Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: Nov 17 2019

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THE WESTERNER Zack Walther Band (TuneCore) ****
This new record from the Zack Walther Band is looking to break down some fences. It’s Americana, roots, country, blues, R&B and a whole lot of sinewy soul. It’s one of those records that, as it’s ending, you think “I gotta hear that again.”

Equally at home playing country, blues, R&B and rock, Zack’s aim with The Westerner was to make it different from his records that came before. The concept builds on ideas from previous work, constructing a sonic landscape akin to the American frontier of the late 1800`s- a place of untamed territories where life was free, unrestrained and rowdy. This disc explores themes of personal pride, betrayal, loss and redemption; it kind of feels like a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.

The music is muscular and hook-laden and Zack`s voice reminds me of another Texas favourite, Delbert McClinton. Though he names artists like Elvis, The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen as influences and Rodney Crowell as a mentor, Walther says “everyone’s musical roots go back to R&B and the blues, even those artists from the so-called British Invasion of the 60`s… we can all trace our music back to the Mississippi Delta.” You can sure feel it here.

The Westerner features 10 songs; 7 new compositions and 3 that were previously released on an EP, but re-recorded here. “Typically people write an entire album before they start recording” says Zack, “but we recorded (this) in parts. For example, we have two songs with a horn section which we brought in when we were ready for it. Some of the songs were written, some had music but no lyrics.” He produced the album with his drummer Matthew Briggs, who has his own studio that they could use without worrying about a deadline or the meter running.

The Westerner has a rough-hewn, spirited charm that keeps asking you to come back again, and you’ll go willingly. “My hope is that (this) is a record my fans can be proud of” he says, and I’m quite sure they are.

KEY CUTS: Casualty, Payin’ For It Now, Bailey’s Light

SKETCHES Natalie MacMaster (Linus Entertainment) *****
Canada’s “Queen Of The Fiddle” has just released her first solo album in 8 years, and it’s a beautiful thing. Sketches is a mix of traditional tunes and medleys mixed with new compositions that is thrilling in its execution and exquisiteness.

MacMaster has sold a pile of albums, been nominated for and won many awards, and is even a member Of The Order of Canada. For Sketches, she says she drew on a particular set of numbers for inspiration. “It is a moment during my 47th year of life, my 37th year of fiddling, my 16th year of marriage and my 13th year of parenting” she says of this album and in reference to her 7 children and husband, fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy. “It’s a moment of joyous appreciation inspired by years of parenting, marriage, friendships, music and life.”

Though she has played with an impressive list of artists that includes Bella Fleck, Carlos Santana, Faith Hill, The Chieftains and more, I’m willing to bet fans of her work will welcome this return to her solo sound. The songs on Sketches are delicate and fierce, there is a decidedly light touch on the production, and overall this is just such a joyful sound that even those of us that aren’t fiddle fans will feel that country/ jazz magic. I admit freely that, previously, I thought of the instrument as a hokey addition to bad country songs and/or something to crank out reels for drunken fishermen to dance to, but in the hands of a master (pardon the pun) its magic is apparent. Nary a word is sung throughout Sketches but my God can you ever feel the songs! “I have something to say through my fiddle” she notes, and boy does she ever.

I’ve said many times before that, thanks to this side gig of writing album reviews, I get to hear a lot of music that I might not otherwise be exposed to. Nothing makes me happier than to be coaxed down a path I might not otherwise explore, and the superb playing and song-writing on Sketches makes my heart beat faster. I like that, a lot.

KEY CUTS: Professor Blackie, Barn Dances, Tribute To John Allan

NO PAINT Jeff Chaz (JCP Records) **** ½
Rockin’ blues with solid New Orleans mojo is the order of the day on this, Jeff Chaz’s first album in 3 years. No Paint’s swagger and attitude makes it hard to resist.

This is a power blues trio that plays with reckless abandon, feeling at times like they’re about to go off the rails but they never do. Produced by Chaz himself, No Paint isn’t technically perfect but it is certainly an authentic blues romp. He has a powerful, passionate voice with plenty of blues muscle, and his guitar playing is a cross between Albert King and Keith Richards, or early Jimmy Page, particularly on Zeppelin’s first two albums. The songs on this disc are quite hooky as they centre on joy, sorrow, humour and hot guitar licks. You feel Jeff’s understanding of blues history in every note he plays and sings and his band- bassist Augie Joachim and drummer Rick Jones- are with him every step of the way. As I listened to this album for the first time I had the distinct feeling that it’s the sort of blues SRV would’ve been into.

Graham Clarke of Blues Bytes is right on the beam when he says Jeff Chaz “…is hitting his stride as a composer with some of the most imaginative themes and lyrics you’ve heard in awhile.” There’s a sense of fun, despite the serious musicianship, in songs like Lowdown Dirty Blues that will turn you into a fan. At first the album production-wise seemed a bit of a turn off, primitive and reverby… but the more I listened to No Paint (a perfect title by the way) the more it made sense and the more right it felt. It’s not a multi-million dollar New York, LA or Nashville record and if it was, it wouldn’t work nearly as well. I’m really liking the rough charm here. Besides, you gotta like a guy who can write lines like “life is like coffee/ it never tastes as good as it smells.”

Jeff and his band love their blues and they play it on No Paint with passion, purpose and joy… can’t ask for more than that.

KEY CUTS: Lowdown Dirty Blues, The Stars Are Out, Life Is Like Coffee

OUTSKIRTS OF LOVE Sue Decker (independent) *** ½
There’s something about really sweet guitar playing that just gets to me. Sue Decker, from Vancouver Island, is a fine player and songwriter, and Outskirts Of Love is the kind of record you’ll want to listen to all day.

Decker started playing music with a rented guitar at a bluegrass jam and started writing her own stuff soon after that. She has an expressive voice and a love of dobro and slide guitar that serves her well. Outskirts Of Love embodies the essence of early blues and folk with the sensibility of outlaw country, like Bessie Smith meets Steve Earle. “The ideal I’m always chasing as a songwriter is to use ordinary language to fuse everyday moments with the unspeakable and the extraordinary.”

The songs that make up Outskirts Of Love are about love, fear and faith, powered by passion, emotional honesty and the occasional bit of cheekiness. I love the range of textures here, from solo country blues to evocative ballads to full band arrangements. The disc features contributions from Victoria area musicians like Bill Johnson, Damian Graham, Paul Black, Adam Dobres and Kelly Fawcett. It’s no wonder they wanted to come and play; Sue hosts “Back Porch Blues”, a monthly acoustic blues session with a talented collective of fellow musicians in that city.

Outskirts Of Love has a sort of old-timey feel, an almost bluegrass soul that’s pretty easy to get lost in. Stripped down to its essence, this is a series of heartfelt stories with a backdrop of excellent musicianship that makes me want to dust off the Fender acoustic guitar sitting beside me and actually learn how to play. Stories that you can relate to and songs that inspire? Yeah… I’ll have some more of that, please.

KEY CUTS: Lay Me Down In The Indigo, Too Close To The Bone, Outskirts Of Love

I WANNA GO WITH YOU Wide Mouth Mason (We Are Busy Bodies) *****
This is Wide Mouth Mason’s 9th album overall and their first since 2011’s No Bad Days. There has always been blues in their music, but with I Wanna Go With You they’re all in and it’s a beautiful thing.

Wide Mouth Mason- Shaun Verrault (vocals, guitars) and Safwan Javed (percussion, vocals)- started as a blues band from Saskatoon, and the new disc is a spectacular return to their roots. “This album is us embracing our blues roots” says Safwan. “Here we are stating unequivocally that we are a blues band at our core.” It’s a creative and refreshing look at those blues, rough and tumble and full of wild passion. All but one of these 12 cuts features Verrault’s stunningly innovative guitar playing dubbed “three style”, or tri-slide lap steel. Wearing three slides with rounded tips on his left hand, Shaun is able to simultaneously play chords and sliding melodies on resonator/dobro guitar and electric lap steel. Just listen to the record; it sounds ridiculously cool.

I Wanna Go With You is spirited gutbucket blues with a Big Sugar feel. “The blues has always been one of the musical primary colors for us- the middle ten letters of our alphabet” notes Verrault, “but on this album we just dove all the way into it.” Recorded by Ryan Dahle (Limblifter, Age Of Electric, Mounties) who plays bass on some cuts, the album was tracked live with Shaun and Safwan perfecting the songs and capturing the moment as a song was played no more than a couple of times before being nailed down.

Guest include Shawn “Harpoon” Hill blowing some cool harp on a gritty remake of Bowie’s Modern Love. David Gogo co-wrote Erase Any Trace, and Kelly “Mr. Chill” Hoppe of Big Sugar plays harmonica on Outsourced. This disc has a rootsy, organic feel, the sound of music happening naturally and unforced… it’s all about the groove, and they have it down. I Wanna Go With You is one of 2019’s unexpected, delightful surprises. It’s what fans have been waiting for and everything new fans didn’t know they needed.

KEY CUTS: Erase Any Trace, Every Red Light, Outsourced, Modern Love

BETTING ON A GAMBLING MAN Dwane Dixon (independent0 ****
The blues with some twang and southern spice thrown in- that’s Dwane Dixon’s third self-produced album sounds. The quote on his website says “If Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons and Jeff Healey all lived in the same house, their next door neighbour would be Dwane Dixon”. Makes you want to check this out, doesn’t it? Be my guest.

Betting On A Gambling Man all started with the title song. “The inspiration came from a story my oldest brother told me about our father” Dwane says, who was just 18 when his dad died. “(He) told me that our father used to like shooting dice, playing craps for money. I was completely taken by the story and immediately went home and wrote the words to Betting On A Gambling Man. It has a retro, rockabilly vibe I thought my dad would love.” So yeah- that song and this album stand as Dixon’s most personal work yet.

Because this record is such a personal statement, Dwane elected to work in solitude and play all the instruments himself. While I usually advocate for a full band in the studio vibing off of each other, I have to say that Dixon carries the task off quite well. He’s talented with each instrument but it’s his singing and guitar playing that really holds your attention on Betting On A Gambling Man. It’s got a southern vibe and blues too, but it will also rock you ‘til the cows come home. The disc ends with a trippy instrumental, The Awakening, that features ripping guitar over a hypnotic rhythm section… sort of feels like an acid trip, or the middle section of Ted Nugent’s Strangehold, but tastier.

You may not have heard of Dwane Dixon before, but he’s a pretty damned good guitar player and Betting On A Gambling Man is worth spinning.

KEY CUTS: Swallow That Pill, I Buried Your Bones, The Awakening

COME ON OVER TO ME Barbara Stephan (independent) ****+
When I get a CD with absurdly good looking people on the cover I don’t want to like it, hoping it sound like a vanity project for some bored dilettante dabbling in music. Ot the case here. Stephan really brings it on Come On Over To Me, locking into an emotional soul-blues groove that really satisfies.

Stunning musicianship is at work here, with Barbara Stephan’s commanding voice being the mortar holding it all in place. The songs are well written and structured with each different from the next, not surprising for someone reared in a hardcore jazz household, where other genres were verboten. “I was already into all sorts of late-80’s/ early-90’s rock” she notes, “but because I wasn’t allowed to study or play anything other than jazz, I just rebelled. Left home at 18 and just started exploring everything else that was out there.” This expansion of her sonic palette led to what looks like a promising career.

The soul grooves that are prevalent on Come On Over To Me feel natural. “I was writing songs for film and TV for a licensing firm, and they gave me an assignment to write 11 Motown style songs” Barbara says. “The joy I got from writing those was the light bulb moment; I finally knew where I should be stylistically and as far as writing. And that was it; I’ve never looked back.” With my schedule I’m lucky to be able to listen to an album a couple of times before writing a review and moving on to the next one, that’s just how my life is disorganized… but as I type this Come On is playing for the fifth time- that’s how much I’m enjoying it.

Barbara’s smoky, passionate voice is a big attraction here but the Fender Rhodes-like keyboard work and horn stabs that give these tunes a Memphis/ Detroit pulse and haunting melodies that evoke thoughts of an Ennio Morricone score really bring it all together. Come On Over To Me feels fresh and familiar at the same time, and I’m loving it. One more spin before bedtime? Talked me into it.

KEY CUTS: Dirty Gunslinger, Laughing In The Dark, So Good

LIVE Chris “Bad News” Barnes (VizzTone) *** ½
The blues lives and breathes best on stage, and that’s where this disc comes from. Recorded on the legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise #32, listening to Chris Barnes’ 3rd album is like being airdropped into the middle of a totally cool party.

Chris ‘Bad News’ Barnes is a born live performer, logging over 2,000 stage shows with Chicago’s legendary Second City comedy troupe, translating those skills to the blues concert stage. Joining Barnes and his band here include harp master Steve Guyger and guitarist Gary Hoey. The songs in this 13 song set are mainly blues standards, but they’re played extremely well. Producer Tony Braunagel and engineer Johnny Lee Schell were on board this cruise too with Taj Mahal and able to capture Chris’s shows perfectly.

I don’t know about Barnes’s comedy chops, but they say comedy is the blues for people that can’t sing. He’s got a great blues shout that reminds me of fellow Second City alum John Belushi. The band is sharp and tight at every turn, providing plenty of thrills for those lucky enough to have been there. You’ll recognize songs that were once done by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, The Allman Brothers Band, John Mayall, George Thorogood and the like. Chris wrote a parody of Earl Hooker’s Come On, explaining to the ladies there that it covers a man’s two emotional states; Hungry and Horny.

Live isn’t long on originality, featuring songs we’ve already heard God knows how many times by others, but the playing is really hot. The goal for any live record is to make the listener feel as though they had been in the audience, or wish they had been, and in this respect Live succeeds admirably. Chris ‘Bad News’ Barnes’ new album isn’t a show-stopper but it is a pretty good one, with undeniable energy and enthusiasm. Thumbs up.

KEY CUTS: Hungry & Horny, Boom Boom, Whipping Post

CHRISTMAS IS A WAY OF LIFE, MY DEAR Chantal Kreviazuk (Warner Music Canada) ***
Kreviazuk’s new album is also her first Christmas record. Christmas Is A Way Of Life is 10 tracks; five originals plus Chantal’s spin on 5 holiday standards. I’m willing to bet this album will be heard in more than a few homes in the weeks to come, Christmases to come too.

So why a holiday album? “The world could use the Christmas spirit all year long” she muses. “The kindness, the gentleness and thoughtfulness that goes with the season is so healthy. The world could benefit from living by the values that radiate during Christmas.” Hey- no argument there. The joy of discovery in Way Of Life isn’t in the new songs but rather her new way of approaching old standards we’ve known forever. Chantal updates them while paying respect to the originals- not an easy task.

Kreviazuk spent the last year touring with husband Raine Maida in support of their collaborative Moon Vs. Sun project, and they chose to cover Blue Christmas here as a duet. “We both grew up in households that listened to a lot of Elvis” she says, so choosing a song to sing together was easy. This album is a family affair, with their 11 year old son Sal joining her on Paul McCartney`s Wonderful Christmas Time as well as the new song The Christmas Train. While my own feelings about the festive season are hopelessly complicated, it is a time for families to come together and Christmas Is A Way of Life is pretty adept at giving you a case of the warm fuzzies.

A haunting, modern pop take on the holiday season, this, and a fine addition to your Christmas music library.

KEY CUTS: Blues Christmas, Wonderful Christmas Time, I Wanna be An Angel

HELL BENT WITH GRACE Angel Forrest (Ad Litteram) *****+
Another stunning release from this incredibly powerful and gifted singer. If I interpret her website correctly this is the eleventh album for this Montreal-based singer, and Hell Bent With Grace is one of the most arresting pieces of work I’ve heard all year.

In her 50’s now, Forrest still wants to and is able to rock as hard as anybody else in the game. Hell Bent With Grace is heartfelt and raw, and her country and blues are on display here too. It’s a record that touches on tough subjects like mental illness (The Blame Game) and the peaceful autumn of life (She’s Gone). You’ll also find her rockin’ on tracks like Looking Glass. She is working once again with longtime partners/ co-writers/ producers Denis Columbus and Rocky Paquette and together they are making a joyous, raucous noise.

Hell Bent is a passionate mixture of songs and styles that never stays in the same lane for too long, a compelling and engaging listening experience. Angel has many brushes to paint with and she makes good use of each, from the aforementioned Looking Glass to the introspective and heart-wrenching ballad Marigold. I like to think that there isn’t much that can get to me, but Marigold stopped me in my tracks to think about a few things… it’s pretty cool when a song can do that to you.

No matter what she’s singing about, Forrest is never far away from the blues- that’s where her power and strength come from. She was named Female Vocalist Of The Year six years in a row by the Toronto Blues Society between 2013 and 2018, songwriter of the year in 2014 and 2016, and was a 2018 Memphis International Blues Challenge Finalist. Like The Chilliwack Progress noted last year, “Angel Forrest is one of the most powerful singers in the contemporary blues scene today.” It’s true- she sings with guts and soul the way few others can, like a mix of Paul Rodgers, Alannah Myles and Janis Joplin. There’s no other way to put it; Hell Bent With Grace is superb.

KEY CUTS: Looking Glass, Blame Game, Get It On

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