Celebrate the 4th with the Blasters

I usually like to celebrate the 4th of July by posting Dave Alvin’s “4th of July” but this year I’m going to break with tradition. Well, at least a bit.

Dave and his brother Phil founded legendary rock band the Blasters nearly thirty-five years ago. The group was born from — and brought life to — the brothers mutual love all forms of American music.

Here’s a fitting song from the Blasters’ catalog to help us celebrate Independence Day in 2014.

We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues
We got country, swing and rockabilly, too
We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues
It’s the greatest music that you ever knew
It’s American music, it’s American music, it’s American music
It’s the greatest sound right from the U.S.A.

(The Alvins have just released Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, a tribute to one of their musical heroes.)

Twang in South Carolina

Although we twangers are located all across this great United States of America, and while Boston often gets a little more recognition on this blog thanks to the tireless efforts of Mayer, little ole’ me takes up residence in the capital city of South Carolina. Being a college town, we get our share of young bands putting their mark on the city and beyond. Here are a few that have caught my ear of late and links for you to check out their music. If you are so inclined, purchase an album or two, as I’m sure they’d be much obliged.

Cancellieri – Simple instrumentation and, what feels like honesty, bring Ryan Hutches’ catchy melodies to life.

RIYL: Iron and Wine, M. Ward, IPAs

Elonzo – More in the vein of Wilco than say, Gram, Elonzo, hailing from Rock Hill, South Carolina, punch out tales of everyday life in a small Southern town.

RIYL: Wrinkle Neck Mules, Old 97s, Coors

The Restoration – If Daniel Machado’s biting lyrics on New South Blues don’t win you over, I’m not sure what will.

RYIL: The Low Anthem, Carolina Chocolate Drops, whiskey sour

Stagbriar – The brother/sister duo of Emily and Alex McCollum feature chilling harmonies mixed with colorful storytelling on their first full-length.

RIYL: She and Him, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, merlot

The Dunder Chiefs – I could like this band just for the fact that their name is from a misheard AC/DC lyric, (dunder chiefs/done dirt cheap) but, they happen to sound pretty damn good as well.

RIYL: Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, Guinness

Mayer’s Playlist for June 2014, Part 2


Trouble, by The Howlin’ Brothers

The Howlin' BrothersThe Nashville-based Howlin’ Brothers expand their musical palette with their latest release. Sure, it has plenty of the traditional bluegrass upon which they’ve established their reputation. The unexpected treat, however, are the shades of reggae and pop that make an appearance.

They kick things off in classic form with the hootin’ and hollerin’ “Pour It Down.” The fun continues as the Brothers let their pickin’ fingers and rootsy harmonies lead the way on the rambling “Hard Times.”

“I Was Wrong” mixes up some old school pop with some Dixieland jazz while “Monroe” is steeped in bayou fiddle. It’s a good ol’ dance party, Howlin’ Brothers style.

“World Spinning Round” is firmly rooted in classic country, with a pedal steel guitar joining a fiddle to make a longing sound. “I gave you my heart and my love, you gave me a frown,” they sing on this tale of woe and loss.

The genre-blending appears most notably on “Love” and “Sing a Sad Song.” The former, with its heavy reggae beat, takes the trio on a journey to Jamaica. The latter has a gentle pop melody that is propelled by a graceful electric guitar.

The boys close the album with the foot-stompin’ gospel of “Yes I Am!” It makes for a triumphant finish to a great release.

Clover Lane, by Jonah Tolchin

Jonah TolchinClover Lane plays like an eclectic tour of Southern backroads circa the early 20th century. Not what one would expect from a 20-something New Jersey-born singer-songwriter. Of course that is what makes the album more special.

Tolchin has clearly studied the masters and it shows. “Midnight Rain,” with its fiddle and bluegrass feel, calls to mind Hank Williams while “Atlantic Winds” conjures up images of Woody Guthrie riding the rails.

The bluesy “Hey Baby” and “Hybrid Automobile” are steeped in Mississippi mud, the kind of songs that you’d hear in a rural juke joint.

“21st Century Girl,” while lyrically and musically the most contemporary song in this collection, still has a pleasant retro feel. The strings and harmonies give it a early 1950’s pop flavor.

Was Jonah Tolchin born in the wrong time and place? Perhaps, but I say all the better for today’s Americana fans.


Rabbit, Amy Lavere (from the Archer Records release Runaway’s Diary)
You don’t see many thematic albums these days, which makes Lavere’s Runaway’s Diary all the more impressive. Over the course of twelve tracks, mostly originals but with a few choice covers, Lavere chronicles the life of a young runaway. She explores it from all sides, from the sense of freedom (Lavere’s “Self Made Orphan” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Where I Lead Me”) and to the feel of isolation (Lavere’s “Rabbit” and John Lennon’s “How”). The combination of romanticism and realism makes for a potent song cycle.

Crash Test, The Mastersons (from the New West Records release Birds Fly South)
Damn if the Mastersons don’t get better and better with every new release. The now Austin-based husband and wife duo fill their songs with wonderful pop melodies and rich harmonies. Chris Masterson has a very lyrical guitar style while Eleanor Whitmore is equally expressive on fiddle. The sounds blend beautifully, as this song demonstrates.

When We’re Older, Mia Dyson (from the Backdoor Records release Idyllwild)
Australian singer-songwriter Dyson delivered one of my favorite albums from 2013, the fiery The Moment. She wastes no time following it up with another gem. Dyson settles things down a bit, but without losing any of her edge. Songs like this one ooze with a confidence and swagger that have become a Dyson trademark.

White Line, James Apollo (from the Marterry release Angelorum)
There are some artists that excel at capturing a mood, painting musical landscapes that transport the listener. Put Seattle-based singer-songwriter James Apollo in that category. His just-released album calls to mind Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” picture, conveying an undercurrent of activity on a seemingly dark and desolate city street.

Musically Apollo mixes up some soulful R&B with a heavy dose of grit. The result is something akin to Tom Waits at his most accessible moments. I love the evocative feel of Angelorum – grab a glass of whiskey and get lost in the sound.

Alberta Gold, Matt Andersen (from the True North Records release Weightless)
I can’t say that I knew much about Andersen before his latest release showed up in my inbox. Sometimes it’s better that way as I had no expectations when I gave it a listen. The results were a welcome surprise.

Andersen is billed as a blues artist and I can certainly hear some of that style in his music. The songs that caught my ear, however, leaned more towards the acoustic pop category. Whatever the genre, the one constant is Andersen’s rich and soulful voice.

Factory Line, Fire Mountain (from the This Is American Music release All Dies Down)
There must be something in the water down in Alabama ‘cause new artists are flowing freely from the state. The latest to arrive is this quintet from Troy, Alabama who serve up some tasty Southern rock with an evocative edge.

Sooner Than Now, Brett Newski (from the Good Land Records release American Folk Armageddon)
The title of the Milwaukee-based Newski’s latest release is perhaps a bit deceiving. Sure, there are some songs – We Are All Fucked” jumps to mind – that convey the bluster and perspective that it suggests. Songs like this one, however, have a soothing and uplifting outlook. Whichever tone you prefer, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Audio Download: Brett Newski, “Sooner Than Now”

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The Best That I Can Give, Emerson Hart (from the BMG release Beauty in Disrepair)
I’m a sucker for a good pop song and Hart has consistently delivered the goods. He has a knack for writing soaring and infectious melodies, typically infused with a dose of melancholy. “I gave you sometimes, you needed always,” he sings on this wistful song of heartbreak that somehow has an uplifting air.

The Nighthawks – 444

DC-based blues-rockers the Nighthawks seem to be undergoing a late-career resurgence, winning their first Blues Music Award with Last Train to Bluesville (acoustic album of the year, 2011), and following that up with a solid effort on Damn Good Time! in 2012.  With 444, front man Mark Wenner and the boys continue to crank out high-energy, high quality blues and throw-back rock ‘n’ roll.

Nighthawks 444With origins in the 1970s, the Nighthawks gathered a loyal cult following, especially in the East. They toured relentlessly throughout the early decades. Of the band’s early offerings, Open All Nite in 1976 and Jacks & Kings in 1977 (with studio work by Muddy Waters sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin) represented their best work. The departure of gifted lead guitarist Jimmy Thackery in 1987 threw the band into a period of constant change, but harpist Mark Wenner held the band together through the years. Although the rhythm section remained relatively stable (until recently Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums), the Nighthawks had a succession of lead guitarists, including a brief stint by Warren Haynes, until Pete Kanaras’ nine-year stay in the early 2000s. By the time they entered the studio to record Damn Good Time!, Zukowski and Ragusa had been replaced by Johnny Castle and Mark Stutso, and Paul Bell had taken over as guitarist.  The same lineup, and its positive chemistry, was on hand for 444.

The Nighthawks have always featured a raw, unvarnished Chicago-blues style, but their latest albums, especially 444, feature as much throw-back rock and roll as blues, which, when paired with Wenner’s animated vocals, is a good fit for this talented outfit.  And with other capable singers in the lineup, the band can mix up their sound.   As usual with the Nighthawks’ recent albums, there is a mix of originals and covers on 444.  Among the originals, rock-a-billy tinged title tune “444 a.m.” was written by Castle.  “Honky Tonk Queen” was written by Wenner with contributions from the original Nighthawks.  The catchy “High Snakes” was written by Castle and DC guitar legend Bill Kirchen (formerly of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen),  “No Secrets” is a Wenner original, and the closing country ballad, “Roadside Cross,” is another gem by Castle.  But some of the covers, like the Du Droppers’ “Talk that Talk” (called “Walk that Walk” on 444), the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love” and Elvis tunes “Got a Lot of Livin'” and “Crawfish” inject the album with a throw-back flavor.  There are also a couple of blues covers, such as the Nighthawks’ excellent rendition of Gary Nicholson’s “Nothin’ But The Blues” and their gritty take on Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues’ with a rollin’ and tumblin’ vibe.  The album should please the Nighthawks’ followers and newcomers alike.


Audio Stream: The Nighthawks, “Got a Lot of Livin'”

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John Mayall – A Special Life

A Special Life, indeed.  John Mayall is often called the “Godfather of British Blues,” but his legacy may include more than just pioneering the British blues; he arguably had a hand in saving the blues as an active music form by introducing the music to a new audiance at a time in the 1960s when elderly bluesmen were being trotted out at folk festivals like anthropoligical novelties.

MayallOne of the first albums I got as a kid was Mayall’s Memories, a peculiar collection of autobiographical songs released in 1971 that is now out of print.  It was a gift.  It wasn’t Mayall’s most acclaimed work, but I liked it enough to start collecting other Mayall albums: The Turning Point,  Mayall’s magnificent mostly acoustic effort from 1969; and Jazz Blues Fusion, with its sleek horn arrangements.  Eventually, my collection would include the classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, known as the “Beano album” because Clapton was reading the comic book in the cover photo; A Hard Road, which featured the guitar work of Peter Green; and Crusade and Blues From Laurel Canyon, which featured Mick Taylor.  But more importantly, I liked the style of music, which led me to seek out original blues artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; and then Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon; then the next generation of Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Taj Mahal.

Almost every biography of Mayall includes the litany of rock stars who played with him, including Clapton, who left the successful Yardbirds to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before moving on to Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith and a solo career; Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, who formed Fleetwood Mac; and Mick Taylor, who went on to join the Rolling Stones.  Mayall was so well regarded as a band leader that Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor and Walter Trout all left a successful Canned Heat to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.  Later on, Coco Montoya played with the Bluesbreakers, and on 1990’s A Sense of Place, Sonny Landreth was virtually a member of the band though credited as a guest artist.  But Mayall’s reputation as a band leader and mentor ignores his own musical talents.  A multi-instrumentalist, Mayall played all the parts except drums on The Blues Alone in 1967.  And he is among the most exciting blues harp players in the world – one listen to “Room to Move” on Turning Point should convince any skeptics of that.

Originally from Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, Mayall attended art college in Manchester after serving in Korea.  He famously lived in a treehouse while at art school (which he sang about in “Home in a Tree” on Memories).  While working as an artist, Mayall continued to pursue his passion for the blues, eventually moving to London in 1963.  (His artistic training would come into play throughout his career, as he designed most of his album covers.)  Mayall’s 1960s albums with Clapton, Green and Taylor are blues-rock classics, but over the years he has continued to produce high quality music, conquered an alcohol dependency, and matured as a showman (he’ll play “Room to Move” on request – unlike on Jazz Blues Fusion, where he can be heard refusing, saying “What, did you come here to hear an old record or something?”).  He has released several late-career gems, such as A Sense of Place in 1990, Stories in 2002 and Tough in 2009.

Now at 80, 50 years after recording his first single, Mayall has once again demonstrated he can rock the house.  With A Special Life, Mayall’s gajillionth studio album, Mayall brought zydeco master C.J. Chenier into the mix, along with his regular crew of Rocky Athas on guitar, Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums.  Chenier’s influence is immediately heard on “Why Did You Go Last Night?” with its zydeco vibe.  Other highlights include Mayall originals “World Gone Crazy,” “A Special Life,” and “Heartache,” along with Rzab’s “Like A Fool” and a cover of Albert King’s “Floodin’ in California.”  Throughout, there is some great musicianship, with crisp harp solos and Mayall’s characteristic tenor vocals.