CD REVIEWS APRIL 2014
Kind of Blue Music – (No #)
With BLUESAmericana, the first album by Keb’ Mo’ in three years, the Nashville-based singer and multi-instrumentalist reaffirms his status as one of the major blues stylists performing today, as well as being perhaps the genre’s cleverest and most insightful tunesmith. The disc’s nine original songs, all composed by Keb’ Mo’ in collaboration with John Lewis Parker (whose association with the singer dates back to the mid-’70s when they played together in Papa John Creach’s band), Pete Sallis, Heather Donavon, Jim Weatherly, Tom Hambridge, and others, range from the personal to the political. A solidly shuffling rendition of the Jimmy Rogers blues classic That’s Alright rounds out the program.
“Got back to my house/Opened up the door/She took everything I had/and the dog took a shit on the floor,” he sings on the set-opening The Worst Is Yet to Come, which may well be the best bad-luck song ever penned. Singing in a gruff baritone, Keb’ dubs guitar, banjo, harmonica, and tambourine parts over the rhythm section’s throbbing two-beat groove. Blues meets the church on the laid-back 12-bar Somebody Hurt You, on which Keb’ alternates his vocal leads in call and response with a gospel-style male quartet and demonstrates his blues guitar prowess in a solo chorus that somehow manages to combine a Johnny Watson– like staccato attack with a ringing tone reminiscent of B.B. King.
On More for the Money, Keb’ brilliantly addresses outsourcing and big-box stores, singing, “It was the land of the brave, home of the free/Some of our jobs jumped over the sea/It was a high price to pay to get more for your money today,” while picking Piedmont-style guitar. And he subtly plays on the name “Madoff” and the verb “made off” in the line “Bernie made off with the rich folks’ money.”
Other highlights include the rollicking The Old Better Me, on which Keb’ is joined by the New Orleans street-parade sounds of the California Feet Warmers, the poignant ballad So Long Goodbye about the end of a romance, and Move, a deceptively simple southern-soul–styled number that at first sounds like it was meant for moving one’s feet on a dance floor, except that it’s actually about being evicted by a landlord, kicked out by an angry girlfriend, and being ordered to leave a club at closing time.
With only 10 songs, BLUESAmericana is rather short on playing time, but taken together, they comprise some of the most satisfying 38 minutes of listening in recent memory.
JOE LOUIS WALKER
Alligator - ALCD 4959
How times have changed. Not long ago, the term “veteran bluesman” called to mind a grizzled old-timer, probably born in the Deep South, whose repertoire consisted mostly of songs played in styles that had long since faded from mainstream popularity—“authentic,” in other words, rather than truly contemporary. Today, though, we have oldheads like 64-year-old Joe Louis Walker, who came of age in San Francisco in the late ’60s and absorbed influences ranging from B.B. King through Lightnin’ Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk, as well as the post–Bitches Brew jazz fusionists who exploded onto the scene a few years later. The sounds that galvanized him then remain just as relevant today, and he continues to stake his claim as a forward-looking artist—roots, for him, nourish something that’s alive and growing.
The title tune here is characteristic of his approach: couched in a thunderous blues-rock groove remindful of vintage crunchmeisters like Leslie West, it nonetheless showcases Walker’s fleet lead work and melodic deftness (recalling earlier idols like King and T-Bone Walker), and its sonic and emotional fury make it fully contemporary (even if the lyrics’ macho pose might seem somewhat shopworn to post-masculinist New Millennium listeners). The power ballad Ride On, Baby sounds like something Springsteen might have come up with if he were a bluesman; the secular hymn Keep the Faith is sanctified by Reese Wynans’ churchy organ and further enriched by vintage gospel quartet harmonies, while out in front Walker’s supple, Al Green–influenced lead vocals balance fervor and yearning. I’m Gonna Walk Outside, meanwhile, grafts post-psychedelic pyrotechnics onto vocal and slide guitar techniques that hark directly back to Muddy Waters. Few contemporary blues artists blend aggression, deep feeling, and eclecticism with the panache and ferocity of Joe Louis Walker.
Here I Come
DeChamp - DC-100114
Eddie Cotton came into national prominence in 2000 with Live at the Alamo Theater (Proteus). That disc showcased his ability to express deep emotion without pandering or excess; he also sounded capable of blending contemporary soul-blues with more traditional ideas in a way that surprisingly few artists seem able to pull off.
A lot of those same qualities are evident here. Cotton’s string-bending guitar style can sometimes seem derivative; nonetheless, in tandem with his youthful yet careworn-sounding vocals (think of a slightly bluesier Al Green), tasteful arrangements, and thoughtful lyrics, it creates an aural landscape that’s both emotionally and musically satisfying. Cotton’s gospel roots are never far from the surface—no matter how gritty his themes may get, his lyrics retain a feel of positivity, even uplift. Pay to Play, for example, is an ultimatum to a wrong-doing woman, but Cotton makes it sound more like a declaration of self-worth than an exercise in cheap-thrills misogyny. Friend to the End extols the blessing of real-world friendships in a quick-fix, click/flash digital age; A Woman’s Love and (in a different way) the playfully funky My Boo eloquently meld worldly and spiritual devotion; Berry So Black, toughened by Grady Champion’s Rice Miller–like harp work, revisits a venerable aphorism of racial pride (originally “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”) in a testimonial of praise for a black woman.
Occasionally, Cotton over-relies on his influences—several of the songs here resonate with all-too-clear echoes of established standards (e.g., Pay to Play/The Blues Is Alright; A Woman’s Love/Walking the Backstreets and Crying), and his vocal evocations of Al Green sometimes cross the line from homage to imitation. Nonetheless, his own musical identity is strong enough to shine through, and overall, this set is a strong and encouragingly optimistic statement of soulful bluesiness from a young artist who seems to be just hitting his stride.
Catfood - CFR-20
The “angels” to whom this CD is dedicated include James Armstrong’s father, James Armstrong Sr.; Joe Louis Walker; blues-rock firebrand Coco Montoya; and the disc’s producer, Mike Ross. Armstrong credits these men for helping him summon the strength and inspiration to rejuvenate his musical career after he suffered severe injuries—including permanent nerve damage—when burglars invaded his home and attacked him in 1996.
The title song is a meditative, spirit-infused blues power ballad; Armstrong’s leads bend upward with glory-bound intensity as he delivers his message of hard-won inner peace and dedication to both his music and the “angels” who continue to inspire him. Healing Time, another tribute to a musician, was co-written by Mike Ross—it memorializes Ross’s late brother, Norman, who played guitar behind Ronnie Spector, among others, before he passed away. It ascends from a sparse, solemn-sounding intro to full-bodied, celebratory fullness.
Elsewhere, though, the feel here is exuberantly rowdy. Grandma’s Got a New Friend portrays a feisty senior citizen who has taken up with a rakish bluesman; punched by a brawny horn section and intensified by Armstrong’s tightly focused leadwork, it’s both ecstatic and slyly subversive in a culture that glorifies the sexuality of younger women but usually denies older women their due. Take It to the Limit recasts the old Eagles hit as a hard-traveling bluesman’s anthem; Moving to Nashville is grittier, melding bluesy Delta muck with rock-toughened urban grit; the hard-charging Bank of Love and the funk-booted Saturday Night Women, in contrast, are pure jubilation.
James Armstrong has had to work hard to regain his musical footing, and the spirit of gritty determination that sustained him through his struggles permeates this disk: as the blues has always been (contrary to stereotype), this a proclamation of victory from a man who has learned to stare down despair and play defiantly in its face.
Blue Corn Music - BCM 1401
Barreling down the highway, pressing a harmonica to his lips and blowing while steering with both elbows seems like a pretty neat trick. Blues and soul singer John Nemeth has been doing it for the past two decades. At first, as a teenager in his native Boise, Idaho, he developed his technique on the tiny instrument while driving a truck for an air-freight delivery company. He now does it to rehearse arrangements with his band between gigs as he takes the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.
“All of this drivin’ makin’ me a hell of a musician,” Nemeth sings in gritty tenor tones over the throbbing old-school soul grooves of the Bo-Keys on Elbows on the Wheel, one of 10 self-penned numbers on his new 13-track CD. A “road song” in the tradition of Bobby Troup’s Route 66, Hank Snow’s I’ve Been Everywhere, and James Brown’s version of Night Train, the Junior Wells–inspired tune ends with Nemeth calling out 22 place names, from Memphis to Okinawa, over an extended vamp. He even passes through Hungary, the country from which his father fled during the 1956 Soviet invasion.
Nemeth relocated from Oakland to Memphis early last year, arriving just two days ahead of his session with the Bo-Keys. The seven-man band, anchored by veteran Hi Rhythm Section drummer Howard Grimes, is a perfect foil for the singer’s increasingly pliant pipes, which he uses to navigate melismas and wide melodic intervals with pitch-perfect aplomb. He most often comes across as a smooth crooner, especially on the original soul ballads If It Ain’t Broke, Testify My Love, and I Wish I Was Home, but he also suggests the fierceness of Howlin’ Wolf when singing into his harmonica mike on the hard-socking I Can’t Help Myself. Nemeth’s high-falsetto cries on the 1968 Howard Tate hit Stop, one of three non-original songs in the set, are particularly stunning. He blows some darn good harp on the disc, but more significantly, he shows himself to be one hell of a singer.
My World Is So Cold
Lucy 13 - 013
Kent Burnside’s father, the late R.L. Burnside, helped bring the north Mississippi hill country “trance blues” sound into international recognition. His longtime friend and colleague, David “Junior” Kimbrough, was another renowned exponent of the style; Kimbrough’s grandson, drummer/percussionist David Gray Kimbrough, anchors Kent’s band on this disc.
Quite a few of these songs are built on the kind of single-chord, modal theme usually associated with hill country blues, although they’re mostly updated with a spiky propulsiveness borrowed from modern rock and R&B (Honeydew, however, strips the sound down to its acoustic roots). Other outings, such as the minor-key title song, are more musically adventurous. Burnside is an expressive singer, capable of summoning an almost terrifying sense of desolation and then cutting into declamatory fierceness without missing a beat.
I’m Cryin’—complete with tremolo-enhanced guitar work and joyfully punkish vocals from Burnside—sounds like a blast of garage-rock emanating from a Chulahoma, Mississippi alley (Jimmie Wood’s harp playing, which manages to sound both primal and exploratory, enhances the feel of cross-generational/genre mash-up). Walkin’ Blues (not the Robert Johnson standard) lurks ominously, punctuated by a neo-psychedelic wah-wah guitar line. In contrast, I Miss You, a tribute to R.L., finds the younger Burnside at his most reflective: his vocals, breathy and occasionally uncertain, intensify the feeling of grief girded by determination that permeates the song (its trajectory from acoustic meditation to full-band power further enhances the redemptive undercurrent of its message). Kinbrough’s bass-heavy drumming on Feel Good both adds rock impetus and echoes the fife-and-drum roots of the north Mississippi style.
The north Mississippi hill country blues legacy is in good hands.
WALTER “WOLFMAN” WASHINGTON
AND THE ROADMASTERS
Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans
Frenchmen Records - 131110
Every Wednesday night in New Orleans, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters take the stage around ten p.m. at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street. A living legend on the Crescent City rhythm and blues scene, Washington started playing guitar in Lee Dorsey’s band as a teenager in the late 1950s, spent a couple of years with Irma Thomas, and later worked behind Johnny Adams for over 20 years. He formed the Roadmasters in the late 1970s and in 1981 began recording as a leader. Considering that he is a great performer with tight band and a lot of stature in his hometown, it is surprising that Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans is only Washington’s second CD release in over a decade and the first live recording with his appropriately named band. The recording makes up for lost time because from the first note the listener is transported to a funkified night with a genuine master and his accomplished colleagues at work.
In a town known for its pianists, drummers, and horn men, Washington stands among a select group of guitar players including Lonnie Johnson, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Roy Montrell, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King, and Leo Nocentelli. He is a unique player, combining elements of blues, R&B, funk, and jazz. A striking soloist, he leans more toward the fluid lines of Wes Montgomery or George Benson than the incendiary dramatics of B.B. or Albert King. In many ways, his rhythm work is just as impressive as his solos. Playing on a scene with so many piano masters likely had an impact on Washington because his comping supplies the harmonic complexity of a keyboardist in the band, bringing to mind the work of Wayne Bennett with Bobby “Blue” Bland. The influence of Bland is also evident in Washington’s gruff, grainy vocals (although he certainly does not come close to matching Bland’s range or emotive resonance) and the band’s punchy, jazzy horn arrangements. Washington acknowledges his debt to the iconic vocalist and bandleader and his guitarist with the program’s lone cover tune, Ain’t That Lovin You.
In addition to the Bland cover, the set list offers a survey of Washington’s catalog, from the deep, propulsive groove of the instrumental Funkyard to the Latin-tinged swing of I’m in Love, and from the uptempo, James Brown–influenced Girl I Want to Dance to the bluesy Otis Redding/Memphis Horns sounding ballad Blue Moon Risin’. At the conclusion of many of the tracks, you can hear Washington break into a satisfied laugh in response to how much fun this band is having. Trumpeter Antonio Gambrell and saxophonist Jimmy Carpenter are not just sidemen here; they are accomplished soloists who share the spotlight with Washington, and they generate the big sound of a full horn section with their ensemble work. Drummer Wayne Maureau and longtime Washington collaborator, bassist Jack Cruz, provide a rock-solid funk foundation, which is particularly evident as they keep everything grooving when Washington switches from playing chords to single-note solos. For anyone who cannot make it down to Frenchmen Street, Howlin’ Live at d.b.a., New Orleans brings alive the funky good time and masterful musicianship that Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters regularly deliver on Wednesday nights.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
BOBBY RUSH WITH BLINDDOG SMOKIN’
Silver Talon - STF-393
Bobby Rush continues to issue one successful release after another. Here he teams with California-based Blinddog Smokin’ for a varied set that supplements funky and downhome blues with acoustic guitar and even rap.
Decisions is solidly produced and executed, with an opener, Another Murder Down in New Orleans, that is slick enough, catchy enough, and packed with sufficient star power (guests include Doctor John, Billy Branch, Sherman Robertson, and Carl Weathersby) to gain some major attention. Blinddog Smokin’s frontman Carl Gustafson wrote the prime cut, plus wrote or co-wrote four others.
The notes report that Rush was initially hesitant to record this song, stating that senseless killing is not exclusive to NOLA. And Dr. John speaks (in a bonus interview) of how the code of silence among street people only perpetuates the crime problem. So these men—who have known violence—understand the urgency of this issue.
But might the message be undercut by the photo gallery glamor shots of the musicians on the bonus DVD, which includes a 9 1/2 minute video version of the title song with an animated cartoon of the band? Does the fun they’re having detract from the purpose? Well, Crimestoppers’ New Orleans chapter has already licensed the track, and no doubt most will have no qualms about this outstanding project, which comes with a 16-page booklet containing photos and lyrics.
Make the Right Decision, penned by Rush, seems to carry the serious theme forward, but by the third track they’re in comedic territory with Bobby Rush’s Bus, Gustafson’s ribald account of traveling with the band. Funky Old Man promotes an unlikely dance craze (“Do the Fred Sanford!”), and Dr. Rush is a humorous, however male-oriented, rap presented as a question-and-answer radio call-in show. Skinny Little Women extols the virtues of macropygic women (you can guess the meaning)—a specialty of Rush’s.
Nearly lost in the shuffle is a lovely simple blues, Love of a Woman, crafted by Rush to the melody of Sittin’ On Top of the World, and sure to be covered by others.
Too Much Weekend, although no mention is made of it, is a re-written Call My Job by Detroit Jr. that Rush presents on acoustic guitar in a fine grooving funk version with band. The set ends with an undocumented track, an exercise with acoustic guitar and band titled Sittin’ Here Waitin’.
If one monkey don’t stop no show, it only takes one funky man to start a party, and Bobby Rush has an irresistible talent for making great, danceable music out of sometimes slim premises and simple urges. Overall this is a fine set with an important anchor track.
Let’s not ignore gun violence, and let’s not forget New Orleans.
Catfood Records - CFR-019
Memphis-based singer Daunielle Hill’s epononymous debut recording will please fans of soul blues and southern soul. She has worked primarily as a backup singer for Solomon Burke and Huey Lewis & the News. And she certainly has the pedigree; her father, William Brown, scored mid-1960s hits for Stax/Volt as a member of the Mad Lads and, later, worked as a recording engineer for the iconic soul label. Daunielle was recorded in Tornillo, Texas, with the Rays, the Catfood Records house band, a crack outfit that serves the young singer well, evoking the classic sound of the Stax studio musicians like Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes who worked with her dad back in the day.
The program gives Daunielle a chance to showcase the deep, husky sensuousness of her voice on eight original and two cover tunes. The opening tune, Runaway Train, instantly brings Stax to mind with its punchy horn lines and surging organ. She sounds right at home in the middle of that soul stew. She keeps the Stax sound going with the next track, Early Grave, a cautionary tale about musical icons who succumbed to the dangers of the fast life. The crackling, live-wire guitar work of Johnny McGhee brings Steve Cropper to mind. The interplay of McGhee’s guitar and Dan Ferguson’s organ lock the groove in for Daunielle to deliver Goodbye Kiss, a bluesy soul ballad. Fallen Bird gives her a vehicle to showcase her powerful gospel chops. However, the highlight here is the mid-tempo ballad Nobody Cared; Daunielle’s vocal soars with an emotional resonance that is perfectly complemented by the haunting, bell-like, descending piano line and the interplay of jazzy rhythm and lead guitar lines. The two covers, Etta James’ Damn Your Eyes and Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, are well executed but do not really add anything to the originals. Biloxi is a lilting calypso number with a catchy, zydeco accordion riff that lets the singer show her versatility. Romeo and Juliet, yet another take on Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, is a mid-tempo rocker that is somewhat out of place. All in all, Daunielle is a solid debut that introduces a new and exciting voice to the world of soul music. It will be interesting to see if she can stay true to the roots of the music and keep the tradition her father pioneered vital for a new generation.
—Robert H. Cataliotti
Time Ain’t Free
Blue Bella - BBCD 1019
Nick Moss cut his teeth as a young sideman to Chicago blues greats like Jimmy Dawkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Today he is preserving the storied legacy of the Windy City in his own outfit, the Flip Tops. A good 15 years removed from his solo debut, Nick Moss moves the blues forward by non-conformist leaps and bounds on Time Ain’t Free.
Moss seems to have had a musical re-awakening since his 2010 Privileged release, but he has not forgotten his roots—far from it. There’s plenty of blues turbulence here, as displayed in the hard-knuckled groove of the Son Seals–inspired Tell Me Somethin’ ’Bout Yourself (featuring lead vocals by Moss’s not-so-secret weapon, rhythm guitarist Michael Ledbetter). But Moss is becoming an interpreter of southern phrasing and funk sweeps and tickles—check out Light It Up for an exercise in Little Feat country honk, or Fare Thee Well for a Johnny “Guitar” Watson–style lesson in lowdown, minor-key cool.
Moss has grown as a songwriter, bandleader, and guitarist; he’s comfortable, yet still able to challenge himself at every turn. Look to I Want the World to Know for a slice of Allman Brothers–leaning jam, Moss’s Warren Haynes–centered multiplicity out in front.
If Privileged was Nick Moss’s declaration of independence, then Time Ain’t Free is the final draft of his constitution—a defiant, R&B swagger that signals a stylistic vision for the future.
CD REVIEWS FEBURARY 2014
Juke Joint Chapel
Henrietta Records - (No #)
A follow-up to Get Up, his acclaimed 2013 collaboration with Ben Harper, harmonica master and vocalist Charlie Musselwhite is back on familiar turf both geographically and musically on Juke Joint Chapel. Recorded live at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in August of 2012, it is the return of a native son, who in the early 1960s headed north from Memphis to Chicago and immersed himself in a blues Promised Land. Back at the wellspring of the music, Musselwhite delivers a career tour de force. It would be hard for anyone to make a better traditional blues recording in this day and age.
The band consists of Matt Stubbs on guitar, June Core on drums, and Mike Phillips on bass, and they are tight, locked in to give the leader whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. Stubbs is a revelation on guitar. He plays great rhythmic grooves; his solos are varied in style, and he can stretch out with inventiveness and fire. Of course, Musselwhite’s harp work is unparalleled; he is a true maestro. What particularly stands out here is his vocals. He has never been the most emotive or dexterous singer, but with this band, in this setting, with this material riding these grooves, he has it going on big time!
The program includes 12 tracks, seven covers, and five originals. Things kick off with Eddie Taylor’s Bad Boy, which chugs along on a propulsive groove as the harp line echoes CC Rider. Little Walter’s It Ain’t Right is an almost ten-minute showstopper that both Stubbs and Musselwhite stretch out on. The Musselwhite original Blues Overtook Me is marked by the urgency of the leader’s searing harp lines. Another standout is River Hip Mama, the leader’s nod to the boogie grooves of John Lee Hooker. Two tracks illustrate the versatility of Musselwhite and the band. Feel It in Your Heart is his tribute to Brazilian “forro” music, featuring a surging, clarion harp line that evokes a bluesy take on a television western theme song. The set closes with his signature rendition of Duke Pearson’s Cristo Redentor, which he first recorded for Vanguard (twice) in the mid-1960s. It is a powerfully emotive piece that closes what must have been a rocking afternoon of masterful blues just past the crossroads.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
BILLY BRANCH & THE SONS OF BLUES
Blind Pig - BPCD 5158
Nearly a quarter century has passed since Billy Branch was the New Kid on the Block, a track he led on Alligator’s seminal harmonica summit Harp Attack!. Although James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell cast an enormous shadow on that 1990 recording, it wouldn’t have been accurate to call Branch the young up-and-comer. At that point in his career he had already worked with Willie Dixon, performed in Europe, recorded for Alligator’s Living Chicago Blues series, and released an album under his own name with his band the Sons of Blues. Nonetheless, during a lull midway through the song Branch playfully defers to the veterans Cotton and Wells, noting that Wells “used to cut my head regularly” at the Chicago club Theresa’s Lounge, while Cotton, driving Branch around in an old Cadillac, would taunt him with his prowess on the big chromatic harmonica. “Can I blow it man, did you teach me right?” Branch asks Wells, then answers his own question with a blistering solo in the song’s final seconds. The query may have been rhetorical, but in that moment the figurative torch was passed.
Now the man (or at least one of them—Cotton is still going strong), the superb Blues Shock is Branch’s first recording as a bandleader in well over a decade. This can’t really be described as a triumphant return, because as most will know—and David Whiteis’ cover story expertly documents—Branch has proven to be nothing less than a tireless workhorse in the intervening years since Satisfy Me, his last album as a front man, came out in 1999.
This new album does resonate with all the exuberance of a project that has been a long time coming, however. In the funky opener Sons of Blues, a confident Branch declares himself to be just that: “I am the son of the blues.” The song is rife with dozens-style boasts and name drops, giving it a certain hip hop sensibility, but it can also be read as a respectful tribute to the blues artists who paved the way for his own success. Boom Boom, the most familiar title on the record, doesn’t quite breathe new life into Hooker’ oft-covered boogie but it does kick along with infectious energy, as does the ribald, thick-with-innuendo jump blues Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn.
Although heavily influenced by the work of Chicago players such as Big Walter Horton and Cotton, Branch’s playing has always been cleaner in tone, with a distinctive echo produced by a digital delay pedal. It’s a sound that is immediately recognizable, something few harp players can claim these days. He stretches that sound into new territory with Song for My Mother, a gentle instrumental with a bit of Brazilian flair where Branch’s playing is more Lee Oskar than Little Walter. His crowning achievement on Blues Shock, however, is Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time. There’s little to be said about this tribute to Chicago’s Palm Tavern owner Gerri Oliver that Whiteis hasn’t already addressed in his thoughtful narrative in this issue, but suffice it to say that the lyrics, with references to lynchings in the South and segregation in the North, are the most poignant that Branch has penned in his career.
We know you’ve been here all along, Billy Branch, but it’s great to have you back.
Malaco - MCD7537
Emily David is the latest in a line of awesome soul singers, including Dorothy Moore and Shirley Brown, to record for Malaco Records. The Houston-born, Stockton, California–based vocalist came to the attention of Malaco producer Tommy Couch Jr. after placing fifth on the NBC-TV series America’s Got Talent in 2008. Couch believed in Queen Emily, as she’s now billed, so much that for her debut recording he set aside the synthesizers and drum machines that have marred some of the Jackson, Mississippi, company’s soul and blues recordings in recent years and brought four of the most gifted southern soul session survivors of the ’60s—lead guitarist Reggie Young from Memphis and, from Muscle Shoals, rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, keyboardist Clayton Ivey, and bassist David Hood—together with longtime Malaco drummer James Robertson to form what he calls “the Soul Bowl Rhythm Section.” Later in Nashville, a horn section that included veterans Harrison Calloway, Jim Horn, and Harvey Thompson dubbed their parts onto the eight Couch-made tracks. Four other songs were produced by Frederick Knight using synths and drum machines, although Emily’s reprise of Knight’s 1975 hit I Betcha Didn’t Know That comes off quite nicely.
Queen Emily, now in her mid-40s, is a soul singer of the first order. She was raised on gospel music and can be viewed performing in church on several YouTube videos made between her America’s Got Talent appearances and the Malaco CD. Emily sings in a strong, richly resonant, at times gritty contralto that somewhat recalls Dorothy Moore and Gladys Knight, but her highly emotive style is mostly her own and her enunciation couldn’t be better. Her versions of Bill Withers’ Use Me and Paul Kelly’s Hold You to Your Promise (previously done by Irma Thomas), as powerful as they are, are eclipsed by her gripping readings of such ballads as Clayton Ivey, Terry Woodford, and Tom Brasfield’s Angel in Your Arms (a 1977 pop and R&B hit for the female trio Hot), George Jackson’s Throw It Away, Willie Clayton’s Going Crazy, Charles Richard Cason’s Still Crazy, and Frank Johnson’s There’s No Easy Way to Say Goodbye (Bobby Bland cut it for Malaco back in 1987), all of which help make Queen Emily the most satisfying southern soul album to have appeared in well over a decade.
Big Legal Mess - BLM0287
Though he has been playing music for most of his life, the 81-year-old Bruce, Mississippi, musician Leo “Bud” Welch is only now releasing an album for the first time. Listeners will wish that he had been recording for much longer, as Sabougla Voices—named for both the nearby hamlet of his birth and one of his performing groups—proves to be a joyful revelation.
Welch is steeped in church tradition, and his strong yet vulnerable vocals share a tonal kinship with Reverend Gary Davis’, though his electric guitar is frayed with grungy distortion. He gets right to the heart of the matter with the stirring Praise His Name, backed by a choir of female alto voices, drums, and bass. The assembled also raise the rafters during You Can’t Hurry God, Praying Time, Somebody Touched Me, and His Holy Name. There are hints of hill country drone in places—an indication of Bruce’s proximity to the northeastern part of the state.
This may be gospel music, but its blues foundation is firm. “I tell ’em, I was born not with the blues—I was born in the blues!” Welch recently told NPR’s Rachel Martin. Stylistically, some of his songs edge closer to this end of the spectrum: the shuffling Me and My Lord quotes the spiritual I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned, and the slow, haunting A Long Journey looks forward to a heavenly home. The gently rolling Mother Loves Her Children is a tender ode to the fidelity of maternal love, while Take Care of Me Lord has an urgent, danceable groove. There is a serenity in his voice as he sings, and this perhaps shines through most clearly in the final track, The Lord Will Make a Way—just Welch alone with an acoustic guitar, making a brief, gentle statement of faith.
“I don’t know what you come to do/Oh, I’ve come to sing my song,” Welch declares in Praise His Name—let’s hope his Sabougla Voices is but a herald of more music to come.
Severn - CD 0061
Ursula Ricks’ brilliant debut disc, My Street, deftly balances the rich traditions of soul and funk, as exemplified by Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, with the contemporary soul-blues sound. Ricks also possesses the gravitas to convincingly play the blues diva role. One can envision Ricks as a smoldering chanteuse in a club because she possesses real charismatic talent. In a perfect world, My Street would be a critical and commercial success. Let’s hope it will be. Ricks has certainly paid her dues and now it’s time she reap her rewards.
Recorded at Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, Maryland, My Street features Ricks’ tough and husky voice with a powerful studio band that includes Johnny Moeller (Fabulous Thunderbirds) on guitar. Ricks and the band share a singular musical vision that cannot be easily categorized either by genre or time period. On My Street, the guitars are mixed up front and are hot and heavy. The electronically treated guitar riff that opens up Tobacco Row, Jimmy Nolan’s (who played with James Brown) inspired “scratch” rhythm guitar sound on My Street, and the wah-wah Superfly sound on Just a Little Bit of Love represents the disc’s wide range of guitar sounds and styles. Kevin Anker’s excellent keyboard work is evident on every cut, while the rhythm machine of Steve Gomes (bass), Robb Stupka (drums), and Mark Merella (percussion) hold everything together. Special guests appear throughout My Street, most notably Kim Wilson (who almost steals the show on the lead cut Tobacco Road) on harmonica and “Monster” Mike Welch, who peels off two excellent solos on Due and Right Now. In addition, evocative string arrangements heighten the power of several songs, including Due and Just a Little Bit of Love.
Except for a cover of Bobby Rush’s Mary Jane and Curtis Mayfield’s Just a Little Bit of Love, Ricks wrote and composed all the songs on My Street. Lyrically, the disc combines biting socio-political observations of the grinding realities of “the street” and heart stopping, sensual love songs. The disc’s cover photo finds Ricks sitting on a weed-infested sidewalk in front of an abandoned building—a visual trope of poverty and alienation common to blues, soul, funk, reggae, and rap. The lyrics of the title song describe a street controlled by drug dealing and gang violence with the sky patrolled by police helicopters. With no alternatives left, a mother is forced to make a painful decision to flee her ancestral home in order to ensure her family’s survival: “This is my street / This is my home / This was my mother’s mother’s mother’s home.” The New Trend laments the “new trend” of apathy and selfishness, materialism and corruption, politics, perpetual war, and senseless death. Homelessness and drug addiction are part of the narrative theme of Due, and one of the desperate characters (“Little Sister”) in What You Judge is a prostitute. Meanwhile, the love songs swing from the joy of genuine love and commitment (Sweet Tenderness) to pain (Make Me Blue, Mary Jane). It should be pointed out that some songs transcend the duality of protest and love. On the surface, Right Now is a love song of indecision: “Sitting in your own mind / wasting time / I am right or I am wrong right now? / Should I stay, should I go? / Should I let somebody know right now?.” Yet, the song’s deeper theme is one of escape and freedom (“You can break away right now”), a common rhetorical theme in African American protest songs.
All of the songs on My Street are solid and strong; the music and lyrics are equally compelling. Ricks’ website states she is “the most sought out female blues artist on the east coast.” One hopes that the release of My Street will elevate Rick’s profile to the national stage. On Due, Ricks sings, “Due for money / Due for respect / Due for all the things a queen should get.” Ursula Ricks is an up and coming queen and My Street deserves respect.
—Stephen A. King
Royal Oaks Blues Café
Connor Ray Music - (No #)
On her tenth album, singer Trudy Lynn offers a surprisingly retro-flavored set list and a relatively stripped-down and rootsy sound, all to good effect.
In contrast to the contemporary soul-blues aesthetic that defined much of her previously recorded material, this disc draws heavily from the repertoire of certain female blues artists of the early twentieth century. In the process it reveals and reinvents forgotten gems by the likes of Eloise Bennett, Bea Booze, Viviane Greene, Clara Smith, and others. It also kicks off with a 1940s shuffle from Jay McShann and introduces two Lynn originals that complement the overall classic vibe.
Moreover, in lieu of the brassy horn sections or funky synthesizers that have characterized some of Lynn’s prior catalogue, the supporting instrumentation here is sparser, more laid back. The understated approach of producer Rock Romano works well, accented with brilliant contributions on harmonica by Steve Krase and on guitar by Jonn Del Toro Richardson, as well as solid work on piano by Randy Wall or Robert “Pee Wee” Stephens—all stalwarts of the Houston blues scene that Lynn calls home.
The 11 tracks coalesce to form a deeply satisfying album—what may be Lynn’s most cohesively focused artistic statement to date. Standout numbers include a jaunty, quasi-mambo-grooving arrangement of (I’m Gonna) Play the Honky Tonks, a song first recorded over 60 years ago by Marie Adams, whose defiant refrain (a vow to play “the high-class joints” as well as the titular “tonks”) also fits the Lynn biography well. Yet the softer and sultry vocals of slower-paced selections such as Feel It, Street Walkin’ Daddy, and Effervescent Daddy are especially potent, fusing a quaintly antique charm with the timeless persona of a self-confident woman. The closer, Whip It to a Jelly, might be the best of them all, featuring Lynn’s seductively sung utterances in sync with minimalist harmonica and guitar accompaniment. Words and sounds combine to evoke a comfortable carnality, an easy-going sense of sexual exuberance.
Lynn’s earthy and expressive voice has rarely before sounded so organic, so naturally precise—ranging widely, effortlessly, from husky growl to gentle falsetto to gospel-infused wail to sweet coo. At this stage of her career, Lynn nimbly commands her instrument. And as the majestic yet downhome proprietress of the Royal Oaks Blues Café, she has utilized it exceedingly well.
I’m Sticking with You
Motorcitykidz - (No #)
Bobby Murray and his buddy Robert Cray fell under the spell of Albert Collins while attending high school together in Tacoma, Washington. Collins’ incisive guitar attack informed Murray’s style during his time with blues and soul singer Frankie Lee in the ’70s and ’80s, followed by 22 years on the road with Etta James. Based in the Detroit area since 1996, he remains one of the world’s foremost Collins disciples, yet he is no mere imitator, having developed a distinctive approach to the instrument by infusing his earlier staccato manner with ringing sustains that at times have a clarity reminiscent of Larry Carlton. Like Collins, Murray is primarily an instrumentalist and seldom sings, although on his fourth CD, I’m Stickin’ with You, he joins a backup vocal group for three selections.
The disc opens with a new version of Finders Keepers, a terrific mid-tempo soul song he co-wrote and recorded with Lee for the Blind Pig label in 1994. Wiley “Red” Redding takes the tune’s vocal helm this time around—and on the Tyrone Davis–inspired Baby Needs Some Lovin’ Too and the slow blues Bad Case of the Blues—singing in a gritty low tenor not unlike that of Lee. Singers Paul Randolph and Tom Hogarth are also featured, but the strongest vocal performance is by Bob Seger associate Barbara Payton, who passionately delivers the gospel-imbued blues ballad Rock My Soul in deep, at times raspy contralto tones over Mark Thibodeau’s churchy piano chords, with Murray masterfully handling both the lead and rhythm guitar parts. He wrote all 11 tunes, including the wonderfully funky Shake It Baby, Shake It on which the groove and main guitar melody recall the 1990 Tony! Toni! Tone! R&B hit The Blues. A tightly locking rhythm section anchored by bassist Dave Uricek and drummer Renell Gonsalves provides the backing, but Murray keeps the instrumental focus throughout on his commanding, simultaneously tough and sweet guitar prowess.
The Devil You Know
Alligator - ALCD4958
A player of Tommy Castro’s caliber certainly doesn’t need the added star power of Joe Bonamassa or Tab Benoit; but after listening to Castro’s latest, the collaborative The Devil You Know, you’ll find that such musicians’ presence isn’t entirely disagreeable either. The challenge is for Castro to maintain his own snaky-grooved stamp amid an A-list of contemporary blues/rock elite—he succeeds in typical Tommy Castro fashion.
Castro’s first studio foray since 2009’s Hard Believer, this album is a full-on progression from its predecessor’s Stax/Volt-on-steroids style in that it doesn’t seem to view any limitations when it comes to the fine lines of genre. Louder and more over-the-top than we’ve seen him before, Castro moves beyond his past conventions. Tracks like Second Mind (featuring keys by ex-Robert Cray Band member Jim Pugh) are intricately arranged soul revivals—one of Castro’s fortes. Even better, though, are the unbridled Louisiana-flavored vamps like When I Cross the Mississippi, a duet with Tab Benoit that takes Castro just enough out of his comfort zone to generate some rocked-up anxiety.
Joe Bonamassa’s guitar guests on I’m Tired, a track straight out of the classic Exception to the Rule–era Tommy Castro, albeit with a head-crack percussive presence—Painkillers drummer Byron Cage is a monster behind the kit, and doubling his attack with James Pace’s keys, the pair create a smash and grab effect that defines the production of this album. A perfect counterpoint is created within Two Steps Forward, where the Holmes Brothers’ rich backing vocals are devoured by what can best be described as a Z.Z. Top–fueled A.M.E. church block party.
The Devil You Know spits enough hellfire to forge an incendiary phase two in the guitarist’s career—the gauntlet has been thrown down.
Sounds of Home
Blind Pig - BPCD 5157
Where the swamp meets the cotton field; there lies the music of Damon Fowler. The Florida-based guitarist’s third offering for Blind Pig (not including his recent Southern Hospitality collaboration Easy Livin’), comprises a few different musical animals. First, he structures his best material in a drawl dialect that’s like a tall glass of lemonade on a summer day—it’s meant to be enjoyed slowly with ease. Conversely, his more intricate instrumental fare pitches an expected sense of crescendo around every corner. His six-string sounds like the missing link between the chicken-greased lightning of Johnny Winter and the sacred steel bliss of Robert Randolph.
Produced by Tab Benoit, who also co-wrote several tracks and played guitar on a few more (perhaps most brilliantly on the honky-tonk crying jag Do It for the Love), the songs range from the grime-soaked slide on Thought I Had It All to sweltering southern funk on the title track. Spark is a rocking Nashville boot-knocker, recalling the swagger of the Georgia Satellites with vintage twang spilling out the sides, while Old Fools, Bar Stools, and Me leans on a decidedly Merle Haggard–inspired lyrical imagery while chasing a Doyle Bramhall–style confidence.
A surprise entry is a country-soul cover of Elvis Costello’s Alison, with the added warmth of Benoit’s backing vocals. The lyric “my aim is true” is pierced by a distinguished, staccato lead from Fowler that typifies his uniquely non-legato hand enunciating every flick of his pick. A quivering yet resolute take on traditional spiritual I Shall Not Be Moved putters along with quiet optimism.
Sounds of Home signifies Damon Fowler’s progression into the ranks of the Americana elite.
It’s All About Me!
Ms. Jody continues to deepen and expand her range, and it sounds as if John Ward and the rest of the Ecko team are doing everything they can to support her—the production here (“natural” instruments and otherwise) sounds as organic and muscular as anything we’ve heard from the label in years.
The title song finds Jody in her now-familiar role as a relationship counselor, but she’s no “Dear Abby” wannabe: everything she sings and says sounds as if it comes from hard-earned personal experience. I’m Gonna Stand by You is ostensibly directed toward a lover or a friend but could just as easily be a prayer of thanks (and, knowing Jody, it’s probably both). I Apologize may be the most eloquently written piece of storytelling Jody has ever recorded: to a church-tinged ballad accompaniment, the singer relates the story of a guilt-ridden man admitting the error of his ways. She delivers it with the fervor of a gospel singer—at times a listener might forget that she’s singing someone else’s confession, not her own—and, in fact, the song is as much a parable as it is a tale of worldly transgression and forgiveness.
The dance tracks (Ms. Jody’s Boogie Slide, The Rock) are predictably club-friendly, although at this point there’s little anyone can bring to this overdone southern soul sub-genre. More arresting are One Hour Baby, co-written by Ward and Gerard Rayborn, a cheating song that evokes illicit lovers’ paranoia and angst with a dark intensity that approaches that of a film noir, and Every Woman for Herself, a lurching blues-rock ode to the joys of stealing another woman’s man. The Donnie Ray composition I’m Gonna Keep My Love at Home is probably the most generic-sounding thing here, but Jody and Donnie ignite sparks with their back-and-forth promises of erotic fidelity as a medium-boil synth groove lopes behind them.
Denise LaSalle may still be the “Queen of Soul-Blues” by virtue of her track record and her elder stateswoman status, but Vertie Joann Delapaz is first in line as heir apparent.
CD REVIEWS DECEMBER 2013
Live at the Avant Garde, 1968
Delmark DE 833
Magic Sam was only 31 years old in 1968 when he made the trip up to Milwaukee’s Avant Garde coffeehouse to play before a young audience. The year before he’d recorded West Side Soul and Black Magic, two now-legendary albums for Chicago’s Delmark label. He was beginning to make an impression beyond the blues circuit. The following summer he would give an electrifying performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Many believed he was destined to do great things. Then in December he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Any new Magic Sam recording is big and exciting news, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Sam’s impassioned guitar playing and vocals are everything we’ve come to expect from his studio work and from live recordings, including Magic Sam Live and Rockin’ Wild in Chicago, both previous releases also on this label. The fidelity of this recording, though, is superior to the previous live releases, the result of mic preparations detailed by engineer and producer Jim Charne in his you-are-there liner notes.
Sam is backed only by Robert “Big Mojo” Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums. Elem was likely a sub for Mac Thompson but obviously a regular on the scene, for he and Richey are right on the money for all chord changes, turnarounds, stop time, and tempo shifts. Regrettably, Elem goes nearly the whole set without pausing to correct a flatted string. However the self-assured Magic Sam carries the show impressively as he plays and sings oblivious to any shortcomings from the band. And it is a fine performance.
Sam reprises his own You Belong to Me, Bad Luck Blues, That’s All I Need, and Lookin’ Good, plus covers San-Ho-Zay, I Need You So Bad, All Your Love (I Miss Loving), and Feelin’ Good, which by themselves constitute a set list to please any Sam fan. Additionally, there are titles by Jimmy McCracklin, Willie Dixon, and Lowell Fulson, plus fine renditions of Jimmy Rogers’ That’s All Right and Junior Wells’ Come On in This House, the latter sounding like Magic Sam’s own, which only suggests the rich cross influence between the blues guitarists of the time. But for many this will be a must-have for Sam’s previously unrecorded take of Muddy Waters’ Still a Fool and the instrumental Hully Gully Twist.
Those who never had a chance to see Magic Sam live will surely savor this worthy set of his incomparable music and will also enjoy hearing his easy banter with the audience. Sam is relaxed and personable and at the finish invites everyone back for the next night. He seems poised for the breakthrough that may have been imminent, but sadly, wasn’t to be.
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS
World Boogie Is Coming
Songs of the South - SOTS-014
The cover image of the North Mississippi Allstars’ World Boogie Is Coming features a disco ball sitting on the edge of a razed Mississippi cotton field, perfectly communicating the fact that this recording is at once the band’s most traditional and most progressive. A post-modern mashup that culls from hill country blues, fife and drum music, hip hop, psychedelic blues rock, funk, gospel, house music, rock ’n’ roll, southern rock, and British blues, as well as ambient sounds, it remains at its very core a butt-kicking, stomping, downhome blues and boogie jam. With their seventh studio recording, Luther and Cody Dickinson have crafted a game-changer that raises the bar for creativity on contemporary blues recording.
The CD features 17 tracks, plus a download card for five additional tracks and four videos. That gives these blues brothers plenty of room to stretch out and work their magic. And they do it with plenty of help from their friends. The highest profile guest is Robert Plant, who blows some wailing harmonica on the instrumental opener, Jr. Kimbrough’s sinuous JR, as well as on the Luther Dickinson/Lightnin Malcolm funky shuffle Goat Meat. Other guests include Malcolm, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, Kenny Brown, Duwayne and Garry Burnside, Sharde Thomas, and Steve Selvidge. There are also archival tape appearances from Otha Turner and R.L. Burnside, so there is generational juxtaposition going on throughout the program.
That old/new dichotomy is most prominent on their tour de force treatment of the Delta blues warhorse Rollin ’n’ Tumblin, which builds on the work R.L. Burnside did with Fat Possum Records in the 1990s. With bass and drums locked in a steamroller funk groove that is guaranteed to drive club dancers out onto the floor, the track features Luther wailing on a homemade two-string, coffee-can resonator diddley bow, eventually dueling with a scratching hip hop DJ. It is totally original and has to be heard to be believed. They follow this with another unrelenting groove, the acoustic guitar/snare drum–driven Boogie. Not everything is pedal to the metal here, and the gospel influenced take on Kimbrough’s Meet Me in the City evokes the Staple Singers. Otha Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, lends her cane flute and sweet, soulful vocals to an extended slide guitar/fife and drum medley across three tracks, Shimmy, My Babe, and Granny, Does Your Dog Bite. Luther’s slide guitar prowess in terms of tone, timing, and ideas is simply devastating throughout the CD, but on the classic Goin’ to Brownsville, which is credited to both Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis, he pulls out all the stops. More slide mastery is also served up on the bonus tracks, which include three tunes associated with Mississippi Fred McDowell, Crazy Bout You, Back Back Train, and Brooks Run to the Ocean; he brings the electrified conception of the slide guitar that McDowell established on his 1969 I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll session into the 21st century.
Cody Dickinson has stated, “‘World boogie is coming’ was my father’s favorite valediction.” If the Allstars’ last studio effort, Kings to the Kingdom (2011), was an elegy to Jim Dickinson, World Boogie Is Coming is a second line parade–like celebration of their father and the other musical fathers—Turner, Burnside, Kimbrough, McDowell, Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker, and T-Model Ford—who shaped and passed along this distinctive north Mississippi blues tradition. They have crafted an amazing, multi-textured sonic (and visual with the videos) experience—a landmark blues recording!
— Robert H. Cataliotti
Ain’t No More Love In This House
Severn - CD-0060
Lou Pride was an unabashed old-schooler. His church-enriched, sweet-toned vocal style was influenced by such figures as Bobby Bland, Otis Redding, and Al Green. He was his own man, though—even when he borrowed a melodic or timbral conceit from one of his role models, he recast it in his own image. The arrangements on this, his final studio recording, likewise invoke the golden era of deep soul—boxy, funk-seasoned cadences reminiscent of Willie Mitchell–era Hi; graceful melody lines; emotion-packed yet resolutely tasteful horn voicings—and the songs, whether penned by Pride or others, tell vivid stories that sound drawn from street-level real life.
Pride took his inspiration where he found it, and he usually enriched whatever he touched. His version here of the 1972 Wayne Newton hit Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast takes the Vegas songster to church, transforming an erstwhile maudlin bauble into an angst-ridden, spirirt-infused paean to heartbreak and redemption. I Gotta Move On Up (penned by Chicago vocalist Big Time Sarah) likewise melds worldly concerns (financial security, romantic satisfaction) with a gospel-imbued sense of spiritual uplift. The title song, a Pride composition, brings new vividness to the age-old tale of a man who comes home from a hard day of work to find nothing there except a “good-bye” note from his woman; I Didn’t Take Your Woman (no relation to the Tail Dragger song of the same name) finds the singer showcasing both his machismo (as he faces down an angry rival) and his warm-hearted tenderness (as he relates the story of how he rescued the woman from a loveless, abusive relationship). Key to the World, with its gently burbling rhythm guitar line, is a Curtis Mayfield–like fusion of romantic and social idealism; on the country-tinged soul ballad We Can Do What We Want, Pride invokes an erotic intimacy that’s a blessing for both body and soul—a classic deep-soul fusion of carnality and spirit.
When Lou Pride passed away in June of 2012, he was still scuffling, still pouring his heart into everything he sang, still striving for that big breakout hit that he deserved so richly but never attained. This set is a fitting capstone to his legacy as one of the great unheralded soul men of the modern era.
Dialtone - DT0026
Eddie Stout, founder of the Austin-based Dialtone label, is well known for his dedication to recording lesser-known guitarists, horn players, and singers from the Lone Star State, but outside of the 2006 Texas Harmonica Rumble compilation, this eponymous release from the artist known as “Birdlegg” is the first time that Stout has cut an album where one harp man is the marquee player. Many LB subscribers will already be familiar with Gene “Birdlegg” Pittman’s story after reading Gene Tomko’s feature in LB #227, which chronicles Birdlegg’s misadventures around the country before he settled in Oakland in the 1970s. He now calls Austin his home, and this self-titled album (the 26th for Dialtone) has a level of polish and musicianship not found on earlier DIY recordings from his days as a mainstay on the East Bay scene.
Birdlegg was recorded at Church House Studios (where noteworthy players such as James Cotton and Kim Wilson have also worked) with an outstanding backing band in guitarist Mike Keller and drummer Jason Moeller of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Omar Dykes on guitar, Dialtone’s resident go-to piano man Nick Connolly, Antone’s staple Kaz Kazanoff on sax, and upright bassist Johnny Bradley. Original songs dominate the set list, such as San Pablo, which describes the avenue that runs through several East Bay cities and is set to a Bo Diddley rhythm; the stop-time Good Time Blues; or the acoustic country blues-flavored Down in My Shoes.
Birdlegg’s harp work may lack complexity in tone and vibrato, but he plays (and sings) with such conviction that all save for the most discerning blues harmonica fans will notice. Birdlegg also demonstrates stylistic dexterity with the variety of compositions on display here, from crawling slow blues (Restraining Order Blues) to swing (747), and lazy Jimmy Reed shuffles (You Upset My Mind) to funk-blues (Don’t Sit Down at the Table). Here’s hoping that the album, which is available on iTunes or at www.dialtonerecords.com, will bring a career resurgence for this veteran as his music opens up to a larger audience.
STEVE HOWELL AND THE MIGHTY MEN
Yes, I Believe I Will
Out of the Past Music – (No #)
Texas acoustic guitarist and singer Steve Howell’s new acoustic blues album Yes, I Believe I Will takes a gentle, tranquil approach. He takes it easy and sets a slow pace, even when covering fiery songs like Willie Brown’s Future Blues. At first Yes, I Believe I Will may make listeners long for some fire and brimstone, some intensity, but Howell opted for a calming mood. After a few listens, it feels right, even soothing, as the troubadour lets every note breathe and sets the listener into a mindset to appreciate the acoustic musicality.
Howell is a fine instrumentalist who approached this album with an arsenal of fine, high-end guitars that would have been the envy of the originators of these songs: a Kevin Ryan signature Abbey Grand Parlor, a Collings OM41 and a National Resorocket. Fortunately, Howell has the chops to get the best out of his axes and he plays with an eloquent maturity and refined elegance, clean and smooth. He gets capable help from his longtime band, with Chris Michael on guitar and bass, Dave Hoffpauir on drums, and Jason Weinheimer on keyboards. Clearly, they can finish each other’s musical sentences.
Yes, I Believe I Will offers up ten great tasteful tunes, covering blues traditions, Appalachian mountain music, and folk, all fitting together perfectly. There is a nice rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning played slow as molasses to let every note ring clean. The late, great Virginia banjo player Dock Boggs’ famed Country Blues (Hustling Gambler) is a wonderful selection, and a good fit for Howell’s rough-hewn vocals. The traditional I Know You Rider is another highlight of the album, as is Mel Tillis’ Walk On Boy, a favorite in Doc Watson’s repertoire.
A nice addition to the acoustic blues today by a superb artist who has all the chops, and the good sense to play understated, but beautifully.
FRANK BEY & ANTHONY PAULE BAND
Soul for Your Blues
Blue Dot - BDR CD 106
The year 2013 has been a productive one for Philadelphia-based vocalist Frank Bey, who just released his second album of the year, a soul-drenched blues experience recorded with the Bay Area’s Anthony Paule Band (their last record, another collaboration with Paule’s outfit, was recorded live at San Francisco’s premier blues club Biscuits & Blues). As strong as the live album was, this studio recording ups the ante in terms of both song selection and production value.
With a baker’s dozen tracks that lean heavily toward the soul side of the blues spectrum, Soul for Your Blues evokes a high level of intimacy despite the big band feel that comes with a three-piece horn section and multiple backup singers. The always-entertaining Rick Estrin joins in on harmonica on a pair of tracks (Don’t Mess with the Monkey and the straight-up blues Bed for My Soul), and fellow Nightcats guitarist Kid Andersen plays on an additional four. Although he’s surrounded by such an array of talent here, Bey stands out as the focal point of the sessions, thanks largely to his masterful and often highly affecting vocals—just listen to the opening number I Don’t Know Why or the pained slow blues You’re Somebody Else’s Baby Too.
Paule’s band is showcased on two outstanding instrumentals as well, the funky guitar groove Smokehouse and an up-tempo, swinging version of George Cory’s I Left My Heart in San Francisco that (thankfully) lacks the schmaltz of Tony Bennett’s interpretation. Overall, this is quite an impressive outing from the woefully under-recorded blues/soulman Bey—let’s hope that Bey and Paule will hit the studio together again in the future.
Baptized In the Blues
No label name - (No #)
Vocalist Annie Mack is the best kind of “roots” artist—dedicated to the heritage she’s embraced, but resolute in her refusal to be pigeonholed. The title tune on this, her debut CD, is full of shout-outs to blues tradition, but it’s propelled by a boogity-shoe funk backing. The disc’s most straightforward gospel number, Call On Jesus, owes as much to classic-era, Latin-tinged R&B as it does to the gospel tradition; the wronged lover’s lament Fool to Believe grafts a Love Light–like groove onto a proto-funk, New Orleans–tinged rhythmic pattern. Elsewhere, Mack delves into roadhouse rock, neo-Kimbrough trance boogie, country-tinged deep-soul balladry, and blues/rock/pop mélange in the contemporary mix-and-match mode. Her alto delivery is strong, and she seems to gain flexibility as she immerses herself more deeply in her material—any hint of rookie self-consciousness is erased when the spirit hits. Her band, meanwhile, summons high energy without succumbing to overkill, and they always remember to play ideas, not just notes, even at their most exuberant and hard-charging.
A special word about Mack’s lyrics: Her storylines portray everything from the struggles of a woman with “calloused hands [and] broken dreams” who finds solace in “a little taste of whiskey [and] them old blues songs” (Hey, Hey Mama) through the triumph of a street urchin, traumatized by “bullets . . . flying through her world,” who eventually faces down the Devil in human form (“A two legged snake”) and resolutely keeps “moving on the road of life” (Little Girl Blues), to the determination of a woman “tired of whiskey-laced love” who vows to find “a way to make myself truly mine” (Walking Dead). Along the way, she reaffirms her faith (Call On Jesus, Revolution), faces down despair (Seems Like Sorrow), cries out again for love (G-Groove), and opens her heart to a beloved child (the folkish Saving Grace). In a blues world overrun with bad-mama posturing on one hand and hoochie-mama silliness on the other, it’s refreshing to hear a lyricist with deeper ideas on her mind. That alone makes Annie Mack worth checking out; the vocal and musical quality of this set only adds to the pleasure.
Catfood - CFR-018
Johnny Rawls often talks about his admiration for O.V. Wright, the deep-soul vocalist for whom he worked as guitarist and musical director before Wright’s death in 1980; but until now, he hasn’t featured many of his old mentor’s songs on his own recordings or shows. This tribute set, apparently the result of a suggestion to Rawls by Bill Wax, former program director of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s B. B. King’s Bluesville, includes some of Wright’s best-known hits along with an obscurity or two and an original (the closing Blaze of Glory), written by Rawls and bassist/producer/label owner Bob Trenchard. Otis Clay, whose own style is often compared to Wright’s (and whose version of A Nickel and a Nail may be better known these days than Wright’s 1971 original), lends his still-potent gospel-soul vocals to three of the tracks.
Clay, in fact, kicks off the proceedings with a characteristically sanctified intro to Something (I Can’t Shake Loose); Rawls comes roaring right back with as gritty and hard-edged a vocal as we’ve ever heard from him. That exchange sets the tone for the entire set: Throughout, Rawls comes about as close as possible to invoking Wright’s personalized meld of street-toughened bluesiness and gospel-honed spiritual intensity; the horn charts effectively recall the late Willie Mitchell’s gift for creating a sound both insistent and laid-back (Mitchell produced almost all of Wright’s most important records, first on Don Robey’s Back Beat label, then later on Hi); the Catfood rhythm section digs into the proceedings with vintage deep-soul panache. Clay is also featured on [A] Nickel and a Nail (a little slower and more meditative sounding than Otis’s own torrid version) and the closer, on which Rawls fondly recalls his years on the circuit with O.V.—even Wright’s death, which Rawls witnessed personally while en route with him to a gig, is recounted with life-affirming power in the great gospel tradition of wringing hope from tragedy. In the end, it’s a love song to soul music and to life itself (“I won’t go out easy, I won’t fade away / I’m gonna keep on until my dying day”), and, as such, an appropriate conclusion to a set that’s an eloquent tribute to one of soul music’s greatest figures and also stands as an impeccably realized musical achievement in and of itself.
Live . . . and Then Some
No label – (No #)
Sounding like a higher-pitched Denise LaSalle but with phrasing and textural nuances all her own, Memphis vocalist Ms. Nickki delivers bad-mama throwdowns and pleading entreaties with equal facility, and she’s both a witty songwriter and a crafty interpreter of others’ material.
The “Live” portion of this set was recorded at Ground Zero on Beale Street a few years ago; the rest consists mostly of tracks culled from Nickki’s debut CD, 2005’s Just In the Nick of Time. The in-concert segment includes tributes to her idol LaSalle (Blues Party Tonight, Juke Joint Woman, Mississippi Girl [based on Denise’s Mississippi Woman, itself a remake of Mississippi Boy, originally penned by Floyd Hamberlin Jr.]) along with B.B. King (The Thrill is Gone) and Ann Peebles (Breakin up Somebody’s Home). It’s a vivid glimpse of Nickki at her most soulful and melodious—her intonation is spot-on, she exudes power and confidence, and her interaction with the audience is both intimate and sassy.
The studio tracks may lack the sensual immediacy of the live offerings, but on their own terms they’re just as effective. Individual song credits aren’t given, but at least several sound like Nickki originals. The title song portrays the singer as a life-of-the-party dance-club hostess; The Best Cock Competition is a wry dispatch from a mythical preening-and-prowess contest between strutting roosters (who may or may not be actual fowl); Honey I’ll Do, slow-wafting and sweetened by orchestral billows, features Nickki as tender-hearted, emotionally vulnerable balladeer (she should accentuate this side of her musical personality more often). The closer, Where The Big Girls At? (composed by Nickki’s fellow Memphian Toni Green) is the testimonial of a plus-sized juke-joint queen unafraid to celebrate life, love, and lust to the fullest.
“Artist Deserving Wider Recognition” is a dreadful cliche by now, but few merit this encomium more than Ms. Nickki. For further information on how to acquire a copy of this disk, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (901) 378-3707.
EUGENE HIDEAWAY BRIDGES
Roots and Vines
Armadillo - ARMD 00034
Bridges returns with his seventh album on Britain’s Armadillo Records, and it is a solid effort commemorating his 50th birthday. He says in the liner notes, “I wanted to record some of the songs I listened to when I was growing up, songs reflecting the styles of music that have inspired me and some songs telling my story.” Bridges demonstrates how he deftly straddles multiple genres, including traditional Texas/Louisiana blues, gospel, jazz, soul, country, and even a show tune, but all with a very contemporary flavor. Bridges is comfortable in his own skin, and this moving album of 13 originals and five covers offers a very positive and, indeed, inspirational current flowing throughout. Roots and Vines opens with a lively version of Glory Glory straight out of Rev. Utah Smith’s repertoire, which Bridges says his father learned directly from Smith and spread to other gospel guitarists in New Orleans.
The album continues with another cover, this time of Sam Cooke’s Farewell, My Darling, an obvious influence that Bridges, knowingly or not, channels for the rest of the record. Good Old Days is introspective country soul that features some mournful pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. They Call the Wind Mariah is an unexpected and sentimental entry in this set, but Bridges makes it fit seamlessly, saying in the notes, “On my open road trips this song is always in my heart. I want to sing it to you, to remember the songs of yesterday and to teach me how to write for tomorrow,” which, along with a life examined, could easily be a major theme of the album. Whether it is the groove of Rise Above It All, the soul-jazz blues of A Thing Called Love, or the greasy swagger of Don’t Call It Supper, there’s not a bad performance in the set and, in fact, there are plenty of surprises. Roots and Vines offers a little something for everyone.
CD REVIEWS OCTOBER 2013
Rhythm & Blues
Silvertone - 88883-75780-2
This set consists of two discs, one titled Rhythm, the other Blues. The distinction is somewhat arbitrary—Rhythm includes hard-funk workouts like the autobiographical Best in Town, an updating of Junior Wells’ 1960 proto-soul/blues anthem Messin’ with the Kid (featuring a phlegm-and-gristle guest vocal and apparently an equally over-the-top guitar solo [neither individual musician nor songwriter credits are provided] from Kid Rock), and an update of Guitar Slim’s Well I Done Got Over It. But it also offers plenty of straight-ahead blues and blues-rock, featuring Guy’s characteristic high-velocity fretboard work and still-supple vocals.
As usual, Guy is most effective when he tempers his show-stopping prowess with subtleties both emotional and stylistic (e.g., the surrealism-tinged dreamscapes Whiskey Ghost and The Devil’s Daughter); also as usual, the guest stars are a mixed bag. Keith Urban brings an atmospheric honky-tonk melancholy to One Day Away, apparently inspiring Guy to unfurl his own vocals at their most heartfelt and textured; vocalist Beth Hart, though, featured on What You Gonna Do About Me, is best known for her 1999 album Screamin’ for My Supper—which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about her.
Blues continues in more or less the same fashion—torrid blues anthems, some kicked into overdrive by metallic hard-funk grooves, alternating with molten-lava ballads and the occasional southern-fried tribute to roots. Poison Ivy reprises Willie Mabon’s 1954 classic; Texas guitar prodigy Gary Clark Jr. enlivens Blues Don’t Care with his characteristic blend of bluesy emotional directness and postmodern stylistic eclecticism. On the other hand, it’s a mystery why Guy needed the cartoonishly overwrought vocals of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and the slag-metal fretboard onslaughts of Tyler’s bandmates Joe Perry and Brad Whitford to clutter up the otherwise deft and elegant cuckold’s lament Evil Twin.
At this point, Buddy Guy is pretty much critic-proof; both his admirers and his detractors will find plenty here to support their arguments. Meanwhile, though, he soldiers on as one of our most tireless and dedicated carriers of the blues torch, for which we can all be grateful.
Blues in My Soul
Delmark - DE 829
Lurrie Bell is widely admired for his shoot-from-the-hip, fingers-only guitar picking, but lately he’s taken a fresh look at his music. His previous release was a celebrated gospel/acoustic CD, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music. And now Blues in My Soul represents a simple set of more classic (mostly) Chicago blues tracks that prizes crafted vocals as much as guitar licks.
Much as his modesty would forbid him to admit it, Bell is becoming an old master of the blues. On this outing his vocal delivery lags artfully like that of a practiced jazz singer. Doing so seems to open up each song and lend depth of feeling as if he’s carefully considering anew a line that he may have sung a thousand times. The delivery is assured, the musicianship first class.
Bell’s backed by his crack gigging rhythm unit of Willie “The Touch” Hayes on drums and Melvin Smith on bass, with Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards and Matthew Skoller on harmonica. A three-piece horn section adds accents on two tracks. The notes state that the CD was produced by Dick Shurman and “mixed by Steve Wagner, second-guessed by Dick Shurman”—a nice way of saying that these two audio pros carefully debated the presentation of this set to bring out the best.
The band sinks their collective musical teeth into such Chicago classics as Jimmy Rogers’ Going Away Baby and My Little Machine, plus Little Walter’s I Just Keep Loving Her and Big Bill Broonzy’s I Feel So Good, each of which gives Skoller an opportunity to show how to deliver classic harp riffs with distinctiveness. Throughout, Bell’s guitar work is frugal and carefully measured—perhaps epitomized on the crisp, lightly swinging She’s a Good ’Un—his solos concise and rarely more than a chorus long.
Three original titles include Blues in My Soul, Bell’s frank assessment of his current stage of life, and 24 Hour Blues, a tribute to Magic Slim, who died the day of the recording, plus the funk instrumental South Side to Riverside, which I’d wager Willie Hayes had a hand in.
Otis Spann’s reflective Blues Never Die provides a perfect coda for the set with Bell taking his time singing lyrics that sound right from his mouth as much as from Spann’s pen.
A great guitarist, Bell may not be the finest or flashiest vocalist, but he is an honest and thoughtful singer and an entertainer who always gives fair measure to every audience.
This recording leaves no doubt that there’s an abundance of blues in Lurrie Bell’s soul.
SHAWN HOLT AND THE TEARDROPS (WITH SPECIAL GUEST JOHN PRIMER)
My Daddy Told Me
Blind Pig - BPCD 5156
After guitarist Shawn Holt’s father, Magic Slim, died this past February, Shawn took over leadership of Slim’s band, the Teardrops. Those are big shoes to fill (both literally and metaphorically); as if in acknowledgment, guitarist John Primer returns here to help evoke the legendary Teardrops sound on a few tracks. For his part, Shawn recreates Slim’s high-intensity guitar tone and propulsive chording quite well, and a lot of his leads are taken directly from Slim’s lickbook. The set, meanwhile, includes several songs closely associated with Slim (Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae, Bo Diddley’s Before You Accuse Me, Slim’s own Buddy Buddy Friend and Please Don’t Dog Me, among others) along with some Shawn Holt originals (the title tune, Mean Little Woman, You Done Me Wrong, et al.).
Primer’s deft, Delta-tinged fusion of melody and machismo adds considerable texture to Buddy Buddy Friend and Before You Accuse Me (on which he also takes lead vocal); it’s questionable, though, whether Shawn’s own vocals have enough street-tough fury to really do justice to his musical inheritance, and the current crop of Teardrops seem hard-pressed to maintain the earth-shaking power that characterized earlier incarnations.
It’s never easy to labor in the shadow of a giant—and if that giant was your own parent, it’s even more daunting. At times, Shawn Holt shows some encouraging signs of finding his own voice (e.g., Hold You Again, with its rock- and pop-tinged modernist colorations)—this is probably the direction he should explore more aggressively if he wants to step out and forge his own identity while still paying tribute to his legendary father.
Delta Groove - DGPCD161
Sugaray Rayford has been the Mannish Boys’ vocalist for several years; before he joined them, he recorded a few discs with a San Diego–based band called Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz. He’s accompanied here by the Mannish Boys themselves and some special guests (harpists Kim Wilson and Sugar Ray Norcia, guitarists Monster Mike Welch and Kid Andersen, et al.).
This is mostly a straight-ahead blues outing, but Rayford and his men still manage to cast an admirably wide net, tackling everything from jazzy West Coast sophistication (Pee Wee Crayton’s When It Rains It Pours) through tremolo-enhanced garage-swamp grease (Pretty Fine Mama) and horn-powered jump blues (Charles Brown’s Depression Blues, Junior Parker’s In the Dark) to Chicago-flavored postwar classicism (Country Boy [not the Muddy standard], the You Don’t Love Me /Wang Dang Doodle spin-off I Might Do Something Crazy) and even a slide-driven acoustic melange of Robert Johnson’s Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) and Little Brother Montgomery’s First Time I Met the Blues (mis-identified as Son House’s Preaching Blues, which was the source for Johnson’s composition but is not the song presented here).
As usual with a project like this, well-worn tropes, musical quotes, and ideas tend to pile up on one another (even in ostensibly original material). But the musicianship is impeccable, and Rayford himself is a skilled vocal stylist, as convincing with a gristle-choked Delta groan or a throaty juke-joint holler as he is with a suave uptown hepcat murmur or a celebratory, hard-swinging blues shout. Although there’s little here that challenges boundaries or expectations, this is a solid set of standards and conventionally crafted blues originals, elevated from the run-of-the-mill by the musical acumen and obvious commitment of all concerned.
Rounder - 11661-9154-2PA
When genius New Orleans songwriter, pianist, arranger, and producer Allen Toussaint began recording in earnest as a singer—in 1970 with the single Sweet Touch of Love/From a Whisper to a Scream on the Tiffany label, followed by an album on Scepter and three more for Reprise—he was uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice and disguised the natural sound of it through double tracking. It wasn’t until the four Toussaint songs were released by Island Records on a two-disc album titled New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1976 that the warm, richly resonant tones of his low-tenor pipes were widely exposed in un-doctored form. He’s been recording that way ever since, particularly after Hurricane Katrina drove him out of his hometown and Joe’s Pub in Manhattan became his headquarters of sort.
Recorded at Joe’s in September 2009, Songbook presents Toussaint singing and playing without additional accompaniment. Rounder’s standard edition of the disc contains a dozen songs, while the deluxe edition consists of a 25-song CD and a 90-minute DVD made up of a slightly different 25-song set and a 25-minute studio interview.
The deluxe edition CD offers a wonderfully intimate look at the artist as he delivers songs he’d written over the years for other singers, including Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Frankie Miller, Art Neville, Benny Spellman, and Irma Thomas (and a few for himself), without the surging horns, ace rhythm sections, and background vocals (often provided by Toussaint himself through overdubbing) heard on the original recordings. Much like Jelly Roll Morton’s solo recordings without his Red Hot Peppers, Toussaint’s piano often suggests the ensemble parts that were once present on old favorites like Lipstick Traces, Holy Cow, Get Out My Life Woman, All These Things, A Certain Girl, Mother-In-Law, Fortune Teller, and Working in a Coal Mine. His six-minute treatment of It’s Raining is much different from the Thomas original, however. His vocal phrasing is tender and remarkably pliant, and he employs jazz chord substitutions and at one point, as he sings the line “I’ve got the blues so bad I can hardly catch my breath,” plays rolling chords that betray his stylistic debt to Charles Brown. It is perhaps the finest performance of Toussaint’s stellar career.
Toussaint performs a recent composition titled No Place Like New York toward the end of the set, but his longing for home is pronounced on such numbers as Shrimp Po-Boy (Dressed), It’s a New Orleans Thing, I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday, and especially a 15-minute rendition of Southern Nights that includes a long, heartfelt monologue about visiting Creole relatives in the country when he was a boy. The best news is that since the recording of Songbook, Toussaint is again living and working in New Orleans.
Can’t Get Enough
429 Records – FTN17940
As a last-minute replacement for Al Kooper’s missing session mate Michael Bloomfield on the 1968 album Super Session, Stephen Stills made a blip in blues history by singing and playing on the four songs that completed the best-selling disc, only one of which, a version of Willie Cobbs’ You Don’t Love Me, was an actual blues. Now, 45 years later, the 68-year-old rock star has put together a blues-rock band called the Rides with singer-guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 36, and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, 70. Stills’ bassist Kevin McCormick and Shepherd’s drummer Chris Layton (formerly with Stevie Ray Vaughan) complete the quintet.
Stills and Shepherd, who had first jammed together at a Superbowl party hosted by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, take turns on lead vocals and guitars, while Goldberg largely stays in the background on piano and organ. Both Stills and Shepherd display commanding blues guitar skills throughout. The three leaders collaborated on writing four of the disc’s ten songs, of which the opening Roadhouse has the strongest blues content, with Stills wailing “Mississippi roadhouse where I been playin’ my music for a bunch of college kids” in gruff low-tenor tones. Shepherd takes the vocal helm quite effusively on others, including three vintage numbers he selected for the recording: Muddy Waters’ Honey Bee, Elmore James’ Talk to Me Baby, and the rhythm-charged That’s a Pretty Good Love, a tune credited to Bryant Lucas and Fred Mendelsohn that first appeared as the flip side of the 1956 Big Maybelle hit Candy. Adding further variety to the album are a Stills composition titled Word Game, a version of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, and full-tilt treatment of Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ Search and Destroy that was suggested by Jerry Harrison, who co-produced the session with Stills and Shepherd.
IRONING BOARD SAM
DixieFrog/Music Maker Relief Foundation - DFGCD 8733
When LB last spoke with Sammie “Ironing Board Sam” Moore (LB #211), the musician had moved from New Orleans, where he’d made his home for years, to Jackson, Mississippi, eventually returning to his birthplace of Rock Hill, South Carolina. He’d fallen on hard times recently but was in talks with the Music Maker Foundation about recording for them. Double Bang! is his third release under their imprint, and the expansive collection offers a summary of the singular musician’s wide-ranging career.
The album contains 35 tracks spread across two CDs; all but eight are Sam originals. Big Bang! surrounds him with a full band, including backing vocals from the Believers in Christ. Ever Look at a Tree and Can’t Nobody Do are classic, piano-driven R&B; Good Will Come to You and It Will Come to Light share elements of doo-wop. The horn-powered soul of For the Love of Money, Beat the Devil, and I Feel Your Pain easily segue into the big-band era with the dreamy Bedroom Window. Sam can’t keep his mind off his lady’s posterior on the naughty funk of Nothing but Your Butt, keeps the dance going on Do the Ironing Board and the gospel-inflected Life Is Like a Seesaw, and ends with a sweet, solo piano version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Somewhere also serves as a preview for the next disc, entitled Hot Bang!, which features Sam alone at the keys. All of the cuts have an intimate feel; especially nice are (Come On) Let’s Boogie, Why I Sing the Blues, Come to Mardi Gras, and Tallahassee Bridge, a re-worked version of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. A few songs from the first CD are also re-recorded here, but what’s really special is the inclusion of Sam’s late ’60s-early ’70s singles. With the style and verve he displays on smoking cuts like I’ve Been Used and Man of the Street, and his fine singing and playing on the ballads Purple Raindrops and Raining in My Heart, it’s hard to fathom how he wasn’t better known.
Sam won 2012’s Comeback Artist Award and this year’s Most Outstanding Keyboard Artist Award in LB’s Critics Poll. Let’s hope this renewed attention, plus the heartfelt performances on Double Bang!, will continue to expand his audience.
SMOKIN’ JOE KUBEK & BNOIS KING
Road Dog’s Life
Delta Groove - DGPCD162
These two guitar maestros have been playing together a long time—almost 25 years. A collaboration doesn’t last that long without a mutual sense of humor and adventure. Both traits come through on Road Dog’s Life, their 15th record together. Through a dozen house-rockin’ mostly original tunes, they chug and churn with a confident, exuberant approach. Road Dog’s Life has the sound of two old pals having lots of fun.
They bring along other pals too. Kim Wilson’s blustery harmonica solo on Nobody but You exudes just as much free-wheeling swagger as the guitarists’. It’s a made-for-headphones collection too, with the mix designed so that Kubek comes in through the right channel with King coming through the left.
Their tunes have a wry sense of humor, from the richly drawn, rough and tumble title character of the lead-off track Big Money Sonny or the clever wordplay and classic innuendo of K9 Blues.
The two covers are real curveballs, but both hit the mark. First is a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Play with Fire, an unlikely selection given the dozens of other more blues-based songs in the Stones’ oeuvre, but they make it work, transforming it in to a down and dirty swamp groove, again accentuated by harmonica, this time by Randy Chortkoff. The other is an early track from the Beatles called Don’t Bother Me. Again, it’s an ambitious choice and impressive makeover because they transform the jaunty vibe and easy harmonies of the early mop-top era into a slow-burning blues that broods and taps a deep despair not apparent in the original version.
In all, Road Dog’s Life is a document of two long-time colleagues showing themselves to be adept at writing original material and re-interpreting the work of others, and most importantly, having a ton of fun in the process
DAVID KIMBROUGH III
Oh Baby Please
No Label - (No #)
David Kimbrough III is, of course, the son of the late Mississippi hill country bluesman Junior Kimbrough. His discography includes a 1994 Fat Possum album as David Malone, a 2006 CD for B.C. Records as David Kimbrough Jr., and a handful of self-released offerings.
This new recording marks a sharp departure from the younger Kimbrough’s previous stylings, which were generally aimed at updating the local sound associated with his father and R.L. Burnside. Now, relocated to the university town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Kimbrough has discovered the dulcimer, specifically the so-called mountain, or Appalachian, dulcimer. Not to be confused with its cousin, the hammered dulcimer, it’s fretted and strummed or plucked while held flat. Accompanied only by his young nephew David Gray Kimbrough, who turns in an impressive performance on drums throughout, he kicks off the set with a too-long instrumental that catches fire only briefly near its end. The next two cuts, When I Start Singing the Blues and Ooh Wee, are candidly autobiographical and taken at similar medium-slow tempos. There’s more of a hill country flavor to the title track, where it sounds as if the dulcimer is plugged in to achieve a sort of buzzing drone. Poke That Pig has something of an old-time country-dance feel to it, while, in marked contrast Mr. Jim is a half-spoken, half-sung remembrance of a neighbor who had carried on after losing his family in an accident. For a change of pace, Kimbrough breaks out his guitar to raise the heat a few notches for Got to Go Play the Blues before returning to the buzz of the amplified dulcimer for a rocking My Baby Left Me All Alone that accelerates and ignites part way through. The tempo’s back down for Half Past a Monkey’s Azz, and, true to tradition, Oh How Wonderful closes the program with a church song.
So what to make of Kimbrough’s use of the dulcimer? Quite frankly, the instrument seems to have pretty limited potential compared to the guitar, but it does seem to allow Kimbrough to focus more on his singing, which is what he does best anyway. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues to pursue it, and if so, how he continues to adapt it to the blues. There’s definitely an opportunity here for him to plow some new ground.
Play One for Me
Severn Records - CD 0059
Guitarist Bryan Lee’s latest album also marks his first release for the Severn label, and it should please admirers of the New Orleans musician’s biting fretwork and gruffly expressive singing. Play One for Me shows off both to fine advantage, with a cracking cast of backing players that includes the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson and Johnny Moeller.
The track list is evenly split between Lee’s compositions and covers of soul and blues standards. Play One for Me takes its title from George Jackson’s Aretha (Sing One for Me), which Lee delivers with languid ease. His version of Bobby Womack’s When Love Begins (Friendship Ends) lives in the same lonely place as Bobby Bland’s Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City; both songs are warmly augmented by Willie Henderson’s tasteful string and horn arrangements. Lee turns out a faithfully nasty rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil Is Going On, thanks in part to Wilson’s shredding harmonica; his own You Was My Baby (But You Ain’t My Baby No More) provides the b-side to Evil’s action. Also potent is Poison, a slow, slithering guitar-and-harp grind that coats his vocals in boxy distortion. Why is a socially conscious shuffle (“I don’t see faces, just heart and soul/Oh man, this hatred is sure getting old”), and Sixty-Eight Years Young, a swaggering ode to music’s ability to invigorate, ends the album on a high note.
With a smooth sound that’s still rough around the edges, Play One for Me should inspire many hits of the replay button.
CD REVIEWS AUGUST 2013
THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS
Beyond the 4 Walls
Acoustic Production Originals - CAPO 20235
This disc is a reunion in more ways than one. It brings the Campbells back together as a recording unit, and it also returns them to their true musical and spiritual home in gospel, rather than the festival/jam band world they’ve been visiting so often (and with such mutually beneficial results) for over a decade.
The opening whine of Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel at the outset of Hell No! Heaven Yes! sets the tone—both otherworldly and sharply focused, they bespeak both the exultation of a soul ascending and that same soul writhing in doubt and darkness before salvation. Lap steel virtuoso Darick Campbell and “mid guitarist” Phil Campbell round out the “Sacred Steel” front line buoyed by bassist Daric Bennett and drummer Carlton Campbell, with vocalists Denise Brown and Tiffany Godette delivering the message with sanctified fervor.
The Campbells, unlike some of their sacred steel contemporaries, are northerners (they originally hail from Rochester, New York), but their sound is rich in southern roots: modal harmonies; rhythmics that layer, circle, and intertwine in patterns that hark back to African ring shouts; full-bodied singing that segues between solo verses and spirit-infused group response (all five instrumentalists, along with Brown and Godette, contribute their voices); instrumental techniques that echo, represent, and evoke the sung words and sermons like aural onomatopoeia—all this and more reflects the historic origins of the music and its message.
At this late date, it’s a bit difficult to tell whether elements that seem drawn from secular sources—the bass-heavy, neo-funk impetus of Believe I’ll Run On; the juke-like “trance blues” modal structure and propulsive cadences of It’s Alright Now and the aforementioned Hell No!; the pop-blues melodicism of the up-tempo When All of God’s Children Get Together and the more meditative Nobody’s Fault But Mine; the second-line beat and urban-contemporary midnight sheen of Joy—are truly indigenous to the Campbells’ music, or whether they reflect years spent toiling in the vineyards of “The World” as well as the Lord—but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Whether or not one chooses to believe the literal truth of all the songs’ lyrics, the music itself is both healing and sanctifying—just as it does in church, it calls the Spirit down upon us, and we emerge both cleansed and inspired.
The Walter Davis Project
Electro-Fi - 3435
St. Louis pianist Walter Davis was among the most popular and prolific blues artists to record before World War II, but he is too little remembered today. If his reputed birth date of March 1, 1912, is correct, he had yet to turn 18 when his recording career began with a 1930 session for Victor, for whom he continued to record (apart from some 1949 sides for Bullet) until 1952, waxing something on the order of 200 titles for the label and its Bluebird imprint. By the time that Paul Oliver interviewed him in the early ’60s for his benchmark Conversation with the Blues—arguably the most important blues book ever written—Davis had suffered a stroke and retired from music, instead working as a desk clerk at a small hotel and preaching on the side. When he died in 1963, he was only 51.
Happily, German pianist Christian Rannenberg determined to resurrect Davis’ standing in the blues hierarchy, beginning with a 2007 meeting with Charlie Musselwhite that led to their recording of Why Should I Be Blue and Friends We Must Part—the two sides of a 1946 Bluebird 78 that Musselwhite’s mother had owned while he was growing up. Next on Rannenberg’s list was Billy Boy Arnold, whose dedication to his forebears is also evident from his recent Electro-Fi tributes to Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy. Here, he contributes eight of the disc’s 17 tracks, including what is perhaps Davis’ best-known number, Just One More Time (a.k.a. Come Back Baby) and the hauntingly appropriate Please Remember Me. Then, in 2012, Rannenberg got together with expat harmonica man Keith Dunn to record another Davis staple, Ashes in My Whiskey, along with the set’s only two uptempo pieces, the instrumental The Dozens According to Mr. Davis and Just Can’t Help It, which serves as a reminder that unlike his equally neglected contemporary Peetie Wheatstraw, who tended to sound salacious even when his material was pensive, Davis tended to sound pensive even when his material was salacious.
To complete his labor of love, Rannenberg delved deeper into Davis’s past, acquiring a 2002 Bob Corritore recording of Henry Townsend, who played guitar on Davis’ recordings as long ago as 1935, and in late 2008 venturing to Richmond, California, to capture two songs and a brief interview from a then 87-year-old Jimmy McCracklin, who had grown up in St. Louis as Davis’ godson and covered the older man’s Don’t You Want to Go at his debut session for Globe in 1945. We can hope that this effort will meet its goal of restoring Davis to his rightful place in the blues pantheon half a century after his death, but in any event Rannenberg and his friends have given us an album that succeeds quite nicely on its own merits.
ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND
Blue Note - 1868201
It’s been three years since the last Robert Randolph studio album, not counting February’s Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers, a showcase for his sacred steel guitar brethren Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Chuck and Darick Campbell on which Randolph played on only three of the 11 tracks. The Don Was–produced Lickety Split is his first for Blue Note after four albums for Warner Bros. between 2003 and 2010 and a live recording for Dare Records in 2011.
The New Jersey–based musician hasn’t looked back since being kicked out (some 13 years ago) of the House of God, the fundamentalist denomination in which he was raised, for having dared to play sacred steel music, originally an integral part of worship services, in New York nightclubs. The banishment simply allowed him to take the energy-charged style beyond the restrictions of the church and into the secular realm, where he quickly became a sensation with blues and jam-band enthusiasts.
Randolph hasn’t turned his back on religion, however. On Born Again, a tune he wrote with Nashville studio bassist Tommy Sims that has a melody and groove reminiscent of the Isley Brothers’ version of Stephen Stills’ Love the One You’re With, he sings about going to church. His sister Lenesha Randolph drives home the gospel connection by wailing the line “swing down chariot, stop and let me ride.” Two other numbers co-written with Sims—New Orleans and Welcome Home—have an atmospheric Bobby Womack–like flavor.
Many tunes are rendered as full-tilt jams, especially the shout tempo-driven Take the Party, to which Trombone Shorty lends his horn, and the very funky Brand New Wayo, during which the Carlos Santana locks guitars with the leader in an Allman Brothers manner before the two men take off individually into the stratosphere. Treatments of the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster and the Olympics/Young Rascals hit Good Lovin’ also add excitement to the terrific 12-song set.
Pushin’ Against a Stone
Concord Records - CRE-34466
Valerie June’s star has been on the rise lately (LB #221). The New York–based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has recently been featured on NPR, performed at the SXSW Festival, and sung harmony with Eric Church on the Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. Currently, she is touring Europe in support of her new release, Pushin’ Against a Stone. Though she has three EPs to her credit and has appeared on albums with Luther Dickinson and Meshell Ndegeocello, Pushin’ Against a Stone is June’s full-length, major label debut—and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Produced by Kevin Augunas, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and Peter Sabak, Stone displays June’s blend of “organic moonshine roots music” to stunning effect. Workin’ Woman Blues backs bluegrass picking with a swinging horn section; The Hour is a potent mix of urban R&B and churchly vocal harmonies; and Wanna Be on Your Mind is sultry, sparkling Memphis soul. The Appalachian glow of Tennessee Time pays tribute to her native state, and her rendition of the traditional gospel Trials, Troubles, Tribulations evokes the Carter Family. The fuzz-heavy title track and garage-y You Can’t Be Told echo Auerbach’s recent work on Dr. John’s Grammy-winning Locked Down. But the album’s best moments may be its quieter ones—the chilling menace of Shotgun, the pure melancholy of Twined and Twisted, and the heartbreaking beauty of Somebody to Love, the latter buoyed by her plucked banjo and Booker T. Jones’ gently hovering organ. These songs allow June’s unusual voice to really shine; a clear, reedy soprano, it’s reminiscent of Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton without sounding like either.
“Oh, and I’m on my way/Oh, and it won’t be long,” she sings on the closing track On My Way, co-written with Jones. And indeed she is—Pushin’ Against a Stone heralds Valerie June as a singular talent, and we should expect to hear much more from her in the future.
BARRELHOUSE CHUCK & KIM WILSON’S BLUES ALL-STARS
Driftin’ from Town to Town
The Sirens - SR-5021
This is the third release from pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and his second collaboration with Fabulous Thunderbirds front man Kim Wilson on the independent Sirens label, a niche imprint that specializes in gospel, jazz, and especially all things blues piano (for readers who aren’t familiar with the label, their catalog is well worth perusing at www.thesirensrecords.com; Heavy Timbre and 8 Hands on 88 Keys are exceptional). With Wilson currently riding a wave of critical acclaim for the T-birds’ newest album, Driftin’ from Town to Town couldn’t have been released at a better time, and the Blues All-Stars are just that—perennial West Coast favorites in bassist Larry Taylor (of Canned Heat) and drummer Richard Inness, guitarists Billy Flynn and Jeremy Johnson, and sax man Sax Gordon.
There’s no need to review the long résumés of the men playing here, and the 13-song set is just as strong and the grooves just as tight as you would expect from such a talented ensemble. Most of the tracks are in the Chicago blues vein, providing the perfect vehicle for Chuck’s Sunnyland Slim–inspired dexterity on the keys. Their cover of Floyd Jones’ Stockyard Blues stands out for its airy arrangement, anchored by the slow and steady rhythm provided by Taylor and Inness. Wilson lays down some particularly tasteful (and reserved) first position harp work on that track.
An instrumental version of Willie Dixon’s Three Hundred Pounds of Joy, a song typically associated with Howlin’ Wolf, is an unexpected delight—Flynn and Johnson channel Hubert Sumlin, Wilson’s amplified harmonica replaces the Wolf’s vocal lines, and Gordon answers Wilson’s call with some punchy sax fills. Faithful covers of Jody Williams’ Lucky Lou and Chuck Berry’s Thirty Days add sonic variety to the proceedings without leaving the Windy City, but the boys head south to Memphis to wrap things up with one from the Stax catalog, Booker T & the M.G.s’ Time Is Tight.
Driftin’ from Town to Town is not innovative, but it doesn’t need to be—it’s just a beautiful display of blues artistry, performed by master bluesmen steeped in tradition and doing what they do best.
THE HOUND KINGS
9 Below Productions - NBP 003
“I can’t work. Too scared to steal. How in the world you think I’m supposed pay my bills?” Alabama Mike wails on SSI Blues, the first of ten tracks on the Hound Kings’ debut CD. It’s a true story about the Bay Area singer’s recent bout with Valley Fever, a respiratory disease that caused him to lose his day job as a truck driver and kept him bedridden for a year. His tenor pipes crack with anguish as he sings over acoustic guitarist Anthony Paule and harmonica blower Scot Brenton’s Rollin’ And Tumblin’–like backing.
“Well, my money done got funny, and my change done got strange. My credit, it won’t get it—not a doggone thing. And I never seen times like this before. Will I survive, good people? I don’t know,” Mike sings on Recession Blues, another of the eight tunes he co-wrote with Brenton and Paule. Here they supply Piedmont-style support in the tradition of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Brenton’s percussive spurts work in tandem with Paule’s finger-picked patterns to give the song a solid rhythmic foundation. Mike is singing about the current economic downturn, but one might think the song is about the Great Depression based on his two cohorts’ decidedly old-timey backing.
Not all the numbers draw so closely on prewar blues styles, however. Come Go Home with Me, for instance, borrows its melody and rhythm from Tyrone Davis’ 1975 smash Turning Point; Paule and Brenton make the groove work nicely, even without the signature bass line of that and other Davis tunes. Three original slow numbers—a blues ballad titled The Real McCoy, the confessional The Thing, and a pleading soul song called You Got Issues that’s reminiscent of Slim Harpo’s Rainin’ in My Heart—come across as being highly personal and are given intensely emotional readings by Mike. You Gotta Move, the gospel song associated with both Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, and Mercy Dee’s naughty Red Light round out the program on this auspicious debut by a wonderful and most welcome new addition to the acoustic blues scene.
Singing in My Soul
Big Song Music - PBB1-2013
You get a sense where singer/guitarist Lisa Biales is trying to take you on Singing in My Soul by considering the sources she taps for the set list: singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mississippi John Hurt, Sippie Wallace, Blue Lu Barker, Peggy Lee, and Patsy Cline, and songwriters W.C. Handy and Harry Warren/Al Dubin. The program sounds as if you are listening to a radio broadcast from a hip, early 1950s, 52nd Street nightclub.
What unites this material from a somewhat disparate group of artists is the ebullient sense of swing generated by Biales and company—Cincinnati-based pianist Ricky Nye and the Paris Blues Band, which consists of guitarist Anthony Stelmaszack, bassist Thibaut Chopin, and drummer Simon “Shuffle” Boyer. Biales delivers the tunes in straightforward, unaffected style with a warm, pleasant voice. The musical performances are marked by solid musicianship and tasteful economy. They really get a fire cooking on the two Tharpe numbers, Singing in My Soul and Strange Things Happening Every Day, both of which feature Stelmaszack’s propulsive, jagged guitar work. Hurt’s Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me takes the whole affair to church, and guests, violinist Doug Hamilton and mandolin player Brad Meinerding, weave tasty lines around Nye’s stately gospel piano work. Biales delivers a rollicking version of Wallace’s You Got to Know How that stands up nicely next to both the original and Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 cover and features some two-fisted boogieing from Nye. The lone original in the program, Biales’s Magic Garden, fits in nicely with the vintage material and sports a melodic line that brings to mind the whimsy and quirkiness of some of Thelonious Monk’s stride piano–influenced tunes.
Singing in My Soul is a throwback affair, but because of Lisa Biales’ honest, spirited vocals and the band’s rock solid, swinging performances, it avoids nostalgia—even on a straightforward rendition of a romantic standard like Warren & Dubin’s I Only Have Eyes for You— and delivers a diverse program of classic tunes that are both entertaining and engaging.
— Robert H. Cataliotti
CADILLAC JOHN NOLDEN WITH THE CORNLICKERS
Red’s Juke Joint Sessions Vol. 1
No Label - (No #)
Recorded August 2012 at Red’s Lounge Clarksdale, Mississippi, and presented live and uncut, this set from Cadillac John and the Cornlickers is about as hot summer Delta juke as it gets—especially in 2013. In addition to Nolden on vocals and harp, the Cornlickers include Dale Wise on drums, Dave Groniger and Bobby Gentilo on guitar, and Tony Ryder on bass. Nolden, featured in LB #223, has found most of his musical success later in life. He is in rare form on these 11 songs. Familiar words, phrases, rhythms, and melodies snake through the album and are weaved seamlessly together in the hands of an experienced master. Nolden channels Muddy Waters on Two Trains, goes to Texas on Too Many Drivers, and settles comfortably with big influence Sonny Boy Williamson I on Good Morning.
There does seem to be a mistake on the song titling, however: the final track is supposed to be a song titled Still a Fool but is actually a different, more stretched out version of a song from earlier on the album, Two Trains—since Nolden’s treatment of this song is so deft, the fact that it is on the album twice is far from a bad thing.
Due to Cadillac’s soft voice, the label chose to record during the day at Red’s when the crowd was small. As the band is only one half the juke joint “experience,” perhaps future albums in this series will be recorded when the party is in full swing. Either way, Volume 1 in Red’s Juke Joint Sessions is a stout effort from Cadillac John and the Cornlickers.
MORELAND & ARBUCKLE
Telarc - TEL-34329-02
After 12 years together, Wichita, Kansas’ Moreland & Arbuckle only keep getting stronger. 7 Cities is an erudite, concept-tinged album brimming with themes of power, glory, greed, corruption, downfall, and eventual redemption. Produced by Seattle, Washington’s Matt Bayles, this is the first album that the band itself hasn’t produced.
7 Cities centers around the story of 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s quixotic search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold on the Kansas Prairie. The album opens with Quivira, the story of Coronado’s quest, featuring gritty, garage overtones thanks to Aaron Moreland’s guitar and Dustin Arbuckle’s stinging harmonica and fire-and-brimstone vocals. The duo is also aided throughout the album by longtime collaborator, drummer Kendall Newby.
There isn’t a weak track in the mix so the self-described “roots-rock” band’s assessment that this is their strongest work yet is astute. From the rollicking ZZ Top beer-stained beard rock of Tall Boogie and Road Blind to the soulful introspection of Broken Sunshine and Time Ain’t Long to the acoustic country blues slide instrumental Red Bricks, 7 Cities has a little bit of everything. One of the biggest surprises of the album is the band’s cover of Tears for Fears’ ’80s pop classic Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Moreland & Arbuckle (and Newby) make an overplayed brat pack hit work. In fact, it fits quite well within the context of the record. Overall, 7 Cities is a deep, satisfying effort from one of the best bands in the Midwest.
Ring on Her Finger, Rope Around My Neck
Benevolent Blues - BVBL - 590
Travis Haddix has always straddled the line between conventional twelve-bar blues styles and modern soul-blues. Here, even when he works within the straightforward structure, the brawny horn accompaniment, his keen-toned fretwork, and the funk-seasoned rhythms reflect the modern-day sound. Although he’s hardly the second coming of Bobby Bland, Haddix also summons a muscular baritone vocal delivery; his guitar solos nod respectfully in the direction of B.B. and T-Bone, but they’re enlivened with plenty of up-to-the-minute soul and passion.
Lyrically Haddix remains a deft humorist-philosopher. The title tune isn’t the misogynist creed the title might indicate, but a slyly coded commentary on both racial and gender politics; Doctor Doctor satirizes modern-day society’s obsession with quick-fix medical solutions; Jodie finds the singer on the trail of the modern-day blues trickster/wife-stealer; in Two Jobs with a Paper Route, he half-kills himself with work in order to bring in enough money to satisfy his demanding woman.
Haddix can also hone his wit to a rapier edge. The slow-rolling Old Fashioned Justice mercilessly calls out a former lover who ends up with a wrong-doing man; Patience with a Purpose, taken at an even slower grind and intensified further by Haddix’s fire-toned leads, portrays a frustrated man in a loveless relationship, vowing to stay true and hope for the best.
On purely musical terms, there’s little here that qualifies as trailblazing or earth-shattering; but as a sampling of mainstream contemporary blues with powerful soul-blues flavor, spiced with sardonic lyric wisdom, this is a difficult set to resist.
CD REVIEWS JUNE 2013
Cotton Mouth Man
Alligator - ALCD 4954
It was great to see Mr. Superharp back on the cover of LB over a quarter century after his last appearance there, but it’s even better to see a new studio album from the respected harmonica master. Cotton Mouth Man is a star-studded affair that marks James Cotton’s fifth—and perhaps best—recording for Alligator.
Cotton’s strongest studio efforts have always been those that highlighted the man himself, both on vocals and harmonica, whereas guest-heavy projects such as 35th Anniversary Jam and Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes, both released on Telarc in the early 2000s, never quite delivered the level of intimacy that has always marked his best work. That’s not the case here, but it has less to do with the fine performances from guest artists such as Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, and Keb Mo than it does with the album’s central focus and execution: all of the songs are originals that Cotton hasn’t recorded before, and together they offer an autobiographical narrative of his eventful life and soul-deep relationship with the blues.
Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge produced the record, and in addition to playing drums on several tracks he also shares songwriter credits on all 12 tunes in the set, seven of which Cotton coauthored. From start to finish Cotton plays with an authority and energy that belies his age (78 years young, 69 of them spent as a professional musician). Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening title track, where Cotton trades percussive harp blasts in a call-and-response with longtime James Cotton Blues Band singer Darrell Nulisch, who handles vocal duties over a tough boogie rhythm: “His harp does all his talking/He’s wicked and he’s wild/Gather around him, children/He’s still got one more mile.” Cotton kicks off Midnight Train by imitating a chugging freight train, one of the first sounds he learned to play from his mother as a young boy in the cotton fields outside of Tunica, Mississippi.
Mississippi Mud, a touching slow blues sung by Keb Mo, traces Cotton’s journey north out of the Delta, a move that eventually led to his 12-year tenure with Muddy Waters. Cotton blows in his idiosyncratic third position style as Mo tells his story: “When I got to Chicago I learned the city ways/But I keep me some Mississippi in everything I play/I knew a man named Muddy, he done some plowing too/Took me in like a brother, and we made us some country blues/It’s in my soul and in my blood, yeah, that old Mississippi Mud.” Mo returns on Wasn’t My Time to Go, a mid-tempo blues punctuated with some nimble high note blow bends that revisits Cotton’s many brushes with fate. Listening to this track will remind listeners why Mark Hummel has called Cotton “a survivor to the max.”
The album’s most poignant moment comes on the final track, the acoustic country blues Bonnie Blue. Named after the plantation where he was born, this Cotton original marks his first return as a vocalist since releasing Fire Down Under the Hill 13 years ago. The song manages to be both plaintive and uplifting at the same time: at once a reminder of the aftermath of his battle with throat cancer in the ’90s and a testament to his resilience as an artist. This was the right track for Cotton to sing, and he sounds fantastic on it.
Cotton has made it clear that he has no intention of retiring from touring or recording any time soon (and we can all be thankful for that), and Cotton Mouth Man confirms, with authority, that the storied career of one of the last great harmonica innovators of his generation is far from over.
— Roger Gatchet
JIMMY “DUCK” HOLMES
All Night Long
Wolf Records - 120.936
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes plays a truehearted style derived from in and around Bentonia, Mississippi, as most famously performed by Skip James and Jack Owens. Bentonia blues is often played in an open E minor and open D minor guitar tuning, with a peculiar mournful tonality. It is unique and distinct and Holmes is the living legacy of this sound.
This is pure unadulterated roots blues in an ethereal, gritty and roughhewn style, and therein lies its beauty, intrinsic to the most important element—the feeling. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes indelibly grabs and shakes the bass string of your soul on All Night Long, a CD packed with 13 tracks by the artist. He plays a haunting blues style, characterized by chordal repetition—amazingly beautiful in its simplicity, raw expressiveness, and at times inherent sadness. Like the best of blues, it expresses hope, torment, hardship, and suffering, sensuality and problems with the opposite sex, but it evokes happiness, healing and joy.
The album was recorded during two sessions in Leland and Bentonia, Mississippi, in 2012. There are plenty of local standards, including the expected Bentonia classics by Skip James, Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues and Devil Got My Woman. There are some fine general blues favorites, played deep roots style, like Train Train, Someday Baby, Red Rooster, and Rock Me. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes surprises with his songwriting skills: Six Little Puppies, All Night Long, Blues Ain’t Nothing, Hurry Hurry, Don’t Get Mad and I’m Going to Leave You. The artist tells his stories, slowly and deliberately, in an almost languid trance-like poetic folk style. An irresistible folk blues treasure.
BIG BILL MORGANFIELD
Blues With A Mood
Black Shuck - BSR-002
Big Bill Morganfield remains true to the postwar style associated with his father, Muddy Waters. His voice is very close to Muddy’s (although he lacks Muddy’s nuances of intonation, timbre, and phrasing); his songs’ arrangements and instrumentation, for the most part, could have emanated from the vintage-era Chess studios. (Jim Horn’s R&B-flavored tenor sax isn’t as anomalous in this context as it might seem; Muddy sometimes used a sax player on recording sessions, and he often carried one in his working bands in the ’50s and early ’60s.)
Paradoxically, Big Bill seems to need emotional intensity to relax. His croon on Memphis Slim’s ballad Havin’ Fun sounds labored, but he roars out his own hard-time blues Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper with an effective mix of irony and outrage; he summons a vibrato-enhanced deep-baritone bellow on Ooh Wee (a Willie Dixon composition that Muddy recorded in 1959); he sounds effectively haunted on Devil at My Door. Although he can’t quite wrap his chops around Junior Parker’s I Feel Alright Again (presented here as an ambitious doowop/jazz/jump-blues fusion), he sounds perfectly at ease with the no less ebullient, but more rhythmically and melodically straightforward, Another Lonely Night, as drummer Chuck Cotton manfully tackles Fred Below’s jazz-flavored backbeat/shuffle. Son of the Blues, hard-grinding and ominous, is toughened further by Morganfield’s rugged lyric reminiscences of the emotional turmoil he endured growing up separated from both his father and his birth mother.
Once again, devotees of the postwar style will celebrate the way Big Bill Morganfield strives to keep the music and legacy of his father’s era alive.
CHARLES “BIG DADDY” STALLINGS
I Like It When They . . . Call Me Big Daddy
Tai Jeria - 3868
Although he likes to portray himself as a good-timey, shuffle-heavy party man, Baltimore-based Charles Stallings [featured in LB #224] is much more than that. On such outings as the Godfather of Soul tribute James #2, the breezy pop-jazz instrumental E. Groove, and the somewhat incongruous light-funk/rap/southern soul melange Boody Pop and Lock (Nos. 1 and 2), he demonstrates an admirable stylistic range. Young Boy, Young Man finds him in a neo-Delta groove, powered by Anthony “Swamp Dog” Clark’s rootsy harmonica warbles. He affects a neo-Eckstine/Hartman/Rawls croon on the horn-sweetened ballad Don’t Cry (obviously inspired by Ray Charles’ Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying); his three-part tribute to North Carolina juking (Hobbsville, Pts. 1, 2, and 3), conversely, returns him back down home.
Stallings sings in a powerful but unforced baritone—even on barnburners, rather than shout over his band’s accompaniment, he likes to find a niche somewhere beneath the tumult and inhabit it. He has crafted this CD to evoke an all-star stage revue—it features no fewer than four women guest vocalists in various combinations, both solo and in close-harmony tandem, and several tracks are enhanced (or perhaps marred) by a faux “live” audience.
Over the course of 20 tracks, Stallings sometimes seems to lose his stylistic focus, confusing hit-and-miss dilettantism with true versatility (the sophisticated-pop instrumental City Life, though seasoned by some attractive solo work from pianist Dawoud Said, tenor saxist Clarence Ward III, and Stallings himself on guitar, sounds more like a backing track in search of a vocal than a fully realized effort). But, as is often the case when a talented artist reaches for a little more than he can easily carry, there’s plenty to savor here on a track-by-track basis.
Delmark - 828
James “Tail Dragger” Jones is one of the last of the legion of Howlin’ Wolf imitators who populated Chicago’s West Side blues scene in the 1970s and ’80s. This set was originally recorded by Chicago entrepreneur/hustler Iron Jaw Harris. In about 1982, after Harris was killed (while working the door in a West Side club that had originally been run by Necktie Nate Haggins, another Wolf-style singer), Jimmy Dawkins issued two of these tracks, So Ezee and My Head Is Bald, as a 45 on his Leric label. Dragger’s irony-rich lyric wit is in evidence on both of those songs as well as other offerings like Don’t Trust Yo Woman (based on Wolf’s How Many More Years) and Stop Lyin’ (“I didn’t take your woman, you gave your woman to me”). Please Mr. Jailer isn’t the 1956 Wynona Carr song but another Tail Dragger original—in retrospect it’s laced with irony, given that Dragger himself eventually did time for the killing of fellow musician Boston Blackie in 1993. The final cut, Tail’s Tale, is an interview with Dragger that Delmark’s Steve Wagner conducted more recently; in it, Dragger reminisces about the making of this disc and his life on the Chicago scene.
Dragger’s hoarse approximation of Wolf’s voice is entertaining, even if he lacks the great man’s emotional power and textural complexity. Guitarist Johnny B. Moore shines with his captivating stylistic mélange—elements of Magic Sam, Hubert Sumlin, and Freddie King, among others, are present, yet Moore manages to mix them so creatively that the result is personalized and unique. Pianist Lafayette Leake brings a hint of the barrelhouse to both Ezee and My Head Is Bald, both of which also feature harpist Little Mac Simmons at his most raw-edged and aggressive. Elsewhere, Eddie “Jewtown” Burks handles the harp chores; his somewhat limpid timbre and watery melodic lines aren’t thrilling, but along with guitarists Moore and Jesse Lee Williams, as well as deep-pocket bassist Willie Kent and drummer Larry Taylor, he effectively evokes the gritty backstreet urban jukes where Dragger has performed for most of his life.
This CD will probably be most pleasing to nostalgists and Chicago completists, but it’s still an important document of a too-often ignored era in Chicago blues.
Eleven East Corp. - (No #)
Chicago-based fretman Melvin Taylor is known for his jaw-dropping technical prowess and his freestyle, mix-and-match eclecticism; his sound can be either thrilling or overwhelming, depending on the listener’s mood and Taylor’s focus at any given moment.
The good news is that Taylor, featured on both lead guitar and bass here, sounds as if he’s learned to temper his excesses—rather than fire out endless full-frontal fretboard assaults, he now picks his spots, and even at his most fast and furious he sounds as if he’s playing ideas, not just notes. Even better, he knows when to tone things down—his Wes Montgomery–style Beneath the Sunset (no doubt a tribute to Wes’s own Bumpin’ on Sunset) resonates with both exploratory delight and sophisticated maturity. His take on Isaac Hayes’ Do Your Thing achieves a spot-on mid-funk groove, halfway between hipster languor and street-tough aggression (despite some annoying synth-horn lines). Time Out is a jaunty after-hours swinger, featuring tasty interplay between Taylor’s crisp leadwork and Rick Jones’ soul-jazz organ.
Taylor has always been an instrumentalist first and foremost; he sings on only one track here (Whenever I See You); guest vocalist Bernell Anderson takes the mic on another one (Heartache). Neither is much of a singer; in fact, it sounds almost as if these tracks were included because someone thought that a “blues” record somehow required them (a problem that Matt Murphy, among other front-line instrumentalists, has also had to wrestle with over the years). Taylor will do well to eschew any misplaced sense of obligation and focus on what he does best—a provocative and increasingly satisfying meld of contemporary blues and straight-ahead postbop/jazz-fusion stylings.
Comin’ Out the Hole
GitloBlues - GL-CD03
Although the Georgia-born guitarist Gitlo Lee has been performing on at least a semi-regular basis for years, this would appear to be his first actual recording.
Lee’s vocals are meaty and confident; his guitar work, despite his band’s contemporary, rock-tinged sound, is sparse and understated—rather than attempt to dazzle listeners with technical virtuosity, he prefers to lay carefully crafted notes and phrases into the contours his bandsmen create for him (at times, his string-bending precision evokes Albert King). Even when he cranks things up, he avoids overkill, conveying intensity of feeling through the gnarled tightness of his chording and the aggression of his attack.
Lee also demonstrates admirable versatility, ranging from the backwoods hi-jinks of Big Legged Woman (with its hilarious “dozens”-like spoken coda) through the deep-soul balladry of Ease Out to the moody, almost urban-contemporary pop-soul ballad Angel. He’s also a deft lyric storyteller: he conveys complex emotions and situations with straightforward, almost prosaic language, avoiding clichés even when his subject matter (e.g., the hoodoo-tinged, muck-and-rotgut Swam Devil) might seem to invite it. Joe Brown, with its churchy, gospel-fervor intro, is a heartfelt admonition to a hard-drinking fellow musician to change his ways before it’s too late (“Hey Joe Brown, put your bottle down”—did Lee get the idea from Big Jack Johnson’s similar plea to Frank Frost in 1997’s Frank Frost Blues?)
This CD should bring welcome recognition to a solid bluesman who has lingered in semi-obscurity for too long.
JOHN PRIMER AND BOB CORRITORE
Knockin’ Around These Blues
Delta Groove - DGPCD-159
This set finds Primer in as traditionalist a setting as he’s ever inhabited—his sidemen (including, among others, guitarists Billy Flynn and Chris James, pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, bassist Bob Stroger, and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, along with harpist Bob Corritore) represent a virtual “who’s who” of roots-blues torch carriers. But they pour such emotional immediacy into every note that they eliminate any danger of “museum-piece” fustiness. The set list consists mostly of seldom-remembered gems from the blues canon, adding to the feeling of freshness and discovery: Little Boy Blue, Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome, and Leanin’ Tree (the late Artie “Blues Boy” White’s 1977 hit) are the closest things to “standards” on offer here (one might also include Man or Mouse, recorded by Junior Parker in 1966).
Primer and the band update Lil’ Son Jackson’s Cairo Blues as a driving, urban-sounding postwar shuffle; then they drag Artie White’s suave soul-blues testimonial kicking and screaming back into a late-’50s South Side alley—Corritore wails and swoops as if channeling both Big and Little Walter, and Chuck fires out barrelhouse-flavored piano lines, evoking his mentors Little Brother Montgomery and Sunnyland Slim. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Going Back Home is given a full-bore postwar Chicago makeover. The ghost of Jimmy Reed is resurrected on The Clock (one of Reed’s lesser-known creations); Little Boy Blue sounds like a dispatch from a 1955 South Side gin mill that has somehow arisen, intact and Brigadoon-like, in 2013.
Self-consciously retro tributes to blues “tradition” have become cliché; but in a case like this, with musicians like these on the case, this isn’t “roots” music at all: it’s as contemporary, immediate, and up-to-the minute as it was when the styles were codified—“history” in the present tense.
Heartfixer Music - HFM1010
Though he has more than a dozen records to his credit in a career spanning three decades, Tinsley Ellis steps out with an all-instrumental collection for the first time with Get It! on his own Heartfixer Music label. In the absence of vocals, his expressive guitar work shines.
Ellis pays homage to many blues styles in this ten-song collection, from a groove-heavy tribute to his heroes Booker T. & the MGs (Front Street Freeze) to swinging shuffles in the style of Chuck Berry with Berry Tossin’. Most of the songs here are original compositions, but he does offer a couple of covers. A lively, fuzzy take on Bo Diddley’s Detour is one of the highlights, while Freddy King’s Freddy’s Midnight Dream features some of the album’s most emotive playing.
The originals cover a wide range too. Anthem for a Fallen Hero is a soaring piece in which the guitar voices the melody exquisitely. The Milky Way is a plaintive, atmospheric tune that finds a leisurely, exploratory vibe. Catalunya carries a Latin beat to sharp melodic peaks. The title track provides a swinging, funky groove that recalls some of the Texas greats.
Ellis plays all the guitars on the album and some bass. Otherwise, he is backed by his touring bassist Ted Pecchio on many tracks and by studio session aces Lynn Williams on drums and Kevin McKendree on keyboards. McKendree’s smoky Hammond B3 infuses much of the album with its funky vibe.
Get It! stands out as a singular accomplishment for Ellis. The instrumental milieu allows him to put the focus squarely on the expressive qualities of his guitar playing. Ellis has long cultivated the role of gritty, hard-driving bluesman, but on these instrumental cuts, he exhibits a more restrained and sophisticated side that only adds to his legacy.
Think About What You Got
CDS - CDC-1056
Although it’s billed as “featuring Charles Wilson’s smash hits plus 6 previously unreleased tracks,” this set doesn’t include some of Wilson’s most important sides (It’s Sweet on the Back Street from 1995; his 2006 rendition of Mississippi Boy, a Floyd Hamberlin Jr. creation originally cut by singer Will T and eventually remade by Denise LaSalle as Mississippi Woman)—probably because they weren’t recorded for CDS. In addition, three of the “previously unissued” tracks are somewhat disingenuously labeled—they’re actually alternate takes or remixes of songs that Wilson has, in fact, already put out.
Nonetheless, this disc admirably showcases Wilson’s gritty-sweet vocals—insinuating and seductive on ballads, agreeably tough on up-tempo dispatches from the life of a hard-partying, sweet-loving soul-bluesman. If the lyric imagery sometimes gets labored, and if the production occasionally sounds a bit too sparse or blunt (or gimmicky, as in the case of the faux-churchy Man Enough to Apologize), the overall feel of what’s here is that of a solid journeyman with more to offer than he has thus far had the opportunity to show. Wilson achieves a riveting immediacy on the ballad Think About What You Got; he delivers Mel Waiters’ Something Different About You with an appropriate mix of machismo and irony; his duet with Willie Clayton on That Girl Belongs to Me is toughened by complex sonic textures, and it tells an entertaining story of good-natured masculine erotic competition.
Charles Wilson has cast his lot with quite a few labels over the years (including several of his own), but he has yet to really break out into mainstream southern soul-blues recognition. If this disc reaches the right ears, it might help rectify that situation.
CD REVIEWS APRIL 2013
ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP
Delmark - DE 827
Mississippi bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup is so indelibly associated with his 1946 Victor recording of That’s All Right by way of Elvis Presley’s cover version that the full scope of his legacy is largely neglected. In fact, Crudup ranked among the earliest bluesmen to record playing electric guitar, and the 80-some songs that he waxed for the Victor family of labels from 1941 to 1946 also include such staples as Look on Yonder Wall, Mean Old ’Frisco and Rock Me Mama, to say nothing of his 1949 revival of Dust My Broom that preceded and probably inspired Elmore James’ iconic 1951 Trumpet recording. After the end of Crupup’s Victor years, there was an LP on Fire in 1962 and then a spell of inactivity before he was “rediscovered” in Virginia during the blues “revival” and released two LPs on Delmark and another on United Artists (UK) before his death in 1974.
The set at hand represents a third Delmark album that was held in the can. Said to have been recorded at Chicago’s Sound Studios on November 10, 1969—the same date listed for the Stereosonic session with Ransom Knowling that made up half of the Crudup’s Mood LP—Sunny Road finds Crudup’s guitar, which was always pretty rudimentary in any event, channeled through the same Leslie speaker employed by Buddy Guy on Hoodoo Man Blues a few years before. Lead parts are contributed by Jimmy Dawkins on three tracks and Mike Thompson on one, while Mark Thompson adds electric bass on those four plus another and Willie Smith plays drums throughout. The nine songs all have a familiar feel, both because Crudup never had a very broad stylistic range and because many of the songs are built from the blues’ library of so-called “floating verses,” albeit many of them Crudup’s own. The lack of variety is accentuated by the preponderance of slow and medium tempos—as if by way of explanation, there’s a snippet of studio chatter in which Delmark’s Bob Koester tries to cajole Crudup (even offering some “antifreeze”) into doing something a bit more lively, only for the singer to reply that he couldn’t do a swing number because “I got blues on my mind.” As if for emphasis, the chatter is followed by the seven-minute All I Got Is Gone, where Crudup is clearly shaken as he sings about his recently deceased wife.
Koester emphasizes in his notes that “the blues are, first and foremost, a vocal music,” a point that has been too often lost in the days of guitar pyrotechnics. And, to complete Koester’s quote, “the human voice has rarely been so movingly rich as that of Arthur Crudup, nor has the human experience been so thoroughly mirrored as in the simple blues poetry of this big and gentle man from Mississippi.” —Jim DeKoster
ROBERT RANDOLPH PRESENTS: THE SLIDE BROTHERS
Dare Records & Concord Records - CRE-34262-02
The Slide Brothers are a sacred steel super group consisting of four artists who are no strangers to readers of Living Blues: Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell, and Aubrey Ghent. Robert Randolph brought these pillars of the Church of the Living God together to record their self-titled debut—what listeners hope will be the first of many albums and accompanying tours. The Slide Brothers comprises 11 exciting songs mixing traditional gospel, rock, blues, and funk—many of which may be a surprise to unsuspecting ears. While the Allman Brothers’ Don’t Keep Me Wondering and Elmore James’ The Sky Is Crying, and It Hurts Me Too may have originally been intended for Saturday night, in the deft hands of these gentlemen, they take on a Sunday morning flavor all their own.
The same goes for the group’s moving version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and Fatboy Slim’s Praise You, with Shemekia Copeland making a memorable appearance on the latter. Even though Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent are the only ones doing double duty as vocalist and player on several songs apiece, the Campbell Brothers’ distinctive touch is apparent throughout as well. Among a host of other backing musicians, the quartet is also supported by the fellow Campbell brothers, Phil and Carlton, on guitar and drums respectively. Robert Randolph and brother (and fellow Family Band member) Marcus also make memorable appearances, sealing the deal on this one-of-a-kind amen corner. The Slide Brothers is a dazzling, crackling collaboration that is a welcome and overdue entry in the always-uplifting sacred steel genre. —Mark Coltrain
My World Is Gone
Telarc - 34028-02
Otis Taylor’s melody lines are shot through with mournful grace; his production, though enhanced by electronic embellishments and rock-tinged guitar solos, is as arid and spacious as the big-sky country his lyrics often evoke. His vocals sound life-toughened yet achingly vulnerable, just as his characters gird themselves against tragedy yet resolutely insist on the redemptive power of love. His storylines are often more implied than fully limned; an Otis Taylor song is a vignette rather than a full-blown drama, its thematic and emotional depth inferred rather than proclaimed.
This time out, Taylor focuses primarily (although not exclusively) on the legacy of conquest endured by Native Americans. His protagonists inhabit parched, desolate dreamscapes; they’re convulsed with loss—of their history, their possessions, even their dignity—yet they redeem that loss, if only partially, through the very act of proclaiming it. Sand Creek Massacre Mourning recounts an 1864 incident in which several hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered by U.S. troops in Colorado; Lost My Horse is the plaint of a Navajo man whose alcoholism has left him bereft of his most precious worldly possession (as well as his dignity and, one fears, his soul); in Blue Rain in Africa, the image of a sacred white buffalo on a television show reminds an Indian viewer of how his history and heritage have been stolen; Coming with Crosses is the story of a Klan attack that results in the death of the narrator’s mother.
At times, Taylor employs startling thematic reversals: Huckleberry Blues (its noirish intensity ramped up by Larry Thompson’s midnight-of-the-soul cornet solo) portrays the torments inflicted by a stalker; but here the stalker is a woman, the victim a man. Girl Friend’s House finds a man discovering that his wife is having an affair with a woman—but rather than become jealous, he volunteers to join the fun. In Gangster and Iztatoz Chauffeur, a wealthy player tries to seduce his Native American employee (“He’s a gangster, she’s a limo driver”), but she refuses to be lured by either his riches or his charms.
At risk of mixing metaphors: Otis Taylor’s music calls to mind Peter Guralnick’s statement, in a different context, that “it’s difficult to approve the banalities of most blues singers after listening to Robert Pete Williams.” Unlike Williams, of course, Taylor draws most of his stories from history, not personal experience; nonetheless, few artists in any genre combine poetic acuity, musical eloquence, and a compassion-fueled craving for justice as deftly and effectively as he does.—David Whiteis
Voodoo To Do You!
TeBo - (No #)
Teeny Tucker was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio and, as the daughter of Tommy Tucker of Hi-Heel Sneakers fame, boasts a strong blues bloodline. Her own debut album, Tommy’s Girl, came out in 2000, and this is her fourth release since.
As befits a blues legacy, Tucker has always shown a deep respect for the tradition by honoring her predecessors through her choice of covers, and this set is no exception. In addition to opening with KoKo Taylor’s Voodoo Woman, Tucker pays her respects to Christine Kittrell (I’m A Woman), LaVern Baker (Voodoo Voodoo), and Etta James (Tough Lover). While she does justice to all, Tucker also shows that she’s willing to take a chance by way of her sassy rap on Howlin’ Wolf’s Commit a Crime and her band version of Reverend Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy. She tackles Skip James’s Hard Time Killing Floor straight, however, with pared-down backing featuring producer Robert Hughes on guitar. Elsewhere, however, Hughes and his crew are plugged in and up to the task of handling the diverse program, which is tied together by a recurring voodoo theme that is also evident in It’s Your Voodoo Workin’ from the obscure Louisiana blues man Charles Sheffield and the Tucker/Hughes collaborations Love Spell, Shoes, and the particularly fine I Can Do All That. The set closes with another original, Sun Room, dedicated to the Sun recording studio in Memphis.
This set provides further proof, if any was needed, that Tommy’s girl ranks among the best female blues singers out there today.
Njumba - (No #)
This is Corey Harris’s first straight-ahead blues outing in some time. Armed as usual with both guitar and banjo, he reprises Catfish Blues (backed by a full band and enhanced by Gordon James’ tenor solo), Blind Blake’s That Will Never Happen No More, and Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman; he sounds like a juker on Crying Blues; he pours his heart into J. Gilly Blues, a lament for drummer Johnny Gilmore, who was killed in a Charlottesville, Virginia, fire in 2009.
Elsewhere, though, Harris’s intent runs deeper. His paeans to women—in turn romantic and lecherous—in Black Woman Gates and Black Rag are a welcome (and roots-rich) riposte to hip-hop “B-word” dissing; Underground, on its surface a flee-from-the-devil train song, reveals itself to be a not-so-veiled protest against racial persecution and injustice (the “devil,” it turns out, is also “giving to the rich / stealing from the poor”). Lynch Blues revisits the bad old days with harrowing vividness (with the implication that those days are still with us, albeit in disguised form); the title song bemoans hunger, despair, and the loss of young black men to nihilism. Tallahatchie recalls the brutal 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi; in House Negro Blues, Harris again summons images from a bygone era to address contemporary problems—in this case, black folks content to accept token favors from the oppressor in return for second-class citizenship. Maggie Walker Blues both praises and laments the fate of a woman who worked her way up from poverty (“Mama was a slave / you the bank president”) only to die and be buried in a grave where “don’t nobody come around.”
Corey Harris has been involved with Rastafarian-informed reggae and other Africanist music for so long that the voice of prophecy seems to come naturally to him. He’s infused these new blues with it, and listeners will do well to heed his message.
ANDREW “JR. BOY” JONES
I Know What It’s Like
43rd Big Idea - (No #)
Andrew Jones’ vibrato-enriched baritone is as soulful as ever, and his guitar work again features plenty of post-King bends and arpeggios, fired out with his trademark rough-edged Texas roadhouse tone. Whether riding a standard 12-bar shuffle or funking things up with a Crescent City-tinged street-dance beat, he makes his grooves—both rhythmic and melodic—cook.
Brown’s lyrics mostly revisit standard themes, but they do so with good-natured aplomb. Occasionally, as on Let the Child Be Wild, a sly fusion of liberationist’s manifesto (“Let the child be wild, let the girl be free”) and pick-up artist’s leer (“Don’t try to tame that girl, ’cause she’s coming home to me”), he crafts surprising new storylines out of well-worn ideas. Movin’ From the Dark Side portrays a man struggling to free himself from midnight-of-the-soul desperation—Jones’ guitar cuts to the bone, and his doom-laden vocals effectively reflect his protagonist’s anguish.
Guest vocalist/songwriter Kerrie Lepai’s vibrato is dangerously wide, but there’s plenty of sinew behind her delivery. For the most part, she’s adept enough to avoid forcing emotion—even on a slow-grinding testimonial like Whiskey Drinkin’ Blues, she avoids the neophyte’s trap of sounding impatient with the band’s glacial pace. She does, however, tend to overdo the vocalese a bit, inserting scat-like punctuations and stretching syllables into contortions when a little more understatement would have been more effective.
A few too many of the songs here fade out instead of coming to a meaningful conclusion; overall, though, it’s difficult to fault this helping of meat-and-potatoes contemporary blues.
THE CASH BOX KINGS
Blind Pig - 5150
Straight from the golden era of the blues comes the new album from Chicago’s Cash Box Kings, featuring an impressive line-up of A-list blues players.
Play this in the car to stay awake at night, though you might get a ticket for dancing while driving. This is a tight, far-reaching ensemble. Harmonica player Joe Nosek feels Little Walter and Slim Harpo in the essence of his soul. Singer Oscar Wilson could be right out of the Checker Board Lounge in its glory days. Guitarists Joel Paterson and Billy Flynn are stellar players. The rhythm section is astonishing: Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Beau Sample on upright bass, Gerry Hundt on electric bass. Any of these musicians could have played with the great bands of the golden blues era. Together they keep a sound alive that many thought was no more.
Black Toppin’ has everything you ever heard in the electric blues. It’s derivative track by track, but we love the comfort of familiarity. The Cash Box Kings take you back to Muddy, Little Walter, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, J.B Lenoir, and on. Jump blues, boogie-woogie, Chicago, Delta, swamp boogie, roots rock—it’s all there and all good. The band is in its comfort zone when it fires Delta-to-Chicago-style rockets like Willie Dixon’s Too Late, or Walking Blues or Money, Marbles and Chalk, which have a real Muddy-vibe. Biscuit Baby would make Slim Harpo smile. Harp player Joe Nosek puts his stamp down as one of the meanest on the scene today. Oscar’s Jump, a dance tune written and sung by Oscar Wilson, takes you back to the golden era of the jump blues, evoking the great Los Angeles showboat lounges of the 1940s. The Cash Box Kings also offer brilliant Fabulous Thunderbirds–type roots-rock on Trying Really Hard and Gimme Some of That.
Then, in an interesting twist, they bring on what they call “Mick Taylor–era ’70s Stones” music. Now the Chicago blues preservationists emulate the emulators. My Tinai draws on the lyric we know from Robert Johnson and many other blues singers, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” Oddly, they also cover a Lou Reed song, Run, Run, Run from the Velvet Underground Days.
A great record by one of the best blues bands in the land, Black Toppin’ is a dancing and listening pleasure.
ANDY T-NICK NIXON BAND
Drink Drank Drunk
Delta Groove - DGPCD158
James “Nick” Nixon has been involved in his native Nashville’s R&B scene since he came up alongside Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox in the early ’60s, but he was little known outside that city before his exemplary No End to the Blues CD came out on the Dutch Black Magic imprint in 2001. This time out, he’s teamed with L.A.–based guitarist Andy Talamantez, whose own resume includes stints with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty.
With Anson Funderburgh producing and contributing guitar parts to several tracks, it should come as no surprise that there’s a strong Texas flavor to the proceedings, beginning with the opening Midnight Hour from the Gatemouth Brown songbook. The other well-chosen covers include Don’t Touch Me from Johnny Guitar Watson and Life Is Too Short from T-Bone Walker, plus Paul Gayten’s No Use Knockin’, Tommy Tucker’s Hi-Heel Sneakers, and Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman, one of two tracks on which pianist Christian Dozzler switches to accordion to surprisingly good effect. There’s also a reprise of the title track from Nixon’s Black Magic disc and a handful of band originals, which include the aptly titled On My Way to Texas and the jazzy instrumental Dos Danos, which gives plenty of room for both guitarists (though pictured with a guitar on the cover, Nixon does not play on the set) to stretch out. The title track, despite sounding like something from the Amos Milburn or Wynonie Harris catalogs, was actually co-authored by Tom Hambridge and Gary Nicholson.
In sum, Drink Drank Drunk is one of those rare but happy instances where everything—from Funderburgh’s impeccable production and the consistently satisfying support provided by a host of bandsmen to Nixon’s still potent vocals and Andy T’s spot-on guitar work—combined to make an irresistible album that very well may rank among the year’s best.
On My Mind/In My Heart
Alligator - ALCD 4952
After so many over-hyped blue-eyed soul singers who fell flat, this CD cover does not instill confidence. Looking more like an ’80s New Wave album, the cover shows a lad with a blank stare. Don’t judge this one by the cover. It’s “…an axe and a pistol and a pocket full of explosion balls.”
You could play this new album for traditional soul fans and tell them it was a long lost master from the Atlantic Record vaults—a Jerry Wexler production recorded in 1966 with the original Muscle Shoals Horns. You could say they had Jimmy Johnson on guitar, with the Stax team of Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Booker T. helping out. The young singer was a sensation, you could claim, but the record never saw the light of day, and here it is, straight out of the time warp, when soul still gave you the shivers and shakes…and they would believe you!
Jesse Dee is a young singer/songwriter and guitarist, an uplifting soul man from Boston. This record is a blast, with an exceptionally high level of musicality, songwriting, and production. The sound is perfect, recorded the old way on analog tape for a warmhearted soul sound. Not only that, but Jesse Dee can sing. His honey-dripping, passionate, and stirring soul singing has a little Sam Cooke, a bit of Wilson Pickett, and a dash of Otis Redding. On My Mind/In My Heart has a tight groove, smooth hooks, and funky rhythms delivered by a full-throttle, superlative, big band.
Here is a young singer on the verge of stardom. Although Alligator is not typically a soul label, the company has plenty of crossover and a wide reach. There is already a lot of buzz about Jesse Dee in Europe, and judging by the quality of the songwriting and performance of this album, he will be hit.
Things start off strong on the title cut with a love song. The love theme carries throughout the infectious album, in a series of remarkably well-crafted songs. By the time the second tune, No Matter Where I Am, comes up it becomes clear that the first two songs on the CD could have been a number one hit-single back in better days—rare, danceable, musically perfect, yet joyous and dynamic. Then it just keeps on coming, one amazing song after the other. From the Start is reminiscent of the great Motown duets; in this case Dee couples up with Rachel Price for a lovely and emotive song. By the time The Only Remedy comes around, this album has already richly rewarded the music lover. By the time the album closes with Stay Strong, an upbeat rock/soul tune with a tip of the hat to Paul Pena, there are not enough accolades in the dictionary.
This is old-school passionate music with sizzle. Put this one on the top shelf right next to your old soul records.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles
Arhoolie - 544
The first Arhoolie blues release in 25 years, Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles is a sensation. Chris Strachwitz’ famed record label was a mainstay of the blues revival with Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mance Lipscomb and more. The long Arhoolie blues hiatus has ended with this release by HowellDevine, a roots-blues combo from northern California.
Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles has a real King Biscuit Time vibe in sound, groove, and attitude. Joshua Howell, the band’s guitarist and harmonica player, plays wicked harp loosely in the Rice Miller tradition, with traces of Jaybird Coleman and Little Walter. The fiery Howell plays emotive, straight blues, with sharp and superb guitar sliding & picking. Apparently, nobody showed the rhythm section the playbook. They are wild, juxtaposing interesting syncopations and jazz beats. Drummer Pete Devine and contrabassist Joe Kyle Jr. are in their own dynamic creative realm, approaching the rhythm in a free, almost avant-garde way—a contrast that gives the ensemble an idiosyncratic edge.
Apt liner notes by LB’s Lee Hildebrand introduce this breakthrough project by a still relatively unknown ensemble.
The album offers twelve cuts, including three hot-licks guitar instrumental rarities by the great unsung country blues virtuosos Sylvester Weaver and Frank Hutchison, sweetly fingerpicked by Howell on the National resonator. It is packed with blues standards, starting with Muddy’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ with Howell sliding it just right. Howell plays it safe, but perfectly, on Rice Miller’s Help Me, Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, Little Walter’s Mellow Down Easy, Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) Mighty Long Time and Fred McDowell’s Write Me a Few of Your Lines. The two originals are signs of good things to come.