Bentley's Bandstand: Tom Waits, Sam Llanas, Ray Charles

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Tom Waits, Bad As Me

Not many artists have a blank cavas as broad as Tom Waits'. Maybe that's because he refuses to fence himself in, musically or any other way, so each new release feels brand new. The vistas are wide open as colorful characters populate the songs, misbehaving like only true romantics can as Waits tries to keep the trains on the track. To hear him direct the musicians in and out of the music is to appreciate what a magician the man really is.
 
Even though it's been seven years since Tom Waits' latest studio album, Bad As Me feels like he's been burning at full speed the whole time. There is such a gorgeous momentum that runs through "Raised Right Men," "Satisfied" and "Hell Broke Luce" that it's impossible to consider such a long time between releases. There are a handful of veterans from the past 40 years that just keep getting better and better. It's in their DNA to be this way. Tom Waits is at the top of that list.
 
Joining in on the album are players like Keith Richards, Augie Meyers, David Hidalgo, Flea, Marc Ribot, Charlie Musselwhite and son Casey Waits on hellacious drums. The sound they get resembles a Mad Hatter's laboratory of sonic bliss, and if it sometimes seems like things are heading over the cliff, disaster never actually strikes. Instead, the beauty of a big-hearted visionary constantly saves the day. Closing song "New Year's Eve" comes across as an instant classic: "I was leaving in the morning with Charles for Las Vegas/and I didn't have a plan to come back/I had only a few things/two hundred dollars/and my records in a brown paper sack..." The throat tightens as the pulse rushes when Tom Waits lets us into his life, likely knowing he and we will never be the same again. Auld aguaintances indeed.
 
Sam Llanas, 4 A.M.

samllanas_4am.jpgBodeans were one of the '80s bands that made Milwaukee famous, and while today it may seem their moment in the sun was brief, the reality is they never really stopped. The spotlight may have turned away, but singer-songwriters Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann kept their partnership alive for 25 years. Llanas' new solo album captures the greatness of that band without breaking a sweat, but also allows him to find his own place with all that previous glory intact. In fact, he's never sounded better.
 
Maybe that's because these songs come from someone at the midpoint in life, and that brings with it the kind of crossroads where the road back has all but disappeared while the path ahead can be full of question marks. There are no right or wrong answers, and Sam Llanas knows it as he sings about what he's found out regarding love and life. His vocals cut to the center of the heart, and there are only a handful of singers right now with that kind of gift. The touching musical frames the players build are perfect too, letting Llanas fill each song with enough emotion to light the way.
 
It's easy to root for people like this. They are long-distance runners, sometimes overcoming big odds to stay in the race. But it's what they do, and the idea of quitting probably doesn't come up much. Then, on an album as fine as 4 A.M., there are so many moments when their passion swells and takes over the sky. Sam Llanas is singing to the angels, and it sure sounds like the angels are singing back. Don't miss it.

 Ray Charles, Live in France 1961
 
RayCharlesMicrophone_span9.jpgAs the 1960s started, Ray Charles was on the brink of becoming even bigger. "What'd I Say" had taken his name past the color lines that sometimes separated music, but hits like "Hit the Road, Jack" were still right around the corner. When Charles and his eight-piece band went to perform at the Antibes Jazz Festival the whole world was waiting for the man who invented modern soul music.
 
Two concerts in July of 1961 were broadcast on French television, and this absolutely mesmerizing collection captures everything with stunning beauty. Charles and his group are obviously excited to be there, and especially on the second evening pour on the soul like there is no tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe the singer ran into some suitable enhancers over in France, because on "Georgia," "I Wonder" and "I Believe to My Soul" there have been very few equally moving moments captured for posterity. Brother Ray takes us all the way to the end of the line, and shows us what music is really all about. And, thankfully, he doesn't leave us there.
 
The gleeful audience is right with Charles, grooving in that suave French way for all they're worth. They probably had never seen anything like this, from the main man behind the piano to the always elegant David "Fathead" Newman on saxophone and flute, right down to the endlessly right-on drumming of Bruno Carr. It's like a 111-minute tutorial in how to play music intended to take listeners on an emotional journey, complete with using chairs as music stands on opening night to the Raelettes' snappy backup on several songs. This is about as up close and personal a program as we'll ever seen of Ray Charles, and bless those who tracked down the archived footage and assembling it with such loving care. The Genius lives on.

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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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