The MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, PA is throbbing for Los Straitjackets, an area favorite who have become, after 14 albums in 22 years, America’s finest instrumental surf-punk band (think The Ventures on steroids). They wear Mexican lucha libre wrestling masks and do the rock’n’roll complete with choreography. The experience of seeing the three guitarists wielding their axes like tommy guns with those masks and that volume is, indeed, liberating.
Their current CD, What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Los Straitjackets, is comprised of all Nick Lowe songs. Lowe loves ‘em and has toured with them. In fact, they have a live CD together (Quality Holiday Revue).
After a sterling set of rave-ups, singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw ambled onstage and immediately Los Straitjackets subdued their attack and became his back-up band. Crenshaw, who started his career as John Lennon in Broadway’s Beatlemania, and played Buddy Holly in the 1987 film, La Bamba, has always been a musician’s musician. Under the mass radar, yet with the kind of minor-key pop that has engendered a cult following for decades, his compositions are filled with intricate chord changes and the kind of melodies that Elvis Costello would love to call his own. In fact, had Buddy Holly lived, instead of dying in a plane crash at the age of 22, he’d probably be what Crenshaw is today at 63. Songs like “Someday, Someway,” “Cynical Girl,” “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” and so many others are Beatlesque yet more acerbic. His voice has remained youthful and his lead guitar playing is dynamite.
After a short set where he covered the Beatles (George’s “Old Brown Shoe”) and Buddy Holly (“Crying, Waiting, Hoping”), his originals—covered by Bette Midler, Ronnie Spector, Robert Gordon, Gin Blossoms, America, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs—were stunningly on display before he relinquished the stage again to Los Straitjackets who dive-bombed into some of their heavier material. The crowd properly gushed and the action never let up.
Move over Emmylou! The Ragged Dreams (Little Blackbird Records) of Emisunshine are cruel and shocking in an age-old country tradition kind of way. Back in the day, Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner (the man who discovered Dolly Parton as a teen) used to sing a lot about murder, jail and crime. So here comes this newcomer who co-writes all 15 songs (one of which, “Porter Wagoner Blue,” is a tribute to her main lyrical influence), plays the ukulele, harmonizes with herself and sings in a totally irresistible Appalachian back-porch pronounced twang.
Backed by her dad, brother and uncle as well as some of Nashville’s finest on cello, fiddle, guitar, dobro, banjo and mandolin, her songs reek of disaster, disease and death. The protagonist of “Ninety Miles” has autism. From “Tennessee Killing Song” and “As The Waters Rise” to “Resting Place” (she had to be evacuated from the Gatlinburg Tennessee fires last year) and “Sinner’s Serenade (“When he dropped that gavel/My life unraveled/I’m still trying to pick the pieces up…”), each song is a mini-psycho drama. The teller of one tale (“Strong Armed Robbery”) is dead and sings it as a ghost. “Johnny, June and Jesus” is for her other three main influences.
Oh, did I mention she’s 13 years old?
So after six CDs from his Sedona Arizona base, the artist known as Decker went Into The Red (Royal Potato Family). He’s now taken his best to reconfigure, reimagine and re-record them in a psychedelic-folk haze of post-sixties hippiedom. The man is—like Jack Black or ‘70s-era Neil Young—a renaissance man. He’s a mysterious singer who has a different voice on each track. His compositions are weird. Even weirder when you read the enclosed libretto. When he covers Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” he mashes it up with “5 To 1” by The Doors. “Patsy” might be about a bum but a bum with soul. “Shadow Days” digs down deep into addiction. “Matchstick Man” is an all-out protest song like early-‘60s Dylan. He’s all over the map musically from hip-hop drum loops to jammy string-band acoustics. Looking for something truly different? Decker is your man.
Something magic happens when Francesco Buzzuro and Richard Smith play guitar with no rhythm section. On Heart of the Emigrants and One World Two Guitars, the pair runs through a wide palette of genres. On Heart…, the 1954 Rosemary Clooney hit, “Mambo Italiano,” gets things off to a sprightly start. Even that old warhorse “Amazing Grace” sounds deft and nimble—always moving. From funk and tango to Beatles (“Day Tripper”), these two entertain mightily. Yet it’s the latter CD that packs the most powerful wallop. Their originals sparkle yet their interpretations of Chick Corea (“Spain”), Stevie Wonder (“Isn’t She Lovely”), Pat Metheny (“Phase Dance”), Herbie Hancock (“Cantaloupe Island”), Joe Zawinul (“Mercy Mercy Mercy”) and Pete Townshend (“Pinball Wizard”) provide kinetic chemistry. Wholeheartedly recommended.
You can bet I’ll be in New York City when the Vijay Iyer Sextet rules the roost from Jan. 9-13 at Birdland in Manhattan next year. Far From Over is keyboardist Iyer’s fifth for ECM within the last 36 months, and it is, in a word, brilliant. With shards of incessant folk strains from West Africa and India, coupled with funk and post-bop adventurism, the sextet also isn’t afraid to swing mightily. This is fusion with no rock, yet with a rock ‘em sock ‘em roll. So many highlights, so little space: The horns sit “For Amiri Baraka,” a tribute to the late Newark poet. Graham Haynes on cornet, flugelhorn and electronics is the son of legendary drummer Roy Haynes. He adds the spice. The sax tandem of Steve Lehman (alto) and Mark Shim (tenor), when playing in tandem, has to be heard to be believed. “Poles” could be a late-‘60s Miles Davis track. Far From Over is a definite 2017 Top 10 entry.