Living Blues Living Blues #235 : Page 42

Reviews SWAMP DOGG The White Man Made Me Do It Alive/SDEG Records -SDEG 1984 Swamp Dogg is kicking off 2015 with The White Man Made Me Do It , a brand new album of classic Swamp. This release finds Swamp Dogg at the height of the powers that “produced, arranged, and conceptualized without a fault,” classics like Rat On , Gag a Maggot and Total Destruction to Your Mind , all of which have been thankfully reissued by Alive in the last few years and, the latter of which, Swamp considers this new release a sequel to. The White Man Made Me Do It combines classic soul, funk and blues with modern flavor. Swamp Dogg has lost none of his wit, worldly observation, and warped humor over the years; in fact, he is as sharp now as ever, which is seen nowhere better than in the seven-minute title track opener that celebrates the long list of contributions of African Americans to our lives of ease. His commentary is also seen in Light a Candle— Ring a Bell , where he takes the big banks and people like Bernie Madoff to task for wrecking the economy, and Prejudice is Alive and Well , where he not only discusses race and class discrimination, but also gridlock in Washington. The disc isn’t all politics, however. Swamp’s six decades of straight-ahead soul shine in originals like Lying, Lying, Lying Woman , Hey Renae and What Lonesome Is . He also puts his own spin on the standards, You Send Me , Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Gene ToMKo Trash and Smokey Joe’s Café . An unexpected highlight is the yearning, funky tribute Where is Sly , bemoaning the (figurative) loss of acid casualty, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart, wish-ing he’d come back and teach us all how to dance again. The White Man Made Me Do It also features a full band with horn section, which includes Guitar Shorty on lead guitar and Larry “Moogstar” Clemons (who also co-produced) on “Yamaha motif, keyboards, and Yamaha drums.” This is a welcome and over-due addition to an already amazing discogra-phy from an icon whose voice never seems to age, but only gets better and better. —Mark Coltrain BENNY TURNER Journey Nola Blue -NB1001 Journey is an apt title for this recording, as Benny Turner is a true journeyman of the blues. Born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1939, he and his older stepbrother, Freddie King, moved to Chicago in the early ’50s, where Freddie on guitar and Benny on bass soon became fixtures on the Windy City’s West Side blues scene. After stints on the road with Dee Clark and the Soul Stirrers, among others, Turner 42 • LIVING BLUES • February 2015

New Releases: Swamp Dogg, Magic Slim, Shuggie Otis And Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King

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Record Reviews


The White Man Made Me Do It

Alive/SDEG Records - SDEG 1984

Swamp Dogg is kicking off 2015 with The White Man Made Me Do It, a brand new album of classic Swamp. This release finds Swamp Dogg at the height of the powers that “produced, arranged, and conceptualized without a fault,” classics like Rat On, Gag a Maggot and Total Destruction to Your Mind, all of which have been thankfully reissued by Alive in the last few years and, the latter of which, Swamp considers this new release a sequel to.

The White Man Made Me Do It combines classic soul, funk and blues with modern flavor. Swamp Dogg has lost none of his wit, worldly observation, and warped humor over the years; in fact, he is as sharp now as ever, which is seen nowhere better than in the seven-minute title track opener that celebrates the long list of contributions of African Americans to our lives of ease. His commentary is also seen in Light a Candle— Ring a Bell, where he takes the big banks and people like Bernie Madoff to task for wrecking the economy, and Prejudice is Alive and Well, where he not only discusses race and class discrimination, but also gridlock in Washington.

The disc isn’t all politics, however. Swamp’s six decades of straight-ahead soul shine in originals like Lying, Lying, Lying Woman, Hey Renae and What Lonesome Is. He also puts his own spin on the standards, You Send Me, Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash and Smokey Joe’s Café. An unexpected highlight is the yearning, funky tribute Where is Sly, bemoaning the (figurative) loss of acid casualty, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart, wishing he’d come back and teach us all how to dance again. The White Man Made Me Do It also features a full band with horn section, which includes Guitar Shorty on lead guitar and Larry “Moogstar” Clemons (who also coproduced) on “Yamaha motif, keyboards, and Yamaha drums.” This is a welcome and overdue addition to an already amazing discography from an icon whose voice never seems to age, but only gets better and better.

—Mark Coltrain


Nola Blue - NB1001

Journey is an apt title for this recording, as Benny Turner is a true journeyman of the blues. Born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1939, he and his older stepbrother, Freddie King, moved to Chicago in the early ’50s, where Freddie on guitar and Benny on bass soon became fixtures on the Windy City’s West Side blues scene. After stints on the road with Dee Clark and the Soul Stirrers, among others, Turner eventually reunited with King, and after the latter’s premature death in 1976, settled in New Orleans and became the bandleader for vocalist Marva Wright until she too passed in 2010.

This CD is Turner’s third as a leader, following 1998’s eclectic Blue and Not So Blue and 2012’s tribute to brother Freddie. This time out, the ten-song playlist consists wholly of Turner originals, and they’re a good and varied lot. Marc Stone’s steel guitar intro kicks off the infectiously catchy Breaking News before Ride My Mule lopes along over Turner’s chunky bass line and Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander’s drums. Next up, How I Wish is a blues ballad in the B.B. King style, followed by the horn-cushioned soul of I Wanna Make it Right. On both the instrumental My Mother’s Blues and My Uncle’s Blues (Fannie Mae), Turner switches to guitar for more of a downhome blues sound. Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes’ harmonica spices the shuffling I Wanna Give it to You Baby, while Voodoo Lady is taken at a more relaxed tempo with churchy organ from Keiko Komaki. The set’s highlights though, are Worn Out Woman, where Turner pays homage to the hardworking wives and mothers, and the socially charged What’s Wrong With the World Today, where his soulful vocal at times evokes the Nucleus of Soul himself, O.V. Wright.

Turner is said to be working on a book documenting his musical journey, which should be a fascinating read. In the meantime, this well-crafted CD documents that same journey in a way that a book never can.

—Jim DeKoster


Pure Magic
Wolf - 120.830.CD

This set is culled from some ’90s-era Austrian performances by Magic Slim and his Teardrops, which at the time featured John Primer on second guitar, Slim’s brother Nick Holt on bass and Earl Howell on drums. Arguably, that was the last truly great band Slim ever led, and these tracks show them at their best.

Slim’s tone was as piercing as any guitarist’s who ever played the blues; he tore notes from his fretboard with a nearly demonic force, and his fatback-and-rotgut vocals were as uncompromising as his playing. His and Primer’s synergy was almost as tight as the legendary bond between himself and Coleman “Alabama Junior”/ “Daddy Rabbit” Pettis that used to ignite the fabled ’70s/’80s-era Sunday afternoon blues parties at Florence’s Lounge in Chicago. Here, Primer segues repeatedly from hard-driving chord work to sinewy leads; he wasn’t quite as raw as the Magic Man (few were), but his emotional focus and musical acumen were unerring.

Somewhat unusually for Slim, this set doesn’t include any real surprises (such was the expanse of his repertoire that longtime admirers used to dare each other to bet that he’d get through a set without adding at least one song they’d never heard him play before). The closest he comes is a relatively rare cover of Ike Turner’s Do You Mean It?, but that hardly matters. Slim could bring even the most tried-and-true chestnuts to life through sheer power (as he does here with I’m Ready, Since I Met You Baby, Look Over Yonder’s Wall and several others). Especially riveting is his take on Jimmie, credited here to Artie White (who recorded it in 1984), but actually a version of Little Beaver’s Joey from 1972. He pours his full armamentarium of fury, angst and redemptive brio into the tale of erotic treachery, and his guitar solo—featuring his patented single-string shiver—thrusts and twists like a knife to the gut, as Howell’s rockslide-crunch drumwork heightens the pugnacity even more.

It’s difficult to go wrong with Magic Slim, but to catch him at his best, you had to catch him live—sadly, that is no longer possible, but this disc comes as close as possible. One additional note: according to Slim’s onstage comments here, the late Bonnie Lee was on at least one of these shows. Those tracks, if they exist, should be heard; Bonnie was one of Chicago’s unappreciated blues queens, and a project like this would add immeasurably to her legacy.

—David Whiteis


Recorded Music for Your Entertainment
Beaumont Records – P-1202

Like his friend Frank Fairfield, Jerron Paxton (pronounced Jer-Ron, with two distinct Rs) loves Appalachian fiddle and banjo music, digging in the traditions of both white and African American mountain music, clawhammer and three-finger banjo, and even Celticbased fiddle reels. On his new CD Recorded Music for Your Entertainment, his first fullfledged album, Jerron Paxton mixes it all up and follows his heart’s desire. This pre-release album is, for now, only available at his gigs. (Interestingly, he no longer included his oftenused stage name “Blind Boy” on the album.)

Jerron Paxton, with a tendency toward impervious idiosyncrasy, is a truly prodigious musical genius and one of the brightest young lights in the blues. He plays whatever instrument he touches—guitar, piano, harmonica, banjo, fiddle and anything else—with such awesome skill it’s profoundly impressive. Not just that, but he is a true songster delving into the gamut of roots music unencumbered by conventions or predetermined genre separation. He plays what he wants, how he wants. He has a point. The music has always been integrally connected. Banjo and fiddle have a long history in pre-blues African American traditions and in early blues.

The new album sounds as if it was recorded the old-fashioned way, with one mic set up in a room, low-tech, simple and fitting to the music. Recorded Music for Your Entertainment includes 11 songs: four banjo songs, three fiddle tunes, one solo harmonica and three blues, Motherless Child Blues, Lost My Appetite for Chicken and Trying to Make One Hundred, each an absolute musical pleasure. As in many of his blues songs, it’s eerie how closely he resembles the bluesmen of the golden era, not by copying, but by the very essence of his voice and instrumentation. When Jerron Paxton plays and sings the blues you know that he is true blues to the core. The three blues songs alone make the album worthwhile. Everything is good, but blues fans will want more of that. Since this review covers the pre-release, perhaps he will add some of his superlative blues to the final issue, such as his amazing version of Mississippi Bottom, a song that Jerron Paxton has been frequently performing lately, and he has much more up his sleeve.

Paxton’s fabulous singing voice, roots blues virtuosity and esoteric repertoire place him on top of the blues heap. Not only that, but because he has not issued a widely available CD there has been much anticipation and excitement about the bard. You can assemble a set of Paxton’s loose songs from iTunes, but he is still missing a full-fledged blues CD. The acoustic, country blues world looks to him with especially great hope. He has just been appointed the musical director at the annual Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in Washington state starting the next season.

Hopefully, he will give us more straight blues soon. In the meantime, let’s be happy for what we get. It does not get much better than this. All that, and he’s only 26 years old.

—Frank Matheis


Live In Williamsburg
Cleopatra Records - CLP1913-2

Not long after the 2012 death of his famous father, Shuggie Otis ended decades of relative reclusiveness, put a band together, hit the road and cut his first new album in 39 years. Recorded during an April 2013 gig at the Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn, the longawaited comeback album finds Otis performing mostly original tunes he cut for Epic Records during the first half of the 1970s, when he was moving beyond his blues beginnings into new pop territory that reflected the influence of Sly Stone. They include Inspiration Information, Aht Uh Mi Hed (about which he jokingly comments, “I must have been out of my head when I wrote it ’cause I can never remember the name of it”), Sparkle City, Island Letter and Strawberry Letter 23, which the Brothers Johnson turned into a mega-hit. He’s capably backed by a seven-piece band that includes his brother Nick on drums (augmented on a couple tracks by a drum machine), son Eric on second guitar, former Johnny Otis sidemen Larry Douglas on trumpet and Michael Turre on baritone saxophone, flute and piccolo. Shuggie sings in typically weak, yet plaintive tenor tones, and when four of the musicians occasionally join him vocally, the harmonies are rather ragged. As a guitarist, however, he remains as inventive as ever.

Fortunately, Otis never forgot how to sing and play the blues. There are three blues numbers in the 12-song Williamsburg set, the best being Me and My Woman, a terrific Gene Barge composition that was first recorded by Little Joe Blue in 1967 on the Checker label (though strangely never reissued on LP or CD) and subsequently covered by John Mayall, the Real Charles Ford Band and Otis himself, among others. His vocals are especially commanding on that song and the self-penned shuffle Picture of Love. An instrumental shuffle titled Shuggie’s Boogie is less focused but gives tenor saxophonist Albert Wing, organist Russ “Swang” Stewart and guitarists Shuggie and Eric Otis plenty of space to strut their considerable prowess.

—Lee Hildebrand


Fat Man’s Shine Parlor
Blind Pig Records - BPCD 516

The mid-2000s, guitarists Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King released a series of three recordings for Blind Pig (Roadhouse Research, Show Me the Money and My Heart’s in Texas). Their latest album, Fat Man’s Shine Parlor, marks their return to the label, and it’s loaded with the singular blend of sizzling-cool blues they’ve been cooking together since the 1980s.

The album takes off with Got My Heart Broken’s hard-driving boogie; at one point Kubek, King and Kim LaFleur rev their guitars like engines at the starting line. Cornbread is a steamy ode to soul food, while River of Whiskey rolls smoothly along with some tasty slide and fretwork, again abetted by LaFleur. The pain of losing a loved one is underscored by King’s clear, passionate vocals and Kubek’s searing guitar on the mournful ballad Diamond Eyes.

Crash and Burn advises a big spender to “live within your means,” and How Much is a litany of the ways a musician must pay before he can play (“How much this gig gonna cost? / Already in the hole”). The one-night-stand Don’t Want to Be Alone, the restless One Girl By My Side and the moody Done Got Caught Blues form a triangle of amorous themes. Kubek and King’s different, yet complementary playing styles shine as they take turns soloing on the percolating instrumental Lone Star Lap Dance. The ominous Headed for Ruin, a warning against the perils of alcoholic excess, wraps the session on a sober note.

For a heady dose of heavy-hitting Texas blues-rock, a visit to Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King’s Fat Man’s Shine Parlor is definitely in order.

—Melanie Young


Love Coupons
CDS/Benevolent Blues - BVBL.38

Travis Haddix’s sense of humor is as sardonic as ever, and his genre-straddling meld of traditional 12-bar blues and modernist soul-blues remains powerful and effective. At times, his influences show themselves pretty blatantly— the instrumentation on the title tune, including Haddix’s guitar solo, could almost have come from an unissued Stax-era Albert King or Little Milton session. Even here, though, Haddix’s vocal style is distinctive, and his penchant for bittersweet storytelling—even his most amusing vignettes and one-liners are undergirded with hard-won worldly wisdom— brings additional freshness.

Art to Gettin’ Even is a propulsive funkblues that recasts Hubert Sumlin’s famous Killing Floor guitar pattern in a modern context; Dinner With the Devil, in contrast, is a slow-swaying, ballad-like testimonial featuring a brawny horn backing reminiscent of Joe Scott’s arrangements for Bobby “Blue” Bland, and—once again—Haddix’s lyrics combine blues-toughened irony with impish good humor. Sweet and Sour Loving returns us to that Stax-seasoned King/Milton blues ballad style, freshened by Haddix’s lyric wit (“One day she’s sweet as honey / the next day she’s sour as a can of kraut”) and unforced, but gritty vocals. Boogie Woogie Woman is redeemed from cliché by its metallic, funk-driven impetus; One Half Right similarly combines booty-shaking jollity with toughminded, earnest musicianship, portraying the long-suffering bluesman as an aging trickster confronting decline and confusion, but determined to stay in the game.

Although he hasn’t attained the mainstream recognition his talents merit, Travis Haddix continues to show himself a first-rate purveyor of contemporary blues leavened with humor and infused with commitment.

—David Whiteis


These Blues: The Best of Donald Ray Johnson
Mar Vista Music – MV-7

Donald Ray Johnson is a veteran drummer and vocalist with an extensive track record in pop and R&B, as well as blues. His greatest claim to fame might be his propulsive percussion work on Boogie Oogie Oogie, the 1978 disco-funk hit by A Taste Of Honey. He’s also cut several blues releases on his own.

The opening track, a cover of Al Green’s Ain’t No Fun to Me, could almost be a Green outtake—Johnson’s vocals, while somewhat deeper than Green’s, are similar in timbre, and the horn charts and rhythmic patterns are based closely on producer Willie Mitchell’s legendary sound at Hi Records. Individual credits aren’t provided, but a leather-lunged Harp player and some sweet, fatback-funk guitar and bass further season this track.

Most of the other offerings here hew closer to standard-issue, 12-bar blues laced with uptown sophistication; the influence of B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Rosco Gordon and other ex-Beale Streeters is obvious, and there are nods to icons such as Jimmy Reed, Albert King and Little Milton as well. Nonetheless, with the arguable exception of his Al Green cover, Johnson does not sound like an imitator. His take on the ballad Always On My Mind is a masterpiece of meditative regret that never descends into bathos; his original creations (nine of the 13 songs here are his) reveal him to be a deft storyteller, capable of bringing new life to well-worn blues conceits. Again, one wishes he’d seen fit to credit his musicians; the guitar solos on Johnson’s straight-blues offerings are fierce and intense, but musically coherent and focused; his bassist has a deep pocket; the horns sound brawny and sure.

Although he tends to mine most of his influences from earlier eras (Here to Stay is the closest thing on the disc to contemporarysounding soul-blues), Donald Ray Johnson infuses everything he does with emotional immediacy and musical vitality—let’s hope he can further establish himself on the contemporary blues scene.

—David Whiteis


Belmont Boulevard
Blind Pig - BPCD 5162

Debonair Canadian guitar slinger J.W. Jones makes his Blind Pig debut with this Tom Hambridge–produced album—an offering filled with steely Texas hustle, slickly executed boogies and light-tipped soul. Jones’ material is ultimately catchy in a pop-oriented vein, yet maintains contemporary Nashvillian warmth that begs roots coolness and bluesy abandon— it’s a truly accessible sound.

Jones is equally impressive as both guitarist and vocalist. The careening twang and delicately impulsive in-the-pocket groove of tracks like the opener Love Times Ten is reminiscent of gunslingers like Lee Roy Parnell, with the smoothed-out, slightly quirked sound of fellow Canadian roots journeyman Colin James. Jones conversely handles southern soul with just as much wry integrity and dexterity, as he does on the scrapes-of-youth throwback of Blue Jean Jacket; the lyric “in my blue jean jacket, I felt like I could take on the world” reminds us all of that impenetrable sense of “home” that we all found in a long-gone, good-luck charm, while Reese Wynans’ keys transport us along a cozy, familiar plane.

Thank You has a gruff, garage-rock vibe with grungy guitar and drums that pop with snappy rhythm twists. West Side Magic Boogie is even dirtier in tone—dare we say heavy—with over-the-top Tele-twang and, assuredly, Jones’ finest picking workouts on the album. Jones continues the tip of the hat to his guitar-hero persona with What Would Jimmie Do?, an ode to one of his biggest influences, Jimmie Vaughan, on a track that screams of Vaughan’s trademark combed-back cool.

A collection of tunes relying on modern rockabilly heart, classic Americana lyricism and tube-glowing production value, J.W. Jones looks very much the “vintage” guitar hero to carry the torch into a new era.

—Mark Uricheck


Tough Love
Heartfixer Music - HFM-1012

Tough Love is guitarist/vocalist Tinsley Ellis’ third release since the launch of his own Heartfixer Music label in 2013. Returning from his last two projects (2013’s all-instrumental Get It! And last year’s fine Midnight Blue) are Lynn Williams (drums) and Kevin McKendree (organ and piano), who are joined by Steve Mackey on bass.

The fiery contemporary blues Seven Years and Leave Me are great examples of how Tough Love embraces the blues-rock fare that has defined much of Ellis’s critically acclaimed work for Alligator and Telarc. But this tight, ten-song program of original material also shows the broad-ranging talent that has made Ellis such a popular draw as a touring musician over the past several decades, as traditional blues and ballads join more sophisticated arrangements that stretch the boundaries of the blues without sacrificing any feeling in the process.

Ellis nods to Jimmy Reed on the uptempo Everything (and even blows a little first position harp on the tune), offers up a chugging shuffle with Midnight Ride and delivers a heartfelt slow blues about a dying romance on Should I Have Lied. The album’s magnum opus, however, is the closing track, a soaring ballad titled In From the Cold. Winter, which Ellis ominously describes as “dyin’ time,” serves as a metaphor for a broken relationship (which by this time has become a recurring, but not unwelcome, theme on the record). Ellis’s vocals exhibit an unusual degree of subtlety here, to say nothing of his powerful, nuanced guitar solos.

Tough Love is the product of a veteran artist at the peak of his ability as both a musician and songwriter, and demonstrates Ellis’s continued efforts to innovate while remaining true to the roots of the music that inspired his first forays into the blues as a young teenager.

—Roger Gatchet


The Last Shot Got Him
Cattail - 2014

Scott Ainslie’s got ahold of a little 1934 Gibson L-50 Acoustic Archtop made in the Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory, a small-bodied gem with a big, open soundhole, and he couldn’t hold still after that until he made this record with it for your musical amusement.

The venerable bluesman, who routinely delves into country blues, including the Delta, ragtime and Piedmont traditions, sings in a clear tenor, and he has perfected his guitar technique over decades of performances. By now, Ainslie is one of the most important cultural protagonists of the old blues and southern musical traditions, mostly rooted in African American musicology, musical forms which he honors and promotes. Ainslie is a beautiful stylist who is an important bridge to the original blues as teacher and performer— an articulate, superlative guitarist in both slide and finger-picking, and a fine singer—he is an acoustic bluesman in his prime.

He went wild with the little L-50 on The Last Shot Got Him, putting down six swift Mississippi John Hurt songs, paying homage to the old master starting with The First Shot Missed Him. There has been a flurry of John Hurt covers lately, some lovely and some over the top with weird phonetic mimicking of Hurt’s voice and dialect that seem almost farcically, culturally misplaced, but Ainslie sings Hurt with dignity and does justice to him musically and artistically. It’s a respectful tribute with superior guitar instrumentation. He captures Hurt’s music closely to the original while making it his own, bringing on Avalon Blues, Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me, Honey Right Away, Got the Blues and Monday Morning Blues, and every moment is a sweet spot. He has perfectly mastered the lilting, syncopated, alternating bass-picking style of Hurt. Ainslie wakes up that Gibson and makes it chime and ring, with his fingers dancing over the fretboard in a way that this guitar may not have experienced in its 80 years of life.

While it has almost become uncouth to admit it, Scott Ainslie also has a special affinity for Robert Johnson. Guitarists may know him well for his DVD Guitar Signature Licks Series: Robert Johnson. When it comes to Robert Johnson, Ainslie is a gallant defender paying tribute to the often maligned master, joining a crescendo of loyal RJ fans who are by now tired of weary resignation, and who rejoice in rehabilitating his image. On The Last Shot Got Him Ainslie includes Love In Vain and Cross Road Blues, both marvelous gems.

He also puts the Gibson to the test on Fats Waller’s classic Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Rev. Gary Davis’ prohibition ditty Sally Whiskey.

Just for the fun of it, he included a few oddities: the melancholy tune Say It Isn’t So, a 1932 pop song by Irving Berlin; Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz; a song by the great Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg, who also wrote Brother Can You Spare a Dime? And Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington’s When I See An Elephant Fly from Disney’s Dumbo.

—Frank Matheis


Soul Changes
Tastee Tone – TT-3040

Dave Keller strikes a satisfying balance of original material and classic soul cuts on this, a record that was essentially a split release.With a total of 11 tracks—the first six recorded in Memphis as the “Memphis Sessions,” backed by the Hi Rhythm Section along with Stax Records studio gurus Bobby Manuel and Lester Snell, and the remaining five in Brooklyn with The Revelations as accompaniment, the album succeeds in displaying Keller’s awareness of the ghosts of soul music’s past and his ability to craft worthy successors to the crown in the vein of such emotion-soaked material.

With the entire collection produced by Bob Perry, the Memphis tracks, anchored by The Royal Horns, come off as a bit punchier— with more of a strict rhythmic attack and heavier swing. Searching for a Sign can pass as a hard-nosed slice of Detroit steeliness with its stocky syncopation and powerful backing vocals from Rell Gaddis and Halley Hiatt.Keller’s nimble and just-so-slightly pinched guitar leads fuel deeper blues cuts like 17 Years, while the sunshine-funk of Lonely and I dazzles with very permeable production— every press of the organ key and string clink of the clean guitar runs is audible, with horn arrangements that don’t detract from the swell of the song’s chorus.

The Brooklyn sessions are watermarked with a decidedly smoother spin—for example, a cover of The O’Jays’ It’s too Strong simply burns with desire and sense of pleading that was the calling card of Eddie Levert. George Jackson’s Back in Love Again follows an almost spoken-word beg during the song’s verses expertly interpreted by Keller whose vocals strain with utter sincerity. The use here of backing by the Brooklyn Horns is to great effect, well-placed within the mix on a lower register as a somewhat defining rhythm bed. The bristling sensitivity of Keller’s approach is heightened within the Brooklyn backed tracks.

Melding the pulsing incursion of Johnny Rawls, the honey-dripping of Otis Redding, and the red-light sensuality of O.V. Wright, Dave Keller takes these traits and runs with them to the beat of his own soul machine— the genre’s future looks bright.

—Mark Uricheck


I Came to Get Down! Not to Sit Down!
Ecko - ECD 1167

It’s been too long since we’ve heard from Sheba Potts-Wright, the Memphis-based chanteuse whose version of Sir Charles Jones’ Slow Roll It launched her career in 2001. She’s had some promising outings since then, but—at least partly because of her seeming tendency to disappear from the scene for extended periods— she hasn’t quite lived up to her original promise.

Sheba has said that, despite the babygirl- with-bedroom-eyes persona she displayed on some of her early Cds, she wants to create work that better reflects the putative southern soul standard of “grown folks’ music,” and in fact, her output since 2008’s I’m a Bluesman’s Daughter has reflected this. That doesn’t mean, though, that she’s become stodgy—the overarching mood of this disc is celebratory, even if the sexual hijinks have been mostly toned down.

There’s a crisp, almost live feel to the party-hearty title track—somewhat rare for contemporary southern soul—and Sheba’s vocals are tough and muscular. She’s equally assured on more substantial fare. Stay With Your Wife, in which the singer tells an illicit paramour that their affair isn’t worth ruining his good thing for, is a bracingly Clear-eyed, level-headed revisiting of the time-worn “cheating song” theme—“grown folks’” music, indeed. A similar insistence on claiming a stake for righteousness infuses I’ve Done All I Can Do Now the Rest Is Up to You, which is further enriched with evocative references to the Al Wilson classic Show and Tell and a resonant tenor sax solo from Jim Spake. Sheba’s protagonist summons the courage to kick a no-good man to the curb in A Weak Man Can Make a Woman Strong, then confesses to a cuckolding streak of her own in the deliciously transgressive I Want Yo’ Man.

This outing showcases the Ecko sound at its strongest and most robust, and the songs are as well-crafted as anything the studio’s in-house team has come up with in recent memory. Out in front, Sheba Potts-Wright sounds poised to finally make her mark as a true soul singer, with no modifiers (e.g., “southern” or “blues”) necessary. Let’s hope she stays on course this time and continues her upward trajectory.

—David Whiteis


Blues According to Blake… a road less traveled
Soul Sanctuary - 826

Veteran of The Hollywood Fats Band and The Hollywood Blue Flames, Al Blake’s latest project, is a personal trip deep into the traditions of the blues. Blake provides listeners with ten songs: seven originals, three covers, but all contain familiar tropes, themes and sounds. He proves his versatility as singer, songwriter, guitar-picker and harp-blower and is occasionally joined by friends on several tracks that never crowd the man or the music that he is intimate with, or the legacy to which he is paying tribute.

The disc opens with the slow drifting shuffle of Hummingbird that grinds and moves with Blake’s guitar and voice, combined with the drum work of Richard Innes. Another highlight is Blake’s autobiographical piece, Music Man, recounting good times and bad on the road, highlighted by Blake’s circular guitar and Fred Kaplan’s piano work. Blake does respectful renditions of well-known standards, King Bee, Easy and Rock Me. As Blues Junction’s David Mac says of this album in the liner notes, Blues According to Blake “is certain to remind listeners why they fell in love with blues in the first place.” He states it “does not have any artificial sweeteners or additives...not processed fast food for the masses…it is an adult portion of the real thing.” That is a good summation of Al Blake’s obvious love and knowledge of this soulful blues feast, which he showcases without pretense on this rock solid recording.

—Mark Coltrain


Buckle Up
Connor Ray Music - (No #)

The harmonica player and vocalist Steve Krase, though born and raised in New York, found his artistic home after relocating to Houston more than 20 years ago. This latest CD release, produced by Rock Romano, fuses Krase’s fundamentally East Coast, blues-rocker’s sensibility with Texas influences, finding particular inspiration in his close relationships with certain other Houston blues artists, past and present.

For instance, Krase previously earned prominent billing as a featured guest on singer Trudy Lynn’s acclaimed 2013 album Royal Oaks Blues Café (also produced by Romano). Lynn now returns the favor on Buckle Up—both as the songwriter (and backing vocalist) of the sassy title track and as the lead singer on—a revved-up remake of Willie Dixon’s I Just Want to Make Love to You.

Another delight is the double-barreled salute to Krase’s friend, the late Big Walter Price, a Texas legend with whom Krase often performed (and for whom he regularly produced an annual benefit birthday concert for many years). Krase’s vocals and reed work shine brightly on Price’s song Misery, and his spirited version of Price’s jump-blues shuffle Big Bad Woman includes some jive-talking embellishment of fearsome details about the song’s titular antagonist.

Krase pays tribute to another Texas mentor, the late Jerry Lightfoot, by covering his Night Train (From Oakland), one of the album’s strongest tracks. This minor key blues opens with an agile solo by guitarist James Henry, a longtime member of Krase’s band (and a former Lightfoot apprentice himself). Here, and elsewhere, Henry’s technical dexterity is profoundly evident, and his inspired improvisations transform his stringed instrument into a soulful voice with important things to say.

New songs include the upbeat macho boast called I Like Them All, written by Krase, as well as three compositions by his brother (and guest guitarist), David Krase. One of those is a rockabilly-style 12-bar romp called Jolene (not be confused with the Dolly Parton country classic). Another, the closer, is a jazzy instrumental with a cool, slightly melancholy vibe. The hook-laden Daddy’s Got a Cadillac (Mama Rides a Mule), co-written by bassist Terry Dry, highlights Henry’s slide guitar in tandem with Krase’s harmonica to good effect.

With solid support also from Michael Morris on drums and Bobby Markoff on keyboards, Buckle Up effectively showcases Krase’s ample talents, confirming his wellearned status as a blues veteran, with one foot in Brooklyn and the other firmly planted in the Bayou City.

—Roger Wood


Blues Stories
Big City Blues Records - (No #)

The Canada-based duo of Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley are known for their fine fusion of modern sensibilities with classic blues styles. Their latest release, Blues Stories, is no exception: the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist have put together a harmonious assortment of originals and covers that sounds both timely and timeless at once.

Braithewaite opens the collection with an a cappella arrangement of the traditional Rocks and Gravel; her rich, bright-edged voice melds beautifully with daughter Kala Braithwaite’s. Whiteley churns up a murky, choogling groove on Florida, unspools some gorgeous slide licks on Lighthouse Keeper and takes a turn singing lead on the mellow Fried Fish. A Big Easy spirit pervades both Blues March and Careless Love, conjured by Whiteley’s cornet and son Jesse Whiteley’s jazzy piano playing.

The long, slow blues Child of Circumstance and its urgent plea of “everybody needs a second chance” forms the musical and thematic heart of the record. Tic Tac Toe is a breezy good time, skipping along at a jaunty clip. Elsewhere, the pair pay homage to Sonny Boy Williamson II on Bye Bye Bird—Whiteley’s harmonica is Braithwaite’s only accompaniment—and to Skip James on the sparse, haunting Hard Time Killin’ Floor.Likewise, their easy-shuffling version of Jimmy Reed’s You Don’t Have to Go dances the album to its close.

On Blues Stories, every song has a tale to tell, and Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley convey each one in their elegant, eloquent fashion.

—Melanie Young


American Showplace Music - ASM1114

To the outside observer, it would appear as though Hammond B-3 wizard Bruce Katz is all about the jam. With a chameleon’s skin, Katz leads his band of r oots virtuosity through this, his eighth namesake outing scattered over 22 years, in between highprofile side gigs with the likes of everyone from Gregg Allman to Delbert McClinton. Homecoming is, indeed, heavy on playing— and Katz displays his wares with heaping dexterity, taste and all colors of the figurative musical rainbow. The album is a dynamically fun listen that wrenches 12-bar blues tedium into fits of progressive, jazzinfluenced blues blasts leaving Katz’s mark at every turn.

Performed with the core trio of Katz on B-3 and piano, Chris Vitarello on guitar and vocals and Ralph Rosen on drums, a host Of guests rounds out the effort to further expand an already rich tapestry of musical statements. Names like John Hammond and Marty Ballou immediately surface, providing guitar and bass, respectively, to the croonedout drawl of Leroy Carr’s standard Blues Before Sunrise and the blissfully optimistic vamp of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Santa Fe Blues— both tracks featuring Katz’s sparse, yet tingling piano. Produced by Katz and Ben Elliott, the sound here is clean, rippling with life and never at a standstill.

Standouts like the happily lazy, shuffling instrumental No Brainer feature Katz’s B-3 spinning circles around a melody while the guitar follows suit, opening up every now and again for a foot-dragging solo that complements the song’s sense of impishness. King of Decatur, with lead vocals by Randy Ciarlante, is a delicate in-the-pocket funk tune, with Katz finding himself more the engine than the shiny hood ornament—his playing driving each song without any trace of self-indulgence. Even on the most impressive of instrumental breakdowns like the Whipping Post–like vibe of Won’t Last Til Tuesday, with time signatures being decimated at will, Katz is mindful of each phrase and chooses each poke of the keys through an artist’s eye—or rather, ear.

An exercise in world-class roots musicianship that doesn’t overtly feel like it’s being played by some of the best in the business, Homecoming is an album that’s filled with nothing short of breathtaking blues highs—relishing in Katz’s role as the rather pliable stone upon which each song is built.

—Mark Uricheck


Soul Gumbo
Pepper Cake - PEC 2094-2

For his latest release, Raphael Wressnig set his sights on the Big Easy. In January 2014, the Austrian organ player gathered some of New Orleans’ finest musicians together at the Music Shed Studios, and after only two days of recording, they had the makings of Soul Gumbo. (The album is available in CD, digital and vinyl formats, each with a different tracklist; this review is of the CD version.)

The covers and originals all have Crescent City connections or influences. The rousing Chasing Rainbows and melancholy Room With a View were both recorded by Johnny Adams; Tad Robinson wraps his warm, weathered voice around these faithful versions. Wressnig’s B-3 and Alex Schultz’s guitar bring to mind the early work of The Meters on the funky, horn-driven instrumental Soulful Strut. Their impact isn’t just felt on this recording—Meters bassist George Porter Jr. Appears on the very next track, laying Down a smooth groove on Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s I Want to Know. Washington himself is here as well, and his languid vocals and fretwork make this one of the album’s finest moments.

Jon Cleary’s Sometimes I Wonder is rendered beautifully, with the keyboardist manning the piano, Wurlitzer and guitar; Nigel Hall backs Cleary on vocals. Wressnig’s agile playing shines on the peppery Mustard Greens and sprightly Soul Jazz Shuffle; the latter features a fleet tenor sax solo from Craig Handy. Another instrumental, Slivovitz for Joe, is a stiff shot of a tune dedicated to Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Nobody Special, by Larry Garner, is the album’s other high point; Wressnig is a veteran of Garner’s band, and the Baton Rouge bluesman’s ardent vocals, combined with buoyant solos from both the organist and Schultz, leaves the listener craving more.

Special mention goes to Stanton Moore, whose masterful, in-the-pocket drumming is a delight from start to finish. All in all, Raphael Wressnig’s Soul Gumbo is exactly what it says—a warm, inviting brew of New Orleans– inflected funk and R&B.

—Melanie Young


Stepping Into Time
8th Train - (No #)

Georgie Bonds has survived a hardscrabble childhood in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, not Mississippi), a stint in federal prison and a harrowing series of health crises. Although he’s still relatively young, his voice is deeply textured and rough-edged, and his material— much of it written or co-written by him—reflects a similar life-hardened toughness.

In The Blacksmith, a north Mississippi– flavored modal blues, Bonds (who actually worked as a blacksmith for quite a few years) carries on the venerable tradition of boasting of physical prowess on the job as a metaphor for sexual prowess in bed. He also comes through with a riveting a cappella version of St. James Infirmary, making the time-tested New Orleans street-player’s lament immediate and heart-rending. Elsewhere, he purveys more modernist-sounding fare, such as the funk-peppered Dyin’ Is the Easy Way (one of several songs here that Bonds did not write, but which sound as if they emanated directly from his heart and life) and the up-tempo, ironically jubilant Going Shopping, again fueled with funk, which finds Bonds inhabiting the role of a player with a fat bankroll who’s nonetheless nursing a broken heart.

In I Need Somebody, in contrast, the singer stares down loneliness with steadfast fearlessness; it’s elevated above run-of-themill, “lonesome lover” blues fare by acknowledging emotional, as well as erotic, hunger. Daily News finds Bonds summoning his most tender and vulnerable-sounding vocals to convey songwriter/guitarist Neil Taylor’s tale of a world torn asunder by violence and despair. Hurricane Blues, penned by bassist Kenny Githens, continues another tradition—summoning images of climatological turmoil to evoke both existential and emotional dread.

Through it all, the band provides skintight, understated, but powerful accompaniment, drawing elements from rock and pop as well as standard blues to create vivid musical landscapes that complement, rather than overwhelm or smother, his leather-tough delivery and the eloquence of the songs’ lyrics. From seemingly out of nowhere, Georgie Bonds has emerged as a formidable, versatile bluesman with the potential to make a significant impact.

—David Whiteis


Cornbread Moan
No label - (No #)

Guitarist Willie J. Laws was born and raised in Taft, Texas, a small town near the Gulf Coast just north of Corpus Christi. Although his musical travels have taken him to his current Massachusetts home by way of Louisiana, Nevada and California, he continues to keep one foot in the Texas music scene through his work with the super-conjunto, Los Texmaniacs. This CD is further proof that he hasn’t strayed far from his musical roots.

Fronting his tight working band with Bruce Mattson on piano, Malcolm Stuckey on bass and Osi Brathwaite on drums, Laws properly honors two of his main influences with adept covers of Freddy King on Boogie Man and Phillip Walker on Brother Go Ahead and Take Her. Echoes of Texas also resonate on the title track (Doug Sahm) and Too Much Blues (Z.Z. Hill), as well as on Terry Canales’ Smuggler, a remarkable ode to the cats from south Texas (“some of the best in the business”) as they sweat the checkpoints in Sarita, Falfurrias and Hebbronville on their runs from Brownsville to San Antonio. Beyond Texas, the closing Wake Up Moses finds Laws in New Orleans, both lyrically and musically, with only composer Mattson’s piano in support; Love Letters owes something to the Stones’ Miss You and Something’s Wrong is a tribute to the late K.D. Bell, longtime a fixture on the Massachusetts blues scene. Oddly, the disc’s penultimate track is absent from the track listings—it’s a downbeat number that logically would be titled Let Me Lose My Blues.

Despite his change of residence, Laws’ promotional materials bill him as the “Prophet of the Funky Texas Blues.” Certainly, the music here is proof of his ability to blend the traditional Lone Star sounds with a variety of other influences into a seamless, and very appealing, whole.

—Jim DeKoster


Roots Blues Reborn - RBR 06008

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Boulder, Colorado, played host to a fertile blues and roots music scene. Some of the artists who were regulars there included the late Judy Roderick, Spencer Bohren, Washboard Chaz Leary, Ray Bonneville, Tim O’Brien, Don “BBQ Bob” DeBacker and Paula (Rangell) & The Pontiacs. Guitarist/bassist, singer and songwriter Robbie Mack a.k.a. Rob McLerran was a central figure among this group. In addition to pursuing his own music career, it was in Boulder that he began mentoring his son, Tulsa-area bluesman Little Joe McLerran, for whom he currently plays bass.

Mack has played in all kinds of bands over the past 50 years—rock, blues, country, jug; he was even a member of the renowned Boulder 1960s surf band The Astronauts. But in the early 1970s, he fell under the spell of Mississippi John Hurt, and in the legendary blues man’s guitar playing found his mantra.Mack is a tremendously talented, if under recognized, roots music songwriter, and Hurt’s fingerpicking has remained his guiding light. His songs are filled with characters that capture the lives of everyday American folk, clever turns of phrase, droll wit, social critique and an abiding blues sensibility, and it all dances to a groove informed by Hurt. Demolicious comes from a tape recorded in the late 1970s in Boulder, and, as the title indicates, it was intended as a demo of 14 originals and a Hurt cover. The solo acoustic guitar–backed performances that were unearthed from a cardboard box in storage are decidedly low-fi; as Little Joe observes, they sound like a “field recording.” The attraction here is that the CD unearths such an original and compelling body of work that sat in obscurity for so long.

Two outstanding blues ballads that are, essentially, dramatic monologues poignantly bring to life the persona of characters out of the American past: the heartbreaking union soldier in Andersonville Nightmare and the precocious driver from a medicine show in The Wagon. Mack uses Hurt’s version of the guitar instrumental, Spanish Fandango, to craft the story of a woman tourist’s sojourn south of the border. Doctor Blues is a clever take on being lovesick (“The Red Cross, the Blue Cross and the Heart Fund / They won’t do me any good”); Who Can You Trust delves into some not so paranoid questioning of platitudes and official versions of American history. Shannon’s Bar and Grill is a rocking ballad that tells the true story demise of a legendary music venue on that Boulder. Other highlights include the plaintive Turnaround and the seductive Let Me Get on With You. Mack also gives a nod to his inspiration with Babylon, a cover of Hurt’s Avalon Blues. Demolicious is a testament to the vitality of the country blues form and a long-delayed look into the craft of a master songsmith.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Live Experience, Volume 1
ENYAWED Media – (No #)

Memphians know Tameka Goodman (who usually bills herself simply as “Big Baby”) as vocal stylist graced with both power and subtlety, able to move effortlessly among deep soul, funk, contemporary neo-soul and soul-blues. She can usually be found on Friday nights at Memphis Sounds on Third Street, backed by the skin-tight (and equally eclectic) A440 Band. For most of this CD (recorded “live” in the studio at Stax in Memphis), she’s stripped things down to a jazzy trio—keyboardist Raisheen Webb, bassist Glenn Dixon, and drummer Tontrell Huston—allowing her to highlight subtleties of vocal craft that A440’s more forceful accompaniment can sometimes obscure. Their playing reminds us, yet again, that Memphis has long been home to first-rate jazz improvisers, as well as blues and soul artists.

Nine of the disc’s 11 vocal tracks are covers. Goodman delivers I’ll Take You There as an urgent anthem of hope and determination; on What’s Going On, she ramps up the energy of Marvin Gaye’s prophesy-laced plea and transforms it into a full-bodied demand for answers. Her rendition of William DeVaughn’s Be Thankful for What You Got (re-titled here, as it often is, as Diamond In the Back) summons a powerful blend of streetsy swagger and inspirational uplift. She and the band pour dollops of fatback funk into Bill Withers’ Use Me [Up] and the Motown classic I Heard It Through the Grapevine; their take on Dr. Feelgood is an exuberant, if hardly trailblazing, fusion of carnal and churchy fervor. Through it all, Goodman’s vocals are alternately seductive, stentorian, straightforward and playful—her scatting and other improvisations won’t threaten the ghost of Betty Carter, but on their own terms they’re deeply satisfying. (Some of that reverbby echo that’s been added to her voice, though, is annoying—she’s fine on her own, without embellishment.)

Most tantalizing here are two Goodman originals, Sunshine (You and Me) and How I Feel. Buttressed by additional instrumentation and background vocal support, she shows herself to be a winning lyricist, as well as a stylist, who excels within complex but unpretentious neo-soul/light-jazz blend. This is the side of Big Baby that the Friday night regulars at Memphis Sounds know best; along with the nuanced sophistication and suppleness she shows on most of the disc’s other offerings, it whets our appetite for volume two.

—David Whiteis


Make My Day—Back to Blues
Secret Records - (No #)

Hard rock guitar legend Fast Eddie Clarke, formerly of Motorhead, has presented a fairly straight-forward album of all-original, mostly blues material—some of it quite soulful—titled Make My Day—Back to Blues.

How could the heaviest, nastiest, nuttiest of British metal’s pioneering guitarists—a man guilty of creating the brutal riffs to such Classic songs as Overkill, Bomber and Ace of Spades—slow himself down and mellow himself out enough to accomplish such a task? Age, maturity, and meeting the right musicians with whom to collaborate are certainly among the answers. Another could be that the man had the blues in him all the time. Doubters should just listen to Motorhead from any era of their almost four decades together and deep inside the cacophony will be the blues—speeded up and amplified to utter insanity, but still the blues.

Clarke grew up in England with blues music all around him. He admired the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, and John Mayall, along with other British blues/rock greats as a youth. He then went on the road to offer his guitar talent to Curtis Knight and his band, replacing Jimi Hendrix, in fact, before winning his gig with Lemmy and Co. In the mid-1970s.

In 2008, Clarke found himself at what he calls in the liner notes to Make My Day “a loose end.” At a party he was introduced to blues/jazz keyboardist Bill Sharpe of the English jazz/funk group Shakatak. The two hit it off immediately, beginning work on a few blues tracks in the studio. After some delays, for which Clarke has taken full responsibility, Make My Day—Back to Blues was issued. The at-times surprising, but always satisfying disc offers a wonderful insight into Clarke’s current sense of the blues.

Thankfully, Clarke opted to sing on this album. He almost didn’t. Rarely seeming fully confident in his vocal abilities since he first sang on Motorhead’s Step Down in 1979, Clarke presents a rough, edgy, everyman voice that is highly personal and works as an agreeable accompaniment to his sharp, stinging guitar. A better-known comparable singer might be Ron Wood. “Even I like them,” Clarke has said of his vocals on the new disc.

The album’s second cut, Mountains to the Sea, indicates this will be no novelty album, with Clarke, Sharpe, and wonderful female backing vocalist Jill Saward, also of Shakatak, melding on what amounts to a relaxed, grooving, modern-day British blues/ rock masterpiece. With production values at times reminiscent of Malaco Records of the 1980s and ’90s, the touching and beautiful title track of the album sounds as if it could be sandwiched between the later recorded works of Bobby Bland and Little Milton on one of that Jackson, Mississippi–based label’s great samplers of the era.

Clarke does not forget his hardcore fans, the Motorheadbangers, nor adherents to the band he later co-founded and still leads sporadically, Fastway, and provides these aging mobs with some wicked ear candy on the raging blues rockers Heavy Load and Walking Too Slow.

The remainder of the 12-song disc is a collection of expertly delivered, energetic and sometimes even rollicking, piano/guitar blues, filled with Clarke’s idiosyncratic, highly personal lyrical themes.

Make My Day is Clarke’s inaugural solo blues record and it will surely be the hope of most of those who hear it that it’s just a first peek into this guitarist’s deep and unique ability to present the musical form with insight, spirit, taste and variety.

—Steve Sharp


Close to Home
Tangle Eye - 1021

Austin-based singer and harmonica player Greg Izor kicks off the opening track of his second full-length album with an air of power and authority. “Get my money / I know you heard what I said,” he warns. “I don’t want you comin’ around here / Until you’ve got all my bread.” Izor penned all 12 tracks on Close to Home, and this one, appropriately titled Get My Money, features a scorching first position harp solo with one of the fiercest blow bend runs in recent memory.

Izor, a native of Vermont who was one of the featured artists in LB’s special harmonica issue last year, is a legitimate powerhouse and a throwback to the heyday of players such as Little Walter, Rice Miller and Big Walter Horton. Never anachronistic or derivative, however, Izor combines a deep respect for tradition with the same ability to innovate that defines the work of some of today’s best contemporary harmonica players (think Mark Hummel, Kim Wilson or Annie Raines).

When he’s not on the road touring in Europe or handling vocal and harp duties for Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets, Izor can be found playing several nights a week in the Austin area, his home base after relocating there from New Orleans in 2006. One of the benefits of recording Close to Home in Austin was that it gave Izor the opportunity to work with an outstanding ensemble of musicians, most of whom are also based in the Texas capital: The Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Mike Keller and his brother, Corey Keller, on drums; bassist Ronnie James, who also did a stint with the T-Birds and has recorded with too many artists to mention; guitarist Willie Pipkin, a rising name in the Austin blues scene who is perhaps best known for his work with the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band and Jason Corbiere, former drummer with Roomful of Blues.

This tight-knit group showcases their skills on a varied set list that includes the Sonny Boy Williamson–flavored Hooper Street, the molasses-thick funk of Can’t Get Right and three beautiful chromatic harmonica numbers, The Rub and Close to Home (both slow blues) and the unique instrumental Three Eyed Tiger, which layers Mediterranean themes over a bouncing, ska-inflected rhythm.

Stripped of everything save the bare essentials—sparse guitar and amplified harp fills with a very restrained rhythm section— Broadway Joe, more than anything else on this fine album, demonstrates the depth of Izor’s talent. This airy blues drops the pace down to the slowest of crawls as Izor spins a tale of a close friend who was gunned down at a neighborhood dive bar. Fans of straightforward, unadulterated, harmonica-based blues will love this one.

—Roger Gatchet


Turtle Dove Bounce/Live At The Poor House
Mr. Suchensuch - MS 14007

Veteran San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area pianist and singer S.E. Willis, now in his 15th year as a member of Elvin Bishop’s band, showcases two sides of his considerable talents on this double-disc, fifth CD. One consists of solo performances of mostly classic blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano Pieces, some with vocals and overdubbed harmonica, associated with Cow Cow Davenport, Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo, Pinetop Smith and Jimmy Yancey, plus four original songs in the tradition. The other was recorded during a January 2011 gig at the Poor House Bistro in San Jose, California, in the company of Bishop bandmates Bobby Cochran on drums and a couple lead vocals, guitarist Bob Welsh, upright bassist Ruth Davies and trombonist Ed Earley, along with guests Nancy Wright on tenor saxophonist and guitarist Takezo Takeda. Bishop himself sits in on guitar on four of the 14 tracks, one—Fats Domino’s Don’t Lie to Me (actually a variation on Tampa Red’s Don’t You Lie to Me, also known as I Get Evil)—featuring his distinctively craggy voice.

Willis’ rhythmically riveting, two-handed piano prowess on the solo disc is quite striking, particularly on such highly syncopated numbers as Davenport’s Cow Cow Blues and Montgomery’s Vicksburg Blues. The original Turtle Dove Bounce features wonderfully intricate interplay between piano and harmonica. Willis’ vocals are rather soulful and are marked by distinctively breathy tones and a pronounced vibrato at the end of many end-of-phrase sustains.

The band set is far more stylistically diverse, ranging from such blues tunes as C. C. Rider, River’s Invitation, Louis Jordan’s Let the Good Times Roll and Little Walter’s Last Night, the New Orleans classics Tipitina and Hey Pocky A-Way, the country standard Release Me and a rather vocally overwrought rockabilly rendition of Mystery Train. Willis affords plenty of instrumental solo space to Wright, Earley, Welsh and, of course, his own piano, but in the end, Bishop steals the show with his one vocal and his commanding guitar work, of which his slide solo on Last Night is especially bone-chilling.

—Lee Hildebrand


Dancing with My Baby
Patuxent - CD 246

Two Washington, D.C., acoustic players, each excellent instrumentalists, join as a duo to combine their respective string traditions— one from the African American Piedmont blues scene in Archie Edwards’ famous D.C. barbershop, the other from the thriving Appalachian regional bluegrass realm. Blues guitarist, songster and storyteller Rick Franklin is a mainstay of the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. area acoustic blues scene, a folk roots musician deserving of greater attention, much like the entire acoustic blues scene of the region. Mandolinist and music historian Tom Mindte is well known for his recording and production studio that specializes in roots music, Patuxent Music, which is where this CD was recorded.

The result is a gentle album, almost languid, with a lazy-day, back porch–picking feeling, neither deep blues nor bluegrass, but rather a lighthearted roots music drawing on diverse traditions. In many ways, this blending of styles is in itself a tradition in the tri-state region. While there may have been societal racial segregation, the east coast folk and roots heritage is rich with an amalgam of both black and white music, and the musicians have always interchanged, shared and drawn from each other’s musical heritage. White players like Doc Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Watson were well versed and influenced by the blues players and songsters like Papa Charlie Jackson; and, the black blues players from the Piedmont liberally drew from the popular white country players like Jimmie Rodgers. “Backstage integration,” a form of cultural cross-pollination, helped form American roots music, and the resulting melting pot helped define east coast folk music to this day.

So, it’s natural for this type of music to transcend strict delineation. As Franklin & Mindte sat down for this session, they were not trying to be one thing or the other, but what came out was typical American string music. Yet, each musician’s heritage comes through. Any good bluegrass string player can play some blues, and any good blues players can dig into the country realm, but Mindte’s style, even when playing blues progressions, is definitely bluegrass, and Franklin is unmistakably blues, even when they play country.

The duo dishes out a fun mix on Dancing with My Baby, most regionally popular in both the black and white folk tradition: the Prohibition-era hokum blues You Can’t Get That Stuff No More; the blues standard I’m a Good Man But a Poor Man and Rocks Is My Pillow. There are the Piedmont standards like He’s in the Jailhouse Now; folk songs like Goodnight Irene, You Are My Sunshine and Crazy About Nancy Jane and the existentialist lament Two White Horses in a Line. The duo-composed Guitar and Mandolin Rag could have come off a David Grisman record. They also tossed in a few regionally popular gospel songs The River of Jordan and I’ll Fly Away.

This is a lighthearted, easygoing record that brings together the best folk traditions, as if two neighbors sat together for a house jam session—unpretentious, pure and fun, but with serious skill.

—Frank Matheis


Roll It Roll It
No label name – (No #)

Memphis-based Sam Fallie has yet to achieve the broad recognition he deserves, even though he has recorded quite a few notable tracks (on MiLaJa, owned by erstwhile Bobby Rush dancer Loretta “Jazzii” Anderson, as well as Lifetime Lover and Ecko), and he’s widely praised for both his stagecraft and his expressive tenor vocals, which have strengthened and toughened over the years. Here he joins forces with Tony Gentry and Nil Jones, both accomplished musicians and producers with solid track records in pop, R&B and hip-hop.

The sound they’ve created is full-bodied and aggressive, raw enough to endear it to most southern soul-blues lovers, but imbued with a tech-savvy sophistication aimed at more mainstream R&B fans. The title track, a funk-dripping dance floor workout, is redeemed from cliché by Sam’s usual lyric acumen—in his hands, even a line dance is a story waiting to be told, not just an opportunity for booty-shaking—and it’s propulsive without drowning in synth-heavy overkill. A similar imaginativeness informs Slow Motion, At the Spot, We Ride and the reggae-laced The Coolest, although some may find five dance tracks—six, if we include the final Roll It Roll It (Club Mix)—on one 11-song CD to be excessive.

Fortunately, Sam also showcases his gifts as a balladeer. 8 Days is an aching testimonial of devotion, couched in a storyline that recalls Sam’s 12 Steps 4 Cheaters/Voicemail song cycle from his first two MiLaJa Cds; Happy (not the Pharrell hit) and the mostly acoustic, jazz-tinged What Kind of Love likewise mine the intricacies of erotic and romantic infatuation. Sharp-eared listeners will recognize Heaven, another emotionally rich ballad, as Heaven Is One Step Away—not a cover or a remake, but the actual track—from a 2010 MiLaJa Mr. Sam sampler.

Despite that odd dash of unoriginality, this set in general provides yet more evidence that Mr. Sam has the potential to bridge the putative stylistic/generational/cultural gap between so-called “southern soul” (or “soulblues”) and “mainstream” R&B. After all—it’s all music, it’s all good, and in the hands of artists like Sam and Gentry-Jones, it’s all very promising.

—David Whiteis


Showcasing the Blues,
Volume 4: Harp Blowin’
Blues from South Florida
Mosher St. – PLP4800

South Florida is not a hot spot for blues harmonica, but Harp Blowin’ Blues from South Florida, the fourth volume in Mosher St. Records’ Showcasing the Blues series, may just change that. This double-disc compilation presents selections from nearly 30 artists, most of the journeyman variety with the exception of a few notable names. Some of the artists actually call the Sunshine State home, and others are included because they perform there regularly.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the established veterans such as Jason Ricci, Dennis Gruenling, Billy Gibson (the Memphis-based harp player, not ZZ Top’s front man), and Little Mike and the Tornadoes who offer the strongest cuts. Ricci’s groovy Mississippi March is a nice, straight-forward blues instrumental (much different from the eclectic material he recorded for Eclecto Groove a few years back), and the always-outstanding Gruenling, who performs here with Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones, delights with his swinging chromatic solos on Rockin’ All Day.

Less familiar names include Nico Wayne Toussaint, a French expat who impresses with his James Cotton–inspired harp work on a cover of Muddy Waters’ slow blues Deep Down in Florida, and R.J. Harman, whose solo on the frenetic rocker Wake County Stomp brings to mind Sugar Blue Mike Marciano & Andy G.’s bizarre mash-up Blue Man Funk is a cacophonous mess, but is easily overshadowed by T.C. Carr & the Catch’s boogie Checkin’ Out and Niles Blaize & Robert Johnson’s delightful Great Big Bottle of Blues, a talking blues where the liquor is replaced with canonical bluesmen (“pour me another shot of that Little Walter”).

As is often the case with independent regional compilations, this collection is a bit hit-or-miss, but there’s enough strong material here to put it on the radar of blues harmonica fans looking to freshen up their libraries with new faces.

—Roger Gatchet


Music from the Film Harlem Street Singer
Acoustic Sessions Recordings - ASC 220

If the blind singer and guitarist Rev. Gary Davis could hear this CD, the old street singer might know that he’s made it to the big time. Instead of busking on the cold street, he would sit inside of a fancy concert hall, as the Empire Roots Band, a superb jazz quartet, would pay him a mighty fine tribute. The ensemble would play with such elegance and pomp, in a full-fledged production with sophisticated arrangements, the old reverend might beam from ear to ear.

Well, almost. While it could be that, this is the music to the superb documentary film Harlem Street Singer, which tells the life story of this remarkable, beloved and most influential, spiritual blues and gospel musician. His presence in New York during the folk and blues revival impacted an entire generation of young musicians. More than anyone, Rev. Gary Davis brought the Piedmont guitar picking style to popular music and, in doing so, cataclysmically changed popular music. His legacy indelibly remains on American music, blues, guitar technique and attitude to this day. How big was he? As told by his former student, Steve Katz of the Blues Project to this reviewer, he impressed folks so much, he even had entire throngs of young, New York Jewish musicians sing and play gospel songs, to the despair of their confused and worried mothers who often lamented, “The long hair is one thing...but this church music...Oy weh!” Davis was friend and mentor to a virtual who’s who of the New York music scene of the period. See the film for the whole story. They are practically all in it.

The film features musical sequences produced by guitarist Woody Mann, with blues vocalist Bill Sims Jr., Dave Keyes on piano and Brian Glassman on bass. This CD is not the soundtrack per se, but the unedited takes and unreleased tracks from the film. The well-produced arrangements by the quartet of virtuosos juxtapose nicely against the ethereal solo performances by Davis in the film. They seamlessly slide from blues to spirituals to gospel and jazz, showing their individual and collective prowess, as it becomes clear that these are world class aces.

The quartet is led by guitar doyen Woody Mann, one of many of the young musicians who learned directly from Davis and whose blues credentials include recording and playing with Son House and Bukka White. Today, a renowned guitar master who is ranked among the world’s best, Mann is also co-producer of the documentary film. His love for his teacher shines through, as does his exquisite instrumentation. Bill Sims Jr. Sings Davis’ songs with his rich, warm tenor— distinctly in African American gospel style, passionately and soulfully. Sims has emerged as one of today’s important voices in the blues, and his interconnection with both the subject and his fellow musicians here let him reach his peak. The rollicking New York pianist Dave Keyes enriches the quartet with his colorful, stylistic repertoire adding a gildededge touch without overpowering, tasteful and eloquent. Contrabassist Brian Glassman, a renowned jazz and Kletzmer player, anchors the ensemble tightly.

In a sea of tribute albums this one stands out, and blues partisans will hold its place in music history, on par with the film.

The ensemble delivers 11 songs, all tunes Gary Davis used to sing, and each a gem.

—Frank Matheis


Have Mercy
Cash Munkey - 4440

Last year proved to be a prolific one for Old Gray Mule, the Texas-based duo comprised of guitarist CR Humphrey and drummer JJ Wilburn. These die-hard apostles of north Mississippi hill country blues simultaneously released not one, but two fine albums in late 2014: Hump Night 55, which was issued exclusively on vinyl and reviewed in my “In the Groove” column in LB #234, and Have Mercy.

Both albums were recorded outside of New Orleans, and the Crescent City influence is especially strong on Have Mercy. This is due in large part, of course, to the welcome presence of some high-profile zydeco masters who appear as guests: Buckwheat Zydeco and brothers Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. And Anthony Dopsie (whose father, the late Rockin’ Dopsie Sr., was dubbed the “Crown Prince of Zydeco” and recorded with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan).

Although hill country blues and zydeco may seem like an incongruous pairing (after all, how often did a button accordion make an appearance on an R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough record?), Old Gray Mule and the Dopsie brothers exploit the raw energy and hard-driving rhythms at the core of both genres on Ass On Fire. A spirited amalgam of single chord guitar grooves with lightning-fast accordion and ratchet-like vest frottoir percussion, one wonders why such musical collaborations between the two regions haven’t been more common before now.

Buckwheat Zydeco joins the duo on accordion for Stop Playin’, a slow simmering 12-bar blues in the Albert Collins vein that is further bolstered by a three-piece horn section and Wilburn’s moving vocals. More straightforward hill country fare include the Burnside covers Alice Mae and Skinny Woman, along with a decidedly up-tempo cover of Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long. Kimbrough receives the royal treatment with another tribute, the original instrumental Kimbro Style.

The highlight of this gem of an album, however, is Edge of My Head. The title is adapted from the well-known lyric in Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (“Well, I stand up next to a mountain / And I chop it down with the edge of my hand”). The song manages to keep one foot in north Mississippi while borrowing the familiar guitar hook from Voodoo Child, but Old Gray Mule stretches its creative boundaries with the addition of Chris Humphrey (CR’s mother) on didgeridoo.Another unlikely combination, for sure, but it works—the resonant, reverberating drone of the didgeridoo lends a sinister complement to CR’s Hendrix–meets–Kenny Brown guitar work.

Have Mercy is easily Old Gray Mule’s most ambitious—and well-executed—project to date, and the creative synergy on display here bodes well for the duo’s future as it continues to evolve.

—Roger Gatchet

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