The “Deluxe Edition” of Van Morrison’s mid-career 1997 masterpiece The Healing Game (Exile/Legacy Recordings) is a treasure trove of unbridled genius reaching out in all directions at once. Its three discs contain enough surprises that if you were stranded on a desert island, this is the box you want. Dig it: the original 10-track album is augmented here by 24 previously unreleased gems and collaborations with none other than John Lee Hooker, Carl Perkins, and Lonnie Donegan (the man who, in 1959, first inspired Lennon and McCartney to start a band). The incredible covers include material by Sly & The Family Stone, Pink Floyd, Anthony Newley, Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mose Allison, Louis Armstrong, and The Mississippi Sheiks. Plus, the extra added version of the title track done as a jazz jam is so enticing, one has to wonder why it wasn’t used originally. Morrison put together an all-star band for his appearance in 1997 at The Montreux Jazz Festival. Sax man Pee Wee Crayton left James Brown to do this gig. Pianist Georgie Fame is a British blues/jazz legend. Bassist Alec Dankworth is from Dave Brubeck. Their live set on Disc #3 burns.
Girls On Grass
Back in 1969, in the weeks following Woodstock, we were still reeling with the feeling. Down the shore, we’d wait for girls with grass, or girls with cars, and we’d trip off to the sleepy Hamlet in between Bradley and Asbury which we called Ocean Grave (it was actually the town of Ocean Grove), where we’d surreptitiously sneak under the boardwalk to make out and avoid the broken bottles with our bare feet.
These Jersey memories have been triggered by Dirty Power, the sophomore release of Brooklyn’s Girls On Grass. Barbara Endes writes and sings these melodic bursts of punchy roots-punk-surf-rockabilly complete with vocal harmonies, the bluesy guitar of David Weiss, and the skin tight rhythm section of bassist Dave Mandl (yeah, the guy on WFMU) and drummer Nancy Polstein. Endes wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks with her Wisconsin upbringing flavoring her alternative worldview. She writes some real zingers. In “Got To Laugh To Keep From Crying,” she sings, “left my man for a woman who looks like Aimee Mann.” “Into The Sun” is written from the perspective of a pig in captivity. “Commander-In-Thief” is about you-know-who. The two instrumentals get psychedelic. I keep looking for new rock bands to like with little or no success. I think I found one.
Since 1987, Bill Toms, as lead guitarist for Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers (Pittsburgh’s version of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band), recorded seven albums, co-wrote, and sang. In his own band, Bill Toms & Hard Rain (featuring The Soulville Horns), he released Good For My Soul in 2017 but knew Hard Rain was, in their guts, a live band. Thus, Live (Terraplane Records) has 13 mules kickin’ in their stalls. Recorded last May at Pittsburgh’s Club Café, front man Toms has stark gradations of color swirling around him: keyboards, a second guitar, backing vocals, sax, trumpet, trombone, and—of course—drum and bass. Yeah, they rock. Highly recommended.
Take A Blues Holiday
The legendary folklorist Alan Lomax—from the nineteen-forties through the nineteen-nineties—traveled around the country recording regional bluesmen in their natural habitat, some 17,000 field recordings now housed in the Library of Congress and available to be heard online at any time. Vocalist/harmonicat Tony Holiday has taken the same approach. He’s traversed the U.S. many times over to record with blues greats like Charlie Musselwhite, Rockin’ Johnny, John Nemeth, Kid Andersen, and many more right in their own backyards. The result is the 13-track Porch Sessions Featuring All Star Blues Artists From Across The USA (VizzTone Label Group). Holiday, from Memphis, who averages around 175 shows a year, took time out from his proper tours to seek out the locals, guys you may not have heard of, but whose voices and gutbucket way with a guitar ring true. Bravo!
It kicks off with Pee Wee Crayton, Shakey Jake, and Lee Shot Williams. Along the way, John Lee Hooker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Freddy King, Mac Rebennack (before he left New Orleans and became Dr. John in Hollywood), BB King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, June Bug Bailey, JB Hutto & His Hawks, Willie Love, the pre-Tina Ike Turner (whose “Cuban Get Away” is a highlight) and 15 more slabs of dynamite exquisitely jump out at you. The Big Push: Fast Fingering On Polished Frets (Koko Mojo Records) continues the archeology of rare fifties and sixties gems unearthed from the dustbin of time. Songs like “Okie Dokie Stomp,” “Too Much Alcohol,” “Do Unto Others,” “Roll Your Moneymaker,” “Pigtail,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “You Must Be Crazy,” “Space Guitar,” “Vanity Dresser Boogie,” and “Swim” are just too damn good to remain uncherished from now on. In other words, roll over Beyonce and tell Cardi B the news, stuff that pop shit down the crapper and start digging the blues!
Deep South Shaman
Incinerator (Big Legal Mess Records), by Mississippi multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer Jimbo Mathus, is an 11-song treatise in the art of Southern Gothic. The author of over 300 songs in 40 years, he started Squirrel Nut Zippers (whose seventh album, Beasts Of Burgundy, came out last year) in 1993. He produces Ironing Board Sam, does sessions with Buddy Guy, and is in a local Mississippi Delta blues band, Dirty Crooks. There are those who say Jimbo Mathus is imbued with powers beyond the scope of mere mortals.
Here, though, with Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton co-producing, the ambiance of those first two iconic albums by The Band is resurrected, but with a darker hue. Then ballad “Sunken Road” is more than it seems. Buoyed by electric sitar, it borrows the chord progression from Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.” Jimbo took inspiration for the title track from the time he worked as a deckhand on barges entering the Louisiana Bayou. Chords to the song formulated in his brain during a dream, so when he awoke, he scurried to write them down. Then there’s the sublime “Alligator Fish,” a psychedelic haunted house of a song that builds to a frenzied electric guitar game of tag between two blaring leads.