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Springtime Sounds for a Spring Barely Sprung

It’s spring in the northern hemisphere. In most parts of North America it even feels like spring. Here in New England the snow is melting slowly and not even the crocuses have shown their bloom. However, that doesn’t prevent creating a soundtrack that makes one think of summer. Indeed, it makes such a soundtrack more important than ever. Here are some newer releases that are providing me with that summertime illusion. For those of you who are in warmer climes, take off your shoes and groove.

Great Lakes Suite—Leo Wadada Smith Quartet. I’ve reviewed Wadada Smith’s epic masterwork about the Civil Rights/Black Liberation in the United States titled Ten Freedom Summers and found it to be the best musical expression of the trauma, tumult, fear, and exultation of those years and the millions of people that made them what they were and remain. Although I live next to the sixth Great Lake here in Vermont, I have only been out on the Great Lakes once—Lake Erie in Pennsylvania fishing from a fifteen foot boat equipped with a gasoline engine in 1977. A biker had picked me up hitchhiking and we stopped to visit his in-laws who owned a mobile home on its shores. Being out on the water so far from shore was disquieting for this landlubber. As for time on the shore, I’ve spent plenty next to Lake Michigan, Superior, Ontario and Erie; in sunshine, snow and storms. The sheer size of these bodies of water is unworldly in itself. When those waters are disturbed, the very passions of Hades are made present. Smith’s combo, which features saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Lindberg, matches the multiple natures of these fresh water seas; the waters’ beauty, majesty, turbulence and soul are the essence of this work.

Live—Gary Clark, Jr. I love this guy’s music. His guitar playing exists in a place discovered by Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, enlarged by Muddy Waters and BB King, enhanced by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among a multitude of others. His singing brings forth the spirit of the aforementioned Hendrix and the soul of Bobby Blue Bland. The songs run the gamut from straight blues to good old R n B with a good dose of hard psychedelia thrown in. While his studio albums are great, hearing his material live is even better.

Happy Prisoner—Bluegrass Sessions—Robert Earl Keen. Keen played often in shows in and around Asheville, NC when I lived there. His gravelly voice echoes with the scratchy Texas wind he grew up in. His music is of the outlaw variety, always sharp, bitter and with a certain twisted humor. Hearing him play this collection of bluegrass tunes lends the tunes a slightly different connotation, while providing a forum for Keen’s Texas croon.

Ain’t In No Hurry—Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen is one of the best living guitar players, period. The lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane and co-founder of Hot Tuna (with Airplane bassist Jack Casady) is a master of multiple genres. He currently tours with multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhof and, when he plays with Hot Tuna, Mitterhof and Casady. He also operates the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where he offers music camps and concerts. If his latest disc is located in any genre it would be old-timey, although there are a couple new tunes and an excellent semi acoustic version of the Hot Tuna number Bar Room Crystal Ball. Of course, this is Jorma’s take on old-timey. His band includes Larry Campbell, Jack Casady, Mitterhof, and a rhythm section of Myron Hart and Justin Guip.

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—Sturgill Simpson. I first heard Simpson at an airport bar. I think it was in Philadelphia. The bartender was a woman who got to talking with me about Willie Nelson. Since I was one of two or three people in the bar that wasn’t working, she told me to listen to this guy she had on her Ipod. “He reminds me of Waylon Jennings,” she said as she plugged her device into the bar’s sound system. Not only did this guy sound something like Waylon, he also sounded real, unlike so much of the stuff that passes for country music these days. His lyrics are about mind expansion, the pointlessness of religion, love, and life. They are lyrics soaked in subtle satire and backed by a robust clean and genuine country-western sound that really does make you want to kick up your heels and have a cold one and a smoke of something that ain’t tobacco.

Wider Circles—Rising Appalachia. This is another musical group I can’t listen to enough. The down-home sound of their acoustic arrangements takes on to a porch somewhere in front of a small comfy house or maybe an off-the-cuff jam session at a music fest after the big names have left the stage. This newest disc represents a more mature sound from this Western North Carolina group. Like always, the vocals are charmingly transcendent while the instrumentalism is both technically savvy and emotionally forthright.

Sima—This band is billed as a neo-psychedelic outfit. However, it is not Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It doesn’t bleed hippie ethos and it doesn’t remind me of acid rock, whether that rock be from Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, or Love. Instead, listening to this disc reminds me of Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites; Electric Flag and Super Sessions and even a bit of Vanilla Fudge. Infused with the spirit of British blues-rock like Ten Years After and the Keef Hartley Band, the searing guitar leads weave and rip through a rhythm bottom that makes its presence clear but does not overwhelm.

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.