A day at the carnival: rides, popcorn and cotton candy, barkers, sideshows, games of chance and games of skill. Games of skill are what Bobby Whitlock, his wife CoCo Carmel and their hot band bring to this Carnival, recorded live in their hometown of Austin, TX.
Whitlock, best known as a member of Delaney and Bonnie’s band and as an integral part of Derek and the Dominos (writing or co-writing six of the songs on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs), has been experiencing a renaissance these last few years with an autobiography, a slew of new recordings, and the long overdue reissue of his first two solo albums. Carnival: Live in Austin finds him at the top of his game, with a healthy selection of classics drawn from his Derek and the Dominos days, plus more recent songs.
A hard driving band is needed to successfully pull off the energetic song selection here and Whitlock and Carmel have it in their three accompanists, all hot players on the Austin scene. Jeff Plankenhorn, often referred to as the “Swiss Army Knife of sidemen”, handles the guitar-centric songs with verve. Jimmy Pettit is a veteran bass player on the Austin scene, while drummer Brannen Temple has performed with artists ranging from Janet Jackson to Eric Johnson and Robben Ford. Versatility is the word that best describes this group.
But it all comes down to Whitlock. His distinctive vocals, as deep and blue as a starry southern summer night, are the center of each song. It’s a soulful, sometimes sorrowful, and always cathartic voice—equal parts whiskey, grits, and honey. It turns tracks such as his “John the Revelator” into gospel revival and late night bar room blitz simultaneously.
An important part of the mix is Whitlock’s partner, both in marriage and music, CoCo Carmel. Carmel plays saxophone and has a bluesy, powerful singing voice. Her vocals often double Whitlock’s, lightening and adding color to his deep baritone. Her sax on the Hendrix standard “Little Wing” (done in the sweeping, grandiose Derek and the Dominoes arrangement) adds a moody jazzy majesty.
There’s a theme of perseverance, despite life’s obstacles and hard times, that runs through the album with tracks like “River Of Life”, “It’s Not the End of the World”, “Got to Get Better”, and “Keep On Growing”.
Though the song selection flows well, the show would have been a good opportunity to revisit some songs from his four solo ‘70s records, especially now that the first two are back in print. For the detail obsessed (like myself), information is missing on exactly when and where in Austin the album was recorded. But these are minor quibbles. In the end, this carnival is well worth the price of admission.