VARIOUS ARTISTS – Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Sylvan Songs Records)

Strange AngelsTaking its name in part from a James song, Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James reworks thirteen well- and lesser-known James songs in homage to his lasting influence on not just the blues, but far beyond.

To do justice to the roll-call of first-rate musicians appearing on this album would leave little room for discussing the music itself. Suffice to say, stellar names from soul, country, rock and pop feature large. Even the notional “house band”, Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters (an update of James’s own band name), consists of hugely respected musicians including producer/drummer Marco Giovino. Special mention here goes to Rudy Copeland whose mighty Hammond sound provides a meaty punchline to many of the tracks.

Wisely, perhaps, no-one tries to emulate the shimmering metallic thrust of James himself, and these covers are largely indebted to his influence on later blues rock. The resulting tracks are, broadly speaking, much heavier sounding, with plenty of what the Buzzcocks used to refer to as “tricky guitar solo(s)”.

Elayna Boynton sets the pace with a galloping take on ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’, followed up by soul legend Bettye Lavette’s lived-in ‘Person To Person’. A briskly rollicking trot through ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ by country singer Rodney Crowell is followed by the unmistakeable grunt “Huh, yeah” as Tom Jones powers through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’. ‘Mean Mistreatin’ Mama’ is a triple-bill of Warren Haynes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Mickey Raphael’s storming harmonica.

Deborah Bonham’s ‘Dust My Broom’ unfortunately somehow manages to lose that classic raw slide guitar wailing riff under a country rock beat, although Jamey Johnson’s ‘It Hurts Me Too’ keeps the bar room piano firmly on tap.

‘Strange Angel’ (singular: as listed on the promo CD) brings together the stunning sibling harmonies of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer over a long, slow, jazzy beat embellished with more of that Hammond sound, plus a fat, gritty guitar riff, all underpinned with a twanging county steel.

Triple Grammy award winner, Keb Mo’, lends an almost fairground-ride motion to ‘Look On Yonder Wall’, with maybe just a soupçon of the Grange Hill theme. In contrast, Mollie Marriott delivers an impassioned vocal on ‘My Bleeding Heart’, bringing real pathos to lines like “People, people, you know what it means to be left alone”.

The ringing phone that opens Chuck E Weiss’s take on ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ is followed by the most gorgeous dirty, fuzzed out guitar, with just a taste of New Orleans. Weiss said of his choice, “After careful consideration the vocal work for Elmore was too perfect for me to touch… So I chose my favourite instrumental!!!”

Perhaps the most radical interpretation here sees Addi McDaniel’s smooth lounge vocal smouldering over a slouchy, loose gypsy fiddle-led blues with touches of banjo and a Spanish-inflected guitar. Then the house band winds up proceedings with ‘Bobby’s Rock’, another scuzzy, fuzzy rendition, with that driving Hammond in place of the sax of the original.

And if all of this collected talent offering updates on some classic songs is not enough of a feel-good factor, profits from the album go to benefit two US charities. C’mon, what’s not to like?
Su O’Brien

Artist website:

Rodney Crowell – ‘Shake Your Money Maker’:

VARIOUS – Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams (Slate Creek SCR0526172)

Gentle GiantsNow 78 and still going strong (his most recent album being in 2014), Don Williams is, both in person and on disc, one of the most laid back country artists you could imagine. Initially finding success as part of 60s folk-pop outfit The Pozo Seco Singers, whose hits included ‘I Can Make It With You’, ‘Hey Look What You’ve Done’ and ‘Excuse Me Dear Martha’, he embarked on a solo career in 1971, going on to score huge success with such song as ‘We Should Be Together’, You’re My Best Friend, ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’ and, only released as an A-side in the UK, ‘I Recall A Gypsy Woman’.

Inducted into the Country Hall of Fame in 2010, he’s now the subject of a tribute album although, strictly speaking, it should The Songs Made Famous By Don Williams, since he’s better known as an interpreter than a writer

While curiously omitting ‘Gypsy Woman’ and ‘Best Friend’, it also doesn’t always go for the obvious crossover numbers, several numbers here likely to be familiar only to dedicated country fans, such as Keb Mo’s recording of US Country number 1 ‘Lord I Hope This Day Is Good’, Lady Antebellum’s string arrangement of Dave Loggins’ ‘We’ve Got A Good Fire Going’ and, a number 11 country hit in 1984, Loggins and Lisa Silver’s wistful story song ‘Maggie’s Dream’, sung here by Trisha Yearwood with Dan Dugmore on steel and electric guitars.

The collection opens with his 11th number 1, 1978’s uptempo ‘Tulsa Time’, given a suitably gutsy, going over by Pistol Annies with Mickey Raphael on wailing harmonica and tasty guitar by Colin Linden. Brandy Clark takes it into ballad territory for one of two numbers co-written by Roger Cook, 1980’s ‘I Believe In You’ waltzing lazily along on Guthrie Trapp’s resonator guitar. Three of his best known recordings come on a roll, kicking off with 1977 number 1 ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’, Jerry Douglas providing dobro to Dierks Betley’s vocals. Only ever released as a B-side, but, for many, one of his signature songs, Bob McDill’s ‘Amanda’ gets a stripped down and throaty dusty blues treatment by Chris Stapleton, wife Morgane on harmonies, recorded live at the Grand Ole Opry in 2013. Arguably the seminal Williams number, and one he actually co-wrote with Wayland Holyfield, Alison Krauss gives ‘Till The Rivers All Run Dry’ a gentle, beautiful, reflective acoustic reading with a lush string arrangement by Kristin Wilkinson.

The second Cook co-write, 1982 number 1 ‘Love Is On A Roll’, is actually performed by himself and his co-writer John Prine, Linden on electric slide, Raphael on harmonica and Cook also providing ukulele and joining Garth Fundis on background vocals.

The most recent Williams hit here comes from 1981 and was actually a duet with Emmylou Harris and, while it’s a bit cheeky to assign a widely covered Townes Van Zandt classic to the songs of Don Williams, the spare version of ‘If I Needed You’ featuring Jason Isbell and wife Amanda Shires more than warrants turning a blind eye.

The album ends with another McDill song, Garth Brooks stepping up to the plate for a faithful rendition of ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me’, a suitably mellow end to an album clearly made with love and affection for the true Texan gentle giant.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

Don Williams himself – ‘You’re My Best Friend’: