Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

John Paul Keith Plays Every Retro Rock Style Ever Invented

John Paul Keith’s backup band is called the One Four Fives. It’s a wryly accurate way of describing his music. The veteran Memphis singer/guitarist is an avatar of retro rock: he doesn’t seem to have met a roots-rock style that he can’t play with equal parts fun and virtuosity. He’s sort of a Memphis version of Simon Chardiet, emphasis more on serious songwriting than blazing guitars and punk-infused humor. It’s a sure bet that had many of these songs come out fifty years ago, they would have been huge. The production matches the period-perfect craftsmanship: many of these songs sound like live-in-the-studio two-track recordings from around 1965.

Keith’s new album is aptly titled The Man That Time Forgot. The opening track, Never Could Say No is Tex-Mex through the prism of 80s powerpop – it wouldn’t be out of place on a Willie Nile record. You Devil You evokes 50s rockabilly hitmakers like Charlie Gracie, with its carefree guitar tremolo-picking. With its slurry bass groove, Anyone Can Do It mines an Eddie Cochran/Bobby Fuller vein. The wry, doo-wop infused Songs for Sale is the closest thing to Chardiet here, along with the album’s best song, the amusingly scurrying noir shuffle I Work at Night.

Afraid to Look works a stomping British R&B hook straight out of the early Yardbirds or Pretty Things, while the honkytonk-flavored Dry County references the long stretches of road that every touring band dreads the most. I Think I Fell in Love Today slinks along on the swirling organ of Al Gamble, of another excellent Memphis band, retro soul groovemeisters the City Champs. They also evoke a vivid late 60s blue-eyed soul vibe with Somebody Ought to Write a Song About You. Keith goes back to a straight-up, rocking Bobby Fuller feel with the tongue-in-cheek Bad Luck Baby; the album winds up with a country song, The Last Last Call, which sounds like a big live favorite. Fans of roots rock from across the decades will have a blast with this. It’s out now on Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The City Champs Set Up a Vintage Classic

If the City Champs’ new album The Set Up had been recorded in 1965, it would be hailed today as a great rediscovery. This Memphis instrumental band is absolutely period-perfect, right down to Joe Restivo’s vintage guitar tone, the subtly shifting waves of Al Gamble’s Hammond organ and George Sluppick’s funky, shuffling drums. Yet they don’t sound like imitators: they come across like any other good, imaginative, versatile southern soul organ-and-guitar combo from that era and locale. Their previous album The Safecracker was more of a collection of vintage dance grooves; this is an album of nocturnes. Considering the setup of the band (couldn’t resist the pun), much of this sounds a lot like Booker T. & the MGs. The more dramatic, cinematic tracks bring to mind Quincy Jones’ soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night.

The title track opens – it’s a theme that sets the tone for the rest of the album, perfectly evoked by the vintage typography and red-tinged chain-link fence on the cd cover. The second cut, Drippy is the most obviously Booker T-influenced cut with Restivo’s restless, staccato riffage building up to a big crescendo – and then they start over. Ricky’s Rant is arguably the best cut here, a beautifully murky, memorable theme. It’s basically a surf song gone funk, like a Booker T cover of a Lee Hazelwood song. The cinematic Crump St. begins as a slow, dusky summer soul groove lit up by Jim Spake’s tenor sax and then jumps to a jittery shuffle, Sluppick switching up the rhythm artfully. Chinatown evokes neither the film, the song by the Move or any specific Asian locale: instead, it builds suspensefully with intricate, Hendrix-ish guitar over slow burning organ.

With its playful beat and frenetic jazz-tinged guitar, Rigamarole sounds like Rock the Casbah done oldschool Memphis style. Local Jones, the next track, is a gorgeous, hypnotic, slowly swaying Stax/Volt ballad without words. They pick up the pace with Break It Up, a chase scene of sorts with a “batman” crescendo, and follow that with a cover of the Mad Men theme: with Restivo’s quietly menacing hammer-ons, it’s a portrait of a crime family, if only a white-collar one. The album winds up on a towering, anthemic, even majestic note with another original, Comanche, a Lynchian take on a Link Wray-style groove that roars with gospel intensity until a quick, unexpected fade. The City Champs spend a lot of time on the road: as with their previous album, they sound like they’d be a lot of fun live. Watch this space.

November 22, 2010 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The City Champs – The Safecracker

Dance music doesn’t get any better than this. Sounding like they just got off the train from Memphis, 1968, the City Champs lay down an irresistible hip-twisting groove in the same vein as classic soul instrumentalists like Booker T & the MGs, the Meters, the late Willie Mitchell and the Bar-Kays. The production values are strictly oldschool – this may be a cd but it sounds like a vinyl record, warm and glowing with Hammond organ and tersely tuneful soul guitar, propelled with muscle and swing by veteran Memphis soul/blues drummer George Sluppick. Yet as retro as the production is, this isn’t just a homage – guitarist/bandleader Joe Restivo adds an understatedly jazzy virtuosity while the southern flavor flows from organist Al Gamble’s Leslie speaker. Sometimes the guitar will build to a crescendo or wrap up a solo and then hand off to the organ, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes – this is the best part – everybody grooves together.

The title track is an edgy, gritty crime movie theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the Herbie Hancock songbook, circa 1970. Takin’ State is a strutting staccato dance shuffle, Restivo slipping and sliding with a carefree, sly Steve Cropper feel. The low-key, George Benson-inflected jam Love Is a Losing Game has the guitar handing the reins over to the organ to bring the lights down and steam up the windows – maybe love’s not such a losing game after all.

Poppin’ bounces along on a catchy New Orleans blues guitar riff that boils over and then simmers as Sluppick gets the cymbals cooking, then the organ picks it up and blazes. The funkiest track on the album is The Whap-a-Dang, organ swirling in, Booker T style, after Restivo’s pimpmobile solo. Pretty Girl sounds like George Benson covering a sultry midtempo, Hugh Masekela hit; the cd closes with Coming Home Baby, a head-bobbing Stax/Volt blues groove which is a dead ringer for a Booker T hit from around 1964 except with more expansive guitar. Soul music lovers and jazz guitar fans alike will love this. The City Champs are at Highline Ballroom on Feb 26 with the North Mississippi All-Stars, wear comfortable shoes. They’re also in the new documentary I Am a Man, which you can stream here.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment