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Sam Butler, Raise Your Hands! Sometimes a new album comes from so far out in left field it doesn't even show up on incoming radar. It just hits like a full force gale, and doesn't stop making a stand and raising sand. Sam Butler has been the guitarist in the Blind Boys of Alabama for many years, and before that his father performed with the Blind Boys of Mississippi. That's gospel lineage with a capital G. But what is so mesmerizing about Butler's new release is its unflinching attack on modern songs, and the way he handles mixing gospel, rhythm & blues and rock into one boiling attack. He flat out goes for it, and doesn't worry what risks he's taking or rules he's breaking.
Recording songs by Bruce Springsteen, the Bee Gees, Tom Waits, Eric Clapton, U2 and others feels as natural as kneeling down in church. With Butler's hellacious guitar unleashed among all these iconic songs, and accompanied side-by-side with pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier, it's a perfect storm. There is such a deep resonance of feeling woven into every note that a discernible glow starts to shine, and grows and grows so that by the end this righteous album everything is lifted up into a heavenly realm. Listen and believe.
Shemekia Copeland, Outskirts of Love. This is one blues force of nature. There are so few young singers in this realm now, it's hard to believe that Shemekia Copeland, who started so young, is such a veteran. And while all her previous work has been impressive, this is the album to really plant the flag in the ground. Produced by Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, there is an unrelenting sense of attack on these songs that cannot be overlooked. So much of that is due to Wood's guitar playing himself. It is nothing short of breathtaking, and gives that much more power to the push behind Copeland. Plus, it doesn't hurt to be doing a mixture of new songs and classics by Jesse Winchester, ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Solomon Burke, Albert King, Jessie Mae Brooks, and her father Johnny Copeland's "Devil's Hand." It gives the whole affair a decidedly historic strength, even though it's as up to date as any blues album made today. Shemekia Copeland has the goods, and sings circles around just about anyone else. She's even given an added boost by guest slots by Billy F Gibbons, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Robert Randolph, but at the end of the disc it's really the woman's show all the way. Shemekia Copeland works it for all she's worth, and shows she's riding shotgun these days, and has no intention of moving out of the seat all the way to the outskirts of town and beyond. Go head-on woman.
Dr. John, The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974. For those in the pursuit of the finest possible health insurance available, it's always best to start with Dr. Johnacare. It will not only cure whatever illnesses might be applicable, but it also is guaranteed to put a glide in the stride and offer more smiles per mile than any other program. This absolutely knocked-out collection of all the good Dr.'s singles released by Atlantic Records between 1968-1974 is about as mos' scocious as music gets, and listened to back-to-back is almost too much fun for one heart to bear. By the time the second song "Mama Roux" kicks in, it's apparent that no breaks will be given. This is a Big Easy ride right up St. Charles Avenue on the beautiful street car on out to Audobon Park and the Mississippi River. There has never been another musician on the same planet as Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, and there's no reason to start now. Needless to say, partway through the collection on, say, "Loop Garoo" or "I Been Hoodood," there is a definite level of frivolity unleashed that the wheels seem to come off life itself and the party parades right out the door, into the street and right on to the promised land. This is music for every occasion, and some that haven't been invented yet. Throw in Brother Gene Sculatti's scintillating liner notes and this one wins Reissue of the Year right away. Find the levee and burn it down pronto.
Kinky Friedman, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met. Even if he waited right at 40 years to record a new album, Kinky Friedman still feels as new as yesterday. There has always been something extremely timeless about this man, not to mention his first band Texas Jewboys. He hit on the ultimate niche, and has hung onto it through thick and thicker. So even though Friedman became a successful novelist and even ran for several public offices, including Texas governor (lost 'em all, but who's counting?), he's always been a renegade country singer at heart. For his new foray into the studio, the Texan rounded up a near-dozen cover songs like Tom Waits' "A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" and Warren Zevon's "My Shit's Fucked Up," and let it fly. The good news is that these songs fly very well with the singer's ultimate ironic twist. Mix that in with a tragic romantic bent that's always been there ("Sold American" anyone?), and once again the the Kinkster comes out smelling like a rose, or at least a bagel. And maybe just to prove he's still got country cred, Willie Nelson fires up his own "Bloody Mary Morning" and invites Friedman on board the wild ride to tomorrow.
The Gold Magnolias, Sail on Glamdog. Mix Texas and Mississippi moves and what comes out is the Gold Magnolias' irresistible music. For a youngish band to sound this ready for prime time now isn't a surprise when all their experience is added together. They've criss-crossed the country several times, called Brooklyn home long enough to learn it and earn it, and gone and written the kind of songs that put them right next to success. Singers Evan Felts and Hudson Mueller are blue-eyed soul brothers and have found a new language to nail modernity. They bring the funk, too, with bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Jeffory Barton letting saxophone player Ryan Anselmi peg the Southern bona fides to the wall with a blistering tenor. Still, without songs like "Brooklyn Streets," "Boom Boom," "Brothers in Need," and "Sister Sledge," the Mags might have stayed a club band, good for blasting a dance floor to smithereens but not a whole lot else. Now, with a studio full of talent and worthy songs, they are an aggregation that can stand next to anyone and take the big prize out the door. It's always a treasure to discover a group right on the edge of bustling loose, and that's exactly what the Gold Magnolias are set to do. Hold on tight.
Scott Hamilton Plays Jule Styne. The saxophone will remain the eternal instrument that most closely invokes the human voice. There is something about the sound of the saxophone's notes that bring to life a living person. In today's world, one of the players most adept at that sleight-of-hand is Scott Hamilton. He's been playing for decades, and still is able to get better and better. When Hamilton takes on the Jule Styne songbook as he does here, the sky's the limit. Well-known songs like "Time after Time," "The Party's Over," and even "People," all swingingly produced by Duke Robillard, take on a haunting and always moving aura, like Styne's spirit is somehow hovering above. It also doesn't hurt that pianist Tim Ray, bassist Dave Zinno, and drummer Jim Gwin swing in with such passion and precision, pushing Scott Hamilton into two corners and avenues to take his horn. There may be nothing earthshaking about these nine songs, but no matter when they're played the skies open up a bit and life seems more possible and, just maybe, more permanent. The saxophonist opens the composer's door, allowing all who listen to enter. Welcome.
Los Lobos, Gates of Gold, and Chris Morris, Los Lobos: Dream in Blue. What we have here is a success to communicate. Through a new Los Lobos album masterpiece and a music biography that has been a long time coming, East L.A.'s finest rise up a few more notches, if such a thing were even possible. First, the album. Sometimes it's tough to imagine Lobos topping themselves. There have been so many plateaus, each with its own breathtaking views, the band sounds like they've done it all. Wrong. That's when the salsa really starts to flow and Los Lobos blows even more minds. Whether it's heart-tuggers like "Song of the Sun" or the barnburner "Mis-Treater Boogie Blues" almost doesn't matter. What's going to happen is the band will burn a new imprint on the soul, a glorious new vista opens and, once again, Lobos takes to the mountaintop. Writer Chris Morris is able to put all that into words like no one else, and weaves the improbable but richly deserved success story of the band like no one else can. He was there at the start, so this isn't really history to him. It's an astute observer's view of one of America's great musical stories. Lucky for us Morris is wonderfully able to express why it happened, both socially and musically, marking 2015 as the Year of the Wolf—again. Fantastico.
Ashley Monroe, The Blade. Sometimes it sounds like Nashville is Under the Dome. That is, a huge glass bubble has descended over Music City that ensures just one approach reigns supreme, and anyone who flat-out sings from the heart is relegated to the sidelines where endless nights of auto-tuning await their study. Not true of Ashley Monroe. She is an honest-to-God certified human being, and sings like her very life depends on it. There is no guessing around about where the woman stands. She stands on the side of heartbreak, happiness, and everything else human people suffer from and lust for. Her third album inches closer to classic status, but it's still not quite there. In a land of endless co-writes, it could be a matter of Monroe finally finding all of her songs living inside only herself. That might seem a tall order, but then again, it would be better to know how she alone feels, as opposed to her and her dozen collaborators do. Live or die on your own, and the world will take notice and get in line in droves to live in the warmth of that greatness. For now, though, Ashley Monroe is the very best there is, whether on her own or moonlighting with sideshow band Pistol Annies, and she still sounds like she's just getting started.
Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart. When His Highness Sir Richards makes his way into a recording studio on his own, it's time to alert the media. It doesn't happen very often, and though no promises are made, odds are good something is actually afoot. This time around, Keith Richards and drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan figured that if they brought their instruments and turned on the recording machines, something had to happen. And it did, and probably precisely because plenty of room was left for outright inspiration. Jordan figured that if Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts could often inspire Richards into real results, why couldn't he? Jordan was right, obviously. While no one will ever accuse the guitarist-songwriter of being a great singer, the truth is he's good enough to sell the song, and with a great drummer (check) and a few special guests (check), a keeper album could be cut. What's different than expected is that it's the ballads where Keith Richards' voice really sails through. Maybe that's because there's so much room for emotion to live, or it could be lyrically those songs are the most unique. Near the end, the ballad "Just a Gift" is offered like a late-night prayer, something that sums up entire lives and losses. It's one of the great recorded moments by the man who has defined rock and roll well over a half-century. Those moments don't come often enough, but boy when they do time stops. It's immediately followed by Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," which sounds like the ultimate closing song, even though here it's not. Who knows if there'll ever be another Richards solo album, but for now, listeners might not get all they want—but they get what they need.
Webb Wilder, Mississippi Moderne. Don't mess with Mississippi. Musician Webb Wilder has been chasing the liberating sound of his home state for over 50 years, and he always gets in the thick of it real quick. He's not really a retrofit kind of guy, but instead concentrates for the emotional velocity of songs like "Only a Fool" and "Yard Dog" to get the big bite in. But like all true Southern boys, he's got a sentimental streak a country mile wide, and can twist the heart into knots on something as simple as "Too Much Sugar for a Nickel." While Wilder is a primo songwriter, he's also not above covering Ray Davies, Charlie Rich, Otis Rush and others, just to show an egalitarian streak that always serves him well. Hell, he even co-wrote one with soulster supreme Dan Penn. Maybe that's because growing up in the Magnolia State Webb Wilder learned that it's all music, no matter where it comes from, and to limit the brain and body from any reputable rush would be a tragic mistake. The man has made a handful of albums, but it's obvious this is the one where he really stepped back to see how he could hit a knockout punch from the first song. There really aren't enough permanent delinquents out there ripping and running up and down the highways, conquering honky tonks and roadhouses one night at a time. Hell, they ought to haul Webb Wilder into the capitol in Jackson and pin a big ol' medal on him for playing music so long above and beyond the call of duty. He doesn't always get the biggest spotlight, but he always is the one to burn down the cornfield at the end of the night. Wilder indeed.
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