Blues Reviews
April/May 2018

Get Down/Live Catfish
BGO 2-CD 1308

Blues-rocking musician and gutsy singer Bobby Allen Hodge, known as Catfish Hodge, was born in 1944 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the largest city on the U.S./Canadian border. Though not as well known as fellow Detroit rockers Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Mitch Ryder, Catfish nevertheless was a local hero and managed to record nearly two dozen albums in his still ongoing career. The Detroit Free Press once described Hodge as “one of the great blues guitarists and composers that Michigan ever produced,” while liners writer John O’Regan saw the band as “the equivalent of Canned Heat meeting Otis Redding.” In the late 60s, Hodge formed Catfish and began touring behind these two albums, both released on Epic. Get Down features nine Hodge originals, including an assertive “The Hawk,” the dynamic “Love Light,” and a swamp-bluesy “Rolling & Tumbling”—variant titled “Tradition.” Two epic numbers are the main course—an eight-minute uproarious blues heel-kicker about his “300 Pound Fat Mama” and the nine-minute album closer called “Reprise: Catfish/Get High, Get Naked, Get Down.” Live Catfish was recorded live at the venerated Eastown Theatre in Detroit and produced by John Hill—who also plays piano on a soulful cover of Martha & The Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run.” In addition to a very “live” ten-minute version of their signature “300 Pound Fat Mama,” other Hodge originals are nearly incendiary (talking about the hard driving “Mississippi River” and the timely “Letter To Nixon”—probably penned after the war-ending Tet Offensive) as Hodge also raises the roof on a finger-stabbing cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)“ and the set-closing, encore recall of Jerry Lee Lewis’ rock and roller “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”—one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. I even hear my old pal Wheelchair Man’s wheels spinning somewhere!—Gary von Tersch

Bettye LaVette
Things Have Changed
Verve Records

Bettye LaVette has risen to heights and been reborn time and again. From ‘60s R&B hits to Broadway shows, best selling author of “A Woman Like Me” and her current comeback as Soul Diva and re-interpreter of classic songs. With her newest CD, “Things Have Changed,” she’s taken on the songbook of Bob Dylan, giving each song her own take and digging deep into Dylan’s decades of compositions. She’s assisted by producer Steve Jordan who holds down drums and percussion along with guitar on two tracks, Larry Campbell fills out the guitar seat, Pino Palladino on bass with Leon Pendarvis and Gil Goldstein on keyboards. Several special guests sit in, most notably Keith Richards, Ivan Neville and Trombone Shorty with a string quartet as well. Bettye has always pushed herself to give her all at every show, here she pushes the songs to come up to her level.
The one title that casual Dylan observers may recognize, his early hit “The Times They Are A Changing” is given a strong mid tempo rhythm as Bettye draws out each word with a Rhodes piano in the back, then on “Things Have Changed” the rhythm churns stronger, the guitar lightly ringing as she’s “waiting for things to break lose.” Keith Richards joins the band on “It Ain’t Me Babe,” his guitar adding a delicate innocence against Bettye’s world-weary vocals adding a heartache Cher never could, then coming to a modern “Political World” permeated by a funky organ groove as Keith slashes a solo. Delving into a true hard rocker that features Jordan on electric guitar as Bettye’s buzz saw vocals demand “Do Right To Me Baby” then slipping into a drippingly bitter “Seeing The Real You At Last” and dropping into an anguished regret as she tells herself “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight.” Delicate piano and the sweet cry of pedal steel guitar mellow Bettye’s gentle heartrending reading of “Mama, You Been On My Mind.” The Firey String Company, Nioka Workman on cello, Charisa Dowe-Rouse & Rose Bartu on violin and Ina Paris on viola provide a subdued whirling background as Bettye’s vocal strides past the strings declaring I “Ain’t Talking” “I’m just walking.” Switching to congas and a near smooth jazz feel “What Was It You Wanted” has Ivan Neville’s clavinet ringing with Bettye and Jordan providing backing vocals as The LaVettes and Trombone Shorty’s muted solo butts up against the cutting vocals. Easing in with a mandolin intro Bettye’s “Emotionally Yours” wrings out a gentle intensity. The finale of “Going, Going, Gone,” a tender country hymn, pits Bettye’s grit against a gentle piano and the whine of pedal steel guitar.
Often times Dylan’s songs beg for re-interpretation to bring out their full power and on “Things Have Changed” LaVette gives this dozen the complete makeover they deserved.—Roger & Margaret White

Danielle Nicole
Cry No More

The blues has been a part of Danielle Nicole Schnebelen’s life from the start: her parents had a band growing up in Kansas City, her and brothers Nick and Kris were in separate bands but joined together to create Trampled Under Foot and won the IBC’s in 2008. Danielle Nicole stepped out on her own in 2015 with her debut album “Wolf Den” and now her newest solo project is “Cry No More,” produced by Tony Braunagel. She features guests like Luther Dickinson, Sonny Landreth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Monster Mike Welsh and Walter Trout but it’s Danielle’s bass and vocals that drive this recording with the core band of Tony on drums, Johnny Lee Schell on guitar and Mike Sedovic or Mike Finnegan on organ backing her up. Ten of the fourteen songs are originals with her grit and style reflected in each one.
With grinding guitars of brother Nick and Schell, Danielle’s strong vocals demand that it’s his turn to “Crawl” while organ and angelic vocals of Maxanne Lewis and Kudisn Kal give a hauntingly eerie edge. The most unexpected cover is Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” led by Danielle’s bass and sultry vocals giving her own funky touch against Monster Mike’s restrained backing. Keeping a sexy groove Danielle plays it cool on Bill Withers’ “Hot Spell” then switching to all originals she pulls in Walter Trout’s blowtorch guitar and some searing keys as Danielle declares she’s “Burnin’ For You.” The title tune has a painfully honest strength as she realizes she doesn’t want to “Cry No More” then the emotionally charged “I’m Going Home” features the electrifying Sonny Landreth pushing the raw energy of Danielle’s vocals. Kenny Wayne Sheperd steps in, his guitar and Danielle’s vocals wailing as she begs “Save Me.” From her regular band, Brandon Miller’s guitar and Mike Sedovic’s tinny piano give a barroom sway to the devil with “Baby Eyes.” Slowing to the ringing Wurlitzer of Sedovic, Monster Mike mellows on guitar as Danielle pours her heart into the personal pain of “My Heart Remains” then Mike Finnegan adds B3 and a soulful duet with Danielle tensely asking “Someday You Might Change Your Mind.” Dropping into simpler rootsy county blues with Schell on cig fiddle, Danielle touchingly pours her heart into “Bobby.” For her finale Danielle gives a simple honest feel to Blind Willie Johnson’s traditional gospel blues “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” with Schell’s cig fiddle taking it home.
The gracious liner notes written by Danielle expressing love for her family and the multifaceted badassery of those that helped her create “Cry No More” displays the style this young lady has.—Roger & Margaret White

Laurie Morvan
Screaming Lizard Records

For the past twenty years Laurie Morvan has been showing off her talents recording and attracting the attention of the blues community, making it to the finals in the IBC with the Laurie Morvan Band and her band’s CDs in 1997 and 2008. Her music came to a halt after a serious accident, breaking her wrist put her playing on hold. Now ready to get back in the game Laurie’s determined to do things her way. Ms Morvan’s vocals are as smooth as cream but her lyrics express her personal blues, honest and sometimes painful, she’s written all twelve tracks on “Gravity.” With the support of producer and drummer Tony Braunagel they are joined by Bob Glaub on bass, Mike Finnigan on B3 organ with Jim Pugh and Barry Goldberg on additional organ and piano while Lisa Morvan, Maxayn Lewis, Leslie Smith, Kudisan Kia and Ricky Nelson help with backing vocals, Laurie is ready to shake things up her way.
Leading off with punchy Stevie Ray-like licks on “My Moderation,” her vocals strong yet
calm, moderating between her strong playing and her feminine attitude. Then with a sultry sway Laurie leads the band into an intense tale of “Twice The Trouble,” agonizing over investing her heart in financial terms with little return. With an upbeat bounce Laurie contends someone’s dodging the issues on “Money Talks” as she asks for a little help as the guitar does a little side stepping against piano. The guitar wails like “Double Trouble” as Laurie forlornly pleads “Stay With Me,” dragging a heavy pace and metallic guitar, giving way to thought-provoking lyrics clarifying it’s not easy but well worth going “The Extra Mile.” The light wispy air of “Gravity” conceals some heavy truths that Laurie lays down while some slippery guitar and a pounding beat weathers the storm of “Dance In The Rain.” The ring of B3 and the chorus of backing singers gives a gospel feel to “The Man Who Left Me” while Laurie sings of the pain of abandonment but her guitar grinds in as she cries “when life gets hard” you “Gotta Dig Deep.” The pounding piano punctuates the heavy rhythm as she demands “I Want Answers” her guitar slashing and burning in contradiction to her calm plea. Then shifting to a lazy bounce with a hard edge of slide guitar she calmly croons that she’s tough as nails and “Too Dumb To Quit.”
Laurie Morvan is a heavily grounded guitarist but with her “Gravity” it’s her vocals that take flight.—Roger & Margaret White

Vasti Jackson
The Blues Made Me
Vast-Eye Music 2017

Multi-talented Mississippi bluesman Vasti Jackson received a Grammy nomination - not his first - in December 2016 for his previous release, “The Soul of Jimmie Rodgers,” a tribute to the confluence of blues and country music. Jackson is still on a roll with this latest release, in which he returns to a long-time theme of his, “roots and fruits.”
Several motifs recur in the ten tracks composed by Jackson. One of them is unity, prominent in the opener, “Brother’s Keeper,” a hypnotic, gospel-like five minute outing featuring just Vasti’s voice and guitar. The motif is repeated in “The Blues Don’t Discriminate,” the only track of the set that was recorded live. The diminished live sound quality is redeemed by spare instrumentation and Jackson’s effective delivery of the uplifting lyrics; the audience at the Delta Theatre in Clarksdale, MS, was appropriately appreciative.
Certainly another crowd pleaser - I’ve seen him perform it - is “My Computer Turned on Me,” performed with only acoustic guitar which allows full exposure of Vasti’s sense of humor and facility with words. It’s followed immediately by “No Payday Friday,” a slow lament deploying Jackson’s appealing tenor vocal and piquant electric guitar leads in tandem with equally piquant tinkly piano. (Notable New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown and Jackson are both cited as pianists in the liner notes, but not specified on individual cuts.) This is one of the best of many fine compositions on the album.
Another highlight is the title tune, again displaying Jackson’s deftness on guitar, and returning to the theme of shared humanity and the power of art to liberate. It aptly follows “Momma,” a gentle encomium to Vasti’s mother. Definitely also worthy of mention is “When the Night Comes,” with its impassioned vocal and more excellent guitar work. The set closes with “Juke Joint Jump,” which is just what the title implies, complete with accompanying hand claps.
A final comment on the one cover track, of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ “: you may have heard many versions by many artists, but this rendition is a tour de force visiting jazz, funk, soul, and African tropes. I think that Muddy might have liked it; I sure did.—Steve Daniels

The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling
The High Cost of Low Living
Alligator 2018

Oh, man, set the awards aside for this album: it’s going to win a few!
After gigs as sideman with Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, Jimmy Rogers, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Moss formed his own band and for almost twenty years has been evoking rave reviews on the way to garnering twenty-one Blues Music Award nods. An adventuresome musician, Moss has delved successfully into rock and Americana. Here he is back to his Chicago roots, corralled by the noted Alligator label, and with the addition of harmonica maven Gruenling, it’s a match made in blues heaven.
The basic band of the last three years is intact: Patrick Seals on drums, Nick Fane on bass, and Taylor Streiff on piano. Erstwhile second guitarist, the powerfully dynamic singer Michael Ledbetter, has departed, but Moss’ incandescent guitar playing more than compensates, and his singing - Gruenling handles the vocals on his own two compositions - is more than adequate. These guys mesh like a beautifully oiled machine! They are aided on a few tracks by former Robert Cray keyboard player Jim Pugh, guitarist and producer Kid Andersen, and the saxophone duo of Eric Spaulding and Jack Sanford.
Best Chicago blues bands of recent years? In my opinion: Magic Slim, now sadly deceased, and the Teardrops; Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials; Cash Box Kings. The Nick Moss Band is definitely in that list, and this album confirms it: it cooks! From start to finish, this is boisterous, blazing, barrelhouse urban twelve bar bliss.
I can’t even choose a few favorite tracks; they are all terrific. Moss’ guitar introduces the opening number, “Crazy Mixed Up Baby,” and never lets up. Gruenling shines at every opportunity, justifying his Blues Music Award nomination as 2018 Harmonica Player of the Year. Fane and Seals provide incessant drive, and Streiff alternately cajoles and assails the ivories, especially on “He Walked with Giants,” an ode to the late pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, former Chicago musical colleague of Moss’. The instrumental “All Night Diner” gives the principals sequential dazzling solos, Pugh’s organ included, and Moss’ guitar takes the spotlight on the set closer, “Rambling on My Mind.”
Top-notch album from a Blues Music Award nominee as 2018 band of the year. Do not be surprised if they win.—Steve Daniels

Johnny Tucker
Seven Day Blues
High John CD 007

As very brief liners on the back cover of this release attest: “Though this album was recorded in a series of 2017 sessions, it is a throwback to the old-school approach. Johnny Tucker’s powerful vocals were formed and stylized during that time period” and are spotlighted here by engineer/producer/guitarist Big Jon Atkinson’s vintage vision of a Sun Studio, neo-retro recording sound. In addition to Atkinson, swaggering, bravado-ridden vocalist Tucker is backed by a few compadres that add zip and panache to affairs—Bob Corritore shares piercing harmonica duties with otherwise bassist Troy Sandow throughout, while Bob Welch’s organ-work with Kid Ramos’ rockabilly guitar enliven the jump blues “Tell You All.” Stellar selections from the other fourteen tracks, all Tucker originals, begin with the sinuous gambol of “I Can’t Wait,” the honeyed soul of “Love And Appreciation (To Georgia),” the fat-grooved title track and the dance floor-filling, riffling shuffle of “Do-Right Man.” But, on the other hand, what’s not to like here?—Gary von Tersch

Hypnotic Wheels and friends
Muddy Gurdy
Vizztone 2018

It’s not often that something truly unique appears in the blues world. Well, here you have it.
Those of us of a certain age remember the release exactly fifty years ago of the album “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and its title song by popular Scottish folk singer Donovan, with its unusual instrumentation. Was that a moog synthesizer we were hearing, shortly after it was invented? Do even we know what a hurdy-gurdy is? Well, it’s a hand-cranked string instrument with drone strings that can sound like a guitar, a violin, and a bagpipe. Created approximately a thousand years ago, it has maintained a presence in Europe, particularly in France, and has developed its own mythology. (For those interested in further hurdy-gurdy history, look it up on the Internet and check out the article about it in The New York Times of Feb. 27, 2018.) Recently, the hurdy-gurdy has been electrified to augment its sound capabilities further.
So, Hypnotic Wheels, a trio comprised of guitar, percussion, and hurdy-gurdy, traveled to the U.S. in spring 2017 to jam and record with some of the scions of Mississippi hill country greats R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and James Son Thomas. The attraction makes sense: the droning character of the hurdy-gurdy evokes and emulates the minimally melodic, droning, mesmerizing quality of much of hill country blues.
According to the liner notes, recording was informal, occurring on porches and in living rooms, and indeed there is an appealing spontaneous quality. The first four tracks feature Cedric Burnside, renowned as a drummer but also an adept guitarist, as shown here. He and the French musicians dig into three Burnside family tunes of varying tempo, Cedric providing the lead guitar and vocals and Gilles Chabenat the hurdy-gurdy/second guitar; they finish with a flourish with a cover of the Muddy Waters classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of Otha Turner, takes the spotlight on the next three numbers: one of Otha’s, then her own composition, then a version of the traditional “Glory Glory Hallejulah.” Her singing stimulates memories of the late great hill country blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill and she plays the fife, a staple African American instrument of the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries.
Cameron Kimbrough and Pat Thomas subsequently collaborate on two tracks each; Cameron’s rendition of Junior Kimbrough’s “Leave Her Alone” and Thomas’ ethereal “Dream” are especially notable. The set ends with three Hypnotic Wheels covers, including a zesty take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Shake “Em on Down,” with Tia Gouttebel adeptly handling both guitar and vocal.
If you like hill country blues and/or want to experience something out of the ordinary, try “Muddy Gurdy”; you won’t be disappointed.—Steve Daniels

Nathan James
What I Believe
Sacred Cat Recordings 2017

A native and resident of San Diego County, CA, Nathan James has forged a distinguished identity in the blues world. Belying his youthful appearance, James has been a force for two decades, often playing incandescent lead guitar in the band of one of his mentors, James Harman. Equally adept with acoustic guitar, in 2007 he and erstwhile colleague Ben Hernandez won the International Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category.
James has a restless creative spirit. Unable to decide between releasing solo acoustic or band albums in 2014, he did both. He has devised his own unique instrument, the Washtar Gitboard, a combination of guitar and metallic rub-board.
In addition to covering tunes by such worthy progenitors as Blind Boy Fuller, Earl King, and Curley Weaver, he is a prolific songwriter: all eleven tracks of this album are originals. Oh, did I mention that he also plays drums, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and piano in this set? (He also plays rack harmonica on many of his solo gigs.)
After two opening mid-tempo shuffles, the release kicks into high gear with “Is It Too Late,” sporting nifty backing vocals by a female trio. The ensuing swinging back porch tune, “Give to Understand,” has embellishment by ace harmonicat Kim Wilson, and another of the myriad skilled guest contributors, Melissa Barrison, lends violin to “Down on the Road,” James himself interspersing delicate piano filigree.
Percussionist Marty Dodson and bassist Troy Sandow of James’ band The Rhythm Scratchers make frequent appearances, and Sandow provides the harmonica licks on the title track, which also sports a tuba part. “Tryin’ to Get Along with Myself” delves into country territory, and “Silent Treatment” is a propulsive twelve-bar excursion with Dodson and Sandow. Mentor and harmonica adept James Harman participates in both “In the News Today” and the penultimate cut, “Bonsai Sequoia,” an instrumental highlighting Malachi Johnson on drums and Nathan vamping on baritone guitar.
“When Tomorrow Comes,” with its devotional country flavor, ends the set memorably with Nathan playing fiddle and harmonizing with San Diego singer Missy Andersen. I for one won’t be waiting until tomorrow to play this CD again.—Steve Daniels

Various Artists
Hard Core Harp
Electro-Fi 2017

Founded in 1996, Toronto, Canada-based label Electro-Fi has specialized in quality releases particularly featuring guitarists and harmonica mavens. This twenty-year compendium delivers a solid hour-plus of gritty harp tunes, primarily reprising urban, Chicago blues but also reaching into the deep South genre. There’s plenty here to please any aficionado of the “Mississippi saxophone.”
Opening the set is an instrumental dazzler by former Muddy Waters band member Paul Oscher, showcasing his skill with a chromatic harp. Waters alumnus George “Harmonica” Smith is subsequently featured on two numbers, “Crazy “Bout You Baby” and “Juke.” No, Smith did not record for Electro-Fi, obviously, since he died in 1983 at the cruelly young age of 59, but at the instigation of Mark Hummel, the label resurrected sessions just prior to Smith’s death. The former track is a slow blues with compelling singing as well as top-notch harmonica, and the latter is the familiar instrumental classic penned and made famous by Little Walter Jacobs. “Juke” is a challenge for any harp aspirant, but Smith nails it…and amusingly introduces it by claiming that he didn’t know Little Walter or any of his records! Unlikely!
Hummel himself covers Little Walter, one of his most admired predecessors, with “It’s Too Late Brother,” faithfully reproducing Walter’s pristine tone and jaunty approach. The final track of the CD is also Hummel’s: his own instrumental composition, “Harpoventilating.” That tour de force will leave you dancing!
For variety, we have Canadian bluesman Harrison Kennedy in his only appearance, with “Afraid to Fail,” an amalgam of Mississippi hill country blues with Otis Taylor’s “trance blues.” Inheritance of familial talent is revealed by two stellar tracks of the late, great Snooky Pryor, “Rock-a-While” and “Headed South,” and “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” by his son, contemporary Rip Lee Pryor.
Other performers range from the familiar to the more obscure. Billy Boy Arnold, in his 80’s but still going strong, is represented by three tracks, and the late Sam Myers, stalwart for many years with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, dishes it in “Coming from the Old School” and the Sonny Boy Williamson II tune “Ninety Nine.” James Harman presents the title cut from his lauded 2015 album “Bonetime,” and the recently deceased drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith shows that he was definitely no slouch on harmonica with his self-penned “Don’t Think I’m Crazy.” Chicago’s Little Mack Simmons, Detroit’s Harmonica Shah, and Canada’s Al Lerman are less recognized but their tracks prove that they can blow with the best.
Aside from my discomfort with the misogynistic lyrics of a couple of songs - not just now, but never has it been acceptable to threaten to “shoot my baby” if she leaves - I have nothing but praise for this collection of harpmeister gems.—Steve Daniels

Doc Watson
Live At Club 47
Yep Roc CD

Born in rural Deep Gap, North Carolina in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1923, Doc Watson was a celebrated fingerpicking guitarist, song writer and singer of bluegrass, country, folk, blues and gospel music. Recorded 55 years ago at the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge, MA, this never-before heard two-set concert features four never-recorded selections from his early repertory (including “Old Dan Tucker” and the lively “Hop High Ladies The Cake’s All Dough”) alongside conversation-laden, vigorous performances of some of Watson’s favorite songs from the likes of the Carter Family, Charlie Poole (“Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”), Frank Hutchison, the Mississippi Sheiks (“Sitting On Top Of The World”), Merle Travis (“Blue Smoke”) and Uncle Dave Macon. Joining Doc on a couple of tracks are mandolinist Ralph Rinzler and second guitarist John Herald—their team-ups on the traditional titles “Way Downtown” and the Holiness Church number “Somebody Touched Me” are exemplary. Shortly after this performance, Watson was booked at the mythic 1963 Newport Folk Festival, released his debut album on Vanguard Records to wide acclaim and went on to become America’s preeminent folk guitarist earning, count ‘em, seven Grammy Awards along the way. Not bad for a blind country boy who learned how to play music by listening to 78’s on the family phonograph.—Gary von Tersch

Lisa Mednick Powell
Blue Book
Self-Produced CD

Folk/Country/Blues Singer-Songwriter and multi-Instrumentalist, Lisa Mednick Powell, recently released her third project—her first in 16 years. Composed of ten intriguingly well-crafted, impressionistic songs (think Lucinda Williams) that veer from the finger-pointing “Give The Guns To The Girls,” that is at the harrowing intersection of not only feminism but both American as well as global political radicalism and the leadoff number “Smoke Over Carolina” (the third in a trilogy of Civil War-related songs and as haunting and well crafted as her earlier gems “Harper’s Ferry” and “Chickamauga”) to the reflective, somberly pensive title tune where she’s “trying to erase a line” in her “Blue Book”—Powell is at the top of her game. Recorded in the California High Desert as well as in New Orleans and Los Angeles with her bass-playing/co-composing husband Kip Powell and a handful of pals including the fore-mentioned Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young and Greg Leisz, producer Powell weaves a opulently resonant crazy quilt of often fervidly perplexing songs that inevitably recall the gossameriness of life. Other picks encompass the downbeat “Pieces Of Your Soul,” a memory-laden “Cold Coffee,” a Band-like “To The Wilderness” and the driftingly melodic closer “Highway Prayer. Worth the search.—Gary von Tersch

Lonnie Shields
Code Blue
New Millenium Records 2017

Horn-driven soul blues is represented in this latest release by Lonnie Shields. Originally from West Helena, Arkansas, Shields morphed from being a funk musician after being imbued with the blues by his mentor, drummer Sam Carr of the great and gritty Delta blues band the Jelly Roll Kings. Shields subsequently played with the Kings, also comprised of Frank Frost and Big Jack Johnson. In 1993 his debut album, “Portrait,” won the Critics’ Poll of Living Blues magazine as best blues album of the year. Shields now wields his ax from his adopted home near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and continues to tour and record.
Support here is ably provided by Jesse Loewy on guitar, Mike Whren on bass, Steve Hoke on keyboards and saxophone, and Neil Simpkins on percussion. The expected and worthy focus, of course, is Shields, whose guitar leads and tenor vocals are consistently tasteful. (I presume that Shields is playing most of the guitar leads, rather than Loewy; liner notes don’t specify.) Album producer Mitch Hunter also grabs some time, and special kudos are warranted for the outstanding contributions of Don Collins (trombone), Louis Taylor (saxophones), and Henri McMillian (trumpet), who furnish bristling brass backing throughout.
A track by B.B. King, who Shields cites as one of his major influences, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” is an example of the intricate meshing of this band’s elements. The tune opens with a wailing horn section introduction, followed by a rhythmic groove established by the steady bass and syncopated drums, and succeeded later by some snazzy horn solos. B.B.’s influence recurs with a cover version of “The Thrill Is Gone,” not written by King but made famous by him. King’s superb delivery isn’t quite equaled here (who can sing like King could?), but the rendition is more than credible. King’s single note guitar style is emulated successfully in the longest track of the hour-long set, the title tune, “Code Blue,” with vocal courtesy of Gary White.
Of the five (of thirteen) numbers written or co-written by Shields, I particularly like “Empty Pocket Man” and “Hard Headed Woman.” The former, the initial track, again establishes a groove and has nice solos by both principal guitarists. The latter song (not the 1958 Elvis Presley rocker of the same name) has another nifty guitar solo at mid-point, augmented by Taylor on baritone sax. Shields even ventures into slow soul blues territory with a nervy cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” by Barry and Robin Gibb; his slightly raspy vocal gives an interesting contrast with the smooth vocals of many soul singers.—Steve Daniels

Various Artists
Rough Guide To The Best Country Blues You’ve Never Heard
Rough Guide CD 1362

Conundrums abound for most of the enigmatic, colorfully nicknamed country blues musicians who cut just a sprinkling of sides in the 1920s and 1930s. Also known as folk, downhome or backwoods blues, country blues is incontestably acoustic, mainly guitar-galvanized and mixes elements of the rural blues with aspects of country and western and folk music. Notable examples abound on this great-sounding, jam-packed 25 tracker—John Byrd and Washboard Walter’s “Wasn’t It Sad About Lemon” is a testimonial to the prolific Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson issued shortly after his death. Similarly, The Two Poor Boys pay their respects with “Two White Horses In A Line,” a vivid adaptation of Lemon’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” complete with some hillbilly mandolin. Frequent accompanist Charlie McCoy also was a mandolinist and displays his versatility with the overwrought “Always In Love With You.” On the distaff, blues-diva side, compelling vocalist Lottie Kimbrough teams up with bird caller and yodeler (talk about country) Winston Holmes on the crestfallen “Lost Lover Blues” while Mississippi Matilda, with her suspenseful falsetto, puts the point across on “Hard Working Woman” and Pearl Dickson pays tribute to her “Twelve Pound Daddy,” one of only four sides she cut in 1927. Also noted is “Honey Blues” by Texas guitarist “Funny Papa” Smith (the original Howlin’ Wolf), a great revision of “Kansas City Blues” entitled “Goin’ Up The Country” (Canned Heat anyone?) by the prematurely bald Papa Egg Shell and Walter Coleman’s great reworking of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Mama Let Me Lay It On You.”—Gary von Tersch

Johnny Feds & Friends
Pinky Gets The Blues
Elfedmo Music Feds & Da Bluez Boys

When I first put on Johnny Feds & Friends’ CD “Pinky Gets The Blues” The thing that got me was the sound: a warmth and clarity with an easy ringing tone. But I wondered, ‘who is Johnny Feds?’ The cover showed a middle-aged man on guitar, I didn’t recognize any other players and only one song was familiar. I started checking online, couldn’t find much, a few YouTube videos and a Facebook page. But listening it hit me, it’s just honest music. A long time player, not putting anything on, playing what he feels and writing about what he knows. It’s self produced, recorded in his bass player’s garage studio and at a local club in Piermont, New York. These ain’t no superstars but you can feel what they’re playing, it’s real. Johnny’s Friends are John Elmo Lawson on bass, Paul Undersinger, Jeremy Driesen or Kirk Devereux on drums, Fred Lind and Chris Burke on keyboards with vocals split between Johnny, Tom Blues Buddha Dudley, JP Patrick and Michael Rev Rochelle.
The first set, featuring Tom Dudley on vocals as the guitar kicks in with a ringing tone and blistering lines like Roy Buchanan on “Deacon Of The Blues” then adding organ he takes his Stratocaster into Albert Collins territory with his “Axe To Grind,” slipping on a slide for “Redemption” that reminds me of Savoy Brown. Switching singers to JP Patrick, the band mimics distant bagpipes and military drums as the lyrics bring in his family saying “he won’t be home for Christmas” from “Faraway Land” as the sounds of war echo in the back. Bringing this to a sad conclusion with a distant cry of guitar “Jamie’s Song: Son Goes Down” using haunting echoes like Robin Trower and tumbling lines like bitter tears. Later they return to “Jamie’s Song: Son Goes Down” (Revisited) with Michael Rochelle on vocals playing harder and faster as the anger builds, then easing back over piano backing on the “Fragile Heart” he sings “be a good man to your woman cause your woman loves her man” as the band swells behind. Johnny Feds steps to the mic himself to sing, late at night to his wife, “Pinky Gets The Blues,” the organ flourishes as Feds’ solo ranges between Stevie Ray and Roy Buchanan. Taking it from that bedroom to live at the Turning Point Johnny makes “I’ll Play The Blues For You” his own, mixing the sound of “Fried Neck Bones” with his blistering solos.
Johnny Feds & Friends plays straight from the heart and you can tell “Pinky Gets The Blues” is real.—Roger & Margaret White

Frank Raven
Lucky Cat

Frank Raven grew up on Chicago’s Northwest side during the ‘60s experiencing live blues like Junior Wells and Paul Butterfield. Inspired by his heroes he picked up the harp at age sixteen and joined his first band. Throughout his forty year career Raven has been involved in a variety of bands often working six nights a week touring the club circuit or playing gigs alongside an impressive list of contemporary artists. In recent years he’d been playing with the Lucky 3 Blues Band but misfortune struck and a member of the trio was forced to retire. After much soul searching Raven found he’d accumulated a collection of songs revolving around a central theme of good or bad luck and realized he had the makings of a great blues album. Raven has teamed up with guitarist, producer and engineer Jay O’Rourke and guitarist Lee D’Budda but it’s Frank’s crisp brassy sound from his customized Joe Filisko harmonicas and his lyrics that gives “Lucky Cat” it’s charm.
Frank Raven feels he is that “Lucky Cat” with it’s lighthearted pace and bouncing harp till that upbeat spell is broken by the piercing harp riff of “Mr. Blues” as Raven pleads that he’s here to make amends while a pair of sharp guitars scream in response to punctuate this blues. The pace picks up with a jerky Bo Diddley rhythm as he stumbled into a state of “Blues Confusion,” the harp drones and warbles as Raven realizes “The Jinx Is On Me.” A slow blues harp wails through Frank’s mournful cries of “I Wake Up Screamin’” while the gentle moans of guitar reverberate between verses the nervous pace builds as Frank sings “Poor Me” he’s got troubles he can’t see and is in a world of misery while a roaring harp emphasises the lyrics. Changing tempo Frank realizes this boy needs to get back to the city for some “Bloody Williamson Blues” and they slip in some slide guitar as Raven warns stay on track and “Don’t Look Back.” Rebounding into an upbeat track with some light fluttering harp and everyone singing backup Raven declares “My Luck Done Changed” as the band struts with an air of confidence. The final track is an instrumental that shows how tight the band is while stretching out with some tasty licks on “Sweet Tooth.”
The blues is a personal journey that Frank Raven has traveled through, with passion and perseverance he’s proven he is a “Lucky Cat.”—Roger & Margaret White

Elvis Presley
The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack)
Sony/Legacy/RCA 3-CD Box Set

This 3CD “deluxe” box set is the musical complement to the HBO two-part documentary directed by Grammy award winner Thom Zimmy, who explains that, “the soundtrack was in my mind from the beginning. I wasn’t just making a film, I was thinking about the collection of recordings I would gather for a person who saw the film, who wanted to complete the experience—just as I had after seeing musical documentaries like The Last Waltz or Gimme Shelter. To me this collection is part of the film.” Disc one features 28 essential Presley hits, riveting performances and rare alternative versions of songs at the core of his mesmerizing genius—curios include a cover of “Tweedlee Dee,” recorded in April, 1955 at Texas’ Gladewater High School, a version of the Clovers’ “Fool, Fool, Fool” recorded the same year at radio station KDAV in Lubbock, Texas and a recall of “Mona Lisa” recorded at his home in Goethestrasse, Bad Nauheim, Germany. An additional 27 Zimmy picks comprise the second disc—rarities here encompass a duet with Frank Sinatra on “Love Me Tender/Witchcraft,” rehearsal renditions of “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Burning Love” and Separate Ways” and take 6 of “Suspicious Minds.” The third disc not only features selections from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready’s original score for the documentary but Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers performing “Wooden Heart” a bunch of rhythm ‘n’ blues and country classics that inspired the Hillbilly Cat and “Home Sweet Home” sung by his mother. This five-star project also includes a forty page hardcover book with an abundance of rare images and informative liners by Warren Zanes. As the late Tom Petty puts it in the documentary: “You know, God bless him. He was a light for all of us. We all owe him for being the first going into battle. He had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of writing off a great artist because of all the clatter that came later.” Amen.—Gary von Tersch


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