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.

Concert Review: Cake @ The Wellmont Theatre, Montclair, NJ – January 12, 2013

It’s always an interesting feeling going to a concert for a band or artist that you like, but being well aware that you are more a casual fan than a “true” fan. I say this because you usually like the music of the band/artist and know their hits really well, but are only familiar with the rest of their catalog, so unless the show is completely mind-blowing, you probably won’t be into the show as much as the majority of the fanbase. This was the case when I saw KISS, Aerosmith, Galactic, Donald Fagen, and Tom Petty (all different shows). Still there have been a few situations where I was more into a show than I ever expected, specifically the Foo Fighters/Weezer concert I saw in 2005. However, last night’s Cake concert was more like the former than the latter.

Overall, the show was good. Kind of odd, but good. The musicianship of the band was much better than I ever anticipated. Since the band’s music isn’t anything extravagant, and pretty consistent in sound and feel, I was just expecting to see a fairly loose band having fun. However, the band was incredibly tight, having each song down to a science, 0109F_cake50peven without a setlist. Each musician’s part never overshadows the others, creating tightly woven music that is superficially unassuming, but impressive when closely examined. Guitarist Xan McCurdy was incredibly skillful, showing off his talents not with gaudy guitar solos, but with tight riffs and licks reminiscent of Steve Cropper. Bassist Gabe Nelson was rock-solid, laying down the backbone for each song. Drummer Paulo Baldi was incredible, and so in-the-pocket that unless you were paying close attention, you would have no idea how syncopated his beats actually were. Multi-instrumentalist Vince DiFiore filled in the gaps with keyboards, percussion, and, of course, his masterful work on the trumpet.

And then there was lead singer/guitarist John McCrea. Vocally, McCrea was exactly what I expected, with his limited range and deadpan voice. And his guitar work was fine, and kind of impressive at times. Yet, it was his antics, hand motions, and often off-time vibraslap playing that took away from the rest of the band. McCrea seemed to be attempting to conduct the band with awkward hand motions, which not only was unnecessary (since the band was super tight), but distracting, at least to me. He also seemed to have no sense of timing during different songs, hitting the vibraslap at weird moments or on the wrong beat. Of course, he was on cue when it counted, like during “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” But it was hard to shake the notion that he was either just messing around, or actually had no idea where the beat was, in regards to both the hand motions and vibraslapping.

However, McCrea’s performance was only one of the several odd instances that happened during the show. The show started with an incredibly 80s style instrumental song, with neon lights in the background, that went on just a little too long. And when the band did finally come on the stage, they didn’t start right away, creating a weird transition before they started with the Willie Nelson ballad, “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” If they had come on while the song was ending, and started immediately after the canned music was finished, it would have been a lot more effective.

Another odd aspect of the show was the fact that though there was no opener, and the band did play two sets, the second set was half as long as the first, and included a total stoppage of music so that McCrea could pick an audience member to take home a fig tree (with the hope that this person would plant it and take pictures of it for the rest of their life). While I had no problem with the tree giveaway in the middle of the set, it was the fact that right before the tree giveaway he stopped after starting “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check” and then went and explained why he was stopping (there was no setlist and he was following his muse), which preceded him going into the tree giveaway. This whole sequence caused a very awkward moment in the show, which killed the momentum the band had going for it. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen, but the other times have been during Ben Folds shows, when it was just him and a piano, and the atmosphere was much more intimate and less formal. As I mentioned, the second set was half as long as the first, which not only was odd, but made me question why they even had two sets. The whole thing left me with a weird, unsatisfied feeling.

With all of that said, I still had a good time, and was happy to know that the band was giving all of their merchandise proceeds to help Hurricane Sandy relief causes. The band was solid, the music was good, and the crowd was into it. Still, I never found myself totally immersed in the show, like I am with many of the bands I see. In my mind, Cake sounded exactly like did on their records, and while it was an enjoyable show, I left feeling like there was no real need to see the band again for a while, unless their next record is completely different from and a lot better than their previous six albums. But if you get a chance to see them, you should. I just wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

1. Sad Songs and Waltzes – Fashion Nugget
2. Opera SingerComfort Eagle
3. Stickshifts and SafetybeltsFashion Nugget
4. Arco ArenaComfort Eagle
5. WheelsPressure Chief
6. Ruby Sees AllMotorcade of Generosity
7. Frank SinatraFashion Nugget
8. Love You MadlyComfort Eagle
9. Long TimeShowroom of Compassion
10. Bound AwayShowroom of Compassion
11. Mustache Man (Wasted)Showroom of Compassion
12. Sick Of YouShowroom of Compassion
13. Federal FundingShowroom of Compassion
14. ComancheMotorcade of Generosity
15. Jolene Motorcade of Generosity
16. ThrillsB-Sides And Rarities (during tree giveaway)
17. Sheep Go to HeavenProlonging the Magic
18. Rock ‘N’ Roll LifestyleMotorcade of Generosity
19. Never ThereProlonging the Magic
20. Short Skirt/Long Jacket – Comfort Eagle
21. The DistanceFashion Nugget

Looking Back on the Past, and Forward to the Future

I can easily say that 2012 has been a pretty good year for me, both musically and personally. On the personal side, I got my Master’s degree, moved from Kansas back to New Jersey, got a teaching job, and have pretty much re-established my social life back in NJ. I also maintained this blog, and though not as regularly as I originally planned, I still find it impressive that I’ve not let this die. And even more impressive is the fact that total strangers have read this blog and really enjoyed my writing.

On the music side of things, a lot was going on. Though I did not purchase a lot of newly released material (13 albums to be exact), I continued to expand my musical palette and continued to delve further into the back catalogs of artists I do like. I’ve also continued to build my vinyl collection (through record stores and raiding my parents’ collection), and now that I have a working turntable, I’m actually able to listen to them (Little Feat‘s Waiting For Columbus is playing as I type). My now former band, New Inhabitants, was able to record and release a 5 song EP within the span of a few months, and I’ve been starting to reconnect with old bandmates here in NJ with the hope something might happen. I was extremely successful at camp this summer, helping teens become better musicians and exposing campers and counselors to music, and learning about some artists I’ve never heard of before. And of course there were the concerts that I experienced (at least 10 2012into2013-resize-380x300of them, not sure on the exact number), all of which were pretty great.

So now that 2012 is pretty much in the books, and the world did not end, it’s time to look forward to 2013.

How many concerts will I be seeing this year? The move back to the NYC metro area has already yielded more opportunities to see shows, but my work schedule hampers my ability to see shows during the week. While it hasn’t totally stopped me from seeing a midweek show (saw two in the same week back in October), it’s definitely making me think twice about what shows I get tickets for. Currently I have one show lined up for next year (Cake in Montclair, NJ), and it’s pretty likely that I will be seeing The Black Crowes in April. Beyond those two shows, nothing else is planned, but knowing me, there will be many in the next year for me to experience.

What albums will I procure? Beyond a possible new Toad the Wet Sprocket album and the upcoming Sacred Steel supergroup album, Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers, I’m not actually sure what to expect in the coming year. Hopefully it will be a good year of music, but currently I have no idea what to expect.

How much music will I play? I guarantee I will be playing music this next year, but in what capacity, how often, and with who, are all big ????s. Only time will tell I guess.

And finally, what will happen to this blog and what it will look like over the course of the next 12 months? My hope is that I will still be able to post on a fairly regularly basis, though my life as a teacher has definitely gotten in the way of my writing consistently, as well as sucking the life out of my drive to do anything productive when I get home from work. But as long as there are things for me to write about (or for me to want to write about), I will find a way to write.

Thanks again to everyone who has read this blog with some regularity. It’s been really fun, thus far, and I hope to continue doing it well into next year.

Have a healthy and happy New Year!


Music Resolutions 2012: How Did I Do?

Last December I made 8 music resolutions for myself, and though the year still has over two weeks to go, I thought now would be a good time to check in to see how I did.

  1. Listen to all bands that people recommend with an open mind. Though this one is hard to truly figure out, I definitely feel I did a good job of this, though I could’ve done better. Thanks to friends, I’m now know of and/or enjoy, bands such as White Denim, Spoon, Dawes, Radio Moscow, and Hadag Nahash. On top of this I’ve finally given a good listen to a bunch of older bands such as The Kinks and XTC and thoroughly enjoyed what I have heard. Better late than never! ACHIEVED
  2. Use up my iTunes credit. This is really hard to quantify, because when I bought my new MacBook Pro, I got $100 of iTunes/App Store credit, so I really have no idea how I’ve done. I’ve definitely bought music via iTunes, but not as much as I would have hoped. INCONCLUSIVE
  3. Buy more new albums on new-years-resolutionsvinyl. On Record Store Day’s Black Friday I bought a few new singles/EPs, but have yet to purchase a new full-length album on vinyl, though I continue to buy older, used vinyl. Part of this has to do with the fact I still can’t shake the habit of buying CDs, and part of it has to do with what you will read below. PARTIALLY ACHIEVED
  4. Get a GOOD phonograph. A few weeks after writing last year’s resolutions, I found an old turntable in my mom’s house, brought it back with me to Kansas, and got it fixed. Or so I thought. The motor on the sucker was dying, and started playing my records slower, causing all of the music to be a full step lower than it should have been. So for most of the year, I wasn’t listening to any vinyl. After months of thinking about it (and getting a job), I finally purchased a new turntable that is doing the trick, and seems to be solid. ACHIEVED (though later than expected)
  5. Maximize my time in Lawrence in regards to live shows. During my last 5 months in Lawrence, KS, I managed to see a handful of shows, including Galactic, the Head and the Heart, Hadag Nahash and The Wood Brothers, as well as a bunch of local bands. This is on top of having seen Delta Spirit, fun. (before they exploded), The Greenhornes, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Orgone, North Mississippi Allstars, and The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, along with all of their opening bands, and several local acts during the 16 months prior to last year’s entry. For a college town on the edge of the middle of nowhere, that’s a damn good list. Definitely enjoyed my time in the town and feel that I took advantage of the live shows that came through. ACHIEVED
  6. Continue this blog for another year. Though the entries are no longer weekly, the fact that I’m even writing this means I succeeded. ACHIEVED
  7. Wherever I end up living, join a band. Luckily, I ended back where I grew up, which means I have a lot of people I know who I can play music with. The problem is that my job is insanely time consuming. That being said, my old band, The All New Cheap Moves (for which this blog was named after), is in the process of writing new material and we have jammed a few times. On top of this, there has been talk of my high school/college band, Zanzibar Scuf, getting back together. Then again, it’s just talk, and beyond our annual Scuf Nog jam session, who knows what will happen. IN PROCESS
  8. If the world does end on December 21st, listen to Dulcinea while it happens. There’s still 5 days until this happens or not, and if it does, I’ll be blasting it wherever I am. TO BE DETERMINED

So it seems I was able to fulfill 4/8 of my resolutions, with no complete failures. Not too bad. How did you do?

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.