If you’re a regular reader of this column, you are well aware that we keep it mostly to independent label releases many of which fly under the commercial radar. Chicago-based Bloodshot Records has been waving the indie flag for nearly 20 years now. Whereas it began as an alt country leaning label, the last few years has seen the label’s roster diversify in many different directions. Two new releases are a return to form. Up first is the Bloodshot debut from Aboriginal Australian country and western singer Roger Knox with backing by Bloodshot “house” band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. It is in many respects Bloodshot’s most far reaching and unusual to date. Rounding out Ear Bliss this week is one from a veteran of the label in Texas honky tonker Wayne Hancock. Let’s take a look.
Roger Knox & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
“Stranger in My Land”
Country and western music, Aussie-style with a touch of history, defines “Stranger in My Land” from Roger Knox. In his homeland, Aboriginal Australian C&W singer Knox is known as the Koori King of Country or Black Elvis. Bloodshot recording artist Jon Langford (Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Mekons) met Knox on a visit to the Outback several years ago. After hearing of the Aboriginal struggles of the past and the country music subculture that it in part spawned, Langford wanted to know more. As he learned, he decided to embark on a project that provides a condensed musical history of this micro-scene with the molasses-rich voice of Knox at the forefront with accompaniment by Langford’s strapping Pine Valley Cosmonauts band comprised of a mix of Bloodshotters past and present (Kelly Hogan, The Sadies, Sally Timms, Andre Williams) and like-minded comrades (Dave Alvin, Bonnie Prince Billy, and the late Charlie Louvin). “Stranger in My Land” collects a dozen songs, a mixture of the known and never before released “orphans,” and all originally written by Aborigine artists who were either peers or predecessors of Knox. The songs, all country in nature, run the gamut of emotions from powerful and moving to uplifting and hilarious. In the voice of Knox with supple backing from the PVCs, they are given new life. Langford’s artwork adorns the collection including the informative 24-page booklet which provides a colorful history of the songs and the Aboriginal artists who wrote them. Being a longtime fan of the Bloodshot concern, this album feels like a throwback of sorts chock full of the insurgent spirit that fueled the label at its outset. It also offers important insight into a little-known scene with Knox the voice behind it. Recommended. Visit www.bloodshotrecords.com .
The hillbilly beat as professed by the Austin, Texas, based honky tonker Wayne Hancock has always divided itself nicely between jazz, blues and juke joint swing. Like the best of the bandleaders, we’re talking hepcats like Bob Wills with his Texas Playboys, Ernest Tubb with his Texas Troubadours, and for that matter Art Blakey with his Jazz Messengers, Hancock let’s his players play to improvisational proportions without losing sight of the song itself. It allows for frequent bursts of creativity making. It makes Hancock and his music unique in this day and age of often tight-fisted arrangements and keeping to the three-minute barrier for the length of a song. “Ride” is Hancock’s eighth album overall and fifth for Bloodshot Records and does not break the mold established long ago. Put simply, it is a terrific record. In producer Lloyd Maines, Hancock has his ace in the hole as Maines has helmed the best of Hancock’s previous longplayers. Arguably the secret weapon in Hancock’s arsenal dividing his time between lead electric guitar and trombone is Bob “Texaco” Stafford. It is Stafford who is key towards providing that mix in sound be it hot rockabilly licks on the six-string or those jazzy blues sounds on the ‘bone. Standout tracks are plenty, but the high risers to these ears are “Get the Blues Low Down” featuring the near narcotic steel guitar strokes of Eddie Rivers and jumpstart hot “Cappuccino Boogie” which should delight coffee hounds out there. The sum total is honky tonk jam music where Hancock’s lyrics and Hank-ish vocals are on equal footing with the stellar musicianship.
For music lovers, summer in New England is festival time and for location and lineup, few can match the Solid Sound Festival. After taking a year off, the third annual edition of the fest takes place from June 21 - 23. The locale once again is the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (a.k.a. MASS MoCA) located in North Adams, Mass. Most importantly, the curator of the event is the band Wilco who will also perform on two of the festival’s three days. Music begins on Friday evening (the first day of Summer!) with Yo La Tengo, the incredible soul/gospel band The Relatives, Austin psych/jam band White Denim, and Wilco to close out the night. Saturday is equally strong with Wilco, Neko Case, Low, Foxygen, Dream Syndicate, Lucius, Mark Mulcahy (of Miracle Legion fame), Sam Amidon, and John Hodgman’s Comedy Cabaret featuring Reggie Watts, Al Madrigal and Jen Kirkman. Sunday is also strong with The Blisters, Mikael Jorgensen & Greg O’Keefe, Nels Cline & Julian Lage, Glen Kotche’s On Filmore, The Autumn Defense, Border music featuring Mark Ribot and David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Os Mutantes, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Located in restored mill buildings, the MASS MoCA site is pretty incredible with plenty of nooks and crannies and music happening at various locations on its grounds. Food trucks will be there aplenty and admission to the fest also allows you to check out the incredible art exhibits. Weekend tickets are still available, as are single day tickets. If there is such thing as an Ear Bliss guarantee of a good time, this fest is it. Check out www.solidsoundfestival.com  for information.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.)