“A Pre-Existing Condition”
When David Dondero visited Billings last December, he performed surrounded by flowers in the greenhouse of Gainan’s Garden Center in the Heights. It may have been his best-smelling show ever.
It was a short set, and he seemed distracted. Five or six songs in he asked if anyone in the crowd would drive him back to Bozeman, where his car had broken down earlier in the day.
Not exactly the image of an artist National Public Radio named among the 10 best living songwriters, a list that included Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney.
But there was plenty evidence of that in his songs that night, and some of it here, too, on his ninth solo album, even though it’s mostly a collection of covers.
Dondero has always been better with a band lifting his vivid folk songs above his passable guitar playing. Here he gets some help from Rob Keller, William Tonks and his old Sunbrain bandmate Russ Hallauer, along with a few others. It’s an acoustic album, with a little harmonizing, which is new for Dondero.
Together they stroll through songs that suit Dondero’s hardcore troubadour lifestyle, including Little Feat’s “Willin’,” Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” and “Don’t Cry No Tears” from Neil Young.
The four originals aren’t Dondero’s best work but are good enough. The best of them are the bluesy title cut and “Please Hand Me Over to the Undertaker.”
“I’ve had enough of life on the road,” he sings in the latter. “I don’t got no place left to go.”
“House on Fire”
Sugar Hill Records
Brian Wright’s new album is subtitled: “Fourteen songs on the subjects of love and arson.”
And, those aren’t exactly separate events in Wright’s book.
After two albums with a band, “House on Fire” is essentially a chummy living room recording, with Wright playing most of the instruments, coaxing friends in here and there to add National guitar, some piano, fiddle, horns, accordion and lots of pretty female vocals.
The laid-back approach forces you to listen to Wright’s perfect little stories, the best of them a tale of two brothers in love with the same woman, a woman named Maria Sugarcane. It’s a tale of jealousy, murder and unrequited love that would have fit easily on Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”
“My brother was born shaking/ And he wore our father’s rage/ And he stumbled through the autumn underneath the winter’s weight,” Wright sings. “In the corner of the graveyard, near the spot my brother lay/ Far past the noble families, two more plots are saved/ When I and fair Maria have seen our final days, may they bury her between us, my Maria Sugarcane.”
There are more songs like that, plenty of them.
Los Fabulocos, featuring Kid Ramos
Delta Groove Music
It was fine enough when ex-Blazers Mike Molina and Jesus Cuevas formed Los Fabulocos in 2004, with a debut album that mixed Cali-Mex rock with Ranchera ballads.
Since then, with the addition of bassist James Barrios and former Fabulous Thunderbird Kid Ramos, the band’s sound is even rootsier, with an added blues and Bakersfield vibe.
On paper, it sounds like a mess, but these tavern-trained vets make it work. They effortlessly mix buckle-polishing slow dancers like “I Never Thought” with party-starters like the opener, “Everything Will Turn Out” and the uptempo “The Vibe” with its accordion-driven Los Locos meets New Orleans feel and sizzling guitar breaks.
“I Never Thought” could have slipped off a Freddy Fender album. And the Spanish language “Los Chucos Suaves” wings on a nice Latin beat, while “Una Pura Y Dos Con Sal” and “Un Puno de Tierra” are pure Ranchero. Ramos gets his licks in on the roaring “My Brother’s Keeper.”
Come to think of it, it is a little messy and it turns out that’s part of the charm.