Blues Reviews
Aug/Sept 2018

Billy Price
VizzTone Label Group

Billy Price has been a singer to be reckoned with since the mid-1970s when he had a three-year association with the man known as “the worlds greatest unknown guitarist” Roy Buchanan; they even played Carnegie Hall. He’s stayed active in the music business amassing fifteen recordings to his credit though his day job has been in the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. In 2016 he won a Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Album “This Time for Real” with the late singer Otis Clay and released a live recording “Alive and Strange” the following year. Now Price has a new studio recording “Reckoning” produced by Billy and Kid Anderson with the Kid doing all the production at his Greaseland Studio. The band features Kid Anderson guitar, Alex Pettersen drums, Jerry Jemmott bass, Jim Pugh keyboards with horns provided by Johnny Bones, Nancy Wright and Konstantins Jemeljanovs. The “Reckoning” is a heavy mix of classic soul covers and a few Price originals.
Starting out taking “39 Steps,” a tight shuffle with a gospel feel, written by Price keyboard player Jim Britton, it documents the steps he takes to freedom. Billy lays out two of his originals, a relaxed soft soul strut, “One On One,” in the mold of Leon Heywood then testifies as an “Expert Witness” with heavy horns and burly backing vocals like a courtroom bailiff. The “Reckoning,” written by American blues man Billy T now living in Norway, begins with the fervent preaching of Marcel Smith then mellows to Price’s gentle croon, here swapping the original’s strings for horns and sweet backing vocals then takes J.J. Cale’s hit, “No Time,” giving it a heavy full-band treatment with a sax solo. From here it’s the straight up soul of Eddie Floyd’s “I Love You More Than Words Can Say,” an impressive feat for a blue-eyed singer, you almost forget it was a hit for Otis Redding. Then wailing into Denise LaSalle’s “Get Your Lie Straight” and the realization that he’ll “Never Be Fooled Again.” From here the covers flow from the slick Philly sound of LTD’s “Love Ballad” to the Muscle Shoals soul of “Your Love Stays With Me” and the smooth Louisiana grease of Swamp Dog’s “Synthetic World.” “Dreamer” was originally released by Bobby Blue Bland but here Billy takes a harder edge to his vocals but sweetens it with strings before finishing with Johnnie Rawls’ “I Keep Holding On” - Billy owns it completely and it seems to be his theme for his whole musical career.
Billy Price has been singing for more than forty years and with his “Reckoning” he lays it all out with a heart full of soul.—Roger & Margaret White

The J. Monque’D Blues Band
“Old & New Borrowed & Blues”

Much like the famed city from which he calls home, The J. Monque’D Blues Band’s latest offering “Old & New Borrowed & Blues” is a spicy gumbo of Blues; Jazz, Funk, Folk, Gospel and just plain fun all rolled into one ! At the tender age of four, J. Monque’D’s Grandmother stuffed a harmonica in his mouth because the hyperactive young lad was driving her up the wall and had quite simply gotten on her last nerve.
This was to become a lifechanging event to a boy who was to grow into adulthood and face the trials and tribulations of death, Vietnam, lost love and jail time. Many a man would have wilted at the obstacles thrown his way but J. Monque’D not only prevailed, he used those experiences to express his views on life and what it means to be a working musician in the Big Easy.
Old & New Borrowed & Blues is a juicy fifteen song collection featuring a wealth of area musicians and special guests. A standout being keyboardist Tom Worrell who always seems to add the right touch of sweet keys to every song he is featured on. Front and center you will find the blazing harmonica of J. Monque’D adding a nice taste of Bayou inflected swamp dust to accompany his funny and sometimes brutally honest lyrics which never sway you from the fact that they come from his inner soul.
Things kick off with the heartfelt tribute, “The Radio and Jimmy Reed” who along with local hero Slim Harpo helped shape the mind and sound of this young struggling musician. A sampling of the lyric which goes “Everything from sweet love songs to gutbucket blues. Music had me rocking from my head down to my feet. I want to Thank Philco for the radio and THANK God for Jimmy Reed!”
This is followed by a bare bones harmonica and vocal song entitled “Mustard Greens” that showvcases all the earthly delights of Southern comfort food from sweet potatoes to cornbread, country ham, fatback and candied yams. Following are two songs that focus on the author’s ancestry of Creole and Italian blood. “Where Vivi and Avie Live” and “Blues for Veneto” are colorful narrations of the neighborhoods and family life one experiences in the melting pot of New Orleans, Louisiana.
There are a number of covers and traditional songs that get the J. Monque’D eclectic makeover from Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready” to Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” to “Amazing Grace” and “This Train.“ Even the time-honored “Got My Mojo Workin” is here complete with the J. Monque’D secret weapon of adding children to the mix which adds an entirely different dimension to the song. This was also done on his 2000 release “ “Chitlin Eatin’ Music” which, when seen “LIVE” cannot stop you from tugging on your heartstrings.”FEMA TRAILER Blues” is the type of a song that can only be written by someone who survived such a terrible tragedy. “I got a blue plastic tarp where my roof used to be. In a city that care forgot, somebody forgot to care for New Orleans.” The disc closes out with the instrumental “Cookies and Yogurt” which, although slightly out of place, works on many levels of being a great guitar and harmonica jam. All in all,  hats off to The J. Monque’D Blues Band for a very enjoyable collection of songs that make you think as well as smile!— Bob O Walesa

Paul Filipowicz
Big Jake Records

Born in Chicago, Paul Filipowicz has been living and playing the blues for more than thirty years. With his newest recording “Unfiltered,” his ninth recording in twenty-two years, Paul takes us back to those smoky barrooms where he first heard electric blues from its originators. A Chicago Blues Hall of Fame award recipient he currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, but his sound doesn’t get any more Chicago than this. The band of bluesmen backing Filipowicz’s guitar and vocals features Benny Rickun on harp, Rick Smith bass and Chris Sandoval drums with occasional horns by Tom Sobel on saxes and Jack Naus trumpet.
The guitar blazes in on three Magic Sam tunes “Everything Gonna Be Alright” the vocal an easy loping stride and later a completely different song of that title “Every Thing Gonna Be All Right” but he’s not crying because “I Found A New Love.” The three other covers are the Wolf’s “Howlin’ For My Darling,” cranking up the energy level as he said the Wolf himself always did with Jimmy Voegelli adding an undercurrent of piano then shifting to the gentle swing of Lowell Fulsom’s “Reconsider Baby,” horns and vocals crooning the rhythm and lyrics as a sharp guitar punches out the accents and leads. Many may recognize “Tin Pan Alley” from Stevie Ray Vaughan but here it’s given a dark moody reworking that shifts from deep despair to the thrill of shimmering guitar notes. The remainder of this CD is originals including two instrumentals: “Unfiltered” as the guitar takes an easy stroll with a wobbly gait like an off kilter Freddie King as the harp moans out the rhythm that runs straight into “Canal Street” the harp steps up front till a mournfully sleazy sax takes the second half, both were devised as an attempt to recapture that late night Chicago blues sound that appealed so much to a young Filipowicz. More horns add that extra punch to his “Brand New Hat” Paul saying there’s gonna be some changes made as the guitar easily overpowers the song and then the guitar takes on a high pitched feminine squeal on “My Woman” crying over a deep baritone sax as those changes hit home. The finale “Riding High” is like an alcohol-fueled adrenaline rush after a show, riding home playing Otis Redding’s “Tramp” on the car radio as he hammers the rhythm out on the steering wheel howling along.
Paul Filipowicz plays straight up “Unfiltered” electric blues, that’s the way he likes it and so will you.—Roger & Margaret White

Deb Ryder
Enjoy The Ride
Vizztone Label Group

As a teen Deb Ryder was encouraged to sing at her stepfather’s night club, The Topanga Corral, opening for major players on the blues scene like Etta James, Big Joe Turner and Taj Mahal, and it set her compass pointing towards a musical career. Since her debut CD in 2013 Deb has written all of her own songs and on her fourth release “Enjoy The Ride” is once again produced by drummer Tony Braunagel with award-winning guitarist, engineer, mixer Johnny Lee Schell at his Ultratone Studios. Her core band of Tony Braunagel drums, Johnny Lee Schell guitar and Mike Finnigan Hammond B3 and piano with Ric Ryder, Kenny Gradney or James Hutchinson on bass. Alongside these ringers Deb is joined by West Coast guitarists Coco Montoya, Chris Cain, Debbie Davies and Kirk Fletcher with Pieter “Big Pete” Van Der Pluijm on harmonica, it’s quite a ride.
Deb’s big bold voice drives “Enjoy The Ride” with harp playing counterpoint to her vocals as Schell’s guitar provides a Prince-like jangle and Finnigan’s B3 is pedal to the metal setting the song at full throttle. With a rhythm of a fast train, the harmonica blows a warning and Deb Ryder howls in abandon that you’ve got “Nothin To Lose.” Deb pleads “What You Want From Me” that turns into a demanding gospel choir-inspired rave up with a Bo Diddley beat and the Hammond blazes in the background. Then Deb slows to a restrained testimonial of personal struggles with “Life Fast Forward” while the gentle love ballad “Forever Yours” showcases the softer side of Ms Ryder’s talent. Some guests sit in as Deb’s voice has a gruff rumble and echoes through “A Storm’s Coming” as Coco Montoya’s guitar sparks and flashes illuminating the song and Coco continues “For The Last Time” a sorrowful ballad with Mike Finnigan adding a vocal duet. With powerful vocals Chris Cain sings a swinging lovers duet “Got To Let It Go” his guitar taking a jazzy turn then with horns blasting Deb declares “Bring The Walls Down” Cain’s guitar breaks through and the booming voice Big Lou Johnson appears like a sign from above. Kirk Fletcher’s guitar has the notes tumbling forth ahead of the keyboard cascades as Ryder’s gruff admonishment of “Temporary Insanity” as she loses touch with reality. Taking a cha cha beat that lets Debbie Davies’ guitar swing out as Deb sings passionately on “Sweet Sweet Love” but love don’t last and these two ladies say with a sassy attitude “Goodbye Baby” sending us packing.
Deb Ryder has been on a roll and with her new CD you will “Enjoy The Ride.—Roger & Margaret White

Jonny T-Bird & the MPs
“Hot Stuff” (Live At the Red Dot)

You might say Jon Neuberger was born with the blues, being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. But he’s never let it stand in his way, picking up guitar at thirteen he earned the nickname “Jonny T-Bird” while still in high school. With his co-producer, drummer, Marcus “MG” Gibbons, Jonny has released his third recording “Hot Stuff” (Live at the Red Dot) featuring his Milwaukee-based MPs, Danny Moore keyboards, “Cadillac” Craig Carter on bass and backing vocals while Jonny handles lead vocals and guitar. With Jonny writing half the songs you could say this is his own “hot stuff.”
Starting out with Jonny T-Bird originals he swaggers in with a hopeful love ballad, gently crooning “Stupid Cupid” with harmonica and guitar solos then working his charms on “Laura” Jonny digs into a “Spoonful” groove with his vocals high and loose reacting with a slippery dissident slide solo. The guitar gently stirs with the familiar “Killing Floor” riff while Jonny sings that all his woman wants is “Greens & Dough” the piano takes over the break as Jonny pulls out a calm wah wah pedal that breaks into a Led Zep riff but he seems to be resigned to this fate cause “It Is What It Is.” On “Ice Your Cake” the guitar takes on tighter jazzy lines as Jonny’s voice slips and slides though the sweet lyrics. They dip into some covers with Cannonball Adderly’s hit, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” written by pianist Joe Zawinul here featuring the Fender Rhoades of Danny Moore as he and Jonny calmly build each progression against finger pops and drum snaps. B. B. King’s “Woke Up This Morning” has a light touch that swings and swaggers as if he really did just wake up then asks the question “Why Get Up” first released by those other T-Birds, The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The slide guitar seems to stretch and yawn as piano gently wakes Jonny from his dream with “Someday Baby” by Wisconsin harmonica whiz Jim Liban. The oldie “Me & My Baby” is sung by bassist “Cadillac” Craig, who rocks a bass solo till drums take their turn and Jonny’s guitar rounds this baby up and rocks it. The band sizzles and Jonny throws in some hot licks with the boys chanting “Hot Stuff” as they finish with this T-Bird original.
Jonny T-Bird & the MPs burn it up with their third release and if you want the “Hot Stuff” you got to cut it live.—Roger & Margaret White

JP Soars
Southbound I-95
Soars High Productions

JP Soars started playing guitar at eleven and at nineteen won an electric guitar and an invitation to meet B.B. King from a radio station raffle and that set in motion his path to the blues. Winning the International Blues Challenge in 2009, JP’s music defies classification delving into Delta, Jump, Swing, Gypsy Jazz and even Heavy Metal. Jimmy Thackery sums it up saying, “When I first heard JP Soars I knew right away that he was separate from the rest of the pack.” With his fourth studio release “Southbound I-95” JP’s musical journey twists and turns like that seacoast corridor to paradise. The band is mainly JP’s playing various guitars, his right hand man Chris Peet handles drums and they split bass duties with Travis Colby on keyboards, Teresa James backing vocals with Terry Hanck, Sax Gordon, Tino Barker and Scott Ankrom on saxes. All but two of the fifteen songs are original and they’re all a stone groove.
Beginning with a southern rock ode to his adopted home JP regrets anywhere else “Ain’t No Dania Beach” then blasts into a surf spectacular with livewire guitar careening off the retaining walls as they barrel down “Southbound I-95.” With his gravel dirty vocals and funky beat driven by organ and baritone sax JP declares you “Sure As Hell Ain’t Foolin’ Me” then shimmering harmonies by Teresa James and Terry Hanck’s sax providing an easy rolling underpinning for “Shining Though The Dark” to get you to a brighter day. Soars says she lit a fire in his heart and you’ll “Satisfy My Soul” as Sax Gordon honks out a solo then with bouncing keys and swinging horns JP warns “The Grass Ain’t Always Greener.” The “Dog Catcher” hops and yips as the drums tap out a scratching rhythm and Soars barks out the lyrics. The gentle instrumental of “Arkansas Porch Party” rolls into the darker “Born In California” the story of JP’s life as told on a two string cigar box guitar that quotes Hendrix’s “Power Of Soul.” The only two covers on this disc are Albert King’s “When You Walk Out That Door” a straight up dirty blues featuring Jimmy Thackery on guitar and Muddy Waters “Deep Down In Florida” with native Floridian Albert Castiglia on slash and burn guitar solo and vocals over mariachi horns. “Troubled Waters” opens like George Harrison with the cigar box guitar recreating a sitar like sound and the vocals drift in resembling Link Wray at his 3 Track Shack. The instrumentals “Across The Desert” has a midnight whisper Spanish flavored guitar and Lee Oskar’s harmonica and then they plunge into “Go With The Flow” a Django-inspired jaunt with a driving drum beat that features a lilting clarinet.
JP Soars is a one of a kind guitarist and “Southbound I-95” drives like nothing else.—Roger & Margaret White

Crystal Shawanda
VooDoo Woman
New Sun Records 2017

Since the demises of rocker Janis Joplin and “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor, a myriad of singers have attempted to match their nonpareil gutbucket power. Some have come close; among several others, Cee Cee James and Hurricane Ruth come to mind. Add Crystal Shawanda to that list; the woman can bring it with majestic power and range.
An indigenous North American from Ontario, Canada, Shawanda was taught to sing and play guitar by her parents and exposed to blues by her brother. Her career trajectory first landed her in the country music genre, where she gained brief success and sales but felt “like a fish out of water.” After a several year career hiatus, she re-emerged in the blues world, and “VooDoo Woman” is her third blues album, but first available widely.
Comprised of ten tracks, it primarily displays her facility covering some classic tunes. The opening track, the longest of the album, is a six minute medley of Taylor’s signature “Wang Dang Doodle” with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’,” introduced by the bristling guitar of Shawanda’s partner Dewayne Strobel and augmented by Stephen Hanner’s wailing harmonica. Taylor and Wolf arguably set the standard for earthshaking raspy vocals, and Crystal easily reaches that level.
Man, how to top that? How about a slow version of “Ball and Chain,” written and originally performed by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and made famous by Joplin. With Dana Robbins joining the mix on saxophone, Shawanda does it justice. She then segues into the title track, attributed to Taylor, and follows it with “Hound Dog,” the Big Mama tune subsequently appropriated to great commercial success by “The King,” Elvis Presley. It takes guts and self-confidence to cover songs by these iconic and unique masters, but Shawanda has the talent to do it. Proof: her next cover, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in my opinion is every bit as good as any version done by Etta James.
The final five songs feature three composed by Shawanda - two with Strobel - and lean somewhat toward the soul-blues genre, with more saxophone, more prominent organ (by Peter Keys; is that an alias?), and some tasty female harmonies. Only occasionally does Crystal get self-indulgent, flaunting her impressive laryngeal capability. (How seductive it must be to take the fetters off such a voice.) For the most part, she gets it just right. This is a new blueswoman on the scene with fantastic chops and a command of songs. She is a valuable addition to the blues world, destined for wide recognition.—Steve Daniels

Tosha Owens
Wrong Side Of Right

This is a record I’ve been waiting for, I first saw Tosha Owens several years ago and knew right from the start this was something special. When asked about any recordings she told me she wanted to get things right and with her debut CD “Wrong Side Of Right” this lady has gotten everything right. This is a hand crafted Detroit affair from start to finish financed by her own fans Go Fund Me page. Ten of the dozen songs are originals written with her guitarist/producer Brett Lucas, long time sideman for Bettye LaVette and the music flows track after track capturing the moods and emotions of Tosha’s voice. Working with drummer Max Bauhof who co-produced and engineered the project at his vintage Homestead Studios, with Max and Lucas on the final mix it’s an album you can listen to over and over again. The band features Evan Mercer or Phil Whitfield on keys, Chuck Bartels another LaVette alumni on bass, backing vocals by Rachel Williams with horns from Keith Kaminski sax, John Douglas trumpet and a few extra players as needed.
Tosha blazes into the rock side of relationships on “Wrong Side Of Right” and gets the blues with “You Ain’t Right” featuring Etta James guitarist Bobby Murray, then has a jazz inflected conflict between commitment and desire for freedom on “I’ll Just Say It” then completes her emotional trip with a heart rendering “Wonderful Pain.” Spine chilling guitar swirls around cello, violin and Whitfield’s keys as Tosha conveys a working mom’s struggle on “Cold In Detroit Tonight” then a hill country gospel twang morphs into a rocking revelation as Tosha asks “Why Do I Keep Loving You” and the funk hits the dance floor as Tosha decides to turn her life around replacing her “Salt For Sugar.” An after hour torch ballad “Won’t You See Me Through” is a tour de force of emotions then Tosha literally brings it on home for her cover of Ray Charles “Ain’t That Love” interpreted as a mother’s proud declaration of family, the toughness of Tosha’s voice sweetened by backing vocals from her own daughter Ariana Sollars. The other cover, “Half Moon,” Tosha owns this song so fully it took a while to realize it was a hit for Janis Joplin. Filling out her stylistic resume the “Freight Train Blues” features Lucas protege Johnny Rhoades, his guitar sounding like a fading lonesome whistle and a radio-ready power ballad “Reverence Day.”
Tosha Owens cut her teeth in rock and funk bands but got her real musical education at Detroit blues jams, with her debut CD “Wrong Side Of Right” there is no wrong side in sight.—Roger & Margaret White

Sugar Brown
It’s A Blues World...Calling All Blues!
Self-released SMB-003

Toronto-based vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sugar Brown was born Ken Kawashima to a Japanese father and Korean mother who both immigrated to the States in the 1960s. He was raised in Bowling Green, Ohio before relocating to Chicago for college where he quickly became immersed in the city’s rich blues culture and heritage while working extensively with the likes of Taildragger (who gave him his nickname), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Willie Kent, Johnny B. Moore, blues brothers Louis and Dave Myers and Sugar’s acknowledged mentor, ace lead guitarist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. Moving on from his 2014 debut, Sugar Brown’s Sad Day and 2015’s highly rated Poor Lazurus, this new freewheeling and some-might-say, idiosyncratic project, subtly scene-shifts from country to urban in sound as Burgin is joined on various numbers by the likes of talkative banjoist Nichol Robertson (the Tom Waits-inspired “Lousy Dime”), spirited baritone saxist Minnie Heart on the upbeat “Hummingbird” (“To me, it’s a combination of John Lee Hooker and Frankie Lee Sims,” Brown discloses) and keyboardist Julian Fauth—with his funky piano on the Bob Dylan-stimulated “It’s Not Too Late.” Further gems include the complaining “Hard To Love” (inspired by the playing of Floyd Council and Kansas Joe McCoy, Brown avers), a feisty jump blues titled “Dew On The Grass,” some danceable boogie on “Searching For Two O’Clock” and the project’s highlight—the powerful title song. In a different era, “It’s A Blues World World,” an homage to little-known Windy City bluesman Little Mack Simmons with Brown’s lyrics inspired by “thinking about the current degeneration of American society in the age of Trump,” as he bluntly puts it, would have been the A-side of the album’s first single. Very recommended.—Gary von Tersch

Tom Hambridge
The NOLA Sessions
SuperStar Factory 2018

Tom Hambridge, Grammy and Blues Music Award winner and seemingly ubiquitous album producer, is also a prolific songwriter and admired singer and drummer. For this, his eighth solo album, he traveled to New Orleans and assembled a formidable ensemble of musicians to collaborate on thirteen new tunes. The result is eclectic and ebullient. Among those who appear on multiple tracks are the immediately recognized Ivan Neville and Kevin McKendree on keyboards and Rob McNelley on guitar; several other big name artists sit in on one or several tunes. The result is a zesty stew of blues and rhythm-and-blues.
In his only spot on the set, late great Louisiana musician Allen Toussaint lends vocal and piano expertise to the opener, “Blues Been Mighty Good to Me.” After a few bars of Toussaint’s soulful piano, he and Hambridge mesh nicely on traded vocals while delivering the song’s counter-intuitive message. McKendree assumes piano duty and John Fohl handles guitar on “Bluz Crazy,” a rocking shuffle. Then we’re treated to the first of the four appearances of slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth; with Hambridge and bassist Tommy MacDonald, this trio effort is an irresistible invitation to dance. Next introduced are The Naughty Horns - trumpet, alto and baritone saxophones - on “I Love Everything,” its bouncy Nawlins vibe and its lyrics evoking comparison to Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” The track also features the backing vocals of two of Hambridge’s daughters, Sarah and Rachel. The horns continue their valuable contribution in the posthumous lament “What You Leave Behind,” allegedly written in memory of a deceased friend of Hambridge.
Lightening the mood abruptly, “Little Things” injects humor with Hambridge’s typically deft lyrics and allows Landreth to let it rip on slide…as he does again on “Whiskey Ghost,” its theme the powerful lure of distilled spirits. Then it’s time to dance again! with the snazzy rocker “Save Me,” featuring Shane Theriot on guitar and David Torkanowsky on piano. Theriot sticks around for “A Couple Drops,” its insistent dual guitar work with McNelley furnishing the base for one of Hambridge’s strongest vocal forays. Those twin guitars switch mood and wax mournful and pensive on “Masterpiece,” a slow blues with Hambridge nearly talking his vocal, quite effectively.
The trio of closing tunes maintain the high quality of their predecessors. “Me and Charlie” is reportedly a tribute to Buddy Guy’s tour bus driver, and Landreth shines once more. “Trying to Find It,” alternately rising and descending in intensity, delves into the country genre, another of Hambridge’s fortes, with McKendree and McNelly combining grittily; and the set ends with “Faith,” a moving devotional distinguished by Hambridge’s vocal, Fohl’s acoustic guitar, and Nathaniel Smith on cello.
Hambridge on drums and the various bass players eschew solos but provide impeccable rhythmic foundation, and all the session musicians comport themselves laudably. The album has humor, poignancy, and stellar musicianship; Hambridge scores again.—Steve Daniels

Rockin’ Johnny Burgin
Neoprene Fedora
West Tone Records

As a mainstay on the Chicago scene for thirty years, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin has backed up artists like Taildragger, Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Burns, Eddie Taylor Jr. and Andre Williams. Elvin Bishop said “his guitar style is raw and rude and real, on the vocal side a nice original style - he’s damn good!” Looking to expand his horizons Johnny headed to California where the sunshine and beach parties have influenced his music and made his moniker Rockin’ Johnny even more fitting as he delves into zydeco and surf music on his newest CD “Neoprene Fedora.” With a whopping sixteen tracks, mostly originals, Johnny plays guitar on all but one and sings vocals on most with Kid Andersen and Bob Welsh on extra guitar and piano, Vance Ehlers bass, Stephen Dougherty and June Core drums with Aki Kumar on harp.
“Neoprene Fedora” kicks in as a mysterioso surf instrumental extravaganza with an interstellar sound that morphs into sleazy R&B, pop, Chuck Berry and back to surf. Ripping into a few covers, the guitar rules on Andrew “Blueblood” McMahon’s “Guitar King” with Aki filling in the sound, the band digs deep and dirty on Big Joe Turner’s “Give Me An Hour In Your Garden” and Johnny embraces south-side blues man L V Banks’ “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” sounding like classic B.B. King. Aki Kumar takes on the vocals for “My Baby’s Gone” with Johnny Cat Soubrand on guitar and Kumar continues on his own “Self Made Man” in a calm quite understated vocal in contrast to his big brassy harp. From here it’s Rockin’ Johnny originals, “Smoke And Mirrors” has a Butterfield-like sound with Alabama Mike’s vocal and Aki’s harp and “I Did The Best I Could” Mike’s vocals are a cross between Sam Cook and Otis Redding while the guitar is cutting and chopping like Cropper. Johnny leads on harp declaring I “Won’t Get Married Again” and Kid Anderson takes over the guitar on “You Gotta Work Fast” if you want to find a new romance. Johnny takes a “Rolling & Tumbling” riff to “I Ain’t Gonna Be A Working Man No More” and an Albert King-like sting drives “My Life’s Enough For Me.” Johnny has a zydeco triple play with Steve Willis accordion and Billy Wilson handles rub board on “Kinda Wild Woman” his vocals go high and loose then sashays on the Los Lobos like “Please Tell Me” with Nancy Wright on sax then Johnny croons “Our Time Is Short.” Dropping into a classic Howlin’ Wolf riff with a moaning sax and piano “Goodbye Chicago” is Johnny’s farewell to a city full of memories.
With “Neoprene Fedora” Rockin’ Johnny Burgin has bid farewell to the Windy City and is ready for that warm California sun. —Roger & Margaret White

Mike Baytop & Jay Summerour
Patuxent Music 2017

This brief set of ten tunes represents a fine collaboration between two gentlemen who know their way around Piedmont style country blues.
Harmonica player Jay Summerour has been blowing harp since he was seven! He was schooled by his grandfather, Smack Martin, and then was floored by a performance by the legendary duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Subsequently Terry provided encouragement and advice, as did James Cotton and Junior Wells. With teachers like that and unswerving dedication, no wonder Summerour has established a reputation as a “Mississippi saxophone” adept.
Although he regularly plays with Warner Williams, here Summerour collaborates with another fine musician, Washington, D.C.’s Mike Baytop. Just entering his septuagenarian decade, Baytop is also a skilled harmonicat, influenced by Cotton, Phil Wiggins, and Charlie Sayles, and no slouch as a guitarist in the mode of Mississippi John Hurt. He is also an expert on bones (that’s percussion, not orthopedics).
Accompanied by Tom Mindte on mandolin and Mark Puryear on guitar, the duo commence with a cover of “Rock Island Line,” and follow it with “Don’t Let Go,” both spare numbers graced with those clicking bones and the latter accompanied only by percussive chorded harmonica. Guitar reappears on the jaunty “Good Place to Go,” and then it’s “Jambalaya,” less zesty and more tempered than many other versions. It’s followed by the terse but humorous “Stop That Thing.”
“Maggie Country,” a re-worked rendition of “See See Rider,” sports some especially adept harmonica licks, and “1 to 99” flirts with both jazz and country, Mindte chiming in on mandolin. The longest track of the album is the ensuing cover of the classic “Walkin’ Blues,” introduced with spiffy bars of slide guitar and some of the best harmonica playing of the set, which then closes with the upbeat “Black Bottom” and lastly “Standing on the Landing,” distinguished by a raspy, powerful vocal.
Somewhat frustrating is the lack of informative liner notes with the CD, and online: no song credits are given, and there is no list of individual musician duties on each track. It would be nice to know which of the principal duo is singing and which is playing guitar and harmonica. That cavil aside, overall Baytop and Summerour honorably evoke the legacy of Terry and McGhee, John Cephas and Wiggins, and other notable but less renowned Piedmont duos.—Steve Daniels

Larry Griffith Band
Shake It Loose
Self-produced 2017

Exposed to blues, gospel, soul, rock, and jazz in his early years in Cincinnati, Ohio, Larry Griffith applied his love of music and his talent into a career as a drummer. Moving about twenty years ago to his current home of Atlanta, Georgia, Griffith allegedly experienced the same dream three straight nights and it re-routed his musical path. In the dream, he was wielding a guitar and stimulating an avid crowd into a frenzy. At that point he didn’t play guitar….
…But he does now, and sings really well, too. This sixth release of Griffith’s is brief, only six songs comprising just over half an hour, but it’s a robust amalgam reflecting his various musical influences and his singing and songwriting talent. On this terse sextet of original tunes, from the secular to the salacious to the sacred, he’s supported by the stinging and lyrical lead guitar of Mike Lowry, a supple and steady backing band of bass, drums, keyboards, and horns, and - definitely not least - a quartet of sterling women back-up singers.
The set commences with “Keep Ridin’,” which invokes the hoary blues motif of car as sex metaphor, the groove buttressed by Lowry and the backing crew. Griffith’s vocal is smooth and funky, somewhat evocative of the suggestive drawl of the late Louisiana bluesman Slim Harpo. The groove is maintained on “Every King Needs a Queen,” and then by the slinky ballad “All I Really Wanna Do,” which is distinguished by some bubbly tinkly piano renderings and the ubiquitous vocal foursome.
“Our Love Is in Good Hands” opens with a nice Lowry lead with backing organ, and sounds much like a bluesified version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Although not explicitly religious, the lyrics, promising redemption in the face of worldly adversity, place the song in a quasi-gospel niche. “Ain’t Puttin’ Up,” next track of the set, could be a 1950s-era pop tune but is made funky by its sashaying rhythm. Lowry throws in a few raunchy chords that suggest what’s still to come: the last, title tune, a zesty rocker with an irresistible beat, a cross between John Lee Hooker boogie and New Orleans funk.
Although of short length, this album is long on talent, showing why the popularity of Larry Griffith and his ensemble extends widely from their base in Georgia’s largest metropolis.—Steve Daniels

Rory Block
A Woman’s Soul
Stony Plain CD 1399

Emotive vocalist and laudable guitarist Rory Block first came across Bessie “The Empress of the Blues” Smith’s life-altering voice in 1964 as a teenager living in New York City’s Greenwich Village when the American and British folk revivals were in full swing—“Filled with grit and incredible vocal prowess, it was the ultimate soulful wail”,” she recalls. “It’s important to me to mention Bessie’s outrageously sexy material, her fearless jaw-dropping delivery, her unapologetic presentation of women as the powerfully sensual, sexual beings we know we are—but that society just didn’t know how to admit in the early 1900’s. Bessie’s material was never dirty, it was just plain sexy.” With the release of A Woman’s Soul, Block debuts her new “Power Women Of The Blues” album series that is “dedicated to the music of my favorite female blues artists, many of whom were shrouded in mystery during the sixties blues revival, while the recordings of others had simply disappeared.” Intriguingly, in addition to taking all the vocals here, Block plays all the versatile guitar and bass parts on her Signature Model Martin guitars as well as crafting all the percussion from whatever was laying around the studio—guitar bongos, hat boxes, plastic storage tubs, oatmeal boxes and wooden spoons. A real testimony to her talent as a musician and arranger was her ability to take Bessie Smith’s original band arrangements and sculpt them for solo acoustic guitar. The pair of lengthier revivals, a bleak “I’m Down In The Dumps” and the heart-wrenching “Empty Bed Blues,” are particularly superb—allowing Block the time to reach deeply into her convincing, wide-ranging vocal abilities and tasty country blues guitar work that is packed with an engaging improvisational brio. Not that I’m knocking any of the eight others (Smith recorded 160 sides from 1923 to 1933)—further back-porch rejuvinaters include the descriptive saga of the notorious song-and-dance man “Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town,” the bawdy, double-entendre-spiced pair “Kitchen Man” and “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” the classic Harlem bar-room moaner “Gimme A Pigfoot and A Bottle Of Beer” (“Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin/ Baby, cause I’m in my sin”) and the suicidal-sounding “Weeping Willow Blues.” Genius at work.—Gary von Tersch

The Blue & Lonesome Duo
Pacing The Floor
Ellersoul CD 1804-32

As Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks advises and yours truly fleshes out: “...drop down to the bottom with some extremely strong, raw electric duets reminiscent of early John Lee Hooker” with Richmond’s harmonica, foot-drum master and red-meat vocalist, the Grand Duke, Li’l Ronnie Owens and guitarist/vocalist Gordon Harrower—who also fronts his own band, Rattlesnake Shake. Here the good buddies sound like they’re just enjoying themselves with songs they both like along with a few in-the-same vein originals, immersed in a Canned Heat/Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee sort of vibe—covering classics on the one hand like Muddy Waters’ slowly creeping “Mean Red Spider,” Jimmy Rogers’ romping and rolling “Act Like You Love Me” and weather-beaten “Out On The Road Again,” Slim Harpo’s “Raining In My Heart” (which they make their own with Owens’ magisterially soulful harp work at its apogee) and Eddie Taylor’s easy-loping confessional “Country Boy” alongside five nifty Owens co-writes—two with Harrower (the jaunty title tune and the conversational, Bo Diddley-like “More Than Eye Candy”) and a real barn burner titled “Wine Headed Woman.” Other picks are a convincing “Drop Down Mama,” a great redo of “Careless Love,” ditto James Brown’s pleading “Try Me” and a cautionary “Too Fast For Conditions.” As Wenner sagely advises: “Even if there’s a little amplification, this is music to crack a couple of cold ones by on a Saturday evening.” I agree.—Gary von Tersc

Battleground Korea: Songs And Sounds Of America’s Forgotten War
4CDs with
hardcover book
Bear Family BCD 17518

As the dedication for this fascinating collection puts it: “This anthology is for all the men and women whose service and sacrifice in the Korean War were barely acknowledged and quickly forgotten. We hope that by preserving this music and history we have honored, in some small measure, those who served.” With talk of an actual peace settlement, that would replace the “armistice” enacted in 1953, currently in the air diplomatically this legacy project also couldn’t be more timely. Presented on four CD’s accompanying a 160 page hardcover book illustrated with a variety of black & white and color archival photos and images (including a great ten page spread on Marilyn Monroe’s 1954 visit to the troops), the resultant effect is a powerful indictment of war in general to these draft-dodging ears. Over 100 country, blues, pop and gospel titles cover all the aspects of the war featuring charting artists like B.B. King, Fats Domino, Jean Shepherd, Cecil Gant and the Louvin Brothers along with dozens of other musicians. Interspersed throughout the music is rarely heard documentary material including patriotic Public Service Announcements, brief radio newscasts, reports from the battleground—even an appeal for blood donations from freckle-faced Howdy Doody! The first CD is titled Going To War Again with Lightnin’ Hopkins delivering the “War News Blues,” President Truman speaking on “War In Korea,” both the Vance Brothers and Ray Anderson & his Tennessee Mountaineers suffering the “Draft Board Blues,” Montana Slim yodeling “The K.P. Blues” and Big Boy Crudup warning the left- behind wives and girlfriends to stay clear of “Mr. So And So.” Disc 2, Somewhere In Korea, gets more specific about battles and locations with titles like the Delmore Brothers’ “Heartbreak Ridge” and a novelty about the port city “Pusan” by Billy Mize & His Orange Blossom Playboys as well as presenting a host of more descriptive songs like Bill Cason’s “Foxhole In Korea,” J.B. Lenoir’s “I’m In Korea,” Elton Britt’s “Korean Mud” and Tommy (Weepin’ and Cryin’) Brown with the mail-call blues on “No News From Home” as Sherman “Blues” Johnson & His Clouds Of Joy are wandering among ricocheting bullets on “Lost In Korea.” We’re Back On The Homefront with Disc 3 as Tex Ritter reads “Daddy’s Last Letter,” the Dixie Ramblers optimistically wail “I’ll Be Glad When It’s Over (Over There),” and the Oklahoma Sweethearts warn “Don’t Steal Daddy’s Medal.” Other gems include a half dozen Dear John songs and a couple about President Eisenhower’s 1952 visit. On disc 4, Peace And Its Legacies, both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup are glad “The War Is Over,” Soldier Boy Houston can’t wait to be “Leavin’ Korea” and Jimmy Witherspoon is happy to be “Back Home” while Ernest Tubb relates the sad saga of a G.I. POW in “Missing In Action,” among others. Rounding affairs out are complete lyric transcriptions, a well-researched essay on Popular Culture On The Home Front, an eight-page photo spread titled Music On The Battlefield, an illuminating propaganda scrapbook and a selected bibliography. Like it says on the back cover blurb: “Get ready to go beyond M*A*S*H and experience the sights and sounds of America’s forgotten war. Worth the price.—Gary von Tersch

Whiskey Haulers
Whiskey Haulers
Self-produced 2017

Although not known as a mecca of the blues, Reno, NV, has at least one band adroit at delivering some rollicking, danceable bar band blues.
I infer from information on its website that Whiskey Haulers has been together for at least a decade but is only now releasing its debut album. Of the ten tunes, all original, on the CD, Geno Tortelli wields the guitar on nine and bass on the other; Joe Tortelli handles the bass, except when he steps in on lead guitar on the penultimate number. Chris Ober provides solid percussion support, and Nick DeRose wails on harmonica. Each Tortelli belts out the vocal on five of the tracks.
Hewing to a common tactic, the set opens with an upbeat number, “Newspaper Man,” DeRose’s harp maintaining the spotlight along with Geno’s vocal; blindly introduced to the song, you would swear that you’re hearing George Thorogood. The ensuing octet of tracks is far less derivative. “Vine Street Bridge,” for example, is a mid-tempo outing blending DeRose’s harp with Geno’s pithy guitar and Joe’s quasi-talking vocal. Walking bass is prominent on the following three cuts, “Sure Thing” and the risible “Married Man Blues” and “1/2 $20,” the latter featuring DeRose and Geno playing parallel harp and guitar.
“Good Advice & Best Intentions” allows the band to dig into its longest track, a six-minute slow blues lament about booze and heartache. “Mardi Gras Beads” is a call-and-response tune with DeRose deploying his chromatic harp in effective accordion mode. DeRose shines again on the slow harmonica introduction to “The Beast” before it morphs into a rocker. Next Joe assumes vocal and lead guitar on “J.J. Ballz,” with its less-than-humorous lyrics - “I got me a sawed-off shotgun/Go boom boom” - and its somewhat disorganized sound that mirrors the state of the “crazed” title character. The set concludes with “Velvet Elvis,” a return to the Thorogood mode of the opener.
Kudos to the band for eschewing pyrotechnics, especially self-indulgent guitar solos. Among the principals, DeRose stands out, compensating for vocals which are generally serviceable but sometimes problematic. If I were passing through Reno and they were playing, I’d go see them.—Steve Daniels

James Harman
Electro-Fi 2018

Do you know what immediately happens when I get a new James Harman album (or when I get an old James Harman album new to me), even before I hear it? I smile…because I know that it will provide really good music, many chuckles, and almost certainly a few guffaws.
Advertising himself as “your full service bluesman,” Harman, originally from Alabama, has been producing ripe, raucous, and risible blues for nearly a half century, but his output is still fresh and timely. Ensconced for over thirty years in Orange County, CA, he has released many fine albums, toured the world multiple times over, and delivered innumerable reliably entertaining live performances. As is true of adept musicians, he has attracted the best talent to his bands; to name just a couple of many past outstanding bandmates, guitarists Hollywood Fats (Michael Mann) and David “Kid” Ramos come to mind.
His second release on Electro-Fi represents a collaboration with long-time guitarist and co-producer Nathan James, who comprises the Bamboo Porch Trio along with Troy Sandow on bass, Marty Dodson on drums, and Mike Tempo on percussion. (Wait: aren’t there four of them? Or five with Harman?) Various other stellar colleagues make brief appearances, including Gene Taylor and contemporary maven Carl Sonny Leyland on piano and Kid Ramos. This sterling cast lays into a set of Harman originals with gusto. (James doesn’t cover others’ tunes; his bubbling brain pan spits out songs copiously. In fact, many of his live shows are composed solely of spontaneous numbers.)
Did I mention that Harman is an outstanding singer and harmonica player? His vocals are strong and supple and retain a measure of his native Southern drawl, and his harp offerings are skillful and spot-on without flashy self-indulgence. He sounds like he is having a good time, and that’s infectious; when he espouses “Lord have mercy!” and gooses his musicians on, we happily go along for the ride.
You can tell that I’m a Harman fan. This album, a follow-up to his lauded 2015 release “Bonetime,” gives me no reason to doubt my allegiance. It opens with the title tune, a tribute to legendary John Lee Hooker, Harman’s singing meshing nicely with Nathan’s driving boogie guitar. A shuffle follows, in turn succeeded by…the Mexican-flavored “Come On and Dance with Me.” The eclectic vibe continues with “At the Flophouse,” which highlights Harman’s skill at lyrical storytelling.
To this point Gene Taylor has been tickling the ivories. Leyland steps in on the first of two versions of “What’cha Gonna Do ‘bout Me #1.” Soon after “A Busy Man” slows the tempo, Jeff Turmes handling guitar duty while Harman wails soulfully on harmonica. Shortly come “Memory Foam Mattress” and “The Fruit of the Poisoned Tree,” each revealing Harman’s gift for wry lyrical humor. Cue: chuckles and guffaws.
Too bad the lyrics to all thirteen songs aren’t included in the liner notes, but Harman’s singing is enunciated clearly so that the lyrics indeed can (and should) be appreciated. What brief liner notes there are give valuable insight into the provenance and production of each track, as well as identifying its musicians. Rather than analyzing each cut, I’m just going to declare that they are all good and let you find out for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.—Steve Daniels

A Rhythm & Blues Chronology
Volume 6: 1938-39
Various Artists

Rhythm & Blues Records RABDB 047 (4 CDs)Prior to 1949 the American record industry had marketed all Black Music—blues, jazz, jive and sacred—under the sweeping phrase, race music. After the end of World War II, an increasing sensitivity to bigotry and racism generated the necessity of a new term, derived from Billboard’s re-naming of the genre (thanks to Jerry Wexler) Best Selling Retail Rhythm And Blues Records. Volume Six in this outstanding series of generously timed, multi-disc projects examines the various elements of 1930s music, particularly down home country blues, urban city blues, piano-based boogie woogie and swing jazz, also including country and pop, that congealed and coalesced into Rhythm & Blues. CD one kicks off with Tommy McClennan’s vibrant “Bottle It Up And Go” and Count Basie’s big-band blowout “Swinging The Blues” and continues with the likes of Big Bill Broonzy (who has the “Sad Pencil Blues”) the irrepressible Tampa Red (who has that “Hellish Old Feeling”) and the Harlem Hamfats—who tipsily have the “Bartender Blues.” Further ear-ticklers feature the likes of Harry James and his Boogie Woogie Trio, Sleepy John Estes (a marvelous, invigorating “New Someday Blues,” the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet and Slim & Slam, just to cite a few. Disc two opens with Lil Johnson’s enigmatic “Stavin’ Chain” and Cab Calloway’s rambunctious “Pluckin’ The Blues” and rambles on with Buster Bennett and Washboard Sam paying homage to their favorite brand of moonshine on “Block And Tackle,” Blue Lu Barker warning “Don’t You Make Me High,” a couple slices of mesmerizing western swing by both Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (“Keep Knocking”) and Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers (“Kangaroo Blues”) and closes with an impassioned two-part sermon about “The Racket Train” by Rev. J.M. Gates and members of his congregation. Disc three opens with an ear-bending pop version of “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” by The Charioteers and Billie Holiday’s trance-like testimonial “Fine And Mellow” followed by 25 like-minded worthies—including Bill Gaither’s pessimistic “Mean Old World To Live In,” Johnny Temple’s lived-in assessment of “Jelly Roll Bert,” an inspired version of “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” by Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds Of Joy, Big Joe Turner’s classic shouter “Roll ‘Em Pete,” with Pete Johnson on piano—whose own rip-roaring “Barrelhouse Breakdown” is also here. CD four opens with Georgia White’s tale of woe “Beggin’ My Daddy” and Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb’s Orchestra) singing her jazzed-up rendition of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket A-Tasket” and proceeds to raise the roof with numbers like Kokomo Arnold’s eerie “Midnight Blues,” Lovin’ Sam Theard’s Coasters-like “Spo-Dee-Oh-Dee,” Sidney Bechet’s exotic “Jungle Drums,” an exceedingly, moodily turbulent “Blues With Helen” courtesy of Helen Humes, ever-frantic Louis Jordan relating the tale of “Doug The Jitterbug” (They threw him out of school/ because all he learned was “Tiger Rag”) only to close out with Basie’s Bad Boys and Jimmy Rushing waving out the train window about “Going To Chicago.”  An accompanying 20 page booklet is packed with label shots and liners that are an excellent invitation to the groundbreaking music. Well worth tracking down.—Gary von Tersch

Memphis Rent Party:
The Blues, Rock & Soul In Music’s Hometown
By Robert Gordon
Bloomsbury Publishing

Memphis, Tennessee, traditionally the initial stop for anyone from the scratch-poor Mississippi Delta on their, often hazardous, journey to find employment in the industrial North is also, reputedly, not only the fountainhead of rock ‘n’ roll and the nation’s soul music capital (by virtue of both Stax and Hi Records) but, for an even longer period, the “home of the blues.” Both white and black musicians from Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi heard each other’s music in person, on radio and jukebox—the results were inspired homogeneous sounds that, inevitably, influenced musicians way beyond the city limits. First known as a blues town because of an abundance of “field recordings,” held there in the 1920’s and 1930’s, little beyond that happened because of the lack of a recording studio—until enterprising Sam Phillips opened up shop and began Sun Records in 1952. Fittingly, his initial releases were, predominantly, hard core blues (James Cotton, Little Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, etc.) but by the mid-1950’s he was busy launching the careers of the rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly likes of characters like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Feathers among others. By 1960, the musical climate had changed and most of the Sun artists had moved on. Yet something was happening over at Stax Records in an old movie theater on run-down McLemore Street—beginning with Carla Thomas’ massive hit “Gee Whiz” and onto the deep soul music sounds of the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, James Carr, Rufus Thomas (once more), Johnny Taylor, the Staples Singers and Eddie Floyd Gordon. Gordon’s fervently emotional map of Memphis, written with the anecdotal verve of a masterful storyteller, also encompasses the more modern likes of Jeff Buckley, the iconic Jim Dickinson (read the book), Junior Kimbrough, ill-fated genius Townes Van Zandt and Alex Chilton, Alex Chilton, Alex Chilton. Can’t recommend this one enough. Fat Possum also has a nifty complementary CD available.— Gary von Tersch



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