Thursday, August 22, 2013

Album Review: Alabama and Friends

It isn't very often that you will find a review of a mainstream country music album in this space.  But as with all things, to every rule there is an exception, especially when the album is as good as the one being written about today. 

Country Music Hall of Famer's Alabama have been on a steady rebound since appearing on Brad Paisley's hit single "Old Alabama."  Their appearance on this single, as well as joining Paisley on stage to perform the song at select events, was a great re-introduction of Alabama to the country music scene.  It also served as a revelation of Alabama to virtually an entire generation of young country music fans who may not be familiar with the music of this vitally important group.  Another huge step in this introduction is set to continue.

August 27th will see the release of "Alabama and Friends" (Show Dog/Universal), a tribute album that pairs Alabama up with the hottest country stars of today, a few rising stars and one legendary lady performing some of Alabama's biggest and greatest hits.  The boys from Fort Payne also contribute to the album as well, with their first new recordings for an Alabama album in roughly a decade.  Most of the new versions of these great songs stay true to the original recordings, which is ample proof of the influence that Alabama's music has on the younger stars of today.

Case in point are the first two tracks off that kick off the album.  The lead track is the classic "Tennessee River" performed by one of the biggest names in music today, Jason Aldean.  Listening to Aldean's ever-growing catalogue of hits, you can hear the Alabama influence in many of his tunes as evidenced by his take on "Tennessee River."  This selection would fit perfectly in one of Aldean's shows and sounds like an Aldean hit ... all while staying completely true to the original version, as it's virtually a note for note remake.  Luke Bryan sounds completely at home performing "Love In The First Degree," again a note for note remake that could appear on any Luke Bryan album and fits well within his range.

Rascal Flatts perform a wonderful take of "Old Flame", switching it up to have a more pop sound.  Alabama lead singer Randy Owen joins the group to contribute a few lines with the vocals combining beautifully.  "Lady Down On Love", one of Alabama's biggest hits, has always been identified by the opening guitar solo and Randy Owen's stellar vocal performance.  Kenny Chesney switches the electric guitar intro for a more classical sounding acoustic guitar intro, and the switch is brilliant.  This performance is one of the  most poignant moments on the album, one that Chesney and Owen (who performs a verse and chorus on the tune that he wrote for Alabama) can be very proud of.  One can tell right away that Chesney has performed this song many, many times on the club stage on his way up to superstardom. 

The Eli Young Band's take on "The Closer You Get" fits right in their wheelhouse, as the Texas band rips through one of Alabama's biggest hits.  They were a great choice to perform this selection.  Superstar Toby Keith turns in a brilliant performance of "She and I".  The smart use of a slide guitar intro and at points throughout the song gives this song a really fresh appeal.  Young up-and-comers Florida Georgia Line deliver a fun and energetic turn of "I'm In A Hurry (And Don't Know Why)", showing that they too have felt the influence of this important band.  Hopefully this duo will include this track in their live show, as they really crank this one out.  Trisha Yearwood, the only female on the record, performs a beautiful rendition of the Mike Reid-penned "Forever's As Far As I'll Go".  Yearwood's soft and stunning vocal breathes new life into one of the great country music loves songs of all time. 

The honorees of this tribute album themselves step to the plate to deliver their first new music with two stellar tracks, "That's How I Was Raised" and "All American."  The latter of these two could be one of the most important songs of the year.  "All American" addresses an issue that seems to have been lost on many, if not most, people in recent times.  It speaks to the challenges of the past few years and some of those root causes.  More specifically, the song talks of the utter disconnect between the government and its people, the big bosses of large companies getting their monetary rewards while their employees are losing their jobs or starving while working for minimum wage.  It speaks to the lack of understanding and/or caring for another persons point of view.  The title of the song is captured in the following line, and is really the question of the day that many people ought to be asking: "aren't we All American?"  It shouldn't be an we versus they situation.  It should be an "us" situation, because we're all American (of course, many of you know I'm Canadian and we face the same challenges on this side of the border ... I'm sure you get my point of the song though).  This song should absolutely be a hit, but as Ronnie Dunn found out with "The Cost Of Livin'", songs with substance and social relevance aren't selling nor getting played on country radio these days.  Hopefully this will change with this song.

The final track on this stellar album is also the most poignant.  Jamey Johnson is one of those guys who could sing the phone book and would make it sound like a country classic.  Jamey's take on Alabama's first big hit and autobiographical song "My Home's In Alabama" is one of his best performances to date.  Released in 1980, this song was a top 20 hit, and is the song that introduced Alabama to the world.  Indeed following the release of this song, which walks the line between country and southern rock, country music was never the same.  The landscape had been altered permanently and was the beginning of a long and successful march that eventually saw Alabama score 41 number one songs, countless top 5 and top 10 records and induction in to the Country Music Hall of Fame.  

It had been mentioned years ago when Alabama first came on to the national consciousness of country radio that they had the potential to be as important to country music as the Beatles were to rock and roll.  When you look at the artists who perform the songs on this album and consider where they are career wise in the musical landscape today, it's hard to argue against that point. I think it prudent to paraphrase Brad Paisley for a moment, so I will.  If you are a young country music fan who is not aware of or had an introduction to the music of Alabama, I encourage you to go to your local record store and purchase an Alabama album.  Discover this groundbreaking band.  And on August 27, 2013, go back and purchase "Alabama and Friends", because you will see the influence this band has had on country music today.  To me, "Alabama and Friends" is flawless, it's an outstanding album that is a brilliant showcase for the most important band in the history of country music.

For a sneak preview, this album is available for streaming on the offical Alabama web site. Click here to lisen.  Enjoy!  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Concert Review: Jason Isbell/Amanda Shires, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Ontario -- August 2, 2013

Music events on the Friday night of a long weekend in Toronto can be a bit of a crap shoot. Many, many people leave town for cottage country, leaving those of us behind to seek out our weekend's entertainment. Given this challenge and environment, I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to attend the Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires show at a packed Lee's Palace in Toronto. The large crowd was rewarded with a first rate, professional, outstanding show from a group of the most gifted artists and musicians that are on the road today.

Jason Isbell, along with his stellar band the 400 Unit, are riding an incredible wave these days.  Isbell has always been a compelling artist, writing and performing some of the most thought provoking songs in music.  Touring in support of his recently released album Southeastern (Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers) (which is outstanding, by the way) Isbell and the 400 Unit are at the top of their game.  Opening up with "Flying Over Water", Isbell and the band showcased their talent for nearly 2 hours and held the crowd in the palm of their hands the entire time.   

Paying homage to his previous life as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell turned in a stellar performance of "Decoration Day", followed by the haunting "Tour of Duty", a tale of a soldiers return home.  "Tour of Duty" is a song that is relevant in any era, and is ample evidence of Isbell's outstanding songwriting.  "Heart on a String", a track from his 2011 release "Here We Rest" invoked visions of the great Delbert McClinton with its blues groove and Isbell's husky vocal delivery.  "Stockholm", a hard driving track that appears on Southeastern received a great reaction from the crowd, while "Codeine" produced the evening's first singalong and could very well be Isbell's signature song.

Next up were performances of three Southeastern tunes that make this album a must have.  "Different Days", the incredibly written "Elephant", and the beautiful "Travelling Alone" with the lovely Amanda Shires-Isbell harmonizing.  An Isbell show would not be complete without performing "Alabama Pines", the 2012 Americana Music Association Song of the Year.  It was back to the Trucker days with a performance of "Outfit" to close out their main set.  The crowd would not be denied an encore on this evening, as Isbell and the 400 Unit returned for a 3 song finale that included a tribute to legendary Canadian group The Band, with "Danko/Manuel", a song written by Isbell and recorded while a member of the Drive-By Truckers.  From there a final preview of Southeastern with "Super 8", and a blistering cover of the Rolling Stones "Can You Hear Me Knockin'?"  that would make Mick and Keith awfully proud.

Opening the night on a much softer, yet no less brilliant note was Amanda Shires.  Touring to support her just released album Down Fell the Doves (Lightning Rod), an album which will be reviewed here in the coming days, Ms. Shires was the perfect opener to the evening's festivities.  Performing solo with only her ukulele as accompaniment, Shires held the crowd captive with her beautiful vocals and haunting lyrics.  It was an admirable performance highlighted by the cleverly written "When You Need a Train It Never Comes", the gorgeous "The Garden (What A Mess)" and the show-stopping "Wasted and Rollin'", the latter two appearing on Down Fell the Doves.  Ms. Shires pulled double-duty on this night performing her own show, then taking her spot in the 400 Unit accompanying new husband Jason Isbell during his set.  

In viewing this performance it is clear that Jason Isbell has a new focus, as compared to the last review I had in this space.  He has quite publicly undergone two major lifestyle changes that to me, have helped shape him in to one of if not the top male act in Americana today.  Amanda Shires continues to rise.  The creativity and talent that this young lady brings to the stage every night cannot be measured.  Together, they appear to be pushing and encouraging each other to new career heights that are only now being realized.  If Americana has a power couple, that couple is Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.  Spend time at the show and you'll see what I mean.

The tour continues on August 9 in Wilkes-Barre, PA at the Kirby Center; August 10 in New York City at Lincoln Center Out of Doors (Free Show); on August 11 in Baltimore, MD at Baltimore Soundstage; and August 17 in Nashville, TN at the Ryman Auditorium with Caitlyn Rose opening.  Amanda Shires has performances in Nashville at Grimey's Records on August 14; in Austin, TX at Waterloo Records on August 18; and back in Nashville at The High Watt on August 23.  Check out Jason and Amanda's web sites for more tour information.