North Americana: Big Star, Monkeyjunk and Samantha Fish

 By Mike Greenblatt

“Playlist: The Very Best Of Big Star” (Legacy) revisits this short-lived Memphis band whose influence is so powerful that it dwarves their accomplishments while they were together. Unknown

When guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops singer/songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton put Big Star together with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, they never thought they’d influence the course of alternative rock, especially since success totally and frustratingly eluded them. The term “power pop” hadn’t been invented yet when their joyful, ebullient guitar-dominated crashing and bashing behind soaring melodies and harmonies should have made them stars. Big Star formed in 1971. These like-minded acts (and the years they formed) had more success: Todd Rundgren’s Nazz (’68), Eric Carmen’s Raspberries (’70) and Cheap Trick (’73). By 1975, Big Star was done, after a total of only two official studio albums.

Capsule History: The No.1 record debut stiffs. Bell quits to go solo but only succeeds in joining the “27 Club,” perishing in a car crash in ’78. As a trio, the ’74 follow-up Radio City has all the pioneering rock ’n’ oll elements to catapult them into the stratosphere.  It stiffs. Chilton heads up North to hit New York City for the vagaries of punk unaware of the template he helped create.

Enter a new generation of rockers like R.E.M. and The Replacements, who keep the Big Star name alive and by 1993, Chilton and Stephens reunite with two of The Posies to create holy bedlam on stage at the University of Missouri (who actually petitioned the band to reform and perform—18 years after it broke up—on its campus.) Half of Playlist: The Very Best Of Big Star is from that night. The other half is from the first two studio albums and 3rd, the band’s posthumous, and last, record.

Chilton (heart attack) and Hummel (cancer) both died at 59 in 2010.

 

MonkeyJunk PressShot  2013 Color by Scott Doubt

Monkeyjunk. Publicity photo/Scott Doubt.

Where’s all the great rock ’n’ roll these days, you ask? (At least I do.) One has to search far and wide for such. In this anti-rock era of critics fawning over Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire as if they were great bands (give me a break), “All Frequencies” (Stony Plain) by Monkeyjunk proves there’s still some good rock’n’roll to be found.  In this case, though, you’d have to go up to Canada. The nine originals plus a Bobby Charles cover (proving their hipness) bespeaks a soiled dignity, worthy of American swamps. They even named their band after a Son House quote, “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the blues,” the legend once said. “I ain’t talkin’ bout monkey junk.”

Well now we are talkin’ ‘bout Monkeyjunk:  Steve Mariner (vocals, harmonica, keyboards, guitar), Tony D (lead guitar) and Matt Sobb (percussion). Cut in analog (to hell with all that digital stuff!), you’d think they were from New Orleans with their mix of the blues, the touch of Appalachia, the uptown funk and the lowdown Delbert McClinton-styled greasy roadhouse honk. The solos are concise and tight, right to the point, not a wasted note. The melodies are catchy, the production is in-your-face. Best digested LOUD, “All Frequencies” points to hope for fans of the real deal.

Samantha FishThere’s a Black Wind Howlin’ (Ruf) and her name is Samantha Fish: a Kansas City siren who is sexy, soulful, and who comes complete with a strap-on guitar with which she positively wails.

I fell in love with her voice, then as track after track blew me away (12 in all), I fell in love with her. Attitude Plus. She snarls it, she spits it out and she could give a damn. Check her angry “Go To Hell” where she lets you know “this ain’t my first rodeo.” Or “Sucker Born,” where she admits, “Vegas left me weary/L.A. bled me dry.” This hot mama covers Howling Wolf too and she partners up with another true believer, her producer Mike Zito, on some tracks. (Zito’s own album, “Gone To Texas,” is one of the best albums of 2013.) Oh, Sam!

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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