Bentley’s Bandstand: Townes Van Zandt, Tito Puente, Marshall Crenshaw

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

Various Artists, Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt, TVZ Records

poetIf you already know the music of Townes Van Zandt, there is no need to say he’s one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our lifetime. He is all the way up there, and the reason you don’t have to doubt that are because all the other giants, the ones who are household names, are the first to say it. And if you know the man’s work, you probably also know his abbreviated life was a series of tumultuous train wrecks ending in his death in 1997 at age 53. But Van Zandt left behind a barrel full of songs that stand the test of time and any other measurement that can be applied, like “Pancho & Lefty,” “Tower Song,” “Waitin’ Around to Die,” “My Proud Mountains” and dozens of others. And though the end result of most tribute albums is to leave the listener longing to hear the originals, Poet brings the power of Townes Van Zandt alive, with a fairly staggering mix of those in love with his music. Guy Clark’s “To Live is to Fly” is the crowning track, as it should be considering the two Texans were soul brothers for 45 years. The Flatlanders’ “Blue Wind Blew” mixes West Texas mystery with down home beauty, wrapped in the voices of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. John Prine’s “Loretta” is stunning, as expected, while Billy Joe Shaver’s “White Freightliner Blues” is as chilling a look at the end of the line as it gets. Other outstanding contributors, including Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams, sound like they’re appearing at the wake of a bosom buddy, determined to do their pal proud. Just to make sure there is one true surprise, son John T. Van Zandt sings a stunning “My Proud Mountains” that puts his father right in front of us. This album, originally released on September 11, 2001, disappeared for several years. Now that it’s back, like Townes Van Zandt himself, it feels like it’ll never go away.

Tito Puente, Dance Mania, RCA Legacy

imagesWhen it comes to Latin music, especially that played in the U.S. during the 1950s, few ruled the roost like Tito Puente. Born in Harlem of Puerto Rican descent, he built an orchestra that could not be stopped. Puente’s timbales were a study in ecstasy. He played them with an emotional energy few others could get close to, and was the kind of bandleader who took his band’s sound personally. The horn section was a study in precision but never at the expense of passion, with multiple trumpets and saxophones spurring on the rhythmic power of a large percussion section. Bongos and conga drums joined Puente’s timbales to take the sound over the top. Lead vocalist Santos Colon was a vibrant vocalist who never held back, pushing the orchestra to ever-higher heights. “El Cayuco,” “Llego Mijan” and “Estoy Siempre Junto a Ti” are some of the finest Latin songs ever captured on tape, and over 50 years later their greatness keeps growing. This two-CD set joins together a pair of the best-selling Latin music albums of the ’50s for a deluxe journey. The discs capture a perfect storm of this musical style: the orchestra is ablaze, the compositions and arrangements are among the finest ever written and the magical x-factor is all over the music. It is simply impossible to resist. There is plenty of jazz’s incredible influence on Dance Mania, as you can almost feel the country coming back to exciting life during that supposedly buttoned-down decade. Everything is swinging to the nth degree, and whether it’s the vocalists lighting the fuse, the horns players blasting away or, of course, the timbales leading the attack, this is a high-water mark in modern music. To have it available in one handy collection is a treasure. The only thing missing is a sticker on the cover: “Just add volume.”

Marshall Crenshaw, Jaggedland, 429 Records

images-1You have to love this strong a comeback, because they really don’t come often enough. In the early ’80s, Marshall Crenshaw made an immediate mark as a singer-songwriter of exceptional talent. He had a way of synthesizing several elements of past masters into a new style; he was never retro but still always informed by the past. Crenshaw took over New York like a man afire, and his early hit “Someday, Someway” stands as a sonic monument to the time. For a few years it really looked like he was going all the way. And he almost did, but like most popular music sensations, it didn’t last forever. The albums kept coming until about six years ago when they stopped. Maybe it took Crenshaw that long to come up with a collection of his strongest songs, or maybe he just lost the drive. Either way doesn’t matter, because Jaggedland is as good as anything he’s ever done. There is a freshness of spirit to all these songs, like the artist is just starting out instead of being 30 years into a career. Crenshaw’s voice is soulfully right on, and his guitars are as sharp and stinging as they ever were. With a band that includes drummer Jim Keltner, steel guitarist Greg Leisz and vibes player Emil Richards (!), there is no way for the music to miss. Special mention: Crenshaw and Kelly Ryan’s “Passing Through.” If ever a song captured the fleeting nature of time, this is it: “This world is moving and changing always/We’d better be about new days/For as long as we may/We’re just passing through/Just passing through this way.” The tenderness in Marshall Crenshaw’s voice lets you know this is someone who understands where he’s been, and where he still may go. He also knows to appreciate the difference.

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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