The Mekons – Fear and Whiskey - The Mekons became a band while University of Leeds students in 1977, in the same scene that gave birth to Gang of Four. They released their noise punk on album before going on hiatus in 1982. The Mekons came back together in 1984. Punk still informed the band’s storytelling, and the 1984 Miners Strike gave The Mekons political fodder. The big difference in The Mekons sound was the addition of Country twang and mountain instrumentation.

Fear and Whiskey was released in 1985, keeping core members Jon Langford and Tom Greenhaigh, and adding former members of The Damned (Lu Mond) and The Rumour (Steve Goulding) to the new instruments of fiddle (Susie Honeymoon), accordion (Rico Bell aka Eric Bellis) and Sally Timms on vocals. Fear and Whiskey maintained The Mekons punk ethics and brought in a Roots sensibility that planted a flag for Alt Country on British soil.

Fear and Whiskey opens its swinging barroom doors with “Chivalry” offering one gloved hand for chamber music, while the other hand is picking guitar licks. The track brings a gentle grace to the album yet like many things from the old west, looks, and listens, can be deceiving. “Darkness and Doubt” shudders on sawdust as it spins drunkenly around the dance floor, “Last Dance” keeps its Country in Celtic Reel form, “Flitcraft” waltzes on heavy-soled Doc Maartens, and “Hard to Be Human Again” spits punk into its Folk Rock. The Mekons wrote a new chapter for the way Country and Rock can play together, or wrestle….. it can go either way with Fear and Whiskey. “Country” rides a long stretch of backhills roads with the flap of rubber belts slapping the beat and “Lost Highway” exists the album as it heads towards a sunset that stretches on forever as The Mekons Alt Country is still on tour.

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Jerry Garcia Band (from the album Garcia Live! Volume Seven, Nov. 8, 1976 – Palo Alto, CA)

Jerry Garcia embodied music, and he took full advantage of being an independent as a key ingredient in many of the side bands he cooked up outside his day gig in the Grateful Dead. Many of his musical ventures were only heard in a live setting though recordings were collected during his lifetime. The Garcia Live! series presents performances collected from experimental journeys into other musical directions. On Volume Seven, Jerry Garcia pairs with longtime musical cohort John Kahn on bass and former Elvis Presley drummer, Ron Tutt. Joining Jerry and the rhythm section are Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux. A few weeks prior to the November 8, 1976 recording of the Palo Alto gig, Donna Jean had been added as a Grateful Dead vocalist along with her husband Keith Godchaux on keyboards. The Jerry Garcia Band lineup performed nearly seventy shows in 1976, the dynamic of the group allowing Jerry Garcia to stretch out and engage in multiple styles.

The stylings of the Grateful Dead put Soul, Country, and Blues into the brand of rambling, chance-taking Rock that the band developed beginning with its early years in the San Francisco music scene. The Jerry Garcia Band reworks The Dead as they GarciaLive! Volume Seven offers a version of “Friend of the Devil” as well as “Midnight Moonlight” from the 1975 debut of the Bluegrass-supergroup, Old and in the Way, which featured Jerry Garcia on Banjo, David Grisman on mandolin, Peter Rowan on guitar, Vassar Clements on fiddle, and John Kahn on bass. Volume Seven offers space for Jerry Garcia Band versions of Rock’n’Roll (Hank Ballard and the Midnighters “Tore Up Over You”), Motown (The Temptations “The Way You Do the Things You Do”), Tulsa Sound (J. J. Cale’s “After Midnight”), Reggae (The Wailers on the Peter Tosh tune “Stop That Train”), and Disco Gospel (Mighty Clouds of Joy “Ride Mighty High”). Jerry Garcia Band wiggle a New Orleans rumble for the rhythm that percolates under Roy Hamilton’s hit, on a Jesse Stone song, “Don’t Let Go” and merge the original western texture of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with a bottom heavy reggae bass beat.

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ELVIS COSTELLO - (from the album Almost Blue) - Billy Sherrill, producer of Almost Blue and a legion of similarly great album, passed away on August 4, 2015 at the age of seventy-eight. Nashville, and the world, have lost a musical note. The original album artwork for Almost Blue featured two versions of a warning label;’WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners’ or ‘WARNING! This album contains country & western music and may produce radical reaction in narrow minded people’ were the choices. A wink and a nudge were typical tactics with Elvis Costello whose wry humor had put him in the lead of the talent pool rising during the early days of punk and new wave. Joking aside, the warnings on Almost Blue could also have been a disclaimer for both the artist and the label. Safety pins were a long way from horse shoes and the lush strings, tender twang and hard luck stories were a different world than the angry spit of three chords and the truth that punk rock carried as its own warning label.

Classic Country was still welcomed at Country radio in 1981, so the songs on Almost Blue were less a challenge for a year that saw top singles in the genre from Hank Williams, Jr., Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, Mickey Gilley and the Oak Ridge Boys. For Elvis Costello, he was getting an early start on his bucket list and recording music that meant a lot to him if not the spike-haired lip sync chicks screaming ‘Pump It Up’ from the front row. Almost Blue had Billy Sherrill behind the production board, putting Elvis in line with the producer’s other top projects such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

The original release was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee in May of 1981 and released in October in the same year.   The Attractions (Steve Nieve-piano/organ, Bruce Thomas-bass, Pete Thomas-drums) were as close as Elvis got to country pickers along with help from former Doobie Brother John McFee on guitar and pedal steel. The tunes on Almost Blue were country covers by Merle Haggard (“Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”), Charlie Rich (“Sittin’ and Thinkin’”) and album producer Billy Sherrill (“Too Far Gone”). The take on Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” has a reverence in each note. The gentle piano riffs freckle the air as light wisps and the harmonies are slightly more whispers that tickle your ear. Two tracks are provided by rock’s classic country homeboy, Gram Parsons, in “How Much I Lied” and “I’m Your Toy”, co-written with Burrito-Brother Chris Etheridge. “A Good Year for the Roses” had been a hit for George Jones and the Almost Blue version holds its own against the gold standard of classic country artists.

Rhino Records re-issued Almost Blue with bonus cuts that include a live show recorded in Aberdeen featuring more AM country covering Hank Cochran’s Patsy Cline hit “He’s Got You”, Johnny Cash’s “Cry Cry Cry” and the man who invented rock’n’roll, Big Joe Turner, with “Honey Hush”. The added tracks offer live versions (“I’m Your Toy”) from the Almost Blue release and outtakes (“Your Angel Steps Out of Heaven Each Night”). The tune “Psycho” first saw the light of Elvis Costello’s day as a B-side in 1979 and a studio version in 1981 for the Almost Blue sessions. The track was written by bind Texas singer/songwriter Leon Payne and stands out in a land of murder ballads for including a murder confession in its story line.

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Joy of Cooking  (from the album Joy of Cooking) - Joy of Cooking chose to expand music over a Folk-base of sound that added elements of Jazz, Scat Singing, Blues, gospel shaking the mix as a rock’n’roll concoction served up on a self-released album in 1970, followed with a few early 1970 recordings and still releasing music under the band’s name. The Berkley-based California band benefitted from the free love of all forms of music that was in the San Francisco Bay air in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Coming out of a Folk revival bands were using acoustics as a sponge for electric instruments to bleed into, and a jumping board for stretching campfire jams into a full-on blaze of danceable beats. Jam bands were a future term, the phrase was a hold over from the ‘let’s jam’ Jazz days. Joy of Cooking certainly were forerunners of jamming though on album, and in live performance, they didn’t get bogged down in the jam, they cooked.  

The group married two tunes on Joy of Cooking. The Berkeley California band put the Blues of Furry Lewis (Brownsville) with the traditional Folk (Mockingbird).  The song, and the vocals, for Joy of Cooking were locked harmonies backed with a three-piece rhythm section. The band was fronted by two women, Terry Garthwaite (guitar), Toni Brown (piano).  A river rhythm leads “Too Late But Not Forgotten” on a solid support beat for the tale of a woman left with young baby and old memories. One voice sets the stage as two vocals play tag to find out a little more about what is happening in the bright lights with “Did You Go Downtown”.  Terry and Toni stretch their vocals out on the tunes in a combination of salvation (“Children’s House”), and call and response Folk jamborees (“Hush”).

Toni Brown’s piano leads into the Jazz inflected territory in “Down My Dream”, who share arrangement as well as composer credits on the album, adding in turn on the steel guitar, kalimba, with vocal mate Terry Garthwaite taking the lead on her tune that toasts with “Red Wine at Noon”. Joy of Cooking have released their early album, including Joy of Cooking. The songs came out in a time when women voices were rising up those of being the victim. Toni Brown goes beyond surface scruff in her songs, teeling the story of a time when sexes shared emotions, as well as being equal decision makers in the comings and goings of a relationship.

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Madeline Peyroux (from the album Keep Me in Your Heart for A While) - The only missing piece in the Madeleine Peyroux retrospective is the Volume One sitting at the tail end of the title, Keep Me in Your Heart for a While: The Best of Madeleine Peyroux. The effort takes in her nearly 20-year career, and brings together tracks from her Atlantic and Decca/Emarcy Records recordings on a Rounder Records release that features cuts from its own catalog of her music.

The songs return listeners to Madeleine’s debut as a 22 year-old signed to Dreamland Records. The release was the result of Atlantic (then) A&R man Yves Beauvais, who authors the liner notes on the Best Of, hearing Billie Holiday in the young singer’s voice.  Prior to chance taking over, Madeleine Peyroux was an American-born teenager living abroad in Paris with her mother. She became entranced with the music in the Latin Quarter where she regularly accompanied a band until she quit school at fifteen to join a touring blues and jazz outfit. Health issues and a quick rise to fame caused Madeleine Peyroux to forego fame and return to busking after the critical acclaim for her debut. She came back into the studio with Larry Klein as producer, both enjoying the pairing for several subsequent album releases.

Keep Me in Your Heart for a While: The Best of Madeleine Peyroux offers an unreleased tune as its title track while the remainder of the compilation gathers song versions filtered through vocals that slowly unravel each note in an unhurried delivery. The cuts span decades from a ukulele rhythm stroll in Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, a jazzy shuffle for Bob Dylan’s “You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, slow steps towards a better time in Randy Newman’s “Guilty”, walls of majestic strings that mask “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” or dream-like noir that back drops Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bar”. Madeleine Peyroux makes the familiar tracks new and spins the less familiar as old friends, teasing that she is “The Kind You Can't Afford”, swaying across the floor of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” or heading back to Paris’ Latin Quarter in Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”.

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