Various Artists: 46664: The Event (W/S/M)
On November 29, 2003, a slew of fantastic European and African singers and musicians got together in a stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, to raise money and awareness for the worldwide AIDS epidemic (through the sponsoring Nelson Mandela Foundation) in what may be the biggest — and coolest — music benefit concert since Live Aid in the mid-'80s. These kind of shows invariably bring out the best in everybody, especially when the musicians are willing to leave the safety of the familiar and take some chances: play new songs, try different arrangements, work with new people and check their egos at the door. This four-hour, 2-DVD set is a deeply moving but ultimately joyous celebration of that questing and cooperative spirit — of music's power to bring people together and of Africa itself.
Highlights are so numerous it's hard to know where to start: Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) and Peter Gabriel joined by the colorfully robed Soweto Gospel Choir (who shine gloriously throughout the event) for a stirring, Africanized re-working of “Wild World”; Gabriel's first-ever version of “Biko” in South Africa; Bono, Beyoncé, The Edge and Dave Stewart singing a new song called “American Prayer”; Jimmy Cliff and the Soweto Choir's uplifting version of “I Can See Clearly Now”; Ladysmith Black Mambazo's heartfelt “Homeless,” the Paul Simon song that launched their international career; Annie Lennox and Youssou N'Dour sharing the stage; and Queen, with Anastacia in the Freddie Mercury slot, spot-on with emotionally charged versions of everything from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “We Are the Champions.” The DVD is always entertaining and frequently transcendent, with lots of special documentary features. The show is also available as three audio CDs, but those are not as successful in my view. So much of the thrill of this project is visual.
Producers: Jim Beach and JF Cecillon. Director: David Mallet. Recorded by Justin Shirley-Smith and Toby Arlington. Mixed by David Richards and Josh J. MacRae at Mountain Studios (Montreux, Switzerland) and The Priory (Surrey, UK). Mastering: David Richards, Tim Young and Twig (Mountain Studios, Montreaux, Switzerland; Metropolis Mastering, London).
— Blair Jackson
The Walkmen: Bows and Arrows (Record Collection)
The Walkmen built a studio (Marcata Recording) and recorded their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, before they'd ever played a show together. Now, after a couple of years of touring, the rock quintet emerges with a cohesive sophomore effort brimming with a raw and, yes, live energy that begins and ends calm, cool and confident, but rises to frantic, aggressive heights. More languid moments include the opener, “What's In It For Me,” where a faint church organ and rusty old piano share track space with Hamilton Leithauser's soaring vocals. (Imagine Bono with a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.) One of the New York band's finest moments occurs immediately after with the forceful “The Rat,” where relentless, pounding drums and impatient guitar work amplify Leithauser's bitter cries of “You've got a nerve to be calling my number.” The air of cynicism continues on the less-frenzied “138th Street,” while “Hang on Sioban” is a rendition of an Appalachian standard. Recorded in New York, New Jersey, Memphis and Oxford, Miss., The Walkmen's second record makes a standout addition to New York City's diverse underground rock scene.
Producers: David Sardy, The Walkmen. Engineers: Greg Gordon, Stuart Sikes, The Walkmen. Studios: Marcata Recording (New York City), the Magic Shop (New York City), Easley McCain Recording (Memphis), the Jolly Roger (Hoboken, N.J.), Sweet Tea Studios (Oxford, Miss.). Mastering: Fred Kevorkian/Absolute Audio (New York City).
— Heather Johnson
Little Feat: Kickin' It At the Barn (Hot Tomato)
By this point, anyone who has been paying attention should not be surprised to hear that Little Feat is still capable of turning out great albums. The post-Lowell George era has given us at least three: Let It Roll (1988), Ain't Had Enough Fun (1995) and now, Kickin' It At the Barn. All the familiar Feat elements are in place: the alternately rootsy and funky rhythms, the tremendously high standard of musicianship, the snappy hooks and the slightly left-field lyrics that sketch vivid portraits of people, places and emotions. Besides being a superb and versatile guitarist, Paul Barrere has also become the true voice of the band, with a bluesy delivery that at once recalls Lowell George but also has its own personality.
Meanwhile, keyboardist Bill Payne continues to anchor many of the group's most interesting tunes: “Corazones Y Sombras” is an evocative, multitextured Tejano masterpiece; “Stomp” is a driving, jam-filled instrumental that sounds like the Little Feat equivalent of the Butterfield Blues Band's “East West”; and “Fighting the Mosquito Wars” goes from a swampy blues riff to a raga-rock break and then back again with amazing fluidity. Beautifully recorded and featuring a wonderful blend of acoustic and electric tunes, plenty of room for the musicians to stretch out and a down-home feel that comes from years of honing their distinctive (yet broad) oeuvre, Kickin' It At the Barn stands with the best Feat of any era.
Producers: Paul Barrere, Bill Payne, Fred Tackett. Engineer: Gilberto Morales. Studios: The Barn, Love Tribe Studios (both in Southern California). Mastering: Bernie Becker.
— Blair Jackson
Louise Hoffsten: Knackebrod Blues (Memphis International)
Sweden doesn't seem like a place where one would find a great blues album, but Louise Hoffsten's Knackebrod Blues is a very impressive, from-the-heart debut. Aided by a top-notch ensemble that plays raw, fret-rattling, gut-bucket blues, Hoffsten and company throw down a viscerally sensual set that mines the catalogs of Willie Dixon, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, as well as her own solid material. “It Serves You Right to Suffer” lands squarely in between Jimi Hendrix's heavy blues and Led Zeppelin's “When the Levee Breaks,” while the distant-sounding vocal treatment on the steamy “Baby Don't You Tear My Clothes” gives the performance an appropriately seedy quality. Other highlights include the rip-roaring opener, “The Seduction of Sweet Louise,” the gritty testifying of “God Don't Ever Change” and the thunderously agitated “I Pity the Fool.” Fans of artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and Bonnie Raitt would do well to check this out.
Producer: Louise Hoffsten. Engineer: Roger Krieg. Studio: Park Studios (Stockholm). Mastering: Classe Persson and Brad Blackwood at Ardent Studios (Memphis).
— Rick Clark