Music Reviews by John The Rock Doctor – July 28,2020

GRIT YOUR TEETH Vega (Frontiers) ***

It’s the sixth album for these melodic rockers out of the UK.  Grit Your Teeth sports many genre touchstones like big, memorable hooks and a straight ahead rockin’ style.  That makes this kind of music fun for some, and a guilty pleasure for others.

Over the years Vega have toured with bands like Skid Row, Last In Line, FM, Magnum and Joe Elliot’s Down N Outz plus they’ve had several festival appearances.  Despite such hair band company bassist Tom Martin says “we don’t want to be known as an 80’s throwback”, but they kind of are.  Their sound can rightly be described as AOR, but they say they want to add new flavors and stretch this particular type of rock & roll further.  One of their heroes is Def Leppard, so how far they’re willing to go remains to be seen.

Grit Your Teeth is relatively simple in a way that much of the rock & roll I enjoy is; straightforward quarter note propulsion and chunky guitars.  I listened to their 3rd album Stereo Messiah before this and the difference is remarkable. On that record window dressing like keyboard textures, stacked harmony vocals threatened to bury the primal energy at the heart of the songs, but the animal magnetism evident on the new album is striking.  I’ll bet these guys would be great to see live.

The band is Nick Workman on vocals, Tom Martin on bass and guitar, Marcus Thurston on guitar, James Martin on keyboards, Mikey Kew on guitar, and Martin Hutchison on drums.  I like the record overall but I gotta say the directness, the ‘unfussiness’ of the rhythm section impresses most.  Martin and Hutchison are so locked in it’s as if they’re a single instrument, and they don’t feel the need to fancy things up; some guys might do that in a band like this, saying “look, I can really play!”  They know their jobs, they roll up their sleeves, climb down into the groove and bloody well stay there.

For a comparison, maybe Slippery When Wet-era Bon Jovi?  With a title like Grit Your Teeth  I expected something hairy, ballsy, knuckle-draggy and primordial- that’s just what I got and it’s pretty satisfying.

KEY CUTS:  Blind, Man On A Mission, Battles Ain’t A War

SONIC DEPARTURES JW Jones (independent) *** ½

Buddy Guy says the future of the blues is in good hands with guys like JW Jones, and he’s right. Fresh on the heels of winning Best guitarist at the 2020 Memphis Blues Challenge, JW had a big year planned until Covid-19 said “hold on, pal”.  The result is the lively, upbeat Sonic Departures, an album that will make you feel good- real good.

“I knew I had to do something productive to stay positive” JW says, “I turned isolation into inspiration.”  Sonic Departures is just that for Jones, featuring a 17-piece band with a 13-piece horn section that injects liberal amounts of swing and soul into these here blues.  It’s a really bright, together sounding record, leading one to think that it was carefully pieced together llike a jigsaw puzzle… guess again.  “This album sounds bigger and wider than ever” notes JW with some pride.  “Every single guitar solo on this record, with the exception of one, was recorded in one take, and it was the first and only take- with the band and horn section playing together in one room.”

Sonic Departures is good-time jump blues, the kind of thing you can imagine Colin James or Brian Setzer sinking their teeth into.  In the new world order it’s a treat and a revelation to have a record come along like this to raise our spirits.  Jones is an emotive guitar player and you can feel him digging in deep for his solos. He’s got a great singing voice too and that, of course, doesn’t hurt.  His blues have a definite Chicago feel, especially on numbers like The Things That I Used To Do, while others have a hip kind of swank and swing.  “My wife Brit sings harmonies on several tracks, and it brings a really classic vibe to the jump blues numbers” he says. There’s even a vocal sample from his 15 month old daughter, making this disc a family adventure.

It seems odd that something this beautiful can come from hard circumstances we’re all dealing with.  JW Jones took the blow and came back swingin’, and a great record was born.  Sonic Departures is inspired work from a talented artist- it comes out August 14th.

KEY CUTS:  Blue Jean Jacket, The Things That I Used To Do, Bye Bye Love (the Everly Brothers song)

THE LOST MASTERS Sons of The Pioneers (Country Rewind Records) ****

Sons of The Pioneers are one of the earliest Western singing groups in the U.S., enjoying a long career singing songs that inspire countless others.  Reviewer Tom Haugen states the obvious in Take Effect Reviews when he says “these rare recordings prove just why the legacy of The Sons of The Pioneers has persisted since their inception in the 30’s and why, a hundred years from now, their name will still be relevant.”

Some that know me might be surprised to find me enjoying this set as much as I do, but an appreciation for the music of previous generations (Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots) makes it possible to appreciate these singin’ cowboy classics too.  When it comes to country, my preference is the classic stuff; George, Merle, Johnny, Patsy, Loretta and the like, the music was more straightforward and simple. The Lost Masters has that, along with effortless harmonies and the startlingly superior musicianship that makes this collection so easy to enjoy.

The Lost Masters was produced by Rex Allen Jr. for Boxer Productions at Jim Farrell Studios in Kansas, with mastering by Jim Farrell.  The result is similar to Columbia Records’ re-mastering of Robert Johnson’s The Complete Recordings a few years ago.  Sons Of The Pioneers’ fans can now hear the songs they already know cleaner and clearer than ever before.  Some of the names involved in these original tunes include Lloyd Perryman, Pat Brady, Tommy Doss, Shug Fisher, Karl Far, Roy Lanham, Hugh Farr, Dale Warren, Rusty Edwards, Bob Minser and Billy Armstrong.  None are household names in the world at large, but their impact as Sons Of The Pioneers is immeasurable.

Listening to The Lost Masters is like sitting through an old Roy Rogers or Audie Murphy western- not to everyone’s taste of course, but those that enjoy that sort of thing will find that this timeless, cheerful, upbeat music will put a bounce in their step- even a grumpy old rock n roll dawg like me.

KEY CUTS:  Cowboy Jubilee (Ken Carson), When Payday Rolls Around (Bob Nolan), Song Of The Trail (Bob Jones)

HARD TO STOP High Spirits (High Roller Records) ** ½

If you include their self-titled, self-released debut in ’09, this is High Spirits’ 5th album.  The latest from Chris “The Professor” Black and his compadres is simple, straight up rock & roll.  Nothing fancy- Hard To Stop rocks ‘til the cows come staggering home.

Hard To Stop reminds me of some of classic 80’s metal bands like Judas Priest, Y&T and mid-period Uriah Heep, even Maiden when they really start to gallop.  High Spirits have that twin lead guitar thing down cold, and the pummeling songs are relentless.  This album was recorded by Black in Chicago then mixed at the famous Unisound Studio and the effects are powerful at (ahem) appropriate volumes.  Nothing overly complicated happening here musically, there’s a directness to these songs that’s really grows on you.  Good road music, this.

High Spirits started touring the U.S. in 2010 before expanding into Europe in 2012 and have remained popular at heavy metal festivals since then, which comes as no surprise  when you listen to Hard To Stop and feel the energy coming directly from the grooves. One of your first thoughts will be “I’ll be these guys are great live.”  There does tend to be a ‘sameness’ to the songs overall, a similar tempo, and it feels like I keep hearing some of the same drum fills but hey, maybe that’s just me.  It could just be the ‘kiss’ philosophy of rock n roll; Keep It Simple, Stupid. The mix is tight and the twin harmony guitars are in lock step on the solos so, minor quibbles aside, the pulverizing energy of this slab is invigorating.

Throughout Hard To Stop you might also hear vague echoes of other rock tunes you know- the intro to one song reminded me of an obscure Alice Cooper song called Clowns Will Eat Me- but that’s not uncommon in rock & roll, it gives the disc an air of familiarity that might make it easier to absorb.  Don Black (I assume he’s the singer, their website wasn’t very helpful) has a journeyman rock & roll voice, solid but not distinctive like an Ian Gillan or Robert Plant… but then not that many do.  Great rock & roll?  Maybe not; but good, solid rock & roll?  You bet.

KEY CUTS:  Since You’ve Been Gone, Midnight Sun, Hard To Stop

THE BALLAD OF ALBERT JOHNSON The Smoke Wagon Blues Band (independent) *****

After awarding tons of 5 star reviews I’ve taken a cue from the writers at Rolling Stone and become more modest in my ratings.  HOWEVER… to my ears and spirit The Ballad Of Albert Johnson from Corey Lueck & The Smoke Wagon Blues Band, is perfect.

The Ballad Of Albert Johnson is a familiar mix of Lueck’s whiskey-stained vocals and funky blues harp, along with slick guitar, swingin’ piano, soulful organ, sax, and taut rhythm section, is as it should be; after all, they’ve been performing on festival stages for over two decades.  This disc feels like a perfect storm of various styles; blues, swing, a pinch of cowboy soul and R&B horsepower, lowdown and nasty in the best possible way.

Their last album, Cigar Store (also excellent), won a pile of awards and spent over 47 weeks on the Top 50 Music Reports Blues Charts, making it to #2 in Canada, #6 on the States and #15 in Australia… not bad for a bunch of guys from Hamilton.  Smokin’ hot (pardon the pun) live performances over the years have continued to bolster the band’s rep, and there is no doubt in my mind that The Ballad Of Albert Johnson is going to carry them a long ways yet again.  The disc is a combo of bone shaking new blues, swamp boogie, classic R&B, Acadian swing, Memphis soul and straight up barn burners as they spin yarns from New Orleans to The Yukon.  This record recalls when legends were celebrated through music and story telling- it’s heartening to know there are still bands, musicians and songwriters that still see the world that way.

When I first popped The Ballad of Albert Johnson into my CD player I expected the blues; what I didn’t anticipate was a musical adventure this broad and thoroughly satisfying.  This disc is now on my list of Desert Island Classics and, if I had to do my ‘best of the year’ column right now, it would very likely make the top of the list.  It is impossible to overstate how much I’m enjoying this album.

KEY CUTS:  Ballad of Albert Johnson, Can’t Take The Blues, Steaming Comrades Harp Boogie

THE COUNTRY BLUES The Outlaw Billy Don Burns (Country Rewind Records) ***

I wish I knew who said the line first because I’ve used it many times; “country music is the white man’s blues”, something BDB understands. If you’re into guys like Willie and Waylon, you’re going to dig Outlaw Billy Don Burns.  If you need a little outlaw country in your musical diet, The Country Blues is about as real it gets.

The country music I like best isn’t the stuff that’s trying hard to be pop or rock, its records like The Country Blues, the kind of country that fits like your favorite pair of boots, or those jeans you’ve been wearing for ten years.   ‘Authenticity’ has become such a buzzword that it gives me the willies, but when you drop the needle on this one and ride it to the end, you come to know that Billy is the real thing.  His voice has the husky lived in quality of a guy that… well, has been playing bars, jukes and honkytonks for decades.  He sings these songs like he’s lived each and every one of them, and that’s what you want.  Who knows?  Maybe he has.

The Country Blues is the collision of two similar worlds- country past and present, and people like Shooter Jennings are taking notice. “Billy Don sounds great like he always does” Shooter says.  “The songs are fantastic, he sings about the truth and hard times, but he tells a tale of warning and a tale of heart with this album.”  Putting this one on is not unlike sitting around a bonfire with a bunch of cool people.  A few beers and maybe a couple of shots of whiskey later, the guitars come out and everyone is telling stories.  The musicians playing behind Billy have a real good feel for what’s going on; in many ways it’s very traditional country and therein lay its compelling magic.

Old timey?  Not quite, but within spitting distance.  Billy says that “this album is about the life of a honky-tonk singers’ fifty years on the road, and he’s still doing it 250-300 days a year.  His songs have been recorded by the old guard; Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, Connie Smith and others, and lots of new up and coming artists like Cody Jinks (and) Colter Wall.”  That’s what you’re in for with The Country Blues, so come on in and get comfy while I go grab us a couple of Cokes with peanuts.

KEY CUTS:  Runnin’ Drugs Outta Mexico, No Shortage of The Blues, I Like Trains


For this new live set and as the title implies, Danish hard rockers Pretty Maids perform their iconic Future World album in its entirety in this Japanese performance from their 2017-2018 world tour, plus 5 more tracks over and above.  Thought not familiar with the original record, I have to admit these guys really bring the thunder.

If this sounds like 80’s rock that’s because it is- Future World originally came out in ’87, the same year as Whitesnake’s eponymous planet killer.  Melodic riffs with a real physical presence are underscored by keyboard textures as was de rigueur at the time; close your eyes and you can almost see the large hair.  Ronnie Atkins has a great AOR rock voice, and Ken Hammer’s guitar playing is… well, it’s really fuckin’ good.

So many great live rock albums have been recorded in Japan, Deep Purple’s Made In Japan and Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan to name two; and now Pretty Maids. The crowd is way into it, recording and filming this gig was a no brainer. “Japan has been one of our strongest markets since the 80’s” says Atkins.  “I remember both the concerts we did while being there as absolutely great fun with a very loud and enthusiastic crowd… a fantastic and very dedicated audience.”  At any given show, when the band feeds off the audience and vice versa, that energy exchange is what you hope to capture on tape.  On Maid In Japan, that’s a big 10-4.

I was talking to someone the other day about writing album reviews and, as I’ve observed before, there is so much music out there I just can’t hear it all.  Still, Pretty Maids have been around since ’81 and I’m embarrassed to know so little about them- maybe I thought the name was a little froofy and so ignored them?  No idea… but they got my attention with last year’s Undress Your Madness, and Maid In Japan is as a good a live hard rock album as your ever likely to hear.  These guys should be huge EVERYWHERE.  Great production, excellent performance from the band, and the audience is with them every step of the way.  This makes me feel young again!

KEY CUTS:  It’s A Long Way To Go, We Came To Rock, Future World

PARADISE: A TULSA TRIBUTE TO OKIE MUSIC Various Artists (Horton Records) ****

I tried… I really did.  With a release date of August 28th, I wanted to stay away from this but dammit, I buckled and threw it on.  In February of this year, a group of Tulsa musicians traveled to Leon Russell’s famous Paradise Studio at Grand Lake, to track the first album recorded there since 1978.  Tulsan Rick Huskey has spent the last 30 years preserving and restoring it, and these musicians honor the music of their state with some affectionate covers- from the famous to the obscure, and everything in between.

The purpose of this recording is to honor those who came before and made it possible for Tulsa musicians to have an identity and a music scene today.  Leon Russell blazed a trail that guys like Eric Clapton took notice of, and that scene is more diverse than you likely think.  From the laid back cool of guys like JJ Cale and Hoyt Axton to the up-tempo funk of The Gap Band, it’s all here. Other artists whose songs here you might recognize include Lowell Fulson, Dwight Twilley, Jessie Ed Davis and, of course, Leon Russell.

Seventeen tracks were recorded over the course of four days for Paradise, mostly live with very few overdubs.  There was a core group of players throughout the session and a total of twenty Tulsa musicians participated.  A quick scan of those involved revealed nobody I would recognize, at least not in the corner of Alberta I call home, but that works to the album’s advantage.  If this were stacked with well known names it might sell more, but you’d be stuck with the old ‘that doesn’t sound like something ______ would play’, or ‘that sounds a lot like ____ from his ____ record.’ The music stands on it’s own, and it stands quite tall.

The Tulsa sound is, for the most part, a country vibe so you’ll find a lot of that on Paradise.  There are exceptions, of course, like Dwight Twilley’s I’m On Fire  and The Gap Band’s I Yike It. So I guess how much you enjoy this will depend on the adventurousness of your musical spirit.  The liner notes end with this quote; “Thank you to all of the Oklahoma musicians over the years who have been role models through their authenticity and spirit of community.  This record is dedicated to them.”  It kills me that you won’t be able to hear this for another month and change, but the wait is worth it.

KEY CUTS:  I’m On Fire (Sarah Frick), Ride Me High (Paul Benjaman), I Yike It (Charlie Redd & Briana Wright)

THE ROCK ALBUM Whitesnake (Rhino) ****

Not your standard greatest hits set here. Whitesnake has revisited, remixed and re-mastered to a muscular shine some of their best rock songs in the first of a trilogy of collections organized by themes; Love Songs (the Red album), Rock Songs (the White album) and The Blues (the Blue album).   The Rock Album spans over three decades, songs released between 1984 and 2011, with the exception of She Give Me from David Coverdale’s Y2K solo album Into The Light.  It’s quite a ride.

I’d heard that Coverdale was releasing this trilogy and thought “eh, I already have most of the song anyway”.  Then I heard an interview he did with Marci Wiser recently on KLOS (the link is below) and changed my mind.  “I spoke to Warners and Rhino and said we can’t keep hitting fans with box sets, particularly now in these compromised financial times” he says in the interview, “so I said let’s give them some really big bang for the buck and do three ‘taster’ albums, a taste of things to come, samplers as it were.”  The Rock Album pulls tracks from Slide It In, Slip Of The Tongue and their 1987 self titled album, as well as 4 songs from Restless Heart, a popular album throughout most of the world but, thanks to a beef with his then U.S. label Geffen, was not released in the Americas. Also included are Always The Same, recorded during the sessions for last year’s heavius maximus Flesh & Blood plus the aforementioned She Give Me.

There are some large hits on this bad boy but what really lifts The Rock Album head and shoulders above your average compilation is the remixing and re-mastering.  Coverdale was so pleased with the job mixer Christopher Collier did on Flesh & Blood that he was invited to help with the trilogy project too.  What Collier, Coverdale and co-producer Michael McIntyre have done is taken songs from different sources and make them sound and feel as if they came from the same album.   I’ve not heard the 4 songs from Restless Heart before, so that was exceedingly cool,

I was well impressed with 2019’s Flesh & Blood, the physical power of the music was like a punch to the gut- and the same can be said of this collection.  It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway; The Rock Album is essential for any and all Whitesnake fans… essential.

KEY CUTS:  Restless Heart, Love Ain’t No Stranger, Here I Go Again

DOCKSIDE SAINTS Cary Morin (Independent) *****

If my count is correct, this is Morin’s 6th album- and the 3rd one to join my collection.  As a finger-style acoustic guitarist he’s untouchable.  As a songwriter, Cary Morin is deep and soulful.  Dockside Saints is an inspired mix of Zydeco, Cajun and Creole with heaps of Piedmont blues & country, wish dashes of gospel and folk- irresistible.

Dockside Saints is the collision of two cultures… some of Louisiana’s finest musicians bringing the bayou and combining it with Cary Morin’s Native Americana, a distinctive hybrid of American roots with elements of blues, jazz, rock, bluegrass and country.  Recorded at the legendary Dockside Studios under the guidance of producer Tony Daigle, the results are dazzling. It was seeing one of Cary’s gigs in Lafayette that lit the fuse in Daigle’s mind.  “I was floored by his performance” Tony says.  “The consensus among the crew was to do a collaboration with some South Louisiana players and Cary.”   “It was sheer genius coming together in the moment” Morin continues. “Two years of ideas coming together all at once, on the spot.”

Dockside Saints rocks and moans, a sly combination of contagious rhythms and wistful ballads. `The ancient Native culture of the South has been an inspiration as it relates to our travels and what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Mississippi Valley” Cary says. “As my wife Celeste and I traverse this country, my eyes are flooded with landscapes and visions that gift me with an endless supply of songs.” A Crow tribal member and the son of an air force officer, Morin spent the bulk of his youth in Great Falls.  “As the years go by, I am drawn to the music that I heard and loved when I was 10 years old growing up in Montana” he notes.

Sometimes, certain albums come along and just fill you up musically and spiritually, and Dockside Saints is one of them.  I can’t wait to listen to this again, and I’m looking forward to drifting back and re-discovering his earlier stuff too.  “I write songs about fishing and life” Cary concludes.  These songs are compelling explorations of love, faith, hardship and heritage, and I would not want to me without them.  Street date, Aug.7th.

KEY CUTS:  Valley Of The Chiefs, Nobody Gotta Know, Blue Delta Home

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