Roots Rock Review

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My Side by The Electric Rag Band

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My Side by The Electric Rag BandThe Electric Rag Band is a father/son duo which incorporates many roots genres – rockabilly, blues, folk, bluegrass and more into interesting fusions of catchy and energetic songs. This deliberative yet natural-sounding approach pays homage to several styles of roots music while not penning itself into any specific genre. The 2015 album My Side is the latest release of original music from this act which has been recording and performing for over two decades.

Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the group consists of guitarist and vocalist Pat Cook and his son Daniel Cook, who handles drums, percussion, backing vocals and other instrumentation. Starting with their self-titled 1996 debut album, The Electric Rag Band has been steadily releasing new material through the decades, with My Side being their sixth album.

Through the years, the group has also established a popular live act throughout the Central Plains and parts of the Midwest, often opening for national and international acts such as Johnny Winter, JD McPherson, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters.

Roots Rock Review logoMy Side by The Electric Rag Band
Released: October 2, 2015
Produced by: The Electric Rag Band
Track Listing Primary Musicians
My Side
Do This to Me
She’s Got My Car
The Over You Rag
She’s So Good Lookin’
Like I Want
Charleston Girl
Two Dollar Strings
For My Health
Smash That Radio
Slider
Three Bullets
My Revolution Blues
Pat Cook
Guitars, Banjo, Bass, Vocals
Daniel Cook
Drums, Percussion, Guitar, Vocals

 

The album comes in strong with the spastic electric guitar riffing and thumping rhythm of the title track, “My Side”. This blues/rocking song drones but to great effect as it solidifies its subtle message of rebellion along the way. Lyrically, the song encourages people to be more honest with themselves and not let outside forces control their lives. With the second song, “Do This to Me”, the album instantly pivots with a rapidly picked acoustic accompanied by a plethora of percussive elements to complement the down-home vocals in this country blues gem. “She’s Got My Car” features a fuller arrangement as Pat Cook adds bass behind his driving electric. Between the verses, this song takes off in a slight frenzy of sped up blues with a latter instance containing a nicely crafted lead guitar.

The Electric Rag Band
“The Over You Rag” features rapid, dueling guitars that make this the most interesting track on the album thus far  The delivery and timing on this track is expert throughout.

“She’s So Good Lookin'” adds yet another element, the slide acoustic blues, which is perfectly complemented by Daniel Cook’s crafted percussion. A subtle guitar lead ushers in “Like I Want” as the underlying rhythms gradually work their way in to this folk/bluegrass track melodic vocals.  The following two songs appear to have been recorded live as some of the sonic dynamics are diminished. Nevertheless, these are interesting as “Charleston Girl” features some 1940s-style swing elements and the instrumental piece, “Two Dollar Strings”, is an upbeat jam with animated drums throughout.

While not as rewarding as earlier tracks, the latter part of the album features interesting and entertaining numbers. “For My Health” is a bit of a barroom anthem on the “positive” effects of drinking, while “Smash That Radio” has a darker folk feel as Pat’s lead guitar pattern acts in contrast to Daniel’s upbeat drums while it all somehow works to great effect. “Slider” comes in like a subtle and methodical rocker with later strategically placed rhythmic rudiments. “Three Bullets” is a Western style acoustic cowboy song with Johnny Cash-like elements about a dead man who delivers a morbid posthumous ode about his own and others demise in recent days. The final storytelling track, “My Revolution Blues” has steady, consistent rhythms, a slight banjo and some vocal harmonizing during the choruses.

The Electric Rag Band continues to tour in 2016 and is hoping to expand to other regions with an expanding fan base.

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JD and the Straight Shot

JD and the Straight Shot

JD & the Straight Shot perform an impressive array of authentic Americana tunes both on stage and on their latest LP, Ballyhoo!. Led by vocalist/guitarist Jim Dolan, this acoustic group delves deeply into the traditional genres of country, blues and bluegrass with the slightest dash of modern elements to forge an entertaining and enriching musical experience. The group is touring with Joe Walsh through the summer of 2016 and we caught their show in Lancaster on Sunday, July 31st.

The son of the founder of Cablevision, Dolan started off as a musician several decades ago but eventually joined the family business as chief executive officer of sports properties and Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden Company. He supervises the day-to-day operations of several professional New York sports franchises (the Knicks of the NBA, the Rangers of the NHL and the Liberty of the WNBA) as well as a couple of regional sports networks and the fast rising AMC network.

JDAndTheStraightShot-5

Dolan founded the group in the early 2000s with their debut album, Nothing to Hide released in 2005. This was followed by the albums Right On Time in 2008 and Can’t Make Tears in 2011, the latter’s title track providing the theme song for the AMC television show Hell on Wheels. In 2014, JD & the Straight Shot released their fourth LP, Where I’ve Been, which was produced by Joe Walsh and brought the group further national attention as they toured alongside top-notch groups like The Eagles, The Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top. That album also included the song “Hard to Find” which was featured in the film St. Vincent starring Bill Murray.

JD and the Straight Shot

Most of the group’s live show on July 31st consisted of tracks from their fifth album, Ballyhoo!, which was released in January 2016. Produced by Chuck Ainlay, the original material on this album was written by Dolan along with guitarist/vocalist Marc Copely, bassist Byron House and violinist Erin Slaver. Also performing on the album is JD’s son, Aiden Dolan and the live show features percussionist Shawn Pelton, who has recorded with artists such as Billy Joel, Van Morrison, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Hall and Oates and Johnny Cash and who has been the longtime drummer in the house band for Saturday Night Live.

Ballyhoo! by JD and the Straight ShotThe live show started off with the same song which kicks off Ballyhoo!, “Empty”. This slide-acoustic spiritual features multiple fine musical elements and some nice harmonized vocals. “Better Find a Church” starts with great double bass riff and remains laid back and rootsy throughout. Dolan performs dual lead vocals with Slaver and Copely provides a fantastic acoustic lead guitar later on. “Perdition” is another Americana/Gospel track with an excellent fiddle lead while the upbeat bluegrass of “Glide” reflects on the pure feeling of of childhood joy. Dolan’s finest vocal performance may be on the Spirit cover song “Nature’s Way”, which contains a lead fiddle riff, while those same vocals may be a bit rough on the sad acoustic ballad “Don’t Waste My Time”. The title track “Ballyhoo” is a tongue-n-cheek anthem against ridicule and was a crowd favorite live with its accelerating jam session. Winding down the album, “Here He Comes” is a tribute to Johnny Cash while the closer “I’ll See You Again” wraps up the album on a hopeful note.

JD & the Straight Shot will continue to tour with Joe Walsh in support of Ballyhoo! with dates booked through September.

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Gospel Blues at Briggs Farm

Article contributors:
Margaret Neiswender and Kevin Lizbinski

Sunday Gospel Blues

For the first time in its 19 year history, the Briggs Farm Blues Festival was extended to include Sunday entertainment in its annual mid-July festival. On Sunday, July 10th, a Gospel-themed show was performed by three artists from mid morning to mid afternoon. For this inaugural Sunday, Briggs offered an exceptional lineup of three soulful and passionate artists (along with some special guests), who perfectly embody the essence of Gospel Blues.

Vanessa CollierStarting things off was multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Vanessa Collier from nearby Williamsport, PA. Vanessa started very young playing the saxophone and began recording music by age 12. She was inspired by artists such as Lori Jordan and Bonnie Raitt but soon developed her own style of songwriting and performing. In 2014, she released her debut album, Heart Soul & Saxophone, and her dynamic performance on Sunday was a potent mix of both original songs and original interpretations of blues and soul classics.

Vanessa Collier Online

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Victor WainwrightMaking their second appearance at this year’s festival, following his main stage performance on Saturday night, Victor Wainwright & the Wild Roots blended their entertaining mixture of rock, boogie-woogie, and honky tonk, with the Gospel blues theme of the day. The Savannah, GA native was a master of the piano and keyboards on stage, complementing his subtle but soulful vocals, and was backed by a large ensemble of superb musicians. Sunday’s performance also included special guest appearances by pianist Michael Czubaj and vocalist Barbara Blue, “The Reigning Queen of Beale St”.

Victor Wainwright online

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Alexis P SuterHeadlining Sunday’s show and closing out the weekend of incredible music was Alexis P. Suter & the Ministers of Sound. This very special set of Gospel Blues was particularly noteworthy because the live performance was being recorded for an upcoming LP release which will be published on the new Briggs Farm Records label. Suter is based in Brooklyn, NY but has strong Pennsylvania ties through her musical performances and hopes to eventually move to the Keystone state. She has performed at this festival many times in the past and has developed close ties with the Briggs family. This particular Gospel blues performance was very special for Suter because she is also a minister and explains; “ministering can be anything you love to do – each one of us has a ministry- We happen to minister music to everyone to share love and peace cause that’s what its all about…”

Alexis P Suter online

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Check out the below video with some highlights from the 2016 Sunday Gospel Blues show at Briggs Farm.

Briggs Farm online

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Article contributors:
Margaret Neiswender and Kevin Lizbinski

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American V: A Hundred Highways
by Johnny Cash

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American V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny CashEven though Johnny Cash‘s career spanned nearly 50 years, it is still incredible how prolific of a recording career he had. His posthumous 2006 album, American V: A Hundred Highways, was Cash’s 93rd overall album, 52nd studio album, and (as the title suggests) the 5th in the “American” series with producer Rick Rubin, dating back to the original American Recordings in 1994. As with the previous albums in this series, American V includes a hodge-podge of originals, covers, and a re-recordings of a earlier Cash songs. However this album, which was largely recorded in the months prior to Cash’s death in September 2013, has a chilling vibe of mortality throughout.

After a multi-decade tenure with Columbia Records, Cash was released from his solo recording contract in 1988, although Cash would remain affiliated with the label as a member of the country music super group, The Highwaymen. During the late 80s and early 90s, he tried some new approaches, such as modern recordings of his classic hits as well as a duets album, but none of these caught on commercially. Things changed when Rubin convinced Cash to do some simple, stripped down recordings for his brand new American Recordings label. The result was a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Folk Album and launched many sequels with slightly different arrangements. The second American Recording album in 1996 paired Cash with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and was another Grammy Award winner. Diagnosed with a degenerative disease in the late nineties, Cash continued to work and tour. Despite damaged lungs, Cash released American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002.

In May 2003, Johnny’s wife June Carter Cash passed away. Shortly before, she told him to keep working and the wheelchair-bound Cash recorded several dozen songs through the summer of 2003. Following the singer’s death, Rubin meticulously chose the twelve best recordings of Cash’s often strained but always emotional vocals. Later, many session players were brought in to record overdub parts in the slow construction of American V.

Roots Rock Review logoAmerican V: A Hundred Highways by Johnny Cash
Released: July 4, 2006
Produced by: Rick Rubin
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Help Me
Like the 309
If You Could Read My Mind
Further On Up the Road
On the Evening Train
I Came to Believe
Love’s Been Good to Me
A Legend in My Time
Rose of My Heart
Four Strong Winds
I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now
Johnny Cash
Lead Vocals, Guitars
Smokey Hormel
Guitars
Larry Perkins
Guitars
Laura Cash
Fiddle
Benmont Trench
Organ
Dennis Crouch
Bass

 

Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me” starts the album on a sad and somber note, as a personal plea to God to help him hang on just a little longer. Cash had previously recorded this track as “Help” on his 1973 religious album, The Gospel Road. The traditional song, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, is a religious tune from the opposite view with a dark sense of sense of vengeance. Musically, the acoustic song is driven by a strong, percussive stomp throughout. “Like the 309” is the last original song Johnny Cash ever wrote and recorded, doing both just weeks before his death. He bares his vocals during the intro verse and the lyrical directives are almost like a living will as they talk about a train taking his casket away.

The quiet and reserved cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is not quite as melodic as the original, but in its own way is beautiful and haunting throughout. “Further On Up the Road” is another fine cover as a classic Country/Western adaptation of a recent Bruce Springsteen composition. Musically, it features a full but restrained arrangement with a couple of acoustic guitars, piano, and some slight but potent keyboards by Benmont Trench. Hank Williams’ “On the Evening Train” follows as a slow Country ballad with methodical and deliberate rhyming of a series of run-on verses.

Johnny Cash in the 2000s

“I Came to Believe” is the second and final original on this album, although it was originally recorded by Cash in the 1980s. Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me” is a bright folk song with very good chord structure and a complex melody. This song also includes the lyric which gives the album its title;

I have been a rover, I have walked alone / Hiked a hundred highways, Never found a home…”

The album winds down with four final diverse tracks. “A Legend in My Time” is a slow and deliberate country waltz, while “Rose of My Heart” is a more of a pop/country track reflective of the 1980s era when it was written. “Four Strong Winds” is one of the stronger tracks from the latter part of the album, with a lead acoustic guitar pattern which forecasts and a good piano accompaniment. This track was originally recorded by Cash for the 1962 album, The Sound of Johnny Cash. “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now” features somber music which slightly contrasts the lyrical theme of breaking free. However, this album closer could be interpreted as a self-eulogy from beyond the grave, which gives it a whole different perspective.

American V: A Hundred Highways topped both the Pop and Country charts in the US, making it Johnny Cash’s first #1 album since …At San Quentin in 1969. The liner notes of a later box set claimed that about 50 songs were recorded during the American V, but to date only this album and the 2010 album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, have been released.

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Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down by Vicky Emerson

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Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down by Vicky EmersonVicky Emerson has discovered a way to sound completely fresh while employing traditional styles. On her 2016 release and third album, Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down, Emerson mainly stays within the confines of Country/Americana musically, with some brief but brilliant forays into folk, jazz, and rock territory. But her smooth vocal style and strong deliverance of thoughtful and poetic lyrics pushes the album to a level much higher than “ordinary”.

Originally from Wisconsin, Emerson relocated to New York City and San Francisco while pursuing her music career, before settling in Minneapolis, MN. She began performing on piano, releasing a holiday instrumental album in 2001 called A Winter Moment. She later began to also compose on acoustic guitar, drawing influence from Country legends such as Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams as well as blues, folk and traditional country, which she blended together to forge her own style of Americana. Through the 2000s, she recorded a series of EPs before her first full album in the Americana style, Long Ride, was released in 2009. She followed up with another acclaimed album, Dust & Echoes, in 2012.

For her third album, Emerson launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised $12,000 in just a few weeks and made top-notch production feasible. Guitarist Matt Patrick produced the album at his studio, The Library, in Minneapolis. The bed tracks were recorded in just three days in June of 2015, with the goal being to establish a similar energy to that of Emerson’s live shows, so minimal overdubbing was used.

Roots Rock Review logoWake Me When the Wind Dies Down by Vicky Emerson
Released: January 1, 2016
Produced by: Matt Patrick
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Under My Skin
Rattle Shake
Long Gone
Silhouette
Runaway Train
Save All My Cryin’ (for Sunday Afternoons)
Lyndale
Dance Me Into the Night
September Midnight
Follow the Moon
Vicky Emerson
Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Keyboards
Matt Patrick
Electric Guitar, Vocals
Jake Armerding
Fiddle
Aaron Fabbrini
Lap Steel Guitar, Dobro
Ian Allison
Bass, Keyboards
Steve Goold
Drums

 

Of the ten songs on Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down, Emerson solely composed eight with Patrick co-writing the first two songs on the album. Emerson entered the studio with the first verse and chorus for “Under My Skin” with Patrick completing the tune “in about fifteen minutes”. The result is a rhythm driven track which unfolds like a train in slow pursuit, from the opening scratched/deadened acoustic chords to the crisp rockabilly electric guitars. Topping it all off is Emerson’s smooth but strong vocals treated with the right dose of rich reverb for effect. “Rattle Shake” also straddles the line between country and something more fusion-based, with a seductive vibe and an overall sound reminiscent to that on Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album. A highlight from this track is the traded licks between Patrick’s electric guitar and the “electrified” fiddle of Jake Armerding.

“Long Gone” is a rhythm-driven track, highlighting the skills of bassist Ian Allison and drummer Steve Goold. Above these rhythms rises the slightest swells of treble instrumentation with the lead vocals and nice blended harmonies leading the way melodically. “Silhouette” is the first track to move completely away as a folk song with a picked acoustic guitar rhythm accompanied by the dobro of Aaron Fabbrini. While the arrangement does grow subtly, the song remains sweet and soft throughout due to the vocals and overall chilling vibe. “Runaway Train” brings the mood back up with Goold’s rolling drum shuffle fading in before being joined by a Western-style electric riff, some fiddle and pedal steel. There is an interesting mid-section with Emerson whistling the melody, giving it a real authentic Western feel and her vocals hit some sweet high notes during the chorus hook.

Vicky Emerson performing live

“Save All My Cryin’ (For Sunday Afternoons)” is a slow and sad country waltz with just the right amount of guitar, steel, and fiddle interjected. This song is a special one for Emerson, who came up with the title about eight years ago but was unsatisfied with the lyrics she wrote. Vicky literally packed the song away in a storage locker in a box full of half-finished songs when she moved to New York but rediscovered the track last summer and gave it another shot. The result is some very poetic and profound lyrics delivered through mournful, soulful vocals;

I’m not good with the needle, I can’t mend what you’ve broken inside of me…”

The album’s final sequence starts with the fantastic original, “Lyndale”, a bright and hopeful yet slightly sad tune with great melody and profound lyrics. The music features consistent but contrasted picked electric guitar behind the upbeat, strummed acoustic while the lyrics are a journey down memory lane, looking back on the past with fondness but looking forward to what the future brings. “Dance Me Into the Night” has a jazzy feel in the guitar chords with high-flying, yet intimate vocals. It has a choppier rhythm than most of the other tracks and a potent, nearly overbearing fiddle by Armerding, who finishes with some finely finger-picked fiddle notes. “September Midnight” is another quiet but effective track with some dobro note overtones layered with electric guitar, overall using the right amount of production restraint. “Follow the Moon” wraps things up as a fun and joyful bluegrass stomp.

Following the release of Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down, Emerson reached #58 on the Americana Music Association radio campaign, a respectable rise for an independent artist. She will next focus on a similar European Americana campaign as well as continue touring in support of the album. Vicky notes how incredibly humbled she is that so many people put their faith in her music through the crowdfunding campaign which allowed her “to turn my ten songs into an album that I could be proud of”.

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History of the Blues, Part 1

We examine the evolution of American blues from the start of the 20the century into the early 1940s. This is done in conjunction with the below video, which is part 1 of a 2-part 2013 BBC Documentary called Blues America: Woke Up This Morning.

While a common understanding is that the Blues is born strictly out of racial suffering and suppression, the blues actually started as a music of celebration. It proliferated in the Mississippi Delta, the Northwest corner of the state of Mississippi. This was a relatively “new” area due to the construction of levees on the Mississippi river, forming a flat former flood plain which had very fertile soil for cotton planting. Most of the occupants of this area in the earliest decade of the 20the century were young black men who were there to clear the land and ultimately work in the cotton fields. As such, the Delta took on the features of a “boom town” and the entertainment developed here was original and cutting edge.

In 1902, a vagrant slide guitar player at railroad station in Tutwiler, MS was overheard by a college educated black man named W.C. Handy, who was immediately inspired to go into the musical publishing business. Through the next decades, Handy, who became known as the “Father of the Blues”, traveled the south and learned the musical vernacular and styles of distinct regions, adapting it for his own compositions. By 1917, Handy had a publishing business headquartered on Times Square in New York City and had published “Memphis Blues”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “Saint Louis Blues”, the most popular blues songs in America. Handy also published some of the earliest jazz standards and, in 1926, he compiled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, cited as the attempt to record and describe the blues and its historical significance.

In the early 1920s, record companies began releasing “race records” – black artists recorded for black audiences. The first recorded stars were mainly women; “blues queens” who traveled the theater circuit. Starting in 1923, Bessie Smith became the first blues “superstar”, commanding up to $2000/week for live performances at her peak. Her 1925 recording of Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong is considered by some to be the finest recording of the 1920s. Smith also became an early film star and a major influence on contemporary jazz singers before her untimely death in an auto accident in 1937.

Blind Lemon Jefferson developed a new style of self-accompanied solo performing in the mid 1920s. Jefferson incorporated replications of everyday life with skillful guitar playing and an impressive vocal range. This style caught fire and soon ushered in a new generation of solo blues performers. Charley Patton  followed as “The Father of the Delta Blues” from Dockery Plantation, where he tutored later, more famous blues performers such as John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Robert Johnson,

Although he never reached any notable level of fame during his lifetime, Robert Johnson was notable on two fronts. He was the first to take influence from popular blues records, which gave him a depth of melody and style like no one before him. He was also a major influence on later British artists after the release of Johnson’s compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, a quarter century after the recordings were made.

Finally there is Muddy Waters, the link between the earlier Mississippi blues style and the later Chicago blues style. A plantation worker and student of Son House and Robert Johnson, Waters had a chance encounter with folklore-ist Alan Lomax who made a recording for the Library of Congress, sparking Muddy Waters to take a copy of that record and move to Chicago in 1943, with the hope of becoming a full-time professional musician.

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Gentleman East by Bret Alexander

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Gentleman East by Bret AlexanderDespite the vast amount of quality roots material we come across, it was a fairly easy choice in deciding which album review would be our first in launching this new website. The 2004 release, Gentleman East, is the only true “solo” record by prolific composer and producer Bret Alexander. This choice may seem a bit obscure to many music listeners, as those outside of Alexander’s home base in Pennsylvania are likely to have had little to no exposure to this record. To our ears, however, this is simply the best modern-era Americana album we have heard.

Dating back to the group’s formation in 1990, Alexander was the primary songwriter and music director of the rock group The Badlees. Throughout that decade, the band released five albums and two EPs, starting on their independent label but later moving to major label deals with Polydor/Atlas and Ark 21. During this time, The Badlees scored a couple of Top 40 hits and toured internationally. In 1999, Alexander opened Saturation Acres studio with fellow Badlees’ bassist Paul Smith, later establishing the Saturation Acres Music (S.A.M.) record label for subsequent releases by the band and individual side projects. One of these projects was The Cellarbirds, the official Saturation Acres “studio band”, comprised of Alexander, Smith, and drummer Ron Simasek. While The Badlees were on hiatus in 2001, The Cellarbirds released their debut (and thus far sole) album, Perfect Smile. The following year The Badlees reformed, brought on new manager Chris Fetchko, and recorded and released their sixth full length album, Renew.

Fetchko was also a filmmaker and was in the process of producing a major film titled Everything’s Jake when he commissioned Alexander to score the film’s soundtrack. With this project, Alexander took the opportunity to make a record in the Americana musical style which he listened to a lot. He modeled Gentleman East after established albums such as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, albums which he conceded that The Badlees were never going to make. To accomplish this, Alexander used a combination of older and new compositions and recorded these with a mainly acoustic, sparse arrangement, enlisting outside musicians for bit parts where needed. Production-wise, the lead vocals are right up front and expertly leveled with a fair amount of restraint and patience used in forging each track.

Roots Rock Review logoGentleman East by Bret Alexander
Released: May 4, 2004
Produced by: Bret Alexander & Paul Smith
Track Listing Primary Musicians
I Want To Win In This World Too
Sleeping In a House
Memphis Restroom
True
Bleeding Heart
Gentleman East
Jonah Was a Sailor…
Bright Young Man
No One Hears Me Singing
Entrepreneur
Bret Alexander
Lead Vocals, Guitars, Mandolin, Dobro, Harmonica, Accordion, Keyboards
Paul Smith
Bass, Keyboards
Mark Tomeo
Dobro, Pedal Steel Guitar

 

Alexander composed the opening track, “I Want to Win In This World Too”, after watching a rough cut of Everything’s Jake. Thematically, the song explores striking the balance between living a righteous life and achieving a certain terrestrial happiness, going right to the heart of the question of living and dying. The track and album start abruptly with a capella vocals leading into the first verse of this quasi-spiritual acoustic blues anthem with Mark Tomeo adding a slight slide dobro. Tomeo returns for the Springstreen-influenced folk track about memories and haunts, “Sleeping In a House”. The chiming dobro floats above the picked acoustic intro that leads to a slightly stream-of-consciousness tangent arrangement climaxing with the lyrical hook;

Can you remember the loneliest moment in your life?”

Although the same two-man arrangement of the first two tracks is maintained, the album takes a bit of an upbeat turn with “Memphis Restroom”. A much more bluesy vibe is established beneath the rapidly-delivered story-telling lyrics which touch on many disparate thoughts and locations, seamlessly alternating between the present situation, past thoughts, and a hopeful future. The song was co-written by Alexander and Mike Naydock, a frequent lyricist on Badlees records. Although presented as purely acoustic here, “Memphis Restroom” is often performed with an “electric’ arrangement live, which shows its strong versatility.

Bret Alexander

“True” is the first song to feature a full rock arrangement with sonic layers unraveled methodically, starting with the heavily treated guitars in the opening main riff. Lyrically, the song is more optimistic than most of the rest as a George Harrison-esque eighties folk/rock diddy with the use of a variety of keyboard sounds in strategic sections of the song. Continuing the Beatles influence, “Bleeding Heart” is picked acoustic ballad in the vein of John Lennon, especially due to Alexander’s high registered vocals with the slightest reverb effect. A slow, two-step acoustic rhythm accompanies with guitar patterns often mimicking the vocal melody and a slight mandolin completing the soft atmosphere. Lyrically, the tone is melancholy, even somewhat tragic;

He’s such an emotional boy, everything he loves he must destroy / Juliet, she could’ve had it all, he was just a bleeding heart that’s all…”

The half acoustic Americana, half psychedelic title track, “Gentleman East” was one of the collaborations by Alexander and Naydock, circa 1990. A calm, rotating drum pattern by Simasek while the lyrics speak of the paranoid, slightly apocalyptic thoughts of a drug dealer who is awaiting the authorities to close in. The light “Jonah Was A Sailor In The Belly Of A Whale” features a crisp staccato acoustic with bright, snapping percussion by Dave Goodermuth in an intro popularly used in a PSECU commercial in Central Pennsylvania. The album returns to form with “Bright Young Man”, a beautifully haunting song with nice musical layers, highlighted by the distant pedal steel guitar by Tomeo. The longest and, perhaps, most substantive track on Gentleman East, “Bright Young Man” has a patient and methodical delivery which lets the listener savor every word and note. During the bridge, much of the atmospheric music is relegated to the deep background as the lead vocals and acoustic are brought to the forefront for full effect, with Alexander delivering short, poetic bits of philosophy;

The water never boils long beneath the bridges that get burned…”

“No One Hears Me Singing” is a blues ballad set to an interesting electronic backing, programmed by Smith. The very profound lyrics about the loneliness of creativity are delivered through a deliberate melody, which works well with the synth rhythms. A highlight of this track is the slow swell of an accordion lead by Alexander, producing an atmosphere which may be the most suited for a movie soundtrack. The bright, upbeat, acoustic “Entrepreneur” is the last “official” track on the album, as quasi-comical relief with a theme about the business side of music. Divergent strumming rhythms are utilized to accent the moods of the songs various sections with a fine harmonica lead topping things off. “These Are the People That Own The World” is a “hidden” track as a solo remake of a song originally released on the Badlees’ Renew album. This arrangement features strummed electric guitar for rhythm with picked acoustic overtones and Aaron Finke providing a unique electric sitar in the bridge and lead section.

Ultimately, the songs on Gentleman East were not used in the final edit of the film for which they were commissioned. But still, this stands as a landmark album in establishing Bret Alexander’s expertise in delivering these types of compositions and productions, as demonstrated on future Badlees’ albums, which migrated much further towards Americana. In 2014, Alexander departed from The Badlees and formed a new group called…Gentleman East.

On a final note, it is really quite amazing that this album remains to date the only solo record for a man who has played on and/or produced scores (probably hundreds) of albums and when we asked him if he considers doing a follow-up solo album, Alexander replied; “I consider it every year…I feel like I’m entering my 3rd act here professionally. More solo albums are definitely going to be a part of that.”

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