James Booker, Gonzo: Live 1976. Piano players appear to grow in the trees in New Orleans, much like horn players, and have to be absolutely superlative to capture the spotlight. Better put James Booker on the toppermost pedestal for pianists, because he lived in a cosmos of his own. Booker's demanding lifestyle of drinking and drugs often kept him running in circles, but when he sat down to the 88s time stood still. With or without his eye patch on, Booker went into the zone and brought back beauty and eternal love. That he died destitute sitting in a wheelchair awaiting treatment at Charity Hospital in his hometown doesn't diminish the grandeur of all he accomplished. This live album from 1976 is proof positive of Booker's gifts, and the documentary waiting in the wings to find release establishes a whole new level of storytelling. Just let it be known there has never been anyone even remotely the same league. Gonzo is back.
The Butterfield Blues Band, A&R Studios, NYC/December 14th 1970. For a blues band of mostly younger players, Butterfield's bunch has never been equaled. At the start they roared ferociously with the assistance of blazing guitarist Michael Bloomfield, and later added a full horn section to show just how blowmind their musical moves could be. This set (recorded for a radio broadcast) captures them at the zenith of that second period, pushing hard and deep in the landscape of American urban blues. As a vocalist, Paul Butterfield sang like his life depended on it, and made up harmonica moves no one has topped since. But it's as a band that the curtains parted this December night in 1970, showing a group cresting on sheer creativity and cool. Looking back it couldn't last, but brother did it swing while it did. There is also a new 14-disc box set of all of Paul Butterfield's band and solo albums except his last, and includes a previously unreleased live 1969 show recorded near the time of this one. Burn Butterfield burn.
Eva Cassidy, Nightbird. For a tour de force singathon in a Washington, D.C. nightclub, Eva Cassidy provides it all. In 1996 the late singer went into Blues Alley, and through self-belief and determination, recorded the whole night. She died before the year was over. It was going to be the only solo album Cassidy released in her lifetime, and the original offering only included 12 of the 31 songs recorded that night. The full set list is what is immediately interesting: everything from jazz to soul to blues and more, and it's all the sound of a woman set free. Eva Cassidy had used a small pension from her job at a tree nursery to record the show, and the rest became history. It's easy to hear why, on songs like "Fields of Gold," "Late in the Evening," "Time After Time" and others, Cassidy's voice is so full of life and love it's almost impossible to think she didn't live long to see her success. The fact that she went on to sell over 10 million copies of her music and had three releases reach #1 on the UK charts is like a fairytale, no matter what. To hear a night of one woman's soaring beginnings, start right here.
CeDell Davis, Last Man Standing and When Lightnin' Struck the Pine. If Captain Beefheart had continued playing blues, he might sound not far off CeDell Davis, because this Arkansas man goes directly for the ozone and isn't afraid to play the kind of blues that feels like someone has broken into your bedroom and put the bug-eye right in front of your brain noodle. Davis declares early on, "She took cornbread for her husband," raising the possibility of a new definition for Thanksgiving stuffing. Childhood polio put this man on crutches and gnarled his hands so he had to use a butter knife to play guitar, and he later contracted yellow fever that knocked him down again. If that wasn't enough, a crazy stampede in a nightclub during his 20s broke both his legs into twisted twigs, landing Davis in a wheelchair for life. These two albums, one 12 years old and the other brand new, are a slice of raw nerve, showing how someone can hold their spirit up to the world against all odds and do the backyard boogie any which way they choose. Band members include producer Jim Mathus, Barrett Martin, and Peter Buck, but the focus is solidly on a bluesman who jumped into the abyss a long time ago and found the perfect home there. Whoa.
Lee Dorsey, Yes We Can. If there were to be only one New Orleans album to pick and listen to forever, even though that is about as likely as choosing a single best bowl of gumbo in the Crescent City, it just might be this one by Lee Dorsey. Produced to funky perfection by (who else?) Admiral Allen Toussaint, Dorsey delivers song after song of utter bliss, from "Yes We Can" to "Would You?" The short but feisty singer knew how to bob and weave through lyrics like the boxer he was, and when it came time to bring it all to a boil, well, watch out: knockout punch city. Lee Dorsey's day job might have been as a body and fender man, but at night he brought together the heavens and made life on streets like Canal, Magazine, Claiborne, and Tchoupitoulas an endless fascination and gas. The Ya Ya man does it again.
Dr. Feelgood, I'm a Man: The Wilko Johnson Years. Sometimes credit needs to be given where it's due, and for British band Dr. Feelgood that means acknowledgement of how they helped invent the whole Pub Rock movement that splintered into punk and all points beyond. It was them that turned rock on its head and started zeroing in on American rhythm & blues and rock & roll again after the British Invasion had sputtered out, off into ELO, the Move, and the later Moody Blues. A quiet revolution it was too. Late lead singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilko Johnson were a twangin' twosome, fearless in their assault on original and cover songs alike. Naturally the band splintered apart eventually, but not before songs like "Roxette" and "Going Back Home" got nailed down in their audience's mind forever. Johnson has recently recorded a long-player with the Who's Roger Daltrey, and a few of the original versions of those songs appear here. Great Britain has often been America's musical conscience, never more galvanizing than Dr. Feelgood. Roger/Wilko on that.
Scott Fagan, South Atlantic Blues. There will always be those mysterious souls who briefly appeared on the music horizon, but just as quickly disappeared. Scott Fagan was born in New York, but lived most of his younger life in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In an almost Charles Dickens' upbringing he's lucky he made it to his teens. But survive he did, and once Fagan started performing and writing songs he found his way through. His 1968 Atlantic Records release is unlike anything of its time—then or now. He may at first sound like he's in the Tim Hardin-Tim Buckley bag, but no way. Scott Fagan is far out of any bag, which probably explains why the public almost totally ignored him then. Even though Apple Records almost signed him in '68 (they went with James Taylor instead), Doc Pomus championed him and Jasper Johns would later do a series of lithographs titled "Scott Fagan Record." It would be a crime if this album disappeared again, because this is music so full of imagination and personal resolve that it can be sometimes too much and others exactly what's needed. His son, singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, includes a long interview in the booklet that goes to the moon and back, and Chris Campion's extensive essay is also fascinating. Life stories like this can't be made up, and point to a musician who drew a new world out of his crazy life and made ours all the more splendrous. Here's a glimpse into Scott Fagan's soul: " You know the islands are a perfect place for going away / life's so easy there you live from day to day to day / father of mission you once walked proud and tall / he must have seen too many Christians because now he's very small / the poor man's got no Gods at all / not counting alcohol not counting alcohol...." Lord have mercy.
Goldberg, Misty Flats. Truth-in-advertising: this Barry Goldberg is different than the Chicago blues keyboard player, who ended up accompanying Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965 when he "went electric," and went on to work with Steve Miller, the Electric Flag, on numerous solo albums, and now Stephen Stills in the Rides. The Goldberg here is a Minnesota man who in the early '70s went into the woods and came back a poet. It didn't take him long to find a recording studio in '74 to fashion what now stands as a bit of a lost masterpiece that takes the foggy woods around Minneapolis and turns them into an emotional crescendo. Goldberg had been in a '60s band called the Batch who plowed similar ground as Big Star, the Rubinoos, and the Raspberries, but never made it far from their hometown. No doubt the young man was deep in the soup when he started recording this solo debut, and while it wasn't quite in Alexander Spence "Oar" territory, this is surely one of the most individualistic albums of the self-centered '70s, and exactly what the wide world of reissues is made for.
Freddy King, Heads Up: The First Fourteen Singles As & Bs 1960-1962. One of the three Kings in blues guitar (along with B.B. and Albert), Freddy King takes a back seat to no one. He had an unrelenting intensity that could be devastating in person, and never backed down from a blues tussle. The way the big man held his guitar it almost looked like a ukulele in his large arms, and once he started in with signature instrumentals like "Hideaway" or "The Stumble," well, it was all over but the mopping up. This round-up of 27 songs from his greatest era is a primer for what makes life worth living, and surely won't come again. Put it in the alley and stay there.
Denny Lile, Hear the Bang. Sometimes life is just one big mess. Take the case of the undisputedly gifted singer-songwriter Dennis Lile. In 1972, the Louisville, Kentucky native recorded an album that got lost in quicksand. Lile's life did pretty much the same. When he died from alcoholism in 1995 at age 44, his music had never found the audience it deserved. But sometimes record labels step up to the rescue, letting the world in on emotional and often visionary secret. There's even a documentary with the album to tell the story of an American enigma, one whose time might have finally come had he made it through the narrows. When Lile died alone, living in his van, it may have seemed that was the end. Thanks to those who cared, in many ways this is the beginning.
Lee Michaels, Heighty Hi: The Best of. Even at the heyday of freedom that was San Francisco in the '60s, there weren't many organist-drummer duos. That didn't stop Hammond B-3 player Lee Michaels from teaming with drummer extraordinaire Frosty Smith, and making history with the huge hit single "Do You Know What I Mean." It went to the top of the charts and stayed there. Michaels had a lot more musical ideas on his mind and, with some help from Owsley LSD, entered into the kingdom of studio creativity. The title track "Heighty Hi" was like an inside-out version of Rod McKuen's soul-baring tripiness. Unfortunately, the public didn't exactly follow suit after those two songs, but that was their loss. These 20 selections are a total testament to how someone can hear a sound in their mind and then make it happen, sometimes with very little outside help. Lee Michael eventually switched to owning the Killer Shrimp restaurants in Los Angeles (take that Mr. McKuen) and no doubt laughing at some of his rock & roll memories. These songs still stand tall and show how sometimes more is less and lasts forever.
The Muffs. With one of the very best band names in the history of rock & roll, how could the Muffs lose? Singer Kim Shattuck was the perfect cross between screaming banshee and seductive chanteuse, and fellow band mates Criss Crass, Ronnie Barnett, and Melanie Vammen squared the circle just right. Hitting at the start of the '90s, when so-called alternative music ruled the roost, all systems were go. Their co-producer went on to sign and work with Green Day, and the Muffs were set for take-off. Unfortunately, there were a few misfires and as the '90s rolled on the group hit the wall. No matter, because their debut for Reprise Records sounds better today than ever. With a couple of bonus tracks and seven demos it's a deluxe platter all the way. Don't miss the Muffs' early years, or their regular reunions. They are still in a party of one for unadulterated rock & roll.
Buck Owens, Buck 'Em Volume 2: The Music of Buck Owens (1967-1975). Get ready for another ride around the rodeo, because Volume 2 of Buck Owens' hits in the '60s and '70s is a country extravaganza. Even in the grip of Hee Haw superstardom, Owens knew how to make timeless country music, and when he opened his own studio in Bakersfield he could record at will. He helped invent a whole different style of C&W, and never stopped. There are 50 songs on this two-disc compilation, and every one of them has plenty of passion. In some ways, Buck Owens got overshadowed by a lot of other more edgy artists, but none knew how to produce better records, or search out unique influences in some pretty unlikely places. The legend lives on.
Ann Peebles, Straight from the Heart. They sometimes call this soul-infused female singer "99 pounds of joy," and one listen to this 1971 album will amply demonstrate why. Ann Peebles was in the front ranks of Hi Records' irresistible roster, which included Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and yes, latter O.V. Wright. Producer Willie Mitchell knew exactly how to lay it on deep in the grooves (Mitchell liked to call it "a nice wet bottom") for the lady to dig in and burn. The opening track, "Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love" is still waiting for a new breed woman to set it on fire. Not to be missed.
Lou Reed, The Sire Years: Complete Albums Box. When Lou Reed signed to Sire Records in 1988, he needed a new injection of enthusiasm, both on his side and the label's side. With his 1989 release New York, he got both, and not only did the album go gold, it also reestablished Reed as someone who resided at the very apex of rock music. The next seven albums for the company kept him there. None may have gotten quite the attention or the sales of the first, but they proved once and for all that Lou Reed belonged at the top echelon of originals. This handy box gathers them all into one cool package, and is the perfect storage system for one of music's best friends. No Metallica collaboration from near the end of Reed's life, but then again, that one wasn't on Sire. So there.
Royal Jesters, English Oldies. There is no way San Antonio exists on this planet. Between the Eastside and Westside and all sides in-between, musical lunacy is the message and good luck to those who try to color within the lines. The Royal Jesters started as a late '50s outfit that zeroed in on brown-eyed soul, mixed with their Latin heritage and then went to the outer limits. Somehow they got snagged on digging the British Invasion bands when they hit the Alamo City airwaves in '63 and before anyone would say "Merseybeat," the Jesters were off to the races. They played on multi-artist bills in S.A. with Doug Sahm's high school bands, Big Sambo and Joe Barry, among many, and generally cut up all over the city. This lovingly compiled set really throws a bright light on all their records, from a heart-rushing cover of the Temptations' "What Love Has Joined Together" to their own thrilling originals. There were a dozen Texas aggregations back then like the Royal Jesters, playing CYO dances, high school hops and downtown dances, but none quite went the distance like these young men. This peak into the past is a San Antonio delight.
Swan Silvertones, Amen Amen Amen: The Essential Collection. When it's time to get right with God, no matter what condition your stomach is in, start with the Swan Silvertones. Beginning in the early '50s on Specialty Records, the gospel group ruled the churches and highways of America. Lead singer Claude Jeter lived in a league all his own, with a voice that could burn coal. His otherworldly falsetto got inside the innards of his acolytes and he turned into a stone cold gospel guru. No less a musician than Al Kooper has called the Swan Silvertones the "Beatles of gospel," and he's right. Their 1959 recording "Mary Don't You Weep," included on this knocked-out collection, was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for classic songs, and there are at least a dozen other selections here that are just as strong. Changes be coming, that's for sure, and sometimes it's best to hedge your bets. Say amen somebody and soon.
Texas Tornados, A Little Bit is Better than Nada. Doug Sahm was an alchemist from his youngest days. He found a way to turn the bandstand into his personal pulpit, and spent the rest of his life veering from Little Doug to the Pharaohs to the Sir Douglas Quintet to the Texas Tornados to Wayne Douglas and beyond, and not once lost the thread. For his Act VI, the Tornados threw Sahm's life into a literal whirlwind and took him around the world in style. This double-disc compilation from the band's four official releases plays like a travelogue of all the crazy sounds Sahm specialized in. With Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers along for the rocket trip, Sahm and crew introduced Tex-Mix back to the world, and became rocking grandfathers long after their shelf life had seemed to expire. And even though Sir Douglas spoke the truth when he sang, "A little bit is better than nada," it's also true what he said right after: "Sometimes you want the whole enchilada." Here's the whole combo plate.
Various Artists, Beale Street Saturday Night: Produced by James Luther Dickinson. If Memphis ever had a musical mayor, it should have been Jim Dickinson. Nobody loved that city's sounds more, and was driven nuttier by the craziness that bounced around Bluff City. Dickinson knew what was. These assortments of songs by Sid Selvidge, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Dickinson's Mudboy & the Neutrons and others is like a guided tour of what Memphis was really all about. It's not the same spiel the Chamber of Commerce would give obviously; instead it got into all the nooks and crannies of what made that vortex of sonic inspiration so compelling. Writer Stanley Booth, one of the best friends the printed word has had, contributes an opening essay that wraps up the illogical rise and fall of Memphis in a way which makes 100% sense: there is danger lurking and a false dawn coming. Time to run for cover and let things roll. Beale Street will never forget.
Various Artists, Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music. Whatever reason the desire for Hawaiian music might have raised its hand, rest assured that this four-disc overview will turn life into one big aloha. It includes a staggering amount of recordings, so whether you're looking for Soi Hoopii or Slim Whitman, Rudi Wairata or Ella Fitzgerald, it's all here. It starts early in 1931, and is so detailed that there is no way anything gets overlooked. Luckily, the scope never becomes a history lesson. Instead, it's like a musical holiday, veering from island to island and artist to artist. Slack-key guitar, heart-filled singing and lush instrumentation that isn't heard anywhere else: it's all on this Hawaiian hit parade. Book 'em Dan-o.
Various Artists, Instrumentals Soul-Style. Words can sometimes be too much. Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics: they demand attention and possibly even understanding. Take away those pesky words and it's Twine Time: wiggle and waggle around letting the groovacious sound take over. These 54 instrumentals are emissions from heaven, and no matter the particular taste of the listener they cannot go wrong. Start with "Red Pepper" and end with "The Stranger," and everything in between is guaranteed to hit the monkey nerve smack dab in the middle. It's also less expensive than psychotherapy, but no less effective. The next time the world feels like it's demanding too much, slide one of these two discs on and get ready for nirvana. Not the band, either. Guaranteed and certified.
Various Artists, From Sacred to Secular: A Soul Awakening. To learn the real nitty gritty of soul music, it's necessary to start with gospel. Because from out of the church and into the streets is where the holy sound was birthed. On this indispensable eight-disc treasure, singers like Arizona Dranes and the Pilgrim Travelers lift their voices to the Lord and bring the heavenly spirit right down to earth. It isn't long before Little Miss Cornshucks and Guitar Slim are dragging the music into the alley and allowing all hell to break loose. This compact one-size-fits-all set is one of the best ever produced, and what it misses can likely be counted on one hand. Little Stevie Wonder shuts things down in '62 with his early hit "Fingertips (Pt. 2)," setting the stage for the coming run of Motown, Stax, and a handful of other seminal soul labels, but before that happens is a staggering musical blessing captured in a box. God bless America.
Various Artists, The Super Rare Doo Wop Box. Let's be honest: doo wop ain't for everybody. But those who do love the vocal group sound put it right up there with religion, baseball, or whatever else most assuredly floats their boat. This five-disc box is like Valhalla for dedicated listeners, amassing a cross-section of rare 45s that would take both a small business loan and a private detective to track down. The Larks, the Hornets, the De'Bonairs, Nicky & the Nobles: it's a near-endless list of groups that often came and went in a flash, but left a smoking hole of singing sizzle. Producer Billy Vera knows whereof he speaks, that's for sure, and with project supervisor James Austin they've double-teamed their way into doo wop heaven. This set isn't for sissies, but for anyone that ever fantasized about hitting a Bronx street corner in the '50s and running into Dion & the Diplomats harmonizing their hearts out, sign up immediately.
The Velvet Underground, The Complete Matrix Tapes. By the time the Velvet Underground hit the Haight-Ashbury crowd for this show at the Matrix nightclub in November 1969, peace, love, and understanding had caught the Katy out of the area and moved on up to Marin County. Which left the Velvets' crowd much more suited to the musical mayhem than the band's previous nights in '66 and '67 at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms had been. The flowers had died and been thrown away in San Francisco by these Matrix shows. And though the audience sounds small, they were true believers by the end of each evening, and got to see one of the world's all-time great rock bands moving rapidly toward the end of their rope. Still, three nights of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule's fine, fine music, captured at ground zero and turned up to ten is a rock & roll bonanza, and gladly it's finally all together, right where it belongs. Lives get saved again.