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.
CD REVIEWS JUNE 2014
Don’t Call No Ambulance
Alligator - ALCD 4961
Selwyn Birchwood was born in Orlando, Florida, in 1985. He has cited Jimi Hendrix as his initial inspiration; once he found out that Hendrix had been influenced by the blues, he says, he went back to learn more about it, and he became hooked. He has worked with lap-steel master Sonny Rhodes, and he includes old-schoolers like Lightnin’ Hopkins in his pantheon of idols along with Hendrix and modern blues stylists like Buddy Guy and Albert King (in 2013, he won the Albert King Award as the top guitarist in that year’s International Blues Challenge).
His fretwork (on both standard guitar and lap steel) is predictably high-energy, but he’s also an articulate soloist who always sounds as if he’s playing ideas, not just notes. He wrote all 12 of the songs here, and their titles alone— Falling from the Sky, Brown Paper Bag, The River Turned Red, Overworked and Underpaid—give an idea of his thematic scope. On the title tune, he digs into a churning, modal “trance” groove, and his lyric invocations of the blues life are raw and vivid; Brown Paper Bag heightens the drama as Birchwood spikes his tale of dissolution (delivered in a remarkably world-weary, corrugated rasp) with knife-edged leads laid over a doom-laden minor-key cadence. Tell Me Why, in contrast, is a neo-psychedelic blues-rocker, complete with topical lyrics and a hard-crunching, roadhouse-rattling groove. She Loves Me Not, a lighthearted pop-blues tinged with wistfulness, allows Birchwood to showcase his most callow-sounding croon, complete with resonant falsetto.
Selwyn Birchwood is a master storyteller—both lyrically and musically—graced with a depth and maturity that would be impressive in a grizzled veteran, let alone a fresh-faced young man who holds a master’s in business administration degree from the University of Tampa. His future looks bright, and it also bodes well for the ongoing health and development of the blues.
Earwig - CD 4967
This is the fourth outing for Johnny Drummer—a handier handle than Thessex Johns—for Michael Frank’s Earwig imprint, but the first since 2006’s Rockin’ in the Juke Joint.
Given the songwriting skills Drummer displayed on his previous releases, it’s reasonable to expect that the lengthy gap between recordings would have allowed him time to come up with a bumper crop of new material, and Drummer doesn’t disappoint. There’s nary a weak track on the 13-song playlist, from the opening Is It Love or Is It Lust to the closing Star 69. The very titles of these songs give a hint that something out of the ordinary is going on, and the same is true of others such as Another Rooster Is Pecking My Hen, Ain’t No Secret in a Small Town and U-Turn on a One Way Street. There’s a nod to Drummer’s contemporary Bobby Rush on Bit Her in the Butt, but Drummer’s music steers clear of soul-blues (and blues-rock) conventions with a crack backing crew that includes such A-list Chicago sidemen as guitarists Anthony Palmer and Sir Walter Scott, keyboardist Ronnie Hicks, bassist Kenny Hampton, drummers Jeremiah Thomas and Terrence Williams and, on most tracks, trumpeter Kenny Anderson and saxophonist Rodney Brown. The versatile Drummer himself adds harmonica to four tracks and organ to three (but drums to none).
As Frank points out in his notes, Drummer has now been on the Chicago blues scene for some 55 years and is one of the last active bluesmen who started out during the heyday of the Chicago electric blues. Especially when his continuing creativity is taken into account, it’s a mystery why he hasn’t enjoyed greater recognition—perhaps this release will help rectify that.
KENNY “BLUES BOSS” WAYNE
Rollin’ with the Blues Boss
Stony Plain - SPCD 1371
Along with upstate New York’s Don “Papadon” Washington, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne is one of the few younger-generation keyboardists dedicated to keeping the art of unadorned acoustic blues piano alive, relevant, and contemporary. Like Washington, though, he’s also proficient on Hammond organ and other amplified instruments, and when he’s not pounding out updated versions of vintage era boogie and barrelhouse themes, he’s perfectly capable of insinuating himself into a tightly wound ensemble and firing off juke-rocking, modern-sounding blues. His voice, while not necessarily the most emotionally expressive, is more than adequate for the tasks he usually sets it to.
Occasionally, as in the faux rave-up Hootenanny Boogie-Woogie, he sounds a bit self-conscious in his efforts to claim his place in the vaunted rent party/after-hours keyboard tradition, but for the most part he delivers a satisfying blend of good-time entertainment and deep-hearted blues expression. Roadrunner, a pop-rock tinged ode to the footloose lifestyle of the hard-traveling bluesman, appropriately balances exhilaration and driven obsessiveness; the modernist soul ballad Baby, It Ain’t You, featuring Diunna Greenleaf on guest vocals, is shot full with both regret and wounded righteousness; Two Sides, a jivey, semi-novelty romp with a strong New Orleans tinge, finds Eric Bibb contributing a tubular-toned acoustic guitar solo along with some well-honed vocal harmonies alongside Wayne; Out Like a Bullet, the set’s closer, is a piano workout that kicks into a torrid, window-rattling boogie-woogie cadence early on and never lets up. It’s the perfect finisher for a roots-rich celebration infused with a powerful spirit of adventurism and forward-looking imagination.
THE HOLMES BROTHERS
Alligator - ALCD 4957
With fewer guests and less instrumentation than on recent albums, Brotherhood is as soulful and alive as the Holmes Brothers’ performances and is a superior, award-worthy outing.
To hear a live set by the Holmes Brothers is to experience the sweet sounds from the beginning of American rock ’n’ roll. All the essential ingredients are there—African American southern gospel and agonizingly beautiful, micro-tonal, layered soul-baring harmonies, Jimmy Reed blues lumps, string squeezing, moving bass lines, strong backbeats, NOLA second-line rhythms, street corner doo-wop, and the twangy heartbreak of country balladry. It’s all music they grew up hearing in rural Virginia in the 1950s. And the rich interplay of all this music is what makes the Holmes Brothers a national treasure.
All these sounds are present on Brotherhood, and none are affected. That said, this is not a set of retro revisits but a wholly contemporary collection of tracks with their musical antecedents plainly audible.
They have great material to work with, too. There are six originals from brother Wendell and two from Sherman that lyrically share a mature view of relationships. Wendell’s upbeat, self-deprecating view of his younger days, Stayed at the Party, leads off the set, though a better choice might have been his slightly dark, but wonderfully danceable, Lickety Split with its subtle guitar touches from Chris Bruce (who contributes throughout) and New Orleans parade shuffling from the Holmes’ non-blood brother, drummer Popsy Dixon.
If you just can’t get enough of the Holmes’ luxe vocal interplay, buy this simply for the hair-raising I Gave Up All I Had (by the late, under-appreciated Ted Hawkins), Latin-tinged Soldier of Love, street-corner soul My Kind of Girl (featuring Popsy’s fine falsetto), and Wendell’s Loving You from Afar, featuring the stirring vocals of his daughter Felicia paired with backup singer Catherine Russell. And the closer is the American classic Amazing Grace, which pushes the harmonic possibilities while remaining reverent.
But buy it too for strong blues tracks like Wendell’s Darkest Hour, Sherman’s Last Man Standing, and especially their electrifying interpretation of Ike Turner’s You Got to Lose, driven by a relentless Howlin’ Wolf groove.
Their 12th album, and fifth for the Alligator label, Brotherhood sits atop that formidable body of studio work thus far.
RIP LEE PRYOR
Nobody but Me
Electro-Fi - 3438
Snooky Pryor’s son Richard, better known as Rip Lee, released a promising debut CD back in 1998, but work and health issues soon sidelined him. Now, happily, he is back with this new disc on Electro-Fi—fittingly, the label that had recorded his dad toward the end of his long career.
Snooky, of course, was a master of the classic Chicago harmonica blues, so it comes as a mild surprise that Rip Lee tends toward a rougher style—“stripped-down,” as annotator Scott M. Bock aptly puts it—blowing rack-mount harmonica while laying down propulsive rhythms on the guitar. Though Pryor is fully capable of carrying his own beat, he is joined on several tracks by producer Alec Fraser on bass and Bucky Berger on drums. Covers include Elmore James’s You Gotta Move and the second Sonny Boy’s Wake Up Baby, Keep Your Business to Yourself and One Way Out, along with five credited to Snooky and three originals. Of these, Nobody but Me is an up-tempo number that’s well within the family tradition, Lonesome is a slow drag with one of the set’s strongest vocals and Stuck on Stupid is a nice blend of the first Sonny Boy and Jimmy Reed.
With this release, Rip Lee succeeds at honoring his father while taking a large step out of his shadow to craft his own brand of blues with a downhome flavor.
Refuse to Lose
Alligator - ALCD 4160
Jarekus Singleton, based in the Jackson, Mississippi, area, got his start playing in church. He became enamored of rap and hip-hop early on, but in his mid-teens he discovered the blues and began to codify a style that melded his diverse influences—high-energy, rock-tinged musicianship; witty, sometimes confrontational wordcraft; a deep-running, often inspirational sense of spiritual fervor—into a personal style. This is his debut on a major blues label.
Singleton’s guitar work emphasizes a soaring—and often searing—
upward-arcing linearity, and both his vocals and his band arrangements are complex and challenging: he’ll segue from hard-edge testifying to meditative melancholy and back again over the course of a verse or two, and his compositions are spiked with abrupt, often intentionally jarring melodic and rhythmic turnarounds, switchbacks, stop-time interruptions, and extended passages driven with tough-rocking overdrive propulsion. Even when he restricts himself to a standard twelve-bar format, as on the tough-crunching High Minded, with its witty name-checks and signifying (“You ain’t too green / This ain’t Training Day, and my name ain’t Denzel . . . if your funeral starts at seven you’d probably show up at nine”), he embellishes his phrases with shape-shifting tonal and rhythmic variations that obviate any danger of things becoming stale or clichéd. Singleton also brings a street-tough resolve to his lyric vignettes. He creates rhymes and rhythms laced with complex layers and textures, lines that resolve unexpectedly and then shoot out into unpredictable directions.
It’s difficult—some might say almost impossible—to create music that sounds both firmly rooted in blues tradition and fearlessly dedicated to breaking boundaries and blazing new paths. That, however, is what Jarekus Singleton sounds dedicated to doing. This CD shows that he’s already well on his way to accomplishing that daunting task.
Benrach - BRI-31340
Candi Staton has made dozens of great records, both gospel and secular, over the past 61 years, beginning when she was ten. The creative peak of her career came between 1969 and 1974 when she worked with producer Rick Hall at his FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and made such hits as I’m Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin’), Sweet Feeling, and Stand By Your Man. Now, 40 years after he last recorded Staton, Hall has come out of semi-retirement to cut three new tunes with her at FAME for Life Happens, her third album aimed at the Americana market since 2006.Those tracks also reunite the producer with bassist David Hood, who left FAME with his rhythm section mates in 1969 to launch the rival Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
The trademark ache in Staton’s contralto pipes is evident from her opening notes on the set-starting I Ain’t Easy to Love, a mid-tempo masterpiece of southern soul on which she trades lines and harmonizes with John Paul White of the Civil Wars and former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell over the mid-tempo throb of Hood’s bass and Tommy Harden’s traps, a trio of raspy guitars, and the riffs of a four-man horn section that includes Muscle Shoals vets Charles Rose on trombone and Harvey Thompson on saxophone. The other two Hall-produced tunes aren’t nearly as gripping, however.
Two additional tracks—Close to You and Where I’m At, both of which Staton had a hand in writing—were recorded in London with producer Ernie McKone but still have a southern-soul flavor, particularly the former song’s quasi-reggae groove borrowed from I’ll Take You There, the Staple Singers classic that Hood had helped propel. The ten remaining songs were produced in Atlanta by Staton’s son, drummer Marcus Williams, with a firm yet rather faceless band. The strongest of them are the two on which the singer gets closest to her gospel roots. On the bluesy self-penned ballad Have You Seen the Children? she fervently addresses the temptations and dangers faced by children today and makes passing reference to killing of Trayvon Martin. And on the mid-tempo A Better World Coming, written by Staton and son, she begins singing, “Babies having babies, fathers in the pen, how can we solve the problem, when the problem lies within?” before gradually building the song to an emotional Pentecostal pitch while implying without ever saying the name of the better place she has in mind. Soul music, be it religious or secular, seldom gets more intense than this.
A Special Life
Forty Below Records - FBR 006
With over 50 years of touring and more than 60 albums under his belt, John Mayall recorded A Special Life in November of 2013, just weeks shy of his 80th birthday. The music he and his band, along with guest artist C.J. Chenier, made is a testimony to the blues as a life sustaining force. Mayall’s singing, his instrumental work on guitar, harmonica, piano, and organ, and his stunningly tight and proficient band came together to produce an outstanding contemporary blues recording that is a high point in his remarkable career.
Over the years, Mayall has put together one great band after another, and this current outfit with Rocky Athas, guitar, Greg Rzab, bass, and Jay Davenport, drums, could hold its own next any of his classic lineups, including those that featured the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, et al. Mayall recruited Athas, Rzab, and Davenport to record his 2009 CD Tough and has kept them on the road for the past five years. And that experience is apparent on A Special Life, where they exhibit a tightness that allows them to loosen up and explore the tunes with freedom and confidence. Mayall’s vocals, especially, benefit from that kind of backup; he sings with a remarkable ease and swinging energy that stand with the best work in his extensive catalog.
This recording features a mix of original songs and covers of blues culled from the blues masters whom Mayall has drawn inspiration from and tirelessly promoted. The CD opens with Chenier joining in on accordion and vocals for a rousing rendition of his father, Clifton Chenier’s Why Did You Go Last Night. Mayall and Chenier belt out the vocals in harmony, and Mayall’s piano darts in and out of Chenier’s rolling accordion lines. Jimmy Rogers’ That’s All Right provides a vehicle for Mayall’s wailing harmonica, and the leader’s surging organ line and double-tracked, crackling lead guitar work are outstanding on Albert King’s Floodin’ in California. Mayall has recorded countless Chicago-style shuffles since the early days of the Bluesbreakers, but his vibrant take on Eddie Taylor’s Big Town Playboy is highlighted by some impressive harmonica work. Chenier contributes background vocals to Jimmy McCracklin’s I Just Got to Know, which features a blistering solo by Athas. One final cover comes from a younger generation blues man, Speak of the Devil by Sonny Landreth, who worked with Mayall on 1990’s A Sense of Place. It is a tour de force performance that is invested with urgency and soul and rivals Landreth’s original version.
Since the late 1960s, Mayall has often infused his blues compositions with autobiography, and the title track allows him to reflect on a lifetime of playing the blues. World Gone Crazy is another in a long line of Mayall compositions that incorporates social commentary into the blues form that features some nice interplay between Mayall’s keyboard and harmonica and drummer Davenport’s hip parade beat drumming. Mayall actually covers himself with Heartache, an original featured on his first LP, John Mayall Plays John Mayall, which was recorded at a London club in 1965. The new version has a jazzy sound with a vibraphone-sounding keyboard and swinging groove. Band members Rzab and Athas contribute Like a Fool, and the guitarist really soars over Mayall’s grooving organ. The CD closes with Just a Memory, Mayall’s meditative rolling two-fisted piano showcase. After over a half of century of playing the blues, John Mayall is a genuine master, and he has certainly led A Special Life.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
BIG JACK JOHNSON
Big Jack’s Way
No label - (No #)
When Big Jack Johnson died in March of 2011, Clarksdale, Mississippi, lost one of its most beloved and gifted blues artists and ambassadors. This set documents Johnson’s final Clarksdale recordings; it provides a bittersweet and evocative portrait of one of the giants of modern-day Delta blues, still unbowed and inspired despite the health problems that were already beginning to take their toll in February of 2010, when these tracks were laid down.
Johnson is accompanied by the Cornlickers, a tightly wound but unobtrusive trio, with guest appearances by guitarist Terry “Big T” Williams and saxophonist Dick “the Poet” Lourie. The overall sound is stripped-down and intimate; Johnson’s voice isn’t the resonant baritone he summoned in his prime, but it’s still expressive and deeply textured, and his leads evoke his trademark blend of deep-blues emotionalism and modernist smoothness. He kicks things off with a wry reworking of the vintage Catfish Blues theme (re-titled Chicago Catfish and including shout-outs to Lakeshore Drive, the city’s well-known lakefront thoroughfare, as well as Bobby Rush and such Windy City blues notables as Honeyboy Edwards, John Primer, and Earwig Records CEO Michael Frank); other standout offerings are the swamp-muck funky Mae Buffalo, a Memphis-tinged instrumental workout on Since I Met You Baby (featuring Johnson’s fretwork at its most delicate and precise), a tough-lurching, juke-rocking Vampire Woman, an anomalous but moving twelve-bar shuffle tribute to the King of Pop entitled Goodbye Michael Jackson, and an obviously heartfelt Christmas blues, the country-tinged Happy Birthday Jesus.
The inner-sleeve booklet is a Jack Johnson photo gallery that eloquently conveys the diverse and joyful legacy left behind by this warm-hearted family man, dedicated blues artist, world traveler, and pillar of his community. Along with the music, it not only rekindles Johnson’s memory but also helps ensure that that memory will never be extinguished.
DAVE AND PHIL ALVIN
Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy
Yep Roc Records - No#
Of all the bluesmen the Alvin brothers could have chosen to pay tribute to, Big Bill Broonzy is a perfect musical fit. The sly twinkle in Phil Alvin’s voice is a natural for Broonzy’s strut-and-swagger lyrics, while Dave Alvin’s acoustic and electric guitar stylings and deep, road-tested vocals match his brother’s and evoke Broonzy’s own style.
“Broonzy’s influence on a variety of players went from the uptown musicians to the country blues guys like Big Joe Williams,” says Dave Alvin. “He was an influence on Muddy Waters, an influence on the folk musicians of the early 1960s and one of the first blues guys to go over to Europe where he was an influence on skiffle bands and guitarists like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.”
The disc starts off with the cheerful, jug-band sounding All by Myself, on which the brothers alternate lead vocals and play acoustic guitars. Gene Taylor’s piano enhances several tracks, including I Feel So Good, Stuff They Call Money, and Big Bill Blues. Dave Alvin’s electric guitar comes to the fore on the evocative Southern Flood Blues and Just a Dream, on which he and Taylor trade scorching riffs. Other outstanding tracks include the Broonzy signature tune Key to the Highway and the sly (but not coy) double and triple entendre Trucking Little Woman. They’ve blown the cobwebs off these old songs and brought their own respectful but not slavishly imitative attitude to the party.
The brothers, founding members of the proto-Americana rock group the Blasters, have been playing and singing together off and on for most of their lives, and it shows here. Harmonies, melodies, alternating lead vocals and their instrumental blend all show the effects of a lifetime creating and interpreting music together. With this release they’ve done their roots, and Big Bill Broonzy’s memory, proud.
—Mary Katherine Aldin
CD REVIEWS APRIL 2014
Kind of Blue Music – (No #)
With BLUESAmericana, the first album by Keb’ Mo’ in three years, the Nashville-based singer and multi-instrumentalist reaffirms his status as one of the major blues stylists performing today, as well as being perhaps the genre’s cleverest and most insightful tunesmith. The disc’s nine original songs, all composed by Keb’ Mo’ in collaboration with John Lewis Parker (whose association with the singer dates back to the mid-’70s when they played together in Papa John Creach’s band), Pete Sallis, Heather Donavon, Jim Weatherly, Tom Hambridge, and others, range from the personal to the political. A solidly shuffling rendition of the Jimmy Rogers blues classic That’s Alright rounds out the program.
“Got back to my house/Opened up the door/She took everything I had/and the dog took a shit on the floor,” he sings on the set-opening The Worst Is Yet to Come, which may well be the best bad-luck song ever penned. Singing in a gruff baritone, Keb’ dubs guitar, banjo, harmonica, and tambourine parts over the rhythm section’s throbbing two-beat groove. Blues meets the church on the laid-back 12-bar Somebody Hurt You, on which Keb’ alternates his vocal leads in call and response with a gospel-style male quartet and demonstrates his blues guitar prowess in a solo chorus that somehow manages to combine a Johnny Watson– like staccato attack with a ringing tone reminiscent of B.B. King.
On More for the Money, Keb’ brilliantly addresses outsourcing and big-box stores, singing, “It was the land of the brave, home of the free/Some of our jobs jumped over the sea/It was a high price to pay to get more for your money today,” while picking Piedmont-style guitar. And he subtly plays on the name “Madoff” and the verb “made off” in the line “Bernie made off with the rich folks’ money.”
Other highlights include the rollicking The Old Better Me, on which Keb’ is joined by the New Orleans street-parade sounds of the California Feet Warmers, the poignant ballad So Long Goodbye about the end of a romance, and Move, a deceptively simple southern-soul–styled number that at first sounds like it was meant for moving one’s feet on a dance floor, except that it’s actually about being evicted by a landlord, kicked out by an angry girlfriend, and being ordered to leave a club at closing time.
With only 10 songs, BLUESAmericana is rather short on playing time, but taken together, they comprise some of the most satisfying 38 minutes of listening in recent memory.
JOE LOUIS WALKER
Alligator - ALCD 4959
How times have changed. Not long ago, the term “veteran bluesman” called to mind a grizzled old-timer, probably born in the Deep South, whose repertoire consisted mostly of songs played in styles that had long since faded from mainstream popularity—“authentic,” in other words, rather than truly contemporary. Today, though, we have oldheads like 64-year-old Joe Louis Walker, who came of age in San Francisco in the late ’60s and absorbed influences ranging from B.B. King through Lightnin’ Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk, as well as the post–Bitches Brew jazz fusionists who exploded onto the scene a few years later. The sounds that galvanized him then remain just as relevant today, and he continues to stake his claim as a forward-looking artist—roots, for him, nourish something that’s alive and growing.
The title tune here is characteristic of his approach: couched in a thunderous blues-rock groove remindful of vintage crunchmeisters like Leslie West, it nonetheless showcases Walker’s fleet lead work and melodic deftness (recalling earlier idols like King and T-Bone Walker), and its sonic and emotional fury make it fully contemporary (even if the lyrics’ macho pose might seem somewhat shopworn to post-masculinist New Millennium listeners). The power ballad Ride On, Baby sounds like something Springsteen might have come up with if he were a bluesman; the secular hymn Keep the Faith is sanctified by Reese Wynans’ churchy organ and further enriched by vintage gospel quartet harmonies, while out in front Walker’s supple, Al Green–influenced lead vocals balance fervor and yearning. I’m Gonna Walk Outside, meanwhile, grafts post-psychedelic pyrotechnics onto vocal and slide guitar techniques that hark directly back to Muddy Waters. Few contemporary blues artists blend aggression, deep feeling, and eclecticism with the panache and ferocity of Joe Louis Walker.
Here I Come
DeChamp - DC-100114
Eddie Cotton came into national prominence in 2000 with Live at the Alamo Theater (Proteus). That disc showcased his ability to express deep emotion without pandering or excess; he also sounded capable of blending contemporary soul-blues with more traditional ideas in a way that surprisingly few artists seem able to pull off.
A lot of those same qualities are evident here. Cotton’s string-bending guitar style can sometimes seem derivative; nonetheless, in tandem with his youthful yet careworn-sounding vocals (think of a slightly bluesier Al Green), tasteful arrangements, and thoughtful lyrics, it creates an aural landscape that’s both emotionally and musically satisfying. Cotton’s gospel roots are never far from the surface—no matter how gritty his themes may get, his lyrics retain a feel of positivity, even uplift. Pay to Play, for example, is an ultimatum to a wrong-doing woman, but Cotton makes it sound more like a declaration of self-worth than an exercise in cheap-thrills misogyny. Friend to the End extols the blessing of real-world friendships in a quick-fix, click/flash digital age; A Woman’s Love and (in a different way) the playfully funky My Boo eloquently meld worldly and spiritual devotion; Berry So Black, toughened by Grady Champion’s Rice Miller–like harp work, revisits a venerable aphorism of racial pride (originally “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”) in a testimonial of praise for a black woman.
Occasionally, Cotton over-relies on his influences—several of the songs here resonate with all-too-clear echoes of established standards (e.g., Pay to Play/The Blues Is Alright; A Woman’s Love/Walking the Backstreets and Crying), and his vocal evocations of Al Green sometimes cross the line from homage to imitation. Nonetheless, his own musical identity is strong enough to shine through, and overall, this set is a strong and encouragingly optimistic statement of soulful bluesiness from a young artist who seems to be just hitting his stride.
Catfood - CFR-20
The “angels” to whom this CD is dedicated include James Armstrong’s father, James Armstrong Sr.; Joe Louis Walker; blues-rock firebrand Coco Montoya; and the disc’s producer, Mike Ross. Armstrong credits these men for helping him summon the strength and inspiration to rejuvenate his musical career after he suffered severe injuries—including permanent nerve damage—when burglars invaded his home and attacked him in 1996.
The title song is a meditative, spirit-infused blues power ballad; Armstrong’s leads bend upward with glory-bound intensity as he delivers his message of hard-won inner peace and dedication to both his music and the “angels” who continue to inspire him. Healing Time, another tribute to a musician, was co-written by Mike Ross—it memorializes Ross’s late brother, Norman, who played guitar behind Ronnie Spector, among others, before he passed away. It ascends from a sparse, solemn-sounding intro to full-bodied, celebratory fullness.
Elsewhere, though, the feel here is exuberantly rowdy. Grandma’s Got a New Friend portrays a feisty senior citizen who has taken up with a rakish bluesman; punched by a brawny horn section and intensified by Armstrong’s tightly focused leadwork, it’s both ecstatic and slyly subversive in a culture that glorifies the sexuality of younger women but usually denies older women their due. Take It to the Limit recasts the old Eagles hit as a hard-traveling bluesman’s anthem; Moving to Nashville is grittier, melding bluesy Delta muck with rock-toughened urban grit; the hard-charging Bank of Love and the funk-booted Saturday Night Women, in contrast, are pure jubilation.
James Armstrong has had to work hard to regain his musical footing, and the spirit of gritty determination that sustained him through his struggles permeates this disk: as the blues has always been (contrary to stereotype), this a proclamation of victory from a man who has learned to stare down despair and play defiantly in its face.
Blue Corn Music - BCM 1401
Barreling down the highway, pressing a harmonica to his lips and blowing while steering with both elbows seems like a pretty neat trick. Blues and soul singer John Nemeth has been doing it for the past two decades. At first, as a teenager in his native Boise, Idaho, he developed his technique on the tiny instrument while driving a truck for an air-freight delivery company. He now does it to rehearse arrangements with his band between gigs as he takes the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.
“All of this drivin’ makin’ me a hell of a musician,” Nemeth sings in gritty tenor tones over the throbbing old-school soul grooves of the Bo-Keys on Elbows on the Wheel, one of 10 self-penned numbers on his new 13-track CD. A “road song” in the tradition of Bobby Troup’s Route 66, Hank Snow’s I’ve Been Everywhere, and James Brown’s version of Night Train, the Junior Wells–inspired tune ends with Nemeth calling out 22 place names, from Memphis to Okinawa, over an extended vamp. He even passes through Hungary, the country from which his father fled during the 1956 Soviet invasion.
Nemeth relocated from Oakland to Memphis early last year, arriving just two days ahead of his session with the Bo-Keys. The seven-man band, anchored by veteran Hi Rhythm Section drummer Howard Grimes, is a perfect foil for the singer’s increasingly pliant pipes, which he uses to navigate melismas and wide melodic intervals with pitch-perfect aplomb. He most often comes across as a smooth crooner, especially on the original soul ballads If It Ain’t Broke, Testify My Love, and I Wish I Was Home, but he also suggests the fierceness of Howlin’ Wolf when singing into his harmonica mike on the hard-socking I Can’t Help Myself. Nemeth’s high-falsetto cries on the 1968 Howard Tate hit Stop, one of three non-original songs in the set, are particularly stunning. He blows some darn good harp on the disc, but more significantly, he shows himself to be one hell of a singer.
My World Is So Cold
Lucy 13 - 013
Kent Burnside’s father, the late R.L. Burnside, helped bring the north Mississippi hill country “trance blues” sound into international recognition. His longtime friend and colleague, David “Junior” Kimbrough, was another renowned exponent of the style; Kimbrough’s grandson, drummer/percussionist David Gray Kimbrough, anchors Kent’s band on this disc.
Quite a few of these songs are built on the kind of single-chord, modal theme usually associated with hill country blues, although they’re mostly updated with a spiky propulsiveness borrowed from modern rock and R&B (Honeydew, however, strips the sound down to its acoustic roots). Other outings, such as the minor-key title song, are more musically adventurous. Burnside is an expressive singer, capable of summoning an almost terrifying sense of desolation and then cutting into declamatory fierceness without missing a beat.
I’m Cryin’—complete with tremolo-enhanced guitar work and joyfully punkish vocals from Burnside—sounds like a blast of garage-rock emanating from a Chulahoma, Mississippi alley (Jimmie Wood’s harp playing, which manages to sound both primal and exploratory, enhances the feel of cross-generational/genre mash-up). Walkin’ Blues (not the Robert Johnson standard) lurks ominously, punctuated by a neo-psychedelic wah-wah guitar line. In contrast, I Miss You, a tribute to R.L., finds the younger Burnside at his most reflective: his vocals, breathy and occasionally uncertain, intensify the feeling of grief girded by determination that permeates the song (its trajectory from acoustic meditation to full-band power further enhances the redemptive undercurrent of its message). Kinbrough’s bass-heavy drumming on Feel Good both adds rock impetus and echoes the fife-and-drum roots of the north Mississippi style.
The north Mississippi hill country blues legacy is in good hands.
WALTER “WOLFMAN” WASHINGTON
AND THE ROADMASTERS
Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans
Frenchmen Records - 131110
Every Wednesday night in New Orleans, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters take the stage around ten p.m. at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street. A living legend on the Crescent City rhythm and blues scene, Washington started playing guitar in Lee Dorsey’s band as a teenager in the late 1950s, spent a couple of years with Irma Thomas, and later worked behind Johnny Adams for over 20 years. He formed the Roadmasters in the late 1970s and in 1981 began recording as a leader. Considering that he is a great performer with tight band and a lot of stature in his hometown, it is surprising that Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans is only Washington’s second CD release in over a decade and the first live recording with his appropriately named band. The recording makes up for lost time because from the first note the listener is transported to a funkified night with a genuine master and his accomplished colleagues at work.
In a town known for its pianists, drummers, and horn men, Washington stands among a select group of guitar players including Lonnie Johnson, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Roy Montrell, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King, and Leo Nocentelli. He is a unique player, combining elements of blues, R&B, funk, and jazz. A striking soloist, he leans more toward the fluid lines of Wes Montgomery or George Benson than the incendiary dramatics of B.B. or Albert King. In many ways, his rhythm work is just as impressive as his solos. Playing on a scene with so many piano masters likely had an impact on Washington because his comping supplies the harmonic complexity of a keyboardist in the band, bringing to mind the work of Wayne Bennett with Bobby “Blue” Bland. The influence of Bland is also evident in Washington’s gruff, grainy vocals (although he certainly does not come close to matching Bland’s range or emotive resonance) and the band’s punchy, jazzy horn arrangements. Washington acknowledges his debt to the iconic vocalist and bandleader and his guitarist with the program’s lone cover tune, Ain’t That Lovin You.
In addition to the Bland cover, the set list offers a survey of Washington’s catalog, from the deep, propulsive groove of the instrumental Funkyard to the Latin-tinged swing of I’m in Love, and from the uptempo, James Brown–influenced Girl I Want to Dance to the bluesy Otis Redding/Memphis Horns sounding ballad Blue Moon Risin’. At the conclusion of many of the tracks, you can hear Washington break into a satisfied laugh in response to how much fun this band is having. Trumpeter Antonio Gambrell and saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter are not just sidemen here; they are accomplished soloists who share the spotlight with Washington, and they generate the big sound of a full horn section with their ensemble work. Drummer Wayne Maureau and longtime Washington collaborator, bassist Jack Cruz, provide a rock-solid funk foundation, which is particularly evident as they keep everything grooving when Washington switches from playing chords to single-note solos. For anyone who cannot make it down to Frenchmen Street, Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans brings alive the funky good time and masterful musicianship that Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters regularly deliver on Wednesday nights.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
BOBBY RUSH WITH BLINDDOG SMOKIN’
Silver Talon - STF-393
Bobby Rush continues to issue one successful release after another. Here he teams with California-based Blinddog Smokin’ for a varied set that supplements funky and downhome blues with acoustic guitar and even rap.
Decisions is solidly produced and executed, with an opener, Another Murder Down in New Orleans, that is slick enough, catchy enough, and packed with sufficient star power (guests include Doctor John, Billy Branch, Sherman Robertson, and Carl Weathersby) to gain some major attention. Blinddog Smokin’s frontman Carl Gustafson wrote the prime cut, plus wrote or co-wrote four others.
The notes report that Rush was initially hesitant to record this song, stating that senseless killing is not exclusive to NOLA. And Dr. John speaks (in a bonus interview) of how the code of silence among street people only perpetuates the crime problem. So these men—who have known violence—understand the urgency of this issue.
But might the message be undercut by the photo gallery glamor shots of the musicians on the bonus DVD, which includes a 9 1/2 minute video version of the title song with an animated cartoon of the band? Does the fun they’re having detract from the purpose? Well, Crimestoppers’ New Orleans chapter has already licensed the track, and no doubt most will have no qualms about this outstanding project, which comes with a 16-page booklet containing photos and lyrics.
Make the Right Decision, penned by Rush, seems to carry the serious theme forward, but by the third track they’re in comedic territory with Bobby Rush’s Bus, Gustafson’s ribald account of traveling with the band. Funky Old Man promotes an unlikely dance craze (“Do the Fred Sanford!”), and Dr. Rush is a humorous, however male-oriented, rap presented as a question-and-answer radio call-in show. Skinny Little Women extols the virtues of macropygic women (you can guess the meaning)—a specialty of Rush’s.
Nearly lost in the shuffle is a lovely simple blues, Love of a Woman, crafted by Rush to the melody of Sittin’ On Top of the World, and sure to be covered by others.
Too Much Weekend, although no mention is made of it, is a re-written Call My Job by Detroit Jr. that Rush presents on acoustic guitar in a fine grooving funk version with band. The set ends with an undocumented track, an exercise with acoustic guitar and band titled Sittin’ Here Waitin’.
If one monkey don’t stop no show, it only takes one funky man to start a party, and Bobby Rush has an irresistible talent for making great, danceable music out of sometimes slim premises and simple urges. Overall this is a fine set with an important anchor track.
Let’s not ignore gun violence, and let’s not forget New Orleans.
Catfood Records - CFR-019
Memphis-based singer Daunielle Hill’s epononymous debut recording will please fans of soul blues and southern soul. She has worked primarily as a backup singer for Solomon Burke and Huey Lewis & the News. And she certainly has the pedigree; her father, William Brown, scored mid-1960s hits for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads and, later, worked as a recording engineer for the iconic soul label. Daunielle was recorded in Tornillo, Texas, with the Rays, the Catfood Records house band, a crack outfit that serves the young singer well, evoking the classic sound of the Stax studio musicians like Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes who worked with her dad back in the day.
The program gives Daunielle a chance to showcase the deep, husky sensuousness of her voice on eight original and two cover tunes. The opening tune, Runaway Train, instantly brings Stax to mind with its punchy horn lines and surging organ. She sounds right at home in the middle of that soul stew. She keeps the Stax sound going with the next track, Early Grave, a cautionary tale about musical icons who succumbed to the dangers of the fast life. The crackling, live-wire guitar work of Johnny McGhee brings Steve Cropper to mind. The interplay of McGhee’s guitar and Dan Ferguson’s organ lock the groove in for Daunielle to deliver Goodbye Kiss, a bluesy soul ballad. Fallen Bird gives her a vehicle to showcase her powerful gospel chops. However, the highlight here is the mid-tempo ballad Nobody Cared; Daunielle’s vocal soars with an emotional resonance that is perfectly complemented by the haunting, bell-like, descending piano line and the interplay of jazzy rhythm and lead guitar lines. The two covers, Etta James’ Damn Your Eyes and Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, are well executed but do not really add anything to the originals. Biloxi is a lilting calypso number with a catchy, zydeco accordion riff that lets the singer show her versatility. Romeo and Juliet, yet another take on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, is a mid-tempo rocker that is somewhat out of place. All in all, Daunielle is a solid debut that introduces a new and exciting voice to the world of soul music. It will be interesting to see if she can stay true to the roots of the music and keep the tradition her father pioneered vital for a new generation.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
Time Ain’t Free
Blue Bella - BBCD 1019
Nick Moss cut his teeth as a young sideman to Chicago blues greats like Jimmy Dawkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Today he is preserving the storied legacy of the Windy City in his own outfit, the Flip Tops. A good 15 years removed from his solo debut, Nick Moss moves the blues forward by non-conformist leaps and bounds on Time Ain’t Free.
Moss seems to have had a musical re-awakening since his 2010 Privileged release, but he has not forgotten his roots—far from it. There’s plenty of blues turbulence here, as displayed in the hard-knuckled groove of the Son Seals–inspired Tell Me Somethin’ ’Bout Yourself (featuring lead vocals by Moss’s not-so-secret weapon, rhythm guitarist Michael Ledbetter). But Moss is becoming an interpreter of southern phrasing and funk sweeps and tickles—check out Light It Up for an exercise in Little Feat country honk, or Fare Thee Well for a Johnny “Guitar” Watson–style lesson in lowdown, minor-key cool.
Moss has grown as a songwriter, bandleader, and guitarist; he’s comfortable, yet still able to challenge himself at every turn. Look to I Want the World to Know for a slice of Allman Brothers–leaning jam, Moss’s Warren Haynes–centered multiplicity out in front.
If Privileged was Nick Moss’s declaration of independence, then Time Ain’t Free is the final draft of his constitution—a defiant, R&B swagger that signals a stylistic vision for the future.