HARDWARE Billy Gibbons (Concord) ****
This is Billy Gibbons’ 3rd solo disc in 6 years, and Hardware packs a fair punch. Of the 3 (including Perfectamundo and The Big Bad Blues) it doesn’t lean as heavy on dance rhythms and sounds. It’s the closest to the kind of rock & roll he’s known for in ZZ Top… so why not do a ZZ Top record?
Hardware was produced by Gibbons and ex- Guns & Roses drummer Matt Sorum. It’s the same band we heard on 2018’s The Big Bad Blues including Gibbons and Sorum. The 2 previous records were mostly cover material but Hardware was written by Gibbons and the band; the lone exception is The Texas Tornados’ Hey Baby, Que Paso, one of the highlights of the album.
According to Billy’s website, the title Hardware is nod to the late producer Joe Hardy, whose working relationship with Gibbons and ZZ Top dates back to the mid-80’s. The recording studio used here was located in the desert, and you can feel that in the music. “The desert settings, replete with shifting sands, cacti and rattlesnakes makes for the kind of backdrop that lends an element of intrigue reflected in the sounds created out there” Billy says on his website. “We holed up in the desert for a few weeks in the heat of the summer and that in itself was pretty intense. For the most part it’s a raging rocker, but always mindful of the desert’s implicit mystery.”
Hardware is a great sounding album but all the songs are pretty short, with the longest clocking in at 3:59 and the bulk of them around 3 minutes or less. I’m disappointed that there isn’t a big, juicy guitar workout on this record like Vincent Price Blues from 1996’s Rhythmeen. The songs on this disc are good, tight rockers loaded with attitude and that’s cool, but I was hoping for a long, slow blues where Billy really shows off. Like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Gibbons knows the spaces in between count as much as the notes played, and when he’s in that groove there’s nobody better.
Hardware is a solid piece of work and regardless of how it does commercially, it will have you pondering whether ZZ Top is even necessary for Billy anymore. Who knows? Change is good and I’ll take me some Billy Gibbons any way I can get it.
KEY CUTS: Stackin’ Bones (with Larkin Poe), Desert High, Vagabond Man
BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND LOUISE Chris Gill (Endless Blues Records) *****
It’s been a hard week in many ways, and I threw Chris Gill’s new album on at just the right time. Between Midnight and Louise is basic, raw, and beautifully haunting… just two mics, Chris singing and playing some sweet guitars through a little amp, and a batch of songs that really take you back home- which, for him, is Mississippi. It’s different from but reminds me of Son House’s Death Letter. This is blues storytelling at its finest.
The title of the disc was inspired by a road sign just outside of Yazoo City in the very heart of the Delta. Several different guitars are used by Chris including a Baritone Mule guitar, a 1930’s Supertone and a 1931 Duolian National. Recorded in a studio of course, between Midnight and Louise has the intimacy of a back porch performance.
I also love how the stories in Chris Gill’s songs spring from his own life. Thank You For Another Day was inspired by something his grandfather told him on his 96th birthday. When Chris asked him for some wisdom on how to have a long and happy life he said “Each day I wake up, thank the Lord for another day and go on down the road.” Rolling Man came from the stories an old hobo friend told him; when Chris asked where he’s from the hobo would say “Man, don’t ask me where I’m from, I come from where I been!” Fell In Love With The Blues is Gill’s favorite song from his dear friend Virgil Brawley, who passed a couple of years ago. Chris can definitely relate to the lyrics; “Them ol’ blues definitely rearranged my molecules!” he says.
I could go on describing the songs, but putting Between Midnight and Louise on your stereo or however you listen to music is an even better idea. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d written an album review- busy with interviews, magazine articles and getting a new radio show together for an internet station in the UK- but as soon as I put this one on I knew it was time to get back in the saddle, I hope you enjoy Between Midnight and Louise as much as I do.
KEY CUTS: I Fell In Love With The Blues, Thank You For Another Day, Rolling Man
PAPERBAG SALVATION Randy McAllister (Reaction Records) **** ½
This first rate harp player, drummer, soulful singer and blues bard has just released one hell of an album. Paperbag Salvation is full of strong songs and great playing, topped off by some of the coolest slide work I’ve heard in awhile.
In addition to Randy McAllister’s incredible singing and harmonica playing the band includes Brandon Hudspeth on guitars, Paul Greenlease on bass, Adam Hagerman on drums and Heather Newman on backup vocals, with Howard Mahan doing a guest spot on guitar for No Conductor. Though in a lot of ways this can be thought of as your basic blues album, Paperbag Salvation lifts its head above the crowd on the strength of Randy’s clever songwriting. Take the album opener You’re Like Mashed Potatoes for example. “(It) was based on building around that line with the sentiment of how a kid might say how much he loves something” McAllister says, “like a lot of 50’s and 60’s soul numbers where many songs were sung by kids coming from a kids perspective.” Like one line in the song says; ain’t no need to make this complicated/ some things are so good they can’t be overstated…. like mashed potatoes.
I love the interaction of the whole band here and what they each bring to the table, but the magic of Paperbag Salvation is a combination of Randy’s voice and Brandon’s slide licks. Randy is a sixth generation Texan, and the sound of this record really takes you back home. The most arresting moment of the album, though, is No Conductor. Originally recorded as an aggressive soul rocker, Randy decided to frame the lyrics in a ballad form. “I like the contrast of lyrics that seem to say something different than the music” he says. Howard Mahan’s acoustic slide work on this cut is outstanding.
Living Blues Magazine really nailed it when they said his “well-crafted songs reveal a depth of creativity not only in storytelling, social commentary and word play, but in the sophisticated arrangements and blurring stylistic boundaries.” They also say his voice is “somewhere between the soulful effervescence of Al Green and the blunt hammer of Johnny Taylor.” But don’t settle for their word or mine, throw Paperbag Salvation on and hear it for yourself.
KEY CUTS: No Conductor, Personal Pinata, You’re Like Mashed Potatoes
COME AROUND Rob Lutes (independent) *****+
Here comes the 8th solo record for this magnificently gifted Canadian songwriter and performer. Come Around is a worthy follow-up to 2017’s Walk In The Dark, a roots/ folk/ blues meditation on life and all that encompasses, a thing of mysterious beauty.
Come Around has a similar atmospheric pulse to Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond stuff and, on occasion, a certain kinship with Barney Bentall’s post- Legendary Hearts records. Recorded at 6 different studios thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, this represents Lutes’s vision for the sort of freedom and joy that can come from everyday struggles, both large and small. “We had to make adjustments in how we did this album, we could not be together” Rob says. “But from literally across the country, we found a kind of synergy in these songs. It was as if we were in the same room.”
Rob’s acoustic finger-style guitar and the understated support of the other musicians involved draw you deep into a pretty exceptional set of songs- 11 originals and an arresting cover of the blues standard In My Time Of Dyin’. Knives views the extremes of love and loss against the realities of domesticity, That Bird Has My Wings was inspired by a book of the same name by Buddhist author and death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters (how’s that for a dichotomy), and Lutes also finds inspiration in the natural world.
Mixed by noted engineer Rob Heaney Come Around features some of Canada’s finest roots players, who together with Rob Lutes, have delivered an album of rare and sophisticated magic. Listening to this felt similar to reading a good book; with the lights low and my eyes closed, it was pretty effortless to lose myself in the tunes- on the song of the same name, it almost felt like I was wandering the streets of Amsterdam. In a weird year that has seen so many of us stick close to home, a record that can transport you to another realm, if only for a little while, is a priceless gift.
As a writer I suppose I prattle on a bit; but if I had to describe Rob Lutes’s Come Around” in just 2 words, it would be “dark” and “intimate” and as the rain beats down on a chilly night in early June here in Northern Alberta, that strikes me as perfect.
KEY CUTS: Knives, Amsterdam, In My Time Of Dyin’
MAMMOTH WVH Mammoth WVH (EX1 Records) ****
Finally- the debut album from Wolfgang Van Halen. Though Eddie is his dad and he played bass in Van Halen for 14 years, there isn’t that much common ground between Mammoth WVH and any VH album you’d care to name, but if you’ve heard any of the singles that came out before the album, you know that already. Wolfgang plays every instrument himself and he’s made the kind of music he enjoys listening to. As modern rock albums go, this is damn good.
“The name Mammoth is really special to me” Wolf says on his website. “Not only was it the name of Van Halen before it became Van Halen, but my father was also the lead singer. I always thought that when I grew up I’d call my own band Mammoth because I loved the name so much.” Though you may catch Van Halen-ish flare every now and again, Mammoth WVH has more in common with the stadium rock of Foo Fighters, Alter Bridge and Tremonti than anything else. The production is hard yet sumptuous and there are a variety of grooves to be found, from the ballads Circles and Distance (written about the then-impending loss of his father) to rockers like Don’t Back Down, which sounds like a great Nickelback tune. Oh shut up haters, I like them just fine.
The songs on Mammoth WVH were written years ago and the album has been finished since 2018, but understandably everything was put on hold when Eddie was diagnosed with cancer. “My album was done by August 2018” Wolfgang said in Billboard , “but as my father’s health declined it was a matter of ‘hey, do you want to go on a tour cycle for 18 months or do you want to spend all this time with your dad?’ I think I made the right choice.” I think he did too. So although Eddie died last October he had heard his son’s album and was a fan. “Think It Over was one of his favorites” Wolfie says.
At the end of the day Mammoth WVH is a strong, melodic piece of rip roaring rock & roll that stands on its own. Produced by Michael “Elvis” Baskette, the disc has an enjoyably thick and chunky sound and a surprisingly wide range within the confines of rock ‘n’ roll. “I definitely made the choice to not sound directly like Van Halen” Wolf says. “I just think that would be boring if I was a carbon copy of my dad.” There are 14 songs on the album, and close to 30 were written. “There’s a lot that hit the cutting room floor that I’m excited to turn to for another album” he says. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what’s next. You can catch Mammoth WVH on tour opening for GnR starting in July.
KEY CUTS: Distance, Don’t Back Down, You’ll Be The One
DEADWOLFF Deadwolff (Metal Assault Records) **½
Here is the debut EP from this Toronto power trio, released May 7th on limited edition cassette. It’s a deliberate throwback to early 80’s knuckle-dragging rock & roll; foot-tapping, beer drinking metal. Originally released last December on Boonsdale Records and now streaming on Bandcamp, it’s nearly 18 minutes of genuine rawk.
Deadwolff’s sound is rough around the edges but that’s how they want it. It’s classic hard rock with punk attitude aimed at the fans of bands like Judas Priest, Motorhead, Wasp and Tank. The band is Thomas Wolffe on bass and vocals, Bobby Deuce on guitar and backing vocals, and Rawa Brant on drums. “This EP is an excellent glimpse into what’s to come, who Deadwolff is, and what we’re all about” the band says. “With all the bands nowadays that sound like carbon copies of each other, we knew we wanted to sound different. Sound old, but different. From our logo (the triwolff), to our tunes; from the moustaches and home done haircuts, we know that Deadwolff is just what’s needed nowadays. We’re coming out swinging. The new wave of heavy rock and roll!”
I have to admit that, on first listen, I found Deadwolff overly simplistic, melodically uncomplicated and pedestrian in terms of rock & roll. But the more I listen the more it becomes clear that maybe they’re just what rock and metal need right now- a reboot, a reset to an earlier energy and vibe when listening to swaggering hard rock had the same effect as shot-gunning a beer. These guys are givin’ ‘er, and that feels good.
KEY CUTS: Walking On Nails, Wanted Man