Blues Reviews
Oct/Nov 2017

Rick Estrin & the Nightcats
Groovin’ in Greaseland
Alligator 2017

Any new album from the Nightcats is welcome, since top notch musicianship is a given. Estrin is a former winner and perennial nominee for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Award (BMA) as Harmonica Player of the Year, and the Nightcats have been nominated six of the last seven years as Blues Band of the Year. Kid Andersen, who left Charlie Musselwhite’s band several years ago to assume the Nightcats’ guitar duties from Charlie Baty (“Little Charlie”), has been nominated the last four years running for the BMA as Guitarist of the Year. Pretty hefty credentials.
The quartet has changed slightly; long-time drummer J. Hansen has been replaced, without notable diminution in quality, by Alex Pettersen. Lorenzo Farrell, adept at both bass and keyboards, has eschewed the former while concentrating on piano and organ; Jerry Jemmott and Joe Kyle, Jr. alternate at the bass position on most tracks. Andersen handles the bass chores himself on three overdubbed tunes. Brief but stellar guest appearances are made by saxophonists Nancy Wright and Terry Hanck and pianist Jim Pugh, among others.
As usual, Estrin is the principal songwriter of twelve of the thirteen original songs, assisted by Andersen on two. The exception is “Cool Slaw,” written by Farrell. It’s one of the two instrumentals of the set, and highlights Farrell’s sinuous and slithery skill on the organ; Estrin enters midway with a laid-back harp solo, followed by Andersen with some innovative single note guitar sashaying.
The remainder of the set is pretty much straight twelve bar blues…but in another sense it’s not “straight”: Estrin on harmonica and especially Andersen on guitar have a knack of swerving off the expected path, so that most solos are both surprising and delightful; I often found myself thinking, Where did that come from…but it sounds just right! Andersen, who in live shows has a tendency occasionally to reach for astonishment rather than aptness, sticks to a righteous blues groove without sacrificing virtuosity, and Estrin reinforces his renowned harp reputation with nasty chords, some dazzling single note runs, and fine tone throughout.
Estrin’s renowned droll sensibility, of course, is frequently on display in the lyrics of such cuts as “Dissed Again” and “Big Money,” mining blues tropes of lust and rejection with poignancy as well as humor. Example from the latter: “You gotta lotta class…but it’s all low.” “Hot in Here,” about the very recording session whose result is this album, is a zippy uptempo track about the temperature in Andersen’s Greaseland recording studio that seems cut on the fly but is a worthy addition.
What’s most revelatory is that the majority of tracks follow a similar pattern - twelve bar format, intro., Estrin vocal, harmonica then guitar then keyboard solo, then Estrin again - but never seem cloying or clichéd.
The set closes with a slow instrumental, “So Long (for Jay P.)” (presumably a farewell to former drummer J. Hansen, who does contribute handclaps on one tune), that features outstanding synchrony between Estrin on harmonica and Farrell on piano, and provides closure to yet another fine outing for this deservedly acclaimed band.—Steve Daniels

Benny Turner
My Brother’s Blues
Nola Blues, Inc.

Benny Turner is a man who was based at the turbulent heart of the Texas Cannonball, Freddie King, his brother, his bassist and constant companion throughout that storied career. But that is only the beginning of Benny’s story, he continued laying down the bottom for dozens of classic artists and finally stepped to the forefront with one of last year’s best releases, “When She’s Gone.” He followed that with both a biographical book “Survivor, The Benny Turner Story” written with Bill Dahl and his newest CD release “My Brother’s Blues.” Benny pays homage to his brother covering eleven songs they performed together for decades. A long time New Orleans resident, Benny’s band is centered by his soulful vocals and bass with Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander on drums and a rotating crew of sidemen featuring June Yamagishi, Jack Miele, or Derwin Perkins playing guitars, Kieko Komaki, Joe Krown or Davell Crawford on keyboards, the sax of Jason Mingledorf and trumpet of Barney Floyd. This is hardly a covers record looking back, Benny has taken the songs he helped create, added forty years of experience and given each song a renewed life. While no one can match Freddie in his prime, “My Brothers Blues” is a fine soulful reinterpretation.
Benny tears into classics like “Big Legged Woman” served straight up while on “I’m Tore Down” Benny shares lead vocals with Otis Clay and Marva Wright, carrying on in the faster tempo he played in the live versions as Yamagishi burns on both. Turner emotes “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling” as Yamagishi’s lead guitar follows Meile’s rhythm lines, then on Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready” Meile’s rhythm guitar sets up the lap steel of Roosevelt Collier on this straight cover. Benny sang harmony with his brother on “Wee Baby Blues” and this time he’s joined by Carolyn Wonderland on harmony, Benny plays guitar as Roosevelt Collier wails on lap steel and then Benny takes lead guitar for “See See Baby,” a straight cover from Freddie’s early King recordings and his cover of B.B. King’s “Ghetto Woman” serves as a showcase for Turner’s vocal prowess. Changing things up, “It’s Your Move” has an easy swinging attitude with horns and Joe Krown’s organ, and a more reverent subdued tone on “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” featuring Meile’s guitar on both as he does his best to capture Freddie’s intensity. J.B Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie” could almost be Benny’s life story for the last two decades as Carolyn Wonderland’s horn-like guitar lines bite past Krown’s boogie piano. A fitting finale, “Same Old Blues,” has Chizuko Yashihiro’s gospel piano and great guitar from Yamagishi as Benny’s soulful vocal just knocks me out; this ain’t just the same old blues.
Benny Turner has laid bare just a portion of his storied career with “My Brother’s Blues,” check out more in his book “Survivor.”—Roger & Margaret White

Peter V Blues Train
On Track

Peter Veteska grew up in a housing project in Queens and in 1971, at age twelve, he was selling papers to buy his first guitar, a black Les Paul from a pawn shop. He learned to play listening to groups like the Allman Brothers and throughout his teens and early twenties played in rock bands around NYC. Disenchanted by the ‘80s music scene Peter laid down his guitar for twenty five years but never lost interest in music. When difficult times hit he picked up his guitar and hit the jams, quickly joining the blues community. Teaming up with fellow jammers they form the Peter V Blues Train with bassist Sean “Gravey” Graverson, drummer Alex D’Agnese and keyboardist Aron Gornish and have a couple of guest musicians sitting in. For their second self-produced release they’ve included a few originals penned by Peter and some interesting takes on a few blues classics.
To introduce the band they push off with two originals: “By The River,” as Veteska’s smooth vocals glide and flow over the organ and picks up momentum on Bob DelRosso’s guitar lead, then Danny Welsh adds funky sax as Peter confidently asks “What Ya Want” I got it. The band takes an interesting direction on the covers with an easy strollin’ pace and guest sax Scott Soloman on “I’ve Got A Woman,” it’s so diametrically different than Ray Charles’ original the band has remade it into their own. Indigenous’ hard rockin’ “Blues This Morning” is mellowed but maintains its energy with some chilling DelRosso guitar licks. Peter’s guitar has a jazzy swing that drives Ten Years After’s “Me & My Baby,” then takes on B.B. King’s “Help Poor Me” with a rolling rhythm and tone reminiscent of Peter Green. With just an acoustic guitar and a little improvisational scat Peter makes T Bone Walker’s classic “Old Time Used To Be” almost unrecognizable. “Crossroads” was written by Robert Johnson but this band takes their cue from the Cream version by Eric Clapton, Peter uses the same vocal inflection but slowed down that breakneck speed while for Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” the inspiration is the jazzy cover by Mose Allison, as Gary Neuwirth joins the band on harp playing with a jazzy twang and swagger. Filling out the CD with a couple of originals, the funky rhythm of “Hey Little Babe” has a wailing sax with Scott Soloman playing off Peter’s nasty guitar and expressive vocal prowess, while in “Still Got The Blues” DelRosso’s guitar underscores each phrase.
Blues and jazz have always had a connection but Peter V Blues Train has woven the two together with a rocking edge and with “On Track” they’re heading in an interesting direction.—Roger & Margaret White

The Sherman Holmes Project
The Richmond Sessions
M.C. Records

When his brother Wendell and his close friend Popsy Dixon both died in 2015 the great Holmes Brothers ceased to exist. Fortunately, Sherman has decided to forge on; and, fortunately for his legion of fans, his debut album, at age 77, is a thoroughly enjoyable one. Some bluegrass and gospel wrapped in a blues blanket. It doesn’t get more joyous than that. Produced by Jon Lohman, the Virginia State Folklorist, the album draws on Holmes’ Virginia roots, which are deep into bluegrass. Sherman has played with John Lee Hooker and others in his distant past, thus the blues roots; and his gospel roots go even deeper. The sum is a well-rounded musician and an exceptional recording. Opening with “Rock of Ages” with its rousing violin, banjo and mandolin backing, Holmes sings with apparent joy. This isn’t a straight reading of the song, but a Sherman Holmes version. The string accompaniment seems to push him to great delight. The following version of “Liza Jane” is likewise not the version you heard as a child, but a string heavy and hip version written by Vince Gill. “Don’t Do It,” the Marvin Gaye/Band song, is spirited, in at least some part due to the backing of the Ingramettes, a trio of gospel singers referred to as Richmond’s First Family of Gospel. They accompany Wendell on “I Want Jesus,” as well. Regardless of your religious beliefs, a great song is a great song, and this is one.
Moving from religious to the secular, next up is a superb take on “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” on which he sings over banjo, fiddle and mandolin. The accompaniment gives the classic a whole new take. Rob Ickes’ dobro is played to perfection. Following that classic, comes another classic in “The Dark End of the Street,” on which Joan Osborne joins in. Holmes is strong on organ and is accompanied by drums, bass and guitar. “Lonesome Pines” is a straight up gorgeous bluegrass waltz on which Sherman fits right in. On the John Fogerty-penned “Green River,” he sings over an acoustic backdrop, again a whole different approach. The green river is followed by “Wide River,” a traditional gospel tune on which the Ingramettes and Sherman’s piano are most prominent. His vocals are impassioned and convincing.
Carter Stanley’s classic “White Dove” is followed by Ben Harper’s “Homeless Child,” a poignant song that closes the set. Sherman sings this with the Ingramettes and the string players. Like everything else on this stellar collection, it’s moving and it’s a joy to listen to. —Mark E. Gallo

Lloyd Price
This Is Rock And Roll
Double L Records

Lloyd “Mr. Personality” Price was born in New Orleans in 1934 and, after flunking several auditions, landed a Specialty Records contract as a teenager after label boss, Art Rupe, happened to overhear him singing “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” while working at his mother’s small, aptly titled Crescent City restaurant, the fabled Fish N Fry. Backed by Dave Bartholomew’s crack band, with Fats Domino on piano, Price’s debut 78, two-months-later became the No. 1 R&B Record of the Year on both the Billboard and Cashbox charts, earning a gold record along the way. Much more importantly, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was one of the first “race” records to infiltrate the white teenage markets—a cross fertilization that spiraled into the new sound of rock ‘n’ roll. A number of charting 45’s for Specialty followed (along with a superb album) but by the early 1960’s, his New Orleans focus had become string-embellished-extinguished and pop-oriented. By the mid 1960s he was all but forgotten. He was, however, a wise investor and, nowadays, works and records only when he wants to. This is his first release in a long while and, all in all, it holds up pretty well while recalling Ernie K-Doe’s latter day projects. Highlights begin with the blistering title track—an easy-rocking cover of Jimmy Reed’s classic “Peepin’ And Hidin’’, that seamlessly segues into the salutary shout-out “This Is Rock And Roll”—and continue through an easy rolling recall of Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” an erotically slowed-down version of Carole King’s ballad “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and the dervish-like belly-dancer instrumental delight “Belly Movement” that smilingly closes affairs. As Price puts it, “We recorded 27 songs, from which I picked ten that I felt sounded like “a reflection of the past but still well put.” I agree 100%. Something for everybody.—Gary von Tersch

Linsey Alexander
Two Cats
Delmark Records
Hoochieman Music

Linsey Alexander is a real throwback to the classic Chicago bluesmen of the 1950’s. Born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis, he pawned his guitar to get to Chicago on a Greyhound Bus, a classic blues pedigree. Now a longtime Chicago resident, fixture on the North side for two decades and a regular at the Kingston Mines, Linsey is coming out with his third CD for Delmark Records, “Two Cats.” This self-produced album of all original material features Linsey Alexander’s strong yet laid back vocals and biting guitar with Anthony Palmer on second guitar, Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, EG McDaniel’s bass, Bryant Parker on drums and a solid horn section of Kenny Anderson (trumpet), Hank Ford (tenor sax), Norman Palm (trombone) with Paul Hanover blowing harp.
Linsey’s songs are all little short stories starting right from the first cut as he lays it out straight, telling his Lady “I’m Not Your Problem,” I’m your situation, as he sternly asks “Where Did You Take Your Clothes Off Last Night” answered by Hanover’s weeping harp then slapping back with hard edged guitar and biting horns cause “That Ain’t Right.” After all that Linsey moans “Why I Sing The Blues,” it’s not the classic you might expect, as guitar and harp lead the vocals to reveal that darn woman gave his car away too! A plaintive ballad follows as that woman’s got no time for him when she’s online as the “Facebook Woman.” So he’s looking for another woman, but she turns into a “User,” the horns shout out against the guitar as Linsey finds “I’m In Love With A Woman” but she’s got a woman too and he has to ask “How Could You Do Me Like You Done Me” against a sobbing harmonica. Revved up on “Reefer And Blow” Linsey’s woman tells him everything’s going to get better “Starting Monday” or the next Monday or the next as the guitar screams in protest and he packs up and starts “Thinking About Me” with some of the strongest guitar yet. After all that with Breezy Rodio on guitar and James Wilson playing drums Linsey gets a little catty with some suggestive lyrics on “Two Cats,” one in the front and one in the back with tight horns and a yowling guitar. Then that band swings into a clever metaphor on campaign promises cause he can’t believe what’s in the news with the “Comb Over Blues.” As a finale a Rhodes piano and tapping snare drive Linsey’s gentle vocals building to the airy whimsical moment “Til I Kissed You” as guitar caresses the rhythm then remixed and reworked Linsey is joined by rapper J. Parker for “Kiss Revisited.”
With Linsey Alexander’s “Two Cats” his songs have pushed the context of blues a step forward while concealed in the trapping of classic Chicago blues.—Roger & Margaret White

Baldori & Migliazza / The Boogie Kings
Disturbing the Peace
Spirit Records

Bob Baldori, known as Boogie Bob, has been bopping the blues since the ‘60s as one of Chuck Berry’s favorite backup players as well as his personal lawyer, a recording studio owner, producer and world renowned boogie woogie pianist. Baldori sought out the last living link to the original masters of boogie woogie, 89 year old Bob Seeley, producing a documentary about their dueling piano tour in the 2013 “Boogie Stomp!” then parlayed it into a critically acclaimed off Broadway show “Boogie Stomp!” with young award winning pianist Arthur Migliazza. Together again, Baldori & Migliazza have dubbed themselves The Boogie Kings and to memorialize their partnership have taken to the studio to record “Disturbing the Peace” recreating much of their live show without the stage patter. Many of the dueling piano arrangements were worked out by Baldori and Bob Seeley and have a fresh sound as stimulating as their live show.
Starting with a blast of blues harp and pounding piano on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Shake That Boogie,” Baldori’s gentle vocal against the squawks and squeals of harmonica adding a bit of “Shake Your Money Maker.” Starting as a solo piano on Jimmy Yancy’s “Yancy Stomp” building momentum as the second piano joins in and the sound flows into an immense keyboard extravaganza. Their four-handed piano continues into Albert Ammons’ “Boogie Stomp” and Mead Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train,” taught to Baldori by Seeley, who personally knew both giants, and rolling so fast it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what. The intricate interplay of the dueling pianos on the swing classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” is so pulsating you can almost hear the dancers behind them trying to keep up. Sneaking up slowly they break into an infectiously “Rockin Pneumonia” and on another four-handed powerhouse, Baldori’s “Okemos Breakdown” based on Big Maceo’s “Chicago Breakdown” with a trace of the “Mess Around.” Carrying on they keep things moving with “Suitcase Blues,” then Baldori goes it alone on a slow but moving version of “Tennessee Waltz.” Showcasing Migliazza solo piano and vocal skills with a “Boogie Woogie Man” tale he takes flight into a stinging rendition of “Bumble Boogie.” Boogie Bob breaks out his harp again for Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” taking the forefront with a gentle vocal against a plodding piano till Migliazza breaks free on a solo and they both charge into Muddy’s “Mojo” for the finale.
Though this may be the soundtrack to their stage show, the real story of this CD is Baldori passing on the knowledge of this art form to a younger Crown Prince so The Boogie Kings can continue “Disturbing the Peace.” —Roger & Margaret White

Paradise Kings
Controlled Burn
Self-produced 2017

From Santa Barbara, CA, the Paradise Kings formed as a group in 2015, the core comprised of Henry Garrett on vocals, Jeff Gring on guitar, and George Lambert on drums. After one prior informal live recording, they recruited Michael Robertson as a new bassist to complete their quartet, and have delivered a smoking set of eight original tunes. The result, sans harmonica, horns, and keyboards, is a spare but swinging and swarthy collection to rouse the listener.
Commencing with almost a full minute of Gring guitar introduction, “ ‘69 Chevy” is a zesty conflation of rockabilly with the Hollywood Fats Band style of West Coast swing. The shuffle “I’d Sing the Blues If I Had ‘Em” reveals lyricist Lambert at his best; how often do we hear a blues song about how well life is treating the singer? “Three Strikes” confers the spotlight inarguably on Garrett, whose gruff vocal reminds one of Bob Seger in his prime, as Gring and the rhythm duo provide a syncopated backdrop. “Slow Down,” the ensuing number…doesn’t slow down, but who cares? It’s notable for two brief but tangy solos by Gring, who eschews self-indulgence for lyricism.
Demonstrating its versatility, the band mines the funk genre with “Butter Me Up,” in the process introducing guest singer Jan Ingram for her sole but valuable appearance on the CD; Gring rips off more pithy lead over the excellent teamwork of Lambert and Robertson. “Patience” slows the tempo significantly, Gring again excels, and Garrett proves that he can sing poignantly, while another brief guest, Chris Ulep, adds fine keyboard accompaniment.
The CD’s penultimate tune, “Poor Me, Poor Me, Pour Me Another Drink,” is about…well, it’s easy to guess, evoking a common blues trope as the band revels in rock mode; and the set closes with “Money Ain’t My Friend,” a Chicago blues with a few Hendrix-like guitar licks to boot.
The band photo features the four principals (including a former bassist rather than Robertson) all wearing sunglasses. I suspect they are preparing, because it may not be long before they are justifiably in the spotlight.—Steve Daniels

Kim Wilson
Blues & Boogie, Volume 1
Severn CD

A founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a numerous Blues Music Award winner as a solo artist, Kim Wilson gets back to basics with this 16-track salute to a host of his Chicago blues roots influences—particularly his harmonica mentors Little Walter, Slim Harpo, Sonny Boy Williamson and James Cotton. Ably assisted by guitarists Big John Atkinson, Nathan James, Billy Flynn, Bob Welsh and Danny Michel as well as bassists Troy Sandow, Larry Taylor and Kadar Roy along with a trio of drummers (Richard Innes, Marty Dodson, Malachi Johnson), pianist Barrelhouse Chuck and hornman Jonny Viau, Wilson features covers of songs by Jimmy Reed, Big Maceo, Jimmy Rogers, Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker alongside a quartet of Wilson originals—standouts among the latter are the rousing opener “Bonus Boogie” and the intrepid “Searched All Over.” Picks among the reprises include a couple by Little Walter (“Teenage Beat” and “Blue And Lonesome”), Sonny Boy’s classic “Ninety-Nine,” Hooker’s “Same Old Blues” and Elmore’s “Sho Nuff I Do.” Music that’s both timely and timeless.—Gary von Tersch

Gregg Allman
Southern Blood

Gregg Allman had one of the most instantly and universally recognized voices of the past 50 years. With his death on May 27 of this year that magnificent voice was silenced. He left a superb goodbye present in “Southern Blood.” The songs collected here are goodbye notes. Produced by Don Was and recorded in Muscle Shoals it speaks to what was on his musical mind in those waning days. And it speaks to musical inspirations plucked from his history, as well.
The only original tune is the opening “My Only True Friend,” on which he sings prophetically, “You and I both know/this river will surely flow/to an end.” Classic Allman Brothers-style ringing guitar from Scott Sharrard couching his beautiful voice. ‘Keep me in your heart/keep your soul on the mend/I hope you’re haunted by the music/of my soul/when I’m gone…” If you’re going to write one song this baring of the soul is the song. The covers are perfect selections to reflect on periods of his well-lived life.
Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” (“Sometimes I wonder/Just for a while/Do you ever think of me”) is punctuated by a lush tenor sax solo. Allman could always deliver the goods on a ballad. Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going Gone” (“I’ve been hanging on threads/playing it straight/I just got to cut loose/before it gets too late”) and Jerry Garcia’s “Black Muddy River” (“I will walk alone/by the black muddy river/sing me a song of my own.”) are nothing less than beautiful. His renditions of Little Feat’s classic “Willin’” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” are delivered pretty straight up. “Love Like Kerosene,” written by Adam Sherrard, is one of the rockin’ highlights of the set. The closer, “Song For Adam,” written by Jackson Browne and performed with him is a gorgeous way to close this perfect album and this magnificent career. The instrumentation, from his acoustic guitar to Greg Leist’s steel guitar to the horns to harmony vocals from the McCrary Sisters and Buddy Miller – everything as soulful as Allman was. A classic goodbye from a classic musician. —Mark E. Gallo

Webster Avenue

This is the debut project from the Northeast's Webster Avenue, a trio of music industry veterans--guitarist/banjoist and songwriter David Webster (currently on tour with his son, rapper Chris Webby), endlessly inventive percussionist Andrew Caturano (a founding member of Howard Stern's Pig Vomit band) and sturdy bassist Tony Mercadante--another Pig Vomit founder. Along with a couple of keyboard guests on a few tracks (Benny Harrison and Matt Detroy) and horn players Lissie Newman and Joe Meo on a few others, the trio engagingly cover the gamut--from blues, root rock, jazz and soul to Americana, folk and R&B along with a pinch or two of reggae. Favorites around my house encompass the retro-soul sound of "Sing Me A Sad Line," the after-hours jazzy "Whenever," the closing-time, back street story of a "Bad Thing" and "Never Tender Your Goodbyes"--that sounds like a lost Kris Kristofferson number. Further ear-perkers include the moody story of "Ronnie O," a reflective, Harry Chapin-indebted "To Be A Child," a contemporary blues in a J.B. Lenoir-vein called "Ain't That A Shame" and "Never Surrender," that has a mellowly intimate, CSNY feel to it. Well worth tracking down. —Gary von Tersch

Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter
Right Place Right Time
Delta Groove

36 year old guitarist Mike Welch has been a presence in the blues community since he was a 16 year old and released his first album. Mike Ledbetter has toured the world with the Nick Moss band for many years as a heralded vocalist. The meeting of the two proves to be magic. Joined by Anthony Geraci on piano, Ronnie James Weber on bass and drummer Marty Richards, the band is stunning throughout. Ledbetter’s vocals are reminiscent of Otis Rush at times and Welch channels the west side Chicago sound. The set hits the ground running with piano, guitar, bass and drums hitting it strong on “Cry For Me Baby,” written by the prolific Melvin London. Ledbetter sings, “I cried so much for you/that ain’t nothing new/wish I had a dollar for all the times I cried for you.” Welch plays a repetitive riff that works well under Ledbetter’s powerful vocalizing. As a calling card it promises that this will be a fantastic ride. It does not disappoint. One of the most (of many) exciting tunes here is “Kay Marie,” written by Ledbetter. With a swinging shuffle guitar intro, the band announces that they came ready to play and Ledbetter sings, “I need to find my baby/just to keep my eyes from crying.” Laura Chavez, the guitar slinger for years with Candye Kane, takes the outro solo here. Guitar lovers heaven, for sure. There are many standouts. Sax Gordon and Doug James play enough horns to sound like a whole section on a few tunes.
Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Stop Baby” is given a brilliant read by the principals. Ledbetter’s vocals are indescribably exciting and Welch’s guitar work is that of a master. “Down Home Girl,” written by Jerry Leiber and Artie Butler, is a funky number enhanced by those killer horns.
Junior Parker’s “How Long Can This Go On” is an energy explosion and Ledbetter’s “Big Mama,” again with an assist by Laura Chavez, is a plea from Ledbetter to “make this girl my wife.” Welch’s guitar just reaches the stratosphere. The rhythm team is conspicuous here, as well. Welch’s “I’m Gonna Move To Another Country” follows. His guitar work is not merely good – it’s fantastic. The singer laments the fact that, “It’s hard to make a dollar/if you even get a chance to try.”
Tampa Red’s “Cryin’ Won’t Help You” gets a guitar and piano intro for Ledbetter to work off. “No matter what you say, baby/no matter what you do/the way I been treated/is coming home to you/and crying won’t help you.” Makes you wonder who’s being cold. On Elmore James’ “Goodbye Baby,” again with superb guitar and piano up front, there’s even more walking out going on. Mike Ledbetter sings with passion, “Now goodbye baby/gotta leave you now/it’s over darling/didn’t love me no how.” The band takes it out with Welch’s “Brewster Avenue Bump.” This instrumental is a showcase for his electrifying guitar, and allows Geraci to stretch a bit as well. This stands as one of the strongest blues albums of the year.— Mark E. Gallo

John Primer & Bob Corritore
Ain’t Nothing You Can Do
Delta Groove

John Primer is one of the last of the true Chicago blues traditionalists. He plays guitar and sings like its 1965. Bob Corritore is owner of The Rhythm Room in Phoenix, one of the major blues clubs in the country. He’s also a first-class harmonica player. The alliance of these two is their second, following a 2013 version of their chemistry. The great Henry Gray joins in on piano on a few tunes, and the late Barrelhouse Chuck, to whom the album is dedicated, had the keys on the rest. Big Jon Atkinson and Chris James split the guitar duties, Troy Sandow and Patrick Flynn split the bass duties, and Brian Fahey of the Paladins, is on the drums. The program, as you might imagine, is split about half and half originals and classics.
Primer’s “Poor Man Blues” gets the festivities started. It’s an old school tune on which Primer sings, “I’m a poor man/doing the best way that I can.” The guitarists are slinky, the rhythm team is tight and Corritore’s harp is concise and on time. The following “Elevate Me Mama,” a Sonny Boy Williamson tune, has a deep Chicago feel. Primer’s vocals (“don’t cry pretty baby/baby when I leave home/I’ll be right back/honey I hope it don’t take too long) and his guitar remind of classic Muddy, and Corritore straddles the line between Sonny Boy and James Cotton. Snooky Pryor’s “Hold Me In Your Arms” is followed by Johnny Temple’s classic, “Big Leg Woman.” (“roll your belly like you roll your dough”) on which all the parties are on top of the rhythm and Chris James and Primer share the guitar.
On Magic Slim’s “Gambling Blues” Corritore’s sharp harp shares space with Primer’s vocals and guitar and on Corritore’s “Harmonica Boogaloo” he takes center stage on the spirited instrumental. Following “Ain’t Nothin You Can Do” (“to stop me from loving you”) Don Nix’s “For the Love Of A Woman” is given a mildly funky reading. Howlin Wolf’s “May I A Have Talk With You” is highlighted by the superb slide guitar and harp. And the closer, Primer’s “When I Leave Home” again has that classic Muddy sound replete with deep harp tones. One of the better of the blues albums released this year. —Mark E. Gallo

Jonny Lang

Jonny Lang made his first impact on blues and blues/rock when he was a mere lad of 15 with “Lie To Me.” Now 36 and nine albums into his career, six on a major label, he has gone from rock to blues to R&B to Christian oriented albums and remains a highly sought after player who sells out arenas wherever he plays. The North Dakota native, now based out of Minneapolis, is a skilled guitarist gifted with a strong voice. Both are on display in the stark opener, “Make It Move,” on which he sings with a gospel passion over a sparse guitar. “You spend your whole life waiting for the mountain to move/but its waiting on you.” Lang’s guitar and vocals are backed by bassist Drew Ramsey and the backing vocals of Jason Eskridge, Ramsey and Shannon Sanders. Stomps and claps are credited to Lang and Ramsey. This is an effective and attention-demanding way to begin the set. The following song, “Snakes,” notches it up a bit. Same fuzz guitar and same passion in the vocals: “There are snakes in that grass.” With Lang and Ramsey both on guitar, Dwan Hill on keyboards, Jim Anton on bass and Barry Alexander on drums, the energy is palpable.
The title tune is strong and, yes, bluesy. “Hearts turned to stone/blood running cold/and everyone knows it/nobody want to say it/we can close our eyes/pretend everything’s right…but these are the times, these are the signs.” The guitar work is sizzling and the support from bass and drums makes it that much heavier. “What You’re Made Of” is a funky outing and the rock heavy “Bitter End” is reminiscent of Foreigner. The man is nothing if not diverse. “Bring Me Back Home” is a gorgeous ballad. “Somehow loneliness slowly got ahold of me…it’s keeping me awake at night…” Lang’s voice is fragile, plaintive and convincing. “Don’t think I wouldn’t give my life to have you near/please don’t think twice about us dear.” Building from solo to support from keys, bass and drums and from gentle and quiet to a sort of crescendo. “Singing Songs” opens with acoustic guitar and vocals. It has the feel of a lullaby. He sings, “Go ahead and close your eyes/the day is done/climb into the sky and chase the sun.” The song shifts tempos and his voice, particularly impressive, changes with it. After all of that energy, it’s a nice change of pace.
This isn’t straight up blues. It uses more electricity than the whole city of Chicago and makes no apologies for what it is. As a blues rock disc it is compelling and impressive. —Mark E. Gallo

Colin James
Blue Highways
True North Records 2016

From the Pacific Northwest another of Canada’s gifts to the blues world, guitarist and singer Colin James, decided on his eighteenth album to pay homage to some of his legendary predecessors. Justifiably, the album has received the 2017 Independent Blues Award as Best Independent Blues Rock CD. The baker’s dozen tunes, some of them familiar, some more obscure, are treated with reverence yet originality. Imitation is indeed one of the sincerest forms of flattery, but putting one’s own style on a cover song is a sign of artistry instead of slavish mimicry.
James is accompanied throughout by Steve Pelletier on bass, occasionally replaced by Norm Fisher, and Geoff Hicks on drums, likewise spelled by Pat Steward. Jesse O’Brien and Simon Kendall handle keyboards, and Steve Marriner of noted Canadian band Monkey Junk adds pithy harmonica on five tracks. The basic quintet can both rock and groove, and James commands center stage with consistently adept guitar licks, stinging or poignant as needed. Nowhere is the ensemble’s harmony better demonstrated than on the opening cut, “Boogie Funk,” a driving instrumental written by Freddie King that sounds like John Lee Hooker on speed, with James and Marriner meshing perfectly. Equally well addressed is the Freddie King classic “Going Down,” this time with James and pianist O’Brien nicely in sync.
The songs covered run the gamut from old to older. In the former category is “Watch Out,” a rollicking shuffle penned by Peter Green, outstanding guitarist from Fleetwood Mac’s days forty years ago as a blues band. In the latter category is “Big Road Blues,” written by Tommy Johnson, contemporary and - according to many - comparably talented Mississippi Delta bluesman from the early twentieth century era of Robert Johnson and Son House. Tommy Johnson might have been surprised by the rock spin given to the tune, but he would have been up dancing.
Robert Johnson himself is evoked by James’s cover of “Last Fair Deal,” performed solo by Colin on acoustic guitar. James also wields his acoustic, accompanied only by Marriner, on the brief medley “Riding in the Moonlight/Mr. Luck,” the former penned by Howlin’ Wolf and the latter by Jimmy Reed. The set hits perhaps its apotheosis with a slow rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s “Ain’t Long for Day,” James playing beautiful lead and singing in his soulful tenor.
An argument can be made that “Gypsy Woman” by Muddy Waters and “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells warrant a rougher vocal than James can provide, but even this debatable quibble seems compensated by the deft musicianship evident. That sterling virtuosity also appears on the remaining covers of songs by Jimmy Rogers (James A. Lane), Peter Chatman (Memphis Slim), and Thomas Davis.
Colin James has delivered a fitting tribute to some of his blues progenitors and a powerful demonstration of his musical skills.—Steve Daniels

Judy Henske
The Elektra Albums
Ace CD

With her banjo in tow, bluesy contralto belter Judy Henske arrived on L.A.’s Sunset Strip in 1960 and the region’s, then quite laid-back, folk music scene has never really recovered from the impact she made. Quickly signed to visionary Jac Holzman’s fledgling Elektra label (where she was soon joined by the likes of Tim Buckley, Fred Neil and Phil Ochs) the Queen of the Beatniks released two astounding albums, in 1963 and 1964 respectively. Both collected here in all their elemental glory accompanied by great life-path liners by Kris Needs, that close thusly: “This reissue captures a time when Judy Henske was a force of untamed nature in the safe folk world, maybe too big for the era then unfolding outside.” How true. Personal favorites across both LPs are her “agonizingly haunted” recall of Bessie Smith’s tour-de-force “Empty Bed Blues,” a “starkly supernatural” version of the Underground Railroad coded spiritual “Wade In The Water,” her “spaciously jazzy” rendition of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “High Flying Bird” (the blueprint for folk-rock) and the traditional blues/folk-rocking “I Know You Rider”—that predicts the Byrds. And then there’s the murder ballads and a couple of tracks of stand-up patter “honed while warming up hard-bitten crowds waiting for Lenny Bruce.” Crime writer Andrew Vachss puts it this way: “If Linda Ronstadt is a torch singer, Henske’s a flame thrower.” Amen.—Gary von Tersch

Mississippi John Hurt
Live At Oberlin College 4-15-65
RockBeat CD 3387

“Mississippi” John Hurt was born in the early 1890’s in tiny Teoc, Mississippi, raised in nearby Avalon and playing guitar for a living by the time he was a teenager. Working during the week as a sharecropper, on the weekend he quickly became a “first call” for local barn dances and parties, singing with a richly gentle yet raw voice alongside some remarkably flowing, brilliantly slide-work embellished guitar lines. By 1928, Okeh Records was in town recording him and on the heels of his decades later “rediscovery” in the early sixties, he was one of the hits at the illustrious 1963 Newport Folk Festival—leading the way for other “discoveries” such as Son House (with whom Hurt shared the bill on this Oberlin date), Skip James, Bukka White, Robert Pete Williams and more. Among the hymns and traditional songs here are “The Angels Laid Him Away,” “Here I Am , Oh Lord, Sing Me,” “Casey Jones,” “Candy Man,” and “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor.” Complementing these are a slew of folk/blues staples such as “Salty Dog Blues,” “Shake That Thing,” “Frankie And Albert” and “Hard Times In The Old Town Tonight.” Great sound and Hurt at his best.—Gary von Tersch

The Original Blues: The Emergence Of The Blues In African American Vaudeville
By Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff
University Press Of Mississippi

Near the close of the nineteenth century, vaudeville began to succeed minstrelsy as the nation’s preferred form of stage entertainment. Due to hardcore segregation, the establishment of discrete African American vaudeville theaters was a necessity, as they provided a safe haven where ragtime coon songs initially carried the day with the emergence and development of blues songs not far behind. With this image-laden, hefty volume Abbott and Seroff close their groundbreaking trilogy on the development of African American popular music. Buttressed by decades of legwork, they reanimate the performers, venues, audiences, entrepreneurs, critics and institutions that were essential to the often-shadowy prehistory of the “original blues” in southern black vaudeville theaters. By the early twenties the lucrative medium was nationalized by the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) in partnership with the budding race record industry—T.O.B.A. theaters showcased touring companies headed by blues queens like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith with records to sell. By the mid-twenties, second-string black vaudeville moved beyond their black audiences, frequently becoming a portal to the blue-chip white vaudeville circuits, burlesque wheels and froufrou uptown cabarets. The commercialization of the blues was upon us. Particularly strong chapters in this endlessly fascinating book deal with the life, early death and untold legacy of blues star Butler “String Beans” May, male blues singers in Southern vaudeville and the rise of the blues queens—female blues pioneers in Southern vaudeville. Dozens upon dozens of relevant images bring the story to life. An invaluable musical history of the advent of the blues for those who want to dig in deep.—Gary von Tersch

In Search Of The Lost Chord: 1967 And The Hippie Idea?
By Danny Goldberg?
Akashic Books

This wide-ranging, deeply personal narrative by journalist and music executive Danny Goldberg subjectively and perspicaciously explores the ongoing relevance of the political and counter-cultural movements that emerged in the pivotal year 1967. It’s a kaleidoscopic account that encompasses not only the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but debut discs from the likes of the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix among many others and is further amplified by the life-paths of charismatic figures on the order of Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, LSD guru Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, Gil Scott Heron (one of Goldberg’s high school classmates), Huey Newton, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Alpert, Michael McClure, Allen Cohen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. All set against the implosion of the Summer of Love, race riots across the nation, the Viet Nam war, campus unrest and an extremely controversial presidential election. With his background, Goldberg had disengaged access into the hidden corridors of naked power—be they Washington insiders or Hollywood elite. It definitely shows. All in all, an easy reading, backwards-looking “mosaic of seminal moments in the psychedelic, spiritual, rock and roll and political protest cultures of 1967.” But, hey Danny, why no mention of Stormy Weather or did I miss it?—Gary von Tersch    

Survivor: The Benny Turner Story
By Bill Dahl and Benny Turner
Nola Blue, Inc. 2017

It’s quite possible that you may be unfamiliar with Benny Turner…but not with B.B. King, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Marva Wright, Mighty Joe Young…and Freddie King! All of those blues greats and many more intersected meaningfully with Turner and appear in this entertaining autobiography penned with blues journalist Bill Dahl.
Freddie King, understandably, plays a major role, since he and Turner were half-brothers. Their mother and her several brothers not only nurtured Freddie and Benny through an impoverished east Texas childhood but also provided an early musical education, teaching them the blues hands-on. Blues, for this large and perpetually struggling family, provided both escape and aspiration. Freddie, with his charisma, outsize personality, and natural aptitude for guitar, was best friend, mentor, and protector for Benny.
Turner poignantly describes the family’s traumatic move to Chicago in pursuit of an easier life. Only eleven at the time of the relocation in 1950, Turner experienced severe culture shock in segueing from isolated rural penury to the harsh bustle of the Windy City. However, he survived both poverty and racism, and eventually parlayed his improving musical skills into the bass chair in Freddie’s band. By then, the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Freddie had justifiably become well known. Benny’s roots in blues as well as gospel provided the foundation for his adept and innovative bass playing in Freddie’s band.
The book poignantly relates the shock of Freddie’s death in 1976, and Benny’s subsequent ventures as a session and stand-in bassist, as well as a member sequentially of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers (whence arose Sam Cooke), renowned soul singer Dee Clark’s band, the blues band of Mighty Joe Young, and the soul blues combo fronted by potent singer Marva Wright. Often itinerant, by the 1980s Turner had established a home base in New Orleans, and even well before Wright’s death in 2010 had begun fronting his own group and displaying his considerable guitar skills.
Survivor hews to a chronological format, and Turner holds forth with insightful and often risible opinions about the myriad groups and individuals with whom he has interacted. There is little about his adult personal relationships; we learn that he has daughters, but virtually nothing about them or their mother(s). Artists have every right to keep their private lives private; in Turner’s case, any disappointment in lack of such information is easily compensated by the many entertaining anecdotes he provides. Rather than listing an extensive litany of gigs, a regrettable feature of some musician autobiographies, Turner instead lets us know who was a card shark, what happened late at night after a gig in redneck territory, how Freddie saved his life when a knife was drawn, how Marva and her husband settled arguments (she always won)….
The book concludes with a chapter summarizing Turner’s current efforts to keep alive Freddie’s legacy and to continue his own late career renaissance, which includes several highly praised albums, multiple awards, and a vigorous schedule at the age of seventy-eight. Turner has not only survived; he has surmounted, and thrives. – Steve Daniels


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