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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Classic sounds abound on new Jeff Givens album recorded in Muscle Shoals

By Ted Slowik


If seasoned troubadour Jeff Givens had written “make a kick-ass rock record” on his bucket list, he could now cross that off.

The drummer-turned-singer/songwriter has self-released his second full-length, “Midnight in Muscle Shoals.” The basic tracks were recorded by John Gifford III at legendary Fame Recording Studios in northwest Alabama’s famous home of “The Swampers” rhythm section, where the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman laid tracks.

“Midnight in Muscle Shoals” is full of wailing guitar licks, lushly layered vocal harmonies and sweetly selected instrumental accompaniments atop tight drum tracks. Fans of southern rock will find a lot to like about this record, Givens’ follow-up to 2012’s “Bourbon Cowboy.”

If “Midnight in Muscle Shoals” sounds a lot like a record by The Righteous Hillbillies, that’s because all the tracks feature guitarist Kev Wright, who recently left the band, and drummer Barret Harvey. The connections don’t end there. The Hillbillies also recorded their new album at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and Givens’ touring band, The Mugshot Saints, includes former Hillbillies bassist Johnny Gadeikis. T.C. Dolgin plays bass on the record, Jennifer Botka sings backing vocals and Pat Otto lends mandolin to a couple tracks.

Like recent recordings by the Hillbillies, the songs on “Midnight in Muscle Shoals” sound like they belong on any of the 1970s-era albums by The Rolling Stones. Wright’s slick slide guitar work and Harvey’s crisp beats propel the tracks, which are produced by Givens’ longtime collaborator Jason Botka. Many tracks were added at Botka’s Skye Bleu Studios in suburban Chicago.

At its best, “Midnight in Muscle Shoals” is an ideal soundtrack for a long ride on a highway. Tracks like “Long Weekend” and “Hard Livin’” are not only expertly performed by gifted musicians, they’re delivered with Givens’ honestly passionate vocals. The melodies are catchy and the music’s fantastic. The songs are about recurring working-man themes, including drinking in bars and paychecks not going far enough.
Photos by Michelle Gadeikis
Givens is a Tennessee native who was raised in the Chicago area, where he continues to make his home. He calls himself a “rock and roll gypsy,” and an “authentic prince of skid row.” While performing, he’s been known to command an audience to “holler and swaller” by first whooping, then drinking.

Musically, Givens worked as a drummer for many years, and his songs are informed by real-life experiences on the road. His resume includes performing with guitarist Joe Perry of Aerosmith, blues legend Buddy Guy and the late Jay Bennett of Wilco.

“Everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got a dream, I’m filling up this notebook with what happens in between,” he sings on “Livin’ the Dream.”

Givens writes all but one of the 12 songs on “Midnight in Muscle Shoals.” While the songs are sonically superb, one will be disappointed if he seeks Dylan-like depth in the lyrics. This record is reminiscent of a Ringo Starr album in that one can take ordinary, everyday songs, get some fabulous musician friends to record them and end up with great-sounding music that eventually lands you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Givens’ songs are honest, authentic reflections of his life.

“The most difficult ones are the most intimate ones,” he told WXAV-FM 88.3 in a radio interview. He went on to describe how “Last of a Dying Breed,” a song on the new record, was written about his 80-year-old father, who still rides his Harley thousands of miles of year. “It was a real emotional process,” Givens told the interviewer.

Writing good songs isn’t easy, regardless of what anybody says, and only a gifted few can do it consistently. Equally challenging is recording a full-length album of timeless sounds that are worth listening to over and over again, and Givens might have accomplished that with “Midnight in Muscle Shoals.”

The Mugshot Saints


Learn more at jeffgivens.com. "Midnight in Muscle Shoals" is available for sale on CD Baby.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A revelation about what to do next creatively

By Ted Slowik

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
I've been thinking a lot lately about what to do next, creatively, in my free time.

Free time is a precious thing, and it shouldn't be squandered. Take it from someone who's been dead for six minutes. There are better ways to spend your time than binge-watching Netflix on the couch. Trust me.

It's taken six months to figure out what I want to do next. For the past several years I've focused on music. And I feel I've become a much better songwriter, musician, performer, vocalist and recording artist. I still enjoy music very much and plan to continue making it whenever I want. And it'll make me happy and be fun.

But I've felt for some time that music is not my true calling, and that writing is. The question I've been trying to answer is, what to write? Nonfiction or fiction? A novel or short stories? What do I have to say that's worth saying?

The answer came to me while I was camping in Florida this past week. My sister Liz, with whom I've always been especially close, loaned me the Patti Smith book "Just Kids." I've been reading a lot of rock bios and memoirs lately, about Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Patti Boyd, Roy Buchanan and others. "Just Kids" may be the best-written I've read. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

I didn't know much about Patti Smith. "Just Kids" tells the story of Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe starting out as starving artists in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's a beautiful love story, and the book is a fine showcase for Smith's skills as a writer thanks to her lifelong love for poetry.

Arthur Rimbaud
Smith was greatly influenced by the French poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), one of the greatest poets ever to have lived, ever though he only created for a brief period in his late teens. He famously wrote to a friend the following lines that described his decadent behavior:

"I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault."

I could relate to the notion that complete commitment to one's craft is necessary to create art that is truly worthwhile and lasting. And maybe the young can do it. That is, live irresponsibly and in poverty for a few years. But not old people with bills and mortgages and responsibilities and day jobs.

Because face it, if you were any good as an artist or musician at age 50, you'd be doing it full-time.

I'll be honest. Since the heart attack a year ago I've wondered at times why I'm still here. What's my purpose?

So after reading Smith's book I realized I should write the story of how my wife Jo and I met and fell in love.
First date, Valentine's Day 1985

This works for a number of reasons. First of all, I cannot think of subject matter more personal and meaningful. Family is most important, after all, and I'll write the story so our kids Hannah and Noah will always know how much I loved their mother.

The timing seems right. Has it really been 30 years? Gosh, seems like yesterday. I remember well the love I felt for Jo and there are still many of our friends around I could talk to in order to gain additional details and perspectives.

It solves the dilemma of what to do as a creative outlet other than music that is purposeful and rewarding and without regard to any sense of commercial success. Ours is a beautiful story, and I intend to write it for an audience of three people, as best as I can. I expect the process of telling this story will require a great deal of time and effort.

That's OK. I can continue doing other musical and writing projects while working on this story. Maybe my purpose for being here is to tell this story. There is universal truth in love and beauty.
Honeymoon in California, 1990








Monday, March 9, 2015

Crossing the 10k YouTube milestone with "Refugee Blues"

By Ted Slowik









Just a short post today as I'm camping in Florida and reception is spotty. But, hey, "Refuee Blues" topped 10,000 views on YouTube. It's cool, they send you an email. Thanks Celeste Mackey for inviting me to do a dramatic reading of this for her Literature of the Holocaust class three years ago. Here's the link. 



Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fun times during Allison Flood show at Chicago Street Pub

By Ted Slowik
Allison Flood and friends

Last night was a blast hanging out at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet for the celebration of Allison Flood's solo debut "Blackbird" on the Flipside Works label.
Eric Johnson, Allison Flood, John Condron

I reviewed the CD just a few weeks ago on this blog, and the review also was featured on No Depression. I don't have anything new to say about Allison's music since then but I do want to share a few pictures of the fun evening with friends.
Allison Flood, Denise Hegarty, Jill Condron

Chicago Street Pub is a wonderful place, and I've described many times how it's the hub of great live, local, original music in Will County. It's important to remember it's people who make places special. The interactions you have with them, the good times you share and the memories you create are what matter.

Triz
So, thanks Mike and Kathy Trizna for keeping the Pub going these many years and for supporting original music.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why "Wrigley Field" deserves to be the next Cubs theme song

By Ted Slowik

Last month Chicago Tribune writer Mark Caro started a movement to retire the 1984 Steve Goodman tune "Go, Cubs, Go" as the quasi-official Cubs theme song, played over the PA in Wrigley Field after Cubs victories since 2007.

Mark's been on WGN radio talking about his campaign and last week the movement got a boost from Dan Bernstein, co-host of 670 The Score’s “Boers and Bernstein Show.”A contest is underway to see if there's a song out there that might be a worthy successor to "Go, Cubs, Go."

This week I entered an original, "Wrigley Field," which friend Kev Wright helped record. Here's why it deserves consideration.

First, I'm a lifelong Cubs fan, just as passionate about the team as Goodman was. My lyrics are sung from the heart, with more than 40 years of rooting for the team. As a Chicagoan I've cheered on the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox. But my love for the Cubs dates back to the mid-1970s.

I'll tell you exactly why there's nothing else quite like being a Cubs fan. It has something to do with the fact that Wrigley Field was the only park in all of Major League Baseball that didn't have lights, until 1988. That, and the championship drought that dates back to their last World Series win in 1908. Being a Cubs fan is special. When they do eventually win another championship it's going to be the biggest party ever, and I want to experience the full effect of that.

My brothers Frank and Mike are big Cubs fans. Every year for as long as I can remember a group of us have gone down to see the Cubs play in Wrigley Field. We tailgate near Belmont Harbor off Recreation Drive, walk to the park and always have a great time. I don't really have opinions about the gentrification of the Wrigleyville and Lakeview neighborhoods, the quality of the talent on the field or ownership decisions about Wrigley Field renovations. For me, the Cubs are about spending quality time together with family, and there's nothing more meaningful in life.

Not only do I have a Steve Goodman-like love for the team, the song "Wrigley Field" is a sincere ode to the joys of Cubdom. It's short and sweet. The melody is catchy, the tempo is upbeat and the words are simple. You can watch the video entry here or listen to an audio version of it here.

Finally, just a little bit of fun history about this song. Three years ago WGN radio sponsored a similar contest. When I learned of the contest in February 2012 I wrote "Wrigley Field" on a Saturday night, recorded a sloppy audio demo and submitted my entry via email.

Then an incredible thing happened. On Monday morning, Jonathan Brandmeier played my song on his WGN radio show. This was less than 48 hours after the song came into existence. I knew then it was good. Sure, the recording was amateurish and it didn't make the voting round. But the tune is worthy. It's a good song, and deserves consideration to become the next Cubs theme song.



Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's next for ex-Righteous Hillbillies cofounder Kev Wright?

Michelle Gadeikis photo
By Ted Slowik

Guitarist Kev Wright announced this week that he has parted ways with The Righteous Hillbillies, the band he cofounded eight years ago with Brent James.

In a Feb. 11 Facebook post, Kev said "with a heavy heart" that the split was mutual and "for personal and creative reasons." A post on the Hillbillies' Facebook page signed by Brent, bassist Jeff Bella and drummer Barret Harvey said "with regret" that Kev was no longer with the band, which will resume live shows in May and will announce Kev's replacement "when the time is right."

The timing of the split is difficult, as the band has just wrapped work on its third album, recorded at legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., produced by Craig Bishop and funded by money raised through Kickstarter. Kev wrote seven songs on the new album, Brent wrote three and they co-wrote two. Kev has always been the band's lead guitarist while Brent remains lead singer and now sole remaining original member.

It's hard to imagine the Hillbillies without Kev. The band's bio for the 2010 Grundy County Corn Festival tells its 2007 inception as well as any version, recounting how John Condron bestowed the band's name when Kev and Brent were playing as an acoustic duo following the split of Brent's band The Stone City Stragglers. (The two had previously played together in The Brent James Band, so their friendship goes way back.)

Kev's hands (Andy Goodwin photo)
What can fans expect from Kev, who turns 60 next month, now that he's left the Hillbillies? Probably more live acoustic performances, a solo album that he begins recording in March and plenty of fine guitar work on songs he writes and sings. There's no doubt Kev's desire to sing and play more of his own material contributed to his decision to leave the band.

Kev's songwriting and vocals have always been exceptional, though largely overlooked for the past decade because of his lead guitar abilities. Consider his song "Journey Road," which appears on The Brent James Band album "The Road Less Traveled." "You can spend your whole life worrying, thinking about your 'could have beens,'" Kev writes, though he says his late grandfather wrote all the words to the song through wisdom he directly imparted to Kev.

The band's version is slickly produced with lush harmonies and instrumentation, but on the day of his announcement Kev posted an acoustic demo of "Journey Road" that is beautiful in its simplicity and hauntingly prescient in its meaning. Kev seems like a man with purpose, and that is to share his gifts for creating music in ways that can't always be realized by a four-piece southern rock band with two electric guitars, bass and drums.

More recent clues hint at the direction Kev is headed. The Hillbillies played an all-acoustic show Jan. 25 at Chicago Street Pub In Joliet, IL, its first and now it would seem only such show, at least with Kev in the lineup. Before a packed house on a Sunday afternoon the band re-imagined its roadhouse setlist by squeezing every bit of tenderness out of tunes that have always resonated well with crowds at loud volumes and high energy levels.

The Mug Shot Saints
Also, Kev has performed acoustically recently with "Bourbon Cowboy" Jeff Givens and the Mug Shot Saints, including Dec. 19 at Metro in Chicago and Feb. 4 at Schubas. The band includes Jason Botka and Johnny Gadeikis, another ex-Stone City Straggler who played bass with the Hillbillies until 2014."It's good to play with Johnny again," Kev said.

Kev has publicly shared many demo recordings that showcase his songwriting and singing. His writing shows the influence of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and others. His compositions range from straight-ahead rock of "Black Jack Mama" to the tender ballad "I Could..." Kev also displays a social conscience. "This Is America" is an angry ode about income inequality. Kev can do it all, but sounds best when he's tapping his deepest inspirations, like the swampy "Gasoline."

Take a listen to this beautifully melodic Leo Kottke-like instrumental "Winter." Then this live recording of "County Jail." It's not hard to imagine the future Kev performing solo with a bass drum and multiple instruments much like the post-Backyard Tire Fire Edward David Anderson.

In more than one way, this week's announcement signals that Kev has come full circle these past eight years since he and Brent decided to put away the acoustic guitars and go electric with the Hillbillies. The band would be well-served to carry on with a lead guitar gunslinger, one content to contribute the occasional vocal and songwriting duty.

But Kev is so much more than just an amazing lead guitarist. He's a deep soul with something to say who can write lyrics and tell stories in honest and heartfelt ways. Kev plays his songs with superb musicianship and vocals laden with emotion. His voice needs to be heard.









Saturday, February 7, 2015

Allison Flood shines on solo debut "Blackbird"

By Ted Slowik

Good things are worth waiting for, especially debut solo albums nearly a decade in the making.

Nine years after her band Stone City Stragglers delivered its third and final album, Allison Flood has released her solo debut on the Flipside Works label. "Blackbird" is a five-song collection of beautifully crafted originals delivered with ethereal harmonies, expert instrumentation and exquisite production by John Condron with assistance from Bill Aldridge of Third City Sound in Joliet, Illinois.

She was known as Allison Moroni back when she was in the Stragglers with five bandmates including Brent James, who continued his career with The Righteous Hillbillies. Since then she's had two kids with musician/firefighter Chris Flood, who says, "I loved her music so much I married her. (Her) first solo record is delayed because I keep getting her pregnant."

The songs on "Blackbird" are about relationships, though they also work as precious stories told by a young mother re-entering the music business after an absence. In the opener "Harbor" she sings, "I've been lost and I've been found, I've been somewhere in between, now I call this house a home, still feel like I'm lost at sea." And when she sings in the chorus, "Won't you find your way back to me?" she could easily be addressing the Stragglers' extensive following, asking old fans to rediscover her music.

The Stragglers were a big regional draw a decade ago. A Chicago Reader preview of the band's appearance at the 2005 Chicago Country Music Festival noted, "This Joliet sextet stands tall among this year's Taste Stage acts thanks to the sweet harmonies of Brent James and Allison Moroni, whose voices casually intertwine a la Gram and Emmylou."

Harmonies are the highlight of "Blackbird," though there's nothing lacking about the musicianship, either. The backing vocals and accompaniment on "Ties That Bind" create a Fleetwood Mac-like vibe; sounds created by guitars, harmonium and other instruments are appropriately woven among Flood's sparse acoustic guitar. There's not a note or sound that seems out of place in the 20-minute collection.

Yet it's the vocals on "Blackbird" that stand out, which speaks to the strength of the songwriting and lyrics in particular. When, on "Things Dead & Gone," she sings, "It isn't easier to lie when no one's listening to you," is she saying that during her hiatus she remained true to her musical calling? And in "Come To Me," when she sings about distance between people she's surely telling a story about estranged lovers, though read another way she could just as easily be talking about the fans who loved her in the Stragglers.

In the closer "Easy" she sings, "I never knew it would be so easy to forget me." 

Fans of Allison Flood's music are about to discover how wonderful it is to hear new music from her again.

The release of "Blackbird" will be celebrated with a performance featuring appearances by Brian Motyll, Matt Biskie and others on Saturday, Feb. 28 at Chicago Street Pub, 75 N. Chicago St., Joliet, IL.