MID-YEAR REVIEWS: Everything Old Is New Again
I've had a few CDs sent to me for review this year, plus a couple more that I bought over the past few months. So, I am breaking in here mid-year to do some, ummm. . .uncompensated infomercials, I guess you might call them. This highly subjective short list does not scratch the surface of recent New Orleans releases. So, as always, I encourage you to do your own homework on the output of current New Orleans bands - since you might have noticed I cover mostly old, out of print vinyl - and purchase their products, go to their shows, keep 'em alive and thriving. Offbeat has plenty of gig listings, reviews and features in the magazine and online; or check the new releases at The Louisiana Music Factory, a business I regularly link to and plug because Barry Smith and his krewe have been representing the local music scene fairly and faithfully for 17 years now, hanging on by their fingernails through the Katrina disaster, while the indifferent corporate giants have come and gone. At least one cut from each of these albums will soon be in rotation at HOTG Radio. Now, on with the subjects at hand:
Wild & Free, The Radiators, Radz Records, 2008 - This great two CD set of rarities issued last year to celebrate the Radiators' 30th anniversary was sent to me by their label just a bit too late for my mini-reviews of 2008 releases this past January; but I have been diggin' on it in the meantime. Since I have covered the Rads a couple of times before, you regular readers (I use the terms "regular" and "reader" very loosely), may recall that I have been a fan of da band since their first year or so together, when I just happened to catch them playing at Tipitina's on one of my trips into town, either late in 1978 or early the next year. In my first powerful dose of their diversely influenced yet original brand of improvisational roots rock, I was reminded of the Band and Little Feat, while hearing a creative San Francisco Sixties kind of vibe interwoven with the real-deal organic essence of funky New Orleans R&B and Southern soul. Mightily impressed, I immediately jumped on board that night and let their impeccably played gonzo musicianship take me for a wild ride. Through the steamy, hazey air I swear I saw the walls of Tips literally rippling rhythmically with the intense waves of sound. OK, I admit I was contributing to that haze, but, still. . . .
In the spirit of experiences such as that, this CD offers some amazing sonic artifacts from back in dem days, including several live performances captured on singer/pianist Ed Volker's Akai reel-to-reel in 1978 at Luigi's Pizza, where they had a weekly gig, and at Tip's in early 1979 (I could have been at that one!). Listening to those is like time-traveling; and I'm reminded how solid and in the zone this band was from the start, already possessing their distinctive sound on Volker's ever-growing treasure trove of original tunes. The recording quality on the earlier live stuff is nothing short of miraculous, considering three decades of water under the bridge, with some literally spilling over the tapes, which were good and baptized by flooding back in 1995; but like the band, they held together through it all and lived to play another day.
The material on these CDs captures moments in time spanning all of those decades and is heavy on live content, with over half the tracks recorded at local gigs and venues around the country. There are choice, previously unreleased studio cuts, too, including two from 1978 done at the legendary Knight Studio in Metairie, where Rads guitarist Camile Baudoin was an engineer. If you are new to the band, Wild & Free would not be a bad place to start to get a feel for what they have been up to all these years. As confirmed fans and tape-traders well know, the Rads have always been best experienced first-person, in performance, or at least captured in their on-stage element. It was no accident that their very first album was a two LP live extravaganza of down and dirty, sweat-soaked rhapsodizing, Work Done On Premises, recorded at Tip's in 1980 and issued on their own label at the time, Croaker Records (also highly recommend). Frequent attendance at their gigs across the land is also advised (as is hearing protection), because, guaranteed, you will never hear the same show twice, as they spontaneously segue through their bountiful repertoire of originals and hip, often surprising covers. A couple of hours of CD programming, no matter how choice, is only a barely reasonable facsimile, a mere whiff of the heady hard stuff that these road-veterans can dish out on any given night; but, turned up loud enough, it'll do just fine until they roll into town.
The Lost Southlake Sessions, The Radiators, Radz Records, 2009 - I waited so long to talk about Wild & Free, this one came in - so I've doubled up. Although the Radiators have made, recorded and sold music on their own terms for the greater part of their 30 year history, when these session were done, they actually had a record deal with an entertainment conglomerate, music videos*, national commercial radio airplay, and the possibility of breaking big. Between 1987 and 1989, the Rads recorded two of three albums for Sony/Epic, Law Of The Fish and Zig-Zaggin' Through Ghostland, mainly using the relatively new Southlake Studios in Metairie, LA. There, at various points during the late 1980s, they also cut a number of demo sessions - original material, mostly written by keyboardist Ed Volker - that went missing along the way amidst the comings and goings of a regularly touring band. As Ed told me recently via email through their Radz label, "A lot of tapes were lost one way or another from Southlake over the years. . . . This [the recently found material on the new CD] is all from a cassette we took pains to master; and it was an exploratory demo session, never meant for release, but the years have been kind to it, so we decided others might like to hear it, too." Excellent decision, fellas.
A stroke of luck uncovered the cassette; and, thankfully, the Rads saw fit to digitally re-master and release it, so that we all now have access to at least some of those lost sessions, 14 songs, to be exact. It's a kick to listen in on formative, yet focused versions of these tunes, a number of which were later recorded for official releases. And while the sound may not quite be master quality, the kick-butt performances on this CD certainly are. Shoot. Maybe they never meant to release these sessions commercially, but they certainly could have - maybe should have. Much of the masterfully played material was that strong. Instead, renderings of six of the tunes found on The Lost Southlake Sessions appeared in 1991 on the band's third, final, and, to me, most uneven Epic album, Total Evaporation (a title which perfectly summed up their deal with the label), recorded in Memphis with the legendary Dixie Flyer, Jim Dickinson [who passed away 8-15-2009, I am sad to update], producing. Of course, that ship has long since sailed and sunk; but it seems now that the album could have benefited by using more of the songs from that lost cassette. Several more of them did eventually make it onto the Rads' later releases for various independent labels, including their own, and, of course, into the incredibly large reservoir of material they channel live nightly. Still, six of the songs here are new on CD, having never before appeared on a sanctioned Rads release.
Ultimately, I find this CD to be much more than just a cleaned up collection of old demos that only hardcore fans might want to hear. It merits a broader appeal. Volker is being too humble when he says simply that "the years have been kind" to the material. This music holds up incredibly well, still sounds fresh, and excellently represents the band's formidable session chops. Even within the limiting, insulated studio confines, they have always made compelling music together; but it is different from the feedback, spontaneity, and maximum energy of their wild and free on-stage experience, which will always be their true domain. There's much to enjoy from the Radiators either way.
* See 'em via YouTube: "Like Dreamers Do" and "Suck the Head"
Mindbender, Brother Tyrone, Joe's House of Blues, 2008 - Brother Tyrone came up on my none too finely tuned radar rather by accident, when I was doing some reading about the untimely death of the great New Orleans drummer, Wilbert 'Junkyard Dog' Arnold. Somewhere (how's that for journalistic excellence?) I saw that the last sessions JYD played were for this album. So, I had to check it out, knowing not much about Brother Tyrone other than having seen his name on listings around New Orleans before. Still, I kept forgetting to look for the CD when I was in town (I'm easily distracted), until, finally, I saw Tyrone on this year's Jazzfest lineup and made sure to be at the Congo Square stage that day and time. What a payoff. He and his fine band (most of whom played on this CD) kept me spellbound and grooving for the entire set of soul/blues tinged with funk. I could not believe that I had been missing such a stone soulful, old-school type singer for so long - why wasn't Brother Tyrone more widely known?
For the answer to that and more details about the CD, read Keith Spera's article on Mr. Tyrone Pollard at nola.com. Let's just say he's been keeping a low profile way too long, and is another example of the incredible musical talent nurtured in city's neighborhoods before Katrina tore them asunder. But, back to my impression of this album, which was produced by Everette Eglin, who also did the tasteful and tasty guitar work and wrote a number of the tunes. Mindbender is only Brother Tyrone's second CD (and like the first, Blue Ghetto, independently released), but it sounds like he has been making records for decades. Never over the top, the approach here hearkens back to the days of straightforward record-making in the South when all you needed was the right material, a great rhythm section, effective horn charts, and a singer at the microphone who could bring it all - no muss, no fuss, no gimmicks. Tyrone's vocals infuse the predominately blues-based songs on Mindbender with a genuine, natural, heartfelt soulfulness. My picks of the batch are Eglin's originals, all Katrina-related, "If You Ain't Cheatin'", a tale of post-flood separation and temptation, the funkified, wisely hip "When It's Gone, It's Gone", which manages to make seeing your record collection flushed out of your house seem funny ("There goes Albert King. He's too big to float."), and the poignant, in-the-pocket "New Indian Blues", that tells of Tyrone's deep connections to the people, places, and culture of the 6th Ward.
Besides the Junkyard Dog, who played the grooves fairly straight and to the point, and Eglin's expressive guitar tones on these tracks, other players of note are Marc Adams on keyboards - one of the city's best and a good songwriter, too (Tyrone does his deep soul "Can't Stop This Heartache"), and the always welcome Jack Cruz on bass, Wilbert Arnold's long-time groove partner in 'Wolfman' Washington's Roadmasters. The sparingly used horn section is unidentified. Tyrone partners with vocalists Sean C and Richard Dixon on a couple of tracks, and is righteously backed by two singers from the Gospel Stars, Rev. Mark Sandifer and Elijah Ott. Kudos, also, to engineer Mark Bingham of Piety Street Recording, who makes these tracks warm and inviting, with sounds that are real and richly textured - a feast for the ears often lacking in the digital domain. I hope this outstanding project bends some more minds and brings Brother Tyrone the prominence he deserves at home and abroad. He's still got time to make him some history.
Slither Slice, New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Threadhead Records, 2009 - Last and definitely not least on the list is this monstrous groove machine that manages to tie together top of the line playing, compelling, often intricate original jazz compositions, and the ultra-funky rhythms of the streets of New Orleans. The Nightcrawlers are a brass band with a difference and like no other in their hometown. Has it really been nine years since their last CD, cut live at the Old Point Bar in Algiers, and 12 years since their last studio recording? Guess they've all be busy elsewhere, as this group has always been the quintessential side project, its members vitally active at any given time in other groups - and, of course, there was that life-changing flood that sidelined everything. . . . After all this time, the line-up has changed somewhat, although the core of the group remains: trombonist Craig Klein (Bonerama, solo work, and more), saxophonist Jason Mingledorff (Papa Grows Funk), trumpeter Barney Floyd (New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and more), and sousaphonist Matt Perrine (Bonerama, Tin Men, solo work, and you name it). Completing the group on Slither Slice and their occasional live gigs are Satoru Ohashi, trumpet, Brent Rose, tenor sax, Derrick Tabb, snare drum, and Terrence 'T-Bell' Andrews, bass drum. Various guests drop in on certain tracks, too, including drummer Stanton Moore and keyboardist Rich Vogel of Galactic, Alex McMurray of Tin Men, and guitarist Brian Stoltz of the Funky Meters and PBS.
I had been waiting for this CD since seeing the Nightcrawlers play an intense set at the French Quarter Festival last year (and this year, too) and hearing them say that they were getting ready to record much of the material they were playing that day; and Slither Slice lives up to my great expectations from start to finish. Cocktail music to chitchat over this is not, nor is it simply repetitive grooves, unison blowing, with a few perfunctory solos thrown in. An amazing amount of syncopated fire gets stirred up by their two drums and a sousaphone rhythm section. Add to that the complex, polyrythmic interplay and counterpoint of the assembled brass give and take, blowing, pumping, slurring, punching, gong new places in innovative ways; and you've got music that cannot be denied. Fun as it is, there is more going on than just one big throwdown funkfest of a party. This is music of substance, stimulating on multiple levels, freeing your ass, in George Clinton's dictum, for your mind to follow.
I think the Nightcrawlers have again raised the bar for brass band music in the city with this offering, in terms of musicianship and writing. Not since the Dirty Dozen were in their creative prime has a group taken the game to another level and smoked it like this. A funked up version of Verdi's Aida with a Caribbean feel? Even their one cover tune is outrageous.
Though not regular street paraders as a unit, the Nightcrawlers have distilled the unique essence of local brass band music, instilling the celebratory feel and kick with fresh, ingenious, and memorable tunes; and the evidence is Slither Slice, a project thankfully made possible with a production loan from the Threadheads. It could have come from nowhere else but New Orleans - where the new so often incorporates the old in surprising ways- and validates the sense that the spirit and cultural health of the city, as the band says, are gonna be alright, alright.
Longtime follower who have been with the band from their first two Rounder albums, New Orleans Nightcrawlers from 1996 and Funknicity from 1997, and caught their all too rare live dates, and/or that Live At The Old Point CD, will not be surprised by all this - just pumped; and if you have not been to the party so far, you can just jump into the second line right here, then backtrack later. It's attention grabbing stuff. People are going to talking about it and yeling for more. If these guys don't watch it, their regular gigs may soon become the side projects.