Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: Oct 2019

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POCKET FULL OF NOTHIN’ Big Dave McLean (Black Hen) ****
A new album from Big Dave! Produced again by guitarist Steve Dawson, Pocket Full Of Nothin’ features more textures (like horns) and rhythms than any of his previous stuff, it’s his most ambitious and satisfying work to date.

“Music is just music and when it’s good, you forget about the genre or whatever label you want to put on it, and just appreciate the beauty of what you’re hearing” Big Dave says. Armed with three chords and the truth McLean touches on folk, rock, R&B and his beloved blues. His albums usually consist mainly of songs written by heroes like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Pocket Full Of Nothin’ is different. “Steve asked if I had written anything. I sent him a bunch of songs and he really liked almost all of them, so we ended up with nine original tunes” he notes.

Covers include The Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider which suits Dave’s bellowing, impassioned prairie storm of a voice to a tee. “You just have to be open” Dave observes. “The blues is a feeling, and you should play it the way you feel it.” They enlisted the help of some Black Hen regulars and recorded Pocket mostly live off the floor in a few days. It has that immediacy that makes Pocket more than ‘just another record’.

I’ve been a Big Dave fan since I first heard his 2003 album Blues From The Middle and he just keeps getting better. Pocket full Of Nothing is quite something.

KEY CUTS: Manitoba Mud, Just to Be With You, Midnight Rider

NINE Blink-182 (Columbia) ***
The latest album for these California rockers may surprise long-time fans. They’re energetic but throw enough changeups to make Nine interesting to us casuals.

Released digitally, on limited edition coloured vinyl plus CD and cassette (!), Nine is mainly the muscular punk vibe that we’ve come to expect, Green Day meets RHCP. Driven by Travis Barker’s ferocious drumming this is not your parents’ punk music, though they continue to influence bands that came after like Good Charlotte. Part of their charm as a group is that they don’t take themselves particularly seriously- which irks critics and punk connoisseurs- but sometimes you just gotta turn it up and beat on your guitar like it owes you money.

Since their humble beginnings in San Diego in ’92, Blink-182 have sold over fifty million albums worldwide- pretty good for three goofs. A song like I Really Wish I Hated You, particularly with the production style, seems to be a nod towards modern pop and recording techniques, while the melancholy Remember To Forget Me is my speed.

Although this is actually their 8th record, Barker and bassist/ vocalist Mark Hoppus decided to include their original 1994 demo as their first effort. Combining their signature pop/punk sound with electronics and hip-hop inspired programming is savvy business, but will it help move copies of Nine off the shelves? Time will tell.

KEY CUTS: Remember To Forget Me, Blame It On My Youth, I really Wish I Hated You

CHANGE IN THE WEATHER Janiva Magness (Blue Elan) *****
I’m not usually keen on covers albums but Change In The Weather, (subtitled Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty) rather than slavishly recreating Fogerty’s already fab originals, breathes fresh life into already great songs. This is a home run.

As much as I’ve dug Janiva’s stuff in the past, the idea of Change In The Weather gave me the willies- but she eased my worried mind on the first track, the title cut. Her soulful voice is perfect for these songs; Mavis Staples says “Sista Janiva’s robust and soulful voice is showering each cut with determination to make us all fall in love.” The arrangements are respectful without being imitative. You’ll find yourself saying “yeah, I like what she’s done with this” wayyy more than once.

Change In The Weather is like Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook records and Ella Fitzgerald Sings George Gershwin. Mavis was right- Magness takes songs that we know well and gets us to fall in love with them all over again. Duets with Sam Morrow on Lodi and Taj Mahal on Don’t You Wish It Was True are notable. When she turns Have You Ever Seen The Rain into a plaintive ballad, I melted.

I’ve followed John Fogerty since CCR then his solo stuff since Centerfield, so I think I know my stuff. Janiva Magness Sings John Fogerty is one of those records that comes along once in a long while, and those the know John’s work will be well pleased.

KET CUTS: Change In The Weather, Have You Ever Seen The Rain, A Hundred And Ten In The Shade

TOO MUCH MUSTARD! Wentus Blues Band with Duke Robillard (Rama Sound) *** ½
What happens with Finland’s biggest blues band hooks up with blues legend Duke Robillard? Big fun. Too Much Mustard! is loaded with attitude and ass-kickin’ blues.

WBB’s association with Robillard began in 1987 when the then young band got to open for him. They became friends, Duke was a guest at the band’s 30th anniversary celebration and did a joint tour with them in Sweden. The musicians have now finally realized a long-held plan; to make an album together.

Too Much Mustard was produced by Robillard and includes some of his tunes reworked by the band. The painting on the cover is also Duke’s work- jeez, doesn’t he ever sleep? “Prepare to be taken on a great musical journey” he writes in the liner notes. “Lean it back or put on your dancing shoes, whichever you prefer, turn your hi-fi up and dig the sounds”, especially the lively title track.

Lots of boogie in these tracks with a sort of Downchild feel and the performances are exceptional throughout. Covers include Tom Waits’s 2:19 and a surprising cover of Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan that puts more oomph into the song by slowing it down. I’m digging the up-tempo stuff too but when a slow burning blues like Right In Your Arms comes along, it feels like home. I don’t know much of the Wentus Blues Band other than last year’s Throwback disc but these guys are ready, able and willing to show you a VERY good time.

Too Much Mustard is musically thrilling and endlessly entertaining, I highly recommend snagging yourself a copy.

KEY CUTS: Too Much Mustard, First We Take Manhattan, She Made My Mind

NORTHERN SOCIAL Northern Social (Little Big Records) ****
What an unexpected thrill this is! After breakout appearances at festivals earlier this year and the digital release of their first single Waiting, Northern Social have just released their debut EP, 5 pieces of blues flavoured rock & roll that will have you pounding on the table and dancing up a storm.

Northern Social is a blues/rock duo with Dylan Wickens carrying both the bass line and guitar parts simultaneously while singing, with Mike Rajana supplying blunt force drumming from a full kit and vocal harmonies. This is no musical novelty, these guys mean business as they blast through 5 truthful songs, written from personal experience and observation. Wickens’ guitar work is muscular and as a singer he sounds like Danish bluesman Thorbjorn Risager. Together, Dylan and Mike exude a musical fearlessness and forcefulness that, while not pretty, is exhilarating.

This feels like the beginning of something seriously big and I hope the ride is long and glorious. Please note that only physical copies are available for purchase both on the website, in stores and at shows. Northern Social is not available on any streaming platforms.

KEY CUTS: Back For More, Dead Neighbour Blues

THE GIRL ON THE BIKE (ARE YOU THE GIRL ON THE BIKE?) Jenny Wren And Her Borrowed Wings (Creature Records) ****+
Mesmerising percussion-free acoustic blues here for this trio’s 3rd album. Jenny (vocals, double bass), Ben Fisher (resophonic guitar, vocals) and Ben Gallon (acoustic guitar, vocals) play with an intuitive togetherness that works its way right into your heart via your ear canals. You’ll want to drink it all in.

Why blues and roots music that comes back from the UK seems cooler is baffling, but once again that’s the case with Girl On The Bike. Quirky title yes, but seriously excellent playing. Fine guitar work from the two Bens, and Jenny’s slinky bass lines are the back bone on which everything hangs. Her passionate vocals are the star, delivering compelling stories in a way that stick with you.

On first seeing the album cover I wasn’t sure I would like this, but it’s delightfully cool, even without drums. On songs like Balls Mad and I’m Gone they hold nothing back, and a lament like 44 Years is emotionally deep. Perhaps it’s the sparseness of the arrangement and production, the lyrics themselves, or both, but there’s an emotional darkness and weight to Girl On A Bike that will touch you. This is really good.

KEY CUTS: Balls Mad, Hard Blues, I’m Gone

BELIEVE IN LOVE Mark Crissinger (independent) *****
Crossing the blues with country soul, Mark Crissinger has found the sweet spot with his 6th release. Believe In Love also brings in country, rock, soul and acoustic boogaloo for an uplifting experience.

Recorded by Rick Salt and produced by him and Crissinger, Believe In Love features a particularly sturdy rhythm section in Jay Stevens on bass and Bill Hicks on drums. Mark wrote all the tunes too so we’re really getting the full Crissinger experience. “There was a real attempt to get a live vibe going on even though we couldn’t all be in the studio at the same time” Mark says. “I always try to mix up the grooves at my concerts and pay respect to tradition while adding my ‘new blues’ sound to every set list.”

He’s a good guitar player and as a singer Mark reminds me a lot of the late Lee Palmer. I really enjoy the uncomplicated, uncluttered production here too. He’s blending traditional themes with clever lyrics and modern arrangements, revealing his singer/ songwriter soul and the blues in his heart. Through these songs he feels like a really open and positive guy; maybe that’s why I’m digging it this much.

Though he calls Vancouver Island home, Crissinger has only lived there since 2007. The ocean air has obviously been good for him- he’s released 6 albums since then, and Believe In Love is a fun, straight to the point ‘blues therapy’ sort of record you’ll love.

KEY CUTS: Hard No, I’m Gonna Love You, Believe In Love, Hornby

HOLYWATER HeavyDrunk (4142 Records) ****
This is HeavyDrunk’s 3rd album and it’s a beauty. Bluesy soul out of Nashville slathered in tangy barbeque sauce, Holywater is unforgettable.

HeavyDrunk is a 9 piece band that includes drums, guitars, keys, horns, bass and two backup singers who inject these 13 tracks with gospel flavour. Rob Robinson, the owner of Pucket’s Grocery & Restaurant 45 minutes south of Nashville, leads this parade and he sees how the food affects the music. “It’s kinda like when you pour a good barbeque sauce over a great piece of meat, it just infuses itself into the music” Rob says. “I’ve run a barbeque joint for the last 11 years and it just kinda soaks into the music.”

Holywater is bluesy but more soulful, thanks to the horns. The blistering opening track If I Loved You Hard Enough felt much like classic ZZ Top, Robinson’s voice having a similar timbre to Billy Gibbons’s, but the horn section swings like mad. When it comes time to throw down a ballad like High On Love the results are heartfelt and arresting, worthy of a romantic scene in any movie, and Somebody’s Got To Take Them Panties Off is humorously charming. The range of grooves and emotion over the course of the record makes for mad fun.

With a name like ‘HeavyDrunk’ I expected something more unruly yet was pleasantly surprised and taken with what came out of my desktop speakers. Blues and soul with Southern attitude, that’s Holywater; you need to hear this.

KEY CUTS: High On Love, If I Loved You Hard Enough, HardDrunk Holywater

IN THE DARK Sparky Parker (independent) ***+
If I was 40 years younger I’d move to Texas. There’s a lot of great blues there- always has been- and Sparky Parker is the latest guitar slinger to catch my ear. His new album, In The Dark, has a precise but meaty and delicious sound.

Eric “Sparky” Parker started playing professionally straight out of high school. Reviewers have compared him to Gary Clark Jr., Doyle Bramhall II and Jonny Lang, and he claims SRV, Magic Sam and Albert King as influences so yeah, the kid has chops and muscle. In The Dark includes 7 originals plus covers of The Rolling Stones’ Dead Flowers, Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me). Shows you where he’s from and where he’s at.

Sparky’s vocals are sharp and clear, as is the entire mix for that matter, and his guitar playing displays ferocity and restraint at the same time. I get the feeling he could kill you with a million notes but, like Clapton realized years ago, less can be more. It’s not how many notes you play, but the notes you choose and how you play them. There’s a soulful undercurrent at work throughout here that makes the disc not feel like hard time blues, but that could just be an aural illusion.

Apparently shy and reserved off stage, Parker creates intense, original music that never falls into the shadows if imitation- it’s how he connects. In The Dark is a little ‘clean’ but still, I like it fine as is. Sparky Parker is a solid guitarist and singer, and he has the right band backing him up; this guy is going places.

KEY CUTS: Sleepy Town, In The Dark, Dead Flowers

IF WISHES WERE HORSES Matt Patershuk (Black Hen) *****
A blend of country and blues out of rural Northern Alberta that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie; such is If Wishes Were Horses. Its flowing, organic sound makes an easy disc to get into and, from country waltzes to greasy blues; it’s just really friggin’ cool.

I like Matt Patershuk’s new album the same way I like most everything Matt Andersen does- these songs cover the themes of individual integrity, hard work, family and loss in a way that few others can. Like John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, Matt’s songs communicate the significance of small moments. The language of the lyrics on Horses is plain and easy to absorb, Patershuk doesn’t need to wax overly poetic or whip out his thesaurus, there’s a natural comfort in that which sits well with the music. The line between winning and losing, tenderness and resolve, is a thin one here.

If Wishes Were Horses is my first encounter with Matt Patershuk’s music, and I hope it’s not the last. His worn and natural delivery makes him sound and feel like a friend you’ve known for ages, and the songs on this disc are one side of a conversation that you’re thoroughly enjoying. Produced by Steve Dawson the songs here unfold naturally and unhurriedly. The accepted label here is ‘roots’ and it comes from somewhere out past where the highway ends, far from the madding crowd. Recently watching Ken Burns’ series Country Music has really opened my ears and heart to country, and music in general that doesn’t necessarily fit into neat little boxes. If Wishes Were Horses is the kind of album Hank Williams would’ve dug… maybe Muddy Waters too.

KEY CUTS: Alberta Waltz, The Blues Don’t Bother Me, Velvet Bulldozer

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