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American Beauty

Todd Mack

Yonder The Big Blue Holler (Off the Beat-N-Track)

This 10-track Americana romp plays like a woozy set in an Appalachian roadhouse in which miraculous things happen somewhere between the seventh and eighth longneck. Beautifully recorded at Mack’s Off The Beat-N-Track studio in Western Massachusetts, the disc has a casual and organic nature that is belied by the fact that more than 25 different musicians pitch in on the tunes. You got yer pedal steel, yer Hammond organ, yer banjo, yer fiddle, yer pennywhistle. . . . The rollicking “Five Nights Drunk” features a full-throttle Dixieland band breakdown, like an itinerant horn section happened to wander across the stage and agree to play for drinks for a couple of minutes. “Devil Outta Me” is a Muscle Shoals-style funk workout that sounds like a lost Booker T hit, filtered through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mack is no stranger to any of this, having put in his time touring and recording with Atlanta’s the Griswolds through much of the ’90s before settling down in the Berkshires as a studio owner and, more recently, acclaimed children’s book author. His voice bears a passing resemblence to Jerry Garcia’s, a voice that sounds high, lonesome, and irrepressably optimistic at once. Mack shares guitar duties with Berkshire guitar aces Bobby Sweet, Steve Ide and Tor Krautter.

The disc closes with the utterly moving “Beautiful Angel,” a song-poem about his old friend and former bandmate Daniel Pearl, the journalist brutally murdered by his Pakistani kidnappers in 2002, which features loops of Pearl playing the fiddle.

—Paul Rapp

The Captain, well served: Fast ’n’ Bulbous’ Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind.

Fast ’n’ Bulbous

Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind (Cuneiform)

Just as they always do, the times have changed. More than 25 years ago, I was playing in a band whose sole purpose initially was to cover songs by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. One of Boston’s then-hip clubs presented us, but when we wanted to return after our successful debut we were informed that they didn’t book cover bands. (We subsequently went on to become an original band, but that’s another story I’ll save to bore grandchildren with, holding forth from a front-porch rocking chair.)

The Magic Band re-formed a couple years ago, presenting mesmerizing and exact versions of Beefheart tunes (they were, after all, the ones to work out and perform the intricate geometry the first time around). Fast ‘n’ Bulbous are led by saxophonist Philip Johnston, and they do the only reasonable thing left to do: They treat the music as compositions, open to new and fresh arrangements. With a four-horn lineup, the interplay is between the pair of reeds, the pair of brass, guitarist Gary Lucas (who played in the latter Magic Band incarnation, as well as the re-formed unit), and a rhythm section. Songs like “Abba Zabba,” “When It Blows It Stacks” and “Tropical Hot Dog Night” move the guitar lines to the horns, leaving it all strikingly familiar, while also revealing subtle powers in the simple melodies. Elsewhere, “Dali’s Car” takes on an air of shiny but fractured modernism, while “Kandy Korn” sounds like a New Orleans parade making a side trip into a funhouse.

—David Greenberger

John Hammond

In Your Arms Again (Back Porch)

For more than four decades, John Hammond Jr. has been among the best white country blues interpreters. Now the 62-year-old guitarist and harmonica player is back with a new release, In Your Arms Again, proving the son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond Sr. still has his funky touch.

Recording in the ambience of a deconsecrated church in Salinas, Kansas, Hammond is joined by Stephen Hodges on drums and percussion and Marty Ballou on basses for a dozen songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Bob Dylan, Bukka White, Percy Mayfield, and, for the second consecutive disc, himself. Hammond is a superb guitar player who can fingerpick complex parts on the acoustic, play slide well, and handle the electric when it suits the song. Vocally, he tries to sound black when singing blues. This is high-risk behavior for the Caucasian larynx—it’s easy to sound strained without the requisite control—but he makes it work.

Hammond’s masterful chops and gritty feel jump your bones right from the first track, “Jitterbug Swing,” a pulsing Delta-style slide-guitar showpiece. In a nod to the late Ray Charles, he does justice to a pair of the Genius’s numbers, “I Got a Woman” and “Fool for You,” with impassioned singing. For Howlin’ Wolf’s “I’m Leavin’ You,” “My Baby’s Gone” and “Evil,” Hammond changes to a postwar Chicago sound, switching to electric guitar played in a 1950s style reminiscent of Hubert Sumlin or Jimmy Rodgers. His two originals, the title track “In Your Arms Again” and “Come to Find Out,” are both acoustic fingerstyle outings may not break new ground but nonetheless hold their own with the rest of the selections. In the last cut, Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Hammond’s voice soars sans his typical black affect, leaving it to his steel-bodied slide guitar to provide a cool blue shading.

In Your Arms Again shows that John Hammond still has something to say, and that it’s still worth hearing.

—Glenn Weiser

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