Rant ‘N’ Roll: Americana Extravaganza

Cobalt (Ellersoul/City Hall) by Holland K. Smith is free-wheeling, totally satisfying rockin’ blues with nods to soul, jazz and even Latin (complete with sax and extra percussion). Smith sings sweeter than he looks. With his exemplary guitar work produced by underground blues legend Anson Funderburgh, Cobalt is the kind of Americana that digs deep into his Texas roots.

Angels & Clowns (Shining Stone) by singer/songwriter/guitarist Nuno Mindelis was produced by Duke Robillard with Duke’s respected blues band throughout. This is Nuno’s stateside debut, sung in English (rather than his native Portuguese), recorded in Miami, and featuring two sizzling instrumentals among its 13 tracks. Born in Angola, he was able to escape that war-torn African country only after his family lost everything. Settling in Brazil at 17, he made a name for himself as an internationally known blues guitarist. He’s fronted Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble on two albums, and critics have compared his style to Jimmy Page.

What’s The Chance (Shining Stone), by Connecticut-based guitarist Paul Gabriel, was also produced by Duke Robillard and features the Roomful Of Blues horn section, and former Paul Butterfield Blues Band pianist Mark Naftalin.

Friend (Soul Stew) by Billy Thompson has this well-traveled guitar veteran playing some slide and singing his heart out on his own songs that traverse blues, funk, rock, soul and that ever-lovin’ New Orleans aesthetic. He wanted a live feel for a studio project so he got his band together and laid down basic tracks inside an old grist mill. These seasoned pros—Bill Payne (Little Feat), Ron Holloway (Tedeschi/Trucks Band), Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt/Neville Brothers), Kenny Gradney (Delaney & Bonnie) and Mike Finnigan (Joe Cocker)—pump out the gumbo and the blues on 13 satisfying tracks.

The various artists collected in the TimeLife/StarVista 120-song eight-CD boxed set The Folk Years are a random grab-bag of American soft rock, folk rock, classic rock, soul, pop, novelty, country, gospel and, yes, a wee bit of actual folk music.

The first double-disc, “Yesterday’s Gone,” sets the scene with the Trini Lopez version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” and The Kingston Trio’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Inexplicably, though, British Invasion duo Chad & Jeremy rear their ugly heads before the unlistenable “I’ll Never Find Another You” by the absolutely horrible Seekers. I remember when this song was constantly played on the radio in 1965 when I was 14 and I’d jump to turn the damn thing off. The Band, Byrds, Joan Baez and Turtles cover Dylan. Baez covers Phil Ochs. Glen Campbell covers John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” is still delicious as is “Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys. Burl Ives, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Irish Rovers and Smothers Brothers (all considered “folk” in the early ‘60s) add some validity but Don McLean’s “American Pie” is plum wore out. I had some fun the other day on Facebook listing “The Top 10 Songs I Hope I Never Hear Again” and that was on it.

The second double-disc, “Legends Of Folk,” has Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Donovan and Phil Ochs but also has the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, The Band, Bread, Fairport Convention, John Denver, Grateful Dead, Everly Brothers and Harry Chapin. Legends of folk? To its credit, it’s an entertaining collection.

It would have been really cool for the third double-disc, “Blowin’ In The Wind,” considering the eclectic nature of the previous two discs, to have included Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Pissin’ In The Wind.” But, alas, instead we actually get some (ostensibly) real folk artists like The Serendipity Singers, The Brothers Four, Jimmie Rodgers, Harry Belafonte, The New Christy Minstrels and Otis Redding. Otis? I mean, yeah, in Robert Gordon’s brilliant new book, Respect Yourself: Stax Records And The Soul Explosion, he writes how Otis was listening to a lot of Dylan prior to writing “Dock Of The Bay.” But still.

The final collection, “Simple Song Of Freedom,” is named after a protest song Bobby Darin wrote that rivals Dylan. Tim Hardin cut it and Darin cut his “If I Were A Carpenter.” Both are here. Jose Feliciano covers The Doors. The Sandpipers (with that damn “Kumbaya”) are awful. So is Scott McKenzie’s ridiculous “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair).” Roger Miller and The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem are cool but one-hit-wonders The Mojo Men are embarrassing with their laughable version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Sit Down I Think I Love You.” And no folk collection would be worth its credibility without that fab folkie Van Morrison. Get the picture?