The Record Box by John The Rock Doctor

MODERN CLASSIC Robin Banks (independent) **** +From Memphis and Muscle Shoals-rooted blues & soul to swing, boogie-woogie, honky-tonk and jazz, Modern Classic is a tasty musical morsel. Banks’ first album since 2010’s Livin’ Life, this is one disc that lives up to its name.Robin has a lengthy career under her belt already, having released her first album in ’97 and gigged all over the world.  When I read in the bio that “she has a voice that’s been compared to such greats as Etta James and Dinah Washington” I thought “Yeah, right…” but such is the confidence and command with which she wields her sultry pipes that I can hear it with my own ears.THE ROBIN BANKS HISTORY LESSON  She grew up 50 miles east of Detroit on a tobacco farm, and drove a taxi in Toronto in the 80’s while trying to get her singing career off the ground.  In ’92 she put her blues band together and, in 1997, won the Maple Blues Award for new Artist of The year.  That was followed with appearances at prominent jazz n blues festivals and her debut album Permanent Record. In 1998, 2010 and 2011, she was nominated for female vocalist of the year at The Maple Blues Awards.Modern Classic was produced by Duke Robillard, who adds guitar to these dozen originals.  If you’re familiar with Duke’s work, either as an artist or producer, then you’ve got a good idea of what to expect sonically.  As with his own stuff, Robillard has given MC a clean, uncluttered sound, with each instrument (including Banks’ voice) given room to breathe and express itself without stepping on any toes.  Lots of great groove here, from the uptown jazz & blues stuff to a flirtation with Jamaican vibes that is foreshadowed by the cover art.  “Since returning to Canada, I have traveled back and forth from Jamaica probably 20 times to perform and remain prolific there” Robin says.One of the things I enjoy most about Modern Classic is that it gives us a real sense of who Robin Banks is, not just as a singer but as a person. From the jazz and blues that dominate the album to Texas honky-tonk like A Place In The City it’s a joy to hear someone this talented and comfortable in their own skin- and I’m not as afraid of jazz as I was before I put this in the CD player.  JESSENTIALS:  A Man Is Just A Man, A Place In The City, Crazy SWAMP TOOTH COMB TG & The Swampbusters (independent) *****With an album title like Swamp Tooth Comb, this disc sounds exactly as I hoped it would- nasty, evocative, bluesy… right up my alley.Primarily known as a banjo playing acoustic blues artist, Tim Gibbons straps on an electric guitar for this disc of gritty blues/rock tunes.  His hometown newspaper The Hamilton Spectator rightly praises STC as “the kind of stuff a less-than-sober Keith Richards would appreciate.”  These songs have a Stones-like swagger to them, but I’d hardly call them sloppy- full of attitude is more like it, and slinky grooves abound.TG & The Swampbusters is a trio- Tim Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Swampy Joe Klienfeltr on bass, and ‘Patch’ on drums, and the feeling is laid back.  As a vocalist Gibbons’ approach is casual, sort of a cross between Slim Harpo and Bob Dylan.  Tim started on the drums in high school, then switched to guitar and banjo at 17, at which point he landed his first professional job in a blues combo backing exotic dancers at Starvin’ Marvin’s, and that shows in these 9 tracks in terms of feel and joie de blues.   In the late 90’s he was recruited by Daniel Lanois to play bass, drums and organ on the Sling Blade soundtrack, so there’s a real history that follows this cat wherever he goes.“As a kid I was always making up songs, hearing things in my head and singing them out- (that’s) never really changed” says Gibbons.  “I let most of them go, but every now and then I’d grab hold of my guitar and write it down”, which is how Swamp Tooth Comb feels and sounds- natural, unforced, the real deal.  This is the kind of album I can put on and just get lost for awhile- that’s a priceless gift.ESSENTIALS:  Who Wants To Dance With An Old Ding Dong?, Play Me Some Blues And Keep It Country, The Bone of Contention THE REAL THING D.A. Foster (Vizztone/ redeye) *** After 35 years fronting his own band The Shaboo Allstars, Foster finally gets around to putting out an album. As keyboard player/ co-producer Mike Finnigan notes, “Four decades in R&B music.  Now it’s he’s time, he’s the real thing.”Foster has quite a history behind him; from ’71 to ’82 he was hands-on co-owner of the legendary Connecticut roadhouse The Shaboo Inn where bands like Aerosmith, The Police, Hall & Oates, Journey, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and Elvis Costello played early in their careers.  The joint also hosted blues greats nearly every week- Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the three Kings, John Lee Hooker and many more.  These are the guys that discovered D.A.’s natural vocal talents- they mentored him and invited him to cut his teeth on stage with them… can you imagine that?  In 1982 The Shaboo closed its doors, and shortly thereafter  The Shaboo Allstars did a 7 night run with Stevie Ray Vaughan- sweet Jesus it just doesn’t get much better than that!So I guess we should get to the album itself.  As a singer, Foster is a smoother version of Delbert McClinton with a nice bass range, and the band swings and grooves behind him like the well seasoned pros they are, relaxed and confident in each of their respective specialties.  D didn’t write any of the tunes, but he has a great ear for what works for him and his vocal style and at the end of the day, that’s more than enough.The Real Thing isn’t jump-out-of-your-chair-let’s-blow-the-roof-off-this-dump barrelhouse blues, it’s a more like an easy going companion that you’re glad decided to drop by, the sort of thing to throw on when you’re just slouching around the house- and tonight, that suits me just fine.ESSENTIALS:  Down Home Blues, Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You, Good Man Bad Thing LUCKY DOG Brad Absher & Swamp Royale (Montrose) *** ½ Here is the sixth  El Pee for this Louisiana raised/Houston based Gulf Coast bluesman.  Produced by Montrose label chief Richard Cagle this isn’t as nasty as I like my blues- but it is fair tasty. Truth be told, Lucky Dog is more of a Memphis soul album than blues, more akin to artists like Bill Withers as he covers songs by people like Allan Toussaint, Leon Russell and Withers himself.  The album is half covers and half Absher originals, giving us a pretty good idea of who this guy is. Swamp Royale have been a fixture throughout the better part of two decades on the Gulf Coast scene, becoming top ten finalists at the 2014 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, going up against other artists from all over the world, and placing well in various music polls.Absher has a great voice for this kind of music and is an extremely tasty guitarist, the solo in Miss Your Water being a highlight of this set.  His leads can be subtle and his slide work just kind of sneaks up on you.  Nothing feels overdone, with everything going to serve the higher purpose of the songs themselves.  That goes for Brad as well as the members of the band too and really, you can’t ask for more than that.When he’s not gigging near home or popping up at festivals around the country, Absher shares his knowledge of all things guitar as a staff member at Houston’s well known Rockin’ Robin Music Store.  So it’s pretty much music 24/7 for this guy, and it shows in the care he takes to play each note just so. Lucky Dog is very worth checking out.ESSENTIALS:  Miss Your Water, Jesus On The Mainline, Not Tonight DECADENT U.D.O. (AFM) ****This is the 15th album by the former Accept screamer and boy, talk about a chip off the old block. Decadent sounds eerily like what his old band has been up to in the last 4-5 years- making melodic, hard-as-nails heavy metal.  Working under a main theme of social criticism and the ‘decadent’ behavior of rich upper classes, U.D.O. starts throwing punches right out of the gate without letting up.“Decadent behavior by privileged society exists in the whole world in completely different shades” the singer says.  “What bothers me the most is the egocentrism that goes along with that- people who have everything seem to not care about the world around them.  They don’t seem to see that there’s a correlation between their own luxury and the poverty of others.”  Some heavy thought went into the songs on this album, and Udo’s band mates are up to the task at hand.Decadent at least matches the firepower of recent Accept records like Stalingrad and Blind Rage.  Guitarists Andrey Smirnov and Kasperi Keikkinen are razor sharp as you get slammed by wall after wall of heavy, articulate riffs.  I don’t know what it is, exactly, but there’s something about the brutal precision of German guitarists that really hits me where I live.  Throw Udo’s menacing growl on top of that spitting out socially relevant lyrics, and you have far more than your average heavy metal album.  I understand the whole band was involved in the songwriting process this time, and they sound very much united in purpose and intent.“If all of us would live a little bit more consciously and think about who has to pay the price for our standard of living, we could make the world a better place” says Dirkschneider of the album’s message.  You can’t really argue with that- and you can’t argue with the full-throttle-smack-you-upside-the-head rock & roll in these 12 tracks either. Decadent is yet another outstanding metal statement from U.D.O.ESSENTIAL:  Breathless, Under Your Skin, Decadent TOUGH LOVE Tinsley Ellis (Heartfixer/ Landslide) *****+This is Tinsley’s 3rd album on his own label, filled with some of the sweetest, most soulful sounds to ever come from a Stratocaster.  Recalling a combo of SRV and Robert Cray, Ellis really knows how to hit you where you live.“This album just flowed out of us in the studio, and that’s a good thing for a blues album to do” say Ellis.  “Making a record is all about capturing a vibe in the studio… each song has a different groove, and we used an arsenal of vintage (instruments).”  All of which makes Tough Love such a joy to listen to, you can literally feel the spirit of these sessions coming out of your stereo speakers (or headphones) and just washing over you.  Despite songs like Leave Me, this is quite an uplifting album.Tinsley’s southern roots are on proud display throughout these grooves, and no wonder- he comes from Georgia just as The Allmans, James Brown and Otis Redding did before him.  He approaches his music with blues feeling and rock power, which makes albums like this so immediately enjoyable.  The 10 songs on this disc are all Ellis originals, some of which I daresay stand with blues classics by guys like BB King and Buddy Guy.  Ellis isn’t just a good guitarist he’s a great one, capable of dazzling fireworks but also knowing when to lay back in the pocket and just go with it.  With some players like Stevie Ray, every once in awhile you’ll find yourself thinking “Oh now he’s just showing off”, but not with Tinsley Ellis- he’s a masterful player, a craftsman, and not a single note on this record is out of place.Credit for Tough Love goes to Tinsley’s band too- Kevin McKendree on keys, Lynn Williams on drums and Steve Mackey on bass- for what I consider his best album yet.  This is one blues album that will get you right in the feels, guaranteed.ESSENTIALS:  Midnight Ride, Should I Have Lied, In From The Cold LIVE AT KOKO Uriah Heep (Frontiers) *****Color me pleasantly shocked to be enjoying this album as much as I am.  Due out February 20th, here are 2 discs of proof that Heep, who came up at the same time as bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, can still rock with the best of them.I was into Uriah Heep as a teenager, playing records like Demons & Wizards, The Magician’s Birthday and Sweet Freedom until the grooves were worn into dust.  As the band started to change personnel, however, I left them behind and moved on to other groups- grew out of them, I guess.  Bassist Gary Thain and singer David Byron both died long ago and keyboardist Ken Hensley retired, leaving guitarist Mick Box the sole original member, as he remains today- could you even call it Uriah Heep?The answer, is yes.  Members of the current lineup have been in the group longer than the original guys were; singer Bernie Shaw signed up in 1986, and drummer Russell Gilbrook has been behind the kit for 7 years now- long enough to have recorded the studio albums Wake The Sleeper, Into The Wild and Outsider.  Other than checking in with the group for 1989’s Raging Silence (liked it but found it a bit ‘lite’) I stayed away until Wake The Sleeper in 2008.  Impressed with what I was hearing, I’ve bought every release since- which leaves me with only 18 or so albums to catch up on.Live At Koko is the sound of a band at the peak of their performing powers.  Mick Box is the only remaining original member, but as you listen to him rip and shred here it’s hard to believe he’ll be 70 in a couple of years.  “Recording a live DVD (my copy is digital so I don’t have the DVD) in London at Koko’s was just fantastic” Mick Box says. “Our fans traveled from all over the world to be there, to be a part of this magic night.”  The combination of band and audience on this album is magic- great performances from each musician, the crowd singing along and pushing the band to greater heights.What really makes this set work is how well the newer songs mix with the Heep classics.  This is no nostalgia act as they debut two songs from their then new album Outsider.  Often I find that bands of this ‘vintage’ often sleepwalk through their hits and, if it’s mostly not-original guys, the songs sound like karaoke- but not Uriah Heep.  They hit the stage with all guns blazing and tear through their set like a much younger band trying to conquer the world.  Heep’s arena days may be behind them (in the US at least) and this might not be much more than a great club gig, but the energy of this set is undeniable and addictive as the band is in classic form.Live At Koko is one of the best live rock albums I have heard in a very long time, kudos to Mick Box, Bernie Shaw, Russell Gilbrook, Phil Lanzon and Dave Rimmer for turning in such a ferocious performance, and to producer Mike Paxman for capturing it so well.  The Heep legacy is secure, and in very capable hands.ESSENTIALS: Stealin’, Wake The Sleeper, Box Wah, Sunrise DRACULA: SWING OF DEATH Jorn Lande & Trond Holter (Frontiers) ****+Zoiks, a rock opera based on Dracula?  On one hand the thought is daft and on the other, in musical terms, it scared the crap out of me- but these Norwegian rockers found a way to pull it off.  What could have very easily been a train wreck in lesser hands has turned out to be a creative triumph for Lande and Holter.“The drama of the story reveals Dracula’s inner battle, where he still remembers what true love was, and as he wandered the Earth for centuries with a thirst for blood, his loneliness and desire to be able to love again has led him to the brink of insanity” says the accompanying press release and, much to my surprise, it makes for a compelling narrative.  The lyrics that drive the story aren’t limited to Bram Stoker’s day either, this can be easily interpreted as a modern tale, perhaps the ultimate Goth story.I’ve found that, after 4 spins, I’ve been appreciating Swing Of Death more with each pass.  Yesterday, on the first listen I thought “Well I don’t know about his…” but this morning, as I hear it for the 4th time it’s starting to rock my world.  Musically speaking this is a mix of Meat Loaf, Queen and Alice Cooper, with periods of maximum heaviosity and occasional classical flourishes.  The musicianship is top notch, and the combination of Jorn Lande as Dracula and Lena Floitmoen Borrensen as Lucy, vocally speaking, makes for a compelling listening experience.In terms of the heavy metal rock opera, Swing Of Death beats the pants off of Judas Priest’s Nostradamus and, unlike other albums in this vein, we are not forced to suffer through long instrumental passages or overtures.  In that respect this is more of a traditional rock experience.  Holter’s guitar work is heavy and Lande’s vocals, sounding occasionally like Bruce Dickinson, keep pace nicely, with the aforementioned classical flourishes and Ms. Borrensen’s voice providing welcome relief.There are plans to stage Dracula: Swing Of Death in Norwegian theatres sometime this year.  I would hope for North American performances, but that somehow feels unlikely… so unless you can get together plane fare for Norway, this CD will have to do.  Give it a few spins to sink in and weave its spell- I promise you it’s worth it.ESSENTIALS:  Masquerade Ball, Hands Of Your God, River of Tears


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