One of these fine days, I’ll use my turntable for more than a high tech coffeetable, but it might not be anytime soon. I’m scrambling to get my normal volume of work done and in the meantime, my household duties have doubled with my wife’s broken shoulder, the MidPoint Music Festival previews are looming on the horizon and then there’s all the hoohah that accompanies my daughter going back to school in a week. Throw in our wedding anniversary and two funerals, and you’ve got my most breakneck post-vacation calendar to date.
Amazingly, I ventured out Monday night to see my nephew Brian Frey play at the Northside Tavern, although mitigating circumstances (waiting for my daughter to return from a late movie) prevented me from seeing the whole show (The High and Low had to cancel and I missed Ancient Sky, whom Brian assures me is incredible), so I hesitate to give the gig a proper and much deserved review. You might recall Brian from his long-ago stints with Short Millie and Pontius Pilate and the Nail Drivers here in the Cincinnati area. He’s currently living in Brooklyn and leading a great AltCountry/Folk outfit called Golden Bones, but that’s not what brought him back home for the Monday night gig at the Northside.
In addition to fronting Golden Bones, Brian is holding down the bass slot for his friend Dylan Ewing in his fascinating new project, Medicine Man, which is out on a short Midwest tour. Medicine Man is a cool amalgam of Jazz and Space Rock, floating in the Bermuda Triangle of The Doors, Jeff Buckley and Spiritualized. Occasional references to psychedelic Americana bubble to the surface, but Medicine Man gets its kicks in a decidedly Alt Jazz vein, as evidenced by their show-closing cover of an Alice Coltrane cut.
Medicine Man smolders and chills simultaneously; Ewing’s guitar work is spidery and haunting, reminiscent of the likes of Marc Ribot and Gary Lucas, keyboardist Trevor Oswalt is a marvel, shifting from mad runs to moody atmospherics on a dime, drummer Even Lytton defines the term “polyrhythmic” and Brian provides a perfect foil for him in the rhythm section, bringing a guitarist’s mindset to his bass position. Don’t miss Medicine Man the next time they blow through town.
Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? The boy’s got nothing on Delbert McClinton. The Texas native got his chops in a Blues house band that played behind Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed, then played harmonica in the early ’60s for Bruce Channel and gave harp lessons to John Lennon backstage during Channel’s UK tour. John Belushi was a fan of his ealy ’70s AltCountry output and insisted on covering McClinton’s “B Movie Boxcar Blues” on the 1978 debut Blues Brothers album. Emmylou Harris had a hit with his “Two More Bottles of Wine” the same year. Thirteen years later, McClinton scored a Grammy for his brilliant duet with Bonnie Raitt on “Good Man Good Woman” from her Luck of the Draw album.
Guests on his albums have included B.B. King, Vince Gill and Iris DeMent, and the chorus on his 2002 track “Lone Star Blues” is a who’s who of AltCountry and Blues (Steve Earle, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Guy Clark among them). McClinton has more connections than Hartsfield Airport.
For Acquired Taste, his first album in four years, McClinton doesn’t stray far from what he’s done in the past. Amazingly, it’s his entire past that he draws upon. The album jumps to life with the rollicking roadhouse stomp of “Mama’s Little Baby,” eases into the smoky Jazz Blues of “Starting a Rumor,” honky tonks along with “Can’t Nobody Say I Tried,” lays out the heartbreak Country on “Never Saw It Comin’” and fills the dance floor with the straight Blues of “Do It” and “I Need to Know.” John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Strait and B.B. King, take note; your hits are ready. Through all the stylistic shifts, the songs bristle with McClinton’s passionate energy, the consistent thread that ties it all together. With Acquired Taste, McClinton moves the needle on his career from acclaimed artist to bona fide national treasure.
Like Tom Waits, T-Bone Burnett and Randy Newman, Joe Henry has transformed himself from rootsy, folksy troubadour into musical texturalist, a sonic sculptor who molds songs from raw chunks of Jazz, Blues, Folk and the spirit of the Great American Songbook, utilizing an innovative ear toward blending them all with an intuitive contemporary ear. Through the course of his 10 album catalog, Henry has remained a compelling if circuitous storyteller in song, a testament to his consistency over the past two decades.
On his latest, Blood From Stars, Henry crafts a noirish set of songs that rattle and sigh with expansive yet hopeful melancholy. Like many of his experimental peers, Henry employs the considerable talents of Marc Ribot, who lends beautifully spidery guitar lines as well as haunting cornet to Henry’s already evocative songs. Henry channels his inner and outer Tom Waits on his boho Folk/Blues throbbers (“Death to the Stars”) while updating the propulsive Folk Rock he did so well on his early albums, a blend of Nick Drake’s desolate beauty and T-Bone Burnett’s emotive power (“Stars.” “Channel”). Henry gives Delta Blues and Gospel a modern makeover (“All Blues Hail Mary” and “Bellwether,” respectively) and even when Henry is swinging along at his Tin Pan Alley-est (“The Man I Keep Hid”), the atmosphere bristles with electric anticipation courtesy of Keefus Ciancia’s urban soundtrack samples.
As with albums past, Henry ties everything together with his laconic rasp and a skewed perspective that is both wonderfully weary and as layered as a mutant onion. When the roll of the best of 2009 is called in just a few months, Blood From Stars is bound to be among their number.
For well over a decade, Hot Club of Cowtown has been converting casual listeners into slack-jawed fans by virtue of their astonishing ability to absorb a broad variety of old-school musical styles and invest them with contemporary verve and fresh passion. To that end, HCC benefits from an embarrassment of riches: Whit Smith’s fleet-fingered guitaring approximates the swinging fluidity of Les Paul and the gypsy Jazz textures of Stephane Grappelli, violinist Elana James nimbly combines her Classical training with an unerring Country/Swing/Jazz intuition and Jake Erwin provides the reliably perfect pulse on upright bass.
On HCC’s first new album in nearly five years, Wishful Thinking, the trio expands its palette with the addition of drummer Damien Llanes, making this the first HCC album to feature a drum kit. What remains unchanged is HCC’s impeccable sense of style and timing and a masterful talent for translation and reinvention, as evidenced in their nuanced interpretations (the energized classicism of Bob Wills’ “Can’t Go On This Way,” the laconic Country lope of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia,” the Appalachian Gospel sigh of Tom Waits’ “The Long Way Home,” an achingly beautiful Jazzgrass take on the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me”) and inspired originals (the Celtic Folk waltz of “Carry Me Close,” the windswept Folk Jazz of “Reunion,” the smoky Country Lounge slink of “One Step Closer”).
The consistent and continuing wonder of Hot Club of Cowtown is the band’s inherent gift for breathing fire into classic musical forms and crafting originals that shimmer with the same intensity as the 70-year-old records that inspired them in the first place.
Jack White gets all the attention as Rock’s busiest multitasker, but Brendan Benson, White’s Raconteurs bandmate, is no slouch in that regard. He began with the Well Fed Boys and The Mood Elevator and has done a lot of production work (The Greenhornes, Whirlwind Heat, The Nice Device, The Waxwings), but it’s Benson’s solo work that has brought him the greatest acclaim. His solo debut, 1996’s One Mississippi, featured contributions from Jason Falkner, his sophomore album, 2002’s Lapalco, earned a certain amount of commercial acceptance in both sales and TV/film exposure, as did his third album, 2005’s The Alternative to Love.
With Benson’s fourth solo album, My Old, Familiar Friend, he’s assembled a set of songs that simultaneously exhibits all the qualities that have distinguished his early work and broadened his sonic palette to create a veritable bumper crop of Pop. There’s plaintive Jellyfish-like Pop (“Gonowhere”), propulsively energetic and quietly pulsing Rock reminiscent of Supergrass (“Eyes on the Horizon,” “Feel Like Taking You Home”), trademark Detroit Soul/Pop (“Garbage Day,” “You Make a Fool Out of Me”) and sharp bursts of melodic Pop/Rock that would make The Romantics and The Kinks smile wide and shake some ass (“A Whole Lot Better,” “Poised and Ready”).
Listening to Brendan Benson is like taking an extension course in Pop history from a really great teacher, and My Old, Familiar Friend is his best lesson plan yet.