Category Archives: Reviews

The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Long and winding documentary might bore casuals, but will tantalize devoted fans

Despite what the commercials might suggest, The Beatles: Get Back isn’t for everybody.  An eight-hour movie (now available at Disney+) about the Beatles writing and recording an album will likely come off as utterly boring to most people, especially those who are not devoted fans of the band.  However, those who are, and those who are intrigued by the song creation process in general, will find this film highly rewarding, especially after repeated watching.  

Director Peter Jackson was tasked with wading through 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio that was originally used to make the Let It Be album and film, which the Beatles were never satisfied with.  Jacksons goal?  To paint a more honest picture of what happened during the filming and recording of January 1969.  

Did he succeed?  Absolutely.

The video and audio restoration is staggering – you feel like you’re in the studio with them.  You also get a real feel for the individual Beatles as people – their humor, their warmth, their quirks.  You also get to know the people surrounding them – especially Beatles’ roadie Mal Evans, who is at the band’s beck and call.  Yes, Yoko is ever present.  But, you see that she and John are truly in love.  Photographer Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) drops by to take pictures and is filmed snuggling with Paul. 

There’s a fantastic scene with Linda’s daughter Heather, who’s just a child, dancing and carrying on in the studio.  Yoko starts singing and Heather’s look in response is just priceless. The little girl floats from band member to band member, and it’s really cute.

The movie is broken down into three parts.  But, be forewarned: the first segment is unfortunately the hardest to get into.  This is the footage filmed on the Twickenham soundstage and it’s largely full of endless noodling, with some arguing and flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure.  But, realizing that “All Things Must Pass,” from George Harrison, “Another Day” from Paul McCartney, and “Gimme Some Truth” and “Jealous Guy” from John Lennon, all originated during these Get Back sessions is really cool.  Part one closes with Harrison quitting the band.

Part two is where things really start cooking.  Harrison returns, and soon enlists Billy Preston to help out on keyboards.  This immediately lightens the mood, as does the change of venue, from the cold, cavernous Twickenham soundstage to the newly-built Apple Studios.  The Beatles rise to the occasion, and the results are really good music.

The real highlight of part two is a never-before-heard exchange between McCartney and Lennon while eating lunch (the filmmakers had somehow placed a hidden microphone on the table where they were dining).  In it, Lennon humbles McCartney, telling him that he’s being too bossy toward Harrison, and really everyone.  

Part three’s high point is the historic rooftop concert.  Here’s where the filmmakers really shine, utilizing numerous camera angles, footage from down on the street and in the Apple offices.  It’s a spine-tingling bit of cinematography.  Truly capturing that magical, final time the Beatles’ played live as a band.  

There’s so many little bits of things that go by so quickly in the movie, you might miss them the first time.  For instance, Lennon coming in one morning raving about seeing Fleetwood Mac on television the previous night and how the singer sang “soft.”  Or Harrison helping Starr finish his “Octopus’ Garden.” 

Lennon is definitely high at least some of the time, and there are parts where he’s too enraptured with Yoko to contribute, while Harrison is often bristly.  Ringo Starr is seen sleeping several times, while McCartney is undeniably in charge of the proceedings, coming off as bossy, but certainly backing it up by introducing a string of fantastic new songs.  Despite their differences, it’s incredible when they all come together and the music is clicking.  There’s also plenty of laughs between all four members dispelling the notion that there was nothing but animosity during these recordings.

I watched my copy of the original Let It Be movie (on Beta!) to compare.  Jackson purposely used different footage wherever possible, so as not to “step on Let It Be’s toes.”  Still, the original, 80-minute film, while somewhat bleak, stands up.  It’s obviously more to the point, but also more music-centric.  If there’s one fault with Get Back, it’s that whenever the guys are really cooking with a song, it always seems to get cut short.  While in Let It Be, they let the full versions of songs play.  There’s also renditions of “Besame Mucho” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that didn’t make the 8-hour cut, along with a far-superior version of George’s “I Me Mine.”  

Word is that Let It Be will finally get reissued, in remastered form, when Get Back hits DVD status.

The real triumph of Get Back isn’t so much the music, we’ve all heard it over and over, it’s in the rare opportunity to really get to know the personalities of the Beatles, not as gods, but as human beings (human beings that smoke A LOT).  Get Back isn’t the kind of film to just veg to, you’ve really got to pay attention.  But, if you’re present, there’s a lot to love here.  —Tony Peters

Seminal Albums From Buck Owens are finally back in print

Nine classic records are making their digital and CD debut

Omnivore continues their association with the Buck Owens’ Estate by reissuing a whopping nine Owens’ albums, spanning 1968-1974.  Each set comes with an essay from Owens’ biographer Randy Poe, with excerpts from the autobiography Buck ‘Em.  Also included in each booklet are photos, trade magazine ads, vintage fan club applications and other rare goodies.  This era spans the time right before and while he was a host of the popular variety show, Hee Haw.

Driven.

After immersing in these reissues, that’s the first word that comes to mind.  Buck Owens was driven like no other artist.  In 1968, he issued no less than FOUR albums, with the majority of the songs written or co-written by Owens.  He was also touring and owned his own management company and was developing other artists.  Oh, he was also a hit star on television.  Whew!

With all this activity, you might think that the quality of these recordings is sub par.  No way.  Each one of these albums has some merit, and many of them stand alongside his finest work.  Above all, you see that Buck was obsessed with how his songs did on the Country charts – if it didn’t go Number One, it was a failure.  Here’s our notes from each individual album:

Sweet Rosie Jones (1968)

Leads with “Hello Happiness, Goodbye Loneliness,” the kind of catchy song that Owens could write in his sleep.  “Sweet Rosie Jones” is a classic tale of love gone wrong, complete with a spoken last verse.  One of the few songs that Owens didn’t write here is “Swinging Doors.”  Of course done by former Buckaroo Merle Haggard.  But, Buck’s version is more subdued, and less rockin’  Another great one is “You’ll Never Miss the Water (Til the Well Runs Dry)” featuring great harmonies and steel guitar.  “Sally, Mary and Jerry” is a great take on gossip.  I like the clever use of handclaps that help bridge the different parts of “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone,”  while “Leave Me Something to Remember You By” is a great tearjerker.  Another highlight is “The Girl on Sugar Pie Lane.” The album closes with “Happy Times Are Here Again.”  

I’ve Got You on My Mind Again (1968)

Part of Owens’ signature sound was how he boosted the high frequencies, check out the way the piano sounds on the leadoff title track.  “Let the World Keep on a Turnin” features guest vocals from Buck’s son, Buddy Alan,  Another great sad one is “Don’t Let True Love Slip Away.”  Another duet is “I’ll Love You Forever and Ever,” with its signature, high energy tempo.  There are a few cringe-worthy moments – Owens is a little creepy on “Love is Me” – he just overdoes the vocals.  But, I love “Alabama, Louisiana or Maybe Tennessee.”  This also marked the first time in a long while where Owens approved background vocals, done by the legendary Jordanaires and Anita Kerr Singers.

Tall Dark Stranger (1969)

The album has a Spanish overtone with the guitar.  It’s interesting because this sounds more like a Marty Robbins record from the early Sixties than a typical Owens’ album.  The Tall Dark Stranger was first introduced on the song, “Sweet Rosie Jones.”  Owens decided to revisit this mysterious gentleman.  I like how the background vocals echo “danger” – a very classic, Western-style element.  “There’s Gotta Be Some Changes Made” has some great harmonies and pedal steel.  The finest track here is “White Satin Bed,” where Owens’ vocals really shine.  It’s a tale of a poor man who’s looking forward to lying in a casket, because it’s the first time he’s ever slept somewhere comfortable.  “Darlin,’ You Can Depend on Me” revisits the fast/slow/fast tempo changes first introduced on his hit, “Before You Go.”  Owens would try just about anything in a country song, take the waltz tempo of “Hurtin’ Like I’ve Never Hurt Before,” or the strings, brass and a large vocal ensemble of the final song, “But You Know I Love You.”  

Your Mother’s Prayer (1970)

Owen’s second foray into Gospel music, this album was also the first to not hit the Country charts, ending a seven year run.  Perhaps the overexposure of his weekly appearance on Hee Haw was taking its toll?  Despite its relative commercial disappointment, there’s still a lot of great material here.  I really like the harmonies of Owen’s original, “The Great Judgement Day.”  Earl Poole Ball contributes some great piano work, heard prominently on “That Old Time Religion,” but is sprinkled throughout the entire album.  He does an interesting take on “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” I like the way the steel guitar echoes the chorus, “bah, bah-bah.”  There’s some tasty fiddle that drives “That Lonesome Valley,” while “That Sunday Feeling” might as well be a secular song, it’s sung with the same fervor as his hits.  “My Savior Leads the Way” is fueled by a bouncing bassline.  Overall, a pretty solid listen. And, the booklet reprints Owen’s mom’s original prayer to him.

The Kansas City Song (1970)

The title song is a little too sugary, with a glutton of background vocals, and a goofy organ.  One by one, the original Buckaroos were exiting, and the accompaniment sounds a little less cohesive on this one. There’s more songs about places, like “(It’s a Long Way To) Londontown,” “Amsterdam,” and “The Wind Blows Every Day in Oklahoma,” but nothing really stands out.  Better is the waltz tempo of “Black Texas Dirt,” and the instrumental “Scandinavian Polka” is good fun.  Things finally catch fire on “You Can’t Make Nothin’ Out of That But Love” – Owens finally sounds energized here, and I really like the bridge where everything drops out but the drums and bass.  And the goofy minstrel number, “Full Time Daddy,” wasn’t going to help him regain any credibility.

I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (1970)

Owens continued his fascination with doing songs about places, but the title song was better than anything on his previous album.  There’s a great story about what inspired the song in the liner notes.  And, talk about authentic – he recorded his lead vocal, right there on the streets of Manhattan! (you can hear a police siren right near the end).  He chose to add sound effects to every song, adding casino sounds to “Reno Lament,” but sometimes they’re just too distracting, like the train effects on “Down n New Orleans,” or the cattle sounds on the revamped “The Kansas City Song.” He also retooled songs from previous albums – “The Wind Blows Every Day in Chicago” was actually “Oklahoma,” while “Amsterdam” became “Houston Town.” The best song is saved for last – the heartfelt “Big in Vegas” – it became Owens’ biggest song in quite some time.

In the Palm of Your Hand (1973)

His best album in several years, this record is full of great songs.  It also featured his final number one hit, the fantastic “Made in Japan,” a clever recording full of Farfisa organ and guitars that give it an Asian feel.  But, that’s just the beginning.  “Arms Full of Empty” is classic, upbeat Bakersfield goodness, while “Sweethearts in Heaven” is midtempo, driven by pedal steel.  Another good example is “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More” – with a title like this, things could’ve easily fallen into parody, but Owens instead plays it straight and sincere, like his classic recordings.  Everything here works, whether it’s the sad “Something’s Wrong” or the rockin’ “A Whole Lot of Somethin,’” everything is firing on all cylinders. “There Goes My Love” is another standout.

Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie (1973)

The title song is classic, upbeat Buck, complete with steel guitar and Don Rich harmonies. Some of the record plods along – “Long Hot Summer” just kinda lays there, while “She’s Had all the Dreamin’ She Can Stand” is slightly better, but “The Good Old Days (Are Here Again)” just doesn’t sound sincere.  “You’re Monkey Won’t Be Home Tonight” is decent, but there’s something missing here.  Things are a little too polished, and Owens’ voice sometimes is mixed too loud, like on “I Know That You Know That I Care.”  “When You Come Back From Nashville” does have some fine harmonies.  Actually, the best was saved for last.  “When You Get to Heaven (I’ll Be There)” is spirited and good fun.  The album is also significant for the inclusion of the original version of “The Streets of Bakersfield,” an LP cut that he’d later revisit in a duet with Dwight Yoakam.  

It’s a Monster’s Holiday (1974)

The last album featuring longtime Buckaroo, Don Rich, who would pass away from a motorcycle accident before it got released, this record is still one of the better of his latter-day Capitol releases.  Of note is the title song, which is good fun.  I’m kinda surprised this doesn’t get played around Halloween.  If it does, I’ve never heard it on the radio.  Also notable is “On the Cover of the Music City News,” a rewrite of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.” There’s some good cover tunes too – he does Tom T. Hall’s “I Love” and Charley Pride’s “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” – neither outdo the original, but they help keep the album interesting.  “Great Expectations” is one of Owen’s best ballads from this period.  Rich’s death would rob Owens of the man who provided all those unique harmonies on every single one of his hit songs, not to mention his impeccable guitar playing.  Owens really never recovered after that. –Tony Peters

Jefferson Starship rocks sidney

Jefferson Starship – Sidney High School – 10/24/21

Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Mickey Thomas – Jefferson Starship has had some extraordinary vocalists pass through their band.

Add Cathy Richardson to the list.

The 52-year old singer played the lead role in the off-Broadway musical, Love Janis, several years ago, then joined J. Starship back in 2008. Her voice is a force of nature.

On a rainy, Sunday night about an hour north of Dayton, I was not sure what to expect here.

The band opened with “Find Your Way Back,” and I swear it sounded like Thomas was up there singing. I’m not talking about direct copying, but Richardson just nailed it. She seems to know just what to give each song. She was tender on “Miracles,” yet boisterous on “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

David Freiberg, the remaining founding member, is 31 years Richardson’s senior (!), but was absolutely amazing as well. His role in the band has changed over the years, sometimes playing bass or keyboards in the past, but here he sang.

And boy did he sing.

The band paid tribute to those great Balin ballads, like “Count on Me,” “With Your Love,” and “Runaway,” and the 83-year old sang every one of them. And those songs aren’t easy to pull off.

Jefferson Starship is touring in support of an album they released last year called Mother of the Sun, and the pair of tunes, “It’s About Time” (sung by Richardson, and co-written by Grace Slick), and “Setting Sun” (written and sung by Freiberg), fit in excellently with the band’s older material.

Guitarist Jude Gold gave a nod to the Airplane days, taking a solo performance of “Embroynic Journey” (which originally appeared on the album Surrealistic Pillow).

Freiberg sang the rocker “Jane,” which he co-wrote, before they unleashed their show-stopper – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” – and Richardson just let her voice loose on their one. Just wow.

Even though the band has gone through multiple lineup changes, they are obviously in the capable hands of the stellar Richardson and the ageless Freiberg (who’s FIVE years older than Mick Jagger).

I was thoroughly impressed. This incarnation of Jefferson Starship is the real deal. —Tony Peters

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Target exclusive)

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Craft Recordings)

The album that started it all – reissued on “grass green” vinyl!

The most famous jazz instrumental of all time isn’t by Miles Davis or John Coltrane, it’s from an unassuming pianist and his trio. Vince Guaraldi composed “Linus and Lucy” in 1964 for A Boy Named Charlie Brown, a television special that amazingly never got released. Yet, the album introduced us to this rollicking piece of music, which has become synonymous with the Peanuts’ franchise. It also paved the way for A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the most famous holiday albums ever recorded, which came out the following year.

Craft Recordings has just issued a “Baseball Card Edition” on “grass green vinyl” (referring to the front cover of Charlie Brown, sitting on top of the pitcher’s mound). This version is exclusively available at Target stores, and comes with a sheet of eight baseball cards, depicting the various Peanuts characters. The card backs are especially fun, revealing that Charlie Brown has never won a game, Lucy’s fielding average is .000, and Snoopy’s favorite sandwich is a Hero.

The music, outside the aforementioned “Linus and Lucy,” is less familiar, but just as enjoyable. Guaraldi had a way of creating melodies that are friendly and fun – something often elusive in the jazz genre.

“Oh Good Grief” sets the mood, with its walking bass of Monty Budwig, followed by the bossa nova of “Pebble Beach” (which reminds me of the old standard, “That Old Feeling”). Guaraldi is all over the piano here, but still manages to not sound “busy.” The Charlie Brown character seems to do a great deal of contemplating and “Happiness Is” is perfect for his self reflection. “Schroeder” is clever in referencing his idol, Beethoven, while the gentle “Charlie Brown Theme” gently swings.

Side two opens with “Linus and Lucy” – it’s funny, it’s called A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but in typical “Charlie Brown fashion,” others steal the show. Colin Bailey’s ride cymbal really jumps out on this vinyl release.

“Blue Charlie Brown” is the longest piece on the album, clocking in at over seven minutes. Guaraldi hits some “blue” notes, and both Budwig and Bailey stretch out here, really catching a groove. “Baseball Theme” is once again playful, perfect accompaniment for the kids’ game, and their shenanigans. The album closes with “Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair).” Here, Guaraldi lets his playing swirl behind the swinging rhythm section.

Craft Recordings always go above and beyond on their vinyl reissues, and this is no exception. Mastered specifically for vinyl from the analog tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio. The biggest difference is the double bass really jumps out on this version, giving a fat, warm bottom end.

Just as he did with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi creates instrumentals that are warm and inviting. You don’t have to be a fan of jazz to enjoy this. In fact, that’s kind of the point here. It’s jazz for people that don’t like jazz. Yet, this also isn’t a dumbed down version of the genre either. And that’s Guaraldi’s gift, it’s music for everyone. If you’re a fan of the Peanuts’ specials (and who isn’t???), A Boy Named Charlie Brown should be in your collection. The special green vinyl and baseball cards make it even more fun. —Tony Peters

Laura Nyro – Go Find the Moon (review)

Laura Nyro – Go Find the Moon – The Audition Tape (Omnivore Recordings)

The first steps of a singular artist

The year is 1966, five years before Tapestry; a time when women weren’t really taken seriously as artists. In this climate, Laura Nyro, an 18-year old from the Bronx, who sang, played piano and wrote her own songs, auditioned for two record executives. This brief, but revelatory recording has just been issued as Go Find the Moon – The Audition Tape from Omnivore Recordings.

The first song she showcases is also one of her most enduring. “And When I Die” was first sold to Peter, Paul & Mary later in the year, then featured on Nyro’s debut, More Than a New Discovery in 1967, before being taken to #2 on the Billboard charts in a rendition by Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1968. Here, the demo version is rollicking, and the tempo speeds up and slows as she sings. She sounds young, but exudes confidence beyond her years.

That assurance wanes for an instant as she struggles to play “Lazy Susan.” She recovers nicely with the soulful “Enough of You,” one of a trio of songs on here that she never officially recorded. She’s pouring herself into this, you can just feel it. Another of the unreleased tunes is “In and Out,” which is only a brief snippet, but you get to hear her falsetto.

The set is named after the last of the unreleased songs, “Go Find the Moon,” and for good reason – it’s spellbinding. Nyro alternates between gutsy blues and soaring show tune-inspired vocals. This song alone justifies picking up this collection.

“Luckie” is another song that would appear later – opening her sophomore album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. This nascent version isn’t really more straightforward as just missing the intricate tempo changes that would accompany the released version.

Toward the end of the audition, you can hear the exec ask her

“Do you do any songs other than those that you’ve written”?

To which she abruptly replies

“no”

They ask again

“you don’t know any pop songs? “Stardust”? “Moon River”?

Then Laura responds,

“Of course I know there are other songs, and I know a few lines from each one…maybe.”

At this point she attempts to play snippets (and I do mean snippets) of three songs, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Kansas City,” and “I Only Want to Be With You.” But, all these fragments show is just how laser-focused Nyro was as an artist. She wasn’t interested in doing songs by other people and even if she did, those songs still sound like Laura Nyro and no one else.

She ends off by playing one last of her compositions, the gorgeous “Lazy Susan,” this time making it through the entire song.

Here is Laura Nyro, her soulful, sweeping voice and her piano, not tethered to any rhythm or pattern, except her own. And, her songs – chronicling the misfits of the New York underground. Can you imagine what must’ve been going through these two executives’ minds?

Go Find the Moon is brief, clocking in at under twenty minutes. Yet, there’s so much magic here, especially in the three unreleased songs. We get to hear the first steps, some confident, a few tentative, of one of the most unique artists in history. —Tony Peters

Loveland Duren – Any Such Thing (review)

Loveland Duren – Any Such Thing (Edgewood Recordings)

Pair return with their third…and best album to date

As we read in the liner notes to Any Such Thing, the third release from the Memphis duo of Vicki Loveland and Van Duren, this wasn’t an easy process.  First, the pair traveled from Memphis to LA, onto London and then spent a month in Australia, promoting Waiting: The Van Duren Story documentary, which has only seen limited exposure (but is fantastic, btw).  Then, the pandemic happened, sending everyone scurrying home.  Despite the album being put together in fragments, it’s their most cohesive and finest effort yet.

Their previous two releases, 2013’s Bloody Cupid and 2016’s Next are both excellent listens, it’s just that Any Such Thing sounds more focused.  Loveland is a force of nature. Her voice has a soulful, “yeah, lived it” quality that seems to deepen over time.  And Duren sounds rejuvenated – this is the finest singing he’s done in years.  

The album opens with “Tumbledown Hearts,” the catchiest song the duo have ever created.  Loveland and Duren each take a few lines of the verses, before blending their voices for the stellar chorus.  I love the bridge and the fantastic guitar solo from Adam Hill, who’s worked on their previous records.  I found myself singing this one hours later. 

Up next is “A Place of No Place,” a timely snapshot, with references to “children in cages” and “hateful speech.”  It questions why the hell we seem to be taking large leaps backward as a country, yet the rocking accompaniment, featuring the Back to Memphis horns and Loveland’s impassioned vocals, make this bit of truth easier to swallow. 

The ballad, “Within Crying Distance,” is another stand out, and an excellent showcase for Loveland – I’m getting a Memphis, Otis Redding feel from this one.

The layered production of “Ain’t It Pretty to Think So” gives off a mid-period John Lennon vibe (think: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”) and has fine sax from Art “Paper Bag Brown” Edmaiston.  Their world travels get documented in “Skywriting (Tasmania),” which features a very nice bridge section that goes in a completely different direction, and gives Liam Grundy a chance to play some fine piano.

Things shift gears for “Funny Way of Showing It,” driven by pulsing strings reminiscent of “Eleanor Rigby,” with a little Brian Wilson french horn thrown in for good measure.  There’s a quirky element to “Where Are We Going,” which admits that “love is all there is.”

This is the first of their albums to feature piano prominently.  That, and Duren’s excellent vocals, echo some of his fine, early solo work.  Maybe a year looking back on his career rubbed off a little? One example of this is “Everyone is Out of Tune,” which contains pounding piano, some tasty chord changes and another fine sax break.

I think what really stands out here is that the songs are really strong.  “Bridges I Had to Burn” is a great country rocker – I like the way Eric Lewis’ guitar echoes Loveland’s lyrics.  He also adds some excellent mandolin to the track.

The vinyl edition features a gatefold sleeve, which contains all the lyrics inside at a typeface that you don’t have to squint to read (ok, that last part is only half true – I’m old, I still had to squint, but not as much).  Plus, the nice 12 x 12 size shows off the spectacular front and back cover featuring a stunning piece of collage art.  And, there’s a personal note from the duo inside talking about the music-making process – some of my favorite artists did this in the past.  

The city where both of them are from has always been a melting pot for diverse musical styles.  In Any Such Thing, Loveland Duren have taken the best of what Memphis has to offer and created an entire album of strong, memorable songs that will linger long after you’ve hit the stop button.  —Tony Peters

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue (review)

Nina Simone – Little Girl Blue (BMG)

One of the greatest debuts of all time gets another look

When an artist first appears on record, they are often still finding their way.  Little Richard sounded like Percy Mayfield early on, even Ray Charles emulated Nat Cole before finding his own voice.  That’s what makes Little Girl Blue, the debut from Nina Simone, so spellbinding – she had already developed most of what would make her one of the most unique artists in the history of music, and it’s all on display right here.  The album has just been reissued from BMG.

It’s her spectacular piano work that opens the swinging take on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”  Sure, she was making popular music, but it was out of necessity – she had to pay the bills and had been denied entry to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  Still, one can forget just how phenomenal a pianist Simone really was.  It’s also at the heart of her beautiful rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  

She makes excellent use of pacing and space on the chilly goodbye of “Don’t Smoke in Bed” – you find yourself hanging on every word.  And her voice is so expressive – sultry on “He Needs Me,” yet bouncy on “Love Me or Leave Me.” She had an uncanny ability to draw on various music styles, often in the same song. Just marvel at how she pulls in “Good King Wenceslas” for the opening of “Little Girl Blue.” 

Probably the most impressive track here is “Good Bait,” an instrumental piano piece she composed herself. There’s so many ideas crammed into a mere 5 1/2 minutes that, when it’s finally over, you expect a clamorous applause, it’s just that good.  “Plain Gold Ring” starts out a cappella, and her voice just pulls you in, before the marching accompaniment joins.  

This album also achieved something she never did after, it placed a single in the Top Twenty of the Pop Charts with her smoky version of “I Loves You Porgy” – sounding like nothing else on the radio or jukeboxes at the time.

Consider that this album marked the first time Simone had ever stepped into a recording studio, she barely rehearsed the material with her band, and most of these tracks were all done in one take.  Little Girl Blue could only have come from an artist with laser sharp focus and talent – Nina Simone was on a mission, and this album documents her confident, first steps.

The thing about Little Girl Blue is that there’s absolutely no missteps. It’s a stellar debut that takes risks, and each time, it pays off.  Certainly, Simone would develop her music deeper, she would grow in confidence to speak her mind and enact change through her songs. Yes, she still had growing to do.  But, Little Girl Blue is our first bite of a strange, and often bitter fruit that was Nina Simone.  A landmark in jazz that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the day it was released.  —Tony Peters

Johnny Mathis – Schuster Performing Arts Center – 8/26/21

Legendary vocalist’s triumphant return to the concert stage

Johnny Mathis, photo by Kendra Peters

Johnny Mathis obviously loves to sing. He was all smiles as he hit the stage in his first performance since the pandemic broke out in 2020. Sporting a green jacket and white pants, he looked and sounded fantastic, especially for someone just days away from his 86th birthday.

Billed as the “65 Years of Romance Tour,” the first half of the show opened with a medley of his biggest ballads, like “It’s Not For Me to Say,” “Chances Are” and “Gina.”

He talked about all the fun he had touring with Henry Mancini before going into a series of the famous instrumentalist’s songs, finishing with a stellar version of “Moon River.” “Stranger in Paradise” was another highlight, along with the surprise Stylistics’ cover, “Betcha By Golly Wow.”

Let me tell you about his voice – still breathtaking, capable of soaring heights and vibrato. In fact, he sounded better on the ballads, which you’d think would be more difficult.

Comedian Brad Upton kept the “Boomer” jokes going while Mathis took a short break.

After intermission, Mathis returned, clad in a black tuxedo. Here, he stretched out more, turning in a bossa nova version of “My Foolish Heart,” before inviting guitarist Kerry Marx to sit with him upfront. While both men sat on stools, they did a phenomenal reading of “Yesterday.” The high point of the night was “Misty,” one of his most famous songs. Here, the orchestra really sparkled, adding the perfect backing while Mathis effortlessly nailed the notes.

While the evening had its share of mellow moments, Mathis kept things moving with a medley of foreign-language tunes, ending with a spirited “Brazil.” The evening came to a close with a rousing take on the Ray Charles’ hit “Let the Good Times Roll,” with the capacity crowd, clapping along.

Throughout the evening, Mathis would occasionally look up toward the heavens and smile. I think he was honestly just happy to be back singing for an audience. With Tony Bennett recently announcing his retirement, Johnny Mathis is perhaps the last of the great crooners. If you get the opportunity, go see this amazing singer. —Tony Peters

Etta James – The Montreux Years (review)

Etta James – The Montreux Years

Etta James – The Montreux Years (Montreux Sounds/BMG)

Legendary vocalist on fire in front of an appreciative Swiss audience

Claude Nobs was the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Not only was he the organizer and host, he often joined the musicians on stage during their performances. Sadly, he passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on in the Claude Nobs Foundation, which boasts one of the largest libraries of live performances anywhere. These previously-unreleased concerts are finally starting to see the light of day.

Etta James was an artist that was known to leave it all out there on stage. The Montreux Years compiles several shows over a twenty-year span, and really shows her maturation as an artist.

Disc two is devoted entirely to a set she did in 1975, the first time she ever played in Europe, and her musical director, Brian Ray, was only 20 years old at the time. Oddly, they list all the players on all the concerts, EXCEPT 1975. But, you can clearly hear them introduce Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass (!). She covers the recent Staple Singers’ hit, “Respect Yourself,” before turning in an absolutely spellbinding take on “Drown in My Own Tears.”

She has lots of fun joking with the crowd about the language barrier – especially before going into “W-O-M-A-N.” There’s a funky middle section where she sings “shake your booty,” a full year before KC & the Sunshine Band would hit with a similar theme. While there are a lot of the “standard” blues tunes, her band handles them with their own flavor, keeping them interesting. Jones’ bass really powers the driving version of “Dust Your Broom.” She makes good use of singing and talking off mic during a fantastic “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

For disc one, James is joined by an all-star cast of players, including, at times, Rick Wakeman on keys, David “Fathead” Newman on sax, Steve Ferrone on drums.

There was something about Otis Redding’s compositions – perhaps they were better suited for women. Just like Aretha borrowed “Respect” and made it her own, Etta performed several Redding songs and just took them up another notch. Here, she tackles “I Got the Will” and just sounds possessed. The stripped-down Steve Goodman ballad, “A Lover is Forever” is so full of pain and desperation – she’s lived these lyrics.

She asks the crowd “did you go buy it” before launching into a song from her then-recent album, Seven Year Itch, the phenomenal “Damn Your Eyes.” She practically spits the words to “Tell Mama.” This arrangement sounds like “Soul Finger” from the Bar Kays. Claude Nobbs, the festival’s founder guests on harmonica on “Running and Hiding Blues.” She growls on the opening lines to “Something’s Gotta Hold on Me,” before settling into a groove backed by the horns.

Particularly good is the funky take on “Come to Mama.” Dig how she says “let me be / let me be your pacifier”! She jokes “I think they thought I was gonna be a jazz singer,” before going into a medley of three of her best ballads – “At Last,” “Trust in Me,” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.”

As in the other Montreux titles in this series, the tracks span a wide period of time, from 1975 to 1993. Honestly, I think she gets better as she gets older, she learned to get more command of her voice. There’s also fantastic liner notes, giving some background on where everything originated.

The Montreux Years reminds us that Etta James was a force of nature in concert. —Tony Peters

Alex Chilton – Live on Beale Street (review)

Alex Chilton and the Hi Rhythm Section – Boogie Shoes – Live on Beale Street (Omnivore)

A hot set of classic soul, and…KC & the Sunshine Band?  Yep.  

Being from Memphis, Alex Chilton was certainly influenced by the incredible music coming out of that city.  At the tender age of 15, he led the Box Tops to the #1 hit “The Letter,” then spent the early 1970’s in the under-appreciated power pop combo Big Star, before embarking on a solo career –  doing whatever the hell he wanted.  But, Chilton grew up in music and certainly could lead a band on command.  

When fellow musician Fred Ford fell ill, a benefit was created in his honor and Chilton was tabbed because of his popularity to sell tickets.  At the time, Chilton didn’t have a band, so he teamed with the legendary Hi Rhythm section, and without so much as a rehearsal, got up and just tore it up. 

The KC & the Sunshine Band staple “Boogie Shoes” might seem like a snarky choice, but the band and Chilton totally pull it off.  Less convincing is “Precious, Precious,” maybe because it was originally done by a woman?  But, with Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789” things get back on track.

It’s funny to hear the talking between songs – Chilton literally says “let’s play Kansas City in C” and away they go.  That’s the beauty of being surrounded by pros.  The Memphis Horns really shine on this one, what a great trumpet solo.  Again, remember there was absolutely no rehearsal here.  “Lucille” features a fantastic sax break and then Chilton takes one on guitar.

The set closes with “Trying to Live My Life Without You” which was a Memphis tune recorded at the Hi Records studio.  A fitting way to bring everything back to where it all began.  —Tony Peters