Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: Nov 2019

CELESTIAL Rob Halford with Family & Friends (Sony Legacy) ****
The holiday music I enjoy is usually traditional; Bing Crosby, A Charlie Brown Christmas, that sort of thing. In 2009, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford shocked us with an album of Christmas music called Winter Songs. It must’ve been good for him because he’s back with “Rob Halford with Family & Friends” and Celestial. Mixing holiday classics with stunning new arrangements beside new compositions, this is more entertaining than anticipated.

The “Family & Friends” on Celestial includes Rob’s brother Nigel on drums, nephew Alex on bass (son of Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill) and his sister Sue on bells. On the surface an album of metal Christmas songs seems daft; it was tried in 2008 with We Wish You A Metal Christmas & A Headbanging New Year, which kinda sucked. Though there are moments of heaviosity on Celestial too, it is much more diverse. “The great thing about heavy metal is it’s got these kinds of multiple dimensions” Halford says. “I think the music we’ve made on Celestial gives a display of that. (Us) metal maniacs are just as ready for the holidays as everybody else, and what we’ve tried to do with this music is reach as many of those dimensions as possible.”

Those looking for a metal fix from this record will find it on songs like Donner & Blitzen and Deck The Halls, but you’ll also be pleasantly surprised by the acoustic Morning Star and the haunting arrangement of Away In A Manger. On paper a heavy metal holiday album shouldn’t work, but this one does. The traditional Christmas songs included stay fairly close to the original melodies while the music itself wanders afield, almost always with surprisingly delightful results.

I don’t have many new holiday albums on my Christmas playlist, but Celestial is one of them. Well done Rob and company, and a Merry Christmas to you too.

KEY CUTS: Morning Star, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, The First Noel

WESTERN STARS: SONGS FROM THE FILM Bruce Springsteen (Columbia Records) *****
If you enjoyed Springsteen’s last album, Western Stars (released in June) even half as much as I did, you’re in for a treat here. As an alternative to touring the record, Bruce decided to record the songs live in a barn on his property, film it with stories in between to link the songs to deepen the experience and connection to the music, and releasing it as a concert movie. I’m in love with this soundtrack.

In the film and on the s/t album, Bruce performs most of these 14 songs with Patti Scialfa, backed by a band and 30 piece orchestra for a lush and rich listening experience. A couple of advance reviews strike me as truthful; “Bruce Springsteen turns a concert film into a transcendental experience” says Rolling Stone, and Hollywood Reporter calls the film “a gorgeous tone poem that both deepens and personalizes the audio recording, creating a satisfying emotional arc.” My wife & I saw the film yesterday in Edmonton, and I concur… it strikes me as a universal experience for an album that Springsteen has described as a love letter to his wife.

Western Stars: Songs from The Film includes every song from the original album, plus a cover of Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. The film was directed by Bruce and Thom Zimny. This soundtrack was produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludwig. If you read the liner notes on albums as closely as I do, then you know this disc was in great hands.

As deep and personal as these songs revealed themselves to be on Western Stars when it came out in June, the orchestral backdrop and Patti’s backing vocals in particular take them and bury them even deeper in your heart. I’m all for anything that gets you inside the music and takes you even closer to the source, and this does it very well. It really fills my spirit.

KEY CUTS: Drive Fast, Rhinestone Cowboy, Tucson Train

TRANSPACIFIC BLUES VOL. 1 Matty T. Wall (Hipsterdumpster Records) *****
I love many aspects of the blues, but great guitar playing gets my blood racing the fastest. On his 3rd album, Transpacific Blues Vol.1, Australian guitarist Matty T Wall raises the bar so high I doubt there are many that can reach it. This is great.

After 2 outstanding records (2016’s Blue Skies and 2018’s Sidewinder), Matty moves forward by stepping back. A love of blues traditions with a thirst for new and different approaches has led him to doing a collaborative album of classic blues songs with genuinely gripping musicianship. Wall reached across the Pacific Ocean to trade licks with some American guitar hotshots. Contributing to this amazing set are Eric Gales, Walter Trout, Kirk Fletcher and Kid Ramos, with fellow countryman (and slide wizard) Dave Hole, and the results are spectacular. The core group is Wall on guitar and vocals, Ric Whittle on drums and Stephan Walker on bass.

On Transpacific it sounds like everyone is having a great time. “Well generally blues is fun music” Matty points out. “Aside from the occasional ballad or slow blues, it is fun. It takes you away from feeling blue; it makes you look at the bad things in life in a different light and other things that happen in a fun light. The blues has always been pretty fun to me and that’s why I’m drawn to it.” Wall and his cohorts take on classics originally done by John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Robert Johnson and more, and I’m certain those cats would approve of what’s happened. I’ve heard many different versions of Crossroads, but the slowed down, dramatic version that ends this album is now my favourite.

Sure, most of these songs have been heard a million times before, but rarely have they been played as ecstatically as they are on Transpacific Blues Vol.1. This is a shit-hot blues guitar extravaganza blowout.

KEY CUTS: Boom Boom (with Dave Hole), She’s Into Something (with Walter Trout), Crossroads

TRAVELING THROUGH: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL.15 Bob Dylan (Columbia/ Sony Legacy) *****
I’m not the biggest Bob Dylan fan- not even close- but I continue to marvel at this ongoing series and the treasures it unearths from his work. Vol. 15 features 47 previously unreleased recordings such as outtakes from John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, plus the first release of the legendary 1969 Nashville studio sessions with His Bobness and Johnny Cash; worth the price of admission alone.

Traveling Through is available in 3CD and 3LP formats, with each disc taking a gander at specific periods from 1967-1969. Disc one features alternate versions of songs written for John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline while introducing a new song in Western Road, a Nashville Skyline outtake.

Discs two and three focus on Bob’s collaborations with the legendary Johnny Cash. They include the much sought after Columbia Studio A sessions plus on-stage performances from the Ryman Auditorium recorded for the debut episode of The Johnny Cash Show on ABC-TV. Disc three closes with tracks recorded with Earl Scruggs for a PBS special that aired in January of 1971.

The time in question here is a fascinating period in Bob Dylan’s career that reflects his dissatisfaction with what he saw going on around him, artistically speaking. According to the liner notes, at the time Dylan said “I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to… I just didn’t think all that production was necessary. What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words. There’s no line you can stick your finger through- there’s no filler.”

Though many of these tunes are songs you’ve heard before, the joy of Traveling Through is the relaxed, unpretentious performances. The red light may be on but they’re not necessarily going for that magic take, which makes these versions more intimate and revealing. Dylan and his guys are playing the songs and playing with them, creating an accidental magic that doesn’t always make it to the final studio record. The laid back vocal on Lay Lady Lay, for instance, is preferable to the finished single we all know.

Traveling Through: The Bootleg Series Vol.15 is essential listening for any fan, and quite enjoyable for the rest.

KEY CUTS: All Along The Watchtower (take 3), Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right/ Understand Your Man, Jimmy Rodgers Medley #2, take 2

MISSISSIPPI BLEND Ghalia (Ruf) *** +
Rockin’ southern bluesiness with a distinctly rock & roll attitude. Mississippi Blend is the follow-up to Ghalia’s 2017 breakthrough, the New Orleans-flavored Let The Demons Out. The Brussels born singer/ songwriter dove into the deep end here and came back with an authentic American southern experience. The attitude of the music is well represented by the cover photo of her offering up a sip from her hip flask.

Ghalia recorded this in the hill country of Mississippi, where she played her songs with a cast of hot shot local musicians and caught the flying sparks on tape. She let the region’s sons add their thumbprints to her tunes, catching a vibe that she calls “raw and natural”. Of the recording process itself, she says it was “with bleedings, minimal microphones used, a traditional approach with modern influences. I wanted this record to be organic, with the hill country influences and the punk, garage and rock ‘n’ roll that I started with. I’m not trying to imitate any style, but letting my songs drive this music.”

Mississippi Blend with its thick as molasses grooves was recorded at The Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Miss., owned and operated by legendary producer Jim Dickinson and his sons Cody and Luther. The overall sound has a primitive charm compared to many modern recordings, owing to the set-up she just mentioned. I wish the guitar sound was sharper and more defined, but what M-B might lack in technical finesse it more than makes up for in attitude and feel. They’re not gunning for hits, though I’m sure a hit or two might be nice. They’re playing this music because it feels so damn good.

Is this blues with rock attitude or rock with blues attitude? Doesn’t matter- throw on Mississippi Blend on, turn it up, and let the good times roll.

KEY CUTS: Meet You Down The Road, Why Don’t You Sell Your Children, First Time I Died

COLORADO Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Reprise) *** ½
Hard to believe this is Neil Young’s 39th studio album, and his first with Crazy Horse since 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. It’s dedicated to Elliot Roberts, his manager since 1967, who died in June. What can I say about Colorado? This is Neil Young & Crazy Horse in- dare I say it- all their ragged glory.

I don’t like everything Neil does and I think he’d be okay with that, but there’s something about Colorado, recorded in The Rocky Mountains, that feels like his past and ours catching up with us in a really cool way. The songs are simple, groove oriented and, with the exception of She Showed Me Love at 13:36, rather brief as they clock in mostly in the 3-5 minute range. Crazy Horse 2019 is Neil Young with Nils Lofgren on guitar and keys, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums, with everybody pitching in on backing vocals. Compare this to almost any other rock album that’s come out this year and it’s a hot mess, but that’s just a part of its charm.

The lockstep plodding of Talbot and Molina along with Young’s blasting guitar and seeming stream of consciousness lyrics are what make Colorado an unmistakably Crazy Horse record. This is a well that Neil has drawn from often and now, nearing his 74th birthday, his ‘cranky old man’ status remains intact with occasionally clumsy rants about socially conscious subjects near to his heart like Shut It Down. Having multi-instrumentalist Lofgren along helped hold things together, allowing the band to record pretty much live in the studio.

Colorado veers from roaring screeds like Shut It Down to the epic, trance-like She Showed Me Love and the gently acoustic I Do that closes out the record. The shabby imperfection of Colorado, like anything Neil has done with The Horse, is what attracts some people as it drives others away exclaiming “what the hell is he up to now?” That is the beauty that is Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Is this as good as Ragged Glory? No, but it’s up there.

KEY CUTS: I Do, Shut It Down, Rainbow of Colors

MOONLIGHT, MISTLETOE & YOU Keb’ Mo’ (Concord Records) *****
Christmas is a time of tradition, especially with the music. While my playlist is dominated by traditional stuff from my 60’s childhood, I’m open to new releases if they catch my ear and tug at my ticker. Such is the case with Keb’ Mo’s Moonlight, Mistletoe & You. It’s Christmas classics and new compositions that strike the right tone to make it a future holiday favourite.

Moonlight is a cozy listen from the first to last track, like being nestled in front of a warm fire while the snow falls thick and fast outside. It took over a decade to compile and was produced by Keb’ Mo’ himself at Stu Stu Studio in Franklin, Tennessee. It includes six newly penned tunes along side four covers that seamlessly marry holiday standards with tongue-in-cheek humour and orchestral ballads. When he sings Christmas Is Really Annoying, it’s like he knows how I feel about this time of year too. Though I know Keb’ mainly as a bluesman, this winter wonderland vibe suits him very well.

Keb’ Mo’s rich, baritone voice is like listening to thick hot chocolate as he delivers these stories with skill and comic timing. If you’re thinking he sounds familiar perhaps it’s because you’ve heard him doing the theme song for the sit-com Mike & Molly, which ran for 6 seasons. Moonlight, Mistletoe & You is full of subtle and excellent playing with that unforgettable voice, making what AllMusic calls “a celebration”, dependent on humour and good cheer instead of a religious fixation. It’s romantic and uplifting, sophisticated, gentle and… warm. Yeah, that’s the word; ‘warm’.

It’s a good idea to add new music to your holiday listening each year to freshen things up, and I can’t imagine a better Christmas album to take home than this one.

KEY CUTS: Christmas Is Annoying, Santa Claus Blues, Please Come Home For Christmas

MR. LITTLE BIG MAN Screamin’ John & TD Lind (Down In The Alley Records) ****+
Mr. Little Big Man is the kind of blues that made me fall in love with this kind of music; tough, swaggering and greasy, powered by passionate bordering on reckless musicianship. This is really freakin’ good.

Produced by Hall of Fame producer Glyn Johns, Mr. Little Big Man is a rough ‘n’ tumble blues adventure ride. It’s 5 originals and 6 covers which include well known stuff beside more obscure numbers by BB King, Jimmy Reed, Taj Mahal and more. Screamin’ John Hawkins is on guitar and what a nimble, exciting soloist he is here. TD Lind sings and plays guitar & piano, Jeff Crane is on bass, Paul Culligan on drums, and Joel Pinkerton’s harmonica helps elevate this from being just another blues record.

Mr. Little Big Man, according to Glyn, was preceded by 3-4 hours or rehearsals followed by just 2 days in the studios, and they captured lightning in a bottle. “It was all over in a blur and before I knew it, I was back on a plane to London with a large grin on my face” he says, “knowing that (we) had accomplished something quite special.” I dig that “don’t think, just play” attitude. The songs are energetic and lively, spontaneous, not laboured over as modern pop projects can be. They strapped up, played it, felt it, and we have the evidence right here.

Mr. Little Big Man, with its mix of acoustic numbers and energetic electric stuff, is a complete blues experience that should be heard by as may people as possible. Will this be the ticket for Screamin’ John & TD Lind to set foot on the national/ international stage? I say yes- this bad boy has mojo to spare.

KEY CUTS: The Letter, All Your Love, Cold Stone and Emptiness

FROM OUT OF NOWHERE Jeff Lynn’s ELO (Columbia) *** +
This is Jeff Lynn’s follow-up to 2015’s Alone In The Universe, which was his first album of new material in 14 years. From Out Of Nowhere is a herculean one man effort as Lynn played virtually every note save for some added percussion by engineer Steve Jay. Obsessive? Egomaniacal in a Billy Corgan sort of way? Probably; but Jeff has delivered a vintage Electric Light Orchestra experience here.

That this record exists at all is an unexpected joy for fans as well as the creator himself. “From Out Of Nowhere- that’s exactly where it came from” Lynn says. “(That song) is the first one I wrote for this album. It’s a song about hope and salvation… everybody’s got to have a bit of hope.” How right he is. Everything Jeff produces has his signature sound, and From Out of Nowhere is no different. If you want to hear him step out on a limb and take some risks, this isn’t the album for you… but if cozying up with that classic ELO sound revs your engine, FOON will satisfy.

Outside of Electric Light Orchestra you might be familiar with Jeff’s work with The Traveling Wilburys or as co-creator/ producer of the ‘new’ John Lennon songs Free As A Bird and Real Love for The Beatles’ Anthology series. There’s something powerful about rock & roll being paired with an orchestra, something Jeff Lynn has practiced for decades. The ten tracks here are melodic, mostly romantic and short, in the 3 minute-ish range. One More Time invokes the spirit and sound of the band’s version of Roll Over Beethoven from 1973, or the latter Rock & Roll Is King from 1983.

From Out of Nowhere is pleasant and somewhat nostalgic, but hardly groundbreaking. I like the album overall, but after 3 spins there weren’t any particular tracks really jumping out at me. Good? Sure. Great? Well…

KEY CUTS: From Out of Nowhere, One More Time, Timer of Our Life

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