AJ Ghent – The Neo Blues Project


Title: The Neo Blues Project

Artist: AJ Ghent [J-Ent]

Label: Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 16, 2018



AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.

Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.

On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”

Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”

But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”

Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Selwyn Birchwood – Pick Your Poison

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:

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“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

When Life Gives You Lemons

Title: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold
Artist: Atmosphere
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Catalog No: RSE-0095
Release date: April 22, 2008

The Minneapolis group Atmosphere has been an underground powerhouse for over a decade. While never scoring a hit single or album, the group has been able to secure a legion of dedicated fans all over the world. Consisting of rapper Slug (Sean Daley) and producer Ant (Anthony Davis), Atmosphere’s music ranges from the most abstract to the extremely personal. Over the last two years, Atmosphere has released a string of EPs, building up anticipation for their new album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold, released on their own Rhymesayers Entertainment label.

Atmosphere took a minimalistic approach on this CD, a switch from their previous full length album, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (2005). The sound moves back and forth between somber and mellow, as Slug teaches life lessons with his unintentionally poetic rhyme style. The album’s tone is set by the opener “Like the Rest of Us,” which features Slug musing about life over sparse drums and an atmospheric piano part. “The Skinny” is a cleverly disguised song about cigarette abuse. “Shoulda Known” is the album’s lead single and has Slug rhyming about his favorite topic, dysfunctional relationships.

“Painting” opens the heart of the album. On this song, Slug brings you into the dark recesses of depression over a majestic beat centered around a magnificent lap steel guitar performance. The up-tempo “Your Glasshouse” finds Slug vividly depicting the state of being hungover, aided by a menacing synthesizer melody. The next song, “Yesterday,” is by far the album’s best track and definitely one of the strongest songs in Atmosphere’s catalogue. Slug is at his best when he lyrically presents emotions that the typical person struggles to simply comprehend, let alone put into words. “Yesterday” is the perfect example of this. When initially listening to the song, it sounds like one of his typical tracks about an ex-girlfriend. The final lines reveal that he is speaking to a recently deceased father, whether it is his or not is unknown. When paying careful attention to the lyrics, you see that Slug is presenting a cautionary tale about what can happen when we get too consumed with our own lives. During one particularly compelling moment in the song, Slug raps:

And when you left, I didn’t see it comin’
I guess I slept, it ain’t like you was runnin’
You crept out the front door slow
And I was so self-absorbed I didn’t even know

The narrator was so self-absorbed that he did not realize his father was dying until it was too late. Slug appears to warn the listener against being so engrossed by their own lives that they neglect the world around them. Later in the song, the narrator says to his deceased father, “Leaving me is the probably the best thing you ever taught me.” So, in a redemptive manner, the narrator learns to embrace life through the death of his father. Slug’s thoughtful lyrics combined with a beautifully simple piano-laden backdrop makes “Yesterday” one of the best hip hop songs in recent years.

The album closes with a number of strong tracks including “Guarantees,” “The Waitress,” and “In Her Music Box.” Aside from the very mild redundancy in terms of beat and content, this is a flawless album. Atmosphere has created a collection of songs that towers over most others in this creativity-deficient hip hop landscape. Time will tell where this album stands in the annals of hip hop, but it is a noteworthy addition to Atmosphere’s rich legacy. When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold is a must have for anyone who enjoys intelligence, creativity, and emotion in their hip hop music.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View the music video for “Guarantees”: