The Gourds: channeling The Band – very well |

The Gourds: channeling The Band – very well

Stewart Oksenhorn
Texas roots-rock band the Gourds has released its latest CD, Blood of the Ram.

To assure a constant state of holiday cheer, I’m focusing this week solely on CDs I like. Because who wants to spend Hanukkah and the runup to Christmas and New Year’s having their mood befouled by writing nasty things about lousy music?Which I’ll do next week, when I get around to reviewing the latest stack of Christmas music CDs. But for now, the good stuff.

produced by the Gourds(Eleven Thirty Records)You have to be suspicious when a band reminds you so completely of another band – and not for a song or two, but album after album.But in the case of the Gourds of Austin, Texas, they have chosen their model well. If you’re going to sound a whole lot like someone, it might as well be roots-rock heavyweight champions The Band.On “Blood of the Ram,” the Gourds channel every last bit of The Band – especially The Band’s days of collaborating with Dylan to make “The Basement Tapes” – from the chugging rhythms to the Cajun and country influences to the ragged-but-right vocal harmonies. On “Escalade,” singer Kevin Russell hits the Rick Danko-style upper register; on “Wired Old Gal,” which opens with a waltz-time intro, the Gourds bring in everything from the Dylanesque drawl to the echoing studio.The Gourds substitute an offbeat sense of boozy humor for the gothic mythology that marked “The Basement Tapes.” Give them a point for originality there. But for the most part, give them a lot of credit for doing The Band really, really well.

produced by John Chelew(Appleseed Recordings)Yes, that Donovan. And yes, he has done something since “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman”: Eight years ago, he released “Sutras,” a collection of soft, seductive and surprisingly satisfying songs produced by hard-rocker Rick Rubin.Still, “Beat Cafe” seems to have come out of nowhere. Here, Donovan busts out of his folk-rock roots and joins the modern world. He hooks up with producer John Chelew – who has produced the Blind Boys of Alabama and Richard Thompson – and the rhythm section of bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Jim Keltner to make a cool, contemporary album. Donovan’s voice is as groovy as it was in the ’60s – groovy in a good, not dated, way – and sounds strangely unaffected by the 35 years since. The backing of mellow, hypnotic acid jazz gives “Beat Cafe” the feel of avant-jazz, and Donovan ambles through the sensuous (“Two Lovers”), spiritual (“Shambhala”), smoky (pretty much everything) and even spoken word (“Do Not Go Gentle,” set to the Dylan Thomas poem) to make a killer reappearance.

produced by Chuck Ainlayand Knopfler (Warner Bros.)Not that Mark Knopfler has needed much mellowing out in his post-Dire Straits years. His albums have been studies in easy-going folk-rock, with Knopfler restraining himself in most every way. But last year’s motorcycle accident seems to have turned the throttle down yet another notch, in tempo, tone and themes. And the recording location – the ’60s vintage Shangri-La studios in Malibu – probably had a hand in the vibe of “Shangri-La.”Which is not to be mistaken for somnambulant. The mellowness masks the sharpness of the song ideas here. “Boom, Like That” makes hamburger of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (“It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat / Kroc-style, boom, like that”); and he pays tribute to boxer Sonny Liston (the bluesy “Song for Sonny Liston” and Brit skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan (the relatively lively “Donegan’s Gone”). “Don’t Crash the Ambulance” isn’t a look at his cycle crash, but a sometimes vague, sometimes pointed critique of American imperial might. The gorgeous “Everybody Pays” is an affecting affirmation of the fact that any life worth living includes risk. Knopfler, backed here by organs and pedal steel, is a gifted enough guitarist to captivate without cranking the volume or speed.

“Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, 10/31/87 Halloween””Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, The Best of the Rest”(Jerry Garcia Estate)Jerry Garcia Band”After Midnight, Kean College, 2/28/80″(Rhino)And speaking of music sure to make me merry …The floodgates of Jerry Garcia’s non-Grateful Dead material have been busted wide open, and the music is pouring out. Over the last six months, three multi-disc sets have been released – with more on the way.And much of it is essential. The two “Pure Jerry: Lunt Fontanne” releases capture Garcia at a high point, and in a most improbably location – in Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where he had a 13-night run in the fall of 1987. The run was a real celebration: Garcia was just coming off his near-death diabetic coma, the shows featured both an acoustic combo and the electric Garcia Band, and the repertoire was as big as it ever got for Garcia.Best of all, Garcia rose to the occasion. On the Halloween set – four CDs, two acoustic, two electric, comprising the matinee and evening shows – Garcia and company get warm and cozy on acoustic gems like the Dead’s “Ripple,” ancient standards like “Good Night Irene” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and the bluegrass nugget “If I Lose.” On the electric side, there are versions of Garcia Band regulars like “Cats Under the Stars” and Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” For novelty, there is a graceful take on Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and a forgettable “Werewolves of London.” Halloween, you know.More perfect is “The Best of the Rest,” three CDs which collect the Broadway highlights. There’s surprisingly little overlap with the Halloween shows, and a handful of acoustic tunes – “It’s a Long Way (To the Top of the World),” a rehearsal version of “Ashes of Love” – I’d never heard before. One of the two electric discs, with a heavy dose of Dylan – “Simple Twist of Fate,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” featuring the Dead’s Bob Weir, and a spirit-shaking “Forever Young” – I’ll take with me to the grave.”After Midnight” is a three-CD, full show from the tiny concert hall at tiny Kean College in Union, N.J. The sound is tremendous – the band sounds as if he’s two feet away – and Garcia’s on fire on versions of “Sugaree” and the rare, epic medley of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Lyricist Robert Hunter, Garcia’s longtime writing partner, joins in for two songs, “Tiger Rose” and the potent “Promontory Rider,” that were never part of the Garcia Band repertoire. The only drawback is the swishy keyboard sound used too often by Ozzie Ahlers, but it’s fairly easy to overlook.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is