New Holiday Albums: The Best of 2019

That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading

Keb’ Mo’ – Oklahoma


Title: Oklahoma
Artist: Keb’ Mo’
Label: Concord
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: June 14, 2019


Blues musician Keb’ Mo’ has often incorporated elements of other genres in his music and his new release, Oklahoma, is a stellar example. Featuring artists ranging from Rosanne Cash and Jaci Velasquez to Robert Randolph and Taj Mahal (his collaborator on the 2017 release TajMo), Keb’ renders ten tracks of blues-infused Americana. The artist, who is celebrating twenty-five years in the music business, recently revealed the connections between his current frame of mind and the societal issues that fueled his songwriting: “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.” These topics include depression and waning love—the backbone of the blues—as well as contemporary concerns such as immigration and environmental degradation. Continue reading

Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration

Title: Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration

Artist: Various

Label: Blackbird Presents

Formats: CD, MP3, DVD

Release date: June 2, 2017



This exciting release is a star-studded celebration of Mavis Staples, honoring her 75th birthday and the soul music that shaped her career. Presented on both video and audio formats, this concert performance was recorded live at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on November 19, 2014. Each song features a line-up of special guest musicians performing with Mavis and her All-Star Band directed by Grammy Award-winner Don Was. Accomplished country, soul, and R&B musicians such as the late Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo, Emmylou Harris, and Aaron Neville take the stage alongside up-and-coming generations of rock, folk, and soul musicians like Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, Grace Potter, and Glen Hansard.

YouTube Preview Image

The live concert exhibits high energy in every song and is certainly worth viewing for an all-consuming soulful experience. The show opens as Joan Osborne steps out on stage performing “You’re Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger)” followed by Keb’ Mo’ on “Heavy Makes You Happy.” A camera occasionally sets its focus off-stage on Mavis Staples’ joyful smile as she sings and dances along with the music.

From Buddy Miller’s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” to Taj Mahal’s “Wade In The Water,” each performance adopts Christian themes and engages with gospel influences. Many of the songs featured in this concert, such as Michael McDonald’s “Freedom Highway” and Eric Church’s “Eyes On The Prize,” reflect Mavis’s dedication to the Civil Rights Movement when she sang with the Staple Singers. Aaron Neville’s gentle voice sweetly complements while sharply contrasts Mavis’ unrivaled iconic vocals on “Respect Yourself.”

Between songs on the DVD release, the guest artists share their appreciation for Mavis Staples and her creative contributions to soul and R&B music. Her commitment to quality and giving her best with every performance can be seen in her energy on stage and engagement with the audience, especially on her solo song, “I’ll Take You There.” The full ensemble on “The Weight” combines the spirit of the night in one final and satisfying crowd-pleaser. This explosive collection of renowned musicians sharing the stage to honor Mavis Staples feels like the greatest birthday party you would not want to miss. Luckily, you can catch the concert when it will be aired on the cable network AXS TV on June 4th.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Taj Mahal and Keb’Mo’ – 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

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



Title: Palmystery
Artist: Victor Wooten
Label: Heads Up International
Catalog No.: HUCD3135
Date: 4/1/2008

“Creating music is a lot like the eternal question about whether a tree falling in a forest really makes a sound if there’s no one there to hear it. A song is just an idea until someone brings it into the world. That’s the great mystery of music or any creative endeavor. The power is in the palm of your hand. You just have to release it to the world”

-Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten has a well-established record as one of the greatest electric bass players recording today. His technical proficiency in a bewildering array of performance styles and genres emerges through an unerring sense of the instrument as melodic, harmonic, groovin’ and overall integral part of a larger compositional fabric. This package shows up album after album, including on recordings as a longstanding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (a fusion project that also defies simple classification, led by virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck), numerous guest-artist contributions, and five solo recordings. Palmystery, his debut recording for Heads Up International, displays all of the qualities of Wooten’s previous work while still managing to sound fresh and original, and he is joined by a number of guest artists (the band varies from one tune to another), including Mike Stern on guitar, jazz bassist Richard Bona, and bluesman Keb’ Mo’ on slide guitar. To do this recording justice, I need to take you on a guided tour, tune-by-tune, and highlight the work of the diverse array of talent accompanying Wooten:

“2 Timers” Opens like a Flecktones tune, but soon blossoms out into a more frenetic soup of lickety-split melodies, extensive Q and A between instruments, catchy melodies and great grooves, and avant-garde atonal group improv – I love the half-time-feel break in the middle, a characteristically abrupt dynamic shift.

“Cambo” centers on a slapped and popped bass groove against effects-soaked chorus chanting and Joseph Wooten’s mellow 1970s R&B-style keyboard chords (but check out his brilliant runs later in the tune – they sound like rain; captivating and yet unobtrusive at the same time).

“I Saw God” is modeled on West African popular styles (Palm Wine in particular) with densely layered guitar melodies, bouncy, get-up-and-dance rhythms, and falsetto unison chorus vocals (featuring Richard Bona) that alternate with Wooten’s mostly spoken-word tale of an encounter with God.

“The Lesson” is almost entirely bass-driven, featuring a low-key melody backed with bass arpeggios and chords (the liner notes make sure to mention that Wooten did this with “no overdubs”) and backed with spare percussion (relative to the rest of the album). Wooten throws in some interesting tremolo and flamenco-like rasgueado articulations to punch things up.

“Left, Right, & Center,” with its funk-jazz fusion feel, features three astonishing drummers – JD Blair, Dennis Chambers (a former member of Parliament/Funkadelic and longtime drummer for John Scofield), and Will Kennedy! Wooten liked Mike Stern’s guitar solo on this tune so much, he decided to learn and double it, and Neal Evans backs up on Hammond B-3 organ.

“Sifu” opens with lush keyboard chords and sampled voice (Sifu Brian Edwards, with whom Wooten studied Wing Chun Kung Fu) – the whole tune has a swirly, sort of new-agey feel at the beginning which evolves into a groove, with Regi Wooten handling the rhythm bass work beneath Wooten’s blistering solos.

“Miss U” featuring The Lee Boys (a funk/gospel band out of Miami, FL) is a finely mixed musical gumbo: here a rock-guitar driven R&B feel backs up The Lee Boys’ gospel-inflected harmonies. Roosevelt “The Doctor” Collier’s pedal steel guitar, Alvin Lee’s electric, Wooten’s slide bass and Alvin “Lil’ Al” Cordy’s standard bass underpinning all add spice, depth, and nuance.

“Flex” opens with an infectious Wooten popping rhythm (played here on tenor bass). Joseph Wooten’s brilliant keyboards really shine on this tune – laid back rhythms and cascading sheet-runs (what Coltrane might have sounded like if he played keys). Check out Regi Wooten’s achingly atonal, funky, chord-driven guitar solo. Anthony “Flex” Wellington offers the thumb solo on bass.

In “The Gospel,” the whole Wooten family comes together around Wooten’s mother’s rendition of an old Southern Baptist hymn (recorded over the telephone) forming the base of the piece. In addition to Joseph Wooten on keyboards, Victor Wooten’s aunts and uncles sing along and some of the younger kids on the family sing on the second section.

“Song for My Father” opens with a characteristically squirmy and bombastic unison riff into a steady jazz-funk groove, complemented nicely by Regi Wooten’s treble-voiced rhythm guitar playing and features a great collection of solos: a wonderfully bluesy tenor sax solo by Karl Denson, fiery soulful work by Dane Bryant on keyboards, and Steve Bailey’s snakey fretless solo.

“Happy Song,” is, as you might guess, an upbeat R&B flavored instrumental with catchy riffs and grooves highlighting harmonized bass and guitar melodies.

“Us 2,” which closes Palmystery, is my personal favorite. Wooten’s slide bass and Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar perfectly complement one another as together they deliver a slow, contemplative tune. Here we are listening to an intense musical conversation between Wooten and Keb’ Mo,’ with moments of gentle, sympathetic back and forth and others of effortless synchronicity.

Palmystery is a musical journey into sheer talent, collaboration, and artistry. Make sure to follow up with some of the players that appear on the album, too, because Wooten allies himself with the best.

For further information:

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music
A new work of fiction written by Wooten that explores his musical philosophy. The Music Lesson and Palmystery were both released simultaneously, and are designed to complement one another.

Victor Wooten’s Bass/Nature Camp
An annual event founded by Wooten. It features Wooten himself as well as a number of other incredibly talented bass instructors, and is designed to explore the link between nature and music-making.

Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott


honeydripper.jpgTitle: Honeydripper (feature film)
Writer, Director: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi

December traditionally brings a wave of new releases at the box office, and this year is no exception. One that I am particularly anxious to see is Honeydripper, a new film by John Sayles that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and is scheduled for limited release on December 28. Here’s the official synopsis:

“Iconoclastic filmmaker John Sayles, in his 16th feature film, continues his extraordinary examination of the complexities and shifting identities of American sub-cultures in the new film Honeydripper. With his usual understated intelligence, Sayles uses the rhythms of the citizens of Harmony, Alabama to immerse the audience into the world of the Jim Crow south. It’s a fable about the birth of rock n’ roll- a quintessentially American subject, but with a fidelity to time and temperament that is unusual in an American director.

It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order to save the club.

Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize at the train station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar case. The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part in rock n’ roll history.”

Sayles’ has a fascination with the genesis of rock ‘n roll, and wanted to find a way to capture this pivital event in his film. “There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll,” he said, “but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar. Before that, the piano ruledit produced a lot more sound than a little acoustic guitar. Suddenly, a poor boy like Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) could travel around with a portable, cheap, high-volume electric guitar and peel the paint off the walls.”

Here’s the trailer:YouTube Preview Image

If this isn’t enough to entice you, then check out the all-star cast. Taking on the role of Sonny Blake in his movie debut is singer/guitarist and Texas native Gary Clark Jr. The incredibly talented Clark has been playing professionally since the age of fourteen (which I gather was not more then 7-8 years ago), was recently named Best Blues Artist at the Austin Music Awards, and has opened for the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Jimmie Vaughan, Bobby Bland and Joe Ely. Over the summer he’s been touring with the Honeydripper All-Star Band, and a clip of their 6/19/07 NYC performance was recently mounted on YouTube:YouTube Preview Image

In the juicy role of Bertha Mae Spivey is none other than Dr. Mable John, the former Stax recording artist and onetime leader of the Raelettes (Ray Charles’ back-up group). Metalmouth Sims is played by Mississippi born harmonica player Arthur Lee Williams, who cut his teeth in Chicago and went on to play with Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Eddie Taylor. Blues guitarist Keb Mo, whose 2006 album Suitcase was a break out hit, also makes his film debut in the role of Possum. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who has performed with Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, also has a cameo role as Time Trenier.

Sayles also made good use of local talent, including members of the New Beginnings Ministry Choir in Greenville, Alabama. According to producer Maggie Renzi, “We asked New Beginnings to give us their best singers, and Wow! We couldn’t have duplicated that sound. The local people have the right accents, the looksI had a crowd of extras, and after they got through with wardrobe and styling, I asked them to raise their hands if they looked just like old photos of their parents and grandparents. Every hand went up.”

WOW, indeed! I must remember to call the local theater and push to get this gem in the queue a.s.a.p. For more information, visit the film’s official website. As for Gary Clark Jr., his latest release, Tribute, is apparently only available via his website and CD Baby. I predict that will change mighty fast. A fourth CD is said to be in the works and will presumably be picked up by a major label.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss