Texas Blues

After eight years of filling the coveted lead guitar chair for John Mayall & His Bluebreakers and Black Oak Arkansas, Rocky Athas went solo in 2014. His past is profoundly on display in the two volumes of The Essential Rocky Athas, as produced by studio legend Jim Gaines (Stevie Ray Vaughan/Santana/Van Morrison). Now comes Shakin’ the Dust (CBR) where the singer/songwriter self-produces and tears apart Hendrix, Little Willie John, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Calvin Carter while volunteering seven blistering original tracks of Texas Blues.


Classic Reggae

The Return of Jack Sparrow (Nighthawk/Omnivore) by Ethiopian & His All-Stars is a reggae delight. E, in this case, is Leonard Dillon, an early pioneer of the ska and rock-steady Jamaican trends back in the day when he used to go under the Jack Sparrow moniker. (Bob Marley’s band, The Wailers, used to back him up.) His “Train To Skaville” was an early reggae hit in the ‘60s, covered even more famously by The Selector during Great Britain’s early ‘80s ska revival. It wound up reviving his career and he recorded two more stellar albums, one of which (this one) was never released, until now. It’s a free-flowing affair, filled with his lazy vocals, echo bass, and dub-centric vibe. Since Omnivore Records recently acquired the entire Nighthawk catalog, we’ll be seeing more great reggae in the near future. Leonard Dillon died of cancer at the age of 68 in 2011.


‘80s Dylan

Trouble No More:  The Bootleg Series Volume #13 1979-1981 (Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings), by Bob Dylan, is a nine-disc boxed set which includes 100 previously unreleased live and studio recordings (14 never-before-heard songs), a hardcover book (Pressing On: Photographs And More) and a DVD, Trouble No More:  A Musical Film.

Dylan’s three-album trilogy of Slow Train Coming (’79), Saved (’80) and Shot Of Love (’81) would ultimately prove to be as controversial as when Dylan first went electric (thus turning off the folk purists), for it is here where this nice Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minn. born Robert Allen Zimmerman (on May 24, 1941) found Jesus. It would prove to be but one phase of a fascinating career. Much later in life, he would find Sinatra.

Tours of this era had him ignoring the songs that made him famous. Just as people booed the hell out of him in 1966 expecting his folk music and getting rock ’n’ roll instead, here fans walked out at the devotional excess. Those who stayed, though, were treated to tent show revivalism at its finest. (He did finally start adding some fan favorites from yesteryear in ’80 and ‘81.)

His bands were always top-notch. His music, although straying gospel, stayed rock, with those ever-present female backing vocals. No artist in recent memory — with the possible exception of Leonard Cohen — used female vocals as a billowy cushion to frame the idiosyncratic croaks he calls a voice. (Compared to today, vocally, he’s positively Roy Orbison here!)

This box is a seemingly never-ending cauldron of earthly delights. I swear I’ve lived with it for months now and still have yet to plummet its depths.


Reconsidering America

When Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek [1950-2011] formed as America in London, these sons of U.S. soldiers stationed in England were thought of as a poor man’s Crosby Stills & Nash. They had the harmonies, they had the lightweight soft-rock thing down. Their string of successful singles lasted from 1970 to 1973 and included “Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “Tin Man” and “Sister Golden Hair.” Critics hated them. Radio loved them. I thought they were whack at the time. I remember constantly having to turn the radio dial when they came on in the car. With the release, though, of Heritage:  Home Recordings/Demos 1970-1973 (Omnivore Recordings), it’s time to reconsider the music of these died-in-the-wool hippies.

They actually had been together since high school in California. In 1967, swept away by The British Invasion of bands that blew up the music industry (and put an end to the careers of dozens of American pop stars), they grew their hair long and started writing songs. The 16 tracks herein are an intimate glimpse of artistry in action. Their voices blend together beautifully…even a capella. No auto-tune. No studio trickery. Their melodies are strong, the lyrics once considered vapid have seemingly grown wise with age and the years have added a gravitas to their original premise. I won’t make fun of America anymore, not least not the band.