Music Reviews by John The Rock Doctor – Oct 29, 2020

Queen + Adam LambertLIVE AROUND THE WORLD Queen + Adam Lambert (I Tunes purchase) ***

As Brian and Roger proved when they worked with Paul Rodgers from ’04 to ’09, nobody gives a shit about new Queen music without Freddie Mercury.  With big concerts on hold, the band has done the next best thing; put out a compilation of live tracks, recorded over the last several years with Adam Lambert at the mic.  It’s well done, well recorded… but it’s going to take some time to make up my mind how to feel about this.

On the official Queen website, guitarist Brian May says “as we all grapple with the challenge of creating live shows in a world dominated by a formidable viral enemy, it seemed the perfect time for us to create a collection of hand-picked highlights from our Queen shows over the last 7 years with our brother Adam Lambert.”  Live Around The World spans virtually the whole time Lambert has been singing with the band, 20 tracks  recorded all over the world in places like Japan, Australia, Portugal, several stops around the U.S. and, of course, London.  To his credit, Lambert sings his ass off throughout.  Sometimes it feels like he’s pushing too hard but he has taken on the Herculean task of  bringing Queen’s catalog back to life one last time.  The band is playing extraordinarily well- Brian May on guitar, Roger Taylor on drums, not sure who’s on bass (not Deacy) or keys (Spike Edny?)- and so the album is quite satisfying on that level.

As you might expect, Live Around The World is stuffed to the nuts with hits; Fat Bottomed Girls, I Want To Break Free, Crazy Little Thing and so on.  One cool surprise is the inclusion of a couple of Freddie’s solo tunes, and the participation of Mercury himself via video screen for Love Of My Life and his signature Ay-Oh chant-a-long with the crowd.  It’s a nice nod to Brian and Roger’s late band mate, and though it’s important to acknowledge him, it makes me miss Freddie Mercury all the more.

“We hadn’t really watched (those You Tube) clips before (so) we weren’t aware of how good the band sounded” Roger Taylor says.  “So we thought, well… maybe there’s a live album of concert highlights to be made.”  Adam Lambert agrees wholeheartedly. “When we couldn’t tour this year we wanted to give the fans something in place of that, and a live album just felt right.”  Some may quibble that without Mercury and bassist John Deacon it’s not Queen, and having seen the band live in 1978 and again in 2014 I get that… but, Freddie isn’t coming back from the dead, and these are great songs played well.  I have everything Queen has done on CD and most of that on vinyl too; I’m quite happy to add Live Around The World to that collection as well. It doesn’t rock as hard as Return Of The Champions (the live album with Paul Rodgers), but it’s still nice to have- as a collector I certainly wouldn’t want be without it.

KEY CUTS: Fat Bottomed Girls, Who Wants To Live Forever, Hammer To Fall

THE SMALL HOURS Stephen Clair (Rock City Records) ****

A refreshing blast of rock & roll from Upstate New York.  As the follow-up to the critically lauded Strange Perfume, The Small Hours combines rock and punk attitude with angular new wave moments played with a jazzy/ bluesy feel.  Sparse, taut and fully realized, it could end up being one of my favorite records of the year.

Produced by Clair himself, the band is a trio; Stephen on guitar and vocals with bassist Daria Grace and drummer Aaron Latos displaying ferocious chops.  The Small Hours has

The feel and soul of a Barney Bentall solo record; if you don’t know who he is, look him up wherever you grab your music from.  Clair spent the last half of 2019 writing songs for this record, recording it in upstate New York seemingly a minute before all hell broke loose.  With the band being a trio there’s plenty of room for the music to breathe and swing, which it does with a casual expertness.

The Small Hours is the type of record with incredible reach and scope.  Amongst these 11 tracks you’ll come across minimalist rock & roll, jazzy songs and songs about all kinds of things.  There’s a song about hurricanes, songs for radios and songs for streamers; chicken and pig songs, songs about Nobel scientists, and songs of hope with rooftop escapes.  Like Barney mentioned above, or even The Hip’s Gord Downie, Stephen Clair has a way with lyrics that paint a picture that will either remind you of your life, or make you want to climb inside the tunes to really check the stories out… or maybe both.

Blue collar rock ‘n’ soul?  Maybe that’s it.  There’s a nonchalant excellence to this record that, when you pick up on it, you don’t really want to let go.  The Small Hours makes me feel the way I used to back in the 80’s about new Mellencamp records, where I would listen to them over and over again, absorbing every detail and nuance until I knew them as well as I did my own life.  Yeah, I can see Clair’s music inspiring that kind of devotion… I’m only on my 3rd spin and I’m already feeling that pull.  Really cool stuff.

KEY CUTS:  Cheap Date, Hurricane Coming, Is This Thing On

Scott Weis BandSIMMER ME DOWN Scott Weis Band (independent) ****

Bare knuckle, earthy blues rock is what this 2012 Blues Hall Of Fame inductee delivers on his 6th release. Simmer Me Down sees this trio letting it all hang out, and without sanding off the rough edges too… which is just the way I like my rock and blues.

Mixed and mastered by the late Ben Elliot (the album is dedicated to him), Simmer Me Down sounds like the kind of party you’d love to be invited to.  Bassist Robert Kopec and drummer Roger Voss are a direct and fearsome rhythm section, giving these tunes at least as much muscle as Scott’s thrilling guitar work.  For a record that rocks as hard as this does, it’s a remarkably soulful outing too- Scott, Rob and Roger did a great job producing this bad boy.  8 of the 10 songs are originals, with spot-on interpretations of Sam & Dave’s When Something Is Wrong With My Baby and ZZ Top’s Jesus Just Left Chicago being like a scoop of vanilla and a slice of cheddar cheese on top of a fresh, warm apple pie, lifting the whole thing up just that much more.

As you listen to Simmer Me Down Scott Weis’s weathered voice makes the tales he’s telling believable and relatable.  His brawny playing style, with the possible exception of the meditative yet escalating Transcendence which ends the album, really gets me going.  The feeling I get from it is like a Friday night; it’s payday, the weekend is here, there’s money in your pocket and there’s nothing ahead of you but possibilities- that giddy “let’s get going and see what happens” thrill that makes being young so un-fucking-believable.

Aiding and abetting The Scott Weis Band in the studio are Cindy Mizelle on vocals, John Ginty on keys, Bashiri Johnson on percussion and Phil Silverberg on keys.  Cindy’s backing vocals in particular give many of these songs the powerful, soulful depth that helps lift Simmer Me Down from being ‘just another record’ into something truly special.  This is one of those albums that can make a party explode just like that.

KEY:  Pride And Soul, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, The Way I Do

Mac GaydenCOME ALONG Mac Gayden (independent) ****

I’ve just found the perfect album to chill with.  Mac Gayden’s new disc Come Along feels like classic JJ Cale and maybe mellow Clapton rolled into one.  Gentle, soothing, good for the soul… the kind of songs you can spend hours exploring.

Mac was born and raised in Nashville and has a considerable musical history.  For example, he co-wrote Everlasting Love, the Robert Knight tune, coming up with part of the melody on his grandmother’s piano at age 5.  You’re likely more familiar with the 1979 hit version by Narvel Felts.  He feels that it’s not how fast you play, but what you play and the feeling involved.  Later, he came up with the oft-imitated ‘slide-wah’ sound during JJ Cale’s recording session for Crazy Mama. I listened to Come Along before reading Mac’s bio to get a more pure impression of the music, and that JJ Cale connection makes perfect sense.  If you know JJ’s music at all, you’ll feel it too.

The ball started rolling for Come Along when a producer heard the songs in raw demo form and asked Gayden to record the album.  It was started at Sundog Recording Studio in East Nashville and finished up at Berry Hill.  Putting this on is like putting your feet up while an old friend- maybe one you haven’t seen in awhile- starts telling stories.  This isn’t country, not exactly, yet it sort of is too, landing somewhere between there and pop music of a bygone era.  Guitar Player Magazine calls Mac Gayden “a visionary… as innovative to slide guitar as Hendrix was to rock”, and by God he’s played with an impressive array of artists like Bob Dylan, JJ Cale, Elvis, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ray Charles, all of whom no doubt wanted some of Mac’s magic to rub off on them.  Not a ton of fireworks here slide-wise, but then it’s just not that kind of record.

Come Along, with its romantic, soulful vibe and gently excellent guitar playing, is like the best neck rub ever after a long hard day- an experience I recommend highly.

(no website available)

KEY CUTS:  Cherokee Moon (acoustic version), Sweet Soul Song, The Day I Fell For You

Mark Spiro2+2=5: BEST OF + RARITIES Mark Spiro (Frontiers) ***

Mark Spiro is an iconic American songwriter, an established award winning producer, recording artist, and accomplished musician.  Even if the name isn’t familiar, dollars to donuts you’ve heard some of his stuff.  2+2  is a 3 disc set that covers the best of his solo material from 1996 to 2012.  It also includes 13 unreleased songs, collaborations with people like Dan Huff, Tim Pierce and Jim Vallance.  Intrigued now?  You should be.

Mark, born in Seattle, moved to Hollywood where his career took off.  He fell in with German producer Jack White (Laura Branigan, Steve Woods, Anne Murray, The Hoff), who recognized his talent and brought him on board as his general co-producer.  This, in turn, brought him in contact with Harold Faltermeyer (Axel F theme for Beverly Hills Cop) who asked Mark to write a song for another film he was working on, “Top Gun”.  The result was Mighty Wings, recorded by Cheap Trick. Mark has written for other films too, and you can hear his songs in TV shows like “One Tree Hill” and “Fame”.  As a writer, his songs have been recorded by artists like Heart, Cheap Trick, Giant, Bad English, John Waite, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Winger, Mike Reno and Julian Lennon.

Now… with Mark Spiro’s bona fides established, what are these songs like?  Look at the list of artists in the previous paragraph and that will give you a good idea.  An accurate if somewhat general description would be mid-80’s power pop/rock, the kind of music you might expect to hear in your favorite 80’s flicks.  The musicianship is solid but, for my taste relies a bit too heavily on snyths- an 80’s conceit to be sure- but the songs are hooky and catchy.  As a singer Spiro has that sort of mid range voice with just the right amount of rasp on the rockier tunes that makes 2+2 quite agreeable company.

I would hardly call 2+2=5: Best of + Rarities the most exciting thing to cross my desk lately, it’s quite middle of the road- but it plays like a master class in uplifting pop song craft, in terms of writing and performance.  If that 80’s pop sound tickles your ear hair, you should probably pick this one up.

KEY CUTS:  Better With A Broken Heart, It’s A Beautiful Life, 24 Hours A Day

Ben LevinCARRYOUT OR DELIVERY Ben Levin (Vizztone) **** ½

More soulful singing and great blues piano from Ben Levin on his second album.  Carryout Or Delivery is 8 tight originals and 4 tasty covers centered around his exquisite skill on piano and organ.  It’s a leap ahead from last year’s Before Me in terms of depth and soul, its equal in maturity.  Hard to believe Ben’s only 21 and still going to college.

As Marty Gunther writes in Blues Blast Magazine about Levin, “the maturity and skill he displays here are just a hint of what’s ahead”, and that’s an exciting prospect.  Ben’s band on Carryout Or Delivery includes his dad Aron on guitar, Oscar Bernal on drums and Chris Douglas on bass.  As a piano player Ben’s heroes include Professor Longhair, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann and Ray Charles.  In his playing you can hear and feel his love and enthusiasm not just for those guys but for the blues in general. This album feels like a flashback to maybe the mid 60’s with its swingin’ grooves and sense of optimism.

The aforementioned Before Me got Ben a nomination for the 2020 Blues Music Award for “Best Emerging Artist Album”. Carryout Or Delivery was recorded at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, June 15th through 18th of this year in Newport, Kentucky.  It has an immediacy and liveliness- the sound of 4 guys cuttin’ loose and havin’ fun playing the music they love.  By age 15 Ben was the fulltime piano player in his dad’s weekend band “The Heaters”, and he put out his first album at 17.  He’s played several summer blues festivals over the years, but when school is in session he sticks mainly to local gigs.

Admittedly I was skeptical about Ben Levin before hearing his last album- how can somebody so young have such a firm grasp on the blues without serious mileage?  But the proof is in the pudding as they say.  Last July I gave Before Me a 4 star review, saying that Sinatra and Joabim would’ve loved this guy, and I’m enjoying Carryout or Delivery even more.  There are some musicians who make you stop in your tracks to listen the moment they start playing, and Ben Levin is one of those guys.  Listen to this record, and I have absolutely no doubt you’ll feel the same way.

KEY CUTS:  Papercut, You Know, The Buzzard

Kevin BurtSTONE CRAZY Kevin Burt (Gulf Coast Records) *****

Oh BABY this is a sweet one- Iowa’s Kevin Burt really lights it up on his first album for Gulf Coast.  Stone Crazy is blues with an abundance of soul, or maybe soulful blues.  As a singer Kevin has been compared to Bill Withers and Aaron Neville, his voice as warm and comforting as it is smooth and passionate.  After listening to Stone Crazy, you come away with the impression that everything is going to be okay.

Kevin describes songwriting as a journey in which he tells stories of observations made along the way.  His wife Nicole is his muse and biggest influence, and many of the songs here were inspired by her, and so Stone Crazy is quite uplifting.  The musicianship is frankly stunning, and no wonder; in 2018 at the Blues Foundation’s 34th Annual International Blues Challenge, Kevin won first place solo/duo in the cigar box guitar category, and the Lee Oskar Award for best harmonica. He combines blues and soul with a kind of effortless funk that is so natural and… inspiring.

Produced by Mike Zito and recorded at Marz Studios in Nederland, Texas, Stone Crazy definitely tastes southern.  Kevin wrote all but one of the songs, a delicious cover of Bill Withers’ Better Off Dead.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kevin is one of the most soulful singers I’ve heard in maybe ever.  The message of Got To Make A Change together with his feverish build towards the climax near the end of the song is making the hair on my arm stand up just talking about it.  Lots of moments like that throughout the album, the sort of things that make you want to keep listening to see where he goes next.  Burt is singing about life and passion, with nary a false note to be heard on the whole damn thing, even when he gets close to a bit of country honk on Purdy Li’l Thang.

Stone Crazy is killer.  Put some of these songs in the right places, and Kevin Burt could be the guy that every music fan is talking about… this album is so cool it’s ridiculous.

KEY CUTS:  Got To Make A Change, I Ain’t Got No Problem With It, Same Old Thing

The Barrett Anderson BandHYPNOBOOGIE The Barrett Anderson Band (Whitaker Blues Records) ****

One of Boston’s finest combos caught in the act, live at The Fallout Shelter in Norwood, Mass. on February 1stHypnoboogie captures the energy and passion of the band’s legendary live shows on disc, 7 originals and 4 electrifying covers from the likes of Magic Sam, Bo Diddley, Son House and The J. Geils Band.  VERY groovy.

Barrett remembers the gig well.  “We brought it” he says. “The Barrett Anderson Band delivered.  We managed to capture the entire album in front of an audience that night- one take of each song- and we played hard. We boogied.  We moved.   We grooved.  We let it all out, and once it’s out, it can’t go back in.”  The first job of any live album is to make the listener feel like they were there in the audience that night, and on that score Hypnoboogie delivers.  “We simply did exactly what he had hoped to” says guitarist Charlie Mallett.  “We tuned in, closed our eyes, and played our music the only way we know how- with everything we have.” “We improvise every night, striving for a feeling or spirit while letting the music guide us there” adds drummer Doug MacLeod. “We couldn’t have captured this in the studio.” As bassist Jamie “Black Cat Bone” Hatch astutely observes, “It’s not blues, although there are blues influences.  It’s not rock, although we’ve taken plenty of cues from The Rolling Stones.”

As can be a problem with some live recordings, though, there’s a bit of a disconnect with longer instrumental passages on a track like The Long Fall.  While I enjoy the song here, I would have dug it far more had I been in the audience and watching the guys close their eyes as they fall into the music and explore.  Having said that, though, the band acquits themselves admirably on Hypnoboogie.  “We’re trying to make something new; something that can stand tall next to our influences” Anderson says. “We all get intense joy from making this music together and that joy is at the heart of this recording.”  So beware; you’ll likely get a contact high from listening to this album.

KEY CUTS:  Mona, House Party, Grinnin’ In Your Face

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