Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘N’ Roll

This Rhythm Method Works

It’s As Live As It Gets on the self-released, self-produced fifth album from Seattle’s Polly O’Keary & The Rhythm Method, a hard-charging, blues-busting power trio from the great Northwest. They’ve won numerous regional awards, but now, after 2017’s promising Black Crow Calling and this in-concert ballbuster, could national prominence be far behind? Polly O sings as if her life depends upon it. She plays bass to her husband-drummer Tommy Cook’s beats while guitarist David Miller shreds like Clapton. In fact, they make Eric’s 1989 “Old Love” into an epic showstopping 10:41. They also do Eric Bibb’s 1994 “In My Father’s House.” The rest is original. Their songs smoke with intensity and the kind of jam-band furor rare for just a three-piece.

The Power Of Pop

When asked in 1967 to describe his band’s music, Pete Townshend of The Who said, “power pop is what we play.” He had no idea he would—in one off-the-cuff remark—create the name of a surging seventies response to the bloated excess of prog-rock. The various artists on Come On Let’s Go:  Power Pop Gems From The ‘70s & ‘80s (Big Beat/Ace Records) contains 24 short, snappy, joyously soaring bursts of guitar rock ‘n’ roll as exemplified by Raspberries (“I Wanna Be With You”), The Romantics (“What I Like About You”), Dwight Twilley Band (“Looking For The Magic”), The Flamin’ Groovies (“Shake Some Action”), Bill Lloyd (“Nothing Comes Close”), Big Star (“September Gurls”), Shoes (“Tomorrow Night”), The Rubinoos (“Rock And Roll Is Dead”), Utopia (“One World”), and 15 others. The highlight has to be The Paley Brothers & Ramones (“Come On Let’s Go”) but every track—all killer, no filler—bursts with melodies that melt in your mouth, pushed and prodded by high-volume electric guitars, two- and three-part harmonies and lyrics in an age of innocence where the most dramatic motif is trying to get that pretty girl to like you. I remember those days. This has to be the most feel-good album of the year.    

Little Green Man

Billy Lee Riley was born in 1933 in Arkansas. He was 20 when he was discovered by Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis. His debut, “Flyin’ Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was a hit in 1957, but by 1960 he was off the label. By 1962, he broke up his band, The Little Green Men, moved to Hollywood, and became an in-demand harmonica/guitar session man for the likes of the Beach Boys and Sammy Davis, Jr. In 1965, he performed an incendiary set of blistering rockabilly at The Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, recorded by Mercury. It went nowhere so Riley quit the music business to start a successful construction company.

In the late seventies, Robert Gordon and Link Wray covered his “Red Hot,” so interest in his early primal Sun sides spurred him back to the stage where he toiled in roadside dives in the Deep South until 1992, when Bob Dylan brought him out onstage and told the crowd that Billy Lee was his musical hero. Thus, he was red hot again! 

In 1997, he signed with Capricorn Records and made the best blues album of the year, Hot Damn. I was his publicist. I remember getting him into the pages of People magazine and dealing with him on a personal level, and he was the most charming, sweetest gentleman I ever had the pleasure to work with. It was nominated for a Grammy but lost to Taj Mahal’s Senor Blues. In 2005, he suffered a horrible fall that he never truly recovered from and died in 2009 of colon cancer. 

These fond remembrances are due to Rocks (Bear Family Records), a red hot retrospective of Riley’s primal, earthy, roots-rockabilly (35 tracks!) that makes a strong argument for his inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. With great liner notes by Bill Dahl, beautifully-packaged booklet, and remastered sound, Rocks rocks. Highlights include “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Flip Flop & Fly,” “Barefootin’,” “Everybody’s Twisting,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Catfish,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Nightmare Mash,” “The Little Green Men,” and a few versions of “Flying Rock ‘n’ Roll,” plus “Red Hot.” 

“My gal is red hot,” he once snarled, “your gal ain’t doodly-squat.”

Afro Caribbean

Native New Yorker Bill O’Connell helped pioneer Latin Jazz in the nineteen-seventies when he joined Cuban conga player Mongo Santamaria in his groundbreaking salsa band. Over the next four decades, he went on to play in the bands of Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and even did a stint of Brazilian samba music with Astrud Gilberto, all the while composing, arranging, and playing piano on his own series of solo efforts. Now comes Wind Off The Hudson (Savant Records), the delicious new album by Bill O’Connell and the Afro Caribbean Ensemble, wherein his smokin’ 10-piece band—piano, flute, alto flute, alto sax, soprano sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, flugelhorn, electric bass, drums and congas—make exquisitely joyful noise on material by Tito Puente (“Oye Como Va,” the song Santana brought to the rock crowd), John Coltrane (“Transition”), six originals, and two Ellington updates. Wholeheartedly recommended.   

Pacific Northwest Brilliance 

Not since Sonny Rollins has there been a tenor saxophonist so willing to take chances and go out on a limb not knowing if he’ll ever be able to return. Oregon’s Rich Halley is such a musician. He spins a circuitous web of freedom with no harmonic or melodic restrictions whatsoever. He honks. He squeals and he punctuates the proceedings with squiggles, blips, and then elongated flights where he must hold his breath so long, you’d think his eyeballs are going to pop out. One listen to his 23rd album, Terra Incognita (Pine Eagle Records) and you go where he wants you to go: into uncharted territory. Master piano player Matthew Shipp stays on course as do bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor, as recorded last summer in Brooklyn. The opener is the 12:07 “Opening” and the closer is the 17:02 “The Journey.” Do you dare?