SO CLOSE TO HEAVEN Lionville (Frontiers) ***
We’re well into the New Year now, and that brings us to Lionville’s 5th album. So Close To Heaven is more of the keyboard-centric AOR melodic rock that endears the band to its fans. Reminiscent of mid-period Foreigner, this is pure pop and circumstance.
The group was started in Genova, Italy by singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Stefano Lionetti and his brother Alessandro. Attracted by the quality of the songs, Lars Safsund signed on as lead vocalist and two indie releases followed. Signing with Frontiers in 2017, So Close To Heaven is the third album for Lionville. Alessandro is no longer with the band but the lineup today, aside from Stefano and Lars, includes Michele Cusato on guitar, Fabrizio Cario on keys, Giulio Dagnino on bass and Martino Malacrida on drums. Their sound is driving, upbeat and positive, so it’s no wonder these guys are making waves.
If you’ve never heard Lionville before, to get a handle on their sound- particularly on the new record- go back to the mid to late 80’s, when keyboard heavy rock & roll with muscle-y guitars was at its zenith. In fact one of the songs here, Arrow Through The Heart, was written by Richard Marx, Bruce Gaitsch and Fee Waybill during the sessions for Marx’s hit 1989 album Repeat Offender. Melodic rock or AOR is a fair enough label for what’s going on here, but despite the high level of musicianship it would be disingenuous to call it ‘heavy’. Maybe rock flavored pop? Yeah- that fits way better.
Lars Safsund is a terrific singer, a solid pop vocalist not unlike Richard Marx and when allowed to shine, the guitars of Lionetti and Cusato bring some fire to the songs on So Close To Heaven. The dominant sound here is Caria’s keyboards and honestly, I’d enjoy this disc more if their roles were reversed; guitars out front with keyboards underneath providing some color and filling in occasional spaces. Having said that, listening to them fight for top billing on the title track at the end of the record is quite enjoyable.
While not exactly to my taste, I’d have to be deaf to not recognize the strength of the songwriting and musicianship on display here as well as the voice of Safsund. So Close To Heaven is a disc I’ll certainly be spending some more time with. https://www.facebook.com/LIONVILLEofficial/
HOT TRACKS: So Close To Heaven, Arrow Through My Heart, The World Is On Fire
SESSIONS VOLUME 2 The Wildroots (Wildroots Records) *****
The Wildroots follow their superb 2021 release Sessions Volume 1 with the sensibly and not surprisingly titled Sessions Volume 2. Many insanely talented musicians involved once again, including singer and band co-founder Victor Wainwright. A mixed bag of blues, roots rock, gospel and American roots music, these guys really have the goods.
Core members of The Wildroots include Victor Wainwright (keys, vocals) plus Stephen Dees (guitars. Bass, percussion, vocals) and Patricia Ann Dees (vocals, sax, piano, bass), with The Dees’ also producing once again. There are several band alumni and guests involved too, more than I can mention here. Having so many fingers in the pie could have been a problem, but for Volume 2 it just adds to the breadth and diversity of the material. The dominant vibe is definitely a joyful sort of blues, but there’s so much going on here why stick to one particular lane? What I said about Volume 1 last year applies to this new collection; “it’s one hell of a record, one of those discs that can really lift the darkness.” Late winter can be a problem for a lot of people, myself included, and this album makes getting up and at ‘er easier.
Musically speaking, Volume 2 is powerful medicine. While Victor is the main vocalist he is by no means the only one, with several others taking turns over the course of these 15 tracks. The 3 gals harmonizing on the vocals for That Mine Of Mine call to mind The McGuire Sisters with a bit of a Harlem twist, and Billy Livesay is featured on Working For My Car Blues, something many of us can relate to… it’ll take me another 3 & ½ years to finish paying for a car I shouldn’t have bought in the first place. C’est la vie.
The production on the new album is spot on, I love the way Volume 2 sounds. Like its predecessor this one is brimming with heart and soul, and as a listener it’s a real treat to just sit back and enjoy this master class in how it should be done. On most albums you can pick out a few tunes that catch your ear while you think of the rest as merely filler, but there isn’t a single track here that doesn’t lift you up and make you feel good. I have no doubt that Sessions Volume 2 will be judged one of the best albums of the year. This will be available in April but I’ll be sharing tracks here and there on my internet radio shows, so watch out. www.wildrootsrecords.com
HOT TRACKS: That Man Of Mine, I.O.U., I Feel Fine
LET’S STRAIGHTEN IT OUT! The Sully Band (Blu Elan/ Belly Up Records) *****
This is the debut album for San Diego’s Sully Band, led by Bob “Sully” Sullivan, a do-it-yourself entrepreneur, national radio & TV host and magnetic front man with a soulful voice. Let’s Straighten It Out! is an exuberant re-working of 10 classic soul and R&B rave-ups, many of which you’ll know, and it’s tons of fun to listen to.
Voted as “The Best Live Band” at the San Diego Music Awards in 2020, this ten piece outfit plays with groove and pizzazz. As I listened to the disc it reminded me of previous versions of the songs and how well the Sully renditions hold up against them. Hallelujah, I Love Her So was a Ray Charles number but Humble Pie did it too on their Rockin’ The Fillmore album- the first live record I ever bought. If You Love Me Like You Say is an Albert Collins tune that gets a New Orleans makeover while still holding on to its Chicago blues/rock cred.
Let’s Straighten It Out is an album of covers yes, but it doesn’t feel like it. There was a time in popular music when interpreting someone else’s songs was an important skill, and The Sully Band doesn’t just play and sing these numbers, they own them. Bob Sullivan is a gifted vocalist that makes you feel the lyrics when he sings them, and the playing on this disc by each of the 10 musicians is nothing less than stunning. The sound of the disc is rich and deep, thanks to Grammy winning producer Chris Goldsmith (Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper) and the musical direction of Grammy winning bassist James East, with the sessions taking place at Henson Studios (formerly A&M Studios) in Hollywood.
Somewhat unusual for a studio recording, Let’s Straighten It Out has the vibe, energy and sound of a live record, as if we’ve caught them in the middle of a run of shows at a swanky theatre. I already know and enjoy many of the songs themselves; Billy Preston would’ve loved how they handled Nothing From Nothing, and Dr. John would’ve dug what they did with When The Battle Is Over. I wanted to give this a 4 out of 5 rating because it IS a covers album after all, but it’s just SO damn good. Well chosen songs played with imagination and joy make Let’s Straighten It Out unforgettable. www.sullyband.com
HOT TRACKS: When The Battle Is Over, Nothing From Nothing, Let’s Straighten It Out
A TRIBUTE TO LED ZEPPELIN Beth Hart (Mascot/ Provogue) **** ½
I’ve been looking forward to this album with anticipation and trepidation. They’ve been trying to get Beth Hart to do this record for some time, and the unexpected Covid break finally gave her the time and impetus to take it on. A Tribute To Led Zeppelin hews closely to Zeppelin’s original arrangements and so contains no artistic surprises or particular revelations as she treads on holy ground, but these versions are quite satisfying.
Tribute albums typically contain contributions from several different artists and bands, but A Tribute To Led Zeppelin benefits from its singularity of vision. Beth, producer/ guitarist Rob Cavallo and the other musicians involved opt for faithful interpretations of 9 Zeppelin standards- 11 if you include the medleys of Dancing Days/ When The Levee Breaks and No Quarter/ Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. Plus, if anyone can give Robert Plant as a singer in his prime a run for his money, it’s Beth Hart.
In playing these songs so close to the originals I imagine the band was intimidated by the prospect of being compared to Page, Jones and Bonham, but they dig in to play hard and well. A Tribute To Led Zeppelin is fleshed out with additional orchestration by David Campbell not found on your Zep records, often harmonizing with guitar riffs, and punchy horn stabs to mark musical changes. It’s pretty cool.
Of course the main reason we’re listening to this album is it’s Beth Hart. A passionate singer of frightening intensity, her voice is suited to the material. Her phrasing and sense of rhythm sets her performances apart from Plant’s originals, along with the aforementioned added orchestrations. A particularly highlight is her whisper-to-a-roar treatment of the album closer The Rain Song, my favorite on the whole album.
From A Whole Lotta Love at the beginning to The Rain Song at the other end, Beth Hart re-interprets a portion of rock’s most sacred canon without losing her identity as a singer. In lesser hands A Tribute To Led Zeppelin would’ve been at best a mild curiosity, but Hart and her cohorts have turned this into an artistic triumph. I’d be curious to find out how John Paul, Robert and Jimmy feel about how their music has been treated here. www.bethhart.com
HOT TRACKS: The Rain Song, No Quarter/Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, The Crunge
20 YEARS Mecca (Frontiers) ****
It’s funny that this band has been around for 20 years yet this is the first I’ve heard of them. 20 Years is a 3 disc set encompassing all 3 albums by this band started by singer Joe Vana; Mecca (2002), Undeniable (2011) and III (2016).. The genre is “AOR Rock”, a staple of radio since the 80’s and the songs are bright, melodic and catchy- think Survivor meets Toto. I’m enjoying this quite a bit.
At the age of 13, a chance meeting with Survivor’s Jim Peterik changed Joe Vana’s life. Jim taught him everything he knew about music and the music business. When Joe was 28 he discovered his voice, and became Peterik’s in-house demo singer for years. Joe and Jim created a band called Project Voyager, which eventually morphed into Mecca.
Mecca’s lineup has a rather impressive pedigree; aside from Joe Vana on vocals we also have Fergie Frederiksen (ex-Toto) on vocals, Mike Aquino on guitars, Jimmy Nichols on keyboards, Shannon Forest (Toto) on drums and ex-Toto bassist David Hungate; that’s a lot of talent jammed into one band. Maybe the heyday of this kind of music has come and gone, but an argument can be made for great songwriting and tight, well rounded musicianship always being in style and making 20 Years worth the price of admission.
This set is an excellent introduction for the uninitiated because we get all 3 albums at once, and fans of Mecca will no doubt enjoy the stroll down memory lane. Toto guitarist Steve Lukather is enthusiastic, not just because a couple of band mates were involved, but because he likes well crafted songs lifted by excellent musicianship. “Great songs, great playing from everyone” he said when III was released in 2016. “Creative arrangements throughout and I love the synth/ keyboard work. Great sounds and killer guitars… well f**king done!” As the leader of Toto, Steve knows his stuff.
20 Years is a lot to take in at one sitting, so perhaps taking the albums proper one at a time might be the best way to digest this package but if you’re already familiar with the band that will hardly be necessary, and fans will appreciate the bonus tracks on each disc. The involvement of musicians from Toto give the music a certain Toto-ness, melodic rock & roll that’s maybe a bit too clean for those that turn their nose up at AOR in general, but I like this. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Vana has an incredible voice. These albums are re-discovered gems that deserve… hell, NEED to be heard again. https://www.facebook.com/joe.k.vana
DISC 1: Silence Of The Heart
DISC 2: Life’s Too Short
DISC 3: Alone
YOU GOOD?! Walk That Walk (independent) *****
Here are the modern blues vibes of Chicago and Detroit by way of Walk That Walk. You Good?! is their 6th album since forming in 1992, and it’s no wonder they’re at the top of Boston’s explosive blues scene. They really bring it, and leave everything on the table.
Having played 800+ shows over the years, they also served as the New England touring band for Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Famers Bo Diddley and Johnnie Johnson from Chuck Berry’s band as well as playing with Chicago blues harmonica ace Carey Bell. WTW has the two most important ingredients for making good blues; chops and attitude. Front man Poppa C. DeSnyder, who also wrote these songs and produced the album, has a husky growl that sounds like it comes from the streets of Chicago’s lower east side. The rest of the band- Jon “Cutlet” Reese on bass, James “Stickman” Waldron on harp and Alan Waters on drums- lay down some greasy grooves that you can wiggle to all night. Plus, a number of special guests pitch in to take You Good that much higher.
There is something primal and elemental about the blues, and Walk That Walk has definitely tapped into that magic- or should I say voodoo? They talk about playing the ‘dancin’ blues’ and that’s what this record is all about… music that makes you move as well as feel. Founder, singer and guitarist DeSnyder is a Detroit native, so it’s not surprising to feel some funk undercurrent in some of these tunes. So many different vibes throughout… a touch of Motown here, some New Orleans there, which might remind you a bit of Blues Traveler. WTW even take us to the country on Country Boy Strong with a touch of banjo (originally an African instrument), an enjoyable left turn.
The songs on You Good feel like the soundtrack to a great party and like they were written with the stage in mind. Even a talking blues like All Kinds Of Alcohol grabs your attention and holds it. As Poppa C. notes, “If you’re not passionate and high energy when you perform, people will head for the exits.” Near as I can tell after a few spins, the only reason people at a Walk That Walk gig would be near an exit is there’s nowhere else to stand. Knowledge and experience counts when it comes to playing the blues, and You Good?! is a party you definitely want in on. www.walkthatwalk.com
HOT TRACKS: Detroit Rumble, All Kinds Of Alcohol, Country Boy Strong