Album Review: Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

Steinar Karlsen

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Steinar Karlsen: Destination Venus

Norway’s Steinar Karlsen knows his way around a guitar or two. He mixes a number of different styles together to create a unique brand of spacey and cinematic-based instrumental music. Picture an early Pink Floyd meets The Ventures mash-up for a taste of this super Scandinavian’s sonic vision.

All twelve tracks seem to tell a story that touch on various aspects of a journey through outer space. The album opens with “The Goodbye”’s slow and brooding minor key sounding Mediterranean blues. Right from the get-go Karlsen demonstrates impressive flamenco-sounding flourishes on electric guitar.

The fuzz-toned electric riffs of “Night Flight” blend elements of jazz and rock. It contains a meaty industrial strength-infused melody supported by spastic drums and a loose jam feel.

Steinar Karlsen – Destination Venus

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

Karlsen shows his semi-classical side utilizing exotic modes and motifs in “The Karman Line.” Martin Langlie employs tasteful dynamics and snare-driven rhythms that really propel the piece into the band Focus territory.

“Weightless” is an interesting segue into experimentation that sets up a nice interlude for “Picnic on the Moon.” As the title suggests, this has a bright and light-hearted feel to it. The melody leans toward vintage surf rock, with modern overtones like Los Straightjackets.

The band goes on caravan for the exotic and cool “Space Camel.” The tune has a symphonic/gypsy vibe, with an obvious Middle Eastern quality.

“Monsters” swings as if Les Paul and Link Wray met and wanted to form a band. Eerie Theremin-like warbly saw sounds transport you to some bad B-movie sci-fi soundtrack music.

“The Trip” features really dense and animated drums and percussion. As the title indicates, you feel like you’re on an interstellar journey. The Farfisa-like organ gives it a cool retro feel that rips in an open and funky manner.

Another brief interlude called “Red Skies” leads into the signature track “Venus.” It’s got a catchy and danceable groove that spotlights a smooth breakdown between guitar and bass.

The mood alters slightly for the mellow “A Billion Stars.” Karlsen crafts a very lyrical and rich melody that harkens to one of Jeff Beck’s early instrumental fusion albums.

The voyage to Venus is concluded with a track called “Acid Rain.” It is an experimental Hendrix-like piece that dramatically pivots to an abrupt drum-induced finale.

Steinar Karlsen has released a successful series of guitar-oriented instrumental albums. This is certainly one of his best, with a playful and colorful blend of earnest, pop-induced melodies, thoughtful experimentation and brilliant musicianship. The perfect soundtrack for your resident billionaire’s next rocket ride through space.

Album Review: Cactus – Tightrope

Cactus

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album Review of Cactus: Tightrope (Cleopatra Records/Purple Pyramid)

Classic hard rock from a bunch of veteran musicians who know how to make great music and still love rockin’. With that recipe, you just can’t go wrong. The new album from Cactus, Tightrope, hit stores on April 2nd. It’s album-oriented rock that straddles the ’70s and ’80s styles, with screeching guitar solos, instrumental mid-song jams, high-pitched vocal wails, a significant blues influence, and the inimitable drumming of Carmine Appice.

Cactus was an early 1970s classic rock band, founded in 1969, that released three albums from 1970 through 1974. An incarnation of the band continued to perform in the later ’70s. The band then disbanded until 2006, when it was resurrected by its original drummer, rock legend Appice. On this album, Appice is joined by longtime members Jimmy Kunes on vocals and Randy Pratt on harmonica. They’re joined by new members Paul Warren (lead guitar, vocals) and James Caputo (bass). Guest appearances are made by legendary rock vocalist Phil Naro (whose music I used to review regularly back in the ’90s when I published Geoff Wilbur’s Renegade Newsletter) and original Cactus guitarist Jim McCarty.

Beginning to end, Tightrope reminds you why that era of rock ‘n roll is timeless – why it persists to this day and was the foundation upon which the rock ‘n roll of my teens and twenties was built. With Tightrope‘s tricky beats, heavy rhythms, and sidewinding ways, Cactus also proudly displays the heavy blues influence that underpinned its lane of the ’70s classic rock superhighway.

Cactus – Tightrope

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Album-opener “Tightrope” kicks things off with grinding guitar, stop-start rhythm, and edgily insistent vocals. Very classic ’70s rock with an uneven beat that stops each and every groove just as it’s getting started, purposely delivering an uneasily energetic ride balanced on a (as you may have guessed) tightrope.

The band takes that edginess into its next song, a growling, bluesy-wailing, juke joint-recalled rendition of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Yowza, what a kickass cover!

“All Shook Up” begins all jangly with hints at Beatles-esque harmonies before digging in with crunchy guitars and a slightly gritty blues rock vocal wail.

“Poison in Paradise” follows, a slowly thumping, testifying, sad blues number, positively dripping with despair and regret. It’s a sign of the depth of the blues’ influence throughout this record that such a pure rockin’ blues number slips so nimbly into this collection.

“Third Time Gone” restores the energy, with a scene-setting blues rock harmonica piece helping get things rolling and steering the song, with some energetic fretwork that’ll appeal guitar aficionados, and a kickass, harmonica-accompanied Carmine Appice drum solo toward the end.

“Shake That Thing” is another heavily thumping blues-heavy rock number, followed by “Primitive Touch,” which leans back into the sort of off-balance rhythm that’s the opening title track’s calling card.

“Preaching Woman Man Blues” returns the collection to the blues fold – in this case that of the relentlessly rhythm rockin’ blues variety – interestingly after an intro that seems significantly more classically-driven than blues-based, the first such strong appearance on Tightrope, though it’s pretty brief; still, it serves perhaps as foreshadowing that a bigger style variation might await.

But not yet. Indeed, the next track “Elevation” thumps away, as drums-and-harmonica driven as “Third Time Gone,” though with a vastly different rhythm line. I’m also quite fond of how “Elevation” ends so suddenly in a very live rock ‘n roll way.

Next is the longest song on the album. It’s one of my favorite 7-plus minute songs, a rarity for me as I tend to get antsy somewhere between four or five minutes. Indeed, “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” has some progressive rock leanings, and that’s not primarily a reference to it’s length; rather, my comparison is due to the song’s meandering ways. There is, in fact, a break point halfway through that serves as a dividing line between the “Everlong” and “All the Madmen” portions of the song, a great transition that rescues you, sonically with a bit of a circus or carnival musical flair, just as you think you’ll never get the hauntingly gurgling, otherworldly chorus of “Everlong” out of your head. It’s an inspired sound pairing, one that continues to improve after repeated listens.

“Headed For a Fall” picks up the tempo and delivers Tora Tora-esque blues rock that feels as if it’s delivered with a wink and a smile.

“Wear It Out” closes the disc with another slightly stylistically different take on the blues-rock that permeates Tightrope. As if a nod to the ’80s heavy rock that paid homage back to its ’70s roots, this is a song with a vocal line that might be found in a Honeymoon Suite song, though it might be some of the instrumental stylings that leads me to that comparison. Still, it’s dipped in and dripping from a purer blues and blues rock pedigree, augmented by judicious harmonica use and, as everywhere on this Cactus disc, driven by Carmine Appice’s intense rhythms that are simultaneously complex and straightforward, as only few drummers can accomplish.

I struggle to choose a standout track, with a different favorite upon each listen (but only just barely). “Suite 1 & 2: Everlong, All the Madmen” is always toward the top for me, in part because it’s such a unique song, but rarely number one. Simply put, this is a solid, cohesive collection of classic blues-based hard rock that’s an enjoyable listen every single time. My favorite way to experience Tightrope is beginning to end; I’m guessing that’ll be your favorite way, too.

Looking Ahead

There’s a “Cactus on Tour” page on the band’s website, but it’s currently devoid of dates. Be sure to check back periodically.

Album Review: Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Merry Clayton: Beautiful Scars (Motown Gospel/Ode Records)

Go back and listen to some of your favorite tunes over the years – The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, or Ringo Starr’s “Oh My My.” Or maybe check out early recordings by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and Coldplay. All these classic songs and artists have one thing in common – Merry Clayton. She is, arguably, one of the most recorded session vocalists in pop music history. Her soulful and big booming voice has been a part of the soundtrack of our lives since the ‘60s.

In 2013, she starred in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. As a result of appearing in that film, she bounced back into the public spotlight. But then, in 2014, tragedy struck in the form of a serious auto accident. As a result of trauma from the crash she lost both legs from the knee down. However, Merry Clayton is an amazing testament to the power of prayer, personal fortitude and purpose. It never kept her down. And it’s her faith in God and a higher power that brought her back full circle in making Beautiful Scars.

Merry Clayton – Beautiful Scars

image courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Multi award-winning producer Lou Adler partnered with his long-time friend Clayton to bring this album to light. And what an incredible album it is! It’s a blend of the sacred and the secular where the bottom line is all about positivity and praise. For instance, the album opens with a classic song by Leon Russell called “A Song for You.” The song is a pensive ballad focusing on dedication to a significant other, whether the “other” is a lover, the listener, or The Lord himself. Clayton’s beautiful interpretation of this song transcends earthly parameters and is, simply, pure love.

Sam Cooke’s wonderful “Touch the Hem of His Garment” is a stirring tune that is a prime example of an artist that could walk that secular/sacred line. Gerald Albright really shines here on sax and adds spiritual weight to Clayton’s reverent delivery.

The title track was written by celebrated composer Diane Warren. Although it is dedicated to Clayton’s late sister it certainly encapsulates the rise from adversity that the singer has experienced herself. In it Merry Clayton sings: “These are beautiful scars that I have on my heart, these are beautiful scars that I’ve made it this far. Every hurt I’ve endured, every cut, every bruise, wear it proud like a badge, wear it like a tattoo.”

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

“Love is a Mighty River” was written by Coldplay’s Chris Martin. It’s a modern gospel tune, with a strong Mahalia Jackson feel. Kudos on this track go out to the brilliant voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

A simple message of looking to God for all things is expressed in keyboardist Terry Young’s funky “God’s Love.” It’s a catchy number that recalls something Chaka Khan might do. Some of L.A.’s finest session/side players show up and show out on this track.

Another Terry Young standout is a track called “Deliverance.” Clayton sings: “Deliverance is yours for the asking. Ask Jesus and I know he will deliver you.” There is a comfort and assurance in the singer’s words that should hit home with anyone with a pulse. The song is a powerful multi-dimensional piece that builds to a soul-stirring finale.

“Room at the Altar” has a lot of rhythmic vibrancy and really swings. It’s a rousing call and response number between Clayton and members of “L.A.’s Finest Choir.” Clayton sings: “Just call his name, ‘cause I know he answers prayer. I’m standing on the promises of God.” This is some of that old-time gospel that is sure to get you on your feet!

Merry Clayton

photo by Mathieu Bitton; photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Music director Terry Young’s “He Made a Way” is a mid-tempo pop tune that is sure to connect on a visceral as well as spiritual level. The song states: “Oh, what a friend you are to me, when I was bound you set me free. There’s no one like you, you brought me through… You’re always right there for me.”

The great Herb Alpert appears on “Oh, What a Friend.” It describes the definition of friendship and gets a decidedly light-hearted treatment via Tijuana Brass alum’s classic gossamer-toned trumpet.

Clayton and Adler’s blend of the secular with the sacred really comes together on the album finale “Ooh Child Medley.” In it the suite transitions from classic soul tune “Ooh Child” to the spiritual “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and concludes with the Jackie DeShannon joining Clayton for the uplifting “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Beautiful Scars is a perfect album on so many levels, not the least of which is the great Merry Clayton’s return from the ashes to the recording world. Here’s to many more and fruitful years for this inspiring and essential artist!

Album Review: Sheila Landis and Rick Matle – Walkin’ After Midnight

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Bill Dwyer; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Sheila Landis and Rick Matle: Walkin’ After Midnight, feat. George “Sax” Benson (SheLan Records)

Sheila Landis is a Detroit-based multi-award-winning jazz vocalist and composer whose career spans 45 years. Rick Matle is a guitarist’s guitarist and composer, with a musical resume nearly as long, having played in big bands and combos throughout the metro Detroit area. Together, since 1991, they’ve released a number of unique albums exploring all aspects of jazz, blues, world music, funk, and everything in between.

“Walkin’ After Midnight” is not only the title track of the album but was a signature hit for country crooner Patsy Cline. Landis, an ardent maven of Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and all the greats, puts her gossamer spin on a classic singer and song. Detroit woodwind virtuoso George “Sax” Benson offers up some nice tenor work, with Matle ushering in cool bop lines. This is a well balanced mix of pop and swing courtesy of frequent collaborator Karen Tomalis on drums.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

image courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

Louis Jordan’s “Knock Me a Kiss” is textbook vocalizing for Landis. She injects the suave and sexy tune, with just the right amount of playful humor and wordless scatting. Benson answers her phrasing by responding with smooth tenor shadings. “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” is a Duke Ellington classic. It gets a funky treatment here as if James Brown or Curtis Mayfield were arranging. Matle’s Wes Montgomery-like  guitar, along with Benson’s muscular sax, make this sizzle.

“Something Wonderful” is a Landis/Matle co-write, and it recalls an old-school R&B flavored tune. Growing up in the ‘60s and ’70s, they were both heavily influenced by the contemporary sounds of the day. This is their loving tribute where Landis sings, “The music of those Motown artists really touched my soul.”

Acclaimed poet Maya Angelou’s work was the basis for “Phenomenal Woman (Inner Mystery).” Afro-Cuban rhythms fueled by drummer Gayelynn McKinney make the vamp-like groove sparkle. The harmonized trumpets of David Thomas recall Hugh Masakela or vintage Herb Alpert.

Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

photo by Andre B. Thomas; photo courtesy of Shiela Landis & Rick Matle

From there they bring it down a tad for a tune popularized by Peggy Lee, and written by Little Willie John, called “Fever.” Recorded in 2017 at the Arts, Beats & Eats festival, this is the kind of stuff Landis can really sink her teeth into. It’s appropriately cool, bluesy and mellow, with outstanding chordal guitar solos by Matle. At that same festival, a medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and a poem set to music called “Bold as Love” take the sound and spirit of the guitar legend to amazing and noteworthy heights. The rhythm section of bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Tomalis interact with Matle and Landis for a true and authentic re-creation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience band. While they are somewhat faithful to “Little Wing’s” original intent, Landis takes liberties with it in a suitably psychedelic manner. The original Landis poem “Bold as Love” is not only a fitting tribute to Hendrix, but it is a showcase for all her formidable and incomparable vocal and lyrical skills. She beatboxes, scats, utilizes word play, and straddles the stratosphere with her incredible range. Meanwhile, led by Matle, the rhythm section takes a journey through a collage of sound referencing Hendrix’s catalog of hits. About Jimi’s legacy Landis recites: “He has the psychedelic showmanship of Louis Jordan in the Age of Aquarius.”

They return on that same concert to some mainstream jazz for an oldie but goodie “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The Duke Ellington number never sounded so lively and fun! And it really does swing where Landis mimics a muted trumpet, among her many vocal iterations.

They conclude the album with a novel and unusual track, recorded live in 2017 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, called “Kazoo Who?” It’s kind of a jamming sort of situation where the moral of the story is that everything goes better with a kazoo. Drummer David Taylor and bassist John Lindberg lay down a jazzy hip-hop-type groove as Landis raps about her love of the kazoo, leading to an impassioned solo on said instrument. You just gotta hear it to believe it! It’s cool and one kids young and old can really dig into.

Sheila Landis and Rick Matle are a great team in the same family as Tuck and Patti and artists of that ilk. The combination of Landis’ sturdy modern bop roots, with Matle’s sense of guitar experimentation and rock sensibilities single-handedly take  jazz in new and exciting directions.

Looking Ahead

Sheila and Rick have several upcoming shows this month around metro Detroit. This weekend, they’ll be at the Village of Rochester Hills Gazebo on Friday, July 9th and at Johnny’s Speakeasy on Royal Oak on Sunday, July 11th. For additional details on these and other live dates, be sure to check out the “Shows” page on their website.

Album Review: Annie Brobst – Where We Holler

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Album Review of Annie Brobst: Where We Holler

I reckon y’all know we’re big fans of Annie Brobst here at the Blog. From Eric Harabadian’s review of her debut album, My First Rodeo, to my coverage of her appearances at both Behind the Songs events and all three Local CountryFests, we’ve mentioned Annie’s name a lot. When she’s performing live, Annie owns the stage and the audience. She’s a big-stage-caliber country artist. And she’s proven to be a talented recording artist with songs that cover a broad swath of country music real estate.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie has a sweet, high voice that can be near-angelic on the slow songs, and she has an extra gear (or two or three) when she swings for the higher-tempo fences. The most frequent comparison for Annie vocals are to Miranda Lambert, all the way down to the puckishness in her delivery, though at times she amps it up to Dolly Parton-level mischievousness.

I’ll start my review with the biggest party song on Where We Holler, the sort-of title song “Holler & Swaller.” Long a drinking mantra at Annie Brobst concerts, this is the song behind the holler and swaller shouts (and shots) fired at Annie’s live shows. It’s the best showcase on this album for Annie’s comfort on that always-popular party-country end of the scale.

The album actually opens with “Jealous,” a reminiscent, relatable song that’s right in Annie’s sweet spot, one that’ll hit you with emotion then boom it to the rafters with a big sound in the chorus, tempering the pure-country melancholy guitar weep along with that hint of defiance that so often lurks beneath the surface of Annie’s vocals.

Annie Brobst - Where We Holler

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

“Ain’t He the Worst” shows the first hint of Annie’s vocal playfulness in this downhome country mid-tempo twanger.

After the aforementioned “Holler & Swaller,” Annie follows with a more introspective, slow to mid-tempo drinking song, “Red Wine on My Mind.”

Annie follows with the biggest Opry-flavored number on the disc, “Amazing Greats,” paying homage to both the country gospel hymn that inspired the song’s sound and the country artists who inspired the woman behind the microphone.

“Little Girl Dreams” is one of the poppier country songs on the album, radio-friendly all the way down to its reminiscent lyrics, with small-town childhood memories of throwing rocks off a bridge to make a wish and of grandma sitting on the front porch.

Next up is the sassiest, most mischievous song on the album, “Baby Don’t Love Me.” It features the sort of fast-paced, playful lyrics that are invariably bound to be found on an Annie Brobst disc. (In that respect, it’s kind of a sister song to “You Either Love Me or You Don’t” from My First Rodeo.)

Annie Brobst

photo courtesy of Annie Brobst

Annie shifts gears almost immediately, tugging at the heartstrings with the heartfelt, small-town story-song “Make Lemonade.”

I’d call “On the Record” a “lite” version of “Baby Don’t Love Me,” not quite as sassy and a fair bit more serious. And that leads up to the last song in the collection, the soul-searching, sweetly sung ballad “On the Road That Leads Me to Kentucky.”

A strong album from beginning to end, Where We Holler is a disc worthy of being the second of many rodeos. Annie Brobst is firmly establishing herself as a dependably exceptional country artist, one whose diverse song styles deliver something for everyone, while providing the variety to keep a full-album listen interesting.

Looking Ahead

An Annie Brobst show is an event. So be sure to catch one if you can. At the “Buy Tickets” tab of Annie’s website, you’ll find a summer full of Massachusetts shows, starting the Saturday, June 26 Team Song Is Born MS Fundraiser at Endicott Grille in Danvers MA. There’s a single New Hampshire show currently booked (the Gear Jammer Truck Show at Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, NH on Saturday, July 31). And there’s one show far afield from Annie’s home base: the Freedom Jam STL 2021 concert in Eureka, MO on Saturday, August 28. She’ll also be headlining Local CountryFest this year – an annual concert I’ve not missed since its inception – on Saturday, September 11 at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA.

EP Review: Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Paola Bennet: Maybe the Light

The somewhat cryptic and surreal Paola Bennet is a singer-songwriter originally from Boston, Massachusetts. Based in Brooklyn, New York, this accomplished artist has steadily been garnering positive press and making her mark, with a series of groundbreaking independently released albums. This current five song EP is filled with interesting sound design and vivid dream-like textures. She has been compared to singers like Phoebe Bridgers, Sara Bareilles and Daughter, with a blend of darkness and light in her vocal delivery.

Paola Bennet – Maybe the Light

cover photo by Justin Oppus; image courtesy of Paola Bennet

“My Mother Says” is moody, spacey and somewhat ethereal. Bennet’s voice is warm and familiar, yet exotic and totally original. Her interplay on electric and acoustic guitars with producer Adam Tilzer is inventive. It’s not so much about solos and improvisation as it is the creation of an ambient sheet of sound. This combined with the vocal backing of Elijah Mann and Jordan Popky, and strings from Ward Williams, complete a rich aural picture.

“Anthea” puts emphasis on lush orchestration. What appears to be Bennet reaching out to a friend in need becomes a spiritually moving anthem on the definition and the pursuit of love.

Paola Bennet

photo by Scout Sheehan; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“In This Body” seems to address issues of body image and personal reflection, both physically and emotionally. With references to a lack of wholeness and houses falling apart, Bennet uses stark imagery to depict someone in various stages of inner struggle and crisis. That environment is further sparked, toward the finale, by heavy guitars and Brian Delaney’s well conceived drums.

“Astronaut” could almost be a companion piece to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” As with many of Bennet’s songs, it could, perhaps, be taken literally or figuratively. She sings about the the vastness and beauty of interstellar travel and documents the distance between the protagonist in the song and her love, the astronaut, in outer space. Benett sings: “I may never go further than crossing an ocean.” And then she sends a communiqué that she hopes connects with her significant other: “Do you miss it down here? Stars can’t love you like I do, my dear.”

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

“7:23 AM” concludes the EP, with subtle orchestration and a strong acoustic guitar figure. Bennet sings in almost hushed and laid-back tones as she describes the silence of the morning. It’s a peaceful and serene time where she expresses the beauty of simple pleasures and sharing those with her lover.

Paola Bennet is in a class by herself in terms of how she arranges and assembles her song concepts and ideas. The somewhat baroque quality provided by Williams’ cello and viola combined with avant garde electronic embellishments defy the typical folk/Americana category. In a lot of ways she’s chosen a road less travelled. And we, the listener, are musically richer for the experience. Highly recommended!

Paola Bennet

photo by Mim Adkins; photo courtesy of Paola Bennet

Looking Ahead

Though no shows are currently on Paola’s concert calendar, keep an eye on the “Tour” page of her website for shows as they’re added.

EP Review: Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni – Backyard Birds

image courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

EP Review of Lisa Bastoni: Backyard Birds

Lisa Bastoni an accomplished songstress from Northampton, Massachusetts that has earned award consideration and wowed audiences and major Folk/Americana events like the Boston Music Awards (folk category) and Kerrville. Her sweet, expressive voice recalls artists like Gretchen Peters and Patty Griffin. It’s a modern, poetic style that speaks from the heart and personal experience. And her delivery is so billowy and comforting, as to lull one into almost a meditative state. Bastoni has two previous albums to her credit, The Wishing Hour and How We Want to LiveBackyard Birds was recorded at home during the lockdown of 2020. It’s a low key release, in that it simply features Bastoni and producer/multi-instrumentalist/harmony vocalist Sean Staples. The production is minimal, but therein lies its power. The simplicity totally serves the music and message.

“Bring it On” is a wise song that rings true for anyone that has a history between themselves and a partner. It’s about cleaning one’s own emotional closet and honestly observing truth in how you feel toward someone. Bastoni in the chorus sings: “There’s a whole lot of things you’ve been carrying too long. If you want to love me, if you feel that strong, bring it on.”

“Southern Belle” has an early Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris feel. There’s nice Dobro guitar work here by Tim Kelly. The storyline centers on a woman that doesn’t wanna rush things in a relationship. She’s all about biding her time and waiting for love to take hold. The protagonist sings: “When you want to come around, I’ll meet you at the station. I’m not going to force your hand. I love you but I’m patient.”

Lisa Bastoni

photo courtesy of Lisa Bastoni

“Sorrow’s a String” is about changes one goes through in their personal life. Memories and a love for someone — in this case, her grandparents — forever endures, even though the people may not physically be present anymore. “When I cry my sorrow’s a string,” sings Bastoni. “I want to love you as long as I can. I would fly if I had wings. How I wish I could see you again.” And here she recalls fond moments in her grandparents’ house: “I can still hear your footsteps running down the stairway, I can still see your smile as you open the door. A new radio tower has gone up in the distance, but the backyard birds still whistle your songs.”

“If Not Today” features sleek acoustic guitar work from Staples. It’s got kind of a folk/blues vibe. The chorus encapsulates the urgency of the tune, with: “You can be a wallflower when the dancing starts, be a February empty of little paper hearts. A new morning’s coming and you’re right back where you’ve been. If not today, then when?”

“Red Rocks” has a relaxed country feel that documents an account of a burgeoning, yet fleeting love affair. In it, Bastoni unpacks heavy emotions : “I carried deep the promises of something just begun, felt it burn inside me like the high desert sun. You made me feel like I could be, a way I’d never been. Maybe someday I will go back there again.” And the chorus pulls no punches: “We had Red Rocks, blue skies, turquoise and tiger’s eye. We had young love, wild as a desert rose. Young love comes and goes.”

“Hidden in the Song” is another piece that seems to deal with speaking plainly and stating true feelings. Bastoni sets the scene in this verse: “At the party in the backyard you were soaking up the stars. Did you stand so close together or did you stand apart? Did you look her in the eye, did you find the words to say, or did you send a message in every note that you played?” The chorus states: “Simple words, but you can’t hide the meaning, hidden in the song that you were singing.”

The final song on the EP is called “This is My Love.” This is Bastoni in her purest form, so to speak. It’s just her and solo acoustic guitar recorded in her kitchen on a cell phone. It’s a basic, yet thought-provoking song of unfettered admiration for her significant other. She sings: “There’s a tugging at my shoes on this road I walk to you. Runs as far as a dream can dream. I’ve been asking without words, I wonder if you heard, I wonder if you ever think of me?”

On this sublime and unpretentious collection of original stories and songs, Bastoni is not afraid to be vulnerable and transparent. This new release features the artist at her most lyrical and melodically astute.

Looking Ahead

Available digitally via Lisa’s Bandcamp website since May 20th, the official release date for Backyard Birds is Friday, June 25th, with a release party to be held on Saturday, June 26th at the iconic Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. Other upcoming shows on Lisa’s calendar, which you can find at her website, are Friday, July 9th with Cloudbelly at the Northampton Summer Park Series in Northampton, MA; Sunday, July 18th with Danielle Miraglia on the Burren Back Patio in Somerville, MA; and Saturday, August 28th with Naomi Summers at the St. John’s 3rd Annual Bluegrass Fest in North Guilford, CT. Check out Lisa’s website for more information and keep an eye out for addition dates as they’re added.

Album Review: John Hall – Reclaiming My Time

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of John Hall: Reclaiming My Time (Sunset Blvd. Records/Redeye Distribution)

“Dance With Me,” “Still the One,” and “Love Takes Time” were chart-topping tunes for the harmony-driven band Orleans. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, key vocalist, songwriter and guitarist John Hall was one of the prime movers and shakers in that band. He has also had success as a songwriter for a bevy of artists, including Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, and James Taylor. In addition, Hall has played guitar on tours and records for Little Feat, Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Seals and Crofts. A lot of his music has a very personal and socio-political slant to it. And being a man of his convictions, Hall co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), with his environmental activism leading him to serve two elected terms of office as a (D-NY) congressman.

John Hall - Reclaiming My Time

image courtesy of Anne Leighton

The man has lived a colorful life, for sure, and, after serving a number of years in elected office, he’s back full time making music, with his sixth solo album called Reclaiming My Time. The album title cleverly references a phrase used in Congress when someone in session is interrupted and wants to return to the floor. But it also slyly could refer to the time Hall has spent away from active duty as a singer-songwriter. Well, he’s back, and we could sure use a guy like John Hall right now! He speaks his mind most eloquently on a number of topics. And his ability to combine sublime lyrics with beautiful melodies and killer guitar work is a rare treat, indeed!

“I Think of You” is the opening song on the album and sets a scene, with plenty of romance, sun, surf and pleasant atmosphere. It is one of those pining and heartfelt love songs that transports you to a better place.

“Alone Too Long” is a tune that easily could have been written about life in quarantine and isolation.  Here are some sample lines: “My friend you miss the touch of a warm hand. A voice from across the room saying I understand. How it feels to be hurtin’, the future’s so uncertain. Don’t you stay alone too long, I could be that person.” Come to find Hall wrote the song before the pandemic about a friend who lost his wife and was wondering when it was time to start again. The groovy R&B-type song seems almost prophetic, in a way.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

That’s followed by another romantic and ethereal type tune called “Mystic Blue.” Great hooks and a tasty country/blues vibe combined, with a Van Morrison meets Jimmy Buffet aesthetic abounds. Hall’s blues roots come shining through on the streetwise ballad “Lessons.” The master storyteller lays some knowledge on you, with the message: “I learned to have patience, I wound up in a traffic jam. I learned to handle money, it slipped right through my hands. Wanted to travel the whole world over, that’s when I lost my home. And then the chorus brings it all in focus: “If you ain’t hurtin’ you ain’t learning….I’ll be a genius before long.” The moral of the story is a classic one: “Watch what you wish for because you might just get it!”

“Islamorada” recalls a fantasy kind of getaway. It’s a holiday augmented by lots of percussion and multi-layered guitars and rhythms. It’s a nice break in the action, so to speak. “Somebody” almost has a retro early ‘60s feel. It’s got a driving and relentless beat that supports the sentiment: “Treasured friends can lift me up, but sometimes that’s not enough. I need somebody… I need somebody to love.” Hall nails the human condition in its purest form.

“Another Sunset” is a fine collaboration and co-write with Steve Wariner. Wariner plays nylon string classical guitar and gives the song a wealth of romantic ambience and elegance. Really nice!

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“Now More Than Ever” reunites Hall with former writing and life partner Johanna Hall. Johanna was on board in the early days of Orleans for some of their biggest hits. A nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars, along with lush harmonies and signature choral hooks make this a highlight.

On “Save the Monarch” Hall is joined by Dar Williams on vocals. This tale of environmental and ecological awareness is wise and poignant in its account of man’s mistreatment of plants and animals. Hall and Williams sing: “In you who we trust, eternal and just, save them from us!” It is spiritually stirring and thought provoking. “All Up and Down From Here” has a topical message as well, but delivered in a light-hearted manner. It depicts a day in the life of a guy just trying to find some happiness and catching a break in life. In it, Hall sings: “I’m on cloud nine hangin’ with my baby mama. She said ‘this is it,’ you’re my futurama! But I came home from work the other day, a strange car’s parked in my driveway, I feel like a clown, but it’s all up and down from here.” The bridge wraps it with a nice bow: “It’s a roller coaster ride, not a straight line. I’m in darkness, but I know soon the sun will shine.” Life can be a balancing act sometimes and Hall conveys that message in the most entertaining terms possible.

John Hall

photo courtesy of Anne Leighton

“World on Fire” has a great hook in the spirit of Bob Marley or Toots and the Maytals. It’s basically a reggae/world beat-tinged song centered on global unrest and renewal.

“Future Ex-Wife” is another tonal shift back to more country-flavored territory. It’s essentially a song, with a farcical premise, that is as much introspective and revelatory as it is humorous. In it, the focus is on a guy that keeps repeating the same love connection missteps. Hall’s guitar acumen here is filled with plenty of Nashville charm and spirit.

The album concludes on a reflective note, with the returning military veteran saga “Welcome Home.” The sobering sentiment here says it all: “There were no parades of victory, no marching bands. He’s alive but still not whole. Invisible scars – wounds that would not heal. Stripes and stars – none of it seems real. Can he start to pick up his life and move on? But he’s waited all these years to hear ‘welcome home!’” Well said and highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

In the next couple of weeks, you can catch John on Friday, June 18th at the Beacon Theater in Hopewell, VA; on Friday, June 25rd at the McGrath Amphitheater in Cedar Rapids, IA with Pure Prairie League, and on Sunday, June 27th at the Southern Atlantic Hemp and Arts EXPO in Fletcher, NC with Firefall and Atlanta Rhythm Section. He already has more than dozen more dates scattered across the United States during the second half of the year, too, so check out the “Tour” page of John’s website to see when he’ll be performing near you.

Album Review: Bob Malone – Good People

Bob Malone

photo courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

Album Review of Bob Malone: Good People

World-class rockin’ blues keyboardist (and singer and songwriter) Bob Malone has done it again. Released today, May 21, 2021, Good People is his latest masterpiece. His music ranges from raucous and rollicking to slow and sentimental, his songwriting reaches deeply into the emotions of life, and his voice is rough, emotional, and relatable with a hint of a Randy Newman-esque delivery. His live shows are an event, and his recordings are a treat. If you’re familiar with him, all I should need to say is “Bob Malone has released a new album,” and you’ll order it. But that doesn’t make for much of an album review, so let’s dig in.

The disc opens with the title track, “Good People.” It’s a soaring, hopeful number. Even when Bob’s lyrics are cynical, he always sneaks a little hope in, and he doesn’t sugarcoat life’s difficulties here, but this is an exceptionally uplifting tune, almost a hymn in spots thanks to his background vocalists, that focuses on the silver linings, not the clouds.

The energy level amps up next with Bob’s rowdy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Of course, Bob has been John Fogerty’s keyboardist since 2011, so, you know, no added pressure here to impress, right? No worries; Bob nails it. The thumping, rhythmic keyboard opening starts to build the power, with ivory-tickling flourishes increasing as the song progresses, and rich background vocals throughout supporting Bob’s rough ‘n rowdy vocals. And let’s not forget the late-song keyboard and guitar noodling, hinting at the sort of long-form jamming I’m sure you could expect when hearing this song live.

Bob Malone – Good People

image courtesy of Michael J. Media Group

The mood is calmed almost immediately by “Empty Hallways,” a rich piano-based sad song, with Bob’s soulful, gravelly vocal portraying the emotional pain in this powerful ballad.

The energy returns again, following a cool, echoing opening, with “All There Is,” an energetic, enthusiastic blues-rocker with a strong, happy beat that belies the song content: “Is this all there is? ‘Cause I’ve seen this before. Is this all there is? There’s got to be more. Please tell me there’s more!” Never, this side of the Stones, will you rock along as enthusiastically to a song about dissatisfaction, with stop-starts, exploding rhythms, and well-placed background harmonies. As much fun as the recording of this song is, I guarantee this will be a live favorite, too.

Gruff, emotional vocals return on the steadily-progressing, slower-moving “Head First.” Behind the song’s powerful rhythm you’ll discover some nuanced keywork, supporting lyrics like “What didn’t kill me also didn’t make me stronger, and I’m just trying to keep what’s left of me alive.”

Next up is the second of Bob’s three covers on this disc, his rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Gotta say, Bob’s version is way more rockin’! You might think replacing guitars with a piano would soften a song? You’d be wrong, though if you’ve heard Bob play before, you won’t be surprised. He adds a more ragged vocal delivery, too. The way this is arranged and executed, it sounds more like an update of an old-school blues number than a Fleetwood Mac cover.

The mood doesn’t last long, as Bob follows it with a particular favorite, a song that plays to one of his many songwriting strengths. In this case, on “My Friends and I,” he captures the emotions of the struggles of people of a certain age, his cohort, something I’ve appreciated in his music before. (On “Can’t Get There From Here” from Bob’s Mojo Deluxe album, for example.)

Next up is a quintessentially Bob Malone instrumental, a song so engaging with dancing melodies and memorable piano flourishes that you’ll find yourself thinking back “surely there must have been lyrics in there, right?” I assure you there are not. What Joe Satriani or Marc Bonilla can do with instrumental guitar, what Mindi Abair or Candy Dulfer can do with a saxaphone, Bob Malone does with a piano. On this album, he delivers “Prelude & Blues.” It’s an accessible, radio-friendly, energetic number that can fit comfortably and seamlessly on a playlist – or, in this case, on an album – alongside your favorite vocal-driven songs.

Next on Good People is an ode of appreciation to the “Sound of a Saxophone,” on which Bob’s keywork is rich, full, and organ-ic. And, of course, joined by some wailing, bluesy sax. It’s followed by a song Bob wrote a few years ago for a telethon to raise money for West Virginia flood relief, “The River Gives.” It’s a powerful song with soaring gospel-choir harmonies that complement Bob’s gravelly vocal delivery atop soaring music that mimics the power and force of flood waters: “The river gives, the river takes away. You can’t stop the water’s rise, you can only pray. The river gives, the river takes away. Down here by the river, we live day to day.”

Bob closes this enjoyable, heartfelt album with some serious energy, riffing uncontrollably through his funky flavored cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s a fun song, a terrific rendition that’ll leave you with a bounce in your step and a smile, ready to hit “repeat” and hear the album all over again.

Good People is yet another feather in Bob’s cap, as he builds a catalog of world-class original music, an increasing “back catalog” of rollickin’ piano blues music awaiting discovery by the new fans each subsequent disc uncovers. Keyboard wizard. Talented songwriter. Voice of a generation. Good People.

Bob Malone at Barn #81

photo by Geoff Wilbur

Looking Ahead

You can catch Bob Malone live – or, at least, livestreamed. Upcoming gigs are here on the “Tour Dates & Livestreams” page of his website. You’ll find info there for Bob’s three streams scheduled this week: Sunday, May 23rd, Tuesday, May 25th, and Wednesday, May 26th. Farther out, the site lists upcoming live dates on September 30th in Rahway, NJ; October 1st in New Paltz, NY; October 2nd in Willington, CT; and October 29th in Los Angeles. There are few events as much fun as a live Bob Malone concert, so get out to see him perform this fall if you can.

In the meantime, Good People drops today, so go check it out. And then try one of his livestreams, if your schedule permits.

And don’t forget to read my previous Bob Malone reviews here at the Blog, of Bob’s last (non-holiday studio) album, Mojo Deluxe; of an insane house concert; of an unassuming, casual summer gig at a suburban concert in the park series; and of a performance at an iconic London blues club.

Album Review: Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp – Mercy Rising

image courtesy of Hello Wendy

Album Review of Maia Sharp: Mercy Rising

Maia Sharp‘s album Mercy Rising drops today, May 7th, 2021. A quick look at the artists for whom she’s written give you the first indication that the songwriting’s going to be strong, and Maia clearly wrote for her own voice here, emphasizing the strengths in her voice and delivery style.

Maia’s voice reminds me of Tommy Shaw, perfectly suited to the soaring, ’70s AOR sound of the title track, “Mercy Rising.” There may be a little Glenn Frey in there, too, with a deft touch on songs like “Backburner,” where Maia builds up energy, then sets it sail into softer seas with the subtlest vocal tap.

“You’ll Know Who Knows You” has a hint of funk in its soft-rock DNA, as it rolls and flows while allowing Maia to vary her vocal rhythm and punch the right notes and phrases.

Strummer “Nice Girl” is one of the many songs that turns some clever lyrical phrases, here in the chorus with, “Hey, you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable some day.”

Other favorites on this disc include the heartfelt “When the World Doesn’t End,” the sentimental “Things to Fix” with its peppy tempo, and the smoothly syncopated heart-to-heart “Not Your Friend.”

You’ll find a bit more of an edgy blues-rock vibe on “Junkyard Dog,” while you’ll feel well-designed discomfort during the softly powerful “Missions.”

The album ends with the bonus track “Always Good to See You,” one final plaintive plea to close a powerful album.

Mercy Rising is one of those records you listen to beginning-to-end. Well-crafted, soft enough to listen while you work but engaging enough to warrant giving your full attention during a headphone listening session. Maia’s voice is rich with a hint of a ragged edge, the songs are deep musically and lyrically. Pair it with jazzy, smooth soft rock with mainstream sensibilities like the solo stuff from Don Henley or Glenn Frey, maybe Joshua Kadison or some of the smoother Martin Briley tunes. Or, you know, just settle in with a blanket and warm coffee, watch the trees sway and flowers bloom outside your window, play Maia’s new disc on repeat and settle in.

Looking Ahead

Live music is slowly returning. You’ll be able to find Maia’s shows on the “Shows” page of her website.