O SUN O MOON Bruce Cockburn (True North) *****+
“Time takes its toll, but in my soul I’m on a roll”. That’s the spirit that inhabits Bruce Cockburn’s 38th record O Sun O Moon. Nearing the age of 78 he’s aware of the passage of time and yet optimism moves him still. This is a stripped down disc even by his standard, highlighting exquisite fingerstyle guitar playing and deep, spiritual lyrical observations given even more depth by a gently weathered voice. O Sun O Moon is a delicate pleasure.
Recorded in Nashville with Cockburn’s longtime producer Colin Linden, O Sun O Moon demonstrates a newfound simplicity and clarity as Bruce turns to more spiritual matters than topical concerns for the most part. “I think it’s a product of age to a certain extent” he says, “and seeing the approaching horizon.” With a smile Bruce notes “I think these are exactly the kind of songs that an old guy writes.” They look outward on occasion too; To Keep The World We Know, written with and including the voice of Susan Aglukark, addresses global warming.
Much of this album was written on a family holiday in Maui. When I first saw the song title Colin Went Down To The Water I figured it was about Colin Linden, but no- it’s a friend who drowned. Cockburn says “(It was) someone I knew from San Francisco who’d moved to Maui. It was tragic and quite surreal because I got a voicemail message from him when I was in Maui saying ‘Welcome to paradise’, and then found out afterward that he’d died.” The title cut relates to a powerful dream Bruce says he had about making the journey to heaven. “I see myself silhouetted on a ridge with this jar of blood, pouring it on the soil (and) it wasn’t scary at all.” Listening- really listening- to O Sun O Moon is like taking a hike through a place you know and yet aren’t completely familiar with… it leaves you exhausted and fulfilled.
The musicianship is, of course, exceptional. The disc includes the work of Colin Linden on guitar, Janice Powers on keyboards and Gary Craig on drums plus a number of special guests like violinist Jenny Scheinman and vocals from The McCrary Sisters, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller. Unlike other artists content to fall back on their greatest hits, Bruce keeps creating vital, poignant music. “Time takes its toll” he observes, “(but) I just don’t want to ever keep doing the same thing. I’m grateful that I can keep doing anything at this point.”
I’ve taken many of these songs to heart already but this line from When The Spirit Walks In The Room has really stayed with me; “you’re a thread upon the loom/ when the spirit walks in the room”. It’s impossible to overstate how much I enjoy O Sun O Moon.
HOT TRACKS: On A Roll, When The Spirit Walks In The Room, O Sun by Day O Moon By Night
THIS IS US Lee O’Nell Blues Gang (independent) ****
Music is a universal language, and so within that the blues is too. In the last 3 decades I’ve written about blues bands from all over the planet, and today we stop off in France to consider the second album from Lee O’Nell Blues Gang. This Is Us is the successful musical alchemy of rock, pop and blues. Driven by the guitar work of Lionel Wernert and deepened by the sultry vocals of Gipsy Bacuet, this is a spirited blues excursion worthy of consideration. Though released last September it has just come to my attention, and I’m glad it has.
This Is Us can be best characterized as blues flavored rock & roll, with a pop-like attention to hooks and melodies. Lionel’s guitar playing is a good portion of the meat here as his influences make themselves known; Albert King, Peter Green and Joe Bonamassa for sure, and in the Deep Purple-ish Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Happy you may even find yourselves thinking of Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord. It’s an impressive blend, rendered even more powerful by Gipsy’s vocals which are a mix of Sarah Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt and Pat Benatar. The other members of the band (The Blues Gang) are quite the vibe masters, laying down soft, rockin’ or sticky grooves as the occasion calls for. I’d add jazz and soul to this beguiling mixture as well.
Co-produced by Wernert and Fred Chapellier, This Is Us has a distinct night club feel that is almost mesmerizing, particularly on a slinky cut like When You Were A Child with Lionel’s relaxed and fluid guitar lines and Gipsy’s playfully sexy voice. The disc cuts a fairly wide swath within the confines of the blues genre; from 50’s swing to 70’s rock and all points in between almost effortlessly… the lights are down low and nobody wants to go home just yet. It’s a vintage feel with a modern twist that you’ll find irresistible.
This Is Us makes friends with you quite effortlessly and when the last song is over (Just Need A Prayer) you’ll want to pour another glass of wine and listen again- trust me, I know.
HOT TRACKS: When You Were A Child, Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Happy, Let The Good Times Roll
LIVE FROM THE MAPLE LEAF The Rumble ft. Chief Joseph Boudreaux Jr. (The Rumble Band LLC) ****+
This is the debut for a group of six Grammy nominated New Orleans musicians uniting under the name The Rumble. Live From The Maple Leaf is a deliriously excellent blast of New Orleans funk ‘n’ soul that will have ‘em dancing in the aisles.
On Mardi Gras morning as the colorfully bedecked Indians dance down the street, the first thing you hear when they make their way toward you is the back line known as “the rumble”. The Rumble (the group) fuses iconic New Orleans funk in the vein of The Meters and The Neville brothers with lively brass and the splendor of the Black Masking carnival tradition. The group pays homage to trailblazers like Wild Magnolias and Golden Eagles, both of which featured the vocals of Boudreaux’s father Monk, but the members of The Rumble take turns at the mic here.
Live From The Maple Leaf, recorded at the iconic bar, reflects 30+ years of New Orleans history, capturing the beating heart of a city often reduced to stereotypes and outdated assumptions. It draws on the vibrant subcultures of the city ranging from brass bands to contemporary R&B, funk, hip-hop and more. This album sounds like the best party that ever was, and I’ll bet this gig was close to being just that. It sounds and feels like a celebration of life as The Rumble come across as deeply spiritual tool. After all, they’re fighting to preserve the legacies and traditions of the community from which they come.
If you’ve never been to New Orleans Live From The Maple Leaf will make you want to go. Listening to this disc is a joyful, affirming experience… more funk than an old white guy like me should be able to handle but it had me leaving my troubles at the door, even if just for a little while. That alone makes it worth the price of admission- this is one of those albums that will be going with you everywhere.
HOT TRACKS: Up Until The Morning, Golden Crown, My People
CONNECTIONS Bruce Katz Band (Dancing Rooster Records) ****+
A brand new album here from a legendary keyboard player and his band of merry men. Connections explores the, er, ‘connections’ between blues, New Orleans R&B, jam blues, soul/jazz and blues rock. It’s a heady, soulful mix from the band led by a man John Hammond called “… as good as it gets. One of the greatest keyboard artists I’ve ever heard.”
If you’re not immediately familiar with Katz, he was a longtime member of Gregg Allman’s band and a member of other Allman Brother “family bands” too. Through the 10 originals here– a mix of instrumental and vocal cuts- the Hammond B3 gets a sweaty workout. New members of the band include drummer Liviu Pop and guitarist Aaron Liberman, an expressive singer too that brings a gospel zeal to the mic, also contributing 2 songs to the record,
Connections was recorded at Capricorn in Macon, Georgia, the studio where The Allman Brothers and so many other great artists were captured. It seems an inspired choice, and the disc continues that studio’s legacy. This isn’t so much southern rock as it is southern soul, the sort of music makes you think and want to get up and move at the same time. Comments in general about Katz by Allman Brothers keyboardist and Rolling Stones musical director Chuck Leavell easily apply to Connections; “(he) has a groove that is as deep as the Grand Canyon and as wide as The Amazon. Whether on piano or Hammond he tears it up and rocks it out.”
Although this is completely different stuff Connections moves me in a similar way to Rolf Kent’s jazz score for the movie Sideways, or maybe Translucent Blues by Ray Manzarek & Roy Rogers. It’s easy to appreciate the skill of the musicians involved but the real magic happens when you just listen…close your eyes and allow yourself to just feel it. Connections is the kind of wave you can ride all day; in fact I recommend doing just that.
HOT TRACKS: Right Here Right Now, Morning On Basin Street, What I Feel
A DAY BY THE BAY Backtrack Blues Band (Gulf Coast Records) *****
There’s something powerful about live blues that you won’t find in studio recordings. Backtrack Blues Band’s debut album for Gulf Coast Records, A Day By The Bay, is a case in point. Recorded live at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival on April 10th, 2022, this disc crackles with energy and vitality. For any blues fanatic this is the very definition of irresistible.
Founded in 1980, BTBB today consists of Sonny Charles on harp and vocals, Kid Royal on lead guitar and vocals, Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums and Stick Davis on bass. On larger shows like this festival gig they’re joined onstage by Wayne Sharp on B3 organ and The Backtrack Angels (Latonya Oliver, Dana Merriwether) on backing vocals. “A Day By the Bay captures the energy and excitement of the band performing live at a major festival” says Sonny Charles. “We think blues music is best when it’s experienced live. This album represents our decades of performing together, and the band’s longevity is reflected in the strong guitar, harp and B3 organ that really shine here.”
The group’s members are serious students of the blues and it shows in the timbre of the performances. They list Little Walter, Albert King Ronnie Earl, Paul Butterfield and Sonny Boy Williamson as influences, and you can really feel that as these Florida boys lean into some seriously excellent Chicago style blues. The only cover song here is Jimmy Reed’s Natural Born Lover with Kid Royal contributing two and Sonny Charles the remainder of the tracks. The groove is as wide as Route 66 (or Highway 41 if you prefer) and you can practically feel the sunshine as they settle in to some sweet playing and singing that can make anyone move.
It’s no accident that this band has been around for over 40 years; combined these musicians have garnered a Grammy, two Blues Music Awards, a Keeping The Blues Alive Award, and three Tampa Bay Music Awards for “best blues band”. It’s no secret that as a blues artist (or band) gets deeper into their career that the music itself becomes deeper and richer, and I submit A Day By The Bay as Exhibit A. Put this baby on and play it LOUD.
HOT TRACKS: Times Is Hard, Best Friend’s Grave, Rich Man Blues
CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW
COME TASTE THE BAND Deep Purple (Purple Records) RELEASED: Nov.7th, 1975
This is the 3rd Deep Purple record to include David Coverdale at the mic and Glenn Hughes on bass & vocals. It’s also the first without Ritchie Blackmore, who had a hissy when the band refused to cover the song Black Sheep Of The Family. Ritchie recorded it with Ronnie James Dio and his band Elf, after which they formed Rainbow. For many fans Come Taste The Band isn’t a proper Deep Purple record, and they may have a point… but it’s still one hell of an album.
Aside from the disagreement over Black Sheep Blackmore was less than thrilled with the soul and funk influences of Coverdale and Hughes, derisively referring to it as “shoe shine music”. His replacement was James Gang guitarist Tommy Bolin, a very different but still exciting player. Come Taste The Band sold moderately well upon release, reaching #19 on the UK charts and #43 in America. The songs are funkier than anything the band had done before which gave fans pause- even me at the time- but in recent years the album has benefitted from critical reappraisal based on its own merits instead of comparing it to Purple’s catalog. According to Wikipedia the late Jon Lord said “listening to it now it’s a surprisingly good album. The worst thing you can say about it is that, in most people’s opinion, it’s not a Deep Purple album.”
Even with Bolin in place of Blackmore, I prefer Come Taste The Band to Stormbringer from the previous year. This disc shows the band stretching creatively in some surprising ways, backing away somewhat from the hard rock they were built on in favor of more adventurous fare. Sure songs like Love Child were prototypical Purple rockers but with funk running gear, while tracks like You Keep On Moving and This Time Around were total departures.
For those with scorecards this lineup is referred to as “Mark IV”, which is a lot of change in the then 7-ish years of Purple’s recording life. The band was always volatile but this time they reached the breaking point with Hughes and Bolin’s raging drug problems. It would take Glenn many years to find sobriety but Tommy was not so lucky- he died from a drug overdose just over a year later after this record. The band then broke up for 8 years..
It took me decades to consider Come Taste The Band apart from the Deep Purple albums that came before but once I was able to do that a tasty, inventive and brave record appeared… it seems that many others have had that experience too.
HOT TRACKS: Gettin’ Tighter, Comin’ Home, You Keep On Moving