“Blues was born of forced migration”— Michael Jerome Browne
Award-winning blues singer/songwriter Eric Bibb has offered fans a new album almost every year since signing to Stony Plain Records in 2011, ranging from explorations of American roots music to cross-cultural collaborations. With a career now spanning five decades, the 65-year-old artist pulls no punches on his latest release, Migration Blues, an overtly political statement. As Bibb’s explains, “Whether you’re looking at a former sharecropper, hitchhiking from Clarksdale to Chicago in 1923, or an orphan from Aleppo, in a boat full of refugees in 2016—it’s migration blues. With this album, I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere. As history shows, we all come from people who, at some time or another, had to move.” He goes on to add, “While pondering the current refugee crisis I found myself thinking about the Great Migration, which saw millions of African Americans leaving the brutal segregation and economic misery of the rural South for the industrial cities of the North. Making this connection is what inspired the new songs included here.”
Migration Blues was jointly produced by Bibb (vocals, guitars, six-string banjo and contrabass guitar), Michael Jerome Browne (guitars, vocals, banjos, mandolin and triangle), and JJ Milteau (harmonica), who all contributed to the songwriting process and recording. One of those newly composed songs, the opening track “Refugee Moan,” perfectly encapsulates the theme of the album. Drawing upon the roots of blues and gospel music by making use of a train metaphor, Bibb sings to the accompaniment of gourd banjo and harmonica:
If there’s a train that will take me there
Take me where I can live in peace
Oh, Lord, take me onboard, don’t leave me here
Let me ride that train.
From this point forward, the songs traverse time and space. “Delta Getaway” and “With a Dolla’ In My Pocket” are drawn from stories about the perilous journey from Mississippi to Chicago, while “Diego’s Blues” is about Mexican farm workers migrating to the Delta to replace those who fled north during the Great Migration. One of the most haunting tracks is “Prayin’ For Shore,” recounting contemporary journeys of refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat, and the many who drowned before achieving their goal:
In a ol’ leaky boat / Somewhere on the sea
Tryin’ to get away from the war
Welcome or not, we got to land soon
Oh, Lord – prayin’ for shore.
The title track is an instrumental featuring Bibb on a resophonic 12-string guitar, Browne on a 12-string slide guitar, and Milteau on harmonica. This interlude offers listeners a much needed moment to take a deep breath and reflect on the many threads connecting the songs. Other stand out tracks include “We Had to Move,” inspired by the life of James Brown, the instrumental “La Vie C’est Comme Un Oignon” referencing the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1700s (ft. Browne on fiddle and ti-fer). Also included are several covers: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which unfortunately is still very relevant; Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land;” and an arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Mornin’ Train,” closing the album with the message that our final migration is to heaven, and everything else is transitory.
Migration Blues is a masterful album that’s both timely and historical in nature with its exploration of journeys and diasporas, of the impact of migration on musical borrowings and innovations, and perhaps most important—our shared humanity.
Crowned the “Queen of Detroit Blues” in 2015, Thornetta Davis is a blues singer and songwriter with a big voice and a passion for all things blues, rock, and soul. Though she’s worked with labels like Sub Pop in the past, her latest release Honest Woman is a self-released project full of passion.
Honest Woman starts rather untraditionally, with Felicia Davis singing her sister’s praises like a spoken word poem over back porch Delta blues: “When my sister sings the blues, she moves her hips swaying to the beat / Snapping her fingers and stomping her feet.” She compares her sister to Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace, two of the most famous black blues singers from the 1920s. This celebration of black women in music and the blues reverberates throughout the entire album, as Thornetta Davis draws inspiration from artists such as Denise LaSalle, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, and Big Mama Thornton.
The theme of honoring women is echoed on the second track, “I Gotta Sang the Blues,” which is a powerful duet with harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbids. The songs talks about singing the blues not to get rich or famous, but rather to persevere when “living the blues gets too rough.” At the end of the song, Davis evokes the names of more famous blues women, singing on the outro,
I ain’t gon’ stop singin’ the blues Big Mama Thorton sang the blues Koko Taylor sang the blues Etta James sang the blues.
On “Sister Friends Indeed,” Davis celebrates the female friendships in her own life. The bluesy Americana track is an ode to sisterhood, discussing how all the women who have supported her throughout life are her sisters, whether they share blood or not:
The rest of Honest Woman doesn’t celebrate blues women as explicitly, but it cements Davis as a part of that history. Her smooth voices oscillates between a number of styles. She sings contemporary upbeat rock blues on songs like “That Don’t Appease Me” and “I Need A Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me,” followed by effortless soul on the heartbreak ballad “(Am I Just A) Shadow,” and sexy R&B vocals on “Can We Do It Again.”
Davis’ mixture of black music genres stands out particularly on “Set Me Free,” a modern funk and blues spiritual featuring the Larry McCray Band. Though it may be easy to view the raunchy aspects of blues as the opposite of gospel, Davis’ plea for the Lord to come down and set her free pairs perfectly with the blues singer’s themes of struggles and the pain of working.
The final song on the album, “Feels Like Religion,” is another gospel song which celebrates Davis finding happiness and confidence in herself. The song even has a call and response section as Davis sings, “I wanna dance! (dance) Shout! (shout) Show you what it’s all about!” The steady beat of the drum set completely shifts after this call and response as the music transforms into foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel that completely takes the listener to church. This celebratory, thankful song encapsulates what Honest Woman is all about—an album full of joy and gratitude for the black blues women who influenced Davis’ music, her sisters, her God, and herself, the “Queen of Detroit Blues.”
Building upon 20 years of recording and 15 albums, Otis Taylor presents his latest project, Fantasizing About Being Black, a historical retrospective on the African American experience. In a Conqueroo press release, Taylor says this album summons conversations about “the different levels of racism in the African American experience that are unfortunately still with us today. The history of African Americans is the history of America.”
Describing his music as “trance blues,” Taylor aims to transport the listener to an earlier era by incorporating instruments that were once played by enslaved people. The album opens with “Twelve String Mile,” a contemplative song about the social invisibility of the black man in the 1930s. This leads into “Walk on Water,” a song about the separation of an interracial couple and the pursuit of love. Taylor’s raspy, yet solemn vocals are accompanied by violinist Anne Harris, drummer Larry Thompson, bassist Todd Edmunds, Jerry Douglas on koa wood lap guitar, cornetist Ron Miles, and lead guitar player Brandon Niederauer. While much of this meditative album is acoustically composed, Taylor also includes electrifying spiritual songs such as “Tripping on This” and “Hands On Your Stomach”:
Taylor addresses the Civil Rights Movement, interracial relationships, the desire for freedom, and enslavement experiences in Fantasizing About Being Black. Each song reimagines what life was like for black men and women throughout different stages in America’s history. Taylor also uses this platform to call attention to pervasive racism and the need for empathy for people of color who continue their struggle today. Taylor’s last album, Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat, is currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture—a clear indication that his message is reaching a wide audience. Fantasizing About Being Black clearly continues Taylor’s commitment to social justice, and is an excellent contribution to this year’s Black History Month.
For Sharon Lewis, singing the blues is her method of communicating her experiences as a Black woman in America. Her new release, Grown Ass Woman, showcases her music deeply rooted in the Chicago blues tradition. This edgy album, her second on the Delmark label, features harmonica player Sugar Blue and slide guitarist Joanna Connor.
Opening with “Can’t Do It Like We Do,” Lewis boldly defends the unique sound of her Chicago music scene with the full strength of her powerful voice. The energizing party anthem, “Hell Yeah!” features a horn section with Kenny Anderson on trumpet, Hank Ford on tenor sax, and Jerry DiMuzio on baritone sax. Lewis emphasizes the strength of womanhood with “Chicago Woman,” a song that opens with a classic Chicago electric blues guitar rhythm and shredding instrumental breaks.
Guitarist and songwriter Steve Bramer collaborated with Lewis on several songs, such as “Don’t Try to Judge Me,” “Walk With Me,” and “Freedom.” Singing about autonomy, fair treatment, and life experience, Lewis’s lyrics are fiercely straight shooting and unforgiving. For instance, on “Old Man’s Baby” she sings:
An old man will wine and dine you
A young man’s love will bind you
That’s why I’d rather be an old man’s baby than a young man’s fool
Lewis performs two cover songs that fit in this album seamlessly: B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues” and Warren Haynes’ “Soul Shine.” Her title track, “Grown Ass Woman” may be one of the most satisfying songs on the album. She fearlessly accentuates her independence in the final verse, “I want you – I don’t need you. You can’t do half the shit I do, ‘cause I’m a grown ass woman.”
As the title track demonstrates, Grown Ass Woman is a fiery new collection of electric blues and soul music from Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire.
On their 12th release, Cab Driving Man, Mississippi Heat takes us on a journey through blues history, with songs running the gamut from down home Delta blues and NOLA boogie woogie to the contemporary electric blues of their own sweet home, Chicago. Following their highly successful 2014 release, Warning Shot, their new album showcases the depth, breadth, and artistry of a band that’s been together for 25 years. The five current members include founder/harpist Pierre Lacocque, lead singer Inetta Visor, and guitarist Michael Dotson, with the rhythm section headed up by Brian Quinn on bass and Terrance Williams on drums. Also featured on the majority of the tracks are Chris “Hambone” Cameron on keyboards and Giles Corey on guitar, along with other special guests.
The majority of the songs were composed by Lacocque, whose masterful storytelling often draws inspiration from significant events in Chicago history. For example, the title track references legendary bandleader Cab Calloway, who attended college in Chicago prior to his glory days at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Sounding a bit like a juked up, jumping jive version of “Land of the Rising Sun,” this track is definitely one of the highlights, with Sax Gordon adding a honking bari-sax and Lacocque and Cameron jumping on board with some tasty instrumental solos. Other highlights include the opener “Cupid Bound,” a tight rhythm and blues number that elicits some of Inetta Visor’s most soulful vocals, and “Rosalie” with its Latin inspired percussion courtesy of Ruben Alvarez, punctuated by Lacocque’s harmonica and Cameron’s riffs on the B3. This Latin influence continues on “Smooth Operator,” one of the two covers on the album, with Visor digging into the groove of this song popularized by Sarah Vaughan. Dotson takes over the vocals on his composition “Can’t Get Me No Traction,” providing a grittier edge to the hard driving blues-rock style of the song.
Cab Driving Man is another home run for Mississippi Heat, an infectious album with a wide range of musical influences that shake things up and keep us jiving through all 12 tracks.
Mississippi’s Grady Champion may have started his career as a rapper, but after learning to play the harmonica he became an advocate for the blues. He now endeavors to keep the Delta traditions alive while racking up numerous awards along the way. Though Champion experimented with the fusion of hip hop and the blues in his early years, his 10th album is more conventional, but in no way stale. On One of a Kind, he delivers 12 original tracks that play to his eclectic fan base: those who love traditional blues, and those like their blues with a dash of Southern soul. Recorded at the historic Malaco Records’ studio in Jackson, Mississippi (now part of the Mississippi Blues Trail), the album features local backing musicians including Eddie Cotton Jr. on guitar, Carroll McLaughlin on keyboards, Sam Scott on drums, Myron Bennett and Ken Smith on bass, and the Jackson Horns (Kimble Funchess, trumpet; Jesse Primer III, tenor sax; Sydney Ford II, bari sax; and Robert Lampkin, trombone).
Opening with the slow and sexy “Bump and Grind,” Champion’s deep, raspy vocals and suggestive harmonica solos mimic the action on the dance floor. The lively “House Party” is a rollicking 12-bar blues featuring a trio of background vocalists accompanied by the lush chords of a Hammond B3 and the punchy Jackson Horns. Continuing with the party theme, “Move Something” and “Heels and Hips” are grooving dance numbers with a more contemporary vibe.
Shifting back to a slow grind, “What a Woman” is another traditional blues track featuring the legendary Elvin Bishop, who punctuates the song with his edgy slide guitar. Representing the R&B side of the spectrum, “One of a Kind” and “When I’m Gone” are notable for their funky instrumentals and soulful backing vocals harkening back to the glory days of Malaco. The album closes with the instrumental “GC Boogie,” a showcase for Champion and Eddie Cotton who trade harmonica and guitar solos, converging at the end for a satisfying finale.
Champion’s One of a Kind is a great follow-up to his 2014 release, Bootleg Whiskey, offering plenty of diversity while showcasing the best of the contemporary Southern blues scene.
Last year we reviewed Omar Coleman’s Delmark debut, Born & Raised, released in June 2015. Due to that album’s success, Delmark decided to follow up immediately with a live recording. The result is Live at Rosa’s Lounge, recorded over three dates at “Chicago’s friendliest blues bar.” Six out of 10 of these live tracks appeared on the previous album, though in the new release you get some nice, extended versions, a couple of which are nearly double in length. Both albums feature the same line-up: Peter Galanis on guitar, Neal O’Hara on keyboards and organ, Dave Forte (tracks 1-5) and Ari Seder (tracks 6-10) on bass, and Marty Binder on drums.
New to the live album are four cover songs including the opener, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy’s “Snatch It Back and Hold It.” Coleman’s rendition inserts a dose of funk with a grooving bass line and organ riffs, and other than a brief harmonica appearance in the intro, he wisely makes no effort to improve on Junior Wells’s harp solo. This is followed by a hard-driving version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” with O’Hara taking over the solo on keyboards. From the Stax catalog there’s Rufus Thomas’s “Give Me the Green Light.” Coleman states in the intro, “As you can guess, we like our blues with a dose of funk, soul, and all kinds of other stuff,” before the band lays into a heavy groove, deftly fusing Southern soul with electric Chicago blues. Another Dixon song popularized by Junior Wells, “Two Headed Woman,” closes the album in a fast and furious rendition that pits Coleman’s harp against Galanis’s guitar.
Though it’s impossible to recommend one of these albums over the other, Live at Rosa’s Lounge captures a younger generation of musicians, proving that the blues club scene is alive and well in Chicago.
The great Bobby “Blue” Bland was one of the most influential and beloved vocalists of the post-WWII era. A product of Memphis’ Beale Street blues scene, Bland was known for his powerful, soulful voice and preaching style of delivery. His distinctive sound melded the blues with R&B and gospel music, which evolved into soul just about the time Stax Records opened for business in his hometown. This two-disc retrospective from Acrobat documents the first decade of Bland’s career, from 1951-62, including all of his “rocking R&B and soulful blues” sides on the Duke label. Also included on Disc 1 are a few of the singles he cut for Chess and Modern the year prior to signing with Duke, including the lesser known song “Letter From a Trench in Korea.” But there are plenty of hits as well, such as his 1957 break-out single “Farther On Up the Road,” his “Little Boy Blue” from 1958 (said to have been influenced by the preaching style of Rev. C.L. Franklin), and the Brook Benton ballad “I’ll Take Care of You.” By Disc 2, Bland’s style firmly enters soul territory, with tortured ballads such as “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “That’s the Way Love Is.”
The tracks on this set are arranged in chronological order, accompanied by a 15 page booklet with liner notes by Paul Watts and discographical information.
Though there are countless compilations of the recordings of legendary Delta blues guitarist John Lee Hooker, this 101-track 4-CD collection from Acrobat compiles all of his singles released on the Modern, Chess and VeeJay labels from 1949 to 1962. Sequenced chronologically, disc one begins with “Sally May,” recorded in Detroit with producer Bernard Besman and released in 1949 on Joe Bihari’s Modern label out of Los Angeles. Hooker’s second release produced the indelible classic “”Boogie Chillen,” followed by more hits in his R&B arsenal: “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Hobo Blues, “Hoogie Boogie,” plus “Rock and Roll” from 1950. The disc concludes with some of his early sides for Chicago’s Chess Records.
Disc two picks up with “High Priced Woman” on Chess and concludes with his 1953 release on the Modern label, “Too Much Boogie.” Most of the Modern releases on this disc were produced by Bihari, who flew to Detroit to work directly with Hooker. Though disc three is still dominated by Hooker’s releases for Bihari, we’re introduced to the VeeJay period, which carries through to the end of disc four. Hooker signed with the Chicago-based VeeJay label in 1955, which produced a number of career highlights including his classic 1962 song “Boom,” with backing provided by session musicians with experience in Motown’s studio. The set concludes with additional songs recorded during that session, coming to an optimistic close with a reworking of his 1952 song “New Leaf.”
Though this set has nothing new to offer, it presents a nice introduction to Hooker’s work, mixing his blues and R&B sides. Liner notes are provided by Paul Watts, and the booklet includes complete discographical and session information.
Bear Family, the highly regarded reissue label based in Germany, has issued many box sets devoted to R&B and blues musicians. The latest hefty package includes 5 CDs featuring the entire recorded output of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, spanning the years 1941-1962. Of course the prominent Delta blues musician is best known for his 1946 song, “That’s All Right”—famously covered by Elvis Presley, who said in a 1971 interview: “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” Crudup inadvertently contributed to Elvis’ huge success when, on the evening of July 5, 1954, Elvis recorded a cover version of “That’s All Right” and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to cover two more Crudup songs (“My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine”), garnering the moniker “King of Rock and Roll,” while Crudup was at least accorded the title of “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” I’m sure this title, conferred on him by a record company publicist, likely did not make up for his exploitation and lack of royalties—but that’s another, all too frequent story.
A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw includes the entire story of Arthur Crudup, as told by Chicago music writer Bill Dahl, in a sumptuously illustrated 68-page hardcover LP size book that also includes a complete discography. With 124 tracks and over 6 hours of playing time, listeners can gain a thorough understanding of Arthur Crudup beyond his most popular songs. As with many Bear Family sets, it’s not necessarily something you would want to digest in one sitting, but serves its purpose as a reference volume that preserves a complete slice of music history in wonderfully remastered sound.
If your annual holiday gift to the 78-rpm collector on your list is the Blues Images calendar and CD, rest assured this year’s package is as good as ever. Blues Images paired up with the AMERICAN EPIC team for the second consecutive year to digitally restore the 78s included on Volume 14. The end result is not only the CD included with your beautiful new calendar. Songs restored for the CD will also be included in the AMERICAN EPIC documentary on rural American music from the 1920s and 1930s. The first episode of the series premiered at Sundance 2016. The series is scheduled to air on PBS and the BBC Worldwide in 2017.
The care and skill applied by John Tefteller, Peter Henderson, and Nick Bergh during the digital transfer and restoration process is readily apparent when listening to the 23 tracks on the CD. Two recently discovered songs by Big Bill Broonzy – “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Western Blues” – are included alongside freshly remastered recordings of Skip James’ “Illinois Blues”/“Yola My Blues Away” (Paramount 13072) and Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues”/“Nehi Blues” (Paramount 12927). Tracks “How Long How Long Blues” (Jed Davenport), “Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down” (Frank Palmes), and “Mr. Devil Blues” (Joe Williams) include acoustic blues harp for the harmonica player on your gift list. Other artists featured on Vol. 14 include Garfield Akers, Memphis Minnie, Charley Patton, Blind Leroy Garnett, Mobile Strugglers, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Gussie Nesbitt, and Ishman Bracey.
Consistent with years past, the calendar’s artwork features original advertisements that pairs with the recordings. Many of these advertisements, thought to be lost, were found in 2002 in Port Washington, Wisconsin by Blues Image owner and longtime collector John Tefteller. Additional advertising images were added to his archives in 2015, several of which appear in this 2017 calendar.
The 2017 calendar and CD are available at select music and book stores, several internet sites, and can always be purchased directly from the Blues Images website.
Josh White (1914-1969) played a style of folk-blues with a jazz-like swing that stood in contrast to the Delta style of blues that came to dominate the genre. Although White enjoyed fame and popularity in his lifetime (and a period of being blackballed for his activism in favor of civil rights legislation), his music fell out of frequent broadcast or rotation on many blues fans’ turntables.
Josh At Midnight was recorded in 1955, in a small church in New York City, using a single Neumann U-47 mic. Original producer Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, oversaw this vinyl-only reissue. The sound quality is superior to the early-era CD reissue I found in the local library system. It’s a mono recording, but the careful placement of White, bassist Al Hall and second vocalist Sam Gary produces a 3-dimensional sound quality, and creates nice separation between the sounds even as they weave together into a satisfying whole.
Musically, White covers songs in the traditional overlap between folk and blues music, such as “Timber (Jerry the Mule),” “One Meat Ball,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He also dives deeper into the blues vein with the saucy “Jelly, Jelly” and “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” (a traditional blues song the lyrics of which were later appropriated by Led Zeppelin for “In My Time of Dying”). There is also the album’s opener, “St. James Infirmary,” a blues-jazz song made famous by Louis Armstrong.
White’s style will appeal to modern “roots music” fans. He was a superb guitar player—Holtzman describes him as “an acrobat with the instrument” in the LP’s new liner notes. His voice was refined and expressive, more a polished performer than a “down and dirty country bluesman.” The key appeal is that he had a ton of soul, and his big personality shines through in his playing and singing.
This vinyl reissue is clearly aimed at audiophiles as well as roots-music fans. If you don’t have a phono rig, seek out one of the previous CD reissues. Even though they don’t have the crystal clear sound and powerful dynamics of this version, the music will shine through.
Detroit native JJ Thames trained in jazz and classical music from the age of 9 and added blues to her repertoire by the time she was 18. Since then, she has been entrenched in a number of genres, including soul, rockabilly, reggae, roots, and ska. Her sophomore album, Raw Sugar, is a collaboration with Mississippi guitarist Eddie Cotton, who co-wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks and is the lead guitarist on the album.
In an attempt to jumpstart her musical career, Thames moved down to Jackson, Mississippi and performed with “Chitlin’ Circuit” superstars such as Marvin Sease. This Southern influence is present on “Hattie Pearl,” as Thames sings about greens, fish and grits, and sipping tea on the back porch. The music is also irresistible—a mix of funk and blues with a twinge of gospel that resounds with horns, a killer keyboard solo, and Thames’ soulful singing complete with growls and shouts.
Thames’ sound harkens back to a different era, embodying the power and vocal quality of legendary ‘60s and ‘70s soul women such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight on tracks like “I’m Leavin’” and “Leftovers.” The accompaniment effortlessly evokes this time period as well, from the varied instrumentation to the tight arrangements that leave no room for imperfection.
As the album progresses, Thames explores the other genres that she has perfected over the years. “Woman Scorned” takes a modern rock turn, as Thames sings with a rollicking electric guitar and heavy dose of drums. “Hold Me” is a passionate, lyrical ballad that slows things down and is backed by harmonizing vocals. “Don’t Feel Nothing” is a rockabilly jam full of twanging guitar that’s perfect for dancing. “Raw Sugar” is straight ahead blues, which Thames growls, croons, and moans directly from the soul while Cotton adds an incredible blues guitar solo.
Legendary R&B singer Dorothy Moore has referred to JJ Thames as “the future of the blues.” On Raw Sugar, Thames certainly shows she is an artist who is determined to make her mark. Her voice is strong and confident, whether rebuking a man who has treated her wrong or expressing emotional vulnerability in a ballad. Thames channels many African American musical genres and influences, but remains distinctively herself—a powerful singer from Detroit who is living in Mississippi and securing her own place in the music world.
Alligator Records started in 1971 as one man’s dream to record the Southside Chicago blues artists who packed a tiny venue called Florence’s. Bruce Iglauer, then working at Delmark Records, began his label with just one record per year and one employee—himself. In 1991 he released a 20th Anniversary Collection to commemorate the growth of his label to Grammy-award status. Robert Mugge’s film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, documented the promotional tour for that compilation, and an album of live performances from the tour was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Compilations followed for the 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, each compiling tracks from the label’s early days and pairing with newer material. Over the years the label added artists, including many from outside of the Chicago tradition, who were either dropped from other labels or were floundering after the demise of the 1960s blues revival. Still a small label, Alligator continues to produce several albums a year and has re-released albums acquired from other labels.
Iglauer’s introduction to the 45th Anniversary Collection sets this collection apart as a retrospective not of the entire backlist, but mainly of the artists who have recorded since the 2011 40th Anniversary album, plus select tracks by those who have died recently. The living and the dead are interspersed, but most of the current Alligator performers are on the first of the two disc set. Their tracks illustrate a vibrant tradition that still speaks to audiences around the world.
Disc One opens with a “house-rockin’” performance of “Hold That Train” by Lil’ Ed and the Imperials (2008). They invite the listener to “get on board … next stop: Chicago.” Since Alligator’s signature sound is “house-rockin’ music,” this track is a perfect choice to represent the label. “Cotton Picking Blues” (1973) by Son Seals (d. 2004) follows with a long, lugubrious electric guitar solo backed by organ, drums and bass that takes up much of the track. Having been cheated out of his share-cropping pay he has to “put it down.” This is the source of Chicago’s blues inheritance: musicians migrating from the Delta cotton fields to Chicago.
“Devil’s Hand” (2015) by Shemekia Copeland represents the present. The daughter of Johnny Copeland, she began recording for Alligator in 1998 at the age of 18. Tracks in the previous anniversary compilations find her sometimes struggling to compete with her horn section, but in “Devil’s Hand” her voice is robust and soulful, and the production gives her room to breathe. She has come into her own. “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” (2015) by Elvin Bishop is a witty take on classic blues themes with the best line: “What goes on in the dark will surely come to light.” Toronzo Cannon’s “Bad Contract” (2016) is a funkalicious blues concoction with lyrics that echo the Son Seals’ track, but instead of being cheated by a farmer, Cannon gets burned by a pre-nuptial contract! Who wouldn’t sing the blues?
Harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite tells a true story of how the courage of Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into “The Well” (2010), inspired him to quit drinking and “to be a better man.” You might have to listen twice for the story though, because the harmonica solos overshadow everything else in the track. He is a true gift to the blues. Marcia Ball (2014) sings “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” a boogie woogie song complete with a horn section and retro piano licks, telling the story of a pair of freak show performers.
In case you feared that civil rights music was a thing of the past, fear not. “Common Ground” (2015) by The Painkillers & Tommy Castro urges us to “stand together on common ground… everybody’s looking for someone to blame but we’re not as different as we are the same.” This mid-tempo gospel-tinged anthem tells us “It’s time to build a brand new day.” Preach it, Tommy! Carey Bell (d. 2007) & his son Lurrie Bell, sing “The Road Is So Long” (2004), an acoustic, Piedmont-inspired duo with Carey on harp and Lurrie on guitar. The track shows Alligator’s reach as well as some impressive instrumentals by the Bells.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009), Alligator’s vocal powerhouse for many years, penned a very southern “Voodoo Woman” (1975). She has a crawfish on her “shoulder, looking dead at you.” Rough and bare, backed by guitar and sax, you can believe her claim that she could make the sky begin to cry. “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2013) is a hard-driving house-rockin’ song with a ripping horn section. Selwyn Birchwood’s gravelly voice would sound right at home on any Delta classic but has the driving force and powerful diction (yes, diction!) to hold his own against his funkelectric band. Birchwood burst onto the scene in 2013 but he is an old soul with much to say and many years ahead of him. “Don’t you call no ambulance—I’ll find my own ride home.” Oh yes, he would, and I bet he could also walk it if he had to!
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “Callin’ All Fools” (2013) is a retro-mod song backed by organ, drums and guitar. Lorenzo Farrell’s organ solo is not to be missed. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” (2012) by Joe Louis Walker is a hard-driving song about not driving. This is one of the most unique tracks in the collection. Imagine if 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I know you mighta done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving outta here like this no more.” “Crazy When She Drinks”(2007) by Lee Rocker, former member of the Stray Cats, sounds a bit like his former group’s work, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t core to the Alligator wheelhouse. The lyrics fit into a blues house, though: “It don’t make her happy – it just makes her mean.” She probably shouldn’t drive home, either.
“Take Me With You (When You Go),” from Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle’s 2016 debut album for Alligator, is roots house-rock that has them pulling out all the stops. “Your Turn to Cry” (1977), by Jimmy Johnson, is one of the few older songs by a living artist. Johnson, who is still alive and gigging at 87, lets the guitar do most of the crying but his powerful falsetto recalls the classic R&B artists of the 1950s while staying true to the blues. Texan Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” is from a live album recorded at Austin City Limits. It is a multi-tinged gumbo of roots rock styles with full horn section and no holds barred.
Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975) and the Houserockers were the band that inspired Iglauer to start the Alligator label. “Take Five” (1974) is hard-driving house-rock song that’s light on lyrics and heavy on bottleneck guitar. “Gotta go… gotta go…. sure ‘nuff … baby.” It’s easy to imagine this quickie (2:42) as a prelude to a bathroom break or a rockin’ closer after a long night at Florence’s. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne’s “Let It Go” (2013) is a plea to give up drugs, with references to psychedelic sounds of the 1960s in the incessant driving rhythm and soaring guitar solos. There’s no resolution, just sinking deeper into a quagmire of hypnotic sounds. According to the notes, Osborne has overcome his troubles but they clearly left a soulfully felt scar. Mavis Staples sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004) to a croaking bass harmonica (that sometimes sounds like a didjeridoo) and slide guitar. Inspired to resume her career after the events of 9/11, this track points to her bright future.
Disc 2 opens with “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013) by James Cotton, featuring Joe Bonamassa, and includes the line “The Blues cannot be killed!” What a great track to open a disc that includes many deceased artists.
Recorded live in Tokyo, “If Trouble was Money” (1982) by Albert Collins shows off his guitar virtuosity from the start in this long, languid lament that also features a fabulous sax solo by A.C. Reed. “99 Shades of Crazy” (2013), by J.J. Grey & Mofro, is funkified “roots rock” with a horn section and organ. The song is great dark-edged fun that crosses too many boundaries to fit into one category. Jarekus Singleton sings “I Refuse to Lose” (2014) while his guitar sings like B.B. King’s Lucille. Adding organ and heavy drums makes this a good pairing with the previous track. Singleton is new to the blues scene and this anthem of hard work and determination predicts a long and successful future. Though sounding like B.B. King is a great thing, he will doubtless take that sound to a new level using his own voice.
Next comes “Empty Promises” (2008) by Michael Burks. Nobody would blame you for thinking this was a classic from the 1960s. It’s one part soul-blues and one part acid-blues-rock. Burks’ voice has the richness of classic singers of that era and the guitar solos are worthy of a Woodstock revival. If Jimi Hendrix were alive he’d be flattered. Sadly, Burks died in 2012, making this song an ironic salute to a great talent. Johnny Winter is another lost soul (d. 2014). He recorded three albums with Alligator in the 1980s and “Shake Your Moneymaker” (1986) was featured on the final release. Winter rocks some impressive bottleneck guitar playing on this James Cotton tune and croaks out the lyrics like a battle-scarred blueser.
“Walk a Mile in My Blues,” (2016) is sung by Washington-born Curtis Salgado, who mentored John Belushi. Having beat cancer three times he has a right to sing the blues. His voice is emotional and rich, with no hint of any infirmity, yet wizened enough to sing the blues with authority. He won the 36th Soul Blues Male Artist award (2015), and sounds like he’ll be adding to his trophy case for years to come. “Stumblin’” (recorded in 2003; remastered in 2015), by the Kentucky Headhunters, is a fun-loving drunken ramble that could be featured in any honky-tonk or roadhouse blues venue. Johnnie Johnson (d. 2005), who was Chuck Berry’s piano player, guested on this track, which didn’t make it onto an album until Alligator released it in 2015. “I Ain’t Got You” (1995), by Billy Boy Arnold, is a 1950s-style boogie woogie that Arnold first recorded in 1955. His harmonica sets the song apart from the pop genres of that time and gives it legs.
The 12th track slows the pace with smoky-voiced Ann Rabson’s “Gonna Stop You from Giving Me the Blues” (1997). Sadly, she died in 2013. Alone and as part of Safire: Uppity Blues Women, Rabson recorded solely with Alligator. As a soloist she shows a Krall-ish side of the blues, a counterpoint full-throated singers Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland. “Freezer Burn” (2010), by Bnois King & Smokin’ Joe Kubek (d. 2015), is a rockin’ instrumental, filled with soulful guitar riffs, leaving us to grieve for Kubek’s guitar voice. Following is “I’m Gonna Leave You” (2004), a classic woman-done-me-wrong lament written and performed by Guitar Shorty. The lyrics don’t quite versify but they do testify, because that’s just how bad that woman is. If you love old-time blues, this track is one of the best on the album. “She’s Fine” by A.C. Reed (d. 2004, tenor sax) and Bonnie Raitt (voice & slide guitar), is a slow moving tribute to the blues. Recorded live, “Will It Ever Change?” (1997) by Luther Allison (d. 1997), decries discrimination—unfortunately, a message that appears to be timeless. “I can see the bells of freedom, but why can’t I hear them ring?” is a haunting lyric that rings true today.
“Amazing Grace” (2013) by the Holmes Brothers closes out the collection. Two of the three members died in 2015, leaving this, their signature song, as their own memorial on this collection. You’ll never hear “Amazing Grace” the same way again. Once again, Alligator Records and Bruce Iglauer have encapsulated the best of the blues in their latest anniversary release. We can only hope there will be many more.
Contemporary blues musician Sugar Blue (a.k.a. James Whiting) has gifted us with his first studio recording in five years. On Voyage, the Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso and vocalist presents 11 original songs, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, plus a great cover of the Ray Charles’ song “Mary Ann.” Backed by a tight band featuring Rico McFarland on guitar, special guests Johnny B. Gayden and Bill Dickens on bass, plus Damiano Della Torre on keyboards and Brady Williams and Michael Weatherspoon on drums, the album reflects their wide ranging musical tastes.
Sugar Blue, who has frequently performed outside of the blues genre—most notably with Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones—was also influenced by the jazz of Dexter Gordon and the R&B of Stevie Wonder. These influences are apparent on the opening track, “On My Way (Sarah’s Song),” an optimistic song about making a new start that’s dedicated to his daughter. Sugar’s smooth vocals and close harmonies hearken back to early ‘70s pop and R&B, in direct opposition to the standard, gritty delivery of most blues singers.
Sugar’s harmonica makes a grand entrance on “One,” which begins with an extended solo. Though more of a traditional blues song in structure, there’s a definite shift towards jazz in the chorus. The instrumental “Sugar Blue Boogie” is a definite highlight of the album. This fast and furious shuffle demonstrates Sugar and the band’s virtuosity, and they even throw in some countrified guitar picking for good measure. That countrified style continues on “New York City,” featuring Max de Bernardi on guitar, who co-wrote this autobiographical song chronicling Sugar’s life as a Harlem-raised blues musician. Midway through the track Sugar gives shout-outs to those who influenced him along the way: Victoria Spivey, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red, and Willie Dixon.
Sugar recently married bassist Ilaria Lantieri, who also performs on the album and likely inspired the track “Love is in the Air,” which has a tinge of reggae rhythms under a harmonica solo that speaks of love and satisfaction. Eddie Shaw, the legendary sax player from the Howlin’ Wolf band, assists on “Mercedes Blues”—one of the most traditional tracks on the album, along with the humorous “Cyber Blues,” which any listener will relate to. Another stand out track is the jazzy “Life on the Run,” featuring vocalist Maya Azucena and Sonix The Mad Scientist (the two are collaborating on an album scheduled for release later this year, and Sonix performs with Sugar in the group Next Level). The album closes with “Time,” giving Sugar a final opportunity to unleash his harmonic on several solo interludes, while singing about the need to seize the moment because “time is moving on.”
Voyage is a delightful and very forward looking album, offering a wide range of styles while inviting us along on one man’s journey through the trials, tribulations, love, and joy of life in this world.
Fresh off of an appearance at a private party for the Democratic National Committee held at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live, Chicago blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon has been busy representing his hometown. Since his last album, John the Conquer Root, he’s jumped over to Chicago’s other famed blues label, Alligator Records, which released his latest project. Fittingly titled The Chicago Way, the album features 11 self-penned songs that reflect Cannon’s life in the Windy City, using “timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways.”
The opening track, “The Pain Around Me,” is full of the pathos of growing up in a dystopian urban environment near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. Following a blistering guitar intro, Cannon sings: “Six kids on a corner up to no damn good, that’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood. You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town, I don’t want my kids to go outside ‘cause the thugs are hangin’ around.” Apologizing for painting such a grim portrait of inner city life, he sings in the chorus, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me, but this is what I see, what I see.”
In the more traditional songs “Bad Contract” and “Walk It Off,” Cannon sings the blues about getting the short end of the stick when relationships go sour, with the latter song featuring some especially fine guitar solos. The following track, “Fine Seasoned Women,” opens with a swinging jazz intro before settling into a steady groove powered by Brother John Kattke on the Hammond B3 and a fine, tight horn section—superbly arranged by Kattke—that features Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Steve Eisen on tenor sax, and Robert Collazo on bari sax. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, especially when Cannon punches in the guitar solos, fitting perfectly into the groove. Also adding to the mix are Larry Williams on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums.
Another highlight on the album is “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” featuring some of Cannon’s best guitar work and concluding with an extended blues-rock solo that goes out blazing in an inferno of psychedelic guitar riffs. The heat continues with “Strength to Survive,” with Cannon digging deep into his soul on the vocals, then following up with the melancholy slow burner, “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” On the emotional closing track, “I Am,” about the multiple temptations and the choices one makes, Cannon is joined by singer Melon “Honeydew” Lewis and they bring down the house with a gospel fueled blues-rock masterpiece.
The Chicago Way offers contemporary, complex songs that are above and beyond standard blues fare, convincingly delivered by Toronzo Cannon with soulful vocals and searing blues-rock guitar virtuosity. This might well be the best blues album of 2016, and serves as proof that Cannon is poised to take over the crown as Chicago’s leading blues guitarist.
Guy Davis, the son of actor-activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, is primarily known as a blues singer but his recent album, Kokomo Kidd, is inspired by or dedicated to his diverse heroes, including Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Bob Marley and some of his friends. Though the blues permeate each track, they come in and out of focus as Davis’s other influences weave throughout the album. This is Davis’s 17th album, and the first that he produced himself. At times the instrumentals are layered a little too thick, but he takes the listener on quite a ride. The cover art shows him playing guitar, but he also plays banjo, harmonica, keyboards, and percussion. The CD comes with a lyric booklet, and each lyric is introduced by a dedication-explanation.
In the title track Davis narrates the (possibly made-up) story of Kokomo Kidd, a black Washington, D.C. coal delivery man who smuggles contraband into the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court with the day’s coal: “Washington insiders want drugs and sex / It ain’t about who’s rich but who connects.” Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz band lends tuba to the track. Davis expanded on the political ideas of the song in a November 2015 interview on The Open Mind.
The other tracks are a mix of covers and originals, and none continue the political theme. The covers include Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” sung in a gravely, elderly tone that turns the song a bit creepy. This is one of the somewhat over-produced tracks, with Hammond organ and lots of string playing, but Davis’s vocals cut through despite the decrepit tone. Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” features Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and there is also an impressive electric guitar solo by John Plantania. “Cool Drink of Water” features a soulful Christopher James on mandolin. “Bumblebee Blues” recalls the art of the double-entendre in Delta blues—“Stung you early this morning, you been lookin’ for me all day long”—while John Plantania contributes a noteworthy bottleneck guitar solo. At times the song proceeds as a straight-up blues classic but takes a rather psychedelic turn in the guitar tracks. If you stay with Davis you will be rewarded with Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” interpreted as a reggae song in honor of Bob Marley. It works amazingly well in a reggae rhythm.
Davis’s own songs range from intimate to tastefully raucus. “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away so Long” expresses the sentiment of his hero, Pete Seeger, who regretted not spending more time with his wife, and Davis’s choked-up vocals portray his own feelings as a well-traveled musician leaving loved ones at home. Back-up singers give the song a Seeger-esque/Peter, Paul and Mary nostalgia that tugs at the heartstrings. “Taking Just a Little Bit of Time” reminds listeners to put down the phone and go fishing once in a while. “She Just Wants to be Loved” is a distressing portrait of a lonely lady (imagine Bob Dylan retooling “Eleanor Rigby”), with Hammond organ and backing singers contributing to a rather heavy sound, but they help to keep the six minute song from becoming maudlin. In contrast, the sweet finger-picking backdrop of “Maybe I’ll Go” belies the frustrated lyric about a man driven to distraction by a woman’s moody ways. “Blackberry Kisses” is an acoustic breath of fresh air, but likely won’t satisfy Davis’s blues-loving fans. Banjo and acoustic bass are the stark accompaniment to Davis’s rough vocals, but as a fan of Garrison Keillor, Davis might be expected to wax poetic in an acoustic drawl: “Do they taste like sunshine? Or do they taste like moonshine? (I really hope moonshine!)”
“Shake it Like Sonny Did” is dedicated to Piedmont blues harmonica player Sonny Terry, another of Davis’s influences. Chopsticks striking a table and a bass drum provide the rhythmic backing for the song, with Peck Wallace’s banjo and Davis’s harmonica filling out the instrumentals. For fans of Davis’s stripped-down homespun blues, this track will likely hold the most appeal.
Kokomo Kidd is a departure from Davis’s most recent album, Juba Dance. Though at times Davis seems too enamored of the producer role, the songs are compelling and interesting even when a bit unexpected.
For years now we have been using the term “smooth jazz.” So, are we ready to consider “smooth blues” a musical genre?
If so, Keb’ Mo’s latest release, That Hot Pink Blues Album, would be a textbook for the style. The two-disc live album features performances from the guitarist/singer/songwriter’s 2015 tour and a retrospective of songs from the three-time Grammy Award winner’s twenty-one years in the music industry. But, more importantly, That Hot Pink Blues Album shows how Keb’ Mo’s blues foundation has merged with R&B, jazz, Americana, and pop to create an accessible, polished, and perhaps even androgynous blues style. I mean, seriously, when was the last time we associated the color hot pink—barring Pink Anderson’s name—with the blues?
The foundation for Keb’ Mo’s style is optimism. His blues are not about heartache or poverty, but ring with positive messages of good-times and lookin’ on the bright side. On songs like “Life is Beautiful,” the musician sounds like a crooner—the song’s string arrangement, bouncy rhythm, and care-free lyrics would sound appropriate if performed by Rod Stewart (The Great American Songbook version of the rock-turned-adult contemporary vocalist, not the Jeff Beck Group one) or Barry Manilow. Keb’ Mo’ is at his best when his positivity incorporates a little grit, as heard on “Dangerous Mood” or “The Worst is Yet to Come.”
Technically, That Hot Pink Blues Album highlights Keb’ Mo’s talent as a songwriter and guitarist. He authored or co-authored all sixteen of the album’s tracks and the live album setting gives his guitar playing room to shine. The album also benefits from the instrumental prowess of Michael Hicks, whose keyboard and organ playing lend a variety of rich textures to Keb’ Mo’s straight-forward compositions.
For local Bloomington readers, That Hot Pink Blues Album, is a great teaser for Keb’ Mo’s upcoming performance at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on April 21 at 8:00pm. There, attendees can hear the songs that comprise Keb’ Mo’s latest release and hear for themselves if the era of “smooth blues” is among us.
If you are aware of the history of Chicago Blues than you have likely heard of Alligator Records. If you are not a connoisseur of the history of Chicago’s blues labels, it is useful to know how this label came to be.
One of the most important early Chicago blues labels was Chess Records, which was started by two Polish immigrant brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, in 1950. The Chess roster featured some of the most important blues acts of the day, including Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Koko Taylor. In 1969 the brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape.
In 1971, a 23-year old blues fanatic named Bruce Iglauer started the independent label Alligator Records, which quickly became a magnet for former members of the Chess stable. The first artist that Iglauer signed and released on his new label was Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. In 2011 Alligator Records celebrated its 40th anniversary, releasing The Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection.
Today the label still attracts some of the most innovative contemporary blues artists as well as maintaining a focus on select early blues pioneers, such as Blind Willie Johnson, who was born in 1902. He was not born blind–one oft-cited story maintains that he lost his sight when his angry stepmother threw lye in his face. In spite of going completely blind, by age 7 Johnson started to teach himself how to play the guitar. Willie had a strong passion for both blues and gospel music. After spending some years singing on the streets of Martin, Texas; he moved to Dallas where he met his wife Angeline. He began his recording career around 1927 and only recorded until 1935. Johnson died in abject poverty.
Tom Waits’s rendering of the album’s first track “The Soul of a Man” will not disappoint fans of the gravelly-voiced musician, songwriter, and actor. Waits brings in his own deep understanding of blues and gospel music in his minimalist soulful rendition. Lucinda Williams’s performance on the album’s second track, “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” hearkens back to older blues styles, complete with compelling bottleneck slide guitar darting in and around the song’s vocal melody. One of my personal favorite tracks is “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” performed by husband and wife Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi. This cut features a down-home feel propelled by Truck’s masterful slide playing and fantastic call-and-response between Tedeschi and a group of backing vocalists. The duo’s impassioned performance keeps the very old song fresh. Cowboy Junkies’ performance of “Jesus is Coming Soon” gives the song’s apocalyptic lyrics an appropriately haunting treatment. This group’s alt-country sensibility plays very well on this song. “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” offers a moment of transcendence, transporting this reviewer to another place. Sinead O’Connor’s sweet and sensitive vocal treatment of this song gives the its aspirational lyrics an inspiring emotional thrust.
This 11 song album is definitely worth a listen. While–due in large part to the diversity of the artists interpreting Johnson’s repertoire–there may be a few songs that might not at first blush be your cup of tea, if you listen with an open mind you’ll probably discover some real gems.
The Magic Sam Blues Band performed quintessential Chicago blues, from the classic rhythm section led by Odie Payne, Jr. to the tenor saxophone played by Eddie Shaw. Now their 1969 album, Black Magic, has been remastered from the original analog tapes and reissued by Delmark as a deluxe edition, including two previously unissued tracks and 16 pages of liner notes, beautifully illustrated with never-before-seen photos from the 1968 recording sessions.
Black Magic includes irresistible blues jams such as “I Just Want A Little Bit” and “Keep On Loving Me, Baby,” as well as more funk-inspired ballads like “You Better Stop.” No matter the style, every song is full of the soul and top notch musicianship of the 1960s Chicago west side blues scene. This was the last studio album recorded by Magic Sam, released just days after his premature death at the age of 32, Black Magic’s endurance stands as a testament to his legacy in the world of blues music.
The Andy T-Nick Nixon Band combines the flavors of Nashville and Southern California, a partnership created when guitarist Andy Talamantez moved from the West Coast to Tennessee and hooked up with Nashville veteran James T. “Nick” Nixon, whose voice was honed in the church and clarified by opera, allowing him to both growl and croon his way through soul, rock and blues. Now they tour the country in their 1953 GMC Greyhound bus, spreading their brand of blues far and wide. On their third album, Numbers Man, they are joined by their regular band—Larry van Loon on Hammond B3, Jim Klingler on drums, and Sam Persons on bass—plus several special guests.
Kicking off with an original song on a familiar theme, “Shut the Front Door” features the dueling guitars of Andy T and Anson Funderburgh, while Nixon gives a rollicking account of a man left to booze and drugs after his baby leaves. On the title track, The Texas Horns fire on all cylinders, adding some rhythm and blues to the mix while extended solos are given to the guitars and B3. “Blue Monday” is a satisfying slow burner, with Nixon tearing into the vocals on the front end, but leaving plenty of space to showcase the band. Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds) picks up the harmonica on “Sundown Blues,” while “Tall Drink of Water” and “What Went Wrong” have a distinct zydeco flavor courtesy of Zeke Jarmon on rubboard and Christian Dozzler on accordion. Pulling out all of the stops on “This World We Live In,” the band is joined by Kevin McKendree on B3, Steve F’dor on piano, Rick Reed on bass, and Denise Fraser on drums. The socially conscious song, penned by Andy T, draws on themes of war, religion and intolerance, bringing the album to a close on a blaze of searing guitar solos underlying Nixon’s vocals mourning the state of the world with an element of despair.
Over the course of 14 tracks, Numbers Man offers a wide range of styles from traditional blues to rhythm and blues, jump blues, zydeco, and even a touch of jazz—performed with an exceedingly high level of musicianship led by the electrifying guitar of Andy T.
The blues can make one dance, shout, and cry, but it is not often that they make one relax. This is exactly what Steve Howell accomplishes on Friend Like Me, his fifth release. Joined by his band, The Mighty Men, Howell revisits songs by the likes of Bukka White, Charly Patton, the Grateful Dead, and many more. These artists have been Howell’s collaborators, mentors, and inspirations throughout his 40-year career, which is most associated with his time in Shreveport, Louisiana and Texarkana, Texas. Friend Like Me is a mature and laid-back release, more focused on tasteful performances and musicianship than an animated delivery of the acoustic blues.
Linsey Alexander, better known as the “Hoochie Man,” is a veteran Chicago blues musician. His most recent Delmark release, Come Back Baby, features what Alexander does best: soulful guitar playing, solid vocals, and no-nonsense lyrics. Alexander reflects on the past (“Things Done Changed”), shows he still loves to have a good time (“Call My Wife”), pays homage to the blues tradition (“I Can’t Quit You Baby”), and Chicago winters (“Snowing in Chicago”).
The result is a fun, and at times naughty, release. Come Back Baby breaks no rules, but is a confident statement from an elder of the blues.
The joy of Wolf Records International’s release of a new Sonny Terry compilation is that the harmonica player and singer’s talent is allowed to take center stage. While his later recordings were mostly in a duo format with guitarist Brownie McGhee—who does appear on the album—His 21 Best showcases many of Terry’s recordings released before World War II. The result is a powerful document of the musician’s playful, sometimes falsetto, voice and his mastery of the blues harmonica.
Terry could make the harmonica be an instrument for rhythmic accompaniment, a stand-in for the human voice, and a ready-to-lead melodic instrument for improvisation. A range of collaborators—including Woody Guthrie, Blind Boy Fuller, Washboard Sam, and the aforementioned McGhee—augment this release, to mixed results. The album feels, at times, to be thrown together and under-curated. Many cuts seem to be studio outtakes that would make the diehard fan ecstatic, but leave new listeners underwhelmed. Despite this weakness, the album serves as a strong reminder of just how much Terry’s influence can be heard in blues harmonica players to this day.
Sometimes, a change of scenery can do wonders for a project. Take Danielle Nicole’s newest release, Wolf Den, for example. The singer is a proud St. Louis native, but for this album she traveled south to New Orleans. Teaming up with veteran producer and guitarist, Anders Osbourne, and enlisting some of the best session musicians in the city’s blues, roots, and funk scenes, Wolf Den achieves a swampy New Orleans-sound without losing Nicole’s preferred aesthetic of the “groove blues.” Her songs are both seedy and seductive. The album’s title track evokes a bar where sin runs amok and its clients are up to no-good, but, somehow, it still it remains irresistible.
Equally irresistible is Nicole’s musicality. The artist has proven herself as both a singer and bass player—she won the Blues Foundation’s 2014 Blues Music Award for Best Instrumentalist on Bass—and now, with Wolf Den, has also proved that her artistic turns can lead to fruitful new terrain.
Legendary blues musician Bobby Rush recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, and his longevity in the industry is now celebrated in this compilation from Omnivore, covering 50 years of his recording career. Though born in Mississippi, Rush is closely associated the Chicago blues scene, where he relocated in the 1950s and performed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf. This nicely packaged box set, titled after Rush’s most famous song, begins in 1964 with his early solo recordings and concludes nearly 100 tracks later with songs from his 2004 album FolkFunk, featuring guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Rush reinvented himself over the years, remaining relevant to younger generations through collabs with rock, soul, funk and rap artists. In the last decade he’s continued to release albums on a nearly annual basis, while earning a slew of awards and Grammy nominations. Chicken Heads serves as a fine tribute to the versatility of the “Dean of the Blues,” with remastering and audio restoration by Michael Graves, and a 32-page, full-color booklet with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Over the past year we’ve covered some significant reissues from Arthur Lee & Love, the groundbreaking integrated rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 (see our reviews of Black Beauty and the band’s final album, Reel-to-Real). Now Rockbeat Records has assembled a 4-CD box set featuring 61 tracks recorded live over three decades, featuring Love as well as Arthur Lee performing with various backing bands, including several tracks recorded just prior to his death in 2006. We don’t have our hands on a copy of this nicely packaged compilation yet, but it will certainly be added to our collection. However, if you’re not a hardcore fan, we suggest you explore the studio albums first, beginning with Love’s groundbreaking third album from 1967, Forever Changes.
Formats: 11-LP Box set (standard or collector’s edition)
Release date: September 25th, 2015
One of the most handsomely packaged box sets this season is Bob Marley & The Wailers’ The Complete Island Recordings, released in celebration of Marley’s 70th birthday. Included are the nine studio albums recorded for Island plus two live releases (Live and Babylon By Bus). The numbered “collector’s edition,” which will set you back $650, features eleven 180g vinyl discs packaged in a velvet lined silver metal “zippo lighter” case, with bonus slipmat, photographs, and download code voucher. Since there’s no accompanying book, it’s difficult to justify the high price of the collector’s edition, so if your pockets aren’t quite so deep you might wish to consider the more moderately priced ($235) standard edition. Or wait until the albums are reissued individually (apparently in September 2016).
For the calendar-loving, pre-war blues addict in your life, can there be any better holiday gift than John Tefteller’s annual Blues Images calendar? The 2016 calendar/CD combo offers an excellent track line up, paired with (as usual) a year’s worth of beautiful historic images. All-time blues classics are mixed with rare and long thought-to-be-lost recordings. Hattie Hyde (aka Hattie Hart) and members of the Memphis Jug Band ask “all you women” a question about love in “Special Question Blues” and go to town on a long-lost version of the classic “T & N O Blues.” Also reissued for the first time are Jaydee Short’s renditions of “Tar Road Blues” and “Flaggin’ It To Georgia,” with Short’s fabulous guitar and voice cutting through what must have been a challenging digitization and remastering process.
Here’s an example of a month from the calendar:
Speaking of transfers and remastering, the tracks on this year’s Blues Images release were digitally restored by a team working on the upcoming AMERICAN EPIC documentary – a four part documentary on rural American music from the 1920s and 1930s that will air on PBS and the BBC in early 2016. As stated by Blues Images, the AMERICAN EPIC team used “original, vintage 1920’s studio playback equipment, combined with highly specialized ultra-modern technology” to digitally restore these Blues 78s.
It’s not too late to order your copy of the 2016 Blues Images calendar and CD from BluesImages.com. If you hurry, it could make it in time for the holidays, giving that blues loving gift recipient of yours time to sit back and listen to “Atlanta Moan,” “Georgia Cake Walk,” “My Monday Blues,” “The High Cost of Sin,” “Vampire Women,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and more through the New Year Holiday and well into 2016!
At the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, Shemekia Copeland was crowned “Queen of the Blues.” A title held by the deceased Koko Taylor, the award solidified Copeland’s place at the top of the blues hierarchy. Yet, anyone who follows the genre will know that Copeland is no newcomer to the music—the vocalist was literally born into the genre.
The daughter of blues guitarist and singer, Johnny Copeland, Shemekia began her professional career at the age of sixteen, dazzling audiences with her commanding voice. At 19, she released the first of her six albums on Alligator Records. Most recently, Copeland was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. The singer has been, and continues to be, a blues insider.
Copeland’s confident new album, Outskirts of Love, offers what a blues listener might expect from an insider. It speaks of isolated places, one-time encounters with love, and hard-knock tales: all familiar territory in this genre. The album includes a song by the legendary Albert King, a cover of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and guest appearances by blues mainstays Alvin Youngblood Hart, Robert Randolph, and Billy F. Gibbons. The instrumentation is guitar-heavy, and the 12-bar blues form weaves quietly and explicitly through the albums twelve songs. Yet, Outskirts of Love shines where Copeland begins to push the traditional boundaries of the genre.
“Devil’s Hand” melds African rhythmic sensibilities with the talented guitar work of Will Kimbrough and Oliver Wood, creating a sound reminiscent of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder. Copeland’s powerful voice never lets us forget that this is the blues, just more cosmopolitan in its aesthetics. “Long as I Can See the Light” reminds us that R&B has its roots in Copeland’s genre of choice, while showing her voice to be just as capable when it assumes a slower pace. A third of the album was written by Copeland’s long-term manager and the executive producer of Outskirts of Love, John Hahn. The aforementioned Oliver Wood produced the album, showing that he is as comfortable behind the mixing board as he is with a guitar in his hands.
In sum, Outskirts of Love is a reminder why Shemekia Copeland is the “Queen of the Blues”: her powerful voice, strong musical partners, and creative license with the genre reaffirm her reign.
Mississippi-born musician Zac Harmon is a triple threat whose versatility as a singer-songwriter, guitarist and organist is on full display in his latest release Right Man, Right Now. A blend of traditional and original songs penned primarily by Harmon, the album features eleven supremely funky tracks that draw from blues, R&B and rock. This complexity is accomplished through a large compliment of assisting musicians. In addition to Harmon and his band (Buthel on bass guitar, Cedric Goodman on drums, and Cory Lacy on keyboards), he’s added a dozen top studio musicians including Jimmy Z on harp and sax, BR Millon and Gregg Wright on guitar, and the late James “Hot Dog” Lewis on keyboards. And that’s not all. Lucky Peterson joins Harmon on three outstanding tracks: the opening party song “Raising Hell,” the emotionally charged slow burner “Stand Your Ground” (“You shoot me down with no reason / just to stand your ground”), and “Hump in Your Back,” which also features a kicking horn section and an extensive guitar solo by Bobby Rush. Here’s the first single from the album, “Long Live the Blues”:
In addition to five dueling guitarists and top notch backing musicians who really dig deep into the groove, Right Man, Right Now is also made exceptional by Harmon’s vocals. Not only can he sing the blues, but he can croon with the power and conviction of Marvin Gaye, and get down and dirty in the lower register. This album is highly recommended for fans of contemporary blues.
The Reverend Shawn Amos, a self-proclaimed blues preacher, is on a mission to spread his “secular gospel” to all, proselytizing “to continue, extend and spread the tradition of the blues with unsurpassed fervor.” His epiphany came after reading Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy, and soon after the “born again” film school student was devoted to playing the blues. Amos then spent a couple of decades in the music business as an A&R executive, following in the footsteps of his father, Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for the William Morris Agency (though he’s better known for his Famous Amos chocolate chip cookie empire). More recently, Shawn founded the digital media company Freshwire, but he’s also found time to release a few of his own albums along the way. His latest project, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, is his second blues album and features ten original songs penned by Amos plus two covers. Following is the album trailer:
In order to inject a bit of Southern flavor, Amos chose to record in Shreveport, Louisiana at the studio of Brady Blade, who’s featured on drums and percussion, along with other locals including Chris “Doctor” Roberts on electric guitar, Chris Thomas on bass, Hassell Teekell on B3, Lewis Smith on trumpet, and the gospel ensemble Forever Jones on backing vocals. Joining this ensemble from the West Coast is Mindi Abair on sax, Anthony Marinelli on keyboards, and of course Amos on vocals and harmonica. If you recognize any of these names you’ll no doubt realize there’s a very high level of musicianship involved, built on a strong foundation of jazz and R&B, which allows for lots of twists and turns throughout.
On the introductory track, “Days of Depression,” Amos pulls out all the stops. Channeling the pre-war blues, the song grinds forward in the manner of a work song, reinforced by The Blind Boys of Alabama who make a guest appearance on backup vocals. Jumping forward a few decades, “Brand New Man” marries a funky R&B horn section with hard rocking guitars. By the third track, “Boogie,” the album settles more firmly into contemporary blues, punctuated by Amos’ wailing harp with vocalist Missy Andersen as the featured guest. The mood switches up again on “Will You Be Mine,” a grooving, reverb soaked song that’s more roots rock than blues, and one of the best tracks on the album. Other highlights include “You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I Get Home)” and the Jimmy Reed cover “Bright Lights, Big City” (or “The Hollywood Blues”) that features a wailing sax solo by Abair. Amos takes us to church on the closing song, “The Last Days I’m Loving You,” with prominence given to the Hammond B3 and Forever Jones, fading out through the refrain “you taught me one thing I need to learn, this is the last day I’m loving you.”
On The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, the good Rev proves he’s no jack-leg blues preacher, but the real deal – well-schooled in both traditional and contemporary styles. With engaging songs, soulful back-up singers, and a honking R&B horn section, he delivers a blues sermon about love and life lessons that will lift your spirits and empower your body to get down and groove to the music.