Bentley’s Bandstand: Susan Marshall, David Byrne, Powell St. John

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

Susan MarshallLittle Red, Madjack Records

bent824There is an air of seductive danger running all through this album. It makes itself felt on the very first song, “Going to Town,” written by Greg Dulli, a man not known for timid choices. Susan Marshall’s voice is way beyond striking. She demands attention, much like Janis Joplin did, promising pleasures not on the normal menu. Marshall sounds like she is no stranger to the wild side of life, but also is nobody’s fool. The way the musicians capture the ethereal groove of Memphis is something mere words have never been able to convey. It is the sound of a still humid summer night with the crickets calling the shots, or a cold wet winter morning when the heaters won’t work and only full-on human contact will warm the body. This is what Marshall’s voice is able to instill, almost by magic, and it is no small wonder. Such incredulities are all over Little Red, like the heart-busting duet with Lucinda Williams on the Beatles’ “Don’t Bring Me Down,” or singing alongside Memphis guitar titan Teenie Hodges of Al Green fame on “Oh My Soul,” not to mention the coolest cover song of the year. That would be a blood-warming rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” complete with a way hip sonic nod to the unforgetable bass lines that open Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Dulli’s perfect backing vocal presence. It’s not easy to upstage Nico, but Susan Marshall gives it a serious shot. The last song, “Back to You,” travels a straight line out to the Hi Records studio on South Lauderdale Avenue, where the shag carpet nailed to the wall has heard earthly pleasures beyond what most humans ever experience, and still point the way forward for where our souls will hopefully continue to carry us all, caught in the rapture of musical inspiration that comes from just beyond where our eyes can see.

Various Artists, Twenty First Century Twenty First Year; Luaka Bop Records

bentluakaRecord label samplers really tell the tale. If they’re compiled fairly, it becomes immediately clear which companies have got the goods and which don’t. Without a single doubt, Luaka Bop has got the goods. Created twenty-one years ago by David Byrne, the endeavor always seemed like a labor of true love. Byrne is one of the more esoteric excavators alive, and fortunately his travel budget allows him to circle the globe to come up with tomorrow’s delights today. From the very start at Luaka Bop, he and partner Yale Evelev became like a highwire act in how they continually supplied sonic delights for musical adventurers. South America was an obvious early fertile ground for their discoveries, but they didn’t stop there. This 15-track compilation is perfection, beginning with Jorge Ben and ending with Os Mutantes. Some songs might be familiar; others will be from way out in left field,just as it should be. But all are absolutely awesome. Shuggie Otis’ “Aht Uh Mi Hed” takes Timmy Thomas’ addictive organ riff from “Why Can’t We Live Together” to the moon, followed by Byrne’s own trippy “Fuzzy Freaky” and Marcio Local’s spacey salsa soul stylings. Then there’s one of the album’s total revelations, Moussa Doumbia’s “Keleya,” which puts James Brown’s funkiest maneuvers in reverse, stripping them down to a primal core. And that’s just the album’s start. Los Amigos Invisibles, Susana Baca, Zap Mama, Tom Ze, Geggy Tah and others all prove what many have known all along: that if passionate people run record labels, great music will be released. There really isn’t any advanced rocketry involved, but rather bravery that the bottom line sometimes must be ignored in the interest of sharing soul-saving sounds. They don’t get any braver than this bunch, and Twenty First Century Twenty First Year is like taking a global vacation without ever leaving home, without flight delays or strip searches. What a world.

Powell St. John, On My Way To Houston, Tompkins Square Records

bent820powellVery few names in rock carried the early mystery of Powell St. John. Several of his songs were recorded on the 1966 debut album by Austin’s psychedelic pioneers 13th Floor Elevators, but they were credited to John St. Powell. When his “Slide Machine” appeared on the group’s second release, at least his correct name was used. But by then the Elevators were getting ready to tear apart at the seams, and their brief run in the sun was over. St. John soon surfaced in Mother Earth, sharing lead vocal duties with Tracy Nelson and keeping the Texas flag flying high in the San Francisco rock firmament. Flash forward 40 years and the Berkeley-based singer-songwriter is back now with a second solo album that lets him play away at the boundaries of rock & roll like he’s always done, weaving in intriguing folk influences and the hallucinatory imagery of an early celestial traveler. Don’t forget, this is the man who formed the Waller Creek Boys in 1962 with Janis Joplin. Today, St. John’s voice is as strong as ever, emotional and effervescent, backed to the hilt when necessary by a dusty harmonica sound straight out of his Laredo hometown. He takes the rootsy influences at the heart of early country music and plugs in without obscuring where it comes from. Backed by Roky Erickson’s one-time band the Aliens, what the melting pot guru Powell St. John has created is a credit to his long history, and shows the strength of vision the man has always possessed. Erickson even contributes a new song, “Hardest Working Man” to the festivities, and along with John Clay’s “Ballad of Travis Rivers,” it joins nine St. John originals to prove age ain’t nothing but a number and it’s never too late for a sweet surprise. There is a timelessness to On My Way To Houston that shows like all good trips, the joy is in the journey and not the getting there.

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

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