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Published: Wednesday, 9/22/2010

John Legend, Roots transcend generations

BLADE STAFF

Best album of 2010 (so far at least)?

Quite possibly. Certainly the best that I've heard.

Most important album of 2010?

Without a doubt.

The collaboration between John Legend and the Roots started in 2008 during the presidential campaign. Inspired by now President Barack Obama's message, they set out to make music addressed to the younger generation infused with hope and responsibility.

The Roots' main man ?uestlove dug into old '70s soul and funk protest music, much of it obscure, to provide a catalog of songs that would be recorded with Legend as frontman and the Roots as his backing band.

The result is "Wake Up!", a remarkably timely disc that speaks directly to younger people by using the music of a previous generation to state its case. War and poverty, hope and optimism, faith and a strong sense that our leaders don't always have our best interests in mind, all collide on this powerful album.

The Roots are a limber, tight unit, and Legend channels Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown, delivering his most gritty music to date. There are echoes of the Isley Brothers, Philly soul and hard-edged funk in the arrangements. At the same time, rappers such as Common, CL Smooth, and Black Thought give some of the songs a contemporary sheen.

Throughout the disc the message rings clear: Take responsibility for yourself and when presented with a challenge don't flinch. It's your future, so own it.

Highlights include a 12-minute vamp on Bill Withers' anti-war anthem "I Can't Write Left Handed" that includes a scorching guitar solo from The Roots' Kirk Douglas. There's also some monumental funk on "Hard Times" and "Our Generation" and a wonderfully optimistic call-to-arms pop track called "Wake Up Everybody."

There are no weak cuts on "Wake Up!" and the disc transcends generations and genres. Buy a copy for yourself or, better yet, get one for someone who's younger than you who you care about. It'll make them think and it'll make them dance.

Best of all, it might just make a difference.

- ROD LOCKWOOD

Husband and wife duo Joey Martin Feek and Rory Lee Feek make some of the most beautiful country music harmonies in recent memory. Wife Joey sings lead vocals while hubby Rory plays guitar and does mostly background vocals with an occasional foray to the front. With the new album, they show that their 2008 debut, "The Life of a Song" that yielded a Top 40 hit, "Cheater, Cheater," wasn't a fluke.

From the opening bars of the first song, this is hard-edge country throughout, but certainly not full-bore contemporary. There's a solid feel of old-timey, steel guitar smoothness with a loping backbeat on the title track, followed by an assortment of lively and soothing guitar-based numbers rooted in traditional country sounds.

Joey's gorgeous, slightly twangy vocals pave the way for great listening on almost all 12 tunes over 40 minutes. Several of these songs could very well find their way onto the charts. Album highlights include the humorous "God Help My Man (If He's Fooling Around)," the nostalgic "My Ol' Man" with Rory handling lead vocals, and the melodic, yet corny, "That's Important To Me."

Joey and Rory have already been cited as two of country music's top new artists by the Academy of Country Music and ought to be turning out hits and winning awards for a long time.

- KEN ROSENBAUM

FOUR ACES AND A HARP Swississippi Chris Harper (Swississippi Records)

ROB BLAINE'S BIG OTIS BLUES Rob Blaine (Swississippi Records)

LIVE AT LEGENDS Peaches Staten (Swississippi Records)

Even in a musical genre that probes the depth of the human spirit, times are tough for would-be entrepreneurs to start up a new business. But a new Chicago based blues label, Swississippi Records, debuted Tuesday with the release of these three discs.

Each are good, but the best is "Four Aces and a Harp", a CD in which label co-founder and chief executive officer Chris Harper, who plays harmonica on each song, is accompanied by Windy City greats such as Jimmy Burns and John Primer alternating songs as vocalist-guitarist, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, and Bob Stroger on bass.

The disc is surefire, down-home street-level Chicago blues, whereas the other two are more bluesy rock-oriented jam sessions in a larger ensemble format, or at least something that draws more from contemporary R&B and soul.

The label's name pays tribute to Switzerland native Harper's European background and that of co-founder-general manager-guitarist-producer Dave Katzman, who's steeped in traditional blues.

- TOM HENRY



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