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Madness, Blackberry Smoke, Dennis Diken with Bell Sound, Will Hoge and Kris Kristofferson

By Brian Baker · October 1st, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

It’s been a couple of days since the end of MidPoint and I still feel as though I bodysurfed a tsunami. And as wrung out as I am, I can only imagine the post-traumatic stress that Dan McCabe must be addressing right now. And however drained he is at this very moment, you can bet that he’s already ankle-deep in gearing up for MPMF 9 in ’10.

It’s easy to understand why: The success of this year’s festival — in attendance, band submissions and performance and, perhaps most importantly, in execution and quality — has got to be the most motivating factor in ramping up again for next September. And when Dan maniacally charges up the MidPoint hill bearing a flag that symbolizes music and this city and its people, his enthusiasm makes it infinitely easy to follow him in that charge.

I participated in my first Saturday conference this year as a panelist for the Demo Derby at the Garfield Hotel. Fellow panelist Josh Asbury (3rd Silo label honcho) was complimenting CityBeat for its stewardship of MidPoint last year and particularly this year, in its first full year of managing the festival. As if on cue, Dan breezed into the conference room and began poking around into the sound issues that were delaying the start of the Demo Derby.

I noted that Dan was the point man for the whole shooting match and deserved the lion’s share of the credit, further kissing his ass by proclaiming that Cincinnati’s music scene in particular and the city in general should get down on their knees on a daily basis and thank the deity of their choice for giving us Dan McCabe. Josh smiled and said, “They’re going to put up a statue for that guy.” And as he sailed out of the conference room nearly as quickly as he appeared, I said, “The only problem will be getting him to sit for it.”

And so I sit here in the Bunker, sensation slowly returning to my fingers and face and the buzzing in my ears gradually dissipating. Two thoughts occurred almost simultaneously when I finished my review of Saturday night’s shows and send it off to Mike Breen: “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to go out tonight,” followed almost instantaneously by, “Man, I can’t wait until next year.”

Meanwhile, let's spin some new albums and get our mind off of MidPoint.

When Madness began in London nearly three and a half decades ago, they were outlandish purveyors of Ska, the Pop/Reggae hybrid championed by 2 Tone Records, which also housed The Specials, Selecter and a host of other similarly bent outfits. Although the genre was frontloaded with bands sporting frenetic personalities and outrageous theatrics, none proved to be as engaging or as enduring or as commercially embraced as Madness, from the early cartoonish brilliance of “One Step Beyond” to the universally beloved “Our House,” just a pair among the band’s nearly two dozen Top 20 British singles.

For The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the first new Madness material in close to a decade, the band chose to couch their fresh songs in an arcing concept about the London they call home. The liberty of the title is a term relating to townships established outside the bureaucratic control of old London; Norton Folgate is the liberty that attracted creative types, making it perfect songwriting fodder for Madness. As they have since 1976, Madness swings and swaggers with manic glee, referencing the dancehall Ska of their early days (“Forever Young,” “Idiot Child”) as well as the boozy Pop Wave popularized by early Squeeze (“Sugar and Spice,” “Rainbows”). On the bouncy “Dust Devil,” Suggs and company sound like they’re channeling Dave and Ansel Collins and Cracker simultaneously and the album’s epic 10-minute title track seems to cover all of the above and then some. Most importantly, The Liberty of Norton Folgate displays Madness’ penchant for offering a sophisticated complexity that goes well beyond — more than one step, anyway — the meager ambitions of most Ska bands.

At a certain point, Southern Rock as it was perceived in the ’70s was alternately tarted up in slutty make-up by Rock or blow-dried and sanitized by Country, neither of which did much to effectively or appropriately expand the genre’s range.

Blackberry Smoke may be too young to remember firsthand the visceral bite of early Lynyrd Skynyrd, the moody excellence of the Marshall Tucker Band and the gritty Blues of the first three ZZ Top albums, but they do a pretty decent job of channeling the era without slipping into faceless arena Country Pop that shares little with Southern Rock outside of a decibel level. On the Atlanta quintet’s sophomore full length, Little Piece of Dixie (also the name of the EP they released earlier in the year), they strike the right balance between the original purveyors of Southern Rock and the legitimate second-generation revivalists, polishing and contemporizing the sound without backloading too much cheese and smarm into the proceedings.

“Good One Comin’ On” is good-ol-boy-in-party-mode Country Rock with the swing and swagger of Shooter Jennings (note to the Smoke: you had me at “two six packs of Shiner...” but the Ray Wylie Hubbard reference iced it), “Like I Am” chugs and thunders like the Outlaws at a Bad Company tribute and “Up in Smoke” imagines a double bill end-of-the-night jam with Blackfoot and ZZ Top. “Sanctified Woman” sounds like the band that Paul Stanley and Henry Paul would assemble and “Who Invented the Wheel” has the earmarks of Marshall Tucker’s best with a contemporary twist that brings it straight up to date. If you’ve been missing what us old hippies remember as Southern Rock, tip a Shiner, pack a bowl and take a good long hit of Blackberry Smoke. Ya’ll.

If Dennis Diken’s name sparks your synapses, you’re recalling him as the timekeeper from one of the best jangly, melancholy Pop bands of the past quarter century; The Smithereens. What you might not know is that Diken is a songwriter himself, as well as a vocalist, autoharpist and Mellotron noodler. And before you start rolling your eyes, you might do well to give his new project disc Late Music — credited to Dennis Diken with Bell Sound — a spin prior to loading up the drummer jokes.

Diken and his collaborator Pete DiBella — and a host of guests including Andy Paley, Jason Falkner and members of the Wondermints among others — have crafted a sound that hearkens back to the mid to late ’60s but not in a calculated, retro fashion but with the fresh passion of the era coursing through every track. Diken and DiBella offer up a magnificent Pop set that shimmers with the majesty of Brian Wilson’s best (“Fall Into Your Arms,” “Standing In That Line”), swaggers with the visceral punch of early Who (“Long Lonely Ride”), bristles with the Pop edge of Roy Wood’s Move (“The Sun’s Gonna Shine in the Morning”). And even as Diken and DiBella’s vocal harmonies cascade through the mix in an homage to the Association and the Folk/Pop vocal groups of the ’60s, there is an unmistakable contemporary edge to the songs, as evidenced by “I’ve Been Away,” which hums with classic Pop familiarity while pulsing with the propulsive urgency of now. Diken and DiBella may be old schooled in Pop’s pristine past, but Late Music is right on time.

There’s more than metaphor underlying the title of Will Hoge’s new album, The Wreckage. After a Nashville recording session for the album, his scooter was struck by a van and the singer/songwriter was nearly killed. Hoge’s injuries were severe enough that he required an eight-month regimen of intense physical rehabilatation, after which he returned to the studio to complete what nearly became a posthumous EP.

It might seem like a cliché to say that Hoge sounds reborn on The Wreckage, but the energy that reverberates through every song on the album bears out the analogy. When he steers The Wreckage toward the rockier end of his Americana spectrum, he thunders with the perfect bombast of Bruce Springsteen, the pointed intuition of Elvis Costello and the edgy melodicism of Tom Petty, particularly on the album’s opener, “Hard to Love,” the garageabilly swing of “Long Gone” and the jangly splendor of “Highway Wings.” True to form, those same elements are equally woven into Hoge’s balladic turns, from the Marc-Cohn-produced-by-T-Bone-Burnett rumble of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” to the literal and figurative remembrances in the title track.

Although The Wreckage certainly amplifies the gifts that Hoge has exhibited from the start of his career, it also points up, in the most literal manner possible, Hoge’s almost superhuman tenacity and will to survive. Maybe he should have titled the album The Salvage, because with this work, he's forged triumph from near tragedy.

Kris Kristofferson is responsible for writing some of the most iconic songs of the past 50 years and his interpreters have taken those songs to heights that have secured the legacies of the singers, the songs and the composer. At 73, Kristofferson has nothing to prove; he’s found success as a performer, songwriter, actor and activist, with three Grammys, a Golden Globe and inductions at the Songwriter and Country Music Halls of Fame as evidence.

If his last studio hurrah had been 2006’s This Old Road, his first album of new material in nearly a dozen years, he would have gone out on an impossibly high note; the album generated some of the best press of Kristofferson’s performing career (which has been, in all honesty, a little spotty over the years) and clearly solidified his reputation as a fearless and singular singer/songwriter. But clearly Kristofferson has never rested on his laurels or anything else, and the proof of that is all over his sophomore release for New West, the spare and craggily wonderful Closer to the Bone.

With producer Don Was playing Rick Rubin to Kristofferson’s Johnny Cash, the pair collaborate on a short but potent set of incredibly intimate songs that range from poignant to pointed. On the title track, Kristofferson addresses challenges and rewards of his current stage of life (“Ain’t it kind funny/Ain’t it just the way, though/Ain’t you getting better/Running out of time”) while “From Here to Forever,” which Kristofferson intros as being a song he wrote for his children, may stand as the greatest love song he’s ever penned. On “Sister Sinead,” Kristofferson comes to the defense of Sinead O’Connor and the absolutely heartrending “Hall of Angels” is dedicated to the late Eddie Rabbitt’s infant son, whose 1985 death halted the singer/songwriter’s career for a few years, while “Good Morning John” is Kristofferson’s moving love letter to Johnny Cash.

Although the mood lightens considerably with the album’s hidden closing track, which Kristofferson identifies as the first song he ever finished — at age 11 — Closer to the Bone is drenched in the awareness of mortality, right up to Kristofferson’s dedication of the album to his long-time friend and guitarist Stephen Bruton, who succumbed to throat cancer just after wrapping these sessions, which also included Was on bass, the Wallflowers’ Rami Jaffee on keyboards and Jim Keltner on drums. Stark and powerful, mournful and celebratory, Closer to the Bone is simply the latest example of the amazing artistry of Kris Kristofferson.



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