Monday Morning Video: Johnny Winter (1944-2014)

We lost Johnny Winter last week.  Johnny, known for his blistering fast guitar playing, burst onto the national scene as a solo act in the late 1960s.  A guitar prodigy, Johnny and younger brother Edgar – both albino – had formed a band as they were growing up in Beaumont, Texas, and had a single released when Johnny was just 15 and Edgar 12 or 13.  Over the years, Johnny often shared the stage or studio with his brother, but their careers were distinct.  Johnny stayed faithful to blues throughout his career, with occasional forays into rock, while Edgar has been more of a rocker.  Johnny’s guitar playing ability was astounding, but he also built his legacy by producing several of Muddy Waters’ late-career masterpieces, including Hard Again and King Bee.

The years and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle took their toll on Johnny.  When I saw him three years ago, he needed to be helped onto the stage and performed his entire show seated, but the music was still there as he played effortlessly.  Below are some memories.

Johnny in his prime:

In 1987, starting to show the years, but still in great playing shape:

This past year on Letterman, very decrepit with apparent vision issues, but the music was still there:

 

 

John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

John Hiatt has long been one of the mainstays of Americana music.  Throughout his long career, Hiatt has been known for great songwriting and musicianship, but of all his earthy Americana releases, Terms of My Surrender is certainly his grittiest and arguably his most enjoyable work to date.

John Hiatt_

Despite some early success as a songwriter, Hiatt was a late bloomer as a performer.  Among his early songwriting credentials was “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” which Three Dog Night took to number 16 in 1974, while Hiatt was still banging around Nashville trying to get his start.  But his reputation as a solo artist and stage performer was built one day at a time over many years.   His first two solo albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats, were commercial failures.  After moving to California, Hiatt did a stint in Ry Cooder’s backing band, establishing a musical relationship with Cooder that would would last through several future projects.

Throughout the 1980s, however, Hiatt continued to struggle with personal demons, which included alcoholism, the suicide of his wife and his languishing career.  It was on Bring the Family that Hiatt put it all together, both musically and personally.  For that reason, Bring the Family will likely always be considered the most important Hiatt album.  With participation by Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner, the core group behind of Bring the Family would later reunite to become the short-lived 1990s supergroup Little Village.  Since then, Hiatt has continued to produce outstanding work and interesting collaborations with the likes of the Jayhawks, Bonnie Raitt and Luther and Cody Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars.

But with Terms of My Surrender, Hiatt has taken his usual straight-forward Americana recipe and reduced it to its barest elements, producing a great album that will likely be on the short list for my favorite Americana album of the year.  He has certainly taken a page from Cooder’s recent playbook (e.g., Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, 2011), producing a really simple collection of fantastic songs.  From the first notes of “Long Time Comin’,” Hiatt’s crusty vocals highlight a rootsy, bluesy collection of tasty takes that sound unadorned and informal, as though they could have been recorded in Hiatt’s living room.  “Face of God” sounds as though it could have come from the lips and fingers of the oldest Mississippi bluesman.  “Marlene” sounds like a throwback 1950s rock-n-roll anthem.  “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” is an instant classic.  Other great songs include “Nobody Knew His Name,” the title tune and the satirical “Old People.”  Joining Hiatt on the album were members of his touring band, the Combo, featuring lead guitarist (and the album’s producer) Doug Lancio, Nathan Gehri on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums.

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

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

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.


THE PLAYLIST


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.