Album of the Year. Robert Kimbrough, Sr. Wiley Woot
I first heard Robert’s music when my band Adventures in Bluesland played a show with him this past June at the John Brown Smokehouse Blues Festival in Long Island City. Robert was brought up from Mississippi to NYC for the first time ever to play a couple of nights at the Smokehouse largely due to the efforts of Oliver Kostrinsky, one of the America’s unsung and most under appreciated ambassadors of blues music. Robert had his first slice of pizza while in NYC, and played two nights on the outdoor stage in Queens that weekend not with his regular Mississippi band, but with a very talented New York pick up band. The show I saw on that late spring Friday night had some great moments, but it only gave us a hint at what his new album would sound like.
Released in October, Kimbrough’s album “Wiley Woot” is a revelation. He has successfully combined the blues with a vibe of 1970s blaxploitation film soundtrack music. Yes, there are perhaps a few too many minor key two-chord songs, but at 75-minutes long none of this album is filler. The songs are firmly anchored in the blues, at times approach 70s style soul music, and as mentioned many of them have this cinematic soundtrack thing going on. Because of the song’s grooves and minor keys, much of the album has a mysterious and dangerous feel.
Several of the songs deal lyrically with Robert and his late father the legendary Junior Kimbrough, which gives us some insight to where the music (and Robert) comes from. I found those songs to be particularly revealing and personal. Everything is clicking on this collection — the singing, guitar playing, rhythm section, and songwriting.
The word on the street is that Robert is recording a new album in 2017 for the New Jersey-based Cornelius Chapel Records (Dexateens, etc.). I’m not so confident that punk blues/alt-country record label is a good fit for him, but if marketed correctly and with his great music and family pedigree, Robert has the potential to be a presence on the international blues scene for years to come.
Runner-up: Hipp Pipps (self-titled album).
Great songs, great musicianship, great hooks, and great production from NYC’s rock ‘n roll trio. The album captures the energy of their live shows and it will get you MOVING. Plus, these tunes are all originals — no cover songs allowed here. I would have liked to have heard one minor key and/or slow(er) song to break up the non-stop tempo and feel of their album, but man it all rocks daddy-o, like few others ever will.
Runner-up: Velvet Underground The Matrix Tapes
This ‘best of’ list is for new releases, but due to my strong feelings about this 3-CD set I have included an album recorded in the 1960s but released in early 2016. I played an in-store at Gilbert Joseph in Paris last spring and the very generous manager of that great record store let each of us in the band select a CD at the end of our performance as a gift for playing in his store. I picked this.
The original 1974 Velvet Underground two album set Live 1969 is one of my desert island discs and if you know the history of that album you may know that the source of much of it came from these live Velvet Underground tapes recorded in San Francisco at a club called The Matrix in 1969. The remastered sound quality on The Matrix Tapes is fantastic and of course, the performances are memorable. The band sounds loose, casual and like they’re having fun. Did Lou Reed actually ever have fun? If he did it may have been on these nights in San Francisco when this album was recorded. If you are new to the songwriting of Lou Reed, this collection of songs (all written before he turned thirty years old) is a great starting point. You’ll hear what all the fuss is about and why his legend continues to grow.
Concert of the Year: C.W. Stoneking at Rough Trade, Brooklyn
Stoneking rolled into Brooklyn on September 8 and played one of my favorite small theater venues to kick off his American tour which ran into late October. His exclusively female band contains all Brooklyn-based musicians, though I knew or had heard of none of them (which isn’t surprising considering my limited knowledge of the Brooklyn music scene). The entire band are great players — there is no weak link. I particularly enjoyed Moist Paula’s tasteful work on the baritone sax.
To call C.W. Stoneking’s music style retro does not do it justice. This Australian has taken American popular music from the 1920s era and revamped it into something new and his own. I admire that he’s not afraid to play his slow ballads which he does extremely well. Some of the uptempo songs have these disjointed rhythms where it feels like the whole thing is going to fall apart… but it never does! The band was tight but loose, which to me is perfect and as a musician something many aspire to but never achieve.
His song “Jungle Swing” was a live standout and is one of the strongest cuts from his latest album Goin’ Boogaloo. I really enjoyed the band’s background vocals throughout the set and it was that kind of attention to details that gave the music a lot of depth. Stoneking dances around on his orange Gretch guitar playing wonderful melodies and rhythm parts, many which are jazz inspired. Of course, that means early 20th-century jazz. If you had to describe Stoneking’s music in a couple of words I would use “old-timey.”
Lyrically he’s got an unusual obsession with his antiquated idea of the ‘jungle’ and ‘jungle music’. This type of lyrical imagery often makes me flash back to a black and white Tarzan movies of the 1930s with native tribes running through the jungle holding spears. The theme of much of the music is this pre-war, colonial, and incredibly politically incorrect idea of what Africa was like a hundred years ago. You really have to experience it to get what I’m talking about as it’s somewhat abstract. Colonial Africa isn’t something that most of us spend a lot of time thinking about. Oh, and throw in some Polynesian desert isle imagery too.
I have no idea who Stoneking’s audience is or will be. All I know is that he’s making some great music right now and I enjoy his songwriting very much. The crowd at Rough Trade was a younger one. I don’t see him appealing to the rockabilly or swing music folks because his music doesn’t swing hard particularly. I actually enjoy his very moving ballads more than his “swing tunes.” Maybe over time he will create his own crowd, and I think that is already starting to happen. Right now he seems to be out there on his own with his unique style of music. So original, so well played, and so retro inspired as it is.
Runner up: Brian Hurd and Willy Gantrim at Drexler’s, September.
Great fun blues from two major talents in the intimate and friendly setting of Drexler’s basement. Hurd is a powerhouse performer and natural entertainer. His timing of switching off between playing blues harp and drinking a cocktail at the same time is priceless. Gantrim’s guitar playing is outstanding and he has some great songs. These guys are double trouble, and I’m looking forward to hearing their collaborations in the future. In the informal private party atmosphere at Drexler’s they put on a killer show.
Runner-up: Lach at the Sidewalk Cafe, October.
Our ex-pat anti-folk hero, Lach returned in style to the Big Apple and brought his (new to me) uber-polished ‘show biz/working the room guy’ entertainer persona with him. However slick his on-stage patter is now, with Lach it’s always been about his original songs, and he’s got some excellent ones. The old songs that I remembered from the 90s sounded great and his newer tunes that he played that night at his AHPresents Sidewalk Cafe show were very strong. My take from seeing him live again after twenty years or so is that as an artist he has flourished since moving to Europe. Lach always had an extremely focused vision for his music and I like where he’s going with it. Right on.
Best guitar effect pedal purchase of the year: Biyang Tri Reverb
A couple of years ago in my “Best of 2014” column I raved about my latest pedal purchase the Behringer Reverb Machine RV600. Well, was I ever wrong about that pedal. A few months into 2015 the switch mechanism broke and the pedal could never be switched on or off. I have had the same problems with the Behringer Vibrato pedal too, probably as a result of their cheap plastic casing. I won’t be recommending Behringer pedals to anyone.
For a reverb pedal, I don’t need a lot of settings. I don’t need any of the “space age echo” sounds and so forth. So when it came time to buy a new reverb pedal I went with the Tri Reverb which was very affordable at $59.00. This pedal only has three settings for reverbs with a couple of variations for each. They range from something old school like the spring reverb to something more modern and digital sounding.
This suits me fine. Why pay more for bells and whistles that I will never use? So far, so good with this pedal. The only drawback is that is a battery eater, so using it outside of my electrical output powered pedal board isn’t a great option. I tried it recently using a 9-volt battery and it died onstage after about an hour.