Betty's Midwestern Magick Blends Vol. 4
There are two bands it's hard not to mention when talking about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. One is, of course, the Black Crowes, the group Chris Robinson formed with his brother Rich, a band that brought some much-needed roll to the 90's rock scene before their volatile relationship and sibling rivalry finally became too much for both to continue in the same outfit. The other is the Grateful Dead, who's example of constant touring, while changing the set list every night for their travelling fans, and then releasing those shows on a multitude of live recording, seems to have been taken as an instruction manual of how a modern band can not only survive, but prosper on their own terms in this age of something-for-nothing streaming services.
The Grateful Dead references don't end there, either. This live recording, and several others CRB have released on their own label, Silver Arrow, since 2013, was captured by the legendary Betty Cantor-Jackson, a recording engineer who taped hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts during Garcia & co.'s peak years. Her ability to capture the magic(k) of a band in full flight has certainly not faded with time.
This set kicks off with rolling ivories, heralding Forever As The Moon, a keyboard line that bares more than a passing resemblance to the intro of the Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). The snaking slide guitar of Neal Casal that soon accompanies the piano vamp does nothing to dispel the Stones comparisons, although the lyrical poetry owes more to Dylan than Jagger in this instance. In fact, most of the tracks selected here represent the more rootsy side of CRB's recent output. Psychedelic interludes and flourishes still remain, though, and the bands ability to stretch out and jam is shown off to fine effect, especially on the barnstorming 11-minute version of the Jerry Leiber-penned, southern soul hit, Down Home Girl, originally recorded by Alvin Robinson. Peppered with some deliciously funky Sly Stone clavinet, it would almost be worth the price of the concert ticket just to see this performed live. The yearning cowboy melodies of Shadow Cosmos follows, then lead on to possibly their biggest song yet, the epic Narcissus Soaking Wet. A-10 minute monster jam that definitively answers the question "What would it have sounded like if Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder had got it together in their mid-70's pomp. Robinson spits out a couple of bad-ass honking harmonica solos before Neal Casal lets rip with a stratospheric guitar solo.
Casal originally started off playing for Rickey Medlockes' southern rockers Blackfoot, before making a name for himself in Ryan Adams backing band the Cardinals. Apart from his role in CRB, he also currently plays with Hard Working Americans, The Skiffle Players and Circles Around the Sun. His quality guitar playing and song writing always add a real touch of class to every project he's involved in. But back to the gig, and the soul/prog experiments continue on Precious Precious. originally a hit for Jacksonville soul diva Jackie Moore and here featuring a mammoth Moog solo that I'm certain was never envisioned by the writers when the song was first composed. For Black Crowes fans yet to experience Chris Robinsons current direction, the most Marmite aspect will most likely be those keyboards. The bending analogue sythesizer lines of Adam McDougall play a prominent role in much of the music made here, which can be a shock to those used to the Humble Pie / Faces grittiness of those early Crowes releases. There can certainly be a fine line between the Mothership funk of Bernie Worrell and the theme from Grange Hill and, although the combination of sounds at first seemed like very odd bedfellows to me, I have really grown to love the qualities that sound brings. Quite often it's the grit in the oyster that elevates the CRB output into something truly unique. Another cover follows in the form of Magic Carpet Ride, a faithful, if more fleet-of-foot, rendition than the Steppenwolf original. Those feet well and truly leave the ground when the band ignite their rocket boots and launch into full wig out mode (twice!). Then it's back to the original compositions with the desert blues of Somewhere Past the Sunset, recalling Texan guitar god Joe Ely, amongst others. This is followed by a magnificent version of one of my favourite CRB tunes, New Cannonball Rag, which, at nearly 13-minutes, takes the Deadhead boogie of the studio version right out to the edge of the Solar System and back.
Robinson’s vocal dexterity is on fine display all throughout these recordings, but especially during It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. Most of Dylans' compositions have been covered several times and this one is no exception, yet despite the rarified company, Chris more than holds his own, as the band add shades of Leon Russell to this spin on this old classic. I've always been a big fan of Robinson’s delivery, right back from when I got to see them in Manchester on their first UK tour waaay back in 1990. Considering his herbal requirements and his relentless touring schedule, his voice has survived remarkably well in a way that belies his age. The register is maybe a fraction deeper and the edges a little more grizzled, but he was, and remains, a rock singer of unique quality and soul. Backed by a band that plays with all the assurance of The Band, the audacity of the Allmans and is free of the shackles of expectation that comes with having to play songs you first wrote nearly 30 years ago, you can just tell that Robinson is right where he needs to be at this point in his career, and enjoying every minute of it. You can hear it in the assured delivery of the last two CRB compositions, Ain't It Hard But Fair and California Hymn, and, as if to silence those blinkered old Black Crowes fans who just won't be happy unless Chris Robinson is shaking his moneymaker to a Stones back-beat, this quality collection finishes with a dynamite rendition of Let It Bleed that could only come from that wily old Crowe.
“Bang Bang! There’s trouble in America” shouts Alejandro Escovedo on Fury and Fire, a blast of angry 21st century rock and roll protest, a stand-out lyric from The Crossing. A concept album built on the story of Salvo and Diego, two kids, Italian and Mexican respectively, who meet in Texas and decide to start a band, to make music just like the great records that started them on their separate crossings to the USA. As our two protagonists travel further into America, dreams are shattered by experiences as the harsh reality of America bleeds in. Fertile ground, indeed, for a song writer of Mexican-American heritage such as Escovedo, whom No Depression magazine have already declared artist of the decade. No pressure, then. I was weary when I approached the album for my first listen.
Alejandro Escovedo has had a diverse career since he first appeared as a founding member of the San Francisco punk band The Nuns, back in 1975. Prior to his recordings under his own name in a more alt.country style, Escovedo wielded his guitar for several notable bands, including Austin Cowpunk pioneers Rank and File, and The True Believers. Never one to be pinned down by musical borders, Escovedo is not easy to fence in.
Having already played the lead single, Sonica USA, featuring the guitar work of MC5’s Wayne Kramer, on the Whiskey Preachin radio show several months prior to the albums release, I had been expectantly waiting to hear the full work. Reviews I had read in the intervening months had been unanimous in putting the album on a pedestal, using words like “cinematic” and “masterwork”, describing Escovedo as one of the great songwriters of our time, in a genre of his own. I’d learnt that, alongside MC5’s Kramer, James Williamson of The Stooges also plays on one track, Teenage Luggage, that Joe Ely appears on two tracks, writing one of them, as does Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin. With such a build-up, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, that maybe the artfulness and the concept would get in the way of the listen. There was no need to worry. On first listen, it was clear we were dealing with a very fine album indeed.
From a Whiskey Preachin perspective, there are a handful of tracks on The Crossing that we might choose to play in DJ set, more that would work well on the radio show. Outlaw for You is a tune that occupies a space in the musical Venn diagram where Whiskey Preachin and our friends Stay Sick could happily co-habit without squabbling over the stereo, a slice of classic garage rock Americana, like a cross between The Sir Douglas Quintet and ? and The Mysterians. Brilliant. The Aforementioned Sonica USA is all driving rock and roll, as is Fury and Fire, full of anger and political angst that many of us are feeling, no matter where we live. One of the strongest tracks comes towards the end of the album, the penultimate tune, MC Overlord, a mightily impressive No Wave post-punk workout.
The album’s slower tracks are where many of the guest singers appear and, if anything, give the album the structure necessary to navigate the story around the bigger, brasher rock and roll numbers. Joe Ely, who’s song Fingernails turned Joe Strummer onto Texas music, contributes the song Silver City, adding a touch of classic Texas songwriter to the sprawling kaleidoscope of musical influences and styles displayed on The Crossing. Ely returns to voice the spoken-word title track, The Crossing, closing out the album with a lament for broken dreams and broken lives, scorched along the Mexican border.
“The border crossed me, I didn’t cross it. If you really want to think of it, you’re the wetback, coming across the Atlantic”. Rio Navidad is another track where the story is exposited in spoken-work, this time written by Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines) and spoken by fellow Richmond Fontaine member, Freddy Trujillo, taking the reins to expound Diego’s story in Vlautin’s words. Another highlight of the album is the wonderful instrumental, Amor Puro, which opens with an almost Casio keyboard-style bossa groove before expanding into the sort of sleazy popcorn joint Calexico might bring to the party, if they had just come back form a desert surfing holiday.
The Crossing was recorded in Italy with Antonio Gramentieri and his band Don Antonio. Gramentieri is also credited with having written much of the album with Escovedo. The two travelled between Italy and Texas for their writing sessions, to soak up the atmosphere of both locations, home landscapes of the two characters in The Crossing. After all, the essence of south Tejas will always be Mexican. Gramentieri’s previous band, Sacri Cuori (Sacred Hearts), created music influenced and inspired by Italian film scores, having written music for film themselves. On The Crossing, it feels as if the soundtrack influence allowed for the diversity of styles to hang together as a single album. The very idea of a concept album could almost be imagined as a film made in music, so a group of musicians with experience in soundtracks makes perfect sense. There is something about The Crossing that made me think of the soundtrack created by Frank Black for a 1920s silent film called The Golem. For those of you with an interest in reading sleeve notes, Gramentieri also played guitar on Giant Sand’s 2015 album Heartbreak Pass.
The Crossing is a big album, seventeen tracks, covering lots of ground, myriad styles and influences; punk, rock and roll, Americana, ballads, spoken-word, surf and twang. It’s an ambitious work that shouldn’t really hang together as well as it does. It’s a melting pot of sounds and styles, just like the man whose name is on the sleeve.
Now we’re talkin’! Another great self-released country album, the sort of record that takes you by surprise, barrelling around a dangerous curve at 100 mph. There’s so much to like on Jesse Daniel’s eponymous debut; the songs are strong, the production has just the right amount of grit and the vibe’s up-beat, like a Saturday night in a California roadhouse, with lashings of electric twang, witty lyrics and a real good thump to the drums. With titles like Hell Bent and Comin’ Down Again, it’s not difficult to imagine what this album has in store. That said, few new artists can tell it as straight and true as Jesse Daniel does on Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff), a confessional of sorts. Daniel’s story of substance abuse is no mere lyrical conjuring of romantic fantasy, rather a first-hand expression of a life he has thankfully managed to escape.
Starting out as a drummer for several punk bands around his home in Ben Lomand, California (north of Santa Cruz), Daniel found himself on the road and increasingly out of his head on various substances, graduating to the queen of the main line. Life followed a pick-n-mix of rehab, jail and homelessness. Daniel’s story of how he found his path to becoming a country musician is almost prophetic. Passing by a thrift shop on his way back to a motel room for a fix, he saw a group of homeless watching a TV in the window. Stopping to see what they were watching, he heard one of the men exclaim “hey, they’re pretty good”, before realising that one of the musicians on screen was his own father. Jesse and the other men went off to fix up in another motel room, where there was a TV set in the corner playing Buck Owens singing Act Naturally. Jesse Daniel hadn’t exactly seen the light, but the seeds of his redemption had been sewn.
A few years later, while in rehab in Oakland, Jesse heard the strum and twang of someone playing a Hank Williams tune in the next room. Wandering in to investigate, he sat to listen, later making his mind up to kick his habit, lay down the needle in favour of the guitar. Daniel hdd found his path at last, eventually managing to get on his feet, save $50 to buy a battered old Fender and start writing songs.
Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff) doesn’t pull any punches in the story it tells, as the protagonist packs his life into a glass pipe and burns it down to the ground, all to a solid outlaw groove that adds the song extra credence. It’s a sure-fire Whiskey Preachin winner, as is SR-22 Blues, an up-tempo romp of a tale of a guy who has lost his driving licence for DUI and now walks twenty miles to his SR-22, the light aircraft that has replaced his car! The Banker is another highlight on this gem of an album, like a modern-day remake of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, spinning the yarn of as banker who has been run over, resulting in thousands of dollars blowing down the street from his busted briefcase. If only…
Jessie Daniel has released a record that I expect will be at the front of the Whiskey Preachin record box for years to come. My LP copy can’t turn up soon enough.
Back in 2017 I interviewed Ben Bostick, the LA-Based, South Carolinian-raised Outsider country artist about his then new album, the eponymous Ben Bostick. No Depression described Ben’s performance on that album as coming on “like an unholy alliance of George Jones and Merle Haggard”; praise enough for any man, but I was convinced that Bostick might be capable of something even more incendiary, something to warn people about. It turns out I was right, so please take this review in the way it is meant, as a warning to impressionable minds and those of a fragile disposition. We wouldn’t want to offend anybody now, would we. Hellfire, Bostick’s new album, to be released at the end of June, gives us a glimpse of where he likes to venture with his music, down dark alleys full of human wreckage, to solicit or commit carnal musical acts.
The songs on Hellfire have been tried and tested by Bostick over the last year, using his band’s residency at a downtown LA bar, The Escondite, as the perfect opportunity to road-test new material. By the time the band went into the studio to record with John Would (Warren Zevon, Wanda Jackson), they were able to record the album live, sitting in a circle with just stage monitors to hear Bostick's vocals. Producer Would had extensively mic’d up the room, giving the recording an immediacy and energy that is at once primal and infections. The album opens with Bostick’s strained vocal searing out of the speaker, the sound of a man in pain; “I’ve got a job in the valley but today I didn’t go”, the story start, “I’m gonna go to the bank and cash out my account, drive straight to the tavern and drink a disgusting amount”. We know how you feel, Ben. Dirty rock and roll ensues, with a touch of Credence twang leading to some blistering guitar work (Kyle LaLone), building to a crescendo as Bostick’s story kicks back in with a flourish of Jerry Lee-style honky tonk piano (Luke Miller). The title track, Hellfire, plays next, opening with a dash of Burton-ish chicken pickin’ guitar, and before you know it Bostik’s getting drunk as hell again, this time on a bath tub of gin. The third track in, No Good Fool, uses the piano to full effect, barrel house boogie full of funky swagger, you can expect to be hearing it in our Whiskey Preachin DJ sets from now on.
The pressure keeps building as Bostick and the band crank up the tempo with Blow of Some Steam, coming on like a train wreck waiting to happen, good luck keeping up with this one on the dancefloor as Bostick declares he’s a Jim Beam drinking, Paycheck singing, dancing machine… Hell yeah! The tempo drops for the outsider’s lament on modern living, It Ain’t Cheap Being Poor, sounding like a hungry Rusty Weir desperately in need of a good cobbler. Tornado sounds like JJ Cale playing at a hoedown, The Other Side of Wrong combines a dash of Diddley with a flourish of that Jerry Lee piano, allowing Bostic to wallow in his righteously outlaw lyrics; “If I didn’t make bad decisions, I wouldn’t make no decisions at all”. Work, Sleep, Repeat gives us a little respite from the frantic boogie woogie onslaught, but that doesn’t mean it’s not packed with Bostick’s gravely grow and lashings of swagger, like Jim Morrison spliced and diced with Howlin’ Wolf; “Tonight I’m gonna drink like daddy does”. The Outsider closes out the album with the most straight-up rock track of the set, albeit one channelling a Jon Lord-style organ groove (, something we at Whiskey Preachin have always been partial to.
I asked Ben a few questions about his Hellfire, here’s what he had to say:
What has led you to the darker sound on this album? I wrote dozens of songs in the year leading up to recording this album, usually about one per week. I would bring the songs into the band for our Sunday night residency, and sometimes they would work right away and sometimes it was clear I had penned a real stinker. When it came time to record the album, I chose songs that all seemed to fit thematically, all from one perspective. I can’t say that I consciously wrote a darker album, so maybe the darkness had me without me knowing it. I’ve become more interested in writing albums than writing songs recently, so this is a baby step in the direction of putting together a fully cohesive album.
Any records you’ve been listening to that have influenced you in this direction? Honestly, not really. I try not to be influenced by records I’m listening to, because I just wind up copying the stuff I like. I was in a hardcore jazz listening period during the year I wrote this. Lots of hard bop, lots of Coltrane and Miles Davis. I was obsessed with forming a kind of improvised music that incorporated Americana elements with true musical freedom. Something that sounds like Astral Weeks, but less composed. I haven’t gotten around to trying any of those ideas yet. I was also listening to a lot of Springsteen. I don’t know why the songs that emerged are the way they are. Probably has more to do with me subconsciously writing for the venues I play. I’m not pandering to the crowd, per se, as much as seeing if I can whip them into a frenzy. That’s the Springsteen thing rearing its head. My next album is very Springsteen influenced.
Have you got a personal favorite from this album? I love them all, but my current favorite is “No Show Blues.” I think the recording of that song turned out just right. Just shot a music video for that one, too.
So, ladies and gentlemen, we give you Ben Bostick’s Hellfire, an album to show love and respect, especially at 4am when you stagger in form a heavy night on the town. If you find yourself in LA, see if you can catch one of the band’s live performances, or perhaps catch Ben spinning tunes at Shoo Shoo Baby, an LA bar that looks like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel. If you can play records in bars that look this good, I’m gonna move to California and see if Hollywood will have me.
Full Tilt Boogie
The adage would have us believe that a leopard never changes his spots. So, I guess, James Scott Bullard must be some other kind of cat altogether. A collection of his earlier tracks titled The Rise and Fall of… (recently released on Big Mavis, remastered and repackaged) presents tracks from his first four albums, all now out of print. The music on The Rise and Fall… would never knowingly upset the neighbours in the way that Full Tilt Boogie promises to do. The Rise and Fall… is a strong collection of songs, showing influences from the classic country rock of Gram Parsons and the Rolling Stones to modern Americana singer-songwriters such as Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Adams. In fact, Bullard released an EP titled Oh This Land (A Tribute to Gram Parsons) in 2015, which may see its way to being reissued at some point, but listening to Full Tilt Boogie for the umpteenth time, the same question arises again and again; just what happened to this guy in the intervening years between his first records and this new one? The love songs have soured, the gentle country rockers have become distorted and amped up, the general vibe is far greasier and hungover. In short, the new album has got a whole lot more Whiskey Preachin. I worry that Bullard may have started carrying a flick knife instead of a comb.
Full Tilt Boogie kicks in from the very first distorted guitar chord of Lord, Have Mercy, like a heavy country gospel tune gone to the dark side, a cry for a soul to be saved before it’s too late. When the second track, Wicked Ways, kicks in, we know it’s already too late. The guitars are still distorted but the drums are pounding a much faster tempo and the organ is squeaking out all that damn honky tonk rock and roll. Then you get to the breakdown you know you’re in for a real good time! All to Pieces lays off a little, but only a little, allowing you to regroup before the Chuck-Berry-on-steroids of Hey Hey Mama kicks in, with lyrics like “I’m gonna love you mama like it’s against the law” stoking the fires. Track six, Jesus, Jail or Texas, has to be my favourite, possibly the most country track on the album, with a nice shuffle beat and fantastic lyrics telling of the different ways that women have managed to escape our protagonist: “One girl she went to Texas, two that went to jail, there or four found Jesus and the rest can go straight to hell”. The guitars are still distorted and there’s plenty of nice slide action, like ZZ Top fronted by Kinky Friedman. Leavin’ on My Mind ramps up the tempo to a furious, demented, pace, taking us on a break-neck tour through Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Carolina, anywhere but here.
Is this a country album with pretentions towards being a rock record, or a rock album masquerading as a country record? Isn’t that just a stupid question? Does is really matter, if it sounds this good? At Whiskey Preachin, this is what we would describe as 100% bona fide Gumbo Rock, music that mashes up its influences and comes out with something fresh, a new sound made up of recognisable parts but for which no one signifier is sufficient to describe it. Bullard was raised up in South Carolina with a country and bluegrass musician for a father. As a kid, he grew up loving heavy rock but was surrounded by the music that later influenced him to start making the music on Full Tilt Boogie; the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynrd, Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers (whose influence shines on the album’s closing track, Back to You), the classic rock and roll of Little Richard and Elvis and pure honky tonk of the world’s first punk rocker, Hank Williams; all these influences can be heard when listening to Full Tilt Boogie, so it’s little surprise that we love it at Whiskey Preachin. After all, these are the same artists that form the bedrock on which we built our shack. Why would we want to hear anything else?