Single Review: Kristian Montgomery & The Winterkill Band – “Secret Watering Hole”

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Kristian Montgomery & The Winterkill Band: “Secret Watering Hole”

Boston-area singer-songwriter Kristian Montgomery is not one to let grass grow under his feet. When the pandemic hit in full swing last year he dove into his inner psyche and soul, coming up with enough fresh material for an album’s worthy triumvirate of creative output. The result of that labor resulted in 2020’s The Gravel Church, 2021’s Prince of Poverty, and the soon-to-be-released A Heaven for Heretics in January 2022.

Kristian Montgomery & the Winterkill Band – "Secret Watering Hole"

photo courtesy of Kristian Montgomery

Surely, Montgomery’s blend of reflective blues and country rock songs combined with his rich, slightly worn and emotive voice is starting to catch fire with fans and critics alike. Montgomery was recently nominated by the prestigious New England Music Awards on the strength of his Prince of Poverty release. “Secret Watering Hole” is a brand new single from the aforementioned upcoming A Heaven for Heretics and continues his blend of an Americana aesthetic, mixed with vivid imagery and detailed storytelling. The song is draped in southern gothic charm and Cajun-laced magic. References to New Orleans and Mardi Gras are supported by a soothing bed of layered guitars and a relaxed, swampy back beat. It’s kind of a meeting of classic styles that match the melodic poetry of The Band, with the groovy laid back sounds of The Allman Brothers Band.

“Another crawling out of the American gutter record” is a quote, found on Montgomery’s own bandcamp page, in response to his last full-length release. Other references to his current single and his previous catalog suggest the slightly outsider world view of like-minded compadres such as The Highwaymen, Sturgill Simpson, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, and Chris Stapleton.

The current single “Secret Watering Hole” was produced by Joe Clapp at Ultrasound Studios and captures a sound and mood that is contemporary, yet intimate and timeless.

Looking Ahead

Of course, the album A Heaven for Heretics, which contains “Secret Watering Hole,” is scheduled for a January release. [I’ll be writing that review on or after the album’s release date. -GW] Also keep an eye on the “Events” page of the band’s website for future performances and on the band’s Facebook page for the latest news about Kristian Montgomery & the Winterkill Band.

Single Review: Eliza Neals – “Sugar Daddy”

Eliza Neals w King Solomon Hicks

photo courtesy of E-H Records LLC

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Eliza Neals: “Sugar Daddy” feat. King Solomon Hicks (E-H Records)

They call her the “Detroit Diva.” And, indeed, blues rock singer-songwriter/keyboardist Eliza Neals proudly wears that title as a badge of honor. The opera-trained blonde bombshell has been on the international music scene for more than two decades. She is a true independent artist, with a series of critically-acclaimed R&B-flavored albums to her credit. Neals has shared the stage and collaborated with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, Kenny Olson, Joe Louis Walker, Popa Chubby, Howard Glazer, and a host of blues and rock greats.

No doubt, however, perhaps her biggest influence can be found in frequent co-writer and mentor Barrett Strong. Strong, of course, is a legendary singer-songwriter that made his mark, first at Berry Gordy’s Tamla Records. His iconic “Money (That’s What I Want)” was the company’s first big breakout hit. The prolific tunesmith went on to write a series of songs for Gordy’s subsequent landmark enterprise Motown Records. “ I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “War,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” are just some of the chart toppers he and fellow composer/producer Norman Whitfield conceived within those hallowed studio walls.

Eliza Neals – "Sugar Daddy" feat. King Solomon Hicks

image courtesy of E-H Records LLC

That little history lesson brings us to today’s single at hand; the feel good summer of 2021 smash entitled “Sugar Daddy.” The tune was originally written by Strong, but re-arranged, with additional lyrics by Neals herself. The song features young NYC jazz/blues guitar sensation King Solomon Hicks on backing vocals. Michael Puwal (tremolo guitar/additional drums), Chris Vega (bass), Michael Galante (drums), and Tyrone Smith (Hammond B3/saxophone) round out this first rate band. It’s a light-hearted kind of tale that focuses on a relationship from an, appropriately, female perspective. In it Neals sings: “Well, I’m just a girl, and you know that I look real fine. But I love that man, he drive me outta my mind. He puts his lips to my ear, said what I love to hear… I’ll be your sugar daddy, you’s my man!” It carries on with that pseudo-romantic track for a minute, but then, when Neals finds her man fooling around with someone else, the tables get turned quickly in the bridge. She exudes gritty comeuppance, with the lines, “I take his money and I go and I play the town, and he knows my love ain’t true. People all say he should put me down. He’s a fool, he’s a fool, he’s a doggone fool!”

“Sugar Daddy” has a lot of bite and bluesy bravado, thanks to Neals’ raw, soulful vocals and Hicks’ stinging Robert Cray-like riffs. He lays the groundwork for the song’s balance of good-natured free-spirited fun and serious house rockin’ street cred. The tune has been a staple on Sirius XM’s BB King’s Bluesville channel since this past July. But that’s nothing new for the “Detroit Diva.” She’s been in consistent rotation on that pivotal blues network since her seminal Breaking and Entering album hit the charts in 2015. “Sugar Daddy” simply continues that groovy path of excellence for the incomparable Eliza Neals!

Looking Ahead

Eliza has a few upcoming shows listed on the “Shows” page of her website. On Saturday, December 18th, she’ll be at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in South Orange, NJ. On Saturday, February 12th, she’ll be performing at the Cincinnati Winter Blues Experience II in Cincinnati, OH. On Tuesday, April 26th, she’s scheduled to perform at the iconic 100 Club in London [where I saw Bob Malone in 2015 – GW]. And on Saturday, April 30th, she’s be at Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne, PA. Be sure to check Eliza’s website for more details on those shows and others as they’re scheduled.

Album Review: Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

image courtesy of Eclectus Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Ainsworth: Top Shelf (Eclectus Records/Ratspack Records)

Vocalist Laura Ainsworth hails from Dallas, Texas and is a contemporary artist who is a brilliant interpreter of song. She’s kind of a Great American Songbook revivalist on one hand, but that would only tell part of the story. Her keen sense of style and sharp wit allow her to take established musical gems and rare nuggets and infuse them with a heavy dose of irony, humor, charm and candor. And her gossamer phrasing brings a unique personality to each song where she makes it her own.

Top Shelf is a deluxe packaged collection of the best from her previous independently released albums Keep it to Yourself, Necessary Evil and New Vintage. Courtesy of Japanese distributor Ratspack Records, this vinyl and CD formatted release features extensive liner notes and lyrics, previously unreleased tracks, beautiful photos, and detailed information on the songs and the wonderful musicians who make them leap out of your speakers.

The track list rundown begins with the pseudo-autobiographical adaptation by Frank Loesser and Victor Schertzinger called “That’s How I Got My Start.” It’s a slow and somewhat mid-tempo ballad that sets the pace for her unique and infectious brand of irony-imbued humor. Producer/arranger and pianist Brian Piper leads a lightly swinging ensemble as Ainsworth sings, “Prove it by my rich old banker, how I made that banker hanker. So let this be a lesson, keep ‘em guessin’. ‘Cause that’s how I got my start.” She really lays on that whole femme fatale/jezebel act pretty thick from the get-go.

“Necessary Evil” was an early ‘50s song by singer Frankie Laine that is fairly obscure. But being a musical archivist and curator is Ainsworth’s passion, as she invests this cool little known noir-ish burner with a sultry and seductive kick. Chris McGuire’s smooth tenor sax sets a vintage nightclub mood.

The redheaded chanteuse is in search of the ideal man on another early ‘50s rarity “That’s the Kind of Guy I Dream Of.” She sings tongue in cheek lyrics, with tales of romantic woe such as, “A handsome hunk o’ fellow with the sharpest clothes, a sunny disposition and a smile that glows. That’s the kind of guy I dream of, you should see the kind that I get.” And then she hits you with the clincher, “Got a guy, says he’s a jockey, took me to see his thoroughbred. You guessed it, of course, he looks just like his horse, I shoud’ve stayed in bed!”

Another lesser known Rodgers and Hammerstein song was tailor made for Ainsworth and bluntly called “The Gentleman is a Dope.” Although rooted from a bygone era, It smacks of modern #MeToo sensibilities, with a hint of sarcasm and sass. The small combo sound, with Piper at the helm gives this a minor urgency.

One of the unreleased tracks on the album is an Irving Berlin tune, popularized by Marilyn Monroe, called “You’d Be Surprised.” It’s significant that Ainsworth decided to include it here because it really displays her innate ability to tell a clear and intriguing story. It references that old phrase about never judging a book by the cover. In the case of a shy guy named Johnny, that would certainly apply. “He’s not so good in a crowd, but when you get him alone, you’d be surprised. He isn’t much at a dance, but when he takes you home, you’d be surprised,” she sings. “He’s got the face of an angel, but there’s the devil in his eye.”

“Love for Sale” is a classic Cole Porter song that has been done up tempo by Mel Tormé and a ton of other people. Ainsworth’s version really stands out as slow, steamy and resonant. The tight combo fronted by Piper’s cool and lithe piano playing really set the scene here.

“Skylark” is a familiar standard that, not only stands out for its beautiful lyrics and stellar vocal delivery, but the singular accompaniment of Chris DeRose-Chiffolo on guitar is mesmerizing. The medley of “Long Ago and Far Away” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is a lovely pairing in that they harmonically fit like pieces of a puzzle. Chris McGuire’s tenor sax work is just icing on the cake.

“An Occasional Man” was a minor standard sung in the past by legends like Sarah Vaughn and Julie London. Ainsworth and company give this a silky samba feel, with fun-filled lyrics like “I got an island in the Pacific, and everything about it is terrific. I’ve got the sun to tan me, palms to fan me and…an occasional man.” This vivacious crooner really knows how to paint a picture!

The Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen piece “Out of This World” is rather exotic and a nice slice of post-modern world beat-influenced fare. Pete Brewer’s flute and Steve Barnes’ percussion really make this one sparkle. “Hooray for Love” is another Arlen gem that keeps that up beat and free-spirited take on love and romance in full gear. It’s a bouncy and swinging tune.

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s danceable “Personality,” Ned Washington and Victor Young’s delicate “My Foolish Heart,” Gus Kahn’s hopelessly romantic “Dream a Little Dream,” and bonus tracks “Wasting My Love On You” and the randy “Just Give Me a Man” complete this fabulous and comprehensive CD package.

Just FYI, the CD edition of Top Shelf adds numerous tracks from the three studio albums that had to be left off of the vinyl LP edition due to the limitations of the format. But, whether you purchase the fuller length CD or the vinyl version, you’re in for a real treat. Laura Ainsworth is one of the most talented and entertaining vocalists – of any genre or era – on the music scene today!

Album Review: Allan Holdsworth – Leverkusen 2010

Allan Holdsworth

photo by Rainer Leigraf; photo courtesy of Manifesto Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Allan Holdsworth: Leverkusen 2010 (Manifesto Records)

This is the fifth and latest release in a continuing series of posthumous classic live recordings by British guitar master Allan Holdsworth. This CD/DVD package features the legendary jazz-fusion guitarist in a 2010 performance at the Leverkusen Jazztage Festival in Germany. Along with Chad Wackerman on drums and Ernest Tibbs on electric bass, the Holdsworth trio captivated and mesmerized throngs of loyal jazz and progressive music fans.

The totally original 10 song set consisted of all instrumental material that encompassed the guitar maestro’s vast career from the ‘70s to the present. The opener “Leave Them On” greeted the attentive audience, with a mid-tempo and ethereal lilt. The rhythm section provided a smooth pocket that was taut, but open. There was great interaction from the trio, with Holdsworth unleashing out-of-the-box soloing.

Allan Holdsworth – Leverkusen 2010

image courtesy of Manifesto Records

A band mainstay and nugget from Holdsworth’s days with the New Tony Williams Lifetime, “Fred,” followed in brisk fashion. This tune really swings and displays a modern bop feel that takes your breath away. Wackerman and Tibbs do a brilliant job holding down the fort, but on the original ‘70s recording of this tune electric pianist Alan Pasqua added an essential sparkle and harmonic nuance to the piece. The absence of keyboards is sorely missed here. But this is only a minor criticism.

“Water on the Brain” follows and is filled with tricky and choppy accents and meters. Intricate melodies, riffs and cross-referenced harmonies abound. In particular, Tibbs really stands out, with a stellar and fluid bass solo.

The medley of “Madame Vintage,” “Above and Beyond” and “The Things You Do (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun)” is a big sweeping cavalcade of sound. This material really spotlights the strength and versatility of this band as the music goes from ambient and oddly harmonic to cinematic, with interspersed legato shredding. They are at the peak of their powers—dynamically, systematically and empathetically.

Allan Holdsworth

photo by Rainer Leigraf; photo courtesy of Manifesto Records

“Material Real” is another tune that keeps that vibe going and leads into the Wackerman composition “The Fifth.” This is an open swinging affair that features swift drum accents, lucid bass solos and some of Holdsworth’s most beautiful chord accompaniment.

A concert staple from the British guitarist’s early ‘80s period is a cut called “Letters of Marque.” It’s a very animated, technically astute and rhythmically complex piece. Meters would shift seemingly at will and provided plenty of space for inspired and impassioned solos from Holdsworth and Tibbs. Wackerman locked in the groove as the soloists took each other to greater heights.

The set concluded with another gem from the guitarist’s days with drummer Tony Williams called “Proto-Cosmos.” The encore piece featured a vibrant, angular melodic head that swung in jagged and asymmetric phrases. Holdsworth blows over rapid-fire changes as modern bop and rock ‘n roll meet head on.

This is an exciting package featuring candid live photos, exceptional liner notes and an audio CD of the concert as well as a DVD of the same, with additional current interviews where Wackerman and Tibbs reflect on Leverkusen and working with the Holdsworth band.

Album Review: Strawbs – Settlement

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Strawbs: Settlement (Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red Records)

The Strawbs are one of those bands where the term “rock royalty” might easily apply. They began in 1964 as The Strawberry Hill Boys, named for a region in their native England where they originated and frequently played. In 1969 they shortened their title to Strawbs and released a debut album that same year. The abbreviated moniker seemed to follow their musical shift from a strictly bluegrass and folk-oriented trio to a quintet that integrated more rock and progressive sounds. The current lineup of the band features founder David Cousins (guitars/vocals) and long-time members Dave Lambert (guitars/vocals), Dave Bainbridge (keyboards), Chas Cronk (bass/vocals), and Tony Fernandez (drums and percussion). Guests include former Strawbs regular Blue Weaver on keyboards, mastering and production, with another long-time associate John Ford on guitar and vocals, Irish singer Cathryn Craig and South African bassist Schalk Joubert.

Strawbs – Settlement

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

Strawbs have traditionally blended many musical styles, with always provocative and socially relevant lyrics. Conceived during the early pandemic months of 2020, Settlement is a full-length collection of well-crafted songs that rank with some of their best. Cousins’ reedy tenor envelopes the very topical and driving sentiments of the kick-off title track “Settlement.” He sings like a man possessed, “There comes a time when every settlement is due. No compromise, no other point of view.” Cousins is letting you know from the get-go there is some urgency to his message and he means business. And then he expresses thoughts born out of quarantine and a sense of a bigger picture, “Strapped down in a cold town, dying to pay the rent, what the masterminds are selling you is Heaven sent, ring around the rules, we’re nobody’s fools.” The weight of robust acoustic guitars mixed with mellotron, slide guitar and organ bring things to a fever pitch.

“Strange Times” follows and is another Cousins track that shifts, in mood and style, to more poignant and reflective. Again, the songwriting is totally on point as Cousins makes observations on occurrences in the present day, “Times of glory, times of pride, times for conflict set aside, times of danger, times of grief, such are these strange times.”

“Judgment Day” has a percolating, funky underbelly to it. Again, it’s a blend of acoustic and ambient sounds where Cousins is able to sing with pause and purpose. The song is a commentary on what social distancing has done to humanity on an emotional level. “Walk down the street, people I meet, step away as I pass by, know how I feel, down at heel, been known to break down and cry.” But the tune is not without a bright side, “Try to forgive, learn how to live, know in my heart where I’m going, hope and pray, on judgment day, they reap all the seeds they are sowing.”

John Ford collaborates with Cousins on the track “Each Manner of Man.” It is spiritual and observational, with a classic sound and a haunting quality. It’s a song that seems to address the humanity that connects us all. Ford and Cousins sing, “If ever the doubt shall still remain, the days gather pace like a mighty express, reminding us all to reflect on our ways, nothing more, nothing more, nothing less.”

Lambert’s “The Visit” sounds like a traditional Celtic folk song. It’s a story tune featuring shimmering mandolin and acoustic guitar, with a catchy chorus. This leads into his brief instrumental “Flying Free” that expands on an indigenous U.K. vibe.

“Quicksilver Days” is a vivid and somewhat somber ballad. It has a Gothic quality that stands with classic highlights like their own “Hero and Heroine.” Its fluid and surreal imagery is made even more relevant by the timeless Beatle-esque/King Crimson-like flute mellotron passages throughout.

Cronk’s “We Are Everyone” features splendid harmonies by himself, Cousins and guest vocalist Craig. It’s got a slow burning build that addresses the universality of the human race. The lyrics are simple and undeniably direct as they sing, “All bear witness, we are not lost, come together, join together, we are everyone.” It’s a goose bump-inducing piece that’s followed by Cronk’s dramatic and austere instrumental “Chorale.” It’s got a rousing Bach/Mozart pomposity that really makes a statement and brings the vinyl portion of the album to a satisfying close.

The CD version of Settlement contains three bonus songs under the heading “Off the Beaten Tracks.” They are the mini-epic boxer scenario “Champion Jack,” the seemingly auto-biographical “Better Days (Life Is Not a Game)” and the hopeful “Liberty.”

With multiple songwriters and vocalists in the band this is surely a true collective effort. It’s an amazing achievement considering it was created, in large part, through virtual means. Bravo!

Album Review: Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Laura Meade – The Most Dangerous Woman in America

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Meade: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (Doone Records)

Laura Meade is a vocalist with the modern New York-based progressive rock band IZZ. Coming off her 2018 solo release Remedium, Meade returns with a powerful statement tailor made for the #MeToo movement. The astute and perceptive singer-songwriter summarizes her latest release this way: “There have been so many people throughout history – many of them women – who stand up for themselves, stand up for what they believe in, and experience great pain and suffering for doing so; their memories lost along the way to gossip and rumor. I hope that this album, in some small way, honors and gives voice to the forgotten.”

What began as a concept album exploring one singular female icon’s struggles and challenges in life became a series of songs that address the body politic of women, at large. Meade is joined on the album by fellow IZZ counterparts John Galgano on guitars, bass and keyboards, Tom Galgano on keyboards, and Brian Coralian on drums and percussion. Following a brief sound byte “On the Shores of the Seine,” the track “Leaving” addresses the price of fame and sticking up for oneself and one’s convictions. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition for the subject in this song as Meade sings, “Back against the wall, kind of had no choice, I knew it would be right, I knew it would be wrong.”

“Burned at the Stake” suggests reference to Joan of Arc in this song, as the protagonist feels the pressure of being under the public and media microscope. “Watching you, watching me shouting out so critically,” states Meade. “Scared like rabbits on the screen hiding out, embarrassing. I took the risk, I took the dive, iconoclast I have arrived, cut my hair, designed my taste, I can’t come out I’m such a waste.”

“Iconoclast” follows and seems a continuation of the storyline and emotions established in the previous track. Again, this addresses the dark side of fame. Meade sings, “Now that I’ve made it, every single glance is a perfect glance, and the way you walk isn’t left to chance. Destroyer of convention, a lover never mentioned. Forty times around the sun and no one paid attention.”

“End of the Road in Hollywood” is the diary of a generic movie star, or anyone that tries to buck the system and not sell out. Interesting sound design and rhythms frame the stark words and images in a very cinematic and self-reflective manner.

“Doesn’t Change a Thing” is all about picking up one’s personal spirits and carrying on in life. The chorus says it all: “Every day is another day to choose, every day is another day I win or lose, every day is another day to see, every day is another day I learn to be.”

The title track “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” is deadly serious, yet somewhat tongue in cheek as well. If being dangerous is synonymous with being resourceful and learning how to survive then that correlation makes sense. There is a sense of desperation and bravado in Meade’s voice as she sings: “There’s no way out of this alive, a glimpse of the ghost of me that survived… They say that I’m not tame, using my weapon for fame, It’s your obsession to blame, I control the game!” The music matches the tension in the lyrics, with a rapid up tempo keyboard pattern reminiscent of neo-noir cinema meets ‘80s synth-pop.

“The Shape of Shock” further explores a woman standing tall in the face of adversity, with the declarative chorus “I’m Still There!” The bank of keyboards and fullness of sound recalls early Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Genesis mixed with an enveloping wash of electronica. Meade embodies the character of the song when she sings: “The shape of shock is worthy of a face, just the type you’d like to see erased.”

“Forgive Me” is, perhaps, the most overtly prog-oriented track, with driving piano-fueled grooves, orchestral textures and oscillating synthesizers. Again, the protagonist here is trying to make a stand and represent her place in the world. Meade sings: “This is getting out of control. I wish I was younger, I wish I was older. No one here can love or comprehend me…Boisterous winds and Neptune’s waves have tossed me to and fro, and far below.”

“Tell Me Love” builds to a dramatic coda that shifts from solemn to revelatory. Meade concludes with cool observation and sage advice: “Don’t believe my biography, it’s just gossip, a ghost of me. It saves time, prevents us from thinking.” And later in the song she asks: “What should I do? Give in or stand fast? Live a long life or die young, burned at the stake? Tell me, love!”

Laura Meade has created an insightful and very personal piece of work here. Like all great music and literature its intentions and message will make their impression and resonate with the listener for a long time to come.

Looking Ahead

Though no live dates are currently listed, you can find future performances, when they’re scheduled, listed on the “Shows” page of Laura Meade’s website or the “IZZ Live” page of the IZZ website.

Album Review: District 97 – Screenplay

District 97

photo courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of District 97: Screenplay (MindScan/Cherry Red Records)

District 97 is a progressive rock band from Chicago that has been on the international scene since 2006. They started out as an instrumental group but really began to flourish as a more melodic entity after they brought singer-songwriter and American Idol semi-finalist Leslie Hunt into the fold. The current lineup of the band also features guitarist/vocalist Jim Tashjian, bassist Tim Seisser, keyboardist Andrew Lawrence, and drummer Jonathan Schang. The group has released a series of studio and live albums since 2010. Their last studio recording Screens dropped in 2019. The current one here is a double disc that serves as a curious document of various live performances – both original and cover songs – dating back to 2011, with Disc One a live track by track rundown of their Screens album performed at a venue in The Netherlands in 2019.

Disc One opens with the track “Forest Fire.” It is a multi-layered piece blending dense vocal harmonies, fluctuating tempos and Tashjian’s experimental noisy guitar riffs. The result is an exciting balance of dissonant and consonant sounds.

“Sheep” is a Sessier/Hunt composition that seems to address portions of society that tend to follow more than lead. The somewhat obtuse and fanciful lyrics perhaps make a comment on media consumption and compliance: “You’re living your best life. The blue glowing light redeems you, feeds you, numbs you… The blue glowing light has changed you, claimed you, drained you. It’s counting you as sheep.” Hunt rides a smooth vocal wave here as Tashjian and Sessier offer tasty guitar and bass breakdowns, respectively.

District 97 – Screenplay

image courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

“Sea I Provide” is somewhat of a straight-ahead rocker, with prominent cascading key passages from Lawrence. Metal-tinged guitar provides a thick wall of crunch that gives way to jazzy chords in the bridge. “Bread & Yarn” features sophisticated vocalizing between Hunt and Tashjian. It’s kind of a song cycle, with several thematic sections that drift from sedate to thunderous. The band deftly stacks a bunch of ideas in very compartmentalized fashion. It’s a real spotlight for the whole band.

“Trigger” keeps you on the edge of your seat, with its catchy harmonies, ear candy melodies and intrepid unison legato guitar and keyboard lines. The bass instrumental “After Orbit Mission” is a brief Jaco-esque vignette that leads into the aptly named “Shapeshifter.” With its many evolving musical detours and mind-bending lyrics the song indeed takes on a myriad of forms. In it, Hunt sings: “Blend with paper walls, I’ll change into something more comfortable to ignore. While you’re waiting for the form you’re expecting, but haven’t prepared for blow your lover has stored. Fully formed, you’re not who you were before.”

“Blueprint” starts out as a mellow and jazzy type of tune. Hunt sings surreal and dark lyrics through a barrage of altered changes, chords, and layers of sound. This one is not so much about blazing solos as stitching a number of vocal parts and thematic dynamics together smoothly.

The sides longest and final track is an ominous one called “Ghost Girl.” The 13-plus minute piece plays out as a short supernatural and suspenseful horror story. Hunt sings “How’s a girl to sleep at night with demons all around? They encircle me and then my bed lifts off the ground. They suffocate me, lacerate me across my naked flesh.” But then the supernatural sensibility hits home in, perhaps, a very real double-edged commentary on child abuse: “Mother, oh mother; I’m starting to see who was behind what happened to me. What was a little girl meant to do, when mother the only demon was you.”

Disc Two is a mix of live dates, from the U.S. and Europe, featuring early original songs from the band and an extensive covers set. In particular, District 97’s choices of artists and songs span an interesting and historically reflective gamut. The set list, assembled from several performances over the last decade or so, comprises a laundry list of key progressive and classic rock gems from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And the list is not without a few surprises. Jim Tashjian sings a very convincing solo version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” The band also covers a brilliant take on U.K.’s “Presto Vivace.” There are a couple back-to-back Bill Bruford songs that make the cut.

A real showstopper is a 2013 performance featuring District 97 backing the  legendary John Wetton singing lead on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But the absolute curveball in this whole package has to be an unlisted bonus rendition of that ‘80s perennial “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. It’s a faithful studio cut they tack on at the end of Disc Two that legitimately rocks! Who says prog bands can’t cut loose from the norm every once in a while? Highly recommended!

Looking Ahead

District 97 has a few upcoming concerts listed on the “Shows” tab of the band’s website. On October 28th, you’ll find them at the Brass Mug in Tampa, FL. On October 30th, they’re scheduled to perform as part of Progoween on the Ranch at the Crimson Sky Ranch in Masaryktown, FL. They’ll be back at their home base in Chicago, IL, on November 19th, at Reggie’s. And District 97 is scheduled on the Cruise to the Edge May 2nd-7th, 2022, departing from Port Canaveral, FL. For additional details and new dates as they’re added, keep an eye on the District 97 website and its Facebook page. (The Facebook page, for example, lists a November 1st gig at the Sweetwater Bar and Grille in Duluth, GA.) As always – and especially during a pandemic, when calendars and policies are constantly changing – double-check with a reliable source before heading out to a concert.

Album Review: Zanov – Chaos Islands

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Zanov: Chaos Islands

Pierre Salkzanov (aka Zanov) is a French electronic music wizard who has been on the ground floor of the synthesizer-driven music field since 1976. From 1977 to 1983, he produced three albums for the Polydor and Solaris labels. After a 30 year absence from the scene, he returned in 2014 with the album Virtual Future and in 2016 released Open Worlds. Both of these recordings came out on his label Zanov Music.

Zanov – Chaos Islands

image courtesy of Rock Rose Music

This latest release is a continuation of electronic exploration and sound design that is cut from the same cloth as fellow artistic comrades such as Tangerine Dream, Maurice Jarre, Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and Eberhard Schoener. As is the tradition with much of progressive and experimental music of this type, the album follows a conceptual path. That path is comprised of seven signposts or tracks that are built around the perspective where order and chaos combine to generate surprising beauty. Hence, each track is rooted in melody and rhythms, but there is a pervasive serendipity and unpredictability there as well.

Track one is called “Edge of Chaos Island.” According to the liner notes, the tune describes Chaos Island as a region, or state of mind, where “creative and decisive changes are taking place in the transition from order and chaos.” Zanov’s synthesized wall of sound envelopes the listener from all directions. What keeps the music flowing and together is an oscillating mid-tempo loop that ebbs and shifts, with changing themes and melodies.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

On “Inception Island” there is a surreal soundscape that’s created inspired by the cult film Inception. Nothing is what it seems with this track. It’s kind of cerebral, with fractal bits of thematic material and obscure sounds weaving in and out. Subliminal sounds permeate underneath other sonic layers on top.

Track three is called “Strange Attractor Island” and has an almost meditative or sci-fi feel to it. The mid-section is in ¾ time while various melodies emerge, build and fade away. But as soon as one melody diminishes, a counter theme develops.

“Three Body Island” sounds semi-classical. It’s rather slow and pensive, with mood shifts at the half mark that surrender to multiple counter melodies and arpeggiated chords.

On “Phase Space Island” the liner notes state: “At a glance one can see all possible states of a system, leaving out time.” The piece is a nice mix of a swirling sonic wash, with recurring themes and bubbling rhythms. True to its title there is the swell of phase shifting here.

Zanov

photo courtesy of Rock Rose Music

“All roads lead to bifurcations, some of them leading to perpetual change,” on “Instability Island.” To a degree this is true. But the overall track harbors a smooth and calming melody that is woven within. This provides an anchor that keeps the entire piece intact.

In regards to the seventh and final track “Emergence Island,” Zanov states it is “very complex and beautiful where surprising structures can emerge from a very simple iterative process.” This piece sounds somewhat reminiscent of German outfit Kraftwerk’s early work on their international hit “Autobahn.” There is a strong rhythmic undertow that consolidates this whole conceptual package in an assured and mechanized manner.

Zanov creates music that is lush, fills your speakers, expands your mind and transports the listener to another level of consciousness.

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: 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!