rockford illinois entertainment guide
Date: 02/21/2003
The Front Burner 2002
by Rob Clark
Every January for the past five or six years I have compiled a list of favorite recordings for the previous year, created an accompanying "sampler" mix CD, and foisted the whole package upon unsuspecting friends. The intention is not for it to be a "best of" list because I don't think that I am qualified to determine what music is better than the rest. I do know what appeals to me, though, and that is what drives these "Front Burner" lists and mixes. So what you have before you is yet another collection of the music we listened to the most around our place during the last year. It's far from all-encompassing because it probably represents about one tenth of the music we brought into the house during 2002. Still, in terms of focusing on our most-listened-to favorites, it does a pretty good job.

Chris Whitley - Long Way Around: An Anthology 1991-2001
(Columbia Legacy © 2002 compilation)
It was a big year for Chris Whitley around our place. Early in the year, I found Chris's relatively obscure second album from 1995, wherein he turns up the volume and grinds out some almost Hendrix-like guitar acrobatics at times, and I played the daylights out of it. I also found myself playing much more of his other work, particularly his 1991 debut, Living With the Law, and Live at Martyrs (in Chicago) from 1999. Then, late in the year, this compilation was released. When I heard about it I didn't think I would be interested until I discovered that it contained several demos and alternative versions of songs that I had not yet heard. It's actually an excellent anthology of his work to date, overseen by Whitley himself.

Uncle Tupelo - 89/93 An Anthology
(Columbia Legacy © 2002 compilation)
Is it fair to begin a Front Burner compilation with two anthologies? From the same fat cat record company, no less? Who cares! This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection as well as the source for my very first review on For those who may not know, Uncle Tupelo's driving force was the singing and songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. They released four very cool alt-country albums from 1990 to 1993. Farrar left their ranks in 1994 for a solo career and Tweedy gathered the rest of the band and called it Wilco. They have both gone on to create some fine music since, but in my book nothing can beat the combined energy that made Uncle Tupelo such a great band.

Be Good Tanyas - Blue Horse
(Nettwerk © 2000)
A friend turned me on to this one. Thankfully, sharing my mixes with her prompted her to share hers with me and one of them included a song from Blue Horse. It knocked me out. Then she was kind enough to lend me her CD and I kept the darn thing for way too long. The band consists of three women who can write well and definitely know their way around a variety of acoustic instruments. Add to their strength that they do not look like supermodels or prostitutes, although that alone will probably keep them from getting the kind of press that they deserve. Reportedly recorded in a wooden shack "studio" on the outskirts of Vancouver, the album sounds very raw and organic - right up my alley. Lead singer Frazey Ford's vocals are powerful, yet have a beguiling Rickie Lee Jones slur happening as well.

John Hartford - Steam Powered Aereo-Takes
(Warner Brothers © 1971, Rounder Select © 2002)
This was a surprise (to me) release of outtakes from the Hartford's 1971 Aereo Plane sessions, which involved such acoustic music greats as Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, and Vassar Clements. Then there's Hartford himself who, while being somewhat of a clown prince of bluegrass, most certainly had talent to spare. Sadly, Hartford passed away last year while touring as part of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? lineup of artists. If you already have Aereo Plane, get this and enjoy all the great stuff that didn't make the final cut. It could have easily been a double album! If you don't already have Aereo Plane, what the heck is wrong with you?

Waterboys - The Fisherman's Blues Sessions, Part 2
(Ensign © 1986, Razor & Tie / BMG © 2001)
The sessions for the greatest Waterboys album ever (a Desert Island Disc of mine) reportedly produced over 100 songs in various stages of completion. Until now, any that didn't make the official release of the album in 1986 have only surfaced on muffled bootleg tapes where the excitement of hidden treasures from that era was squelched by the atrocious the sound quality. For whatever reason, head Waterboy Mike Scott finally saw the light and decided to release a CD of recordings from original master tapes that nearly made the Fisherman's Blues album. The only down side to his plan is that he opted to noodle around with the songs in the studio ever so slightly and then compile them here. While the difference is noticeable to any fan of mid-80s Waterboys material, I would still argue that the title is apt and it is so very nice to hear that Celtic-influenced Waterboys sound again. I was so excited about this release that I traded a guy in the UK for a copy of it when it was released late in 2001 and then bought another copy when it came out in the states with a "bonus disc" in 2002.

Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel
(Island © 2002)
After enjoying his first few albums, I let Elvis Costello slip from my radar and I can offer no good explanation for this. Too much music and too little time I suppose. A few years ago I picked up a best-of compilation including some of his later work and suspected that I may have jumped ship too soon. So I get back on board with his newest album (as well as a couple recent reissues of his older work) and I am amazed that this guy can still write this well after so many years in the business. And how can you fault someone who tosses out no less than two sarcastic attacks on the current trend for navel-baring teen nymphs in the media? Musically and lyrically, Costello still has it, maybe better than ever. One word continually comes to mind when I listen to this record: "potent"
Costello's addendum release called Cruel Smile contains some wonderful "airshots, imposter mixes, studio mysteries, [and] world tour highlights" as well. We just recently picked that one up.

Tanya Donelly - Beautysleep
(4AD © 2002)
Having formerly heard her in both Throwing Muses and Belly, I have always thought that Tanya Donelly has one of the most beautiful voices in rock music. I couldn't resist picking her new solo album up, though, when I heard that much of it was created during her pregnancy and first year of life with her baby. Being relatively new parents ourselves I figured we could relate to that. As it turns out it's not overly thematic in that sense and is really just a fine showcase for her talents as singer, musician, and producer.

Solomon Burke - Don't Give Up On Me
(Fat Possum / Epitaph / Anti- © 2002)
There are very few voices of classic soul music around today. Most have died or found their calling as preachers or teachers, and generally turned their back on the music business. Solomon Burke, also an ordained bishop, licensed mortician, father of 21, and recent inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, still wants his powerful voice heard. We don't mind in the least. The story here is that some of the best songwriters around wrote songs specifically for Burke to interpret, including Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Bob Dylan. That alone is a testimonial to the kind of admiration a man like Burke has earned among veteran artists. Then the big man went into the studio with the organist from his own church and producer Joe Henry to record Don't Give Up On Me, an album that ended up sounding as intense and heartfelt as any great 60s soul record ever did. If you have ever wondered why "they don't make records like that any more" they do and it's right here. One of our most listened-to albums of the past year.

Neko Case - Blacklisted
(Bloodshot © 2002)
Whoo, man! This little lady can belt out a tune. She's been compared to Patsy Cline or early Loretta Lynn, but that only just begins to describe the breadth of her talent. She also writes, plays numerous instruments, produces, and even creates most of the artwork for her albums. Her name kept popping up while following news of the band Calexico (see last year's Front Burner) as well as on numerous best-of lists the previous year. Apparently she was also working on an album of her own with Calexico and Blacklisted is the result. However, after buying this album based almost solely on the Calexico influence, we became big Neko fans and started buying up her earlier work as well. Furnace Room Lullaby and Canadian Amp are both every bit as delicious as Blacklisted, but this one wins inclusion for being the recording that started it all for me.

Brennen Leigh - Lonesome, Wild & Blue
(Barking Dog © 2002)
Somewhat out of the blue, a friend sent us a copy of this CD. He said he was frequenting coffee shops up in Fargo and happened upon this woman. In his note I believe he said something like "I think she's really got something" and we simply couldn't agree more. I wish we could catch one of her shows because I get the impression that she maintains a very special atmosphere at them. Perhaps most surprising in light of her style, both musically and lyrically, and her impeccable taste in cover songs ranging from Hank Williams to Bob Wills to Mississippi Fred McDowell to Greg Brown, is that she put this album together while still a student in high school! Anyway, we pretty much took to this album right away and it quickly became a favorite.

Jorma Kaukonen - Blue Country Heart
(Columbia © 2002)
In order to save a little space I will refer you to for the babbling I have already done about this album. Without an ounce of hesitation I gave it a five-out-of-five rating. It is a true gem of an album featuring renditions of various old time country and blues songs from the 30s and 40s, performed by the former Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane guitarist and his hand-picked band of ace musicians. I haven't been this thrilled with a new acoustic release since Steve Earle surprised us with his absolutely brilliant Train A Comin' in 1995. Blue Country Heart is certainly one of our top albums of the past year. I was lucky enough to catch Jorma and his Hot Tuna pal Jack Casady late in the year at Luther's Blues up in Madison, which only made me that much more fond of his considerable talents.

Guy Clark - The Dark
(Sugar Hill © 2002)
In case you are not already familiar with him let me just say that Guy Clark is a master class songwriter. He and his friend, the late Townes Van Zandt, are mentors of song craft to none other than Steve Earle, which says quite a bit if you are familiar with the first decade or so of Earle's recorded output. Clark writes the kind of story songs that put you smack dab in the middle of them and make you feel exactly what he was feeling when he wrote them. Often they transcend that and become even more personal. The Dark is his latest album and proves that he just keeps getting better with age. I don't get to many concerts these days, but I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to see Clark live when he visited The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago in late November. In my book he is a legend.

"Mississippi" John Hurt - Live
(orig., 1965, Vanguard © 2002 reissue)
I have been a fan of Mississippi John Hurt's laid-back, gentle brand of blues since I was first exposed to it in college. In recent years more and more of his recordings have found a home in our collection in both LP and CD format. Vanguard has done a nice job of reissuing much of his work from the 60s and their latest one is this live set recorded at Oberlin College in April of 1965. It's a wonderful set, with Hurt playing and singing (a truly inseparable combination in his case) in fine style. If you think blues is all about being brash and loud, check this guy out some time.

"Mississippi" Fred McDowell - I Do Not Play No Rock 'n' Roll
(orig., 1969, Fuel 2000 / EMI-Capitol © 2001)
(We seem to have a slight "Mississippi" theme going here…) I remember reading in a music magazine several years ago that McDowell was an influence on artists ranging from The Stones to Bonnie Raitt. Sooner or later I figured that it would be to my benefit to check him out. Fuel 2000 gave me the appropriate nudge when they reissued this wonderful album of his from the late 60s. (The folk boom of the 60s went hand in hand with a resurgence in popularity for many acoustic blues artists who, by that time, were fairly old men.) Besides, with a title like I Do Not Play No Rock 'n' Roll, how could I possibly resist?

Dianogah - Millions of Brazilians
(Southern © 2001)
I have been a fan of Chicago "post-rock" pioneers Tortoise for many years. Among the many aspects of their music that I find appealing is the frequent use of the bass as a lead instrument. In fact, Tortoise's bass player has his own side project called Brokeback that to me is every bit as tasty as our Tortoise albums. Dianogah is not a Tortoise side project, although it was recorded and mixed by John McEntire at his Soma studio in Chicago. The major appeal, again, is the use of bass as lead. All instrumental, I'm not sure their music deserves to be called jazz, but it trips all the right triggers for me. I bought this CD at B-Side Records when I was in Madison, and actually have rather fond memories of trekking around State Street and the downtown area while listening to it through ear buds on a portable CD player. It had this kind of strange "soundtrack" feel, accompanying the sights that I encountered that day in almost perfect synchronicity, and I just kept starting the CD over again every time it ended. (It's only about 36 minutes long, unfortunately, and I did quite a bit of walking that day.)

Billie Holiday - Body and Soul
(orig., 1957, Verve © 2002 reissue)
My oh my. Where to begin with Billie? My wife and I are both fans, more of her small group sessions than the big, orchestrated ones. There was this period late in her life where she went into the studio with the likes of Ben Webster and Harry "Sweets" Edison and created pure magic. As far as I am concerned, these late 50s sessions represent Holiday's finest hour. Thankfully, Verve viewed them similarly and decided to reissue Body and Soul and Songs for Distingue Lovers recently. I'm becoming more and more skeptical of the need for the constant barrage of reissues hitting the shelves these days, but Verve could release every single note ever recorded during these sessions and I would probably buy them. Absolutely magical.

Various - Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III
(Capitol © 2002)
I could easily go on for quite a while about this one. To some extent I already did in a review at Check it out some time, especially if you're not that familiar with the project. Here, I'll just say that this third musical gathering of talents with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band under the Circle name measures up respectably to the original released 30 years earlier (one of my Desert Island Discs) and beats the pants off the somewhat weak-kneed Volume II recorded in the late 80s. Allow me to drop a few names of musicians present for these sessions: Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Iris DeMent, Del McCoury & family, Johnny & June Carter Cash, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Vassar Clements, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and even Taj Mahal. This 2CD set may very well be riding the coattails of O Brother, Where Art Thou? popularity but one could easily argue that it's simply the third volume in the series that started the old-is-new-again craze in the first place.

Bob Dylan - Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review
(orig., 1975, Columbia / Legacy © 2002 "official bootleg" issue)
I was born in December of the same year that Bob Dylan released his first album, so I wasn't really aware of who the guy was or what sort of significance he had in the music world until I was an adolescent. In fact, while I remember hearing the odd Dylan sound bite here and there, it wasn't until he released Blood On the Tracks in 1975 that I stood up and took notice. (I was 13 when it came out.) That album and the one that followed, Desire, are to this day my favorite Bob Dylan albums. I have since gone both forward and backward in his career and have come to realize what an incredible musical legacy he has built, but I will always be partial to mid-70s Dylan. So it was no surprise that I snapped up this release as soon as it came out. Prior to this one, the only "official" live recording from that era was the single LP (and now single CD) Hard Rain, which I think I memorized note-for-note while wearing out a homemade cassette version and bouncing a basketball off the roof of my parents' garage. However, while Hard Rain is a somewhat adequate sampling of the highlights from the Rolling Thunder Tour, Live 1975 puts it all into perspective and gives us a much better accounting of the shows as they were. Add to that the generously detailed booklet and bonus DVD disc supplied with this "official bootleg" 2CD set and you've got yourself one mother of a document of the traveling minstrel show that was Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour.

The Honorable Mentions
Six albums that almost made it to our Front Burner in 2002…

Ed Harcourt - Here Be Monsters
(Heavenly / Capitol © 2001)

HEM - Rabbit Songs
(Bar None © 2000)

Van Morrison - Down the Road
(Universal © 2002)

Tom Waits - Alice / Blood Money
(Anti- © 2002)

Paul Westerberg - Stereo / Mono
(Vagrant © 2002)

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
(Nonesuch © 2002)
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