Blues Reviews Oct/Nov 2021
A Bluesman Came to Town
Headline: Blues icon and lauded producer and songwriter combine for a synergistically sizzling set of blues tunes.
Tommy Castro’s seventh album for Alligator adds to his stellar resume and represents a new and successful experiment for him. About a decade ago Castro revamped his band from a horn-driven ensemble to the spare Painkillers quartet. On this outing his collaborators instead are a group of famed session musicians: guitarist Rob McNelley, bass guitarist Tommy MacDonald, and keyboard maven Kevin McKendree. They are shepherded by drummer and producer Tom Hambridge, who co-wrote eleven of the thirteen original songs with Castro. Also new for Castro is a concept album; the theme here: a young blues wannabe leaves his home town in pursuit of musical knowledge and advancement. Castro avers that the tales are not autobiographical, but he has effectively conjured an involving coming-of-age journey.
Introducing the saga is “Somewhere,” which describes the protagonist bluesman’s dissatisfaction with his life “in the middle of nowhere”; the mid-tempo track is aided by nifty harmonica fills by Jimmy Hall. The latter lends backing vocal on the title number, which describes our itinerant musician’s arrival in his mecca of promise. Bass and organ mesh deliciously and there is a fine guitar solo. Next we are grooving! with the gospel rocker “Child Don’t Go,” imploring our man to “take that guitar off your back/get your suitcase all unpacked”; Mike Emerson of the Painkillers plays some splendid piano and San Francisco Bay Area’s Terrie Odabi and Castro together testify vocally. “You to Hold On To” modulates the tempo and sports a 1950s feel as the protagonist expresses his loneliness while chasing his dream. That dream also requires perseverance and guile, as revealed in “Hustle,” redolent with funk and featuring saxophone by former long-time Castro band member Keith Crossan.
Another travail of pursuing success is the ruthless greed and deceit of some promoters, as detailed in the rocker “I Got Burned,” this time McKendree shining on piano and Castro delivering one of his many stinging guitar solos. It’s followed by the set’s longest track, the slow “Blues Prisoner,” piano and guitar engaging in fine interplay. I’m a sucker for a great slow blues, and this fits the bill; it is reminiscent of Boz Scagg’s classic rendition of the Fenton Robinson standard “Loan Me a Dime.”
Yet all is not dismal for our man, as he declares in “I Caught a Break,” a full-speed variation of Chuck Berry’s rocker “Johnny B Goode.” The bluesman still has to contend with the temptations of success, though; that message is contained in “Women, Drugs and Alcohol” and “Draw the Line.” Finally, he has had enough: “I Want to Go Back Home,” again mines the 1950s vibe, with Castro showcasing his terrific soul singing around the symbiosis of McKendree on organ and award-winning Deanna Bogart on saxophone (with a spirited solo) as our man longs to return to his origins and his abandoned significant other. He gets there in the final track, “Somewhere (Reprise),” with keening slide guitar and with Painkillers Randy McDonald on bass and Bowen Brown on drums helping to bring him, and this fine release, right back home.
The songs are well conceived and progress organically; Castro delivers the goods on guitar and vocals, and the supporting cast is superior. What’s not to like? Cue the award nominations.—Steve Daniels
Alligator Records 2021
Texas blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland has had an eye-popping journey. She first picked up her mother’s guitar at age six, and has become lead guitarist since 2018 in the band of famed bluesman John Mayall. After several years of homelessness, she has attained national recognition and the plaudits of fellow musicians, including Bob Dylan. From gigs in small towns and obscure releases, she has ascended to prominence on the venerable Alligator label.
“Tempting Fate” lengthens her list of notable albums but is her first on Alligator. It was produced by blues and roots rocker Dave Alvin. The ten tracks provide ample space for Wonderland to purvey her powerful and poignant vocals in tandem with her protean guitar skills. The rhythm duo of drummer Kevin Lance and bassist Bobby Perkins collaborates on all tracks, five of which are originals.
The covers are well chosen for Wonderland’s skills. “The Laws Must Change” is a tune from Mayall’s classic 1969 “The Turning Point,” an album which featured an ensemble sans drums and electric lead guitar. The version here is a syncopated rendition allowing Wonderland free rein on her electric axe. The slight country twang in Carolyn’s singing meshes well with co-vocalist Jimmie Dale Gilmore on their take of the Dylan tune “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” On that song Cindy Cashdollar adds lap steel guitar renderings. The longest and final track of the set is “Loser,” a Grateful Dead number, fronted by the commingled ethereal guitars of Carolyn and Alvin and Wonderland’s otherworldly vocal range and conviction.
Topical matters are addressed in the opening track of the set, the rocking “Fragile Peace and Certain War,” augmented by Alvin on rhythm guitar. Following is “Texas Girl and Her Boots,” a shuffle replete with wry humor and with the added bonus of Marcia Ball pounding the piano keys. Unrequited love and an unfaithful lover are the familiar tropes invoked in “Broken Hearted Blues.” “Fortunate Few” is a slower shuffle with some of Wonderland’s most sublime singing, and that vocalizing remains compelling in the country-inflected “Crack in the Wall,” Alvin again adding six string rhythm. “Honey Bee” delves into the Tex-Mex genre, aided by some nifty accordion by Jan Flemming, and “On My Feet” dips into the jazz realm, introduced and bolstered by some fine tinkly piano riffs and fills by Red Young.
Into her third decade of performing, Carolyn Wonderland has joined the ranks of the blues elite, and “Tempting Fate” is a worthy addition to her resume and a delicious gift to her blues-loving appreciators.— Steve Daniels
It is Well With My Soul
Soulful Femme is a Pittsburgh-based duo of vocalist Stevee Wellons and guitarist Cheryl Rinovato. Both talented women have each carved their own careers and only recently joined forces to form Soulful Femme. Wellons has been a fixture on the Pittsburgh scene for 25 years. Her Stevee Wellons Band had won the 2015 western PA’s Blues Challenge and is known for her high energy stage presence. Cheryl Rinovato started out as a studio musician in New England after graduation from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Since relocating to her hometown of Pittsburgh she has been a first call session guitarist and producer and even has her own signature model by the Delaney Guitars company.
It is Well With My Soul opens and closes with two brief movements of the title track, composed by Horatio Spafford. The first starts a cappella, with a touch of organ and the final track really takes us to church, with Stevee Wellons’ voice soaring over a gospel choir. Rinovato wrote the remaining tracks, with the exception of “Ribbon”, written by Mark Byars, who sings on that track. The 2nd track is the very funky “Set You Free”, with opening 9th chords by Rinovado setting the table for a hellacious horn chart and some breakdowns featuring exciting popping bass. “Trouble” is a traditional shuffle, showcasing Rinovado’s informed, clean sounding blues chops. Guest stars include Bernard Allison, who lays down some screaming slide guitar on “Dead Man’s Blues,” and Joanna Connor, who lends her distinctive slide work to the 6/8 “40 Under.” “Fearless One” reminds one of the jazzier side of the great Stevie Wonder, with some attractive chord changes and a stellar piano solo. The rocking “Bitter Taste” is a highlight, especially the instrumental section, when the B3 organ solo gives way to Rinovato’s soaring lead, briefly suggesting a little Allman Brothers guitar climb, before culminating in Wellons’ testifying over the fade. The focal point of the album is, of course, the angelic vocals of Wellons and Rinovado ties everything together with her versatile guitar stylings. A fine debut from these talented ladies and here’s to looking forward to more in the future. – Bob Monteleone
Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps
Blue Heart Records 2021
Get ready for some real listening pleasure: Teresa James is at her peak.
Since moving from her birthplace in Houston to Los Angeles, singer and pianist James and her band have released over a dozen albums, culminating in two dazzling 2019 releases, “Live!” and “Here in Babylon.” The latter received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and over the last few years James has been tapped for multiple Blues Music Awards. “Rose-Colored Glasses,” recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic, is a deliberate attempt at spirit-raising during a time of severe stress. As well, it is an endeavor to showcase and thank several of James’s Texas guitarist buddies. The album succeeds splendidly on both fronts.
The long-standing core of the Rhythm Tramps is stable: husband and songwriter Terry Wilson on bass guitar, Billy Watts on guitar, and Jay Bellerose (with occasional Herman Matthews) on drums. The guest guitarist lineup is impressive, to say the least. You may already be familiar with Johnny Lee Schell and Anson Funderburgh, but the lesse-known Dean Parks, David Millsap, Lee Roy Parnell, Yates McKendree, and James Pennebaker display similar stellar skills in their solo appearances. Ubiquitous organist Kevin McKendree is present on all dozen tracks to provide swirling and penetrating soul. Deserving of major kudos is trumpeter and horn arranger Darrell Leonard, formerly of the Phantom Blues Band, aided by saxophonist Paulie Cerra. The horn contributions are superb, as is Leonard’s brief but scintillating solo on one of my favorite tracks, “All You Ever Bring Me Is the Blues.”
That song, as are all, was written or co-composed by Wilson. His bass playing is consistently steady, and he plays some tasty slide guitar on “Everybody Everybody,” a track which also reveals the creativity of Bellerose on drums and Kevin McKendree on the Hammond B3. James’s considerable artistry on piano is less frequently obvious on this set, although on “All You Ever…” and “Things Ain’t Like That” she lets it rip.
The undeniable focus of “Rose-Colored Glasses” is Teresa James’s vocalizing, and more than ever I am convinced that she is in the absolute upper echelon of contemporary singers. She can rasp, croon, shout, declare, testify, and cajole. Her voice is pure, with just a hint of country twang. She can hit notes with purity and without a twinge of tremolo and sustain them. Her singing evokes comparison with Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and several country singers, but also reminds me of the late, great pop-soul singer Laura Nyro. Why? Because in many of each’s songs, the passion and uplift are so intense that I am moved to listen repeatedly and try to sing along.
After the mid-tempo groove of the first ten songs of this set, it concludes with two upbeat anthems of hope, “Rise Together” and “Gimme Some Skin.” They represent a fitting coda to an album of excellent musicianship and some of the best singing that I have heard in years.—Steve Daniels
Third Man Records bringing the best from the past an bringing it to the best in the future
Blind Willie Johnson
American Epic: The Best of Blind Willie Johnson
Third Man Records
Blind Willie Johnson was a gospel-based blues and folk singer/songwriter/guitarist born in Pendleton, Texas in 1897. He emerged in the late ’20s as one of the founding fathers of American roots music. Many of his songs have been referenced, co-opted and covered by 20th and 21st Century rock and pop icons. And certainly, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Staple Singers and numerous others owe a debt of gratitude to Johnson’s songs of overcoming hard times, spirituality and redemption.
In 2017 the story of Blind Willie Johnson’s inclusion of his music on the NASA Voyager probe was featured in the award-winning PBS documentary series “American Epic.” This beautifully packaged and restored sou.ndtrack album, spotlighting some of his classic recordings from 1927-1930, is lovingly presented and mastered on high-grade vinyl. It is executively produced by T-Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White for Third Man Records.
Johnson was well known for his gritty vocal delivery and fluid slide technique. An oft-covered gospel staple that was a favorite of Bob Dylan, among many others, is “John the Revelator.” It is the opening track that introduces the listener to Johnson’s raspy and testifying sound, accompanied by frequent backing vocalist Willie B. Richardson. That nimble slide work and familiar vocal refrain follows on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” There’s no question the sentiment and roots of rock ‘n roll are established in the feel of this song. “God Moves on the Water” is a similar archetype for the gospel idiom. This is, perhaps, one of Johnson’s most articulate blends of righteous messaging, mellifluous phrasing and brisk guitar work. While many people rightly associate the “boogie beat” with John Lee Hooker, he would probably be the first to claim Johnson as one of its early progenitors. “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole” gets a modal one-chord drone going that has “boogie” written all over it.
The introduction to Side B is ushered in with the song “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time.” This is, no doubt, the inspiration for Eric Clapton’s mid ’70s rocking blues hit “Motherless Children.” It’s a nice mix of folk and down-home blues as Johnson spins a tale of woe about dealing with the youthful loss of a parent. Other highlights include Johnson’s nicely arranged unison vocals, with Richardson, on “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” the intricate slide and strumming patterns on “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” and the haunting moan of the album closer, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.”
While Blind Willie Johnson was at the epicenter of modern Americana music, perhaps one of his greatest contributions is his innate ability to infuse his songs and stylistic approach, with a secular as well as sacred appeal.—Eric Harabadian
Complete Recorded Works Volumes 1-4
Third Man Records/Document Records
When we talk about the seeds of American music and, in particular, folk and blues, Mississippi-born singer-songwriter and guitarist Charley Patton is one of its founding fathers. An original proponent of slide guitar playing, Patton also frequently collaborated with violinist Henry Sims who added a country flavor to much of the music.
Patton was of African-American and Native American (Cherokee) heritage and often celebrated that fact in song. Growing up in the Delta area of Ruleville, Mississippi, he performed at plantations and local taverns. He befriended Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and is also believed to be a major influence on, and mentor to, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Son House. His powerful vocal style and versatile guitar work really connected with audiences. He quickly also recognized the value in, not only being adept at his craft, but being a consummate entertainer as well. That’s one aspect, in particular, that many fellow up-and-coming blues vocalists and instrumentalists were attracted to.
In addition to working with fiddle player Sims, his wife Bertha Lee sang with him and a second guitarist, Willie Brown, provided support on some records as well and recorded the wealth of his material for Paramount Records. The prolific bluesman would go on to record an amazing 68 songs between 1929 and 1934. Unquestionably, Patton became one of the largest selling blues artists that earnestly put a spotlight on this indigenous American sound. Tragically, Paramount’s masters of Patton’s material were sold as scrap as the company went out of business. But, thankfully, through various collectors, revivalists and other means, Patton’s valuable and influential catalog has been preserved.
Over the course of each album in the series you get nearly Patton’s entire catalog, with over 60 recorded songs. It’s interesting because you can hear the evolution of a developing artist, both in terms of performance and recording techniques. And many of the songs included in the series such as “A Spoonful Blues,” “I’m Goin’ Home” and “Magnolia Blues” were all career-making templates for signature touchstones by artists like Cream, Ten Years After and The Grateful Dead, respectively. As a bonus there are also alternate takes of songs like the gospel classic “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Elder Greene Blues” and the spiritually-infused “Lord I’m Discouraged.”
The partnership of Third Man and Document Records spare no expense to present this collector’s series that features haunting and provocative graphics, detailed liner notes by journalist Mick Middles and pristine sound restoration by Gary Atkinson. Each disc in the series is pressed on beautiful high-grade vinyl for maximum durability and ample frequency range.—Eric Harabadian
Southern Bred R&B Rockers Vol. 18
Jumpin’ From Six To Six
Southern Bred R&B Rockers Vol. 19
You Better Believe It
Southern Bred Rockers Vol. 20
Mardi Gras In New Orleans
The final three compilations that focus on Louisiana and New Orleans in Koko-Mojo’s long-running Southern Bred series collect a few famous names along with quite a lot of relatively obscure acts, though some of the songs will be quite familiar. Way cool numbers from Vol. 18 include Smiley Lewis‘ “romping, stomping, high energy title“ Can’t Stop Loving You” while legendary blues shouter Roy Brown’s “voice raises octaves with his lungs fully expanded as he delivers his frantic message during “Ain’t No Rockin’ No More” and Jimmy Wilson’s feisty version of the title tune was recorded in Miami with Lafayette Thomas on guitar and, reputably, Jimmy McCracklin on piano. Others feature the likes of Tony Allen and The Chimes (“Check Yourself Baby”), ace drummer Earl Palmer (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), Clifton Chenier (“It Happened So Fast”), Billy Tate (“Single Life”), Elmore Nixon (“A Hepcat’s Advice”) and Plaz Adams, who “brings luster to the album with his prescient “Rock And Roll Is Spreading,” which was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio.” Further eye-openers include titles by the likes of Lloyd Price, Shirley And Lee, Eddie Bo, Johnny Copeland and George Miller And His Mid-Driff’s with his dance floor filler “Boogie’s The Thing.” All in all, a musical melee with a battle between the traditional R&B artists and those who switched to Rock ‘N’ Roll. Vol. 19 opens with nifty selections from both Fats Domino (the misogynous “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman”) and Tommy Ridgley (with his “sneakin’ around” classic “Early Dawn Boogie”) and continues through the likes of Jay Nelson’s pleading rocker “Don’t You Want A Man Like Me,” the duo of Herb Hardesty and Walter Charles “Papoose” Nelson Jr. with their hard-driving “Why Did We Have To Part,” Chris Kenner’s R&B rocker “Grandma’s House” and Lennie LaCour’s boisterous “Jungle Rock.” Other faves feature the likes of Nellie Lutcher and Her Rhythm (“He’s A Real Gone Guy”), Lonesome Sundown’s advisory “Learn To Treat Me Better,” Ray Johnson & The Bystanders yearning for “A Yellow Mellow Hardtop” and Sidney Semien and His All Stars’ bluesy commentary “She’s My Morning Coffee.” Series compiler Germany’s Dee Jay Mark Armstrong introduces Vol. 20 thusly: “The eighth and concluding exploration leaves the state the same way it began, packed full of hot recordings from artists that provide music that is certain to please. The album includes group recordings with uncredited regional artists, and two New Orleans-bred Italian artists who have an R&B sound (Sam Butera and Louis Prima) are added as an exception to the concept. One thing is certain the Mardi Gras party is full of fun, frolics and dance music.” Indeed. Favorites around my house include not only a pair of knockout instrumentals (the Royal Kings’ ROUSING “Bouncin’ The Boogie” and Little Richard’s Upsetters with the clothes-free “The Strip” ) but cross-dressing Pat Valdelar (a long time “hostess” at the fabled Dew Drop Inn) with “Baby Rock Me” as well as The Spiders with their charter “I’m Slippin’ In,” Fats Domino covering Professor Longhair’s title tune anthem, George Stevenson/ Blazer Boy with the lowdown “Meet Me At Grandma’s Joint” and the dancer “New Orleans Twist” and The Kidds in a party mood with “Drunk Drunk Drunk.” Other recent Koko-Mojo projects that are also worth checking out include Wolf Pack (for Mississippi saxophone fans) and all five titles in their Rock And Roll Floozy series whose songs (and covers) are on the salacious side as indicated by their titles—from Good For Nothing Woman, Ping Pong Baby and Lazy Susan to Dangerous Redhead and Fatty Patty. Great Googa Mooga!—Gary von Tersch
Spotlight On Jimmy Mccracklin
The Rockin’ Man
Germany’s Koko-Mojo label hits the sweet spot once again with this alertly compiled, 28 track journey through the earliest (and best) recordings by the Helena, Arkansas-born singer and pianist Jimmy McCracklin, who eventually got his due with a series of latter day dance hits (most famously “The Walk” from 1958 as well as “The Georgia Slop” “The Wobble,” “The Chicken Scratch” and “The Drag) yet had earlier recorded a series of jump blues, rhythm ‘n‘ blues, boogies, rock ‘n’ roll, blues and soul sounds with his Blues Blasters combo on a variety of West Coast labels (Globe, Irma, Modern, RPM and Swing Time) from 1949-1951—usually highlighted by the boisterous, hard rocking guitar histrionics of Lafayette “Thing” Thomas. It’s difficult to pick favorites from this era because all of the tracks impress—from “Big Foot Mama,” “Gotta Cut Out,” “What’s Your Phone Number” and “Blues Blasters Boogie” to “I Wanna Make Love To You,” “Savoy’s Jump” and “Beer Tavern Girl” to cite a few. The final three recordings feature McCracklin’s skills as a session pianist adding his rough and tumble touch to Jerry Thomas’ “Don’t Have To Worry (Jumpin’ In The Heart Of Town), Johnny Parker and His Orchestra’s “What You Did To Me” and Jimmy Wilson and His Blues Blasters’ “Oh Red.” As compiler Dee Jay Mark Armstrong cogently puts it: “This deck is an all-around showcase of boisterous titles that will move your feet as it encompasses exquisite up-tempo boogie blues, modulated R&B rockers and rasping jump blues.” I second that emotion.—Gary von Tersch
Soul Remedy: Blues You Can Use
Known to his followers as Rayjay, Ray Jaurique is one of the most popular performers on California’s Central Coast. A singer, songwriter, and guitarist based in Ventura, he and his band The Uptown Brothers have no trouble garnering repeat bookings. Their shows range from simmering to sizzling as they deliver a mix of blues, soul, and rock. “Soul Remedy,” as its title implies, lands firmly on the soul spectrum, but blues is its basis.
On the set of ten original tunes Jaurique is backed by trio of adept bandmates. Bassist Kirk Maxson, formerly with the now defunct Ventura band Blue Stew, is unerring in dealing out a solid foundation, in tandem with drummer Michael Golden, whose resume includes three decades of experience up and down the West Coast. Rounding out the ensemble is pianist Anthony Dichiacchio, whose skilled tinkling on the ivories also reflects years of experience. Nine guest musicians appear on several tracks each, most notably former Phantom Blues Band members trumpeter Darrell Leonard and organ maestro Mike Finnigan. (Rest in peace, Mike, who died in Aug. 2021.)
The set is just over a half hour in length, and there is no flagging of energy or vibrancy. Finnigan’s value on organ emerges forthwith on the opening number, “All I Can Say,” a rocking shuffle signaling dancing is welcome. Two more shuffles follow, both enhanced by a spirited horn section. The next three numbers mine the soul tradition, and benefit from Jaurique’s smooth baritone vocalizing. “Get Gone” then stirs some funk into the mix, with Deb Ryder chiming in on backing vocal, and the subsequent “Slow It Down” reverts to pure, fervid soul.
The penultimate track, “Creepin’,” is an album highlight, with the basic quartet vamping with zest, Dichiacchio especially shining on piano and Jaurique embellishing his generally excellent playing with a few almost subliminal Albert Collins guitar licks. The set concludes with the animated upbeat shuffle “Another Blues Song.”
His audiences always want to hear more from Ray Jaurique, and I predict that you will, too.—Steve Daniels
Lindsay Beaver & Brad Stivers
Beaver & Stivers
Lindsay and Stivers are currently two of the hottest young singers and musicians emerging from the jumping Austin, Texas music scene—Lindsay for her heightened, no-holds-barred vocals and assertive drumming, and Brad for his ravenous guitar work and signature pleading vocal style. Beaver comes from Halifax, Nova Scotia and Stivers cut his teeth in Colorado clubs before they were both drawn to Austin where their noteworthy euphonious chemistry came together. For their self-titled duo debut they went to the Halifax studio of Garrett Mason, one of Canadas’s arch blues musicians along with Joe Murphy (whose inventive harp work on the squalling “I Know What To Do” is ear-catching) and organist/bassist Barry Cooke as well as guest guitarists Kirk Fletcher, (who really shines on the lead-off number “One Condition”) and Zach Zunis—who takes a brilliantly engaging solo on “You’ve Got No Right.” The twelve compelling tracks comprise eleven originals and a riveting cover of the classic Falcons hit “You’re So Fine” that demonstrate their musically-grounded insight into blues, Americana, soul and hard-driving, take-no-prisoners Texas R&B. Well worth searching out!—Gary von Tersch
Altered Five Blues Band
Holler If You Hear Me
Blind Pig 2021
Don’t let anybody convince you that the bastions of blues are limited to Chicago, the Deep South, and the West Coast. It ain’t true. (Ask any blues lover from Rhode Island!) The Midwest sports multiple stellar blues bands, and among them must be included the Altered Five Blues Band from Milwaukee. This quintet has been together for almost two decades, honing their chops to a fine edge. “Holler If You Hear Me” is their sixth release. Their previous two, “Charmed & Dangerous” from 2017 and “Ten Thousand Watts” from 2019, received multiple award recognitions.
The new album is destined for kudos as well. It showcases the group’s strengths, which are manifold. First is the caliber of musicianship. The rhythm section extraordinaire is bolstered by drummer Alan Arber, who provides an impeccable foundation without showmanship, although he does let loose with a few dazzling turnarounds. Raymond Tevich commands the keyboards gracefully. Bass guitar is courtesy of Mark Solveson, whose work is stellar – and one of the album’s best aspects is its clear production, so that each instrument, including the bass (often under-exposed in many albums), is heard distinctly. For that, credit goes to engineer Zach Allen and ubiquitous producer Tom Hambridge.
At the fore are the two Jeffs, Taylor and Schroedl. The former is the vocalist, who eschews crooning for power, grit, and boisterous soul. The latter provides guitar, with excellent rhythm when Taylor is singing, and intermittent leads (with occasional overdubbing) that incorporate chords, forays into the high register, and some rapid single note bursts reminiscent of the playing of the late Son Seals.
A second strength of the group is its symbiosis, no surprise given their longevity as bandmates. A third, not to be discounted, is the quality of the songs. All of the tunes were written or co-written by Schroedl, and they mostly hew to the standard twelve bar format, with adequate tempo variety to prevent monotony…which would be highly unlikely at any rate, given the wry wit of the lyrics. The band is known for its songwriting, and many of the thirteen tracks here are guaranteed to provoke chuckles or even guffaws. Some of the titles hint at the sly humor: “Guilty of a Good Time,” “Where’s My Money?” “All Suit, No Soul,” and my favorite, “Clear Conscience, Bad Memory.”
The set is augmented on five tracks by the harmonica artistry of Jason Ricci, whose playing avoids classic Chicago blues harp tropes; it’s never obvious where he’s going during his solos, but he gets there every time.
The album closes with “Big Shout Out,” a tribute to past great blues performers. These guys are credibly aspiring to that level.—Steve Daniels
Brad Vickers and his Vestapolitans
The Music Gets Us Through
Man Hat Tone
Brad Vickers is back with his Vestapolitans with a new release, following 2019’s Twice As Nice, with the apt title The Music Gets Us Through. Recorded just before lockdown, the album brings us more of the camaraderie and good vibes of its predecessor. The core group of Vickers on guitars & vocals, Margey Peters on bass & vocals, drummer Bill Rankin and Jim Davis on saxophones is backed by an assortment of friends and musical cohorts, playing a lovely mix of blues, ragtime, hill country and roots ’n roll. Mostly comprised of originals by Vickers and Peters, the album also features a Jimmy Reed and a Tampa Red cover. Jimmy Reed’s “Take It Slow” features some nice work from guests Mikey Junior and Dean Shot on harmonica and lead guitar. Margey Peters’ “Big Wind” sounds like a favorite old standard and is supported by V. D. King’s upright bass, wrapped with Charlie Burnhams’ violin and Dave Gross’s fat-toned but old school guitar flourishes. The title track might be assumed to be about current events but is actually describing the tribulations of playing on the road, behind some classic honky tonk piano by Dave Keyes. “What In the World” features Vickers playing slide throughout the tune in “Vastopol” tuning, commonly known as open tuning. As in Twice As Nice, Margey Peter’s songs and vocals play a large role, enabling Vickers to lay back in the comfortable role of sideman. Alternating between the two different vocal styles of Vickers and Peters creates a nice contrast for the listener. On Tampa Red’s “I’ll Never Let You Go”, Jim Davis ditches his saxes in favor of his clarinet, lending an even more old timey feel to the number. Listening to The Music Gets Us Through is like getting together with some nice old friends for a pleasant evening after not seeing each other for a couple of years. — Bob Monteleone
Under Your Spell
Gulf Coast Records/Hillside Global
Under Your Spell is not a blues album in the traditional sense but it sure is a lotta fun. In case anyone has lived under a rock, Tito Jackson is the 3rd oldest of the ten-sibling musical Jackson clan out of Gary, Indiana and has been in the public’s consciousness since breaking out with the Jackson 5 in 1970. Under Your Spell is a heavily produced mix of blues and R & B grooves and rockers. The lone cover is the B.B. King standard “Rock Me Baby,” and it’s an absolute tour de force. Jazz guitar legend George Benson starts things off with his tasty licks and no less than three lead singers take over: Tito, Claudette King (B.B.’s daughter) and Michael Lee, who also trades rocking blues leads with Tito and Benson. “Love One Another” is another tune featuring a trio of singers: Tito, his Jackson 5 bandmate and younger brother Marlon Jackson and the inimitable bluesman Bobby Rush. Oh, by the way, none other than Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the track! As you can already tell, the album is a highly collaborative effort. Michael K. Jackson plays a huge role in the making of this record, co-writing with Tito and producing six of the eleven tracks. Tito Jackson produced four tracks and “You’re Gonna Push Me Too Far” was written, produced and mostly performed by KT and Rocc Thomas. Virtuoso Joe Bonamassa makes a cameo lending his slide guitar to “Under Your Spell.” The horn section of Jason Parfait and Ian Smith punch up six of the tracks, supplying even more polish to an already well executed recording. The infectious “Dyin Over Here” is a real hoot, with the hook, “I’m dying over here/ And I need some mouth to mouth.” The duo who created the Philly Sound, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, contribute a new song, “All in the Family Blues”, which finds Jackson dueting with guest singer Eddie Levert. The album wraps with “I Got Caught (Loving in a Dream),” written by Ice Pick Powell who also sings on the tune with Tito, name checking blues greats Johnnie Taylor and Muddy Waters. It’s hard to believe this is only Tito Jackson’s 2nd solo release, choosing to stay behind the scenes after he stopped making music with his brothers in the late 1980s. Here’s hoping he continues recording and sharing his own music, the world could use it. –—Bob Monteleone
Little Girl Blue
Singer/songwriter, pianist, arranger and civil rights activist Nina Simone’s music traversed an expansive width of styles, from jazz, folk and blues to R&B, gospel and pop. This album, her landmark 1959 release, is that uncommon debut effort that announces a musician who already, at the age of 24, possesses a fully matured artistic vision. Little Girl Blue is such a recording. As liners author Daphne A. Brooks comments: “ It presents an astonishingly daring, dazzlingly confident, endlessly adventurous artist with a deep well of formidable instrumentality up her sleeve as well as a wide and robust, rich and varied knowledge of jazz, blues, the American songbook, folk and spiritual standards and aesthetics.” As the set‘s original liner note writer, Joseph Muranyi, further explains: “Her unusual combination of classical training, the ecstatic and serious quality of negro church music which has influenced her vocal delivery and the “funky” and modern schools of jazz with which she has come into close contact all make for a novel and often inspiring jazz singer and instrumentalist.” These eleven tracks remain electrifying to listen to nearly 65 years after their issuance as she remits heartfelt ballads like “Don’t Smoke In Bed” and “Plain Gold Ring” as well as lively numbers like “Love Me Or Leave Me” and her up-beat reading of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Her surprisingly inventive interpretive skills are also evident with her memorable arrangements of Rodger and Hammertstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and her ultra-moody cover of Count Basie’s “Good Bait.” Her facility with classical music surfaces in the Bach-esque section in the fore-mentioned “Love Me Or Leave Me” and even more prominently on the title track which comprises fragments of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus.” Little Girl Blue also includes a pair of her most infamous songs—a breathtaking rendering of “I Loves You Porgy” was a large hit upon release as a single (cracking Billboard’s Top 20) along with her carefree effectuation of the Kahn/Donaldson standard “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” All in all, an auspicious beginning for Simone’s lengthy, socially conscious career. Five stars!—Gary vonTersch
New Fables Of The American South 1968-1973
It’s a vintage era for “deep cuts” compilations, particularly of the rurally rootsy variety, and this 24 track project is one is of the latest and best as it pays an all-in-one place fellowship tribute to the force of nature known as Bobbie Gentry and her 1967 breakthrough, noirish, storytelling epic “Ode To Billie Joe,“ which isn’t even here (Gentry is represented by “Belinda,” an insightful alternate-take character study from her final 1971 album Patchwork) but whose shadowy moods and textures hang, at times breathlessly, over the proceedings, elbows on knees and eyes wide open. Born in 1945, Gentry was a Las Vegas night-club dancer and fashion model before taking the pop charts by storm with her initial chart-topping Capitol release. She followed up with albums packed with songs in the same Southern Gothic vein such as “Okolona River Bottom Band,” “Chickasaw County Child” and “Mississippi Delta.” Some of the most resilient numbers here clearly bear the “Ode” stamp as Sammi Smith’s downcast “Saunders’ Ferry Lane” has a similarly enigmatic lyric and Hensen Cargill’s “Four Shades Of Love” is a romantic situational with death hanging in the air while Charlie Rich exhibits an in-the-pocket drive on “I Feel Like Going Home” and Tony Joe White tips in with his mellowly romantic “Widow Wimberly.” Other picks include Jerry Reed’s “Endless Miles Of Highway,” John Hartford’s observational “Mister Jackson’s Got Nothing To Do,” Waylon Jennings and the Kimberlys’ bleak “Drivin’ Nails In The Wall” and Tom T. Hall’s idyllic flashback “Strawberry Farms.” As project co-producer and liners author puts it: “The diverse voices here are resonant and reliable, and the productions take in the best of what pop had to offer in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Before the factionalism between pop-conscious Nashville and the hedonistic outlaws made it look inward again. This was a golden era for an atmospheric, incisive and progressive country music. It all began on the third of June on another sleepy, dusty Delta day.” Indeed!—Gary von Tersch
Cleveland Crochet & The Sugar Bees
Hillbilly Ramblers & Sugar Bees
Bear Family Records
In the heralded history of American popular music the name of fiddler, songwriter and band leader Cleveland Crochet will everlastingly be linked with the release of his third single, the immortal Cajun song “Sugar Bee,” that in 1961 climbed the Billboard charts as high as # 80. It was probably inevitable as Crochet, born in Hathaway, Louisiana in 1911, built his first fiddle out of a cigar box when he was twelve and initially performed every Saturday night at the Shamrock or the even funkier Moulin Rouge in sultry Lake Charles, Louisiana, later playing dates throughout eastern Texas and southwest Louisiana. This long-overdue tribute to Crochet features his complete recordings, including all alternate versions and the originally unreleased masters for a variety of local labels (Folk-Star, Goldband, Lyric and Swallow), from 1954-1963. As a bonus all the recordings by band members Verris “Shorty” LeBlanc (accordion) and Jay Stutes (steel guitar) accompanied, almost without exception by Crochet’s Sugar Bees, are also included. Highlights among the former, in addition to his groundbreaking “Sugar Bee,” include a couple of nifty waltzes (the mournful “Big Boy Waltz” and “Sha Meon Waltz”), the rock ‘n’ rolling “Deedle-E-Deedle-D-Da (Keep Knockin’)”, the easy-going “Drunkards Dream,” a sharp testimonial about his “Hound Dog Baby” and the hard-edged “Telephone Port Arthur.” LeBlanc picks begin with a vivid cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” a raucous “Good Morning Blues,” and the poignant “Rambler’s Lonely Dream” while Stutes, with his down-in-the alley steel guitar, shines with an energetic “Hey! Boss Man,” the good-natured “Come Back Home Little Girl,” the warm-hearted “Playmate” and the stirring “Mariez-vous Donc Jamais.” An accompanying 36-page booklet includes informative liners by Cajun expert Michael Hurtt and loads of images. Cajun blues at its best!—Gary von Tersch
Spotlight On Frankie & Lewis Lymon
The Harlem Hotshots
Money, Money, Money
Soprano lead singer Frankie Lymon, with his blissfully youthful, almost feminine, voice was born in Harlem in 1942, and fronted the accurately named Teenagers who, with Little Anthony’s Imperials, were forerunners for soul groups like the Chantels and the Temptations. In 1956, the group sold more than two million copies of their initial single “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” It turned out to be their biggest hit but after Lymon went solo in mid-1957 his career and that of the Teenagers fell into a steep decline with only a series of lukewarm singles scraping the charts. In February of 1968, at the age of 25, he was found dead in his grandmother’s bathroom of a heroin overdose with a syringe by his side. After his brother found fame with the Teenagers, Lewis responded by forming the doo-wopping Teenchords and auditioning for Fury Records’ Bobby Robinson who signed them on the spot. At the height of their popularity they performed at the Apollo Theater and in 1957 appeared in the rock ‘n’ roll movie Jamboree. But by 1959 the dream was over despite later comebacks on the early 1970s “oldies circuit” with reformed versions of both the Drifters and Teenchords. Not to infer that there’s a lack of quality sides here—Frankie shines on early charting sides like “I Promise To Remember,” “Who Can Explain,” “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” and “Goody Goody” (where’s “I Want You To Be My Girl” and “Out In The Cold Again” though?) while latter day covers like “It Hurts To Be In Love,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Short Fat Fannie” and “Waitin’ In School” are noteworthy—but where’s his great cover of “Little Bitty Pretty One”? Brother Lewis rises to the occasion with invigorating numbers such as “Dance Girl,” “Honey Honey” and “Your Last Chance.” They failed to garner national attention but in New York City they were stars. Nothing could have been sweeter or mattered. Early stars of that gestating doo-wop sound in all its glory. The thirty songs collected on Money, Money, Money, ranging from Barrett Strong’s fiery testimonial “Money (That’s What I Want)“ to Memphis Minnie’s laying-it-on the-line “Million Dollar Blues”— from Ray Charles’ amazing “Greenbacks” to Clyde McPhatters’ hard-driving “Money Honey”—from Sonny Boy Williamon’s infectious “Ninety Nine” to John Lee Hooker’s stark “I Need Some Money” and on and on and on are all top-notch socially-conscious commentaries from the golden age of rhythm and blues. Further favorites would begin with Jimmy Witherspoon’s still-true today “Money’s Getting Cheaper” while Detroit Junior tells his baby to cut down her spending on “Money Tree” and the Clovers lament their broke-ness on “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash.” Also noted is Lil’ Son Jackson’s great homeless blues “No Money,” while Eddie Burns warns his baby to stop “Messing With My Bread” and Varetta Dillard wants her man to “Send Me Some Money.” And on and on and on. You won’t need the skip button with this one!—Gary von Tersch
Rusty Ends Blues Band
“When I was a kid I learned a lot,” says veteran Louisville-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Rusty Ends. “I grew up hearing blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country music but blues is the face of it all,” he continues as he has no reluctance about flawlessly blending those styles—along with shades of rockabilly, old-school soul, that New Orleans rhumba beat and a teeny bit of jazz—into his own, quite singular musical gumbo. As he puts it: “People going to the honky tonks and juke joints, it’s the same kind of people. It’s the same kind of experiences. They’re wanting to do the same thing. They’re going there, they want to forget their troubles, have a good time.” This seventeen track, all Ends originals project is actually an expanded version of a poorly distributed album titled Rusty Ends Blues Band from 1996 on Rollin’ & Tumblin’ Records. Picks include the rockabilly-esque “What Next?,” the upbeat stomper “Heart Stealer,” a high-stepping instrumental accurately titled “Sinner’s Strut,” the atmospheric “Something Wrong Going On,” the cleverly lyric-ed “I’m Searching” and a catchy “last call” number titled “Don’t Call It Love.” Also don’t miss special guest Robbie Bartlett’s smokey, Julie London-esque vocal on the bewildering “Broken Dreams For Sale.” Hillbilly Hoodoo at its best!—Gary von Tersch
Welcome To The Land
Little Village CD
The opening paragraph of this project’s press release puts this totally timely nine track project in perspective thusly: “Two young men playing authentic original blues, the one-chord trance drone chanting form that preceded what most folks think of as the traditional 12 bar/AAB lyric structure, might seem like a musical anachronism. But when the song’s vocal chant kicks in “get cha foot off my neck,” you know it’s 2021 and as modern as it can be.” The two young yet well-seasoned musicians are Damion Pearson and Cameron Kimbrough who met one summer night in 2017 in a Beale Street club as Cameron, the grandson of the well-known Junior Kimbrough, seemed to bring his organic, stripped-down, back-to-basics rhythms from the invigorating, open air of Pott’s Camp, Mississippi to the jam-packed room. The pair, in addition to penning all nine songs here, both play guitar and sing accompanied by Kimbrough’s alert drumwork and Pearson’s mesmerizing harmonica shadings—Northern Mississippi hill country old-school groove music with elements of Memphis blues, soul, rock and pop at its finest if you will. The album opens with Damion’s “Who’s Gonna Ride,” an anthem to the pandemic, George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and continues through an invitation to “Groove With Me,” the John Lee Hooker-esque attestation “I’m Mad,” a subdued, uncompromising “You Got The Juice,” the heartfelt “Crossroads” (“do I take the high road or the low road”), another foot-stomping Hooker-inspired romp called “Go Downtown,” a captivatingly extroverted “Saturday Morning,” the subtly evocative “High And Low” and the soul baring “Look Out For The Wolf.” I only wish the album had more than nine songs. Uncompromising, by turns searing and romantic, this elemental music will move you. It’s a perfect example of why the non-profit Little Village label set out to uncover music that needed a hearing.—Gary von Tersch
2022 Blues Art Calendar/Cd
Boy, how time flies. This is the nineteenth volume of Blues Image’s Classic Blues Artwork From The 1920’s calendar—a virtual treasure trove of original advertising artwork and rare photographs of Pre-War singers, in addition to an enclosed 24 track CD containing rare and obscure recordings of both Pre-War and Post-War artists. The Pre-War classics on the CD feature greats like Lead Belly, Henry Thomas, Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Blind Willie Johnson, Furry Lewis, Victoria Spivey and others. Also included are two newly discovered 1930 sides by Washboard Walter (“Wafflin’ Blues”) and the enigmatic Black Byrd (“I Don’t Care What You Do”) as well as nine “live” songs by Lead Belly from 1940’s radio broadcasts. The latter are particularly interesting—sourced from the original transcription discs for a February 1945 appearance on the NBC radio network’s Regal Beer-sponsored Light And Mellow Show in which he is also interviewed and introduces each of the four selections he performs—“The Boll Weevil,” “ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Skip To My Lou” and “Take This Hammer.” The remaining five numbers were taken from a February 1949 broadcast on WNYC, a local New York station, and are probably the very last songs he performed “live” on the radio before his tragic death in December, 1949. Highlights include “Good Morning Blues,” “Stewball” and “Ain’t Gonna Let You Worry My Life No More.” This one-of-a-kind combo of calendar and CD facilely matches the songs with each month’s ad or artist—bringing the images to a life of sorts. Also included are a full-cover CD booklet and tray liners for calendar buyers to insert into their own jewel case. The perfect Christmas gift for blues lovers everywhere.—Gary von Tersch
Bob Marley & The Wailers
The Capitol Session
Mercury Studios CD
Bob Marley with his lineup-fluid Wailers group was a reggae band from Kingston’s Trench Town district in Jamaica. After winning critical acclaim with their debut 1973 Island album Catch A Fire (with its sleeve famously modeled on a Zippo lighter) they achieved international recognition with their rudie-styled songs of love and rebellion while Marley was hailed in the press as “the black Bob Dylan” as they toured the UK and US. But soon the band found themselves stranded in Las Vegas after having been kicked off a Sly and the Family Stone tour after just four shows. In the words of Joe Higgs, “our rhythms were too slow...our outfits were inappropriate, and we were rebels.” Through various twists of fate (detailed in John Masouri’s voluminous liners) they landed at the iconic Capitol Studios in West Hollywood, where they filmed and recorded this mellowly organic session that also represented a unique moment in the band’s career. The Wailers, at this point, comprised Peter Tosh, Joe Higgs, brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett and Earl “Wya” Lindo. Filmed ten years after their formation, Marley had already had several established hits throughout the ska and rock-steady eras and were rapidly evolving into a politically and socially charged unit after being inspired by the stateside civil rights movement, a variety of African liberation efforts and Rastafari, which they studied from their Rasta elders, as their lively-up music reflected the soul and strife of the period. Making apocalyptic yet poignant statements about life, liberty and social justice, the sentiments are infused in powerfully prayerful, consciousness-raising songs like “You Can’t Blame The Youth,” “Slave Driver,” “Duppy Conqueror “No More Trouble,” “Stir It Up,” “Burnin’ & Lootin’,” “Kinky Regae” and the set-closing, incendiary protest song “Get Up Stand Up.” An accompanying, well-recorded DVD contains two additional tracks—alternate versions of “Duppy Conqueror” and “Rastaman Chant.“ Spell-casting music.—Gary von Tersch
Lost Cause Records 2021
Think Johnny Cash, Lonnie Mack, and Dave Alvin stirred into a musical stew. The resulting concoction, Clint Morgan’s “Troublemaker,” is graced by a long list of gifted musicians, among them guitarists Watermelon Slim and Bob Margolin, harmonica ace Bob Corritore, and multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Kevin McKendree. The impresario and star is singer, pianist, and songwriter Clint Morgan.
Morgan is originally from Washington state, but his family roots are in Appalachia. This is his third album; it follows 2016’s “Scofflaw,” a set of almost twenty songs dispensing stories of various rogues and rebels. In “Troublemaker” Morgan expands his thematic horizon, but retains and exploits his gift for zesty hooks and clever lyrics. (In fact, the included booklet of lyrics is plenty entertaining in its own right.)
Morgan’s multifold talents are evident in each track. For example, “Ain’t That the Blues” is…you guessed it, a pretty straight twelve-bar outing, embellished by Corritore’s mouth harp fills, and enhanced by wit: “I had my doctor check me out/He said…Your prostate’s as big as a bowling ball/And both your kidneys leak/I’d a told you you had a week to live/If you’d a come in last week.” I winced and felt like laughing and crying simultaneously…while gyrating to the beat. On “Big River,” a cover of a Johnny Cash tune, Morgan’s singing indeed evokes memories of the late country music great, while Lonnie Mack guitar riffs comprise the substance. “Hungry Man Blues” is a modification of the Robert Johnson classic “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” a slow shuffle with risible lyrics: “Lord, she wash my clothes, she clean the house too/But she don’t know a kitchen stove/From a kangaroo…./I love that girl’s lovin’/but I need a T-bone steak.” Similarly Johnson’s “Walking Blues” is jocularly morphed into “Too Rich to Sing the Blues.”
In a thoroughly different vein, there is an excellent version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” with oboe, cello, and a beautiful backing female vocal. Nodding to social issues, there is a track about “Hurricane Harvey,” which devastated Texas in 2017, and then “Somebody Put a Walmart on the Farm,” akin in theme to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi” (“They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot”). There are even two versions of Morgan’s parody take on humorist Shel Silverstein’s “Cover of Living Blues”; the second version is sung by guest Watermelon Slim, to nice effect.
Aside from the one spiritual, the album is a full hour of a zesty amalgam of blues, rock, and country. It’s accomplished and thoroughly entertaining.—Steve Daniels
Rodd Bland & The Members Only Band
Live On Beale Street—A Tribute To Bobby “Blue” Bland
Nola Blue CD
As the son of the legendary singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, there’s no denying that Rodd Bland was born into the blues with no less than B.B. King for his godfather. But Rodd doesn’t sing the blues. “Instead, he sits regally behind a drum kit, supplying a muscular, propulsive beat that powers so many bands in and around Memphis, including Brimstone Jones, Ashtown Riker, Will Tucker and the Blues Players Club,” liners author Bill Dahl comments. When solicited to organize an homage to his father for a red-letter showcase during the 2017 International Blues Challenge he didn’t hesitate and the show was so successful that it triggered an annual practice that yielded three more shows and this new recording. The six-song set was recorded at B.B. King’s Blues Club, which sits at the corner of Second and Beale at the gateway to Memphis’ historic entertainment district with Bland inviting three adept singers (Chris Stephenson, the fore-mentioned Ashton Riker and Jerome Chism) to work out on a handful of lesser-known nuggets from Bland’s vast, six-decade-long songbook. Picks include the swinging, horns-embellished opening number “Up And Down World” and the eyes-wide-open, social commentary-charged “Sittin’ On A Poor Man’s Throne”—both featuring Stephenson’s soulful vocals—along with “Soon As The Weather Breaks,” where Chism unveils his colorful vocal artistry on the energetic slow blues showstopper that also features a sky-high guitar solo from Harold Smith. Bottom line: this is a testimonial about the past, the present as well as the future. Elaborating, Bland comments: “This recording is just an appetizer. This is the opening match or opening card.” Blues fans everywhere are waiting for the full course.—Gary von Tersch
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