DON BRYANT Don’t Give Up on Love Fat Possum – FP1607-2 Don Bryant’s name should be familiar to Memphis soul aficionados from his role in the Hi Records story as a produce, songwriter and singer. Although he himself never enjoyed chart success, in 1973, one of his songs, I Can’t Stand the Rain, hit big for St. Louis songstress Ann Peebles, who soon after became his wife. Bryant made an auspicious return to record last year when he contributed a dynamic vocal to the title of the Bo-Keys’ Heartaches By the Number album, and it is the Bo-Keys who provide the flawless backing here on Bryant’s full-fledged comeback disc. In what may seem a bold move, Bryant leads off covering the Nucleus of Soul himself, Mr. O.V. Wright, with a stunning version of A Nickel and a Nail before turning to his own songbook for the rocking I Got to Know (“5” Royales) featuring a hot Joe Restivo guitar solo, It Was Jealousy (Peebles, Otis Clay) and Can’t Hide the Hurt (Bryant himself). Perhaps best of all, though, are Bryant’s new compositions—the strutting Something About You, a slinky What Kind of Love, the classic soul of the title track and especially How Do I Get There, a soulsearing church song (cushioned by Charles Hodges’ organ and boasting a soaring solo by Restivo) that invites comparison to Wright’s iconic I’m Going Home (To Live With God). Annotator Robert Gordon’s claim that the 74-year-old Bryant has gotten better with age may at first seem a trifle suspect, but it’s true. From a comparison of his new take on Can’t Hide the Hurt with its 1967 original, it’s evident that Bryant is singing with more intensity and authority than ever. The resulting C. MATT WHITE album is a fitting crown to a long career, and hopefully won’t be his last. —Jim DeKoster LINSEY ALEXANDER Two Cats Delmark – DE-851 Longtime Chicago club favorite Linsey Alexander sings in a gruff voice reminiscent of Albert King (although his phrasing and diction are more elemental than King’s were). His guitar style, with its undulating string bends and extended phrases that truncate fiercely at their conclusion, harks in the same direction. The Memphis-tinged horns provided by Delmark accentuate that vintage soul blues feel even more strongly. Alexander’s band on this outing features some of the Windy City’s finest—second guitarist Anthony Palmer, keyboardist Roosevelt “Mad Hatter” Purifoy and bassist E. G. McDaniel (son of the late guitarist Floyd McDaniel), among others—and, predictably, they provide solid backing for Alexander as he progresses through shuffles, grinding funk workouts and church-tinged ballads. His own solo work, although it doesn’t blaze any new trails, is refreshingly straightforward and gimmick free. Alexander takes on an admirable array of themes—titles like Reefer and Blow, Facebook Woman, Comb Over Blues (a thinly disguised jeremiad against Donald Trump) and Where Did You Take Your Clothes Off Last Night are indicative—and on a phrase-by-phrase basis, he’s a deft purveyor of witty barbs and ripostes. In some cases, though, his stories seem to promise more than they deliver. Rhymes can be strained (“All he gave her was two little kids / Just another way she had to live”) and the imagery forced (as in the double-entendre title tune). On the other hand, it’s refreshing to hear a bluesman expand his scope beyond the usual “she done me wrong” clichés, and between his thematic resourcefulness and his unforced musical virtuosity, Linsey Alexander has plenty to offer aficionados of straightforward blues buttressed by a winningly eccentric lyric imagination. —David Whiteis BRUCE “MISSISSIPPI” JOHNSON The Deal Baby No label – No # Bruce “Mississippi” Johnson’s colorful biography helps explain the depth and eclecticism in his music. Johnson grew up in Mississippi and served in the US Marine Corps. His musical career includes gigs in the Paris jazz scene and a stint as a backing vocalist for Big Joe Turner. In Paris, Johnson particularly enjoyed performing the songs of Gil Scott-Heron. Like Scott-Heron, Johnson has a gift for composing blunt, streetwise lyrics that are peppered with contemporary slang. I Can’t Shake the Blues features Johnson’s life story sung over a percolating funk groove. I’m Gonna Bring Your Game Down and That’s the Deal Baby establish Johnson’s bold and plainspoken stage persona. He confronts those who do him wrong—male or female—with indignation and caustic wit. Wry lyrics and an arrangement fleshed out by horns, keyboards and fuzztone guitar give You Been Workin’ Mojo a southern soul feel in the vein of Malaco Records. The Neighbour Next Door is a stark urban vignette that recalls the collaborations between Dennis Walker and a young Robert Cray. The gritty, mid-tempo funk arrangement is buffed up by horns and a deftly played Clavinet. On the salacious Freak On or Die, Johnson approaches sex and intimacy with his usual candor. The title track, which serves as an intro and outro, is Johnson’s clearest nod to Gil Scott- Heron. Featuring Johnson’s gentle voice over a haunting keyboard riff, the track makes for an emotional musical bookend. For too many musicians, playing the blues means slavishly recreating the sounds of a bygone era. Johnson’s bold songwriting and willingness to embrace elements of funk and R&B give The Deal Baby a fresh, innovative feel. To thrive in the 21st century, the blues needs more artists like Bruce “Mississippi” Johnson. —Jon Kleinman CHUCK BERRY Chuck Dualtone – 80302-01793-25 Although Chuck Berry had not released an album of new material since Rock It (Atco) in 1979, last October on his 90th birthday, the iconic singer, guitarist and songwriter announced that the 28-year dry spell would come to an end in 2017. Of course, his legacy as one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century has been cemented for decades, and with Chuck he delivers a strikingly masterful capstone to his career, which is all the more poignant in light of his passing in March 2017. His guitar playing, his singing and his songwriting skills are still unmatched more than six decades after he transformed American popular music. The tracks were worked on over the course of a decade, and the house band—daughter Ingrid on vocals and harmonica, son Charles Berry Jr. On guitar, Robert Lohr on piano, Jimmy Marsala on bass and Keith Robinson on drums— that Berry worked with for almost 18 years at his monthly Blueberry Hill club gig in St. Louis provides the backing. Guitarists Gary Clark Jr., Tom Morello and grandson Charles Berry III take guest turns on a few tracks. The program boasts three exuberant rockers in the classic Berry mold. Wonderful Woman features Berry, his son, his grandson and Clark dueling with hot guitar licks. Big Boys opens with a signature ringing Berry guitar intro and includes searing solos from Berry and Morello. Berry expands the legend of his most famous lyrical character with Lady B Goode, extending the saga of Johnny B Goode and Bye Bye Johnny to a new generation, as all three Berry guitarists cut loose. He also looks back to his timeless catalog for the Caribbean-flavored Jamaica Moon, a reworking of Havana Moon from 1956 (and also rerecorded on Rock It), but the original still stands tall. His spare, slashing guitar work highlights Tony Joe White’s comic ¾ Time (Enchiladas), the program’s sole live track. Berry often cited the influence of Nat “King” Cole on his vocal stylings, particularly his diction, and he delivers three tracks that illustrate his ability to croon a dreamy ballad. He duets with daughter Ingrid on the standard You Go to My Head that rides on a loping, bluesy groove and features Lohr’s shimmering piano work that conjures up Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s old collaborator. Father and daughter also fittingly come together on Darlin’, a country-flavored ballad that imparts an aging father’s reflections to his child. With She Still Loves You, Berry crafts a monologue directed at a rival lover, which he punctuates with crackling guitar fills. The program closes with two spoken word performances: Dutchman, a western/noir tale of a mysterious stranger backed with an ominous, guitar-driven groove and Eyes of Man, a philosophical meditation on the impermanence of human existence set to a slow blues groove—a perfect sign-off from a true master of American music. — Robert H. Cataliotti JANIVA MAGNESS Blue Again Blue Élan / Fathead Records – BER 1045 Janiva Magness knows how to get inside a song, inhabit it and make it her own. Blue Again showcases Magness’ powerful eloquence, as she delivers her interpretations of blues classics from artists as diverse as Etta James, Bo Diddley, Freddie King, Nina Simone, Al Kooper and Joe Hinton. While these versions of the songs are clearly Magness’ way of honoring her roots, her treatment of the songs makes them her very own; she honors tradition at the same time she takes the music to a new level, illuminating it and opening it up for us to hear again, as if for the first time. The album opens with I Can Tell, a song most closely associated with Bo Diddley. David “Kid” Ramos propels the song with his simmering, down-and-dirty guitar licks, and Magness’ commanding vocals capture the raw power of the song. Magness showcases her gritty vocals and her vocal range on the song, but it’s her gift for phrasing that shines through on this track; she knows how to get the most out of a bar of this music. Magness delivers a version of Al Kooper’s I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know that captures the pathos, passion and hope of the original. Guitarists Zach Zunis and Garrett Deloian weave their slow burning riffs under and around Magness’ sultry vocals. Magness’ version outshines the original. Her vocals mirror the sex-drenched lyrics on Nina Simone’s Buck (credited to Simone’s husband/manager Andy Stroud); the song captures the tempestuous relationship between two lovers and the hold that they have over each other. Magness displays her vocal prowess on the album’s final track, Pack It Up, a song most associated with Freddie King, and she delivers a straight-ahead blues shout at the end of the song. Blue Again demonstrates why Magness is one of our best contemporary blues singers. Her vocal power and range allow her to take on any song; her phrasing and pacing enable her to make the most of the songs she’s singing. Her ear for the just-right tune to interpret is impeccable, and her deep acquaintance with the blues allows her to play with a song’s structure to find its best sonic skeleton and add flesh to it. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr. THE SHERMAN HOLMES PROJECT The Richmond Sessions M.C. Records – MC-0082 The Holmes Brothers, National Heritage Fellows, have always been genre benders, steeped deep in the wellspring of American roots music, the place where country music meets gospel, meets blues, the very place where rock ’n’ roll was born. Now that Sherman Holmes is alone, he carries on that soulful amalgam in his first “solo” record since the Holmes Brothers ended their triumphant and adventurous musical journey following the deaths of his brother Wendell and their longtime partner Popsy Dixon in 2015. The Richmond Sessions is dedicated to their memory, and Sherman Holmes is totally in his element. The album is produced by Jon Lohman, Virginia State Folklorist and Director of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, brought in an arsenal of fierce Virginia-based instrumentalists— Grammy-winning Dobro player Rob Ickes and the brilliant banjoist Sammy Shelor, to name a couple. Lohman intrinsically understands Sherman and managed to find the perfect cast for his comeback. Sherman Holmes sings lead vocals and plays bass and keyboard. New York– based singer Joan Osborne, a longtime friend of the Holmes Brothers, joins them on a fiery rendition of Dan Penn’s The Dark End of the Street. The Ingramettes, a gospel group featuring the Rev. Almeta Ingram-Miller, are a powerful building block of this ensemble, an amazing choir that firmly injects this album with soulful, passionate and heartfelt singing. When Sherman sings I Want Jesus to Walk With Me as if it was his last song for eternity, while Rob Ickes’ Dobro lets out wailing, sorrowful glissandos, and the Ingramettes sing the Amen choir, it’s a magnificently moving moment, a soul-stirring song that will bring tears to a Hells Angel. Musical delineations into tightly divided genres is a marketing construct. Sherman Holmes does not abide by externally imposed limitations. Nor does Rob Ickes. On this album, his lap steel slide playing is masterfully on target, sensitive, colorful and vibrant, showing that modern acoustic American string music long ago left those restrictions behind. Simply superlative sliding. They get to the heart of Sherman’s love for country music on Lonesome Pines and then tackle Marvin Gaye’s Don’t Do It. The old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Green River will make John Fogerty proud, and the notes advise that this was the last song the Holmes Brothers had worked on together. Sammy Shelor and Ickes help on Ben Harper’s anguished Homeless Child as the fabulous Ingramettes bring us back to church, with Ickes again playing boldly and with clarity. Sherman Holmes may be 77 years old. He grieved the loss of his brother Wendell and best mate, Popsy. Here he is, energetic, passionate as ever, with the same relentless energy and vibrancy that was the hallmark of the Holmes Brothers. This well-produced album is remarkable on many levels. Sherman Holmes still kicks ass! As he said, “That’s my life, man.” —Frank Matheis ROBERT FINLEY Age Don’t Mean a Thing Big Legal Mess Records – BLM 0534 Singer-guitarist Robert Finley hails from Bernice, a small town in north-central Louisiana. Upon entering the army in 1970, he found himself in Europe servicing helicopters and playing in a band rather than being shot at in Vietnam. When he returned home to Bernice, however, he was unable to sustain a musical career. He turned to carpentry to earn a living until failing vision prevented him from working and prompted him to pick up his guitar again. In 2015, he came under the umbrella of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helped him bring his music to a wider audience and ultimately led to the creation of this splendid new CD on BLM. Although Finley had been playing as a solo blues act, BLM’s Bruce Watson was determined to present him as a soul singer on his first record, and to that end brought him to Memphis and teamed him with a stellar group that included Jimbo Mathus along with Scott Bomar and the Bo-Keys. Watson’s decision turned out to be a good one, as Finley’s singing is pure southern soul. The set’s opener, I Just Want to Tell You, evokes Johnnie Taylor’s Testify (I Wonna), but it’s the achingly atmospheric title track following it that takes the honors. Finley and company take a side trip from Memphis to New Orleans for Let Me Be Your Everything, move from the second line to the dance floor with Come On and You Make Me Want to Dance and make for the bedroom on Make It With You, but they’re at their best doing deep soul, as they do superbly on It’s Too Late, Snake In the Grass and Is It Possible to Love 2 People?. Finley’s overdue debut joins with the recent comeback triumphs by William Bell and Don Bryant to score a winning trifecta for those of us who cherish the glory days of southern soul. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to hear a follow-up disc focusing on Finley the bluesman—if his internet videos are any indication, it would be another good ’un. —Jim DeKoster LATIMORE A Taste of Me: Great American Songs Essential Media Group – 942-326-635-2 The idea of Benny Latimore as a tuxedo-clad nightclub crooner isn’t as anachronistic as it might seem—one of his early gigs was playing solo keyboards and singing standards at the Knight Beat club in the famous Sir John Hotel in Miami in the early ’60s. In many ways, then, although he’s accompanied by a full band here, this set returns him to his roots. Lat has always been an eclectic stylist, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his definition of “Great American Songs” includes offerings from rhythm and blues, soul and soul blues (including two of his own compositions—Dig a Little Deeper and Let’s Straighten It Out), as well as earlier standards like Smile and The Very Thought of You. He’s a master balladeer who tempers his easygoing machismo with a seductive vulnerability. His vibrato has widened over the years, but his grainy baritone is still an expressive and textured instrument. At Last, made famous by Etta James, lends itself perfectly to Latimore’s smoldering emotionality through his deep-mahogany croon avoids bathos in favor of profound feeling. He brings a similar restraint to Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, on which he sounds like a wizened elder dispensing life lessons. His taut reading of Al Kooper’s I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know effortlessly fuses bluesy urgency with soul-baring vulnerability. You Are so Beautiful resonates with such deep classicism it’s hard to remember that Billy Preston and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson composed it in the early ’70s; Latimore brings a lighthearted optimism to the song, which has sometimes been interpreted as either a lachrymose ballad or a dark-tinged testimonial to obsession. It exemplifies the class, elegance and musical acumen with which he approaches this set, and which has characterized him throughout his career. —David Whiteis CASH BOX KINGS Royal Mint Alligator Records – ALCD 4976 The Cash Box Kings, the well-traveled, Midwestern blues band centered around founder and harmonicat Joe Nosek and his singing and songwriting buddy Oscar Wilson, have migrated over to Alligator Records to issue Royal Mint, the latest in a string of eight releases. Their moveable feast of excellent musicians this outing includes guitarists Billy Flynn and Joel Paterson, with Brad Ber on bass and Mark Haynes and Kenny Smith sharing the drum seat. Joe Nosek’s huge harp tone sets the scene from the first notes on a rendition of Amos Milburn’s House Party, sung by Wilson and punched up by the sonically lush threepiece C-Note Horns. Other guests include excellent veteran musicians Mel Ford on rhythm guitar and Alex Hall on drums, with pianist Lee Kanehira (a swiftly rising protégé of the late Barrelhouse Chuck) who contributes thundering chords and torrents of notes and rolls on Flood (from the songbook of Muddy Waters) and lovely dance-hall, honkytonk tinkling on Nosek’s Tether You Down. Nosek has written many topical songs with social and political purpose, several cowritten with Oscar Wilson, and together they are making sharper points while still retaining a fine touch of humor. Their performances and recordings display an interesting balance between a full blast of blues and party songs, replete with call and response, and original topical numbers and riffs on subjects like Facebook, gentrification and the stresses of life. And some are like public service announcements that suggest, let’s have fun tonight, but remember there are social and political issues we cannot ignore. Of the latter, there are two such numbers on this release. Build That Wall cleverly hits on the high points of hateful rhetoric emanating from today’s White House—a dark satire, the point of which cannot be missed or dismissed. In addition, Blues For Chi-Raq (a reference to Spike Lee’s film on Chicago’s escalating gun violence) is Wilson’s latest impassioned ode to his ever-in-his-heart old neighborhood of 43rd Street, with a shocking ending. Wilson’s dark and moody original, I Come All the Way From Chi-Town, with only Nosek on harp and Paterson on guitar, strongly suggests vintage John Lee Hooker. In addition to a range of moods, the Kings bring multiple blues eras into play: the age-old Traveling Riverside Blues, with Joel Paterson’s hair-raising evocation of Robert Johnson’s guitar work and Wilson’s resonant deep clear vocals, sounds right and sounds relevant. Whether on top or in a supporting role, Billy Flynn always adds the right touch on guitar, or mandolin, as on the laid-back, Bluebird blues of Daddy Bear, penned by Nosek. Wilson’s meat and potatoes is singing ’50s-era Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Reed numbers, as on Sugar Sweet, I’m Gonna Get My Baby and Flood, just as Flynn excels at playing them. On the obscure Junior Wells / Earl Hooker collaboration, I’m a Stranger, Flynn shows off his superior Hooker-inspired slide work to complement Wilson’s vocals. A fresh start on a new label with continued excellent, evocative music and provocative writing. —Justin O’Brien THE SONS OF THE SOUL REVIVERS Live! At Rancho Nicasio Little Village Foundation – LVF 1013 It does not happen that often, but occasionally a recording appears that is absolutely captivating from the first note. That is the case with the new release Live! At Rancho Nicasio from the Vallejo, California–based gospel group the Sons of the Soul Revivers. Steeped in the vocal quartet tradition, the group was formed in 1970 by three brothers, guitarist/singer Walter Morgan Sr., singer James Morgan and singer Dwayne Morgan, to carry on the work of their father’s original Soul Revivers from the 1960s. The band also includes bassist/vocalist DaQuantae Johnson and drummer Oliver Calloway, as well as guest organist Jim Pugh (who also produced the recording and is the founder of Little Village) and second guitarist Thomas Smith. From the first slashing chords of Walter’s guitar on Come Over Here, the music takes off, and these guys set the house rocking and do not let up until 52 minutes later when they complete their set. There is some ineffable quality that is conjured when brothers sing together, whether it is the Nevilles or the Everlys or the Jacksons, and the blend of voices that the Morgan brothers achieve is filled with heartfelt exuberance and soulful power. They have put together such a solid program that it is hard to single out highlights. The classic It’s a Needed Time has a propulsive, captivating energy. The slow-paced Pilgrim and a Stranger draws from a deep well of spiritual energy and boasts an impassioned dialogue between Walter’s preaching and Dwayne’s soaring falsetto part. The rapid-fire vocal call and response between two brothers on Joy is stunning. Morgan’s stellar guitar anchors the grooves, as exemplified by the fills he plays in tandem with Pugh’s surging organ runs on Give Him His Due. They pull out all the stops on the epic eight-minute-plus closer I’m a New Creature, which boasts some riveting guitar interplay between Morgan and Smith. In addition to the knockout performances, Live! At Rancho Nicasio is an outstanding recording that boasts a deeply resonant sound and an immediacy that brings home the spirit of the Sons of the Soul Revivers. — Robert H. Cataliotti KATIE WEBSTER The Swamp Boogie Queen Live TopCat – TCT-2152 Hearing a high-quality concert recording from years ago can be like reconnecting with an old friend. Originally taped in Athens, Greece, in 1990, The Swamp Boogie Queen Live presents Katie Webster at the height of her prowess, confidently charming an audience with only her voice, piano and exuberant personality. For those who appreciated Webster’s brilliance during its heyday, and especially for those who experienced her charisma firsthand, this recently released audio document should provide a treasure of good memories. Likewise, for any previously oblivious blues fans, it should trigger an overdue revelation. Born in 1936 in Houston, Texas, Webster—one of the greatest piano-playing blues women of her time—started gigging in Gulf Coast nightclubs and studios in the early ’50s, launched a major comeback in the ’80s and earned international acclaim into the ’90s. Combining a rarely matched technical proficiency on her instrument with a soulfully expressive alto voice and an ebullient spirit, she capped her recording career with three excellent albums on the Alligator label before suffering a stroke in 1993 and passing away in 1999. The Swamp Boogie Queen Live highlights Webster’s power as a performer capable of intimately engaging her audience. But its 15 tracks also showcase some of the key songs and the various intersecting genres—mainly blues, swamp pop, gospel, boogie-woogie and soul—that define her life in music. On the churchly opener, Webster first lays down a few stately chords and flourishes on the keys before that distinctive voice sings: “It’s good to see you, so good to see you. Oh, how I’ve missed you since I’ve been gone.” Folks, the first time I heard it, I gasped—enraptured by sudden reconnection with artistic eminence and simultaneously, for just a second, overcome by a sense of loss. Then she sings, “It’s good to see you and be in your home,” and I thank my lucky stars for the wonder of sound recording, which can maintain this moment of song forever and make Webster present, aurally speaking at least, in anybody’s home. With a running time at over 68 minutes, the album maintains the magic as Webster reveals her multifaceted talents. Among those is the ability to shift gears gracefully, with flashes of over-amped boogie, tender romanticism, classical formality, heavy-handed blues, spiritual candor and orchestral pop coexisting, sometimes within a given track. On Basin Street Blues Webster jauntily indulges in some brassy scat singing, imitating Louis Armstrong at his most playful. On Katie’s Boogie she fuses familiar lyric motifs in a hodge-podge, almost stream-of-consciousness way while commanding her instrument like a cocky sports car driver on a wide-open and curvaceous mountain road. Over a series of luscious arpeggios she introduces the swamp pop classic Sea of Love with an autobiographical acknowledgement that she played “on the original version of this song, that was recorded when I was 13 years old, with Phil Phillips from Lake Charles, Louisiana.” With Two Fisted Mama she transforms into a badass braggadocio who backs her claims with an instrumental tour-de-force full of musical quotations, weaving from the foundational boogie into Pop Goes the Weasel, from a grandiose passage by Gershwin into The Wedding March followed by a sequence of Way Down Upon the Sewanee River, and so on. The sonic shape shifting continues on Got My Mojo Workin’, which eventually incorporates a mambo groove in the style of Professor Longhair. Reflecting Webster’s upbringing, there’s also a gospel medley that commences with her original song Lord I Wonder before moving on through elements of Precious Lord Take My Hand, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Down By the Riverside. And in a nod to the late Otis Redding, with whom she toured for three years, the set concludes with an extended interpretation of Try a Little Tenderness followed by Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. The great Katie Webster may be gone from this world, but her many recordings, dating back to the 1950s, make her music immortal for listeners who seek it out. The recent publication of this live concert disc preserves her sound and spirit at its vivacious best. —Roger Wood HAYES MCMULLAN Everyday Seem Like Murder Here Light in the Attic – LITA 152 When pioneer Mississippi blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow published Chasin’ That Devil’s Music in 1998, the CD enclosed with the book included the extraordinary Look-a Here Woman Blues by the previously unknown Hayes McMullan, whom Wardlow had come upon while searching for old blues 78s in the Delta town of Sumner in the summer of 1967. Although McMullan sounded a bit rusty, the song left no doubt that he was a significant find, and Wardlow’s interviews revealed that McMullan had indeed traveled in the same circles as Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown in the late 1920s and early 1930s before giving up music after his older brother and musical mentor Tom was killed by poisoning in 1930. When Wardlow found him, McMullan was 65 years old and living with his wife, Hattie, in a sharecropper’s shack near Tutwiler, but had gotten religion and hadn’t touched a guitar in over 30 years. On his first visit to McMullan’s home, Wardlow was immediately convinced that his find was the real deal, and he gave McMullan a couple of weeks to refresh his skills before recording him at length and following up with a date at a small Jackson studio the next fall. Now, nearly 20 years after the teaser from Wardlow’s book and a half-century after the recordings themselves, McMullan’s music is given its due on this new CD. Of the disc’s 31 tracks, nine are brief excerpts from Wardlow’s interviews that total some seven minutes and focus mainly on McMullan’s recollections of Patton. The main course, though, is the music, which was essentially frozen in time by McMullan’s three decades of inactivity and constitutes a veritable treasure trove of classic Delta blues. Born in 1902, McMullan was a contemporary of House and Brown, and, as Wardlow aptly notes, his music sounds like a mixture of Patton and Brown, but with a softer voice more akin to Tommy Johnson—in fact, McMullan employs a Johnson-like falsetto at times and evokes Patton when he raps on the guitar or stomps his feet to emphasize the rhythms of his songs. Indeed, McMullan’s songs (though admittedly reformulated with some help by Wardlow) could hardly be more evocative of their time and place, as is evident from titles such as Smoke Like Lightning, Hitch Up My Pony, ’Bout a Spoonful, No Triflin’ Kid, Roll and Tumble and the title track. There are also echoes of Charley Jordan, Leroy Carr, Jim Jackson and Ishmon Bracey, who ran with McMullan for a spell in the 1920s and may have adopted his Saturday Blues from a song that McMullan had been playing at the time that he called shaggy Hound Blues McMullan never settled for mere imitation, though. As the comprehensive notes by Wardlow and John Miller explain, he achieved a marked individuality even while remaining squarely within his tradition. Those notes, incidentally, include full lyric transcriptions, the guitar tuning employed for each song and analysis of each song’s content and performance, as well as a handful of photos. McMullan claimed—and there’s no reason to doubt him—that he turned down an opportunity to accompany Patton and Brown when they went north to record for Paramount in 1930. If he had gone along for those sessions, it seems certain that his own records would have become sought-after collector’s items like those of his cohorts, and that his “discovery” in 1967 would have rocked the blues world. That history might have played out differently, however, should not lessen the impact of the music here, which allows us to travel back in time into a world that’s been here and gone. —Jim DeKoster OSCAR WILSON One Room Blues Airway Records – AR-4769 This is a debut as a bandleader for Oscar Wilson, who began singing less than ten years ago with the Cash Box Kings, with whom he has recorded. Wilson, now 63, is a one-man jukebox of the blues who simply creates a blues party wherever he goes, and he shows up in a big way on One Room Blues. Backing Wilson is a group of masterly musicians led by guitarist Joel Paterson, an old pal from the Cash Box Kings, and saxophonist Sam Burckhardt, formerly of the Sunnyland Slim Band and Mighty Blue Kings. They are joined by organist/pianist Pete Benson and the phenomenal rhythm duo of bassist Beau Sample and drummer Alex Hall, who have worked with Paterson and Burckhardt in many of their other musical amalgamations. Their ensemble sound is of a Chicago blues band that has mastered the art of 1940s West Coast swing, and therefore One Room seems somewhat of a departure for the straightfrom- 43rd Street Chicago blues singer, primarily known for singing the 1950s Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Jimmy Reed. But Wilson shows that he has always cast a wider net in his fishing for good blues songs. It is a joy, for example, to hear Wilson’s embrace of the two Percy Mayfield tracks— material rarely covered these days. And his patience in delivering the lyrics to One Room Country Shack refreshingly shows his way of reading, which makes the story personal. Wilson has the uncommon ability to inhabit every song and frequently ad-libs some little story, as he does on the extraordinary, lag-beat, funk interpretation of Ray Charles’ Blackjack. When I Was Young, a neglected Sunnyland Slim number, evokes the vibe of the Sunday night residency that Slim and Burckhardt shared at Chicago’s B.L.U.E.S. through the 1980s, but with the added kick of Wilson’s strong reading, set against a 1940sstyle arrangement. In fact, 1940s and 1950s-style arrangements are the order of the day here with lush renderings of classic tracks by Percy Mayfield, Ray Charles, Lowell Fulson, Mercy Dee Walton, Junior Parker and Memphis Slim, with the mid-continent represented by Jimmy Reed, B. B. King and Sunnyland Slim. One of the many aural treats of this recording is that the tracks focus more on atmosphere than licks, with Wilson’s vocals foremost. Credit goes to the production of Burckhardt and Paterson, and the engineering of drummer Alex Hall. Two instrumental tracks—one a Freddie King–inspired guitar romp from Paterson and the other a Sunnyland Slim–meets–Bill Doggett offering from Burckhardt—make nice bonus tracks to this outstanding recording. —Justin O’Brien JAYE HAMMER Last Man Standing Ecko – ECK 1171 When Willie Clayton titled his 2002 CD The Last Man Standing, his implication was that he considered himself one of the few remaining soul men willing to stand firm for the music’s integrity and excellence. Jaye Hammer, on the other hand, invokes little more than post–Theodis Ealey salaciousness with the title tune here (full name: The Last Man Standing Up in It). Whether this represents progress or decadence will be a matter of opinion. Overall, this is a pretty glib, good-timey outing, even by contemporary southern soul standards. Hammer’s voice is tough and sensual, with a gritty edge (echoes of masters like James Carr and O.V. Wright resonate throughout); the melodies and rhythms, though, seldom depart from cliché, and there’s little of the tension-and-release dynamic that characterizes the best blues and soul. The end result is that even when the lyrics mine genuine depth (as in Party at Home, in which a man entices his lady to forgo juking in favor of making love “until the morning light”), songs can remain oddly unfulfilling, almost as if someone had felt compelled to erect barriers to blunt their full emotional impact. That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend here. Fans of straight-ahead blues will probably find solace in I’m a Package Handler, a double-entendre 12-bar outing toughened by fire-spitting guitar from producer / label owner John Ward; Trail Ride is an affectionate shout-out to an often underrecognized facet of southern African American culture; Mississippi Style, yet another paean to the joys of down-home living and lovemaking, is rescued from cliché by its propulsive, hardpounding arrangement; the disc’s sole ballad, It’s Real, is graced with a roomy, sparse arrangement, and Hammer’s vocals summon an emotional intensity that, for once, is undiluted and cuts directly to the heart. —David Whiteis BOBBY G WITH CURTIS GRANT, JR.& THE MIDNIGHT ROCKERS Still Standing Third Street Cigar – No # Mississippi-born vocalist Robert Lee Gray, a.k.a. Bobby G, moved to Toledo, Ohio, when he was about 15. His primary occupation for most of his adult life was working for the city, but he was also active on the local and regional club scenes. This disc is the brainchild of Ohio blues maven John Henry, who knew of Bobby G’s talent and got him together with veteran guitarist/producer/ songwriter Johnny Rawls. Henry also helped assemble the band of Toledo-based sidemen who accompany Bobby here. Rawls, who co-produced this disc with Henry, wrote or co-wrote all ten of these songs. They’re a characteristic Rawlsian meld of blues, funk-seasoned soul and breezy pop. Bobby G’s voice is remarkably clear and lighttimbred for such a veteran; very likely—despite the lyrics of the title song, which portray the singer as a reformed player looking back nostalgically on his misspent youth—life as a hardworking family man has held him in good stead through the years. Occasionally, things get a little more aggressively rootsy. Love Love Love invokes the hard-driving, single-chord North Mississippi “trance blues” style made famous by the late Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and their contemporaries; the lurching, off-time cadences of Little Bitty Woman and Party Man (on which Bobby toughens his voice into a Wolfian rasp) recall Albert King’s Oh Pretty Woman, a connection made even clearer by string-bending guitar work from either Rawls or Larry Gold (the credits are unclear). Any project associated with Johnny Rawls can be trusted to be professional, well executed and inventive without being pretentious. This one is no exception. —David Whiteis JOHN NÉMETH Feelin’ Freaky Memphis Grease Records – MGRCD001 John Németh’s vocal and harmonica prowess continues to grow and mature, garnering him one Living Blues Award and two Blues Music Awards to date. Prior to his last release, 2014’s Memphis Grease, the Idaho native relocated to the Bluff City and cut that record there. His new album, Feelin’ Freaky, keeps the Memphis groove going with the help of producer Luther Dickinson and sidemen such as organist Charles Hodges and horn players Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston. The Andy Warhol–esque cover art features an image of a Kool-Aid pickle, which also happens to be the name of one of the songs. Németh penned all of the album’s 11 tracks, and they tackle serious themes as well as celebrate good times. “I can’t take this heat any more,” Németh sings in Under the Gun, decrying gun violence in America, and the horn lines echo the urgency in his ringing tenor. His vocals likewise shine on the classic soul anthem Rainy Day and the aching soul blues Gave Up on You. His harp playing is spare but punchy, punctuating various numbers like the rocking title track, the racy I’m Funkin’ Out, the aforementioned slice of life Kool Aid Pickle and the lost-love lament Long Black Cadillac. A collection of sharp, smart and fun songs with fine production and performances, Feelin’ Freaky represents John Németh’s strongest work to date. —Melanie Young JIM ALLCHIN Decisions Sandy Key Music – CD-JA004 Though Jim Allchin has been playing guitar since he was a teenager, a passion for mathematics and computer science led him to college and, ultimately, to a career as an executive at Microsoft. Since his retirement from the company in 2007 he has returned to making music, releasing four albums to date. Decisions is the Seattle resident’s latest, and it shows him in full command of his considerable skills. Producer Tom Hambridge gives this set a polished sheen, placing Allchin’s bright, rock-edged tenor and incisive fretwork in sharp focus. Allchin wrote most of the songs as well, with Hambridge and Richard Fleming sharing credits with him on a few tracks. Artificial Life reflects on his time in the corporate world, the steady roadhouse beat echoing the grind of daily work life. Allchin cuts loose on the fiery Bad Decisions and the breakneck instrumental Just Plain Sick, unspooling skeins of fierce licks. The moody After Hours is another instrumental, and here his guitar lines take on an eerie, almost vocal quality. The mid-tempo, keyboard-driven She Is It provides a sweet change of pace, while Friends is a horn-powered blues that B.B. King would have loved. Keb’ Mo’ makes a guest appearance as well, sharing lead vocals on the organ-haunted Healing Ground. On Decisions, Jim Allchin has delivered a handsome session of sophisticated contemporary blues rock. —Melanie Young SWEET ANGEL Can’t Walk Away SA – No # Old-schoolers, rejoice! Sweet Angel, a mainstay on the southern soul blues circuit, has broken the genre mold and released a CD consisting solely of live, in-studio instrumentation and gimmick-free production. The result, as Angel no doubt intended, is that the focus is entirely on her songwriting and vocal skills, along with the musical acumen of her accompanists. From the grinding urban funk of Take a Look (set to a groove based on Bobby Rush’s trademark Sue theme) and I Wanna Ride It through the soul balladry of Actions Speak Louder than Words to the power pop lushness of the inspirational This Is My Prayer (If It’s for Me), Angel’s musicians prove themselves versatile and imaginative. Angel herself weighs in on alto sax on Thrill Is Real; her voice, meanwhile, is as supple and expressive as it’s ever been, alternately sassy, seductive, libidinous, hard-edged, yearning and jubilant. Sweet Angel made her initial mark on Ecko with ditties like The Tongue Don’t Need No Viagra, and at one time her stage props included a huge, floppy black dildo. A bit of that playful raunchiness makes itself known here on fare like the grinding 12-bar blues Hold Back the Booga Bear and the doubleentendre I Wanna Ride It. But she’s always prided herself on the emotional depth and thematic variety of her songwriting, and this time out she showcases some of the most eloquent ballads of her career. On Actions Speak Louder than Words, she manages to sound both pleading and resolute; I Got Your Back finds the protagonist pledging to rescue and nurture a man who’s locked in a loveless relationship (a provocative gender reversal— male singers have been addressing this theme for years); Still Crazy for You courageously stares down desolation and heartbreak; the aforementioned This Is My Prayer is a soulstirring proclamation of faith. She’s been on the scene since 2007, but it sounds as if Clifetta “Sweet Angel” Dobbins is finally finding her stride, and doing it on her own hard-earned terms. —David Whiteis ANDY T BAND Double Strike ASM – 7215 You’d have to send out a search party to find a weak link in Double Strike by the Andy T Band. When one door closes another opens they say, and the change in vocalists from Nick Nixon, who retired last year citing health issues, to his replacement Alabama Mike is seamless with each handling half the lead vocals here. This release, out of Austin, is coproduced by bandleader Andy Talamantez and Anson Funderburgh, who share the guitar work. Talamantez toured for seven years with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty, and Funderburgh spent decades with his legendary Texas group, the Rockets. There is a deep feeling for 1950s R&B throughout, with lots of keyboards by Larry van Loon and a guest appearance by Mike Flanigan. The excellent saxophone work by Kaz Kazanov and John Mills of t he Texas Horns is all over this CD. Lost love is a prominent theme. On I Want You Bad, Alabama Mike sings, “I don’t want to be alone,” then, “Since you left me my life has been so sad,” on Where Did Our Love Go Wrong. Nixon, on one of the few slow numbers, Juanita, is “lookin’ for a letter day after day,” but bounces back on I Was Gonna Leave You, singing, “The day you left me I was gonna leave you.” Then there’s a pair that may make one wonder if the struggles are all worthwhile. On Drunk or Sober the woman has a cherry wine problem. Nixon sings, “I love her drunk or sober / there’s no one to take her place.” Doin’ Hard Time documents a relationship where the lady has complete control. “You’re my big house warden / you got me doin’ hard time.” Alabama Mike has large shoes to fill. The Andy T–Nick Nixon Band, a unit for six years, released three albums and collected three Blues Music Award nominations. Talamantez says of Nixon, “He never complained about all the night drives, the truck stop food or weeks away from his friends and family back in Nashville.” —Robert Feuer BIG JOE FITZ Shoulda Known Better No label – No # In the Hudson Valley of New York every blues fan knows Big Joe Fitz as the former blues DJ on FM-WDST, Radio Woodstock, where he reigned every Sunday night for more than 30 years until his recent retirement. He also reported to the Living Blues Radio Chart for a long time. Over the years, his imprint on the blues in this region was immense. He, more than anyone, contributed to the ongoing interest in roots and blues in the Hudson Valley, which is densely populated with visual artists, musicians and writers. No fears. This is not just another celebrity with delusional musical aspirations. Big Joe Fitz is a blues aficionado and also a fine musician who plays and sings sophisticated jazz blues. As Shoulda Known Better shows, Big Joe has soul. It’s an exquisite album on multiple levels. He sings and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar on three cuts. His singing has a gentle, jazzy vibe with a Mose Allison coolness. His hot band of superb instrumentalists, Robert Bard on bass, Mark Dziuba on guitar and Chris Bowman on drums are augmented by the Hudson Valley’s favorite pianist Jeremy Baum, with Jack Strobel on piano on one cut. These are refined players of the first degree and Shoulda Known Better hits the sweet spot. Big Joe Fitz is a first-rate musician with a band to match it, and this album boldly states that his musicianship equals his considerable DJ skills. Big Joe Fitz is a smooth singer, mellow and easy, languid like a jazz singer, but deeply rooted in the blues. Guitarist Mark Dziuba, a professor of music at the State University of New York in New Paltz who really understands the importance of harmonics and space, adds a level of versatile virtuosity. His guitar chops evoke sophisticated elements as wide ranging as Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell and Bill Frisell, all the way to Duane Eddy and Gene Vincent. The rhythm section is as tight as the best jazz combo. Drummer Chris Bowman also runs the finest drum and percussion shop in the Hudson Valley. Bassist Robert Bard was composer and music director for CBS-TV, where he was nominated for eight Emmy Awards. With that fierce band, Big Joe Fitz falls into a relaxed, comfortable groove, occasionally chiming in with subtle harmonica, like on Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again They keep it all understated, comfortable in their groove. They do a lovely version of Willie Nelson’s soulful Funny How Time Slips Away. Arthur Alexander’s classic R&B hit You Better Move On gets the royal treatment. They cover Never Make a Move Too Soon by Will Jennings and Stix Hooper, who was the drummer for the Jazz Crusaders. Big Joe Fitz lets loose on Sugar Ray Norcia’s harmonica piece Feeling Blue. The sound is clean, refined and elegant, just jazzy enough to make it smooth, and bluesy enough to not lose its edge. Don’t look for a title cut on this album. No song called Shoulda Known Better is on it, leaving you to guess the metaphor. Shoulda Known Better will hold its own against the best stuff on your shelf. —Frank Matheis DON WASHINGTON Soul Boogie UDAD – No # Don Washington may be best known as a keyboardist, but he’s proficient on multiple instruments (he plays everything here), and he’s also an exemplary songwriter and vocal stylist. Perhaps most notable, though, at least this time out, are his gifts as a producer—he has transformed himself into a full-fledged jump blues ensemble, complete with a brawny horn section (yes, he apparently played all the horn parts himself and then blended them together to create an impeccably tight-sounding unit), along with drums, bass, keyboards and guitar. The overall mood of this set is celebratory— even an ostensibly mournful ballad like Tears on My Pillow is graced with a hip, uptown elegance laced with underlying optimism. The gospelly deep soul ballad Bring Her Back to Me likewise tempers a sad story with a spirit of redemptive hope. Pills Pills Pills casts a serious social issue—prescription medicine dependency—in a resolutely ironic up-tempo framework (“Takin’ energy pills and a-swallowing water / I can outrun your sons and your daughters”); the New Orleans– tinged Fake It Till You Make It (on which the vocal mix sounds strangely hollow—an intentional effect, no doubt, since Washington is too good a producer to let that kind of thing get past him by mistake) conveys a cynical message with such infectious jubilance that it almost makes hard-eyed opportunism sound like a party. The instrumental numbers—Soul Boogie, All Day Kiss, Evie’s First Jump—sound, yet again, as if a full complement of wellrehearsed musicians were on hand. Probably the most remarkable thing about this disc is that despite the overriding “one-man band” conceit, nothing about it sounds gimmicky or self-conscious. Whether Washington can find sidemen to do justice to this material in live performance remains to be seen, but for now, this CD, savory from beginning to end, is more than enough to suffice. —David Whiteis BEAUTIFUL BOBBY BLACKMON Throwback Blues B3 Records – No # Growing up in the tiny East Texas burg of Athens, “Beautiful” Bobby Blackmon first picked up the guitar as a teenager, but the realities of life forced him to put his blues dreams on hold in favor of a day job that morphed into a successful, decades-long sales career. If the tight, gritty, well-crafted, horninfused blues on his fourth studio release, Throwback Blues, is any indication, Blackmon used his vacation time to woodshed on the guitar rather than hang on the beach. Blackmon, who now calls central Florida home, took early retirement a few years ago from his senior sales position with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and has since devoted his time to performing and writing the kind of traditional blues, R&B and funk he grew up listening to. Blackmon explains in the liner notes that in writing all 12 of the CD’s tracks, he set out to create songs with a down-home, no frills flavor reminiscent of recordings made in the late ’60s and ’70s. Backed by his solid B3 band, Blackmon’s guitar attack features flashes of the precision, grace and phrasing of Robert Cray or Eric Clapton and the lyrical qualities of B.B. King, while his vocals offer hints of the gravelly soul of Bobby “Blue” Bland and the playful call and response of Bobby Rush. The album kicks off with the funk-derived The Blues Just Left Town, a plea to support local, live music that offers a ’70s feel thanks to Blackmon’s liberal use of the wah-wah pedal. The classic shuffle of the title track is buoyed by a fat groove thrown down by bassist Jimmy Seay and drummer David Bynes III and a powerful organ solo by Jack Bumgarner. The soul stomp of Let Me Think About It demonstrates Blackmon’s prowess at crafting playful, dance-floor friendly tunes, while the plaintive The World That We Live In finds Blackmon tackling weighty subjects such as prejudice and political deception over an excellent arrangement that features ethereal synths and elegant piano: “You decide to love or hate / tell me brothers and sisters / what’s your fate?” The labored Cup of Misery drags the album down a bit before the rowdy, rocking I Wanna Come Home rekindles the party. Thanks to the delicate thunder delivered by Blackmon’s exuberant guitar, album closer Gonna Put Aside My Love finishes the disc in classic, rousing shuffle style. Now in his early 70s, Blackmon—also a cancer survivor—is clearly making up for lost time, and that’s a good thing for lovers of traditional blues delivered by a relevant, contemporary artist. —Rod Evans BIG JOE SHELTON AND THE BLACK PRAIRIE BLUES AMBASSADORS Ridin’ a Chicken ALT 45 Records – 1004 Mississippi native Big Joe Shelton and the Black Prairie Blues Ambassadors’ latest release is, on the whole, a high-energy affair featuring fine singing and songwriting, memorable hooks and melodies, assured and aggressive guitar solos plus song and instrumental diversity. Recorded in Columbus, Mississippi, in January 2017, Ridin’ a Chicken finds Shelton writing and singing about the human condition, commenting on love gone wrong (Just Let Me Bleed), the virtues of positive thinking (I Done Got Tired) and gratitude and respect (Inhale Blessings), with doses of humor especially on No Man’s Land, a song about shopping and gender habits. Mississippi is also on Shelton’s mind as he sings about his home state: Highway 61, the heat, the food and the people. In Put the Chairs in the Wagon and Time to Go Home Shelton finds himself in Memphis with the abiding desire to return to his home state. Ridin’ a Chicken comes out of the gates swinging with the aggressive Put the Chairs in the Wagon. The lead song is a high-powered rock ’n’ roll song that highlights guitarist Ben Farrell’s outstanding rhythm and lead guitar work and portends the guitarist’s presence on the disc. Farrell is accompanied by Shelton’s gravelly vocals and harmonica playing and a rock-solid rhythm section (bassist Ed Swan and drummer Bob Damm). While grounding the music in rock and blues, Shelton and company throw in a splash of soul and Latin (title song), spiritual (Lorraine) and reggae (Time to Go Home). Pool Hall Red is the most traditional blues song you will hear on the disc highlighted by Shelton’s harmonica work, Farrell’s blues-jazzy solos and guest Bobby Shannon on the keyboards. Too Wet to Plow is the band’s musical answer to Led Zeppelin’s titanic version of When the Levee Breaks—especially the song’s distorted harmonica and drum pattern. Ridin’ a Chicken is a worthy purchase from a band that is both inventive and consistent—there is no filler here. —Stephen A. King JONATHAN ELLISON Guitar Cry for Me No label – No # Jonathan Ellison is a Memphis stalwart. When he’s not co-leading the A-440 Band with bassist John Williams, he’s either freelancing or holding down the lead guitar slot in Blak Ice, Denise LaSalle’s touring ensemble. This is his first CD under his own name. The title tune sets the pace—toughened by a muscular horn section, Ellison’s string-bending leads cut a swath through the full-bodied arrangement. Echoes of such classics as As the Years Go Passing By resonate throughout, but it’s an entirely new creation, with Ellison’s pleading vocals bringing a new dimension of pathos. (The song’s title, by the way, derives from an idea proposed by Denise LaSalle herself.) Ellison is especially adept at couching emotionally raw lyrics in deceptively ebullientsounding settings, conveying his messages while retaining the music’s essential optimism. The lightly dancing reggae feel of Keep Going, as well as Ellison’s faux island accent, bring a bracing irony to the song’s bitter storyline; Why Do You Treat Me So Bad, with its blues rock propulsiveness and soaring melody line, likewise transforms an erstwhile complaint into a tough-minded celebration of survival and perseverance; the 12-bar Outside Love Affair serves up a classic Memphis blend of uptown elegance and streetsy toughness; I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, a secular/sacred proclamation of determination and uplift, features gospel-rich vocal harmonies above a full-bodied power-pop backing given a bluesy edge by Ellison’s guitar leads; his take on Lady In the Street effortlessly transforms LaSalle’s lusty anthem into the testimonial of a hard-loving Lothario. I Won’t Let You Down, on the other hand, is a heartfelt, irony-free testimonial to love, loyalty and faith. I admit a certain ambivalence about this disc’s success—for the sake of the Memphis club scene, I’d hate to see Jonathan Ellison abandon his A-440 gig, and I would certainly miss him accompanying the Queen with Blak Ice. Nonetheless, it sounds as if this longtime sideman is poised to break free on his own and make an indelible mark. —David Whiteis GEORGE THOROGOOD Party of One Rounder Records – 1166100241ADV After more than 40 years of cranking out booze-drenched, boogie-fueled blues rock, who knew that a street corner busker was residing deep inside guitarist/vocalist George Thorogood? On Party of One, Thorogood gives his sturdy backing band, the Destroyers, the day off to record his first solo album. Over 16 studio albums—with more than 15 million albums sold—and thousands of incendiary live shows, subtlety has not been Thorogood’s calling card. His oeuvre has never ventured far from barrelhouse, bar band explosiveness propelled by his fiery slide guitar and fierce, growling vocals. But here Thorogood strips away everything except his voice, acoustic and electric guitars, trusty slide, Dobro and harp to cover 14 tracks by a diverse cadre of blues, rock and country artists. The album includes four songs—The Sky Is Crying, Dynaflow Blues, I’m a Steady Rolling Man and One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer—that have appeared on previous Thorogood and the Destroyers releases, but Thorogood and producer Jim Gaines have done a great job of choosing a clever mix of cover material. The CD kicks off with Robert Johnson’s I’m a Steady Rolling Man, and while it lacks the thunderous groove of the version that appeared on the 1992 compilation The Baddest Of George Thorogood and the Destroyers, it sets the proper tone for the album. Tallahassee Women simmers with customary Thorogood snarl. On the rockin’ Got to Move Thorogood sounds like he’s champing at the bit to give in to his wilder tendencies, but he manages to keep the bombast bubbling just beneath the surface. Thorogood plays harp and serves up some of the set’s finest acoustic fretwork on the Willie Dixon classic Wang Dang Doodle. He sounds strikingly similar vocally to Johnny Cash on the Man in Black’s Bad News, but his take on the Rolling Stones’ slow burn No Expectations exposes some of Thorogood’s limitations as a vocalist. Thorogood has covered numerous John Lee Hooker tunes over the years, and he dishes fresh takes on three tracks on Party of One—Boogie Chillen, One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer and the obscure The Hookers. One Bourbon is a re-imagined version of the song that’s become Thorogood’s live signature tune and is presented here sans the House Rent Blues that’s woven into his original 1977 recording. Thorogood’s nod to country music, Hank Williams’ Pictures From Life’s Other Side, provides a great platform to display his abundant storytelling skills. Even though Thorogood flies solo on this CD, the creative song selection, his underappreciated guitar prowess and relentless dedication to the material keeps things from getting boring. —Rod Evans KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND Lay It on Down Concord – CRE 00515 Kenny Wayne Shepherd doesn’t like to sit still. He ceaselessly explores various musical styles, and his peripatetic creativity turns Lay It on Down into a treat for his fans. On 2014’s Goin’ Home, he revisited a dozen of the blues classics that inspired him to wield his blues axe. His work with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg in the Rides has yielded two albums—Can’t Get Enough and Pierced Arrow—of scorching and inventive blues rock. On Lay It on Down Shepherd and his band traverse many musical borders, crossing from blues into country into rock into gospel and back into blues. The title track is a mid-tempo ballad with a contemporary country flavor; it could be as at home on a Keith Urban album as it is here, and it has some of the vocal inflection of REO Speedwagon’s Without Expression (Don’t Be the Man). The singer directs his words at a young girl who’s lost hope in herself and who’s let the message of the world about outer beauty bring her down. “Who broke your will now, honey? / Who stole your dreams like money? / Who made you think you weren’t worth keeping around? / I know you’re still worth saving / give a poor boy a chance to take / the weight of the world you’ve been dragging around / lay it on down.” On Diamonds & Gold Shepherd combines his driving blues rock with the horn-funked power of Tower of Power; it’s soul meets blues and rock. Down for Love delivers a straight-ahead driving blues, while the Ride of Your Life is a sonic growl propelled by Shepherd’s power guitar chords and his scalding leads. One of the treats of the album is Hard Lesson Learned, a gospel-inflected ballad that features a pedal-steel drenched chorus; with the simplicity of a country song the singer declares, a bit mournfully, that “baby, you’re a hard lesson learned.” Lay It on Down might not be a “typical” Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band album, but that’s a virtue since we get the chance to hear Shepherd and his band stretch out lyrically and musically, following them into whatever sonic territory they’ll take us; one thing is for sure, though, they’re guided by Shepherd’s crisp and scalding riffs and his inventive songwriting. —Henry L. Carrigan Jr. LARRY LAMPKIN Keep Doing What You Do Kaint Kwit – No # Guitarist/vocalist Larry Lampkin cut his teeth on the road with vocalist Vernon Garrett. In 2011, he released When I Get Home, his debut CD under his own name; he followed that up with The Blues Is Real in 2014. This, his third release on his Kaint Kwit label, showcases his unadorned, almost adolescentsounding voice and sharp-toned, arpeggioladen guitar style. It’s easy to understand how Lampkin’s fretwork complemented Garrett’s husky gospel soul vocals. Garrett could pack a smoldering emotional intensity, and Lampkin’s fiery leads no doubt stoked that emotion well. His style is unorthodox, at least in blues. Like the late jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean, he has cultivated a knack of playing slightly sharp or flat, creating a tension (some critics have called it a “sweet/sour” tautness) that heightens the emotional thrust of his solos. As a songwriter, though, he sometimes strains to do justice to his themes. Titles like My Woman and Her Cell Phone, Your Babies (sic) Daddy, Text Me Baby and Dissipating Love look promisingly unconventional, but Lampkin’s actual verses are compromised by clichés, strained rhymes and even—in places—no rhymes at all. As a result, they often fail to evoke anything new or creative, despite the wittiness of the songs’ conceits. Only Rainbow of Love, a psychedeliatinged meditation on hope and transcendence, sounds fully realized, due largely to Lampkin’s callow, yet rough-edged vocal delivery— like Felix Cavaliere with the old Rascals, he sounds like a troubadour both youthful and careworn, delivering ebullient prophecies from the depths of a life-scarred soul. —David Whiteis Living Blues Talks To... Sherman Holmes In July, M.C. Records, in collaboration with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, released The Richmond Sessions by the Sherman Holmes Project, featuring the surviving member of the celebrated trio the Holmes Brothers (the cover story of LB #237). The members—Sherman and his brother Wendell, and their “spirit brother” Willie “Popsy” Dixon—were Virginia natives who began playing together in New York in 1967. Together they recorded 11 studio albums, toured the world and received multiple awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. Wendell and Popsy both died in 2015, but Sherman Holmes continued performing with his own group. The Richmond Sessions was created after Holmes met Jon Lohman, the Virginia State Folklorist, who subsequently put together a studio band including leading bluegrass instrumentalists Sammy Shelor and Rob Ickes, traditional gospel group the Ingramettes and, on Dark End of the Street, vocalist Joan Osborne—she had earlier produced the Holmes Brothers and hired them as her band when she toured with Bob Dylan. We spoke to Holmes shortly before he performed on the West Virginia–based NPR radio show Mountain Stage. He noted that it was the 11th time he’s been on the program, but the first time as a solo artist. How does it feel to perform and record without Popsy and Wendell? It’s much different; we spent 40 years together on the road. And when they died within five months of each other that kind of knocked me for a loop. Popsy died first and we didn’t know he was sick [with bladder cancer]. We had just come home from Europe, and he said he didn’t feel good and he went to the hospital and he never came out. We only had one good conversation before he died. He said, “Sherman, we’re always going to be brothers.” And my brother, he died that June. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, but I didn’t know that he had such a short time to live. He told me that I “was the best brother that a man could ever have.” He died while I was driving to see him and that broke my heart, but that’s the way the world is. When both of them were sick, I had a couple guys working with me, Eric [Kennedy] on drums and Brooks Long on guitar. I needed to do it, not only for financial reasons, but because we had done it for so long, it’s like a way of life for me. We were best friends; in 40 years I bet we didn’t have more than four of five arguments. We spent more time together than we did with our families. We had a great life. We played in 58 countries and all of the states many times. The Holmes Brothers were often branded as a “blues” group, but you guys have always been pretty eclectic. I recall that you had Gib Wharton, a pedal steel player, on two of your early records. We played what we felt like playing. When We were kids, if we didn’t have enough songs, I’d sit at the piano and play classical songs. I majored in clarinet when I went to college, and I didn’t make more than $6 in my life playing the clarinet. [laughs] We listened to pop music, Top 40, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, we listened to a lot of classical music, and even as kids we’d play cowboys and Indians and we’d play “nightclub.” When we’d go on a gig we’d say, “We’re going to play nightclub tonight.” I miss those guys something awful. How did you all pick the songs for the new album, which has a country flavor? Jon [Lohman] came to my house and we talked songs, and I wanted to do Liza Jane, Homeless Child by Ben Harper, he’s a friend of mine, Motherless Child because it was a traditional Negro spiritual; it’s not gospel. Green River—I used to listen to those guys [Creedence Clearwater Revival] and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and on another CD we did Bad Moon Rising. Jon brought [Baby] Don’t Do It—that song was originally on Motown by Marvin Gaye, but also the Band did it. Levon Helm and his daughter [Amy] sang Rock of Ages with us on another CD. White Dove—I worked with Ralph Stanley before he died. I met him at a festival, but I’d been listening to his music as a child. Growing up I listened to a lot of country. I love Hank Williams, Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson. I love the CD, I’m amazed. I’ll be 78 in September, so I’m not exactly a youngster. I want to tour as much as possible, that keeps me going. — Scott Barretta
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