Cindy Lee Berryhill, The Adventurist. Here's a singer-songwriter who continually pushes ahead, writing songs that make a difference in people's lives, records albums that are surely moving for her devoted audience and never misses the mark for hitting her highest standards. Her last album, 2007's Beloved Stranger, was one of her best, and this time around she outdoes even that. It was recorded over the past five years and is dedicated to her late husband Paul Williams. The songs capture the heartbreak of losing a loved one and also the hope and faith that come from not falling victim to despair. This is music about the love Berryhill discovered with Williams, and how that has sustained her through very trying times. "Somebody's Angel," "Contemplating the Infinite (In a Kiss)," and "An Affair of the Heart" are songs that show how music offers salvation against the strongest challenges, and by creating it can actually be a life-saving force. There aren't many people who can use a dishwasher as accompaniment for a song like Cindy Lee Berryhill does, and that's the beauty of what can happen when the blinders come off and all of life adds to the dance of love. Hearing is believing.
Gary Clark Jr., Live/North America 2016. Real guitar heroes are in short supply, and they always have been. Maybe the '60s and '70s felt like they freely roamed the earth, and looking back quite a few answered the call. Without doubt Gary Clark Jr. is the most modern version of this endangered species, and the man delivers. Growing up in Austin he pretty much stayed in his room during high school and played guitar. All the time. He was obsessed with what he had to master, and like anyone who wants to take it all the way, he set out to learn everything he could. Once he started playing in public he had the fire in his eyes and was finding out how to translate it down through his heart to his hands. Mission accomplished, because as this new live album attests, Clark can play anything he wants. More importantly, he infuses it with such deep down feeling there is no doubt he's arrived at the place all the great players get to. His sound feels like it is a transmission from his soul to his strings with very little standing in the way. There is no barrier to what he plays, no sidetracking or showboating, and that expression is now fully explosive. Gary Clark Jr. is also a full-time student of all kinds of music, and without doubt he is looking beyond the blues. It's easy to get typecast when you walk in Clark's high-topped boots, but make no mistake: this is a Texan who will journey to distant musical lands and bring back his discoveries in a way that will thrill those who live for music. The dozen songs on this recently-recorded live album point the way to where he is going. Next stop: the promised land.
Kathy & the Kilowatts, Let's Do This Thing! Kathy Murray has a way of finding the most low-down grooves around, and then gluing them together in the kind of barroom blues which is fast disappearing in America. There was a time when every city had a dozen bands who could hit the monkey nerve without hardly trying. That's tightening up now, so groups like Kathy & the Kilowatts are all the more valuable. Murray's voice is full of hard-won edges, and while it will never be mistaken for Adele's, that's not a problem when she has a band like the Kilowatts to make sure the music stays at the dark end of the street. Guitarslinger Bill Jones is another rough rider who never pulls a punch when he's zeroing in lead lines to make the listener sweat. He knows how to put things in the alley and then keep them there. Fortunately there are no efforts to prettify what is being recorded here. Instead, Kathy Murray loves the blues in the eyes and then gives it a quick kick that ensures nothing will be spared in getting the party started. The woman one critic described as "the lovechild of Jimmy Reed and Wanda Jackson" has the perfecto band to bring this mess all the way home. It's most assuredly time to do this thing now.
Lauren Mitchell, Desire. Life falls apart. That's the way it's designed to do. Nothing lasts forever except the self-delusion needed to think it does. Ask Lauren Mitchell. The Florida-based soul singer had the kind of year to crush hearts. She lost her significant other and her band, and wasn't exactly positive which hurt the most. So the woman started over with producer Tony Braunagel and a blazing Southern California band and put things back together big-time. Fortunately one of the things Mitchell didn't lose last year was her voice, and the way it sounds on these new recordings is enough to cause thunder and lightning out of the sky. She collects some choice covers, co-writes a few sultry new songs, and then unleashes a band from above to knock out all the lights. It's amazing this kind of burning sound can be conjured up in a small studio on a quiet neighborhood street. Fortunately there's nothing illegal about it, and Lauren Mitchell is free to share her spirit with all within earshot who need some healing and hallelujahs. Say amen somebody.
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins. This proud son of Whittier, California has been fueling his rock & roll fires for long enough to have them tuned to a fine-edged attack. Chuck Prophet first made his name in Green on Red, an '80s band that should have been much better known than they are. Once the group imploded, Prophet didn't waste time wondering what to do with his life. He started writing his own great songs, made albums that have lasted the test of time, and is now better than just about anyone else alive. He's got an astute eye for the absurd nature of modern life, but never gives up or gives in. He uses that absurdity in writing rock songs like "Jesus Was a Social Drinker" and "If I Was Connie Britton" that hit listeners between the eyes. Chuck Prophet can also turn around and write a romantic killer like "Open Up Your Heart" that likely makes Elton John cry king tears. This is a man who absolutely lives up to his last name, and never goes for the easy way out. Bobby Fuller lives.
Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Got Soul. It doesn't happen that often that a steel guitar-playing African-American captures the total attention of the rock crowd, but that's what Robert Randolph has done the past 15 years. He started on the jam band circuit and has been crossing over into other circles ever since. It's the way he can flat-out wail on his instrument that brings in the civilians to his shows. It's like his instrument is dusted in dynamite and when he lets loose, well, just be assured there is nothing quite like it. Randolph has been consistent in his power, but hasn't quite put the magic combination together to bust all the way through. Maybe that's because most people just don't know quite what to make of a steel guitar, thinking its home is in country music and maybe that's where it should stay. Not so. On his latest album, Randolph and band once again fire up the pyrotechnics and blast off into space. There are also enough moments of introspective soulfulness so it's not all whiplash music. He enlists Anthony Hamilton, Darius Rucker, and Cory Henry as guest vocalists on a song each, but really doesn't need them. Robert Randolph delivers the goods all by himself. That won't change.
Scott Ramminger, Do What Your Heart Says To. This blasting saxophone player usually sticks close to the East Coast with his the Crawstickers, and also hits Nashville regularly for sessions and live shows. For his new album, Ramminger takes a flyer and visits New Orleans and jumps in the middle of the action in the Crescent City. With a band that includes the Meters' George Porter Jr., guitarist Shane Theriot, pianist David Torkanowsky, and drummer Doug Belote, the sax man obviously knows who the kingpins are there. Scott Ramminger brings his own songs too, which makes a huge difference to make this set such a winner. "Living Too Fast," "It's Hard to Be Me," "Looking for Someone New to Disappoint," and "Walk a Little Straighter" sound like instant-classics, which could happen shortly. Between saxophone and vocals Ramminger has the action covered, but we can all can use a little help here and there, which is exactly what singers Tommy Malone, Bekka Bramlett, Francine Reed, the McCrary sisters, Janiva Magness, and Roddie Romero offer. What a first seems like an earnest jump into the Mississippi River down at the end of Canal Street turns into a roll call of greatness that would do Allen Toussaint proud. Wear it out.
Seela, Track You Down. Here come those Canadians again. How is it that a country north of America has such an unbeatable track record for singer-songwriters? And that they usually have to leave the North Country to get their music heard? Seela was born in Ontario to immigrants from India, and moved to Austin in the early 1990s. They'd already started calling the Texas city "the live music capital of the world," and that was enough for her. It didn't take long for the singer to find her way to open mic nights and meet a roomful of like-minded souls. What sets Seela apart is the way she infuses close-to-the-heart love songs with more lofty spiritual yearnings. But the music never becomes burdensome; instead it is filled with the inspiration that lives inside courage. What results is a unique feeling of the high and the low, something that rarely makes it all the way into songs like this. "Awake to Remember Me," "Love, Burn Me Down," and "Brave" find a way through to willing listener, and with backing from many of the best musicians in the Lone Star State, Seela has made music for the ages. All in a voice all her own.
Brenton Wood, The Very Best Of. What are the chances of having two of the hottest singles in the country come out the same year? That's exactly what San Pedro's Brenton Wood did in 1967 with "The Oogum Boogum Song" and "Gimme Little Sign." Which is the true beauty of soul music: beating the long odds. Wood had been a local Southern California singer making his way through the masses when "The Ooogum Boogum Song" first hit. Just the opening piano track was enough to cause listeners to smash the brakes and beg for mercy when it first blared out of their car radios a half-century ago. The music had an instantaneous electricity to it, like a finger being stuck into a light socket. Even the refrain, which to this day sounds like Wood is singing "check out the boots now check out the boots now," defied reality. To follow that up seemed an impossibility, but sure enough a few months later "Gimme Little Sign" did all that and more. This collection has both those nuggets, naturally, along with 14 other thrilling examples of Brenton Wood's seductive voice and no-fooling instrumental savvy. A singing, swinging treasure who continues checking out boots in national nightclubs regularly. Oogum the boogum now.