Nicki Bluhm, To Rise You Gotta Fall. San Francisco artists have a definite aura about them. Maybe it's the sophistication that comes from living with the fog horns and the cable cars in the city, or possibly it's that mixture of cool and hot that those there carry with them. Nicki Bluhm surely has both those qualities covered. She's made albums with her band The Gramblers, ex-husband Tim Bluhm (also of Mother Hips) and others, but the singer's new solo album feels like she's reached down to the deepest in herself and zeroed in on what makes her great. Swinging out on a branch can do that to you. Working at Sam Phillips Recording brings with it the southern mystery of Memphis, and writing with others like Ryan Adams and producer Matt Ross-Spang, fresh from work with Margo Price and Jason Isbell, opened up a few vistas. In the end, though, this is all Nicki Bluhm, and marks a time in her life for a big step up. It's a true solo album that belongs with other great collections no matter where the artist is from, and a spotlight-turning moment for Bluhm. Her voice shines from the Embarcadero all the way to the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco's finest.
Julie Christensen & Stone Cupid, A Sad Clown. Not many artists can be a pivotal member of the Divine Horsemen and then swing right into a spotlight with Leonard Cohen. That's just the start of Julie Christensen's chameleon career, one that started 40 years ago and still feels like a discovery is happening. Christensen has also sung with Steve Wynn, Van Dyke Parks, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, but no matter if she's alone or with others, she pretty much paints the moon every time she gets near a microphone. Maybe that's because songs run through her veins, whether she writes them or chooses them. It's not hard to discern today who's up there on the tightrope risking their lives to stay in the music business, because for them there is no other way to live. This lady sounds now as new as tomorrow. Her heart is pounding, her ears are glowing, and her voice remains a miracle. And she'll take you there too. A burning star.
Lamont Dozier, Reimagination. Elvis Costello, and likely many others, says the best way to discover if he'd written a good song was to play it without a band in front of an audience. It would soon become obvious if it passed the test as a keeper. Lamont Dozier, along with Brian and Eddie Holland, has written some of the very best songs of the past 50 years, usually in the service of Motown's biggest stars. From the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go" to the little-heard gem "In My Lonely Room" by Martha & the Vandellas, the writers have few peers. For this inspired idea of taking some of those classics and stripping them down to their core, usually with just acoustic guitar and keyboard, Lamont Dozier has flown his own colors high. What's most surprising is just what an impassioned singer he is. Sure, he has special guest vocalists like Gregory Porter, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, Rumer and, yes, Sir Cliff Richard, but they're almost beside the point because Dozier himself is the one turning night into day, darkness into light when he takes the microphone. A stunning album that will teach many exactly why Lamont Dozier is in the very highest pantheon of modern songwriters. Do not miss.
Barry Goldberg, In the Groove. When it comes to blues keyboard players, today the list starts right here. Barry Goldberg has the kind of credentials that don't stop, from The Electric Flag to Bob Dylan (who co-produced Goldberg's early '70s album). He was all in on his latest instrumental fest, produced by former Textone Carla Olson with a who's who of the blues crew in the house. There are several Goldberg originals and a few barn-burners originated by Sil Austin, the Cyclones, Milt Buckner, and others. No matter what is being played, though, Barry Goldberg knows exactly where to go on his keyboard to find the bluest notes possible. He then twists and turns and delivers them in a way that makes the soul sizzle like only a few players still can. This isn't music that's taught in school. It was primarily taught on the streets of Chicago's South and West sides in the '60s when Goldberg was there with Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Steve Miller, and more. Over a half-century later, all went on to become masters of the blues. Barry Goldberg has waited his whole life to record this set, and there was no way he wasn't going to nail it to the wall. Blues or lose.
Shakey Graves, Can't Wake Up. This Texan passed the hardest test a new artist can attempt: making it as a one-man band. There's something about playing guitar, harmonica, and drums at the same time that separates the talented from the just-trying. Born Alejandro Rose-Garcia before seeing the light and changing his name to Shakey Graves, it wasn't long before Graves gathered a band and hit the circuit, small as it was. Now, reaching the over-30 mark, Graves looks into the kaleidoscope and enters a hall of wonders. He's found his celestial chops and is heading off the roots-road that was first predicted for him. Now, the musician sounds like he's put Beck, Nilsson, the Beatles and, okay, a touch of Flaming Lips into the blender and hit "High." His early acting attempts come in handy in balancing it all in such an artful manner, while always remaining connected to the ground. Could be time to round up a musical crew on the back of a flatbed truck and hit the highway to meld the inward and outward into one, rolling all the way to Carnegie Hall and the cosmos beyond. Shakey Graves has mastered it all, and isn't afraid to erase the lines to color wherever he wants. Blast-offs daily.
Beth McKee, dreamwood acres. A child of Mississippi who hit her wandering trail young to Austin, New Orleans and now Orlando, Beth McKee has been searching for a musical home for awhile. There was a good shot of success with her group Evangeline in Nashville, but it wasn't enough. Now, in North Carolina, it sounds like the woman has woven all the aspects of soul, gospel, blues, rock, and pop she loves so much and has become, well, Beth McKee. She did it by not putting any boundaries where her songs could go, and following that up with musical landscapes to allow what she encountered to become part of the new brew. Her Mississippi roots will always be a bedrock. You don't learn blues lessons firsthand from the Malaco Records crew in Jackson to ever forget them. But the true beauty of what McKee is doing now is just how personal everything sounds. She has taken all those experiences, but then thrown out the playbook and discovered the freedom of being yourself. She had a strong hand in writing every song, and with producer John Pfiffner, a Mitch Easter protege, made the Winston-Salem area her home. But the South is a big place, and Beth McKee can claim it all as she sets sails for points unknown. For long-time fans her new music will be a surprising thrill. And for newcomers, no doubt they'll sign on for life. America comes home.
Billy Price, Reckoning. Blue-eyed soul music could easily outlive us all, and maybe even the world itself. There is such a deep-seated need to perform it that the leading practitioners look on it like air: they have to have it. The drumbeats sound like a lead pipe is hitting a wet pillow filled with feathers and BBs, the organ is leading the hallelujah gang down the road to salvation, and the guitarist has to specialize in subliminal fills that still manage to squeeze the eyeballs. That leaves the singer, who carries the heaviest load on their back. If they aren't able to hit the monkey nerve over and over, the whole thing is a no-go. Billy Price is one of the best blue-eye soulsters alive, and this lucky collection of 13 songs starts out with a wham-bam and stays right on a bodacious trajectory. Songs like J.J. Cale's "No Time," Johnny Rawls' "I Keep Holding On," Denise LaSalle's "Get Your Lie Straight," and Swamp Dogg's "Synthetic World" rub up nice and greasy next to Price originals, and the whole thing ends up in the amen corner where libidos are liberated and true love travels down a gravel road. This is music for grown-ups who want to get down and will accept no less than ecstasy. Shaved heads never sounded so good. Wear it out.
Sons of Kemet, Your Queen is a Reptile. When it's time for a refresher course on the inner machinations of the Zulu ointment, there is no better soundtrack for such gyrations as Sons of Kemet. It's like walking on guilded splinters through a field of purple clouds. With saxophone, tuba, and several drummers—and let's not forget vocalists Congo Netty and Joshua Idehen—songwriter and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings puts this London aggregation through their paces starting at note one and never takes a breath. This is music meant to turn everything into a swirl of relentless motion. Even when the sounds slow down, there is still a zestful urgency at the core of all the Sons of Kemet play. Maybe think early Dirty Dozen Brass Band, when they played New Orleans' Glass House on a Monday night to the accompaniment of fired pistols and stacked-up male buck dancers, but filtered through an English-African aura. Lyrically, there is a whole other subtext to setting everyone free and finding world power for future generations. Which is all nothing but a pleasant way of explaining you've never heard anything like this before. After a couple of small label releases, the mighty Impulse Records has stepped in to assist with a march toward world domination for Sons of Kemet. Queens and kings.
Leo "Bud" Welch, Late Blossom Blues. With the way time has whistled through at a relentless speed, it's a minor miracle we were blessed with such a down-home, put-it-in-the-alley blues man like Leo "Bud" Welch. He walked slow, a little twisted up from his 85 years on planet Earth, but when he strapped on an electric guitar and started blowing soul-curdling harmonica, time stopped. This was no recreated circus act from the big city. This was a man who woke up cold in his Sabougla, Mississippi shack every morning, sometimes with just enough money that day to scratch out coffee and a couple of meals, but always carried his head high, dressed in white shirts, shined shoes, and a dark suit. Because blues has never been about the low-down sadness that afflicts us all. It's about rising above that sadness, striding into a new day where thriving is the theme song and love is the answer. This documentary is an unflinching glimpse into that world, capturing the minor miracles of those who walk with grace every day. This award-winning documentary film shows how Welch, with the hard work of true-believer manager Venice Varnado, a Gulf War veteran, took on the experience of a lifetime. It must've felt like winning the lottery late in life as he toured the world, and don't forget: with the December 19, 2017 passing of Leo "Bud" Welch, there will be no more like him. Ever. Bless his heart.
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