340 – Seth Walker – Are You Open?

Emphasizing the groove

Carolina native Seth Walker has released a string of fine albums over the last decade, with Are You Open? being his 10th long-player. While groove has always been a part of his music. This time around, it seems to have taken on a more prominent role.

He recently spent some time down in Cuba, and that certainly had an influence on things. Walker also talks about doing a lot of the recording at home, touring with Ruthie Foster, and even painting the front cover of his latest disc.

Hootie & the Blowfish – cracked rear view (Deluxe Edition) (review)

Hootie & the Blowfish – cracked rear view (Deluxe Edition) (Atlantic)

A MONSTER album, 25 years later

We treat our pop stars very strangely here in America.  For the really big ones, we usually lap them up like the all-you-can-eat dessert bar, then toss them aside and pretend they never existed.  Take the Bee Gees for example.  In 1978, the Brothers Gibb were everywhere.  By 1980, they couldn’t get arrested in the States.  I saw Hall & Oates in a small club in Cincinnati in 1992 after they had been kicked to the curb (they were fabulous, by the way).  Other countries aren’t so rude (take Europe’s never-ending fascination with ABBA, for instance).  

Another such band is Hootie & the Blowfish, whose debut album, cracked rear view, sold a gargantuan 21 million copies before they were shown the pop culture door to Siberia. 

And, it’s a shame – they didn’t deserve it.  

cracked rear view is made up of simple songs – most are fueled by a repetitive riff and three chords with lyrics about relationships.  You could say it’s the precursor to modern country music – but instead of boots and pickup trucks, they sing about crying and hand holding (sometimes in the same song).  

The album opener, “Hannah Jane,” is pure power pop.  But, with Don Gehman’s muscled production, it comes off as Mellencamp meets the Gin Blossoms. The ballads are good, “Let Her Cry” and the even better “Time.”  “Only Wanna Be With You” mentions their club buddies Dillion Fence (“put on a little Dylan / Sittin’ on a fence), who were arguably far more gifted melodically, but never got even close to stardom.  Yet, “Hold My Hand” is the standout, even 20 years later.  It’s a universal song of people coming together with a great chorus.

Hootie & the Blowfish were a really good bar band.  I saw them in October of 1994 at Bogarts in Cincinnati.  “Hold My Hand” had just come out as a single to AOR rock stations.  My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by the packed house.  This band had obviously created a buzz.  For further proof, check out the live disc, recorded a few months later in Pittsburgh.  They do a fantastic job with Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” while somehow making Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” sound like they wrote it.  

There’s also a bonus disc of early material and b-sides.  “I Go Blind” was another monster hit (originally written by the Canadian college rock band 54-40), but left off the original album.  Another obscure cover, “Almost Home,” came from the Texas band, the Reivers.  “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” came from the Led Zeppelin tribute album.  

There’s also a bevy of early versions of these tracks on the album.  Honestly, Gehman didn’t do much to improve these songs – they were fully-realized years before their major-label release. 

Keep in mind – in 1994, the world was still knee-deep in Grunge – hailed at the time as the “savior of rock.”  We now know it killed rock – DEAD.  Rock stopped being fun – that’s why everyone listens to country music now.  

cracked rear view still stands up as a fun, sing-a-long album.  It’s time it got the respect it deserves.  —Tony Peters

Travis – Live at Glastonbury ’99 (review)

Travis – Live at Glastonbury ’99 (Craft Recordings)

The band’s “shining moment”?

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Travis’ breakout year (1999), Craft Recordings has also issued Live at Glastonbury ’99, documenting the band’s career-turning performance at this popular English festival.  

The Man Who had been issued the previous month with very little fanfare.  The album was basically dead in the water.  Then, the band took the Glastonbury stage in June, and just as they marched into their single, “Why Does It Always Rain On Me,” it started raining.  This Queen-at-Live-Aid-type moment captured the spirit of the crowd and reversed the band’s fortunes.  Within the month, “Rain on Me” was in the Top 10, the album would hit #1 and Travis were on their way.

While all of that is well and good, this concert is, um, less than spectacular.  The first issue is that Fran Healey’s whispered delivery doesn’t transfer very well in this big setting.  His voice is flat A LOT. And it cracks OFTEN.  

Yeah, I know it’s live.  It’s hot, it’s the festival crowd.  But, R.E.M. turned in a truly career-defining moment under these same circumstances (for proof, check out their Live at the BBC performance from the same show).  

“Writing to Reach You” does have a little more kick than the album version, but a lot this midtempo stuff, just kind of lays there. The drums are mixed way down, so everything just sort of lumbers along.  Their older, more rocking material, like “U16 Girls” and “Good Feeling” are much better suited to the live format.  What about “Why Does It Always Rain On Me”?  Without the rain, it’s just a so-so rendition.

Travis is a great studio band.  As mentioned in the previous review, The Man Who still stands up.  So does Ode to J. Smith.  This?  I would only recommend to the truly devoted Travis fan.  —Tony Peters

Travis – The Man Who (20th anniversary edition)

Travis – The Man Who (Craft Recordings)

One of the finest albums of the late-Nineties gets the deluxe treatment

20 years ago, the Scottish band Travis issued their breakout album, The Man Who.  At the time, it was a departure for the group, whose debut, Good Feeling, had been a rockin’ good time two years earlier.  This new direction was darker, and more melodic.  It also paved the way for many other UK bands, like Coldplay, who went on to even bigger fame, with their own spin on this style of middle of the road fare.  

The Man Who still stands up – full of jangly guitars and gentle hooks, courtesy of leader Fran Healey.  There are times when he sings so softly, as on “Writing to Reach You,” that he sounds like he’s whispering.  

The gentle funk of “The Fear” – the chiming “Driftwood,” the Pepper-esque ballad “Last Laugh of the Laughter,” the slightly rocking “Turn” and the epic standout “Why Does It Always Rain On Me,” all contribute to an impressive song cycle.

The music is mellow, but still really catchy.  And the entire record is solid from start to finish.

The original disc has unlisted bonus material at the end of “Slide Show,” track 10.  After a 4 minute silence, the rocker “Blue Flashing Light” comes roaring in.  Recorded during the sessions, but oddly out of step with the mellower material.  

The original American disc has two extra bonus cuts not here, “20” and “Only Molly Knows.”  

The second disc comes with 19 bonus tracks – b-sides, live cuts, etc.  “Green Behind the Ears” is a great rocker, while “Only Molly Knows” is a gentle acoustic number that was a bonus cut on the US disc.  “Coming Around” is a great, Byrds-esque flavored single that came right after the album.  Some of the tracks rock like their first album, as on “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and “High as a Kite.”  There are some odd covers – “Be My Baby” is, um, the Ronettes cover, slowed down.  There are two Joni Mitchell songs – “Urge For Going” is buoyed by acoustic guitar and “River” is her “Christmas” song, on piano. “Baby One More Time” is the Britney Spears song (why?).  And “The Weight” is their (not bad) version of The Band song.  There’s a great acoustic rendition of “Driftwood” which is another highlight. 

Travis would go on to release many more albums.  Some really good, like Ode to J. Smith, and some others, just sort of so-so.  But, The Man Who is still Travis’ masterstroke.  —Tony Peters

339 – Zev Feldman of Resonance Records – Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans archival releases

No record label has done more for the genre of jazz over the last decade than Resonance Records.  The California independent has unearthed gems from a who’s who of jazz, from John Coltrane and Jaco Pastorius, to multiple releases by piano great Bill Evans and guitar master Wes Montgomery.

Those last two artists are the subject of Resonance most-recent projects.  Evans in England features previously unheard live performances from 1969, while Back on Indiana Avenue culls a collection of studio and live tapes of Wes Montgomery right before he became famous.

We chat with Zev Feldman, the co-president of the label, about the crazy stories that led to unearthing these releases by two of the legends of jazz. He also tells us what new project the company is working on for the Christmas holiday.

James Taylor – One Man Band (review)

James Taylor – One Man Band (vinyl edition)

James Taylor – One Man Band (Craft Recordings)

A very fine concert recording makes its debut on vinyl

For an artist who’s been making music for over 50 years, James Taylor has very few live recordings under his belt.  His best, One Man Band, was released in 2007, but has never been available on vinyl – until now, thanks to Craft Recordings.

One of Taylor’s strengths is his warmth, and it comes through in waves on this 2-LP set.  The title, One Man Band, might have you think that it’s a solo, acoustic thing, when actually it refers to the one accompanist, Larry Goldings, who plays piano, organ and bass throughout.  

Honestly, Goldings should be given equal billing, as many times the two musicians interlock, as on a very fine run through of “Country Road,” where Taylor’s voice is surprisingly strong as well.  Unlike so many of his rock contemporaries (Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, etc), James Taylor never screamed.  Perhaps that’s why, unlike them, he’s still got his voice, fully intact, after all these years.  

Of the 19 total songs, most are familiar, but there are surprises too.  Goldings shows off his boogie woogie chops on “Mean Old Man,” while “Chili Dog,” originally from One Man Dog, is good fun.  There’s a “drum machine” (actually a real person) on the funky “Slap Leather,” while a backup choir joins things on “My Traveling Star.”  

Taylor is the ever-professional.  Just think how many thousands of times he’s done “You’ve Got a Friend.”  Yet, he still turns in a mesmerizing performance where his voice is clear, and his finger picking is as supple as ever.  He’s always been an underrated guitarist, and he shows off his chops on electric guitar on “Steamroller Blues.”  In fact, this may be the finest version of that song ever put to tape.  With Taylor on electric and Goldings on Hammond, there’s lots of space for each musician to roam.

The choir returns for the gospel-tinged “Shower the People,” before Taylor does a solo acoustic “Sweet Baby James.”  He does tell a few stories, like the inspiration behind “Carolina in My Mind.”  

The mostly-acoustic instrumentation sounds fabulous in the vinyl format.  The LP’s are quiet, and the music leaps out of the speakers.  The gatefold jacket shows off a nice photo of the venue, The Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  

Taylor did release the album Live in 1993, and it sold millions of copies.  Yet, that concert is a full band recording, which dulls some of his appeal.  At his roots, James Taylor is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.  One Man Band gives his talents a chance to fully shine.  —Tony Peters

338 – Southern Avenue – Keep On – Second Album Blends Many Styles For a Unique, and Very Memphis, Sound

Southern Avenue - photo by David McClister

Soul is an over-used term.  What it’s supposed to describe is music that’s real, human and authentic.  There’s a Memphis group that embodies that term, mixing elements of R&B, blues, rock and gospel into something that’s unique, and very much southern and from the streets – hence the appropriate name Southern Avenue.  They’ve just issued their sophomore album, Keep On, on Concord Music.

Recorded at Sam Phillips’ legendary studio, the record serves up a dozen examples of their potent approach to a classic sound. Led by Israeli-born guitar virtuoso, Ori Naftaly, and fiery singer Tierinii Jackson, the group is rounded out by Tierinii’s younger sister, Tikyra, who plays drums and sings backup, and keyboardist Jeremy Powell. They’re currently on a tour that will take them coast to coast in the US before heading overseas.

We chat with Naftaly about what got him to relocate 6,500 miles from his home country and settle in the U.S. He tells us how growing up in the church gives the Jackson sisters a very authentic backbone for their music. He also sheds light on how the band hooked up with legendary soul man William Bell for one of the songs on their new album.

Bill Evans – Evans in England (review)

Bill Evans – Evans in England (Resonance Records)

Previously-unreleased live recording of jazz giant in 1969

No label has done more for jazz in the last decade than Resonance Records. Their co-president, Zev Feldman, literally traverses the globe in search of rare recordings by legendary artists. Yet, it’s the label’s attention to detail that truly puts them in a class all their own. Each new release comes with an exhaustive booklet, featuring rare photos and extensive background notes, adding further detail to each recording, and, as a result, enhancing the legacy of jazz itself.

Their latest project is a concert recording by Bill Evans from 1969 entitled Evans in England. The piano legend is joined by longtime bassist Eddie Gomez along with drummer Marty Morell, who had recently joined the trio at the time of these shows. The recordings were made by a fan of Evans’ for personal enjoyment, not commercial release, yet they are of surprisingly good quality.

The venue, Ronnie Scott’s in London, was a favorite of Evans. It was a place he felt comfortable. And, this is an important factor: when an artist feels at ease, the performance becomes more than just a paid gig – it gives him a chance to be himself.

The track listing for the two-disc set is impeccable, covering a lot of terrain, from standards like “Stella By Starlight” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” to Evans’ classics like “Waltz For Debby.” But, the trio also tackle the Miles Davis classic “So What,” which Evans played on the original recording from Kind of Blue – it’s a thrill to hear this familiar classic reworked for the trio setting.

There’s a buoyancy to these performances. Evans is one of the all-time great melodicists on piano – yet often in his career, there’s a shroud of sadness that lingers. Here, a lot of the music seems to be floating – as on the superb version of “Round Midnight.” “Elsa” is another song Evans tackled many times, but rarely at this fast of a tempo. “Stella By Starlight” is bouncier than the version he cut with Miles, and gives Gomez a chance to really shine.

And there’s more here than just great piano playing – listen how all three musicians talk back and forth as on “Very Early.” The set closes with a gorgeous rendition of the standard, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”

There are multiple essays in the accompanying booklet that go into how these rare tapes finally saw the light of day. Really, for a single microphone recording, you can hear all three musicians clearly.

There are a handful of minor quibbles with the sound: from time to time, when all three players are really cooking, the music will distort (remember, this wasn’t intended for actual release). Also occasionally, the tape slows down (as if someone bumped up against one of the reels), like on the intro to “Waltz For Debby.” Yet, Evans is so joyful in these performances, it doesn’t matter.

Don’t let the “previously unreleased” tag scare you off. Evans in England is a fantastic showcase of Bill Evans in his prime. —Tony Peters

337 – Toad of the Cryan Shames – “Sugar & Spice,” Advice From the Byrds, and Those Great Harmonies

The Cryan Shames came out of Chicago in the mid-Sixties, scoring a minor national hit with “Sugar & Spice” in 1966. Yet, several of their other songs, including “It Could Be We’re in Love,” did very well in major cities around the country. The band was signed to Columbia records and released three albums that still hold up today.

The Cryan Shames became known for their intricate harmonies melded over jangly melodies, reminiscent of bands like the Byrds and the Beatles. The group broke up in 1969, but has reunited several time over the years.

We chat with lead singer, Toad, who remains active with the band. He tells us the origins of the group and their record contract. Plus, he reveals a piece of advice that Roger McGuinn of the Byrds gave him that helped steer the band in a different direction.

336 – Eric Jerardi – Muscle Shoals-infused new album Occupied

Eric Jerardi
Photo by Allen Farst

Dayton, Ohio guitarist Eric Jerardi has been honing his craft for decades. From his humble beginnings winning a Battle of the Bands back in 1989, to going solo a few years later, to a string of critically-acclaimed albums and hundreds of gigs all over the world – Eric has kept at it for over 30 years now. But, just because he’s been doing things a long time, doesn’t mean he can’t still surprise.

His brand new album, Occupied takes the blues that he’s mastered so well and adds in a big helping of soul courtesy of Muscle Shoals – the result is hands-down his finest effort to date.

He tells us what it was like recording with some of the legendary musicians that played on the record, plus what producer David Z brought to the project.

Jerardi also talks about playing Icon Fetch host Tony Peters’ wedding, the one and only time he’s played in a church.

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