Reviews of CDs by Todd Snider, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Doc Watson and Blendur
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Todd Snider, "Happy to be Here" (Oh Boy) Snider counts songwriters John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker as two big influences, and "Happy" argues the point well. Though he's not as fully developed as either of those talents, Snider does a good job of combining Prine's eye for life's details with Walker's easygoing, down-home spirit. This makes for a good combination in my book. Ably produced by Ray Kennedy, the 13 stripped-down cuts on "Happy" take funny and touching notice of those things that either irritate you to death or roll on by in the blur of everyday life. Snider takes issue with 12-step folks and do-gooders, but he's got his eye on the lonely girl in the corner all the while. "All of My Life" and "Just in Case" are kind and witty looks at both the peace and uncertainty brought on by love while "D.B. Cooper" celebrates America's favorite outlaw. This Nashville-based writer has an appreciation for the world around him and he expresses it with weathered yet upbeat soul. He knows about hard times yet he never forgets to celebrate the basic decency he sees in life and he does so without syrupy bromides. Snider's view is far from rose-colored but this quiet gem's title sums up the project's tone. Todd Snider opens for John Prine at the Carpenter Center Saturday, Sept. 9.
B.B. King/Eric Clapton, "Riding with the King" (Reprise) - A dream summit between mentor and disciple has been finally realized and it's well worth the wait. For King, "Riding with the King" simply adds further luster to his already sterling career. For Slowhand, it's the best thing he's done since "From the Cradle," his all-blues recording of 1994.
The two have a jolly time inspiring and feeding off each other. Lucille spits out taut, stinging lines while Clapton's sinewy guitar serves up rock energy and languid riffs. Growling, shouting and testifying, King has never sounded better or stronger. His partner's underrated, low-keyed vocals are effective.
Clapton, who oversaw the project, wisely blended King classics such as "Three O'Clock in the Morning" and the Latin-tinged "Help the Poor" with contemporary tunes such as John Hiatt's title cut and several penned by Doyle Bramhall. Most of the recording was done live-in-the-studio with a small backing band that knows when to play it loose or tight. A highlight is Joe Sample's bouncy, Pinetop Perkins-styled blues piano.
"Riding with the King" is a no-frills collaboration between two masters delighted with each other's company. A royal treat.
This is a must for any fan of steel guitar flatpicking and fingerpicking styles or, for that matter, any fan of straight-from-the-heart blues, country or bluegrass instrumentals. Doc Watson stands alone as an innovator. Discovered at age 37 in 1960 by a researcher from the Smithsonian, Watson started touring cities and festivals that were opening up to "folk" music. By '63, the honesty and ancient-yet-new sounding, guitar-adapted fiddle tunes had caught the ears of listeners in Greenwich Village and at the Newport Folk Festival. Even though he'd been playing for years in his tiny North Carolina mountain community, Doc was suddenly a national success and his recording career was set. The 16 songs on this CD come from 11 albums he's cut during this career and many include his late son Merle. Classics such as "Black Mountain Rag" are here, as is Mother Maybelle Carter's "Victory Rag." It's too short at less than 32 minutes, but this is nonetheless a great slice of traditional music as filtered through the hands, heart and mind of a master.
Blendur, "Good Morning" (Blendur) Richmond-based Blendur plays the sort of college rock 'n' roll you'd hear at a drunken fraternity party where the beer consumption amplifies the enjoyability of the music. Blendur's press kit calls them "a good drinking band."
The title track, "Good Morning," is about the oh-so-common occurrence of drinking so much you end-up sharing your bed with a complete stranger. Blendur even has an acoustic song on the album dedicated, in large part, to smoking pot. I thought I heard hints of the Grateful Dead in there somewhere. As for other influences, I hear Pearl Jam, the obligatory Dave Matthews, and just about any other alternative-labeled band that the average college kid is blasting on the stereo these days. The songs are decent if you're into modern college rock, but only one of the tracks really stands out to me musically, the unique "Suit And The Fisherman." The rest of the album's songs, while decent, come off as not being exclusive to Blendur.
Behind the beer can-strewn cover of "Good Morning," I know that a lot of work went into the professional look and feel of the album. Blendur is probably a fun band to see live when you've knocked back a couple, but they need to have lyrics about topics other than how much they party. Stylistically, I think the band needs to form more of a sound that they can truly call their own, as a matter of survival.
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