Posts filed under 'Blues'

Ayron Jones – Audio Paint Job

Avron Jones
Title: Audio Paint Job

Artist: Ayron Jones

Label: Sunyata

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

When Seattle power rock trio Ayron Jones and The Way burst onto the scene in 2013 with their Sir Mix-a-Lot produced debut album The Dream, the band was suddenly propelled from playing Northwest dive bars to opening for B.B. King, Robert Cray, Run-DMC and Living Colour. Now, four years later, Jones has new personnel in his band as well as a new producer— ethnomusicologist and drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Walking Papers).  His sophomore album, Audio Paint Job, is more of a solo project, with Jones credited as singer/songwriter across the 14 tracks mixed by Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden). As for The Way, current band members Ehssan Karimi (drums) and Bob Lovelace (bass) are featured prominently but not exclusively, while former members—bassist DeAndre Enrico and metal drummer Kai Van De Pitte—also make an appearance. Barrett Martin adds percussion to the majority of the tracks, with occasional forays on the Wurlitzer, vibraphone, piano and backing vocals.

On Jones’s latest project, the Hendrix-inspired guitarist draws upon other iconic elements of the Seattle music scene past and present, including grunge and punk, seasoned with a heavy dose of soul and a pinch of hip hop.  As for the album title, Jones explains: “Audio Paint Job . . . has multiple meanings for me. It’s a story about my mental and spiritual transformation through music.” Overcoming obstacles is a constant theme throughout, as Jones’s songs chronicle his personal struggles: life in the spotlight, a divorce, and the loss of a family member from drug and alcohol addiction.

YouTube Preview Image

The album kicks off with the powerful rock ballad “Take Me Away,” which successfully incorporates a surprisingly diverse sonic palette. Opening with the percussive sound of a typewriter “performed” by Barrett Martin like a modern day Ernie Pyle, the song progresses through a guitar duel between Jones and Lovelace, scratching by DJ Indica Jones, and a lush string arrangement courtesy of Andrew Joslyn. On the edgy ballad “It’s Over When It’s Over,” Jones switches to a 12-string acoustic guitar accompanied by vibes and strings, reinforcing the melancholy mood.

An obvious favorite, the band’s theme song “Boys From the Pudget Sound” features original members Van De Pitte and Enrico. This ode to Jones’s hometown perfectly encapsulates the Seattle vibe, as he disses transplants to the city: “you say you love stormy weather, but child you can’t stand the rain.” The hard rocking track showcases Jones’s guitar chops, while soaring “opera vocals” by Johnathan Wright and percussion by Barrett Martin add to the texture.

B Anthony Nelson (People Zoo Art Works) offered to produce the video for the album’s first single, “Love is the Answer,” which Jones wrote as a message song for turbulent times: “A reminder that while we all experience and perceive different things in our daily lives, we are made of the earth, that’s made of the sun, that’s made of our galaxy, that’s made of the universe. We are the universes. If we want to see a change in our lives, or in the lives of others we must become and project what we wish to see in our world. Love is The Answer” (Paste, 2017).

Additional highlights include the powerful protest song “Stand Up (Take Your Power Back)” and “Lay Your Body Down,” the latter featuring extended guitar solos with psychedelic effects. The album concludes with the slow burner “Yesterday,” which harkens back to ‘60s soul with Joe Doria taking us to church on the B3.

Though already well-known on the West Coast, Ayron Jones will no doubt increase his fan base with his latest album. Audio Paint Job explores a wide range of styles, delivering a sound that’s steeped in the past yet acutely attuned to the present, both musically and thematically. Black rock returns to Seattle!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 1st, 2017

Brownout – Over the Covers

Brownout Over the Covers
Title: Over the Covers

Artist: Brownout

Label: Fat Beats

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

Over five years have passed since Brownout’s last official release of original music, Oozy (2012). Those familiar with the band likely remember the widespread acclaim during this period for the Brown Sabbath project, featuring Brownout’s own Latin funk twist on Black Sabbath covers. Collaborations with fellow Austin, TX musical comrades such as Black Angels vocalist Alex Maas and Ghostland Observatory vocalist Aaron Behrens resulted in two Brown Sabbath albums and multiple tours over the last four years.

While touring behind the Brown Sabbath project and moonlighting as alter ego Grammy Award-winning Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma, Brownout recorded their new four-song EP Over the Covers everywhere from the Bay Area to central Texas. The songs on Over the Covers—inspired by African funk (“You Don’t Have to Fall”), ‘60s and ‘70s rock, and New Jack Swing (“Things You Say”)—are at once psychedelic and funky, embracing the experience of Brown Sabbath but melding it with the band’s hallmark sounds.

Brownout’s body of work preceding Brown Sabbath contained some of the best funk and rock to come out of Austin over the last decade, so it’s great to see them back in writing mode and focused on their own material. Over the Covers represents a shift in the band’s approach, pairing their instrumental arrangement acumen with a new lyrical direction.

Alex Marrero joins the band as lead singer and lyricist for this release.  Says Marrero, “For me it was all about the process of collaboration and starting to fit into Brownout as an actual new member vs. being the front man for Brown Sabbath. Part of that was tackling the songwriting. If there is an underlying theme in all of these songs it would be symptoms of the human condition, which anyone can relate to.”

Reviewed by William Vanden Dries

View review August 1st, 2017

Summer of ’96 – Splendid Things Gone Awry

Splendid Things
Title: Splendid Things Gone Awry

Artist: Summer of ’96

Label: Unsociable Music/RED

Format: MP3

Release date: July 21, 2017

 

 

In case you’re still searching for the perfect summer soundtrack, look no further than this new project from Atlanta based singer/songwriter Lonnee Stevens (aka Alonzo Stevenson) and Philadelphia-based composer/producer Antman Wonder, collectively performing as the Summer of ’96. Their group name references the watershed year for hip hop that produced landmark albums by Nas, The Fugees, OutKast, The Roots, 2Pac, and A Tribe Called Quest, among others.

Hearkening back to the golden era of hip hop, the duo use live instrumentation to weave a seductive blend of jazz, soul and rap to create a contemporary soundscape. Stressing that no samples were used in the making of this album, Antman created the original compositions which were then revised and expanded upon by Stevens. Standout tracks include the provocative “Not a Rich Man” featuring Royce 5’9, the harmonically complex “Mahogony Blue” featuring vocals by Lonnee and Teedra Moses, the multi-layered “All That Jazz,” and the cinematic “Wondersong” that’s awash with flute and strings.

Bowing out with the title track featuring Bill Kahler on sax, Antman and Stevens provide a satisfying conclusion to Splendid Things Gone Awry by showcasing their multitude of musical influences.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

View review August 1st, 2017

July 2017 Releases of Note

Following are additional albums released during July 2017—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves.

 Blues, Folk, Country
Jimmy Reed: Mr. Luck Complete Vee-Jay Singles (Craft)
King James & The Special Men: Act Like You Know (Special Man)
Mighty Joe Young: Live From North Side of Chicago (RockBeat)
Various: Worried Blues series (Fat Possum)

Funk, Rock, Pop, Electronic
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup: Rocks (Bear Family)
Kevin Saunderson: Heavenly Revisited (KMS)
Lafa Taylor & Aabo: Feel (Mixto)
Polyseeds: Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope)
Taveeta: Resurrection (Gladiator)
Toro Y Moi: Boo Boo (Carpark )

Gospel, Gospel Rap, CCM
Anita Wilson:  Sunday Song (eOne Music Nashville)
Anthony Brown & Group Therapy: A Long Way From Sunday (Tyscot)
Bill Moss Jr : Songbook of Praise & Worship (Salathiel)
Gene Moore: The Future (Motown Gospel)
Le’Andria Johnson: Bigger Than Me  (Verity)
Ricky McDuffie & The Family: He Changed Me (Ophirgospel)
Sho Baraka: The Narrative, Vol. 2: Pianos & Politics (Columbia)
Tauren Wells:  Hills and Valleys (Reunion)

Jazz
Ahmad Jamal : Marseille (Jazz Village)
Bryant/Fabian/Marsalis : Do For You? (Cap)
Charles Lloyd New Quartet: Passin’ Thru (Blue Note)
Cyrus Chestnut: There’s A Sweet, Sweet Spirit (HighNote)
Dezron Douglas Quartet: Soul Jazz
Douyé: Daddy Said So (Rhombus)
Eric Gale: The Definitive Collection  (Robinsongs)
Eric Roberson: Wind  (Blue Erro Soul)
Gary Bartz Ntu Troop: Harlem Bush Music (reissue) (Jazz Dispensary)
Gerald Beckett: Oblivion (Summit)
Gerald Cannon: Combinations (Woodneck)
Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane: Elements (reissue) (Jazz Dispensary)
Russell Malone: Time for the Dancers (Highnote)
Stanton Moore: With You In Mind Songs of Allen Toussaint (Cool Green)
Yolanda Brown: Love Politics War (Black Grape)

R&B, Soul
Alfa Anderson: Music from My Heart (digital)
Aretha Franklin: Divas Live (MVD Visual)
Don’t Miss A Beat: My Destiny (digital)
Eddy Grant: Reparation (Ice)
Esther Phillips: Beautiful Friendship Kudu Anth. 1971-76 (SoulMusic)
Force M.D.’S:  Our Favorite Joints (Goldenlane)
Harvey Mason: Sho Nuff Groovin You: Arista Anthology   (BBR)
Jimmy Reed: Mr. Luck Complete Vee-Jay Singles (Craft)
LeVert: Family Reunion The Anthology (SoulMusic )
Mr. Jukes: God First (Alamo/Interscope)
Royce Lovett: Love & Other Dreams (Motown Gospel)
Sam Frazier, Jr.: Take Me Back (Big Legal Mess)
Sevyn Streeter: Girl Disrupted  (Atlantic)
Ultra Naté & Quentin Harris: Black Stereo Faith (Peace Bisquit)
Various: Complete Loma Singles Vol. 1 (Real Gone Music)
Various: Foxy Brown OST (expanded) (Motown)

Rap, Hip Hop
Aminé: Good For You Explicit (Republic)
Decompoze: Maintain Composure (Orchestrated Prods)
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Island)
DJ Harrison : HazyMoods (Stones Throw)
DJ Krush : Kakusei
Gensu Dean & Wise Intelligent: Game of Death (Mello Music)
Illa J: Home (Jakarta Records)
Issa: 21 Savage (Epic)
Madchild: The Darkest Hour  (Battle Axe)
Malik Turner:  Invisible Freedom  (Osceola Music Group)
Marquee: Femme Fatale (Marvel/Shinigamie)
Marty Baller: Baller Nation (916% Ent.)
Meek Mill: Wins & Losses (Atlantic)
Philthy Rich: Neighborhood Supastar 4 (dig.) (Empire)
SahBabii : S.A.N.D.A.S. (Warner Bros.)
Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)
Snoop Dogg: Neva Left (Empire)
Stalley: New Wave (Real Talk Ent.)
The Doppelgangaz: Dopp Hopp  (Groggy Pack Ent.)
Therman, Prod. Roc Marciano: Sabbath (Hardtimes)
Trae tha Truth: Tha Truth, Pt. 3 (ABN)
Tyler, The Creator: Flower Boy (Sony)
Vic Mensa: The Autobiography (Roc Nation)
Wizkid: Sounds From the Other Side (Starboy/RCA Records)

Reggae
Chronixx: Chronology (Virgin)
Damian Marley: Stony Hill (Island)
Delroy Wilson: Here Comes the Heartaches  (Kingston Sound)
Various: Treasure Isle Story: The Soul of Jamaica (Sanctuary)

World
Rio Mira: Marimba Del Pacifico (Aya Records)
Sibusile Xaba: S/T (Mushroom Half Hour)
XOA: Mass/Mon Ecole EP (Soundway)
Jupiter & Okwess : Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat)

View review August 1st, 2017

American Epic/The American Epic Sessions

American Epic Blue-ray

Title: American Epic / The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: PBS

Formats: DVD, BluRay

Release date: May 16, 2017

 

American Epic 2

Title: American Epic (The Collection)

Artist: Various

Label: Legacy/Sony

Format: 5CD box set, MP3, Streaming

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

 

American Epic The Sessions

Title: The American Epic Sessions

Artist: Various

Label: Lo-Max/Columbia

Formats: 2CD, Vinyl, MP3, Streaming

Release date: June 9, 2017

 

 

First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.

In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.

The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.

A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.

The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.

Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.

Tom Fine pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.

For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.

The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.

Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.

Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

 

View review July 7th, 2017

Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi – Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie Train
Title: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train: A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Artist: Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: March 24, 2017

 

Blowing past the mouthpiece and producing train whistle-like chords, Fabrizio Poggi masterfully creates a sonic image on his harmonica of a train blowing steam as Guy Davis boldly strums on his acoustic guitar during the introduction of “Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train.” This original composition by Davis pays homage to the great mid-twentieth century Piedmont blues duo, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee drew inspiration from early folk-blues figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Josh White, and John Lee Hooker and were also associated with the left-wing folk movement.

This 12-track album of acoustic blues studio sessions was recorded live in Milan, Italy and features songs written by McGee and Terry including “Walk On,” “Evil Hearted Me,” and “Hooray, Hooray These Women are Killing Me.” Davis and Poggi also cover a number of blues greats from Jimmy Oden’s “Going Down Slow” to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” as well as familiar traditional songs like “Take This Hammer,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Midnight Special.”

YouTube Preview Image

Special attention should be paid to the technical musical nuances during these live recordings. Of particular interest is Poggi’s emulation of Terry’s whooping and hollering between harmonica riffs for an added soulful effect. As well, Davis embraces the storytelling tradition in his performances inspired by the work of Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy.

After a music career spanning over two decades, this commemorative album marks Guy Davis’ 14th recording. Reflecting on this latest work, Davis explains, “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on. This musical opus was produced by Fabrizio Poggi. It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favorites.”

Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train is certainly worth giving a listen, not only to hear expertly executed blues techniques on the harmonica and acoustic guitar, but to witness an excellent and historically significant collection of standard blues and traditional music.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review July 7th, 2017

Alberta Hunter – The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Hunter
Title: The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40

Artist: Alberta Hunter

Label: Acrobat Music

Format: CD, MP3, streaming (US: CD only)

Release Date: February 3, 2017

 

 

The familiar Alberta Hunter that emerged from two decades of retirement in 1977 was a very different artist from the Alberta Hunter that helped keep the race record market afloat in the early 1920s. Audiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s that flocked to Hunter’s latter day performances at the Cookery knew that she was a legend, but they were enthralled with her energy, experience, wit and mastery of phrasing. Such fans didn’t necessarily feel the need to revisit the ancient recordings that made Hunter a name. But there is every reason to investigate them, as Alberta Hunter wasn’t just another Vaudeville blues singer competing for parity with Clara Smith, Lucille Hegamin, Ethel Waters and, ultimately, Bessie Smith. She was a bellwether of a wide range of American popular song—ballads, blues, jazz, pop tunes and even purely sentimental fare.

In the mid-1990s the Document label in Austria issued four single discs comprising the better part of Alberta Hunter’s 78 rpm legacy, adding a fifth more recently, in addition to reissuing single Hunter items on compilations. Acrobat’s The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 skims the Document issues, eliminating alternate takes and adding 11 of the 12 sides Hunter made in the UK with Jack Jackson’s Orchestra in 1934. The Jack Jackson sessions are declared “of no Blues interest” in older editions of the Godrich & Dixon Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1943, but nevertheless contain some Alberta Hunter performances of considerable merit.

Hunter’s early output makes for a fascinating case study in how a voice evolved side by side with developments in recording technology and currents in entertainment. Hunter made her recording debut at Black Swan in May 1921, perhaps the same day as Ethel Waters, and immediately produced a breakout hit, “How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long?” though it would take her some time to second it. Hunter’s first great record, “Don’t Pan Me,” belongs to her third session and her first genuinely great blues performance, “Chirpin’ the Blues,” to her ninth. Some of the earliest material must’ve been a trial to record; a wayward clarinet in the first verse of “After All These Years” steps on every note Hunter is trying to sing, and in another spot an over-eager cornetist literally drowns her out. But in all of these sessions Hunter braved the storm with special enthusiasm, and that confidence eventually blossoms into mastery. Her early style once formed, to this reviewer, is addictive; Hunter’s rapid, assertive patter mixed with glissandi, gulps (an effect not lost on Libby Holman) and a quick, tasty vibrato which creeps into places where you’d never expect to find it, used in incredible variety.

Hunter also emphasizes clear diction, dropping out words rather than smearing them, and this may be of lesser appeal to listeners attuned to earthier voices like Ma Rainey. But Hunter wrote many of the songs that she recorded, and clearly wanted the words to be understood. With her first true electricals at Victor—the miserable sounding Okeh “TruTone” discs, though partly electric, do not count—Hunter is at some pains to avoid belting it out as she had for acoustics. By her 1927 session with Fats Waller—arguably her best accompanist overall—Hunter had electrical recording figured out, and began to exploit new aspects of her singing; lower registers and intimacy. It’s a shame that at this point her recording activity slows to a trickle, though that is in keeping with the fortunes of Vaudeville blues women on record across the board in the late ‘20s; Hunter had better luck in this respect than some. By the time of the Jack Jacksons, she’d had some singing lessons and was now rolling her “r’s,” watching her breath control and sustaining a longer line. Perhaps the effect is less “bluesy,” but these measures no doubt helped to preserve her voice and to make Hunter’s late career possible.

There are no production credits in the package, but it appears that the ‘naked’ material from Document has been put through some additional noise reduction processing. This helps in some cases, and is largely invisible, but is not so in Hunter’s first electrical session with pianist Mike Jackson. And there are places where really nothing can be done; the opening of “Vamping Brown” is musically unintelligible, with Fletcher Henderson’s piano registering only as noise from the badly worn, original 78 rpm disc. The Document issues were assembled from tapes canvassed from collectors 20 or more years ago, and in some cases it is possible that better specimens have been found in the interim; certainly there has got to be a better copy in this world of Hunter’s glorious 1923 rendering of “Loveless Love,” as it was issued on at least three 78 labels! On the other hand, for rare, unsuccessful records, copies used in this collection may still be the only ones known. Moreover, record collectors are not always apt at transferring discs, which may be why “Wasn’t It Nice?” sounds the way it does here.

Despite these drawbacks, The Alberta Hunter Collection 1921-40 might well be as ideal a survey of Hunter’s first two decades in recording—of a career that lasted six and half—as one could expect to enjoy under current circumstances. It has good notes by Paul Watts, the only person credited in the package, and full disclosure—Watts quotes from some fellow named “Uncle Dave Lewis.” But beyond Watts’ good taste in source material, the notes hit the high points of her career, both as a recording artist and as a live performer, and summarize in a concise way the titanic achievements of Alberta Hunter, whose own life story is as unlikely and astounding as her best singing is intoxicating and timeless.

Reviewed by Uncle Dave Lewis

 

View review July 7th, 2017

Selwyn Birchwood – Pick Your Poison

Selwyn
Title: Pick Your Poison

Artist: Selwyn Birchwood

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

 

Selwyn Birchwood has revitalized the blues scene in recent years with his lap steel and hard driving six-string guitar. The rising star from Orlando, Florida, where steel guitar is a familiar presence in both sacred and secular music, has drawn many new fans to the blues. Birchwood has also impressed the many legendary musicians with whom he has shared a stage, including Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. After winning the International Blues Challenge in 2013, the Selwyn Birchwood Band has been touring non-stop, impressing audiences worldwide with their high energy performances. Band members include Regi Oliver (baritone, tenor and alto sax and flutes), Huff Wright on bass, and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums and percussion.

Birchwood’s sophomore outing for Alligator Records, Pick Your Poison, offers 13 original songs that draw upon multiple influences. As one might guess from the album’s title, whiskey and women are alternating themes, with a dose of religion thrown in for good measure. The opening track “Trial By Fire” begins with a funky flute solo from Oliver before Birchwood takes over on guitar laced with psychedelic overtones belying his early fascination with Jimi Hendrix. “Even the Saved Need Saving” is a rollicking tune with a gospel style chorus and spiritual message: “Ya got to practice what you preach / Break the habit of hypocrisy / Get back doing faith faithfully / And practice what you preach.” On the introspective “Guilty Pleasures,” the twang of the steel guitar punctuates a laundry list of temptations, while the title track has a light reggae beat but deeper, darker lyrics that dig into the soul and offer no pity as the band builds to a rousing climax. Here’s a live version of the song performed last summer:

YouTube Preview Image

“Heavy Heart” is heavy on the blues rock, with Birchwood tearing up the guitar on an extended solo. The funk returns on “Are Ya Ready?” featuring rhythms and harmonies far more complex than any blues tune you are likely to hear this or any other year. “Reaping Time” is a return to the storytelling blues tradition—a man, a woman, a betrayal and a gun. You can guess the rest, but like all of the songs on this album, the quality of the songwriting and non-traditional approach to the blues really sets it apart.

Birchwood offers two socially conscious songs that comment on contemporary society. The lyrics of “Police State” are mirrored by a harder, angrier guitar picking style that speaks volumes as he sings, “Gotta shake these shackles before it’s too late, or we’ll be trapped in a police state.” The album closes with “Corporate Drone,” with Birchwood espousing non-conformity through his music and the lyrics, “Rather strike it out on my own.” And he does – straight out of the park!

Pick Your Poison is another home run for Selwyn Birchwood. If you don’t think the blues has anything new to offer, this album is guaranteed to change your mind.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 2nd, 2017

Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’ – TajMo

TajMo
Title: TajMo

Artist: Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’

Label: Concord

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 5, 2017

 

There’s a certain solemn sense of responsibility that comes with reviewing the first duo album by two giants of the blues: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. The two of them have logged eighty years of achievement in blues, and promotional literature attendant to TajMo, their new Concord release, highlights their strong sense of mutual respect. How could the album be anything other than absolutely wonderful? For the most part, it is.

TajMo is a true collaboration in the spirit of Brion Gysin’s concept of the “third mind” in which the combined efforts of two artists results in the product of a third. Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ trade verses and guitar leads seamlessly to the extent that it isn’t always readily apparent who’s doing the talking, with Taj Mahal’s wry, gravelly voice leading to Keb’ Mo’s rich baritone and back. The stinging intensity of the leadoff track, “Don’t Leave Me Here,” and their sardonic, front porch acoustic take on the more traditional “Diving Duck Blues” are among the standout items here.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ do have interests outside of the blues, and this where some incongruous elements tend to creep into the mix, including Stax/Volt grooves and ‘Big 80’s’ production values. The first part of TajMo is much stronger than the later, where the pair explore a couple of cover songs that really aren’t worthy of their talents. However, this disc is designed to support the joint tour between Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ which begins this month and will run until October 2017; clearly the appeal of this project needed to be broad for that purpose. The sessions for TajMo sound like they were tremendous fun and that sense of camaraderie and good times shine through as evidence of their shared mastery; it’s going to be a great tour.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review May 2nd, 2017

The Soul of John Black – Early in the Moanin’

soul of John Black
Title: Early in the Moanin’

Artist: The Soul of John Black

Label: Big Slamm Music/dist. CD Baby

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: May 6, 2016

 

The Soul of John Black is a project centered around guitarist John Bigham. Best known for his time as a member of Fishbone, Bigham uses The Soul of John Black as a love letter to the blues.  His latest release, Early in the Moanin’, infuses elements of both Delta and Chicago blues with soul and funk sensibilities. The album finds “JB,” as he a known, running through songs filled with an earthy-southern feel.

Bigham puts his sense of humor at the center of many of the tracks, including the album opener “Can’t Be Helped,” where he playfully pleads for help from his partner for his ailment: “Doctor says I can’t be helped / by nobody but thee / now lay some hands on me.”

Early In Moanin’ is reminiscent of soul-blues greats like Little Milton or Z.Z. Hill, but with a 2017 sensibility. It conjures up visions of people dancing away the troubles of the day at the local watering hole. Bigham’s vocals and guitar work are both superb throughout the album. Despite the fact that blues is not his most oft-played genre, he feels completely at home in the setting.  His comfort at weaving between genres—blues, soul, funk, R&B—speaks to the interconnectedness of these genres at large.  Blues in many ways is the root and Bigham taps into it in spectacular fashion on this album. Early In Moanin’ is highly recommended for lovers of the soul-blues of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and Clarence Carter.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

View review May 2nd, 2017

Eric Bibb – Migration Blues

Eric Bibb
Title: Migration Blues

Artist: Eric Bibb

Label: Stony Plain

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 31, 2017

 

“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.”

YouTube Preview Image

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 4th, 2017

Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman

Thornetta Davis
Title: Honest Woman

Artist: Thornetta Davis

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

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.”

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review March 1st, 2017

Otis Taylor – Fantasizing About Being Black

Otis Taylor
Title: Fantasizing About Being Black

Artist: Otis Taylor

Label: Trance Blues Festival Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 17, 2017

 

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.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review February 1st, 2017

Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire – Grown Ass Woman

sharon
Title: Grown Ass Woman

Artist: Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire

Label: Delmark

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 22, 2016

 

 

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review January 3rd, 2017

Mississippi Heat – Cab Driving Man

mississippi-heat

 

Title: Cab Driving Man

Artist: Mississippi Heat

Label: Delmark

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Grady Champion – One of a Kind

grady
Title: One of a Kind

Artist: Grady Champion

Label: Malaco

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Omar Coleman – Live at Rosa’s Lounge

omar
Title: Live at Rosa’s Lounge

Artist: Omar Coleman

Label: Delmark

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 17, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Bobby Bland – The Singles Collection, 1951-62

bobby-bland

 

Title: The Singles Collection, 1951-62

Artist: Bobby Bland

Label: Acrobat

Format: 2-CD set

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

John Lee Hooker – The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

john-lee-hooker
Title: The Modern, Chess & VeeJay Singles Collection, 1949-62

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Acrobat

Format: 4-CD set

Release date: October 7, 2016

 
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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw

arthur-crudup
Title: A Music Man Like Nobody Ever Saw

Artist: Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup

Label: Bear Family

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release date: August 12, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 1st, 2016

Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, Vol.14

blues-images-14
Title: Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, Vol.14

Format: Calendar + CD

Publisher: Blues Images

Release date: September 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by William R. Vanden Dries

 

December 1st, 2016

Josh White – Josh At Midnight (LP reissue)

josh-white
Title: Josh At Midnight

Artist: Josh White

Label: Ramseur Records

Formats: LP

Release date: August 19, 2016

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.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

View review November 1st, 2016

JJ Thames – Raw Sugar

jj-thames
Title: Raw Sugar

Artist: JJ Thames

Label: DeChamp Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 26, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review October 3rd, 2016

Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection

alligator-records
Title: Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection

Artist: Various

Label: Alligator

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: June 10, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Amy Edmonds

View review October 3rd, 2016

Sugar Blue – Voyage

sugar blue voyage

Title: Voyage

Artist: Sugar Blue

Label: MC Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

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.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review August 1st, 2016

Toronzo Cannon – The Chicago Way

torenzo cannon_the chicago way

Title: The Chicago Way

Artist: Toronzo Cannon

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

 

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.

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

View review August 1st, 2016

Guy Davis – Kokomo Kidd

KokomoKidd

Title: Kokomo Kidd

Artist: Guy Davis

Label: M.C. Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: September 18, 2015

 

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.

 

Reviewed by Amy L. Edmonds

View review April 1st, 2016

Keb’ Mo’ – That Hot Pink Blues Album

keb mo_hot pink blues album

Title: That Hot Pink Blues Album

Artist: Keb’ Mo’

Label: Kind of Blue Music

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 15, 2016

 

 

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.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach

 

View review April 1st, 2016

Various Artists – God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

god dont never change songs of blind willie johnson

Title: God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Alligator Records

Format: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: February 26, 2016

 

 

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.

On this release, Alligator Records has assembled a well-known host of musicians to interpret some Blind Willie Johnson’s songs.  Some of the outstanding artists featured on this record include Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Sinead O’Connor, and Rickie Lee Jones.  In addition to its great roster of musicians, God Don’t Never Change features 18 pages of extensive liner notes, including beautiful photographs and a detailed essay on Johnson’s life by singer-songwriter Michael Corcoran.

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.

Reviewed by Patrick Scott Byrket

View review March 1st, 2016

Magic Sam Blues Band – Black Magic, Deluxe Edition

magic sam_black Magic deluxe edition

Title: Black Magic, Deluxe Edition

Artist: Magic Sam Blues Band

Label: Delmark

Formats: CD

Release date: December 29, 2015
 

 

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.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 2nd, 2016

Newer Posts - Older Posts


Calendar

August 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Posts by Month

Posts by Category

Blogroll

  • Bold As Love
  • Fake Shore Drive
  • Journal of Gospel Music
  • School Craft Wax