Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor – August 11, 2019
RISE Hollywood Vampires (Earmusic) ***
The second album for this American super group, led by Alice Cooper and featuring Joe Perry and Johnny Depp. Not as startling or heavy as their self titled debut, Rise is still a pretty good rock & roll record.
Rise is 13 originals with Cooper, Perry and Depp as principal writers, plus covers of Bowie`s Heroes, Johnny Thunders’ You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory and Jim Carroll’s People Who Died. I’m sure it’s a kick for Alice to work with different creative partners for a change, the same must go for Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. This is guitar driven rock & roll; nothing that sticks in your noodle like a classic Cooper or Aerosmith riff, but the grooves are still happening and this sounds like a good time.
Alice sings lead on most tracks, Joe sings one and Depp sings lead on a pair (including Heroes) and shares vocals on a couple more. Rise also features a number of instrumental passages and concludes with a spoken word piece over acoustic guitars. In the context of Cooper’s work it’s most like Along Came A Spider with cheeky, dark under-currents befitting a group named after a 70’s drinking club of famous rock stars.
Is Rise great? Essential? No but it’s far from the weakest link in Cooper’s 50 year career. Solid work from all concerned.
KEY CUTS: Heroes, I Want My Now, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory
DOG EAT DOG Billy Price (Gulf Coast Records) **** ½
Pittsburgh bluesman Billy Price has done and/ or been a part of 17 albums, recording with Roy Buchanan and Otis Clay, the Keystone Rhythm Band and The Billy Price Band. Dog Eat Dog is a solo disc… smooth, soulful and blue.
Dog Eat Dog feels like what Steely Dan might be if they played the blues, with a suave uptown vibe that sometimes feels like Earth, Wind & Fire but when Billy decides to let it all hang out on a lumbering blues like My Love Will Never Die, he really goes for it. Ex- Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin says “I was taken and shaken by Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in the 1970’s when I was playing guitar in Muddy Waters’ band. Billy has been one of my favourite singers, without qualification, ever since.”
Dog Has surprising musical width and depth. From the blues to swaggering funk like All Night Long Café, Price fully commits to each song he sings, giving you the distinct feeling that if he’s singing it, he means it. As Dog Eat Dog plays, it reels you in deeper; a righteous and even glorious experience. I can feel some of these songs in the context of a Quentin Tarantino film, they have that kind of offhanded coolness.
Had no idea who this cat was when I put the album on, but far before the end of the last track, I was all in. I love this guy.
KEY CUTS: Working On Your Chain Gang, All Night Long Café, Toxicity
THE MUSIC MADE ME DO IT Ted Nugent (Round Hill Music) ****+
It’s the 15th solo album for this son of Detroit. Say what you will about Nugent’s politics (and I have), the guitar is still a dangerous weapon in his hands. The Music Mad Me Do It is a hellacious, carnivorous, delirious gravy slathered slab of outdoors rock & roll.
The Music Made Me Do It was released at the beginning of November. I’ve always liked Uncle Ted’s music but have considerable difficulties with his well known political views. Driving home from work one day a couple of weeks ago, I heard him talking to Jim Florentine on Ozzy’s Boneyard (Sirius XM). The more I listened, the more I came to understand Ted as a person. If I based my music collection on whether or not I agreed with an artist’s political views, it would be a pitiful gathering indeed. Listening to Ted and Jim talk on that show made me feel that liking his music was okay again. I grabbed an I Tunes card on the way home and bought his latest album right away.
The Music Made Me Do It is loaded with flame-throwing riffs inspired by the founding fathers of rock & roll and that wild and hairy spirit I’ve always admired about Ted. His rhythm section is killer, as always; drummer Jason Hartless and bassist Greg Smith definitely have the funk. Nuge loves the outdoors and he addresses that in I Just Wanna Go Huntin’, the acoustic version of Fred Bear that kids at his outdoor camps request, and his biggest song ever, reborn as the hunting anthem Backstrap Fever.
I don’t need politics from music, I want inspiration and thrills. For rock & roll that makes my backbone shiver The Music Made Me Do It is just what this doctor ordered.
KEY CUTS: Fred Bear, Cocked Locked & Ready To Rock, Where You Gonna Run To Get Away From Yourself
MISSISSIPPI BAR BQ Zac Harmon (Catfood Records) *****
A remarkable new album from this talented singer/guitarist. Mississippi Bar BQ has soul by the trainload, the playing is sublime, and it’s a joy to listen to.
As a singer Zac has Bobby “Blue” Bland’s uptown sophistication. As a guitar player he’s a cross between Freddie King, BB King and George Benson- precise and emotional but not excessive. Mississippi Bar BQ showcases 10 original numbers, plus a sweet cover of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Produced by Jim Gaines (Santana, SRV, Journey) the sound of this disc is flawless. Backing Harmon on most of these songs is a group of studio musicians called The Rays; Bob Trenchard on bass, Richy Puga on drums,, Johnny McGee on guitar, Dan Ferguson on keys, plus a casually excellent horn section that will have you feeling BB King’s big band blues sound circa Live At The Regal. Several other tracks feature Zac’s touring band.
With a title like Mississippi Bar BQ I expected this to be rougher around the edges like a backyard party, but it’s a more sophisticated blues vibe- quite enjoyable. I know I talk a lot about groove in my reviews, but in the blues in particular it’s crucial and this disc has it in endless supply. This is what greatness sounds like.
KEY CUTS: Mississippi Bar BQ, So Cold, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
VISIONS Alice Howe (independent) *** ½
The debut album for this singer/ songwriter from New England is a modern love letter to 60’s and 70’s folk. A mix of originals and covers drawn from the family record collection, Visions is the first breath of a bright and promising career.
Visions was recorded in Bakersfield and produced by Freebo, Bonnie Raitt’s bassist for a decade. With a rich mezzo soprano voice, Alice sounds comfortable and natural as she works her way through blues, bluegrass, folk and pop tunes, giving some a Celtic spin. A terrific backing band that understands what she’s about and what she’s trying to do here sure helps as she re-interprets songs by Taj Mahal, Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, but her steamy, swampy re-do of the Muddy Waters classic Honey Bee is the centerpiece of the entire album. The track that follows it, Getaway Car, is a bluesy romp set to a big band groove with a horn section and Hammond B3 that’s just a blast.
American Blues Scene notes that “Sometimes we’re lucky enough to catch an up-and-coming artist as they fly into our radar. This is one of those times”, so Alice Howe is making waves. Visions is confident, letting the world know where she’s coming from, with a backing band that makes many of these songs echo in your mind long after the album is done playing. It’s dedicated to her father, Sandy Howe, who passed away in 2009. “This album would not exist without his cultivation of my voice and creative spirit” she says on the inside cover. Yup, Visions is pretty fine company.
KEY CUTS: Honey Bee, Getaway Car, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right
SWEET OR MEAN Eliza Neals (E-H Records) *****
An EP of originals from Eliza here capable of blowing the roof off of any roadhouse on Route 66 or in the Delta. Sweet Or Mean is genuine, lowdown, shit-kickin’ bad-ass blues.
Eliza Neals is a blues belter with a gritty velvet/ powerhouse vocal style, not unlike Sass Jordan, and she comes out swinging. Sweet Or Mean was produced by Ted Horowitz, a Brooklyn blues guitarist you may know better as Popa Chubby. He not only produced the disc but plays guitar on every track- an unexpected treat. This may be a small helping of the blues, but the songs are played and sung with rock voltage and energy. The band is hot, Popa’s playing is electrifying- no doubt inspired by the material and by Neals’ energy and voice. His slide playing on Livin With Yo Mama in particular is brazen and greasy, the very definition of great blues.
Music succeeds when like minded souls begin to play and that extra special ‘something’ happens- you can sure feel it here. The disc starts and ends with different takes of Pawnshop Blues and sammiched in between is some muscular magic. Sweet Or Mean does exactly an EP should do; leaves you wanting more.
KEY CUTS: Pawnshop Blues (first cut), Livin’ With Yo Mama
LIVIN’ TO PLAY Brett Spaulding & The Psychic Spies (independent) ****
Brett Spaulding & The Psychic Spies play pop-based blues laced with a heavy rock feel. Livin’ To Play makes it plain that this band is going to be around for a while.
Brett came up through the blues scene in Calgary, sharing the stage as a sideman with The Mike Clark Band, Donald Ray Johnson, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne and more. Livin’ To Play combines his love of the blues with influences like The Beatles, Steely Dan, The Foo Fighters and Stevie Ray. Brett started the band with bassist Chad Holtzman while doing a regular house gig at The Blues Can in Calgary. They started recording demos together in Chad’s studio, songs that would eventually become LTP.
Of the album’s birth, Spaulding says “we were trying to go for simple but sophisticated. We also just followed our hearts and went were the music took us. If a mistake was made but you could hear something cool in it, it got shaped into a part instead of being erased as an error.” That philosophy of record making I can get behind, it results in perfectly imperfect records. There’s a tightness to the playing and harmonies but it’s not machine-like; more like perfect in a Springsteen-y sort of way.
Livin’ To Play may not change the world, but it makes this corner a better place to be.
KEY CUTS: Livin’ To Play, The Lucky One, Can’t Stop
GOOD LIFE Seth James (Cherry Bomb Records) ****
There’s gotta be something in the water in Texas, or at least in the beer they drink. This year particularly I’ve noticed a raft of talented singer/ songwriters from the Lone Star state. That’s where Seth James hails from, and Good Life is an uplifting, righteous blend of country, roots, blues and rock, driven by physically funky rhythms.
Seth James, a razor-sharp Texas guitar slinger, has the voice of a soul man crossed with Lyle Lovett. The title track, written by Seth along with Kevin McKendree (keys) and Bob Britt (rhythm guitar), is the heart of the record. “It was important to me that this album had an overall positive feel” James says. “I always found it easy to be dark and brooding, but using happiness is a trick. This song is a good representation of where I’m at now and where I wanna stay.”
James is following his primary passion, fashioning a sound infused with the blues, “I never made the decision to be a musician” he insists, “I just started doing what I love and it got out of hand.” One grandfather was a honky tonk piano player in the 40’s and 50’s, the other was a Texas Ranger. Good Life is bluesy and soulful, full of songs about things that matter. The oldest song, I’m Coming Home, dates back 10 years and Seth notes that “anyone who has to travel for a living will find a home with this song.” No matter or where you’re at, there’s at least one song on this album that will reach you. That’s heart. .
KEY CUTS: Third Generation, I Am The Storm, The Time I Love You The Most
COME UNDONE Gracie Curran & Friends (VizzTone) ****+
One of the great joys of writing album reviews is throwing something on, having no idea what to expect, then going “oh wow” several times during the course of an album. I’ve just had that with Come Undone, the follow-up to Gracie’s debut Proof Of Love (2014). It’s the sort of album that gets under your skin in a really great way.
First things first; Gracie can really sing, like Mavis Staples, and you can feel her adopted hometown of Memphis in the DNA of Come Undone. “This album is the soundtrack to five years on the road” she says. “It’s the story of losing it all, losing yourself, and hope, and the things we do to get by until we get it all back. Learning to be whole again. It’s in the spaces where we feel the most alone- this is life, through music.”
Curran sings with sass and balls but when she wraps herself around a ballad like Love Is The Cruelest Thing I Know you feel she’s really been there. Her heart has been broken and she makes you feel her pain too; the mark of a great singer. The musicians in Gracie’s band, including guitarist/ co-producer Damon Fowler, are exceptional players that know when to lay back and when to lean forward and really give ‘er.
Gracie Curran & friends are preachin’ the blues on Come Undone; you need to listen.
KEY CUTS: Love Is The Cruelest Thing I Know, If Mama Ain’t Happy, Chasing Sunsets
KALEIDO STROPICO Roberto Lopez (Curura Musique) ****+
It’s not every day you can hear something that sounds familiar yet fresh at the same time, but that’s just what is in store with Roberto Lopez’s new album Kaleido Stropico. Latin grooves straight out of his native Colombia combine with jazz and a contemporary feel for a musical exploration that leaves you breathless.
When I first put this on tonight it felt like early 70’s Santana with that sexy, irresistible Latin rhythmic backbone that makes you want to move. Roberto Lopez is a Colombian/ Canadian musician who now calls Montreal home. Kaleido Stropico further extends his Colombian grooviness with jazz, funk and electronic music textures to keep things lively. Many tracks are instrumental but when there are vocals they are in Spanish so I have no idea what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter because this music makes you feel.
On Kaleido Stropico, Roberto explores Colombian grooves mixed with funk and soul horn lines, Motown inspired bass lines and Latin electric guitar along with some exquisite Flamenco guitar for a unique blend that’s quite unlike anything you’ve heard lately. This succession of constantly changing tropical patterns is refreshing, unlike anything else that’s come across my desk for awhile. It pushes boundaries while honouring Lopez’s rich heritage, and the rhythms are likely to fill any dance floor they come in contact with. More to the point, Kaleido Stropico feels good and it makes you feel good too… and who couldn’t use a little more of that?
KEY CUTS: Por La Calle, Willie Boogaloo, 63