Rock Doctor Album Reviews – May 29th-2016

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I STILL DO Eric Clapton (Bushbranch/ Surf Dog Records)Having written album reviews for nearly 3 decades, I don’t often get genuinely excited about new music anymore- but the night before the May 20th release of Eric Clapton’s new album, I woke up thinking about it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep again for another 3 hours… something that hasn’t happened since the night before The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge came out in 1994.  I Still Do is what I dared hope it would be.I Still Do has a very JJ Cale sound- Eric is a masterful musician comfortable in his own skin.  Though not quite as laid back as his last solo album, 2013’s Old Sock, no doubt there are some that wish Clapton had rocked it up more, particularly since this could be his last record, given his age and recent health concerns.The playing on this disc is sublime, immensely satisfying, and the songs are pretty darn good too- if I had any agenda in approaching I Still Do, it would be looking for those elements.  This disc also marks the first time in quite awhile that Eric has worked with producer Glyn Johns, most famous for producing Slowhand, arguably Clapton’s most popular record.  A good natured EPK video on his website (ericclapton.com) features an interview with the two of them that reveals the creative process behind the record- from Clapton’s insistence in recording to 16 track tape to discourage too many overdubs, to Johns’ manner of handling Eric and the band in the studio.I won’t go through all the players in the studio, but drummer Henry Spinetti is here with his distinctive hi-hat work, the heartbeat behind classic late 70’s/ early 80’s records like Slowhand and Another Ticket that I love so much.  Longtime sidemen guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and keyboard player Chris Stainton are here too, along with numerous guests.  This is a blues record, from original tracks like Catch The Blues and a great cover of Robert Johnson’s Stones In My Passway. Other covers to note include Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, the WW II classic I’ll Be Seeing You which ends off the record, and Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day, which nearly had me weeping- a song my mom sang to sing me when I was little.I Still Do (titled after something Eric’s auntie once told him, it’s in that video) fits best with his late 70’s/ early 80’s stuff in the lineage of Clapton’s recorded work.  It has the gentle calm of some of his recent discs, and like that of his friend JJ Cale, but I daresay it’s a better blues album than From The Cradle which, excellent in its own way, always felt a little forced.  I Still Do took me in and enveloped me completely, hopefully your experience will be similar.  If this does turn out to be Clatpon’s final goodbye, it’s a pretty snazzy way to go out.ESSENTIALS:  Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day, Spiral, Catch The BluesBNL ROCKS RED ROCKS Barenaked Ladies (Warner Music)Here is Barenaked Ladies’ 2nd live album of their career (after Rock Spectacle in the 90’s), this one being recorded at one of the most fabled concert venues in America. Solid performances by the band and an enthusiastic reception by the crowd equals a good time had by all- including us, the listeners.As any live set must inherently be, Red Rocks is a live greatest hit, featuring the usual suspects like The Old Apartment, Brian Wilson, One Week and so on.  Singer/ guitarist Ed Robertson is the ringmaster, but he sounds a little our of his element, perhaps a little wowed by the venue, overly conscious of the fact that they’re recording, or perhaps a bit of both.  But with BNL, it’s an earnest awkwardness that works in their favour.The band were touring the album Silverball at the time, their strongest outing in over a decade, and that confidence shows in their musicianship.  Unless you’ve been following them from day one, and I can’t say I know anyone who has, there’ll be songs here you’re not familiar with and a couple of musical surprises too, as is their thing.  They bring opening act Colin Hay out and do a very together run through of Men At Work’s Who Can It Be Now and the album ends with an abbreviated run through of Led Zeppelin’s Rock & Roll, something you wouldn’t expect from a mainly acoustic act.Hard to believe Barenaked Ladies’ first album (Gordon) came out 24 years ago, and that these musical jokesters are still going.  Public attention waned quickly after that first record as BNL struggled to find their place, but they’ve done well by continuing to release musically excellent records throughout their career.  BNL At Red Rocks shows you a good time and, if nothing else, reminds you of what great band these guys have been all along.ESSENTIALS:  The Old Apartment, Falling For The First Time, Who Can It Be Now (with Colin Hay)STONY PLAIN: 40 YEARS Various Artists (Stony Plain)They celebrate their colourful history every five years with such a compilation, but this may be the granddaddy of them all.  To be released June 3rd, Stony Plain celebrates 4 decades of making music with a comprehensive 3 disc set featuring cuts from across its history of albums, and a complete disc of rarities and previously unreleased tracks.“Since 1976, Stony Plain has reflected its owners’ eclectic tastes, survived, and continues to release vibrant, substantive music” writes legendary Canadian music publicist Richard Flohil.  “The label’s genesis goes back a little further than that- Petersen has been a music addict since he was a little kid, and his enthusiasms have led him in a variety of different directions.” He’s talking about label founder and CEO Holger Petersen of course, and it is an apt description of the label’s history and direction too.As any survey of the nearly 400 albums Stony Plain has released, or a spin of this breathtaking compilation will demonstrate, the label’s raison d’etre is to find and make available the best in roots and blues music, and that includes brushes with country- surely the white man’s blues.   One way to assemble such a set would be chronological, start from square one and end with something from one of the latest releases… but like the true music fan I know him to be, Holger put this together the same way you would assemble a road tape (remember those?) for a good friend; start with something cool, let that song suggest what should come next, and so on.  I just did something similar for a friend, on cassette no less, and it was the best time I’ve had in years.Stony Plain 40 Years’ three discs have three different subtitles;  CD One is Singers, Songwriters and much more, CD Two is Blues, R&B, Gospel, Swing, Jazz and even more, while CD Three is simply Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material.  Depending on where your interests lay, you’ll likely gravitate towards one of the three but as a musical omnivore, I like to just throw this in my CD changer and let it roll. For a budget priced outing the packaging is satisfying for us music nerds.  From Flohil’s liner essay to the brief notes in the booklet on each of these 47 tracks that take you inside each song, it’s a great way to spend your Sunday afternoon.Over the years I’ve reviewed albums by many of the artists represented here, and in doing so have become a fan of Stony Plain in general, with each release nourishing my soul in small yet significant ways.  I’ve always enjoyed a well told story- that’s what these songs are and, in the larger sense, that’s what Stony Plain Records is- a story well told, and nourishment for the soul.  Any fan of roots and/or blues will find much here to enjoy, even in songs or artists you’re hearing for the first time.  Unfettered discovery seems to be a lost joy in a world overloaded with downloads, instant access and immediate communication.  Put 40 Years on, relax, and enjoy getting lost for a few hours.ESSENTIALS:DISC ONE: I Wanna Be In The Cavalry (Corb Lund), Cottonwood Canyon (Ian Tyson), Rivers of Babylon (Steve Earle)DISC TWO:  It Takes Time (Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters), Candy Man (Rory Block), Atlanta Moan (Big Dave McLeanDISC THREE:  Rehab (Duke Robillard), Uptown Jump (David Wilcox), Shakey’s Edmonton Blues (Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton with Hot Cottage)HI LO-FI Dylan Wickens & The Grand Naturals (independent)This is the sophomore release for this southern Ontario blues trio.  Full of attitude and great playing, this is a blues disc that flat out rocks.Great songs here with hooky melody and vocal melody lines.  Of the seemingly contradictory title, Wickens says “The making of Hi Lo-Fi came about very slowly until it was time to track it- at that point I committed completely to a sound that has been rattling around in my head for years- one that is, as the name says, both hi and lo-fi at once.”  Unlike some contemporary blues recordings, this is neither slick nor overly mannered as the playing is precise yet with rough edges and loads of attitude- very raw.Aside from Dylan Wickens, this disc features the talents of drummer Al Webster (Jeff Healey, Colin James, Long John Baldry) and bassist Dennis Pinhorn (Downchild, Danny Brooks, the Last Waltz Tribute) and they bring the thunder, rumbling and driving along to give Wicken’s devilish guitar playing something to work with and against.  The bio that accompanied the disc compares this to the tradition of heavy, 1960’s psychedelic blues/ rock which pretty much describes what’s going on in these 9 tracks, which includes a more traditional workout on In My Time Of Dying, perhaps made most famous by Led Zeppelin.  Wickens’ slide work on that song is greasy and inspiring.Hi Lo-Fi has been compared to Doyle Bramhall II, Hendrix, The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr.  This is a rough, physical set of songs that has neither the time nor the inclination to play nice.  This is blues that rocks, or rock with the blues attitude- either one would probably be right- with a lot of dirt under its fingernails and some sordid stories to tell… so turn Hi Lo-Fi up to 11 and give a listen.ESSENTIALS:  Foolish Heart, Calamity Jane, In My Time of DyingSOUL SLIDE Jeff Plankenhorn (Lounge Side Records)This well known Austin-based guitarist and sideman to greats like Ruthie Foster and Bobby Whitlock steps into the solo spotlight with a thoroughly engaging disc.  Out since March 18th, I’m embarrassed to say I just came across it under a pile of papers the other day when cleaning out the back seat of my car.  Oh well- better late than never!Throughout Soul Slide, Plankenhorn plays a blend of blues, soul and rock on a stand-up lap steel guitar dubbed “The Plank”.  “My dream was to mix Sacred Steel influences like the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph with the Dobro stylings of Jerry Douglas and Josh Graves” Jeff says.  He considers himself a singer first and foremost though, and wrote all but 2 of the songs on the new album- the exceptions being Sam & Dave’s You Got Me Hummin’ and the never before released Willis Alan Ramsey cut Mockingbird Blues..Produced by Plankenhorn, Ross Hogarth (Keb’ Mo’, Ziggy Marley) and Miles Zuniga (Fastball) and recorded in Texas and California, Soul Slide has a spacious and lively, in your face sound with a funk undercurrent that will really pull you in.  The disc has the perfect title too- the songs have a depth and soul that is quite uncommon, and the album overall is loaded to the nuts with some of the tastiest slide work I’ve heard in a long time.Soul Slide is a wonderful album full of what feels to be true life stories, or at least true to life, and the musical execution is very nearly flawless.  Listening to this reminds me of when I first heard a band called Little Village in the early 90’s… at first I was wowed by the playing, but the songs drew me in and felt like mine after awhile.  Man, it’s gonna be tough to get this one out of my CD player.ESSENTIALS:  Mockingbird Blues, Like Flowers, Lose My MindTORONTO BLUES SOCIETY: FRESH BAKED BLUES Various Artists (independent)Another terrific compilation, the fifth, from an organization that’s been working their ass off to keep the blues alive and growing for 30 years.  Featuring a dozen artists from the Toronto area, this is a mighty sweet set.Fresh Baked Blues showcases emerging artists for blues fans, acts that are well known on the Canadian festival circuit but still looking to make themselves known to the world at large.  In other words, unless you keep your ears glued to blues radio, these are mostly (if not completely) artists that you may not be familiar with.  This disc is also proof that, in Canada in particular, the future of the blues is in VERY good hands.Some of these artists you may recognize if you read my album reviews with any regularity; The 24th Street Wailers, Sugar Brown and Chris Antonik to name a few.  As a budget priced disc the liner notes are scarce, but the inside cover does feature photos of each of the bands, along with their websites, should you decide to dig deeper.  Also inside Derek Andrews, the TBS president writes that “Fresh Baked Blues is a tip of the hat toward emerging and young blues talent.  This project was born out of the good ideas developed in the Toronto Blues Society’s 30th anniversary year.”Well, not much else to say about this one other than if you love the blues this would be a fine addition to your CD library.  If you’re not familiar with most or any of the artists, then you’re about to set sail on a very rewarding voyage.  If you can’t make it out to any of the Toronto Blues Society events where this disc is being sold (a helluva commute from Alberta for sure!), it’s also available at their website; www.torontobluessociety.com  Money well spent, I daresay.ESSENTIALS:  Long Way To Go (Chris Antonik with Steve Marriner), Revealed (Andria Simone), Train Sixty Four (Sugar Brown)JUMPIN’ & BOPPIN’ Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne (Stony Plain)This is the 3rd album for Stony Plain and 10th overall by 2015’s “Most Outstanding Musician” for keyboards by Living Blues magazine. It’s joyful jump blues collection that makes it impossible to just sit and listen.In the liner notes, Kenny says “This recording has elements of the great jump blues and boogie-woogie era.  You might hear some influences from the era of Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Ray Charles, Johnnie Johnson and Fats Domino, just to name a few that are all mixed in like a blues stew.”  As a long time blues fan my attention has always gravitated towards guitar players, but Kenny Wayne is one of those piano players, like the ones he just mentioned, that make you sit up and take notice as he brings those 88’s up front where they belong.  That gives me a whole blues sub-genre to explore, but I digress.Though he produces a lot of music for Stony Plain, guitarist Duke Robillard is ‘merely’ a featured guitar player here. Jumpin’ & Boppin’ was produced by Kenny Wayne, with label honcho Holger Petersen as executive producer, a number of musicians rowing in the same direction to make this disc happen.  If ever there was an album of party blues in 2016 this is it, and Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne is the guy that can show you a good time.  There’s slow and sultry blues and Kenny shows you how that’s done on a heart-stopping version of Ray Charles’s You Don’t Know Me, but the spirit of this disc is too up, too good natured to be denied.Jumpin’ & Boppin’ is aptly titled for its positive, upbeat let’s go get ‘em drive and appeal.  It’s a commonly held misconception that the blues is downer music, something to wallow in when you’re feeling low.  If you know someone that feels that way, put this disc on for them, then sit back and watch their smiling faces as those toes start to tap.  If anything, this is the ultimate feel-good music- enjoy!ESSENTIALS:  Blues Stew, You Don’t Know Me, Back To Square OneGOOD TIMES The Monkees (Warner Music)A fictional band from my childhood, from a TV show, is mounting a 50th anniversary tour, along with releasing a new studio album??  The world has gone mad- or so it would seem. Affectionately known as “The Pre-Fab Four”, the surviving members of The Monkees surprise us here with a pretty likeable record.Much like The Monkees’ early records where they had guys like Neil Diamond writing their songs, Good Times features efforts from modern pop tunesmiths like Rivers Cuomo, Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge and even Noel Gallagher, as well as contributions from Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz and Peter Tork.  The guys were obviously looking for material that sat comfortably with their old 60’s stuff, as that psychedelic pop vibe is evident in the new material too.  The late Davey Jones, killed by a heart attack in 2012, is even included here, contributing vocals to the Neil Diamond penned Love To Love.Instead of trying to update their sound and be ‘hip with the kids’, The Monkees did the smart thing by coming up with a record that fans of their 60’s stuff will instantly recognize.  This is a collection of vintage sounding pop songs, and to help bring the 50th anniversary full circle, they also completed songs for Good Times that were written for them in the 60’s.  The title song, for instance, was written by Harry Nilsson and recorded by Harry and Mike Nesmith in 1968 but never finished- until now.There are a few things preventing me from totally dumping on this record- first, Good Times is actually a pretty good sounding album full of jangly feel good nostalgic pop songs loaded with melodic hooks.  Second, I was a fan of the show when I was 8 and genuinely still love that music, and even have their greatest hits on CD. Sure the show was silly but the music was great, and Good Times feels like a continuation of that.As you wait for the tour that started May 18th in Florida to swing by somewhere near you (sorry, no Edmonton or Calgary dates on the itinerary) you might like to know that, for the first time, all 58 episodes of the TV show are being made available on Blu Ray for the first time via the band’s website; www.monkees.com .  Good Times won’t change lives or start a revolution, but it’s a nice reminder of a time when life was simpler and more fun.  It sounds good and feels good- isn’t that enough?ESSENTIALS:  Love To Love, Good Times, Whatever’s Right, I Know What I KnowMudcrutch (Warner Music)Finally, 46 years after forming, Mudcrutch get around to releasing their 2nd album.  If the name sounds familiar and you aren’t quite sure why, they’re the precursors to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers so yeah- you might notice some similarities.In 1974, Mudcrutch signed to Shelter Records and moved from Gainesville, Florida to LA, where they released the single Depot Street to little fanfare, then broke up the following year. The band reformed in 2008 to release their debut LP, resulting in an unexpected hit.  Is this really The Heartbreakers though?  Kind of- current members include Tom Petty on bass and vocals, Mike Campbell on guitar and vocals, Tom Leadon on guitar and vocals, Benmont Tench on keyboards and vocals, and Randall Marsh on drums.  The sound is similar to the vibe we all know, but perhaps a little different- a glimpse for fans at what perhaps could have been.All members of the band contributed to the song writing; Tom Petty wrote 7 of them, while each of the other band members contributed a song each.  This album feels a bit more laid back and atmospheric than your usual Heartbreakers LP, so you’ve gotta wonder if setting sail under their original name put the guys in a different headspace, a place current yet nostalgic.  Of course, it’s different to not have Tom Petty singing lead vocals on every track too, that alone makes this different sound from their day jobs.I wouldn’t call myself a huge Tom Petty fan but I do like them, as the kind of guy for whom a ‘greatest hits’ disc is sufficient.  feels like a cross between The Heartbreakers with maybe a bit of Crosby, Stills & Nash.  It’s organic, it’s Americana, and it feels to me like Mudcrutch might have another unexpected hit on their hands- all in all, cool stuff.ESSENTIALS:  Trailer, Beautiful Blue, I Forgive It AllIF I’M HONEST Blake Shelton (Warner Music)The latest record here from one of country music’s superstars, the judge from The Voice that almost everyone would like to go out for a beer with.  As country records go If I’m Honest sounds quite typical, but the songs are deeper than they appear.“I’ve never recorded a more personal or reflective album in my career” Blake says. “(It) touches both the highs and lows of the past year of my life… I hope you’ll enjoy this journey.” Knowing something of what he’s been through in the year thanks to the entertainment press, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots on where these songs touch on his personal life.  The end of his marriage to Miranda Lambert and his subsequent hooking up with fellow Voice judge Gwen Stephanie is addressed on the song Every Goodbye with the chorus line “every goodbye/ could be the start of something new”.  My main argument against modern country against its artificiality and manicured sound, but you have to give it up to Shelton for putting his life in these songs.A couple of duets to note in these 15 tracks; Gwen shows up on Go Ahead And Break My Heart and The Oak Ridge Boys share the mic on Doing It To Country Songs.  “I don’t even know how to talk about this album as a piece of music as I do just kind of a timeline” notes Blake. “As country artists go, I think we’re supposed to sing about our life experiences, and I’ve done that before- but not to this extent.”  A little truth with my dose of country music?  Don’t mind if I do.The playing on these songs is immaculate and it’s a very well produced album, but don’t expect any surprises musically speaking.  It sounds like a lot of the country music you’ll hear elsewhere, but then I’m sure some of the country fans where I work (a group of 7 small market radio stations and my ‘home base’ is a country station) would probably say the same about the rock and blues I usually listen to- fair enough.  Blake Shelton seems like a regular guy, the sort that would be a good neighbour, and that appeal carries over to his songs too.  I have no doubt that If I’m Honest will be another smash hit, and good on him for that.ESSENTIALS: Doin’ It To Country Songs (featuring the Oak Ridge Boys), Friends (from the Angry Birds movie), You Can’t Make This Up

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