Music Reviews: Del Shannon’s ‘Dublin Sessions’ and Big Star ‘Live at Lafayette’s Music Room,’ plus John Gorka and the Railsplitters

Del Does Dublin

Dublin Sessions by Del Shannon

Sometimes, when a record label unearths material from the vaults, one listen tells you why it stayed unreleased for so long. Other times, the tracks are good enough to make you wonder how they could have remained in the can until now. The lion’s share of Del Shannon’s Dublin Sessions fits the latter category.

According to the liner notes by co-executive producer Brian Young, Shannon shopped around this 1977 material with no success, then lapsed into depression and alcoholism. By the time he got out of rehab and started working with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on what would become the Petty-produced Drop Down and Get Me, the Dublin material “just sort of fell into the rear-view mirror.”

Too bad, because this collection of seven originals (two penned with cowriters) and four covers offers more evidence that Shannon was one of early rock’s great vocalists. Granted, there are some ostensible attempts here to update and diversify his sound that don’t quite work. But those tracks are worth hearing for the vocals, and besides, they’re outnumbered by the album’s highlights, which include the hard-rocking “One Track Mind,” the mid-tempo “Amanda,” and the ballad, “Till I Found You” as well as all four of the well-chosen covers: Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters,” Los Bravos’s “Black Is Black,” Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Another Winner from Big Star

Live at Lafayette's Music Room by Big Star

Big Star fans have had lots of reasons to celebrate in the past year or so. We’ve witnessed a greatly expanded reissue of the indie rock progenitors’ classic third album, a tribute concert on CD and DVD, a best-of album, an expanded reissue and a collection of early work from cofounder Chris Bell, and an expanded rerelease of a 1995 solo set from cofounder Alex Chilton. And now comes Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, a January 1973 concert that has previously been available only on the Grammy-winning four-CD box set Keep an Eye on the Sky, which is or soon will be out of print.

The remastered concert recording catches the band at a difficult juncture: their superb first album, #1 Record, had recently flopped, leading a discouraged Bell to quit the group and leaving it in disarray. But the remaining members carried on, honoring a commitment to play the Lafayette’s Music Room gig, which had been booked prior to Bell’s departure.

If the now three-member group were feeling low, it doesn’t show in this 20-track set, where Bell continues to make his presence felt as author or cowriter of 11 of the songs.

The program includes impassioned readings of many numbers from the debut album and its excellent, yet-to-be-recorded follow-up, Radio City, such as “Back of a Car,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Don’t Lie to Me,” “The India Song,” “My Life Is Right,” “O My Soul,” “She’s a Mover,” “Thirteen,” “Try Again,” “Watch the Sunrise,” “Way Out West,” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” Also here are covers of the Kinks’ “Come On Now,” T Rex’s “Baby Strange,” Todd Rundgren’s “Slut,” and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Hot Burrito #2.” Only about a third of the songs are duplicated on Live, a Rykodisc release that was recorded the next year and released in 1992.

The album comes with a download code for a previously unavailable 14-minute radio interview with Chilton and bandmate Andy Hummel. Their brief replies to questions are not exactly illuminating, but the emotionally raw, Beatles-influenced music is loaded with attitude and consistently fine. If you’re wondering why people are still talking about Big Star after all these decades, just spend some time with the group’s studio albums and this potent live set.

Also Noteworthy

True in Time by John Gorka

John Gorka, True in Time. I haven’t heard all of the 15 albums that John Gorka has released since he debuted in 1987, but this atmospheric CD strikes me as probably the best of the half dozen or so I own. The introspective, deftly constructed lyrics are poetic and substantive, and Gorka couples his fine, intimate baritone to spare, effective instrumentation, most notably by Joe Savage on pedal steel and national steel guitars. The album mixes plaintive and profound folk ballads like “Blues with a Rising Sun” and the title cut with the occasional country-tinged up-tempo song like “Nazarene Guitar” and such amiable silliness as “The Body Parts Melody.” Red House Records labelmates Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky add harmony vocals on two tracks. True in Time feels carefully constructed, with every note and word in its proper place, yet it manages to sound natural and even rather spontaneous, perhaps because it was recorded mostly live in the studio, with few overdubs. This is a quiet, understated album that will pull you in on the strength of Gorka’s verse, voice, and melodies.

Jump In by the Railsplitters

The Railsplitters, Jump In. Album number three from the Colorado-based Railsplitters finds the sextet brewing up more of the winning mixture of bluegrass and folk/pop that fueled their earlier releases. As on those albums, chief strengths include the unaffected work of primary vocalist Lauren Stovall and the perfectly attuned instrumentation, which includes fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, and, on the title track, accordion. The poetic lyrics examine subjects ranging from the challenges of childhood to forgiveness and lost love.

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