Bentley's Bandstand: Michael Kiwanuka, John Fullbright, the Durocs

By , Columnist

Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again. News of this young Englishman has been boomeranging around America for awhile now. His intriguing blend of soul and folk music has a way of becoming suitably addictive. It takes a keen listening, but there is a small wonder at work on Kiwanuka's debut album. There is also the feeling that as a singer-songwriter he is just getting started, and the path in front of him is passionate and promising. He pulls in influences from such brilliant sources as Al Green, Van Morrison, Terry Callier, and others, that there is clearly a deep well living inside the young man. Now it's just a matter of getting it out.

The best news about the album is that is breaks all the patterns that could have trapped the singer. There is no attempt to make Michael Kiwanuka into a post-Adele soul man, or a bluesy new Robert Cray. Rather each track has its own individualistic center. Album opener "Tell Me a Tale" could almost be an outtake from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks masterpiece. The swinging time signature coupled with flutes, strings, and horns harkens to a a time when rock was unfettered and all bets were off where it could go. When he gets to "Rest," it's like the Brit took a trip to Memphis' Royal Studio and brought Al Green's late producer Willie Mitchell back from the grave to capture the burning beauty of a long-lost heartbreaker. Seriously, the song is a time-stopper that shows this young man is a true contender. He even pulls in the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach to produce "Lasan," a gorgeous prayer that must have James Carr smiling somewhere, and ends the album with an overwhelming warmth.

Michael Kiwanuka has listened to the masters, and isn't afraid to find their trail, get right back on it and see where it takes him. Song after song brings an exciting surprise, so by the end of Home Again it's like a brand new friend has come to hopefully stay. Producer Paul Butler has given the recordings an undeniable spirit; there are no walls and no preconceptions. Everything is possible and Michael Kiwanuka takes full advantage of the freedom. Hopefully listeners will too.

John Fullbright, From the Ground Up. It's almost like a Hollywood movie. Music talent scouts scour the country, looking for a new singer-songwriter who has the promise to be the next big discovery. With the record business struggling to even keep the lights on and expense accounts paid, it's no wonder so many hits eventually become misses and everyone is right back where they started. When a talent as big and real as Oklahoma's John Fullbright sneaks in the back door, it's time to give him a big stage and share the wealth.

If anyone today could be called the next step in the line that started with Woody Guthrie and goes through Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine, it is this young man. His recent album, From the Ground Up, has enough songs that spotlight his potential that it's almost a puzzle why more hasn't been heard of Fullbright. Something like "Jericho," "Nowhere to Be Found" and "Forgotten Flowers" will someday be seen as new classics, and younger artists will cover them as surely as they do Dylan. It's only a matter of time.

John Fullbright's voice is an unforgettable blend of light and dark, and captures the challenge of living through good and bad with such a natural ease that it sometimes seems like he must have been born with it. But from all accounts he's spent years listening to everything he could find that struck a spark inside him, and from there made his way forward. So spread the word about a young man who arrives with a sack full of songs, a determination to write his own name in the history books and show the world what one soul can accomplish.

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The Durocs. Might as well get it out of the way right in front. Durocs are a breed of pigs known for their intelligence and large testicles. There you have it. In the rock and roll world, the Durocs were a Bay Area band comprised of Ron Nagle and Scott Matthews, and weigh in mightily on the intelligence scale. Better leave the other half of the duroc attributes to the fellows themselves. On the music side, though, they don't come much sharper—or funnier—than these two. Nagle is an artist who was at ground zero of the San Francisco sound in the '60s as bandleader of the Mystery Trend. That that group finished a distant tenth behind Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and all the other psychedelic pioneers surely provided him with something to prove. In 1971 Ron Nagle's first solo album, Bad Rice, settled that score permanently. He also went on to become a world-class ceramicist and head of the art department at Mills College in Oakland. Scott Matthews is a NoCal bon vivant and multi-instrumentalist who could also have a stand-up comedy career if he ever gets in a pinch. Needless to say, as the Durocs both brought a lot to the trough.

At the height of skinny-tie rock when the Knack ruled the pop charts, Nagle and Matthews recorded this album of semi-legendary status in 1979. It is a madman's ride of soulful ballads, pumping hilarity, and wise-ass ambition. Clearly their tails are slightly in their cheeks, but it doesn't stop songs like "Hog Wild," "Seeker (You Be Sucker)" and "Saving It All Up for Larry" from living strong all these years later. Nagle has such a distinctive non-rock voice that there is simply no way to ignore him, and Matthews is his perfect porcine-in-crime. No small wonder it fell on totally deaf ears at the time. Today, they sound like full-tilt visionaries.

Finally a label has found the time and resources to bring Durocs out of the barnyard mud and back into the national light. Gene Sculatti's observant liner notes tell the whole wacky tail—I mean tale, and it's no accident Nagle and Matthews went on to become a successful producing pair for people like Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Robert Cray and others. The "bone-us" tracks, as they call them, are no throwaways either, especially "There's Always You." And just to prove they haven't lost their sterling sense of humor the last song, "Nawgahide," features the radio rants of New Orleans singing shaman Ernie K-Doe layered over Scott Matthews' instrumental oinks and boinks, letting the album end with a total pig-out. Burn, Durocs, burn.

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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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