Blues Reviews
June/July 2019

Harpdog Brown
For Love & Money
Dog House Records 2019

Canadian singer and harmonica maestro Harpdog Brown was born in Edmonton and resides in Vancouver, but he has taken to heart the title of his previous CD, 2016’s “Travelin’ with the Blues.” His prior albums were firmly ensconced in Chicago, but this one is rooted in New Orleans.
Winner of the Canadian Maple Blues Award three recent years in a row as Harmonica Player of the Year, Brown here winningly shares the spotlight with a new group of expert musicians, all under the watchful eye of producer Steve Dawson, who also handles guitar duties throughout. Guitar is decidedly under the radar here, though, with only a few brief solos. Brown’s mouth harp excellence is on full display, but not dominant. Instead, emphasis pleasingly rests on the solid rhythm section of bassist Jeremy Holmes, drummer Robert Vail Grant, and keyboard ace Dave Webb…and especially on the horn section. That trio, comprised of saxophonist Jerry Cook, trombonist Skye Lambourne, and clarinetist William Joseph Abbott, gives the set its indelible Nawlins vibe.
Abbott’s playing in particular is a distinct pleasure. How often do we hear clarinet in a blues band? And this is definitely a blues album, only one song, “I’ll Make It Up to You, “ clearly fitting in the jazz genre. Of the other dozen songs, one was penned by Brown, two by bandmates, and the rest are covers, Memphis Slim and Wynonie Harris among the composers. The tunes range from the uptempo to the languid, but all are buttressed by that tasty and zesty horn section.
The first tune, “No Eyes for Me,” establishes the format: it’s introduced by the blaring horns atop swirling organ, then the horns fade as Brown’s gritty vocal takes over, drums and bass propelling him forward. The onset of the following song, a version of the Jessie Mae Robinson classic “Blue Light Boogie,” finds Brown crooning his vocal over the sinewy clarinet renderings of Abbott. Soon after we’re into Brown’s own tune, “Reefer Lovin’ Woman,” which sports a sequence of solos: piano, saxophone, clarinet, sax again, and harmonica, all stylish and stellar.
There are a couple of nice shuffles: “Vicious Vodka,” with Webb providing adept tinkly piano; and “One Step Forward,” Brown shining brightly on harmonica. Brown demonstrates his command of the high register of the harp on the title tune, and a cover of Wynonie Harris’ “Buzzard Luck” is energized by Webb’s pumping organ playing. On both the jazz track, “A New Day Is Dawning,” and on “Stiff,” Brown’s singing is reminiscent of Dr. John’s, and on the jazz track, “I’ll Make It Up to You,” he sounds a lot like the great Louis Armstrong.
The set ends with the ensemble meshing seamlessly on the slow “Sasha’s Lullaby,” a sweet and lovely song, composed by Lambourne, that shows that Brown and company can convey tenderness convincingly. —Steve Daniels

Dawn Tyler Watson
Mad Love
SOCAN 2019

Consistent with her eclectic background, Canadian singer Dawn Tyler Watson purveys a varied and vibrant set of tunes on this, her fifth and latest album.
Born in England but a Quebec resident for years, Watson is a jazz as well as blues singer, a songwriter, a stage performer, and a music educator. She and her band won the 2017 International Blues Challenge in the band category, and they have ripped it up on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. She is also a recipient of multiple Canadian musical awards. The dozen tunes here, all but three composed by Watson, showcase her myriad talents. She receives zesty backing from the Ben Racine Band, the same ensemble of the IBC victory, led by guitarist Racine.
The hold-nothing-back approach is announced with the opening track, “Alligator”; Francois Dube leads off with throbbing bass, soon joined by Nicky Estor on drums, Racine on guitar, and guest harmonica player Steve Marriner of the award-winning Canadian band Monkey Junk. Then Watson enters with her powerhouse voice and we are treated to a delightful six minute boogie a la John Lee Hooker via George Thorogood. From the set’s longest track we move to the shortest, “Don’t Make Me Mad”; trumpeter Nicolas Boulay and saxophonist “Moose” Mousseau join the festivities for the mid-tempo shuffle, John Sadowy adding organ backing. The tempo slows further for the 1950s-style “Feel Good to Watch You Go,” Watson’s gorgeous vocal abetted by a beautiful Racine guitar solo. Then comes “This and That,” horns and tinkly piano producing a zippy twelve-bar big band vibe.
The horns remain prominent on the following two tunes. The first, “You’re the Only One,” affords Racine an opportunity to share vocals with Watson, and guest guitarist Steve Hill shines on his solo in “Bad Seed,” Watson delivering an impassioned vocal on this slow blues. Immediately after we’re dancing again with “Masochistic Heart,” then again prodded close to tears on “Lost,” and revved up still again with “Away Too Fast” and especially “Love to Burn,” which indeed burns as Sadowy tears it up on piano.
The penultimate track, “I Look Good,’ is another jump blues supported by backing singers and wailing guest tenor saxophonist (and album producer) “Little Frankie” Thiffault, and the set ends with “The River,” a gospel number with splendid backing vocal support.
“Mad Love” is an excellent album, sporting a skilled band and an incandescent singer. I cannot listen to Dawn Tyler Watson and her rich and powerful voice without being moved, whether it be to tears, smiles, or the uncontrollable urge to boogie.—Steve Daniels

J.T. Lauritsen & the Buckshot Hunters
Blue Eyed Soul Volume 1
Hunters Records 2018

Norwegian multi-instrumentalist J.T. Lauritsen has fronted his band for over two decades while refining his skills on organ, accordion, and harmonica. Along the way he has released multiple albums delving into the rock, soul, and even country genres, and has established a recurrent and welcome presence on Legendary Rhythm & Blues cruises. This outing finds him leading his band and several worthy guests in a full-out soul expedition.
The mid-tempo opener, “Anything I Can Do,” is introduced by a lyrical guitar solo by guest Dave Fields; on it Lauritsen leaves the organ playing to Paul Wagnberg while we enjoy his indeed soulful tenor vocalizing. A spirited Norse horn section gooses the song along, as it does with a few other tracks. On two cuts the saxophone is instead handled by the adept Jimmy Carpenter, who delivers a really nice coda on the longest and last song of the set, “Sweet on You,” composed by guest guitar ace Mike Zito. Zito again provides lead guitar on one of Lauritsen’s five compositions, the terse “Back Pain Shuffle,” with Carpenter again on board in a sax duo with Deanna Bogart. That trio of guests makes another appearance on “You Better Believe,” during which J.T. delivers one of his best vocals in harmony with a trio of backing singers.
The basic nucleus of the Buckshot Hunters is comprised of Morten Nordskaug on bass, Jon Grimsby on percussion, and Ian Fredrick Johannessen and Arnfinn Torrisen on guitars; that pared-down quartet and J.T., sans horns and other guests, handle the straight blues “You Got Me Down” with aplomb, Lauritsen kicking it off with warbling harmonica and each guitarist producing a tasty solo. Toward the end of the set J.T. demonstrates his accordion chops on “Lovers Holiday,” a tender and sexy love ballad written by Fields, who plays both acoustic and electric guitar. It’s followed by one of the standouts of the set, “Be My Girl,” which confirms that Lauritsen can write a song with both a catchy hook and a compelling groove; J.T. seems energized and produces his most powerful vocal of the album.
Lauritsen has cited Ray Charles and Charles Brown as two of his major influences. His aspiration to be a deft soul singer is accomplished on “Volume 1.”—Steve Daniels

Kelly’s Lot
Can’t Take My Soul
Self-released 2019

Here’s another really good band that deserves to emerge from under the radar. Songstress Kelly Zirbes and her guitarist partner Perry Robertson have released over a dozen albums from their base in Los Angeles, as well as racking up an extensive festival and touring resume (including annual visits to France, where they have a loyal following). This year marks the silver anniversary of the band’s formation, and their new album is designed to show the band’s strengths as it touches on rock, folk, soul, and regional music as well as blues.
In addition to Kelly and Perry, the ensemble is comprised of drummer Mike Sauer and bassist Matt McFadden, whose skills emerge immediately on the opening track, “All I Ever Want Is the Blues.” The number - composed, like the entire twelve songs, by Zirbes and Robertson - name-checks a host of blues influences, from Robert Johnson to Bonnie Raitt, as it rocks its brief way to its end. In the process, it reveals Kelly’s powerful alto pipes, and also her ability to do both grit and smooth croon.
“All Hope Ain’t Lost,” track two, introduces organist Bobby Orgel into the mix and allows Kelly to wax sultry before soaring into the upper registers; Robertson adds a short but nifty solo. His guitar then introduces “Alyssa,” who was “one step ahead of the blues.” (The handsome liner notes provide full song lyrics.) A zesty and unexpected twist follows with “Woe Is Me”: its slow intro quickly morphs into a mid-tempo Cajun mode, with Eddie Baytos contributing stylish accordion and washboard.
You get the idea: an amalgam of variety, versatility, and vivacity. Among the remaining tracks, “Safe and Warm” is a sweet love ballad with pleasant acoustic guitar and Kelly singing at her warmest. “Rise Up,” in contrast, is an upbeat bilingual cut, presenting a stark contrast between Kelly’s smooth vocal and the ultra-raspy Jean-Francois Thomas vocalizing in French. The juxtaposition seems unlikely to work…but it does. Later, Kelly herself handles the French on the bilingual closer, “Mon Ami.” Also notable is “Little Bit of This,” a simple and pretty duet of Robertson on acoustic guitar and Kelly.
Along the way, we are treated to the talents of several other guests, including Frank Hinojosa wailing harmonica on “Broke Myself” and a quartet of backing singers who sound delightful in adorning several songs. The result is a set with catchy tunes and creative lyrics by a group of long-time compatriots, fronted by Kelly Z’s alternately supple, suave, and searing vocals.—Steve Daniels

Manx Marriner Mainline
Hell Bound for Heaven
Stony Plain 2019

This pairing of Harry Manx and Steve Marriner is a delight from start to finish; their strengths mesh delicately and deliciously.
Manx is a string wizard who can handle guitar, slide guitar, and banjo impressively, and is also adept at the mohan veena, a twenty string Indian instrument invented by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a mentor with whom Manx studied during a decade-long sojourn in India. Manx is not the first to meld blues with Indian music; perhaps the initial experiment was the title track of the classic 1966 Butterfield Blues Band album “East-West,” on which no sitar was played, but Mike Bloomfield made his guitar sound like one. (George Harrison and the Beatles, of course, employed sitar on “Revolver” and other pop releases.) In his more than a dozen previous albums Manx has gracefully merged the grittiness of blues with the spirituality of Indian music, often to stunning effect. In the process he has received multiple well merited Canadian music honors, including Maple Blues Awards. Although Manx plays the mohan veena on only one track of this album, the vibe of the set is definitely Indian meets blues.
Like Manx, his fellow countryman Marriner, leader of the renowned band Monkey Junk, has garnered many accolades, highlighted by six Maple Blues Award citations as Harmonica Player of the Year. Throughout this set his harp contributions are stellar. He also sits at the drum kit a few times, and wields skilled hands on both acoustic and electric guitar.
Of the ten tracks of the set, six are written by Manx and Marriner, individually or in collaboration. The remaining four are well chosen cover versions of tunes by the likes of Charley Patton and Reverend Gary Davis. Moe Duella on drums and Clayton Doley on organ lend intermittent subtle support, as do backing vocalists The Gamblers on one cut and The Marrinaires on another. Manx and Marriner trade vocals along the way. The contrast in their voices is pleasing; both inhabit the same range, but Manx with grit and rasp and Marriner with clarity and melisma.
“My Lord,” penned by Marriner, is the only track without Manx. On it Marriner sings, and plays both harmonica and guitar, accompanied by The Marrinaires in this moving spiritual. Equally moving is the spooky title track, Marriner this time playing drums as well as guitar and harmonica, while Manx deploys the mohan veena. The brief call-and-response between harmonica and mohan veena toward the end of the tune is entrancing.
“Rattlesnake Blues,” the Patton cover, is another highlight, Manx making his slide sound Indian and Doley adding a really nice organ coda. The Davis cover, “Death Have No Mercy in This Land,” is yet another gem, Manx’s slide and Marriner’s twelve string partnering beautifully. The set concludes with the languid and luscious ballad “Rise and Fall in Love,” Marriner’s electric guitar producing the south Asian vibe in tandem with guest Jim Bowskill on viola and violin.
It’s blues, it’s Indian music, it’s a unique and sublime album.—Steve Daniels

Tony Holiday
Porch Sessions
Vizztone CD

The title of this project is meant to be taken literally. In the spirit of the intrepid mid-20th century field recordings era, vocalist and harmonica maven Tony Holiday along with in-the-groove guitarist, Landon Stone, have been crisscrossing the country recording some of the nation’s most lauded blues musicians on their own front porches. Resulting in raw-to-the-bone, deep blues performances featuring the likes of harp-men Charlie Musselwhite (on the easy rolling “That’s Alright”), John Nemeth (on revivals of both “Woman Named Trouble” and “Blues Hit Big Town”), James Harman (who wails on three numbers, most notably “Pick-Pocket Fingers”), Bob Corritore (who links up with guitarist John Primer on both “They Call Me John Primer” and the smoldering “Tell Me Baby”) and Mitch Kashmar—who joins Ronnie Shellist on both “Becky Ann” and “Hop To It.” Fellow harmonica performers Aki Kumar and Jack Friel also impress along with guitarists Kid Ramos and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. Tonally tops bassist Kid Anderson appears throughout. Hop to it!—Gary von Tersch

Arroyo Rogers
Single Wide
No label, No # CD

Arroyo Rogers, a country band immersed in the “outlaw” tradition that emerged in c&w music in the sixties & seventies, was founded by Kip Powell and Lisa Mednick Powell, both veteran sidemen on the Austin, Texas scene during the nineties who are currently based in the high desert community of Joshua Tree, California. This all-originals seven-song debut project is not only quite impressive musically, with a covey of similarly dedicated musicians accompanying the Powells in grand honky-tonk Americana fashion,  but features some of the best songwriting I’ve heard in a long while. Particularly those that have a 21st century twist such as the cheating composition “Albuquerque” with its great lyric “You say you went to Albuquerque but you smell like Old Milwaukee to me” and the straight up drinking paen “Three Sheets To The Wind.” Other nuggets include the downbeat “She Went Out For Cigarettes,” a deeply pessimistic “Promised Land” and the I-Went-Bust-At-The-Casino reflection “Hitch Hike Home.” Well worth tracking down. My old pal The Wheelchair Man is surely spinning in the sawdust somewhere!—Gary von Tersch

The Reverend Shawn Amos
Kitchen Table Blues Vol. 2
Put Together Music CD EP

Blues preacher Amos discovered the blues through reading Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy when he was enrolled at NYU’s film school and spent his summers driving south exploring the places Guralnick had mentioned. “I fell in love with the stories and history, then I got hooked on the music. Howlin’ Wolf was first, Willie Dixon followed, then Junior Wells, Muddy Waters. It was all I played during my college career,” Amos comments. “My entire DNA is wrapped up in these songs. They have given me a sense of self and a home I never had.” Volume 2 of his Kitchen Table Blues series is a collection of five “joyful blues” efforts culled from his 2016-17 YouTube series of the same name—recorded live in his Van Nuys, California kitchen with various simpatico friends that would drop by for breakfast and music. Jean McClain joins Amos on a haunting cover of Robert Johnson’s classic “Sweet Home Chicago” while the New Orleans-based Mudbug Brass Band brassily accents “Li’l Liza Jane” and Mindi Abair invigorates Amos’ version of Jimmy Reed’s chestnut “Bright Lights, Big City.” “Whatcha Gonna Do” features Lester Lands dueting smoothly on a cover of the Pablo Cruise title while a riveting cover of Ruth Brown’s classic “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” showcases Amos’ daughter Piper Amos. More please.—Gary von Tersch

Molly Tuttle
When You’re Ready
Compass CD

A regular performer since her teens with her family band on the Northern California bluegrass and folk festival circuit, 25 year old, clear-voiced singer, evocative songwriter, banjo player, guitarist and teacher in the bluegrass tradition, Molly Tuttle, is noted for her fleet-fingered flatpicking, and traditional clawhammer and cross-picking prowess. This eleven song, all-originals debut project, however, finds her highlighting her deftly nimble acoustic guitar talents alongside a variety of Nashville steadies with their heady, yet discretely laid-back, waves of drums, electric guitars, synthesizers, cello, octave mandolin, keyboards, fiddles (you get the idea) as she refreshes her signature sound with boundary-breaking songs and a reflective vocal approach that reveals a keen, melodically insinuating aura. Favorites encompass the likes of confessional gems like “The High Road” and “Messed With My Mind,” the synth-enhanced folk-rocker “Don’t Let Go,” a wistful “Million Miles,” the wanderlusting “Take The Journey” and a dream-like “Sit Back And Watch It Roll.” Flat-picking legends like Clarence White and Doc Watson are smiling somewhere.—Gary von Tersch

The BB King Blues Band
The Soul of the King
Ruf Records 2019

Riley B. (“B.B.”) King; by many he is considered the greatest blues performer ever. Such accolades are of course debatable, but there is little debate that during the last decade or so of his 89 years B.B. was past his prime. To acknowledge the inevitable toll of age on King is not to disparage his immortal legacy, but a consequence is to realize how dependent he was during his last touring years on the great ensemble that backed him. That group still lives, and here they are in their prime, accompanied by a slew of stellar guests as they work their way through thirteen blues tunes.
Only two of the tracks were written by King, and one of them, “Sweet Little Angel,” gives prominence to guest Kenny Neal. His slightly raspy vocal is pleasing, and his evocative single note guitar leads closely approximate B.B.’s style. They contrast with the guitar lead of the preceding, opening track, “Irene Irene,” wherein guest guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd rips off the cascades of notes for which he is famed. The vocal on that track is provided more than competently by bassist Russell Jackson, who also sings lead on the New Orleans-style “Low Down,” which is graced by jaunty trumpet from Lamar Boulet and deep bottom from tuba player Kirk Joseph.
The other B.B. composition, “Paying the Cost To Be the Boss,” is graced by the dual vocals of Mary Griffin and Taj Mahal, with Taj also playing the six-string. Mention should be made of the scintillating saxophone solo by bandmember Eric Demmer, whose contributions throughout are excellent. Perhaps the tune most readily associated with B.B. is the ultimate cut, “The Thrill Is Gone,” featuring the strong vocal and gritty guitar of Michael Lee.
Another super selection is “Becoming the Blues,” written by Jackson. The track commences slowly, but midway morphs into a danceable shuffle; Jackson’s smooth and soulful singing is abetted Texas by singer Diunna Greenleaf while pianist Darrell Lavigne tinkles the ivories tastefully, Wilbert Crosby plays some snazzy guitar, and Kenny Neal reappears to prove that he can blow harmonica with the best. Similarly suited to the dance floor is “Regal Blues (A Tribute to the King),” written by blues luminary Joe Louis Walker, who shines on vocal and King-style guitar.
Oh, yes, there are several tracks featuring the ten-man band sans guests, and they are no less notable. This band is tight! We all miss B.B., but his ensemble soldiers on with skill and sizzle.—Steve Daniels

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
Alligator Records

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram was born along the banks of the Sunflower River less than ten miles from the infamous Clarksdale crossroads. Baptized in the spirit of the blues we first ran into Christone years ago at the Shack Up Inn, then just a young fresh-faced teen, now at 20 years old this guitarist, vocalist and songwriter has released his debut album, “Kingfish,” on Alligator Records and this young man may hold the future of the blues in his large but nimble hands. The growth of his vocal prowess is an added strength giving him the tone of an everyman of blues. Teaming with Grammy-winning producer/drummer Tom Hambridge and his band, Rob McNelley guitar, Marty Sammon keyboards, Tommy MacDonald bass. Hambridge also shares songwriting credit on most of these songs and also pulled in heavy hitters like Buddy Guy and Keb Mo for half the tracks.
Starting with a gentle acoustic guitar and quiet vocals, Christone tells the narrative of his history and creates his own legend stating his grandma believed he’s “Been Here Before.” As a three-piece band, Kingfish struts to a groove declaring, “It Ain’t Right” and ripping mean counterattacks on guitar, then bares his hopes for the future to find his way “Outside Of This Town,” breaking into a passionate solo. A light touch of B3 by Sammon, Kingfish tears into a slow blues painfully declaring “Love Ain’t My Favorite Word” with some absolutely burning guitar and this combo adds a spicy rhythm and some of his hottest guitar yet as he sings he’s messed up and in “Trouble” before settling into the after-hours groove “That’s Fine By Me,” featuring Sammon’s piano as the guitar builds intensity. Keb Mo adds his guitar to the remaining tunes with Buddy Guy trading off vocals and guitar solos, Kingfish matches licks as the rhythm sways and they assess all that their “Fresh Out” of. Billy Branch adds some light romping harmonica that showcases Christone’s warm and smooth vocals as they charge into the question “If You Love Me.” With a lighthearted melody Keb Mo shares vocals and acoustic guitar on the joyous message of “Listen” to your heart. With a lightly chilling rhythm guitar Kingfish’s vocals have a pure and warm tone as he professes that he “Believes These Blues” will always carry on but he wants to fly high “Before I’m Old,” letting his guitar soar and take flight. Finally breaking it down to just Keb Mo on Resonator guitar and Kingfish on vocals, “Hard Times” are so bad “prices gone up down at the Dollar Store,” bringing the blues home to where many live today.
“Kingfish” may hold the future of the blues in his hands, as Christone Ingram says, “I’m moving forward with one foot in the past.”—Roger & Margaret White

Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith & the House Bumpers
Drop the Hammer
Big Eye Records Inc

Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith is the embodiment of modern blues, having been raised ‘old school’ in Chicago by his father, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. He’s been to the well of blues and drunk deep, played with the best and sat in with the rest. For his new CD Kenny did “Drop the Hammer,” gathering the best in Chicago for his House Bumpers including Felton Crews bass, Luca Chiellini keyboards, the guitars of Billy Flynn and Ari Seder, with Greg Guy, Guy King and Nelson Strange guesting, Andrea Miologos, Dana Smith and Kimberly Johnson on backing vocals and Omar Coleman or Sugar Blue on harp. Kenny Smith carries the heavy load of lead vocals, drums, percussion, songwriting, producing and his production style allows him to pick and choose from a sparse group to a full band, as needed.
Starting with an incessant beat that could be straight out of Mali, “Head Pounder” has a world flavor that extends to Billy Flynn’s sitar while Omar Coleman’s harp fills out this stripped-down trio, Kenny’s vocals fly light and easy while “What In The World” continues the world flavor but swaps out Buddy’s son Greg Guy and Seder on guitars, adding Luca’s clavinet and organ. That same band digs into a deep blues on “No Need Brotha,” Kenny calmly sets his story straight against the gentle bite and sting of Guy and Seder’s guitars, then swinging into an R&B-tinted “Drop The Hammer,” adding lilting female vocals backing Smith’s calm threats spiked by organ. His personal relationships leave him “Scatchin’ Your Head” as Coleman’s harp plus Luca’s organ fill like a “Tramp” horn section behind Flynn and Seder’s guitars till each cuts loose on a solo as the band has Kenny “Keep On Pretending” till he just don’t give a damn about that “Second Hand Woman.” Finding redemption in family, “Hey Daddy” features the infectious voices of Mae, Clara and Theodore Smith, Kenny’s own children who he says are “so much younger than me but they taught him to be a man.” Taking a harder rock stance with a heavier bass, “Puppet On A String” pulls in Sugar Blue on harp as the sweet backing vocals entice, trying to lure him into “Living Fast” as Blue’s harp nibbles the edges, Seder’s guitar bites deep as female vocals lilt with one raising above the rest to challenge Kenny’s every line. Then rocking heavier Kenny takes over both bass and drums letting the lead vocals of Kimberly Johnson dominate as Kenny tries to respond on “One Big Frown” backed by the powerhouse guitar of Nelson Strange. Slowing to a “Moment of Silence” Smith takes to just hitting drums for this understated instrumental as Flynn, Seder and Guy King on guitars trade quiet but intense licks while Omar’s harp and Luca’s piano each step in briefly.
With “Drop the Hammer” Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith has set the stage for others to follow.—Roger & Margaret White

This Is The Night
Various Artists
Koko-Mojo CD

Tore Up!
Various Artists
Koko-Mojo CD

A couple more rewarding 28 track projects from the enterprising Koko-Mojo label. Both are, as usual, invitingly packaged and expertly curated by Little Victor aka “The Beale Street Blues Bopper” with mostly esoteric blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll obscurities from the fifties with a host of familiar names alongside a fascinating abundance of competent yet total unknowns. This Is The Night, accurately sub-titled “Lessons In Wild Saxophony” features an abundance of enervating, honking instrumentals (with Noble Watts’ “cha, cha, cha”—ringing “Hot Tamales,” The Passengers’ stop-start “Sand In Your Eyes” and the Vibrators’ soulfully churning “Way Out” leading the pack) alongside frenetic dance numbers (Jimmy Tolliver’s “Hoochie Kootchie Koo”), sax-strutted jump blues, wayward rock ‘n’ rollers and a variety of intriguingly greasy one-offs. Particular picks include Mary Ann Fisher’s tough “Wild As You Can Be,” Charlie Glass’ noir-ish “Screamin’ And Dyin” (after a gunshot, Glass laments “I left her screamin’ and a dyin’, rolling on the floor/ Well, I found my baby cheatin’, but she won’t cheat me no more”), the bebopping Cacaos with their finger-snapping “Flip Your Daddy,” William “Thunderbird” Walker’s homage to his favorite nick-name-vehicle (in tempo with his nagging girl-friend) and wild-man Joe Boots & His Band’s apocalyptic rock ‘n roller “Well Allright.” Nary a clunker in the bunch as far as these fifties-acclimated ears go. Or as Little Victor accurately puts it—“Straight from the land of razz ma tazz!”
Tore Up is basically more of the same with the accent on the harmonica instead of the saxophone. As the be-turbaned Mister Victor puts it: “Dig this mighty hep selection of some of my fave harp tunes. Some are pretty “obscure” and some are “classics” but every number here is simply fantastic. Hot Shot Love (with his rockingly fervid “Harmonica Jam”), Papa Lightfoot (a characteristically chugging “Mean Old Train”), Lazy Lester (“Sugar Coated Love”) and Dr. Ross (with a whooping “Call The Doctor”)—every one of these cats was a true harmonica boss.” I might also recommend Rockin’ Sidney’s swampy blueser “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine,” Tommy Brown’s perceptive travelogue “Southern Women,” an exhilarating “Madison Shuffle” from Little Buster as well as Smokey Smothers’ inventive take-off on Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie” theme titled “Twist With Me Annie” and Jerry McCain with his live-wire “She’s Tough.” I’m also fond of Polka Dot Slim’s commentary on Louisiana’s mosquitoes and Arizona’s rattlesnakes called “A Thing You Gotta Face,” Judy Clay’s accusatory “Do You Think That’s Right,” and the decidedly downbeat “Picking Cotton” from one Little Red Walters. Needless to say, there’s a refreshingly wide variety of harp styles on display from a similarly wide cross-section of labels including Sun, Excello, Federal, United and Imperial among others. Pick these up while you can—these won’t be available long—Gary von Tersch

Duke Robillard
Ear Worms
Stony Plains CD

Since beginning his career in 1967 by founding and fronting Roomful of Blues, endlessly inventive guitarist Duke Robillard has been at the leading edge of blues, swing and classic R&B/jump blues for more than four decades, earning him his legendary status while simultaneously influencing and inspiring legions of musicians and fans worldwide. “Ear Worms was conceived as an album of songs that I was attracted to in my teens, with the exception of a few songs that I threw into the mix to round out the album vibe,” Robillard comments. Examples of the former include a vivid, wall-of-sound cover of Arthur Alexander’s lament “Every Day I Have To Cry Some” (with a peppy pop vocal by UK’s Julie Grant), a seven-minute version of Allen Toussaint’s marvelous testimonial “Yes We Can” (with keyboardist Bruce Bears’ great vocal underpinned by Robillard’s nicely knotty fretwork) and a finger-popping recall of Brenda Lee’s fifties classic “Sweet Nothin’“—with Sunny Crownover’s inspired vocal. Peppered in with the vocal-track tunes are several instrumentals that feature Robillard’s revisioning of the likes of “Careless Love,” “Soldier of Love,” “You Belong To Me” and “Rawhide.” The latter “is a tribute to one of my heroes, Mr. Link Wray! Just pure unadulterated Rock and Roll here friends; nothing more, nothing less. I played this song in many early bands and even in Roomful of Blues on a few occasions. It never fails to rock!,” the Duke avers. And I might say the same for this entire project.—Gary von Tersch

Ina Forsman
Been Meaning to Tell You
Ruf Records

Ina Forsman, a young singer from Finland, has become known as a talented vocalist on the European scene the past few years and with her newest CD on Ruf Records she’s about to step on to the international stage. She can’t be described as straight up blues but is something unique that deserves closer attention. Since Ina’s talents are as a vocalist and songwriter she’s worked with two composers, Anna Wilkman or Samuli Rautianen, to help develop her impressive lyrics into twelve original songs. Recorded in Austin, Texas, Ina has teamed up with sax man/producer Mark ‘Kaz” Kazanoff and a powerhouse of all star players to back Ina’s vocals, including firecracker Laura Chavez on guitar, Red Young, keyboards, Jay Stiles, synthesizers, Chris Maresh, bass, Brannen Temple, drums with the Texas Horns of Kazanoff, tenor sax, John Mills, baritone sax and flute, Al Gomez, trumpet, and Randy Zimmerman, trombone.
Beginning with a gentle keyboard-led croon that could be a Norah Jones outtake, “Be My Home” has Ina lifting her voice beyond the organ swells. Then blasting with a rave-up, Ina is “having a good time” introducing herself as the lyrics of “Get Mine” slip and slide over the hip hop beats and the joyous “All Good” meanders through the melody with acid jazz flute and trumpet. Taking on a tougher, though never rough, R&B stance, Chavez burns her way through a solo for “Genius” till Ina sweeps in with a wail as if in ecstasy. Going more modern soul her vocals run from rapid-fire to lazy swoops that could be a rapping Eartha Kitt, literally quivering through each line on “Whatcha Gonna Do,” told from an excitable male point of view trying to get the attention of a young lady. Then with some light jazzy keys, Ina tells the same story from her point of view on “Why You Gotta Be That Way,” starting calm like an offhand conversation becoming more agitated as he persists. With ominous piano chords and crying guitar, the painful message of “Miss Mistreated,” expressed in Ina’s powerful vocals, is a slow-burning blues about loving an abusive partner while Red’s expansive organ consoles Ina through “Who Hurt You” as the horns push that abusive relationship aside. Latin club rhythms dominate “Every Single Beat” as she loses herself to the freedom of dance, looking for a new lover, but she won’t mind the “Chains” as long as he treats her right. A gentle piano-driven song about complex family and personal relationships, “Figure” shows the depth of Ina’s writing and vocal skill and pulling from the depth of her soul singing unaccompanied about her “babygirl” “Sunny” is simply beautiful.
Ina Forsman’s release, “Been Meaning To Tell You,” reveals a genre-hopping diva, the soft focus photo on the cover may be from the whirlwind of ideas spinning around her.—Roger & Margaret White

Ally Venable
Texas Honey
Ruf Records

Ally Venable is a young girl out of Kilgore, Texas. Just barely twenty, she’s been tearing it up and winning awards since she was fifteen. Her third release, “Texas Honey,” now on Ruf Records, was recorded in Texas, at Mike Zito’s studio. Working with her longtime touring band of Bobby Wallace, bass, and Elijah Owings, drums, adding a keyboard and Zito’s guitar to the mix, Ally is lined up for her next big step. That may already be happening - she’s back from a busy two month long European tour with the Ruf Records Blues Caravan 2019 featuring herself, Ina Forsman and Katrarina Pejek.
Coming on full force for the title track “Texas Honey,” her beefy guitar slashing in contrast to the sweet sound of her vocals but this little lady’s lyrics can sting and she displays a dramatic guitar prowess on her cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Love Struck Baby,” it could have been written just for her, a young female voice giving it an even more intense drive. With a string of originals Ally seems to address bad relationships as her guitar sways and sobs against a solid beat, she finds there’s “Nowhere to Hide.” The lament of Ally’s dispirited vocals convey a haunting mood as she’s “Blind To Bad Love” till Zito’s consummate slide pierces her doldrums as her lyrics show a maturity beyond her years, she realizes this is a “One Sided Misunderstanding,” their guitar duel has a driven intensity as she proves she’s no longer a victim of love. Her vocals, powerful but sweet, letting the guitar take the damage as she’s “Broken” but finding the strength to take a stand as her guitar goes on a vicious attack, she coyly sings you better wave your “White Flag.” Ally makes it clear with a carefree attitude, the authority of her slide playing and the declaration that she’s not “Running After You,” then with a smug sweetness states she’s taking the “Long Way Home” and you better be gone. Guitarist Eric Gales, once a young prodigy himself, joins Ally in a duel of heavy power progressions and wailing guitars as they both challenge, if you think you’re good enough, “Come And Take It” trailing off as if marching to battle. Displaying her most powerful vocals yet on the only other cover, Bessie Smith’s “Careless Love,” her voice purrs as it sweeps and dips as if in a dance. We’ve been following Ally of late and can say the only thing better than this new CD is her live shows.
This “Texas Honey” has the looks, the licks, the voice, the songs and a confident style that will take Ally Venable anywhere she wants to go.—Roger & Margaret White

Brandon Santini
The Longshot
American Showplace Music

It’s been more then 15 years since Brandon Santini left his Carolina home and ventured forth on the blues scene. Moving to Memphis, Brandon soaked up the sounds of the Delta and North Mississippi, that may be what adds a unique edge to his vocals and gained him national attention and numerous awards. His newest recording “The Longshot” is Santini’s bet for success by deviating from classic blues to a more Americana feel that could gain him a wider fan base. Brandon commandeers this venture taking on vocals and harp for ten originals and one totally rebuild classic. His team includes Timo Arthur on electric guitars, Greg Gumpel on slide and Jed Potts acoustic, Chuck Combs bass, Reid Muchow drums and John Ginty on keyboards, percussion and vintage vibe.
Hitting it with a back beat slowly adding a stringent rock guitar, hand claps, Brandon’s sweetly gruff vocals tells his baby “Don’t You Come Around Here” as waves of organ wash in, saving the gentle roar of Santini’s harp for the solo. Slowing with a low down feelin’ Brandon sounds dejected as he’s “Beggin’ Baby” his harp does the crying against a hesitant slide guitar. An acoustic guitar leads off “One More Day” as the vocals become more optimistic, the harp takes on a brighter sound and Ginty’s organ adds to its warmth. A steady rhythmic pulse of “Heartbreaker” with the attack of Brandon’s harp trading licks with Timo’s brazen guitar pounds home the message” “she’ll show you how the walk then make you crawl” while organ and slide guitar give a haunting road rumble to “Drive You Off My Mind” as the gruff vocals and muffled harp are “rolling down that road.” Brandon’s voice and harmonica shift to a lonesome country mode that would be at home with Willie on “Broken Bones” as he’s looking for home but with a steady rhythm and strong blues harp Santini is exhausted but he’s giving the people what they want as long as that road brings him “Back To You.” Brandon’s rockin harp drives the bands through “My Worried Mind” and the jangle acoustic guitar and rat tit tat snare underlay the strong harp and vocals on “Going Home” and things get heavy as the harp drives the message full force that “Somebody’s Gotta Go” and it ain’t gonna be him. The only cover is Willie Dixon’s “Evil” (Is Going On) slowed to a sparse gentle rhythm of bongos and electric piano, the vocals give it a conversational reading but when his harp moans and wails invoking the evils of old it makes it a wicked stand out.
Brandon Santini has invested his life blood honing his skills always reaching for that ultimate prize, audience appreciation and with his newest release “The Longshot” the odds are good that he’s got a winner.—Roger & Margaret White


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