Notes 

The Dambuilders and Earth, Wind & Fire come to town

The Dambuilders and Earth, Wind & Fire come to town

By Noel Murray, Ron Wynn, Michael McCall, and Jim Ridley

Live Action

In 1994, The Dambuilders looked like the band most likely to shake modern rock out of its grungy doldrums. (They were described by Spin as “the best indie-rock band that doesn’t sound like Pavement or Dinosaur Jr.”) Then the group ran smack into producer Don Gehman, who channeled the group’s mainstream longings into the flat-sounding Ruby Red—an album of bombastic would-be anthems and strained power ballads.

Luckily, the Dambuilders have lightened up considerably on their charming new album, Against the Stars. The band members are producing themselves once again, and they’ve focused their energies on recreating the sound of the early-’80s—when heartland rock, computer soul, and polyrhythmic new wave all found a place in the Top 40. This clash of styles is sometimes awkward—any album that references Bryan Adams, Blondie, and Peter Gabriel on consecutive songs is bound to be—but the spirited performances and catchy melodies nevertheless stick with the listener.

Live, The Dambuilders are tight and energetic, emphasizing the popping bass of Dave Derby and the rhythmic interplay of drummer Kevin March, guitarist Eric Masunaga, and violinist Joan Wasser. As his bandmates weave a springy web of sound, Derby shouts most of the lyrics as though the words were stuck in the pit of his stomach. The combination is often explosive, especially when the group rips into songs like “Teenage Loser Anthem,” “Burn This Bridge,” and the radio hit “Shrine”—the last song a stirring tribute to the communicative powers of rock ’n’ roll.—Noel Murray

At a time when ’70s flashbacks seem more common than ever, multiplatinum artists Earth, Wind & Fire aren’t content simply to mine the nostalgia trend. The band has just issued a new release, In the Name of Love, and they’ve scored positive reviews for their performances as part of comedian Sinbad’s ’70s tour alongside Teena Marie and Graham Central Station. The tour makes a Nashville stop this Friday at Starwood.

At the core of the group remains drummer, vocalist, producer, and kalimba soloist Maurice White, who entered the music business as a session drummer for Chess Records. A conservatory-trained musician, he later played with Ramsey Lewis before relocating to California in the late ’60s. There, he formed a group with his brother Verdine that picked up on the emerging jazz-rock sounds that Miles Davis had begun to popularlize. The brothers’ first ensemble was called the Salty Peppers; after cutting a date for Capitol that went nowhere, Maurice White renamed the band Earth, Wind and Fire and began to incorporate quasi-mystical lyrics, sociopolitical rhetoric, energetic vocal harmonies, and extended instrumental solos. After two poor-selling LPs for Warner Bros., White further retooled the group’s sound, adding heavy doses of funk, streamlining the jazz-fusion elements, and placing even more emphasis on positive messages.

Throughout the ’70s, Earth, Wind & Fire were arguably the premier African-American pop ensemble; hit singles such as “Boogie Wonderland” (with the Emotions), “Devotion,” “September,” “Let’s Groove,” and “Sun Goddess” (with Ramsey Lewis) not only dominated the R&B charts, they became anthems for a generation. The group’s stage shows were famous for their dazzling sleight-of-hand, lighting, and effects, coupled with exhaustive performances of every hit in the group’s catalog. Earth, Wind & Fire’s influence continued into the mid-’80s, at which time the band began to break apart due to internal dissension, the advent of hip-hop, and Maurice White’s desire to do more solo projects and productions.

After the inevitable breakup/time-off period, the group reemerged with Heritage in 1990. In the years since, Earth, Wind & Fire have attempted to update their sound without sacrificing the precision, rhythmic punch, or social consciousness that marked their finest material. As of yet, however, they’ve been unable to enjoy the chart success they experienced in the past. Even so, with the renewed interest in classic funk and soul, their old material has never been more popular. For a sampling of what the group is up to these days, head to Starwood Friday night.

When Luther Allison won four awards at this year’s Handy Blues Awards ceremonies, the blues community was already aware that the guitarist/vocalist had been very ill with cancer. But that knowledge didn’t make it any easier to digest the news last week when Allison died at age 57. He had just hit his stride in the past few years, thanks to the efforts of Alligator Records and Bruce Iglauer.

Allison’s life and times proved almost as intriguing as his music; he was born on a cotton plantation in Mayflower, Ark., one of 15 children. A child gospel star, he performed with the Southern Travelers before his family moved to Chicago in 1951. After playing in a group with his brother, Allison formed his own band, the Rolling Stones; he quickly changed the name to the Four Jivers. He solidified his credentials during stints with Freddie King, Magic Sam, and Shakey Jake, and he was a fan favorite at the late-’60s Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals. He was among contemporary blues’ fastest and flashiest guitar soloists, but he didn’t sacrifice feeling for technique. He could glide easily through a number of styles, putting his own memorable stamp on everything he performed. And when he wanted to stress his vocal chops, there were few singers who were better able to communicate the intricacies of a lyric so brilliantly.

A flamboyant entertainer and vocalist, Allison was never very consistent in the recording studio. His first Delmark LP, Love Me Mama, was superb, but a trio of dates cut for Motown’s Gordy subsidiary in the mid-’70s failed to duplicate the success Stax had experienced with Albert King and Little Milton. Allison’s final three Alligator releases, as well as Serious on Blind Pig, provided true indications of his greatness. Reckless, issued only a few months ago, ranks among the year’s best releases, while 1995’s Blue Streak and 1994’s Soul Fixin’ Mama are the type of dates that might have made him a crossover sensation 20 years ago. We can be thankful that Allison’s legacy remains on such fine recordings, but anyone who saw him won’t forget the fury and energy that this extraordinary guitarist unleashed in his stage shows.—Ron Wynn

On Friday, a new music series featuring local rock bands led by female singers and songwriters celebrates its premiere outing at 328 Performance Hall. Hoisted under the banner of Les Femmes Qui Rock, or women who rock, the series will benefit a different woman’s organization each month. This week’s lineup will feature The Evinrudes, a pop-rock outfit led by sultry-voiced Sherry Cothren; the group has been getting a lot of attention lately from top rock producers and major-label talent scouts. Joining them will be Porcelain, an interesting modern-rock band led by singer and songwriter Val Strain.

The rest of the lineup—all distinctive talents worth hearing—will feature several of the Les Femmes Qui Rock organizers, including powerful vocalist Austin Tyler Meade, rockers Chasing Mercury, and straight-ahead rock singer Linda Regan. The initial night of the series will benefit Camp Sycamore Hills, a girl-scout camp that emphasizes visual-arts training.—Michael McCall

The first “No Depression Night” at the Station Inn kicks off Wednesday with a show by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub. Show time is 9 p.m. Please, for God’s sake, turn out so No Depression’s coeditor (and new Nashvillian) Grant Alden will stop complaining about the low turnout in local clubs.—Jim Ridley

A couple of weeks ago, in an item about Victor Wooten, we incorrectly stated that the bassist was a former member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Wooten is still, in fact, a member of the group and has no plans to leave. We apologize for the error.

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