367 – Maia Sharp – New Album, Mercy Rising

Songwriter Maia Sharp

California native Maia Sharp has written songs for a variety of folks, including Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Paul Carrack, Edwin McCain and Trisha Yearwood. At the same time, she’s issued critically-acclaimed albums on her own. Maia has also collaborated with the legendary Art Garfunkel and, more recently, teamed with songwriting partner Anna Schulze as Roscoe & Etta.

She returns with her eighth album, called Mercy Rising, and it sounds like nothing she’s done before. Some of it is dark and eerie, you might expect that after a year of being locked down. But, there’s also an immediacy – as if she’s singing right next to you – and aren’t we all in need of some humanness right now? 

Her new album drops May 7th.

 

Allman Brothers – Down in Texas ’71 (review)

Allman Brothers Band  – Down in Texas ’71 (Allman Brothers Band Records)

It’s like cross-breeding your music for the finest possible strain —Duane Allman on his band’s progress to that point

Fans of the Allman Brothers are getting a treat as the band’s own label is issuing Down in Texas ’71, an archival live concert recording done at the Austin Municipal Auditorium, showcasing the original lineup at their zenith, just 31 days before brother Duane’s untimely passing.

The first thing you notice is that the band is even tighter than they were during their classic Live at the Fillmore concerts – and it make sense too: six months had passed, and the band had played a ton of shows together since then – they were a well-oiled machine.

There’s something about the quality of this recording that you actually feel closer to the music.  It’s not pristine like Fillmore, and there are times when the audio drops out.  Yet, there’s an analog warmness that bathes these tracks, giving them more of a small club feel than a big arena.

The set opens with “Statesboro Blues,” already in progress.  Once the engineer gets the mix right, you hear the band cooking, right out of the gate.  The keyboard and bass are more prominent than the Fillmore version, and Duane’s slide work is razor sharp.  That gives way to a chugging rendition of “Trouble No More” – everyone is just in sync. 

“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” shows brother Gregg in fine, soulful voice, while Duane’s slide work is like a man possessed.  Before Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong,” Duane tells the crowd that they have to move back from the stage or the Fire Marshall will stop the show.  He says, “it’s a bummer, I know,” before putting a dig in – “you know the Fire Marshall?  The cats that can’t get jobs as policemen.”  

Listening to Duane, it’s easy to take for granted his work on the slide guitar.  He makes it seem to effortless – trust me, it’s not.

This gives way to a second James’ song, “One Way Out” – here Gregg switches to electric piano, which adds a different element not heard on the Eat a Peach version.  Dickey lays down a blazing solo, that borders on metal, the way he tears off licks.  

On the Betts’ instrumental,“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” the band is absolutely on fire.  Unfortunately, guest musician Juicy Carter is heard prominently here – his sax is either not in tune or he’s playing in some other key.  Yet, even with this distraction, the performance is other-worldly.

Listening to this concert, it’s clear the band was absolutely peaking – after years of live performances, they knew each other..  Where this lineup would’ve gone from here?  No one knows.

As a bonus, there’s an audio interview with Berry Oakley and Duane Allman.  Even though it’s not the best quality, the tape speeds up and slows down often, it’s still a rare opportunity to actually hear these two talk.  Oakley is jovial as he takes questions about their upcoming Fillmore album’s release, while Duane seems more contemplative.  At one point, the interviewer asks if he has any more session work planned and he replies “I’m a little past that now.”  

Proceeds from the sale of Down in Texas ’71 will benefit The Big House, the Allman Brothers Museum in Macon, Georgia.  —Tony Peters

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising (review)

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

For her eighth solo record, Maia Sharp has created an album that is both haunting and incredibly human. Sure, the California native has made a career with her confessional songwriting. But, this album is something all together deeper. 2020 was a rough year for everyone, but I think one of the things we miss the most is being in the presence of others – sharing the same space, breathing the same air, basking in the communal aspect of music.

What strikes me about Mercy Rising is that it’s like Sharp has zoomed all the way in – bringing the listener as close as possible, through the lyrics and music. There are great-sounding records and then there’s Mercy Rising. Other albums, you think “wow, that sounds fabulous,” but it’s obvious they did it in some fancy studio. Here? The musicians sound like they’re in the room with you. And, we all could use some musicians in the same room with us, right? Feeling the vibrations, the bass, the kick drum and being moved by the music.

Her husky voice also has a pull to it. She’s not trying to wow you with vocal gymnastics. Instead, you feel like you’re getting straight honesty, with just enough humor to make it all palatable.

Mercy Rising captures so much warmth, it’s like seeing the sun after months of nothing but gloom. And, this doesn’t mean that the music is often cheerful. Not really. Whether she’s trying to let go of someone in “Missions” or mend a relationship in “Things to Fix, there’s an immediacy and intimacy that, it’s as if you’re being told a secret.

She’s always had a gift for putting a fresh spin on carnal desires, and her latest offering, “You’ll Know Who Knows You” is right up there with her best – she’s got the “record on down the hall” because her lover likes the “echo off the hardwood.” All of this is done over a loping, hypnotic rhythm track that is super sexy.

Not surprising, there’s a darkness to some of the songs – she’s been tossed aside like a “Junkyard Dog,” and she wants you to know that she’s “Not Your Friend,” but still has time to not overthink “Whatever We Are.” There’s a gentle funk to “Backburner (the album’s excellent first single),” while “Nice Girl” shows off her impeccable wordplay. “Always Good to See You” is listed as a bonus track, but it’s spine-tingling good and ranks with the best of the bunch.

And, there really isn’t a more appropriate song for our current state of affairs than “When the World Doesn’t End.” We’ve all feared the worst, and yet here we are.

There’s a haunting, cinematic element to much of the album – reminiscent of the Plant/Krauss collaboration Raising Sand. Take the opener, “Mercy Rising,” which begins with some strange feedback noises, or the aforementioned “When the World Doesn’t End,” which has some crying pedal steel that weaves in and out. All these additions enhance a good record, pushing it to greatness.

Sharp has covered a lot of ground over the years; producing, collaborating and writing for others. But, Mercy Rising is the best thing she’s ever done as a solo artist. —Tony Peters

Maia’s album drops May 7th. In the meantime, preview the singles on her Spotify page:

https://open.spotify.com/artist/08vGa4eSfPKe22qVnkuI6N?si=knMAFKpJReS-t3td7Qp6_A

366 – Chuck Leavell – New Documentary, The Tree Man, plus Stones, Allmans & David Gilmour

Chuck Leavell - The Tree Man

Chuck Leavell is one of the most accomplished keyboard players in popular music. He joined the Allman Brothers Band after brother Duane’s untimely passing, and it’s his piano work that adorned the fantastic instrumental “Jessica.” He stayed with the band through the late Seventies before joining the Rolling Stones in the early Eighties.

Since then, he’s toured with and played on albums by Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Bruce Hornsby, the Black Crowes, and more current musicians like John Mayer, Eric Church and Train, just to name a few.

All those artists just mentioned take part in a fantastic new documentary on Leavell called Chuck Leavell – The Tree Man, directed by Allen Farst, a Dayton native. The new film not only covers his life in music, but the title refers to his alter ego as an environmental forester, even winning National Tree Farmer of the Year a few years back. It’s also a love story between Chuck and his wife – Oh, by the way, they also interview President Jimmy Carter in the movie too.

We talk how he got the big break to join the Allman Brothers, and what important role he plays now with the Rolling Stones, who hope to go back on tour soon. In addition, we chat a little known project called Sailcat, who had a “one-hit wonder” with the song “Motorcycle Mama,” which he played on.

Click below to watch the trailer and options to view the full movie:

www.chuckleavellthetreeman.com

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Pendulum (50th Anniversary Vinyl Edition)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Pendulum (50th anniversary vinyl edition) (Craft Recordings)

This new version blows away my original copy

This vinyl resurgence is fun. Seeing records and record players return to the big box stores warms my heart. However, not all new vinyl is created equal. Some of it is just a hack job. Just like I wouldn’t recommend a $50 Crosley or Victrola turntable (they’ll eat your records, folks), there’s also vinyl records being produced that are nothing more than cash-grabs, quickly-produced with no attention to quality.

Thankfully, there’s companies like Craft Recordings that truly do care about their product.

The latest installment in their Creedence Clearwater Revival series is Pendulum, the band’s sixth, and last, truly great album.

In a side by side comparison with an original copy from my collection – there’s absolutely NO comparison.

This new version from Craft Recordings is superior in every way.

My earlier pressing is noisy between songs, while the new version is super quiet. But, that’s just the start. You can feel Stu Cooks’s bass on “Hey Tonight” pounding, and the jangly guitars are bright on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” On my original, Doug Clifford’s cymbals on “Molina” just rolled off – while here, they’re crisp and bright. The remastering really makes this music come to life, like never before.

The album is pressed on 180-gram, high quality vinyl, and the packaging faithfully reproduces the original gatefold cover in heavy-grade material.

The music on this record finds CCR stretching out. It’s their only album of all original compositions, and there was also an attempt to add new elements – sax, organ, piano, and tape loops, to try and freshen the band’s approach.

Unfortunately, this would be the band’s final triumph. Tom Fogerty would exit and the band would soldier through one final, albeit spotty, album, Mardi Gras, before calling it quits.

Pendulum is CCR’s last great album, and it sounds fantastic in this new release. —Tony Peters

365 – Jock Bartley of Firefall – New Album, Comet

Firefall emerged from Boulder, Colorado in the mid-Seventies with a string of hit songs, including “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You,” “Cinderella,” and “Strange Way.”  It’s unusual that, over 40 years later, the band still has three original members. 

Even more unlikely, they’ve got some new music to share.  Comet is their first new album in over two decades, yet it’s full of the melodic hooks and harmonies that have been the band’s signature ever since the beginning.  Vocalist/lead guitarist Jock Bartley spent time in Gram Parsons’ Fallen Angels before forming Firefall with Rick Roberts.

We talk the challenges of completing an album during a pandemic, plus how Chris Hillman of the Byrds played a key role in the band’s early success. We also chat about how he got the gig with Gram Parsons and doing session work for, of all people, Andy Gibb.

First two Richard Pryor albums get the reissue treatment

It seems superfluous to say the importance, impact and influence of Richard Pryor cannot be understated, both in black culture and to the world of comedy.  His jokes weren’t always jokes – they were often true stories whose punchlines were born of hard living and bitter personal experience.  His language was raw and profane; his ideas unfiltered and profound; his comedy real and as revelatory to black audiences as Lenny Bruce’s had been to primarily white audiences.  Maybe best of all, one didn’t have to be black or have the same life experiences as Richard to appreciate his sometimes dark, yet always innovative humor.

In the mid-60’s, Richard was like any other struggling young comic trying to find how and where he fit in.  Bill Cosby was arguably the most successful, mainstream black comedian at the time, so Richard reluctantly tried to make himself and his comedy in the mold of Cosby.  The problem was that Pryor wasn’t Cosby, and he quickly realized it wasn’t in his character to be a clone.  He had shit to say – shit that other black comedians weren’t saying, or were afraid to say.  And after an on-stage epiphany in late 1967, Richard began to discover who he really was, and what he really wanted to talk about.  There begins the historic, hilarious recorded journey of the birth, subsequent re-birth, and genius of Richard Pryor.

The change in Richard’s tone didn’t happen overnight, and his self-titled 1968 debut already found him at a crossroads.  He was in the throes of an internal, professional conflict – caught between who he was, and who he desperately longed to be.  And that struggle was being recorded.  The joy of performing to an enthusiastic audience is evident in his delivery and the material is solid, as he had been honing the bulk of it for a year or two prior.  Two of his early signature pieces are front and center – the career tone- setting opener “Super Nigger”, depicting Richard’s envisioning of the first black superhero, and the character-driven tour-de-force “Prison Play”, starring Richard as Black Ben the Blacksmith.  Bold and funny as his jokes are, a tense hint of Richard’s restraint is detectable.  That tension would eventually bubble over, driving him to no longer stifle his creative ambitions.

It would be over two years before the release of his sophomore album “Craps (After Hours)” in 1971.  However, it was far from a lack of creativity, or having nothing to say that would account for this lapse.  During his time away from the record bins, Richard immersed himself in black culture, multi-racial counterculture, and found his true voice.  Gone is the rehearsed, occasionally profane comic previously inhibited by convention.  Gone, too, is his cast of colorful, fictional characters.  In their place – a now frequently profane comic, more comfortable with himself and with blazing his own controversial path, along with a new cast of edgier , seedier characters more uncomfortably close to his reality.

“Craps” is simultaneously the antithesis of Richard’s debut record, as well as a mission statement.  It is the re-birth of Richard Pryor with newfound confidence, swagger, and brutal honesty.  His brilliance is in the way he can publicly exorcise so many personal demons, and be so goddamn funny and fearless doing it.  Fifty years on, “Craps” still sounds like a dangerous, decadent, irresistible party – the after-hours yang to the debut’s closing-time yin.

This pair of reissues from Omnivore offers the opportunity to re-discover these master class comedy records.  The first album is supplemented by a generous collection of gems from Richard’s formative years as a budding comic, recorded prior to his debut.  It showcases a fascinating, evolutionary period of his humor and on-stage persona.  Many of the selections were released in edited form on multiple, slap-dash budget albums (without Richard’s involvement) throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s.  The bonus disc was assembled from Richard’s personal archives prior to his passing, with his assistance and approval.  Likewise, “Craps” offers a handful of period-era bonus cuts, including an early 1971 take of his classic routine “Wino & Junkie.” –Jay Scott

The Songwriting Talents of the Bee Gees on Full Display in New Compilation (review)

Various Artists – Words: A Bee Gees Songbook (Playback Records)  

An interesting look at the songwriting talents of the Gibb Brothers

With the recent release of the excellent documentary, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the Bee Gees are once again back in the public consciousness.  In timely fashion, the Australian label Playback Records, has assembled a compilation of rare cover versions of Bee Gees’ songs, helping shed light on the songwriting side of the hit-making trio.

One of the real treats of this disc is how obscure some of this material is.  Of the 27 tracks, even the most avid Bee Gees’ fan might only recognize half of these compositions.  That’s because many of these were songs written, but not recorded by one of the Gibbs.  

Many of these tracks date to their early years in Australia, like “Where Are You,” by Mike Furber, where you can clearly hear the Bee Gees singing backup vocals.  Despite having a different vocalist, some still sound like the Gibb Brothers, like “Lady” by Johnny Young.  But, others are taken in a different direction – “Raining Teardrops” by Barrington Davis, sounds more like the Kinks than the Bee Gees, while Jackie Lomax improves “One Minute Woman” by giving it a soulful treatment.

Speaking of soul, two of the best covers here are complete surprises – Nina Simone, usually known for her reinterpretations of songs, plays it completely straight on her “To Love Somebody,” while Swamp Dogg truly embodies the lyrics of “Got to Get a Message to You,” in a gritty, down-home delivery.  The same can’t be said of Lulu’s “I Started a Joke.”  She croons through the song, completely missing the darkness of the lyrics (she has done other excellent Bee Gees’ covers, this just isn’t one). 

Of the songs you do recognize, some miss the mark simply by not being different enough.  “Words” by Cilla Black is just so so because the arrangement is almost identical to the original. Ditto for  The Cole Brothers’ attempt at “I Can’t See Nobody” – anyone trying to sound like Robin Gibb is doomed to fail!  Only the venerable Johnny Mathis comes close with his reading of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” 

Other highlights are a stunning take on “Butterfly” by Marmalade, an excellent “Massachusetts” by the Seekers, which actually dates from 2003, and “Turn of the Century” by the sunshine pop group the Cyrkle.

The liner notes through me off at first – I don’t think I’ve ever seen annotation that didn’t follow the track order.  Instead, they group the songs roughly of when they were written, giving incredibly in-depth insight along the way.

Sadly, there will never be any new Bee Gees’ music.  Yet, this is kind of the next best thing – an entire disc of great Gibb songs performed by other people. An incredibly enjoyable listen throughout. —Tony Peters

Tapestry on Its Golden Anniversary

This ground-shaking album is actually still underrated

At the time of its release, on February 10, 1971, Tapestry made a quiet entrance.  After all, Carole King wasn’t yet a household name.  It took a whole two months to enter the Billboard Album Chart. But, once the double-sided “I Feel the Earth Move” / “It’s Too Late” single was released in May, things quickly heated up.  By mid-June, the LP was #1, where it would stay for a staggering 15 weeks, tying the hallowed Sgt. Pepper from the Beatles for longest stay at the top for a rock album, up until that point.

There was a great deal of testosterone in the upper echelon: Rod Stewart, the Stones, John Lennon and CSN&Y had all hit #1 in ’71.  And yes, Janis Joplin had garnered #1, but only after her untimely passing.  Tapestry was something completely different.  

That iconic album cover, featuring a barefoot King, clad in jeans and a sweater, her hair obviously not professionally done for this photo shoot – this is not a woman that’s been told to look sexy by a man. This is an independent spirit that’s calling the shots. She’s perched in a window sill, with, not a man, but her cat, somewhat blurry, in the foreground (the feline being the ultimate male substitute).  The look on her face isn’t a smile, but more like a “I bet you guys aren’t ready for this.”  She’s holding the “tapestry” that she created herself.  There’s also light shining in the window – at once both illuminating her face, and obscuring the rest of the room in the process, creating both a warm mood, and a curiosity as to what lies in the shadows – perfect for the music that resides inside.

Tapestry was a nuclear blast on the music world, yet there were no screaming guitars or screeching vocals.

It marked the first time a woman hit #1 with an album totally constructed by her own hand.  

The album leads off with “I Feel the Earth Move,” a totally adult woman perspective on love.  She isn’t fawning over her boy, and she isn’t crying either – she’s ecstatic.  This music was something new – it’s both soul and folk, powered by this fantastic, pulsing bass line and King’s pounding piano, accented by slinky guitar fills.  There’s a huge ebb and flow between the quiet verses and the energetic chorus.

“So Far Away” – has there ever been a better song that captures longing?  And, there’s really not much going on here sans King’s vocal and piano, yet it’s sheer perfection.

“It’s Too Late” – originally the b-side of the single (the record company deemed it too “dark”), eventually DJ’s and fans began turning the 45 over and gravitating toward this, the greatest breakup song ever (with lyrics written by Toni Stern, who had just ended a relationship with James Taylor).   It is absolutely one of the greatest songs ever recorded.  The minor chords set the mood, the drums are just so in the pocket – despite its bleak subject matter, the track grooves.  The guitar solo is a thing of spontaneous mellowness, bending the notes, as if Danny Kortchmar were playing it in his sleep.

The new songs were powerful.  But, what made Tapestry so monumental was King’s decision to revisit songs she had written for other people.  Sure, it acted as a calling card, reminding folks that SHE was the one who co-wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel  Like) A Natural Woman” with ex-husband Gerry Goffin.  But, her versions of both songs do something more.  In the case of the former, a hit for girl group, the Shirelles, she embodies the song with a maturity of someone who’s lived and lost – there’s skepticism in her musical question.  In the case of the latter, a smash for Aretha Franklin, she doesn’t so much outdo the original (who could?).  Instead, she brings that lofty composition down to earth – essentially saying “anyone can be a ‘Natural Woman.’”

For all its influential status, Tapestry is still a fantastic listen.  Few albums emit such warmth.  I can only think of Van Morrison’s Moondance or James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James as rivals.

As amazing as Tapestry is, I believe it’s still not given the credit it deserves.  In the latest Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list, it’s lodged at #25 – Aretha, Lauryn Hill and Joni Mitchell all score higher – but I would argue that King’s album opened more doors, especially by selling more copies.   Also, when discussing “greatest albums,” do we ever mention King’s masterpiece?  We gravitate toward Sgt. Pepper as a landmark, or maybe Dark Side of the Moon.  When we suggest “albums you must get when you buy a turntable,” Tapestry is rarely mentioned, but it should be

Tapestry showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a woman could make it in the male-dominated music business, and do so on her own terms.  That nuclear blast opened a hole for many other talented ladies in the decades to come.  —Tony Peters

The Quiet Byrd Tells His Story (book review)

Time Between – My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond – Chris Hillman (BMG Books)

He had a hand in the formation of both folk rock and country rock – a quiet bass player gives his story

Chris Hillman isn’t exactly a household name.  Yet, he’s managed to have both commercial success and critical acclaim throughout 60 years in the business. And, he’s done so in varied genres, from bluegrass to rock to country, all the while, keeping company with some of the finest musicians around.  His new autobiography, Time Between, chronicles Hillman’s life in music, and makes a strong case for him to be considered a true pioneer.

Hillman eschewed the typical route of teaming with a co-author and penned the book entirely himself.  Because of this, his story is told in a matter-of-fact way that avoids the salacious exaggerations and instead focuses on the things Hillman actually remembers.  Drug use?  If he did it, he sidesteps most of it by saying things like “we had a good time that night,” leaving things open to interpretation.  Women? One would insist that he must’ve had numerous ladies come in and out of his life over the years.  Yet, the only female he talks about romantically is his current wife, Connie, whom he married in 1979.

The first few chapters deal with his early life.  He lost his father at 16 (I’ll leave that story for the book) and this absence created anger that Hillman spent most of his life dealing with.  If there’s one thing we learn from Time Between it’s that Hillman had a knack for finding talented people to surround himself with, whether it be country star Vern Gosdin or future Eagle Bernie Leadon, or future Firefall leader Rick Roberts.

The next few sections deal with his time in the hugely-influential band, the Byrds.  Honestly, there aren’t a lot of “a ha” moments here.  If you’re familiar with the band’s story, you know that Hillman was asked to join the band even though he had never played bass before.  Also, I think history has a way of softening things over time.  Hillman remembers the recording session for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” basically saying that no one minded that they weren’t allowed to play their own instruments. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that having members of the famed “Wrecking Crew” play on their song was an honor, but I bet back in the day, it pissed the guys off.

You also don’t get much new insight into the guys in the Byrds – David Crosby several times sabotages things and comes off as an ass (no surprise there), while Gene Clark and Michael Clarke both are portrayed as guys that liked to party (both of their lives were cut short due to substance abuse).

He does credit himself for introducing the legendary Gram Parsons to the rest of the band.  That pairing only lasted a few months and yielded the stellar Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, but the effects can still be felt today.  There’s a great story of how the Byrds were badly treated on their one appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

More interesting is how Hillman chronicles he and Parsons’ departure from the Byrds and subsequent teaming as the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Like a lot of bands, things started out with a great deal of promise, but soon fell to pieces, largely due to Parsons penchant for partying, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready for “country rock” in 1969 (The Eagles would sweeten and slick it up and achieve superstardom, just a few years later).

During this time, Hillman was joined by first Leadon and then Rick Roberts in the Burritos.  Leadon would go on to form the original Eagles with Don Henley & Glenn Frey, while Roberts took Byrd drummer Michael Clarke and formed the soft-rock outfit Firefall.

An interesting chapter deals with Hillman’s time in a Stephen Stills’ supergroup project called Manassas.  This short-lived outfit was an attempt to tackle everything from rock to country to bluegrass, soul and even Latin. The two albums the band put out are extremely underrated. 

The real surprise in the book was the unlikely success of the Desert Rose Band, a group Hillman assembled that ended up placing eight singles in the country Top 10 and earning a bevy of awards along the way, during the 1980’s and early 90’s.  For the first time, the once-shy Hillman led the band and wrote a lot of their material.

Several times in the book, Hillman says “it was all about the music” and by the end, you start to believe him.  He never chased trends (quite often, he ran from them, thus creating new ones) and never seemed interested in “cashing in.”  The most compromising thing he seemed to do was reunite with his former Byrd mates in several different incarnations over the years.  Even when he did achieve commercial success in the Desert Rose Band, he did it on his own terms.

Although the Eagles successfully blended country and rock together, Chris Hillman did it first.  His uncanny ability to jump back and forth between both genres set him above his peers.  Time Between is an honest look at an under-appreciated pioneer of modern country music.  –Tony Peters

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