CD Review: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Way Back

There’s a lot more to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith than his best-known role as the drummer in Muddy Waters’s band. His new CD finds the singer, composer, drummer and harmonica player in fine form at age 70.

Taking front and center on a mix of covers and originals, Smith leads a variety of top cats through a delightful eleven-song set of old-school Chicago blues. With Pinetop Perkins, that nonagenarian national treasure, on piano, and guest appearances by other notables including fellow Muddy Waters alums James Cotton and Bob Margolin, these songs incline mostly towards the joyful side of the blues, which is part of the reason I’ve hardly stopped listening to it since I got it.

Highlights include the Muddy Waters tune “Read Way Back”; Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic “Don’t Start Me Talkin'”; and Smith’s own wryly funny “I Don’t Trust You Man” and Howlin’ Wolf-style one-chorder “Woman’s World.” The beautiful original “Blues and Trouble,” a slow number played with only Margolin’s resonator guitar and Smith’s harp backing up the vocal, is the heart of the CD: “Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / Blues and trouble bother me everywhere I go / I’m so stuck in the bottom and can’t see the light no more.” But Smith doesn’t stay down in the dumps for long, picking up the sticks to bang out the backbeat behind guest guitarist Billy Flynn’s composition “I Want You To Love Me.”

Smith plays drums himself on only two tracks; his son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith more than ably handles skins duty on the rest. In spite of the variety of musicians helping out, the whole CD has the feel of a family affair. For authentic traditional Chicago blues played by some of the best in the business, look no further.

Theater Review: Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?

Canadian novelist and playwright Trevor Ferguson’s new drama, Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?, is both a chillingly intimate, R-rated portrait of a pair of psychological self-flagellants and a Stoppardian cyclone of words.

The play has three powerful stars: Lina Roessler, who delivers a perfect storm of a performance as the tragically damaged Adrienne; Brett Watson, who starts as a whipped, whiny underbelly but goes brilliantly nova as Ricky, Adrienne’s companion in twisted love; and Ferguson’s language, florid, elegant, and fiery, not so much unrealistic as hyper-real, wholly and precisely expressive of the shared inner world of the two broken geniuses he spreads before us in all their psychological gore.

Compressed into one long afternoon in a messy Paris flat, the action – briskly directed by Robin A. Paterson – reveals the two characters’ relationship from its beginning through what could be its end, all told through hyperkinetic words and actions that cannot be disentangled into the spoken and the done. The play is disturbing and cathartic, familiar and strange.

Secrets are revealed in good dramatic fashion and suspense is built up and released skillfully. (Ferguson’s experience as a writer of mystery novels probably shows here). Some audience members may be dissatisfied as some plot points are left open to interpretation, but I was not. Though some mystery remains, the play is as much about the irreducible and irresistible power of language as it is about the effects of child abuse. The story is as resolved as the subject matter allows.

Roessler, who bears a superficial physical resemblance to Parkey Posey, is astonishingly facile with Ferguson’s squirms and turns of language. With almost supernatural energy she rolls (sometimes literally) through scenelet after scenelet, taking the play’s hard plot turns and abrupt mood shifts without a stumble, staying fluidly real through all the pointed artifice of the text like a fine Shakespearean actor does. She is, in a word, magnificent.

Watson, very nearly her match, shifts easily among his character’s several modes, from sexual submissive to parental stand-in to Prospero-like bard. These two very physical actors are as much the creators of this language-drenched world – where words themselves are soul, fate, and sex – as the playwright. The play, and these two performances, are easily among the best you’ll see on the off-Broadway stage this year.

Through May 21 at Theatre 54 in New York, a bargain at $30. Don’t bring your children. Do bring a sweater; the theater is chilly.

Indie Round-Up for Apr 20 2006: Brandston, Wendt, Mulligan, Martin

Brandtson, Hello, Control

Brandtson has been around for nearly a decade, but somehow I’d missed the whole phenomenon until now. Not knowing the band’s previous work, I can only consider the new CD on its own terms – but there’s nothing wrong with fresh ears. And there’s not much wrong with the CD, either – it’s full of melodic, modern rock with bite, and more hooks per square foot than a velcro dance floor.

The soft-rock opener, “A Thousand Years,” has a Neil Finn-style melody, and the bright “Earthquakes & Sharks” is clever and catchy, if not very original musically, with funny lyrics and supple, close harmonies that evoke Squeeze. Ska-punk-disco makes a fiery appearance in “Denim Iniquity.” “Nobody Dances Anymore” is relentlessly danceable. And so on. A few of the songs in the second half get a bit drony and repetitive, but the whole album is enjoyable, and that’s a rare thing in pop-rock.

Sara Wendt, Here’s Us

Sara Wendt‘s captivating new EP meets the expectations raised by its promotional copy: “rocking yet delicate and nuanced… featuring haunting overtones that make her music both vivid and dreamy.”

“I’ll Be Waiting” is a tense and powerful pop gem. Wendt’s sad and beautiful cover of Homer Erotic’s “King of the Ghosts” has a sun-baked Mediterranean feel, as her keening wail trades riffs with co-producer Ann Klein‘s fuzzed-out guitar. The poetry is like an offspring of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, and Wendt’s wrenching delivery squeezes the most out of it.

“Pretty Dark Knight” is a dreamy, Eastern-influenced drone complete with sitar (Klein again). It’s a little like The Doors’ “The End” turned upside down and inside out. An unexpected chord change in the chorus and the crystalline toll of a bell provide all the drama the song needs. The title track is another catchy pop nugget, this time on the Sara McLachlan tip.

The final two songs don’t do much for me, but the opening lines of “Weightless With Love” do give a good idea of the sharp angles of her language: “I can’t make small talk with words that big/With those big words you used on me.” Sara Wendt is an original talent graced with a lovely voice. This is intelligent, variegated music that is perhaps most easily classified as pop-rock, but shouldn’t be shoehorned into any such category.

Melissa Mulligan, Sparrow

Hit machine Melissa Mulligan is back with a new EP featuring her new killer track, the hard-rocking “Objectify Me,” a tongue-in-cheek take on the objectification of women. “I’m getting bored as heck/With all your damn respect/When’s this friendship gonna end?” The rollicking closer, “Laughing (I Dare You)” is a similarly slanted take on love games, all of two minutes and eleven seconds long. In between, Mulligan’s more reflective side appears in the pretty “Nashville,” while the soul-rock churner “Walk Out” shows off her strong Janis Joplin influence. It’s a good song, and more to point, it’s just the kind of thing Janis would have turned into a showstopper; Mulligan stays true to that mode with spirited vocal pyrotechnics. All that it’s missing is the Kozmic Blues horn section.

Todd Martin, Time For Good

There’s a big market for guys like Todd Martin. You hear them on the radio one after another: gentle-voiced, unthreatening balladeers with a sensitive catch in their voice and a touch of rock in their arrangements. But their songs too often have limp melodies and cliche-ridden lyrics.

Martin manages to rise above the sad stereotype at certain points on his new CD. His sweet voice, half Freedy Johnston and half Michael Stipe, is a well-tuned and emotional instrument that gives a soothing quality to the choruses of “Punchline” and “Midas to Minus.” And there are other likeable bits and pieces, like the killer opening riff of “Save Myself” and the dramatic, wall-of-sound build in “This Life.” But on the whole, the earnest vocals, artful production and ace backing band can’t inject enough personality into these unremarkable songs.

Available here.

Bennett Calls for Imperial Presidency

Bill Bennett, racist, gambler, failed drug czar and, incredibly, author of something called The Book of Virtues, has gathered up his impeccable credibility and attacked the Pulitzer committee for awarding journalism prizes for reporting on secret CIA prisons and domestic eavesdropping.

The reporters, Bennett said, “took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others… I don’t think what they did was worthy of an award – I think what they did is worthy of jail.”

Bennett is – one can only hope – no longer taken seriously by most Americans. But his outburst is worthy of note because it is a slip of the tongue that betrays the real attitudes of the Bush Right. With all their talk of liberty and democracy, in their pickled little hearts they actually believe in an imperial presidency.

Bennett’s phrasing was not accidental. The day journalists are beholden to the “wishes of the president” is the day we no longer have a free press. And the Republican Right doesn’t believe in a free press. How can there be a fourth estate when there’s only one estate – the executive, all-powerful and impervious to criticism?

First Bill Bennett revealed the Right’s core racism by suggesting that crime would go down if all black babies were aborted (also cf. sweet, grandmotherly Barbara Bush’s post-Katrina comments); now he’s betraying its true, only halfheartedly hidden, monarchical ideal. Nicely done, Mr. B.

Appropriately, White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s resignation this morning included the kowtowing due an executive who conceives himself as, in his own words, “the decider”: “I have given it my all, sir, and I have given you my all, sir.”

Indeed. Bush’s imperial attitude has been evident for years. But with everything he’s attempted going horribly wrong, the American public is waking up to it.

Theater Review: A Jew Grows In Brooklyn

Part cabaret, part stand-up, and part autobiographical monologue, Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man musical comedy A Jew Grows In Brooklyn pays tribute to the Borscht Belt bands and tummlers from whom the actor-comedian-musican – now fiftyish but buoyantly youthful – learned the trade he plies so well.

With comic timing like Jackie Mason, a flat-out beautiful singing voice, and a c.v. ranging from Broadway to rock bands to touring as Ringo in Beatlemania, Ehrenreich is the ideal crossover character – both an examplar of the now-vanished Catskills scene and an assimilated Jew as creator (and performer) of pop culture.

Ehrenreich grew up in the heart of Brooklyn, the child of immigrant Holocaust survivors, and the story of his boyhood and youth – especially the all-important summertime Catskills escape – along with a coda about marriage and fatherhood make up the show’s storyline and its heart. It’s a little like watching someone’s home movies, but with the characters brought vividly to life – and with musical numbers.

The best of those include Aaron Lebedeff’s signature Borscht Belt number “Romania,” a bash-em-up drum solo by Ehrenreich himself on “Sing Sing Sing,” and the cleverest sixties-rock medley you’re ever likely to hear. The band, led by bassist Elysa Sunshine, plays well both musically and as an anchor for Ehrenreich’s rich but skittering performance.

The show is sentimental, in the way of old-fashioned family entertainment. But every time it gets close to being too syrupy, Ehrenreich and his director, Jon Huberth, pull back from the brink. In the end, theater is all about balance, and this show has it just right: lots of humor, sweetness, and contagious song-and-dance energy; a little personal sadness; and a sense of family and cultural history, with its comforts and of course – we’re talking about Jews, after all – its tragedies.

And I didn’t even mention the audience participation. (Hint: Simon Says go see this show.)

Through May 28 at the American Theater of Actors, New York City.

CD Review: Danielle Howle, Thank You Mark

Like her stage persona, Danielle Howle’s music is authentic and quirky at the same time. Stylistically, she travels to and fro. But with a cock-eyed worldview and a voice that drips with irony, she uses the American songwriter’s standard bag of tools and tricks to blaze, and when necessary cut, her own path.

Her new CD opens with the irresistible “Roses from Leroy’s,” which has an 80s pop-rock vibe. But then suddenly she’s evoking Patsy Cline – and pretty darned well at that – with “I’ll Be Blue.” “Fields of Cotton” has a traditional folk flavor, while “Oh Swear” swings with horns. Produced by Hootie and the Blowfish’s Mark Bryan, the CD also features a wonderful duet with Hootie singer Darius Rucker on the Etta James/Harvey Fuqua classic “If I Can’t Have You” (admittedly, this is a song that would have been tough to screw up).

Howle is a kick-ass live performer, but her unapologetically inexpert vocals may take a little getting used to on record. Yet listen to the ballad “This Kind of Light” and you’ll hear something of the heartwrenching sugar of Bonnie Raitt and a bit of the raw boniness of PJ Harvey combining into a unique and powerful voice – and I don’t mean just the literal voice, but also the figurative “voice” of the storyteller or fiction writer. It’s the storytelling, even more than the delivery, that makes these songs work as well as they do.

“Walking Through the Black,” in spite of not having a super-strong hook, has a soulful force and builds to a big climax, while the torchy “Love is a Fall” is a fine example of Howle’s skill with melody. “Who Knows” shows off the humorous side that’s so evident at her live shows. In fact every song here has a feel that’s quite different from all the others. The CD is charming and never boring. Fans will be pleased, and new fans should be made.

CD Reviews: Indie Round-Up For April 6 2006

Well, it finally happened: an Indie Round-Up where not one of the CDs under review – there are four this week – is available with cover art at Amazon. That means, for those of you reading this on Blogcritics, which is probably 99% of you, an unreferenced CD will be pictured at the head of this article. However, far from being a random pick, the CD pictured has been selected for you using our patented Bagel&Rat Recommendation Engine. So you, yes you, will be sure to enjoy it.

Oh, and for those of you reading this at my own blog, The Bagel and the Rat: Hi, Mom!

Now on to this week’s new stuff:

ANN KLEIN, My Own Backyard

Every so often the busy New York City guitar-slinger Ann Klein releases a CD of her own work. Her recent My Own Backyard is the sweetest and smoothest yet.

The opening track, “Hank Williams,” is a delicious rootsy rocker that reminds me a tiny bit of one of my all-time favorite guitar songs, the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman.” The bouncy “All That I Had Missed” establishes the CD’s Americana focus as well as Klein’s mastery of country guitar feeling and technique – she plays the regular six-string, the lap steel, the mandolin and the dobro (as well as the bass), all on this one song.

The title track is a beautiful little ballad co-written with Tim Hatfield, who also mixed and co-produced the album.

Klein’s expressive but small voice has been skilfully recorded and set in the mix so that it punches through, and the songs are well crafted, especially those noted above and the juicy Mary Chapin Carpenter-style twang-rocker “You Can Be My Rainy Day.” But Klein’s guitar work is the star; the CD would be a pleasure to hear on the strength of that alone.

In some songs, the whole doesn’t equal the sum of the parts – “Part of the Game” and “There’s a Storm Comin’,” for example, are full of charm and flowing guitars, but have somewhat wilted hooks. Inspired bits like the solo in “Go Back to Chattanooga” and the sparkling harmonies on the chorus of “Love Is Standing By” keep the second half of the CD from losing steam, however.

Good stuff here, on several levels.

Available at CD Baby here.


With their gloomy alt-rock lyrics dressed in shiny power-pop duds, Controlling the Famous sounds more like a cleaned-up Clash than like most of the new rock bands on the scene. With U2-influenced guitar drills and ska-leaning beats, the songs motor through your brain like fast cars speeding along Big Sur.

The straight-up, vibrato-free vocals remind one of Dave Grohl, and although these boys can’t quite match the Foo Fighers’ melodic prowess (few bands can), their best songs are a cut above the norm, in particular the clever, punchy opener “Detox,” the passionate, midtempo “Heart Attack,” the intense “Highway Parking Lot,” and the catchy “Two Sides” which seems like a snappy answer to the No Doubt hit “Hey Baby.”

Automatic City will be available in stores May 16. Meanwhile, you can listen to “Two Sides” at the band’s Myspace page.

JOE ROHAN, These Days

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a dose of good old heartland rock. Cleveland’s Joe Rohan is like a more honey-voiced John Mellencamp with a supple falsetto added. Sharp production makes a polished place-setting for Rohan’s strong tenor voice, and the arrangements feature just enough keyboard licks and crisp funkiness to suggest a blue-eyed, countrified kind of soul – the smooth-as-silk “Cold Winter Day” in particular suggests Lyle Lovett.

The fabulous opener, “Desert Love,” could be a radio hit, and “Lovestruck Romeo” is a good, bluesy number. Rohan’s expert acoustic guitar work is featured on the sweet “James Dean,” but as a song, it, like most of the remainder, is just average, composed of really nice parts but too often (as in “Angeline” and “Pair of Horses”) relying too heavily on melodic cliches. These songs cry out for big hooks that don’t come.

Still, the best tracks on here are excellent indeed. And Rohan includes a frantic, Bad Company-style cover of “Ring of Fire” that’s maybe worth the price of admission all by itself. Finally, stay till the end for the lovely, evocative guitar instrumental called “The Moon.”

KEVIN SO, The Brooklyn Sessions EP

While he works on a new full-length CD, the prolific Kevin So is giving his fans something to tide them over with this low-budget but slick-sounding EP. Four good Kevin So songs are worth more than an hour of music from most artists, and these tracks represent some of his best, maybe even a new peak in his career.

Since his move to New York about three years ago, So has evolved from a hardworking, top-notch folkie to a jazzy neo-soul genius. If he didn’t have an Asian face, would Kevin So be where John Legend is now? Quite possibly. Are Western audiences ready for a literate and sophisticated, but mainstream and accessible, Chinese-American R&B singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist with mesmerizing stage presence, brilliant songs, and godlike cheekbones? If it ain’t, it sure as hell should be.

These new tracks will soon be available online. Until then: Kevin So’s last studio album, a two-disc set, is available here, and his even more recent double live album here.

CD Review: Various Artists, Alligator Records: 35X35

In two senses, it’s pretty hard to believe that Alligator Records, the formerly upstart blues label out of Chicago, has been around for 35 years.

First, Alligator seems – at least to a fortysomething like myself – to have always been with us. What, only 35? Not as old as the blues itself? Not…forever?

And second, it’s remarkable when any independent label survives this long, no matter what its mission. Alligator has done it with a two-pronged strategy: scout and sign new talent, while also picking up seasoned, even legendary artists who, for reasons ranging from fickle audiences to personal demons, have fallen out of the spotlight (at least in the US, the birthplace of the blues) and are due for comebacks.

To celebrate the longevity and devotion that have made Alligator the world’s most successful modern blues label, it has just put out a two-CD collection spotlighting its three and a half decades of releasing some of the best blues (and, occasionally, blues-ish) music money can buy. Founder Bruce Iglauer and his team selected one track from each of 35 artists’ first releases for the label, ranging from Hound Dog Taylor’s Howlin’ Wolf-style, elemental electric blues to Son Seals’s minor-key funked-up variety; from Koko Taylor’s 1975 comeback to Charlie Musselwhite’s in 1990; from Professor Longhair’s last recording in 1980 to the teenage Shemekia Copeland’s first in 1998.

Alligator seems to have been along for almost every musical journey the blues has taken contemporary fans. From Buddy Guy and James Cotton to Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack, the list of world-famous artists who have recorded for the label goes on and on. It released Corey Harris when he was starting out as a country-blues revivalist, Elvin Bishop when he returned to his blues roots, and Mavis Staples when she sought to bring her soulful gospel message to the public after 9/11. Guitar heroes, fiery belters, harmonica masters, and even C. J. Chenier’s Zydeco have found a home on Alligator, and we’re all the better for it.

You’d be hard put to find a better companion for the second semester of your Blues 101 survey course, should you happen to be teaching one. (You’d need to go elsewhere for the early country styles and other traditional forms with which the blues began.) Alligator has wisely stuck a single-CD price on this chronologically ordered two-disc set, making it but a small investment for those (like most of us) whose music budget makes us hesitate to buy a compilation rather than seeking out just those artists we already know we like the very best. There’s not a dud on here; in spite of the subgenre-hopping, it’s a pleasurable listen straight through. Pick it up if you enjoy but are only glancingly familiar with the blues, or get it for a youngster you know – you might just light a fire under someone that won’t ever be put out.