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Jeff Black B-Sides and Confessions, Volume Two Lotos Nile Music JeffBlack.com
“They said, ‘We’re sorry son, you think too much: we don’t know what you mean and the tempo’s too slow…” (“True Love Never Let Me Down,” Jeff Black)
Here is what I love about troubadours, especially ones as astute and honed as Jeff Black: I may not always comprehend what they are singing about, but I always understand what they are singing about.
Like no one else so much as Darrell Scott, Jeff Black is that not uncommon breed of singer-songwriter who builds a career upon intelligence and perseverance rather than on the lure of glamour and notoriety. His songs have been infrequently recorded by others, most often by Sam Bush. Black’s “Same Ol’ River” has been a staple of Bush’s live set and is quite possibly the song with which most readers will be familiar, and Black co-wrote with Bush the title track to 2009′s Circles Around Me.
Black’s songwriting catalogue is extensive, but his list of cuts is less expansive. Jerry Douglas recorded one of his co-writes on last year’s Traveler, and Blackhawk took his “That’s Just About Right” to the country top ten twenty years ago.
This is the ninth album from the long-time Nashville (and Kansas City born) resident and serves as a follow-up to the release that originally brought Black to my attention, 2003′s B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One. Since that time, Black has inspired me to research an allusion or mysterious lyric on more than one occasion. I have purchased his early albums via the second hand and digital marketplaces (his debut Birmingham Road came out on Arista in ’98 and was recorded with most of Wilco) and his albums Tin Lily and Mining for Gold have long been favourites.
Black is a stronger, more confidently expressive vocalist today than when I first encountered him, and he was plenty impressive then. He inhabits his songs without reserve, giving Dave Alvinesque weariness to “All Right Now,” and clouded youthful wonder to “Impala.” Black is a paladin, accompanying (and sometimes championing) others on their poetic, musical journeys.
Black sketches characters with acute clarity, laying detail laden phrases upon softly hewn foundations. “Alice Carry” is given depth and strength through Black’s use of judicious lyrical phrases: rather than hitting Hollywood, she finds herself discovering love and a life- “some of us are lucky and some of us just make due”- and it is clear which perspective the protagonist leans toward.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to care about the character within “An Evil Lesson Is Soon Learned” or hold more than head-shaking respect for the ill-advised, hapless hero of “Molly Rose,” but Black’s execution of his songs is all-encompassing. There are no half-measures here, each note played and every word sung with the same intensity found within Tom Waits’ finest work.
Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg drop in to sing on “Avalon,” while Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas play most of that which Black doesn’t; the musicianship is unsurprisingly top-notch.
Jeff Black doesn’t appear to write with ‘a hook’ in mind; like the finest of writers, he allows the listener to identify that which will grab them…even if we don’t always grasp every nuance of what is being sung.
“I’m so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused, I don’t know of any reasons;
I just know the gasoline on it just made it worse, when water was all I needed truth be known.” (“Miss Me,” Jeff Black)
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Here is my review of B-Sides and Confessions, Volume One from a decade ago:
Featuring a Beatlesque opening that quickly moves into Chip Taylor territory, Jeff Black is an artist for those who are more musically comfortable with the ditches than the middle of the road. As a vocalist, Black is a terrific songwriter. His gravelly voice, which hints at John Hiatt and John Rebennack, has an appealing bleeding intensity. Adding jazzed blues nuances, piano accents many compositions where others might strum. The effect is a version of country music that is so far removed from the expected parameters as to contribute to that unnameable roots genre populated by Eric Taylor, Darrell Scott, and the late Mickey Newbury. Well worth considering.
I am making an attempt at playing ‘catch up;’ over the past month, I have received several wonderful albums from various labels, and just haven’t had the opportunity to focus on my writing to give them the attention they warrant. Receiving even less time have been the albums I’ve purchased over an even longer period of time.
I spent this morning listening to Peter Rowan’s terrific new album, The Old School. One has to love Peter Rowan, not only for what he has done in the past, but for the music he has continued to create as he has slowly become a ‘senior’ member of the bluegrass community. From where I sit, there are few more esoteric characters within bluegrass than Rowan, and no matter what he does, he does it well.
My review of The Old School has been posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass within the Country Standard Time site, right about here. Since I received the album from Compass last month, I’ve likely given it ten or twelve listens, and it just keeps getting better with each play- it is remarkable at how cohesive the album feels, and sounds, given how many hands (and voices) were involved in its execution. Another winner from Compass Records.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I appreciate you sticking with me. Donald
The last month has been tough on me; many things are calling for my attention, and writing has had to fall by the wayside. I have been listening to some great stuff- the new Peter Rowan, the Frank Solivan, some great Steve Forbert music from the past. The Gibson Brothers’ new album They Call It Music is spectacular, and my review of it has been posted at the Lonesome Road Review.
I’ve posted my review of the Tina Adair Band’s new album Born Bad over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. I was very impressed with this collection, a set that marks a return to bluegrass recording for Tina Adair and her husband, Tim Dishman. The review can be found here. While researching the piece, I found this concert footage of the band from a couple years back; select songs from Born Bad are featured.
Another one from the Who? and Damn! category. You know, you see the album and you say, “Who?” Then, you listen to it and you say, “Damn!”
My review of 1945 has been posted to the Lonesome Road Review.
Track down this one.
[I've revised this piece, adding more details.]
Back home now, and back to work. The last half of my week in Kansas City didn’t live up to the first part, but did have its highlights.
My trip to southern Missouri was brilliant. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and home place were well worth the eight or so hours on the highways of the state. I absolutely loved my experiences in the Mansfield area. I believe I may have been born in the Ozarks, only we called it the County of Parkland- beautiful, rough land that just felt like home. Walking in the footsteps of history; it was wonderful to walk through the homes of Laura and Almanzo. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was equally impressive, albeit in an entirely different way. While I knew most- if only in a superficial way- of the Ingalls Wilder story, I learned so much about the history of baseball while at the museum in the 18th and Vine area of Kansas City. The displays were very informative, and much of the museum was very well done if beginning to show some wear around the edges, an affliction it shares with the Ingalls Wilder museum.
I got back to the city too late that evening to start my Map Fest experience, but I did catch a reggae band at The Levee, a club near my hotel. The served a real good burger, too.
The Middle of the Map festival in KC was most obviously not designed with me in mind. I decided to branch out and catch some acts removed from my roots/Americana world. I can’t say I was impressed by anything new I heard within the ‘indie pop/indie rock’ catchall, a genre without distinction beyond muffled, indistinct vocals. Every band reminded me of either the Lumineers or REO Speedwagon, often simultaneously. Canadian Owen Pallett was the exception- rocking the traditional violin-based, loop-fired power trio format, Pallett was pretty impressive and, more importantly, enjoyable. Other (and apparently popular) bands didn’t fare as well to my ears- the appeal of The Joy Formidable was lost on me, and don’t get me started on Whiskey Breath, an outfit that made cowboy thrash a genre I don’t need to encounter again any time soon.
I’m guessing I just don’t have enough facial hair. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many ill-nourished beards as I did at Middle of the Map venues. And what is it with folks to talk, tweet, and listen at the same time? Never have I felt so old; it was as if I was surrounded by the youth of a different species.
A pair of KC based roots acts impressed more than the indie rock/pop outfits. Blackbird Revue’s brief set contained an unusual male-female vocal blend that I quite enjoyed, and Cadillac Flambe were a rockin’ roots outfit; I picked up their recordings. A very impressive band were featured at Gustos on the Saturday afternoon: power-pop is alive with John Velghe & the Prodigal Sons- energetic, fresh, and dynamic. Shades of Dwight Twilley. Brass, too!
The only Roots performer that came close to reaching the levels of Rex Hobart/Bob Walkenhorst was Joe Pug. “Diana” and “The Great Despiser” were just two of the songs that make me think of Pug in the way I am confident hipsters thought of Steve Forbert around 1979. I had been quite familiar with his music prior to his set; hearing him live made me a fan. I will continue to follow his path.
I enjoyed my time in the city.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Rex Hobart and his band…whose name I’ve completely misplaced in the increasingly cluttered filing cabinet of my mind…played a terrific pair of sets at The Record Bar Tuesday night. Hobart plays the Westport establishment the first Tuesday of every month, and while he hasn’t released an album is way too long he continues to sound wonderful. I was very impressed by the performance I witnessed, a 75/25 split of covers and original material. He and his band- Darrin on pedal steel, as well as drums, guitar and Craig on bass (and I can’t remember the guitar player’s name- a very nice man, as were Darrin and Craig)- allowed me to sing along with just about every song…from the back of the room- from Tom T. Hall and Wynn Stewart, to Dwight Yoakam and Freddy Fender. The originals were equally impressive, songs like “Here Comes Nothing” and “The Tear I Left Behind.” Wonderful stuff. Rex was kind enough to chat with me for a bit, and updated me on the life of a traveling minstrel after the glamour of the road loses it appeal. I was most impressed by his life view- no bitterness about not getting over that final hump toward broad-based success, and fully content (and no small bit grateful) to play a few times a month, work as a theatrical carpenter and set designer, and raise his child.
If you are in the area, I heartily recommend catching Rex’s show. And the hummus pizza was absolutely incredible.
Bob Walkenhorst and Jeff Porter played The Record Bar tonight, Wednesday. Having appreciated the music of the Rainmakers since my University days, and having listened to scores of Bob’s live shows posted to the Live Internet Archive, I knew I was in for a wonderful evening of music. The duo didn’t disappoint, with Norm off on the road with The Elders, Steve Phillips’ band. They played an extended two-hour set and were absolutely brilliant. Jeff took the lead on several songs, including “Savannah” and “Still She Waits,” two songs I never tire of hearing, as well as the ‘almost’ standard “15 Miles.” As much as I appreciate that Bob and Jeff truly share the stage, I was there to see and hear Bob (and that has nothing to do with the fact that Jeff doesn’t like bluegrass for more than two songs!)
Appearing more than a little scruffy with a semi-fresh growth of facial hair, Walkenhorst was in terrific voice and appeared to be in an even better mood. He and Jeff barely paused all evening beyond greeting visitors and acknowledging the familiar crowd. I wasn’t really prepared to be welcomed as a never-before-met cousin by the legion of Wednesday night regulars, but I was. Thanks to all who made me feel part of the family. I even shared a table with Iris DeMent’s yoga teacher, and Jay’s brother Terry. Great folks.
Opening with (I think, and I’ll be terribly embarrassed if my memory has failed me this badly) “I Shall Be Released”, Bob sprinkled in several covers (but perhaps fewer than usual?) including “Sympathy for the Devil,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a verse of “I Started a Joke,” as well as songs culled from both the Rainmakers and his own catalogue. “Like Dogs” was performed by request, and “Small Circles,” “One That Got Away,” “Wages of Sin,” “Hoo Dee Hoo,” and others kept the dance floor filled for much of the night. Personal favourites included hearing “Turpentine,” “Jan Vermeer,” and “No Abandon.” I’ll be downloading this one as soon as I get back home; if the count on the site is accurate, this will be the 500th Bob show to be posted there. A shout out to Jay for keeping this tradition alive. Many thanks.
If you are a Walkenhorst/Rainmakers devote, and haven’t made the pilgrimage to the Record Bar, I highly recommend the trip as being well worth the effort. I am very pleased that I was able to experience the show live, and was most likely the only person in the place seeing Bob for the first time.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Insert Wilbert Harrison cliché at your leisure.
I was fortunate this past winter to have one of my supervisors suggest a course of training. Upon investigation, I discovered the only session being offered over my spring break was in Kansas City! As a result, not only do I get to do some much-needed professional development this week, I also have the opportunity to extend my stay and explore the music- and food- of a city that has increasingly intrigued me for several years.
In addition to the workshop that will benefit my professional growth, I get to finally (if the river doesn’t rise in the next two days) catch Bob Walkenhorst at The Record Bar Wednesday evening. I’ve written about my admiration of Walkernhorst (and The Rainmakers) before, and I am thrilled to have this long-held wish finally come to fruition.
I spent this afternoon exploring the area around my hotel, and while the streets still seem to go every which direction, some of the landmarks are beginning to look familiar. Should you see a pasty Canadian wandering the streets of Westport this week, feel free to point me in the correct direction. I must have walked fifty blocks this afternoon, and this comes on a couple of hours of non-restful sleep on the redeye to Toronto and a pair of commuters to Chicago and finally the City of Fountains (I learned that one today.)
I found The Record Bar on my second trip- went west (I think) this time instead of north. I was pleased that the bar looks and feels almost exactly like I had imagined it while listening to many Walkenhorst broadcasts from the venue. It is in a strip mall, beside a dollar store, an Ace Hardware and a Half-Price Books and Records store. The bartender is an affable guy named Clarence, and he recommended a tasty beverage for a warming afternoon.
Upon entering the Record Bar, I discovered that another favourite- Rex Hobart- has his monthly gig tomorrow evening, so I’ll be back in for that. As well, I have my Middle of the Map fest ticket ready, and while I don’t know how many shows I’ll be able to catch, I do know I’ll be back at The Record Bar for Joe Pug. By the time I leave the city this weekend, perhaps everyone will know my name. As well, Amy LaVere is in town this week, so I’ll need to find Knuckleheads.
While my days will be filled with heavy lifting as I develop additional skills, my evenings should be rich in roots music. And I can hardly wait to taste my first meal of Kansas City BBQ, as recommended by Dr. Winnie Dunn.
First up though, a nap. I am running on empty and have full days facing me. Wish me luck!
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I’ve added a second story to my ongoing series The Story Behind…over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, part of the Country Standard Time site. On this final day of March, I share James Reams’ recollections on how he came to use the Barnstormers name. James has posted a trailer for his Pioneers of Bluegrass film which will soon be released on DVD. Those of you who purchased his Troubled Time CD have seen some of the footage already, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the completed project.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Ralph Boyd Johnson 1723 9 St SW http://www.RalphBoydJohnson.com
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: ”…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own. 1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald