Album Reviews

Various Artists

Strange Angels – In Flight with Elmore James

Artist:     Various Artists

Album:     Strange Angels – In Flight with Elmore James

Label:     For the Benefit of Musiccares

Release Date:     1.26.2018

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This is a no brainer—giving coverage to this magazine’s eponym and a tribute marking Elmore James’ 100th birthday.  In the first of what will likely be several tributes to Elmore James this year, a distinctly odd cast—along with just a couple of predictably familiar names—form the artists in this tribute, recorded in mono at several studios across the U.S.  The artists span blues, soul, country, pop and Americana including Tom Jones, Rodney Crowell, Jamey Johnson, Bettye LaVette, Keb’ Mo’, Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, among others.  All profits from the project benefit Musiccares and Edible Schoolyard NYC.

While the project features some notable guitarists, the emphasis here (which you may have gleaned from the roster of names) is on the lasting power of James as a composer and the adaptability of his songs (one reason why the magazine bears his name).  Hence, we have Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer rendering the title track and UK pop vocalists Deborah Bonham (sister of late John Bonham of Led Zeppelin) singing “Dust My Broom,” and Mollie Marriott (daughter of Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott) on “My Bleeding Heart” as just a few examples of the unexpected.  On the more expected side, Keb’ Mo’ faithfully interprets “Look On Yonder Wall,” Haynes and Gibbons collaborate on a blistering slide fest, and harmonicist Mickey Raphael for “Mean Mistreatin’ Mama.” Bettye LaVette lends her distinctive soul to “Person to Person.” Yet, the most memorable track may well be Tom Jones’ visceral take on “Done Somebody Wrong.”

The breadth of styles from these performers is a testiment to the creativity and daring of producer Marco Giovino, who also played drums and put together an impressive “house band” he dubbed “Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters” for many of the tracks.  In addition to Giovino, the house band includes Rick Holstrom (guitar), Doug Lancio (slide guitar), Rudy Copeland (Hammond B3), Victor Krauss (bass), and Larry Taylor (bass).

A closer look at the liner notes reveals some stellar guitarists featured on individual tracks.  While the guitar parts are mostly economically short fills, these players are notably G.E. Smith and John Leventhal (with Bettye LaVette), Joe V. McMahan (with Rodney Crowell, Lynne/Moorer, and Keb’ Mo’), Peter Parcek (Lynne/Moorer), Tony Gilkyson (Check E. Weiss), and Duke Levine (Deborah Bonham, Mollie Marriott, Addi McDaniel).

Elmore James is likely our most influential slide guitarist, but this tribute focuses more on the songs themselves from a wide cast of vocalists.  It doesn’t always hit the mark, but the surprises are well worth the listen.

—Jim Hynes

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