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CD Reviews – February 2016

JIM DONOVAN – SUN KING WARRIORS (no label) In 2005, Jim Donovan amicably left the drum helm of the multi-platinum selling Rusted Root to raise a family, and subsequently developed a satisfying career as a music educator at St. Francis University in Loretto. Eventually, though, the itch to create music started to resurface, and Donovan began to pen songs and subsequently formed his current band project, the Sun King Warriors. He began incrementally recording songs in 2011, with an unexpected 2013 health scare accelerating the recording toward fruition as the Sun King Warriors CD. Donovan sings, plays guitar and some drums, assisted by guitarists Dan Murphy and Kevin McDonald, bassist Kent Tonkin, and percussionists Bryan Fazio and Harry Pepper; The Clarks’ Rob James contributes additional guitar and mandolin. Described by Donovan as “a mix of feel good groove-rock, American roots music and two tons of drums,” the disc’s ten tracks evoke a unique stew of sounds, mixing hard rock, reggae, worldbeat, percussion, acoustic and folk tones; at times suggesting Rusted Root powered by classic 1970s/80s arena rock thunder. The music sets the foundation for Donovan’s mostly positive messages about life, love and forward motion. The bouncy opening track, “Blend Into You,” offers a message of love and unity, with an 11-voice ‘Wild Man Shouting Ensemble slamming an exclamation point on the chorus to launch the song’s homestretch. “I’m Doing Fine” is about leaving the past behind and moving ahead, and the anthemic “You Got to Believe It” triumphantly professes a theme of putting fear and apprehension in the rearview mirror and stepping one’s game up every day. “Oolalala” rides a punchy, booming reggae rhythm, while drum thunder takes the forefront on the percussive charge “March of the Sun King Warriors.” This album contains gentler tones, too – such as Donovan’s soft-spoken vocals and worldly acoustic tones of “Love On Me,” the African folk-driven father-to-son ode “The One You’re Growing Into,” and the mild and warm vibes of “Can’t Stop Falling” and the love-filled disc-closer “The Sunshine.” There’s no mistake that Donovan’s heart and soul are invested into these songs, and the entire album rings with passion and enthusiasm. His cast of bandmates and sidemen buy into the music as well, resulting in an uplifting mood that prevails from start to end. Produced, mixed and recorded by Sean McDonald at Red Medicine Recording Studios in Pittsburgh, Sun King Warriors sounds big, deep and vibrant, with vocals, harmonies and instruments coming through clear and distinct. With Sun King Warriors, Jim Donovan crafts a sonic picture of his mind and soul, and based on that picture, he and his life are in a very good place. (The CD can be obtained through the website

THE HAWKEYES – ONE PLUG IN THE WALL (no label) The Hawkeyes formed in 2010 from the merger of members from two Pittsburgh-based alt-country acts, The Jay Wiley Band and The Country Music Gas Station. Their latest CD, One Plug in the Wall, hones the group’s brazen brand of driving, roots-based hard rock. Lead singer/guitarist Jay Wiley, lead guitarist/singer Michael Grego, drummer Colin Bronnenkant; and bassist Brian Chalmers deliver an intense, beefy rock sound informed by classic blues rock, southern-fried rock and rebel country elements over the disc’s nine tracks. The Hawkeyes pull all stops, riding most of the songs toward impassioned peaks before all is said and done. Wiley’s voice goes for broke as he belts out honest words about life, work, ambition and chasing dreams. The opening track “Miracle Man” sets the tone with its hard-driving rhythm and proud proclamation of blue-collar roots and ethic. The southern-toned “Ghost” is one of several numbers about the tough quest to be a professional musician, while “Davenport” is a hard-charging road song. The powerful “Hours & Miles” rides an infectious riff and fist-to-the-chops chorus, while the title track “One Plug in the Wall” recalls the fuzz distortion of classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse while contemplating a rock’n’roll pipedream that started in an electrical outlet. The Hawkeyes describe rugged family living on the stern-edged “Junior,” and the disc-closer “Had Enough” taps a Rolling Stones flavor while lyrically running out of patience. The performances are hearty and fiery, as The Hawkeyes play for keeps, providing ample punch and swagger. Produced by the group and Ken Rose, the CD sounds tough, edgy and consistent from start to end, with all components of The Hawkeyes’ presentation given sharpness and bite in the mix. The Hawkeyes have truly arrived with One Plug in the Wall, a firm statement of their raw, no-nonsense, hard-punching rock. (The CD can be obtained through the website

STERLING KOCH – ROCK SLIDE (Full Force Music) Sterling Koch continues his exploration of steel guitar blues with a more rocking twist on his latest effort, Rock Slide. Inspired in part by the vinyl classic rock albums of his youth, Koch designed Rock Slide much like a traditional record album, with eight songs designated on “Sides” A and B, and even a vinyl album design for the physical CD itself. Within the album’s “grooves” are seven original compositions and one remake; showcasing Koch’s steel/slide guitar virtuosity and swagger, powered by the steady and punchy rhythms of drummer John Goba and bassist Gene Babula. Guest Jack Culp’s harmonica wail ushers in the disc’s rousing opening track, the Texas-styled boogie rocker “Shake ‘Em on Down.” Koch co-wrote three of the songs with South Carolina-based songwriter Freida Gantt; including the pulsating “Sugar,” featuring backing vocalist Jennifer Dierwechter, “Good to Go” with its Keith Richards-styled rhythm guitar tone and Stone-ish strut, and the uptempo “Comin’ for Your Love.” Inspired by a dream, the slow and moody “Leavin’ Me with the Blues” captures a David Gilmour-styled guitar flavor, and is one of two songs to feature guest keyboard player Bob Wagner. Koch applies his signature slide guitar style to Steve Ray Vaughan’s classic “Crossfire,” and the album ends with a bar-themed playful jam session called “Last Call.” This album grooves with the confidence of an artist who knows his instrument and musical terrain; Koch’s performances are steady and consistent; his steel guitar signature marks these songs definitively as his own, and his vocals are sturdy and direct. Co-produced and recorded by Koch and Bret Alexander, Rock Slide sounds beefy and punchy, and the overall mix enables these songs to rock and strut with authority. Like those classic rock albums that helped inspire it, Rock Slide is a strong set from start to end, as Sterling Koch further defines his rock and blues steel guitar soundscape. (The CD can be obtained from CD Baby, or through the website


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