Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Paul Thorn - “What the Hell is Goin On?”

By Phillip Smith

What the Hell is Goin On? indeed!  This twelve song follow up album to his 2010 release, Pimps and Preachers, is composed entirely of cover songs.  This is not your typical cover album though, as they are mostly all rather deep cuts.  I have to admit though, while tapping into topics such as love, infidelity, broken relationships, revenge and loneliness, they all fit in Thorn’s wheelhouse quite comfortably. 

From the 1973 Buckingham Nicks album, “Don’t Let Me Down Again” was approached by Thorn in a more countrified manner with a slower tempo than the original, thus allowing the riff to really soak in and take hold.  This I really liked.  I still kind of missed Stevie Nicks on vocals though.   Although I appreciate and enjoy the Thorn’s rendition of Buddy Miller’s ‘Shelter Me Lord’, I prefer the original version a little better.  This one is somewhat of a contemporary gospel song to be sung with catastrophic events in mind. Background vocals provided by the McCrary Sisters along with the organ accompaniment by Michael Graham give Thorn’s version a little boost of “church” that interestingly blends in with some nice swampy slide work by Bill Hinds. 

Thorn journeys to unusual places to find love and retribution. This is one my favorite traits of his.  Whether he’s writing the song, or choosing one to cover he doesn’t take the heavily traveled path.  Take his cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ‘Snake Farm’.  The music is heavy on the slide, with a little echo to set an eerie tone.  The song itself is country-quirk.  It’s a song of affection about a tattooed woman named Ramona, who works at the Snake Farm reptile house, likes beer and loves the UK band, The Alarm. If you listen closely to this one, you can almost hear the rattle snakes in a faint repeating sped-up drum track toward the end. 

Thorn enlists Delbert McClinton to assist with vocals on his version of Wild Bill Emerson’s ‘Bull Mountain Bridge’.  This catchy song is a captivating one about a redneck Klansman, Bull Mountain Hawk who seeks retaliation on a local charismatic drug dealer, Stone Fox Dan for messing around with his woman.  Bull Mountain Hawk’s solution is simply to break his arms, throw him in the river, and if anybody asks, tell them he committed suicide. 

Questioning the reason behind today’s rampant violence, the title track, ‘What the Hell is Goin On?’ from Elvin Bishop, features Bishop himself on guitar. The song is additionally fortified with Thorns energy and surpasses the original as far as I am concerned.  Thorn and Bishop make a great team.  Another artist with roots in the Sixties that Thorn chooses to cover is Paul Rogers.  Taking on “Walk in My Shadow” by Free (originally on their Tons of Sobs album), the song is flipped from its original sixties electric blues format, with its faster pace and Paul Rogers vibrato infused vocals, to a more traditional electric blues. This one turns out nice.  If you have ever lived in a small town and experienced rampant gossip and loss of privacy, you may just identify with ‘Small Town Talk’, by Rick Danko.  This track sounds very much like a Randy Newman song with Thorn’s slightly nasally voice, and the poppy organ melody.

My introduction to Paul Thorn was through his previous album, Pimps and Preachers.  I was blown away at his ability to pen a song.  And now I am aware of his super power to dive deep and find songs that deserve to be listened to again.   

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tesla at Riverside Casino - Riverside, Iowa January 25, 2014 : Review and Photos

By Phillip Smith

Saturday evening, I took a break from the harsh Iowa winter we’ve had this year and headed down to Riverside, IA to recharge my soul with the music of Tesla.  It was an exemplary performance.  Vocalist Jeff Keith, guitarists Frank Hannon and Dave Rude, along with bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta once again, proved they can sell out a show all while keeping an audience of dedicated fans on their feet for two hours.

Tesla took the stage, kicking things off with the hard driving, “I Wanna Live”, followed by “Hang Tough” and one of their newer songs, “Taste My Pain”.  Hannon switched out guitars, for “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)”, grabbing his Flying V and unleashed what seemed like everything he had on the song while Jeff Keith nailed it all down in place with his ‘made for rock’ raspy vocals.  Before switching over to Five Man Acoustical Jam mode, they finished the first chapter of the show with “Mama’s Fool“, which featured some really nice swampy bluesy guitar from Hannon, and cool vocal harmony with him and Keith.  I loved the bass line on this too. Wheat really tied it together.  Unexpectedly before the song ended, Hannon’s guitar whipped behind his back and he finished with an impressive guitar solo.  

For the Five Man Acoustical Jam, stools were brought to the front of the stage for the guys to perch upon, and the electric guitars were replaced with acoustic.  Although “Comin’ Atcha Live” was on their Five Man Acoustical Jam album, it’s still kind of odd to hear played in this format; however it is still cool as hell.  Hannon broke out his resonator guitar for this, giving the song some bonus twang.  And as on the Five Man Acoustical Jam album, they segued into the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin’”.  This put a huge smile on my face.  Before switching back to their electric instruments, Wheat switches his bass out for keyboard, and the band performs “Paradise”.  This one is really beautifully played.

With a driving beat provided by Luccketta, and the opening notes played by Hannon and Rude, “Signs” begins.  A brief chill hits me as the crowd begins to sing along. Bringing this one to an end, huge cheers are released to Hannon presenting a rather large banner over his head that read, ‘And the Sign Says Tesla Rules’’.  They ruled indeed.

The final third of the show was chock full of fan favorites. “The Way It Is” closed with a strong finish, and with the opening notes of “What You Give”, I could feel the excitement in the air balloon up.  Rude and Hannon, back on acoustic, sublimely play the intro to the power ballad, “Love song”.  Once it gets going, Hannon is handed his double-neck guitar.  His playing is so impressive.

It wouldn’t be a Tesla concert without a five start performance of Modern Day Cowboy, which is exactly what it was. For a moment it is thought the show is over, but Tesla, with a little coaxing from the fans, returned for one last song, “Little Suzi”.  This drew not only a ton of applause, but drew a few folks into the aisles for a little dancing as well.  I don’t know how he does it, but Keith can still hit those high notes.  All in all, it was a stellar show and a damn good time. 


I Wanna Live
Hang Tough
Taste My Pain
Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)
Mama’s Fool
Comin’ Atcha Live / Truckin’
A Wonderful World

The Way It Is
What You Give
Love Song
Modern Day Cowboy
Little Suzi

All photographs by Phillip Smith.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers - The Devil You Know

Alligator Records,  2014

By Phillip Smith; January 18, 2014

Returning to the studio with a new band, The Painkillers, along with a bus load full of special guests which includes Marcia Ball, Tab Benoit, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, Mark Karan, Magic Dick, Tasha Taylor, and the Holmes Brothers, Tommy Castro has recorded one smoking hot Blues album, The Devil You Know.  The Painkillers consist of bassist Randy McDonald, drummer Byron Cage, and keyboardist James Pace. 

It’s almost impossible to not get down and do some foot-tapping when I hear “When I Cross the Mississippi”.  Tab Benoit and Mark Karan both jump in with guitars. Tab joins along on vocals as well.  I really identify with this song, and the way it invokes a longing to return to wherever we call home.  When I hear him sing the lyrics, ‘That river runs so strong.  The river clears my brain.  When I cross the Mississippi, I got muddy water in my vein.’, I get the urge to hop in my car, drive down to Memphis, and catch some live music. 

I love the slow and swampy infectious groove on the title track, “The Devil You Know”.  Between that groove, Castro’s killer guitar licks and the soulful organ contributions from Pace, this makes for a strong opening track.  Things get even better when Joe Bonamassa joins in on a cover of Savoy Brown’s “I’m Tired”.  Bonamassa handles most of the guitar on this as Castro’s slightly gravely vocals add an extra layer of ‘cool’ to the song.  The jam between the two towards the end of the song is nice as well.  Mark Karan also sits in on another outstanding cover, Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin’”.  I might have to even say I like this version a smidge better than the original.  I can’t help but be in a better mood when I hear it.

Joining Castro as he wails on his guitar, in the fast paced original, “Medicine Woman”, is Samantha Fish.  She’s sexy and sultry.  It’s always a pleasure to hear her sing.  It’s also a pleasure to hear the Holmes Brothers who provide spiritually uplifting backing vocals on “Two Steps Forward”, which has an extra boost of richness provided by harmonica master, Magic Dick.     

One of my favorites, “Center of Attention”, is an energetically charged powerhouse of a song with pounding rhythmic drums, splendid guitar riffs, and fierce vocals.  Revolving around a drama queen who just has to be the center of attention, this song definitely ends up on my heavy rotation list. 

The Devil You Know is thirteen tracks of soulful positively charged Blues music. It is a fantastic listen from beginning to end.   

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jimmy Vivino & the Black Italians - 13 Live

Blind Pig Records,  2013

By Phillip Smith; January 11, 2014

In November, 2012, Jimmy Vivino, leader of Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band on Conan, reunited the Black Italians, a band formed twenty years ago, for a concert and recording session at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY.  This nine member ensemble consists of Vivino (guitar, vocals, piano), Catherine Russell (vocals) Felix Cabrera (harmonica, vocals), Danny Louis (keyboards, trombone, snare drum, vocals) Mike Merritt (bass guitar), James Wormworth (drums), Mike Jacobson (congas, bass drum, percussion), Fred Walcott (timbales, percussion) and Justin Guip (snare drum).
13 Live captures the energy and magic on the stage that evening, chronicling the performances of a few originals and covers by Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Traffic, The Band, and James Brown.  

Vivino tears it up on guitar as Cabrera does the same with his harmonica on Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6”.  And what’s really cool about the performance of “Maggie’s Farm”, another Dylan song, is the dueling lead vocals by Vivino and Russell. Splitting the song into male and female lead parts makes it interesting.  Also, the background vocals take on the role of an old-time gospel choir.  Can I get an Amen?  This one is pretty damn close to being my favorite song on the album. 

With vocals reminiscent more of Jimi Hendrix, Vivito takes on Johnny Winter’s “Fast Live Rider” with unbridled ferocity.  Guiding this track is Justin Guip, who lays down a driving head-bobbing rhythm on the snare. Another Seventies inspired cover they perform is Traffic’s classic, “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”.  This one gets kind of funky, and Vivito’s vocals on this one remind me of Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night.  Vivito and company also hit a homerun on their cover of the Band’s “Shape I’m In”.  Louis nails the keyboards, giving it a soulful groove.  I believe this is what the song may have sounded like if it were originally recorded at Stax studios in Memphis, TN. The way Catherine Russell delivers the vocals on Sugar Pie Desanto’s “Soulful Dress” is sexy and soulful.  Her lead vocals on “Fools Gold” is just as sweet.

“Song for Levon”, is a poignant tribute to the late Levon Helm, who passed away earlier in 2012, the same year this was recorded.  Vivino, playing piano and singing in a style reminiscent of Randy Newman, recalls his memories of the good times he shared with his good friend.  I feel my heartstrings being tugged on and I well up a little with emotion with each listen.  I love the last line, ‘It’s not what you take with you, it’s what you leave behind’.  That’s so true, and such an inspirational thing to sing.

13 Live, this thirteen track recording, is outstanding and I wish I could have been in Woodstock to experience it in person. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Spin Doctors - If the River Was Whiskey

2013 - Ruf Records 
By Phillip Smith; January 4, 2014

The original members of the Spin Doctors have all reunited; bringing vocalist Chris Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White, and drummer Aaron Comes all back together again to record their sixth studio release, If the River Was Whiskey. This ten song album is their first in eight years, and interestingly leans a lot more toward the Blues side of the scale.  It’s fun to hear the Spin Doctors take on the Blues full force.  If it weren’t for Barron’s recognizable voice, I wouldn’t have guessed this was the Spin Doctors.   

I really like the twangy guitar riff Schenkman dishes out on “Some Other Man”, a song about broken hearts and lost love.  This could very well be mistaken as the missing track from Bob Dylan’s Tempest album. It has a very folky blues feel to it.  I also enjoyed the cleverly written, “So Bad”.  Schenkman puts an eerie spin on this slow devilish twelve bar blues song about the horrifying Mr. Satan.
Surprised and impressed is how I feel each time I hear “Scotch and Water Blues” .  Schenkman steps out in the spotlight and lets it rip on this electric blues favorite, while Comes pounds the hell out of his drums.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  And while on the subject of spirits, I better mention “If the River Was Whiskey”, a catchy fast paced rockabilly selection with the hook, ‘if the river was whiskey, you’d have no trouble drowning me’. I like this one quite a bit too.

More Blues, along with just a tiny bit of their trademark alt rock music round out the rest of the album.  I’m not sure if this is a new direction for the Spin Doctors, or if making a Blues album is a one-time gig. However, if this is a new direction for the band, consider me on-board.