WALLS Barbra Streisand (Columbia) ****
This, Streisand’s 36th album, is beautifully produced classic pop fueled by America’s turbulent political climate. A mix of originals and cover songs, Walls fervently yet gently expresses Barbra’s concern about the issues the divide the nation and the world.
The title is a jab at Trump’s promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico to keep out immigrants, and she co-wrote the song Don’t Lie To Me as a response to the dishonestly that drives Trump’s administration. Still, Walls is not bitter. It is sewn with messages of hope, like the ethereal remake of the John Lennon classic Imagine that interpolates What A Wonderful World. There’s a new take on Burt Bacharach’s What The World Needs Now, and the disc ends on an optimistic note with Happy Days Are Here Again. Perhaps Barbra feels, as most of us hope, that all is not yet lost.
I’ve been a fan since the age of 11 when I went with my mom to see Funny Girl at the cinema. Even all these years later, her voice amazes me with her considerable gifts intact, even in her mid-70’s. Walls is a dramatic, emotional plea for reason and hope in chaotic times. Some may dismiss this as old fashioned, but Walls is just Barbra doing what she always does- making quietly great music.
KEY CUTS: Don’t Lie To Me, Imagine/ What A Wonderful World, What the World Needs Now
INSPIRED David Julia (Vizztone) ****
A muscular and, well, inspired debut from this 17 year old Florida bluesman. Playing, singing and writing far beyond what his years would lead you to expect, David Julia is definitely the real deal.
An appropriate title for this disc; Julia is very aware of the debt he owes to the musicians who have inspired him. He began performing at the age of 7. David has been touring regionally and has already participated in the Memphis-based Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge 4 years in a row, drawing rave reviews every time.
Mike Zito’s production on this disc is perfect; not too aggressive but not laid back either. Of him Zito says “David Julia is playing guitar well beyond his years. He has an ear for melody, and a strong feeling that is contagious.” When David steps up for a solo it is controlled blues fury that is absolutely delicious. On the slow numbers in particular, it feels like there’s an ‘Albert Collins soul’ to his phrasing and bending of notes.
Inspired isn’t merely ‘pretty good for a young guy’ it’s a fine blues disc, period. If you like electric blues, David Julia’s Inspired belongs in your CD player.
KEY CUTS: Hey There Sally, Empty Promises, Don’t Get Me Going
TRIGGERS BE TRIPPIN’ Randy McAllister & The Scrappiest Band In The Motherland (Reaction Records) *** ½
A soulful outing here from this 6th generation Texan on his 15th album. A drummer who has developed his skills as a singer and harmonica player, McAllister’s songs are driving tales about real dirt-under-your-fingernails life.
Overall Triggers Be Trippin’ is the blues but I’m feeling some country around the edges too. His harp work is sweet but I enjoy Randy most as a singer. Living Blues Magazine says he has “an expressive vocal register falling somewhere between the soulful effervescence of Al Green and the blunt hammer of Johnny Taylor with a shrewd wit and an admirable turn of a phrase” and that works very well for me. This blues bard has mastered the form and injected it with a sort of infectious energy that you can’t help but feel from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Listen to a song like Batter Up and tell me I’m wrong- you can’t.
While McAllister’s vocals and harp are key ingredients in this mix Triggers is also as good as it is thanks to the other musicians, particularly guitarist Brandon Hudspeth. His leads are sweet, lyrical and bluesy, never too busy to the support the songs sonically and emotionally. The songs are well crafted, blurring stylistic boundaries as McAllister defies the purists to trust his own muse. As a record Triggers is growing on me nicely.
KEY CUTS: Since I Met You Baby, Batter Up, We Can’t Be friends (If You Don’t Like Jimmy Reed)
MORE BLOOD ON THE TRACKS: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL.14 Bob Dylan (Columbia/ Sony Legacy) *****
The latest installment in the ongoing Bob Dylan bootleg series. This collection centers on songs Dylan recorded between September and December 1974 for his seminal Blood On The Tracks album, released in 1975. I can’t imagine the casual or curious going whole hog for the 6 disc version; good thing there’s a single disc edition too.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, the 6 disc version of More Blood On The Tracks will mostly appeal to the obsessive fan that must have every note Bob ever played. I understand that, but it’s not for me. The 6 disc set contains multiple takes of many songs; for example, 12 different takes of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When I Go and 12 takes of Buckets Of Rain. Of all the bands and artists that I love- and there are many- I can’t think of a single one I feel the need to examine in this much detail.
Blood On The Tracks, marking Dylan’s return to Columbia Records, originally received mixed reviews upon its release in 1975 but has since gone on to become considered one of his greatest albums by fans and critics. Dive in deep if the spirit moves you- otherwise, the single disc version of alternate tracks of the known album will suit you just fine. Either way, it feels like spending the afternoon on your back porch with Bob Dylan and his guitar, back when he could still sing- and that’s not a bad way to go.
KEY CUTS: You’re A Big Girl Now (take 3), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (take 6), Tangled Up In Blue (rehearsal)
SANCTUARY Bryan Lee (Earrelevant Records) *****
If you think the blues and faith are mutually exclusive concepts, Bryan Lee has news for you. Far from the usual dirges that get sung in church, Sanctuary is about as joyful and uplifting as music can get. With the energy of an old time tent revival and some of the sweetest music this side of the pearly gates, this disc is damn awesome.
Sanctuary started with a dream. The night before a performance at a church in Norway, the blind New Orleans guitarist dreamt an entire musical arrangement for The Lord’s Prayer. The next day he performed it and, so inspired were he and the band, they recorded it shortly thereafter. But it would be 7 years later that a chance meeting with Steve Hamilton would result in this 11 song masterpiece that expresses Lee’s attitude toward life, his love for the Lord, and gratitude for his talent and career.
Lee lost his sight at the age of 8, but by 15 he was playing music for crowds in the Mid-West. A love of the blues led him to spend nearly 20 years in Chicago, and Muddy Waters told him to “stick with this, Bryan- one day you, too, will be a living legend.” What makes Sanctuary a compelling listen is the sweet, soulful musicianship and the sincerity of Bryan Lee’s beliefs. I admire his faith as I revel in his songwriting and playing abilities. This is a great CD.
KEY CUTS: Jesus Gave Me The Blues, U-Haul, Mr. Big
VIEW TO A THRILL Stephen Pearcy (Frontiers) ***
This is the fifth solo outing for Ratt singer/ founding member Stephen Pearcy. If you’re a fan of 80’s rock and of Ratt in particular, View To A Thrill is aimed directly at you.
While not a particularly adventurous disc, View checks all the right boxes; catchy riffs bashing away over 8th note bass grooves and bombastic, not particularly complicated drumming. If that sounds like criticism, it isn’t. The appeal of these songs is physical and visceral, designed to invoke nostalgia for a freer and wilder time in our lives- at least for those of us old enough to remember the 80’s!
View To A Thrill will certainly appeal to fans of Pearcy’s solo stuff as well as what he’s done with Ratt. That voice is instantly recognizable, and the songs he’s written here with guitarist Erik Ferentinos really play to his strengths. Erik is a talented soloist who knows how to give the singer exactly what he needs to work with. Scot Coogan, formerly of Ace Frehley’s band, provides the thundering backbeat.
Pearcy is not a fool- he knows he’s no Robert Plant, and he knows how to give the people what they want from him; hooky, riff-powered rock songs that remind you of Ratt, that make you want to raise your first and yell. View To A Thrill might be the musical equivalent of a Big Mac, but every once in awhile you just gotta have one, ya know?
KEY CUTS: U Only Live Twice, From The Inside, Secrets To Tell
BLOOD RED ROSES Rod Stewart (Decca/ Republic) ****+
According to Wikipedia, this is Rod Stewart’s 30th album. Nearing his mid-70’s you’d expect Rod to take it easy. But the last 5 years have been populated by vital and fairly excellent records like Time (2013), Another Country (2015) and now Blood Red Roses.
I thought Rod was coasting when he did his American Songbook records, but after reading his biography (a terrific book, by the way) I found out that was not the case. He wanted to sing the songs that inspired him as a lad and, in return, the experience seems to have stoked his creativity. He may not be the same rocker that sang Maggie May but these songs, most of which he wrote or co-wrote, stand up quite well to his 80’s stuff.
From heartfelt ballads like Grace to dance floor jams like Give Me Love he still has a great ear for catchy melodies and beats. Blood Red Roses doesn’t sound much like what’s charting in pop music these days but, like Streisand, Rod is just doing what Rod does; making great records. He may not have the range he once did but his voice has aged surprisingly well, and there’s a kind of Celtic soul to many of these jubilant tunes.
Of those 30 albums Stewart has made, Blood Red Roses is certainly in the top 10, possibly even top 5. This one is welcome in my CD player anytime.
KEY CUTS: Grace, Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Farewell
BY GEORGE- BY BACHMAN: SONGS OF GEORGE HARRISON Randy Bachman (Universal/ Musicvaultz) *****
Randy Bachman’s latest album, his first since 2015’s Heavy Blues, is a tribute to the quiet Beatle. Covering songs from George’s solo career as well as with The Beatles and even The Traveling Wilburys, By George re-imagines songs that we know VERY well.
I was on the fence about picking this up until I saw Randy Bachman talking passionately about it on Richard Crouse’s Pop Life TV show. “As a true fan, these tracks are my re-imagining of my favorite George songs in different styles to show how they stand up as compositions” Randy says in the liner notes. “Someone once said ‘a good song is a good song no matter what you do to it.’ Well, I certainly pushed that statement off the cliff!” he continues. He’s right about that- on By George songs like While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Handle With Care sound BTO-ish, like Saturday night rock jams. The lead-off track, Between Two Mountains, is an original composition about how Randy figures George might’ve felt as a songwriter trying to exist between Lennon and McCartney.
Rocking these song sup and changing the arrangements is not blasphemous, but a tribute to the strength of the songs themselves. I’m not the first to observe that Harrison was The Beatles’ secret weapon, but Bachman’s re-interpretation of his songs makes that more obvious- even his reggae treatment of Here Comes The Sun makes sense in this context.
Though initially gun-shy of By George, it has turned out to be a very enjoyable set.
KEY CUTS: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes The Sun, Between Two Mountains
PRIME CUTS: THE VERY BEST OF THE BEAST FROM THE EAST Popa Chubby (PCP Productions) *****+
If you’re really into the blues, you know about this guy. Popa has hand-picked 15 tracks from across his nearly 30 year career for this single disc retrospective, and make no mistake- these are the Prime Cuts of a prolific and amazing career.
I’ve been a fan since first hearing Popa’s How’d A White Boy Get The Blues in 2000 on the Blind Pig label. The Chubster is a large man with a passionate playing style when it comes to the blues. He describes it as ”The Stooges meet Buddy Guy” and “Motorhead meets Muddy Waters”, and who wouldn’t want a piece of that action? He’s a Brooklyn boy, born Ted Horowitz, and his music is more than just blues. Sweet Goddess Of Love & Beer is straight up soul with tasty horn parts and Daddy Played The Guitar, to my ears, is bad-ass rock & roll. He isn’t restricted to just one lane- I really like that.
Incase you’re a fan, Prime Cuts includes some cool stuff to make this a worthwhile for you too; like the previously unreleased Go Fuck Yourself featuring his daughter on violin, and the holiday treasure There On Christmas, heard here for the first time. As a fan there are songs I would have liked included like Slide Devil Man Slide or his rockin’ re-working of The Theme From The Godfather, but on the whole I’m quite satisfied with what IS here and feel it represents his career nicely. Do yourself a solid- pick up Prime Cuts and start working your way back through his amazing catalogue.
KEY CUTS: Grown Man Crying Blues, Daddy Played The Guitar, San Catri
JOHNNY & JAALENE Johnny & Jaalene (Rip Cat Records) *** ½
If the rockabilly revival is your scene, then this is your band. 19 year old Johnny Ramos is the son of blues guitarists Kid Ramos, and on vocals is 16 year old Jaalene DeLeon, who sings like a bird and handles these songs like she was born to it.
This disc is described as “roots, rockabilly, Chicano rock & roll and Americana.” For me it feels like time travelling, to a different decade and maybe a different place. While I appreciate it and am enjoying the exotic melodies and rhythms, I can’t say that it’s speaking directly to me… but then again I’m an old white guy, so what do I know?
Johnny and Jaalene are joined on this record by Johnny’s dad Kid Ramos along with Tommy Harkenrider, Brent Harding, Kip Dabbs, Jesus Cuevas and Ron Dziubla. This disc is exceptionally well produced, capturing a time and a place that Johnny & Jaalene are far too young to have experienced (the late 50’s/ early 60’s), but that’s gotta be part of the thrill for them, making this kind of stuff new and fresh for the youngsters.
Seeing these guys live would be a hoot, a fun night out but poodle skirts and penny loafers be damned; as nicely done as this is, it just ain’t my scene. Still, if your party is starting to drag then throw on Johnny & Jaalene to get the place jumping again.
KEY CUTS: Let’s have A Party, Teenage Cutie, Angel Baby
PATINA Red Dragon Cartel (Frontiers) ****
Former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee (Bark At The Moon, The Ultimate Sin) follows his new band’s 2014 self-titled debut with a scorching rock & roll record. Ozzy was daft to toss him out of his band all those years ago, and Patina is the proof.
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Lee’s playing style but was reminded of that with the Red Dragon Cartel album 4 years ago. Patina is a return to that bluesy, fierce hard rock sound that Lee perfected with his post-Ozzy band “Badlands”. Produced by Lee and his bassist Anthony Esposito and mixed by Max Norman (he produced Ozzy way back when) this is a wild-eyed, pedal to the metal rock & roll record. Jake was gone from the music biz for quite a few years, but he’s obviously inspired again- it’s in the songs.
Aside from Lee, Red Dragon Cartel is Darren James Smith on lead vocals, Anthony Esposito on bass and Phil Varone on drums. Patina is the intersection where hard rock meets the blues, and the results are very satisfying. Songs like Painted Heart have an epic feel, but there’s plenty of muscular workouts like Speedbag too. Sometimes you just want to turn up the volume and get lost for awhile, and Patina is the right record to do that with. I came for Jake’s guitar playing, but I’m staying for the great songs and the way they make me feel alive again. I can see these guys becoming a genuine big deal.
KEY CUTS: Speedbag, Punchclown, Crooked Man
PARADISE BLUES John Akapo (Mensch House Records) ***** +
A fresh blues breeze has just come in off the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii of all places. Tamuei “Big John” Akapo has a soulful voice and a nimble finger-picking style on the acoustic guitar, and this disc is totally and completely captivating.
From his early days in Alaska where he fell in love with the guitar to his youth in American Samoa singing acapella and learning how to loop, music was always going to be his destiny. His parents had watched family members succumb to addiction from the rock & roll lifestyle and didn’t want that for John and his brothers. “I looked to my brother’s friend for guitar lessons and quietly dove into a wormhole of music that I have never climbed back out of” he says. Watching Eric Clapton’s MTV Unplugged is what sealed the deal for him. “All I knew was I wanted more” John remembers.
Paradise Blues has a captivating, easygoing charm that reminds me of Kelly Joe Phelps and Keb’ Mo’. Akapo may have begun his professional career as a luau musician- and you can hear some Island soul here if you listen for it- but he’s a straight up bluesman now. “The blues fans that have seen me play appreciate the fact that I’m from Hawaii, yet I make them feel like they’re at home in the mainland” he summarizes. “The blues is at home here in the Islands, and it’s nothing new.” With unique takes on songs from blues mentors like Robert Johnson (Ramblin’ On My Mind) and Muddy Waters (I Can’t Be Satisfied), Paradise Blues is one of the most impressive debuts I’ve ever heard.
KEY CUTS: Ramblin’ On My Mind, Caramac Blues, Big Road Blues