Luther Dickinson, Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger's Songbook Volumes I & II. If there is one person at the head of the class for preserving America's blues heritage right now, that would have to be Mississippi's Luther Dickinson. He comes by it naturally through an early life of watching father Jim Dickinson immerse himself into the sounds of the South, but the way the progeny took it to the next level is a family wonder. Luther Dickinson plays in the North Mississippi All-Stars as well as The Word, but this stripped-down study of all things blues is still a surprise. He takes all strains of the music and turns it into his own songs, one that captures the sturdy strength of someone who sees all the way through. The studio Dickinson uses is Zebra Ranch Electric Church and Fellowship Hall in Coldwater, Mississippi, one way back up off the main road and not far from kudzu castles and creeping wildlife. There is no way to capture these sounds anywhere else, nor is there anyone who could write these songs so rich with heritage and heart. If and when the lawmakers of the great Magnolia State decide to appoint a State Musician, this is the man to get the nod and make sure the place where so much of our musical history started gets taken with such beautiful grace into the future. Have mercy.
Joao Gilberto & Stan Getz, Getz/Gilberto '76. When two such formidable artists as Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz enter such close quarters as the small stage at the much-missed San Francisco club Keystone Korner, the level of intensity can fry even the cable cars going up and down the city's hills. Gilberto, of course, practically co-invented bossa nova with his rhythmic guitar and clear-eyed vocals. Getz needs no introduction, being one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists of his era. This 1976 recording recently surfaced, and it is a solid revelation. Joao Gilberto's voice takes the audience on a trip right out of the jazz room into the starry night, supported by Getz, drummer Billy Hart, pianist Joanne Brackeen, and bassist Cliff Houston. There is an ethereal edge to everything Gilberto sings, like he's captured the glory of his Bahia home and transports it to a brand new world. Somehow Stan Getz walked right into this way of life when he recorded "The Girl from Ipanema" in 1964 with Astrud Gilberto. So this match 12 years later was one meant to happen, and why not San Francisco, a place of so many musical marvels? For anyone hoping to set off subtle sparks with an album of eternal love, start right here.
Lake Street Dive, Side Pony. Can your Monkey do the Dog, or is the Side Pony going to be the next big dance to sweep the nation? If it's up to Lake Street Dive, all bets are off and it's on them to take their audience to the promised land. Lead singer Rachael Price is going to get there, a true fact, and including her fellow band mates in Lake Street Drive seems to be her admirable intent. There can be no doubt that Price is leading this parade. She has one of the great voices right now, one that is all her own, and whether she's flirting with disco era vibrations or laying it all on the line in scintillating soul ballads makes no difference. This singer is one for the ages, someone that could end up siphoning off a million or two of Adele's acolytes if the breaks go her way. Even if Price and Lake Street Dive don't make a big breakthrough this time around, it's only a matter of time before it happens. There's an alluring humanity of this band that never takes them beyond the roots of their raising, and producer Dave Cobb wisely keeps them in their creative comfort zone. There's still plenty of time for rock operas and psychedelic love opuses, but for now Lake Street Dive is like a corner bar where not only does everyone know your name, they also know where you live and how to get you home if the action gets too feisty. Order up now.
Bob Mehr, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. There are band biographies and then there are BAND biographies. Bob Mehr has written one of the very best, partly because of his subject, the mighty Replacements, and partly because of the way Mehr got inside the heart of his story. The Minneapolis group, as infamous for their destructive antics as they are for their music, were once called "the last best band of the '80s," which while laudatory was also an understatement. The Replacements were a band that went to school on the very best rock & roll, and through Paul Westerberg's songs managed to even up that ante and write their name in the history book. Forever. Mehr goes all the way back to the beginning of their childhoods, and paints a picture that not only was their greatness inevitable, but also their ultimate end in 1991 seems preordained. These five musicians weren't just misfits, they were somewhat mangled, especially guitarist Bob Stinson who eventually died by his own misadventure. The book reads like a musical thriller, one that has enough twists and turns that halfway through it doesn't seem like it go any deeper. But deep it goes, and along the way gives a bird's-eye view of the music business at a time when money was flying like Frisbees and every band was just one video away from stardom. It's uncanny how the Replacements felt the emptiness of it all and made sure they went down in infamy before the Top 10 came calling. Not many bands are actually worth a book this great, and leave it to the Replacements to be the group that gets one. Swingin' party indeed.
Eve Monsees and the Exiles, You Know She Did. Take equal parts Jackie DeShannon, Lightnin' Slim, the Go Go's and who knows, maybe the Cramps, blend on high speed for a few minutes and Eve Monsees' sound starts to make sense. The Austin woman is a guitar playing fool, equal to anyone out there now, and her latest foray in the studio is a no-nonsense rockin' holiday. Her and the Exiles have hit the bull's-eye of mixing trash and treasure, and while they may have come up as part of that Texas city's blues crew, it was never going to be a permanent home for a band with such a broad sweep. Eve Monsees and the Exiles could very well be the next group to bust out of that town, and considering that she and Gary Clark Jr. were high school friends raising hell with their guitars makes perfect sense. As does Mike Buck's pedigree as the early drummer in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the one who found many of their off-road cover classics. Doubters are directed to the closing song "Mr. Devil Pt. 2," as sure a sign of gutbucket greatness as has been heard since, well, the Fab T-Bird's bassist Keith Ferguson left the building. As Louisiana legend Lazy Lester always says when he starts a show: "Have fun, it's later than you think."
Willie Nelson, Summertime. When it comes to crossing genres and doing whatever he wants, few artists have outdone Willie Nelson. There isn't a style of music he hasn't put his Midas touch to (well, maybe zydeco and conjunto, but it's probably only a matter of time for those to happen), and this collection of songs mostly written by George and Ira Gershwin is a shining jewel in Nelson's stunning crown. The Texan's relaxed vocals wrap such a warmth around "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Love is Here to Stay" and all the others that it feels like an audio cruise to another land. His musicians never step on his vibe, and guest singers Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow only add to the glow. Willie Nelson is over 65 years in on a wild musical ride that's taken him places no other popular singer has gone, including his new marijuana brand Willie's Reserve. Fortunately, a kind heart and open soul have ensured that no matter where he travels, his listeners will be thrilled at his current destination. The Gershwins' songs have never sounded better, and that's really saying something. Next stop (hopefully): a duo album with San Antonio accordionist Flaco Jimenez titled (what else?) "Tejano Hermanos." Vamonos.
Bonnie Raitt, Dig in Deep. Bonnie Raitt has always been great, but who knew she would make one of the absolutely best albums of her life once she hit AARP-territory. There is something so genuinely moving about this new music that it's like a gift of life. She's written a handful of new songs, mines the catalogue of Los Lobos and INXS and finds a few gems from writers like Pat McLaughlin and Joe Henry, and then produces the damn thing herself. Talk about taking the power into your own hands. But it's exactly those hands—wrapped around a Fender Stratocaster guitar—that first brought Raitt into the public eye. She could play blues like very few others when she hit the spotlight in the early '70s, and for the next 45 years has wound her way around the music business to today, where she lives in a party of one. One of her most obvious strengths is how she sings sadness without falling prey to the darkness below. Instead, she takes those feelings to lift us all up, sharing the sorrow at the same time she shines a light. In so many ways Bonnie Raitt sounds like she's just now hitting second gear, and her journey is one for everyone who shuns fear and can't wait to get to whatever lies ahead. Go Bonnie go.
Mavis Staples, Livin' on a High Note. When you're Mavis Staples and the word goes out you're looking for songs, songwriters listen. Take a look at the list of those who stepped up for Staples' new album: Benjamin Booker, Ben Harper, Valerie June, M. Ward (who also produced the album), Justin Vernon, Neko Case, and Nick Cave. And that's just the half of it. The woman approaches music from a spiritual zone, leaning on all those years singing gospel with her family the Staple Singers, and goes on from there. It gives everything she does a rock-solid foundation, not allowing any tear in the fabric of what she shares. There really isn't anyone else with this much experience and acclaim still making a run at the new world. Mavis Staples has never backed down, and her father Roebuck "Pops" Staples learned her well. This is the third in a series of modern Mavis, the first two produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. The magic is still there, but how could it not be? When you're fighting on the team of the Lord, and you have musical talent in every bone in your body, the celestial world is always right around the corner. And that's exactly where Ms. Staples has always hung her hat.
Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20. The true beauty of Lucinda Williams is how she is devoted to her muse. She will surely follow it anywhere, and in a career that spans nearly 50 years the trail Williams has walked can sometimes seem to defy gravity. This time 'round, the Southerner sounds like she's sprinkled some iridescent peyote dust on her songs, and with some sonic lift by guitarist Bill Frissell and steel guitarist (and co-producer) Greg Leisz has reached yet another plateau. There's never a problem with songs, because Lucinda Williams has such a way with words and music that excellence there is a given. But it's what she does with them on this double album that is deceptively breathtaking. It's almost a quiet strength Williams creates, one that sparks liftoff, and after all this time she still appears to surprise even herself. That's the key to it all, too, because so many artists arrive at this level and then end up repeating themselves. Not Williams, who is likely her own toughest critic. Her late father, poet Miller Williams, obviously set the bar high, and thank goodness for that. She dedicates "If There's a Heaven" to him and it's a beauty. Earlier in the collection, Bruce Springsteen's "Factory" is dedicated to co-producer Tom Overby's late father, so there's definitely a feeling of finality to much of this music, but all in an empowering way. No one gets out alive it is said, but what these fourteen songs show is how this life has so much to teach us and so many places to take us, that we'd be crazy to miss a single shot. What a world.