Back in 1993, Bruce Springsteen guitarist Little Steven—who cofounded Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes in the mid 70s—teamed up with Southside to perform an acoustic benefit concert that aired on New York radio. The show, which embraced several of their best-known originals as well as a long menu of well-chosen covers, featured Asbury Jukes guitarist Bobby Bandiera as well as their former bassist David Hayes and the E Street Band’s Soozie Tyrell on violin. The concert has since been unofficially released several times on CD in Europe, and has just recently been reissued there again. It is available in the U.S. as an import.
Let’s cut to the chase: the CD, called Unplugged, is as noteworthy as any of the albums that Southside Johnny or Little Steven have ever created. Their soulful singing is uniformly superlative and is particularly impressive given the diversity of the material. Throughout, Tyrell’s violin provides a perfect counterpoint to the gravelly vocals—she’s as much of an asset here as Scarlett Rivera is on Dylan’s Desire.
It helps that the material is as good as the performances. Highlights of the 18-track set include a definitive reading of Van Zandt’s “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”; Springsteen’s “Rosalita” and “The Fever,” the latter an Asbury Jukes staple; Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and versions of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” that arguably outshine the composers’ fine originals.
My only gripe is with the credit listings on the CD jewel case and booklet: Springsteen’s name is misspelled in no fewer than four places; meanwhile, Dylan’s “Forever Young” is credited to the authors of a completely different but identically titled song by the German synth-pop group Alphaville; and the composer of Smokey Robinson’s “Don’t Look Back” is listed as Boston’s Tom Scholz, who wrote another song by that name. Whoever assembled these credits should be fired but whoever’s responsible for reissuing this album deserves a lot of gratitude.
R.J. Cowdery, What If This Is All There Is. Folksinger R.J. Cowdery has reportedly been writing songs for three decades but has only recently begun focusing on music full time. In one sense, it’s a shame she didn’t start spending time in the studio sooner than she did, but we can probably credit the wisdom in some of these songs to the fact that she took time to live ’em before she wrote ’em. Her strong vocals on this album—her fourth since 2008, when she issued her debut CD—set an intimate mood. That’s appropriate, given the lyrics, which, she says, “are conversations about change and loss, and ultimately, how I’m dealing with life in the middle.” The emotive, understated backup includes guitar, bass, keyboards, dobro, fiddle, banjo, and percussion. A cover of Josh Ritter’s “Girl in the War” shares the program with nine originals.
Carlo Ditta, Hungry for Love. “Swampy” is the first word that may come to mind when you listen to this terrific release from New Orleans producer-turned-singer/songwriter Carlo Ditta. Killer sax work punctuates originals like “La Muchacha Chacha” and “Pass the Hatchet,” which are interspersed here with well-chosen covers, including one of the grittiest and best versions of “House of the Rising Sun” I’ve ever heard; a bouncy, organ-spiced reading of Eddie Powers’s “Gypsy Woman Told Me”; and “Agnes English,” which was a 1967 single from the late John Fred, a fellow Louisianan who is best known for “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses).” This stuff is as soulful as Dr. John and as party-ready as Fats Domino. Ditta is known primarily as the Grammy-nominated producer of a Guitar Slim Jr. album who has also produced such artists as Willy DeVille, but Hungry for Love makes clear that it’s time for him to move to center stage.
Greg Jacobs, Encore. Greg Jacobs is considered part of the red-dirt music genre, which takes its name from the color of soil around Oklahoma and embraces artists like Jimmy LaFave, Bob Childers, and the Red Dirt Rangers, all of whom have covered his material. If you haven’t heard of Jacobs, it may be at least partly because he isn’t exactly prolific: he has released only a handful of albums over the past two decades; in fact, he says that this new one may be his last. “I never wrote a lot,” he told one interviewer. “I kind of followed Childers, who said it was better to write one good song than 10 bad ones.” True, but he’s got 13 very good ones on Encore, among them the gorgeous “A Heart Is Breaking,” a duet with fellow Okie Carter Sampson; and “Richardville Road,” a true story about how a man became “the world’s second-richest Indian” around the time Oklahoma achieved statehood. Jacobs wrote nearly everything on the program. (The exceptions include Childers’s “Woody’s Road,” about Guthrie, another native of the state.) And his vocals—which convey a gentleness that reminds me a bit of Don Williams—are as memorable as his lyrics and melodies.
Ellis Mano Band, Here and Now. “Whisky,” the opening cut on this album by a group of Switzerland-based studio musicians, sounds like run-of-the-mill, blues-tinged heavy metal. But stick around for what follows: after that opener, the guitar-and-percussion onslaught frequently yields center stage to singer Chris Ellis, who proves capable of switching from soulful throaty vocals to a terrific falsetto in an instant. The title track, about the joy of a new love relationship, and the gorgeous, melodic “Goodbye My Love,” about the sad end of an old one, are among the reasons this CD is worth a listen.
The Schramms, Omnidirectional. Dave Schramm—an original member and guitarist for Yo La Tengo—has led the New Jersey-based Schramms since the 1980s, but this seventh album is their first in a decade. The pop/folk/rock record took a little while to grow on me, but grow it did. Somewhat reminiscent of Yo La Tengo, it features rich yet understated soundscapes, complex and subtle melodies, imaginative lyrics, compelling vocals, and all sorts of well-conceived instrumental surprises. Just close your eyes and go with the flow. You’ll be glad these guys tossed out all the rulebooks and followed their muse.