Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Mother Truckers - Something Worth Dying For (2002)

The Mother Truckers is a perfect moniker for this Austin based bar band. Their name screams to the world that they are both a country band and an irreverent bunch. Their loud country music often crosses the border into rock 'n roll especially when lead guitarist Josh Zee lets loose with one of his wailing solos on almost every song.

During their October 26th show at Austin's Continental Club I immediately realized this was no ordinary bar band. Zee has been voted the city’s best electric guitarist, Teal Collins was recognized as Austin’s best female voice, and the quartet was honored as "Best Roots Rock Band" at the most recent Austin Music Awards. Their lively gig, in which Collins was the most dynamic personality, enticed me to purchase their 2002 debut CD immediately after their show.

Something Worth Dying For is a party in your own home. The sentiments expressed in their often humorous lyrics are far removed from anything associated with the wine and cheese crowd. Collins and Zee sing of double-wides and "Daiquiris and Dice," (a song about a lonely person in a relationship taking a back seat to his or her lover's drinking and gambling). Other titles such as "Behind The Bleachers" and "Put Down the Gun" tell you all you need to know about the subject matter of their songs. "We Were Getting High" is very disturbing because it appears to celebrate the "joys" of heroin. Unfortunately its catchy melody forces you to sing along until you realize what you are singing. Let’s hope I’m reading more into the lyrics than I should be.

Except for that misstep the quartet is excellent and singer Collins is indeed a true talent. You need to hear her multi-tracked voice on the CD's cute hidden track, the upbeat 50s tune "You Belong To Me" for a real taste of what she can do vocally when unencumbered by a loud rocking rhythm section.

The Mother Truckers, who once opened for Merle Haggard, released their second album Broke, Not Broken earlier this year.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Jimmy Lafave - Cimarron Manifesto (2007)

I learned a long, long, time ago that there is no correlation between how much talent musicians have when compared to the amount of radio airplay they receive and the amount of concert tickets and CDs they sell. Such is the case with veteran rocker and singer-songwriter Jimmy Lafave who, unfortunately, is not very well known beyond his Austin, TX base of operations. I heard great things about Lafave after arriving in Austin so I decided to take in his performance at one of the city's premier music venues, Threadgill's of South Austin, on Saturday, October 27, 2007. Despite his relative anonymity this gentleman of song is highly regarded in the music world. He has even opened for one of his fans, Lucinda Williams.

Lafave's music is a combination of folk, country, blues, and rock. He and his band can easily spread their musical wings over any of those genres. His band at Threadgill's included John Inmon on electric guitar and Radoslav Lorkovic on keyboards. The Croation Sensation, Lafave's nickname for Lorkovic, is superb on the Hammond B-3. The band was rounded out by Glenn Schuetz on both electric and acoustic upright bass. Lafave played acoustic guitar. Their drummer was MIA but the band rocked anyway so his absence really wasn't noticed. I've heard backing bands for many well known musicians who aren't this interesting. Some regulars in the audience thought highly enough of Inmon to request that he showcase his talents with a version of the Jimi Hendrix/Derek and The Dominoes gem, "Little Wing." The band complied and Inmon played the song as if it was his own.

Lafave has an easy, laid back rapport with the audience, adding humor and some good stories along the way. His love for music and his fans are genuine. While his voice can not be considered strong it is never less than appealing and it complements every song very nicely.

Lafave's seventh CD, Cimarron Manifesto has a sampling of everything he does best as a songwriter. Highlights include "This Land" in which Lafave laments that he wants his "country back" after all that has gone wrong in our post 9-11 world. "Car Outside" is about a poor guy who can't stay with his lady because of his wanderlust yet he knows what he'll be losing as soon as he walks out the door. "That's The Way It Goes" is a clever rocker that uses fictional rock song characters as a metaphor for people who either sold out, grew up, or lost their heart after sowing their oats. He sings:

"What ever happened to Johnny B. Goode
He pawned his guitar like I knew he would
Started working for the CIA
Hasn’t been seen to this very day
Just so you know
That’s the way it goes

I went looking for Peggy Sue
I found her up in Abilene
She’s working as a waitress there
At the Dairy Queen
Sweet Lorraine, let the party carry on
Lucille, get back where you belong
Hello, Mary Lou, goodbye heart
They’re working the night shift at the Super Mart
Just so you know
That’s the way it goes

Lafave possesses impeccable taste in cover versions. Bob Dylan is one of his major influences. On Cimarron Manifesto he covers "Not Dark Yet" from Dylan's 1997 release Time Out Of Mind. There is a very nice rendition of Donovan's "Catch The Wind," that he also sang at Threadgill's, and a soulful arrangement of Joe South's "Walk A Mile In My Shoes."

Inmon also has a great reputation in Austin. Several times Lafave very pointedly dropped his name in the same sentence with Stevie Ray Vaughan's. Inmon has played with Townes van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton and many more. Find out more about him on his website. He, Lorkovic, and Schuetz are among the sidemen who make Cimarron Manifesto one of the top CDs of the year.

It's time that Lafave gets a big break, goes national, and becomes a star.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Austin, Texas - The Live Music Capital Of The World

Austin is both the capital of The Lone Star State and home to the Longhorns of the University of Texas. It's also a very cosmopolitan town proud of its reputation as a home for popular music of all genres. The official website of The South By Southwest Music and Media Conference states that "Central Austin boasts more original music nightclubs in a concentrated area than any other city in the world." The moderately sized city of over 600,000 people has two hundred venues featuring live music. Austin has more music venues per capita than New York, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Nashville. Both Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan (for whom they erected a memorial) cut their musical teeth in this central Texas city's music clubs. The city promotes itself with the copyrighted slogan "The Live Music Capital Of The World."

There are many reasons why Austin can be truly considered one of American music's true showcases. Here are a few.

Every March the famous business conference, South By Southwest, is hosted at the Austin Convention Center. Many artists, agents, musicians, promoters, and media people meet there to do business, make connections, and listen to music. Hundreds of musical acts perform on downtown stages hoping to be discovered by the business and media moguls in attendance.

Austin City Limits is a giant music festival held every September. It features dozens of unknown acts and also some musical icons and all-stars. The recently completed 2007 event included Bob Dylan, The Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Bjork, Wilco, The Decembrists, Lucinda Williams, Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, Crowded House, and many more. This year's event was held over three days and presented one hundred and thirty bands on eight stages. For thirty-three years Austin City Limits has also been a weekly TV series on PBS featuring some of the finest musicians on the American scene. Austin favorites Lyle Lovett and the late Doug Sahm have been guests as have singer-songwriters Kim Richey and The Indigo Girls. An episode with Norah Jones just aired in October.

My recent weekend in Austin proved how great of a town it is for musicians. We went to the city's famous restaurant, Threadgill's South, for an excellent concert by the wonderful Jimmy Lafave, a rocking singer-songwriter who is one of Austin's top acts. (Look for a review of his latest CD soon.) The chilly air eventually proved to be too much for a late October show but in the right weather this small outdoor concert venue at Threadgill's is a very nice place to witness the local favorites play live. The original Threadgill's, on the north side of town, was once home to Joplin before she moved to the West Coast and struck it big.

On Friday, October 26th, the night before we saw Lafave, we went to The Continental Club, located near Threadgill's, to see country-rockers, The Mother Truckers, whose lead singer, Teal Collins, was voted Austin's best female voice. Her songwriting partner, Josh Zee, was voted the city's best electric guitarist. The quartet was honored as "Best Roots Rock Band" at the most recent Austin Music Awards. Picture Southern Culture On The Skids without the fried chicken shtick. The Mother Truckers are pure Texas!

If roots-rock, Americana, country, blues, and singer-songwriters are part of your musical diet, radio station KGSR, 107.1 FM is for you. This station is unlike anything you are likely to hear elsewhere on commercial radio. You can stream it twenty-four hours a day on their website. KGSR is not formulaic radio. While they may play traditonal boomer rock artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison they will also include Dave Matthews, Feist, Iron and Wine, Toots and the Maytals, Corrine Bailey Rae, and many local artists such as Lafave and The Mother Truckers. There is no hip-hop, no hard rock, just Texas style rock for adults.

If you are looking for used CDs take a drive on North Lamar Blvd. where you will find two stores that specialize in both Texas music and used discs. Waterloo Records (so named because it was Austin's original name) and Cheapo Discs have an abundance of both. Cheapo Discs has an entire large wall featuring nothing but Texas artists.

All of the above were sandwiched in between a tour of the state capital building, a visit to The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, watching tailgaters at the Texas - Nebraska football game, and eating at some great restaurants including Iron Cactus on Sixth Street. It offers the best Mexican cuisine I've ever tasted.

Austin is a young vibrant town with a lot to offer. They are proud of their city and their heritage, and they revel in what they consider to be their weirdness. There is even a web site named Keep Austin Weird devoted to the "collaborative fission of coordinated individualism" the city enjoys so much.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ray Charles - Genius Loves Company (2004)

"Better late than never" is an old adage that happens to be true. I never heard Genius Loves Company, the last album recorded by Ray Charles before his death, until recently and I'm glad I finally did.

When this CD was released two albums of duets by other musical icons came immediately to mind, most notably those by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and because I was disappointed in their efforts I wasn't all that excited about The Genius's release. These projects always seemed like gimmicks to me, especially when I learned that on Sinatra's CD the guest vocalists were not always in the studio with Ol' Blue Eyes when they added their voices to a song. It was obvious why the results were less than pleasing.

Genius Loves Company is very different. Apparently duetting with Charles was quite a privilege so the guest vocalists poured their hearts and souls into every note. Michael McDonald is surprisingly restrained on "Hey Girl." B.B. King and Lucille are there to help out on the appropriately bluesy "Sinners Prayer." Charles and James Taylor turn the latter's "Sweet Potato Pie" into a jazz tune with a full brass section and Elton John offers a less schmaltzy version of his own "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word." Charles's soulful voice makes the song even sadder. The album closes with a live version of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love." Both singers sound as if they worked together all of their lives.

Best of all are the five female singers who are perfect on every single one of their tracks. The CD opens with Norah Jones (who is always better singing other people's songs than her own) trading leads with Charles on "Here We Go Again." (Be sure to catch Billy Preston's B-3 on this one). Diana Krall is her usual sultry self on "You Don't Know Me" and Bonnie Raitt brings both her voice and slide guitar to a perfect version of "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" Gladys Knight takes a gospel turn with Charles on "Heaven Help Us All," and finally, there is Natalie Cole's upbeat assistance on "Fever."

There are only two minor flaws. Johnny Matthis provides a smooth counterpoint to the host's gruff lines on "Over The Rainbow" a song not everybody should sing. Matthis easily upstages his host because it's not a song that easily fits into Charles's vocal style. The other one is Willie Nelson's tired performance on Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year."

The productions include full string sections, small jazz and blues groups, horn sections, and more. All this diversity is overseen by producers John Burk and the legendary Phil Ramone.

If you haven't heard Genius Loves Company make sure you do. Don't wait three years like I did.