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Music Reviews: Jerry Burgan, Elvin Bishop, David Bromberg & John York

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Long-time purveyors of what’s now called “roots music” have much to offer fans this summer. Old-timers like David Bromberg, Jerry Burgan, Elvin Bishop, and John York have new releases that show their feet are both firmly planted in the folk, blues, country, folk-rock, and country-rock past, but are still improving, growing, and finding fresh approaches—even after all these years.

David Bromberg – Use Me (Appleseed Recordings)

David Bromberg returned to recording in 2007 after a 22-year hiatus so he could take the time to add violin virtuosity to his arsenal of skills. Then, last year the musician’s musician asked a number of his friends to write and produce songs they thought would suit his unique voice and talent. Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Los Lobos, Vince Gill, Dr. John and Linda Ronstadt were among those who responded. As a result, Use Me is a rich panorama of musical styles ranging from the poignant (“Ride Out There Aways”) to spooky social commentary (“Digging in the Deep Blue Sea”) to more of Bromberg’s trademark humor (“Tongue” & “Don’t You Make Me Mad”). Use Me may be Bromberg’s finest album ever, period.

John York with Kim Fowley – West Coast Revelation (Global Recording Artists)

During the ‘60s, John York cut his teeth as part of the touring bands for Johnny Rivers and the Mamas and Papas before joining The Byrds during their country-rock era. In recent years, he’s been working with Barry McGuire and issuing solo albums, but West Coast Revelation is something special. The acoustic-driven songs are first-rate on their own, but interspersed between each musical selection are short bits of conversation between York and the legendary producer Kim Fowley (of Hollywood Argyles, Napoleon XIV, & The Runaways. Fowley also co-wrote songs with Skip Battin for latter-day Byrds releases.)

The interviews focus on York’s past, the musical scene in the ‘60s, what rock means to us all, and insights into the songs on the disc. For example, York’s song “Rock and Roll is Another Word for Freedom” inspired an insightful discussion on the many meanings of freedom. In short, this offering is both a historical artifact and an evening of memorable music and talk.

Elvin Bishop – Raising Hell Revue (Delta Groove)

In the mid-’60s, Elvin Bishop was one of the “3 B’s of Blues” along with band mates Paul Butterfield and fellow guitarist Mike Bloomfield. The seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, in fact, paved the way for all the white blues bands to follow in its wake. During the ‘70s, Bishop had FM airplay with songs like “Travelin’ Shoes” and even one AM standard with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.”

These days, Bishop organizes informal groups of fellow devotees of the blues and Raising Hell Revue is one of the live concerts these assemblies can jam, in this case on a “Blues Cruise” riverboat trip. Bishop says folks like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters created the foundation but he doesn’t want to rework “Mojo” or “Mannish Boy”—he wants to play his own blues. Check out “What the Hell is Going On” and find out what the blues mean in the post-9/11 world.

Jerry Burgan – Reflections, Songs and Stories (Global Recording Artists)

Now, this is simple folk music stripped down to its front porch essentials. Jerry Burgan was and is the main motor of We Five, the group that had a Top 10 hit in 1965 called “You Were On My Mind.” This was folk of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary variety, and echoes of this pre-Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash musical direction are present in every track.

The song choices are familiar territory: “Freight Train, “ “Jamaica Farewell,” “The Last Thing On My Mind,” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, A Train To Cry.” One track, “Young Man Go Your Own Way,” was composed and intended for release along with “You Were On My Mind,” but it took 40 years for it to be recorded. It’s the standout tune being promoted for the set. While this is Burgan’s first solo outing, it’s a primer on what folk music was all about during its heyday. Purists will love it.

As a group, these four collections are more than statements that old dogs can re-work old tricks or that players with longevity get better over the years. They demonstrate how even the most basic of musical forms have a vitality that goes beyond historical preservation or nostalgia—they’re still the trunk of the tree from which all the other limbs have grown. Young’uns can still learn a lot from the masters.

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