Living Blues — Living Blues #232
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Record Reviews

BOB STROGER & KENNY “BEEDY EYES” SMITH

Keepin’ It Together

Big Eye - BE 0004

Bassist Bob Stroger’s career dates back to the ’50s and includes gigs and/or recording sessions with such figures as Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Homesick James, and Snooky Pryor, among many others. Drummer Kenny Smith is the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, best known for his tenure with Muddy Waters but also a gifted harpist who usually showcased himself on that instrument in the latter days of his career. The band consists of younger-generation artists steeped in the postwar tradition—just for starters, there are former Muddy Waters harpist Jerry Portnoy, saxophonist Sam Burckhardt (Sunnyland’s protégé), and guitarist Billy Flynn.

This, then, is a roots-rich set. But there’s no moldy-fig reverence on display—the material is original, and the principals throw themselves into it with the vigor of artists celebrating the music in the present tense, not as a backward-looking exercise in purism. Born in Missouri tells of the singer’s determination to get back to his lady friend in Switzerland; Love and Affection updates its lupine twelve-bar lope with a modernist-sounding turnaround, and Smith’s drum patterns are fueled by an understated but propulsive funk impetus. The train-like Losin My Mind similarly spikes an old-timey melodic and rhythmic conceit with a bridge resonant with contemporary blues and pop-blues flavorings. On the other hand, outings like What Cha Say, That’s My Name, and the Jimmy Reed–like Sweet So Sweet manage to sound like outtakes from a late-’50s Chess or Vee Jay session yet also feel utterly up-to-date. Neither Stroger nor Smith is primarily known as a singer, but they both demonstrate admirable vocal chops, handling even the most challenging extended lines with effortless panache.

It must be reaffirmed: the “true” postwar Chicago blues is not a museum piece, but a thriving, relevant art form. These musicians make that clear with every note they play and sing.

—David Whiteis

RUTHIE FOSTER

Promise of a Brand New Day

Blue Corn Music - MCM 1403

Ruthie Foster, in her first outing with the boldly eclectic neo-soul producer Meshell Ndegeocello, stays faithful to her blues, soul, folk, and gospel roots throughout the glorious Promise of a Brand New Day. The Austinbased songbird doesn’t play guitar or piano this time around, instead leaving the picking and the keyboard playing to Ndegeocello band members Chris Bruce and Jebin Bruni, respectively, with the bassist-producer, drummer Ivan Edwards, and harmony vocalist Nayanna Holley rounding out the stripped-down sound. Eric Clapton sideman Doyle Bramhall II adds some raspy guitar to one track, and Toshi Reagon sings on another.

As usual, Foster’s song selection is impeccable and touches on both personal and political themes. Her resonant alto tones and melisma-rich phrasing ooze passion, and her lyrics are rife with wisdom and introspection. “When the music fades and the crowd drives away, I’m staring at the mirror, still singing the blues,” she sings over a fat bass-anddrums soul bottom on Singing the Blues, one of seven original compositions in the 12-song set. “You’ve got a bucket full of promise, but I notice not much stands up when you’re building on hollow ground; you sink until you drown,” she croons gently to acoustic guitar strums and sustained organ chords on her folkish Complicated Love. And on It Might Not Be Right, penned in collaboration with soul vet Williams Bell and propelled by a laid-back Memphis groove, she poignantly addresses the subject of same-sex marriage.

The spirit of the Civil Rights Movement is evoked in Foster’s treatments of Alabama bluesman Willie King’s Second Coming— “They killed Dr. King’s body, but they couldn’t kill his mind,” she sings—and The Ghetto, a Bettye Crutcher–Homer Banks–Bonnie Bramlett composition originally recorded by the Staple Singers. Shades of Roebuck Staples’ reverberating guitar, courtesy of Bruce, inform the latter tune, as well as Believe, another Memphis-style number written in part by Charles Hayes, an Ndegeocello associate who also plays drums for Lady Gaga. And Outlaw, an 12-bar blues saluting the women’s liberation movement, written and first recorded in 1970 by Eugene McDaniels and opening with the line, “She’s a sister in jeans / she’s an outlaw / she don’t wear a bra,” finds new currency through Foster’s wonderful rendition.

—Lee Hildebrand

JOHNNY WINTER

Step Back

Megaforce – MEGA 1696

Never mind that this album, much like 2011’s Roots, is bursting at the seams with big-name guests, all eager disciples of one John Dawson Winter III. The simple fact is Johnny Winter owns this album. And again, just like that last record, Winter here sounds as moving as he’s ever been in his 40-plus years of guitar slingin’ and barefootin’. His voice has aged into a smooth, velvety rasp with a dark-alley swagger that affirms he’s been around to see a thing or two, and wouldn’t you like to know about it. Then there’s that slippery snake of a slide guitar, cagey and dirty—Winter glides off the rails and back again with the coolest of ease.

For this throwback to the mostly 1950s blues-edged fare that inspired him, Winter’s longtime producer (also manager and second guitarist) Paul Nelson captures an utter resiliency that is justly celebrated by musicians who are not only peers, but in many cases influenced by the Beaumont, Texas, native. There are obvious successors to the throne, like Joe Bonamassa (whose blues-shred closely parallels Winter’s) on the B.B. King classic Sweet Little Sixteen. Note his fleet-fingered workout on a biting re-creation of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s 1951 instrumental Okie Dokie Stomp with Brian Setzer.

Winter sounds utterly haggard on a brass-tacks cover of Son House’s Death Letter— and you can hear every extraneous shake and pop in his metal-raked slide. As far as that down and dirty earthen groove is concerned, there’s no better tutorial than the Billy Gibbons collaboration Where Can You Be, a vintage amp love fest of guitar tone.

Winter also satisfies with the breakneck boogie of the Willie Dixon–penned, Elmore James–interpreted Can’t Hold Out (Talk to Me Baby) with Ben Harper, and digs deep on Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally with Leslie West.

Step Back is Johnny Winter’s persuasive wrangling of vintage backroom Chicago blues viewed through the eyes of a kid from the Gulf Coast of Texas, still possessing that youthful, uninhibited lack of pretense that caught the ears of the Rock ’n’ Roll People so many decades ago. If this is any indication, Winter’s work is far from complete.

—Mark Uricheck

ANDY T - NICK NIXON BAND

Livin’ It Up

Delta Groove - DGPCD - 166

Guitarist/vocalist Nick Nixon came of age on Nashville’s thriving ’60s-era African American blues circuit. He’s worked and recorded pretty steadily since then (among other things, he’s a longtime member of the New Imperials, and he also put in some time at Chess Records in the 1970s), but until recently he’s remained mostly a local and regional “living legend.” [See LB #225 for a full feature on Nixon.] His compatriot here, guitarist Andy T (nee Talamantez), arrived in Nashville from the West Coast about six years ago. The pair’s debut as bandleaders, Drink Drank Drunk, was released last year on Delta Groove to significant critical acclaim.

Nixon’s vocals recall such fabled stylists as Jimmy Witherspoon and Billy Eckstine; Andy T likewise purveys a jazz-tinged sound, with plenty of references to T-Bone and the Moore brothers. Even when they’re grinding out a Jimmy Reed–like shuffle (as on Best in Town, featuring evocative swoops, bends, and squalls from harpist Christian Dozzler), their hepcat vocal harmonies add a dash of jaunty sophistication to the mix. A muscular two-saxophone horn section riffs and testifies behind them, and when the horn players—Ron Jones and Dana Robbins—step out to solo, the band’s blend of roadhouse rawness and show-lounge musicality is accentuated even more.

Occasionally, as on Snake in the Grass, a hard-edged funk-rock impetus toughens the sound; at the other end of the musical/emotional spectrum, the disc’s closer, Love At First Sight, is a country/gospel-flavored ballad elevated by Robbins’ soaring tenor solo. It all adds up to a blues-rich yet stylistically diverse set, infused with joy and enriched by impeccable musicality—from beginning to end.

—David Whiteis

JANIVA MAGNESS

Original Fat Head Records - FH 1005 Janiva Magness is a true survivor, and her powerful, yet tender vocals bring a hard-won sense of truth to each song she sings. This is perhaps most evident on Original on her own new Fat Head imprint. Here, the Los Angeles–based singer has finally painted her masterpiece, crafting her strongest, most heartfelt album to date.

Producer Dave Darling has imbued these recordings with an intimate warmth fitting their confessional nature. Let Me Breathe pulses with urgency, enveloped in spare, organ-haunted soul. The broken-hearted When You Were My King begins with Magness’ voice as a distant echo and expands into a shimmering, gently rocking ballad. She exudes sexy toughness—the rousing I Need a Man is propelled by percussion, handclaps, and sizzling guitar licks, and she just as forcefully expresses the opposite emotion on the strutting Badass.

The twin themes of hope and encouragement thread through several songs: Twice as Strong, Everything Is Alright, and The Hard Way are all blessed with gospel sensibility, and Dan Navarro’s voice provides the perfect harmonic foil for hers on the upbeat With Love. She scales Mountain with a resigned ease, and the closing track Standing is suffused with quiet determination.

“Open up and sing your song,” Magness urges on With Love, and on this album she’s done just that. Full of sublime, self-assured songwriting and singing to match, Janiva Magness’ Original lives up to its name.

—Melanie Young

JOHN PRIMER AND THE TEARDROPS

You Can Make It Wolf - 120.833

Yet another great set of live Chicago-style blues from guitarist John Primer, this time in a trio setting. No guests. No fill. No fooling around.

You Can Make It is assembled from live recordings made in Austria in the 1990s of John Primer with Magic Slim’s band, the Teardrops. These would have been Primer’s opening numbers played in advance of the Main Man’s entrance to the stage, and they hold up very well, with appreciative crowds hooting and clapping as if he were the star of the show—which he could have been, as these tracks demonstrate.

Though taped at various locations (evidenced by the differing tones and prominence of Nick Holt’s bass), they cohere very well as a set. One of the big draws will be the dominance of Primer’s guitar picking and slide work—perhaps the most guitar soloing you will hear from him on CD—which thrillingly evokes the live sound that Primer had with these two bandmates, Nick Holt on bass and Earl Howell on drums. Yes, this is basically a trio, which may not be readily apparent with Primer’s incessant, omnipresent guitar work filling every crack in these tracks.

The recording quality is excellent and captures the excitement of the performances and the interplay between these musicians, who worked tightly together whether backing Primer or Slim. The set has the delicious balance of a typical Primer set with his personal takes on the work of his former employer, Muddy Waters (Sweet Man, If I Could Hold You in My Arms and Long Distance Call), and also Otis Rush (You Can Make It If You Try), Hound Dog Taylor (Big Fat Woman), plus a track apiece by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Junior Parker, Albert King and Guitar Slim.

Few surprises here, just studious interpretations of classic blues with the emphasis on guitar and groove. Primer once again proves unquestionably that he can indeed “make it,” just as he has done time after time.

—Justin O’Brien

BOBBY PATTERSON

I Got More Soul!

Omnivore - OVCD 92

Dallas-based vocalist Bobby Patterson scored three modest R&B chart hits between 1969 and 1977 (the final one, Right Place, Wrong Time, was released on the well-known R&B imprint All Platinum). His voice remains as supple and youthful-sounding as it was in his heyday, and he’s managed to retain that old-school sound—unembellished production, all-natural instrumentation, spiky rhythms propelling melodic and lyric conceits rooted in the blues but delivered with callow-sounding emotional directness—while avoiding, for the most part, the twin traps of nostalgia and moldy-fig purism.

That said, this set will appeal mostly to aficionados of classic R&B—the brawny horns, chunky fatback guitar work, and Patterson’s own irony-free musical persona hark back to a less self-conscious pop music era, when technique and artifice were no less prominent than they are today but were usually employed to create a feel of genuineness and sincerity—pretty much the opposite of the modern equation. At times, in fact, the unadorned straightforwardness of both the material and the production—as on the ballads Let Me Heal It and I Know How It Feels—sound almost atavistic. Elsewhere, though, offerings like Poet (a too-often-forgotten offering from There’s a Riot Goin’ On–era Sly Stone) and Patterson’s own It’s Hard to Get Back In and Can You Feel Me? Achieve a winning blend of street-level grit and show-lounge funkiness.

This disc’s target market probably consists mostly of roots-oriented R&B lovers; nonetheless, listeners steeped in more contemporary sounds who care about how those sounds evolved and where they came from should give it a listen as well.

—David Whiteis

O. B. BUCHANA

Pop Yo’ Bottle Ecko - ECD 1153

There’s a distinct Clarence Carter feel to You’re Welcome to the Party, this disc’s opening track, and that’s probably no accident—like Carter, O.B. Buchana is endowed with a resonant deep-soul voice capable of putting over a heart-rending ballad when he chooses, but he prefers good-timey material, laced with playful sexual signifying and designed to get club-goers dancing. Of the 11 tracks here, no fewer than five are dedicated to extolling the virtues (or, in the case of Party on the Weekend, lamenting the consequences) of all-night celebrations at the local hole in the wall. We could also add Private Party, which takes the revelry behind closed doors (“a party for two... So B.Y.S.B., bring your sexy body...), and That’s My Song, in which the narrator discovers his erstwhile lady dancing with another man in a club.

One song here, What’s the Deal?, is grafted pretty much note-for-note onto the structure of the James Carr standard Pouring Water on a Drowning Man, and Take My Wife Back strongly echoes Little Milton’s Your Wife Is Cheating on Us; most of the other offerings, though, are solidly in the modern southern soul-blues mode. As usual, Buchana gives us a few tantalizing glimpses of his skill as a balladeer. It Should Have Been Me is a deeply affecting testimonial of regret, and even That’s My Song, although the storyline traverses triedand- true southern soul territory, is drawn with vivid imagery—Buchana’s protagonist sounds genuinely heartbroken as he contemplates how his misguided jealousy drove his woman into another man’s arms. Mostly, though, this outing continues to showcase Buchana in his familiar persona as a hard-partying country man with a heart full of soul and a truckload of love—an image tailor-made to the contemporary southern soul circuit, and one that continues to make O.B. Buchana one of the genre’s leading lights and biggest draws.

—David Whiteis

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND

Goin’ Home Concord Records - CRE-35356-02

When Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently found himself with 11 days to spare, he set a course for his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana; there, he visited Brady Blade’s Blade Studios and cut an album. Goin’ Home is the result, and as the title suggests, it’s a refreshing return to the blues-rock guitarist’s musical roots.

For this project, Shepherd and his band— vocalist Noah Hunt, bassist Tony Franklin, drummer Chris Layton, and keyboardist Riley Osbourn—chose to record blues songs closely associated with artists ranging from the three Kings—Albert, B. B., and Freddie—to Bo Diddley, Magic Sam, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Muddy Waters. The ardent roadhouse blues of Everything’s Gonna Be Alright and the long, slow burn of You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now are showcases for Shepherd’s molten fretwork and Hunt’s impassioned vocals. Shepherd takes turns singing lead on The House Is Rockin’ and Boogie Man, and Osbourn’s pounding piano anchors both House and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Looking Back.

The album’s best moments, though, may be when the guests arrive. Warren Haynes drops a dose of ominous funk on Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, and the swaggering Cut You Loose gets a little help from Ringo Starr on drums. The Rebirth Brass Band adds a spirited punch to Palace of the King and, with Keb’ Mo’, to Born Under a Bad Sign. You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover is elevated by Pastor Brady Blade Sr.’s throaty declamations; likewise, Robert Randolph’s fire-andbrimstone sacred steel duels deliciously with Shepherd’s on Still a Fool.

Stacked with rousing performances from start to finish, the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s Goin’ Home is a trip well worth taking.

—Melanie Young

RICK ESTRIN AND THE NIGHTCATS

You Asked for It . . . Live!

Alligator Records - ALCD 4962

Bay Area stalwarts Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have often received requests for a live album, and their third release for Alligator Records is sure to delight the roots outfit’s fans. Recorded last October at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco, the aptly titled You Asked for It . . . Live! Is a snapshot of a band at home in their element.

The recorded sound is excellent; each artist is discernible, and the audience is present but not obtrusive. Handle with Care and Smart Like Einstein roll nimbly along with Estrin’s train-whistle harmonica; multiinstrumentalist Lorenzo Farrell (on organ) and guitarist Kid Andersen take extended solos as well. The sassy New Old Lady is slyly followed by My Next Ex-Wife, and the band takes their time stretching out the song’s foreboding groove. Estrin’s charming, slinky vocals are especially effective on Clothes Line’s cool talking blues and the wicked shuffle of That’s Big. Drummer J. Hansen sings his own sauntering Baker Man Blues and also delivers a rafter-rattling percussion solo on You Gonna Lie alongside Andersen’s space-age fretwork. The appreciative crowd gets livelier as the evening draws to a close, calling out a request for Dump That Chump. After the rocking Don’t Do It, Estrin ends with a quiet, creeping rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Too Close Together, with Farrell’s walking bass the sole accompaniment for his harp.

If you’ve not been to a Rick Estrin and the Nightcats show, the infectiously fun You Asked for It . . . Live! Will hip you to what you’ve been missing.

—Melanie Young

VANEESE THOMAS

Blues for My Father Segue Records - SRVT2014

Born in Memphis but long based in New York, Vaneese Thomas had a couple of mainstream R&B hits in the late ’80s, penned tunes for Melba Moore, Diana Ross, and others, and sang backup for the likes of Eric Clapton, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Sting, and Stevie Wonder. She now returns to the roots of her Memphis musical raising with a winning set of mostly original blues and soul tunes recorded at the studio she shares with her co-producer husband Wayne Warneke in Westchester County, New York, with some overdubs done in Memphis. Blues for My Father is dedicated to her dad, the late, great Rufus Thomas, as part of her crusade to honor his memory. She is circulating a petition to help get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she performed this summer on a soul festival at Rufus Thomas Park in Poretta, Italy. Betcha Memphis doesn’t have a such-named facility.

Blues for My Father is in several ways a family affair. Through the magic of Memorex (or whatever brand of master tape was used), Rufus himself joins his youngest daughter for Can’t Ever Let You Go, a triplet-driven mid-tempo blues shuffle written by Rufus. Carla Thomas, who has been criminally under-recorded over the past four decades, duets with Vaneese on an original soul song titled Wrong Turn, although it’s difficult to tell the two husky voices apart. Brother Marvell Thomas plays organ on that track, and David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer plays it on another. Also making outstanding contributions are guitarists Tash Neal and Jeff Mironov, pianist Robbie Kondor, tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum, bassist Will Lee, and drummer Buddy Williams.

Thomas is a commanding vocalist and a lyricist of the first order. “Fried fish and candied yam / help to make me what I am/scorching days and sultry nights/Sunday school and wrong from right/I’m a southern girl/I’m a southern girl/That’s what I am,” she wails in a gritty contralto over a punching Memphis soul groove on Southern Girl. She places herself deep in the country on the plaintive gospel-imbued Blue Ridge Blues, with Rob Mathes’ overdubbed acoustic blues guitars supplying the sole accompaniment. And she makes John Fogerty’s The Old Man Down the Road, the only tune out of 12 not associated with the Thomas family, sound as if it had been written for her.

—Lee Hildebrand

AKI KUMAR

Don’t Hold Back Greaseland Records – (No #)

Born in Mumbai and long based in San Jose, California, 34-year-old harmonica blower Akarsha “Aki” Kumar made his initial mark with Tip of the Top, a sadly short-lived trio in which he shared lead vocals with guitarist Jon Lawton. Now he’s out on his own with a killer CD of mostly Chicago-style blues on which he surrounds himself with some of the strongest blues players in Northern California. They include guitarists Lawton, Kid Andersen (who co-produced the sessions with Kumar), Johnny “Cat” Soubrand, and Rusty Zinn, pianist Bob Welsh, bassist Vance Ehlers, drummer June Core, and tenor saxophonist Frank Ramos.

Kumar is a strong, versatile harmonica player who draws on styles from Little Walter’s to Jimmy Reed’s, and when he sings, in robust low-tenor tones, he nails every line with near-perfect enunciation. His choice of vintage tunes to cover is inspired, avoiding the common in favor of less-often-heard material such as Walter’s Blue Baby, Reed’s She Don’t Want Me No More, Snooky Pryor’s Judgement Day, Hank Ballard’s Hoochie Coochie Coo, Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s I’ll Get You, Too, Memphis Slim’s Wish Me Well, and the Slim Harpo instrumental Buzzin’. The most familiar song in the set, Drifting Blues, which has almost always been rendered as a slow blues since Charles Brown recorded it that way with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1945, is instead delivered up-tempo by Kumar and company in a Rollin’ and Tumblin’ manner.

Three original Kumar tunes—Don’t Hold Back, Let Me Get Closer, and the Mystery Train–derived Mumbai Express—stand up well alongside the older material. He closes out the 13-track set with a Bollywood pop song titled Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh (A Strange Story). Unfortunately, only those fluent in Hindi (or wishing to Google the English translation) will understand the story, but it sure is an interesting way to end such a terrific album —Lee Hildebrand

DEANNA BOGART Just a Wish Away ...

Blind Pig Records - BPCD 5159

The Maryland-based musician Deanna Bogart traveled to Louisiana’s Dockside Studio to record her new album, and from the sound of it, “a little touch of voodoo” seeped its way into the atmosphere. On Just a Wish Away . . ., Bogart serves up a flavorful musical gumbo that’s a taste of the artist at the height of her powers.

That “little touch of voodoo” swirls through the swampy soul of Fine by Me Good Bayou, with Bonerama contributing a dash of New Orleans brass; the horn trio also livens up the swinging instrumental Collarbone and the nostalgic Hot Fun in the Summertime. If It’s Gonna Be Like This is tough and vivacious, and Marty Rifkin’s pedal steel provides a mournful counterpoint to it as well as to the bittersweet ballad What Is Love Supposed to Do Bogart duets with guitarist Cris Jacobs on If You Have Crying Eyes, and their voices meld beautifully on the lilting, country gospel-tinged tune. Back and Forth Kid is an affecting, Carole King-esque tale that Bogart spins solo on piano. On the jubilant Conversing with Lincoln, Derwin “Big D” Perkins’ guitar and Charlie Wooton’s bass dance briskly with Bogart’s sax, and Rafael Pereira’s percussion lends the song an island feel. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Tightrope is given a funky, keyboard-driven treatment, and the instrumental Bye Bye Blackbird brings it all back home with a Big Easy flourish.

With seamless, eclectic style to spare, Deanna Bogart’s Just a Wish Away . . . Is a truly lovely record, full of the fine playing, singing and songwriting that she is known for.

—Melanie Young

EDEN BRENT

Jigsaw Heart Yellow Dog Records - YDR 2116

Mississippi native Eden Brent’s latest release for Yellow Dog finds the pianist and singer-songwriter once again expanding her sonic horizons—this time, to Nashville. Recorded in that city and produced by Colin Linden (who also helmed Brent’s 2010 offering Ain’t Got No Troubles in New Orleans), Jigsaw Heart traverses the border where blues and country meet.

The elegiac, string-caressed Better This Way opens the album; Brent is a natural-born ballad singer, and her smoky alto glows on this, the title track, and The Last Time. Everybody Already Knows is a sultry, rollicking piano boogie, and the feisty Let’s Go Ahead and Fall in Love drips with lascivious glee. Her gorgeous cover of Joan Armatrading’s Opportunity oozes moody soul, aided by Ann and Regina McCrary on backing vocals; they also grace her version of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free with Sunday-morning spirit.

She revisits her native Delta on Jimmy Phillips’ Panther Burn, which Linden colors richly with guitar and mandolin. The jazzy Tendin’ to a Broken Heart evokes latter-day Billie Holiday, while the shuffling country blues Get the Hell Out of Dodge flirts with Texas swing. Brent steps away from the keyboard to deliver Valentine; her warm voice, buoyed only by strings and guitar, ends the proceedings on a sweet note.

“She’s motivated ain’t looking back,” Brent coos on the chugging Locomotive, and this sums up the spirit of the recording. Jigsaw Heart adds an essential piece to the mosaic of her musical journey.

—Melanie Young

DOM FLEMONS

The American Songster: Prospect Hill

Music Maker Relief Foundation - MMCD167

Dom Flemons, who ended his nine-year tenure as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops following a December tour, sounds like he had a lot of fun making The American Songster: Prospect Hill, his wonderful, variety-filled maiden voyage as a solo recording artist. The onetime Phoenix, Arizona, street musician rattles bones and taps his feet on the floor in the manner of the late J.C. Burris while Guy Davis blows harmonica and hollers Sonny Terry–style on the two-man instrumental Marching Up Prospect Hill. “Ain’t it a good thing to have more than one; one woman will never do,” Lemons playfully proclaims on Frank Stokes’ bouncing It’s a Good Thing while playing both guitar and bass drum (through overdubbing) with Davis picking banjo and adding harmony vocals and jive talk. Flemons scats with joyous abandon on his New Orleans traditional-jazz–inspired composition ’Til the Seas Run Dry, which features solos by clarinetist Brian Horton and six-sting banjo man Keith Ganz, and he humorously celebrates the culinary delights to be found at the famous Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in East Nashville on Hot Chicken, during which Brian Horton blows some mean, raspy tenor sax and Ganz gets greasy on electric guitar. And the leader picks up a fife for a largely instrumental romp in the Mississippi fife-and-drum tradition titled Grotto Beat.

Having almost singlehandedly reestablished the long-dormant songster tradition once performed by many itinerant African American musicians that included blues, rags, pop, folk, hillbilly, hokum, and church songs, Flemons also shows himself to be a first-rate tunesmith. Of the 14 songs in the set, he composed half, all but one with lyrics. They include a rocking 12-bar semi-electric blues titled I Can’t Do It Anymore, the lilting Too Long (I’ve Been Gone) which brings John Denver to mind melodically, and the gently swinging San Francisco Baby, perhaps the finest such song about the City by the Bay since Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues. Round ing out the set list are numbers associated with Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Gus Cannon, Georgia guitarist James Davis, and the Gu-Achi Fiddlers from Arizona, along with an arrangement by Blind John Campbell and His Nashville String Band of Broadway composer Frank Loesser’s Have I Stayed Away Too Long?

No musician in recent memory has tackled so many different idioms with such sincerity and style as Flemons, making him easily the most gifted American songster of his generation.

—Lee Hildebrand

THE MANNISH BOYS

Wrapped Up and Ready

Delta Groove - DGPCD165

There is a lot to love about the Mannish Boys’ new CD Wrapped Up and Ready.

A lot of heavy-duty musicians: at least 20 all-stars, including the six band members, with Willie J.Campbell on bass and Jimi Bott on drums.

A lot of hot singers: four lead singers— Sugaray Rayford and Randy Chortkoff, special guests Candye Kane and Trenda Fox, plus six back up vocalists.

A lot of great songs: a generous helping of 16 songs, including six originals by band members and three by guests Mike Welch and Steve Freund. A lot of brilliant guitarists: band mates Kirk “Eli” Fletcher, Franck “Paris Slim” Goldwasser plus guests Laura Chavez, Nico Duportal, Steve Freund, Monster Mike Welch, and Kid Ramos, who is thankfully back after a health related hiatus. A lot of wailing harmonica virtuosos: Randy Chortkoff, Bob Corritore, Jakob “Walters” Huffman, and Kim Wilson. A lot of fun: a blues blast bonanza of styles ranging from West Coast jump blues to Chicago, from blues rock to soul-blues. A lot of polish: Everything is seemingly perfect... perfect vocal arrangements, perfect production, perfect sound engineering and mastering, perfect instrumentation, perfect in every way.

It’s all big, bursting with a fat sound and the feeling of an all-star revue—a who’s who on today’s California blues scene. Notable songs, like Roy Brown’s swinging jump blues Everything’s Alright, the convincing Blues for Michael Bloomfield, and the soulful version of Ike Turner’s I Idolize You featuring sultry singer Candye Kane, guitarist Laura Chavez, and Randy Chortkoff on harmonica. This record is packed with too many good songs to list them all—Mike Welch’s I Have Love is on fire—Sugaray sings, Mike Welch plays lead guitar, and Bob Corritone is on harp.

While the Mannish Boys have pulled off an amazing feat, they risk coming across as predictable. Wrapped Up and Ready is wonderful and perfect—in spots a little too perfect. They could be more daring and still be brilliant.

—Frank Matheis

TERRIE ODABI

Evolution of the Blues No label - (No #)

Oakland blues singer-songwriter Terrie Odabi, who represented Northern California at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January, serves up a delectable set of five original songs and a chilling rendition of The Sky Is Crying on her debut recording. Roots in gospel and soul music are evident as she uses her alternately breathy and wailing alto pipes with precise enunciation to cut to the core of her at-times erotic odes. Evolution of the Blues opens with the rather political title track. “Bombs burst, our future dies, hold my head down and cry,” she sings intensely over the band’s semi-slow, hardshuffling backbeat. The groove turns funky for I’ll Feed You Real Good, on which she cleverly uses food as a metaphor for sex. “I taste so good you’ll scream my name / You want rump roast? / Well, I’ve got two / Think of all the things you could do,” Odabi oozes vocally. And on another, slightly faster shuffle titled I Can’t Keep, she tells listeners that “I can’t keep the old men from flirtin’ with me / I can’t keep the young men from hittin’ on me” before eventually telling them, “I only freak with my man.”

Lyrically, Odabi is a seductress more of the classic blues tradition of the 1920s than of the recent, often overtly salacious soul blues idiom. Musically, she is one of the most commanding female vocalists to have come down the blues highway in recent memory. Her intentional use of delaying timing during the stop-time sections of her slow blues You’re a Liar! Is impeccable. And her reading of The Sky Is Crying, backed only by Kid Andersen’s Delta-style guitar and featuring an entire wordless chorus of Odabi humming and moaning, is a remarkably subtle masterpiece.

Andersen, a Norwegian now based in San Jose and a member of Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, also takes a scorching solo on I’ll Feed You Real Good that makes imaginative use of a wah-wah pedal. Backing the singer solidly on that and three other tracks is a rhythm section that features guitarist Terry Hiatt and calls itself the Wrecking Crew from Mountain View. That San Jose suburb may be home to Google, Microsoft, and other hi-tech corporations, but it’s also a new home of the blues.

—Lee Hildebrand

JIMMY “DUCK” HOLMES & TERRY “HARMONICA” BEAN

Twice as Hard Broke & Hungry Records - BH13011

Twice as Hard is a downhome summit meeting between two men dedicated to keeping alive traditional Mississippi blues. Their individual styles reflect their roots in two distinct breeding grounds for the music; guitarist and singer Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, 67, is a native of Bentonia, and harmonica player, singer, and guitarist Terry “Harmonica” Bean, some 20 years his junior, hails from Pontotoc. For blues lovers, the former represents a variation on the Delta style known as the “Bentonia school” that is associated with artists like Skip James and Jack Owens; the latter is a practitioner of the hill country style associated with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Both men have deep blues roots; Holmes continues to run the Blue Front Café juke joint that his parents owned, and Bean’s father, a bluesman, hosted blues jams at their home. Holmes and Bean have played together off and on since 2006 and were brought together by producer Jeff Konkel for an all-day recording session at the Delta Music Institute in Cleveland, Mississippi, in November of 2012. Veteran Greenville drummer Frank Vick contributes his funky beats on five of the ten tracks.

This is a barebones, stripped-down affair, as the three men form various configurations— solo, duo, trio—to lay down some authentic country blues. Holmes and Bean are featured on two solo numbers each, which help to establish a distinction in their approaches: Holmes dark, probing, and introspective; Bean rowdy, rhythmic, and extroverted. Bean, playing electric guitar, also turns in two duets with Vick, his own Boogie with Me and a driving version of Dr. Clayton’s Cheating and Lying Blues. The four tracks, one duet and three trio numbers, are really the main attraction here, though. On the duet, Lonesome Church Bell, the two bluesmen work together in a genuine dialogue as Bean’s harp weaves in and out of Holmes’ vocal and guitar lines. With the trio tracks, Holmes picks up an electric guitar, and these guys rock the house! On She Moved Across the River, they trade lead vocals as Bean punctuates Holmes’ driving boogie lines with urgent harmonica wails. They slow the pace down for some grinding, raw funk on Broke and Hungry. The highlight of the set is Wake Up, Woman with Holmes and Vincent locking into a churning groove, which Bean rides over with long, sonorous harp lines. Twice as Hard testifies to the vibrancy of traditional Mississippi blues—let’s hope these two bluesmen will extend and deepen their partnership.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

SMOKY BABE

Way Back in the Country Blues Arhoolie - CD 548

Smoky Babe was born Robert Brown in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1927 and grew up in and around the Delta town of Vance, where he learned to play the guitar. After stopovers in Bessemer, Alabama, and New Orleans, he was living in Scotlandville, Louisiana, when he came to the attention of the estimable LSU folklorist Dr. Harry Oster at a party at the home of Robert Pete Williams’ sister in 1960. Oster proceeded to record his new discovery throughout the next year and a half, resulting in LP releases on Bluesville and his own Folk Lyric imprint as well as anthology tracks on Storyville and Arhoolie. Now, half a century later, Oster’s widow has delivered a batch of previously unheard tape reels to Arhoolie from which the 17 selections on this new CD were drawn.

Like his previously issued recordings, this set presents a mix of autobiographical originals such as Boss Man Blues and On Mr Walter’s Farm with versions of such blues classics as Diggin’ My Potatoes and Terraplane Blues and other songs made up primarily of the blues’ storehouse of so-called “floating verses.” Unlike the previous albums, there are no harmonica players and no neighbors joining in to sing, but Smoky Babe was perfectly capable of carrying the load by himself. He breaks out his slide only once, on What’s Wrong with You, which, like Terraplane, emphasizes his Delta roots, but even these are marked by the exuberant sense of swing that he brought to everything he played.

It is believed that Smoky Babe died in the early ’70s, ignored by the blues revival and never again recorded. His old Scotlandville neighbor, Lazy Lester (who, as Henry Thomas, had played harmonica on some of the Oster sessions), dismissed him as “just a little street guitar player,” but if so he was a darned good one. This belated memorial proves to be every bit as good as its predecessors and ranks as one of the year’s essential buys.

—Jim DeKoster

MARK HUMMEL

The Hustle Is Really On Electro-Fi - 3439

The Hustle Is Really On confirms that Mark Hummel belongs in the upper echelons of the harmonica blues world—regardless of the generation. A blues harmonica innovator and veteran road warrior of the first order, Hummel has been releasing a steady stream of top-notch records (including several excellent live albums on Mountain Top, Electro-Fi, and his own Rockinitus label) since the mid-1980s. His fourth studio recording for Electro-Fi finds Hummel and his Blues Survivors joined by three notable guitarists: former Nightcats leader Little Charlie Baty, current Nightcats guitarist Kid Andersen, and Texas’ own Anson Funderburgh.

Hummel is most often identified with the West Coast style, in part for his strengths as a swing and jump blues player (especially on chromatic harmonica) and for his longtime residency in the Bay Area, where he has lived since the early 1970s. Although this label is accurate it is also somewhat limiting—if anything defines Hummel it is his dexterity and mastery of a wide range of harmonica styles. He’s a nuanced vocalist as well, and The Hustle Is Really On showcases all of these talents well.

The album opens with Blues Stop Knockin’, a high-energy rocker that could easily have been conceived as a tribute to the late Gary Primich, before transitioning to the Jimmy Reed– inspired I’m Gonna Ruin You. Baty’s sophisticated, jazz-inflected guitar work elevates every track he appears on, especially where he’s paired with Funderburgh (see especially the title track and Give Me Time to Explain— both great swinging blues). This is an album that rewards multiple spins, and aspiring harp players will find a wealth of material to mine.

Hummel has been playing professionally for over 40 years, yet his harmonica playing continues to sound fresh. Even when performing covers that are faithful to the original (see the Little Walter instrumental Crazy Legs) he always owns the tune. This commitment to tradition coupled with a desire to innovate on each new record makes recommending this (and any Hummel) album a foregone conclusion.

— Roger Gatchet

THE NIGHTHAWKS 444

EllerSoul Records - ER1406-18

In and around Washington, DC, the Nighthawks, the quintessential American blues and roots bar band, are legendary—even if the term has otherwise been cheapened by massive overuse. They have outlasted most of the bars and clubs they started in, way back in the early ’70s when Jimmy Thackery was the guitarist and harp player Mark Wenner’s full arm tattoos were still the shocking stuff of rough-andtumble sailors, outlaws, and bikers. Nowadays, your average banker has more tattoos than Wenner, who is, however, just as intimidating with his fierce ten-hole Mississippi saxophone, as bombastic and fearless as ever.

Things have changed a little. The impassioned band went through many iterations and incarnations, always with Mark Wenner holding the name and sound of the ensemble together. By now, their original fans can attend their shows with three generations of family members, all of legal drinking age. Nowadays, Wenner is in the company of guitarist Paul Bell, bassist Johnny Castle and drummer Mark Stutso. No matter who was in the band, their Mid-Atlantic fans have always known them to be one of the very best bands in America. Indeed, for more than four decades the regional fans have been mystified and could more easily explain string theory than why this amazing band has not reached global fame.

If you need to explain that concept to the rest of the world, just give them 444, the Nighthawks’ explosive new CD, their 27th, a typical amalgam of blues, rock ’n’ roll, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and roots rock—always blues based and heavily saturated with all the ’chillen of the blues. Muddy Waters loved the Nighthawks and they love him back, covering a Muddy song on every release. On 444 they put down a faithful version of Louisiana Blues. The CD starts off with the Du Droppers’ 1950s R&B tune Walk That Walk (originally Talk That Talk)—lovely vocal harmonies with a blast of Wenner’s superb harping. Johnny Castle wrote three fine songs for the album: the rockabilly title cut 444, which could have come straight out of Sun Studios in the ’50s, High Snakes, and Roadside Cross, an acoustic folk-Americana song that finishes the album with a gentle touch, with a guest appearance of mandolinist Akira Otsuka. Blues fans will delight at their hard-driving, passionate renditions of Gary Nicholson’s Nothin’ but the Blues and Livin’ the Blues.

The Nighthawks have always been torchbearers of pure, unadulterated roots and blues at its finest and 444 continues that proud legacy— interesting, fun, drawing on diverse traditions, and smooth like fine Kentucky bourbon.

—Frank Matheis

WILLIE JONES

Fire in My Soul Shout! - 82

Miami-born singer Willie Jones began his recording career in Detroit in 1955 with the Royal Jokers and spent the next decade recording frequently both with that vocal group and as a solo artist for the Atco, Fortune, Storm, Metro, Big Top, Mr. Peacock, and Wingate labels. None met with much success, and he threw in the towel in 1966 after one final single with the Royal Jokers. He remained largely inactive in music for the next 45 years until his old friend Bettye LaVette invited him to be her duet partner on one track of the Steve Cropper album Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royals, recorded in Nashville with Cropper and Jon Tiven producing.

Now Jones has a CD of his own thanks to Tiven and English executive producers Mark Stratford and Clive Richardson. On its face, Fire in My Soul has much to recommend, including a strong rhythm section made up of guitarist Tiven (who also plays keyboards and saxophone), wife Sally Tiven on bass and background vocals, and a rotating cast of drummers (Anton Fig and Chester Thompson, among them); guest instrumentalists including guitarist Cropper and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere (playing together on two tracks); guest vocalists LaVette, Black Francis, and Dylan LeBlanc; 15 freshly minted songwriting collaborations from the pens of Jones, the Tivens, Cropper, Cavaliere, LaVette, and others; and richly detailed notes by veteran music journalist Richardson.

Sadly, Fire in My Soul fails to ignite. Jones’ tenor vocal performances are rather pedestrian and largely lacking in passion. Jon Tiven’s mix has too much tremble and not enough of the fat bottom that usually distinguishes soul productions from rock and pop. In her duet with Jones on the song Without Redemption, LaVette makes her debut as, of all things, a rapper—and not a very good one. All parties involved obviously put a lot of effort into making the album, but unfortunately there’s little that redeems the final result.

—Lee Hildebrand

PRESTON SHANNON

Dust My Broom Continental Blue Heaven - CBHCD 2025

Born in Olive Branch, Mississippi, and raised in Memphis, Preston Shannon has bled pure southern soul since he was a child, much to the chagrin of his Pentecostal parents, who would eventually recognize their son’s talent. He notably served as Shirley Brown’s guitarist in her touring band, every night bringing to life the vocal Bobby Womack sang with Brown on the 1989 duet Ain’t Nothing Like the Lovin’ We Got before putting down roots on Beale Street. Shannon has owned the crowds on Beale since his 1994 debut recording as a bandleader, Break the Ice, which was released on the Rounder imprint Bullseye. His legacy of Little Milton/Z.Z. Hill–infused danceability with chops (sounding like the blessed union of Curtis Mayfield meets Albert King) continues on his latest disc, Dust My Broom.

Billed as an Elmore James tribute, the record is so much more. Composed of seven studio tracks that include James standards like The Sky Is Crying and Look on Yonder Wall, the album also features delightfully re-arranged cuts like the slick, Memphis-muscled take on Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’, on which the classic Delta overtones are given a decidedly urban flair with horns and a Malaco- inspired funk. Similarly, the Fred McDowell/ Gary Davis–penned You Gotta Move strays from its bottlenecked, cotton-fields spiritual slant and morphs into a hip, jump-blues good time. Shannon’s penchant for nestling a groove into any piece seems almost instinctive, and it’s a trait that he works to precision.

Five live tracks culled from a Netherlands- based radio broadcast are added here, featuring Fat Harry and the Fuzzy Licks as Shannon’s backing band. The outfit jams through a shuffling reading of Honky Tonk, from Shannon’s 1996 Bullseye release Midnight in Memphis, and the very Al Green– sounding mover The Way I Love You from 2006’s Be with Me Tonight. The live portion of the disc culminates with a stirring rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain, where Shannon’s guitar offers near-divine oratory.

Shannon’s blues vocabulary is anything but routine. He offers chitlin’ circuit showmanship over a postwar Chicago swing—a one-two punch straight to the musical funny bone.

—Mark Uricheck

FORREST MCDONALD

Turnaround Blues World Talent Records - (No #)

Texas-born Forrest McDonald could likely coast for the rest of his career on Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll, for which he laid down one instantly recognizable guitar solo. Factor in time spent as sideman to Bobby Womack, Marie Franklin, Jimmy Reed Jr., and others, and you’ve got a career most likeminded musicians would give their right arm to achieve.

Turnaround Blues is notable in that it’s co-produced by McDonald with ex-Rainbow keyboardist Tony Carey, who CUT played with McDonald in the early 1970s Hollywood rock band the Force that featured McDonald along with co-guitarist Bob Zinner in a dueling lead situation. Tracks like a cover of Junior Wells’ Checking on My Baby are bristling with the type of chicken-gristled bluesy funk personified by leather-tough players like Son Seals, while Sonny Boy Williamson’s Cross My Heart is as shuffle-muscled as anything Gregg Allman has laid down. McDonald’s band is locked into an air-tight groove on this one.

The original I’m a Fool echoes Mc- Donald’s time spent as a studio musician in Muscle Shoals, with a shimmering sense of Sunday morning salvation running through it and beautifully interpreted vocals by Andrew Black. Another original, Only Love, slants toward an elegant B.B. King–inspired jazz exposition, showcasing the versatility of McDonald as a player.

Some 50 years on, McDonald still maintains the wide-eyed wonder of a journeyman musician tempered with the confidence of a veteran. It’s a mix that makes for still-vital, neatly packaged grit.

—Mark Uricheck

PORK CHOP WILLIE

Love Is the Devil Pork Chop Willie Music - PCWM 002

Featuring songs that vocalist/guitarist Bill Hammer describes as “having integrity and telling stories about real people in a direct, unfiltered way,” the debut album from Nashville’s Pork Chop Willie is as raw as any hill country stomp and as haunting as the most backwoods Appalachian holler. The duo, which has since 2007 featured Hammer along With violinist Melissa Tong, augmented by a number of fine session musicians from New York City and Mississippi, specializes in music that sounds like the missing link between Hank Williams and Junior Kimbrough.

Tracks like Too Many Cuts are strikingly original as the addition of the sophisticated yearn of Tong’s violin provides a fresh spin on an old formula. The coy, knowing breeze in Hammer’s vocal delivery gives the track a distinct counterpoint, in contrast to the jagged Burnside boogie of the rhythm foundation. Snake Drive is similar in feel, with more pure abandon and a slight distortion in the vocal; the too-cool refrain of “let my baby ride” provides a head-bobbing swagger.

The firm yet carefree backbeat on Rosalie recalls the slicked-back innocence of Del Shannon meets the roots perspective of the Mavericks; the track is a trip down that metaphorical lover’s lane. Falling has a dark alt-country quality with a hint of desperation through lyrics like “I’ve got a gun, I never hurt no one,” the listener immediately getting the picture as to where things can turn sour. The duo’s songwriting is carefully mapped, yet loose enough to warrant official lack of inhibition.

With this hypnotic, modern approach to the spiritual purgation that is great hill country blues, Pork Chop Willie should turn some ears.

—Mark Uricheck

THE CANTON SPIRITUALS

Keep Knocking Malaco - MCD4565

Mississippi’s Canton Spirituals were formed in 1946 by Harvey Watkins Sr. But didn’t find national fame until nearly 40 years later, by which time Harvey Watkins Jr. Was the lead singer. During the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, the group eclipsed such extroverted veterans as the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Gospel Keynotes and regional contenders like the Jackson Southernaires, the Williams Brothers, and Willie Banks and the Messengers to become the dominant quartet in African American gospel music. Recent years have seen another downhome Mississippi singing group, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s, become the genre’s preeminent quartet, but the Canton Spirituals keep on singing in their time-honored, finely harmonized tradition.

Keep Knocking is the quartet’s first new album in six years, but how recently it was recorded is unknown, as the musicians on the opening track include the highly revered gospel and neo-soul guitar virtuoso Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, who died in March 2008. Two other similarly versatile guitar players— Agape Jerry and Alton Hollis—appear on most of the songs, playing bluesy leads and simmering chords in the rhythm section alongside keyboardists Maulty Jewell and David Curry Jr., bassist Marlin Lucious, drummer David Curry III, and others. The musicians remain in the background throughout, however, providing empathetic, rhythm-charged support for the singers.

Watkins Jr. Wrote six of the disc’s 13 selections, sings lead on eight, and splits the leads with others on three more. He frequently begins songs in breathy low-tenor tones before building intensity and breaking into throaty squalls, especially during the vamps of numbers like the shout-beat-fuelled For Me. “You hung on the cross,” he wails three times at one point, before adding, “and you set me free.” “For me,” the other men sing in riffing response to each phrase while the guitars play repetitive rhythmic patterns. The emotional effect is positively hypnotic.

—Lee Hildebrand

ALONZO PENNINGTON

Born With Nothin’ Soultrax - SLT-5001-CD

The big news here is the return of producer/label owner Quinton Claunch, co-founder of Hi Records and the man who first recorded O.V. Wright as a secular artist and also introduced the world to James Carr (whose most significant sides, including 1967’s epochal The Dark End of the Street, were on Claunch’s Goldwax label). Now in his early 90s, the redoubtable Claunch seems ready to jump full-fledged back into the fray.

Alonzo Pennington is the son of Eddie Pennington, an acoustic guitarist known for his expertise in the Merle Travis thumb-picking style. The younger Pennington, though, looks to more recent influences for his inspiration— most notably post-Allmans blues-rockers like Stevie Ray Vaughan and eclectic modern stylists like the late Danny Gatton. Here, though, he plays down the pyrotechnics; his leads, piercing and tightly wound, resonate clearly without distortion, and his gravel-andgrits vocals are unpretentious and straightforward, even at their bluesiest and most high-energy. He’s equally comfortable with propulsive, rock-fueled blues outings like the title tune and funk-seasoned soul-blues like It’s Sweet on the Back Streets, and he’s capable of delivering a Christian-themed country ballad like You Can’t Put a Price on That—the kind of thing that could easily become either embarrassingly bathetic or annoyingly ironic in the wrong hands—with straightforward emotional and spiritual commitment.

The material here is uniformly first-rate— Claunch’s own contributions are especially satisfying for their lyric vividness and heartfelt storytelling—and Pennington’s ease with diverse (but closely related) styles borrowed from the blues, country, and rock ’n’ roll traditions allows him to deliver it all with unforced emotional immediacy and musicality.

—David Whiteis

SHANE DWIGHT

This House Electro Groove - EGRCD515

This House is Nashville by-way-of California singer/songwriter Shane Dwight’s ninth album, and it’s remarkable to hear how he’s progressed as not only a storyteller but also an instrumentalist since his solo debut, Boogie King, over a decade ago. Throughout his career, Dwight has played the part of forlorn wandering bluesman, eccentric countrified roots rocker, and fastest-gun-in-the-West guitar slinger; all with equal aplomb. The Shane Dwight on this record, however, has never sounded so comfortably creative within his self-defined Americana parameters; he is creating music for that long journey down the dirt path that leads to inner discovery.

Produced and engineered by Delbert McClinton sideman/Dick 50 member Kevin McKendree, This House exudes a well-mixed sense of neo-country soul with a lived-in sound and vibe that can be best described as hauntingly analog. Tracks like We Can Do This are Parliament-esque in their throwback funk, complete with boisterous Bootsy Collins–inspired bass lines and head-cocked attitude in the vocals. Sing for Me (Search for Sierra) is a lonesome, mournful piece of street-corner blues made more desolate with a carefully plodding bass and organ work teeming with urgency; like Tom Waits’ spin on the blues without the exaggerated lyrical element.

Dwight gets deeply personal and reflective with the gospel-inflected ballad Fool, with tasteful background vocals containing just a hint of Motown. There’s a reassurance in his vocal (“Gonna wipe away every tear that ever falls from your eye”) and soothing calm that he embraces in such material. Similarly deep is It’s Gonna Be Beautiful, with lead Janis Joplin– inspired vocals my Bekka Bramlett (daughter of Delaney and Bonnie.)

Dwight turns on a dime with dark and dirty Texas blues in Stepping Stone, the song hanging on the most Herculean of John Lee Hooker riffs twisted through a vintage amplifier cabinet in recent memory. Equally roughneck is Bad for You, dripping with dark-alley snarl and boastful machismo (“You know how bad I want you, and you know how good I love you.

Rich in downhome realism and sage songwriting perspective, This House is life in a nutshell, according to Shane Dwight.

—Mark Uricheck

SETH WALKER

Sky Still Blue

The Royal Potato Family - RPF 1411

Originally a cellist and violinist by training, North Carolina native Seth Walker made the transition to guitar as a college student and hasn’t looked back since. Walker’s unique sound, born from his classical music upbringing coupled with a deep love of blues, soul, and R&B (Taj Mahal once called him a “little, white Ray Charles”), makes him one of the more distinctive blues-based musicians on the touring circuit today.

Walker’s releases often bear the unmistakable stamp of the city he was living and writing in at the time they were recorded, whether it be Austin (see his 2007 self-titled effort for Pacific Blues, later reissued on the Hyena label), Nashville (2009’s Leap of Faith, also on Hyena), or, in the case of Sky Still Blue, his new home base of New Orleans. Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers took the helm as producer and co-writer on several tracks, and their musical partnership has resulted in Walker’s best project to date.

Deeply rooted in the blues yet not afraid to stray from the genre’s particular stylistic constraints, Sky Still Blue incorporates soul, gospel, funk, and in the case of All That I’m Askin’, even a bit of Caribbean flair into the mix. In a documentary short posted to his website at www.sethwalker.com, Walker calls his band a “family,” and the tight-knit bonds signified by that descriptor are clearly evident in the 11-track set list dominated by originals. They’re joined by Oliver’s brother Chris (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame) on upright bass and the talented gospel singers the McCrary Sisters, whose exquisite background vocals complement Walker’s own nuanced singing on Grab Ahold and For a Moment There.

Highlights are easy to find on this disc, from the bluesy opening cuts Easy Come, Easy Go and Trouble (Don’t Want No) to Jesus (Make My Bed), a deep blues with sparse instrumentation that evokes the mood of a vintage field recording (it was apparently cut in one take without any prior rehearsals). Sky Still Blue combines sophistication with a stripped-down sound, making it a perfect metaphor for the muse he has found in the city of New Orleans.

— Roger Gatchet

LARRY LAMPKIN

The Blues Is Real Kaint Kwit - (No #)

The Blues Is Real is the sophomore effort for Fort Worth guitarist Lampkin, following 2011’s promising debut When I Get Home. Like its predecessor, it’s a self-produced affair, with all ten songs written by the leader.

The set kicks off with the anthemic title track, followed by a pair of slower numbers, with Lampkin’s crackling guitar fills and occasional falsetto wail enlivening Got to Get Away before Let Me In veers off into an atmospheric minor key. Last time out, Lampkin sang of the domestic danger posed by the cable man and the bill collectors, but here he’s ready to turn the tables as the Maintenance Man After Sheila Gee, bassist Joe McClure, and drummer Billy Mo add background vocals to the contemporary lament World Blues, Lampkin looks for his Crown Royal to ease his pain after his woman leaves him, only to find that she has taken it with her, but all is well again as he sings She’s So Good to Me and The Way She Makes It. The penultimate Sad Eyes is a blues ballad, and the set closes with the mid-tempo stroll Working Man.

With this release, Lampkin has taken a solid step forward from his already accomplished debut and clearly merits recognition as a leading purveyor of contemporary Texas blues.

—Jim DeKoster

EMMETT WHEATFALL

Them Poetry Blues Peterson Entertainment - (No #)

Emmett Wheatfall is a published poet from Portland, Oregon, with four books of poetry in print. This is his fourth CD and the third collaboration with producer/saxophonist Noah Peterson in putting a selection of Wheatfall’s poems to music.

As the title suggests, the backing has a touch of the blues this time out, albeit a suave and sophisticated blues with Peterson’s sax and Nathan Olsen’s piano to the fore on most tracks. For the most part, Wheatfall’s vocalizing is more akin to recital than song, and while comparisons can be made to Omar Sharif, Oscar Brown Jr., Mose Allison and Amiri Baraka and the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, listening to this disc is a distinctive experience. Thematically, the material ranges from Black Eyed Peas to Sunday Morning to Big Women to what used to be called “protest songs” to, of course, poems of love and loss. Barbara Harris adds vocal support to one track, and pianist Janice Scroggins, who died this May at age 58, is showcased on Ms Janice Scroggins & Her 88 Keys Elsewhere, the band is rounded out by guitarist Peter Dammann, organist Louis Pain, the late bassist James Miller and drummer Carlton Jackson, who, along with Peterson and Olsen, sound equally at ease with the seductive caress of Come Away with Me and the Tramp-inspired riff that drives That’s What I’m Gonna Do.

What really makes this album special, though, is that Wheatfall tells stories that are both personal and local, so that the listener gets to know something about the artist and his world. In that respect, it recalls the work of earlier blues poets such as Sleepy John Estes and Lightning Hopkins, and stands in welcome contrast to the usual blues clichés.

—Jim DeKoster

RONNIE EARL & THE BROADCASTERS

Good News Stony Plain - SPCD 1372

The release of Good News comes hot on the heels of Ronnie Earl’s third victory in the Blues Music Awards best instrumentalist Guitar category. His guitar work on this CD, which is characterized by precision, clarity, creativity, and passion, provides convincing evidence of why he is so highly regarded. As a front man for an all-instrumental band, he is under pressure to deliver the goods, and he certainly does with these ten tracks. Of course, the Broadcasters—Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3 organ, Lorne Entress on drums, and Jim Mouradian on bass—work with him to deliver a program of simmering blues and soul. Guest appearances by vocalist Diane Blue and guitarists Nicholas Tabarias and Zach Zunis help them turn up the heat.

Evoking Sam Cooke’s classic 1964 album Ain’t That Good News, Earl crafts a program of blues, soul, and gospel, including Cooke’s hit from that LP, A Change Is Gonna Come, which features Blue’s deliberate and powerful gospel vocal that spars with Earl’s guitar and builds in intensity until the guitarist takes over and unleashes a smoldering solo. The title track is an up-tempo gospel organ showpiece for Limina, while Blues for Henry is a King Curtis–style soul stew composed by Earl and Hubert Sumlin. On the blues side of things, standout tracks include Earl and his two guest guitarists trading solos on the propulsive Met Her on That Train, which is built on a riff that brings Lightnin Hopkins to mind. Puddin’ Pie is a hard-driving shuffle that would be at home on a late 1950s B.B. King album, and Junior Wells and Buddy Guy’s In the Wee Hours is an unrelenting slow blues burner that features Earl’s guitar and Limina’s organ locked into a searing duel.

While Cooke’s album was divided into more uptempo, rocking numbers on one side and mellow ballads on the other, Good News is not quite as balanced. Earl’s focus is on slow and mid-tempo numbers that build in intensity; for example, tracks six, seven, and eight, Six String Blessing, Marje’s Melody, and the aforementioned Blues for Henry are three slow tunes in a row that clock in at over 23 minutes. While they are all stellar performances, the pacing could use some variation. That said, the program is quite fitting for a soulful, laidback, late-night groove.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

DAVE SPECTER

Message In Blue Delmark - DE 836

Dave Specter really does belong on Delmark, the label that played a major role in the evolution of hard-edged Chicago blues beginning in the 1960s. Message in Blue clearly is in the tradition of such guitar-slinger giants as Jimmy Dawkins, Magic Sam, and Luther Allison, who made names for themselves by mixing up Windy City–style electric blues with soul music on classic Delmark Lps.

Veteran Chicago soul singer Otis Clay is on board to add a distinctive spark to this hometown celebration. His gruff vocals blend perfectly with Specter’s incendiary guitar lines on covers of three soul classics: a spare, haunting version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s This Time I’m Gone for Good; a rousing, punchy, horn-driven take on Got to Find a Way, originally a hit for Chicago’s own Harold Burrage; and a knockout remake of Wilson Pickett’s I Found a Love, with Clay supplying both the impassioned lead and multi-tracked, four-part backing vocal.

The steady-rolling original Chicago Style, sung by keyboard man Brother John Kattke, testifies to Specter’s love for his native city’s blues scene. With its roll call of legendary blues and soul heroes, it may represent the guitarist’s bid to replace Sweet Home Chicago as the city’s unofficial blues anthem. Lonnie Brooks’ Watchdog is a hard-driving shuffle that evokes the landmark work that Junior Wells did on Delmark in the mid-1960s. Spector and Kattke reach back to the prewar Chicago of Tampa Red and Big Maceo for a rollicking, ragtime-flavored Jefferson Stomp, which features dramatic slide guitar work and wailing harmonica fills from guest Bob Corritore. Although he hailed from Texas, Freddie King formulated his style in Chicago, and the Don Nix tune he recorded in the early 1970s, The Same Old Blues, provides a great slow blues vehicle for Kattke’s vocal and Specter’s crackling guitar lines. The legacy of another Chicago-based guitar man, Pops Staples, provides the inspiration for the tremolo guitar sounds on Opus De Swamp.

As a guitarist, Specter lets it all hang out; his playing is flashy, urgent, and supremely inventive. He does not limit himself to Chicago-related styles or material, and Message in Blue provides persuasive evidence of his versatility as a guitarist through a series of instrumentals. The title track draws on the Technicolor spirit of Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. The Sizzler and The Spectifyin’ Samba work off percolating Latin grooves, and Funkified Outta Space takes things down to New Orleans for a Meters-style funk explosion. Dave Specter’s Message in Blue makes it clear that he stands tall among guitar slingers on the contemporary Chicago scene.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

SHAWN AMOS

The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It No label - (No #)

The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It is a sixsong EP from genre-bending jack of all trades Shawn Amos. Amos is a native New Yorker and son of cookie icon and adult literacy advocate Wally “Famous” Amos. This EP is not Amos’ first foray into music as his catalog extends to the mid-1990s. Amos started to gain attention with 2000’s Harlem and more recently received acclaim for the 2005 tribute to his late mother, singer Shirlee Ellis Amos (no relation to the Shirley Ellis of The Name Game fame), titled Thank You Shirl-ee May (A Love Story). Amos is also known for his time as an A&R executive at both Shout! Factory and Rhino Entertainment and for founding his own digital content studio, Freshwire.

The Reverend Shawn Amos Tell It appears to be Amos’ first venture into the world of electric blues and is an effort in which he easily shows his musical talents as singer, songwriter, and harmonica player. Amos composed two of the EP’s six songs, (The Girl is) Heavy and Sometimes I Wonder. The former is an ambling, descriptive sketch of a feisty female bolstered by a couple of back-up singers straight out of church; the latter is a slow, yearning, rootsy plea for feminine attention that ends the disc on a down note. The rest of the EP is composed of soulful, glowing treatments of familiar standards Hoodoo Man Blues, Something Inside of Me, and Good Morning, School Girl. The disc also includes a ripping version of The Who’s, I’m the Face (or Slim Harpo’s I Got Love if You Want It). All in all, The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It is a vibrant affair and shows much promise from a journeyman who treats familiar songs with respect but who is also able to inject his own enthusiastic voice into the tunes and lyrics, making old standards sound fresh and distinctive.

—Mark Coltrain
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