current listening 05/26/12

+ Grateful Dead: Dave’s Picks, Vol. 2 (2012/1974) – Sporting a leaner sound than usual thanks to the economical playing of drummer Bill Kreutzmann and keyboardist Keith Godchaux, this latest mail-order-only archival live release from 1974 showcases the Dead’s strengths (Jerry Garcia’s exquisite guitar improvs during I Know You Rider and Wharf Rat) and shortcomings (the paint-peeling singing of Donna Jean Godchaux). Then you have those great ensemble blasts, as on Jack Straw, where the Dead simply soar.

+ Doug Dillard: The Banjo Album (1994/1970) – The pop world mourned the deaths of Donna Summer and Robin Gibb last week. But behind the headlines was news of banjoist Doug Dillard’s passing. This 1994 reissue of Dillard’s aptly titled 1970 instrumental album serves as a brilliant intro (and postscript) to his playing. Backed by giants like John Hartford and Gene Clark, Dillard ran circles around bluegrass and old timey tunes. But Bells of St. Mary’s backed by harpsichord? That proved just how wily Dillard was.

+ Joe Cocker: Sheffield Steel (2002/1982) – Released 30 years ago today, Sheffield Steel took Cocker to Nassau for recording sessions with producer Chris Blackwell and the all-star reggae duo of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. What resulted wasn’t reggae, but a fascinating, groove-centric blend of rock, dub and soul. The medley of Bill Withers’ ominous Ruby Dee and the churchy Jimmy Cliff gem Many Rivers to Cross reveals how readily Cocker’s grizzled vocals took to the music and material.

+ Argent: All Together Now (2012/1972) – Funny how Argent’s most popular album was also the entry in its Epic Records catalogue that has been out-of-print the longest. The British label Esoteric finally resurrected it this spring. The radio hit Hold Your Head Up hardly sounds dated at all since its release 40 summers ago. More prog-directed extremes like the playful suite Fantasia and the anthemic I Am the Dance of Ages, less so. But the record remains a wonderful timepiece of proud, prog-ish pop and Argent’s finest hour.

+ Jeff Parker Trio: Bright Light in Winter (2012) – Parker is a true rarity among jazz guitarists. On this wonderfully atmospheric album, he offers nine tunes that stroll along with casual, emotive fire, coloring a traditional guitar/bass/drums trio with very subtle electronics and, on occasion, flute (courtesy of bassist Chris Lopes). In less industrious hands, such a formula would disintegrate into cosmic wallpaper music. But this is substantial jazz all the way that, despite the album title, casts an inviting, summery glow.

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