A trip through roots American music with a smorgasbord of well known and deep cut covers
A J Croce has built his reputation as a respected singer-songwriter who has written with some of the best songwriters in the business including Leon Russell, Dan Penn, Robert Earl Keen and Gary Nicholson. He is also a multi-instrumentalist and a renowned piano player who had worked with B B King and Ray Charles before he was 21 and has subsequently performed with artists ranging from Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder and Bela Fleck. This gives you a sense of the stylistic range of A J Croce within American roots music. His new album ‘By Request’ marks a significant change in his recorded output as it is his first album to contain only covers of other people’s songs and the first time he has recorded with his road band. However, before anyone thinks this is simply another COVID album recorded during lockdown it was planned and recorded before COVID struck and allows A J Croce to really show his and his road band’s instrumental, interpretive and improvisational skills. Once you realise his road band comprises Dr. John’s bassist of 30 years David Barard, Van Morrison’s and Steve Miller’s famed session drummer Gary Mallaber and up and coming Nashville guitarist Garrett Stoner you know you can expect something special.
The song selection on ‘By Request’ comes from songs requested by A J Croce’s friends when they attended informal performances at his Nashville home where he would play requests. The songs are wide-ranging, some familiar and some deep cuts from well-known and obscure artists. Whatever the original arrangement, A J Croce and his band show their mastery with unique and innovative arrangements that show his true understanding of the art of the song. The album opens with a cover of Billy Preston’s 1974 chart-topper ‘Nothing From Nothing’ which is given a funky New Orleans arrangement with added horns and you know you are going to a party. Next, we get a gospel version of ’After The Goldrush’ track ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ by Neil Young. A J Croce visits Randy Newman’s catalogue for ‘Have You Seen My Baby’ which was also covered by Fats Domino and he plays it like “Little Richard sitting in with the Flaming Groovies”. We then go back to 1962 for a cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’ which showcases A J Croce’s Hammond B3 skills. East Nashville resident Robben Ford adds his guitar to a shuffle arrangement of Brownie McGee’s ‘Better Day’ which just happens to be the first song A J Croce learned to play on guitar.
Our next stop on this trawl through American roots styles is Chicago for a stately version of the Five Stairsteps 1970 hit ‘O-o-h Child’. A J Croce next decides to cross the Atlantic for a version of The Faces ‘Stay With Me’ which features him on Wurlitzer organ, in recognition of the influence of the late Ian McLagen, that has real Southern grit. It is back to New Orleans for a version of Allen Toussaint’s ‘Brickyard Blues’ which is not too much of a stretch for bassist David Barard who previously worked with Toussaint. Tom Waits’ ‘San Diego Serenade’ is given a heartfelt rendition from this ex-resident with the lyrics being particularly relevant now A J Croce lives half a continent away in East Nashville and the horn arrangement is possibly the best on the record. The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor’ is possibly their last major composition and while it has been covered a number of times by numerous artists, including Shawn Colvin, A J Croce’s arrangement based on what he imagined Willie Dixon would sound like on psychedelics is definitely different. As the record starts drawing to a close we move to real country soul territory with a fine version of Solomon Burke’s ‘Can’t Nobody Love You’ before closing with Shorty Long’s 1969 track ‘Ain’t No Justice’ with lyrics that are still relevant over 50 years later.
There we have it. A smorgasbord of songs from all corners of American roots music, and while the twang content may be turned down there is no doubt as to the true americana nature of the music. If you are new to A J Croce and have an interest in the music of americana founding fathers like Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Dr. John and Leon Russell and the musicians who influenced them, then you will find much to enjoy on ‘By Request’. If you are already a fan, you will still marvel at the musicality of these versions which bear the A J Croce stamp just as much as if he wrote them himself.
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