CD REVIEWS OCTOBER 2014
Malaco - MCD 7546
The Malaco label’s re-entrance into the blues field is cause for celebration, and Mississippi native Grady Champion is an appropriate choice to host the party. Although he’s a harmonica player whose first and greatest influence was Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), he’s also a contemporary-minded stylist with a background in rap and contemporary R&B (he crossed over into the blues after being blown away by some Sonny Boy tracks he heard on a college radio station when he was in his twenties). He’s got the lyric edge and rhythmic dexterity of a hip-hop freestylist (as, for that matter, so did Sonny Boy himself), and his sound is both rooted in the modern Mississippi blues tradition and spiked with influences borrowed from neo-soul and contemporary southern soul blues. His voice is emotionally intense without being forced, and he’s capable of both nuance and subtlety even at his most declamatory.
This is a wide-ranging set including several Champion originals as well as contributions from blues and soul blues masters like Ernie Johnson (Don’t Waste My Time) and the late George Jackson (the title tune). Jackson’s storyline finds the protagonist waking up hung over in a small-town motel alongside a “lil’ ol’ ugly girl”—a somewhat non-p.c. but all-too-bluesy vignette that Champion delivers in an appropriately rasp-tautened voice. Who Dat, in contrast, (co-written by Champion and former Beat Daddys lead singer Larry Grisham), portrays a road-weary bluesman’s dark night of the soul; guest vocalist Jj Thames’s Lorelei-like moans and background vocals add to the feel of haunted surrealism.
Both I Tripped and Fell In Love and the reggae-tinged Mr. Right sound tailor-made for a southern soul radio playlist (if the all-natural instrumentation doesn’t get in the way); but then, as if to prove that he’s still a roots man at heart, Champion also tears off some searing, harp-driven boogies (Beg, Borrow, Steal; Here We Go Y’all). The closer, White Boy With the Blues, is a profoundly spiritual narration about a life-ravaged Caucasian youth whose struggles and travails prove redemptive, even after his demise (the melodies of both Amazing Grace and Precious Memories waft through the backing arrangement).
The stylistic and thematic leaps here might be a little jarring for listeners wanting to immerse themselves single-mindedly in a particular genre, aesthetic, or mood—but open-eared adventurers of all stripes should find this disc satisfying. It bodes well for the future of both Champion and Malaco.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch
Concord - CRE 35187 02
Dr. John dreamed that the spirit of fellow New Orleans native son Louis Armstrong came to him with the exhortation “Take my music and do it your way.” He took the iconic trumpeter/singer at his word. Drawing upon the full range of Armstrong’s discography, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch weaves together blues, jazz, funk, gospel, spirituals, Afro-Caribbean grooves, hip-hop, romantic ballads, and swinging standards into a seductive and seamless sonic tapestry. This is no Armstrong repertory project; Dr. John and company are Armstrong’s musical progeny, and they honor the spirit of Satchmo by placing a premium on individual creativity within a group context shaped by Rebennack’s unique musical vision.
What makes Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch such an impressive achievement is the fact that it is the follow-up to Dr. John’s Locked Down, an edgy, alt-rock, bluesy funk set produced by Dan Auerbach, on which the 72-year-old Mac Rebennack reinvented his sound, style, and conception. For him to do another such reinvention two years later is mind-blowing. Once again he has teamed up with a younger artist to help bring his musical vision to fruition—his trombonist and bandleader, Sarah Morrow. Her dynamic, textured, and swinging horn charts play a big part in shaping all the different stylistic approaches into a unified soundscape.
Certainly Satch’s spirit has to be beaming as his legacy is brought to life by the trumpet players the doctor has assembled: Terrence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, James Andrews, Wendell Brunious, Efrem Townes and Greg Davis of the Dirty Dozen—all from New Orleans, as well as kindred spirit from Cuba, Arturo Sandoval. Rebennack calls upon a diverse cast of singers to join him in recasting Armstrong’s material. The Blind Boys of Alabama appear on a punchy New Orleans R&B take of What a Wonderful World (featuring Payton) and in a slow gospel-infused call and response on Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (featuring Blanchard). Bonnie Raitt and Rebennack deliver a swinging duet on I Got the World on a String that brings to mind his classic Accentuate the Positive with Rickie Lee Jones. Cuban rapper Telmary joins her rapid-fire Spanish wordplay with Sandoval’s trumpet for a swirling Afro-Cuban conjuring of Tight Like This. Armstrong was certainly a blues master, and the doctor applies a hard-edged funk treatment to Gut Bucket Blues (with Payton) and Dippermouth Blues (with Andrews), the intro to the latter featuring an extended example of his New Orleans piano professorism. That same driving funk shapes Mack the Knife, with Blanchard weaving his trumpet in and out of Mike Ladd’s rap interlude. Shemekia Copeland and Rebennack get down to some serious signifyin’ on Sweet Hunk o’Trash from a 1949 Armstrong guest spot with Billie Holiday. Armstrong recorded a number of spirituals, and Anthony Hamilton delivers Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child with a smooth, shimmering warmth, while New Orleans home girl Ledisi, backed by the McCrary Sisters, brings some gospel fire to Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The two tracks that come closest to Armstrong’s style are the mellow That’s My Home (with Brunious and the McCrary Sisters) and Memories of You, featuring a soaring Sandoval, who evokes Satch’s golden tone and breathtaking technique. On When You’re Smiling, Dr. John hooks up with the Afro-Caribbean rhythm and brass band horns of the Dirty Dozen (featuring Townes and Davis) to bring it all back home to Armstrong’s roots. Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch is a crowning achievement that links two American music masters from New Orleans.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
GARY CLARK JR.
Warner Bros. - 2-544681
Blues fans who might have been put off by the heavy pop-style production heard on most of 2012’s Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr.’s first full-length album for Warner Bros., will be relieved—and surely elated—by the raw, rock ’n’ roll-infused blues music the tall, 30-year-old Texan serves up on his magnificent two-disc follow-up. There’s no watering down this time around—just Clark and his tough, ultra-tight band—second guitarist King Zapata, bassist Johnny Bradley, and drummer Johnny Radelat—cutting loose on one blues or blues-imbued number after another, 15 in all, in front of effusive audiences at various locations, the places and dates of which are not identified.
Clark affirms his deep connection to the blues tradition with lengthy takes on the old standards Catfish Blues and Three O’Clock Blues, his tenor pipes radiating passion and his amped-up solos rife with unexpected twists and turns. And he closes out the program all by himself, plaintively crooning, picking acoustic guitar, and blowing a rack harmonica on Leroy Carr’s (In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down.
Nine of the tunes had appeared on Blak And Blu, but now they’re thankfully rendered in undiluted form. He really lets his Chuck Berry-inspired song Travis County rip and roll this time around and gives the first solo to Zapata, as he does on five other selections, apparently unafraid, as some bandleaders are, to let a gifted sideman share some of the limelight. Much like his early influence, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clark draws heavily on Jimi Hendrix, particularly in his imaginative use of feedback-fueled white noise on his original blues tune When My Train Comes In and in his brilliant interpolation of Hendrix’s Third Stone From the Sun and Little Johnny Taylor’s If You Love Me Like You Say that fuses two strains of blues from the 1960s—rock and soul blues—and brings them together in the present.
DADDY MACK BLUES BAND
Inside Sounds - ISC-0541
Mack Orr was the owner of a Memphis auto repair shop when, at age 45, he decided to take up the guitar and embark on a musical career. Now, with his transition validated by a series of Inside Sounds CDs, a biographical DVD, and even a feature in AARP magazine, he stands tall at the forefront of the city’s blues scene.
On this latest release, his sixth, Orr and long-time associates Joe Bonner on guitar and brother Harold on bass are joined by Fast Eddie Lester on drums and a host of guest artists who make spot-on contributions. In addition to Bobby Rush’s organist Paul Brown, they include Ori Naftaly on guitar, Eric Hughes on harmonica , and Matt Isbell on both, as well as a horn section led by Carl Wolfe and a vocal group that appear on several tracks. Co-producer Eddie Dattel had a hand in all 13 songs on offer—there are no covers this time out—and they are a solid bunch, from the pulsing opener Blues Doctor through the downhome Lonesome Train Blues that closes the set. In between, we get variety, from a jazzy strut on Sharp-Dressed Daddy to the aptly titled Everybody Have Fun, but the meat of the program is found on such down-and-dirty fare as Daily Blues, Almost Left You, and Watermelon Man (not the Herbie Hancock classic, but a Z.Z. Hill–inspired slow drag).
With its unwavering devotion to hard-core, no-nonsense blues, the Daddy Mack Blues Band is a worthy heir to such predecessors as the Fieldstones and Hollywood All-Stars, and this album is a strong addition to their catalog.
MUD MORGANFIELD & KIM WILSON
For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters
Severn - CD0064
Mud Morganfield was raised by his mother and rarely saw his father, Muddy Waters. He shied away from playing blues music for many years. It wasn’t until Muddy Waters died in the 1980s that he finally embraced the style of Chicago blues his father helped pioneer. Since that time, he’s released two albums of blues tunes to some acclaim. Now on the occasion of Muddy Water’s 100th birthday, he’s back to honor to his father’s legacy with a tribute CD, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters.
Morganfield shies away from his father’s most well-known, prototypical material—Mannish Boy, Hoochie Coochie Man, and Got My Mojo Working are all absent here. Even Rollin’ Stone does not appear. Instead, Morganfield the younger mines similarly iconic songs that were a part of the Muddy legacy, yet perhaps did not carry the weight of personality that the others did, and taps a few lesser known though no less powerful cuts.
Strong harmonica players were always a hallmark of Waters’ music. Legendary players like Little Walter, Junior Wells, and James Cotton are just a few in a long line of harp players to accompany him. So no tribute album can really be complete without an adept harpsman. Morganfield certainly found one in Kim Wilson, the leader of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a lifelong student of the blues.
At times Wilson’s playing proceeds to be the primary allure, as he showcases his skills on Trouble No More with a wailing solo or on the sweltering Just to Be with You where he provides a raunchy and raw playing. The two are backed by a seasoned band composed of Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn on guitar, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, Steve Gomes on bass and Robb Stupka on drums. The group, who recorded the basic tracks live in the studio, does a workmanlike job on the tunes, and Morganfield’s voice recalls some of the gravitas of his father’s.
It’s nice to pay homage and do so with passion and appreciation, and while there’s not much here that would incite one to put this on instead of the original, it’s a fine collection that honors the spirit of Muddy Waters with a faithful energy, genuine gratitude, and a few instances of premium playing.
Can’t Even Do Wrong Right
Alligator - ALCD 4963
Almost 50 years after his entrance into the blues world on the landmark Paul Butterfield Blues Band debut LP, guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop makes it clear that he has stayed true to his roots, declaring, “I wear old fashioned clothes, old fashioned shoes, old Gibson guitar, play the old fashioned blues / Old school, I’m old school, I’m old school, old school.” Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, Bishop’s 20th studio album as a leader, is filled with the signature slide, rocking boogie, impassioned solos, and trademark stoner humor that have been his stock in trade for five decades.
The title track, a shuffle that chugs along on the tandem guitars of Bishop and Bob Welsh (who is credited with being the leader’s “partner in guitar crime”), sports that Bishop sense of humor, which first surfaced on 1968’s Drunk Again. The humor shows up again on Everybody’s in the Same Boat, with Bishop philosophizing on mortality at 73, as the two guitars alternate devastating single note and slide runs. Welsh switches over to piano to support Bishop on the swaggering guitar showcase he delivers on Little Walter’s Blues with a Feeling. Bishop joins forces with a longtime associate from the 1960s Chicago scene, harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite, on Old School and Rosco Gordon’s No More Doggin’. The former is a pounding boogie featuring interwoven jagged-edged guitar and wailing, inventive harp lines. The latter, an instrumental take on the 1952 Sun Records classic, showcases a seductive dialogue between Bishop’s slide and Musselwhite’s harp. These two guys work together like a hand in a glove, and it would be great to hear them team up for an extended project. On Let Your Woman Have Her Way, Bishop reunites with vocalist Mickey Thomas, who sang lead on Bishop’s 1976 smash hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love. With Welsh providing a stirring organ underpinning, Thomas’s impassioned vocal and Bishop’s blistering slide explore the borderland where country, gospel, and R&B meet.
The show heads down south to Louisiana for three successive tracks. Dancin’ is a rousing, country-flavored zydeco number that rides on Steve Wilson’s accordion, the dueling guitars of Bishop and Welsh, and drummer Bobby Cochran’s big beat. The two guitars deliver a laidback slow burn, weaving in and out of Wilson’s accordion line for an instrumental take Jimmy Reed’s warhorse, Honest I Do. The same combination of guitars and accordion has a whole lot of fun rollicking through Fats Domino’s Boll Weevil. Bishop punctuates the set with a swaggering version of Lionel Hampton’s jump blues, Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop. On Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, Elvin Bishop proves he definitely knows how to do old-school blues right.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
ROD PIAZZA AND THE MIGHTY FLYERS
Blind Pig - BPCD 5160
After a nearly decade-long run on the Delta Groove label that resulted in four excellent studio albums (For the Chosen Who, Thrillville, Soul Monster, and Almighty Dollar), Piazza and his everlasting Mighty Flyers have returned to Blind Pig for their second studio release on the label, Emergency Situation. Born in 1947 and a perennial feature on the Southern California blues scene since the 1960s, Piazza’s current ensemble consists of (as always) Honey Piazza on keys, Henry Carvajal (guitar), David Kida (drums), and Norm Gonzales (bass). Sax players Ron Dziubla and Jim Jedeikin are a welcome addition to the recording as well.
Those familiar with Piazza’s discography will find that this record follows a similar blueprint as previous releases—signature harp-driven instrumentals and a unique West Coast–meets-Chicago vibe—with the balance of tunes drawing on classic R&B covers. There’s much to love here, from Carvajal’s vocal turn on Ya-Ya to Piazza’s chromatic instrumental workout, Colored Salt. Honey isn’t featured on a piano instrumental this time around, but her playing is nonetheless showcased throughout the set (and is particularly strong on the late Big Walter “Thunderbird” Price’s Duke/Peacock side Gambling Woman).
The album’s title track is part personal testimony and part political commentary. If anyone has wondered why their favorite road-hardened blues bands seem to book fewer and fewer tour dates each year, this song explains it. “It’s an emergency situation, I’ve got to change my occupation,” Piazza sings (tongue perhaps only partially in cheek), as he ponders selling off his prized microphones and Harp King amps. Here’s why: “Well, the clubs just ain’t paying/Festivals hurting, too/The only solid getting, man, is on the Blues Cruise.” A sad state of affairs it is, indeed, when the best prospect for a band with as much talent and history as Piazza’s is a slot on a cruise ship lineup.
There’s nothing like catching Piazza’s act live, but if the blues clubs in your local area resemble those that Piazza mourns on Emergency Situation, then this record—especially when paired with the 2005 DVD Big Blues Party (of a performance at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, also on Blind Pig)—will satisfy even the most discerning blues fan.
Raw Dawg - 0007261200
Chicago-based Mike Dangeroux is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and his online bio cites upwards of 40 artists (in styles ranging from traditional postwar Chicago blues through gospel and progressive jazz to hip-hop) whom he’s worked with, shared stages with, or opened for. He also takes credit for a catalog of over 1,000 songs, ten of which are featured here. Although he’s supported by several guest vocalists on this set, this is pretty much his project all the way: he played guitar, bass, and drums, and he seems to have been the producer.
That kind of obsessive D.I.Y.-ism can sometimes lead to problems, but Dangeroux has the chops, musically at least, to pull it off. The musicianship throughout is energetic and well conceived; Dangeroux is a strong singer and an eloquent guitarist, capable of sinuous extended lines that probe unexpected corners and directions, as well as quick-fingered flurries and note clusters that effectively gather energy and tension, which he then releases with those serpentine, hot-toned flights. As a lyricist, he may not be the second coming of Willie Dixon or George Jackson, but he tells vivid stories with powerful imagery and an admirable avoidance of cliche. Guest vocalists Bobby “Slim” James (Moving On), “Rachel” (Keep On Walking), Mario Connie, and Dora Washington comport themselves admirably as well. Dangeroux also demonstrates an admirable stylistic range. The expected rock- and funk-tinged blues boilerplate is here, but so are offerings like the country-soul balled She Is My Woman, the power-pop title tune, and the lithe, swinging Get It Back Texas Blues.
If there’s a drawback, it’s the production. Vocals sometimes sound hollow, and there are spikes and dips in volume. In general, though, what we have here is an encouraging outing from yet another bluesman “deserving of wider recognition”—let’s hope this helps him attain it.
IRONING BOARD SAM AND THE STICKS
Music Maker - MMCD164
Here’s the stuff that dreams are made of—two musically inclined students from the Toulouse University business school finagled an internship with the Music Maker Relief Foundation in North Carolina, where they were introduced to keyboard wizard Ironing Board Sam, first becoming his roadies and eventually joined his road band.
Before returning to France, the two students, guitarist Simon Arcache and bassist Raphael Evrard, cut this album with Sam and drummer Michael Fowler. The 13-track playlist was made up on the spot in the studio, with the result that many of the songs are primarily in the service of the groove—Hot or Not, for example, never develops much beyond the repeated question “Is she hot or not?” Some of the selections take off from familiar themes, among them CC Rider, one of several tracks where Sam plays grand piano, Mace in the Face, which begins as Georgia on My Mind before morphing into an account of a nightmare date, and a Porgy and Bess medley of Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So. Others range from the bedrock blues of Sally and I Believe to The Creature, an utterly weird little ditty that starts off with Sam’s sing-song chant of the song’s only verse—“On yonder hill there stands a creature/who she is I do not know/I go and court her for her beauty/she must answer yes or no”—before the band kicks in with a funky beat that leads to an organ solo by Sam before a series of false endings.
Whether playing grand piano, Hammond organ or Fender Rhodes electric keyboard, Sam sounds like he’s having a wonderful time, and his young protégés fall right into place, making for a thoroughly enjoyable date. The resurrection of Sam’s career through Music Maker has certainly been one of the blues’ best feel-good stories in recent years. And by the way, if you haven’t already seen it, you owe it to yourself to get on the Internet and take a look at the video of Sam’s 1965 performance on Night Train to see what he was up to in his own younger days.
The Memphis Project
Icehouse - IHR 9501
Guitarist Garry Goin and reedman Patrick Register are veteran Memphis session men; as Dual Drive, they are also the nucleus of what amounts to a tribute band celebrating the legacy of Memphis (or Memphis-associated) roots music and soul.
One of the offerings here—Aretha’s Rock Steady—wasn’t originally recorded in the Bluff City; all of the others were cut in iconic Memphis studios, and in most cases Dual Drive returned to those locations to record their versions. A few stylistic tweaks—the in-studio electronics, hip-hop influenced drum work, and molten-rock guitar solo on Take Me to the River; the “cool-jazz” pop sheen of [Sitting On] the Dock of the Bay; the neo-Kenton grandiosity of Green Onions; maybe even Goin’s post-Superfly funk/wah-wah guitar on Rock Steady—might grate on purists’ nerves; but in general, the flavor and spirit of the originals is retained. In fact, the updatings could (and should) be considered homages to that spirit: most of the songs covered here were cutting-edge pop music in their era, and there’s no reason contemporary musicians should treat them as historical curios.
The set list is somewhat conservative—virtually everything here would probably be on any southern music lover’s “Greatest Hits” list, although, again, some retro-soul purists might cringe at the inclusion of songs associated with Elvis (Suspicious Minds) or Charlie Rich (Who Will the Next Fool Be). But, once again, Memphis has never been known for its musical conservatism, and “following the rules” has never been a byword of soul, rock ’n’ roll, or any other popular music worth paying attention to. So savor this set in the commemorative spirit in which it’s intended, but don’t stop here—there’s plenty of good new music emanating from Memphis and its surrounding environs. Explore, discover, and listen!
CD REVIEWS AUGUST 2014
BOB STROGER & KENNY “BEEDY EYES” SMITH
Keepin’ It Together
Big Eye - BE 0004
Bassist Bob Stroger’s career dates back to the ’50s and includes gigs and/or recording sessions with such figures as Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Homesick James, and Snooky Pryor, among many others. Drummer Kenny Smith is the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, best known for his tenure with Muddy Waters but also a gifted harpist who usually showcased himself on that instrument in the latter days of his career. The band consists of younger-generation artists steeped in the postwar tradition—just for starters, there are former Muddy Waters harpist Jerry Portnoy, saxophonist Sam Burckhardt (Sunnyland’s protégé), and guitarist Billy Flynn.
This, then, is a roots-rich set. But there’s no moldy-fig reverence on display—the material is original, and the principals throw themselves into it with the vigor of artists celebrating the music in the present tense, not as a backward-looking exercise in purism. Born in Missouri tells of the singer’s determination to get back to his lady friend in Switzerland; Love and Affection updates its lupine twelve-bar lope with a modernist-sounding turnaround, and Smith’s drum patterns are fueled by an understated but propulsive funk impetus. The train-like Losin My Mind similarly spikes an old-timey melodic and rhythmic conceit with a bridge resonant with contemporary blues and pop-blues flavorings. On the other hand, outings like What Cha Say, That’s My Name, and the Jimmy Reed–like Sweet So Sweet manage to sound like outtakes from a late-’50s Chess or Vee Jay session yet also feel utterly up-to-date. Neither Stroger nor Smith is primarily known as a singer, but they both demonstrate admirable vocal chops, handling even the most challenging extended lines with effortless panache.
It must be reaffirmed: the “true” postwar Chicago blues is not a museum piece, but a thriving, relevant art form. These musicians make that clear with every note they play and sing.
Promise of a Brand New Day
Blue Corn Music - MCM 1403
Ruthie Foster, in her first outing with the boldly eclectic neo-soul producer Meshell Ndegeocello, stays faithful to her blues, soul, folk, and gospel roots throughout the glorious Promise of a Brand New Day. The Austin-based songbird doesn’t play guitar or piano this time around, instead leaving the picking and the keyboard playing to Ndegeocello band members Chris Bruce and Jebin Bruni, respectively, with the bassist-producer, drummer Ivan Edwards, and harmony vocalist Nayanna Holley rounding out the stripped-down sound. Eric Clapton sideman Doyle Bramhall II adds some raspy guitar to one track, and Toshi Reagon sings on another.
As usual, Foster’s song selection is impeccable and touches on both personal and political themes. Her resonant alto tones and melisma-rich phrasing ooze passion, and her lyrics are rife with wisdom and introspection. “When the music fades and the crowd drives away, I’m staring at the mirror, still singing the blues,” she sings over a fat bass-and-drums soul bottom on Singing the Blues, one of seven original compositions in the 12-song set. “You’ve got a bucket full of promise, but I notice not much stands up when you’re building on hollow ground; you sink until you drown,” she croons gently to acoustic guitar strums and sustained organ chords on her folkish Complicated Love. And on It Might Not Be Right, penned in collaboration with soul vet Williams Bell and propelled by a laid-back Memphis groove, she poignantly addresses the subject of same-sex marriage.
The spirit of the Civil Rights Movement is evoked in Foster’s treatments of Alabama bluesman Willie King’s Second Coming—“They killed Dr. King’s body, but they couldn’t kill his mind,” she sings—and The Ghetto, a Bettye Crutcher–Homer Banks–Bonnie Bramlett composition originally recorded by the Staple Singers. Shades of Roebuck Staples’ reverberating guitar, courtesy of Bruce, inform the latter tune, as well as Believe, another Memphis-style number written in part by Charles Hayes, an Ndegeocello associate who also plays drums for Lady Gaga. And Outlaw, an 12-bar blues saluting the women’s liberation movement, written and first recorded in 1970 by Eugene McDaniels and opening with the line, “She’s a sister in jeans / she’s an outlaw / she don’t wear a bra,” finds new currency through Foster’s wonderful rendition.
Megaforce – MEGA 1696
Never mind that this album, much like 2011’s Roots, is bursting at the seams with big-name guests, all eager disciples of one John Dawson Winter III. The simple fact is Johnny Winter owns this album. And again, just like that last record, Winter here sounds as moving as he’s ever been in his 40-plus years of guitar slingin’ and barefootin’. His voice has aged into a smooth, velvety rasp with a dark-alley swagger that affirms he’s been around to see a thing or two, and wouldn’t you like to know about it. Then there’s that slippery snake of a slide guitar, cagey and dirty—Winter glides off the rails and back again with the coolest of ease.
For this throwback to the mostly 1950s blues-edged fare that inspired him, Winter’s longtime producer (also manager and second guitarist) Paul Nelson captures an utter resiliency that is justly celebrated by musicians who are not only peers, but in many cases influenced by the Beaumont, Texas, native. There are obvious successors to the throne, like Joe Bonamassa (whose blues-shred closely parallels Winter’s) on the B.B. King classic Sweet Little Sixteen. Note his fleet-fingered workout on a biting re-creation of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s 1951 instrumental Okie Dokie Stomp with Brian Setzer.
Winter sounds utterly haggard on a brass-tacks cover of Son House’s Death Letter—and you can hear every extraneous shake and pop in his metal-raked slide. As far as that down and dirty earthen groove is concerned, there’s no better tutorial than the Billy Gibbons collaboration Where Can You Be, a vintage amp love fest of guitar tone.
Winter also satisfies with the breakneck boogie of the Willie Dixon–penned, Elmore James–interpreted Can’t Hold Out (Talk to Me Baby) with Ben Harper, and digs deep on Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally with Leslie West.
Step Back is Johnny Winter’s persuasive wrangling of vintage backroom Chicago blues viewed through the eyes of a kid from the Gulf Coast of Texas, still possessing that youthful, uninhibited lack of pretense that caught the ears of the Rock ’n’ Roll People so many decades ago. If this is any indication, Winter’s work is far from complete.
ANDY T - NICK NIXON BAND
Livin’ It Up
Delta Groove - DGPCD - 166
Guitarist/vocalist Nick Nixon came of age on Nashville’s thriving ’60s-era African American blues circuit. He’s worked and recorded pretty steadily since then (among other things, he’s a longtime member of the New Imperials, and he also put in some time at Chess Records in the 1970s), but until recently he’s remained mostly a local and regional “living legend.” [See LB #225 for a full feature on Nixon.] His compatriot here, guitarist Andy T (nee Talamantez), arrived in Nashville from the West Coast about six years ago. The pair’s debut as bandleaders, Drink Drank Drunk, was released last year on Delta Groove to significant critical acclaim.
Nixon’s vocals recall such fabled stylists as Jimmy Witherspoon and Billy Eckstine; Andy T likewise purveys a jazz-tinged sound, with plenty of references to T-Bone and the Moore brothers. Even when they’re grinding out a Jimmy Reed–like shuffle (as on Best in Town, featuring evocative swoops, bends, and squalls from harpist Christian Dozzler), their hepcat vocal harmonies add a dash of jaunty sophistication to the mix. A muscular two-saxophone horn section riffs and testifies behind them, and when the horn players—Ron Jones and Dana Robbins—step out to solo, the band’s blend of roadhouse rawness and show-lounge musicality is accentuated even more.
Occasionally, as on Snake in the Grass, a hard-edged funk-rock impetus toughens the sound; at the other end of the musical/emotional spectrum, the disc’s closer, Love At First Sight, is a country/gospel-flavored ballad elevated by Robbins’ soaring tenor solo. It all adds up to a blues-rich yet stylistically diverse set, infused with joy and enriched by impeccable musicality—from beginning to end.
Fat Head Records - FH 1005
Janiva Magness is a true survivor, and her powerful, yet tender vocals bring a hard-won sense of truth to each song she sings. This is perhaps most evident on Original on her own new Fat Head imprint. Here, the Los Angeles–based singer has finally painted her masterpiece, crafting her strongest, most heartfelt album to date.
Producer Dave Darling has imbued these recordings with an intimate warmth fitting their confessional nature. Let Me Breathe pulses with urgency, enveloped in spare, organ-haunted soul. The broken-hearted When You Were My King begins with Magness’ voice as a distant echo and expands into a shimmering, gently rocking ballad. She exudes sexy toughness—the rousing I Need a Man is propelled by percussion, handclaps, and sizzling guitar licks, and she just as forcefully expresses the opposite emotion on the strutting Badass.
The twin themes of hope and encouragement thread through several songs: Twice as Strong, Everything Is Alright, and The Hard Way are all blessed with gospel sensibility, and Dan Navarro’s voice provides the perfect harmonic foil for hers on the upbeat With Love. She scales Mountain with a resigned ease, and the closing track Standing is suffused with quiet determination.
“Open up and sing your song,” Magness urges on With Love, and on this album she’s done just that. Full of sublime, self-assured songwriting and singing to match, Janiva Magness’ Original lives up to its name.
JOHN PRIMER AND THE TEARDROPS
You Can Make It
Wolf - 120.833
Yet another great set of live Chicago-style blues from guitarist John Primer, this time in a trio setting. No guests. No fill. No fooling around.
You Can Make It is assembled from live recordings made in Austria in the 1990s of John Primer with Magic Slim’s band, the Teardrops. These would have been Primer’s opening numbers played in advance of the Main Man’s entrance to the stage, and they hold up very well, with appreciative crowds hooting and clapping as if he were the star of the show—which he could have been, as these tracks demonstrate.
Though taped at various locations (evidenced by the differing tones and prominence of Nick Holt’s bass), they cohere very well as a set. One of the big draws will be the dominance of Primer’s guitar picking and slide work—perhaps the most guitar soloing you will hear from him on CD—which thrillingly evokes the live sound that Primer had with these two bandmates, Nick Holt on bass and Earl Howell on drums. Yes, this is basically a trio, which may not be readily apparent with Primer’s incessant, omnipresent guitar work filling every crack in these tracks.
The recording quality is excellent and captures the excitement of the performances and the interplay between these musicians, who worked tightly together whether backing Primer or Slim. The set has the delicious balance of a typical Primer set with his personal takes on the work of his former employer, Muddy Waters (Sweet Man, If I Could Hold You in My Arms and Long Distance Call), and also Otis Rush (You Can Make It If You Try), Hound Dog Taylor (Big Fat Woman), plus a track apiece by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Junior Parker, Albert King and Guitar Slim.
Few surprises here, just studious interpretations of classic blues with the emphasis on guitar and groove. Primer once again proves unquestionably that he can indeed “make it,” just as he has done time after time.
I Got More Soul!
Omnivore - OVCD 92
Dallas-based vocalist Bobby Patterson scored three modest R&B chart hits between 1969 and 1977 (the final one, Right Place, Wrong Time, was released on the well-known R&B imprint All Platinum). His voice remains as supple and youthful-sounding as it was in his heyday, and he’s managed to retain that old-school sound—unembellished production, all-natural instrumentation, spiky rhythms propelling melodic and lyric conceits rooted in the blues but delivered with callow-sounding emotional directness—while avoiding, for the most part, the twin traps of nostalgia and moldy-fig purism.
That said, this set will appeal mostly to aficionados of classic R&B—the brawny horns, chunky fatback guitar work, and Patterson’s own irony-free musical persona hark back to a less self-conscious pop music era, when technique and artifice were no less prominent than they are today but were usually employed to create a feel of genuineness and sincerity—pretty much the opposite of the modern equation. At times, in fact, the unadorned straightforwardness of both the material and the production—as on the ballads Let Me Heal It and I Know How It Feels—sound almost atavistic. Elsewhere, though, offerings like Poet (a too-often-forgotten offering from There’s a Riot Goin’ On–era Sly Stone) and Patterson’s own It’s Hard to Get Back In and Can You Feel Me? achieve a winning blend of street-level grit and show-lounge funkiness.
This disc’s target market probably consists mostly of roots-oriented R&B lovers; nonetheless, listeners steeped in more contemporary sounds who care about how those sounds evolved and where they came from should give it a listen as well.
Pop Yo’ Bottle
Ecko - ECD 1153
There’s a distinct Clarence Carter feel to You’re Welcome to the Party, this disc’s opening track, and that’s probably no accident—like Carter, O.B. Buchana is endowed with a resonant deep-soul voice capable of putting over a heart-rending ballad when he chooses, but he prefers good-timey material, laced with playful sexual signifying and designed to get club-goers dancing. Of the 11 tracks here, no fewer than five are dedicated to extolling the virtues (or, in the case of Party on the Weekend, lamenting the consequences) of all-night celebrations at the local hole in the wall. We could also add Private Party, which takes the revelry behind closed doors (“a party for two . . . so B.Y.S.B., bring your sexy body. . .), and That’s My Song, in which the narrator discovers his erstwhile lady dancing with another man in a club.
One song here, What’s the Deal?, is grafted pretty much note-for-note onto the structure of the James Carr standard Pouring Water on a Drowning Man, and Take My Wife Back strongly echoes Little Milton’s Your Wife Is Cheating on Us; most of the other offerings, though, are solidly in the modern southern soul-blues mode. As usual, Buchana gives us a few tantalizing glimpses of his skill as a balladeer. It Should Have Been Me is a deeply affecting testimonial of regret, and even That’s My Song, although the storyline traverses tried-and-true southern soul territory, is drawn with vivid imagery—Buchana’s protagonist sounds genuinely heartbroken as he contemplates how his misguided jealousy drove his woman into another man’s arms. Mostly, though, this outing continues to showcase Buchana in his familiar persona as a hard-partying country man with a heart full of soul and a truckload of love—an image tailor-made to the contemporary southern soul circuit, and one that continues to make O.B. Buchana one of the genre’s leading lights and biggest draws.
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND
Concord Records - CRE-35356-02
When Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently found himself with 11 days to spare, he set a course for his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana; there, he visited Brady Blade’s Blade Studios and cut an album. Goin’ Home is the result, and as the title suggests, it’s a refreshing return to the blues-rock guitarist’s musical roots.
For this project, Shepherd and his band—vocalist Noah Hunt, bassist Tony Franklin, drummer Chris Layton, and keyboardist Riley Osbourn—chose to record blues songs closely associated with artists ranging from the three Kings—Albert, B. B., and Freddie—to Bo Diddley, Magic Sam, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Muddy Waters. The ardent roadhouse blues of Everything’s Gonna Be Alright and the long, slow burn of You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now are showcases for Shepherd’s molten fretwork and Hunt’s impassioned vocals. Shepherd takes turns singing lead on The House Is Rockin’ and Boogie Man, and Osbourn’s pounding piano anchors both House and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Looking Back.
The album’s best moments, though, may be when the guests arrive. Warren Haynes drops a dose of ominous funk on Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, and the swaggering Cut You Loose gets a little help from Ringo Starr on drums. The Rebirth Brass Band adds a spirited punch to Palace of the King and, with Keb’ Mo’, to Born Under a Bad Sign. You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover is elevated by Pastor Brady Blade Sr.’s throaty declamations; likewise, Robert Randolph’s fire-and-brimstone sacred steel duels deliciously with Shepherd’s on Still a Fool.
Stacked with rousing performances from start to finish, the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s Goin’ Home is a trip well worth taking.
RICK ESTRIN AND THE NIGHTCATS
You Asked for It . . . Live!
Alligator Records - ALCD 4962
Bay Area stalwarts Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have often received requests for a live album, and their third release for Alligator Records is sure to delight the roots outfit’s fans. Recorded last October at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco, the aptly titled You Asked for It . . . Live! is a snapshot of a band at home in their element.
The recorded sound is excellent; each artist is discernible, and the audience is present but not obtrusive. Handle with Care and Smart Like Einstein roll nimbly along with Estrin’s train-whistle harmonica; multi-instrumentalist Lorenzo Farrell (on organ) and guitarist Kid Andersen take extended solos as well. The sassy New Old Lady is slyly followed by My Next Ex-Wife, and the band takes their time stretching out the song’s foreboding groove. Estrin’s charming, slinky vocals are especially effective on Clothes Line’s cool talking blues and the wicked shuffle of That’s Big. Drummer J. Hansen sings his own sauntering Baker Man Blues and also delivers a rafter-rattling percussion solo on You Gonna Lie alongside Andersen’s space-age fretwork. The appreciative crowd gets livelier as the evening draws to a close, calling out a request for Dump That Chump. After the rocking Don’t Do It, Estrin ends with a quiet, creeping rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Too Close Together, with Farrell’s walking bass the sole accompaniment for his harp.
If you’ve not been to a Rick Estrin and the Nightcats show, the infectiously fun You Asked for It . . . Live! will hip you to what you’ve been missing.