Soul of the Blues, June 27 2007

Last night featured one of the most wide-ranging Soul of the Blues lineups in recent months, and it was a smash. Nu Millennium, a talented and funny four-man a capella singing group from Brooklyn, opened the night with a set of classic soul (and a touch of disco). The crowd at Cornelia Street Cafe whooped so loud they threated to drown out the gentlemen on stage.

Nu Millenium

Then Florida’s Ernie Southern and his two shiny steel guitars rocked the crowd – quite a few of whom came specifically to see him – with a solo set of high-energy Delta blues. That primed our audience for a smooth, funky set from the Anthony Robustelli Band, which featured saxman extraordinaire Deji Coker. Keyboardist and singer-songwriter Robustelli runs a super-tight and soulful New York City act reminiscent of Steely Dan. Coker blew fire from his alto and the band was seriously cookin’.

Best thing was the good feeling that comes out of these shows. No one makes a ton of money, but the vibe is sweet. Nu Millennium’s fans stayed to hear Ernie, and Ernie’s fans stayed to hear Anthony and his band. All is good.

Theater Review: The Hunt for Treasure

The Hunt for Treasure, a cute two-character play with flashes of wit, owes much of its humor to the comic timing of its excellent cast, Avery Pearson and John Calvin Kelly. Essentially a clown piece, it follows the adventures of the antic, attention-starved Jason (Pearson) and his reluctant, sad-eyed straight-man friend Mark (pun intended?) (Kelly), who find a treasure map in a public park and set off to find the X that marks the spot.

Though funny, the play doesn’t seem to know quite what it is. Godot-style existentialism? Check. Gross-out humor? Check. Irony? Check. The writing is sharp and the actors make the most of every bit. But their exchanges of game-playing and banter, replete with shameless mugging and adolescent whininess, often do feel more like separate bits than a progression that tells a story.

On the plus side, the blurred intentions set up an effective twist ending. Though the action seems to take place in a sort of existential limbo, we suspend our disbelief and enjoy not only the crazy energy but also, within limits, the vague sense of confusion. Then, the distinctive and touching ending helps make sense of what has seemed odd and nonsensical.

The downside is flab around the middle. In this play, which is only an hour long but has two authors, the strands of farce (the majority) and feeling (an essential leavening agent) aren’t entirely woven together. Hence, through no fault of the invigorating performances, the action sags. Unsure to what degree the world of the play is supposed to reflect the real world, we lose our sense of how much we want to care about the characters.

From the reaction of the tipsy opening night audience, which was full of friends and cohorts (including a lady who repeated every funny line out loud), you wouldn’t have guessed The Hunt for Treasure to be anything but comic genius from start to finish. It’s not. But it is fun, and in Pearson and Kelly it boasts two sharp and winning presences.

Through July 8 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, NYC. Tickets online at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Tinsley Ellis, Alternate Routes, King Wilkie and More

Tinsley Ellis, Moment of Truth

Tinsley Ellis often draws comparisons to blues and rock guitar legends like Freddie King and Warren Haynes, but when I listen to his heavy-lidded blues-rock I can’t help thinking of Jimi Hendrix and his disciple Stevie Ray Vaughn. I think it’s a combination of the unflashy singing and the stripped-down guitar-bass-drums attack.

Yes, there are some keyboards on Ellis’s new CD, but they’re for decoration. The album is first and foremost about great guitar playing, and only secondarily about the songs, which are solid and structurally straightforward. This is rock-hard no-excuses Southern blues going strong in the new century.

Moment of Truth is the second release of the Atlanta bluesman’s second tenure with Alligator Records. The label’s Bruce Iglauer summed it up when he first heard Ellis’s music in the late 1980s: “It had the power of rock but felt like the blues.” Ellis’s playing has become a little sparer over the years but, if anything, gained a feeling of easy fluidity.

That’s especially evident in some of the new CD’s slower tunes, like “You’re Gonna Thank Me” and the gloomy, minor-key “Too Much of Everything.” But even when he brings out the pyrotechnics, as in “Bringin’ Home the Bacon,” Ellis makes it sound easy. Using the standard blues guitar palette he seems to always manage to have something a little bit new to say with each solo. Like all the best blues guitarists, he gives his instrument a real speaking voice.

Highly recommended for blues and rock-guitar fans, and a good introduction to Tinsley Ellis for those new to his music.

The Alternate Routes, Good and Reckless and True

I first heard the Alternate Routes when one of their songs appeared on a compilation CD with one of mine. The song, “Ordinary,” stopped me on my tracks – I hadn’t heard such a good pop song in a while.

Naturally, when I received the Alternate Routes CD I was worried that the rest of the songs wouldn’t measure up. But it turns out to be a very good CD. “Ordinary,” with its memorable, soaring melody and lyrics, screams “first single” to my ears, but the band is more than one great track. Bursts of power-pop (“Who Cares?”, “Time is a Runaway”) mingle with sophisticated Sting-like ballads (“Hollywood”, “The Black and the White”) and high octane rockers (“Going Home With You,” “Are You Lonely?”). Tying them together are Tim Warren’s clear, bright tenor – like Sting’s voice without the rasp – and the band’s ability to fuse affecting melodies with his graceful lyrics.

Not every song is brilliant, but it’s a relief to know that “Ordinary” isn’t a fluke. “Going Home With You” is crafty and menacing. “Hollywood” has an unexpected chord change that gets you right in the gut. The more generic-sounding “Time is a Runaway” – the actual first single – has a beautifully photographed, skilfully directed but ultimately boring video directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the filmmaker responsible for the awful Laurel Canyon but also the excellent High Art. You can watch the video if you want to see what these guys look like driving around in a van, but the album is the important thing, and it’s a fine achievement.

Highly recommended for adult-alternative audiences, twentysomething hipsters… practically anyone, in fact.

Listen at their Myspace page.

King Wilkie, Low Country Suite

Here’s a CD that really sneaks up on you. The young band King Wilkie earned an “Emerging Artist of the Year” designation from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2004. (The stiff competition that year included Cherryholmes.) Now, still using bluegrass instruments, the Vriginia sextet has recorded a new collection of original songs with maturity and skill. The lyrics aren’t always great, and co-lead vocalist Reid Burgess will probably learn to sing with a little more subtlety. But those are minor flaws. Lovingly produced by Jim Scott, who’s worked with Tom Petty and the Dixie Chicks, the CD sounds like flowers and flows like wine.

Once in a while there’s a tiny bit too much flow, in fact, and the band seems to de-focus, as in “Rockabye.”

Many of the songs, especially those sung by the buttery-voiced John McDonald, are fairly dark. “When the levee broke, nobody was around/You stood by watching when I fell to the ground/There’s no blood on my hands, ’cause I do what I’m told/Want to live a lot longer, now I’m feeling so old,” sings McDonald in the beautiful “Savannah.” The songs that you could call truly fun, like “Angeline” and “Miss Peabody,” are in the distinct minority. But the disc leaves you feeling good simply to have basked in the presence, for 43 minutes, of a superb musical sensibility.

The closing tune, “Captivator,” begins in a sweet and low James Taylor-like mode, then kicks up into a shout-along rave-up that’s sure to bring a smile to your face. Unless a motorcycle just ran over your foot.

Highly recommended for roots music and Americana fans. Hear tracks at the King Wilkie website, and watch a quick “making of” video at Can these guys be as sweet-natured as they seem in the video? If they are… holy easy chair, Batman! They also have a Myspace page.

Kate Voegele, Don’t Look Away

Speaking of Myspace: now that the site has gone into the record label business, aren’t you curious whom they’ve chosen to sign?

The answer is Kate Voegele, a highly commercial-sounding but refreshingly non-wimpy chanteuse-songwriter out of Cleveland. Her debut CD certainly beats what most of those American Idol alums have had cranked out under their names. The best songs are top-notch, and Marshall Altman’s crystalline production is just inventive enough to keep the ear dancing even through the lesser tunes. There are no real duds anyway. If you appreciate good, youthful pop that a person over 25 – or, say, a Tori Amos or even a Joni Mitchell fan – wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught listening to, this is a good choice.

Hear full tracks at her Myspace page.

And now, on to some indie EPs that have come my way recently.

The Compulsions, Laughter From Below

The Compulsions make crackling New York City hard rock. Their shimmery-grungy guitars come straight from AC/DC and Keith Richards, their smart-ass sneer from punk bands like the Dictators, their drawling beats from blues-rockers like the Black Crowes. Put it all together and the Compulsions seem to be aiming to fill the empty slot left by Guns N’ Roses.

Their EP rocks hard, and their best songs, like “Down on the Tracks,” “Howlin’ For You,” and the country-ish ballad “My Favorite Wine,” have the kind of ragged simplicity that makes for classics. When their songwriting matures a tiny bit more, they could contend to take over the world – or at least its dirty underside, which is the fun part anyway.

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.

Guards of Metropolis, Whatever It Is

Is there a void in your musical life where Elastica and Garbage used to reside? Then this half-Norwegian, half-Californian quartet might be the cure for what ails you. The first two songs on Guards of Metropolis’s new four-song EP are slick, happy-angry little elasto-rock gems, and the title track even boasts a light taste of progressive-rock complexity. Its chugging antiwar message goes down easy: “You keep screaming that peace is a reason to fight/You keep praying and saying the future is bright/You keep shovelin’ shovelin’ shovelin’ shite/Under our noses/While telling us that you’re planting roses.” Hmm, who could they be talking about?

I’m not sure what the fast-barreling rocker “Exhole” is about, but it isn’t anything nice. And that’s a good thing.

On the heavier “Perfect World,” snarling singer Kristin Blix switches to a menacing whisper. “It’s a perfect world,” she sings, “and I’m the perfect girl” – daring us to say otherwise. The EP closes with “Have You Found Your Yoko Yet?”, a pretty, Lennon-esque power ballad with a nicely building musical structure.

Guards of Metropolis is a promising band and I look forward to hearing a lot more from them.

Jack Conte, Nightmares and Daydreams

Jack Conte brings pop, art-rock, and classical music influences to bear on this acoustic-electronica EP. Smoothly cerebral with a moody, concentrated energy, these four songs give your brain a wee workout along with your ears. Classy, tasteful stuff.

The Morning Pages, The Company You Keep

This warm, analog-recorded Americana EP comes from a Brooklyn band with a fine philosophy: as singer-songwriter Grant Maxwell notes, there is “a yearning for a more organic music that is emerging in some of the new bands.” Elements of country music, Dylan-style folk-rock, and gospel meet in piano-heavy arrangements that suggest The Band.

But the nasal lead vocals are kind of annoying, and with the exception of the rollicking, minor-key “With the Lord,” the songwriting is on the weak side. The Band, let it be noted, recorded a bunch of foot-draggers as well as their great long-distance runners like “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek.” The Morning Pages need to come up with more of the latter sort.

Richard Thompson Always Takes the Weather With Him

Richard Thompson brought thunder, lightning, and an on-and-off downpour to Brooklyn last night and we got soaked, but we still had a great time at the Celebrate Brooklyn concert. The Prospect Park bandshell has an amazing sound system. I could understand almost all the lyrics, even of the songs I’d never heard, which was most of them (there were a lot of new songs in the set). But Richard and his band did play “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “Wall of Death,” and he make sure to mesmerize the crowd with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” His son Teddy joined him for a gorgeous rendition of “Persuasion.”

Back on the lawn, girls ran around with glow rings until they fell down. Grown-up people were wet but happy. A few tall, quiet men stood around wearing Richard Thompson hats. I tried to use my beach chair as an umbrella. Meg told us all about how Pete Seeger had given her a cookie at the Clearwater Festival. Starbucks provided tiny cups of free coffee, and beer (not free) abounded.


Richard Thompson and his band at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, 6/22/2007. Photo by Meg Braun.

Theater Review: The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero

Marissa Kamin’s The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero is about as up-to-the-minute as a play can be. It’s too sweet to feel edgy, but via sharp, racy dialogue, sparkling performances, and immersion in the culture of the YouTube-and-bulimia generation, we witness the pressure-cooker of twenty-first century teenage life with what feels like scary accuracy.

Like an episode of Law and Order, the play seems “ripped from the headlines.” Gillian Jacobs gives a broadly acted yet finely tuned performance as Girl, a high school senior with spectacular test scores and a stellar record who nonetheless has to worry about whether she’ll get into an Ivy League school as she hopes to (and as her father expects). Meanwhile the pressure to be fashionable, thin, pretty, and sexually active – but not slutty – squeezes her from another angle. Bulimia, cutting, and drug abuse jostle with celebrity worship, blog culture, Facebook-style social networking, and academic pressure, in a nobody-wins battle for the frayed souls of Girl and her schoolmates.

Kamin, along with director Ben Rimalower, cleverly uses artificial forms to show us an unfortunately all-too-real world. Girl and her more carefree and effusive friend, Girl Chorus (the charming, elfin Anna Chlumsky of the My Girl movies) emerge from snappy, highly distilled dialogue as vividly sympathetic child-women. “Which diet are you going to do?” “I don’t know… Moderation?” (Hysterical laughter.) The script is full of such pithy if not actually deep bon mots. “The world is just a big high school, except that instead of popular kids there are celebrities.” These transparent quips flow from the stage in such numbers and with such good cheer that they add up to something affecting.


Brian J. Smith, Gillian Jacobs and Christopher Sloan in The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero. Photo by Monique Carboni.

The funny and versatile Christopher Sloan and Brian J. Smith mug through an assortment of (mostly) male roles, while the impossibly perky Kate Reinders – who’s done the Kristin Chenoweth part in Wicked on Broadway (and it’s obvious why) – is perfectly cast as Superstar, a Barbie-doll figure who functions as a sort of modern god or elemental force, a combination club-kid celeb and game show host who mentors and hectors Girl through her social evolution.

As brilliantly honed as any of the human characters is Wilson Chin’s wonderful, red-themed set. The simple, symmetrical design, abetted by superior lighting, morphs effortlessly from teenager’s room to dance club to college campus and back. During the nightclub scenes there’s even some deliciously dry-eyed dancing. Deft blocking, def music, and transitional video cues combine with Kamin’s machine-gun dialogue to propel the action along at TV-commercial speed. (Even a smoke alarm that interrupted the play and sent audience, cast and crew outside to mill about on the sidewalk for half an hour didn’t faze the actors, who picked right up where they left off.)

Amid the cyber-vaudevillian razzmatazz, one can overlook the serious situation the play is actually about – but not entirely. As depicted here, things are pretty terrible for today’s high school kids, even – or especially – suburban high achievers. Are we wrong for enjoying ourselves at their expense at the theater? Well – no actual teenagers are injured during the production. Which brings us to the evening’s only significant flaw, the ending, also ripped from the headlines. It’s more a droop than the shock that was probably intended. Still, on almost every count it’s worth seeing this top-notch cast in an exhilirating and thoroughly current piece of stagecraft.

Through July 1 at the DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15 St., NYC. For tickets click here or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Theater Review: Dark of the Moon

Mystery and love, two of the great themes and pleasures of the theater (and life), are also essential foodstuffs for writing about theater. You can smell the love in every molecule of air in a small off- or off-off-Broadway theater, particularly in a staging by a young company of a play with a large cast. These kids aren’t doing it for the money, though the production and the acting may be highly professional. They love being with each other and they love the theater. You can’t miss that.

That love goes a long way towards solving the mystery, too – the mystery of why they are doing it when they obviously aren’t getting paid much, if anything. But a deeper question remains: what makes the task of acting out a play such a powerful thing that it induces all that hard work with no promise of material gain, and so beautiful as to foster all that love?

Howard Richardson and William Berney’s Dark of the Moon, set in 1920s Appalachia, is about the very things that make theater itself such a joyful mystery – love, singing, dancing, fear. Since its 1940s Broadway run, the play – a strange mélange of Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, creation myths, “The Little Mermaid” (the original, sad story), and for you modern kids, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the difficult love life of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – has been popular in school productions (so I’m told) but is rarely revived professionally. This was my first experience of it. Judging from reviews of earlier productions, either I personally am unusually prone to liking the play, or this is a superior staging.

The story takes place in two worlds. “Up the mountain,” the realm of witches and conjurers, intersects now and again with the valley where the regular folk live. Like fictional picturesque country peoples everywhere, these superstitious Smoky Mountain humans love to sing and dance. The story is very loosely pulled from the ancient ballad “Barbara Allen,” though the authors made up their own myth about the character: John, a witch boy, wants to become human so he can be with Barbara, a randy human girl he’s fallen in love with. You can take the witch off the mountain, but can you take all the darkness out of the witch?

Director Ian Crawford and his energetic cast power through the play’s strange rhythms with conviction, vision, and talent. The result is a dark, troublesome, moving love story. There’s lots of song, though it isn’t a musical. There are puppets, but it’s not for children. There’s a wedding, and humor, but it’s not a comedy, and there’s a revival meeting at which a most “un-Christian” thing occurs.

Dark of the Moon

John (the very game and suitably intense Noah Dunham) makes his initial “deal with the Devil” in a long opening scene that feels like a Yeats play – incantatory, unreal, portentious. Conjur Man and Conjur Woman are played by puppets run by four actors each speaking in unison, a startling and effective conceit. The witches, for their part, move low to the ground, slinky and sensuous but somehow cold and reptilian too. Then suddenly we’re at a barn dance in the valley where the humans are whooping it up, until Uncle Smelicue (the entertaining but anachronistically dressed Adam Fujita) notes that “it ain’t no natural night for a dance.” (The cast’s southern drawl is pretty steady and convincing.)

Singing songs is one of these poor folks’ favorite daily pleasures, from songs about hooch to songs about old folk tales and superstitions. The Allens’ house has a whole wall of musical instruments. Song is more than cheer, though – it’s fate. The story a song tells – and whether it’s sung to the end, or interrupted – matter a great deal in this odd world.

Another favorite activity, of course, is sex, without which – as in much of life – there’d be no story to tell. The youngsters indulge in it in spite of the powerful presence of the Church, which is represented by the charismatic Preacher Haggler (Jake Thomas). Jessica Howell, as Ms. Metcalf, adorably plays up her character’s crush on the Preacher, quite stealing her scenes. Yet not much worse can be said of a person than that “she pleasured herself [referring to sex, not masturbation] before she were married.”

And that is the sin of Barbara Allen, who is played by the radiant Sarah Hayes Donnell with pitch-perfect characterization. The adults’ overweening desire to see Barbara married – not for her happiness, but for their own honor – helps enable the love story and spreads the responsibility for everything that happens – like in Romeo and Juliet.

The supporting cast find the nuances in their characters, too. It’s too big a cast to mention them all. Barbara’s brother Floyd (Brendan Norton) is an endearing whiner, and Matthew Hadley does nicely as John’s rival, a pugilistic tough who is also easily frightened. Amanda Peck is funny and fiery as the reluctantly religious Edna Summey, and Katey Parker and Chris Masullo find the complexities in the elder Allens (though they look too young for the roles).

This play is often looked down on as a confused work with plebian sentiments, but in this interpretation, its only significant flaw is a second-act plot convolution on the supernatural side of things which delays the ending – which, when it comes, is played most feelingly by Donnell and Dunham. On the whole the show is a smashing success. Colorful and effectively paced staging, good acting, and youthful energy march this offbeat play right into time, and into tune. The result is a big, cathartic drama, messy with the joy, the mystery, and the love of theater.

Through July 7 at chashama (217 E. 42 St, NYC). Tickets online at Smarttix or call 212-279-4200.

Theater Review: Penetrator

It’s the most basic plot recipe in theater: take a family; add a visitor, usually unexpected, who’s been away for some time; stir vigorously; then watch as secrets from the past bubble to the surface and the family’s settled existence boils over.

Originality comes from the details. The “family” in Anthony Nielson’s Penetrator is a pair of twenty-something housemates: Max (Michael Mason), a lanky slacker and cokehead addicted to video games, and Alan (Jared Culverhouse), an overweight working stiff with a stunted social life. Though real friends, the two seem unable or unwilling to fully mature, and their friendship manifests in adolescent gross-out humor and shared pop culture references. (You can find similar characters in Judd Apatow’s current film Knocked Up.)

The Working Man’s Clothes theater company – the vibrant outfit responsible for the recent fuckplays – has effectively revised this powerful 1993 British one-act for a present-day American setting. Max’s childhood pal Woody turns up at Max and Alan’s cramped New York City apartment. A solider returned, under mysterious circumstances, from the Iraq War, Woody is as mentally fucked up as the paranoid fantasies he describes – to an extreme that makes him almost seem like a ghost or a figment of some kind, pushing the play from the roommates’ antic realism into the realm of the bizarre (and scary).

Cole Wimpee in Penetrator. Photo by Julie Rossman.

In fact the play becomes a not entirely realistic psychological thriller. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Fortunately the actors are so skilled that they can pull us with them through the transition, and bring to life the tension of Nielson’s script. Mason and Culverhouse make their characters so real they mesmerize. Wimpee makes Woody genuinely terrifying. In effect, the play takes props and action common to horror films and hurls them right into what feels like our living room.

As a result one leaves the theater feeling almost viscerally disturbed, but more from the action on stage than from any deeper message. We don’t need the theater to tell us that the human psyche – especially the male version – is a fragile thing, nor do we need to hold yet another mirror up to nature to know that war is both an internal and an external hell. But theater, typically, isn’t about lessons. We go because we want to be touched at a gut level, affected more presently than we can be by any other art. Penetrator more than does the trick.

Through June 23 at the American Place Theater in New York. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For mature audiences.

Cruxy Cantina

Had a good time at the first Cruxy Cantina the other night. And I’m pictured on the Cruxy blog entry about it. It’s good to mingle with artistic and creative types who do very different things from what I do. People tend to clique up and spend all their time with like-minded others. As a musician and songwriter I hang out mostly with musicians and songwriters. But it’s good for the creative spirit to spend time with people who make films, program innovative websites, do political activism, and so forth. Not to mention musicians who work in completely different genres, like rap and electronica. I was surrounded by talented, creative people, yet I was the only guy singing and playing a guitar. Sweet.

cruxy cantina
See Jon rock. Some rights reserved.

There are some incredibly talented filmmakers who spread their stuff via Cruxy, BTW. Go thence and view.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Oldies, Goodies, and Bands from Down Under

Stone Coyotes, Dreams of Glory

You need this: another ass-kicking from the Stone Coyotes, a wife-husband-stepson trio that might be making the purest rock of any band working today. Tossing together the straight-ahead power chords of AC/DC, the snarl of the Rolling Stones, and the juicy storytelling of country music, the veteran singer, songwriter, and guitarist Barbara Keith hasn’t lost an ounce of her grit and cred. Doug Tibbles bashes the drums like a man possessed, while son John Tibbles solidly handles the bass.

“You could say I’m a starry-eyed dreamer/You could say I’m a troubador of old/You could say I’m a high plains drifter/Or a prospector digging for gold,” Keith hollers in “Digging for Gold,” and you believe she’s all those things. “Johnny Rock’s Cantina” and a straightforward cover of “Streets of Laredo” expose a soft underbelly, while two live tracks at the end capture the band out-rocking most acts half their age. No need to dig for the gold here, the vein runs right over the surface.

Listen at their Myspace page.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, In the Palace of the King

Another year, another solid release from John Mayall, the godfather of British blues. In the Palace of the King is a tribute to the late, great Freddie King, one of Mayall’s important inspirations and influences. It features songs associated with King, along with a couple written in his honor, and works quite well as a tribute, but it’s every particle a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album.

Mayall’s voice has both clarified and thinned with age, but it was never the central point of his records anyway. His harmonica sounds as sweet as ever, his piano flies free on his bouncing tribute to King (“King of the Kings”), and he has, in Buddy Whittington, a worthy successor to the great guitarists who have graduated from Mayall’s lineups over the decades (Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, and Walter Trout among others). Blues guitar fans will dig this album for Whittington alone.

As an extra treat, Robben Ford guest stars on his own instrumental blues “Cannonball Shuffle,” which is appropriate since Freddie King was known for having hits with instrumentals. (The Bluesbreakers’ relationship with these King tunes goes all the way back to the recording of “Hideaway” on the legendary 1966 album with Eric Clapton and John McVie.) Another point to note is the presence of several songs with Leon Russell’s name on them, which can never be a bad thing.

Moodwise, this CD lies towards the brighter end of the Mayall spectrum, so throw it on at a party and you should see a lot of smiling faces.

Highly recommended for blues fans.

Marty Stuart, Compadres: An Anthology of Duets

Marty Stuart is one of the best-known least-known artists in country music and beyond. This collection of collaborations between the mandolinist extraordinaire and a bevy of musical heavyweights bears witness to the royal circles he’s moved in ever since joining up with Lester Flatt at the ripe old age of thirteen.

Recorded at various sessions and situations over the years, these fourteen tracks show the broad range of Stuart’s interests and abilities as singer, interpreter, and of course, player. More importantly, they’re just plain good listenin’. From an early “Rawhide” with Flatt, to the gospel “Move Along Train” with Mavis Staples, and back to a curious, nouveau-bluegrass version of The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” with Old Crow Medicine Show, this CD is all about good times and good feeling.

Johnny Cash on “Doin’ My Time” sounds as bubbly as the Man in Black ever managed. Stuart goes toe to toe with B. B. King in a shuffling “Confessin’ the Blues,” and on a sloshy bar-room bender with Travis Tritt in “The Whisky Ain’t Workin’.” The previously unreleased duet with Loretta Lynn on the sweetly sad classic “Will You Visit Me On Sunday” is a small country treasure. Even “John Henry” makes an appearance (in a scintillating instrumental duet with Earl Scruggs), as does the almost as legendary George Jones in “One Woman Man.” The Staples Singers’ harmonies in “The Weight” approach the sublime (as the Staples Singers are wont to do).

While the album cannot boast a consistent sound, Marty Stuart has a steady and recognizable presence here and wherever he works despite lacking the outlandish sort of personality that lands other stars in the tabloids. Refugees from today’s commercial country music might want to think about heading his way.

The Mugwumps, The Mugwumps

Solve for x: The Great Society is to Jefferson Airplane as x is to the Mamas and the Papas. Answer: x = The Mugwumps, the 1964 New York City-based folk-rock band that included Denny Doherty and “Mama” Cass Elliot (future Mamas and Papas), Zal Yanovsky (who subsequently co-founded the Lovin’ Spoonful), and Elliot’s then-husband, future Nashville songwriter Jim Hendricks. Until now, few knew of the Mugwumps except as a precursor to more important things, and perhaps from the lyrics to the autobiographical song “Creeque Alley” that the Mamas and the Papas recorded a few years later. Now their one album has been reissued by Collectors’ Choice, and we can all hear the glory that was the Mugwumps.

OK, glory isn’t the right word. But you can certainly hear elements of what would become the signature sound of the Mamas and the Papas. The multiple lead voices, the joyful, echoey choral parts, and the folksy jangles mixed like sparkly bits into the pop bubblegum all looked forward to the rock greatness that was to come later in the decade.

The Mugwumps, however, also had a Beatles-like affinity for rootsiness and rhythm and blues – formative rock-and-roll – as evidenced by their pounding rendition of Felix Pappalardi’s “Do You Know What I Mean,” their rambunctious cover of the Willie Dixon-penned rhythm and blues classic “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover” (a hit for Bo Diddley two years earlier), and their straightforward version of the Coasters’ “Searchin’.”

It was the age of the two-to-three minute single. The album is all of twenty-two minutes long, typical for its time. But it isn’t just the shortness of the songs that distills the Mugwumps’ incipient creative force. I think there is something of the gritty energy of New York City in this record. No believing in magic here. Still there’s a pinch of something like magic in the two wistful originals by Elliot and Hendricks, “Here It Is Another Day” and “Everybody’s Been Talkin’.” Both songs have a gentle sadness about them that presage, perhaps, the now legendary personal dramas that were to come.

Charlotte Kendrick, North of New York

Back in the present day, and up the Hudson a bit, singer-songwriter Charlotte Kendrick and her producer-collaborator husband, Dan Rowe, craft elegant, breathy folk-Americana tunes which Kendrick sings in a velvety voice that’s soothing like a soft sofa after a long hard day.

Her new CD is one you have to take a little time to sink into, mostly because it opens with a song that’s too much like a naked diary entry to be art. Fortunately the energy picks up along with the tempo in the mandolin-driven “Off the Tracks,” after which you’re ready for the more focussed sentimentality of the gentle ballad “Best Of Me.” My favorite track is “Yellow,” a true and perfect little folk song with a sharp lesson: “There’s no secret password, no code to crack/It’s not a race or a contest if you’re still keeping score/You will always have less, they will always have more.”

“Too Nice” is another winner, its deceptively simple melody carrying a strong message about an excessively image-conscious society. “And I’m willing to risk it all/Set myself up for a fall/You only reap what you sow/And I’ll do all that I can/To make this worth it for my band/Do my job and keep my man/Settle down on a little land/Take in the woman that I am/’Cause nice won’t get me anywhere.” Subtle, sharp stuff. Her declaration of independence, in “Laces,” is tinged with confrontation: “Who’s got the front seat now?” The songs are full of such complications.

When the lyrics get prosaic, the songs bog down. “Drag You Down” has a pretty melody, but it’s undercut by lines that don’t flow: “I won’t talk about the future if you find it hard/It’s just that I was mesmerized by you from the start/But I’ve got nothing on you, you’ve got everything on me.” This comes, I suspect, from Kendrick’s inclination to examine matters of the heart with obsessive closeness, with both positive and negative consequences. When the lyrics are good, they’re very good, and the songs rise above standard folkie fare and into Nancy Griffith and Stefanie Fix territory.

The CD will most often be listened to less closely, however, and if you’re in the mood for this gentle kind of stuff, it should give a lot of pleasure. I played it in the background at my office and it sure sweetened the day.

Recommended for fans of soothing folk music and intelligent voices. Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Second Dan, Bringing Down Goliath

Second Dan, the New York band led by the Australian Dan Rosen, makes muscular alt-rock that’s tight and noisy at the same time. That tension sometimes puts on a new-wave 1980s face, like early U2 or Midnight Oil, with a little ska flavor here and there. The verse of “You Make Me Want To” even sounds a little like latter-day Who. But the overall intensity suggests influences from Nirvana and Foo Fighters, not to mention post-9/11 angst.

The tunes and arrangements are well crafted but it’s mostly the power and the mood, along with some of the trapeze artistry in the background vocals – all bolstered by rock-solid production – that stick with you. (An exception is the melodic, danceable “The Elephant Fell to Earth.”) Second Dan is good with the occasional acoustic ballad too – the rich concoction called “Everything Is Good” suggests Radiohead.

This is strong stuff from a promising band. A couple of killer hooks could propel them to the front ranks of modern rock with the likes of Copeland.

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.

Heartbreak Club, …Lamecore

Another Australian import with a very different vibe, this adorably cheeky pop-punk EP makes fun of teenage pain with a wink and a wag of the tail. “Here’s to me. I’ve just lost my everything. This pout and mope industry justifies something cruel,” says the arch narrator of “The Girl @ TGUK.” Liberal use of dynamics, a hefty but hollow guitar attack descended from Blue Oyster Cult, and offbeat lyrics and snatches of conversation churn through songs with titles like “She Talked To Me!” and “Boy Said/Girl Said.” The funny “Bethanie” that starts the EP and the acoustic “Like the Weather” that closes it are like two sides of the same sigh – boy loses girl, boy gets girl – but the very last line of “Like the Weather” pulls the rug out: “Oh what a ruse.”

Hear full tracks at their Myspace page.