CD REVIEWS APRIL 2015
LEO BUD WELCH
I Don’t Prefer No Blues
Big Legal Mess - BLM0510
At the age of 81, Bruce, Mississippi–guitarist Leo Welch was an unlikely winner of LB’s 2013 debut award for his gospel CD Sabougla Voices, named for one of the church groups he works with. For his follow-up, however, Welch has chosen to return to the music that he performed at the beginning of his career—the blues.
The disc kicks off with doom-laden bass drumbeats before Welch, with counterpoint from Otha Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, launches into the traditional Poor Boy. That track’s spare backing stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the album, much of which employs a grungy, high-energy approach (built around Welch’s own distorted guitar lines) that is quite effective on songs such as Girl in the Holler and I Don’t Know Her Name, with their echoes of Hill Country trance blues, as well as on the crunching down-tempo Goin’ Down Slow and So Many Turnrows. But, on some tracks, the wall of sound put up by Jimbo Mathus and his cohorts threatens to drown out Welch’s vocals, powerful though they may be. The occasionally bleak musical landscape is broken up by a touch of humor on Too Much Wine and Cadillac Baby, while Pray On allows Welch to maintain contact with the church.
According to his online bio, Welch played the blues continuously until 1975, reportedly being summoned for an audition by B.B. King somewhere along the way. While it is tempting to speculate what he was playing back then, this is definitely a case of better late than never, and Welch’s sophomore effort should rank among the year’s best albums of traditional blues.
Don’t Lose This
dBpm Records - 873981
Roebuck “Pops” Staples recorded prolifically with his children for some four decades, but he made only a handful of records under his own name during his lifetime: two singles for Stax, in 1970 and ’74; an outstanding yet sadly overlooked album for the I AM label in 1987 and two more for Pointblank, in 1992 and ’94. Now comes Don’t Lose This, which he began recording in 1999, a year before his death at 85, never finishing the backing tracks.
Enter daughter Mavis, who, with help from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on bass and guitar, his son Spencer Tweedy on drums and a few other musicians, fleshed out many of the original tracks for release on Wilco’s dBpm label. Mavis and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne join their dad vocally on six of the ten songs, marking them as a belated reunion of the four Staple Singers. They include the rousing Pops original The Lady’s Letter, a terrific treatment of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody (on which an uncredited guitarist solos and an audience mysteriously applauds) and an odd arrangement of the 1907 hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken (with Pops given songwriter’s credit), on which the two Tweedys cut the tempo in half.
Pops is missing entirely from a touching song about homelessness titled Love on My Side that’s led by Mavis. He sings on the other nine in his distinctively breathy, deeply soulful tenor and plays guitar on seven. Two wonderfully stripped-down performances—Margaret Allison’s Sweet Home and Pops’ own Better Home—find Pops and Mavis harmonizing together, backed only by Tweedy, nicely mimicking Pops’ trademark reverberating guitar style on the first, playing bass on the second. And it gets even better as it gets simpler, as Pops sings and plays all by himself on Nobody’s Fault But Mine, a gospel-blues song he’d recorded twice before and had no doubt been performing since the 1920s, when he first fell under the spell of the blues as a boy back home in Mississippi.
Last Man Standing / When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine
Sunyata - CED 002l
Guitarist and vocalist CeDell Davis was crippled by polio as a child, and an injury in 1957 left him confined to a wheelchair. The hard-bitten irony of the title Last Man Standing, then, is both evocative and appropriate. If the 88-year-old Davis isn’t the sole survivor among his generation of Delta-bred bluesmen, he’s pretty close. His music, which harks back to roots and legacies even older than he, also reflects his own persona: tough yet life-affirming, it is impervious to the twin “revivalist” pitfalls of romanticism and critical-theory obfuscation.
The second CD of this set, When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, is a reissue of a 2003 release. It features Davis’s caustic, edge-of-dissonance slidework and daringly unnuanced vocals; he’s accompanied by a group of grunge-crunchers, including members of R.E.M. and Brave Combo, who spew out a full-frontal sonic assault leavened by the occasional sax or harmonica break. Purists may complain that there’s too much rock in the mix, or that instruments like the Hammond B-3 aren’t standard juke joint equipment, but quibbles about “authenticity” and other niceties crumble under the musical, sonic and spiritual onslaught Davis and his compatriots generate. This is the blues at its most militant and uncompromising—sounding, as a poet once wrote, like “a fist in the face of the gods.”
By 2014, when the Last Man Standing CD was recorded, a mild stroke had limited Davis’s fretboard abilities, so most of the lead guitar chores here fall to producer Jimbo Mathus. Davis’ voice remains a powerful instrument, although it’s no longer as supple or resonant as it was in its prime. The disc was recorded mostly live in-studio; the informal atmosphere allowed Davis to noodle around, spin stories and settle on themes and break into songs as he saw fit (the set list includes several Delta standards, a few postwar-Chicago era chestnuts and less-familiar fare probably taken from Davis’ personal repertoire). Characteristically, he jumps time freely as his sidemen follow him “intuitively, like a boxer in the ring,” as drummer Barrett Martin’s liner notes tell us. Although Mathus smoothed things out somewhat in the mix, the result still sounds more like a conversation among friends than an actual session, or even a backwoods juke joint gig. And again, Davis’ unfettered rawness is both exhilarating and daunting—his music may not be “easy listening,” but if you approach it right, it’s as rewarding as blues can get.
This was obviously a labor of love for all concerned, but it’s also valuable on musical terms—although age has taken its toll on Davis’ chops, this isn’t one of those cringe-inducing, fan-based projects showcasing a “living legend” in his dotage. CeDell Davis remains a bluesman of power, spirit and musical acumen, and this release is an admirable addition to his legacy.
LITTLE FREDDIE KING
New Orleans Bluesmaster
Made Wright Records - MWR70
Beloved New Orleans bluesman Little Freddie King is starting 2015 with a rocking good collection of brand new songs on New Orleans Bluesmaster. Produced by longtime partner, bandmate and drummer extraordinaire “Wacko” Wade Wright, this album is a welcome and overdue addition to King’s stellar catalog.
The disc starts off with a slow grind in Bad, Bad Julie and works into a hip-shaking groove with the instrumental Old Yellow Boy. The everlasting groove winds, shakes and shimmies its way through every song on the record and builds to fever pitch in songs like I Wanna See Dr. Bones, Brother Hay Shaker and Do Da Duck Quack Quack, easily the most infectious song in the set. The pace lays back on Back at the Bucket of Blood, oozing booze, sex and violence…after all, the only way Little Freddie could survive joints like that was to stand behind the record player. New Orleans Bluesmaster ends on the marching backwoods beat of Tryin’ to Make It to My Shack singing, “looking at rabbit sitting on a log, ain’t got no rabbit dog…”
In addition to Wright, King’s band includes William Jordan on bass, Bobby Lewis DiTullio, Jr. on harp and special guests Luke Winslow King on slide guitar and King’s nephew Vasti Jackson on guitar. New Orleans Bluesmaster is a party record in every sense of the term. If this is any indication of what 2015 has to bring from King and any of his contemporaries, then fans are in store for a very good year.
Tomorrow Is My Turn
Nonesuch Records - 541708-2
In September 2013, Rhiannon Giddens made a high-profile appearance at the Another Day, Another Time concert, inspired by the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Her performance of Odetta’s Waterboy and two Gaelic traditional songs received a standing ovation, and event curator T Bone Burnett offered to produce an album for her. Tomorrow Is My Turn marks the Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder’s solo debut, and it’s an enchanting, finely crafted outing.
The North Carolina native possesses a singularly beautiful voice, enhanced by a classical technique that allows her to navigate musical styles and vocal color and dynamics with ease. Burnett’s resonant acoustics are present, but not overly prominent, and the session players—including guitarist Colin Linden, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Dennis Crouch and Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins—match her versatility note for note.
For this record, Giddens and Burnett chose songs either written by or associated with women performers. Geeshie Wiley’s somber Last Kind Words opens the album, and Giddens darkly intones the lyrics over a bed of spiky electric strings. It’s a delight to hear her sing Dolly Parton’s Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind; her timbre turns diamond-bright, embodying the song’s forthright spirit. Her version of Waterboy faithfully echoes Odetta’s tempering vocal heft with a light touch; Gabe Witcher’s fiddle, Jack Ashford’s tambourine, gospel backing harmonies and woody percussion buoy her joyful voice on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head. The title track, arranged in a string-lush chamber style, elicits a subdued performance from the singer; the haunting Round About the Mountain showcases her upper range to thrilling emotive effect. She injects a bit of sass into Shake Sugaree, while a bracing Celtic breeze blows through O Love is Teasin’.
Giddens plays with genre boundaries in ways that fans of the Carolina Chocolate Drops should recognize. Hank Cochran’s country weeper She’s Got You is given a warm, vintage soul treatment. She utilizes the folk process in a striking way on the traditional Black is the Color—first by updating most of the lyrics, then draping the melody in shimmering hip-hop gauze from beatboxer Adam Matta and Jonathan Batiste on melodica. Her own Angel City, a gentle paean to her musical influences, ends the release on a calm, assured note.
A stunning album from a masterful artist, Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn is proof that her day has come.
TAMARA TRAMELL PETERSON
Driving Me Wild
JSP Records - JSP4701
On Tamara Tramell Peterson’s last recording for JSP Records, 2013’s Whatever You Say the Dallas-based singer was paired with her husband Lucky Peterson’s band. Her new EP, Driving Me Wild, heralds the release of a full-length solo album scheduled for later this year. Co-produced by Tramell and Steven Washington, it finds her asserting her own musical identity.
Tramell and Washington are also co-writers of three of the songs in this set, which shifts her blend of blues and soul into a more contemporary pop arena. The title track and It’s You both have a striking, almost country sensibility, aided by Kelyn Crapp’s acoustic guitar, while the more urban Lyfe (Your Smile) is club-ready.
Lucky Peterson plays piano on Carried Away; written by Doug Yoel, a version of this song was featured on Whatever You Say. This time around it’s guitar-oriented, with less emphasis on its Caribbean roots, and Tramell’s delivery is more urgent and forceful.
“You’ll find your own direction through the mystery that we’re in,” she sings on Carried Away. By the sound of Driving Me Wild, Tamara Tramell Peterson is doing just that, and it’ll be interesting to see what surprises the complete album has in store.
THE REVEREND PEYTON’S BIG DAMN BAND
Shanachie/Yazoo - SH6303
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band continues to turn heads and ears with their singular, rowdy roots-rock. Their latest release is also their debut for Yazoo Records, making the Indiana-based outfit the first modern act ever signed to the label. Loaded with high-energy playing and succinct songcraft, So Delicious! is the band’s tastiest work yet.
Let’s Jump a Train, the crowd-pumping Raise a Little Hell, Front Porch Trained and We Live Dangerous are seared through with Peyton’s brash, yet nimble fretwork; Ben Bussell’s drumming gives them a hard-driving rock feel. Peyton’s husky growl lightens up for the piquant Pot Roast and Kisses, with Breezy Peyton’s keen vocals and purring washboard fills adding a pleasant counterpoint.
Though rooted in the sounds and styles of the past, the songs speak very much to modern times. The gritty Dirt is a swaggering riposte to the blue-collar scorning “wine and cheese bunch,” warning that their deeds won’t wash away with mere soap. The mid-tempo Scream at the Night and slide-spangled Hell Naw reproach a material world that’s lost its way, and Peyton invites the listener to take a break from it to forage for the “Indiana banana” on the easy-rolling Picking Paw Paws. His picking on You Ain’t Rich evokes the gentle style of Mississippi John Hurt, and the final track Music and Friends neatly sums up the band’s ethos (“I just want to make music and friends / Everywhere that I go”).
So Delicious! lives up to its name—the liner notes even include Breezy’s delectable-looking pot roast recipe. The Big Damn Band’s fresh stew of gutbucket blues-rock should keep admirers coming back for more.
IGOR PRADO BAND AND DELTA GROOVE ALL STARS
Way Down South
Delta Groove Music - DGPCD167
Hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, the Igor Prado Band is a smart young collective whose command of mid-century electric blues is earning them positive notice worldwide. On their latest release they’re joined by a number of guest artists, and Way Down South is a testament to the group’s musical versatility.
Sugaray Rayford’s powerful vocals drive Ike Turner’s classic Matchbox and his own slow-burning Big Mama Blues. Kim Wilson sings lead on the percolating Ride With Me Baby and the languid If You Ever Need Me. Muddy Waters’ She’s Got It is given a faithful Chicago treatment, crowned by son Mud Morganfield’s remarkably similar voice. The late Lynwood Slim, whom the album is dedicated to, appears on the jazzy Baby Won’t You Jump With Me and You Better Believe It; Ari Borger’s sparkling piano and Denilson Martins’ smoky saxes add gloss and punch. Elmore James’ Talk To Me Baby is a simmering shot of West Coast blues, with Prado’s fat tone augmented by Rod Piazza’s dapper vocals and harmonica. Mitch Kashmar’s rich voice and harp playing are well-matched to Prado’s crunchy licks on What Have I Done; Wallace Coleman’s smooth approaches grace the roadhouse romp Rooster Blues. Prado takes a turn at the mic on Shake & Fingerpop and duets with J.J. Jackson on Joe Tex’s You Got What It Takes; his attitude-laden singing is a delight. The stripped-down Trying To Do Right brings the album to a close, with Prado accompanying Omar Coleman on acoustic guitar.
With polished, assured style in spades, the Igor Prado Band’s Way Down South is a destination worth seeking out.
Ain’t In No Hurry
Red House Records - RHR CD 282
Ain’t In No Hurry is Jorma Kaukonen’s third Red House Records release and second with Larry Campbell as producer. It is the most stripped down of the three and the most effective. The spotlight is clearly trained on his fingerpicking acoustic guitar and homespun singing. It would have been hard to imagine that the guy who unleashed those acid-tinged, epic guitar solos as part of Jefferson Airplane in the late 1960s would fit so comfortably in the mix of acoustic blues, country and other rootsy forms that has come to be called Americana. His later, unplugged work with Hot Tuna certainly pointed in this direction.
Over the 11 tracks, Kaukonen works in a variety of settings, ranging from solo to quintet. Campbell’s contribution is huge; his command of an array of stringed instruments—acoustic guitar, resonator guitar, fiddle, mandolin, lap steel and pedal steel—perfectly complement Kaukonen’s fingerpicking, adding texture and accent to the performances. Drummer Justin Gulp and bassist Myron Hart provide a solid, restrained groove for the proceedings. A few other guests join in at various points, including vocalist Teresa Williams and bandmates from Hot Tuna, bassist Jack Casady and mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff.
The program is a mix of covers of Depression-era and contemporary tunes. Fans of acoustic Hot Tuna will welcome two classics: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out and Brother Can You Spare a Dime, the former a bouncy march featuring Campbell on fiddle and mandolin and the latter a picker’s showcase between Kaukonen and Mitterhoff. Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora sent one of her father’s unpublished poems, Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me, for which Kaukonen and Campbell provided a musical setting that evokes the style of Reverend Gary Davis, Kaukonen’s primary muse. Two other old-time songs that Kaukonen brings to life testify to the range of material on which he is very much at home. He takes a trip to the original Opryland with the Carter Family’s Sweet Fern, featuring Campbell’s lap steel and a call-and-response vocal with Williams. With Thomas A. “Georgia Tom” Dorsey’s The Terrible Operation, Kaukonen heads to pre-war South Side Chicago for some “hokum” blues, this time sparring with Campbell on mandolin and resonator guitar.
Kaukonen contributes four originals that illustrate what a fine songwriting craftsman he has become. The Other Side of the Mountain is a rocking, mid-tempo shuffle; In My Dreams and Seasons in the Field are poignantly reflective ballads. Aside from Campbell’s country flavored pedal steel motif that runs through the seven-minute-plus Bar Room Crystal Ball, which also features Casady, Mitterhoff and Williams, it is not hard to image the Airplane stretching out on this anthem-like meditation. Former Hot Tuna bandmate Michael Falzarano’s Where There’s Two There’s Trouble definitely recalls that band’s penchant for a good time boogie. The title track, Jim Egan’s Ain’t in No Hurry, is a beautifully sung, mellow blues with country highlights from Campbell’s pedal style that epitomizes the blend of American roots music that Kaukonen has come to master.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
I Came to Get Down! Not to Sit Down!
Ecko - ECD 1167
It’s been too long since we’ve heard from Sheba Potts-Wright, the Memphis-based chanteuse whose version of Sir Charles Jones’ Slow Roll It launched her career in 2001. She’s had some promising outings since then, but—at least partly because of her seeming tendency to disappear from the scene for extended periods—she hasn’t quite lived up to her original promise.
Sheba has said that despite the babygirl-with-bedroom-eyes persona she displayed on some of her early CDs, she wants to create work that better reflects the putative southern soul standard of “grown folks’ music,” and in fact, her output since 2008’s I’m a Bluesman’s Daughter has reflected this. That doesn’t mean, though, that she’s become stodgy—the overarching mood of this disc is celebratory, even if the sexual hijinks have been mostly toned down.
There’s a crisp, almost “live” feel to the party-hearty title track—somewhat rare for contemporary southern soul—and Sheba’s vocals are tough and muscular. She’s equally assured on more substantial fare. Stay With Your Wife, in which the singer tells an illicit paramour that their affair isn’t worth ruining his good thing for, is a bracingly clear-eyed, levelheaded revisiting of the timeworn “cheating song” theme—“grown folks” music, indeed. A similar insistence on claiming a stake for righteousness infuses I’ve Done All I Can Do Now the Rest Is Up to You, which is further enriched with evocative references to the Al Wilson classic Show and Tell and a resonant tenor sax solo from Jim Spake. Sheba’s protagonist summons the courage to kick a no-good man to the curb in A Weak Man Can Make a Woman Strong, then confesses to a cuckolding streak of her own in the deliciously transgressive I Want Yo’ Man.
This outing showcases the Ecko sound at its strongest and most robust, and the songs are as well crafted as anything the studio’s in-house team has come up with in recent memory. Out in front, Sheba Potts-Wright sounds poised to finally make her mark as a true soul singer, with no modifiers (e.g., “southern” or “blues”) necessary. Let’s hope she stays on course this time and continues her upward trajectory.
CD REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2015
The White Man Made Me Do It
Alive/SDEG Records - SDEG 1984
Swamp Dogg is kicking off 2015 with The White Man Made Me Do It, a brand new album of classic Swamp. This release finds Swamp Dogg at the height of the powers that “produced, arranged, and conceptualized without a fault,” classics like Rat On, Gag a Maggot and Total Destruction to Your Mind, all of which have been thankfully reissued by Alive in the last few years and, the latter of which, Swamp considers this new release a sequel to.
The White Man Made Me Do It combines classic soul, funk and blues with modern flavor. Swamp Dogg has lost none of his wit, worldly observation, and warped humor over the years; in fact, he is as sharp now as ever, which is seen nowhere better than in the seven-minute title track opener that celebrates the long list of contributions of African Americans to our lives of ease. His commentary is also seen in Light a Candle—Ring a Bell, where he takes the big banks and people like Bernie Madoff to task for wrecking the economy, and Prejudice is Alive and Well, where he not only discusses race and class discrimination, but also gridlock in Washington.
The disc isn’t all politics, however. Swamp’s six decades of straight-ahead soul shine in originals like Lying, Lying, Lying Woman, Hey Renae and What Lonesome Is. He also puts his own spin on the standards, You Send Me, Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash and Smokey Joe’s Café. An unexpected highlight is the yearning, funky tribute Where is Sly, bemoaning the (figurative) loss of acid casualty, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart, wishing he’d come back and teach us all how to dance again. The White Man Made Me Do It also features a full band with horn section, which includes Guitar Shorty on lead guitar and Larry “Moogstar” Clemons (who also co-produced) on “Yamaha motif, keyboards, and Yamaha drums.” This is a welcome and overdue addition to an already amazing discography from an icon whose voice never seems to age, but only gets better and better.
MAGIC SLIM & THE TEARDROPS
Wolf - 120.830.CD
This set is culled from some ’90s-era Austrian performances by Magic Slim and his Teardrops, which at the time featured John Primer on second guitar, Slim’s brother Nick Holt on bass and Earl Howell on drums. Arguably, that was the last truly great band Slim ever led, and these tracks show them at their best.
Slim’s tone was as piercing as any guitarist’s who ever played the blues; he tore notes from his fretboard with a nearly demonic force, and his fatback-and-rotgut vocals were as uncompromising as his playing. His and Primer’s synergy was almost as tight as the legendary bond between himself and Coleman “Alabama Junior”/ “Daddy Rabbit” Pettis that used to ignite the fabled ’70s/’80s-era Sunday afternoon blues parties at Florence’s Lounge in Chicago. Here, Primer segues repeatedly from hard-driving chord work to sinewy leads; he wasn’t quite as raw as the Magic Man (few were), but his emotional focus and musical acumen were unerring.
Somewhat unusually for Slim, this set doesn’t include any real surprises (such was the expanse of his repertoire that longtime admirers used to dare each other to bet that he’d get through a set without adding at least one song they’d never heard him play before). The closest he comes is a relatively rare cover of Ike Turner’s Do You Mean It?, but that hardly matters. Slim could bring even the most tried-and-true chestnuts to life through sheer power (as he does here with I’m Ready, Since I Met You Baby, Look Over Yonder’s Wall and several others). Especially riveting is his take on Jimmie, credited here to Artie White (who recorded it in 1984), but actually a version of Little Beaver’s Joey from 1972. He pours his full armamentarium of fury, angst and redemptive brio into the tale of erotic treachery, and his guitar solo—featuring his patented single-string shiver—thrusts and twists like a knife to the gut, as Howell’s rockslide-crunch drumwork heightens the pugnacity even more.
It’s difficult to go wrong with Magic Slim, but to catch him at his best, you had to catch him live—sadly, that is no longer possible, but this disc comes as close as possible. One additional note: according to Slim’s onstage comments here, the late Bonnie Lee was on at least one of these shows. Those tracks, if they exist, should be heard; Bonnie was one of Chicago’s unappreciated blues queens, and a project like this would add immeasurably to her legacy.
Nola Blue - NB1001
Journey is an apt title for this recording, as Benny Turner is a true journeyman of the blues. Born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1939, he and his older stepbrother, Freddie King, moved to Chicago in the early ’50s, where Freddie on guitar and Benny on bass soon became fixtures on the Windy City’s West Side blues scene. After stints on the road with Dee Clark and the Soul Stirrers, among others, Turner eventually reunited with King, and after the latter’s premature death in 1976, settled in New Orleans and became the bandleader for vocalist Marva Wright until she too passed in 2010.
This CD is Turner’s third as a leader, following 1998’s eclectic Blue and Not So Blue and 2012’s tribute to brother Freddie. This time out, the ten-song playlist consists wholly of Turner originals, and they’re a good and varied lot. Marc Stone’s steel guitar intro kicks off the infectiously catchy Breaking News before Ride My Mule lopes along over Turner’s chunky bass line and Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander’s drums. Next up, How I Wish is a blues ballad in the B.B. King style, followed by the horn-cushioned soul of I Wanna Make it Right. On both the instrumental My Mother’s Blues and My Uncle’s Blues (Fannie Mae), Turner switches to guitar for more of a downhome blues sound. Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes’ harmonica spices the shuffling I Wanna Give it to You Baby, while Voodoo Lady is taken at a more relaxed tempo with churchy organ from Keiko Komaki. The set’s highlights though, are Worn Out Woman, where Turner pays homage to the hard-working wives and mothers, and the socially charged What’s Wrong With the World Today, where his soulful vocal at times evokes the Nucleus of Soul himself, O.V. Wright.
Turner is said to be working on a book documenting his musical journey, which should be a fascinating read. In the meantime, this well-crafted CD documents that same journey in a way that a book never can.
Recorded Music for Your Entertainment
Beaumont Records – P-1202
Like his friend Frank Fairfield, Jerron Paxton (pronounced Jer-Ron, with two distinct Rs) loves Appalachian fiddle and banjo music, digging in the traditions of both white and African American mountain music, clawhammer and three-finger banjo, and even Celtic-based fiddle reels. On his new CD Recorded Music for Your Entertainment, his first full-fledged album, Jerron Paxton mixes it all up and follows his heart’s desire. This pre-release album is, for now, only available at his gigs. (Interestingly, he no longer included his often-used stage name “Blind Boy” on the album.)
Jerron Paxton, with a tendency toward impervious idiosyncrasy, is a truly prodigious musical genius and one of the brightest young lights in the blues. He plays whatever instrument he touches—guitar, piano, harmonica, banjo, fiddle and anything else—with such awesome skill it’s profoundly impressive. Not just that, but he is a true songster delving into the gamut of roots music unencumbered by conventions or predetermined genre separation. He plays what he wants, how he wants. He has a point. The music has always been integrally connected. Banjo and fiddle have a long history in pre-blues African American traditions and in early blues.
The new album sounds as if it was recorded the old-fashioned way, with one mic set up in a room, low-tech, simple and fitting to the music. Recorded Music for Your Entertainment includes 11 songs: four banjo songs, three fiddle tunes, one solo harmonica and three blues, Motherless Child Blues, Lost My Appetite for Chicken and Trying to Make One Hundred, each an absolute musical pleasure. As in many of his blues songs, it’s eerie how closely he resembles the bluesmen of the golden era, not by copying, but by the very essence of his voice and instrumentation. When Jerron Paxton plays and sings the blues you know that he is true blues to the core. The three blues songs alone make the album worthwhile. Everything is good, but blues fans will want more of that. Since this review covers the pre-release, perhaps he will add some of his superlative blues to the final issue, such as his amazing version of Mississippi Bottom, a song that Jerron Paxton has been frequently performing lately, and he has much more up his sleeve.
Paxton’s fabulous singing voice, roots blues virtuosity and esoteric repertoire place him on top of the blues heap. Not only that, but because he has not issued a widely available CD there has been much anticipation and excitement about the bard. You can assemble a set of Paxton’s loose songs from iTunes, but he is still missing a full-fledged blues CD. The acoustic, country blues world looks to him with especially great hope. He has just been appointed the musical director at the annual Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in Washington state starting the next season.
Hopefully, he will give us more straight blues soon. In the meantime, let’s be happy for what we get. It does not get much better than this. All that, and he’s only 26 years old.
Live In Williamsburg
Cleopatra Records - CLP1913-2
Not long after the 2012 death of his famous father, Shuggie Otis ended decades of relative reclusiveness, put a band together, hit the road and cut his first new album in 39 years. Recorded during an April 2013 gig at the Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn, the long-awaited comeback album finds Otis performing mostly original tunes he cut for Epic Records during the first half of the 1970s, when he was moving beyond his blues beginnings into new pop territory that reflected the influence of Sly Stone. They include Inspiration Information, Aht Uh Mi Hed (about which he jokingly comments, “I must have been out of my head when I wrote it ’cause I can never remember the name of it”), Sparkle City, Island Letter and Strawberry Letter 23, which the Brothers Johnson turned into a mega-hit. He’s capably backed by a seven-piece band that includes his brother Nick on drums (augmented on a couple tracks by a drum machine), son Eric on second guitar, former Johnny Otis sidemen Larry Douglas on trumpet and Michael Turre on baritone saxophone, flute and piccolo. Shuggie sings in typically weak, yet plaintive tenor tones, and when four of the musicians occasionally join him vocally, the harmonies are rather ragged. As a guitarist, however, he remains as inventive as ever.
Fortunately, Otis never forgot how to sing and play the blues. There are three blues numbers in the 12-song Williamsburg set, the best being Me and My Woman, a terrific Gene Barge composition that was first recorded by Little Joe Blue in 1967 on the Checker label (though strangely never reissued on LP or CD) and subsequently covered by John Mayall, the Real Charles Ford Band and Otis himself, among others. His vocals are especially commanding on that song and the self-penned shuffle Picture of Love. An instrumental shuffle titled Shuggie’s Boogie is less focused but gives tenor saxophonist Albert Wing, organist Russ “Swang” Stewart and guitarists Shuggie and Eric Otis plenty of space to strut their considerable prowess.
SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK & BNOIS KING
Fat Man’s Shine Parlor
Blind Pig Records - BPCD 5163
In the mid-2000s, guitarists Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King released a series of three recordings for Blind Pig (Roadhouse Research, Show Me the Money and My Heart’s in Texas). Their latest album, Fat Man’s Shine Parlor, marks their return to the label, and it’s loaded with the singular blend of sizzling-cool blues they’ve been cooking together since the 1980s.
The album takes off with Got My Heart Broken’s hard-driving boogie; at one point Kubek, King and Kim LaFleur rev their guitars like engines at the starting line. Cornbread is a steamy ode to soul food, while River of Whiskey rolls smoothly along with some tasty slide and fretwork, again abetted by LaFleur. The pain of losing a loved one is underscored by King’s clear, passionate vocals and Kubek’s searing guitar on the mournful ballad Diamond Eyes.
Crash and Burn advises a big spender to “live within your means,” and How Much is a litany of the ways a musician must pay before he can play (“How much this gig gonna cost? / Already in the hole”). The one-night-stand Don’t Want to Be Alone, the restless One Girl By My Side and the moody Done Got Caught Blues form a triangle of amorous themes. Kubek and King’s different, yet complementary playing styles shine as they take turns soloing on the percolating instrumental Lone Star Lap Dance. The ominous Headed for Ruin, a warning against the perils of alcoholic excess, wraps the session on a sober note.
For a heady dose of heavy-hitting Texas blues-rock, a visit to Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King’s Fat Man’s Shine Parlor is definitely in order.
CDS/Benevolent Blues - BVBL.387
Travis Haddix’s sense of humor is as sardonic as ever, and his genre-straddling meld of traditional 12-bar blues and modernist soul-blues remains powerful and effective. At times, his influences show themselves pretty blatantly—the instrumentation on the title tune, including Haddix’s guitar solo, could almost have come from an unissued Stax-era Albert King or Little Milton session. Even here, though, Haddix’s vocal style is distinctive, and his penchant for bittersweet storytelling—even his most amusing vignettes and one-liners are undergirded with hard-won worldly wisdom—brings additional freshness.
Art to Gettin’ Even is a propulsive funk-blues that recasts Hubert Sumlin’s famous Killing Floor guitar pattern in a modern context; Dinner With the Devil, in contrast, is a slow-swaying, ballad-like testimonial featuring a brawny horn backing reminiscent of Joe Scott’s arrangements for Bobby “Blue” Bland, and—once again—Haddix’s lyrics combine blues-toughened irony with impish good humor. Sweet and Sour Loving returns us to that Stax-seasoned King/Milton blues ballad style, freshened by Haddix’s lyric wit (“One day she’s sweet as honey / the next day she’s sour as a can of kraut”) and unforced, but gritty vocals. Boogie Woogie Woman is redeemed from cliché by its metallic, funk-driven impetus; One Half Right similarly combines booty-shaking jollity with tough-minded, earnest musicianship, portraying the long-suffering bluesman as an aging trickster confronting decline and confusion, but determined to stay in the game.
Although he hasn’t attained the mainstream recognition his talents merit, Travis Haddix continues to show himself a first-rate purveyor of contemporary blues leavened with humor and infused with commitment.
DONALD RAY JOHNSON
These Blues: The Best of Donald Ray Johnson
Mar Vista Music – MV-7
Donald Ray Johnson is a veteran drummer and vocalist with an extensive track record in pop and R&B, as well as blues. His greatest claim to fame might be his propulsive percussion work on Boogie Oogie Oogie, the 1978 disco-funk hit by A Taste Of Honey. He’s also cut several blues releases on his own.
The opening track, a cover of Al Green’s Ain’t No Fun to Me, could almost be a Green outtake—Johnson’s vocals, while somewhat deeper than Green’s, are similar in timbre, and the horn charts and rhythmic patterns are based closely on producer Willie Mitchell’s legendary sound at Hi Records. Individual credits aren’t provided, but a leather-lunged harp player and some sweet, fatback-funk guitar and bass further season this track.
Most of the other offerings here hew closer to standard-issue, 12-bar blues laced with uptown sophistication; the influence of B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Rosco Gordon and other ex-Beale Streeters is obvious, and there are nods to icons such as Jimmy Reed, Albert King and Little Milton as well. Nonetheless, with the arguable exception of his Al Green cover, Johnson does not sound like an imitator. His take on the ballad Always On My Mind is a masterpiece of meditative regret that never descends into bathos; his original creations (nine of the 13 songs here are his) reveal him to be a deft storyteller, capable of bringing new life to well-worn blues conceits. Again, one wishes he’d seen fit to credit his musicians; the guitar solos on Johnson’s straight-blues offerings are fierce and intense, but musically coherent and focused; his bassist has a deep pocket; the horns sound brawny and sure.
Although he tends to mine most of his influences from earlier eras (Here to Stay is the closest thing on the disc to contemporary-sounding soul-blues), Donald Ray Johnson infuses everything he does with emotional immediacy and musical vitality—let’s hope he can further establish himself on the contemporary blues scene.
Blind Pig - BPCD 5162
Debonair Canadian guitar slinger J.W. Jones makes his Blind Pig debut with this Tom Hambridge–produced album—an offering filled with steely Texas hustle, slickly executed boogies and light-tipped soul. Jones’ material is ultimately catchy in a pop-oriented vein, yet maintains contemporary Nashvillian warmth that begs roots coolness and bluesy abandon—it’s a truly accessible sound.
Jones is equally impressive as both guitarist and vocalist. The careening twang and delicately impulsive in-the-pocket groove of tracks like the opener Love Times Ten is reminiscent of gunslingers like Lee Roy Parnell, with the smoothed-out, slightly quirked sound of fellow Canadian roots journeyman Colin James. Jones conversely handles southern soul with just as much wry integrity and dexterity, as he does on the scrapes-of-youth throwback of Blue Jean Jacket; the lyric “in my blue jean jacket, I felt like I could take on the world” reminds us all of that impenetrable sense of “home” that we all found in a long-gone, good-luck charm, while Reese Wynans’ keys transport us along a cozy, familiar plane.
Thank You has a gruff, garage-rock vibe with grungy guitar and drums that pop with snappy rhythm twists. West Side Magic Boogie is even dirtier in tone—dare we say heavy—with over-the-top Tele-twang and, assuredly, Jones’ finest picking workouts on the album. Jones continues the tip of the hat to his guitar-hero persona with What Would Jimmie Do?, an ode to one of his biggest influences, Jimmie Vaughan, on a track that screams of Vaughan’s trademark combed-back cool.
A collection of tunes relying on modern rockabilly heart, classic Americana lyricism and tube-glowing production value, J.W. Jones looks very much the “vintage” guitar hero to carry the torch into a new era.
Heartfixer Music - HFM-1012
Tough Love is guitarist/vocalist Tinsley Ellis’ third release since the launch of his own Heartfixer Music label in 2013. Returning from his last two projects (2013’s all-instrumental Get It! and last year’s fine Midnight Blue) are Lynn Williams (drums) and Kevin McKendree (organ and piano), who are joined by Steve Mackey on bass.
The fiery contemporary blues Seven Years and Leave Me are great examples of how Tough Love embraces the blues-rock fare that has defined much of Ellis’s critically acclaimed work for Alligator and Telarc. But this tight, ten-song program of original material also shows the broad-ranging talent that has made Ellis such a popular draw as a touring musician over the past several decades, as traditional blues and ballads join more sophisticated arrangements that stretch the boundaries of the blues without sacrificing any feeling in the process.
Ellis nods to Jimmy Reed on the up-tempo Everything (and even blows a little first position harp on the tune), offers up a chugging shuffle with Midnight Ride and delivers a heartfelt slow blues about a dying romance on Should I Have Lied. The album’s magnum opus, however, is the closing track, a soaring ballad titled In From the Cold. Winter, which Ellis ominously describes as “dyin’ time,” serves as a metaphor for a broken relationship (which by this time has become a recurring, but not unwelcome, theme on the record). Ellis’s vocals exhibit an unusual degree of subtlety here, to say nothing of his powerful, nuanced guitar solos.
Tough Love is the product of a veteran artist at the peak of his ability as both a musician and songwriter, and demonstrates Ellis’s continued efforts to innovate while remaining true to the roots of the music that inspired his first forays into the blues as a young teenager.
CD REVIEWS DECEMBER 2014
BILLY BOY ARNOLD
The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold
Stony Plain - SPCD 1378
It is really amazing that Billy Boy Arnold’s blues career did not take off in the early 1960s. He had scored hits on the Vee-Jay label in the 1950s, performed as sideman on Smash Records with Bo Diddley and made a fine LP, More Blues From the South Side, on Prestige in 1963. Young rockers, like the Animals and Yardbirds (and later David Bowie), incorporated his songs, such as I Ain’t Got You and I Wish You Would, into their repertoires, but Arnold struggled to survive in the blues business, often working jobs outside the music to survive. He continued to pursue a blues career, and finally, in 1995 established himself with Back Where I Belong on the Alligator label. Over the subsequent two decades, Arnold has risen in prominence and today stands as one of the preeminent harmonica men in the blues world.
After paying homage to his Chicago roots with tribute CDs to Big Bill Broonzy (2012) and Sonny Boy Williamson I (2008), Arnold applies his masterful vocals and harp work to a selection of favorite songs from an impressive range of blues, R&B and jazz stylists on The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold. A crucial move for this project was reconnecting with producer and guitarist Duke Robillard, with whom he collaborated on the 2001 CD, Boogie ’n’ Shuffle. In addition, the guitarist brought along his crack working band and the Roomful of Blues horns to insure that Arnold’s musical vision could be brought to fruition. Robillard has become a skilled blues producer with a flair for crafting recordings with a vintage sound. So, tracks like the Chicago warhorse I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water or the Howlin’ Wolf/Hubert Sumlin–inspired, Arnold original Dance for Me Baby, sound like they could have been unearthed after spending six decades in the vaults of Chess or Vee-Jay Records.
Arnold’s choice of material comes from an array of influential figures in the evolution of R&B/soul: Louis Jordan, Ain’t That Just Like a Woman; Ray Charles, Don’t Set Me Free; Chuck Berry, Nadine (Is It You?); Ted Taylor, You Give Me Nothing to Go On; Joe Tex, A Mother’s Prayer; Mack Rice, Coal Man and Don Bryant, 99 Lbs. With a set list like this, Arnold is basically surveying the history of the music from the 1940s to the 1970s. His singing features a slight rasp with a warm, honest tone that hints at a wry sense of humor. His unamplified harmonica work is marvelously inventive and buoyant, as he consistently stays locked into the grooves provided by Robillard and company. B.B. King’s Worried Dream, delivered with an Otis Rush–like feel, is an extended, slow blues showcase for Robillard’s incendiary guitar and the leader’s plaintive vocal and emotive harp work. Arnold turns his attention in a jazzier direction for St. James Infirmary and Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr.’s Work Song. He imbues them with a swinging energy and stretches out with his harp work, and both Robillard and pianist Bruce Bears turn in outstanding solos. Arnold’s original compositions, like Keep on Rubbing and What’s on the Menu Mama, hold up well alongside these classic compositions and also further testify to a hip, witty persona.
It may have been a long time coming, but today Billy Boy Arnold stands among the giants of Chicago blues, and The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold shows that, six decades on, he is still expanding his musical horizons.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
OTIS CLAY & JOHNNY RAWLS
Catfood - CFR-021
Otis Clay’s guest appearance on Johnny Rawls’ recent O.V. Wright tribute whetted a lot of appetites for more of the same; this full-length duo project might satisfy some of that hunger.
Bob Trenchard’s production builds from brawny horns and propulsive rhythms; the Rays, Catfood’s house band, may not quite be the second coming of the MGs or the old Muscle Shoals crew, but they pack an admirable punch. A few commentators have objected to some of the material—there’s a remake of Dave Mason’s Only You Know and I Know, along with several pop-tinged Trenchard originals—but soul music has always cast a wide stylistic net, and this set merely carries on that tradition. At any rate, the inclusion of standards such as What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and Turn Back the Hands of Time should assuage any doubts about Clay’s, Rawls’, or Trenchard’s roots-man credentials.
Once again, Rawls summons a gritty, hard-hitting soul voice (on Momma Didn’t Raise No Fool, he hits with a leathery muscularity that invokes the Godfather himself); Clay, although he’s lost some suppleness over the years, retains the raspy intensity that has always characterized his best work. If there’s little new that either he or Rawls can bring to Turn Back the Hands of Time, he summons an evocative mix of machismo and weariness on Road Dog, and his delivery on message-laden parables like Poor Little Rich Girl and Trenchard’s Waiting for Dreams invokes the music’s indelible Saturday night/Sunday morning fusion (the latter, a vignette of broken-down souls wandering through a desolate landscape, is an appropriate coda to Clay’s 2007 remake of Joe South’s Walk a Mile In My Shoes). To drive the point home, Rawls’ Hallelujah Lord emanates straight from the church—reminding us that the term “soul brothers,” in its deepest essence, refers to men (and, by implication, women) who share a spiritual, as well as cultural or social connection. That connection, even more than the music itself, is what makes this disc special.
Delmark - 839
The “Heat” is on again with their tried and proven concoction of fiery, deep roots Mississippi-come-to-Chicago blues, on their 11th album. Harmonica player Pierre Lacocque leads a kick-ass swinging ensemble with a fat rocking sound. Warning Shot showcases bandleader and principal songwriter Lacocque’s eloquent harp playing, supported by a cast of heavy hitters that deliver the trademark big band sound.
There is a distinct blend of Chicago-styled blues harp and harmonica swing reminiscent of Larry Adler and Borrah Minevitch in Lacocque’s sound, which may be subliminal recollections of his early childhood in Belgium, where the hot jazz of Django Reinhardt’s Paris was a radio staple. Lacocque, who holds a PhD from Northwestern University, is a strong bandleader and songwriter. Warning Shot showcases one of the hottest, tightest bands in Chicago today, and the original songs on this album are pure fun and are worthy additions to the great history of Chicago blues.
Mississippi Heat packs a generous helping of 16 songs onto this CD, with standout cuts like the instant blues classic I Don’t Know showcasing the swift ensemble at its finest: sensitive guitars and soulful singing by Inetta Visor, helped by a wonderful team of backup vocalists and instrumental perfection, played with feeling. Then, it’s hard to believe the ears when the band takes on Hank Williams’ classic Your Cheating Heart, and it sounds like Toots Thielemans and Boots Randolph showing up on The Lawrence Welk Show and making a wild time of it, in a peculiar mix of dreadful hokeyness and, somehow, a weirdly pervasive coolness.
But, don’t worry, it’s a superb album packed with great blues, performed by superlative and gifted musicians. Not enough praise can be bestowed on the three guitarists Michael Dotson, Giles Corey and Carl Weathersby. A terrific rhythm section of Ruben Alvarez on percussion, Andrew Thomas and Kenny Smith on drums, backed by the powerful Brian Quinn on bass, anchors the diverse set of this band. Sax player Sax Gordon and Neal O’Hara on keyboards round out a power-ensemble that can play a range of blues, from jump to boogie, from South Side Chicago down to the Delta.
Hard-driving, sensitive and extraordinarily colorful, Warning Shot puts you in the mood…and keeps you there. Swingy Dingy Baby, a boogie by Michael Dotson, one of the aces in the pocket of this band, is one of the highlights of the album. From the first cut (Sweet Poison) on, they swing like mad and from tune to tune keep the consistent deep roots feeling. It’s good to hear the real, good-time Chicago blues still blazing and packing heat. Play this one during your next dance party, or groove with it when cruising down the highway.
The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man
Alligator Records - ALCD 4964
Marcia Ball’s last album, Roadside Attractions, showcased her songwriting to a greater degree than ever before, and the fine record ultimately earned her a Grammy nomination and a Living Blues Award. The Austin-based singer and pianist has crafted another exceptional collection of songs for her new release, and on The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man she sings and plays them with her signature passion and verve.
The exuberant title track spins a yarn of carnival sideshow romance, and its spirit of joie de vivre flows throughout the rest of the album. A punchy horn section underscores the sassy kiss-off Clean My House, and the Big Easy feel of Like There’s No Tomorrow makes it an instant party classic. Just Keep Holding On and Hank Ballard’s He’s the One sound like lost ’60s soul sides from Cosimo Matassa’s studio; the latter—the lone cover—features smoldering solos from Michael Schermer on guitar, Mark Kazanoff on saxophone and an especially ardent vocal from Ball.
The pointed social commentary of The Squeeze Is On is wrapped in a danceable zydeco melody, embroidered with Terrance Simien’s lovely accordion and Van Mouton’s rhythmic frottoir. Hot Springs’ account of wayward love is as steamy as its namesake, while the chorus of Shelley King, Carolyn Wonderland and Amy Helm help Ball lift the hymn Human Kindness heavenward. Delbert McClinton contributes breezy harmonica to the carefree romp Can’t Blame Nobody But Myself, and the melancholy mood of Lazy Blues is immediately dispelled by the rollicking Get You a Woman.
She ends the festivities on a sober note with The Last to Know: “You keep tellin’ me the same old stories / One of us has got to let go,” she sings wistfully. Full of fresh tales and high-flying performances, Marcia Ball’s The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man is definitely one to hold on to.
Come Back Baby
Delmark - DE 838
Linsey Alexander was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1942, picked up the basics of guitar after his family relocated to Memphis when he was 12 and by 1960 was in Chicago, where he started off gigging with soul bands before forming his own groups, the Hot Tomatoes and the Equitable Band. Long years of dues paying finally paid off when when Alexander broke into the North Side blues club rotation in the 1990s, which in turn led to a handful of self-produced CDs and ultimately his 2012 Delmark debut, the aptly titled Been There Done That.
Save for the opening Little Bit of Soap (not the old Jarmels hit) and the Willie Dixon/Otis Rush classic I Can’t Quit You Baby, the playlist on Alexander’s sophomore effort for Delmark is all self-penned, although several songs are reprises of his own earlier versions. There’s nice variety, as the title track strikes a Tyrone Davis groove, Call My Wife and Goin’ Out Walkin’ shuffle along briskly and Funky Feeling is just that. I Got a Woman (not the Ray Charles hit) and Too Old to Be a New Fool join I Can’t Quit You Baby as the disc’s slow blues content, while Booze and Blues, Things Done Changed and Snowing in Chicago sport the sort of minor-tinged mid-tempo groove that Willie Kent and Johnny B. Moore used to do so well. Even the unpromisingly titled Booty Call is several cuts above the run of such fare, as Alexander follows Chris Neal’s hot tenor sax solo by dissing his bandmates’ ladies. In addition to Neal, that group includes the core unit of Fabrizio “Breezy” Rodio on guitar, the always excellent but ever under-appreciated Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, Greg McDaniel on bass and Pooky Styx (née Melvin Carlisle) on drums, with Ryan Nyther’s trumpet and Bill McFarland’s trombone joining Neal on several cuts and Billy Branch adding his harmonica to three.
Alexander, though, remains the star of the show, singing and playing with a strength and enthusiasm that belie his 72 years. This is a can’t-miss release for any lover of no-nonsense Chicago blues.
EDDY “THE CHIEF” CLEARWATER
Cleartone - 88295149358
Eddy Clearwater, reportedly part Cherokee, fully embraced “The Chief” persona after Jim O’Neal came up with the idea of putting him on a horse in full headdress for the cover of his eponymous 1980 Rooster release. And, as this fully-loaded live set recorded at Evanston, Illinois’ SPACE captures, he now opens his show with They Call Me the Chief, an atomic-powered Indian tom-tom shtick (laid down by the formidable rhythm crew of drummer Stephen Bass and bassist David Knopf) that nonetheless wows audiences here and abroad. Foremost, Clearwater is, and has always been, a musician who loves to entertain, and he is supremely good at it.
If the set seems a little guitar heavy with Tom Crivellone, Shoji Naito (who also plays some fine harp on four tracks) and the explosive Ronnie Baker Brooks, not to mention Clearwater himself, the audience clearly doesn’t mind. The irrepressible Johnny Iguana also guests on piano and organ, and Billy Branch lends his big harp tone to A Good Leavin’ Alone, reprised from Clearwater’s 2008 Alligator CD West Side Strut.
In fact, while most of these tracks have appeared on previous Clearwater studio recordings, none is a poor cousin to its original. Find You a Job dates all the way back to the aforementioned Rooster recording and serves to prove the lasting power of his songwriting. Clearwater, who began his career in part performing Chuck Berry material, dates back nearly to the black nexus of blues and rock: he thrives on call and response, great hooks and sing-along choruses and works them live, with great effect, on Hypnotized and the crowd-pleasing Too Old to Get Married, co-written with Baker Brooks (as is They Call Me the Chief).
Came Up the Hard Way segues into Brooks’ composition Root to the Fruit and back again, providing a thought-provoking perspective on the two musicians’ different blues backgrounds. Cool Blues Walk, which first appeared on his 1998 Bullseye release of the same name, has rarely been done better.
Chiefly speaking, Eddy Clearwater lacks nothing in the way of energy or enthusiasm, and he proves he can still rock out with the best of them.
It’s My Guitar
No label – (No #)
Guitarist/vocalist Castro “Mr. Sipp” Coleman (not to be confused with rapper Jonathan “Mr. Sipp” Reese) has a background steeped in gospel—his bio credits him with appearing on more than 50 gospel recordings—but he’s also been a blues lover for most of his life. This is his debut as a front-line blues artist.
Sipp plays all the instruments heard here—guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, harmonica—and he comports himself admirably on each of them, although it’s obvious that the guitar is his true forte. He’s also notable for his songwriting; he penned all of this set’s 11 offerings. At times, as on the opener, Can I Ride, he sounds as if he’s melding Kings of Rhythm–era, proto-rock ’n’ roll, boogie-blues with modernist, post–B.B. King string-bending, all the while delivering his lyrics in a youthful, contemporary R&B–influenced vocal style. Sharp-eared listeners will hear plenty of other influences as well—a rhythmic theme borrowed from Chuck Willis’s I Feel So Bad; an extended string-bending solo reminiscent of Stax-era Albert King; a melodic theme that sounds based on The Blues Is Alright; a southern blues-rock, dual-lead guitar line—but the final product is definitely Sipp’s alone.
Sipp’s music, with its crisp arrangements and emphasis on brilliant-toned, upper-range instrumentation, isn’t exactly what a lot of us have learned to call “deep blues,” but his lyric themes—temptations that threaten to wreck a household (Miss Jones); carryings-on between a roguish preacher and his gospel sisters (the country-funk, harmonica-flavored They Got Me Messed Up); a man’s determination to “wear the pants” in his relationship even as he struggles to keep his woman satisfied (Yes Man)—reflect time-tested blues themes. Apropos of the modern era, a strain of ironic humor runs through most of Sipp’s music—no soul-baring angst or midnight-of-the-soul meditations for him—but his emotional commitment is unerring, and when he settles into a guitar solo, his strong-fingered attack can make his notes bite and cut with vintage juke-joint intensity.
A good number of younger-generation blues artists have emerged from Mississippi in recent years to show that the torch is still being carried, and Castro Coleman demonstrates here that he’s a full-fledged member of that up-and-coming fraternity.
Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju
Arhoolie - 550
There is no blues band performing today as different as HowellDevine—nor as delightful. On the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area trio’s third CD (and second for Arhoolie), singer, guitarist and harmonica blower Joshua Howell, drummer and washboard scraper Pete Devine and upright bassist Joe Lyle Jr. romp with wild abandon through an 11-song set of tunes by Muddy Waters, Rice Miller, Frank Stokes, Bukka White, Little Walter, along with five originals.
It’s old-timey stuff for sure, but rendered with new twists. They may call those twists “modern,” yet they draw rhythmically on the syncopations of jug bands and jazz combos of long-ago times, especially Devine with his use of rubboard, tambourine, temple block and other percussion devices as part of a standard snare–toms–bass drum–cymbals kit. Howell handles all the vocals in sturdy low-tenor tones as he alternates between acoustic and electric guitars, fingerpicking much of the time or sliding a bottleneck along the strings. Rather than use a rack harmonica, he puts his guitar down on several occasions, presses the harp to his lips and blows in a manner that reflects his fondness for Sonny Boy Williamson II. His rendering of Williamson’s She Brought Life Back to the Dead is particularly chilling. Yet even when nobody is playing chords, the ensemble sound is remarkably full thanks to Lyle’s steady walking bass lines and Devine’s wondrously intensive percussion work.
The set-closing Railroad Stomp, an instrumental recorded during a nightclub performance in Point Richmond, California, easily ranks as one of the most amazing train tunes ever. Songs that mimic the sounds of steam locomotives have long been crowd-pleasers for DeFord Bailey, Sonny Terry and other harp blowers. Much as Bailey did on his 1928 classic Pan American Blues, Howell simulates the noises made by a train as it speeds up and slows down. The current trio takes it a step further, with Howell replicating the starting whistle and chugga chugga of the engine as its speed increases. As Lyle’s bass anchors the bottom while the tempo accelerates and decelerates, Devine adds ringing bells at the beginning and end and, as the train races down the tracks, accentuates the train’s movement with a tambourine atop his hi-hat and rapid stick strokes between his snare and tom-tom. With Railroad Blues and the other selections on Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju, HowellDevine are clearly on the right track to greater notoriety.
Stingin’ & Buzzin’
No label - (No #)
Baton Rouge guitarist James Johnson is one of those guys that many have heard but few have heard of. Born and raised in Erwinville, Louisiana, about 20 miles west of Baton Rouge, he determined to play guitar after seeing Albert Collins perform at his school. By 1965 he was playing and recording with Slim Harpo, most famously contributing the “chicken scratch” guitar riff to Harpo’s 1966 crossover hit Scratch My Back. After Harpo’s untimely death in 1970, Johnson drifted away from music, but returned to the scene playing bass for Raful Neal in 1996 and more recently performing at the 2011 Ponderosa Stomp.
This album, Johnson’s first recording as a leader, was cut in Baton Rouge with Orlando Henry on keyboards, Miguel D. Hernandez on bass and Michael “Joe Monk” Ceasar on drums. Surprisingly, there are no covers of Harpo, Neal or anybody else, as Johnson himself authored all of the set’s ten tracks, which include the instrumental Just a Feelin’. The clever and catchy Ain’t Like That opens the set, followed by the slow blues Been Gone a Long Time and Changed the Tradition, an unusual take on the holiday theme complete with jingle bell effects. Do the Zydeco and Let’s Party are predictably danceable, while Live a Little drops down into atmospheric minor key, and I Heard You Got Another Man closes the set with a funky beat that might have benefited from another take or two. The feature track, Stingin’ & Buzzin’, is, of course, a shout-out to Harpo that gives Johnson a chance to flash his signature licks.
Despite a few rough edges, it’s good to have Johnson back on the scene again. If he can continue to turn out original compositions as good as the ones on this disc, he definitely merits a follow-up.
Beracah - BRI-31340
Once called “The First Lady of Southern Soul,” vocalist Candi Stanton continues to make a case for regaining that title with Life Happens, her third CD since she redirected her talents to R&B in 2006, after two decades dedicated to gospel music. Her initial success in southern soul began in the late 1960s, when Clarence Carter introduced her to producer Rick Hall and his legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. During the early 1970s, the singer and producer generated a string of hits, including Stand By Your Man, I’m Just a Prisoner and In the Ghetto. Last year’s documentary film, Muscle Shoals, brought Stanton and Hall back together, and three tracks from the reunion in that iconic studio are featured on Life Happens, along with two produced in London by bassist Ernie McKone and ten tracks produced in Atlanta by Stanton’s son, drummer Marcus Williams.
The standout from the Hall-produced tracks is the opener, I Ain’t Easy to Love, which is clearly aimed at the Americana market as Stanton trades vocals with John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, and Jason Isbell, over a rousing R&B-meets-country groove that calls to mind the studio’s trademark sound. Stanton’s voice is in great shape, and her impassioned vocal performance makes these two young guys dig deep to generate some sizzling grit and soul. Although McKone recorded it in London, the sound of Close to You also harks back to Stanton’s Muscle Shoals heyday, with its surging organ interwoven with hot guitar licks and a chorus of backing singers to engage Stanton in a driving call-and-response.
The Atlanta tracks make up the lion’s share of Life Happens, and Williams certainly keeps the focus on the sensual, husky burr of Stanton’s voice, with a number of tracks featuring just keyboards, drums and guitars. Because her singing is so powerful and emotive, Stanton thrives in the stripped down settings of the ballad, Eternity, and the mid-tempo, pedal-steel-highlighted country tune, Even the Bad Times Are Good. The program is arranged so that the first five tracks feature songs with positive takes on relationships. The second half of the CD looks at the other side of love—cheating, two-timing, homewrecking and breaking up. Beware, She’s After Your Man is a funk extravaganza that rides on a fat bass line with Stanton delivering no-nonsense monologues and sparring with a group of spry backup singers. With its catchy chorus, the up-tempo, funky drive of Three Minutes to a Relapse is bound to fill dance floors.
The album wraps up with two forays into Staple Singers territory, with two socially conscious R&B songs, Have You Seen the Children? and A Better World Coming, the former providing a vehicle for Stanton to turn on her slow, gospel burn and the latter featuring some bluesy testifying. It has been said that there “ain’t nothing like the real thing,” and with Life Happens, Candi Stanton proves that when it comes to southern soul, that is exactly what she is.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
CD REVIEWS OCTOBER 2014
Malaco - MCD 7546
The Malaco label’s re-entrance into the blues field is cause for celebration, and Mississippi native Grady Champion is an appropriate choice to host the party. Although he’s a harmonica player whose first and greatest influence was Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), he’s also a contemporary-minded stylist with a background in rap and contemporary R&B (he crossed over into the blues after being blown away by some Sonny Boy tracks he heard on a college radio station when he was in his twenties). He’s got the lyric edge and rhythmic dexterity of a hip-hop freestylist (as, for that matter, so did Sonny Boy himself), and his sound is both rooted in the modern Mississippi blues tradition and spiked with influences borrowed from neo-soul and contemporary southern soul blues. His voice is emotionally intense without being forced, and he’s capable of both nuance and subtlety even at his most declamatory.
This is a wide-ranging set including several Champion originals as well as contributions from blues and soul blues masters like Ernie Johnson (Don’t Waste My Time) and the late George Jackson (the title tune). Jackson’s storyline finds the protagonist waking up hung over in a small-town motel alongside a “lil’ ol’ ugly girl”—a somewhat non-p.c. but all-too-bluesy vignette that Champion delivers in an appropriately rasp-tautened voice. Who Dat, in contrast, (co-written by Champion and former Beat Daddys lead singer Larry Grisham), portrays a road-weary bluesman’s dark night of the soul; guest vocalist Jj Thames’s Lorelei-like moans and background vocals add to the feel of haunted surrealism.
Both I Tripped and Fell In Love and the reggae-tinged Mr. Right sound tailor-made for a southern soul radio playlist (if the all-natural instrumentation doesn’t get in the way); but then, as if to prove that he’s still a roots man at heart, Champion also tears off some searing, harp-driven boogies (Beg, Borrow, Steal; Here We Go Y’all). The closer, White Boy With the Blues, is a profoundly spiritual narration about a life-ravaged Caucasian youth whose struggles and travails prove redemptive, even after his demise (the melodies of both Amazing Grace and Precious Memories waft through the backing arrangement).
The stylistic and thematic leaps here might be a little jarring for listeners wanting to immerse themselves single-mindedly in a particular genre, aesthetic, or mood—but open-eared adventurers of all stripes should find this disc satisfying. It bodes well for the future of both Champion and Malaco.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch
Concord - CRE 35187 02
Dr. John dreamed that the spirit of fellow New Orleans native son Louis Armstrong came to him with the exhortation “Take my music and do it your way.” He took the iconic trumpeter/singer at his word. Drawing upon the full range of Armstrong’s discography, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch weaves together blues, jazz, funk, gospel, spirituals, Afro-Caribbean grooves, hip-hop, romantic ballads, and swinging standards into a seductive and seamless sonic tapestry. This is no Armstrong repertory project; Dr. John and company are Armstrong’s musical progeny, and they honor the spirit of Satchmo by placing a premium on individual creativity within a group context shaped by Rebennack’s unique musical vision.
What makes Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch such an impressive achievement is the fact that it is the follow-up to Dr. John’s Locked Down, an edgy, alt-rock, bluesy funk set produced by Dan Auerbach, on which the 72-year-old Mac Rebennack reinvented his sound, style, and conception. For him to do another such reinvention two years later is mind-blowing. Once again he has teamed up with a younger artist to help bring his musical vision to fruition—his trombonist and bandleader, Sarah Morrow. Her dynamic, textured, and swinging horn charts play a big part in shaping all the different stylistic approaches into a unified soundscape.
Certainly Satch’s spirit has to be beaming as his legacy is brought to life by the trumpet players the doctor has assembled: Terrence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, James Andrews, Wendell Brunious, Efrem Townes and Greg Davis of the Dirty Dozen—all from New Orleans, as well as kindred spirit from Cuba, Arturo Sandoval. Rebennack calls upon a diverse cast of singers to join him in recasting Armstrong’s material. The Blind Boys of Alabama appear on a punchy New Orleans R&B take of What a Wonderful World (featuring Payton) and in a slow gospel-infused call and response on Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (featuring Blanchard). Bonnie Raitt and Rebennack deliver a swinging duet on I Got the World on a String that brings to mind his classic Accentuate the Positive with Rickie Lee Jones. Cuban rapper Telmary joins her rapid-fire Spanish wordplay with Sandoval’s trumpet for a swirling Afro-Cuban conjuring of Tight Like This. Armstrong was certainly a blues master, and the doctor applies a hard-edged funk treatment to Gut Bucket Blues (with Payton) and Dippermouth Blues (with Andrews), the intro to the latter featuring an extended example of his New Orleans piano professorism. That same driving funk shapes Mack the Knife, with Blanchard weaving his trumpet in and out of Mike Ladd’s rap interlude. Shemekia Copeland and Rebennack get down to some serious signifyin’ on Sweet Hunk o’Trash from a 1949 Armstrong guest spot with Billie Holiday. Armstrong recorded a number of spirituals, and Anthony Hamilton delivers Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child with a smooth, shimmering warmth, while New Orleans home girl Ledisi, backed by the McCrary Sisters, brings some gospel fire to Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The two tracks that come closest to Armstrong’s style are the mellow That’s My Home (with Brunious and the McCrary Sisters) and Memories of You, featuring a soaring Sandoval, who evokes Satch’s golden tone and breathtaking technique. On When You’re Smiling, Dr. John hooks up with the Afro-Caribbean rhythm and brass band horns of the Dirty Dozen (featuring Townes and Davis) to bring it all back home to Armstrong’s roots. Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch is a crowning achievement that links two American music masters from New Orleans.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
GARY CLARK JR.
Warner Bros. - 2-544681
Blues fans who might have been put off by the heavy pop-style production heard on most of 2012’s Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr.’s first full-length album for Warner Bros., will be relieved—and surely elated—by the raw, rock ’n’ roll-infused blues music the tall, 30-year-old Texan serves up on his magnificent two-disc follow-up. There’s no watering down this time around—just Clark and his tough, ultra-tight band—second guitarist King Zapata, bassist Johnny Bradley, and drummer Johnny Radelat—cutting loose on one blues or blues-imbued number after another, 15 in all, in front of effusive audiences at various locations, the places and dates of which are not identified.
Clark affirms his deep connection to the blues tradition with lengthy takes on the old standards Catfish Blues and Three O’Clock Blues, his tenor pipes radiating passion and his amped-up solos rife with unexpected twists and turns. And he closes out the program all by himself, plaintively crooning, picking acoustic guitar, and blowing a rack harmonica on Leroy Carr’s (In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down.
Nine of the tunes had appeared on Blak And Blu, but now they’re thankfully rendered in undiluted form. He really lets his Chuck Berry-inspired song Travis County rip and roll this time around and gives the first solo to Zapata, as he does on five other selections, apparently unafraid, as some bandleaders are, to let a gifted sideman share some of the limelight. Much like his early influence, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clark draws heavily on Jimi Hendrix, particularly in his imaginative use of feedback-fueled white noise on his original blues tune When My Train Comes In and in his brilliant interpolation of Hendrix’s Third Stone From the Sun and Little Johnny Taylor’s If You Love Me Like You Say that fuses two strains of blues from the 1960s—rock and soul blues—and brings them together in the present.
DADDY MACK BLUES BAND
Inside Sounds - ISC-0541
Mack Orr was the owner of a Memphis auto repair shop when, at age 45, he decided to take up the guitar and embark on a musical career. Now, with his transition validated by a series of Inside Sounds CDs, a biographical DVD, and even a feature in AARP magazine, he stands tall at the forefront of the city’s blues scene.
On this latest release, his sixth, Orr and long-time associates Joe Bonner on guitar and brother Harold on bass are joined by Fast Eddie Lester on drums and a host of guest artists who make spot-on contributions. In addition to Bobby Rush’s organist Paul Brown, they include Ori Naftaly on guitar, Eric Hughes on harmonica , and Matt Isbell on both, as well as a horn section led by Carl Wolfe and a vocal group that appear on several tracks. Co-producer Eddie Dattel had a hand in all 13 songs on offer—there are no covers this time out—and they are a solid bunch, from the pulsing opener Blues Doctor through the downhome Lonesome Train Blues that closes the set. In between, we get variety, from a jazzy strut on Sharp-Dressed Daddy to the aptly titled Everybody Have Fun, but the meat of the program is found on such down-and-dirty fare as Daily Blues, Almost Left You, and Watermelon Man (not the Herbie Hancock classic, but a Z.Z. Hill–inspired slow drag).
With its unwavering devotion to hard-core, no-nonsense blues, the Daddy Mack Blues Band is a worthy heir to such predecessors as the Fieldstones and Hollywood All-Stars, and this album is a strong addition to their catalog.
MUD MORGANFIELD & KIM WILSON
For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters
Severn - CD0064
Mud Morganfield was raised by his mother and rarely saw his father, Muddy Waters. He shied away from playing blues music for many years. It wasn’t until Muddy Waters died in the 1980s that he finally embraced the style of Chicago blues his father helped pioneer. Since that time, he’s released two albums of blues tunes to some acclaim. Now on the occasion of Muddy Water’s 100th birthday, he’s back to honor to his father’s legacy with a tribute CD, For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters.
Morganfield shies away from his father’s most well-known, prototypical material—Mannish Boy, Hoochie Coochie Man, and Got My Mojo Working are all absent here. Even Rollin’ Stone does not appear. Instead, Morganfield the younger mines similarly iconic songs that were a part of the Muddy legacy, yet perhaps did not carry the weight of personality that the others did, and taps a few lesser known though no less powerful cuts.
Strong harmonica players were always a hallmark of Waters’ music. Legendary players like Little Walter, Junior Wells, and James Cotton are just a few in a long line of harp players to accompany him. So no tribute album can really be complete without an adept harpsman. Morganfield certainly found one in Kim Wilson, the leader of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a lifelong student of the blues.
At times Wilson’s playing proceeds to be the primary allure, as he showcases his skills on Trouble No More with a wailing solo or on the sweltering Just to Be with You where he provides a raunchy and raw playing. The two are backed by a seasoned band composed of Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn on guitar, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, Steve Gomes on bass and Robb Stupka on drums. The group, who recorded the basic tracks live in the studio, does a workmanlike job on the tunes, and Morganfield’s voice recalls some of the gravitas of his father’s.
It’s nice to pay homage and do so with passion and appreciation, and while there’s not much here that would incite one to put this on instead of the original, it’s a fine collection that honors the spirit of Muddy Waters with a faithful energy, genuine gratitude, and a few instances of premium playing.
Can’t Even Do Wrong Right
Alligator - ALCD 4963
Almost 50 years after his entrance into the blues world on the landmark Paul Butterfield Blues Band debut LP, guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop makes it clear that he has stayed true to his roots, declaring, “I wear old fashioned clothes, old fashioned shoes, old Gibson guitar, play the old fashioned blues / Old school, I’m old school, I’m old school, old school.” Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, Bishop’s 20th studio album as a leader, is filled with the signature slide, rocking boogie, impassioned solos, and trademark stoner humor that have been his stock in trade for five decades.
The title track, a shuffle that chugs along on the tandem guitars of Bishop and Bob Welsh (who is credited with being the leader’s “partner in guitar crime”), sports that Bishop sense of humor, which first surfaced on 1968’s Drunk Again. The humor shows up again on Everybody’s in the Same Boat, with Bishop philosophizing on mortality at 73, as the two guitars alternate devastating single note and slide runs. Welsh switches over to piano to support Bishop on the swaggering guitar showcase he delivers on Little Walter’s Blues with a Feeling. Bishop joins forces with a longtime associate from the 1960s Chicago scene, harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite, on Old School and Rosco Gordon’s No More Doggin’. The former is a pounding boogie featuring interwoven jagged-edged guitar and wailing, inventive harp lines. The latter, an instrumental take on the 1952 Sun Records classic, showcases a seductive dialogue between Bishop’s slide and Musselwhite’s harp. These two guys work together like a hand in a glove, and it would be great to hear them team up for an extended project. On Let Your Woman Have Her Way, Bishop reunites with vocalist Mickey Thomas, who sang lead on Bishop’s 1976 smash hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love. With Welsh providing a stirring organ underpinning, Thomas’s impassioned vocal and Bishop’s blistering slide explore the borderland where country, gospel, and R&B meet.
The show heads down south to Louisiana for three successive tracks. Dancin’ is a rousing, country-flavored zydeco number that rides on Steve Wilson’s accordion, the dueling guitars of Bishop and Welsh, and drummer Bobby Cochran’s big beat. The two guitars deliver a laidback slow burn, weaving in and out of Wilson’s accordion line for an instrumental take Jimmy Reed’s warhorse, Honest I Do. The same combination of guitars and accordion has a whole lot of fun rollicking through Fats Domino’s Boll Weevil. Bishop punctuates the set with a swaggering version of Lionel Hampton’s jump blues, Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop. On Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, Elvin Bishop proves he definitely knows how to do old-school blues right.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
ROD PIAZZA AND THE MIGHTY FLYERS
Blind Pig - BPCD 5160
After a nearly decade-long run on the Delta Groove label that resulted in four excellent studio albums (For the Chosen Who, Thrillville, Soul Monster, and Almighty Dollar), Piazza and his everlasting Mighty Flyers have returned to Blind Pig for their second studio release on the label, Emergency Situation. Born in 1947 and a perennial feature on the Southern California blues scene since the 1960s, Piazza’s current ensemble consists of (as always) Honey Piazza on keys, Henry Carvajal (guitar), David Kida (drums), and Norm Gonzales (bass). Sax players Ron Dziubla and Jim Jedeikin are a welcome addition to the recording as well.
Those familiar with Piazza’s discography will find that this record follows a similar blueprint as previous releases—signature harp-driven instrumentals and a unique West Coast–meets-Chicago vibe—with the balance of tunes drawing on classic R&B covers. There’s much to love here, from Carvajal’s vocal turn on Ya-Ya to Piazza’s chromatic instrumental workout, Colored Salt. Honey isn’t featured on a piano instrumental this time around, but her playing is nonetheless showcased throughout the set (and is particularly strong on the late Big Walter “Thunderbird” Price’s Duke/Peacock side Gambling Woman).
The album’s title track is part personal testimony and part political commentary. If anyone has wondered why their favorite road-hardened blues bands seem to book fewer and fewer tour dates each year, this song explains it. “It’s an emergency situation, I’ve got to change my occupation,” Piazza sings (tongue perhaps only partially in cheek), as he ponders selling off his prized microphones and Harp King amps. Here’s why: “Well, the clubs just ain’t paying/Festivals hurting, too/The only solid getting, man, is on the Blues Cruise.” A sad state of affairs it is, indeed, when the best prospect for a band with as much talent and history as Piazza’s is a slot on a cruise ship lineup.
There’s nothing like catching Piazza’s act live, but if the blues clubs in your local area resemble those that Piazza mourns on Emergency Situation, then this record—especially when paired with the 2005 DVD Big Blues Party (of a performance at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, also on Blind Pig)—will satisfy even the most discerning blues fan.
Raw Dawg - 0007261200
Chicago-based Mike Dangeroux is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and his online bio cites upwards of 40 artists (in styles ranging from traditional postwar Chicago blues through gospel and progressive jazz to hip-hop) whom he’s worked with, shared stages with, or opened for. He also takes credit for a catalog of over 1,000 songs, ten of which are featured here. Although he’s supported by several guest vocalists on this set, this is pretty much his project all the way: he played guitar, bass, and drums, and he seems to have been the producer.
That kind of obsessive D.I.Y.-ism can sometimes lead to problems, but Dangeroux has the chops, musically at least, to pull it off. The musicianship throughout is energetic and well conceived; Dangeroux is a strong singer and an eloquent guitarist, capable of sinuous extended lines that probe unexpected corners and directions, as well as quick-fingered flurries and note clusters that effectively gather energy and tension, which he then releases with those serpentine, hot-toned flights. As a lyricist, he may not be the second coming of Willie Dixon or George Jackson, but he tells vivid stories with powerful imagery and an admirable avoidance of cliche. Guest vocalists Bobby “Slim” James (Moving On), “Rachel” (Keep On Walking), Mario Connie, and Dora Washington comport themselves admirably as well. Dangeroux also demonstrates an admirable stylistic range. The expected rock- and funk-tinged blues boilerplate is here, but so are offerings like the country-soul balled She Is My Woman, the power-pop title tune, and the lithe, swinging Get It Back Texas Blues.
If there’s a drawback, it’s the production. Vocals sometimes sound hollow, and there are spikes and dips in volume. In general, though, what we have here is an encouraging outing from yet another bluesman “deserving of wider recognition”—let’s hope this helps him attain it.
IRONING BOARD SAM AND THE STICKS
Music Maker - MMCD164
Here’s the stuff that dreams are made of—two musically inclined students from the Toulouse University business school finagled an internship with the Music Maker Relief Foundation in North Carolina, where they were introduced to keyboard wizard Ironing Board Sam, first becoming his roadies and eventually joined his road band.
Before returning to France, the two students, guitarist Simon Arcache and bassist Raphael Evrard, cut this album with Sam and drummer Michael Fowler. The 13-track playlist was made up on the spot in the studio, with the result that many of the songs are primarily in the service of the groove—Hot or Not, for example, never develops much beyond the repeated question “Is she hot or not?” Some of the selections take off from familiar themes, among them CC Rider, one of several tracks where Sam plays grand piano, Mace in the Face, which begins as Georgia on My Mind before morphing into an account of a nightmare date, and a Porgy and Bess medley of Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So. Others range from the bedrock blues of Sally and I Believe to The Creature, an utterly weird little ditty that starts off with Sam’s sing-song chant of the song’s only verse—“On yonder hill there stands a creature/who she is I do not know/I go and court her for her beauty/she must answer yes or no”—before the band kicks in with a funky beat that leads to an organ solo by Sam before a series of false endings.
Whether playing grand piano, Hammond organ or Fender Rhodes electric keyboard, Sam sounds like he’s having a wonderful time, and his young protégés fall right into place, making for a thoroughly enjoyable date. The resurrection of Sam’s career through Music Maker has certainly been one of the blues’ best feel-good stories in recent years. And by the way, if you haven’t already seen it, you owe it to yourself to get on the Internet and take a look at the video of Sam’s 1965 performance on Night Train to see what he was up to in his own younger days.
The Memphis Project
Icehouse - IHR 9501
Guitarist Garry Goin and reedman Patrick Register are veteran Memphis session men; as Dual Drive, they are also the nucleus of what amounts to a tribute band celebrating the legacy of Memphis (or Memphis-associated) roots music and soul.
One of the offerings here—Aretha’s Rock Steady—wasn’t originally recorded in the Bluff City; all of the others were cut in iconic Memphis studios, and in most cases Dual Drive returned to those locations to record their versions. A few stylistic tweaks—the in-studio electronics, hip-hop influenced drum work, and molten-rock guitar solo on Take Me to the River; the “cool-jazz” pop sheen of [Sitting On] the Dock of the Bay; the neo-Kenton grandiosity of Green Onions; maybe even Goin’s post-Superfly funk/wah-wah guitar on Rock Steady—might grate on purists’ nerves; but in general, the flavor and spirit of the originals is retained. In fact, the updatings could (and should) be considered homages to that spirit: most of the songs covered here were cutting-edge pop music in their era, and there’s no reason contemporary musicians should treat them as historical curios.
The set list is somewhat conservative—virtually everything here would probably be on any southern music lover’s “Greatest Hits” list, although, again, some retro-soul purists might cringe at the inclusion of songs associated with Elvis (Suspicious Minds) or Charlie Rich (Who Will the Next Fool Be). But, once again, Memphis has never been known for its musical conservatism, and “following the rules” has never been a byword of soul, rock ’n’ roll, or any other popular music worth paying attention to. So savor this set in the commemorative spirit in which it’s intended, but don’t stop here—there’s plenty of good new music emanating from Memphis and its surrounding environs. Explore, discover, and listen!
CD REVIEWS AUGUST 2014
BOB STROGER & KENNY “BEEDY EYES” SMITH
Keepin’ It Together
Big Eye - BE 0004
Bassist Bob Stroger’s career dates back to the ’50s and includes gigs and/or recording sessions with such figures as Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Homesick James, and Snooky Pryor, among many others. Drummer Kenny Smith is the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, best known for his tenure with Muddy Waters but also a gifted harpist who usually showcased himself on that instrument in the latter days of his career. The band consists of younger-generation artists steeped in the postwar tradition—just for starters, there are former Muddy Waters harpist Jerry Portnoy, saxophonist Sam Burckhardt (Sunnyland’s protégé), and guitarist Billy Flynn.
This, then, is a roots-rich set. But there’s no moldy-fig reverence on display—the material is original, and the principals throw themselves into it with the vigor of artists celebrating the music in the present tense, not as a backward-looking exercise in purism. Born in Missouri tells of the singer’s determination to get back to his lady friend in Switzerland; Love and Affection updates its lupine twelve-bar lope with a modernist-sounding turnaround, and Smith’s drum patterns are fueled by an understated but propulsive funk impetus. The train-like Losin My Mind similarly spikes an old-timey melodic and rhythmic conceit with a bridge resonant with contemporary blues and pop-blues flavorings. On the other hand, outings like What Cha Say, That’s My Name, and the Jimmy Reed–like Sweet So Sweet manage to sound like outtakes from a late-’50s Chess or Vee Jay session yet also feel utterly up-to-date. Neither Stroger nor Smith is primarily known as a singer, but they both demonstrate admirable vocal chops, handling even the most challenging extended lines with effortless panache.
It must be reaffirmed: the “true” postwar Chicago blues is not a museum piece, but a thriving, relevant art form. These musicians make that clear with every note they play and sing.
Promise of a Brand New Day
Blue Corn Music - MCM 1403
Ruthie Foster, in her first outing with the boldly eclectic neo-soul producer Meshell Ndegeocello, stays faithful to her blues, soul, folk, and gospel roots throughout the glorious Promise of a Brand New Day. The Austin-based songbird doesn’t play guitar or piano this time around, instead leaving the picking and the keyboard playing to Ndegeocello band members Chris Bruce and Jebin Bruni, respectively, with the bassist-producer, drummer Ivan Edwards, and harmony vocalist Nayanna Holley rounding out the stripped-down sound. Eric Clapton sideman Doyle Bramhall II adds some raspy guitar to one track, and Toshi Reagon sings on another.
As usual, Foster’s song selection is impeccable and touches on both personal and political themes. Her resonant alto tones and melisma-rich phrasing ooze passion, and her lyrics are rife with wisdom and introspection. “When the music fades and the crowd drives away, I’m staring at the mirror, still singing the blues,” she sings over a fat bass-and-drums soul bottom on Singing the Blues, one of seven original compositions in the 12-song set. “You’ve got a bucket full of promise, but I notice not much stands up when you’re building on hollow ground; you sink until you drown,” she croons gently to acoustic guitar strums and sustained organ chords on her folkish Complicated Love. And on It Might Not Be Right, penned in collaboration with soul vet Williams Bell and propelled by a laid-back Memphis groove, she poignantly addresses the subject of same-sex marriage.
The spirit of the Civil Rights Movement is evoked in Foster’s treatments of Alabama bluesman Willie King’s Second Coming—“They killed Dr. King’s body, but they couldn’t kill his mind,” she sings—and The Ghetto, a Bettye Crutcher–Homer Banks–Bonnie Bramlett composition originally recorded by the Staple Singers. Shades of Roebuck Staples’ reverberating guitar, courtesy of Bruce, inform the latter tune, as well as Believe, another Memphis-style number written in part by Charles Hayes, an Ndegeocello associate who also plays drums for Lady Gaga. And Outlaw, an 12-bar blues saluting the women’s liberation movement, written and first recorded in 1970 by Eugene McDaniels and opening with the line, “She’s a sister in jeans / she’s an outlaw / she don’t wear a bra,” finds new currency through Foster’s wonderful rendition.
Megaforce – MEGA 1696
Never mind that this album, much like 2011’s Roots, is bursting at the seams with big-name guests, all eager disciples of one John Dawson Winter III. The simple fact is Johnny Winter owns this album. And again, just like that last record, Winter here sounds as moving as he’s ever been in his 40-plus years of guitar slingin’ and barefootin’. His voice has aged into a smooth, velvety rasp with a dark-alley swagger that affirms he’s been around to see a thing or two, and wouldn’t you like to know about it. Then there’s that slippery snake of a slide guitar, cagey and dirty—Winter glides off the rails and back again with the coolest of ease.
For this throwback to the mostly 1950s blues-edged fare that inspired him, Winter’s longtime producer (also manager and second guitarist) Paul Nelson captures an utter resiliency that is justly celebrated by musicians who are not only peers, but in many cases influenced by the Beaumont, Texas, native. There are obvious successors to the throne, like Joe Bonamassa (whose blues-shred closely parallels Winter’s) on the B.B. King classic Sweet Little Sixteen. Note his fleet-fingered workout on a biting re-creation of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s 1951 instrumental Okie Dokie Stomp with Brian Setzer.
Winter sounds utterly haggard on a brass-tacks cover of Son House’s Death Letter—and you can hear every extraneous shake and pop in his metal-raked slide. As far as that down and dirty earthen groove is concerned, there’s no better tutorial than the Billy Gibbons collaboration Where Can You Be, a vintage amp love fest of guitar tone.
Winter also satisfies with the breakneck boogie of the Willie Dixon–penned, Elmore James–interpreted Can’t Hold Out (Talk to Me Baby) with Ben Harper, and digs deep on Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally with Leslie West.
Step Back is Johnny Winter’s persuasive wrangling of vintage backroom Chicago blues viewed through the eyes of a kid from the Gulf Coast of Texas, still possessing that youthful, uninhibited lack of pretense that caught the ears of the Rock ’n’ Roll People so many decades ago. If this is any indication, Winter’s work is far from complete.
ANDY T - NICK NIXON BAND
Livin’ It Up
Delta Groove - DGPCD - 166
Guitarist/vocalist Nick Nixon came of age on Nashville’s thriving ’60s-era African American blues circuit. He’s worked and recorded pretty steadily since then (among other things, he’s a longtime member of the New Imperials, and he also put in some time at Chess Records in the 1970s), but until recently he’s remained mostly a local and regional “living legend.” [See LB #225 for a full feature on Nixon.] His compatriot here, guitarist Andy T (nee Talamantez), arrived in Nashville from the West Coast about six years ago. The pair’s debut as bandleaders, Drink Drank Drunk, was released last year on Delta Groove to significant critical acclaim.
Nixon’s vocals recall such fabled stylists as Jimmy Witherspoon and Billy Eckstine; Andy T likewise purveys a jazz-tinged sound, with plenty of references to T-Bone and the Moore brothers. Even when they’re grinding out a Jimmy Reed–like shuffle (as on Best in Town, featuring evocative swoops, bends, and squalls from harpist Christian Dozzler), their hepcat vocal harmonies add a dash of jaunty sophistication to the mix. A muscular two-saxophone horn section riffs and testifies behind them, and when the horn players—Ron Jones and Dana Robbins—step out to solo, the band’s blend of roadhouse rawness and show-lounge musicality is accentuated even more.
Occasionally, as on Snake in the Grass, a hard-edged funk-rock impetus toughens the sound; at the other end of the musical/emotional spectrum, the disc’s closer, Love At First Sight, is a country/gospel-flavored ballad elevated by Robbins’ soaring tenor solo. It all adds up to a blues-rich yet stylistically diverse set, infused with joy and enriched by impeccable musicality—from beginning to end.
Fat Head Records - FH 1005
Janiva Magness is a true survivor, and her powerful, yet tender vocals bring a hard-won sense of truth to each song she sings. This is perhaps most evident on Original on her own new Fat Head imprint. Here, the Los Angeles–based singer has finally painted her masterpiece, crafting her strongest, most heartfelt album to date.
Producer Dave Darling has imbued these recordings with an intimate warmth fitting their confessional nature. Let Me Breathe pulses with urgency, enveloped in spare, organ-haunted soul. The broken-hearted When You Were My King begins with Magness’ voice as a distant echo and expands into a shimmering, gently rocking ballad. She exudes sexy toughness—the rousing I Need a Man is propelled by percussion, handclaps, and sizzling guitar licks, and she just as forcefully expresses the opposite emotion on the strutting Badass.
The twin themes of hope and encouragement thread through several songs: Twice as Strong, Everything Is Alright, and The Hard Way are all blessed with gospel sensibility, and Dan Navarro’s voice provides the perfect harmonic foil for hers on the upbeat With Love. She scales Mountain with a resigned ease, and the closing track Standing is suffused with quiet determination.
“Open up and sing your song,” Magness urges on With Love, and on this album she’s done just that. Full of sublime, self-assured songwriting and singing to match, Janiva Magness’ Original lives up to its name.
JOHN PRIMER AND THE TEARDROPS
You Can Make It
Wolf - 120.833
Yet another great set of live Chicago-style blues from guitarist John Primer, this time in a trio setting. No guests. No fill. No fooling around.
You Can Make It is assembled from live recordings made in Austria in the 1990s of John Primer with Magic Slim’s band, the Teardrops. These would have been Primer’s opening numbers played in advance of the Main Man’s entrance to the stage, and they hold up very well, with appreciative crowds hooting and clapping as if he were the star of the show—which he could have been, as these tracks demonstrate.
Though taped at various locations (evidenced by the differing tones and prominence of Nick Holt’s bass), they cohere very well as a set. One of the big draws will be the dominance of Primer’s guitar picking and slide work—perhaps the most guitar soloing you will hear from him on CD—which thrillingly evokes the live sound that Primer had with these two bandmates, Nick Holt on bass and Earl Howell on drums. Yes, this is basically a trio, which may not be readily apparent with Primer’s incessant, omnipresent guitar work filling every crack in these tracks.
The recording quality is excellent and captures the excitement of the performances and the interplay between these musicians, who worked tightly together whether backing Primer or Slim. The set has the delicious balance of a typical Primer set with his personal takes on the work of his former employer, Muddy Waters (Sweet Man, If I Could Hold You in My Arms and Long Distance Call), and also Otis Rush (You Can Make It If You Try), Hound Dog Taylor (Big Fat Woman), plus a track apiece by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Junior Parker, Albert King and Guitar Slim.
Few surprises here, just studious interpretations of classic blues with the emphasis on guitar and groove. Primer once again proves unquestionably that he can indeed “make it,” just as he has done time after time.
I Got More Soul!
Omnivore - OVCD 92
Dallas-based vocalist Bobby Patterson scored three modest R&B chart hits between 1969 and 1977 (the final one, Right Place, Wrong Time, was released on the well-known R&B imprint All Platinum). His voice remains as supple and youthful-sounding as it was in his heyday, and he’s managed to retain that old-school sound—unembellished production, all-natural instrumentation, spiky rhythms propelling melodic and lyric conceits rooted in the blues but delivered with callow-sounding emotional directness—while avoiding, for the most part, the twin traps of nostalgia and moldy-fig purism.
That said, this set will appeal mostly to aficionados of classic R&B—the brawny horns, chunky fatback guitar work, and Patterson’s own irony-free musical persona hark back to a less self-conscious pop music era, when technique and artifice were no less prominent than they are today but were usually employed to create a feel of genuineness and sincerity—pretty much the opposite of the modern equation. At times, in fact, the unadorned straightforwardness of both the material and the production—as on the ballads Let Me Heal It and I Know How It Feels—sound almost atavistic. Elsewhere, though, offerings like Poet (a too-often-forgotten offering from There’s a Riot Goin’ On–era Sly Stone) and Patterson’s own It’s Hard to Get Back In and Can You Feel Me? achieve a winning blend of street-level grit and show-lounge funkiness.
This disc’s target market probably consists mostly of roots-oriented R&B lovers; nonetheless, listeners steeped in more contemporary sounds who care about how those sounds evolved and where they came from should give it a listen as well.
Pop Yo’ Bottle
Ecko - ECD 1153
There’s a distinct Clarence Carter feel to You’re Welcome to the Party, this disc’s opening track, and that’s probably no accident—like Carter, O.B. Buchana is endowed with a resonant deep-soul voice capable of putting over a heart-rending ballad when he chooses, but he prefers good-timey material, laced with playful sexual signifying and designed to get club-goers dancing. Of the 11 tracks here, no fewer than five are dedicated to extolling the virtues (or, in the case of Party on the Weekend, lamenting the consequences) of all-night celebrations at the local hole in the wall. We could also add Private Party, which takes the revelry behind closed doors (“a party for two . . . so B.Y.S.B., bring your sexy body. . .), and That’s My Song, in which the narrator discovers his erstwhile lady dancing with another man in a club.
One song here, What’s the Deal?, is grafted pretty much note-for-note onto the structure of the James Carr standard Pouring Water on a Drowning Man, and Take My Wife Back strongly echoes Little Milton’s Your Wife Is Cheating on Us; most of the other offerings, though, are solidly in the modern southern soul-blues mode. As usual, Buchana gives us a few tantalizing glimpses of his skill as a balladeer. It Should Have Been Me is a deeply affecting testimonial of regret, and even That’s My Song, although the storyline traverses tried-and-true southern soul territory, is drawn with vivid imagery—Buchana’s protagonist sounds genuinely heartbroken as he contemplates how his misguided jealousy drove his woman into another man’s arms. Mostly, though, this outing continues to showcase Buchana in his familiar persona as a hard-partying country man with a heart full of soul and a truckload of love—an image tailor-made to the contemporary southern soul circuit, and one that continues to make O.B. Buchana one of the genre’s leading lights and biggest draws.
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND
Concord Records - CRE-35356-02
When Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently found himself with 11 days to spare, he set a course for his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana; there, he visited Brady Blade’s Blade Studios and cut an album. Goin’ Home is the result, and as the title suggests, it’s a refreshing return to the blues-rock guitarist’s musical roots.
For this project, Shepherd and his band—vocalist Noah Hunt, bassist Tony Franklin, drummer Chris Layton, and keyboardist Riley Osbourn—chose to record blues songs closely associated with artists ranging from the three Kings—Albert, B. B., and Freddie—to Bo Diddley, Magic Sam, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Muddy Waters. The ardent roadhouse blues of Everything’s Gonna Be Alright and the long, slow burn of You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now are showcases for Shepherd’s molten fretwork and Hunt’s impassioned vocals. Shepherd takes turns singing lead on The House Is Rockin’ and Boogie Man, and Osbourn’s pounding piano anchors both House and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Looking Back.
The album’s best moments, though, may be when the guests arrive. Warren Haynes drops a dose of ominous funk on Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, and the swaggering Cut You Loose gets a little help from Ringo Starr on drums. The Rebirth Brass Band adds a spirited punch to Palace of the King and, with Keb’ Mo’, to Born Under a Bad Sign. You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover is elevated by Pastor Brady Blade Sr.’s throaty declamations; likewise, Robert Randolph’s fire-and-brimstone sacred steel duels deliciously with Shepherd’s on Still a Fool.
Stacked with rousing performances from start to finish, the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s Goin’ Home is a trip well worth taking.
RICK ESTRIN AND THE NIGHTCATS
You Asked for It . . . Live!
Alligator Records - ALCD 4962
Bay Area stalwarts Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have often received requests for a live album, and their third release for Alligator Records is sure to delight the roots outfit’s fans. Recorded last October at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco, the aptly titled You Asked for It . . . Live! is a snapshot of a band at home in their element.
The recorded sound is excellent; each artist is discernible, and the audience is present but not obtrusive. Handle with Care and Smart Like Einstein roll nimbly along with Estrin’s train-whistle harmonica; multi-instrumentalist Lorenzo Farrell (on organ) and guitarist Kid Andersen take extended solos as well. The sassy New Old Lady is slyly followed by My Next Ex-Wife, and the band takes their time stretching out the song’s foreboding groove. Estrin’s charming, slinky vocals are especially effective on Clothes Line’s cool talking blues and the wicked shuffle of That’s Big. Drummer J. Hansen sings his own sauntering Baker Man Blues and also delivers a rafter-rattling percussion solo on You Gonna Lie alongside Andersen’s space-age fretwork. The appreciative crowd gets livelier as the evening draws to a close, calling out a request for Dump That Chump. After the rocking Don’t Do It, Estrin ends with a quiet, creeping rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Too Close Together, with Farrell’s walking bass the sole accompaniment for his harp.
If you’ve not been to a Rick Estrin and the Nightcats show, the infectiously fun You Asked for It . . . Live! will hip you to what you’ve been missing.