For their fifth album, The Claudettes are having some High Times In The Dark (Forty Below Records), for it is here where this eccentric eclectic Chicago band elevates its lead singer into diva territory. Berit Ulseth is that good. So is the Jerry Lee Lewis/Memphis Slim piano of band founder Johnny Iguana (who composed all 11 songs). Rooted in a kind of mix’n’match rootsy 1960s hippiedom that they call “garage cabaret,” the sound is buoyed by the obvious talents of knob-pusher Ted Hutt (who has made everyone he’s ever touched—from Violent Femmes to Old Crow Medicine Show—sound better). Recorded in Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville, the songs come totally alive. Ulseth is a great communicator. You believe her when she complains about her past drummers in “You Drummers Keep Breaking My Heart” (for the record, original drummer Michael Caskey is back). She sings of her beloved bourbon in “One Special Bottle” and the desire that permeates her soul…in track after track. She emotes. And I don’t remember them ever being this good!
Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984, packed a lot of great songs and a lot of great performances into his mere 36 years on earth. Solidly in the folk tradition, he was funny, creative, enthusiastic, friendly and came across as a long-lost relative who you just love to see whenever he came around. That’s why the release of the never-before-heard Steve Goodman: Live ’69 is such a delight, for it is here where Goodman comes alive again, at least for 12 songs in 63:13.
Recorded prior to his record deal, prior to his most famous song, “City Of New Orleans,” back when he was still a scuffling Chicago 21-year old singing other people’s songs, his cheerfulness, his unerring homespun philosophy and his communicable joyousness at what he’s doing, are all totally infectious.
To hear him and his trusty acoustic guitar—accompanied by bassist/fiddler/singer Bob Hoban—on Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover,” Tom Paxton’s “Ballad Of Spiro Agnew,” Bob Dylan’s “Country Pie,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and more is to lose yourself in a much-needed comfortability of another man’s grace and style…like he’s welcoming you into his home. To this, I say a big thank-you to Omnivore Recordings.
Cadillac Walk (Zoho Music), by Jay Willie & James Montgomery, is a sweet party ride through songs by Johnny Winter, Rolling Stones, Leiber & Stoller, Mink DeVille, Huey P. Meaux, Tampa Red, Tracy Chapman and others—highlight: “Eatin’ Dry Onions” by longtime Arkansas bluesman Willie Cobbs (who’s still going strong at 87)—wherein the Detroit harmonicat (James) and the Connecticut guitarist (Jay) sing so soulful and enlist the aid of secret weapon Paul Opalach (bass, lap steel, keyboards and simulated horns), plus drums and back-up singers, to create a rockin’ little record you’ll want your DJ to play.
Always on the lookout for good new rock bands (a rarity these days), Denver’s Whitacre assailed my senses to the point where banjo player Chase Perry, drummer Mark Cunningham and, especially, singer/songwriter/guitarist Paul Whitacre, via provocative lyrics and extended jams arranged with complex flair, made me stop what I was doing, look up, and sit there literally watching the music flood out of my speakers. Their only previous effort was 2018’s Within The Mountain’s Shadow EP. They’ve been called “Weezer with a banjo.” Alternative folk-rock? Whitacre calls it “mountain-rock.” All 10 tracks of their self-released Seasons full-length debut are killer (no filler). It’s a metaphor for what we can learn from each phase of life but even if you let the lyrics drift right past you, the muscle is enough to carry the listen.
Canadian Crystal Shawanda is singing the Church House Blues on her new True North Records release. It’s her second for the label and fourth overall. Now based in Tennessee, the singer/songwriter has the help of a rampaging studio band consisting of drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, sax, harmonica and background vocals on songs about New Orleans floods, female independence, despair and desire. Members of the bands of no less than Johnny Cash, Delbert McClinton and Lynyrd Skynyrd play their ass off but it’s her scorched-earth vocals—think Big Mama Thornton crossed with Etta James—that you’ll remember long after it ends.
You Ain’t Done (Gulf Coast Records), the sophomore release (after the terrific Wild Again debut) of The Proven Ones, is a veritable smorgasbord of roots rock, blues rock, psychedelic touches, Latin touches, R’n’B, funk and soul all wrapped up in an Americana blender of star power. These boys all have the credits and the talents to back up their name. The Proven Ones are guitarist Kid Ramos, singer Brian Templeton, keyboardist Anthony Geraci, bassist Willie J. Campbell and drummer Jimi Bott (who co-produced with Mike Zito). Recorded in Louisiana, Oregon and Massachusetts, celebrated Texas singer Ruthie Foster captures the highlight on “Whom My Soul Loves” but songs like “I Ain’t Good For Nothin’,” “Get Love” and nine others all written by the band rock, stomp and stroll with an infectious glee and passion worthy of repeated listening.