Shinyribs, Gulf Coast Museum. There is absolutely no excuse in the world that fans of roots music haven't made Shinyribs a household name. Considering his day gig is as Kevin Russell, lead singer in the Gourds, at night Shinyribs often sneaks into a small Austin recording studio and fashions not-so-mini masterpieces that beg for worldwide attention and endless adulation. The man is creating songs where movements should be built around him. He mixes heartbreaking scenarios with an undercoating of humor that delight in the fact they're just a silly millimeter short of surrealism. Shinyribs is large, which means he gets to pick which moves he makes, with no need for discussion. This is his show, and clearly the pleasure is there for the taking. And while the Gourds sometimes get tagged as successor to The Band in keeping the spirit of the South alive, Shinyribs is someone who reads no one else's encyclopedia but his own. Who else would cover Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Love Me By Now" accompanied only by their own ukulele?
Gulf Coast Museum is like a slightly-demented tour through the eastern half of Texas, a place Shinyribs has always called home. Starting with "Sweeter Than the Scars" as the perfect opener, he invites listeners in on that dark side of the night when inevitable truths cannot be denied. From there the ride veers to "Take Me Lake Charles," "Limpia Hotel (Chihuahua Desert)," "Somebody Else" and "Texas Talking," a welcome rest stop amid bluebonnets and barbecue. Shinyribs gets funky on "Bolshevik Sugarcane," sounding like someone in overalls invading Houston's Fifth Ward ghetto on a vintage bicycle with a banana seat. Seriously. "Sweet Potato" then takes the singer to the sensitive side of Austin, possibly on an open mic night at Molly Malone's before he heads over to the Hole in the Wall for a long afternoon and evening of Shot City Limits and delirious yodeling on "Song of Lime Juice & Despair." And maybe that's why Shinyribs then breaks out the uke and Harold Melvin's classic — what else can be tolerated the morning after? You can almost feel the bright morning sun blasting through those old Pier One bedspread curtains. Shinyribs is out there, waiting to show you someplace you might have never noticed, even if he has to carry you in his big arms. Resistance is no longer allowed.
Booker T, Sound the Alarm. Booker T is back at Stax so sound the alarm is right. The man who helped invent soul music in Booker T & the MGs has had an intriguing and successful solo career, from making his own albums to producing other artists, but it goes without saying that when Booker T returned to the label where he changed the world starting with "Green Onions," it had to be stellar affair. The quiet keyboardist has never been shy about speaking his musical mind, and by rounding up 11 guests he's able to paint this album in a variety of colors. Whether it's neo-soulster Mayer Hawthorne and Anthony Hamilton, new guitar guru Gary Clark Jr. or Latin jazz king Poncho Sanchez with an assist from Sheila E., Jones brings out the best in any collaborator. The playing may take the slow and steady glide that has always been Booker T's specialty, but make no mistake — the man is going to get there and take you through some brand new neighborhoods along the way.
Any person who was a part of so many incredibly moving sessions during the '60s can be counted on to grab that mojo once again. Jones and co-producers the Avila Brothers probably had a ball deciding who to work with, and likely have at least another album's worth of willing participants. For now, though, it's best to live with an album full of surprises and see what grabs hold. Some days it might be Kori Withers' understated soul on "Watch You Sleeping," or the deep Memphis heat from Vintage Trouble on "Your Love Is No Love." The other ten songs, including album closer with son Ted Jones on scathing lead guitar, offer a whole other slate of choices, which is the beauty of a collection like this. Booker T is a stealth weapon, arranging the music so others can really shine. But all the time his Hammond organ is laying a gorgeous bed to lay in, spreading an unmistakable warmth no matter who is at the microphone. Undoubtedly this album is a five-alarm affair, another career cap for one of the most inspired players in America's infinite musical soul.
Magic Sam & Shakey Jake, Live at Sylvio's. It's time to break out the big guns for a loud salute to a true blue thrill, because for those who live for Chicago blues played down and dirty, the discovery of these 1966 tapes is like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jimmy Hoffa's body rolled into one. Maybe that's because the sound is so frills-free. This set could have occurred thousands of times by dozens of musicians in a variety of clubs on Chicago's South and West Side. That this album just happens to capture guitarist Magic Sam at his very peak is front page news for bluesters. The guitarist would be dead in three years, which is beyond painful, but like the man says, "You gotta boogie while you can." The other good news here is that singer and harp player Shakey Jake is putting lowdown moves all over these songs. His raw voice and savage harp blowing were an endangered species even then, though few knew it. For these Chicago club goers, every night was the end of the line. The only profit-sharing going on at Sylvio's was either a Colt .45 quart or pencil-thin joint. The idea of nirvana was living in the now.
The set list for a night like this held few surprises, but then again, how do you improve on perfection? Little Walter's "Juke," Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby," B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby," Freddy King's "I'm Tore Down," Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back" — all these and more receive the sonic equivalent of being plugged into a electrical socket while standing in a bucket of ice water. Today there is no equivalent to what is heard on this album of stupefying excitement. At the end are two songs from a 1969 European show by Magic Sam along with a short interview. For those who want to hear the sound of the United States struggling to save its inner city from a meltdown, start right here. Blues was a spiritual bandage to those for whom the future was often filled with more of the same—at best. This is music to get to the other side, not knowing what might be waiting there. Magic Sam and Shakey Jake will take you.