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CHARLIE BARATH – JUST ME AND MY FRIEND(S) (My Dog Is Blue Music) Over his career, Charlie Barath has established himself as one of the premier harmonica players in western PA, and has worked and collaborated with many top musicians. Charlie showcases his harmonica and songwriting skills, plus celebrates many of the musicians he has worked with, on his 17-song full-length album Just Me and My Friend(s). Charlie and 19 of his musical friends dazzle on songs representing a wide variety from the Americana and roots music catalog, spanning country, blues, folk, Texas swing, bluegrass and more. Charlie dips back to the roots of blues on the opening track, the attention-grabbing “The Forgotten Man,” styled as a railroad work song with the hammering of rail spikes providing percussion behind Charlie on harmonica and Chris Sutton with the soulful lead vocal. Another standout number is the Texas swing-flavored “Losin’ My Mind Over You,” featuring Charlie’s infectious ‘Woody Woodpecker’-inspired harmonica riff at the song’s start and end, Shari Richards’ tasty vocal harmonies, plus Pete Freeman’s timely pedal steel wolf whistle midway through the song. There’s also the tongue-in-cheek, tear-in-beer, woeful country ballad “Little Turtle Nightlight,” as Charlie’s character’s woman walks out on him and removes everything from the house, but the character hopes that she leaves his sentimental terrapin light source behind – even though we all know the song’s sad outcome is coming, it’s fun hearing how Charlie’s lyrics get us there. On a more serious note, Charlie tells the first-person narrative of an ill-fated frontiersman on the folk/bluegrass ode “Ohio.” He celebrates his grandmother and her tasty east European cuisine on the Chicago blues-driven “Highball and a Covered Dish,” and playfully relates how a gal steers him to alcohol on the catchy honky-tonk number “She Drives Me to Drink.” The musical friends include several Pittsburgh A-listers – such as guitar great Jimmy Adler, whose tasty licks flavor four of the album’s blues numbers; Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers’ Ray Bruckman on fiddle and mandolin during three songs; keyboardist John Burgh on four numbers; plus violinist Bob Banerjee. Also contributing are drummers Gordon Grottenthaler, Joey Pinchotti and Bert Lerini; guitarists Sam Stuckey, Max Schang, Chris Sutton, Bill Weiner and Reverend Robert; Jeff Scheller and Gerry Borish on basses; plus tuba player Roger Day, and Al Torrence on miscellaneous percussion. This entire set of music sounds great; Charlie shows total virtuosity on his Hohner harmonicas, as well as a sturdy and versatile voice that sounds proficient on all the styles he offers up here. His musical ‘friends’ sound stellar and add depth and personality to the songs. And the overall production is crisp, balanced and consistent, enabling these songs to smoothly flow along as a cohesive whole set. Just Me and My Friend(s) is a fun listen that reveals new nuances on repeat listens. The album shows not just Charlie Barath’s abundant harmonica skills, but that he has also evolved into a masterful songsmith, and has a very talented wealth of friends to help make these songs shine. An excellent album! (You can obtain the album through Charlie Barath’s Bandcamp page, and through other online retailers.)
PATRICK MOTTO – REFLECTION: PART 1 (no label) Hailing from Danville, singer, songwriter and musician Patrick Motto has been making music and performing professionally for more than 20 years, cutting his teeth with bands such as One Man Religion, Stonefaith, The Negative Effect and Somewhere Beyond Sunday. Patrick turned his attention toward a solo direction in 2018, and issued a 2019 album of his original songs. His newest recording, Reflection: Part 1, offers six more original numbers. Hard-hitting modern rock is the primary flavor here; Patrick sings and plays all instruments, as well as recording, producing and mixing the EP at his home studio. The set follows loose themes of reflection, regret, miscommunication and lost opportunities; the title track “Reflection” establishes a stern and powerful opening as Patrick rails on failure to communicate and another’s false reality. “Sanity” rumbles forward in a similar vein, before “Hey, Mary Jane” tokes with a milder tone. “All That I Am” is harder and heavier, expressing anger in the aftermath of a breakup. Piano guides the darker-toned “Never Knew Me at All” before the forceful and thundering EP closer “Outlive the Ghost” and its words of trying to escape the past. The songs are strong, and Patrick comes up with solid and steady melodies, plus the hard-rocking arrangements to drive them forward. He displays a clear and sturdy voice up front, and excels on his instrumental delivery. The overall recording sounds clean and full, with all components of Patrick’s presentation coming through clear and distinct. Reflection: Part 1 is a consistent and focused set that further defines Patrick Motto’s hard-rocking musical turf. (The recording can be accessed and obtained through various online streaming platforms.)
ANTONIO ANDRADE – LUCKY IN LOVE (Life Shakes Records) More than 45 years of performing experience has shaped Antonio Andrade’s passion not just for creating original music as a songwriter, but also for interpreting the music of others. On his latest album, Lucky in Love, the Harrisburg area-based performer invests that passion into renditions of 10 songs from a diverse range of artists, and incorporates his own distinctive style, personality and perspective into each. The lone original song of this set, the title track “Lucky in Love,” opens the album; singing, strumming acoustic guitar and providing an infectious harmonica accent, Antonio weaves a story of hope, trials and tragedy as each love story has its own fate. Antonio next pays homage to fellow central Pennsylvania musician Robert Bobby with a rendition of Robert’s “Ask a Man”; a longtime performer on the state’s stages, Robert passed away in March, 2018. From there, Antonio presents his treatments on a variety of rock, pop and folk classics; he gives the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” a stripped-down, acoustic swamp blues feel, with his rugged voice emoting the hardship expressed in the song’s words. He gives a folksy makeover to the Left Banke’s 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee,” with Americana accents from Pete Damore’s banjo and Crystal Harlu-Damore’s gentle backing vocals. Antonio transforms the Talking Heads’ “And She Was” into a happy-go-lucky, laid-back acoustic vibe. He salutes an influence with a version of Steve Forbert’s “Midsummer Night’s Toast,” which features two of Steve’s former sidemen, guitarist Mark Stuart and bassist Mark Dann. Tying in with the album’s title, Antonio applies his expressive vocal style to Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” and evokes his own hopeful tone on a rendition of The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.” Antonio salutes two more influential singers with his takes on Karla Bonoff’s “Lose Again” and Tom Waits’ “Ice Cream Man,” before closing the album with a nod to folk legend Pete Seeger via an Americana twist on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” again featuring Pete Damore on banjo and Crystal Harlu-Damore’s duet vocal. Antonio owns each of the cover songs he performs here; his expressive voice, arrangements and nuances allow listeners hear these songs from his own perspective, and experience them in a different light. Recorded at the Green Room in Harrisburg, and co-produced and engineered by Derek Euston (who also contributed guitar, bass, keys and harmony vocals on several tracks), Lucky in Love sounds crisp and full, with Antonio’s emotive voice front and center. This album shows the true beauty and potential of cover music; Antonio Andrade allows us to hear these classics through his own filter, voice and perspective on Lucky in Love, in the process honoring these songs and the artists who influenced him. (The album can be obtained through Antonio’s website, www.lifeshakes.com.)
DREAM HOME – DREAM HOME (Mint 400 Records) Pittsburgh-based rock trio Dream Home came together in 2018, several months after the book closed on former Altoona area musician Jaren Love’s previous band project The Lampshades. Jaren collaborated with musicians Joe Praksti and Sam Winward to form the new group, and their self-titled debut album demonstrates a different slant and direction from The Lampshades. Less agitated and chaotic than The Lampshades’ sound, Dream Home takes a smoother and more streamlined approach with more emphasis on melodies, production and lyrical depth. The group explores psychedelic textures that hint at Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson and Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, as well as a touch of the Flaming Lips’ alternative psychedelia; topped with Jaren’s familiar wistful vocal style. The words appear to follow a loose theme of loathing and discomfort with domesticated life; Jaren voices uncertainty on the short opening track “A Lot of Times Just Don’t Know What to Say.” He regrets the daily grind on “Fixing Tires” and the sullen closer “Go Back Home Son,” and laments the people in his life who have faded into the past on “Forever 22” and “Do It All the Time.” Nocturnal misgivings inform the words of the acoustic-driven “Third Trick” and the Beatle-esque “Late at Night,” while “Carpeted” yearns for hope as life’s picture becomes clearer. The melodies are each catchy, and Jaren’s former Lampshades bandmate Dane Adelman helps flesh out the sound with layers of slide guitar, keys and trumpet. Engineered, produced and mixed by Steve Donahue, Dream Home‘s busy arrangements sound sharp and balanced, with Jaren’s voice and the instrumental components coming through clear and distinct. Dream Home offers a fresh tapestry for Jaren Love to explore life’s ups and downs, and this eponymous debut provides a clear turning of the page. (The album can be obtained through the group’s Bandcamp page, www.dreamhomepgh.bandcamp.com.)
BETTY JO ROCKWELL – ALL FOR LOVE (Canadian American International Music) A western PA native who now calls Shepherdstown, West Virginia her home base, singer and songwriter Betty Jo Rockwell explores rock, bluegrass, country and folk music frontiers on her latest album, All for Love. Betty Jo created the words and music, plus sings and plays guitar and accordion; accompanied by her husband, Scott Rockwell on guitars, bass, drums and banjo; and guitarist John Turner. She sings with clarity and a frequent vibrato, her style providing a connecting thread between the songs’ diverse range of flavors. Vocal layers and harmonies from backing singers Gena Rockwell and Jade Tremba help give the uptempo album-opener “East Coast Drifter” a B-52s flavor. Several songs ride a retro vibe; the rocking title track “All for Love” shows an early 1970s flavor both with its sound and words about unity through love. “Disappear’s” hard edge hints Crazy Horse-era Neil Young, while “Earth Healing Sound” channels a Woodstock tone with its theme of love and connectivity with the planet. Betty Jo shares some personal reflections as well; the bluegrass-driven “Restless Soul” recalls her father and his arrival on American soil, while the Appalachian-flavored “Clifftop” celebrates a favorite southern West Virginia location. Other highlights include the bold country rock-toned love song “Symphony” with its infectious melody, the uptempo and roots-driven “Oracle” with its mystic narrative about a fortune teller, and the folksy and reminiscent closer “Love Letters.” Betty Jo has a way with melodies here, as each song is catchy and captivating, and the mixture of styles and arrangements keeps the album sounding fresh from start to end. Her voice sounds spirited and inspired. Produced and recorded by Scott Rockwell, All for Love maintains clarity and crispness throughout, and keeps Betty Jo’s voice front and center in the mix. Betty Jo Rockwell broadens her musical frontier on All for Love, a satisfying listen that brings her artistry and style to the forefront. (The album can be obtained online through Amazon and other digital platforms.)