Paul Butterfield's Better Days
Paul Butterfield's Better Days, Live at Winterland Ballroom. "Without Paul I don't know if a lot of us would be here tonight..." That's the way Bill Graham introduced Butterfield and his then-new band Better Days at this 1973 concert in San Francisco. Truer words were never spoken. When the Paul Butterfield Blues Band first burst onto the scene in 1965, everything changed. Blues became the property of both black and white electric bands, and the world met a man with an endless reservoir of feeling. Seven years later Butterfield formed Better Days, and handpicked a group that included Geoff Muldaur, Ronnie Barron, Amos Garrett, Billy Rich and Christopher Parker. The aggregation didn't last long, but the music they made during that brief time still stands as among the best ever played.
When the group pulled into Winterland for this show, they were almost literally on fire. Every single song here is a study in greatness, whether they're originals or enticing covers. And Butterfield's harp and vocals are nothing short of treacherous. He had a heaviness of soul that sounds like it comes from a mountain, and he could convey it endlessly. After Better Days' demise Paul Butterfield never quite found an equal groove, he still always maintained his outright ability and style. He couldn't be anything less than amazing. Listening to an American band at the very peak of their power like this is permanent inspiration for us all.
Dr. John, Ske-Dat-De-Dat. The holy trinity of New Orleans musical ambassadors—Louie Armstrong, Fats Domino and Dr. John—live in a rarefied air of excellence, each one an artist who became bigger than being just a musician. Of the three, Dr. John is the one who continually takes monster chances that would no doubt scare off a lesser light. On his latest opus, he loosely takes on the spirit of Armstrong and does such an endlessly inventive take on songs associated with Satchmo that the head spins. Dr. John flips, flops and flies from jazz to rhythm and blues to hip-hop to gospel, all at the tip of a colorful hat, a drop of a wrist on the piano, and some sweet pairings with people like Nicholas Payton, Mike Ladd, Anthony Hamilton and Bonnie Raitt, among many.
Like the best of all classic Dr. John albums, it's best to put expectations in the bottom of a Popeye's fried chicken bag and let the good times roll. There is no way to sit still during the festivities, nor curb the desire to stroll down Decatur Street for some jambalaya at Coop's Place and maybe a song or two uptown at the Maple Leaf. Dr. John has always been the City that Care Forgot's best friend, and by showing us yet another side of an endless musical personality, all we can say is, "Yeah, you right." The good Dr. will take care of everything else.
Joe Ely, B4 84. Sometimes musical experiments not only lead to breakthroughs, they also can exist all on their own. Joe Ely made his early name in the Flatlanders and then a series of West Texas wildness captured on vinyl. But in 1983 he started recording on an Apple II personal computer and a Roland drum machine. In his garage, of course. Ely likely heard the possibilities of computer-aided sessions and figured why wait? His label insisted he bring the songs to Hollywood and record like a grown-up. But he never forgot about these 1983 sessions and has now unleashed them on his own.
Guess what? The man was not only ahead of his time, he was right on the money. Back then Ely was calling the sound "digibilly," and he was only partially kidding. There are ten rocking songs here, and whether it's a machine or a human making the noise everything comes across with a distinctive heartbeat and a Lone Star flair. The last song, "Isabella," is a co-write with Flatlander cohorts Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and reminds listeners that great music is great music no matter how it's made, something Joe Ely signed on for 50 years ago and has no intention of stopping. Sample that.
Ruthie Foster, Promise of a Brand New Day. Success has been predicted for over a decade for Ruthie Foster. There has never been a question about deserving it. That's a given. Through the years she's won fans show by show and song by song, so that today she feels right on the edge of rising up. With a new album produced by Meshell Ndegeocello and a set list of new songs as wonderful as anything Foster has written, along with five dead-on covers, now is that time. She has a way with delivering messages through music that puts her in a party of one. Listening to Ruthie Foster sing the Staple Singers' "The Ghetto" is to see all the way down the line of oppression and poverty.
There is the sound of the Holy Ghost lurking within as well, guiding those in hearing distance to a higher place, one where compassion and love line Paradise Road. What's maybe most impressive about Ruthie Foster is how she gets to that divine ground so consistently. This woman really is blessed, and in sharing that blessing with her audience she takes them there too. The final song, "New," is written by Toshi Reagon and features her vocals as well, and sums up so much the ultimate accomplishment of Foster's new album. It feels like a brand new day, one that lets the lovelight shine on a woman who's always been there and is now ready to spread it everywhere. What a world.
Harmonie Ensemble/New York/Steve Richman, Henry Mancini: Music for Peter Gunn. Not every idea about recording music inspired by a television series is a good one, but when that show is Peter Gunn and Henry Mancini is the man behind the music, anything is possible. Add to this Grammy-nominated conductor Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York, and all those moody smoke-tinged instrumentals come roaring back to life. It's no wonder when the credits on the album include trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin and drummer Victor Lewis. That trio alone is a recipe for grooviness from the first downbeat.
There are 19 other first-call session players along for this wild ride, ensuring that Henry Mancini's compositions have never sounded more alive and alluring. The show, which practically invented television noir, introduced modern jazz to a huge audience, and to this day "Peter Gunn's Theme" will have baby boomers and more fit for an agitated state, bouncing around like they're on the back of a crosstown bus headed straight down Broadway. These are orchestrations from the ozone, fit for an everlasting life for anyone who still misses black and white TV.
Mud Morganfield & Kim Wilson, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters. There can never be a single doubt that Muddy Waters could well be the greatest urban bluesman ever. He's surely in the Holy Three, along with Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. When Waters died in 1983 he left a crater in that firmament. Now his son Mud Morganfield has stepped forward to pay respect to his father, and it's uncanny how closely he captures Waters' voice. It's almost other worldly. It also doesn't hurt that he has harp player extraordinaire Kim Wilson by his side, because Wilson is one of the all-time greats on what's sometimes called the Mississippi saxophone, and adds such a majestic sweep to the songs they're immediately elevated to the heavens.
It's completely clear these burning sessions were done live in the studio, eye to eye and heart to heart, as each musician can be felt breathing right onto the tracks. And that's a very good thing, as modernity sometimes strips the humanness out of recording in the effort to pursue perfection or some such foolish concept. Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson will have none of it. Special nods should also go to guitarists Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn. Not only do their last names rhyme, but the way both sync up and zero in on the song is a true blues joy. This is music for the ages, and Muddy Waters is most likely beaming from above as his son and others put this one way back in the alley. Where it belongs.
The Revelers Play the Swamp Pop Classics Volume 1. When swamp people get together to play music, the results are usually through the roof. There is an innate goodness in what they do which just has to come out. The Revelers include founding members of the Red Stick Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys, highly-acclaimed Louisiana outfits, so naturally fireworks are expected and delivered on this super strong four-song EP. How could they not be, with songs originally recorded by people like Ray Charles, Fats Domino, the Boogie Kings and, yes, jazz organist Jimmy Smith.
This is high-octane music meant to put the boogie back on the dance floor and turn even a late-night talk fest into a flat-out funkathon. There has to be at least one band in the country that reveres the past and is unafraid about dragging it into the future. Mark down the Revelers as that band, musicians who aren't afraid of mixing up accordion, fiddles, saxophones and guitars. Sometimes the greasiest gumbo can also be the best, as anyone within earshot of this mess will attest. Bon ton all night long.
Paul Thorn, Too Blessed to Be Stressed. Paul Thorn has been there. Raised in Tupelo, Mississippi by a preacher father, Thorn tried his hand at prizefighting before turning to music. Turns out that was the perfect training, one that taught him not only how to land a knock-out punch, but also to endure the strenuous physical life of a touring rock and roller. He's done it all up to now, recording an album of other writers' songs and grabbing a top spot on the recent Jackson Browne tribute album with a rousing rendition of "Doctor My Eyes." In a way, all that has been preparation for this groundbreaking release.
Thorn's songs have been honed to addictive anthems, delivered with the power of a possessed door-to-door believer. Being a son of Mississippi, there's always some humor lurking around the corner, while at the same time despair and devastation continue an assault on his sturdy walls. Needless to say, Paul Thorn sounds like he has the secret of life in his front pocket, willing to share a look with those unafraid to step up and see. He and writing/producing partner Billy Maddox have recorded the perfect self-help album for those who believe they don't need any help. The puzzle starts right here, right next to the final rewards. Just like life.
Ben Vaughn, Texas Road Trip. Let's put this right out front — Ben Vaughn has created one of the most moving homages to Sir Douglas Sahm as could be envisioned. He's not hiding it either. He went straight (or maybe not so straight) to the source and enlisted Sahm's musical compadres to be his band, and then wrote nine songs that lasso in the unstoppable Texan's endearing earmarks like a perfect marksman. Vaughn lets former Sir Douglas Quintet/Texas Tornados Vox organ whiz Augie Meyers loose on all of them too, so it's almost like a flashback to 1965 when the Quintet first conquered the record charts with "She's About a Mover."
Happily for Ben Vaughn, though, he has enough of his own talents that he's able to strut some serious stuff. Still, songs like "Boomerang," "Miss Me When I'm Gone" and "Texas Rain" evoke those Austin nights at Soap Creek Saloon and the Split Rail where it feels like Sahm is on stage in his cowboy finery and ten-gallon hat, calling out a dizzying set list which includes every conceivable style of Texas music, and then some. Ben Vaughn takes that magic and makes it live again, a gift as big as Texas itself. As Doug Sahm would say: "Far out."
Jesse Winchester, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. For someone who never really scaled the highest cliffs of public awareness, no one was ever better than Jesse Winchester. He had a songwriting genius that never left him, right up to this album, made shortly before he died recently. Winchester's debut in 1970 is one of the most moving and downright devastating collections ever recorded. On the short-lived Ampex Records label and produced by Robbie Robertson and engineered by Todd Rundgren, it included songs like "Biloxi," "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," "Yankee Lady" and "Quiet About It," earning him a reputation among other songwriters as someone with few equals.
Even better, Jesse Winchester kept at it for 45 years, his distinctive way of looking at life turning into powerful songs of love, loss, faith and, always, an appreciation of life's lovely quirks. In a way, losing him now feels like a huge chunk of the world has broken off and drifted into outer space. His Southern soul was always strong as a rock, and even when he left the U.S. to live in Canada in the late '60s during the Vietnam war, it was like he'd found a place to become great. The wonder of it all is just how he kept exploring his heart and what he learned there, turning everything into songs that are timeless reflections of infinite beauty. New originals like "All That We Have is Now," "Ghosts" and "Just So Much" are as fine as anything he did, and leave a legacy that will last way beyond this world. That's the touch he likes, and we love.