Jon Cleary, Occapella. First the good news: this isn't an album of a cappella singing. Nothing against that honored tradition of vocalese, but Jon Cleary is an Englishman who so immersed himself in the music of New Orleans that it would be a crime to waste all those Crescent City chops on anything less than a Louisiana landslide. And, luckily, that's just what he has in mind too, as he takes the songs of Allen Toussaint and does a real number on them. You can't walk away from this album without some supercharged glide in your stride and bounce in your booty.
Opening with "Let's Get Low Down," Cleary announces his intentions straight up. Enlisting his former bandleader Bonnie Raitt and the unbeatable Dr. John to throw in vocals lays out just what the singing piano player has in store. Toussaint's songs capture the full range of everything awesome about New Orleans, from the happy to the sad and from the worldly to the otherworldly. There is no emotion left untouched and luckily for listeners Jon Cleary knows the man's catalogue from top to bottom. He can put a funky spin on "Poor Boy Got to Move," and then add king-sized tears on "Wrong Number" without missing a lick. His group, Absolute Monster Gentlemen, live up to their name with ease. The players' gorgeous subtlety on "What Do You Want the Girl to Do" is matched by Cleary's aching vocal, but it doesn't stop them from cutting up big time on "Popcorn Pop Pop." That's the Big Easy for you, from sleazy-deasy joints on Decatur Street to uptown mansions in Audubon Place.
In the enlightening book Stranded, where numerous writers pick their one favorite album to be left alone with on a remote island, Jay Cocks chose one by Huey "Piano" Smith. Writing in high praise about that music, he describes its core as "endless antics of absolute insignificance." Which, in reality, isn't a slight at all but a way of saying that on classics like "Don't You Just Know" and "Tu-ber-cu-lucas and the Sinus Blues," Smith captures the essence of rock and roll's inspiration in our lives. It paints the world with fascinating colors, sometimes out of nothing more than a simple snare drum beat or a humorous couplet, and gives true believers a place to feel alive. Jon Cleary comes through on all fronts, shining like a shooting star across those Southern nights.
Marvin Etzioni, Marvin Country!. Wow. Sometimes great things really do come to those who wait. One look at the line-up on multi-talented Marvin Etzioni's double-disc release speaks to a committed musician working to leave no song unturned. Collaborators include former Lone Justice band mate Maria McKee, John Doe, Lucinda Williams, Dixie Hummingbirds, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, and more. It's such a wide-ranging affair that Etzioni himself takes on a Zelig-like persona, someone who seems to be everywhere with an uncanny ease and graceful presence. True that.
As a producer, the Los Angeleno has covered the bases: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Counting Crows, and Peter Case. His original songs have been covered by everyone from Cheap Trick to Victoria Williams and he's played with the Dixie Chicks and beyond. The way Etzioni weaves these solo renditions with the dozen duets sounds like he had a master plan in putting this set together, and provides an intriguing lesson of what one musician's life can add up to in the crazy world of popular music. This is someone who never let go of the vision he had many years ago, maybe when he first picked up his trusty guitar and mandolin, as he hit the stages and studios in the City of Angels. Very few have had more adventures, and even gotten so close to the brass ring, as he has. The best news is how he still hangs his hat in the now and isn't about to start looking backward.
At his center, Marvin Etzioni has always been his own man, writing songs that cut straight to the challenge of finding a bigger truth. "Where's Your Analog Spirit?," "You are the Light," "Diamond in the Sky," and ""Miss This World" feel like hard-won words from the wise, ancient and modern at the same time. His lyrics on the back of the booklet say it all: "Hold fast your dreams / don't sell your soul / hold fast your dreams / it's all you need to know." Amen to that, Mr. Etzioni, and don't forget us out here in the dark.
Grateful Dead, All the Years Combine: The DVD Collection. The Mothership is landing — again. For tie-dyed in the wool Grateful Dead fans, too much is never enough. Truly. Even with the band being long-gone almost 20 years, their spark still burns hot in so many hearts that the endless reissues of albums and performances shows no signs of slowing down. Nor should it, because let's face it: there really is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. To help prove that high-flying thesis, this (literal) box set provides more than sufficient audio and visual ammo.
Included in this collection are The Grateful Dead Movie and The Closing of Winterland films, along with an astounding array of live concerts starting at New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1980. Though some might say this period wasn't the Grateful Dead's greatest era, that's quibbling because they still reach the mountaintop enough to give a glimpse into that glowing space where the molecules align and psychic liftoff occurs. Let's be honest — this is a band that made the most sense under the influence of LSD, and as bassist Phil Lesh once said, "they tried to play to the hallucinations." Trying to describe the space they created remains beyond the grasp of all who've tried, and there have been many, but always holds out hope we can go there again.
It's tough chasing the past sometimes, but when it comes together it can be worth it. The Grateful Dead wrapped up the whole ball of wax of American music and set it on fire with blazing improvisation and down-home truth. They worked in Technicolor, and never set out for less than the heavens. Like with all gambles, the group may have missed as many times as they arrived there, but one of the lessons they always taught was that it was not the getting there but the going that really counted. All these songs and visuals give testament to that glorious journey, and add to the aura of the American dream. The golden road to unlimited devotion goes on forever.