Monday, March 17, 2014

Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson. Back Around. Heart of Gold Records (2014)

Before she was a member of the Grateful Dead, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux was a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing on sessions with the likes of Elvis Presley and Percy Sledge. Godchaux was prominently featured in the recent documentary on Muscle Shoals, and returned to her roots on her latest band recording, Back Around, which was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ Nutthouse Studios with her touring band (including ace DSO guitarist Jeff Mattson) augmented by a crew of the town’s best players, including the legendary Musche Shoals Horns.  The result is an irresistible blend of San Francisco jam looseness and  tight Alabama soul groove.  The Godchaux-penned opening track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” is a simmering minor key soul ballad with Godcahaux’s sultry vocal augmented by a lush chorus.  The band’s punchy cover of  Steve Cropper’s “Don’t Fight It” is given the full Swamper treatment with some muscular guitar from Jeff Mattson, tasty accents from the Muscle Shoals horns, and a powerful call-and-response vocal. 

The Youngbloods classic “Darkness, Darkness” builds slowly from a muted keyboard and guitar introduction to a powerful instrumental interlude back into the final chorus.  The group’s reinvention of “Crazy Fingers,” one of the Dead’s most challenging ballads, is sung powerfully by Godchaux and features creatively rippling horn and piano textures, a bit of banjo, and a brilliantly understated guitar passage from Mattson.  “19th Nervous Breakdown is rendered as a sprightly shuffle sung as a duet by Mattson and Godchaux over an infectious “Mystery Train” guitar figure. The album closes with is the moody “Stranger Things,” which is built around a terse, stuttering drum  and piano and expands into full blown choruses featuring the horn section, wrapping up with a jazzy flute coda from legendary horn/reed man Jim Horn.  Back Around is a thoroughly entertaining effort that finds Godchaux and company successfully blurring and pushing stylistic borders.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Howard Levy and Chris Siebold, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Monday, January 27, 2014

Harmonica and keyboard virtuoso Howard Levy is perhaps best known for his role in Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and, while he has contributed mightily to that group’s ensemble sound, a show where he is the headliner is the best way to experience his multiple talents. Currently on a low profile tour with acoustic guitarist Chris Siebold, Levy pulled out all of the stops for his Monday night stop at Kuumbwa. Levy opened unaccompanied playing a harmonica medley of Brahms’ Lullaby and Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Starting out with the relatively unadorned melodies of these two timeless pieces, he quickly started conjuring up more and more fanciful variations without doing too much violence to the tempo or melody of either piece. Midway, he switched from the harmonica to acoustic grand piano without missing a beat, something that might be a parlor trick for a less talented musician but simply afforded Levy the opportunity to continue the same musical conversation with a very different melodic arsenal.

Although Siebold basically sat out the opener, he quickly demonstrated his skills both at comping chords on his respohonic guitar and playing melodic leads that compared favorably with Levy’s when called upon to do so.  The rest of the duo’s show was a journey through a variety of styles, including an extravagant, flamenco tinged Levy original, Spanish Serenade,” a romping 12 bar workout on his “Tri-State Boogie,” and another Levy original, “Lips and Fingertips” that called for him to solo simultaneously on harmonica held in his right hand while he played piano filigrees with his left. Other highlights included a sultry rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” that gave Siebold plenty of space to solo and an exquisite balladic arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” For the last number, the duo broke from their otherwise all-instrumental format for Siebold to demonstrate his prowness as a blues shouter on Little Richard’s “Directly From My Heart To You.” 

Both Kuumbwa’s Executive Director Tim Jackson and Levy thought that Levy had played there previously, but neither seemed sure when or in what ensemble.  In any event, this was clearly his first time appearing there as the headliner.  Nonetheless, he and Siebold quickly won over the audience, who rewarded them with a few well deserved standing ovations. Hopefully Levy and Siebold will make Santa Cruz a regular stop in the future.