Jeffreys toasts NYC on ‘14’ – Cray takes Memphis stroll with Hi

This cover image released by Luna Park Records shows ‘14 Steps to Harlem’, the latest release by Garland Jeffreys. (AP)
Garland Jeffreys, 14 Steps to Harlem” (Luna Park Records)

Garland Jeffreys salutes his New York City youth and roots on “14 Steps to Harlem,” the neighborhood as significant as memories of Lou Reed, The Clash and John Lennon.

Jeffreys digs deep into the past without it eclipsing the present. His childhood tales of watching his father’s daily work routine (the title track) or surviving as far from the tallest kid in class (“Schoolyard Blues”) mesh easily with a love song to his wife (“Venus”) and “Time Goes Away,” featuring his daughter Savannah on vocals and piano.

His multiracial identity adds a broad twist of empathy to “Colored Boy Said.” If the point that “I got a president who looks like me” is not current, it makes the contrasts of hope with sorrowful acts of violence all the more jarring.

Jeffreys met Reed at Syracuse University and does a sprightly cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man,” while Laurie Anderson adds violin to “Luna Park Love Theme,” a tender tune set on Coney Island. “Reggae on Broadway” recalls the legendary run of shows in 1981 by The Clash at Bonds on Times Square and Joe Strummer attending a gig by Jeffreys, then at the peak of his commercial success with the “Escape Artist” album.

Jeffreys hits the bulls-eye with a deaccelerated version of The Beatles’ “Help.” There’s real perspective in hearing a 73-year old recall when he was “so much younger than today” and Jeffreys’ still-great voice is the perfect medium for the message.

An essential NYC musician has revved up the engines again and it would be pointless not to hum along.

Robert Cray, “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” (Jay-Vee Records)

Robert Cray teams up with the Hi Records rhythm section for a Memphis stroll of soulful sounds and evocative songs.

Working with drummer and producer Steve Jordan at that city’s Royal Studios with musicians who backed Al Green, Ann Peebles and others there, Cray soaks up the character of the room for a set led by his expressive vocals and classy guitar licks.

“Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” opens with a cover of “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” from Bill Withers, as the steady sparkles of Jordan’s hi-hat immediately harken back to the famous Hi sound created under the late Willie Mitchell’s tutelage and represented here by the Rev. Charles Hodges (organ, piano), bassist Leroy Hodges and Archie Turner on keyboards.(AP)

Tony Joe White adds guitar and harmonica to a few of his own compositions — “Aspen, Colorado” is a passionate burner in the mold of his own classic “Rainy Night in Georgia,” while “Don’t Steal My Love” is deeply funky near-psychedelia.

Cray only takes three writing credits on the album but makes some wonderful and distinctive choices on the rest. They include “I Don’t Care” by Sir Mack Rice — who wrote “Mustang Sally” — and a split take on “I’m With You,” written by guitar hero Lowman Pauling of The 5 Royales. After getting the vocals out of the way on part one, Cray closes the record with an extended, searing solo on part two.

Cray’s talent and flexibility shine again, and if he makes a habit of collaborating with other famous rhythm sections, it would make for a fascinating series. (AP)

By Pablo Gorondi

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