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September 2014
Katy Guillen & the Girls
"Katy Guillen & the Girls
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Normally when I discover a band for the first time, I listen to their album first, then go see them live. In the case of Katy Guillen & The Girls’ new release, the situation's been reversed. I saw them live a couple of times before the album was released, so I was interested to hear if the record was going to capture the ferocity of their live performances. I have to confess that my hearing is not in the best of shape, and, due to a poor sound mix at what shall be an unnamed Lawrence venue, I never got to hear the words or even the melodies properly live at the most recent concert I attended. But upon hearing the self-titled LP, it’s nice to hear that Guillen can write literate lyrics to these songs I've heard played out.
 
The album opener, "Don't Get Bitter," hearkens back to the sound and feel of the Beatles' "Taxman," with Claire Adams' bass introducing the song. It's short, catchy, and lasts exactly as long as it should. If there were a single release off this album, this would be it.
 
This record is no-frills. It's the band pretty much as you hear them live, with the mix capturing a live in-studio sound. What strikes me listening to this record is that Katy and the Girls are not strictly a blues band. There's certainly an infusion of the blues in what they do, but, to my ears, they hearken back to some of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s hard rock bands like Mountain and Free, but with better lyrics and songs. I also hear some White Stripes in there somewhere. The melodies and harmonies are accentuated and they help blend with the powerful playing.
 
Katy Guillen, Claire Adams, and Stephanie Williams fill up a lot of space in these songs. It's obvious they are all very well in sync and have that great intuitive blend that comes from playing lots of live gigs together. I also like the changes in some of the songs, which go in directions you don't expect, like "Woke Up In Spain," which switches tempo adroitly.
 
The absolute masterpiece of this album is the last song, “Earth Angel.” It's the longest tune on the album, but it doesn't feel long. It starts out with Guillen’s dirty-sounding guitar intro, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," and builds in intensity as it moves along. Guillen takes one hell of a solo during this song. It's obvious from hearing this record that she is an excellent guitarist but never overplays during the songs. But when the song calls for a lengthy solo, like "Earth Angel," sparks fly. The rest of the band is equally as adept. Adams’ bass lines are nimble and fit right in place with Williams’ active drum work. It's a pleasure to hear a band that obviously loves to play together rolling through these songs. The album’s producer (Duane Trower at Weights & Measures Soundlab) captures the clarity of the music as well as the power of a live performance.
 

--Barry Lee


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3 Steps From La La

Album review: Ernest James Zydeco - 3 Steps From La La

(Photo by Bill McKelvey)

The sounds of zydeco are catchy, instantly danceable, and tell stories of a culture that long ago adopted southern Louisiana as its American foothold. For a great many of the music-loving populace of the Kansas City area, the most consistent exposure to the music of New Orleans can be found Friday and Saturday nights on KCUR’s The Fish Fry. The diverse musical tablet of KC doesn’t include very many practitioners of the Cajun soundtrack; Louisiana Grammy-Award winner Chubby Carrier plays at Knucklehead’s so frequently, he may have been given honorary citizenship status here. There is one gentleman, however, who strives to share the sounds of the Crescent City with his fellow Kansas Citians: Ernest James, leader of Ernest James Zydeco, who is releasing the band’s third CD, 3 Steps from La La.

The Ernest James Zydeco version of Cajun music relies less on the flamboyant showmanship of such legends of the form as Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, and more on the roots-and-folk-music influence of the hill country. This approach seems better suited for a Midwesterner’s touch, as James and his band incorporate jazz and blues in this festive mix. The result may be a little more contemporary than one would expect to hear on Bourbon Street, but it’s no less faithful to the genre.
 
3 Steps From La La kicks off with “Shake It Sugaree,” the kind of song one would expect to hear walking into the door of a jumpin’ and jivin’ fais do-do; no dance floor would be left unattended with the sounds of Ernest James Zydeco pouring through the speakers. The traditional jump-shuffle of the accordion leads a band with a solid rhythm and brass section (featuring über-musician Mike Stover on bass, banjo, and slide guitar), as James beseeches the listener to get their dancing shoes on (“all that I want / all that I need / shake it right now, sugaree”), and anyone with a pulse would have no choice but to comply. “Lookin” and “Whoa Sally” will keep the party movin’ and groovin’, and when it’s time to put a slowdown on things, James follows with “Supposed To Do,” a grimy blues burner that tells of one’s decision to put their needs ahead of another’s (“I know what you want from me / but this ol’ boy’s gotta be free”). The rest of the album spotlights the diversity and variety of music that James and his band are capable of: a straight-up Howlin’ Wolf-inspired blues (“Zydeco Mother’s Day”), music of lament and longing (“Man Across the Street”), zydeco-meets-The-Wilders (“Pearlie Pearl”, with the fiddle and vocal stylings of the indomitable and inimitable Betse Ellis), and the closer, the gospel standard “Glory Glory,” which James retooled a bit to reflect his own views. “I had to rearrange the lyrics to be comfortable singing them,” he said. “I’m not a Bible thumper; they’re kind of a ‘I don’t know where I’m going ... if there’s a God, have some mercy!’ kind of message.”
 
Whether there’s a message contained within the music of 3 Steps from La La is up to the listener. If so, it’s being delivered by a tight, authentic, fervent group of musicians led by a man who has been sharing the joyful noise of the Big Easy for years. Ernest James Zydeco delivers on their new CD, and they have a history of bringing it home during their live performances as well, whether they be in a quiet bookstore or a raucous club. Lovers of well-crafted and no-pretense music of any style or genre would do well to add this to their audio libraries.
 
As Ernest James might reply, “Yeah, you right!”
 
Ernest James and his band will be releasing 3 Steps From La La tomorrow, November 30, with a show at B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ. Join them for a fun evening; they will be performing the album in its entirety.
 
 
--Michael Byars
 
After much soul-searching and contemplation, Michael Byars has decided not to run for office in 2016. If there had been any money left from his SuperPAC, he would have given it all to the Midwest Music Foundation—but there was only enough to buy a candy bar, so there you go.

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