Bombino, Nomad. Omara "Bombino" Moctar was born in Tidene, Niger, a Tuareg encampment not far from Agadez, and is a member of the Ifoghas tribe, which belongs to the Kel Air Tuareg federation. If that's the kind of information that has your head in a swirl and either running for a spinning globe or the latest copy of National Geographic, don't feel alone. What's even more important about Bombino's music is that it is capable of throwing a trancelike spell on those so inclined, and for the civilians among us will induce sporadic dancing and gleeful shouts of uninterrupted joy. Bombino earned his nickname, derived from the Italian word for "little child," as a youthful guitarist studying with guru Haja Bebe. When he was only 17, the teenager was a working musician in Agadez, ready to chase the wind and let his songs take him where they would.
This time around Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach knew a great thing when he heard it and signed on as producer for Bombino. The Ohio-bred blues-rocker luckily lets all the original fire that Bombino specializes in stay intact, and together they find a way to throw even more gasoline on it. This is no attempt to take African music uptown and polish it to a shiny glow. Bombino is on a spiritual path, one that opens up the senses to a higher world on songs like "Amidinine," "Her Tenere" and "Zigzan." Despite a language barrier it's impossible not to feel the belief-o-meter turned up to 12, and all the musicians circling the light. World music continues to spread the word about other cultures to anyone within earshot, and every now and then one release will become a beacon. That one has arrived this year, and hopefully Bombino will start tearing up the concert circuit around North America soon, and show audiences that the distance between Kel Air and Bel Air really isn't that far after all.
Semi-Twang, The Why and the What For. Milwaukee might not have ever been known as Music Central, but it would be a mistake to overlook all the incredible bands which have called that city home. One of the best, then and now, is Semi-Twang, led by singer-songwriter John Sieger. Their particular name might be familiar to roots music mavens who clued into an '80s band dubbed the R&B Cadets, which featured Sieger and fellow frontman Paul Cebar. Just when it looked like they were approaching liftoff, the former split and formed Semi-Twang to pursue a destiny aimed at stardom and beyond. Of course it didn't quite work out that way, but luckily for listeners the group has continued for 25 years to record albums, tour the Great Lakes region and create whatever havoc aging rockers can accomplish. Music-wise, at least, that's a lot—as evidenced on Semi-Twang's latest opus.
What these six scintillating musicians muster should be enough for anyone, as they take the tried-and-true barroom groove that's always been their second nature and add enough originality to take it well past last call. John Sieger's songs have always been their ace in the hole, and once again he pulls a royal flush. Starting with "The Wrong Side of the Tracks" and "52 Jokers," the man might just be the most underrated writer in rootsy rock today. Every one of these dozen originals, three co-written with lyricist Mike Feldman, sound like they've been on our mental juke box since the '70s, and a few could have topped that neural hit parade. They twist and turn and never end up quite where expected, while Sieger sings like if he misses his mark they'll make him sleep outside in a Milwaukee winter. The man cares, no matter who is or isn't listening, and for that he and the band should receive at least a key to the Blatz brewery, even if it's been bought and sold like an old Chevy II. When it comes to rock and roll for sonic boomers, there is nothing semi about Semi-Twang. They're ready to take you all the way anytime or anywhere.
Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign. Narrow anything down far enough, and surely Albert King's 1967 album falls into a very short list of the greatest music ever recorded. There are many reasons, starting with King's hellishly vital guitar playing and mountain-moving vocals, closely followed by backsnapping backup from Booker T. & the MGs. There was a spirit in the air then for a bluesman to open a door and burn down the house for rock audiences. B.B. King got close, but his style was a little polished for most. And Freddy King, as truly awesome as he was, couldn't quite get past the color line. Albert King did, and things were never the same. Starting with the title single, the big man could bear down on the blues like someone swinging a lead pipe, and then turn as gentle as an oversized lamb. It was this dichotomy of terror and sweetness that made Albert King such a natural force of nature for those who blues was like life itself.
The original Born Under a Bad Sign release included 11 songs, and even today it feels like every single one is a gem. "Crosscut Saw" is a ghettoized rhumba that absolutely sizzles, while "Down Don't Bother Me," "The Hunter" and "Laundromat Blues" are a blues lover's perfect trifecta. Then there's "Personal Manager" and "Oh, Pretty Woman," both street-sharp takes on how love can be handled from top to bottom. King was also no stranger to American classics, showing his gorgeous hand on the ballads "I Almost Lost My Mind," "As the Years Go Passing By" and "The Very Thought of You." Only Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City" now sounds ever so slightly dated, but swings enough to get the job done. This new reissue includes four alternate takes and one unreleased instrumental, all unneeded, really, in proving that Albert King always lived up to his last name. And for a shining moment in 1967, when the world was feeling the turmoil of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War at the same time it was straining to come together and build bridges to a new age, a bluesman was leading the charge to set us free. Bless Albert King's Gibson Flying V guitar for pointing the way.