Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ryan Bingham - Mescalito

Mescalito is Ryan Bingham’s major label debut. The first thing that sticks out is his voice. He sings with a whiskey soaked, world weariness that fits in well with the southwestern themed music he’s making. There are a couple of spots where his vocals bring Tom Waits to mind. Musically there are a hodgepodge of influences that come through. Certainly Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen are amongst the hints I pick up. I was also reminded of Chris Whitley’s brilliant debut when I listened to Mescalito for the first time. Ryan Bingham takes all those influences and adds his talent to the mix. In doing so he has come up with a sound that is simultaneously pleasingly familiar, yet somehow new and fresh.

On again, off again guitarist for the Black Crowes, Marc Ford produced the album. He did a fine job as the music shines through and isn’t bogged down with any unnecessary elements. The clean production helps Bingham’s voice and music mesh together. “Bread and Water” seems to skip along to a handclap beat, while guitar and banjo sizzle just below the surface. One of the other highlights “Don’t Wait For Me” features a gentle and elegant slide guitar that never overpowers his impassioned vocal.

However, my absolute favorite track on the album is “Ghost of Travellin’ Jones.” It’s a song I could see Widespread Panic playing. In fact Bingham’s delivery (more than his voice) on this one puts me in a mind of John Bell, Panic’s leader. It chugs along with a passionate intensity that stuck in my head after the first listen. Repeated listens underscore it’s impact.

I haven’t seen Ryan Bingham live, but the songs on Mescalito sound like they were made to be played to an audience. All fourteen tracks sound real and have a terrific rawness to them. Mescalito really breathes. It’s one of the best new albums it was my pleasure to hear this year. I look forward to seeing live him when he hits my area.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Stacey Kent - Breakfast on the Morning Tram

Stacey Kent’s newest release Breakfast on the Morning Tram marks the first time she has recorded songs written particularly with her in mind. Previous releases have focused more specifically on standards.

In total there are four tunes written expressly for her and this album. The lead track “The Ice House” and the title track are two of them. They also happen to be amongst the strongest tracks on this release.

Stacey Kent’s voice is unique and enjoyable to listen to for it’s impressive range of styles. Her collaborators on this album form a strong jazz ensemble that swings. Every note shows them to be accomplished players well suited to Kent’s strong vocals. One of the most interesting song choices is Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Stacey Kent’s version will have you hearing the song in an entirely new way. Her voice is smooth as silk where Stevie Nicks voice is rough around the edges. The important thing is that it works wonderfully.

Less surprising, but no less successful is her version of “What a Wonderful World.” Are there any songs in the jazz world more associated with a performer than that one is with Louis Armstrong? What sets this version apart is that she makes it her own and forces the listener to look at a well-known tune in a brand new light.

Stacey Kent has a strong following in France and thus there are 2 songs with vocals in French on this album.
If you’re a fan of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn or Norah Jones, Stacey Kent is an artist to seek out. “Breakfast on the Morning Tram” is a good place to start.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden

The lights went down and without fanfare Stevie Wonder walked out to the middle of the stage accompanied by his daughter. He briefly addressed the crowd and explained that his Mom’s death last year ended up inspiring him to get back on the road to do what he does best. After that brief introduction he proceeded to bring the house down for two and a half hours.

He served up so much funky music the Garden seemed to take on a swamp like vibe. Other than speaking to the crowd every now and then he didn’t stop. Several songs such as “My Cherie Amour” were given intros that explained their origin. During other songs such as “Ribbon In The Sky” He urged the audience to participate and they gladly obliged

He smiled broadly the entire night and kept the audience engaged. Mostly he played and sang with passion and zeal.

By the time Stevie played the first notes of “Signed, Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours” the crowd was absolutely jumping. A few tunes later he mentioned that his mom had two favorite singers. One of them was Ella Fitzgerald and the other he said he was happy to have recorded a duet with. And with that he brought out Tony Bennett to duet with him on “For Once in My Life.” An already giddy crowd was given an additional boost. They both sounded great and the song was performed true to their Grammy nominated version of 2006.

Stevie’s band is large and tight. In addition to a drummer,2 keyboard players, bassist and backup singers he has 2 percussionists and 2 guitarists. Their sound is thick, immense and overwhelmingly joyous.

Late in the show the familiar notes to “Superstition” began to ring out. It had occurred to me early in the night that there are only 2 men living with as much funk in their bones as Stevie Wonder. George Clinton is one of them. As “Superstition” started I thought of that again and then I had an out of body experience as Stevie called the other gentleman with equal funky credibility to the stage. That man is of course Prince. He strode out, strapped on a guitar and played lead. It seemed like the crowd was already as high as it could get but Prince proved that notion wrong. The sell out crowd found another level. In the middle of the song Prince and Stevie were side by side dueling a solo, guitar versus keyboard. It was just unbelievably good. Normally an appearance by Prince would have to be THE highlight of a show. Make no mistake it was tremendous. However the entire show was one highlight after another. To name that moment as the singular one of the evening would sell the rest of it short.

Stevie Wonder is clearly having a terrific time out on the road playing from his vast catalog of classic music. If the audience at Madison Square Garden is any indication, fans are as well.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Melissa Etheridge - The Awakening

In the liner notes to her new album The Awakening Melissa Etheridge asks listeners to set aside an hour and play the CD straight through. This is sound advice. More than her previous albums the songs on this one flow together cohesively. She herself has called it a concept record.

The subject matter is her life viewed through the prism of recovering from Cancer.

While that might sound a bit maudlin the music is anything but. It swings and it rocks, most often simmering just below a rolling boil.

If you’re already a fan this is a fine addition to the Etheridge catalog. If you’re new to her music “The Awakening” does a good job touching the various styles of music she has played over the years. Bluesy guitar, gritty vocals and heartfelt lyrics all delivered passionately are on display.

Most importantly for an artist such as Melissa Etheridge many of the new songs seem well suited for her live show. And that’s perfectly appropriate as she’s a live performer before anything else.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Van Halen

Is it possible to live up to 21+ years of Anticipation? That’s how long I waited to see Van Halen. Truth is after the 1996 “reunion” fiasco I’d all but given up the ghost.

Last week I traveled to Philadelphia to see Van Halen, Finally.

I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on it the last 2 months since I’d acquired tickets lest it get even more built up in my head.

At 8:27 PM they hit the stage and when I say hit it I mean that. They landed with a ferocious roar that did not let up for 2 hours and 10 minutes.

Beg, borrow, lie, steal, cheat, do whatever you have to do, but see this band. I have bootlegs documenting Van Halen from 1976 (before they had a record deal) to 1984 when they last toured. And I am here to tell you I absolutely guarantee this band NEVER sounded better.

I had my reservations about Michael Anthony not being involved as his vocals were important to the VH sound. No disrespect to Michael Anthony but this is the last time I need to mention his name. The kid, the little Van Halen Wolfie, handled both bass duties AND vocals admirably. It was his 3rd nite in front of 20,000 people and he might have been a touch nervous but not so much that it impacted his performance. He was GREAT. A Van Halen he is in more than name now.

Eddie was well Eddie.He displayed why his name HAS to be mentioned when the conversation turns to the greatest guitarists ever. I’m not here to tell you he’s number one, but maybe he is. I AM here to tell you that NO ONE is better. Equal? Maybe I don’t know. Better? Nope, sorry.

Alex played his ass off and even had a pretty cool drum solo. He has his own sound and his chops were all on display.

Dave, Dave, Dave. Is he the greatest front man in rock history? Again, he HAS to be in the conversation. No two ways about it. His voice sounded fantastic, then again I’ve seen the man live well over a dozen times and his voice always sounds good.

And together? Not only did Van Halen prove that they could stop on a dime, I’m fairly certain they could pick it up too.

Or as my buddy Jon who went with me put it in regards to their sound, “They were tighter than a Ducks Asshole.”

I have no idea how this infamously volatile band is getting along, but they sure looked like they were having fun. There were clearly vested in what they were doing and seemingly having a ball doing it. If they weren’t, well then the Oscar goes to them for a primo performance.

The set list? to die for. The crowd was going bonkers and they would barely stop to accept applause before hitting you right between the eyes with another classic song.

My only gripe about the show? It ended. For over 2 hours I was in a rock and roll nirvana that only a handful of acts can deliver me to.

If you ever liked this band or of you just want to see a band at the top of their form, do what you have to, See Van Halen