Saturday, February 17, 2007

Drink House to the Church House: Vol. One- Various Artists reviewed by Steve Jones

Drink House to the Church House: Vol. One
Various Artists
Music Maker Relief Foundation (CD & DVD)
11 tracks/79:57 (CD)
4 extended tracks (DVD)

Tim Duffy and the Music Maker Relief Foundation are just plain wonderful. I love the Music Maker Foundation on several levels. I love what they do to promote and support undiscovered blues artists. I also love what they have done and continue to do to raise money for New Orleans relief. Lastly, I just love the music they discover and then record for posterity and for us to enjoy.

The set features Captain Luke, Macavine Hayes, Whistlin’ Britches, Little Freddie King, Alabama Slim, John Dee Holeman, and Bishop Dready Manning & Family. There is a 20 page booklet included with the set that has a biography of each artist. The CD has 11 tracks and the DVD contains over an hour of music and interviews with each of the artists.

This compilation takes us from the modern version of the juke joint to the church, sampling the music made by men and women who range from nearly destitute and desperate to those spiritually saved. Whether it’s Bishop Dready Manning getting down and holy on the “Gospel Train” or Macavine Hayes’ “Snatch that Thing” getting down and dirty, we get a glimpse of how American roots music is still alive and getting down to it.

The last track features Haskell “Whistlin’ Britches” Thompson. Born in 1944, he hails from a long line of clickers. Instead of singing, he makes clicking sounds, sort of like an old wind up clock, but with more synchopation. It’s unique and addictive.

Little Freddie King now hails from and has played at every Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Born in McComb, Mississippi (Bo Diddley’s birthplace), he is a long time patriarch of the blues guitar. He and his cousin Milton Frazier (Alabama Slim) spent a long time playing and drinking together. Freddie worked his way through the booze earlier than Slim, but now both are enjoying a renaissance with Music Maker. Freddie’s “I Don’t Know What to Do” is an original tune but hearkens back to the Delta, as does his cousin’s song, “The Might Flood.” Slim moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, so he is no stranger to nature’s devastating ways. His song is an eerie tale of the damage done to the Crescent City two years ago.

Traditional songs like “John Henry” exist in the traditional American song catalogue. 2006 saw Bruce Springsteen revive songs like this, and here we have John Dee Holeman giving us his interpretation of this classic. His guitar and vocal work are superb. He has received a number of grants and accolades for his work, and we get a great glimpse of his talents with on this song.

The DVD is a nifty add on to the set. We get to first meet Captain Luke, Macavine Hayes and Haskell Thompson, along with Cool John Ferguson, jamming and hanging out together. The old bluesmen take turns in the lead; whether it was Captain Luke belting out in his deep bass voice, Haskell clicking away, or Macavine playing guitar and singing in his deeply accented high pitched voice we are being treated to what has been happening in the Piedmont for a hundred years or more.

In the second part of the DVD, Bishop Dready and his family put on a show in their church; all of them get to showcase their blues/gospel talents. Dready sings and plays guitar and harmonica; his wife has a profound voice and sings many of the tunes while his sons play drums and bass.

Cousins Little Freddie and Alabama Slim are fully duded out in some cool suits and aptly display the Mississippi Delta styled musical skills that they have honed for years in New Orleans. This third vignette is a lot slicker than the first two since these guys have been playing in public for decades.

Last up is John Dee Holeman. We are treated to his finger picking on both a National steel and solid bodied electric guitar. His fingers seem to breeze over the strings. He is a fantastic talent.

I loved this set. We see what the blues was and still is. If you are looking for slick productions and high-tech studio work, this is not your cup of tea. If you like the real blues as they sound in people’s homes and in local places, this is your music. Thanks must go out to Tim Duffy for producing this wonderful stuff, keeping this rare music alive and recording it so it will be remembered. I can’t wait to get my hands on the second volume to the set! If you like real blues, Music Maker has got them for you!

12 Years of “Where Blues Crosses Over”- Various Artists reviewed by Steve Jones

12 Years of “Where Blues Crosses Over”
Various Artists
Ruf Records
13 tracks/79:57 (CD)
13 tracks (DVD)

Ruf Records has spent a dozen years taking the blues to new levels of excellence. To celebrate this, they have compiled a sample of 24 previously released songs plus two extra unreleased tracks, evenly split on a CD and DVD. Why 12 years? Thomas Ruf feels the number 12 is important and explains in the liner notes: “I was born on 12/12/65, 12 months make a year, 12 signs complete the various aspects of the ‘Wheel of Life’. The number 12 has magic for me.” So while Alligator, Blind Pig and Stoney Plan have their 5 and 10 year anniversary sets, Ruf blasts out a dozen years of musical retrospective, and what a retrospective it is.

The CD and DVD each work their way backwards chronologically to 1994. I put the CD on first and was blasted out of my seat with Walter Trout and Jeff Healey in “Working Overtime” from Trout’s new “Full Circle” CD. I love the CD (reviewed by Mark Thompson in our September-October Newletter) and this is the most exciting track off of it. The dual guitars and vocals just complement each other and set the stage for a great CD’s worth of music.

Canadian guitar diva Sue Foley follows up with the outstanding title track off of her 2006 album, “New Used Car,” mixing blues and rock with a great ‘Go-Go’s go sensual’ styled vocal track and a driving guitar beat. It is hard to believe she has been performing for twenty years, and she will be a bigger and bigger presence on the blues scene as time goes on.

The good thing about compilations like this are that we get to hear the best of what a label has to offer. I love their artists like Candye Kane and Omar and the Howlers. This is all great stuff. From Larry Garner doing an R&B blues groove on “Where the Blues Turn Black” to more traditional electric blues from Luther Allison and Canned Heat, the CD contains a more than great set of tunes. And then there is the DVD.

Let me start with a statement that there are just a few of the Ruf artists in the past (whom I have not had the pleasure to see live) whose CD’s have left me a bit dry. Aynsley Lister, Ana Popovic and Bernard Allison are three of them. The live DVD gives me a better appreciation for them and all in all the compilation is almost as good as the hugely superb CD. The tracks here are fairly new since DVD technology is a bit newer than CD. We get to see Omar growl out “Monkey Land” from the Howlers “Bamboozled” DVD and Robin Trower return to his blues roots on “Living Out of Time.” I also enjoyed the Imperial Crowns “Lil’ Death” and Bob Brozman wailing on a gritty National steel guitar. Anything by Walter Trout is always great and we get to see and hear him on “Work No More.” A 1994 gem is a music video styled unreleased piece by Luther Allison; “Bad Love” is a cool little video clip by this great bluesman.

For a mere $15 on the Ruf web site you can get 26 tracks of music on CD and DVD. If you don’t have a lot of Ruf CD’s and DVD’s in your collection, this is an outstanding way to get a sampling of their fine catalogue of work. I recommend this compilation to all blues fans who enjoy modern, rocking blues!

Master of the Game- Jackie Payne-Steve Edmonson Band reviewed by Mark Thompson

Master of the Game
Jackie Payne-Steve Edmonson Band
Delta Groove Productions
13 tracks/51:09

Jackie Payne is a singer with a lengthy resume, including a fifteen year stint as the lead vocalist for the Johnny Otis Revue. He is equally comfortable with blues or deep soul tunes. His partner, guitarist Steve Edmonson, is another veteran with several decades of experience playing up and down the West coast in various bands, including the Dynatones. This is their second release and first for Delta Groove with band members Bill Singletary on bass, Nick Otis on drums and The Sweet Meet Horns - Carl Green on tenor & alto sax plus John Middleton on trumpet. Fred Kaplan and John Thomas sit to provide keyboard support throughout the recording.

Right from the start, it is apparent that this band is ready to lay down a tight groove for Payne to work with. The opening track jump-starts things with a ferocious boogie riff from Edmonson. With the horns riffing behind him, Payne lays out the story of his "Mean Evil Woman" with a voice easily that slides from smooth to a harder edge as needed. Next is the title track, propelled by Thomas on organ and featuring more fine guitar from Edmonson. These cuts and seven other songs on the disc were written collectively by the band.

They slow it down on "A Fool Named Me" and Payne demonstrates that he is a first-rate soul singer, easily hitting notes in the upper register or letting loose with a deep moan in order to convey the hurt in the lyrics. Then the band comes storming back with the houserockin' "Woman in Kansas City", with the Sweet Meet Horns driving the arrangement home.

Three of the last five tracks are cover versions of well-known soul tunes. Tackling a song that was a hit for the legendary O.V. Wright and Otis Clay might be a daunting task for many vocalists, but Payne is up to the task. He barks out the lyrics over the surging arrangement, his voice taking on a gritty edge in keeping with the tale of a downtrodden man left with to "A Nickel and a Nail". The band shines on the Steve Cropper/Eddie Floyd penned "Just the One", an uptempo love song. Another highlight is "Warm Rain Fallin", which sounds like an old soul classic but is one of the group's original compositions. Payne's vocal soars with emotion as it rides the easy flowing rhythm. Green lays down an equally fine sax solo.

The final track provides the perfect showcase for Payne's vocal artistry. "I'll Take Care of You" was a hit for Bobby "Blue" Bland but Payne stakes his own claim with this smoldering version. Payne displays his extensive vocal range as he begs and pleads for his woman to return home. The track unfolds slowly, the vocal building in intensity as Payne injects all the emotion he can into each and every word. It is a masterful performance.

Payne, Edmonson and their band have crafted a disc that ranks near the top in my list of best releases of last year. It is an outstanding mix of Blues and Soul tunes with first-class arrangements and performances. The band lays down a musical foundation that gives Payne's voice all the support it needs. As good as the group is, Jackie Payne sets them apart. He is a master singer and showman as this recording proves on every track. Don't miss this one !!!!!

State of Grace- The Holmes Brothers reviewed by Mark Thompson

State of Grace
The Holmes Brothers
Alligator Records
14 tracks/54:41

The new release from the Holmes Brothers opens uncharacteristically with a pair of original tunes. Wendell Holmes starts things off with soulful vocal on his "Smiling Face Hiding a Weeping Heart", which also has a sample of his tasty guitar playing. Older brother Sherman then takes over the vocal spotlight on an acoustic version of his original, "Close the Door". Wendell and drummer Popsy Dixon add dead-on harmony vocals. The trio gets excellent help throughout the disc from Glenn Patscha on a variety of keyboards, Byron Issacs on bass and Larry Campbell on an assortment of string instruments.Later in the disc, Wendell lays down a heavy guitar riff on his original "Standing in the Need of Love". Sherman and Popsy are in the backgound, echoing his bluesy lead vocal before Wendell shows us just how good a guitar player he is.

Even with the added help, the focus is always on the superb vocal interplay of the three members. Another strength of their work has been their uncanny ability to interpret songs, especially ones that are most familiar. But the Holmes Brothers will strip a song down to its bare essence, turn it inside out and then reconfigure it in a fashion that often comes close to creating not just a new version but almost a brand new song, so startling is the transformation. The third track provides one example of their ability as Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" gets the tempo slowed down, the arrangement punctuated by Campbell on the pedal steel guitar to create a haunting sound behind Wendell's heartfelt vocal for a better world.

The finest example of their interpretive skill involves a song with deep roots in Rockford. Laying down their instuments, the group tackles Rick Nielsen's hit for Cheap Trick, "I Want You to Want Me". Backed by Patscha on organ and some stirring piano work, they turn the jangly pop anthem into an startling lament on unrequited love that displays the amazing vocal ability the threesome posess. It is a performance for the ages.

The group has always proudly displayed their love of country music, so it's no surprise that Rosanne Cash joins Wendell for a duet on the Hank William's standard, "I Can't Help it if I'm Still in Love With You". Campbell lays down some fine mandolin licks to help creat an authentic feel. Then the Holmes Brothers throw us another curveball by covering Lyle Lovett's offbeat "If I Had a Boat" in a stripped-down arrangement that serves to bring focus to Sherman's lead vocal. Joan Osborne makes a rousing guest appearance to help the group on a rave-up take on "Those Memories of You". Patscha adds some funky New Orleans-style piano in support of the vocal fireworks.

On the last two tracks, the trio shares another of their musical roots. They are joined by Levon Helm for a deep country gospel rendition of "I've Just Seen the Rock of Ages". The ex-Band member contributes a lead vocal with just the right edge of despair tempered by faith. The closing track, "God Will", is another tune from the pen of Lovett. Popsy Dixon delivers the message that an unfaithful woman can hope for forgiveness from God but not from the singer.

This disc is an accurate reflection of what you would hear from a live set by the Holmes Brothers. Their eclectic mixture of blues, country, soul, rock and gospel is a primer on American roots music set apart by their stellar vocal abilities as well as their knack for making something new out of familiar tunes. It is a strong collection from start to finish that ranks with their best work - and comes highly recommended !!!!

Dirty Deal- Coco Montoya reviewed by Mark Thompson

Dirty Deal
Coco Montoya
Alligator Records
11 tracks/50:51

The release on Alligator finds Coco Montoya getting plenty of help from members of Little Feat. Paul Barrere helped produce the disc while adding rhythm or slide guitar, backing vocals and even percussion on seven tracks. The Feat rhythm section of bass guitarist Kenny Gradney and drummer Richie Hayward appear on four cuts while Bill Payne on keyboards and Fred Tackett on guitar each contributes to one track.

The disc opens with the title track, "Last Dirty Deal", with Montoya rockin' hard on this tale of betrayal. Coco belts out the lyrics with a deep, powerful voice while snapping off stinging phrases on his guitar. This medium tempo rocker, co-written by Montoya, makes a fine opening statement. The next track, "Three Sides to Every Story", is a funky workout on a downbeat song that would be right at home on a Little Feat recording.

Things slow down on "How Do You Sleep at Night" but Montoya keeps the intensity turned up, shouting out his lead vocal. Subtlety is a trait often lacking in Montoya's singing. His guitar work does display some restraint but he clearly enjoys every opportunity to go all out. When he dials down the intensity, he can still produce a compelling performance, as he does on a cover Johnny Copelend's slow blues "It's My Own Tears", one of the highlights of the disc. Coco lays down a vocal that conveys the tortured nature of lyrics while ripping notes from the guitar strings that emphasize the pain at the heart of the song. Both songs benefit from outstanding keyboard work from Tony Stead. Barrerre uses him to flesh out the arrangements and to provide a solid foundation for Montoya's guitar solos.

On "Clean Slate", things shift from the blues/rock format to a soulful tune that serves as a nice change of pace with it's refreshingly restrained performance. It is followed by the final three tracks that find Montoya cranking up the guitar and shouting out his vocals over driving beats. These cuts rock hard, showing no mercy and taking no prisoners. It is Montoya doing what he does best but sometimes it gets to be a bit much. A little bit more restraint could have made this package even stronger.

Nevertheless, this ranks as one of the best of Montoya's recordings from start to finish. Barrerre's production creates a engaging musical backdrop for Montoya to work off of. The supporting musicians are outstanding, especially Stead, who adeptly fills each track with his fine keyboard work. Montoya brings it all together with his driving vocals and high energy guitar playing. Definitely a disc worth checking out - especially for fans of Blues/Rock guitar.

Allow Me to Confess- Gina Sicilia reviewed by Steve Jones

Allow Me to Confess
Gina Sicilia
Swingnation Records
11 tracks/42:51

Mark Thompson and I were discussing the upcoming Dave Gross show at Big Cities when he said to me, “You have to hear this CD I got from Dave’s label.” So we popped “Allow Me to Confess” into the stereo and went though all 11 tracks. I sat there listening, reading the liner notes and I was very impressed. Hell, I was more than impressed. Here was a 21 girl from Philadelphia, profoundly singing with a superb voice and the conviction of a much older woman. Here was a 21 year old songwriter who penned 8 great tunes with really touching lyrics. Here was an immensely talented young woman who is going to make a huge impact on the blues world.

Every year the blues world seems to focus on the next young guitar whiz. How often do we hear, “He’ll be the next Stevie Ray Vaughn” at festivals and shows? I usually laugh a bit and just shake my head. Well, here with Gina I found myself saying, “Here we have the next generation of Etta James and Ruth Brown.” She’s that good.

So one has to ask why a nice Italian girl from the City of Brotherly Love is singing the blues. She grew up listening to 50’s and 60’s doo wop and at 14 Gina heard Bobby Bland where she became fixated on the blues. She perfected her style in area clubs and has been writing songs for a few years that culminated in this debut CD. Her style is uniquely her own; she comes across as both relevant and sincere. The topics she writes and sings about are timely and timeless. From the young girl struggling with self esteem and other emotions of youth in “One of Many” and the title track to passionate tunes like “Try Me” and “You Set My Heart On Fire,” Gina delivers the goods. Her voice ranges from low and sultry tones to some downright power where she can belt it out with the best of them. You will be thoroughly amazed and entertained by this CD from the opening bars of “That’s a Pretty Good Love” to the final cut “When My Ship Comes In.”

Backing her up on guitar is 2007 Blues Music Award nominee Dave Gross, who also produced the album. Dave’s band members Scot Hornick (upright bass) and Mike Bram (drums) also provide a clean backdrop for the CD. I strongly urge you to go out and invest in this fine CD by a great new artist– you won’t be sorry you did!

You Better Believe It!- Jimmy Cavallo reviewed by Steve Jones

You Better Believe It!
Jimmy Cavallo
Blue Wave Records
12 tracks/46:30

When I was down in Florida in early December, I finally got to visit my brother’s club The Jetsetter Lounge in Lake Worth Florida. I really wanted to hear his regular Friday night gig play. Jimmy Cavallo and his band have been playing my brothers’ club virtually every week since it opened a year ago.

Jimmy’s been around for many years and has a long and great heritage with jump blues, R&B and swing music. He hails from Syracuse, NY, and is of Sicilian descent; he began his career playing while in the Army in WWII. This 79 year old Italian man can still play, sing and swing with the best of them- I was amazed at his youth and vigor. After a great evening of music, I took home all of his CDs that he had with him. I was toying with the idea of reviewing him but when I saw that the latest issue of Blues Review featured his newest CD, I was convinced I had to offer my opinion, too.

After all, I’d met him and listened to him both live and on CD; most of the big time review, while positive, was mainly just promotional material copied from the internet after a quick listen to the CD.

Cavallo’s new CD on Blue Wave is a great set of tunes. Ron Spencer on guitar and the band Jumpstart back up Jimmy on this record; they are great musicians in their own right. Jimmy’s sax is right on throughout as are his vocals. His singing style is his own, and can best be compared to being a blend of the great Italian crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Louis Prima. He does not exactly have Sinatra’s edge nor he does not exactly have Martin’s charming hominess. He does not exactly have the same smoothness of Tony Bennett nor the raspy edginess of Louis Prima. What he does have is a great bluesy tone with a level of excitement about music that is portrayed in his voice whether he is covering a tune that has been sung tens of thousands of times by hundreds of artists or covering relatively new or obscure material. He has a huge catalogue of material that he has covered and created, and is pretty much a living legend.

Jimmy is getting ready to celebrate his 80th birthday in a few months, but he looks like a man in his late 50’s or early 60’s and sounds like a man half his age. He opens the CD with a tune bemoaning aging, “I Feel That Old Age Coming On” that is a jumping and jiving song with great vocal, sax, guitar and piano solos. All the songs are fun; the more that Jimmy is rocking the better he seems. Songs with great vocals like “Let ‘Em Roll” and ones that are pure instrumentals like “Broadway” get your blood flowing and make you want to get up and dance. On “Early in the Morning” Jimmy’s vocals go back and forth in the chorus with Spencer’s guitar in a call and response sort of arrangement using guitar to respond to the lead vocals, and then Jimmy blasts into a super sax solo.

I was pretty much sold on Jimmy immediately; it was great seeing him live, and now after listening to this new and several older CD’s I am sure that this guy is one of the best at his craft. The CD is available on line via the Blue Wave link above. If you are ever in Lake Worth, FL, on a Friday evening, in Syracuse when Jimmy’s back at home playing, or if he’s touring near you, you should go catch Cavallo’s act. He still does three sets of great music, a testament to his endurance and dedication to the craft he has spend his life perfecting.