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Rewinding October | The Top Blues, Soul & Roots

From The Avetts & Allstars to Van the Man, here are the month's finest moments.

Van the Man picked up his pen in a big way. The North Mississippi Allstars got on a new roll. The Avetts played politics and made it personal. The Kinkster rose again. And more. Here are the great blues, soul, country, folk and roots album that found their way to my ears in October. Click on the cover art to read the full original review and hear the whole album:

Van Morrison
Three Chords & The Truth

WHO IS HE? Van the Man. The Belfast Cowboy. The only live performer I’ve ever seen who shamelessly relies on an onstage countdown clock to rigidly time his set so he doesn’t play one second longer than required. But I will cut him some slack for that, since Van Morrison is also the man who wrote Gloria — which is basically the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of being the caveman who discovered fire — along with Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, Domino and a few dozen other numbers people will still be singing long after we’re all dead. Well, all of us but Van will be dead: Still going strong at age 74, Morrison is also far and away the hardest-working curmudgeon in show biz. And far too stubborn to die unless there’s a payday in it for him.

WHAT IS THIS? His 41st studio album in 52 years and sixth album in just four years — which pretty much confirms what I was saying about that work ethic.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Somewhat surprisingly given its title, it’s not a country record — in fact, based on the title track’s lyrics, Van seems to think the line is about the blues. So no wonder Three Chords and the Truth sticks to the intersection of blues, jazz and soul that has long been Morrison’s comfort zone and home turf. But unlike his recent slate of releases dominated by cover tunes, this self-produced set features 14 new originals, most of which are slightly above average, albeit not quite in the league of his immortal classics.

North Mississippi Allstars
Up and Rolling

WHO ARE THEY? The long-running southern-blues jam band anchored by singer-guitarist Luther Dickinson and drummer Cody Dickinson, the sons of legendary producer and musician Jim Dickinson.

WHAT IS THIS? Their 10th studio album in two decades — which is about 10 too few for fans of their updated juke-joint jams.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? The Dickinsons kicking back in their musical comfort zone. Recorded at their late father’s Zebra Ranch Studio and inspired by old photos of the brothers and other local musicians shot in the mid-’90s, Up and Running is an appropriately homespun and warm set. On these 12 cuts, the brothers simultaneously revisit and retool their musical roots with the help of bassist Carl Dufrene, singer and fife player Sharde Thomas and vocalist Sharisse Norman — plus a roster of influencers, pals and peers like Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Duane Betts, Cedric Burnside and others.

The Avett Brothers
Closer Than Together

WHO ARE THEY? The North Carolina folk-rock foursome featuring singer-songwriter siblings Seth and Scott Avett, along with bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon.

WHAT IS THIS? Their 10th studio album, first new release in three years and one of the most topical albums of their career — which they kinda-sorta admit while pretending to deny. “We didn’t make a record that was meant to comment on the sociopolitical landscape that we live in,” they said. “We did, however, make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us…because we are a part of it and it is a part of us … The Avett Brothers will probably never make a sociopolitical record. But if we did, it might sound something like this.”

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Patriotism and protest songs made personal. After writing countless songs about universal themes of love and relationships, it’s striking to hear the Avetts weighing in on domestic issues in tellingly titled tracks like We Americans and New Women’s World. Luckily, their acoustic-guitar folk and sombre balladry needed no alterations to fit these richly detailed narratives, eloquent treatises and spirited calls for unity in divided times.

Kinky Friedman

WHO IS HE? The Kinkster. The Original Texas Jewboy. The almost-governor of the Lone Star State. The semi-private dick from 221B Vandam Street. And the singer-songwriter behind provocative country classics like Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed, How Can I Tell You I Love You (When You’re Sitting On My Face) and They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore — though he’s no slouch when he plays it straight with a confessional ballad either.

WHAT IS THIS? The umpteenth studio album of the 74-year-old veteran’s half-century career, the aptly titled Resurrection is also the third release in a creative and commercial revival that began with 2015’s The Loneliest Man I Ever Met and continued on 2018’s Circus of Life.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Bigger and better, though not quite as Kinky. Unlike the introspective and pared-down Circus of Life, the magnificent Resurrection captures the dusty troubadour in a more lively setting, backed by a full band and produced by old pal and fellow Lone Star Cafe irregular Larry Campbell. But if you’re hoping for a remake of Ride ’Em Jewboy, you’re out of luck; while Friedman hasn’t lost his sense of humour, he’s far more sincere and serious than sly and subversive these days.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
Cypress Grove

WHO IS HE? A 72-year-old blues singer-guitarist who also owns Mississippi’s Blue Front Cafe, which is reportedly America’s longest-operating juke joint — so presumably Jimmy “Duck” Holmes had no trouble getting enough gigs to hone his craft in front of an audience.

WHAT IS THIS? His seventh studio disc since he started recording at the tender age of 59 — and the latest in a series of regional blues artists respectfully spotlit and tastefully underproduced by Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Haunting and hypnotic. Granted, that’s pretty much par for the Delta blues course. But Holmes takes it up a notch with his unique playing style — he’s the last-known member of the Bentonia School, which was popularized by Skip James and uses tunings and chordings that make the music more ethereal and even eerie.

Lonely Soul

WHO ARE THEY? A Boston blues trio fronted by singer-guitarist Pat Faherty and guitarist Matthew Stubbs, GA-20’s sound takes its cues from vintage Chicago blues and rock ’n’ roll — and earns bonus credibility points from Stubbs’ decade-plus tenure with harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite.

WHAT IS THIS? Their satisfying and authentic debut album, which includes cameos from Musselwhite and North Mississippi Allstars guitar master Luther Dickinson.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? JD McPherson fronting The Black Keys at Buddy Guy’s Legends.