Music Reviews by John the Rock Doctor – Dec 2022

WILD MYSTIC MOUNTAIN Charlie Treat (independent) ***

Bluegrass anyone?  This East Nashville singer/ songwriter is drawing on his rural upbringing in the raw, rootsy tradition of Woodie Guthrie, Hank Sr., Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Wild Mystic Mountain finds its’ creator in the company of some great young pickers, the result of which is an inventive bluegrass record that bridges the gap between history and the present day.

Produced by acoustic guitar, upright bass, banjo, fiddle and mandolin, Wild Mystic Mountain is made for front porches, campfires and hollers.  Charlie’s inventive way with a lyric and the old-timey charm of the music itself is a beguiling combination.  His voice is like a combination of Eddie Vedder and Ray LaMontagne with an earnestness that sucks you right into his stories.

Treat grew up on a farm in New England, listening to old-school crooners whose songs reflected those rural surroundings, so his coming to this particular place with his music is hardly a surprise.  WMM was produced by bassist Geoff Saunders with a real down home feel.  Other than Charlie the musicians include mandolinist Oliver Craven, banjo player Frank Evans, fiddlers Nate Leath & Julian Pinelli.  With only one rehearsal to run through the songs, the group relied on instincts and first takes in the studio, which highlights the authenticity and efficiency of classic bluegrass… they knew the songs and got right down to business with no farting around.

The appeal of bluegrass is narrow and specific; either you like it or you don’t, and how you feel about that will dictate whether or not Wild Mystic Mountain is for you.  The musicianship here is engaging and Charlie Treat has a way with words; the press info states that this is his most autobiographical album to date. It’s a winsome combination, a touch of hillbilly soul to warm the heart on a cold winter day.

HOT TRACKS:  Swimming In November, Sing Child Sing, Hole I’m In

LIVE AT POWER STATION Vanessa Collier (Phenix Fire Records) *****

A stunning, energetic, groovacious live album here from this ridiculously talented singer/ saxophonist.  As the title implies, Live At Power Station was recorded in front of an audience at the legendary New York recording studio. “My intention was to capture some of the songs off my earlier records that have now grown and become somewhat different” Vanessa says in the liner notes.  This disc is about as energetic and passionate as a live record can get.

Performances for Live At Power Station were recorded April 21st and 22nd of this year, with this album coming from the 3rd show on the 22nd.  “I’ve wanted to make this record since 2017” Collier says in those liner notes. “I’ve had so many people over the past 6 years say something like ‘your records are really great, but seeing you live is unbelievable!’ (This album) is so full of energy and passion, and there’s a palpable and beautiful connection between everyone present in the room.”  Having listened a few times now, I know exactly what she means.

Vanessa is a 2013 graduate of the prestigious Berklee College Of Music and Live At Power Station draws on material from her 3 of her 4 studio albums. 2020’s Heart On The Line- the only record not represented here- was #2 on my best of the year list.  So, yeah… I had high hopes going into this, and Ms. Collier and her band do not disappoint.  Produced by Vanessa, L.A.P.S. is a terrific sounding album that captures the energy of the artist and band on what surely must have been a memorable evening.  It goes beyond merely sounding good or hot, you really feel each song with every fiber of your being; starting with your eardrums of course.  Even without having been there these tunes will give you goosebumps- they sure did for me.

Vanessa on vocals, saxes and resonator guitar; Laura Chavez on electric guitar; Byron Cage on drums; Andrew Crane on bass; William Goreman on keys.  You may want to get to know these names; Live At Power Station is absolutely stunning.  I see by the tour page on her website they only have shows scheduled in the U.S., it would be great to see Vanessa up in Canada too.

HOT TRACKS:  Love Me Like A Man, The Run Around, Tongue Tied

SO FINE Eric Demmer (Gulf Coast Records) *****

You’ve seen me review a lot of guitar, harp and even piano powered blues in this space, but not so much about the saxophone.  So Fine is the label debut for this Texas-based singer/ sax player, and it’s a funky, joyous excursion into horn-based blues, what Eric calls “high-energy blues with a mix of funk and rock ‘n’ roll”.  Wait till you hear this one!

Eric’s career began in the 80’s as a roadie for a Texas dance hall band.  After working his way up to Clint Black’s “Killing Time” tour in 1989, he left to devote his full attention to the sax.  He played with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown from 1993-2005.  As a sideman he’s also shared stages with Johnny Copeland, BB King, The Allman Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, the list goes on.  They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps; that makes Demmer very impressive indeed. This feels like mid to late period Clapton in many ways.

So Fine is punchy, energetic, enthusiastic and loaded with chops.  Produced by Demmer and Mike Zito who also contributes guitar to a pair of tracks, the sound is tight, bright and joyous.  Eric has a great voice for the blues, and his sax playing just carries you away. “After all the years of playing sax with famous guitar players, I realize that I’m a guitar player; I just don’t play guitar” he jokes.  He injects his songs with a sense of humor, as in the just referenced I’m A Guitar Player and Don’t Talk To Me.  He gets serious on Will It Ever Be The Same, which he says “deals with one of the darkest times in history. All the loss of life and destruction happening at the same time really hurt my soul and it made me wonder if it ever will be the same.”  That’s a question many of us are asking too, Eric.

On So Fine Eric Demmer combines a variety of musical styles and influences with the blues as his baseline.  Listening to this disc is an uplifting thing to do.  Eric notes that “the real thing comes from the heart and soul” and this, kids, is most definitely the real thing.

HOT TRACKS:  I’m A Guitar Player, Start It All Again, Will It Ever Be The Same

HISTORY’S HAND Enemy Eyes (Frontiers) *** ½

Johnny Gioeli a career rock vocalist, has formed a new band and this is their debut.  Having sung with bands like Hardline, Axel Rudi Pell and Crush 40, the dude knows how to rock out.  History’s Hand is an energetic combination of classic and European metal, hard but tuneful and with plenty of oomph and visible threads of pomposity; what could be more metal than that?

“I want to feel what I sing” Johnny says. “I grew up with the music of Dio, Rainbow, Sabbath, Maiden and more. I needed to fulfill what I feel is a missing piece in my musical puzzle, so Enemy Eyes has been born. It’s not just a project, it’s my music life’s work going forward.”  But he didn’t want to make music solely rooted in the distant past. “The influences are many” he notes, “from the metal music I grew up with to more modern bands like Breaking Benjamin, Volbeat, Architects and on and on.”

History’s Hand  has a rich, dense sound that feels good when you turn it up.  Gioeli is on vocals of course, along with Marcos Rodrigues on guitars, Fabio Alessandrini on drums and Alessandro Del Vecchio on bass and keys.  As a singer, Johnny is like a metal version of Jon Bon Jovi, and the propulsion of Alessandrini’s drums provide much of the energy that drives this particular beast. Del Vecchio’s keyboards provide a sort of orchestral richness to the songs, but I’m enjoying the guitar work of Rodrigues in particular, from tight riffing to lyrical, melodic solos that always seems to have a point. He shows creative restraint, which is not always the case with metal guitaristss.

If you break History’s Hand down to its essence, it’s 4-on-the-floor rock & roll; the kind of stuff that makes you want to grab a beer and throw the horns… you know, my kind of stuff.

HOT TRACKS:  History’s Hand, The Rat Race, The Dream Is Gone

THE NOIR ALBUM Big B And The Actual Proof (independent) *****

When you cross the blues with the intent of film’s seediest genre, you get something filthy and utterly irresistible. The Noir Album is 10 tales of bad luck, bad choices, revenge and recrimination, like something you might hear in a dark alley behind a bar in a neighborhood that nice people don’t visit after the sun goes down.  This disc has an overdriven sound and is very dangerous, like the soundtrack to a movie I’d love to see.

Big B & The Actual Proof are a trio from Detroit with Brian “Big B’ Burleson on vocals and guitar, Mitch Sharpe on bass and Erin Pitman on drums. The trio is augmented by soundtrack quality horns and strings, and the album was produced by Grammy lifetime member and award-winning producer Peter Jay.  With nods to BB King and SRV as well as Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Pink Floyd, TNA takes on a life of its own.  “This album represents our own noir story of putting together a skilled team to pull off a ‘huge score’ to unite all we’ve learned individually and execute this badass plan” Burleson says. “We have the blueprints, the firepower, and the personnel… now it’s time to do this.”

Film Noir as a genre has been described as strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel, and to some degree that’s an apt description of this disc. Listening to The Noir Album is not unlike reading an old Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald novel… you feel dirty, maybe even slightly ashamed, but exhilarated at the same time. Big B majored in broadcast and cinematic arts with a minor in theatre, so that he would make music along these lines is fitting.  “As far as my love for film, especially the darker side, I’ve got my dad to thank for that” he says.  “I may have been one of the few 10 year olds that saw The Shining in the theater.”  He learned about the film noir genre in class, and notes that “Once I saw what the genre was about- the hardboiled stories, the way things were shot, the sinister scores… I was hooked.”

The Noir Album is Burleson’s love letter to this genre of film that he loves so much, and though the primary color here is blue, this disc is a deeply satisfying technicolor soundtrack to a black and white world.

HOT TRACKS:  Sitting On The Devil’s Lap, God’s Lonely Man, Just Another Harlem Sunset

VILLAINS VICTIMS VISIONARIES The County Well (Floating Records) ****

This is County Well’s 4th album, and good luck labeling it.  According to the accompanying press info Villains Victims Visionaries is all about “spatial disassociation, genre cross fertilization (and) melodic heresy”, and that’s a better description than anything I can come up with. This is a trippy, engrossing experience.

Villains Victims Visionaries is a contemporary operetta that satisfies visionaries first, quells villains second and eliminates victims third.  Don Zimmer is the founder and lead guitarist in the band, and he’s quite pleased with the direction County Well has taken on the new album. “We’ve broken out of the structure of verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus” he says. “We’re still creating music, but it can be one chord. It can be just drums. It can be just organ sounds. We indulge in complete freedom of ways to create music.” Like their previous album Drink More, which I described in my review as “Cowboy Junkies but without the Porzzak”, Villains Victims Visionaries has a kind of  Zappa-esque weirdness to it that will make it hard for a lot of folks to get a handle on; but those who do get involved and become entangled in its melodic subterfuge will embrace it wholeheartedly. Some records don’t go for the bottom line and try to appeal to everybody, reality is a nebulous thing here.

If you’re going to label this- and we all love labels, don’t we- maybe psychedelic folk is a decent fit. There seems to be many genres at play as you listen; folk, country, a bit of rock- but due to the relatively unstructured approach Zimmer uses, you have to keep your wits about and listen closely to figure out where County Well is or where they might wander off to next. If  catchy riffs set to a danceable beat and straight ahead lyrical narratives are your thing- don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those things too- then this might not be for you.  If you’re in the mood for a weird musical adventure, let Villains Victims Visionaries take you to unexpected places.

HOT TRACKS:  Tequila & The River, Eyes In The Trees, Stranger On The Rolling Sea

FOR THE FERAL HEART Mick Kolassa (Endless Blues Records) ****

This is, I think, the 3rd Mick Kolassa album I’ve reviewed this year.  For The Feral Heart is a collection of straight up love songs… whereas Mick’s other albums have stuck pretty close to the blues, FTFH starts there but wanders into several other styles like jazz, calypso, reggae and American Standards… a unique blend to be sure, and quite satisfying.

Produced by Jeff Jensen and recorded in Memphis, For The Feral Heart sounds terrific.  When Kolassa and Jensen trade licks on Dave Mason’s classic Feeling Alright (a song about divorce) it feels like you’re right in the room watching them bounce off each other.  Despite the variety of styles on display it’s Mick’s blues that continue to pull me in; you can’t listen to Love Ain’t Supposed To Make You Cry or Easy to Love (not the 54-40 song) and not be affected on an emotional level.  If the songs are good, that’s just what they’re supposed to do. Mick’s warm vocals pull you in and the excellent playing by all concerned keeps you there.

11 musicians were involved here and they play together with the relaxed ease of good friends, but of course having good songs to sink your teeth into doesn’t hurt. As much as I love the guitar playing here, the keyboard work of Rick Steff and TJ Bonta lifts things up to another level, especially Steff’s hypnotic electric piano work. Over the course of 10 Kolassa originals and 2 covers, the aforementioned Feeling Alright and the standard As Time Goes By that ends off the disc, you’re in for a satisfying trip through loves won, lost and held onto, personal stories that will touch you in some way. It’s an enjoyable way to spend a chilly Sunday evening.

hot tracks:  Feeling Alright, I Left My Heart In Birmingham, Love Ain’t Supposed To Make You Cry

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