416 – Mitch Woods – Reissue of Friends Along the Way, featuring Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, and many more

Mitch Woods, photo credit, Jeff Fassano

Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88’s have been playing their unique brand of “rock a boogie” for some 40 years now. Back in 2017, Woods issued a career-defining album, Friends Along the Way, featuring a stellar lineup of guests, including Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop and many others.  Problem was, his record label at the time had just decided to focus only on videos, leaving this great album without an audience. 

Now, he’s regained the master recordings and has reissued the album and added five bonus tracks.  He and his Rocket 88’s are out on the road promoting the reissue.

We chat with Woods about how the project got rolling with a “yes” from Van Morrison, plus how he took up residency at the piano bar during the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise

Maia Sharp – Natalie’s Grandview (concert review)

Maia Sharp – Natalie’s Grandview – August 23, 2023

New album has just hit the streets, so she hits the road

What is it about youth and music?  We tend to glorify those artists just starting out.  Even with legendary performers, we tend to say we “like their older stuff better.”  

Well, here comes Maia Sharp to throw a wrench in all that nonsense.  

At 52, she’s been releasing albums for over half of her life.  Yet, her music just seems to get better and better.  Close to 2/3rds of her 90-minute set at Natalie’s Grandview in Columbus consisted of recent material – music from her last two, excellent records: Mercy Rising (2021) and Reckless Thoughts (2023).  You can’t name too many artists over 50 that are brave enough to let their recent material stand on its own.  

The first quartet of songs came from Mercy Rising.  The album was a departure of sorts for her, full of sonic soundscapes.  Stripped of the studio sweetness, these versions followed a more direct path.  With just her husky, soulful voice, and supple guitar work, both “Junkyard Dog” and “Not Your Friend” were darker and deeper, with their meanings less obscured, while “Nice Girl,” (with its very funny line of “you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day”) was a highlight.  “Backburner,” Mercy’s single, sounded fantastic stripped down. 

If there was any justice in the world, Sharp’s new song “Kind,” would be a smash radio hit.  It’s got a catchy-as-hell, sing-a-long chorus, and it’s about, um, actually being kind to people.  Other new songs that stood out were “Fallen Angel” and “On a Good Day.”  

She dug back into her catalog for a few tracks:  “Nothing But the Radio On” was a sizable hit on AAA stations back in 2015.  Yet, this solo version was slower, more sexy and less adorned.  She pulled out “Long Way Home,” which dates back to 2002.  Here’s where you can really see her growth.  Honestly, she’s a much better singer now – and, she’s more assured of who she is.

The highlight of her encore was a nod to Bonnie Raitt, who recorded a trio of Sharp’s songs on one of her albums.  She returned the favor by tackling Raitt’s “Nick of Time.”  

Between songs, she engaged the crowd in funny anecdotes (the story behind “Little Bottles” and her fear of flying was quite good).

After seeing Maia Sharp live, I think she’d be well served with a solo, acoustic live album.  While she’s had success with full-band efforts, and recent, country-psychedelia albums, her great songwriting shines the best with just her voice and acoustic guitar.  

Just a quick note about Natalie’s: great staff, great pizza, and oddly, there was another concert going on simultaneously (blues artist, Curtis Salgado) in a much larger room, just down the hall.  Yet, the sound proofing ensured you didn’t hear any bleed over from either room.  And, they have music almost every night of the week.  —Tony Peters

415 – Maia Sharp – new album, Reckless Thoughts, and Songwriting With Soldiers

Nashville transplant Maia Sharp has written songs for folks like Cher and Tricia Yearwood, and produced the likes of Art Garfunkel.  Her last album, Mercy Rising, was one of our favorite albums.  In our review, we called it the “best thing she’s ever done.”  So, here we are with the followup, her 9th solo album, entitled Reckless Thoughts.

She talks about how much fun it was to co-write her catchy, new single, “Kind,” with Dean Fields and Melinda Leigh Smith. How she adds some of the tasty “extras” to her songs in her home studio.

She also tells us about how she got involved with Songwriting With Soldiers, where she meets with a veteran or family member, and writes a song about their story.

Get Ready For the Return of Quadrophonic Sound Courtesy of Rhino Records (review)

Rhino reissues long out of print Quad mixes of four classic albums

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies

Jefferson Starship – Red Octopus

J. Geils Band – Nightmares

Black Sabbath in Quadio will absolutely blow your mind

File this under “things I thought I’d never see again” – QUADROPHONIC records!  

For a refresher, Quadrophonic was an ill-fated bit of 1970’s technology with good intentions: take the standard, two speaker (stereo) audio setup and expand it to four (quadrophonic).  The idea was to have sound coming at the listener from all directions – as if he/she were actually onstage WITH the musicians.  The trouble is, the audio equipment was prone to malfunctioning and quadrophonic records could only be played on quadrophonic equipment, which means you had to buy an entirely new setup.  Guess what?  Few people did and the technology faded away.

Five decades later, Rhino Records has dug back into the archives to make these unique, four-channel mixes once again available (now called Quadio).  The good news?  The technology is now reliable and the albums can be played on any Blu Ray player with 5.1 surround sound speakers.  Rhino first issued Quad sets from the Doobie Brothers and Chicago last year.  Now, they’ve chosen a quartet of classic albums in their next batch of releases.

Each album chosen is no accident.  Paranoid is arguably the greatest heavy metal album ever (much more on this below), while the J. Geils Band were one of the greatest live bands around (and who wouldn’t want to be in the middle of that?).  Billion Dollar Babies found Alice Cooper at the peak of their “shock rock” theater, and Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus boasted not only guitar, keyboards and other typical rock instrumentation, but also one Papa John Creach on fiddle, making for an abundance of players to fill out the four speakers.

Listening to Paranoid from Black Sabbath in its Quadrophonic mix is like being in the middle of a battlefield. 

Those rifle sounds going left to right?  That’s Tony Iommi’s guitar.  That tank that just ran you over?  That’s Bill Ward’s drumming.  The wailing isn’t soldiers, it’s crazy man Ozzy Osbourne.  And, the real highlight is hearing Geezer Butler’s bass, fat and full, absolutely monsterous.  I was completely blown away by the sonic onslaught.  I’d always thought that Paranoid sounded kinda flat on CD.  Here?  Oh no, it’s like a caged tiger has been unleashed and is ready to wreck havoc on your ears.  

The hi hat drums on “Warpigs” jump from speaker to speaker, as does Ward’s tom fills.  However, the song doesn’t speed up at the end – something they apparently could not replicate in the quad environment.  “Paranoid” chugs along, Iommi’s guitars are like chainsaws out of each speaker, while “Planet Caravan”’ is more spacey, with bongos jumping from channel to channel.  Butler’s bass really thumps on “Iron Man.”  Then, wait til you hear Ward’s drum solo on “Rat Salad.”  Whoa.

Paranoid isn’t just the best album in this bunch.  It’s the greatest example of quadrophonic sound done right.  You are completely immersed in audio from all directions. And, this is the rare example of the quad mix blowing away the standard, stereo version.

As far as the other three releases?  They’ve all got their merits.  Red Octopus from Jefferson Starship really benefits from the quad technology by allowing each member to be spread out in the massive, four-channel mix.  The real treat on this album is the gorgeous Quadio mix of “Miracles.”  Marty Balin’s finest ballad is elevated here to the ethereal plane that it always aimed for.  The electric guitar flourishes seem to be shooting stars, darting from speaker to speaker, while the strings, background vocals and vibes are all more prominent.  I’d never noticed an acoustic guitar either.  

J. Geils Band’s Nightmares has the ubiquitous hit, “Musta Got Lost,” which sounds great here.  But, the real treat is “I’ll Be Coming Home” – the random people effects are everywhere, then the the soulful, stomping song just shines in this surrounding.  “Gettin’ Out” is also great – you really do feel like you’re in the middle of the action.  There are times though the overall sound is somewhat brittle here.

Billion Dollar Babies from Alice Cooper finds the band at their absolute peak.  The Quad mix really shows off producer Bob Ezrin’s genius – you get to hear each individual instrument more fully and really appreciate the theatrical element that they were going for.  The guitars from “Elected” jump all around speakers.  I do have to say that Alice’s voice seems too loud at times, overpowering everything else.  Also, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” seems to have lost some of its punch being so wide.

Each booklet contains photos of the quad mix reels (except Jefferson Starship) – that’s a nice touch.

Taken as a whole, the quad mixes of these four albums are a mixed bag.  But, it is cool to hear these albums in a completely different setting. Paranoid from Black Sabbath is the clear winner here.  —Tony Peters

414 – Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull – The Seven Decades Tour, and What He Really Thinks of A.I. Technology

One of the most recognizable figures in all of rock music, Ian Anderson has led Jethro Tull since it’s inception in 1967.  With over 30 albums to their credit, selling upwards of 60 million, the band is in rare company. 

The band just issued a brand-new album, called Røck Flüte, and now Anderson is readying the 7 Decades tour, coming to a city near you.

Ian talks about how he gets ready for a tour, how he assembles a setlist in each town, and how, surprisingly, he actually books the travel himself.  He touches on the roots of his latest album, as well as his opinion of A.I. technology.  He also reveals the three Jethro Tull songs he feels he needs to play at every show.  

413 – Beth Bombara – New Album, It All Goes Up

From St. Louis comes Beth Bombara, who’s been releasing her own music for about 15 years now. Her latest album, It All Goes Up, is her strongest to date, full of sonic textures and infectious melodies.  In her own words, the new project is an attempt to bring in “more light, more hope.” 

The songs range from the infectious “Everything I Wanted,” to the heavy rocker “Give Me a Reason.” The album was assembled with her longtime collaborator, Kit Hamon, and features frenetic guitar playing from Sam Golden, as well as a guest appearance by John Calvin Abney.

Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (vinyl review)

Bill Evans Trio – Waltz For Debby (Riverside/Craft)

More expensive?  Yes.  Worth it?  100 percent.

Craft Recordings continue to add to their resurrected Original Jazz Classics series, featuring 180-gram vinyl, high quality jackets, and faithful reproductions of the front and back cover artwork.  This time, they’ve reissued titles from the Mal Waldron Sextet, Yusef Lateef and Bill Evans.  They sent us Waltz For Debby by the legendary Bill Evans Trio for review.

This may be the finest sounding jazz vinyl record I’ve ever heard.

The instruments leap from the speakers.  Evans’ piano is gorgeous, and those high notes are crisp, while Scott LaFaro’s bass is deep and resonating, you can hear his fingers sliding on the neck for solos, and Paul Motian’s brushwork is crystal clear.  Recorded at the Village Vanguard club in New York, you can clearly hear glasses clinking and light conversation.  I tested this new version against a DOL pressing that we had here at the office, and the results were immediately audible.  This new Craft edition makes you feel as if you’re in the club with the trio – a much wider range of fidelity. 

June 25, 1961, the Bill Evans Trio booked five concerts (each around a half hour) at the Village Vanguard in New York, with the intention of getting enough material for a new album.  Just ten days after these historic performances, bassist Scott LaFaro would perish in an auto accident.  The first album to come from this date was Sunday at the Village Vanguard.  Largely considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, it was assembled as a tribute to the pioneering bassist.

Waltz For Debby arrived six months later, featuring more performances from this date.  Honestly, I feel these are actually better representative of the trio as a whole.  Sunday featured a lot of LaFaro soloing, which was impressive, for sure.  But here, the trio seem more cohesive, and also it’s more of a showcase for Evans’ melodic artistry.  

The album opens with the standard, “My Foolish Heart,” and Evans begins with the familiar first few lines, but then starts to stretch the harmonics of the song.  The other two members seem restrained here – LaFaro does begin to give counterpoint to Evans’ piano about midway through, while Motian starts to make it rain with his brushstrokes.

But, “Waltz For Debby” immediately changes things – LaFaro and Evans both play notes that cascade back and forth.  After a minute, Motian gets things moving with brushes, and both bass and piano begin a dialogue – both talking at once, it is a thing of beauty. Then, Evans takes off on a solo, and LaFaro lays down a bass line, or does he?  Just when you think it’s standard jazz fare, he begins to add his own soloing that’s outside simple bass accompaniment.  Then it’s LaFaro’s turn to solo, his fluid phrasing is something completely foreign to bassists at the time.  His inspiration seems to be coming in bursts.  Then, right on cue, the band returns to the melody, just in time for a surprising ending.

“Detour Ahead” is delicate.  Enough so, that you actually hear conversation during the performance.  I love the way Evans and LaFaro work together, throwing ideas back and forth.  There’s an extended bass solo, where he runs all over the neck, up and down.

The source tape is a little mangled at the start of “My Romance,” so you hear Evans’ piano drop out slightly – this is on every release, including streaming, but it seems more apparent on this vinyl edition because everything else sounds so good.  Once this track gets going, it really swings.  It must’ve been a real thrill to be in the audience.

I love what LaFaro is doing with harmonics while Evans comps chords on “Some Other Time”; gentle and pretty.  It’s as if things could fall apart, especially without Motian, fragile, yet it all holds together.

The final track, the Miles Davis composition, “Milestones,” is not surprisingly, the most challenging piece the band attempted all day.  I love how Motian begins throwing in snare cracks to start propelling things.  A slight drop, and then Evans is off on a solo, but wait, so is LaFaro, high on the neck, frenetic.  This is the bassist’s best track here.  He’s just all over the place. 

Honestly, the fact that the crowd wasn’t reacting to this furious playing?  All I can say is that the food must’ve been really good? Or maybe they were told to be quiet?  Something must’ve been distracting them from the utter greatness on stage.   The track ends with just LaFaro soloing – like he’s not ready for the song to be over, then an audience member laughs – it’s a spontaneous moment.  

This Original Jazz Classics’ edition of Waltz For Debby is more expensive (about double what most vinyl editions run).  But, it is completely worth it – the sonic clarity: crisp highs and deep lows, make for an immersive, utterly satisfying listen.  This is the way to do vinyl right in the modern age.  —Tony Peters

412 – Grammy award winner Gordon Goodwin on Raymond Scott Reimagined and Other Recent Projects

You may not know the name Raymond Scott, but you’ve probably heard his music.  Many of his compositions have been used, over and over, in the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons over the years. Raymond Scott Reimagined is a collaboration between the Quartet San Francisco, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, and the acapella group, Take Six.

Gordon Goodwin did new arrangements of Scott classics like “Powerhouse,” and “Toy Trumpet.”  In addition, with the help of the Raymond Scott estate, an unfinished composition, “Cutey and the Dragon,” was completed by Goodwin, and included on this set. 

Goodwin has won four Grammy’s, including Best Instrumental Arrangement for Disney’s The Incredibles.

He talks about how he went about retooling these great compositions for the modern age, working with all the great musicians. We also chat about a recent collaboration with Patti Austin on For Ella 2, and a forthcoming piano duets album where Goodwin plays both parts himself.

Fantastic New Album from St. Louis songwriter Beth Bombara (review)

Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up (Black Mesa Records)

One of the best albums we’ve heard all year

St. Louis musician Beth Bombara has been putting out solo records for about 16 years.  Her latest album, It All Goes Up, is her finest to date.  What sets it apart is that she seems to be making music with a wider palette of styles and instrumentation. 

Her last effort, Evergreen (2019), was largely driven by her electric guitar.  While her guitar is still there on It All Goes Up, sometimes it’s acoustic, or electric.  Other songs are propelled by a jangly, 12-string-guitar or pedal steel. Still other tracks have Mellotron or Rhodes piano.

With a title like It All Goes Up, you might think it’s a real downer.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  

The album opens with “Moment,” a song about pausing in this fast-paced, post-pandemic world: “can we slow down / long enough to take a Polaroid picture / and wave it around / until the moment is material”  It’s both cinematic and a tad twangy; yearning, with the echoed percussion and pedal steel.  

“Lonely Walls” is something all of us can relate to, being cooped up during the lockdown.  Bombara sings “I’m still waiting for the sun to shine / for the world to return to / something I recognize.”  Amen. The track is fueled by a gentle, funky groove, topped with a descending guitar line.   The heavily-echoed guitar solo, courtesy of Sam Golden, is a welcome surprise.  It seems to be coming in from a far off planet.

“Everything I Wanted” is pure power pop with its jangly electric guitars and catchy chorus.  And, dig that freaked out, impassioned guitar solo in the middle (again it’s Golden showing off his chops).  It sure sounds like a hit single to me. The song deals with railing against the idea that money buys happiness – that we have to be thankful for what we have right now, instead of always looking to the future.  

“Get On” features a gentle melody over a 12-string electric, and I dig that soaring middle eight instrumental section that builds before dropping out (middle eights are certainly a lost songwriting art, for sure).  The lyrics deal with moving on instead of wallowing in the past.  

“Carry The Weight” is soulful, sparse, and warm.  I love how the strings answer her vocals on the second verse. Very tasty guitar on this one. A song of reassurance of friendship.  

“Curious and Free” starts with acoustic guitar and pounding toms, then in comes a fiddle, crying out.  Eventually, the song becomes a pounding, percussive train, rolling down the tracks.  The song ends without resolving – leaving you hanging, wanting more.

“Give Me a Reason” is totally different – a very heavy, plodding number, with distorted electric guitars, and Bombara’s double-tracked vocals.  It has more in common with Black Sabbath than Americana.  It could be about the volatile times we live in – “be not afraid of the darkness or the light.” Once again, the song ends without resolution.

“Electricity” starts with just acoustic guitar and vocals, but then builds into a fantastic, expansive chorus.  This is where the album title comes from: “flash of red / I lose my head / and it all goes up.”  It could be an explosion.  But, perhaps it also means that there’s only way we can go, which is up. There’s kind of a dreamy middle section with guitar that’s really cool.

“What You Wanna Hear” has a mid-Seventies gentle feel – dig that high hat groove, and, once again, the song sort of leaves you hanging at the end.

“Fade” has a great Rhodes piano by John Calvin Abney, and heartbeat percussion.  In fact it’s the heartbeat that’s the last thing we hear on the album – a reminder of humanity still carrying on despite our troubles.

I would say this is her most assured album.  Nothing sounds forced.  Her singing has improved over the years.  And, for this to be a self-produced affair is even more impressive (it sounds especially good in headphones).  Everything works.  Dare I say it’s a perfect album.  A blending of styles that ultimately comes out as pure Beth Bombara.  —Tony Peters

Memphis Soul Stew – New Box Set Unearths a Staggering 146 Tracks of Classic-era R&B

Various Artists – Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos (Stax/Craft Recordings)

Almost 20 years in the making, an absolute goldmine for classic soul fans

Written in Their Soul is a 7-CD box set that pulls together songwriting demos from Stax Records’ roster of writers in Memphis, all in a variety of settings.  Some are just vocals and guitar, or vocals and piano.  Others are more fleshed out arrangements, with drums, bass and sometimes horns.  These tapes were originally submitted to the publisher as a means of documenting each composition, and were not meant for public consumption.  However, we are super glad to hear them after all these years.  

Stax Records was one of the most unique labels in the industry because the musicians, songwriters, administration, recording studio, even a record store, were all under the same roof. So, a lot of these “demos” were actually recorded in the famed Stax studios, and many were backed by the house band (meaning Booker T & the MG’s, etc).  

Another way to put it?  These aren’t what you’d typically consider “demos.”  Yes, some are rough sounding, but most of it is of phenomenal quality.

Cheryl Pawelski (who runs her own record label, Omnivore Recordings) waded through literally thousands of hours of recordings, mostly unrelated to this project, to track down these lost gems.  She started down this road in 2006.  Let’s hear it for seeing a project to reality!

The box is broken into three sections.  Discs 1-3 are titled Stax Writers, Stax Releases, meaning these are the early versions of songs that got released on the Stax label 

Carla Thomas leads off the set with “Comfort Me.” While the finished version is polished with horns, and backup singers – this demo features only a single electric guitar and her voice.  It’s chilling in its immediacy.  That becomes a recurring theme here – these tracks seem more real.

There’s a humanness to these recordings.  These are songwriters pouring out their souls.  Because of that, clear characters emerge.  Mack Rice, who wrote “Mustang Sally,” wraps his songs in a funky groove and an infectious enthusiasm.  While Homer Banks is often vulnerable and pleading.  Bettye Crutcher exudes confidence and strength, something most women weren’t allowed to show back then, while Eddie Floyd is pure soul, and is often joined by guitarist Steve Cropper on his offerings.  

Comparing the released versions to these demos can bring some revelations.  Floyd’s version of “I Got Everything I Need” is faster and grittier than the one that came out by Sam & Dave. “Slow Train” from William Bell is another spine-chilling performance – it’s stark in its beauty compared with that of the Staple Singers.

Speaking of the Staples – right in the middle of disc one are four tracks from the family band that aren’t actually demos, they’re rehearsal takes for their album, Soul Folk in Action, but they were included because they would’ve been orphaned – and one listen to this rendition of “Top of the Mountain” and you see why they chose to put these here – there’s more church in these versions.

Some of these demos are for songs that we all know.  Dig Rice’s first take of “Respect Yourself” – it’s got a rough funkiness with just acoustic guitar and percussion.  Homer Banks sings his original “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” from a woman’s perspective before Luther Ingram switched the gender on the hit version.

Some of the tracks are actually finished – “You Make a Strong Girl Weak” by Jeanne & the Darlings features a full complement of instruments.  Maybe the drums are a tad loud, but this could’ve been released.  And, Veda Brown’s “True Love Don’t Grow on Trees” doesn’t sound like a demo either.  It’s fully produced and it’s awesome.   Except for the tape hiss, “It’s So Wonderful” by Fredrick Knight sure doesn’t sound like a demo either – you can’t call yourself a soul fan and not be moved by this.

Floyd’s “You Can’t Win With a Losing Hand” and Rice’s “Nobody But You” are just two more examples of the many, many treasures here. Oh, and wait til you hear Henderson Thigpen sing “Woman to Woman.”  If it sounds like I could write on and on about these tracks, you’re right.

Disc four, entitled Moonlighting: Stax Writers, Non-Stax releases, features songwriting demos that ended up coming out on other labels besides Stax.  A perfect example of this is “634-5789,” a big hit for Wilson Pickett (who recorded for Atlantic, not Stax).  Here, the demo features Eddie Floyd on vocals, and Steve Cropper on guitar, both songwriters on the track. This does sound like a demo, but it’s still super cool to hear this in an infant stage of development.  Or, how about Delaney Bramlett singing “Told You For the Last Time,” a song that ended up on Eric Clapton’s first solo LP.  

Discs 5-8, titled Uncut Songs, is the real motherlode. 66 songs with that signature Stax sound and feel – and not one of them were ever released, EVER.  Prepare to be amazed.  You’ll keep asking yourself, “why didn’t this ever come out”?  

“Got to Make You Mine” by Eddie Floyd is somewhat distorted, but it’s such an impassioned performance, you can see why the producers included it.  For all the dance hits that Rufus Thomas had, it’s surprising that “C’mon Dance with Me” did not get cut.  I really dig “Spin It” by Deanie Parker – she wants you to put that record on so she can learn to dance.  Parker and Mack Rice team up for “Nobody Wants to Get Old” – everybody wants to live a long time, but…nobody wants to get old!  Great line.

We get to hear Booker T Jones sing on “Oo-We Baby What You Do to Me,” yet another Carla Thomas composition. Some tracks are as relevant today as the day they were recorded, like the plea for peace, “Coming Together,” by Homer Banks, or Mack Rice’s “Three Meals a Day,” where he chronicles the plight of a soldier coming home, post war.  Banks’ “Grandpa’s Will” is a good lesson on the greed of a family.  There’s still room for plenty of fun too, as in Bettye Crutcher’s “The Yard Man.”    

The entire set is housed in a hardbound book, featuring an essay from Pawelski, chronicling her detective work, plus background on many of the songwriters featured on the set.

I can’t remember a collection that featured this much unheard music, but was of such high quality.  Written in Their Soul unleashes 146 songs, bound to be instant soul classics.  If you love soul music, you have got to hear this set.  —Tony Peters

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