NIGHT WITHOUT LOVE Webb Wilder (Landslide Records) *****
When Webb Wilder puts out a new record, you can be sure he’s going to show you a good time. Night Without Love is rock & roll with a strong side of outlaw country, what he calls ‘progressive country’; Buddy Holly meets Hank Williams. It’s gloriously cool.
Since his 1986 debut It Came From Nashville, Wilder has delivered a peculiar mix of rockabilly, poetry and tomfoolery. On Night Without Love you can hear and feel the country music he grew up on and the British invasion is here too. Of course, there’s also the blues… his aunt Lillian founded Trumpet Records and recorded Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson, so it’s in his blood. The San Francisco Chronicle says “with his obvious love of British rock and southern roadhouse, Wilder could be a Tom Petty for the trailer park set” and I expect Webb is just fine with that.
Americana? Maybe, but I think of Wilder’s music more as country with a rock & roll heart. The songs on Night Without Love wear their emotionality on their collective sleeves, something classic country and blues do so spectacularly well. Wilder collaborated on the song writing with a number of people and he includes a couple of really cool covers too. The record opens with Tell Me What’s Wrong, originally done by an English pub band called The Inmates. It closes with Tommy Tucker’s High Heeled Sneakers that Wilder’s website calls “a yin-to-yang turn from a man who has known nights without love, who has heard the drums pound in the night, and has emerged wiser, but no less determined to amp up and holler.” It also happens to be a great song.
From the barnyard twang of Chip Taylor’s Holdin’ On To Myself to the rocking album closer mentioned above, Night Without Love is an eclectic mix of styles and textures delivered with simple, emotional honesty. It’s what makes us love Webb Wilder’s music, and it’s what will put this album on my ‘best of’ list at the end of the year.
KEY CUTS: Tell Me What’s Wrong, Holdin’ On To Myself, High Heeled Sneakers
CACOPHONY OF SOULS David Reece (El Puerto Records) ****
An impressive chunk of hard rock from this one-time American singer for Accept. For Cacophony Of Souls Reece teams up with ex-U.D.O. guitarist Andy Susemihl and the results are pummelling riff storms of awesomeness.
David Reece had the unenviable task of following Udo Dirkschneider at the mic for Accept in the late 80’s, remaining with the band long enough to sing on 89’s Eat The Heat. Since then he’s done solo albums and been in bands like Sainted Sinners, Bonfire and Bangalore Choir. Not household names on this side of the pond I know, but this guy has impressive pipes. With a singer from Accept and one of Udo’s ex-guitar players in Susemihl I went into Cacophony Of Souls with high expectations and was not disappointed. From the brutal rock of Chasing The Shadows (the album opener) to a surprising power ballad like Another Life, Another Time this disc has it all. Props, too, to the rhythm section of bassist Malte Frederik Burkert and drummer Andrea Giangeli for keeping this steaming, pile-driving rock & roll headed straight down the track.
Cacophony Of Souls (is that a metal title or what?!?) is 12 songs in all, including Metal Voice, written expressly for the Canadian-based You Tube channel “The Metal Voice”. This album is being promoted as “Ex-Accept meets Ex-U.D.O.” and if that appellation intrigues or titillates you, you’re going to really enjoy this. It has that mojo that so many classic German metal bands have- that tightness, a physicality that makes for some of my favourite rock & roll. Dense walls of guitar, an unwavering rhythmic heart beat with David Reece’s glorious rock shout surfing on top make for a magnificent experience.
Cacophony has more melodic range than expected which is a delightful surprise. This is good hard rock/ heavy metal, maybe even great… and I’m a David Reece fan now.
KEY CUTS: Chase The Shadows, Cacophony Of Souls, A Perfect World
MY DONY Grant Dermody (Thunder River Recordings) *****
If an old school, authentic blues experience is your bag, baby, this record is for you. My Dony, Grant Dermody’s 4th album, is Louisiana-style blues; the sound of a good time unfolding before your very ears, and it comes out May 8th.
My Dony is old-fashioned electric blues in the best sense of the term. Too many players to list here but I must mention Corey Ledet, a world class accordion player brought in during the second round of recording sessions. From Southwest Louisiana, he’s steeped in the area’s zydeco and blues traditions and brings lots to the table. Grant Dermody, on vocals and guitar, also produced the album along with engineer/ guitarist/ piano player Dirk Powell, and they played it just right. “I’ve got my own voice and my own sound” Grant says. “I think that tone is really important. Being able to say in the song what it really means is very important. As you move from genre to genre and song to song, you have to make the instrument give each what it needs.”
Grant calls his new album “pretty much straight up Chicago blues” and that’s exactly how it feels, with gospel and zydeco mixed in. Though he lists Jimmy Reed, Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson and Walter Horton as primary influences, it was seeing Sonny Terry and James Cotton live that made this Seattle boy realize the huge sound and wide emotional range that the harmonica was capable of. The star of this record is Dermody’s harp playing- smooth yet emotional, full of nuance and, when required, bluster and bravado. What will really strike you about My Dony is the loose, ‘just hangin’ out with the gang’ vibe. It’s loose yes but never sloppy, and you’ll be under its spell before the album is half done- trust me.
KEY CUTS: Real Time Man, 35-59, Corner Strut
HAND ME DOWN BLUES Durham County Poets (independent ) *** ¾
This, the DCP’s 4th album, came out last September and got them nominated for a Juno as well as a Maple Blues Award. An eclectic blend of blues, folk and gospel, Hand Me Down Blues is as entertaining as it is moving.
HMDB has a warm, down home, comfortable sound, thanks to producer Bill Garrett. A combination of originals and covers, though the title might suggest otherwise there’s a palpable joi de vive throughout. Leader Kevin Hartley, confined to a wheel chair since 1981, is the lead vocalist with a comfortable, friendly blues voice to lead this quintet. Durham County Poet’s Americana-esque cover of the Beatles classic With A Little Help From My Friends has extra meaning thanks to Kevin’s circumstances, but even without that background the particular arrangement used here really lifts the song up.
Though this is mainly a blues album, it’s not as ‘blue’ as the title led me to think it would be. You’ll also find spirited gospel, a bit of country twang and slinky jazz, even some jump/swing on a track like Kidney Stew; there’s something fresh around every corner here. There’s a press quote on their website that sums up the band better than anything I can come up with; according to Bill Hurley in Extended Play Sessions “There’s something about the Durham County Poets that leaves you feeling that everything might be OK in the world after all. There’s a human spirit that lives in these people, and their music is the medium that allows that spirit to roam free.” Well said, Bill, and right on.
There’s fine musicianship here, really together stuff… great playing without excessive showing off. They come together for the song with each doing their thing to make each song better, stronger. DCP are like Downchild in a way, excellent musicians that never forget how much fun this music can be. Although Hand Me Down Blues is their 4th album, it’s my first encounter with them- looks like I’ve got some digging to do.
KEY CUTS: If The Lid Don’t Fit, The Moon Won’t Go Down, Kidney Stew
TEMPLE OF LIES Bonfire (AFM) ****
Hey look, one of David Reece’s old bands has a new album! In many ways, Temple Of Lies is an atypical hard rock/ metal album. Far from being a limitation or criticism, that’s what makes Bonfire’s new disc kind of excellent.
Bonfire has been around since 1972 (!) and has been under the moniker ‘Bonfire’ since 86. Though German they remind me very much of the UK’s Judas Priest with chugging, palm-muted riffs, acrobatic guitar solos, and the surprising vocal range of new singer Alexx Stahl. This disc is quite melodic for metal, almost Bon Jovi-esque on songs like On The Wings Of An Angel, which suggests a much broader appeal than one might expect, something that I’m sure has much to do with the group’s longevity.
Produced by leader/ guitarist Hans Ziller, Temple Of Lies has a rather dramatic feel, almost but not quite over the top, which is what I want from this kind of music. The driving, mid-tempo stuff (On The Wings of An Angel, Fly Away, Crazy Over You) are what work best here and, I think, will be the key to the record’s success. There’s some great hard stuff here too (Stand Or Fall) that will excite metal stalwarts and fans of the band’s tougher stuff over the years, but it’s the variety of material and overall sense of groove that makes Temple Of Lies the triumph that history will surely judge it to be.
Forget America, forget Britain; right now Germany seems to be the best place to find great hard rock, and Bonfire’s Temple of Lies is the latest case in favor of that observation. This is one record you’ll want to turn up to 11.
KEY CUTS: Stand Or Fall, On The Wings Of An Angel, Temple Of Lies
YOUR BABY HAS LEFT Backtrack Blues Band (VizzTone) *****+
This is one hellaciously fine blues record! Tampa Bay’s Backtrack Blues Band’s Your Baby Has Left feels like one of the most right on blues discs I’ve maybe ever heard. With just the right amounts of dirt, grease, joy and great playing, this is one for the ages.
The Backtrack Blues Band has been performing original blues music since 1980, and you can really feel that experience here; a casual self assurance in their playing and a clear love of this music, an almost BB King vibe. They’ve performed with many legends of the years like BB, Stevie Ray, Buddy Guy, Greg Allman, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, John Lee Hooker and Robert Cray, to do a little name-dropping on their behalf. On the inner sleeve, Tom Hambridge says in a liner essay that this is “a hot collection of authentic, original blues that includes plenty of hardcore Chicago influences and some deep, sweet Texas guitar tones that would make T-Bone smile!” No doubt it’s that alchemy that has me responding so strongly to the disc. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have Bruce Katz tickling the ivories and the Muscle Shoals Horns in on things too.
Your Baby Has Left is expertly produced and mixed by George A. Harris and recorded mostly in Florida, with the exception of the Muscle Shoals Horns. Everything works together so spectacularly well here, but the vocals and gritty harp work of Sonny Charles and lead guitar from Kid Royal have turned a good album into a great one; that, and some pretty cool songwriting, particularly on Best Friend’s Grave which, according to a sticker on the back of the cd, is “winner of the coolest blues song of the year.”
When people talk about great blues, they’re talking about records just like Your Baby Has Left. If I had to tally my ‘best of 2020’ list right now, this would be at the top; this is as good as it gets.
KEY CUTS: Best Friend’s Grave, You’ll Come Back Someday, Times Is Hard
GOOD AS GONE Casey Hensley (VizzTone) *****+
Hard to believe this scorching bit o plastic is Casey Hensley’s first all original album. Good As Gone draws from rock & roll, blues, soul and swing with the panache of an artist decades her senior. I haven’t been this blown away by a young female artist since Layla Zoe. To steal a phrase from Fabulous Thunderbirds, this is powerful stuff!
Hensley is, to put it mildly, a great singer. Her vocals are full of raw passion and power, yet she has the control to pull it down when necessary with great finesse. She sings with her whole heart, and you can feel that in every lyric that crosses her lips. Casey was hailed as ‘the best blues act’ at the 2019 San Diego Music Awards and called ‘a rising star’ by the LA Times. That intensity is matched by guitarist Laura Chavez, who tears notes screaming from her axe with a kind of early Jimmy Page feel, literally making the hair on my arm stand up time and time again.
To call a singer ‘jaw-dropping’ is a bit cliché, but with Casey Hensley it really does apply. When I put Good As Gone into the CD player I thought “okay, another chick singer- I hope she can bring it”. I was floored and won over before she got to the first chorus of the opening song and said “wow” way more than once as I listened to the rest of the album. Whether she’s leaning back to cut loose and roar or getting down and intimate on a quieter passage, Hensley’s voice demands (and is worthy of) your complete attention, a controlled fury that constantly fascinates.
A great singer surrounded by talented musicians and singing some excellent blues songs… that’s what Good As Gone is. A tip of the hat to guitarist Chavez along with drummer Evan Caleb Yearsley and bassist Marcos C. plus Jonny Viau and Steven Ebner on horns for giving Casey exactly what she needs. Together this band is very nearly unbeatable and Good As Gone is destined for many a ‘best of’ list come December.
KEY CUTS: Good As GoneSearching For A Man, All In
SIBERIAN HEATHEN HORDE Welicoruss (El Puerto) ***
Russian symphonic death metal, anyone? Lots of adjectives to describe Welicoruss’s 4th full length album; hard, extreme, dramatic, bulldozing, take your pick. They all apply, and those brave enough to avail themselves of its brutal charms will be rewarded.
Welicorrus was formed in Novosibirsk, Siberia in 2002 by Alexey Boganov. From the beginning their influences went far beyond classic black metal to embrace symphonic, Goth, Progressive and Death to include even Russian folklore. The result is insistent and abrasive, but not without charm. Alexi moved to Prague and re-formed the band, unleashing Welicoruss on Central European audiences at German and Czech festivals, culminating in an invitation to France’s Hellfest in 2017. The band released 3 albums and countless EP’s before signing with Germany’s El Puerto Records for Siberian Heathen Horde.
Full disclosure, this kind of extreme metal is a little outside my wheelhouse, but even I can appreciate its vicious appeal. The arrangements are taut and the physical strength to pull off this kind of music is fearsome. Never been a fan of the growly ‘Cookie Monster’ vocals required for this sort of thing, but I find myself drawn to the dense, Wagnerian orchestral bed throughout covered with punishing guitar riffs and manic, sometimes blast beat drumming. No idea what they’re singing about though song titles like Spellcaster and Hymn Of Lost Souls give clues as to where their heads are at.
You’ll need somebody more well versed in black and/or death metal than I to tell you how this stacks up against the competition. What I can tell you is that Siberian Heathen Horde is one wrecking ball of an album that will knock you on your ass.
(check out their facebook page)
KEY CUTS: Spellcaster, Metaphysical, Crossroad Of Life
ALIVE Sister Lucille (Endless Blues Records) *****
When I get cool albums like this in the mail to listen to, staying at home with this virus thing is a pleasure. Alive is potent modern blues that manages to stay connected with this music’s past. If Muddy or BB were to hear this, they’d just nod and say “yeah.”
When I saw the cover I thought Sister Lucille was just another hot chick singer, but that’s vocalist Kimberly Dill- Sister Lucille is a band, and a powerful one at that. It includes her husband, guitarist Jamie Holdren, plus drummer Kevin Lyons and bass player Eric Guinn. Alive is a delightful collision of blues, funk, country and rock with an undeniable undercurrent of soul. After years of Kim battling health issues, this album feels a victory celebration and a look towards a bright future. Dill is certainly a talented singer- Jamie takes some lead vocals too- but the magic inherent in Sister Lucille is the combination of musicians and their personalities. I know I’ve said before that some people sound like they were meant to make music together, but that’s the case here for sure.
It’s that musical cross-pollination that makes Sister Lucille a great band and Alive such an utterly arresting record. Kimberly’s vocals are righteous and sassy, but equally important here is Jamie’s guitar work… sinewy rhythm playing, ridiculously cool slide along with inspired solos really help take these songs up a notch or two. The rhythm section has a slinky Memphis/ Motown feel that I’m really enjoying as well. One of the cover songs on Alive is Etta James’ W-O-M-A-N and, truth be told, Kimberly owns it.
Alive is a great sounding record, not just because of the band their performance or the song writing, but Memphian Reba Russell who produced the vocals and added some backups herself. The album overall was produced by Jim Scott (Tedeschi Trucks) and mastered by Grammy Award winner Richard Dodd. It’s a perfect storm of talent from all sides; no way you’ll be able to listen to it just once.
KEY CUTS: See My Baby, Lost, Respect Your Woman
SAY SOMETHIN’ David Clayton Thomas (Linus Records) *** ½
There was a time in the 60’s and 70’s when popular music was a vehicle for social change- good to know those times aren’t totally behind us. Say Somethin’, the latest from the voice of Blood, Sweat & Tears, is ten tracks that address many of the societal problems we’re facing today, and it’s a pretty decent album.
Say Somethin’ is a collection of songs with messages that David and the band want us to hear. Some good stuff and plenty of ballads, the musicians joining him in the studio supplying deft, charming, bluesy and occasionally swingin’ grooves. His voice will sound and feel familiar, but don’t expect the same vocal horsepower that gave us songs like Spinning Wheel and Go Down Gamblin’ from BS&T. Thomas will be 79 this September so he doesn’t bellow like he used to. Having said that, his vocal style on Say Somethin’ is directly in tune with the songs and what they convey. He doesn’t want to hit you over the head, he wants you to listen; and that I will gladly do.
Easy ballads on this record, some cool bluesy stuff too like Burwash: an autobiographical tune that describes his rise through the Toronto music scene. The System, This Town, King Midas, Dear Mr. Obama and The Precipice deal directly with socio-political concerns mentioned earlier, and his lyrics are pretty much right on the money. Thomas is singing about the things that are on his mind, and the band playing behind him (Lou Pomanti, Eric St. Laurent, Davide Direnzo, George Koller) is soulful. I’m loving the Fender Rhodes sound on tracks like Never Again, which deals with school shootings like Sandy Hook as it takes aim at America’s gun fetish combined with political corruption- powerful stuff. Then there’s the first line of The Circus: “the president pays off a porn star, while the senator steals a kiss/ who could invent such a story, you just can’t make up stuff like this”. Safe to say he’s got their number.
David Clayton Thomas set out to make an album of songs worth listening to, and by George I think he’s got it. Say Somethin’ is saying some things we need to hear, and on a purely musical level it’s got the goods. Definitely recommended.
KEY CUTS: Burwash, This Town, The Circus