Blues Reviews April/May 2020

Phantom Blues Band
Still Cookin’
Vizztone 2020

When does a group of highly valued session musicians become a band? For the Phantom Blues Band, it was almost three decades ago, when they were recruited by Taj Mahal to be his ensemble of choice. Even prior to then they had established their credentials, with the members serving stints with an amazing array of performers including Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Eric Burdon, Maria Muldaur…the list is extensive. The Phantom Blues Band has won two Grammys, and has been nominated for four Blues Music Awards (BMAs), winning two. As individuals they have earned twenty BMA nominations!
So, a new release is always welcome. Nine years was a long time to wait since the last album; rather than lamenting the hiatus, we can revel in the result.
Of the band sextet, only one musician is new: Les Lovitt has replaced Darrell Leonard on trumpet. Johnny Lee Schell continues to deploy guitar, and Mike Finnigan runs his nimble fingers over piano and organ. The rhythm is held down expertly by bassist Larry Fulcher (now also bassist for Ruthie Foster’s group), and Tony Braunagel wields the drumsticks. On saxophone is Joe Sublett; he and Lovitt maintain the horn section’s status as one of the best. Finnigan, Schell, and Fulcher alternate vocals.
As on previous releases, the band proves its mettle in a variety of genres: blues, of course; R&B; soul; reggae; gospel; and even some Tex-Mex. One of the best tracks is the slow, late night piano bar tune “Blues How They Linger,” a cover in which Finnigan demonstrates his excellent soul vocalizing as well as prowess on the 88s. “Shine On,” co-written by Fulcher with Myrna Nicely-Fulcher, is a jaunty amalgam of reggae and soul, Darrell Leonard sitting in as the horns goose the tune forward. “Tequila con Yerba” - you guessed it, the Tex-Mex song - again written by Fulcher, once more lets the horns dazzle. “I’m Just Your Fool” is a blues shuffle distinguished by a brief but pithy solo by Schell, and the set ends with the moving gospel-flavored “I Was Blind,” multiple voices rising in unison with the horns.
The theme of this album of skill, not speed; there are no runaway rockers. There are also no extended solos, but they aren’t missed: this ensemble plays as one unit, totally in synchrony. Fulcher’s bass is sold; Braunagel lays down an impeccable rhythm augmented by occasional surprising flurries; Finnigan, Schell, and the horns are consistently superb. Welcome back, Phantom Blues Band!—Steve Daniels

Roomful of Blues
In a Roomful of Blues
Alligator 2020

How many bands can you name that have been making music for over half a century? The Rolling Stones; The Who; in the blues world, Savoy Brown, with sole founding member Kim Simmonds, and The Nighthawks, with sole founding member Mark Wenner. If you love blues, and a versatile ensemble that can play soul, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, swing, and superior jump blues, then you will also name Roomful of Blues.
Founded in Rhode Island in 1967, this expert eight-piece group has earned the right to be called a blues institution. Among the stellar musicians who have been part of Roomful are co-founder Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Bruce Katz, Curtis Salgado, Kid Ramos…the list is long and impressive. On this current release, its first since 2013, the band sports no original members, although saxophonist Rich Lataille has been a member since 1970, and guitarist, songwriter, and producer Chris Vachon for almost three decades. Since “45 Live” in 2013, Chris Anzalone has assumed the drum chair, while Rusty Scott on keyboards and John Turner on bass return to complete the rhythm section. Joining Lataille are Alek Razdan on sax and Carl Gerhard on trumpet. As on previous releases, these thirteen tracks - three covers and ten originals - bring the goods emphatically.
From track one, we are rollicking; it’s called “What Can I Do?” and the answer is: jump blues! This remains one of the most danceable bands anywhere, with dynamic grooves and arguably the best horn section in the blues. Lead singer Phil Pemberton delivers each tune with his strong and soulful vocals, exhibiting both range and nuance. He and the band handle slow as well as upbeat blues adeptly, as evidenced by “She Quit Me Again,” composed by Vachon and guest guitarist Bob Moulton and burnished by a beautiful sax coda.
In addition to steady vivacity, the set has variety. “Have You Heard,” one of the covers, spotlights guest accordionist Dick Reed trading licks with the horn section on a New Orleans-style tune, and “She’s Too Much” and “Phone Zombies” introduce an element of humor. (By the way, don’t listen to this album on a smartphone or other portable device; use a good stereo system to enjoy the full ensemble interplay.) The most somber track of the set, “Carcinoma Blues,” is a lament for a friend with cancer, and Vachon lays down moving guitar riffs; ironically, the number is sandwiched between two irresistible sashaying tracks, “We’d Have a Love Sublime” and “Too Much Boogie.”
This release gave me just the right amount of boogie. Roomful of Blues is a venerable band still in its extended prime.—Steve Daniels

Backtrack Blues Band
Your Baby Has Left
Vizz Tone Label Group

The Backtrack Blues Band has been an institution in the Tampa Bay area music scene, playing their muscular brand of electric blues, since 1980. Through the years they have shared the stage with some of the most iconic blues legends, who need only the first part of their name to be identified: B.B., Stevie Ray, John Lee, Koko, Gregg, Buddy… With Sonny Charles on vocals and harmonica, Kid Royal on lead guitar and vocals and the rhythm section of guitarist Little Johnny Walker, and Stick Davis and Joe Bencomo on bass and drums, these guys can really bring it, honing their version of early Chicago blues with a healthy taste of Texas twang.
Your Baby Has Left is one of the better sounding blues recordings this reviewer has heard in recent years, and the fact that they took the trouble to record onto 2-inch analog tape is evident as Bencomo’s snare drum seems to smash out of the speakers. The album, produced and mixed by George A. Harris, was mostly recorded at Big 3 Studios in St. Pete while the horns (Vinnie Ciesielski on trumpet and Brad Guin on sax) were cut at the legendary Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album opens with the winning entry in this magazine’s Coolest Blues Song of 2019 “My Best Friend’s Grave (Joy, Joy, Joy)”, celebrating a man’s life instead of mourning his death. The title track, “Your Baby Has Left”, is a slamming boogie with nods to John Lee Hooker and perhaps the Allmans’ “Trouble No More.” The lone cover, Jimmy Reed’s “Natural Born Lover,” features some nice honky-tonk piano by Bruce Katz and a burning solo by Kid Royal who also provides lead vocals on the track. The album’s closer, “Times Is Hard,” is an extended slow burner written and sung by Royal who opens the song with a SRV inspired intro. Both Royal and Charles play unrushed climatic solos on this one. The horn charts are tasty throughout the recording, never overpowering, but add some nice accents throughout most of the tunes. All in all, Your Baby Has Left is a fine, fine effort by these blues veterans. – Bob Monteleone

Zakiya Hooker

Zakiya Hooker is the daughter of the legendary John Lee Hooker. She’s been releasing CDs since 1993 and first performed with her father in 1991. Her track with Johnnie Johnson and Bobby Murray “I Want to Hug You” opened the epic 2015 compilation on the Cleopatra label A Double Dose of the Blues which featured a who’s who of British musicians like Jeff Beck, Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, Mick Taylor as well as her father. Along with her live shows and recordings she has done many spoken word performances on the subject of the blues, which she has obviously had a unique view from behind the scenes her entire life. Her voice has been heard on ads for Lexus as well as the soundtrack to the movie Chalk.
Legacy was produced by Ollan Christopher (who played bass on the proceedings along with Abiya Fubara) and Anthony Cook, who supplied guitar along with four other musicians. The album was recorded and mixed by Christopher at Boom Boom Studio in Douglasville, GA, just outside Atlanta. All the songs were written by Zakiya Hooker. Lyrically, the songs mostly deal with romantic relationships, or the demise of (“I Don’t Know How It Happened”) and all that entails, whether it’s infatuation (“Beautiful Eyes”), seduction (“Hang On For A While”) or simply heartbreak (“Love the Pain Away”). The album opens and closes with two different versions of “Front Door to Hell.” The later take is edgier, hitting harder while the lead guitar claims a nastier tone than the clean sounds in the opener. The grooves on the album are mostly easygoing and pleasant to listen to. There’s definitely something about Southern musicians that you don’t find in the northern US cities. The greasiest track is probably “I Don’t Know How It Happened,” with some very funky wah wah-treated clavinet throughout the track. “Love the Pain Away” begins as a torch song, with just Hooker’s sultry vocal and some tasty piano. It settles into a laid-back groove featuring some Carlos Santana-inspired guitar work. Another highlight is the gospel-tinged “One More Dance” with some great vocal harmonies and nice pedal steel work. Legacy is a solid listen from start to finish and wisely keeps Zakiya’s smooth voice front and center. – Bob Monteleone

Tinsley Ellis
Ice Cream in Hell
Alligator Records 2020

He maintains a feverish touring schedule and has released an album almost annually this century. One of the best blues-rocking guitarists, he still sadly lacks the widespread name recognition enjoyed by many of his fellow guitar wielders…but among them he has earned plenty of respect. A multiple Blues Music Award nominee, Tinsley Ellis roars into action again with his latest release.
Still along for the ride since his praised 2018 album, “Winning Hand,” are drummer Lynn Williams and bassist Steve Mackey, as well as ubiquitous session keyboard expert Kevin McKendree, who co-produced with Ellis, as he has done for over two decades. Two tracks also include a nifty horn section of saxophonist Jim Hoke and trumpeter Quentin Ware. Liner notes give no composition credits, but apparently all the tunes are originals, and in addition to sporting some infectious hooks, they display clever lyrics which mainly avoid cliché. Evidence, for example, the title track: “Turn off all your waterworks/ The crocodile tears are just an act/When they serve ice cream in hell, I’m gonna take you back.” That’s pretty definitive, as is “Hole in My Heart,” this time a poignant lament for a lover who isn’t coming back.
Ellis may be known as a rocker, but on this set he excels on the slower numbers. It’s probably no coincidence that “Hole in My Heart,” and the final track, “Your Love’s Like Heroin,” are both almost seven minutes long. They afford time to demonstrate fully Ellis’ command of his instrument in beautiful extended guitar solos, the former cut augmented by the horns and the latter by McKendree on organ (who is understated but splendid throughout). I enjoyed the entire set but was simply blown away by that last tune; sublime.
If you prefer rockers, check out the initial track, “Last One to Know,” and “Foolin’ Yourself” a little later on. If you want some nasty slide guitar a la the late Chicago bluesmen J.B. Hutto and Hound Dog Taylor, try “Sit Tight Mama.” For diversity, stay tuned for some intermittent crunching chords, wah wah pedal, and bursts of rapid notes in unexpected places. Throughout, Ellis’ gruff singing fits with the upbeat numbers and he waxes smoother and more emotive on the slower. In his fourth decade releasing albums, Tinsley Ellis continues to shine.—Steve Daniels

Various Artists
Sacred Sounds—Dave Hamilton’s Raw Detroit Gospel 1969-1974
Kent CD

24 spare, but vividly compelling, earthy black gospel recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s that, across the board, are overflowing with the soulful sounds for which the enterprising Detroit guitarist, producer (at his store-front studio on Highland Avenue that he maintained into 1970s) and label owner Dave Hamilton is renowned. As Detroit music historian Adam Stanfel puts it in the opening paragraph of his comprehensive liners—that also include a bevy of photos, artist interviews and label scans—“Within the canon of American music, gospel stands as an incredible well-spring of inspiration and influence while at the same time remaining the most criminally under-researched and least scrutinized. Dig deep and you will be led down a beautiful, impassioned, funky, bluesy, soulful and rocking pathway that draws from and contributes to every facet of American music.” Amen. Standouts here include the youthfully exuberant family quartet, the Johnson Spiritual Singers (“Little Boy”) along with the Scott Singers, who deservedly have four titles (particularly effective are both the spirited “I Thank You Jesus For One More Day” and a funky, late-night revision of the traditional “When The Saints Go Marching In”) while the titles by the likes of the Sensational Angelettes, the Fantastic Voices Of Joy and the Soul Inspirers take equal parts motivation from both the Saturday night soul club and Sunday morning’s church service. More please! And for the intrepid out there, there are six, count ‘em six, volumes of Hamilton-produced strictly soul nuggets also available from the folks at Ace.—Gary von Tersch

Christian Dozzler
The Blues and a Half
Blueswave 2008

A native of Austria, multi-instrumentalist Christian Dozzler has been a transplanted denizen to the Dallas-Fort Worth, area for two decades. Although he already had a successful career in Europe prior to his relocation, he relates that he was drawn to the Texas area by his affinity for the style of blues emanating from there. His last album release, in 2014, was a collaboration with guitarist Michael van Merwyk. “The Blues and a Half” is actually over a decade old, but somehow arrived at my doorstep with a request to review it.
No problem; the thirteen all-original tracks warrant attention by those of us who missed it back then. Surprisingly, the album provides more variety than one would expect from Dozzler’s professed love of Texas blues. As he explores other sub-genres, he is accompanied throughout by John Garza on bass, Kevin Schermerhorn on drums, and Ron Jones on saxophone. On several tracks each, guitar is courtesy of Texans Jim Suhler, Hash Brown, Mike Morgan, and the album’s co-producer, Anson Funderburgh. Their contributions are uniformly tasty without diverting attention from Dozzler and his strengths.
Those strengths begin with capable songwriting, are augmented by his tenor vocals, and reach their peak with his capabilities on piano, organ, harmonica, and even accordion. Good examples abound toward the end of the set, when three tunes with a Louisiana flavor appear. “C’mon Joe” opens with Jones romping on sax, followed by a delicious tinkly piano solo by Dozzler and a nice closing guitar coda by Brown. Hot on its heels is “If I Could Dance,” a zydeco rave-up starring Dozzler on accordion, with Funderburgh dishing out brief but pithy guitar frills. “Dooley’s Stroll,” shortly after, is a meandering instrumental evoking the vibe of a late night New Orleans speakeasy, with Christian’s piano front and center as bass and drums give solid support. Sandwiched among this Louisiana trio of tunes is the set’s longest track, “The Dog Is Missing You,” with Brown engaging in deft acoustic fingerpicking and Dozzler showing he knows how to blow haunting harmonica.
There is yet more versatility. The group can do blues rock, as evidenced by the opening cut, “Excuse Me Guys,” with some blistering guitar by Anson; and “Keep on Playing the Blues,” a mid-tempo tune, showcases Texas style, replete with Morgan’s stinging guitar and Dozzler’s organ weaving patterns together. We even get a gut-bucket electric Chicago blues, “You’re My Medicine,” that could easily be imagined as a vehicle for Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf; Dozzler can’t match Waters’ lascivious drawl or Wolf’s powerful rasp on vocal (few can!), but the track is successful, nonetheless.
“Blues and a Half” may not be a new effort…but it was a good one!—Steve Daniels

Watermelon Slim
Traveling Man 
Northern Blues   2019

Two stellar releases in the same year!  “Church of the Blues” is a current nominee for 2020 Blues Music Awards for Album of the Year and Traditional Album of the Year.  It featured Slim with a quintet of bass, guitar, and horns, embellished by an array of guest guitarists and keyboard players.  Now we get Slim solo…with absolutely no decrease in quality.
In fact, what we get is two CDs comprising over an hour-and-a-half of Bill Homans vamping on electric slide guitar and delivering his inimitable drawl-and-growl vocals on thirteen original tunes and five covers.  The first disc documents a set performed in October 2016 in Oklahoma City and the second set seven months earlier in Norman, Oklahoma.  Each crowd was obviously enthusiastic and enthused, and you will be too, as Slim conclusively proves that he is a consummate professional performer and a dazzling fretmaster.
The first CD is devoted primarily to truck driving and highway songs, appropriate to Slim’s occupational resume.  (That resume is fascinating, encompassing academic as well as blue collar jobs.  Check it out on his website,  On many of the songs Slim synchronizes his singing to his slide guitar, to powerful effect.  His vocals are mesmerizing, displaying a strong drawl laced with moans, falsetto excursions, and pristine extended notes.  His own songs are terrific, but most notable in the set are two covers.  The first, of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “61 Highway,” is here called “Highway Blues,” and is a full eight minutes of slow, eerie, haunting guitar.  It’s followed by an eleven minute medley of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” wedded to Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running”: lust and pain are both evoked.
The second CD is equally accomplished.  It includes a version of the hoary traditional tune “John Henry,” rendered both rhythmic and lyrical, and “Devil’s Cadillac,” a song previously presented by Slim with his band The Workers.  The set closes with “Dark Genius,” in which Homans addresses some contemporary political dilemmas in stark and stunning terms.
Bet on it: this album will be deservedly earning more awards.—Steve Daniels

Various Artists
Popcorn Blues Party
Koko Mojo CD
Various Artists
Rock And Roll Mama
Pan American CD
Various Artists
Rock Ya Baby
Pan American CD

Just opened the latest fat package of compilation CD’s from the enterprising folks at Rhythm Bomb Records on, this time around, the Koko Mojo, Pan American and Atomicat labels. I’m going to report here on three of my favorite sets but other goodies here include the first two volumes of an Indian Bred series (Fire In The Teepee and Chief Whooping Koff) that take a close look at Indian native artists and songs about the Wild West along with two volumes of a proposed 4 CD series dedicated to female singers called Rock ‘n Roll Kittens (Friction Heat and Rockin’ Horse Cowgirl) and, last but not least, a look at the dance styles known as Jive and Bop (Jive A Rama—Friction Heat and Bop A Rama—King Of The Ducktail Cats). Like the following trio, they’re all nifty, era-invoking packages with an inviting mix of the heard-of and the long-forgotten. “Popcorn” not only refers to a “Shag” style of music and dancing which got its name from a Belgian discotheque where the DJ’s played an eclectic and wide-ranging blend of American R&B, blues and pop songs, mostly from the 1950s and mid-1960s, in a slow or medium tempo and often in a minor key. I particularly like the pointillistic instrumentals here such as Little Joe Washington’s “Bossa Nova And Grits,” Albert Collins’ “Icy Blue” and Louisiana Red’s “Sugar Lips” but titles from the likes of Bo Diddley (“Down Home Special” and “I Can Tell”), Bobby Blue Bland (“36-22-36”), Ike Turner (“She Made My Blood Run Cold”) Little Walter (“Up The Line”) and Charles Sheffield ( “It’s Your Voodoo Working”) had me shaking a tail feather as well. The other pair noted above, volumes 45 and 46 of the longest running Rock ‘n Roll series on CD, collects 52 total obscurities to these ears (outside of Link Wray, Kenny Baker and Gene Terry) and one will, at times, need to make judicious use of the skip-button but, overall, the weak cuts are in the decided minority. I could pick out highlights like Kent Westberry And The Chaperones complaining that “My Baby Don’t Rock Me” while Tex Neighbors asserts that “I Ain’t Going That Route,” Billy Perkins raves about his “Campus Cutie” and Royce Porter frostily laments that “A Woman Can Make You Blue” but when the rubber meets the road it would just be a matter of taste—with all this enjoyable stuff every Big Beat fan would have their own diverse choices. Highly recommended!—Gary von Tersch

Ace Of Cups
Hear Every Sound
Big Beat Vinyl

Coming together in the Bay Area in 1967, the Ace Of Cups has been long acknowledged as one of the first all-female rock bands. Before breaking up in 1971, the talented quintet made a drastically under-acknowledged mark on the booming 1960s counter-culture scene, including entrancingly sharing the stage with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Although they never released any records, they were a permanent fixture in the psychedelic ballrooms of late 60s San Francisco. Drawn from demos and live tapes, this nine tune album reveals the tough yet poetic rock ‘n’ roll sensibility these unique young women, who were accomplished songwriters as well (Mary Gannon, Marla Hunt, Diane Vitalich, Mary Ellen Simpson and Denise “Mary Microgram” Kaufman) made all their own. Avoiding the predictable blues (Blue Cheer) or increasingly turgid folk-rock (Grateful Dead) of so many San Francisco bands at the time, the Cups combined facets of a variety of influences—from gospel and folk to jazz and R&B with focused arrangements that allowed the atmospheric words to float or ride along with the music. I like the atonal guitars as well. Picks begin with the gloriously punk-rock noisy “Stones “ and “Glue” as well as the fragile “Taste Of One,” the downbeat “Simplicity” and the enigmatic “Waller Street Blues.” Alec Palao’s well-researched, detail-rich liners is the icing on the cake. Recommended.—Gary von Tersch

Various Artists
It’s The Best Stuff Yet!
Frog Records: 2 CD’s & 32 page booklet

The blurb on the back cover succinctly describes this unbelievable, “in the room” sounding project as “a superior selection of Rare & Hot unissued tests, ‘clean’ originals & field recordings of classic Piedmont and Seaboard Stomps. Recorded between 1927 & 1988 (the latter a version of Blind Blake’s classic “Too Tight Rag” was recorded in the U.K. by a real blues survivor, John Jackson) disc one features the talents of Buddy Moss, Curley Weaver. Ed Bush, Allison Mathis, Barbecue Bob, the fore-mentioned Blake and a host of others.” Disc two, however, is the icing-on-the-cake as it contains the entirety of former street singer and medicine show minstrel Blind Willie McTell’s final session from September, 1956 in Atlanta, Georgia. Interspersed  between the sixteen songs, that range from “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” and “Kill It Kid” to a hilarious reworking of the classic “My Blue Heaven” and “Basin Street Blues” are extensive “off the cuff,” frank contextualizing spoken sections, with McTell prompted by blues historian Larry Cohn, and conversation subjects ranging from the bluesman’s Early Life, Shooting Craps, Drinking, Train songs, New Orleans and on. Although McTell is not at the peak of his talents, he still puts the point across with favorites including “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” “Kill It Kid,” “Basin Street Blues” and an inventive, hilarious reworking of the classic “My Blue Heaven.” Standouts from the first disc would begin with a pair from Kokomo Arnold (aka Gitfiddle Jim) from Memphis, circa May 1930 (“Rainy Night Blues” and Paddlin’ Blues”),  Barbecue Bob’s invigorating coupling of “Jambooger Blues” and “Black Skunk Blues” and continue with Josh White’s inspired rendition of “John Henry” (from an NBC 1941 radio broadcast) as well as a couple of unissued “test pressings” by Prince Moore—the intriguingly titled “Mississippi Water #2” and “Market Street Rag #1.“ Throughout, the sound quality is superb, a fact-packed, image-laden accompanying booklet is illuminating and, in addition to label owner Paul Swinton’s East Coast Blues historical essay, also contains a piece by Chris Smith concerning the details of the vaunted 1956 session. Highly recommended!—Gary von Tersch

Blues & The Soul Of Man:
An Autobiography Of Nehemiah “Skip” James
From Interviews with Stephen Calt
Mel Bay Books (with online audio)

Born and raised in Bentonia, Mississippi, Skip James learned guitar in his late teens from a local musician, Henry Stuckey, and also began playing piano under the tutelage of an older Arkansas performer, Will Crabtree. For my money, Nehemiah “Skip” James was the most spellbindingly hypnotic of all the Delta bluesmen, with Fred McDowell running a close second. A professional musician from 1924 on, James recorded 18 released sides for Paramount that got lost in the wake of the Great Depression, whereupon he took a job as choir director in his reformed-bootlegger father’s Baptist church and, more or less, vanished into obscurity. Until 1964, when blues enthusiasts John Fahey, Bill Barth and Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine found him in bad shape in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, bought him a guitar and persuaded him to appear at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival where his recalls of his vintage songs were still hauntingly powerful. The “rediscovery” of Son House at about the same time jump-started the start of the blues revival in the United States. A whole career followed for James as his skills appeared little diminished—his dark, minor-key guitar played in a Crossnote tuning with an astonishingly intricate, classically-informed finger-picking technique complemented by his “deep” song lyrics and expressively haunting, falsetto vocals. This book, derived from Stephen Calt’s voluminous interviews with James, before his death in 1969, is a welcome extension of his 1994 James biography, I’d Rather Be The Devil, as he tells the wild, often scary life story in his own words with chapters like “Nothin’ But The Devil,” “The Music Racket,” “Tangled Up In The Sixties,” “Hard Raisin’ In Jim Crow Country” and “Bootlegging For The Boss Man” leading the way. The stark, engrossing tale, accompanied by a host of vintage photographs as well as a cogent essay and charts by Tom Feldmann is hard to put down. A terrific release. Buy it!—Gary von Tersch 

Blues Therapy
By Anita Schlank, Ph.D., & Tab Benoit
48HrBooks 2019

This brief book by a blues-loving psychotherapist and a renowned Louisiana blues musician is revelatory, and worthwhile reading for those who love the art form, are curious about the stresses of a musician’s life, or want to know more about common forms of addiction and mental illness.
In the terse opening sentence of the Foreword, one’s attention is immediately corraled: “I am crazy.”  Written by singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer/label co-founder Mike Zito, in three starkly candid pages it summarizes what is to follow, and the predominant message which resonates through the book: Therapy, Recovery, and Spirituality.  Two valuable introductions follow.  In the first, Dr. Schlank provides capsule definitions of common psychiatric disorders and dispels eight prevalent but false myths about them.  Of special interest to both musicians and fans, she then discusses The Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity, and Therapeutic Effects of the Blues.  Her language is accessible, and her knowledge is impressive; musicians, blues fans, and even general readers will be fascinated by much of the discussion.
Benoit follows with his own introduction, emphasizing that “the artistry of the blues is in the performance.  The writing is simplified so you can make it almost 100% emotional expression….There must be something therapeutic about playing the blues because very few blues musicians die by suicide…they live to be the oldest, still-working musicians of any genre…and it’s also one of the only areas of our culture in which the elders are respected.”
He concludes with a section on The Lifestyle of the Blues Musician, providing insight into the temptations and tribulations as well as rewards of that lifestyle.
The bulk of the book is comprised of subsequent interviews conducted by Schlank with fourteen blues musicians, many of whose names will be immediately familiar. Among the repetitive and revealing questions that she poses are: what are the benefits and perils of the musician’s lifestyle? Does the blues evoke more emotion than other genres of music?  Is songwriting healing for you?  Have you been in therapy? on medication?   Did you resist seeking help?  Which intervention was most helpful for you?  Have audiences been supportive?  Is there a particular song that was/is most healing for you?  What advice do you have for other musicians struggling with addiction or mental health?  Do you have any advice for therapists who treat musicians?
The bravery of the musicians in exposing their struggles here publicly, and the honesty of their responses, is breathtaking.  Mike Welch and Phil Pemberton talk at length about their fight against depression.  Ronnie Earl and Beth Hart illuminate some of the challenges of bipolar disorder.  For Janiva Magness, Amanda Fish, and Annika Chambers, dysfunctional families and childhood abuse left long-term residual scars they are forced to confront. Eric Gales, Billy Price, and Anders Osborne shed light on the ravages of substance abuse.  All of the respondents emphasize the individual nature of each person’s challenges, the importance of commitment to a healthy lifestyle - sleep, good nutrition, exercise - and the ability to control adversity and live a successful professional and personal life.
Proceeds from the sale of Blues Therapy go to the Blues Foundation’s HART Fund (Handy Artists Relief Trust), which aids blues musicians and their families who have serious health concerns.  Kudos to Schlank, Benoit, and HART for producing a pithy and important treatise.—Steve Daniels

Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story
A John Anderson & Sandra Warren Film
Gravidas Ventures DVD

Horn From the Heart is a highly entertaining and informative documentary of the life and career of the influential blues musician Paul Butterfield. It traces his story from growing up in the shadows of the incredible Chicago blues scene of late 1950s/early 1960s until his tragically early demise in 1987 at the age of forty-four.
It tells his story through interviews with many family members, associates and bandmates, including original Paul Butterfield Blues Band members Elvin Bishop, (who befriended Butterfield in college and subsequently accompanied him to many South Chicago blues venues, often sitting in with some of the greats, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf) and drummer Sam Lay, who along with bassist Jerome Arnold, left Wolf’s band to give the Butterfield band instant credibility. The missing and final piece to the puzzle was Chicago hot shot guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, who joined the band at producer Paul Rothchild’s (The Doors) request, after turning down the offer multiple times previously.
The integrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band blazed a trail with Butterfield’s incomparable harmonica, fiery vocals and Bloomfield’s blistering guitar work, turning on America’s white audience to hot electric blues and in turn, promoting the works of the blues masters. Their 2nd album, East-West, is considered a masterpiece, predating the fusion of jazz and rock (and Eastern influences) years before Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
The film follows the many subsequent personnel changes in the Butterfield band as well as his move to the artist enclave of Woodstock, NY in the 70s, where Butterfield maintained a balance of simple family living in the countryside and music career, gigging out mostly on the weekends. Through the ups and downs of his career, Butterfield’s talent never waned. His performance on the Cinemax concert special A Blues Session: B.B. King and Friends was breathtaking, onstage with B.B. and Albert King, along with Stevie Ray Vaughan and others less than a month before he died. – Bob Monteleone


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