Music Reviews by John the Rock Doctor – Sept 9, 2020

THE RILL THING/ KING OF ROCK & ROLL Little Richard (Omnivore) *****

Without Little Richard there would be no rock & roll- at least not as we know it.  On September 18th, Omnivore is set to release expanded versions of his comeback records, 1970’s The Rill Thing and 1971’s King Of Rock & Roll, each with bonus tracks, photos and new liner notes by Bill Dahl.  Richard, who died in May, is in fine voice here, singing as if he has something to prove.  I daresay each are essential to any self-respecting rock & roll historian.

THE RILL THING  Little Richard came from a devoutly religious family and counted many gospel singers like Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson as influences.  After his early success with inspirational rock tunes like Tutti Fruiti and Long Tall Sally (both covered by The Beatles), he turned his back on music to focus on religion.  1970 found him back in the game with the surprisingly energetic The Rill Thing.  Recorded at Rick Hall’s “Fame” Studios in Muscle Shoals, this album has a primal energy that draws us into the music.  He branches out too, covering songs by Hank Williams and returning a nod of recognition to The Beatles by covering I Saw Her Standing There.  The disc is somewhat removed from the savage power that brought him to the international stage in the 50’s, but there is no mistaking that incredible voice- down there in Alabama, he was singing his ass off!  Then there’s the impressive title track, an intense instrumental funk jam that clocks in at over 10 minutes, captured in a single take.

KEY CUTS:  I Saw Her Standing There, Freedom Blues, The Rill Thing

KING OF ROCK & ROLL So how do you follow up such a thunderous return to form?  By releasing a record that proves his return to claim the rock & roll throne (sorry, Elvis) was no fluke.  Produced by H.B. Barnum (The Supremes, Sinatra, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls), King harnesses Little Richard’s gospel horsepower and puts it to good use.  The disc includes original numbers and Motown classics plus songs by The Stones, CCR and Hank Williams, as well as a spirited cover of Hoyt Axton’s Joy To World, perhaps known best as done by Three Dog Night.  His take on Brown Sugar is almost hypnotic; not as frenetic as The Rolling Stones’ original (which I love), but more elastic and… sexier.  King Of Rock & Roll didn’t chart as well as The Rill Thing but is very near it’s equal, a party album with a live energy this is just a pantload of fun to be around.  This reissue features the original album plus no less than 6 bonus tracks including session material and more.  The Rill Thing may be musically superior, but King Of Rock & Roll is a party looking to happen.

KEY CUTS:  Dancing In The Street, Brown Sugar, Born On The Bayou

ALL THIS TIME Heather Anne Lomax (independent) ****

On her new album, Heather Anne Lomax pays tribute to the man many called The King Of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. More accurately, All This Time captures the spirit of Elvis’s legendary Sun Sessions.  “I am moved and inspired by the voice, life and recordings of Elvis Presley” Heather says, “especially the Sun Sessions and American Sound Studios recordings.”  It’s an intriguing tack to pursue, and it pays off.

Heather Anne always knew she was adopted and, after years of searching for then finding her birth family, she found out her cousin is renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.  Her mother appeared on a Bob Hope Christmas special in the 70’s, her grandmother performed on Broadway, and her Grandpa Stan was an infamous New York disc jockey. Music is quite obviously in her blood, and changing her last name to Lomax makes complete sense after discovering the truth about her past.

On first listen All This Time sounded like a country album, but then I was distracted as it played with doing other stuff.  While there is very much that element to it, after reading Heather’s bio on her website and sitting down to really listen, this is a much deeper album than it appears to be at first.  That country that seems so upfront is wrapped around blues and Americana, kind of like unpretentious folk music with some rock conceits.  The emotions are raw and upfront throughout these songs of love, pain and joy trapped within.  These songs, she says, are her way of emancipating herself and those who hear her music; “a vehicle of catharsis”, she calls it.

Heather Anne’s influences include Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Elvis (of course), Hozier and Maria McKee.  In this light the dark, emotional, soulful complexity of the songs makes even more sense.  Not sure if All This Time was recorded live off the floor, but it does have that feel.  Produced and mixed by Jason Hiller, this disc has the vibe of those early Elvis recordings mentioned off the top.  It’s one of those records that pulls you in deeper every time, and I like that- a lot.

KEY CUTS:  Crumbs, Heart Don’t Lie, See You Again

THE ONE Arctic Rain (Frontiers) *** ½

Some powerful and melodic rock & roll from the land of ice & snow as Sweden’s Arctic Rain hits like a combination of Bon Jovi and Stryper.  The One is their debut, forecasting a bright future with one hell of a first record.

The band says their aim with The One was to write songs with strong melodic vibes based around the type of harmonies typical of 80’s and 90’s rock bands.  “With influences like Whitesnake, Mr. Big, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Toto, Treat, Dokken, White Lion, Journey and so many other great bands, our album is somewhat of a distillation of that era” says guitarist Magnus Beglund.  The core of the band’s sound centers on the song writing of keyboardist Pete Alpenborg, who has an impressive track record with bands like House of Lords, but the band wouldn’t succeed without Magnus’s guitar work and the golden pipes of singer Tobias Jonsson, on whom my comparison to Stryper is largely based.  While I’m at it, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the athletic rhythm section of drummer Jonas Jonsson and bassist Gert Daun, whose tight melodic style has me wanting to pick up a bass or get behind a kit again for the first time in years.

 The One is no tentative first step to a rock & roll career, it has arrived fully formed and confident, powered by muscular yet deft musicianship and arrangements, plus choruses that make you want to throw your fists in the air and shout along.  I had no idea what to expect when I put this on, never having heard of the band before today, but the label promo guy has a habit of sending me great stuff so I had a feeling about Arctic Rain.  Yeah it’s a throwback to the 80’s and 90’s rock scene, but in ways that makes that kind of music worth remembering and cultivating here in 2020. Go back to the second paragraph of this review again and look at that list of influences; if you like at least 2 of the bands Magnus mentions (and I enjoy far more than that), then The One is going to be one of your favourite records of the year.  This is definitely a band to watch.

KEY CUTS:  Love Of My Life, Night After Night, Give Me All Of Your Love

PERIPHERAL VISIONS Rick Berthod (independent) *** 1/2

Ready for some sweet blues?  Who isn’t these days?  Peripheral Visions, Rick Berthod’s 8th long player, hits all the right notes.  From Memphis soul to down and out blues, this disc rocks and swings as Rick honours some of the greats that came before.

Rick Berthod’s past reads like any blues fan’s wet dream; he’s shared stages with BB King, Greg Allman, John Mayall, Savoy Brown, Robben Ford, Etta James and The Yardbirds- you don’t get to run with company like that if you don’t have your shit together.  The late Albert Collins, whom Rick salutes on Much Love, helped him put a band of great West Coast blues players in ’88.  Talk about running with the big dogs!

So Rick Berthod is a guitar player and singer with a glorious past that he celebrates on Peripheral Visions.  His band also includes Smiley Lang on bass & vocals with Justin and Billy Truitt on drums and keys respectively.  As for honouring those that came before, the aforementioned Much Love has a definite Albert Collins feel while Fly On is very SRV.  I love the fast party stuff but for me, the measure of a good blues record is, does it have any slow numbers that make me go “ooo” as the hair on my arms stands up?  I can point to a couple here; the just mentioned ballad Fly On and the gorgeous Memories, which I’ve already play-listed for one of my upcoming blues radio shows.

Peripheral Visions- produced by Berthod, recorded & mixed by Sean O’Dwyer- has an uncomplicated and natural yet forceful and rocking sound that will really get your attention.  According to his website, Rick plays a Gibson “Lucille” guitar, autographed to him by BB King, when he’s not wringing notes from a vintage Fender axe.  The disc opens with the Motown-ish instrumental Seeing Sideways as I wondered what kind of blues cruise I was in for, but the band takes us through so many moods and energy shifts that it adds up to a pretty complete experience.  These guys know their blues, and with Peripheral Visions as evidence they know their blues very, very well.

KEY CUTS:  Memories, Treat Her Right, Fly On 

FORCE OF WILL Dave Fields (independent) *****

Listening to Dave Fields’ sixth album is like being hit by a truck… a big truck.  Roughly equal parts Stevie Ray, Colin James and Jeff Beck, Force Of Will is bristling with primal energy that will leave you spent by the time the album is done, and begging for more.

As a singer Dave reminds me of Colin James, his fearless guitar playing is a mix of the guys I mentioned above, with some particularly Jeff Beck touches in some of the solos.  Guitar Player Magazine praises Force of Will as “an enjoyable listen for both blues acolytes and club jumpers” which seems right- the energy here is almost over the top, and Dave clearly has a PHD in the blues.  Fields is a New York Blues Hall of Famer whose ferocious mix of blues/rock with occasional funk elements (Chloe & Otis) and swampy blues licks (Hunger) indicate a restless yet focused artistic spirit… and aren’t guys like this the most fun to follow?  Damn straight!

From the voodoo rock love shuffle I Love My Baby that opens the disc to an Otis Redding-ish sexy rocker Best I Can that closes the album, Force of Will is a white knuckle roller coaster of a ride, a genuine thrill… and how many albums have your heard lately that even come close?  I thought so.  His tribute to NY music legend Delmar Brown (Delmar) could easily be classified as a down to earth Eruption-style guitar explosion.  Even at just 1:37 long, it left me wrung out and reaching for the repeat button.

According to the bio I got with the CD Dave has won a pile of blues awards over the years, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.  Maybe it’s the combination of New York attitude and a passion for the blues along with a ridiculous amount of talent, but whatever it is Fields is breathing rarefied air. Aside from the sheer musicianship on display here from Dave and the band, Force of Will is a meaty thrill ride that, even as it pulls up to the gate you’ll want to stay on and take ‘er back up to the top of the hill for another ride.  This is the kind of record that should make him a household name everywhere.

KEY CUTS:  I Love My Baby, Why Can’t You Treat Me Right, Chloe & Otis

PERIGON: FULL CIRCLE Dianne Davidson (independent) ***

If you’re a fan of singer/ songwriters, you might already know Dianne Davidson.  Of Perigon (a geometric term), she says “In the moments when I was alone and sad and lost, this album was brought forth from my soul.”  In that spirit, there is much to take in here.

Now in her 60’s, Davidson was singing and writing at an early age. Her recording career began at the age of 17 when she recorded her debut album in 1971.  She has also toured as a member of Linda Ronstadt’s band and has backed some of the biggies like BB King, Jimmy Buffett, Tammy Wynette, Barry Manilow and Leon Russell.  A powerful singer, maybe this is the record where she finds the front-line fame her fans feel she deserves.

Perigon is 10 Dianne Davidson originals, plus covers of Gretchen Peters’ Over Africa and Bob Dylan’s To Make You Feel My Love.  Whether deliberate or not, putting her songs alongside such big tunes serves to highlight what Dianne brings to the table.  ‘Singer/ songwriter’ seems to categorize this record better than most tags but truthfully it kind of defies categories.  She paints with several different colors; blues, rock, folk and even reggae, so you may as well just put your feet up and let the music wash over you.

If a good song tells a story, then Perigon: Full Circle might will become like one of your favourite books.  Sounds Of The City “was written when I was on the road with The Moody Blues and started losing track of days and places” she says. An older tune, this is Diane’s first recording of it.  The last track, Missing You Tonight, “is the ultimate regret song” she notes, and Subtle Touch is a bluesy duet with Ruthie Foster.  I won’t name them all here but in the studio Ms. Davidson is backed by talented, insightful musicians who play sympathetically and with a fine touch.  I have to say re-casting Dylan’s To Make You Feel My Love with a string quartet (with piano and acoustic guitar coming in about halfway through) was genius.  I bet we’ll be hearing this at a lot of weddings.

Great singing and some pretty deep song writing make Perigon a treasure worth searching for.

KEY CUTS:  Just Out Of Reach, To Make You Feel My Love, The Island

MAGIC IS ALIVE Lionville (Frontiers) ** ½

If you’ve forgotten what the 80’s sounded like, throw on Lionville’s 4th album to refresh your memory.  The sound and vibe of Magic is Alive is what was once referred to as “AOR”- album (or adult) oriented rock.  It’s well played and melodically pleasing, but shouldn’t rock & roll be dirty and ill-mannered sometimes?

Lionville was started in Genova, Italy in 2010 by singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Stefano Lionetti and his brother Alessandro.  After a couple of indie releases the group signed with Frontiers in 2017 for their 3rd album A World of Fools, and confidence is high for Magic Is Alive.  Fans of 80’s music will have no trouble hearing the band’s influences in these 11 ornate ditties; Toto, Richard Marx, Giant, Bad English, Survivor and Boulevard.  If you like any or all of those bands, Lionville is speaking (and singing) your language.

Magic Is Alive exhibits some solid musicianship and song writing, but the path is fairly predictable.  I remember in the 80’s there were a fair number of bands that were virtually indistinguishable from each other and, if I remember correctly, at the time we called them ‘corporate rock’, because it sounded like the suits were calling the shots.  If you had a band like Bad English that was successful, pretty soon the record companies were pumping a hundred more bands just like them… and that’s the feeling that this disc conjures up for me.  The melodies are strong and hooky, Stefano is a good singer, but the use of keyboards in particular, at least they way they’re handled, really dates the sound.

Magic Is Alive is a well produced album and the playing is good, but somehow it just doesn’t excite me.  I like it well enough or I wouldn’t have taken the time to write about it, but I can’t say I’m particularly moved either.  Maybe a good night’s sleep and some fresh ears are what I need here… we’ll see.

KEY CUTS:  You’re Not Alone, Into The Night, Reaching For The Sky

HEART ON THE LINE Vanessa Collier (Phenix Fire Records) *****

Well, consider me blown away.  Heart On The Line, Vanessa’s 4th album, is a soulful explosion of muscular funk ‘n’ blues and heartfelt stories.  I’ve been trying real hard in recent months to not get too gushy and hand out 5 star reviews unless absolutely called for, but in the case I was left with no choice. ‘Spectacular’ is an understatement for this.

Buddy Guy, one of my heroes, calls Vanessa “amazing” so that got my attention.  Collier is a 2013 graduate of The Berklee College of Music for production and engineering and is an award winning musician too, having taken the Blues Music Award for Horn Player Of The Year (sax) for 2019 and 2020.  While I would usually argue against artists producing their own music- too close to the songs to be objective- Vanessa produced Heart On The Line in meticulous detail, and the record sounds great.  As a singer her voice has depth and balls and her horn playing is really friggin’ cool..

The disc is 8 new original songs and 3 covers, including Randy Newman’s Leave Your Hat On, known perhaps more famously as done by Joe Cocker.  One of the things about Heart On The Line that captured me right away is the combination of funk and playful sleaze.  That’s a tricky one to pull off as it can come across as greasy and vulgar, but Collier strikes just the right balance in her lyrics and musicianship to make it work in a really fun and seductive way.  This album not only sounds great, it feels great too.

On this record Vanessa plays all the saxes plus resonator guitar, and the band she has put together here plays with an incredibly responsive touch. She is an outstanding producer as Heart indicates, not to mention her skilful song writing and incredible playing.  If she can find the time, other acts could greatly benefit from her expertise on the board.  For an album to be judged ‘perfect’ the stars have to line up and an awful lot of things have to go just right, and that is exactly what has happened here. Heart On The Line is perfect.

KEY CUTS:  Superbad, Leave Your Hat On, Freshly Squozen

RISE UP Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters (Stony Plain) *****+

Next to Buddy Guy Ronnie Earl is my favorite blues guitarist of all time.  Following last year’s critical and commercial success with Beyond The Blue Door,  Rise Up is his 13th album for Stony Plain (I have them all) and 27th overall.  This is music created to heal and move bodies and souls alike, and it’s a very beautiful thing.

“People tasked with having to describe Ronnie invariably note his passion” guitarist Peter Ward (who also plays on the record) says in the liner notes.  “Each time he performs he gives the audience his all and shoots for the moon.  “The world’s injustices weigh on his shoulders; bigotry, substance abuse and struggle are never far from his mind.  He offers his music to relieve people’s suffering, even if the elixir lasts only for the length of a song.”  Even without reading that you can feel it in the music… I know I did when I first heard The Colour Of Love back in ’97, and that’s was draws me in close to Rise Up.

Rise Up is 15 songs, including several tracks recorded live from a set at a “Daryl’s House” show- Google the series, it’s excellent.  The main sessions for the record were recorded in Ronnie’s living room in March, just prior to the pandemic, while he recuperated from back surgery to alleviate a stubborn case of sciatica.  The emotional impact of the songs is stunning- even the instrumentals speak to you loud and clear.  Perhaps being the son of two holocaust survivors has given him a keen insight into the human condition, and having overcome his own addiction issues (he’s 30 years sober) gives him extraordinary empathy for those that struggle.  That is reflected in songs like Blues For George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.

Ronnie’s guitar playing is wonderfully subtle and expressive, sometimes haunting, and the musicians he surrounds himself with are totally in synch with him.  Diane Blue, who sings on the vocal cuts, has a classic blues voice, and the interplay between Dave Limina (keys), Paul Kochanski (bass) and Forrest Padgett (drums) and Ronnie is surely the eighth wonder of the world.  Earl’s guitar playing on the disc, whether on a subtle number like the instrumental Blues For Lucky Peterson or cranked up to blast away, is enough to move you to tears… he communicates with his guitar the way very few others can.  With Rise Up, Ronnie Earl has written another moving, astonishing chapter.

KEY CUTS:  Higher Love, Blues For Lucky Peterson, In The Dark, Navajo Blues

WE ARE THE NIGHT Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall (Frontiers) ***

There are some musicians that never stop working, and guitarist Magnus Karlsson is one of those guys.  Aside from being involved in several other bands, We Are The Night is the latest from his solo project Free Fall.  It’s pounding symphonic, melodic, progressive rock, with lead vocals by a large cast of metal singers that demand your attention.

Of all the singers taking part, you might recognize are Ronnie Romero (Rainbow) and Tony Martin (ex-Black Sabbath).  Musically, We Are The Night is a beast of an album that hardly gives you a moment’s rest.  From Karlsson’s six string acrobatics to the absolute pummelling of drummer Anders Kollerfors (bass and keys by Magnus as well), this is one of the densest rock albums I’ve heard all year, thanks in part to the mixing magic of Jacob Hansen (Volbeat, Primal Fear, Amaranthe, Pretty Maids)… kind of feels like great chase music in some big, fat action movie.

The use of different vocalists throughout allows for shifting dynamics throughout the disc, although you’d have to say that the whole thing is pretty balls to the wall in general, in a very 80’s way; a good thing for some, maybe not so much for others. I imagine something as complex as We Are The Night would be difficult to replicate on stage, and who knows when we’ll get the chance to find that out?  The album is impressive musically and defies the laws of physics in some cases, as thick but wayyy heavier than an early Queen album.  Listening to the whole thing in one go is exhausting…  I’m just an old schooler that likes to hear the music breathe a bit too.

We Are The Night is surely one of the crowns in Magnus Karlsson’s career.  With everything happening on this record, I can’t wait to see how he goes about pulling off these numbers live… maybe we’ll find out sometime next year.

KEY CUTS:  Queen Of Fire (with Noora Louhimo), One By One (with Ronnie Romero), Far From Over (with Tony Martin)

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