Blues Reviews
Feb/March 2018
Past Issues Blues CD Reviews

Backtrack Blues Band
Make My Home in Florida
Harpo Records

Backtrack Blues Band do, as the title of their newest CD proclaims, “Make My Home In Florida” and for a band that’s been on the scene for almost thirty years they reveal a real rejuvenation. When a group of seasoned bluesmen - Sonny Charles, harmonica and vocals, Little Johnny Walter, rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo, drums and Stick Davis, bass recruited a hot young guitarist, Kid Royal, to play a mix of originals and classics it was a partnership made in paradise. With the success of last year’s “Way Back Home” CD they quickly enlisted a sound and video team to record that spark before a sold out crowd at the historic Palladium Theater in St. Pete for a deluxe CD/DVD set of tough electric blues captured live. The DVD reveals a band that’s still on the edge, the original players gathered together all dressed in dark suits ready for business, the upstart Kid to the left wearing a casual newsy cap, a white shirt, sleeves rolled up for action, primed to deliver an energetic set.
They deliver from the first notes of Sonny’s harp on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checkin’ On My Baby” taking full flight as the Kid burns on this tour de force then keeping in a blues vein Charles emulates the Williamson harp sound while keeping the vocals all his own on Sonny Boy’s “Your Funeral And My Trail.” From there Sonny Charles calls for a B.B. King tribute and Kid Royal swings into “Woke Up This Morning” supplying vocals, Charles riffs on harp as Royal nails a tasteful solo. Sonny asks, “remember that T-Bone Walker tune you were playing?” as the Kid takes up a “T-Bone Shuffle,” the harp swings, the Kid sings and burns on guitar. For a final cover the band rips into Little Walter’s “Nobody But You,” the rhythm section is hitting hard against Sonny’s clipped vocals while the interplay of guitar and harp is dynamic. Jacking into a heavy groove the band kicks off their originals, chanting with every mention of “Heavy Built Woman” as the Kid adds some sprightly guitar and Sonny channels Ellington horns on the harp riff, then the harp crows and cackles on “Shoot My Rooster” and Royal gives a tip of the hat to Guitar Slim. On the title tune, “Make My Home In Florida,” Sonny’s vocals have a lazy Southern swagger and guitar lines so fluid they’re practically dripping and they’re well received by the local crowd. Finishing out their originals the harp and vocals blast out a churning delivery for “Tell Your Daddy” till Royal reigns full swing before the harp takes back control and drives it home for a finale.
The Backtrack Blues Band have stepped up their game on “Make My Home in Florida” with its dual CD/DVD and as they say, cut them while they’re hot. —Roger & Margaret White

Kim Wilson
Blues and Boogie Vol. 1
Severn Records

Kim Wilson has been a force of nature on the blues scene since he hit the national spotlight with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1979. All these years later Wilson is still one of the busiest men in blues with his Blues All-Stars, T-Birds and guest spots on numerous CDs. With his newest solo shot, “Blues and Boogie Vol. 1,” he’s assembled a combination of a dozen cool covers and four originals. With a varied cast of sidemen including the guitars of Big Jon Atkinson, Nathan James, Billy Flynn, Bob Welsh and Danny Michel, on bass Troy Sandow, Larry Taylor or Kandar Roy, drums Richard Innes, Marty Dodson or Malachi Johnson with Barrelhouse Chuck on piano and Jonny Viau adding horns. Wilson says in the liner notes “I want to tell all of the real blues fans out there what a labor of love this project has been. I’ve been recording many, many tracks for a couple of years now and time has just flown by. A couple of the greatest musicians that ever lived, Richard Innes and Barrelhouse Chuck, have passed away during the process of making this CD. One of their dreams was to see this stuff come out. So here it is, the first of many to come.” So let’s jump right in and let the blues begin.
Every track has the sound of a classic Chess recording, Kim mixing and matching players where east meets west as Billy Flynn and Barrelhouse Chuck team up with Big Jon for a perfect rendition of Little Walter’s “Teenage Beat” then cruise into two originals, “Learn To Treat Me Right” and “Searching All Over” where the guitars channel Elmore as the harp plays a Wolf-like “Dust My Broom” chorus. Barrelhouse Chuck pounds out Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues” against Kim’s soulful voice then Chuck and Flynn hit John Lee Hooker’s “Same Old Blues” with the addition of Jonny Viau’s sax. Kim blows an original instrumental “Edgier” with the other California kid, Nathan James, then he bangs out a rumba rhythm on Joe Jesea’s “No Love in My Heart.” Adding Big Jon, Kim blows out Little Walter’s “Blue And Lonesome,” Jimmy Reed’s “You Upset My Mind” and “You’re The One.” Wilson knocks it out on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Ninety-Nine” and Willie Williamson’s “From the Bottom” with the guitars swinging. “Bonus Boogie,” a Wilson original instrumental that could be a Little Walter outtake, has the guitars of Big Jon and Bob Welsh darting and flashing behind him then the same band covers Magic Sam’s “Look Whatcha Done.”
Kim Wilson’s new collection of songs, “Blues and Boogie Vol. 1” delivers on that promise and will leave you anticipating the next compilation he’s promised. —Roger & Margaret White

Dave Keyes
The Healing
Keyesland Music 2017
Keyes, with Keyes, on the keys.

Let’s forget the background biography. If you want it, just check Guy Powell’s informative interview with Dave Keyes in the Feb/March 2016 issue of Big City Rhythm & Blues. Just accept that Keyes is a highly valued and accomplished keyboard player, singer, and songwriter based in New York City, with an extensive and sparkling resume. Just acknowledge his goal, expressed in the liner notes: that the disturbing state of the world induced him to provide an album of positive vibes. Then just sit back and enjoy this inspired hour of gospel-tinged blues and R&B, sprinkled with a little rock.
There is a second Keyes on this CD, by the way - David J. Keyes, no relation, plays bass throughout the set. Handling percussion is Frank Pagano, and guitar chores are alternated ably by Popa Chubby and Shemekia Copeland guitarist Arthur Neilson. A few other adepts make brief appearances as Dave Keyes works (pleasures) his way through nine original tunes and two covers.
The set commences with “Change,” Rob Paparozzi blowing nice harmonica over the churning rhythm section before Keyes enters with his strong tenor voice. The powerful harmonies of backing singers The Ministers of Sound (Alexis P. Suter, Ray Grappone, and Vicki Bell) make their first of several appearances on the album, and Keyes delivers a nice piano solo. It’s followed by “Dance in the Dark,” a mid-tempo shuffle introducing horn players Tim Ouimette and Chris Eminizer into the mix. Next, Pagano’s drums establish the Bo Diddley beat on “Not So Nice Anymore” and Chubby belies his reputation as a warp-speed guitarist with temperate and tasty licks…as he does again on “Ain’t Looking for Love,” a forthright declaration to potential lovers that sex and love are distinct. Blues singer Vaneese Thomas contributes a great vocal, and harmonizes impeccably with Keyes.
A musical jolt ensues with the cover of the Robert Johnson classic, “Traveling Riverside Blues”; it’s not country blues, but if the late King of the Delta Blues could hear it, he would be startled and then probably enthralled by Keyes’ virtuoso piano playing and impassioned vocal. Then we reach the “hump” song of the set, the instrumental “Boogie for Stefan,” a rollicking Keyes solo piano workout with solid left hand and dazzling right.
“Come to Me,” a plaintive love song, is one of the highlights of the CD, a slow tune showcasing Keyes’ and Chubby’s instrumental skills (Keyes on organ) with horn accompaniment, and it segues into another apex of the set, a rocking gospel cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening.” When it’s over the urge to dance may cease, but the church atmosphere persists with “Faith, Grace, Love and Forgiveness,” the Ministers of Sound again singing stirringly while Keyes and Neilson mesh scintillatingly on piano and guitar. Neilson again excels with gorgeous restrained guitar on “Take You Back,” a slow blues, and the set concludes with “Box of Blues,” a tune with a big band feel that winningly brings together harmonica and horns over another compelling Keyes vocal. It’s a fitting coda to an uplifting album.—Steve Daniels

Eric Johanson
Burn It Down
Whiskey Bayou Records 2017

Is this yet another guitar prodigy with technical wizardry, attempting to impress with speed and sizzle? Fortunately, no: it’s much more than that. Johanson, a Louisiana native from a musical family, is indeed a prodigy who was playing professionally by his mid-teens and has held the guitar chair with the bands of Cyrille Neville and Terrance Simien. His debut album, on the new label of Louisiana luminary Tab Benoit, reveals that Tab has recognized a notable new talent.
Johanson is a triple threat. He takes guitar leads on all eleven tracks of the set, sings evocatively, and wrote ten of the songs, one in tandem with Benoit. That number, “Graveyard Queen,” is one of the highlights; it’s a slow, spooky outing with a really nice guitar solo and one of Johanson’s best vocals, exhibiting his command of a wide tenor range with convincing emotional impact. Not surprisingly, it’s enhanced by Benoit on overdubbed second guitar. The two guitars also mesh effectively on four other numbers, including the opening title track and, late in the set, another standout, “Oh Louisiana,” the only cover song on the album.
Several of the songs represent an amalgam of Louisiana Cajun and Mississippi hill country vibes; that is, they are heavy on rhythm and short on melody. Benoit, who plays drums throughout, provides a somewhat rote hill country groove on tracks such as “So Cold” and “Till We Bleed,” but also some nice syncopated variety on the title tune and “Live Oak.” The latter, an ode to New Orleans, features another of Johanson’s stellar guitar solos. Johanson generally sticks with single note forays on the six-string, although a series of chords introduces “4 in the Morning,” and he can shred as well, as evinced by his Hendrix-like treatment of “She’s in Control.”
Perhaps my favorite cut is “The Fugitive,” a tale of a miscreant hiding from the law and repenting while enjoying protection from his paramour. The guitar coda is worth the price of admission itself.
Corey Duplechin of Tab Benoit’s own band, on bass, is the solid third leg of this blues rock power trio. Production values are very good, and the album delivers the goods.— Steve Daniels

Jeff McCarty
Step Out
Whiskey Bayou Records 2017

Perhaps this regionally known and appreciated Louisiana singer will soon be known nationally as well. Based on this album, apparently his first, I won’t be surprised. Produced by big name bluesman Tab Benoit, the CD contains eleven tracks, ten either written by the principal or co-written with Benoit. Front and center are McCarty’s vocals, evincing his capability with blues, rock, and soul, and displaying range and power.
The set commences with an optimistic anthem, “One World, One Life, One People,” and is succeeded by “My Soul Will Never Be Free,” which is introduced by some crunching guitar chords quickly augmented by swirling organ. Next is “Angel Fly,” the longest track of the set and my favorite, a beautiful dirge for a departed loved one. McCarty’s singing is moving, as is the spare but gorgeous guitar contribution of Josh Garrett. The ensuing title tune is a mid-tempo funky shuffle, and the funk groove is maintained on “Live for the Music.”
“Love,” the only cover (of a Bad Company tune), is hindered by a glacial pace and trite lyrics, but redeemed by McCarty’s vocal and the melodious keyboard of Tillis Verdin, who switches back to organ as the foundation for “A Thousand Miles to You,” a poignant romantic ballad. Enough slow stuff! It’s now time to “Dance with Me Baby,” a twelve bar enticement that’s hard to resist. “Make Our Love Stronger” a soul ballad with a 1950s vibe, grants McCarty the opportunity to exercise the full range of his laryngeal skills before “Figure It Out” returns to the funk zone, and the set ends with “Let’s Ride,” McCarty again overcoming some clichéd lyrics with his commanding voice.
Support throughout the album is provided by Verdin on keyboards and Corey Duplechin of Tab Benoit’s band on bass. Benoit himself mans the drum kit, although sometimes too prominently in the mix for my tastes. Particular kudos to Garrett, a young Louisiana guitarist with his own band whose participation in this project is consistently excellent.—Steve Daniels

Beautiful Bobby Blackmon
Throwback Blues
B3 Records

Beautiful Bobby Blackmon’s latest CD, “Throwback Blues,” describes Bobby’s music beautifully. At 72 years old he plays the blues he was raised on, down home Southern Soul Blues. His mother Annie took him to blues shows in Austin, Texas, bought him his first guitar and he would play in a band opening for big names including Lou Rawls, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Arthur Prysock and Jerry Lee Lewis. This disc is dedicated to the three women in his life, mother Annie Blackmon, grandmother “Mama Sallie” and his wife Shirley Blackmon, who he calls his inspiration. Based out of Orlando, Florida he’s a regular at B.B. King’s with his B3 Band featuring Jimmy Seay bass, David Bynes drums, Jack Bumgarner keyboards, Bobby Blackmon on guitar and vocals with the occasional horn section of Doug Spoonamore sax, Derrick Harris trombone and Chong You trumpet. All songs are written by Bobby Blackmon in the flavor of early down home blues that he loves.
The title tune hearkens back to the days of his mom playing Junior Parker and B.B. King as his voice and guitar recreate those warm feelings. Then fast forward to the present, “Down In Blues Alley,” a real place where Bobby plays, The Alley in Sanford, Florida, as the horns and keys swing like a couple of alley cats. Slowing to a ballad Bobby pours out his soul confessing “I Need Someone To Love Me Tonight” then pleads “open up the door and let me in,” she says “Let Me Think About It” but Bobby insists “Love Takes Time,” “don’t give up on me, I’ll be your lover man wait and see” as the guitar echoes his soulful shouts. The doctor verifies he’s got “Love Pain” cause she cheated, leaving him with a “Cup Of Misery” but he’ll be all right. With a quiver in his voice and the vibrato of a B3 Bobby begs “I Wanna Come Home” as his guitar blasts out a strong solo and the horns blare mocking defeat as Bobby is “Gonna Put Aside My Love” and his guitar does the crying for him. Bobby sadly looking outside himself realizes, “The World That We Live In” ain’t the world that I want. Bobby sings “whatcha gonna do when you can’t find a Blues Club in your town” because “The Blues Just Left Town” - Bobby warns “please support live music so the blues can survive.”
“Throwback Blues” is Beautiful Bobby Blackmon’s own blend of grit and passion. He says “the blues is at the root of all American music, that’s why we have to keep the blues alive.”—Roger & Margaret White

Mick Kolassa & Mark Telesca
You Can’t Do That
Swing Suit Records 2017

It’s a cliché - that means it’s true - that the basis of almost all popular music is the blues. Rock, jazz, soul, rhythm-and-blues, rap, hip hop, even much of country…they’re all based on our favorite seminal American music form. We’d also probably agree that the best, as well as most famous and most lauded rock bands ever are the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Not surprisingly, both bands were profoundly influenced by the blues. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have confirmed that they bonded and then formed the Stones over their love of Chicago blues, the Stones covered blues songs in their early albums, and their 2016 release “Blue & Lonesome” reaffirms the connection. The Beatles were more influenced by 1950s and 1960s r-&-b that derived from blues roots, and they covered many r-&-b songs in their first outings.
Blues tribute albums to both the Stones and Beatles have seen the light before, including 2002’s “The Blues White Album” featuring Charlie Musselwhite, Kenny Neal, and Maria Muldaur, among others, adapting Beatles songs. Now Mississippi-based vocalist and guitarist Kolassa has recruited fellow vocalist and guitarist Telesca in an acoustic set reprising eleven Beatles songs spanning the range of the Beatles recording career. They are accompanied by album producer and skilled guitarist Jeff Jensen, collaborator on all three of Kolassa’s previous records. James Cunningham provides steady percussion along the way.
The duo employs several tactics to “bluesify” these tunes so familiar to us (at least those of us of a certain age). One ploy is to alter tempo. For example, the Beatles’s main recorded version of “Lady Madonna” is a jaunty mid-tempo number; Kolassa and Telesca slow it down to a dirge-like pace, and augment it with the haunting fiddle contribution of Tommy Boroughs. Similarly, “Fixing a Hole” is slowed, features an insistent rather than wistful vocal, and has a virtuoso multiple guitar attack; and the title tune proceeds at a deliberate rate, with augmentation by Eric Hughes on harmonica.
Conversely, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is goosed to an uptempo beat and a country hoedown groove. Alterations besides tempo are also appealing. Case in point: “She’s a Woman” sports a syncopated rhythm, added flugelhorn courtesy of Marc Franklin, and a vocal and vibe strongly reminiscent of Dr. John and New Orleans.
“Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” “I Feel Fine” - what great songs the Beatles gave us. Kolassa has chosen well. Imitation is indeed a form of flattery, but this album exceeds simple imitation with innovation. Its creativity, and its consistently fine guitar playing, deserve plaudits.—Steve Daniels

Ronnie Earl
and the Broadcasters
The Luckiest Man
Stony Plain

Master guitarist Ronnie Earl has one of the most recognizable tones in the musical universe. This is one of his strongest albums, which is what is commonly stated about every album he has recorded since leaving Roomful of Blues after his eight-year tenure (1979 until 1988). The 64 year old has been playing guitar for better than 40 years and got his beginning with public playing, initially jamming with Otis Rush and Big Walter Horton in the early seventies. He played in Boston with John Nicholas and the Rhythm Rockers and with Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones. He formed his first version of the Broadcasters in 1988. To say he hit the ground running is an understatement. Now, 25 albums later, his name is spoken in hushed whispers and his name is mentioned with the greats. Otis Rush’s and Magic Sam’s influences continues to be apparent.
“The Luckiest Man” is a well-balanced collection of stunning instrumentals and vocal cuts with Diane Blue, and one with Sugar Ray Norcia. The core band is Earl (guitar), Dave Limina (keys), Diane Blue (vocals), Forrest Padgett (drums), and Paul Kochanski (bass). Guests on the set are Nicholas Tabarias and Peter Ward on guitars, Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward on acoustic and electric basses, Mark Earley on baritone saxophone and Mario Perrett on tenor.
Opening with a wholly revised version of “Ain’t That Lovin’ You,” a cut made famous by Jimmy Reed and recorded by a host of others, this is nearly unrecognizable in the more than capable hands of Earl and Ms. Blue. Following the almost expected “Southside Stomp,” Blue returns to deliver with Ronnie a hypnotic dirge on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the Reverend Gary Davis staple. Blue complements “Heartbreak (It’s Killin’ Me)” a gospel-flavored piece that shines strong on her powerful voice, and on Otis Rush’s classic, “So Many Roads” and the closer, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a song with its roots with Billy Eckstine and by Billie Holiday. Nice version. The cut with his pal Sugar Ray (“Long Conversation”) with Anthony Geraci, Mike Welch, Nick Gouvin and Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward is a major standout as well.
Guitar freaks come here for the maestro and Mr. Earl does not disappoint. “Southside Stomp” Is a time machine on which Earl transports the listener to the 1960s when Chicago was the center of the universe. Earl’s lines are concise, sharp and a joy to listen to. Drums and bass offer on time support. On “Jim’s Song,” he plays a gorgeous extended and jazzy solo. Introspective, emotive and gentle it evokes some shades of Wes Montgomery or Jim Hall, filtered through the lens of a man who is certainly their peer. “Sweet Miss Vee” is a bit more upbeat with Lamina’s organ backing. “Blues For Magic Sam” is hard core blues with full band backing. His work is full of spot on lines that bring the master’s influence to life. Again, Ronnie Earl is anyone of his heroes’ equal. To call this an amazing piece is to state the obvious. The back-in-the-mix horns are a nice touch. Ronnie Earl is at his best and most jaw-dropping here. Whew! This may just be the album of the year for these ears. Did I say “whew?”—Mark E. Gallo

The Johnstons
Bitter Green/ Colours Of The Dawn/ If I Sang My Song/ Bonus Tracks
BGO CD-1297

The Johnstons were an ill-fated, close-harmony folk trio (Adrienne, Lucy and brother Michael Johnston) who were at the forefront of the Irish folk music revival of the 1960s. They began singing in their father, Marty’s, pub in Slane, County Meath in the early sixties, signed to Pye Records in 1965 and had a hit right out of the box with an arresting version of Ewan MacColl’s commentary “The Travelling People.” Their followup single, a spirited recall of the title song for the Walt Disney film The Alamo, quickly climbed the Irish charts and established them as a major attraction. By 1968, after the departure of Lucy and Michael and the addition of Paul Brady and Mick Moloney, the group signed with London’s Transatlantic label. The three albums reissued here date from 1969-1972 and contain a boatload of gems, including insightful covers of titles by the likes of Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, more MacColl and Gordon Lightfoot along with a slew of Brady efforts—including “Angela Davis” and “Brightness She Came.” The 12 song bonus section on disc two features a host of rarities including the vintage pair mentioned above and Tom Paxton’s “Leaving London.” Treat yourself!—Gary von Tersch

John Lee Hooker
King of the Boogie

A five CD box of John Lee Hooker. King of the Boogie. King of Detroit Blues. It’s almost overwhelming. No matter the size of your Hooker music collection, there are going to be surprises and treats to tickle your ears. Hooker released his first 78s in 1948, including “Boogie Chillun” later leased to Modern Records and ultimately selling a million copies. It is still the song most closely identified with him.
By the time he died in 2001 Hooker had amassed at least 100 albums. 100 songs are collected here. Those we know, rarities and a few never released before, under his own name and a few others.
How does one cull a representative selection of six decades of recordings? Carefully, delicately and lovingly. Opening with “Boogie Chillen” (note the different spelling) by John Lee Hooker and His Guitar, it transverses many familiar tunes: “I’m In The Mood,” “Dimples,” “Tupelo Blues,” “My First Wife Left Me,” “Boom Boom,” “It Serves Me Right,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “The Motor City Is Burning,” and “Homework” to name some of the obvious numbers. Those songs alone are worth the price of admission. Additionally, there is s disc full of live performances and a disc full of performances labeled as Friends; two with Van Morrison (“Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” and “Don’t Look Back.”). The playful duet with Bonnie Raitt on “In The Mood” was one of the best known in his last years. Carlos Santana shared the title tune to the great “The Healer” album. Robert Cray shared the mic with Hooker on “Mr. Lucky” and “You Shook Me” teamed icons Hooker and BB King. Los Lobos (“Dimples”), Eric Clapton (“Boogie Chillen.”) and more delights fill up the disc. Surprisingly, nothing with his friend and producer Roy Rogers.
Concise liner notes by Jas Obrecht and Mike Kappus add to the allure of the package. Landmarks are pointed out, such as arriving in Memphis in 1933 and then to his adopted hometown of Detroit a couple of years later, working as a janitor at Ford, and playing house parties on the side. He recorded under his own name, as well as such pseudo names as Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam, Johnny Williams, John Lee Booker, Johnny Lee, and Sir John Lee Hooker on a variety of labels. Not all were very clever guises, but it kept him from aligning with just one label. Package producer Mason Williams said that the songs herein are “just a snapshot” of Hooker’s career output. John Lee credited his style to what he learned from his step-father, Will Moore, and to listening to 78s by Charley Patton, Blind Lemon, Blind Blake and Leroy Carr. He is quoted as saying, “I didn’t see these people, but I heard their music, my stepfather had all those records.” He worked with Eddie Burns, Eddie Kirkland and Eddie Taylor. He called T-Bone Walker a major influence. In 1959 he embarked on a series of solo records that caught the public’s ear as effectively as the band recordings. Following a successful trip to Europe, he came home and finding the city’s spirit broken and far few venues for the blues, he moved to LA shortly after the 1967 riots. After leaving the business for nearly a decade, he made a comeback of sorts, based in large part to a blues resurrection sparked by Stevie Ray Vaughan. From that point forward he hit what may have been his greatest fame. Which returns us to that first thought: A five CD box of John Lee Hooker. King of the Boogie. King of Detroit Blues. It’s almost overwhelming. It is the most overall enjoyable collection of masterpieces assembled this year, or in recent memory.—Mark E. Gallo

Heather Newman
Burn Me Alive
Self-produced 2017

So, it must be a new trend…and a welcome one: powerhouse women vocalists playing bass guitar in blues bands. Danielle Nicole and Lisa Mann come to mind as such emergent figures in the last ten years; add to the list Heather Newman, whose debut album proves that she has the goods to deliver.
Apparently a child musical prodigy, Newman in the last few years left her roots in Omaha, Nebraska, for Kansas City. She joined guitar maven Nick Schnebelen and his band on their 2016 release “Live at Knucklehead’s, Vol. 1” in a fruitful collaboration. “Burn Me Alive” showcases her talents with her own recently formed group, comprised of young but seasoned musicians Keith Ladd on guitar, Ryan Flemmer on keyboards, and Cole Dillingham on percussion. Oh, by the way, Newman composed all of the dozen songs.
Holding nothing back, this quartet dives in with “Willie James,” a chugging blues rocker buttressed by the rhythm section and by Ladd with flashy guitar work, and immediately delivering the message that This Woman Can Sing. As amply revealed here and throughout the almost hour-long set, Newman has impressive range and can do smoky, sultry, and gritty equally well. She is not always pitch-perfect, and some may find her vocals mannered, but the passion and sincerity with which she imbues them are undeniable. Newman is no slouch on bass, either, as evinced by the second track, “Bring the Swing,” with its Bo Diddley rhythm, and the title tune, also driven by her bass.
The dozen tracks furnish variety. “Howling for Love” is a shuffle, and “Love Strong” a rocker with some nicely syncopated drum work by Dillingham. “I Don’t Know Why,” a slow love ballad, lets Newman exercise a full gamut of emotion. On “Share Your Love,” Flemmer cuts loose with some evocative organ playing, and the final track, “I’m Through with You,” is a showcase again for Ladd. Two brief guest appearances are worthy: Schnebelen lends his biting yet lyrical guitar prowess to “High Mountain Blues,” and saxophonist Michael Lefever wails plaintively on “Dirty Blues.”—Steve Daniels

Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Ain’t Broke Ain’t Hungry
Various Artists
ACE CD 1506

This is, count ‘em, the 18th in the Ace Records series of Bayou releases. Jam-packed at 73 minutes and 28 tracks, this well-annotated project features previously unissued numbers and alternate takes from the South Louisiana likes of Lazy Lester, Lightnin Slim, Clarence Garlow and Slim Harpo plus other more obscure artists (Mercy Baby, Leroy Washington, Jimmy Anderson and Honey Boy Allen are back porch favorites) along with six or seven virtual unknowns including Lightnin’ Slim sound-alike Jake Jackson and Dale and Grace sound-alike T.B. Fisher. Also represented are a pair of artists not usually associated with this distinctively downhome style—left-handed guitarist Barbara Lynn with her transfixing, utterly bluesy cover of Lazy Lester’s “Sugar Coated Love” and Cookie (of the Cupcakes) with his down ‘n’ dirty original “In The Evening.” Also worth a mention are Big Walter Price’s priceless admonition concerning “If Blues Was Money,” Polka Dot Slim’s rollicking “Ain’t Broke Ain’t Hungry,” a couple of rousers by Boozoo Chavis (especially the culinary-oriented “Hamburgers & Popcorn” and all four sides by the immortal Lightnin’ Slim—particularly “Little Girl Blues” and “Hoo Doo Blues.” Can’t get enough of this music. And there’s more to come I hear.—Gary von Tersch

Bang: The Bert Berns Story
Various Artists
Legcy/Sony Music 2-LP

Some say that the golden era of deep soul-oriented, New York-based rhythm and blues music died with the passing of the big-eared youthful record executive and label owner, R&B producer and songwriter, Bert Berns, of a heart attack in a Manhattan hotel room on New Years Eve, 1967. This 20 song collection, from the soundtrack to the recent film Bang! The Bert Berns Story, certainly makes the case as it showcases a generous sampling of his particular genius at paralleling gospel voices with unhurried, climactical ballads of exceptional emotion, most of which he penned. Try “Cry Baby” by Garnett Mimms & The Enchanters, “You May Be Holding My Baby” by the Pussycats, Janis Joplin wailing “Piece Of My Heart” and both “Cry To Me” and “Are You Lonely For Me Baby” by Freddie Scott, not to mention Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” or The Exciters’ rousing chanter “Tell Him” and you’ll see what I mean. This 2-LP audio counterpoint to the film also includes the likes of Erma Franklin (with the original version of “Piece Of My Heart”), Them (“Baby Please Don’t Go”), Solomon Burke, The Isley Brothers (“Twist And Shout”), the McCoys (“Hang On Sloopy”), Sam Cooke imitator Bobby Harris and the Jarmels with their “A Little Bit Of Soap,” Berns’ first hit from 1961. And if you want to dig even deeper into Berns’ musical matrix check out Joel Selvin’s recent book, Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues. —Gary von Tersch

Harrison Kennedy
Who U Tellin’?
Electro-Fi 2017

By now those familiar with Canadian blues (that is not an oxymoron) know the name and output of Harrison Kennedy, a Hamilton, Ontario-based bluesman with musical roots in the U.S. deep South and Detroit Motown. A high finisher in the International Blues Challenge and a winner of multiple Canadian blues awards, Kennedy here provides thirteen original songs buttressed by his instrumental talent on guitar, percussion, and especially banjo and harmonica. His voice remains his prime tool, with continued command of the range from soul crooning to gritty rasping.
More than one other reviewer has compared Kennedy to Colorado-based Otis Taylor, purveyor of “trance blues,” and this current release, a follow-up to 2013’s “Soulscape” and 2015’s “This Is from Here,” offers more evidence of similarities between Taylor and Kennedy. Kennedy’s 2015 album presented a set of fairly traditional twelve-bar blues, with guitar, bass, drums, and percussion supporting his singing and harmonica displays. “Who U Tellin’?” in contrast, harks back to the predominant vibe of “Soulscape,“ Kennedy again playing banjo and backed by adept Canadian musicians Jack de Keyzer on guitars, Julian Fauth on piano, and Alec Fraser on bass. Completing the ensemble is Jimmy Bowskill, who contributes mandolin and, for the first time that I can discover on Kennedy albums, supplies fiddle. That addition increases comparison to the stylings of Otis Taylor, whose group prominently includes fiddler Anne Harris.
To characterize this set in a nutshell: Mississippi hill country blues meets trance blues. The former genre, represented historically most notably by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Fred McDowell, sports a rhythmic groove with repetitive riffs and lyrics to create a mesmerizing format; trance blues adds fiddle, other sundry instruments, and an ethereal quality. Kennedy’s compositions, while similar to Taylor’s in style, in their lyrics mine more traditional blues concerns than the African American and Native American themes favored by Taylor.
Those who crave variety may wish for more here, since almost every song adheres to that main groove. The good news: Kennedy and company do a consistently excellent job of it. There are a few welcome digressions, though. “Mountain Stomp,” for example, is a country hoedown number with Bowskill showing fiddle skill in this tribute to “cornbread and soul food,” and “Doctors in Hard Hats” is a more classically blues-structured track with de Keyzer absolutely killing it with some splendid guitar soloing. “Heavy Load” is a slow traditional blues with spare instrumentation, de Keyzer’s acoustic guitar meshing nicely with Kennedy’s plaintive harmonica wailing. Throughout, Kennedy’s harmonica playing, complementing his vocalizing and sometimes dubbed over it, is pithy without being showy.—Steve Daniels

Marquise Knox
Black and Blue
Marquise Knox Entertainment 2017

Ever since his nomination in 2017 for a Blues Music Award as Best New Artist, St. Louis-based Marquise Knox has been touted as one of the young performers who will keep the blues alive through its predictable ups and downs. Only sixteen when he released his first album, Knox has benefited from mentorship from a jaw-dropping list of legends: Henry Townsend, B.B. King, Sam Lay, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, and the sensational but under-recognized late bluesman Michael Burks. It was with Burks’ band that Knox recorded his debut album. The ensuing years have only enhanced his reputation. His latest album is a stunner.
Knox is an undeniable crowd-pleaser and “Black and Blue,” recorded live at the Iowa Bowlful of Blues in 2016, is proof. The nine tunes on the set comprise a full hour-plus of terrific traditional electric blues; each track is long, giving Knox space to stretch out and deliver his pithy vocals and scorching guitar work. He is more than ably assisted by Gus Thornton on bass and Michael Battle on drums, as well as Matthew Lawder on second guitar. Seldom have I been as impressed with a rhythm guitarist as I am by Lawder, who repeatedly lays down an impeccable and irresistible groove as foundation for Knox’s sparkling leads. Lawder can also bring it on lead, as he displays on the cover version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime”: on that track Knox opts to play harmonica - very well! - in front of Lawder’s Jimi Hendrix-flavored forays.
However, it’s Knox’s guitar skill that is rightfully the focus of the set. The man can play masterfully. The influences of some of his famed predecessors are apparent, but Knox builds upon them rather than simply emulating. “When My Baby Moves,” for example, is a mid-tempo shuffle reminiscent of the blues classic “Caldonia,” somewhat a la B.B. King. “Sweet Smell,” an r&b tune, features scintillating interplay between Knox and Lawder’s guitars and a lyrical solo by the former; that lyricism, characteristic of the late Michael Burks, emerges again on “You Keep Asking Me.” Knox can blast out rapid-fire fusillades of single notes, but more frequently he leaves space for the solos to breathe, with potent effect.
The three longest numbers of the set are the cream of the cream. “One More Reason (To Have the Blues),” over seven minutes long, is played in the style of another major influence on Knox, the great St. Louis bluesman Albert King. A standard at Knox’s live shows, “Blues Man,” attributed to seminal bluesman Skip James, is built around the assertion that “I’m a blues man,” and nobody could deny that after listening to this CD. Another standard at his shows, “Can a Young Man Play the Blues,” is an almost nine minute slow blues with licks again evocative of Albert King. The answer to the query of its title: a resounding YES.—Steve Daniels

Vanessa Collier
Meeting My Shadow
Ruf Records 2017

Young singer and saxophonist Vanessa Collier, based in Philadelphia, PA, has developed a name for herself in just a few years after her graduation from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After a two-year stint in the band of blues legend Joe Louis Walker and the release of her own first album, she has garnered a current nomination for the 2018 Blues Music Award of the Blues Foundation as Horn Player of the Year.
On her second solo release Collier is supported by an ensemble featuring TK Jackson on percussion, Daniel McKee on bass, Charles Hodges on keyboards, and a rotating cast of ancillary musicians who make brief appearances. Holding down the guitar chair throughout is Laura Chavez, skilled former lead guitarist for the late chanteuse Candye Kane.
Perhaps most surprising about “Meet My Shadow” is the subordination of Collier’s saxophone prowess. Instead, most prominently featured on every one of the eleven tunes is her singing, and it deserves plaudits. Other than a rare lapse from perfect pitch, she showcases a supple, mellow voice with nice range. It is deployed on an eclectic song list, eight of the numbers written by Collier. The three cover tunes are well chosen. “When Love Comes to Town,” done notably years ago by B.B. King, receives a mid-tempo treatment enhanced by guest guitarist Josh Roberts on slide, with Chavez also delivering some stinging riffs. “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” is a soul gospel track with Chavez again distinguishing herself, Brenda Jackson sitting in on organ, and Collier and TK Jackson providing tasty backing vocals. Late, great gospel and blueswoman Sister Rosetta Tharpe, new inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, was writer of the last cover, “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” and it receives a rollicking treatment here.
Overdubbing gives room for Collier to stretch, as demonstrated from the first cut of the CD, “Poisoned the Well,” on which she eschews the saxophone, for which she is most noted, and instead plays flute, organ, and percussion while Chavez deploys the wah-wah pedal. After the ensuing “Dig a Little Deeper,” one of the three infectious rockers of the album, Collier switches to Shuitar on her original “When It Don’t Come Easy,” Roberts again adding nice slide. (What’s a Shuitar? Apparently it’s a guitar modified into a percussion instrument.) The rocker “Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime” opens with a saucy sax introduction, and on ensuing tracks Collier shows her sax chops with several juicy solos as well as in some intricate interplay with Marc Franklin’s flugelhorn on the New Orleans-style “Meet Me Where I’m At.” There’s even a “funk anthem,” “Cry Out,” with syncopated percussion, backing vocals, and a fine sax interlude…and the set ends with “Devil’s on the Downslide,” a slow devotional with both Collier and Hodges playing organs.—Steve Daniels

Talkin’ On The Telephone: Vol. 1 & 2
Various Artists
Richard Weize Archives CDs 12524 & 12557

This pair of well-curated CDs, over the course of their 56 tracks, celebrate two late nineteenth century inventions that revolutionized everyday life and civilization forever—telephones and records, beginning with early Edison cylinders. Volume One features vintage titles about the telephone in African-American life, while Volume Two focuses on telephone-songs from rural white American. The former begins with Johnny Otis and Marci Lee’s jumping “Telephone Baby” and closes with Elmore James’ frantic “I Can’t Hold Out (Talk To Me)“ with stops along the way for the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Hello Central”), Slim Harpo, Floyd Dixon, Muddy Waters (“Long Distance Call”), Spirit of Memphis, with their “Atomic Telephone, John Lee Hooker, Pig Meat Markham (“Your Wires Been Tapped”), Mary Wells and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson complaining about “The People On My Party Line.” Volume Two is just as much fun with early country hitmakers like Wanda Jackson (“Between The Window And The Phone”), Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Hank Snow (“I Just Telephone Upstairs”), The Carter Family, George Jones (“Lonely Christmas Call”), Roy Drusky, Homer & Jethro, Bill Monroe, Lattie Moore (“The Jukebox And The Phone”) and a round-up of lesser lights all getting in on the action. Telephone songs go back to the dawn of recorded sound—here’s some of the best. Gotta go—my cellphone’s ringing!—Gary von Tersch

Good Booty
By Ann Powers
Dey St. Books

The front cover sub-title of this fascinating, scholarly yet easy-reading project is, tellingly, Love And Sex, Black & White, Body And Soul In American Music and it more than lives up to its credo as Powers comprehensively explores how, through the ages, popular music became America’s primary erotic art form. The title itself, of course, references Little Richard’s crossover hit “Tutti Frutti” and Powers takes the reader from nineteenth-century New Orleans through the dance-crazed Jazz Age to the teen-scream years of mid-20th century rock and roll and on to the cutting-edge adventures of today’s fervid pop stars. No holds barred. With pinpoint precision and sly wit, Powers adroitly steers across multiple musical genres, within and against the enveloping backdrop of the nation’s puritanical founding, to shine a spotlight on many artists we think we know well—from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison to Southern gospel, Madonna and Prince—promulgating well-thought-out insights into our national psyche and soul along the way. The sections that deal with Chicago, Birmingham and Memphis (circa 1929-1956), the sexual revolution and its discontents (in New York, San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles, 1961-1970), the hard and soft realities of London, Los Angeles and New York (1971-1979) as well as the up-to-date final section concerning cyberspace, titled “Hungry Cyborgs: Britney, Beyonce, And The Virtual Frontier (1999-2016)“ are particularly enlightening as well as entertaining. Only bummer is the lack of a photo section—if ever a book deserved one, it’s this one!—Gary von Tersch

Big Road Blues: 12 Bars on I-80
By Mark Hummel
Mountain Top Publishing LLC 2012

Tornadoes. Icy mountain roads at night at the end of a ten-hour ride to the next gig. Blown van engines. Motels with bloody sheets, no towels, no television or telephone, and holes in the ceiling. Promoters who don’t promote, promoters who don’t pay. Psychotic audience members who insist on sitting in.
It’s useful to remember that a musical career is a job for most working musicians, and touring is stressful, to understate the case. As top-notch contemporary blues harmonica player and singer Mark Hummel writes, “Most folks that write about their musical history are famous - but this is what it’s like not to be famous and [to be] without the limos, managers, roadies, jets, beautiful models, high powered agents and big record labels….It’s a working musician’s saga….” In this mostly chronological litany of anecdotes, the flavor can be garnered just from the titles of some of the chapters: “Bad Weather Blues,” “No Lights or Heater in Colorado,” “Burning Van Fest,” “Missing Drummer in Memphis,” “Hotel Hell Stories,” “Frozen Canadian Goose.”
Hummel has been a touring bluesman since 1973, and he’s seen some of thes best and definitely some of the worst aspects of gigging. Big Road Blues presents an entertaining compendium of the assuredly many hundreds of anecdotes that he has accrued over those four-plus decades. Although not an autobiography, the book begins with several chapters describing Hummel’s youth, and his irresistible attraction to blues. Like many white blues performers of his generation, he was turned on to blues through rock-and-roll, and curiosity about song composer names that he encountered repeatedly. Willie Dixon? Muddy Waters? Living near the famed Ash Grove nightclub in the Los Angeles area, he was fortunate to see many of the seminal legends of the blues. He learned their licks from records, audaciously asked to sit in on their shows when he felt proficient enough on harp, and by his early twenties he was playing with them regularly and soon formed his own band, the Blues Survivors.
One of the valuable aspects of the book is Hummel’s sketching of many of his major influences, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, and Brownie McGhee most prominently. Encounters with other noted performers like Sonny Rhodes, Eddie Taylor, and Lowell Fulson are alternately eye-opening or hilarious…sometimes both. Equally interesting are vignettes of some lesser-known figures like Sonny Lane, Johnny Waters, and Boogie Jake. Then there are the myriad musicians that have comprised the Blues Survivors over the years. Some remained dear friends and colleagues, some disappeared, and some (often graciously identified only by first name) engendered intense chagrin or animosity. It ain’t easy traveling for many weeks at a time in a small van with anybody while suffering from sleep deprivation and poor nutrition, but especially not with people with unpleasant habits or contrary attitudes.
So why on earth would anyone be a touring musician, given the extreme physical and emotional stresses? Well, Hummel answers the question in the last chapter of Big Road Blues. “I’m a blues evangelist, and it’s like a religion to me. Playing music on a great night is like flying or really great sex….Even the road is like that when you’ve been home for too long. It starts to call your name and you’ve got to go.”
For me, this memoir has two overriding themes: Hummel’s (or any bandleader’s) lack of control over the unavoidable vicissitudes of life on the road, and the sheer joy of creating good music that makes it worthwhile even so.
I have a couple of caveats about the book. Illustrations appear throughout, courtesy of Franck Goldwasser (Paris Slim), noted guitarist and long-time friend and some-time musical partner of Hummel. Goldwasser’s pen and ink drawings are creative likenesses of those musicians being discussed, but for readers who do not visually recognize the artists readily, no identification is provided; consequently the drawings float in a frustrating void unconnected to the text. Worse, particularly for a former English major like me, the book is very poorly edited. There are innumerable distracting misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and word omissions and repetitions.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Big Road Blues: an enlightening, amusing, and realistic portrayal of a working musician’s life on the road.—Steve Daniels

Live From The Mississippi Delta
By Panny Flautt Mayfield
University Press of Mississippi

A lifelong resident of the Mississippi Delta, Mayfield is an award-winning journalist who also has been photographing local blues and gospel musicians at festivals, clubs, churches and juke joints for decades. Her first book collects over two hundred black-and-white and color photos alongside detail-rich stories and commentary and begins with a visit by archetypal rock star, Robert Plant, to Tutwiler’s Railroad Park in 2009 where he was the keynote speaker for a Mississippi Blues Trail marker delineating the depot where one night in 1903 W.C. Handy heard expressive chords from a slide guitar played with a kitchen knife. Successive chapters draw a bead on isolating Delta landscapes (including late winter cabin scenes on Stovall’s Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up), homegrown icons like Early Wright, Wade Walton, Big Jack Johnson, The Jelly Roll Kings and the North Mississippi All Stars among others, a variety of festivals and celebrations along with international celebrities on the order of ZZ Top, Charlie Musselwhite, Clarence Fountain, Bobby Rush, Ike Turner and playwright Tennessee Williams. The final three chapters deal with the Delta Blues Museum, the gospel music scene and, my favorite—juke joints. Where we are treated to the fast and loose insides of local fixtures like Smitty’s Red Top Lounge (on Yazoo across the railroad tracks from the Blues Museum), the Bobo Grocery, the Dew Drop Inn, Margaret’s Blue Diamond, the Ground Zero Blues Club (co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman) and Red’s, to cite a few. If you ever pondered the relevance of Mississippi to the history of the blues, this answers the question. Robert Plant’s “mysterious homeland” lovingly revealed.—Gary von Tersch


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