Bentley's Bandstand: Gillian Welch, Buddy Holly, John Hiatt, Baron Wolman

By , Columnist
Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest. To be able to challenge time and take the faithful on a trip to another era is the sign of a real artist. Singer Gillian Welch has been doing that since the very start when she planted her music in the long-ago South and decided that was where she belonged. Never mind she grew up in Southern California, because imagination trumps all. After several distinguished releases and even some genre-stomping exercursions, Welch now whittles things down to their essence and strikes a chord of redemption.
 
What could almost be a concept album with two separate sides, what is immediately striking is the heavy cardboard compact disc cover. It sets the tone that the woman is trying for a new approach in how her music is presented, likely hoping to break from the past. It works, too. With longtime partner David Rawlings on guitar, banjo and harmonica, their voices circle and inspire each other like plants growing together. It's such a winsome sound the lyrical darkness almost sounds like light. Almost.
 
Song titles like "Dark Turn of Mind," "Down Along the Dixie Line," "Hard Times" and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends" speak for themselves. The juxtaposition of simple harmonies and straight-ahead string playing has always been perfect accompaniment for mining the depths of the human spirit. Country music was built on just such despair. How Gillian Welch is able to zero in on the essence of such puzzling wonderment is a gift for us all.
 
Various Artists, Buddy Holly Rave On. Tribute albums remain tricky exercises in restrained hubris. To take the songs of one person and devote a whole album to different interpretations is to beat the drum pretty hard for the originals, at the same time hoping that the new versions don't pale in their revamped life. Obviously, there is no way to beat the Beatles or the Rolling Stones at their own game, but Buddy Holly? His many hits will always stand as high points of '50s rock, showing how a seemingly common man could pull off an almost-miraculous feat of musical transformation. Holly was a Clark Kent-figure, looking like a high school science teacher with a slight build and thick black-framed glasses. But once his guitar started snapping out "Oh Boy" and "Peggy Sue" and all those other stellar classics he became so much bigger than life.
 
A wide range of artists take on his catalogue here, and there are some beauties. Patti Smith heads the list with "Words of Love," giving a master class in how true inspiration fuels the soul. Others aren't far behind, whether it's Nick Lowe or Cee-Lo Green and Lou Reed or the Black Keys. In the end, the best tribute albums don't so much go beyond their inspiration as redefine what makes the music great. That's what happens with this collection, and for a proud West Texas son like Buddy Holly it's a shining star in his already stellar universe to hear what he started.
 
There is no way to tell what might have been if the musician's plane had not gone down all those years ago, robbing us of several rock 'n' roll pioneers. But to feel how Buddy Holly's music continues to reverberate with such riveting power through the hearts of all these fans is to hear an historical hallelujah of the highest order. Rave on now and forevermore.
 
JohnHiattDirtyJeansMudslideHymnssmall.jpgJohn Hiatt, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. Take the long road out to where nerves are shot and the way back home looks much too dark to ever return. Then keep going, so it gets a little harder to breathe and there is a distinct chance the end of the road is right ahead. That's where John Hiatt goes in so many of his songs, like he's used up his nine lives a long time ago yet has somehow survived. There are very few contemporary songwriters able to invoke the chilly sweat of knowing it's nearly all over like this man, and the way he gets there again on his 20th album is astonishing.
 
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns captures the twilight zone John Hiatt knows so well. It's a world of poor choices and wasted love, but underneath all that shines a light that just will not go out. If any modern musician has proven the power of love better than Hiatt it would be a miracle. It's not like he hasn't been tested, either. Those who know his history sometimes shudder what those early years were like, and what he had to experience. But the songs, as always, keep coming and the 11 here are among Hiatt's best. The supremely expressive voice is all there, strong and centered and ready to make listeners squirm in the tough glare of reality.
 
Producer Kevin Shirley has helped the music walk the tightrope between passion and polish. There comes a point where a little perfection needs to creep into the mix, but the trick is to keep the sound centered down in the dirt. And if you think that's easy, listen to 99% of what's out there now and find anything that tops this album. It's not going to happen. John Hiatt remains one of the heart's most astute excavators.
 
Baron Wolman Every Picture.jpgBaron Wolman, Every Picture Tells a Story...The Rolling Stone Years. In November 1967 when the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine showed up unannounced on newstands, it was like a huge exciting lightbulb came on. Finally, someone realized that those who loved and lived for rock 'n' roll were ready to read about it in the same aura it was now being created. Forget about the teenybopper press; these San Francisco heads were introducing a whole new journalism outside the hipster enclaves of New York and California.

Baron Wolman was their very first staff photographer, and received the keys to the kingdom in the Bay Area and beyond by having that world to work in. He got to document a evolving musical scene as very few others ever did, and didn't waste a single shot doing it.
 
Equally intriguing is Baron Wolman's story. He talks about being at the right place at the perfect time, but also sensing that the culture was changing right in front of his eyes as he became an energetic chronicler of the life around him. All those images in this gorgeous new book are achingly real, documenting such a sumptuous time  of faces and places that it feels like a dream seeing them together in one place: Janis Joplin looking pensive one moment and escstatic the next; B.B. King lost in a world of blues we can only guess at; Jimi Hendrix ready to explode with emotion in front of his mesmerized fans. Nostalgia is a slippery ride, but there is no way not to sense what's been lost the past 40 years while we marvel at an era still unequaled in musical evolution.
 
Wolman's work is a testament to someone who cared enough to get it right. Rather than becoming obsessed with setting up a photo, he let the people themselves become the driving force in the frame, allowing them an atmosphere of trust so they could be themselves. That it worked every time shows the photographer knew to let well enough alone, and also see exactly where greatness walked. Baron Wolman got it.

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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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