I first encountered Donna Herula at the solo/duo shootout at The Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn a couple years ago. She stood out not as the only female to show up, but as a confident and deliberated interpreter of old time blues music. Relying on her voice and a couple metal-bodied guitars, Donna held her own against some pretty darn good competition.
This second CD finds the Illinois native covering the earlier songs of Robert Nighthawk. Most were written by Nighthawk with a couple that he covered. Herula is accompanied by her husband Tony Nardiello on guitar on several tracks, as well as the harmonica of John Jochem. Occasionally she employs a Porchboard and tambourine for drum effect. Herula has performed these Nighthawk songs at blues festivals in Chicago, Helena, AK, and on King Biscuit Time.
First time listeners might find Herula’s voice slightly “little girl,” and too articulate. She pronounces every syllable. Where most blues singers use "goin, you can hear Herula's "goinG." There’s no little girl behind the big sound she gets from her national guitars though. This is the Donna I remember from the shootout: she can really dig into a resphonic guitar.
“Take It Easy Baby” starts the disc and sort of sets the tone for the CD. One can easily imagine this rendering as a set started as well. John Jochem adds nice harmonica accents and holds things down while Herula solos. This delightful song is the longest of the CD at 4:36. Song two shifts the mood into a Herula-adapted, dreamy take on the title cut. Herula employs electric violins near the end of the song to great effect turning a blues song into a near-classical piece. The deft-fingered portrayal of “Return Mail Blues” brings up the third slot. One of my favorite cuts, both vocally and instrumentally, is song four, “I’m Getting Tired.” Herula takes gender liberties with both the last song as well as “Jackson Town Man,” making them her own. Song six “Lonesome World” is another toe tapper and slide marvel. “Crying Won’t Help You” is a nice choice for this age of role reversals, and Herula does justice to the song by playing, singing and adding her own percussion. “Bricks In My Pillow” also moves along nicely, again with John Jochems on harmonica. “Gonna Move To Kansas City” is another favorite of mine. “Gonna’ move to Kansas City, baby, where they don’t like you . . . .” Yes. It’s a Jim Jackson song covered by Nighthawk and now Herula, and a song that deserves being heard again. “Friar’s Point” allows Herula to intertwine finger picking and slide work - something she does quite well. “Maggie Campbell” is a song Robert Nighthawk covered, providing a beautiful format for the interplay between Herula and Jochems - another album standout cut. The CD concludes with “Every day and Night” which seems to encompass the best elements of almost every tune on the CD.
My only slight complaint with this CD is, at times, Herula plays so fast that she has to rush certain vocal phrases. Word constraints keep me from too many accolades, but I think this CD deserves your time and money, especially if you like older blues with some slight modern updates. Herula bravely takes on a male icon, makes his music her own. In this age of overwrought electric blues, this alone is quite an accomplishemt. She plays well, she sings well, acknowledges her predecessors, and brings the best part herself into what she does. Amen, Donna.
Reviewed by David Stine