Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘n’ Roll

Meet Me On Southern Avenue

I’ll be on Southern Avenue for a while because I Keep On (Concord Records) playing this Memphis band’s second album. Their 2017 self-titled debut had me up nights dancing by myself. Keep On is even better, maybe because they’ve since performed over 300 shows in 13 countries. Israeli guitarist Ori Naftaly is a rock ‘em sock ‘em robot. The lead-singing church-bred Tierinii Jackson is a load! Her sister Tikyra Jackson is a powerhouse drummer, funky as all get-out. I dig “Whiskey Love” the best, but that rampaging horn section carries this barnburner home throughout. In fact, they’re a natural outgrowth of that Stax sound and even have old school soul-shouter William Bell as a guest. Just ask Buddy Guy or Los Lobos about this band, as both had Southern Avenue open for them. I might even have to take the trip to Scranton, PA to see them play July 26, 27, or 28 at The Peach Music Festival.

Percussionist Extra

Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records), by percussionist, composer, and vocalist Rajna Swaminathan, is world beat of the finest order. Her Rajas ensemble skillfully weaves classical and folkloric music from India with jazz, dance, pop, soul, and the avant-garde into a frothy stew of delicious proportions. The percussion/voice/violin/tenor sax/guitar/bass/trumpet lineup effectively charges forth yet lays back… flies high, yet grounds itself with drum ‘n’ bass modernity. This dubstep mentality permeates the proceedings while producer Vijay Iyer (Rajna’s mentor and also an artist of eclectic albums as a leader) adds a fine gloss and sheen making it palatable for less adventurous ears. Catchy, intriguing, it sandpapers off the rough edges of the almighty raga and replaces those hard-to-digest chunks with sweetness, dexterity, muscle and even a jam band aesthetic that won’t be lost on today’s collective ear.

Legendary Rocker

Legendary rockers like Tommy James always look back. Although aware of their pioneering past, if they’re true artists, they will always change. Always. Thus it is with James, who, with his Shondells in the rearview mirror of the sixties, had the type of career most men can only dream of. At 72, he’s still reaching, experimenting, and achieving a pop plateau that pulses with righteous smarts. He knows his audience doesn’t really like rap music, for instance, but on a terrific remake of his 1970 “Draggin’ The Line” and a transcendent cover of the 1965 Stones hit “The Last Time,” rapper T.O.N.E.-z flows so gracefully, they give it a chance. Other tracks have his vocals multi-tracked like a one-man Beach Boys. Dude can still sing. Hasn’t lost an inch. He even goes all-out party mode on a couple of doo-wop mash-ups where a half-dozen classics are squished into the mix. From grand gospel choruses to mean electric guitar from Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band and Gene Cornish of The Rascals, James covers all the bases in a freewheeling pinwheel that veers from folk-rock, funk-soul, and disco to Broadway, comedy, and country. Yeah, he’s reaching here, and it works. Beautifully. Masterly. And, most of all, credibly honest. May he rock forever.

The City Is Seattle

City Noir, the self-released third album by singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Brandt, is a love poem of sorts to Seattle. That town’s grey weather, its rain, its lonely people drinking away their heartache with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, provides the backdrop. The doomed romanticism, the cynicism, and—most of all—the rotting decay at the heart of the city, all come to the fore. One song even ends with the slamming of an actual courthouse door as a metaphor for broken dreams. “Beyond a doorway someone laughed out loud/Beyond a doorway someone sighed/No one knows the truth, but they all believe the lie.” That’s the way it is with Brandt. He got obsessed with Hollywood detective movies of the nineteen-forties as well as tawdry novels where the anti-hero’s faults almost do him in. It’s noir, man. Pure noir, always featuring an overriding sense of guilt, darkness on the edge of town, crime-not-caught, and illicit lust. Brandt captures this tableau like the beat poets of the fifties, oftentimes eschewing his vocals into spoken-word passages that he spits out with venom. I dare say nobody—nobody—is working in this particular idiom today. Tom Waits, maybe.

The Great Lost Jazz Man

Trumpeter Buddy Bolden was the first great jazz man, and there are those who say he single-handedly invented the genre. His New Orleans sextet, though, was never recorded. His life is shrouded in mystery. The Blue Engine Records soundtrack to Bolden, a movie that imagines what his tragic life must have been like, is by another great New Orleans trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, who takes from Bolden’s playbook, and the playbook of Bolden’s greatest musical progeny, Louis Armstrong (as well as his own originals in that ragtime style), to create a time capsule of turn-of-the-century music where jazz started that is as exciting as any music on the planet (especially when gussied up with the kind of recording techniques that hadn’t yet been invented back then).

Bolden chafed at the horrible treatment he endured down South as a brilliant black revolutionary musician, so much so it drove him crazy and led him to drink. His name is still whispered today in hushed reverent tones by those in the know. He was barely out of his twenties when he suffered acute alcoholic psychosis in 1907 and institutionalized in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he spent the last two decades of his life, never to return.