Sam Amidon, Lily-O. When musical experimenters experiment, who knows what will happen? Sam Amidon has built a life taking traditional forms and giving them a vital place in the modern world. He comes from artist stock in Vermont, and is clearly a person who walks his own path. But what is most mesmerizing about this sonic alchemy is just how deeply the results strike home. It's like Amidon's voice has a clear channel quality to it, one that allows his vocals to reverberate directly inside the soul.
Of course, it doesn't hurt a bit that guitar whiz Bill Frisell is onboard for the sessions, supplying such sleight-of-hand guitarisms that it's clear Frisell is in a class totally alone. The pairing is perfect from note one, recorded in Iceland (where else?) and coming in on a cloud and a prayer. Sam Amidon has been recording since 2001, and may have started with banjo as his primary instrument, but where he now resides is somewhere in the shade of greatness, stepping forward with a creative curve that no one else is really doing. It will take him far, and hopefully we will all be right there with him for the ride.
Barr Brothers, Sleeping Operator. Every year or so a young band coalesces into greatness, sometimes out of the blue, and moves to the front of the line for aggregations who shine. Brothers Brad and Andrew Barr have every single element needed to grow into a group that listeners who love thoughtful and soul-moving rock music will worship. Their second album is such a leap into that spot it's slightly unreal.
These two write songs that stick, sing together like, well, the brothers they are and surround themselves with musicians who can play anything, and are not afraid to add an array of special guests to the bandstand to ensure excitement is always just around the corner. And even when a slight element of sameness starts to creep in, the band can change the channel and fly off in a bright new direction. Leave it to the Canadians to respect their roots but never be bound by them. They live in the big sky country and let music be their guide to the cosmos. Lucky them.
Elvin Bishop, Can't Even Do Wrong Right. Say it right now — someone needs to erect a shrine to Elvin Bishop. He started with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1964, and helped build them into a boundary-defying collective whose effects are still being felt today. When he moved on to his own Elvin Bishop Group, they swung from roiling rhythm and blues with vocalist Jo Baker into the emerging Southern rock movement that eventually included singer Mickey Thomas. All along Elvin Bishop played guitar like no one else, firing up his big red Gibson that crossed Chicago South Side snake-oil with his oxygen-amped Oklahoma roots. There was no one like him then, and there's no one like him now. He pours forth with the kind of good will and humor of all the greats, and carries himself like maybe Mark Twain might have if he'd been a musician.
Bishop's latest album gathers all his mighty styles together, from hitting the funny bone on the title track to hitting the monkey nerve on "No More Doggin'." He and fellow blues guru Charlie Musselwhite lay it all out on "Old School" and show you can teach an old dog new tricks when the dog happens to be on the hunt. Just to connect all the blue dots, singer Mickey Thomas comes around on "Let Your Woman Have Her Way," grabbing some of the gusto from their '70s mega-hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." Then Elvin Bishop turns up the sizzle on a trifecta ending, covering in his own inimitable way Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do," Fats Domino's "Bo Weevil" and Lionel Hampton's "Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop." If that doesn't put it in the alley, then nothing will. Blues me or lose me indeed.
Gary Calamar, You Are What You Listen To. It takes a carton of courage to step out in front of a microphone when you've been known before as someone behind the bandstand. Others are sometimes gunning for you when you finally put your own name on the music. Gary Calamar has built a fine career as a five-time Grammy-nominated music supervisor, longtime disc jockey, book author, band manager and record store clerk, but never before as a singer-songwriter. What better time to switch gears and go for it than when people least expect it?
Luckily, Calamar has a lifetime of experience and listening stored up so these six songs blast off the launching band with enough verve and vivaciousness there is no stopping them. They could be from the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s or anytime after that, and there's even a loving paean to the vinyl record ("The Last Revolution") which proves the man puts his music where his mouth is. And never becomes too obvious about it, which is the most winning attribute of all. These are songs that burn, played with a fever fueled by an endless love of rock and roll, and if that's not enough to bring it all back home, then listening habits need to be adjusted. Because more than anything, Gary Calamar starts with a true fact: you are what you listen to.
Otis Clay & Johnny Rawls, Soul Brothers. Is spirit-lifting soul music still alive? Hard to say, really, but thanks to Otis Clay and Johnny Rawls, someone is at least trying to make sure there's hope. After Al Green pretty much turned it all over to preaching, soul has been suffering. Sure, people try and some might even get close. The natural burn is fading, though, and there's no way to say if it can be reignited. Clay and Rawls believe otherwise. The former was a star in Hi Records' lively firmament during the '70s, someone who had big hits like "Trying to Live My Live Without You" and tearing it up around the country on the chitlin' circuit, while the later was O.V. Wright's bandleader, a fact that'll get Rawls into heaven immediately.
Together they do everything they can on this new album to capture the power of soul music, choosing wise covers like "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and assembling a band with deep power. Not all the new songs get it right, but that's probably quibbling over details, because the fact that someone still cares enough to go for it is enough to light up the dance floor, crack open the Crown Royal or Delaware Punch, depending on personal kicks, and get things started. The rest remains to be seen.
Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco, featuring Billy Hart, Enjoy the View. Great jazz sessions, those moments when a band is totally in sync with each other and the music takes off, are worth their weight in gold. They happen all the time, but when they're as magical as this album it really comes down to how inspired the players are. None of these four really need an introduction, but let it be said that vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson is a natural hero on his instrument, and has been for 60 years. The way he makes the notes float over and through the other musicians is a gift to be in awe of, and as all the notes bounce out of his vibraphone it's like he's set the world bouncing.
Saxophonist David Sanborn is a star in his own right, but here sounds like he's on a private holiday playing straight ahead jazz, which he does with fire and feeling. Organist Joey DeFranceso is keeping the spirit of forefathers like Big John Patton and Jimmy Smith alive and fighting, while drummer Billy Hart just might be the finest stickman alive. He burns. This is an album for anyone who ever loved jazz, no matter what period, and it always works to set the mood and let freedom flow.
Dennis McNally, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Don't let the somewhat serious subtitle of Dennis McNally's thrilling new book throw fear into the brain, because this is a wild ride through musical history. Before it's over, centuries have been traversed, opinions expressed that throw new light on everything we listen to, and appreciation created where none might have been before. Leave it to McNally to make that happen. His first book, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America, helped get him the gig as the Grateful Dead's publicist for two decades. When the band ended, the writer turned all those years into A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.
Never one to sit idle, Dennis McNally dove into this new book, taking on a personal discovery of just how early America's history of literature and politics dovetailed with musical explosions that define what the United States is today. The author wisely zeroes in on early African-American music as the linchpin of what was to come, whether it was Muddy Waters or Miles Davis, and their influences on artists like Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. The expression and inspiration are all intertwined on the road to freedom, and Dennis McNally turns on the lights in a room full of revelations and reimaginings in a way that's never been done. Right on time.
New Orleans Suspects, Ouroboros. If a New Orleans outfit was to cast around for members to start a semi-supergroup, they just might come up with these Suspects. Wisely beginning with a drummer who anchored the kit in the Neville Brothers for over 30 years, "Mean" Willie Greene really needs no introduction. He just is. Bassist Reggie Scanlan played with the Radiators for 33 years. 'Nuff said. Right there is a nonpareil rhythm section. Joining that double dynamite duo are guitarist Jake Eckert from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, keyboardist CR Gruver and Jeff Watkins on saxophone and clarinet. That makes the New Orleans Suspects the musical equivalent above almost any group kicking in the Crescent City, one not to miss by any means.
Their jumping-off point is the funkiness that grooves through New Orleans in visible and not-so-visible ways, permeating every molecule of the City that Care Forgot. It makes the syncopations of the musicians and the undulating madness of their audiences melt into a single thing, something that really doesn't happen anywhere else. Which means the quintet are already one dance move ahead of the competition, and the way they hit a quick plateau shows they know it. Shining on roaring instrumentals beamed in from beyond, and even a few rock moves which show their influences are unending, the quintet make a case they are the new keepers of the flame for where the city's music can go in this century. New Orleans Suspects: guilty as charged. Book 'em, K-Doe.
Madeleine Peyroux, The Best Of: Keep Me in Your Heart for a While. Yes, the early word on singer Madeleine Peyroux was how she was almost channeling the ghost of Billie Holiday. Was that fair? Probably not, even if it was more true than it wasn't. But it didn't take long to hear that Peyroux was her own woman all the way, and it would not be much longer for the comparisons to mean nothing at all. This was someone who was such an incredible artist on her own that it was like a new vocal icon had arrived from another time. That could be because so few recent singers have the depth of Madeleine Peyroux, that almost invisible ability to turn the human voice into a revelation of emotion. There are many singers who try but very, very few who get there every time.
As the albums started rolling and her own character solidified, Peyroux showed an undeniable degree of greatness. She took songs by Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon and others, along with time-honored staples like "Smile" and "La Vie en Rose," and seemed like she could do anything. And in a way, she can. This 15-song label-spanning collection is a calling card for someone who will always walk tall in her own spotlight, bowing to no one, and proving that no matter how influential someone can be early in life, the true originals always find their singular path to glory. Madeleine Peyroux got there, and the best news of all is that she is still going.
HT Young, More Than We Was. From the wide open psychic spaces of central Texas comes HT Young, surely a rebel of the first order who has spent a lifetime breaking the rules and letting the cow pies fall where they may. Young staked his early ground as a member of the Danglin' Wranglers, who terrorized bandstands around Texas during the '80s, and while he may have fallen a bit off the grid after that, he never disappeared. Now he comes roaring back with the kind of breathtaking album which causes heads to wag, and who knows, maybe even dangle a bit.
The songs come from a man who walked to the end of the line but didn't go over the final edge. Young and Danny Levin's lyrics are so from the heart of a struggling survivor that a handkerchief should be included in the album sleeve. "Vagabond Soul," "Say It's Forever" and "No Matter What's Done" roll in like a blue norther, chilling the bones at the same time they warm the heart. HT Young's voice is as cracked and cratered as the Davis mountain range in West Texas, and almost as momentous. Behind all that life lies music for the ages, lovingly co-produced by Young, Levin and Houston White, the man who co-founded Austin's hugely influential psychedelic ballroom the Vulcan Gas Company in 1967. In a year that's seen Nashville street musician Doug Seeger become a superstar in Sweden, who knows — maybe HT Young will find his new force being born in Yugoslavia or some such foreign land. Justice demands no less.