Carrie Rodriguez and The Golden Era of Mexican Music.

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Texan Carrie Rodriguez first came to most folks’ attention when she teamed up with Chip Taylor back in the early noughties, the pair recording four albums together. She then carved out a successful solo career with her debut album, 2006’s Seven Angels On A Bicycle quickly followed by another six discs leading one writer to describe her as perhaps, “The hardest-working woman in American roots music.” An appellation that’s borne out when you dig around into the background of her latest (and in the opinion of many, her best) album, Lola, released earlier this year. The album is a result of Rodriguez delving into her Mexican family roots, a project she has been considering for some time, the fact that she was more than midway through a pregnancy when she recorded the album no hindrance. Happily, she and her partner Luke Jacobs are now the proud parents of their son Cruz while Lola, their sonic offspring is also thriving.

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Lola consists of Rodriguez’s settings of classic Mexican songs; rancheras and boleros, reclaimed from the past along with several of her own songs which were inspired and informed by her listening to the crackly past. The originals are sung in Spanish, her own songs in Spanish and English. The result a collection of songs, some languid, some passionate, all delivered by her crack assemblage, The Sacred Hearts who include Jacobs, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. It’s a magnificent celebration of her Mexican heritage, not dissimilar from some of Ry Cooder’s recent efforts, while it’s not afraid to address current issues that have been stirred up concerning the plight and fortunes of Mexican American citizens.

Ms. Rodriguez is coming to the UK in November offering us a chance to hear these remarkable songs in a live setting and she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the album and its conception. It all started when she was given a collection of songs recorded by her great aunt, Eva Garza, back in the 1940’s. So first of all we asked her about this and why it eventually led to Lola.

Eva was my grandmother’s older sister and she got her start singing on a programme in the ’40s called Voice of America. It was a radio show that was broadcast all over the world where American troops were stationed and her first gigs were at Radio City Music Hall singing in Spanish. I didn’t really get to hear her music until my grandmother gave me a bunch of her songs taken from old scratchy recordings that had been transferred onto CD. She gave me them when I was in my early twenties and I remember I was living in New York at the time and the moment I heard them I was literally brought to tears. She has this gorgeous big alto voice and the type of music she was singing was very dramatic, ballads and boleros with very melodramatic lyrics and big orchestras behind her, strings, woodwind, trumpets. I was completely blown away that this was my relative although I never met her. She was quite a bit older than my grandmother and she died very young, just in her early forties when she passed away. She was a family legend of course but I probably thought that my grandmother had exaggerated her until I actually  heard her and I was just so moved by her music and her passion so that’s what started my journey into thinking about singing in Spanish. It’s been many years, I started singing one song in Spanish as an encore in my shows and little by little I got braver, I added some more songs in and eventually I worked up to the place where I could make this record.

So the album has been in the making in your mind for a number of years then?

Yes. Maybe for the past seven or eight years I’ve been thinking about doing this, making an album of Spanish songs but I didn’t quite feel ready. I really didn’t know what it would be, I knew I wanted to record an album and I had started to dig into some old songs and I really did think that the album would all be in Spanish. In the end however I wound up writing half of the songs because it just didn’t feel quite authentic to me to make an entire album of classic songs even though they’re adorable to me, these old ranchera songs. I thought I had to introduce more of myself into the album and so I added my songs which in the end turned out to be sort of “Spanglish.”

The album opens with Perfidia, a song that’s fairly well known as its been covered by the likes of Glenn Miller and Linda Rondstadt but the other covers are much more obscure. How did you go about selecting the songs?

Well after listening to my great aunt, I started researching into these old songs and learning more about other artists of her time. I’d listen to her singing and see who wrote the song, say, Cuco Sanchez, one of the greatest Mexican writers so I’d look up Cuco Sanchez and see who else had covered his songs. Just through listening to my great aunt I discovered so many wonderful artists that I now listen to all the time, people like Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. It really was a golden era of Mexican music that went all the way through to the sixties, they called it  “Época de Oro“, the golden era and it wasn’t just the music, Mexican films were being made in Hollywood, really big productions and the music was part of that. So I dug through all of that and found my favourite songs which weren’t necessarily the most popular ones. But Perfidia is definitely the most recognisable one and the version I find most inspiring is the one by Trio Los Panchos which has the most incredible harmonies all the way through. And from the moment I knew I wanted to cover Perfidia I also knew that I wanted Raul Malo to sing with me on it.  I just thought it has to be Raul and of course he did it. I was so thrilled that he said yes.

Of course the words for these songs are in Spanish and they often tell a tale, usually fuelled by love, lust or treachery. When you’re playing them live do you explain the stories to the audience?

I do because I don’t expect everyone to be fluent in Spanish. So I explain the story and one of the interesting things that came to me over the course of doing the album was how many parallels there are between Mexican ranchera music and American country music. For example I did a song called Que Manera De Perder which means What A Way To Lose. It’s a bilingual duet on the album and the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a Merle Haggard song, one of his really sad songs like Today I Started Loving You Again. You know, the kind of song that makes you want to stay up too late and drink and cry and look at old photos. So I like explaining the songs and pointing out the similarities. I think that these days it’s really important to point out the similarities between our countries because we’re just so insanely divided right now.

There are a couple of your songs that address these issues head on. Llano Estacado is about the plight of immigrants into the USA and West Side recalls a sort of schoolyard apartheid with Mexican kids shunned by the white kids. Why did you put these songs into what is essentially an album of old love songs?

Diving into the older songs and singing them in Spanish brought about some feelings, memories and such that I really wasn’t aware were in there. Thinking about how I grew up, what it was like when I was growing up, what it felt like to be half Mexican American, half Anglo American and living on the west side which was the Anglo side of the tracks. I hadn’t thought about my school since I was a kid but as I was working on the record the memory came back and I sat down and wrote the song (West Side) in like 10 minutes. It was something that had been sitting there but hadn’t been brought to the surface until I started looking back at these old songs and it kind of got mixed in with the way things are right now. So some of the songs do have that sort of political slant and even though it’s kind of strange to have them there along with these romantic ballads I think the album is a reflection of who I am, my culture, my roots. I think it’s an authentic representation of me.

And of course Chip Taylor has just released a new song with you, Who’s Gonna Build That Wall, which addresses one of these issues head on.

That’s an amazing song. Chip just wrote that recently and we were touring Canada and decided to record it because it’s so timely. We really wanted people to hear it so I know Chip’s doing everything he can to get it out there before the election.

The album is beautifully played and sung and very evocative of the images and sounds that many of us have of Mexico. Images gleaned from Hollywood of hot cantinas and Latin passion. How long did you and the band spend on working up the arrangements?

Luke and I did a lot of the work together before the band showed up so we had the basic arrangements. Luke’s background is more rock and pop so it was a nice juxtaposition for these classic Mexican songs. I wanted to have a “mariachi” sound of sorts but I also wanted it to be something modern, kind of culturally mixed up. I didn’t want to just play the songs as they originally sounded so we started off with the arrangements Luke and I did and then the band got together for about four or five days before we went and recorded the songs live in the studio. The only overdubs were a little bit of pedal steel at the end. It was so much fun and this is the first record I’ve made where I didn’t need to fix any vocals afterwards, it’s all just live takes as I was inspired by the music and the band around me. I was also seven months pregnant and I think that also inspired me having this little life in my belly dancing around as I was singing.

The album certainly reminds me of some of Ry Cooder’s recent work, Chavez Ravine and his album with the Cuban Manuel Galbán, Mambo Sinuendo.

I have’t heard those albums but I’ve got Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu which he recorded with Ali Farka Touré  and of course Buena Vista. So I don’t know too much about his work but I like the comparison. The idea of getting Bill Frisell in was too make something completely new and to take these classic songs into outer space. For example, on the instrumental take of Si No Te Vas I worked up an arrangement where I was thinking of a Phillip glass type figure in it that took it somewhere else, like we were up there with no ground to stand on and when we recorded it just exceeded my expectations of it, it does sound otherworldly to me.

We’re looking forward to hearing these songs when you tour the UK in November. Who will be playing with you on stage?

It will be Luke and me. We’ve toured as a duo in the UK many times and we’ve been playing these songs as a duo over here in the States. They come across really well and of course Luke’s got his lap steel which adds a lot of atmosphere. So it’s Luke and me and we’re bring our son, Cruz and my mom who is the granny nanny, it’s a family affair

Carrie’s UK tour starts in Birmingham on 3rd November ending in Edinburgh on 17th with a Glasgow show on the 16th November. All dates are here.

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Sam Outlaw. Angeleno. Six Shooter Records

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It’s worse than buses. You wait ages for a Young Turk who’s going to set Country Music to rights and then a host of them turn up. Today’s ride is courtesy of the fabulously named Sam Outlaw (and, yes, it is his name, or at least his late mother’s maiden name) and while he’s not Outlaw Country he fits in well with his peers who are kicking the current trend of Bro Country into the ditch.

As the title promises, Outlaw mines a Southern California lode that leads from Merle Haggard (RIP) to Dwight Yoakam and Dave Alvin with a slight detour into seventies country rock as parleyed by Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles; ‘SoCal Country, he calls it. He hit pay dirt at some point as the album is produced by the legendary Ry Cooder (along with his son Joachim who drums in Outlaw’s band). Whether it’s Cooder’s influence or not there’s a pleasing mariachi touch to a couple of the songs but in the main Outlaw delivers a very solid set that should be riding the radio waves.

From the gorgeous Mexican sweep of the opening song Who Do You think You Are to the closing rockabilly of Hole In My Heart Outlaw hits all the buttons. He’s sweetly melodic on Love Her For A While with its curling pedal steel, a honky tonk romancer on It Might Kill Me and downright forlorn on the delicate seventies styled Old Fashioned. Throughout his voice is relaxed and warm, the band supple and supportive, the playing superb with Cooder’s guitar contributions a highlight.

There are 12 songs here and they are all deserving of attention as Outlaw effortlessly traverses the landscape. Keep It Interesting is country rock of the highest order, the title song is a sublime string laden Chicano love song, guitars rippling and horns parping with style. Country Love Song is introspective, the guitar sound here excellent, as Outlaw yearns for a lost love and Ghost Town adds a darker hue with its organ suffused drive. Diving into his roots Outlaw offers the honky tonk stonker that is I’m Not Jealous and tops this with his excellent addition to the canon of grand country song titles on Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To The Bar), a song that sounds just like its title and sure to be a favourite at gigs. Finally, Outlaw stakes a claim as an outstanding songwriter on the moving suppliant prayer of Keep A Close Eye On Me, his words, his voice and the empathetic (and gorgeous) playing catapulting the song into a should be standard.

Angeleno is a great album and highly recommended. It was released here back in January but if it whets your whistle then the good news is that the man is playing Glasgow next week on the 14th April at The Fallen Angels Club at The Admiral Bar.

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Paul Tasker. Cold Weather Music. Yellow Room Records

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It’s been a while in the making but here’s the debut solo album from Doghouse RosesPaul Tasker and it’s been well worth the wait. Tasker, most folks reading this will know, is a guitarist of some renown. Originally an acolyte of the work of Bert Jansch his guitar playing is a joy to hear (and see) while he’s also a dab hand on banjo and mandolin. Doghouse Roses, the band he shares with Iona MacDonald are currently emerging from a near five year hiatus, a new album recorded for release later this year and tour dates coming up in April but prior to these the fruits of his labour over the past two years are now unveiled.

Blabber’n’Smoke recently spoke to Tasker about the album with him revealing that this release is his third attempt at the album. Recordings in 2010 and again in 2012 fell short of what he was looking for and it wasn’t until last year that he hunkered down in an analogue studio in Glasgow and the pieces all fitted. With Tasker on guitar and banjo the album also features guitar from Dejan Lapanja along with pedal steel & Weissborn guitar from Thomas Marsden. Luigi Pasquini handles percussion while Jo Shaw and Corran McArthur play flute and cello respectively. The collective appearing in various combinations throughout the album.

All instrumental, the album works on several levels. At its simplest it’s a wonderful and contemplative set of music, perfect to listen to while relaxing, a guitar and banjo led example of Brian Eno’s theory of ambient music and indeed there’s a whiff of Eno’s cosmic astronaut cowboys (as on Deep Blue Day) on the opening number here, Husker’s Theme, with pedal steel suitably evocative. Flute adds a “Northern Skies” touch a la Nick Drake to the wistful Sky Train while Blooms In The Autumn could well have been plucked from a John Renbourne medieval rhapsody. The album may be called Cold Weather Music but it begs to be listened to in front of a roaring fire with a suitable libation to hand, the coals crackling echoing the occasional snap and slither you can hear of Tasker’s fretboard work.

A deeper listening reveals the musicianship on display here. Tasker’s guitar playing is at times breathtaking. The whorls and winds of Gorlitzer are hypnotic, his fingers dancing on the strings, while Ne’er Day alternates flurries of melody and sharp chording. He uses banjo to add a layer of patina on some songs evoking bygone times. Valve Oil  huffs and puffs laying down a backdrop for some nimble slide guitar work and InE sounds as if it was originally recorded on an American civil war battlefield, a threnody for the fallen. Of course here one thinks of pictures and in particular moving ones and one is inevitably reminded of soundtrack albums, in particular the work of Ry Cooder and also Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The McGuffin here is that Tasker has written several of the songs with a soundtrack in mind, his comrade, James Morrison, had asked him if he had any music suitable for a screenplay he is developing, a western with some Celtic leanings. Much of the record then was inspired by a road trip they took to the Highlands and the accompanying booklet is composed of photographs taken by Morrison around Scotland, each tied to one of the tunes. The movie is yet to be made but in the meantime the album is here and it’s one to savour, to wallow in and allow it to conjure up your own visions in your head. It’s simply beautiful.

Available on CD and vinyl (a lovely package) here. Doghouse Roses are playing several dates in April, details here

 

Phil Cook. Southland Mission. Thirty Tigers/Middle West Records

Who’s Phil Cook you may ask. Well, Blabber’n’Smoke saw him play to a packed ABC O2 this week in support of The Tallest Man On Earth. Dwarfed by the stage Cook and his electric guitar delivered a short but very sweet set of songs, his guitar playing reminiscent of Ry Cooder and even Pops Staples, riding and sliding a rural blues groove with ease. Turns out that Cook has been a busy guy over the past decade, a close colleague of Bon Ivor in Wisconsin before relocating to North Carolina playing in Megafaun and becoming a studio producer and session man for Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E White, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard.

Southland Mission is touted as Cook’s debut album although apparently he released an album of solo songs a few years back. It is however a magnificent collection of blues soul and gospel grooves that packs a thump, swamp ridden, riddled with joy and despair. His guitar playing is a joy, warm and supple with added zest when required whether he’s picking or playing slide and throughout there’s a Southern feel be it the Allman’s on the slide guitar of Gone or the back porch picking of Belong.

The album opens with the breezy Ain’t It Sweet which recalls classic Little Feat, chugging guitar and bar room piano leading into the harmonies (added by Justin Vernon) before Cook delivers a stinging slide solo. 1992 is a cover of a Charlie Parr song that clucks and picks, again Cook’s guitar is sublime, adding layers within the song and sounding as if it’s been transported from the Depression era as the band whip up a mighty country blues thump. There’s a slide guitar intro into Great Tide, another song that reeks of Lowell George and there’s no finer compliment than that. The song clatters and burns, guitars glowering, voices hollered over a vital heartbeat from bass and drums reaching a crescendo before slowing down and massing for a final aural assault. It’s really quite magnificent.

Next up there’s a dip into acoustic country blues with Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin and fiddler Bobby Britt expertly leading Cook down a dappled path on Belong before the Cooder like Sitting On A Fence weaves its way into view. A sinewy Gospel tinged country blues with some great female harmonies it shifts its shape with a sly sinuosity as the guitars snake and buzz. There’s more guitar excellence on the field holler Gospel of Lowly Road with Cook achieving a fine sense of thrum and throb on the strings; turn the volume up here and the song just reverberates, ably assisted by the vocal harmonies which are somewhat bewitching. Time To Wake is like a funky Daniel Lanois production, ambient but with some earth thrown in and Cook closes the album with his melodic duet with Frazey Ford on Anybody Else along with the grand Southern rock chug of Gone which, as mentioned earlier recalls The Allman Brothers Band in their heyday.

So lesson ended and by now you should be itching to hear some of Mr. Cook. You won’t be disappointed.

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Los Lobos. Gates Of Gold. Proper Records.

Over the past few years it seemed that Los Lobos were marking time, their only releases being live affairs, one “unplugged” (Disconnected In New York) and a live rendition of their album Kiko. Both albums were in fact pretty good but fans yearning for the follow up to Tin Can Trust have had a five year wait for Gates Of Gold with the previews of the title song setting parts of the blogosphere on fire. The song, a mandolin driven mid tempo lurch was favourably compared to vintage Levon Helm, it’s theme of wonderment regarding an afterlife assessed as an acknowledgement of the band’s increasing years. It’s a fine song although a little too short for our liking, fizzling out just when we felt it should start to burn. As an introduction to the album it also sells itself short as around it Los Lobos deliver their usual heady mix of rock and blues and Mexican styles with several of the songs boasting an impressive sense of daring do pulling in jazz and psychedelic flurries and proving that they are still essential listening.

Made To Break Your Heart opens the album with a flourish. A bustling beat and jagged guitar underpins the vocals before shifting into a jackhammer riff and glorious guitar solo. When We Were Free utilises the studio to full effect with the guitars treated and distorted over a tremendous burbling bass and vibrant percussion. With Steve Berlin’s sax freewheeling along with jazz influenced guitar runs the song runs the gamut from prime time Joni Mitchell to Weather Report and there’s more sonic burps on There I Go, a song that sounds like Dr. John beaming in from outer space. It’s back to earth with a tremendous bump on the gutbucket rock and blues drive of Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, a veritable treat for the ears. There’s more boogie on Too Small Heart while I Believed In You goes back to basic 12 bar blues with barbed wire slide guitar and scuzzy rhythm giving it an all too authentic touch, you can well imagine the band, broke down but not busted hammering this out in a low-lit dive.

One gets the impression that Los Lobos at heart are still a bar band and could throw out songs like I Believed In You at the drop of a hat and do them better than most bands around. However writers David Hidalgo, Louis Perez and Cesar Rosas are also capable of tender ruminations alongside their perennial returns to their Latin roots. Poquito Para Aqui swings with a Columbian Cambian sway with the guitars reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s ventures into Cuban music while La Tumba Sera El Final is a cover of a Mexican song about following a lover to the tomb. As adept as ever at translating Latin themes into rock’n’roll they offer the excellent Magdalena, a rolling and rocky blues number with tumbling guitar and a wonderful juggernaut thrust halfway as they sing of Mary Magdalene. Finally, Song Of The Sun is a creation myth that opens with acoustic guitar strums leading one to expect a folk rock song in the LA Topanga canyon style. Instead the band invest it with a powerful driving rhythm that recalls English rockers such as Richard Thompson and again the only fault here is that the song is all too short.

Overall Gates of Gold is on a par with Tin Can Trust and one can imagine that if they were to concentrate on the concentrated excellence of songs such as Song Of The Sun and Gates Of Gold Los Lobos could come up with an Americana classic.

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Nick Lowe. Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family

Nick Lowe says when he was asked to do a Christmas album by his label his first thought was ‘Do they really think I would wish to sully my good name on this tawdry and vulgar commercialism?” However perhaps he remembered the tawdry and vulgar commercialism he aspired to back in his Stiff days ( his response to David Bowie calling his album Low was to release an EP called Bowi) and having mellowed in these grey haired days he decided to go for it. The result is a departure from his current status as a grand old man of song writing and somewhat of a return to his cheeky chappie persona he employed back in the seventies. There’s a definite tongue in cheek feel to much of the album from the cheesy artwork to the title’s homage to the ubiquitous tin of confectionary passed around on Christmas day and which can be found piled in the nation’s supermarket aisles as they rush to herd us towards the season of good will and debt.
Lowe offers some traditional fare with Roger Miller’s Old Toy Trains and Boudleaux Bryant’s Christmas Can’t Be Far Away which sound just like you’d imagine them to be and if he’d maintained this approach then Quality Street would just be another Xmas cash in. Other standards are tweaked with Silent Night given a farfisa fuelled southern feel and Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day gets a ska makeover. Still nothing to get too excited about. However he delivers a fine Lonnie Donegan inspired skiffle on Children Go Where I Send Thee while The North Pole Express steams in fuelled by good old fashioned fatback guitar rock’n’roll adding some muscle to the album.
Lowe claims that he wanted to have a “sleigh-bell free zone” and one has to commend him for that but there’s no denying that those sleigh bells are the most evocative element of a successful Christmas song, cheesy or good. As a result it’s hard to get a feel for Christmas when listening to the album (never mind that it’s just October) but just when you reckon it’s just another seasonal cracker that failed to bang Lowe throws in some unexpected gifts that bring a smile to the face. Hooves on The Roof (written by Ron Sexsmith) is a finger poppin’ hipster groove that just about captures the sense of disbelief required regarding the fat man in the chimney. Christmas At The Airport is a jolly romp with Ray Conniff type backing vocals as Nick falls asleep in a snowed in terminal and wakes to find it closed so enjoys his holiday there playing on the luggage carousel with Christmas dinner a burger he found in a bin. A novelty hit perhaps? Finally there’s A Dollar Short of Happy, co written with Ry Cooder, which turns the syrupy Nat King Cole song into a street beggar’s plea as he observes city slickers suffering from the economic downturn. If there’s any justice Nick and Ry’s cynical lament should be the Christmas Number One.
As for tawdry and vulgar commercialism if you pre-order the CD/LP now at the Yep Roc store you get some exclusive goodies including a holiday greeting card set, a Nick Lowe Snow Globe and Nick Lowe wrapping paper!

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Heritage Blues Orchestra. And Still I Rise

While the Alabama Shakes currently fly the flag for an amped up and sassy take on Southern blues and rock The Heritage Blues Orchestra show that its not only the younger generation who can shake that particular tail feather. Drawing from the same well as the Shakes as befits their maturity they have a more traditional and a statelier feel but that’s not to say that these 12 songs lack the energy and immediacy of Brittany Howard and her colleagues. Despite the grey beards and suited demeanour this album rocks in a righteous way with lashings of wicked blues guitar swamped with some awesome horn playing and a mighty percussive engine room.
The opening stomp of Clarksdale Moan thunders like Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee breaks due to the drumming of Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith while the horns add a new Orleans feel. A great opening number it sets the tone for the remainder of the album. The voices of Chaney Sims, Bill Sims Jr. and Junior Mack are all well versed in old time holler, Gospel wails and bluesy insinuation allowing the band to deliver an all too sinful sounding C-Line Woman which slinks along like a sinner in a church while Big Legged Woman forsakes the church for an earthy rumbunctiousness. The band see-saw between the secular and the sacred throughout the album with the traditional Get Right Church capturing the rapture of Gospel while a downright dirty guitar corkscrews throughout. They recall slavery spirituals and field hollers on several songs while the spirit of John Lee Hooker hovers over their cover of Eric Bibb’s Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down. The breathless sprint through In The Morning is perhaps the most condensed example of their style. Soaked in Gospel with parping horns and great church tent revivalist vocals it could possibly raise the dead. While the majority of the songs are either traditional or covers the one original Chilly Jordan, written by Junior Mack more than holds its own. A fine rippling guitar rolls along on the jauntiest song here.
A powerful album, the slightly jazzy horns, the muscular blues guitar and the spirited singing all combine to create a disc that will appeal to anyone interested in the Staple Singers, Ry Cooder, Dr. John or hopefully the Alabama Shakes.

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Clarksdale Moan