Johnny Adams, I Won’t Cry: The Complete Ric & Ron Singles 1959-1964. In 1983, Johnny Adams, the man Dr. John called “the greatest soul singer out of New Orleans ever,” could be found holding court onstage at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge, a block or two from the famous Dooky Chase’s restaurant in the Crescent City, and not too far from the Claiborne projects where Adams then lived with his aging mother. It wasn’t a great neighborhood, and cab drivers were sometimes reluctant to let their passengers out there. But once inside, the club had the feel of the coolest nightclub in the universe. The audience was one mass of undulating humanity, the lights were colored and had a luminous shine and Johnny Adams, dressed resplendently in a shiny maroon silk suit and the sharpest shoes in show business, was singing “I Am a Tree.” Of course, it was 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning so the gospel classic made complete sense.
Adams had already been onstage for hours. He usually started around 3 a.m. if his guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington had actually shown up by then. But once Johnny Adams, nicknamed “the Tan Canary,” began his seductive attack on the soul, women fainted and men stared in outraged jealousy. How could anyone be that good? How could anyone take a song and turn it into a living thing, something that crawled inside the heart and made it beat hotter and faster? That’s exactly what Adams did for years and years, and this collection of his earliest singles gives testament to a talent that transcends mere mortals. Dr. John did not throw compliments out like old Mardi Gras beads. He gave them only to those who had truly earned them. What he said about Johnny Adams was absolutely true from note one. And still is. Doubters are directed to “A Losing Battle” on this superb collection, co-written by (who else) Dr. John, and the kind of song and singing where the soul of man really does live forever.
Buena Vista Social Club, Lost and Found. When the irresistible band of Cubans ultimately tagged the Buena Vista Social Club first came together under Ry Cooder’s visit there in 1996, not only did history get made but it was like a new birth occurred. Musicians who had often gone dormant received a vital injection of new worth, and proceeded to conquer the world. The first album under their banner has sold ten million copies and counting, and many of the singers and players went on to vibrant solo careers. The welcome news now is that there are two recordings from those original sessions available, and they’ve been paired with a series of live performances and later studio dates in Cuba.
This is music that is so lively and downright inspiring the head can only shake in wonder. To realize that there were times when it might not ever have been heard again is a fate too sad to fathom. But come alive it has, and this album’s worth of 13 rollicking tracks feels like a postcard from a sister planet where the trumpets soar, timbales blast, and the human spirit is able to shine in all its glory. Names like Ibrahim Ferrer, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, and all the other captivating Cubans are spread throughout the album, bringing a gift not often heard in the music business these days. Now that the diplomatic curtain between Cuba and the United States is being rolled up, who knows what the future may bring? Ry Cooder, please pick up the brown courtesy phone.
Fireships. A trip to the Hudson Valley is like returning to the source. Not far from Manhattan, it’s really a lifetime away, a place of nature’s overpowering pull along with the tug of literary and cultural pioneers. Any place that could call everyone from Washington Irving to Pete Seeger among its one-time residents isn’t fooling around. Fireships’ Andrew Vladeck is a New York City man now based in Brooklyn, and his band Fireships mixes the earth and the streets like many great bands do, but most of all they feel like something brand new. Their time in the Hudson Valley surely inspired their music, and the fresh air there is all over these songs.
Vladeck is joined by Lauren Balthrop, Jason Lawrence, Chris Buckridge, and Hannah Thiem and together with several special guests, including David Amram, they really do sound like they’re heading for undiscovered territory. It’s almost impossible to find an area of rock that hasn’t been overdone, but this band conjures up a sound that takes in the sky and skyscrapers simultaneously, and in a way that opens up possibilities instead of limits them. Though this is their debut album, there’s good odds it won’t be Fireships' last. They have found a spark to share, right in the nick of time. Final stop — Poughkeepsie and a visit to the final resting place of Velvet Underground guitarist Holmes Sterling Morrison. Their lives were saved by rock and roll.
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Live in 1967. It’s a true fact that John Mayall’s mentorship of a lot of British musicians was a proving ground that is still unequaled in that land. The best known is Eric Clapton, but Clapton’s successor in the band, Peter Green, was a player who could hold his own with anyone, not to mention that Green went on to found Fleetwood Mac. Let’s not forget that Green’s next heir to Mayall’s guitar chair was the 19-year-old Mick Taylor, who soon left to join that other English band committed to spreading the blues news called the Rolling Stones.
This live album was recorded surreptitiously in five different clubs over a three-month period in London. Besides Mayall and Green, the rhythm section was bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. It’s easy to see where they all eventually ended up with Peter Green. These nights, though, were stone blues, and while the recording quality is a little dicey, the forceful feeling the quartet exuded shines through on every song. Much of that power is thanks to Peter Green. As a blues guitarist, he was in a class by himself. Never showy and not prone to pyrotechnics, instead Green cut to the core of human pain and with his guitar leads could point the way forward. There isn’t anyone who came later that really matched his depth-charge blues, and even he never quite hit the peak he did with John Mayall ever again. But in 1967, the man set the world on fire, and these live recordings show how. From Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” to T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” this album is an incredible treasure. And blues guitar guru Freddie King—with two covers on this collection—surely is smiling somewhere.
Van Morrison, Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue. This album should be a chill-bumper from start to finish. Digging into one of the era’s great songwriters, there is an endless list of music for Van Morrison’s duet partners to choose. And choose they do, sometimes with spectacular results and sometimes with somewhat staid renditions. The best news is that Morrison himself sounds in great voice. In fact, there are times when him doing all these songs solo might have been a better idea, but that wasn’t to be.
Bobby Womack quickly kicks things off on Funky Street with “Some Peace of Mind.” It was one of Womack’s last sessions, and it’s a keeper. Other highlights include Mavis Staples (always) on “If I Ever Needed Someone,” P.J. Proby doing (what else) “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby,” Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall on “Streets of Arklow,” and maybe the highlight of them all, Steve Winwood on “Fire in the Belly.” There is something about Morrison and Winwood’s voices together that begs for a full album. Of all the singers to emerge from the U.K. during the mid-‘60s, none ever expressed deeper soul, or knew how to zero in on the emotional center of a song, better than these two. They soar together like long-lost blue-eyed soul brothers. It’s truly a wonder to hear them finally working together 50 years later. Van Morrison does himself mighty proud picking songs some might not expect, and even partners that are somewhat of a surprise (Michael Bublé and George Benson, anyone?). Then again, since when does the Belfast Cowboy follow anyone’s road but his own? Long may he walk it—alone or with others.
Boz Scaggs, A Fool to Care. Sometimes an artist will find a true home after 50 years of exploring all kinds of landscapes. It’s often a place not that far from where they first started, and almost always a style that speaks directly to their heart. Boz Scaggs has found that place. On his new album, the Texan concocts a completely touching brew of rhythm and blues, soul, uptown ballads, and downtown grooves. Whether it’s on Li’l Millet’s “Rich Woman,” the Spinners' “Love Don’t Love Nobody” or the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud,” Scaggs’ rich and emotional voice captures perfectly what this music is meant to do — move the listener.
With producer Steve Jordan, it’s almost like alchemy what the singer and players come up with. When Scaggs is joined by Bonnie Raitt on his original “Hell to Pay,” sparks fly, and when Lucinda Williams steps in on The Band’s “Whispering Pines,” her breathtaking vocal causes spirits to get shaken up. Of course, there’s usually a left-field surprise to go along with all this greatness, and here it’s the British singer Richard Hawley’s “There’s a Storm Comin’,” where Boz Scaggs spins those silk degrees into pure gold. A soul man to the end.
Staple Singers, Freedom Highway Complete. Fifty years ago almost to the day, the Staple Singers entered Chicago’s New Nazareth Church to perform their songs for those embattled in the midst of a cultural upheaval. The civil rights movement in America was spilling blood and rocking boats, and often it didn’t seem like there was a way forward from all the pain. But Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his children Mavis, Yvonne, and Pervis believed in the power of song to turn that world around. Their convictions could not be shaken no matter how hard the bigots and non-believers tried.
This church performance is finally gathered in its entirety, and shows what amazing power the Staple Singers are capable of. Song after song pours forth, leading those whose very lives depended on a change that was going to come towards a promised land. When Mavis Staples takes on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” time stops and God really does seem to enter the house. Hearing all that happened on April 9th in this Chicago church is such a treasure of incredible insight and joy that it feels like the heavens have opened up for everyone to experience. The wonder of gospel music to heal wounds and light fires once again rules the world, and takes the faithful straight down that hallelujah trail.
Sun Ra, Space is the Place. The early ‘70s in America were a free-for-all. The counterculture movement had been stalled out in a stagnant state of inertia. Hard drugs had put an end to the euphoric promises of psychedelic bliss. Good things came out of hippiedom, but as an alternative lifestyle there were bills coming due that clearly could not be paid. The civil rights movement had turned towards Black Power as an answer to society’s injustices, which drove apart the races even more. Sun Ra had an answer to it all, proclaiming, “We cannot change the world. But, if we are brave enough, we can change ourselves.” The movie Space is the Place was his training film for that brave new world. First released to an unsuspecting and somewhat uninterested audience, the film took Sun Ra’s jazz-based vision and let him, almost literally, shoot off into outer space. There was never anything like it previously, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.
The reissue producers David Katznelson and Barbara Bersche were clearly overwhelmed by the musician’s achievement and have assembled an over-the-top homage to the movie and music. Included are extensive interviews with the film’s producer, assistant director, cinematographer, and a key actor called “the Cosmic Overseer,” along with a knocked-out collection of still photographs that capture the era with an undeniable exciting exuberance. Besides the DVD of the original and director’s cut, there is also a CD of music featured in the film that proves Sun Ra was right: space is the place, and as long as mankind looks upward it can never be replaced. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne writes in his foreword, “Sun Ra: an artist from another planet whose music, while thought of as Jazz, is an unclassifiable vehicle of intergalactic enlightenment and an opportunity for freedom of the soul.” Right on.
Leo Bud Welch, I Don’t Prefer No Blues. Any singer born in Sabougla, Mississippi in 1932 has some tales to tell. It’s usually a matter whether they live long enough to do it. Somehow the spotlight has escaped bluesman Leo Bud Welch most of his years, but that started to change not long ago. His raw and ravaging voice began to invade the psyches of bluesniks, and lo and behold, Welch found a following. He began playing festivals and nightclubs that didn’t have a dirt floor, and was even written about in fancy newspapers and magazines.
Though the Tonight Show hasn’t come calling, maybe it’s just a matter of time, because what Leo Bud Welch has that money can’t buy is authenticity. He’s lived the life some musicians just dream about, and has escaped being taken down early for it — so far. His songs come from hard times cutting timber for a living and getting by on next to nothing, and also from someone who doesn’t blink in the eye of uncertainty. It is no accident that his record label is named Big Legal Mess, and that Welch could probably back down an entire stage full of English bluesters. This man is the real deal, in a time when there’s not much real left in any deal, much less a blues singer’s. This blues era is getting near the end, so don’t delay: get it while you can.
Rusty Zinn, The Reggae Soul. Nothing beats observing someone chasing their life’s dream. It’s like they’ve shed the shackles of life and get to float above the earth in a reverie of cooldom. Rusty Zinn has just done that. His lifelong love of rock steady music is something that rises above for him. Though he’s known primarily as a blues guitarist, now he gets to stretch his wings and fly with a whole new sound for him. What a sound it is. On every single song here, Zinn sounds like this is the music he was born with. There is never a hint of being a sonic tourist; instead he sings with a lifelong love filling his voice, and has written all but three of the songs with such unerring instinct they all sound like they were born in the ‘60s when rock steady was just turning into reggae. Think Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” for early roots of the sound, and then add a half-century of development.
Rusty Zinn had to do this album, that much is clear. What he delivers is a bit like sleight-of-hand, because he does it so strong and seamlessly. Even the covers are clairvoyant-like. Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is a jubilant cry of love, and Jimmy Holiday’s “Turning Point” is enough to put plenty of glide in any stride. “Is There a Place” was kick-started by Paulette Walker’s early version of a Gladys Knight classic, and shows how the rock steady circle remains wide open. Rusty Zinn even uses some original players and tracks from the Jamaican originals, showing how far he’s gone into the zone. Albums are often like love letters, and this one comes straight from the heart of an American musician who has stepped into his musical homeland. Congo bongo forever!