Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘n’ Roll

Man, that Dale Watson sure has got it goin’ on! As one of the last of a dying breed of real true-life honky tonk heroes like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell (all gone), Watson continues to pump out great albums and perform even greater shows (like his recent tour with Kinky Friedman). On Call Me Lucky (Red House/Ameripolitan Records), the longtime Austin denizen makes, arguably, his greatest record. Filled with throwbacks like “Tupelo Mississippi and a ’57 Fairlane” (complete with a pumpin’ Memphis-styled horn section) and “Haul Off And Do It” (his best advice yet), his compositions—always filled with piss and vinegar—are more blunt and stark than even he’s used to. He likes to keep ‘em short, like his songwriting muse Tom T. Hall. Watson makes his point and then he’s out. The duets with his rockabilly-singing girlfriend, Celine Lee, are sublime. “Mama’s Smile” has an Elvis vibe. He gets to show off his electric lead guitar shredding on “Who Needs This Man.” Throughout, his lowball swoon of a voice is like Johnny Cash’s and he even chunka-chunks a few rhythms out of his guitar like those old Cash singles. I’ll never forget when I saw Watson at Farm Aid in 2012 in Hershey, PA, and he rocked like a son of a bitch in-between weepers and shuffles. As a certified American treasure, he can do whatever he wants.       

The Man With a Cool Hat

Look closely at the hat that Jersey boy Scott Robinson is wearing on the cover of his Tenormore beauty (Arbors Records). It was made from 177 mouthpiece reeds. Although he plays baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute, trumpet, tuba, and theremin, here he blows exclusively tenor, his first such all-tenor project in a lifetime of 60 years, 250 recordings with a cross-section of jazz stars, and concerts in 55 countries. It’s no typical tenor, either. Once left on a New Jersey Transit bus, he discovered this rare 1924 silver Conn sax in a Maryland antique shop in 1975 and has been playing it ever since.

His quartet of keys, drums, and bass surround his sax with a perfect kind of prettiness, especially the dynamic Helen Sung on piano and Hammond B-3 organ. The four of them take material that on face value wouldn’t excite a fly, but in their hands—voila! From Glenn Miller’s 1940 hit “The Nearness Of You” and Tony Bennett’s 1963 hit “The Good Life” to “Put On A Happy Face” from the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, Robinson and crew make these overly-roasted chestnuts taste good again. Most affecting of all, though, without the band, long after the session ended, in the middle of the night, Robinson awoke with the four-chord melody of “And I Love Her” by The Beatles rattling around in his head. Half asleep, he plays it spare and succinct, miraculously inhabiting the feel, mood, and most importantly, the profound feeling of love inherent in the song’s composition. It leads off the album with a slippery, elastic, throb that proves his utter artistry.   

Underground Gem

What a perfect pick to extend, remaster, and re-release! The self-titled Pearl Harbor & The Explosions debut added to the burgeoning nineteen-eighty post-punk New Wave scene. Its nine original tracks were different, alluring, and almost magical. In listening now to that long out-of-print debut excavated from the dustbin of time by Blixas Sounds (complete with indie singles, a non-LP B-side, a 1979 radio spot, and some in-concert moments), this provocative San Francisco band’s mix of rockabilly, new wave, punk, and classic rock sounds as vital and fresh in 2019 as it did 29 years ago. Amazing!

What’s also amazing is the back story of lead singer Pearl Harbor. Born Pearl Gates in Germany, she moved to California in 1973 at age 17 to be a rock star. Fee Waybill of The Tubes discovered her singing in bars and made her a part of The Tubes, yet she left to form her own band. Despite moderate success, she left again soon after this debut was released, moved to England, married Paul Simonon of The Clash, continued her punk/rockabilly ways as a solo artist, but never again captured the intensity and magnitude of this glorious debut. Highlights:  “Shut Up And Dance,” “Drivin’,” “Busy Little B-Side” and a raucous live cover of the 1957 hit “Black Slacks” by one-hit wonder Joe Bennett & The Sparkle Tones from North Carolina.

The Sound Of 24 Saxophones

In 1972, an explosion of the highest order riveted the jazz world when the Supersax debut was released as a tribute to Charlie Parker. It was the sound of five saxophones with a rhythm section plus brass, and they bopped mightily with a revolving cast for 40 years and 13 albums. There’s been nothing even remotely close ever since. Until now. Enter the jazz sax quartet known as Four. No rhythm section… no brass… just four crazy sax blowers with five other sax quartets from Miami, Scotland, Utah, Croatia, and Luxembourg. There ain’t nothin’ like it anywhere.

Jersey Wordsmith

Mike Daly always had a way with words. As a former editor of The Aquarian, his prose was always on the mark (except when he attempted to write about sports, where I would beat him up with no mercy week after week in our “Mike Versus Mike” column). When the debut self-titled album of his Mike Daly & The Planets band came out in 2017, I was pleasantly surprised that he rocked like Elvis Costello. All It Takes Is One is the self-released follow-up and I was pleased to see another former AQ editor, John Reynolds, still playing lead guitar.

Fresh off the album release party at Tierney’s in Montclair, the band continues to perform and now has these 11 scintillating tracks to expand upon. And make no mistake about it, every track rocks. But now the band is leaning in more of a Marshall Crenshaw direction. The songs are tight, snappy little statements with punch. Daly sings ‘em in a decidedly blue-collar everyman mode that’s completely believable. “Stupid Me” is a hoot. The compositions are stronger here. It’s a great piece of work. It’s literate, clever, meaty with satisfying chunky fat-back chording that propels the music forward.

On “Slack,” Daly admits, “I used to practice taekwondo but now I taekwondon’t/Guess you could say I used to have the will but now I have the won’t/I just want to stay inside all day comfy in my pajamas polishing my Grammys that I’ll never win and then later on, I’ll order in/I’ve got a knack for slack/I used to have ambition/Hope I never get it back ‘cause I’d really rather have a snack.” Amen, brother.