IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK
A 21st Century Soul Classic.
In the week my home city of Newcastle in NE England is celebrating a full year commemorating the Rev’d King being awarded the Freedom of our City 50 years ago in 1967; and a speech he made condemning the racism that blighted his home country, one of the most famous names in Soul Music Mavis Staples is releasing an album of powerfully political songs on the same heinous subject that still plagues America.
Is it wrong to use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the opening song Little Bit? Possibly but it most certainly is beautiful, in a tragic way that Ms. Staples tells her tale of a young black person’s woes in travelling at night.
To some degree it’s difficult for me, as near 60 year old white man in the North of England to truly understand where the writer is coming from with songs like Peaceful Dream and the amazing title track If All I Was Was Black; but as a working class man with a Social and Socialist conscience I can sympathise and even empathise with every ounce of passion and indeed L-O-V-E that Mavis Staples oozes across every second.
There’s a restrained anger on more than a couple of songs, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched the TV News over the last couple of years; yet on Try Harder, No Time For Crying and especially Build a Bridge Mavis shows great compassion and hope for the future in a way that pulls at the heartstrings but makes you really, really think too.
It’s possibly because I’d been listening to this album on the day I visited 3 photography exhibitions as part of the Freedom City Celebrations; but one song here captured my attention above all others; Peaceful Dream is a Gospel infused acoustic Folk Song which paraphrases Dr. Kings most famous speech but is so damn infectious it had me shuffling my feet and desperately wanting to punch the air with a clenched fist!
I’ve no idea what’s happening in the Hip-Hop culture but this album and Otis Taylor’s Fantasizing About Being Black from earlier in 2017 both show there is a valid place in contemporary music for a Black Protest Album; especially when they are of the quality of these two.
Jeff Tweedy’s production is both flawless and sensitive throughout; turning a potentially ‘angry’ set of songs into a glorious rallying call for not just Social Change but Peace, Love and Understanding too.
Released November 17th 2017
The Vietnam War (Soundtrack)
A Snapshot Of a Time That Changed Our Lives and The World.
Does the world need another compilation of 60’s Rock and Pop music? Hardly; and much like you I probably already own 90% of the songs on this double album; so why bother RMHQ reviewing it?
Well; this album is the Soundtrack to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s amazing 10 part BBC documentary on the Vietnam War; starting with the build up and ending (I think) with the aftermath and re-building; and talking to people that were involved from every perceivable side and these songs are used to set the scene for some key parts.
With that in mind I’ve tried to clear my brain of any preconceptions and listen to the songs as if they were brand new to me; as they were to the teenagers in the 1960’s who were either being drafted and fighting a seemingly never ending war in a country they couldn’t find on a map; or the ones left at home in America protesting against it.
Put into that context Dylan’s A Hard Rain which opens proceedings on Side #1 is mind-blowing and when you listen carefully…..bloody hell……it’s still relevant in 2017!
This is followed by a Country song that I’d not heard before, Hello Vietnam written by Tom T Hall and sung by Johnnie Wright. WOAH……what a brave song to write and release in 1965; just two songs in and you realise that this compilation is really quite special.
Normally I would have expected to hear We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place by the Animals; but here we get It’s My Life a far more intimate and intense song and is perfect for the portion of the film it’s included in.
An album like this is bound to have plenty of ‘obvious tracks’……but hearing the Staple Singers with Masters of War sent a tingle down my spine, and Nina Simone growling Backlash Blues is worth the entrance fee alone.
There are plenty of what went on to become Classic Rock tracks like Are You Experienced, Strange Brew, Piece of My Heart, Magic Carpet Ride and Gimmee Shelter; but when juxtaposed with Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Thrill is Gone and Otis smouldering with rage on Tell The Truth you get a whole new objective on what have become commercial pop songs on Gold Radio stations.
As well as the three Bob Dylan inclusions, a key part of the documentary is the recounting of the riot at Ohio State University and Ohio by CSN&Y is the actual cornerstone of this magical double album.
I will repeat myself by saying the difference between this release and all others is context; and the way the second album closes should and will bring a tear to your eyes and a shiver down your spine; as Ray Charles sings America The Beautiful followed by Marvin singing What’s Going On, then Simon & Garfunkel’ Bridge Over Troubled Water leads us into Let It Be by the Beatles.
For days now I wasn’t going to choose a ‘favourite song’ but I keep getting drawn back to Pete Seeger singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; which was surely never ever played on the wireless but must have struck a dark chord with American soldiers of all colours and religious persuasions.
Not only, but also the accompanying booklet is as fascinating as the music itself; and even though I am only half way through the actual series I can’t recommend it too highly; but I’ve learnt so much about the background to this key part to my life than I ever expected after all this time; and the music is well worth seeking out too.
PS There’s another double album out to run alongside this with the Original Score written and played by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross too.
Released September 15th 2017
Long Hot Summer Days
Black Hen Music
Sultry and Soulful St. Louis Blues From a Master Craftsman.
Way before you hear the music, and you will want to hear the music, you tend to get drawn into Jim Byrnes’ story. Began learning guitar in his early teens and still plays the same Gibson Hummingbird acoustic that he had then. At one point he was going to be a priest, and got as far as studying in a seminary and then for a short while was a professional shepherd, plus he is a talented actor and has appeared in Highlander and Wiseguy.
But music and in particular the Blues has clearly been in Jim Byrnes blood as it appears to be one of the constants in his life. This, his ninth album, has been produced with an ear to the slide playing of Sonny Landreth and the down home funk of Al Kooper.
There’s a few notable covers, four actually (The Band’s Shape I’m In, Bobby Bland’s Ain’t No Love in The Heart of The City, Wilson Pickett’s Ninety Nine and A Half Won’t Do and Percy Sledge’s Out of Left Field). It’s a measure of the assuredness of the band that he’s put together for this recording that even old chestnuts like these are not only listenable but, because of the work put into the arrangements, actually an actual pleasure. You’ve probably heard a dozen versions of each before and if you’re lucky, one or two might not have had you reaching for the skip button, but Byrnes versions are all nearly as good; as the originals just different. This band is cooking on all three rings!
Jim Byrnes’ voice has that road weary quality that ideally suits this material and I can’t help thinking of Leon Russell, Bonnie & Delaney and there’s even a bit of early Allmans in the mix too.
Step by Step is the opener and if you’ve a musical history stretching back to the early ‘70’s, this’ll be right up your boogaloo avenue. Instead of bashing out the same tired old blues rhythms that some of his contemporaries may rely on, Jim Byrnes has actually opted for a full-blooded attack on these songs.
There Is Something on Your Mind is a standout for me. I’m a sucker for a horn section and a Hammond B3 organ; think Wilson Pickett fronting Booker T’s MG’s and you will get the vibe. Stick those in the mix with some tasteful slide and funky chops and you can bet the neighbours will be listening to some good sounds tonight!
This is an album I’d probably have bought on the cover alone and I’d have been richly rewarded too.
Review Courtesy our new best friend Tony Pearce
Released November 24th 2017
Only Blues Music (Australia)
Soul Sister and Heartbreaker Extraordinaire.
As an old Soul Boy; finding good high quality Soul Music these days is becoming increasingly difficult, as the majority of what is being called R&B ain’t really got Rhythm and certainly isn’t what I call The Blues!
My appetite was sated a recently when I accidentally discovered a label called Ecko Records which released some really saucy and sassy albums by acts like Miss Jody, Sheba Potts-Wright and (my favourite) Barbara Carr, but it appears to have sunk without trace; leaving me with my old record collection for solace.
So it was with great delight when my favourite Blues PR man, Frank Roszack sent me this terrific album by Sri-Lankan born and Australian brought up, musical powerhouse Andrea Marr.
Even the cover artwork will get Soul aficionados blood pumping and when opening track Force of Nature comes blasting out of the speakers feet all over the world will twitch and tap as hips shake like leaves in a storm.
Andrea Marr and The Funky Hitmen sure know how to get a party started as they use every trick in the book with their swinging horn section and a firecracker guitarist coupled to a steam powered organ, drummer and bassist giving Andrea’s amazing voice a backing it well deserves.
Track #2 will give you a real idea about where Ms Marr is coming from as she tears away all of the Pop trappings from Aretha’s Rock Steady and turns it into the sassy Rhythm AND Blues song of seduction it was always meant to be!
As with all the great Soul that came out of Stax and Atlantic in that halcyon bygone age and what Daptone Records currently do better than anyone else, Miss Andrea Marr combines passion, energy and S-O-U-L with melodies and hooks to die for on What Do I Have To Do and Mama Gets It Wrong Sometimes Too, but it’s when she writes and sings from and about the heart this album surpasses any similar releases in the last 20 years.
That’s Where Love Ends and Sticks and Stones are both the type of slow song I wanted to hear when the lights went down low at the end of the night in a Club or at a party.
While not as ribald as those Ecko albums I love, Andrea includes a couple of earthy songs of seduction in Good Man and the quaintly titled Let’s Take It To The Bedroom, when she shows she’s a lady that knows what she wants and…..trust me; she’s going get what SHE wants!
That last song was very nearly (and probably should be) my favourite track here; but I’m actually going for something a bit left of centre with Grateful; a rather beautiful bittersweet love song that evokes memories of discovering the delights of Aretha, Phyllis Nelson and, of course more recently Sharon Jones; and now Andrea Marr appears to have the same ability to touch my heart with her magical words and phrasing too.
Released October 31st 2017
Mavis Staples has again joined forces with songwriter-producer Jeff Tweedy for a new album entitled ‘If All I Was Was Black’, out 17th November.
More excitedly she has unveiled her latest single “Little Bit” here. The song is a cautionary anthem of all the ways in which those regarded as suspicious have to weigh their actions just to survive day to day: “A little bit too high, a little bit too low, a little bit out of line, and my baby won’t make it home.” Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly and the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section.
The lyrics are occasionally shot through with anger. “I have a mind to bury them whole, when they go low,” Mavis sings on ‘We Go High’. “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” opens the first verse of ‘Try Harder’. “Oh, they lie, and they show no shame” adds a harsh undercurrent to ‘Who Told You That’, an anthem against accepting the status quo. Unsettling musical elements wind their way through the record, too, from the abrasive guitar distortion of ‘Try Harder to a descending bass line that signals danger on ‘Little Bit’.
Despite all this, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 outing is set to love, which runs through and over the fury and despair. The songs move less like a hammer and more like the tide, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. She is singing the world as it is, but also a way forward. Mavis is sure that the answer is to lift each other up. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but the possibilities of love.
Northern Soul that’s full of Northern Pride
John Turrell is the singer in Funky Groovesters Smoove and Turrell from Newcastle, England and has drawn comparisons with Jay K from Jamiroquai and Mick Hucknall from Simply Red; but on this his solo debut he draws from his roots to create a Soulful album that is full of raw Blues.
The album opens with a song about the futility of boring office work; To The City and the need to break free and has guitar breaks worthy of Prince at his best.
Wrong Time was released as a single earlier this year and it’s easy to see why it picked up National airplay with its Stax like bass lines and a Hammond organ that drives through the middle like finely tuned Aston Martin as Turrell pleads with the love of his life.
Day in Day Out is a piano let Blues tune comes from the very pits of the stomach and is another song that will resonate with anyone who is ‘office fodder’ and the title comes from a piece of graffiti painted on a footbridge that John had to slowly drive past every morning on his way to the drudgery of a 9-5 job; when he could only dream of a career in music.
Stella Maris is such a cool slice of funky Soul I had to check the sleeve-notes to see if it was a lost Stevie Wonder track; but it’s not. It is written by John’s own fair hand and that comes across in his voice as he honours the strong women in his family with a love song to them all.
With his band Smoove and Turrell as well as his side line the Fantasy Funk Band John has supported many great names and bands in the Soul; Funk and dance market including Chic whose influence is written right title track The Kingmaker making it a Supercool stomping Northern Soulful Bluesy tune.
The album ends with another slow burning Blues tune that has the Hammond at it’s core; Home about the temptations a man faces when out on the road; but mercifully Turrell appears to have left them behind him many years ago and now thinks of his daughters when the Devil appears on his shoulder.
With Charles Bradley and Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed forging a path for Soulful Blues; not unlike The Kingmaker I heartily recommend you to have a listen to John Turrell before he becomes too cool to like.
The Divide Music Company
Released UK September 9th 2013
Re-Released September 9th 2017
Glenn Alexander & Shadowland
Rainbows Revenge Records
Enough Rhythm & Blues Infused Soul To Make Your Heart Burst.
I haven’t got the time to listen to every album I receive, never mind review them so some rare gems get lost to the Oxfam shop; which is nearly what happened here, but there was something about the cover and song titles that made me give it a try.
Yippee Whey Aye Man!!!
I knew in the first 15 seconds that this was for me; cool swishing guitars and red hot horn section hit me like a left hook; and when Glenn Alexander’s rough around the edges voice joined them I was out for the musical count.
That song If Your Phone Don’t Ring, a swinging Rhythm and Blues deluxe song would be the highlight of many albums; but here it’s just a taster for what is to come.
Memphis Soul is ‘just what it says on the tin’ but with added ‘twang’; and the low and slow Blues For You & Me and Big Boss Man are the type of suburban Chicago Blues I fell in love with 40+ years ago; and this gorgeous duet between Glenn and Orio is absolutely delicious.
The band can get low down and funky with the best of them and when needed they can pick up the pace too and make your feet twitch and shake on Get Up and the razzle dazzling The Odds Are Good.
As connoisseurs would expect, classy R&B and Soul tends to be primarily about Luuurve…..good Luuurve and bad Luuurve; and Glenn Alexander doesn’t disappoint on that front with The Odds are Good and the red hot Get a Life which features Southside Johnny on mouth harp, being prime examples; but the title of ‘Favourite Song’ goes to the soulful groove of I Picked The Wrong Day (To Stop Drinking). It’s as sad as it’s beautiful with Gospel style harmonies and a wailing B3 Organ in the background. Who among us doesn’t love a tearjerker and heartbreaker like this?
As my Father used to say “God moves in mysterious ways” and that is certainly true here; as this CD was in a box destined for the Charity Shop when something made me take it back out……and I’m mighty pleased I did; and you will be too.
Released January 2017
Robert Kraft Trio
NORTH BISHOP Ave.
Resistor Record Co.
Smooth as Silk Soul Songs For Lovers of All Ages.
Music captures our attention in many different ways; usually as some kind of soundtrack for an event or mood in our lives; such was the case with this album by the Robert Kraft Trio from Austin Texas.
Mrs. Magpie and I were returning home from a delightful few days holiday in the Lake District and the sun was just on the verge of setting as first track Gotta Have You filtered out of the car stereo. Within 1 minute I had taken my foot off the gas pedal and my wife and I were exchanging the first of 100 ‘meaningful glances’ that Kraft’s words and silky voice were to induce over the next hour and a half.
By track #3, the sashaying I Want To Show You the penny dropped that ‘Robert Kraft’ (aka Al Ackhar) and guitarist JD Pendley were transporting us back to the nights; as a newly married couple when we would cuddle up on the sofa listening to George Benson…..over and over again.
A big part of me thought that the art of writing a beautiful love song was long gone; but Robert Kraft has resurrected this skill set with great aplomb and not just a little bit of Cool with a capital C.
So Beautiful is a series of often silly things that remind the singer of the unattainable beautiful girl in his life; but that’s what happens to a guys brain when the ‘thunderbolt’ hits, isn’t it? Come on guys….admit it; and ladies……you know it too.
On the other hand You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart gorgeously describes the other end of the ‘love spectrum’ when the affair is over…..but…..honey…… You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart. Pendley’s liquid guitar fills coupled to the funky rock solid bass of Lindsay Greene combine to create a Classically timeless sound; and not for the first or last time on this disc that will make your toes tap and heart skip a beat.
While he’s there throughout the album adding special dashes of magic, Producer David Boyle gives closing track Stand (The Ally Song) an extra dose of Bluenote ‘cool’ with his Wurlitzer on a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson or even Lou Rawls album.
It makes a pleasant change here at RMHQ to hear a ‘distinctive’ singing voice; and while the overall ‘sound’ Robert Kraft produces and pays homage to reminds me of some truly legendary Soul singers; he himself has a beautiful voice of his very own; the type that was all pervading in my teenage years but went out of fashion in the late 70’s; but hopefully will be on the way back when this album tops the Hit Parade.
With only seven songs to choose from I wasn’t sure which to pick as my favourite; as they all have their merits; and this is definitely the type of album you play as a complete work; and have it on auto-repeat…..but one song really made my heart tingle on that first play; and again tonight…..the eloquent and ingenious Wonder, which comes in at track #2 and will make you look at your other half with a twinkle in your eye and a smile on your lips.
Seduction music at it’s finest.
If you had bought this album on the strength of the cover art-work you’d have been very disappointed; as it looks like something from a bad Joe Cocker bootleg; but as is the case. with me…..if you hear the music first……that cover doesn’t mean diddley-squat; as the music certainly speaks and sings for itself.
Released July 14th 2017
Country-Soul Songwriter Writes From The Heart For the Broken Hearted.
Arthur Alexander made a good living during the late 50’s and early 60’s writing and recording songs that became huge hits across the Atlantic for British acts from the Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield and even the Beatles; but as history tells us they then went on to write their own songs leaving the likes of Alexander standing in the shadows.
Eventually as Soul music finally began to evolve from just being about 45RPM singles and moving into LP’s Alexander recorded and released the original version of this album in 1972. Sadly due to a Record Label not knowing how to market such a product it pretty much flopped; with only one song being picked up by an artist as a single, and he didn’t even write it…….Burning Love and the singer……only Elvis Presley!
Alexander soon retired from the Industry until he was getting songs together for another album in 93 when he sadly had a heart attack and died.
So; has this record stood the test of time?
There are some really, really good songs here and a couple of clunkers too….but while the likes of Call Me In Tahiti, Simple Song of Love and Rainbow Road sound twee in 2017, but they were pretty much solid fayre in 72.
I’m Comin’ Home starts affairs in a glitzy manner; and I can just picture Alexander in his suit with huge lapels and even huger flares shuffling and doing big hand movements on some Saturday morning TV show like so many others at that time.
But things get interesting with the next song It Hurts To Want It So Bad; where the big ‘over production’ gets dispensed with and Alexander dips his toe into the soulful singer-songwriter world I associate with Bill Withers, and….damn….this is one cool song.
With the addition of a piano Love’s Where Life Begins follows a similar tract and alongside Down The Backroads which follows shows a talent and a ‘voice’ that was very much in the right place at the wrong time; as this was just about the time when singer-songwriter’s were coming into vogue.
All three of these songs, plus They’ll Do It Every Time and I Don’t Want Nobody from the ‘extras’ could easily still be hits today; for someone like Rod Stewart, Ronan Keating or some X Factor type teen sensation.
Which also brings me to my two favourite songs here; Arthur’s rip-snorting version of Burning Love is obviously a ‘given’; but another favourite from my teenage years makes a mysterious appearance among the Extras.
I have a long and convoluted story of buying Billy Swan’s I Can Help LP, and discovering a gateway to a whole new world and here Arthur Alexander straddles both Country and Soul with a sweeping and swooping version of Lover Please, which may not be to everyone’s taste; but I bloody love it.
This is a fascinating piece of history and with some judicial editing (which you can do yourself on your I Player) makes for a marvelous legacy for a man forgotten by the music industry.
Released July 28th 2017
TUG OF WAR
Blue Elan Records
Classy, Soul Searching and Heart-Stopping Blues Deluxe.
This album has been hanging around the ‘to do’ box for a few weeks now and a couple of tracks have piqued my attention when the iPhone is set to ‘shuffle’ mode but it was only this morning, when the June weather outside was grim beyond belief that I finally to give it a spin.
Well; as I’ve said before ….”God acts in mysterious ways”; as it’s been the perfect accompaniment for catching up with outstanding internet type matters; and now as I drink strong coffee and eat even stronger ginger biscuits.
Any song called I Don’t Want To Be In Love will catch my eye; and this album opener is an absolute scorcher; as Gina’s deep and rich voice pleads with her man ‘not to make her fall in love’ as she ‘was happy being alone’……and Dave Darling’s sparky guitar behind her makes the song extra special indeed.
This links perfectly well with track #2 Damaging Me which follows; and again Sicilia pours her heart out in song; and the deep dark and very personal mood is set for the next hour.
It turns out that TUG OF WAR is Gina Sicilia’s seventh album and was recorded after a ‘painful and dramatic’ event in her life which necessitated a move to Nashville where it was recorded. While I would never wish ill will on anyone; it’s fair to say a good songwriter; and Gina Sicilia fits that description; should find gold in any type of darkness; and she certainly has with Never Gonna End and the heart-breaking He Called Me Baby.
While filed under ‘Blues’ in most record shops Gina adds a huge dash of Gospel infused Soul on I Cried; a song that Aretha would have been proud to sing in her own glory years and the jaunty album closer Heaven too.
When it comes to choosing the obligatory ‘favourite track’ I’m torn between Gina’s gloriously sorrowful rendition of the Beatles All My Loving and her own razor sharp acoustic Blues tune Abandoned; and probably will have to go for the latter as it had me tapping out the beat and nodding my head to the tightly wrapped melody and deeply private lyric which touched both my heart and my Soul.
Damn right this girl has the Blues and a heart full of Soul; and has a special way of delivering them if you have them too.
Released June 2nd 2017