Roomful of Blues (from the album In a Roomful of Blues available on Alligator Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Call the band an institution. Roomful of Blues, the Rhode Island-based Blues outfit, deserves that title solely from tenure. Fifty years in the business deserves accolades and despite dozens of players that have taken their spot in the band, Roomful of Blues remain a foundation of the Blues world, a reliable presentation of swinging, badass Big Band Blues music. Longevity is a selling point for any business, whether a you are making shoes or singing the Blues, and the band’s latest release, In A Roomful of Blues, showcases their branded swinging Blues product at its finest.
Roomful of Blues comes out swinging with “What Can I Do?” as the horns punch over a solid rhythm section as the title track finds those horns laying underneath a guitar intro. The band tosses in a novelty cut with “Phone Zombies,” taking a crack at anyone that has ever had their eyes on the screen instead of the sidewalk, road, or anyplace that should have their attention. “She Quit Me Again” is a lounge cut with a sad New York City 1980’s saxophone and a lonely piano ramble where you can smell the smoke of sadness. “She’s Too Much” and “Too Much Boogie” are jumping Jazz cuts and “Have You Heard” travels far south to dig into Zydeco territory. “Let the Sleeping Dog Lie” lets that splashy guitar set an old-school tone while “I Can’t Wait” is a bouncy love song. Efficient and thorough, Roomful of Blues lets their tradition be a selling point and calling card. Every horn blast, every guitar fill is exactly where it should be on what is another text-book example of Big Band Blues. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Waco Brothers (from the album Resist! available on Bloodshot Records)
Country purity was on the mind of Jon Langford when he formed Waco Brothers as a vehicle for his songs to stay true while his UK-born band, The Mekons, set up a new home in Chicago, Illinois with a more Punk Rock edge. That was in 1995, and over the course of thirteen albums Waco Brothers have honed the Country they claim as their own, taking the music back to its origins in writing songs to reflect the lives of real people living in all-too-real times. Under a flag of Country Rock’n’Roll Waco Brothers wave the banner of protest on dozen tracks of the recent release, Resist!, its music going right for the heart as its words light torches and head for the castle gates.
Guitars snarl when Waco Brothers ride into the Resist! town of tunes on the adrenaline-dosed spaghetti western tale of opening cut “Blink of an Eye” while the pace slows to a trot as “$ Bill the Cowboy” walks a presidential march and “Lincoln Town Car” cruises by with horses humming under its hood. Taking a description directly from the Bloodshot Records press release, Resist! has as its main characters ‘folks getting shit on and songs about the system that’s doing the shitting’. Borrowing an outlaw anthem from Bobby Fuller Four, Waco Brothers continue their song tribute to forebearers as they do a clean rip of The Clash’s arrangement for “I Fought the Law”. Resist! takes aim and hits its mark with the warnings of “Bad Times Are Coming Round Again” and proudly stamps union made on the Rockabilly rhythms of “Plenty Tough” as Waco Brothers give a backbeat to resistance in “Revolution Blues”, trying to keep pace with the big boys on the fast-train stomp of “No Heart” while they shake out snake oil to grease the rattle and roll of “New Deal Blues”.
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Emily Duff (from the album Born on the Ground available on Mr. Mudshow Music)
Giving the new year her own 20/20 visions of her past, Emily Duff uses Born on the Ground to tell nine stories of relationship break-ups. The title track looks at life from the bottom up when Born on the Ground tells a story of the street while Emily Duff packs a wallop with her brand of ‘Sweet & Sour Rock’n’Roll with a Great Big Hit of Country Soul’ (her words) as she delivers “Knuckle Sandwich” and lassos a Lower East Side beat to play a train song in “We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Not necessarily a cathartic exercise, Emily Duff wanted the woman standing with feet firm in today to once again walk through the stages of love, feeling that ‘I wanted to examine emotional wounds through the mature lens of time with the self-confidence, faith and the wisdom of motherhood and marriage. On my own from a very young age, I grew up rudderless, without positive role models for relationships and grew from tragedy, loss and trial and error to understand where true love & happiness lives for me today. Self-worth is something like planting a garden and understanding that what is born in and on the ground will someday, with work and a little bit of luck, be able to nourish and feed others well. Break-ups are not always with lovers. You can break-up with family members, careers, friends, political parties and bad habits as well. Yes, breaking up can be hard to do, but sometimes it’s how you save your own life’.
The stories tell themselves as the band propel the tales along on a bed of Country Rock’n’Roll, recorded at Cowboy Technical Services under the guidance of Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (The Del Lords, The Yayhoos, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts) in the producer’s chair. Emily Duff’s band (Scott Aldrich, Skip Ward, Charlie Giordano and Kenny Soule) was the anchor for the live recording, supporting Emily and background vocalists, Syd Straw, Mary Lee Kortes & Tricia Scotti. Producer Eric Ambel directs the band using his electric guitar as a baton, scattering snarling notes on the Country Rock’n’Roll jangle of “Forever Love” as Born on the Ground shakes out a love letter on the scratchy percussion of “Something Sexy” while a dancehall band supports the athletic goals of “No Escape”.
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The Hanging Stars (from the album A New Kind of Sky available on Crimson Crow Records)
The Hanging Stars shine brightly as they strum classic California Country influences and harmonies on their recent release, A New Kind of Sky. The London, England band touch their songs with musical memories though the Cosmic Country Folk skin that The Hanging Stars wear on A New Kind of Skyputs them on equal footing with musical ancestors who rode alongside Gram’s truckers, kickers, and cowboy angels into legend. A blend of Eastern, Tex-Mex, Country & Western psychedelic sunshine doses the pounding drums of “Three Rolling Hills” as rolling rhythms draw a landscape under the A New Kind of Sky title track and “Lonely Rivers” rows on a strong current of thick, guitar slashes and dreamy steel guitar waves.
Honoring homeland Roots, The Hanging Stars brighten “I’ve Seen Summer (in Her Eyes)” with jangly English Folk Rock and polish the Folk Pop of “(Song for) Fred Neil” with distinctly UK musical shading as harmonies open A New Kind of Sky, giving first cut “Choir of Criers” an expansive western U.S. breadth. As the musical backing of A New Kind of Sky shapeshifts, The Hanging Stars provide a common ground with a brand of Americana that claims globe-spanning bloodlines within one sound. A New Kind of Sky puts a piano march into place for the Brit-Pop assurances of “I Will Please You” as swamp mist weaves among the broken melodies warbling under “I Was a Stone” and desert dust covers the trance rhythms of “I Woke Up in July” while The Hanging Stars paint Alt Country on the wagons circling “Heavy Blue”.
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Dave Simonett (from the album Red Tail available on Dancing Eagle Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
Slow things down. Take a breath. That is the model for Dave Simonett, of jam-grass band Trampled by Turtles, on his recent solo effort, Red Tail. TxT offered up-tempo tunes and layers of instrumentation that packed the fields of festivals and concert dancefloors with Dave Simonett at the helm as frontman. Always a songwriter, the songs of Dave Simonett have followed a path set by Trampled by Turtles and while the jam grass scene shows tasty chops and promises a good time, song lyrics can get lost in a sea of solos. Dave Simonett chooses to reel things in, favoring and focusing on melody and lighter instrumentation on Red Tail.
“Revoked” kicks off Red Tail with a dreamy dose of ambient Americana, flowing into heartbreaker “Pisces, Queen of Hearts”, the cut a memory and a lament, the story looking back on ‘the moonlight on your golden skin, and wishing I was better than I really am’. “Silhouette” is a subtle chugger with more lyrical woes, more loss, another memory twist where ‘I sure as hell remember every little ounce of you’. “In the Western Wind and the Sunrise” starts as a piano ballad, finishing up with the piano touch soft, the playing delicately pushing out a melody under gentle feedback. Stabbing guitars that would fit in a revved-up Indie Rock Punk tune find their way into the gentle “You Belong Right Here”, giving the Folk tune a fitting shot in the arm, the track a great template for Red Tails. Showcasing deeper levels of his songwriting, Dave Simonett solidifies his ability to hang in the Folk crowd, the feedback and rough-around-the-edges guitar work showing an experimental side to his own take on the genre. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Will Sexton (from the album Don’t Walk the Darkness available on Big Legal Mess Records)
For his first solo recording in a decade, Will Sexton channels the diverse sounds of his adopted home of Memphis on his recent release, Don’t Walk the Darkness. The Texas native gave up a long-time musical base in Austin for Tennessee, relocating to Memphis in 2013, setting up a home with fellow musician and wife Amy LaVere as well as directing the house band for Big Legal Mess Records and Bible & Tire Recording Company. The mood and melodies of Don’t Walk the Darkness move on an easy current when “Witness” drifts lazily as the album dances on accordion breaths for “Don’t Take It From Me” and causes the psychedelic waves of “Mess Around with My Mind” to crash against the pleas of Will Sexton for a bit of distraction. A deep musical history had an effect on Will Sexton, the songman feeling that ‘Memphis is an important part of what I’ve become. I’ve been able to immerse myself and tune my ear to what makes this place so magical — and it’s really about the amazing musicians here.
Most of my life I’ve complicated things musically. But, nowadays, I have a different approach: it’s less cerebral, and more about gut and soul’.
Will Sexton makes promises on the Rock’n’Soul of “Only Forever”, The Sensational Barnes Brothers cradling the pledge in warm harmonies as a blacktop beat drives “What My Baby Don’t Know” and Don’t Walk the Darkness answers “Temptation’s Call” with uptown horns and Rock’n’Roll guitars. The musical force behind the songs of Will Sexton on Don’t Walk the Darkness can be credited to New Orleans, Louisiana legends The Iguanas. The band has been a longtime favorite of Will Sexton, who recalled that ‘The Iguanas were always a fixture at the Continental Club in Austin and I would go see them and was just a big fan. I felt like this record would be the perfect opportunity to collaborate with them. They’re such a natural entity, like this powerful train that glides itself along the track. That meant I only had to worry about singing and playing a little guitar’. Slow dance Rock’n’Roll is the perfect vehicle for Will Sexton as he becomes the heart-throb crooner beckoning towards demi-monde darkness in “Oh the Night (Night Owl Calls)”. The album enters on the rumble of its first cut, the album title referencing track, “Don’t Walk the Darkness (Through the Day)”, and exits on the other side of a sunset showcasing cascading clouds of sonics and a rolling love story in “Fall in Straight View”.
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Katie Pruitt (from the album Expectations available on Rounder Records)
Not a coming-out record, Expectations watches the life of gay youth Katie Pruitt unfold as she ponders ‘what’s it life to be normal’, trying to make sense and a way into her life in “Normal”, picking sin over a possible heavenly future with “Loving Her”, and airs a grievance asking ‘who’s the asshole that convinced us all that happiness isn’t free’. Expectations is the debut album from the Georgia native, Nashville, Tennessee resident. The tracks are a way for Katie Pruitt to answer her own questions, the songwriter sharing that ‘why is being ‘gay’ and ‘Christian’ somehow mutually exclusive? I wrestled with this concept my whole life. It made no sense to me that ‘love’ could be a sin. I finally decided that even if it was a sin, I didn’t care. I was in love for the first time with a beautiful girl that loved me back. It didn’t feel wrong to me. There was a tough phone conversation with my father, his words still ringing in my head…‘I’m sorry, I just don’t understand it’ to which I responded, ‘people don’t like what they don’t understand.’
The voice of Katie Pruitt is an ocean of possibilities when she rages in “Grace Has a Gun”, whispers her inner-thoughts in “Wishful Thinking”, speaks her story in musical notes over the piano ramblings of “It’s Always Been You”, and bounces on the rubbery audio waves of the title track. Facing off and breaking free, Katie Pruitt sees the irony of calling a collection of songs about listening to your own voice Expectations, and she reminds that ‘this record’s really about letting go of what other people expect from you, and being free to be to just finally be yourself’. The madness of living the life you seek plays out like a movie on the screen of “My Mind’s a Ship (That’s Going Down)” as Katie Pruitt holds tight to love while she lets the past creep between the piano notes cradling the coming-of-age choices captured in the audio snapshots of “Georgia”.
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Charlie Marie (from the E.P. Charlie Marie available as a self-release) (by Bryant Liggett)
Charlie Marie pulls no punches when delivers a succinct and efficient self-titled E.P. Charlie Marie is what records should be; quick, to the point doses to inspire the tapping of a toe and bobbing of a head, and then back out into the world. Knowing that the short attention span that infects today’s listener will directly influence the passing by of great records. It is best to make something with no filler, no wasted moments, just a direct shot of music and move on. Her second release, Charlie Marie is a Classic Country record for the Classic Rock and Alt Country crowd, Charlie Marie a soft and sweet voice over a rough and tumble band.
A click-clack railroad rhythm and pedal steel guitar kick off “Rhinestone” with Charlie Marie dropping lines from Classic Country cuts of the past. Her opening claim ‘just because you wear a Stetson and you say you were made in Texas doesn’t mean your country and western’ sets a gritty tone accentuated by an equally gritty guitar solo. “Rodeo” with its dreamy steel is a lonely, broken hearted ballad about watching a rodeo star lover head back down the road realizing the ‘time spent with you is worth the goodbye’ while “Countryside”, with its 1970’s Country Rock charm, proves the song title has no limits. “Shot in the Dark” is a sad, slow, dive bar ballad, Charlie Marie closing out the E.P. with a turn-the-table tale of a strong-willed woman sticking it to a deep pocketed dude in the bouncy “Playboy”. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Danny Barnes (from the album Man on Fire available from ATO Records)
In the hands of Danny Barnes, the banjo becomes a multi-dimensional instrument. With Man on Fire, the recent release from Danny Barnes, the banjo moves through the Blues on opening cut “Mule”, drifting across ethereal Americana with “Hey Man” and high-stepping on the Country funk ramble of “Awful Strange” as Danny Barnes tenderly cradles love memories in “Ballad of Nope”, and admits “The Less That I Know” may be the key to happiness. A shifting soundscape is the comfort zone for Danny Barnes, the virtuoso picking out banjo notes over a kaleidoscopic spin of Jazz, Blues, Country, Punk, and Metal musical beds.
Produced by Geoff Stanfield (Sun Kil Moon), Man on Fire welcomes musical guests as the backing band features John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) on bass and mandolin, Jazz pioneer Bill Frisell (John Zorn) on guitar, Matt Chamberlain (Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie) on drums, and executive producer, and ATO label head, Dave Matthews on vocals and Wurlitzer organ. Mountain music tells the story of “Coal Mine” as Danny Barnes trips on street beats as his banjo scurries over “Enemy Factory” and dances to “Hambone Slide” on a raggedy rhythm while Man on Fire takes two wheels out of the city, singing a tribute to its motorcycle of choice in “Zundapp”.
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Ron Pope (from the album Bone Structure available on Brooklyn Basement Records)
The birth of a daughter caused Ron Pope’s personal roots to dig a little deeper into the new Nashville home of Ron and his manager/wife Blair. His recent release, Bone Structure, was a surprise for Ron Pope as the lessons of fatherhood collided with a tour mishap that created a what-if moment for the newly-minted family man. An album worth of material was jettisoned. Rather than writing songs to describe his feelings for her birth, Ron Pope wrote songs for the world his daughter was living in. Carving promises into reality with the hard R&B edge of “Practice What I Preach”, Ron Pope quietly speaks of the welcome changes to his life on a tender Folk ramble with “My Wildest Dreams” and makes nostalgic smiles out of “Habits” as he ponders the takeaway from his journey in “Wait and See”.
An opening letter to his young daughter begins the song cycle of Bone Structure, Ron Pope edging the track listing with the sharp focus of first cut “Flesh of My Flesh”, the words a dedication from a father to his child. The hard skin of a traveling troubadour was the show fans came to know from Ron Pope and while Bone Structure makes good use of his songwriting, the man behind the pen appears less self-assured. His confidence takes to the passenger seat while the searcher in Ron Pope takes the wheel, the songman sharing ‘when I became a father, I spent a lot of time fixating on the things I don’t know and what I wasn’t taught. What can I do better than the people who raised me and what should I borrow from them? How do I remember to let in the light and not obsess over how to box out the darkness?’. Ron Pope sees more than a refugee approaching the United States border in “San Miguel”, his new status as a dad feeling comradery for another family, intuitively knowing that no father would submit his child to these conditions…‘carrying a crying three year old without a good reason to leave home’. A mighty groove forms in the Country Soul soundtrack for a family vacation on the Jersey ‘pike in “Dodge Aries Wagon” while Bone Structure unravels the title track on a bed of piano accented with a thunderous orchestral arrangement. Bone Structure glues a Rock’n’Roll beat to “Stuck on the Moon” and plucks an island rhythm from “Ducky Groove” while Ron Pope exits the album on the fragile whisper chronicling a people’s “Legacy of Sadness”, a somber history lesson trudging over the songs regimented rhythm.
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