EMOTIONAL GANGSTER Popa Chubby (Dixiefrog Records) *****+
I’ve been listening to Popa Chubby since Y2K and I’m fairly confident in saying that Emotional Gangster is THE album of his career; with 30+ records to his name, that’s saying something. This is rock & roll based blues with guts and soul.
Every Popa Chubby disc is unforgettable experience and that’s the case again with Emotional Gangster. As the title implies we get to see a side of the Chubster that hasn’t been so noticeable before. I didn’t expect the vulnerability of songs like Fly Away, a father’s lament about watching his daughter leave the nest, or Equal Opportunity about women’s rights. Why You Wanna Make War is self explanatory. He also recorded that song in French as a nod to his many fans in France.
As with 2021’s excellent Tinfoil Hat, Brooklyn’s Popa Chubby (Ted Horowtiz) used the pandemic downtime to turn up his amps to create this audacious new record in his Hudson Valley studio, once again producing and playing most of the instruments himself. His guitar tone is instantly recognizable, and over the years he’s become one of my favourite slide players. Popa is a large man as you can tell by the photo on the cd cover accompanying this review, and he throws every ounce of himself into the hard charging riffs and blistering solos- you’ll have to towel off the sweat after listening.
Emotional Gangster is 12 tracks, 10 originals plus scorching remakes of Hoochie Coochie Man and Dust My Broom, including the aforementioned French and English versions of Why You Wanna Make War and the instrumental Master IP that finishes off the disc. In their review Rolling Stone Magazine says EG is “like a summit meeting between BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan”, which speaks to the finesse and force with which Popa plays. In his website bio Chubby describes his style as “The Stooges meet Buddy Guy, Motorhead meets Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix meets Robert Johnson” and he has a point. Who WOULDN’T want to listen to that?
While the blues standards here are hot the real stars are the original tracks. PC’s social conscience is on display with Emotional Gangster, he’s not afraid to let it all hang out both lyrically and musically. It’s like he grabbed his Strat with his big, meaty paws and shouted “Let’s fucking GO!!” In over 30 years of writing album reviews I’ve heard lots of cool things but rarely has an album excited me as much as Emotional Gangster does. www.popachubby.com
HOT TRACKS: Why you Wanna Make War, I’m The Dog, New Way Of Walking, Fly Away
ANGEL’S 11 II Angel Forrest (Ad Litteram) *****
This is Angel Forrest’s 11th album overall, and it’s a stunner. Angel’s 11 II is a sequel of sorts to 2016’s Angel’s 11, where she paired up with 11 of Canada’s best guitar players. To say that album was a success is an understatement; it won Angel producer and recording of the year, songwriter as well as female vocalist of the year. For II she teams up with 11 of her favorite Canadian singers and the results are riveting.
The challenge for Ms. Forrest here was to write 11 songs in duo form to fit each vocalist’s voice and style as well as words they can stand by and believe in. The result is a collection of songs more wide ranging stylistically than her previous blues-centric records. Thematically, II is a very uplifting listen inspired by these pandemic times. . “It is an album written from the heart” Angel says. “A first hand witness of what happens when your world turns upside down, our dreams, our habits, our children, our elderly, our regrets, our choices and our situations. It is about finding a positive to embrace and relay to others that we must be strong. We must believe, be strong, and somehow thrive full-heartedly… a new beginning together.” It’s a record with a good heart.
Angel Forrest has quite the cast of duet partners on the new album including Brandon Isaak, Crystal Shawanda, Dawn Tyler Watson and Harry Manx, singers whose voices mix very well with hers. There’s more of a country flavor both overt and implied than I was expecting, but that just makes II that much more refreshing and fun to take in. The disc is also well produced, as have been the other 4 records of hers that I’m familiar with. These sound like the kind of songs you might hear in your average bar on a Friday night, as opposed to some skuzzy blues dive on the wrong side of the tracks.
Fans of Angel Forrest’s hard line blues stuff might be surprised by the somewhat chicken fried direction she takes with II, but I’m a fan of artists that aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of expectation. This disc does just that, with excellent taste. Plus, it sounds like everyone was having a pantload of fun- it feels good to be next to that. Exuberant, well thought out, well performed, exciting; that’s Angel’s 11 II. www.angelforrest.ca
HOT TRACKS: Everything Changes (feat. Wellbad), Hope (feat. Crystal Shawanda), Better Side (feat. Reney Ray)
GONE, LONG GONE Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music) *****
“Every cloud has a silver lining”, or so the old adage goes. That cloud is, of course, the pandemic. Like so many other artists Steve Dawson put the enforced downtime to good
use, but don’t mistake this for ‘just another Covid album’, these songs have a life of their own that will last long after our memories of the last couple of years have faded. He used the time on his hands to work on a large volume of music that might not have seen the light of day otherwise. Even while working remotely with other artists from his Nashville studio, Dawson came up with enough material for 3 separate and distinct solo albums, all of which will see the light of day this year. Gone Long Gone is the first of these, and it’s a rootsy, occasionally haunting, beautifully realized piece of work.
As an in demand sideman, Steve mastered the art of playing in the background ages ago. As his first album since 2016’s Solid States & Loose Ends, this one has him up front and the centre of the action. His gentle, unassuming vocals float in a masterful mix of superbly talented roots musicians, his skill as an excellent producer in the genre fully apparent as well. GLG is the first time Dawson has collaborated on the writing process with another artist. He’d previously found that way of working uncomfortable, but once he started exchanging ideas with Alberta’s Matt Patershuk everything just started to flow.
Steve Dawson is a Juno Award winning musician and producer so the fact that this album sounds so wonderful is hardly a surprise. His band here includes Jeremy Holmes on bass, with Gary Craig and Jay Bellerose divvying up the drumming while Kevin McKendree and Chris Gestrin handled keyboards. Of course, a number of special guests pitched in on the fun too, all beautifully recorded. This is largely acoustic roots music with a bit of a country overlay- not unexpected for a guy working out of Nashville- but there are some tasty surprises too. There’s a relaxed yet spirited cover of When I Was Younger that I remember Rod Stewart singing once upon a time, and it wouldn’t be a Steve Dawson album without at least one instrumental… so he gives us Kulaniapia Waltz, a Hawaiian string number that serves as a nice change of pace. Steve’s wonderful finger picking is on display on Cicada Sanctuary, which feels like just the thing to throw on when you’ve just come home from the rat race and need to peel yourself off the ceiling.
Gone Long Gone is as thought-provoking as it is relaxing, like some of Bruce Cockburn’s recent work. At a time when the world seems to be sliding toward Hell, this disc serves as a reminder that there are still good and beautiful things in the world. www.stevedawson.ca
HOT TRACKS: Gone Long Gone, Kulaniapia Waltz, Time Has Made A Fool Out Of Me, Cicada Sanctuary
TRUTH Tim Gartland (self released) ******
A brand new album from harmonica player/ songwriter/ singer Tim Gartland is cause for celebration. With a voice that sounds like Delbert McClinton’s dad and a way with the blues you can’t help but sit up and take notice, Truth is a smoky, groovin’ blues delight of casual excellence.
With spirited harp work that recalls Little Walter and a deep voice full of feeling, Tim Gartland has really delivered the goods. Frank-John Hadley of DownBeat Magazine had it exactly right when he said Tim “never rests musically, striving for reconciliation of happiness and heartbreak at his own measured pace” which describes exactly how Truth, his 5th album, feels. This isn’t strictly the blues, it’s more of a shape shifter within the confines of roots music. These 12 songs were recorded at The Rock House in Franklin, Tennessee in just 2 days to capture the intimate and natural sound of a group of talented musicians creating music in a terrific sounding live room.
That group of talented musicians making Truth the gem that it is includes Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton, Brian Setzer) on keys and rhythm guitar, Ken Blevins (John Hiatt) on drums, Steve Mackey (Delbert McClinton, Wallflowers) on bass, Robert Frahm (Blues Warriors) on guitar, Ray Desilvis on acoustic slide and background vocals, Bryan Brock on percussion and Wendy Moten (NBC’s The Voice) on essential background vocals. I’m not sure what the relationships are between all these people, but they play and sing like they’ve been doing it together for years.
‘Organic’ is an overused term but it fits Truth like a snug pair of Levis. This is the kind of beauty you create when you get everyone in the room playing together instead trying to assemble a record like an overly complicated jigsaw puzzle, it’s music that you can hear as well as feel. Songs like the Stones-ish opener Don’t Mess With My Heart or the vintage R&B feeling Cloudy With A Chance Of The Blues don’t need a thesaurus to decipher, but that’s okay. If blues and roots music is to remain relevant in today’s world, the songs have to take on contemporary subject matter. “The blues is essentially a genre in which the singer is having a cathartic experience” Tim notes. “If you write about themes that are meaningful to your experience, you will create something new.”
Aside from roots ‘n’ blues, Truth offers up a little bit of country soul, but then that’s the blues for white people isn’t it? Once you throw this disc on you’ll have a tough time turning to something else… trust me. www.timgartland.com
HOT TRACKS: Don’t Mess With My Heart, Cloudy With A Chance Of The Blues, Love Knocks Once
DURTY POOL Reilly (bandcamp) ***+
Ever hear of a Celtic rock band? Up until getting this from singer/ guitarist Michael Tierney, me either. Reilly combines elements of rock & roll enthusiasm with Celtic instrumentation to throw one hell of a party. Durty Pool is their brand new album, and after a spin you’ll wish you’d had this for St. Patty’s Day.
Reilly hails from Wisconsin and has accumulated quite a reputation as an interactive get-out-of-your-chair-and-have-some-fun live act. Their Bandcamp page describes their sound as “foot stomping Irish music and contemporary American/ Celtic rock”, and it’s certainly a curious and entertaining blend. They adapt Celtic Music for consumption by an American rock audience, an eclectic approach that sets them apart from other acts on the admittedly fatigued Celtic scene, probably the kick in the pants needed as society begins to open back up after the 2 year shut down.
The band consists of singer & multi-instrumentalist Michael Tinker Tierney, singer/ bassist Joe Neumann, drummer Lyle Bortkowski, plus Peter Eisenhauer on fiddle and accordion. When I first put Durty Pool on, it’s Celtic-ness had me remembering my folks’ Irish Rovers records from way back when. This disc has that sense of fun, but it doesn’t stop there. Combining that vibe with more modern rock and pop conceits feels like a savvy move, but would fans of either genre balk at this unexpected combination? Not a question I can answer directly, but after spending some time with Durty Pool I can only imagine how much fun these guys would be to catch live, especially with a belly full of beer. And perhaps best of all, it sounds like they’re having a blast. They don’t quite have the vocal sophistication of Newfoundland’s Irish Descendants but they’re pretty damn good around the mic.
Celtic songs and sentimentality plus melodies with a rock beat might be the best way to describe Durty Pool- hell, they even manage to throw a different spin on Black Velvet Band. On paper it appears to be an unlikely combination, but when you listen to the album you’ll think “damn, that actually works.” Their stuff has been heard nationally on programs such as “Good Morning Ireland”, “Blarney On The Air” and “Paddyrock” internet radio, so maybe I’m the last one to the party. This isn’t an album I’ll listen to every day, but if the wife and I throw a party or I’m just in the mood for something a tad unusual, Reilly’s Durty Pool will definitely get the nod. https://reillyrocks.bandcamp.com/album/durty-pool
HOT TRACKS: The Hunting Dogs, Whiskey Grease, Black Velvet Band
ONE NOTE SYMPHONY- LIVE IN TEL AVIV Alan Parsons (Frontiers) ***
Here is another meticulous and ambitious live recording from Alan Parsons. Recorded on the tour for his first studio album in 15 years, 2019’s The Secret, One Note Symphony is two discs of well known classic Parsons fare along with some engaging surprises. Having the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra along for the ride gives the songs even more depth in a live setting. No studio tricks, just great musicians getting the job done.
Parsons has been around the music biz forever, earning his first album credit on The Beatles’ Abbey Road , on his way to becoming a well respected studio engineer working with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Hollies, Pink Floyd and Al Stewart. His band, The Alan Parsons Project, had several hits in the 80’s before calling it a day at the end of that decade. I found their music a bit soft and ‘hoity toity’ as I’m not generally a fan of synthesizer music, but I do have 1980’s Turn Of A Friendly Card in my collection. Time was a big hit from the record but the instrumental The Gold Bug is my favorite track, and one of the first songs I learned on bass.
Alan Parsons and his band had played in Tel Aviv 3 times previously- 2010, 2015, 2017- and were thrilled to return. “We had been booked to play there with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and I thought it might be a great opportunity to record the show” Parsons says, “(and) we are very proud of the final result.” Your average live album by any band is usually their greatest hits, but he saw this show as a differently. “Whenever I have the opportunity to play with a symphony orchestra, I always try to incorporate songs into the set list that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform live” Alan notes, “Silence and I from the Eye In The Sky album for example. We also took advantage of this opportunity to play The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from our latest studio album. It’s a new version of a well known classical piece that originally appeared in the movie Fantasia.”
While One Note Symphony includes songs I know like Time, Games People Play and Eye In the Sky, I am not familiar with most of them. Listening to this two disc performance is like spending the evening at the symphony, and how that thought strikes you is a good indication of how you will feel about lending an ear here. Rock & roll has been performed with symphonies before by Deep Purple, Metallica and Kiss, but this is far less garish. One Note Symphony is more of a sophisticated pop/ classical collision, perhaps akin to Steely Dan meets The London Symphony, and the crowd is clearly into it.
While Alan Parsons doesn’t fit squarely in my wheelhouse, he’s sitting on the bench right outside the door. I can always appreciate great playing and by God this album is full of it. I won’t dance to One Note Symphony but I enjoyed listening nonetheless. This will be fine company as I read by the firelight on the cold nights yet to come before spring actually ears its beautiful head here in northern Alberta. www.alanparsons.com
- DISC 1: Time, Luciferama
- DISC 2: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Sirius/Eye In The Sky