Back in Blue
At a time when many musicians are indulging a mania for retro rock, harmonica player Magic Dick and guitarist Jay Geils have out-retroed the best of them, playing swing and jump blues from the ’30s and ’40s. Along with B.B. King, Robert Cray, and Tower of Power, the duo’s group Bluestime is one of the featured artists at the Fifth Annual Music City Blues Festival. The event kicks off 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Nashville Speedway. Fans who remember the J. Geils Band from synth-happy, radio-friendly hits such as “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame” may be surprised to hear these two rock vets playing tunes by Little Walter and Jay McShann. In truth, though, the Bluestime band is much closer to the J. Geils Band’s original, late-’60s incarnation.
Those interested in hearing the true range of Jay Geils’ talents are directed to Rhino’s 2-CD Houseparty anthology. The J. Geils Band featured on the collection is a soul/blues/rock powerhouse that had much in common with later groups like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. For further proof, check out the live collection Full House, which captures the ’70s-era Geils group at its finestDick delivers a mind-bending harmonica workout on “Whammer Jammer” that would leave Blues Traveler’s John Popper gasping for an oxygen tank.
Recently revived geezer acts such as Fleetwood Mac and Kiss used to open for J. Geils. But while both of those bands are raking in the cash from silver-anniversary tours, Geils and Dick have stuck to much more modest ambitions. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, they dropped out of the music business entirely; Geils opened an auto-restoration shop, while Dick worked on patenting inventions for the harmonica. But they never gave up music: Geils was a patron to, and regular guest musician for, a Boston-area blues band. Dick sang and played with a pickup blues band at (of all things) a cartoon festival in the Netherlands in 1992. Upon his return, Dick hooked up once more with Geils; after a few gigs, they decided to form a band. They recorded an album, Bluestime, for the Rounder label in 1994, and they released a follow-up, Little Car Blues, last year.
Both Geils’ guitar playing and Dick’s singing for Bluestime come as a pleasant surprise, since both men’s talents were downplayed in the J. Geils Band. Upright bassist “Mudcat” Ward, drummer Steve Ramsay, and rhythm guitarist/mandolinist Jerry Miller create a solid backdrop for the two soloists, churning out rock-solid swing tunes and Chicago blues workouts. Although you shouldn’t count on hearing “Centerfold” at the Music City Blues Fest (thank God), Dick and Geils will probably crank up the crowd with “Whammer Jammer” and the more recent “Full Court Press,” along with standards and originals worthy of Muddy, Sonny Boy, and all the old blues masters. (SC)
The music on A Brilliant Mistakethe latest album by recently revived indie-rockers Tsunamiis the finest in the band’s brief recorded career. The guitar squalls of the band’s early records have been channeled into moments of gripping fury amid calm, pleasant eddies of piano and horns. Kristin Thomson’s bass is bouncier than ever, and Jenny Toomey’s vocals are sweeter and more supple than the howls and mumbles she used in the past. All in all, the instrumentation on A Brilliant Mistake is a remarkable achievementan absorption of some of the prettier sounds of the “post-rock” movement while retaining a fundamentally aggro-punk edge.
If only Tsunami, who play Thursday at Lucy’s Record Shop, could do something about their lyrics. The group’s previous album, 1994’s The Heart’s Tremolo, was sunk by the junior-high-loser love poetry that Toomey crooned; now this album has a serious case of Ben Folds Syndrome, wherein the lyricist points the finger at everybody in society, save the face in her own mirror. What’s to be done with lines like, “When it all came down to the money/I knew we had lost our philosopher king” or “Floating somewhere between demigod and nothing/It’s hard to pay the rent/Is that all we get for cutting against the grain?” It isn’t the anti-corporate, anti-wage-slave, anti-capitalist, pro-artist sentiment of these songs that’s objectionable so much as the snide, overly clever, daughters-of-Roget way that these ideas are expressed. When Minutemen, Billy Bragg, or Bob Dylan put down the powers-that-be, they did so with snap and wit; Tsunami’s complaints merely seem insufferable.
Which is not to say that they can’t still rock the house in concert. Despite the fake humility and smug self-satisfaction that Toomey exhibits onstage, she and her bandmates are capable of moments of poignant beauty and ecstatic energyoften within the same song. It should be interesting Thursday night to hear if they can bring that power to bear on the more melodically complex compositions of A Brilliant Mistake...or if they can turn up the music loud enough to drown out the words. (NM)
Connoisseurs call Benny Martin one of country’s all-time great fiddlers, rhythm guitarists, and vocalists. In the course of a colorful career, he invented the eight-string fiddle, played on the Grand Ole Opry, toured as Elvis Presley’s opening act, and was managed briefly by Col. Tom Parker. (He’s also rumored to have saved Ira Louvin’s life by rushing the legendary musician to the hospital after he’d been shot.) More importantly, Martin won renown as a sideman with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, and many more. But Martin’s own recording career has been neglected in recent years. He cut a well-regarded series of recordings for Mercury in the 1950s, but the tracks are hard to find.
That should change this fall with the release of Lover of the Town, an 11-song retrospective on Nashville’s Red Sundown Records. The collection will contain such Martin favorites as “Ice Cold Love,” “Me and My Fiddle,” and the title trackalong with Martin’s traditional set closer, “Orange Blossom Special.” (The man and the song are so connected that fans call him “Mr. Orange Blossom Special.”) Chet Atkins, Del Wood, Lightning Chance, Smilin’ Eddy Hill, Sammy Pruitt, and a host of top-notch session players provide the backing.
Martin was honored last May in his hometown of Sparta with the 5th annual “Benny Martin Day.” But Red Sundown’s president, Ruby Strother Perry, says that Martin would still appreciate hearing from his fans. Write the fiddle great in care of Red Sundown Records, P.O. Box 609, Pleasant View, Tenn., 37146. Watch for the record in local stores in the next few months. (JR)
There are lovers of classical music who adore the crash of timpani and the blare of brass, and there are those who seek something more soothing. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra appeals to the latter with its new CD Romance at Sunset. Fans of WPLN’s Nocturne broadcast should welcome this assemblage of pensive, romantic, and elegiac performances, billed as an “album of music for quiet listening.”
Romance at Sunset features the NSO on familiar selections and less well-known compositions. Yes, Barber’s Adagio and Pachelbel’s Canon in D are includedbut so are Wayne Barlow’s The Winter’s Passed and Ennio Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe.” Other selections include Bach’s “Air” from Suite No. 3, the Dvorak Nocturne, and the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (Due to an editorial error, an article in the Scene’s “Arts Guide” last week incorrectly listed Dvorak’s ninth symphony and David Amram’s Kokopelli among the CD’s tracks, although both works are scheduled to appear on a future NSO release.)
The liner notes are by Scene critic Larry Adams, who knows his quiet-listening music: He created and formerly produced WPLN’s Nocturne. Cover art is by Bill Myers, with design by Timothy Holland. Watch for Romance at Sunset wherever quiet music is sold.
Elliptical dispatches: Better start phoning in those reservations for two just-announced jazz shows at Caffé Milano. On Oct. 22, guitarist Bill Frisellnoted for his work as a solo artist and bandleader, as well as for his performances with John Zorn’s Naked City and with Robin Holcombarrives in Nashville, which happens to be the title of his latest CD. He’ll be joined by two of his sidemen on the project, Jerry Douglas and Viktor Krauss. Nov. 11 brings saxophone sensation Joshua Redman and The Trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. Call 615-255-0073 for reservations and other info. Say, is there any chance of bringing back Diana Krall...?
Clockhouse, an industrial five-piece that moved to Nashville about seven months ago, plays Thursday at the Ace of Clubs and Monday at 12th & Porter. Band spokesman Glenn Blackman tells the curious to expect a racket somewhere between Nine Inch Nails and U2....
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