Tag Archives: Bart Grooms

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 6)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 6)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006 


Jim Capaldi (2nd from left) with Traffic. (click for larger version)


Robert Moog

We could have a discussion about Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelopes, waveforms, voltage-controlled oscillators, and other stuff that fellows with PhDs in engineering physics like to talk about. After all, Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), creator of the Moog Synthesizer, had several degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and he certainly knew his stuff. But let’s avoid getting bogged down in technical details and consider the larger story instead, which begins just after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1919, mad Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen, aka Leon Theremin, created a musical instrument that generated between two antennas a radio signal, the frequency and amplitude of which a “player” could control by hand, sort of like playing a violin without touching it. An ever-deluded Vladimir Lenin sent Theremin on a global tour with this minor novelty, primarily to show off the amazing avant garde technology that the new worker’s paradise was ostensibly making available to greedy, behind-the-curve capitalists. One of those capitalist outfits was RCA, who purchased manufacturing licenses for the bizarre instrument in the late 1920s. Two decades later the Theremin’s spooky sound was de rigueur in radio and film scores for mysteries, crime dramas, and—most prominently—science fiction thrillers and horror movies (see: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.)

Enter Robert Moog, a teenager light years ahead of his schoolmates and neighborhood chums, who in the early 1950s began making and selling Theremin kits as a hobby. For about 50 bucks, Moog’s astonishingly elegant sets allowed anyone with rudimentary skills in electronics to construct their very own instrument. Moog and his father sold about 1,000 kits in 1960. Building a Theremin, however, was a snap compared to playing the thing. Moog was already looking down the road for something even more elegant.

Enter Raymond Scott, a wigged-out composer, swing-band leader, electronics wizard, and studio engineer who may have been from another planet (some of those wild scores heard in Warner Bros. cartoons and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” are Scott originals). Moog and his father popped into Scott’s mammoth “lab” one afternoon and observed, among other wonders, a Moog theremin set that had been reconfigured by Scott into a type of keyboard instrument he called the Clavivox. “I have seen the future,” mused Moog, “and it is the keyboard interface.”

What followed was the creation of the Moog Synthesizer in various forms, but at a fraction of the cost of the big non-interface synthesizers made by universities and electronics companies during the early 1960s. Integrated circuits changed all that, and pretty soon Mellotrons, Arps, and Rolands were competing with Moog’s devastatingly efficient Series 900.

Nonetheless, it was with one of the 900 Series modular systems that the world got switched on to electronic music. In 1968, pianist Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos, thanks to gender reassignment therapy) released an album of Bach compositions played on the Moog. Switched-On Bach, one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, went platinum. Pretty soon everybody was switching on. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and sundry other pop bands dabbled, but by 1970, artists such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, and just about every member of Genesis were getting very serious. Then came the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (another Walter/Wendy Carlos effort), and Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk, and so on to digital synthesizers and computer sequencers, which the Moog synthesizer definitely is not. To get that space age, bachelor-pad sound that Stereolab is known for, you must use an analog device. Just ask Brian Eno.

This makes Robert Moog essentially the father of electronic music as it is made, purchased, and listened to today, even if he was not a composer or player; “I just make tools for others,” he often stated. He’s wrong about that, but physicists do tend to be reductionists at heart. Moog was actually a major catalyst in a quantum shift in modern culture and science. The story in which he had a key role has a parallel narrative, such that the relationship of these cosmic counterparts matches in strangeness the interplay of subatomic particles. Just as Moog and Raymond Scott and other guys in lab coats and crew cuts tinkered with waves and oscillations, so earlier did Edward Teller, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and colleagues manipulate previously unknown/unseen objects and energies to render forth nuclear energy.

The men in both narratives had an affinity for the new and improved, fully understanding the inevitable evolutions of the Kitchen of Tomorrow and the Car of the Future. They listened to swing, but it was the electric, atomic-age swing of the Les Paul guitar. They were squares, nerds, and horn-rimmed geeks that the girls secretly dug (recall Marilyn Monroe’s fascination with Albert Einstein). Their relationship with the enemy had its own curious waveform. Had it not been for the Soviets, Theremin might not have brought electronic music to our side of the globe. But then, without the Soviets, atomic weapon research would not have continued at its frantic pace. Without so many tests in the desert, there might not have been so many giant creatures emanating from Hollywood, but the electronic music team supplied the soundtracks just the same. There might not have been a space “race” either, in which case the space-age sounds of lounge music masters, minus the urgency, may have developed at a slower, less vulgar pace.

Either way, the research teams in both narratives were all about electrons; Raymond Scott’s most famous and instantly recognizable composition is “Powerhouse.” The business of energy entails positive and negative charges, and the two stories are charged with comparable symmetries. These mid-century brainiac physicists instigated a fascination with two things, one that we think we can’t live without and another that we can’t live with: Hi-Fis and Hydrogen Bombs. The space-age bachelor pad becomes the Home of Tomorrow, with a Philco or RCA Victor Hi-Fi in the den and a fallout shelter just south of the patio. The makers of The Bomb worked on the Manhattan Project, the key instruments of which were Uranium 238 and various synthetic elements; Robert Moog and Raymond Scott started their projects in basements in Manhattan, the end result of which was a synthetic instrument.

Polarities evolve from those symmetries. The atom bomb was a fission device; the H-bomb is a fusion device. The bachelor pad becomes a home only after the owner finds his counterpart. Robert Moog’s invention, a thoroughly modern device built for the future, reached the world only after it was used to make a best-selling record of classical compositions from the distant past. The performer on that album was a man who later became a woman.

The H-bomb geniuses and the electronics wizards invented things with properties and behaviors that modern physicists now say might not be correctly understood, if they exist at all. But until we learn for certain, let’s relish the fact that the very first nuclear events in the universe can be observed today in the form of radio signals. The term “radioactivity,” as the synthesizer band Kraftwerk pointed out decades ago, is a cosmic bit of double entendre. –David Pelfrey

Johnnie Johnson

Chuck Berry has for decades performed with no interest in whoever’s backing him on live dates. Berry simply shows up with his guitar and plays with whatever junkies have been corralled by the promoter into being his backup band for the evening. In his defense, though, Berry’s probably aware that he’ll never replicate his luck in hooking up with Johnnie Johnson. Johnson didn’t need Berry when the guitarist joined up with his Sir John Trio in 1953, but the pianist immediately saw that Berry’s tunes were future hits. Johnson’s arrangements became a vital part of developing what became Berry’s biggest songs. Johnson’s own part in rock history was revived when he joined the all-star Berry band assembled for Taylor Hackford’s concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Johnson would go on to perform well into the ’90s. He put on much better shows than Berry, of course. —J.R.T.

Danny Sugerman

He was the manager of The Doors, but that was after Jim Morrison’s death. Still, Danny Sugerman built himself a nice career as the ultimate Doors fan. He began answering their mail when he was just 14 and would go on to chronicle the band’s exploits in plenty of books. His own autobiography, Wonderland Avenue, would turn out to be the most interesting. At least Sugerman lived long enough to see The Doors reunite—which, in the band’s current incarnation, has probably hastened the death of many Doors fans. He was survived by wife Fawn Hall, who enjoyed some ’80s notoriety for her role in shredding documents as Oliver North’s secretary during the days of the Iran-Contra scandal. –J.R. Taylor


Johnnie Johnson (click for larger version)


R.L. Burnside

February 2 marks a decade since a capacity crowd crammed into The Nick during a snowstorm to see the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and 69-year-old opening act R.L. Burnside. Spencer obviously dug how Burnside, a Mississippi hill-country blues man and erstwhile sharecropper, was the real deal. The next morning, the Blues Explosion headed to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to back Burnside for what became the A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album (reportedly recorded in a mere four hours). Though it received mixed reviews, the album became the best selling of Burnside’s career and paid for a new roof on his home. He had been recording since the late ’60s, and it must have had him scratching his head to see young, indie-rocker types suddenly turning up at his shows. He recorded a few more albums on the Fat Possum label, including the 1998 album Come On In. His 2001 album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down was aptly named for a man who preferred to remain seated onstage. He died in Memphis. —Paul Brantley

Harold Leventhal

Anyone interested in booking prominent folk music stars 40 years ago usually rang up Harold Leventhal. He was the man responsible for Bob Dylan’s first major concert appearance in 1963 at Town Hall in New York City. Leventhal handled folk stars such as Dylan, Joan Baez, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as pop and rock acts such as Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, the Mamas and Papas, and Neil Young. He also produced the Arlo Guthrie film Alice’s Restaurant. —Ed Reynolds

Jothan Callins

A student of Amos Gordon at Jackson Olin High School, Callins went on to a career as an educator when not playing trumpet and keyboards with Stevie Wonder, The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, B.B. King, Max Roach, and many other jazz greats, most notably Sun Ra, for whom he also served a stint as music director. In 1978, Mr. Callins became the first jazz Artist in Residence for the Birmingham Public School System and helped found the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. (He was later inducted there, as well.) He led his own Sounds of Togetherness, with which he toured internationally, founded The Birmingham Youth Jazz Ensemble, and authored more than 500 compositions. Explaining jazz improvisation to schoolchildren, Callins once put it this way: “Everybody gets to play. It’s like being at church and having testimony time. We all get a chance to say our piece.” –Bart Grooms

Ibrahim Ferrer

As a member of The Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban-born Ferrer became an international star and was featured in Wim Wenders’ documentary of the same title. –B.G.

Jim Capaldi

Drummer and lyricist for Traffic; he co-wrote most of their songs with Steve Winwood. –B.G.

Jimmy Smith

He radically redefined jazz organ in the mid-’50s, making it a bona fide solo instrument and influencing every jazz and rock player who came after him. Eschewing the tremolo typical of the organ sound of his day, Smith used the newly introduced (1955) Hammond B-3 and played lines based on the ideas of his favorite sax players (Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas), not keyboard men. He made numerous recordings, especially for Blue Note. Miles Davis, on first hearing Smith: “Man, this cat is the eighth wonder of the world!” –B.G.

Vassar Clements

Fiddler extraordinaire who played with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Jim and Jesse McReynolds, then later sat in with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, Jr., even Woody Herman; he can be heard on more than 2,000 albums. He combined the bluegrass of his background with jazz and seemed to fit in anywhere, even alongside Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in the hippie bluegrass quintet Old and in the Way. ––B.G.

Shirley Horn

One of jazz’s most sensual vocalists, Horn was both a protegée of and an influence on Miles Davis. Horn was also an accomplished pianist whose playing and singing meshed elegantly on her trademark ultra-slow ballads. Close Enough for Love (1989) is a fine first place to hear the woman who influenced Diana Krall and many others. –B.G.

Spencer Dryden

You’d imagine that the members of Jefferson Airplane are doing well. Some of them are still along for the ride playing as members of Starship, while fringe figures such as Jorma Kaukonen remain respected guitar masters who run their own pleasant rural empires. Property values in San Francisco stayed on the rise, too. Yes, it’s good to be a former member of Jefferson Airplane—unless you were Spencer Dryden, the veteran Airplane drummer who was living in a miserable place that hardly counted as a shack.

Not privy to publishing rights or particularly adult decisions, Dryden was a classic hippie casualty whose induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t even rate him a cup of coffee. To be fair, the band had originally lost interest in the guy after he began carrying around a gun in the aftermath of Altamont. Not too coincidentally, Dryden had joined the Airplane as a replacement for original drummer Skip Spence, who would go on to cultish fame as another legendary acid-rock nutcase. At least Dryden benefitted from a 2004 fundraiser that was meant to help him with hip-replacement surgeries and other medical problems. It was still a bizarre end to a weird life—which included an idyllic Hollywood childhood under the auspices of his uncle, Charlie Chaplin. Most telling quote regarding Dryden, courtesy of an ex-wife: “He was so quirky, and he never intentionally hurt anyone.” —J.R.T.

Willie Hutch


Spencer Dryden (click for larger version)

He stepped in to finish up “I’ll Be There” for the Jackson Five, and that pretty much guaranteed Willie Hutch any number of production jobs during the ’70s heyday of Motown. He was a natural purveyor of chart hits, too, having already made the adjustment from backwoods Texas soul to writing songs for The Fifth Dimension. However, Hutch would really make his pop-culture breakthrough with his film scores for The Mack and Foxy Brown—both of which were grandly intrusive experiments in funk and soul. (In the tradition of Curtis Mayfield’s work on Superfly, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” continues to matter far more than any scene from The Mack.) Hutch was always welcome in the studio during the ’80s and ’90s, as well, and was still releasing strong work right up until 2002. Hutch also stayed around long enough to hear his “I Choose You” backing up the action in this year’s critically acclaimed pimp epic Hustle & Flow. –J.R.T.

Hasil Adkins

Wearing wraparound sunglasses and beaming a toothless grin as he danced in the audience to his own opening act (Southern Culture on the Skids), Hasil Adkins was clearly enjoying himself as he waited to go on stage. Minutes later Adkins was on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, singing in a captivating yet disturbing tenor that occasionally broke into a bad, but hypnotic, falsetto. He broke a string and smashed his guitar against the wall behind him without even bothering to turn around, then calmly asked to borrow someone else’s instrument. After the show, a roadie acquaintance told me that Adkins’ lunch routine was a pint of vodka and five cans of chicken noodle soup eaten straight from the can. He also consumed two gallons of coffee daily.

Adkins was the consummate hillbilly singer, the original madman who inspired The Cramps and other warped devotees of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to concoct a musical genre called “psychobilly.”

He claimed to have written more than 7,000 songs (with titles like “Boo Boo the Cat” and “Chocolate Milk Honeymoon”), and in 1970 he began mailing out thousands of tapes in an effort to secure a record deal. U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia gave one of Adkins’ tapes to President Nixon; the President responded to Adkins on White House stationery: “I am very pleased by your thoughtfulness in bringing these particular selections to my attention.” Adkins was found dead at his crudely constructed West Virginia shack at age 67 of as yet undetermined reasons. Foul play was ruled out. —E.R.

Baker Knight

Knight wrote hits for Ricky Nelson (“Lonesome Town”) and Elvis Presley (“The Wonder of You”) as well for Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Perry Como, among others. Knight was born in Birmingham, spending much of his 72-year life here. In 1956, he had a strong regional following with his band Baker Knight and the Knightmares. Ricky Nelson recorded 22 of Knight’s songs. —E.R.

Bobby Short

Singer/pianist whom The New Yorker called “one of the last examples (and indubitably the best) of the supper club singer or ‘troubadour;’” he worked at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from 1968 to 2005. –B.G.


Bobby Short (click for larger version)


Little Milton Campbell

Blues singer, guitarist and songwriter (“The Blues Is Alright,” “Your Wife Is Cheating on Us”). –B.G.

Paul Peña

Folk/blues singer; he wrote “Jet Airliner,” which was a hit for the Steve Miller Band, and was the central figure in the remarkable documentary Genghis Blues. –B.G.

Chet Helms

Chet Helms produced the first psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and staged free concerts in Golden Gate Park (when not fighting with promoter Bill Graham over whether to charge admission). “Chet was a hippie,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said. “We were all hippies. He hated to charge for the music.” The story goes that he traveled to Austin, Texas, where he convinced Janis Joplin to hitchhike back to the West Coast with him. Helms was managing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time and brought Joplin in to propel the band to stardom. Helms died at 63 of Hepatitis C complications. —E.R.

Jimmy Martin

A 1950s member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Martin was an ornery man with a high, lonesome whine and a distinctive, fast-strumming rhythm guitar style. He’s probably best known for giving Mother Maybelle a run for her money as the show-stopper on the immortal 1970 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a record that forced rednecks to forgive hippies for long hair and compelled hippies to forgive rednecks for not liking loud music. The two polar-opposite cultures admitted that they were really quite fond of each other, despite what Merle Haggard sang.

The Grand Ole Opry was too terrified of his reputation as an unpredictable drunk to invite Martin to join. He never got over the rejection; he often drove to the backstage of the Opry in a limo he owned (the license plate read KING JIM) on Saturday nights to drunkenly demand that he be allowed to perform. Martin died of bladder cancer and congestive heart failure at age 77. —E.R.

The Set List — Roberta Flack

By Ed Reynolds and Bart Grooms

Roberta Flack has made a career singing boring pop that has about as much passion as Liza Minelli or Phoebe Snow. So it’s hard to fathom that a breathtaking song on Flack’s debut album First Take that Clint Eastwood demanded be included on the soundtrack of his film Play Misty for Me rates as a true 24-karat masterpiece. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is nothing short of spellbinding, an awe-inspiring, hypnotic slice of musical history that rarely fails to make one stop whatever they’re doing and simply listen. To her credit, Flack told music big shots and producers overseeing her career to take a hike when told to speed up the tempo. Instead, her voice approaches each phrase with a delicate caress. Too bad she couldn’t pull off that neat trick again with “Killing Me Softly,” “Where is the Love [with the late Donny Hathaway],” “The Closer I Get to You,” and, of course, the thoroughly irritating “Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You.” (Saturday, January 22, at the BJCC Concert Hall) —Ed Reynolds

Roberta Flack (click for larger version)

Regina Carter


Regina Carter (click for larger version)

Although she later received classical training, violinist Regina Carter began the way many of her jazz forbearers did—playing by ear. She later mastered written music and theory, but as she puts it, “I think that kind of experience has freed my playing up a lot more, so I’m not stuck on the page. A lot of people are afraid not to have a piece of music in front of them.” She sees her mission as expanding the profile of and approach to her instrument, and to this end she plays in an aggressive, often percussive manner that recalls the great Stuff Smith’s bluesy swagger more than, say, Stéphane Grappelli’s more refined style. “Instead of being so melodic,” states the fiddler, “which I can be, I tend to use the instrument in more of a rhythmic way, using vamp rhythms or a lot of syncopated rhythms, approaching it more like a horn player does. So, I don’t feel that I have a lot of limitations —I feel like I can do anything.” Indeed, what she can do is pretty striking, and her quintet’s ASC concert on Saturday, January 22, at 8 p.m. will give us an opportunity to hear for ourselves. Until then, her beguiling duet album with master pianist Kenny Barron (Freefall, on Verve) is highly recommended. Tickets are $46, $36, and $26; For more information call 975-2787 or visit www.alysstephens.org. —Bart Grooms

City Stages 2004

Blockbuster Stage

Friday, June 186:30 p.m. Ray Lamontagne7:50 p.m. Los Lonely Boys

9:15 p.m. Keb’ Mo’

11 p.m. The Robert Cray Band

Saturday, June 19

1:45 p.m. June Star

Shelby Lynne (click for larger version)



2:40 p.m. Clare Burson

3:45 p.m. D.B. Harris


inclusion image

4:50 p.m. Chris Knight

6 p.m. Steve Forbert

7:25 p.m. Drive-By Truckers

8:50 p.m. Lynyrd Skynyrd

Sunday, June 20

1 p.m. The Scott Ivey Band

2 p.m. Adam Hood

3:05 p.m. Meteorite

4:20 p.m. Tony Joe White

5:45 p.m. Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men

7:10 p.m. Shelby Lynne

8:40 p.m. Loretta Lynn

(Artists are listed alphabetically by first name.)

Adam Hood

Currently based in Auburn, Hood sounds a lot like Steve Earle searching for long-lost James Taylor and Joni Mitchell roots. —Ed Reynolds (Sunday, June 20, 2 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.)

Clare Burson

Clare Burson’s voice has a particular lucidity—a Southern ease. Though most of the tracks on her 2003 full-length debut album, The In-Between, are forgettable, Burson has her moments. The subtle, girlish vocals that dominate most of the album turn unexpectedly sultry with “Don’t You Do Me,” a song with a sedated yet seductive sound (Old World-inspired accordion, and mandolin riffs) and vocals that are reminiscent of—dare I say—Fiona Apple? Burson’s overall style is no doubt influenced by her ear for bluegrass and Irish-inspired music, which she learned from playing violin for more than 18 years. But it wasn’t until her college years that she taught herself to play guitar and write songs—most of which are lyrically sweet and innocuous.

The In-Between is just what one would expect in a first effort from a 28-year-old singer/songwriter steeped in her Tennessee roots—plainspoken love songs, earnest musings about long dusty roads to Memphis, and a crew of acclaimed Nashville musicians to beef up her songs with bass, drums, lap steel, organ, and accordion. —Danielle McClure (Saturday, June 19, 2:40 p.m. to 3:25 p.m.; and also at City Stages Unplugged: Friday, June 18, 11:55 a.m. to 12:20 p.m.)

D.B. Harris

Now based in Austin, Texas, this Birmingham native’s band features cry-in-your-beer country music, Tejano, rockabilly, and some material that wouldn’t sound strange coming from Joe Ely. Definitely worth checking out. —Bart Grooms (Saturday, June 19, 1:10 p.m. to 2:10 p.m.; and also at the Blockbuster Stage: Saturday, June 19, 3:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men

Any hack will tell you that Dave Alvin grew up under the buzz of the high-tension wires strung across rural California. Big deal. There’s plenty of old folks living under high-tension wires strung across suburban America, and you don’t see them churning out terse, bluesy tunes. Alvin’s spent more than 20 years as a critic’s darling, and that might help explain why his best album remains a live effort that frees him from his studio indulgences. He seems to understand better than his supporters that his music only truly matters when he’s playing with his longstanding touring band. A live set from Alvin can even make his crappy old college-rock tunes (anybody remember The Blasters or X?) sound fresh, immediate, and really, really important. —J.R. Taylor (Sunday, June 20, 5:45 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.)

Drive-By Truckers

Sure, they’ve cornered the market on Southern Rock, but how hard was that when the competition was Nashville Pussy? Last year’s Decoration Day has now lead to a solo album, Killers & Stars, from band leader Patterson Hood, and both projects suggest that the Drive-By Truckers are, in fact, doomed to be constantly undervalued in the musical marketplace. They might as well reject the rock world that will only marginalize them and begin their rightful stance as displaced folkies simply trying to make sense of their surroundings. Lesser albums such as Warren Zevon’s The Wind and Neil Young’s Greendale will get more unabashed hype, but that’s okay. England Dan & John Ford Coley outsold Dirk Hamilton, too. —J.R. Taylor (Saturday, June 19, 7:25 p.m. to 8:25 p.m.)

June Star

These guys like to crank up the alt-country rock, beer-joint shit-kicker style, but they truly shine when easing into country ballads that feature pedal steel, harmonica, and mandolin. Andrew Grimm has a melancholy voice that is both gruff and twangy, and his songs fall somewhere between Gram Parsons and early R.E.M., but they are definitely rougher around the edges (a good thing in this case). Although June Star often recall late-model Byrds, Neil Young’s all-but-forgotten outfit The Stray Gators, or even Poco, it’s difficult to say if this versatile band is better suited to “Austin City Limits” or “A Prairie Home Companion.” —David Pelfrey (Saturday, June 19, 1:45 p.m. to 2:20 p.m.)

Keb’ Mo’

Keb’ Mo’ (that’s Swahili for Kevin Moore . . .) has a new album called Keep It Simple. The CD’s cover pictures the artist in Depression-era costume, seated in what looks like an old shack somewhere along the Mississippi Delta. On the title track, our back-to-basics bluesman sings, “I just wanna go somewhere and use my hands and keep it simple, real simple.”

Well, actions speak louder than lyrics, and here’s how Mr. “Mo’” keeps it simple: keyboards, violin, dobro, several guitars, synthesizers, a few back-up singers, six contributing artists from as many labels, four different recording studios, five engineers, and one assistant engineer.

There’s nothing wrong with taking full-blown, obsessively detailed advantage of today’s recording resources, unless you are posing as an authentic Delta blues artist cranking out some gritty, raw masterpieces for Fat Possum Records. Keb’ Mo’, by way of contrast, is making slick, blues-lite music that Disney might commission for its next big animated feature, assuming NPR doesn’t get to him first. Honestly, it makes Eric Clapton look like Howlin’ Wolf. This is music for fans of Randy Newman, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, and sundry other middle-of-the-road, over-the-hill performers who, by the way, do indeed find gainful employment with Disney from time to time. “But wait,” Keb’ Mo’ fans and enablers reply, “He’s won two Grammy Awards.” To which one can only say, “Precisely.” —David Pelfrey (Friday, June 18, 9:15 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)

Loretta Lynn

There’s not a single Trent Reznor song to be found on Van Lear Rose. In fact, 70-year-old Lynn has wisely dodged Johnny Cash’s mistakes and has utilized an influential young connection—that being highly-touted producer Jack White of the White Stripes—to record her first album comprised solely of originals. (At least, as far as I can tell from my collection of Lynn 8-track tapes. Is there anything more irritating than rock critics who suddenly become experts on country music once there’s a hipster angle?)

Anyway, Van Lear Rose snuffs out a thousand snide comments by being a truly great album. It doesn’t even sound like White had to step in to save the compositions. He’s still certainly responsible for several amazing moments where Lynn’s country stance succumbs to a British blues influence. A striking range of emotions is clearly the Lynn legacy, though. Now, there’s still the small matter of finding out how much daring new material will be sacrificed in favor of crowd-pleasing classics. Actually, who cares? (See interview, this issue.) —J.R. Taylor (Sunday, June 20, 8:40 p.m. to 9:55 p.m.)

Los Lonely Boys

Not since Mick Ronson co-produced the band Los Illegals has . . . oh, wait, nobody bought that Los Illegals album. Come to think of it, that whole thing was a crappy generic-rock effort distinguished only by some Spanish vocals. In sharp contrast, the self-titled debut of Los Lonely Boys features only a couple of crappy power ballads. The rest of the album—co-produced by Keb’ Mo’—is perfectly swell blues-rock. Never mind that the slick production makes the band sound more like Carlos Santana than Doug Sahm. Their shallow attempt at mining rhythm ‘n’ blues still allows the band to stumble upon plenty of greatness. Maybe they’ll even become successful enough to finally bury the Tejano genre. —J.R. Taylor (Friday, June 18, 7:50 p.m. to 8:50 p.m.; and also at City Stages Unplugged: Friday, June 18, 1:15 p.m. to 1:40 p.m.)

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd have always been way over the top, whether it’s the barrage of three guitars when two would do or the incessant, countless guitar solos that made each weary version of “Free Bird” seemingly never end. The band transformed the Confederate flag into a worshipped icon while making the term “redneck” a proud label for men sporting mullets and women wrapped in halter tops. (Appropriately, the original Skynyrd boys were dropouts from—you guessed it—Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida.) Lynyrd Skynyrd simply refuses to go away. They’re back with their first studio album in three years, and, quite frankly, it’s the same tired Southern boogie-woogie they’ve recycled for years. It’s no surprise that they named it Vicious Cycle.

When original singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was fondly remembered by his wife in a VH-1 special as “just a redneck who loved to fight,” died in a 1977 plane crash, many thought that “Free Bird” had finally been grounded. Instead, the song became a request literally screamed at every concert, regardless of which band was performing. The only bright spot in the ongoing saga is the return of Blackfoot guitarist Rickey Medlocke to the Skynyrd fold. Medlocke played drums in the band in 1971, left for a year, and then returned briefly when the band featured a two-drummer lineup. The next time around, Medlocke returned as the third guitarist.

Guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell are the only other original members. Johnny Van Zant, who was 13 when Skynyrd first hit the big time, replaced his late brother as lead vocalist. He was recently interviewed by comedic hipster Dennis Miller, who asked Van Zant if he realized the band had a monster hit in the works when he recorded the vocals for “Free Bird.” Van Zant simply smiled and politely told Miller that it was his late brother Ronnie who had originally sung the song. Lucky for Miller that Ronnie’s dead, because he would have kicked Miller’s ass all over the television studio. (See interview, this issue.) —Ed Reynolds (Saturday, June 19, 8:50 p.m. to 10:35 p.m.)

The Robert Cray Band

Although guitarist/vocalist Cray inevitably gets called a bluesman, he’s never stayed in the blues mainstream. With a smooth vocal style that owes more to soul and gospel than any blues singer you can name, Cray and his longtime mates (keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid, drummer Kevin Hayes) continue to work at evolving a blues-influenced mainstream R&B/rock hybrid. Cray and Co. may not always hit the heights of early successes like the breakthrough Strong Persuader album (1986), but at their best, they make terrific, moving music indeed. Cray’s songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Albert King, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Del McCoury, and Tony Bennett, and Mick Jagger has been heard to kvetch admiringly about Cray’s vocals, instrumental talents, and the fact that he’s good looking as well. “It’s not fair,” whined the Stone. See for yourself. (See interview, this issue.) —Bart Grooms (Friday, June 18, 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.)

Shelby Lynne

2000′s I Am Shelby Lynne was a brilliant pop album that defied years of record company oppression. The record’s surprising success put the country songstress in an ideal position to dictate her next big move, which turned out to be the moronic sellout of 2001′s Love, Shelby. That joke just gets funnier every time it’s told. Anyway, Lynne tried rebounding with last year’s Identity Crisis, and it was a nice step away from the gloss toward minimalism. Interestingly enough, it’s even as much a step away from I Am Shelby Lynne as it is from her previous disaster. The only problem is that Lynne’s true love seems to be slick balladry. She remains a fine songwriter, but that haphazard career still makes her the kind of musician who makes illegal downloading seem totally understandable. (See interview, this issue.) —J.R. Taylor (Sunday, June 20, 7:10 p.m. to 8:10 p.m.)

Steve Forbert

See interview, this issue. (Saturday, June 19, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

Tony Joe White

Tina Turner opened the door for his European comeback in the early ’90s, but Tony Joe White is mostly forgotten in the places he defines. Even the most suburban Southerner can relate to White’s “Homemade Ice Cream” and “Rainy Night In Georgia,” although his “Polk Salad Annie” remains a novelty on the level of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses.” On the other hand, Tom Jones and Elvis Presley both found “Polk Salad Annie” worth covering. There was a time when White was positioned as a similar chest-hair-sporting stud during his short heyday as the Swamp Fox. He even attempted a perfectly legitimate bid for disco stardom back in ’76. Today, however, White’s very reliable as a funky bluesman with an offhand manner toward his fine guitar work. Fans on other continents already know all this, but here’s a rare chance for his countryfolk to catch up with the legend. (See interview, this issue.) —J.R. Taylor (Sunday, June 20, 4:20 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.) &

The Set List — Jimmy Hall

2004-02-12 tracking Music section

By J.R. Taylor, Ed Reynolds, Bart Grooms

“Blow and suck as hard as you can!” That’s the advice former Wet Willie vocalist and harmonica dynamo Jimmy Hall gave local harpist Topper Price during a one-time harmonica lesson decades ago. “Jimmy can sing like an angel,” Price elaborated. “He’s the biggest single reason I do what I do today.” Jimmy Hall has inspired more than just the locals. After an extended stint in the 1970s working every beer shack between New York and L.A.— where Hall’s reputation as a hip-shaking, Dixie-fried Mick Jagger (right down to the big lips) established the band Wet Willie as a Southern heavyweight on par with the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band— the Mobile native went on to earn a Grammy nomination for his vocal work on Jeff Beck’s Flash in 1985. In fact, Hall came very close to joining the Jeff Beck Group as lead vocalist, a position held at one time by none other than Rod Stewart. He later played sax and harmonica while serving as Hank Williams, Jr.’s bandleader. When Hall performs at the Oasis, he’ll be backed up by Birmingham’s finest: Tim Boykin on guitar, Leif Bondarenko on drums, Eric Onimus on bass, and Macey Taylor on piano. (Friday, February 13, at The Oasis.) —Ed Reynolds

Dillinger Escape Plan
They don’t introduce their songs by name, since that’ll interfere with what this band likely wants to imagine as a sonic assault. It’s also kind of a serious musician pose—which is desperately needed when you’re an acclaimed cutting-edge band hoping that nobody notices that your jagged metal sound is really just rap-rockin’ nü-metal without the sponsorships. (Saturday, February 14, at the Homewood Armory, 6 p.m., $10 adv.) —J.R. Taylor

Flickerstick/Blue Epic
For those with a sense of instant nostalgia, Flickerstick was the big winner on a legit-rock version of American Idol. The resultant album had about the same impact as Justin Guarini’s. So, the dumbest possible thing would be to play up this generic band’s shortcomings with a live album, as they did with the aptly-titled Causing a Catastrophe. Couldn’t they have just made a beach movie with Bijou Phillips? That tense little EP from locals Blue Epic is holding up pretty well, though, although those pleading vocals are probably best served by a five-song format. (Sunday, February 15, The Nick, $7.) —J.R.T.

Mindy Smith and Eliot Morris
She took off after stealing a Dolly Parton tribute from her famous contemporaries, and One Moment More updates Smith’s “Jolene” with harmony vocals from Dolly herself. That’s actually a distraction, though, since Smith’s big talent is that she’s the first great song stylist to come out of Nashville since the early Countrypolitan days. She’s styling her own songs, as we’re reminded by her appearing with Eliot Morris in a concert packaged as a night of singer/songwriters. She writes some beautiful tunes, but watching her pull them off is a real event. You’d never know that she has one of the most limited voices in Nashville. (Thursday, February 19, WorkPlay, 8 p.m. $8.) —J.R.T.

The Red Clay Ramblers
They’re the New Christy Minstrels of string bands, if only because nobody can ever remember the guy who writes their original songs. And if I told you, you’d think I was making fun of his name. Still, the Red Clay Ramblers are also important purveyors of the American songbook, and are versatile enough to toss off some prehistoric jazz and classic novelty tunes. At least the name has become a franchise unto itself, so the band will likely go on in perpetuity. We weren’t that lucky with Tiny Tim. (Saturday, February 21, 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 22, 2:30 p.m. at the Hoover Public Library. Sold out.) —J.R.T.

Smile Empty Soul perform at Banana Joe’s. (click for larger version)

Smile Empty Soul
Last year’s self-titled debut allowed Smile Empty Soul to break new ground in the realm of rock bands that blame their parents for everything. In fact, resentment is pretty much this band’s main product. They resent intrusive parents and neglectful parents—not to mention strip malls and religion. But angry young Sean Danielsen also resents drug use, so there’s something to separate them from Rage Against The Machine. Danielsen probably also resents not being around in 1988, since he’s got a pretty sharp sense of melody that would’ve guaranteed a five-year career arc back in the day. Danielsen wouldn’t have shot his profits up his arm, either. He probably resents the people who did. (Tuesday, February 24, Banana Joes, 8:30 p.m., $5, 18+.) —J.R.T.


Sweet Honey in the Rock perform at the Alys Stephens Center. (click for larger version)

Karen Gruber
Karen Gruber, a fine jazz vocalist, will perform with drummer Sonny Harris’ trio at Moonlight Music Café in Vestavia. Gruber is a thoughtful, articulate singer with a sensual touch to her expression, and she swings in an understated, effective manner. (Wednesday, February 25, Moonlight Music Café, 8 p.m., $10.) —Bart Grooms

Sweet Honey in the Rock at Alys Stephens Center
If you’ve never had the experience of seeing and hearing this a cappella group, get ready to be blown away by their artistry, message, and sheer vocal power. Founded by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973, this ensemble of six black women (and an expressive sign language interpreter) draws deeply from the well of black church music, adding blues, jazz, and folk tunes for seasoning. Their material ranges from the overtly spiritual to topical explorations of international justice and freedom issues. (Friday, February 27, Alys Stephens Center, 8 p.m., $22-$42.) —B.G.