Bentley's Bandstand: The Black Keys, Jimmy Cliff, Best Show of 2011

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The Black Keys

The Black Keys, El Camino. Wouldn't you just know the best album of the year has come out right near the end? But there is no denying the Black Keys' new release opens the window on a whole new world. What began as a stripped down group of one guitar and drums has grown into a major movement of freedom. Sure, the blues base is still there, but something is happening now. Millions of listeners have taken up the Keys' cause, like an Occupy Rock movement.

There isn't an iota of unreality in Dan Auerbach or Patrick Carney, and with co-producer Danger Mouse they're able to add on cosmic elements, romantic sweeps, and desperate pleas without losing an ounce of cool. Maybe it's because the band's Akron roots run deep and true and obviously keep the pair in check before they get too Ritz-Carlton on us.

Auerbach's guitar is an intriguing thing in itself, and goes a long way in explaining why the masses are gathering. He has invented an inverted style of soloing that can't quite be explained, but hits with full force on the heart in a way not heard before. He's probably spent an entire lifetime concocting this secret weapon, and behind those tired eyes must be laughing at full force. He's done it. Carney's drums sound right off the reservation, with treacherous tom tom rolls hitting just south of the solar plexus. And without a bassist, that right foot stays super busy.

There are eight photos of Ford El Caminos on the album package. None might be too sharp looking, but each and every one of them will get you wherever you need to get. Hmmm. Sounds just like this wondrous band itself.

Jimmy Cliff, Sacred Fire EP. Have mercy. It's not every day that one of the real superstars of a musical style reappears stronger than ever, into their 70s and raring to go. But that's Jimmy Cliff, and to hear him sing these four songs now is to believe in the beauty of life itelf. His voice has every bit of the soul from "The Harder They Come," and then some. A new hint of gorgeous tone that sounds like just maybe he's made a deal with a higher source runs through every song, and it needs to be heard to be believed.

Produced by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, the disc is a loving gift of reggae at its most righteous. The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" is unstoppable, invoking Cliff's character in his seminal 1972 movie and showing why the British band was such a burning force during their heyday. Rancid's "Ruby Soho" is a churning charmer, and Cliff's "Ship is Sailing" a winsome original. But it's Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" that really stops the presses. One of the first big league protest songs, Jimmy Cliff makes it his own, if such a thing is possible, and in the process proves that not that much has changed since the early '60s. In that spirit he stops time in its track.

Only a handful of artists could make music like this, and luckily the Jamaican has teamed with those who understand his greatness. A full album is scheduled for next year, and from this primer be prepared for a passion play of fine proportion. Many rivers to cross indeed.

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Best Show of the Year: Rock and roll is really meant to be played in clubs. It started there, in small places where you could smell the sweat and see the smiles. The music's climb to arena levels and beyond often makes it seem a bit like professional wrestling: you don't want to look too close.

When Brian Wright kicked off a night at Los Angeles' Hotel Cafe recently, he looked quietly possessed. He had some new musicians in the band, and acted like he knew how good it was going to be. Two guitars, two keyboards, bass and drums immediately locked into a monstrous groove and the Christmas lights in the room took on a new twinkle.

Wright comes from small-town Texas, but plays with the smarts of the big city boy he's become. It's workingman rock, all right, with the elegant edges of someone who takes the time to put them there. Five songs in and the whole club was vibrating massively. The new songs were as great as the older ones, which is rarely true, and felt like Wright was throwing touchdown passes with a tambourine.

The excitement kept building with the addition of the two-woman Lady Gun Club on backing vocals, and a fine frenzy was woven through everything Wright did. Hair in face, guitar on twelve and exuberance past reason, the man had reached liftoff. The way he took the audience with him marks a new master among us. 2012 or bust.

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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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