Photo: Meg Bitton
“American Idol” might have brought us talent like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and then-unappreciated Jennifer Hudson, but there were many other promising artists who ended up vanishing even if they did well on the show. While some flamed out soon and wound up playing minor parts in off-Broadway shows, some used the exposure to create a niche audience and build a solid career once the cameras were turned off.
An example of this is Ohio-born Crystal Bowersox, who was runner-up during the show’s ninth season (defeated by Chicago’s Lee DeWyze) in 2010. Signed to Jive Records that year, she released “Farmer’s Daughter,” and despite positive reviews and reasonable sales, she was dropped after RCA disbanded her label. She has since signed with indie label Shanachie Records (which also includes Ruben Studdard—another “Idol” veteran—in its roster) and is in the works to put out her sophomore album “All That For This” under the production of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. Read the rest of this entry »
By Dave Cantor
“My first solo guitar performance was in my backyard when I lived in Philadelphia,” Steve Gunn says over the phone from his Brooklyn residence.
The journey from performing in a band to amassing enough confidence to get out in front of a crowd and express musical ideas can be an excruciatingly difficult maneuver. Inspiration helps, and for Gunn, it showed up in the form of departed guitarist Jack Rose.
“I only played a very short set,” Gunn says of that backyard gathering. “Jack played and a few other friends. That was my first attempt at doing it. Then I didn’t do it for years after that.”
A revival of interest in players like Leo Kottke and John Fahey bloomed during the middling-aughts, while Rose’s renown grew beyond Pelt, the band he’d founded while still in Philly. Read the rest of this entry »
Performers have forgotten over the last few decades how useful it is to have a point to your music. Innocuous tunes about booze and boning are always going to have traction, but recordings from the Staple Singers remain an unmatched body of work that touts determination and tenacity. Mavis, her father Pops and a cadre of sisters performed from the 1950s through the eighties. They used music to connect their own community and worked to unite every thoughtful person in the country. Along the way, Mavis worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Stax house band alongside her family and during solo endeavors. It took her about sixty years to be awarded a Grammy—she may deserve a few more—but it was a hard-earned piece of recognition. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Aaron Porter
By Alli Carlisle
Early one gray Wednesday morning, Buddy Guy is waiting at the bar in his club Legends. He sits quietly, watching TV, as his assistant leads me over to shake his hand. Something about it makes me feel like she’s introducing me to her grandfather. We both follow the assistant’s directions agreeably as she leads us to a room upstairs. Guy is friendly and happy to meet me; his eyes light up as he shakes my hand. I’m his second interview of the day, and he’s already got something on his mind—it turns out to be politics. As soon as we sit down, Guy gives me a speech about the lies politicians are all telling us, blaming each other for taking away jobs when it’s really technology that’s doing it.
Guy has certainly seen his fair share of changes. Growing up as the son of sharecroppers in Louisiana, he didn’t see running water until his teenage years. He taught himself music by playing a Howlin’ Wolf song over and over on a two-string guitar. In 1957, just after turning twenty-one, Guy took a train up to Chicago and started playing in small blues clubs, making his way into the company of the great figures who defined the Chicago electric blues style—Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, and B.B. King, to name a few. Guy came up in the blues world as the protégé of Muddy Waters, starting out as a recording artist at the now legendary Chess Records. Over the years, Guy has not only become an icon in the blues world, but has also seen the the blues’ place in the world change quite a bit: from underground unknown, to internationally loved under the auspices of British pop starts like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, to the territory of cultural historians, niche music lovers and middle-aged white men. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether Old Crow Medicine Show would be an engaging group of players without a blueprint laid out by the best country and string-band players isn’t an easy call. The ensemble has done everything it can to recreate the past, going so far as to pull in producer Don Was for collaboration. But issuing five discs’ worth of high-test tunes in just about a decade is no mean feat. 2008’s “Tennessee Pusher” even reads like an album’s worth of songs lazily telling a story about hawking drugs in the South, using I-65 as its main drag. Read the rest of this entry »
Driving up Interstate 55, it’d be easy to guess that there’s not too much in Mississippi. When hitting Jackson, the state’s capital, the tallest building seems to be a hotel—even the state building’s hiding out somewhere. What Mississippi does offer, apart from what appears to be a seamless wall of foliage until arriving at the Tennessee border where Memphis sprawls out in its industrial glory, is a hugely important part of the country’s music history. Magic Slim followed a path out of the South and found his way to Chicago in the same way innumerable other blues players have over time. His initial arrival in the industrial North wasn’t met with overwhelming approval, so after a stint with Magic Sam—the younger player’s namesake and mentor—he headed back home. Of course, that was over half a century back, so the guitarist’s second trip to Chicago must have gone a bit better. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s a good thing that this Chicago-based quartet did not try to reinvent the wheel with their forthcoming debut release “Dig On It” (Tippin’ Records, out in October). Their sound is clearly inspired by the works of Booker T. & the MGs and they are not ashamed to recognize the influence of the Stax Records house band. In fact, one of the best rock-inflected originals on the CD is called “Booker,” and the liner notes acknowledge the influence that the creators of “Green Onions” have had on them. Read the rest of this entry »
Ripping off the blues for less than half of the sixties, the original Canned Heat lineup still racked up a few indispensable cuts over four albums. Led by two stoned record geeks working under the names The Owl and The Bear, the Heat were able to take an American form and goose it, resulting in something well beyond what the Stones or even Creedence could have conceived of. A 1967 self-titled effort and the following “Boogie with…” don’t get beyond contrivances, although “On the Road Again” spins with a hyped-up electric vibration as suited for this reimagined blues as it would be for any raga-rock investigation. Read the rest of this entry »
Hearing the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz belt out “Take a Giant Step” really is a good enough reason to raise that boy band beyond the scope of its brethren. The actor’s take on what’s become a recognizable part of American culture has been put to wax innumerable times since the late sixties and may even out-stripe the versions bluesman Taj Mahal has worked up. Before issuing the track on his 1969 “Giant Step” album, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder ruffed the song up for inclusion in the Rising Sons’ songbook, which was largely comprised of well-known covers. The more aggressive, earlier version might not rank alongside classics from the middle of the decade, but it serves to announce a performer with a voice as powerful and emotive as his guitar playing. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s hard to get a bead on guitarist Bobby Broom. Not too many folks start a career in jazz on the East Coast and move to Chicago, but this guy did it. There isn’t an endless list of guitarists who have worked with swampy R&B players like Dr. John as well as improvisers like David Murray, to say nothing of Sonny Rollins and Weldon Irvine. Broom’s time as a sideman has informed his solo recordings, not so much in a stylistic sense, but in that the guitarist doesn’t overwhelm any of the discs under his own name. There’s as much room for sax solos and the round tones of keyboard as Broom’s spiraling improvisations. With the Windy City’s substantial history in cerebral jazz modes, Broom’s take on the form might not be slotted into notions about Fred Anderson, Sun Ra or next-generation folks like Jeff Parker. Read the rest of this entry »