Living Blues — Living Blues #244
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New Releases By: Bobby Rush, Vasti Jackson And Omar Coleman


Porcupine Meat

Rounder – No #

Bobby Rush’s Rounder debut should cause rejoicing among longtime fans and newcomers alike. The indefatigable “funk folklorist” has lost none of his legendary transgressive wit or genre-straddling musical acumen, even as he has adapted himself with seeming effortlessness to producer Scott Billington’s live-in-thestudio aesthetic. Meanwhile, guest stars such as Vasti Jackson, Keb’ Mo’, Dave Alvin and Joe Bonamassa provide both musical muscle and further crossover potential.

Rush wrote or co-wrote all 12 of the songs here. For the most part, he reprises well-trod Rushian themes—celebrations of libido, sexual gamesmanship, adventures in cuckolding and other dispatches from the front lines of erotic combat—with typical good humor and self-deprecating irony, set to funkdriven, bluesy musical backings. This time out, though, the decidedly non-ironic sound (no wink-and-nod synthesizer punch lines, no electronic tweaks or timbral goofiness) brings a newfound gravitas to his even his most ribald storytelling.

The guests comport themselves admirably: Jackson’s fatback guitar work adds both deep soul and emotional resonance throughout (especially on the title tune, his showcase); Alvin contributes perkiness and sinew to the playfully signifying It’s Your Move; Keb’ Mo’s slide brings both texture and depth to Midnight Gardener, which introduces yet another metaphor for night-prowling sexual hijinks. And trust Bobby Rush to find a way to summon eloquence from even the usually bombastic Bonamassa, whose solo helps make Me, Myself and I a genuinely affecting soul-blues ballad with a pop-rock tinge. Meanwhile, the studio band attains a balance of emotional immediacy, musical depth and—yet again—seriousness of intent that never detracts from the playful mood of most of these tracks. (Special nod to the horns—their crisp riffing invokes, at various points, everything from vintage-era Stax to Tower of Power’s East Bay funk.)

It’s the serious offerings, though, that are most memorable. I’m Tired (subtitled “Tangle Eye Mix” in the notes—an insiders’ tribute to Big Walter Horton, perhaps?) Is a bleak portrayal of the soul-killing vicissitudes of living in poverty, intensified by Rush’s from-the-gut vocals and plaintive harp wails. Even more impressive is Got Me Accused, based on Eddie Boyd’s Third Degree (with echoes of Tin Pan Alley here and there), but still strikingly original. The narrative of a falsely accused man awaiting trial is chillingly appropriate for today’s America (“What kind of justice can this be . . . Seems like my life just don’t matter at all now”), and again it’s intensified by a plaintive, crying harp solo. This is Bobby Rush at his most poetic and uncompromising, buttressed as always by the studio band, especially guitarists Jackson and Shane Theriot, whose leads and chording interweave to create an atmosphere as haunting—and haunted—as Rush’s lyrics and harp work.

This is a masterful disc, recommended for blues, soul blues and southern soul lovers of all stripes.

—David Whiteis


American Tunes

Nonesuch Records – NON 554644

Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes, completed just prior to his sudden death in November 2015, is a crowning achievement to an unparalleled, six-decade career of writing, performing and producing landmark recordings in genres ranging from R&B and soul to funk, jazz and blues, to rock ’n’ roll. He was not only the mastermind behind a parade of 1960s New Orleans hits by artists such as Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner and Aaron Neville, he was also one of the primal architects of 1970s funk—working with the Meters, producing seminal recordings by Dr. John, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Labelle. His talents as a producer and arranger were in demand with such major artists as the Band, Paul McCartney, Albert King and John Mayall. Although he recorded his first solo album in 1958 and released a series of first rate Lps in the 1970s (spawning countless cover versions of his tunes), it was not until the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees in 2005 that Toussaint fully blossomed as a featured performer. One of the fruits of this new focus on his own career was the CD The Bright Mississippi (2009), produced by Joe Henry, which was a mostly instrumental exploration of jazz-oriented material from such masters as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt and Thelonious Monk. American Tunes is an extension of this approach with an added emphasis on linking the New Orleans piano tradition to the canon of jazz masters.

Throughout his career, Toussaint consistently pointed to Professor Longhair as his essential muse. Longhair’s influence on Toussaint’s piano playing is as apparent on his first recording, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans (1958), as it is on his late career, live CD/DVD recording, Songbook (2013). On American Tunes, he delivers solo explorations of three Longhair classics: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Hey Little Girl and the Earl King–composed Big Chief. All three performances are stunning, both for his unique reconceptions and astounding execution. While the Afro-Caribbean, blues rhumba groove is the magnet that draws listeners to the original versions, Toussaint deliberately emphasizes the lyrical aspects of Longhair’s compositions, turning funky riffs into dramatic, contrapuntal melodic lines. These tour de force performances are a testimony to his devotion to a hometown hero.

In the 1970s, Toussaint had an opportunity to make a documentary performance film with Longhair and Tuts Washington, another legendary New Orleans piano professor. Toussaint’s remark that “piano players rarely ever play together” provided the title for that film. Producer Henry created another opportunity for piano duets by bringing Van Dyke Parks into the sessions, and the two pianists work together to great effect on Southern Nights and, surprisingly, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s 19th-century, classical composition Danza, Op 33, which drew upon the composer’s exposure as a youth in New Orleans to the rhythms that percolated through the African drumming in Congo Square. The performances are dramatic and elegant and link Toussaint’s songwriting and piano playing to that crucial source point for American music.

Rejoined by bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose from the Bright Mississippi sessions, Toussaint digs deep into a series of classic tunes drawn from the jazz tradition, including Fats Waller’s Viper’s Drag, the Louis Armstrong–associated Confessin’ (That I Love You), Earl “Fatha” Hines’ Rosetta, Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom and Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby (which he recasts with a swinging Latin rhythm). Having worked with so many great singers over the years, Toussaint is fittingly joined by Rhiannon Giddens on this final studio outing. She exhibits an impressive stylistic range on two Duke Ellington numbers, the sassy, bravura blues of Rocks in My Bed and the classically informed, soulful meditation Come Sunday (which had been a signature collaboration between Ellington and New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson). Both tracks are embellished by Greg Leisz’ understated Weissenborn acoustic lap steel work. Other guests who enhance the program at various points include guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

Toussaint’s sole vocal performance graces the final track on the hauntingly prescient American Tune by Paul Simon, which includes the lines: “And I dreamed I was dying / I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly / And looking back down at me / Smiled reassuringly / And I dreamed I was flying high.” The performance begins with the singer backed by a spare, strummed acoustic guitar and as the bass and piano join in, Toussaint brings American Tunes to triumphant conclusion.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


The Soul of Jimmie Rodgers

Vast Eye Music – VJM39684

An album devoted to Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “the singing brakeman” and “the father of country music,” might seem an odd choice for vasti Jackson, a man who has earned his spurs as a thoroughly modern bluesman, but according to his notes, Jackson was moved to record a set of what is usually pigeonholed as “country music” because his own youthful attempts at hoboing left him with an affinity for Rodgers’ life experiences and, therefore, his music.

For his tribute, Jackson chose a nicely varied cross-section of the Rodgers songbook, including the sentimental Miss the Mississippi and You, the mournful lament of Hobo’s Meditation and the version of St James Infirmary that Rodgers called Those Gambler’s Blues, as well as the multicultural staple He’s In the Jailhouse Now and such bluesier fare as Standing on the Corner, Ninety-Nine Years Blues, Waiting for a Train and The Women Make a Fool Out of Me. The set concludes with a pair of Jackson originals, the jaunty Lowdown Hoedown and Train Rollin’ Blues, with slide guitar playing that evokes Robert Johnson. Jackson’s guitar work, in fact, is a revelation throughout—he’s heard solo here, either acoustic or minimally amplified, and the result is utterly convincing—it’s almost as if a treasure trove of previously lost pre-war recordings had somehow surfaced in pristine condition.

It is, however, pointless to compare Jackson’s music to the Rodgers originals. He was clearly not attempting to be a copyist, as is evident from the absence of any effort to emulate Rodgers’ trademark blue yodel, but rather to distill the essence of Rodgers’ music for a new generation of listeners. At this, he has succeeded admirably.

—Jim DeKoster



Delmark – DE 846

Barely one year after the release of his outstanding studio album Born & Raised, Delmark has doubled down on Omar Coleman with a new recording cut live at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago. It’s not a risky bet for the label, however, as Coleman has successfully established himself as one of the finer next-generation harmonica players carving his own space out on the national scene.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Coleman did not start blowing harp before he learned to read or write. Although blues was a mainstay where he grew up on the West Side of Chicago (his mother owned a local bar where Bobby Rush used to play) and he can recall hearing legends like Sunnyland Slim and Eddie Taylor at the long-defunct Delta Fish Market, Coleman was in his mid-20s and working as a full-time barber when he first picked up the instrument.

As time went on, Coleman gradually worked his way into the city’s blues scene at weekly jam sessions, where he honed his chops and later befriended Sugar Blue. As Live! Clearly demonstrates, there’s no question that he has come a long way since releasing West Side Wiggle on the small indie label Honeybee in 2011. Delmark’s production team, who has been recording live shows at Rosa’s for years now, knows how to expertly capture sound in that room, and Coleman pulls no punches in this high energy set.

With only one slow ballad in the ten songs here, the emphasis is on up-tempo soul blues and funk with a few satisfying old-school Chicago blues covers thrown in for good measure, including Two Headed Woman, I’m Ready and a confident interpretation of Snatch It Back and Hold It, a song many listeners will recognize from another landmark Delmark release (Junior Wells’ seminal Hoodoo Man Blues). His band, which features Rosa’s regulars guitarist Peter Galanis and keyboardist Neal O’Hara and is the same ensemble that performed on Coleman’s previous Delmark effort, backs him with gusto throughout.

Although over half of these tracks also appeared on Born & Raised last year, listeners will discover that Coleman and company breathe new life into each song when they’re able to feed off the energy of the live crowd at Rosa’s. Not only is the music great, but it’s also a pleasure to watch Coleman quickly ascend the ranks of the relatively small group of professional blues harmonica players who are forging their paths on today’s scene.

—Roger Gatchet


Jumpin’ & Boppin’

Stony Plain – SPCD 1389

Jumpin’ & Boppin’, vocalist and keyboardist Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne’s third recording for Stony Plain, pays homage to the late 1940s / early 1950s originators of rhythm and blues, including Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Ray Charles, Johnnie Johnson and Fats Domino, which, of course, means that this is goodtime music. Twelve of the tracks are Wayne’s original compositions, and they testify to how adept he has become in the jump blues idiom, sounding like they would be right at home on a juke box during the early days of R&B. He serves up one cover, the Ray Charles–associated You Don’t Know Me (written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold).

Along with Wayne’s outstanding piano work and good-humored, soulful vocals, the sessions benefit from first-rate contributions from the rhythm section that consists of bassist Russell Jackson, drummer Joey DiMarco and guitarist Charlie Jacobson. Guitarist Duke Robillard and tenor/baritone saxophonist Dave Babcock both know what it takes to propel this music, and their solos really stoke the fire. This is apparent on the opening instrumental, Blues boss Shuffle, which features smoking piano, tenor and guitar solos, and from that point on, there is no looking back. Blackmail Blues is a standout with the rhythm section laying down a hip, strutting groove marked by Wayne’s churchy organ fills. On the up-tempo Rock, Rock Little Girl, Wayne evokes Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as he frantically pounds the 88s. Sherman Doucette’s riffing harmonica and blues-smeared solos drive the relentless boogie groove on I’m Coming Home. The slow blues Back to Square One evokes the legendary Charles Brown, featuring funky, double-tracked piano/organ interplay and a tasty solo from Robillard. The set closes with the ebullient boogie-woogie piano/bass/ drums instrumental Boogie to Gloryland, providing Wayne with a showcase for his formidable chops. Anyone looking for a soundtrack to keep a party rocking should just slip this disc in and let it play. It is guaranteed to get the house Jumpin’ & Boppin’.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Blue Skies

Hipsterdumpster Records – No #

Matty T. Wall’s musical journey has encompassed metal, jazz and funk, yet he ultimately fell in love with the blues after investigating the influences of rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The native of Perth, Australia, has just released his debut album, and Blue Skies is a strong showing from the promising young guitarist and singersongwriter.

Wall’s playing incorporates aspects of those genres and more into his particular brand of contemporary roots rock. Touches of gospel round out the summery, jam-band feel of the title track, while the jazzy, spoken-word delivery of Broken Heart Tattoo’s lyrics is framed with searing roadhouse riffs. His slender, strong tenor is touched with sweetness, and his impassioned soloing echoes his vocals on the anguished Love Gone Away and This Is Real. The fretwork in Burnin’ Up Burnin’ Down and the frenetic instrumental Scorcher live up to their names, but he’s capable of a subtler touch, too—the gently rolling Smile is a bittersweet instrumental, and the understated emotion he wrings out of the strings is an album highlight.

Three covers complete the ten-song tracklist. Am I Wrong amplifies and electrifies the restless spirit of Keb’ Mo’s original. Wall stretches Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile out past 11 minutes, shooting screaming, scrambled licks into the stratosphere. His version of Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail opens to the sound of ocean waves, then segues into a pounding, insistent beat, injecting Johnson’s eerie composition with a sweeping, cinematic dread.

Matty T. Wall’s Blue Skies is filled with skilled, imaginative playing and songcraft, and it’ll be interesting to see what’s beyond the horizon for him.

—Melanie Young


Guilty Saints

DixieFrog – DFGCD 8787

It comes as something of a shock to realize that it’s been a quarter-century since Baton Rouge guitarist Larry Garner first earned accolades as one of the blues’ hottest young songwriters and performers. Though he has recorded a dozen more albums since, he’s never really garnered the attention that he deserves in his home country, instead recording for European labels such as JSP, Ruf, Gitanes and most recently DixieFrog, which has teamed him here with label mate Neal Black, the gravel-voiced, San Antonio guitarist who likewise seems to enjoy a more devoted following in Europe.

Of the set’s dozen songs, ten were penned by Garner and/or Black with a few assists from the bandsmen, the two exceptions being Mary Frye’s poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep and the old Jimmy Hughes classic Neighbor, Neighbor that closes the set with another DixieFrog artist, Leadfoot Rivet, lending a vocal assist in place of Garner. While Garner has three vocals to himself and Black two, most tracks find the two men trading verses or even lines. While the songwriting is a cut above throughout, the highlights are God Today (“It’s a damn good thing I’m not your god today / You’d wake up in the morning being the person you hate”) and Saints of New Orleans (“The mayor was dancing at Tipitina’s with a Livingston Parish transvestite / And there are no saints on the streets of New Orleans tonight”).

Musically, the setting is well-executed, mainstream contemporary blues, with space allotted to Mike Lattrell’s keyboards and Pascal “Bako” Mikaelian’s harmonica. The spotlight, however, remains on the two leaders, and both come through with flying colors on this highly worthwhile release.

—Jim DeKoster


The Back on Track Recording Project

Flamingcheese – FC2016-0201

In 2014, Canadian-born singer / harp player Jordan Patterson released the tight four-song EP The Back on Track Recording Project (reviewed in LB #236), so-titled because it marked his first major recording since his debut on JSP Records in 1996, Give Me a Chance. Patterson spent the intervening years working behind the scenes as a tour manager and concert promoter and battling some health issues. Now a fully realized album with the same title, The Back on Track Recording Project combines remastered versions of those EP tracks with six new originals.

Whereas Give Me a Chance showcased more straightforward 12-bar blues and funk (and guest appearances by Bobby Rush and Bobby Parker), this unabashedly guitar-forward record represents a new vision that is squarely situated in the realm of contemporary blues rock. Guitarists Darryl Romphf and Bobby Thompson, bassist Mark McIntyre and drummer Benjamin Rollo execute that vision with great skill and aplomb, starting off with the punchy, mid-tempo opening number Favourite Boy, followed by the emotive ballad Can We Fall in Love Again, which features lovely backing vocals from guest singer Skyler Jordan.

Those who were hoping for a more harpcentric album may be disappointed to find that Patterson’s blowing is underemphasized on many of these tracks, but there are notable exceptions: the earnest rockers She’s Cool and Play My Song–Revisited, or the gutsy slow blues If You’d Help Me Please–Revisited (the original EP’s tracks are all subtitled Revisited). Even when amplified it can be difficult for harmonica soloists to cut through the sonic maelstrom on a guitar-heavy recording such as this one, but Patterson deftly negotiates that challenge by punctuating (rather than competing with) his guitarists’ leads.

While the album’s crisp production and contemporary aesthetic may be anathema to some hardcore traditionalists, Patterson and company’s return to the studio should find receptive audiences amongst those who enjoy the blues rock alchemy of artists such as Joe Bonamassa, Johnny Lang or Tinsley Ellis.

—Roger Gatchet



Daptone – DAP-041

Soul man Charles Bradley continues to impress— no, stun—with his third studio album, a remarkable testament to one man’s desire to pursue his musical dream. Born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1948, Bradley’s life is chronicled in Poull Brien’s moving 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, a film that traces Bradley’s journey from humble cook to James Brown impersonator to one of the cornerstone artists (along with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings) of Daptone Records. Rolling Stone named his full-length debut on Dunham (a subsidiary of Daptone) one of the best albums of 2011 and called Changes one of its most anticipated releases of 2016—a list that found the 67-year old vocalist in the company of icons such as David Bowie, U2 and Sir Elton John.

As is true of so many of Daptone’s releases, the top-notch production and studio musicians evoke the warmth and feel of a 1960s-era Stax recording without trying to sound retro. Changes finds Bradley backed by Daptone staples the Menahan Street Band and Budos Band, and his impassioned vocals evoke what music journalist and former LB contributor Thomas Fawcett calls a “righteous street preacher.”

Although Bradley is at his most compelling when belting out a stirring soul number, all those years spent singing from the James Brown songbook as his alter-ego “Black Velvet” in Brooklyn bars has given him both the vocal chops (he’s got the Godfather’s trademark scream down pat) and street cred to execute heavy funk with authority in the form of Good to Be Back Home and Ain’t it a Sin. “If you ain’t gonna do me right,” he warns, “I might just do you in. Ain’t it a sin?”

On an album replete with poignant performances, most will remember Changes for its title track, a mesmerizing interpretation of Black Sabbath’s reserved 1972 piano ballad. Originally released by Dunham/Daptone as a seven-inch single in 2013, the line repeated in the song’s mournful chorus—“I’m going through changes”—took on a deeper level of meaning for Bradley when his mother passed away the following year. A soul singer covering something Ozzy Osbourne once sang? One may have to hear it to believe it, but Bradley, supported by Menahan Street’s horn section, is nothing short of stunning on the track.

For readers not yet convinced to add this release to their library, Bradley makes a powerful case in Daptone’s video for the single (search for it on YouTube or the label’s website). He sings nary a word during its sixminute, tear-inducing run time; instead, the camera focuses entirely on Bradley’s pained face, and his eyes and facial expressions convey how deeply personal the song has become for him.

—Roger Gatchet


West Side Chicago Blues

JSP Records / Blues Archives – JSP5809-DVD

Jimmy Dawkins was a known master blues guitarist—a certified legend on stage and on record. He was also one of his generation’s most knowledgeable and articulate spokesmen when it came to deep blues experiences in Mississippi, as well as on Chicago’s South and West sides.

The English JSP / Blues Archives’ new DVD, West Side Chicago Blues, captures a rare, live Dawkins performance in its apparent entirety at a Welsh blues festival in July of 2000. For that alone, this disc is a must for any modern Chicago blues fan’s video library.

Unfortunately, the performance is somewhat tepid by Dawkins’ standards. He works with a competent pickup band, but understandably, the ensemble lacks familiarity with Dawkins’ music and the confidence necessary to deliver its skull-crushing form. The outfit, at times, needs unusually patient prodding from its maestro. For Jimmy to be at his best, he often seemed to need the understanding, experience and camaraderie of his longtime Chicago bandmates and friends, and this soulful and eccentric crew is a costly trans-Atlantic flight away this night.

Although the concert, at least until the final two songs, lacks the “sizzle” Jimmy was known to generate at home, it is an enjoyable set. This cold night in Wales, Dawkins serves up laid-back versions of songs common to his Chicago club performances of the era, including All Your Love and Goin’ Down. He also throws in a special treat, Lonely Guitar Man from 1994’s Blues and Pain CD. The concert was a multi-camera, pro-shot affair and is mostly one long close-up of Dawkins working on his worn, beloved, blond Gibson. Sound is close to perfect for the period.

West Side Chicago Blues is one of those special DVDs that is two musical gifts in one, because following the concert, Jimmy sits down for a 31-plus minute conversation in which he offers detailed, candid recollections of things he had not mentioned elsewhere. The occasionally temperamental Dawkins is calm, in a great mood and gives a top-notch interview. Smiling, eyes gleaming at times, Dawkins remembers incredible minutiae from his days upon arrival in Chicago in 1956 and beyond. This is priceless stuff, and to see Jimmy in such a seemingly everyday chat while overseas is heartwarming and downright surprising. Any blues fan will come away from hearing this man’s words rightly feeling as if they have just attended a university lecture by a kind and tenured Professor Dawkins.

This disc will certainly be in the conversation when it comes to LB’s Blues DVD of the Year, as critics and readers consider the offerings of 2016.

—Steve Sharp


Under Yonder: Live at Pop the Gator

Electro-Fi – 3450

Considering that the blues community lost one of its most endearing guitar legends in 2009 when the native Jackson, Mississippian Mel Brown departed, imagine how lucky blues fans are to now be able to catch Under Yonder: Live at Pop the Gator, an album recorded at a venue, which, for five years (1989–1994) was one of the most popular blues clubs in Canada. The Electro-Fi label that released the disc has an awardwinning pedigree, including both the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive” award and “Record Label of the Year” in 2011. This was Mel’s long-time record label over the years, which garnered him the W.C. Handy Blues Comeback Award with the Neckbones and Caviar album in 2000.

Texan mainstay guitarist Denny Freeman came all the way to Kitchener, Ontario, from Austin, Texas (where he played regularly with Brown at the legendary Antone’s), to join this rambunctious party that took place February 14–16, 1991, on the second floor of the Gator. The house band, called the Homewreckers, included John Lee on keyboards, Leo Valvassori on bass and Nova Scotian Randall Coryell on drums. Though the album offers well-worn blues standards, the club atmosphere and circumstances under which the music was created makes for something extra special here.

The opening Intro/Shawn’s Shuffle allows host Glenn Smith to let the audience know they are recording live. The set opens with heat blasting from Mel Brown’s guitar, then later Denny Freeman, with the backing rhythm section hanging on for the thrill ride. Things cool off with I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town, with a well-paced guitar solo that doesn’t waste notes or space. Mel displays his musical virtuosity of style with his instrumental version of Georgia On My Mind, taking a thoughtful solo over the slow, 6/8 groove and passing the baton to Denny who dispenses even jazzier riffs on guitar.

Get Out of My Life Woman brings the funky backbeat into the room, replete with a syncopated-yet-melodic solo from Brown that typifies one of his best features. Meanwhile, bassist Leo Valvassori and drummer Randall Coryell keep things percolating quite effectively. Blues On the Green pushes the energy into higher gear, with a Hideaway-tinged shuffle that, for my money, is the swingingest thing on the entire disc—it’s deep and greasy, with perfect punctuation from the kick drums and bass that dares anyone to sit still. The Band Outro Jam is a straightforward, functional funk romp that leads to the intermission, only to return to the stage with the jumpboogie blues of Shake, Rattle & Roll to clear the cobwebs (John Lee rips it up with a Jay McShann–inspired solo).

Under Yonder Blues gives the band members a chance to stretch out on an instrumental jam that showcases the flashy chops of both guitarists, and I Got My Mojo Workin’ offers something more familiar for the crowd to chew on while wearing out their dancin’ shoes. Hey Joe serves as impromptu encore, a final 11-minute concession to an audience who refused to leave until they got an extra taste. Indeed, Mel Brown served up a memorable three-day blues feast; we can take a bite of each dish every time we spin the disc.

—Wayne Goins


Burning Blues

No label – No #

After a highly visible stint with the Fabulous Thunderbirds (which led to his lead guitarist role with both veteran harp aces Kim Wilson and Charlie Musselwhite), the reputation of Kirk Fletcher has been well established. This multiple blues music award nominee now gives us Burning Blues, a very well done disc that catches him live at the Baked Potato in Studio City. The album boasts 11 tracks that were recorded over two nights in December 2013, and though it’s not quite hot off the press, it’s burning just the same.

The opening funky instrumental, Funnybone, reminds one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb—with a bit less Texas barbecue sauce. Still, it puts everyone on notice that Kirk’s not messin’ around, especially when you hear his smokin’ rhythm section of Calvin Turner on bass, Jeff Babko on organ / Fender Rhodes and Lemar Carter on drums.

Fletcher follows this with a brisk, Jimmy Rogers Chicago–style blues shuffle in E, Rockwithme, and it’s cooked up just right. Extremely tasty lines cascade from his guitar after the vocals—this man knows how to build a solo. El Medio Stomp is just that—a stompin’, rompin’, up-tempo groove that features blistering licks from not only Kirk but also from his organist, Jeff Babko, who damn near outshines him on this one. Fletcher comes clean with his admiration and influence of Vaughan when he delivers a sensitive Lenny, which opens with highly melodic phrases and a soft, warm tone that gives way to a molten lava of licks that would have easily made Vaughan proud.

While the mellow I’m In Love effectively taps into the Curtis Mayfield soulful side, Blues for Kleopatra shifts back toward traditional blues with a nice, medium-tempo shuffle that gives Fletcher’s wah-wah pedal a thorough workout. Congo Square offers a change of pace with its minor-key funk groove and Turner, Babko and Carter do an excellent job of locking the pocket, especially when Fletcher goes totally airborne near the second half of his solo.

Natural Anthem is a rudimentary instrumental workout for Kirk (with a tasty solo from Babko), and Found Love has a surprising, Texas two-step feel. Blues for Robben & Larry is a study in slow blues, dedicated to two of Kirk’s guitar forefathers, Robben Ford and Larry Carlton. The album closes with Ain’t No Way, with a solid shuffle provided by Turner/Carter, a good set of accompanying lyrics from Fletcher, a Jimmy Smith–inspired solo from Babko and a searing, sustained solo declaration from Kirk that actually sounds a whole lot more like Ford and Carlton than the penultimate tune promised. As far as I’m concerned that’s the right way to go out— blistering, baby.

—Wayne Goins


Foot Soldier

Shake Down Records – No #

Steve “Lightnin’” Malcolm was born in Missouri but raised in Mississippi, at least in a musical sense. There, he absorbed the music of the Burnside and Kimbrough clans, and recorded his first Cds in the company of powerhouse drummer Cedric Burnside. Now, on his fifth outing, he has reverted to the one-man band format that he initially employed, accompanying his vocals and guitar with a pair of foot-pedal drums—hence the disc’s title.

The result is, literally, foot-stomping music, with Malcolm’s thunderous drumming driving his grunge-laden guitar and keening vocals, that, in the style of Fred McDowell and Jimi Hendrix, often synch together to chilling effect. The disc’s eight songs—there are also three raucous instrumentals, two with Stud Ford added on drums—are all Malcolm originals, ranging from the surreal Tree and Waves to the blues’ more familiar concerns of homework and outside work, while Don’t Bitch, the song most firmly anchored in the Burnside/Kimbrough canon, is aimed at our wayward youth.

Although arriving as an outsider, Malcolm seems to have found a niche in the dynamic north Mississippi blues scene. His music is powerful and well worth a listen.

—Jim DeKoster


Skronky Tonk

EllerSoul Records – 1605-026

A thin line has long existed between blues and jazz guitar styles. The difference is often little more than that of rhythmic placement and harmonic sophistication. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker—pioneers of electric jazz and electric blues guitar styles, respectively—studied with the same teacher early on and often jammed together in Oklahoma City. B.B. King was strongly influenced by Django Reinhardt and greatly admired Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel. Jazz guitarist John Scofield once paid homage to two Kings—B.B. and Albert—with his tune King for a Day. And the influence of pickers associated with organ-led jazz combos of the ’50s and ’60s—Billy Butler, Bill Jennings and Thornel Schwartz, among them—can be felt in the work of such current blues players as Danny Caron, Duke Robillard and Junior Watson.

Jazz phrasing has been evident in Sacramento guitarist Charlie Baty’s approach to blues since his days as leader of Little Charlie and the Nightcats and more recently with Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors. Skronky Tonk (its title a play on Honky Tonk, the 1956 mega-hit instrumental by Bill Doggett that featured Butler) is not Baty’s first all-jazz album but is the first to be released, earlier efforts for Alligator and a French label having never seen the light of day. It’s a largely swinging affair in the classic organ-trio tradition, with current Rick Estrin and the Nightcats members Lorenzo Farrell on Hammond B-3 and J. Hansen on drums. Baty wrote the 13-track set’s two 12-bar blues: the title song and Cobalt Blues. Popular and jazz standards include How High the Moon (on which Baty plays a chorus of Ornithology, the contrafact that Charlie Parker and Benny Harris based on the chord changes of the former tune), Pennies From Heaven, Broadway, Misty, Charlie Christian’s Swing to Bop and the Benny Goodman–Lionel Hampton flagwaver Flyin’ Home. Django Reinhardt’s Nuages and Django, John Lewis’ tribute to the great gypsy guitarist, both showcase Baty’s lyrical side. Two Brazilian sambas provide rhythmic variation.

Baty’s single-note lines are clean and crisp and are nicely interspersed with rapid-fire chordal strings and occasional trills during his commanding improvisations. Farrell’s laid-back solos and mellow-toned chordal accompaniments bring Shirley Scott to mind, while Hansen lays down solid grooves throughout.

—Lee Hildebrand


The Best Night of My Life

JSP Records – JSP3003

Tamara Tramell Peterson’s last release, the September 2014 EP Driving Me Wild (see review in LB #236), hinted at a new direction for the Dallas-based vocalist. Her new album, The Best Night of My Life, reveals that path in full. Now billing herself as Tamara Tramell, the wife and performing partner of multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Lucky Peterson is ready to step into her own spotlight.

Gritty and gossamer in turns, Tramell’s voice is powerful and versatile. On this album she showcases that dexterity as she performs across a spectrum of styles. She sounds equally at home singing music with a country feel—such as Crash & Burn, adorned by Fooch Fischetti’s filigree pedal steel, and Spark in Your Light, with Kenny Neal’s rich harmonica fills—as she does the buoyant pop rock of It’s All Over and Head Over Heels. The rocking R&B of Shine On calls to mind ’90sera Tina Turner, while that of This Time has a more contemporary sheen. Time Stands Still, in turn, is infused with an island flavor.

There are two versions of the title track—one is a gauzy ballad; the other, marked “original,” is faster in tempo and tailored for the dance floor. All of the songs are credited to Tramell and co-producer/keyboardist/ vocalist Steven Washington, with the exception of a sweetly faithful cover of Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love.

Tramell nods to her blues roots with Back in Charge, the bluesiest—and best—cut of the bunch. Her soulful, assured voice floats above a flowing bed of strings laid by Kelyn Crapp’s acoustic guitar and Todd Parsnow’s slide. “I’ve paid the cost to be the boss,” she sings, and she makes you believe it. Tamara Tramell’s The Best Night of My Life is a strong solo showing from an artist who deserves—and is ready for—an even wider audience.

—Melanie Young


The Real Deal

Little Village Foundation – LVF 1005

John Blues Boyd was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1945, but unlike his older cousin, the famed pianist Eddie Boyd, he escaped the cotton fields of the Delta by emigrating to California’s Bay Area rather than Chicago. There, he worked for many years as a roofer while keeping a hand in the blues, but it was not until his wife passed away in 2014 that he turned to the music in earnest.

For this, his debut recording, Boyd enjoyed the support of the same crew that brought forth Little Village’s highly acclaimed recent release from Minneapolis soul man Willie Walker. In addition to producer Kid Andersen and Big Jon Atkinson on guitar, the band includes such first-call talent as Rick Estrin on harmonica, Jim Pugh on keyboards and June Core on drums. There’s nothing at all unlucky about the 13-song playlist, which consists of ten Boyd originals and three more from bandsmen Estrin and Andersen. The notes suggest a comparison of Boyd’s vocals to Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Junior Parker and B.B. King, and there are also echoes of Percy Mayfield, Jimmy McCracklin and even Otis Rush. That’s some pretty fast company, but Boyd does not disappoint. The material includes a worthy addition to the sub-genre exalting big-legged women with That’s Big! And a couple paeans to local soul establishments on The Smoking Pig and (Have You Ever Been To) Marvin Gardens. But, it reaches its zenith on on the two songs dedicated to his late wife, as the Chicagostyled Dona Mae celebrates her life and the gut-wrenching I’m So Weak Right Now lays bare the devastation to Boyd’s soul following her loss—think of it as the darker flip side to Jimmy Johnson’s apocalyptic My Baby By My Side, which is arguably the most powerful blues recording of the last 20 years.

Like Little Village’s Walker disc, this is a five-star production in every way. It should easily rank among the year’s best blues albums.

—Jim DeKoster


Goodbye World

Luv N’ Haight – LHCD079

There are few resurrected groups whose newfound success is more unexpected—and, subsequently, more of a pleasure to watch unfold—than that of the Relatives. The gospelfunk outfit was formed by the Reverend Gean West and his brother Tommie in Dallas in 1970. The regional touring act disbanded just ten years later, leaving behind only a handful of obscure singles released on smaller labels that never saw much, if any, radio airplay.

West was leading a small congregation at the God’s Anointed Community Church of God in Christ in Dallas when graphic designer, soul DJ and vinyl collector Noel Waggener came calling. Waggener had unearthed 11 of the Relatives’ singles and would go on to release them as Don’t Let Me Fall on his own Heavy Light label (see my “In the Groove” column in LB #205 for a review of this indispensable, beautifully packaged LP). That release eventually brought the West brothers together along with several members from the original lineup for a string of reunion shows in Texas in the fall of 2009.

The success of those early performances led to 2013’s outstanding The Electric Word their first full-length studio release. Goodbye World, their sophomore effort (how odd it sounds to use that phrase for this particular group of veterans) is equally impressive, its impact all the more significant as it marks Rev. Gean West’s final vocal recordings with the group before he passed away in early 2015. Before he died, West, who had sung on only a pair of tracks before he was hospitalized and fell into a coma, said that God called on him while he was unconscious to return to the studio to complete the recording. He did just that, and ended up finishing the album with the exception of one track.

In the opening Rational World / Testimony, West bears witness to the holy vision that guided him out of a coma. His distinctive, gravelly vocals thunder with a force that belies his fragile state of health as he trades turns on the mic with his fellow Relatives front men (including his son, Cedric West) on the psychedelic gospel workout You Gotta Do Right and a reworking of their mid-’70s single This World Is Moving Too Fast. Original Relatives guitarist/vocalist Charles Ray Mitchell impresses as well with his smooth falsetto rendition of No Man Is an Island. Can’t Feel Nothin’ anchors the album’s tight eight-song set, bringing elements of funk, soul, gospel and psychedelic rock together to form a musical alloy that defines the group’s unique sound.

Although the Relatives suffered a devastating loss with Rev. West’s death, if there’s anything Goodbye World makes clear, it’s that this band has plenty of horsepower to continue in his absence. If this proves to be their swan song, however, one can hardly imagine a finer testament to West and the band’s 45-year legacy.

—Roger Gatchet


All Kinds of Beki

Random Choice Records – RCD 43

All Kinds of Beki, the debut release from the Beki Brindle Blues Band, showcases the soulful vocals and guitar mastery of Beki Brindle, whose blues credentials reach back to the early 1980s when she was a protégé of the legendary mandolin player / guitarist James “Yank” Rachell. During the ensuing years, Brindle has been associated with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of the Band, lived in Ireland and run a blues workshop commissioned by U2’s Bono for the Rock School television show, recorded with rock bands, returned to playing with Rachell and moved to upstate New York, where she connected with harmonica player and guitarist John Sebastian, who helps out here on four tracks. In addition, Brindle has assembled a talented crew of core players, including keyboard man Pete Levin, bassists Frank Ganci or Anthony Candullo and drummers Vito Liuzzi or Eric Parker, who keep things lean and mean on this set that mixes hard-core blues and blues influenced rockers.

Brindle draws on her years with Rachell for two tunes that the veteran blues man put his stamp on during his longtime collaboration with Sleepy John Estes, Floating Bridge and Diving Duck Blues. Joined on these classics by Sebastian on banjo and harmonica on the former and Gryphon guitar on the latter, Brindle shows how inventive she is as a guitarist and how dynamic and versatile she is as a singer. Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful classic Darling Be Home Soon gets a big, rock power ballad treatment featuring Brindle’s multitracked guitars dueling with the composer’s steamy harmonica and atmospheric baritone guitar work. Brindle and Sebastian really generate some heat on a tour de force, raw and raucous cover of Little Walter’s It Ain’t Right that rides on a seductively propulsive bass provided by Michael Esposito. It is an infectious, rocking, blues performance that certifies this lady as the real deal.

As the album title implies, Brindle covers a range of styles. There is the jazzy funk of the John Mayall cover Possessive Emotions, with its hip electric keyboard and guitar interplay and the rollicking Professor Longhair– inspired, second line original No Return Blues. New Shoelaces gives her a chance to let loose on a boogie, and Unforgiven is a slow blues burner that allows her to spar with Levin’s surging organ runs. On the more rock side of things, Brindle serves up two standout originals from composer Claudia Handler—the exuberant rocker Nothing to Wear and the haunting Johnny Never that sounds like the Shirelles meet the Ventures. She closes the set with the lilting solo acoustic God’s Guitar Both as a singer and guitarist, she never fails to deliver the goods. All Kinds of Beki is a first-rate contemporary blues recording and evidence that the dues Beki Brindle has paid have come to fruition.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey

Jazz Village – JV 70116

When you consider that Leyla McCalla earned her degree in cello performance and chamber music at New York University in 2007, her journey into the world of roots music is rather remarkable. McCalla’s transformation began when she met the genre-busting cellist Rufus Cappadocia and was enhanced by a move to New Orleans, where she busked in the French Quarter and did a stint as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. By 2013, she had released her debut recording, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, musical adaptions of his poetry mixed with Haitian folk songs. McCalla, a New York native and daughter of Haitian immigrants, extends her singular explorations of Haitian and other string-based roots music on A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey.

Adding vocals, tenor banjo and guitar to her musical arsenal, McCalla has assembled a core band that features Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and guitar, Free Feral on viola and Jason Jurzak on bass. The various combinations of these instruments, augmented by some formidable guest artists, enable McCalla to create diverse sonic textures and grooves, yet maintain a distinctive sound. This is evident on the outstanding original title track (which takes its name from Gage Averill’s fascinating book on the relationship between popular music and the struggle for political power in Haiti) that features the ensemble exploring the percussive possibilities of cello, viola and banjo and shifts into a soaring, bowed passage with McCalla’s wry, seductive vocals riding the groove. That nexus between music and politics is also evident in McCalla’s cover of legendary Haitian activist, singer and guitarist (and mayor of Port-au-Prince from 1995 to 1999) Manno Charlemagne’s Manman, a lilting ballad that features a vocal duet with Rhiannon Giddens. Peze Café, a traditional Haitian song about a child’s unfair arrest, is another standout performance with its foreboding tone and driving groove that features Marc Ribot’s stinging electric guitar lead and Aurora Nealand’s sonorous accordion.

The Creole fiddle tradition has clearly enchanted McCalla, and fiddler Louis Michot joins her for two classics, Canray Fontenot’s Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table and Bebe Carriere’s Bluerunner. Other roots material that McCalla has incorporated into her emerging sonic vision include the lovely reading of Ella Jenkins’ Little Sparrow and the poignant Vietnam, by the self-described “last minstrel man” Abner Jay. McCalla is a promising songwriter, and in addition to the title track, she delivers two originals, the infectiously swinging Far From Your Web and the wistful ballad Let It Fall. A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is a step forward in Leyla McCalla’s journey into roots music and an assurance of good things to come.

— Robert H. Cataliotti


Hard Times, Bad Decisions

JayRay – No #

On Hard Times, Bad Decisions, Portland, Oregon–based blues artist Lisa Mann wears her hard-bitten persona like a badge of honor. The themes of tough times and defiance loom large in Mann’s work, but her intensity never sounds contrived. Mann’s well-honed vocal chops and top-notch musicianship do her material justice. Her deep, expressive voice brings to mind Shemekia Copeland. Like Copeland, Mann tempers her sheer vocal power with a fine sense of pacing and dynamics. She’s capable of bringing her voice to a full-throttle, Koko Taylor growl, but this ability is used sparingly and tastefully.

The title track establishes Mann’s streetsmart credentials with a driving arrangement that sounds like a contemporary answer to Born Under a Bad Sign. Jason Thomas’ scorching guitar and pulsing organ riffs from Brian Harris provide the perfect dark atmosphere for Mann’s frank references to child abuse and drug addiction. Ain’t Nunna Yo Bizness further adds to Mann’s aura of defiance. An infectious second line rhythm and Big Easy horn arrangements provide musical muscle. Judge a Man Forever directs some righteous outrage at America’s criminal justice system. Resonator guitar from guest Ben Rice adds a touch of Delta blues anguish.

Mann’s knack for writing and performing dark, personal material doesn’t prevent her from lightening the mood and cutting loose with her band. The sunny soul of Certain Kind of Man sounds like a great crowd pleaser when performed on the bandstand. If the raucous barrelhouse feel of Doghouse doesn’t get your feet moving, check your pulse. Like Denise LaSalle, Mann drips with glee when she sings about putting a no-good, cheatin’ man in his place.

Lisa Mann is an incisive songwriter and a dynamic performer who’s comfortable with a wide range of blues styles—she’s a talent to watch.

—Jon Kleinman


The Happiest Man in the World

Stony Plain Records – SPCD 1390

Eric Bibb is a prolific musical marvel. For example, in last six years, he has released by my count nine recordings (including two live discs) that reflect an amazing range of diverse musical influence and sound: African/ Mali music (Brothers in Bamako), Cajun/ Louisiana (Deeper in the Well), Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly’s Gold), Delta blues/ gospel (Booker’s Blues). For his latest release, The Happiest Man in the World, Bibb gathers old friends to create an immensely confident and enjoyable recording that transcends its many musical influences.

Recorded in rural England in July 2015, The Happiest Man in the World features Bibb (lead vocals, guitar, banjo) and his North Country Far friends on an array of instruments: Danny Thompson (bass), Olli haavista (Dobro, pedal steel, Hawaiian guitar), Petri Hakala (mandolin, mandola) and Janne Haavista (drums), along with five additional musicians who make cameo appearances. The exquisite musicianship and disarming musical interplay is best captured by this quotation from Keith Richards which appears, in part, on the disc’s booklet: “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together.” With songs such as Tell Ol’ Bill, Tossin’ an’ Turnin’, On the Porch and the title cut, Bibb and friends have created beautifully sublime music that both combines and transcends the blues, country and folk music. The Happiest Man in the World captures what we have come to expect from Bibb—there are no overblown solos or showboating of any type. The emphasis is not on the individual players or their obvious virtuosity. Rather, the focus is on the songs and how the players can achieve a heighted level of empathy and symbiosis in the moment of artistic creation.

Lyrically, most of the songs reflect the disc’s title—relational assurance, contentment and bliss—the flipside of Bibb’s more political work (e.g., 2014’s Blues People). The songs are sequenced to highlight the transition from finding and relishing love to the inevitable loss of a soul mate through death or some irretrievable loss. Throughout, Bibb sings of self-sacrifice (I’ll Farm for You), domesticity (Creole Café), destiny (Born to Be Your Man), sensuality (King Size Bed) and death of a spouse (Tell Ol’ Bill). Bibb, who wrote or co-wrote ten of the 14 songs, rarely traffics in sentimentality and clichés, as exemplified in this series of lyrics from Born to Be Your Man: “Stevie Wonder born to be the master jammer / Cassius Clay was born to be Muhammad Ali / The Champ forevermore / An’ I was born to be your lovin’ man / The one they call The Troubadour.” Only Prison of Time (which concerns the ravages of time and disconnection from family) and Tossin’ an’ Turnin’ (about the Dust Bowl and migration west) seem to depart from disc’s dominant theme. On the whole, The Happiest Man in the World is truly a very happy sounding disc.

The Happiest Man in the World concludes with a nice surprise—a version of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me. Like country artist Sturgill Simpson’s recent sly and elegant version of Nirvana’s In Bloom, Bibb and band offer their own unique interpretation without losing the song’s original power. The stately qualities of The Happiest Man in the World make it an essential contemporary blues disc.

—Stephen A. King


Back Where I Belong

Little Village Foundation – LVF 1006

Although they are about 40 years apart in age, ukulele-playing folksinger Aireene Espiritu and veteran R&B singer-songwriter Sugar Pie DeSanto have a number of things in common. Both are of Filipino heritage. Espiritu was born in the Philippines and came to California when she was ten. DeSanto was born 80 years ago in Brooklyn to a Filipino father and African American mother and came to San Francisco as an infant. Both now live in Oakland, and each stands 4’11” and weighs 90 pounds.

Espiritiu was one of some 200 artists who appeared at a folk music conference in Oakland in 2014 that was attended by former Robert Cray and Etta James keyboardist Jim Pugh. Her repertoire included original songs— one was about the murder of Trayvon Martin— Filipino folk and pop tunes, Negro spirituals and numbers by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Bessie Smith. Pugh began thinking about producing her for his soon-to-be-launched nonprofit Littlie Village Foundation label and having her do tunes previously recorded by and mostly composed by DeSanto.

What began as a rather wild dream turned out to be a wonderful work of art, with Espiritu applying her strong, emotiondripping alto pipes to seven songs that had been recorded by DeSanto. Espiritu avoided such obvious choices as the hits I Want to Know and Slip-In Mules in favor of lesserknown numbers like Going Back Where I Belong (on which Espiritu harmonizes with co-producer Kid Andersen’s wife, onetime “American Idol” contestant Lisa Leuschner, much as DeSanto had double-tracked her own voice Patti Page–style on the 1960 original), the lovely mid-tempo soul ballad My Illusions and a torrid rocker titled Witch for a Night (first recorded by DeSanto in Chicago in the ’60s but not released until 2009).

Guitarist Andersen, organist-pianist Pugh and a large cast of session players, anchored by bassist Steve Evans and drummer June Core, retain the ’60s flavor of DeSanto’s original recordings for the most part. One notable exception is the soul ballad Life Goes on Just the Same. Instead of using strings as Maxine Brown had on her original 1962 version and DeSanto did 42 years later, Espiritu and company brilliantly transform the Bennie Benjamin–Sol Marcus composition into a blues-with-a-bridge with just a piano, acoustic guitar and the harmonica of Filipino American Carlos Zialcita providing support for the singer.

The remaining six tracks have no DeSanto connections. Espiritu gives an especially tender reading to the obscure 1969 Bobby Bland blues ballad Ask Me ’Bout Noting (But the Blues), with Andersen playing subtle obligatos in his best Wayne Bennett manner. Rounding out the set are the spirituals No More and Down By the Riverside and three Filipino numbers, including Bayan Ko, a lilting freedom song that found popularity during the dictatorial reign of Ferdinand Marcos.

—Lee Hildebrand


Aki Goes to Bollywood

Little Village Foundation – LVF 1008

Mumbai, India, and Chicago, Illinois, are half a world apart geographically. Musically, the lively soundtracks of Mumbai’s Bollywood film industry and the blues of Chicago might even seem planets apart. Somehow, though, Mumbai-bred, San Jose, California–based vocalist and harmonica virtuoso Aki Kumar has combined the two disparate genres in an unforced musical fusion never before attempted and has pulled it off with breathtaking aplomb.

Kumar’s ringing tenor pipes are powerful as he applies them to the 11 songs on Aki Goes to Bollywood—nine sung in Hindi, two in English—backed by a Chicago-style blues band lead by guitarist Kid Andersen and keyboardist Jim Pugh (the disc’s co-producers) and including drummer June Core, alternating bassists Vance Ehlers and Joe Kyle Jr. And tenor saxophonist Eric Spaulding. Many selections ingeniously match Hindi melodies, none of them 12-bar blues, to instrumental patterns drawn from classic Chicago blues songs. Driven by a Wang Dang Doodle–like beat, the set-opening Badan Pe Sitaare includes a Hubert Sumlin–like solo by Andersen that at first sounds like it’s being playing on guitar until the fact quickly sinks in that it’s actually a sitar. On the four-bar introduction to the slow blues My Home Is a Prison, Andersen uses the sitar in a way similar to how Muddy Waters used his slide guitar.

“Ah, play it Sitar Slim,” Kumar commands at the onset of Andersen’s solo on the song, which is hauntingly underpinned by the drone of Pugh’s harmonium. Kumar follows with a commanding multi-octave harmonica chorus of his own.

On the other English language number, Back to Bombay, Kumar wails, “If I don’t make it to Bombay, send me down to Mexico. You know them brown-skin women make me feel right at home,” over a Rollin’ and Tumblin’ groove. After a wordlessly moaned vocal chorus, he takes the tune out on acoustic harmonica with a vamp during which he quotes from the melody of the naughty children’s song about “a place in France where naked ladies dance,” following by a Sonny Terry–like train whistle.

—Lee Hildebrand


Soul of the Bayou

Louisiana Red Hot Records – LRSCD- 1181

Gregg Martinez’s “swamp pop” brand of R&B found on Soul of the Bayou, his 11th studio album, places the emphasis on the “pop” side of the equation as he turns a program of three originals and covers of (mostly) classic soul tunes. When you think “swamp,” the slick, clean production values of this recording do not come immediately to mind; do not expect a lot of gritty, bayou country funk. That being said, Martinez possesses an incredibly powerful voice that can generate soulful emotion, and he is not shy to use it, or—with his choice of material—draw comparisons with some legendary recorded vocal performances.

The standout of the three originals is the sole blues number in the program, That Old Wind, a driving rocker that benefits from Sonny Landreth’s explosive slide work. Mac Daddy is a lively nod to Fats Domino’s signature approach, and Remember You Used to Love Me pays homage to the Stax soul sound. That Memphis orientation is also evident in Martinez’ reworking of Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand the Rain, which also features a knockout slide guitar part by Gregg Kingston. His affinity for New Orleans R&B is apparent in his impassioned readings of Johnny Adams’ I Wish I Never Loved You At All and Danny White’s 1963 classic Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

The latter is the standout performance in the set. Martinez’ vocal chops enable him to take on a material from a wide range of great singers and do it justice, including the Temptations with Smokey Robinson’s Who’s Loving You; Bobby “Blue” Bland’s You’ve Got to Hurt Before You Heal; and Sly and the Family Stone’s If You Want Me to Stay (admittedly, bassist Sid Daigle generates some slinky funk on this one). Martinez does tackle one tune that originated in country music, John Berry’s If I Had Any Pride Left At All, which Etta James so convincingly morphed into an R&B ballad. Ultimately, Gregg Martinez has such a great voice; it is hard not to be won over by Soul of the Bayou.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Live From Briggs Farm Blues Festival

Briggs Farm Concerts – No #

When Broke & Hungry Records first introduced Jimmy “Duck” Holmes to record, the blues world celebrated the authenticity of this Bentonia guitar school artist who plays a style derived from in and around Bentonia, Mississippi, most famously practiced by Skip James and Jack Owens. Bentonia blues is often played in open E minor and open D minor tuning, with a peculiar mournful tonality. On this live album, Holmes states nonchalantly, “They tell me it’s this tuning, but I don’t know what they are talking about. To me it’s just the guitar. That’s the truth.”

Now, still going strong at age 69, the former farm worker and proprietor of the famous Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, the oldest juke joint in Mississippi and a highlight on the Mississippi Blues Trail, brings us a live recording made July 10–11, 2015, at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania. Holmes delivers unadulterated, original roots blues in an ethereal, gritty and roughhewn style. In this concert the artist tells his stories in a dozen tracks, slowly and deliberately, in an almost languid style, including the previously unrecorded Bath Water.

Some musicologists describe his music as American primitivism because there is nothing fancy or polished here. It’s like backholler mountain moonshine, more so than Johnnie Walker. This is hardcore, even haunting deep-roots folk blues in a simple, relatively repetitive and monotone style. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes plays stark guitar, almost crudely, sometimes discordant but trance-like. His music is beautiful not in virtuosity or technical prowess, nor even in the singing, but in its overt simplicity and the raw expressiveness of his stories. The CD sleeve defines it as “Pure Unfiltered Bentonia Blues,” which is spot on.

Though defined as original, these blues are naturally derivative, with that distinct feeling of melodic similarity. Besides his song set, history will note his interesting narrative tidbits on the album: Shaggy Hound (misprinted on the CD sleeve as “Shaggy House”), Bentonia Blues Narrative and Blue Front Cafe Narrative.

—Frank Matheis


Velvet Bone

Oakland Rhythm & Blues Op’ry – ORBO CD-02

Texas-born guitarist Johnny Talbot has been a fixture on the San Francisco–Oakland music scene since the late 1950s. During the ’60s, he developed a uniquely syncopated style that drew on New Orleans R&B and Texas blues and led to him being called as “the Godfather of Oakland Funk.” Johnny Talbot and De Thangs, as his tight rhythm-and-horns band was and remains known, were frequently hired to open shows for James Brown and to back up such artists as Big Mama Thornton (with whom they also recorded for Kent Records), Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye. He also toured as Bobby Bland’s guitarist for a period during the ’90s.

Velvet Bone, Talbot’s second CD, compiles some 45 years’ worth of the band’s recorded output, beginning with the highly collectable early ’70s singles for the Jasman label Take It Off (a Bay Area hit that Atlantic picked up for national distribution) and Check Yo’ Bat’try. Most of the rest is new to disc. The instrumental 9th and 13th Chord Funk showcases his blues guitar prowess and the distinctive harmonic sensibility that informs many of his compositions. Talbot’s unaffected vocals are featured on many numbers, including the ballad How Could You Forget, a heartfelt salute to Joe Tex, Little Willie John and other late greats. On the blues Russell City, he recalls an incorporated African American town south of Oakland that was home to churches, beauty shops and blues clubs until it suddenly disappeared sometime in the ’60s after the slaughterhouse that employed many of its residents closed.

Talbot’s sense of humor is in many ways as unique as his music. “Baby, baby, I want you to be mine but don’t post it online,” he sings on I Don’t Tweet, adding, “I ain’t bitter because I don’t twitter.” Even more hilarious is The Disrespected Misunderstood Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich, on which he explains the correct way to prepare one.

—Lee Hildebrand


Illogical Optimism

Treated and Released Records – T&R 007

Reverend Freakchild is anything but reverent, rendering his unpredictable, yet loving meld of blues, rock and roots music with gusto. His latest album, Illogical Optimism, is a three- CD set, and it provides a glimpse into the breadth of his influences and imagination.

The first disc, Odds, Ends and Other Amazingness, is largely a collection of covers, each touched by varying degrees with Freakchild’s trademark loving irreverence. Imagine Dr. John singing Imagine, a rockabilly version of Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord, or a punk-rock treatment of Pretty Boy Floyd—he delivers the unexpected with relish. Other songs, like Hey Pocky A-Way, Who Do You Love and Hellhound on My Trail hew a bit closer to the originals. I Still Have Joy, with its rousing gospel choir, is wondrously fervent, and Lennon/McCartney’s satirical Yer Blues is right up his alley, searing with straightforward blues-rock heat. All Along the Watchtower is musically more Jimi Hendrix than Bob Dylan, though Freakchild humorously ends it with an audio clip from Dylan’s 1987 movie Hearts of Fire (“I gotta get outta here!”).

Disc 2, Everything is Now, features several remixes and alternate takes—from funk to reggae to hillbilly—of All I Got is Now, the lead single from his 2015 album Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues. Kairos, the final disc, is attributed to Ramblin’ Jennings and includes seven acoustic blues originals—Sinner Blues, accompanied only by harmonica, is deeply felt—and an a cappella cover of John the Revelator.

If you like your blues a little on the unconventional side, Reverend Freakchild and his Illogical Optimism are sure to make you smile.

—Melanie Young


The Best of F.J.

No label – No #

FaLisa JaNaye’s debut, 2010’s Sweet Love (MiLaJa), made an immediate impact—U Won’t Miss Yo Water, probably its most widely marketed track, garnered significant media attention. She stayed with MiLaJa for about two years; she has continued to record, although to the best of my knowledge she hasn’t released a CD consisting entirely of new material. This two-disc compilation includes highlights from Sweet Love, two offerings (I Got You, You Are Not the One) that she says date back to her early years in hip-hop and a few tracks that appear to have been cut after she left MiLaJa (discographical information is scarce). Also included is a DVD that features interviews, along with music videos of several of her best-known songs.

JaNaye’s sound is an aggressively textured mix of up-to-the-minute studio production, mainstream southern soul melodies and grooves and vivid lyric storytelling. A special highlight is the steamy slow jam Sweet Love—all the more so on the accompanying music video, where the camera work and the acting both complement and add heat to the musical proceedings.

Throughout this disc, in fact, JaNaye’ seems determined to challenge the [arbitrary?] aesthetic barriers that continue to relegate modern-day southern soul to a “regional” or “niche” music limbo. Her church-honed vocals on a ballad like Can’t Nobody invoke the emotional fervor of the great deep soul divas of the past, even as her breathy coos and come-ons in Sweet Love sound fully contemporary in their explicitness. The dance floor anthem Party 4 Southern Soul, meanwhile, sounds like a prophecy from what might well be the “Crossroads” of the 21st century: a four-way intersection where blues, R&B, soul blues and hip-hop meet, meld together and emerge as a new musical entity that will defy categorization and claim its place as a fully acknowledged contemporary genre. This tantalizing sampler should thus serve its purpose—as an incentive to look further and become more familiar with the work of one of the most promising newer artists on the contemporary southern soul scene.

—David Whiteis



DixieFrog – DFGCD 8775

North Carolina-born, singer/guitarist Wilson Blount is joined here by Eric Bibb, among others, on a set that showcases his lyric eloquence—reflective, unpretentiously insightful— along with his equally unforced roots-blues musicianship and deep baritone vocals. A lot of contemporary artists playing earlier styles like to present themselves as “roots men” (and women), but few manage to inhabit that persona without seeming self-conscious; Wilson solves that problem, at least in part, by spicing his traditionalism with modernist touches such as lyrics drawn equally from tradition and contemporary experience, unobtrusively inserted electric guitar lines (from Bibb and Staffan Asner), and, on some offerings, percussion and electric bass. He also varies his palette to include pop-folk ballads like She Loves Me, on which he attains a mix of vulnerability and romantic fervor worthy of vintage-era James Carr.

That stentorian baritone of his adds mystery and intensity to the throbbing rhythms and modal feel of offerings like Bullfrog, the title tune, the Diddley-charged Miss Dorothy Lee and Dead End Road, a harrowing prophecy decrying the soullessness of modern-day, techno-bedazzled Babylon. But he’s also capable of softening into feathery fingerpicking overlaid with a disarmingly gentle, airy vocal delivery (Mississippi John, Would Ya Look At That Car) or mellowing into relaxed, countrypop jubilance (New Zealand).

Although he doesn’t make a big deal of it, an especially notable facet of Wilson’s musical persona his cosmopolitanism—even as he often sounds as if he’s channeling the spirits of the ancestors he shows himself to be an urbane man of the world, as evidenced by the aforementioned paean to New Zealand and She Loves Me, a tender musical tribute to his wife, whom he met in Germany over 30 years ago. With his unforced mix of refinement and straightforward, folk-rooted directness, Big Daddy Wilson is truly a “roots man” for the New Millennium.

—David Whiteis


Jammin’ On the High Cs

Club 88 Records – 8815

For most of the past 14 years, fans and musicians on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise of the Caribbean who wanted more blues and booze after the main stage shows had ended flocked to Club 88, a piano bar where pianist Mitch Woods played and hosted jam sessions until the break of day. Jammin’ on the High Cs captures highlights of three mornings in January 2015 on which the blues and boogie woogie keyboard master was joined by Victor Wainwright, Janiva Magness, Tommy Castro, Lucky Peterson, Dwayne Dopsie, Billy Branch, Popa Chubby, Coco Montoya, members of Roomful of Blues and other unidentified supporting players.

Woods, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area resident who recently relocated to New Orleans, takes the vocal helm in a robust baritone on the set-opening Big Mamou, shuffling on the piano while the Roomful horn section riffs behind him and tenor saxophonist Rick Lataille and a trumpeter identified only as Charlie solo. The leader is also in fine vocal form on his original composition Broke. He either shares the vocal mike or turns it over to others on most of the remaining selections. Castro takes commanding vocal and guitar charge of Rip It Up, anchored by an uncredited drummer playing a Big Easy shuffle on snare. Peterson is featured on a medley of Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights Big City and You Don’t Have to Go. The unusual pairing of Woods’ piano and Dopsie’s accordion on Jambalaya and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On is particularly pleasing.

There’s a pronounced informality about these after-hours sessions that sets them apart from most studio sessions and formal club and concert sets, especially when there’s no drummer present. Most satisfying of these are Branch’s stylistically faithful salute to Rice Miller on Eyesight to the Blind, Montoya’s Rock Me Baby and Popa Chubby’s treatments of Chuck Berry’s Wee Wee Hours and the tongue-twisting Jon Hendricks–penned, Louis Jordan hit I Want You To Be My Baby, both featuring his wonderfully jazz-tinged guitar.

—Lee Hildebrand


All for Loving You

American Showplace Music – SM-7006

Brooklyn-born vocalist Alexis P. Suter has garnered a couple of Blues Music Award nominations, and she’s been recording since the late ’80s. However, perhaps because of her eclectic range (everything from house music / electronica through gospel to blues and soul blues), she has yet to become a household name among blues lovers.

Suter’s band churns out a hardcrunching, bombastic accompaniment— sometimes couched in 12-bar blues phrases, sometimes not—with workmanlike dedication. Occasionally, as on the vaguely Otis Redding–like ballad Another Place and Time and the pop-seasoned Fool for You, they show themselves capable of admirable subtlety. So Long spikes the proceedings with fuzzy psychedelia; the rhumba-flavored Every Shut Eye dances dexterously; the finale, a soul-infused reprise of the Beatles’ Let It Be, is churchy and intense. Out in front, Suter is in command of a remarkable voice—a resonant bass/baritone, grainy and gruff, occasionally ascending into a low-range alto. It takes some getting used to, but once you surrender yourself to it, it’s captivating—bluesy rawness, spiked with rock ’n’ roll abandon and seasoned with various stylistic and timbral nods to deep soul, yet utterly unique, simply because seldom has a woman blues singer unleashed a sound that so thoroughly defies virtually every expectation (stereotype?) Of what a “feminine” or even “female” voice should be.

As admirably as she comports herself throughout this set, Suter achieves true magnificence on Let It Be, delivering McCartney’s famous pop hymn with a riveting combination of intimacy and fervor, sounding at once convulsed by yearning and bathed in light. It’s rare to hear a singer take on a standard like this—indelibly associated with a particular artist and a particular, bygone cultural epoch— and make it her own with such power and authority.

—David Whiteis


The Blues Are Knockin’

SoulOSound – SOSRCD103

Jeanette Markey and Ric Latina both had impressive resumes as backing musicians before they joined forces to form Markey Blue. The Blues Are Knockin’ is the duo’s sophomore release, and it demonstrates the strong musical rapport the two artists have developed. While based in Nashville, the duo’s polished contemporary blues sound reveals a deep love of Memphis soul.

Markey and Latina never sound like they’re competing for the listener’s attention. Instead, they bring out the best in one another. On the title track—a searing minor key workout—Markey’s sultry vocals are beautifully complemented by Latina’s piercing, mournful guitar leads. Cash Is Always King is a great piece of contemporary electric blues. Markey’s vocals drip with sass while the band locks into a tight, soul blues groove.

The most exciting tracks on The Blues Are Knockin’ pair Markey and Latina with an impeccably arranged horn section. Cold Outside contains a healthy dose of Beale Street soul, with tight horn charts and Chris Tuttle’s organ riffs fleshing out the duo’s sound. Two heartfelt memorial tunes establish Markey Blue’s strong sense of their musical roots. The Little Milton tribute Be My Train more than lives up to its ambitions. The horns and rhythm section ooze Memphis grease while Latina’s guitar work nicely captures Campbell’s tone and lyricism. Lay Down Lucille is a moving tribute to B.B. King that features some of Markey’s best vocal work. Once again, the horns and rhythm section come together like clockwork.

Markey Blue offers clear evidence that modern Nashville’s music scene has grown beyond its country roots. Their creativity and seamless teamwork make for joyous listening.

—Jon Kleinman


My Radio

Bohemian Records – No #

Over the course of his career, vocalist, harmonica player and songwriter Jr. Johnny has performed with such artists as Mike Bloomfield, Jimmy Witherspoon and John Lee Hooker, the latter of whom gifted him with his stage name. The New York native’s 15th release, My Radio, consists of ten original songs. All are credited to Johnny except the lyrics of Love Me Different and Reach the Sky, which were written by Jacqueline Silvestri.

Johnny’s gritty, conversational vocals and laid-back playing from his bandmates— guitarists Peter Corrigan and Denny Dwyer, keyboardist Tony Perrino, bassist Stephen Minnich and drummer Joe Rocco—evoke a casual, corner bar atmosphere. His harmonica tone is round and warm, and some of his best licks can be heard on the driving title track, the revved-up Oh, Yes She Does, the wistful One Soul and the moody Reach the Sky.

—Melanie Young


Delaware to the Delta

Soul Stew – CD-4211

Norman Taylor, a native of Philadelphia, grew up immersed in Philly soul; he eventually expanded his territory to include rock, folk and traditional southern blues (these days, he counts songster / blues traditionalists like Josh White Jr. Among his heroes). Taylor’s pristine, note-perfect guitar playing reflects his erudition. His voice, meanwhile, is rough-edged and corrugated, closer to the hard-soul testifying of a Wilson Pickett or a Levi Stubbs, perhaps, than the pop-soul romanticists who, he says, constituted his original musical role models.

The set list consists mostly of Taylor originals along with a couple of chestnuts (Skip James’ Special Rider Blues, Willie Dixon’s Built for Comfort). In the title tune, Taylor declares his intent to fuse his apparently disparate influences into an organic, tradition- infused bluesy whole (“I’m a northern man on a southern road . . .”). Significantly, the song itself isn’t a 12-bar blues but a pop-folk ballad, bluesified by Steve Goldstein’s string-bending guitar leads.

In fact, for the most part, Taylor’s selfproclaimed rootsiness is more implied than manifest here. He displays an appropriately country-fried technique on the Skip James song; his take on Dixon’s jubilant fat man’s boast, though, swings with a breezy uptown hipness—far from the primal, testosteronecharged roar that Wolf summoned on his well-known version. Elsewhere, Taylor mostly eschews the 12-bar structure in favor of more updated conceits. Even when he employs traditional fingerpicking (Due South, Just Find Your Faith, Sunday’s Dream) or slide (Road to Redemption), the musical and lyric contexts he creates (despite his somewhat disingenuous reminiscences, in The River, about “growin’ up in the country”) are distinctly modernist, even by progressive-folkie standards.

Recommended for listeners with big ears and an urbane aesthetic leavened by a taste for blues-seasoned contemporary folk.

—David Whiteis


It’s the Blues in Me

Bertland – No #

There is still an active local blues scene in the Memphis area, but for the artists who scuffle there, it must sometimes feel more like a trap than a circuit. Even when they manage to break out of neighborhood venues and land a gig on the Beale Street tourist strip, the nature of most of the clubs there—some don’t pay at all, relying on tips and/or a percentage of bar proceeds to pay their headliners; patrons come and go, often in the middle of a set; and their attitude toward African American blues performers can be patronizing, if not worse—makes it difficult for most to build a reputation among serious-minded aficionados.

Among the Bluff City’s many well-kept blues secrets is vocalist Bertha Payne. Payne has said that her stylistic resemblance to her cousin Koko Taylor initially hampered her in Memphis, where blues tastes remain heavily informed by southern soul (both “deep” and contemporary). Listening to It’s Friday, the opener that was based closely on Wang Dang Doodle, it’s easy to see her point. As if to drive it home, she returns to that motif on the anthemic I Know What I Want.

Elsewhere, though, she displays a more distinct musical persona. Her voice is muscular and more supple than Koko’s usually was, even if her range sounds similarly constrained; she’s as at home with modernist-sounding southern soul (Put Up or Shut Up, the generically titled Southern Soul Party, the lurching, hard-edged Some Fun Tonight, the ballad I’m the Best), as she is with 12-bar boilerplate. Despite the evidence of too-common D.I.Y. shortcomings—uneven production; corners cut to save costs (it sounds as if similar or identical backing tracks have been recycled on several different songs); lyrics and melody lines that could have used a few more run-throughs to smooth out rough edges—it showcases Bertha Payne as a mature, confident vocalist and songwriter who definitely has it in her to go farther.

—David Whiteis


Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music

MVD Visual – MVD7492D

Director Robert Mugge has been making documentary films, often focusing on roots music subjects, since the early 1970s. His filmography includes such blues-related classics as Deep Blues (1991), Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson (1999) and Last of the Mississippi Jukes (2003). In 1999, he set out to make a film on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bus tour to Louisiana led by Bob Santelli. He got sidetracked and took his cameras on his own tour of the state and came up with Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music, which was originally released in 2000. While there are some renowned Louisiana musicians represented here, Mugge dug deep into indigenous music scenes throughout the state and uncovered some real gems. And, to find some of these folks, you definitely would need a road map.

The two-hour film is divided into three sections: “Another Country: Northern Louisiana,” “Spirits in the Night: New Orleans & Baton Rouge” and “Music in the Air: Southwestern Louisiana.” He makes use of various local music experts to act as tour guides providing historical context and introducing the artists, including Dr. Michael Luster of the Louisiana Folklife Festival, journalist Ben Sandmel and author Shane Bernard. The focus is always on the music; there are short interviews with many of the artists and almost every musical selection is a full, uninterrupted performance.

Mugge’s Louisiana tour turned up plenty of highlights. In Shreveport, he captures legendary singer/guitarist Dale Hawkins rocking his way through his classic Suzy Q. Heading east on I-20 to Monroe, the blues duo of harmonica man “Po” Henry Dorsey and guitarist/ singer Wayne “Tookie” Collum work out on Prisoner’s Blues while standing on the banks of the Ouachita River, with freight train horns blowing in the background. He also visits radio station KYEA for gospel deejay Sister Pearlee Toliver’s “The Jewel of the Dial” radio show, which features her inimitable delivery of commercials for local businesses, ranging from bail bonds to guaranteed arthritis cures. One of the real gems that Mugge finds is just southeast in Winnsboro, the black scared tradition of Easter Rock at the True Light Baptist Church. Rev. Jimmie Lee Jones leads his congregation through a propulsive and seductive procession of call and response in a style that recalls the ring shouts of the Sea Islands. Down in New Orleans, Mugge tracks down pianist Henry Butler at Snug Harbor, who both explains and demonstrates the nuances of Professor Longhair and James Booker’s piano styles, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins at his pre-Katrina regular Thursday gig at Vaughan’s Lounge. Standouts from out in Acadiana include visits to the Viator family for traditional Creole music, the venerable western swing–C&W–Cajun hybrid of the Hackberry Ramblers and a knockout zydeco triple bill with Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Cha, Lil Brian and the Zydeco Travelers and Rosie Ledet. Mugge’s tour on Rhythm ‘N’ Bayous is magical and mysterious as he visits both legends and locals of Louisiana music.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


The Unity Project

Ordena – OR 62952

Denise LaSalle has always had a serious side. She has self-released at least two gospel Cds, and several of her secular albums have included spiritually themed offerings. Here she returns to that genre with a five-track, inspirational EP. The title tune, a slow-jam ballad with strong gospel underpinnings (“Teach our kids to pray, teach them to obey . . . Don’t let hate tear us apart”), sets the tone. There’s also a “Rap Version” of the same message, featuring LaSalle’s son Kenneth Ray “R-KI” Knight, as well as reprises of LaSalle’s If I’m Only for Myself (Who’s Gonna Be for Me) and There’s No Separation, both of which date back to the early 2000s.

LaSalle is now in her 70s. Her voice sometimes quavers, and she strains to reach notes that would once have come easily, sounding less like a soul blues diva than a wizened eldress conveying life lessons and wisdom. Her fusion of social liberation and religious conservatism might seem anomalous (No Separation, though toned down a bit from the original version, could still almost serve as a backing track for a Pat Robertson 700 Club sermon). But, it represents an important facet of the legacy of the African American freedom struggle, in which political militance and faith-based moralism have not necessarily been seen as contradictory (think of secular anthems like Respect Yourself and People Get Ready, as well as, of course, the entire gospel tradition and the civil rights movement it helped nurture).

I do wish that LaSalle and her son had also created a rap version of her unpublished poem “Cry of the Black Soul,” which depicts the horrors experienced by African Americans since the Middle Passage and makes clear that many of the modern-day crises that threaten the black community stem directly from the institution of slavery and the Jim Crow era. (Her husband, the Jackson, Tennessee–based radio deejay James Wolfe, a.k.a. “Super-Wolfe,” did incorporate it into a rather labored, reggaestyled rap entitled Forty Acres and a Mule a few years back, but a more contemporary sounding update would have been a perfect capstone here.) Still, this is an obviously heartfelt project, and despite any apparent ideological tensions, it represents a courageous and much-needed vision of community healing. One can only admire and support Denise LaSalle in her efforts to spread the word.

—David Whiteis


Honey for the Biscuit

Ruf Records – Ruf 1225

Johnnie Taylor’s daughter Tasha has been recording since her self-released debut, Revival, in 2008. She has also garnered success as an actress, appearing in the TV shows Ugly Betty and House, as well as some independent films.

That theatrical flair makes itself evident on this disc. Taylor’s lyrics are alive with vivid imagery and true-to-life storylines. Her vocals are tough-timbred, yet shot through with aching emotional vulnerability; her production is complex—melodies, instrumental patterns and vocal tracks interweave, meld, crosscut, merge and re-manifest in variegated shapes. Musically, themes range from the soul blues Wedding Bells (with echoes of Johnnie’s Running Out of Lies weaving through the mix), through the downhome/ uptown mash-up of Little Miss Suzie (recalling the old New Orleans R&B trick of funkifying nursery rhymes and children’s ring games, an effect heightened by the Dixie Cups–like harmonies in Taylor’s multi-tracked vocals), to the hard-rocking How Long, apparently designed to blow the walls off any roadhouse brave enough to allow Taylor and her band on stage. Family Tree might sound like an old-school soul testimonial, but it’s laced with irony (“When the roots get wrapped around you / You’ll find it hard to breathe”), no doubt reflecting the well-publicized family drama that erupted after Johnnie Taylor’s death in 2000. Leave That Dog Alone is a juicy girlfriend-to-girlfriend dish session; the closer, Same Old-Thing, is a Memphis-flavored meditation on love, loss and fate.

In true 21st century bricolage style, Tasha Taylor has crafted a mix-and-match approach to genres, voices, textures and melodic/emotional conceits that’s consistently challenging, yet greater than the sum of its considerable parts. This disc may not be “easy” listening in the usual sense, but for that very reason it’s uniquely rewarding and highly recommended.

—David Whiteis


Bottle Up and Go

Big Bear Records – BEAR CD54

The Whiskey Brothers consist of Birmingham, England, musicians Richard Heath on mandolin and vocals and Gerry Smith on piano. On Bottle Up and Go, the duo’s camaraderie and musicianship shine on a set rich with familiar blues warhorses.

Given the creativity on display in the duo’s original tunes, it’s hard to imagine why the collection only includes three. Smith’s lyrics to Buzz Buzz contain a healthy dose of joy and humor, and the two musicians are adept at playing off one another. Walkin’ Blues sports a natural, easy swing as Smith’s piano riffs incorporate touches of jazz. The duo adds some Big Easy swagger to their sound on Dr John’s Boogie.

The selection of covers shows a similar deft touch. Heath has the vocal finesse to handle much-loved standards like Ain’t Nobody’s Business and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. On these tracks, Smith’s piano conjures up the appropriate smoky nightclub atmosphere. Heath’s mandolin and Smith’s piano weave together nicely on up-tempo blues like Key to the Highway and Hi-Heel Sneakers. Even without a bass or any form of percussion, there’s a rhythmic pulse that’s strong enough to get listeners’ feet tapping.

Bottle Up and Go doesn’t break a lot of musical ground, but Heath and Smith’s rapport and love of the blues make for an enjoyable listen.

—Jon Kleinman


The Kitchen Sink

Big Guitar Music – No #

Austin-based blues veteran Omar Kent Dykes may have chosen the ideal title for his latest project, a 12-track mélange of blues, old school rock ’n’ roll and country and western tunes, but it’s also an apt label for describing Dykes himself. Although he has always kept one foot firmly planted in the blues genre, the semi-retired, long-time leader of his band, the Howlers, is a self-described “entertainer” whose performances over the past five decades have pulled from the tapestry of styles that is American roots music.

The Kitchen Sink is also a heartfelt tribute to some of Dykes’ close friends who passed away in 2014, one of whom was Larry Monroe, the 2002 recipient of the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for his role in promoting the blues via his popular public radio program, “Blue Monday.” Dykes was a frequent guest on his show over the years, and the blues offerings here, from the Eddie Taylor groove of Hello Operator to his cover of the Elmore James classic I Can’t Hold Out (which features the late Gary Primich on harmonica), reflect the music Monroe shared during his decades-long run on the airwaves.

The album’s first half is comprised of new recordings, while the final six songs are described as “tribute tracks” which were exhumed (presumably) from the archives for this release (the album includes musician credits but no further details on the recordings). Of the new material, the slow blues Fire and Gasoline, with Dykes and former Antone’s house band guitarist Derek O’Brien channeling T-Bone Walker to create a Call It Stormy Monday–like ambience, is a highlight. Fans of classic country should especially enjoy The Battle Rages On and Dixie’s All Night Bar, two Dykes originals that feature the delightful interplay between guitarists Casper Rawls and Tommy Spurlock.

The Kitchen Sink closes with Climb on Board, an uplifting country-gospel number written by Dykes. “Climb on board and ride this gospel train with me,” he beckons. It reinforces just how much this release was a labor of love for all involved (including the many fans who helped fund the project through a Go Fund Me campaign online). It is currently available as a digital release via online merchants such as Amazon and iTunes.

—Roger Gatchet


I’m the Right Man

Ecko – ECD-1162

The Johnnie Taylor influence is evident in Jaye Hammer’s melismatic runs and choked vocal punctuations, but this is an unabashedly new-school southern soul set, heavy on the midtempo, two-chord vamps and synthesized studio production—all of it nonetheless full-bodied and solidly executed—supporting lyric storylines primarily structured around witty hooks designed to become dance floor anthems. You can almost see the line dancers and steppers, bathed in flashing lights and dressed to kill, waving their hands singing along with a lot of these songs.

In that spirit, several of these outings (Here We Go, Let’s Hear It for the DJ, Party Mood) are paeans to late-night partying and juking; the majority of the others alternately extol and bemoan the vicissitudes of erotic infatuation, as Hammer’s protagonist both promises and begs for satisfaction. The erotic tension threatens to explode on Is She Waiting On You?, which finds Hammer and guest vocalist Donnie Ray playing the roles of a couple of jealous (and probably cuckolded) buddies about to come to blows over a woman.

Although his good-time Lothario pose is enjoyable enough, Hammer is especially effective in ballad settings that allow him to summon vulnerability as well as erotic intensity, as on I’m the Right Man and a winning cover of the Johnnie Taylor standard Just Because (the presence of which makes all too clear the paucity of emotional depth and thematic sophistication in too much contemporary southern soul-blues). The anthem I Ain’t Leaving Mississippi combines regional pride with what some might consider unsavory stereotype (“I got my first piece of coochie in the middle of a cotton field”); once again, it’s a clever, if somewhat perilous, meld of creative wit and borderline-crude rawness—like the man said, that’s why they call it the blues.

—David Whiteis


Chicago Blues All Stars, Inc.

Chicago Blues All Stars – CBA S001

For many years, Willie Dixon’s back-up band was known as the Chicago Blues All Stars. This is the ’70s/’80s lineup, which featured Dixon’s sons Butch (née Arthur) on keyboards and Freddie on bass, along with guitarist John Watkins and drummer Jimmy Tillman.

When the elder Dixon fell ill, the All Stars carried on with their own roots-rich Chicago blues show. This set was recorded during a 1984 performance in Portland, Oregon. It goes without saying that the band fairly burst at the seams with hard-core blues chops; whether it’s Watkins’ searing slide work and piercing single-note leads, Butch Dixon’s Saturday night / Sunday morning organ swashes or the unerring deep-pocket shuffle provided by Freddie Dixon and Tillman, listeners who want to immerse themselves in the grits-and-gravy “real thing” will find what they’re looking for from the first note.

The only problem is the lack of originality on display. The opening Chicago Blues All Star Theme is an instrumental version of Dust My Broom; subsequent offerings include Hoochie Coochie Man, Sweet Home Chicago and Eyesight to the Blind, along with a funkpopping version of Breaking Up Somebody’s Home (the most musically inventive item on offer). A pair of Tillman originals—Here I Am and the doo-wop-flavored I Love You More than Words Can Say, neither of which manages to rise above cliché—round out the set. That none of the All Stars is a particularly exciting vocalist only detracts further from the excitement.

Given the depth of talent on hand, it’s too bad that these All Stars didn’t take this opportunity to experiment, expand their horizons and show the world that the blues was, as Willie Dixon put it, “the facts of life” in 1984 as it had been 20 or 30 years earlier. And today, when only Tillman and Freddie Dixon remain active, it feels like even more of a lost opportunity. Nonetheless, the musicianship throughout is impeccable and, on its own terms, satisfying— just don’t expect any revelations.

—David Whiteis


Blues People

No label – No #

“Michael Brown is dead, and they still haven’t arrested that policeman,” Kim Nalley sings in anguished alto tones on Ferguson Blues, one of two original songs about the killings of unarmed African American teenagers on Blues People, the San Francisco jazz and blues vocalist’s latest self-released CD. The second song, Big Hooded Black Man, grew out of an argument about the Trayvon Martin case that she had with an in-law, a white Chicago cop who referred to Martin as “a big, scary black man.”

Nalley addresses various aspects of black life in America in the past and present throughout the wonderfully provocative disc, whose title is inspired by LeRoi Jone's classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America. On the oft-performed Summertime from Porgy and Bess, the onetime Johnny Nocturne Band lead singer interjects words about her hands being rough from picking cotton. She deals with upward mobility in a delightful gospel choir–like arrangement of Movin’ on Up, the theme song from the ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons. And she delivers three double-entendre blues numbers: Bessie Smith’s I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl, Georgia White’s I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It (If I Can’t Sell It) (about a chair) and Dinah Washington’s Big Long Slidin’ Thing (about a trombone). Other selections include B.B. King’s Never Make a Move Too Soon, the Etta James favorite A Sunday Kind of Love, Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, a medley of tunes associated with Eddie Harris and Les McCann and the traditional church songs Trouble of the World and Amazing Grace.

Nalley, who is currently working on her doctorate in history at the University of California, Berkeley, applies her amazingly pliant pipes, filled with octave leaps, deliciously split syllables, yodels, growls and moans, with consummate sensitivity to the lyrics at hand. Empathetic backing is provided by a jazz quartet that features pianist Tammy Hall and guitarist Greg Skaff, both of whom display firm grounding in the blues.

—Lee Hildebrand


Going Back to Clarksdale

No label – No #

Andy “Sugarcane” Collins is an Australian musician deeply in love with the blues and its history. Recorded in Mississippi and New Orleans, Going Back to Clarksdale features Collins performing a mix of covers and original material with American musicians.

It’s too bad that Going Back to Clarksdale doesn’t feature more original material, because this is where Collins shines the brightest—his voice is at its most natural when performing these tunes. The title track and Blind Willie both reveal Collins’ love of blues history. The latter track, a tribute to Blind Willie McTell, features only Collins’ voice and guitar. The arrangement, while sparse, feels delicate and atmospheric. Hungry, Broke and Blue is a relaxed, flowing acoustic blues fleshed out by Peter Ella’s sympathetic mandolin.

The cover tunes that make up the rest of the album are something of a mixed bag. It takes courage to tackle material by Mississippi John Hurt, but Collins’ fingerpicking on Creole Bell nicely captures Hurt’s rolling, melodic style. Kirk Steele’s subtle accompaniment on accordion adds to the track’s atmosphere. While it’s difficult to bring anything new to a familiar warhorse like the Mississippi Sheiks’ Sitting on Top of the World, the interplay between Collins’ guitar and Stan Street’s down-home harmonica is pleasing to the ear. A laid back, mid-tempo reading of Flip, Flop and Fly gets some additional heft from a three-piece horn section and Bill Malchow’s organ riffs.

Collins is a good historian and an able interpreter of traditional American blues. The album’s self-penned tunes show him to be a talented songwriter as well. Hopefully, future releases will give listeners more opportunity to hear Collins perform his own well-crafted songs.

—Jon Kleinman


Two Way Love Affair

CDS – CDC 1077

Donnie Ray has been recording since 2000 and he’s had a few hits on the southern soul circuit, but never has his voice sounded so full, muscular and sure. Producer/songwriter Ricky White has provided Ray with a resonant sonic setting (although I do wish CDS had invested in a live horn section—Jessie Primer’s soprano sax on Outside Love Affair is a tantalizing glimpse of what “real” instruments can bring to even a studio-built song), and his lyrics are witty and succinct.

It’s all the more amazing when we realize that on its own terms, this is a rather standardissue offering: the songs don’t tell any stories we haven’t heard before; the rhythms tend toward the usual mid-tempo lopes interspersed with a few dance floor workouts and erotically charged ballads; the melody lines adhere pretty closely to southern soul boilerplate—heavy on the two-chord vamps and modified ice-cream chord changes. But in a genre like this, reliance on the tried-and-true isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That old 12-bar blues pattern has yet to wear out its welcome; the same might be said about the similar (if not identical) melody lines and chord structures that grace countless deep soul classics. And here, it happens again: Donnie Ray calls forth such deep emotional textures, guiding us along the trajectory of the songs’ storylines with such directness and subtlety, that he breathes new life into melodies, lyrical conceits and even vocal techniques that could easily have been little more than pleasant clichés.

In other words, it ain’t what you got; it’s how you use it. With this outing, Donnie Ray confirms that old adage yet again, sounding if he’s finally ready to break away from the pack and establish himself as a fully realized frontline southern soul artist.

—David Whiteis