RADIO ON! Lee Aaron (Metalville) ****
Lee Aaron has been on a tear since coming back to doing hard rock albums with 2016’s Fire and Gasoline. She’s really found her groove with Radio On!, a collection of riff-centric rockers with the kind of unapologetic swagger that powered her 80’s and 90’s albums. This is really good drivin’ music.
You can tell whether an artist or band is having fun, and when they’re working too hard or just phoning it in. With Radio On, Lee and her musical compatriots are having a blast and it’s infectious. Between her and guitarist Sean Kelly, bassist Dave Reimer and drummer John Cody, they’ve made the kind of rock & roll here that makes you glad to be alive. According to her website the songs were written in a single weekend. “I had this crazy idea that if we locked ourselves in a room for a couple of days and the only agenda was to have fun and tap into the influences we had as teenagers, it would be interesting to see what happens” Lee says. “I think we even surprised ourselves!”
Aaron, who just celebrated her 59th birthday, is in fine voice as she belts it out on the rockers. If you’re surprised by her sensitive performance when she pulls it down for the intro to Wasted, you shouldn’t be. What some don’t know- and I didn’t, until I interviewed Lee in 2016- was that after grunge derailed her style of rock & roll in the 90’s, she turned to singing jazz and blues on terrific records like Slick Chick and Beautiful Things. After our chat I was able to find Beautiful Things on CD and have an even deeper appreciation for what Lee is capable of as a singer. She can sing the quiet stuff and rip your heart out when she wants to, but is unstoppable when she rocks out too.
At the beginning of her career in the 80’s Lee Aaron (real name: Karen Lynn Greening) was referred to as “The Metal Queen” and marketed as such with great success. Nearly 40 years into her career you’d assume she probably peaked somewhere in the middle- a logical assumption, but flawed. Here in 2021 with Radio On! She just keeps better and shows no signs of slowing down. The album just came out today as I write this and already I can’t wait to see what she does next.
KEY CUTS: Soul Breaker, Wasted, Russian Doll, Twenty One
EVIL AND DIVINE Sunbomb (Frontiers) *** ½
This has been sitting in my download folder for a couple of months, mostly because I’ve never heard of Sunbomb. When I opened the bio last night I discovered this was a collaboration between Michael Sweet of Stryper (vocals) and Tracii Guns (guitar). As two warriors of the American hard rock/ metal scene, they’ve come up the kind of rock & roll you might expect. In a tweet, Guns referred to Evil & Divine as “the metal record I would have made when I was 17 years old.”
Evil and Divine is the melding of classic metal influences like Sabbath and Priest, underscored by Tracii Guns’ apparent affection for doom metal. Stryper might be a Christian rock band, but musically this disc is in the same ballpark. On their covers album The Covering they played songs by Zeppelin, Purple, Sabbath, Mountain, Scorpions and more, so I see E&D as being completely within Michael’s wheelhouse. In fact I’d say this is a couple of steps heavier than what we might expect from either; it isn’t just rock & roll, it’s straight up let’s-race-the-cops metal.
As a singer Michael’s operatic range is well suited to the genre. When I talked to him in 2016 I told him that he reminded me of Styx’s Dennis DeYoung, and he said that JY Young and Tommy Shaw told him that he was on their radar when Dennis left the band before deciding on Lawrence Gowan. He really throws himself into songs like Born To Win– you can almost feel him smiling as he lets ‘er rip. Stryper’s last 4 albums, since 2013’s No More Hell To Pay have been increasingly heavier, so even though he’s stepping outside the band for this one with Tracii, it still fits. Sweet’s metal sensibilities and Guns’ penchant for bluesy rock make for an agreeable noise.
Sunbomb’s Evil and Divine is a project created, overseen and directed by label president Serafino Perugino and also involves Tracii’s old LA Guns band mate Adam Hamilton on drums, plus bassist Mitch Davis. As a classic metal fan myself rooted mainly in the 70’s, this disc is speaking a language I understand loud & clear, and I hope they do this again.
KEY CUTS: Been Said And Done, Story Of The Blind, Born To Win
GA-20 DOES HOUND DOG TAYLOR: TRY IT… YOU MIGHT LIKE IT! Ga-20 (Colemine Records) *****
As anyone who knows the Alligator Records story can tell you, that label started when founder Bruce Iglauer wanted to record Hound Dog Taylor. It seems fitting that, 50 years later Colemine, created in 2007 with the purpose of putting out music with soul on vinyl, would want in on the fun. They’ve partnered up with Alligator on GA-20’s Try It to celebrate the late bluesman’s music. This album is a ton of fun.
GA-20 was formed by Pat Faherty and Matthew Stubbs (guitarist for Charlie Musselwhite) over their mutual love of heavy traditional blues, R&B and rock & roll of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Joined by drummer Tim Carman, this trio set out to write, record and perform a modern version of the music they love so much. On Try It… You Might Like It they’ve taken 10 songs written or performed by Taylor during his career. The album has a vital, raw, rough & tumble sound that almost feels like you’re walking into Florence’s Lounge on that Sunday afternoon in 1970 with Iglauer while Hound Dog and his band were blasting away on a little stage in the corner.
Many tribute albums try to improve on or re-interpret the music of the artists they celebrate, or they are merely slavish recreations of what has already been done. What GA-20 does so spectacularly well on Try It… You Might Like It is capture the spirit of Hound Dog Taylor and the music he made, thus becoming a true celebration of the Chicago blues legend. The six fingered bluesman (that’s Hound Dog’s hand on the album cover) always knew how he wanted to be remembered, commenting “When I die they’ll say he couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!” It certainly did as his stuff on the Alligator label proves, and GT-20 honors that with a tribute that makes you want to dig into Taylor’s past and hear more.
Alligator, Hound Dog’s old label, released the All-Star tribute Hound Dog Taylor: A Tribute a few years ago, but I daresay GA-20’s Try It… You Might Like It captures the magic of Taylor’s music more authentically. I originally gave this set 4 stars but upped it to 5, just because it makes me feel so damn good! Street date: August 20th.
KEY CUTS: She’s Gone, Hawaiian Boogie, Phillips Goes Bananas
TROUBLEMAKER Clint Morgan (Lost Cause Records) *****
‘Quirky’ can be a loaded term when attempting to describe music, but I can’t think of a better way to get at Clint Morgan’s new album. Troublemaker is quirky for sure, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s Americana-flavored blues, boogie-woogie and country with more than a little old school rock & roll. It’s HUGE fun.
Troublemaker is a collection of songs about lost chances, regrets and redemption, delivered with a wry smile. It was on the second spin that it occurred to me Morgan’s blend of tragedy and humor is akin to Johnny Cash meets Webb Wilder. “What I’ve tried to do with this album is to tell stories- some tongue in cheek, some serious” Clint says, “about everyday people and everyday life. Even in these times of turmoil and unrest, people still have the same problems they’ve always had. I just hope this is taken in the spirit with which it’s offered.”
Lyrically songs like Hungry Man Blues can come off quite jokey, but there is some very serious musicianship happening too. Did I say Johnny Cash meets Webb Wilder? I think Mark Knopfler is in there too. Just some of the people helping Morgan pull this off are Watermelon Slim, Bob Margolin, John Del Toro Richardson and The McRary Sisters. Violinist Jimmy Stewart and blues harp virtuoso Bob Corritore got involved with this record too, with producer Kevin McKendree getting spectacular results.
Troublemaker is a record that looks at life with a twinkle in its eye. Ain’t That The Blues is a rumination on getting old, and Hungry Man Blues is the story of a man looking for a good meal. Then there’s the wicked humor of Somebody Put A Walmart On The Farm, where Clint is also joined by Kinky Friedman, and the take-off on Shel Silverstein’s Cover Of The Rolling Stone (re-cast as Cover Of The Living Blues) with contributions from Bob Margolin and Watermelon Slim. With all the smiles and chuckles, it can be easy to forget that this is a really good album.
Troublemaker is a good time powered by seriously excellent playing. Morgan plays some great boogie-woogie piano and the rest of the guys are with him every step of the way. After the year we’ve all had, this is the right album at the right time.
KEY CUTS: It’s Rough Out Here, Echoes, Cover Of The Living Blues
SKYGAZER Resurrection Kings (Frontiers) *** +
This is the sophomore release for this hard rock outfit with a strong Dio connection. With Vinnie Appice on drums and Craig Goldy on guitars, bass and keys, Skygazer has a strong 80’s metal feel that I’m getting off on. Big riffs, tons of drama and great guitar playing that’s more than just a million notes a second. Cool stuff, this.
Appice is muscular and relentless behind the kit as always and I’ve always enjoyed Goldy’s guitar playing (they were both in Dio) but the revelation here is singer Chas West. Who has also worked with Foreigner, The Jason Bonham Band and Tribe Of Gypsies. He’s a solid rock vocalist with range and expression who, at times, reminds me of Bruce Dickinson for an end result that’s Whitesnake meets Dio with a side of Zeppelin or maybe early Rainbow… hard rock with a blues underlay.
The band is centered around the talents of Craig Goldy, and the idea for actually forming the group came from a set of demos he recorded with Chas West on vocals. Frontiers expressed an interest and, once the band was in place the debut was recorded and produced by Alessandro Del Vecchio, who was also in place for Skygazer and played some bass here too. When you listen West’s vocals tend to be the focus- at least for me- but I enjoy the thick, mainstream sludginess that reminds me of the last half dozen or so Dio albums, thanks mainly to the pulse Appice supplies on drums.
As much as I like Skygazer as it drags me willingly back to the mid 80’s or thereabouts, I would have to think the music world has moved on since then and a record like this that flexes what feels occasionally like generic metal muscle will have a tough time finding an audience. Still, if you like the first 3 Rainbow albums or any of Dio’s stuff, you will hear plenty in these songs to enjoy and latch onto. While I’m not madly in love with Skygazer (an obvious callback to the Rainbow epic Stargazer) I am enjoying the disc and on a hot, sunny day like today, blasting down the back roads of rural Alberta, that’s good enough.
KEY CUTS: Skygazer, Savior Of Souls, Set Me On Fire
50 Polly O’Keary And The Rhythm Method (independent) *****
If anything good has come out of the pandemic it’s that some wonderful bands have used the time to hunker down and create transcendental work. That’s the case for Polly O’Keary & The Rhythm Method on this, their 6th record. Called 50 because all three members of the band have recently crossed that milestone, this disc is an object lesson in how to groove. As Honeyboy Edwards used to say “if you do something a long time, you get nothing but better”- and this band is great.
50 is another master-class in the band’s creative fusions of blues with other genres. Here you’ll find Texas shuffle, swing, rhumba and hill country blues swapping spit with Cuban habanera, Motown, funk, R&B southern rock, Americana and blues rock. Looks like a busy dance card when you spell it out like that, but when you listen it’s like hanging out at the world’s best party. The songs themselves touch on themes of hard won wisdom, regret, amused reflection on past foibles, plus a bit if crowing over having survived it all and hope that better days lie ahead for us all. Plus, for the first time 3 of these songs were written for Dave Miller to sing- and he kills it.
Polly O’Keary & The Rhythm Method are Polly on bass and vocals, Dave Miller on guitar and Tommy Cook on drums. Their last record, Black Crow Callin’, was a finalist in the best Self- Produced CD contest at the 2018 International Blues Challenge, and 50 is a step up from there. Chameleon Fire rightly labels them “a power blues trio”, and the interplay between them is so in the pocket that others must be jealous. O’Keary’s voice is powerful without overdoing it as she and drummer Tommy Cook keep things on track with a swingin’ backbeat that never gives in to over-playing. And, as righteous as Ms. O’Keary’s singing is, Dave Miller’s guitar work is exhilarating; great rhythm player and solos to inspire anybody to close their eyes and let rip with some air guitar.
All of the above just goes to say that Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method’s new album 50 is quite excellent, and that it belongs in your collection or on your play list.
KEY CUTS: Can’t Catch Me, Brand New Day, American Highways