Social Distancing Spins – Day 55

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.

Review: Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs

(Above: As he has done countless time through the years, Michael McDonald relishes “Takin’ to the Streets” on June 17, 2017 at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael McDonald has enough hits in his five-decade career to please fans for days. On Saturday night at the Kauffman Center, the celebrated songwriter boldly chose to devote nearly half his set to introduce songs from his upcoming album.

The strength of the material rewarded McDonald’s decision. Although the songs were new, many sounded instantly familiar and blended well with the classic numbers. “Free Your Mind” had a funky Haight-Ashbury feel, while the slow blues “Just Strong Enough” featured several great solos from McDonald’s six-piece band. The upbeat “If You Really Wanted to Hurt Me,” perhaps the best of the bunch, found McDonald’s unintroduced backing vocalist signing along off-mic and dancing and clapping across the stage.

IMG_IMG_Michael_McDonald_2_1_2353JDV3_L135136365Enough hits from McDonald’s days with the Doobie Brothers and solo career were sprinkled throughout the 90-minute set to keep the audience engaged, even if they didn’t find their feet until “What a Fool Believes” near the end of the night.

Opening act Boz Scaggs took the opposite tack, delivering more than half of his bestselling “Silk Degrees” album. The 1976 smooth soul album sold 5 million copies and generated four Top 40 singles, which delivered the biggest cheers of the night.

Mixed among the familiar tunes were several covers, including Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and Li’l Millet’s “Rich Woman.” Scaggs dedicated the former to “my favorite Missouri musician. Well, him and Miles (Davis), anyway.” The latter featured a honking sax riff and swampy feel that betrayed the song’s Louisiana origin and Scaggs’ Southern upbringing.

Both men were chatty, setting up less-familiar numbers with anecdotes about their inspiration. McDonald took the stage talking about growing up in St. Louis, and how when some of his relatives had too much to drink they’d end up driving to Kansas City.

A pair of blues songs provided the most compelling moments in Scaggs’ 85-minute set. “Some Change” was inspired by the kind of change that “seems to come along every four years” and featured some of Scaggs’ best guitar playing. The burning “Loan Me a Dime” gave all five band members plenty of time to stretch out and solo across its 10 minutes.

McDonald sent the mostly full room home happy with a gospel version of his first, and in many ways defining, Doobie Brothers hit, “Takin’ It Too the Streets.” The song opened with piano and organ gradually giving way to the full band and the admonition to let peace, love and justice rule.

Boz Scaggs setlist: It’s Over, Jojo, Rich Woman, Some Change, You Never Can Tell, Harbor Lights, Georgia, Cadillac Walk, Look What You’ve Done to Me, Lowdown, Lido Shuffle. Encore: What Can I Say, Loan Me a Dime.

Michael McDonald setlist: It Keeps You Runnin’, Sweet Freedom, Free Your Mind, I Keep Forgettin’, Find It In Your Heart, If You Wanted to Hurt Me, Just Strong Enough, Here to Love You, Beautiful Child, Half Truth, Minute by Minute, On My Own, What A Fool Believes, Takin’ It To the Streets.

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Review: Bob Seger

Review: Farm Aid

Review: Big Head Blues Club

(Above: Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton help Big Head Todd and the Monsters visit the “Killing Floor.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Rock and roll tributes to the blues are hardly a novel concept, but the glossy, contemporary rock of Big Head Todd and the Monsters makes them an unexpected outfit to try such a feat.

Saturday’s concert at the Uptown was billed as “Back at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts.” The four-piece, Colorado rock band aimed to celebrate Johnson in the months leading up to his 100th birthday in May, but this wasn’t quite the case. Johnson figured prominently in the set, but there was also a heavy dose of Chicago blues. The night was more like an exposition of the genre’s most overt influences on rock. Put another way, the first set opened with Todd Park Mohr alone onstage playing the dobro and ended less than an hour later with dueling drum solos.

Taking the stage in a dark suit and black fedora, frontman Mohr quickly put any expectations for the Monsters’ back catalog to bed, telling the one-third capacity crowd the only thing they’d be hearing was “straight, natural blues.” He was right for the most part, but an audience clamoring for “Bittersweet” – one of the band’s biggest tunes – needn’t have worried. The songs in the last third of the set sounded like typical Big Head Todd material outfitted with familiar blues lyrics.

Mohr opened with three stellar, solo acoustic numbers before being joined by Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm and Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. That trio, along with bass player Rob Squires who entered later, formed the core band for the night, present on nearly every number. They were augmented by drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside and Malcolm’s longtime touring partner, and Monsters drummer Brian Nevin.

The real blues cred, however, came from 79-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 75-year-old harp man James Cotton. Sumlin’s playing can be heard on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic material and Cotton played on many great Muddy Waters records. Half a century later, both men were in just as fine of form today as they were in their Chess Records heyday. Sumlin’s soling was nimble and his vocal turn on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” was strong. Cotton made his harmonica moan and wail like a woman in pleasure and had so much fun during one solo that he started laughing when it was done.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters are no strangers to working with blues legends. In 1997 they worked with John Lee Hooker on a cover of his “Boom Boom” that reached the Top 40. Opinions of that track will likely frame one’s appreciation for the evening: The band either misappropriated a hero to dumb down a song or paid honest homage using their familiar idiom.

The best moments were the spare opening numbers, particularly Lightnin’ Malcolm’s duets with Cotton on “Walkin’ Blues” and “Future Blues.” Mohr really pushed himself at the mic all night and did a great job approximating the Wolf’s moans and rasp on the Chicago numbers. Cotton or Sumlin were onstage for about half of the two-hour set’s 22 songs. Their contributions were always a treat.

After the first, mostly acoustic set, the band took a 20 minute break. They returned for another hour of electric music that blurred the lines between Chicago blues, traditional bar band fare and the typical Big Head sound. Not everything worked – covers of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a slick arrangement that removed any sense of doom from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” were questionable. But there was no doubt everyone onstage was having fun.

Setlist: Love in Vain; Stones In My Passway; Dry Spell; Kind-Hearted Woman Blues; If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day; Walkin’ Blues; Future Blues; Viola Lee Blues; When You Got A Good Friend; Travelling Riverside Blues. Intermission. Ramblin’ On My Mind; Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil); Wang Dang Doodle; Sittin’ On Top of the World; Killing Floor; I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Come On In My Kitchen; Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Encore: Cross Road Blues; I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom > Sweet Home Chicago.

Keep reading:

Review: Experience Hendrix (ft. Hubert Sumlin)

Review: T-Model Ford

Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

Review: Bob Dylan

(Above: Zimmy and band roll and tumble.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most iconic songwriters of the 1960s visited Kansas City just two weeks apart. But while patrons packed the Sprint Center and doled out big money to see Paul McCartney, acres of more reasonably priced empty seats could be found at Bob Dylan’s concert at Starlight Theater on Saturday night.

Part of this can be attributed to frequency. McCartney has only played Kansas City three times since the Beatles called it quits. Dylan rolls through town about every 15 months. But delivery also plays a big role. McCartney performs his beloved numbers exactly (or close to the ways) how everyone remembers them; Dylan plays nothing straight.

Saturday’s performance ran just shy of two hours and felt pretty much the same as Dylan’s many previous stops in town, including the show he played at Starlight just over three years ago. After opening with two tracks from the ‘70s – including a stunning “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),”  Dylan and his four-piece band ping-ponged between his golden era in the ‘60s and material cut in the past decade.

The best moments were the ballads. The delicate “Just Like A Woman” opened with a lengthy instrumental section that highlighted the subtle interplay between acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, and Dylan’s organ, his preferred instrument of the night. The instruments danced deftly until the signature descending guitar riff entered, heralding the first verse. “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” had a similar feel later in the set, and featured Dylan’s best harmonica solo of the night.

Dylan gave a nice treat when he paired two of the best numbers from his protest era. Almost a half a century after their debut, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” remain a potent commentary on poverty and race. Their impact was muted, however, by an arrangement of “Hattie Carroll” that rendered the number nearly unrecognizable.

The band mined the Chicago blues for two newer numbers, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The former was the only time Dylan strapped on an electric guitar. It should have been repeated. His prodding duel with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton seemed to invigorate the rest of the band.

A slump in the final third of the set ended with a spectacular “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The lone illumination from the footlights added an other-worldly atmosphere to the song as Dylan stepped away from his keyboard and sang into a microphone set just off center, in front of the drums.

Reliable encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” still pack a punch and hold pleasant surprises. Dylan intentionally dropped his vocals after the second chorus on “Like a Rolling Stone” to give the band some space to play and let Sexton take an extra solo. “Watchtower” came in a staccato fashion that resembled the far-off gallop of the riders’ horses, before they suddenly stormed the gates.

The Dough Rollers: Dylan’s attraction to this duo isn’t hard to spot. Their 35-minute opening set included covers of John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and early gospel numbers. The pair sounds like they have just been pulled off an old field recording cut by Alan Lomax. Malcolm Ford sounds like he learned to sing by studying antique cylinder recordings. Jack Byrne’s bottleneck slide on “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” was especially tasty. The set also included an interpretation of “Goin’ to Kansas City.” They would be a great show at B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ or Knucklehead’s.

Dylan’s setlist: Watching the River Flow, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine), My Wife’s Home Town, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Just Like A Woman, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Cry A While, Workingman’s Blues No. 2, Highway 61 Revisited, I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Thunder on the Mountain, Ballad of a Thin Man. Encore: Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along the Watchtower.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower (2004)

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Review: T-Model Ford

(Above: T-Model Ford wants to cut you loose.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few links remain to the golden age of Delta Blues. Most of the artists are dead, and the generation that followed grew up cities far away from sharecropping plantations. T-Model Ford’s appearance at Davey’s Uptown on Thursday night was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the roots of the blues.

Ford drew a diverse group of about 60 fans, spanning several generations and including bikers, punk rockers, hipsters, musicologists and the curious. What they got was either an embarrassment of riches or way too much.

Fliers promised Ford would be performing with a band, but his only backing was Gravel Road drummer Marty Reinsel. Together the pair coaxed a sound that distilled nearly every traditional variety of the blues into one long shuffle. The guitar-and-drums duo played with a simplicity the White Stripes and Black Keys could only imagine.

There was no set list. For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, Ford flipped through the vast blues songbook in his mind and played whatever started coming out of his fingers. The results included well-known songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “My Babe” and Ford originals such as “Chicken Head Man” and “Cut Me Loose.”

Seated on a cushioned chair, Ford looked completely relaxed. During the glacial pauses between verses he gazed across the room, a gentle smile on his face as if he had no cares in the world. Across Ford’s lap was Black Nanny, a Peavy electric guitar that looked like it had been stolen from a hair metal band. Ford twice called it the best guitar in the world.

Regardless of their origin, most songs were based on a two-chord shuffle that had nowhere to go and was in no particular hurry to get there. Most songs ambled along for about five minutes, several stretched to nearly twice that length. Ford’s smooth singing was almost stream-of-conscious, picking up verses halfway through, mixing stanzas and inventing new verses altogether.

Reinsel’s drumming was the element that held the set together. He held back on most songs, altering his emphasis ever so slightly to keep the endless boogies from becoming monotonous. The more aggressive rhythms on “Chicken Head Man” had a Keith Moon energy.

Between songs, Ford massaged the arthritis in his right hand. After one number, he declared it “Jack Daniels time” and downed the contents of the shot glass sitting on his amplifier. He told a story about getting married last week and told the women in the room that “If she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

But what was hypnotic for some was tedious for others and near the end of the first set the chatter from the bar in the back of the room threatened to take over the space. After a 75-minute set, Ford took a break which eliminated many of the less-dedicated fans.

If the night had stopped there no one would have felt shortchanged. No one is sure of Ford’s age, least of all the man himself, but most peg his birth sometime during the Harding administration. Unlike many bluesmen, Ford didn’t start playing guitar late in life and didn’t record an album until 1997 when he was discovered by the Fat Possum label.

The hour-long second set reprised many of the favorites from the first set, including “Sallie Mae” and “That’s Alright.” By the third go-round of “Hoochie Coochie Man” what started as innocent started looking senile. It didn’t stop anyone from dancing, though. As a friend said at the end, when you’re 90 years old you can play the blues any way you want.

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Review: B.B. King and Buddy Guy

(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

Review: Robert Randolph and the Family Band (2009)

(Above: Robert Randolph and the Family Band examine the “Man in the Mirror.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kasnas City Star

As the temperature dipped into the low 60s Saturday night at Crossroads, Robert Randolph and his family band mounted a two-front war: against the elements and against early onset hibernation in the crowd.

Pedal steel virtuoso Randolph and his six-piece band immediately conquered the weather. Opening with the buoyant “Good Times (3 Stroke),” Randolph frequently jumped out from behind his instrument to hop around like his own hype man. That proved more than enough to get the blood flowing.

For whatever reason, the band had more trouble winning over the audience. The third-full venue was populated with people who would rather converse and take their pictures on cell phones than dance and listen. The only times the crowd was engaged was when Randolph gave them something to do, like clap or sing. Everything else was background music.

When the night’s first Michael Jackson tribute – “Man in the Mirror,” delivered gospel-style by Randolph’s sister Lenesha Randolph – failed to rouse the crowd, Randolph segued into a John Lee Hooker boogie. Inviting dozens of ladies onstage to shake their hips did the trick during the number, but once the song was over it seemed everyone wanted to talk about what or who they saw onstage.

“Nobody” offered plenty of participation during the chorus and several encouraged call-and-responses.  For a moment it seemed like everything would gel, but mic problems capsized “Gilligan,” scat-vocal number about the Minnow’s castaways played on a square Bo Diddley guitar, and the crowd grew restless with the ensuing jam.

Finally, after 75 minutes onstage, Randolph got the crowd on board. “I Don’t Know What You Come To Do” had plenty of cues to clap and stomp along and the audience joyously obliged. That bled into “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” which teased the riff to “Whole Lotta Love” and featured an organ sound straight out of “96 Tears.”

The second Jackson tribute went over better than the first. Sliding into the melody of “Rock With You” after a brief encore break, Randolph, who has been playing MJ songs long before the King of Pop’s passing, gave the crowd a forum to both sing and dance. The night ended with “Roll Up,” an unreleased number similar to what Randolph had been serving all night. This time everyone was up for it.

Randolph’s upbeat music rocks the middle ground between gospel and funk, and his songs are basically vamps and choruses. His band can ride a groove into the sunset, but when the organ player leaned into his B3 with some gospel chords the performance kicked up another level.

Wearing a silk do-rag, pink tie, dress shirt, black vest, plaid shorts and knee-high black nylon socks, Randolph looked like a cross between LL Cool J and a middle infielder.  If he was frustrated by the distracted crowd, Randolph didn’t show it. He grinned from ear to ear all night, dancing in his seat under the pedal steel or two-stepping across the stage behind a six-string.

When the parade of ladies left the stage after “Shake Your Hips” several of them planted a kiss on Randolph’s cheek. Lost in his playing, Randolph never looked up or acknowledged the gesture. He was wise to ignore the adulation from a crowd that gave little more than lip service for most of the night.

Setlist: Good Times (3 Stroke), Deliver Me, Man in the Mirror, Shake Your Hips, Black Betty, Nobody, Das EFX, Gilligan, I Don’t Know What You Come To Do, Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That, (Encore) Rock With You, Roll Up

(Below: Paper setlists are so passe. Photo by Joe Hutchison.)

RR-setlist2009-09-26

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Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Voodoo Lounge, 2008

Little Arkansas Rocks

(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.

Review: Buddy Guy


Above: Buddy Guy preaches the blues via Cream, Hooker and Hendrix.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Buddy Guy isn’t mentioned in the film “Cadillac Records” but he made a strong case for his inclusion among the Chess label’s pantheon of greats Friday night at the Uptown Theater.

After a brief introduction by his four-piece band, Guy walked onto the stage and straight into a guitar solo. When he finally tired of pulling notes from his cream-colored Stratocaster, Guy walked to the mic and began to sing. Rattling off the names of his mentors and influences – Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon – he passionately cried “they’re the ones who made the blues, tell me who’s going to fill those shoes?” It was a reverent, but rhetorical question.

Guy has no trouble whipping a crowd into a frenzy, but he can silence them just as easily by placing a finger to his lips. He stayed in a quiet mode for most of the evening, dripping a spare, creeping version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The classic Waters number was propelled by Guy’s expressive singing and the familiar bass line while a sprinkling of piano and smattering of guitar solos were drizzled over the top. That number worked its way into two more Waters’ tunes, “Love Her With A Feeling” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

While his playing was still fiery, Guy was content to smolder for an evening. With the drums gently clicking like metronome, band played so subtly they were easily overwhelmed by conversation when the audience grew restless. The steady flow of bodies to the beer stands said the crowd wasn’t expecting so much restraint.

Likewise, Guy probably wasn’t expecting such an empty house. The Uptown’s balcony was closed off and while the floor was basically full, there were still plenty of vacant seats.

Opening act Tom Hambridge, who also produced Guy’s latest album, hopped onstage to lend vocal support to “Skin Deep.” Guy’s journey as the child of Louisiana sharecroppers to witnessing his fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama claim the presidency gives his song for racial equality extra poignancy. The soul ballad ended with the audience singing along. Bolstered by a Hammond organ, the song wasn’t quite gospel, but it felt a lot like church.

A tribute to Albert King opened with one of the mellowest readings of “I’m Going Down” of all time. The song heated up, though, when Guy jumped offstage and slowly made his way through the assembly. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Guy devastated “Drowning On Dry Land.” Walking into the foyer, Guy unleashed the most blistering solo of the night with few witnesses around. With his guitarist and bass player swaying to a synchronized two-step on stage, Guy sauntered back into the theater and plopped down in one of its seats without missing a note. Guy’s six-string field trip ended with a passionate performance of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

The second half of the show was essentially a mega medley of Guy’s blues heroes. Rotating from John Lee Hooker to Little Walter to Cream to a dialed-down cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Guy switched songs so often it was almost like their was a penalty for playing a number all the way through. He found a wah wah peddle and the volume switch for “Voodoo Child” and channeled James Brown for a stellar snippet of “I Go Crazy.” After nearly 90 minutes onstage, Guy closed with a bit of “Kansas City.”

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Two): Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

BoDiddleyGunslinger

Above: Musical pioneer Bo Diddley was cruelly excluded from the “Cadillac Records” story.

By Joel Francis

With Willie Dixon feeding steady hits to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other Chess artists, the label had become a driving force of popular taste less than a decade after it was founded. While blues were the label’s backbone, the Chess brothers had a hand in nearly every facet of African-American music – from doo-wop groups like the Moonglows and Flamingos and jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis to the comedy styling of Moms Mabley and sermons by Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Starting in 1963, Chess even had its own Chicago radio station, WVON, Voice of the Negro, which is still on the air today.

Chess introduced the world to rock and roll in 1951 when it released Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Four years later, two new Chess artists helped rock and roll grow up in a hurry.

Chuck Berry was discovered by Muddy Waters while on vacation to St. Louis. Berry’s upbeat blues were spiked with country and given a teenage twist. Songs about work became songs about school; his love songs were less dark and more playful. Berry was a poet, capable of packing more syllables per stanza than any other singer. Consider the imagery and complexity in the familiar opening lines Berry’s legendary “Johnny B. Goode:” “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” Berry’s guitar was just as active as his mouth. His quick fingers brought the blues at twice the tempo and his athletic solos made him the first guitar hero.

If Chuck Berry’s souped-up songs took the blues to the teen market in the guise of rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s African rhythms gave them a beat everyone could dance to. Diddley was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss. but took the last name McDaniel from his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago as a child in 1934.  Diddley’s songs were downright primitive compared to Berry’s, but no less powerful or influential. His shave-and-a-haircut beat was the backbone for many of his own hits like “Bo Diddley,” and “Who Do You Love,” and countless imitators like Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and Bruce Sprinsteen’s “She’s the One.” Diddley produced strange sounds from homemade guitars, while Jerome Green’s maracas fueled the relentless beat. Diddley and Green’s back-and-forth on “Say Man” is one of the earliest recorded raps.

The 1960s were a boon for Chess. New stars like Etta James kept the label at the top of the charts while Chuck Berry was in jail. Rock and roll may have knocked Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from their perches at the top of the charts, but their old singles found a huge white audience in England. Teenagers who bought guitars to form skiffle bands were suddenly playing Willie Dixon’s songs and ravenous for Chicago’s blues. Dixon obliged them, organizing several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe. In return, the British Invasion bands brought Chess music back to America with them, introducing white America to the music its dark-skinned brothers and sisters had been enjoying decades. Waters, Wolf and the rest of the Chess stable were suddenly pulled from the chitlin circuit to colleges, theaters and festivals.

Chess responded to the changing marketplace in several ways. Before then, most Chess releases were 45 rpm singles. Now the brothers started packaging their hits together into LP records. Decade-old Sonny Boy Williamson tracks appeared on a “Real Folk Blues” compilation designed to appeal to the hootenanny crowd. Later, classic Waters and Wolf tunes were given psychedelic updates for the Summer of Love.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records