CD REVIEWS DECEMBER 2013
Live at the Avant Garde, 1968
Delmark DE 833
Magic Sam was only 31 years old in 1968 when he made the trip up to Milwaukee’s Avant Garde coffeehouse to play before a young audience. The year before he’d recorded West Side Soul and Black Magic, two now-legendary albums for Chicago’s Delmark label. He was beginning to make an impression beyond the blues circuit. The following summer he would give an electrifying performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Many believed he was destined to do great things. Then in December he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Any new Magic Sam recording is big and exciting news, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Sam’s impassioned guitar playing and vocals are everything we’ve come to expect from his studio work and from live recordings, including Magic Sam Live and Rockin’ Wild in Chicago, both previous releases also on this label. The fidelity of this recording, though, is superior to the previous live releases, the result of mic preparations detailed by engineer and producer Jim Charne in his you-are-there liner notes.
Sam is backed only by Robert “Big Mojo” Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums. Elem was likely a sub for Mac Thompson but obviously a regular on the scene, for he and Richey are right on the money for all chord changes, turnarounds, stop time, and tempo shifts. Regrettably, Elem goes nearly the whole set without pausing to correct a flatted string. However the self-assured Magic Sam carries the show impressively as he plays and sings oblivious to any shortcomings from the band. And it is a fine performance.
Sam reprises his own You Belong to Me, Bad Luck Blues, That’s All I Need, and Lookin’ Good, plus covers San-Ho-Zay, I Need You So Bad, All Your Love (I Miss Loving), and Feelin’ Good, which by themselves constitute a set list to please any Sam fan. Additionally, there are titles by Jimmy McCracklin, Willie Dixon, and Lowell Fulson, plus fine renditions of Jimmy Rogers’ That’s All Right and Junior Wells’ Come On in This House, the latter sounding like Magic Sam’s own, which only suggests the rich cross influence between the blues guitarists of the time. But for many this will be a must-have for Sam’s previously unrecorded take of Muddy Waters’ Still a Fool and the instrumental Hully Gully Twist.
Those who never had a chance to see Magic Sam live will surely savor this worthy set of his incomparable music and will also enjoy hearing his easy banter with the audience. Sam is relaxed and personable and at the finish invites everyone back for the next night. He seems poised for the breakthrough that may have been imminent, but sadly, wasn’t to be.
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS
World Boogie Is Coming
Songs of the South - SOTS-014
The cover image of the North Mississippi Allstars’ World Boogie Is Coming features a disco ball sitting on the edge of a razed Mississippi cotton field, perfectly communicating the fact that this recording is at once the band’s most traditional and most progressive. A post-modern mashup that culls from hill country blues, fife and drum music, hip hop, psychedelic blues rock, funk, gospel, house music, rock ’n’ roll, southern rock, and British blues, as well as ambient sounds, it remains at its very core a butt-kicking, stomping, downhome blues and boogie jam. With their seventh studio recording, Luther and Cody Dickinson have crafted a game-changer that raises the bar for creativity on contemporary blues recording.
The CD features 17 tracks, plus a download card for five additional tracks and four videos. That gives these blues brothers plenty of room to stretch out and work their magic. And they do it with plenty of help from their friends. The highest profile guest is Robert Plant, who blows some wailing harmonica on the instrumental opener, Jr. Kimbrough’s sinuous JR, as well as on the Luther Dickinson/Lightnin Malcolm funky shuffle Goat Meat. Other guests include Malcolm, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, Kenny Brown, Duwayne and Garry Burnside, Sharde Thomas, and Steve Selvidge. There are also archival tape appearances from Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside, so there is generational juxtaposition going on throughout the program.
That old/new dichotomy is most prominent on their tour de force treatment of the Delta blues warhorse Rollin ’n’ Tumblin, which builds on the work R.L. Burnside did with Fat Possum Records in the 1990s. With bass and drums locked in a steamroller funk groove that is guaranteed to drive club dancers out onto the floor, the track features Luther wailing on a homemade two-string, coffee-can resonator diddley bow, eventually dueling with a scratching hip hop DJ. It is totally original and has to be heard to be believed. They follow this with another unrelenting groove, the acoustic guitar/snare drum–driven Boogie. Not everything is pedal to the metal here, and the gospel influenced take on Kimbrough’s Meet Me in the City evokes the Staple Singers. Otha Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, lends her cane flute and sweet, soulful vocals to an extended slide guitar/fife and drum medley across three tracks, Shimmy, My Babe, and Granny, Does Your Dog Bite. Luther’s slide guitar prowess in terms of tone, timing, and ideas is simply devastating throughout the CD, but on the classic Goin’ to Brownsville, which is credited to both Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis, he pulls out all the stops. More slide mastery is also served up on the bonus tracks, which include three tunes associated with Mississippi Fred McDowell, Crazy Bout You, Back Back Train, and Brooks Run to the Ocean; he brings the electrified conception of the slide guitar that McDowell established on his 1969 I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll session into the 21st century.
Cody Dickinson has stated, “‘World boogie is coming’ was my father’s favorite valediction.” If the Allstars’ last studio effort, Kings to the Kingdom (2011), was an elegy to Jim Dickinson, World Boogie Is Coming is a second line parade–like celebration of their father and the other musical fathers—Turner, Burnside, Kimbrough, McDowell, Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker, and T-Model Ford—who shaped and passed along this distinctive north Mississippi blues tradition. They have crafted an amazing, multi-textured sonic (and visual with the videos) experience—a landmark blues recording!
— Robert H. Cataliotti
Ain’t No More Love In This House
Severn - CD-0060
Lou Pride was an unabashed old-schooler. His church-enriched, sweet-toned vocal style was influenced by such figures as Bobby Bland, Otis Redding, and Al Green. He was his own man, though—even when he borrowed a melodic or timbral conceit from one of his role models, he recast it in his own image. The arrangements on this, his final studio recording, likewise invoke the golden era of deep soul—boxy, funk-seasoned cadences reminiscent of Willie Mitchell–era Hi; graceful melody lines; emotion-packed yet resolutely tasteful horn voicings—and the songs, whether penned by Pride or others, tell vivid stories that sound drawn from street-level real life.
Pride took his inspiration where he found it, and he usually enriched whatever he touched. His version here of the 1972 Wayne Newton hit Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast takes the Vegas songster to church, transforming an erstwhile maudlin bauble into an angst-ridden, spirirt-infused paean to heartbreak and redemption. I Gotta Move On Up (penned by Chicago vocalist Big Time Sarah) likewise melds worldly concerns (financial security, romantic satisfaction) with a gospel-imbued sense of spiritual uplift. The title song, a Pride composition, brings new vividness to the age-old tale of a man who comes home from a hard day of work to find nothing there except a “good-bye” note from his woman; I Didn’t Take Your Woman (no relation to the Tail Dragger song of the same name) finds the singer showcasing both his machismo (as he faces down an angry rival) and his warm-hearted tenderness (as he relates the story of how he rescued the woman from a loveless, abusive relationship). Key to the World, with its gently burbling rhythm guitar line, is a Curtis Mayfield–like fusion of romantic and social idealism; on the country-tinged soul ballad We Can Do What We Want, Pride invokes an erotic intimacy that’s a blessing for both body and soul—a classic deep-soul fusion of carnality and spirit.
When Lou Pride passed away in June of 2012, he was still scuffling, still pouring his heart into everything he sang, still striving for that big breakout hit that he deserved so richly but never attained. This set is a fitting capstone to his legacy as one of the great unheralded soul men of the modern era.
Dialtone - DT0026
Eddie Stout, founder of the Austin-based Dialtone label, is well known for his dedication to recording lesser-known guitarists, horn players, and singers from the Lone Star State, but outside of the 2006 Texas Harmonica Rumble compilation, this eponymous release from the artist known as “Birdlegg” is the first time that Stout has cut an album where one harp man is the marquee player. Many LB subscribers will already be familiar with Gene “Birdlegg” Pittman’s story after reading Gene Tomko’s feature in LB #227, which chronicles Birdlegg’s misadventures around the country before he settled in Oakland in the 1970s. He now calls Austin his home, and this self-titled album (the 26th for Dialtone) has a level of polish and musicianship not found on earlier DIY recordings from his days as a mainstay on the East Bay scene.
Birdlegg was recorded at Church House Studios (where noteworthy players such as James Cotton and Kim Wilson have also worked) with an outstanding backing band in guitarist Mike Keller and drummer Jason Moeller of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Omar Dykes on guitar, Dialtone’s resident go-to piano man Nick Connolly, Antone’s staple Kaz Kazanoff on sax, and upright bassist Johnny Bradley. Original songs dominate the set list, such as San Pablo, which describes the avenue that runs through several East Bay cities and is set to a Bo Diddley rhythm; the stop-time Good Time Blues; or the acoustic country blues-flavored Down in My Shoes.
Birdlegg’s harp work may lack complexity in tone and vibrato, but he plays (and sings) with such conviction that all save for the most discerning blues harmonica fans will notice. Birdlegg also demonstrates stylistic dexterity with the variety of compositions on display here, from crawling slow blues (Restraining Order Blues) to swing (747), and lazy Jimmy Reed shuffles (You Upset My Mind) to funk-blues (Don’t Sit Down at the Table). Here’s hoping that the album, which is available on iTunes or at www.dialtonerecords.com, will bring a career resurgence for this veteran as his music opens up to a larger audience.
STEVE HOWELL AND THE MIGHTY MEN
Yes, I Believe I Will
Out of the Past Music – (No #)
Texas acoustic guitarist and singer Steve Howell’s new acoustic blues album Yes, I Believe I Will takes a gentle, tranquil approach. He takes it easy and sets a slow pace, even when covering fiery songs like Willie Brown’s Future Blues. At first Yes, I Believe I Will may make listeners long for some fire and brimstone, some intensity, but Howell opted for a calming mood. After a few listens, it feels right, even soothing, as the troubadour lets every note breathe and sets the listener into a mindset to appreciate the acoustic musicality.
Howell is a fine instrumentalist who approached this album with an arsenal of fine, high-end guitars that would have been the envy of the originators of these songs: a Kevin Ryan signature Abbey Grand Parlor, a Collings OM41 and a National Resorocket. Fortunately, Howell has the chops to get the best out of his axes and he plays with an eloquent maturity and refined elegance, clean and smooth. He gets capable help from his longtime band, with Chris Michael on guitar and bass, Dave Hoffpauir on drums, and Jason Weinheimer on keyboards. Clearly, they can finish each other’s musical sentences.
Yes, I Believe I Will offers up ten great tasteful tunes, covering blues traditions, Appalachian mountain music, and folk, all fitting together perfectly. There is a nice rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning played slow as molasses to let every note ring clean. The late, great Virginia banjo player Dock Boggs’ famed Country Blues (Hustling Gambler) is a wonderful selection, and a good fit for Howell’s rough-hewn vocals. The traditional I Know You Rider is another highlight of the album, as is Mel Tillis’ Walk On Boy, a favorite in Doc Watson’s repertoire.
A nice addition to the acoustic blues today by a superb artist who has all the chops, and the good sense to play understated, but beautifully.
FRANK BEY & ANTHONY PAULE BAND
Soul for Your Blues
Blue Dot - BDR CD 106
The year 2013 has been a productive one for Philadelphia-based vocalist Frank Bey, who just released his second album of the year, a soul-drenched blues experience recorded with the Bay Area’s Anthony Paule Band (their last record, another collaboration with Paule’s outfit, was recorded live at San Francisco’s premier blues club Biscuits & Blues). As strong as the live album was, this studio recording ups the ante in terms of both song selection and production value.
With a baker’s dozen tracks that lean heavily toward the soul side of the blues spectrum, Soul for Your Blues evokes a high level of intimacy despite the big band feel that comes with a three-piece horn section and multiple backup singers. The always-entertaining Rick Estrin joins in on harmonica on a pair of tracks (Don’t Mess with the Monkey and the straight-up blues Bed for My Soul), and fellow Nightcats guitarist Kid Andersen plays on an additional four. Although he’s surrounded by such an array of talent here, Bey stands out as the focal point of the sessions, thanks largely to his masterful and often highly affecting vocals—just listen to the opening number I Don’t Know Why or the pained slow blues You’re Somebody Else’s Baby Too.
Paule’s band is showcased on two outstanding instrumentals as well, the funky guitar groove Smokehouse and an up-tempo, swinging version of George Cory’s I Left My Heart in San Francisco that (thankfully) lacks the schmaltz of Tony Bennett’s interpretation. Overall, this is quite an impressive outing from the woefully under-recorded blues/soulman Bey—let’s hope that Bey and Paule will hit the studio together again in the future.
Baptized In the Blues
No label name - (No #)
Vocalist Annie Mack is the best kind of “roots” artist—dedicated to the heritage she’s embraced, but resolute in her refusal to be pigeonholed. The title tune on this, her debut CD, is full of shout-outs to blues tradition, but it’s propelled by a boogity-shoe funk backing. The disc’s most straightforward gospel number, Call On Jesus, owes as much to classic-era, Latin-tinged R&B as it does to the gospel tradition; the wronged lover’s lament Fool to Believe grafts a Love Light–like groove onto a proto-funk, New Orleans–tinged rhythmic pattern. Elsewhere, Mack delves into roadhouse rock, neo-Kimbrough trance boogie, country-tinged deep-soul balladry, and blues/rock/pop mélange in the contemporary mix-and-match mode. Her alto delivery is strong, and she seems to gain flexibility as she immerses herself more deeply in her material—any hint of rookie self-consciousness is erased when the spirit hits. Her band, meanwhile, summons high energy without succumbing to overkill, and they always remember to play ideas, not just notes, even at their most exuberant and hard-charging.
A special word about Mack’s lyrics: Her storylines portray everything from the struggles of a woman with “calloused hands [and] broken dreams” who finds solace in “a little taste of whiskey [and] them old blues songs” (Hey, Hey Mama) through the triumph of a street urchin, traumatized by “bullets . . . flying through her world,” who eventually faces down the Devil in human form (“A two legged snake”) and resolutely keeps “moving on the road of life” (Little Girl Blues), to the determination of a woman “tired of whiskey-laced love” who vows to find “a way to make myself truly mine” (Walking Dead). Along the way, she reaffirms her faith (Call On Jesus, Revolution), faces down despair (Seems Like Sorrow), cries out again for love (G-Groove), and opens her heart to a beloved child (the folkish Saving Grace). In a blues world overrun with bad-mama posturing on one hand and hoochie-mama silliness on the other, it’s refreshing to hear a lyricist with deeper ideas on her mind. That alone makes Annie Mack worth checking out; the vocal and musical quality of this set only adds to the pleasure.
Catfood - CFR-018
Johnny Rawls often talks about his admiration for O.V. Wright, the deep-soul vocalist for whom he worked as guitarist and musical director before Wright’s death in 1980; but until now, he hasn’t featured many of his old mentor’s songs on his own recordings or shows. This tribute set, apparently the result of a suggestion to Rawls by Bill Wax, former program director of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s B. B. King’s Bluesville, includes some of Wright’s best-known hits along with an obscurity or two and an original (the closing Blaze of Glory), written by Rawls and bassist/producer/label owner Bob Trenchard. Otis Clay, whose own style is often compared to Wright’s (and whose version of A Nickel and a Nail may be better known these days than Wright’s 1971 original), lends his still-potent gospel-soul vocals to three of the tracks.
Clay, in fact, kicks off the proceedings with a characteristically sanctified intro to Something (I Can’t Shake Loose); Rawls comes roaring right back with as gritty and hard-edged a vocal as we’ve ever heard from him. That exchange sets the tone for the entire set: Throughout, Rawls comes about as close as possible to invoking Wright’s personalized meld of street-toughened bluesiness and gospel-honed spiritual intensity; the horn charts effectively recall the late Willie Mitchell’s gift for creating a sound both insistent and laid-back (Mitchell produced almost all of Wright’s most important records, first on Don Robey’s Back Beat label, then later on Hi); the Catfood rhythm section digs into the proceedings with vintage deep-soul panache. Clay is also featured on [A] Nickel and a Nail (a little slower and more meditative sounding than Otis’s own torrid version) and the closer, on which Rawls fondly recalls his years on the circuit with O.V.—even Wright’s death, which Rawls witnessed personally while en route with him to a gig, is recounted with life-affirming power in the great gospel tradition of wringing hope from tragedy. In the end, it’s a love song to soul music and to life itself (“I won’t go out easy, I won’t fade away / I’m gonna keep on until my dying day”), and, as such, an appropriate conclusion to a set that’s an eloquent tribute to one of soul music’s greatest figures and also stands as an impeccably realized musical achievement in and of itself.
Live . . . and Then Some
No label – (No #)
Sounding like a higher-pitched Denise LaSalle but with phrasing and textural nuances all her own, Memphis vocalist Ms. Nickki delivers bad-mama throwdowns and pleading entreaties with equal facility, and she’s both a witty songwriter and a crafty interpreter of others’ material.
The “Live” portion of this set was recorded at Ground Zero on Beale Street a few years ago; the rest consists mostly of tracks culled from Nickki’s debut CD, 2005’s Just In the Nick of Time. The in-concert segment includes tributes to her idol LaSalle (Blues Party Tonight, Juke Joint Woman, Mississippi Girl [based on Denise’s Mississippi Woman, itself a remake of Mississippi Boy, originally penned by Floyd Hamberlin Jr.]) along with B.B. King (The Thrill is Gone) and Ann Peebles (Breakin up Somebody’s Home). It’s a vivid glimpse of Nickki at her most soulful and melodious—her intonation is spot-on, she exudes power and confidence, and her interaction with the audience is both intimate and sassy.
The studio tracks may lack the sensual immediacy of the live offerings, but on their own terms they’re just as effective. Individual song credits aren’t given, but at least several sound like Nickki originals. The title song portrays the singer as a life-of-the-party dance-club hostess; The Best Cock Competition is a wry dispatch from a mythical preening-and-prowess contest between strutting roosters (who may or may not be actual fowl); Honey I’ll Do, slow-wafting and sweetened by orchestral billows, features Nickki as tender-hearted, emotionally vulnerable balladeer (she should accentuate this side of her musical personality more often). The closer, Where The Big Girls At? (composed by Nickki’s fellow Memphian Toni Green) is the testimonial of a plus-sized juke-joint queen unafraid to celebrate life, love, and lust to the fullest.
“Artist Deserving Wider Recognition” is a dreadful cliche by now, but few merit this encomium more than Ms. Nickki. For further information on how to acquire a copy of this disk, contact her at email@example.com or (901) 378-3707.
EUGENE HIDEAWAY BRIDGES
Roots and Vines
Armadillo - ARMD 00034
Bridges returns with his seventh album on Britain’s Armadillo Records, and it is a solid effort commemorating his 50th birthday. He says in the liner notes, “I wanted to record some of the songs I listened to when I was growing up, songs reflecting the styles of music that have inspired me and some songs telling my story.” Bridges demonstrates how he deftly straddles multiple genres, including traditional Texas/Louisiana blues, gospel, jazz, soul, country, and even a show tune, but all with a very contemporary flavor. Bridges is comfortable in his own skin, and this moving album of 13 originals and five covers offers a very positive and, indeed, inspirational current flowing throughout. Roots and Vines opens with a lively version of Glory Glory straight out of Rev. Utah Smith’s repertoire, which Bridges says his father learned directly from Smith and spread to other gospel guitarists in New Orleans.
The album continues with another cover, this time of Sam Cooke’s Farewell, My Darling, an obvious influence that Bridges, knowingly or not, channels for the rest of the record. Good Old Days is introspective country soul that features some mournful pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. They Call the Wind Mariah is an unexpected and sentimental entry in this set, but Bridges makes it fit seamlessly, saying in the notes, “On my open road trips this song is always in my heart. I want to sing it to you, to remember the songs of yesterday and to teach me how to write for tomorrow,” which, along with a life examined, could easily be a major theme of the album. Whether it is the groove of Rise Above It All, the soul-jazz blues of A Thing Called Love, or the greasy swagger of Don’t Call It Supper, there’s not a bad performance in the set and, in fact, there are plenty of surprises. Roots and Vines offers a little something for everyone.
CD REVIEWS OCTOBER 2013
Rhythm & Blues
Silvertone - 88883-75780-2
This set consists of two discs, one titled Rhythm, the other Blues. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary—Rhythm includes hard-funk workouts like the autobiographical Best in Town, an updating of Junior Wells’ 1960 proto-soul/blues anthem Messin’ with the Kid (featuring a phlegm-and-gristle guest vocal and apparently an equally over-the-top guitar solo [neither individual musician nor songwriter credits are provided] from Kid Rock), and an update of Guitar Slim’s Well I Done Got Over It. But it also offers plenty of straight-ahead blues and blues-rock, featuring Guy’s characteristic high-velocity fretboard work and still-supple vocals.
As usual, Guy is most effective when he tempers his show-stopping prowess with subtleties both emotional and stylistic (e.g., the surrealism-tinged dreamscapes Whiskey Ghost and The Devil’s Daughter); also as usual, the guest stars are a mixed bag. Keith Urban brings an atmospheric honky-tonk melancholy to One Day Away, apparently inspiring Guy to unfurl his own vocals at their most heartfelt and textured; vocalist Beth Hart, though, featured on What You Gonna Do About Me, is best known for her 1999 album Screamin’ for My Supper—which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about her.
Blues continues in more or less the same fashion—torrid blues anthems, some kicked into overdrive by metallic hard-funk grooves, alternating with molten-lava ballads and the occasional southern-fried tribute to roots. Poison Ivy reprises Willie Mabon’s 1954 classic; Texas guitar prodigy Gary Clark Jr. enlivens Blues Don’t Care with his characteristic blend of bluesy emotional directness and postmodern stylistic eclecticism. On the other hand, it’s a mystery why Guy needed the cartoonishly overwrought vocals of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and the slag-metal fretboard onslaughts of Tyler’s bandmates Joe Perry and Brad Whitford to clutter up the otherwise deft and elegant cuckold’s lament Evil Twin.
At this point, Buddy Guy is pretty much critic-proof; both his admirers and his detractors will find plenty here to support their arguments. Meanwhile, though, he soldiers on as one of our most tireless and dedicated carriers of the blues torch, for which we can all be grateful.
Blues in My Soul
Delmark - DE 829
Lurrie Bell is widely admired for his shoot-from-the-hip, fingers-only guitar picking, but lately he’s taken a fresh look at his music. His previous release was a celebrated gospel/acoustic CD, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music. And now Blues in My Soul represents a simple set of more classic (mostly) Chicago blues tracks that prizes crafted vocals as much as guitar licks.
Much as his modesty would forbid him to admit it, Bell is becoming an old master of the blues. On this outing his vocal delivery lags artfully like that of a practiced jazz singer. Doing so seems to open up each song and lend depth of feeling as if he’s carefully considering anew a line that he may have sung a thousand times. The delivery is assured, the musicianship first class.
Bell’s backed by his crack gigging rhythm unit of Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums and Melvin Smith on bass, with Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards and Matthew Skoller on harmonica. A three-piece horn section adds accents on two tracks. The notes state that the CD was produced by Dick Shurman and “mixed by Steve Wagner, second-guessed by Dick Shurman”—a nice way of saying that these two audio pros carefully debated the presentation of this set to bring out the best.
The band sinks their collective musical teeth into such Chicago classics as Jimmy Rogers’ Going Away Baby and My Little Machine, plus Little Walter’s I Just Keep Loving Her and Big Bill Broonzy’s I Feel So Good, each of which gives Skoller an opportunity to show how to deliver classic harp riffs with distinctiveness. Throughout, Bell’s guitar work is frugal and carefully measured—perhaps epitomized on the crisp, lightly swinging She’s a Good ’Un—his solos concise and rarely more than a chorus long.
Three original titles include Blues in My Soul, Bell’s frank assessment of his current stage of life, and 24 Hour Blues, a tribute to Magic Slim, who died the day of the recording, plus the funk instrumental South Side to Riverside, which I’d wager Willie Hayes had a hand in.
Otis Spann’s reflective Blues Never Die provides a perfect coda for the set with Bell taking his time singing lyrics that sound right from his mouth as much as from Spann’s pen.
A great guitarist, Bell may not be the finest or flashiest vocalist, but he is an honest and thoughtful singer and an entertainer who always gives fair measure to every audience.
This recording leaves no doubt that there’s an abundance of blues in Lurrie Bell’s soul.
SHAWN HOLT AND THE TEARDROPS (WITH SPECIAL GUEST JOHN PRIMER)
My Daddy Told Me
Blind Pig - BPCD 5156
After guitarist Shawn Holt’s father, Magic Slim, died this past February, Shawn took over leadership of Slim’s band, the Teardrops. Those are big shoes to fill (both literally and metaphorically); as if in acknowledgment, guitarist John Primer returns here to help evoke the legendary Teardrops sound on a few tracks. For his part, Shawn recreates Slim’s high-intensity guitar tone and propulsive chording quite well, and a lot of his leads are taken directly from Slim’s lickbook. The set, meanwhile, includes several songs closely associated with Slim (Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae, Bo Diddley’s Before You Accuse Me, Slim’s own Buddy Buddy Friend and Please Don’t Dog Me, among others) along with some Shawn Holt originals (the title tune, Mean Little Woman, You Done Me Wrong, et al.).
Primer’s deft, Delta-tinged fusion of melody and machismo adds considerable texture to Buddy Buddy Friend and Before You Accuse Me (on which he also takes lead vocal); it’s questionable, though, whether Shawn’s own vocals have enough street-tough fury to really do justice to his musical inheritance, and the current crop of Teardrops seem hard-pressed to maintain the earth-shaking power that characterized earlier incarnations.
It’s never easy to labor in the shadow of a giant—and if that giant was your own parent, it’s even more daunting. At times, Shawn Holt shows some encouraging signs of finding his own voice (e.g., Hold You Again, with its rock- and pop-tinged modernist colorations)—this is probably the direction he should explore more aggressively if he wants to step out and forge his own identity while still paying tribute to his legendary father.
Delta Groove - DGPCD161
Sugaray Rayford has been the Mannish Boys’ vocalist for several years; before he joined them, he recorded a few discs with a San Diego–based band called Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz. He’s accompanied here by the Mannish Boys themselves and some special guests (harpists Kim Wilson and Sugar Ray Norcia, guitarists Monster Mike Welch and Kid Andersen, et al.).
This is mostly a straight-ahead blues outing, but Rayford and his men still manage to cast an admirably wide net, tackling everything from jazzy West Coast sophistication (Pee Wee Crayton’s When It Rains It Pours) through tremolo-enhanced garage-swamp grease (Pretty Fine Mama) and horn-powered jump blues (Charles Brown’s Depression Blues, Junior Parker’s In the Dark) to Chicago-flavored postwar classicism (Country Boy [not the Muddy standard], the You Don’t Love Me /Wang Dang Doodle spin-off I Might Do Something Crazy) and even a slide-driven acoustic melange of Robert Johnson’s Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) and Little Brother Montgomery’s First Time I Met the Blues (mis-identified as Son House’s Preaching Blues, which was the source for Johnson’s composition but is not the song presented here).
As usual with a project like this, well-worn tropes, musical quotes, and ideas tend to pile up on one another (even in ostensibly original material). But the musicianship is impeccable, and Rayford himself is a skilled vocal stylist, as convincing with a gristle-choked Delta groan or a throaty juke-joint holler as he is with a suave uptown hepcat murmur or a celebratory, hard-swinging blues shout. Although there’s little here that challenges boundaries or expectations, this is a solid set of standards and conventionally crafted blues originals, elevated from the run-of-the-mill by the musical acumen and obvious commitment of all concerned.
Rounder - 11661-9154-2PA
When genius New Orleans songwriter, pianist, arranger, and producer Allen Toussaint began recording in earnest as a singer—in 1970 with the single Sweet Touch of Love/From a Whisper to a Scream on the Tiffany label, followed by an album on Scepter and three more for Reprise—he was uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice and disguised the natural sound of it through double tracking. It wasn’t until the four Toussaint songs were released by Island Records on a two-disc album titled New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1976 that the warm, richly resonant tones of his low-tenor pipes were widely exposed in un-doctored form. He’s been recording that way ever since, particularly after Hurricane Katrina drove him out of his hometown and Joe’s Pub in Manhattan became his headquarters of sort.
Recorded at Joe’s in September 2009, Songbook presents Toussaint singing and playing without additional accompaniment. Rounder’s standard edition of the disc contains a dozen songs, while the deluxe edition consists of a 25-song CD and a 90-minute DVD made up of a slightly different 25-song set and a 25-minute studio interview.
The deluxe edition CD offers a wonderfully intimate look at the artist as he delivers songs he’d written over the years for other singers, including Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Frankie Miller, Art Neville, Benny Spellman, and Irma Thomas (and a few for himself), without the surging horns, ace rhythm sections, and background vocals (often provided by Toussaint himself through overdubbing) heard on the original recordings. Much like Jelly Roll Morton’s solo recordings without his Red Hot Peppers, Toussaint’s piano often suggests the ensemble parts that were once present on old favorites like Lipstick Traces, Holy Cow, Get Out My Life Woman, All These Things, A Certain Girl, Mother-In-Law, Fortune Teller, and Working in a Coal Mine. His six-minute treatment of It’s Raining is much different from the Thomas original, however. His vocal phrasing is tender and remarkably pliant, and he employs jazz chord substitutions and at one point, as he sings the line “I’ve got the blues so bad I can hardly catch my breath,” plays rolling chords that betray his stylistic debt to Charles Brown. It is perhaps the finest performance of Toussaint’s stellar career.
Toussaint performs a recent composition titled No Place Like New York toward the end of the set, but his longing for home is pronounced on such numbers as Shrimp Po-Boy (Dressed), It’s a New Orleans Thing, I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday, and especially a 15-minute rendition of Southern Nights that includes a long, heartfelt monologue about visiting Creole relatives in the country when he was a boy. The best news is that since the recording of Songbook, Toussaint is again living and working in New Orleans.
Can’t Get Enough
429 Records – FTN17940
As a last-minute replacement for Al Kooper’s missing session mate Michael Bloomfield on the 1968 album Super Session, Stephen Stills made a blip in blues history by singing and playing on the four songs that completed the best-selling disc, only one of which, a version of Willie Cobbs’ You Don’t Love Me, was an actual blues. Now, 45 years later, the 68-year-old rock star has put together a blues-rock band called the Rides with singer-guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 36, and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, 70. Stills’ bassist Kevin McCormick and Shepherd’s drummer Chris Layton (formerly with Stevie Ray Vaughan) complete the quintet.
Stills and Shepherd, who had first jammed together at a Superbowl party hosted by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, take turns on lead vocals and guitars, while Goldberg largely stays in the background on piano and organ. Both Stills and Shepherd display commanding blues guitar skills throughout. The three leaders collaborated on writing four of the disc’s ten songs, of which the opening Roadhouse has the strongest blues content, with Stills wailing “Mississippi roadhouse where I been playin’ my music for a bunch of college kids” in gruff low-tenor tones. Shepherd takes the vocal helm quite effusively on others, including three vintage numbers he selected for the recording: Muddy Waters’ Honey Bee, Elmore James’ Talk to Me Baby, and the rhythm-charged That’s a Pretty Good Love, a tune credited to Bryant Lucas and Fred Mendelsohn that first appeared as the flip side of the 1956 Big Maybelle hit Candy. Adding further variety to the album are a Stills composition titled Word Game, a version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, and full-tilt treatment of Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ Search and Destroy that was suggested by Jerry Harrison, who co-produced the session with Stills and Shepherd.
IRONING BOARD SAM
DixieFrog/Music Maker Relief Foundation - DFGCD 8733
When LB last spoke with Sammie “Ironing Board Sam” Moore (LB #211), the musician had moved from New Orleans, where he’d made his home for years, to Jackson, Mississippi, eventually returning to his birthplace of Rock Hill, South Carolina. He’d fallen on hard times recently but was in talks with the Music Maker Foundation about recording for them. Double Bang! is his third release under their imprint, and the expansive collection offers a summary of the singular musician’s wide-ranging career.
The album contains 35 tracks spread across two CDs; all but eight are Sam originals. Big Bang! surrounds him with a full band, including backing vocals from the Believers in Christ. Ever Look at a Tree and Can’t Nobody Do are classic, piano-driven R&B; Good Will Come to You and It Will Come to Light share elements of doo-wop. The horn-powered soul of For the Love of Money, Beat the Devil, and I Feel Your Pain easily segue into the big-band era with the dreamy Bedroom Window. Sam can’t keep his mind off his lady’s posterior on the naughty funk of Nothing but Your Butt, keeps the dance going on Do the Ironing Board and the gospel-inflected Life Is Like a Seesaw, and ends with a sweet, solo piano version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Somewhere also serves as a preview for the next disc, entitled Hot Bang!, which features Sam alone at the keys. All of the cuts have an intimate feel; especially nice are (Come On) Let’s Boogie, Why I Sing the Blues, Come to Mardi Gras, and Tallahassee Bridge, a re-worked version of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. A few songs from the first CD are also re-recorded here, but what’s really special is the inclusion of Sam’s late ’60s-early ’70s singles. With the style and verve he displays on smoking cuts like I’ve Been Used and Man of the Street, and his fine singing and playing on the ballads Purple Raindrops and Raining in My Heart, it’s hard to fathom how he wasn’t better known.
Sam won 2012’s Comeback Artist Award and this year’s Most Outstanding Keyboard Artist Award in LB’s Critics Poll. Let’s hope this renewed attention, plus the heartfelt performances on Double Bang!, will continue to expand his audience.
SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK & BNOIS KING
Road Dog’s Life
Delta Groove - DGPCD162
These two guitar maestros have been playing together a long time—almost 25 years. A collaboration doesn’t last that long without a mutual sense of humor and adventure. Both traits come through on Road Dog’s Life, their 15th record together. Through a dozen house-rockin’ mostly original tunes, they chug and churn with a confident, exuberant approach. Road Dog’s Life has the sound of two old pals having lots of fun.
They bring along other pals too. Kim Wilson’s blustery harmonica solo on Nobody but You exudes just as much free-wheeling swagger as the guitarists’. It’s a made-for-headphones collection too, with the mix designed so that Kubek comes in through the right channel with King coming through the left.
Their tunes have a wry sense of humor, from the richly drawn, rough and tumble title character of the lead-off track Big Money Sonny or the clever wordplay and classic innuendo of K9 Blues.
The two covers are real curveballs, but both hit the mark. First is a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Play with Fire, an unlikely selection given the dozens of other more blues-based songs in the Stones’ oeuvre, but they make it work, transforming it in to a down and dirty swamp groove, again accentuated by harmonica, this time by Randy Chortkoff. The other is an early track from the Beatles called Don’t Bother Me. Again, it’s an ambitious choice and impressive makeover because they transform the jaunty vibe and easy harmonies of the early mop-top era into a slow-burning blues that broods and taps a deep despair not apparent in the original version.
In all, Road Dog’s Life is a document of two long-time colleagues showing themselves to be adept at writing original material and re-interpreting the work of others, and most importantly, having a ton of fun in the process
DAVID KIMBROUGH III
Oh Baby Please
No Label - (No #)
David Kimbrough III is, of course, the son of the late Mississippi hill country bluesman Junior Kimbrough. His discography includes a 1994 Fat Possum album as David Malone, a 2006 CD for B.C. Records as David Kimbrough Jr., and a handful of self-released offerings.
This new recording marks a sharp departure from the younger Kimbrough’s previous stylings, which were generally aimed at updating the local sound associated with his father and R.L. Burnside. Now, relocated to the university town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Kimbrough has discovered the dulcimer, specifically the so-called mountain, or Appalachian, dulcimer. Not to be confused with its cousin, the hammered dulcimer, it’s fretted and strummed or plucked while held flat. Accompanied only by his young nephew David Gray Kimbrough, who turns in an impressive performance on drums throughout, he kicks off the set with a too-long instrumental that catches fire only briefly near its end. The next two cuts, When I Start Singing the Blues and Ooh Wee, are candidly autobiographical and taken at similar medium-slow tempos. There’s more of a hill country flavor to the title track, where it sounds as if the dulcimer is plugged in to achieve a sort of buzzing drone. Poke That Pig has something of an old-time country-dance feel to it, while, in marked contrast Mr. Jim is a half-spoken, half-sung remembrance of a neighbor who had carried on after losing his family in an accident. For a change of pace, Kimbrough breaks out his guitar to raise the heat a few notches for Got to Go Play the Blues before returning to the buzz of the amplified dulcimer for a rocking My Baby Left Me All Alone that accelerates and ignites part way through. The tempo’s back down for Half Past a Monkey’s Azz, and, true to tradition, Oh How Wonderful closes the program with a church song.
So what to make of Kimbrough’s use of the dulcimer? Quite frankly, the instrument seems to have pretty limited potential compared to the guitar, but it does seem to allow Kimbrough to focus more on his singing, which is what he does best anyway. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues to pursue it, and if so, how he continues to adapt it to the blues. There’s definitely an opportunity here for him to plow some new ground.
Play One for Me
Severn Records - CD 0059
Guitarist Bryan Lee’s latest album also marks his first release for the Severn label, and it should please admirers of the New Orleans musician’s biting fretwork and gruffly expressive singing. Play One for Me shows off both to fine advantage, with a cracking cast of backing players that includes the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson and Johnny Moeller.
The track list is evenly split between Lee’s compositions and covers of soul and blues standards. Play One for Me takes its title from George Jackson’s Aretha (Sing One for Me), which Lee delivers with languid ease. His version of Bobby Womack’s When Love Begins (Friendship Ends) lives in the same lonely place as Bobby Bland’s Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City; both songs are warmly augmented by Willie Henderson’s tasteful string and horn arrangements. Lee turns out a faithfully nasty rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil Is Going On, thanks in part to Wilson’s shredding harmonica; his own You Was My Baby (But You Ain’t My Baby No More) provides the b-side to Evil’s action. Also potent is Poison, a slow, slithering guitar-and-harp grind that coats his vocals in boxy distortion. Why is a socially conscious shuffle (“I don’t see faces, just heart and soul/Oh man, this hatred is sure getting old”), and Sixty-Eight Years Young, a swaggering ode to music’s ability to invigorate, ends the album on a high note.
With a smooth sound that’s still rough around the edges, Play One for Me should inspire many hits of the replay button.
CD REVIEWS AUGUST 2013
THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS
Beyond the 4 Walls
Acoustic Production Originals - CAPO 20235
This disc is a reunion in more ways than one. It brings the Campbells back together as a recording unit, and it also returns them to their true musical and spiritual home in gospel, rather than the festival/jam band world they’ve been visiting so often (and with such mutually beneficial results) for over a decade.
The opening whine of Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel at the outset of Hell No! Heaven Yes! sets the tone—both otherworldly and sharply focused, they bespeak both the exultation of a soul ascending and that same soul writhing in doubt and darkness before salvation. Lap steel virtuoso Darick Campbell and “mid guitarist” Phil Campbell round out the “Sacred Steel” front line buoyed by bassist Daric Bennett and drummer Carlton Campbell, with vocalists Denise Brown and Tiffany Godette delivering the message with sanctified fervor.
The Campbells, unlike some of their sacred steel contemporaries, are northerners (they originally hail from Rochester, New York), but their sound is rich in southern roots: modal harmonies; rhythmics that layer, circle, and intertwine in patterns that hark back to African ring shouts; full-bodied singing that segues between solo verses and spirit-infused group response (all five instrumentalists, along with Brown and Godette, contribute their voices); instrumental techniques that echo, represent, and evoke the sung words and sermons like aural onomatopoeia—all this and more reflects the historic origins of the music and its message.
At this late date, it’s a bit difficult to tell whether elements that seem drawn from secular sources—the bass-heavy, neo-funk impetus of Believe I’ll Run On; the juke-like “trance blues” modal structure and propulsive cadences of It’s Alright Now and the aforementioned Hell No!; the pop-blues melodicism of the up-tempo When All of God’s Children Get Together and the more meditative Nobody’s Fault But Mine; the second-line beat and urban-contemporary midnight sheen of Joy—are truly indigenous to the Campbells’ music, or whether they reflect years spent toiling in the vineyards of “The World” as well as the Lord—but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether or not one chooses to believe the literal truth of all the songs’ lyrics, the music itself is both healing and sanctifying—just as it does in church, it calls the Spirit down upon us, and we emerge both cleansed and inspired.
The Walter Davis Project
Electro-Fi - 3435
St. Louis pianist Walter Davis was among the most popular and prolific blues artists to record before World War II, but he is too little remembered today. If his reputed birth date of March 1, 1912, is correct, he had yet to turn 18 when his recording career began with a 1930 session for Victor, for whom he continued to record (apart from some 1949 sides for Bullet) until 1952, waxing something on the order of 200 titles for the label and its Bluebird imprint. By the time that Paul Oliver interviewed him in the early ’60s for his benchmark Conversation with the Blues—arguably the most important blues book ever written—Davis had suffered a stroke and retired from music, instead working as a desk clerk at a small hotel and preaching on the side. When he died in 1963, he was only 51.
Happily, German pianist Christian Rannenberg determined to resurrect Davis’ standing in the blues hierarchy, beginning with a 2007 meeting with Charlie Musselwhite that led to their recording of Why Should I Be Blue and Friends We Must Part—the two sides of a 1946 Bluebird 78 that Musselwhite’s mother had owned while he was growing up. Next on Rannenberg’s list was Billy Boy Arnold, whose dedication to his forebears is also evident from his recent Electro-Fi tributes to Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy. Here, he contributes eight of the disc’s 17 tracks, including what is perhaps Davis’ best-known number, Just One More Time (a.k.a. Come Back Baby) and the hauntingly appropriate Please Remember Me. Then, in 2012, Rannenberg got together with expat harmonica man Keith Dunn to record another Davis staple, Ashes in My Whiskey, along with the set’s only two uptempo pieces, the instrumental The Dozens According to Mr. Davis and Just Can’t Help It, which serves as a reminder that unlike his equally neglected contemporary Peetie Wheatstraw, who tended to sound salacious even when his material was pensive, Davis tended to sound pensive even when his material was salacious.
To complete his labor of love, Rannenberg delved deeper into Davis’s past, acquiring a 2002 Bob Corritore recording of Henry Townsend, who played guitar on Davis’ recordings as long ago as 1935, and in late 2008 venturing to Richmond, California, to capture two songs and a brief interview from a then 87-year-old Jimmy McCracklin, who had grown up in St. Louis as Davis’ godson and covered the older man’s Don’t You Want to Go at his debut session for Globe in 1945. We can hope that this effort will meet its goal of restoring Davis to his rightful place in the blues pantheon half a century after his death, but in any event Rannenberg and his friends have given us an album that succeeds quite nicely on its own merits.
ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND
Blue Note - 1868201
It’s been three years since the last Robert Randolph studio album, not counting February’s Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers, a showcase for his sacred steel guitar brethren Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Chuck and Darick Campbell on which Randolph played on only three of the 11 tracks. The Don Was–produced Lickety Split is his first for Blue Note after four albums for Warner Bros. between 2003 and 2010 and a live recording for Dare Records in 2011.
The New Jersey–based musician hasn’t looked back since being kicked out (some 13 years ago) of the House of God, the fundamentalist denomination in which he was raised, for having dared to play sacred steel music, originally an integral part of worship services, in New York nightclubs. The banishment simply allowed him to take the energy-charged style beyond the restrictions of the church and into the secular realm, where he quickly became a sensation with blues and jam-band enthusiasts.
Randolph hasn’t turned his back on religion, however. On Born Again, a tune he wrote with Nashville studio bassist Tommy Sims that has a melody and groove reminiscent of the Isley Brothers’ version of Stephen Stills’ Love the One You’re With, he sings about going to church. His sister Lenesha Randolph drives home the gospel connection by wailing the line “swing down chariot, stop and let me ride.” Two other numbers co-written with Sims—New Orleans and Welcome Home—have an atmospheric Bobby Womack–like flavor.
Many tunes are rendered as full-tilt jams, especially the shout tempo-driven Take the Party, to which Trombone Shorty lends his horn, and the very funky Brand New Wayo, during which the Carlos Santana locks guitars with the leader in an Allman Brothers manner before the two men take off individually into the stratosphere. Treatments of the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster and the Olympics/Young Rascals hit Good Lovin’ also add excitement to the terrific 12-song set.
Pushin’ Against a Stone
Concord Records - CRE-34466
Valerie June’s star has been on the rise lately (LB #221). The New York–based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has recently been featured on NPR, performed at the SXSW Festival, and sung harmony with Eric Church on the Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. Currently, she is touring Europe in support of her new release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. Though she has three EPs to her credit and has appeared on albums with Luther Dickinson and Meshell Ndegeocello, Pushin’ Against a Stone is June’s full-length, major label debut—and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Produced by Kevin Augunas, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Peter Sabak, Stone displays June’s blend of “organic moonshine roots music” to stunning effect. Workin’ Woman Blues backs bluegrass picking with a swinging horn section; The Hour is a potent mix of urban R&B and churchly vocal harmonies; and Wanna Be on Your Mind is sultry, sparkling Memphis soul. The Appalachian glow of Tennessee Time pays tribute to her native state, and her rendition of the traditional gospel Trials, Troubles, Tribulations evokes the Carter Family. The fuzz-heavy title track and garage-y You Can’t Be Told echo Auerbach’s recent work on Dr. John’s Grammy-winning Locked Down. But the album’s best moments may be its quieter ones—the chilling menace of Shotgun, the pure melancholy of Twined and Twisted, and the heartbreaking beauty of Somebody to Love, the latter buoyed by her plucked banjo and Booker T. Jones’ gently hovering organ. These songs allow June’s unusual voice to really shine; a clear, reedy soprano, it’s reminiscent of Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton without sounding like either.
“Oh, and I’m on my way/Oh, and it won’t be long,” she sings on the closing track On My Way, co-written with Jones. And indeed she is—Pushin’ Against a Stone heralds Valerie June as a singular talent, and we should expect to hear much more from her in the future.
BARRELHOUSE CHUCK & KIM WILSON’S BLUES ALL-STARS
Driftin’ from Town to Town
The Sirens - SR-5021
This is the third release from pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and his second collaboration with Fabulous Thunderbirds front man Kim Wilson on the independent Sirens label, a niche imprint that specializes in gospel, jazz, and especially all things blues piano (for readers who aren’t familiar with the label, their catalog is well worth perusing at www.thesirensrecords.com; Heavy Timbre and 8 Hands on 88 Keys are exceptional). With Wilson currently riding a wave of critical acclaim for the T-birds’ newest album, Driftin’ from Town to Town couldn’t have been released at a better time, and the Blues All-Stars are just that—perennial West Coast favorites in bassist Larry Taylor (of Canned Heat) and drummer Richard Inness, guitarists Billy Flynn and Jeremy Johnson, and sax man Sax Gordon.
There’s no need to review the long résumés of the men playing here, and the 13-song set is just as strong and the grooves just as tight as you would expect from such a talented ensemble. Most of the tracks are in the Chicago blues vein, providing the perfect vehicle for Chuck’s Sunnyland Slim–inspired dexterity on the keys. Their cover of Floyd Jones’ Stockyard Blues stands out for its airy arrangement, anchored by the slow and steady rhythm provided by Taylor and Inness. Wilson lays down some particularly tasteful (and reserved) first position harp work on that track.
An instrumental version of Willie Dixon’s Three Hundred Pounds of Joy, a song typically associated with Howlin’ Wolf, is an unexpected delight—Flynn and Johnson channel Hubert Sumlin, Wilson’s amplified harmonica replaces the Wolf’s vocal lines, and Gordon answers Wilson’s call with some punchy sax fills. Faithful covers of Jody Williams’ Lucky Lou and Chuck Berry’s Thirty Days add sonic variety to the proceedings without leaving the Windy City, but the boys head south to Memphis to wrap things up with one from the Stax catalog, Booker T & the M.G.s’ Time Is Tight.
Driftin’ from Town to Town is not innovative, but it doesn’t need to be—it’s just a beautiful display of blues artistry, performed by master bluesmen steeped in tradition and doing what they do best.
THE HOUND KINGS
9 Below Productions - NBP 003
“I can’t work. Too scared to steal. How in the world you think I’m supposed pay my bills?” Alabama Mike wails on SSI Blues, the first of ten tracks on the Hound Kings’ debut CD. It’s a true story about the Bay Area singer’s recent bout with Valley Fever, a respiratory disease that caused him to lose his day job as a truck driver and kept him bedridden for a year. His tenor pipes crack with anguish as he sings over acoustic guitarist Anthony Paule and harmonica blower Scot Brenton’s Rollin’ And Tumblin’–like backing.
“Well, my money done got funny, and my change done got strange. My credit, it won’t get it—not a doggone thing. And I never seen times like this before. Will I survive, good people? I don’t know,” Mike sings on Recession Blues, another of the eight tunes he co-wrote with Brenton and Paule. Here they supply Piedmont-style support in the tradition of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Brenton’s percussive spurts work in tandem with Paule’s finger-picked patterns to give the song a solid rhythmic foundation. Mike is singing about the current economic downturn, but one might think the song is about the Great Depression based on his two cohorts’ decidedly old-timey backing.
Not all the numbers draw so closely on prewar blues styles, however. Come Go Home with Me, for instance, borrows its melody and rhythm from Tyrone Davis’ 1975 smash Turning Point; Paule and Brenton make the groove work nicely, even without the signature bass line of that and other Davis tunes. Three original slow numbers—a blues ballad titled The Real McCoy, the confessional The Thing, and a pleading soul song called You Got Issues that’s reminiscent of Slim Harpo’s Rainin’ in My Heart—come across as being highly personal and are given intensely emotional readings by Mike. You Gotta Move, the gospel song associated with both Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, and Mercy Dee’s naughty Red Light round out the program on this auspicious debut by a wonderful and most welcome new addition to the acoustic blues scene.
Singing in My Soul
Big Song Music - PBB1-2013
You get a sense where singer/guitarist Lisa Biales is trying to take you on Singing in My Soul by considering the sources she taps for the set list: singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mississippi John Hurt, Sippie Wallace, Blue Lu Barker, Peggy Lee, and Patsy Cline, and songwriters W.C. Handy and Harry Warren/Al Dubin. The program sounds as if you are listening to a radio broadcast from a hip, early 1950s, 52nd Street nightclub.
What unites this material from a somewhat disparate group of artists is the ebullient sense of swing generated by Biales and company—Cincinnati-based pianist Ricky Nye and the Paris Blues Band, which consists of guitarist Anthony Stelmaszack, bassist Thibaut Chopin, and drummer Simon “Shuffle” Boyer. Biales delivers the tunes in straightforward, unaffected style with a warm, pleasant voice. The musical performances are marked by solid musicianship and tasteful economy. They really get a fire cooking on the two Tharpe numbers, Singing in My Soul and Strange Things Happening Every Day, both of which feature Stelmaszack’s propulsive, jagged guitar work. Hurt’s Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me takes the whole affair to church, and guests, violinist Doug Hamilton and mandolin player Brad Meinerding, weave tasty lines around Nye’s stately gospel piano work. Biales delivers a rollicking version of Wallace’s You Got to Know How that stands up nicely next to both the original and Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 cover and features some two-fisted boogieing from Nye. The lone original in the program, Biales’s Magic Garden, fits in nicely with the vintage material and sports a melodic line that brings to mind the whimsy and quirkiness of some of Thelonious Monk’s stride piano–influenced tunes.
Singing in My Soul is a throwback affair, but because of Lisa Biales’ honest, spirited vocals and the band’s rock solid, swinging performances, it avoids nostalgia—even on a straightforward rendition of a romantic standard like Warren & Dubin’s I Only Have Eyes for You— and delivers a diverse program of classic tunes that are both entertaining and engaging.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
CADILLAC JOHN NOLDEN WITH THE CORNLICKERS
Red’s Juke Joint Sessions Vol. 1
No Label - (No #)
Recorded August 2012 at Red’s Lounge Clarksdale, Mississippi, and presented live and uncut, this set from Cadillac John and the Cornlickers is about as hot summer Delta juke as it gets—especially in 2013. In addition to Nolden on vocals and harp, the Cornlickers include Dale Wise on drums, Dave Groniger and Bobby Gentilo on guitar, and Tony Ryder on bass. Nolden, featured in LB #223, has found most of his musical success later in life. He is in rare form on these 11 songs. Familiar words, phrases, rhythms, and melodies snake through the album and are weaved seamlessly together in the hands of an experienced master. Nolden channels Muddy Waters on Two Trains, goes to Texas on Too Many Drivers, and settles comfortably with big influence Sonny Boy Williamson I on Good Morning.
There does seem to be a mistake on the song titling, however: the final track is supposed to be a song titled Still a Fool but is actually a different, more stretched out version of a song from earlier on the album, Two Trains—since Nolden’s treatment of this song is so deft, the fact that it is on the album twice is far from a bad thing.
Due to Cadillac’s soft voice, the label chose to record during the day at Red’s when the crowd was small. As the band is only one half the juke joint “experience,” perhaps future albums in this series will be recorded when the party is in full swing. Either way, Volume 1 in Red’s Juke Joint Sessions is a stout effort from Cadillac John and the Cornlickers.
MORELAND & ARBUCKLE
Telarc - TEL-34329-02
After 12 years together, Wichita, Kansas’ Moreland & Arbuckle only keep getting stronger. 7 Cities is an erudite, concept-tinged album brimming with themes of power, glory, greed, corruption, downfall, and eventual redemption. Produced by Seattle, Washington’s Matt Bayles, this is the first album that the band itself hasn’t produced.
7 Cities centers around the story of 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s quixotic search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold on the Kansas Prairie. The album opens with Quivira, the story of Coronado’s quest, featuring gritty, garage overtones thanks to Aaron Moreland’s guitar and Dustin Arbuckle’s stinging harmonica and fire-and-brimstone vocals. The duo is also aided throughout the album by longtime collaborator, drummer Kendall Newby.
There isn’t a weak track in the mix so the self-described “roots-rock” band’s assessment that this is their strongest work yet is astute. From the rollicking ZZ Top beer-stained beard rock of Tall Boogie and Road Blind to the soulful introspection of Broken Sunshine and Time Ain’t Long to the acoustic country blues slide instrumental Red Bricks, 7 Cities has a little bit of everything. One of the biggest surprises of the album is the band’s cover of Tears for Fears’ ’80s pop classic Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Moreland & Arbuckle (and Newby) make an overplayed brat pack hit work. In fact, it fits quite well within the context of the record. Overall, 7 Cities is a deep, satisfying effort from one of the best bands in the Midwest.
Ring on Her Finger, Rope Around My Neck
Benevolent Blues - BVBL - 590
Travis Haddix has always straddled the line between conventional twelve-bar blues styles and modern soul-blues. Here, even when he works within the straightforward structure, the brawny horn accompaniment, his keen-toned fretwork, and the funk-seasoned rhythms reflect the modern-day sound. Although he’s hardly the second coming of Bobby Bland, Haddix also summons a muscular baritone vocal delivery; his guitar solos nod respectfully in the direction of B.B. and T-Bone, but they’re enlivened with plenty of up-to-the-minute soul and passion.
Lyrically Haddix remains a deft humorist-philosopher. The title tune isn’t the misogynist creed the title might indicate, but a slyly coded commentary on both racial and gender politics; Doctor Doctor satirizes modern-day society’s obsession with quick-fix medical solutions; Jodie finds the singer on the trail of the modern-day blues trickster/wife-stealer; in Two Jobs with a Paper Route, he half-kills himself with work in order to bring in enough money to satisfy his demanding woman.
Haddix can also hone his wit to a rapier edge. The slow-rolling Old Fashioned Justice mercilessly calls out a former lover who ends up with a wrong-doing man; Patience with a Purpose, taken at an even slower grind and intensified further by Haddix’s fire-toned leads, portrays a frustrated man in a loveless relationship, vowing to stay true and hope for the best.
On purely musical terms, there’s little here that qualifies as trailblazing or earth-shattering; but as a sampling of mainstream contemporary blues with powerful soul-blues flavor, spiced with sardonic lyric wisdom, this is a difficult set to resist.
CD REVIEWS JUNE 2013
Cotton Mouth Man
Alligator - ALCD 4954
It was great to see Mr. Superharp back on the cover of LB over a quarter century after his last appearance there, but it’s even better to see a new studio album from the respected harmonica master. Cotton Mouth Man is a star-studded affair that marks James Cotton’s fifth—and perhaps best—recording for Alligator.
Cotton’s strongest studio efforts have always been those that highlighted the man himself, both on vocals and harmonica, whereas guest-heavy projects such as 35th Anniversary Jam and Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes, both released on Telarc in the early 2000s, never quite delivered the level of intimacy that has always marked his best work. That’s not the case here, but it has less to do with the fine performances from guest artists such as Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, and Keb Mo than it does with the album’s central focus and execution: all of the songs are originals that Cotton hasn’t recorded before, and together they offer an autobiographical narrative of his eventful life and soul-deep relationship with the blues.
Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge produced the record, and in addition to playing drums on several tracks he also shares songwriter credits on all 12 tunes in the set, seven of which Cotton coauthored. From start to finish Cotton plays with an authority and energy that belies his age (78 years young, 69 of them spent as a professional musician). Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening title track, where Cotton trades percussive harp blasts in a call-and-response with longtime James Cotton Blues Band singer Darrell Nulisch, who handles vocal duties over a tough boogie rhythm: “His harp does all his talking/He’s wicked and he’s wild/Gather around him, children/He’s still got one more mile.” Cotton kicks off Midnight Train by imitating a chugging freight train, one of the first sounds he learned to play from his mother as a young boy in the cotton fields outside of Tunica, Mississippi.
Mississippi Mud, a touching slow blues sung by Keb Mo, traces Cotton’s journey north out of the Delta, a move that eventually led to his 12-year tenure with Muddy Waters. Cotton blows in his idiosyncratic third position style as Mo tells his story: “When I got to Chicago I learned the city ways/But I keep me some Mississippi in everything I play/I knew a man named Muddy, he done some plowing too/Took me in like a brother, and we made us some country blues/It’s in my soul and in my blood, yeah, that old Mississippi Mud.” Mo returns on Wasn’t My Time to Go, a mid-tempo blues punctuated with some nimble high note blow bends that revisits Cotton’s many brushes with fate. Listening to this track will remind listeners why Mark Hummel has called Cotton “a survivor to the max.”
The album’s most poignant moment comes on the final track, the acoustic country blues Bonnie Blue. Named after the plantation where he was born, this Cotton original marks his first return as a vocalist since releasing Fire Down Under the Hill 13 years ago. The song manages to be both plaintive and uplifting at the same time: at once a reminder of the aftermath of his battle with throat cancer in the ’90s and a testament to his resilience as an artist. This was the right track for Cotton to sing, and he sounds fantastic on it.
Cotton has made it clear that he has no intention of retiring from touring or recording any time soon (and we can all be thankful for that), and Cotton Mouth Man confirms, with authority, that the storied career of one of the last great harmonica innovators of his generation is far from over.
— Roger Gatchet
JIMMY “DUCK” HOLMES
All Night Long
Wolf Records - 120.936
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes plays a truehearted style derived from in and around Bentonia, Mississippi, as most famously performed by Skip James and Jack Owens. Bentonia blues is often played in an open E minor and open D minor guitar tuning, with a peculiar mournful tonality. It is unique and distinct and Holmes is the living legacy of this sound.
This is pure unadulterated roots blues in an ethereal, gritty and roughhewn style, and therein lies its beauty, intrinsic to the most important element—the feeling. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes indelibly grabs and shakes the bass string of your soul on All Night Long, a CD packed with 13 tracks by the artist. He plays a haunting blues style, characterized by chordal repetition—amazingly beautiful in its simplicity, raw expressiveness, and at times inherent sadness. Like the best of blues, it expresses hope, torment, hardship, and suffering, sensuality and problems with the opposite sex, but it evokes happiness, healing and joy.
The album was recorded during two sessions in Leland and Bentonia, Mississippi, in 2012. There are plenty of local standards, including the expected Bentonia classics by Skip James, Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues and Devil Got My Woman. There are some fine general blues favorites, played deep roots style, like Train Train, Someday Baby, Red Rooster, and Rock Me. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes surprises with his songwriting skills: Six Little Puppies, All Night Long, Blues Ain’t Nothing, Hurry Hurry, Don’t Get Mad and I’m Going to Leave You. The artist tells his stories, slowly and deliberately, in an almost languid trance-like poetic folk style. An irresistible folk blues treasure.
BIG BILL MORGANFIELD
Blues With A Mood
Black Shuck - BSR-002
Big Bill Morganfield remains true to the postwar style associated with his father, Muddy Waters. His voice is very close to Muddy’s (although he lacks Muddy’s nuances of intonation, timbre, and phrasing); his songs’ arrangements and instrumentation, for the most part, could have emanated from the vintage-era Chess studios. (Jim Horn’s R&B-flavored tenor sax isn’t as anomalous in this context as it might seem; Muddy sometimes used a sax player on recording sessions, and he often carried one in his working bands in the ’50s and early ’60s.)
Paradoxically, Big Bill seems to need emotional intensity to relax. His croon on Memphis Slim’s ballad Havin’ Fun sounds labored, but he roars out his own hard-time blues Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper with an effective mix of irony and outrage; he summons a vibrato-enhanced deep-baritone bellow on Ooh Wee (a Willie Dixon composition that Muddy recorded in 1959); he sounds effectively haunted on Devil at My Door. Although he can’t quite wrap his chops around Junior Parker’s I Feel Alright Again (presented here as an ambitious doowop/jazz/jump-blues fusion), he sounds perfectly at ease with the no less ebullient, but more rhythmically and melodically straightforward, Another Lonely Night, as drummer Chuck Cotton manfully tackles Fred Below’s jazz-flavored backbeat/shuffle. Son of the Blues, hard-grinding and ominous, is toughened further by Morganfield’s rugged lyric reminiscences of the emotional turmoil he endured growing up separated from both his father and his birth mother.
Once again, devotees of the postwar style will celebrate the way Big Bill Morganfield strives to keep the music and legacy of his father’s era alive.
CHARLES “BIG DADDY” STALLINGS
I Like It When They . . . Call Me Big Daddy
Tai Jeria - 3868
Although he likes to portray himself as a good-timey, shuffle-heavy party man, Baltimore-based Charles Stallings [featured in LB #224] is much more than that. On such outings as the Godfather of Soul tribute James #2, the breezy pop-jazz instrumental E. Groove, and the somewhat incongruous light-funk/rap/southern soul melange Boody Pop and Lock (Nos. 1 and 2), he demonstrates an admirable stylistic range. Young Boy, Young Man finds him in a neo-Delta groove, powered by Anthony “Swamp Dog” Clark’s rootsy harmonica warbles. He affects a neo-Eckstine/Hartman/Rawls croon on the horn-sweetened ballad Don’t Cry (obviously inspired by Ray Charles’ Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying); his three-part tribute to North Carolina juking (Hobbsville, Pts. 1, 2, and 3), conversely, returns him back down home.
Stallings sings in a powerful but unforced baritone—even on barnburners, rather than shout over his band’s accompaniment, he likes to find a niche somewhere beneath the tumult and inhabit it. He has crafted this CD to evoke an all-star stage revue—it features no fewer than four women guest vocalists in various combinations, both solo and in close-harmony tandem, and several tracks are enhanced (or perhaps marred) by a faux “live” audience.
Over the course of 20 tracks, Stallings sometimes seems to lose his stylistic focus, confusing hit-and-miss dilettantism with true versatility (the sophisticated-pop instrumental City Life, though seasoned by some attractive solo work from pianist Dawoud Said, tenor saxist Clarence Ward III, and Stallings himself on guitar, sounds more like a backing track in search of a vocal than a fully realized effort). But, as is often the case when a talented artist reaches for a little more than he can easily carry, there’s plenty to savor here on a track-by-track basis.
Delmark - 828
James “Tail Dragger” Jones is one of the last of the legion of Howlin’ Wolf imitators who populated Chicago’s West Side blues scene in the 1970s and ’80s. This set was originally recorded by Chicago entrepreneur/hustler Iron Jaw Harris. In about 1982, after Harris was killed (while working the door in a West Side club that had originally been run by Necktie Nate Haggins, another Wolf-style singer), Jimmy Dawkins issued two of these tracks, So Ezee and My Head Is Bald, as a 45 on his Leric label. Dragger’s irony-rich lyric wit is in evidence on both of those songs as well as other offerings like Don’t Trust Yo Woman (based on Wolf’s How Many More Years) and Stop Lyin’ (“I didn’t take your woman, you gave your woman to me”). Please Mr. Jailer isn’t the 1956 Wynona Carr song but another Tail Dragger original—in retrospect it’s laced with irony, given that Dragger himself eventually did time for the killing of fellow musician Boston Blackie in 1993. The final cut, Tail’s Tale, is an interview with Dragger that Delmark’s Steve Wagner conducted more recently; in it, Dragger reminisces about the making of this disc and his life on the Chicago scene.
Dragger’s hoarse approximation of Wolf’s voice is entertaining, even if he lacks the great man’s emotional power and textural complexity. Guitarist Johnny B. Moore shines with his captivating stylistic mélange—elements of Magic Sam, Hubert Sumlin, and Freddie King, among others, are present, yet Moore manages to mix them so creatively that the result is personalized and unique. Pianist Lafayette Leake brings a hint of the barrelhouse to both Ezee and My Head Is Bald, both of which also feature harpist Little Mac Simmons at his most raw-edged and aggressive. Elsewhere, Eddie “Jewtown” Burks handles the harp chores; his somewhat limpid timbre and watery melodic lines aren’t thrilling, but along with guitarists Moore and Jesse Lee Williams, as well as deep-pocket bassist Willie Kent and drummer Larry Taylor, he effectively evokes the gritty backstreet urban jukes where Dragger has performed for most of his life.
This CD will probably be most pleasing to nostalgists and Chicago completists, but it’s still an important document of a too-often ignored era in Chicago blues.
Eleven East Corp. - (No #)
Chicago-based fretman Melvin Taylor is known for his jaw-dropping technical prowess and his freestyle, mix-and-match eclecticism; his sound can be either thrilling or overwhelming, depending on the listener’s mood and Taylor’s focus at any given moment.
The good news is that Taylor, featured on both lead guitar and bass here, sounds as if he’s learned to temper his excesses—rather than fire out endless full-frontal fretboard assaults, he now picks his spots, and even at his most fast and furious he sounds as if he’s playing ideas, not just notes. Even better, he knows when to tone things down—his Wes Montgomery–style Beneath the Sunset (no doubt a tribute to Wes’s own Bumpin’ on Sunset) resonates with both exploratory delight and sophisticated maturity. His take on Isaac Hayes’ Do Your Thing achieves a spot-on mid-funk groove, halfway between hipster languor and street-tough aggression (despite some annoying synth-horn lines). Time Out is a jaunty after-hours swinger, featuring tasty interplay between Taylor’s crisp leadwork and Rick Jones’ soul-jazz organ.
Taylor has always been an instrumentalist first and foremost; he sings on only one track here (Whenever I See You); guest vocalist Bernell Anderson takes the mic on another one (Heartache). Neither is much of a singer; in fact, it sounds almost as if these tracks were included because someone thought that a “blues” record somehow required them (a problem that Matt Murphy, among other front-line instrumentalists, has also had to wrestle with over the years). Taylor will do well to eschew any misplaced sense of obligation and focus on what he does best—a provocative and increasingly satisfying meld of contemporary blues and straight-ahead postbop/jazz-fusion stylings.
Comin’ Out the Hole
GitloBlues - GL-CD03
Although the Georgia-born guitarist Gitlo Lee has been performing on at least a semi-regular basis for years, this would appear to be his first actual recording.
Lee’s vocals are meaty and confident; his guitar work, despite his band’s contemporary, rock-tinged sound, is sparse and understated—rather than attempt to dazzle listeners with technical virtuosity, he prefers to lay carefully crafted notes and phrases into the contours his bandsmen create for him (at times, his string-bending precision evokes Albert King). Even when he cranks things up, he avoids overkill, conveying intensity of feeling through the gnarled tightness of his chording and the aggression of his attack.
Lee also demonstrates admirable versatility, ranging from the backwoods hi-jinks of Big Legged Woman (with its hilarious “dozens”-like spoken coda) through the deep-soul balladry of Ease Out to the moody, almost urban-contemporary pop-soul ballad Angel. He’s also a deft lyric storyteller: he conveys complex emotions and situations with straightforward, almost prosaic language, avoiding clichés even when his subject matter (e.g., the hoodoo-tinged, muck-and-rotgut Swam Devil) might seem to invite it. Joe Brown, with its churchy, gospel-fervor intro, is a heartfelt admonition to a hard-drinking fellow musician to change his ways before it’s too late (“Hey Joe Brown, put your bottle down”—did Lee get the idea from Big Jack Johnson’s similar plea to Frank Frost in 1997’s Frank Frost Blues?)
This CD should bring welcome recognition to a solid bluesman who has lingered in semi-obscurity for too long.
JOHN PRIMER AND BOB CORRITORE
Knockin’ Around These Blues
Delta Groove - DGPCD-159
This set finds Primer in as traditionalist a setting as he’s ever inhabited—his sidemen (including, among others, guitarists Billy Flynn and Chris James, pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, bassist Bob Stroger, and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, along with harpist Bob Corritore) represent a virtual “who’s who” of roots-blues torch carriers. But they pour such emotional immediacy into every note that they eliminate any danger of “museum-piece” fustiness. The set list consists mostly of seldom-remembered gems from the blues canon, adding to the feeling of freshness and discovery: Little Boy Blue, Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome, and Leanin’ Tree (the late Artie “Blues Boy” White’s 1977 hit) are the closest things to “standards” on offer here (one might also include Man or Mouse, recorded by Junior Parker in 1966).
Primer and the band update Lil’ Son Jackson’s Cairo Blues as a driving, urban-sounding postwar shuffle; then they drag Artie White’s suave soul-blues testimonial kicking and screaming back into a late-’50s South Side alley—Corritore wails and swoops as if channeling both Big and Little Walter, and Chuck fires out barrelhouse-flavored piano lines, evoking his mentors Little Brother Montgomery and Sunnyland Slim. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Going Back Home is given a full-bore postwar Chicago makeover. The ghost of Jimmy Reed is resurrected on The Clock (one of Reed’s lesser-known creations); Little Boy Blue sounds like a dispatch from a 1955 South Side gin mill that has somehow arisen, intact and Brigadoon-like, in 2013.
Self-consciously retro tributes to blues “tradition” have become cliché; but in a case like this, with musicians like these on the case, this isn’t “roots” music at all: it’s as contemporary, immediate, and up-to-the minute as it was when the styles were codified—“history” in the present tense.
Heartfixer Music - HFM1010
Though he has more than a dozen records to his credit in a career spanning three decades, Tinsley Ellis steps out with an all-instrumental collection for the first time with Get It! on his own Heartfixer Music label. In the absence of vocals, his expressive guitar work shines.
Ellis pays homage to many blues styles in this ten-song collection, from a groove-heavy tribute to his heroes Booker T. & the MGs (Front Street Freeze) to swinging shuffles in the style of Chuck Berry with Berry Tossin’. Most of the songs here are original compositions, but he does offer a couple of covers. A lively, fuzzy take on Bo Diddley’s Detour is one of the highlights, while Freddy King’s Freddy’s Midnight Dream features some of the album’s most emotive playing.
The originals cover a wide range too. Anthem for a Fallen Hero is a soaring piece in which the guitar voices the melody exquisitely. The Milky Way is a plaintive, atmospheric tune that finds a leisurely, exploratory vibe. Catalunya carries a Latin beat to sharp melodic peaks. The title track provides a swinging, funky groove that recalls some of the Texas greats.
Ellis plays all the guitars on the album and some bass. Otherwise, he is backed by his touring bassist Ted Pecchio on many tracks and by studio session aces Lynn Williams on drums and Kevin McKendree on keyboards. McKendree’s smoky Hammond B3 infuses much of the album with its funky vibe.
Get It! stands out as a singular accomplishment for Ellis. The instrumental milieu allows him to put the focus squarely on the expressive qualities of his guitar playing. Ellis has long cultivated the role of gritty, hard-driving bluesman, but on these instrumental cuts, he exhibits a more restrained and sophisticated side that only adds to his legacy.
Think About What You Got
CDS - CDC-1056
Although it’s billed as “featuring Charles Wilson’s smash hits plus 6 previously unreleased tracks,” this set doesn’t include some of Wilson’s most important sides (It’s Sweet on the Back Street from 1995; his 2006 rendition of Mississippi Boy, a Floyd Hamberlin Jr. creation originally cut by singer Will T and eventually remade by Denise LaSalle as Mississippi Woman)—probably because they weren’t recorded for CDS. In addition, three of the “previously unissued” tracks are somewhat disingenuously labeled—they’re actually alternate takes or remixes of songs that Wilson has, in fact, already put out.
Nonetheless, this disc admirably showcases Wilson’s gritty-sweet vocals—insinuating and seductive on ballads, agreeably tough on up-tempo dispatches from the life of a hard-partying, sweet-loving soul-bluesman. If the lyric imagery sometimes gets labored, and if the production occasionally sounds a bit too sparse or blunt (or gimmicky, as in the case of the faux-churchy Man Enough to Apologize), the overall feel of what’s here is that of a solid journeyman with more to offer than he has thus far had the opportunity to show. Wilson achieves a riveting immediacy on the ballad Think About What You Got; he delivers Mel Waiters’ Something Different About You with an appropriate mix of machismo and irony; his duet with Willie Clayton on That Girl Belongs to Me is toughened by complex sonic textures, and it tells an entertaining story of good-natured masculine erotic competition.
Charles Wilson has cast his lot with quite a few labels over the years (including several of his own), but he has yet to really break out into mainstream southern soul-blues recognition. If this disc reaches the right ears, it might help rectify that situation.
CD REVIEWS APRIL 2013
ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP
Delmark - DE 827
Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup is so indelibly associated with his 1946 Victor recording of That’s All Right by way of Elvis Presley’s cover version that the full scope of his legacy is largely neglected. In fact, Crudup ranked among the earliest bluesmen to record playing electric guitar, and the 80-some songs that he waxed for the Victor family of labels from 1941 to 1946 also include such staples as Look on Yonder Wall, Mean Old ’Frisco and Rock Me Mama, to say nothing of his 1949 revival of Dust My Broom that preceded and probably inspired Elmore James’ iconic 1951 Trumpet recording. After the end of Crupup’s Victor years, there was an LP on Fire in 1962 and then a spell of inactivity before he was “rediscovered” in Virginia during the blues “revival” and released two LPs on Delmark and another on United Artists (UK) before his death in 1974.
The set at hand represents a third Delmark album that was held in the can. Said to have been recorded at Chicago’s Sound Studios on November 10, 1969—the same date listed for the Stereosonic session with Ransom Knowling that made up half of the Crudup’s Mood LP—Sunny Road finds Crudup’s guitar, which was always pretty rudimentary in any event, channeled through the same Leslie speaker employed by Buddy Guy on Hoodoo Man Blues a few years before. Lead parts are contributed by Jimmy Dawkins on three tracks and Mike Thompson on one, while Mark Thompson adds electric bass on those four plus another and Willie Smith plays drums throughout. The nine songs all have a familiar feel, both because Crudup never had a very broad stylistic range and because many of the songs are built from the blues’ library of so-called “floating verses,” albeit many of them Crudup’s own. The lack of variety is accentuated by the preponderance of slow and medium tempos—as if by way of explanation, there’s a snippet of studio chatter in which Delmark’s Bob Koester tries to cajole Crudup (even offering some “antifreeze”) into doing something a bit more lively, only for the singer to reply that he couldn’t do a swing number because “I got blues on my mind.” As if for emphasis, the chatter is followed by the seven-minute All I Got Is Gone, where Crudup is clearly shaken as he sings about his recently deceased wife.
Koester emphasizes in his notes that “the blues are, first and foremost, a vocal music,” a point that has been too often lost in the days of guitar pyrotechnics. And, to complete Koester’s quote, “the human voice has rarely been so movingly rich as that of Arthur Crudup, nor has the human experience been so thoroughly mirrored as in the simple blues poetry of this big and gentle man from Mississippi.” —Jim DeKoster
ROBERT RANDOLPH PRESENTS: THE SLIDE BROTHERS
Dare Records & Concord Records - CRE-34262-02
The Slide Brothers are a sacred steel super group consisting of four artists who are no strangers to readers of Living Blues: Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell, and Aubrey Ghent. Robert Randolph brought these pillars of the Church of the Living God together to record their self-titled debut—what listeners hope will be the first of many albums and accompanying tours. The Slide Brothers comprises 11 exciting songs mixing traditional gospel, rock, blues, and funk—many of which may be a surprise to unsuspecting ears. While the Allman Brothers’ Don’t Keep Me Wondering and Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying, and It Hurts Me Too may have originally been intended for Saturday night, in the deft hands of these gentlemen, they take on a Sunday morning flavor all their own.
The same goes for the group’s moving version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and Fatboy Slim’s Praise You, with Shemekia Copeland making a memorable appearance on the latter. Even though Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent are the only ones doing double duty as vocalist and player on several songs apiece, the Campbell Brothers’ distinctive touch is apparent throughout as well. Among a host of other backing musicians, the quartet is also supported by the fellow Campbell brothers, Phil and Carlton, on guitar and drums respectively. Robert Randolph and brother (and fellow Family Band member) Marcus also make memorable appearances, sealing the deal on this one-of-a-kind amen corner. The Slide Brothers is a dazzling, crackling collaboration that is a welcome and overdue entry in the always-uplifting sacred steel genre. —Mark Coltrain
My World Is Gone
Telarc - 34028-02
Otis Taylor’s melody lines are shot through with mournful grace; his production, though enhanced by electronic embellishments and rock-tinged guitar solos, is as arid and spacious as the big-sky country his lyrics often evoke. His vocals sound life-toughened yet achingly vulnerable, just as his characters gird themselves against tragedy yet resolutely insist on the redemptive power of love. His storylines are often more implied than fully limned; an Otis Taylor song is a vignette rather than a full-blown drama, its thematic and emotional depth inferred rather than proclaimed.
This time out, Taylor focuses primarily (although not exclusively) on the legacy of conquest endured by Native Americans. His protagonists inhabit parched, desolate dreamscapes; they’re convulsed with loss—of their history, their possessions, even their dignity—yet they redeem that loss, if only partially, through the very act of proclaiming it. Sand Creek Massacre Mourning recounts an 1864 incident in which several hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered by U.S. troops in Colorado; Lost My Horse is the plaint of a Navajo man whose alcoholism has left him bereft of his most precious worldly possession (as well as his dignity and, one fears, his soul); in Blue Rain in Africa, the image of a sacred white buffalo on a television show reminds an Indian viewer of how his history and heritage have been stolen; Coming with Crosses is the story of a Klan attack that results in the death of the narrator’s mother.
At times, Taylor employs startling thematic reversals: Huckleberry Blues (its noirish intensity ramped up by Larry Thompson’s midnight-of-the-soul cornet solo) portrays the torments inflicted by a stalker; but here the stalker is a woman, the victim a man. Girl Friend’s House finds a man discovering that his wife is having an affair with a woman—but rather than become jealous, he volunteers to join the fun. In Gangster and Iztatoz Chauffeur, a wealthy player tries to seduce his Native American employee (“He’s a gangster, she’s a limo driver”), but she refuses to be lured by either his riches or his charms.
At risk of mixing metaphors: Otis Taylor’s music calls to mind Peter Guralnick’s statement, in a different context, that “it’s difficult to approve the banalities of most blues singers after listening to Robert Pete Williams.” Unlike Williams, of course, Taylor draws most of his stories from history, not personal experience; nonetheless, few artists in any genre combine poetic acuity, musical eloquence, and a compassion-fueled craving for justice as deftly and effectively as he does.—David Whiteis
Voodoo To Do You!
TeBo - (No #)
Teeny Tucker was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio and, as the daughter of Tommy Tucker of Hi-Heel Sneakers fame, boasts a strong blues bloodline. Her own debut album, Tommy’s Girl, came out in 2000, and this is her fourth release since.
As befits a blues legacy, Tucker has always shown a deep respect for the tradition by honoring her predecessors through her choice of covers, and this set is no exception. In addition to opening with KoKo Taylor’s Voodoo Woman, Tucker pays her respects to Christine Kittrell (I’m A Woman), LaVern Baker (Voodoo Voodoo), and Etta James (Tough Lover). While she does justice to all, Tucker also shows that she’s willing to take a chance by way of her sassy rap on Howlin’ Wolf’s Commit a Crime and her band version of Reverend Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy. She tackles Skip James’s Hard Time Killing Floor straight, however, with pared-down backing featuring producer Robert Hughes on guitar. Elsewhere, however, Hughes and his crew are plugged in and up to the task of handling the diverse program, which is tied together by a recurring voodoo theme that is also evident in It’s Your Voodoo Workin’ from the obscure Louisiana blues man Charles Sheffield and the Tucker/Hughes collaborations Love Spell, Shoes, and the particularly fine I Can Do All That. The set closes with another original, Sun Room, dedicated to the Sun recording studio in Memphis.
This set provides further proof, if any was needed, that Tommy’s girl ranks among the best female blues singers out there today.
Njumba - (No #)
This is Corey Harris’s first straight-ahead blues outing in some time. Armed as usual with both guitar and banjo, he reprises Catfish Blues (backed by a full band and enhanced by Gordon James’ tenor solo), Blind Blake’s That Will Never Happen No More, and Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman; he sounds like a juker on Crying Blues; he pours his heart into J. Gilly Blues, a lament for drummer Johnny Gilmore, who was killed in a Charlottesville, Virginia, fire in 2009.
Elsewhere, though, Harris’s intent runs deeper. His paeans to women—in turn romantic and lecherous—in Black Woman Gates and Black Rag are a welcome (and roots-rich) riposte to hip-hop “B-word” dissing; Underground, on its surface a flee-from-the-devil train song, reveals itself to be a not-so-veiled protest against racial persecution and injustice (the “devil,” it turns out, is also “giving to the rich / stealing from the poor”). Lynch Blues revisits the bad old days with harrowing vividness (with the implication that those days are still with us, albeit in disguised form); the title song bemoans hunger, despair, and the loss of young black men to nihilism. Tallahatchie recalls the brutal 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi; in House Negro Blues, Harris again summons images from a bygone era to address contemporary problems—in this case, black folks content to accept token favors from the oppressor in return for second-class citizenship. Maggie Walker Blues both praises and laments the fate of a woman who worked her way up from poverty (“Mama was a slave / you the bank president”) only to die and be buried in a grave where “don’t nobody come around.”
Corey Harris has been involved with Rastafarian-informed reggae and other Africanist music for so long that the voice of prophecy seems to come naturally to him. He’s infused these new blues with it, and listeners will do well to heed his message.
ANDREW “JR. BOY” JONES
I Know What It’s Like
43rd Big Idea - (No #)
Andrew Jones’ vibrato-enriched baritone is as soulful as ever, and his guitar work again features plenty of post-King bends and arpeggios, fired out with his trademark rough-edged Texas roadhouse tone. Whether riding a standard 12-bar shuffle or funking things up with a Crescent City-tinged street-dance beat, he makes his grooves—both rhythmic and melodic—cook.
Brown’s lyrics mostly revisit standard themes, but they do so with good-natured aplomb. Occasionally, as on Let the Child Be Wild, a sly fusion of liberationist’s manifesto (“Let the child be wild, let the girl be free”) and pick-up artist’s leer (“Don’t try to tame that girl, ’cause she’s coming home to me”), he crafts surprising new storylines out of well-worn ideas. Movin’ From the Dark Side portrays a man struggling to free himself from midnight-of-the-soul desperation—Jones’ guitar cuts to the bone, and his doom-laden vocals effectively reflect his protagonist’s anguish.
Guest vocalist/songwriter Kerrie Lepai’s vibrato is dangerously wide, but there’s plenty of sinew behind her delivery. For the most part, she’s adept enough to avoid forcing emotion—even on a slow-grinding testimonial like Whiskey Drinkin’ Blues, she avoids the neophyte’s trap of sounding impatient with the band’s glacial pace. She does, however, tend to overdo the vocalese a bit, inserting scat-like punctuations and stretching syllables into contortions when a little more understatement would have been more effective.
A few too many of the songs here fade out instead of coming to a meaningful conclusion; overall, though, it’s difficult to fault this helping of meat-and-potatoes contemporary blues.
THE CASH BOX KINGS
Blind Pig - 5150
Straight from the golden era of the blues comes the new album from Chicago’s Cash Box Kings, featuring an impressive line-up of A-list blues players.
Play this in the car to stay awake at night, though you might get a ticket for dancing while driving. This is a tight, far-reaching ensemble. Harmonica player Joe Nosek feels Little Walter and Slim Harpo in the essence of his soul. Singer Oscar Wilson could be right out of the Checker Board Lounge in its glory days. Guitarists Joel Paterson and Billy Flynn are stellar players. The rhythm section is astonishing: Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Beau Sample on upright bass, Gerry Hundt on electric bass. Any of these musicians could have played with the great bands of the golden blues era. Together they keep a sound alive that many thought was no more.
Black Toppin’ has everything you ever heard in the electric blues. It’s derivative track by track, but we love the comfort of familiarity. The Cash Box Kings take you back to Muddy, Little Walter, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, J.B Lenoir, and on. Jump blues, boogie-woogie, Chicago, Delta, swamp boogie, roots rock—it’s all there and all good. The band is in its comfort zone when it fires Delta-to-Chicago-style rockets like Willie Dixon’s Too Late, or Walking Blues or Money, Marbles and Chalk, which have a real Muddy-vibe. Biscuit Baby would make Slim Harpo smile. Harp player Joe Nosek puts his stamp down as one of the meanest on the scene today. Oscar’s Jump, a dance tune written and sung by Oscar Wilson, takes you back to the golden era of the jump blues, evoking the great Los Angeles showboat lounges of the 1940s. The Cash Box Kings also offer brilliant Fabulous Thunderbirds–type roots-rock on Trying Really Hard and Gimme Some of That.
Then, in an interesting twist, they bring on what they call “Mick Taylor–era ’70s Stones” music. Now the Chicago blues preservationists emulate the emulators. My Tinai draws on the lyric we know from Robert Johnson and many other blues singers, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” Oddly, they also cover a Lou Reed song, Run, Run, Run from the Velvet Underground Days.
A great record by one of the best blues bands in the land, Black Toppin’ is a dancing and listening pleasure.
ANDY T-NICK NIXON BAND
Drink Drank Drunk
Delta Groove - DGPCD158
James “Nick” Nixon has been involved in his native Nashville’s R&B scene since he came up alongside Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox in the early ’60s, but he was little known outside that city before his exemplary No End to the Blues CD came out on the Dutch Black Magic imprint in 2001. This time out, he’s teamed with L.A.–based guitarist Andy Talamantez, whose own resume includes stints with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty.
With Anson Funderburgh producing and contributing guitar parts to several tracks, it should come as no surprise that there’s a strong Texas flavor to the proceedings, beginning with the opening Midnight Hour from the Gatemouth Brown songbook. The other well-chosen covers include Don’t Touch Me from Johnny Guitar Watson and Life Is Too Short from T-Bone Walker, plus Paul Gayten’s No Use Knockin’, Tommy Tucker’s Hi-Heel Sneakers, and Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman, one of two tracks on which pianist Christian Dozzler switches to accordion to surprisingly good effect. There’s also a reprise of the title track from Nixon’s Black Magic disc and a handful of band originals, which include the aptly titled On My Way to Texas and the jazzy instrumental Dos Danos, which gives plenty of room for both guitarists (though pictured with a guitar on the cover, Nixon does not play on the set) to stretch out. The title track, despite sounding like something from the Amos Milburn or Wynonie Harris catalogs, was actually co-authored by Tom Hambridge and Gary Nicholson.
In sum, Drink Drank Drunk is one of those rare but happy instances where everything—from Funderburgh’s impeccable production and the consistently satisfying support provided by a host of bandsmen to Nixon’s still potent vocals and Andy T’s spot-on guitar work—combined to make an irresistible album that very well may rank among the year’s best.
On My Mind/In My Heart
Alligator - ALCD 4952
After so many over-hyped blue-eyed soul singers who fell flat, this CD cover does not instill confidence. Looking more like an ’80s New Wave album, the cover shows a lad with a blank stare. Don’t judge this one by the cover. It’s “…an axe and a pistol and a pocket full of explosion balls.”
You could play this new album for traditional soul fans and tell them it was a long lost master from the Atlantic Record vaults—a Jerry Wexler production recorded in 1966 with the original Muscle Shoals Horns. You could say they had Jimmy Johnson on guitar, with the Stax team of Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Booker T. helping out. The young singer was a sensation, you could claim, but the record never saw the light of day, and here it is, straight out of the time warp, when soul still gave you the shivers and shakes…and they would believe you!
Jesse Dee is a young singer/songwriter and guitarist, an uplifting soul man from Boston. This record is a blast, with an exceptionally high level of musicality, songwriting, and production. The sound is perfect, recorded the old way on analog tape for a warmhearted soul sound. Not only that, but Jesse Dee can sing. His honey-dripping, passionate, and stirring soul singing has a little Sam Cooke, a bit of Wilson Pickett, and a dash of Otis Redding. On My Mind/In My Heart has a tight groove, smooth hooks, and funky rhythms delivered by a full-throttle, superlative, big band.
Here is a young singer on the verge of stardom. Although Alligator is not typically a soul label, the company has plenty of crossover and a wide reach. There is already a lot of buzz about Jesse Dee in Europe, and judging by the quality of the songwriting and performance of this album, he will be hit.
Things start off strong on the title cut with a love song. The love theme carries throughout the infectious album, in a series of remarkably well-crafted songs. By the time the second tune, No Matter Where I Am, comes up it becomes clear that the first two songs on the CD could have been a number one hit-single back in better days—rare, danceable, musically perfect, yet joyous and dynamic. Then it just keeps on coming, one amazing song after the other. From the Start is reminiscent of the great Motown duets; in this case Dee couples up with Rachel Price for a lovely and emotive song. By the time The Only Remedy comes around, this album has already richly rewarded the music lover. By the time the album closes with Stay Strong, an upbeat rock/soul tune with a tip of the hat to Paul Pena, there are not enough accolades in the dictionary.
This is old-school passionate music with sizzle. Put this one on the top shelf right next to your old soul records.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles
Arhoolie - 544
The first Arhoolie blues release in 25 years, Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles is a sensation. Chris Strachwitz’ famed record label was a mainstay of the blues revival with Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mance Lipscomb and more. The long Arhoolie blues hiatus has ended with this release by HowellDevine, a roots-blues combo from northern California.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles has a real King Biscuit Time vibe in sound, groove, and attitude. Joshua Howell, the band’s guitarist and harmonica player, plays wicked harp loosely in the Rice Miller tradition, with traces of Jaybird Coleman and Little Walter. The fiery Howell plays emotive, straight blues, with sharp and superb guitar sliding & picking. Apparently, nobody showed the rhythm section the playbook. They are wild, juxtaposing interesting syncopations and jazz beats. Drummer Pete Devine and contrabassist Joe Kyle Jr. are in their own dynamic creative realm, approaching the rhythm in a free, almost avant-garde way—a contrast that gives the ensemble an idiosyncratic edge.
Apt liner notes by LB’s Lee Hildebrand introduce this breakthrough project by a still relatively unknown ensemble.
The album offers twelve cuts, including three hot-licks guitar instrumental rarities by the great unsung country blues virtuosos Sylvester Weaver and Frank Hutchison, sweetly fingerpicked by Howell on the National resonator. It is packed with blues standards, starting with Muddy’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ with Howell sliding it just right. Howell plays it safe, but perfectly, on Rice Miller’s Help Me, Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, Little Walter’s Mellow Down Easy, Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) Mighty Long Time and Fred McDowell’s Write Me a Few of Your Lines. The two originals are signs of good things to come.
CD REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2013
Down in Louisiana
Deep Rush - (No #)
Although this set uncharacteristically includes a few offerings penned or co-penned by others as well as a couple of remakes of earlier songs, Bobby Rush’s creativity and wit seem undiminished. The production is a bit thicker this time around, bass-heavy with some raucous blues-rock guitar and featuring double-tracked call-and-response vocals in places, but the distinctive Rush sound remains intact. Familiar riffs and lyric conceits are recycled (and, against all odds, made fresh); Rush’s voice may be a bit huskier than it used to be, but it still conveys lascivious jubilance, bluesy sincerity, and cavalier irreverence with equal aplomb.
The title song, although not a Rush original, harks back to Niki Hoeky, his faux-Creole workout from 1973 (itself a remake of a 1967 P.J. Proby hit); Raining in My Heart, which has nothing to do Slim Harpo (or, for that matter, Buddy Holly), is a tough-grinding swamp muck-rocker. I Ain’t the One borrows from influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to reggae, but Rush makes it his own; Don’t You Cry, based partly on the venerable You’ve Got to Move / Sittin’ On Top of the World / It Hurts Me Too theme, deftly combines backwoods rootsiness with sophisticated modern-day production. Rock This House may well be the most uncompromising hard-funk dance workout Rush has ever committed to record; You Just Like a Dresser revisits a lyric conceit that extends back at least as far as Robert Johnson. What Is the Blues, an atmospheric meditation on some of the music’s archetypes (and which includes a verse borrowed from Muddy Waters’ Forty Days and Forty Nights), captures Rush with his trickster’s mask removed, delving into deep blues mythos with spellbinding effect. Rush also updates his early-’70s punfest, Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man, and he both reprises and embellishes the spiritual Swing Low (with a reverb-deepened slide guitar both setting the mood and heightening the intensity) to conclude things on an appropriately roots-rich note.
At age 79, the folk-funkster shows little sign of slowing down—long may he prevail.
Live at Legends
RCA/Silvertone - 88765-43762-2
Despite his status as one of the most electrifying performers in modern blues, Buddy Guy has released surprisingly few live recordings. This disc goes at least part way toward rectifying that situation. Eight of the 11 tracks here were recorded in performance at Buddy Guy’s Legends, his club in downtown Chicago. The other three are studio recordings.
The live segment is the most interesting. After a somewhat mannered intro from the emcee, Guy and his band rip into a set that includes Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy and I Just Want to Make Love to You along with a couple of Guy originals (Best Damn Fool, Damn Right I Got the Blues); a two-song medley that pays tribute to two of his most important disciples, Jimi Hendrix (Voodoo Chile) and Eric Clapton (Sunshine of Your Love); and another medley that links a brief quote from John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom with Clapton’s Strange Brew.
Guy’s finger-blistering speed is undiminished; his musical imagination, so often slighted by purists who get put off by his excesses, also remains fertile. Although he’s perfectly capable of firing out notes with such furious intensity that they’re barely distinguishable from one another, he can also craft lines of surpassing tenderness, inserting subtle harmonic and chordal variations on standard blues patterns to bring added texture to even his most high-velocity onslaughts. His voice, which too often gets neglected by critics overwhelmed by his fretboard prowess, is one of the most expressive and emotionally charged in all of blues.
The studio tracks don’t cover much new territory—there’s a bone-crunching slow blues (the self-referential Polka Dot Love), a psychedelia-tinged blues-rocker (Coming For You, co-written by Delbert McClinton), and a slow-burning take on Muddy’s Country Boy—but at this point in Guy’s career, that’s pretty much beside the point. This disc is a full-frontal onslaught of Buddy Guy doing what he does best, and what few others can do with his fire, his dexterity, and his panache, to say nothing of his tireless dedication. The man is a living, breathing “Keeping the Blues Alive” award; we can only hope he keeps doing just that for a long time to come.
I Am Rhythm & Blues
Endzone, (No #)
Although he eschews the label “southern soul,” Willie Clayton is indisputably among the successful and important artists who usually get categorized under that rubric. His recordings have continually both set and raised the bar for vocal excellence; as Johnnie Taylor was before him, he is the vocalist to whom virtually all male singers in the field are compared, and whom they’re invariably accused of imitating, whether deservedly or not, when they tear off an especially expressive or soulful passage. He is, in short, the closest thing southern soul-blues has to a bona fide “superstar,” now that both Taylor and Marvin Sease have passed away.
This CD’s title song, co-written by veteran Chicago songsmith Bob Jones, is less a boast than a metaphor—Clayton is singing from the standpoint of the music itself, personified, not necessarily proclaiming his own prowess. And in fact, he manages to inhabit a lot of that musical identity throughout this set. His insinuating, grit-hardened tenderness, the call-and-response intertwining of his double-tracked vocals, and the occasional behind-the-beat horn (or synth) punctuations behind him recall the legendary Willie Mitchell/Al Green creations at Hi Records of the 1960s and ’70s (Mitchell also cut some sides on Clayton on the Hi subsidiary Pawn in 1974); his knack for laying tender vocal lines over a brawny blues-ballad backing (Last One to Know) harks back to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton, among others; the repentant player’s persona he takes on in Last Rendezvous echoes Tyrone Davis.
But Clayton retains his own musical identity throughout. Few contemporary singers in any R&B-related genre could summon the blend of erotic heat and emotional warmth he calls forth on Loving Each Other for Life, which incorporates elements of hip-hop flavored neo-soul along with Clayton’s usual deep-soul fervor. She’s Your Woman, with its trigger drum-fired lope and good-natured macho boasting, sounds closer to mainstream southern soul-blues boilerplate, but even here Clayton eschews hoochie-man silliness for what sounds like a sincere message of conjugal responsibility. Smile, again enhanced by modernist studio tweaks, is the kind of irony-free love song that seems all too rare in today’s music (regardless of genre)—it’s so old-school that it sounds utterly fresh.
The Last Man Standing, the title of Willie Clayton’s 2005 Malaco debut CD, reflected both his self-image and his reputation among aficionados as a singer for whom upholding cherished soul values represents a calling, as well as a calling card. With this outing, Clayton seems more determined than ever to codify both that persona and that mission.
BEN HARPER WITH CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE
Stax - STX-33874
Musical alchemist Ben Harper teams with veteran bluesman Charlie Musselwhite on Get Up!, their first joint album after a series of collaborations that date back to a session with John Lee Hooker in the late ’90s. That initial meeting produced a chaotic take on Burnin’ Hell for Hooker’s The Best of Friends compilation, and although its rambling, frenzied quality made it one of the weaker tracks in the collection, it lit a spark between the two artists that has been glowing ever since. “Ben and I really locked in, personally and musically,” Musselwhite recalls of that first meeting with Harper. “Ever since then we wanted to record together.”
Harper would later join Musselwhite as a guest on Musselwhite’s Sanctuary in 2004, and the rootsy aesthetic that permeated that superb album is also the defining hallmark of the equally impressive Get Up!. The mood on this set of ten original songs alternates seamlessly between frustration and introspection.
For example, Harper (currently going through a divorce with actress Laura Dern) is resolute and defiant on the blues-rock tinged I Don’t Believe a Word You Say, chastising a lover with words charged by angry blasts from Musselwhite’s amplified harmonica: “I see your mouth moving/But there’s a circus coming out/Always busy proving/What the world’s all about.” Although the song appears to be about a relationship that has turned sour, it easily doubles as an allegory for the seemingly permanent state of inaction that plagues contemporary two-party politics in the U.S. Juxtaposed this track with You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend), a folksy acoustic lament about two lovers who have come to the realization they must part ways. Harper sings like he’s on the verge of tears, occasionally slipping into a pained falsetto amidst Musselwhite’s delicate backing harp work. I Ride at Dawn, a dark, haunting elegy about the apparent inevitability of war, sounds like it spawned from the mind of Otis Taylor.
The album closes with the beautiful slow eight-bar blues All That Matters Now. Harper, buoyed along by Musselwhite’s gentle third position harp floating in the background, is utterly convincing with his pained vocals: “This has been a long, hard day/And a long, hard night/Been a hard year/It’s been a hard life/But we’re together/And that’s all that matters now.”
In sum, Get Up! bares the soul of Harper and Musselwhite in believable, albeit ineffable, fashion—a rare feat for a blues album today. Indeed, the depth of feeling and attention to craft on display here make this an essential purchase to start off 2013. In addition to the CD and digital formats, the album is available on vinyl and a special CD/DVD edition that includes a “making of” documentary with footage from the recording sessions for three tracks. If the high-definition teaser footage posted to Harper’s website is any indication, then the DVD edition is worth seeking out.
Slap Your Mama
JSP Records - JSP8843
Rosie Ledet’s second JSP release continues in the same crossover direction as her last album, Come Get Some. This time she ventures a little further from her roots, blending zydeco with an even heavier, harder sound. Ledet rides these changes with ease on Slap Your Mama; her lyrics are as bold and fun as ever, and she sings with confidence and verve.
André Nizzari returns as both producer and multi-instrumentalist, along with bassist Chuck Bush. Nizzari’s synths and Bush’s bass bring a heavy funk vibe to You Told Me You Loved Me, which also features a sweetly-nuanced accordion solo from Ledet. A decidedly urban feel dominates Slap Your Mama and Wiggle, while Happy, Mind Your Own Business, and Smile On My Face swing closer to the bayou. Lil Malcolm Walker takes a guest turn at the organ on wait 4 u, weaving an atmospheric, Dr. John-esque thread throughout.
On some songs, the balance between instruments is a little uneven; Nizzari’s guitar solo threatens to drown out the others on the title track. The blend works better on Déjà Vu, tgif and Only When I Breathe, where the instruments are more evenly balanced. Nizzari’s slide playing on the latter two tracks is also a nice touch.
I’m Trying, with its dueling accordion and synths and “winners never quit” spirit, could be considered the heart of both this album and her new style. All things considered, Slap Your Mama is another adventurous outing for Ledet. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes her music next.
Jammin’ with My Friends
No label – (No #)
Freddie Roulette commands a small yet dedicated corps of admirers—including guitarists Henry Kaiser and David Lindley and German film director Wim Wenders—for his singular approach to the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. In Roulette’s hands the instrument becomes an otherworldly orchestra. Chords shimmer with the power of a Hammond B-3 organ, and his darting melodic improvisations sometimes mimic dog barks, human speech, or bongo drumming, while also reflecting the influences of Earl Hooker and Albert King.
The Evanston, Illinois–born musician recorded as a sideman in Chicago during the second half of the ’60s with Hooker, Luther Allison, and Big Moose Walker, among others. He’s kept a relatively low profile since Charlie Musselwhite brought him to Berkeley, California, in 1970 and has remained in the Bay Area. His recordings over the past four decades have been few and far between, making the new Jammin’ With My Friends a welcome addition to his slim discography.
Drummer Michael Borbridge, the CD’s producer, surrounds his friend with an all-star cast of Bay Area blues and rock players. They include guitarists Harvey Mandel and Rich Kirch, violinist David LaFlamme, keyboardist Pete Sears, and saxophonists Bernard Anderson and Terry Hanck. The ten tunes are mostly blues standards, including Directly from My Heart, Reconsider Baby, It Hurts Me Too, and Killing Floor, with the exception of a couple of quirky instrumentals. Roulette applies his mellow, Albert King–like baritone voice to only two numbers, with Davey Patterson, Chris Cobb, and the late Kathi McDonald talking turns at the mike on the other six. Mandel and LaFlamme both play terrific solos, but it’s the leader who steals the show throughout. Roulette, at age 72, has seldom sounded better.
Echo Records - ECCD 358
It was a cold, damp night in early January when Otis Clay stepped on stage in front of a capacity crowd at north suburban Chicago club SPACE to debut his first album since 2007’s exclusively gospel effort, Walk a Mile in My Shoes.
The concert doubled as a record release party for his Truth Is disc, and Clay was armed to the teeth, carrying with him a 13-piece band featuring fellow soul luminaries Willie Henderson on baritone sax, former Tyrone Davis bandleader Hollywood Scott on guitar, and Dedrick Blanchard on Hammond B-3. Three female backing vocalists, including the fantastic Diane Madison, also squeezed onto the club’s minimal stage for the evening’s performance.
It was clearly a special event for Clay because although it was a little more than five years since he released Walk a Mile in My Shoes, the legendary singer hadn’t issued a studio album of secular music since 1998’s This Time Around. Clay tried to keep fans satiated in the long interim with the live album Respect Yourself in 2007.
Not surprisingly, the crowd at SPACE was treated to a heavenly evening of hard Chicago soul, and as they filed out, many audience members met Clay and took home a signed copy of the evening’s companion CD, Truth Is.
Clocking in at 68 minutes, the disc is a fresh blast of soul from a master of the idiom who is captured working with his favorite colleagues, also tops in their field. The album shows that, despite being 71 years old, Clay still has a young man’s heart as well as, apparently, a young man’s problems with women. Happily, Clay’s voice remains strong and is still among the finest in American music.
The delightfully varied disc kicks off in upbeat fashion with Love’s After Me, a rocker reminiscent of Malaco-era Tyrone Davis. But if giddy love truly was on the heels of Mr. Clay, it caught him even before the second track, the slow, methodical Even Now, a song about the peace and resignation that can eventually come after an intense love affair. Following what seems to have become a tradition on modern soul/blues albums, Clay uses That’s the Way You Ought to Do It to implore the fellas to appreciate their hard-working women more.
A highlight of the disc is Clay’s duet Steal Away to the Hide Away with veteran soul chanteuse Uvee Hayes. Although somewhat marred in terms of production, the track shows off Hayes’ incredibly sweet voice and the strong stage chemistry between the two performers. Clay and Hayes are such a good match, in fact, that one female audience member at SPACE was heard to comment, “They have got to be together,” as the two concluded their live presentation of the number. Other notable songs on the disc are I Thought You Knew, the triumphant I Know I’m Over You, which was recorded at the Monterey Blues Festival, and I Keep Trying Not to Break Down.
Truth Is is a homemade labor of love from Clay on his Echo Records label and he seems to have retained most of the creative control over it. That’s a positive thing in many ways, perhaps especially because Clay hand-picked his band. Like almost everything else in today’s economy, however, this disc was created on a limited budget. Gone from Clay’s world, at least for now, is a major record label with a state-of-the-art studio and the ability to release a high-end CD. Truth Is contains good production for the most part, but its sound does fall off in spots. In particular, the superfluous “bonus track” Messing with My Mind should have been omitted. It is, like the song The Only Way Is Up, inexplicably clipped directly from Clay’s 1985 album The Only Way Is Up. The disc’s single-page, slip-sheet cover reveals little about the recording sessions and nothing about Clay’s career as it currently stands.
These problems aside, Truth Is is an enjoyable document of where Clay’s music is in 2013. This long-overdue album contains numerous wonderful, moving doses of high-octane soul from a man who will forever stand as one of the greatest artists the genre has ever produced.
HABIB KOITÉ AND ERIC BIBB
Brothers in Bamako
Stony Plain Records - SPCD 1362
On his highly successful Deeper in the Well (2012), songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Eric Bibb found musical inspiration down south in the bayous and Cajun country of Louisiana. On his latest release, Brothers in Bamako, Bibb turned east to Africa and combined forces with noted Malian musician Habib Koité. According to the disc’s liner notes, Bibb and Koité met a decade ago during the recording of Mali to Memphis. The two developed a friendship and Bibb recently decided to travel to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to record 13 songs with his new musical partner. The results are impressive. Brothers in Bamako is worthy of a Grammy nomination.
Brothers in Bamako is a real partnership. Bibb and Koité contribute individual songs and collaborate on four songs including Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time and Tombouctou. Koité and Bibb stretch out on a variety of stringed instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, and an assortment of ukuleles. They are accompanied by Mamadou Kone on percussion with cameo appearances by Kafoune (backing vocals) and Olli Haavisto (pedal steel guitar). This partnership has created music that truly transcends any individual influence, whether it be blues, folk, gospel, or West African/Malian.
Brothers in Bamako begins with a travel tale, the lilting On My Way to Bamako. Calling Koité a “good friend” and a “great musician,” Bibb sings of his impending visit: “It’s my first trip to West Africa / But I’m pretty sure / In some kinda way / It’s gonna feel like comin’ home.” The song really feels like the two are at home, and it previews the disc’s beautiful musical synchronicity. Listen to every track, especially On My Way to Bamako, Touma Ni Kelen/Needed Time, Nani Le, Foro Bana, and Mami Wata, and hear the two musicians weaving their individual musical parts together in the spirit of genuine collaboration. Because Koité and Bibb play essentially the same instruments, it is difficult to determine who is playing what on Brothers in Bamako, but perhaps this is by design. Brothers in Bamako is not about separation, but interdependence and unification. The four songs the two wrote and composed together find Koité and Bibb trading verses (one sung in English, the other in French, the official language of Mali). Bibb and Koité also wrap their voices around each other, and when these moments appear, especially on Khafolé, it’s as if the two are singing with one voice.
Beyond the exquisite musical interplay that permeates every track, Bibb and Koité are social critics, casting a skeptical eye on a seemingly unfair and unjust world. Given the recent eruption of violence in Mali, it’s not surprising to find Send Us Brighter Days, a cautiously optimistic song that calls for “brighter days” and “blues skies” to heal a world “so sad.” Socio-political commentary can also be found in With My Maker I Am One and We Don’t Care. The latter comments about the disconnect between labor and consumption: “We want the gold / As long as we don’t have to mine it / Don’t care who suffers / Or who’s behind it.” Other songs, including Khafolé, do not include English translations, but it is safe to assume that the lyrics are not throwaways—the words have some story to tell. Similar to Deeper in the Well, Bibb includes a Dylan song and this time it’s Blowin’ in the Wind. Commenting on both human rights and war, Blowin’ in the Wind is a perfect choice.
This cross-cultural experiment could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. In the disc’s liner notes, Etienne Bours traces the intriguing musical similarities between Bibb and Koité and makes an argument for why Brothers in Bamako sounds so right: “What could be more natural than for this Malian and African American to join the rhythms of their guitars and voices in some transatlantic blues?” Brothers in Bamako’s “transatlantic blues” sounds natural and it sounds right. Although divided by geography and culture, Bibb and Koité share a beautiful brotherhood of sounds and words.
—Stephen A. King
Come On in This House
9 Below Productions - NB0 002
Steve Freund is one of the most consistently creative guitarists playing blues today. His crisp, cleanly executed solos are marvels of invention, filled with surprise yet firmly within traditions established by such giants as Hubert Sumlin and Albert, B.B., and Freddie King. Noted for his extensive credits as a sideman for the likes of Koko Taylor and James Cotton, the New York–born musician has concentrated on a solo career since relocating to the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area from Chicago in the mid-’90s. He also has evolved into a commanding, quite soulful vocalist.
His fifth solo album—and second for San Francisco harmonica blower Scot Brenton’s 9 Below label—is made up mostly of tunes by other artists, rather than his own songs, which had been the focus of his earlier CDs. He does open the current set with an original blues composition titled Worried About That Gal but then moves into a program of great tunes by others that are too seldom performed these days. They include Junior Wells’ Come On in This House, Detroit Jr.’s Call My Job, Janis Joplin’s Turtle Blues, Roosevelt Sykes’s Dangerous Man, Freddie King’s Play It Cool, Eddie Vinson’s Cleanhead Blues, and St. Louis Jimmy’s Evil Ways. The set deviates from the urban blues format with a delightfully old-timey treatment of the traditional Easy Rider, on which mandolinist Dave Earl and trombonist Mike Rinta help give the song an early New Orleans flavor, and with the Delmore Brothers’ Blues Stay Away from Me, one of two duets with the powerful vocalist Jan Fanucchi. Also making noteworthy contributions to Freund’s outstanding new recording are bassist Steve Wolf, drummer Paul Revelli, and keyboardists Wendy DeWitt and Sid Morris.
Music Maker - MMCD156
George Conner was born in Pickens County in western Alabama in 1934. After heading north to Chicago, he fell in with that city’s West Side blues crowd and waxed singles for Atomic H in 1962 (as George Corner or George & His House Rockers) and Marsi in 1965 (as Birmingham George). In 1999, he resurfaced in Alabama, sharing credit for the private-label CD Walkin’ the Walk/Talkin’ the Talk with fellow Pickens County guitarist Willie King. This, his first full-length album under his own name, was recorded in Graysville, Alabama, in 2004 with Gary Edmonds on guitar, Jock Webb on harmonica, and producer Ardie Dean on drums.
The eight-track playlist kicks off with a reprise of I’m Leavin’ (as Woman I’m Leaving You) from the King CD, followed by a slower than usual take on Treat Me Like I Treat You and the mid-tempo I’m Gone but I Don’t Know Where I’m Going. Next up is the atmospheric Brother’s Tone, which Conner previously cut for Marsi (purportedly with Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks on guitar) and on the 1999 CD as Poor Boy and provides the vehicle for his most intense vocal effort of the date. Conner then returns to his Chicago roots with a somewhat straightened-out rendition of I’m Ready and the slower All Night Long, which is evocative of his days with the likes of Magic Sam on the city’s West Side (although his voice is far heavier than Sam’s). I’m Going Home is a stolid shuffle, and the set closes with Woman Hear My Plea, which Conner recorded with King as I Want to Get Married; the song is performed here with only guitar and harmonica backing.
Like many Music Maker releases, this one’s a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn’t detract from the honesty and power of the music. Conner still has a lot to offer, and it’s good to finally hear him at greater length.