Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist/Producer Carter Sampson’s fifth album, Lucky (Horton Records), is a died-in-the-wool traditional country gem but with alt-pop sensibilities. Her penchant for totally disappearing inside a character like a great actress is most prevalent on her own “Rattlesnake Kate,” where she turns into the 19th Century Pioneer Nurse who, in 1854, blasted 140 rattlesnakes to Kingdom Come with her trusty shotgun to protect her son. Then there’s her sprightly rockabilly-styled title track that is as irresistible as it is delicious. This gal is something special. She runs a Rock ’n’ Roll Summer Camp For Girls in her native Oklahoma City. Her lyrics can bite and she has the kind of voice you just want to keep listening to all day. In fact, she sounds all-knowing (with a smirk) yet like a wide-eyed little girl (with a wink) that tells you she’s got a lot more on the ball than she lets on. In other words, this gal is captivating.
For his first CD since his 2013 collaboration with The Roots (Wise Up Ghost) and his first CD with The Imposters since 2008’s Momofuku, Look Now (Concord Records), by Elvis Costello & The Imposters, is an exquisitely crafted collection. The arrangements are sublime, his vocals some of his best in recent memory. Recorded in Hollywood, New York City and Vancouver, the 12 new EC songs (two written with Burt Bacharach which reminds one of their beautiful 1998 duet album Painted From Memory) and one with Carole King (album highlight “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”) are mature, sultry, surprising and garnished with the kind of production flairs (EC co-produced with top Latin Grammy winner Sebastian Krys) that translate into ear candy (from fuzz-tones and woodwinds to a big bad bassoon).
Supporting it with a tour, he started his road work in Bethlehem Pennsylvania at the Sands. Longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas were in rare form as Elvis pulled out all the stops in an epic two-hour, 25-song party that included nine from Look Now. The first night of any tour is always loose, experimental and oftentimes can result in human moments like when he had to start a song over. (“Hey, it’s Day #1,” he explained.)
So what songs do you pick from a 40-year career? Perhaps, at 64, having survived a cancer scare that cut short his last Euro tour, he was feeling melancholy. Thus, he did NOT play to the casual fan but absolutely thrilled us fanatics with deeper cuts while still making sure to bust out the favorites like an almost-acapella “Allison” done in-between two bronze beauties who added soul and sex appeal. His guitar-only “Indoor Fireworks” and piano-only “Accidents Will Happen” were two dramatic highlights. He can still play the sneering punk of “This Year’s Girl” and “Pump It Up” but it was the slinky reggae feel of “Watching The Detectives” and the all-out bombast of “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea” that brought down the house.
Plus, to hear him do Nick Lowe’s 1974 “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding,” Dusty Springfield’s 1967 “The Look Of Love,” his own ‘80s deep cut “Honey, Are You Straight Or Are You Blind” (and “Clubland”!!), not to mention “Everyday I Write The Book” which ballooned into 17 minutes, complete with band introductions amid an oddball version of Jean Knight’s 1971 “Mr. Big Stuff,” was a total joy. The fans here in the Lehigh Valley were hot for him and he could feel the love. It was a wonderful night.
Two nights after Elvis, The Doobie Brothers lit up the stage with the kind of rock ’n’ roll DNA that had the usually staid Sands crowd lustily singing along and standing up dancing. Patrick Simmons is a stringed wizard. His voice is strong and his leads profound. Tom Johnston is a force of nature and when he combines with Patrick’s acoustic finger-picking on his electric guitar, and sings free and wild — as does Simmons—on such beloved material as “Listen To The Music,” “China Grove,” “Black Water,” “Taking It To The Streets,” “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” and, of course, their 1975 cover of the 1965 Motown hit by Kim Weston, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While),” a palpable sense of pure rock ’n’ roll strength permeates the senses like a hallucinatory drug. This band is so much better without Michael McDonald. True, the blue-eyed soul singer is largely responsible for the 40 million+ albums they’ve sold and, thus, their continuing road popularity but, still, they rock harder without him and his easy-listening affectations. What made this night extra special was their newfound deeeeeeep cut propensity of material from 1972’s Toulouse Street and 1973’s The Captain And Me (two long-overlooked GREAT ‘70s albums). May they rock on forever.
There’s not enough room in this space for all the highlights on Beauty In The Back Seat by power pop singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ken Sharp. His fifth album is easily his best as Ace Frehley takes the rampaging electric guitar solo on the opening “Rock Show.” “The Day That David Bowie Died” may be my personal highlight but you gotta love “I Wanna Be David Cassidy” and “Philly Kind Of Night” with vocal harmony by John Oates. Kasim Sultan sings back-up on the deliciously catchy “Mona Lisa Smile” (not to be confused with the 1950 Nat King Cole song of the same name). Sharp, also a best-selling author, is a philosophical kind of cat (“No One Seems To Stay Together Anymore”) and cares about the ill will of the country’s direction (“Listen To Me”). There’s enough power on here to satisfy fans of Cheap Trick, the Raspberries, the Flamin’ Groovies and Badfinger.
In the annals of country music, there’s only a handful of such beloved artists that only a first name is needed: Willie, Waylon, Dolly, Merle, Loretta, Tammy, Conway, Hank and a singer who may have influenced more than any of them: Lefty. Lefty Frizzell, that is [1928-1975]. His vocal mannerisms were pure White Soul, his phrasing, timing and delivery practiced and copied by generations since. In the argument for greatest country singer of all-time, he now gets the Bear Family treatment. Lefty Frizzell, An Article From Life: The Complete Recordings is a big, beautiful box of 361 songs on 20 CDs with a 264-page hard-cover book. An update of their ‘92 box, this one has all the never-before-issued tracks and it comes as something of a revelation. Plus, the man had a sense of humor. He starts laughing midway through some of the songs. He wrote his first song at 19 while in jail on a trumped-up charge for having sex with a minor. Later, booze killed him at 47.