Bettye Lavette
Cherry Red Records
Bettye LaVette is more than just a singer, she’s an interpreter of the emotions within a song. While not a songwriter herself she molds each to the point they may seem to be another song completely. For this newest recording, “Worthy,” she’s chosen some lesser known songs from familiar writers and some lesser known songwriters, but each becomes her personal offering. Miss LaVette could command a full orchestra if that were her vision, but she doesn’t need that support, she holds her own with a small group similar to her touring band consisting of Doyle Bramall II on guitar, Chris Bruce on bass, Patrick Warren playing keys and Jay Bellerose, percussion. While the band contributes a unifying sound, it’s Bettye LaVette who provides its soul.
Some of the real surprises are the familiar tunes you barely recognize like the Beatles song from 1965, “Wait,” stripped to just bare lyrics and melody or the Rolling Stones 1966 rocker, “Complicated,” which is only slightly less intense with a solid hand clapping beat keeping the hook under her vocals and Bob Dylan’s rocker, “Unbelievable,” reworked as a sanctified jazz number. Savoy Brown’s “When I Was A Young Boy” features strings but Bettye only pulls on the heart strings for “When I Was A Young Girl,” the mistakes and lessons of life are made more poignant from her mature point of view. Some of the lesser known songs are closer to the originals, like Mickey Newberry’s plea, “Bless Us All,” and co-producer Joe Lee Henry’s tune, “Stop,” resonates Ms. LaVette’s persistence to never give up. The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Just Between You And Me And Wall, You’re A Fool” and Over the Rhine’s “Undamned” both substitute a ringing piano and a more world wary attitude. Bettye has recorded Christine Santelli’s songs on her last two albums, here “Step Away” is augmented by a horn section, it could be the personal portrayal of Ms. LaVette’s own strength. Randall Bramblett’s “Where A Life Goes” with just piano and voice has Bettye pondering the great beyond. The heartening title tune, “Worthy,” written by Mary Gauthier, could have been written for Bettye, she owns every word of its message.
Bettye LaVette may seem a reserved lady at first but on stage she holds nothing back because her listeners are “Worthy” of nothing less.—Roger & Margaret White

Shemekia Copeland
Outskirts of Love
Alligator 2015
The generally recognized Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, died in 2009. Since then there have been multiple worthy aspirants to the throne, but consensus seems to be that Shemekia Copeland has inherited that mantle. Daughter of the late blues icon Johnny Clyde Copeland and a touring blueswoman since age 16, Shemekia has garnered innumerable plaudits, including several Blues Music Awards from the Blues Foundation as Female Artist of the Year.
On her first release in three years, Copeland returns to the Alligator label with a dozen songs that amply demonstrate her strengths on her instrument of choice, her voice. That instrument is powerful, rangy, and rich, and can deliver the goods on tunes of rock, soul, gospel, country, and yes, straight blues.
Since her previous album, “33 1/3,” Copeland has employed a new rhythm section of Jano Rix on percussion and keyboards and Lex Price on bass, but kept producer and guitarist Oliver Wood, who delivers the goods, including clear sound mix and many fine guitar solos. Distinguished guest artists include country bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart, lap steel guitarist Robert Randolph, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and Copeland’s usual touring guitarist, Arthur Neilson.
We’re in for good stuff from the get-go, with the opening title track, introduced by a funky, syncopated guitar riff segueing into Shemekia’s brassy lament of thwarted love. Contemporary issues are visited on several tunes. “Crossbone Beach” and “Drivin’ Out of Nashville,” for example, both deal with sexual harassment and abuse, the latter with an appropriate Nashville country music tinge, and “Cardboard Box” deals with homelessness. Shemekia’s father Johnny Clyde is honored by her cover of his infectious shuffle, “Devil’s Hand.” “I Feel a Sin Coming On” and “Long As I Can See the Light” both offer proof that the diva can fashion beautiful slow blues.
The CD finishes with another cut with a topical theme, “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy,” with a moving gospel flavor. All told, yet again a distinguished outing by one of today’s most lauded blueswomen. — Steve Daniels

Buddy Guy
Born To Play Guitar
Silvertone/RCA CD 8875-12037-2
West Side Chicago blues elder statesman Buddy Guy was born in 1936 to a sharecropper’s family in rural Lettsworth, Louisiana, learned his blues on a home-made guitar from the radio and 78rpm records by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and, while still a teenager, was touring the Pelican State in Big Pappa Tilley’s band backing Excello artists like Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim as well as going into the studio for Baton Rouge’s Ace label. This fabulous new studio album is Buddy’s follow-up to his solid 2013 double-disc project Rhythm & Blues (that debuted atop Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart) and, with B.B. King’s recent death, cements his new and richly deserved mantle as the King of the Blues. Born also features guest appearances by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (check out the hard rocking “Wear You Out”), sensual UK vocalist Joss Stone (on an impassioned redo of Brook Benton’s easy-going “(Baby) You Got What It Takes”) along with squalling harmonica ace Kim Wilson—who punctuate Buddy and band pals like drummer, songwriter and producer Tom Hambridge and pianist Kevin McKendree on both a romping “Too Late” and the tough, we-ain’t-got-much-time “Kiss Me Quick.” Near the set’s close, Belfast legend Van Morrison also drops by to accompany Buddy on the deeply ardent “Flesh & Bone,” a reflective homage to the self-effacing bluesman’s earliest influence—B.B. King. Other recommends include the nostalgic “Come Back Muddy” where Guy reminiscences (“Reefer in the glove box, whiskey in the sack”) about the early days, the prescriptive “Whiskey, Beer And Wine” (my favorite track), the wistful title song and the Muscle Shoals Horns transfused “Thick Like Mississippi Mud.” All of which (and five others) catch the King Of The Blues in top form—his high-wire vocals and biting, piercing guitar work still constantly surprises. And go see him if he comes your way—he is an American treasure and one of the very few and ever-diminishing links to an historic era in the country’s musical evolution. From coast to coast and overseas as well.—Gary von Tersch

Luther Badman Keith
Bluesmen Are Kings
BMB Records
Luther Keith started his career as a mild-mannered reporter for the major metropolitan newspaper, the Detroit News, but after attending a Luther Allison performance, Keith knew his true mission was to be a bluesman rather then a newsman. As hard times hit his city Luther became a real life hero as executive director of ARISE Detroit, a coalition of activists to clean up his beleaguered town while his alter ego “Badman” was empowered to take the stage and hold court over blues aficionados wherever he plays. “Bluesmen Are Kings,” is his newest CD of all originals, produced by Josh Ford at his Sound Shop Studio. Luther’s guitar and vocals are backed by a strong line up of Detroit musicians: Todd Glass drums, Alex Lyon bass, Billy Furman on horns and harmonica, Jim David keyboards and Motor City Josh himself on rhythm and slide guitar.
The Badman lets his guitar rule in the title tune “Bluesmen Are Kings” while his “Muddy Waters Blues” pays tribute to all the kings of the blues that came before him. Life in this hard times city will give ya the “Detroit Blues,” from crime on the street to crimes in City Hall it makes you wanna holler and his guitar scream. With the advent of social media, things change but “Blues 2.0” is just a different version of the same blues done as a Jr Walker-style sax and organ rave up. A howlin’ harp, wicked guitar and a touch of paternal voodoo conjures up “Mojo Son.” Love and relationship drive much of the blues and “Omelet” is not just a breakfast order, it’s really the blues if it’s ‘I’m a let’ you go and his “Baby Walks Out” to a driving blues that makes you run rather then walk as horns punctuate the beat while guitar and organ trade licks. The “Bluesman Looking for Love” is a sorrowful barroom tale of lost love on solo guitar and that barroom can be a lonely place on “Last Call for The Blues” but a tinkling Fender piano and fuzzy guitar show you don’t need no key to find some “Room in My Heart.” The band ignites into some searing licks for some tasty “Blue-B-Que” on the final funky instrumental.
Luther Badman Keith’s newest CD “Bluesmen Are Kings” ain’t no brag it’s just a simple fact.—Roger & Margaret White

The Ragpicker String Band
Yellow Dog Records
This superstar trio represents the best of old timey blues from the 20s and 30s, with some Appalachian string music tossed into the delicious mix. Rich DelGrosso is considered the preeminent mandolin player since Yank Rachell. Mary Flower is an award winning guitarist and Martin Grosswendt is a master musician equally dazzling on guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. That they all sing and harmonize is more than the icing, it’s an equal part of the batter. Opening with the classic Honey Babe, Grosswendt takes lead vocals with Flower and DelGrosso harmonizing. Guitar, lap slide guitar and mandolin harmonize right back at the vocalists. This is hog heaven for those of us who adore this music. The song list covers everyone from the Mississippi Sheiks to Sleepy John Estes to Lil Johnson to Thelonious Monk. Monk? The instrumental on Blue Monk is more than a pleasant surprise – it’s a revelation. Flower (guitar), Grosswendt (bottleneck slide) and Del Grosso (mandolin) combine to reinterpret the jazz classic in a masterful and clever way. On Lil Johnson’s Minor Blues, Mary Flower sings “I sing these blues in a minor key/everyone in town is trying to back-bite me,” with the fellas adding just the right touch of oohs and ahs to the sad tale. She complains, “I combed his hair/I manicured his nails/I took my money and I got him out of jail/I brought him coffee/I brought him tea/I brought him everything/but the jailhouse key.” Rich Lyons’ Google Blues, sung by DelGrosso, is a nod to contemporary culture. To an approximation of a classic Muddy melody he sings, “I thought I got lucky at last/but she pulled up my shady past/when she googled me.” On the Flowers-penned Baby Where You Been? she asks where her darlin’ is when he “shoulda been here with me.” The picking from all three is just delightful. On John Estes’ Black Mattie, following the mandolin intro, DelGrosso sings the lead, with the others harmonizing instrumentally. “Black Mattie/where did you sleep last night/with your hair all tangled/clothes ain’t fittin’ you right.” David Bromberg would have fit in just fine on this tune. On to the Mississippi Sheiks’ Lonely One In This Town the lead vocals fall to Grosswendt with the other offering sweet harmonizing (“I’m lonely can’t you see?”). The fiddle is hypnotic. By Your Side is a DelGrosso original. Mary Flower has lead duties on the classic Trimmed and Burning. The harmony vocals sound larger than a trio of voices in a traditional folk style. The closing instrumental, Bruno’s Dream is string band perfection. Mary Flower plays lap slide guitar, Martin Grosswendt plays guitar, and Rich DelGrosso plays mandolin and the results are, much like the collection, jaw droppingly impressive. Darn fine music. — Mark E. Gallo

Christian Collin
Spirit Of The Blues
C-Train CD
Chicago-based, although raised in Detroit by a musical family, singer/songwriter and razor-sharp guitarist Christian Collin’s latest, very accurately titled project, offers a contemporary slant on his blues and roots music roots that is quite engaging as well as constantly invigorating. Probably even more so in-person. Produced by Grammy-winning engineer and talented clavinetist Brian Leach and recorded at the great-sounding Joyride Studio complex in the Windy City, Collin pays it back to his blues heroes in a style all his own on this even-dozen, all-originals project—sympathetically accompanied by his longstanding road band featuring Alex Evans on bass and drummer Chris Morrow—along with a bunch of high-profile guests including harmonica aces Billy Branch (who rakedly takes the reins on “The River (Unplugged)” and Matthew Skoller, who enlivens four tracks: picks are the up-beat shuffle “Highway Song” and “Old 109”). Likewise, a three man horn section (with Rodney Brown on sax) shines on the breathtaking soul-ballad workout “Forever Friends,” while high-spirited keyboardist Johnny Iguana vitalizes all but two numbers—don’t miss both the red hot “Dance The Blues Away” and a desperate “Dead Man Walking” (with Collin burning on some Johnny Winter-informed slide)—and Pete Galanis, from Howard and the White Boys—who plays bottleneck alongside Skoller on the fore-mentioned reflection “Old 109.” Rounding things out, Jen Williams adds occasional background vocals—perhaps most effectively on “Blues For You.” Modernistic West Side blues at its finest. More please.—Gary von Tersch

Eugene Hideaway Bridges
Hold On A
Little Bit Longer
Armadillo Music Limited
Blessed with one of the sweetest voices this side of Sam Cooke, Eugene Bridges is a superb electric guitarist and first-rate song writer to boot. He’s the musical equivalent to Miguel Cabrera, the first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Cabrera always looks like he plays the game for the sheer enjoyment. He just happens to be amazing in the process. One gets the impression that Eugene Hideaway Bridges is always playing for sheer enjoyment. He just happens to be amazing in the process. There is a simplicity in his songsmithing that begs for finger snapping and toe tapping. He has a vein of soulfulness that courses through each song and, lyrically, there’s not a sour note. No she-done-me-wrong songs (well, ok, maybe one). There are far more why-she-lights-up-my-life songs. The opener, Show Me, has a sixties soul feel. He sings, “Show me you love me/show me you care/tell me you will always/you will always be right there/take me by the hand pretty baby/and ease my troubled mind/show me you love me one more time.” This is buoyed by John Mills’ baritone and a well-stocked horn section (Kevin Platt on trumpet and Jon Blondell’s trombone). He switches to a highway gobbling groove for the title cut and sings “I’m comin’ home to you on the next thing smokin’.” Slinky guitar that sounds effortless and that just bowls these old ears over. End of Time is a gorgeous medium tempo ballad (“I want to love you/I want to hold you/and love you til the end of time”). Backing vocals are stunning. Again, horns and guitar add to the power. Yesteryear Today Tomorrow is all of that. A Louis Prima feel, or maybe Gatemouth Brown, permeates this one and the guitar work is brilliant and swinging. Drummer Bobby Baranowski is all over the kit and the horns are sharp and punctuating. Lost and Looking has a gospel feel, just voice and drums. Bridges soars and massages the senses (I’m lost and I’m looking for my baby”). Check the guitar work on Change Your Name (“we’re driftin apart baby/and there ain’t a damn thing we can do … if you can’t change your evil way/you’d better change your name”). Single lines and succinct. Long Way from San Antone is a road warrior’s lament (“I’m driving these 18 wheel/trying to make it home”). Along the Navajo Trail is another 40s style number. Reminds me of a cross between sleep At the Wheel and the Mills Brothers. The horns are dazzling. The vocals remind of Nappy Brown at times. Thirst for Air is a poppy number that paints a picture of a flying fan’s thirst. (“I’m soaring high/and I want to fly everywhere”). There is a decided thread of Texas in his music, but there’s no pigeonholing Eugene Hideaway Bridges, other than his genius. The bar is raised high By Hold on A Little Longer. Album of the Year? Gonna be hard to top.—Mark E. Gallo

Mitch Woods
Jammin’ On The High C’s
Club 88 CD-8815
Ah, how many years ago was it when my wife and I used to catch piano-pounder Mitch Woods playing solo piano for tips at the venerated, long-gone Prince of Wales pub in San Mateo, that sat right across the railroad tracks from one of the West Coast’s most long-lived and should-never-have-been-torn-down West Coast racetracks—glorious Bay Meadows.  Ah, wilderness! Anyway, Woods has done alright for himself since then, I guess—for the last decade or so the ingratiatingly charismatic gentleman and marvelous piano player, in a variety of blues-based styles, has been the usually-pajama-clad, after-hours host at his own Club 88 on a variety of prescient Roger Naber-produced Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises—sagely overseeing all the looney things that occur in the “wee, wee hours” while sailing the hallucinatory Caribbean outside the seven-mile limit. Poor pockets me, I’ve never been but these seventeen tracks, featuring plenty of Mitch’s toasts and stories alongside the drop-in likes of Tommy Castro (along with members of Roomful of Blues on “Rip It Up”), Lucky Peterson (on a great recall of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”), the current incarnation of Roomful of Blues along with Billy Branch on a take-off on Sonny Boy’s classic “Eyesight To The Blind” (a particular favorite of mine) and Coco Montoya—who lights up the room on a, what else, rocking revision of B.B.’s “Rock Me Baby.” Other picks include a surprisingly moody “Wee Wee Hours,” with Popa Chubby, along with a couple featuring Victor Wainwright (I like his rousing recall of the rhythm-’n’-blueser “Wine Spo Dee O Dee”) and Dwayne Dopsie—with his vigorous take on both Jerry Lee’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Hank Williams’ infectious ode to the Pelican state, “Jambalya.” Further last-call favorites encompass “Big Mamou,” a rendition of the venerable “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” (with Julia Magness joining the irrepressible Wainwright) and “Boom Boom,” with Branch and Montoya on fire from the git-go. As the Buddha-mellow Woods opines: “Sit back, pour yourself a tall one, turn down the lights and let’s go Bluesin’!!” Alakazam!—Gary von Tersch

Tom Rush
Tom Rush/Take A Little Walk With Me
BGO CD 1192
New Hampshire native, singer/songwriter and guitarist Tom Rush started his musical career while still studying at Harvard and soon became part of the Boston/Cambridge folk cadre and their Club 47 scene. Influenced by the multi-talented Eric Von Schmidt, he cultivated a highly individualistic acoustic twelve-string and bottleneck guitar approach on his 1965 self-titled debut Elektra album as well as on the acoustic side of 1966’s follow-up Take A Little Walk With Me. This two CD project reissues both projects in all their re-mastered wonder and includes all the original back-cover notes and liners (by Rush, Paul Nelson and Al Kooper) as well as a new and very perceptive essay by John O’Regan. Accompanied by the likes of John Sebastian, Jack Elliott, Fritz Richmond, Bill Lee, Felix Pappalardi and Al Kooper, these two albums, along with a pair of earlier albums for Prestige, disclose a heavier traditional and country blues emphasis than Rush’s Dylanesque contemporaries. Rush ignored the protest era and even though he went electric on Take A Little Walk, he hearkened back to the 1950s—playing classics by the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly, with Kooper on lead guitar. Favorites from his debut include inventive covers of both Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” and Bessie Smith’s “Black Mountain Blues” along with a great revival of the Leiber and Stoller song “When She Wants Good Lovin’” (“It was recorded by the Coasters as the flip side of “The Great Big Idol With The Golden Head”—I am a great admirer of the Coasters”) and a lengthy tribute to Bukka White titled “Panama Limited” The 1966 album’s acoustic side is highlighted by Rush’s treatment of a pair written by Von Schmidt (“Joshua Gone Barbados” and “Turn Your Money Green”) as well as a vivid adaptation of  the traditional story/song “Galveston Flood.” Plugged-in picks begin with rollicking covers of both Chuck Berry’s gloriously still timely “Too Much Monkey Business” and Buddy Holly’s Beatles-esque “Love’s Made A Fool Of You.”
O’Regan’s lengthy essay puts it all in perspective. Highly recommended.—Gary von Tersch

The Claudettes
No Hotel
Yellow Dog CD 2265
An entirely reconfigured Claudettes with the very welcome addition of the captivating, nay sultry, vocalist/dancer Yana (who here sings a midway set of mesmerizing songs in both English and French; you’ve got to imagine the dancing) to the no-holds-barred instrumental duo of Chicago piano pounder Johnny Iguana—who’s worked with both Junior Wells and Otis Rush—and thundering, ribaldly uninhibited drummer Michael Caskey—fresh from a stint in a Balkan fusion band called Eastern Blok. The trio move deftly from the Roaring Twenties (a punk-tinged version of the chestnut “California Here I Come”) to the 1940s (a hopped up, decidedly raucous rendition of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) to the 1960s, as ravishing Yana, of Nigerian and Cherokee descent, begins with a soulfully, jazzy interpretation of the seductive throwback ‘60s pop-soul number “She’s So Imaginary”—that’s punctuated by an inventive blues rocking bridge—then proceeds to offer her own quite danceable refashioning of a handful of French Ye-Ye classics. Further gems begin with the encouragingly hypnotic “You Busy Beaver You,” the hot-rod drums crashing rocker “Ne T’en Vas Pas” along with the two closers—a tempo-shifting, note-scattering masterpiece of indulgence fittingly titled “Summer Finally Came” and some departing philosophy set to a boogie woogie beat called “Life Is Such Fun, And Then Seems To Disappear.” Shades of Cecil Gant crossed with Otis Spann with a percussionist straight out of dive-bar hell. Bottom line: Yana needs her own album—she’s that good. And for those of you who are curious, the album title refers to a cruel phrase that appeared in the band’s most ego-deflating venue contract offer yet. Worth the search.—Gary von Tersch

Guitar “Slim” Green
Stone Down Blues
Produced in Los Angeles by the legendary Johnny Otis, one of the pioneers of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, and featuring the stinging, exclamation-mark guitar playing of Otis’ teenage son Shuggie, this obscure trio album is a most welcome reissue choice—the kind folks over at Ace have even added a couple of bonus tracks at the set’s close as the rarely recorded, T-Bone Walker-influenced Norman G. “Guitar Slim” Green, accompanied solely by his Fresno-cured acoustic guitar, continues his all-originals/adaptations blues spell with an easy-rolling hats-off to “My Marie” (a worthy take-off on Ray Sharpe’s classic rock ‘n’ roller “Linda Lu”) and the finger-style grinder instrumental “Rock The Nation.” Born in Bryant, Texas in 1920, Green had a checkered career (mostly on the West Coast) that started in 1948 and ended with this country-blues-gone-urban 1970 album that, thanks to Johnny Otis’ producing acumen and the musical chemistry between the three, is now recognized by many as one of the finest blues albums of the era. Aural highlights are profuse, beginning with a thrilling, Shuggie-on-lead-guitar opener (as Green puts it: “I just got back from Texas and I brought a new dance back they called “Shake ‘Em Up” and it’s something else too—you better believe it!) and continuing through gems such as “5th Street Alley Boogie”—an inventive recall of one of his best early originals, riffing off both “Alla Blues” and “Tin Pan Alley”—a newly vibrant, John Lee Hooker-inspired “Old Folks Blues” (another nascent number) and the Johnny Otis-penned, topical commentary “This War Ain’t Right” that quickly catches the ear with the line: “I’ve got a brother in Cambodia and I’ve got one In Viet Nam.” A very accurately titled affair as well as a nifty example of old-school styled West Coast blues at its best. Gee, I miss Johnny Otis.—Gary von Tersch

RJ Mischo
Everything I Need
Self-released 2014
Based for many years in Minnesota, occasionally residing in California, RJ Mischo reaches a round dozen releases with this album of a dozen songs. To continue the alliteration, it’s a doozy.
The emphasis here is on Chicago blues, and it’s done well. Front and center, appropriately, on almost every track is Mischo’s harmonica playing, which is top-notch. If he’s not on your list of stellar contemporary purveyors of Mississippi saxophone artistry, it’s time to add him.
As is characteristic of many albums, tempos alternate between slow and upbeat, and the tactic functions well here. Almost as a tease, the album’s first tune, “Got My Passport,” starts with a drum flourish soon joined by piano and guitar, but harmonica soon follows, as this uptempo cut blasts into train song mode. From there on out, it’s Hohner heaven. “She’s My Baby,” the second tune, gives room for Mischo’s harp to wail and cry, and the ensuing homage to Big Walter Horton, an ostensible boogie but actually more of a shuffle, is one of the four fine instrumentals of the set. “Everything I Need” and “Soul Swamp” take us from the Midwest down Nawlins way, with the latter showcasing Mischo’s deft mastery of the chromatic harmonica as he toys with riffs from “St. James Infirmary.” The rocker “Sugar Babe” and the uptempo “Leave Your Man” lead to my favorite track, “Little Walter Shuffle,” another instrumental which captures Little Walter Jacobs’s tone and style admirably. Throughout, Mischo’s vocals, somewhere in the land between tenor and baritone, are on the money.
Sadly, useful liner notes are nonexistent, so composer(s) of the songs is anyone’s guess. It’s also impossible to know which of the two adept guitarists, Jeremy Johnson and Frank Krakowski, is soloing at any given time. Their interplay, however, is impressive, especially on “Everything I Need” …and whoever provides the guitar solo on “Wait on Me”: nice work! Percussion is uninspired but solid, and keyboard man Bruce McCabe lends steady support and shines on his few solo opportunities.— Steve Daniels

Michael Jerome Browne
Sliding Delta
Borealis Records 2015
This is not only an outstanding album; it’s also an educational experience and a fine introduction to country blues for those new to the genre.
Browne, a Hoosier by birth who has lived in Montreal since childhood, is a multi-award-winning string maven with a deep reverence for the country blues which first inspired him. A frequent collaborator of fellow acoustic luminary Eric Bibb, Browne on this endeavor is featured solo on guitar, mandolin, and banjo as he applies his considerable skills to fourteen classic and lesser known songs. The results are exemplary.
The musicians whose songs he covers represent a pantheon of country blues greats; among others, Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and “my main inspiration” Blind Willie McTell. You may recognize some of the tunes readily; others resemble more familiar songs, e.g., “Bull Doze Blues” by Henry Thomas, which sounds much like “Up the Country” as done many years later by Canned Heat. All are distinguished by Browne’s unpretentious tenor, alternately smooth and slightly raspy, and his string virtuosity.
Specifying favorites seems almost disrespectful, since every track is excellent. Well, I’ll take the plunge anyway. “Motherless Chile Blues” by Barbecue Bob (Hicks) and “Broke Down Engine” by McTell are addressed deftly by Browne on 12-string guitar. “Living in the Whitehouse” was written by Johnny Shines in 1953, soon after President Eisenhower took office, and Browne has updated the lyrics to fit the Obama term and added some fine harmonica licks. Both McDowell tunes, “I Heard Somebody Call” and “Write Me a Few Lines,” are delicious, the latter featuring resonator slide stylings. It isn’t easy to do justice to the quirky, unique Skip James, but Browne nails it on his version of James’s “Special Rider Blues.” The capstone, for me: another resonator rendition, this one of Charley Patton’s “When Your Way Gets Dark”: spooky and superb.
The educational value is enhanced by a small booklet of informative liner notes with history of each song and its provenance, and, “for guitar nerds,” a detailed delineation of the key of each song and the instrument played.
If you like acoustic country blues, it doesn’t get much better.— Steve Daniels

Harrison Kennedy
This Is From Here
Electro-Fi 2015
Respect the northern muse! Although far from the North American birthplace of the blues in the Mississippi delta, Canada has produced many fine blues musicians. Some of the contemporary luminaries may have names familiar to you: Sue Foley, Harry Manx, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Matt Andersen. Of the long list of other musical mavens, be sure to include Ray Bonneville, Shakira S’Aida, and Michael Jerome Browne. Near the top of the litany these days is Harrison Kennedy.
Raised in Hamilton, Ontario, certainly not a hotbed of blues, and still residing there, Kennedy nonetheless grew up steeped in the genre. While visiting relatives in the U.S. south, he had the good fortune to meet legends Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker and Lonnie Johnson when they visited his relatives. After spending the 1970s in the lauded Motown R&B group, Chairmen of the Board, Kennedy concentrated on day work and local Hamilton gigs until dedicating himself to the blues after the 2000s arrived. His first four Electro-Fi albums garnered high praise and he has received many Canadian Juno and Maple Blues award nominations.
The current release presents Kennedy in fine form. Although he is depicted on the CD cover holding an acoustic guitar, his instrumental contributions here are limited to harmonica (and spoons on one song). He and producer/keyboard player Jesse O’Brien each penned or co-wrote seven of the dozen songs, all but one of which are originals, and a crack array of bandmates makes the album shine, notably guitarists Colin Linden, Brian Griffith, and Chris Caddell.
Right from the first track, we’re into something special: “Walkin’ Or Ridin’ “ opens with some nice guitar licks from Linden, and Kennedy’s singing evokes memories of some of Taj Mahal’s great 1970s outings. “Shake the Hand” displays beautiful, sinuous and spooky instrumental interplay between Linden and O’Brien, with Kennedy’s vocal revealing his gospel and R&B roots. He can do falsetto well, also, as evidenced by “Falling Down,” with his harmonica overdub meshing nicely with piano and Caddell’s guitar. Linden on the next number, “Jimmy Lee,” and Caddell on several subsequent songs make compelling slide offerings, some with Hawaiian slack flavor.
Sticking mainly to a basic twelve-bar format, the ensemble still provides variety. Kennedy displays his soul blues chops on “Can’t Let Go” and especially on the slow-paced “I’ve Got News for You,” which is up to the caliber of the late, eminent Little Milton Campbell. There is room for a couple of upbeat rockers as well: “Crocodile Lies,” with jaunty bass courtesy of Terry Wilkins (one of two bass players on the album), and “Milk Cow Blues.” The latter is not the classic song attributed to Sleepy John Estes, but a brief and infectious Kennedy original sporting catchy contributions from Griffith, and especially from O’Brien on the 88s; it had me snapping my fingers!
The album closes with “Judgment Day,” featuring Kennedy on harmonica, spoons, and a falsetto overdubbed vocal. A melding of African beat and gospel church, it’s a pithy and unique ending to a very good album.— Steve Daniels

Vee Allen
Bluesin’ In The Big Easy
Leland Productions Inc.
Vee Allen explains “I have always been a singer. Even as a little girl in Leland, Mississippi, I can’t seem to help myself now, I still want to sing.” Her first recordings in ‘72-’73 were released as singles on the Lion label, MCA released “All About Love” in 1983 and she self-released “Woman Enough” in ‘07. Vee has gotten back to her southern roots with her new CD “Bluesin’ In The Big Easy” with the help of those champions of Southern Culture, Dr. John and the Lower 911, their distinctive New Orleans sound infused into every groove. Though the good Dr. caresses the keys on five of the nine cuts his Lower 911, David Barard on bass, John Fohl guitar, Herman Ernest or Herlan Riley on drums provide the backing for this entire production with backing vocals by Theresa Davis of the Emotions.
Starting off anything but easy, the rolling bass, the punch of horns and slippery guitar Vee improvises lyrics for the “Big Easy Blues” as Mac’s piano fills in the upper register, Takashi Matsumura from The Hot 8 Brass Band takes on a guitar solo. Dr John leads down memory lane as Vee’s sweet feminine voice whispers “Talk To Me” the classic Little Willie John number with angelic backup vocals and John Fohl updates it with a gliding guitar solo. “Candy” was a mid ‘40’s pop hit till Big Maybelle breathed fire into, but Vee takes a mid ground with the piano infusing a bold elegance and yearning. The elegant tone follows into “Sunday Kind Of Love” Vee taking an interpretation between Ella Fitzgereld and the Etta James version with a full handed assist from Dr. John taking the solo. The final cover “Time After Time,” Vee lets the rhythm of the lyrics drive her vocals as the piano bounces behind. Vee also includes three originals recorded with the Lower 911, “Source Of Comfort” has a quality reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt while the soaring strains of “Everything But What I Want” contrast with Vee’s delicate vocals and the pleading “Don’t Ask Me To Let You Go” echoes the fragile sounds of heartbreak.
Vee Allen brings a relaxed elegance to “Bluesin’ In The Big Easy.”—Roger & Margaret White

Otis Taylor
Hey Joe Opus
Red Meat
Shoelace Music
Otis Taylor was born in Chicago but grew up in the open spaces of Boulder Colorado where he developed into a self-taught musician and songwriter. Recipient of the 2002 Handy Award as Best New Blues Artist his music takes a deeper, darker look than many blues artists. Taylor’s music has been used in the movies “Public Enemies” and “Shooter” for its earthy Americana edge. His newest release “Hey Joe Opus Red Meat” described as Trance Blues, has a danceable groove with Americana overtones, flowing seamlessly from track to track. Utilizing unexpected instrumentation such as Gus Skinas on Moog synthesizer, Anne Harris, violin, Ron Miles, cornet, David Moore, banjo along with Todd Edmunds on bass, Larry Thompson, drums, Steve Vidaic, organ and Taylor Scott, guitar, Taylor has invoked something unheard since the 1990 film “The Hot Spot” collaboration of John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal, a blend of the fiery soul of blues with the coolness of jazz.
Having released “Hey Joe” on two other CDs for “Hey Joe Opus Red Meat” Taylor includes two variant interpretations: Taylor trades vocals with Langhorne Slim and the haunting wafts of violin, banjo, guitar and moog synthesizer against a death march beat, and ups the ante with a lofty cornet and Warren Haynes on guitar in one version. Otis also slips in three arrangements of an original instrumental called “Sunday Morning.” Sunday Morning (A) a mellow fanciful flow, till the cornet bursts out and the soaring guitar of Haynes builds to a mesmerizing Dervish-like frenzy lifting the tune into sustained flight. Sunday Morning (B) revisits the mellow side as the violin flutters like a butterfly while (C) takes on the churning fury of a windy fall morning. Shuffled between these numbers are five originals creating a rhapsody in rhythm. A throbbing bass underlies “The Heart Is A Muscle (Used For The Blues)” while a fliting guitar drives it’s emotions and leads into a bouncy folk-based “Red Meat.” A banjo drifts through the transexual scuffle as a man, Lee transitions into “Peggy Lee.” The dour instrumental “They Wore Blue” features a simple trio but the echoed cornet fills the sound and the steady driving guitar, crisp bluster of cornet and chillingly desperate vocals of “Cold at Midnight” are as penetrating as blues can get.
Otis Taylor’s amalgamation of styles makes “Hey Joe Opus Red Meat” a thoughtful listen that grows as you do.—Roger & Margaret White

Andra Faye & Scott Ballantine
Coulda Woulda Shoulda
VizzTone 2015
After the demise in 2009 of the raucous, ribald trio Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women, string multi-instrumentalist Andra Faye teamed up with guitar virtuoso Scott Ballantine to release 2013’s “Laying Down Our Blues.” This follow-up album cements their collaboration with a baker’s dozen of blues and ballads.
Of the thirteen songs, eight are composed by the duo. Faye plays bass, fiddle, and the instrument for which she is most noted, mandolin; Ballantine provides fine accompaniment and many choice solos on guitar. Faye handles the major singing chores, with nice backing by Scott. The exception is “Standing in Need of Prayer,” a traditional devotional in which he takes vocal lead. The track is one of the CD’s best.
Another standout is “Take It Slow,” a languid late night lounge bar tune with a beautiful guitar solo, augmented by Faye’s subtle bass. It’s succeeded by “Blues for a Crappy Day,” one of several humorous cuts, this one a lilting number abetted by Andra’s fancy fiddling. Humor is also displayed in the cover of an R. Bruce Richardson tune, “Too Much Butt (for One Pair of Jeans),” and in the title cut, a peppy blues shuffle goosed by Ballantine’s propulsive guitar. “Clyde,” the closing song, is a country blues reminiscent of Mississippi John Hurt by way of Hot Tuna.
Although pleasing throughout, the album works best when it features Faye’s vocal strength on ballads, her emotional commitment overcoming the occasional glitch of pitch. Her forays on straight blues are less successful, but compensation is ample in the several duets between the two principals. Nice follow-up album by this duo of instrumental adepts.— Steve Daniels

James Day & the Fish Fry
Neon Blue Records
James Day & the Fish Fry are a club favorite along the east coast, so what would you expect from a Fish Fry but greasy licks, a splash of southern sauce and a little spicy seasoning for a finger lickin’ good-time? Day was raised in the south, spending years in New Orleans learning his trade as vocalist, harmonica player and guitarist. On “Southland” he’s joined by Mark Shewchuk, drums, electric, acoustic and baritone guitar, Ron Baldwin keys and accordion, John Merigiliano percussion including cardboard boxes and five gallon bucket, Michael Massimino on acoustic and electric bass with a mess of friends sitting in. All songs are Day originals except two traditional songs given new arrangements.
Leading off with “Chain of Pain” classic southern rock, Chuck Berry licks, Bob Seger swagger, pounding piano and fat sax, rolling into the “Next New Thing” with the B-3 blending together with some raucous chromatic harp and guitar that burns. Snapping like hot grease in the fryer,“Fish Fry Jump” cooks up a mess of bold piano blended with tasty guitar, chromatic harp licks and briskly wailing vocals. The swampy stomp of “Muscadine Wine” is dedicated to Muscadine Winery in Florida, slipping in some B3, Baritone sax, cigar box slide and “Don’t Bruise The Melons” is a rockin’ true tale of working on a watermelon farm. “Nat’chel Man” is a gypsy jazz trip to Hicksville featuring Wally Bechtold, clarinet, Bill Nixon, fiddle, Rich Delgrosso, mandolin. But for that good life “Time and Money” is required and Mark Hummel sits in on harp to get the job done while the rockabilly riffs of “Money, Smarts & Charms” convinces you that it’s all you need. The band high steps it into “Festival Time” accompanied by accordion, frottoir and banjo before taking on two traditional Zydeco tunes: “One Step Des Chameaux,” Day credits a friend showing him his grandfather’s harp bridge on double reed Cajun harmonica and “Zydeco Boogaloo” a rave up of battling accordion vs. double reed harp while rub board and congas try to keep up. After the party, the gut bucket hard times of “Weather Blues” slides in only to be consoled by the slow sway of the acoustic “Country Woman” and the warm laid back “Southland” hospitality.
“Southland” is a tasty selection of jumping blues with a bit of spice that will satisfy your palate.—Roger & Margaret White

Mr. Sipp
The Mississippi Blues Child
Malaco 2015
Whoa, look out! A new bluesman is making his mark! Mr. Sipp’s group won the Band category of the International Blues Challenge in 2014, and Mr. Sipp himself (Castro Coleman) won the Gibson Guitar Award as best guitarist in a band. The quartet consists of Coleman, Jeffrey Flanagan on bass, Damien Strauder on organ, and Stanley Dixon on drums. With guests, including a horn section, they have produced this eclectic and energetic album of fourteen tunes of variety vigor, and virtuosity.
They had me from the first number, “TMBC” (look at the album title again), an autobiography in song. Coleman ostensibly started playing guitar at the age of six and “the music pierced my soul.” Eschewing the religious path advocated for him by some, he took the blues path and hasn’t looked back. Gritty guitar and a rock-steady beat; solid start! It’s succeeded by “Jump the Broom,” a pulsating plea for the singer’s girlfriend to marry him. Coming myself from a vanilla background, I had to look it up: jumping over a broomstick during a wedding ceremony became a custom among African American slaves in the pre-Civil War era. On this tune, the band is accompanied by Chris Gill on slide guitar.
Subsequent tracks allow Sipp to demonstrate the range of his talent. “In the Fire,” for example, is a soul blues; “Hole in My Heart” deploys wah-wah pedal and some Hendrix-like lead flourishes. “Say the Word” is a moving slow blues with some gorgeous lead stylings from Coleman, and it segues into the pseudo-live, uptempo “Sipp Slide”; actually recorded in the Malaco studios, it recruited the label’s staff to join the rollicking party.
“What Is Love” and “Tonight” are two more slow numbers featuring Sipp’s smooth vocals, and “Hold It in the Road” is fine soul funk. The album ends with still another fine soul blues, “Too Much Water.” It’s the only cover tune in this collection of consistently good songs, distinguished by Coleman’s singing and fretwork. Mighty fine debut!— Steve Daniels

Barbara Blue
Memphis Blue, Sweet Strong & Tight
Big Blue Records
Barbara Blue has been called “The Queen of Beale Street” for years, but now it’s official. In May after the opening of the Blues Hall of Fame, Blue was honored with a brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame having performed at Silky O’Sullivan’s on the corner of Third and Beale Street, five nights a week for the last 18 years. For her tenth independently released CD this Queen of Beale Street recorded at the Royal Studios in Memphis with the Royal Rhythm Section, formerly known as The Hi Rhythm Section. Those soul cavaliers of yesteryear are the Reverend Charles Hodges on B3 Organ, Leroy “Flick” Hodges or David Smith, bass, former MG Steve Potts on drums, Michael Tols rhythm guitar, Lester Snell of Stax fame on Wurlitzer organ and features Bobby Rush on harmonica and the guitar of Ronnie Earl on three tracks each with production by Lawrence Boo Mitchell, son of Hi Records owner Willie Mitchell. Miss Blue is known as a human jukebox with over 3,000 songs in her repertoire and here she features five originals along with seven rarities and one classic hit.
This Memphis Belle’s title tune “Sweet, Strong & Tight” is a self penned bawdy declaration of her personal prowess with Bobby Rush blowing harp sweet and strong himself and he follows through her cover of Jay McShann’s “Hands Off.” Taking to her beloved Beale Street her adaption of “The Ballad of Rudy Williams” as “Rudy’s Blues” is a rousing trumpet-led strut. The Memphis soul of David Porter and Isaac Hayes’ “Love is After Me” blasts along with Barbara and the band doing their tribute to Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records “Memphis Stomp” featuring Bobby Rush’s harmonica here and on “SuperBlues.” Ronnie Earl sits in as Blue begs her man to come “Rollin’ Up On Me” with Earl’s sparkling guitar against a chiming Rhodes piano and this duo continue on “No Time To Cry.” The real soul treasure here is Blue’s moody nuanced interpretation of Ann Peebles ‘72 hit “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” her tearful vengeance seeping through. Changing pace the country gospel of “Me & Jesus” and the ballad “Coat & Hat” calm those tears with Sonny Barbato’s subtle piano and accordion backing. Closing her set “800 Mile Blues” is stripped down to just Barbara’s soaring vocals and Ronnie Earl’s gentle solo guitar.
“Memphis Blues” is a testament to Barbara Blue’s years on Beale Street and she’s still “Sweet, Strong & Tight.” —Roger & Margaret White


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