Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘n’ Roll

Bad-Ass Piano-Playing Hipster

The 11 originals that constitute the free-flowing multi-genre solo piano of Baltimore hipster Lafayette Gilchrist’s self-released Dark Matter range from jazz, go-go, blues, pop, funk, ska, avant-garde, soul, and hip-hop, to classical and New Orleans. In fact, acclaimed producer/writer David Simon has used Gilchrist’s music in both The Wire and Treme (two of the best cable television series of the last half-century). You’d think the pianist had 20 fingers instead of just 10. He goes from spiritual meditations to jumpy in-your-face exercises. “For The Go-Go” is for Washington D.C.’s local twist on the fractured alt-disco go-go scene. His “Blues For Our Marches To End” bemoans the fate of black men in this racist country of ours. He even melds reggae with Crescent City joyousness in “And You Know This.” He wrote “Black Flight” after his special command performance for the remaining Tuksegee Airmen, the segregated all-black WWII fighter pilots who proved themselves—at the very least—the equal of their white counterparts. When your only sin is in your skin, and your country never lets you forget it, sometimes emotion boils over. Lafayette Gilchrist uses that anger in his art.

Canadian Power Couple

They live in an island shack on the coast of the Salish Sea in British Columbia. Singer-songwriters A.W. Cardinal (guitar) and Jasmine Colette (bass)—known collectively as Blue Moon Marquee—are like visitors from the past, bringing their swing, blues, western, New Orleans, gypsy, ragtime, and early jazz with them. Bare Knuckles and Brawn sounds as if Tom Waits had been raised on a steady diet of Memphis Minnie, Django Reinhardt, Blind Willie Johnson, and Louis Armstrong. Yet all 11 tracks are original. Backed by piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet, drums, trumpet, and second guitar, their voices intertwine on such memorable new tunes as “Big Black Mamba” (a snake they pulled from the ground), “Hard Times Hit Parade” (“about the greed of the coin and trying to survive in the wealth gap,” according to Cardinal), “Lost and Wild” (the sixties), “Big Smoke” (the weather), “As I Lay Dying” (“feminism and the fall of patriarchy,” according to Colette), “52nd Street Strut” (about Billie Holiday) and, most impressively, “High Noon” (a reference to Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Lakota people and the perseverance of Native Peoples everywhere). Highly recommended.

A New England Songstress

The Visions of singer-songwriter Alice Howe, as produced by longtime Bonnie Raitt bassist Freebo, are an eclectic blend of her bucolic New England raising, the charm of the Bakersfield Cali aesthetic where it was recorded, coupled with her vast encyclopedic knowledge of American pop music from which she draws upon. It’s in her writing too. She takes from that which inspires her to inspire us… with her voice (on both lead and harmony), her guitar, and her unerring feel for picking just the right material. Nobody has covered Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Arms” (except maybe the jam band Leftover Salmon) with as much grace and flair as Howe. She does the same for Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” Raitt’s “Too Long At The Fair,” Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee,” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” Her originals are sparked with vitality like the bluegrass “You Just Never Know,” the Joni Mitchell-styled confessional “Twilight” and the rock ‘em, sock ‘em highlight “Getaway Car”—with that Hammond-B3 and horn section. Bravo!

Rockin’ In Outer Space

It’s been 50 years since man first walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, and to commemorate the occasion Bear Family Records has put out another great compilation. Destination Moon not only has sound bites from astronaut Neil Armstrong and President Kennedy, it has rare sides by Dinah “Queen Of The Blues” Washington, rockabilly rebel Narvel Felts, and a whole bunch of irresistible one-hit wonders. Highlights include Louisiana hero Chris Kenner’s “Rocket To The Moon,” British femme-fatale Pat Reader’s “Cha-Cha On The Moon,” and soul balladeer Lenny Welch’s “Rocket To The Moon” (not the same tune). More fun comes within the packaging, as all 32 tracks have a photo/bio that makes the listener eager to explore other tunes from these long-ago and far-away personalities.

A Star In The Making

Impressive-as-hell singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sheri Miller’s self-released Waking Up To This Miracle Life accumulates the songs released one after another earlier this year for an engaging portrait of an artist in a perpetual state of upward flux. She’s veers into soul-Americana territory but she’s too wide-reaching to be put into any one bag. Her lyrics are finely etched snapshots of desire, offset by ruminations that transcend her confessional Lilith Fair roots with ballsy proclamations. Her voice is a powerful instrument that weaves itself in, over, around, and through her A-List musicians including Fab Faux bassist Will Lee, who pops in all the right places.

Blues Man

Cincinnati singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Levin might be just finishing his first year of college but gets right down to the real nitty-gritty on his sterling Before Me (VizzTone Label Group). This proverbial beautiful boy with the rock star good looks has the soul of an 80-year-old Mississippi sharecropper playing his blues in the gutter for chump change. The sound, though, is crystal-clear uptown blues that moves and grooves with lyrical abandon. It sucks the listener right in-the-pocket, due, in no small part, to powerful players like guitarist Bob “Steady-Rollin’” Margolin, harmonica ace Bob Corritore, and original King Records drummer Philip Paul.

Kicking it all off with Big Bill Broonzy’s 1941 “I Feel So Good,” he then covers Jay McShann’s 1949 “Confessin’ The Blues” better than the Stones did in 1964. His versions of Freddy King’s 1961 “Lonesome Whistle Blues” and James Cotton’s 1965 “Lightning” are in a word, sublime. Hard to pick a highlight but his delectable way with the 1955 rarity “I Wanna Hug Ya Kiss Ya Squeeze Ya,” originally by Bullmoose Jackson & His Buffalo Bearcats, is my newest favorite song. And please note that you really cannot tell the difference between the nuggets of rare gold excavated from the dustbin of time and his own delicious originals like “Pappy” and “Creole Kitchen.”