Bentley’s Bandstand: John Hiatt, Texas Tornados, Lightspeed Champion

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

John Hiatt, The Open Road, New West Records

In the golden realm of modern songwriters, John Hiatt surely sits in the inner sanctum. His work defies the odds, with every album containing gems that can bring us to our knees. Even his misses are worth hearing. That’s how good Hiatt is. The Open Road is a bit sneaky, in that there are no immediate boulders to knock us down, but at the same time each song has a definite weight to it with a boomerang strength, which hits even harder on the return home. And that’s because this man has been to the bottom of the lake and brought to the surface what’s worth saving. It’s a unique mix of hardened optimism and joyous realism that fuels his emotions, and nothing escapes Hiatt’s unflinching eye. We discover truths inside ourselves that we all avoid, but also discover salvation can be just a breath away. There is a gritty goodness to be had for those open to it, and it is in this music. Like John Hiatt once sang, have a little faith in him, and he will show us the open road home.

Texas Tornados, Esta Bueno!, Bismeaux Records

The sound of the Texas Tornados is one built on the rushing blood of Texas musicians who have made a lifetime of supplying Lone Star thrills to the entire world. Sir Douglas Sahm brought the group to life twenty years ago, not by an act of marketing genius but more a dedicated desire to find a new groove and ride it like a bucking bronco. He did just that, gathering longtime sidekick Augie Meyers, accordion king Flaco Jimenez and Tejano singing legend Freddy Fender on a stage in San Francisco in 1989 and, realizing what he had, putting a match to the gas. From the start, the quartet took no prisoners. Their live shows are still legendary, something akin to musical telethons with Sahm as master of ceremonies. Audiences screamed, drank, danced, fought, smoked and generally carried on like the world was ending later that evening and there was no need to hold anything back. This was it. When Sahm died in 1999, it looked like the Texas Tornados went with him. Not so fast. Eldest son Shawn Sahm has brought the band back to life with new recordings, and even got Fender into the fold before his unfortunate death in 2006. And guess what? It’s almost like the band never ended. Jimenez’s blistering accordion still holds the key to the Texas Tornados’ magic, with searing leads blending into backing chords, giving every song an otherworldly beauty, like a vision into another land. The musician really is the guru of the barrio, and there will never be another even close to his gravity-defying power. But Freddy Fender’s voice comes close. There is something overwhelmingly romantic about Latin singers, and Fender helped write the modern book on that sound. Several of his songs on Esta Bueno! are close to being classics, and it is a stroke of real luck he got into the studio so close to his last days. Don’t forget Augie Myers and Shawn Sahm’s own contributions, where each man digs down deep to make sure the Tornados legend keeps shining brightly. At the very end, Doug Sahm–as usual–gets the last word. A demo from the mid-’90s, “Girl Going Nowhere,” was found in the vaults and the band stepped forward in style, finishing the track so the man who brought this whole thing into existence is able to reappear for an emotional curtain call. Tears are allowed, and surely the ultimate Texas musician is proudly smiling somewhere, knowing his Texas brothers will never let him down. May the circle be unbroken.

Lightspeed Champion, Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You, Domino Records

Question one: What do you do if your name is Devonte Hynes? If you’re a savvy musician, you change it to Lightspeed Champion. Question two: What do you do if your band is named Test Icicles? Bail out and start a solo career. That’s the case here, and on his sophomore album, Mr. Champion has found his inner mojo, and boy has he got it working. It’s a Mixmaster blend of rock, soul, orchestral, folk and several unidentifiable strains that make Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You an indulgent delight. There is no telling how many people this potpourri, might capture, but isn’t that beside the point? Musically, every song—including the minimalist instrumental interludes—holds surprises for even the most hardened ears. Divided into four sides, originals like “There’s Nothing Underwater,” “I Don’t Want to Wake Up Alone” and “Sweetheart” show a master creator is behind this music. One of Lightspeed Champion’s inspirations, Del Shannon, was also someone who packed a secret weapon inside his pop confections. Try listening to “Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry” now knowing what we know without getting scared. There is such an undercurrent of dark finality in Champion’s songs he feels like an old soul, though the cover image is of a younger man, looking slightly lost at the end of a long road to nowhere. This is a sound that is meant to puzzle us, leaving no doubt the man at the helm and his band Spacecamp are kings of their own destiny. In the ‘70s, this album would have been hailed as a masterpiece and the world would look like Lightspeed Champion’s oyster. Today, it will probably be a minor miracle if it gets heard at all, which would be a real shame, because he’s practically a party of one when it comes to going this far out on a musical limb and still not getting kicked out of the forest. Bless him.

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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