By Mike Greenblatt
If their live set is anything as hot and smokin’ as their self-titled Stax/Concord debut, Southern Avenue should thrill funk/blues/gospel/soul/pop/roots rock fans in Nashville (May 12), Kansas City (May 26), St. Louis (May 27), Owatonna MN (June 3), Lander WY (June 9), Greeley CO (June 10), Portland OR (July 1), Greensburg PA (July 21 and August 4), Winthrop WA (July 22), their Memphis hometown (July 27), Prairie Du Chien WI (July 29), Helena AR (August 12), North Thornton NH (August 18), Bean Blossom IN (August 26) and culminating in two Las Vegas nights on September 9 & 10. Led by sisters Tierinii (vocals) and Tikyra Jackson (drums), this quintet with Israeli powerhouse guitarist Ori Naftaly, jazz bassist Daniel McKee and keyboardist Jeremy Powell pull out all the stops and tricks of an exquisitely talented act. Produced by Patty Griffin producer Kevin Houston, with guests Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and trumpeter Marc Franklin, they totally improve upon “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love,” the 1971 Ann Peebles hit, as well as rock their originals into a frothy Memphis soul stew fit to twitch your body to in ways you didn’t think you could. That’s how good they are.
Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander has called Beth Garner a “female Jeff Beck.” Her lead and slide guitar is all over the “Snake Farm” (The Music of Nashville/CEN-RED Distribution). Her ballsy vocals, eccentric original compositions (prepare to meet “Backroads Freddie”) and co-production takes center stage as she’s ably assisted by a crack unit of sax, keybs, rhythm guitar, drums, bass, back-up vocals and assorted percussive “household items.” “Snake Farm” is modern blues-rock at its finest. She wrote or co-wrote six of seven with the only cover being the title tune by Ray Wylie Hubbard. It’s a true tale of a spot you might even want to visit should you find yourself just south of San Antonio Texas on Route #35. Beth Garner’s been there. That’s why she has snakes slithering up and around her body in all the pictures.
European collective O.R.k. (above) sounds like King Crimson on “Too Numb” and Pink Floyd on “Scarlet Water.” Their Rare Noise Records debut has the “Soul Of An Octopus.” Thus, singer/songwriter/keyboardist/electronics manipulator Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari might sound like an opera singer on one track and a Leonard Cohen-styled whisperer on another. Then there’s the esteemed Italian maestro Carmelo Pipitone on all sorts of guitars. His work on “Collapsing Hopes” starts out as nimble acoustic fingerpicking but quickly morphs into distorted wah-wah fuzz. As these two vie for aural supremacy, a living breathing squiggling drum’n’bass reptile slithers to the forefront. It all makes for some rare noise, indeed.
Eliza Neals is one ball-busting bad-ass bitch and I say that as a supreme compliment. Her “10,000 Feet Below” (E-H Records) is testament to that fact. Janis Joplin is Joan Baez compared to Eliza Neals. She wrote ‘em (except for a kickin’ cover of “Hard Killing Floor,” the 1934 Skip James warning), she sings ‘em (with enough gravel in her throat to pave a highway) and produced ‘em (making sure to also accentuate great guest blues guitarists like Johnny Winter’s Paul Nelson and Howard Glazer). Add Skeeto Valdez (Les Claypool) as one of five drummers and you’ve got one loud banging good time.
Otis Taylor has me “Fantasizing About Being Black.” This incredible self-released statement, coming on the heels of his also-awesome 2015 “Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat,” is a history lesson. Fifteen albums in, Taylor isn’t about to change his eccentric esoteric eclectic style for no man. If the last album can be called psychedelic, this one is Americana Soul Blues Protest music. “Banjo Bam Bam” is a slave tale augmented by the title instrument which came from Africa but here is used to convey a trance mode of inimitable jam-band sensibilities. “Tripping On This” takes off where John Lee Hooker left off. “D To E Blues” is acoustic back-porch Appalachia. “Jump To Mexico” uses Nashville legend Jerry Douglas on koa wood lap guitar. From “Jump Jelly Belly” to “Twelve String Mile” (where in the 1930s Deep South, a black man could not even look a white man in the eye without retribution) and “Jump Out Of Line” (about the very real fear of violence that civil rights workers suffered prior to and even after the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act Of 1965), Taylor sings with impassioned bravado. This is the blues album of the year so far.
That guy who wrote “Wild Thing” is back on the attack with an album so personal and homespun, you’d think he was singing and talking just for you. Chip Taylor [real name James Wesley Voight; his brother is actor Jon] is always looking for “A Song I Can Live With.” He’s self-released this amiable effort in a decidedly low-key way after being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last June (along with Marvin Gaye, Tom Petty and Elvis Costello). Besides writing many of the songs we grew up with and know by Janis, Aretha, Jimi, Willie, Dusty and Sinatra, he also helped further outlaw country with Kris, Cash, Townes and Guy Clark. Recorded partly in Norway, his informal stream-of-consciousness style has him playing his guitar, stopping, talking, playing again, singing and chuckling to himself under his breath. It’s a style meant to be adhered to with full concentration. It won’t do you any good to put this on as background music. You have to listen carefully to let his inherent wisdom seep through the cracks. As Leonard Cohen once said, “there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” Only if you fully commit will Chip Taylor’s luminescence make you smile.