Craig Brenner & the Crawdads
Live to Love
Craig Brenner

Bloomington’s own Craig Brenner & the Crawdads have just issued a new CD that romps with boogie, blues, jazz, R&B and even country in a delightful potpourri of 10 original songs. Craig Brenner, leader of the group and composer, lyricist and arranger of all 10 original numbers on the new CD, Live to Love, is an exemplar of what can happen when formal musical training meets deep-inside soulfulness and creativity.

Brenner graduated from Florida Southern College in 1970, then studied jazz piano with Wally Cirillo in Miami. He attended the justly renowned Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington from 1976 to 1980, where he studied piano, composition and improvisation, then undertook additional study through a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, studying boogie-woogie and stride piano under Bob Seeley and blues piano under Big Joe Duskin.

"Craig Brenner and the Crawdads, in addition to being a fine ensemble that sports horns, guitars and even vibes and accordion, is also somewhat of a family affair."

He regularly performs solo as well as being a sideman in the roots-rock Ragin’ Texans, and formed Craig Brenner & the Crawdads in 1985. Though there’s been changes in the lineup of the Crawdads over the years, most of the Crawdads are on board on Live to Love as a fine cast of musicians indeed.

Craig Brenner and the Crawdads, in addition to being a fine ensemble that sports horns, guitars and even vibes and accordion, is also somewhat of a family affair. Craig’s wife Lori Brenner, newest member of the group, is lead vocalist, and delights with her beautiful, melodious voice that’s also filled to the brim with expressiveness. Son Nathaniel Brenner plays stand-up and electric bass and does backup vocals, while stepdaughter Antonya Wallace plays vibes and also does backup vocals. Craig Brenner himself, given his training, obviously plays piano, but also organ and clavinet, does backup vocals, and adds percussion.

Other Crawdads are guitarists Mike Baker and Gordon Bonham, one of the finest blues guitarists in Central and Southern Indiana. Tim Brookshire plays drums, congas and other percussion, Dena El Saffar plays viola, David Wierhake accordion, and T.J. Jones is featured excellently on funk guitar on the CD’s “Homage to New Orleans” track.

The dynamic horn section is composed of Joe Donnelly on baritone and tenor sax, Forrest Means on trumpet and Dave Pavloka on trombone. The horn players unite on substantive ensemble work, but each is given ample space to do excellent solos as well. Brenner also contributes solo work to Live to Love, as we would expect, but is also a non-competitive accompanist as well, which is part of the solidity of his arranging. For most of the tracks are ensemble affairs, and Brenner as arranger knows well how to incorporate solos and soloists to enhance, not egotistically compete, with the ensemble base.

Photograph Courtesy of

Bloomington's Craig Brenner has a new CD through Craig Brenner & the Crawdads. It's titled Live to Love and features a variety of performers.

Of the tracks on Live to Love, four are instrumentals. Two are Brenner solos accompanied with drums, his original compositions in boogie-woogie and blues piano that demonstrate that he is indeed the “fine and funky pianist” Living Bluesmagazine said he was. The first of these, “The Bloomington Breakdown,” is a rocking boogie-woogie, the second is an up-tempo blues, “The Crawdad Shuffle,” that features an excellent blues guitar solo as well, probably done by Gordon Bonham. The six-minute instrumental, “Homage to New Orleans,” opens with the horns playing an ominous hymn, then breaks into 1970s funk led excellently by T.J. Jones’s funk-style guitar with special effects, ably abetted by sax and Brenner on organ, where he is just as adept as he is on piano. The last track, “The Garden,” is also an instrumental, a horn-and-viola-driven jazz number with a Latin beat.

The remaining six are all vocals, five of them featuring Lori Brenner on lead vocals with vocal chorus, while the opening track, “Hey Anna, Come Back to Indiana!” features a male vocal chorus developing this plaintive theme with counterpoint response from Lori, especially in the blues bridge in the middle of what is, overall, a 1930s boogie swing with the horn section complementing Brenner’s boogie piano with a big-band sound.

Lori Brenner’s vocals are excellent on her five tracks, which partake of a variety of musical approaches. “Just One Glance” is 1950s R&B with horns and viola, accented by Craig Brenner’s musical triplet piano riffing. “How Many Times?” is a more contemporary R&B number, and “I Live to Love” is an upbeat jazz samba reminiscent in its feel of Bossa Nova, which is aptly described as melancholy samba. But then, somewhat surprisingly, comes “Standing On My Own Two Feet Again,” a contemporary country number that prominently features Wierhake’s accordion in a musical celebration of overcoming the sting of her man leaving and actually feeling better for it. This is a true Nashville song (the one in Tennessee, not the artsy tourist trap in Indiana) that owes its inspiration to that period when Nashville gave us some substantive American music, that time of Patsy Cline, the original Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristoferson. There’s a line in “Standing On My Own Two Feet Again” that I especially like, and is a good example of the solidity that is part of Brenner’s lyrical creativity:

When you left you took the car
And drove it straight to the bar

"Lori Brenner’s vocals are excellent on her five tracks, which partake of a variety of musical approaches."

The final song on Live to Love awaiting discussion is the longest track on the CD, the eight-minute-two-second anti-imperialist screed set to modern jazz, “Loading the Boats to America.” This is a song that works well both politically and musically, and is an impassioned call to the conscience of us here in the United States to become aware how much our material over-consumption comes at the expense of the poor in Latin America, who produce the coffee and bananas we so love. Lori Brenner’s impassioned vocals complement Craig Brenner’s equally impassioned lyrics here, as she decries, in part:

Multinationals are big,
Yes, my friend,
And you are unintentionally
Fattening the pigs

These words bring home to us here in the often still comfortable recession economy of the United States those telling truths found in both John-Paul Sartre’s “Silence is complicity” and in Che Guevara’s “I can’t help it if reality is Marxist.” But the import of “Loading the Boats to America” is not just in this plea for conscience, but also in its clarion call, understated yet insistent, for solidarity across borders and oceans with the poor and working classes of Latin America. Further, this message is complemented, not compromised, by the musical eloquence of its jazz backdrop.

Craig Brenner and “Loading the Boats to America” join those other political songwriters and their works that also make high art of protest -- that substantive notion of art saying something that runs through the songs of the Wobblies and the compositions of Bertolt Brecht, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly through those of contemporary folksingers Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Ann Feeney and in our own immediate day, pop artists Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks as well. And even this fairly extensive list leaves out others equally deserving of note, just showing that those who complain that politics can have no place in art, and that politics in art only demeans art for the sake of politics, really don’t know what they’re talking about.

Many of Craig original boogie-woogie and blues piano compositions are available as sheet music. Aurally enhancing Live to Love is the brightly colored painting by Joel Washington on the sleeve jacket of Craig Brenner playing piano, which Washington adapted from a photo by Jeff Hammond.

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