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Music Reviews

Daniel Donato

Daniel Donato

A Young Man’s Country

For country music fans whose blood starts to race seeing a guy wailing on a Fender Telecaster at a honky-tonk, meet your new obsession. Daniel Donato is the latest country-pickin’ ace from Nashville, and his new record A Young Man’s Country will satisfy guitar fans of everyone from Reggie Young to Redd Volkaert, with a large dose of “Cosmic Country” ala Gram Parsons and the Dead. In fact, on certain numbers here, such as his “Meet Me In Dallas/Fire On The Mountain” Donato sounds eerily as if Jerry Garcia got his wish and joined a country band around 1971.

Donato is an 25 year old Nashvillian, who has been performing professionally since he was in the house band at the iconic Robert’s Western World in the heart of Nashville – at age 16. I’ve been there, and nobody gets and stays on that tiny stage without having some serious chops. And he certainly does. The album opens with “Justice”, and you’re transported back to the rowdy days of, as they say… “Waylon, Willie and the boys”. “Always Been A Lover” follows, and shows Daniel knows his way around a hook. Produced by a not too shabby guitarist Robben Ford and Donato, and featuring Nick Fry on guitar/vocals, bassist Jake Bostick, Daniel Pingrey on keyboards and Will Johnston on drums and vocals, his “Cosmic Country Band” is a seasoned unit, who anchors Donato’s frequent guitar adventures with smooth and robust backing. In fact, the only misstep here is a version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” which doesn’t lend itself to really any version of jamming, and frankly, once Bonnie Raitt sung it, even Prine himself said “that song is hers now.”

But that said, once the record ends with a barely constrained gallop thru Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, you won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face, and you’ll wish for a night at the Basement East in Nashville, watching this young kid pick a blue streak. Somewhere Jerry Garcia and Waylon Jennings are giving Daniel Donato thumbs up for his crispy release A Young Man’s Country. Get it, hoss!

www.danieldonato.com

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Music Reviews

Beth Richard

Beth Richard

Forever Man

After one spin of singer/songwriter Beth Richard’s new album Forever Man, it’s not much of a surprise that she’s from Austin, Texas, a hotbed of independent music, especially those who shift stylistically. Richard balances various genres on this album, sometimes on the same track. Mixing folk, country, and blues with radio-friendly pop hooks, Richard doesn’t belong to a single sound; she is liberated from such boundaries. And it’s her way of stitching together her rootsy yet diverse influences that generate fire on this magnetic record.

At times, Richard echoes Sheryl Crow, especially in her knack for hummable melodies with an Americana flavor. But Richard’s voice is sweeter, more soothing to the ears; when she reaches for higher notes, she truly soars, creating a transcendent experience. Richard’s untainted joy for singing is easily apparent; there is nothing artificial about it, no forced, fake attempt to please the crowd. The acoustic prettiness of the title track nearly disguises the undertow of sadness in trying to find somebody to be with for lie. It’s a pure declaration of love but an uncertain search for a soulmate as well.

“Hurricane Night” recalls the crystalline gorgeousness of Susanna Hoffs; Richard delivers a lovely performance that captures the indelible harmonies of the Beatles. “Tea for 2,” on the other hand,echoes the bluesy strut of Bonnie Raitt. There is track after track of sleekly produced and well polished material on Forever Man.

bethrichard.hearnow.com

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Music Reviews

Alesia Xo

Alesia Xo

The Corner

Oh, what a voice.

It cannot be helped that the first thing anybody notices from singer/songwriter Alesia Xo is the fistful of power in her vocals. It’s rare these days to hear new talent simply isn’t the product of studio gloss. Xo’s singing is raw, edgy, combining the melancholic tones of Melissa Etheridge with the gritty punch of Janis Joplin. “The Corner” cuts deep into the heart with the serious angst in her voice. It is beautiful to hear such an angelic roar.

Bluesy riffs and rock-solid drumming provide the backbone of “The Corner” but it is Xo’s soulful vocals that take it to a higher level. Xo is definitely a graduate of the Bonnie Raitt school of singing; she has that kind of emotional range, that perfect balance of fragility and force. Too much contemporary music is smoothed over. Xo echoes the days when singers were allowed to let it rip. And rip she does. Xo tears into the reality of relationships with unyielding honesty. In other words, she rocks.

And that, really, is what you oughta know.

www.alesiaxo.com

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Music Reviews

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson

Won’t Stay Down

Devious Planet

Lauren Anderson has traveled the country learning her craft. From a childhood in Chicago, to a music therapy degree in Kansas, to playing gigs across the South and making a home in Nashville, she has made her bones as a traveling blues singer. Won’t Stay Down is her fourth release, and it shows how she has combined her love of classic blues with a progressive sound incorporating pop and jazz hooks to build something new. The opening track, “Honey, Call Me Baby,” puts a spin on the classic love song by calling out the cat-callers who demean and diminish her talents as being just another pretty face. The opening riff feels like the Spencer Davis Group backing up a Stax singer in a Mississippi juke joint. “Too Little Too Late” is just what it sounds like – a ballad telling her lover that no matter how hard they try to fix things, it’s over. The title track brings in a funky groove, but the lyrics become a bit repetitive. “Cake” adds a bit of Latin flair with a lively drum beat and a horn section as she sings about having it all. The EP closes out with “Wild and Free,” which tells a good story, but loses me in the chorus as she stretches it out to “wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wild and free.”

Anderson will naturally draw comparisons to Melissa Etheridge and Bonnie Raitt, both justifiably so, but she also reminds me of Canadian singer Sass Jordan. Her vocal range is similar, and more importantly, she sounds like she is having a good time while singing these songs. The EP isn’t perfect, but it has intrigued me and I will be on the look out for more music from this talented artist.

www.laurenandersonmusic.com

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Music Reviews

Janiva Magness

Janiva Magness

Love is an Army

Blue Elan

Sometimes, I miss the top 40 format of my youth. At the time, I hated it because to hear the rock and roll that I wanted to hear, I had to listen to the soul, disco, soft rock and whatever else was on the charts. What I miss is that you did get exposed to so much. And since everyone was exposed to the same batch of songs, protest songs like “For What It’s Worth” got heard across the radio spectrum and at least gave the illusion that someone with a guitar and the right song could make a difference. I’m saying this because I wish I could wave my magic wand and make the Janiva Magness song “Love to A Gunfight” one of those zeitgeist hits that define an era and move the national consciousness.

I’m writing this days after the horrors of Parkland, Florida. Janiva sings, “Momma called me just to say/Now is not the time to pray/Everyone is so afraid/Maybe we get brave today/This song our weapon tonight/We’re bringing love to a gunfight/Sometimes it hurts when you try to do right/We’ll bring our love to this gunfight,” and it strikes a chord. It fits with the viral video of the high school student declaring, “We will be the last school shooting.” Janiva’s song is a wistful country flavored ballad, which means it will only get radio play on Americana stations, but we need an anthem. We need a rallying point to say enough is enough. I wish “Love to A Gunfight” could be that song.

Love is an Army is full of stand-out songs aimed at rallying people to their better instincts. Janiva gets her Memphis soul groove on with “Hammer”. She sings, “Just keep on swinging till the walls fall away. And if the hammer’s too heavy keep trying. Might take a little while, that’s ok”. I like that Magness is realistic. Striving for a better self, a better world is not an easy thing and requires perseverance. Magness channels the Staples Singers and Al Green on songs like “What’s That Say About You”. She testifies to the congregation of pop that we need to look after one another, despite what we’re going though in our own lives.

I’m projecting a lot of my own punk rock past onto a lot of these songs. In my mind, I’m hearing stripped down, amped-up versions of these tunes. Love is an Army is a very solid record much in the Bonnie Raitt mode. She has stellar assistance from the likes of Delbert McClinton, Charlie Musselwhite and Cedric Burnside. The songs seduce with lush production and immaculate recording. It’s all a little too clean for my taste, but then again, “For What It’s Worth”, was a pretty slick, pretty mellow song and it stirred a generation. Why can’t “Love to a Gunfight” do something similar?

blueelan.com

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Music Reviews

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

TajMo

Concord Records

It was a year and a half ago while I was writing the official bio for Keb’ Mo’s website that I first learned of the intended collaboration between him and Taj Mahal. I vividly recall my stunned reaction as Keb’ himself shared this esoteric tidbit with me during a phone conversation. The two iconic musicians have known each other for years and have performed live together in the past. Taj was even instrumental in assisting Keb’ land his first record deal. This pairing seemed like such a no-brainer, yet while Taj has been on the music scene for over 50 years with 30 records under his belt, and Keb’ has been churning out consistently incredible blues/roots material since the early 1990s, TajMo marks their first studio collaboration. It took two-and-a-half years to record, but the final result was well worth the wait. There is such mutual respect and chemistry between these two industry veterans, whose backgrounds are steeped in traditional and contemporary roots rock and blues, with each bringing his own unique flavor and sound into the mix to carry on the blues tradition. Taj sums it up beautifully: “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do. There wasn’t a bunch of cryin’ and ringin’ hands, we just got together and it came together pretty naturally. I think it’s a pretty upbeat, celebratory record, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.” Co-produced by the pair, the 11 songs include several original tracks (co-written by Keb’ and others, two with Taj) as well as a few unexpected covers. Widely regaled as one of the greatest musical raconteurs of our time, Keb’s signature sound is all over this record, and the addition of Taj is the icing on the cake.

The nostalgic “Don’t Leave Me Here” (one of the two written by Taj and Keb’) kicks things off with tasty harp from Chicago blues veteran Billy Branch complemented by a funky horn arrangement and a back-and-forth vocal between Taj and Keb’.

“She Knows How to Rock Me,” an old boogie woogie song written and first recorded by Willam Lee Perryman (aka Piano Red and Dr. Feelgood) gets a fresh blues update with Taj on acoustic guitar and Keb’ on resonator. Rife with double entendre, this is classic Taj in his element.

Co-written with Keb’ and Chic Street Man, “All Around the World” is one of the statement songs on the record, with its upbeat tempo and message of peace. It is also one of several tracks featuring percussionists Sheila E. and Crystal Taliefero (long-time Billy Joel percussionist). In addition, a myriad of background singers lend their vocals on this one, including “Mrs. Keb’ Mo’,” Robbie Brooks Moore.

“Om Sweet Om” adds Lizz Wright’s smoky vocals to Taj’s gravel and Keb’s soul, creating a nicely textured sound. It is also one of three songs featuring guitarist Joe Walsh.

The funky, groovy “Shake Me In Your Arms,” written by Billy Nichols and spotlighting a Walsh guitar solo is followed by the just as funky, just as groovy “That’s Who I Am,” which again is bursting with Keb’s writing style. He plays Wurlitzer, electric, slide and resonator guitar on this one (Taj also plays resonator), and the subtle keys work of Michael B. Hicks on this track (as well as many others) cannot be overlooked either.

The stripped-down version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues” on this record gives it new life as Taj plays acoustic guitar and Keb’ resonator – it is vastly different than the totally funkadelic, iconic version on Taj’s 1968 debut album but just as enjoyable.

The biggest surprise of this collection is a fun version of “Squeeze Box,” the Pete Townshend-penned classic from The Who, with a slew of guest musicians again including Walsh, Sheila E. and Brooks Moore. Accordion accompaniment from Jeff Taylor (lead accordion) and Phil Madeira (rhythm accordion) deserves formidable mention on this one.

The darkest track of the bunch, “Ain’t Nobody Talkin’,” once again shows the storyteller side of Keb’ in his poignant slice-of-life portrayals of real people through song.

With a lively, Afro-Caribbean flair, “Soul” switches to a lighter tone and brings the record to the closer, a cover of John Mayer’s anthemic “Waiting On The World To Change” featuring Bonnie Raitt’s backing vocals. It is a brilliant reinterpretation of the original and it truly finishes off this statement record, one that Taj stresses “couldn’t have come at a better time.” Indeed, it’s true. This is such a feel-good record bursting with light and hope that is over in the blink of an eye, prompting a swift replay. At a time when we could all use a feel-good record, this one delivers big time.

tajmo.com

kebmo.com/home

www.tajblues.com

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Music Reviews

Anna Rose

Anna Rose

Strays in the Cut

Noble Steed Music

My brother and I played a game when we were at a music festival. After checking out a new band, we’d evaluate them. If they band was really exciting, they were a “sign them” act. Then there were the “hire them” acts. These were the bands that were good, solid performers who we’d book if we ran a club, but couldn’t get that excited about. There’s no shame in being a “hire them” because they were definitely worth seeing. We don’t really need to go into what the “skip em” bands were like.

If Anna Rose were at that festival, she would have been a solid “hire them.” Anna Rose is good at what she does. She has a powerful voice that can be soothing when it needs to be or can torch the rafters when she wants to. Her guitar playing is solid going from dirty fuzz tones to clean leads. Her song writing is firmly in the blues-rock tradition of people like Susan Tedeshi and early Bonnie Raitt. You can hear her mastery of the form in songs like “Bury Me Deep” and “Natural Disaster”. Strays in the Cut is a solid effort. All the elements you want are there, but it just doesn’t have that transcendent quality that knocks me out.

http:/annarosemusic.com

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Music Reviews

Delbert & Glen

Delbert & Glen

Blind, Crippled and Crazy

New West Records

Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark made a few albums together in the early ’70s and then went their separate ways. McClinton became known for his roadhouse roots rock, while Clark went on to play keyboards for such folks as Bonnie Raitt and became known for his songwriting. The two remained friends and performing buddies all along, but this is the first recording they’ve done in years, and it’s a corker!

A little blues, a little rock and roll, the two sound in fine voice after all those years on Blind, Crippled and Crazy. Produced by Gary Nicholson, the pair rolls back the years on such songs as “Been Around a Long Time,” “Oughta Know,” and “Tell My Mama.” Clark’s “Just When I Need You the Most” is a heartfelt ode to love, while “Sure Feels Good” is a laid-back look at maturity with a great steel guitar part from James Pennebaker.

Blind, Crippled and Crazy might have been a long time in coming, but when the result is so good, you can forgive Delbert and Glen a bit of time off between records. Just hope the next one comes a bit sooner!

New West Records: newwestrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark

Delbert McClinton & Glen Clark

Blind, Crippled and Crazy

New West Records

I first heard of Delbert McClinton when Never Been Rocked Enough was released. I’ve loved his music ever since. I’ve known of Glen Clark as a songwriter and composer since the late ’90s and, of course, from his work with later incarnations of the Blues Brothers. However, I never knew that they had released two albums together back in the ’70s, until I read the press for Blind, Crippled and Crazy. Hearing how well the two of them mesh as soon as the music fires up doesn’t come as a surprise.

In fact, there aren’t many surprises here, not that that’s a bad thing. No one is trying to reinvent the wheel. They are just delivering classic hard-driving honky tonk rhythm and blues. Songs vary in topic from aging and still making mistakes (“Been Around a Long Time”) to classic tales of heartache (“Somebody to Love You”). The two take turns on vocals, with Delbert’s grit balancing Glen’s higher register, and when they harmonize (“Sure Feels Good”) it’s like two expert fencers parrying off one another.

The vocal stylings wouldn’t mean much without a solid musical foundation, and they have it here in spades. Delbert shines on guitar and harmonica, of course. Bob Britt accompanies on electric and slide guitars. Surprisingly, Glen hands the keyboard duties over to Bruce Katz and Kevin McKendree, and they light the studio on fire, both on piano and organ. All of this is grounded by a solid rhythm section in Mike Joyce (bass), Tom Hambridge (drums), Jack Bruno (drums), and Kenny Malone (percussion).

Putting on this album is like stepping into a Texas roadhouse. You can almost feel the sawdust under your feet as two old friends take you on a trip. If you are familiar with Delbert McClinton, you know what you are getting here. If not, take a chance on Delbert & Glen and you might be introduced to two new friends with a wealth of musical history you can explore. I know I am off to find those first two collaborations they did right now.

Delbert McClinton & Friends: delbert.com

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Music Reviews

Bex Marshall

Bex Marshall

The House of Mercy

House of Mercy Records

Blues fans in America might not have heard of her… yet, but across the big pond, UK blues guitarist and singer Bex Marshall is considered the bees knees, and a few spins of her new record, The House of Mercy, shows you why. With a voice somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi and a funky, nimble style of guitar picking, Marshall holds her own against anybody. This, her second album (following 2008’s Kitchen Table), finds her playing a brew that reminds you a bit of early Little Feat, full of slippery slide licks on her resonator guitar or raising the roof on such cuts as “Gone Fishin'” or “Bite Me.” Not to say the entire album is raucous; she can slow it down and hit you where it hurts on “Barry’s Song” or “Big Man,” and she displays an ease of playing that would make you think of a much more seasoned performer.

Historically the blues has been a genre dominated by males, at least as far as guitar players go, that is. But Bex Marshall’s The House of Mercy could start to change all that. Because when she unleashes her Janis Joplin-equese growl on a song like “Rattlesnake” amid her howling guitar, she gives any blues guitarslinger a run for his money. Get down, blues woman!

Bex Marshall: bexmarshall.co.uk