In appreciation of music’s true “Screaming Eagle”

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There’s something to be said for listening to a true musician in the house of blues and soul trade their wares with the ferocity of a fire and brimstone preacher.

You see, to me blues music is different from a lot of genres in the way that it relies on feeling. Not that it just simply possesses feeling, as I’m sure you could say for many songs in just about any genre you can wrap your head around. No, I’m talking more about how blues music could sell off and sacrifice every conceivable piece of itself, yet would still have all the tools it needs in just one vocal take to relay to the listener the pain involved in enduring each of those sacrifices. Mainly because the humanity contained in those vocals goes beyond just knowing how to sing on-key or turn a pretty phrase of poetry.

That would be too perfect, coated in too much varnish and veneer. Life is rarely ever all that pretty, and all the best in blues and soul made it to that pinnacle because they each had the vision and the ability to express their emotion as a pure, scratched-raw animal of a thing living in their music. Whether the person you were referencing was as smooth as Otis Redding or rough as Robert Johnson. They didn’t make it because of large figure recording contracts, reality show wins or one good single that had the fortune of enough people hitting the iTunes “download” tab.

Instead, they bled to earn their place at that microphone.

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And that’s where Charles Bradley comes in. His late-in-life musical opportunity didn’t emerge until his early 60’s with 2011’s No Time For Dreaming, and only lasted for a trajectory of three records before his untimely death from cancer last month. Still, Bradley made every mile he had count by pouring the true anguish and joy of his own life into every artistic step he walked here. It takes talent for many musicians to even be considered believable wringing out the same emotion from songs they might sing hundreds to thousands of times on stage. Bradley always seemed to charge right through believable and into open wound though with his trademark electric shriek that helped earn him the nickname “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”.

Bradley’s work is the type of music that doesn’t require an analytical microscope or a Pitchfork review. Rather, think of it as every feeling of emotion you can’t quite phrase lingering in the ether of your mind that words won’t ever quite be able to describe, yet we can all relate to. A good example in that vein is Bradley’s song “Victim of Love”, a song strung together by ramshackle acoustic guitar and wandering backing vocals that lay low and loose as the staging area for Bradley’s earth-scorching lament to love gone and flickered away.

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But regardless of the setting or production choices, Charles Bradley really did possess a set of talents that few others could say they had all in one place. He could croon like a Sam Cooke, hammer in gravelly rasps like Muddy Waters, and emote like James Brown in a way that recalls Bradley’s run as Black Velvet, an impersonator of the Godfather of Soul.

I’ve still only just begun my journey into the run of Charles Bradley, but if you have the time or the attention I would urge you the reader to do the same. Not only because Bradley is a fine example of it never being too late in life to pursue your dreams, but also because he took that chance and didn’t waste a second of it in telling his story. And we could all learn a lesson from that.

So lets keep that story alive and breathing through the power of the music Charles Bradley has left us.

Ivy, Beck & Neill’s “Rockwood” Burns Bright as Powerhouse of Brooklyn Country

Live At Rockwood Music Hall

Brooklyn country music. It’s a genre phrase I was entirely unaware of up until a couple of years ago when I first started visiting this vast borough of New York City. The term began with some of my first musical learning experiences down there (as oh so many things have for me), and only grew in it’s shape and scope as I peeled down through the layers.

It’s been a fascinating study ever since, and one of the sweetest fruits to come out of this gradual enlightenment has been none other than the band Ivy, Beck & Neill. In fact since I first saw them perform down at Rockwood Music Hall back in August, the days and weeks since have simply been a (less than patient) exercise in waiting for their debut release Live at Rockwood Music Hall. 

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Thankfully that waiting came to an end on August 29th, and was well worth each second. The record finds the power trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Simpson Neill tuned up and in top form for this release; filling out their largely low key lineup with bassist Zach Lober, drummer Mason Ingram and outstanding pedal steel work from Gerald Menke. This gives IB&N even more room to stretch their wings musically, and as a result these nine tracks pop off the speakers with an even deeper and more well-honed significance.

Whether it’s Lober’s bass work giving “5-Foot Chain” an extra drag from a slinky jazz hall cigarette, Menke’s pedal steel shedding unbreakable tears on an unhealthy love gone cold on “Blame It On The Whiskey”, or Ingram’s percussion skillfully leading the band across the triumphant tapestry of  “All The Way Across Texas”, it’s a joy just to listen to every line of the journey that makes these songs whole. Every tire and emotion tread is a chemistry…. an energy… a force that will fill you with nothing more than belief. Belief in sadness, belief in joy, belief in your soul, belief that there is good and bad and that there may be darkness in every light.

There’s a Warren Zevon song called “Desperados Under The Eaves” that says but except in dreams, you’re never really free. Yet when I listen to a song like “Texas”…. I believe I’ve already made it there.

And that’s the magic of a release like Rockwood. While every ounce of Mike Beck’s superb production places you next to the bar lights, the hardwood floors and the intimacy of one small room in one big bustling city, it’s the songs that take you out of it.

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“Buckshot” is bullet-riddled murder balladry at it’s classic country finest, while “One Day at a Time” is a yearning Kris Kristofferson-esque phone call hoping for a shot at redemption. Both tracks are buoyed by the sheer vocal presence of Trisha Ivy, whose versatile croon is somewhere between the beauty of a Skeeter Davis and the snark of a Natalie Maines. And just like those classic voices, Ivy’s power resides in how she can make your heart feel every note of her musical emotion. Whether it’s in the whisper of a wry smile or a voice made heavy by a sobriety of sadness, she paints a palette that holds your hand down every road she’s taken and all the feelings experienced on the way back again.

And the same proves true for Amanda Simpson Neill, who plays the bluesy soul-assassin murmuring regrets and confessions into the darkness of “Whiskey” in one moment, and the girl with her arm out the car window triumphantly blasting Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” in the next on “Texas”. And while Mike Beck may not jump on lead vocals very much, his Johnny Cash-ish saloon ball swagger on closer “Strong Place Brawl” with Ivy and Neill acting as his June Carters may be one of my favorite moments of the whole record.

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But ultimately, whether apart or together on moments like “If You Ever Leave Me” or the insanely infectious “Play Me a Record”, listening to IB&N and Rockwood is just simply about listening to the stories. Listening to the heart. I’ve heard major rock bands play sports arenas who could never pray or dream to have as much soul in the tips of their guitar fretting fingers as this band has altogether.

So listen, and behold. Because this is the essence of Brooklyn country music, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

You can buy Ivy, Beck & Neill’s album Live at Rockwood at their Bandcamp link below:

http://ivybeckandneill.bandcamp.com/

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