Artist of the Month

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November 2015
The Old No. 5s
The Old No. 5s’ second album, Steam, is first and foremost a blues record. But it shouldn't be pigeonholed. A self-proclaimed rock/roots trio, members Brock Alexander (guitar/lead vocals), Derek Tucker (bass/vocals), and Aaron Thomas (percussion/vocals) prove they can play the blues with the best of them, but also have the chops to bust out some serious soul, bring the funk, or simply construct a nice power pop song.
The majority of the 11 tracks are fairly straightforward blues rockers, beginning with the album's first song, “Going Nowhere.” A perfect appetizer, it gives listeners a taste of what can be heard throughout the album: solid vocals, nimble guitar, and one of the best rhythm sections you'll find on a local or national release this year. There is an undeniable Stevie Ray Vaughan influence on this and several of the other true blues tunes, including “Starting to Show,” “Easy,” and the harder rocking “Hill Country.” While few guitarists can match his licks, Alexander certainly dials in Vaughan's tone, and has plenty of salty riffs himself.
Alexander's vocal style varies. On “Easy” he is confident and powerful, channeling a cocky Jimi Hendrix. He shows off a deep soul sound during “Keep Lovin' Me Baby.” On “Little Man,” a jazzier number, he is a bit more transparent and vulnerable, much like a young John Mayer. While he is very capable at each, I couldn't help wondering which one is Alexander’s real voice.
The standout track on Steam has to be “Barn Party.” A tightly wound ball of energy, it combines ferocious slide guitar (sounding very similar in this case to a pedal steel), brilliant bass, and a shuffling beat to create foot-stomping fun. Reminiscent of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, it starts uptempo and only gets faster, ending at a blistering pace. Be sure to have your air instruments handy for this one.
The Old No. 5s display a more unique style on the album's final track, “Just the Way I Am.” While remaining true to the band's bluesy vibe, the song has a catchy pop sensibility—with an impressive jam in the middle—and should appeal to a wide audience. The trio seems to find their own identity here, something I hope to hear more of on future recordings. 
Steam is filled with truly fantastic music that taps into several genres. The songwriting and execution is top-notch. The expertise and use of each instrument, tempo changes, and drawn-out solos make it one of the most enjoyable local albums I've heard in some time. As the band continues to mature and distinguish itself, The Old No. 5s should become a force to be reckoned with—both locally and beyond.

--Brad Scott 

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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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