November 30, 2011

Album Review: Various Artists - This One's For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark

People who appreciate Guy Clark often point to the craftsmanship of his songwriting; his homespun, easygoing guitar playing; his stark, cut-to-the-chase lyricism. And that’s understandable. But if you want to comprehend the full depth of his artistry go ahead and let some of his songs begin to mean something to you. Let them get under your skin. Let them prey on your mind a while until you recognize some fundamental part of yourself in between their lines. Because a good song transcends the means and mechanics of its construction to speak to some sort of universal truth—and Guy Clark knows how to write a damn good song.

This is what has made him an influence on mentors and protégés alike for the past four decades, a distinction illustrated by a new compilation, This One's For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (Icehouse Music). Released on the occasion of his recent 70th birthday, the double-disc set features inspired renditions of some of the troubadour’s finest works by the likes of Willie Nelson (“Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”), Patty Griffin (“The Cape”), and Jack Ingram (“Stuff That Works”), to name just a few. Some moments are more compelling than others, like Vince Gill's poignant reading of “The Randall Knife,” and an achingly tender version of “Magnolia Wind” from Emmylou Harris and John Prine, but all of them are consistently heartfelt and make for a wonderful tribute to one of music’s most singular songwriters and storytellers.


November 20, 2011

Album Review: Bog Seger - Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets

For casual fans who don’t already own both volumes of Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s Greatest Hits, this week sees the release of a worthwhile alternative in the two-disc retrospective, Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets (Capitol Records).

All the mainstays are present—“Night Moves,” “Still the Same,” “Against The Wind,” “Old Time Rock and Roll,” etc.—as well as two previously unreleased covers: a middle-of-the-road ride on Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” and a far more fun romp through the Little Richard classic 
Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey (Going Back to Birmingham).

Unlike the Greatest Hits sets, this one includes classics like the original mono version of 
Ramblin Gamblin Man by the Bob Seger System and the Live Bullet double shot of Traveling Man and Beautiful Loser, which once and for all should've been mixed into one track as God and rock radio always intended.

What is perhaps most striking about this set, though—and this speaks more to Seger
s indelible impact on American music than it does anything else—is that at 26 tracks it still doesn’t cover all the hits. Though while a case could be made against one or two dubious inclusions—How did his rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” make the cut here, for instance, but not “Sunspot Baby?”—overall this retrospective is solid, like a rock.

November 15, 2011

An Interview with George Thorogood

George Thorogood pays tribute to the seminal music of Chess Records on his latest LP, 2120 South Michigan Ave., its title boasting the Chicago-based label’s mailing address from which as a teenager he’d receive catalogs listing available releases. Produced by Tom Hambridge and featuring cameos by Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite, the album finds Thorogood and his rock-steady band, The Destroyers, barnstorming through tracks by such legends as Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Bo Diddley. In other words, it sounds just like the blues-spiked rock you'd expect from George Thorogood and The Destroyers—and that ain’t bad.

Do you ever get intimidated taking on a song by Chuck Berry or Muddy Waters, just because of their stature?

No. If you’re going to be intimidated in this business you shouldn’t be in this business. Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters—it’s almost like actors who don’t know anything about Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams—[they’re] almost like a standard part of your education. So it’s not something to be intimidated by; it’s something to be educated by.

Were any of the songs on this latest record foreign in that you had to learn how to play them?

Some of them, yeah, some of them were. I hadn’t realized that “High-Heeled Sneakers” was already in the Chess catalog; it was pretty much a rock ‘n’ roll standard. And J.B. Lenoir I didn’t know had been with Chess, and the song—I was familiar with it, though I never played it—“Mama, Talk to Your Daughter,” was a Chess recording. The other ones are obvious—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Muddy Waters—but we needed more than that. Some of it was foreign. Some of it was stuff we’d done a lot, and some we were very aware of. We were kind of all over the place with this record.

You learned about Chess Records originally through the Rolling Stones.

Well, so did everybody, pretty much, in my generation. Most of us were just listening to Top 40 radio, and the Rolling Stones were able to crack that Top 40 radio thing with a Howlin’ Wolf song written by Willie Dixon called “Little Red Rooster.” And they had other songs—“I Just Want to Make Love to You” and they did Bo Diddley covers—and they brought that consciousness into the teenagers of my generation.

On the television show Shindig! they brought Howlin’ Wolf and that got the ball rolling with me. I started getting interested in these people, where the Stones got their sound from. The Beatles had listened to just about everybody—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and the Everly Brothers—[but] their roots were closer to straight-ahead American rock ‘n’ roll whereas the Stones were down deep into the heavy Chicago blues and the Mississippi Delta blues as well.

Do you still get a buzz from playing live?

More than ever. It’s a lot better now because we have radio support. We’ve had classic rock radio behind us for almost 20 years now. And we have a strong catalog, better amplifiers, better rooms. We have buses to drive us around. It wasn’t like that for us 20, 30 years ago. Now it’s work, but back then it was hard work. And I got into this business not to get into work.

Is that support continuing? With satellite radio and so many other options available now, is FM radio still a vital medium for you to get your music heard?

We seem to be on the radio somewhere, sometime, all the time… People in radio stations, they make their money off advertising. And the reason they put their money in it is because they want their product on radio. They invest in stations that people listen to the most. And the stations people listen to the most are the ones that play rock music. Rock is what rules. I didn’t invent this. I didn’t set this system up. That’s just where it’s at. Turn on the radio right now and you’ll hear a song by Led Zeppelin that was recorded 40 years ago, because the advertising people know that’s what people listen to.

When did you and your band’s music transition from being played on Top 40 radio to classic rock radio?

When “Bad to the Bone” came out in 1982 it was not that big of a hit. We played it and people kind of liked it, but it didn’t stand out. Then when classic rock radio started in the ‘90s I was told that “Bad to the Bone,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Rock’n Me Baby” by Steve Miller, and a couple others were the staples that they used to start classic rock radio in several mainstream areas. That’s when “Bad to the Bone” took off. Then all of a sudden we went from a blues-boogie band to a rock band.

November 04, 2011

Album Review: Various Artists - ZZ Top: A Tribute From Friends

If a band’s influence is measured by the diversity of artists who sing its praise, ZZ Top must hold some serious sway. Because with rare exception, the ones who appear on ZZ Top – A Tribute From Friends are just about the least conceivable musicians one could imagine covering the Tres Hombres from Texas.

And yet most of these performances are not only worth mentioning but worth blasting at loud volume. Based on his eight-minute, whiskey-strong shot of “La Grange,” country maverick Jamey Johnson probably should just thank ZZ Top for the song and claim it as his own from here on out. He sounds like he's been singing it for years anyway.

Other moments that are perhaps less potent but nevertheless compelling come courtesy of Wolfmother and Nickelback (no joke), who clearly enjoy cranking out the grooves on “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Legs,” respectively. And as the only woman on hand, Grace Potter (with her band, the Nocturnals) turns the table on 
Tush, putting her own feisty spin on rock 'n' roll's ultimate plea for a piece of ass.

The obvious duds in this bunch come from the likes of Coheed & Cambria (“Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers”) and Filter (“Gimme All Your Lovin’”), whose performances are overshadowed by bloated and bombastic histrionics (or what they seem to consider 
singing). Thankfully such missteps are rare, because by and large this tribute rocks.