Many question whatever happened to rock and roll? If one happens to listen to terrestrial radio these days, it's a question that begs an answer, because apparently it's been taken over by both the inane and the worthless. It's no great mystery that some of the best music is served up in biker-friendly roadhouses. Yet if one looks past the black leather, bikers are populated by a diverse segment of citizens, each as different as fall leaves. At any given biker bar on any given weekend, you're just as likely to find a guy wearing an anti-Obama T-shirt immersed in friendly chat with a guy wearing a "Limbaugh Sucks" cap. Our bikes too are as different as our politics and most of us wouldn't have it any other way because riding is what ultimately unites us. On the road, politics, race, and religion, can be left behind-like leaves scattering in the wind. Maybe if world leaders got together and did a trip to Sturgis, universal peace might actually be attainable (?). Another uniting force is music. To be sure, everyone has his likes and dislikes. But there's always plenty of new music which deserves a listen-though you would never know it by listening to the radio...
Wheels represent ratings from 1 to 5 (best).
No Better Than This
Produced by T Bone Burnett, the new John Mellencamp album is a trip back to the times when rock 'n' roll was new. No Better Than This was recorded on vintage equipment at three historic studios: the basement of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, Sun Studios in Memphis, and room 414 of the Granger Hotel in San Antonio where bluesman Robert Johnson first recorded. The only thing missing is a session at Royal Studios in Memphis, where the late, great Willie Mitchell recorded all those great Al Green tracks. With a new label, Mellencamp is freed from the pressure to record hit singles. Lyrically, it's his best album ever. Sonically, it represents challenges that may not be overcome by the sound of your exhaust pipes if you're inclined to listen while riding-which is what we suggest-especially if you can find some of those proverbial lonesome roads. We suspect the actual vinyl record may sound even better. The songs showcase Mellencamp's many influences, with a heavy focus on bluesy country-rockabilly. But even when accompanied by just a guitar, the songs provide some much-needed respite from the pop claptrap on radio these days. Plus, it's an album that returns much the more you listen to it. These days that's a bargain.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
From the opening notes of "Jefferson Jericho Blues," Tom Petty and band make it abundantly clear they've hitched a ride on the blues train. Reunited with the Heartbreakers after eight years, Mojo is easily their best album since 1994's Wildflowers.
The band sounds as if it's been ensconced in Chicago blues clubs for years, hitting all the right notes. Mike Campbell's slide guitar and Scott Thurston's harmonica are enough to make Muddy Waters smile in his grave. The blues, it seems, are never far away, though there's a touch of reggae and garage rock to keep things interesting. Lyrically there are a few surprises. Tom is best when he really has something to say, and while this may not be his best collection of swaggering rock 'n' roll songs, some of the best songs like "The Trip to Pirate's Cove" and "Running Man's Bible" require the listener's attention to make them work. As a motorcycle ridin' soundtrack, there's plenty of references to the road to keep things interesting. "U.S. 41," "Let Yourself Go," and "Don't Pull Me Over" are all worthy cruising tracks. It's an album that provides plenty of good mojo for the road.
Music from the Motion Picture When You're Strange
After 2009's most excellent Live in NewYork multi-disc box set, one would think there's nothing new to be heard from the Doors. Surprise! Independent film maker Tom Dicillo's When You're Strange is a stroll through the mysterious, the poetic, and the raging wretched excess that is the Doors' legacy. Unlike Oliver Stone's biopic The Doors, this new movie is all Doors footage plus newsreel snippets of Vietnam and other seminal historical moments. Much of the Doors footage has never been shown to the public, which is reason enough to see the movie. Johnny Depp does the narration and his recitation of Morrison poetry are included on the soundtrack, along with Jim Morrison interview bits interspersed between the usual roundup of Doors songs. 1978's concept of Morrison poetry and post-Morrison Doors music on An American Prayer makes for an obvious comparison (though that album sounded more authentic). Maybe it's just because Johnny Depp doesn't seem right. But if you're a die-hard Doors fanatic, it's easily overlooked. One can never get enough Doors, so this album is at least interesting, even if it doesn't reveal anything new about Morrison and Co. we didn't already surmise or know.
The Jimmy Bowskill Band
Jimmy Bowskill's bio says he was discovered by Jeff Healey when Jimmy was 11 years old and his band has opened for the likes of Deep Purple, Dicky Betts, and ZZ Top. Like Shuggie Otis, Johnny Lang, and other teenage young axe-slingers, Jimmy exhibits the necessary skills to lay waste to plenty of other guitar virtuosos. It's a surprise to discover he hails from Canada because listening to his power trio on their latest album, Live, it sounds as if one foot is firmly planted in San Francisco (think psychedelic blues rock) and the other in London (think Cream). In fact, the album could have been recorded at the Fillmore West circa 1969-and that's indeed a compliment. Cream, Grand Funk, Mountain, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience are just a few bands that come to mind. Ably backed up by his band, Dan Neil on drums and Wayne Deadder on bass, Jimmy plays blistering guitar solos that are good enough to embarrass players twice his age (19 at the time of this album's release). Ultimately here's one reason to have an open-border policy with Canada, and let's hope Jimmy can do more extensive touring around the lower 48.
Last Train to Bluesville
Washington DC's The Nighthawks have been at it since 1972. If nothing else, they deserve an award for persistence, because these cats are emissaries for that famous brand of Chicago blues that's hard to find these days. It's not as rough around the edges as those Chess Records-the music has the edges sanded down so what you get is smooth, but not slick. At the very least, they belong in the Baggers hall of fame because their music makes for an awesome soundtrack for conquering rural twisties with the volume turned up. On their latest, Last Train to Bluesville, the repertoire includes songs from Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Chuck Berry. That's three of the best traveling partners a biker could have. And here you thought nothing good came out of Washington DC!
Flashback Of The Month
What's Going On
By the '70s, Motown had become synonymous with three-minute songs to which all of America was singing or dancing. Up until the release of Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, What's Going On, Marvin's hits had followed the conventional Motown formula. "It Takes Two," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," and others were about love and relationships and mainly aimed at a teenage record-buying public.
Meanwhile, the country was struggling with issues that are both eerily and ironically similar today-war ("What's Going On"), environmental issues ("Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)")-a song so timely it could have been written for the recent oil spill, and the decaying American Dream ("Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holla)"). Although the subject matter was increasingly showing up in rock songs, it was, for the most part, ignored by R&B performers except for the occasional Impressions or James Brown single. Another key attribute of the album was that it was just that-an album-meant to be listened to from beginning to end (a reason all the songs were segued together), as opposed to individual singles.
Told from the viewpoint of a returning Vietnam Vet, What's Going On is both observation and reflection. The bass lines set the tempo against which even the strings sound energized. To Marvin's credit, the Funk Brothers, Motown's legendary session players, were allowed to stretch out and actually play. The album was like nothing that came before and became an instant classic, appealing to audiences both black and white and landing Marvin on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. As bagger tunes go, find yourself a nice stretch of road and prepare to be mesmerized by the groove. Leave your troubles in the wind.