News Column

Bumper crop of roots-related music, from Ry Cooder to Candye Kane

October 6, 2013


Oct. 06--'It's so good listening to old records," Allen Toussaint sings on his new album. And it's so good to hear old masters Toussaint and Ry Cooder in such fine form on their new records. Their live sets are among a spate of our favorite new roots-related releases.

Songbook (Rounder ***--) captures just Touissant and his piano at New York's Joe's Pub in 2009. The 75-year-old giant of New Orleans music is known more as a composer and arranger than as a performer, but like the great soul songwriter Dan Penn, he's as good an interpreter of his own material as anyone.

The dapper piano man delivers sublime ballads ("It's Raining"), pleas for social justice ("Freedom for the Stallion"), what he calls his most-covered song ("Get Out My Life, Woman"), and loads of that irresistibly funky Crescent City R&B ("Holy Cow," a medley of "A Certain Girl"/"Mother-in-Law"/Working in a Coal Mine"). He closes with a 13-minute take on "Southern Nights" that includes a soft-spoken story about the childhood memories that inspired the song. The performance encapsulates all the grace and feeling Touissant brings to this warmly captivating show.

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos (Nonesuch **--1/2) finds the singer-guitarist back at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, where he recorded Show Time in 1976. Some of the accompanists are the same (Flaco Jimenez, Terry Evans), and so is some of the repertoire ("Do Re Mi," "School Is Out," "Volver Volver," "The Dark End of the Street"). Still, the 66-year-old Angeleno is not just resting on his laurels in this 2011 performance. He has done some of his best work over the last decade, and that still-sharp artistic edge, along with his Woody Guthrie-inspired sense of social justice, enlivens the set. Backed by his core group as well as the 10-member horn and drum ensemble La Banda Juvenil, Cooder mixes good-time romps like "Crazy 'Bout an Automobile" and "Woolly Bully" with the poignant "Boomer's Story" and the sharply pointed "Lord Tell Me Why" and "El Corrido de Jesse James."

Another long-in-the-tooth pro, Tony Joe White, remains a mesmerizingly brooding presence on his new studio album, Hoodoo (Yep Roc **--1/2). "I was sitting in a graveyard late one night," the 70-year-old singer-guitarist begins on the opener, "The Gift," singing in that trademark hushed baritone over a swampy, "Polk Salad Annie"-style groove.

The native Louisianan has gotten incredible mileage out of that groove and variations on it, going all the way back to the '60s and, well, "Polk Salad Annie," and here it's as evocative as his terse songs, whether he's sitting in that graveyard, "Holed Up" in his "little Airstream," or hightailing it away from trouble in "Alligator, Mississippi." (White will be at World Cafe Live on Nov. 14).

Earl Poole Ball spent most of his long career as a sideman and session player, including more than 20 with Johnny Cash. But the 72-year-old Austin-based Mississippi native and piano player is a front man himself these days. On Pianography (self-released ***), Ball shows he's a terrific honky-tonk singer and songwriter in his own right. In addition to seven newly recorded studio tracks and one number each from 1967 and '77, the album includes a four-song live set from 2010 that finds Ball and band tearing it up in time-honored roadhouse fashion.

On Coming Out Swingin' (Vizztone **--1/2), Candye Kane does just that with the horn-stoked title track. Teaming for the third time with guitar hotshot Laura Chavez, the San Diego-based diva also touches on Memphis soul, Wanda Jackson-style rockabilly, doo-wop, and New Orleans R&B, among others, holding it all together with her irrepressible spirit. Her battle with cancer may have taken the 47-year-old's physical heft, but her powerful voice -- as a singer and writer -- and her outsize personality remain. (Kane will appear Oct. 17 at Fran's Pub in New Hope.)

When they debuted on disc in 1984, Boston's Barrence Whitfield and the Savages rivaled Little Richard for sheer wildness. A going concern once again, the band is back with Dig Thy Savage Soul (Bloodshot **--1/2), and it has lost none of its manic energy. Dig is a blast from start to finish -- most of it is taken at a headlong pace, and the punkish attack is beefed up with keyboards and bursts of dirty sax. The 58-year-old Whitfield himself, with his big bear of a voice, follows in the venerable tradition of R&B shouters going back to Big Joe Turner and Roy Brown.

Pete Anderson is best-known as the guitarist and producer for Dwight Yoakam during the country star's glory days of the '80s and '90s. On Birds Above Guitarland (Little Dog ***), the Detroit native, 65, continues to pursue a sound that's more T-Bone Walker than Buck Owens. It's R&B that balances earthiness and elegance, and Anderson makes it his own with his best batch of songs. Like Jimmie Vaughan, who works similar territory these days with Lou Ann Barton, Anderson benefits from the presence of an authoritative female vocalist, although Bekka Bramlett turns up for only one tantalizing track.

Last but not least: John Paul Keith is in his late 30s and, with his black-framed glasses, looks a little like Buddy Holly. His third album is titled Memphis Circa 3 AM (Big Legal Mess ****), but it's not immersed in late-night moods. Rather, it displays more of the Memphis singer-guitarist's dazzling command of vintage roots-rock and roots-pop styles. From the rockabilly-fueled "You Really Oughta Be With Me" to the jangly pop of "Everything's Different Now," from the Orbisonesque balladry of "If You Catch Me Staring" to the Cash-like country of "There's a Heartache Going 'Round," Keith manages to write songs that sound like lost classics. The result is an album that, for all its echoes of the past, sounds breathtakingly fresh.

Those same qualities imbue Keith's work with Motel Mirrors, his side project with fellow Memphian Amy LaVere. You can hear it on their seven-song EP, Motel Mirrors (Archer **--1/2).



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