentality. The band does a great job keeping the essence and feel of the original while still making it their own version. Though Paul Barrere’s guitar work is all over this song, it is Bill Payne’s keyboard and piano work that really holds the whole thing together. He never solos, nor really ever comes to the forefront, but all of the licks he plays in the background add so much color to the song that it would sound bare without him.

The next tune, “Kiss It Off,” brings a different feel to the record. With a mix of tablas and synthesizers to start, the song would seem to not fit in with the New Orleans feel of the album. However, the song was written by George, and definitely has the melodic tendencies of the rest of the album, making it, oddly enough, fit with the rest of the tracks.

Fool Yourself” (penned by Fred Tackett, who is now a member of the band) opens the second side of the album, and is another unassuming gem on the record. The song has nothing too complicated within it (unless you count the layers of musical parts) nor is it loud or boisterous, but it is the fact that it has a very humble, unassuming feel that makes it so wonderful. Like “Roll ‘Um Easy,” this song is driven by George’s voice, which is filled with so much calm, yet so emotional, that I always find it hard not to listen attentively.

Penned and sung by Payne and Barrere, “Walkin’ All Night” is filled with energy and groove, and brings the New Orleans feel back to the listener. Yet, while the music is solid, I’ve always found it hard to listen to Payne or Barrere sing lead. Neither of their voices compare to George’s, both in range and in style, making it hard for me to absolutely love any Little Feat song that doesn’t have George on lead vocals. Still, this song about a prostitute is fun, and fits right in with album.

Next up is one of Little Feat’s more well-known songs, “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” Like the title track, this tune is filled with fantastic music and incredibly witty lyrics, and grooves harder than most of the album. This is likely do to the fact that Richie Hayward’s drumming emulates the New Orleans groove, particularly in the beginning of the song, and is filled with lots of syncopation, which is aided by the auxiliary percussion work of Sam Clayton. You also have some fantastic slide guitar work from both Barrere and George that shows what kind of musical force the band was when they were at their best. Yet, it is the vocal work in the chorus that steals the show. Though George is singing lead, it is the background vocals of Hayward, Bonnie Raitt, and Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney and Bonnie) that take things over the top. The vocalists add some extra fun near the end of the song, where they all are singing and riffing on the lyric “I hear you moan,” as the track fades out. (While this track is definitely a classic, the best version of the song is the previously mentioned live version from Waiting For Columbus, which takes the entire song up a notch.)

Juliette” follows and opens with George on flute (a rarity), before punching into a solid groove. Overall, the song is great and the music is more than solid, yet it is the production of the song that really shines in my eyes. If you listen closely you can hear all of the layers (particularly vocals) that are embedded in the tune, and hopefully you will find yourself appreciating how wonderfully mixed this song is, which only adds to the fact that is so well written.

The album closes with an instrumental co-written by George and Payne entitled “Lafayette Railroad.” There is not much to say for this slow moving track, except that it really showcases why Lowell George was widely known as a great slide guitar player. An interesting, yet appropriate way to end the album.

Though you won’t find Dixie Chicken on a lot of “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists, it is hard to deny that this is a very good album, and easily the best of Little Feat’s career, which continues today. Yet, for me it is not just the fact that there are so many great songs on the album, but it is also the mood and feel of the record. While so many of my favorite albums get me in emotional or energetic states, this album puts me at eases, and I can simply just enjoy what I am listening to. Yet, as you listen to the record more and more, you pick up the nuances that make it so special and fantastic, making each listen more enjoyable than the one before.

So “be my Dixie Chicken, [and] I’ll be your Tennessee Lamb, and we can walk together down in Dixieland.”

Let’s go.

Eric Burdon & The Greenhornes – Eric Burdon & The Greenhornes

Collaborations between artists have been occurring for forever. In popular music these collaborations can be a guest spot on an album or a song (like many rap artists), an album full of different collaborations (a la Herbie Hancock or Santana), a one off album, or a full blown supergroup. More times than not these collaborations work, at least to a degree, even if the collaborations don’t live up to listener expectations (Blind Faith being the ultimate example of this). For Eric Burdon and The Greenhornes, their collaboration is pretty much perfect, as evidenced by their recently released 4 song EP.

Simply titled, Eric Burdon & The Greenhornes (though there are sites that have the title Apolinere Enameled), the all too brief EP showcases a perfect match between one of the forefather’s of British blues-rock and the Cincinnati group that embodies the essence of MI0003457046Burdon’s early work. For those of you unfamiliar with the two parties, here’s a quick history lesson. Eric Burdon was the lead singer of The Animals, best known for their hits “House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” He then went on to start the band War (originally called Eric Burdon & War), with whom he recorded the hit “Spill the Wine.” (He split with the group long before they recorded their super hit, “Low Rider.”) Since the 1970s, Burdon has reincarnated The Animals several times, and has put out numerous solo albums, but never reaching the success he had in his early career, though still very respected. The Greenhornes are a garage rock band that have been heavily influenced by blues and garage rock artists from the 60s and 70s. While the group has never hit the big time, the groups rhythm section, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, are/were members of The Ranconteurs, along with Jack White and Brendan Benson; Lawrence also collaborated with Jack White in the band The Dead Weather.

Essentially, the two entities were meant for each other.

This can be heard in the first minute of the opening track, “Black Dog.” (No, not the Led Zeppelin song.) Burdon’s aggressively bluesy voice is perfectly complimented by the heavy groove laid down by The Greenhornes. Jack Lawrence’s bass lines anchor everything, setting up a dark, yet soulful mood. Craig Fox’s guitar adds some depth to Lawrence’s lines, and Patrick Keeler is as steady as ever on the drums, laying an absolutely rock solid groove. Yet, it is Andrew Higley’s organ that really compliments Burdon’s voice, if only because it evokes the sound of 60s garage rock, where Burdon’s voice first breathed life. The song sounds menacing and could be easily found on an early, proto-metal hard blues album from the late 60s (think Black Sabbath or Deep Purple). This is Eric Burdon’s bread and butter, and there is no denying he’s still on top of his game.

The second track on side A of the EP, “Out Of My Mind,” is not nearly as aggressive as the prior track, but still continues the feeling of being a time warp from the 60s. Once again it is Higley’s keyboards that promote this feeling on this balladesque tune, but this time around he is aided by Fox’s clean guitar sound that promotes a sense of teenage garage band playing a slow dance at a local YMCA gathering. Burdon’s vocal control, both in dynamics and emotion, is sensational. This is particularly the case during the verses when the band drops way down, dynamically, and he takes total control of the song, bringing you in close as he tells his story of woe. It’s just another example of why this man is a legend.

The B-side of the EP consists of two songs, “Can You Win” and “Cab Driver.” The first is a straight ahead blues rocker that once again promotes the feeling of being straight of out the 60s, though more like early Fleetwood Mac or Humble Pie this time around. The Greenhornes own the song and Craig Fox is once again at the forefront. His guitar work, while nothing mind-blowing, is pretty kick-ass, showing that he knows his stuff. “Cab Driver,” is just insane, and silly. Burdon plays an Eastern European man who is telling a personal story, while The Greenhornes play around on a minor key, oompa (polka) groove, backing him up perfectly. Honestly, this track sounds more like a jam that turned into a ditty (it was written all of them, unlike the other tracks), but still shows the talents the five men and the synergy between them.

Which is why I am hoping that this EP is not just a one-off, but a jumping point for future collaboration. If Burdon ever needed a band that understood him musically, The Greenhornes are it, and they could definitely use the boosted exposure to elevate their profile beyond being “that band with two guys from The Ranconteurs.” In my mind it would be a win-win-win situation, because not only would the two parties benefit, but audiences would as well. This album is not groundbreaking, but it’s really good, and the musical talent and energy that springs forth from my speakers tells me that these two musical entities are a good fit for each other. So here’s to hoping for good sales and reviews so we all can benefit from some great music in the future, because there’s always room for more.

Note: This EP is only available on vinyl and digitally. In my opinion, the vinyl sounds better.

Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blu

Gary Clark, Jr. is an artist that I have been aware for over a year. I remember seeing an ad for him on Facebook saying something to the effect of, “Fan of The Black Keys? Check out Gary Clark, Jr.” I did check him out, and while not totally overwhelmed by what I took in, I was intrigued. Over the next several months, I began to see his name pop up as a minor headliner at major festivals, including Mountain Jam and Bonnaroo. Then there was an email from Daytrotter promoting his session on their site. I downloaded it, and was really impressed. From there I decided to buy his EP, The Bright Lights, which converted me to a true fan of his.

The EP’s title track, “Bright Lights,” was stuck in my head for days, but it was the two live, solo acoustic tracks that really caught my attention. His guitar playing was not only impressive, but also incredibly rhythmic. Add in his soulful, slightly gravely voice, and I realized I was listening to a bon-a-fide, modern day bluesman.  So it should be no surprise that his debut album, Blak and Blu, was one that I was anticipating for several months, and for all intents and purposes this album lived up to my expectations.

Based purely on the limited material I knew, I was anticipating that Blak and Blu would be a down and dirty blues-rock album, filled with lots of guitar work and soulful singing. What I heard was a mix of blues, rock, and modern soul/R&B. At times Clark sounds like Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys), other times like Lenny Kravitz, and other times like a generic modern R&B artist. For some people this may show a inconsistency in Clark’s music, but I interpret this differently. Instead of being inconsistent, I see this as Clark trying to find his niche in the music world, as well as understanding that in order to find the widest audience possible, he must try to hit the musical interests of a wide swath of potential fans. Or he could just be paying tribute to his influences.

Unlike many debut albums, Blak and Blu is quite long, having 13 tracks and clocking in at 66 minutes. It’s a lot of music to take in, and as mentioned above, it’s quite sprawling genre-wise. Overall, the album is very good, with a handful of pretty fantastic songs. The album’s first track, “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” is one of these. Opening with a single snare hit followed by an intense blast of horns, the song is a pretty standard sounding blues-rocker. Though nothing in the song is mind-blowing, the song is just a pure barnburner, with intensity that does not relent, even during the post-solo breakdown. This is one of those songs that should be played LOUD while you just simply let yourself have fun.

The track that follows, “When My Train Pulls In,” is a full band version of one of the solo acoustic tracks from The Bright Lights EP. Where the EP version was more somber and emotional, the album version is full of energy, though still packing that emotional punch. The guitar work on the album version is very Hendrix-esque, filled with tons of distortion and wah-wah. Ironically, the solo on the EP version has Clark playing a bit of “Third Stone From The Sun” by Jimi Hendrix, a track that he actually covers later on the album (though it is combined with one of his own tracks).

Bright Lights,” the fourth track, is easily my favorite on the album. Essentially a remixed and remastered version of the one found on his EP, the song is just one of those big, fat, juicy blues songs that anyone with any love of music can’t resist. The beat is locked in the pocket, and the bassline consists of thick, heavy quarter and eighth notes, that give the song a solid foundation. The guitar work is, once again, stellar, something that is consistent throughout the album. However, it is the lyrical hooks that grab me in this song. Though there is really nothing special about them, the combination of simple, repeated phrases and the aforementioned phat beat cause the refrains to be stuck in my head for days.

The seventh track, “Glitter Ain’t Gold,” is another heavy, bluesy rocker, which sounds eerily like it came from a Lenny Kravitz album. From the riff to Clark’s voice it’s pure Kravitz. Yet, this doesn’t take away from the fact that this song kicks some pretty serious ass. The powerhouse combination of heavy fuzz guitar and bass playing the same ostinato riff make this song. It’s just one of those lines that makes you want to turn the volume up high and head bang.

Next Door Neighbor Blues” closes the album, but may be the best example of what Gary Clark, Jr., truly is: a bluesman. Recorded to sound like a lo-fi field recording, the song exhibits Clark’s ability to play and knowledge of traditional blues. To me, this is the core of his music, and the fact that he is displaying it on his debut record is impressive, because he’s already shown his ability to play more modern and popular styles of music, but leaves the listener with a raw, crude-sounding traditional blues. And this isn’t just some silly knock-off, it’s a good song, and shows that Clark’s musical roots come from the blues.

While these songs are the highlights (in my mind) of the album, there are a bunch of other really good songs. “Travis County” is a barnburner that seems to come straight out of Clark’s hometown of Austin, TX. “The Life” is the most modern R&B influenced song, and I could easily see this as being a radio hit. “Please Come Home” is a 60s soul influenced song, and would easily fit in with what Raphael Saadiq has been doing recently. “Third Stone From The Sun/You Love Me Like You Say” combines the Hendrix classic and a cover of the Little Johnny Taylor tune into a jam-heavy mini-medley that contains the one of the best guitar solos on the album. And then there’s “You Saved Me,” which, in my mind, is Clark’s attempt at writing his own “Purple Rain.” Though it doesn’t sound like the Prince classic, it does remind me of it, and Prince in general, which is not a bad thing at all.

So in the end, what may seem like an album that has no musical focus, should really be viewed as an album that is showcasing the ability of a rising star in the music world. The fact of the matter is Gary Clark, Jr. has talent, lots of it, and it can definitely be heard on this record. The one qualm I have with this record is that it does not have “Don’t Owe You A Thang,” which appeared on The Bright Lights EP.  The song is a heavy, blues shuffle that is just simply electric, and one that I could see being the highlight of a live show.

Which leads me to my final thought. While Blak and Blu is a really enjoyable album that showcases his ability, Gary Clark, Jr. is someone you need to see live. Now I will admit that I have yet to see him in concert, but I have seen some of his live performances online (both streaming and recorded video) and they were phenomenal. The energy that emits from his album comes out in his live performances, but at an exponentially higher level.

He may not be a once-in-a-generation artist, like some have titled him, but Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent, and one that you should take a listen to.