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Hot Chicken Wisdom
 

First off, what IS Hot Chicken Wisdom, besides the new album from guitarist/singer-songwriter Rich Mahan, his first full-length release since 2012’s Blame Bobby Bare? Well, there’s a story behind that, a tasty, poignant one reflected in its diversity of genres, tones, and grooves.

To hear Rich tell it, we begin in Nashville, Tennessee, where the California native now lives, and where he and a crack band waxed his debut, Blame Bobby Bare, at the Rendering Plant, a studio owned by engineer/producer Brian “Brain” Harrison (Shelby Lynne). Brain quickly became a confidante and trusted guide to Music City, particularly its epicurean pleasures, as he directed the newcomer to the fiery flavors of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, a Nashville institution since 1945. Brain was also renown for his way with language and the wild-life tales he spun with it. Thus, he was blessed with “Hot Chicken Wisdom.”

In 2014, Brain died suddenly of a heart attack at age 54, just as he and Rich were prepping a new album. Rich put the new album on hold and focused on performing live “until the desire to complete these recordings had healed.” By that time, he had completed his home studio, which Brain had helped him design, and Hot Chicken Wisdom was born.

Hot Chicken Wisdom, due June 21, is the outcome of that process, an often-raucous, tongue-in- cheek celebration of life and gratitude steeped in country, barrelhouse rock, juke-joint infernos, sanctified redemption, and gleeful flights into jam-band divinity, all from an artist schooled by everyone from Bobby Bare and ZZ Top to the Grateful Dead, Commander Cody, Frank Zappa, and Little Feat. The Alternate Root has deftly called him a "roots-music Buddha whose songs always make sure the faithful leave with a grin" — and maybe a legend or two of their own to spin.

This 11-cut disc is no exception, kicking off with “Boots Off,” a tantalizing saunter in country- rock threads with a squalid-funky lope to kill. “Daydrinking” slakes a bleary-eyed thirst on a double shot of righteous six-string peelers. “Coffee in the Morning,” the sunnier yin to its yang, floats easy along an acoustic current. If you can’t make it to Prince’s in person, “Hot Chicken and an Ice Cold 40,” grinding down atop P.T. Gazell’s (Johnny Paycheck) grit-caked harmonica and a sweat-baked Mahan solo, is bound to satisfy.

Wah-wah curls drive the jaunty “Hippie in the City,” an undaunted sonic stranger in a strange land that nevertheless keeps on truckin’, backed by soul-powered harmonies from Bekka Bramlett (Bekka & Billy, Fleetwood Mac). It’s smartly paired with a take on the Dead’s “Loose Lucy,” a slinky blowout that grows in git-down as Lucy weaves groove and the band turns hot. It’s also the last track the crew cut with Brain before his untimely passing.

But you can't have wisdom without the funny and sweet, and Hot Chicken's got plenty of both, including the strummin' roller "I Smoke Pot." Conversely, "Stoned as a Roman Slave" one of Brain’s famed expressions, explores the beauty of a hallowed high, complete with gospel-choir redemption and David Ralston's dobro purr. The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" receives exquisite treatment, and Chuck Prophet’s "Open Up Your Heart" burns with a holy, authentic Nashville sumptuousness here. Bassist Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed) sets the tone with a soulful groove.

It's the end of the album, but the rise of a new beginning -- a tribute to fallen friends, callbacks to good times, liquid conversations deep into the night, and experience accrued over an adventurous life. Hot Chicken Wisdom may not have come easy to Rich Mahan, but it goes down smooth, and the party's just getting started.

 
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