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Elvin Bishop's 'Raisin' Hell Revue' coming on Delta Groove on May 17

Elvin Bishop’s musical biography is no secret to anyone who has followed blues or rock over the past 40 years. Taken under wing by legendary bluesman Little Smokey Smothers in the ’60s, Bishop found a wide audience as guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and in the ’70s scored a Top-10 radio hit with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Along the way, he’s carved out a niche all his own, playing an appealing mix of rootsy rock ’n’ roll, R&B and barroom boogie, steeped in the heavy blues he learned from Little Smokey all those years ago.

So when a bunch of close friends who also happen to be consummate musicians are sequestered together, as they were at sea on the 2010 Legendary Blues Cruise, what else were they to do but unite forces to create some truly exemplary music? Thankfully the tapes were rolling, and the musical experience was saved for posterity. Delta Groove Music will release the resultant Raisin’ Hell Revue live album on May 17, 2011. And with the good vibes of a ship full of fellow music lovers to buoy the band, you can really hear that everyone was having a great time.

Over the course of their featured performance, Bishop shares the vocal mike with four hard-hitting pros: blues veteran Finis Tasby (Lowell Fulson, Freddie King, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill), fast-rising harmonica man John Németh (Anson Funderburgh, Junior Watson), Norwegian blues guitar star Chris (Kid) Anderson (Charlie Musselwhite’s band), and Bishop’s long-time band-mate and Bay Area legend, saxophonist Terry Hanck. They work their way through a strutting, soulful set of blues and R&B with the powerful grace of a veteran working outfit, perfectly highlighting the strengths of everyone involved. And it really is a “revue” in the classic sense of the term — various band members representing a wide array of styles move in and out of the spotlight, all presided over by the good-humored and congenial master of ceremonies Elvin Bishop. We’re treated to swinging up-tempo R&B, lowdown blues, rootsy rock ’n’ roll, and a touch of gospel; even a fantastic reworking of Bishop’s smash hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” is included featuring the wonderfully gifted and dynamic vocalist John Németh.

Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Elvin Bishop didn’t have much exposure to live music as a youngster. But his family had a radio, and in between the pop schmaltz and the C&W that ruled the airwaves in the 1950s, that radio could sometimes catch the legendary R&B programming beamed throughout the southern part of the U.S. at night by Nashville radio station WLAC. That station introduced Bishop to the classic records of Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and once his ears had been hooked, there was no turning back for young Elvin. He soon got his first guitar and on his own began scratching out the basic outlines of the blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll that had captured his imagination.

By the time he was preparing to go to college in the late ’50s, Bishop had earned a National Merit Scholarship, allowing him to go to almost any school he chose — and there was only one choice on Elvin’s mind, the prestigious University of Chicago, which just happened to be located on Chicago’s South Side, ground zero for much of the urban blues Elvin had been studying only from a distance. He arrived in Chicago in 1959, and before long crossed paths with a kindred spirit in Paul Butterfield.  Together, they explored the ghetto blues clubs in the black neighborhoods surrounding the university campus at a time when blues giants like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf could be found playing in neighborhood joints on a weeknight. Elvin soaked it all up, gaining impromptu lessons and invaluable stage time in front of discerning audiences, and forging a fluid yet powerful guitar style of his own.

By 1963, Bishop and Butterfield were ready to graduate — not necessarily from the university, but certainly from their apprenticeship under Chicago’s blues elders.  Recruiting Howlin’ Wolf’s former rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was born. In 1965, after adding Mike Bloomfield and Mark Naftalin to the lineup, their revolutionary debut LP was released, kicking open the door for virtually all the young white blues bands that followed.

Bishop remained in the fold for three albums with the Butterfield band, including their innovative East-West release (on which Bishop and Bloomfield’s intertwining guitars helped set the stage for the Allman Brothers Band among many others who followed), before venturing out on his own. Elvin released four well-received albums on Epic Records in the early ’70s before joining Capricorn Records for a couple of LPs and experiencing his biggest pop success, the national hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” from his 1976 album Struttin’ My Stuff.

As popular musical trends evolved, the recording projects tapered off, but road work kept Elvin busy through the ’80s, and by the time he hooked up with Alligator Records in 1988, he was returning to his bluesy roots. And that fertile territory has been his focus ever since.

Delta Groove Productions president Randy Chortkoff has been a fan and follower of Elvin’s music through all the many phases of his career, beginning with Butterfield in the mid ’60s, so when the opportunity arose to bring Elvin into the Delta Groove fold, Chortkoff jumped at the opportunity. The result was Elvin’s Grammy-nominated 2008 CD The Blues Rolls On, a project supported by an all-star cast of blues royalty, among them B.B. King, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Tommy Castro, John Németh and Angela Strehli.

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that “ . . .he’s as lively and sharp-witted as ever. No purist, he bends a variety of styles to his irrepressible personality.”

And now, with the new Delta Groove release Raisin’ Hell Revue, Bishop and crew invoke deep blues while at sail on the deep blue sea.

THE BAND OF HEATHENS at Austin City Limits

The guys in the Band of Heathens are fond of saying they became a unit by accident. But that’s like saying the Big Bang was an accident. Unplanned, maybe, but hardly random. One might even argue that a kind of destiny was involved. The merger of singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks, with bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman, from their respective solo careers and bands may not be akin to a cosmic explosion, but their current album, One Foot in the Ether, offers irrefutable evidence that they were meant to be together — and have evolved into a solid entity worthy of the comparisons they receive to the Black Crowes, The Band and Little Feat.

One Foot in the Ether, released in September 2009, is the Band of Heathens’ strongest work so far. That’s saying something, considering their last three releases (two live and one studio) brought the band out from relative obscurity to playing 250-plus shows a year for their rabid fan base, as well as a coveted taping for the 35th Anniversary season of the Austin City Limits television program. Both their last album and One Foot in the Ether reached No. 1 on the Americana Music Association Radio chart. The last (eponymous) album earned the band an Americana Music Association Honors & Awards nomination for 2009 New Emerging Artist of the Year, with One Foot in the Ether clinching a 2010 Americana nomination for Best Duo or Group. The group took Best New Band honors at the 2007 Austin Music Awards, shortly after their current lineup came into place as the band morphed from a side-project to a cohesive tight unit. And the band significantly expanded its reach with recent appearances at Lollapalooza, Wakarusa and the Austin City Limits festival.

One listen to One Foot in the Ether makes apparent that the Heathens’ three-front-man approach to writing and performing over the past three years has paid off in the studio. Aside from the confidence necessary to pull off releasing two live albums before releasing a studio album, it’s evident that their unorthodox career strategy suits them well.

“The band doesn’t like to do things safely,” Quist explains about their aversion to using set lists, planned programming, or, for that matter, a planned career path. “Random and Chance might actually be named as extra band members in the liner notes somewhere.”

One Foot in the Ether was unplanned. The Heathens started booking short bursts of studio time in Austin while they were in town, with no producer and no expectations. They would just set up live in one room and push “record.” They weren’t intending to make a full-length album, but the muses felt otherwise.  As more and more songs started coming together, the band would layer other textures over the live performances to add depth to the sound. The guys say they were going for a specific sound, but letting things be loose and spontaneous was essential to capturing the group’s essence. As they went deeper into the sessions, the project went from the originally planned (or unplanned) three or four songs to 16 completed songs. “It became apparent that we had a full-length album on our hands and we started honing things down to make a cohesive album,” said Jurdi.

Not given to overly detailed explanations, the Band of Heathens loosely define the sound they’ve achieved on One Foot in the Ether simply as rock ’n’ roll. While the last Heathens album may have been slightly more acoustic and swampier, this album is heavier, both thematically and sonically. It’s muscular with electric guitars, Hammond organs, vintage electric pianos and pill-bottle slides, all fine ingredients for rock ’n’ roll in its purest form.

And rock ’n’ roll is all over this album, in tracks like the Gram-Parsons-meets-Neil-Young stomp “L.A. County Blues” (which pays tribute to the great writer Hunter S. Thompson), the New Orleans/Motown-influenced “Say,” and the Saturday-night gospel-meetin’ showstopper “Shine a Light.” Then there’s the back-alley sounds of “Golden Calf,” which, with a nod to Tom Waits, addresses the darker side of humanity; the hot-off-the-floor funk of “You’re Gonna Miss Me”; and four-on-the-floor six-minute-plus jam “Somebody Tell the Truth.” The hypnotic-sounding closing hymn, “Hey Rider,” is “a call for peace, within and without,” according to Brooks. The album contains one cover, the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune “Look at Miss Ohio.”  The record echoes the greats from Dylan to Waits and Townes Van Zandt to Otis Redding, but the band is drawing from the wellspring that is American music to forge something present and immediate and new.

With a five-album record deal offer from one of the major-independent record labels on the table, the Band of Heathens opted to remain indie, releasing One Foot in the Ether on their own BOH Records, just as they released their last self-titled studio album. Brooks explains, “In the current ‘climate change’ of the music business, nobody knows how it is going to work so we are not averse to trying things our own way and experimenting.”

The press has appreciated the Heathens’ approach. Maverick called One Foot in the Ether a “quality album from a quality group.” Blurt said: “An album that echoes their down-home resolve, One Foot in the Ether finds them putting their best foot forward.” The jam band ’zine Honest Tune declared: “One Foot in the Ether is an ever-evolving masterwork that gets better with every replay.” And according to hometown Austin Chronicle, “One Foot in the Ether is sure to reinforce the band's place in the Austin music scene . . . ready-made for sitting on the back porch with a cold beer, a rock ’n’ soul affair evocative of Little Feat, The Band and The Black Crowes.”

Notes Brooks, “We have three distinct writers/singers who share the front but make a unified sound, not unlike some bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the music was what drove the wheel, not the tabloid pop-star personality with a great rack. Don’t get me wrong: everybody loves boobs,” he adds, exhibiting a bit of the band’s characteristic deadpan humor. “The problem is, you can fake tits, but you can’t fake soul.”

No, you can’t fake soul. You just know it when you hear it.

Check out the Band of Heathens at Austin City Limits on October 8th @ 4:45 PM