Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee

Posted: February 12, 2013 in jazz

Heels Over Head

Amulet Records

Billy Martin originally met trumpeter Steven Bernstein and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes when they were just starting out playing in John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, stretching the limits of jazz down avant-garde side streets. Twenty years later, Wicked Knee is the result of their union. Of course, considering the various projects each member brings to the table, it’s a wonder the record happened at all. Martin, of course, is the drummer for Medeski, Martin and Wood, as well as recording with a wide range of artists from John Scofield to DJ Logic and even Iggy. Bernstein leads Sex Mob as well as performing with John Zorn. Tubist Marcus Rojas joins him in Sex Mob, but in Wicked Knee the foursome creates, in Martin’s words, “a small, pocket brass group.”

The sound is New Orleans via Brooklyn, and my, is it funky. A bit second-line, a bit World Saxophone Quartet, this is infectious stuff that one imagines occurring in a late-night jam session. From “Ghumba Zumba” to “Muffaletta,” this is horn music on steroids, with Fowlkes’ trombone meshing with the amped-up trumpet of Bernstein. King Oliver’s “Sugarfoot Stomp” dates back to the 1920s but sounds cutting-edge here, and the group’s low-down take on the White Stripes’ “Button to Button” sounds akin to a marching band run amok. Vocalist Shelly Hirsch ad-libs a woozy “99%,” and by the time “Noctiluca” ends the record, your knees might be wicked from dancing. Heels Over Head is fun stuff!

Originally published Ink 19, 2013

Tedeshi Trucks Band

Posted: January 12, 2012 in 2011, Ink 19


Sony Masterworks

This thing is… HELLACIOUS.

Of course you’d expect no less from a record featuring slide guitar master Derek Trucks and his incredibly soulful wife, Susan Tedeshi. But nothing the pair had accomplished prior really prepared you for this. When the layers of slide guitar kick off the record on “Come See About Me,” you of course instantly know it’s Derek — he, much like BB King or Jaco Pastorious, has defined his instrument to the extent that he’s recognizable within seconds. But it’s what he does with his gift here that is so great: he never outshines the song. His solo work and of course his time with the Allman Brothers shows he can jam, but Revelator shows us how he uses his slippery, weeping guitar to complement rather than dominate a song. The result is a record as grooving and tight as anything Stax cranked out in the ’60s and ’70s when Booker T or The Staple Singers were at their prime. The 11-piece band — featuring dual drummers, a horn section, and Oteil and Kofi Burbridge on bass and keys — literally pulse.

Susan Tedeshi fits into this band perfectly; from the soft croon of “Midnight in Harlem” to the forceful “Don’t Let Me Slide” her Bonnie Raitt-ish vocals ride above the funk like a sweet angel, hand in glove with the moody guitar of Trucks. She provides an anchor when the record flows from the sitar-sweetened “These Walls” to the Physical Graffiti-style clavinet throb of “Learn How To Love” — from, as they say, a whisper to a scream. By the time Revelator ends with the majestic “Shelter,” you know that you’ve experienced something rare, something beyond mere product — this is a record of love, one that elevates the game of all involved. Cue it up between Music from Big Pink and your favorite Delaney and Bonnie moments. You’ll see.

Originally published on Ink 19.

Queens of the Stone Age
Queens of the Stone Age

Some records ooze so much personality, they reek drugs from the grooves. Sticky Fingers? Cocaine. Hotel California? Midol. The debut from Queens of the Stone Age is a beast powered by Nyquil, turgid and plodding (in the best way), with layers of fuzz bass and guitar that form a claustrophobic syrup of sound. Rising from the ashes of the mighty Kyuss, Josh Homme and QOTSA attack music here as if they were waist-deep in the La Brea tar pits. This isn’t an open record, but more a gift begrudgingly given, full of secrets unexplained, relentless in its repetitiveness, Blue Cheer in the age of computers. The opener, “Regular John,” begins with driving, distorted down strokes, adds an annoying “guitar as mosquito” buzz to your right ear, and then kicks into some sort of ugly beauty, both insouciant and urgent at the same moment. By the time Homme’s deadpan vocals enter, you’re entrapped in the sound, feeling as if you’re locked in a darkened subway car, careening through the night to a destination unknown.

Homme doesn’t create hooks so much as he simply wears you down, with brutal riff upon riff, underpinned by waves of growling, buzzy bass that, a la Never Mind the Bollocks, mimics the guitar part an octave lower (all are played by Homme, as it was in the Pistols with Steve Jones). Homme supposedly developed his sound in Kyuss by hauling big ass speakers into the Palm Desert near his home and listening to the sound careen around the canyons, and true or not, it sure sounds like music made in the baking sun; epic at moments, wiped out, exhausted, and drained. This reissue of the long out-of-print album sports three extra tracks: “The Bronze,” “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For,” and “Spiders and Vinegaroons,” cut from the original release in 1998. “Droids” sounds like what you’d imagine Robert Fripp could do pressed into service in Black Sabbath, off-kilter and spacey but anchored by slabs of feedback and grit. QOTSA have become critic’s darlings and international stars since these early days, but they’ve rarely created a better example of their talents than this woozy, boozy riff fest. So stretch out on the floor, gulp down the rest of that Nyquil, put on the headphones, and melt into the carpet. You’ve found your soundtrack.

Originally published Ink 19, 2011

Low Country Blues
Gregg Allman

Guess if you’re gonna die after making your first solo record in 14 years, you better make sure it’s a good one. And make no mistake, Low Country Blues would make an excellent epitaph, but thankfully Gregg Allman is still with us, after a liver transplant shortly following the recording of this album. Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring Dr. John on piano, Doyle Bramhall II on guitar, and Burnett’s rhythm section from Raising Sand, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, this collection of blues tunes from legends such as Muddy Waters, Skip James, Otis Rush, and more is a perfect example of how the right man with the right songs can create magic. Opening with the Sleepy John Estes cut “Floating Bridge,” Allman reminds us that he’s one of the greatest white blues singers this nation has birthed, and he sounds as emotive and passionate as he did playing with his brother at the Fillmore, way back when.

This record reminds you at times of the aforementioned Robert Plant/Allison Krauss Raising Sand — in large part due to the acoustic bass of Crouch and the subtle yet powerful drumming of Bellerose. But when you add the New Orleans mojo of Dr. John and the absolutely ripping guitar of Eric Clapton-band member Doyle Bramhall II, the record becomes as sweaty and earthy as a late night jam at a juke joint, a perfect mesh of tunes and players. Allman sounds haunted on Skip James’ legendary “Devil Got My Woman” (featuring Colin Linden on resonator guitar), and on moments such as Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” or Junior Wells’ “Little by Little” he sounds 26, not 63. Allman’s prowess on the Hammond organ is used to great effect on moments such as “Rolling Stone,” and the entire album is a gorgeously recorded, almost spiritual creation.

Low Country Blues is a remarkable achievement, nearly as good as anything Allman has done in his storied career. Fortunate for us — and for Gregg Allman — this is a new beginning, not an ending. Sing it, blues man.

Originally published Ink 19, 2011

Lucy & Wayne and The Amairican Stream
Hymn for Her

Rarely do you find a record that kicks so much ass in so many ways. Hymn for Her is Lucy Tight & Wayne Waxing raising hell in their 1961 Airstream trailer, and you won’t believe how much passionate noise two people and a cigar box slide guitar can make. The opener, “Slips,” leads off with a nice Lester Flatt lick, roars into Jason and the Scorchers land with a howling Led Zeppelin harmonica topping, and it’s nothing but whup ass the rest of the way. Recorded entirely in said Bambi Airstream, the range of this record is astounding. “Not” sounds like a lost Mazzy Star/Portishead moment, the soft croon of Lucy Tight floating on a bed of guitar and vibes. Classy. Then it’s “Montana” that has a heavy White Stripes mojo, again with the crazed slide guitar and some sleazy wah wah action that makes you think Cream had reformed again. By the time you get to their potent cover of Morphine’s “Thursday,” you believe there’s not anything Hymn for Her can’t do. Lucy & Wayne and The Amairican Stream is simply a brilliant record, full of energy, wit, and irreverent pokes in the eye to conventional genres and styles. It don’t get much better than this.

Originally published Ink 19, 2011

Punk is a Four-Letter Word
Ben Weasel
Hope and Nothings

Ben Weasel of the Screeching Weasels and the Riverdales is an opinionated little cuss. Whether the subject is punk rock dress codes, jogging, guitars or selling out, he has a stand, and is willing to explain it. Culled from the pages of MaximumRockNRoll, Panic Button and other zines and columns, this collection includes a new essay “The Infinite Joys of Being a Professional Musician”, which is spot on concerning the pitfalls of the business. No matter if you agree with him or not, Ben Weasel is an entertaining little rodent.

Originally published The Big Takeover, 2002

Radiohead Back to Save the Universe
The Stories Behind Every Song

James Doheny
Thunder’s Mouth Press

It would take far more than 144 pages to explain the music and lyrics of Radiohead—over five albums and 11 years, the band has practically defined the word “opaque”. From their origins in the early ‘90’s as guitar-bashing popsters to present day sound sculptors, Thom Yorke’s themes have revolved around feelings of alienation, abandonment and frustration, while the music of Jonny Greenwood and the rest of the band edges closer and closer to a union of Bitches Brew and The Beatles. This book seems to have been created using existing interviews, with no direct band involvement, unlike the classic “XTC Song Stories”, and thusly we only get the authors best guess as to the meaning of such moments as “Paranoid Android” or “Knives Out”. Entertaining, but not essential.

Originally published The Big Takeover, 2002

Lexicon Devil
The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs

Brendan Mullen, with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey
Feral House

While it’s true every mans life tells a story, you might not think that the brief life of Darby Crash would merit a book, but that would be a mistake. Bested only by X, Darby Crash and The Germs were L.A punks finest moment. Their one album, G.I sounds as jarring and intelligent now as it did 20 years ago, and the cult of Darby grows each year. This oral history traces his life from his beginnings as a David Bowie fanatic, his interest in Scientology, and the birth of the Germs. Co-written with Germs drummer Don Bolles and including interviews with most of the key players on the scene (including Germs/Nirvana/Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear), this book shows very well the mass of contradiction and confusion that made up Crash’s life-and his death, a suicide by heroin overdose in 1980. It wasn’t a pretty life, but an important one. Between G.I and this book, it’s a well-documented one, too.

Originally published The Big Takeover, 2002

Turn! Turn! Turn!
The ‘60s Folk-Rock Revolution

Ritchie Unterberger
Backbeat Books

Ritchie Unterberger’s previous titles such as Unknown Legends of Rock N’ Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers proved that he had a firm grasp of rock music and its history, and his newest, a look at the world of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and the other lights of the late ‘60’s, is certainly as informative and well written as his earlier titles. The fact that the book is not as interesting or as exciting as the others is due more to its chosen subjects—the usual subjects, it seems, when folk-rock is written about—than from any lapse in his writing talents. The stories of Bob Dylan at Newport shocking the crowd with a Fender or Roger McGuinn discovering magical uses for a 12 string electric are oft told, and fans of this period will know most of what is contained herein.

Primarily the book is a look at the American side of folk-rock, while a promised companion volume will examine the work of legendary British folkie Nick Drake, as well as other more “exotic” performers, such as Skip Spence. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” documents an important time in American culture, the creation of a form of music that is just as vital today (in the works of Elliot Smith to dozens of others), but one who’s story has been perhaps too many times already.

Originally published The Big Takeover, 2002

Captain Beefheart The Biography
Mike Barnes
Cooper Square Press

Words on a page are a poor medium to attempt to capture the essence of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who exists far better on such songs as “Abba Zaba” or “Click Clack”, or on the many works of art he has created. That said, however, this biography by Mike Barnes is an exhaustive look at one of the greatest composers and artists of the modern age. Although the book doesn’t particularly bare any new facts (it seems largely drawn from a early ‘90s BBC documentary), it does include interviews with musicians from all stages of the Captains career, as well as childhood friends and people involved in Van Vliet’s artistic world. Beefheart might have retired from music in 1982, but his influence has only grown since then, and this book is an invaluable resource as to why.

Originally published The Big Takeover, 2002