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Bentley’s Bandstand: Ray Charles, Magnolia Memoir, Ronnie Earl

Posted By Karen Young On July 26, 2009 @ 10:30 pm In Arts & Culture,Featured,Music | 1 Comment

billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

Ray Charles, A Message From The People, Concord Records

bandray1501972 was pretty rough sledding in America, especially for the have-nots and those needing some help. President Richard Nixon was re-elected, Vietnam was still roaring full-tilt and it seemed like the civil rights movement was an afterthought in much of the nation’s eyes. Leave it to Ray Charles to try and ride to the rescue with A Message From The People. It is said the Genius was swinging for the fences when he went into his Los Angeles studio to record this one. Just from the songs alone on this reissue-”Life Every Voice and Sing,” “Heaven Help Us All,” “Abraham, Martin and John” and seven others-Charles’ big intentions come across loud and clear. The album appears to be the observations of a man as he watches his nation let its people down, and also allows him a few suggestions on how everyone can take a turn toward the good. By the final track, a devastating version of “America the Beautiful,” this music could be taught as an inspirational civic lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Ray Charles’ voice is full of such soul that he can thrill and chill us at will. From a whisper to a scream, using phrasing he invented when he married gospel with rhythm & blues, the Georgia man remains unequaled. When he slams into the phrase, “God done shed his grace on thee,” all you can do is shake your head in wonder and realize there is true greatness in the house, thankful for those musical moments when time stands still. And even with the passage of so many years, so many of these sentiments and situations could come right out of today’s wounded world. Ray Charles may be gone, but the struggle continues on.

Magnolia Memoir, MM Records

magnoliamemoir150How many times do you hear someone from the first moment and know they are going to be around for a long, long time. Mela Lee, lead singer for Magnolia Memoir, comes walking slowly out of a foggy alley with a voice that sounds like she has lived several lifetimes, and is still discovering new ways to thrill us. There will be the inevitable comparisons to Billie Holiday, which are fair enough, but Lee is all her own person, and puts so much feeling into this music that it can be slightly voyeuristic just listening. There is such a hushed quality of deep intimacy in something like “When I Think of You” that you will swear you’reĀ  listening to a time-honored classic. Even next to an alluring version of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” Mela Lee and Magnolia Memoir create an ambience that conjures up greatness. Keyboard player Alexander Burke, who also is the prime composer along with Lee of the originals, keeps the backing sound to a minimum, wisely letting the vocals take the listener into the singer’s world. Marcus Graf’s trumpet is the band’s main lead instrument, and those moments when he steps up front make such a strong statement it seems like we’re following him into another era. Clearly, from the name of the group to their instrumentation and even the songs they write, Magnolia Memoir is out to evoke a specific world. But the way they wisely stay away from nostalgia shows their talent and imagination, and let it be known they it is only a matter of time before they make their mark. Mela Lee: remember that name.

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, Living In The Light, Stony Plain Records

band27This musician can’t make anything but great albums. When he straps on his electric guitar, Ronnie Earl means it. You feel such intense emotions in every note that sometimes it seems like it all might be too much for the man. But he carries on, like he does on Living In The Light, and by the last song, the gorgeous “Pastrolae,” he’s conveyed a world of pain as well as endless happiness. Earl usually swings wildly from one extreme to the other, and whether it’s the joy of “Love Love Love” or the horror of “Child of a Survivor,” there is a world of feeling in everything he touches. It’s uncanny the way he can turn so many different styles into ones that seem tailor-made for him. Bob Dylan’s “What Can I Do for You” becomes evangelical with the addition of a soaring gospel choir, while Kim Wilson’s vocal and harp on Robert Jr. Lockwood’s “Take a Little Walk with Me” goes all the way up a country road out into the woods. Not many bluesmen can take that leap and make it all sound so natural. Consider there’s everything from a South Side instrumental that burns like a five-alarm fire to other Ronnie Earl originals like the R&B sizzler “River Charles Blues,” and all show his growth as a writer into a modern wonder. He first made his name in Roomful of Blues after Duke Robbilard left, and ever since then Earl has inventively explored different settings on his own albums and an endless array of sideman slots. There are only a handful of blues guitarists in his category now, and hardly any that are reaching out so forcefully to find the greatness in their music and the goodness in themselves.

Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins. For more reviews and music news, go to www.sonicboomers.com

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