Week three of the month started on a glamorous note with ZZ Ward. We knocked around with the Crash Test Dummies, tasted some Carolina Chocolate Drops and rolled away with Bob Seger. With such a mixed bag, how else could we end than with the Stereo MC’s?
This series of blog articles cover a week of mini-feature posts from the Loving the Music Facebook page and group. This makes it easier for our music-loving community to search through our ever-growing archive of songs, backstories and trivia.
Sep 15th – 21st: Musicians Featured
ZZ Ward – Crash Test Dummies – Rhiannon Giddens – Bob Seger & the Siver Bullet Band – Stereo MC’s
15th Sept: ZZ Ward always manages to lift my spirits and I think we all deserve to have our spirits lifted today with a threesome of songs from this glamorous lady of Blues Rock. Named after her Grandmother, Zsuzsanna Ward (hence ZZ) started playing in her father’s band at age 12. The first song that she sang was Albert King’s ‘As the years go passing by’. This early exposure to the Blues greats is possibly the inspiration she drew from to create her own very distinctive music style.
Although she tasted her future musical career as a pre-teen, it was only in 2011 that she released her first EP ‘Criminal’. On the main track, she sampled Freddie Gibb’s song ‘Oil Money’. On hearing the mixes he was so impressed that he offered to contribute a guest verse on the official release of the EP. This helped boost ZZ Wards ‘music cred’, not that she really needed it, her talent spoke for itself. While busy on the album she also recorded a free mixtape of her interpretations of tracks by musicians such as Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Wiz Khalifa.
2012 saw ZZ Ward’s first album release. ‘When the Casket Drops’ featuring the song ‘Put Your Gun Down’, and that’s today’s starting point. Although there are a number of outstanding tracks, ‘Put Your Gun Down’ really shows what a talent this lovely lady is. In 2013 the New York Times said of Zsuzsanna “Her energy evokes Tina Turner’s, her chops Aretha Franklin’s and her soul Etta James’s”. Huge comparisons aside, they are pretty accurate.
The years between her first and second albums were spent productively playing the circuit, appearing at the major festivals, and even bagging a short tour with Eric Clapton.
The second EP, ‘Love and War’, was released in 2015 followed by the single ‘The Deep’ in 2017. This period also saw her collaborate with Gary Clark on a song for Pixar’s Cars 3 movie and fulfilling her growing ‘celebrity status’ duty by performing live on Dancing With The Stars.
This flurry of activity was all groundwork for her remarkable 2017 album ‘The Storm’ which hit #1 on The Billboard Blues Charts and #12 on the Rock Charts. It also produced one of my favourite of ZZ’s songs, Cannonball, which features the suitably named Fantastic Negrito, whom we have welcomed to our page previously. I featured this next video some months ago. If you missed it here’s your chance to see a couple of superb musicians make some smouldering Blues magic.
I visited ZZ Ward’s website and am happy to report that she has released some new tracks that can be downloaded straight from her platform, which is where I’ve chosen today’s closing number from.
In writing about her new material, here’s what the lady says: “These new songs got me through some very personal and challenging situations in my life by allowing me to reach a place of empowerment. At first, these experiences of heartbreak, betrayal and devastation felt very close to me, only to realize in retrospect that the root of these emotions went much deeper than I originally understood. Whether it was an ex-lover that I never felt good enough for or knowing I had to find the giant inside of myself to overcome feelings of self-doubt, writing these songs helped me get to a place of acceptance. Some of the deeper themes throughout these songs are questioning social and gender norms and how those unwritten and traditional expectations have affected and continue to affect me in my own life”.
I’m sure it won’t be long before we have another full album of ZZ Ward’s unique Blues inspired brilliance to cheer us all up. Until then, let’s all enjoy what we’ve got – including two excellent releases from this rocking beauty. Thanks for joining Zsuzsanna and I today. Here’s the song ‘Sex and Stardust’ to finish the mix.
16th Sept: Occasionally there are bands that come along with a sound completely different from their peers, Crash Test Dummies is one of them. I remember hearing their song ‘Afternoons and Coffeespoons’ on a jukebox (yep, there were still some around in the ‘90s) and going out the next day to buy the CD. It stayed at hand next to the CD player for quite a while and Brad Roberts’s deep baritone voice became a regular sound backdrop to my day.
To understand the Crash Test Dummies’ journey you need to know a little of the interwoven background to the group and its members. That’s precisely what we are doing this Wednesday with three songs from this offbeat bunch.
It all started when Brad Roberts was joined by Curtis Riddell to form a tongue-in-cheek Bar Band named ‘Bad Brad Roberts and the St James Rhythm Pigs’. The name was dropped eventually for the much shorter suggestion suggested from a medical student friend, ‘Crash Test Dummies’.
The line-up at the time of recording their first album would go on to collectively, and individually, carve an interesting path. Their first album,‘The Ghosts That Haunt Me’ (1991) was a success in their homeland of Canada, selling over 400,000 copies thanks to the hit single from the album, ‘Superman’s Song’. Superman’s Song isn’t your normal hit material, but it is very, very clever. Maybe that’s why it had the appeal it did. Let’s take a listen.
Although they had Canadian success with the first album and won the 1992 Juno Award for Group of the Year, it wasn’t until 1993 when Crash Test Dummies gained international recognition.
The release of ‘God Shuffled His Feet’ coincided perfectly with the launch of a new radio format in America, ‘Adult album-orientated alternate rock’ (AAA). The band, with their dark humour and thought-provoking quirkiness, fitted the demographic perfectly. The song ‘Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm’ was put on high rotation and helped propel the song to #4 on the US Hot 100, #2 in the UK, and the top spot of #1 in Australia. Platinum sales status and three Grammy and Juno nominations later, and the album hit the 5,5 million mark. It was a phenomenal achievement for a relatively unknown bands first major international release.
The run-up years to the naughties were a flurry of activity for the Dummies with the albums ‘A Worm’s Life’ in 1996 which showed a more guitar-heavy style, and ‘Give Yourself a Hand’ in 1999 that showed a distinct departure from the norm. Ellen Reid, the backing vocalist, keyboard and accordion player for the band, took over lead vocals on a number of the tracks, with Brad Roberts singing falsetto on the others. Strange! Neither album reached the heights of God Shuffled His Feet, but contained some great songs.
This period also saw the first of the Crash Test Dummies members to release their own material. Benjamin Darvill (percussion, guitar, mandolin, harmonica), under the name Son of Dave, released two albums, ‘B Darvill’s Wild West Show’ and ‘01’, to critical acclaim. Time for some music. Here’s the song that snagged me hook, line and sinker into the world of Crash Test Dummies, Afternoons and Coffeespoons.
The Crash Test Dummies and their record label BMG parted ways, and under Brad Roberts newly formed Cha-Ching Records they released the album ‘I Don’t Care That You Don’t Mind’. The album was born while Roberts was recuperating in Nova Scotia after an accident. He met some local lobster fishermen who were pretty musical adept. They recorded the bulk of the material during this recuperation period which was destined to be released as Brad Robert’s first solo album. That kind of changed.
Ellen Ried was brought in to provide backing vocals, and one by one the various Dummies agreed to join Brad’s backing band for a tour. It would have been odd to release the album as a solo work with all of the original band involved, so ‘I Don’t Care if You Don’t Mind’ was released under the Crash Test Dummies name and saw a return to their early acoustic sound.
The various members of the Dummies released solo albums; Ellen Reid’s debut ‘Cinderellen’ was released late in 2001. At the same time, Brad Roberts released a double-live CD / Rockumentary, Crash Test Dude. 2002 saw the Dummies multi-instrumentalist Mitch Dorge released ‘As Trees Walking’ on which he played 95% of the instruments, and won him a Prairies Music Award for Best Instrumental Recording.
The albums that followed were a combination of solo projects that spilt-over into becoming Dummies projects. This included what has become my stock Christmas album, Jingle All The Way (2002), Puss in Boots (2003) and Songs of the Unforgiven (2003). After a hiatus, Brad began recording the album Oooh La La (2011). After years of tours, solo projects, breaks to get on with life, line-up changes and a compilation or two thrown in for good measure, the announcement came from Brad Roberts that he was the last active Dummy, and there would be no more tours.
God may shuffle his feet sometimes, but don’t tell him your plans. The announcement came in 2017 that the full band would reunite for a 25th-anniversary tour of the God Shuffled His Feet album. In 2018 the band (excluding Benjamin Darvill) embarked on their first full tour of Canada and the USA in over two decades.
The Crash Test Dummies webpage tells us that they are still very active even though they have had to reschedule their 2020 tour dates until next year. I am sure that there will be more solo and group offering along the way. After all, you can’t keep a good Crash Test Dummy down. In honour of the 25th anniversary of a remarkable album, I’m closing with the title track from God Shuffled His Feet.
17th Sept: Unless you are a follower of traditional folk music, especially Americana, chances are that you have never heard of Rhiannon Giddens. I came across her name in a music collection a friend gave me and was struck by the superb banjo playing and perfect voice. When I started doing a hunt for more of her music I discovered the Carolina Chocolate Drops and their highly talented, extremely diverse, founder.
Giddens has an interesting ancestry. Her father was European American and her mother African American part Native American. She doesn’t only sing and play but is also a respected music historian, has a mathematics and science background, and was a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, where she studied opera.
The ‘Drops’ are not the only part of Rhiannon’s life. She has worked on so many projects and collaborations in music, film and theatre that it would be impossible to cover more than just a few highlights in today’s mini-feature.
The ‘Drops’ started to evolve after attending the first Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005. Giddens formed the trio Sankota Strings with the purpose of presenting traditional African American music. She was also occasionally performing with another folk outfit at the time named Gaelwynd. By the end of 2005, both Sankota Strings and Gaelwynd had released CD’s and Rhiannon and co-founder Dom Flemons decided to expand Sankota’s line-up; and so the Grammy Award Winning Carolina Chocolate Drops was born.
To introduce you to their world, we start with a live clip of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style’ at the 2010 Americana Music Association Awards.
Apart from releasing seven albums with the ‘Drops’ and her two solo albums, it is the diversity of projects she has been involved in that is mind-boggling. To give you just a few examples:
To satisfy for her love of opera, she formed the duo named Eleganza in 2009 with friend Cheryse McLeod and released a CD of classical, religious, theatre and movie music. To further her solo career she participated in a concert in 2013 inspired by the movie ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. The musical press was ecstatic with her performance, rating it the best at what was dubbed the ’concert of the year’.
In early 2014 she contributed to ‘Lost on the River – The New Basement Tapes’ alongside Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Jim James. The resulting album was produced by T-Bone Burnett and is a compilation of partial, unreleased lyrics written by Bob Dylan and set to newly composed music. Is it Dylan? No, but he resulting album, Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes did hit the Top 40 charts.
She worked with the Smithsonian Institute for their Folkways’ series which documented Mike Seegar (brother of the legendary Pete Seeger and Peggy Seeger) and his final trip through Appalachia which resulted in the collection, ‘Just Around the Bend; Survival and Revival in Southern Banjo Styles – Mike Seeger’s Last Documentary’
We return to the Carolina Chocolate Drops for the second track, Country Girl. Apart from being the real thing when it comes to true Country Music, it is also a fun video.
One of the many hats that Rhiannon Giddens wears is that of musicologist and music historian. In the comments section, I have linked a short documentary where she discusses the lost history of the Black banjo and the instruments direct link from the African slaves who were brought to America. It is fascinating info and well worth watching for those interested in musical history.
Her list of award nominations and wins is lengthy, but she made history in 2016 at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards as the first American folk singer to win Folk Singer of the Year. The same year saw her receive the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Winning this award made Giddens both the only woman and the only person of colour, to receive the prize in its history. 2016 ended on a high note when Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops would be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
I’m closing with a powerful song that she performed at the Augusta Vocal Week in 2016. It tells the tale of the sale of a young slave girl whose baby is also available ‘at the purchaser’s option’. This lady’s career could fill a week of mini-features, but I hope you enjoyed this brief look at a truly talented lady. Here’s the song ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’. 😎
Rhiannon Giddens: On the Lost History of the Black Banjo: Rhiannon Giddens is a Grammy-award-winning musician and co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who discusses the history of the African banjo and how it became a keynote instrument of American music through the minstrelsy and beyond.
Sept 18th: When considering compiling a feature about a musician whose career spans six decades you can be assured that there is a lot of backstory to cover. Bob Seeger is one of them, and today is dedicated to a legend who has sold over 75 million albums worldwide.
From the time a 16-year-old Bob arrived in Detroit fronting a three-piece band, ‘The Decibels’, he was determined to make it. The twelve years between 1961 and 1973 saw him playing with The Town Criers, The Omens, The Last Heard, The Bob Seeger System, and Tea Garden & Van Winkel before forming the Silver Bullet Band in 1974, and that’s where we pick up his career.
Their early albums ‘Seven’ (1974) and ‘Beautiful Loser’ (1975) gave them some moderate hits which helped them gain recognition. However, when ‘Live Bullet’, was recorded over two nights in Detroit it became considered one of the greatest live albums ever made. Although it was an instant bestseller in Detroit where the band’s main fan base was, it took quite a while for sales to pick up momentum elsewhere, but eventually became one of his biggest sellers. We start today with a bit of a bonus. Here’s Travellin’ Man AND Beautiful Loser from ‘Live Bullet’.
In 1976 Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band released Night Moves, the album that was to give them the commercial breakthrough he deserved. The title track hit #4 on the Pop Singles Charts and the album sold over 6 million copies in the US alone. The success of Night Moves also boosted interest in his past albums, pushing their sales into the multi-million / multi-platinum bracket.
The age of Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band had arrived with the 1978 album ‘Stranger in Town’ giving the world mega-hits like ‘Still the Same’, ‘Hollywood Nights’ and ‘We’ve Got Tonight’. The beginning of the ‘80s was looking rosy with his ‘Against the Wind’ album which not only hit #1 on the Billboard Album Chart but also won him two Grammys.
1981 saw another live release, ‘Nine Tonight’, and its hit ‘Tryin’ to Live my Life Without You’ He followed this with my favourite album of his, ‘The Distance’ in December 1982. Due to changing musical styles and the rise of MTV, the album didn’t reach the expected sales but produced some of his finest work.
The album spawned the biggest hit of his career, ‘Shame on the Moon’, “Even Now’, ‘Makin Thunderbirds’, and my all-time favourite song of his, ‘Roll Me Away’, which is our second song for today.
Bob Seger’s albums of the ‘90s; The Fire Inside (91) and ‘It’s a Mystery’ (95) may not have had the same impact as his earlier releases when he released his first ‘Greatest Hits’ album it became his biggest seller at over 10 million copies in the US alone. After a lengthy sabbatical, he returned with his ‘Face the Promise’ album in 2006 which returned him to platinum status. The last album we saw from Bob and the boys was ‘I Knew You When’ in 2017.
With decades of hits, sell-out tours and the love of millions of fans, Bob Seger deserves his place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, just as he deserves his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A fun bit of trivia about Bob Seeger’s cover of the classic song ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’; It may have only reached #23 on the charts when released, but when Tom Cruise danced around to the song in his underwear in the movie ‘Risky Business’, it made Bob Seeger’s version the second most popular song played on jukeboxes – ever, taking second place to Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’.
I’ve decided to close this Bob Seger mini-feature with a classic from his ‘Stranger in Town’ album, Hollywood Nights. 😎
21st Sep: Now that my birthday weekend is done and dusted it’s back to business in Loving the Music land. A name that came up over the weekend was the Stereo MC’s, and I thought we would take a listen to a few tracks from the early albums by these pioneers of the British ‘Hip-Hop’ scene.
Hip-Hop can be a polarizing topic amongst older music-lovers. I always found that British Hip-Hop tends to be more melodic and easier on the ear than its American counterpart. Although it may not be my favourite genre, you can’t ignore the impact it had on all kinds of music.
But are Stereo MC’s a Hip-Hop band? Although they use elements of Hip Hop, I have never seen them as such. The duo managed to perfectly marry Rock, Pop, Funk, Jazz and RAP – all the elements that, to me, place them firmly into the realms of Acid Jazz.
Nick Hallam and Rob Birch, the founders, became friends at 6-years-old and are so close that they even share a birthday. Their love of music saw the formation of the rock band ‘Dogman & Head’ when they were 17-years-old. They headed for London where they quickly forgot their Rock aspirations and embraced the Soul and RAP styles that were gaining popularity.
Fate was smiling on the boys when a property developer offered them each a considerable amount to move from their flat to make way for a high rise. They took the money and formed their own label Gee Street, and started writing and recording at their newly created Gee Street Studios.
Their first singles ‘Move It’ and ‘What is Soul?’ were released in 1987, and a distribution deal with Island Records helped boost the popularity of this new act. I listened to both singles while deciding on a starting song for today’s feature and it’s a hard choice. Both tracks show what was to follow from these Nottingham born lads. In the end, I resorted to the ‘eeny-meeny-miney-mo’ method and ‘What Is Soul’ won.
The Stereo MC’s first EP 33-45-78 was considered a landmark in the British music scene, where the fusion of RAP and Rock influences was rare. The Acid-Jazz scene was still in its infancy and It is doubtful if the band realised how instrumental they were in cementing the sound that defined the emerging genre.
Apart from the Stereo MC’s, Nick Hallam and Rob Birch also had a side-project called ‘Ultimatum’ along with the future big-name producer, DJ Cesare. The side-project dissolved when Cesare left both Ultimatum and Stereo MC’s, and the boys co-opted to replace him with ‘Jungle Brother’s’ member, Afrika Baby Bam, who soon became a full member of the band.
This new team released the album ‘Supernatural’ in 1990. A touring band was put together and they hit the road along with acts such as Living Colour and Happy Mondays. 1991 saw their first successes with the songs ‘Lost in Music’, and ‘Elevate my Mind’ which became the first American Top 40 hit for them.
It’s a song that has stood the test of time and is still being used in dance floor mixes 30 years after we first heard it. It’s time to ‘Elevate my Mind’ with today’s second song. I know there are some of you that remember hitting the dance floor to this.
If the music-listning public didn’t know who the Stereo MC’s yet, 1992 changed all that with the release what was probably their biggest album. Connected. The album was a tour d’force and showed a new sophistication.
The single ‘Connected’ shot up the charts on both sides of the pond, and the album went platinum in 18 countries. At the 1992 Brit Awards, the band won both Best Group and Best Album categories. The popularity of both the song and the band saw Stereo MC’s open for U2’s Zooropa tour, and even wider recognition among a new audience.
’m leaving the Stereo MC’s story here, not because they disappeared, disbanded or dissolved, but because the second and third stages of their career encompassed not only another 5 excellent albums but numerous collaborations with artists such as Madonna, Tricky, as well as some of the biggest outfits to emerge on the dance scene.
If I had to try and cover everything they have done subsequent to this album we may have to dedicate another week to this one band! I’m sure I’ll revisit the Stereo MC’s again at some stage, but until then, here’s my favourite of theirs; the song that made them, and that evokes lots of memories of wild dance floor moves – Connected. 😎
This article was previously published on The Design Train website for Loving the Music