norah jones, booker t. jones, post malone album covers

Random record reviews: Norah Jones, Post Malone, Booker T.

By Joel Francis

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off the Floor

Although Norah Jones’ second album in as many years shares many similarities with last year’s Begin Again, Pick Me Up Off the Floor hangs together better as a cohesive album.

Working once again with a revolving cast of musicians, Jones maintains a consistent mood and tempo throughout the album. The joy in these performances lie in their subtleties, like the pedal steel guitar on “Heartbroken, Day After,” soulful B3 organ on “Flame Twin” or horns on the gospel song “To Live.” It’s not hard to get lost in the interplay between drummer Brian Blade and upright bass player Chris Thomas on “Hurts to Be Alone.”

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s idiosyncratic guitar playing and unique phrasing are evident throughout “I’m Alive,” one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately, however, these nuances aren’t distinct enough to win Jones any new fans. The mid-tempo pop/jazz singer may need to be picked up off the floor, but only the most devoted fans will be swept off their feet.

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding

For an established pop artist, Post Malone’s third album takes a while before the hooks arrive. There are a few flourishes of energy – DaBaby’s rap on “Enemies,” the bridge on “Allergic” – before “A Thousand Bad Times,” the fifth song, finally delivers something to sing along to.

From there, Hollywood’s Bleeding starts building momentum. “Circles” is perfect for a night at the club (whenever that can be a thing again), while Future and Halsey steal the spotlight on “Die for Me.” Ozzy Osborne and Travis Scott take over on the arena rock anthem “Take What You Want.” In danger of disappearing on his own album, Malone grabs center stage on “I’m Gonna Be” and “Staring at the Sun” (with SZA). This sets up the massive hit “Sunflower,” which appeared in the animated Spider-Man film.

At 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Hollywood’s Bleeding could benefit from some editing, but the genre mashup, something-for-everyone approach winds up delivering plenty of fun.

Booker T. Jones – Note by Note

As leader of Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones helped define the sound of the Stax label and southern soul. Trust me, you’ve heard him play even if you don’t recognize the name. Now Jones is back with his first album since 2013 revisiting the songs and music that built his reputation.

Note by Note jumps out of the speakers with “Cause I Love You,” a duet between Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet. From there, Jones takes the mic for the swampy blues “Born Under a Bad Sign” before turning the singing over to Ayanna Irish on the playful “B-A-B-Y.”

Regardless of the style or the singer, Jones’ distinctive B3 organ holds the performances together. His talent is especially evident on seemingly disparate performances of the gospel number “Precious Lord” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” (delivered with a distinct south-of-the-border feel).

Two new songs close out the album, but by then the deal has long been sealed. Fans of the Colemine and Daptone labels will find a lot to love here, but any fan of sweet soul music should celebrate Note by Note.

Keep reading:

Review – Booker T.

Another Side of Norah Jones

“Stax Does the Beatles”

Social Distancing Spins – Days 62-65

By Joel Francis

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno – Evening Star (1975)
Brian Eno and Kevin Shields – The Weight of History (2018) The second album from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music effects wizard Brian Eno continues down the same experimental path established on their first album. Layers of audio are bounced between two tape decks, building up sheets of sound that are then manipulated and augmented with guitar solos and other effects. If this sounds too technical fear not: Evening Star is a supremely pastoral album, especially on the first side. As with Eno’s other ambient projects the point of this music is to almost disappear in the background and enhance the mood and atmosphere of a space. The first side of Evening Star succeeds on this level, projecting a layer of calm into my house each time it is played. The second side, the 28-minute track “An Index of Metals” is more textured, incorporating dense levels of guitar distortion. While distorted manipulations keep the piece from fading into aural wallpaper the result is still soothing.

More than 40 years after collaborating with Fripp, Eno partnered with another guitarist know for dense layers of distortion. The guitar player in My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields was the primary auteur behind the shoegaze masterpiece Loveless. The music Shields and Eno have crafted together seems like it builds on the foundation Eno established with Fripp. Like “An Index of Metals,” their work forces some attention to appreciate its wonder. Shields and Eno have only collaborated on two songs so far, but the 12-inch single containing these tracks make me want a more.

Murder by Death – The Other Shore (2018) The eighth album by the Bloomington, Ind. Goth-country rockers is a concept album that according to press materials is “a space-western about a ravaged Earth, its fleeing populace and a relationship in jeopardy.” Well that clears things up. Fortunately the music is so engaging that it masks any plot problems. Their brand of roots rock is bolstered by a dedicated cellist, which brings a sweeping Southern Gothic feel to the music. The music on The Other Shore is certainly more nuanced than the petal-to-the-metal live show I saw from them several years ago at Middle of the Map festival. That said, all the songs on The Other Shore feel like they would translate well to the stage. Murder by Death have built a loyal following over the past two decades. The Other Shore is accessible enough to please the existing fans and win them even more.

Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers – Self-titled (1973) If the name Roy Lee Johnson rings any bells, it might from the song “Mr. Moonlight,” which he wrote and was covered by the Fab Four on the album Beatles for Sale. Johnson’s lone outing with the Villagers bears no resemblance to that song whatsoever. Opening number “Patch It Up” sounds like James Brown and the J.B.s. The next number, “I’ll be Your Doctor Man” continues in this very funky vein, with the distinct accompaniment of the Memphis Horns. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers drips with Southern soul and funk in every track. Unfortunately for Johnson, two events coincided to keep him from becoming a star. First, Stax was in shaky financial state when this album came out. Poor distribution killed any chance of this success. Fans couldn’t find the album in stores to buy it and send it up the charts. Secondly, the Villagers young bass player Michael James died suddenly, leading to the end of the Villagers. James’ playing plays a prominent role in the album’s success, adding to the melody line while simultaneously holding down the groove. The side two instrumental “Razorback Circus” is a prime example of what James brought to the material. Johnson didn’t release another album until the mid-‘80s. His most recent album is 1998’s “When a Guitar Plays the Blues.”

The Creation – Action Painting (compilation) If you know any of the Creation’s songs, it is probably “Making Time,” used in the brilliant film Rushmore. It’s the first track in this collection, meaning there are 22 other 1960s British garage rock classics to discover here. Fans of early Who, Small Faces and the Kinks will find a lot to love. As always, the Numero Group has done an excellent job of presenting the music with the best mastering possible and putting it in context as well. All the band’s singles are here as well as a handful of pre-Creation singles by Creation Mark Four and songs that only popped up on later compilations. The Creation like to pose as ruffians on songs like the tough “Biff, Bang, Pow” and the cocksure “Can I Join Your Band,” but their true colors are revealed on several goofy numbers. “The Girls Are Naked” sounds like the nutty younger cousin of the Who’s “Pictures of Lily.” Covers of “Cool Jerk” and “Bonie Maronie” conjure images of awkward dance steps in a school gymnasium. The Creation never seem to take themselves too seriously – they have a song about “Ostrich Man” – but their Mod sensibilities make this an essential addition to any 1960s Anglophile’s collection.

Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988) Most of the songs on the major label debut by the Los Angeles-born alternative party band still sound fresh today. I hadn’t listened to this album in a long while before this spin, but Eric Avery’s bassline on “Up the Beach” that opens the record still got the adrenaline going. Nothing’s Shocking was a staple in my college dorm room, but I think nostalgia isn’t the only force powering the album today. Dave Navarro’s guitars and Stephen Perkins drums kick like a blast of dynamite as singer Perry Farrell counts in the band on “Ocean Size.” “Mountain Side” still hits like an avalanche, but it’s not just the heavy songs that land. “Ted, Just Admit It…” is a longer, more experimental piece. “Standing in the Shower … Thinking” is a piece of faux funk that concludes the first side. “Summertime Rolls” is another atmospheric experimental piece carried by Ferrell’s voice. The horns on “Idiots Rule” and the radio staple singalong “Jane Says” are the only dated moments on the album. The brass on “Idiots Rule” sounds like shades of “Sledgehammer” and “Jane Says” suffers from overexposure. Jane’s Addiction have broken up and regrouped several times in the 32 years since Nothing’s Shocking came out, but none of those projects have come close to matching their original output.

Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (2020) The 14th studio album from Southern singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams couldn’t arrive at a better time. At a time when COVID-19 shutdowns have people feeling frustrated, sad, angry and hopeful (sometimes experiencing each emotion within minutes of each other), Williams channels these states of mind through her lyrics and amplifier.

On “Big Black Train,” Williams confronts her bouts with depression and determination not to get onboard again. “Man Without a Soul” is a hot pellet of rage directed at the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The album ends with “Good Souls,” a hopeful prayer to “Keep me with all of those/who help me stay strong/and guide me along.”

Williams’ band expertly augments her emotions throughout the album, often working in a swampy blues or Rolling Stones rock form. After an hour of searing, electrified full-band arrangements, the vinyl version of Good Souls Better Angels includes five acoustic demo bonus tracks. They are the perfect palate cleanser. Having shared this emotional catharsis, we are renewed to defeat the next challenge.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 59

By Joel Francis

Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.

Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.

Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.

Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.

Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 25

By Joel Francis

I’m still lost in the catacombs, down in the groove.

Lou Reed – New Sensations (1984) Lou Reed released several endeavors that sound more intriguing in concept than execution, but New Sensations stands out in a deep catalog full of non-sequiturs: It is relentless optimistic both lyrically and musically. I have no idea what put Reed in such a good mood, but it is a delight to hear praise impulsive behavior on “Doing the Things that We Want To,” turning the Detours’ “Do You Love Me” sideways for “I Love You, Suzanne” and celebrating a compatriot on “My Friend George.” If this sounds slight, fear not. There’s nothing here as lightweight as “The Original Wrapper,” which appears on his next album, Mistrial. New Sensations it a strong conclusion to an incredible – and diverse – trilogy of albums that appeared in consecutive years and represent Reed’s strongest run of material outside of the Velvet Underground.

Coathangers – The Devil You Know (2019) When first playing this sixth release from the all-female Atlanta trio one might think there was a mix-up at the pressing plant. Opening cut “Bimbo” opens with a light, bouncy guitar and piano line and airy vocals. Then the distortion kicks in at the chorus and we realize how the sonic dichotomy supports the song’s lyrics about making assumptions about women. Very clever. “Stranger Danger” employs a similar trick as coquette-ish repetition of the song title plays against more defiant vocals in the verses before all hell breaks loose on the chorus. The song does a great job of capturing #metoo-era menace in under three minutes. “Stranger Danger” sets the table nicely for “Fuck the NRA,” a song as brash and straightforward as its title and the album’s best moment. Clocking in at just over half an hour, The Devil You Know makes it point and quickly departs.

Sam and Dave – Double Dynamite (1966) Soul music abounds with upbeat songs and combos, but I don’t know of any as relentlessly happy as Sam and Dave. You can even hear them smiling during serious ballads like “When Something is Wrong with My Baby (Something is Wrong with Me).” Double Dynamite is Memphis soul at its finest, with Booker T. and the MGs serving as the backing band and Isaac Hayes and David Porter providing songs. The first side of this album has several of the duo’s hits, including “Soothe Me,” “Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody,” and “You’ve Got Me Hummin’.” The second side is less-known but still great and features a version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.”

Bob Dylan – Sidetracks (compilation) – This collection gathers all the non-album tracks released on box sets and hits collections over the years. The majority of the cuts come from the Biograph box set and are quite good, but I am partial to the songs from Greatest Hits, Volume II, which was a staple in my college dorm room. Dylanologists can rejoice than they no longer need skip through a half-dozen other anthologies for these hard-to-find tracks. Casual fans looking for the hits won’t find them here, but they will encounter a lot of great songs to send them scurrying deeper into the catalog. Non-albums singles like “Positively Fourth Street” and 1999’s Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” which will satisfy both audiences.

John Entwistle – Whistle Rymes (1972) – John Entwistle solo albums can be a dicey proposition. The majority of them are more miss than hit, I’m afraid. Thankfully, Whistle Rymes (sic), The Ox’s second solo album is a safe endeavor. That’s not to say it’s not for the faint-hearted. The liner notes, penned by Entwistle, is the beginning of a fairy tale about a girl named Boobity. So, yeah. (If this tale was ever completed elsewhere, I don’t want to know about it.) The closing song, “Nightmare (Please Wake Me Up)” is a glorious cacophony of horns, piano, violin and drums. The rest of the album is quite good. Anyone who heard The Who songs “Boris the Spider,” “Silas Stingy” or “Heaven and Hell” and thought they needed some more will be pleased with Whistle Rymes.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes from the Underground (1985) The jazz world lost a tremendous gift when Ellis Marsalias, patriarch of the great jazz family passed last week. I saw Marsalis at a small theater in Kansas City about a decade ago with a combo that included his son Jason on drums. Somehow, after the show, a neighbor who played saxophone and went with me had talked our way into joining the band – minus Jason – for drinks at the hotel across the street. I soaked in the conversation and experiences until Ellis arrived. He started telling stories about when Charlie Parker was in Jay McShann’s band. McShann, Ellis said, tried to get everyone to take his young horn player because he was so undependable. “You found him, you keep him!” Ellis remembered the other bandleaders telling McShann as we all laughed.

I mention all this here because I don’t have an Ellis Marsalis album and because there will be other opportunities to discuss the rest of the Marsalis family. I have no doubt somewhere in heaven the newly arrived pianist is sitting in on a heck of a jam session.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 20

By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

Must-see bands at the 80-35 Festival

(Above: Ziggy Marley will perform at this year’s 80-35 festival, but there are many great bands waiting to be discovered.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Over the past six years, the 80-35 music festival has put Des Moines and the Iowa music scene on the map. Great headliners draw increasingly bigger crowds, but the festival’s secret strength is drawing the best acts from the upper Midwest.

This year is no exception. Bands from nearly every neighboring state will fill the fest’s three stages this weekend.  Here are several bands I’m most looking forward to experiencing live on our nation’s birthday. (Note: Since I will only be able to attend the first day of the festival, all of the following recommendations are from Friday’s lineup.)

Any noisy three-piece rock band from Minneapolis is going to draw comparisons to Husker Du. Fury Things don’t run away from the similarities. Guitars explode from blown amps and drums sound like they are being punished. The band makes a compelling case for coming out early, and are guaranteed to jumpstart the day. (Fury Things perform at 12:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

If the Beach Boys hung out in Greenwich Village instead of Venice Beach they probably would have turned out a lot like the River Monks. The Des Moines-based quartet combines a sea of lush harmony vocals over a forest of banjos, guitars and other wooden instruments. Bonus points for an album cover that looks like a physical realization of Brian Eno’s topographic covers in the Ambient series. (The River Monks perform at 8 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Singer Johnathan Tolliver fronts soul outfit Black Diet like the second coming of Isaac Hayes, only with a better falsetto. The band may come from Minneapolis, but the sound is straight-up Memphis soul. Touches of slide blues guitar alongside a meaty B3 organ imagine what Booker T and the MGs may have sounded like if Duane Allman sat in (and brought a gospel choir). (Black Diet perform at 4:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

8035logo_1Maids haven’t released an album, but the electronic duo has more than enough original material from surreptitiously released singles to fill a set. Danny Heggen’s high tenor soars over keyboards and drum machines while just a touch of guitar fill out the minimalist sound. The song “Seashell” sounds like a lost 8-bit classic until waves of synthesizers take over the track, turning everyone in their wake into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Maids perform at 6 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Tree probably isn’t named for his love of forestry, but the Chicago MC proves there is more to hip hop than odes to weed. His raspy voice and rhymes are good enough, but what really stands out is the production. The song “Fame” sounds like it was inspired by William Burrough’s cut-up technique, with snippets of gospel organ or jazz piano diced and reassembled at random. “The King” employs fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s old trick of speeding up a familiar song for the backing track, but Tree ends up with something that would sound like an over-the-top parody if it didn’t work so well. (Tree performs at 2:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

Look for a review of Friday’s 80-35 festivities next week on The Daily Record.

 Keep reading:

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

Middle of the Map 2013

Top 10 shows of 2010

(Above: Gil Scott-Heron performs “We Almost Lost Detroit” in concert. His June 20 performance at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., earns an honorable mention as one of the top shows of the year.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jonsi, April 22, Liberty Hall

Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.

Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.

Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.

Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center

Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater

An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.

Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City

The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.

Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar

Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.

David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater

After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.

Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads

The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.

Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater

On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.

Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater

Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2009

Top 10 concerts of 2008

A Christmas conversation

(Above: Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking,” released in 1964, is a classic, overlooked holiday album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The other day I was in a retail bookstore when I noticed the wonderful sounds of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack coming from the overhead speakers. As I enjoyed the music, two thoughts hit me. First, I wondered if the store would be playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz interpretations of Christmas carols if they weren’t connected to an iconic cartoon. Then I started thinking about my other favorite jazz Christmas recordings. Joining me in this Yuletide journey is my friend Bill Brownlee, the award-winning blogger behind There Stands the Glass and Plastic Sax.

The Daily Record: I don’t pull out the Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but inevitably the first song I gravitate to is John Coltrane’s reading of “Greensleeves.” He cut this song many times. It can be found on his “Live at the Village Vanguard” collection and his “Ballads” album. My favorite version, though, may be found on Coltrane’s 1961 Impulse debut “Africa/Brass.” Not only does the performance run over 10 minutes – more than enough time to get lost in the playing – but classic Coltrane sidemen McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are augmented by a large brass section. The extra players beef up the sound and provide a larger-than-usual context.

Bill, what are some Christmas albums or performances that you turn to year after year?

Bill Brownlee: Along with most Americans, I’m inundated with Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. And as much as I love Donny Hathaway, Nat “King” Cole and Brenda Lee, involuntarily hearing their holiday hits saps my spirit.  Even Charlie Brown Christmas is played out for me.  And speaking of Vince Guaraldi, how often do you hear “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” played at a box store or on the radio?  There’s your answer.

That’s why I embrace the odd and the overlooked material.   Asked to supply music for my compound’s tree trimming festivities on Saturday, I immediately turned to Dan Hicks’ new Crazy For Christmas album.  The hillbilly jazz selection was so unpopular that I had to turn to (predictably boring) Motown Christmas to quell the insurrection.

TDR: The Motown Christmas may not be the most inventive holiday collection out there, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It seems only a few new Christmas songs are allowed to escape each year. At this pitiful pace, it will be several years before today’s songwriters gift the public with something as great as Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” His “Ava Maria” is also sublime. It’s also difficult to complain with the blending of the Temptations vocals (even if the arrangements are overly familiar) or the joy in Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s delivery.
If it’s a classic R&B Christmas you want, though, I’d suggest “Christmas in Soulsville” aka “It’s Christmas Time Again.” The tracklisting more inventive – where else are you going to hear “Back Door Santa” and not one, but two versions of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”? And the lineup is impeccable: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, Albert King and more. Stuff that in your stocking.

BB: I remember being so disappointed after I purchased a small stack of Motown Christmas LPs- the Temptations, the Miracles, the Jackson Five and so on. The arrangements and performances were totally uninspired.  Maybe that bad experience enhances my appreciation of stuff like Clarence Carter’s “Back
Door Santa.”

TDR: It sounds like we’re in agreement on the Stax recordings. What are some of your other Yuletide favorites? What’s been tickling your ears this season?

BB: The two new recordings I love are the aforementioned Dan Hicks and Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. It’s playful in a Lester Bowie/Rahsaan Roland Kirk sense. Fun.How about you?  What are you listening to?

TDR: There are several Christmas albums I reach for every year. Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas Cooking” is incredible. If you can get past the drum machines, Fats Domino’s “Christmas Gumbo” is a lot of fun. My wife insists we listen to Emmylou Harris’ “By the Light of the Stable” every year as we put up the tree. And if you’re stuck in a family situation where no one can agree on anything and you don’t want to be saddled with a commercial Christmas radio station, any of the eight EPs in Sufjan Stevens’ holiday series will do the trick.
Another treat of the season is watching bands incorporate holiday music into their stage act. Do you have any favorite Christmas concert memories?

BB: What kind of postmodern indie rock utopia do you live in?  Your suggestion that everyone can agree on Sufjan seems bizarre.
Oh, Emmylou!  Perfect.  There are certain voices that are ideal matches for the Christian holiday.  And no, Sufjan’s isn’t one of them.  I’m thinking of Emmylou, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
And I seem to remember that both of us attended a Charles Brown gig on a cold winter night shortly before he passed.  “Merry Christmas, Baby”!

TDR: First off, I should clarify that these Sufjan EPs all pre-date “The Age of Adz,” so he’s still very much in folky banjo troubadour mode. I don’t know why these recordings seem to pacify everyone, but it works for some reason. Granted, it’s a small focus group – six people. My sister and I (and our spouses) are Sufjan fans in general. He has some hymns and traditional material that pleases my parents and his arrangements low-key and accessible for them. Plus, after having to endure James Brown’s “Funky Soulful Christmas” and the Buck Owens Christmas album, I’m sure anything sounds good to them.

I’m not sure I can get behind a Dolly Parton Christmas, but I definitely agree with the rest of the singers on your list. Your mention of Mahalia Jackson reminded me to recommend Odetta’s “Christmas Spirituals,” if you haven’t heard it before.

That Charles Brown show was special to me in many ways. Not only was it his last performance in Kansas City, but it was my first experience at the Grand Emporium. I was 18 at the time, so I needed my dad to go with me so I could get in, not that I had to twist his arm to go. Even though it was February, everyone still enjoyed hearing him play his legendary Christmas songs, tell stories and sing the blues. Thanks for mentioning this amazing experience we shared.

More importantly, thank you for taking time to talk about Christmas music with me. Do you have any parting comments before signing off?

BB: I’ll close with a list:

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ODD AND OVERLOOKED CHRISTMAS ALBUMS:
Sam Billen- A Word of Encouragement (2010 release available as a free download)
Brave Combo- It’s Christmas, Man
Charles Brown- Cool Christmas Blues
John Fahey- Christmas Guitar
Dan Hicks- Crazy For Christmas (2010 release)
Tish Hinojosa- Memorabilia Navidena
Manzanera and MacKay Present: The Players- Christmas
Max Roach- It’s Christmas Again
Allen Toussaint & Friends- A New Orleans Christmas
Matt Wilson- Christmas Tree-O (2010 release)

Merry Christmas!

TDR: That’s a great list, Bill. You mention several of my favorites (Allen Toussaint, John Fahey) some I need to hear (Brave Combo, Sam Billen) and some I’ve been unable to find (Manzanera/MacKay, Max Roach). It’s certainly enough to keep me busy until Christmas next year. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for stopping by.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”

Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Pop # 3, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Little Stevie Wonder hadn’t been little in a while, but “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” was the first single clearly made by a grown man. Released in June, 1970, it was the first single Wonder produced on his own, and his first collaboration with Syreeta Wright, who would become his wife.

The Wright-Wonder marriage didn’t last long, but their musical collaboration lives on. Wonder helped write and produce much of the material on Wright’s first solo albums (including the lost Motown classic “Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta Wright”), and the two collaborated on songs that appeared on “Where I’m Coming From,” “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book.” This pivotal run of albums transformed Wonder as both an artist and a musician, setting up his staggering run of success later in the decade.

Signed to Motown in 1963, Wonder was starting to get bored with Hitsville at the dawn of the ‘70s. He was exploring different musical styles and arrangements and trying to broaden his sound. One day Wonder gave a tape of an instrumental he was working on to Lee Garrett, a frequent collaborator. Garrett shared the tape with Wright and the two began brainstorming ideas. The title, however, came from Wonder’s mom Lula, who exclaimed the phrase after hearing a rough version of the track.

“Signed” was recorded with the Funk Brothers, but had a strong Southern soul groove. Although many Hitsville staffers were reluctant to release a number so far removed from the Motown sound, Wonder prevailed and the song spent six weeks at the top of the R&B charts. “Signed” also earned Wonder his first Grammy nomination, which he ultimate lost to Stax artist Clarence Carter for the song “Patches.”

Elton John was the first musician to cover “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The pre-fame pianist cut the song under his birth name, Reg Dwight, for a discount copy band compilation. James Brown’s right-hand man Bobby Byrd released his version as a single a few years later. In 1977, Peter Frampton combined elements of “Signed” and Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” on his follow up to “Frampton Comes Alive.”

In 2003, Michael McDonald released his version on his Motown covers collection. Later that year, Wonder and Angie Stone appeared with the British boy band Blue on their cover, which hit No. 11 on the British charts. Most recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama played the song at the end of his 2008 campaign events.

Edwin Starr – “Twenty-five Miles”

Edwin Starr – “Twenty-Five Miles,” Pop # 6, R&B #6

By Joel Francis

If the horn arrangement on “Twenty-Five Miles” sounds like something out of the Stax studio, that’s because it is. Motown songwriters Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol based their number on the obscure Wilson Pickett song “32 Miles Out of Waycross (Mojo Mama)” written by Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and recorded in 1967.

It’s little surprise Fuqua and Bristol turned to a Pickett number when looking for material for Edwin Starr. Like Pickett, Starr was a strong baritone who sang from the throat. And like fellow Motown family member Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Starr’s voice was seeped in the Southern style.

Unlike, Stubbs, however, Starr didn’t have a string of hits under his belt, which made him a bit of an outcast at the label. A Detroit native who somehow escaped Berry Gordy’s eagle eye for talent, Starr’s biggest hit. to date was the 1965 song “Agent Double ‘O’ Soul” recorded on the Ric-Tic label. Three years later, when Motown purchased Ric-Tick in 1968, Starr joined the Hitsville stable.

“Twenty-Five Miles” opens with Benny Benjamin’s athletic drumming and he stays front and center as the funky scoutmaster that keeps Starr’s (and everyone on the dance floor) feet relentlessly moving. The bass line echoes a horn line that has become a staple of marching and pep bands across the country. The listener never learns what happens when Starr reaches his destination, but the energetic vocals definitely prove that getting there is half the fun.

Although “25 Miles” was a Top 10 hit, it often been overlooked when acts mine the Motown catalog. For nearly 20 years, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were the only group to cover the song. Their version was released several months after Starr’s as an album track on “In the Jungle, Babe.” In 1989, UK dance outfit the Cookie Crew sampled “25 Miles” on their hit “Got to Keep On.” Australian boy band Human Nature covered “25 Miles” on their 2005 release “Reach Out: The Motown Album.”