Life Is Brief: The Music Of Bob Dylan (Green Mind Records), by Indianapolis-based guitarist Charlie Ballantine, proves that The Bard’s melodies are good enough to stand without lyrics. With an octet of acoustic and electric guitar, acoustic bass, drums, alto and tenor sax, organ, Wurlitzer and vocals on (thankfully) only two of 12, Ballantine wrings every drop of melodic and harmonic invention from “She Belongs To Me,” “Masters Of War,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” “Shelter From The Storm,” “Tears Of Rage,” One More Cup Of Coffee,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Time They Are A’Changin’,” “The Death Of Emmett Till” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”
Put me in jail now for what I’m thinking about Ally Venable. With the kind of blues chops she dishes out on lead guitar, and the kind of sexy-voiced come-ons like “Comfort In My Sorrows,” “Waste It On You” and the torrential downpour of “Sleeping Through The Storm,” The Alley Venable Band just might get too big for Texas. It’s a Puppet Show (Connor Ray Music) and it’s filled with incendiary performances from guest guitarists Gary Hoey/Lance Lopez, keyboardist Eric Steckel and harmonica master Steve Krase over and above her power trio. She co-produced it all and wrote eight of 10, the two covers being Bessie Smith’s 1927 “Backwater Blues” and Taj Mahal’s 1968 “She Caught The Katy.” Experiencing her live is now on this 67-year-old’s Bucket List.
Webb Wilder & The Beatnecks has accumulated some Powerful Stuff over the years, enough that Landslide Records has plummeted the depths of dozens of tracks since 1985 that have yet to see the light of day. They’ve been stored in a Nashville warehouse for the last 33 years. And what a windfall! Wilder, 64, is a true renaissance man — singer/songwriter/guitarist/actor/comedian — for the ages. He’s used grunge chords, fuzz tones and pop melodies in a strong swamp-rock Americana cocktail of what is, basically, garage rock from a master.
The title cut became a huge hit for The Fabulous Thunderbirds after it was used in the 1988 Tom Cruise movie, Cocktail. “Make That Move” is a stirring cover of an obscure 1977 Brit-Rock nugget from Levi & The Rockats. Webb does Stax so cool (with horns!) on the punchy “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” from 1966 (Sam & Dave). He rocks up Lightnin’ Hopkins once-rural blues “I’m Wild About You Baby,” takes Steve Forbert’s folkie anthem “Catbird Seat” and Little Richard’s once-untouchable “Lucille” and makes it all work. As Webb Wilder is fond of saying, “work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard, grow big, wear glasses if you need ‘em.”
Reverend Freakchild’s Dial It In (Treated and Released Records) has a little help from his friends. Dylan drummer Chris Parker pushes all 11 tracks forward. Producer Hugh Pool blows some blues harp on a way-out version of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” Bob Weir/Ratdog guitarist Mark Karan plays lead on “Hippie Bluesman Blues.” Hazel Miller adds hip-hop to the title track. Al Green pianist Brian Mitchell tickles the ivories on “15 Going On 50” while Gregg Allman sax man Jay Collins blows big on Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” The Reverend’s tribute to Blind Willie Johnson [1897-1945] on “Soul Of A Man” is the highlight. Dial It In is the seventh album from Hawaii’s Freakchild, also known as Floyd Graves, now based in Brooklyn, who plays his brand of psychedelic blues as if every note is his last.
I Love Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes, by Geoff and Maria Muldaur, from 1972, has been released on CD for the first time by Omnivore Records. The follow-up to 1968’s Pottery Pie (also now out on CD for the first time) has a good-timey hippie vibe just like what this husband-wife team did in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band from ‘63 to ‘67. Maria — who has gone on to have a sterling career as a solo — sounds particularly fetching. She was 29 here on Chuck Berry’s 1956 “Havana Moon,” the 1934 Mills brothers hit “Lazy Bones” and, especially, the 1945 Billie Holiday hit “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be).” A pioneering figure of America’s folk boom across college campuses in the early ‘60s, she now, at 74, still makes great blues.
One of the more impressive jazz debuts of the year comes from Canadian drummer/composer/band leader Solon McDade, 44. Murals has a sax front line of alto and tenor who play off of each other magnificently while the bass/piano/drums rhythm section churns and burns. The nine originals hit a post-bop height while not forgetting to swing mightily. Wholeheartedly recommended.
You might have to go to Chicago to hear Hinda Hoffman sing but the pilgrimage would be worth it as this is one of those rare voices that sticks in your mind like a tattoo on the brain. She floats through Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’ At The Lake” and Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” with equal aplomb, despite the songs being diametrically opposed genre-wise (jazz and country). Charlie Rich first asked that musical question “Who Will The Next Fool Be?” in the ‘50s and, other than Tom Jones, this version stands out more than most. With material as far-ranging as samba (Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “If You Never Come To Me”), Broadway (“People Will Say We’re In Love” from Oklahoma and “Hello Young Lovers” from The King And I), jazz (Benny Carter’s 1984 “Only Trust Your Heart” and Billy Strayhorn’s 1939 “Something To Live For”), blues (the 1932 Ethel Merman hit, “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues”) and pop (the 1963 Tony Bennett hit “The Good Life”), Hoffman not only hits all the right notes, but does so in front of a swinging quartet of sax/piano/bass/drums. I could listen to her sing all day.
Want some classic roots reggae straight outa Jamaica? Gladiators, led by singer/songwriter Albert Griffiths, who formed the band in ’66 and kept it going with different personnel ever since, is a good place to start. Serious Thing, from ’84, and Symbol Of Reality, from ’82, have now been re-released by Omnivore sounding better than ever. Wholeheartedly Recommended.