SOLAR POWERED TOO Rick Fines (independent) *****+
This is one of those records that hits you right in the heart. With a power and imagery that combines the magic of O Brother Where Art thou and Johnny Cash’s American recordings, Solar Powered Too is intimate, deep, and priceless.
The bulk of Solar Powered Too’s songs were recorded in a little gazebo in the North Kawartha woods. “I knew I wanted to make another album for guitar and voice” Rick says “only this time it would be mostly slide guitar on a steel bodied guitar. “I wanted to return to my little cabin in the Kawartha Highlands and record again with the modest solar powered set-up there- two panels and 4 golf cart batteries.” While most of the songs are just Rick’s voice and guitar, he invited friends like Alec Fraser, Roly Platt and Suzie Vinnick to lend their magic too. “Releasing an album during a pandemic, when all my gigs are cancelled is a little strange” Rick admits, “but this album was made with the help of my friends and it carries that strength on its journey.”
Rick Fines’ unique blend of warm-hearted blues, juke joint folk and dockside soul has made him well known on the North American blues and folk circuits, a career that has seen some stellar collaborations. He first gained attention as part of the legendary Jackson Delta, he put out a critically acclaimed disc with Suzie Vinnick, and unless I miss my guess, Solar Powered Too is his 5th solo album. Like the wonderful storyteller he is, with often just his guitar in hand, Rick holds you in his spell with ease. His slide work sets the scene and the wonderfully husky voice- not unlike Steve Earl- does the rest. Listening to this record feels just like sitting with him in that gazebo in the woods.
Solar Powered Too is a powerful musical statement, full of vivid images of sorrow, optimism, and all the complexities of life. Every now and then you come across a record that, at its most essential, sounds and feels like emotional truth; this is one of those discs.
KEY CUTS: Dark Days, Laundry On The Line, Fundamental Nature
FRIENDS & LEGENDS OF LOUISIANA Various Artists (L&M Star Productions) *****
This sounds like a party I would love to be at. A set of originals, Friends & Legends Of Louisiana is the work of a core band with several invited guests giving us a taste of the unique musical flavor of that particular state- it’s a beautiful, inspiring thing.
The idea of gathering a bunch of Louisiana musicians together to salute their home state started with Mike David and Lucas Spinoza. Mike is a long-time music promoter and manager, Lucas a career musician and songwriter. The guys put together their best contacts and talent to create Friends, a gumbo-rich musical adventure. The album was recorded, mixed and mastered over an 8 month period at Brignac Lane Studio in St. Amant, Louisiana and mastered by Grammy winner Tony Daigle. It’s a sharp sounding disc production-wise, and the musicianship is spirited.
Friends & Legends is 10 tracks in all featuring a different singer on each, plus a guest turn by extraordinary guitarist Sonny Landreth on Belly Of The Beast. The band is a 7 piece, no big names to recognize unless you’re already a student of the Louisiana scene and Lucas Spinoza, one of the creators of this project, plays piano, B-3, and various keyboards. As one might expect most of these tunes rely on lively horn charts, giving them an extra kick in the pants and elevating them to a higher plane. Some great sax solos throughout from Jason Parfait, but on a ballad like Southern Side Of Life, the horns pull back to let guitarists Cranston Clements and Bob Henderson tend to the heavy musical lifting. No mention of who plays harp on the number, but it’s pretty damn sweet.
Friends & Legends Of Louisiana likely won’t be appearing on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but that’s okay. This disc is the sound of talented people making music for the sheer pleasure of doing so, and that’s the best reason of all. From ballads to toe tappers, this is an exquisite experience.
KEY CUTS: Southern Side Of Life (Kenny Neal, vocals), Beale Street Blues (Jason Parfait, vocals), The Two Of Us (Gregg Martinez, vocals)
AWAY IS MINE Gord Downie (Arts & Crafts) **** ½
I have followed the Tragically Hip since the early 90’s, admittedly more closely in their first than their the last decade. Still, considering an album like this objectively is problematic at best. Away Is Mine is Gord’s 7th solo album, recorded over 4 days in July of 2017, just 3 months prior to his death. It’s a double album; the first ten songs are electric, the second ten slightly shorter acoustic mixes of the same tracks. On first pass I like this; what and how much it means to me will take time to figure out.
Gord Downie away from The Hip is always a little more ‘out there’, but I’ve long admired him as a writer/ lyricist so I don’t mind taking the ride. It boggles my mind that he created Away Is Mine knowing that the end of his life was quickly approaching, and I’m hearing those songs in that light. Knowing that this would likely be his final musical statement, was he trying to pretend making another record was ‘business as usual’ or, as I suspect did he give some weight to considering these his final observations on the human condition- an aural last will and testament of sorts? Perhaps those close to him might know; the rest of us can only imagine.
According to a statement that first announced this album, it is “a contemplation on Gord’s life, written with his deft hand and forever inscrutable sense of humor, even as he locked eyes with the Great Inevitability.” Away Is Mine was recorded at The Hip’s recording studio in Bath, Ontario, with guitarist and co-writer Josh Finlayson and in-house engineer Nyles Spencer. “There really wasn’t a plan to make a record” says Finlayson, “(but) I knew this was a great way to spend time with Gord, listening to music, talking about music, talking about things that we’d always talked about. And this just evolved pretty organically.” Downie’s brother Patrick notes that “this won’t be his last release, but these are the final ten songs he sang before he passed away- the last time he ever sang into a mic.”
These ten songs are spirited but nowhere near as bombastic as Hip records like Fully Completely that we love and, given Downie’s train of thought at the time I find the acoustic versions more engaging. Away Is Mine likely won’t make a big ripple outside of the Hip fan base, but that was never its intention. These are songs written by a man preparing to draw his final breath, providing solace and inspiration to those of us willing to be open to them. Don’t be afraid.
KEY CUTS: Hotel Worth, About Blank (acoustic), Traffic Is Magic (acoustic)
LETTER TO YOU Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (Columbia) *****
Into a twisted and divided world and on the eve of the most important election in American history comes a ray of sunshine. Letter To You is Bruce’s first album with the E-Street Band since 2014’s High Hopes, bristling with the life, spiritual and sonic energy of records like Born In The USA and The Rising. It’s just what we need right now.
Letters To You started with a gift from a fan. After a performance of his one man Broadway show, a fan from Italy (he thinks) was waiting outside the theatre to give him an acoustic guitar. Bruce liked it, took it home, where it sat un-played for months. When he finally got around to picking it up, the songs for the new album came pouring out. In the interview recorded for Apple Music, Springsteen says the songs were written last year over a period of 7 to 10 days. Not long after, he had lunch with E-Street keyboardist Roy Bittan and told him about the new songs. Bittan had one suggestion; to not demo anything, which would lock the songs into established arrangements, but rather take them to the band, play the songs for them and let them record it- like the old days. It’s an approach guitarist Steve Van Zandt has been advocating for years.
Bruce got the band together to record, booking 5 days in the studio, but the album was finished in 4 and they spent the last day listening to what they had just done. In that Apple Music interview, Bruce says that all the songs were recorded live with the whole band playing- not the first time they’ve done that but, he says, it was the first time they’d done it and kept everything from the take, only overdubbing a few guitar solos later. He reckoned that the songs were recorded, start to finish, in about 3 hours each.
Letter To You owes its sound and feel to the combination of Bruce giving these songs directly to the band along with the inclusion of 3 often bootlegged songs from the early 70’s that he came across while combing the archives for a follow-up to his Tracks box set. There’s a palpable E Street feel to them, from the many piano intros to overall energy expended that makes listening such an agreeable experience.
It’s the emotional depth of the songs Springsteen writes I respond to the most, and Letter To You does not disappoint. The album, Bruce says, is a kind of summation of where he has been, where he’s at, and where he might be headed. It also deals with loss… the loss of E Street band mates Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as George Thiess, which left Bruce as the last surviving member of his first band The Castiles. It was in that band that he really learned his craft, making him the musician and performer he is today. The songs One Minute You’re Here, Last Man Standing and I’ll See You In My Dreams address these losses most directly.
Bruce Springsteen has never been one to do things by half measures, and Letter To You finds his music getting deeper and richer, reaching yet another glorious peak in a 5 decade long career. We see ourselves in these songs, and that’s a beautiful thing.
KEY CUTS: House Of A Thousand Guitars, One Minute You’re Here, Last Man Standing
TOMORROW IS A BIRD Giula Millanta (Ugly Cat Records) *****
This is Millanta’s 7th album overall, following 2018’s excellent Conversations With A Ghost. As I’m sure I mentioned when reviewing that record, Giula is an Italian born singer/ songwriter that calls Austin, Texas home. The city obviously suits her; Tomorrow Is A Bird is another captivating suite of stories. Her website describes what she does as being “smart, pensive and cool and credited with psychedelic groovability whilst baring her clairvoyant soul to deliver her musical mojo.” Yeah- that’s it.
I was surprised to learn on her website that she has a degree in medicine (from The University of Florence, 2007), but has never practiced medicine… I guess you could say she took her gift for healing in a different direction. The music she has produced in the years since indicate that this was the right move. Tomorrow Is A Bird is thoroughly enchanting. Produced by Giulia along with her guitarist and piano player Gabriel Rhodes (who also co-wrote the opening track Castle In The Clouds) they eschew the ‘modern’ practice of jamming every hole in the songs with music. The arrangements are spacious and unhurried. Every note, echo, reverb effect and ringing guitar note is exactly where it needs to be, with absolutely zero waste. I particularly enjoy her use of the cello on cuts like Animal, which gives the song dramatic tension and a Springsteen-y feel.
Giulia is a fine guitarist, and as a singer she has a disarming delivery that makes the songs on Tomorrow is A Bird feel intimate, over and above what she’s saying lyrically. While I enjoy the visceral thrills afforded by high test rock & roll (Sabbath, Motorhead), I’m also susceptible to simple and well told stories, and that’s what Millanta delivers so very well. Wikpedia describes her as a “folk rock/ Americana singer/ songwriter” and as far as labels go, that suits her as well as any. These songs feel like personal stories and the music they are built with make them easy to take in, kind of like a Bruce Cockburn record. A quote on her website from Michael Greenblatt of Aquarian Weekly describes her as “a deeply evocative singer with a dash of Piaf, a sprinkle of Lady Day, a pinch of Norah Jones and a teaspoon of Madeleine Peroux.” There is absolutely nothing about this disc that I don’t like.
KEY CUTS: Quiet Fight, Castle In The Clouds, Animal
UNCIVIL WAR Shemekia Copeland (Alligator) ****
Another soulful blues excursion here from Ms. Copeland. The title song was released a few months ago, so I’ve been waiting for this. Uncivil War blends blues, R&B and Americana in a heady concoction that sits at the edge of civil unrest (hence the title) and a not so gentle demand that things change.
Uncivil War, as you might expect from a title like that, is full of songs addressing gun violence, civil rights, lost friends (a touching tribute to Dr. John in Dirty Saint), bad love and, of course, good love- a soul searching, timeless range of topics to be sure. The album was recorded in Nashville under the guidance of award winning producer and musician Will Kimbrough, who does a brilliant job in arranging the tunes and bringing out the best in each of the instruments, including Shemekia’s forceful vocals.
Uncivil War has a pretty impressive guest list, which speaks to Copeland’s talents as an artist. Amongst those contributing to her new record are Steve Cropper, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Webb Wilder, Duane Eddy and Jerry Douglas… it would be pretty tough to make an ‘average’ record with folks like that pitching in. This is a disc full of stand-out songs like the opening salvo Clotilda’s On Fire, about the very last slave ship to arrive in America in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1859- 50 years after the slave trade was supposedly abolished. It’s a vicious slice of American history featuring some blistering blues guitar from Jason Bell.
The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich calls Shemekia “the greatest female blues vocalist working today”, and after listening repeatedly to Uncivil War, it’s hard to disagree with that notion. Her delivery is often ferocious, and lyrically her songs challenge and confront racism, hate, xenophobia and other issues that seem to be polluting and diluting public discourse in our time, shining a much need light into some very dark places. This is a record with a soul and a conscience, full of sweet grooves and magnificent playing that can and should be appreciated on multiple levels. Pretty spectacular stuff.
KEY CUTS: Clotilda’s On Fire, Dirty Saint, Apple Pie & A 45, Give God The Blues
MIRROR STAR Sinner’s Blood (Frontiers) ***+
It felt like time to crank up some metal, looks like I came to the right place. Sinner’s Blood is a metal quartet out of Chile, proving that music is the universal language. A collection of blistering, bravado performances along with a heavy ballad in Who I Am makes Mirror Star an epic listening experience.
Sinner’s Blood features a powerful vocalist in James Robledo, a singer with a kind of Dio-esque epicness to his delivery. His foil is producer/ guitarist Nasson, who has a definite knack for the dramatic requirements of this kind of music. The band also includes Nicolas Fischer on bass and drummer Guillermo Pereira, who has a brutal yet precise style behind the kit that fits this material rather well- not unlike Scott Travis with Priest. This feels musically like a path Judas Priest might have pursued, where they would have gone next after Painkiller if Rob Halford hadn’t left the band for that decade or so, particularly when you consider where they went with Jugulator in 1997.
Mirror Star is one catchy record, with melodies, themes and motifs just sticking in your brain. Except when they ease up for the occasional power ballad, the pace in pretty energetic and relentless, a pace that can give you a temporary sense of vertigo as they throw you back and forth. It’s the marriage of 80’s hard rock sensibilities with a sort of hell bent for leather attitude that makes Mirror Star so much damned fun. It has the power of modern metal with a melodic sense that many of today’s harder bands ignore in favor of blunt force trauma. Sinner’s Blood wants it both ways; to bowl you over and blow you away, leaving you humming as you crash to the floor.
While I admire such a balancing act, I have to wonder if Sinner’s Blood might come across as too hard for traditional metal fans, and not extreme enough for the head bangers at the other end of the spectrum. Only one way to find out- give Mirror Star a spin or three and see which side you land on. I see (and hear) this as great road music.
KEY CUTS: Who I Am, Never Again, Kill or Die
LIVE FROM THE FORUM MMXVIII Eagles (Rhino) *****
As the title suggests, a new live set from the current Eagles lineup. Recorded over 3 nights at the LA Forum in 2018, this is the first recording with new members Deacon Frey and Vince Gill. Live From The Forum is as good as I hoped it would be.
Like most of the world, I was shocked at the sudden passing of Eagle co-founder Glenn Frey in 2016, with Don Henley stating at the time that the band would not play again. The following year, he changed his mind as the Eagles took part in a couple of classic rock festivals organized by their manager Irving Azoff. According to a write up on Wikipedia, Henley brought Deacon Frey along after witnessing him perform some of his dad’s songs at Glenn’s memorial service. According to Don, in order for the band to continue “the only way it felt justified to me was to have family blood in the band.”
I waffled on buying this album ever since it was first announced; would it tarnish the Eagles’ legacy or live up to expectations? My wife and I saw them on their History tour in Saskatoon in 2014 (I think) and it was one of the finest concert experiences either of us have had, so I worried that Forum would suffer by comparison. But curiosity ruled the day- how Deacon would do under the spotlight? Plus, I was thrilled that Vince Gill had joined too. “This might really work” I thought as when clicking the “buy now” button on I Tunes.
Live From The Forum is 26 songs, a combination of Eagle hits with occasional deep cuts along with solo hits from each band member except Deacon Frey. Eagles are noted for being perfectionists on stage, a bone of contention for former member Don Felder, but we ultimately benefit from that with virtually flawless performances to enjoy. The addition of Gill, an insanely talented country guitar player with a beautiful voice, recalls the early days when Bernie Leadon was in the group. As for Deacon Frey, he sings his late father’s songs very nearly as well as the originals.
When an original member of a band dies, the group has two choices; fold as Led Zeppelin did, or carry on with new blood as bands like AC/DC have done. From the musicianship to the pristine vocal harmonies, Forum does the Eagles’ legacy proud and then some. I doubt they will create new music together, it doesn’t feel like that’s in the cards- but who knows? It would be exciting to find out what this group of players can come up with. Live From The Forum MMXVIII is, frankly, excellent… and if Glenn Frey can hear it from wherever he’s at, I’ll bet he’s mighty proud of his son and his band.
KEY CUTS: DISC ONE: Take It Easy, Ol’ 55, In The City
DISC TWO: Walk Away, heartache Tonight, Hotel California