Friday, August 6, 2010
Title: The Acoustic Sessions
Writer: Rick Galusha
In 1995 a band of Native American siblings from the Northern Ponca Tribe Reservation in Wagner, South Dakota released a self-produced album, ‘Awake.’ Now in their 16th year the band has released fourteen full length albums including their newest, ‘The Acoustic Sessions.’ Nanji’s father, Greg Zephier, a friend of actor Marlon Brando, was an activist in the American Indian Movement and named his son for the noted civil rights figure Standing Bear (d:1908).
What started as a tight knit band of family members eventually succumbed to the travails of rivalry, broken relationships, and illicit substance use. When the Davey Brothers, of the successful British band ‘The Hoax,’ informally hovered near the band, the once blues based guitar rock sound of the band moved towards a more contemporary, bottom-heavy, hard rock sound. This new sound and image moved the band towards a larger and younger potential audience but pushed away the loyal base of “Indiginuts.” Their career stalled and internal issues resulted in Wandbi (sister/drummer), Pte (brother/bass) and Horse (cousin/percussion) leaving the band. As a solo act under the name Indigenous, Mato Nanji struggled to re-find his voice and old audience.
With the release of their 13th album, ‘Broken Lands’ Nanji finally looked inward to write about the social trauma’s of 170 years of the reservation system inflicted upon many Native Americans. On the track, “Place I Know” Nanji sang of barefoot children left to raise themselves by alcoholic parents. (Alcohol related deaths on South Dakota’s reservation’s average 1640% higher than median America.) While the song’s structure was not overt blues, the band that had been deserted by many of its fans released one of 2008’s lyrically most powerful blues albums. ‘Broken Lands’ signaled a come back for Indigenous.
Filtered throughout the band’s history has been a collection of excellent songs. Admittedly skeptical of “an unplugged album,” that was comprised of greatest hits, ‘The Acoustic Sessions’ is the second excellent album for an artist that refused to die. In their original form many of the songs featured on this album, while highly melodic and well played, lacked sufficient texture within the album format to compel one to listen to the whole album. Gone for the past several albums have been the depth providing textures that conga player Horse provided the band’s early incarnations. In this acoustic setting Nanji is able to demonstrate his guitar prowess while serving the song and, in many instances, these songs are fully complimentary to the full band versions.
The album opens with the pacing ‘Now That You’re Gone’ where Mato’s vocal energy rises over a layered percussive setting against a guitar solo that recalls some of cleanest fretwork of his career. Now in its fourth released version, ‘Things We Do’ is the song that defines the band musically, lyrically and spiritually. “When I close my eyes, a dream comes to me” Nanji sings as the song builds thanks to the percussion and organ of producer Jamie Candiloro (REM, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Eagles). The albums fourth track, ‘Rest of My Days’ is the album’s focus track where Candiloro’s production eerily recalls Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ period. The use of subtle ‘toned percussive instruments’ (I don’t know what they are) heightens the song with stunning effect. On ‘Leaving’ Lisa Germano provides a wonderful violin backing that moves to the foreground with a defining solo; wonderfully unexpected.
The album ends with a cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s track ‘You Got It’ penned by Jeff Lynn (ELO) and Roy Orbison (Sun Records). Radio programs that rely on Classic Rock artist may find this track to be comfortable for listeners. However, this album has “legs” so programmers will want to move beyond the obvious and low hanging fruit of a covered hit record.
This album is a powerful statement of revitalization for Indigenous. There is a history that threads throughout popular music of bands releasing three excellent albums consecutively; perhaps there will be another strong album in the future. Fans of contemporary blues-rock players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Santana and Jimi Hendrix will enjoy this album.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Artist: Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes
Title: Pills and Ammo (A Little Chaos is Good for the Soul)
Writer: Rick Galusha
If the blues is nothing more than a musical structure, a predictable amalgamation of chords and progressions, than read no further. However if the blues is a feeling, a fleeting emotion that helps defines our time on mortal coil then the latest release by Southside Johnny (Lyon) and the Asbury Jukes, ‘Pills and Ammo’ is a refreshing, powerful, hard-driving collection of songs by an unsung icon of American music.
“You take something sweet and you make it rough. You make a blood sport out of making love. No matter how low I go, I never go down enough.” ‘Lead Me On’
As an album of twelve songs, ‘Pills and Ammo’ is first and foremost a very good record. Between the grooves are passages and segue ways that use overt blues textures with horn driven R n’ B to deliver the goods. While most are familiar with New Jersey’s other” boss,” in many ways it was the Brooouce-mania that not only brought John Lyon’s band to national attention but unintentionally overshadowed an otherwise wonderful band. As the leader John Lyon chose the nickname “Southside” in homage to Chicago’s famed blues scene. “Jukes” attributed to Little Walter’s famed instrumental harmonica song. A review of the pre-Jukes sonic landscape includes other horn bands including the wonderful Stax and Hi Recordings, Chess’ Little Milton and eventually Chicago; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Chase, Electric Flag or Butterfield Blues Band’s later era recordings. Arguably Southside Johnny has taken the blues, added a bit of Jersey sand & salt (grit), and created a largely undefined but brilliant genre.
This is an album that uses the horns to propel the songs against strong vocal melody lines and intelligent lyrics. The song, ‘Strange, Strange Feeling,’ begins with a ‘Harlem Shuffle’ groove and includes the exceptional lyric line,
“My woman left me long time ago, Still sends me Christmas Card, complete with plastic snow. There’s never any return address, She’s just being kind I guess. How much further down do I have to go?”
While the only constant in this band seems to be John Lyon himself, Bobby Bandiera ably replaces Miami Steve Van Zant and Billy Rush adding subtle yet emotive guitar lines. On ‘Umbrella Drink’ Lyon is joined by fellow Springsteen friend Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds on a New Orleans horn driven romp that is pure lively joy that devolves to include the Neville Brothers, ‘Hey Pocky Way.’ Throughout the album Lyon, a noted avid music fan hide similar musical passages including a reference to his own ’77 release, “This Times Its for Real” in the smokin’ track, ‘One More Night to Rock.’ He also lifts the blues standard ‘Walking Blues’ in this albums track, ‘Woke Up This Morning.’ Bonds and Lyon also incorporate Allen Toussiant's *(Huey Smith), 'Come on everybody take a trip with me. Down the Mississippi, down to New Orleans' on 'Umbrella In My Drink."
If the album’s opening track, ‘Harder than It Looks’ refers to Lyon’s often struggling thirty-five professional career, then the album’s three closing tracks puts a stake in the ground for this powerful and revitalized performer; ‘Keep on Moving,’ ‘You Can’t Bury Me,’ and the powerful nostalgic ‘Thank You.’
This is not an album for blues purist but the vast majority of blues fans will eat up this album with a fork and spoon. The melody lines are rich, the arrangements are excellent and the band plays for the songs. If you have albums that are your ‘Saturday night special’ or a ‘Sunday morning wake-up call,’ this is your ‘jump in the car and drive’ record that pounds on your door. Blues deejays could ‘drop the needle’ on just about any track but if you show lean traditional try the third track, ‘Woke Up This Morning.’ If you are looking for texture in your show, ‘Harder than It Looks’ or ‘Cross the Line’ are propelling. The closing ballad, ‘Thank You’ shares a common ‘look back in fondness’ an over 40 audience will easily relate to.
Besides anyone that can include, “I think Mkultra is messing with my mind” deserves accolades.
[“Mkultra was the code name for a covert, illegal CIA human research program, run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence” which began in the 1950’s, “continuing at least through the late 1960s, and it used U.S. and Canadian citizens as its test subjects.” (LSD was used in this program.)]