WILLIAM SHATNER: THE BLUES

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2020)

William Shatner has been an icon of pop culture pretty much since the concept itself emerged: He needs no summary at all for his influential role as Captain Kirk on the original STAR TREK series, after which he went on to TJ HOOKER, BOSTON LEGAL and an increasingly eccentric series of recordings (the first of which, 1968’s THE TRANSFORMED MAN, is now legendary). Shatner has been satirized, imitated, mythologized and, by certain former colleagues, dismissed as arrogant and self-centered. He’s bigger than life, this guy, and everything he does, just about, commands attention. Not long ago he recorded a Christmas album that sold pretty well, and that must have planted the seed to start exploring other genres. Thus, we now get THE BLUES, an unlikely and potentially controversial collection of Blues standards and Blues-flavored rockers that find Shatner absolutely being himself, for better or worse, in a style of music that would seem to be light years from his comfort zone. How does a privileged white Canadian icon insert himself into a mostly black, angst-laced genre that is all about authenticity and down to earth emotions? Well, he hires a bunch of legendary players to back him, for one. Thus we get guys like Steve Cropper, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, James Burton, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore and others to power the legend through classics like “Smokestack Lightning,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and the Muddy Waters classic “Mannish Boy,” among many others. Let’s start with that last song, which really does work, astoundingly. The groove is a timeless blues template, but Shatner has no trouble at all delivering lyrics like “Now I’m a man, way past 21/Want you to believe me, baby/I have lots of fun.” The recontextualization of such a famous tune is kind of a hoot, and when Shatner sings “I’m a natural born lover’s man/I’m a hoochie coochie man” late in the song, he lets out an energetic “Woo!” that lets you know he’s having fun. Someone will put this on at a party somewhere, and people will be laughing and wanting to know who it is. Same with “I Put a Spell On You,” a timeless chestnut that was already a bit demented in the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, so having Shatner here trying to play it just slightly unhinged works fine. The musicians throughout are playing with fierce, bottom-anchored chops as on “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crossroads,” which in a recent interview Shatner said he was fascinated by regarding the apocryphal Robert Johnson story about a minimally talented guy selling his soul to the devil to perform at a much higher level. You wanna be the one to write an entertaining essay comparing Robert Johnson to William Shatner, go right ahead. But Shatner digs in here, and although many will scratch their heads, this stuff isn’t boring. You gotta wonder, though, with the sterling musicianship on “Smokestack Lightning,” isn’t it a disservice to have a hokey, jokey vocal that draws your attention away from the groove? That “Chicago” song, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and a few others are a bit hard to take; Shatner bellows, screeches and over-dramatizes the words (non-singing, technically) in a manner that can truly annoy. “You hear me moanin’ and groanin’/It hurts… ” go the lyrics, and yeah, that’ll sum it up for many. Shatner’s shtick is more palatable when he’s doing his patented “talk singing,” as on “Sunshine of Your Love,” a highlight here. Shatner’s sense of fun and self-awareness is almost palpable in this performance; he’s winking at the listener, and well aware of the unlikeliness of what he’s doing. “The Thrill Is Gone” is also “Shatnerized” effectively (that word should be in the dictionary by now), as ol’ Bill keeps a sort of subtle mockery in the mix when he tells an unknown woman “Oh yeah, oh yeah/I’m free, I’m free from your spell now… ” with unique vocal tics adding to the impact.

WILLIAM SHATNER, August 2019 (photo credit: GABE ZINSBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Fans of George Takei will find irony in Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” which features Canned Heat. If this one doesn’t make you smile, face it, you aren’t destined to be a fan of Shatner’s music. The pauses, the enunciation… pure Bill! If hearing him say “Let’s make life worthwhile” and repeat that title over and over can’t tickle your funny bone, hey, no biggie. Shatner surely won’t care. But if you’re the big picture sort, you may even find poignancy in “Secrets and Sins,” the relatively drowsy closing track here, and the most personal song. I was always moving forward/Was always saying ‘yes’/A thousand little triumphs… ” Shatner chuckles audibly after a few more lines, then says “You may not like this answer/I do everything the same.” Yes and no, actually. Shatner does approach every project in life with the same sense of confidence in his own worthiness, and the same sense of pure fun. But he finds many different ways to BE William Shatner, and to serve up surprises both big and small. Sure, he can be insufferable, and you have every right to think he’s somehow desecrating the real spirit of the Blues on this album. But you gotta admit, he’s got panache… and he enjoys the hell out of his life, now in his late 80s. Personally, I think that makes this album some kind of wacky landmark. Shatner’s still moving ahead at Warp 7.


BLACKMORE’S NIGHT: DANCER AND THE MOON

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2013)

blackmoresnight_album_cover

Ritchie Blackmore is a rocker. Starting in the early 1960s with Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages and the Outlaws, Blackmore rocked. Through two stints in both Deep Purple and Rainbow, Blackmore rocked. He tried really hard not to rock with Blackmore’s Night but, as may have been mentioned somewhere else, Ritchie Blackmore is a rocker. Thus, the duo’s (that would be Blackmore and his wife, Candice Night… see the nifty wordplay involved there?) latest, DANCER AND THE MOON, rocks harder than any of their previous releases… in a very Renaissance Fayre sort of way.

The album starts with a kind of slow burn on Randy Newman’s classic, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” before the percussion kicks in followed, in short order, by a classic Blackmore fill and a solo that, while understated for Ritchie, reminds the listener just who we’re talking about here. Candice’s beautiful, lilting voice adds a certain “classical” sound to the tune that makes this one of my favorite versions of the song. The next couple of songs, “Troika” and “The Last Leaf,” revert to form for what this group has become best known for: Old European Folk Music. The latter definitely sounds like something that you would expect to hear from a minstrel in the Courts of Camelot, while the former is very reminiscent of a Russian or Eastern European gypsy song.

Blackmore's Night (MICHAEL KEEL)

Blackmore’s Night (photo credit: MICHAEL KEEL)

A very atmospheric take on one of Uriah Heep’s best known songs, “Lady In Black.” is next, with Candice’s woodwinds adding a great touch and Blackmore doing what he does best… shredding. Yes, I said shredding! The only thing that could have possibly improved this version of the song would have been inviting Ken Hensley to add a little heft with that awesome Hammond B3 that he’s so well known for. “Lady In Black” is followed by a nifty little madrigal performed by Ritchie on acoustic guitar. “Minstrels In the Hall” is short and certainly sweet.

Temple of the King” is the last of the “covers” on DANCER AND THE MOON, a tribute to Ritchie’s friend and Rainbow vocalist/lyricist, the late Ronnie James Dio. I’m sure that Ronnie would have approved of this arrangement, replacing the bluesy hard rock vibe with a more medieval sound. Blackmore once more steps out of the wandering minstrel boots to offer a fiery electric lead and another great solo. The title track has a very Celtic sound that, once again, returns to the core concept of Blackmore’s Night. Coming, as it does, after “Temple of the King,” it’s easy to imagine “Dancer and the Moon” as something that Blackmore and Dio would have written for LONG LIVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.

Blackmore's Night (publicity photo)

Blackmore’s Night (publicity photo)

Galliard” and the traditional tune, “The Ashgrove,” continue in the vein, with Night’s voice taking front and center and Blackmore chiming in with some understated acoustic instrumentation before adding what can only be described as an “elegant” solo on the next track, “Somewhere Over the Sea (The Moon Is Shining).” Completely eschewing the medieval and folky arrangements and instrumentation, the band reworks the previous song as “The Moon Is Shining (Somewhere Over the Sea).” With modern keyboard textures, the use of electronic drums, and some very haunting lead guitar work from Ritchie, I could see this one getting some airplay on some Classic Rock stations around the country. Think Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow on this one.

Saying that Candice Night is Ritchie Blackmore’s muse may be a little over the top, but how can you listen to something like “The Spinner’s Tale” and at least not think it? Ritchie is here just to offer atmosphere, as it’s really Candice’s vocals and penny-whistle that carries the tune. The final track of the album is another instrumental, another tribute. “Carry On… Jon” is a slow blues riff with great guitar and an organ solo (compliments of Bard David of Larchmont, also called David Baranowski) that’s very reminiscent of Blackmore’s Deep Purple cohort and best friend, Jon Lord. Ritchie mentions that he had the song ready to record and once the tape started rolling (so to speak), it took on a rather melancholy feel. Like “Temple of the King,” it is a fitting tribute to a colleague so closely associated with Blackmore’s career. DANCER AND THE MOON offers more of the guitar histrionics that we’ve come to love and expect from Ritchie Blackmore, the rocker, but it also offers a glimpse at a softer, more nostalgic side of the man in black and somehow manages to maintain the stated aesthetic of Blackmore’s Night: To present an updated version of Renaissance and medieval style folk music. The album succeeds on all counts!