Bentley's Bandstand: Bobby Womack, Nicki Bluhm, Texas Tornados

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Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe. There aren't that many real-deal soul giants left from the glory days of rhythm and blues. That life takes a heavy toll on artists, not to mention the cruelty of changing tastes and the ravages of age. But Bobby Womack is a singer who was born to greatness, and even though his voice now is a victim to all the vices and vagaries of stardom, he stands tall in who he is and what he has done. Joining with the mega-group Gorillaz gave him a new lease on life, and now producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell take it to the limit and let Womack run wild. Never has bravery sounded so strong.

When he started singing with family band the Valentinos, no one might have guessed the long road ahead for Bobby Womack. That group scored an early hit with "It's All Over Now," later covered by the young Rolling Stones, and it wasn't long before Womack himself was off on a tear into solo territory, venturing down Muscle Shoals way to create some deep soul classics and show that Alabama crew a thing or two about playing guitar. The '70s saw him strutting in high cotton, scoring massive chart toppers and looking like the good times would never stop. Naturally, everything slows down and in recent years Womack's light grew dimmer. Enter Gorillaz and their wondrous following of the hipster hordes. Albarn and Russell know a good thing when they hear it and turned up the juju for a whole album, and wouldn't you know Bobby Womack is right back on Broadway.

The way The Bravest Man in the Universe has been created can only come from those who view the recording studio as a separate instrument unto itself, which these two producers decidedly do. Between synthesizers from other planets, background singers who sound like Donald Duck drunk on Courvoisier, and Womack's vocals from beneath the volcano, there has never been an album quite like this. It screams off into brand new territory but is always rooted in the fried chicken-and-biscuits reality where so much soul music starts.

Bobby Womack is never asked to put on a clown mask, and would probably shoot anyone who suggested it. No, he gets to lay his hurt on thick, whether it's on "Please Forgive My Heart" or "Whatever Happened to the Times." And check this special guest action: Lana del Rey, Gil Scott-Heron, and Fatoumata Diawara. Now there's a hat trick of total diversity. Add in the Sam Cooke song "Dayglo Reflection" with the closing hallelujah visions of "Jubilee (Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around)," and you have some serious amen moments. Bobby Womack is taking it to the promised land, and he's signing up fellow travelers to make that sweet journey home.

Nicki Bluhm, Driftwood. There are fine, fine singers working in cites all across America, and sooner or later the ones destined for stardom have an uncanny ability of finding their way to that level. In San Francisco, that list would have to be topped by Nicki Bluhm. She released her debut album four years ago, but since that time has taken over clubs and festivals up and down the West coast, along with other places around the country. The ability to find the heart of every song she sings marks her for greatness, and it seems only a matter of time before the world finds that out. Driftwood should help that happen just fine.

Bluhm's voice isn't startling, which is actually a good thing. The world has had enough of the award show singers who can break glass from 50 feet, and wouldn't know subtlety if it strangled them in a recording booth. This woman instead lets the music pour out of her like it's an endless stream, sometimes turning it up and other times just letting it be. That's the mark of true greatness, to not have to struggle in making all the notes add up to an undeniable force. Nicki Bluhm has found the force.

Working with the Bay Area's best players, including husband Tim Bluhm from Mother Hips, Bluhm's second album could be the one to open all those doors. Over half the songs are her originals, and especially on "Jet Plane" and "Figure You Out" has found that place inside where the glow gets brightest. Guitarist Deren Ney contributes "Carousel" and "Barbary Blues," proving himself a secret weapon on that front, and Tim Bluhm provides the closing highlight with his "Wall of Early Morning Light." And, for the perfect segue to the Texas Tornados review below, Nicki Bluhm's unerring ears found Doug Sahm's "I Wanna Be Your Mama Again" still bouncing around the Haight-Ashbury air and pulled it down to earth for a heart-warming return. San Francisco still has the magic, and to hear it now start right here.

Texas Tornados, Live from Austin TX. Self-christened the Tex-Mex Beatles, Sir Douglas Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers came together in late 1989 at a nightclub in San Francisco, not even planning to conquer the world. But after that evening, all four knew it was their destiny to create a musical whirlwind and blow minds wherever they touched down. And that's exactly what they did for the next six years, until reality set in and the band went their separate paths. Both Sahm and Fender didn't make it into their senior years, but what crazy fun it was while they lasted.

This Austin City Limits concert from 1990 shows a relatively new band revved up to warp speed and spreading the Tejano love from every which direction. The group really was an embarrassment of riches. Fender is one of the great ballad singers of all-time, like a Latino Aaron Neville, while Flaco Jimenez's accordion should be sitting in the Smithsonian someday. Meyers has a rollicking lope that is deceptively cool, and Sahm is simply beyond category or explanation. Let it be said he created his own far-out world of sounds and was never shy about sharing his greatness.

Over these 19 songs is a musical history lesson whose likes we won't see again. "She's About a Mover," "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio," "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" — they're all here and so many more. It's a breathless ride through a landscape of incredible passion and out-and-out joy, and watching these four men at the start of their last adventure is like witnessing the Wild Bunch at the top of their game, but instead of robbing banks they're spreading love and happiness.They've got poetry in them, and believe it: it's got to come out.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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