Bentley’s Bandstand: Skip Heller, Miranda Lambert, Fats Domino

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BY BILL BENTLEY

skip_hellerSkip Heller, The Long Way Home, SHR
There are musicians who are often seen as the utility players, the ones others turn to when they need the kind of support that cannot miss. Whether they’re guitarists who always pull out the right rhythms and runs, or drummers who find the beat even when it feels missing in action. Or maybe they’re those bassists who can easily locate the bottom when so many others are lost in the woods. No matter. These are the players who come through. Skip Heller possesses magic fingers on the guitar. He was likely born with them, because it is almost impossible to learn how to sound this good. When you hear Heller perform, it feels like the sky has turned its most luminous blue and all the big white clouds are dancing in unison. There just aren’t many people this soulful. The Long Way Home is the album he’s always been destined to make. Heller’s vocals are the equal of his playing, but in so many it’s the songwriting that shines the brightest of all. In a period when roots music seems to have run a bit ragged, too often repeating itself or failing to shoot for the sky, Skip Heller doesn’t let himself off the hook. Songs like “I Used to Love California,” “Falling for You” and “When I Come to Pledge My Heart” are new classics, no matter if the world ever finds out or not. Everything comes together in a warm glow, with plenty of fire and an always appealing undertow. Skip Heller produced this album with a big assist from Southern California’s studio wizard Mark Linett, and in the spirit of the holiday season you owe it to yourself to find a copy and live with it awhile. There are things to be learned and thrills to be heard all over it, and when you’re through you’ll know exactly where the heart is: at home where it belongs.

Miranda Lambert, Revolution, Columbia Records
miranda_lambertFinally, the Nashville cats are rebounding from the moribund cloud that has hung over that town the past few years. There was such a sense of desperate marketing that latched onto some of the city’s best singers that by the time we got to discover them they’d been spit-shined even if it was with old tractor grease, and their music polished to perfection, kind of like distressed furniture gone amok in a recording studio. No, those nicks and burn marks aren’t real, but don’t they make it look so, well, authentic?  Miranda Lambert is the great hope these days to put the danger back into country music, and Lord knows she is likely a handful-and-a-half. But does she have to make sure and show us the tattoo adorning her forearm on the front and the back cover of Revolution? Why not let the music do the talking? Missed marketing opportunity? Heaven forbid. But once you get past how revolutionary her record label is trying to make Lambert, she really is the best singer to escape Music Row in a long, long time. She can go from a flat-out rocker to a hushed ballad without even breaking a sweat, because she’s got that thing inside her which pushes her to go all the way. You can hear it on practically every word she sings. It would be wonderful to discover her doing a song without all the gizzed-up guitars and crashing cymbals, but the chances of that right now are practically nil. No way anyone around this artist is going to stretch the boundaries a bit. It’s better just to enjoy the action while we can, and hope one of the dozen stylists hanging around her photo shoots doesn’t accidentally catch Miranda Lambert’s hair on fire. But then again, think of the publicity possibilities. Tammy Wynette, please phone home.

fats_dominoFats Domino, Fats Is Back, Collector’s Choice Music
Fats Domino is one of the four walls that hold up the rock & roll building. He took the easeful and sometimes antic lope of New Orleans rhythm & blues and spread a smile all over its face, turning frowns upside down and making life a permanent parade. Fats Domino found the secret of the eternal beat buried inside his drummer Earl Palmer’s soul, put a rolling piano on top of it and turned the Big Easy’s music loose. During the 1950s, only Elvis Presley had more hits, and by the time the Beatles turned off the faucet for so many American originals the Fat Man had become a musical emperor. But with the British Invasion, the spotlight had been turned in another direction. On Domino’s 1968 debut for Reprise Records, the label enlisted producer Richard Perry to add a little modern juju to the Crescent City king’s sound. The fact that Perry’s most recent projects were with Tiny Tim and Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band must have made sense at the time. Luckily, the producer was a card-carrying fan of early rock & roll, and married a dream team studio band with an LP worth of mostly-rocking songs. Never mind that Domino didn’t feel comfortable playing piano on them, so certified eccentric James Booker was imported to lay waste to the ivories except on a remake of “I’m Ready.” Fats Is Back still feels like one of the great comeback recordings ever, even if Domino did not come back. In reality, he had nothing to come back from, because he never went away; he had always possessed unbridled passion of a man who knew who he was and found great comfort in that. When you hear his voice, immediately the body warms and a full measure of joy invades the spirit. It’s an involuntary reflex, except for the walking dead, and not even hurricanes or the Vegas casinos could stop it. These songs, from the Beatles “Lovely Rita” and “Lady Madonna” to Barbara George’s “I Know,” will not be denied, and despite a ringer like “”Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better” (say what?) they receive enough infusion of Ninth Ward woo-woo to raise some serious sand. Antoine Domino is still carrying the flame for the music that solves all problems and lets us see, if only for minute, that mansion on the hill.

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

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.