Minneapolis-based combo Davina and the Vagabonds’ latest record, Sugar Drops, is one of my favorite releases of the year. Singer/songwriter/pianist Davina Sowers’ powerful, dulcet tones seamlessly blend the best bits of jazz, blues, soul and Americana (a la Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Amy Winehouse) into a ten-track stunner that embraces you like smooth silk. Her rich, layered, smoky vocals and eclectic personality shine through as she tells her life story through her songs, a life riddled with ups and downs. Heroin addiction, homelessness and jail plagued the sultry songstress at a young age but she beat the odds, overcoming her addiction and immersing herself in the music to become a thriving artist. Recorded at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville and tightly produced by Gerry West, this album marks Sowers’ first foray into recording in a studio, utilizing a producer and using guitar, the fruits of which proved to be very much in Sowers’ favor. Sowers is backed by some of Nashville’s finest session musicians including Doug Lancio (guitar), Todd Phillips (bass), Jordan Perlson (drums), Roland Barber (trombone), Jim Hoke (clarinet, baritone sax, flute, pedal steel, and Hammond B3 on two tracks), and last but far from least, Reese Wynans (Hammond B3 on three tracks). Lozier’s husband and band mate, Zack Lozier, also adds colorful trumpet and coronet. Those are some heavy hitters who add great depth to this outstanding collection of songs including nine originals and one Ben Harper cover.
With a strong nod to old-school New Orleans jazz, “Bone Collection” starts things off and showcases Sowers’ diverse vocal range and control. The horn flavors and clarinet accents paired with her hypnotic voice pull you in immediately as she sings, Strap yourself in/It’s gonna be a wild ride.
Perhaps the most pop-oriented of the tracks, “I Can’t Believe I Let You Go” has a funky little groove complemented by crisp horns and clarinet. Wynans adds his own subtle spin on Hammond B3.
Slathered in jazzy calypso vibes including Ella Fitzgerald-esque scatting and sure to have you dancing, “Devil Horns” is a bona fide winner. There’s no mistaking the “Iko Iko”/”Banana Boat Song” feel and the nod to June Carter Cash/Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” horns.
The brilliant “Little Miss Moonshine” is one of my favorites. It’s Sowers at her finest, defending her own musical principles and thumbing her nose up at “phony” musicians who don’t stay true to their own sound. Keys master Wynans once again adds Hammond B3 to the prominent piano and background horns.
The title track, “Sugar Drops,” conjures images of a smoke-infused blues piano bar with Sowers belting it out in piercing tones while the audience listens, mesmerized. There’s zero pretense here. Sowers is the real deal.
The only cover on this outstanding offering is “Another Lonely Day,” a Ben Harper composition that Sowers’ completely makes her own. Harper’s simple, impassioned acoustic original is transformed into an alluring masterpiece. The mix of Sowers’ piano and Wynans’ dynamic Hammond B3 combined with backing and featured horns is pure magic. Followed by the uber jazzy “No Matter Where We Are” and the doleful “Mr. Big Talker” with gorgeous string accompaniment, Sowers then brings it back up with the fun, jazzy “Magic Kisses.” Closing it out with a perfectly chosen piece, “Deep End,” Sowers gives it all she’s got as her incredible piano and vocal skills are on full display.
Davina Sowers is one of those performers who easily “could” veer towards over the top if she allowed it, but she never does. Her enticing style and sound are as original and refreshing as her personality, and she knows how to temper it all to create something uniquely inspiring. Her voice is in a class by itself and she carefully pays homage to her musical influences while developing her own sound, a feat not easily accomplished. Her back story makes her success all the more sweeter. I love everything about this record and I surely hope to see Davina and the Vagabonds live some day. That would be a treat, indeed.
Mindi Abair And The Boneshakers are one of the most dynamic bands on today’s music scene. Deftly combining blues, rock, jazz, and soul, the multidimensional quintet is back with their third studio release, No Good Deed, on Abair’s own label, Pretty Good For A Girl Records. Abair is truly a force to be reckoned with and has worked with just about anyone you can think of in the music industry. The combination of her fierce saxophone skills and enticing vocals are the perfect complement to the guitar mastery of Randy Jacobs (also on vocals). Rodney Lee (keys/vocals), Third Richardson (drums/percussion/vocals) and Ben White (bass/vocals) round out this top notch collective. Produced by industry luminary Kevin Shirley (who also produced the band’s first record), the 10-song album was recorded in Hollywood in under one week. Abair co-wrote half of the tracks while the other half were carefully chosen covers from some of the band’s favorite R&B and rock musicians. The award-winning saxophonist and newly married frontwoman has an uncanny knack for bending and shaping a cover into her own unique groove.
Boldly opening with “Seven Day Fool” (Billy Davis/Berry Gordy, Jr./Sonny Woods), an Argo/Chess Records sensation famously recorded by Etta James, this fresh take features searing guitar and subtle keys as opposed to the strings on the original. Abair showcases her vocal range and superb sax skill, setting the tone for the rest of the record.
The second and third tracks are also high-energy, riff-driven, drum-laden, sax-soaked winners. Abair co-wrote “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” with Jacobs and Grammy-winning songwriter Dave Yaden, with whom Abair has collaborated before.
Taking The Young Rascals’ “You Better Run” out for a new spin (Felix Cavaliere/Eddie Brigati), Abair and the band give it fresh life. The original version is very ’60s psychedelic as opposed to the iconic cover from Pat Benatar. While Abair is vocally closer to the original, she completely owns this more rock-oriented version. The deeper male backing vocals give it a twist from the operatic notes that only Benatar can hit.
Slowing it down with the sad, seductive burner, “Sweetest Lies,” Abair’s vocal range is on full display. Co-written with Jacobs and Nashville musician, James House, it is the age-old story of a relationship that will never be right. I can give I can take/Long as I think that I’m getting my way/Fool me once fool me twice/As long as you’re giving me love every night/Is it wrong is it right that I let you make me cry/I can’t leave I know why ’cause you tell me the sweetest lies.
The David Grissom cover, “Good Day For The Blues,” incorporates hints of the Stax Records sound a la The Staple Singers/”I’ll Take You There” as well as Billy Joel’s “Keeping The Faith.” Abair’s sax solo is perfectly placed as it finishes out the track.
“Mess I’m In,” also co-written with House, has distinct echoes of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” and it will get you moving. Anyone can relate to its message about life and how crazy it can become.
The slinky, sultry tones of Melody Gardot’s “Bad News” are in great hands with Abair on this record. Gardot’s music blends jazz, blues and classical into a sultry swirl of hypnotic heaven, and not many people could tackle that. Abair, however, slays it. Richardson incorporates the unique sound of cut crystal glass to add an intriguing dimension while Nick Lane (who has toured with Joe Bonamassa) lends trombone accents to this album highlight. If you’re not familiar with Gardot, you need to change that immediately and check her out. There’s a reason that singers such as Abair and Beth Hart cover her music. I would not be surprised if the late Amy Winehouse was influenced by her as well.
With a down and dirty, funky rock groove, “Movin’ On” is another standout track. Co-written with Atlanta-based musician, Brad Cox, there is some incredible guitar work from Jacobs. Movin’ on, movin’ on/Let the past be the past it’s dead I’m gone. That is a GREAT lyric.
With a Tom Petty vibe musically, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?” is another favorite. The combination of Abair’s heartwrenching vocals, Jacobs’ guitar and Lee’s keys is electrifying. Co-written with Tyrone Stevens (with whom Abair has collaborated before), it is a song that I could have heard the late Gregg Allman sing. Abair’s killer sax solo finishes it off beautifully.
Coming off the prior heavy track and closing with an upbeat, boogie-woogie/blues duet is sheer brilliance. Abair and Richardson tackle the Ike and Tina Turner duet, “Baby, Get It On” (Ike Turner). Paulie Cerra and Lee Thornberg (both who tour with Joe Bonamassa) add saxophone and trumpet/trombone, respectively, and the result is spectacular.
If I’m being completely honest, there’s nothing I don’t love about this release. Song sequence flows seamlessly and musicianship is wonderfully diverse. In fact, I will go so far as to predict Grammy nominations. It’s THAT good. But don’t just take my word for it – get your hands on a copy and see for yourself. The band kicks off a multi-city tour in early August. Do NOT miss them live – they will blow you away.
Kelly Hafner is a California girl, well-versed in all the technical aspects of music. She studied at the Berklee College of Music and played with bands in her native San Francisco, and then made the move to Austin, Texas to focus on writing and getting her solo career started. There, she formed a creative partnership with producer Derek Hames.
If It’s Love is a mature sounding record. For the most part, Hafner focuses on smoldering, “quiet storm” neo soul sounds. “Lifted” has a smoky jazzy feel similar to Sade’s best work. “Keep on Hanging On” has gentle horn flourishes underscoring Kelly’s sensual vocals. “Things Are Changing” has funky groove with wha-wha guitar and Hammond organ giving it a bit of Memphis soul.
Halfner stays in the quiet storm mode for most of the album, but branches out a bit with “Give Light”, which has a Jamaican “lovers rock” feel. The closing track, “Angel”, has a minimalist, electro-soul feel. The song lets Kelly show a lot of emotion with little more than a drum loop and understated keyboards for support. I actually like that sound quite a bit.
If It’s Love is a very good debut album that shows off Kelly’s voice to good effect. She has a fantastic voice. I’d like to see Hefner be more adventurous in the future. To me, it feels like she’s holding back where she could be tearing the roof off the place.
Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck and Ann Wilson – Stars Align Tour
with Deborah Bonham
Midflorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Tampa, Florida • August 26, 2018
by Michelle Wilson
It was a typical humid, somewhat rainy Florida evening when the Stars Align Tour kicked off its last show of the summer in Tampa. The music, however, was anything but typical. There are some shows that are just pure magic, and this was one of them. Iconic recording industry veterans Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company, The Firm), Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds) and Ann Wilson (Heart) treated fans to a cornucopia of aural delights as they each wowed the crowd with their individual sets. As fans streamed into the venue, they were notified that the General Admission lawn seat area would be closed and seating would be provided for them. This was definitely a “seasoned” crowd and likely a welcome turn of events.
Opening the show at 6:35pm with a short but powerful 20-minute set was Deborah Bonham, younger sister of late Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham. Joined on guitar by Ian “Tat” Hatton, Bonham’s incredible vocals and impassioned performance provided the perfect prelude to a memorable event. Many people were no doubt surprised and impressed by the British singer’s existence, myself included, not familiar with her before this evening. After hearing her powerhouse voice, however, it is clear that she could have given Robert Plant a run for his money on Zep vocals. It was a privilege to hear her sing “The Old Hyde,” a haunting, bittersweet ballad about the family farm property purchased by and dedicated to her late brother and the home where she grew up, a home he helped build. I have every confidence that Bonham gained many new fans after this concert.
At just past 7:00pm, the mighty Ann Wilson and her band took the stage as she belted out eight glorious hits, six of them covers. Wilson focused on her new record (released 9/14), the aptly named Immortal, an album of covers from musicians who have passed on. Kicking off her set with The Who’s “The Real Me” and following it with Heart’s “Barracuda,” the 70s rock chick quickly made her vocal presence known and never stopped. Backed by guitarist Craig Bartock, bassist Andy Stoller, drummer Denny Fongheiser and keyboardist Daniel Walker, Wilson plunged headfirst into her blues-drenched composition, “Fool No More” (co-written with Bartock) before slaying five staggering covers, and making them completely her own. Playing acoustic guitar and tackling Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway” (for Chris Cornell), Wilson then took “Back to Black” (for Amy Winehouse) into unchartered territory with dark and heavy killer vocals that did the late Ms. Winehouse proud. “This is my gothic version,” Wilson joked, but she was quite serious and heartbroken when she mentioned Amy. She described her as a little girl of immense talent with a tortured soul, who had too much too soon and didn’t know how to handle it, but left us with an amazing expression of her soul.
She then took Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to new heights with a heavier rock sound, particularly with Bartock’s killer guitar. It was a major statement piece for its time from a singer who, as Wilson put it, was a 17-year-old in 1963 who had three or four big radio hits with light, safe, fun songs, and then all of a sudden, she came out with this – a “gutsy, ballsy move in 1963.” With everything going on in the world today, Wilson brought it out again to “offer respect” and to “cover all types of people.” Honoring the late Glenn Frey, who Wilson described as “one of the greatest songwriters of his era,” she mentioned how The Eagles’ “Life In The Fast Lane” truly described what it was like in the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll party days era of the 70s” and launched into her own fabulous version. Bookending the set with another cover from The Who, Wilson tore it up on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as only she could. A recent Florida transplant, she thanked everyone as one Floridian to another for coming out in the rain. She mentioned what an honor it was to be part of this show and graciously praised Deborah Bonham.
It was surely a thrill when The Maestro himself, Jeff Beck, appeared front and center at 8pm to crank out a smokin’ 75 minutes of mind-blowing guitar prowess and searing solos. Mesmerizing to say the least, Beck is one of the most revered guitar players in the world. He makes it look effortless as he bends his strings to achieve the perfect sound. His tight touring band included long-time bassist Rhonda Smith (Prince), iconic drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, Herbie Hancock), singer/harp player Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie) and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, and the interplay among them was a joy to watch. Whether it was Rhonda beaming from ear to ear while laying down the groove or Freebairn-Smith rockin’ out while caressing notes from her cello, there was a whole lotta fun happening on that stage.
Rhonda Smith and Jeff Beck
The diversity of song choice ran the gamut and showcased Beck at his best. Set staples included “Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder), both with Hall on vocals, “A Day In The Life” (John Lennon/Paul McCartney) and of course, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (Stevie Wonder). Other standouts included “You Know You Know” (Mahavishnu Orchestra), “Morning Dew” (Bonnie Dobson) and “I Have To Laugh” (Otis Rush), both with Hall on vocals, “Lonnie On The Move” (Lonnie Mack) and “Mná na h- Ã‰ireann” (The Chieftains) and “Brush With The Blues” (Tony Hymas/Jeff Beck). “I’d like to play a little short tribute to Jeff Buckley,” said Beck, and then he absolutely slayed “Corpus Christi Carol” (Buckley used the Benjamin Britten version for his interpretation on his 1994 debut album, Grace) while a rapt audience remained unusually but thankfully quiet as the doleful notes floated through the air. Just as the under-two-minute tribute was wrapping up, Hall and his harp reemerged to finish it out with Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down” (Don Nix). It was a fantastic set from a living legend.
Paul Rodgers, Rich Newman and Pete Bullick
As if all of this wasn’t awesome enough in its own right, the final act of the night absolutely stole the show, and the show was pretty darn amazing already. Paul Rodgers graced the stage with his presence at 9:45pm looking and sounding phenomenal, with little chatter and big vocals. His band, Free Spirit, included guitarist Pete Bullick (who also happens to be Bonham’s husband), bassist Ian Rowley, drummer Rich Newman and keyboardist Gerard “G” Louis. The main set list was comprised of hit after hit from the vast Free and Bad Company catalogs, including “Little Bit of Love,” “Wishing Well,” “The Stealer,” “Mr. Big,” “Woman,” and “Fire and Water” from the Free era. “Can’t Get Enough,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (with Rodgers on harp), “Ready For Love” (written by Mick Ralphs and originally performed by Mott the Hoople, his prior band, before founding Bad Company with Rodgers, who mentioned that Mick wrote it and that he “says he is doing well” – Rodgers also dedicated it to his wife, Cynthia), “Movin’ On,” and a spectacular rendition of “Shooting Star” covered the Bad Company material. Louis traded keys for acoustic guitar on “Shooting Star” and engaged the audience in a sing-along. Rodgers followed by gracefully thanking all the bands on the tour. “It’s been a great tour and we even had a full moon tonight. Talk about stars aligning! Thank you for being part of our Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy tonight!”
Paul Rodgers and Rich Newman
Closing it all out with Free’s “Alright Now,” this musical extravaganza came to a phenomenal end at 10:50pm, and I have every confidence that no one walked out disappointed. This was undeniably a top show of the year. Rock on, indeed!
Check out the full galleries of photos from Rock Legends Photographers.
Coachman Park, Clearwater, Florida • May 5th, 2018
by Bob Pomeroy
It was Funko de Mayo at Coachman Park. To the rest of the country, it was Cinco de Mayo, but we were here to make the Mothership connection. Before there was Black Panther, George Clinton was creating an Afrofuturist mythology. He was Dr. Funkenstein. He had the “Bop Gun” and the “Flashlight”. Funkadelic infused psychedelic rock and gonzo stage shows with the funk. In so many ways, George Clinton and his extended family of musicians changed the shape of modern music. The Funko de Mayo show was also something of a retirement party for Clinton. Earlier this year, Clinton announced he would stop performing in 2019. In a statement released to Billboard magazine he said, “Anyone who has been to the shows over the past couple of years has noticed that I’ve been out front less and less.”
P-Funk hit the stage running, opening the show with one of their biggest hits, “Flashlight”. George Clinton wasn’t kidding when he said he’s spending less and less time out front. In Clearwater, Clinton was more of a conductor and cheerleader for his band than an active participant. At times, he sat on stage taking in the performance, maybe adding a line here and there, but mainly just enjoying the show.
It was an enjoyable show. Most of the night, there were a dozen or more players on stage funking it up. They hit the high points of the P-Funk catalog playing “One Nation Under a Groove”, “Atomic Dog” and of course, an epic version of “Maggot Brain”. There were some hiccups along the way. When NaKid87 took center stage, her vocals were lost in the mix. The players on stage were having fun though and that fun was infectious. George was happy, the musicians were happy and that made us in the crowd happy too.
Opening the show were a powerhouse band from New York called Miss Velvet and the Blue Wolf. The band plays neo-soul in the vein of Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse. Miss Velvet has a powerful, gritty voice that calls to mind Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin. Catching a rising band like this makes you glad you came early enough to see the support act.
Memphis soul has been inspiring a lot of artists lately. Amy Winehouse and Adele adapted Memphis influences to propel their music up the charts. Southern Avenue are revitalizing the Memphis sound to make some incredible new sounds. On Memphis, Amy Black teams up with Scott Bomar of the Bo-Keys to dig deep into the spirit of the delta.
Memphis is a good record. Amy has a great voice that draws out the poignancy of her lyrics and she’s working with a crack team of players who can ride a funk groove all day and all of the night. I’m really captivated by the horn charts that drive “The Blackest Cloud”. I love the sentiment expressed in “If I Could Reach Out (and Help Somebody)”. I really do wish more people were as concerned with helping others. It would make this a better world.
If I have a problem with Memphis, it’s that is sounds a bit too faithful to the spirit of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Without You” and “What Makes a Good Man?” make me think of a woman content to play her prescribed role in a Man’s World. Yes, there are a lot of songs about how you can’t live without your man, but I would rather see romance based on wanting to be with someone, not needing to be with someone. “Nineteen” deals with the personal costs of war. It’s certainly a timely topic these days. For some reason the song makes me think of draft cards and Vietnam rather that Afghanistan and Iraq.
Memphis is a good record. It’s very true to the spirit of Memphis soul. I just with Amy Black had done more to take the roots sounds in newer directions. If she did that though, other critics would chide her for that too. So it goes.
Think you got the blues? You ain’t got nothing on Candye Kane. From a life on the streets of Los Angeles surviving on food stamps, battling drug use, and doing nude modeling, she got hooked up with folks such as Dwight Yoakum and Dave Alvin, and started a singing career that has led to 13 albums and numerous awards. She wrote a stage play about her life — The Toughest Girl Alive — and the title is no exaggeration. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 and suffering thru a relapse in 2012, she hasn’t given up, is still on the road with her producer, guitarist, and partner Laura Chavez, and has a new album, Come Out Swingin’.
The combo of Kane’s voice and Chavez’s guitar is a gritty, jumpin’ blues that never lets up for a moment. From “I’m the Reason You Drink” to “Barbed Wire Mouth,” Kane pulls no punches, and the entire CD is a testament to Kane’s drive and spunk. Fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Etta James, and the likes of Sippie Wallace will eat this stuff up. The record ends with the infectious “Marijuana Boogie,” and Kane and Chavez are in top form throughout.
Amy Winehouse once said “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” Candye Kane and Laura Chavez prove that commandingly on Come Out Swingin’. Long may you reign, Candye Kane!
The neat thing about parlor tricks is that they’re entertaining at parties and, when done well, leave the audience wanting more. How apropos for Brooklyn’s own Lily and The Parlour Tricks, whose recent performance at the Bell House on a hot summer night in June where the heat index was into triple digits, did just that.
Their 40-minute set was mostly from their current self-titled EP. Recorded in London’s Daptone Studios (also known as the place where Amy Winehouse recorded Back to Black) and released late last year, the songs are a time-warp of retro-rock that crosses at least seven decades of Americana music that blends country, swing, and rock and roll with a modern edge.
The spotlight is clearly on lead vocalist Lily Claire, whose mid-range voice is as smooth and velvety as a fine wine with just the right tannins. And, when joined by the backing harmonies of Morgane Moulherat and Darah Golub, the result is a power-packed vocal trio that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s sister bands — think Andrews Sisters for the new millennium.
The ladies’ poses are sharp and rehearsed, with moves and expressions that are sometimes coy, other times bold and sassy. This stage presence is infectious with some listeners doing their own shimmy shake on songs like “The Poison Song,” a retro-rock tune with a really catchy bass lick from Brian Kesley and drum rhythms from Terry Moore that mimic a Glenn Miller Band hot swing. The departure from just-another-swing-song is that the horns and winds are replaced by catchy and ripping rhythm guitar distortions, well played by Angelo Spagnolo.
Thanks to the good sound engineering at the Bell House, the lyrics came in crystal clear and allowed me to really enjoy “Darwin,” probably my favorite song from the band because of its witty flight of fancy reminiscent of some Cole Porter songs. Hearing this made me kind of yearn for my own time-warped Midnight In Paris moment where I can have a seat at the Algonquin Round Table next to “Vicious Circle” faves Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.
In a more current vein, the set included two cover songs that came as a welcome surprise. Lily and The Parlour Tricks’ cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” was sung in a rather aggressive, yet seductive way that could have swaddled Trent Reznor in blue velvet with oxygen mask in hand, doing his best Dennis Hopper impression. On the flip side, the band’s rendition of Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands” turned the creepiness of the original version into a lively swing with choreographed moves that actually made me want to clap hands.
If musical tastes were seasonal, then consider this: when the summer months get hot and humid, you can sloth it up like the Mississippi Delta blues, kick back and chill reggae style, or you can crank up the heat with some energetic music that gets you out of your chair. If you go for the heat while desiring a swanky, anachronistic twist in your sound, then Lily and the Parlour Tricks may be right up your Tin Pan Alley.
This is the latest jazz legend tribute album paying homage to Lady Day with modern interpretations of her classics from present day artists from all genres. As noted in the liner notes, the album is the inspiration of the tribute album’s producer, Peter Stomare, who has gathered a cadre of very talented artists like Esperanza Spalding, Anita Baker, Angela Bassett, and Boz Scaggs to perform covers of the beloved jazz/blues singer.
I was enthusiastically hopeful listening to track one’s “Intro.” Angela Bassett truly captures the rawness of Billie Holiday exceptionally with spoken word excerpts from her ghostwritten autobiographical book, Lady Sings the Blues, played over a modern blues version of “God Bless the Child.” Ms. Bassett’s readings in this track, and sprinkled intermittently between several of the album tracks, are the ties that bind some of the songs with Ms. Holiday’s life. The audio snippets left an indelible impression on me, leaving me wanting more, and wishing Ms. Bassett would record an entire audiobook of Lady Sings the Blues — or better yet, play the lead in a one-act play as Billie Holiday at Circle-In-The-Square.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the album quickly lost direction and focus. Mr. Stomare could have so much more to bring us, the listener, on a musical and biographical journey of Billie Holiday’s world, and more importantly, make the case why she has touched so many artists over the decades. I’m left questioning what the recording artists found so special about Billie Holiday as opposed to covering a jazz standard that just happened to be a cover that was well performed. Not all of the songs on the album were co-written by Ms. Holiday, so unless one intimately knows the time and context of her songs, we’re left go guess why that song is on the album in the first place. Patti Austin’s cover of “Body and Soul” is one example. It is a classic jazz standard not co-written by Ms. Holiday, and has been re-interpreted in so many memorable ways by other jazz artists like the immortal Stan Getz or Ella Fitzgerald, among others. Yes, Ms. Holiday performed this wonderfully live at the the Philharmonic Auditorium, but why not let us know that? At least include some liner notes with quotes from each contributing artist on why they chose to perform that cover and what they bring to the song.
One of Billie Holiday’s best known songs, “God Bless The Child,” performed by Brownstone, turns out to be an overproduced cool jazz version of what I imagined could have been an intimate conversation, imparting a bit of wisdom from the woman who grew up in poverty in the slums of society. Yes, Blood, Sweat, and Tears had the wonderfully arranged and popular ’70s cover which weaved in latin jazz rhythms, but then again, that cover is not on this album, and as far as I’m concerned, they made this song so much their own that for me, it’s a BST song that just happens to be written by Billie Holiday.
The biggest disappointment on the album is Babyface’s cover of “Strange Fruit,” which was probably the biggest offender in deviating from what made this song a Billie Holiday classic. Billie Holiday’s fans know well that the essence of “Strange Fruit” portrays an eerily subdued and haunting picture brush-stroked with Ms. Holiday’s passively resigned and morbid tone. It is a beautifully written social commentary so sadly sung by our vocal heroine. Instead, the listener gets this overproduced version of Babyface wailing up and down the vocal registers in the backdrop of a huge multi-piece band as if he were a contestant on “American Idol.”
On a positive note, Boz Scaggs cover of “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” was a pleasant surprise, in what may be the most genuine version paying homage — simple, raw, understated with a laudable attempt to sing it in the Billie Holiday classic style. Angela Bassett follows up with an excerpt on her court plea of guilty to be sent to rehab for drug abuse, providing a nice transition to Rickie Lee Jones’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”. Another notable cover is “Good Morning Heartache” from Renee Olstead — also a highlight to Billie purists with a wink at Lady Day’s vocal style that subtly pushes the lyrics ever so slightly ahead or behind the chord, like the anticipation built of sweet and thick molasses leaving a jar to hit the bowl of sweet bread batter.
Admittedly, there are so many talented artists on this album with great renditions of a jazz songs that can stand on their own. If this album was marketed as a jazz classics collection from today’s artists, I would have probably liked it so much better. But it wasn’t and as a result, I’m looking for the essence of Billie Holiday in this album and not finding it overall. It could have been better produced so that our current younger generations are reminded why fascinatingly talented but tragic singers like Amy Winehouse have clearly drawn from Lady Day.
Maybe the takeaway is to approach this as a simple jazz cover album with a loose tie to people who just happen to like Billie Holiday. Maybe the target audience is fans of the artists on the album that are looking for expanded works. Esperanza Spalding has such a talented fusion artist that we really couldn’t care what she covered as long as we knew it was her? If you’re not looking for an integrated tribute, then give a listen to this album. Those that are new will get some introductory insight into a wonderfully sad and tragic woman that has seared her name in the annals of American blues and jazz. And to those purists, keep an open mind and listen to this album as another motivation to pull out all your old LPs or your old and musty paperback copy of Lady Sings the Blues, and revisit why Billie Holiday keeps pulling our heartstrings after so many years.
After a few cuts on this haunting disc from Irish newcomer Onya, it sounds like she may have hit that low point in her sexual career. She opens with the driving acoustic sound of “Love Me Baby,” a song not as positive as the title would suggest — it’s more like “If you love me, let me go” and she has a pretty decent list of supporting arguments. The follow-up song is “Hey Lady” (Hey Lady, won’t you come into my world — can I touch you there?) Clearly, she’s had some experiences with men that go way beyond leaving a toilet seat up. There’s a story on this disc, and Onya’s wearing it on her sleeve. By the fifth track, “Cut Me,” I was ready to start a petition for her. This is an angry record.
Onya has a knack for gripping lyrics and her melodic guitar work is no folk noodling, but carefully thought-out structure and meter. Backing sound comes from some drums, guitar, and some unidentified wind instruments that could be a didgeridoo for all I can tell, arranged by Kevin Lowery and Seamy O’Doherty. Her clear vocals and clear focus on external emotional states make her sound like the next in a line of strong female pop stars. Even I wanted to cry along with her.