The Flower of Muscle Shoals by Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer

The title of Cahalen Morrison’s latest solo effort — The Flower of Muscle Shoals — implies a nostalgic tie to roots music history. Through his duo work with Eli West, Morrison has already demonstrated a reverence (and considerable talent) for acoustic Americana. The Flower of Muscle Shoals turns up the volume, augmenting Morrison’s gentle vocal twang with a rock-solid backing band easily at home in the diviest of honky-tonks.

That’s not to say The Flower is a raucous collection of tunes; Morrison errs toward the tear in your beer, as opposed to the fighting side of classic country. Fans of Morrison/West will find much to appreciate in the pace and acoustic ambience of this album, from the easy two-step of “Cascabel Valley” to the western swing of “Our Love is Like a Hurricane.” The fingerpicked acoustic guitar, walking bass, and reverb-laden Telecaster of “The Delta Divine” is particularly satisfying, marrying toe-tapping country blues rhythm with concise and skillfully crafted lyrics. Morrison started in ranchero, and as a fellow New Mexican I couldn’t help but smile at the accordion and fiddle-fueled romp of “Hobbled and Grazing.”

The Flower of Muscle Shoals is a deeply satisfying album, amply demonstrating this artist’s versatility and potential across a range of roots idioms. It’s also proof that great country & western music is still readily accessible — you just have to switch off the radio and tune in to the sounds of a true craftsman like Cahalen Morrison.

Jet Engines by Amy McCarley

The alt country scene is crowded these days, which is great for fans but tough for artists looking to stand out. Fortunately for Amy McCarley, the first thing that strikes a new listener is her distinctive voice. There are shades of genre luminaries in her Alabama drawl — a little bit of Lucinda Williams slur, a touch of Dwight Yoakam-esque mountain twang. But comparisons are really only useful for reference purposes; McCarley’s sound is all her own, and her latest album Jet Engines showcases an artist firmly grounded in Americana, yet well-poised to make an individual statement.

Roots guitar fans will immediately be drawn to the production imprint of Kenny Vaughan, probably most well-known for his picking in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. Indeed, Vaughan leads a rock-solid band, and tasty blues-meets-country riffs abound. However, it’s Amy’s songwriting that commands the stage. Her voice is a nuanced instrument best paired with a strong lyrical hook, evidenced by honky tonk gems like “Here I Am” and “Radio On” — hard-driving, foot-tappings tunes with country soul that puts the current Nashville radio crop to shame.

That’s not to say McCarley can be narrowly categorized; Jet Engines is sonically diverse while maintaining a coherent thread throughout. The title track segues seamlessly between a swampy blues verse and a dynamic, melodically memorable chorus. The anthemic “Hands Tied” is probably the most pop-oriented track, recalling Tracy Chapman at her radio-friendly rootsiest. Amy McCarley could easily take her music in any one of these directions and create a name for herself; hopefully she continues to follow the more eclectically rewarding muse that yielded Jet Engines.

Ready for the Spring: “The Second Hand” by Susan Gibson

The Second Hand opens with an energetic live reading of Susan GIbson’s Top-40 masterpiece, the coming-of-age anthem “Wide Open Spaces.” It’s the song that put her on the songwriting map (and the Dixie Chicks on the path to country mega-stardom), and Gibson indulges her audience by playing the song at every show. Indeed, loyal fans who turn out at every opportunity to catch Susan at a house concert, songwriter circle, or dive bar will find much to love on The Second Hand.

But it’s also fitting that the setlist gets “Wide Open Spaces” out of the way at the start. It’s a great song, but Susan has spent more than a decade crafting great songs that share (and usually exceed) the qualities that made “Spaces” such a hit — authenticity, wit, and themes just about anyone with a heartbeat can relate to. On the album’s title track, Gibson sings that “It’s been a nuclear winter, and I’m ready for the spring.” Like most of her songwriting, the quip works on several levels. Whether eagerly awaiting relief from the endless 2014 polar vortex, or the bone chill of a relationship gone bad, Susan Gibson has a cathartic verse to help thaw your soul.

There’s a lot of music to be heard on The Second Hand, which is as much a career retrospective as a live album; the 17-song disc is a great starting point for the uninitiated. Fortunately, the producers also left a little room for between-song storytelling, which is a big part of the Susan Gibson live draw. Susan has weathered some tough life experiences the past few years, experiences many of us can relate to and look forward to empathizing with in her songwriting. A tune like “Best of You” — inspired by the strength of cancer survivors — stands on its own, but is rendered all the more powerful when Gibson candidly shares the backstory.

Finally, it’s gratifying to hear Susan’s tunes fully realized with an ace pickup band. We imagine singer-songwriters to be lone wolves, and Susan certainly plays her fair share of solo gigs. However, most relish the idea of fronting their own band, if only gigs and income would permit. The Second Hand lineup — featuring Billy Masters on lead guitar, David Carroll on bass, and Ray Rodriguez on drums — complements Gibson superbly throughout, lending sonic dimension while giving the songs plenty of room to breathe. The Second Hand stands among those rare concert recordings that successfully capture the energy and spontaneity of a great live set, though that shouldn’t be surprising coming from an artist who so consistently delivers — gig after gig, song after song.

Check out this post on my No Depression page.

Walk “39 Steps” with the John Abercrombie Quartet

Last year, John Abercrombie released an album of standards that appeared on my 2012 shortlist of favorite jazz guitar albums. His 2013 followup is a collection of mostly originals, performed by a quartet featuring Mark Copland on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. 39 Steps shares the contemplative, acoustic vibe of the standards album, but demonstrates that Abercrombie is still a cutting-edge innovator among modern jazz pickers.

The addition of Copland sets 39 Steps apart from much of Abercrombie’s latter-day output, in which he is often the sole chordal instrument. Copland (a saxophonist turned pianist) has a sparse, open sound that melds well with the guitarist. The album’s tone is set by the ethereal opening tune “Vertigo,” followed by a swinging yet still-cerebral “LST.” Other reviews have noted shades of Bill Evans in this album. Indeed, fans of the Village Vanguard recordings, or Evans’ telepathic collaborations with Jim Hall, will find much to enjoy in the chemistry of this quartet.

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Seizing the Hay with the Gregg Daigle Band

On a recent trip to hometown Albuquerque, I was lucky enough to catch a show featuring one of the southwest’s foremost pickers of all things stringed. Gregg Daigle is equally at home whether flatpicking an acoustic guitar, coaxing bluesy licks from an electric, navigating the tight fretboard spaces of a mandolin, or clawing the banjo. Full disclosure, Gregg was my guitar teacher in high school and college; that said, part of what makes him a great music instructor is the fact that he’s also a first-rate performer, as demonstrated on the Gregg Daigle Band’s latest album, Seize the Hay.

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Blues and Trouble from Grand Marquis

Attention-grabbing contemporary blues acts — bands that really encourage listeners to pull classic albums out of rotation — can be hard to find. Fair or not, it usually takes something special to pique my interest; exceptional tunesmithing and musicianship, a unique instrumental lineup, or a sound that draws from diverse traditions. Blues and Trouble, the new album from Kansas City-based Grand Marquis, manages to score on all three counts. By contrast to the six-string foundation of most modern blues acts, the sound of Grand Marquis is rooted in its brass players — Bryan Redmond on saxophone (and lead vocals) and Chad Boyston on trumpet. Bass player Ben Ruth even takes up the sousaphone in a throwback to the pre-electric days of Dixieland swing (perfect counterpoint to the washboard rhythm of drummer Lisa Mackenzie). The group’s sound does justice to the rich blues and jazz history of Kansas City, a musical crossroads often unfairly eclipsed by glitzier northern metropolises.

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Summer Instrumental Blues Review

The blues is first and foremost a vocal tradition, but the guitar has played a prominent role in defining the genre’s sound. Recent instrumental releases from Tinsley Ellis and Ronnie Earl put the instrument front and center.

Get It! by Tinsley Ellis

Tinsley Ellis is known for high-octane blues rock, so long-time fans may be a little surprised by the more restrained vibe of Get It! Not that this is a bad thing; by holding back on the pyrotechnics and focusing on a more melodically-informed approach, Ellis harkens back to a time when instrumental tracks occasionally broke into the radio mainstream. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that Get It! is an album tribute to Ellis’s 6-string heroes. It’s implied by tracks like “Front Street Freeze,” in which trebly bends summon the Iceman himself (Albert Collins); “Freddy’s Midnight Dream,” a King-approved slow blues; and the double stop shuffle of “Berry Tossin'” (as in Chuck). Rather than loosely conceptualized jam tracks, Ellis manages to deliver ten distinct tunes — no small feat given that the primal 3-chord structure of the blues isn’t necessarily the easiest format for creating musical variation. Get It! is a fun album that demonstrates how Ellis has managed to not just learn from those who came before, but channels them in making his own musical statement.

Just for Today by Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters

Ronnie Earl is the rare bluesman who has managed to forge a career primarily as an instrumentalist, and his output over the years has reflected a great deal of stylistic diversity,  blending in elements of jazz, R&B, and even world music. Earl is a more cerebral and introspective player, reflected in his preference for slow blues — which honestly is the weakest link of his latest live album. Just for Today would benefit from the omission of a couple slow burners and the addition of a few more high-energy romps — see “The Big Train” and “Robert Nighthawk Stomp” for examples of how the man can tear through a roadhouse beat. That said, few can deliver like Ronnie Earl on a down-tempo number, as evidenced by the soulful tribute of “Blues for Hubert Sumlin” and a Latin-flavored interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Just for Today may not be quite as satisfying as some of the guitarist’s studio albums, but it’s certainly instructive on how to squeeze every ounce of soul from a Fender Stratocaster.

Spring Blues Roundup: Cassie Taylor, Robben Ford, and Duke Robillard

It was the blues, laden as it is with guitars and angst, that initially drew me to roots music. 2013 has seen a bumper crop of solid blues recordings, including these three highlights.

“Out of My Mind” by Cassie Taylor

The contemporary blues scene is crowded with young talent. All too often, these young men and women are prematurely catapulted into the limelight as the next big thing; with no time to really develop their own voice, their talents wind up hard to distinguish from every other act in the genre sporting three chords and a feeling. Fortunately, vocalist/bassist/songwriter Cassie Taylor has spent time being mentored by one of the most original blues performers on the scene today — her father Otis Taylor. Like Otis, Cassie isn’t content to be pigeon-holed by a particular genre. The tunes on Out of My Mind run the creative gamut from the Stax-era soul of “Out of My Mind,” to the hard rock Yardbirds groove of “No No,” to the acoustic guitar and horn funk of “Forgiveness” (the track that probably betrays the strongest imprint of her father). More modern traces of neo-soul and even hip-hop are evident throughout. Taylor’s rock-steady bass and soulful voice are accompanied by a top-notch band that includes Larry Thompson on drums and Steve Mignano on guitar; the latter offers enough electric pyrotechnics to keep discriminating six-stringers engaged. A solid album from an artist poised to stand out from the rest.

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Guitar Jazz: New Albums from Mimi Fox and David Weiss

Following an Americana-centric 2012, I’m making a more concerted effort this year to feature jazz guitarists on the blog. Luckily, 2013 seems to be starting off as a good year for jazz guitar.

Standards, Old and New by Mimi Fox

The shadow of Joe Pass looms large over jazz guitarists, particularly those who play the instrument in a solo context. Bay area virtuoso Mimi Fox studied for a time with Pass, so it’s no surprise that her latest album of solo instrumentals reflects the master’s influence. That’s not to say the effort is derivative; far from it. Fox is a distinctive and original musician, reflected not only in her technique but her choice of tunes. On Standards, Old and New she covers classic territory with tracks like “Cry Me a River” and “Four on Six.” The former is re-harmonized so thoroughly that it sounds like a whole new song, while the latter manages to capture the momentum and spontaneity of Wes Montgomery at his finest (no small feat in a solo setting). Fox more unconventionally bookends the album with two standards from the folk music real book. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” are re-imagined as jazz instrumentals, doing the original tunes justice while at the same time opening the melodies to improvisational exploration. A thoughtful album well worth the price of admission.

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“Guitaresque” by Tony Savarino

Solo albums by hotshot electric guitarists can be a mixed bag. Some stand out as works of art that showcase the player as an individual artist; others are merely a platform for shameless pyrotechnic wankery. Fortunately, Guitaresqe by Boston-area guitarist Tony Savarino fits squarely in the first category.

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