McCoury band keeping some fine company
August 4, 2005
Here are some CD reviews:Del McCoury Band, “The Company We Keep,”produced by Del & Ronnie McCoury(McCoury Music)So many bluegrass groups are shifting alliances, as a bandleader shuffles the lineup as one picker, then another, heads to greener pastures. But for nearly 15 years the Del McCoury Band has been singer-guitarist Del, his sons Ronnie and Robbie, on mandolin and banjo, respectively, and fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub. And that consistency has made the band something special, notwithstanding the humble sentiment expressed in the album opener, “Nothing Special.”The stability – along with Del’s one-of-a-kind high tenor, Ronnie’s picking and Carter’s fiddling – has allowed the band to fashion a distinctive sound, sharp and crackling clear and usually lightning fast. On “The Company They Keep,” they also convey a coherent thematic quality: appreciate what you’ve got, don’t rise above your station, put family first. To be able to express such sincere humility, while also ripping an instrumental like Ronnie’s “Seventh Heaven,” makes for an uncommonly deep listening experience.
Samantha, “Square One”produced by Jordan Feinstein (BRG)Samantha Stollenwerck’s Aspen debut, scheduled for Aug. 31, was a casualty of the cancellation of the Sunset Wednesdays series on Aspen Mountain. A shame. Stollenwerck, a one-name-only artist on her debut CD, comes out charging. The album of mostly original tunes rings with echoes of a full handful of rock-girl greats: Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro, Joan Osborne, P.J. Harvey, Carly Simon. Local fans will probably make the connection to Coloradan Sherri Jackson. Stollenwerck is backed by members of New Orleans groove band Galactic, but they rein in the jam. “Square One” focuses squarely on her soul-soaked voice and the songs. Standout tracks include “Aesop’s Fables,” about being torn between charging ahead and laying back, and the folky “Missed the Sunset,” a nice mix of melancholy and bad-ass attitude.”Look at All the Love We Found: A Tribute to Sublime”(Cornerstone R.A.S.)I missed the boat on SoCal band Sublime while the band was still doing its ’90s ska-rock thing. (My consolation prize was seeing the successor band, Long Beach Dub Allstars at the old Double Diamond.) But whoever put together this stellar, eclectic tribute knew how to get my attention nine years after the death of Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell.”Look at All the Love We Found” opens with Jack Johnson putting his mellow surf vibe on “Badfish/Boss DJ” and it gets even better from there. Michael Franti & Spearhead, with guest rapper Gift of Gab from Blackalicious, are a perfect pairing for the Sublime hit “What I Got.” Also on the roster are G. Love, Greyboy Allstars, Camper Van Beethoven, Ozomatli, Los Lobos; I couldn’t have picked ’em better meself. And the range of styles – Greyboys’ funky jazz, G. Love’s hip-hop/blues, Camper Van’s punky rock – all make a great fit with the material. And the tribute couldn’t end any better, as Los Lobos gives a Jamaican groove to the minimalist “Down Here at the Pawn Shop.”Xavier Rudd, “Solace”produced by Rudd (Foundations)Xavier Rudd is Australia’s answer to Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, with occasional flashes of Dave Matthews and Keller Williams thrown in. That should be enough description to get certain segments of the listening public scurrying for “Solace.” But to go further, Rudd is essentially a one-man acoustic band; here, as on stage, he plays Weissenborn slide guitars (Harper’s instrument of choice), acoustic and electric 6- and 12-strings, harmonica, percussions and more. The effect is half-way between the laid-back Johnson and the more intense Harper. Rudd’s introspective nature pulls him closer to Johnson, but in his more expansive-sounding moments, as on “G.B.A.,” he hits a Matthews-like growl that nails not only the voice but the emotion. Thank god for the didgeridoo, which sets Rudd apart from his brethren.
Yerba Buena, “Island Life”produced by Andres Levin(Razor & Tie)With its predominantly Spanish lyrics, multitude of percussion instruments and constant upbeat groove, the “island” of Yerba Buena’s “Island Life” would seem an obvious reference to one of any Caribbean locales. It isn’t. The island the band calls home is the island of Manhattan, and the music, the title and the very idea of Yerba Buena are about the melting pot, especially of differing Latin cultures, that is New York. The members hail from such various spots as Cuba, the Virgin Islands, the States, and Caracas, Venezuela, birthplace of guitarist-composer Dre Levin. Levin has said that the band is intended to reflect the polyglot New York experience rather than any strict interpretation of Cuban son or Colombian cumbia. For “Island Life,” their second CD, Yerba Buena pulls in guests including actor John Leguizamo, the Dominican-American group Fulanito and others from the Latin world. When they sing, in “Bilingual Girl,” “two tongues are better than one,” it is not just a sexual pun, but a multi-cultural truth. “Sugar Daddy,” built on American hip-hop as much as any South of the Border style, and “Belly Dancer,” with contributions from gypsy punks Gogol Bordello, are flaming pieces of dance music.Yerba Buena’s foreign homelands don’t prevent them from skewering the president of the U.S.A. “Bla Bla Bla” samples some of George Bush’s most notorious malapropos, surrounded by the chanted taunt, “What’s he talking about?/What’s he talking about?”
Grateful Dead, “Dick’s Picks 35: 8/7 & 24/’71″(Grateful Dead Records)”Truckin’ Up to Buffalo: July 4, 1989″(Rhino)The common wisdom holds that the Grateful Dead of the early ’70s was far superior than the late-’80s version. There’s loads of truth there. But the Dead were good at upending conventional intelligence, as proved by this recent pair of archival releases.The Dead of early ’71 was a band in transition. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan barely contributed on keyboards, but hadn’t been replaced yet. Drummer Mickey Hart had started his hiatus not long before. So the Dead were adjusting to having fewer moving parts; instrumentally, they were essentially a quartet.The story behind “Dick’s Picks 35” is a good one. In late summer of ’71, Jerry Garcia had given a box of concert tapes to keyboardist Keith Godchaux, who would join the band that fall. He left the tapes on his parents’ houseboat – where they remained for some 35 years, until relatives cleaned out the boat and forwarded the missing links to Deadworld.The music isn’t quite as memorable. The Dead just didn’t have their unpredictable dynamism here. The songs didn’t crackle; the jams neither snapped nor popped. On the positive side, the four discs here – from three shows in Aug. of ’71 – comprise virtually all of the repertoire from this era and then some: “Empty Pages,” the rarely played Pig-penned ballad. And Pigpen is in fine shape vocally.”Truckin’ Up to Buffalo,” from July 4 of 1989, proves the Dead were still capable of some latter-day fireworks. They stumble through a few tunes, but then find their stride mid-way through the first set, with crisp versions of “Row Jimmy,” the ancient New Orleans tale “Stagger Lee” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”The trot becomes a gallop in the second set. The band blazes through the often dull “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” and Garcia follows with a touching “Ship of Fools,” barely marred by the repeating of verse two. Garcia lights up another Dylan tune, “All Along the Watchtower,” with his guitar lines, and shines once again on the stirring “Morning Dew.” The finale is a bit of a letdown: an ordinary “Not Fade Away,” and a predictable Independence Day encore of “U.S. Blues.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org