Nicki and Tim Bluhm write modern songs that always keep a firm foot in the roots of the best American music. Guitarist Darren Ney knows who both Freddie King and Joe South are, and Ney's original on the album, "Waiting on Love," sounds like a hit waiting to happen. For those who keep an eye on the Bay Area to see what's coming next, right now that would be none other than this band. They sing, they soar, they play, and even explode on occasion. Love, lost and found, lives here.
Leon Bridges, Coming Home. It's not hard to tell when the Next Big Thing is on the way. There are photos everywhere, and social media starts jangling like a lit-up Evil Knievel pinball game. Someone has been chosen and, because attention spans are now measured in nanoseconds, the hammer gets dropped. Ft. Worth's finest Leon Bridges is that anointed one this year. Now that his debut album is here, it's easy to see why. He's got the Look, retro soul in all its glory, down to the high-waisted slacks and 1965-inspired album artwork, like the Staple Singers came back with only Pervis Staples on the cover. Inside there's a photo that's a dead ringer for Taj Mahal when he was in his mid-'60s band the Rising Sons. The question is does Bridges deliver the musical goods? Yes and no. Without the bodacious media build-up, this album would have slipped into a righteous groove that a new soul brother had arrived. Even if his backing group is solid rock, Bridges still steers the ship to the territory of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Carl Hall, Howard Tate, and other certified singers of an earlier era, and does it with a fine voice and better-than-average songs. While these originals are not the Second Coming by any stretch, it is a sure bet that a major new presence has arrived, and the future looks bright ahead. Like a Bridges over semi-troubled waters, the young man's sophomore album is the one to watch. Humble suggestion: head for Royal Studio in Memphis, find drummer Howard Grimes, turn up the heat and let a new breed come in and do the Popcorn. Have mercy.
Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams. When it comes to reputations, not many guitarists can top Larry Campbell's. He played for many years for both Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm, and anyone who can cut that mustard is surely a keeper. Campbell also got to ride co-pilot with Levon Helm at Helm's Woodstock studio for recording sessions and the storied Midnight Rambles. At the end of all this, though, Larry Campbell is really an artist in his own right. For this first-time release with wife Teresa Williams, he keeps the songwriting admirably to himself for the most part, and frames each song like it's a world unto itself. Williams is a no-nonsense singer, able to kick up some dirt and then take it to church. Guests like Little Feat pianist Bill Payne, vocalist Amy Helm and her father Levon on drums for one track make the sound full and built with fire. Choosing the Grateful Dead's "Attics of My Life," with Amy Helm also singing, as the closing cut is as sweet and soothing a goodbye to San Francisco's finest as could be imagined. This circle remains about as unbroken as you can get. Hallelujah.
Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands. If there is a new Great American Band right now, no doubt it is Dawes. The quartet comes from Southern California and, like earlier area predecessors the Beach Boys (somewhat), Little Feat (deep down) and, yes, the Eagles—okay, more like Jackson Browne—Dawes captures the emotional gargoyles that haunt this part of America. All is not well under the ever-present sunshine, and no one knows this better than Dawes front man Taylor Goldsmith. He is sensitive enough to be burdened by the huge load of freedom that rules Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbs, from Malibu to Orange County, and to see the shortcomings of a lifestyle that demands happy faces and "have a good days." Goldsmith burrows into the heartbreak behind all that, and his unerring way of shining the light on the personal havoc never fails. Add to that brother Griffin Goldsmith on drums and brotherly love backing vocals, Wylie Gelber on bass and Tay Strathairn on piano and backing vocals, and their synched-in playing, and the Great American Band angle makes more and more sense. Dawes has been around for several albums, and each one is a huge extension from what came before. Their new release might at first sound like it was recorded on a gray day in an Echo Park basement, but that's what these songs took to bring down the quiet thunder. And, yes, brother Brian Wilson would smile and surely approve.
Jose James, Yesterday I Had the Blues. There aren't many singers in the jazz world, or any world, with Jose James' originality. He crosses all kind of boundaries like they are traffic lines to ignore, and has such a strong and seductive voice it often feels like 3:00 AM in a back alley club on another planet. The idea of James taking the music of Billie Holiday and having his way with it is a good one, but one that begs for adventure. Which is exactly what the singer and producer Don Was deliver in aces. No one here is trying to be Ms. Holiday. Instead, they take songs like "Body and Soul," "Tenderly," and others, turning them inside out in a way that helps the standards feel brand new. It really all comes down to Jose James' vocals, which are endearing, enticing, and always exciting. Pianist Jason Moran is right in there, moving the music into unexpected areas with just enough difference to make the songs shine anew, but never lose the listener. With Billie Holiday's 100th birthday this year, there have been several singers paying tribute to Lady Day. Some worked, some didn't. Jose James, along with Cassandra Wilson's homage, are easily at the top level of those who tried to make some of the greatest songs ever recorded live anew in 2015. Bless their hearts.
Rickie Lee Jones, The Other Side of Desire. Count on Rickie Lee Jones to always burn. Soft or quiet, fast or slow, the woman's soul has such a depth of feeling that everything she does actually means something. Thirty-five years into a singular career that has very few equals, Jones reaches down deep and makes one of the very finest albums of her life. Maybe it's because she moved to New Orleans and found a huge wealth of inspiration in the city's streets and stratosphere. It's not that far a stroll from "Chuck E.'s in Love" to her new single, "Jimmy Choos." In fact the latter might be one of the very finest tracks Jones has recorded since the former, filled with an infectious love of life and all its foibles that no one does better than this lady. The lucky 13 new songs are all wide open with love, and make the discovery of each one a wondrous surprise. Think of someone who might have been locked inside a house with heavy shades for several years. All of a sudden they're cruising down St. Charles in the middle of the Crescent City, with the big oak trees and huge old houses, jumping on and off the 100-year-old streetcar all the way to the Maple Leaf bar uptown on Oak. Once there, the Rebirth Brass Band has set everyone's chicken free, and Rickie Lee Jones, umbrella in hand, is leading the parade around the dance floor. This is an album for the ages, and very few better ones will be heard this year. Everything is on it, but most of all it's one person's poetic soul exploding into the stars. Such a night—and sight.
Preston Lauterbach, Beale Street Dynasty. The subtitle for this mesmerizing book says it all: "Sex, Song and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis." It's the story of one of the most influential streets in American music, Beale Street, and what made it such a wild and wonderful place. Like many American stories, it involves an incredibly influential family, starting with Robert Church, who would become the South's first black millionaire. Author Preston Lauterbach's writing style tells the story with such energetic feeling, it's almost impossible to stop reading. Church, luckily for readers, put together a burgeoning repository of saloons, gambling, and even white prostitution. Nothing stopped his march forward, and along the way he battled outside and inside forces for control of Beale Street, making necessary alliances with the city's white power structure. The racial and economic clashes between the two sides are among the great historical legacies underneath the often-told textbook histories of American cities. The way Beale Street's activities helped launch the start of rhythm & blues puts it right at the top of places that should be understood. When singers like B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnny Ace, and Junior Parker were called the Beale Street Boys, it's no accident that's where they came together. History defines who we are, and Lauterbach has made a mighty contribution to helping Americans understood this vital link in that pursuit.
Little Richard, Directly From My Heart. From the person who put the "wop-bop-a-loo-mop" in the "a-lop-bam-bom," it's about time a box set came around that really does capture the King and Queen (one-stop shopping here) of rock & roll in all his ‘good God ya'll’ glory. Richard Penniman may have started out as a somewhat pedestrian blues singer, but once he hit "Tutti Fruitti" territory, he shook music down to its gritty gore, and paved the way for everyone—right up to Lady Gaga—to let their freak flag fly. It's absolutely no accident that one of Jimi Hendrix's early gigs was in Little Richard's band. This three-disc set, complete with no-jive liner notes by singer Billy Vera, gathers the ammo to make the case Little Richard is the greatest rock & roller of all time, and most definitely one of the four pillars, along with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino, holding up the entire building. Listening to the band at Cosimo Mattasa's New Orleans studio on Little Richard's early Specialty Records sessions is like peeking behind the curtain of musical history, knowing that what was happening would change the world. All of the best of those years is gathered here, an erogenous-fueled collection of musical treasures. Also included is a disc full of Little Richard's later work for Vee-Jay Records, and though those years might not have been as liberating they do extend Mr. Penniman's purview into new territory. One of the closing tracks, "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me," long said to include guitarist Hendrix's work, is a perfect example of perfection. Who can resist a master shaman laying out his very heart for all to see? Long live the King (and Queen).
Rolling Stones, Marque Club Live in 1971. Who really knew that deep down the Rolling Stones will forever remain a bar band? Sure, their stage sets often rival a traveling circus from Gomorrah, and Mick Jagger's dance hijinks would put a pole dancer at Carol Doda's to shame, but strip all that away and this band is blasting out blues and basic rock like a thousand working bands across American on a Friday night. The Stones just happen to be the best at it. This somewhat-unreleased live concert film and album from the English club where the band first earned their name shows just how elementally powerful the group is. There is no hoo-hah surrounding them; the quintet, with added tenor sax and trumpet, just come out to play. And what playing they do. Mick Taylor was still slightly new to the Stones, but the bluesy terror he adds to the songs must be seen to be believed. And sax man Bobby Keys is worth his weight in gold. He steals the stage on every song he solos on, and it's a wonder Jagger's jealousy allowed him to stay. Naturally, the key to the Rolling Stones' sound is drummer Charlie Watts, who never hits a beat that doesn't need hitting, and when Watts crashes a cymbal it stays crashed. Watch him, and you'll see why the rest of the band agrees they'll continue to perform as long as Charlie Watts wants to. When the man puts down his drum sticks for good, that's the end of the Stones. Taped shortly before their Sticky Fingers album came out, this might just be the Rolling Stones at their most powerful and revealing. Even the makeup is minimal. Let it rock.
Various Artists, Sawyer Sessions. Yep Roc Records are clearly good neighbors. When they recently moved offices to Hillsborough, North Carolina—in Haw River to be exact—they figured a good way to introduce themselves to their new surroundings would be for a dozen of their artists to record songs in the area. So off people like Dave Alvin, Eleni Mandel, Chatham County Line, Robyn Hitchcock, Chuck Prophet, The Autumn Defense, and others went, recording in a wide variety of spots, but all within 4.3 miles of the label's new location in the almost 100-year-old Sawyer Building. The results are thrilling. There is an improvised freshness to all of them, sounding like they could have been done in your living room with an audience of close personal friends. Each and every song is a highlight, so it's not fair to single any one out, but for those looking for a new collection of music spirited by good vibrations and regional spirit, start right here. Yep yep hooray.