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Tag: blues

A Brilliant, Starkly Smoldering Album From Guitarslinger Phil Gammage

Phil Gammage is one of the great polymath guitarists in New York. He got his start as a hotshot lead player with second-gen CBGB band Certain General while still in his teens,. But the native Texan always stayed in touch with his Americana roots. Over the years, he’s gone deep into Chicago blues, hard country and even spare dustbowl folk. On the mic, he’s a crooner with a noir streak. In the years before the lockdown, he could be found at small venues across Manhattan, and he’s back at a favorite haunt, 11th Street Bar in the East Village tonight, June 22 at 8:30 PM.

His latest album Nowhere to Somewhere – streaming at Bandcamp – is his strongest and most diverse release in a long and underrated career. The level of songcraft matches the vast stylistic range in Gammage’s bag of riffs. He opens with Walk in the Sun,-a dirty bumpa-bumpa blues, Hound Dog Taylor mixed with Sleepy LaBeef and a little peak-era mid-80s Gun Club.

Gammage switches to acoustic twelve-string for Between the Tracks, then adds simmering electric layers and spare piano for a distantly menacing Dream Syndicate ambience. Greg Holt’s violin swirls over Michael Fox’s lithe drums and Brian Karp’s low-key bass in Voice on the Phone, a tasty mashup of 70s Stylistics soul and early 50s pre-rockabilly.

Gammage reinvents the Appalachian gothic ballad Alone and Forsaken as spare Mark Sinnis-style cemetery and western with funeral-parlor organ lurking in the background. Then he picks up the pace with What Would I Do, blending slurry blues riffs, sophisticated countrypolitan phrasing and spare, incisive Chicago blues.

Gammage works a warmly familiar four-chord front-porch folk progression in Come on Lightning, Holt’s violin weaving and dancing overhead. He returns to Nashville gothic for the gloomy electric Hank Williams shuffle Just Another Traveling Man, the ghost choir of Michele Butler and Joe Nieves lingering in the background.

It’s impossible to think of a more creepy, lurid, Lynchian cover of Night Life than the spare, sepulchral one here. Next, Gammage mashes up classic Carl Perkins rockabilly and a little southern-fried mid-80s boogie in Never Ending Setting Sun.

He works terse contrasts between acoustic and electric, major and minor in the nocturnally swaying Shadow Road. So Long and Goodbye, the closing cut, is the closest thing to 21st century Americana here. Like so many albums that came out in the musical dead zone that was the fall and winter of 2021, this one pretty much sank without a trace, which is too bad because it’s a clinic in purist guitar. Fans of Eric Ambel, Steve Wynn and the edgy first wave of Americana bands from the 80s like the Long Ryders will love this.

Slashing Twin-Guitar Intensity on Jane Lee Hooker’s New Album

Jane Lee Hooker play a snarling, distinctive mix of gutter blues, retro soul music, psychedelia and 70s acid rock. Their latest album Rollin’ – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious, soul-oriented and strongest release yet.

They open with Lucky. a heavy soul anthem. Frontwoman Dana Athens’ raw, impassioned vocals ring out in between stomps from the guitars of Tracy Hightop and Tina T-Bone Gorin. As bassist Hail Mary Zadroga and drummer Lightnin’ Ron Salvo lay down a lithe, incisive 6/8 groove, the two guitarists diverge into separate channels, flinging bits of blues at each other and an exchange of solos from simmering to savage.

That slashing, conversational dynamic recurs memorably throughout the rest of the record. Athens punches in on both piano and organ on the second track, Drive, a seething retro 60s-style soul tune. They follow a twisting trajectory in Jericho, from a brisk anthem down to a lull, only to explode out at the end.

The band bring a restless, relentless energy to a well-worn gospel-tinged soul jamband sound in Weary Bones: if only the thousands of other groups who play this kind of stuff could steer clear of cliches as well as this crew do.

They hit a roaring, catchy early 80s-style powerpop drive in All Good Things, then slow down a little for the organ soul tune Mercy Mercy Mercy, a vehicle for Athens’ powerful pipes. Then the band’s two guitarslingers switch out their electrics for an acoustic and a National steel model in White Gold, a delta blues stomp.

The rampaging boogie Runaway Train comes across as a more jagged, female-fronted take on peak-era 70s Blue Oyster Cult. They close the album with Mean Town Blues, a deliciously unhinged, stampeding gutter blues tune with the album’s longest guitar duel.

Jane Lee Hooker are on European tour right now. Their next restriction-free show is on June 7 at 8 PM at Samlingsstuen, Andresens Købmandsgård 4 in Kerteminde, Denmark; cover is 250 kr.

Guitarslinger Stew Cutler Brings Purist Oldschool Flavor to His New Blues Record

The trouble with jazz guitarists who venture into the blues is that most of them are not very good at it. Too many notes! Marvin Sewell and Andre Matos are rare exceptions – and so is Stew Cutler. His new album The Blues From Another Angle is streaming at Spotify. And it’s not all blues: Cutler tackles oldschool 60s soul and Booker T & the MGs-style soul-funk grooves as well.

Bobby Harden sings the opening track, a cover of Tyrone Davis’ Can I Change My Mind, pianist Tom Wilson taking a gorgeously bittersweet, stiletto solo over the low-key pulse of bassist Booker King and drummer Bill McClellan. Cutler modestly limits himself to spare, muted, purist chordal work.

On the album’s first instrumental, Blews, Cutler plays through a chorus effect for an early Albert Collins evocation, setting up a terse Wilson piano solo. As goofy as parts of that one are, Cutler completely flips the script with Can I Say It Again, a sleek, sophisticated minor-key groove, Wilson’s organ beneath the bandleader’s alternately mournful and fiery lines.

Cutler breaks out his slide for some searing swoops in Get It While You Can, with his wife Mary Jean on the mic. He mashes up some bright Wes Montgomery octaves into a vintage soul theme in Janque, with a blippy Wilson organ solo. Harden takes over the vocals on Plane to a Train over a Booker T-style backdrop, Steve Elson adding jubilant sax.

Cutler follows the vampy Please Mr. Vibration with the wry slide-driven soul tune Say What You Mean. He shifts from brisk to pensive in the vintage George Benson-esque The Passing of RR Moore – a tribute to the great Rudy Ray Moore, a.k.a. Dolomite – Wilson kicking in a long, crescendoing organ solo.

Nightshift Blues, a boomy concert recording, is a slowly unwinding vehicle for Cutler’s frenetically clustering phrases. He goes back to a George Benson vibe to close the record with Shine or Rain, with Wilson – who is the not-so-secret weapon here – adding yet another incisive organ break. Fans of purist soul and blues have a lot to sink their ears into here.

A Lustrous Solo Album From Dobro Stylist Abbie Gardner

Abbie Gardner is one of the most distinctive dobro players in  Americana. She has a seemingly effortless grace and otherworldly precision on an instrument that often bedevils other acoustic guitarslingers. Despite her vaunted technique, she plays with a remarkable economy of notes. She may be best known as a member of well-loved harmony trio Red Molly. but she had fearsome chops before she joined that band. Her new solo album DobroSinger is streaming at Bandcamp

As with her other solo records, almost all the tunes are originals. The opening number, Down the Mountain is a steady coal-mining blues. Gardner’s liquid chords contrast with her stiletto-articulate fingerpicking and slithery slide lines. She sings in an expressive down-home delivery equally informed by oldschool gospel, blues and front-porch folk music.

The second track, Only All the Time is more enigmatic, a stripped-down throwback to the alt-country sounds of the 90s. Gardner slows down for See You Again, part sophisticated blues ballad, part country waltz, with a spare, suspenseful solo on the way out. Born in the City has more of Gardner’s signature, silken legato: the gist of the song is that urban people stick together just as tightly as country folks do.

Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if the next song, Three Quarter Time was in, say, 7/8? It actually isn’t: it’s in 6/8! The intimate arrangement is an artful approach to what’s essentially a vintage Memphis-style soul ballad. Gardner digs in hard for a wicked but nuanced vibrato for a starkly original, grim take of Cypress Tree Blues. Then she flips the script with the wryly aphoristic Too Many Kisses, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Amy Allison songbook.

The brisk, bouncily swinging Honky Tonk Song is the one number here where an overdubbed rhythm track would have come in handy: the absence of a band isn’t an issue anywhere else. Gardner interrupts the playful mood for the stark, understatedly harrowing memoir When We Were Kids: in a quiet way, it’s the most stunning song on the album.

Gardner closes the record with a couple of covers. The first one is a spacious, pouncing version of Those Memories of You, a minor hit for Pam Tillis in the mid-80s. And Gardner reinvents the proto-Lynchian Jo Stafford hit You Belong to Me with a distant, uneasily dreamy feel. If you play guitar, there’s plenty of inspiration here for you to take your chops to the next level. If you don’t, it’s a characteristically sharp, smart Americana record.

A Characteristically Epic Texas Blues-Themed Playlist From the Rough Guide Compilers

The Rough Guide compilations were launched back in the 90s to capitalize on the travel guide brand. The book series has fallen on hard times. How are the compilations doing? These tireless playlisters are still at it. Over the past year, they’ve gone deep into the archives for a couple of fascinating volumes of oldtime acoustic blues songs, with a mix of what they call the “roots of jazz,” and a second volume in what is now a Best Country Blues subset. If you aspire to being Steve Buscemi in Ghost World (remember his cabinet full of rare blues 78s?) this is about as close as it gets.

The latest in the series is the Rough Guide to Texas Blues, streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of recently digitized rarities along with some material by well-known artists from the 20s and 30s. It isn’t limited to Texans, nor does it seem to be focused on any one particular style of blues. But it’s a goldmine for fans of old acoustic Americana

Of the big names here, it’s fascinating to hear a young T-Bone Walker when he was still an up-and-coming guitarist: his colorful pianist partner gets the spotlight in their Trinity River Blues. Blind Willie Johnson leads a duet in Keep the Lamp Trimmed and Burning, an early Texas shuffle with gospel ambience. Blind Lemon Jefferson is represented by a scratchy, out-of-tune, cynical One Dime Blues. And Leadbelly – one of the ringers here – sends him a salute in a bracingly picturesque talking blues, My Friend Blind Lemon.

Little Hat Jones was a nimble fingerstyle guitarist. Did he end up in Texas after a time in Virginia Piedmont territory? Listening to his Bye Bye Baby Blues, that wouldn’t be out of the question. Oscar Woods distinguishes himself with his expansive fretwork and deadpan sense of humor in the hokum blues Don’t Sell It, Don’t Give It Away.

In her insistent, practically indignant take of Black Hand Blues, Hattie Hudson refers to her pianist, Willie Tyson as “Mr. Cotton” – a question of provenance? Black Ace’s You’re Gonna Need My Help Someday is set to the tune of Sitting on Top of the World. Which came first?

Bessie Tucker intones Got Cut All to Pieces over tasty, terse, James P. Johnson-style piano. Funny Papa Smith’s Howlin Wolf Blues No. 1 is unusual for having both a rhythm and lead guitarist on it. It’s hardly a stretch to hear how swing jazz could morph out of a romp like Carl Davis and the Dallas Jamboree Jug Band’s Dustin’ the Frets

Native Texan Victoria Spivey – the Madonna of the 1920s – sings It’s Evil Hearted Me with a coy, deadpan delivery over jaunty saloon piano. Crooner/guitarist Jesse “Babyface” Thomas’ grimly detailed Down in Texas Blues predates gangsta rap by sixty years. In West Texas Woman, pianist Whistlin’ Alex Moore paints a surreal picture of a pickup scene under some pretty dire circumstances.

Willie Reed drawls his way through Going Back to My Baby. Ramblin’ Thomas spices his Ground Hog Blues with bottleneck riffs. Gene Campbell also shows off some incisive chops in Western Plains Blues.

One of the more amusing rarities here is harmonica player William McCoy’s solo instrumental workout Mama Blues. A mandolin is the central instrument in the Dallas String Band’s ragtime shout-out to their home turf. When’s the last time you heard swoopy bowed bass in an old ragtime romp?

Texas Alexander’s Bell Cow Blues is the most stark, rustic number here – you got to come on in his kitchen. Coley Jones’ sly talking blues The Elder’s He’s My Man is the most primitive. Andrew Hogg’s Kind Hearted Blues is the most haphazard – did he know the record was being cut? Texas Bill Day and Billiken Johnson’s Elm Street Blues is the downright oddest, with Day’s falsetto vocals.

Other songs have musical resonance that extends to the rock era. The compilation’s opening track, Henry Thomas’ Don’t Ease Me In, was famously butchered by the Grateful Dead. And it turns out that the Beach Boys stole the melody of Frenchy’s String Band’s ragtime instrumental Texas and Pacific Blues for an early hit.

Saluting a Brilliant, Individualistic Chicago Blues Guitar Legend

Today’s installment in the ongoing monthlong celebration of all things epic is a mammoth thirty-track career retrospective by one of the giants of Chicago blues guitar. Dave Specter is not as well known outside the Windy City as he deserves to be, but the mammoth double album Six String Soul: 30 Years on Delmark – streaming at Spotify – should go a long way to bring this eclectic, purist player to an audience beyond the diehard blues crowd.

This is a feel-good story: career sideman, revered by his peers, finally decides to front a band rather than just being the guy that everybody in town seems to turn to when they need a sizzling solo. But the side of Specter we most often get to see here is the erudite, purposeful player who’s more interested in telling a story and keeping the crowd at the edge of their seats. Beginning with his work in the early 90s, it’s fascinating to watch him expand his sound, from a terse, Larry Burton-esque mutability, through more intricate, jazz-inspired style and then a fiery return to his 80s roots. Specter is fluent in more styles than you can count, but he’s not a riffbag guy stealing other peoples’ licks: when there are multiple guitarists on a track, there’s no mistaking which one is Specter.

The album opens with an unexpectedly careening, briskly swinging 1991 tune with Specter and Ronnie Earl backing Barkin’ Bill Smith. The final cut is Specter’s simmering, gut-wrenching protest anthem The Ballad of George Floyd, which might be the single most powerful blues song released in the past year.

In between, we get a capsule history of a style of music which on one hand was concretized a long, long time ago, but which Chicago musicians keep reinventing in all kinds of interesting ways. There are plenty of live tracks here, which is where Specter is most in his element (and to his credit, his studio work here is a cut above so many of the great artists of the 90s whose albums were rush jobs helmed by hack engineers and producers).

There’s Sweet Serenity, a swinging soul-gospel number from 1995 with Tad Robinson on vocals. There’s This Time I’m Gone For Good, a slow-burning, anguished soul song with Otis Clay out front, Specter channeling a little Wes Montgomery and some ferocious Otis Rush chord-torturing. There’s Seventy-Four, a slow ballad with Specter swooping and diving around, taking two long solos and building to a fiery, circling coda behind singer Willie Kent.

Specter excels at instrumentals, and there are plenty here. The Stinger is one of the best, a latin funk mashup of Chris Thomas King and Otis Rush, if you can imagine all that. Wind Chill, with Dez Desormeaux on tenor sax, Ken Saydak on organ and Ronnie Earl on guitar is a minor-key gem, part late 60s South Side soul, part Wes Montgomery and part state-of-the-art for the 90s. Specter’s Walk is a brisk, bittersweet stroll; Riverside Ride offers a nod back at summery Steve Cropper Muscle Shoals soul, but with Chicago grit. There’s also a caffeinated, burning take of Magic Sam’s Riding High.

Taken from a live set with Floyd McDaniel, the version of St. Louis Blues here veers from a suspenseful mashup of Wes Montgomery and klezmer, veering back and forth to straight-up ba-bump drive. Specter throws a hilarious quote from Thelonious Monk in toward the end. There are more references to Otis Rush and also Elmore James in Specter’s chordal attack in Get Back Home.

Unleavened Soul ,with Brother Jack McDuff on organ, is a light-fingered bossa blues, again with hints of klezmer plus a low key soulful John Brumbach tenor sax. McDuff chooses his spots; trumpeter Rob Mazurek displays unusual restraint and modal intensity.

The tradeoff between solos from Lurrie Bell to Specter in Bell’s You’re Gonna Be Sorry is a clinic in tasteful playing. Backing Sharon Lewis’ vengeful vocals, Specter finds the least expected stepping-off point to drive In Too Deep to a bellicose peak.

By the time the story reaches the second disc, it’s 1998 and Specter is filling out the space behind crooner Larry Lynn with an unhurried upward trajectory toward a similarly smart Rob Waters organ solo. Right after that we’re treated to Texas Top, a casually paced, expertly assembled update on Booker T instrumental soul, Waters again reaffirming the high level of company Specter typically hangs with.

The most inspiring number on the second disc is March Through the Darkness. a heartwarming, Memphis-style soul anthem written in 2019 in protest of Trump-era divide-and-conquer, although it has even more relevance at at time when we’re we shaking off genuine totalitarianism. Considering how Specter has stepped out as a frontman, as he celebrates in The Blues Ain’t Nothing with Jorma Kaukonen. this is a great gateway to the rest of Specter’s discography and reason to look forward to whatever he comes up with next.

Rare Concert Recordings by a Blues Legend Finally See Daylight After Almost Half a Century

Mance Lipscomb was one of the most interesting “discoveries” of the 1960s folk revival. He’d been a professional musician in his native Texas for decades, but his Jim Crow-era sharecropper dayjob kept him off the road and limited his performances to local house parties on the weekend. Lipscomb’s repertoire was vast: like many southern blues guitarslingers, he’d play country and front-porch folk songs for the white folks, blues and gospel for the black people, and a little of both for everybody. He distinguished himself with his laid-back vocals and casually expert acoustic guitar fingerpicking.

Lipscomb’s sound was bigger and more intricate than most of his contemporaries because he would fling out riffs over a steady bassline, or use the bass part as a lead line. There’s a new double live album of rare and previously unreleased Lipscomb concert material, Navasota, culled from a late-career 1972 Harvard show and also from a series of Texas performances in 1963 and 1964 and streaming at Spotify.

Onstage, Lipscomb reveals a low-key, down-home charisma and a sly, deadpan sense of humor: he once convinced an interviewer that he was able to sing and play while sound asleep, taking the idea of phoning it in onstage to the next level. Although the recording quality of the Texas material – much of it from two University of Houston concerts – is considerably better, the Harvard show reminds that even at the end of his career, Lipscomb’s guitar chops were still intact. Listening to the Harvard audience hoot and spontaneously burst into applause after he segues from See See Rider into a risque, possibly completely improvised couple of verses of Brown Skin Woman is charmingly quaint. His guitar being out of tune throughout much of the set is not.

Lipscomb’s steady version of Baby Please Don’t Go focuses on the grim lyric about being rounded up for slave labor on the county farm. His take of Key to the Highway is much the same, a desolate hitchhiker’s tale that probably has roots in an escape from slavery. He fires off some snazzy tremolo riffs in Done Had My Fun and strips B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby to its Texas shuffle roots, relating a funny story about coming home late at night to a pissed-off wife. He finally, finally gets the crowd to laugh at the surrealistically hilarious All Night Long, then pulls out his slide for True Religion.

The Texas disc opens with a swinging version of Rock Me Mama (f.k.a. Rock Me Baby) and the ragtime-inflected So Different Blues. Lipscomb takes Trouble in Mind back to its rustic beginnings and marches through Night Time Is the Right Time, an original, not the version popularized by J. Geils in the 70s. There’s hokum blues with Mama Don’t Allow and country blues with Careless Love, as well as the casually chilling, slide-driven Motherless Children. This is not the place to discover Lipscomb, but for fans of the great bluesman, it’s truth in advertising, a feel-good story starring an unlikely local talent who probably never thought he’d ever make a record.

An Entertaining, Energetic Mix of Rarities by Black Composers From Over the Years

Violinist Randall Goosby’s new album Roots, streaming at Spotify, is a fascinating, revealing and entertaining collection of music by black composers plus a couple of ringers whose most famous works were enriched by the influence of 19th and early 20th century black American music. Goosby and his inspired collaborators shift energetically through a wide expanse of styles, from rustic oldtime string band sounds, to thorny 20th century composition and a wealth of edgy blues.

He opens with Xavier Foley‘s Shelter Island, a new duo work where he’s joined by the bassist-composer in a leaping feast of minor-key blues and gospel riffage. It validates the argument that guys on the low end of the four strings are ideally suited to write for their fellow players further up the scale.

Next on the bill is Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s bracing triptych Blues Forms For Solo Violin. It’s a Schoenbergian series of short variations on blues phrases, with a lingering, aching close-harmonied midsection and a coda that reaches toward oldtime gospel jubilation. The composer was an interesting guy, a jazz musician who toward the end of his career paid the bills by writing far more pedestrian charts for 1960s top 40 hitmakers.

On the better-known side, Gershwin – one of the original white bluesmen – is represented by four short numbers from Porgy and Bess. Pianist Zhu Wang joins Goosby in an elegantly ornamented, more than distantly troubled new arrangement of Summertime. Likewise, the two infuse A Woman Is a Sometime Thing with a stark ragtime energy.

Their incisive, tango-like strut and bluesy ornamentation in It Ain’t Necessarily So add a playfully devious edge. And they raise Bess You Is My Woman Now to a confidently restrained triumph.

Goosby brings Wang back for William Grant Still’s three-part Suite for Violin and Piano, beginning with the African Dance, whose shifting blues riffage and deliciously hard-charging conclusion make it a mini-suite in itself. Part two, Mother and Child rises fascinatingly from a lingering somberness to an assertive, Asian-tinged pentatonic theme and then a similarly triumphant ending. The two shuffle and flurry through Garmin, the jaunty conclusion.

The duo continue with three pieces by Florence Price. Adoration is a spare, rapt love ballad. Goosby gets to revel in the sharp-fanged cadenzas and resonant gospel lulls in her Fantasie No. 1 in G minor as Wang mashes up the blues with High Romantic phantasmagoria. The Fantasie No. 2 in F# minor starts as a more starkly pensive take on the same blend – blues melody, big Romantic chords and flourishes – and grows more lively.

Goosby and Wang play Maud Powell’s arrangement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, leaping from gospel reverence to one of the composer’s signature sizzling crescendos. In many ways, the black British composer – who was a star conductor during his late 19th century heyday – was Dvorak in reverse. Where Dvorak brought Eastern Europe to the blues, Coleridge-Taylor did the opposite, with considerably wilder results.

The choice of Dvorak’s Sonatina in G major as a conclusion subtly brings the album full circle. It’s closer to courtly late Habsburg Empire music than 19th century spirituals, but the connection is still vivid, especially in the plaintive, wistful cadences and contrasting camp-meeting liveliness of the second movement. The two musicians bring an anthemic, occasionally coyly romping sensibility to the opening allegro, linger in the occasional moment of hazy unease in the scherzo and build folksy flair in the coda.

Much as it’s a great thing that music by neglected black composers is making a huge comeback, we need to make sure that this movement doesn’t get hijacked by the fascists who devised critical race theory as a smokescreen for the New Abnormal. One suspects that Goosby would heartily endorse that dedication to the cause.

Celebrating a Bluegrass Icon With a Massive 101-Track Compilation

Who wouldn’t want to listen to a hundred tracks worth of Doc Watson? There are actually 101 songs on the latest compilation of the bluegrass icon’s massive output, Life’s Work: A Retrospective, streaming at Spotify. It’s got everything that made Watson a first-ballot Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the best-loved Americana artists of all time.

He may have been best known for his whirlwind, seemingly effortless flatpicking, and this playlist has plenty of that, including some choice live takes. Watson follows his signature showstopper Tickling the Strings with a similarly high-voltage version of Black Mountain Rag. His wind-tunnel legato picking in Southbound and Dill Pickle Rag, just to name a couple of songs here, will take your breath away.

But there’s much more. Pulling this playlist together was a herculean effort. Watson’s collaborations with other artists are represented on several tracks, notably when he harmonizes with Bill Monroe on Monroe’s first big bluegrass hit, the fire-and-brimstone waltz What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul. Many of these songs draw a straight line back from Appalachia to their origins in the British isles: case in point, the wistfully oldtimey waltz Storms on the Ocean, with Jean Ritchie.

There are several tracks with his guitarist son Merle (who died tragically and inspired the elder Watson to found Merlefest, the annual bluegrass festival), from the country gospel hymn We Shall All Be Reunited, to an intricate take of the murder ballad Banks of the Ohio. Doc Watson was also a talented banjo player, and there are a bunch of banjo tunes here, including Rambling Hobo, which was the first song his dad taught him on the instrument.

There are all kinds of unexpected treats here. There’s My Little Woman, You’re So Sweet, a minor-key blues that Elvis ended up appropriating for Heartbreak Hotel. The Jack Williams Band does a swinging, jangly electric version of the ominous old spiritual, Pharaoh with Watson out in front.

There’s a goofy murder ballad, Wanted Man, the considerably creepier Little Omie Wise. and the even more grimly detailed I Saw a Man at Close of Day, about a drunk who kills his family. And in Watson’s version of Tom Dooley, the condemned man is innocent.

The history here runs deep. Many of these songs underscore the cross-pollination between 19th century black and white folk music, including a laid-back bluegrass take of Sittin on Top of the World, a spare cowboy variant on St. James Infirmary and one of the scores of versions of John Henry. In this one, the guy beats the steam drill and lives to tell the tale.

The tracks are chronological. As the collection goes on, Watson’s voice grows flintier, and some cheesy material and subpar collaborators occasionally make an appearance But his chops are always miles ahead of the rest of the band, whoever they are.

The very first song in this collection is a digitized, lo-fi mono field recording of the country gospel standard The Precious Jewel. The clarity of the young Watson’s voice, even in this rough mix, is breathtaking; otherwise, it’s impossible to tell if he’s playing an acoustic or electric guitar. The song cuts off suddenly at the end. How little audience recordings have changed over the years.

Van Morrison Puts Out a Witheringly Funny, Politically Spot-On Magnum Opus

At 75, Van Morrison has made the longest and best album of a hall-of-fame career. He’s never written more acerbically, he’s never had a better band behind him and his voice is undiminished. Over the course of the 28 tracks on his Latest Record Project No. 1 – streaming at Spotify – the godfather of Celtic soul never loses his sense of humor despite tackling some serious-as-death topics. Case in point: Breaking the Spell, one of the album’s most upbeat tracks. “I’ll be staying in the country til the military dream’s in flames…they’re ringing the bell, but I’m not so obedient,” Morrison relates, full of cheer and determination. And he wants the girl to go up and pay him a visit. It’s a thinly veiled protest song that you can dance to.

Several of the other songs here are much less thinly veiled, or not at all, but you can dance to many of those too. Morrison has timed this perfectly to capitalize on the never-ending 60s soul revival, and nobody does it better. The songs are relentlessly catchy, slyly aphoristic, and disarmingly straightforward without being preachy. The oldschool 70s-style production is period-perfect, with low-key, tasteful organ and piano, occasional horns or sha-la-las from the backup singers, plus congas along with the usual rock rhythm section. Morrison also distinguishes himself with his bright, purposeful alto sax work. If Joe Strummer had been a soul singer, he would have made this record. You could call this magnum opus Morrison’s Sandinista.

In the first song on the second disc, the briskly pulsing Double Agent, Morrison calls out his fellow celebs for their cowardice in failing to stand up to plandemic totalitarianism. “Some drink the koolaid, some did the right thing, but some moved on over to the dark side,” Morrison accuses. Over the jangly one-chord roadhouse vamp of Where Have All the Rebels Gone, Morrison ponders, “Why don’t they come out of the woodwork now? One for the money, two for the show, it’s not very rock n roll.”

The album’s funniest track is Why Are You on Facebook? Over the band’s Highway 61 jangle, Morrison taunts the social media-obsessed:

Why do you need secondhand friends?
Why do you care what is trending
Or is it something that you’re defending?
You kiss the girls and run away
Then you won’t come out to play

Morrison goes after cancel culture in The Long Con, a shuffle blues. He pokes cynical fun at the record industry in the album’s blithely swinging title track, and has a good laugh at the expense of the 90s therapy meme and those that followed in the otherwise amiably swaying anthem Psychoanalysts’ Ball: “Can we say that you’re clinically insane?”

Mass formation and brainwashing by the corporate media are persistent themes here. “Stop listening to the mainstream media.” Morrison warns in the lush, gorgeous Blue Funk: it’s Morrison’s The Thrill Is Gone.

The best song on the album is Double Bind, a slow, slinky minor-key tune fueled by organ and Rhodes electric piano:

It’s always the opposite of what they say
…Trying to police everyone’s mind
You have to be careful of everything you say
But it’s all by design
That’s why we have to break the double bind

Duper’s Delight, a pulsing midtempo ballad, could be about a femme fatale, or lying lockdowners: “You don’t notice when they’re trying to confine you, you don’t notice when they doublecross.” The backstory gets even more sinister in He’s Not the Kingpin: “He’s just the fall guy – follow the money, follow the story, ” Morrison explains

He’s assembled a first-class, semi-rotating cast of musicians behind him. Richard Dunn excels on gospel-infused organ and blues piano. Dave Keary adds banjo along with layers of guitar in the upbeat but ominously aphoristic Up County Down, and later in the scrambling mid-60s Dylanesque Western Man, an eloquent look at the price of liberty being eternal vigilance (and the consequences of failing to do so.) And his chord-chopping guitar intro to the triumphant My Time After Awhile – where Morrison observes that “99 out of a hundred people just can’t be wrong” – is one of the album’s high points.

Throughout the record, Morrison is at the peak of his game as a lyricist. The minor key blues A Few Bars Early is a prime example:

I was in jukebox alley when I went to make my move
Couldn’t see very clearly but then I snapped back in the groove
I was a few bars early when I had my very last drink
And you said play that song Later Than You Think

The ending, where everything comes crashing down, is spot-on.

Morrison has fun with amateurs out on a Deadbeat Saturday Night, where “It’s more pricks than kicks, the hicks from the sticks don’t know what makes them tick.” And he wraps up the album with a wise, knowing, vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul hit, Jealousy, beefed up with a balmy Muscle Shoals arrangement. It could be a simple dis at wannabes, or it could have more global ramifications. Either way, Morrison wants everybody to know that “I’m not a slave to the system like you.” Although there’s nothing here as corrosive as his late-2020 singles, like No More Lockdown, this is the best rock, or soul, or blues album of 2021.