Bentley’s Bandstand: Roy Hargrove, The Bottle Rockets, Hill Country Revue

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

Roy Hargrove Big BandEmergence, Emarcy Records

bentley831emergence150Talk about a labor of love. Roy Hargrove has wanted to make a big band album since first arriving in New York from Texas in the late 1980s. It took him twenty years, and in that time he established himself as one of the great modern day jazz trumpet players, someone who has a relentless drive to explore new territory. Whether it was his straight-ahead quintet, the Afro-Cuban band Cristol or the funkified RH Factor, which included guest appearances by Erykah Badu, Common and D’Angelo, he is a musician who will not sit still. For Emergence, Hargrove has pulled out all the stops. 19-pieces strong, the band is a study in musical inspiration. They come out of the big band school of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson and Gerald Wilson, and use their large sound to pour emotional fire on inspired originals and stirring standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “September in the Rain” alike. Hargrove’s trumpet and flugelhorn naturally take the lead, but the other soloists are equally adept at demonstrating how jazz will always be unequaled when it comes to opening the doors to creativity. When a saxophone section is wailing in front of the rhythm section, or a trombonist is burning on a long solo, it feels like no finer music will ever be made. Vocalist Roberta Gambarini is featured on “La Puerta” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” which includes one of the great lyrics of all time: “There is no love song finer/But how strange the change from major to minor/Everytime we say goodbye…” Go Cole Porter. And Roy Hargrove too for chasing and catching his big band dream.

Hill Country RevueMake A Move, Razor and Tie Records

BEntely831Hill150North Mississippi is it’s own country, located in a time warp between the Delta below and the bright lights of Memphis above. Time moves slow, and sometimes not at all, in places like Holly Springs and Taylor, but the things that happen there often defy the imagination. From the simplest comes entire cultures, and a good case could be argued that one—rock & roll—gathered a big part of its power from those kudzu-choked forests and snake-ridden rivers. After all, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, and it doesn’t get more impactful than that. The Dickinson clan spent a lot of years around Hernando and Coldwater, and though brothers Cody and Luther made their name in the North Mississippi AllStars, that is by no means their only interest. Not by a long shot. Drummer Cody Dickinson’s other group, Hill County Revue, allows him plenty of room to stretch out on guitar, piano, electric washboard and vocals, and he brought along NMAS bassist Chris Chew just to make sure the bottom is well-maintained. It is. Guitarist Kris Smithhart is a monster, unleashing the Southern snarl so prevalent in backroads rock & roll the past 50 years. He whips up a hurricane of sound, and it’s impossible to even begin to describe the inspirations he invokes except to say someday his name will likely be spoken in hushed tones. The band’s songs veer all over, like a tornado looking for a place to touch down, and when they’re joined by players like brother Luther Dickinson, who also grooves in the Black Crowes, and guitarists Duwayne and Garry Burnside, it sounds like something momentous is being born right before our ears. This is music that will not behave, nor should it. “Dirty Shirt,” “Let Me Love You,” “Georgia Women” and “Ramblin’” capture the devil-may -care spirit that spills out of dark roadhouses and small schoolrooms all over the state, and if there are any questions left lingering, the last song, “Growing Up in Mississippi” should answer them all. Cody Dickinson has proudly planted a new flag, and while his father has only recently left us, it’s a good bet he has the biggest smile around right about now. He taught his sons well.

The Bottle RocketsLean Forward, Bloodshot Records

bentley831When you’re searching for America in its rock & roll, it’s smart to go to the middle of the country, far away from the coasts, and find a band that works every night and stays out of the limelight except for almost accidental forays into the prying eyes of the media. What you would likely find there, if you got lucky and used your brain, would be the Bottle Rockets. They’re a mainstay of the Americana crowd, sure, but in a lot of ways their music goes beyond that into a lot of other different bags. Their sharp-edged sound sweeps from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Band, with stops in between for Creedence, the Rolling Stones, the Replacements and several other titans. That’s about as big a compliment as can be given in 2009, and this band has earned every inch of it. Luckily, Lean Forward is the best album they’ve ever made. That might be because what is happening to this country right now hits hardest where the band calls home: the shrinking working class that’s drowning on dry land. From the hopeful velocity of “The Long Way” to the despair of losing a young neighbor in “Kid Next Door” to the down home beauty of “Get on the Bus,” the Bottle Rockets have a first-hand view of what their friends and neighbors are getting hit with every day, and have turned those realities into a small masterpiece of compassion on these dozen songs. Of course, there’s also plenty of hope to be spread around, and the way the band balances the up and the down shows they’ve got poetry in their souls along with a Midwestern pragmatism that will likely get them through anything. Producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who worked with the band on previous gems, has a way of perfectly capturing their strengths, blending razor-sharp lead lines into a bottom sound that’s built like a tractor. The Bottle Rockets are a beloved bunch and have earned our devotion, and now it’s time do the right thing and pay it forward for them.

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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