It had been seven years since Ben Harper last played a show with the Innocent Criminals, so when the time came to reunite for a live tour in 2015, the band—percussionist Leon Mobley, bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles, keyboardist Jason Yates, and guitarist Michael Ward—quickly discovered that Harper had more in mind than simply revisiting the group’s prodigious collection of hits. In fact, Harper had been quietly amassing material for a new record, Call It What It Is, and the first recording sessions were scheduled to begin even before the rehearsals for their triumphant four-night sold-out reunion run at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
“I thought we would be more energized and revitalized by thinking outside the box and starting with new material in the studio before we dug into the old stuff,” explains Harper. “It was meant to be a signpost that we’re here to forge new ground musically and personally. Because of that, the older material started to sound brand new too.”
Beginning with his 1994 debut, Welcome To The Cruel World, Harper released a string of eight studio albums over a decade and a half. This extraordinary run, featuring contributions from the Innocent Criminals, established him as a singularly powerful songwriter and performer with range across multiple genres and an unmatched ability to blend the personal and political. The accolades poured in—Rolling Stone hailed his “jewels of unique and exquisitely tender rock & roll,” while Entertainment Weekly praised his “casual profundity,” and Billboard said his music “reminds us of the power and beauty of simplicity.” Massive, international sold-out tours, Top 10 debuts in the US, Gold and Platinum certifications overseas, and a slew of TV appearances cemented Harper and the band’s status as genuine global stars.
“The process of working outside of my comfort zone is really important to my growth,” explains Harper. “The situations I’ve put myself in have pushed me further than I could go in any familiar setting, and that’s what’s brought me back full circle to the Innocent Criminals now. Everybody went out and grew in their own ways during our time apart, and that’s brought this heightened level of appreciation for each other and what we do.”
“Each member brings a wealth of knowledge and different styles of music,” said Nelson. “What makes us unique is that we come from different places musically and we seem to complement each other because of the different styles that we play.”
“Playing with the Innocent Criminals again is like riding a bike,” adds Charles, “but that bike has gotten tons of upgrades and modifications since the last time. There was a feeling I had missed for so long that you can only get from playing together.”
From the opening minutes of Call It What It Is, it’s clear that that feeling has never been more powerful or exhilarating. The album kicks off with “When Sex Was Dirty,” a song that Harper had earmarked for the Innocent Criminals from the moment he wrote it. It’s all classic rock and roll bravado, full of electric guitar swagger, driving percussion, and seductive energy. Harper follows it up by demonstrating that his range is wider than ever with the utterly vulnerable “Deeper and Deeper,” a near-whispered acoustic moment of introspection co-written with Ward, who says that despite the time apart, or perhaps because of it, the band is now “closer than ever as musicians and as human beings.”
It’s on the album’s bluesy title track, though, that Harper cuts to the quick. “There’s good cops and bad cops / White cops and black cops / Got to call it what it is / Murder,” he sings before invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford, and Michael Brown.
For the first time in his career, Harper split the recording of the album into four five-day sessions spread across an entire year, enabling him and the band to come back to the music with a deeper sense of objectivity. “It gave us a chance to live with the songs for a while and let them soak in,” says Mobley, who worked with artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Nas during his time away from the Innocent Criminals. “It gave us a chance to reflect, which was important to our satisfaction and allowed us to make good decisions.”
The new album is Harper’s second release for Stax Records. Perhaps most associated with icons like Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Stax is a seamless fit for Call It What It Is, due to its rich Civil Rights-era legacy and its dedication to spreading soul music in all its most powerful forms. Harper speaks reverently of the label, describing the honor and the privilege of calling it his home, and it’s clear the history holds a special place in his heart as both a fan and an artist.
As serious and solemn as Call It What It Is can get, though, it’s also one of Harper’s most joyous records. “Shine” grooves with blissful passion, while “Pink Balloon” shows off a lyrical mischievousness that surprised even Harper himself. Like so many of the other tracks, it only fully revealed itself over time and through a free-flowing collaboration with those closest to him.
“There’s a natural way we move together and flow through the recording of a song,” explains Yates. “There’s an unspoken dialogue that runs steady through this album like a river. The feelings evoked by these songs are coming from the very depths of our souls. It’s a sacred sharing.”
The result is perhaps the proudest accomplishment of Harper’s prodigious career.
“The time we took with this record has let me look it straight in the eyes and say that I gave everything I could to it and that it’s exactly the way we intended it to be. To be able to say that we’ve left no stone unturned just feels great.”
For the legions of Ben Harper fans that have been waiting eight years for a new album with the Innocent Criminals, it feels even better.
In September 2014, some 50 years after moving to Los Angeles to form the band Rising Sons with fellow blues musician Ry Cooder and Jessie Lee Kincaid, Taj Mahal hightailed it to Nashville to receive an honor he called “one of the most powerful and wonderful things that could ever happen in my life.” Celebrating decades of recording and touring that have nearly singlehandedly reshaped the definition and scope of the blues via the infusion of exotic sounds from the Caribbean, Africa and South Pacific, the two-time Grammy winning singer, songwriter, film composer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist was feted with the Lifetime Achievement for Performance Award at the 13th Annual Americana Honors and Awards.
“I’ve been performing for over 50 years, and to be recognized for the road I’ve traveled means the world to me, says Mahal, who during the show performed “Statesboro Blues” – which he first recorded on his eponymous 1968 debut album – on dobro with a band that included Cooder and Don Was. “I could not have done this without the audience that has been so supportive of me throughout my musical journey. It was a fantastic night and I was thrilled to be there and celebrated among such other outstanding American musical treasures like Jackson Browne and Flaco Jimenez, whose music and talent I am a fan of. It certainly represented a diversity of musical styles and culture. That’s what I’m talking about essay help!”
The night at the legendary Ryman Auditorium capped another extraordinary year for Mahal, which began with a performance at the Gregg Allman Tribute Concert in Atlanta and included playing on the entire Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas album; performing as part of the Bonnaroo Superjam on a bill featuring Derek Trucks with Chaka Khan, Eric Krasno from Soulive, renowned R&B/blues session drummer James Gadson, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and Susan Tedeschi; and playing and recording with Van Morrison in Dublin.
Since the release of 2008’s Maestro, his most recent studio recording which received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Mahal has been busier than ever touring and recording at a whirlwind pace with old friends and fellow musical sojourners. In 2010, after being nominated for Entertainer of the Year by the Blues Foundation, he joined Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night studio band The Roots as a special musical guest on the Rolling Stones classic “Shine a Light.” He also opened in Lake Tahoe for Bob Dylan. One of the highlights of the following year as performing a special opening solo set for Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center; Mahal also performed several songs with his two fellow legends. The concert was recorded and released as a CD and CD/DVD entitled “Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play The Blues – Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center.”
After starting 2012 producing and performing (vocals, guitar and banjo) on Vusi Mahlasela’s live album Say Africa, Mahal joined the critically acclaimed Experience Hendrix tour for a three week run that included performances by everyone from Buddy Guy, Dweezil Zappa and Robby Krieger to Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb’ Mo’ and Living Colour. Energized anew after the Sony Legacy release of two collections celebrating the riches and rarities of his musical legacy – the two disc set The Hidden Treasures of Mahal Mahal 1967-1973, featuring a full live 1970 concert from Royal Albert Hall, and The Complete Columbia Albums Collection box set, featuring all of his LPs from 1968-1976 – the bluesman enjoyed a wildly productive 2013.
That spring found Mahal singing and playing harmonica on “Further Down the Road” from Clapton’s Old Sock album, and performing as a featured guest at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival at MSG (NYC) where over 30 of the world’s greatest guitarists played sidemen to each other over two nights. Mahal jammed with The Allman Brothers Band featuring David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos and in a special unplugged acoustic set with Keb’ Mo’.
That June marked the release of the all-star soundtrack album to “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a supernatural blues n’ roots musical featuring music and lyrics by John Mellencamp, a libretto by author Stephen King and production by T-Bone Burnett. Mahal appeared on “Home Again” with Sheryl Crow, Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, in addition to “Tear This Cabin Down” and “What Kind of Man Am I.” He later performed on “Vicksburg Blues” on actor/recording artist Hugh Laurie’s album Didn’t It Rain and a new rendition of his song “Winding Down” on the Sammy Hagar & Friends recording. He capped the year with “An Evening with Taj Mahal” at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
Mahal’s career has been full of and defined by colorful twists and turns, unexpected whimsical ventures and a commitment to a muse that has long preferred freewheeling innovation to conformity. So there’s always the challenge of finding the right words and phrases to capture just what he’s meant to American music over the past half century. Miles Mellough, who wrote the stark and honest, no holds barred liner notes for The Complete Columbia Albums Collection, captures the complexities perfectly on several posts he penned on his blog Birds with Broken Wings after the box set came out.
“Here’s the thing, plain and simple,” he writes. “Taj Mahal has always been a conundrum; a man who is capable of mirroring many things to many people, and the reason why is because he’s an enigma — an alchemist and a contrarian…Through his music he’s been a dirt farmer, a man of gentry, and a Mississippi riverboat gambler. He’s played the role of the pious country preacher of old South camp meetings to a chain gang prisoner breaking rocks in the hot, midday sun. He’s been a hard-boiled harp player with a gold tooth and process blowing gritty on the South side of Chicago to a West Indies fishing boat captain sipping Banana Daiquiri’s with a St. Kitts woman…Like the blues tree with its many roots, Mahal has become the sum of many parts. But if you were to strip him of the elements that have come to define him publicly, you’d no doubt find that beneath it all he’s really just a simple man with a harp, a steel guitar, and a banjo in his rucksack; a man making music with a whole hell of a lot of heart and soul.”
It is hard to believe that at 38 years old Jonny Lang has already had a successful career for two decades.
Easier to believe when you learn he released his first platinum record at 15—an age when many young people are just beginning to play music. Lie to Me revealed a talent that transcended the crop of blues prodigies floating around in the late Nineties. No flashy re-hasher of classic blues licks, even at that early age Lang was a full-blown artist with a style of his own. Also, setting Lang apart from the wunderkind crowd was a 15-year-old voice that sounded like a weathered soul shouter. Actual life experience was yet to come, and has been subsequently chronicled in a series of five uniformly excellent recordings. “I got married, had kids, and that arc has been recorded on albums along the way,” says Lang. “There is a lot of personal history in there, and also some things that relate to world events.”
What began as a bluesy sound, influenced by electric pioneers like Albert Collins, B. B. King, and Buddy Guy, evolved over those recordings into a modern R&B style closer to Stevie Wonder and contemporary gospel music. Lang’s distinctive, blues-inflected licks appeared on every album, but became one element in a sea of passionately sung and tightly arranged songs.
Signs is not merely a return the artist’s guitar-based beginnings, but an embodiment of an even more elemental sound. Beyond focusing attention on his soloing prowess, it is about recapturing the spirit of the early blues, where the guitar was front and center, fairly leaping out of the speakers. “A lot of my earlier influences have been coming to the surface, like Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf,” he reports. “I have been appreciating how raw and unrefined that stuff is. I had an itch to emulate some of that and I think it shows in the songs. Still, I let the writing be what it was and that was sometimes not necessarily the blues.”
In this simpler spirit, Lang, Drew Ramsey, and Shannon Sanders convened in a Los Angeles studio with some melodic and arranging ideas and proceeded to crank out a dozen basic tracks in a few days. With a bit of overdubbing and further recording in L.A. and Nashville, and some further help from Dwan Hill, Dennis Dodd and Josh Kelley, Signs was done. The record, which features funk, rock, and blues elements, is held together by Lang’s distinctive playing and singing, and the lyrics, which center on themes of embattlement and self-empowerment. “Some of the songs are autobiographical, but not usually in a literal way,” Lang explains. “The main goal is for folks to be able to relate to what I went through. If I can’t make it work using just my personal experience, I use my imagination to fill in blanks.”
Starting off the record with a juke joint stomp, “Make It Move” is the singer’s story about going to the mountain rather than waiting for it to come to you. “There have been times in my life where I thought something would take care of itself, when I should have put some effort forth to help it happen,” says Lang. “Being proactive has been a weak spot for me, and the song is about doing your part to get things moving.”
Fueled by some evil guitar sounds, “Snakes” turns the well-known warning about “snakes in the grass” into a poetic tale of a young man dealing with hubris and temptation. “It is mostly about the mistakes I made through not approaching life with humility, and the things I was susceptible to that distracted me,” says Lang. “You are overconfident, thinking you are ready for whatever the world will throw at you, but have no idea some things are affecting you until much later in life.”
The anthemic “Last Man Standing” started with a hook Drew Ramsey brought to the recording date. “We built the song around that premise,” Lang explains. “When I was coming up with lyrics, it was personal, but I don’t want to analyze it too much. I want it to be whatever it is going to be for the listener. That song could be applied to any situation in which you feel like you are struggling.”
Lang breaks out the slide for the title song, “Signs,” which extends outward from personal stories into the dramatic events of today’s world. “I try to disregard politics as much as I can, but it seems like every day when you wake up there is something else crazy going on—not normal crazy, but more like movie script crazy,” he says.
The rampaging guitars and driving groove of “Bitter End” reflect Lang’s frustration with a seemingly endless cycle of history: “Why tear down a wall to build it up again.” But he brings us back up with the lilting affirmation of “Stronger Together,” and the funky exhortation to step “Into the Light.”
A stunning guitar solo marks the Josh Kelly produced “Bring Me Back Home.”
“Josh and I cut six or seven songs together and had a blast doing it,” Lang says. “I am saving the other ones for who knows what, but I definitely wanted that one to be on this record.”
Since the release of his debut album, Grammy Award winning Jonny Lang has built a reputation as one of the best live performers and guitarists of his generation. The path Lang has been on has brought him the opportunity to support or perform with some of the most respected legends in music. He has shared the stage with everyone from The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Aerosmith and Buddy Guy, who he continues to tour with today.
Fans who discovered Jonny Lang through his searing instrumental work will revel in the huge guitar tones and go for broke solos on Signs, while those who have appreciated his growth as an honest and passionate songwriter will find that honesty and passion unabated. Though he long ago left blues purism behind, Lang has never abandoned its spirit of universal catharsis through the relating of personal trials. Signs reaffirms his commitment to the blues and the guitar without sacrificing the modern approach that has made him such a singular artist.
ROBERT CRAY HAS BEEN BRIDGING THE LINES BETWEEN BLUES, SOUL AND R&B FOR THE PAST FOUR DECADES, WITH FIVE GRAMMY WINS AND OVER 20 ACCLAIMED ALBUMS. FOR HIS LATEST PROJECT, ROBERT CRAY & HI RHYTHM (APRIL 28 / JAY-VEE RECORDS), THE BLUES HALL OF FAMER TRAVELED TO MEMPHIS WITH HIS FRIEND, RENOWNED GRAMMY AWARD WINNING PRODUCER STEVE JORDAN, TO MAKE A CLASSIC SOUL ALBUM WITH HI RHYTHM, THE BAND THAT HELPED CREATE THAT SOUND.
JORDAN AND CRAY MET IN 1987 WHILE WORKING ON THE CONCERT FILM HAIL! HAIL! ROCK AND ROLL, A TRIBUTE TO CHUCK BERRY. STEVE PRODUCED ROBERT’S GRAMMY WINNING TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF IN 1999, AND A NUMBER OF OTHER ALBUMS, INCLUDING THE EXCITING 4 NIGHTS OF 40 YEARS LIVE. HE KNEW OF ROBERT’S DEEP LOVE OF O.V. WRIGHT AND OTHER MEMPHIS SOUL LEGENDS, AND SUGGESTED THEY TAKE UP RESIDENCE AT ROYAL STUDIOS, WHERE WRIGHT, ANN PEEBLES, AL GREEN, SYL JOHNSON, OTIS CLAY AND MANY OTHERS RECORDED WITH THE VENERABLE PRODUCER, SONGWRITER, ARRANGER AND ENGINEER, WILLIE MITCHELL. THE CORE OF MITCHELL’S HI RHYTHM BAND USED ON MANY OF THOSE LANDMARK SESSIONS WAS STILL AROUND, THOUGH MITCHELL HIMSELF HAD PASSED IN 2010.
SET INSIDE AN OLD THEATER, THE FUNKY ROYAL STUDIOS LOOKS MUCH AS IT DID WHEN AL GREEN WAS CUTTING THOSE CLASSICS FOR HI RECORDS. GUITARIST TEENIE HODGES HAS PASSED AWAY, BUT HIS BROTHERS REV. CHARLES HODGES (ORGAN AND PIANO) AND LEROY “FLICK” HODGES (BASS), ALONG WITH COUSIN ARCHIE “HUBBIE” TURNER (KEYBOARDS), WERE STILL THERE. “IT WAS A SOUL, RHYTHM AND BLUES, FANTASY CAMP FOR US. THOSE GUYS HAVE BEEN PLAYING IN THAT ROOM FOR 50 YEARS,” SAYS JORDAN.
ROBERT PENNED “YOU HAD MY HEART” AND “THE WAY WE ARE,” TWO STUNNING LOVE SONGS. MANY TIMELESS SOUL SONGS WERE STATEMENTS IN A TIME OF TURMOIL, AND SO IT IS AGAIN WITH CRAY’S “JUST HOW LOW.” THE ALBUM OPENS WITH A DRIVING, SOULFUL VERSION OF BILL WITHERS’ “THE SAME LOVE THAT MADE ME LAUGH” THAT SOUNDS AS IF IT WAS ORIGINALLY FROM AN OLD HI RHYTHM RECORDING. JAY-VEE RECORDS KNOWS IT’S VERY LUCKY TO HAVE THESE POWERFUL SONGS. WHEN ROBERT CHOSE TWO TONY JOE WHITE SONGS FOR THE ALBUM, WHITE, A BIG FAN OF CRAY, CAME UP FROM NASHVILLE TO SIT IN. FIRST UP IS THE MOVING BALLAD “ASPEN, COLORADO” (THE SISTER SONG OF HIS “RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA”). THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM IS THE SWIRLING PSYCHEDELIA OF “DON’T STEAL MY LOVE.” THE TRIBUTE TO O.V. WRIGHT AND HI RHYTHM IS THE HORN-DRIVEN VERSION OF “YOU MUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.” KNOWN FOR WRITING “MUSTANG SALLY” AND MANY OTHER SONGS, SIR MAC RICE’S “I DON’T CARE” FOLLOWS ON THE ALBUM WITH AN UNFORGETTABLE HOOK, AND RICE’S FUNKY “HONEY BAD” FEATURES MORE GUITAR BRILLIANCE FROM CRAY. MOVING INTO EARLY R&B FROM THE 5 ROYALES, ROBERT PERFORMS “I’M WITH YOU PT. 1” THEN TURNS THE GUITAR LOOSE ON “I’M WITH YOU PT 2.”
“ROBERT IS A GREAT PERSON BESIDES AN EXTRAORDINARY TALENT,” SAYS STEVE. “PEOPLE GRAVITATE TO HIS GUITAR PLAYING FIRST, BUT I THINK HE’S ONE OF THE BEST SINGERS I’VE HEARD IN MY LIFE. NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF HIS SINGING ABILITY, BUT HIS INTERPRETATIONS. HE’S AN HONEST SOUL.”
ABOUT ROBERT CRAY: GROWING UP IN THE NORTHWEST, ROBERT CRAY LISTENED TO THE GOSPEL OF THE FIVE BLIND BOYS OF MISSISSIPPI, BOBBY BLAND’S SOUL, JIMI HENDRIX’S ROCK GUITAR AND THE BEATLES POP SOUNDS. HE WOULD BRING ALL OF THE INFLUENCES INTO PLAY THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, BUT HIS TEENAGE BAND WAS CAPTIVATED BY SOUTHERN SOUL AND THE BLUES. “IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE BAND WE WERE GETTING BACK INTO O.V. WRIGHT AND PAYING ATTENTION TO MY FAVORITE BLUES PLAYERS; BUDDY GUY, OTIS RUSH, ALBERT KING AND ESPECIALLY ALBERT COLLINS,” CRAY SAYS. THE TEXAS-BORN BLUES GUITARIST KNOWN AS MASTER OF THE TELECASTER, ALBERT COLLINS, SEALED THE DEAL ON THE CRAY BAND’S EARLY DIRECTION. THE MUSICAL HIGHLIGHT OF CRAY’S SENIOR YEAR WAS HIS CLASS VOTING TO BRING COLLINS IN TO PLAY A GRADUATION PARTY. THE GLOW OF A CAREER IN MUSIC BEGAN WHEN CRAY WAS A TEEN, AND IN 1974 IT BURST INTO FLAMES AS THE ROBERT CRAY BAND CAME TOGETHER IN EUGENE, OREGON. HOW STRONG WAS THE FIRE? “RICHARD AND I DIDN’T OWN A VEHICLE, AND WE WERE STAYING WITH HIS GIRLFRIEND IN EUGENE. WE HITCHED A RIDE TO SALEM, WHERE OUR DRUMMER TOM MURPHY WAS GOING TO SCHOOL, TO REHEARSE,” CRAY RECALLS. WITH THE GROUP’S 1980 DEBUT RELEASE, WHO’S BEEN TALKIN’, WORD ABOUT THE CRAY BAND BEGAN TO SPREAD ACROSS THE NORTHWEST AND DOWN IN TO CALIFORNIA. PLAYING PACKED BARS AND ROADHOUSES THE CRAY BAND WAS THRILLING. YES, FANS COULD HEAR AN ALBERT COLLINS GUITAR RIFF AND A HOWLIN’ WOLF SONG BUT THE SOUND WAS PRESENT. BLUES AND SOUL FANS SHOWED UP RELIGIOUSLY, BUT THOSE STEAMY RAUCOUS SETS ALSO DREW CROWDS WHOSE TASTES IN MUSIC RANGED FROM ROCK TO FUNK AND JAZZ. ALSO AMONG THE CRAY BAND ADMIRERS WERE OTHER MUSICIANS. JOHN LEE HOOKER PUT HIS APPRECIATION INTO ACTION. “THE FIRST TIME WE PLAYED WITH HOOKER WAS IN MONTANA. WE WERE OPENING THE SET AND HE WAS PLAYING SOLO,” CRAY RECALLS. “WE’D NEVER MET HIM BEFORE BUT HE JUST WALKED ON STAGE AND STARTED PLAYING WITH US. WE DUG THE HELL OUT OF THE GUY, AND AFTER THAT WE WERE FRIENDS.” THE CRAY BAND’S NEXT TWO RELEASES – BAD INFLUENCE AND FALSE ACCUSATIONS – CHARTED, TAKING THE FOUR-PIECE’S SOUND ACROSS THE AIRWAYS AND ABROAD. THE GROUP WAS ON A ROLL, BUT THE PLAYERS SLEPT ON COUCHES. “WE WERE JUST ROAD RATS,” CRAY SAYS WITH A CHUCKLE. “WE’D TAKE A BREAK FOR TWO WEEKS TO RECORD, THEN GO BACK OUT. WE DIDN’T HAVE A HOUSE, A HOME, ANY OF THOSE RESPONSIBILITIES.” ON ONE OF THOSE BREAKS CRAY WENT INTO THE STUDIO WITH COLLINS AND ANOTHER GREAT TEXAS GUITARIST AND SINGER, JOHNNY CLYDE COPELAND, TO RECORD SHOWDOWN!, A CD THAT HAS BECOME ESSENTIAL TO ANY 80S ELECTRIC BLUES COLLECTION. IT WAS THE SOUNDS OF THE BLUES AND SOUL THAT FIRST DREW ATTENTION FROM ARTISTS IN THE ROCK ARENA. IN AN INTERVIEW ERIC CLAPTON GIVES HIS INITIAL RESPONSE TO ROBERT CRAY SAYING, “AS A BLUES FAN, WE’RE SAVED.” THE CRAY BAND’S BEGINNINGS DID BRING THE SOUNDS OF ITS MENTORS INTO THE MAINSTREAM, EVEN TAKING THE MUSIC OF JOHN LEE HOOKER, ETTA JAMES AND ALBERT COLLINS TO A LARGER, YOUNGER AUDIENCE. BUT NO ONE KNEW HOW BROAD THE BAND’S AUDIENCE WOULD BE UNTIL THE CRAY BAND OPENED THE EARS OF ROCK RADIO PROGRAMMERS. WITH THE 1986 RELEASE OF STRONG PERSUADER THE CRAY BAND’S TUNES WERE PUT IN HEAVY ROTATION ON MEGA ROCK STATIONS ACROSS THE NATION. THE FIRST HIT, “SMOKING GUN,” WAS FOLLOWED BY “I GUESS I SHOWED HER” AND “RIGHT NEXT DOOR (BECAUSE OF ME).” THE CRAY BAND’S NEXT TWO RELEASES, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK AND MIDNIGHT STROLL, BROUGHT MORE RADIO LISTENERS TO RECORD STORES, INCREASING SALES OF THE GROUP’S CDS. FOLLOWING THE PATH OF FAME TAKEN BY BLUES-BASED ROCKERS LIKE JOHNNY WINTER AND STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN, CRAY BECAME A SENSATION, LEADING HIS BAND IN CONCERTS AT LARGE ARENA AND ROCK FESTIVAL. HE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST SINCE JIMI HENDRIX TO RISE TO SUCH FAME IN ROCK MUSIC. WAS THERE A CHANGE IN THE BAND’S DIRECTION OR HAD THE BLUES ARRIVED AGAIN INTO THE MAINSTREAM AFTER MORE THAN THREE DECADES OF BEING FORGOTTEN BY RADIO? “WE WERE DOING BLUES AND RAND B FROM THE FIRST,” CRAYS SAYS. “THAT’S JUST PART OF WHAT WE DO. IF YOU’RE WRITING A TUNE IT’S ONLY NATURAL TO GRAB SOMETHING FROM SOMEPLACE ELSE. YOU’RE GONNA PUT IN SOME SOUL CHANGES AND SOME JAZZ, SOMETHING YOU’VE BEEN LISTENING TO. WITH WHAT WE DO THERE’S A WHOLE LOT OF ROOM TO MOVE.” CLAPTON’S ADMIRATION FOR CRAY LED TO A WRITING COLLABORATION ON THE HIT “OLD LOVE,” WHICH FEATURED CRAY ON GUITAR. A CALL CAME FROM ROLLING STONE GUITARIST KEITH RICHARDS WHO ASKED HIM TO BE IN THE FILM HE AND STEVE JORDAN WERE PRODUCING ABOUT THE ROCK GUITARIST CHUCK BERRY, “HAIL! HAIL! ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.” CONCERT FOOTAGE IN THE FILM FEATURES RICHARDS, JORDAN, CLAPTON, JULIAN LENNON, LINDA RONSTADT AND ETTA JAMES. CRAY PERFORMS “BROWN EYED HANDSOME MAN” WITH BERRY. DRESSED IN A BABY BLUE TUXEDO JACKET, THE YOUNG GUITARIST IS THE EPITOME OF THE TUNE’S TITLE. CRAY ALSO PERFORMED ON THE TINA TURNER TV SPECIAL “BREAK EVERY RULE.” DURING THE 90S THE CRAY BAND WAS FEATURED IN CONCERT WITH ARTISTS LIKE CLAPTON, THE STONES, JOHN LEE HOOKER, BB KING AND BONNIE RAITT, WHO DECLARED THAT THE BAND LEADER IS “AN ORIGINAL; HE’S PASSIONATE, HE’S A BAD ASS AND PUTS ON ONE OF THE BEST SHOWS YOU’LL EVER SEE.” AMIDST THESE ACCOLADES, SOARING RECORD SALES AND A PACKED TOURING SCHEDULE THE CRAY BAND RECORDED SIX CDS IN THE 90S. CRAY PRODUCED SHAME + A SIN, WHICH REFERENCED HIS BLUES ROOTS, IN 1993. IT WAS FOLLOWED BY TWO MORE SELF-PRODUCED RECORDINGS, SOME RAINY MORNING AND SWEET POTATO PIE. RECORDED IN MEMPHIS AND FEATURING THE FAMED MEMPHIS HORNS SWEET POTATO PIE WAS THE CRAY BAND’S MOST SOULFUL ALBUM TO DATE. THE NEXT RECORDING TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES DELVED EVEN DEEPER INTO MEMPHIS SOUNDS OF THE 60S. “THAT WAS DEFINITELY A SOUL RECORD,” CRAY SAYS. “I’D ALREADY BEEN WRITING SONGS, JIM (PUGH, WHO WAS KEYBOARDS WITH THE CRAY BAND FROM 1989 TO 2014) WAS WRITING SONGS, LEANING TOWARD SOUL. STEVE (JORDAN, PRODUCER) HEARD THEM AND PUT THE ICING ON THE CAKE.” JORDAN, WHO SUBSEQUENTLY PRODUCED THE CRAY BAND’S IN MY SOUL, SHOULDA BEEN HOME AND THE FIRST CD IN 4 NIGHTS OF 40 YEARS LIVE, ALSO BROUGHT THE PERSONIFICATION OF MEMPHIS SOUL TO THE RECORDING SESSION, WILLIE MITCHELL, TO HELP WITH ARRANGEMENTS FOR THE MEMPHIS HORNS. MITCHELL DISCOVERED AND FIRST RECORDED AL GREEN ALONG WITH OTHER SOUTHERN SOUL SINGERS LIKE ANN PEEBLES, O.V. WRIGHT AND SYL JOHNSON FOR THE FAMED MEMPHIS LABEL HI RECORDS. WHEN HE ARRIVED AT THE CRAY RECORDING SESSION, HE BROUGHT NOT ONLY THE MEMPHIS PRESENCE BUT ALSO A PRESENT. “WILLIE CAME OVER – HE WAS WEARING A GOLD JACKET – AND GAVE ME THIS SONG, ‘LOVE GONE TO WASTE,’” CRAY SAYS. “THEN WE PUT SOME FINAL TOUCHES ON THE CD AT HIS STUDIO IN MEMPHIS. IT WAS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO SEE WILLIE IN THE STUDIO.” BOTH ON TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF AND 4 NIGHTS OF 40 YEARS LIVE, “LOVE GONE TO WASTE” SHOWCASES ROBERT CRAY’S NATURAL EASE WITH SOUL BALLADS. HE IS INTENSE BUT SMOOTH IN TELLING THE STORY OF LOVE GONE BAD. THEN IN A FALSETTO VOICE HE SOARS THROUGH THE SADNESS INTO THE INEVITABLE PAIN. IT IS A SONG THAT CRAY OWNS BECAUSE NO OTHER SINGER HAS DARED TRY TO DO IT JUSTICE. TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF WON A GRAMMY IN 2000. IN THE NEXT DECADE THE CRAY BAND RECORDED SEVEN CDS, THREE OF THEM LIVE, AND TWO – TWENTY AND THIS TIME – WERE NOMINATED FOR GRAMMYS. THE GROUP’S MOST RECENT RECORDINGS, NOTHING BUT LOVE AND IN MY SOUL PUT THE BAND BACK ON THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.
“Forgive me for I have sinned,” Marcus King implores, on the gorgeous, contemplative “Confessions,” an essential track from The Marcus King Band’s third full-length album, Carolina Confessions. “The pain that I put you through is killing me inside/Thought if I could make you leave/Then you would see/I ain’t worth a damn anyway.” This highly revealing moment from the multi-talented, confident 22-year old artist gets to the heart of the album’s fundamental themes, guilt and the quest for absolution.
Carolina Confessions is confirmation of a preternaturally mature artist coming into his own; it’s a sprawling, scintillating work that affirms King as one of today’s most engaging, singular songwriters. He may be young, but King’s eloquent songs, expressive guitar playing, and ecstatically soulful singing mark this gifted, thoughtful young prodigy as a force to be reckoned with.
King has been writing songs, performing onstage for half his lifetime and fronting his own groups for nearly a decade. Since he was a teenager, he’s been trading licks with famous fans and mentors Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks whenever their paths have crossed. Haynes was so blown away by the then-19-year-old’s artistic precocity that he signed King to his Evil Teen label, released the band’s debut album, Soul Insight, in 2015 and produced the band’s self-titled follow-up a year later.
Produced and mixed by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, John Prine, Jason Isbell) and recorded at Nashville’s iconic RCA Studio A, Carolina Confessions finds King and his five bandmates—drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboard player DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander—taking a major leap as an expansive and dexterous musical unit.
“We immediately hit it off with Dave because of the way he works,” says King. “There’s six of us, and we have our own arbitration process; he was really understanding of the fact that this is a band. His production style is not so hands-on, and we’d all seen what a good producer does—and more importantly what he doesn’t do—from working with Warren on the last record. We went into the studio straight off the road, and I didn’t have an opportunity to even send a cellphone recording of the songs that I’d finished. So, we made it a point to start with those songs and build them from the ground up. That kept it very fresh.”
King penned all the material himself, except the swaggering “How Long,” which he co-wrote with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and veteran songsmith Pat McLaughlin. “Every tune on this record is based around a central theme, which is that none of us are blameless at the end of a relationship,” King points out. “Basically, Carolina Confessions is about me leaving my home town, explaining why I would do that, and why I felt like it was taken from me—just sharing in some of the blame of why a relationship didn’t work.”
Separation, from loved ones or one’s dreams, is another strand running throughout the new album. “Hear the sound of my highway/I get stoned as I pray/Think I’ll just fade away / who’s gonna care?”, he sings on “Where I’m Headed.” But the downcast lyric is belied by the uplift of the music, which conjures the ache of loss and the comfort of family. In the lilting “Homesick,” the song’s narrator has turned his car around and can hardly wait for his odyssey to be over: “So damn tired of this ride/Turn the headlights off let the moonlight guide/Lord it’s gonna guide me back home.”
“Welcome ’Round Here,” which opens with a mournful slide guitar before the band slams the track into overdrive, was triggered by the Trump travel ban, instituted right after the election. “It really pissed me off,” says King, “and that was the immediate inspiration. But then I started thinking about the kids who leave their homes in the South, because there’s a lot of intolerance—family members who don’t accept their own children, what they want to be in their lives and who they really are. That’s what this song is really about, so I wanted to give it the flavor of the mountains, of home.” In the lyric, an elder dismissively demands, “Let me live my life/Way that I was raised/Boy I recommend you do the same.”
Some tracks were massaged into shape through an incremental process of trial and error, including the essential album closer “Goodbye Carolina.” King recalls, “I’d written it about a really dear friend of mine who had committed suicide, so there’s a deeper meaning, and I realized the happy-sounding major key vibe of the verses weren’t working. So, the next day I explained that to Dave, and then I went back out and recut the verses myself, and we gained that melancholy vibe I was searching for.
The album’s cover image—a photograph of a ramshackle confessional, with its screen door swung open, sitting surreally amid the kudzu—is suffused with Southern Gothic mystery, straddling redemption and damnation. It’s a striking visual metaphor for the spiritual struggle so vividly portrayed in the songs of Carolina Confessions. “My mother was Catholic, and my grandmother on my mother’s side was Catholic,” says King. “I wasn’t raised Catholic, but the idea of confessing your sins was always really powerful to me.”
King is a Blue Ridge Mountain boy, born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. A fourth-generation musician, he traces his lineage back to his fiddle-playing great grandfather, while his grandfather was a fiddler and guitarist. His dad is Marvin King, is a singer/guitarist who has toured nationally since the ‘70’s with various artists as well as his own group, Marvin King and Blue Revival.
There’s a deeply felt sense of familial responsibility. “I guess to some degree it does feel like I’m carrying a torch and trying to rekindle some of that flame and that energy that my grandfather had and my father also has. My father is still my favorite guitar player and my biggest influence, but also my biggest supporter. So, more than anything, I’m trying to make him proud.” It’s fitting that his primary guitar on the album is a ’62 Gibson 345 that belonged to his granddad. “My grandfather’s light shined so bright through his eyes; he was just so happy to play,” Marcus recalls.
Marcus King doesn’t strive for authenticity, he never had to—it’s busting out of his DNA in every note he plays and every word he sings. This focused, firmly rooted artist isn’t just perpetuating the proud legacy of American rock and soul music; with the musically enthralling, deeply personal, Carolina Confessions, he and his great band are adding their own eloquent chapter to that rich narrative.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – August 22nd, 2018 – The Marcus King Band have already given fans reason to believe they are destined for great things. At 22 years of age, Marcus King has been a bandleader for a decade and tipped as “music’s next great guitarist” by the Washington Post. But the band’s daring, ambitious new album, Carolina Confessions, marks an artistic leap of another order. Set for release on October 5th, 2018 on Fantasy Records, the album was produced and mixed by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell) and recorded at Nashville’s iconic RCA Studio A. And it finds the band’s trademark musicianship buoyed by a new narrative depth, as Marcus delves into heavy themes: absolution, guilt, leaving home, yearning, love and other affairs of the soul.
The band have shared two new tracks from the album via NPR Music. Listen to lead single “Homesick” and “Welcome ‘Round Here” plus read Marcus’ feature interview with World Café’s Bruce Warren HERE.
Pre-order Carolina Confessions at marcuskingband.com.
Carolina Confessions features 10 brand-new songs, all written by Marcus except for “How Long,” which was co-written with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and veteran songwriter Pat McLaughlin. Whether it’s the searing rock exorcism of “Confessions” or the propulsive road-bound soul of “Where I’m Headed,” Marcus exhibits an almost Southern gothic sensibility in his songs, owning up to failed relationships, portraying his complex connection with his hometown, arraying a sprawling musical firmament in the process.
Marcus and his five bandmates — drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboard player DeShawn “D’Vibes” Alexander — are in top form on Carolina Confessions, exhibiting an intuitive sense of control and expression as they tackle their most sonically layered and emotionally complex compositions to date.
The Marcus King Band makes their late night debut on CONAN on August 28th. Coinciding with the release of Carolina Confessions, this fall will also see the return of the band’s own Marcus King Band Family Reunion Festival on October 5th-6th in Black Mountain, NC. Special guests at the Family Reunion will include the Revivalists, Nikki Lane, Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Chuck Leavell (Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones) and others. Later in the fall, The Marcus King Band will embark on a worldwide headlining tour; see below for a complete list of upcoming dates.