STILL HERE Ben Levin (VizzTone) ****
Ben Levin is an old soul. Playing blues piano well beyond his 21 years, Still Here sounds vintage and fresh at the same time. There’s a swing and a bounce to this batch of songs- originals and covers- that is irresistible.
Ben has the unique advantage of bringing his youthful fire to this vintage-style blues. The originals on Still Here were written by Ben and his father, guitarist Aron Levin. As Bob Margolin says in the liner notes those tunes along with the well chosen covers, they “reflect the music and sound of Cincinnati’s historic King Records along with what’s in their hearts today.”
When it comes to the blues I’m a guitar man and I like a well blown harp too but rolling, barrelhouse blues calls for a spirited tickling of the ivories, and that’s just what Ben delivers. As a piano player his influences are all over the map, geographically speaking; Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis… from Chicago, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray… and from Cincinnati, Big Joe Duskin. Putting Still Here on is like stepping back in time, walking through the doors of some shit-hot blues club on the lower East side in the 40’s or 50’s. The joint is packed, the air is thick with cigarette and cigar smoke, people are laughing as they enjoy a stiff belt of whiskey and get to dancing the night away. On a small bandstand in the corner is a 21 year old kid hammering away on an old upright while his dad plays guitar. In between numbers you can hear a small cadre of grizzled old bluesmen standing at the bar saying “Damn! That kid is good!”
Still Here was recorded May 24th and 25th of this year in Newport Kentucky with Ben on piano and vocals, his dad Aron on guitar, Chris Douglas on bass and Oscar Bernal on drums, engineered and co-produced by Matt Hueneman, along with the Levins. This is the relaxed sound of 4 expert musicians playing off each other to create an absorbing musical experience. At the end of his liner notes Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters’ old guitar player, looks back on his time with Muddy and Big Joe Duskin and says it all in the very last line; “Missing those good times, I couldn’t imagine that Old School magic returning, yet here’s Ben Levin.” This is one of those records that truly does belong in every blues fan’s music collection. www.benlevinpiano.com
BEST TRACKS: I Can’t Stop It, Please Let Me Get One Word In, I Wonder What’s The Matter
RAISE THE ROOF Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (Rounder Records) *****+
At long last, the follow-up to 2007’s amazing (and hugely successful) Raising Sand. With Raise The Roof, completed in 2019 shortly before the world shut down, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss take their musical intimacy a step further.
Robert and Alison have been busy with their own careers but they kept in touch and exchanged songs occasionally with an eye toward another record. They’re both aware that the Grammy winning Raising Sand was a tough act to follow, but they knew that reconvening was always in the cards. “It would have been folly if we didn’t keep going” Robert observes. “We did join up and consider songs, try to work out some ideas, but then somebody would ask if I wanted to take my band to the Arctic Circle- OK, I’ll do that, call you back Alison!” he chuckles. Of Raise The Roof “We wanted it to move” Alison says. “We brought other people in, other personalities within the band and coming back together again in the studio brought a new intimacy to the harmonies.”
T Bone Burnett is back as producer, his understanding of blues and bluegrass making him the perfect man for the job, creating arrangements even more evocative, spare and hypnotic than the last album. The songs on Raise The Roof come from writers as diverse as Merle Haggard (Going Where The Lonely Go), Bert Jansch- a favorite of Plant’s from his childhood- and English folk singer Annie Briggs. “Working with Robert and T Bone is always a great education in musical history” Alison notes.
To say Raising Sand was unexpected is an understatement. “When we started, Robert had said that if it didn’t work, we’d try it for three days and say goodbye” Alison recalls. Obviously, it worked… but with their own careers and the success of that album to contend with came more pressure. Once they got rolling, though, the recordings felt “very natural, very easy- and really fun” Krauss notes. The first time together they were in unexplored territory, and this time the familiarity of having worked together before brought an ease, comfort and trust with each other that you can feel.
If you liked Raising Sand- and lots of people did as it went platinum and won that Grammy- you’re going to love Raise The Roof. Robert and Alison are essentially on the same journey but a little further down the road, and no longer strangers…this is gorgeous. https://rounder.com/release/raise-the-roof/
BEST TRACKS: Quattro (World Drifts In), High And Lonesome, Can’t Let Go
STOMPING GROUND Dion (KTBA Records) ****
2020’s Blues With Friends was such a critical, commercial and artistic success that a follow-up was inevitable. Like its predecessor, Stomping Ground pairs Dion with a number of blues luminaries like Clapton and Billy Gibbons. The result is a collection of grooving and occasionally stomping blues that you’ll want to hear again and again.
I’ve been into Dion’s blues stuff for a few years now, ever since finding 2011’s Tankful Of Blues at a used music place while visiting my sons in Kamloops. Dion teams up once again with producer Wayne Hood and longtime songwriting partner Mike Aqulina for Stomping Ground, and the results are quite lively. Dion, known for hits like Runaround Sue, The Wanderer and Abraham, Martin & John finds himself in the company of legendary players like those mentioned above plus Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, Keb’ Mo’ and Sonny Landreth, but the magic of this record is how their playing compliments rather than overshadows their host, no doubt the result of their restraint and the management of Wayne Hood on the sessions. Such casting can be seen as a marketing stunt, often with predictably shaky results, but not here. Without exception you can hear and feel Dion and each of his guests give themselves to the songs with fine results. Plenty of New York attitude in these here grooves.
There are 3 male/ female vocal duets on Stomping Ground, any of which could be a hit, including Angel In The Alleyways with Patti Scialfa and I’ve Been Watching with Rickie Lee Jones. Dion’s take on the Jimi Hendrix classic Red House with Keb’ Mo’ is quite different from the original, compelling without messing too much with the original, but I wouldn’t mind if the track was a couple of minutes longer- just sayin’.
In a You Tube interview Dion says that he’s been into the blues all along, and even said that Runaround Sue could be seen as a blues. He’s got the right stuff in his veins and, at the age of 82 he still has that artistic fire in his belly to create compelling music, along with the talent to do so. Stomping Ground is a very satisfying next step in a still evolving career. Now excuse me while I go grab a coffee and listen to this again. www.diondimucci.com
BEST TRACKS: Dancing Girl (w/ Mark Knopfler), Angel In The Alleyways (w/ Patti Scialfa), Hey Diddle Diddle (w/ G.E. Smith), Red House (w/ Keb’ Mo’)
THE TEARS OF HERCULES Rod Stewart (Warner) ****
There comes a time in every artist’s career when it becomes obvious that they’re treading water and should maybe hang it up. For Rod Stewart, I thought that time had come in the first decade of the Y2K’s when he started releasing those American Songbook albums; he was coasting, just recording classic songs. Then when nobody was paying attention he found his muse again and started releasing original stuff like 2013’s Time, a quite excellent record. The Tears Of Hercules, his 31st album, is proof that he can still get it up, musically speaking; it’s his best since 95’s A Spanner In The Works.
Rod has always looked at life with a wink and a smile and there’s plenty of that attitude all over The Tears Of Hercules. He wrote or co-wrote most of these 12 songs, the exceptions being the soul classic Some Kind Of Wonderful covered previously by Grand Funk and the title track, a Marc Jordan song. No matter what period of Stewart’s career you’re fond of, chances are it’s represented here, like the pulsing beat of the sexually charged Kookooaramabama. His tribute to Marc Bolan Born To Boogie is a blast, with lyrics that directly reference Bolan and a sound that combines T. Rex with 70’s era Rod.
Even as he approaches 77 Rod Stewart is still the perennial winking schoolboy, but I think that same sense of humor gives him the range to handle wistful ballads like Hold On or the title track The Tears Of Hercules. Though he doesn’t push it as hard or try to reach higher notes, Rod’s voice still serves him well. The review I came across at www.loudersound.com got it absolutely right when, of this album, they said that it “comes with a generosity of spirit and jaunty self-awareness that most perma-shaded superstars lost sight of decades ago.” He doesn’t have to keep making records, he does it because he wants to, and it shows in the most beautiful way.
Ultimately The Tears Of Hercules is just what I want and expect a Rod Stewart record to be; well crafted, heartfelt, sentimental, a lot of fun, and extremely worthwhile. Rod may not rule the charts as he did in the 70’s in the 80’s, but he’s still making great music. If you haven’t paid much attention to Stewart in the last decade or so, I recommend starting here then backtracking through Blood Red Roses, Another Country and Time. You’ll as pleasantly surprised as I have been. www.rodstewart.com
BEST TRACKS: One More Time, Born To Boogie, The Tears Of Hercules, Touchline
TELECOASTER Jangling Sparrows (independent) ***
This is the follow-up and sister album to last year’s Bootstraps And Other American Fables. Telecoaster, in it’s retro-rocky way, confronts our culture at large and the human condition. The world we live in is not a pretty place right now, and The Sparrows know it. This has the sort of ragged looseness that you might find on a Crazy Horse album.
The way Telecoaster came together was quite organic. The disc is a vintage sonic experience, with songs actually being recorded on an old analog tape machine. As for the creative process, front man Paul Edelman says “This record is so alive to me, it was a collaborative process with producer Amos McGregor. We kept experimenting and things kept changing and growing. I ended up trashing half the songs to write music that I felt was more about where this was going. I was actually writing half the album while we were recording the other half!
Telecoaster is an obviously retro experience, not just in the recording methods but in that it is meant to be listened to front to back in one go. While looking forward through these modern times is a big theme of this album, a little nod to the past is maybe what we need to navigate the future with confidence, especially with things feeling as lost and up in the air as they do. Lyrically the songs are deeply personal looks at some universal experiences, like talking to someone who is going through a tough time, communicating in the age of social media and reminiscing about the old days. Stuff we can all relate to.
I like the songs and the compelling urgency of emotion that they convey, but where Telecoaster doesn’t quite make it for me is the overall sound. I get that the vintage lo-fi sound is a deliberate choice and it does remind me somewhat of early stuff by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, but with the recording technology easily available today such a conceit hardly seems necessary, perhaps even a bit pretentious, which makes it tougher for me to get inside the music. Having said that I like the energy of the playing and the songs can hit hard on a deep emotional level- maybe I just need more time for this one to settle in. Not great, but not bad. www.janglingsparrows.com
BEST TRACKS: Ready Or Not, I Still Love Rock & Roll, The Feather and The Well
BACK TO THE BLUES The Mick Schafer Band (Lightning In A Bottle Records) *** ½
Well there’s absolutely no doubt about what to expect from this record. Mick, hailing from Portland Oregon, leads his namesake band through the paces on Back To The Blues and, as has been observed, plays with unpretentious joy.
Schafer has an interesting back story; at 20 he dropped out of college and busked around Europe for tips and meals. Unable to make music his full time occupation, he waited until his adopted son Chris went into the navy at 20 to turn back to professional music. He assembled some of the best musicians from Portland’s talent saturated blues scene.
Back To The Blues contains some sublime musicianship and swingin’ grooves as Mick and his guys get down to business on these 9 tracks. Mick handles the vocals while Jimi Bott and Johnny Moore share the drum duties, Timmer Blakely plucks the fat strings, and Ken Scandlyn along with Jason Thomas play guitar. The secret weapon here, the thing that made my ears stand at attention and take notice is the fiddle playing of Tom Esch, adding a nice spice to these west coast blues and even stepping up to take a solo in Virgin Mary in place of the guitar. I love a good guitar solo too, a lot, but finding a fiddle where you’d expect a Strat was a refreshing surprise.
Schafer wrote the tunes with some friends, offering a compelling slant on the usual blues subjects. His casual singing style is unusual, to say the least. His voice has a husky quality well suited to blues but, as a judge on one of those singing shows might observe, he’s quite pitchy. As I’ve said previously of Bob Dylan, he doesn’t so much nail the notes as wander up to them and says hello. Musically I like Back To The Blues quite a bit, but Mick’s vocals hold me back from giving it a higher mark. The album was produced by Blakely, Esch and Schafer and I must say they did a splendid job, with each instrument clear and easy to hear and a mix that’s spatially well balanced.
What I’m really saying here is that Back To The Blues is a fine record overall, The summary line on the internet when I went looking for their website says that his voice “has been compared to a mash-up of Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett and Elvis Costello with a gravelly soulful voice all his own.” Mick Schafer’s voice takes some getting used to, but it’s hardly a deal breaker. www.mickschafer.com
BEST TRACKS: Virgin Mary, Over In The Corner, Husband Blues