Lucero (from the album When You Found Me available on Liberty & Lament Records) (by Joe Burcaw)
When I think of Alt Country rockers Lucero the phrase ‘road-dog’ immediately comes to mind. These touring vets have been traveling and performing around the North American territory for over 20 years now, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be pulling back the reigns anytime soon as 2021 begins to unfold. The band is preparing to release their tenth studio album When You Found Mein 2021 through their independent label Liberty & Lament. Ben Nichols (lead singer/songwriter) says, ‘On a subconscious level, the new album is about transitioning from being a son into the role of being a husband and father’. The new album was tracked last summer at Sam Phillips recording facility in Memphis, the lads practiced individual quarantine protocol and wore masks throughout the process.
The first single “Outrun the Moon”, written from the perspective of a young girl fleeing from some sort of threat, propels a strong sensation to just get up and run. The lead guitar hook (which reminded me of “Silent Running” by Mike & The Mechanics) creates this haunting juxtaposition between the vocal melody and thumping 8th note sub bass pattern of the keyboard sequencer, which will always make my ears perk with delight. The sparse 16-bar bridge sets up the guitar solo perfectly crescendo-ing into the pre-chorus. I love the guitar player’s phrasing and tone, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) would be proud. The coinciding single “When You Found Me” is an ode to Nichol’s wife and daughter and reveals profound insight into the human condition. ‘When you found me in the fire I was drinking kerosene’, ‘but you found a way, found a way for me to find my way to you’. I was moved by the transparency of these words, and even more moved by the subtle yet effective arpeggiated acoustic guitar part placed against the melancholic vocal melody. A beautiful piano and string interlude ‘finds its way back to us’ setting up the next pre-chorus/verse/chorus sections fading into the darkness and light.
“Back in Ohio” is a real rocker that exemplifies the spirit of the ages without becoming too cliched in the process. If Paul Westerberg, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Money were to ever collaborate (back in the early 80’s of course) this would be their spawned love-child creation. A bombastic power house foot-stomper featuring baritone sax that oozes some serious buckeye Soul. Be on the lookout for Lucero this coming spring when they perform at The Caverns in Pelham Tennessee, a band of brothers who have been able to keep the fire ignited throughout these difficult times. (by Joe Burcaw)
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Lilly Winwood (from the album “Time Well Spent” available as a self-release) (by Joe Burcaw)
Being born into Rock’n’Roll royalty is never an easy mantle to bear, and an onerous task when the great Steve Winwood is your father. The offspring of famous musicians often fall victim to the age-old nepotism curse or mama-and-papa-bear coddling their baby cubs from exposure to industry snakes and cons resulting in failure to launch syndrome. From what I can tell neither scenario is the case with Lilly Winwood, a strong and empowered young woman who needs nothing more than a venue filled with people in order to get her point across and make heads turn simultaneously. Whether or not papa Winwood has assisted in her musical journey doesn’t really matter, the time has come for the world to hear Ms. Winwood and her arsenal of English born Country chutzpah. Time Well Spent is her debut album, a work-in-progress for close to a decade according to its creator. This collection of songs showcase how wise beyond her years Lilly Winwood truly is. The new single “Few More Records” has been getting heavy rotation on CMT’s Edge since its release in late December. I cannot help but think of Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles when I hear the richness and strength of the vocal lines floating on top of lap steel guitars and Bluesy saloon influenced piano riffs. ‘Baby I’m a rolling stone, rolled over and I found my home’ from the story in “California; honestly, there’s a sense of Americana rawness in the words that conjures up feelings of nostalgia when listening intently to the words. I appreciate songwriters who can take folks on a four minute astral flight suspended high in the heavens above looking down with grace. No lie, I hit repeat almost 20 times trying to prevent this master piece from ever coming to an end. It’s something about the ebb and flow of the cellos in the chorus that grabs you instantly, I get chills just thinking about it!
Switching gears, we get down and dirty with a slow Blues jam entitled “Seventeen”. I am not going to even think about making an attempt at deciphering the lyrics, it’s pretty evident what’s going on here, and Ms. Lilly creates a seductive vocal backdrop that has the listener ‘wrapped around her fingers’. The organ solo reminded me of something Big Daddy Steve would have played during his Traffic days or was it really him? “One Step Behind” is an uplifting number that creates visions of cruising down the Pacific
Coast Highway en route to Carmel for a few beers. This sort of imagery is an example of great craftsmanship in song and melody. Lilly Winwood’s use of subtle vibrato inflections tastefully intertwines the harmonic outbursts of acoustic piano and electric guitar with such ease and control. This young rising star has a long career ahead of her and I predict big things in the not to distant future. Cheers to you, Lilly Winwood, cheers to you.......... (by Joe Burcaw)
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Langhorne Slim (from the album Strawberry Mansion on Dualtone Music Group) (by Bryant Liggett)
The music world got productive in March of 2020 when musicians found themselves with plenty to do outside of touring. When you can’t tour you write, which is what Langhorne Slim found himself doing, presumably banging out a few dozen possibilities, 22 cuts (including demos and bonus tracks) showing up on his latest Strawberry Mansion. Stripped down and lo-fi, dramatic and serious while pleasant and playful, Strawberry Mansion is loaded with lyrical nuggets of which Langhorne Slim has an endless supply, the kind of oneliners that spark a smile and influence pondering.
Langhorne Slim proudly announces ‘I might be crazy but I ain’t insane’ on “Alright to Hide” while the Folk boogie tune, “Panic Attack”, reveals ‘life’s worth livin’, it’s the only thing worth living for’. “High Class” has a bouncy Blues vibe that states ‘if you don’t love nobody, nobody’s loving you’ and the chuggy Folk tune “Red Bird” has a fight terrible targeted words with humor approach by stating ‘you gotta laugh to keep from crying’ It is not all singular quips as the dude can paint a picture and tell a story all within the song; “Summer Days” a lazy, singalong summer tune where spacy, pedal steel is the star as Langhorne Slim sings of ‘the girl of my dreams’ in “Colors” when she shows up at his door with a handful of records. Langhorne Slim plays all the parts, from the solo Folkie with just the guitar, to the electro-Roots bandleader that can push out a tune with a subtle groove. It is a solid package penned when musicians have had nothing but time and songs. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Saugeye (from the album Saugeye available on Horton Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
It’s heartland music from the heartland. Tulsa, Oklahoma remains regionally one of the solid contributors to America’s fertile Americana scene, with the self-released latest from Saugeye being a key donor to said scene. Led by multi-instrumentalist Jared Tyler, Saugeye presents a blast of straight-‘ahead storytelling laid over Blues, electric Folk and Gospel, songs with a direct narrative that dip into food, fishing and family. There’s a driving melody in album opener “To the Homeland” and the band gets into subtle Roots Psychedelia for the first half-minute of “Gwendolyn” before the tune transforms into a bouncing reminisce of gardens and grandchildren.
“Keystone Lillie” is an homage to a dog and all the digging quirks and eternal faithfulness, “One Leg at a Time” and “Dirt on Your Hands” both stories of the working-class, common man, the latter with a chugging Blues groove. “She Believes” is smooth Country Soul and “Gideons Bible”, with its line ‘I’ll just roll a joint on Gideons Bible, have my own holy ghost revival, talking in tongues and dance until the dawn’ is a DIY-Gospel and proof that faith whatever you need, wherever and however you want it. Musically gritty with slip-sliding Country Blues picking, this is a Roots record with a good-time groove. There’s a get-saved feel to the record that lives outside of any church, unless that church is the picking party for your front or back porch. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Of Stone and Earth (from the album Strangely Beautiful available as a self-release) (by Chris Wheatley)
Strangely Beautiful comprises a debut collection of original songs from Alternative Indie Folk duo Ian and Alex Atherton, who record under the name Of Stone and Earth. Based in the wildly beautiful locale of Dartmoor, England (a place whose eerie wonder and rich folklore inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles), the pair use accordion and voice to explore the world of song. They take their influence, they say, not only from the landscape, but from ‘eclectic tastes’ which range from Folk to Electronica, Classical to contemporary’. Arranging a set of songs around a single instrument and one voice is a challenging task which leaves nowhere to hide; a daunting proposition for any creatives. This set-up, of course, also leaves oceans of space for self-expression, and can result in the most remarkable and affecting works (see John Coltrane's Interstellar Space). So how does Strangely Beautiful stack up?
Opener “Wild Creature” sets the tone. Rich, dark, accordion chords gather like storm clouds, at once dangerous and oddly welcoming. The power of this instrument to conjure a compelling landscape is remarkable. Alex Atherton's voice is equally effective, warm and round, with the alarmingly fascinating edge that is present in all myths and legends. ‘This time I've come to find you, I believe you exist’. Together, the two weave a slow spell, winding around in liquid spirals of sound. It is a music to draw you deep into the earth, to a place where feral magic reigns. “Seaweed Song” lifts the mood, with raucous flurries of notes, over which Alex's voice plays acrobatically; ‘their strange inhabitants, their fascinating charms’. Once again, you are left in wonder at the ability of the duo to create such an encompassing sound. This is the soundtrack to a half-remembered childhood dream, a charming night-time animated journey of adventure.
“Time Before Night” showcases the warmer side of the accordion, as Ian spirits up a bucolic, rolling melody which rambles down old cobbled streets and out into the woods. ‘Time for me, time for me to go home’, sings Alex, and we are there with her, walking home at the close of a sparkling summer's day. The title-track spreads ominous premonitions on dark wings. ‘You don't know me, but I've walked that line’. This song is a stand-out amongst stiff competition. Folk music speaks to us all, at a primal level, connecting humanity through universal loves, fears, dangers and hopes. Of Stone and Earth know just how to tap into that rich vein.
Old Nick has long proved a source of inspiration for artists. “Devil's Lullaby”, a cautionary tale of yearning, washes like a midnight tide, pulling and promising. Alex's voice circles in and around deep-breathing chords and slick runs. “Earth Melts Away”, a slow, rumbling number, brings visions of stone circles and ancient forests, of the wisdom of druids and the follies of modern man. “Winter Calls” brings the set to a close, a gently swaying, yet powerful piece, which once again pulls strongly at the heart. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Tramp for the Lord (from the album Black Cows and Slo Pokes available as a self-release)
The sound carried on desert winds is dry and dusty, guitar lines wriggling like sidewinders across sand. Tramp for the Lord corral four cuts on the recent E.P. release Black Cows and Slo Pokes. Sonically, the SoCal-based band keep homeland fires for burning Blues, Country, Rock’n’Roll, and Southwest Boogie on the E.P., Tramp for the Lord strumming up the ghost of The Gun Club on ragged electric Country Blues.
The groove for opening cut “Out There” rides ragged, rutted rhythms, the backbeat lulling with its desert heat as frontman Doug Cox peels off clipped phrases stringing the storyline together on psychedelic ramblings of Tramp for the Lord words and music. The wobbling guitar line is the call for “Rosie and Me” as the story tells of two drug-addled lovers looking for a glimmer of hope on the Golden State coast. Closing out, Tramp for the Lord provide the EP an exit line as the cinematic tale of “Don Pisto” looks for a way to fade with the sunset.
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Chris Wilhelm (from the album This Too Shall Pass available as a self-release) (by Chris Wheatley)
‘It's about the comfort that comes from knowing we aren't alone’ says Asheville, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Chris Wilhelm of his new album This Too Shall Pass. Wilhelm, who cites Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley as early inspirations, began writing songs at the age of fourteen. He released his first solo album in 2005 and has since toured both solo and with an interesting selection of artists, including The Dropkick Murphys and Takenobu. Chris has also performed as one half of The Wilhelm Brothers. Producing this latest set has clearly been an emotional journey. ‘My music has been my salvation’, he states, ‘I experienced some pretty tough things in my childhood, but if we don't face the upsets lurking inside us, we can't heal’.
This is an admirably mature and self-aware statement from a musician with plenty of depth and heart. On This Too Shall Pass, Chris Wilhelm is ably accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser (who also takes co-production credits), Joshua Maddox on drums, Zack Page on acoustic bass, and Matt Smith on pedal steel. Asher Leigh and Debrissa McKinney provide backing vocals. Opener “Mists of Misunderstanding” will bring a smile to your face. It bounces out of the speakers like the most ebullient of Bob Dylan's work. Indeed, with its Southern folksy, hillbilly vibe, it would be fair to compare the two. Wilhelm is far too good a musician to simply emulate, however. There is a straightforward, warm feel here, with plenty of invention in its arrangement. Chris Wilhelm's voice is understated and appealing, with a slight drawl and affecting pathos. Lyrically, he is remarkably adept. ‘I just can't believe some things that people say. Have you ever seen the sunlight or are you just expecting rain? With the questions of a child, you just might learn some things’.
The more laidback “Mechanical Birds”, with its beautiful descending runs, clattering drums, and acoustic strumming is as moving as it is lovely. ‘We run around like little ants, why can't we be still’. Wilhelm's sound mixes the aforementioned Southern Folk with Celtic-feeling adornments and an accessible, Pop-sheen. His words slip past your mind and go straight to the soul. ‘You go online, but that's not real, just to see how they feel’. Do not let my use of the word 'pop' put you off. Chris Wilhelm sacrifices nothing to easy commercialism. Rather, he possesses an enviable talent for making music which catches the brain as much as the ear.
Title-track “This Too Shall Pass”, an ode to hope, is deceptively bright and breezy. As ever, Wilhelm's words and spirited arrangement elevate the song above the crowd. Skipping, shuffling drums, fluttering strings, and a sing-a-long chorus echo the most enduring of Folk tunes. ‘There are times I wanted to punch a hole in the sky’ sings Wilhelm. A reference to ‘the ghost of Woody Guthrie’ lays bare another key influence. This is universal music which speaks to us all. “This Too Shall Pass” is one of two songs which directly address the current pandemic, the other being “I'm Still Praying for A Miracle”, a shimmering, floating track which features some lovely keyboard runs and vocal harmonies.
“This Thing Called Life” rolls easily into the sunset, a swaying, lilting song. ‘May you find hope, wherever you roam’ sings Chris Wilhelm over a Nashville-style backing full of nuance and love. The down-tempo “This Dirty Old River” closes the show with starkly beautiful piano and Wilhelm's vocal to the fore. With this set, Chris Wilhelm ought to be applauded. It is an album full of strength and heart, with first-class musicianship. Wilhelm's writing stands out on every track, exuding humanity, humour and warmth. (by Chris Wheatley)
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Steve Earle and the Dukes (from the album J.T available on New West Records)
Backed by his band The Dukes, father Steve Earle celebrates the music of his son, Justin Townes Earle, with J.T. The musical tribute honors the too-soon passing of Justin Townes Earle by collecting tracks from seven of his eight studio efforts (seven albums, one E.P.). JTE’s recording career began in 2008 with the E.P. release, Yuma, remembered on J.T. by the rhythm rush of “I Don’t Care”, the opening cut for the album. His first full album release, The Good Earth, also came in 2008, four tunes from the release found on J.T., “Ain’t I Glad for Leaving”, “Far Away in Another Town”, the late night sad of “When I Turn Out My Lights”, and the marching cadence found in the troublesome tales of “Lone Pine Hill”.
The songs gathered for J.T. showcase the songwriting of Justin Townes Earle. The returning lead character in his songs walking tall as Steve Earle and The Dukes sings the songs of a fast talker with a winning smile, soul turned sour wearing the halo in “The Saint of Lost Causes”, and the lovestruck gear head falling fast in “Champagne Coralla”. A simple retelling of their final conversation holds the loss and emotion for J.T. in the farewell that Steve Earle sends to Justin Townes Earle with closing cut, “Last Words”.
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Have Gun, Will Travel (from the album Raw Materials: Home Demos available on Mile Wide Records)
Lots of downtime was an opportunity for Matt Burke to sort through past tapes he recorded to demo for Have Gun, Will Travel, the band where he stands as frontman. The Florida-based musician shared that ‘since HGWT's inception, I've been recording home demos on a multi-track digital recording console. I recently decided to go through and revisit these recordings. And in doing so, I thought it might be fun to let some of them out into the world. So, I sifted through and hand selected eleven home demo tracks that I wouldn't be too embarrassed to share, had them mastered by friend and mastering wizard Jason Hobert, and put them together into this collection’. Gathering the cuts, Have Gun, Will Travel release Raw Materials: Home Demos, the album leading up to 2021 EP release. The collection showcases rarely heard performances; a listen as creativity takes the first steps to becoming songs.
If Raw Materials: Home Demos were a major movie production, its first cut, “Mystery of Mine”, would run in the opening sequence, the sparkling guitar and storyline wrapping around the songwriter’s process. A rattle of chains is created by a percussive metallic/glass tap in “Trouble” while a faint dance rhythm floats like dust motes across “Let the Sunlight In” as banjo and guitar strings scatter notes around in “Now I Lay Me Down”. A Country ramble soundtracks “Silver and the Age of Opulence”, rushed strums support a harmonica call into “Justified”, and a front porch Folk jam make a mighty racket for the preaching vision of “Standing at the End of the World”. For fans of the band, hearing versions of cuts from the five Have Gun, Will Travel full-band studio releases or new listeners drawn in by the lo-fi recording and stripped-down songs, Raw Materials: Home Demos makes for a good listen. Exiting the album, fingerpicked guitar notes surround the story of “The Rescue Party” as it follows a man through the wants and needs, fantasy and reality that make up the workings of the human mind.
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Barry Gibb (from the album “Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 on Capitol Records) (by Joe Burcaw)
It still pains me to know that Barry (or Sir Barry now) Gibb is the only surviving sibling of the multi-smash hit making machine, The Bee Gees. You can see from recent interviews how affected he still is by the loss of his brothers yet a torch remains lit by the oldest Bee Gee to keep their memories very much alive. He has done just that with his most recent release Greenfields: The Gibbs Brothers Songbook, which re-imagines songs from the band’s diverse catalog. Rerecorded and rearranged, with a variety of singers, including Country and Americana artists, interpreting hits and obscurities that have never seen the light of day, such as “Words of a Fool”, originally slated for a 1986 that got shelved. Barry Gibbs son Stephen got the ball rolling by turning dad onto Nashville great Chris Stapleton, who made a huge impression on him. So huge that he had his team reach out to Stapleton’s producer Dave Cobb to see if he would be interested in taking on the project. Cobb gladly accepted with open arms since he was already a fan of Gibb and his music, especially the early years pre falsetto.
Sometimes trying to recreate a classic vibe can become disconcerting and backfire from the get-go. This is not the case with Greenfields. The recording brings new life to songs that have stayed within our subconscious mind (if you’re old enough to recall) for decades. Adding this new twist of Nashville stardom brings a sense of freshness to an already strong body of work. Barry Gibb had trepidation being accepted by the Country community, recalling ‘either you’re in or you’re out’ which is mind blowing when looking at his success as a songwriter, producer and musician. An all-star cast of singers were recruited, amongst them Dolly Parton, Alison Kraus, Brandi Carlile, and Jason Isbell just to name a few. It must have been a visceral moment for Barry walking into RCA recording studio knowing that the greats, Parton, Presley, and Jennings recorded there back in the heyday. He and his co-singers definitely rose to the occasion giving 100% on each performance from start to finish. “Jive Talkin’” features Miranda Lambert and Jay Buchanan as the guest vocalists, and I have to say, the laidback slower tempo sprinkled with strings instead of synthesizers shined new life into a dance disco favorite.
What really brought a tear to my eye was the super ballad “How Deep Is Your Love”, featuring the brilliant finger style prowess of Tommy Emmanuel and the lush four-part harmonies of Little Big Town. Oh my goodness, was this a gorgeous rendition, and it just proves how the strength of a melody determines the lifespan of a well-crafted song, plain and simple. Another tearjerker is “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” featuring Sheryl Crow. This version beats the original in my opinion, and don’t get me wrong the original is pretty darn spectacular, but Crow adds a divine feminine quality that soothes the soul. Sheryl’s gentle approach to the vocal line just oozes with grace and tenderness, cutting straight to the core. Her soft angelic like harmonies compliment Barry Gibb’s voice perfectly, reminding me of Tony Bennett’s “Duets” records where the essence of love and heartache is felt throughout the performances. Leave it Sir Barry Gibb to reinvent himself once again by taking a chance in a world outside of his comfort zone. Say hello to future endeavors in Music City Mr. Gibb, you’ve done well sir! (by Joe Burcaw)
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