East Side Slim
T And A – (“Untitled, but referred to as the Kitchen Album”) – Self-Released, 2014
T And A – (“Untitled, but referred to as the Kitchen Album”) – Self-Released, 2014
Tom Hall and Alice Spencer (T and A, or T&A), are no strangers to the music scene of St. Louis. Both are longtime veterans of The Geyer Street Sheiks (Sheiks are Punks), although Alice was a relative newcomer when she 1st hooked up with the band over 20 years ago – she was still almost a kid, singing old tunes along with musicians a generation (or more) older than herself. But, it worked! Out of the band environment of the Sheiks eventually came the duo project of T&A, as Tom and Alice realized there were songs and styles they wanted to explore that just didn’t fit well within the framework of The Geyer Street Sheiks. In late 2013, Tom and Alice revisited the T&A concept after a hiatus of approximately 20 years. As the saying goes, you don’t want to hurry a good thing, and a good thing this album is!
The album, from this point referred to as “the Kitchen Record” (due to cover art, Robert Johnson, and a few other cosmic coincidences) is as fine an acoustic blues/jazz recording as you’ll hear this year. Sonically, it has a depth and warmth that nearly takes your breath away – you feel as if Tom and Alice are in the room with you. This is due in no small part to the talent of Tom and Alice, and also to the top-shelf production folks on-board for this project. Tom’s phenomenal guitar playing is sometimes underrated (if you can believe that), likely due to his own distaste for self-promotion. Alice possesses a rare gift of a voice: rich, warm, controlled and nuanced – she can make you smile or cry or laugh or blush – sometime all within a single verse and chorus! The Austin, Texas production team of Danny Levin (primary engineer, and producer along with T&A), Joey Benjamin (assistant engineer), Stuart Sullivan (mixing – and a master of his craft), Brad Blackwood (mastering) and Dave Toretta (additional engineering) deserves mention, and there it was. You work with the best, you tend to achieve the most – and that is certainly true with The Kitchen Album. By the way, much of the production cost was given to T&A (meaning at little to no cost) due to the high respect with which Alice Spencer is held within the Austin music scene. What costs remained were crowed-sourced via a very successful Kickstarter campaign.
All of the tunes on this album are cover versions (song rights are expensive, hence one reason Kickstarter was needed), and they are an interesting collection from songwriters of varied genres, from Robert Johnson to Allen Toussaint to Randy Newman. Let’s run down the tracks for you, one by one, to give you a feel for: 1) how important songwriters are to both Tom and Alice, and 2) the fine performances by T&A and friends.
1. My Babe – (Willie Dixon)
--Alice and Tom completely re-arranged this tune (which is most closely associated with Little Walter), converting it from a prototypical electric Chicago blues to a finger-twisting, foot-stomping back-porch acoustic stomper. Tom is pickin’ fancily and Alice is singin’ sweetly, setting the stage – and the mood – for the remaining songs on the album
2. My Daddy Rocks Me – (J. Berni Barbour)
--Alice is at her seductive best on this song of tin-pan alley soul, leaving no doubt as to what the title actually refers to. Her vocal control is astounding, being able to sing as sweetly as honey one moment and with an incredibly seductive purr the next. Extra musicians were brought in for this cut, as Oliver Steck plays trumpet and Danny Levin (the album producer and a fine musician) plays piano.
3. Devil Got My Woman – (Nehemiah James)
--You know musicians’ hearts are truly captured by blues and roots styles when they credit a Skip James tune to his real name, Nehemiah. The tune is stark, it is melancholy, it is sad…but it is also beautiful. T&A perform it true to that spirit, as Tom’s guitar playing is absolutely striking in its beauty, and Alice’s vocal is haunting, nuanced and gorgeous. This may be my favorite performance among a CD full of favorite performances; outstanding!
4. Black Cat Blues – (Memphis Minnie)
--It’s hard to credit a tune to Minnie’s real name, as she married and “hooked-up” with so many partners that it’s difficult to determine what her name was at any given time! Tom and Alice pace the CD nicely here, bring the tempo and spirit up to a brighter, happier feel after the starkness of the previous tune. It sounds as if there are two guitar players here, rather than only Tom (he really is that talented.) This one is jaunty and sly and a lot of fun…you can almost hear the twinkle in Alice’s eye, as well as her sly smile, through the double-entendres.
5. Come On In My Kitchen – (Robert Johnson)
--Tom put a slide on a finger here, playing the ol’ National for all it’s worth, making it scream, cry, moan and ring as if it was a living being. Additionally, Tom and Alice perform a unison vocal duet, with the contrast between Tom’s gruff, deep tone and Alice’s pure, sweet tone blending magnificently – to the point where it can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
6. Last Night I Had A Dream – (Randy Newman)
--It’s not often you’ll hear mention of a vampire or ghost on a blues album, but you do on this tune from the pen of Randy Newman. Tom’s playing here is lyrical, to the extent that it essentially serves as a 2nd voice to Alice’s, with both artists vary the dynamics and volume of their performances to create mood and tension.
7. Mess Around – (Ahmet Ertegun)
--Yes, it’s “that” Mess Around, the one associated with Ray Charles. James Gwyn is playing snare drum here, with the percussion supplying a syncopated feel to this up-tempo track. Alice is singing with gusto and Tom is once again playing as if he had a twin (but it’s only him.)
8. Phonograph Blues – (Robert Johnson)
--This is my other favorite-among-favorites on the CD, and is a vocal feature for Tom Hall. It’s essentially a solo piece for Tom, except for Alice’s beautifully haunting background vocals. Alice’s spectral moaning intensifies the feelings of loss contained in the song’s lyric (sung in a wearied-by-the-World manner by Tom.)
9. Some Of These Day – (Shelton Brooks)
--Shelton Brooks is a now shamefully under-recognized songwriter who had a prolific and successful career in the early part of the 20th century. Tin Pan Alley is visited once again here, with Tom picking a lovely melody and Alice opening up the old vocal pipes a bit, singing both loud and proud.
10. Funny But I Still Love You – (Ray Charles)
--While “Mess Around” was strongly associated with Ray Charles, it was actually written by his boss, Ahmet Ertegun. Maybe that’s why T&A chose to perform this Charles tune. It was a fine choice, and the decision to render it as a touching, tender, acoustic ballad was inspired (as was the decision to have Oliver Steck play muted trumpet on the tune – a stroke of genius.) We are also treated to Alice singing in her pretty, sensual voice here (shades of early Maria Muldaur….)
11. Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley – (Allen R. Toussaint)
--Talk about inspired…re-arranging “Sneakin’ Sally” as a back-porch stomper, stripping it back to the bare emotion of the lyrical content, what a fine decision, and the listener is reaps the rewards. This is hip, fun, sly, and a real work-out for Tom’s fingers on that guitar. Alice’s spoons are getting a work-out as well. You can never have too much spoons.
12. Rainbow Dreams – (Eddie Lang)
--Other than a couple spoken words just after this song’s intro, it is performed as an instrumental. It’s an early 20th century jazz piece, written by noted jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (see more on Lang at the end of the entry.) Tom’s a pickin’, Alice is a whistlin’, and guests Danny Levin and Oliver Steck join in on the fun on piano and euphonium, respectively. What a joyous way to end the album; once again, outstanding!
(Eddie Lang (real name Salvatore Massaro) was a top-tier jazz guitarist who played quite a bit with Lonnie Johnson and recorded fairly prolifically before an early death (age 30) due to complications after a tonsillectomy. Eddie Lang is thought of by many as the father of jazz guitar, and was a great influence on players such as Django Reinhardt.)
Well, there you have it, the full run-down on the new album from Tom Hall and Alice Spencer - otherwise known as The Kitchen Album from T and A. Folks in St. Louis are well aware of the talents of both Tom Hall and Alice Spencer (and it’s time to get that word out much farther afield.) But, I think they may be slightly surprised by the depth and the power and the beauty of their stunning new album. Yes, stunning. The song choices are inspired, the performances are magnificent and the production is so warm and so friendly that you are almost saddened when the last notes of the final song play out. Thank God you can press the replay button hear it all once again! A STLBluesometer rating of 5.0 to this one - I'd rate it even higher, but the top mark on STLBluesometer is 5. Purchase this CD, and enjoy!
Lee Howland - aka East Side Slim