The Record Box for Sunday Sept 21st

STEP BACK Johnny Winter (Megaforce) ***** +Talk about going out with a bang! Readied for release in the months or so before his death, Step Back is one of Johnny’s very best records in a long and distinguished career, sullied only by the fact that he’s not here to bask in the accolades for having delivered one of the best blues albums of the decade.This one follows a similar path to 2011’s Roots, which was Winter`s first album in 7 years, a collection of tunes that inspired him has a lad an a young musician, and mostly duets too. I saw him touring for that album in Lloydminster and promptly bought digital and vinyl copies. I also remember paying attention to 2nd guitarist Paul Nelson and think “Holy shit, this guy`s really good too.” As good as Roots was, Step Back is better. The performances and overall vibe is more assured, as if Johnny was more certain by this 2nd album that this was a good direction for him to go in. There’s no hint of the illnesses that dogged him here, his vocals confident and guitar playing as strong as it’s ever been.And again, as with Roots, the new album pairs Winter with a number of blues luminaries and, dare I say, peers. 13 tracks in all on this set including 10 guest artists; Dr. John, Joe Perry, Leslie West, Jason Ricci, Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton, Ben Harper and The Blues Brothers Horns. Johnny was indeed back when it came time to record this album, and the confidence in these performances indicates that he knew it, his band knew it, and the guest musicians knew it too.Lots of great upbeat numbers on Step Back (gotta think the title means “step back and watch this…) and some fantastic slow blues too, including a solo rendition of Son House’s Death Letter, and Killing Floor with his co-guitarist in The Johnny Winter Band (manager and friend too) Paul Nelson, a particular highlight of the record. If we can set aside Johnny Winter’s untimely death on July 16th, and consider Step Back purely on musical merit, this is one hell of a blues record.HIGHLIGHTS: Killing Floor (with Paul Nelson), Where Can You Be (with Billy Gibbons), Can`t Hold Out (with Ben Harper), Death LetterSONGS OF INNOCENCE U2 (Island) ****A new suite of songs from Ireland’s biggest, most commercially successful band is causing quite a stir, and not always for the right reasons. This collection as a whole looks back on childhood- surely a time of innocence for most of us.I have not bought a U2 album in quite some time, and that has not changed. I’m not sure when it was, but I suspect somewhere around How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb their records and what they had to say started bouncing off of me. I remember picking up that disc a dozen times or more while at the now defunct A&B Sound in Red Deer, only to put it back and move on to something else. Songs Of The Innocence was given free to everyone that has i-Tunes, a move that cost Apple around $100 million. What I don’t understand is how pissed off some people got- if that includes you, calm down, delete the damned thing and, for God’s sake stop whining about it!!!Songs of Innocence was named after William Blake’s 1789 collection of poems about childhood, man’s perpetual age of discovery- a fact that I gleaned from David Fricke’s perceptive review of this album that you should probably be reading instead of this one- like Iris (Hold Me Close) speak to me loud and clear as Bono sings to the mother he lost at 14. I was 26 when cancer took mine, but that’s the kind of thing that stays with you all your life. It is well known amongst U2 fans that the punk movement in general and The Ramones in particular were an early and formative inspiration for the band, as addressed in The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) that opens the record. The lyrical content is unusually personal, as Bono is given to more global concerns, and its quite a refreshing turn.Songs Of Innocence is a little all over the map stylistically, perhaps moreso than I’m used to from these guys, like the keyboard textures in Sleep Like A Baby Tonight and the straightforward rock beat of Volcano that Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton introduce from the get-go, a song that could rock the airwaves with anything on play lists right now- but that makes Songs a good listen. It’s curious to me that so many profess hatred of this band, thinking Bono a pompous ass for trying to use his celebrity to make the world a better place- seems bitterly misguided. It could also be a case of they’ve been around forever and have been successful worldwide for so long that some people feel obligated to tear them down. Truth be told I haven’t liked a U2 album this much since Achtung, Baby! so put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.HIGHLIGHTS; Volcano, The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), Iris (Hold Me Close)THE TATTOOED LADY & THE ALLIGATOR MAN Marcia Ball (Alligtor) *** 1/2The Boston Herald celebrates Marcia’s new album as “A Joyful musical tour of the territory between New Orleans and Austin”, noting that “Ball’s voice can break your heart with a ballad or break your back with a rocker”, and I have to agree- this one of the most fun, upbeat blues albums I’ve heard in quite some time.Given that Ball was Texas born and Louisiana raised, The Globe’s assessment makes perfect sense. The blues world is watching this gal closely; she’s received 6 Living Blues awards, 9 Blues Music awards, and a whopping 42 nominations, along with 5 Grammy noms, including for 4 of her last 5 albums for Alligator Records. Tattooed Lady was produced by Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker, Kames Cotton, Susan Tedeschi), surely as ubiquitous a producer in the blues world as T. Bone Burnett is in roots music. and a guy that knows how to pull the musical truth from the artists he works with.Marcia’s rollicking piano style supplies much of the energy for this album, more New Orleans style than anything. She’s a soulful vocalist too, with a great band behind and including an assist from Delbert McClinton. It’s been 3 years since her last album, but Ball says “I don’t make a new record until I have something to say, new stories to impart. I try to make records that are true to me, and this one couldn’t be truer.” So if you want to know who this gal is, throw Tattooed Lady on and she’ll gladly let you know.Though Marcia Ball is considered by many to be a blues artist, I don’t think that’s strictly the case, especially after listening to the new album. Much of it feels more like New Orleans soul than anything else, and a song like Let’s Go To Town is nothing if not a pure, joyous celebration of life. Of course there is blues on this record too, and her piano playing makes that feel like Fats Domino… all of which makes this album a roaring good time.I have a couple of Marcia’s other albums for Alligator records that I like more than this- but here on a sunny Sunday afternoon, The Tattooed Lady & The Alligator Man is feeling pretty damn good, and I’m glad to have more of her tunes to play on my radio show.HIGHLIGHTS: He’s The One, Lazy Blues, the title trackMOONLAND featuring Lenna Kuurmaa (Frontiers) ***Melodic, guitar driven rock, not unlike what was happening in the 90’s shortly before the grunge explosion took prisoners and buried careers. Not exactly the kind of music that will change your life, but enjoyable to listen to nonetheless.It’s unlikely that you’ve hear of Lenna before- she’s a singer, actress and TV personality from Estonia, and she’s is mostly known in Europe as the front person for the all female rock outfit Vanilla Ninja. She’s a very melodic singer, not given into the histrionics that can sometimes hobble otherwise decent hard rock singers. She claims her influences include Heart and Europe with a touch of Roxette, and the more I listen to this album the more sense that makes. She recalls mid to late 80’s Heart most of all, not the best period of that band’s history- not a horrible thing necessarily, but that’s when the band was at their most corporate sounding, and that represents the biggest gap in my Heart collection.Ultimately, Moonland doesn’t particularly move me, which is a necessity to love a record. The production is slick and the musicianship is expert, but the sound is a little dated, sort of recalling the original Footloose soundtrack. And although Lenna sings them very well, expressively and with some muscle, she doesn’t feel particularly attached to the lyrics which, ultimately is the biggest shortcoming for this particular style of rock & roll.The biggest problem with Moonland is that it was assembled as a vehicle for Lenna Kuurmaa`s voice and that`s exactly what it feels like, instead of something straight from the gut- a well constructed but ultimately factory made record.. her voice is a powerful instrument and the playing on this disc is excellent, otherwise I wouldn`t have rated it as high as I did. But after going through these dozen songs a couple of times, I can`t feel a direct connection with her as an artist and that`s crucial.HIGHLIGHTS: Heaven Is To Be Close To You, Poison AngelCALLING ALL BLUES! The Duke Robillard Band (Stony Plain) **** 1/2The latest from this famous Rhode Island bluesman is his best, most enjoyable disc in at least a decade- and he’s been putting out some pretty great albums! It’s a wide ranging swet that literally has something for everyone.”I envisioned this as an album of blues and blues related, mostly original songs that that touch on a few of the many styles of American music based on the blues” Duke says in the liner notes. “We hope you enjoy our journey through these styles as we hit of the sounds of cities and states where theese blues and soul styles developed.” Such variety is what makes this particular disc a pantload of fun, almost like a musical georgraphy lesson. There’s the Memphis-style track Down In Mexico that opens the album, the lowdown Texas blues of Nasty Guitar and the slow burning blues groove of Blues Beryond The Call Of Duty that features the great Sunny Crownover on vocals.Duke Robillard, co-founder of Roomful Of Blues and Jimmy Vaughan`s replacement in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, is playing better than ever. I particularly enjoyed the reckless feeling slide work on I`m Gonna Quit My Baby and was shocked to learn that he had to play with a braced broken hand, the two middle fingers taped together. “That accounts for the slightly out of tune funkiness of the slide solo!” he declares. There’s a soulfulness to Duke’s playing on each of these tracks (and that of his band) that makes Calling All Blues one of my favorites of the 10 or 12 Duke Robillard albums that I already own.Sometimes, Robillard’s albums can have a bit of a fussy, jazzy uptown attitude to them that keeps me from emrbacing them whole heartedly, but not this time. As he and the band take us on a blues tour of the south, he feels more connected to the music than ever, elevating Calling All Blues! not just to the top of my own Robillard collection, but to very near the top of all the blues albums I’ve heard this year- and I’ve been blessed to hear some really good stuff!HIGHLIGHTS: Blues beyond The Call of Duty, I’m Gonna Quit My Baby, Nasty Guitar

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