Sweet Relief: Various Artists

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Sweet Relief III: Pennies From Heaven arrives on the 20th anniversary of the inaugural release, Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams. It’s also the first addition to the series since Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, a collection dedicated to Vic Chestnutt, in 1996. The new compilation features 13 heartfelt new recordings of classic songs by an all-star cast that includes Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, Shelby Lynne, Victoria Williams, She & Him, Eleni Mandell, Ron Sexsmith, k.d. lang, Rickie Lee Jones, Joseph Arthur and more. The cover art is by an all-star as well—pop art legend Peter Max. 

The album was conceived and produced by Sheldon Gomberg at L.A.’s Carriage House, in several cases working in collaboration with the featured artists. Gomberg has produced or recorded albums for several of them, including the most recent albums by Harper and Mandell’s The Living Sisters. The vocalists were backed by a revolving cast of skilled players, including drummers Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s longtime tub thumper), Jay Bellerose and Don Heffington, guitarist Brian Ray (Paul McCartney) and Gary Mallaber (who played vibes on Van Morrison’s original version of ‘Crazy Love’), with Gomberg and Davey Faragher (of Costello’s current band the Imposters) splitting most of the bass parts. Vanguard is releasing the album in support of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling while facing illness, disability or age-related problems.

Gomberg explains what inspired him to undertake the project: “When I was diagnosed with MS and first started having trouble walking, I could no longer get up the stairs to my house, so I had to replace them with a lift, and Sweet Relief helped me. I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe I could help pay them back somehow for their kindness to me.’ So I put together this concept, talked to them about it and after a little while it flew. Then I went to work putting the whole thing together. I did pretty much every step of it, from the germ of the idea to producing, recording and mixing it. So if you hate it, it’s probably my fault,” he quips. No chance of that reaction from any listener with taste or a heart.

Each of the artists on Sweet Relief III: Pennies From Heaven selected a song addressing to a greater or lesser degree what Gomberg explains was “a loose concept” related to need or help. The Toronto-based Sexsmith, the first artist to record a track for the project, jumped at the opportunity to tackle the standard Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston-penned “Pennies from Heaven,” acknowledging that he’s a big fan of Bing Crosby, who popularized the uplifting Depression-era song. At that point, Gomberg knew he had the album’s title and its opening track. Sam Phillips also dipped into the Great American Songbook for the album’s most tongue-in-cheek selection, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ “Hey Big Spender,” from the musical Sweet Charity. Victoria Williams chose Sam Cooke’s uplifting “A Change Is Gonna Come,” while Rickie Lee Jones departed from the album’s theme but sustained its poignancy and SoCal-centric feel, covering the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” 

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