MEDICINE SONGS Buffy Sainte-Marie (True North) *****
Here is a powerful new record from Buffy Saint-Marie. After hearing a clip of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee in a news story, I knew I had to hear the rest of it. At least as much as the Prophets Of Rage debut I reviewed last week Medicine Songs, her 18th disc, has a heart and a purpose that is all too rare in popular music these days.
“This is a collection of front-line songs about unity and resistance- some brand new and some classics-” Buffy says, “and I want to put them to work. These are songs I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and what troubles people today are still the same damn issues from 30-40-50 years ago; war, oppression, inequity, violence, rankism of all kinds, the pecking order, bullying, racketeering and systemic greed.” That’s a pretty tall order for a single album to take on.
While I’m aware of Ms. Saint-Marie on a cultural level, particularly of her activism on behalf of indigenous causes, this is the first time I’ve sat down with one of her records and tried to figure out what she’s on about. Songs like The War Racket are obvious, of which she says “Billionaire bullies on both sides collude in wars that suck money out of the heart of both domestic economies and into big pockets at the top. It’s a racket and it’s obscene.” Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which got me interested in Medicine Songs, is about “the theft of uranium lands from the Pine Ridge reservation during the Nixon administration (that) led to incidents involving Annie Marie Mae Aquash, Joe Stuntz and Leonard Peltier.”
On a strictly musical level Medicine Songs, with its mix of folk, rock and pop elements, is very enjoyable. Some of Buffy’s aboriginal vocal techniques are a bit jarring at first, only because I haven’t had much exposure to this sort of stuff- but in context it makes total sense. This is a record with good and high intentions too… “I really want this collection of songs to be like medicine, to be of some help or encouragement, to maybe do some good” Buffy says. “Songs can motivate you and advance your own ideas, encourage and support collaborations and be part of making change globally and at home. They do that for me and I hope this album can be positive and provide ideas and remedies that rock your world and inspire ideas of your own.” Mission accomplished, Buffy.
KEY CUTS: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, The War Racket, Soldier Blue
UNCONDITIONAL LOVE Davide Pannozzo (independent) ****+
Even Italians get the blues, if this incredible guitarist is to be believed. Unconditional Love is a sophisticated blues album and its pleasures are long, cool and deep.
When I first threw Unconditional Love into the CD player, it reminded me an awful lot of Clapton circa ’92. The timbre of their singing voices is quite similar, although Davide’s soloing is a little more adventurous. This set was produced by Grammy winning producers Will Lee (bass for the Letterman band and Ace Frehley’s ’78 solo album) and Steve Jordan (drums for Mick Jagger’s & Keith Richards’ solo bands) and the sound is full, round and dynamic. There’s a sophistication or suaviosity to this collection of songs that is particularly enjoyable when it could’ve just as easily come off as too slick. Lee and Jordan have injected a lot of soul into this record.
Unconditional Love is 10 songs in all; 8 originals plus covers of George Harrison’s Wah-Wah and Billy Cobham’s Stratus. For blues fans that are worried about the form being stuck in a rut, it’s guys like Davide Pannozzo that are busting it out and carrying it forward. When Pannozzo plays you can hear splashes of his influences; Beck, Gilmour, Clapton and Hendrix with a hint of Robin Trower. He reached the semi-finals at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and when he started working on new music after an album for Universal he sent it unsolicited to Steve Jordan. Steve accepted the task of producing Pannozzo’s new record, so I’m not the only one who thinks this guy has a lot going for him. Davide promptly relocated from Italy to new York, the result of which is currently blasting out of my stereo.
This disc is informed by the blues yes, but it’s so much more than that- a sophisticated alchemy of blues, pop and jazz/ rock, smartly written songs powered by jaw-dropping musicianship and just really, really cool guitar solos. There’s nothing quite like Unconditional Love.
KEY CUTS: Stratus, Living Loving & Giving, One & Only
THE LUCKIEST MAN Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters (Stony Plain) *****+
Next to Buddy Guy and BB King, Ronnie is my favorite blues guitarist- an emotional player that touches you in a way that few others can. This, his 11th album for Stony Plain (and 25th overall), is a traditional blues record that delights and mesmerizes at every turn.
The Luckiest Man is dedicated to bassist Jim Mouradian, who died unexpectedly in January. The album title relates to a phrase Jim, who always lived with gratitude in his heart and who never wasted a moment of his life, said often; “I’m the luckiest man you know- and I don’t even know who you know.” That’s the emotional centre of the disc and Ronnie and his guys dig way down on this one, delivering performance after performance that shakes the soul and makes you glad to be alive. Such is the power of the blues in the hands of Ronnie Earl.
The Luckiest Man was produced by Earl with an ‘executive’ nod to label chief Holger Petersen, and it’s a heartbreaker in all the best ways. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal cuts as Ronnie’s records usually are, with Diane Blue providing most of the singing. This disc includes the current Broadcasters’ lineup; Ronnie and Diane, plus Dave Limina on keys, Forrest Padgett on drums and Paul Kochanski on bass along with several guests, including Sugar Ray Norcia on harp and vocals on Long Lost Conversation.
Ronnie calls this particular record “A traditional blues album of remembrance, love, and unwavering resolve to live with faith and gratitude”, and that’s exactly how The Luckiest Man comes across. Whether it’s one of his guitar solos, a tasty organ part from Limina or a heartfelt groove laid down by the rhythm section, this is the kind of stuff you feel in the gut, like everything The Broadcasters play. Even after just a couple of spins, I’m ready to call this one of the best blues albums of the decade.
KEY CUTS: Ain’t That Loving You, Never Gonna Break My Faith, Long Lost Conversation
EVERYBODY WANTS TO GO TO HEAVEN Peter Parcek (Lightnin’ Records) *****
Parcek`s latest record, his first in 7 years, is some heavy blues. Thick and mud-stained, Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven is a primal, visceral cry to the heavens that is you cannot ignore.
Everybody was produced by Marco Giovino (Robert Plant, Buddy Miller, Tom Jones), who also played drums and percussion on these sessions. Of Giovino`s impact on the record, Parcek says he “had uniquely powerful musical concepts and presence, plus tremendous rhythmic and arranging ideas. His innovative sound and feel profoundly imbued and impacted the album.” Having listened to and enjoyed Robert Plant’s last few albums, I can see (and hear) that being the case.
Parcek’s musical story began on the stages of 1960’s London, where his early bands were contemporaries of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and groups featuring Jeff beck, Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Buddy Guy once famously told him “You’re as bad as Eric Clapton, and I know Eric Clapton!” They say you judge others by the company you keep and, over the years, Peter has opened for The Grateful Dead, Sheryl Crow, Susan Tedeschi, The Holmes Brothers, Koko Taylor, Robben Ford, Son Seals, Johnny Copeland, Charlie Musselwhite, Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard and Roomful Of Blues- so he’s in stellar company.
There’s a primitive straight-from-the-soul feeling that many of today’s blues performers don’t have, but Peter Parcek has it in spades on Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven. There’s a brawny quality to this disc that really speaks to me, that fuses the vitality of today’s scene with echoes of the Delta, mountains and prairies where the greatest American music was born, and it’s a powerful thing. His guitar playing is incendiary and soulful, and once you’ve been exposed to it you’re not likely to forget it. GREAT stuff.
KEY CUTS: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Shiver, Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven
NATURAL Andrea Marr (Only Blues Music) *** ½
Soul music is kissing cousins with the blues, and soul is what Andrea Marr’s new and 7th album is all about. Blessed with a sultry, expressive voice, Natural captures Andrea in her- ahem- ‘natural’ habitat.
Natural is a high energy, horn laden ride into the music that Ms. Marr loves the most; the sound of Stax, Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding and Etta James. It’s a mix of 9 originals and 2 covers, including Aretha Franklin’s Rock Steady. And no, she’s not actually from Detroit- Andrea Marr was born in Sri Lanka then immigrated to Australia. She’s a formidable songwriter, and when you throw this on you’ll find out she’s a passionate singer too. Down under she’s won several blues awards, and this album features her 8 piece band, “The Funky Hitmen”, who earn their name here. The horn section in particular makes this disc almost feel like a James Brown album.
In the liner notes, Andrea says that “Natural is an album several years on the making. It contains my personal favorite songs”, and I can understand why. She really gets to flex her gifts over a range of moods, from the uptown funk of a track like Mama Got It Wrong Sometimes Too to the slinky groove of Sticks & Stones that ends off the disc, to a ballad like That’s Where Love Ends. Ultimately Natural is all about the ups and downs of relationships, and who can’t relate to that?
Great songs, sassy vocals and a band with tight grooviness make Andrea Marr’s Natural a tough one to resist, so don’t resist- throw this on and let the good times roll.
KEY CUTS: That’s Where Love Ends, What Do I Have To Do, Sticks & Stones
JOHNNY GOLDTOOTH & THE CHEVY CASANOVAS Kevin Breit (Stony Plain) ****
What a delightful surprise! Kevin Breit’s new album, all instrumental, is like coming across buried treasure. Johnny Goldtooth & the Chevy Casanovas is like a blast from the past- late 50’s/ early 60’s- that is way more fun than I expected.
Johnny Goldtooth comes across like The Ventures meet Link Wray. This record was inspired by a photo of a matador decked out in his finery on the wall of Breit’s basement studio. Beside it is a 70’s Halloween photo of Kevin’s dad, also dressed as a matador, and cradling a bass guitar. It is a combination of these two images that created ‘Johnny Goldtooth’ in Kevin’s imagination.
Breit is a gifted, ridiculously inventive guitarist who’s played with Harry Manx, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash, k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson and Hugh Laurie. Johnny Goldtooth is a whimsical yet authentic guitar-driven journey into the past- outlandish, eccentric, raw, wild and totally captivating. Most of this disc was recorded in Kevin’s basement studio with him playing almost all of the instruments. In the same way that there seems to be connective tissue between his hip and whatever guitar he has strapped on, there is connective tissue in the rest of The Chevy Casanovas that make them a great band.
If this disc stands apart from most recorded offerings these days, it’s the sheer joy with which Kevin Breit and his handful of guest musicians play these songs. While it’s true that Johnny Goldtooth & The Chevy Casanovas have a niche appeal to those who appreciate 60’s-style rock instrumentals, those willing to open themselves to the unique charms of this album will be richly rewarded.
KEY CUTS: C’Mon Let’s Go, The Knee High Fizzle, Crime Holler