LONDON, U.K.—This June 6th will mark the first anniversary of the passing of Mac Rebennack — known throughout the World as Dr. John. A day prior, on June 5, 2020, The Last Music Company will release a commemorative limited vinyl edition of Ske Dat De Dat worldwide.
Dr. John, a six-time Grammy® Award-winning ambassador of New Orleans Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, recorded the album seven years ago in tribute to the great Louis Armstrong, inspired by a dream in which he received his marching orders from “Satchmo” himself.
“I tried to make the songs fit me the best I could,” Dr. John said in an interview on the subject with the Los Angeles Times. “I hope I was always true to the music. I have no idea what the world’s gonna ever say about what that is. But you know what? I felt like I gave it my best.” And that he did, along with some of his friends
Co-produced by trombonist Sara Morrow, the album weaves rare collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Arturo Sandoval, the McCrary Sisters, Terrance Blanchard, the Blind Boys of Alabama and others into fresh interpretations and arrangements of songs from Armstrong’s extensive catalog.
The Blind Boys of Alabama open the affair with “What a Wonderful World,” which jaunts into Dr. John’s funky New Orleans take on the classic. Standouts on the journey include a bluesy rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String” with Bonnie Raitt, and “Gut Bucket Blues,” with Nicholas Payton’s show-stopping performance on trumpet. “Sweet Hunk O’ Trash” is a sassy back-and-forth with Shemekia Copeland, which glides into a classy “Memories of You” on the sound of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet. The rousing set finisher, “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You),” features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at its pure NOLA best.
Louis Armstrong and Dr. John made “the whole world smile” with them, by bringing the musical traditions of New Orleans to the greater World. The reissue of Ske Dat De Dat celebrates the imagination of both men, and one hopes, somewhere in the “Spirit Gig,” they are still smiling.
1. What a Wonderful World (4:11) w/ The Blind Boys of Alabama and Nicholas Payton
2. Mack the Knife (6:13) w/ Mike Ladd and Terrence Blanchard
3. Tight Like This (4:52) w/ Telmary and Arturo Sandoval
4. I've Got the World on a String (4:04) w/ Bonnie Raitt
5. Gut Bucket Blues (2:47) w/ Nicholas Payton
6. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (4:45) w/ Anthony Hamilton
7. That's My Home (3:55) w/ The McCrary Sisters and Wendell Brunious
8. Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (4:37) w/ The McCrary Sisters and Ledisi
9. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (6:36) w//The Blind Boys of Alabama and Terrance Blanchard
10. Dippermouth Blues (4:28) w/ James “12” Andrews
11. Sweet Hunk O’Trash (4:19) w/ Shemekia Copeland
12. Memories of You (5:03) w/ Arturo Sandoval
13. When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You) (2:42) w/ The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TELECASTER TITAN BILL KIRCHEN’S THE PROPER YEARS
COMBINES THREE SOLO ALBUMS CONNECTING DOTS
ACROSS HIS 50-YEAR CAREER
Co-founding member of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen
showcases world-class playing with Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and others
in retrospective package releasing June 12
AUSTIN, Texas — Upon tallying how many decades he’s worked as a professional guitar slinger, Telecaster master Bill Kirchen quips, “Well, they don't make 50 years like they used to.”
They don’t often make careers like his, either. From performing with his Who Knows Pickers jug band in Ann Arbor High School’s senior talent show (also on the program: the future Iggy Pop), to birthing the Americana genre with the original “hippie country band,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, this affable Austinite has been everywhere, man, flying alongside some of the planet’s coolest cats — including the Jesus of Cool, Nick Lowe, and Lowe’s old protégé, Elvis Costello. Kirchen has toured the world with Lowe, who produced an album by Kirchen’s post-Airmen band, the Moonlighters, and Costello recruited Kirchen for high-profile gigs like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival — and even named his festival band after Kirchen’s Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Godsalbum.
Lowe appears on that 2006 album, and its 2010 follow-up, Word to the Wise,along with Costello, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks and other luminaries. And now those albums, plus Kirchen’s third Proper American release, 2013’s Seeds and Stems,are being combinedas a two-CD retrospective titled The Proper Years. The package, on U.K. label The Last Music Co., arrives June 12. Waxworks, a vinyl best-of version, also releases June 12.
A well-balanced mix of engaging originals and wonderfully rendered covers, The Proper Years admirably conveys Kirchen’s versatility as a player and singer — one of the first to mash up rockabilly, country, Western swing, honky-tonk, jump blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and even the “psychedelic folk rock” he played with the Seventh Seal, the band he formed while attending the University of Michigan. (MC5 manager/activist John Sinclair got them a deal on the ESP-Disk label, home of Sun Ra, but the band turned it down.) Somewhere between steering Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” into a top-10 hit and scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance, Kirchen dubbed his sound “dieselbilly,” wrapping his fondness for country’s truck-driving song subgenre (as in big rigs, not pickups), its intersection with the Bakersfield Sound, and his own name into one memorable moniker.
Kirchen’s right-place-at-the-right-time career has put him at the forefront of many musical movements, including outlaw country; Commander Cody’s 1974 album, Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas,recorded at Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, made Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of All Time list.
But whatever label Kirchen’s music wears, it’s always notable for its balance of high-octane energy and deft understatement. There’s no leadfoot excess; Kirchen’s all about finesse — a sensibility absorbed from the symphonies and Broadway musicals his parents loved, along with the orchestral works he played as a school-band trombonist. Through another major influence, Interlochen Center for the Arts summer camp counselor David Siglin (who would go on to run famed Ann Arbor venue the Ark), Kirchen became immersed in folk traditions and learned to love the “big, sonorous tones” of an undistorted guitar.
“I was more interested in sounding like Doc Watson than Eric Clapton,” admits Kirchen, whose main guitar was crafted by Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars from 200-year-old pine floorboards recycled from film director Jim Jarmusch’s loft.
It’s fitting that this collection begins with his ode to that Telly-modeled “stick of wood” he calls “the bicycle of the electric guitar — the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.” That song also serves as exhibit A in a collection showcasing a central facet of Kirchen’s songwriting: his wit. If there’s a laugh to be reached for — or stooped to — Kirchen’s goin’ for it; you don’t survive years in a band named Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, or drop album titles like Seeds and Stems, without possessing a gleefully subversive, double-entendre-loving funnybone.
“I like music where at least someone onstage is smiling sometimes, fer crissake,” jokes Kirchen, who’s often grinning happily when he’s not busy singing. But for every injection of humor, there’s an equal dose of heart (and in some cases, heartbreak). And songs like “Tell Me the Reason” or “Get a Little Goner” illustrate another truism: Kirchen often sets the saddest or most biting lyrics to the jauntiest melodies.
Those two were cowritten by his wife, Louise; “Goner” also features frequent contributor Sarah Brown (coincidentally also raised in Ann Arbor). Kirchen likes collaborating: on Word to the Wise, a musical reminiscence of sorts, he tapped several favorite artists to join him, carefully selecting or writing songs for each. In the liner notes, he explains, “The criteria we used were that you had to be A) someone I had actually played with, either on stage or record, and B) not dead yet.”
Sadly, Norton Buffalo, who played harmonica with the Airmen and Moonlighters, passed away shortly after recording “Valley of the Moon” — in which Kirchen revisits scenes of his early life with Louise on a trip to attend a funeral (for Hacienda Brother Chris Gaffney, another musical mate). Dan Hicks, who delivered a note-perfect duet on the title tune — written for him — died in 2016. But as of this writing, Lowe, Costello, Maria Muldaur, Paul Carrack, original Asleep at the Wheel vocalist Chris O’Connell and Commander Cody (a.k.a. George Frayne) are still very much with us.
Kirchen’s entertaining liner notes explain his connection to each, tracing many of these relationships directly to longtime collaborator and “main man” Austin de Lone, who appears on all three albums and is part of the core band on two.
Philadelphia-born keyboardist de Lone and his band, Eggs Over Easy, moved to England in 1970, urged by Jimi Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler. Their rootsy mix of blues, country and rock caught on — and germinated the pub-rock movement, whose acolytes included Brinsley Schwarz, in which Lowe played bass. In 1972, de Lone moved to California, where he met Kirchen. Years later, de Lone wound up joining the Moonlighters and introducing Kirchen to Lowe, who produced the band’s 1983 album, Rush Hour (and introduced Kirchen to Costello). That album was engineered by Paul Riley, who eventually would produce all of Kirchen’s Proper releases.
A devoted Anglophile, thanks to two aunts who married Brits, Kirchen began recording for the British label (distributed in the U.S. under the Proper American name) after owner Malcolm Mills promised, “I'm going to give you the best deal you've had in 25 years.”
He did, too. Mills not only supports Kirchen’s recorded output, he also supports the guitarist onstage, right alongside bassist Riley. “Where else do you get a record company where the owner plays drums, the producer plays bass, and they tour with you?” Kirchen says of his good friends. “They’re the best.”
That’s just another twist in an incredible career trajectory set in motion, according to Kirchen, by two pivotal events: the 1964 and ’65 Newport Folk Festivals. As a high-school kid on a quest to catch Mississippi John Hurt, he thumbed to the first one, then went back the following year — and witnessed Dylan going electric.
“That pretty well blew away the competition for what I was going to do before, or if, or when I grew up,” he says of those experiences. Five years later, he found himself sharing a bill with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Stevie Wonder, when Commander Cody and the Airmen, who’d formed in Ann Arbor, played a benefit for Sinclair after he got 10 years for two joints.
A mere 50 years later, Kirchen’s still having a blast. He’s even planning another tour with Riley and Mills. But releasing this package, he says, “nicely puts a bow on a whole, very enjoyable period of my life.”
“Not that it's over,” he adds quickly. “I mean, I’ve got more stuff in the works.”
Then he cracks, “Don’t tell anybody, but it's not as hard as it looks.”
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