Bruce Cockburn, Steve Forbert, Gomez, John Scofield, The Decembrists and More

The next couple of weeks are looking to make me busier than a one-legged extra in a Jackie Chan movie. Lots to review, little time to work it all in; to quote the ever ebullient David Lee Roth, might as well jump ... into new CDs from Bruce Cockburn, Ste

Tuesdays get crazier as the year moves on. The next couple of weeks are looking to make me busier than a one-legged extra in a Jackie Chan movie. Lots to review, little time to work it all in; to quote the ever ebullient David Lee Roth, might as well jump…

Bruce Cockburn might not be a household name, but he's built an impressive résumé over the past four decades, releasing 29 albums (three live albums among them), touring constantly, amassing a rabidly supportive fan base, blending genres like a sonic bartender, writing about political causes and matters of the heart with equal conviction and passion, winning a mantle full of Juno awards and earning a drawerful of great press. The one thing Cockburn hasn’t done yet in his 40-year career is release a solo live album, an oversight that's corrected on the double disc Slice O Life.

Without benefit of a backing band, Cockburn rearranges and reimagines some of his best known work (“World of Wonders,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” the incendiary “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” his one massive hit single “Wondering Where the Lions Are”) to work in this sparse solo acoustic atmosphere. But, of course, Cockburn is at his most engaging on stage (his stage stories on Slice O Life prove worthy of being documented in book form), and his performances have always been every bit as compelling as his well crafted songs.

Cockburn is a guitarist of rare power and delicacy, a gift that finds potent outlet on his spine-tingling take on “Tibetan Side of Town,” “Wait No More,” with its Spanish intro and insistent Folk/Blues riff and the lilting Pop grace of “Last Night of the World.” For a real showcase of Cockburn’s estimable abilities, check out his soundcheck workout at the end of disc 2 where his 12-string level-divining jam turns into the rarely performed “The Trains Don’t Go There Anymore,” which stops all too soon as Cockburn tries to track down some sonic gremlins. As if any proof was needed, Slice O Life is yet another incredible example of everything that Bruce Cockburn does exceedingly well, which is everything.

A good many budding singer/songwriters have been nipped by the media tagging them as the next Bob Dylan, but Steve Forbert was able to rise above it, primarily by proving that it was patently untrue. And Forbert’s been providing fairly consistent proof ever since his impressive 1978 debut, Alive on Arrival, a breath of fresh Folk air in the midst of Punk’s lashing evolution. Forbert has always documented the time he’s been in at any given moment with no particular regard for prevailing trends; when “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit in 1980, it came at the dawn of Forbert’s career and ironically at the trailing end of the heyday of ’70s singer/songwriters.

But Forbert has never really deviated from the path he’s charted for himself and the only shift in Forbert’s focus has been his songwriting perspective as he moves into middle age; the exuberant busker of the late ’70s gave way to the bruised road-dog of the ’80s/’90s, which has led to the reflective elder statesman of the new millennium. As time marched on around him, Forbert toured, released archival live discs, and eventually held on until Americana took hold and his brand of personal story/songs was once again in vogue.

It might seem a cliché to peg Forbert’s latest, The Place and the Time, as his best but there’s little doubt that his craft is honed to a fine point on the 12-track set. The quiet reverie of “Sing It Again, My Friend” leads into the humorous urban shanty of “Stolen Identity,” the slinky Blues croon of “Write Me a Raincheck” and the Folk/Pop lilt of “Who’ll Watch the Sunset,” as Forbert comes to grips with the changing face of love and life for a wearily hopeful troubadour in his 50s. The Place and the Time is exactly what fans have come to expect from Steve Forbert over the years; incredibly tuneful, wistfully insightful, beautifully melancholy and altogether satisfying.

Eleven years ago, Gomez unexpectedly took home Britain’s Mercury Prize for their brilliant ’70s psych blues rock-meets-indie Pop debut, Bring It On, an honor that could have overshadowed everything the band subsequently attempted. Rather than succumbing to intimidation or their own perceived reputation, Gomez chose to evolve with each successive release, reinventing their psych Blues recipe with experimental flourishes of Electronica, Folk and Pop. Gomez’s last studio album, 2006’s How We Operate, was the culmination of the band’s history, a cool hybridization of all the styles the quintet has folded into their presentation from the start.

On A New Tide, Gomez’s first new studio album in three years, the band blazes similar trails as its predecessor. “Mix” begins the album by veering between an acoustic Folk/Blues lilt and noisy indie Pop territory until its quiet conclusion. “Win Park Slope” mixes Delta Blues slide with sonorous cello and ambient/electronic atmospherics, “Bone Tired” and “Airstream Driver” tread similar ground from Brit Folk and Indie Rock directions, respectively, and “Natural Reaction” may just be Gomez‘s attempt to channel a little Tom Waits.

Gomez is definitely assisted in these endeavors by producer Brian Deck, who brings a similar evocative sense to Gomez as he provided to the likes of Modest Mouse and Iron and Wine. For all those who were drawn in by How We Operate’s expansive palette (and given the title track’s exposure on Grey’s Anatomy, the number is considerable), A New Tide will satisfy on all those same levels in distinctly new ways.

Of the dozens of permutations that Deep Purple has sported over the past 40 years, the version with Ian Gillan at the front of the stage remains the best known and quite possibly the most successful. Gillan presided over the band during the four albums that brought them their greatest triumph and notoriety in the late ’60s/early ’70s, particularly in America — In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Who Do We Think We Are — and proved the point by returning for the band’s largely well received reunion albums, 1984’s Perfect Strangers and 1994’s The Battle Rages On, both aptly titled. Oddly enough, neither the band without Gillan nor Gillan without the band have ever achieved the incredible heights of Deep Purple with Ian Gillan belting out the hits (“Child in Time,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” “Woman From Tokyo”).

Still in all, Gillan’s solo career has more often eclipsed the efforts of whatever is being touted as Deep Purple at the time than the other way around, and so it is likely to be again with Gillan’s latest, One Eye to Morocco. Now 63 years old, Gillan still possesses one of the greatest and most distinctive voices in Rock and he has consistently proven himself to be an equally adept songwriter, tapping into the creative well that marked his contributions to Deep Purple’s best known and loved work. The gentle Middle Eastern flourishes on the opening title track give the song an almost Beatlesque flavor which segues into the flat out DP boogie Rock of “No Lotion for That,” while the Jazz-tinged “Don’t Stop,” and the sinewy Blues of “Better Days” are examples of Ian Gillan’s amazing resiliency within and beyond the Classic Rock context.

John Scofield has applied his innovative Jazz guitar methodology to every conceivable subset of the genre — Funk, Blues, Bebop, Chamber Jazz, Electronica, and many others — over his storied career as a Jazz sessioner and solo artist. For his astonishing 36th album under his own name, Piety Street, Scofield has assembled a crack band of singers and players to create a Gospel/Blues/Jazz hybrid that is inspirational from both a musical and spiritual context. Scofield pares his improvisational leanings down to the bare minimum while his band (vocalist John Boutte, bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Jon Cleary, drummer Ricky Fataar and percussionist Shannon Powell) pulse and pound with the fervor of an electric tent revival. Starting with the roof-raising swing of “That’s Enough,” where Scofield peels off Blues runs with B.B. King-like ease, the guitarist and his band inhabit these classic and contemporary spirituals (“Motherless Child,” “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the Rev. James Cleveland’s powerful “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”) with a devotion that speaks to their long musical paths and their sincere desire to translate the songs within and beyond their original contexts. Amen and pass the Piety Street.

Give them a 30-year head start and they just won’t stop. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock formed The Flatlanders in 1972, played a few shows and recorded an album that passed into legendary obscurity. After dissolving, the trio became huge singer/songwriters on their own but never forgot their days as a band that would ultimately come to be considered a signpost for alternative Country. In 1998, the three regrouped to contribute a track to The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, subsequently playing an acclaimed show in Central Park, a mesmerizing performance on David Letterman and offering a cover of “Blue Wind Blew” to a Townes Van Zandt tribute.

Finally, in 2002, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock returned to the studio to once capture their unique lightning in the bottle known as the Flatlanders, 30 years after their first collaboration. Since then, the trio has continued to make time for the Flatlanders. 2002’s Now Again was followed by 2004’s Wheels of Fortune (a live recording of the band from 1972 surfaced and came out the same year). They’ve been busy since then, so it’s taken awhile for them to regroup for their fourth studio album, Hills and Valleys.

The amazing thing about the Flatlanders is the way the three principals bring their distinctive creative identities to the band and merge them into a singular presentation without losing their individuality. The songs that each songwriter brings to the Flatlanders are indicative of what they do on their own and then the other two help shape into a Flatlanders song. Hills and Valleys is filled to the brim with the band’s individual and collective greatness.

The album opens with “Homeland Refugee,” a song worthy of the Woody Guthrie songbook that could have been written 70 years ago but tells the tale of the new dispossessed. The song sets a high bar for the rest of the album and somehow the Flatlanders clear it again and again, such as on the Tex Mex lilt of “No Way I’ll Never Need You” featuring Gilmore’s plaintive twang, the propulsively rootsy churn of “Just About Time” with all three taking turns at the mic, and the anthemic swing of “Cry For Freedom.” With Hills and Valleys, the Flatlanders hit a masterful groove, effortlessly bridging the gap between Folk balladeering, Country swinging, Roots Rock ringing and Tex Mex joy and finding their bliss at the crossroads of all of them.

Jai Uttal hit the World music jackpot with Footprints, his very first album nearly 20 years ago, collaborating with Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Indian vocalist Lakshmi Shankar to create a sonic masterpiece from acoustic performances and sampled sounds from the Middle East, Africa and India. Nearly two decades before that, the native New Yorker had relocated to California to study voice and sarod (a 25-stringed instrument) with the world renowned Ali Akbar Khan and became proficient in a style of yoga known as kirtan. In the decade after Footprints, Uttal toured the country leading workshops in kirtan yoga and meditation while continuing to release a string of albums in every conceivable genre, from Hip Hop to Jazz to Psychedelica to Folk and beyond.

Uttal’s dark secret was that he was addicted to both drugs and alcohol and spiraling down fast. Eight years ago, he met the woman who would become his wife and mother of his first child, events that turned his life around. The dramatic shift resulted in his 2002 album Mondo Rama, which garnered Uttal his first New Age Grammy nomination. Uttal’s latest album, Thunder Love, finds Uttal utilizing English lyrics almost exclusively (save for occasional choruses and underlying chants in Sanskrit) for the first time, and arranging his Middle Eastern-tinged songs in a more conventional Western Pop structure. In doing so, Uttal has crafted an album that could well be his breakthrough beyond the meditative background music that has comprised the bulk of his catalog of late. Thunder Love is a joyous album created by a man who finally understands the true fabric of happiness.

Few bands can inspire the kind of division of opinion that The Vines have accomplished in their brief tenure. Touted then tossed by Capitol after their almost universally beloved debut, Highly Evolved, the Aussie alt.rockers have subsequently gone their own way, with little or no regard for the sometimes savage reviews that have met their next releases (Vision Valley and Winning Days), even among their fiercely loyal but highly critical fan base.

With Melodia, the Vines’ fourth album, the band polishes up the proceedings even more than previous efforts and makes a case for itself as Down Under’s answer to Oasis. There’s still plenty of fist-pumping Rock freneticism but without the sinewy rawness that characterized the band’s early Garage-edged work. Perhaps it’s a result of frontman Craig Nicholls’ diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (a high functioning type of autism) or perhaps it’s merely a component of the band’s natural evolution, but Melodia is equally comfortable blowing the nails out of the shingles (“Scream,” “Get Out”) or drifting along on a Beatlesque bed of melodies and harmonies (“A Girl I Know,” “Orange Amber”) and sometimes combining the two concepts (the whisper to a guitar scream of “She is Gone”). However Melodia is ultimately perceived by fans or the media, the Vines already have a proven track record of not giving a damn one way or the other and pushing ahead in their own fashion. Good for them.

A good many of the early British Prog and Rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s were as enamored with the gentle sounds of their native Folk translators as with the idea of electrifying that sound through guitars, a church organ and a wall of Marshalls. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy might understand that relationship as well as anyone in the past four decades. For the latest Decemberists album, The Hazards of Love, Meloy has created a song cycle that details the story of a fair young maiden and the metamorph that takes advantage of her, set to a soundtrack worthy of the best Prog/Folk purveyors of the ’70s and shot through with contemporary melodicism and verve. With a blueprint that is equal parts Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Fairport Convention, Arcade Fire and New Pornographers, Meloy tells his tale without taking a breath between songs and couches the lyrics in the archaic language of Victorian English, adding to the authenticity of its traditional Folk roots and generally pissing off those who perceive The Hazards of Love’s style and execution to be pedantic and derivative. Pay no heed the naysayers and lose thyself in Colin Meloy’s Prog/Pop fairy tale. Enjoy it verily, to even a goose-fleshed degree.

Reviewing the new Gomez this week reminded me of why I was so taken with Bring It On when it came out in 1998, which led me to search out the stacks for my last remaining Patto record and commit it to disc. British keyboardist/vocalist Mike Patto launched his surname-christened band in the early ’70s, utilizing guitar phenom Ollie Halsall, drummer John Halsey and bassist Clive Griffiths (who had actually all been a part of Patto’s previous group, Timebox; for complete details, visit to create a fusion of Blues, Jazz and Rock that was unparalleled at the time.

I discovered the band retroactively through Patto’s involvement with Spooky Tooth in 1974 as lead vocalist on their Witness album, and his subsequent band, Boxer, who put out two pretty good albums, Below the Belt and Absolutely in ’75 and ’77, respectively (a third, Bloodletting, was recorded after Absolutely, then released and withdrawn in 1979). In 1977, Patto was diagnosed with testicular cancer and sadly passed away two years later at the all too young age of 36; Halsall would join his friend in the choir invisible in 1992 after a heroin overdose.

My friend Barry and I had long been Spooky Tooth fans, so we both jumped on the Patto bandwagon with Witness and then followed him to Boxer. After doing some Rock mag research, we found out about Patto and I began scouring the import stores for copies without luck. When used record stores started cropping up in the late’70s, that’s when the Patto records began turning up. In recent years, some overseas labels have reissued the early Patto albums on CD, and I’ve replaced my scratchy vinyl copies with discs, and even picked up the unreleased Monkey’s Bum and the live Warts and All discs. But the one Patto vinyl piece that remains in my collection is the one I’ve yet to obtain on disc: Roll ’Em Smoke ’Em Put Another Line Out.

Roll ’Em was Patto’s third and final album before morphing into Boxer, and it is an odd little record. “Mummy” is more lewd comedy sketch than song (the Australian CD omits it entirely; when you offend Aussies, you’ve accomplished something special), and “Cap’n P and the Atto’s” is a similarly rambling bit of whimsy. Halsey and Halsall eventually went on to contribute to Eric Idle’s Beatles spoof, The Rutles, and their twisted sense of humor is clearly in evidence here, but when Patto really turns their attention to the music, they churn with convincing power and passion. Roll ’Em’s opening track, “Singing the Blues on Reds,” is a smoldering Funk workout and an obvious tribute to their love of James Brown and the raw R&B sound of the ’60s, while “Flat Footed Woman” and “Peter Abraham” exhibit the band’s Jazz influences at the crossroads of their Blues and Rock directions. And “Loud Green Song” is simply a jaw-dropping example of Hard Rock envisioned in a completely new way, chugging along on Halsall’s pummeling riffs and scorching leads, sounding like AC/DC on a Jazz bender.

Patto might actually experience something of a resurgence in the coming weeks as a pair of songs from their eponymous debut will be featured in the new Seth Rogen movie, Observe and Report. Very cool. It may also trigger an interest in the Timebox recordings, which have become increasingly available, and the pair of unearthed Halsall solo recordings (Caves and Abbots Langley), as well as the deserving Boxer albums.

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