Bentley's Bandstand: Robert Ellis, Seasick Steve, Youssou Ndour, Johnny Adams

By , Columnist

Robert Ellis, Photographs. If there is a Houston school of singer-songwriters, some of the characteristics have to be indebted to the hellacious humidity, and what it does to the brain in the summer. Or the way oil refineries out by the Ship Channel choke the air with toxins and turn the sky a color previously unknown to man. And then there's a zealous police department, which for so many years declared open season on anyone they deemed outside their norm. How else to explain artists like Townes Van Zandt and their over-amped level of despair? There is a long line of such melancholy-ridden writers, right up to today's poster child Robert Ellis, who call that Texas city home.

Luckily these musicians aren't really cause for pity, because it's the beauty of their words and expression that allows them to get past any final sense of sadness. Ellis is a prime example. Even with plenty of room for pity on songs like "Friends Like Those," "Cemetery" and "What's In It for Me," there is a getting-over that always comes to the rescue. The young man's warmth pushes aside the darkness when it threatens to turn everything to ruin. Instead, hope somehow always rushes in and strength prevails.

A long line of rockers got bit by country music and did their best to fashion an individual style out of it, starting with early pioneers like Gram Parsons. Robert Ellis can walk in their shoes just fine, knowing what comes from within will eventually spread joy without. Call it the Houston equation and know that no matter what, Space City takes care of its own, even if the Astrodome will likely end up the world's largest swap meet.

Seasick Steve, You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks. Anytime an artist comes in from the cold fully-formed the reaction can range from intrigued wonder to outright suspicion. Seasick Steve inspires both reactions because there's no way to really peg this musician. He's got a street-bluesy feel that skirts right up to the edge of hobo living, with a raspy voice which carries shades of homelessness. Still, it's obvious he knows his way around a guitar and banjo, and when you make an album with Led Zeppelin's bass player things can't be all homemade. And on his first album released by an American label, the White Stripes' Jack White's no less, the hip meter is twanging up near the top of the scale.

You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks' first sign of rightness includes instruments with names like Jack guitar, Morris Minor guitar, the Dirt Digger, cigar box guitar, 3-string Trance Wonder and such, showing Seasick Steve is nothing if not inventive. But when you've literally been riding the rails and living off canned goods for a good portion of your adult life, it's amazing what the mind can conjure up. Musically, he's done the same thing. These are songs that come out of long-shot hopes and hard-won happiness. It's not a game for the faint of heart.

In popular music there is always room for the outcast. Traveling minstrels evolved into Woody Guthrie, and from that Bob Dylan and the rest of the roving troubadours found a place to ply their trade. Seasick Steve had to leave America and went to the U.K. to mine for gold on concert stages around the continent. As usual, the stranger in a strange land found willing ears and welcoming hearts and is ready to bring it all back home. Again.

Youssou Ndour, Dakar - Kingston. The Senegalese singer has never been afraid of exploration. His whole career has been a seeking of the unknown, someone whose African roots have given him a passport to explore the planet. He has performed an endless tour of different countries and musical combinations. Now, he's ready to head for Jamaica and the inspiration of Bob Marley and other reggae heroes.

This isn't the first time Youssou Ndour has looked to the island for a new view, but now he goes all the way, recording at the famous Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston. What he's achieved is a music that is much more than being an homage to any one style, and instead achieves the high road effect of becoming a real synthesis of different influences. It's what those innovators like Ndour specialize in — creating their own world.

There are moments on Dakar - Kingston when all the elements blend into one and what players like Earl "China" Smith, Tyrone Downie and the talking drums of Assane Thiam and Yatma Thiam create is a oneness of spirit. It is far beyond national borders and musical genres. It is really in the ozone. The last track, Marley's "Redemption Song," points the way ahead and promises a new day, something Youssou Ndour has been seeking from the very start. Finding it here is another step in the flow.

Johnny Adams, The Soul of New Orleans. Back in the early '70s when Dr. John released that seminal vinyl slab of New Orleans heaven called Gumbo, his liner notes were like a guided tour of the unequaled music of the Crescent City. And buried inside those words of wisdom was the line, "....Johnny Adams, who has to be the best soul singer out of New Orleans ever." It jumped up like an alligator at the Audubon Zoo: who was this mystery man?

That did it for followers of the sounds of that funky town. Before long people were on a dedicated mission of discovery to learn more about Adams, who along the way had acquired the nickname "the Tan Canary." Praise doesn't come much higher than that. Even better, Dr. John was right because there has never been a more moving singer from way down yonder than this man, and no matter if he was on record labels run by the corner grocer all the way up to national companies, he never sang less than stellar. It was the only way Johnny Adams knew how.

His career was a nonsensical ride between obscurity and minor stardom, when regional hits like "Release Me" and "Reconsider Me" threatened to turn Adams into a national force. Sadly, it never quite happened though his last decade-plus allowed him to get close through solid albums made for Rounder Records. This collection of '70s and early '80s recordings shines a fine light on what his inspired vocals are all about. Whether it's the ghetto pain of "Hell Yes I Cheated" or the heart-rushing romance of "Share Your Love with Me," Johnny Adams always found the true essence of a song, and then let his vocal cords burn down the surrounding cornfield as naturally as taking a midnight stroll through Elysian Fields. There will never been anyone like him again, it's feared, so listen to what's left and say thanks it's still here.

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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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